Review: “Blue-Eyed Devil” (Travises #2) by Lisa Kleypas

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Haven Travis thought she was in love. Not even a passionate makeout session with a stranger in the wine cellar at her brother’s wedding could stop her from marrying Nick Tanner, the boyfriend her overprotective family strongly disapproved of. Two years later, after having endured the worst kind of hell in her abusive marriage, Haven returns to Houston to rebuild her life. As she tries to work in her brother’s property management company, start therapy and get a divorce, Haven runs right into Hardy Cates, her sister-in-law’s trailer park teenage crush and now a wealthy Houston oil tycoon. Her body still recovering from Nick’s last beating, Haven is still drawn to Hardy, just as she was when she kissed him two years ago.

Hardy, intent on pursuing Haven, has no idea about the trauma she has suffered. In fact, he still sees her as a spoiled college girl whose apparent liberalism was more intellectual snobbery than authentic sentiment. So when Haven tends to act a bit standoffish in response to his assertive, even aggressive pursuit, Hardy isn’t sure she’s merely skittish or a tease, and he tries even harder to win her over, purchasing a condo in the Travis building where Haven works, buying her a gift that brings back memories of Haven’s childhood, and inviting her to a dance with him in front of her family, who see him as a no good, lying jerk who will take advantage of Haven if given half a chance.

One complaint that I have with some romance novels is how some heroines who are recovering from abusive relationships somehow subconsciously recognize the hero as “safe” and have little to no compunction about jumping into a relationship–and in bed–with him. What I liked about Blue-Eyed Devil the most is that it did not follow this cliched path. From Sugar Daddy, we know that Hardy has a dark past, and Haven, who had no sexual experience before Nick, was at a double disadvantage, leading to some scenes where there is a realistic sense of conflict between the protagonists, showcasing their vulnerabilities. Hardy has his own demons from his trailer-park childhood, which makes his attraction to Haven very believable in a way that it wasn’t with Liberty, in the same way that Haven’s attraction to a man who reminds her of her approval-withholding father seems kind of logical. For many readers, this kind of psychological layering makes Blue-Eyed Devil an “issue book,” but for me, it’s really a book about people who have issues that make them good for each other but in ways that are really complicated and not instantly negotiable.

Still, the story is a romance at heart, and there is a certain amount of tension between the way the book tries to show Haven’s emotional journey in an authentic way and the almost fairy tale level of happiness we know Haven and Hardy will ultimately enjoy. On the one hand, I was really moved by Hardy’s reaction when he finally learns about Haven’s past and starts putting all the mixed signals in order. On the other hand, it is obvious that the scene was set up to push Hardy and Haven into physical intimacy so that their romance arc could progress. So, while we see Haven struggling to move forward from her abuse by dealing with a sociopathic boss and freaking out about Hardy in therapy, there is also a sense of her recovery being rushed so that Haven can have a healthy romantic relationship as soon as possible.

Plus, it’s not like Hardy is without his flaws, even though we know that he is supposed to be The One for Haven.But his missteps give his character some much-needed depth and let us see that this is a man who understands how vicious families can be, especially when he has his own self-destructive streak to manage. In Sugar Daddy, he was shown to be ruthless, selfish and willing to betray a trust to get what he wanted. But by Blue-Eyed Devil, we are supposed to be able to trust him as an appropriate partner for a largely fragile Haven, which means we have to believe he is fundamentally a decent guy. It might not be a problem for people who haven’t read  Sugar Daddy, but to me, his rehabilitation seemed quite artificial. It was a lot more believable to see what Haven gives to Hardy than to see Hardy as the guy who “saves” Haven.

In the end, though, Blue-Eyed Devil is as misleading a title for what was mainly Haven’s story as Sugar Daddy was for Liberty’s story. It’s not that the romance was an unimportant or peripheral aspect, or that the men were forgettable characters, but that the plot had a lot more substance by being about a woman’s journey to being able to trust and accept herself again. Overall, it was an engaging, emotionally fulfilling and psychologically satisfying read despite its many flaws and inconsistencies.

Review: “Do You Want to Start A Scandal?” (Castles Ever After #4) (Spindle Cove #5) by Tessa Dare

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Tessa Dare has a special place in my heart. Her book, Romancing The Duke, was the novel that got me back to reading historical romances. Its sequel, Say Yes to the Marquess, gave me one of my favourite couples. And When A Scot Ties the Knot, while not as good as the first two, was an enjoyable read I loved because it was right in the middle of my Outlander phase. Do You Want to Start A Scandal is a crossover between Ms Dare’s Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series, bringing together Rafe’s brother, Piers Brandon, and Charlotte, the last unmarried Highwood sister.

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It starts with the best of intentions. Charlotte Highwood has been labeled the “Desperate Debutante” by the tabloids because of her Mrs Bennet-on-PCP mother who literally keeps flinging her at eligible suitors. At a house party to convince her friend Delia Parkhurst’s parents to permit them to go to Europe before they both become well-married, bored-out-of-their-brains ladies of the ton, Charlotte sneaks into the library to “save” Piers by warning him to stay out of her way. However, her plans go up in flames when she and Lord Granville have to hide behind a curtain in a ‘compromising position’ so as to not be discovered by another couple who enter the room to have a tryst on the desk. Outed by their hosts’ ghoulish son to her overeager mother, Charlotte ends up exactly where she didn’t want to be: forced into a betrothal with a man she doesn’t love.

“I can’t agree to a convenient arrangement, my lord. Your devotion to duty may be admirable, but ‘lie back and think of England’ simply isn’t for me.”

