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)
Cricket Whittier works for a short little gargoyle of a man called Oscar, who runs his own ad agency in San Francisco. She got the job after the agenc...moreCricket Whittier works for a short little gargoyle of a man called Oscar, who runs his own ad agency in San Francisco. She got the job after the agency she worked for went under and her wealthy and influential Uncle Jonathan, who had given Oscar the seed money to start his business years ago, asked Oscar to hire her. Which might be why he hates her and constantly tries to provoke her into resigning.
To soothe her rattled nerves, Cricket resorts to making up new and interesting ice cream flavours in her kitchen, and then inviting her best friends, Lindsay and Nora, over to try them. For years they've talked about Cricket's dream of opening her own ice cream shop and turning her passion into an actual business, but Cricket is overwhelmed by all that's involved in starting a small business and is focused instead on saving what she can towards her own start-up costs - because no way is she asking Uncle Jonathan for help. If she's going to do this, she's going to do it without his help.
Nora, once a high-powered lawyer who left her job when she married a filthy-rich investor, and Lindsay, a teacher, encourage Cricket to look into it anyway, to make the "one day" become "today". Nora finds a shop front in an ideal area and invests some of her own money into making Cricket's dream come true - as an equal partner. Next Lindsay jumps on board with a small inheritance; it's the summer and she's not working, and if it works out she might just quit teaching altogether. Soon, the plans for opening Cricket's gourmet ice cream shop are in full swing.
But her parents, true hippies who eschew business, are not encouraging - not that she expected them to be. Her two brothers, Dusk (who changed his name to Daniel) and Sage, are like her: they've ditched the hippie lifestyle they grew up in for the bigger world and money. Sage works in LA as an actor, but he comes to help with the renovations on the shop with his background in construction. His friend from years back, Bax, arrives to help as well - and offer advice from his own experience opening his own cafe.
Bringing her dream to life is as exciting as it is scary, and it's not without its hiccups. But Cricket is determined, and giving her boss her resignation is one of the most satisfying moments of her life - along with the sheer pleasure of tasting her ice cream and making her dreams come true.
There's something about Anna Garner's books that I really enjoy, something non-formulaic and un-generic, even within the genre formula that she works with (in this case, chick-lit). Perhaps the focus on starting a small business wouldn't be enough for some readers, without some big drama or more emphasis on romance - to be honest, I don't read much chick-lit at all, so I don't have a lot to compare this to, and I couldn't say what combination of elements actually works for me. I can only tell you the elements of Sugar Spun Sister and why they worked.
This book has the lightness, the fast pace and entertaining characters and scenes that you would expect of chick-lit. There's humour, great friendships, some drama (but never melodrama!), a little side dish of romance, and the right balance of ups and downs. Moreover, it has, in Cricket, a strong, realistic and very human heroine. She is easily relatable, but not so familiar that you'd be bored reading about her (I have read the occasional story, sad to say, where I had to wonder why the main character was worth writing about in the first place).
Cricket is someone I could certainly relate to. There are things I'd love to do in my life, but I have all the same reasons as Cricket for putting off doing them. She's seeing a man called Jimmy - or rather, sleeping with him - in a mutual arrangement whereby no one at his record company knows they're anything other than friends, while her friends tease her about "Jiminy Cricket" and urge her to break up with him, as they all know - including Cricket - that it isn't going anywhere. Cricket likes Jimmy a lot, and enjoys spending time with him, be it dinner, sex or making ice cream together. But there's no future with him, she knows that. She's no idiot, though she does put off making changes in her life out of a kind of fear - again, something I could relate to (I'm sure many people could: it's a very human thing).
Likewise, the process of starting a small business was realistic and informative, without being dull. I felt like I learned a lot - maybe I'm a nerd, but I always want to know things and hear about people's experiences actually achieving things like this, so this really satisfied in that regard. There were no easy short-cuts for Cricket and her friends. I really like the way Anna Garner can write such a nice balance of realism and entertainment. It can't be easy to achieve the right kind of balance, but the writing was strong, humorous and smooth.
In response to certain things in her life or, later, catering jobs in the prelude to opening the shop, Cricket devises ice cream recipes to either meet a request or as therapy. The first one, which headlines Chapter One, she calls "Anaphylactic Surprise" (AKA the ice cream that would kill my boss). It's full of pretty much everything her hyper-allergenic boss, Oscar, is allergic to. Chapter Two's ice cream concoction is called "Edible Rage" (the ideal choice when you're at your wit's end) and includes Red Hot candies, beetroot and as much organic red food colouring "as you need to achieve a blood red hue". I loved seeing what she'd come up with next, and trying to imagine what the ice cream would taste like (which is hard for me: I'm not particularly adventurous and I'm not a natural cook, I need a recipe).
There is a part of me - there's always a part of me - that would have liked a bit more romance, or rather, a bit more of a lead-up to the nice little romantic ending. It's not that it was a big surprise, or felt like it came out of nowhere, and there were hints leading up to it, but it did feel a little too tidy. Nice way to end things, though! For this book at least; the next two will focus on Nora and Lindsay, and I'm keen to read their stories - and continue to follow the ups and downs of their ice cream shop, Sweet Dreams.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
Chloe Lane is almost thirty and single, but in her own mind she's a success: she's followed her passion and her dream of being a fashion designer, ope...moreChloe Lane is almost thirty and single, but in her own mind she's a success: she's followed her passion and her dream of being a fashion designer, opening her own boutique in New York City to sell her clothes. Her mother may still harp on at her about finding a man and getting married, but Chloe doesn't beat herself up about it. But after a night out with her two best friends, Isabel and Veronica, which saw all their attempts at meeting men fail, she can't help but feel a bit down about it. So when her good friend since childhood, Ethan Webster, makes a startling suggestion, Chloe decides, why not?
Ethan proposes to test the theory that Chloe, Veronica and Isabel came up with to explain why the men weren't biting: that men like the chase, and that being in a couple makes a person more desirable to others. If Chloe pretends to be in a relationship with Ethan, maybe he'll be able to attract the attention of the woman at work whom he's interested in. And the bonus: they'll have dates for parties, holidays and "other couple-y things". They work out the details of their pretend relationship, and the test is on.
When Chloe unexpectedly receives an invitation to be one of four judges on a new reality TV competition show on NBC, she's excited and also very nervous. Of the four other super-successful entrepreneur judges, one of them is William Shannon, a very sexy, filthy rich bachelor who ignites an electrical charge of desire in Chloe. The chance to test the theory herself sees Chloe extending her lies to her work in order to make William Shannon think Ethan is her boyfriend.
As Chloe begins to get her heart's wish in the bedroom-department as well as in business, she finds that the lies and the truth are no longer easy to distinguish, that maybe the lies are hiding a more profound truth - and it's just taking time and life experiences to know which is which.
This is the first novel Garner has published under her own name; previously she's released three books under the pen name Libby Mercer. I've read Unmasking Maya and really enjoyed it - it was about a textile artist, again showing Mercer/Garner's love of textiles, fashion, design, clothing and art - and I have The Karmic Connection still to read (I don't think that one has a fashion/design angle, but not having read it yet I can't be sure!). Garner is on solid ground with the fashion industry, and I have to say that after reading two chick-lit novels set in the world of fashion this year (the other being Sunni Overend's excellent March), I feel like I know quite a bit about it now, too!
I remember that one of my slight disappointments regarding Unmasking Maya was that it was a bit short, and I wanted more meat on what's an otherwise great story. Well with Lying to Meet You, I got my meat! There's not only great detail in this story, it also really delves into Chloe's life and fleshes out the supporting cast as well. It felt very realistic and alive; the time I spent in Chloe's head and her life was vivid and tangible. This reads as an engaging chick-lit novel (with very few embarrassing - nay, humiliating - moments unlike most chick-lit it seems) that takes the time to let its heroine grow and mature and figure things out. Nothing felt forced or contrived or rushed. The ending - the romance side of it - wasn't all that predictable: because of the tone and nature of the story, I really wasn't sure how it was going to end until we were nearly there. It did turn out to be true to formula, but it worked and was right for the characters.
There's humour here too, and some funny situations that are all the more comical by not being over-done. Other times it's a more gentle kind of humour, a shake-your-head-at-the-folly kind. And then there are the moments of humour that have a darker undertone, making it edgier - especially certain scenes with William Shannon, or the winning competitors diet bracelet inspired by an electric cattle prod. (Chloe finds herself unable to think of him as just William, building him into a major celebrity in her own mind, which does rather point to how things will turn out.) Throughout the novel, it wasn't the chick-lit formula that kept the momentum and tension in the story, it was the tone, the hint of uncertainty, of Chloe wobbling on her high heels, that gave it real tension. A good chick-lit novel isn't a farce, it's a fine balance of humour, realism and deeper meaning - a kind of reassessment of the character's life. In that, Garner was highly successful with Lying to Meet You.
I also have to say that I absolutely loved reading that in designing a new line of clothing inspired by Queen Boudicca, she incorporates a tartan: the Elliott tartan. She's absolutely correct, it's the loveliest tartan (not the modern version, the original more muted one), and for Chloe it has personal meaning in that her mum was an Elliott before she married her dad. I loved this because my husband's grandmother is an Elliott too (pre-marriage, but once in a clan, always in a clan), and the kilt he wore for our wedding was in the Elliott tartan. We also gave our son the name Elliott as his first middle name, to keep that connection alive. Both of us have lots of Scottish ancestry on both sides of our families, but the Elliott tartan really is the loveliest.
Lying to Meet You was an absorbing, fun, interesting story that brings the New York fashion world to life. I loved reading this engaging, intelligent and well-written novel, and following Chloe on her journey to finding real love and lifelong companionship. Chloe is a smart, endearing, realistic heroine caught up in dreams and lies when the reality already in her grasp is better than both.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
Ruby McMillan's pleasant life comes to a stinging halt one Saturday morning when her husband Walter announces that he's leaving her. Ruby is stunned,...moreRuby McMillan's pleasant life comes to a stinging halt one Saturday morning when her husband Walter announces that he's leaving her. Ruby is stunned, humiliated and outraged. Not only does Walter abruptly tell her he's unhappy when she thought they were doing fine (though to be honest, she admits she never really thinks about it much), but he doesn't even tell his two children, sixteen year old Colleen and fourteen year old Kevin, leaving Ruby to handle the whole thing. But the worst thing about it, as far as Ruby can tell at this early stage, is that he's not even leaving her for a much younger, prettier woman with perky boobs. No, Walter is leaving her for Cheryl, a work colleague who's also in her forties.
Yet, worse is to come. Ruby can handle the fact that all the women she knows in the small town community of Pelican Point, California, are now snubbing her - because while Walter dumped her on Facebook, everyone else is reading his messages of finding new love on board Cheryl's yacht - and the financial woes of her cake shop are nothing new. But when she meets her new mortgage broker, handsome divorcé Jacob Salt, she learns that Walter hadn't paid the mortgage on the house, that he's planning to declare bankruptcy, and that the house is scheduled for foreclose, making her and her children homeless.
Ruby has a couple of options remaining: she can fall apart and let life unfold as it will, or she can put up a fight and climb her way out of this mess. She has an inheritance tucked away that she had planned on surprising Walter with one day, with a trip to some exotic locale, but now she dips into it to save her house and give herself a few months' breathing room. Her business partner and best friend, Izzy, has a couple of money making ideas that could save the bakery, including taking on a cooking class for the local community college and even going on the TV show Cake-Off! where top cake decorators have eight hours to assemble and decorate huge fancy cakes. Ruby at first baulks at both ideas, due to the simple fact that she is rendered useless by a spotlight - useless and incontinent. But they start small and the cooking class goes well.
And Jacob Salt, who seemed to stiff and formal at first but who gradually unwinds as Ruby gets to know him better, seems to have her corner, ensuring that she is the one who will make the big fancy cake for his company's 50th anniversary celebration. More than that, Jacob does things to Ruby that she's never experienced before. She's always been calmly rational, pragmatic, practical, the kind of woman who wanted a simple, safe life, no fireworks, had never felt regret at not getting into the kind of passionate, explosive and ultimately doomed relationships that her friends had. Her time apart from Walter and her growing feelings for Jacob give her the time and clues she needs to really examine the life she's led, the decisions she's made, and in the end give her both the strength and the self-awareness to make one very important decision.
Sweet Nothings was a real pleasure to read. It's chick-lit, but not as humorous as the British kind; it was also a surprise for having some steamy kisses and a sex-scene, which you don't normally get in chick-lit. But this is the story of Ruby's belated coming-of-age, a heady, messy time of figuring herself out, keeping her family (her and her kids) together and saving her business without compromising her sense of integrity. A detailed sex scene gives you that deeper window into a character's psyche, which makes Ruby someone you really get to know and understand, sympathise with and care for, much more so than I would normally feel about a chick-lit heroine.
