Visit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf...moreVisit my blog to enter to win a copy of both The Publicist and Shelf Life (2-book giveaway), open internationally from now until 22nd April 2014.
Shelf Life continues the story of New York publicist, Kate Mitchell, picking up not long after the end of book one. More unhinged authors, more terrible titles, and more time with the sexiest editor in the country, MacDermott Ellis. Mac isn't happily married to his wife of twenty years, Carolyn, but he's always been clear he'll never leave her either. Kate knows this as well as any other woman he's been with, but the thought of breaking the affair off with him just isn't something she feels capable of doing. Both Kate and Mac are putting off facing the hard decisions and emotional heartbreak that, deep down, they know must come one day.
That day arrives in the summer, the day they launch the biggest book on Morris and Dean's portfolio for the year: The Continued Promise, the follow-up to a previous bestseller, The Promise. The CEO of MD, Edward - a dictatorial man in his seventies who's been running things for as long as anyone can remember and who thinks its his right to feel up the female employees - unexpectedly moved up the release date without a clear reason, and the alarm bells are ringing louder than ever in Kate's head. Her gut instinct was always that the author, Michael Singer, was suspect, and when the FBI arrest him on the same day the book launches, it's not just MD that suffers, or Kate's career. When Kate learns that Mac knew about the police investigation but didn't tell her so she could prepare damage control, she's devastated. Her career might not be salvageable, and now she knows that her relationship with Mac isn't either.
Rather than face her situation square on, Kate runs - she escapes New York for the sun and surf of California where her friend Nick gives her valuable time and space to recover. It's time to sort our her life, her head and her heart, but that's easier said than done. As much as she keeps telling herself she's over Mac, there's a part of her that's still running from the truth.
Having just read the first book, The Publicist, I knew exactly what to expect from Shelf Life in terms of character and style. However, compared to the first book, there's a lot more plot in book 2. Having established her characters and the dynamics between them as well as the publishing industry, George moves on to Kate's personal story. The breakup we always knew was going to come, came, and Shelf Life is very much Kate's story of self-discovery and overcoming obstacles. With the same humour and entertaining insider stories as The Publicist, this was just as fun and engaging to read - perhaps more so, as there were some real nail-biting scenes and I loved learning how Kate was going to get herself out of some tight spots. She's certainly very good at her job, though as we all know, being good at your job doesn't protect you from the sharks.
There is an element to George's style that, while it makes for a quick, consistent pace, also makes events seem a bit too pat. A bit too easy, which can make it feel less realistic. Part of the problem is that, despite Kate being for the large part a worthy protagonist, for large chunks of this story things just happened to her, so that even when she was actively making a decision, it still felt like she was a passive recipient of good luck. It's hard to pin-point, because she's an extremely hard worker who rose up out of the ashes of her career to forge a new path, and she forged it well. It was just a bit too, well, convenient, that Allan Lavigne's book would be an instant bestseller and so beloved by everyone - when does that ever happen? There isn't a single book that doesn't have its critics - and everything worked out so well for her. I was happy for her, but it started to lose its sense of realism because the story became a kind of list telling us all the good things to happen one after another.
Granted, Kate's love life is still a big mess, but I confess I started to lose patience with her after a while. There were aspects of Kate's character that were largely missing, and she wasn't flawed enough to seem human. Her world is surprisingly small and her new boyfriend, Nick, is way too perfect. You never really get to know him, beyond that he's very attractive and very successful. He's depicted as a fantasy, which Kate never picked up on - fantasies do not make for solid, long-term relationships. I liked Nick, thanks to a few moments when we get to see him vulnerable, but he's representative of a certain manly ideal women supposedly have - a cliché or a stereotype of what women want in a man that I've come across so many times before, in romantic comedies and other formats - so for me he was a vacuous, unappealing romantic character who served as a plot device rather than as a human being in his own right.
I could say the same about many characters in many books, who get side-lined by the "main event" - in this case, Kate and Mac's messy relationship. Mac was the real star of the story, even though he, too, fulfils the role of another stereotypical male love interest. It was his flaws, and the fact that he's a philanderer, that gave him an edge as a character over all the others. Kate's flaws are distantly irritating ones, the kind of flaws that women latch onto because she seems so bloody perfect and all these attractive men keep falling in love with her. Too good, you know? You just want to see them fall, and not in the sense of bad things happening to them: no, you just want a sign that they're human, that they're loved not because their perfect (for what mortal woman can compete with, or hope to achieve, that?) but because they're human and imperfect and its our imperfections that make us endearing to the right person.
But like I said, it's a very engaging, entertaining read, and this one in particular - because of it's well-rounded conclusion - had me gripped. In a way it's reminiscent of Hollywood movies, in that it follows a fairly predictable path, but as with the movies, it doesn't stop you from enjoying the ride. Part of the enjoyment, I think, is in knowing the formula and the glee you get from seeing how things unfold. Plus, despite the truly atrocious titles these publishers put so much weight behind (self-help? bad tell-alls by convicted murderers?), or perhaps because of them, it's so much fun to get that peek inside the industry. If Kate's path to rescuing her career and finding love was a bit smooth and convenient, the shady, political dealings inside publishing more than make up for it.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iReads Book Tours(less)
Kate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung...moreKate Mitchell has worked as a publicist at Morris & Dean Publishing (MD) in New York City for seven years now; she's nowhere near the bottom rung of the ladder in her department, but she's not getting the "big books" either. Yet, to her authors, she's a hero: saving them from jumping off a building after a bad review in the New York Times, arranging for a celebrity to turn up at their book signing before MD cancels their book contract because sales aren't good enough, and generally doing her job with professionalism and creativity.
She's still young, and after a few messy relationships with the "wrong" men, decidedly single. But there's always MacDermott Ellis. Mac, a much older but still very attractive and charming man, is a known philanderer - a discreet one, but it's a well-established fact that he's been married for over thirty years, has two kids, and absolutely no intention of ever leaving his wife, Carolyn. Knowing that, it doesn't stop women from embarking on an affair with him, falling in love and having their hearts broken. Mac's never made a move on Katie - before now. His warm, friendly interactions kick up a notch when he invites her to dinner to discuss an upcoming "big book" that he wants her to work with him on; it could be her big break.
