The Opal Octopus

Reading and reviews by the Indian Ocean

a woman looks at grapevines

January 17, 2016
by The Opal Octopus
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Review: Between the Vines by Tricia Stringer

Between the Vines
by Tricia Stringer

Published by Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty, Limited, Harlequin MIRA Australia
on November 23rd 2015
Genres: Australian Rural Romance, Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 432
four-half-stars
Review: Between the Vines by Tricia Stringer
She's given up everything for love: it could be the biggest mistake of her life...Taylor Rourke wants to change her impulsive ways when it comes to romance and not fall for any man on a whim, but then on a hen party trip to a Coonawarra vineyard, she meets Edward Starr. Gorgeous and charismatic, Edward is enough to make any girl give up her flat and job in Adelaide and move to the country.So it's something of a shock that when she gets there, Edward is nowhere to be seen. Not wanting to admit she may have made a mistake and return home in disgrace, Taylor accepts the job that Edward's younger brother Pete offers her and throws herself into her work, keen to learn as much as she can about the wine trade.Taylor is thrilled when Ed returns, but she quickly discovers he may not be the man she thought he was.  Her growing friendship with Pete causes tension between the brothers who have fallen out over a woman in the past.  That's not the only source of conflict: Pete has a dream to save the family vines, Edward's dreams lie elsewhere.As the lies and deceit grow, matters come to a head in the vibrant and demanding vintage season. Will Taylor's dream of a new life and love between the vines come true? Or is there only heartbreak ahead?Set in the beautiful Coonawarra vineyards, a wonderful feel-good rural romance from best-selling Australian author, Tricia Stringer

I don’t know how much I’d even call this a straight-up Romance – but it is a somewhat unconventional contemporary Australian domestic drama, set in a vineyard, with a romantic plotline. We see through the eyes of all three main characters: two orphaned brothers who own a Coonwarra vineyard but are on the verge of sliding into a feud, and the woman who strays into their lives.

I loved the competence porn; Taylor might be a bit of a stray at the start of the book, but she works hard and is good at the bits of winemaking and administration that she picks up. I liked the winemaking details and the sense of place. The Coonawarra reminds me of my beloved Margaret River region (which is where my next read is coming from, The Grass is Greener).

The romance didn’t carry a lot in the way of surprises for me, but it was sweet and it rang true. I liked that the brothers’ impending feud was drawn realistically, without one being a cartoonish villain and one an unblemished hero. Peter and Edward had different ideas about the direction the vineyard should be going, with credible motivations and actions. This dynamic is the main driver of the action of the book.

This is a strong book, especially for those who dream of a vine change to an Australian vineyard. (OK, ok, I can’t think of a good vineyard-related word that rhymes with “sea” and “tree”. Apologies. “Chablis change”?) Lastly, if a series was being contemplated, I would love a M/M romance from Antoine’s point of view!

May 4, 2015
by The Opal Octopus
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Review: Intensive Care by Nicki Edwards

Intensive Care
by Nicki Edwards

Published by Momentum
on January 22nd 2015
Genres: Australian Rural Romance, Contemporary, Medical, Romance
Pages: 182
three-half-stars
Review: Intensive Care by Nicki Edwards

Intensive Care is a straight-down-the-line medical romance with an Aussie rural-romance flavour. Kate Kennedy is a capable intensive care nurse manager with a successful but controlling partner. Their life in Sydney seems as slick and shiny as their minimalist, modern apartment – but you know the drill, looks are deceiving, and when push comes to shove Kate packs up suddenly, and scoops up a job in a country Base Hospital ICU.

The generous, warm local coffee shop owner, a contrast in every way to her previous man, catches Kate’s eye. There follows my favourite part of the book – a slow-burn friends-to-lovers story. And who doesn’t love an Irishman who can pour a perfect flat white as easily as he can build a fence? But old sorrows, like dumped exes, are not so easily left behind; and, being a medical romance, you know you’re in for a fair share of medical drama as well.

I loved most of this book. As I’ve said, Friends-to-Lovers is a favourite trope of mine, as is Competence Porn (Kate’s a nurse who knows her stuff!), and I also like that this is book with competent med-picking and no obvious glaring errors in that area.

