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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' by Michelle Scott Tucker

From the BLURB:

In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning. 

John Macarthur took credit for establishing the Australian wool industry and would feature on the two-dollar note, but it was practical Elizabeth who managed their holdings—while dealing with the results of John’s manias: duels, quarrels, court cases, a military coup, long absences overseas, grandiose construction projects and, finally, his descent into certified insanity. 

Michelle Scott Tucker shines a light on an often-overlooked aspect of Australia’s history in this fascinating story of a remarkable woman.

So - full disclosure! - Michelle Scott Tucker is one of Jacinta di Mase's authors, and I work as youth-literature agent for Jacinta. 

Honestly though, I do not read much non-fiction, let alone historical-biographies. I just don't. So if I wasn't interested in this I just wouldn't have read it, and wouldn't say boo about it. The fact of the matter is, Michelle is a Jacinta di Mase client AND I genuinely thoroughly enjoyed this book. The two are exclusive :-) 

But I picked this one up (despite aforementioned minimal interest in the genre) because: 

1) - Even though it feels like we studied 'The First Fleet' and colonisation of Australia every freakin' year in primary school, I had no clue who Elizabeth Macarthur was. I really had zero knowledge of Australia's female founders generally. 

and 2) - the blurb had me so thoroughly intrigued: "In 1788 a young gentlewoman raised in the vicarage of an English village married a handsome, haughty and penniless army officer. In any Austen novel that would be the end of the story, but for the real-life woman who became an Australian farming entrepreneur, it was just the beginning." 

You throw Jane Austen out there, and I'm going to pick it up! 

And I've gotta say - 'A Life at the Edge of the World' 100% delivered for me, and I was so happy that I read outside my usual comforts and gave this a go. I truly found it to be such a nourishing, fascinating, and eye-opening read. Not to mention - it was just damn enjoyable, and easily one of my favourite books of 2018 so far. 

So, probably my last encounter with historical biography was my attempt at reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow because of my HAMILTON the Musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda obsession. I got about 100 pages into that 818-page tome though, and had to throw in the towel. It was interesting but mired in minutiae I just couldn't pretend to care about. I will say though, that Chernow had a lot of documents and correspondence and just general first-hand pieces of information to wade through in building a picture of a man who did indeed; "Write day and night like you’re running out of time?" 

Michelle Scott Tucker has a slightly bigger obstacle in her way, in that her biography is largely built around Elizabeth's diary - documenting her marriage and voyage to Australia, and years in the established colony, and also her correspondence home. And as Tucker says early on in the book, much of Elizabeth's writing is tempered by her knowledge of an audience. She kept her diary, knowing full well it was an artefact she'd be passing onto her children so they'd have a keepsake of their life in this new land. Likewise, her letters home are slightly coloured by a wish to convince her friends and family (and put them at ease) that she and her husband John are doing fine and flourishing. 

But this biography, and indeed Michelle Scott Tucker's true talent - is in filling in the blanks, both logically and emotionally so. And you get this sense from her at the very beginning, when she goes over the fact that Elizabeth had a miscarriage during her voyage to Australia; 

Convict ship Scarborough was no place for a gentleman's daughter. Elizabeth Macarthur was cold, pregnant, and bone-weary. The Southern Ocean pummelled the ship with storm after storm and her soldier husband and infant son were both grievously ill. Elizabeth prayed. 
Somewhere on that roaring sea, exhausted by her nursing duties, and constantly pitched and tumbled, Elizabeth was 'thrown into premature labour, & delivered of a little Girl who lived but for an hour.' There was no one on Scarborough to help. No other women were on board, and the ship's surgeon was unlikely to have been sober, let alone skilled. We only know of the nameless baby's existence from a single line in a letter Elizabeth wrote to her mother, many months later. There is no record of a shipboard funeral, no record of where the small bundle wrapped in weighted canvas was delivered to the sea, and no record of Elizabeth's grief. All we have - all Elizabeth had - is that single tragic hour. 

