Review – An Untamed State

untamed

From the publisher:

A Haitian American woman survives a brutal kidnapping in this “commanding debut novel” from the New York Times–bestselling author of Bad Feminist (The New Yorker).

Author and essayist Roxane Gay is celebrated for her incisive commentary on identity and culture, as well as for her bestselling nonfiction and short story collections. Now, with An Untamed State, she delivers a “breathtaking debut novel” (The Guardian, UK) of wealth in the face of crushing poverty, and the lawless anger produced by corrupt governments.

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she lives in the United States with her adoring husband and infant son, returning every summer to stay on her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. But the fairy tale ends when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, just outside the estate walls. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As her father’s standoff with the kidnappers stretches out into days, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who despises everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a “breathless, artful, disturbing and original” story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places (Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings).

Review:

I needed days. Days to recover from this book. It is not a book for the faint of heart. I’m only going to say this – if you are a sexual abuse survivor, heed all the warnings, because this book is not written to be comfortable and easy. It is made to confront and challenge the dominant narrative about women’s subjugation and abuse at the hands of a patriarchal society and what it takes, at the level of individual and culture to recover from that.

I’m not going to waste my time on review and summary. I had to walk away, cry, and bite my fist to get through parts of it. There’s a telling sentence in this novel – it’s the women who bear the price of what men want. The protagonist bears it all during 13 days of captivity, and spends the novel after her experience returning from a personal hell that renders politeness and easy conversation impossible. PTSD is depicted, not in a superficial way, but in all its terrifying implications. Gay has taken the powerlessness of victimhood and womanhood and augmented it a thousand times, forcing the reader to stay with Marielle during the entire ordeal. The signs are written into Mireille’s body and soul and the reader is not spared one moment of her torture.

Besides being intensely personal, Marielle’s trauma is also useful metaphor for the trauma that the Caribbean islands have experienced at the hands of the West. But make no mistake – while Gay also puts on striking display the way history has victimized the island of Haiti, this does not distance the reader from the intensely personal and visceral consequences of Marielle’s captivity and abuse. We are not allowed to use pat cultural narratives to anesthetize us against what as many as 1 in 5 women will experience at some point in their lives, experiences we are told repeatedly that we are responsible for, that are not as bad as we say they are. She shows rape, trauma and recovery in all its unmitigated horror. Nothing in this novel spares us from this truth.

Where to purchase:

Amazon     Barnes&Noble    Kobo     iBooks

 

Review – One Day to Fall

One Day to Fall

Booksellers:

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From the publisher:

Of all the taxis in all of Cape Town, Sophia Roux had to stumble into his.

She should be at her “perfect” sister’s bedside, awaiting the arrival of the newest member of her family. But the thought of spending hours at the hospital with her suffocating relatives has Sophia hailing the first taxi she sees. Only to realise too late that the man at the wheel of her getaway car is the most unpleasant one she’s ever had the misfortune to meet.

Parker Jones, the handsome yet surly driver in question, is used to dealing with baggage of the family variety. And it just so happens he’s in need of temporary escape from his own. Witty banter with a beautiful—if exasperating—woman while chauffeuring her around the city on a gorgeous spring day makes for an ideal break from reality.

But a lot can happen in twenty-four hours: babies can be born, family can reconnect. And maybe the most unlikely pair can fall in love.

Review:

One Day to Fall is the second novel about the Roux sisters set in South Africa, though in the interest of full disclosure, I did not read the first novel. This is an oversight I hope to rectify, as this novel was a pleasure to read.

Beharrie’s romance takes place in the course of an intense and emotional day. There aren’t many circadian novels, and the ones that come to mind are not romances, such as  Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Saturday by Ian McEwan and Christopher Irshwood’s A Single Man, so I was particularly excited to see her take on this particular structure and execute it so well. The emotional intensity is heightened but it is punctuated with moments of humor that keep the narrative from being claustrophobic.

A further variation that I truly enjoyed in this novel is the Sophie, a heroine who is prickly, bad-tempered and not in a particularly good place, emotionally. Parker, the driver for the car service who picks her up and with whom she falls in love, is also suffering from his own personal complications. They essentially use each other to distract themselves from the distressing facts of their lives but in doing so, discover that they have stumbled on the one person who might understand them better than anyone else in their lives.

