Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

Come Sundown

As a rule, I had decided never to review books by authors that have been lifelong favourites. This was mostly because I often found my choices not holding up under any sort of critical scrutiny, Also, I believe that overthinking why you like something a lot just takes away from the simple joy of it. I broke that rule when I reviewed a few Judith McNaught books and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. But I still never thought of reviewing a Nora Roberts romance until last week when I picked Come Sundown as a holiday read/to celebrate 11 years of reading NR. If this post comes across as too restrained considering how I am obsessed with the woman, please know I would write a 10-star review in all caps if I wasn’t worried about losing all but two of my readers.

Come Sundown opens in 1992 with a disheartened 21-year old Alice Bodine hitchhiking her way back home after a runaway bid for independence three years ago ended in shattered dreams and disillusionment. Unsure of whether she will be welcomed back, she hitches a ride from a nice-looking middle-aged man just miles outside her family ranch, unaware of just how much this action will change her life.

The story then takes a 25-year leap and we find ourselves in present-day Montana. Bodine Longbow, the niece of the long-lost Alice, is the manager and boss of her family’s upscale resort. The latest in a long line of entrepreneurial bad-ass women who get shit done, Bodine is smart, self-reliant and loyal to her amazing and loving family. Her two brothers, her loving parents, and kickass grandma and great-grandma are all secondary characters I fell in love with instantly and was only slightly disappointed at Come Sundown not being Book 1 of a trilogy.

When Bo’s childhood crush and her brother’s best friend, Callen Skinner, comes back into town to work at the ranch after making a name for himself in Hollywood, she is surprised by the instant attraction that flares up between them. Being a consummate professional and his boss, she tries to push her feelings for Cal aside as circumstances keep forcing them together.

It’s not my fault you grew up so damn pretty. How about this: You and me make a date. First of May, that’s a good day. Spring’s come around, and you won’t be my boss anymore. I’ll take you dancing, Bodine.”

The fire crackled in the old potbelly, a reminder of heat and flame. 

“You know, Callen, if you’d given me that flirtatious look and that smooth talk when I was twelve going on thirteen, my heart would’ve just stumbled right out of my chest. I had such a crush on you.”

Now his grin didn’t flash. The smile came slow and silky. “Is that so?”

“Oh my, yes. You with your skinny build, half-wild ways, and broody eyes were the object of my desperate affection and awakening hormones for weeks. Maybe even a few months, though at the time it seemed like years.”

Callen Skinner, like almost every Nora Roberts hero,  is a walking feminist dreamboat. He left home shortly after his father gambled away his birthright and killed himself. When he returns to work the land his family once owned, he holds no resentment toward the Longbows. Growing up, he was considered an honorary son by them and they were the only family he had outside of his mother and sister. Most importantly, Cal respects Bo’s authority as his boss and doesn’t try to undermine her just to show that he is the hero in the equation. This, the way her protagonists always have relationships where they view the other as a true equal, is why I love Nora Roberts. And the fact that the banter is top-notch doesn’t hurt a bit.

“You ought to have your eyes on a woman.”

“As they keep roaming your way, are you offering, Miss Fancy?”

She let out a hoot. “It’s a damn shame you were born fifty–oh, hell, sixty years too late.”

“But I am an old soul.”

She laughed agin, patted his cheek. “I always did have that soft spot for you.”

“Miss Fancy.” He took her hand, kissed it. “I’ve been in love with you all my life.”

The women rode through, a sedate walk. Then Miss Fancy looked back, sent him a wink. And leaped into a gallop.

“That’s all right,” Cal mumbled. “I didn’t need that year of my life.”

Things take a sinister turn when two women are found dead not far from the Bodine property, and it becomes obvious that a serial killer is loose in the Montana countryside. A police deputy with a long-held grudge casts suspicion Cal’s way, but Bo and her family remain steadfastly loyal to him. I really loved the way the characters pull together here, rather than allowing mistrust to get in the way of what they know is right. And then, a link is found to Alice’s disappearance, plunging the family into a web of darkness that will threaten everything they hold dear.

