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Monday, October 15, 2018

'This Will Only Hurt a Little' by Busy Philipps

Sent by the Publisher in exchange for an honest review

From the BLURB:

A memoir by the beloved comedic actress known for her roles on Freaks and Geeks, Dawson's Creek, and Cougartown who has become 'the breakout star on Instagram stories . . . imagine I Love Lucy mixed with a modern lifestyle guru' (New Yorker).

Busy Philipps's autobiographical book offers the same unfiltered and candid storytelling that her Instagram followers have come to know and love, from growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona and her painful and painfully funny teen years, to her life as a working actress, mother, and famous best friend.

Busy is the rare entertainer whose impressive arsenal of talents as an actress is equally matched by her storytelling ability, sense of humor, and sharp observations about life, love, and motherhood. Her conversational writing reminds us what we love about her on screens large and small. From film to television to Instagram, Busy delightfully showcases her wry humor and her willingness to bare it all.

'I've been waiting my whole life to write this book. I'm just so grateful someone asked. Otherwise, what was the point of any of it??'


‘This Will Only Hurt a Little’ is Busy Philipps’ memoir, available in Australia by Hachette and available from October 16.

Confession – I instantly flipped to the “Is This It” (The Strokes) chapter of Busy’s memoir when it arrived. The ‘Dawson’s Creek’ chapter – because how could I not? This was the show that defined my teenage years of yearning, and a couple of weeks previously myself and a bunch of rad people on Twitter had concluded an epic live-Tweeting re-watch of all six seasons (#PaceysCreek). We had all been in agreement that Busy’s character of Audrey Liddell had been a low-point in an already terrible final two seasons of a once-great show … but we were also all in agreement that upon re-examination as strong, feminist adults – Jen Lindley and Michelle Williams had been the true breakout star of that show, and we were all smitten with her and Busy Philipp’s best-friendship that had its start in Capeside.

So I flipped to the gosh-darn ‘Dawson’s Creek’ chapter because I wanted goss – particularly on Busy’s sure-to-be-truthful observations as a late-comer to the show and how the dynamics played out by then. And she did not disappoint … or – maybe she did – but not in her gossip content delivery, just in shattering some of my teen idols;

Josh really fancied himself “one of the guys” with the crew. The Creek’s very own mini George Clooney! He’s a good guy and just wanted to be well-liked but I wish I’d known the term “mansplaining” when I met Josh. His ability to turn a conversation into a dissertation was incredible.
Dang it, Pacey! 

There’s also a lot of hints given about the tensions on set between the cast by this point, as Busy points out;

One day, the whole cast was sitting around a table filming the Thanksgiving episode, and James looked at me and said, “See? You got lucky. Your show was cancelled after the first season.”’ 
Gossip delivered. But the chapter offers a lot more than just the Dawson’s Creek revelations I had hoped for… Busy highlights the many ways she was made to feel inadequate about her weight and appearance on the show, particularly in being constantly compared to the “breakout star” of Katie Holmes. The chapter also takes a sharp turn when September 11 happens in the middle of a break from filming, and Busy needing to take a flight back to Wilmington from LA despite being terrified – as everyone was in those days – of getting back on a plane and then having to carry on with life and work. In the wake of it all.

I felt so silly at work the next day, dressed in a costume for the Halloween episode. The world was fucking ending and I was trying to get Joey Potter to come to a party with me. I remember there were a lot of pep talks about how this is what we do. We make entertainment for people so that they can escape the real world for forty-three minutes a week. It’s not without value or merit. It’s important to not just tell stories, but also to remember to entertain. Any anyway, someone’s got to. May we well be us.
And so we did.

And she delves into how she started drinking as a coping mechanism for all the ways the world sucked, and she was made to feel shitty in her little corner of it. The chapter ends on a doozy of a scathing and on-point one-liner and it pulled me up short. Hang on. I was mostly looking forward to this memoir for the celebrity gossip, but … could it be that Busy is actually a good writer?

Yes. She is. A damn fine one, in fact.

I went back to the beginning and then I didn’t stop – I ended up reading the whole book through to 1AM when I finished, teary-eyed and a little weak from the punches she packed.

This memoir is GOOD. Not just good … bloody brilliant! It’s up there with ‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?’ by Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants’ for comedic memoirs … but it’s also more than that. It’s a memoir by an actress in the wake of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein (who – yes – she knew, but not the extent of his depravity). An actress who is pulling no punches about the toxic masculinity and patriarchy upon which Hollywood is built and Busy acquiesced to for a long time.