I also enjoyed the way the author used the premise to treat readers to a tour of Cape Town, the setting of the romance. I’ve never visited so my natural wanderlust was stimulated by the descriptions of the places they visit.

A well-written, thoroughly satisfying romance.

ARC provided by Netgalley.

 

Review – American Love Story (American Dreamers Series)

ALS

Available Here:

Harlequin| Amazon|Barnes & Noble

From the publisher:

No one should have to choose between love and justice.

Haitian-born professor and activist Patrice Denis is not here for anything that will veer him off the path he’s worked so hard for. One particularly dangerous distraction: Easton Archer, the assistant district attorney who last summer gave Patrice some of the most intense nights of his life, and still makes him all but forget they’re from two completely different worlds.

All-around golden boy Easton forged his own path to success, choosing public service over the comforts of his family’s wealth. With local law enforcement unfairly targeting young men of color, and his career—and conscience—on the line, now is hardly the time to be thirsting after Patrice again. Even if their nights together have turned into so much more.

For the first time, Patrice is tempted to open up and embrace the happiness he’s always denied himself. But as tensions between the community and the sheriff’s office grow by the day, Easton’s personal and professional lives collide. And when the issue at hand hits closer to home than either could imagine, they’ll have to work to forge a path forward…together.

Review:

American Love Story is the third novel in Adriana Herrera’s American Dreamers series. I’ve enjoyed this book series so much, both for its multicultural aspects and the relationship between the love stories and social issues. Every novel in this series addresses some aspect of power and race, featuring leads from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. But nowhere is this concern illustrated more powerfully or compellingly as in the romance between Professor Patrice Denis and Assistant District Attorney, Easton Archer.

The relationship between Denis and Archer throws into sharp relief the issues of institutionalized racism and the responsibilities of those in power to agitate and work in favor of change. Even allies who see the repeated aggression against oppressed peoples and identify with the victims at times hesitate to act because of internal pressures that hinder positive change, thereby making them complicit in the abuse. The police harassment of young men of color (specifically, black men) in the fictionalized version of Ithaca, New York offers the opportunity to both test the growing relationship between Denis and Archer, as well provide an illustration of how environments in which police feel enabled to profile and misuse their power are often allowed to flourish while allies turn away from fear of reprisals, or simple indifference.

The actions (or lack thereof) on behalf of the DA and the Sheriff’s offices have real consequences on the circle of friends that constitute the core characters of this series. But the consequences on the central love story are direct and immediate, and drive the romantic plot forward. It’s a credit to Herrera’s writing that she can center the issue of power and law enforcement in a narrative that never forgets that it is, first and foremost, a love story. The attraction between Denis and Easton is explosive and leaps off the page, but there is also genuine respect between the two leads derived from common values around serving the public good. I’ve read reviews calling out Denis for being strident in his beliefs and allowing them to potentially sabotage a relationship he deeply wants and needs. But the fact is, if you live our life constantly aggrieved by microagressions and you are victimized for things you can’t control (your race, culture or sexuality), then situations that are merely abstract for some become realities for others. This reality is lived every day and I absolutely love that the novel doesn’t relent in showing this.

And yet, despite the constant possibility that things will go sideways, love flourishes. Denis and Archer share a relationship that is built on mutual trust, vulnerability and the desire to learn and grow, to be active in their support, not only of each other, but of their beliefs. Easton, as a privileged white man, does not hesitate to be humble, to admit he is still learning, and willing to be guided in his desire for justice. His allyship is a verb and exists independent of his relationship with Denis. It makes their romance that much stronger because they already come to it with similar values.

Romance, at its heart, is always about the negotiation of power. Romances contend with power structures that inform the settings and cultures of the main characters, whether the author is conscious of this or not. I love that Herrera’s romance doesn’t shy away from showing how central this negotiation of power can drive a narrative, with consequences that are a reflection what is happening in the broader culture. It is a different kind of idealization from the one we come to expect in romance. This version of the romance fantasy says that, even in an imperfect world, where injustice is a rot that must be battled constantly, love and dignity can flourish. One informs the other, but in the best scenario, you can have both love and justice.

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – American Fairytale (American Dreamers Series)

Fairytale

From the publisher:

Fairy-tale endings don’t just happen; they have to be fought for.

