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Monday, November 29, 2010

Get ready for my Christmas (international) Giveaway! Dec 1st - 10th

Hello Darling readers!

Over here in Oz it's November 29... which means December is literally a hop, skip and a jump away!

Lucky for you chickens, I have a very special Christmas giveaway in store from December 1st - 10th. I've been a good little elf, whording my book-loot and now I am happy to spread a little bookish Christmas cheer!

I have 10 book ‘packs’ to give away. I’ll be posting the details of each prize daily from Dec 1 – Dec 10. But it's going to be a surprise what is in each book pack (think of it like an advent calendar... only awesomer!).

I can give hints - like the fact that they are all books I have reviewed this year. Quite a few are YA, but not all. At least one book is in each pack... with a little something extra.

The rules for entering are the same as always: must be a follower of my blog, one post per entrant, include a way to contact you...

There are 10 prize-packs in all. I will start posting the details of the packs from December 1st right through to December 10th and the whole competition will be open until December 15th.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

'The Seductive One' The Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road book #3 by Susan MALLERY

From the BLURB:

Of all the Marcelli sisters, the one who dreams of running the family's winery is Brenna -- and she's about to get her chance. But taking the helm at Marcelli Winery is tougher than she bargained for -- especially when she butts heads with her grandfather, whose Old World ways dictate that a male should inherit the business. In need of some fast capital in order to prove her grandfather wrong, Brenna turns to Nic Giovanni, her family's nemesis....Years ago, she ended her secret relationship with Nic, choosing loyalty to her family over the hot passion they shared. But now he's back in her life, he's loaned her a million dollars, and their feelings for each other are stronger than ever. Brenna must find out for herself: is Nic the love of her life? Or the schemer who could topple the Marcelli dynasty -- and break her heart?

This is the third book in Susan Mallery’s ‘Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road’ series. I wasn’t thrilled with the first book, ‘The Sparkling One’ and even less so with ‘The Sassy One’. But while reading those two duds, I kept hanging out for one characters’ story. Brenna.

Brenna is fraternal twin to Francesca and she’s been getting all the hard knocks from book #1. In ‘The Sparkling One’ Brenna is dumped by her husband of 10 years –thrown over for a younger woman to become a cliché at the age of 27.

I was most interested in reading Brenna’s story because Mallery created her love interest back in book #1. Mallery introduced rival wine-maker, Nic Giovanni, and revealed that he and Brenna had been sweethearts and planned to elope when they were teenagers. But Brenna was scared to be cut off from her family and so she took the easy route and married her (now) ex-husband instead of Nic.
Francesca recovered first. “Nic? Nic our neighbour? Nic Giovanni – the great-grandson of the hated Salvatore? The Romeo to our collective Juliet?”
“Slept?” Katie asked. “As in sex?”
I really liked this instalment of the ‘Marcelli sisters’ series. This third book totally makes up for the sub-par plots and dull romances in book’s #1 and #2.

For one thing, Nic Giovanni is H-O-T! He rides a motorcycle, wears black and plays up to being Brenna’s forbidden lover. These two have instant chemistry. I didn’t even mind that a good deal of their chemistry comes from their past romance – there are no flashbacks, but both Brenna and Nic recount the love of their youth.

I especially liked Nic because he *really* lives up to his ‘bad boy’ label. While seducing Brenna he’s planning to buy her family’s winery behind her back. I really felt a sense of ‘will they or won’t they?’ with this high-stakes romance. Nic was risking so much by falling for Brenna while contriving to ruin her family legacy. There was a really believable struggle between the characters which meant I was 100% invested in the storyline and romance.

I really liked this book. I didn’t love it, but it definitely made up for Mallery’s first 2 less-than-impressive books in the ‘Marcelli Sisters’ series.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

'The Sassy One' The Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road book #2 by Susan MALLERY

From the BLURB:

Francesca Marcelli married at eighteen -- right on schedule, according to her warm, colorful family, who have always said a beauty like Francesca need never worry about finding love. But a few years later, finding herself on her own with a wide open future ahead of her, she pursues her educational passions -- with a risky experiment that takes her straight into the arms of playboy CEO Sam Reese. Delighted by Francesca's interest in a no-strings relationship, Sam suddenly finds himself needing her outside the bedroom when a secret from his past lands on his doorstep. But Francesca soon has a secret of her own to tell -- a bombshell that will force the diehard bachelor to show his true colors. Are there "I do's" in Sam and Francesca's future? Only if she can persuade him that home truly is where the heart finds happiness.

This is the second book in Susan Mallery’s ‘Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road’ series.

In this second novel Francesca Marcelli is the protagonist. Francesca is fraternal twin to Brenna– both girls were married in a joint wedding when they were 18. Brenna divorced her no-good hubby in book #1, but Francesca’s husband left her widowed at the age of 21 when he died in a car accident.

We only got the bare facts about Francesca in the first novel – and I was under the impression that her widowhood left her so devastated that at the age of 27 she had yet to resume her love life. In ‘The Sassy One’ it’s actually revealed that Francesca was unhappily married to her husband, Todd. Apparently Todd was only interested in Francesca as arm-candy, so when she found herself widowed Francesca decided to reclaim her self-confidence and self-worth and go back to University to get her degree, and PhD.
This is a bit of cop-out. I think this novel could have been a lot more interesting if Mallery had Francesca painted as the grieving widow – reluctant to lose her heart because she still loves her dead husband. It seems so easy, like a romance scapegoat to just say; “oh, she never really loved her first husband”.

My biggest problem with ‘The Sassy One’ is that the plot really overshadows the romance.

Francesca has known Sam Reese all of 48 hours when Sam’s ex-wife dumps him with a 12-year-old daughter he never knew existed so that she can live the high life in Europe with her younger lover. It’s quite a whammy. And a double-whammy that Francesca not only decides to keep seeing Sam, but she freely offers her time and babysitting skills to help him out. Keep in mind that Francesca has only known Sam for 2 dates. True, there was mind-blowing sex – but no way does that explain why she’s so willing to stick around through this bombshell. Especially after she just finished explaining to Sam that she wants no-strings-attached sex.