Most of the story takes place in the present, but flashbacks offer some insight into Alice’s plight. Eventually, the two storylines merge, and this is where the novel really starts to shine. Come Sundown contains a darkness and intensity that isn’t present in all of Ms. Roberts’ books. She doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker side of humanity here, and, while some readers might find this off-putting, I loved it. I like my suspense on the gritty side, and Ms. Roberts definitely delivers.

Perhaps this novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Most of them, especially the grandmas, are the kind of people I’d love to hang out with in real life and the author’s depiction of family life is heart-warming and authentic. These are not the kind of people who let silly miscommunications and misunderstandings get in the way of their love for one another. They argue sometimes, as all families do, but the reader never doubts they’ll be there for one another when the going gets rough.

The writing is so lush and atmospheric, I felt like I was right there in the story. Ranches have played prominent roles in a few of Ms. Roberts’ other books, and it seems she must have quite a bit of first-hand experience with ranch life because she always brings them to life beautifully.

A word of caution, though. If you’re someone who is troubled by graphic violence, you might want to give this a pass, as a large part of the story is spent detailing the horrific abuse that Alice suffered for over 25 years.  But whether you’re already a mega fan of Nora Roberts’ writing, or someone picking up one of her books for the first time, I can’t recommend Come Sundown highly enough. The suspense is engrossing, the romance is delightful, and the characterization is superb.

 

Advertisements

Review: “The Thing About Love” (FBI/US Attorney #7) by Julie James

The Thing About Love

Before I launch into a super gushy review extolling the awesomeness of Julie James’ latest installment in her FBI/US Attorney series, I would like to take a moment to say that I am not a fan of the cover. While a part of me appreciates the journey that has been from sexy midriffs to sexy stilettos in one hand to just a stiletto with shattered lollipops, no part of me gets the point.

That completely useless tangent aside, The Thing About Love is as close to perfection as contemporary romance gets. The protagonists, FBI Agents John Shepherd and Jessica Harlow, have been at loggerheads since they trained together at Quantico. Constantly one-upping each other, imagine their surprise when they are assigned an undercover assignment soon after their move to Chicago.

In her six years with the Bureau, Jessica had known only one person who’d planned to try out for HRT: a guy in her training class who’d been recruited for the FBI directly from the Army Rangers. And not to dwell on the past or anything—another good theme for this year—but she and that guy in her training class had…well, one might say they hadn’t exactly seen eye-to-eye.

Or, one might also say that he’d irritated the hell out of her.

Posing as business executives at a romantic seaside resort, it doesn’t take long for John and Jessica to recognize their missteps from the past and act on their attraction. But does their relationship have a future if John gets his dream job in the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team?

As always, it was an absolute delight to return to Ms. James’ Chicago and read about past favorite characters in passing. John Shepherd was the perfect feminist hero in almost every respect and I can’t help but find him toe-curlingly sexy.

She was his partner, they were working together undercover, and that meant she needed to continue chugging along with this charade, pretending as though she were somehow oblivious to the things that every other woman saw.

Like the deep blue of his eyes. Or the stubble that was already forming along his angular jaw. Or the thick, dark blond hair that begged to have a woman’s fingers running through it.

Or how, right now, as he stood across from her in that hotel room, with the top button of his white collared shirt undone in an ruggedly sophisticated look, and his tall, broad-shouldered frame perfectly filling his gray tailored suit, he was—bar none—the most attractive man she’d ever laid eyes on.

Jessica Harlow was a badass as well, constantly working twice as hard as everybody else so that she is not taken lightly by those who can’t see past her pretty face. Ms. James has done a fantastic job of describing the details of FBI training and operations. Despite the seriousness of their profession, the characters always have a hilarious inner monologue.