New York City social worker Camilo Santiago Briggs grew up surrounded by survivors who taught him to never rely on anything you didn’t earn yourself. He’s always dreamed of his own happily-ever-after, but he lives in the real world. Men who seem too good to be true…usually are. And Milo never ever mixes business with pleasure…until the mysterious man he had an unforgettable hookup with turns out to be the wealthy donor behind his agency’s new, next-level funding.

Thomas Hughes built a billion-dollar business from nothing: he knows what he wants and isn’t shy about going after it. When the enthralling stranger who blew his mind at a black-tie gala reappears, Tom’s more than ready to be his Prince Charming. Showering Milo with the very best of everything is how Tom shows his affection.

Trouble is, Milo’s not interested in any of it. The only thing Milo wants is Tom.

Fairy-tale endings take work as well as love. For Milo, that means learning to let someone take care of him, for a change. And for Tom, it’s figuring out that real love is the one thing you can’t buy.

Review:
American Fairytale is the second installment of Adriana Herrera’s American Dreamer series. I read the first book, American Dreamer, and fell in total love with Nesto and Jude (check out my review here). This book is a perfect followup to the brilliance of her debut novel.

American Fairytale centers on the relationship between Camilo (Milo) Santiago Briggs, a Cuban/Jamaican social worker, and Thomas Hughes, a wealthy, Dominican/American tech CEO who, together with his two friends and co-owners, sells the company for an obscene amount of money. Milo and Thomas have an explosive hook up that, over the course of the novel, results in a relationship based on hard-earned understanding and mutual respect.

There is so much to unpack in this novel, so much that is done well. The negotiations between Milo and Thomas, given the huge wealth differential are critical to their blossoming relationship. They also share cultural understandings that can only come from people who come from a similar background. Kudos to Herrera for representing mixed identities in romance, something that doesn’t get depicted often. Both protagonists are of mixed parentage and this influences the way they navigate the world and their romance.

The only tiny complaint I have is that, at the end, I grew a bit exasperated with both characters – Thomas is a bit pig-headed about throwing money at problems after he is told, over and over, not to do so. Camilo, though, is also very stubborn about accepting help and complicates his existence in consequence. However, this also makes the novel more realistic because sometimes our biggest obstacles to happiness are not in external conflicts but in our own inability to get over intrinsic flaws that cause us to repeat the same damned mistakes over and over. Refreshingly, our protagonists are guilty of just that.

And can I say, I love an m/m romance that features every kind of relationship, including straight ones in a non-toxic way? Especially friendships with straight women.
I get the feeling sometimes in m/m romances that women and straight folks are characters-non-grata and, while I understand why this is the case, in the real world, things are a bit more nuanced. So kudos to Herrera for depicting that dynamic and generally giving primacy to healthy friendships as well.

Booksellers

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Review – Weird & Wonderful Holiday Romance

Weird

Booksellers

From the publisher:

Helmed by USAT Bestselling Author Caitlyn Lynch, 18 authors explore several lesser-known holidays. Featuring sweet country romance and sex in the big city, there’s something for all romance readers. Polar bear plunges. Sexy neighbors. Even a cute shifter or two. This anthology has it all!

Come celebrate the year with us!

Review:

I had the pleasure of reading this collection this week and was satisfied with both the quality of the stories as well as the variety. The anthology features both USA Today bestsellers as well as fresh, new writers and the result is a collection that will have something for everyone. The organizing theme – that of unconventional holidays – is a unique one and results in some interesting entries. For example, there is one of my favorite days, Pi Day, offered as the context for a lovely m/m romance, National Pride Day, the holiday for a Latinx F/F coupling, and an absolutely bonkers and delightful entry for Pins and Needles Day that features an M/M/F pairing that is as witty as it is sexy.

The anthology itself is very reader friendly, listing the Holiday, the day, a well-defined heat rating and, most importantly, extensive trigger warnings. It’s one of the most comprehensive I’ve seen in a collection of this type and, as a reader who may want to avoid certain topics, the listings are very considerate. I would highly recommend this anthology as an entry point for getting to know new writer as well as established ones in a way that is very accommodating to readers.

I was provided an ARC by the publisher.

