Romance Mini Reviews: Let’s be Friends with Benefits

That it took me so long to read three books with this particular trope should tell you that it isn’t my favourite. I am not the biggest fan of miscommunication being the main drive for the angst in a romance novel and this trope mostly seems to rely on it. When it is done right it can be super lovely though and these three books I really enjoyed. Also, for the record, I do believe FwB situations can work.

38324363._sy475_Getaway Girl (Girl #1) by Tessa Bailey

Published 2018

It is no secret that I have been enjoying Bailey’s books a whole lot recently – and this one was no exception. Her writing is just so wonderful that I cannot get enough of it. Elijah has been left on the altar and finds solace in an unlikely friendship with his ex-fiancé’s estranged cousin, Addison. They first become friends and then friends with benefits in a way that felt organic. I love how nice they are to each other. This is one of the more angsty books by Bailey but the ending was absolutely worth it. In typical Tessa Bailey fashion, there is a lot of dirty talking but this time Addison gives at least as good as Elijah – and I loved it. I love when women know what they want and mostly just go for it. Addison was absolutely wonderful anyways.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: infidelity (in the past)

44663284._sy475_Relationship Material by Jenya Keefe

Published by Riptide Publishing, August 5th 2019

It’s not always possible to meet in the middle.

Registered nurse Evan Doyle doesn’t consider himself fit for more than occasional hookups. He has a good life, but the emotional aftermath of a horrific crime makes him feel too damaged to date. So when his sister’s hot bestie, Malcolm Umbertini, comes on to him, he turns him down flat. Mal is Relationship Material: the kind who thinks in the long term. What would Evan do with a man like that?

As a prosecuting attorney, Mal’s learned how to read people, and he knows there’s more to Evan than meets the eye. Mal has faced his own hardships since his family kicked him out as a teen, and he respects Evan’s courage and emotional resilience. More than that, he wants Evan—in his bed and in his life. But can he weather another rejection?

Both wary, they agree to a no-strings fling. Mal knows that Evan wants things to stay casual, but he’s falling in love a little more with each encounter. With health, happiness, and bruised hearts on the line, Mal and Evan must risk everything for love.

This book is a lot darker than the blurb makes it sound (see my content warning) but I thought it was still very much worth the read. Evan is deeply traumatized by a truly horrific crime (and living under witness protection) and does not feel up to relationships, especially not with somebody who he considers so very much relationship material. Mal on the other hand falls hard for Evan and is willing to take whatever he is willing to offer him. I thought they were lovely together. I love how open and honest they are with each other about boundaries and how accepting of each others’ trauma.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: Rape (in the past), assault (in the past), drug abuse (in the past), PTSD, forced prostitution of a minor (in the past), panic attacks, suicide (in the past), self-harm (in the past)

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Riptide Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

40793943._sy475_Three-Way Split by Elia Winters (2019 RITA Award winner)

Published by Entangled, 2018

I have never read a book with a polyamorous love story at the center and when this book won this year’s RITA Award, I figured this was my time to do so. And I am very glad I did. This was absolutely lovely with its focus on informed and enthusiastic consent, with people who actually communicate about what they want (most of the time at least), and a triad I could believe (who amongst us hasn’t wished a love triangle resolved by the involved parties deciding to all date each other). Ben and Michael (owners of a pub) have been roommates and friends with benefits for years when they both start sleeping with Hannah (owner of a sex shop) who has been flirting but not acting on it with Michael for a year. This book is definitely on the explicit end of the romance to erotica spectrum but it worked for me because the relationships felt believable.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: biphobia (always challenged), Ben’s ex-wife reacted badly to him coming out.

 

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Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

39689872._sx318_Verdict: Gutting, viscerally upsetting, stunningly written.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

Eimear McBride’s debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.

Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny – and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.

I don’t know what to say about this book. We have been buddy reading this with my Women’s Prize group (Rachel (5 stars), Callum (4 stars), Naty (currently reading), Emily (5 stars), and Sarah (in a reading slump)) and I have been periodically telling them that the book is killing me. And killing me it did. I do not know that I have ever read a book that I found this viscerally upsetting. It’s brilliant, mind, but so raw and so upsetting that I am glad to be done with it – while simultaneously wanting to read eveything Eimear McBride has ever written.

