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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

‘This One Summer’ written by Mariko Tamaki illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It's their getaway, their refuge. Rosie's friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose's mom and dad won't stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. It's a summer of secrets and sorrow and growing up, and it's a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.

In This One Summer two stellar creators redefine the teen graphic novel. Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, the team behind Skim, have collaborated on this gorgeous, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful story about a girl on the cusp of her teen age—a story of renewal and revelation.

Rose and her family are going for their yearly trek to the holiday cottage in Awago Beach. They’ve been coming here since Rose was five, and every inch of the sleepy little town is filled with happy memories. But this year it’s different – Rose’s parents are fighting more than ever after they decided to stop trying for a second baby. Rose’s mum would rather lock herself in her room, and even though her dad tells her not to worry about “adult junk”, their fights are getting louder and louder.

Perhaps the one good thing about Awago Beach is the ever unchanged Windy – a fellow weekender whose cottage is not far from Rose’s. Windy is one-and-a-half years younger than Rose, and while she initially enjoys her friends unchanging familiarity, their age difference starts to become clear when the girls get caught up in the local drama of Awago Beach teens.

Duncan is the lanky, floppy-haired teenage boy who works at the convenience store. Windy nicknames him “the dud”, but Rose is quietly curious about him. Even more so when she and Windy are witness to Duncan’s blossoming relationship with local girl, Jenny. 

As Rose’s mum retreats more into herself, and Windy’s childish behaviour starts to grate, Rose gets caught up in the local love story drama and is unnerved when Duncan and Jenny’s story hits close to home.

‘This One Summer’ is a young adult graphic novel drawn by Jillian Tamaki and written by Mariko Tamaki from First Second Books

I loved this novel. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki so perfectly capture a salt-sweet story of a young girl’s summer teetering on the edge of young adulthood. The story begins simply enough, with only the barest hint of a storm brewing in Rose’s family. The monotony of a lazy summer is beautifully drawn out in the tick-tick-tick time passing panels showing Windy and Rose enjoying their holiday by keeping a schedule they seem to know by heart. 

It’s not until the girls get caught up vicariously in the drama of a local boy who works at their convenience store that cracks come unbidden into their friendship. Rose’s fascination with Duncan “the dud” is at odds with Windy’s complete and utter disinterest (verging on disgust) for him; highlighting the girl’s age-gap that will probably turn into a chasm by next summer.

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki beautifully translate the girl’s friendship on the page – particularly in gorgeous double-page spreads that shows the girls being completely joyous and carefree, versus Rose’s hunched form when she finds herself in the company of teenage boys. 

Windy was really the star of the novel for me. She’s raised by a single, vegan mother and is very proud of the fact that she attends a New Age school back home in the city, with classmates who are mostly raised by lesbian parents. She’s hilarious, and right at that age where she’s fascinated by growing older (and getting boobs!) versus Rose, whose going uncomfortably into darker adult territory. 

The illustrations are lush and drawn in blue-hues that emphasise the whimsy of these Awago Beach days. And Mariko Tamaki’s dialogue and story starts out as loose and poignant as the first days of a perfect summer, and then coils tighter and tighter towards the end – I particularly liked the many panels when Rose took over narration and reflected on her past memories of Awago Beach, often coloured by happier times with her mother who’s increasingly drawing away from her in the present. 

This is a beautiful coming-of-age-story about being on the cusp of everything. I've no doubt that next summer at Awago Beach, Rose will more than ever feel the differences between her and Windy and they’ll never again enjoy a summer like this one. ‘This One Summer’ feels all the more special because, as readers, we probably know that it will be looked back on by both girls as they grow older as the last memories they have of a truly carefree friendship. 

There's also a beautiful mother-daughter story in here, as Rose learns more hard truths about growing up. It's so subtly drawn out, the story between Rose and her mother, but once it's all out in the open the enormity of the summer settles over the reader in a very profound way. 

Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki have created a truly gorgeous graphic novel. I hope everyone finds their way to this one in 2014.


This One Summer will be available in May 2014 

Friday, January 24, 2014

'Quincy Jordan' Crystal Bay Girls #1 by Jen Storer

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Quincy Jordan doesn't want to meet her hippie cousins and go to school in Crystal Bay. Her life in Sydney is perfect. She's going to save her parents' marriage, score perfect marks at school and become a surgeon. Her only regret is that she'll never be a fashion designer. But sacrifices must be made!

There's no way that Quincy is going to be 'Crystallised' – that is until her cousin Esme, the school musical and a cute boy called Harris change everything…

When Quincy Jordan’s life falls apart – her dad walks out, and her fiercely independent mother suddenly can’t get out of bed or wash her hair – Quincy is plucked out of her private Sydney girl’s school and sent to the seaside town of Crystal Bay. Quincy’s mum thinks this will be a good move for them, staying with the aunt and cousins Quincy has never met let alone heard much about.