Review – All Hours

All Hours

Amazon

From the publisher:

A RESTLESS ROMANTIC
Felix Pascual misses being someone’s boyfriend, which is why he’s willing to get set up by the only Hernandez he’ll admit to liking (out loud)—Lola. But when he gets to the restaurant he finds that Lola has matched him up with none other than Joaquin Delgado, a man who has never shown one iota of interest in him.. And Joaquin doesn’t seem any more open to Felix’s unique charms this time around . . .

A SKEPTICAL SUITOR
Joaquin will do anything for his grandmother. Even give a foul-mouthed, flashy Puerto Rican caterer who gets on his nerves—and makes him thirsty all at once—a chance to run his kitchen after he’s injured. After all, it’s just a few weeks. And he won’t be tempted since he’s given up on dating anyway . . .

A MATCH MADE IN SOUTH BEACH
But Felix won’t give up without the satisfaction of getting Joaquin to admit that he wants him. Felix is stubborn, and his growing desire for Joaquin is about proving a point. After all, it can’t possibly turn into something real . . .

Review:

I picked up this book, excited because it featured Puerto Rican leads. Given the growing interest in diverse characters, I was thrilled to give this book a try.

There are many aspects of the novel to recommend it. The characters are likeable and there is a lot of chemistry between them. They have great dialogue and their motivations are clear. Joaquin is a work-a-holic who could use some training in employee motivation and retainment. Felix is getting over a broken heart and plan on moving to New York for a new chance at life. There’s no question that the conflicts in this story promised to be strong, internal ones and I was ready for it.

However, I quickly got lost. Part of the problem was certainly me – perhaps I should have read the other installments of the series. There were a lot of assumptions about things I should have known but simply didn’t. For example, what could have been a great chance to reinforce the nature and importance of extended family in Latinx culture ended up being a kind of name-dump because I missed out on the earlier installments. As a result, I couldn’t assign importance to anyone outside of the main pairing and Lola.

This carries me to my next major point. These are Puerto Rican/Cuban/Caribbean folks. But I just didn’t feel it. Like, what about the food and the language, the code switching and the Spanglish, the funny habits and quirks that make us who we are? There is the fact that there is no one way to be Latinx but perhaps a concession would have made me happy. For example, Lola is a transplant – what else is she besides match maker? Again, I lay the blame squarely on myself, for reading the books out of order so I’m going to assume that her background, as well as others, was addressed and developed in those books.

Structurally, the beats were good and the leads adorable together. I felt the conflict could have been solved with a quick conversation. Roman was not a formidable villain and was almost cartoonish. However, he was intriguing because he served to make Felix desirable and sometimes, that’s a goal in itself.

Overall, I’m giving it a 4 because it’s a quick, fun and engaging read that you’ll certainly enjoy more if you’ve done the work of reading the other books. Now I’m off to look for a book featuring Lola 😊.

I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review – How to Belong With a Billionaire

HTBWAB

Booksellers

From the publisher:

If you love someone, set them free…

I thought I’d be okay when Caspian Hart left. He was a brilliant, beautiful billionaire with a past he couldn’t escape. And I was … just me: an ordinary man lost in his own life. It would never have lasted. It should never have happened. Not outside a fairytale.

And I am okay. I’ve got my job, my family, my friends, and everything Caspian taught me. Except it turns out he’s going to marry his ex-boyfriend. A man who doesn’t understand him. A man who almost broke him. And I’ve finally realized it’s not enough for me to be happy. I need Caspian to be happy too.

Problem is, I’ve already done all I can to help him. I’ve followed his rules and broken his rules and learned his secrets. And he still won’t believe I can love him. So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me.

Review

Check out my combined review for the two previous books:

How to Bang a Billionaire

How to Blow it With a Billionaire

Warning: Contains some spoilers

Initially, this review was intended to be a joint one together with my friend, handsfullmama. We’d broken down all the elements to discuss but realized, 5k words later, that maybe we’d taken the task beyond its intended purpose. Plus, 5k is very long for a review so we decided to cancel that project and take our observations back to our respective sites. As it is, this review is still insanely long so I apologize in advance.