Now, normally, John tried to be generous while sparring and not take advantage of the fact that he had considerably more training and experience than his opponent. But when their defensive tactics instructor blew the whistle and Linguistics PhD came charging at him—fists flying and trash-talking John in some foreign language as an attempt to psych him out, John had no choice but to (a) take a moment to try his hardest not to laugh and (b) take the guy immediately down to the ground and get him into a handcuffing position.

John and Jessica have become one of my top Julie James couples. From not wasting time on cliched hangups to respecting each other personally and professionally, they constantly brought out the best in each other. The Thing About Love is a truly progressive contemporary romance from an author in top form.

I received an ARC by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “Your Wicked Heart” (Rules for the Reckless #0.5) by Meredith Duran

Your Wicked Heart

All Amanda Thomas ever wanted in life was to travel. Taking up a secretarial job after the death of her parents, she didn’t expect to find herself stood up at the altar in Greece by a viscount. When she goes to confront him, she encounters a dangerously handsome man claiming to be the real Viscount Ripton. While Amanda is still reeling from this shocking development, the man unceremoniously kidnaps her and locks her in a cabin on the next ship back to England.

Spence has been traveling all over Europe looking for his cousin Charles when he hears that a man has been using his name and letters of credit. Following the trail all the way to Greece, he encounters the impossibly pretty Amanda who claims to be affianced to the man who’s stolen his identity and sounds a lot like his missing cousin. Believing her to be a charlatan, he forcibly takes her with him on his search for Charles.

While aboard the ship and sharing a cramped cabin, Amanda realizes that the man she had agreed to marry to flee her cruel employer was an impostor. Spence still thinks of her as a fraud at best and a gold-digger at worst till she honestly tells him that all she intended to offer her husband in return was respect, affection, honesty and support. Ever since the death of his parents while he was young, Spence had grown cynical and world-weary living with his brutish uncles and a slew of wastrel cousins. The story is about how a jaded man falls in love with a steadfast woman who makes him see the world with fresh and hopeful eyes.

Even though the novella consists of a little over a hundred pages, Ms. Duran has done an admirable job of developing the plot, resulting in a well-fleshed out romance. The banter is witty, the character development is realistic and the sex scene was written in such a reverential tone that it became the highlight of the story for me. Despite the era, Spence was a man who believed in the importance of consent when it came to sexual relations, making him a better protagonist than about 90% of all romance heroes. Amanda managed to come across as a mature woman with a realistic outlook on life despite being a straitlaced virgin. And the story contained enough twists to make the HEA not seem inevitable.

I haven’t read many romance novellas but Your Wicked Heart was an outstanding example of the genre.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “Say Yes to the Marquess” (Castles Ever After #2) by Tessa Dare

Say Yes to the Marquess

A couple of things before I write another long and super-gushy review. First, that’s one of the sexiest covers I’ve seen in a Regency romance. Second, I have taken up a boatload of random assignments so I will not have any time to post new reviews for at least a month. I hope you guys are still around when I return. 🙂

In Say Yes to the Marquess, Clio Whitmore thought she got her Happily Ever After at the tender age of 17. Acting upon the wishes of their respective families, she became affianced to the heir of the Granville fortune, Lord Piers Brandon. Eight years later with no wedding in sight, however, Clio’s proposal is beginning to seem less like a dream and more like an interminable nightmare. In the ensuing years, Clio has become an object of public ridicule and dubbed ‘Miss Wait-More’ by her peers, who take delight in making wagers as to when, or more precisely if, her long-awaited nuptials will occur. Determined to salvage her good name and wait no longer, Clio seeks a dissolution of the engagement. There’s only one problem.