Case in point: Busy had the idea for the 2007 film ‘Blades of Glory’ and shared it with her boyfriend at the time who agreed they should write a script together … until he and his brother took the idea and ran away with it, even having the audacity to shop it around without Busy’s name on it, though she’d also contributed to the writing. Luckily she’d registered the idea with the Writers Guild of America screenwriting credit system and they ended up having to credit her, since there was a sufficient paper-trail proving her ownership (so it was fear of potential litigation rather than letting a woman own her damn work as the right thing to do!)

Busy dissects these moments, and many more (including – yes – the one the media has chosen to pick apart in James Franco’s treatment of her on the set of ‘Freaks and Geeks’). But she doesn’t just talk about them in the context of Hollywood. Busy’s memoir – starting from when she’s a child and then a teenager in Scottsdale, Arizona through to her college years acting and early established career – is a searing personal critique of all the ways she tried to contain herself to please men in her life. Tried to be less than, quieter, prettier, thinner, agreeable, laid-back, loving … even at the expense of her own happiness and mental-health. It even results in her convincing herself that being raped at the age of 14 was something that she wanted from the boy, because she convinced herself to love him to make the event “okay” in her own mind.

‘This Will Only Hurt a Little’ isn’t just a memoir. It’s a searing, honest and fantastic examination of a young woman taking control of her life, career and identity. I also got this idea that it’s a little bit ‘La La Land’ meets ‘Lady Bird’ (a film I hated by the way, for its feeling directionless and pointless – but after reading Busy’s memoir I now wish more than ever that Greta Gerwig’s film had some of her beats and honesty to coral it).

The most impacting chapter to me was ‘Tear in Your Hand’ (Tori Amos) which delves into Busy’s first true teenage love affair that ends with an abortion and then winds up somewhere miraculous. It’s a chapter that you feel down to your bones, and is so incredibly literary perfect – I want to see it reproduced in The New Yorker or made into an indie movie (again – better than ‘Lady Bird’ in all ways) or maybe even fictionalised into a contemporary YA novel. This is the chapter that sealed the deal for me – and not just because it shits all over James Franco’s ‘Palo Alto’ wankery. But because it’s genius, perfectly crafted. That I read Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ right before delving into Busy’s memoir further highlighted this for me – the beauty in writing about the pain of teenagers and teenage girls in particular, the finesse and fierceness was all in this chapter. It makes me hope that Busy has another film-script up her sleeve, or another book – collection of essays, further memoir or fiction – I don’t care, I just want more of her words, thoughts and ideas.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

'Nine Perfect Strangers' by Liane Moriarty

From the BLURB: 

The retreat at health and wellness resort Tranquillum House promises total transformation. Nine stressed city dwellers are keen to drop their literal and mental baggage, and absorb the meditative ambience while enjoying their hot stone massages. 

Watching over them is the resort's director, a woman on a mission to reinvigorate their tired minds and bodies. These nine perfect strangers have no idea what is about to hit them. 

With her wit, compassion and uncanny understanding of human behaviour, Liane Moriarty explores the depth of connection that can be formed when people are thrown together in... unconventional circumstances. 

Okay - I went into this Liane Moriarty a *little* bit dubious, but I came out converted and all the better for having read it. 

Any hesitations I had were around the nine perspectives (there's actually more, but it works well) and because the whole 'wellness retreat' thriller-esque storyline had burnt me once with 'Fearless' by Fiona Higgins (which was *truly* awful, but thankfully 'Nine Perfect Strangers' is nothing like it). This latest from Liane Moriarty was another true joy and gem of a read; it's layered and complex, while also reading like a gossipy unravelling of human psyche and intimate relationships. I particularly loved the underpinnings of needing to choose your own happy-ending, and especially how that was characterised in the (sort of?) main protagonist of Frances, an older woman and once semi-famous romance author who has just been duped by an internet love scam. 

Frances is a bit of a conduit, I think, for Liane's experiences on the author circuit prior to becoming a NYT-bestselling author. So she has some delicious asides about gropey older male authors at writers festivals, bad reviews that claim her romance is anti-feminist for concluding with a happy ending, and the way she can't stand reading "literary" crime-thrillers without quotation marks and in which beautiful women either die or fawn over the grizzled older male detective. 