So this series – I almost wish I could go back and review the series all over again with the third book in mind. What started off as a rejoinder to 50 Shades of Grey has in fact turned into a genre-challenging novel on sexuality, sexual abuse recovery and the subversion of the most toxic elements of mm romance. When looked at in its entirety, I have to kind of sit back and take a deep breath because there is a lot to work with here. I’m going to start with the craft stuff.

TL;dr – This series is excellent and worth all the stars. All. The. Stars.

Proceed at your own risk.

Structure/Beats

Obviously, being the third act of a trilogy and the post cliffhanger book, the beats differ from a standalone novel. There is a significant portion in the first half of the novel where Arden and Caspian do not spend actual time together on page. But Caspian’s presence is everywhere – he’s always on Arden’s mind as Arden actively works to get over him. Still, there’s lots of emotional tension from not knowing what form the resolution would take. It’s a credit to Hall as a writer that, even writing in the romance genre where an HEA is guaranteed, I was genuinely unsure until the very end if he would pull it off.

Characterization

Arden

My favorite character after Darian and Ash in Glitterland. Perfectly drawn, distinct voice, thinks like an English major steeped in pop culture. There’s a comment his aunt makes about Arden that sums up his character – he’s not a cynic. I don’t want to exaggerate his perfection because he’s not – Nathaniel wasn’t too far off base to call out Arden for wasting the privilege of studying at Oxford. But Arden’s faith in the goodness of people and general openness to life makes him precious. The way he sees Caspian is the perfect counterpoint to the way Caspian sees himself. Arden sparkles and you want to keep him safe even though he doesn’t actually need it. Arden is strong because he knows who he is, a sense of self that gets stronger as the narrative progressive. He also has a solid moral core, the result of being well-loved, and an intuitive understanding of what is right and wrong.

Caspian

Ah, Caspian, Caspian. He did not give me the kind of satisfaction as a reader that I wanted from a romantic lead. Hall does a good job of retooling the character of Christian Grey, with his need for control and his extensive emotional damage, to give us Caspian Hart. And considering the prime material, it’s a miracle we got what we got. Caspian has a lot of shortcomings. He pissed me off so many times because his own issues caused him to hurt Arden.

However there is no moment in the narrative where I doubted that Caspian loved Arden. Through all his misguided decisions, his self-loathing (“such a self-masturbatory vice”), his gift for hurting Arden, I knew he loved him. Caspian is himself wounded in so many ways and honestly, for as much as I kick and scream and whine about him, I get him. I’d have a hard time giving in to something that I felt reduced me as a human being and reminded me of my trauma. And if I considered my preference to be beyond deviant (the way Caspian describes himself, you’d think he was eating newborn babies), then I’m going to question who and how I love.

Arden fights this toxic belief throughout the series. It goes back to a persistent theme in Hall’s novels – that sexuality is fluid, that your preferences are your own and it doesn’t matter why want who you want, it’s the wanting that matters, if that makes sense. Arden keeps telling Caspian this – it’s just sex in the end. Who cares where your compulsions come from? It’s who Caspian is now. But Caspian takes a long time to accept what Arden is saying and he is still hesitant by the end of the novel.

His damage wrecks my heart. But he hurts Arden and really, I’m #protectArden all the way.

Also, as I’m rambling, this reminds me of a blog post that Hall made about Buffy the Vampire Slayer where he talks about the amorality of love – you can be evil and cruel and still be able to love someone. It isn’t that love, objectively speaking, is some sort of redeeming trait. Anyone can love. They may not love well, but they can love. Consider Ellery and the way Caspian responds to her. Caspian loves her but he has a tragic way of showing it.

After finishing the novel, I reread the blurb – “So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me ” I can’t help but feel that, yet again, it’s Arden, who fights to the bitter end and eventually saves Caspian.

Tropes

Billionaire Dom trope is completely upended. Caspian is a reluctant dom. I can see this being frustrating for readers who are ready for a bit of tie-em-up (and they get that through a secondary relationship) but Hall demonstrates a deep understanding and great respect for the experience of sexual abuse survivors. We never get to see actual BDSM between Arden and Caspian on the page and, given where the characters are in their personal development and in their relationship, this is appropriate. Not only, but the role of the dom and sub are subverted. Though Caspian will certainly take the lead in the role playing, it is Arden who is most at ease and will have to follow Caspian’s readiness and teach him to be comfortable.