While the death of her uncle and the castle that was bequeathed to her provide Clio with the sense of purpose and independence she has always sought, she will need the support of Piers’ younger brother, Rafe, to dissolve the marriage. Known more simply as ‘The Devil’s Own’, Lord Rafe Brandon’s talent in the boxing ring is rivalled only by his sexual prowess in the bedroom. Scheduled for a re-match against his greatest opponent, Jack Dubose, upon which both his reputation and England’s largest purse are at stake, Rafe will need the proper rest, nourishment and focus in order to succeed. What he doesn’t need, however, are distractions and, for Rafe, there is no greater distraction than Miss Clio Whitmore herself. The perfect embodiment of sweetness, decorum, and gentility, Clio represents everything Rafe detests about the polite society he has always eschewed and has fought to dismantle since the age of twenty-one.

As usual, his thoughts were three paces ahead of his judgement. The image erupted in his mind’s eye, as unbidden as it was vivid. Clio, breathless. Naked. Under him. Stripped of all her good manners and inhibitions. Begging him to learn her every secret shade of pink.
Rafe blinked hard. Then he took that mental image and filed it away under Pleasant-Sounding Impossibilities. Right between ‘flying carriage’ and ‘beer fountain’.

So, when Clio arrives and informs Rafe that she intends to break off her engagement to his brother and requires his signature and permission to do so, Rafe is understandably shocked and upset. After all, without the marriage to entice him home, Piers will have no reason to return to England, and Rafe will be left to act as Marquess in his brother’s stead, a prospect he absolutely can’t abide. Rafe vows to salvage Clio and Piers’ relationship, even if it means planning the wedding himself, and will use everything at his disposal to do so, including exquisite displays of flowers, instrumentalists, (mounds of SEXY, SEXY) cake, and even an elderly bulldog, to do so. As their week together draws to a close, however, which two will be the ones saying “I do”?

Barely controlled anger radiated from him. “Not tonight. When I’m around, you don’t wait out dances. You don’t go hungry. And you sure as hell don’t come at the end of any line.

Good heavens. It was a struggle not to swoon all over again.

Here, I would like to slightly digress and say that I am ecstatic at having found a new favourite romance author. A month ago I reviewed Ms. Dare’s first book in the Castles Ever After series, Romancing the Duke, and I instantly became a fan. In Say Yes to the Marquess, I found a rare second book that is so much better than the first, a feat I didn’t think was possible. There’s something to be said for a book that simply makes you feel good. A book that will make you smile until your cheeks ache. A book that will make you laugh aloud unashamedly, even in the most crowded of rooms. A book that you seek out after a long day at work or when curled up in bed, nursing cramps that just won’t go away. No-one – and I mean absolutely n0-one – writes these sort of books better than Tessa Dare. With her now-trademark combination of wit, humour, sensuality and female empowerment, Ms Dare proves that you can, in fact, have your cake and eat it too in this new, irresistible friends-to-lovers romance that readers won’t be able to resist devouring in a single sitting.

He silenced her objection, rubbing his thumb up and down her arm. God, she was soft there. “He will. Make those wedding plans, Clio. Because when he sees you again for the first time it’s going to come as a blow to the ribs, that wanting. He’s going to want to see you in that grand, lacy gown, with little blossoms strewn in your hair. He’s going to want to watch you walk down that aisle, feeling his chest swell closer to bursting from pride with every step you take. And most of all, he’ll want to stand before God, your friends and family, and all of London society – just to tell them you’re his. His and no one else’s.”

As with Romancing the Duke, I was faced with an overwhelming abundance of choice when it came time to choose a few quotes to include in my review. Ms. Dare’s prose positively sparkles and never fails to delight with a bewitching combination of humour and eroticism that is all the author’s own. The dialogue is sharp and clever and moves the pace along at such a fast clip as to almost ensure that you will devour this novel in a single sitting. The secondary characters are equally delightful. From Piers’ portly, aged bulldog, Ellingworth, to Rafe’s enterprising friend and prizefight organizer, ‘Bruno Aberforth Montague Esquire’, aka Bruiser, Dare’s supporting cast are just as charming as ever and threaten to steal every scene they are in, no more so than Clio’s youngest sister, Phoebe. While it’s unclear whether or not the author intended for Phoebe’s behaviour to be indicative of her placement on the autism spectrum, Phoebe’s strict adherence to rationality, her genius, ingenuity and generosity of spirit made her a thoroughly loveable character and one whose own story I would love to delve more deeply into, given the opportunity. One can only hope that Ms. Dare intends to dedicate an entire novel to this character who is sure to steal the hearts and minds of many.