I loved the focus on food. Each chapter bears a food-related title, connected to what's going to happen next, and Ruby has this rather fun habit of thinking of people in terms of dessert. Walter "always seemed like shortbread to me. A simple cookie. A reliable cookie. Ordinary yet hardy. Made from three universally loved ingredients. The kind of cookie you can bring to any occasion and everyone will eat one and like it, although they probably won't remark upon it later, because it's not a triple fudge brownie. I realize this comparison might sound unflattering, but honestly, I love shortbread." [p.13] And really, her descriptions - the way she breaks the food down to its base elements, the way she connects the different layers or parts or texture of a food to a person's character - it really is quite ingenious and hugely entertaining.
I've always loved making cakes. And biscuits and slices. I still have just as many flops as I have successes, but I love the process of making something, and the satisfying feeling of producing something. It's a feeling that's sorely lacking in our world and society these days, with our stationary desk jobs and our paper-pushing, sign-here, file-this jobs. No wonder we get so depressed, by and large. And angry. But make something, from scratch, now there's a good feeling. I loved the descriptions of Ruby's food, her food experiments (which she calls "stressipes" as she comes up with unusual ingredient combinations when under stress, many of which don't work out), and her cake decorating. And having the story end with a Cake-Off! episode, that was a brilliant ending. Cake-Off!, which airs on the Food Network in the book, is modelled on The Ultimate Cake Off, a TV show that airs on TLC (a channel I always thought stood for "tender loving care" - especially as they show those kinds of heartfelt, weepy reality TV show - but which actually stands for "The Learning Channel", of all things!). I have actually watched a few episodes of this show - in general I absolutely hate the prevalence of food/cooking competition "reality" TV shows that are pretty much the only food-related programming on these days - you don't learn a thing about how to cook, the only thing you learn, consciously or sub-consciously, is that cooking is really stressful and people are just going to criticise you no matter what you make or how much effort you put into it. The Ultimate Cake Off is much as it's described in the book: teams of people who in real life run small businesses of cake decorating etc., have 9 hours to assemble and decorate massive cakes for special occasions. The time limit, the judges and the cameras clamouring for drama and disaster make for one very stressful competition, but what makes me watch it is my fascination for seeing what they create, and my interest in how they make it. Not that you learn all that much, but still.
Thomas doesn't take any short-cuts with her story of Ruby: Ruby is a very real woman who feels very human and who you really come to care about. The way events play out had good flow, and only a few minor things felt a bit contrived, or a bit too silly. I have trouble understanding why people would shun a woman whose husband had left her - that I don't get, and I don't know how realistic it is. I also struggle with the concept of calling someone who makes cakes for a living, a "baker". To me, a baker is someone who makes bread. They get up every day at 4 and bake loaves of bread and other yummy things, then crawl back into bed for some sleep until they have to get up and do it all over again. And a bakery is a shop that sells, primarily, bread. If a shop doesn't sell bread, it's a cake shop, or a cafe, or a patisserie (to use the "correct" French word). I've seen professional cake makers called Confectionary Chef or pastry chef or even just cake decorator. I'm not saying it's incorrect to call someone who makes cakes a baker, it just doesn't sound correct to me because of how I learned the word "baker". Just one of those things.
This is a simple story about a simple woman trying to sort her life out, rediscover herself and her own long-dormant passions, and follow her slowly-waking heart; but like all such stories, it is deceptively simple because it's such a human story, familiar not for the situation as such but because it's about love, life, the home, family and making things work, the struggle to overcome obstacles and difficulties, and all these themes are ones we live with every day. Accompanying Ruby on her own personal journey through all this was both touching and entertaining, and a fair reminder that it's never too late for love, or for following your dreams - and excelling at them.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
From the snappy, edgy dialogue to the snootiest streets of Melbourne, Sunni Overend takes readers into the heart of Australia's fashion scene as we fo...moreFrom the snappy, edgy dialogue to the snootiest streets of Melbourne, Sunni Overend takes readers into the heart of Australia's fashion scene as we follow Apple March's struggles to overcome the past and follow her dreams in this hugely entertaining and fast-paced first novel.
Apple was once the top student at the famous Emmaline Gray Academy, where she won over Emmaline Gray herself with her distinctive fashion designs. But these days, Apple is twenty-nine and working as manager at VoVoChe, a boutique clothing shop where she can hide from anyone in the fashion world who still remembers what happened all those years ago, but where she can still work with clothes. Her boss, Veronica, is in her sixties and still prowling for a man, and her co-worker at the shop, Jackson, is a mouthy, in-your-face but elegant lesbian with a gorgeous girlfriend, Arabella. Apple rents a disused fire station-turned-apartment with her friend Chloe and Chloe's sausage dog, Frankfurt, and casually sleeps with a handsome Swiss, Henri, who lives off his father's money. She has an old car that routinely breaks down, which is when she gives a call to her croquet-playing friend Charlie, heir to a jewellery company based in Melbourne, who comes to whack the engine with a croquet mallet.
Through Charlie, Apple gets invitations to illustrious events where she rubs shoulders with Melbourne's richest and snootiest people - and her most arrogant and crazy too, it sometimes seems. She meets Noah, a friend of Charlie's, and is turned on by his blokey, dominating ways. She also meets Charlie's long-standing girlfriend, Heidi, who comes from another wealthy, well-established Melbourne family, and discovers what everyone already knows: Heidi's a real cow. It's hard for Apple to see her down-to-earth, friendly, kind friend Charlie with a woman like that, but it's not for her to interfere, and she's got her own life to sort out.
Her older sister Meena is getting married and wants Apple to design and make her wedding dress. Her mother, Ginny, has heard from their father, an abusive man who left them when the girls were very little and from whom they've never heard from since. Now he calls Ginny to tell her he's dying and that he wants to reconnect with his children, but none of the women want anything to do with him. When he dies, leaving a lot of money to his younger trophy wife in Sydney, the sisters are torn by the option to contest his will and lay claim to some of the money.
It's when Apple puts aside her misgivings over the past and goes to Sydney to compete for an exclusive internship with a high-end couture fashion house, that the past confronts her with a loud slap, bringing her rapidly back down to earth. Then, the chance to design shoes for VoVoChe seems like a dream come true and the start of something new, but Veronica has other ideas. It is only Charlie who continues to subtly support her and her dreams of designing clothes, but the truth of why she had to leave the Emmaline Gray Academy continues to haunt Apple, and hold her back. If she were to take charge of her future and follow her dream, what would she be risking? For Apple, it might be time to stop hiding and take charge.
First of all I have to apologise for the messy and poorly-written summary above; I'm finding it hard to concentrate today and it shows. But I really needed to get this review out before too much time goes by, as I finished the book over a week ago. I really, really enjoyed this book: it not only satisfied my deep scars of homesickness, it was a real joy to read too.
I've recently learned this about myself, that after years of not reading Australian fiction until signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year - which made me pick up and read some of the books I already have, and seek out new titles - and reading a lot of American writers, as well as Canadian and British (and others, in the minority), I've learned that while our cultures may be similar, and we may all speak English, we are actually quite different, culturally speaking, and I definitely connect to Australian fiction more than American fiction. The stories and the characters are more familiar, they make sense to me, from their actions to the way they speak: it clicks. I don't necessary like everything I read that's Australian - that would be unlikely - but I "get" it. There's always been something that creates a bit of a barrier between me and American fiction - not so much Canadian or British, because I grew up on a diet of British TV and books so it's more familiar to me, and I've lived in Canada for nearly 8 years. I feel like I get American fiction, to a degree, but that's about it. The characters don't resonate with me in quite the same way Australian characters do: they're just that little bit too foreign. I don't have the same cultural or social context. So some of the Australian books I've read this year have really worked for me, making me realise just what has been missing from the American books I've been reading.
I wanted to speak to that because that's where I'm coming from when I talk about March. This felt like a distinctly Melbourne book. I lived there once, for nearly a year, and it's a very fashion-conscious, hipster-esque place. It's got old and grand, it's got new and flashy, it's got grungy and edgy. It's a very "happening" city, no doubt about it. The kind of people Apple spends time with here are upper-class Melbournites, an old-school, old-money lot for the most part, while Apple herself comes from a more down-to-earth middle class background. I've never known people like that, personally, but it rang true to me all the same: it felt familiar.
Everything about March felt natural and realistic; it has that realistic edge to it that reminded me strongly of some great TV shows like Love is a Four-Letter Word (from when I was a uni student - god, that dates me!) and Love My Way, also old now (7+ years! hard to believe it's been so long since I last lived there!). I don't know how to describe it, but like with books, we do television (and films) differently too. It's in the way characters interact, the way drama plays out - I never would have actively noticed it before living in Canada, but now the contrast is stark, vivid, and acts like a siren call to me.
Take Jackson. The way she speaks is true to her character, and never felt contrived to me, and the way people react to her rings true too. Basically, they're not offended, they just take her in stride. Here's a scene from the first chapter to give you an idea:
"Girlies," Veronica leant back in her chair. "I have a product launch thingy tonight. I'm desperate and dateless. Join me?" "Gah!" Jackson said. "I was just telling Apple how annoying you are, you've got to stop hanging out with us. The natty old investment banker you're hoping to snag won't take a second glance at you if we're there, take your own sorry arse out, you'll thank me." Apple laughed out loud. "Jackson, you're vile!" "Yes. You're starting to sound like the lanky, bitchy, faux lesbian that you are." Veronica smiled and pulled out a cigarette. "It's not my fault I fell in love with my business and not with a man. Speaking of love, how is the girl-on-girl action working out for you?" "Hottest sex ever. Arabella's a babe." "Oh," Veronica screwed up her face. "Please." "Well," Jackson said, "if you're as desperate and dateless as you say, follow my lead. Men have never been so available. Get yourself a lady friend and a man friend will soon follow." [p.10]
(Ha, having typed that out, I can see comparisons to Sex and the City coming in, but if conversations like this have a similar vibe, the comparison doesn't stretch much farther.)
The story manages that fine balance between realism and exaggeration, between the familiar and believable and that slight tinge of the ridiculous. The ridiculous is, of course, in the snobby elitists that Apple meets, characters like Heidi Huntingdon, and even in Charlie and his friends, some of whom are those classic obnoxious, chauvinistic Aussie males who are the new bloke. I loved Charlie, he was harmless in that sense, and quite a gentleman and very sweet, but making him a character who not only plays but wins at croquet, well that just made him seem more like someone who lives on another planet.
Oh I'm not doing very well at articulating what I enjoyed about this book am I. I kinda just want to quote it a lot, because there are so many good scenes and snappy dialogue that just rolls so naturally, everything comes together so smoothly - not that Apple's story isn't without hiccups, it has plenty of those, but that nothing feels contrived or forced or out of character. The pacing is just as smooth and fairly fast; this is a book you can read quite quickly because it moves along so well. It wasn't entirely predictable, perhaps because of that realistic feel to it, but it does have a fairly conventional ending that ties it up neatly.
If anything, I would have loved to have seen a more rounded Apple: I got to know her and yet I never felt as close to her as I wanted to. I loved the scene where her mother gets out the scrapbook she made as a girl, full of photocopies of a Cabbage Patch doll on every page, over which Apple had designed different costumes. It was a lovely glimpse into Apple and her lifelong love of fashion design, but I wasn't sure what else there was to her character. I never felt completely familiar with the way her mind worked, the choices she made - or which way she was going to turn. It certainly kept me from getting bored, but it also made it hard for me to feel friendly with Apple. Or maybe it was because she held onto her secret for so long, and without knowing that it was hard to understand her other choices, which were influenced by the past. Still, it worked with the story, to have that revealed only at the end. In the same way, I would have liked to know Charlie a bit more thoroughly, though what I did know of him I liked a lot. March has some great moments reminiscent of rom-com movies, British style, that gave the story a bit of juice.
Finally, I love the cover and the book design. Overend, who has studied design herself, has created a book that's beautiful to hold and look at and read. It makes what happened to my lovely copy all the more cringe-worthy: I dropped it. Outside. After it had been raining. In the mud. The pages now have some distinct stains on the edges and it looks like, well, it looks like it was dropped in the mud. But the cover cleaned up well! There are some typos, especially around dialogue punctuation (as you can see from the quote above), but other than that the writing is very good and matches the tone and style of the story to a T.