Mac is smooth, but genuine all the same. He stays in his marriage for several reasons, though he slowly comes to admit that now, it's because he doesn't have the guts to make such a big change in his life. Not to mention devastate his two boys. Kate has always considered herself too smart to get involved with him, too - not only is he married, and not only is he a colleague, but she knows she could fall for him.
Through the sometimes hilarious ups-and-downs of publishing publicity and in-house politics, Kate forges a path for her career and balances the increasing workload with her increasingly flirtatious outings with Mac. She must figure out a way to listen to both her heart and her gut instinct, and trust herself to make the right decisions for her own happiness. But does that mean loving Mac, or distancing herself from him?
'Christina George' is the pseudonym for a publishing industry insider, a publicist who has used her experience and true-to-life anecdotes to bring colour to this chick-lit romance story - though not all of them are true. If I didn't know George worked in the biz and was using a pen name so she could share these often outlandish scenarios, I would have said they were too outrageous to be believable. It's amazing, human behaviour, and what people who work "behind the scenes" get to see: the 'warts and all'. These authors are a mixed bunch, but many of them are entitled, arrogant, demanding, neurotic, obsessive, and have no personal skills whatsoever. Though to be fair, most of the books Kate had to publicise sounded like utter trash, too. Nothing I'd be interested in reading, that's for sure.
It was definitely the strength of the novel, though, this insight into the mainstream publishing industry. I've worked for a small independent publisher in the past, and seen that even at that level there're plenty of colourful characters and eye-rolling stories of authorial entitlement. It makes for an entertaining read, even if it didn't always flow through the story with a natural feel. That's down to George's writing, which hasn't yet matured but shows plenty of potential.
The romance also had a decent 'true-to-life' feel to it, which gives the whole story a kind of TV-show realism (an oxymoron I know, but the way I can think of to capture The Publicist's flavour). Mac is charismatic and a nice shade of grey, reminding us that not everyone who embarks on an extra-marital affair (or two or two dozen) is an automatic sleaze-ball. You can see quite clearly how stuck he is, how he's internalised the problems with his marriage and, rather than deal with them in a productive manner, hides from them. He keeps the status quo, a little boy pretending to be an adult, trying to protect his wife while also trying to find a slice of happiness for himself. You might not approve of his methods, but he still conjures up sympathy, making Kate's decision less simple.
I would have liked a bit more pre-sex tension and chemistry, more of a build-up; to establish their mutual attraction a bit more - not necessarily in terms of time but in terms of their interactions, the depth of them. It becomes a bit too descriptive, with too much "tell" and not enough "show". It's hard to feel what they're feeling when you're only told.
Supporting characters help to flesh out the story and Kate's world: her best friend Grace, an artist; her friend Allan Lavigne, an elderly man who once, in 1969, published a bestseller called The Fall and was in an iron-clad contract with MD to publish his second book, which he'd never written; and Nick, Allan's nephew from California who reminds Kate of Matthew McConaughey - now she's got two men to choose from, and an even bigger decision to make.
It's a relatively short novel, with a swift pace and near-constant movement, plenty of dialogue and even a scene that brought tears to my eyes. It was entertaining but really, the story has only just started, and ends on something akin to a cliffhanger. The story continues in Shelf Life, which I'll be reviewing next.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via iRead Book Tours.(less)
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted t...moreThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey.(less)
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(less)
Natalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for he...moreNatalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for her father, whom she's never met. She's lost contact with the latest investigator, Zironoff, but hasn't given up hope of tracking down her dad.
While out one night at a bar with her friends, Nat sees a man who steals her breath. Everything about him screams "danger", from his dark looks, brooding glare and tattoos. But he's far more interesting than all the jocks in the place, with that sexy Russian accent, so she makes an approach only to be shut-down swiftly. It's a shock, then, to find him in her apartment later that night.
Aleksandr Sevastyan - nicknamed "The Siberian" - is in America to guard Natalie from her father's enemies; only now does he make his presence known because his orders are to get her on a plane to Russia immediately. Her father, Pavel Kovalev - known as the Clockmaker in his own circle - is high up in the Mafia and his enemies, having discovered the existence of a daughter through Nat's last PI, are closing in on her. Sevastyan is Pavel's right-hand man, an orphan he took in when just a boy and raised like his own. Pavel's excited to learn that he has a daughter, and trusts no one but The Siberian to bring her "home".
I'm a major fan of Kresley Cole, but I have to admit I wasn't sure about this one when I first heard about it - or even when I started reading it. It's all so ... outlandish. But then I remembered: it's romance. It's almost always outlandish, especially the good ones. Unless there are really noticeable flaws and plotholes and stupid decisions in the story, it's easy to go with it and enjoy. And I need not have worried in this case: this is Kresley Cole, after all. She writes so well, she can overcome even the most outlandish of premises (I mean, since when did the Russian Mafia become sexy?!).
I'll put aside my real thoughts on learning that Pavel, Natalie's father, is a lovely man who became a crime boss in order to protect people from the other crime bosses - he's a little bit too good to be true. He lives in a real palace, centuries old, one rescued and renovated, on a vast estate outside Moscow. His nephew and Nat's cousin, the incredibly handsome Filip Liukin, is living there as well - he seems to have a gambling problem as well as a flirtatious eye for Nat. There's also the slight implausibility of Nat being okay with her father being a crime lord, though granted she didn't have much choice in relocating. But she's certainly putting aside any ethics (or morals, for that matter) and getting on board with the whole thing.
But like I said, I put all that aside and just went with it, and as a result got a highly enjoyable story full of steamy scenes and fraught with sexual tension (and I'll admit, the Russian Mob angle is very exciting and a nice change for me). Cole's skill at writing stories you can really immerse yourself in, and characters who don't drive you nuts, comes to the fore. Her trademark humour is present, though not quite so much as in her excellent Immortals After Dark series. There's enough detail for realism but the pace is tight, smooth and fast ("that's what she said" - sorry, couldn't resist!). There's a hint of danger and tension - not from without, as we haven't seen it yet, but from within; I'm much more alert than Nat, clearly, and am picking up on something suspicious in the air. I'm expecting betrayal any moment, though not from Sevastyan.