Chills. And I knew I would be in good hands from the moment of that premise - and indeed, I was. 

Scott Tucker's empathy, interest and respect for Elizabeth Macarthur is so apparent throughout the book - it makes her story sing. I was actually surprised at the suspense created within the pages, but Scott Tucker masterfully leaves each chapter on a note of suspension and intrigue, and I did find myself rushing back to read. 

Scott Tucker also doesn't shy away from the inherent discomfort of writing about a 'founding family' of Australia, when ours is a nation of First Peoples and rightful owners. She navigates this aspect with the utmost respect and tenderness, and I was appreciative of the education she also gave me about our Indigenous historical figures - like Bennelong and Pemulwuy. As well as the (oft unheard of, because there were so few) positive interactions between colonists and First Peoples, particularly by those British who went to great lengths to learn from and about Indigenous populations - like William Dawes, who was an astronomer, engineer, botanist, surveyor, explorer, abolitionist and first person to record Aboriginal languages when he befriended a young woman called Patyegarang, who became his language teacher. And, yes, William Dawes sounds like a total spunk, his relationship with Patyegarang completely fascinating and sweet (but never improper - though one recorded phrase she taught him was; "Putuwá: to warm ones hand by the fire & then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person" and yes I SWOON!) 

I also loved that Michelle Scott Tucker doesn't try to impose a modern sensibility on Elizabeth Macarthur (who had really interesting relations with local Indigenous populations, but could still refer to them with the distressing disposition of a British invader) ... BUT, Scott Tucker does wonder if we can also judge Elizabeth by the company she kept - and funnily enough, William Dawes was a dear friend of hers, who taught her the stars. So there's that.

I rollicked through 'Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World' in a way I was never going to with Chernow's Alexander Hamilton biography. BUT - I think there is something of the Hamilton's to the Macarthur story, and certainly Michelle Scott Tucker's spirited writing of history is something I think even Lin-Manuel Miranda would applaud. I mean - the events of 'Hamilton The Musical' are going on while Australia is *just* being colonised. There's no comparison to story and narrative ... except that Elizabeth's husband (who was a bit of a moron, but whose heart seemed to sometimes be in the right place?) did LOVE a duel. And I genuinely think Elizabeth Macarthur and Eliza Hamilton would have got along like a house on fire as they commiserated over their brilliant but inept husbands who left the telling of history to the ladies and whose stories were, often, even more compelling than their famous husband's. Just sayin'! 

I really can't do justice to this book or Elizabeth Macarthur's extraordinary life! I can't even begin to tell you the ways Michelle Scott Tucker further elucidated on my abysmal early Australian history education, or the ways she bought this time and place to life for me. I love, love, loved this book and even if you *think* that historical biography isn't for you, you're guaranteed to love it too.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Third Son's a Charm' The Survivors, #1 by Shana Galen

From the BLURB:

Ewan Mostyn thinks a job as a duke's daughter's bodyguard will be easy—but Lady Lorraine has a few tricks up her sleeve that spark an undeniable passion.

Fiercely loyal to his friends and comrades, Ewan Mostyn is the toughest in a group of younger sons of nobility who met as soldiers and are now trying desperately to settle back into peaceful Society. Ewan trusts his brawn more than his brains, but when he's offered a job watching the Duke of Ridlington's stubbornly independent daughter, he finds both are challenged.

Lady Lorraine wants none of her father's high-handed ways, and she'll do everything in her power to avoid her distressingly attractive bodyguard—until she lands herself in real trouble. Lorraine begins to see Ewan's protectiveness in a new light, and she can only hope that her stoic guardian will do for her what he's always done—fight for what he wants.

‘Third Son's a Charm’ is the first book in a new historical romance series called ‘The Survivors’ by Shana Galen.