This bombshell plot comes too soon into Francesca and Sam’s relationship – Mallery gives them no breathing room. It’s all helter-skelter from the moment Sam’s daughter, Kelly, walks through the door and readers never get a chance to get to know Sam and Francesca without the intense plot overshadowing their relationship.

No matter how sweet some moments between them are, the plot/character ratio is totally out of whack in this book. And for that reason it’s totally implausible when Sam finds himself falling in love with Francesca… I can’t help but think his loving her had more to do with gratitude at his neediest moment rather than genuine affection, no matter how much Mallery tries to ram the latter down our throats;
A noise made him look up. He saw Francesca standing in the doorway of the house. She wore shorts and a shirt. Her hair was loose and a little messy. There was a Band-Aid on one finger and a smudge on her cheek. She shouldn’t have looked beautiful. She shouldn’t have looked anything.
Surprisingly enough, I will be reading book #3. Mostly because Mallery has set-up Brenna’s romance from the first and that one holds the most appeal for me.


Friday, November 26, 2010

'The Sparkling One' The Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road book #1 by Susan MALLERY

From the BLURB:

A party planner extraordinaire, Katie Marcelli loves her big, boisterous family -- even when their chronic matchmaking drives her crazy! In the Marcelli household, fine wine and good food are as celebrated as true love, so when her eighteen-year-old sister announces her engagement, Katie promises her the perfect wedding.

There's only one hitch: the father of the groom, Zach Stryker, who is adamantly opposed to his son marrying so young. Now, despite her instant attraction to the handsome, arrogant attorney, Katie must approach with caution: Zach, who hired Katie for a major fundraiser, holds the fate of her business in his hands -- and how can she trust a man who is willing to break her sister's heart? It will take a passionate battle of wills to determine if wedding bells will ring for a Marcelli bride, and to unlock the deepest desires -- for family, love, and home -- inside a strong-willed man's heart.

This is Susan Mallery’s first book in her ‘Marcelli Sisters of Pleasure Road’ series.
The series is centered on four sisters; Francesca, Brenna, Mia and Katie and their Hacienda family home in California. The Marcelli estate is also a prosperous vineyard, and all four sisters feel pressure from their Grandfather Lorenzo to produce sons and a future heir for the wine company.

‘The Sparkling One’ is the first book in the series, and concerns middle sister, Katie. At the beginning of the book Katie, an events planner, is hired to host a swanky A-list party for a law firm. Her point-man on the project is divorce attorney, Zach Stryker. There’s an instant attraction between Zach and Katie… but things turn puzzling when Zach turns up at her family estate, with his 18-year-old son in tow who is engaged to youngest Marcelli sister, Mia.

As it turns out Zach is firmly against the wedding and hired Katie in order to convince her to break up the happy (and young) couple. What Zach didn’t plan on was falling for Katie in the process…

I’m pretty torn about this book. I liked it, but I also had a pretty big problem with it. I didn’t buy the romance. For one thing, Katie is pretty boring. Maybe it was middle sister syndrome, but I didn’t believe it when Zach kept waxing poetic about how different, wonderful, smart, funny and sexy she was. I didn’t see much evidence of this – in fact I found Katie paled in comparison to her sisters. Youngest sister, Mia, is full of life and charisma. Brenna is funny in the face of adversity, and her twin Francesca is a quirky enigma. Katie was just so ‘blah’.

I didn’t feel a whole lot about Zach either. Mallery talks a lot about what a hard-ass lawyer Zach is, and in his role as divorce attorney he maintains that he’s cynical about love. He really should have been more stoic and hard-assed than Mallery made him. I didn’t see much of a transformation from cynic to romantic, and by my reckoning he was pretty open-minded about finding love from the get-go.

Together Katie and Zach were a pretty mediocre couple. There isn’t a whole lot of sparkage, just a few ‘kinda sweet’ moments;
She grinned. “Zach, this is my grandfather’s house. You can’t possibly have sexual thoughts under this roof. If you do, your pride and joy will shrivel up to the size of a walnut.”
“That would be tragic for all of us.”
“I’m not going to say yes. You already think too highly of yourself.”
He smiled. “I’m not the one who was screaming that night.”
She ducked her head. “A gentleman would never bring that up.”
“I thought my bringing it up was the entire point.”
Her mouth twitched. “You’re evil.”
“I’m tempting. There’s a difference.”
What saved this book, and ensured I will keep reading the series was the family saga. Mallery beautifully sets up books for the other sisters by peppering ‘The Sparkling One’ with juicy tidbits about their lives and tragically stagnate love lives.
In ‘The Sparkling One’, Brenna is hit with divorce papers from her husband of several years. She never saw the split coming, and is doubly wounded by her husband’s revealing he’s been having an affair and intends to marry the ‘bimbo’ the moment their divorce is settled.
Francesca was widowed at the tender age of 21 – and maintains that she’d prefer to be single than live through heartache ever again.
Mia is engaged in this book – but quickly learns that getting married at 18 comes with a string of problems, not least of which is dealing with the immaturity of your betrothed.

While I may not have been invested in the main romance of Katie and Zach, Mallery had me very interested in the bigger family saga. I will definitely be reading the other books in this series, if only to find out what happens to the other (more interesting) sisters.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

'Mockingjay' Hunger Games #3 by Suzanne COLLINS

From the BLURB:

Young Katniss Everdeen has survived the dreaded Hunger Games not once, but twice, but even now she can find no relief. In fact, the dangers seem to be escalating: President Snow has declared an all-out war on Kattnis, her family, her friends, and all the oppressed people of District 12. The thrill-packed final installment of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy will keep young hearts pounding.