Mmm and isn't he a dish? Certain descriptors may sound a bit cliched - the tats, the leather clothes, the dark brooding glare - but somehow Cole makes it all feel fresh and exciting. Nat, despite being a virgin, is sexually experienced in every other way and doesn't resist her attraction to him. This is erotic romance (not erotica, that's a different kettle of fish entirely and not half so fun as erotic romance), so the sex scenes are steamy and edgy; Sevastyan likes it a bit rough and intense, and Nat's learning that how much it turns her on, as well. Another trait of erotic romance (as opposed to other forms of romance) is the proclivity of sex scenes, or steamy scenes - even within this novella, there are plenty to keep you satisfied. And it's only just getting going.
Where the story will go from here I don't know, but I can't wait to find out with Part 2. I'm not a big fan of serialising romance stories, but it does seem to be the new "thing" for e-books, and I can understand the appeal to publishers. It's hard for readers, though, to get so far in a story only to have to wait to keep reading the same story. But once all the e-book parts are out, the complete novel should be printed. That's how it worked with Beth Kery, another erotic romance writer I love reading, so I hope that's how it will go here as well.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
This companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which f...moreThis companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which follows from book one, Shatter Me, was told from Warner's perspective and was extremely intense and absorbing, and perfectly set up my high expectations for Unravel Me, which weren't just met, they were exceeded. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fracture Me.
Told from Adam's perspective, it doesn't add a whole lot to the story and didn't flesh out Adam's character in the way that Destroy Me did for Warner. As if all Mafi's creative power went into creating Warner and there was nothing left for Adam. I liked Adam in Shatter Me, I liked him a lot, and things got a tad messy in Unravel Me which really upped the ante, but in Fracture Me, Adam backs off entirely as he puts his brother first, and seems to lose all interest in Juliette.
Is this Mafi neatly getting rid of the love triangle that dogged the first two books? If so, it works, and I'm all for tying up that loose thread. But what really disappointed me was that Fracture Me felt inorganic, constrained by its need to fill in a bit of background that Juliette's unable to witness, and overall, a bit pat.
Where were the feelings that had seemed so strong, before? Where was his passion (other than that for his brother)? Where were his ideals, even? This novella not only failed to flesh out Adam, it added nothing to my understanding of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, either. If Warner was able to give us a bit of insight into the Reestablishment, Adam should have been able to give us insight into either the rebel organisation, or what life was like for regular people. I've been getting increasingly absorbed by this world and the players in it, but reading Fracture Me was decidedly anti-climactic. (It didn't help that I got my memory of the ending of Unravel Me mixed up - now I'm not sure what I was remembering, exactly, and I don't have the books on hand to check, but I kept expecting Adam and Kenji to break into the house and rescue Juliette; it wasn't until I started reading the teaser chapter one for Ignite Me that I remembered what had happened.)
I also find it disturbing that, in the machinations of the plot, so many people are killed and then forgotten. If you've read this far in the series, you know what I'm referring to. I should hope that they had an evacuation plan, an escape route, since Castle's so smart, but considering how he fell apart, it doesn't look like it. Juliette, in her self-absorbed, self-indulgent way, would probably care more than the more "human" Adam, whose only thought was for his brother. Understandable, but what about after finding him safe? Adam always struck me, before, as a young man of integrity, feeling, compassion, morals, generosity of spirit - all good things. Such is my disappointment with this novella, that not only did I not get to know Adam better than before, but that my impression and understanding of him was so greatly diminished. (Likewise, he didn't offer much of a perspective on Juliette.) Though I did like this bit:
A shot rings out. [...] A guy on the far left falls to the ground and I'm shaking with anger. These people need our help. We can't just hang back and watch thirty unarmed, innocent people get killed when we could find a way to save them. We're supposed to be doing something, but we're standing here for some bullshit reason I can't understand because Juliette is scared or Kenji is sick and I guess the truth is we're just a bunch of crappy teenagers, two of who can barely stand up straight or fire a weapon, and it's unacceptable.
Still, despite all these complaints, I am still just as enthused for Ignite Me as before. With a series like this one, it's clear that Mafi can achieve great heights, and great lows. I will shelve my expectations, then, and try not to hope too much for a book to match Unravel Me. If you're reading the series - and, again, despite my complaints - it is worth reading the novellas, including this one, as they do help flesh out the plot and fill in some gaps between books, things Juliette's not privy to.
And in the meantime, I am rolling my eyes at any and all projected hypotheses regarding Kenji. If Mafi turns him into a new love interest for Juliette, I will be utterly disgusted and will lose all respect. I'm certainly not convinced Juliette's got that much going for her that she attracts so many, very different, men, but more than that, doesn't Kenji deserve his own story? His own love life? It's the way everything revolves around Juliette that starts to annoy me. Can't she just be friends with him and leave it at that?(less)
It's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in spa...moreIt's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in space. Her ship has been captured, she's separated from almost all of her fellow space-settlers, and the future looks dire. Locked up in a bare cell with a number of other females from different species on the planet of Olman, Fran can only keep young Margaret company as they listen to the sounds of alien warriors being tortured in a nearby cell.
Fran isn't one for sitting down and taking it, though, and she riles up the others to think of escape and freedom. One of her cellmates has an idea, but it requires Fran's willing participation. The warriors are Darkons, and while at the moment they're barely surviving, if they are awakened, sexually, then they become almost invincible. They would certainly be their best bet at escape.
There aren't many options available, and as one of the only human females there, it's up to Fran to awaken the warriors. At the time, she's thinking mostly of escaping this hell-hole, but all too soon the reality of what she's unwittingly committed herself to becomes clear.
I have to be clear: I haven't read Legend Beyond the Stars, the full-length story that begins this series and establishes the whole premise, and I think my reading of this novella suffered for it. The problem was that this was too short a story - too short to explain things, establish anything, create a clear context or even develop the characters. I feel a bit unfair, but all I can do is speak of my experience reading this novella.
While Fran's situation is explained, albeit in short detail, the broader context is missing. There's no explanation for why her ship was captured and all the colonisers imprisoned, or why any of the other females were locked up either. I don't think this would be explained in the first book. There're hints that there is a major inter-galactic war going on, when one of the aliens mentions that the Darkons are resisting and the Elite Guards of Olman are planning a major strike against the Darkon home world. But nothing is explained, and without the right context the scenario of Awakening the Warriors didn't quite hold up. I would hope that the first book fills in these gaps.