So I heard about this book because Kirkus gave it, and the second book a star-review. Admittedly, Kirkus is not exactly a leader in the romance book review stakes, but I really responded to their positivity for the series and when my local independent bookshop had BOTH copies in-stock, I saw it as a sign.

It took me about 24-hours to read the first book, and I absolutely LOVED it.

In short, the entire series is about this band of soldiers who fought together in an elite and unique military unit during the Napoleonic wars – unique, because they were all seen as “expendable” men of nobility (third sons, illegitimate heirs etc.). Originally there were some 30 odd soldiers in the unit, but only 12 survived – and are now notorious for their heroics and epic feats of survival. But now the men are living in ‘peace time’ and each in their own ways, are struggling to adjust to the real world.

Ewan Mostyn was nicknamed ‘the protector’ of the group – for his tough warrior-like focus and bullishness when it came to protecting his friends and comrades. Now that Ewan is out of the army though, he’s back to feeling like a failure. The rejected third son of his father, the Earl of Pembroke, because of Ewan’s various academic and life failures. You see, Ewan has a learning disability – he presents as dyslexic, but in 1816 is just labelled a ‘lackwit’ and an ‘idiot’. A brute who’s only good for knocking heads together.

That is until the Duke of Ridlington makes Ewan a proposal he can’t refuse. To guard the Duke’s wayward daughter, Lady Lorraine, who has her heart set on eloping with a young noble who’s merely after her dowry. A young noble who happens to also be Ewan’s conniving cousin – and childhood tormentor, who first made Ewan feel insecure and unwanted for his learning disabilities. So Ewan readily accepts the job of bodyguard … but he didn’t expect Lady Lorraine to be so spirited, curious and loving. Or that he’d find himself feeling safe and wanted for the first time in his life when he comes into her orbit.

I cannot recommend this book – and the entire series concept – enough! I love, love, loved it. Not least because it’s an example of progressive historical romance in so may ways. It’s very much indicative of the conversations that the romance genre has been having for a while now – around ‘hot consent’ and simply acknowledging that it’s a genre that has to appeal to modern women. As such – Lady Lorraine is a sex-positive and curious heroine, who challenges the double-standard between men and women in society when it comes to sex and experimentation outside of marriage. Ewan’s learning disability is handled with tenderness and understanding. And the overall series concept of military men trying to assimilate to peace-time is a complex and thoughtful one that I very much look forward to seeing play out over the course of the series.

Also – it’s hot! Ewan and Lorraine’s journey from mutual respect to friendship and then attraction is a beautifully paced build-up, and Lorraine’s vocal curiosity about her carnal desires means it’s a very equal coupling and coming together.

I would say Shana Galen’s ‘The Survivors’ is essential reading for anyone who is curious about, or considers themselves to be an aficionado of the historical romance genre. It’s bloody marvellous!


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

'The Prince and the Dressmaker' by Jen Wang

From the BLURB:

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

‘The Prince and the Dressmaker’ is a YA graphic novel released in February 2018, written and illustrated by Jen Wang.

Prince Sebastian is 16 and feeling the weight of a soon-to-be Kingdom on his shoulders. Frances is also 16 and a seamstress with dreams of wild dress designs to grace fashion runways and stages.

One day Frances designs a wildly inappropriate and fabulous dress for a socialite that lands her on the gossip pages – and out of a job. But Sebastian is enamoured of her design and has a proposition for her – to become his private dressmaker. Because Sebastian has two sides … one is a dutiful Prince, currently appeasing his parents by meeting eligible princesses to potentially marry. The other side of him, however, craves luxurious fabrics and fabulous outfits that transform Sebastian into the flame-haired Lady Crystallia. Nobody knows his secret, except private secretary Emile – and now Frances. Who agrees to become his very private designer and dressmaker, and together they’ll be the talk of the town.