His voice became low and dark. “I cannot promise you everything you might wish, but I promise you this: When I take you to bed, you will not be thinking of England.”

Piers Brandon had hoped to keep a low profile at the house party. A well-traveled diplomat (read: spy, obviously), he did not expect to be distracted from his mission by an outspoken chit. Having spent his life controlling his surroundings to forget his family’s troubled past, the last thing he wanted was any emotional entanglement. And that is exactly what Miss Highwood will be. However, Piers cannot seem to stop himself from continually seeking out Charlotte or putting them in situations that could further ruin her reputation. The easiest thing to do would be to find out who started the whole fiasco and make them fess up. But Piers isn’t so sure he can walk away from the golden-haired beauty or imagine a life without her laughter and charming ways.

“What’s your plan…?” she whispered. “Do you mean to kiss me so long and so hard that I’ll forget your identity?”
“No.” His hand slid to the back of her head, tangling in her hair–so tightly she gasped. “I mean to kiss you so long and so hard that you’ll forget yours.”

Since the hero’s a spy, the story has the requisite lock-picking, dangling from windows, mysterious fires being set, poison, and even more mystery solving. Actually, most of that is done by Charlotte, not Piers, which drives him up a wall. Piers may be the worldly one, but Charlotte has so much more emotional maturity. She knows what she wants for her future. She doesn’t want to settle; not for a loveless marriage, even if it is with a man above her station. And as she grows to care for Piers, she wants more for him as well.

She unsettled him; he anchored her. Together, they could be more than they were apart.

Their romance is so lovely and sensual. I loved every single thing about it. It builds slowly and believably while they are embroiled in the search for the couple actually in the library having sex. The more time they spend together the more they want each other. The more they want each other, the deeper they fall in love. Piers is sigh-worthy, Charlotte is so fierce and kind and loving. Together they are sure to have fans of this genre squealing in excitement and swooning from the love overload.

For all the fun and froth, though, there are some very well-realised moments of deeper emotion in the story.  I particularly enjoyed the scene when Charlotte comes to a fuller appreciation of what her mother’s life has been, which is poignant and nicely understated.

Although the book fits into two different series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read either of those in order to enjoy it as it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Charming, sexy, and often laugh-out-loud funny – seriously, I’ll never think of perfume or look at an aubergine in quite the same way again! – Do You Want to Start a Scandal? is just the ticket if you’re looking for a well-written, feel-good read.

Review: “Sugar Daddy” (Travises #1) by Lisa Kleypas

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I’ve never written a review of a romance novel I have such mixed feelings about. From what I gather, Lisa Kleypas is a legend in the ‘historical romance’ genre, and this is her first attempt at in the ‘contemporary’ genre so I’m willing to be a little forgiving. But there are several things in this book that made absolutely no sense to me.

When the story begins, Liberty Jones is a shy girl growing up in a trailer park in Welcome, Texas with her mother and the mother’s loser boyfriend. At this point, we’re told that Liberty’s father was Mexican and she has faced some backlash for not resembling her caucasian mother. Her mixed race heritage is brought up repeatedly throughout the book but never dealt with.

Liberty falls for bad boy Hardy Cates, who is driven by his desire to get the hell out of Welcome ASAP, even though he and Liberty have undeniable chemistry. She is heartbroken but her problems multiply thousandfold when her mother suddenly dies in a car accident and leaves her to take care of her 2-year old half-sister, Carrington. Why anyone would name a kid Carrington escapes me, but I’m going to chalk it down to a ‘Texan thing’ like the author has to excuse a lot of erratic behaviour by different people throughout the story.

At some point, I started to wonder why the series was called “Travises” considering nobody named Travis had appeared so far. But then we see Liberty move to Houston after she hustles for a couple of years and becomes a cosmetologist. Working at a top-notch salon, she meets old multimillionaire Churchill Travis, who takes a shine to her. She convinces him to get manicures and they become good friends. All this time, I’m really hoping that they don’t sleep together primarily because I’m still convinced Hardy is the hero of this tale. Liberty says he is The One enough times.

But, wait. Churchill breaks his leg and asks Liberty to become his live-in nurse. That’s when we meet Churchill’s disapproving oldest son, Gage Travis. He is the typical alpha male who charms the damsel by giving her a glimpse of his many, many flaws. He enters the story so late that for a while I was really doubtful if he was the hero. (His name’s not even mentioned in the blurb!) However, sparks fly and now Liberty and Gage enter into a romantic relationship and my dubious HEA seems within grasp.

With some 60-odd pages left in the story, Hardy reappears and Liberty’s reaction to him is so powerful, I am surprised he was not the one she ended up with. But then, there was a painfully bad industrial espionage scene and Liberty sees how Hardy has grown up to be a ruthless money-grubber. So she goes back to Gage, who was having her followed without her knowledge and who pins her down and has sex with her when she tells him that she needs a break from him. That she liked it and he apologized for it afterward, does not take away from the fact that it was rape and Gage is a stalker.

Romance is hands down my favourite genre. But justifying disturbing, violent and abusive behaviour in the name of love is not romantic. Stalking is not romantic. Sex with questionable consent is not romantic. A heartfelt apology after the fact is not a cure-all. I haven’t read any of Lisa Kleypas’ other books so I won’t make it personal, but I’d like to appeal to romance authors out there and say that love is one of the most powerful emotions a human being can experience, but it is meaningless without consent. Please keep that in mind.