In 50 Shades, we see an (overbearing) Christian Grey navigating Anastasia into a poorly interpreted BDSM space. In this series, the hesitation is on Caspian’s side, because of the association he makes with his sexual abuse, complicated by the fact that he takes too much responsibility for what took place. He is coming from a place where he sees his preferences, and by extension, himself, in a dirty light. Whereas James asks us to take at face value that Grey’s predilections were caused by his own abuse and can be “cured” by love’s true light (give me a moment while I barf), Hall has his Caspian suffering through the connection he has made between his abuse and his preferences. Caspian then enters into a truly toxic relationship with Nathaniel because it reinforces this image of himself, assumptions Arden continues to challenge. It is a neat role reversal and it works, again, because it’s very respectful of the experience of sexual abuse.

Another trope that is essentially trashed in this novel is the slutty bisexual trope. Because Arden is so sex-positive, he embraces the exercise of his sexuality like a maniac (yasss, son!). However, he then turns its ear completely because he is insanely in love with and committed to Caspian. He’s comfortable with the fluid nature of his sexuality and expresses pleasure with George without guilt (as well he should) but emotionally, he is all about Caspian. He demonstrates his commitment to Caspian by fighting for him to the very end, even when all evidence of Caspian ever reconciling with him seems absent. I’m all about smashing this trope. I honestly think you can’t label Ardy’s sexuality and that’s the point. We shouldn’t. Wherever our impulses come, they are valid, and sexuality is as much a part of a person’s character and their temperament as their other preferences.

So did I love this series? Sometimes I didn’t, but not because it wasn’t good. It was hard and demanding and intense but it was worth the roller coaster ride. There are so many fun references to pop culture and literature. Jane Eyre and Roland Barthes keep popping up (Barfes!). I’m not much for the post-structuralists but I’m going to have to go back and read something of Barthes now, dammit. All in all, this series is worth reading and rereading, as long as you don’t mind being emotionally shredded along the way.

Check out my combined review for the two previous books:

How to Bang a Billionaire

How to Blow it With a Billionaire

ARC provided by Netgalley

Review – The Affair of the Mysterious Letter

TAOTML

From the publisher

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham is drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

Review:

I read several novels this summer but this novel marked the beginning of my summer vacation. I loaded The Affair of the Mysterious Letter onto my kindle and, as soon as I was settled into my airplane seat, I began reading. And, of course, it was everything I expect Hall’s novels to be – fully immersive, clever and witty. I didn’t finish it on the flight – I fell asleep from the sheer exhaustion of going from one continent to another. But when I did finish it, I found it such a delightful novel, I shared it with my husband, with whom I normally share nothing in common in terms of books (I’m an avid fiction reader and he’s content to read Whitehead or Popper).

Hall writes the most distinct character voices. Some writers seem to write the same stock characters over and over in their novels but I have yet to find two characters in the books Hall has written that are the same. I enjoyed being in Captain Wyndham’s head. He’s a fitting stand-in for Watson, sort of the straight man to the sorceress, Shaharazad Hass. Conservative to the point that he won’t recount a swear word to the reader and possessing an endless store of euphemisms, he’s recently returned from fighting in a war in another universe to escape the disapproval of his people because he is trans male. But before you go imagining that sexual orientation or preference becomes some sort of extrinsic plot device in this novel, it’s not. It is part of Captain Wyndham’s backstory but it seems almost everyone in this fabulous novel is queer.

The world building is detailed and completely bonkers, featuring alternative universes, divergent timelines and weapons that defy the space-time continuum. And sorcery. Lots and lots of sorcery. The narrative is populated by the strangest creatures, not all of whom are humanoid or even mortal, and some beings who will just as soon take your soul as eat you alive. It’s really all delightful.

The character of Shaharazad Hass is a wonderful, well-wrought creation. She very clearly is a reworking of Holme’s character – unabashedly secular, intelligent and addicted to all kinds of substances. She simply does not give an absolute f*ck about anything. Cleanliness is optional. So are manners, politeness or punctuality. Everything bores her but when something crazy is about to go down, there is nothing she loves more. Her complete indifference to even the cursory exercises of the ordinary are thrown over in her gleeful pursuit of adventure and something upon which to engage her extraordinary mind. The blackmailing of her former lover provides just this opportunity and forms the mystery at the heart of the novel.