I did feel a bit manipulated by the conclusion of the book, as it suddenly morphed into what felt to me like Christian message-fiction. I didn’t need a lecture (and one veering into anti-choice territory, at that) on top of the story – just let the story tell itself. My only other critique is the bad cover, which looks like a DIY self-pubbed job, and definitely does not do the book justice.

I’d definitely pick up another Nicki Edwards book, if the anvilicious religious-message side of things was eliminated.

[Content note for domestic abuse.]

April 13, 2015
by The Opal Octopus
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Review: Lovelorn by Claire Andersen

Lovelorn
by Claire Andersen

Published by Random House Australia
on November 1st 2014
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pages: 304
four-stars
Review: Lovelorn by Claire Andersen

Mia has chosen a sea change, moving from the world of Melbourne art galleries to Lorne on the Great Ocean Road. Having been accused of art theft in the past, she has withdrawn from her job, her family, and her will-they-or-won’t-they engagement to curator Rohan.

“Here, let me top up your champagne and we can get back into the mood.’

They ate quietly, the ring sitting between them like an exclamation mark on a blank sheet of paper. Waiting. Mocking.”

Now working as children’s book illustrator, Mia is convinced to take on art tutoring. Her first student, Sophie Brunelli, is a young girl from a local Italian family. Mia becomes enmeshed with the Brunelli family, befriending Sophie and her grandfather, but she is not sure what to make of Sophie’s uncle Jack, who appears to take an instant dislike to her. Why is he so cold towards her at first? Could he know about her past?

I loved the Darcy/Lizzy vibe in Lovelorn. First impressions are not always accurate – and that goes both ways. Jack comes across as distant and mocking at times, Mia is caught out looking somewhat less than suave and self-possessed, and Jack has knowledge of shenanigans elsewhere of which Mia is unaware … and I can tell you nothing else because spoilers!

The book has a well-drawn sense of place, especially in the contrast between coastal town Lorne and Melbourne:

“Even at this hour, trains were still bustling back and forth. There was a different world out there, a busy rush of people who didn’t know or care about each other. How different it was in Lorne, where you saw familiar faces in the streets, chatted to shop owners, took your time. Even now, she could be sitting on her balcony, observing the endless spectacle of stars meeting ocean. Traffic noise exchanged for the sound of waves washing ashore.”

I also enjoyed the occasional gigglesnort double-entendre, lightening the mood of the book:

“ ‘He’s interested in selling this property and I might consider buying it. I find the view quite breathtaking.’

Mia let go of the shears hastily. Was he really referring to the ocean? His voice was husky and his eyes met hers and then travelled lazily down her neck, where strands of hair were plastered against her skin. Her breasts suddenly felt taut and strangely alive. It felt as if he was touching her without even having to raise a finger. She was painfully aware of the flimsiness of her thin top and the fact that it formed the only barrier between his gaze and her bare flesh. Even worse, she felt sure he knew what his look was doing to her. A tiny bead of perspiration trickled down between her breasts.

‘These will need to be oiled and tightened,’ he said, still using that throaty voice.”

Most of the book is nothing like this level of corniness – but this passage gave me a good laugh!

I had a few issues, generic sex scenes among them. (I know, I whinge about that a lot.) And where are the condoms?! I also got a little frustrated at times, wanting to yell at the two main characters to just talk to each other. There was also what felt like a weird evasion of the climax of book. Just as a major conflict is about to occur, the book fades suddenly to the future and the climax is then told secondhand in retrospect. I’m not sure why this authorial choice was made, but it didn’t quite work for me.

Despite my few objections, this book was a entertaining read, enjoyably grounded, and it kept me turning the pages till the end.

April 13, 2015
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: The Road to Hope by Rachael Johns

The Road to Hope
by Rachael Johns

Series: Hope Junction #2
Published by Harlequin MIRA Australia
on March 1st, 2015
Genres: Australian Rural Romance, Social Issues
Pages: 352
four-stars
Review: The Road to Hope by Rachael Johns
Nurse Lauren Simpson is known in Hope Junction for the wrong reasons – and she’s over it. Watching the man she’s always loved marry someone else is the last straw – she decides to get out of Hope. But her resolve is tested when the hot new locum doctor arrives in town.