If you're looking for a fresh new voice in the chick-lit department, I highly recommend Sunni Overend's debut, March. It wasn't just fun to read, it also took me back to Melbourne in a way that not only satisfied my cravings for home, but transported me to someone else's life in a truly escapist sense as well. I loved the natural way the characters talked to each other, and I greatly enjoyed Apple's story as she grows into herself, faces her own fears and the humiliations of the past, and takes charge of her own life. Almost a perfect story.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.(less)
In the summer before their last year of university, three lifelong friends, Kate, Vanessa and Dani, party it up at Dani's father's beach house in Aval...moreIn the summer before their last year of university, three lifelong friends, Kate, Vanessa and Dani, party it up at Dani's father's beach house in Avalon, New Jersey. But the holiday ends in tragedy when Kate's twin brother Colin is found dead in the bay. Each girl harbours intense guilt alongside their grief, and carry the secrets they each hoard throughout their lives in the years that follow.
Now, eight years later, Kate's engagement to the man she met at law school, Peter, has broken off - on the same day she learns that she's pregnant. Dani has been fired for the twelfth time since she graduated from uni, this time from a bookshop in San Francisco, as she wiles her time drinking and taking drugs instead of writing the novel she's been working on ever since Colin died. In New York, Vanessa is torn between the love she feels for her two-year-old daughter, Lucy, anger towards her handsome husband, Drew, who admitted after Christmas that he kissed a colleague, and her desire to return to work at an art gallery.
When Vanessa and Dani learn of Kate's broken engagement, they decide to turn the bachelorette party in Vegas into a girls' weekend in Avalon, something they haven't done since that fateful holiday when Colin died.
It is also the first time in years the three of them have been together - the last time was Vanessa's wedding three years before. Vanessa and Dani are still hardly talking to each other after some big blow-up in the past that neither will talk about, and they each come to Avalon with their secret and their guilt churning just beneath the surface. They each feel that it's time to 'fess up, but none of them could have suspected what the other knows about the past and that night Colin died. Can their friendship survive the revelations? Can they move on with their lives and finally find peace, and the chance to follow their dreams without the guilt?
All the Summer Girls is a light but fairly serious read, a short novel told in alternating chapters from each woman's perspective. We are given a clear idea of each woman's character, from their own viewpoint and that of their friends. Kate, the lawyer, talks a lot, is neat and tidy, and likes to live by a schedule - something that started to bother Peter. She talks to her food, loves dogs, and thinks laws are a wonderful thing.
Vanessa is the beauty of the threesome. Half black, half white, she's glamorous and fashionable with cheekbones to die for. The other two feel that she plays with men and likes to leave them hanging; even Vanessa freely acknowledges that she and her husband play a kind of game with each other, relishing watching the attention and admiration the other gets, knowing that they won't act on it but will return to each other. That changes when Drew kisses another woman, and Vanessa also struggles with her deep maternal feelings for her daughter and that feeling of having lost herself in motherhood.
Dani is the free-spirited one, the writer and reader who "lives the dream" but in reality makes a terrible mess of it, is no closer to achieving her dream than before, and is wasting her life away on binge-drinking, pot and pills. Her mother left when she was little and never wanted her; she married another man and had two sons with him, whom Dani's never met. She grew up with her father, a surgeon, and plenty of money, but now has too much pride to ask for help when she can no longer pay her rent. She had planned to move back in with her dad, but that option dies when she suddenly meets his much younger fiancee, Susanne.
The three women are very different from each other, but their shared pasts and experiences are strong enough to hold them together. Still, cracks have appeared and their friendship is struggling as they've each moved in very different directions, in different parts of the country. They each feel like they were the one who held the friendship together, as children and teens, and that they continue to do so now. Perhaps this belief, and the sense of being needed that comes with it, is what keeps them together now. They know each other so well, they can't hide from each other.
I liked this story, but I didn't love it. It was quite a simple, straight-forward story, and fairly short. I confess I read it a bit quickly, and didn't really take the time to slow down and appreciate it. But it just wasn't really my kind of story. I like these stories, I do, but this one was a tad too simplistic for me, a bit predictable, and a bit lacking in depth and substance. The characters were laid out rather flat, presented neatly - especially Kate and Dani - and I found that this way of telling me all about them created a kind of distance and a lack of curiosity in me that I couldn't overcome. Vanessa was a bit more ambiguous, and I could relate to her because I too am a first-time mother of a (nearly) two year old, and I know what she means about loving spending the time with her child while also feeling that she's lost a part of herself, and doesn't quite know who she is anymore. That resonated with me; I'm sure it's pretty widespread. She was also a bit more interesting because she had more layers to her, making her seem sometimes quite ordinary and "normal", and other times of a different class altogether. It was her psyche that I would have liked to delve into more.
Donohue didn't belabour the point, she didn't over-emphasise things like Dani's lifestyle and the new opportunities, a kind of "second chance" of turning her life around, that she finds in Avalon. But it wasn't very subtle either, and things were just a bit too pat. I also didn't really care for the way the perspective shifted around. It's really not necessary to title chapters by the character's name, there's something about that device that has long annoyed me. It's not the shifting of perspective that irks me, but the chapter titles. It always feels too contrived, too leading-by-the-hand, too "look there!" too forced. Simply omitting the chapter headings and I feel that a story flows better from one chapter to the next, and it's easier for me to sink into a story. It won't bother all readers, but it's a device I've never been keen on.
I'm also not a fan of present tense: it's hugely over-used these days, like the latest fad in writing fiction and genre fiction, and few writers use it well or even accurately. I didn't take issue with how Donohue used it, only that it wasn't a good fit here or even necessary. It didn't add to the story or its rhythm, and the transitions between past tense, when recounting a previous scene, and the present were like bumps in the road, making me stumble so that I would have to re-read a sentence or two to get the right rhythm again.
Overall, this is a finely observant story that presents three women and their decades-long friendship with a clear eye, and it is a frank story about the mistakes we make, the choices we face, and the future that can scare us. It wasn't a story that made any particular connection to me, emotionally or otherwise, but I liked it well enough.
Poppy Wyatt, a physiotherapist who works at a private clinic with her two best friends, Ruby and Annalise, is just ten days from being married to hand...morePoppy Wyatt, a physiotherapist who works at a private clinic with her two best friends, Ruby and Annalise, is just ten days from being married to handsome university professor, Magnus Tavish. His parents, Antony Tavish and Wanda Brook-Tavish, are also professors, the kind that appear on television, say controversial things and have numerous books published. They completely intimidate Poppy, who's not stupid but is no academic genius, either. Half of what they say goes completely over her head, and she constantly feels like they're deeply unimpressed by her and disapprove of the match - and of Poppy wearing the family heirloom engagement ring, an emerald surrounded by diamonds, which Magnus had retrieved from the vault.
So when, at the Marie Curie Champagne Tea held at a hotel where she's celebrating with her friends (Annalise, Ruby, Natasha, Claire, Emily and her wedding planner, Lucinda and Lucinda's young intern, Clemency), Poppy loses her engagement ring, she's in an absolute panic to get it back. Her friends had been passing it around, trying it on, and then the fire alarm went off and everyone evacuated in a hurry, and Poppy's friends don't have it anymore. It's not just losing a family heirloom that terrifies her, it's Magnus' family finding out and thus cementing their poor opinion of her forever more (she can just picture it, the old "remember the time when Poppy lost our grandmother's ring?" being trotted out at all family gatherings).
Then a second disaster strikes: Poppy's mobile phone is stolen, and gone is her only means of hearing from the hotel, or the police, or all the hotel maids she gave out her number to. So when she sees a phone in a rubbish bin in the hotel lobby, she decides "finders keepers" and requisitions it for her own personal use. There's a company name on it, White Globe Consulting, and someone's name tag in the bin with it: Violet. Small details. But when Violet's boss, Sam Roxton, calls the phone, he's far from pleased with Poppy's decision to take the phone. Poppy agrees to forward on all the emails in exchange for borrowing it, and Sam's left with little choice but to agree.
Aside from losing the ring, Poppy's wedding is coming together in fits and starts. After a mere month-long courtship, Magnus's proposal came out of the blue but Poppy felt she'd met her prince charming. Their wedding planner, Lucinda, is a family friend, but she seems extremely stressed and put out by all the arrangements, and Poppy ends up taking on a lot of the tasks herself. Despite her best intentions, Poppy finds herself reading all the White Globe emails and forming her own opinions about the taciturn Sam. But it's when she starts writing emails to the company in his name that things get really messy.
Which is nothing to the mess Poppy finds herself in when the ring does finally turn up, and she discovers some very startling and unpleasant facts about what's going on around her - and that her perceptions of the people she knows is decidedly askew, including Sam - and herself.
I've Got Your Number is Kinsella's best novel, without a doubt. Okay so I haven't read all of her books, but it was better than the others that I loved (Remember Me? and Can You Keep a Secret?), better than the ones I really enjoyed (Wedding Night and the first three Shopaholic books - Becky Bloomwood can really frustrate me!), and really puts to shame the one that I consider to be Kinsella's worst book ever, The Undomestic Goddess (I couldn't even finish it, it was that bad). With I've Got Your Number, Kinsella has struck gold. It's the perfect combination of interesting plot, engaging and well developed protagonist, not-so-obvious and charismatic-without-trying-to-be male lead, humour that makes me laugh out loud, and even some subtlety.
Poppy is a clear winner of a character. She's trademark Kinsella but without the qualities that have frustrated me in her other books. She narrates - in equally-trademark first-person present tense (Kinsella is one of the few authors who can actually write in present tense) - with that slightly bubbly, slightly cringing enthusiasm and the sense that disaster is always just around the corner. But something about Poppy is different, and refreshing. It isn't until Sam points out Poppy's deep flaw to her that it clicks, and the character takes on a whole new dimension. More than that, she's imminently likeable and sympathetic, whatever her flaws are: you feel sorry for her, not in a pitying way, but in an empathetic way.
I'm back to the black hole of dread. What do I do? I can't keep dodging for ever.
I don't have a burned hand. I don't have an engagement ring. I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scrabble words. I'm a total phoney. [p.121]
The male love interests in Kinsella's novels usually come across as a tad under-developed, mostly because the perspective and narration is all the heroine's and they're always caught up in whatever foolish, idiotic mistake they've made to spare much time to really, intelligently, understand the hero. Sam Roxton somehow managed to rise above all that and figure very strongly in this. He had oodles of charisma without even trying. We get to know him mostly through texts and emails, and the way he comes across whenever he pops up in a scene (and he was a bit of a scene-stealer!). He seems so well-contained, and as if there's a lot going through his mind that he doesn't give voice to. This edge of mystery to him makes him charismatic, and makes you want more of him.
I didn't know Sam had a brother, either. As I sit there, digesting all this, I feel a bit chastened. I've never even heard of Tim or Andrew or Josh. But then, why would I have heard of them? They probably text Sam directly. They're probably in touch like normal people. In private. Not like Willow the Witch and old friends trying to hustle some money.
All this time I've thought I could see Sam's entire life. But it wasn't his entire life, was it? It was one in-box. And I judged him on it.
He has friends. He has a life. He has a relationship with his family. He has a whole load of stuff I have no idea about. I was an idiot if I thought I'd got to know the whole story. I know a single chapter. That's all. [p.326-7]
Magnus you'll be able to see through fairly quickly, though he does seem perfectly reasonable and sweet and loving at first. Kinsella is able to share subtle little details with us through Poppy, that enable us to form new opinions better and quicker than Poppy, thanks to our impartiality.
As well as the characters feeling realistic and believable, likeable but flawed (something Kinsella also did well with in Wedding Night), the plot felt the same way. It all flowed together, all the disparate parts, so that it never seemed contrived or "if Poppy hadn't done X which was so obviously stupid, none of it would have happened" - something I tend to feel when reading a Shopaholic book. I could completely sympathise with Poppy's ideas of Magnus's parents, and Kinsella handled the difference between truth and perception deftly. If Antony and Wanda hadn't been the over-bearing, over-achieving (and very messy) smart-arses that they are, Poppy would have been in less of a panic over the ring, and less opportunistic when she lost her own phone. (Yet where would have been the fun in that?)
Speaking of her phone, Poppy's dependency on it wasn't something I could sympathise with (I do now have a mobile, for the first time since 2005, but while it's useful at times, it in no way has my whole life on it or is a crutch), but I could understand it. It's very, well, 21st-century, I guess.