Told in fragmented sentences that are not so much stream-of-consciousness (although they are this too) but rather a stumbling, breathless kind of impressionistic language, the prose is the first and obvious draw here. It took me about three chapters of my audiobook to find my bearing (I listened to each of those first three chapters at least twice, frequently skipping back to relisten) but once I did, I found it mesmerizing. The rhythm to the language is stunning and McBride’s audio narration was just brilliant. I am a huge fan of books told in second person singular – and this rambling, raw narrative, addressed to the unnamed narrator’s older brother hit very many sweet spots for me.

This is a story about grief and trauma and I could not ever listen to more than half an hour before needing a break. The main character is traumatized: first by her brother’s brain tumor and her parent’s abuse, then again when, at 13, her uncle brutally rapes her. After this, she never finds her bearing again, getting lost in toxic behaviour and self-harm spirals. I found this book endlessly bleak – so much that by the end I could only listen to minutes before becoming overwhelmed. I also wish the people in the narrator’s life weren’t all this horrible – the horribleness of the uncle nearly eclipsed what an awful person her mother was as well. I thought the prose worked best in moments of immediate trauma but there were moments when I found it more vague than impactful. Still, what a brilliant, brilliant book.

Content warning: sexual assault, rape, pedophilia, cancer, familial death, religious bigotry, self-harm, alcoholism, abuse.

 

 

Review: Véra by Stacy Schiff

18667133Verdict: Fascinating, incredibly well-researched picture of a brilliant and frustrating woman.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Biography

Published by Random House, 2000

Find it on Goodreads.

Hailed by critics as “monumental” (Boston Globe) and “utterly romantic” (New York magazine), Véra, the story of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, brings to shimmering life one of the greatest literary love stories of our time. Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory, wrote his books first for himself and secondly for his wife.

Set in prewar Europe and postwar America and spanning much of the twentieth century, this telling of the Nabokov’s fifty-two-year marriage reads as vividly as a novel. Véra, both beautiful and brilliant, is its outsized heroine, a woman who loves as deeply and intelligently as did the great romantic heroines of Austen and Tolstoy. Stacy Schiff’s Véra is a triumph of the biographical form.

A biography written after its subject has died must necessarily be an approximation. This is never more true than in a case like this, where the subject wanted to be unknowable, even while alive (“I am always there. But well-hidden.”). It is this book’s greatest strength that Schiff manages to paint a vivid picture of Vera in all her wonderful contradictions regardless.

I knew nothing about Vera Nabokov when I started this book and I left it feeling like I had known her personally. The picture Schiff paints is endlessly fascinating: of a woman who was proud of her own opinions and quick to judge others who nonetheless thought her life’s work was to assist her genius husband while at the same time denying being part of his creative process in any shape or form (even if there are countless instances of her handwriting in his manuscript), of a genius polyglot who corrected translations of her husband’s works even in languages she didn’t properly speak who still felt like her English wasn’t good enough after dealing with legal affairs for decades, of a woman who well into her 80s absolutely loathed communism in an obsessive way, or a woman who obviously deeply loved her husband but seemed slightly cold towards her son with him.

The first half of the book was near perfect and incredibly well-researched, the ideal combination of literature critique and historical narrative (I learned things about the Russian emigré community in Berlin between the first and second world war that I didn’t even know I could learn about), and Vera was just the perfect combination of awful and brilliant – I do love unlikable women characters, apparently not only in fiction. I thought the second half (after Nabokov found lasting success with Lolita) was not quite as strong and started to feel repetitive. Her refusal to admit her importance for her husband’s work is fascinating – but I also got it the first three times Schiff made that point. I did, however, absolutely adore the last chapter and found the way in which Vera did not change her approach after her husband’s death incredibly interesting.

Content warning: Infidelity, Familial Death, anti-semitism (Vera was Jewish in early 20th century Europe…)

Review: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel

40778923Verdict: Strong start, disappointing second half.

My rating: 3 out of 5 star

Genre: Fabulist short stories

Published by Riverhead, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.

Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.

Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online–never mind that he’s a Cyclops.

With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.

