Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Published: 7 July 2020 (print)/7 July 2020 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Sourcebooks Casablanca/Dreamscape Media
Pages: 427/13 hrs and 11 mins
Narrator: Joe Jameson
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

Wanted:
One (fake) boyfriend
Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go.

I adored this book but I have found it incredibly hard to write a review for it which is always a weird experience. The set up for Luc and Oliver’s fake dating is interesting and realistic in that it is a wild idea that needs persuasion and rules which I loved because it is an inherently strange thing to start to do and seeing it being set up like a contract was great.

Having there be a semi long term date to aim for meant there was a solid investment in these boys that wasn’t the following week and it gave plenty of time for the plot to unfurl and have all the wonderfully devilish chaos, drama, emotional toil and evolution of feelings one needs for such a sweet story as this.

What I liked about this is the drama comes from two messed up people, one more open to admit they’re messed up than the other, and seeing the pair of them grow and learn, become comfortable with themselves and each other, but then also have to face their own fears breaks is brilliant.

Luc’s wall to suppress his feelings and not look any deeper than the surface is slowly broken down beautifully and the way Hall has built up his character for the reader means you understand him quite quickly but also have so much more to learn about him.

Oliver seems perfect from the start as we see through Luc’s eyes, but he too is broken down into more complex pieces and realise he’s putting up a wall and façade in his own way.

The story itself was well told, we explore the depth of their lives and see friends, colleagues and families in a way that makes them full, rich characters and you see the worlds in which they live where a fake boyfriend would be a necessity at times.

I loved the use of mirroring scenes and the in-jokes are incredibly cute. I love these boys and their unorthodox relationship and friendship and seeing them try to act naturally around one another when they are both a small mess is highly endearing and entertaining.

I haven’t read many (maybe any?) fake dating stories but this is a fantastic one because Hall gives it time to be convenient, messy, complicated and heartfelt and as the days and weeks and months go by the relationship between Luc and Oliver reshapes itself multiple times which benefits them both as people, but still leaves you wondering whether they will stay together in the long term.

The writing is amazing, the story is clever and funny, full of love and heartbreak, vulnerability and hope. For all the extra plot and life happening around them it all comes back to the focus around these boys which is perfect because they are delightful even when they’re being fools, which to be fair is a lot of the time.

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Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House (#14) by M. C. Beaton

Published: 1st March 2005 (print)/28 June 2010 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
St. Martin’s Paperbacks /Audible
Pages: 246/6 hrs and 39 mins
Narrator: Penelope Keith
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Cosy Mystery
★   ★ – 2 Stars

Just back from an extended stay in London, Agatha Raisin finds herself greeted by torrential rains and an old, familiar feeling of boredom. When her handsome new neighbour, Paul Chatterton, shows up on her doorstep, she tries her best to ignore his obvious charms, but his sparkling black eyes and the promise of adventure soon lure her into another investigation.

Paul has heard rumours about Agatha’s reputation as the Cotswold village sleuth and wastes no time offering their services to the crotchety owner of a haunted house. Whispers, footsteps, and a cold white mist are plaguing Mrs. Witherspoon, but the police have failed to come up with any leads, supernatural or otherwise. The neighbours think it’s all a desperate ploy for attention, but Paul and Agatha are sure something more devious is going on. Someone’s playing tricks on Mrs. Witherspoon, and when she turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Agatha finds herself caught up in another baffling murder mystery.

I was disappointed the haunted, paranormal aspect was solved so quickly, it was something different to focus on than bodies right away. The murder mystery aspect was relatively predictable but there is a lot more focus on the character interactions than any real sleuthing. All of the characters are vain and fools, so no one gets any real sympathy.

There are also continuity errors based on information in previous books about Charles which throws you a bit since they are huge revelations and changes that can’t occur in a matter of months. Whether the previous facts weren’t interesting enough for this new story and had to be retconned I’m not sure, maybe perhaps Beaton can’t recall her own story, whatever the reason it’s another sign of disregard for the readers, the characters, and trying to create a consistent, evolving storyline if things can change on a whim through books.

Agatha thinks about James less than she has in the previous two books which is a plus. Not that her obsession over men isn’t there, between her and Paul, and her and Charles and the whole mess in between it gets a tad involved. Stock standards are there too – her absolute obsession over her age and her weight, and she applies, reapplies, and freshens up her make up a few dozen times.

Something you notice when you binge these books is the lengths are getting longer. From an initial length of around four hours, the shift to six hour stories is becoming the norm and it isn’t to the benefit of the story. With two hours extra of story there is no real improvement on plot, people, character development or sensibilities. The approach instead is to fill the book with more padding and random scenes almost unconnected and personally I can’t see the benefit of this if we aren’t going to see any more depth of character, growth of any real kind, or something relevant to the plot. These aren’t enjoyable enough characters to want to spend time with them unnecessarily.