I'm starting to shake all over. I've never felt so bereft and panicky. What do I do without my phone? How do I function? My hand keeps automatically reaching for my phone in its usual place in my pocket. Every instinct in me wants to text someone, 'OMG, I've lost my phone!' but how can I do that without a bloody phone? [pp.17-18]
It may be a book about things going wrong, but Kinsella can really make you laugh, time and again. This must be her funniest book to date, or maybe I should say, her most ironic. Part of this is achieved by use of footnotes - yes, footnotes! Poppy observes how Magnus and his family are big on footnotes, as a way to say things that aren't directly relevant, and starts including them herself, to superb affect. Humour also comes through in her observations, which are quite astute, though it's the way she words them that has me laughing.
I went over the whole place yesterday, replaced all the old manky bottles of bubble bath and got a new blind for the bathroom. Best of all, I tracked down some anemones for Wanda's study. Everyone knows she loves anemones. She's even written an article about 'Anemones in Literature.' (Which is just typical of this family - you can't just enjoy something, you have to become a top academic expert on it.) [p.41]
As you can tell by now, I absolutely loved this book and have nothing negative to say about it. It was the perfect read when I was wanting something absorbing, funny, intelligent and surprising. It's entertainment that actually perks you up and makes you feel better about the world. If you're after a story that will cheer you up, take your mind off things and make you laugh, this is the book. For sheer entertainment value, I couldn't suggest anything better, but it had the added bonus of providing an engrossing story full of depth, warmth and humour, a story that really came to life for me. I was sorry to have it end.(less)
If there's one thing I've come to count on, it's that Sophie Kinsella can make me laugh. Out loud. Numerous times. Not as easy as you'd think, for a b...moreIf there's one thing I've come to count on, it's that Sophie Kinsella can make me laugh. Out loud. Numerous times. Not as easy as you'd think, for a book to do with me, but when a book can make me laugh, I treasure the moment as much as when a book makes me cry.
Lottie Graveney is thirty-three and finally - finally! - about to hear the proposal from her boyfriend Richard that she's been eagerly awaiting. He's been dropping lots of hints, and booked a table for lunch at their favourite Italian restaurant. She was so excited she even bought him an engagement ring. So when the question turns out to be regarding how to use his extra Air Miles before he goes to San Francisco for several weeks on business, Lottie is floored. She's so upset that Richard didn't propose - and doesn't look likely to ever do it - that she breaks up with him on the spot.
As Lottie's older sister, Fliss, knows all too well from past experience, Lottie has a habit of doing something rather rash and foolish after a break-up. Like the time she got a tattoo, and the time she joined a cult. Lottie's post-break-up wildness only lasts a few weeks, and then she comes crashing down to Earth and Fliss has to help her pick up the broken pieces and put her back together again. With their own parents long removed from the picture, Fliss has filled the mother role for Lottie for years now. Her own marriage, to the insufferable Daniel, is going through the divorce wringer, and the only good thing to come out of it is eight-year-old Noah, their son - whom Daniel isn't helping out with much. Fliss has her own issues, harbouring her resentments and hoarding her complaints against Daniel, and is slowly becoming the bitter woman she always wanted to avoid.
So when Lottie calls her up and tells her she's getting married to some guy called Ben whom she knew when she was eighteen and living the high life on a Greek island during her gap year, Fliss pulls out all the stops to prevent it. If she can just make Lottie wait, she'll wake up soon enough and realise it's not what she wants. The last thing Fliss wants to see is her sister in a situation like hers: battling a pompous idiot for divorce and custody of their child.
Fliss isn't alone in her goal: Ben's business partner Lorcan also wants to stop the foolishness and get Ben to pay attention to the company he inherited but which he mostly ignores. Lorcan's style is much more heavy-handed than Fliss's though, and before she realises the damage he's done, her sister has married a man she barely knows and flown off for her honeymoon on the same Greek island where they once had their "summer of love". Luckily, Fliss is the editor of a global travel magazine, and she knows people - including the hotel manager, whom she manages to coerce into making sure Lottie and Ben don't consummate their wedding before Fliss can get there and talk some sense into her sister. It will make getting an annulment all that easier.
Yet it's not only Lottie who is making a mistake: Fliss too is doing possibly fatal damage to her relationship with her sister by interfering and ruining her honeymoon. Things aren't going well for Lottie and Ben, though Lottie is ever the optimist and doesn't give up easily. Can their marriage work, or will she have to admit to her sister that she made a mistake - again?
More so than in any of Kinsella's previous books - the ones I've read, anyway, which is most of them - Wedding Night combines some heavier, more serious issues regarding relationships, denial, being misguided and in general facing up to yourself, with her trademark humour and flair for writing realistically flawed characters. It was very nicely balanced, neither too serious nor too silly, and created an extra layer of tension and made the story more meaningful overall.
This is largely thanks to Fliss (short for Felicity), who I found easy to relate to and sympathise with. She provides the saner voice, the voice of reason, the counter-balance to Lottie's rather ditzy naïveté. Fliss is your classic working mother going through a messy, prolonged divorce who's trying to give Noah the childhood every kid deserves, untainted by the contempt she feels for his father or the anger that takes over her at times. I certainly didn't agree with what she did to Lottie - or how - but she made it make sense, she provided the kind of justification that worked, and I felt her own sense of rising panic. It's clear that Lottie's doing something pretty stupid, but it's just as clear why - and we all need the chance to make mistakes and learn from them. So, since events are set in motion anyway, Wedding Night takes the opportunity to have a good laugh at the whole thing along the way.
Both female characters (and I'm sure the male ones too) are trademark Kinsella, just re-jigged so that they feel fresh and new and their own people. Fliss I loved, as I mentioned above, while Lottie was that classic well-meaning but short-sighted twit, not stupid but not really thinking things through either. She was more your Becky Bloomwood character. If the entire book had been told from Lottie's perspective, I don't know that I would have been able to finish it. Dividing the story between Lottie and Fliss - each telling their own chapters in first-person present-tense - ensured that I never got sick and tired of either of them: just as one begins to get on your nerves a bit, it switches to the other sister and you get a fresh voice and new laughs.
And I've mentioned this before, about Sophie Kinsella, but she is one of the only authors I've ever read who actually knows how to write in present tense properly. Present tense is becoming the new fad, I've noticed, especially in Young Adult fiction but also in adult fiction, and it's really annoying me - a) because it's not half as flexible or versatile a tense as past tense, thus limiting what you can do with it; and b) too many of those writers simply don't know how to use it and write as if they're still using past tense. If you want a really good example of how to use present tense, start with Wedding Night or another of Kinsella's, like Can You Keep a Secret? And no, I'm not about to stop going on about this, not until people stop using present tense or learn how to write with it properly!!
This is a highly entertaining storyline that doesn't feel all that predictable as you're reading it because Lottie is something of a wild card and even Fliss is a surprisingly resourceful woman, and you never know what she's going to pull out of her bag. Literally, like when she makes a hot air balloon for her son's class project in the carpark because Daniel hadn't passed on the letter about it, and she uses a gift box as the basket and a condom for the balloon. Very funny scene. Nice to know that I can still laugh at condom jokes.
The other things I found myself laughing aloud at were the ridiculous but very funny ways the hotel manages to keep Lottie and Ben from having sex. It became so exaggerated, with the butler and the assistant butler constantly popping up and dogging their steps, and the horde of workers scratching their heads and arguing over how to remove two single beds when the suite should have had a giant king size bed, and many other antics. It's a farce, no doubt about it, but Lottie and Ben are so caught up in themselves - and, to a lesser degree, each other - and so incredibly horny, that they don't see it as anything other than over-zealous employees, incompetent contractors and so on. The hotel staff never go far enough to have to a formal complaint against them, they just over-do the normal services. To say that I laughed out loud several times is high praise, especially because I was half afraid the whole plot and all the shenanigans were going to really irritate me, not amuse me.
To balance Lottie's silliness, Ben's childishness, and Fliss's over-protectiveness, we have Lorcan. He's a tall, dark, serious man, a lawyer by profession who's been putting all his energy into saving his friend's paper company without realising how much Ben resents him for it - and how much farther Ben runs when Lorcan tries to rein him in. He, too, has an important life lesson to learn. He comes across as serious and grumpy, and he is a bit grumpy, but his sense of humour - irony, possibly dead-pan - comes across at just the right times. All the characters are flawed, all are struggling with certain aspects of life that come with growing up, and they all require a bit of work (some more than others) to get us on their side and liking them. They're realistic, in that way.
Wedding Night reads like a romantic comedy, and I see a movie adaptation coming in the near future: it's perfectly cinematic and the right kind of story for the big screen. Its humour is nicely countered by its life messages, and the only part that disappointed me was the ending. It was an ending straight out of Hollywood, where the characters have their big confessional in as public a place as you can think of - a device I absolutely loathe but which is really common in Hollywood rom-coms anytime there's any kind of deception involved. But still, it is a satisfying way to end things. I will also say that I found it a bit long, too long for the story it contains, and while there were many times when I found the sisters' internal monologues highly entertaining, there were others when I thought they could be trimmed a bit. Oh and boy do the British drink a lot!!
A very entertaining read that doesn't require anything of you except to sit back and enjoy, Wedding Night is a silly, flirtatious story of sisterly love and trying to recapture the magic of youth, with just that little bit of meaningful eyebrow-raising to make it grounded - almost as if Kinsella were aiming to transition away from Chick-lit and into Fiction and wanted to test the waters. Not my favourite of Kinsella's books, but a good read when you're in the right mood.(less)
When Meg Koranda arrives in small town Wynette, Texas, for her best friend Lucy Jorik's wedding, she already has a feeling that Lucy is making a mista...moreWhen Meg Koranda arrives in small town Wynette, Texas, for her best friend Lucy Jorik's wedding, she already has a feeling that Lucy is making a mistake. The daughter of the President of the United States, Lucy is marrying super-handsome Ted Beaudine - or as Meg refers to him, Mr Perfect. He's a genius, has invented and patented several technologies and helps whole towns be more energy efficient. He's beloved by all, was elected mayor of Wynette even though he didn't run for it, and he's irresistible to women - and a famous lover to boot. Whenever Meg sees him, trumpets play or birds sing or shafts of sunlight beam haloes on his head. But two things tip Meg off that Lucy shouldn't marry him: one, Lucy is miserable and stressed by how she doesn't fit in in Wynette and no one really likes her - she feels like she isn't good enough for Ted; and two, Meg sees in Ted a calm, very controlled man who feels no real passion - or love - for her best friend.
Lucy already had her doubts but she kept them so close to her chest that when she does leave Ted at the altar, the entire town turns on Meg as the culprit. Lucy disappears immediately and not even her adoptive parents know where she is, but Meg has been cut off from her wealthy, famous and super-succesful parents and her last credit card has been rejected. She's not just the pariah of Wynette, she's stuck there too. With no money to pay her hotel bill, she ends up working off the debt as a maid and sleeping in her rustbucket, gas-guzzling old car (which she had to buy when her father stopped making payments on her Prius).
For Meg, her entire life has been one of avoiding responsibility - and avoiding actually trying anything serious, lest she fail. With such succesful parents and siblings, she considers herself the screwup in the family. While she's grown up soft and spoilt and never had to work for her living, Wynette is a cold hard slap in the face. Not only does everybody hate her for ruining their precious golden boy's life and leaving him broken-hearted - not that Meg can see any evidence of a broken heart in the man; but for the first time in her life she has to resort to her own wits to stay afloat.
As Meg discovers that she does have what it takes to make her own way in the world, albiet from the very bottom of the ladder, she also discovers her own sense of pride and a streak of stubbornness. She's not ready to quit Wynette, she's not ready to flee with her tail between her legs, and she's not ready to let the townsfolk get the best of her. But she's also not ready to leave because of Ted. These two very different people, one messy and wild, the other calm and controllled, start off hating each other, and Ted finds small ways to get some revenge on Meg. But as they keep crossing paths and Meg keeps on riling Ted up - this the man who never loses his cool - something much more intense grows between them.
But Meg, who used to fly around the world having fun in remote places, realises she doesn't want to settle for just a fling. She wants something more meaningful in her life, and she also wants to touch Ted in a deeper way, connect with his heart, see emotion in his eyes. Can Mr Cool, Mr Perfect, Mr Irresistible lose his control enough to see that what his head dictates isn't always what his heart wants, or deserves?
This is my first time reading one of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' books, and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I wasn't sure what to expect really - my only previous attempt was an audiobook of Glitter Baby (about Meg's parents) which I had been enjoying but just as it started getting really interesting, the CD started skipping and getting stuck so I took it back and bought the paperback, which I (clearly) haven't got around to reading yet. So I have no comparisons to previous books to share with you, and can only talk about this one in isolation. Though it was clear very quickly that it features, in the sidelines, many characters from her previous books (she lists them in her Afterword), this is a standalone novel like all Phillips' books.
