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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

'Burn Bright' Alpha and Omega #5 by Patricia Briggs

Received from the Publisher 


From the BLURB:
Mated werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham face a threat like no other - one that lurks too close to home . . .

They are the wild and the broken. The werewolves too damaged to live safely among their own kind. For their own good, they have been exiled to the outskirts of Aspen Creek, Montana. Close enough to the Marrok's pack to have its support; far enough away to not cause any harm.

With their Alpha out of the country, Charles and Anna are on call when an SOS comes in from the fae mate of one such wildling. Heading into the mountainous wilderness, they interrupt the abduction of the wolf - but can't stop blood from being shed. Now Charles and Anna must use their skills - his as enforcer, hers as peacemaker - to track down the attackers, reopening a painful chapter in the past that springs from the darkest magic of the witchborn...

Burn Bright’ is the fifth instalment in Patricia Brigg’s urban fantasy series ‘Alpha & Omega’, a spin-off to her ‘Mercy Thompson’ series.

I thoroughly enjoyed this latest book in Charles and Anna’s story, and I’m so glad because I haven’t been on the greatest reading streak with Patricia Briggs lately ... I was pretty “meh” on the last ‘Alpha & Omega’ book from 2015, ‘Dead Heat’ and thoroughly unimpressed with Mercy’s from last year, ‘Silence Fallen’. But Briggs is one of my favourite authors, and this is one of the few urban fantasy series that I’ve loyally stuck with, when others have fallen by the wayside – so I always feel a little discombobulated when I’m dissatisfied with my once-every-two-years dose.

‘Burn Bright’ follows on from the events of ‘Silence Fallen’ – when Mercy was kidnapped, and werewolf Marrok Bran left his Aspen Creek home to help with her rescue mission. When ‘Burn Bright’ begins, Charles has been left in charge of his Da’s pack for a month, acting as pack leader – and it’s all going relatively smoothly, until he receives word that some of the pack’s wildling werewolves are in trouble in the Montana mountains, seemingly being hunted by a covert operation for purposes unknown …

All of Patricia Brigg’s books are whodunits, that’s a given. But I find myself tending to favour those that stick close to home – both in the ‘Alpha & Omega’ series, and ‘Mercy Thompson’. So I was really happy that ‘Burn Bright’ takes place entirely in Aspen Creek, and reveals more than any other instalment about Bran’s werewolf pack and operations. I just tend to find that Briggs is less likely to go off on unnecessary tangents, introducing superfluous secondary characters and settings we have no connection to (as indeed, I thought she did in ‘Dead Heat’ with a trip to Arizona). ‘Burn Bright’ is brilliant twofold, not only because it’s firmly grounded in Aspen Creek and works to pull readers into the Marrok’s ordering of his werewolf pack – but also because the entire ‘whodunit’ mystery is centred in that pack, and builds upon the relationships with many established secondary characters … like Bran’s mate Leah, and the Moor, Asil.

The mystery in ‘Burn Bright’ is such a good one, and I was buoyed to see a hint of potential to build a bigger bad-guy arc around it in coming books. If that is the case, I certainly have more faith that this could give readers the layers and subterfuge lacking from the fae/Greylords build-up across both series in recent years …

So the plot in ‘Burn Bright’ worked for me, in a way that the last couple of Briggs books hadn’t been. This one felt very tightly plotted, and like it was serving a wider series purpose overall.

The character-building in this instalment though, was sometimes a tantalising mix of too much, and not enough.

For one thing, with Bran not around in this book – it gave Charles and Anna a chance to talk out some things about the Marrok that certainly Anna probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable airing, had he been closer to the pack bonds. In particular, Anna drops some bombshells regarding her observances of Bran and his feelings towards Mercy, which … BLEW MY FREAKIN’ MIND, and then blew it again when Charles conceded her point and agreed with her. This was … I was shook, people. I had never thought of Bran and Mercy in that context (no, not even after the reveal in ‘Silence Fallen’, which now also takes on new meaning – not to mention a certain conversation that Adam and Mercy had early on in the series, about Adam doing the Marrok’s bidding in watching over her) so this was just a whole lot of revelations coming thick and fast and then just left to sit, simmering on readers minds, probably until the next ‘Mercy Thompson’ book most likely (March 2019, for anyone who is counting down).

These revelations also made me yearn, more than ever, for Bran to get his own spin-off. But I think Briggs has repeatedly nixed that idea, citing that he’s just too commanding a presence and would overwhelm any book. But still – Briggs threw these big character reveals about him out there, and now I kinda want her to pick them up and run with them.

But ‘Burn Bright’ also stumbles somewhat with continuing to advance Charles and Anna’s relationship, and in highlighting how loving one another is changing them, for the better. Charles briefly mentions Anna’s restlessness at not knowing what to do with her life. Seeing as werewolves are very hard to kill and can live immortal (or – more likely with all that could try and kill them – at least hundreds of years) it helps if a person can figure out what they’d like to do with all that time on their hands. Charles mentions Anna half-heartedly looking into finishing her music studies, and Bran offering to help them look into adoption … this particular aspect is key, since past books have given readers Anna’s interiority and desire for children (possibly even in defiance of Charles, similar to how his own mother sacrificed herself to have him). I totally accept Charles’ assessment that Anna isn’t the sort of person to feel restless and think that a child will solve all her problems of self – but I still feel like that aspect of Charles and Anna’s relationship (foreshadowed really, by the story of Charles’s mother) will have to come around again, and ‘Burn Bright’ might have been the book to continue laying that groundwork …

But, honestly, these are minor quibbles about Anna and Charles and their relationship. Overall, ‘Burn Bright’ is one of the best Briggs instalments in recent memory. Tantalising character tid-bits are dropped, secondary characters advance in my estimation and a whodunit to sink your teeth into make this a stellar instalment.

