Category Archives: Book Reviews

[REVIEW] Speaking Out – Tara Moss

Tara Moss
Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls
HarperCollins (AU: 1st June 2016)
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Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls is well-meaning, but is it really what we need? A lot of women and girls are already speaking out – that isn’t the problem. The issue is that people need to learn to LISTEN. For the privileged to listen to the marginalised. For white people to listen to people of colour. For cis-gender people to listen to people who are transgender or non-binary. For heterosexual people to listen to everyone else. For the wealthy to listen to the poor. For the non-disabled to listen to the disabled. For the neuro-typical to listen to the neuro-divergent. For the well-connected to listen to the lonely.

I understand why Tara Moss hasn’t written that kind of book, though. The people who most need to listen would likely refuse to read it. So since we can’t change other people, Speaking Out is more about changing ourselves. Forming better, stronger arguments, and the way we deliver them, in order to give us the best possible chance of being heard.

Which makes reading the section focused on the spoken word, rather than the written, rather awkward.

I remember an ad for a particular season of Australia’s The Biggest Loser. A primary school-aged boy, a competitor on the programme, spoke of the kids at school teasing him because he was fat. And so he signed up to join the show. I don’t blame him; he likely just wanted the bullying to stop. And because the kids picked on his appearance, he chose to try to change it. It’s a sad world that people teach kids to lose weight, rather than teach kids not to bully/tease/pick on others.

Which brings us to Speaking Out. Women are often dismissed when they speak out, with listeners blaming the orator’s “high-pitched voice” or “vocal fry”. This handbook has tips for adjusting your voice to sound more “acceptable”. The author says her tips are optional, but the very fact that they’re included leads me to believe she thinks we should definitely consider them.

Do I have a high-pitched voice or vocal fry? I don’t know, but I certainly had a lisp growing up. I may still have one now. Should I feel grateful or not that tips for eliminating a lisp aren’t included? On one hand, I’m glad not to be patronised and victim-blamed. (E.g. People wouldn’t pick on you for having a lisp if you didn’t have one, so you should get rid of yours.) On the other hand, does this book erase my type of vocal issue?

But again, this book is about changing oneself, instead of changing other people’s shoddy behaviour towards you.

The next part is best suited to students, with lots of advice on research, structuring arguments, and presenting them. I sped through this part, just to get it finished – I wasn’t interested, but students should get a lot out of it.

The third section is the most helpful, where the handbook really earns its stripes – on what to expect when speaking out. While I read it, male radio broadcasters’ comments about holding a woman’s head under icy water were being heavily discussed in the media, including social. All the diversionary tactics listed in the book were played out in public. But because violent language against women happens on a regular basis, this part of the book is timeless.

There are contributions from a handful of women who’ve “survived social media”. Most of the women included have worthy contributions, but one name will raise eyebrows: Amanda Palmer. She has a history of problematic behaviour; there are details here. (Hover over the text in the post – they’re clickable links.) Remember when she invited Jian Ghomeshi to join her tour? After a lot of push-back (and rightfully so) from the public, Palmer announced he would no longer be a guest on her tour, and that she had made a “snap judgment”.

Her “snap judgment” was to provide a platform for someone who allegedly “non-consensually beat up four different women during sexual encounters”. And “eight different women […] have come forward to accuse Ghomeshi of violence, sexual abuse, or harassment”. (Quotes from the Stereogum article.) Palmer initially chose to side with THIS GUY, instead of the numerous victims.

So what the hell is she doing in a handbook that supposedly empowers women and girls to speak out, when she at first chose not to believe the women who’d spoken out against Ghomeshi?

After taking time to calm and think, I was more open-minded to reading the piece. After all, her contribution could be about how she was wrong to initially support Ghomeshi. How speaking out in this case probably wasn’t a good idea. How Palmer had learned from the experience, about the importance of researching, thinking, and addressing one’s own biases (such as not believing victims of sexual violence and harassment) before speaking out.

My gut reaction turned out to be correct: Palmer’s contribution mentions nothing of her initial support for an alleged sexual offender. Mentions nothing about how others were right to call her out on including him on her tour.

So yes, her contribution shouldn’t be here because it’s ultimately hollow. And considering that Tara Moss emphasises the importance of research, I’m surprised she didn’t investigate Palmer’s history of problematic behaviour. It didn’t take me long to dig up those links and read them. So why didn’t Moss?

Maybe this handbook is an example of White Feminism. While it very briefly mentions intersections, this book is pretty much geared towards straight white cis-women. Understandable, because the author acknowledges it’s not her place to speak out on identities she doesn’t have.