Then there’s my secret weapon.” With a glance in either direction, he pulled out a small brass object from his pocket. “Picked up this little beauty in a pawnbroker’s.
Rafe looked at it. “A quizzing glass. Really.
I’m telling you, these things scream upper crust. You should get one, Rafe. No, I mean it. Someone talks over your head? Quizzing glass. Someone asks a question you can’t answer? Quizzing glass.
“You honestly think a stupid monocle is all you need to blend in with the aristocracy?”
Bruiser raised the quizzing glass and peered at Rafe through the lens. Solemnly.
The idiot might be onto something.

I have this palpable, bittersweet ache knowing I won’t be reading or posting anything for a short while now. I am just thankful I am taking a break after reading a Tessa Dare novel. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the hero and heroine achieve their hard-won happily ever after but it’s immensely difficult to bid goodbye to the enchanting worlds Ms. Dare creates and the pure, unadulterated joy that she infuses into each and every word. With each new book, she reminds me why her novels are among my new favourites in this or any genre. Her effervescent wit, her searing sensuality, and her charming, three-dimensional characters never fail to nestle themselves firmly inside my heart and Say Yes To The Marquess is no exception. An irresistible combination of heart, heat, and hilarity, Ms. Dare’s latest is a solid second instalment in the Castles Ever After series and a must-read for those familiar with or entirely new to this genre and/or this series.

Review: “The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

In the 17th century, fugitive slaves founded a free community in the mountains of northeastern Brazil. They called it Palmares. Contemporary accounts describe the courtyards and the fountains, the churches and council meetings of that sprawling settlement, which survived for decades before a concerted military effort by Portuguese colonists wiped it out in 1695.

Fast-forward several centuries, past a nuclear apocalypse that has scrambled climates and countries, and we come to the founding of Palmares Tres, the great pyramid-shaped city on a Brazilian bay, where author Alaya Dawn Johnson sets her new young-adult novel, The Summer Prince. Founded and ruled by women, the city ascends in tiers — from the algae-farm slums at its base to the queen’s quarters at its tip — and it runs on a rich, strange mix of nanotechnology and archaic ritual.

The first queens of Palmares Tres devised a unique system of transferring power: Each woman can rule for up to two five-year terms. Every five years, the city elects a Summer King, who rules for one year with all the charisma of a rock star — and then dies in bloody sacrifice, choosing the next queen with his dying breath; a dying man’s choice is thought to be incorruptible. As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa recalls the first time she saw the sacrifice. “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die,” she says. “Queen Serafina stood in a stark room of wood and stone – the high shrine. I liked her because her skin was dark and glossy and her hair silk-smooth. I had even gotten a Queen Serafina doll for my birthday last June. But today her face was fierce and still; today she held a blade in her hand.”

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual it is to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual it is to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

With all this going on, Johnson doesn’t ignore her world-building. With grace and precision, The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old-fashioned science fiction storytelling. Johnson has created a city that lives and breathes on the page, its samba rhythms and sea breezes balanced by algae stink and rusting spiderbots. Palmares Tres pulses with a vibrant mix of high tech and Brazilian tradition. (Seriously, I want this book to be made into a movie, and I want Bonde do Role to do the soundtrack.) By the time June and Enki pull off their final work of art, you will love the city every bit as much as they do.