You can purchase Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House via the following

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Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds

Published: 5th March 2019 (print)/24 March 2019 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins Publishers
Pages: 480/9 hrs and 59 mins
Narrator: Nile Bullock
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★  – 1 Star

When Jack and Kate meet at a party, bonding until sunrise over their mutual love of Froot Loops and their favourite flicks, Jack knows he’s falling—hard. Soon she’s meeting his best friends, Jillian and Franny, and Kate wins them over as easily as she did Jack.

But then Kate dies. And their story should end there.

Yet Kate’s death sends Jack back to the beginning, the moment they first meet, and Kate’s there again. Healthy, happy, and charming as ever. Jack isn’t sure if he’s losing his mind.

Still, if he has a chance to prevent Kate’s death, he’ll take it. Even if that means believing in time travel. However, Jack will learn that his actions are not without consequences. And when one choice turns deadly for someone else close to him, he has to figure out what he’s willing to do to save the people he loves.

Lured in by the interesting blurb I’m annoyed to say this story had so much potential if I didn’t hate the writing. Also the main character, but I am blaming that on the writing because I think it’s not entirely his fault.

The issue I have with the writing is it’s cringe-worthy, long winded and often unnecessary. It’s painful to listen to I’m sure it would have been annoying to read as well. Having Jack’s narration spoken aloud in my ear made me realise how weird the sentences were and how the story is flooded with overly wordy similes and metaphors which go far beyond their purpose. Reynolds over explains things so not only are similes sprinkled in more often than necessary, he goes one step further adding explanations and examples of those similes which take away from the moment being described.

As a character Jack is annoying. I didn’t like his voice and Reynolds’ written him to be the “adorable dork” who gets the cool, interesting older girl but Jack is more on the annoying dork side of things and the weird, overly cute, eye rolling dialogue between the two was hard to bear.

I wanted to stop reading so many times but I was determined to stick with it at least until the first time travel, and then I kept telling myself to stay with it to see if there was an explanation for the Groundhog Day type situations. Thankfully Reynolds chooses a four month cycle which gives us time to explore the relationship and the impact it has on the wider friends and family group.

It was relatively interesting seeing the different actions having different outcomes, and yet despite the multiple cycles we spend with these characters, they still felt flat and one dimensional, like we never learn much about them past the things we need to know for the events in the cycle to occur.

Reynolds shows that Jack takes advantage of the knowledge he has of previous cycles but then becomes incredibly weird and the story shows multiple breaches of privacy and I have no doubt Kate wouldn’t have gone along with anything Jack did with his intrusive nature into her personal and medical life. Not to mention the ways he abandons and treats his friends with his choices.

Other downfalls of Jack’s character were the many sentences dedicated to talking about how attractive Kate was and there are even scenes where Jack is spending his time describing how attractive Kate’s face is while she’s talking to him but he isn’t actually listening to her tell him about her very serious illness. The line she was sexy when angry even happens which did nothing to help me warm to the writing, Jack or Reynolds.

Overall I was not a fan of this book. The story is a letdown, I don’t actually think Jack learnt anything substantial to make him a better person, there are great characters that are left on the sidelines until they’re required for the story and aside from a few moments of remorse Jack doesn’t change his behaviour in any real way to show he’s learnt from his actions over the time loop. Jack tells us it happened a lot more often than what he’s telling us, I can only be thankful that we weren’t subjected to having to read about them as well.

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Between the Lives by Jessica Shirvington

Published: 1 May 2013 (print)/1st May 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Macmillan Australia/Naxos Audio
Pages: 336/8 hrs and 5 mins
Narrator: Matilda Reed
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★  – 2 Stars

Sabine isn’t like anyone else. For as long as she can remember, she’s had two lives. Every twenty-four hours she “shifts,” living each day twice. In one life, Sabine has everything: popular friends, perfect grades, expensive clothes, and the guy everyone wants. In the other, Sabine’s family struggles financially, and her friends are considered rebels. But then she meets Ethan. He’s gorgeous and challenging, and he makes her feel like she’s never felt before.

All Sabine really wants is the chance to live only one life. But when this finally becomes possible, is she willing to risk everything – including losing the one person who might actually believe her – to make it happen?

CW: self harm, drug use, overdose, physical abuse

Note: This review contains minor spoilers

This is a reread of a book I first read in 2014 and I’m surprised that I’ve gone from a 5 star rating to a 2 star review. I think at the time I was amazed at how Shirvington created this world. Her creativeness of how Sabine shifted between worlds, how the rules were changing, what it meant for her life and her decisions caught me more than the problems I can obviously see now.