But let's take this as the erotic space-opera novella it is. It has a conventional, simple plot structure divided into three short sections: the prison, where Fran sexually awakens the warriors, and from which they flee amid much gunfire; on board the ship they escape on; and the last stage on the space station where Fran and Margaret are nearly captured again. There's not a whole lot to it, which made me think that I prefer longer stories to novellas. But mostly I was disappointed by how formulaic it was. I've read quite a few stories generally classified as Paranormal Romance, and this shared many of the same tropes. The Darkon Warriors could have been alpha vampires, or werewolves. The two Darkon who survive and are awakened by Fran are called Jarrell and Quain. Jarrell is younger, sweeter; Quain is older and very alpha - macho, even.
Since this is a novella, there isn't all that much sex in it - two scenes only, though with two men involved it feels like more. Again, the condensed nature of the novella format made the lusty writing come across as a wee bit silly. I often had to stop myself from rolling my eyes and work at going along with it. Again, the problem with a novella is how squished it feels, how rushed the sexual attraction and progression becomes, and how dependent the story is on romance conventions and familiar language. If you had enjoyed the first book and got into the world-building and set-up, it would be easier to enjoy this for its own sake and not worry about any of these quibbles. I didn't realise it was a sequel or a novella until I started reading it, but for all my criticisms, there were enjoyable elements to this story.
Fran is likeable, she rises to the occasion and becomes a strong heroine. She's got a sense of humour, and she doesn't over-think things or get self-indulgent in her thoughts and reflections. The writing is capable and flows well, and regardless of how corny you might find some of the lines, they are fun and Gilchrist made an effort to add a dash of originality. I found myself more curious about the world and its politics then this short story allowed, and rather wish there was a more serious, lengthy story available that really developed it. It makes me both interested in reading Legend Beyond the Stars but also wary, afraid that my questions won't be explained and I'll come out of it even more confused and frustrated.
Aside from anything else, this is a snappy and exciting story. The fast pace and novella format don't allow for dull moments, and the sex is quite steamy. Unfortunately, the Darkon warriors are under-developed as characters, and come across as mere muscle-men-with-demanding-cocks. Like any other intelligent woman, I find that sexy men are only sexy when they have personality and some brains, too. So overall, this was a frustrating mix of good and unsatisfying, exciting and disappointing.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
Thirty-year-old Mackenna Birch is on her first holiday in years, a trip to New Zealand to research sheep breeding programs. A chef who grew up at Wool...moreThirty-year-old Mackenna Birch is on her first holiday in years, a trip to New Zealand to research sheep breeding programs. A chef who grew up at Woolly Swamp, a sheep farm in South Australia, Mackenna has been working with her dad, Lyle, to remake the farm into a real boutique meat business. She even has plans to turn the old, uninhabited homestead into a gatehouse restaurant and tasting room, to showcase the Woolly Swamp lamb. But the trip has brought an extra unexpected pleasure for Mackenna when she meets Adam. Another chef, though an itinerant one, Adam is the first man Mackenna has really, truly clicked with in a long time, melding friendship with passion.
So when she wakes up after their first night together to find him gone with no explanation, she feels angry, upset, duped, foolish. She cuts her trip short and heads home, intending to put the whole thing behind her and concentrate on her plans for the family farm.
Yet nothing's quite right when she gets home. The place is deserted - or almost so. She meets Cam, the man her parents have hired to help with all the farm work, treating the house like his own and with a smug, cocky grin to go with it. Her brother, Patrick, is there too - eight years younger and with a successful job in Adelaide and no interest in farming, she's surprised to see him there, until he explains that their dad had a heart attack.
Lyle's sudden health change has had an impact on his wife Louise, too. She takes them to get new wills made, and overrides Lyle's objections to how she wants the property left. Because even though Mackenna is the one who is passionate about the farm and knows how to work it, Louise has decided that it must be left to Patrick, that it is his right as the son to inherit the land, that he can learn to be a farmer if he's given the chance. Louise's conviction about what is best for her children extends to meddling in Mackenna's love life.
Mackenna's old childhood friend and neighbour, Hugh, is back in the area, staying with his parents while he takes a temporary job in town. He doesn't intend to stay, though: he's already accepted a job in Canada to work on a special research project, and is just filling in time. But both his mother and Mackenna's are hoping the two will be more than friends. So much so that, when Adam arrives out of the blue, having tracked Mackenna down, Louise does what she can to discourage the relationship between them.
As Mackenna works hard to get the Woolly Swamp Gatehouse up and running, with Adam often helping her in the kitchen to make the group dinners a success, certain things about her family and what's going on at the farm begin to sink in. Her suspicions about Cam grow, but her understanding of her parents' plans for the farm that she loves so much come as a complete shock, and threaten to destroy everything she's worked for.
I am learning not to expect romance from these novels set in rural Australia, published by the big romance publisher, Harlequin. This is an imprint, Mira, and Mira doesn't do "bodice rippers"; they publish everything from historical fiction to fantasy. If you're expecting a romance from Right as Rain, you will be disappointed. There is a romantic relationship woven into the plot, but it's not central to the story as it would be in a Romance novel; in fact, it's almost - almost - superfluous to the plot. This is very much a story of one woman's love for the land, and her struggle against gender stereotypes and out-of-date traditions that only make people unhappier than before. As such, it was a highly successful story and a real pleasure to read.
Mackenna is close to her father, and knows how to run a sheep farm just as much as she knows how to run a kitchen and prepare a four-course meal. She's a skilled chef with a vision, a strong, hard worker with close ties to the family property, and she has no idea her mother wants to "set her free", as it were, of the burden of living on a farm. Louise, like most people who meddle, thinks she's doing what's best for her children but is blind to the obvious fact that Patrick doesn't want the farm and Mack does. This rather callous machination on Louise's part definitely adds tension to the story, far more so than any other plot development: from almost the beginning you read this book waiting, waiting for the blow-up, for the day when Mack finds out. The tension exists not because of the anticipated family blow-up, but from the scarier possibility that Lyle (and Louise) might die before Mack finds out, before the wills can be changed.
While the novel might lack a more traditional plot structure and focus - it's not about Mackenna finding love, it's not about a mystery or a crime or anything so concrete - it was a nice change to read a story that felt more true-to-life than one that was more tightly plotted and (possibly) predictable. I was never quite sure where the story was going, or if one thread among several would resolve into the main plot. It was, instead, a slice of life on a farm, rich with realistic detail and vibrating with life in all its complications. Having grown up on a sheep farm myself (albeit a much smaller one), the setting was familiar and comforting - I do love reading stories that involve sheep! I don't know half of what Mackenna knows, of course; like Patrick, I love the land and I enjoy helping but I couldn't take on a whole farm and be a farmer.