I have been super in the mood for short stories and decided to start with a collection I was sure I would enjoy. Ramona Ausubel’s first collection was one of my favourite books of last year – there is just something about her brand of dark and twisted but whimsy and fantastical short stories that really works for me. And for the first three stories, I was in love and sure this would be another 5 star collection – but I didn’t love many of the stories that came after.

When Ausubel’s stories work for me, they are exactly in my sweet spot for short stories: dark and mean and filled with allusions to mythology; stories that deal with motherhood and being a daughter; they are challenging without being inaccessible; lyrical without being overly wordy. My absolute favourite story of this collection was “Fresh Water from the Sea” – both an exploration of the distinct feeling of returning to a country one has emigrated from and an exploration of the complicated relationship between a mother and one of her daughters influenced by this emigration. On the other hand, when they don’t work for me I find them vague and the weirdness off-putting; I also start to stumble over her sentence structure that I loved in other stories. In the story “Club Zeus” all the things I loved about the very first story of the collection (“You Can Find Love Now” about a cyclops setting up a profile on a dating app) – whimsical but dark allusions to mythology – really rubbed me the wrong way. I could just not get on board with the story at all.

Content warning: suicide, death, incest, pedophilia, in one story a woman has this idea of getting a doctor to surgically attach her hand to her husband’s arm and vice versa

Mini DNF Reviews: Romance Edition

I have mostly been reading romance novels lately and for the most part, I am loving it (obviously). I have found, however, that this is a genre where I am particularly trigger happy when it comes to DNFing books – part of what I love about the genre (I can be sure to get a happy ending!) also means that when I don’t click with a book (but don’t hate it), I don’t mind just putting it down. I don’t feel comfortable giving content warnings for books I haven’t finished as I worry to miss something and mislead people (but as always, if you have specific triggers, just let me know and I will do my best).

42766256._sy475_My Fair Viscount by Jess Michaels

Published by The Passionate Pen, July 9th 2019

I should just admit to myself that Historical Romance doesn’t work for me. Even the books that are objectively well written with fun characters (like Tessa Dare’s books) do not blow me away. This one here is a good book – but really not for me. It is also too short and as such moves to quickly to hook me. I read around half of it when I decided that I’d rather be spending my time on other books. I did like the focus on consent and it is also quirky in a way that I think would work for other readers.

42831646._sy475_A Beautiful Risk by Colette Dixon

Published by Caleo Press, August 13th 2019

This one I skim-read so much that it really doesn’t count as finishing it. I could not connect with the characters and I admit I got super annoyed with the male protagonist. I thought he behaved impatiently in moments where that was really not warranted given that the female protagonist is (for a very good reason) traumatized (her kid died in an accident). I was also not super into these elaborate sex fantasies these two people had about each other instead of, you know, just doing it. However, this isn’t a bad book – but for a totally different reader (that the book’s blurb called it heartwarming should have given me a clue from the beginning that this wouldn’t be for me).

Bloom-AnyoneButRich-28144-CV-FL-v2.inddAnyone But Rich by Penelope Bloom

Published by Montlake Romance, September 3rd 2019

I felt old reading this book. I found the drama at the heart of it ridiculous and to be honest childish. The basic plot is that three girlfriends made a pact when they were teenagers to never ever date one of the King brothers again, as these three brothers nearly cost them their friendship. This obviously proves impossible when the brothers return years later and now super rich (there really is no shortage of billionaires in Romancelandia). I could not suspend my belief here – especially because Rich, one of the brothers, really doesn’t seem appealing – and not even in the normal romance way too toxic way that can sometimes work surprisingly well. He is just boring – and the female protagonist’s infatuation with him seems unfounded (she is also a virgin, something that only rarely works for me – it so fundamentally changes the power balance). I just never bought into their relationship. Do not even get me started on Rich’s twin brother whose incredible stupidity felt gimicky and unbelievable. This really did not work for me and I gave up a little after the halfway point.

I received ARCs of all these books courtesy of NetGalley and the publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Romance Mini Reviews: Slightly Off-Limits

I am not the biggest fan of off-limits romances but when they are only slightly so, I can enjoy them because they add a bit of angst without it being overwhelming. I am also old though and I just cannot with romances involving really young people, so the books I read with off-limits romances only involve people who have been adults for at least a few years.