I'll admit that for a while there I was unsure whether I would, or could, connect with this, and worried about where it was going. Funnily enough, I couldn't see until later that these feelings were produced deliberately: I was experiencing pretty much Meg's own emotions, about the town and its people as well as Mr Perfect. Ted comes across as sickeningly perfect, and the way the townspeople worship him and try to protect him and so on, is likewise sickening. I couldn't really understand it. It didn't seem even remotely realistic, but then again I've never been to Texas. While Meg comes with the outsider's perspective, she never goes as far as I would have. At times it was hard watching her get walked all over in the most unjust way. She is made into the biggest scapegoat - not just for Lucy running off, but for other things.
The town is struggling to employ its people and pay its bills, and one of the solutions that Mr Mayor, Ted, has put together is to turn a landfill site into a new golf course and resort. He's courting Spence Spitjack, a wealthy businessman who owns a toilet company who has a massive ego and likes to think he's king shit on the golf course. Wynette is home to a couple of famous and very wealthy professional golfers, including Ted's father, but otherwise it's a backwards little town in the middle of nowhere - or so Spence sees it, until his super-confident daughter Sunny decides to go after Ted in the wake of his failed wedding. Things get complicated for Meg when Spence, after learning who her famous parents are, starts hitting on her.
Everyone, including Ted, want Meg to be nice to Spence; aware that if she rejects him outright it could cost the town its much-needed injection of cash, Meg does her best to fend him off without insulting him while also pandering to his ego. And for all the townspeople's faults, they are always on hand to save her from being taken advantage of. But when she and Ted begin a secret affair, things become more complicated. And that's not to mention the fact that someone in the town is harrassing her, vandalising her car, breaking into her home, and leaving her personal hate messages.
I can safely say that this was like no contemporary romance I've read. Without meaning to insult all those other books I've read and liked, this had a touch more ... glamour, to it. Probably because most of the characters are super-rich, super-successful, super-attractive and super-awesome. But they're so flawed that after a while I just didn't mind it so much. They seemed quite human, at the end of the day. The dialogue was entertaining, there was humour and also irony laced throughout the narrative, and I really really liked Meg and Ted. Meg is a lot of fun but also someone I grew to respect, and Ted is much more interesting than you think he could possibly be. It was certainly fun watching the two of them spar, in the early weeks of Meg's time in Wynette.
For a romance novel, the focus is on the characters and their emotional growth and development, as well as building their chemistry with each other, not the sex. There is some sex, not very detailed, and certainly not the focal point of their relationship. I thought it was fun how Ted was such a perfect lover, ensuring Meg has multiple orgasms and the time of her life, and yet because he's emotionally distant she's not satisfied and he actually starts getting grumpy and trying even harder without realising that that's precisely the problem: messy wild Meg wants messy, wild, uncontrolled sex. That Phillips uses what sex there is in the book as a way to understand the characters just speaks to the intelligence of the novel. It's true that you don't really know a person you're in a relationship with until you sleep with them - I think it's essential to live together and have an intimate relationship before ever embarking on commitment like marriage - and Meg's sexual relationship with Ted gives her greater insight into his character. She realises that he always tries to please everyone, that he can't put himself first, and that the town holds him to far higher expectations than anyone should have to bear. Ted manages to remain perfect and irresistible even after we get to know him better and discover he's human too.
One of the things that I had a little trouble with was how Meg could champion Ted, and humiliate herself, in order to help or protect him. She was just like everyone else in that town, and it was hard for me to watch her debase herself like that - even though I understood her reasons. I couldn't help but wish she wouldn't fall for Ted like every other woman does, though it was soon apparent that Ted doesn't have an ego about this side of his life. He just can't stop himself from treating every one like they're special, and women tend to fall in love even just a little bit when we're treated special, especially by a very attractive, intelligent man. I know, pathetic isn't it. So it was fun that Meg hated him, but no one was ever around to witness their golden boy being human - all their antagonist interactions happen in isolation. But even before Meg realises she's fallen for him, she deliberately embarrasses herself in ways involving Ted.
For instance, she pretended to be lusting after and in love with Ted as a way to deflect Spence's attentions - something that would probably read funny to some readers but to me just made me cringe and wither a bit - and she made out to the women of the town that it was always her being inappropriate or coming on to Ted. These were sacrifices to her pride and, I would say, integrity, for a greater purpose. She always had Ted, the town and its people's welfare uppermost in her mind whether she realised it or not, and even when he had her believing that he was a womaniser who had screwed around on Lucy and is now having an affair with a married woman, she didn't reveal him. This made her both special and also maddening. I don't mean that she was a doormat - Meg has a biting tongue, she speaks her mind and she knows how to stand up for herself. But whenever she was attacked by those mean, cruel women (they come across as pretty horrible for much of the book), she wouldn't defend herself in the way you wanted her to. It was a tricky balancing act and I have to admire Phillips' ability to manoeuvre Meg through it all, giving her the space to grow as a person and figure her own shit out. It was just a hard pill for me to swallow. I so wanted to see those townspeople - and Ted, often - put in their place, make them wake up to reality and their own judgemental, hypocritical attitudes, just for my own personal satisfaction. It's a fantasy, nothing more: in the real world, you don't get far if you deal with things like that in that way, and a fleeting sense of satisfaction is all you're going to get. It always backfires, and you don't win.
Call Me Irresistible has a very satisfying ending to such a lively, engaging story. I didn't really want it to end, to have to say goodbye to Meg and Ted. While Phillips' characters do cross over into other stories - and I have Lucy's story to read next - I got so invested in Meg that I rather hate to let her and Ted go. I became so much more invested in this town than I expected to be, so I'm glad that Phillips sets so many of her books there. A fun, intelligent story with a deep heart, I can definitely recommend this. I know I won't hesitate to read a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book again. (less)
Lucy Jorik, eldest child of the former President of the United States, is minutes away from being married to the most perfect man, Ted Beaudine, in Wy...moreLucy Jorik, eldest child of the former President of the United States, is minutes away from being married to the most perfect man, Ted Beaudine, in Wynette, Texas, when she realises that she can't do it. With the press clustered around the church, Lucy switches her wedding dress for a choir robe and slips out the back. But she has nowhere to go, no money or ID; she just doesn't feel up to facing her family, Ted's family, the press, everyone's disappointment and the endless questions. She's not quite ready to face up to herself, either. Just who is Lucy Jorik, anyway? What does she want out of life? At thirty-one, the questions finally come and refuse to leave.
Hiding in a side alley, Lucy is found by an attractive, wild-looking man on a motorbike who, in minimal speak, offers her a ride. She recognises him from the rehearsal dinner the night before but doesn't know him. Impulsively, with no better options, she takes it and hops on, Lucy imagining herself to be a tough biker girl called Viper - someone totally at odds with her own pearl-wearing, ultra-responsible self.
The biker guy turns out to be a disgusting man called Panda, who grudgingly accepts her offer of a thousand dollars plus expenses to take Lucy with him when he expected her to return to Wynette and her bridegroom. As she slowly catches signs of hidden layers to Panda, she realises that all is not what it seems and he's not the man he's pretending to be. The more pressing concern for Lucy, though, is what to do with her life now. She needs time and space away from her family and responsibilities to figure that out, and Panda inadvertently offers the solution.
This is the companion novel to Call Me Irresistible, which tells the story of what happened with Ted and Lucy's best friend, Meg, back in Wynette Texas during Lucy's disappearance. You can read either one first but Meg's story gives more context to Lucy's, so I recommend reading them in order. I read them back-to-back, and can't help comparing them. They're quite different in tone. Meg's story is as humorous as she is, full of witty banter, funny scenes and irony. Lucy's is a bit more conventional, like she is, and more serious, as Panda is. As such, it's not really as much fun as Call Me Irresistible, and while the plot wasn't predictable at the time I was reading it, overall it was more formulaic for a romance (or chick-lit) novel.
I liked Lucy a lot, but I never quite clicked with her. She had this lovely, calm, polite, elegant side to her that suited her position as well-known and even influential daughter to the president, but while trying to find herself, and possibly thanks to Panda, she also develops this sarcastic, stubborn, argumentative side to her that I'm not totally convinced meshed. She annoyed me more than Meg ever did, and I didn't always understand the way her mind worked. Or didn't, as the case may be. It was too much of a romance structured around misunderstandings and lack of communication, which is quite common in romance, but it's not a structure that I like much. It tends to frustrate me, piss me off even.
Part of the blame lies with Panda, too. He was a much more conventional romance hero, being surly, taciturn, brooding, aggressive, macho. His character is saved by his love of opera and his honest liking for talking to Lucy - it's just that he hides these things, not wanting anyone to know what he's going through (I wasn't aware there was a stigma attached to PTSD), and using it as an excuse to keep people away. Both him and Lucy have a lot of growing up to do, and they do it noisily and even sometimes nastily. Their bickering was sometimes fun but mostly draining.
There are side plots here too, involving a young woman called Bree West and another involving the "Evil Queen", fitness instructor on a popular reality TV show called Fat Island where she yells at and belittles the contestants until they cry. I didn't want to give away much of the plot for this because it takes some interesting turns and I enjoyed not knowing where it was going next.
There were scenes in this book that I loved, scenes that made me want to cry, and scenes that made me smile - not to mention it contains BEEKEEPING! I love bees, honey and everything related to them, so this was a bonus for me. The atmosphere perfectly matches the island setting, and I enjoy how Phillips takes the time to really explore the characters, their lives and dreams and insecurities, as well as the setting. Too often romance novels are light on details; this was meatier and gave me plenty to chew on. The romance side of it, though, wasn't as satisfying - which is why I'm calling this chick-lit too, even though it has a romance structure. Phillips put plenty of time and effort into building chemistry between Lucy and Panda, but it didn't quite hit the mark for me. They just spent so much time antagonising each other without showing enough connection in quieter moments, that for as much as I believed in their feelings for each other, I didn't feel it, which is what I'm always after in a romance novel. I want to feel what the characters feel.
Regardless, I still really enjoyed this novel and it was well suited to Lucy's character, as opposed to Meg's. It's highly entertaining and much more realistic than I normally expect from the romance genre. It might be more serious overall, but it contains enough humour and silliness to balance out the heavier moments. Now that I'm no longer a Susan Eizabeth Phillips virgin, so to speak, I'll definitely be picking up more of her books to read.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Loretta Boskovic is a different woman from the one her useless husband and the father of her two children walked out on several years ago. She's no lo...moreLoretta Boskovic is a different woman from the one her useless husband and the father of her two children walked out on several years ago. She's no longer the same chain-smoking, easily-intimidated frump that he would remember if he ever came back to the small rural town of Gunapan in Victoria - well, the frumpy part is still pretty much true, but Loretta is fine with that. She's got a job, though money's still tight; she's active in the community and leads the Save Our School (SOS) committee, rounding up the unenthusiastic members to attend meetings, writing to the education minister and anyone else she can think of, to keep the local school from closing. And in the privacy of her own head she daydreams about the wonderful men who turn up in flashy cars to seduce her and take her away from all of it.
Her two children, Melissa (Liss) and Jake, are good kids, though they're hurting from the absence of their father, Tony, especially Melissa who doted on him. After ten years of marriage, Tony disappeared one day, leaving Loretta a postcard that read "I'll be in touch. Cheque coming soon." No cheque ever came, of course, or any other correspondence, and Loretta is ever hopeful that he never reappears in her life again. Of course, he does, and with a surprise: a young, friendly girlfriend on his arm and more useless promises coming from his mouth. The new girlfriend doesn't even realise he's still married, not divorced, and tensions in Loretta's house rise as he completely ignores his two children.
While there's plenty of drama going on in Loretta's life, she has the energy to wonder about a clearing in the bush outside town, where no clearing had been before. It's all very secretive and hush-hush, what's happening, but she finally learns that the council is working with a developer to build a resort for rich city people - and has sold the land and the rights to the natural spring beneath it. Water that the town could sorely use. As Loretta digs deeper and tries to find out what's really going on, matters with her children and her deep friendship with her neighbour, an old junkyard man, Norm, take a serious turn.
This is my new favourite book of the year. I'm on a roll! The fact that almost every Australian book I've been reading has totally won me over partly because of how homesick I am does not in any way diminish the treasure that is The Fine Colour of Rust. It's just such a perfect book, this is going to be a completely, dementedly gushy review, and I'm going to make it so you just have to get your own copy to read it for yourself, just so you can come back with your own opinion (and, possibly, to shut me up). And quickly, I have to thank Marg (The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader), who posted a longish quote from the book a while back which absolutely tickled me pink and led me to immediately order a copy - thank you Marg!!