** SPOILERS if you haven't read book #1 and #2 **

The Districts are rebelling. Thanks to Katniss Everdeen and a handful of berries, she has become a symbol of revolution – the mockingjay. Together with exiles from District 13 and the uprising residents of the other Districts, Katniss and the rebels are going to take down the Capitol. No more ‘peacekeepers’. No more deprivation and starvation. No more child sacrifices. No more ‘Hunger Games’.

Game over.

I went into the third and final book in ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy knowing it would be a tear-jerker. Suzanne Collins’ series is an awful glimpse into a distorted and dystopian world ruled by an entertainment-hungry dictatorship and fuelled by fear. There was no fathomable way that Ms Collins could write an all-round ‘happy ending’ for Katniss and crew. Still, even preparing myself for what I knew would be a hard-to-swallow final book, I was alarmed by the despair in ‘Mockingjay’. I cried constantly throughout the last 100 pages. . . but I still, surprisingly, loved the send-off.

Suzanne Collins has written a very complicated final instalment. She is very cleverly giving her younger readers a history lesson with ‘Mockingjay’ by focussing so much of the book on the Hunger Games and Capitol politics. Katniss Everdeen becomes the symbol for the rebellion – her ‘mockingjay’ character is the personification of fight and freedom for the districts. Collins has written Katniss and her created mockingjay persona as a sort of Che Guevara or Rosa Parks – and Collins’s history lesson is in showing her young audience just how orchestrated and make-believe a revolution can be. Uprisings don’t happen overnight – they need people and symbols to stir the embers of discontent.
I turn my gaze skyward and watch the flight of a hawk across the sky. “President Snow once admitted to me that the Capitol was fragile. At the time, I didn’t know what he meant. It was hard to see clearly because I was so afraid. Now I’m not. The Capitol’s fragile because it depends on the districts for everything. Food, energy, even the Peacekeepers that police us. If we declare our freedom, the Capitol collapses. President Snow, thanks to you, I’m officially declaring mine today.”
A lot of ‘Mockingjay’ is cleverly devoted to politicking and the behind-the-scenes of a revolution. And it makes for fascinating reading. Throughout the book I kept hearing that ‘V for Vendetta’ quote: “A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. A symbol, in and of itself is powerless, but with enough people behind it, blowing up a building can change the world.” Collins beautifully articulates the strength behind symbolism and the mobility of revolution and Katniss Everdeen is a wonderful conduit for such explorations;
“President Snow says he’s sending us a message? Well, I have one for him. You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground, but do you see that?” One of the cameras follows as I point to the planes burning on the roof of the warehouse across from us. The Capitol seal on a wing glows clearly through the flames. “Fire is catching!” I am shouting now, determined that he will not miss a word. “And if we burn, you burn with us!”
Obviously the take-down of the Capitol is at the crux of ‘Mockingjay’ (and the entire ‘Hunger Games’ series). But an equally large portion of the book is devoted to Katniss’s impossible love triangle and the choice she must make between long-time friend Gale, and her arena partner, Peeta. I don’t want to give anything away. . . but a lot of my crying throughout the book had to do with Peeta and Katniss. Just. . . wow. They were heart-wrenching. Utterly and completely heart-wrenching.

Like I said, I went into ‘Mockingjay’ knowing that the trilogy couldn’t, faithfully, finish on a happy ending. There was just no way because a happy ending is not conducive to a dystopian trilogy, unfortunately. Still, I was shocked (and surprisingly impressed) by how cut-throat Suzanne Collins was in this book. She unabashedly puts Katniss through the physical, emotional and mental wringer. Collins is blood-thirsty, killing off beloved characters and giving them gruesome send-offs reminiscent of the arena in book #1.

All of the deaths left me an emotional, vicarious wreck. At the time of reading I was almost angry with Ms Collins for writing such despair and it got to the point where I was hoping and praying for just one good thing to come out of ‘Mockingjay’. But upon reflection, I can appreciate and accept that all that death and gloom was necessary. You have to go there to come back, so to speak. And really, if Ms Collins had written anything softer she would have been selling-out and kowtowing to fans. Instead she remained true to the heart of her series – it started out bloody and ended bloody. Well, bloody brilliant, in my opinion.

Yes, ‘Mockingjay’ is sad, and violent and in no way a clean, conventional ‘happy ending’. But it’s all relative. . . because although ‘The Hunger Games’ is a dystopian look at killing sport, it’s equally true that at its heart the series is about fighting back. It’s about choosing to die on your feet rather than live on your knees. Yes, it’s violent and dystopian - but it’s ultimately about hope. Collins distils her series’ overarching themes in this final instalment, sending Katniss and crew out with an explosive ‘BANG’, which is equal parts sad and brilliant.


My ‘Hunger Games’ obsession knows no bounds. Now that I've tackled the books, I look forward to the film adaptations. For what it’s worth, I’m backing Kaya Scodelario for Katniss (because Skins is amazing and I could believer her ass-kicking!). Hurry up 2013!

Consequently I have now watched the film adaptation of a Japanese novel by Kōshun Takami. If you read the 1-star Amazon reviews of 'The Hunger Games', you'll notice that a majority of them accuse Ms Collins of ripping-off the plot of 'Battle Royale' (in which a Japanese school class are left deserted on an island and ordered to kill each other in 3 days as cameras tape the whole thing). I have now seen the movie (which is gory and brilliant!) and intend to read the book. Are there similarities to 'Hunger Games'? Yes. But then again, 'Hunger Games' has similarities to 'Lord of the Flies' too. Collins's book tears away from 'Battle Royale' when Katniss exits the arena and starts a revolution. Still, it's worthwhile seeing. And it looks as though a Westernized adaptation is on the way for 2011 (to beat the 2013 'Hunger Games' movie perhaps?)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'Catching Fire' Hunger Games #2 by Suzanne COLLINS

From the BLURB:

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark won the annual competition described in Hunger Games, but the aftermath leaves these victors with no sense of triumph. Instead, they have become the poster boys for a rebellion that they never planned to lead. That new, unwanted status puts them in the bull's-eye for merciless revenge by The Capitol. Catching Fire maintains the adrenaline rush of Suzanne Collins's series launch.