Ohhhhhhh, Liane - this is pure gold. And I think she has more than earned the right to have an author character get astutely persnickety about these things (also, can the sentence "unassuming mum from the suburbs" in relation to Liane just die already?) 

I also continue to adore how much Liane embraces Australian sensibilities. I've not ever read a US-version of her books, but I hope perfect observations like these remain; 

He loved the sound of the whipbird: that long, musical crack of the whip that was so much a part of the Australian landscape you had to leave the country to realise how much you missed it, how it settled your soul. 

Liane Moriarty continues to write at the top of her game, as a justifiable juggernaut of the publishing realm. That she's a genuinely lovely person, whip-smart author and keen observer of human interaction just makes her success that much sweeter ...


Saturday, October 6, 2018

'Heart on Fire' The Kingmaker Chronicles #3 by Amanda Bouchet

From the BLURB:
Who is Catalia Fisa?

With the help of pivotal figures from her past, Cat begins to understand the root of her exceptional magic, her fated union with Griffin Sinta, and Griffin's role in shaping her destiny.

Only Cat holds the key to unlocking her own power, and that means finally accepting herself, her past, and her future in order to protect her loved ones, confront her murderous mother, and taking a final, terrifying step - reuniting all three realms and taking her place as the Queen of Thalyria.

What doesn't kill her will only make her stronger . . . we hope.

‘Heart on Fire’ is the third and final book in American author Amanda Bouchet’s fantasy romance trilogy, ‘The Kingmaker Chronicles’ released in 2018.

Bingeing a completed series has its up’s and down’s. Instant gratification is always nice, and being able to feel intimately connected to the characters and story for an intense period of time … but unlike reading at the real-time release-pace, it also probably affords you more scrutiny of the series, when you’re able to take in all the moving parts as a whole and see how the long-game mapped out. In this sense, I’ve got to say that Amanda Bouchet’s third and final book in ‘The Kingmaker Chronicles’ trilogy falls maddeningly short. It’s not enough to taint the previous two books (I maintain that Book 1 ‘A Promise of Fire’ also works as a brilliant stand-alone!) but there’s no satisfaction in the end here, and that’s a frustrating note to leave on (for now).

One of the shortfalls of ‘Heart on Fire’ is actually that Amanda Bouchet has done too good a job with her secondary characters, and its highlighted in book three especially when I often felt more inclined to go off on their tangents rather than keeping with Cat. For one thing – it’s the Beta Team trio that I’m sure fans have come to love in Carver, Flynn and Kato. All of these men have had really full characterisations and future-journeys set-up, and they never work better than when off with Griffin and Cat on an adventure. So it’s maddening when Griffin and Cat go off on their own for a majority of this book, breaking the brilliant spell of camaraderie that had so endeared it previously. Never mind that the set-ups for Flynn, Kate and Carver are never followed-through, left dangling for readers to hope for a promise of spin-offs and more …

It was also the addition of a new secondary cast in Cat’s sisters Ianthe and Bellanca who joined at the end of Book 2 – these two are so fascinating, and while Bellanca’s set-up as a possible match for the world-weary brother Carver was a hopeful glint in the distance, Cat’s younger sister Ianthe strikes a truly fascinating bargain with leader of the cantaurs, Lycheron that is 100% worthy of its own series. Bouchet must have realised this somewhat too, because we get (a somewhat unnecessary) independent scene of Ianthe and Lycheron interacting and clearly loving that had me so desperate for the possibilities. And probably a sign that things weren’t concluding satisfactorily enough for me in ‘Heart’ was when Ianthe rode Lycheron off into the distance; I desperately wanted to follow after them and their story …

The last-half of ‘Heart on Fire’ was actually this really strange story of isolation for Cat, that introduced another new character who felt like there was more to them and he was being introduced so as to launch into something new … it’s maddening to meet interesting characters in the literal last-half of a final book. It’s not a cliff-hanger at that point, but a dangling annoyance. And further adding to this was the sad and frustrating end to one character, that also hints at more to come.

And while Bouchet has said she does intend to revisit the ‘Kingmaker’ realm with spin-off stories in future (something I wholeheartedly welcome!) it will be a while before readers get any kind of satisfaction, since Bouchet is launching a new series next year in the urban fantasy ‘Endeavor’ (described as Robin Hood in space). I would have been fine if Bouchet had left readers with such an unsatisfying conclusion if there was definite promise of those spin-offs launching from next year onwards … but instead we’re all painfully aware that she has a new series to invest her time in, so it’ll be a long time before we get any true satisfaction from the ending of ‘Kingmaker Chronicles’ and that’s not the half-full feeling you want to leave readers with in a finale.