The story touches on several themes, including bullying and classism, social inequality and racism, and the government's attitude and policies towards the Aborigines (it's there in small but ever-present moments, as it is in real life), but you can read it in several ways: as a fun, almost chick-lit novel about a woman left to her own resources who more than comes into her own; a dry, humorous examination of small-town politics and oddball characters that reminds you of TV shows like Seachange and Hamish Macbeth (yes, it really has been that long since I a) watched TV in Australia and b) watched TV, full stop); or as a really warm, astute story about a mother's relationship with her children and of love between unlikely friends in a harsh but beautiful setting. I very happily read it as all three, and as such got a lot of enjoyment out of it in so many ways. The humour is deftly balanced with a darker, grittier side; the light-weight local politics that borders on cheesy (local politics always has that quality to it) is balanced by the very real struggle faced by rural areas to maintain their funding for public services and schools. Nothing is heavy-handed or too belaboured: O'Reilly has achieved that lovely blend of subtlety, humour, whimsy, astute character development and a story that gently draws you but holds you there with the grip of a wiry rural woman with strong arms.
It's a simple enough story, but those can make the best novels. Loretta is a great narrator, flippant, irrelevant, yet very caring and committed and pretty smart. We never really learn all that much about her before the present day, except that she comes from Melbourne and moved to Gunapan with Tony many years ago when he was offered work there (if I'm remembering correctly); there aren't too many details about her earlier life but you get snippets and subtle hints that paint a kind of artistic impression of a life that's become irrelevant to present-day Loretta. She made some mistakes but she has her children, whom she loves dearly, she's come to love Gunapan and be accepted by the "natives" (locals), and she's made her home here. Her sisters, Patsy and Tammy (her mother had a thing for country music and named her daughters accordingly), live very different lives in the city, but Loretta has no intention of moving back to Sydney. She's tenacious, has a sound moral and ethical compass, and watching the way Tony's presence immediately alters and affects her makes you want to punch him and wrap your arms around her to protect her - not that she really needs it.
Loretta's friend Norm quickly became one of my favourite characters. An older man, very much "rough around the edges", he is like a grandfather to Liss and Jake and a good friend to Loretta. He brings around bags of lemons from his tree, a goat to mow their wild backyard, provides good conversation and is someone Loretta turns to when she needs a surrogate parent-figure. Norm is separated from his wife, Marg, who couldn't tolerate his junk-collecting ways - or, indeed, his junkyard, from which he makes no money but to which everyone gravitates to gossip with him (Loretta figures he could make a bomb if gossip were a commodity). He has a son, Justin, who as a teenager pulled a stupid prank with some other boys, took the fall and has spent fourteen years in prison for it; he's just been released and it's shaken Norm's life up a bit.
Loretta has problems enough of her own, but she takes others under her wing - not in the way of some people where their kindnesses are "well-meaning" and suffered out of politeness. She doesn't come across as interfering or overbearing, just caring and offering support. Her relationship with her kids rang true, and I could really feel for her, having to bear Liss's anger and blame for driving her father away (so she thinks), and her reaction to the truth of what's going on between her kids and the immigrant children from Bosnia-Herzegovinia at school. Every detail felt honest and realistic, yet the story contained enough doses of farce and downright silliness to not only keep it from sliding into maudlin drama, but to also make it feel even more realistic.
The humour was just right. The episode where the minister of education visits and is entertained in true local style with a demonstration of a record cattle-carcass butchering (and is subsequently spattered with gore and stunned into a zombie-like silence) was hugely entertaining. But the humour is present in smaller, more subtle ways too, little details or in how characters interact with each other. It had such a warm, cozy vibe going, I wanted to crawl right into the story and take up residence in Gunapan myself.
Speaking of the location, while Gunapan isn't a real town it certainly represents plenty of small, out-of-the-way towns in rural Australia. They're everywhere, really. And I could picture the location quite easily, as I spent a month in Sheparton one year, January it was, absolutely brutal humidity (the temperature was 38 degrees most days, but unlike in Canada they don't measure the humidity, which must have been at least 10 degrees hotter). We travelled around to many of the smaller towns in the area, and stopped in Ballarat and Bendigo on the way through - classic, famous Aussie towns. It's all in O'Reilly' details: the eucalyptus leaves, the diminished waterhole where everyone goes swimming, the red dust, the heat and flies, right down to the way people walk and talk.
I thought I had marked some pages to share quotes with you, but it turns out I didn't. That's what happens when I get so wrapped up in a story, I completely forget my own name and that I'm even reading a book. I lived inside this story, and my only complaint is how quickly it ended! I'm not even going to whinge about the use of present tense, because O'Reilly is one author who actually knows how to write it (yay!) so it read smoothly, fluidly, naturally. But I do want to share something with you, so I've chosen this particular scene from a creative writing class Loretta audits, which I loved though it's by no means the most classic or funniest scene in the book:
Next it's my turn to read aloud. "I don't think I've done it right. Maybe someone else should read theirs." "Now, Loretta," Ruth says, shaking her head. "In this class, we don't judge each other. We're learning together." I shrug my shoulders and pick up my piece of paper. I take a deep breath. Reading out my work makes me feel like I'm in primary school. "OK," I say and I look around at the four nodding faces of the teacher and my classmates. "OK, I wrote a few things. The List of Pleasing Things. Wednesday night comedy on the TV. A Kmart undies sale. The smell of the Scouts' sausage sizzle outside the supermarket on a Saturday. Reading my daughter's diary and not finding anything horrible about me. The jingle of spurs." Ruth wipes her forehead with her hand. It's warm in here, all right, but not that hot. "That's lovely, Loretta," she says. "Now, who's next?" Everyone who hasn't read yet shoots their hand in the air. I remember this moment from school. It's when someone gives a dumb answer to the teacher's question and the others all realize immediately that they can do better. My career as a writer is over in thirty minutes. The other class members read out their lists and not one of them has anything as ordinary as Kmart in it. Roses, moonlight, the smell of mangoes, the swish of silk against your skin. Is this why my life turned out the way it did? Perhaps I should work on developing refined taste and lofty thoughts. [p.91]
Now, I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the UK edition, and nothing in the text appears to have been changed or edited to suit a non-Australian audience. I can't vouch for that in the American edition, however (published by Washington Square Press - you can tell it by the spelling of "colour" in the title); I would be very say indeed to find out that they had changed anything at all, as this book is full of Australianism, from spelling to colloquialisms and slang, and if you started changing them there wouldn't be anything left! So as much as I'm thrilled that such a quintessentially Australian novel has been published in North America, I'm leery of just how "authentic" it still is. If only more such books were published overseas, we wouldn't have to keep on explaining what a "ute" or a "sausage sizzle" was to American readers! (and for the record, we bloody well invented the ute so I think we get to name it, right? Right!) (less)
Chloe is only twenty-five and studying post-grad psychology; she has no time or interest in finding a boyfriend let alone anything more serious than t...moreChloe is only twenty-five and studying post-grad psychology; she has no time or interest in finding a boyfriend let alone anything more serious than that. Between her classes, her research assignments, clinical hours and her part-time job, she barely has time to spend with her best friend and neighbour, Ben. But at a weekend wedding she attends with her mother, Kristine, and her maternal grandmother, June, Chloe happens to catch the bouquet. So does Kristine. And June.
Not that any of them take it all that seriously, though they each keep a souvenir rose from the bouquet. Getting on with their lives, Chloe schedules a meeting with a well-established, handsome older psychologist, Dr Geoff Gable, to see if he'll support her application for a prestigious research grant, but the meeting goes badly. When she encounters him at the kids' indoor play centre where she works and discovers he's a single father to a spoilt little girl called Mary Beth, he surprises her by asking her out on a date. She surprises herself by saying yes, then - completely lacking in experience and worried about making a fool of herself - she agrees to go out on a practice date with Ben - a night that ends in a steamy kiss that she's determined to ignore.
Her mother, Kristine, has been married to Kevin for twenty-five years. It's their wedding anniversary, but Kristine is celebrating alone. Kevin's new job forces him to travel almost constantly, and the distance that's grown between them has Kristine worried that her marriage is going to end. It doesn't help that the handsome travel photographer now working at her travel bookshop, Ethan, seems attracted to her. When Ethan's essay wins a competition for the bookshop, he and Kristine are awarded with an expenses-paid trip to Rome, a place Kristine has always wanted to visit. But with Kevin's work hours and his worries over their finances, he's refusing to go with her.
June may be a grandmother, but she's no little old lady. Though, it's true, she is quite little. But she's a sprightly, active widow who hosts clubs and parties at her brownstone house in Chicago, and is entertained by the year-long war she's been engaged in with her neighbour, Charley, a widower of about three years. It started with his interest in his backyard and gardening, and has grown into deliberate acts of sabotage on both their parts. But June's pre-occupation sparks an interest in her lady friends, who see a handsome single man and a conquest. Now June is up in arms against her friends and takes her spying to new heights.
As Chloe gets deeper into a relationship with Geoff while worrying about how to tell Ben that he proposed, Kristine has agreed to a vow renewal ceremony with Kevin, all while feeling that such an event isn't going to fix their marriage at all. And June herself has some happy news, and a big new wedding to plan. As the wedding date approaches, though, tensions grow and doubts multiply, and June's new promise not to meddle and interfere with her family anymore may be about to backfire with disastrous consequences.
Like many people, I enjoy a good chick-lit novel, a romance that's light on angst and sex but with more humour and silliness than you usually get from romance (a romantic comedy, in other words). It's the relationships side of these novels that I enjoy, as much as the silly misunderstandings, the humour or the growth of the characters as they figure things out. Marriage Matters definitely has that side of things down pat. It is entertaining at times, especially June's side of the story, and Chloe goes through some good maturing, though she never quite seemed able to articulate what was so obvious to everyone else. Kristine's side of the story was the most realistic, a story that will no doubt feel all-too familiar to many people who've been married as long as she has. But I have to say that I struggled a bit with this book, for a few reasons.
Firstly, the three different narratives is a device I usually enjoy, but here it kept moving onto a different character right when I was enjoying what was happening with another. And some key scenes - scenes that I was really interested in witnessing as they happened, that is - often occurred "off stage" so to speak, and are shared by being told to another character or in a quick flashback, making the women's emotions feel, well, second-hand. Clearly, taken individually you'd get a chance to get to know each woman so much better, and their stories would have been told rather differently in such a format. As it was, they felt a bit superficial to me. I never really understood them and I couldn't say that I knew much about them. I only knew what I was told in the here-and-now. And June and Kristine, especially, were a bit too stereotypical for my liking. June was a bit unreal, to be honest. I had a hard time even picturing her. She just didn't seem like a woman her age (how old was she? I'm not sure. Late sixties, early seventies? I can't remember).
Having the three entwined narratives also made for quite a long book, which is my second point. It just seemed to drag on a bit, and in such a disjointed manner too that it was hard to get momentum and find the flow. It moved around in time a fair bit too, and that was hard to keep track of. And once the big triple wedding is decided upon, it became almost crowded.
That's my third reason for not liking this very much. I'm not a big fan of weddings. In fact I like to avoid them as much as possible. I have watched a few episodes of Four Weddings and it tends to make me angry - not just because of how mean the women are towards each other, but also for the irrelevant and old traditions they blindly follow. Marriage Matters is no different in that regard. These women have pretty, ah, conservative and traditional ideas for a wedding. Which is fine, really, each to their own. Your wedding should be what you want it to be, right? Except of course, here it is the wedding June wants, and Chloe just agrees to everything and Kristine just looks sick because she hasn't told anyone she thinks her marriage is over. Really it just comes down to the sad fact that I got bored. I find listening to people's wedding plans pretty boring, especially when they're the same-old thing as everyone else's. (I strongly object to the cliched idea that all women want to get married and all women imagined their dream wedding when they were little girls - what a crock of shit.) To be honest though, the title should have been enough to warn me. I just thought it would be more fun than it was.