35836021Disturbing His Peace by Tessa Bailey

Published by Avon, 2018

This is the third in Tessa Bailey’s The Academy trilogy and by far my favourite. The Off-Limits-factor is that Danika is a recruit and Greer one of her teachers but it isn’t icky because they are both adults (and have been a while) and she doesn’t take any crap from him. I really enjoy Bailey’s writing and I do love how very much into each other these two are.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: Attempted assault, child abandonment (backstory)

30631124Pretty Face by Lucy Parker

Published by Carina Press, 2017

I love, love, love Lucy Parker’s romances: they are funny and lovely and super charming. In this one Luc Savage casts Lily Lamprey for her first West End role after playing a rather sexual role in a TV show – and as such dating her director would be absolutely catastrophic for her reputation. These two are not the biggest fans of each other in the beginning but they have a ridiculous amount of chemistry – and I loved them.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: slut shaming (always challenged), harassment, heart attack, death of a loved one

43834305._sy475_The Trouble with Love by Claire Contreras

Published May 2019

This was lovely – but also kind of forgettable. Morgan is starting her dream job at the company she has always wanted to work at – but her boss’ son is not only her brother’s best friend but her one-night-stand from a year ago. Bennett is relatively newly divorced and really does not believe in love any more – and he thinks that his best friend’s younger sister is seriously off-limits for him. Obviously this is not how it works out. I enjoyed how clever and driven Morgan is and I did like how very nice these two are to each other. I don’t love this whole idea that you should never ever sleep with your friends’ sisters – because that frames sex as something at least slightly shameful and degrading you shouldn’t be doing to a woman who has any connection to a man you know and I am not here for that. I am also not the biggest fan of the “super evil ex-wife” trope though and as such could not really warm to the book as a whole.

3 out of 5 stars

Content warning: Infidelity (back story), infertility, drug addiction (back story), child abandonment (back story), prostitution (mostly respectful), stalking

 

 

Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

36332136Verdict: Breathtakingly beautiful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Retelling, Fantasy(ish)

Published by Macmillan Audio, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Two mothers—a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf

From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.

For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

A retelling of Beowulf set in the suburbs, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife turns the epic on its head, recasting the classic tale of monstrosity and loss from the perspective of those presumed to be on the attack.

This was absolutely breathtaking. Again I am finding myself in the situation that a book is so very custom-made for me that my review will definitely not be objective in the least. There was very little chance of me not loving this – and I knew this after the first chapter. Maria Dahvana Headley had me hooked. This was incredible, so as usual in such cases, this will be a review filled with superlatives.

Maria Dahvana Headley loosely retells Beowolf but in the best possible way: setting it in today’s suburbia against the backdrop of an unnamed war abroad; I found it worked brilliantly but as I haven’t read Beowolf (although I did read the wikipedia summary in preparation for this book) I cannot speak to its success as a retelling. The fantastical elements are rendered in a way which makes in unclear what is real and what isn’t. I found the reading experience disorienting and claustrophobic (I mean this as an absolute positive).

The book mainly focuses on two women: Dana, a traumatized ex-soldier living off the grid with her son Gren, and Willa who is aiming to be the perfect suburban wife to her plastic surgeon husband and her son Dylan. These two women are one of the high points of this altogether impressive book. They are both flawed but compelling in the best possible way. They rage against the unfairness of their lives while simultaneously inflicting unfairness onto their sons. Willa especially was just my favourite kind of character: she is awful but has her reasons, she is believable while still being interesting, and her voice was impeccably done.

The way in which the Maria Dahvana Headley plays with voices and perspectives was another part that worked as if it had been written with me in mind. She mixes first person (for Dana) with close third person (for Willa) and passages rendered in a we-perspective (the mothers), always making careful use of repetition and imagery. Her sentences are breathtaking and the way her language flows just made my heart hurt while never sacrificing the emotional core of her work. I might have found a new favourite author.

Content warning: PTSD, war, loss of limbs and eyes, death (of children and spouses), animal hunting, miscarriage, abortion; (I am more unsure than usual if I mentioned everything, so if you have a specific trigger, please let me know so I can tell you)

This was the first book I read for my five star predictions.