It’s also that the Big Bad Arc was underwhelming executed in the end too. More a whimper than a scream, and it’s probably partly wrapped up in how many new characters had nabbed my attention, and how frustrating not knowing where favourites ended up that also dulled the final blows … but overall this was indeed a maddening wrap-up of poor pacing and patchy characterisation that doesn’t quite taint the series whole, but also doesn’t leave readers with a great taste at the end. A shame.


Monday, October 1, 2018

'The Hairy Bird: and the lessons Hollywood didn’t learn from Now and Then'

* Full disclosure: I wrote this back in 2015. I tried pitching the article to various online magazines and pop-culture websites, but nobody had heard of The Hairy Bird (or its other iterations) so the article went nowhere. Then I saw Jenna Guillaume's Buzzfeed article on her re-watch of the film and I was inspired to go read my own article again. 

And ... aside from it having some pretty telling condemnations (especially now) of Harvey Weinstein's movie taste where female portrayals are concerned, I found it to still be so relevant - everything Sarah Kernochan told me then still applies today.

So here it is. 

[left to right] Merritt Wever, Gaby Hoffmann, Kirsten Dunst, and Heather Matarazzo.

When I was eight-years-old I started wearing pedal-pusher pants, Chuck Taylors and was desperate to drink Coke out of a glass bottle. Because when I was eight-years-old I saw the movie Now and Then for the very first time – a film about four 12-year-old girls growing up together during an eventful small-town summer in 1970. I was obsessed with the film, and regularly rented it from my local Civic Video store (shut up, it was 1995!).  

So when director Lesli Linka Glatter spoke to Vulture in February, revealing that she and writer I. Marlene King are still friends and hinting that they’ve explored the idea of a remake, my inner eight-year-old was thrilled.
But then reality kicked in.

Putting aside the possibility of disaster that comes with remaking a classic, the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I was with the idea of a Now and Then reboot (and not just because that word is fast becoming the most overused in 2015 – between Twin Peaks and The X-Files). No, I was frustrated because the legacy of Roberta, Teeny, Samantha and Chrissy shouldn’t be to retell their coming-of-age story. Rather, the cult-classic status of that film should compel Hollywood to make more movies focused on young female narratives, because there simply aren’t enough of them. Glatter even told Vulture the reason they made Now and Then in the first place was because, “there hadn't been anything done about young girls growing up,” and – ummm – there still isn’t a hell of a lot.

Really, it’s hard for me to name any recent American films for young ‘tween’ girls (no, those great HelloFlo period ads don’t count) … instead you’ve got to look at more dynamic international and indie films like 2013’s Swedish-Danish drama We Are the Best! about three rebellious teenagers who form an all-girl punk band in 1980s Stockholm. Or the 2014 French film Girlhood, about young Marieme, who joins an all-girl gang in the projects of Paris.

In fact, if you’re looking for evidence that Now and Then had any real impact on the way Hollywood recognized the need and potential in telling stories that appeal to young female audiences … you’ll be pretty disappointed. Case in point was another female-focused 90s movie that had such a struggle, it really crystallizes the fact that film studios didn’t learn any lessons from Now and Then or realize the potential in harnessing female audiences.

The Hairy Bird is a film set in the 1960s which follows a group of friends at Miss Godard's Preparatory School for Girls who learn that their school is going to be combined with a nearby all boys school. They concoct a plan to save their school from the invading St. Ambrose Boys academy, and learn some lessons about themselves along the way.

The Hairy Bird came out in 1998, and I fell in love with it as fiercely as I did Now and Then three years earlier – not least because I related to the unique dilemmas of the all-girls school environment. The cast alone was a 90s slam-dunk: there’s Kirsten Dunst (who would go on to star in another cult-classic for my generation, Bring It On and the brilliant The Virgin Suicides), Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That), Heather Matarazzo (from another indie classic, Welcome to the Dollhouse), Mad Men alum Vincent Kartheiser and – *drumroll, please! – Samantha from Now and Then, the wonderful Gaby Hoffmann!