** SPOILERS for ‘The Hunger Games’ **

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark won the Hunger Games. . . at the expense of the Capitol. Katniss made the grave error of making the Gamemakers and the Capitol look bad – with a handful of berries she effectively ignited a district-uprising. And now the Capitol wants revenge.

Outright killing Katniss could potentially add fuel to the rebellion’s flames. So the Capitol go one step better. . . under the banner of the Hunger Games ‘Quarter Quell’ they announce that the 75th Hunger Games will include only previous reaping winners. That means Katniss and Peeta are back in the arena. . . and this time, they won’t win.

A good portion of ‘Catching Fire’ is devoted to creating big overarching bad guys for the whole series. In ‘The Hunger Games’ Katniss’s focus was on the immediate threat of her fellow tributes, as opposed to the larger threat of the Capitol. In that first book the real bad guys weren’t really seen, only heard. Because Katniss was in the reaping arena, the most interaction she and Peeta had with the Capitol villains was via the booming voice of Claudius Templesmith or Caesar Flickerman, the games interviewer.

In ‘Catching Fire’ Collins gives face and substance to the true villains of ‘Hunger Games’ – and the head-honcho baddie is President Snow, who ultimately orchestrates the reaping and ensures that the district never forget the meaning behind the massacres. President Snow is a wonderfully sinister bad-guy. His physical description is spot-on perfection – everything from the smell of roses and blood to his cosmetically-enhanced, puffy lips. He’s a bad-guy for the books, and utterly despicable.

I went into ‘Catching Fire’ unsure of what to expect. Collins left ‘The Hunger Games’ off on such an emotional cliff-hanger between Katniss and Peeta and their orchestrated, honest romance. . . but as for the plot substance of ‘Catching Fire’, I really didn’t know where Collins would go next. Well, my jaw well and truly dropped in this second book. From the ‘Quarter Quell’ to President Snow’s threats – I spent a good portion of ‘Catching Fire’ simply muttering “omigod, omigod, omigod, omigod!”

I loved reading about the fallout from Katniss and Peeta’s win – the small hints of their survivors-guilt and fractured lives in the aftermath of the reaping. I also loved reading about Katniss’s renewed vigour – like a phoenix rising from the flames (for a second time);
Life in District 12 isn’t really so different from life in the arena. At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.
I also loved the romantic focus in ‘Catching Fire’. Katniss is caught between Peeta (the boy with the bread) and her best friend, Gale. Katniss and Gale have been hunting partners for years – and that’s all Katniss thought they were. But her pretend relationship with Peeta in the arena had Katniss questioning her feelings for both boys. . . and upon returning home, Katniss discovers that Gale was deeply wounded having to watch her and Peeta’s ‘romance’ play out on the small screen.

I love how deliciously complicated Collins’s romance is. It’s as edge-of-your-seat as what happens in the Games arena – and like the nuts-and-bolts plot I never knew what to expect with the love triangle. I don’t even know who I’m hoping Katniss ends up with. . . Gale or Peeta. Baker or Hunter? I just don’t know! But for what it’s worth, I loved how much more complicated Katniss and Peeta’s relationship got when they went into the arena for a second time;
“Peeta, how come I never know when you’re having a nightmare?” I say.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I cry out or thrash around or anything. I just come to, paralysed with terror,” he says.
“You should wake me,” I say, thinking about how I can interrupt his sleep two or three times on a bad night. About how long it can take to calm me down.
“It’s not necessary. My nightmares are usually about losing you,” he says. “I’m OK once I realize you’re here.”
‘The Hunger Games’ is an epic young adult trilogy. It’s such an amalgamation of brilliance – at once a complicated exploration of modern media, darn good thrill-ride complete with an intense love triangle. I am well and truly addicted.

I have to admit, any regret I was feeling over not starting this series back in 2008 was quickly quenched when I read the final page of ‘Catching Fire’. . . even knowing that ‘Mockingjay’ was waiting for me on my bookshelf, I could not crack that final book open quick enough to quell the suspense that Collins leaves us with at the end of ‘Catching Fire’.


Monday, November 22, 2010

'The Hunger Games' Hunger Games #1 by Suzanne COLLINS

From the BLURB:

Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with every one out to make sure you don't live to see the morning?

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that will weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

‘The Hunger Games’ is the first book in Suzanne Collins ridiculously popular (and heartbreakingly wonderful) ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy.

The first book came out in October 2008 and generated a *lot* of buzz. It helped that Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King provided puffs for the book’s cover, and generally ensured that two very different but far-reaching audiences would give the book a go. . . but more than that, film buzz started up pretty much from the get-go. I was aware of the hype, but I also knew that ‘The Hunger Games’ was the first book in a trilogy. . . so I decided to bide my time and wait for all the books to come out and read them back-to-back. The third and final book, ‘Mockingjay’ was released in August of this year. . . but I still waited three months before I started reading.

. . . And now I regret not starting this trilogy sooner (it’s ‘Downside’ all over again!)

There is a New World Order where the Capitol rules, absolutely. In a bid to quench uprisings and rebellion, the Capitol have made sport out of sacrifice. . . every year they hold The Hunger Games. Twenty-four people from each District (starting at age 12) are randomly selected to enter into a fight to the death – for the amusement and entertainment of Capitol residents. The Games are viewed around the world, cameras lapping up the blood and gore and audiences rooting and sponsoring their favourite sacrifices.

Two children from each district, one boy and one girl, enter into the ever-changing arena landscape to battle against one another and come out the sole, victorious, survivor. The reaping provides dual purpose – entertainment value and to remind the District’s that the Capitol can offer their children up to slaughter without batting an eyelid.