The book has many other flaws and some redeeming chapters but since the aforementioned issue is so important, I will not be dealing with the rest in this post. Hopefully, Ms Kleypas’ other books are not this sickening.

P.S. If anyone figures out why, in the name of God, was this book titled Sugar Daddy, please let me know. Thanks.

Review: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano

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When I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I had no idea that it was originally published in Italy, had been translated into over 30 languages and had sold over a million copies. The few reviews I read before writing this post were nothing but complimentary, calling real-life particle physicist Giordano a literary genius and an incontrovertible  hottie.

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 At first glance, the novel seems to be a very conventional love story about two people who have been marked by tragedy in their childhood. When she was a plump little girl, Alice used to be forced by her domineering father into taking ski lessons. On one such freezing, very foggy morning, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, get lost in a fog and lose all sensation in one of her legs. Of course, that means Alice is justified in growing up seething with resentment, taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy suffering from an undiagnosed variant of autism,  is growing up across town, imprisoned in a desperately lonely childhood largely because of his twin, Michela, who is developmentally disabled. Mattia’s clueless parents persist in sending both children to the same school, so Mattia never gets to play with his classmates and, above all, never gets invited to any birthday parties. When Mattia and Michela finally do get an invitation, Mattia ditches his sister in a public park right next to a turbulent river, telling her to wait a few hours until he comes back. Of course, little Michela is never heard from again. There’s nothing for Mattia to do but turn into a mathematical genius with a propensity to self-harm.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years, Mattia and Alice go to the same school. Alice is being systematically tortured by the Italian version of Mean Girls, exacerbating her anorexia. Then the main tormentor orders Alice to find herself a boyfriend. Alice picks Mattia, who may be smart but is utterly lacking in social skills. They kiss at a party, and this experience, though it seems somewhat repugnant to them both, has the effect of making them soul mates for life.

While writing this, I keep thinking of those reviews which claimed that every reader of this novel will find small pieces of themselves in it. What particular small piece would that be? Alice spends the next 15 years or so sulking in her room, blaming her oaf of a father for her loneliness and depression. When she finally does get a job, it’s a transparent plot setup for Alice to punish her high school tormentor. She finally marries a nice-enough man who wants nothing more than to have a normal life with some children in it, but Alice’s concave belly is far more dear to her than any hypothetical kid. Her husband is intelligent enough to recognise “Alice’s profound suffering,” but obviously not close enough to help her battle her condition.

Things haven’t been going well for Mattia either. He’s grown up to be a mathematical genius, but when he gets an offer from a foreign university to take a prestigious research position, even his own mother isn’t sorry to see him go: “She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and that place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black hair dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him.”

Since I’ve been on a spree of watching Hitchcock movies and listening to Sinatra all day, I can’t help drawing parallels between Solitude and Dean Martin’s Rebel Without A Cause. Except in the latter, James Dean was not only smarter than his obviously moronic parents, but more special, better in every way. He was better because he was cuter, but he was also better because he suffered more; he had a livelier sense of the sorrows of the human (adolescent) condition. It’s a given here that both Alice and Mattia are better, made of entirely finer clay than their parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realise that odds are pretty good that you’ll end up with the same skin and shortcomings is the quintessential adolescent tragedy. Did I mention that Mattia carves up his skin and puts out the flames on stove tops with his bare hands? He manages to be in agony most of the time. And of course, Alice refuses to treat her behaviour as problematic on any level.

There’s no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I’m just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion.

Review: “A SEAL’s Seduction” (Uniformly Hot #1) by Tawny Weber

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I was pretty apprehensive when I saw this series next on my TBR list. I hadn’t posted anything in over two months and I felt the shame a lot of people do when they have to write about “trashy, Mills & Boon type” romances. As for me, I hadn’t even read one of those ever since I graduated high school and I felt mildly excited to read a Blaze series, my second such novel to date.

The premise was pretty straightforward.Scientist and psychologist Alexia Pierce had recently moved back to San Diego to work on her research helping victims of sexual trauma through subliminal messaging and reconnect with her family. As the daughter of a super uptight admiral, Alexia was used to being uprooted often without being told why. Now, all she’s looking for an emotionally honest and open relationship. Her only no-no: dating a soldier.

Navy SEAL Blake “Boy Scout” Landon has never had much until his military career and doesn’t expect much beyond it. He had recently suffered the loss of a teammate and seeing what death does to those it leaves behind, the last thing Blake wanted in his life was a committed relationship.

As usual, when Blake and Alexia meet, the chemistry is undeniable and they end up having a wild weekend full of mind-blowing beach-bed-balcony-and-table sex. On the verge of contemplating a relationship, Alexia finds out that Blake is a military man and her father’s protegé. She totally shuts him out. Wallowing in survivor’s guilt, he lets her go. But when their paths cross again eight months later, will they be able to give each other a second chance?

Both Alexia and Blake were smart, compassionate and respectful. They both work in fields where communication is vital and excel at their jobs, but find it hard to say what’s on their mind when their feelings and hormones get in the way. Their chemistry together is unbelievably hot and their struggles to accept each other as a potential life-partner seemed realistic. I enjoyed their banter and only wish that their HEA was fleshed out a tad better to nicely round the story up.