In many ways The Hairy Bird deliberately doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, because the storyline revolves around the girls planning to keep Miss Godard's same-sex by holding back the tide of an invading boy’s school. Or as Kernochan once described it, the film is about; “the incursion of the penis in young girls lives,” (hence, The Hairy Bird refers to male genitalia and in one scene, Dunst’s character declares; “I'm not gonna live in the shadow of the Hairy Bird!”).

I recently spoke to writer and director Sarah Kernochan about the film, which she admits, “Had a difficult birth, overcoming the inertia of an industry which traditionally has had reservations about women running things.” And despite being a success in Canada and Australia, her female-focused drama was bought down by an American distributor who wanted it to appeal more to young male audiences.

[left to right] Actors Gaby Hoffmann and Lynn Redgrave with writer/director Sarah Kernochan

‘It took about seven years to get financing, and to get a financial entity to believe that you could make a movie with an almost solely female cast,’ Kernochan says during our Skype chat, ‘Everyone shied away from it, because there were no major men’s parts and the girls were either fifteen or the head mistress was an older woman in her 50’s and they couldn’t understand why that should be bankable.’
‘There had been a number of films up until then that had been successful, that should have proved to producers that in fact an audience would show up for this. It was Clueless, it was Titanic (which was a completely different film) but it was driven by girls of that age. You just had to know how to get them in and market to them. And that’s what nobody could figure out how to do.’

Eventually a Canadian company financed the film, which was then picked up by Harvey Weinstein for distribution by Miramax … and that’s when things started to go wrong. Weinstein envisioned The Hairy Bird as a Porky’s for female audiences, and as detailed in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, he wanted to have greater editorial control over the film which eventually saw him pushing Kernochan to make it more appealing to male audiences. ‘At one time we had two versions screening for audiences at a mall – my version, and his version cut for young male audiences – and the scores came out exactly the same,’ Kernochan explains, ‘But one reason for mine not having higher scores was that it wasn’t finished – it didn’t have a soundtrack, or looped dialogue. But even though it wasn’t finished, my version still received positive feedback. But his cut of the film was just disastrous, and once he realized that he wasn’t going to turn this all-girls for a girl audience film into a female Porky’s, then he got very cool on the whole thing.’

Weinstein even insisted on changing the title of Kernochan’s film, because he believed The Hairy Bird was too vulgar a reference (‘but American Pie did it!’ she points out), so the film ended up having three titles – Strike! in Canada and All I Wanna Do in the US – but it retained its original title and the version of the film that Kernochan envisioned made its way to Australia, because the distributor here refused to change it (much to Harvey’s chagrin, because he hadn’t bought Australian territory rights).

In America the film had a single week of screenings, bringing in just $5,383 before going straight to video and DVD. But it was a success in Canada and Australia (who saw the Kernochan cut of the film) – ‘I wrote it for me and my friends,’ Kernochan says, ‘I figured between mothers and daughters we would be cool. I mean, if you make 20 million dollars off of a 1.5 million dollar budget film, that’s good! And that’s what we made in Canada.’

I ask Kernochan if she thinks the film would still struggle, if she’d been pitching it to studios today; ‘Nowadays I would not have even bothered, I would have gone straight to television because women rule on TV. It’s completely the opposite.’

Monica Keena as Tinka Parker leading the Godard's rebellion 

She’s absolutely right, of course – much has been written about the female disparity between film and television, but to really boil it down consider that Now and Then’s director Lesli Linka Glatter is now the director of television show Homeland, for which she has been Emmy-nominated and awarded by the Directors Guild of America. Meanwhile, the writer of Now and Then I. Marlene King is today executive producer and showrunner on the teen television series Pretty Little Liars. Those two women – who made a cult-classic about young girls growing up because there were no such films at the time – have gone on to find greater success in TV because that movie has remained the exception to the studio’s rule that stories about young girls don’t have an audience.  

My inner eight-year-old would love a reboot, but adult me who was shaped by my watching films like Now and Then and The Hairy Bird despairs at the thought that Glatter and King would rather tell the same story again, rather than challenge an industry that insists young girls are not a ‘bankable’ audience.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

'Breath of Fire' The Kingmaker Chronicles #2 by Amanda Bouchet

From the BLURB:
In a land where magic is might, Catalia Fisa is the mightiest of them all . . .

Catalia Fisa, Lost Princess, has been running from destiny her whole life. Yet deep down, she has always believed that the prophecy shadowing her every step is inescapable: her unimaginable power will bring unfathomable disaster.