Moss includes statistics throughout the handbook, but when it comes to the conviction rate on reported crimes of cyber-stalking/cyber-bullying…no statistics are included. Because there aren’t any official statistics, or because the conviction rate is so low that it may discourage victims from reporting crimes, knowing there’s so low a chance of the perpetrator facing any justice?

My depression was already in a bad way before reading this book. It didn’t improve over the course of it. Speaking Out is a major downer. It doesn’t mean to be – it’s supposed to be inspiring, motivating, encouraging. But it had the opposite effect on me.

[REVIEW] New Guard – Robert Muchamore

Robert Muchamore
New Guard (CHERUB, Book 17)
Hachette Hodder (AU: 31st May 2016; UK: 2nd June 2016)
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New Guard is the final novel in Robert Muchamore’s thrilling CHERUB series. It was time. I’d lost some interest, until I perked up again with the introduction of now-regulars Ryan Sharma and Fu Ning. But the Aramov case took three books to solve, so it seemed overly long. As for Lone Wolf, the penultimate, all I remember is the unveiling of the Campus Village at the end. (How can CHERUB afford all that, by the way? And the annual summer sojourn to a private Mediterranean island resort? While some may point out the improbability of underage people being spies, I instead get hung up on money issues. I am strange.)

New Guard is a wonderfully fitting farewell, doing the classic move of pop culture series everywhere: it gets the old gang back together for one last hurrah. Though this time the “Crustys” have some “Currents” with them on a mission to rescue two kidnapped oil well equipment maintenance workers in Syria.

What’s great about CHERUB is that it’s not all about James Adams. It may have started with his POV, but quickly expanded to include his sister Lauren, his girlfriend Kerry Chang, and more recently characters like Ryan and Ning. Indeed, the strongest characters in the series are the girls. This instalment also includes the awesome Tovah, and the future’s looking bright with a new youngster we meet at the end.

As for the boys… Well, in the past James cheated on Kerry. Ryan’s still hung up on someone he met on a mission, though he could do better. And while Bruce Norris’s choice of girlfriend is otherwise awesome…she’s seventeen, and he’s about twenty-three.

Though Lauren stars on the front cover, the character with the biggest arc in the book is Kerry. She goes through a lot of tripe and upheaval, but it looks like she’ll be OK.

[REVIEW] The Stars Never Rise – Rachel Vincent

Rachel Vincent
The Stars Never Rise (The Stars Never Rise, Book 1)
Random House Ember (US & CA: 19th July 2016); Harlequin MIRA Ink (UK: 18th June 2015)
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The front cover seems to have nothing to do with the contents. The title, the image, and the tagline don’t match the story. They’re good things, as is the tale told, but they don’t make sense together.

I think The Stars Never Rise was originally contracted to the publisher until the title Anathema, which would’ve fit better. Instead, there’s this poetic name that doesn’t belong – because the writing, while decent, isn’t poetic, and no stars are mentioned. The butterfly? Symbolic, maybe, but it’s not a motif. As for the tagline, nothing about flying and being free.

Based on the marketing, including the reference likening it to the works of Cassandra Clare (which is unfair because I dislike CC’s books), you’d be forgiven if you figured there’d be angels here. Instead we have demons, exorcists, and degenerates.

The Stars Never Rise is a rollicking good read, a thrill ride with a rag-tag group of teen exorcists fighting against the Unified Church. (Yes, the story’s kind of anti-faith, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the faithful.) New Temperance is a town in which the church runs everything, including law enforcement. They may not burn you to death (except for when they do) if you’re guilty of pre-marital fornication and unlicensed pregnancy, but they may consecrate you into servitude for life.

I didn’t understand at first why we get Nina Kane’s first-person POV instead of Melanie’s, her sister who’s in a tougher predicament. But Melanie doesn’t have “powers” and she’s in a relationship – recent publication trends unfortunately wouldn’t allow a non-powerful teen already in a relationship to be the heroine of a paranormal novel.

The story takes place over only a few days, but Nina quickly becomes romantically linked. Problem: her boyfriend is a soul without a body. But he possesses people’s bodies, though he and his allies are quick to say he’s not a demon. So what is he? That better be resolved in the sequel. Finn asks his friends to temporarily take over their bodies, but he also inhabits other people without permission. This is where things get awkward. Would you like someone using your body without you knowing? You suddenly regain consciousness without knowing why you…”slept” in the back of your own brain and body while someone else drove it? Probably not the author’s intention, but Finn’s unsolicited body-hopping seems a bit rapey.

The Stars Never Rise is part one of two, leaving threads hanging and questions unanswered. But the snowballing action and danger doesn’t let up, and I sped through this because it’s just so damn good. Nonsensical at times, but as long as the plot-holes are patched up in The Flame Never Dies this should be a cracking duo.