Considering that this was a Blaze novel, I was quite surprised at the level of emotional depth the characters possessed. The many, many sex scenes are steamy and well-written. The secondary characters are relatively well-developed and possessed depths I wasn’t expecting from the author or the genre. There were the usual minor problems one faces with every Mills & Boon, like: “How could an accomplished psychologist not know that every soldier is not a replica of her unloving father?” or “Why does Alexia’s place of work have to be called something as moronic as the Science Institute?” or “Why does Blake say godawful corny things when he’s about to have sex?” but those can be ignored. What I couldn’t stand the most was Ms Weber writing an Adult Romance series that borders on Erotica and still using the phrase “girlie parts” around 10 times.

A SEAL’s Seduction was a good enough book to pass the time and a happy reminder of my teenage.I am mildly interested in seeing where the rest of the series goes.

Review: “A Bad Character” by Deepti Kapoor

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Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character is about a tumultuous period in one college-going female student’s life in New Delhi. Kapoor’s novel seems influenced by the novels of writers like Marguerite Duras, jean Rhys and Kate Zambreno, but it’s being marketed as one of the few contemporary novels by non-white, non-Western writers that explore the intersection of female urban experience and sexuality in a South Asian city.

Kapoor’s novel is about a 20-year-old protagonist whose actual name is never revealed—though, at the start of the story, she gives herself a name, Idha: “lunar, serpentine, desirous”—and her slow disintegration into a life of drugs, drink, sex, and aimless meandering. When we meet Idha, she is living with her well-meaning but utterly proper and bourgeois aunt; her mother died when she was 17 and her father has slowly drifted into a new life in Singapore that doesn’t include his daughter. As Idha explains, “I don’t know why it happens. I can’t explain why I’ve been abandoned this way”. Her aunt, like most upper-middle-class Indian women, wants for her niece what she herself was trained to want: a husband, a family, a nice home, some children, comfort, and luxury if she’s lucky. Idha chafes against these imposed restrictions even while dully fulfilling what is required of her: attending classes, hanging out with female college mates, going for “visits with Aunty”, and acquiescing to meet prospective husbands.

On the inside, however, Idha is raging, but very quietly. Alone and introverted since she was a child, Idha finds it hard to adjust to bourgeois society’s expectations of A Good Girl: “The agony of being alive, of functioning like a human being. Can you understand this? This is who I am”. So when she meets a man—or rather, allows herself to be met by him—in a coffee shop one day, even though everything about the way he is goes against what she was raised to want, she allows herself to fall into his orbit.

Much of Idha’s subsequent depiction of the events that occur feel this way: she allows things to happen to her. Little is known about what Idha wants, desires, or is curious about, except the fact that she can’t bear to go on living as she always has. In one way, this is understandable—sheltered as she is, Idha’s love affair with this man was one manner of trying out a life. However, this option to experiment is of course not afforded to all young women of Delhi, and Idha’s story is just one very privileged perspective among the many narratives of female experience that exist in the city.

Many reviews of A Bad Character draw attention to how this book has arrived at the right time, since feminists outside of India, particularly Western liberal feminists, are suddenly paying attention to India after the Nirbhaya rape case made international news. What’s disturbing is the silence by the majority of reviewers around the particular perspective that Idha brings: that of a privileged, financially-secure young girl who, no matter how much she experiments, will always have the safety networks of family connections, due to her class position, to see her through to relative safety, or at least help her land on her feet.

In any case, these recollections are being written by a mature, and we presume, older and wiser Idha, we learn that the only person who ends up dead is the man she was with—and though Idha refers to him as “my love”, it’s hard to know if she ever loved him. If love is meant to be in the showing instead of the telling, it’s hard to tell if this is a weakness of Kapoor’s writing, or her intention to muddy the waters. Either way, the result feels vague, inconclusive, and not in the manner of Duras or Rhys, where the vagueness or indecipherability has a narrative goal, in that it reflects the character’s psychic volatility. In Kapoor’s case, it just feels like a deliberate effort at being poetic or literary to no particular end. There are also perplexing switches of narrative voice from first-person to third-person that do nothing to either anchor the story or free it from its constraints.

From the start, Idha tells us that her lover had dark skin, and was ugly: “Ugly with dark skin, with short wiry hair, with a large flat nose and eyes bursting either side like flares, with big ears and a fleshy mouth that holds many teeth.” There’s a moment when Idha lectures us: “It’s the years of conditioning that make me think his dark skin is ugly, poor, wrong. Which makes me think he looks like a servant.” This is all well and good, this awareness, but it has not translated to knowledge, as the older and wiser Idha continues to tell us that the fact of her beauty in contrast to his ugliness is what turned her on. In her society, this dark-skinned man will be thought of as ugly, more properly a servant, but Idha is held apart from this society, as someone different, someone who will actually have sex with a dark-skinned man who “looks like a servant”.

It’s hard to know whether the older Idha is aware that this fetishisation is as abhorrent as her family’s and friends’ condescension of people who look this way. When Idha loses her virginity to him, she notes that “he was a part of me, his ugliness, his black skin”. It’s an utterly disturbing observation, and not because this declaration is brave and subverting established norms, but because of its lack of self-awareness. Whatever it is, naïve and lonely Idha is shrewd enough to be well aware of her own value in contrast to a dark-skinned man when she has sex with him for the first time.