But now her newfound loved ones are caught between the shadow of Cat's tortured past and the threat of her world-shattering future. Although it may be that this, even with all her power, is still the one battle she cannot win, Cat's determined not to go down without a fight.

As the realms descend into all-out war, Cat knows she must embrace the power at her command. With Griffin by her side and Gods willing, perhaps she can emerge victorious in this fiery forging of a new Kingdom.

‘Breath of Fire’ is the second book in American author Amanda Bouchet’s fantasy romance trilogy, ‘The Kingmaker Chronicles’ released in 2017.

Right, so – going on from my epic re-read of first book ‘A Promise of Fire’, I delved right into the second book that had been sitting on my shelf for a year and a bit.

The best way I can describe ‘The Kingmaker Chronicles’ is to say it’s kind of OUTLANDER with Greek Mythology, for fans of Nalini Singh and Thea Harrison. And something Bouchet does very well is continuing the epic journey and launching readers right back into the world with a BANG! … second book ‘Breath of Fire’ tidies up the cliff-hanger left at the end of Book 1 almost immediately in chapter one, and then the rest of the book is in service of the problems/opportunities Cat’s truth brings.

And while the second-half of book 1 ‘A Promise of Fire’ saw Cat settling into kingdom life with Griffin and his family, Bouchet recognises that a big drawcard of book 1 was the camaraderie of Cat with the ‘Beta Team’ trio of soldiers who became her friends – Carver, Kato and Flynn – and the unique heated opportunities that travelling bought for her and Griffin.

So pretty quickly in ‘Breath’, Bouchet sets up a new expedition for Cat and the Beta Team (of which she is now a member) to go off on. This is also a salve, because it’s in travelling across lands and encountering mythological monsters and Olympus Gods that Bouchet’s series also harks back to the best of cult classic television ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ and ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ … though I will say – Bouchet’s series could have done with a lot more LGBT+ representation, which I constantly thought was coming but never really eventuated. For one, I thought this might have been Carver’s storyline – instead there’s literally *one* throwaway sentence that comes to reveal Griffin’s sister, and crowned Queen, Egeria is in a relationship with a woman. This was overall just a thorn in my side with the series because for one thing, it would have fit in with the universe perfectly and because there are such strong ‘Xena’ ties, it seems almost cruel to dangle that similarity but not the heart that made that show so iconic? Anyway.

‘Breath of Fire’ in a lot of ways, manages to do better than even book one in gifting readers more insight into the secondary characters we’ve come to know and love, in soldiers Flynn, Kato and Carver. These three become so much sharper and more complicated, and readers will start seeing possibilities for spin-offs for how full and lovingly developed they are in here.

Cat and Griffin though, remain the stars – and their romance continues to be a new highlight of the fantasy romance genre. To a degree there’s repetition in their storyline (fighting monsters – Cat putting herself in danger, Griffin getting upset and asking her not to do that) but at the same time, it does feel like Cat and their relationship is constantly evolving as she learns to love for the first time in a long time. And they remain hot as anything, which is the other drawcard of the series – the exquisite blazing hot romance.

The other highlight of this book too is the increased presence of the Gods and Goddesses of Greek Mythology … Ares, Artemis, Persephone and more make appearances and a truly remarkable new secondary casting.


Monday, September 24, 2018

'A Promise of Fire' The Kingmaker Chronicles #1 by Amanda Bouchet

From the BLURB:
Kingmaker. Soothsayer. Warrior. Mage. Kingdoms would rise and fall for her . . . if she is ever found.

In the icy North, where magic is might, an all-powerful elite ruthlessly guided by a glacial Queen have grown to dominate the world. Now rebellion is stirring in the rough, magic-poor South, where for the first time in memory a warlord has succeeded in uniting the tribal nations.

Stuck in the middle is Cat - circus performer and soothsayer - safely hidden behind heavy make-up, bright colours and the harmless illusion of the circus. Until someone suspects she's more than she seems . . .

Captured by the Southern warlord Griffin, Cat's careful camouflage is wearing thin. For how long can - or should - she conceal the true extent of her power? Faced with dragons, homicidal mages, rival Gods and the traitorous longings of her own heart, she must decide: is it time to claim her destiny and fight?

‘A Promise of Fire’ was the 2016 fantasy romance debut and first book in the ‘Kingmaker Chronicles’ trilogy from American author, Amanda Bouchet.