Doctor Tom Lewis also has skeletons in his closet – including a painful breakup and devastating family news. He’s hit the road with his vintage ute and surfboard, to travel the outback and live in the moment.

When Tom and Lauren meet the attraction is instant, but for Lauren Tom threatens to be just another fling and Tom has his own reasons for hesitating. Everyone else – their friends and patients – can see how perfect they are together, but just what will it take for them to admit this to themselves?

A brand new Hope Junction story of fresh starts and second chances.

 

Lauren is a nurse in a small-town southwest hospital. Her most recent romantic interest has just married another (see Jilted for details, but this isn’t mandatory in order to enjoy The Road to Hope). She is feeling down about her life, and making plans to leave Hope Junction.

Town doctor Hannah Bates has left on holiday, and in blows locum GP Tom Lewis. He’s gorgeous, compassionate, and he can cook. Tom and Lauren, forced into shared living quarters, start a hot-and-cold romance. Why is Tom so reluctant to get involved in anything deeper? And what is going on with his family back in Adelaide?

THIS is what I really like about full-length Aussie rural romance, compared to shorter category type romance! We get not just a love story, but other stories with complex inter-weaving storylines, social issues, all spiced with a great sense of place (which I love).

Yes, it’s is a male-doctor-female-nurse love story, but it’s not a hackneyed one. Lauren is portrayed as a professional in her own right, not a handmaiden. Yes, she paints the nails of the resident elders in the hospital, and she is also on the ball co-operating in the treatment of major traumas and being a first responder. The elderly residents of the nursing home wing of the hospital are also drawn as people in their own right, with histories and love stories and personalities – something you don’t see all that often in any fiction, let alone romance which tends to focus on the young. This story shines a light on the impoverished lives of many nursing home residents, and on the simple ways in which treating them as people can be so enriching.

And most interestingly, Lauren isn’t a chaste maiden, or even thereabouts – she starts the book with a reputation as the town “slut”. I like that her history of multiple partners isn’t treated in the narrative as a terrible thing. She is looked down on by some of the townspeople, yes, but this is portrayed as the prejudice and sexism that it is. I like that. A lot.

What I could do without: “sassy” and “curves in all the right places” made me roll my eyes. I also found the sex scenes to be rather formulaic – I like a book where it isn’t all nipple, nipple, a bit of oral, simultaneous copulatory orgasm, best sex ever.

But overall, this was a great read.

January 29, 2015
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Captive by Aimee Carter

Captive
by Aimee Carter

Series:
Published by Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
on November 25th 2014
Genres: Dystopian, Love & Romance, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 304
three-stars
Review: Captive by Aimee Carter
The truth can set her free For the past two months, Kitty Doe's life has been a lie. Forced to impersonate Lila Hart, the Prime Minister's niece, in a hostile meritocracy on the verge of revolution, Kitty sees her frustration grow as her trust in her fake fiancé cracks, her real boyfriend is forbidden and the Blackcoat rebels she is secretly supporting keep her in the dark more than ever. But in the midst of discovering that her role in the Hart family may not be as coincidental as she thought, she's accused of treason and is forced to face her greatest fear. With her back against the wall, Kitty wants to believe she'll do whatever it takes to support the rebellion she believes in—but is she prepared to pay the ultimate price?

I was a little lukewarm on the first Blackcoat Rebellion book, which I thought was solid if a little formulaic. This book kept me a bit more glued to the pages, which was promising.

Kitty Doe, still Masked as VII Lila Hart, falls from grace and finds out what it’s like amongst complete outsiders to the I-VII ranking system in her society. Little did she know that outside the system there was another highly organised society of outcasts and criminals and rebels, where she faces brutality and more revelations of just how badly her world treats people it considers disposable.

Kitty has to try to figure out who to trust in a world of spies, double agents, and shifting allegiances. She has to sit and think about just who and what she’s prepared to sacrifice in order to carry through the planned rebellion.

“We all have blood on our hands already. Now it’s your job to make sure those people didn’t die for nothing.”

There’s no such thing as a bloodless revolution.

Knox’s voice echoed in my mind, and I closed my eyes. He was right.