Caste and class politics are erased, both in Idha’s narrative and the reviews that praise A Bad Character, but a fundamental fact of Idha’s attraction to this dark-skinned, ugly man—so hot, apparently, when considered in contrast to her beauty—is that he speaks well, with an accent that sounds American, and is conveniently very rich. Idha knows it’s years of conditioning that makes her think he looks ugly, like a servant. Yet, she enjoys how he has money but doesn’t flaunt it, how his accent and “educated” voice and his manner of speaking English indicates his class position—yay, he’s not a servant!—and the unique cool factor this brings: “It marks him out as different too. Combined with his ugliness, his confidence, his dark skin, it’s intriguing. For someone who looks like him, it turns him into a mystery”. At this point I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to stop and applaud or perhaps give Idha a medal for being an affluent pretty young girl who is so vastly different from her her shallow peers and female relatives that she has decided to be with an affluent ugly young man who may be mistaken for a servant because he has dark skin, but who (plot twist!) is actually not a servant.

Brave Idha! Resisting and subverting Indian middle-class norms by being with a bougie Indian man who doesn’t look the part. Slow clap?

If I sound impatient, it’s because I am. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is a formative, if brief, analysis of how blackness and the fetishisation of it is deployed, intentionally or not, by so-called liberal white writers. In “playing with darkness” through form and content, those canonical works actually uphold and solidify white supremacy in America and lay bare how the spectre of blackness is how the white American subject comes to know and understand itself and its place in the citizenry. Similarly, the work of “dark skin” and its spectre in Indian society, particularly middle-class, caste Indian society and specifically in the context of what is then sold and marketed as a form of liberatory, universal feminism, is worthy of analysis.

Colourism in India is, of course, produced by racism and the aftereffects of colonialism, but how does it continue to live on and take material proportions? The fear and fetishisation of dark skin is a thread that runs throughout this book but not once does Idha, who finds all things about middle-class Indian society stifling, look the matter of caste and racism squarely in the face. This would have probably been too “extreme” for a liberal novel; it would become “too political” and not “art”, presumably. On the other hand, Idha’s inability to see much beyond her own situation is the most striking symptom of her privilege. The narrative utilises her youth and femininity as a shield to preemptively protect her from criticism of being (there is such a thing) dangerously self-absorbed, and accordingly, the reviewers follow suit in taking their cues about how to think about the book by the book’s very ideology.

All this doesn’t mean that Idha’s lover is blameless. It seems quite obvious that he is also clearly using her to his own ends; excitement, sexual variety, the allure of forming young pretty college girls into his own image, as if they were clay. Again, the reader is meant to see this as love, and it’s entirely possible that love existed between these characters, but the facts of Idha’s narrative also point to a curious intermingling of misogyny (he sees her as a lump of clay waiting to be formed but grows contemptuous of her naïveté, and then becomes outright abusive), and a particular form of Indian colourism (she sees him as ugly and dangerous, and makes constant reference to the monstrous, animal-like qualities of his face). At one point, his face is even described as taking on a “tribal” quality, whatever that means. Actually, perhaps we know what that means.

This dark skin of his is also imbued with an animal-like quality and is supposed to indicate the madness that exists in him, his Shiva-the-destroyer side. The fact that Idha tries to make associations like this: dark skin reflects madness, or that madness is made animalistic, wild, and tribal, is possibly an indication of poor writing or a weak imagination, or that both the writing and imagination are such because of the years of “conditioning” that the writer has been subject to. (There are other similar revelations: another dark-skinned man, a drug dealer, is made palatable by the way his face “catches the light”, while a waiter is described as being handsome “in a mountain way, Kashmiri, Himachali, or Afghani, a killer” a description that is notable for the way it embeds multiple bigotries in one sentence!) This is a recurring theme: servants have a certain look, the uneducated have a certain look, killers have a certain (racialised) look, and Idha is constantly taking note of how people behave differently from what their image represents to her without seeming to actually learn anything from these observations.

Sometimes Idha’s observations are so trite as to be embarrassing, her privilege producing a vision of the world so naïve that while sitting in a cafe as a paying customer, she manages to think of the waitress, who is from the North-East, as more fortunate than her: “the kohl around her eyes looks like rebellion, around mine it is a prison.” No doubt the waitress experiences her ethnicity in India as a form of prison, considering the systemic ethno-racism of the Hindu Brahmin majority (Idha’s aunt, for example, refers to this woman and others like her as “Chinky”), but perhaps lining her eyes thickly with kohl as she works a low-wage job serving Delhi’s pampered youth enables her to be free? One is not quite sure.

The plain fact is that Idha’s worldview is steeped in racism and class privilege, but we are meant to sympathise with her because she is so very sad. The reader’s emotions are manipulated toward a very particular end; that of excusing much of Idha’s views due to naïveté, youth, and femininity. In some ways, it’s an insulting view of youth and femininity.

Idha generally doesn’t think well of most of the women in her life; be it her college classmates, or the women of her aunt’s circle, or even the Muslim women whom she encounters while going to enjoy the transcendent effects of qawwali at the shrines of Sufi saints. The women of her circle don’t understand how deep her river flows, while the Muslim women present a nice exotic tableau upon which both Idha and her lover can project their desires straight-out of some embarrassing orientalist fantasy; lust on his part, apparently, for “their enormous kohl eyes etched in black, for their lips made up with ruby-red and lashes rising to the moon” and her romantic musings on this curious others, these “heavenly girls of milk-white whose skin the sun does not see—they glide past us in silence with their painted cat eyes framed in black.”

I’m not sure if these Muslim women are even part of this planet, much less India. The sun does not see them but their lashes are rising to the moon, so at least they’ll have somewhere to land, we hope. As part of the pampered elite, Idha and her lover are cultural tourists in their own city. While it becomes clear that a middle-class Hindu woman can have access to these spaces safely in the presence of a middle-class Hindu man, once she has access to these masculine freedoms Idha can only pontificate about Delhi, the city of “meat and men”, in terms of the freedoms of the men of her class, religion and caste. One hopes for Idha’s lashes to rise to the moon, to take her out of this bubble in which she seems trapped intellectually and emotionally.