This year Katniss Everdeen is one of the Game’s offerings. Along with Peeta Mellark, these two represent District 12 – Panem’s lowliest, poorest district famous only for coal mining. Katniss enters into the game with the dwindling hope that she will survive and return home to her mother and little sister, Prim. But a risky strategy by Peeta might just turn the game around for them. . . if they spin a tale of being star-crossed lovers, thrown into the Hunger Games only to kill one another, can they win the heart of the crowd and accomplish the impossible? Can they actually win?

‘The Hunger Games’ is summer-blockbuster reading. It’s a cross between George Orwell’s 1984, Gladiator, Mad Max and John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series. . . in a word: ‘phenomenal’. I hate to use clichés, but ‘The Hunger Games’ is literally ‘unputdownable’. It’s the sort of book that you hole yourself up with in your room, and when someone comes in to tell you that dinner is ready or it’s time for you to go to work, you snarl and snap at them and tell them to get the hell out because you just got to a really good part and they’re killing your reading-mojo. . . it’s that kind of book!

There are so many layers to ‘The Hunger Games’. On the surface it’s a damn good yarn – full of tension, action, unrequited love and moral conundrums. . . but if you dig deeper you start to really appreciate how complex Suzanne Collins’s universe is.

The book acts as a sort of mirror to society. In a time when reality TV rules the box, Collins writes a distorted, dystopian imagining of reality TV in the future – where blood-sport is the new norm. The same way that George Orwell predicted a watchful Big Brother society, Collins forecasts a disturbing new trend in reality television. And a lot of the book’s focus (even indirectly) is on the audience who lap up the bloodied television show.

I loved reading about the Capitol and its residents. It is with characters like Effie Trinket (one of District 12’s ‘mentors’) that Collins takes current notions of ‘celebrity’ to exaggerated and disturbing lengths. I loved reading about the look and dress of Capitol residents – from the stylist who dyed her skin a pea-green shade to the gold eye-tattoos and rampant plastic surgery. There’s no doubt that Collin’s fictional future dystopia is our current society in a fun-house mirror – embellished and ruined.

‘The Hunger Games’ is a twisted, romantic fare. Peeta and Katniss’s ‘romance’ is wonderful and wonderfully complicated. The book is told from Katniss’s perspective, so when Peeta starts flirting she (and readers) are never entirely sure if it’s a strategy or genuine love. Add into the mix the fact that Peeta and Katniss are going into the Hunger Games arena knowing only one of them can survive. . . and this isn’t your typical romance. I've never read such high romantic stakes in a Young Adult book and I loved the fact that the ‘love story’ is just as edge-of-your-seat as the action of fighting to the death. Brilliant!

Perhaps my favourite aspect of ‘The Hunger Games’ was the characters and Suzanne Collin’s making heroes out of her young protagonists. I love reading YA books where the author doesn’t ‘talk down’ to her characters, and therefore audience. Collins has really made a hero of Katniss – she has written her as a tough-as-nails, ass-kicking young woman. And I especially loved that all of the young characters in this book don’t rely on adults to ‘save’ them – they have to save themselves because, in fact, the adults are the bad guys. The adults are the Gamemakers and Capitol politicians who insist on throwing these games every year and making a killing example out of these poor kids.
As my last act of defiance, I will stare her down as long as I can see, which will probably not be an extended period of time, but I will stare her down, I will not cry, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated.
“Yes, I don’t think you’ll have much use for your lips any more. Want to blow Lover Boy one last kiss?” she asks. I work up a mouthful of blood and saliva and spit it in her face. She flushes with rage. “All right, then. Let’s get started.”
Like John Marsden, Suzanne Collins throws her young characters into impossibly awful situations, letting them save themselves and test their own mettle. Brilliant. These are characters that young readers can admire and learn from.

I absolutely, unabashedly and whole-heartedly loved the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. On the one hand I kind of wish I had jumped on the Suzanne Collins band-wagon sooner. . . but at the same time I was totally relieved reading the last page of ‘The Hunger Games’ and knowing that ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay’ were waiting for me on my shelf. I don’t know how I could have stood the suspense otherwise.

A movie is in the works, slated (very tentatively) for a 2013 release. Normally I’m apprehensive about a beloved book getting the screen-treatment. . . but Suzanne Collins’s writing is destined for big-screen magnificence. She’s done all the work for the scriptwriters - now if a cast is assembled who can reflect the inherent brilliance of Collin’s characters, this could be a new movie franchise to fill the Harry Potter and Twilight void.


P.S. – I've got to give a big THANK YOU to the many reviewers who kept pimping these books and reminding me to read them. People like Larissa... I really should just adopt the mantra “do everything Larissa says!” because she hasn’t led me astray yet :)

'Dark Matter' A Ghost Story by Michelle PAVER

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

'What is it? What does it want? Why is it angry with me?' January 1937 Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return - when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark.

I have heard of Michalle Paver, or at least her critically acclaimed ‘The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ series (which I have been meaning to read!). So when her latest novel dropped in my lap I was ecstatic. And after reading, I can safely say that I now believe the hype surrounding Ms Paver. . .

The year is 1937. Jack Miller’s life is going nowhere fast. He lives alone in London, where the city is on pins and needles awaiting outbreak of World War. When Jack is offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance to go on an expedition to the Arctic Circle, he doesn’t hesitate.

But as the days slide into darkness, and the vast nothingness invades his psyche, Jack becomes convinced that *something* is terrorizing the expedition. Residing on the remote Gruhuken bay, Jack starts to hear and see things that his rational mind cannot explain. . .

The story is retold via the entries in Jack’s diary, and through Jack’s recounts, the truth behind the 1937 Arctic expedition is hauntingly revealed. . .

This was such a fantastically spine-tingling book. At first I thought it was going to be a glimpse into an increasingly deranged psyche, ravaged by isolation and loneliness. . . and to some extent ‘Dark Matter’ does just that. But this is also a great horror story. I don’t want to give anything away, because half the fun of reading the book (and being totally freaked out by it!) is trying to figure out if Jack and crew really are coming under attack from *something*. . . or if it’s all in their heads.