‘Quincy Jordan’ is the first book in the new tween ‘Crystal Bay Girls’ series by Australian author Jen Storer.

Crystal Bay is the Byron Bay-esque town setting of this new series for readers aged 10+. The series is appealing to that “tween” market – who are often described as being ‘too old for toys, but too young for boys.’ It’s a hard readership to appeal to, particularly when they’re still too young for the gut-wrenching dramas found in John Green and Melina Marchetta novels, but swooning over Harry Styles and fascinated with what their teen-years will have in store for them. Jen Storer on her website promises the series will be filled with, "family, friends and fashion, romance, tears and laughter. That's Crystal Bay." 

On the one hand, Jen Storer and Penguin Australia have pitched the ‘Crystal Bay Girls’ series and this first book beautifully. The ‘Quincy Jordan’ cover looks older-YA sophisticate (something young girls will appreciate) but at the back of the book there’s a cartoon rendition of protagonist Quincy (drawn by Viet-My Bui), as well as a French-vocab list and some stylist tips.
The story is also full of those melodramas and tangled webs that most young people think (and hope) their teen lives will be filled with. Quincy has a mean-girl nemesis at school, has just discovered a shocking truth about her father, bears witness to the breakdown of her parent’s marriage and is whisked away by her mother to the remote hippie town of Crystal Bay to stay with relatives she’s never met before.

On top of this, Quincy is battling inner-turmoil over her wish to become a surgeon (like her successful father … despite having an aversion to blood) while harbouring a secret flare for fashion and design. When she learns the reason behind her parent’s divorce, Quincy also has to come to terms with the idea that her father is not as perfect as she envisioned, and might actually be due some of her wrath. 

There’s a lot going on and many threads woven throughout the story, but this is not quite Young Adult, so most of it’s surface tension. Like the interesting back-story set up about a former friend turned pretty mean girl – Satin St Clair. There’s clearly history between Satin, Quincy and best friend Jules (the three of whom used to be friends, until Satin got too pretty for Quincy and Jules, and moved on to the popular group). But once Quincy leaves for Crystal Bay that storyline is dropped off – the same way that the big, explosive storyline about her father leaving is only ever briefly touched on later in the book and never satisfyingly resolved (or, at least, on the way to some sort of détente). In place of real heart-to-hearts with her mother, or the dawning realisation that she is allowed (and has every right) to be angry with her father, the second-half focus of the book once Quincy and her mum move to Crystal Bay is on a cute (somewhat delinquent) boy called Harris.

And, that’s fine. Again, this is for female readers 10+ who will delight in the light flirtations of Quincy and surfer-boy Harris. But I wish that didn’t mean that the bigger storylines didn’t fall by the wayside – especially because second book in the ‘Crystal Bay Girls’ series is called ‘Romy Bright’ and focuses on a new girl. Will I ever know why Satin St. Clair (great name!) turned so viciously on her former besties? Will I ever get to read about Quincy confronting her father for the first time since he walked out?

I did enjoy this book, particularly Quincy as a private schoolgirl/fish out of water when she enters into the fray at Crystal Bay High. I can relate, having once been a wide-eyed private girl’s school student who was equally disturbed to go into University and have boys sitting in my classroom. I got a chuckle out of Quincy’s wry humour;

I never imagined there would be boys. There are boys everywhere. Little ones, big ones, dopey ones. Loud, crass, swaggering ones. It’s like every boy on the entire planet goes to Crystal Bay High. I so did not see this coming.‘Quincy?’ 
Esme is tugging at my sleeve. For a moment I have forgotten what we’re doing. I’m watching one boy with another boy in a headlock and a third boy is pouring bottled water down the headlocked boy’s back. No one in the entire school is blinking an eye. They don’t even glance their way, despite all the yelling. I am transfixed. I am studying them like a BBC nature expert: Only in an Australian school ground do we find this rare and only partially evolved species. Fera-simia. Feral ape. Approach with caution …

The ‘Crystal Bay Girls’ series will be a win for young female readers who aren’t quite ready to slow-dance with boys at the disco, but are already envisioning their teen horizons to be full of; boys, melodrama, parental suffering and grand adventures. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start to the ‘Crystal Bay Girls.’


'Quincy Jordan' is available from all good bookshops from January 29. 
Second book 'Romy Bright' will be published August 2014. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'Dairy Queen' Dairy Queen #1 by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

From the BLURB:

When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. 

Harsh words indeed, from Brian Nelson of all people. But, D. J. can’t help admitting, maybe he’s right.

When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. 

Stuff like why her best friend, Amber, isn’t so friendly anymore. Or why her little brother, Curtis, never opens his mouth. Why her mom has two jobs and a big secret. Why her college-football-star brothers won’t even call home. Why her dad would go ballistic if she tried out for the high school football team herself. And why Brian is so, so out of her league.