‘The Prince and the Dressmaker’ is a subversive fable – a gender fluid celebration encouraging an embracing of ones true selves. I love that this YA graphic novel exists, and is telling such a complex but necessary story. That there’s also a romance in here between Sebastian and Frances, a gentle and yet bracingly uncomplicated unfolding, is also something to truly admire.

And I did really enjoy reading this, but I didn’t love it the way I wanted to. One aspect that I wanted amplified was the dress styles portrayed – a lot of them looked like somewhat ho-hum Disney Princess styling’s, and I was more hoping for Disney-meets-Lady-Gaga with the volume turned up to 150.

The other aspect I thought was just a little too gentle was Sebastian’s secret reveal. The fallout didn’t feel big enough for the pacing, like it wasn’t enough of a ‘Sebastian at his lowest point’ to properly meld with the dramatic finale.

At the back of the book, Jen Wang reveals that her original idea for the story had Frances and Sebastian as adults, before she changed her mind and thought telling this for a teen audience would be more powerful. I agree – I absolutely think this graphic novel being YA is impacting and meaningful for a readership that needs more nuance in all diverse tales. But seeing the rough sketches of the characters as adults, and the barest hint of something more tantalisingly sexual and lustful … I think that could have amped the story up even more, and would have benefited from it. And I’ve no doubt I also think this because I have recently discovered the joys of adult comic book publisher, Iron Circus Comics – via the very romantic and erotic, 'Letters For Lucardo' by Noora Heikkilä.

So, yes – I enjoyed this graphic novel. But I would have loved everything to be more drama and just amped up a little. From the dresses to the fallout, I’d have loved just … MORE!


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'Burn Bright' Alpha and Omega #5 by Patricia Briggs

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:
Mated werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham face a threat like no other - one that lurks too close to home . . .

They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok's pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm.

With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf - but can't stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills - his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker - to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn...

Burn Bright’ is the fifth instalment in Patricia Brigg’s urban fantasy series ‘Alpha & Omega’, a spin-off to her ‘Mercy Thompson’ series.

I thoroughly enjoyed this latest book in Charles and Anna’s story, and I’m so glad because I haven’t been on the greatest reading streak with Patricia Briggs lately ... I was pretty “meh” on the last ‘Alpha & Omega’ book from 2015, ‘Dead Heat’ and thoroughly unimpressed with Mercy’s from last year, ‘Silence Fallen’. But Briggs is one of my favourite authors, and this is one of the few urban fantasy series that I’ve loyally stuck with, when others have fallen by the wayside – so I always feel a little discombobulated when I’m dissatisfied with my once-every-two-years dose.

‘Burn Bright’ follows on from the events of ‘Silence Fallen’ – when Mercy was kidnapped, and werewolf Marrok Bran left his Aspen Creek home to help with her rescue mission. When ‘Burn Bright’ begins, Charles has been left in charge of his Da’s pack for a month, acting as pack leader – and it’s all going relatively smoothly, until he receives word that some of the pack’s wildling werewolves are in trouble in the Montana mountains, seemingly being hunted by a covert operation for purposes unknown …

All of Patricia Brigg’s books are whodunits, that’s a given. But I find myself tending to favour those that stick close to home – both in the ‘Alpha & Omega’ series, and ‘Mercy Thompson’. So I was really happy that ‘Burn Bright’ takes place entirely in Aspen Creek, and reveals more than any other instalment about Bran’s werewolf pack and operations. I just tend to find that Briggs is less likely to go off on unnecessary tangents, introducing superfluous secondary characters and settings we have no connection to (as indeed, I thought she did in ‘Dead Heat’ with a trip to Arizona). ‘Burn Bright’ is brilliant twofold, not only because it’s firmly grounded in Aspen Creek and works to pull readers into the Marrok’s ordering of his werewolf pack – but also because the entire ‘whodunit’ mystery is centred in that pack, and builds upon the relationships with many established secondary characters … like Bran’s mate Leah, and the Moor, Asil.