The Arctic is a deliciously devilish setting for this horror whodunit. The eternal night and the expedition’s bay is wonderfully reminiscent of ’30 Days of Night’.

Jack is a wonderful character – which is important since he gets a lot of page-time and is often the sole character in scenes. Jack has been alone for seven years, and from the get-go you sympathize with him. You do get the impression that taking on the Arctic expedition as a wireless operator was his last-ditch effort to make something of his life. I found that I really admired Jack – he gets put through the ringer in this book, and I was really rooting for him to hold strong and redouble his breaking point. He’s a great character to go on this crazy journey with.

I especially loved reading Jack’s increasingly fractured perspective. It’s a long, slow slide into madness for this protagonist and Jack’s slipping lunacy is made all the more heartbreaking because as a reader you really do start to root and champion him;
Like a recovering invalid, I shuffled about the cabin, tearing down blankets to let in the moon. I got the stove going. I didn’t light any lamps. I didn’t want anything to diminish that miraculous light.
Jack’s slip into madness and the entire book’s slowly unravelling terror reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s movie ‘The Shining’ (is Jack’s name just a coincidence? Hmmm?).
I ran to the west window and peered out. Nothing. The radio masts mocked my terror. I ran to the bunkroom window. Again nothing. I ran back into the main room and halted to listen. All I heard was the painful thudding of my heart.
The clouds had cleared, and once again the moon shone bright. The snow in front of the cabin was smooth. Innocent. Nothing to show that something had stood thee. But it had. It had. I had felt its will. Its malevolence beating at me.
At me.
I've been wrong, wrong, wrong.
This is no echo.
This is a surprisingly scary book. Paver wonderfully blends internal hysteria with outward paranoia, leaving readers in a constant state of flux between believing Jack’s outlandish claims and looking for truth in his madness. If you like a good scare or even appreciate a well-told unravelling, then definitely give ‘Dark Matter’ a read. You will not be disappointed, but you will be scared.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

'The Double-Edged Sword' Book one of The Nowhere Chronicles by Sarah SILVERWOOD

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Finmere Tingewick Smith was abandoned on the steps of the Old Bailey. Under the guardianship of the austere Judge Harlequin Brown and the elderly gentlemen of Orrery House, Fin has grown up under a very strange set of rules. He spends alternate years at two very different schools and now he's tired of the constant lies to even his best friends, to hide the insanity of his double life. Neither would believe the truth!But on his sixteenth birthday, everything changes. The Judge is killed, stabbed in the chest with a double-edged sword that's disturbingly familiar, and from that moment on, Fin is catapulted into an extraordinary adventure. Through the Doorway in Fin's London, a hole in the boundaries of Existence, lies another London - and now both are in grave danger. For the Knights of Nowhere have kidnapped the Storyholder, the keeper of the Five Eternal Stories which weave the worlds together.

‘The Double-Edged Sword’ is the first book in Sarah Silverwood’s Young Adult series, ‘The Nowhere Chronicles’.

Our hero is Finmere Tingewick Smith. Or ‘Fin’ as he is to be known. Fin has an interesting story to go with his interesting name. Abandoned on the steps of London’s Old Bailey, he was a baby wrapped in a blanket and with nothing but a man’s ring for identification. Fin was taken in and raised by Judge Brown, and mysteriously schooled at two very different institutions. . . one school in London as we know it, and the other school in ‘Somewhere’ London, in the world of Nowhere. When Judge Brown is murdered Fin’s duality throws him into danger and chaos. . . when the Knights of Nowhere, led by St John Golden, try to take control of all parallel worlds Fin must choose where to take a stand.
“Oh, I know you, Finmere, even if we haven’t met before. As for this room. . . well, I’m not entirely sure it is here. Some rooms are like time. Funny places.” He wheeled himself a little closer. “It’s your birthday, isn’t it? How old are you now?”
The man in the chair grinned and leaned backwards, folding his hands. A black and gold ring glittered on his finger. He let out a little chuckle, then sighed. “Sixteen, eh? That’s an interesting age for you. It’s almost like you’re stuck between two worlds.” He laughed softly as if at a private joke and shuffled beneath his blanket. A flash of metal was quickly hidden beneath the wool, but not before Fin had seen it. What was that? It looked like the hilt of a sword, but surely it couldn’t be?
Sarah Silverwood is actually the penname of Sarah Pinborough, who also writes ‘The Dog-Faced Gods’ trilogy of post financial-apocalyptic crime fiction. I really enjoyed first book, A Matter of Blood, so I was intrigued to read Pinborough writing YA as Silverwood. And I wasn’t disappointed. . .

‘The Double-Edged Sword’ is Young Adult Urban Fantasy. And when I say ‘urban fantasy’ I mean the book is luxuriating in UF conventions. The book is a wonderful blend and balance of fantasy and city, set in London. . . or at least, a parallel ‘Nowhere’ version of the London we know. Silverwood’s London is a place of fantastical steampunk proportions, an amalgamation of magic and era that blends into a wonderful character unto itself. The ‘Nowhere’ concept reminded me of Ilona Andrews’s ‘The Edge’ for the warped city reality and is a wonderful backdrop for the epic battles that takes place within its realm.

Fin is the stand-out character. I love it when YA authors write young heroic characters – when they let their characters wade into danger, stand up for themselves and prove their worth. Silverwood has written such a character in Fin. Expect to be wowed by his swordplay, stiff upper lip and charisma. He is sixteen, but you must remember that YA readers read ‘up’ so sometimes he comes across a little younger. Regardless, he’s a fine protagonist to go on this (long) journey with. I look forward to following his adventures in upcoming books.