Unfortunately, although high-stakes decisions and sacrifices are foreshadowed throughout the book, Kitty never really ends up having to make one. Tranquillisers appear conveniently so that she doesn’t have to kill anyone, and another huge potential decision is cut short by circumstances. I was disappointed in what felt to me like an evasion of any substantial examination of Kitty’s backbone. Maybe this is all waiting for the third book, but I have to say, it’s a long wait.

I enjoyed some of the unexpected revelations in this book, and as it’s a genre I like, I had no trouble sitting and reading it for long periods. It just felt a little unsatisfying in the end, for me. However it’s solid and well-written, and easily earns “three stars – I liked it”.

December 23, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
1 Comment

Review: Nest by Inga Simpson

Nest
by Inga Simpson

Published by Hachette Australia
on July 29th 2014
Genres: Contemporary Women, Fiction, General, Mystery & Detective
Pages: 304
five-stars
Review: Nest by Inga Simpson

Jen has returned to her childhood town in the subtropics of Eastern Australia. She teaches art and watched the birds and wildlife in her jungle home. As a child from the town goes missing, Jen is reminded of the loss of her father and her best friend when she was a child. Jen’s return to her nest reconnects her to this mystery of the past, and to meaning. Her relationship with her student, Henry, is both a friendship and a mentorship.

The languid pace of this book luxuriates in gorgeous description of the birds, the forest, the community, and art. Despite a pair of missing-child mysteries being central (ish), the feeling of Nest is quiet, contemplative, and engrossing: as connects with place, with land, and with life – through her art.

“Jen put a hand on the log on which she leaned. She was a timber child, grown from fallen trees and sawdust. Standing on stumps before she knew them for carcasses and gravestones. […] In Jen’s forest, only two original trees survived, bloodwoods metres thick, and towering above the other trees. Their timber wasn’t any good for building, riddled with veins of blood-like resin that oozed out when their trunks or limbs were cut or damaged. It was a shame all trees didn’t bleed: there might be a few more left standing.”

Jen’s close, attentive observation of nature and the everyday is intricate, but in a good way, like meandering through a Mandelbrot set.

“Not for the first time, she wondered if it wasn’t a mistake to try to pin the bird to the page, to confine it to paper with her meagre scratches and marks. The pleasure of living among them should be enough.
 As if to emphasise the point, the family of fairy-wrens flitted and flirted their long tails at the baths, the cobalt blue and russet of the males no less astounding for the frequency with which she saw it. It made them vain, though. She preferred the plainer females with their red eye masks and more subtle touches of blue in their tail feathers. Their cheerful chatter lacked the self-consciousness of the males, the need to perform. And she knew all too well what it was to be the plainer of a pair.”

Jen also confronts her own ageing, sharing with us descriptions of her bodily experience of perimenopause.

“Her skin was dry and itchy, wanting to flake off like the bark of the spotted gums outside. Not that she was lucky enough to have a smooth new version of herself waiting underneath; she was stuck with the skin she had, stretching and wrinkling with each passing year.”

As Nest progresses, a series of ultimately minor but potentially serious incidents gives us a sense of ever-present mortality, of life on the edge. We are left contemplating the horror of child murder, and this is contextualised with the way killings  are utterly ordinary amongst the birds and other animals that Jen watches – humans as another form of wildlife, perhaps, facing the same menaces.

“She had given the robins a false sense of security, thinking that they were safe in this clearing. But with the trees dropping leaves and branches flat out to survive the dry spell, the cover had thinned and butcherbirds snuck in to spy little birds from the high branches, swooping to strike.”

The pacing of the book is like a slow heartbeat, as it moves through weed-fighting, sketching, teaching, bird-watching, flood, regeneration work, family secrets, swimming… This is a beautifully-crafted book teeming with life, death, and the ephemerality and beauty of existence and peril.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 badge

December 23, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

Let's Get Lost
by Adi Alsaid

Published by Harlequin Teen
on July 19 2014
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 352
three-half-stars
Review: Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid
Five strangers. Countless adventures. One epic way to get lost.

Four teens across the country have only one thing in common: a girl named LEILA. She crashes into their lives in her absurdly red car at the moment they need someone the most.

There's HUDSON, a small-town mechanic who is willing to throw away his dreams for true love. And BREE, a runaway who seizes every Tuesday—and a few stolen goods along the way. ELLIOT believes in happy endings…until his own life goes off-script. And SONIA worries that when she lost her boyfriend, she also lost the ability to love.

Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia find a friend in Leila. And when Leila leaves them, their lives are forever changed. But it is during Leila's own 4,268-mile journey that she discovers the most important truth— sometimes, what you need most is right where you started. And maybe the only way to find what you're looking for is to get lost along the way.

I do love a contemporary YA road trip story. This is really four linked stories: the encounters that Leila has as she crosses the continent to Alaska. There’s Leila’s insta-love with Hudson, who thinks he knows what his goal in life is – but is it really his path? I found this story the most difficult to believe, and possibly the most formulaic. Then we meet Bree, who is alone and acting out. Elliot is in love with his best friend – can Leila help them get together? And then there are unexpected adventures with the grieving Sonia. The best of the stories comes last – Leila’s story.

With Let’s Get Lost, at first I was all “yeah yeah manic pixie dream girl yadda yadda”. I was angry at Leila for assuming she knew what everyone else needed. But as time went on, though some of the stories were a little predictable, I started liking the book more and more, as expectations turned into revelations. Maybe one person’s cliché is another’s comfortably familiar tale? And this is almost a modern fairy tale – a manic pixie fairy godmother, perhaps!

And callbacks to 80s teen movies always work for me, though how relevant they are to modern teens I do not know.

December 9, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Losing Patients by Virginia Taylor

Losing Patients
by Virginia Taylor

Published by Random House Australia
on August 1st 2014
Genres: Romance, Romantic Suspense
Pages: 233
three-half-stars
Review: Losing Patients by Virginia Taylor

The blurb misled me on this book! I read this:

“It’s Bree Branson’s first day at Pemberton Private Hospital and the last thing she needs is a patient dying in suspicious circumstances on her watch.”

And I thought to myself, I thought, “Yay! A hospital-based thriller romance set in the little lumber town of Pemberton in my state! This is MY BOOK NOW.”

But it wasn’t set in Pemberton town, it was just set in a private Adelaide hospital called Pemberton Hospital. No matter! Moving on. It’s still an Australian-written hospital romantic suspense, and I’m all over that.

So. Bree. She’s a working-class nurse starting work at a new hospital, where she runs into a fellow from her past, silver-spoon surgeon Sam Vincent. Then people start dying, and Bree starts to wonder why. Her investigation leads toward it being an inside job, and the tension of the books lies in Bree’s wondering which of her co-workers might be a murderer. Who was the last person to have the Schedule 8 cupboard keys? Why were those morphine ampoules in Sam’s pocket? And where is the jewellery from the dead folks disappearing to?

The B plots include Bree and Sam’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, some family drama with Bree’s mum and dad, and Bree confronting and examining the fact that she holds some stereotypical ideas about people from certain social classes, just as they hold certain stereotypes about her.

A lot of this book was fun, and the whodunit was well written. But there were annoying things too, sexist romance-novel mainstays that always get up my nose. There’s the unwanted kiss, where the hero keeps on kissing without consent until the heroine changes her mind:

‘Sam, no. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not your type.’

Slowly and gently, he kissed her until he could feel her indecision.

And there’s this little turd-in-the-swimming-pool of a Nice Guy(tm) conversation:

“I think you’re the only woman I’ve dated who likes me because of me.’

‘Likes you? Who said I like you?’

‘Sweet face, you had sex with me after you’d only known me for a couple of hours.’

‘That means you’re manipulative, not that I liked you.’

He shook his head. ‘And now we’ve been together for almost two months and not slept together once.’

‘Strictly speaking, we did sleep together.’

‘I ought to get good-guy points for that. You knew I wanted you.

So this book loses some stars for me. I’d read Virginia Taylor again, but I’d hope for a little more attention to respectful consent all round, and a hero who’s less of an arse.

November 10, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: What Milo Saw by Virginia MacGregor

What Milo Saw
by Virginia Macgregor

Published by Little, Brown Book Group Limited
on 2014-07-29
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 400
five-stars
Review: What Milo Saw by Virginia MacGregor

Milo has a distracted mother whose beautician business is failing, a father who has run away with another woman who he impregnated at family Christmas, a Gran at home who he loves dearly, a pet pig called Hamlet, and a newish diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa.  Milo has no peripheral vision at all, seeing the world as if through a small tunnel. And this tunnel is closing: soon he will be blind.