The mystery in ‘Burn Bright’ is such a good one, and I was buoyed to see a hint of potential to build a bigger bad-guy arc around it in coming books. If that is the case, I certainly have more faith that this could give readers the layers and subterfuge lacking from the fae/Greylords build-up across both series in recent years …

So the plot in ‘Burn Bright’ worked for me, in a way that the last couple of Briggs books hadn’t been. This one felt very tightly plotted, and like it was serving a wider series purpose overall.

The character-building in this instalment though, was sometimes a tantalising mix of too much, and not enough.

For one thing, with Bran not around in this book – it gave Charles and Anna a chance to talk out some things about the Marrok that certainly Anna probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable airing, had he been closer to the pack bonds. In particular, Anna drops some bombshells regarding her observances of Bran and his feelings towards Mercy, which … BLEW MY FREAKIN’ MIND, and then blew it again when Charles conceded her point and agreed with her. This was … I was shook, people. I had never thought of Bran and Mercy in that context (no, not even after the reveal in ‘Silence Fallen’, which now also takes on new meaning – not to mention a certain conversation that Adam and Mercy had early on in the series, about Adam doing the Marrok’s bidding in watching over her) so this was just a whole lot of revelations coming thick and fast and then just left to sit, simmering on readers minds, probably until the next ‘Mercy Thompson’ book most likely (March 2019, for anyone who is counting down).

These revelations also made me yearn, more than ever, for Bran to get his own spin-off. But I think Briggs has repeatedly nixed that idea, citing that he’s just too commanding a presence and would overwhelm any book. But still – Briggs threw these big character reveals about him out there, and now I kinda want her to pick them up and run with them.

But ‘Burn Bright’ also stumbles somewhat with continuing to advance Charles and Anna’s relationship, and in highlighting how loving one another is changing them, for the better. Charles briefly mentions Anna’s restlessness at not knowing what to do with her life. Seeing as werewolves are very hard to kill and can live immortal (or – more likely with all that could try and kill them – at least hundreds of years) it helps if a person can figure out what they’d like to do with all that time on their hands. Charles mentions Anna half-heartedly looking into finishing her music studies, and Bran offering to help them look into adoption … this particular aspect is key, since past books have given readers Anna’s interiority and desire for children (possibly even in defiance of Charles, similar to how his own mother sacrificed herself to have him). I totally accept Charles’ assessment that Anna isn’t the sort of person to feel restless and think that a child will solve all her problems of self – but I still feel like that aspect of Charles and Anna’s relationship (foreshadowed really, by the story of Charles’s mother) will have to come around again, and ‘Burn Bright’ might have been the book to continue laying that groundwork …

But, honestly, these are minor quibbles about Anna and Charles and their relationship. Overall, ‘Burn Bright’ is one of the best Briggs instalments in recent memory. Tantalising character tid-bits are dropped, secondary characters advance in my estimation and a whodunit to sink your teeth into make this a stellar instalment.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'The Upside of Unrequited' by Becky Albertalli

From the BLURB:

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she's lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can't stomach the idea of rejection. So she's careful. Fat girls always have to be careful. Then a cute new girl enters Cassie's orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly's cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly's totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is.

Luckily, Cassie's new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she'll get her first kiss and she'll get her twin back. There's only one problem: Molly's coworker, Reid. He's an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there's absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ was Becky Albertalli’s 2017 follow-up to her massively popular YA contemporary debut, ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ (which I loved!)

I did not read this book when it first came out, but having recently seen a preview screening of the ‘Love, Simon’ adaptation which was *amazing* (and easily makes the Top 5 YA Adaptations of all time!), and what with ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ coming out next month, I thought I’d catch up on my Albertalli reads.

But I did not love this book. I did not hate it. I did not love it. I am fairly indifferent to it, overall. And I do know that some people are crazy about this story, and Molly Peskin-Suso’s quest to break her streak of crushes by getting her first kiss and boyfriend … and that’s wonderful. But this book just left me so lukewarm.