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5/5

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'The Upside of Unrequited' by Becky Albertalli


From the BLURB:

Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she's lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can't stomach the idea of rejection. So she's careful. Fat girls always have to be careful. Then a cute new girl enters Cassie's orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly's cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly's totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is.

Luckily, Cassie's new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she'll get her first kiss and she'll get her twin back. There's only one problem: Molly's coworker, Reid. He's an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there's absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ was Becky Albertalli’s 2017 follow-up to her massively popular YA contemporary debut, ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ (which I loved!)

I did not read this book when it first came out, but having recently seen a preview screening of the ‘Love, Simon’ adaptation which was *amazing* (and easily makes the Top 5 YA Adaptations of all time!), and what with ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ coming out next month, I thought I’d catch up on my Albertalli reads.

But I did not love this book. I did not hate it. I did not love it. I am fairly indifferent to it, overall. And I do know that some people are crazy about this story, and Molly Peskin-Suso’s quest to break her streak of crushes by getting her first kiss and boyfriend … and that’s wonderful. But this book just left me so lukewarm.

The novel has a backdrop of the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S. Molly and her sister Cassie, plus baby brother Xavier, are the children of two mums – Nadine and Patty. Cassie is also a lesbian, embarking on her first real relationship with the lovely Mina. Molly, meanwhile, has experienced 27 crushes in her lifetime and no romantic reciprocation (or so she thinks). The meeting of two boys – Mina’s friend Will, or her new co-worker Reid – sets Molly on a path to figuring herself out, and learning to love the body she’s in.

While reading this rather slow-burn of a contemporary YA, I did think how much goodwill Albertalli may have racked up with her wildly popular ‘Simon vs.’ – as well as how much more patience readers seemingly have for US authors of “quiet” YA. I personally love “quiet” contemporary novels – it’s a term used for anything that doesn’t have a rollicking action plot and is family or friendship focused, often with a lot of interiority – all of which, ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ has. It’s all from Molly’s perspective, and seeing as she’s particularly hung up on her body-image there is a lot of internal angst and anxiety (which she also takes medication for). Molly doesn’t just narrate events as they unfold, she tends to pick them apart, dissect and stress over them – it’s a very tightly-wound narrative voice to be stuck with.

It’s also a book that meanders for a while before figuring out its due-course. There’s no build-up to the moment of legalization of gay marriage in the U.S., it comes on page 85 of this 336-page book and catches all the characters off-guard and as a total surprise. But once it’s legalized, that becomes the end-point and building climax to the plot – when Molly’s mums decide to get hitched and throw a big party/wedding in their backyard. But before those goal-posts are established, it really is 84-pages of meandering through Molly’s teen angst as she watches Cassie’s new romance unfold, and deals with her feelings of inferiority and perhaps, increasing inconsequentially in Cassie’s life.

I just could not shake this feeling that, had ‘Upside’ been written by an Australian author – readers would have been a lot less forgiving of the meandering, and the while it takes for Molly and Albertalli to figure out where they’re going. But for me, it firmly remained a novel of low-stakes, and that was tough to slog through.

It must be said though, that the novel does have a cast of diverse and inclusive characters … and no wonder, when Albertalli made it abundantly clear in interviews that she owes a lot to the sensitivity readers who helped shape this cast. I will just say that even though the characters were clearly written with the utmost respect to their various backgrounds, I did not care about them. They were rather anaemic props, to me. And sometimes Albertalli’s grab for “teachable moments” made me wince – like at the wedding, when Molly and Cassie’s often un-PC grandmother apparently makes this faux pas;

Cassie wanders over to meet us. “So, I just had the best conversation with Grandma.” 
“Really?” 
She grimaces, and I laugh. 
“Grandma has just informed me that when a bisexual woman marries another woman, she becomes a lesbian.” 
“Oh no,” Olivia says. 
“And I’m like … Grandma, just no. No. Infinite side-eye.”

For me, I just felt like quite a few of the characters became conduits for these sorts of not-so-subtle lessons in wokeness.

The shining point of the novel for me though, was Molly’s romance. Less her does-he-or-doesn’t-he-like-me with Mina’s friend Will, but the slow-burn and then instant ignition with Reid, her ‘Lord of the Rings’ obsessed co-worker. Their attraction led to some nice moments of clarity for Molly, and some pretty hot make-out sessions … and it was in these moments that I read Albertalli loosening up as a writer, and really letting go and allowing her characters’s instincts to lead scenes, rather than any social-messaging she wanted to engineer.

Overall I still think ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ is one of the most perfect slices of contemporary YA written in recent memory. I am ridiculously excited for ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ and, for me personally, I am just going to pretend like ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ didn’t really happen.

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2/5