All of these things overshadowed the parts that I did enjoy - like Chloe's first meeting with Geoff, that was fun. I found myself getting really angry with Chloe for not facing up to Geoff's expectations of her, which I'm sure was the point, as is the way you feel about Mary Beth, who's just horrible. There's a great scene actually, one of the ones I enjoyed, that highlights it:
"You look beautiful," he repeated. Looping an arm around her shoulder, Geoff pulled her in close. Chloe thought he was going to kiss her, but Mary Beth made short work of that idea. "Daddy!" Ripping off a patent leather shoe, she flung it at Geoff's face. It hit him square in the jaw, just missing Chloe. The other kids at the park gave up a collective gasp. Mary Beth was obviously In. For. It. Dropping Chloe's hand, Geoff took a step away. "I'm so sorry. Mary Beth must feel threatened." Walking toward the jungle gym, he called, "Honey, let's go get that ice cream." Ice cream seemed to be Geoff's go-to parenting move. And it was all wrong, as the women at the park were quick to point out. "Ice cream? Hell no." A heavyset mother glared at Geoff. "Don't you set a bad example in front of my kids." The woman shook a thick finger at her daughter, as if her daughter had done something wrong. "You don't get ice cream after that." The other parents nodded. Delighted to have everyone's attention, Mary Beth took off her other shoe and whipped it at Chloe. Catching it, she considered her options. Kids needed security. They needed boundaries. Even though Chloe wanted Geoff to like her, letting Mary Beth run wild wasn't helping anyone. Especially not Mary Beth. "Geoff, can I please have your permission to get your daughter under control?" "Fine." His expression was as petulant as Mary Beth's. "I don't know what to do anymore." [p.169]
Suffice it to say, I never really liked Geoff at all. As Chloe pointed out early on, for a psychologist, he makes a terrible father. But then she just feels bad for him and lets him use her as a nanny - which Ben points out to her and which she, naturally, takes badly.
After all the drama and goings-on in the book, the ending was rather pat. And needless to say, rather predictable as well. It all worked out so nicely - and no that's not a spoiler, this is chick-lit after all: they don't come with sad endings. I was left feeling a mix of things. Sad that I didn't get to know Kristine better, as she was the character I was most interested in (Chloe second), and relieved that it was finally all over. Not a great feeling to have when you finish a book. Aside from my dissatisfaction with the split narrative, it's well written and there're some really entertaining moments, but overall it was sadly lacking. I can see others enjoying this a lot more, especially if you enjoy wedding planning, the antics of a sprightly grandmother and women who take forever to realise that their male best friend is really in love with them.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Bronte Talbot has worked hard since graduating to establish her career in advertising, and would never have imagined giving up her great life in New Y...moreBronte Talbot has worked hard since graduating to establish her career in advertising, and would never have imagined giving up her great life in New York for any man. But when she meets sexy "Mr Texas" at a party hosted by her British friends, David and Willa, she decides to let this all-American, fun-loving investor based in Chicago whisk her off her feet and take care of her. Unfortunately, after several months, Bronte realises that their relationship is going nowhere - unless she moves to Chicago. It's her last-ditch, drastic measure to make their romance a romance again, and maybe head it onto the commitment path, but everyone she knows can see it as a desperate measure.
And sure enough, as soon as she lands in Chicago she can see that Mr Texas preferred to have her as the odd-weekend girlfriend from afar. After they break up, Bronte focuses on her career again, now in a boutique advertising agency, and lets the depression creep up on her. Months later, she's in a bookshop when she literally stumbles into a very sexy man with a very sexy English accent.
Max Heyworth is finishing up his PhD in economics after which he plans to move back to London, to enjoy his unfettered years before he has to take up the mantle of dukedom - which will hopefully, with his father's good health, be quite some time. He's always resisted the role he was born to, but he's learned it well all the same.
Bronte and Max embark on a passionate romance with a fixed end-date, Bronte clear all the time that Max is her rebound guy. She wants eight weeks of fun, sex and honesty, and Max happily agrees - but there are two things he's not honest with Bron about from the beginning. One, his title (viscount, a placeholder) and looming inheritance; and two, that he's in love with Bronte and has no intention of ending things in eight weeks time. He's confident that when he asks her to move to England with him, of course she'll say yes.
Things change though when his father falls ill and Max has to head back early, and Bronte refuses to go with him. It's a breakup neither of them were ready for, and after months of moping, Max decides to hunt her down and propose. But even though she's had a lifelong fascination with British royalty, Bronte doesn't really want to be an aristocrat herself - not to mention the fact that Max's mother scares the crap out of her. Can they work things out to achieve their happily-ever-after?
I may not read chick-lit very often, but I usually enjoy it when I do. A Royal Pain was definitely in the 'enjoyed' camp, for several reasons. The novel may be chick-lit, but it's also heavily romance too. I don't think I could define my own understanding of what chick-lit is, except that it's like romance without sex or graphic descriptions, they tend to by humorous, and more realistic in some ways. The difference here is that there're graphic descriptions, and the story is wholly focused on Bronte and Max's relationship. It's a very satisfying blend of the two genres, I have to say, and definitely entertaining.
Bronte started out strong, and while in many ways she's a completely different person to me, I could empathise with her when it came to how her relationship with Mr Texas (real name never disclosed because his persona was just too huge) ended, and her withdrawal and depression afterward. Mulry doesn't dwell on this time and it doesn't make the story heavy in any way, but it's yet another aspect of the story and Bronte's life that gives it that chick-lit realistic edge over the romantic fantasy.
Not that the fantasy isn't there too: Max Heyworth is the romantic hero through-and-through, the ultimate fantasy man. Having said that, he's not a walking cliche - at least, he didn't feel that way, most of the time. The interesting thing is, my impression of Max during their initial relationship in Chicago is almost of a different man altogether to the one who smouldered all over Bronte in New York later (where he became quite the glowering alpha), who was again different to the man who was her fiancé in England. Frankly, I enjoyed the character regardless, and it certainly satisfied my romantic need, but he wasn't particularly consistent.
Along this very bumpy road, Bronte has to overcome her insecurities and low self-image, as well as her fear of commitment - a fear that fitted her character well except for that notable exception, of drastically upheaving her life and moving to Chicago for Mr Texas. I did have to wonder: how does a woman who shies away from real commitment, do that? Wouldn't she have secretly preferred using Mr Texas's own lifestyle choices as an excuse not to commit to him? Yet it's never that simple either, and her reasoning behind moving to Chicago seemed so realistic and even familiar, that it totally made sense. It was more that I was surprised at how, later, with Max offering her everything, she balks time and again. Sure the dukedom complicates things, but that's just an excuse. Perhaps it's that, deep down, subconsciously, she recognised that things with Max are real, as they weren't with Mr Texas, where there was no real danger of anything permanent ever happening.
Bronte did disappoint me toward the end, though, when she became noticeably difficult and stubborn and, yes, scared. I got a bit annoyed with Max too, and thought he could have handled things better. I don't want to give away the ending, but there was a new complication thrown in that really bothered me - hard to discuss it without spoiling it and I'm tempted to regardless, because I really don't like how these ... things, are used in romantic plot-lines. It just saddens me, and angers me a bit. (The same thing, more or less, happened at the end of The Marriage Bargain which I read recently; it's a bit of a fallback plot-line.)
This is a great story to read when you want something entertaining and engrossing, that will connect with your emotions without leaving you feeling in any way morbid, a story full of classic misunderstandings, almost-missed opportunities, realism, great love, class divide and humour. It's intelligently written, with a focus on growing up and facing your own flaws, rather than dealing with any kind of social issues or things like that. Perhaps because I expected something a sillier, or because I was wary of an American story about British royalty, but this did not disappoint, and I would happily recommend it to readers of chick-lit and contemporary romance alike. (less)
Maya Kirkwood had the career of her dreams in New York's couture fashion world, only to have to suddenly vanish thanks to her duplicitous ex. It feels...moreMaya Kirkwood had the career of her dreams in New York's couture fashion world, only to have to suddenly vanish thanks to her duplicitous ex. It feels like her past happening all over again. But Maya's not one to give up in a ball of shame: instead, she moves to San Francisco, changes her name, and reinvents herself as a textile artist. At her first exhibition, her agent encourages her to meet a prospective new client, a successful tech nerd from Silicon Valley called Derek Whitley. Only, he's not the pasty, paunchy nerd she expected: he's young, tall, fit, lightly tanned and very handsome - and when she sounds him out about her artwork, Maya learns he doesn't like it.
But Derek still wants to commission her to produce an installation for the new wing of his company building, and whether he personally likes her work or not he sees as irrelevant. Derek is all work and no play, and he seems mostly irritated and annoyed by Maya, especially her persistence and argumentativeness. Over the two weeks she spends at his company, working on the commission, she doesn't learn that much more about the private, taciturn man. But when her father, whom she hasn't seen in years, suddenly turns up in her life again, it's Derek who is there to support her and help her rebuff the man's attentions. With Maya's secrets unravelling, a new kind of friendship begins between her and Derek. Only trouble is, she's not the only one with a past she's been keeping secret, and the truth about Derek could be an obstacle Maya can't overcome.
This was such a fun, delightful, intelligent read. It's a smooth blend of chick-lit and romance, being chick-lit in plot, tone, structure, all those key points, but with a romantic focus: getting the heroine and hero together, with some sex included for the full experience. It's a fairly short novel, one that skips along at a steady, merry pace, easy to read in one sitting. I want to use the word "breezy" but thanks to those awful, annoying Covergirl commercials, I now hate that word.
Maya was an engaging narrator and an interesting protagonist, who had some pretty shitty things happen to her but held it together and continued doggedly on. She's definitely tenacious, and I liked that she was a textile artist - both my mum and my sister are textile artists, with different styles of course, so Maya felt like someone I knew right off the bat. I also liked the way she handled the situation at the end: I respect and appreciate romance heroines who stay calm and don't devolve into melodrama, and who stand firm on an issue - and who are also flexible enough to change their minds or something later, at the right time.
Derek was a classic chick-lit hero, so aloof and stoic and reserved, so that the moments when he couldn't help himself and laughed or otherwise enjoyed himself, became that much more precious and meaningful. It was great to read about a couple who didn't dance around each other and pretend things. Maya came clean, and Derek did too. They were open about their feelings. It didn't solve all their problems, but it was just refreshingly mature and intelligent (the ridiculousness of the heroines' stubbornness and the heroes' refusal to admit his feelings in so many paranormal romance books is what made me take a prolonged break from reading the genre).
My one complaint, if you can call it that, was that I would have liked a slightly longer story. It was just a bit too fast, considering how much I was enjoying it and wanted to get to know the characters more (on the positive side, it's a well-plotted story that doesn't suffer from "filler syndrome" or an author who can't self-edit and loves the sound of their own voice. I appreciate that, I really do, especially after Thoughtless). I was surprised the side-plot of Maya's father and what happened to her in New York didn't get revisited, yet also pleased that the story didn't follow any predictable formulas for following-through on them. I wanted to get to know the supporting cast more, and see more of Maya and Derek's lives play out. I say that because I enjoyed it, but also because it left me with the slight feeling of having eaten hollow carbs: too much sugar, not enough fibre? As much as I had fun reading it and loved the slightly fast pace, I can't help but have the niggling feeling that it was a bit too fast at times. I'm torn though, because I also love that it wasn't drawn out or padded unnecessarily.
Regardless, I recommend this as a light, breezy read about two people who have to overcome their pasts and live for the moment - and a future that's brighter with each other in it. If you're looking for a fun, mature romance that's not at all shallow or prone to clichés, definitely give Libby Mercer's Unmasking Maya a read.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book. (less)
Norma Reyes has worked hard to improve her life, from leaving Puerto Rico for mainland U.S. to working her way up to a supervisor role at a call centr...moreNorma Reyes has worked hard to improve her life, from leaving Puerto Rico for mainland U.S. to working her way up to a supervisor role at a call centre and putting herself through a bachelor degree part-time - all while financially supporting her younger sister who lives on welfare while caring for her son who has autism. Then she loses her job due to outsourcing, takes her newly widowed, dementia-suffering mother into her tiny apartment, and puts herself through a law degree all at the same time. At forty-sxi years old, her law degree is her crowning achievement and also her hope for a better future. After a summer internship at a huge corporate law firm, Robertson, Levine & Shemke, Norma had every expectation of getting a first-year attorney position with the annual intake of new graduates.
Instead, she's told by Jonathan Shemke, one of the partners, that she did a wonderful job but that unfortunately, due to the recession (it's 2009), the firm isn't taking on any first-years. After job-hunting for several months, Norma goes back to Jonathan and practically begs for something, anything. So they give her a floater job - a contract position with zero stability, where she works as a receptionist or personal assistant to whomever needs one, shuffled around sometimes week to week.
Working as a floater is something of a rude awakening for Norma. Sneered at, mocked for her night-school law degree from a less prestigious school, Norma is made quickly aware of the class structure and hierarchy at the firm and the sexual abuse the female administrative staff deals with, but she still believes she can prove herself and get hired as an attorney. When she finds out that the company did hire first-year attorneys, including ones she interned with, she questions Jonathan Shemke. The lawyers give her smooth lines and empty promises, and Norma is just naive enough to believe in them.
