Sunday, 9 July 2017

Review: Sight Unseen Anthology

Multiple ratings


The concept of this anthology was that well-known romance authors would each write a story outside of their usual genre, but their name would not be attached to it until some time after publication, leaving the reader to guess which author wrote which story. I thought the concept was clever and was executed well - although I am pretty sure I know the author of one story, I can only make guesses at the rest. 

Even though I auto-buy three of the five authors included in this anthology (Thomas, Barry and Satie), and regularly also read and enjoy Duran's books, I found the majority of stories (3/5) just okay. I've been thinking about this: on one hand, it's very common for anthologies to be a bit of a mixed bag, while, on the other, I think the experimental nature of the anthology could also be a contributing factor. Not having the authors name attached to their work means there's a lack of confirmation bias, because the reader can't go in thinking: 'I've loved all of this author's previous work, surely I will love this as well' and is thus more critical than they might otherwise be.

Nonetheless, I think that Sight Unseen is full of quick, interesting reads, and contains something for everyone, except maybe readers who heavily lean towards historical romance. The novelty factor also adds something fun and unique to the reading experience. 

Lost that Feeling - 3 stars
Before being captured as the leader of a rebellion, Alma used her magic to wipe her memory. When her fellow rebels break her out of the prison where she has been kept, she must relearn her place in this underground movement against the King, and begins to question her motives her wiping her memory, and her relationship to Driss, the man who helped her escape. 

Objectively, the world-building in Lost that Feeling was great. I'm sure most people would have enjoyed it more than I did, but I have very been particularly interested in the kind classical fantasy setting that appears here. Given a strong romance arc - like in Grace Draven's work - I can sometimes let myself go and enjoy such settings, but there were only the slightest hints of romance between Alma and Driss. Having said that, I did like the open and hopeful ending, which reminded me of the teasing ending of a prequel novella, before the book actually dedicated to unravelling the hero and heroine's relationship.

A Clear View of You - 3 stars
Kate works as a psychic to pay off her student debts, even though she hates it and the whole thing is obviously bogus. But then North shows up, offering her an obscene amount of money if she'll use her 'skills' to help him locate an object. 

As a Fey, North knows that Kate has no psychic talent, but what she does have is a mother who is meddling with powers beyond her control. He needs Kate's help to gain entrance to the compound where her mother's so-called 'coven' live, and take back a Fey orb whose power is being misused, before it is too late.

Again, I liked the world-building and backstory of this one more than the romance. Kate has issues from growing up with a hippy mother who believes she is a witch, and just wants to lead a normal life. North is more of an enigma as a character, but the differentiation between the mundane and fey worlds were well-explained and -constructed. However, I wasn't convinced by the romance arc, and feel like the story would have benefited from being a bit longer, or having a bit more characterisation on North's part. 

Free - 3 stars
In small-town Montana, Wren's father and uncle run the local second-hand car dealership and a motorcycle club. She's sure that the club just a social thing for bored guys for like motorbikes and wearing leather jackets until the dealership's dorky part-time accountant, clues her into some suspicious stuff on the books. 

Brad has had it bad for Wren for ages, but she's the town's unofficial first daughter, not to mention the on-again/off-again relationship with one of the guys in the motorcycle club. But when he accidentally lets Wren in on what's going on behind the scenes, assuming she was already in the know, she begins to make her own investigations, and needs someone to turn to when she uncovers something unpleasant. 

Heroes in motorcycle clubs are currently all the rage, and Free used this trope in a creative way that I really appreciated. Making it MC-adjacent meant that the reader doesn't have to tackle the moral greyness or suspension of disbelief involved when the hero is actually a biker. The story was also very well written and paced. I considered giving it a higher ranking, but didn't, because Wren's portrayal of the dumb-blonde-with-smokin'-body portrayal rankled. There's nothing inherently sexist about it - in fact, it is a good example of Butler's concept of performative gender, but it was continually a point of focus in a way that centred the male gaze, and it dampened my enjoyment of the whole thing a bit. 

Chariot of Desire - 3.5 stars
The 70's were good to the legendary band Donjon, but as the 1980's roll around, the rock'n'roll lifestyle has taken its toll. Lead singer Donny has joined a Christian sect, and is thus unwilling to sing any of their backlist that contains immoral themes. So, basically, all of it. With the stress on the band reaching breaking point, Donny turns to the band's drummer, CJ, as they try to find a balance between Donny's religion and demons, CJ's standoffishness and the good of the band.