Okay. Full-disclosure: I did actually read this when it came out in 2016 and LOVED it, RAVED about it. But then book two came and went in 2017, and book three released this year in 2018 and I just didn’t get around to reading them (but I did buy them!). I think some part of me was putting them aside to binge, and/or pull them out when I needed to be out of a reading-slump. So I went back and re-read book one, read book two and three and did just that – BINGED, big time and I am unsurprised to say that my initial assessment still holds true. This trilogy is *amazing* - and if you’re new to fantasy romance or wanting to try it out for the first time, I’d put this at top of your list. ASAP!

The ‘Kingmaker Chronicles’ trilogy is – best I can describe it – a cross between the brilliant schlock 90s and early-00s television series ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ and ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ meets romance writing by the likes of Nalini Singh and Thea Harrison. It’s pulling on Greek-mythology as we follow a young woman – Cat – who has a magical ability to tell when people are lying, and is captured by a ‘Warlord’ whose family recently united the working class to band against an unfair and unjust society. Griffin sees Cat as an opportunity to play the noble families who now bow down to his family, and ensure loyalty – along with his ‘Beta Team’ band of warriors consisting of his brother Carver, and friends Kato and Flynn, Griffin captures Cat and starts the long journey back to his recently fortified new castle and realm.

But Cat has secrets these men can’t know – like the truth of her birth and birthright, and what the Gods have planned for her.

I will say – don’t be put off by the “capture” storyline, gross as it sounds. It’s actually something that is constantly interrogated throughout the books; and Griffin and his men don’t do anything untoward to Cat (aside from – y’know – capturing her in the first place, um) and underlying all of the motivations is a bit of God-play at work. And Cat never lets up with the whole ‘being captured’ thing either – she is a fighter through and through, and as they meander across the lands back to Griffin’s castle, she never once lets up and always keeps her struggle. Even when she starts to find Griffin’s trio of soldiers – Carver, Kato and Flynn – unfairly kind and charismatic, and Griffin himself to be an alluring and inspirational man …

In that respect, there is a *tiny* hint of the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series in Bouchet’s too – for that moment in the series timeline when Claire was captured by the Highland Clansmen and made to march back to their castle, all while tucked against the chest of one James Fraser who she comes to begrudgingly care for…

And much like ‘Outlander’ eventually does, there builds this indelible trust and connection between Griffin and Cat – and when that switch is flipped, everything changes and the novel becomes a charged and electrifying love story that is H-O-T. Cat and Griffin are up there with some of my all-time favourite romance novel pairings; her fiery temper and his level-head, and their fierce loyalty to each other and those they love. Not to mention their scenes are searing and intense, written to utter perfection by Amanda Bouchet.

Though ‘Heart on Fire’ leaves a few cliff-hangers dangling, especially regarding Cat’s origins – I actually think this is also a very good self-contained book (I mean, I read it back in 2016 and even without diving into books 2 and 3, I felt satisfied)

It’s not wonder when this book came out in 2016 it raced through romance communities like wildfire, and heralded a new ‘must read’ author. It’s mythological, sublime romance.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

'Magic Triumphs' Kate Daniels #10 by Ilona Andrews

From the BLURB:
Kate has come a long way from her origins as a loner taking care of paranormal problems in post-Shift Atlanta. She’s made friends and enemies. She’s found love and started a family with Curran Lennart, the former Beast Lord. But her magic is too strong for the power players of the world to let her be.

Kate and her father, Roland, currently have an uneasy truce, but when he starts testing her defenses again, she knows that sooner or later, a confrontation is inevitable. The Witch Oracle has begun seeing visions of blood, fire, and human bones. And when a mysterious box is delivered to Kate’s doorstep, a threat of war from the ancient enemy who nearly destroyed her family, she knows their time is up.

Kate Daniels sees no other choice but to combine forces with the unlikeliest of allies. She knows betrayal is inevitable. She knows she may not survive the coming battle.

But she has to try.

For her child.
For Atlanta.
For the world.

‘Magic Triumphs’ is the tenth and last book in Ilona Andrewws’ epic urban fantasy series, ‘Kate Daniels’ that first began back in 2007.

Okay. This is it. The end.

There may be some SPOILERS ahead so, consider yourself warned.