P.S. The only WOC is characterised as a “bitch”, and the MOC is…tortured and burned to death. (Another MOC is mentioned briefly, but doesn’t take up much page time.) When it comes to diversity this story seems rather white, and the problematic trope of killing a person of colour to further a white person’s tale is unfortunately present. So be prepared for that.

[REVIEW] Thirst – L. A. Larkin

L. A. Larkin
Rollicking Read Press (US: 16th October 2012); Hachette Little, Brown Constable (UK: 5th January 2017)
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I blame Cassandra Rose Clarke. Ever since I read and thoroughly enjoyed Our Lady of the Ice, and short story White Out, I’ve wanted more Antarctic fiction. (Jennifer Longo’s Up to This Pointe is on my wishlist, by the way.)

And so I stumbled upon Thirst, a standalone novel by British-Australian author L. A. Larkin. Glaciologist Luke Searle is in for the fight of his life when a sinister plot unravels on the ice, with catastrophic results for the entire world unless Luke can stop it.

I don’t read many thrillers nowadays, especially ones that put countries against each other. (Think James Bond.) In this case, the baddie is Chinese, and his father – the General – is even more of a baddie. (Circa page 320, there’s a flashback to a pre-rape scene, so you may want to skip those few pages.) Wendy Woo is a great heroine, but she’s relegated to only the odd chapter here and there.

Corporate greed has the power to destroy the world in this chilling thriller. Larkin keeps the pace up for the entire novel as survival skills are put to the test. Thirst is bloody good.

[REVIEW] One with You – Sylvia Day

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS. (This is what you came for…) But if you want a non-spoilery review – 2 stars. Some things I liked; a lot I didn’t.

Sylvia Day
One with You (Crossfire, Book 5)
Macmillan St. Martin’s Griffin (US: 5th April 2016); Penguin (UK: 4th April 2016; AU: 5th April 2016)
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CONTENT WARNING: Flashbacks/details of rape and sexual abuse (including that of children), demonising of mental healthcare professionals, ableism/mentalism, fat-phobia.

“Not what you expect. Everything you want.” So says the novel’s ads, but it turns out I’m not the “you” in question. It is what I expected, and not what I wanted. (I hoped Eva and Gideon would break up and never get back together.)

You can so tell the author wrote this book with a TV adaptation in mind. Most characters have their own subplots, but we don’t see them through to conclusion, so they come across as filler. Not really a surprise that this is the longest novel the author’s written – it didn’t need to be.

So much repetition about how much Eva and Gideon love each other, how attractive they find each other. There’s a lot of emphasis on Eva’s chest and posterior. Not just from Gideon’s POV but also Eva’s. Ireland speaks up, too. Though Eva’s “curvy”, we are constantly reminded. There’s fat-phobia here, when at first Eva doesn’t want to be photographed in a bikini after “pigging out” at lunch. (Her words, not mine.) At first I wondered if all the prose about Eva’s body was foreshadowing a maybe-pregnancy (like how I thought all the period talk in a previous episode would lead to; I was wrong), but of course not. Gideon’s not willing to share Eva with anyone, not even a child. Same reason he doesn’t want Eva to hang out with her family and friends.

And for a supposedly “erotic” novel, the shagging is actually…really boring. Except for one scene with brief rimming and thumb play. But kudos to the author: at least she’s given up on the D/s thing she forced into earlier episodes, back when this series was trying to be an up-market FSOG. Sylvia Day even included E. L. James in the dedication or acknowledgements for Bared to You.

So what actually happens here? Eva resigns from her job. Undecided whether to work for Gideon or not, she concentrates on arranging their second wedding. They plan to sell the event photos, and give the money to charity. Only it doesn’t sound charitable if you’re donating the money to your own foundation, just saying.

Eva decides they shouldn’t have sex until the wedding. Gideon says no. Eva says, “You can’t say no.” Gideon says, “You can’t say no.” Those are direct quotes, by the way. Gideon may not be a rapist, but he sure as hell sounds like one. (SPOILER: the chastity vow doesn’t last. And they can’t even spend their bachelor(ette) weekend apart, so Eva flies from Ibiza to Rio after a photo scandal. Melodrama.)

Meanwhile, Eva’s being a pain, getting Cary to schedule appointments for her and use his contacts to get her a custom-made wedding dress. And she does a really irresponsible thing: gifts Gideon a puppy. NO. People, you can’t just gift people with pets if they never showed any interest in wanting one. And if they do want one, take them to a shelter where they can meet a variety of individuals and choose their OWN new best friend, rather than YOU choosing one for them.