When female-centred narratives like this appear on the market, there is a rush to praise and support them in an effort to somehow curb the sexism (often disguised as mere preference for “work that’s good, you can’t blame me that it’s men who are producing good literature!”) that proliferates in the publishing world. I’m gonna say it: “as a woman”, I understand this impulse. But there is also the danger of presenting all women who write about specifically feminine experiences as above criticism, as though simply being a woman means that they must be spared critical scrutiny or that all such scrutiny has its roots in misogyny. This is dangerous in its own way, conveying the idea that women are eternal victims who cannot be responsible for what they produce, and erasing differences between women that arise out of caste, class, and race.

Most often, this is because the “feminine experience” that often sees the publishing light of day reflect a bourgeois worldview that is then praised by reviewers who come from the same background. Any criticism on the grounds of class or race or caste is often drowned out by accusations of misogyny. The positive praise for Kapoor’s novel that doesn’t address the troubling aspects of this book at all fall into this category. Would this book have been written if it wasn’t about a middle-class girl who is tainted by proximity to darkness and black skin? I find it hard to imagine that this book would have come into existence in this way if the man in question, the man who sets things in motion, was fair and lovely. The spectre that haunts A Bad Character is the spectre of darkness.

In the end, it’s hard to shake off the sense that while Kapoor can write with originality and imagination about Delhi (though even here one gets the unsettling sense of a distinct bourgeois aversion to Delhi’s “masses”, those awful people who are dirty and everywhere and stare at Idha with mean eyes), the story she tells about men and women and sex isn’t new or refreshing or subversive. It’s the same old story: Young girls are made interesting by their beauty, and men, no matter how unattractive or sexist, are made interesting by their wealth. Even after she learns of her lover’s death and spirals further into depression, Idha goes around meeting men and ends up having a fling with a rich businessman who sets her up with her first post-college job and apartment. Before that, the first random guy she picks up at a cafe is a blonde Danish expat who is boring and generally unappealing, but dresses in a manner that indicates a “pardonable air of wealth”.

Kapoor’s entire narrative sets Idha on a collision course with hypocritical Indian bourgeois morality, but as it turns out, all Idha ever wanted was to feel a little more comfortable in her skin within that milieu. She may complain about Delhi’s “meat and men” and its rich, entitled sons of wealthy patriarchs (“Delhi is rotten with the sons of men”), but the crucial fact is that it’s the men with wealth who often grab her attention and end up in her bed. Feminine disgust and fear of the city and its dangers has its roots in sexual violence, but it’s mediated by ethnicity, class, and caste.

Too many reviews of this book universalise Idha’s experience and praise it for providing a window into the Indian woman’s experience. Which women? Having gotten to know members of Delhi’s upper classes, people who generally want for nothing but appear to be skilled at destroying their own lives and the lives of others, the reader has spent considerable time with more than one bad character and is none the better for it.

Review: “The Singles Game” by Lauren Weisberger

singles-game

In the latest from The Devil Wears Prada author Lauren Weisberger, professional tennis player Charlie Silver plays by the rules. She’s polite, congenial—and ranked 23rd in the world, disappointing early predictions she’d take her love of the game to the top. After her good-girl game stops her from asserting herself at a disastrous moment, nearly ending her career, she’s ready to take risks—but is she ready for the consequences?

Charlie hires a hotshot coach who decides her image needs a little more intimidation factor. Dressed in black and nudged from flirtation to a full-on celebrity relationship, Charlie is told that her team is just changing her persona, not her personality. But as her ranking—and her profile—climbs, she starts to lose track of the line between the two.

The Singles Game highlights Weisberger’s familiar theme of a woman finding the balance between letting the world talk her out of a dream, and letting the world seduce her into sacrificing more than she should to achieve it.

Some of the best points of this book include backstage access to the wild world of elite tennis—as wild as top athletes who barely touch alcohol and prioritise a good night’s sleep can be, anyway. Casual tennis fans and gossip aficionados alike will enjoy the product of Weisberger’s research behind the scenes of world tennis, which included extensive access at tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, an interview with Serena Williams’ hitting partner, and more.

One of the strongest aspects of the picture Weisberger paints is a sense of being inside a world usually glimpsed only in TV clips and magazine articles. The reader gets the juicy feeling of knowing the real story behind the gossip even before it hits Page Six—but feels the ordinary loneliness of a workaholic, too.

The fast-paced summer read lacks the gripping tension of Weisberger’s best-known hit, and Charlie’s moments of crisis fall a little flat. But the glamour tantalises and doesn’t take over the story, and while a little two-dimensional, Charlie feels relatable even as she trots red carpets (in customised Louboutins, naturally) and wears a literal (if tiny) crown.

It might just inspire readers to get in shape—or else just sit back, turn on a tennis match, eat something delicious and enjoy the freedom of not having to live like an elite athlete.

Review: “Love Irresistibly” (FBI/US Attorney #4) by Julie James

Love Irresistibly

I have realised that whenever I read a Julie James book, a few things are guaranteed to happen. I will say ‘Aww’ about a million times. I will laugh out loud while grinning a couple of hundred times. I will fan myself twice or thrice during every sex scene. And I will irrevocably fall in love with a hero with a four-letter name. I’m talking about you, Jack, Nick and Kyle, especially you, Jack. 😉 And I’d like to welcome to Cade Morgan to the club.