When his mother places Gran in a nursing home, Milo is distraught. There is badly wrong at the home, and no-one will listen to him except for Tripi – an undocument immigrant who works as a cook at the home. What eventuates is a mission to expose the problems at the home, and to assist the residents into safe, secure accommodation.

There are a lot of great things about this book! The drawing of disability was splendid (in my opinion as a non-blind person). Milo is a whole character who just happens to have retinitis pigmentosa. His journey in the book is not primarily about his disability, it’s about his love for his Gran and his pursuit of justice. At the same time, his near-blindness isn’t a non-issue: it causes issues in his everyday life, especially at school, where it is clear accommodations and skills development haven’t been put in place at all. Part of the reason for this is that his mother really isn’t paying attention to Milo at the moment, and Milo is at risk of slipping through the cracks. At one point in the book someone does observe that his ability to concentrate visually on only one thing at a time may sometimes be to his advantage. I thought this was an interesting take in context, and it wasn’t laboured or overdone into a Disability Superpower.

The book also addresses issue of refugee homelessness and insecurity, through the character Tripi, and again not in an Issue-Book way. I thought this was very well done

I did have some gender issues with What Milo Saw. A large number of the women in this book are awful – the homewrecker they call “The Tart”, the almost cartoonishly evil nursing home director, the neglectful mother. This does turn around somewhat as the book goes on. I especially liked the older women of nursing home being awesome toward the end of the book – but I spent the first half of the book growling about this problem. And at least the two male people saving the day aren’t white nondisabled folks.

Overall: I loved What Milo Saw. It’s an unusual story, absolutely absorbing, with a memorable protagonist and a varied, idiosyncratic cast of characters.

October 6, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel
by Sara Farizan

Published by Algonquin Young Readers
on October 7, 2014
Genres: GLBTI, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 304
five-stars
Review: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel

Why would I ever care about frictionless acceleration anyway?

How is that ever going to get me a girlfriend?

Not that I dare think about that. I’m not ready to announce my lady-loving inclinations as yet. I can hear the whispering, knowing that what they are snickering about could easily be me. I’m already different enough at this school. I don’t need to add anything else to that.

Persian-American Leila is having a year of hidden crushes. Barely has she managed to control her sappy crush for her teacher than the gloriously sophisticated new girl, Saskia, comes onto the scene at school. But is Saskia as wonderful as she seems? Leila struggles to hide her secret from her traditional family and her schoolmates, but as the book progresses, she finds that there may be understanding, support, and empathy from the people she had thought were the most unlikely sources.

The overblown language Farizan uses to describe the intensity and drama of mid-teen crushes is simultaneously hilarious yet strangely authentic:

The more she talks, the more I feel like the cartoon character Goofy, as in “Gawrsh, she’s purrrty!” All that’s missing are the tweeting birds flying around my head. […]
Saskia links arms with me as we walk, and I imagine this is how Dorothy coaxed the Cowardly Lion into going to Oz. Saskia smells of enchanted fruits that God hasn’t created yet.

 

I lean in to kiss her this time and she moans. I nearly die.

“No,” I answer at last. That isn’t exactly true, because nothing can really compete with the feeling of a first kiss .

. . but I’m pretty sure an entire garden of Georgia O’Keeffe flowers has bloomed to life in my chest.

I love that this book acknowledges and explores some of the complex realities of being a lesbian/questioning teenager from an immigrant family, while remaining accessible to a quite young audience. My eleven-year-old son loved the scene where Leila has an hideously embarrassing school play audition, and I loved that this is just the most a-freaking-dorable young adult romance I’ve read in a long time. The school theatre tech folks are all individual and interesting, and I could easily see a series of companion books exploring their lives and loves.

Through the course of the book, Leila’s family and friends aren’t the only ones who have to confront their own prejudices – Leila herself has a little growing to do. The humour, gentle busting of stereotypes, and likeable, diverse cast of characters make this a book for me. Loved it.