Talking about the mystery in the novel, it’s fun, it holds the plot together but is almost secondary to the pleasure of watching Hass get herself – and Captain Wyndham – in and out of mischief. Of course I wanted to know who was blackmailing Miss Eirene Viola (who stands in very nicely for the esteemed Irene Adler), but honestly, I just wanted to sit back and see what other complications Ms. Hass was going to drag her (somewhat) unwilling side-kick into. I wouldn’t mind a few more books featuring them in their wild adventures.

As books go, it’s a strong start to what I hope is a long series.

Review – Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night

 

  • Publisher: Vintage (May 26, 2015)
  • Publication Date: May 26, 2015
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English

 

Amazon

From the publisher:

In the familiar setting of Holt, Colorado, home to all of Kent Haruf’s inimitable fiction, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to a neighbor, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and in such a small town they naturally have known of each other for decades; in fact, Addie was quite fond of Louis’s wife. His daughter lives hours away, her son even farther, and Addie and Louis have long been living alone in empty houses, the nights so terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk with. But maybe that could change? As Addie and Louis come to know each other better–their pleasures and their difficulties–a beautiful story of second chances unfolds, making Our Souls at Night the perfect final installment to this beloved writer’s enduring contribution to American literature.

Review:

I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long—all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.

I’ve been a fan of Kent Haruf’s writing ever since I read Plainsong when I lived in Germany many years ago. Maybe it was the dreary winters, the constant busyness of a young, stay at home mother juxtaposed with the loneliness of being an expat in a foreign country, but his novels spoke to my state of mind at the time. It is no coincidence that this was my Raymond Carver/Denis Johnson period. I was drawn to writers who stripped their prose bare, their streamlined narrative full of subtext. Like the low skies and barren landscapes of a cold day in Erlangen, the emotional life of the novel lay below the surface of pragmatic prose and simple sentence structures.

I’m clearly in another place in my readings these days, so that this reading was pregnant with nostalgia. Not unlike Addie and Louis who, also designing a pragmatic solution to the solitude of their late years, launch into an affair of companionship and memory, where their comfort in each other is simultaneously the excitement of a newly discovered experience coupled with the familiarity of a life, if not shared, at least experienced along parallel lines that only rarely converged on the peripheries.

Addie and Louis are widow and widower to others, respectively. Their age means they are now supporting actors in the lives of their loved ones – Addie’s son and grandson and Louis’s daughter. Addie, unable to sleep at night, proposes a solution to their loneliness by inviting Louis to sleep next to her. She tells him it isn’t about sex, but about getting through the night. After some hesitation, Louis agrees, embarking on a relationship that surprises their neighbors and dismays their children.

I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.

This idea that the ability to care and nurture others is not exhausted with age is a prominent one in this novel, exemplified by the Addie and Louis, but also further explored in Addie and Louis’s relationship with her grandson, Jamie. Abandoned by his mother and left with a father overwhelmed by the failure of both his marriage and his business, Jamie is left with Addie until his family life is sorted out. Many of the insights into helping Jamie come from Louis as they established a mini family unit of lonely people who find comfort and belonging with each other.

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitements. And not all dried up in body and spirit.

There are simply not enough stories about deep relationships, much less love, between older couples. Though we live in progressive societies, the infantilization of the elderly is very common, as if the desire for connection, for the excitement of knowing a new person deeply bears an expiration date.  I enjoyed the development of Addie and Louis’s intimacy. Being of a certain age and knowing each other, at least superficially, for so long, there is a kind of short-hand to their intimacy that is paralleled in the paired-down narration.

I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day.

Addie and Louis’s connection is firmly rooted in the natural world. Very little in the way of religious sentimentality is present in the novel. Even Louis’s ideas of the afterlife harken to the Romantic belief in man’s connection to nature (I’ve come to believe in some kind of afterlife. A return to our true selves, a spirit self. We’re just in this physical body till we go back to spirit). Many of their shared experiences take place during excursions to the mountains or camping in the woods, experiences that include Jamie.  Haruf equates human connection with nature, placing this need on par with the most fundamental needs of human survival.