I found Chariot of Desire interesting and different, for a number of reasons. There's the mid-to-late 20th century setting (which I think is massively underused in romance), the use of religion and sectism and the fact that the main characters are past their prime and live (or lived) for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. As with other stories in the anthology, there is an open ending without a definitive HFN or HEA, but for some reason it worked slightly better for me here, perhaps because it would have been too much of an about-face for the characters to commit to a relationship together. 

The Heart is a Universe - 5 stars
Every generation, on the planet of Pax Cara, a child is chosen and raised with the knowledge that, when they grow up, they will be a sacrifice to the old gods. With less than a month left until she must sacrifice herself, Vitalis is looking for a way out. A hero in his own right, Eleian of Terra Illustrata has watched the media coverage of Vitalis for many years. When they meet at an official function, he makes her a public offer of marriage. She accepts, but both of them are hiding things from the other, and the day of the sacrifice is growing ever closer. 

The Heart is a Universe was the anthology's stand-out story for me. The world-building, characterisation and plot were all amazing, and it several times it went in directions I genuinely did not expect. It has an unconventional HEA, and if someone else had told me about it, I would have scoffed and denied that anyone could ever pull that off, but somehow, the author does. 

Also, for those of you taking part it July's #RomBkLove on Twitter or elsewhere, yesterday's theme was "favourite Virgin Hero/Heroine", and many of us talked about our love for virgin heroes, and made some suggestions. I forgot to mention Eleian, but he is an awesome virgin hero, and I love the way this is worked into the story.

Concluding Thoughts
Looking back on what I've written, it strikes me that Sight Unseen is not just experimental in form, but is also pushing the romance boundaries in other ways, particularly in the way many of the endings do not fit genre conventions surrounding the HEA/HFN. That makes me feel bad about critiquing them, or - more accurately - critiquing some and accepting others. But I'm all about the HEA. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Overview: June Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown


Books read in June: 19
Books read YTD: 93

Fiction Titles: 

  • 16 (9 contemporary romance, 5 historical romance, 1 paranormal romance, 1 romance anthology)

Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 2 (History)

Other:
  • 1 Poetry

Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Non-Fiction



Noteworthy Settings


Kick-ass Characters

  • Small Change by Roan Parrish  - Heroine Ginger is not good at letting people get close, and it's lovely to see a spiky heroine and the hero who loves her.
  • The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian - the way the heroes were kind, caring and thoughtful to each other was absolutely my catnip.

From the Internet this Month


Romance
Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry

Other Media

Women & Feminism

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Review: Ride Baby Ride by Vivian Arend

2 stars

Ride Baby Ride by Vivian Arend was a trope buffet: brother's best friend, amnesiac heroine and surprise pregnancy, to name the biggest three. But it's like when you arrive to the breakfast buffet 15 minutes before it closes, and are forced to make do with the one remaining crossiant, congealed baked beans and some tinned peaches, because that's all that's left. Not a particularly great combo, especially when you have to put them on a single plate, because they've started packing the dishes away. To unpack that terrible metaphor, I basically just felt like there were lots of different tropes and elements all smushed into one short novella, and they didn't have enough space to breathe. 

When Katy breaks up with her low-life boyfriend, Gage Jennick - a close friend of Katy's family - decides to make his move. It's far from ideal timing - he's  just about to leave for a gig on a oil field - but they spend the night together, and promise to continue the relationship when he returns. Except that, in the meanwhile, Katy has a car accident and loses her short-term memory, forgetting her night with Gage and situation with her ex-boyfriend. When she finds out she's pregnant, both step foward and claim to be the baby's father. Katy has to fit the pieces together, but that's hard to do when Gage is determined to win her back and prove to her that he doesn't just want her, but the baby and a long-term future as well.

There was a marked lack of development of Gage and Katy's relationship. At first, Katy is trying to hold him at bay and figure things out and and then, WHAM, they're going to spend their lives together. This was - at least in part - due to the time jumps littered throughout. Those also fell victim to my pet hate when it comes to time jumps: instead of 'two months later' or similar at the top of the chapters, it says 'November', thus requiring you to remember the month named at the previous time jump. For someone with a goldfish brain like mine, this is pretty much impossible, and I ended up skim-reading the first few pages after each time jump, looking for clues - like how much Katy's pregnancy had progressed - which would allow me to establish how much time had passed. 