This book came out on August 28 but I held off until now (my birthday weekend, as a special treat) to actually sit down and read. And I fully admit, there was a degree of stalling to this strategy because I don’t think I was ready to say goodbye to this universe that I’ve been checking in to for eleven-years now … though with the caveat that; it’s pretty clear Ilona Andrews is not entirely done with this universe, even if Kate Daniels-focused arc is wrapped up …

This is the big-bad end to the ‘Kate Daniels’ series and show-down with Kate’s all-powerful, egotistical father. But from ‘Magic Bites’ to now, Kate has slowly been accumulating love, life and family from the loner she once was. There’s so much more she risks losing now, and the stakes (that have been accumulating across 9 books and countless short-stories) are higher than ever.

The books opens not with an adrenaline-rush – as most readers would have been coiled for – but with a more sedate pace and establishment of Kate and Curran’s home life. Including, yes – a child, a baby called Conlan who is developing at a rapid pace. And it’s in this sweeter side that Ilona Andrews remind readers of the true crown they wear in the realms of serial fiction – gifting readers the best example of life after ‘will they or won’t they?’ dramatic romantic tension. Conlan is another jewel in this crown, as possibly one of the best examples of a child-character integrating perfectly into a previously childless core cast.

But when the coil snaps – as it always needed to – Ilona Andrews hits the ground running. But it must be said, they owe a lot of the perfect pacing and wrap-up to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ finale blueprints; particularly season 5 ‘The Gift’ and series finale ‘Chosen’. There was one moment in ‘Magic Triumphs’ that so perfectly harks back to season 5 episode ‘Checkpoint’ and Buffy’s epic power speech to The Watchers' Council (“You're Watchers. Without a Slayer, you're pretty much just watchin' Masterpiece Theater.”) I say this with the utmost respect that I could see these tendrils in Kate’s finale, because truth be told – nobody did season finales and big-bad arc wrap-ups better than ‘Buffy’ and that legacy carries over here to Kate’s grand finish to great effect.

I particularly loved that we got to touch-base with all the secondary characters we’ve come to love, and who populated Kate’s life to the point that those stakes became perilously high. A particularly lovely addition to the cast was a character named Yu Fong, who first appeared in Dali & Jim short-story ‘Magic Dreams’ and then later became part of Julie’s scholastic world in ‘An Apple for the Creature’ anthology short-story, ‘Magic Tests’. Yu Fong has long stayed with me and intrigued me, and I was so glad to see him become a player in ‘Magic Triumphs’ … it begs the question then; why establish such an intriguing character most fully in the series finale? Hmmmmm.

I would have also loved a Raphael and Andrea (and baby!) scene together, because I loved that couple. Ditto Dali and Jim (though we get a lovely sense of their future, even without the two sharing a scene physically). BUT … I am slightly wounded that a favourite character – teen bouda and bad-boy Ascanio – makes no appearance. He is alive, and well, and alluded to on a confusing number of occasions throughout … but he doesn’t get a single scene and it’s slightly maddening. The only thing that lessens this wound is a niggling suspicion that he has bigger things in store for the future; I do believe a lack of Ascanio and meatier role for Yu Fong were big hints of what’s to come.

As to that … I was GLEEFUL over that epilogue. Julie has felt like a storm gathering speed to become a tornado for a while now, and with that send-off cliff-hanger it’s an out and out confirmation from Ilona Andrews that they’re tucking her away for another day. I’ve no doubt that the writing-duo will concentrate on Hugh d'Ambray and his ‘Iron Covenant’ world for a little while (or not – maybe ‘Iron and Magic’ will be much like Andrea’s one-off ‘Gunmetal Magic’?) but I can see them having a little rest after their mad-cap ten-books-in-eleven-years publishing schedule, and any break could also act as time-passing for Julie’s character. Because – yes – much as I am ready for her to come riding back already, with Erra and a cast populated by Ascanio, Yu Fong, and especial concentration on Derek … Julie does need to mature, and the easiest way to do that is off the page where she can obtain some mystery and secrecy for readers too.

But it’s a testament to Ilona Andrews and the ‘Kate Daniels’ series that ‘Magic Triumphs’ is – wait for it! – SUCH A TRIUMPH that concludes so beautifully, but I’m also already desperate for them to keep carrying this world along. This tenth book walks a majestic tightrope of being both utterly fulfilling as its own entity, while also mouth-watering for the possibilities of Julie and more.

I will not begrudge Ilona Andrews a rest. But when you’re an author this good and so much at the top of your game, you’ve got to expect that your readers will be baying for more books. That’s the price you pay when you’re THIS DAMN GOOD – to end a series with such satisfaction, at the same time stoking the fires for more. Brava.