People need each other, not in a superficial way. We can spend an entire lifetime creating fragile bonds that turn brittle and dried up by habit or neglect. Haruf’s novel shows us that we not only need to connect, but that we are capable of this communion long into the twilight of our lives.

 

 

 

 

Review – Arctic Wild

arctic wild

  • Publisher: Carina Press; Original edition (June 3, 2019)
  • Publication Date: June 3, 2019
  • Sold by: Harlequin Digital Sales Corp.
  • Language: English

Amazon

From the publisher:

Hotshot attorney Reuben Graham has finally agreed to take a vacation, when his plane suddenly plunges into the Alaskan wilderness.

Just his luck.

But his frustrations have only begun as he finds himself stranded with the injured, and superhot, pilot, a man who’s endearingly sociable—and much too young for Reuben to be wanting him this badly.

As the sole provider for his sisters and ailing father, Tobias Kooly is devastated to learn his injuries will prevent him from working or even making it back home. So when Reuben insists on giving him a place to recover, not even Toby’s pride can make him refuse. He’s never been tempted by a silver fox before, but something about Reuben is impossible to resist.

Recuperating in Reuben’s care is the last thing Toby expected, yet the closer they become, the more incredibly right it feels, prompting workaholic Reuben to question the life he’s been living. But when the pressure Toby’s under starts closing in, both men will have to decide if there’s room in their hearts for a love they never saw coming.

Review:

I clicked on this novel in Net Galley for one superficial reason – I liked the cover. The series is set in Alaska and I’m a sucker for mountains and the wilderness, being an avid outdoors person myself.

Arctic Wild features two leads who are opposites in every way – Ruben Graham is a much older, successful lawyer who reluctantly goes on an Alaskan vacation after the couple who’d booked the trip with him bail at the last minute. He’s an intense workaholic, out of touch with his teenage daughter who just wants to a solid internet connection and a few hours of peace to get some documents read. Regarding the quest for internet and a few hours of peace, I can totally empathize.

Toby Kooley is a tour guide whose laid-back, social personality hides the burden of being the sole provider for his family. He is intrigued by Ruben’s intensity but, because of his work, he doesn’t pursue right away the spark of heat between them.

The romance between the two leads develops very slowly, accelerating after they experience a plane crash together in which Toby is seriously wounded. Ruben, out of a desire to be close to his daughter and a sense of duty towards Toby, takes a sabbatical from his work to care for Toby while he heals from his injuries.

I enjoyed the central love story of the novel. Often, I feel like mm romances tend to have less of a buildup and rush directly into the sex. This romance was a slow burn, where Ruben and Toby grow to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, becoming friends after the crash, and finally, acknowledging their attraction to become lovers. There is a bit of the frustrated love trope, where the leads think their romance cannot last beyond a certain expiration date and struggle to avoid investing emotionally in the relationship to minimize the pain of certain separation.

The descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness were pleasurable. I particularly appreciated the realistic reminders of the limits of living near the arctic circle – cold winters and short days. I love an idealized setting as much as the next reader, but I respect an author who does their research to provide as much verisimilitude as possible about the place they’re describing.

There were times when I found Toby to be a bit too limited in his thinking and it made me impatient with him. A lot had to do with his financial duress resulting from his inability to work. But his father also contributed to this idea that he should handle his own business, not ask for help and bear the weight of total financial responsibility without complaint. This expectation of excessive self-reliance hampers Toby’s ability to see his way to a long-lasting relationship with Ruben and while it made the father unlikable, it went a long way towards understanding Toby’s behavior.

Toby’s father and sister’s resistance to Ruben was a bit baffling to me. I understand a wariness of outsiders, but I found their concerns to be bordering on the paranoid. Without enough clarity from the narrative as to why they were so hell-bent on disliking Ruben, despite his wealth, selflessness and obvious feelings for Toby, it felt like a plot device dropped into the narrative to generate external conflict. On the other hand, Ruben’s teenage daughter, Amelia was very well drawn character and furthered Ruben’s development during their interactions.

Overall, it was a well-earned and satisfying love story featuring characters I mostly rooted for. The setting is wonderful and the path to intimacy felt authentic.  I have a soft spot for the slow burn and that was the case here. The writing was very pared down, as is often the case with contemporary romances, but it made for an easy read.

4 out of 5 stars.