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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!

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5/5  




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!

3/5

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.

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5/5

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.” 
“Really?” 
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.

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2/5

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.

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3.5/5

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!

5/5

Friday, March 9, 2018

'Who’s That Girl?' by Mhairi McFarlane


From the BLURB:

When Edie is caught in a compromising position at her colleagues' wedding, all the blame falls on her – turns out that personal popularity in the office is not that different from your schooldays. Shamed online and ostracised by everyone she knows, Edie's forced to take an extended sabbatical – ghostwriting an autobiography for hot new acting talent, Elliot Owen. Easy, right?

Wrong. Banished back to her home town of Nottingham, Edie is not only dealing with a man who probably hasn't heard the word ‘no' in a decade, but also suffering an excruciating regression to her teenage years as she moves back in with her widowed father and judgy, layabout sister.

When the world is asking who you are, it's hard not to question yourself. Who's that girl? Edie is ready to find out.

‘Who’s That Girl?’ was the 2016 rom-com novel from UK author, Mhairi McFarlane.

Okay – well – I broke my own damn rules with this one. I’d been so happily ploughing through Mhairi McFarlane’s entire backlist, working on the assumption that she had a new book coming out this year and it didn’t really matter if I got through all her books, if a new one was on the way. Then – according to Goodreads – the release date of her next book has apparently shifted to 2019. Egads! Suddenly the realisation dawned that once I got through ‘Who’s That Girl?’ and ‘Here's Looking at You’ – I’d have nothing left. I needed to start rationing my reading … well, that lasted a week.

And maybe it’s because I forced myself to slow down *ever so slightly* with this one, but it is so far my least favourite Mhairi book (and further confirmation for me that I don’t think ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ will be knocked from my top spot?). It may be the one that promises to be a modern ‘Notting Hill’ with an ordinary woman falling for a rising film and TV star, but I found it to be the most drawn-out and at times, a little bit clunky and cumbersome.

So – as with so many Mhairi stories, this book’s premise and the downward-trajectory arc of the protagonist begins with cheating. When copywriter Edie is spotted getting snogged by the groom at his own wedding, it release a maelstrom of online hatred and office abuse – forcing her boss to send her back home to the wilds of Nottingham to ghost-write the autobiography of ‘Game of Thrones’ knock-off heartthrob, Elliot Ownes.

But what starts as hostility eventually turns to curiosity, sympathy and then genuine affection between the two of them. And then the complications really kick in.

Right, so – first of all – a lot of stuff happens in this book, and I was a bit surprised to discover that the first considerable chunk of set-up takes up nearly 100 pages, dealing entirely in Edie’s scarlet-woman accusations at the wedding. It takes nearly 100 pages for Edie and Elliott to even meet, which … is a long time, in a romance. Or am I nuts? I mean; it probably took that long for Delia to meet Adam too. But it was still sort of frustrating that the set-up in ‘Who’s That Girl?’ works to establish that Edie did not want to be kissed by her co-worker Jack, at his wedding to her other co-worker, Charlotte – frustrating because I think the rest of the book injected that first-half set-up a little clunkily into the falling-for-a-celebrity second-half that the book became?

I think Mhairi is a wonderful romance author who raises really great points about the grey-areas of love, and she will often add layers of complication so cheating is never straight-up, black and white and there are always two sides to a story … in this book though, I think I wished Jack had gotten to be more of a character to really create push-pull for Edie, but as it is – it’s established that they had an office flirtation (“work wife” is never uttered, but probably noxiously appropriate) then the wedding debacle happens and he’s cut adrift and repeatedly written as an absolute wanker. So I think I slightly missed the nuance and subversive tropes that Mhairi so often plays around with flipping in her works, because Jack is never a contender for anything but antagonist?

As to Elliot Owen, the proper romantic interest of the story … look, yeah – lovely. He’s an actor off the back of a popular Game of Thrones-esque TV show in which he played a loincloth-clad prince. Apparently there’s much fan discussion in the books community as to whether he’s more a Kit Harrington or a Richard Madden, though I think his storyline and breakout popularity sounds more like the Jason Momoa trajectory (even though Elliot is physically described as being closer to Harrington and Madden) … but, honestly, envisioning Michiel Huisman worked better for my imagination. Overall though, Elliot was just a bit blandly lovely for me. There’s even something added to his background to try and make him more complicated and multi-faceted, but again – this was given so little treatment that it didn’t dig deep enough to matter.

I really liked the establishment of secondary characters in this – Edie’s friends Hannah and Nick, her sister Meg and father (and a tragedy in her family’s past was a sharp, bitter exploration well done) … but again; these characters felt like they fell by the wayside. Her depressive friend Nick, in particular, I was hoping to get a fuller back-story and maybe some sort of resolution? There’s also an older neighbour that Edie befriends who I thought would add another dimension to the plot – but that also went nowhere, and fell away too easily.

I will also say that something else I love about Mhairi’s books is how self-fulfilled her female characters are, and how much of a focus is on their personal and professional happiness. Often, in fact, they need to find meaning in their work life to have happiness in their romantic one – and that’s so true of life, and something I commend in all her books. But in ‘Who’s That Girl?’ I struggled to see why Edie liked her job so much … given that her being bullied is so poignantly portrayed, and this job ghost-writing Elliot’s memoir is a spur-of-the-moment, not-her-usual gig. I didn’t really know why Edie liked her job, basically. Which is a problem, when it becomes a big part of how the ending pans out.

Speaking of – THAT ENDING! I literally could have screamed “that’s it?!??” when I saw those last words. I think – in harking back to the ‘Notting Hill’ comparison – I was waiting for my big Horse and Hound bit, and a culmination in a similarly big declaration scene – like that of the press conference in that film too. Basically – I was waiting for a more movie romance ending with a bang, but I guess what Mhairi had been trying to establish was that Edie and Elliot’s romance is grounded in reality (because at the end of the day, he is just a normal bloke) and there’s an appropriately quiet ending to reflect that. So yeah, bit of a fizzer for me.

Also –one of my favourite scenes to make me blubber in ‘Notting Hill’ is that final image of Hugh Grant and a pregnant Julia Roberts on the park bench ("To June who Loved this garden ... from Joseph, who always sat beside her") and I just love the domesticity of that moment, *even* as she’s still a big film star, they’ve clearly made it work. And I guess with ‘Who’s That Girl?’ I would have appreciated a few moments exploring that domesticity. What’s it actually like, dating a film star? How do you cope? Do bizarre things just become the new normal? Yeah. I think I’d been hoping that this book took that momentary fave scene from ‘Notting Hill’ and based the story around that image a bit more. More fool me for presuming where the story would go, but there you go.  

Overall – I did like this book, but I didn’t LOVE and ADORE it like I am the others of hers, so far. I still wanted to rush to the end, I laughed and swooned … but maybe not quite as hard as previously.

3/5