Mack's perspective isn't the only one we get in this story, though. We also get Louise's perspective, and Hugh's. This has an interesting effect on the overall story and how we read it. Louise's perspective gives us great insight into her thought processes and motivations, her convictions and her reasons, which really helps to round out the story and flesh out the family dynamics. The inclusion of Hugh's is perhaps a bit more odd, but actually it works quite well. If we didn't get Hugh's chapters, the character wouldn't have been superficial and obscure. As it is, having Hugh's perspective not only helps to flesh out his character, but helps to flesh out the town and the overall setting, too. It adds an extra dimension to the whole neighbourhood, and Mack's history. I grew very fond of Hugh. (Incidentally, it was amusing to find the two love interests in this book were called Adam and Hugh - my husband is Adam and my son is Hugh!)
Perhaps because he doesn't get to share his perspective, Adam is a bit of an unknown entity in comparison. Giving Hugh his own voice makes him seem a stronger contender for romantic interest, while leaving Adam less well fleshed-out makes him harder to get to know. Yet, I didn't mind it all. I liked the sense of mystery that clung to Adam a bit longer, and I found his character fleshing out enough to make his chemistry with Mack believable. Too much delving into Adam's character and backstory would have made the whole book over-crowded and really lack focus. Instead, the novel concentrates on Mack: she is the pivotal centre around which everything else rotates.
There are some lovely digs at traditional stereotypes in this book. I loved what Stringer did with the character of Yasmine, Patrick's girlfriend. When she turns up, Mack sees a thin woman wearing layers of black, who doesn't eat meat and seems too fragile and soft to handle the realities of farm life. And for quite a while, this mostly baseless pre-judgement seems to hold true, until Mack learns the truth and her assumptions about Yasmine are turned completely on their head.
And of course the tradition of leaving land and property in general to the eldest son is put under the microscope, in satisfying ways. The family dynamics and the sense of building mistrust - encouraged by Cam covering up his mistakes by pointing the figure at Patrick, which in turn encourages Mack to see him as almost incompetent on the farm - add to the building tension and the sense that something is terribly wrong. Out of balance. Just not right. I've always thought that blindly following traditions for the simple reason that they are tradition, is rather stupid and sometimes even harmful. Ah the benefits of an education that teaches you to question and critique things! Makes it hard for me to understand the comfort (I suppose it is comfort) others find in doing things a certain way, simply because that's "how it's done." Stringer successfully makes Louise both believable and understandable: even though I couldn't condone her actions at all, I could understand, even empathise with her reasoning. She is using her own experiences, and an unspoken resentment, to justify her motives.
And then there is Cam. Another character whom we never learn all that much about, which makes us much more suspicious about him than Mack is. In fact, I was surprised at Mack's naiveté in general. She doesn't pick up on her mother's plans, that I can understand since she's not privy to Louise's thoughts like we are. But interestingly, she doesn't make assumptions about Cam like she does about Yasmine, for instance. She's mildly puzzled about him and where he fits in, but even when he keeps "borrowing" the farm truck to do jobs on the weekend, with ready excuses as to why he can't use his own ute, she doesn't think much of it. Maybe it's just me, but alarm bells rang in my gut as soon as he appeared on the scene. He creeped me out. Which was perfect really: the story wouldn't have been as solid or entertaining if the Cam angle hadn't been included. It tied in neatly with the Patrick story-line, and the way the action played out at the end helped wake Mack up to her feelings for Adam. As my husband would say, "Well played. Well played."
This was the first time I'd read a book by Tricia Stringer, but I don't think it will be the last. The story may not be as tightly plot-driven or as fast-paced as it could have been, and the romance angle may come across as a bit last-minute, but I still really enjoyed it, especially once I stopped expecting it to be a romance. Or a romance in the traditional sense. Right as Rain provides fascinating insight into the running of a family farm, and explores the constraints of honouring traditions and gender stereotypes and their affect on people. It has all that rich detail and fleshing-out that I love in stories, and a strong sense of place. But it is the characters and their complex dynamics that really makes this story both interesting and emotionally engaging.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
It's been a year since seventeen-year-old Miranda Sun's parents were killed in a terrible car accident, but she's still harbouring a secret guilt that...moreIt's been a year since seventeen-year-old Miranda Sun's parents were killed in a terrible car accident, but she's still harbouring a secret guilt that has damaged her relationship with her older, beautiful sister Lauren. That January, when their grandparents take them to the family shack by the beach at Bob's Bay for two weeks of summer holiday, Miranda is finally preparing herself to open up to Lauren when her situation drastically changes, and she disappears while taking a midnight swim.
Miranda is caught by a stranger, dragged underwater and kidnapped. She wakes, days later and still groggy from the drugs that helped transport her, in a very strange place. Completely alone and scared, Miranda is slowly introduced to the mysterious underwater city of Marin, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Lit by glowing crystals, oxygenated by hidden air shafts, Marin's origins are unknown but the founder of the current civilisation, Frano Tollin, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and explorer, speculated about an ancient civilisation that built it but died out. Now Tollin's descendents rule in his place: Marko, a young and temperamental nineteen-year-old king, and his older sister, Sylvia. But things aren't as glowing and utopian in Marin as they might seem.
Marko's older brother and Sylvia's twin, Damir, is in hiding somewhere in the city. A dark and twisted mind, Damir wants to follow in Frano Tollin's footsteps and experiment on young women in the insane attempt to create a real mermaid. Tollin's nightmarish experiments focussed on cutting women's legs open and sewing them together to form a tail, among other things, and if Damir ruled Marin the nightmares would continue. Marko has been made king in his place, but his rule is tenuous if he cannot secure an heir.
This is Marin's other problem: there are no children. No babies are born. The women who live here are infertile. Barren. And thus Sylvia's selfish plan: to capture a girl from the surface and bring her to the city to marry Marko and have his children. She sends Marko's personal guard, Robbie, to find a girl, and its Miranda who is caught - not Lauren, her beautiful, popular older sister. When Marko learns that Miranda is not even of legal age yet, he's furious, but with the threat of being fed to the sharks, the wedding is still going ahead.