Review: “The Devil’s Consort” by Anne O’Brien

Devil's Consort

So, funny story. I bought a copy of The Devil’s Consort without looking at the synopsis and the cover (local indie bookseller recommendations FTW), thinking it’s another Philippa Gregory. Instead, as you can see, the cover said, “Better than PHILIPPA GREGORY” like it could read my mind. Mildly apprehensive but buoyed by the tagline of “England’s Most Ruthless Queen”, I settled in to read a book where I knew I wouldn’t stop making comparisons. Despite my negative (and totally wrong) preconceptions, I found it to be action-packed, full of intrigue and emotional drama, very similar to chick-lit but with greater impact because it’s loosely based on historical fact.

For those of you who are as ignorant as I was on the subject of the European monarchy in the Middle Ages of the non-Tudor variety, Eleanor was a pretty powerful lady; Duchess of Aquitaine (a sizeable region of France) in her own right, she was also the only woman ever to have been queen of both France and England. Documenting the early part of Eleanor’s life, the first person narrative of Devil’s Consort keeps the reader privy to the Duchess’s most intimate thoughts throughout her disastrous marriage to King Louis VI and the initial years of her relationship with King Henry II. Those amongst you who don’t consider yourself history buffs should feel a little more well-educated on the subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine after reading this book, thanks to O’Brien’s in-depth portrait.

A former history teacher, the author has obviously used her passion for the subject to drive her writing, although in places it seems like O’Brien has been so desperate to display her knowledge surrounding the subject that it detracted from the flow of the book.  In particular, parts of Louis’ Crusade were so drawn out that just reading these sections felt slightly like a crusade in itself. Like most historical novels, Devil’s Consort probably takes a fair few liberties with the truth by filling in the blanks in order to make the story as interesting as possible, but from reading around the subject it seems O’Brien managed to stay fairly true to historical accounts. Whilst Eleanor is not the easiest character to love, I did empathize with her frustration at the misogynistic laws which rendered her largely impotent in comparison with her male counterparts.

Devil’s Consort’s main fault lies in its length and the author’s sense of timing.  Over the course of the novel the narrative varies from covering a few days in several pages to many years in one page, and there doesn’t seem to be a good balance. As O’Brien has chosen to document a real person’s life which readers may already be familiar with (even those who aren’t are greeted with an Aquitaine family tree before starting the story), I would have preferred a little more emotion and excitement into the writing in order to truly grip the reader.

Sadly, Devil’s Consort is not quite captivating enough to obtain the affections of those who don’t have the best relationship with historical novels. Overall, it was a decent read, particularly as the reader’s guide at the end gives you further suggested reading to delve more deeply into the historical background and more factual research into the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am particularly excited to read more on what happened to Eleanor and Henry after the novel drew to a close.

Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh 2

I don’t know much about life in Saudi Arabia. It’s not very often that I have come across a novel, or indeed any other literary production from Saudi Arabia. The few times that I have, they are more often than not written by women, whom I invariably assume are covered up to the eyebrows and confined in their houses by tyrannical husbands, traditional-minded fathers or miserable Islamic religious authorities of one kind or another. My friend, who has read a lot more on the region than I have, informs me the cliches rarely live up to the true horrors these women suffer.

Even in the western imagination, as Rajaa Alsanea correctly says in her novel Girls of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is made up of oil wells, terrorists and “women dressed in black from head to toe“. Giving the problematic first two a wide berth, she sets out to redress this injustice by proving that “women here fall deeply in and out of love just like women everywhere else“. More specifically, Girls of Riyadh is a self-confessed Saudi Sex and the City, tracing the lives of four twentysomethings from the capital’s wealthy “velvet class” – clever Sadeem, dumpy Gamrah, sassy Lamees and the rebellious half-American Michelle – in a series of weekly emails sent out by a sharp-tongued and “shamelessly” red-lipsticked narrator, reminding me of Gossip Girl.