I am so happy after reading Love Irresistibly! It is what I look for in a contemporary romance: great characters, a believable blend of romance, funny dialogue that all comes together in a story that flows with feeling and depth to it as well. It’s damn near perfect.

Brooke Morgan, a brilliant lawyer and general counsel for Sterling Restaurants, came from humble beginnings. She wants to climb the corporate ladder and prove that she belongs where she is and where she’s going. Cade Morgan, assistant U.S. Attorney and former football star, is making a name for himself going after corrupt politicians. He wants to set up a sting in one of Sterling’s swanky restaurants, acting on a tip that a corrupt senator would be dining there. Cade shows up at Brooke’s office with two FBI agents in tow thinking they would help intimidate Brooke into helping him. Brooke is no pushover and wants details before she commits. I didn’t have to wait long for Julie’s trademark witty banter to make its appearance.

“That is nice, Mr. Morgan. Because in response to your tough-guy speech, I, in turn, would’ve had to give you my tough-girl speech, about where, exactly, federal prosecutors who come into my office looking for assistance can stick their obstruction of justice threats.”

Their opening meeting sets the stage for what’s to come. Cade’s tall, dark and gorgeous, has a ‘prosecutorial, I-ask-the questions-I-don’t-answer-them’ demeanour and isn’t shy about throwing around being an AUSA to get what he wants for his investigation. Brooke’s smart, ambitious and beautiful and isn’t shy about going after what she wants. I was impressed by how the power balance is maintained between them professionally. They feint, they dodge, they impress each other with their legalese and the sizzling heat starts to build. Both are busy at their jobs, have friends, work late, text a lot – in other words, they resemble actual people.

The damn-this-is-some-hot-sex is great and fun and funky with the red heels and lawyer skirt-suits Brooke wears. She and Cade prove it is possible to have steamy sex anyhow and anywhere. The timing of the start of their sexual intimacy seemed just right – they don’t immediately springboard into shagging each other senseless, but they are healthy adults who like to indulge themselves. I like how the sex is just a part of their growing relationship. It starts casually but moves toward something deeper like the scene where Brooke takes of Cade’s sore shoulder or when Cade makes dinner for a tired Brooke.

While I would be perfectly content to read almost three hundred pages of sex written by James, there’s a lot more to the story. Brooke and Cade read as real people instead of coming off as character checklists. Their pasts do affect who they are now. She feels driven to succeed partly because of all that her parents gave up to further her education and chances while he is reluctant to let anyone in because of how his father abandoned him when Cade was a child. But the great thing is James didn’t make these issues the be-all and end-all of who they are or make them all overly angsty and tied up in mental knots about it. One of the strengths of the book is how Brooke and Cade slowly develop as a couple while accumulating inside jokes, sharing their pasts – including things they’ve never told anyone else – and the intimacies of their lives.

One of the other things I liked most about Love Irresistibly was how Brooke is a confident, smart, determined workaholic who hasn’t felt the need to curtail her ambition for past relationships. When she does sit down and take stock of how this is impacting her life (first) and possible relationship (second), I didn’t feel as if she was selling out for love or that she caved to the feeling that she couldn’t have it all. The fact that she got to dictate her terms and came out ahead while scoring more time for her personal life was awesome. Cade’s past as a star quarterback who let football stand in for his lost relationship with his father has coloured how deep he’s let relationships get. It takes a blast from the past to open his eyes to it but in the end, it helps him take the plunge to let Brooke in and to want to be let into the inner circle of her life. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record again, I like how this signals the change in their growing relationship.

Since this is the fourth book in the series, lots of characters from past stories make appearances (More Jack. Yay!), without making it look like they are crowding the story. I really liked how James made space for the readers to find out about Rylann’s proposal and Cameron’s pregnancy.

My review of the previous book in this series carried a slightly disappointed tone. I’d like to say that Ms James more than made up for it in Love Irresistibly. Love the red dress and suit on the cover. Loved the move from romantic suspense to hardcore contemporary romance. I found it to be a richly rewarding tale with all the aspects coming together to show the story of two modern people, stretching and growing as individuals even as they meld together as a couple.

However, Ms James, I am still waiting for Agent Wilkins’ story. 😛

Review: “About That Night” (FBI/US Attorney #3) by Julie James

About That Night

There’s no easy way to say it so I guess I’ll just come right out and get it over with. The honeymoon’s over. About That Night is a pretty good book but I don’t love it as much as I did Something About You. It hurts me to say it, but I guess the review will tell.

Relaxing in a college bar after the finals are over for her first year in law school, Rylann Pierce is ready to have fun. So she doesn’t shoot down the hot guy who tries to chat her up. She knows he’s the ‘so cute he knows he’s so cute’ type, but she can’t help herself. After her friends deliberately leave her at the bar with him, Rylann has no choice but to be walked home by gorgeous playboy-cum-billionaire heir Kyle Rhodes. One steamy kiss later, they make plans for a date the next night, but fate intervenes, and Kyle stands Rylann up.

Nine years later, Rylann has just moved back to Chicago after the breakup of a relationship to be the newest AUSA in the Special Prosecutions Division. To get her feet wet, her boss, Cameron Lynde (yay!), hands her a plea agreement to grant the ‘Twitter Terrorist’ aka Kyle Rhodes an early release. Not exactly a meet-again-cute.