There was also some toxic masculinity that interfered with my enjoyment of the story, as did the gigantic suspension of disbelief required to buy the way the external conflict comes to a climax. I'm not gonna spoil that, mainly because it's just so crazysauce I wouldn't even know where to begin, but there are some Goodreads reviews that talk about it if you are interested. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

(Belated) Overview: May Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Five months in I'm really starting to see the value of tracking my reading like this. For example, I never realised before how, in the normal run of things, I read more contemporary than historical romance, but switch to pretty much 100% historicals  as soon as my stress levels start to go up. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that historical romance - obviously - bears less resemblance to me everyday life, and therefore is more escapist? Or is it because historical romance was my first love and gateway to the genre?

Books read in May: 14
Books read YTD: 76

Fiction Titles: 
  • 11 (8 historical romance, 3 contemporary romance)
Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 3 (1 memoir/social history, 2 history)

Noteworthy Novels

Noteworthy Non-Fiction

Noteworthy Settings

Kick-ass Characters

  • Unseen Attraction by K J Charles - Neuroatypical hero & neurotypical hero unite to solve a crime threatening their home and businesses
  • Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang - heroine Sarah is feeling angry and threatened due to a melanoma diagnosis and the reappearance of the hero in her life, which brings up memories of a long-ago teenage scandal.

From the Internet this Month


Romance



Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry


Other Media

Women & Feminism

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Non-Fiction Review: Bomber Girls by M J Foreman


This was a frustrating one. I picked Bomber Girls up to learn more about the Air Transport Auxillary in Britian during WWII, where civilian pilots - both female pilots and male pilots ineligble for service - shuttled planes across the country, and sometimes to the Continent, so that they would be where the RAF needed them, when they needed them. 

With its plucky heroines battling against the Germans, their dangerous and unwieldy planes AND institutionalised prejudice, Bomber Girls had the raw ingredients of a ripper. But it wasn't, because it talks of the the women and their work in ways that are alternatingly patronising, sensationalist, and just plain dull, not to mention the dubious handling of the sexism the female pilots faced. 

It is not until 16% of the way through the book that the institutionalised sexism the women faced is directly mentioned, with the use of the words "gender bias", which is then allowed to fall by the wayside again until 39%, when the same term is used again. Here are those two excerpts: 
Whilst forbidden to go into combat, and never required to drop bombs, the 166 women of the ATA flew right through the barriers of gender bias in such a noble way they couldn’t help but play a significant role in securing Britain’s eventual superiority in the air. Thanks to the political guile of Miss Gower they were also the first collective of women to earn the same salary as their male colleagues doing the same job. (16%) 
The fact that young women like Curtis got to fly at all, and got to pilot the RAF’s biggest aircraft, remains a miracle if we consider the disconcerting whiff of gender bias around at the time. (39%)
These excerpts capture the overall tone and framing of the book pretty well, in my opinion. Both dismiss the institutionalised sexism of the time in their phrasing, thus absolving the men, instutitions and hierarchies who did their utmost to prevent the creation of the female branch of the ATA, and, once it was created, to place as many roadblocks in their way as possible. In the first, Pauline Gower's relentless campaign for the inclusion of female pilots in the ATA, and, thereafter, for better working conditions for them, is dismissed as 'political guile'. Although this is perhaps not the most overt example, this is part of a broader pattern of presenting the female ATA pilots not as pilots, but as women (or 'girls' as Foreman often writes), 'socialites' or dilettantes. (I consider 'guile' here to be gendered language, because I cannot imagine that a man, in a comparative situation, would have a word with such a negative connotation attached to his behaviour, instead of a neutral one like 'skillful'). The use of the word 'miracle' in the second example is again agency-robbing and makes the institutionalised sexism perpetrator-less crime.

It's actually quite impressive the lengths to which Foreman has gone to avoid tackling the sexism systematically. One has to read between the lines in a lot of places to understand the links between what is being relayed and the instense misogyny the women faced. Similarly, stories from the women themselves that make the sexism overt are treated as humourous anecdotes.

There is also a distinction in the way the female and male pilots are characterised. The female pilots come off as glib and vain, and are frequently saved by the actions of their male counterparts, who are presented as skilful and heroic. I have no doubt that many of the female pilots were glib and concerned with their outward appearance, as these are both mechanisms through which they could manage the sexism with which they were faced. But that doesn't excuse the way these narratives - which were also used by the media and other sources to paint the women as dilettantes - are reproduced in a 21st Century text.