The novel has a backdrop of the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. Molly and her sister Cassie, plus baby brother Xavier, are the children of two mums – Nadine and Patty. Cassie is also a lesbian, embarking on her first real relationship with the lovely Mina. Molly, meanwhile, has experienced 27 crushes in her lifetime and no romantic reciprocation (or so she thinks). The meeting of two boys – Mina’s friend Will, or her new co-worker Reid – sets Molly on a path to figuring herself out, and learning to love the body she’s in.

While reading this rather slow-burn of a contemporary YA, I did think how much goodwill Albertalli may have racked up with her wildly popular ‘Simon vs.’ – as well as how much more patience readers seemingly have for US authors of “quiet” YA. I personally love “quiet” contemporary novels – it’s a term used for anything that doesn’t have a rollicking action plot and is family or friendship focused, often with a lot of interiority – all of which, ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ has. It’s all from Molly’s perspective, and seeing as she’s particularly hung up on her body-image there is a lot of internal angst and anxiety (which she also takes medication for). Molly doesn’t just narrate events as they unfold, she tends to pick them apart, dissect and stress over them – it’s a very tightly-wound narrative voice to be stuck with.

It’s also a book that meanders for a while before figuring out its due-course. There’s no build-up to the moment of legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., it comes on page 85 of this 336-page book and catches all the characters off-guard and as a total surprise. But once it’s legalized, that becomes the end-point and building climax to the plot – when Molly’s mums decide to get hitched and throw a big party/wedding in their backyard. But before those goal-posts are established, it really is 84-pages of meandering through Molly’s teen angst as she watches Cassie’s new romance unfold, and deals with her feelings of inferiority and perhaps, increasing inconsequentially in Cassie’s life.

I just could not shake this feeling that, had ‘Upside’ been written by an Australian author – readers would have been a lot less forgiving of the meandering, and the while it takes for Molly and Albertalli to figure out where they’re going. But for me, it firmly remained a novel of low-stakes, and that was tough to slog through.

It must be said though, that the novel does have a cast of diverse and inclusive characters … and no wonder, when Albertalli made it abundantly clear in interviews that she owes a lot to the sensitivity readers who helped shape this cast. I will just say that even though the characters were clearly written with the utmost respect to their various backgrounds, I did not care about them. They were rather anaemic props, to me. And sometimes Albertalli’s grab for “teachable moments” made me wince – like at the wedding, when Molly and Cassie’s often un-PC grandmother apparently makes this faux pas;

Cassie wanders over to meet us. “So, I just had the best conversation with Grandma.” 
She grimaces, and I laugh. 
“Grandma has just informed me that when a bisexual woman marries another woman, she becomes a lesbian.” 
“Oh no,” Olivia says. 
“And I’m like … Grandma, just no. No. Infinite side-eye.”

For me, I just felt like quite a few of the characters became conduits for these sorts of not-so-subtle lessons in wokeness.

The shining point of the novel for me though, was Molly’s romance. Less her does-he-or-doesn’t-he-like-me with Mina’s friend Will, but the slow-burn and then instant ignition with Reid, her ‘Lord of the Rings’ obsessed co-worker. Their attraction led to some nice moments of clarity for Molly, and some pretty hot make-out sessions … and it was in these moments that I read Albertalli loosening up as a writer, and really letting go and allowing her characters’s instincts to lead scenes, rather than any social-messaging she wanted to engineer.

Overall I still think ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ is one of the most perfect slices of contemporary YA written in recent memory. I am ridiculously excited for ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ and, for me personally, I am just going to pretend like ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ didn’t really happen.


