Saturday, 28 December 2013

Bargain Read/Review: Here's Looking at You - Mhairi McFarlane

Anna Alessi – history expert, possessor of a lot of hair and an occasionally filthy mouth – seeks nice man for intelligent conversation and Mills & Boon moments. 
Despite the oddballs that keep turning up on her dates, Anna couldn’t be happier. As a 30-something with a job she loves, life has turned out better than she dared dream. However, things weren’t always this way, and her years spent as the ‘Italian Galleon’ of an East London comprehensive are ones she’d rather forget. 
So when James Fraser – the architect of Anna’s final humiliation at school – walks back into her life, her world is turned upside down. But James seems a changed man. Polite. Mature. Funny, even. People can change, right? So why does Anna feel like she’s a fool to trust him?

I loved Mhairi McFarlane's first novel You Had Me at Hello and I couldn't wait to read her next, so much so that I bought it myself as an early Christmas treat.

All the elements that I loved about You Had Me at Hello, with a few more thrown in, are evident in McFarlane's second offering.

Yes, ok, so the plot is a little clichéd but how many romance novels are entirely original these days? McFarlane manages to elevate the simple plot line into a throughly enjoyable and well developed novel. Anna is much more than the shy recovering fat girl, she's funny, witty and self assured. Sure she might undersell herself to the opposite sex but she's smart and quick witted - she is most definitely not a shell of a character. James, too, is a more complex character than you would expect; he hasn't undergone some miraculous transformation since high school, in fact he's still a bit of an ass, but he works hard at making you like him and by the end of the novel you do, faults and all.

The romance and relationship between Anna and James builds slowly, escalating from a friendship into a much deeper connection. The struggle that Anna undergoes in equating this new, mature James to her high school tormentor is executed well and her inability to keep away from this charismatic character is easy to sympathise with. The budding friendship between the two main characters was easily the most enjoyable aspect of the novel for me, providing plenty of laughs and enough 'will they won't they' to keep you engaged throughout.

The novel switches between two points of view, Anna's and James', which I always really like as I feel it really helps to develop the characters well, particularly the male character which can often be somewhat neglected in favour of the heroine. However, I did feel that as a consequence of the narrative split the secondary characters weren't as well developed in McFarlane's second offering, but what detail is offered is more than enough to give the reader a firm idea of their nature and makes sure that the main characters aren't left adrift in a friendless life consuming search for love.

Despite the humour laced throughout Here's Looking at You there is a deeper, darker edge to McFarlane's novel. The subject of bullying is a controversial one and yet remains surprisingly popular in the world of fiction. I have to say that McFarlane does handle it exceptionally well. She doesn't brush the consequences aside and merely use it as a plot point for the advancement of her characters but really tackles the nitty gritty of the issue. I particularly liked the consequences and realisation that James' character experiences, McFarlane taking a much less naive and more believable approach than many other authors have done in my experience.

I adored McFarlane's debut novel and Here's Looking at You did not disappoint as a follow up. Warm, funny and insightful it really stands out for me as one of the best romance novels of the year. McFarlane takes a brave and refreshing stance in creating a male character that we might not immediately take to, a character who retains some of his autocratic qualities from high school but with the addition of a mature and balanced adult character. Anna herself is far from perfect too, she is not the fat girl redeemed by weight loss but the woman who has yet to settle into her new skin.

If you love your romance with a bit more of an edge I cannot recommend McFarlane's books enough and at 99p on the Kindle you don't have much to lose in giving it a go.

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