Her fictional disclosures – illicit drinking, women posing as men in order to drive cars, homosexuality, premarital sex and clandestine dating – made Girls of Riyadh an instant bestseller in Arabic. It was banned by the Saudi authorities, who, with Alice in Wonderland logic, guaranteed Alsanea a rare book deal in the West. But while the girls’ love of shopping, makeup and checking their boyfriends’ star signs is instantly familiar, I found the English edition heavily edited and footnoted. This is not just chick-lit, Alsanea hints, but a primer to an alien society “riddled with hypocrisy, drugged with contradictions“.

And the trials faced by her alternately designer- and burqa-clad heroines are gruesome. Forbidden by law from driving or meeting unrelated men in public, the girls are denied a free choice in education, career or marriage by either overbearing parents or the baroque Saudi obsession with tribe and tradition. “Is her blood pure?” croaks an evil mother-in-law, about to scupper Michelle’s chances of marrying her aristocratic sweetheart Faisal. Gamrah is married off to, then divorced by, an abusive businessman; Sadeem’s fiance dumps her for “giving herself” to him before their official wedding day. But the proscriptions that fence their lives provide the novel’s rare moments of satire. In online chatrooms, Saudi men use one of two stock pictures: “a guy sitting behind his desk in a nice office with a Saudi flag behind him” or “a guy making himself out to be a big strutting Bedouin” – and of poignancy – marriage, the unhappy Gamrah’s family warns her, is like “the watermelon on the knife“: either “extra-sweet” or a “dried-out, empty gourd“.

Like the youthful majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, the girls are squeezed between homegrown tradition and global modernity. Alsanea’s prose pieces together classical Koranic Arabic with slangy, roman-script “internet language“, colloquial Lebanese and Emirati, song lyrics and scraps of English – a patchwork that enraged Saudi proprieties almost as much as the “racy” content. Though many of the nuances are lost to non-Arabic readers like me, the off-key Americanisms of her own translation are equally revealing. Between syrupy meditations on men or makeup (“light pink blush, a little mascara and a swipe of lip gloss“), the girls exchange lines such as “you’ll never pass Gossip 101” and, my favourite, “I’ll be giving myself the best closure ever“.

The clumsiness is significant: despite its American borrowings, it is obvious that Girls of Riyadh deals with a profoundly different world. The love affairs provide occasions for some inimitably Saudi kitsch: Sadeem’s boyfriend tenderly chauffeurs over “her favourite Burger King double meal” on Valentine’s Day, Faisal presents Michelle with a Barry Manilow musical teddy bear doused in “his elegant Bulgari scent” and wearing giant diamond earrings; after her divorce, Gamrah’s family send her to Lebanon for a restorative nose job.

But the details of day-to-day life in Riyadh are weirder, and more fascinating, still. Men still wear the traditional shimagh (headcloth) and thobe (robe), but they are now designed by Gucci, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino. Boys “number” girls in shopping malls and on the highways, throwing business cards or scraps of paper into car windows. On international flights, people queue for the bathrooms to change into or out of prescribed Saudi dress.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel for its style of writing. Some of the sentences are extremely clunky (eg, “Is there an inverse relationship between one’s social and economic status, on the one hand, and good humour and a merry personality, on the other?“). There’s also an uneasy tension between the breathless narration and some of the unhappier plot twists. Girls of Riyadh is unromantic – bad things happen to its heroines – but Alsanea is clearly on the side of romance, and her exploration of whether it can exist in Saudi Arabia is brave and surprisingly informative.

Despite official paranoia, Girls of Riyadh is more conservative than crusading. Alsanea, like her heroines, barely touches on the fraught context of their reversals in love. “Why was it that young people had no interest in politics?” muses broken-hearted Sadeem.”If only she had a particular cause to defend or one to oppose! Then she would have something to keep her occupied and to turn her away from thinking about Waleed the beast … ” The girls’ final, rousing gesture of defiance is to set up a party-planning business importing Belgian chocolates. After Alsanea’s promises, the novel’s collapse into the frothiness of its TV blueprint is telling – in the end, Girls of Riyadh is more a love letter to America than a poison pen to the Saudi establishment.