I did this as an audio second time round and to be honest it was hard to get through it. I had it on the fastest speed I could still understand and I was tired of this story fairly early. Once you see the problems it is hard to see past them.

I feel like having lived for essentially 36 years instead of her single 18 she should be more mature, smarter, and sensible than she is. Sabine has managed her two families and lives well enough — she can live two lives and not get them mixed up, has never forgotten which world she was in, but having lived twice as long as anyone else she is still acting foolishly.

No wonder she is sent to an institution because she’s clearly gone to the extreme self-harm approach instead of doing normal less extreme tests. The blasé attitude she has towards it as well is concerning. She can’t see anything wrong with it, she doesn’t think it’s a big deal and in a YA book especially, to show it as “no big deal” is incredibly troubling.

The abuse of power by Ethan when he was acting as her “nurse” while she was in the hospital crosses a lot of boundaries and whether Sabine wants him or not is no issue, but Ethan crosses a line, whether it’s because he believes her story and knows she isn’t mentally unstable is beside the point. I’m sure somewhere in there there’s an ethical issue as well, and a breach of privacy but I’m not sure on that one. It’s a vague set up Shirvington has going on.

It isn’t a bad concept to be fair, as I say, I did give it five stars the first time around. The ideas are interesting, I liked the fact we have no explanation of why and really the mystery isn’t the point of the story. It is what it is and we follow the change in Sabine’s life as suddenly the rules have changed.

As you read you make your own judgements about which life Sabine should live in and which one would benefit her. Both sides have pros and cons but as the story goes on you can see how the idyllic world may not always be what it seems. On a lighter note, I was annoyed Sabine didn’t use her two lives to her advantage more often. It would have been a great way to test out the consequences and the effects a lot better too.

Where Shirvington fails is that she included these Big Issues and she treats them as if they mean nothing. Not only the detailed description and flippant self-harm, but also abuse. Minor spoiler, but you can’t go from being assaulted to kissing and sleeping with someone else. It just isn’t possible – especially given the examples we’ve seen of how the mentality of the other life comes across. How Sabine is not still reacting from the other life when she shifts is unbelievable when we’ve seen her still reacting from a lot less.

I feel bad having such a shift in rating but I think it’s a good look at how upon initial readings you can get blinded by the overall artwork and not see the cracks that make up that artwork.

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Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate (#13) by M. C. Beaton

Published: March 2003 (print)/12 March 2009 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Minotaur Books/Audible
Pages: 212/6 hrs and 34 mins
Narrator: Penelope Keith
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Cosy Mystery
★   ★  ★ – 3 Stars

Agatha Raisin has just about had it – James has abandoned her, the new neighbour has made an unseemly proposition, and the new curate seems to be taking a more than normal interest in her. Now he is dead.

This was a pretty forgettable book despite it having a few decent components. Beaton keeps us in Carsely but instead of the usual characters like Charles, Roy and the dreaded James we get to discover more of the villagers and the broader community while keeping familiar faces in Bill Wong and Mrs Bloxby.

Agatha is a mixed bag here, she has sworn off men, still has complicated emotions and pining towards James, and thankfully hasn’t fallen head over heels with new neighbour John and started imaging a life together. Her openness about her investigation is nice, she openly tells people she isn’t officially anybody and yet still tries her luck at asking people questions. This is all in an effort to help clear her friend’s husband’s name so credit to her for trying to help, it’s one of the few times her input is justified and isn’t about clearing her own name.

Her own life once again becomes in danger but while it’s predictable, it’s a nice consequence of Agatha running around butting in trying to solve crimes she has no real business solving. Her ability to stumble into revelations is hardly a good justification but Bill and Wilkes put no real effort into stopping her so they certainly can’t complain.

The reveal is relatively clever, the twist and surprises are interesting but Beaton still needs to work out where she is taking these characters because every moment of growth and positive change we see it is either contradicted or backpedalled soon after. The exploration of side characters was a nice change too, fleshing them out to become more than one dimensional. Bill’s love quest continues and we see more of John’s character than we have previously. Agatha learns some more about herself which was some good growth and I liked her decision to help out in the community with her PR skills. It’s these parts of Agatha I enjoy seeing – her input into to community and trying to be a good person for good causes instead of insulting everyone and being brash and abusive.

I don’t know whether it was because the story was lacking or because I had been reading these back to back but this isn’t the most memorable book. It’s not quite formulaic but not revolutionary either. So many of Beaton’s books are memorable for the wrong reasons though so being forgettable is probably the best thing for this one.

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