 

August 3, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Masquerade by Kylie Fornasier

Masquerade
by Kylie Fornasier

Published by Penguin
on 2014-07-23
Genres: Historical, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 224
three-half-stars
Review: Masquerade by Kylie Fornasier
It's the Carnevale of 1750 and Venice's ballrooms, theatres, palazzos and squares are filled with delicious gossip, devilish fun and dangerous games. In this glittering masked world, everyone has a secret... Set in an age of decadence made famous by Casanova, Masquerade uncovers the secrets of seven teens, from the highest aristocrat to the lowest servant – their dreams, desires, loves, loyalties ... and betrayals. All the world's a stage. Let the show begin.

Orelia is a newly-orphaned mountain girl arriving in Venice for the first time. She is taken in by her long-lost uncle – but only on the condition that she masquerades as his god-daughter from Rome. What is the secret of her mother’s past?

As Orelia navigates her new urban environment, Orelia starts to learn that everyone else has a secret too. Her cousin, Veronica, paints her horrid suitors’ secrets as blackmail to have them withdraw their suits. Her other cousin, Angelique, is determined to land Bastian, who is destined to be Doge – and will go to illegal lengths to do so. Orelia’s lady’s maid, Anna, who sings when no-one is listening, is hiding her bedridden sister upstairs – along with a mysterious bundle of old letters. Wealthy Claudia is secretly in love with a gondolier, while her mother pushes her towards Bastian, the Doge’s son. Bastian is courting Orelia (first on a bet, then in earnest), while getting up to hijinks with his friend Marco. And others scheme behind the scenes…

Masquerade is a romp through masked balls, the opera, the canals, machinations, subterfuge, and schemes gone wrong. Through the middle there is quite the feel of a Shakespearean comedy, which is a lot of fun. Fornasier has clearly researched the period, though I’m not historian enough to evaluate the accuracy. From time to time a paragraph feels a little like “my research; let me show you it!’, but on the whole it’s not too obtrusive, and the little details add a lot of flavour to the story.

There’s a “but” coming. And that’s the “but” I so often raise in books with romantic storylines: heroes who are arseholes. With a little SPOILER note, here is a quote:

Bastian stepped forward and pressed his palms against the wall on either side of her shoulders. ‘You know what, bella? I think you’re afraid of your feelings for me.’
‘I certainly am not. You just cannot accept that I have no feelings for you.’ Her voice wavered, but she squared her shoulders and tried to hold his gaze.
‘Prove it. Kiss me.’
‘You’re crazy.’ Orelia tried to wriggle out from between his arms, but there was no escape, or maybe she just didn’t try hard enough.
‘If afterwards you have no feelings for me, I’ll promise never to bother you again.’

This is a douche move. Don’t do this, dudes! And if you do, don’t expect the woman to ever want be alone with you again. If you don’t respect women’s boundaries, if you use physical force to violate those boundaries, you are an assault perp and a potential rapist, not a swoony hero. Bastian pulls some other stuff that he apologises for, but he never apologises for physically restraining Orelia to force her into a kiss. Ugh ugh ugh. Can we leave the bodice-ripping in the past, please?

I also have a touch of side-eye at the disability storyline with Anna’s sister, as I’m not sure what it was trying to say or achieve, and it seemed near the end to be veering a bit into saying that all you need in order to snap out of severe mental or fatiguing illness is a bit of hard work. I feel as though this poorly-fleshed-out storyline could have been cut out of the book without losing anything.

Apart from that? I really liked Masquerade. It’s definitely an ambitious book, with its multiple characters and interlocking plots, and I think that it largely achieves its goals.

Weekend Waffle: Coriander

August 2, 2014 by The Opal Octopus | 0 comments

Today in winter non-gardening: a field of self-seeded coriander in one of the raised beds.

closeup of coriander leaves

We’ve been pretty busy this autumn/winter, and have done very little in the way of planting – a native hibiscus and a finger lime tree here, a Meyer lemon tree there, but not much else. We’re still eating from the garden, though: self-seeded coriander and cos lettuces mostly, the odd bit of random volunteer rocket coming through, plenty of herbs of course, and a profusion of limes.

lime hanging from tree

 

In more decorative news, the grevilleas are flowering beautifully throughout. Here’s a Gingin Gem:

closeup of red flowering grevillea bush

And a dry-climate boronia. You have to love the Perth winter: just look at that sky!

beautiful pink boronia buds against a blue sky

 

Anything growing where you are?