Miranda's fear turns to curiosity, but she never stops planning to escape. When she learns that the one way to the surface is accessed via Marko's suite, she decides that convincing Robbie to let her go is the only means available. But even as she befriends the young guardsman, she begins to get to know Marko and the city of Marin, and fall under its spell.
Captivate combines the old and the new in creating a romantic fantasy story that touches on gothic horror. The premise is interesting, and even though it employs many tropes that aren't original, the character of Miranda and the Garden's writing made it feel fresh. And while it looked like it was going to have a romantic triangle like so many other YA stories ("yawn"), it actually doesn't, which was very pleasing. In fact, the way the characters evolve and grow was one of the things I liked best about Captivate - especially Marko. He's a complex, interesting character who seems at first too obvious and one-dimensional, but who gradually becomes much more interesting and charismatic as the story progresses.
But I should talk about the book's weak points, because it is a bit of a biggie. Stories like this one hinge on the world-building, and if the world-building is shaky then everything that follows feels a bit flimsy. The problem with Captivate is the premise, the point of abducting Miranda in the first place and bringing her to Marin - though Marin itself was a little under-developed for me, especially in regards to how they get air, food and water, not to mention building materials, clothing etc.
The glitch is the infertility premise. A fairly common trope in speculative fiction, it can be a great motivator for action. Unfortunately, it didn't really make sense here. The entire population of Marin consists of two kinds of people: those that were born there (though no one has been born there in eighteen years), and those who are brought there. The cause of the infertility problem, they speculate, is related to being removed from the sun and moon and life cycles in general, though they don't know for sure. Only, if people are continuously - not often, but continuously over time - brought to Marin (rescued from near-drownings, or suicide attempts, mostly), then does it not follow that their population will be refreshed with fertile women? Like Miranda? Miranda was captured and brought against her will, but why not simply invite or rescue a woman instead? They'd done it before. If Miranda was brought to Marin to have babies, then infertility does not happen straight away; therefore plenty of other women in Marin should also be able to have children. It didn't make sense, and so the whole plot was shaky because of it. If it had made more sense, with no holes in it, then it would have been quite powerful because the notion of dying civilisations and places bereft of children will always resonate with us.
The story was strongest in the development of the characters, and the novel's sense of atmosphere. There was a tantalising, uncomfortable tinge of fear to the whole story and setting that I particularly enjoyed; I wouldn't have minded a bit more of it though that might have been too much. It's that shade of menace and dark forbidden things to what is otherwise something of a utopia that really makes the concept work, and adds tension to the plot. You don't know who to trust, or what's really going, and the taint of Frano Tollin's plans and experiments linger. It nicely balances the fantasy and romance elements of the story, giving it maturity and extra layers.
Another strength was Miranda herself. She narrates (and not, thankfully, in present tense, might I add!) and her voice is solid. She's convincing and undergoes a gradual change influenced by her new surroundings and situation. There was chemistry between her and Marko, though it was shadowed by that sense of suspicion, distrust and uncertainty that pervades the story in general, making their relationship that bit more interesting than it might otherwise have been. She has tenacity, and balances adolescent insecurities and selfishness with a growing sense of compassion, empathy and understanding. By the end, I had grown very fond and proud of her and wanted very much to find out what happened next.
Speaking of, the ending was spot-on. In terms of: no cliffhanger, not forgetting the overall abduction plot or the people she'd left behind, and in setting the stage for a real, legitimate relationship with an abductor. In that sense, it was very satisfying, as was seeing just how much Miranda had matured by the end. I wish the world of this underwater city had been more tightly formed and explained, because if the nuts-and-bolts of the story were stronger this would have been excellent all round. As it is, I'm caught up enough in Miranda's story, and curious about what's going on in Marin, to want to read more of this new series.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
Faith Forrester and Daniel Montgomery have been best friends for ever. Their family's farms at Bunyip Bay in Western Australia were next to each other...moreFaith Forrester and Daniel Montgomery have been best friends for ever. Their family's farms at Bunyip Bay in Western Australia were next to each other, and until the day Monty's parents sold theirs and moved to Perth, they saw each other often. Even after the move, Faith spent many a holiday with Monty's family and vice versa. Best mates, they've only ever seen each other in the platonic way.
But when Faith attends her old private girls' boarding school's alumnae dinner, she finds herself turning Monty into her boyfriend in order to not sound quite as boring and lacking as she feels amongst all the glamorous, rich and successful women at the event. Such is her newfound feeling of inadequacy - after all, she's twenty-eight and ever since her mum died eight years ago all she's done is kept house for her father and brother while they work the farm - that she finds herself signing up to the charity fundraising challenge. This is the year, she vows, that she'll do something with her life, make a difference, and start thinking about getting a real job since her dad won't let her help out on the farm in the ways she wants to.
Monty has a good old laugh when she tells him she pretended he was her boyfriend, but he's got his own eyes set on model-like Ruby who's recently moved back to Bunyip Bay and is staying with her parents while she helps them in their shop. Ruby seems like a princess and a fake to Faith, who thinks she needs to protect Monty from the other woman. Monty has worked over the years at any and every job he can find in the area in order to save enough money for a deposit on his own farm, and now that he's been approved by the bank Ruby is suddenly taking an interest in him. It brings out Faith's claws, and she's cold and unfriendly towards Ruby who is, in fact, merely shy and getting over a bad relationship.
It is Faith's efforts to change the direction of her life, which include some new, sexy clothes and a desire for a boyfriend, that make Monty look at his old friend in new ways. Even as Ruby agrees to go out on a date with him, it's Faith who's drawing his eyes. When they drive south of Perth to see a farm that's up for sale, they're mistaken as a couple and the light-hearted flirtation between them turns into something much more sensual and powerful. Things sour after they sleep together, as their fears of ruining their friendship do just that. With Faith immersed in preparing her big charity fundraising event, and Monty working hard towards achieving his dream of having his own farm, is there time in their lives to fix their friendship and face the fact that they love each other, before it's broken for good?
I have to begin by saying that I did not enjoy this nearly as much as other readers did. I will come to why in a bit. First, though, there's much to appreciate and enjoy in Johns' new novel, the first of a new trilogy set in Bunyip Bay.