Foreman does make some genuine attempts to tackle the subject of sexism, just as there are stories that do not fit the pattern I've described above. However, in both cases, the instances to the contrary greatly outweigh those that do fit into these discourses, and are consistent enough to cancel out any such attempts. 

Bomber Girls initally caught my interest because last year I read His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty, in which the heroine is an ATA pilot. Ultimately, I think that His Very Own Girl succeeds where Bomber Girls fails, as it shows the sexism of the time and the every day life of the female ATA pilots in excellent detail, as well as having a satisfying central romance. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

(Belated) Overview: April Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Another slow reading month *sigh*. Maybe it's time to face up to the fact that this is the new normal, and adjust my expectations accordingly.

Books read in April: 13
Books read YTD: 62

Fiction Titles: 12
  • 12 Romance (5 historical romance, 6 contemporary romance, 1 historical paranormal)
Non-Fiction Titles: 1
  • 1 Scientific Journalism/Personal History
Poetry Titles: 1


Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Non-Fiction

  • N/A - Once again, I only read one non-fiction book this month, and I'll be damned if  I let it win by default, because it was self-aggrandizing and tone-deaf Kindle Single about Henrietta Lacks, written by the journalist who originally broke the story. I only bought it because I can't afford The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at the moment, but I wish I hadn't. 

Noteworthy Settings

Kick-ass Characters

  • Bernie from The Undateable by Sarah Title - A great unlikeable heroine
  • Nate & Robyn from Perv by Dakota Gray - They're the dirty, fucked up couple you didn't know you needed in your life. Nate's your classic playboy with a fresh twist, but Robyn's not buying his practiced routine.
  • Gabriel from Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas - Come on, he's Evie and Sebastian's son. It was genetically impossible for him not to be kick-ass, but he endeared himself to me in the way he dealt with Pandora's worries about losing her legal personhood.

From the Internet this Month

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: Peter Darling by Austin Chant

4.5 stars


Peter Darling is a beautiful queer fairy tale that is both whimsical and poignantly real. It revolves around Peter Pan returning to Neverland as an adult, taking refuge from the real world where he is forced to live in the body of a young woman named Wendy Darling. Things have changed in Neverland and Captain Hook and the Lost Boys are no longer at war, but Peter resumes his old feud with Hook all the same, only to discover that his old nemesis now evokes a whole other set of feelings.

At the beginning of the book, we see Peter much as one would imagine: he's the boy that never grew up, playing his war games without thought for the cost of his vendetta. As much as I came to love Peter - and the book - I struggled a little bit with this initial third of the story because of the senseless and casual violence Peter inflicts. However, I think this has more to do with me and my sensitivity to violence than the book itself. Hook also reveals to Peter - and thus the reader - something about the nature of Neverland that made the violence much easier for me to bear, allowing me to get lost in the story in a way that I had previously been prevented from doing. Similarly, regardless of how I reacted to it personally, this initial immaturity is essential to Peter's character, and his progression to realising the consequences of his actions - while still maintaining his boyish enthusiasm - was masterful.

The energetic and impulsive Peter is balanced perfectly by Hook's ennui-stricken and world-weary facade, and the relationship between the two was everything you ever wanted from the enemies-to-lovers trope. Both characters are morally ambiguous, and the Neverland here is not the sanitised version of the Disney film, but - as I mentioned earlier - one with real dangers, real violence, and slightly sinister undertones like those in old fairy tales.

Nevertheless, Chant's Neverland is the best kind of fantasy world, the kind that frees us from the oppressive realities of our world, instead of replicating them. There, Peter isn't faced with gender dysphoria, or disapproval, judgement and condescension from his family. Neither must James remember the sorrows of his life in the 'real world' of post-WWI Britain.

This has been a short review - by my standards - but it's very hard to capture the magic of Peter Darling in words. It's rekindled my childhood love of the story, when I would open the copy of the book my great-uncle had given me just to look at the pictures, or when I watched my VHS copy of the animated movie so many times that it eventually unspooled in the video player, breaking them both. But it's added another deeper dimension to the story, and, as far as I'm concerned, Disney and J. M. Barrie can both go home, because Peter Darling is now canon Peter Pan. 
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