The bad-guy fell a bit short. St John Golden is a dark Knight who is determined to take control of all parallel worlds. He’s a bit of a cardboard cut-out villain – but even though he was a little obvious, he was still fun to read and despise. And his being polar-opposite to Fin made for fun good vs. evil power-playing.
"Let's settle this like the honourable Knights that we used to be. Let these boys go and I'll meet you in St Paul's and we'll duel."
St John laughed. "St Paul's? What, the Whispering Chamber? You are such a romantic."
"Not St Paul's in the Somewhere. Here."
There is a cliff-hanger ending. . . there has to be, since this is the first of (at least) three books. Not to give anything away. . . but the ending isn’t so frustrating that *nothing* is resolved, nor is it so neatly wrapped that you’re not left salivating for the next instalment. Silverwood writes a nice balance, at once satiating reader’s curiosity while also piquing it.

Next book is ‘The Traitor’s Gate’ and is due for an April 2011 release and I will definitely be reading it.


And the WINNER is....

tina werner

Congrats to Tina, and thanks to everyone who entered.

A very big thanks to Marta Acosta for doing the interview, providing the books and just being generally fabulous.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

'Haunted Lily' by Sidney FOX

From the BLURB:

Reality is shattered for British filmmaker, Darby McGregor, when his beautiful fiancée is tragically killed on their wedding day. After a dark time of mourning, Darby is tormented by a horrifying phantom bride in the eighteenth-century church he recently renovated. Is this the spirit of his beloved fiancée or something more sinister? Darby's sanity is in question, when fate steps in.

Her name is Lily, an enchanted young woman, who vibrantly shines through the darkness like a beacon of light for lost souls. Lily has been surrounded by the dearly departed since she was born, and has the gift/curse to penetrate the shadowy veil separating the living and the dead. Feeling an immediate connection, Lily agrees to be the subject of Darby's new documentary. However, Darby and his unsuspecting crew are not prepared for this chilling journey through the "spirit world".

As they spend time together, their bond grows. And when Darby learns of Lily's tragic upbringing and dealings with dangerous apparitions; he wants nothing more than to protect her. But it turns out he is the one in need of protection, when Lily's horrifying childhood nemesis returns from the afterworld to claim her.

‘Haunted Lily’ is the first book in Sidney Fox’s ‘The Ghost Memories’ series.

Darby McGregor’s life is changed forever when his fiancée dies on their wedding day. Deep in grief and seeking some kind of solace, he investigates an American woman who claims she can see ghosts. Darby even watches video evidence of Lily Dufrene conversing with ‘spirits’. . . and when Darby is haunted by a spirit of his own, in the form of a rotting corpse bride, he doesn’t hesitate to seek Lily out.

What Darby finds in Lily Dufrene is a charming and vivacious young woman who has overcome a traumatic childhood. As Darby follows Lily across the United States, filming her encounters with spirits for a possible documentary, the two fall reluctantly in love. . .

I kept seeing ‘Haunted Lily’ on book blogs. The haunting skeleton/mannequin cover was cropping up everywhere and I was intrigued.

A few things about this book didn’t work for me, and unfortunately they’re rather big things –mainly the ‘romance’ and the finale. But if there’s one thing Fox did well. . . it was to scare the beegezus out of me!

Lily, Darby and a cast of secondary characters journey on a giant bus investigating various supernatural happenings around the United States. The crew find ghosties in the strangest (and scariest) of places. Like at the Crystal Beach amusement park, where the ghost of an ex employee haunts the rollercoaster, reaping havoc on the ride. Or in the swimming pool of an old New York building. Or even in an abandoned high school;
Lily was peacefully slumbering in her warm cocoon when she felt something wet drop on her face. Her cheek twitched, as another drop fell, and her eyes fluttered open. She looked up through her sleepy eyes, trying to focus on the luminous form above her.
It was a lucid girl, naked and dripping wet, looking down upon her in the darkness. Lily could feel her heart begin to pound in her chest. The girl was semi-transparent and took on a greenish glow from the lighted exit sign that shone through her body. The girl looked dreadfully sad. Her large dark eyes never blinked as she gazed curiously down upon Lily.
‘Haunted Lily’ is one of the scariest books I have read. It’s not that there’s blood and gore. . . it’s just that Sidney Fox’s visuals are so precise and eerie – she draws on the simplicities of fright reminiscent of ‘The Sixth Sense’ or ‘The Others’. She doesn’t write for the big, obvious frights. The scares are there in the details – like the smell of sulphur and rotting flowers that permeates the air when a spirit is near. It also helped that I read this book at night, allowing my imagination to run rampant.

This is a scary book. . . and as if regular ghosts aren’t scary enough, Lily has been haunted by one scary ghost in particular. A Bulgarian clown (and paedophile) called Varton Muntz has been following Lily around since she was a child. . .

Clowns are my weakness. They scare the crap out of me! Ever since I watched ‘Poltergeist’ and that little bugger crawled out from under the bed, clowns have been a great fear of mine (I’m kind of like Phil Dunphy that way). But Varton Muntz is ten times scarier than your regular freakazoid clown. He’s burnt and scarred for one. . . and his entire being is reminiscent of John Wayne Gacy’s clown alter-ego, Pogo. Cripes – Varton Muntz is hands-down the best bad guy I have ever read!

I loved the scary parts of ‘Haunted Lily’. What didn’t work for me so much was the ‘romance’ between Darby and Lily. . .