Review: ‘#GIRLBOSS’ by Sophia Amoruso

GIRLBOSS

Cover via Goodreads

A #GIRLBOSS is someone who’s in charge of her own life. She gets what she wants because she works for it. As a #GIRLBOSS, you take control and accept responsibility. You’re a fighter–you know when to throw punches and when to roll with them. Sometimes you break the rules, sometimes you follow them, but always on your own terms. You know where you’re going, but can’t do it without having some fun along the way. You value honesty over perfection. You ask questions. You take your life seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re going to take over the world, and change it in the process. You’re a badass.

And so begins #GIRLBOSS, a story of how an eBay seller went from being totally broke to becoming the CEO of a multimillion-dollar international fashion retailer, Nasty Gal.  Author Sophia Amoruso has a strange life story. She went from a high-school drop-out to anarchist shoplifter to eBay seller to CEO, the last transition happening in just eight short years. The big question is: Is her success repeatable? By shelling out over 1000 rupees (like I did), can the reader also become a #GIRLBOSS? (Clarification: This is how the phrase “girl boss” appears in the book. Every. Single. Time.)

Sadly, the answer is that it’s very improbable. While the book gives a fairly comprehensive account of how Nasty Gal came to be, it is severely lacking in genuinely thoughtful advice on how to become a #GIRLBOSS. For someone who got her retail experience from shoplifting bestsellers from bookstores and reselling them on Amazon while hitchhiking, dumpster-diving and reading anarchist literature, I expected a lot more analysis of her transition from freegan to CEO. What it boiled down to was that she got sick of “agonizing over the political implications” of her lifestyle and realized that she liked “nice things“.

That’s fine. Amoruso might not have an answer to the big philosophical questions in life but since she has portrayed herself as a no-nonsense leader, you’d think she has some solid tips on how to run a successful business or be a good manager. Again, the “advice” in this book is full of cliches like “work hard” and “be yourself”. None of it is specifically directed at girls, which makes the unfortunate title of the book redundant. Instead, there is a chapter called “On Hiring, Staying Employed and Firing” which focusses on how to get an entry-level job. And like many successful people, Amoruso likes to emphasize her own attributes and discount the lucky breaks she caught along the way. She got off with a warning when caught shoplifting. She didn’t face familial pressure to go to college or get a steady job. She sold clothes on eBay in its heyday as an alternative marketplace. My problem with bootstrapping narratives like this one is that it implicitly rebukes anyone who didn’t “make it”, as if it shows that they simply didn’t want it enough.

There were also two big issues that the book also failed to address. First, nowhere did it mention the unique challenges that women face on their journey to becoming #BOSSes, like balancing work and family, negotiating salary and walking the fine line between being persuasive and powerful and being perceived as “pushy” harridans. On the contrary, she equates bringing in a baby with you to an interview to bringing in a beverage or a pet and calls them both “Interview No-No’s That May Doom You To Unemployment“. Second, the book said next to nothing about fashion considering the author is the CEO of a multimillion-dollar fashion brand. From what I gathered, Amoruso doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of fashion and compares the New York Fashion Week to a “high-school outfit contest“.

I appreciate Amoruso’s attempt to empower her readers and the life experiences she shared were unique and entertaining, but I didn’t enjoy reading the book. I wasn’t inspired by her personal message as I was by her story, if you know what I mean. Make no mistake, I honestly and deeply respect: her work ethic, her persistence and perseverance, creativity, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial success in creating a highly profitable business without having the advantages afforded by a formal education or financial backing.

Sophia Amoruso seems to be an amazing woman and what she has done for herself is inspiring. But is #GIRLBOSS also inspiring and amazing? I didn’t think so. I would still recommend it to others my age because it might motivate them and they might get more out of it than I did. Speaking for myself, I’d just say…meh.