Her new assignment is as Jonathan's executive assistant, and part of her job is to make appointments for him with an escort agency - despite the fact that it's harassment and illegal, and Norma still has to go up before the ethics committee before being sworn in as a lawyer. In return, she is given a large amount of legal work to do, mostly in her own time, and for no money. Norma may well chafe at all this unfairness, but it isn't until her new boyfriend, Oscar, who runs the copy room, shows her a memo he was meant to shred that clearly outlines the discriminatory reasons why she didn't get hired as a lawyer, that Norma finally takes action.
The Floater is a thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive look into the difficulties non-white people, people who don't go to the "top" universities and know all the right people, have in breaking into certain fields, or certain companies. It's a story about discrimination, about standing up for yourself, about reaching out to other people and recognising when it's okay to ask for help.
I could sympathise with Norma, working in admin when she's so over-qualified for it, because of the job market (and other factors), because it's very similar to what I went through - and seriously, I may be good at administrative work, but Lordy do I loathe it!! I'd actually never heard of the term "floater" before, in the job sense, but Norma offers a very apt analogy of her new job:
Her new job title conjured the distasteful image of a stubborn piece of shit bobbing in the toilet, refusing to go down no matter how many times you flushed. "Well, they can't keep this chica down," Norma silently vowed, confident she would not be working as a rotating secretary for long.
Norma is a lonely woman who's kept herself so busy she doesn't even recognise her own loneliness. Having protected and supported her younger sister all her life - from the sexual abuse of their father, and from being homeless and destitute - she takes on more responsibility, guilt and self-reproach than is healthy for anyone. Her mother, Leticia, who is probably suffering from dementia though she hasn't been diagnosed (land of out-of-reach medical care, right?), seems to outright resent eldest daughter while attributing everything that is wonderful to her younger daughter, Inez, even though Inez never visits her or helps out and, like Leticia, blames Norma for anything that goes wrong in her life.
Not only is her family less than supportive, but Norma's landlord, a detective who lives in the downstairs flat, barely speaks to her even though (or maybe because) they had a lukewarm affair several years before - before his pregnant girlfriend turned up. In truth, Norma's never had a real relationship with anyone, and she still thinks men just want sex and that sex is something you use, as a woman, to get what you want or to appease a man. When she meets Oscar, the African-American divorcee with two teenaged daughters whom she instantly connects with, she has to finally mature and stop seeing him as yet another person who just wants something from her. Oscar is a real sweetheart, and the real deal, and provides a steep learning curve from Norma - only her inner voice reminding her of what she feels for him stops her from completely screwing up the burgeoning relationship. The honesty and realism of her inner voice and all its preconceived notions and hangups was very refreshing.
Sorrentino, a lawyer herself for many years, says in her afterword that the firm in the story isn't meant to depict the real state of affairs in law firms today, which is reassuring to hear. Even when you remove the sexual harassment, the bullying, the unreasonable expectations, and the over-the-top hierarchy, Sorrentino completely strips the profession of any of the gloss lingering from those silly TV shows that made a law degree suddenly so fashionable (Ally McBeal etc.). But it's Norma's ambition, and even though I couldn't understand why she'd want to work for a company like Robertson, Levine & Shemke in the first place, I had to respect her commitment, her drive, her dedication, her incredible work ethic, especially in the face of some very real obstacles. As she tells Oscar (who would know where she's coming from, being a black man in America):
It took me graduating from law school and taking this stupid floater job to realize that I've always been treated with disrespect. It's subtle, you know? But because I'm Hispanic, my entire life I've had to keep up my guard, trying to act extra poised and vigilant so I wouldn't say or do the wrong thing. I wanted to become a lawyer to earn the money and respect I never got as a working-class, minority woman. But after all that, the best I could do was land a secretarial job - and as a floater, no less!"
The way Norma was treated put my stomach in knots, as if I was on the receiving end of this treatment, these comments - not along racial lines, but because in my own life, I'm the kind of overly-sensitive person who would probably start crying if I was snapped at - I've always been like that: getting yelled at, rare as it was, completely snapped me in half and I would become like a shadow of myself. I was pretty impressed at Norma's ability to brush off the way people spoke to her, to persist and not be beaten down by it. She may not have realised the strength of character that took, but I certainly did!
If the antics of the top lawyer are a bit exaggerated, everything else in the story has the distinct feel of realism. Norma's determination to break through the race, age, gender and class barriers form a large part of her character, while the parallel yet more uncertain, even timid exploration into a real adult relationship - as well as finally dealing with the forgotten horror of her past - edges her character with fear, insecurity and a great depth of feeling. The story is not very predictable, and that sense of uncertainty adds to the realism and the tension.
While I didn't quite connect to Norma the way I wanted to - we get her third-person perspective throughout, and it's too much of a "tell" narrative than a "show" one for me to really feel her - it was an engrossing story and not one I've ever read before. Norma is a true underdog, and her road to learning to stand up for herself - and for others suffering similar issues, in the process - is a tough one but a very real one.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)
Emma Tupper's mother had a lifelong love of anything African, though she never had a chance to go there herself. After her mother's death, Emma discov...moreEmma Tupper's mother had a lifelong love of anything African, though she never had a chance to go there herself. After her mother's death, Emma discovers that she spent her last money on a plane ticket for Emma to go to Tswanaland in Africa for a month. Emma is on the fast-track at her big corporate law firm and looking at making partner soon, but the last thing she said to her mother was to promise she would go to Africa, and when the estate lawyer at her firm, who also handled her mother's will, implies that she'll put her career on the line if she takes the time off, Emma's stubborn determination to do just that takes over.
While in Tswanaland, though, Emma falls ill while on safari and is left with an NGO in a remote village to recover. Before she can make it back to the city, a massive earthquake hits the country and destroys all its communications infrastructure, not to mention closing the airports. Emma finds herself stranded the day before she had planned on flying out, alone but for the two NGO workers who are building a school. One month becomes six before Emma finally decides to leave, flying home via London. Unable to reach any of her friends or her boyfriend, Craig, there's no one to meet her at the airport when she arrives in a wintry December dressed in summer clothes.
But it's when her key doesn't work in the lock to her apartment that she really begins to worry - no, it's when a man, a stranger, appears and unlocks the door for her that Emma starts to freak. Her furniture is still inside, her phone, her bed, but her possessions are gone. Her landlord has rented out her home to this man, Dominic, a handsome photographer and a friend of her upstairs neighbour, Tara, an actress who's currently in LA. After calling Tara to make sure Emma isn't a crazy person, Dominic lets her in and agrees to let her stay - after all, she has nowhere else to go. Her bank account is frozen, she can't reach her friends and doesn't have their mobile numbers, and she's in a state of shock.
The shock only escalates when they go and see the landlord who explains that he rented out the flat after hearing that Emma was "missing, presumed dead." When she finally braves her law office, she learns that not only was she presumed dead, but they even held a memorial for her. Her boyfriend is now dating her nemesis, Sophie. And where is Stephanie, her best friend? Only in Africa, trying to find her - or her dead body.
Coming back to this nightmare world, Emma has no intention of taking Dominic's advice to remake her world however she wants it: she loved her old life. She loves her job, her apartment, she just wants things to go back to normal. Why should she change? But the truth is, everything around her has changed without her, leaving Emma clutching at the past, alone.
I got this book some time ago; I'd just finished SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep about a woman with amnesia, so it's hardly surprising that this book seemed to jump off the shelf at me, with a title like that. And I liked the cheeriness of the cover, which is rather misleading as the entire story is set during a snowy winter, with the exception of some flashbacks to Africa. The premise sounded interesting and even a bit scary, and promised to be an engrossing read. That was the extent of my expectation when I started reading this, so I wouldn't say that this disappointed me because it didn't live up to them. No, it disappointed me for several other reasons.
To start with, Emma was a narrator I just couldn't come to like. I found her to be rather ridiculous: self-indulgent in the worst way, and stupidly melodramatic - the way she runs off after talking to the landlord and throws herself into the snow? The way she throws a glass of Scotch at the wall above Dominic's head to get his attention? If this is McKenzie's only idea for showing us the turmoil and stress and panic that Emma's going through, it's really lame. Sorry but it is. Emma was also stubborn, petty, often childish, and her character seemed to be all over the place. One minute she's the argumentative, self-assured litigation lawyer, the next she can barely speak and lets others score a hit on her. I couldn't come to care for her priorities, I found her exceedingly irritating, and I have no idea what Dominic saw in her. She was inherently selfish, and sure, she's in a horrible situation that would make most people pretty upset, to say the least - frankly I find the idea of returning home only to find that it's, well, gone quite terrifying - but her self-absorbed personality was clearly something well established before then. I could understand her need to normalise her world after returning from Africa, but I was also disappointed in her disinterest to change anything - she came across as pretty boring, which I won't hold against her because hey, I like my comforts too, but still, as a story of self-discovery, it was pretty lacking.
"Don't you want to bust out sometimes and do something totally spontaneous?" I laugh. "You know I don't." "Maybe that's the problem." I feel a flutter of annoyance. "What do you mean?" "Oh, I don't know. It's just ... you could've died, Emma. Hasn't that changed anything for you? "You can't be serious." "I know lots of bad things have happened to you, but what have you changed? You know, in your life?" [...] "Why does everyone expect me to change my whole life just because of what happened to me?" "Who expects that?" "You. Matt. Dominic." [...] She starts to laugh. Hard. "What's so funny?" "Your life already has changed, Emma, whether you like it or not." "Don't you think I know that?" "No, I'm not sure you really do." [pp.273-4]
She's a good friend, Stephanie. I didn't find any of the characters particularly interesting, though I quite liked Stephanie. While the story is, thematically, clearly about Emma's struggle to balance her desire for the life she had with the reality of her life now, I found it rather bland and weakly explored. The glimpse into the world of corporate law (the author is a lawyer) brought nothing new to the usual stereotypes, by which I take away the idea that corporate law really is that horrible. Can't imagine why anyone wants to be a lawyer, but that's just me. Another thing I couldn't identify with, with Emma.
It was weird, I thought, for McKenzie to use Tswanaland, which was within Namibia, one of several "bantustans" that were designed for the indigenous people - in this case the Tswanas - to self-govern within the country. They were all abolished in 1989. I suppose she chose it for that reason, to avoid cultural or racial stereotyping, but I'm not sure you can avoid that. While she does reminisce about her time in Africa, I couldn't quite picture it. It was unclear to me whether she stayed as long as she did because she actually liked it there, helping to build a school and living an uncomplicated life - it was implied, yet she so quickly ditched it all when getting back that I wasn't sure if I'd understood it properly.
Another major disappointment for me was the fact that McKenzie clearly made a concerted effort to remove anything that might distinguish this as a Canadian story, set in Montreal - in fact, at one point she even mentions a "congresswoman", which is a distinctly American term. This saddened me. I'm sure the thinking behind this was somewhere along the lines of wanting people who live anywhere similar to Canada, to be able to identify with the story and feel like it was taking place in their own location, despite the snow. But to my cynical side, it felt like selling out. A way to Americanise a story without overtly doing so, which will definitely help with U.S. sales (the book has been picked up by an American publisher and was released there early 2013). Having lived in Canada for seven years now, I'm aware of the complex relationship between the two countries, and the debates about Canada's national identity - or lack of one, even - and the sad fact that books with a distinctly Canadian setting don't, apparently, sell well in the States. Personally, I think people should be proud of where they come from, and celebrate it. Besides, every American book I pick up, the first thing you learn is precisely where it's set, town name, state, sometimes they even talk about streets and local shops. It's interesting (and curious) to me that this is something Canadian and Australian authors tend not to do - a discussion for another day, perhaps.
It's clear after all this that I don't have much positive to say about Forgotten, though I will say it was a quick and easy read. I didn't find it particularly humorous, I solved the mystery of the stolen painting as soon as the chest was mentioned, I found the plot to be ploddingly cliched, and the love interest - Dominic - woefully under-utilised and thinly sketched out. There was almost no chemistry between them, just an awful lot of drinking. It could have been a much stronger story if the main character had been someone I could respect, admire even, and definitely empathise with. As it was, I not only couldn't find a way to relate to Emma, I wanted to tune her out. Not a recipe for enjoyment, when reading. Mostly I was just left feeling completely unimpressed, by the end, though mildly pleased that Emma did manage to achieve that balance between her old life and her new.(less)