I, personally, didn’t read enough foundation for the romance. I expected the romance to be central to the plot (from the blurb’s promise of “their bond grows”) and I kept waiting to read flirtation and chemistry. . . but it just wasn’t there for me. And so when Lily and Darby decided to be together, I thought it was very out of left-field and not very believable. I found their ‘relationship discussion’ to be very mechanical and convenient;
“. . . It would take a very strong person to be with me; I really think in you I have found a soul mate. I’m so in love with you. I can’t believe it. . . once again, I dove into the deep end without testing the water.”
I didn’t think Darby and Lily had any heat. Maybe it was a case of Fox spending so much time on the (fantastic) scary parts that the romance fell by the wayside. But I think the romance really needed to be more of a focus if it was going to be included at all. . . because not only is Lily fighting her attraction because her ‘baggage’ includes dangerous ghosts, but Darby’s fiancée (who he loved so much!) died recently. That’s two forces really pushing those two apart. . . and because of all the reasons for them *not* to be together, I needed more convincing with the romance. I needed smut (yes, my head remains firmly in the gutter) and more relationship discussion. I mean, Lily never once questions Darby about whether or not he’s ready to move on from his fiancée. Wouldn’t that be a point of discussion with someone you want to get romantic with? ‘Am I a rebound from your dead fiancée?’

The other part of the book that didn’t work for me was the ending. Obviously I can’t give anything away. . . I’ll only to say that a lot of action is confusingly jam-packed into the last two chapters. I was left reeling, and somewhat deflated by the sombre ending.

I did like ‘Haunted Lily’, I didn’t love it, but I was scared by it and liked it. The horror is top-notch and if you like being constantly surprised and scared stupid – then this is the book for you! I would have liked more romance and a cleaner (somewhat happier?) ending. . . but otherwise this was a good thrill-ride.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

'The Redhead Revealed' by Alice CLAYTON

From the BLURB:

As their careers catch fire, Grace and Jack -- everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed, funny, and feisty couple -- find themselves on opposite coasts. Grace has landed in New York City, where she loves being onstage again, particularly because she’s playing a fabulous character in a musical written by her old college flame, Michael. Their rekindled friendship makes exploring the city that much more fun.

Wait, it’s just friendship, right?

Meanwhile, in L.A., Jack can scarcely keep up with the swirling throngs of women who track him everywhere he goes, the endless press appearances, and the ridiculous rules his manager, Holly, keeps concocting for him -- all part of the buildup to the release of Time, his steamy new film.

Thank goodness for phone sex.

But even when their schedules allow them to connect, Grace and Jack must keep their relationship off the radar and away from paparazzi cameras. Sure, the sex is sensational, but can this duo survive swirling rumors, the demands of their chosen professions, Grace’s raging internal battles, and a whopping nine-year age difference?

‘The Redhead Revealed’ picks up where ‘The Unidentified Redhead’ left off. Grace Sheridan and her hot-potato boyfriend, Jack Hamilton, are venturing into a long-distance relationship as Grace is called to New York to star in an off-Broadway musical. Meanwhile, Jack’s star is looking to shoot far as he starts the press tour for his blockbuster film, ‘Time’. But the love that came so naturally in the past is struggling under the strain of distance, Hollywood pandemonium and Grace’s insecurities.

Between vicious fangirls, a blast from Grace’s past and a nine-year age-gap. . . can the Gracie and George show survive in the limelight?

Maybe I didn’t say it enough in my review of ‘The Unidentified Redhead’. . . so let me just reiterate and make myself crystal clear. I freakin love this series! I want to lick Jack Hamilton (damn his fictionalization!) be besties with Grace and meet Alice Clayton for martinis and wisecracking. Seriously. These books are going on my 2010 favourite’s list as well as my favourite’s-ever list!

‘The Unidentified Redhead’ was a lot of smutty/funny goodness. Jack and Grace were crazy cute, and it was wonderful to read their blossoming relationship. But reading ‘Revealed’, it becomes clear that the smooth-sailing of the first-book was the calm before the storm.
‘The Redhead Revealed’ is still funny and brilliant, but also somewhat darker and meatier (heh, that’s what she said).

This book really puts Grace’s various hang-ups and neuroses under the microscope. We got a taste of her worries in ‘Unidentified’, but not to the extent of this book. . . And really, Grace’s concerns are quite justified. Her reactions aren’t always appropriate (two-martini maximum goes out the door) but Clayton actually takes a lot of time to ponder celebrity relationships and romance under the spotlight. When Jack’s career starts to take off, Grace has to be relegated to the sidelines so as not to anger his new female fans. And when Jack and a young actress are snapped together and plastered all over TMZ and E! Grace’s fall-out is heartbreaking and understandable.
“I've never in my life seen someone deliberately run in the opposite direction of happiness more than you do,” he said, staring daggers into my eyes.
But for all of the outlandish celebrity relationship problems, Clayton keeps things relatable as well. Clayton explores the up’s and down’s of a long distance relationship (with as much fervour and wit as Barrymore in ‘Going the Distance’), she also explores Grace’s body hang-ups and her ticking biological clock in relation to Jack’s young age. It might seem like Grace and Jack tackle a lot of relationship issues in one book. . . but really it’s all heightened by their long-distance hurdles. What would normally be a minor blow-up is left to congeal and fester when they’re separated by distance and only communicating by phone and txt.

But don’t worry – for all the serious that Clayton explores, she still offers up equal-parts smut and Jack sexiness. I really think that the Redhead series is contemporary romance/erotica for the prevalent and smouldering sex scenes. And for the fact that Jack Hamilton is sex on a stick and too adorable for words:
“How the hell did you get so mature at twenty-four? Seriously, man. I’m like a basket case next to you,” I said, breaking the tension a little.
“I’m British. We’re born more mature,” he said with the sexy half smile that always turned me to mush.
I was thrilled – THRILLED, I say! To read at the end of ‘Revealed’ that Ms Clayton has a third ‘Redhead’ book in the works. *Ahem*. . . SQUEEEEEEEEEEE!
‘Revealed’ leaves off on a tantalizingly awesome note, and I am *dying* to know what’s next in store for Grace and Jack. There’s still plenty more to explore for these two, especially when the Hollywood setting and lifestyle offers such interesting twists and turns to their romance. I can’t wait for more Redhead. This series is my new book crack.


P.S. – I got it into my head that physically, Jack Hamilton looks like Charlie Hunnam. Yowza.

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