Friday, March 30, 2018

'Nowhere But Home' by Liza Palmer

From the BLURB:

A brilliant, hilarious, and touching story with a Texas twist from Liza Palmer, author of Conversations With The Fat Girl (optioned for HBO)

Queenie Wake, a country girl from North Star, Texas, has just been fired from her job as a chef for not allowing a customer to use ketchup. Again. Now the only place she has to go is home to North Star. She can hope, maybe things will be different. Maybe her family's reputation as those Wake women will have been forgotten. It's been years since her mother-notorious for stealing your man, your car, and your rent money-was killed. And her sister, who as a teenager was branded as a gold-digging harlot after having a baby with local golden boy Wes McKay, is now the mother of the captain of the high school football team. It can't be that bad…

Who knew that people in small town Texas had such long memories? And of course Queenie wishes that her memory were a little spottier when feelings for her high school love, Everett Coburn, resurface. He broke her heart and made her leave town-can she risk her heart again?

At least she has a new job-sure it's cooking last meals for death row inmates but at least they don't complain!

But when secrets from the past emerge, will Queenie be able to stick by her family or will she leave home again? A fun-filled, touching story of food, football, and fooling around.

‘Nowhere But Home’ was a 2013 women’s fiction novel from US author Liza Palmer.

I have meant to read this book for the longest time, if only because it’s one that keeps getting thrown up in recommended reading algorithms all over the place. And while I really flew through the first 50 pages or so, I did find that my high-expectations somewhat soured my enjoyment of the book overall…

It’s about Queenie Wake, who returns to her hometown of North Star after she gets fired from another restaurant job, after being accused of lacking imagination for her own cooking and having an unearned arrogance towards customers. Coming home to North Star is a mark of failure for Queenie, whose mother had the reputation as the town harlot and who – along with her older sister – was so despised for her mother’s behaviour, that she wasn’t even allowed to be with her childhood sweetheart. Everett is from the golden family of town, and while he and Queenie had been in love since they were pre-teens, and carried out an affair all throughout high school and college – Everett ultimately buckled and married a woman set up for him by his family.

But what really drives Queenie to hate North Star is that it’s the place where her mama was murdered. Killed with a shotgun by her best friend, for sleeping with her husband in their marriage bed.

So it’s even stranger when Queenie takes up a job cooking last meals at the local prison. A job that makes her feel both slightly queasy and wholly inspired, all at once.

I really loved the start of this novel – with Queenie admitting defeat and coming home, getting to know her now grown nephew (and star quarterback) Cal, and reconnecting with her glamorous (if, downtrodden) older sister Merry Carole. I also loved getting to know the complicated and hurtful back-story to Queenie’s family and their bad reputation in North Star.

But things started to get a little boring for me, ironically, when Queenie takes the job as preparer of last meals at the prison. This takes up a chunk of the story, when I really wanted focus on her romance with Everett and a potential new suitor, a professor called Hudson who is studying inmates on death-row.

The Everett romance wasn’t hot enough, and the Hudson flirtation goes … weird. I loved Queenie’s family dynamics throughout, and her job is intriguing – I just feel like if the romance had hooked me more, it would have felt like a fuller, more full-circle novel.

That being said, I have had a peek at the blurbs for a few other Liza Palmer novels and a couple of them sound a little more romance-focused, so I’ll probably venture to her backlist again at some point.


Monday, March 12, 2018

'Here's Looking at You' by Mhairi McFarlane

From the BLURB:

Anna Alessi – history expert, possessor of a lot of hair and an occasionally filthy mouth – seeks nice man for intelligent conversation and Mills & Boon moments.

 Despite the oddballs that keep turning up on her dates, Anna couldn't be happier. As a 30-something with a job she loves, life has turned out better than she dared dream.

However, things weren't always this way, and her years spent as the ‘Italian Galleon' of an East London comprehensive are ones she'd rather forget.

So when James Fraser – the architect of Anna's final humiliation at school – walks back into her life, her world is turned upside down. But James seems a changed man. Polite. Mature. Funny, even. People can change, right? So why does Anna feel like she's a fool to trust him?