This was my first chance to read a "rural romance" novel, and in general it was a positive one. I love the setting, though it was not so much described as conjured out of community relationships and the sense of shared history. It has that small town vibe, where everyone knows everyone, gossips and observes, and where people help each other and share in goodwill. It touches on the still-existent gender stereotyping that goes on in the country, with Faith relegated to paid housekeeper, but also speaks to the same problem in urban areas as well, especially among the more affluent: the "society ladies" whom Faith went to school with are all married to rich, high-powered men, have kids and do good deeds, but the fact that many of them hold their own jobs and have real lives is glossed over; Faith just doesn't see them that way. It is still "Mr Successful ... and his wife."
The charity that Faith chooses to support is one that raises and trains dogs as companions for children with autism. She chooses this organisation because she grew up not just with Monty but with his younger brother Will, who has autism (I was a bit startled to read that their mother, Jenni, believed that his autism was caused by infant vaccinations - this "theory" was started by a British researcher whose study was, earlier this year, found to be completely fabricated. The belief that there's a connection between autism and vaccinations has, sadly, stuck - thanks to silly Jenny McCarthy, who has since claimed her son is "cured". But the damage is done. I was disappointed to hear it repeated in this book, though, even as a descriptor of a character reflective of real people - see page 289). It is because of Will that their parents sold the farm and moved to Perth, where they could have better access to treatments and support for Will. What Faith is slow to realise is that Monty has always harboured a secret resentment towards his brother because of it. He feels, deep down, that he was robbed of his inheritance, that he is entitled to his own farm, and that Will's needs superseded his own, always. He loves his brother, and he knows how horrible it sounds which is why he's never shared his real feelings with anyone.
It is also because of Will that Monty has his own relationship problems. Faith learns, almost too late, that he doesn't want children - for fear they'll be born with autism and he has to sacrifice his own life and needs, all over again, for the sake of the child. It's a very human feeling, and I could completely relate to Monty and empathise with him, while also empathising with Faith and Monty's parents. Nothing's ever black-and-white or so straight-forward, and there's no real right-or-wrong either. I could understand Monty's feelings, but I could also understand Faith's anger with him about it, and agree that his perception had become a bit twisted, or skewed. Out of whack. It takes Will himself to wake Monty up to what the real sacrifice would be.
Really, there's nothing wrong with this book. As a romance, it's "lite", focussing more on the building of relationships than the consummating of them. Unfortunately, for this reader, it failed to build any real sense of chemistry between Faith and Monty - who always seemed too much like good friends to me, so that their sexual relationship felt almost like incest - and the few intimate scenes (which don't go further than kissing, touching and the removal of clothing) lacked fire. Overall, there was just no real spark here. No zing. I didn't feel it. I cared for the characters, I liked them, they felt real to me, and I quite liked the story as a story, but without any spark, any heat or chemistry, it was a bit of a slow read for me, and a bit directionless. It didn't start to get interesting until towards the end, but not in terms of chemistry.
Without chemistry, the story as a whole read a bit flat to me. And Faith and Monty, as I mentioned, were far too convincing as friends, that their physical relationship felt almost wrong to me. It also felt off in the sense that, without chemistry, it didn't seem like they were with the right person. Yes, flat. The writing is good (though I wish the setting had been better fleshed out; any mention of being on the coast was a surprise to me, and I could never really picture Bunyip Bay, its size or character or anything), the characters are good, the story is decent, it's all good and fine, but there's no excitement here. It just failed to connect with me in the ways that are so important to good romance - and this is wholly subjective. The chemistry between the book and me just wasn't there. Which is a real shame, but it doesn't put me off from trying more rural romances.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
At twenty-six, Emily Crossley considers herself pretty lucky to have a well-paying job with a small non-profit environmental action organisation calle...moreAt twenty-six, Emily Crossley considers herself pretty lucky to have a well-paying job with a small non-profit environmental action organisation called GeoForce. She's passionate about the cause in a deeply personal way, is organised and resourceful, and has been practically running the place since she joined five years ago. Her boss, Andy Hill, is relaxed, egalitarian and a bit forgetful. Her colleague, Carson, is proudly gay and shares her sense of humour. And twenty-one-year-old Rachel, the daughter of a local rich businessman, handles the tasks Emily and Carson don't like doing. It's a cosy place to work, Emily finds, one where she is paid attention to and gets to shine. More to the point, she believes passionately in the cause: reducing pollution to prevent climate change.
At her annual rally against the inefficient and excessively-polluting SUV, "Give Up Your SUV For A Day," where she and her colleagues at GeoForce try to convince the local working class population that they really don't need an SUV and the cars really aren't as safe as people think, Emily encounters Robert Drake. Robert is a PR man for Bell Motors, a big American car company with headquarters nearby, a company that produces some of the worst-offending SUVs, as far as Emily is concerned. Emily notices him for the way he's dressed - he's not wearing sneakers, for a start - and his beautiful eyes. But when she finds out he works for Bell Motors, she becomes antagonistic.
Robert, despite being a conservative Republican to Emily's liberal Democrat, is all for being challenged in life. He enjoys Emily's feisty passion, her intelligence and her sense of humour, and nothing she says seems to put him off, but he believes in being challenged in life and your opinions, lest you become entrenched and belligerent. He begins by emailing her, and she's provoked enough to respond. Soon, she can't wait for the little ping on her computer, telling her there's a new message from him. One date - just to see, because Emily's curious and he does have such lovely eyes and he seems to be intelligent - leads to another, though she can't bring herself to tell Carson she's "dating the enemy"; after all, it might not last long enough for her to have to come clean. But can this really go anywhere, when they disagree on politics and the environment? Is it possible to love, respect and admire someone when their opinions are ones you've always scorned and argued against?
The Drake Equation is a modern-day love story about two very different people struggling not against the barriers of class or wealth, as in so many romances, but against the more basic barriers of opinion and belief. It's a love story that ditches the conventional formula in favour of creating realistic characters, believable conversations and a romance that rings true. Without the formula, you're not quite sure where it's going or how it's going to play out, and that too was refreshing. Walsh's writing is excellent, and provides so much more than what you'd expect from a story billed as a romance - and the story, too, is so much more than a romance. There were many humorous details that captured my attention and made me smile, like this one:
She waited until Thursday after work to call him, figuring that was the latest she could call to ensure a date for the weekend without looking too eager.