Gideon gets back at Eva by gifting a creepy bracelet. It comes in halves, and has to be screwed on with a special screwdriver, which he’s keeping so she can’t remove this…manacle. Because nothing says “I love you” more than “I want to trap you”. *head-desk*

Eva does not have good relationships with other women. Key example: her mother controlled and stalked her, and Eva’s husband controls and stalks her. Mommy issues! Eva also judges a woman for considering abortion, saying she’s just manipulating a guy. And here’s the charming thing she says to Gideon in regards to another woman: “Just imagining you flirting with her, giving her the idea you’d like to screw her, makes me want to break stuff – including her face.” Uh, why not blame HIM instead? Wonder if Eva’s got some internalised misogyny going on.

OK, we have to talk about how this series treats mental healthcare professionals. They’re demonised; the cause of Gideon’s trauma – except for Dr. Petersen, the BEST CHARACTER in Crossfire, the voice of reason who gives good advice. He’s awesome. But it’s uncomfortable that Gideon and Eva keep using the ableist/mentalist terms “crazy”, “nuts”, and “insane”, and no one calls them out on it.

As for the others (I warned you there’d be SPOILERS): Hugh raped Gideon, who was a child. Terry helped cover it up. Anne’s the villain in Crossfire, getting back at Gideon for the shoddy way he treated her. And here’s the MEGA-SPOILER: she hires a patient to shoot Eva. Only Monica is hit instead, and dies.

This is weird, considering an odd subplot is based on Monica, and I waited for Gideon to confront her. That never happens. And though her back-story seems strangely just thrown in at first, it’s actually the most interesting part of the entire novel. Of the entire SERIES. If only we’d had a book all about Monica instead… Anyway, we find out why she’s so obsessed with money.

Gideon plays a major part in both these SPOILERS: he withholds information from Eva. When Monica dies, he doesn’t tell Eva until the next day. (If he’d shagged her before he did that, I would’ve had a temper tantrum. He didn’t, but I’m still pretty angry.) And when he receives the information that the investigation into Monica’s life revealed…he doesn’t tell Eva straight away, either. He’ll tell her “when the time is right”, or some shiz. I also would’ve blown a gasket there, but in the next chapter – the epilogue – he and Eva make plans regarding the care of, and visits to, Eva’s aunt.

And that’s what you missed in One with You.

[REVIEW] The Promised World – Lisa Tucker

Lisa Tucker
The Promised World
Simon & Schuster Washington Square Press (US & CA: 3rd August 2010; AU: 1st September 2011)
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CONTENT WARNING: Child abuse, gaslighting, maybe-incest, body-shaming, fat-phobia, controlling someone else’s food-intake.

“Suicide-by-police” – what does it mean? Police shoot Billy dead. How is that suicide? Anyway, apparently Billy wants them to kill him, and he gets his wish. I think “suicide-by-police” needs way more exploring, because there’s barely anything here.

The Promised World is contemporary Gothic, with themes of effed-up families, gaslighting, manipulation, maybe-incest, and a big helping of pretentiousness. Billy is basically “guy in your MFA” who thinks he’s top stuff, and there’s hell to pay if you don’t agree with his opinions – not just regarding literature, but about anything and everything. Ugh, he’s the worst, so reading Lila’s praise for (and everyone’s compliments about) him is so freaking annoying.

So Lila and Billy have an unhealthy bond, and it all goes back to their childhood – which Lila doesn’t remember much of; instead, relying on what Billy tells her happened.

As for Billy’s children, Pearl is very much a VCA-esque character when she lives with Barbara. Maisie’s too young to be given a subplot. And middle child William has his life endangered several times by his father, in a series of events called the Challenges, of which we don’t get enough detail.

This book should’ve been right up my alley, but the characterisation doesn’t work. I feel sorry for the characters (especially Ashley, Billy’s wife), but I don’t particularly like any of them. And when characters talk about literature and stories… Too meta-wank for me.

[REVIEW] Story of a Girl – Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr
Story of a Girl
Hachette Little, Brown (US: 1st February 2008; UK: 3rd April 2008; AU: 10th April 2008)
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CONTENT WARNING: Slut-shaming is a major theme here, told from the POV of the victim.

This is the second book in a row I’ve read that features a heroine in love with her male best friend who’s in a relationship with their other female best friend. Weird coincidence. (Or is this common in YA?)

Sara Zarr has crafted an uncomfortable novel of the less-than-ideal situations that strike families and alter their relationships. Parents laid off from their long-time jobs. Older brother’s girlfriend falls pregnant, decides to keep the baby, and everyone lives in the same house.

And then there’s Deanna, who’s sixteen now. At the age of thirteen, her father caught her in the backseat of a car with an older guy. Deanna’s dad is paranoid she’ll get pregnant, and so doesn’t trust her alone with a guy.

When her plan falls through, Deanna’s fear of the future is so real that it hurts to read. Though Story of a Girl ends optimistically, there are many struggles to get to that stage. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important one that’ll likely ring true for a lot of readers.