Hilarious and poignant, ‘Here's Looking At You' will have you laughing one minute and crying the next. The new must-read novel from #1 bestseller Mhairi McFarlane.

‘Here’s Looking at You’ was Mhairi McFarlane’s 2013 romance novel – now having read, I have thus completed my pillaging of her backlist … and am now sitting with the rest of the bandwagon, waiting for information on her little-known planned February 2019 release. *le sigh*

So I didn’t LOVE my last Mhairi read, before this one, as much as I’d hoped to – ‘Who’s That Girl’ certainly didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth (um. It’s Mhairi McFarlane, I think it’s impossible for her to write a bad book?) but truth be told, the blurb of ‘Here’s Looking At You’ is more up my alley… it reminded me a little of the 2010 Kristen Bell movie ‘You Again’ which is about a woman who was tormented in high school, discovering as an adult that her brother is about to marry her teen tormentor.

‘Here’s Looking At You’ is told in duel-perspectives (the only Mhairi novel to use this device!) – there’s Anna, who was regularly humiliated and bullied physically and emotionally throughout high school. She’s a grown woman now, with friends she adores and a job she loves – she’s even done a complete physical overhaul, and is deemed ‘beautiful’ by many, even if her newfound body hasn’t bought much more confidence or companionship.

James wasn’t Anna’s frequent tormentor, but he was her high school’s golden boy and someone she privately pined for … until he partook in an awful public humiliation that scarred her for life. Nowadays James is a separated comms & marketing man, still with the handsome swagger, but somewhat dented these days since his beautiful wife of one year, Eva, left him for inexplicable reasons.

James and Anna first cross paths at a high school reunion – where James fails to recognise her, and Anna thinks she has expelled her demons. Then they cross paths again when they’re thrown together for a project at Anna’s work, and while Anna still keeps her identity a secret, she tries expelling some of those demon-memories still lurking, by making James’s work life hell.

Clearly I am a masochist, because I loved this Mhairi book – and honestly think it’s up there with my fave ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ – and possibly because I think the stakes are higher in both those books. ‘It’s Not Me’ has the female protagonist learning that her boyfriend is cheating on her, the night he becomes her fiancée. Similarly, the idea of being thrown together with someone who made your teenage years a waking nightmare is pretty darn high stakes in ‘Here’s Looking At You’ – and kudos to Mhairi, she never once pulls punches or mitigates circumstances.

Anna was bullied and harassed, and it has left psychological scarring. James was an awful person growing up (and seemingly for some of his adult life) and so much of the book is dedicated to him figuring out the kind of person he wants to be, going forward. And it is really wonderful that their romance is a slow-burn that grows from friendship, not physical attraction.

I will admit, it could have been wonderful if Anna hadn’t had a ‘She’s All That’ transformation to hotness – obviously a significant portion of the book is about James not putting two and two together and recognising Anna as the “freak” from high school … but since they were forced together for work, I could imagine an alternative take where she is still that awkward girl, and he doesn’t get given the luxury of wondering if he still would have fallen for her had she not undergone physical transformation. Honestly, at this point, if I have any qualms about Mhairi books it’s that she does tend towards “beautiful people” romance archetypes, and that particular trope of “beautiful people who don’t know that they’re beautiful”. And if any story of hers could have broken that trope for the better, it was this one.

Barring all that – I still loved this book. I loved the duel-narratives, and the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ spin it took (particularly the use of James’s awful school friend as a stand-in for Mr. Wickham) I loved that Anna was a good person who didn’t have to change who she was, but James was the one who had a lot of work and personal overhauling to do to deserve her and be proud of himself.

I read this one in a night, and now I am utterly bereft that I won’t have another Mhairi to dive into. But I am also feeling incredibly full from my gorging on her books and becoming part of the fan-club. My membership was long overdue, so thank you to everyone who constantly recommended her to me!