Kyle Rhodes arrives in court expecting to see the asshole AUSA who’d railroaded him and called him a cyber-menace to society. Yes, what he did was stupid. But when a guy is publicly dumped by his girlfriend in under 140 characters and sees a video of her frolicking with a movie star minutes later, he might feel the need to resort to some whisky, fuelling a dumb hack attack that shut down Twitter for 48 hours. Kyle eventually sobered up and came back home to face the music, and he would still be facing it if his twin sister hadn’t struck a deal with the FBI for his early release. Imagine his surprise when the girl he shared an unforgettable night with almost a decade ago walks in to free him.

Well, Kyle gets his life back but acts difficult when Rylann needs his help on another case. Still, he steps up and does the right thing, finding himself increasingly attracted to Rylann. He also decides he wants to discover what she looks like under all her sexy, power suits. So….they date. Rylann does badass prosecutorial stuff. Kyle gets a new business venture started. And they have hot sex. And a few disagreements. And….work things out. The end. Okay.

There is plenty of James’ trademark bantering, and I loved it. The dialogue between Rylann and her best friend Rae is also amazing. Kyle meets Nick and Jack (<3), and they do the manly sports/trash-talk thing. This stuff is awesome as usual. Also, the sex between Kyle and Rylann is smoking hot.

I do have several complaints from the book, though. First of all, why is the cover not nearly as hot as the previous two? I was really hoping to see a heroine in a sexy red dress and a hero with lustrous, golden hair. Second, why was Wilkins’ angle dismissed in half a page? Third, why was there no element of suspense or danger? Can’t complain about the last bit much because it just meant more sex scenes 😛

They finally have a couple of mushy scenes and work things out, but the way the resolution came about did nothing to assuage my unease. There’s very little real conflict between Rylann and Kyle. James spent half the book stressing how it would be a BFD if an AUSA dated an ex-con, but when the world finds out, there is no exploration of how Rylann and Kyle deal with it. Where are the grand gestures? Where are the Matt and Meredith/Zack and Julie moments?  How does it finally make sense?

So, About That Night is a fun book with witty dialogue, about two beautiful people who have mindblowing sex as they fall in love and overcome a few tiny speed bumps on their road to a Happily Ever After. I would recommend it to hardcore Julie James fans and anyone who wants a fun, light read. Fingers crossed, the next one will be a lot better.

Review: “A Lot Like Love” (FBI/US Attorney #2) by Julie James

A Lot Like Love

I would like to apologise to all my subscribers for spamming their inbox today. I am extremely sick, and all I can do is lie in bed, read steamy romances and post reviews :p I discovered Julie James yesterday, and I haven’t been able to stop reading her books. But I think this is my last review of the day so please bear with me and I hope you like it. 🙂

In A Lot Like Love we meet Jordan Rhodes, she is the daughter of one of Chicago’s richest men. She is independently wealthy thanks to her business and a down-to-earth father who wants his children to earn what they have. Some months ago her twin brother Kyle went to prison, and since then she has been sick with worry about him. So when the FBI offers to release him in exchange for her help to catch a crime lord and one of his associates (who happens to be a client of hers) she accepts. All she has to do is go to a party with an FBI agent posing as her date and distract the bad guy while the agent plants some bugs in the place. But all goes wrong when the nice and easygoing agent gets sick and is replaced by Tall, Dark and Smouldering Nick McCall, and they are forced to keep faking that they are dating when it turns out that the bad guy has feelings for Jordan.

I admit that it took some time for me to get into the book; the first part was a bit slow for me, but oh boy does it gets better. I have to say that is no coincidence this book is titled A Lot Like Love because that is exactly how I felt about it. The main characters are incredible; Jordan is a great protagonist; she is funny, down to earth, hardworking, loving, and sarcastic. I haven’t enjoyed a heroine that much in a long time. I loved a lot of things about Nick, but the best part was that he had a distinct voice. Yes he was a typical alpha male, but you could really get him, he wasn’t just another stereotypical hero, he felt like a real person (or as real as someone that hot can be).

I think this is one of James’ better qualities as a writer -and she has lots of them- every character is perfectly defined. Most of the time when reading a book narrated in third person all the character’s points of view sound a bit alike, more like you are reading the author’s voice than the character’s. Not so in James’ case, in every POV I felt like I was inside their heads especially with Nick and Jordan.

The other great character was Kyle. James’ comedic abilities shined through him. He went to prison after shutting down Twitter, come on! How cool is that? Also, he looks like Josh Holloway, and everybody in prison calls him Sawyer. The inmates and corrections officers were also endearing.

The pacing of this story was up and down for me, and there were some scenes that I wish had had more meat to them, especially with Jordan’s friends and family meeting Nick. Those parts were fleeting and could have been explored more. I also think the love in this story seemed to sneak up rather quickly, but I’m able to overlook that to a certain extent because of the characters’ ages. I think with more experience, you’re better able to discern what it is you’re looking for in a partner, and Jordan and Nick knew what they wanted. As far as points of view go, the villain’s POV could have been cut out. It didn’t enhance the plot, and I think the events leading up to the end of this story would have had more of a shock factor without it. After Nick’s conversations with his mother, an epilogue with Jordan meeting Nick’s family would have been a wonderful addition to the story! I wish we’d been able to see that.

I wouldn’t give this book a 5/5 because I think it was not as steamy and hilarious as Something About You. Still, I had a great time reading the book and loved watching yet another tough FBI agent meet his soul mate where he least expected her. Poor Agent Davis must really fear he’s running a matchmaking agency rather than an FBI field office at this point. And though I’m excited about Jordan’s brother Kyle in the next book, when will we get Wilkins’ story?