When you don’t talk, there’s a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said. 

Welcome to the summer that fifteen-year-old D. J. Schwenk of Red Bend, Wisconsin, learns to talk, and ends up having an awful lot of stuff to say.

D.J. Schwenk is the younger sister of famous Red Bend brothers Bill and Win – the two most beloved football players that Red Bend High School has ever seen. But it’s been a while since Bill and Win graduated, and went off to make the most of their football scholarships. Since their departure, rival football team Hawley are in a good position to clean up this season – but their one weakness is quarterback, Brian Nelson. He’s a popular rich boy whose dad owns a local car dealership, and even though he has a good arm he also has a tendency to blame everyone but himself when his team is down.

Now, normally D.J. wouldn’t think twice about awful Brian Nelson – between her dad’s hip replacement surgery and her needing to quit basketball to take care of their dairy farm, not to mention her flunking English class and her brothers abandoning the family since graduating high school … Brian Nelson should be the last thing on D.J.’s mind. But then family friend and Hawley coach, Jimmy Ott, sends Brian to the Schwenk Family Farm to help out with haying, milking and odd jobs.

Except Brian Nelson is no farmer, and he’s a whinger. No matter how handsome he is, or how good his throwing arm, D.J. sees right away that Brian needs to stick his head down and work his butt off if he has any hope of getting ready for football season, and she tells as much to Jimmy Ott. Funny thing happens though, when Jimmy suggests D.J. coach Brian in the weeks before school starts. Even funnier? – Brian agrees, and D.J. finds herself  coaching her town’s rival QB and discovering he’s not such a bad guy after all, especially when he gets her thinking about how she can turn her life around and not be such a cow…

‘The Dairy Queen’ was published in 2006, the first book in Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s contemporary young adult series.

I have been meaning to read this book for the longest time – pretty much since I started getting into book reviewing and talking to fellow YA bloggers. Adele Walsh (of PersnicketySnark fame) has been particularly vocal in my need to read this book – especially since I’m a ‘Friday Night Lights’ fan. Finally I stumbled across a copy at my local (independent!) bookstore and snatched it up … and after about 30 pages I jumped online and ordered books #1 and #2 because I very quickly realised I had been missing out on a damn good thing.

I was immediately drawn into this book because of D.J. Schwenk – she’s our narrator, recounting the story of her crazy summer for the benefit of an unknown audience and her voice is utterly charming and almost hypnotic. Gilbert Murdock has pitched D.J.’s narration so beautifully – she’s completely earnest, sweet and bluntly funny. I loved her straight away. I also started rooting for her straight away when she slowly explains that her father has had hip surgery, her two older brothers have had a falling-out with the family since leaving for college and her youngest brother, Curtis, has a busy baseball schedule while her mum has recently taken on the job of acting principal at the school where she works. So it’s fallen to D.J. to take care of the Schwenk Family Farm – she’s up at the crack of dawn milking, haying and general maintenance around the falling-down dairy farm. As a result of all this responsibility, D.J. has flunked English and had to quit playing basketball (even though she was attracting scout attention). I also loved that D.J. is not a girly-girl – she’s a big, tall girl who loves sport and is never happier than when she’s running at full-speed.

Something Gilbert Murdock does so well in this book is to drip-feed readers with her tangled family webs. D.J. alludes a few times to a big family fight that saw her brothers, Win and Bill, stop speaking to their dad. She also speaks briefly about the fact that her father was a promising footballer and played for the army team, but had to come home and take over the dairy farm when his own father got sick. Then there’s D.J.’s little brother, Curtis, who doesn’t talk much and no one knows why (or asks – which is the Schwenk family way.) I loved that all of these dramas were simmering beneath the surface throughout the book, and made these secondary characters (who really didn’t have a lot of page-time) all the more robust and made D.J.’ s family life that much more interesting and complicated.

Of course, when family friend Jimmy Ott sends Hawley QB, Brian Nelson, to the Schwenk farm to help out, everything changes for D.J. She starts seeing her run-down farm through Brian’s eyes, starts listening when he questions her families’ dynamics and even her own role in the hierarchy. Admittedly, Brian is also very cute and popular (plus, QB!) but I loved that he’s more interesting to D.J. for how he makes her question the norm and her role as a cog in the wheel.

I felt like he understood everything I’d been through that night but we would probably never speak again. Not because I was a bad person, or because he was, but because, well, that’s just the way the world worked. 
And let me say this: of everything that’s happened to me this crazy, stupid summer, in that one second that we looked at each other, that’s when I grew up the most. And I’ll just tell you now, it’s not … it’s not a particularly pleasant emotion.

I also have big admiration for Gilbert Murdoch for throwing in so many sensitive “issues” without ever treating them with kid-gloves or like she was ticking “serious teen issues” boxes in the writing. She examines gender inequality, homosexuality and challenging gender stereotypes – and all of them thread so beautifully through the main storyline.

