“The Hating Game” by Sally Thorne

The Hating GameThere’s a thin line between love and hate. That’s the premise of Australian writer Sally Thorne’s first novel, The Hating Game, which pits two uber-competitive office workers against each other as they both angle for the same promotion at a publishing company.

Lucy has always dreamed of working at a publishing company; Joshua fell into his job after dropping out of medical school due to squeamishness. Bitter rivals, the two are constantly trying to sabotage each other. However, despite their mutual loathing, there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension that becomes more and more difficult to ignore.

To Thorne’s credit, this isn’t the type of book where the protagonists finally declare their attraction to one another on the final page; the romantic sparks between Joshua and Lucy are pretty obvious early on, and a kiss in the elevator at work further complicates their relationship. Both have vowed to quit if the other one gets the promotion, and when Lucy begins to date another employee, things get even more twisted.

The Hating Game reminded me a little of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It, another book where we watch the couple move from antipathy to amour. (Seriously, does that ever happen in real life, or is it just a rom-com trope?) But while Parker’s novel had a rich background in the world of the London theater, Thorne leaves the setting of her book as something of a mystery. At first I just assumed the author was British and that it took place in London, until a receipt with a price in dollars was mentioned. It’s definitely not set in Manhattan, since everyone drives their car to work. When I read that Thorne was Australian, I kind of wished she’d been more specific about the location and given the novel some local color; the huge success of Liane Moriarty’s Oz-set books have proven that readers elsewhere in the world will enjoy fiction set in the land down under. But on the whole, The Hating Game is a fun, light read with a couple of appealing lead characters and a satisfying resolution.

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“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderWhen I was a kid, my family frequently traveled overseas to visit relatives abroad. This was in the days before iPads, laptops and other electronic distractions; I don’t even recall movies ever being offered on those drop-down screens you used to see on planes before every traveler was provided with his or her own seatback entertainment center. (Admittedly, to save money, we frequently took charter flights or flew off-brand air carriers, where in-flight movies were probably considered unnecessary frills.)

Therefore, I had one option when it came to entertainment: I could bring a book. I remember going to Waldenbooks in the mall and scanning the shelves for the thickest possible spines. I needed a book that would last a long time, but also provide a super-sized entertainment value. I wanted epics, with exotic settings, life-and-death conflict, and romance, books like M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.

Perhaps a nostalgia for the sweeping sagas of my youth led me to pick up Outlander, the enormously popular, and just plain enormous, time-travel romance, for a recent overseas trip. (I got the Kindle edition, not the paperback—I appreciate the technical innovations of the 21st century.) I feel like 16-year-old me would have loved Outlander; 2016 me was rather lukewarm, though I did make it through the entire thing. It took me about two weeks; I started it in Stockholm, and it kept me company through trips to Amsterdam and Paris, before I finally finished it in a Copenhagen airport hotel. I’m unlikely to pick up other books in the series (there are currently eight), though I’d consider watching the TV show if I had the Starz pay-cable channel.

The best thing about Outlander is that it has a strong and resourceful female heroine, Claire Beauchamp, a 20th century nurse who inadvertently winds up in 18th century Scotland after time-traveling through a standing stone. Claire is English, but was in Scotland on a second honeymoon of sorts with her husband Frank. World War II has just ended, and she and Frank were apart for most of it, so they were just getting reacquainted when Claire finds herself in a very different time period. It was smart of Gabaldon to start the book in the postwar era, which was one of hardship and deprivation; the only things Claire really misses are hot baths and modern medicine. Imagine a 2016 woman sent back to 1743—I’m not sure I could function without a smartphone, a good sunscreen, speedy modes of transportation, well-stocked grocery stores, and (dare I say it) modern feminine-hygiene products.

Through a series of events, Claire winds up married to Jamie Fraser, a younger man who was a virgin on their wedding night but soon becomes an ardent and attentive lover. (There are a lot of sex scenes in this book.) At first, she tries hard to return to the standing stone to see if she can time-travel back to 1945, but eventually she realizes that she loves Jamie much more than she ever loved her 20th century husband, who is not nearly so rugged and sexy as the 18th century Scot. Jamie is also a wounded man, literally and figuratively, and becomes more so over the course of the book; Claire has to nurse him back to health several times, though he also saves her life a time or two.

I guess there is something appealing about the fantasy of escaping to a more uncomplicated time, but I kept thinking that despite having a hunky 18th century babe at my disposal, I’d still opt to return to the mid-1940s in a heartbeat. Life was nasty, brutish and short in 1743! It was an especially rough time for women, who were essentially considered property and died in childbirth at an alarming rate. Claire survives and eventually thrives, but I think for the vast majority of us, that time period may be a fun place to read about, but thank goodness we don’t live there.

“Act Like It” by Lucy Parker

Act Like It by Lucy ParkerI’ve been at this for 40 weeks now, which is plenty of time to give regular readers a solid impression of my favorite genre: mysteries & thrillers. They make up probably three-quarters of my reading diet, and have for most of my adult life. I rarely stray into other genres of fiction.

Romance, for example. I know there are a lot of very well-regarded contemporary romance novels being published today; I just have kind of a prejudice against them, figuring I already know what’s going to happen, so why bother? A man and a woman meet and fall in love, an obstacle tears them apart, but they get back together in the end and live happily ever after. At least with mysteries, there’s some suspense over the killer’s identity.

Well, you know what? I read a contemporary romance novel this week, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Linda Holmes, NPR’s pop culture critic, Tweeted out a link to Act Like It a few days ago, stating “I really loved this book” and noting that it was on sale for 99 cents. I really trust Linda’s taste (her recommendation got me hooked on “The Great British Bake-Off”!), and when I saw that it was set in the world of London theater, well, I couldn’t resist.

Lainie Graham is co-starring in a costume drama on London’s West End with her ex-boyfriend Will Farmer (he dumped her for another woman, but she still has to kiss him every night onstage) and the temperamental Richard Troy, whose bad behavior in public is bringing negative publicity to the play. Hoping to burnish Richard’s image, his PR team talks Lainie into embarking on a fauxmance with the actor. Each of them have something to gain: Lainie exerts a promise for a hefty donation to her charity (which, as we find, is very close to her heart), while Richard is angling for a position on the board of a stodgy national arts foundation. (Wait a second, the man is committed to increasing government funding for the performing arts? Definitely marriage material, if you ask me.)

Of course, you know they’re going to fall in love eventually, but Lainie is such a strong, appealing heroine and the theatrical setting is so much fun that I couldn’t put the book down. And while the ultimate destination may not be a surprise, how they arrive there most definitely contains a bunch of twists and turns. I don’t know if I’ll add contemporary romance to my regular repertoire, but I definitely plan to snap up Lucy Parker’s next novel.