Here was a new medium. Now she would get to hear his voice again. And yet she appreciated that they had relied solely on the written word over [the] past two weeks. It struck her as something quaint and Romantic, especially because they had avoided the choppy, casual style of writing so often seen in emails and texts. They had used complete sentences and semicolons. If a noun deserved a capital, it was granted that honor.
The novel's strengths lie in Walsh's ability to so accurately capture the subtle workings of Emily's mind and emotions - I could relate well to Emily, not because we had a great deal in common but because her reactions and thought-processes felt so familiar, so realistic. She felt like a real person, full of confidence and insecurities, blind to her own flaws. The way she interacts with Robert, especially at first, rang true. As a study of human nature, human character, Walsh has nailed it.
So this was what it had come to. Annoying him, annoying herself, just so she could make it unambiguously clear what she thought, and then say it once more for good measure. And it was not for his benefit - it was for her own. Lately the mere thought of him would suddenly engender a dizzying fear of loss. The loss of her beliefs, her opinions, her identity. This was the only way she could reconcile her feelings toward him. For every positive feeling he elicited in her, she had to counter it with something that felt true to herself. She had to purge the pleasure she took in his smile with SUV crash statistics and fuel economy projections.
But there was another possibility that she considered as she sat there in the wake of those words. They might not be simply a reminder of her political views. Those sentences could very well be barriers that she was throwing down, like someone strewing any available object - a chair, a wastebasket - in their path, hoping at least one of those items would trip the pursuer.
Would she ever stop with the blockades? If she could never let down her guard, then what exactly was the point of continuing this?
Emily is a nicely representative character, a strong, intelligent, witty 21st-century woman. She reminded me of women I've known, women who don't know how to find the middle ground between being strong and independent, and admitting a (male) partner into their lives, and learning to compromise. They often come across as intimidating and overbearing, and very much fixed in their ways, their preferences. Emily's only twenty-six, so she's not so very frightening or rigid, but she's still in that phase of thinking she's figured herself all out and must protect that façade at all costs.
His lifting her up like that - scooping her up like the proverbial bride. She was not supposed to take such pleasure in that. Nor was she supposed to enjoy it so much when he put his arm around her and pulled her into the nook of his shoulder, and she became a small part of him under there, hiding. And being his little one - that was the most shameful one of all. It was her new guilty pleasure. How distraught she would be if he stopped calling her that. Don't betray yourself, Emily. Don't forget who you were before you met him. She could tell herself that all she wanted, but the truth was, if he asked her to live with him and be his dutiful wife, not that he would but if he did ask her to change her name and settle down and learn how to make a good pot roast, she suspected she would not react with immediate outrage. The battle would come eventually - she knew she would never be able to do it. But he dulled the outrage, and that scared her half to death.
A prevalent, relevant theme in the novel is the environment, or rather, the clash of opinions regarding the environment. Walsh deftly captures the black-and-white nature of such discourse, in the way Robert and Emily sound each other out and debate it. I was a little disappointed in Emily's inability to come up with counter-arguments to a couple of Robert's points, which were rather classic points you'll have heard often and easily rebutted. (I would have loved to see Robert lose his cool for once and get emotional, but that wasn't his character.) Emily and Robert are of the same class - white middle class - and are more alike than they, at first, realise, but their different opinions on the environment are a sticking point, for Emily at least.
What's interesting about this is that the whole thing - the romance, the story, their arguments - is more about the black-and-white labelling that goes on in the United States. It's about the rigid, inflexible juxtaposition of opinion and how that blinds people. You're either a Republican, or a Democrat. You're either Conservative, or Liberal. You either support anti-gun policies or you're against. You either believe in Climate Change or you don't. You're either this or that, there's no grey in-between. Emily, who believes herself to be an open-minded liberal, is arguably more fixed in her opinions and viewpoints - and perceptions of other people - than Robert, the supposedly narrow-minded conservative, is. In that sense, this is a coming-of-age novel for Emily, as she realises this about herself and learns not to feel threatened by "the other side", that people don't just come in red or blue, they come in every possible colour and shade.
But the environment isn't just a useful tool for character development. There are real, relevant issues on debate here, as well as the all-too-real sense of uselessness and hopelessness. I very much agree with Emily that if we don't look after the planet, we won't have a planet to call home ("look after your house and it will look after you", right?), and I personally believe that humans are not the superior species on Earth, as in, we do not have a basic right to do what we like with the planet. But I have never been actively involved in any kind of movement - I try to live like a decent, considerate human being and I like to think that the most important thing we can do is alter our attitudes and way of thinking, because our attitudes are the real sticking point when it comes to change and our expectations regarding standard of living. But I could completely empathise with Emily and her "moment of crisis", the faltering of her conviction.
"Carson, have you ever though we could just be wasting our time? Do you really think that my scooter is going to counteract all of those North Prospect housewives in their Hurons? Or that my lonely little boycott of Dynamo Burger is going to save the rainforest? Rachel's stupid prank basically convinced the whole town to donate their own money to buy another Hummer. And even Andy's grants and GeoForce's efforts are drops in the bucket. Compare my rally to 8.8 million acres of land ruined with a signature. We can't win that fight. We could probably make more of a difference if we sold out and took high-paying corporate jobs and then used our money to make big changes, like Bill Gates does. Maybe we only work at a nonprofit because it makes us feel better. There is a very good chance that what we're doing is not making any difference and we're just wasting our time. Think globally, act locally may just be a big scam, and we've all been duped."
(On a side note, I felt more than a small measure of satisfaction, at every mention of the town's police Hummer, to know that they stopped producing the Hummer several years ago, as it really was a completely ridiculous and needlessly-expensive vehicle to run.)
This is a deeply human story, a story that deftly captures a particular slice of American population and ideology and presents it to readers in an entertaining way. The banter between Emily and Robert is rather addictive, the issues raised are thought-provoking, and the characters will be relatable to many readers. Walsh writes with skill, empathy and intelligence. The pacing might be a little slow for some readers, especially if you're expecting a generic romance (this is "fiction" first and foremost), but it is consistent and smooth and gives you time to engage with the story in thoughtful ways. Most of all, I appreciated the skill with which Walsh captured the nuances of human nature, our often contradictory thoughts, and our feeling of safety which we get from choosing a box and staying in it (and, as a result, how threatened we feel when someone doesn't conform to a box we've already received the instructions for).
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book. (less)