August 1, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Carrier by Vanessa Garden

Carrier
by Vanessa Garden

Published by Harlequin Enterpises AU
on 2014-03-01
Genres: Romance, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 182
three-half-stars
Review: Carrier by Vanessa Garden

There was a great setup for this book, hitting all my buttons: plague novel, set in Australia, young adult.

Lena is a girl locked in an outback property with her Mum and two pet dingoes, and kept in by fear of Carriers outside the fences. Y-Carrier disease has swept Australia. It kills women, but only infects men, leaving them with a rash and a deadly cargo. As the story goes on, it appears that this apocalypse seems to have happened while Lena was in utero.

Lena is a teenager now, and she’s got itchy feet. For the first time in her life, she meets a boy, through the fence – Patrick She discovers her dead cousin Alice’s diary, waxing lyrical about a mysterious Markus. And she finds out that her mother has killed a man. Lena decides to climb the fence, join Patrick, and find out what the outside world holds. Danger, romance, and action ensues – but no spoilers!

I was very interested in Lena’s journey, what it might be like to see a boy for the first time as a teenager (this makes the insta-love trope a little more believable, I think), and how she would deal with the fear of infection and the dread of meeting people outside the fence, whose motivations are unclear.

I was less interested in the alien/paranormal storyline, which was infodumped near the end of the book without any of the mystery or gradual unfolding that would have drawn me in. I found it – even as a fantasy reader – very difficult to suspend disbelief and go with it. I felt it could have been entirely expunged from the book, leaving more time to explore the human issues. There were also some clunky phrasings and similes that sometimes stopped me from sinking into the story. Lastly, I was really rubbed up the wrong way by the brief Magical Aboriginal Person motif, a girl called Sapphire, who didn’t affect the story in any meaningful way. This felt to me like an empty nod to Australia’s Aboriginal population, in a story which really could have used some deeper engagement with this rather crucial aspect of the Australian outback.

As a real-world plague story, with more fleshing out and exploration of characters, I think I could have loved it. As it is, I liked it!

I would definitely pick up another book by Vanessa Garden.

July 19, 2014
by The Opal Octopus
0 comments

Review: Tweethearts by Nicole Haddow

Tweethearts
by Nicole Haddow

Published by Destiny Romance
on 2014-02-14
Genres: Chick Lit, Romance
Pages: 224
three-stars
Review: Tweethearts by Nicole Haddow

Pregnancy-magazine writer Jemima has a secret identity, @maghag, and an adorable friend and housemate, Samson. Everyone in the magazines world is trying to find out who @maghag is, as she tweets scathingly about her unethical editor. When the editor goes a step too far, Jemima outs herself and quits – and is promptly scooped up as social media director for the new reality show on which Samson is a contestant.

This romance follows the classic “miscommunication-is-the-obstacle” storyline, which can be irritating – but at least there is a good excuse for it in Tweethearts, as Jemima and Samson aren’t allowed to communicate with each other in any way while the reality show is running. All they see of each other is what they see on TV and read on Twitter.

I like the book’s examination of new media jobs and some of their ramifications and difficulties, and the critique of celebrity culture and media manipulation. I also love a friends-to-lovers storyline, so that worked for me; and the humour of the book is enjoyable, making it at times almost a satire of itself (“Placenta Monthly” magazine? “Salacious Rumours” gossip mag?).

There were other aspects that annoyed me a lot, however: the obstetrician breaking medical confidentiality while speaking with Jemima made him irredeemable for me, yet he was presented as delightfully likable throughout the rest of the book. The morning sickness drugs storyline required more research: pregnancy vomiting was presented as at most an inconvenience, and drugs as horribly dangerous. This is very far from reality, and promulgates dangerous myths. Lastly, the use of the “jealous bitch/slut” stereotypes was an eyeroll – I don’t much get along with books in which nearly every woman except the MC is seen as spiteful, scheming, manipulative, and/or competition for a man.

So: I have mixed feelings about this book: go into it with your eyes open. I would definitely pick up another Haddow title, however.

Content note for sexual assault while sleeping.

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