This book is AMAZING (I know, I know – I’m only about seven years behind the times). D.J.’s voice rings so genuine and believable that by the end of the book, I really felt like I’d just spent a few days with a great, new friend. Cathering Gilbert Murdock really beautifully sets up a long-haul story for D.J. in her little town of Red Bend, Wisconsin, and I absolutely can’t wait to read ‘The Off Season’ and ‘Front and Centre’.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' by Sarra Manning

From the BLURB:

Sweet, bookish Neve Slater always plays by the rules. And the number one rule is that good-natured fat girls like her don’t get guys like gorgeous, handsome William, heir to Neve’s heart since university. But William’s been in LA for three years, and Neve’s been slimming down and re-inventing herself so that when he returns, he’ll fall head over heels in love with the new, improved her.

So she’s not that interested in other men. Until her sister Celia points out that if Neve wants William to think she’s an experienced love-goddess and not the fumbling, awkward girl he left behind, then she’d better get some, well, experience.

What Neve needs is someone to show her the ropes, someone like Celia’s colleague Max. Wicked, shallow, sexy Max. And since he’s such a man-slut, and so not Neve’s
type, she certainly won’t fall for him. Because William is the man for her… right?

Somewhere between losing weight and losing her inhibitions, Neve’s lost her heart – but to who?

Neve Slater has a mission and life-plan. She’s on her way to becoming her fittest, healthiest self after a wake-up call about her obesity pushed her into hiring a personal trainer two years ago and getting her weight under control. And even though she’s dropped dress sizes and exercises every day, she’s still not her ideal size-10 self. She needs to get down to the tiny 1-0 in order to impress her old college crush, William, when he gets back from three years teaching abroad in California (where, no doubt, all the women he’s been with are size-0). Because William is Neve’s one-true-love, and mostly likely the man she’ll marry.

There’s just one problem that can’t be fixed with the treadmill and celery sticks – something Neve’s little sister, Celia, has pointed out to her on many occasions. Neve doesn’t actually have much experience in the men department, and is in fact a 25-year-old virgin. She won’t win William’s heart if she’s woefully inexperienced, so Celia is helping her to try out some light-flirting on the gentlemen of London.

One man who is certainly no gentleman (more ‘cad’) is Celia’s colleague and major editor at the magazine where she works – Max. Max is a ladies’ man through and through, and where Neve is concerned he’s the out-of-bounds big leagues and certainly not the right person to tentatively attempt her flirting with. Except one night at a post-Christmas party for magazine ‘Skirt’ Neve and Max have a moment. Granted, a moment that wavers between disastrous and outrageous, but a moment nonetheless;

He was still trying to drum up business as Neve kissed Celia on the cheek, and she was just about to turn round and head off to the tube when she felt a hand land squarely on her bottom. ‘Or what about you? You’ve got plenty of cushion for the pushing. I like that in a woman.’

Then Neve has an idea – what if Max was to be her ‘pancake boyfriend’ in the months before William’s return? ‘Pancake’ after the first pancake in the batch that’s inevitably botched and thrown away. Max is clearly emotional unavailable and if Neve is fine with him seeking his carnal pleasures elsewhere (they’ll be purely platonic, no sex) then this could be the best way for Neve to practice having a boyfriend, and for Max to attempt to make a real human connection with someone (without sleeping with them). It’s a match made in a batch!

‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ was the 2011 novel from Sarra Manning.

I've been meaning to read Sarra Manning for the longest time. She’s such a popular British YA author, with a fairly fairytale writing background – she was writer for (now defunct) teen mag J17 and has previously written for ELLE, The Guardian, ES Magazine, Seventeen, Details and Heat. No wonder her bio touts her as a “teen queen extraordinaire.” And of all her books ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ is undoubtedly the one that’s come most highly recommended to me. So, I finally got round to reading it and NOW I GET IT. She’s amazing, and I need to read more Manning, pronto.

This book is probably one of the best examples of ‘New Adult’ I've encountered thus far (though I’m sure it wasn’t marketed as such). Neve is twenty-five, fitting her comfortably into that somewhat awkward grey-area age-group of New Adult readers, but more importantly she’s a character who’s plagued by her teenage past and finds it’s still defining her life and fears.

Neve was tormented for her weight throughout high school – it sent her into a spiral where she’d be teased for being “fat” and then eat to numb the pain of the bullying. Now in her 20s, Neve is still plagued by the fat-shaming of her childhood since her older brother married her high school tormentor – who now lives in the flat above hers and takes every opportunity she can to dredge up Neve’s biggest pressure-point insecurities.

Even now, when Neve has shrunk down to a size 14-16, she’s still insecure and constantly paranoid about her “problem areas”. Not to mention she’s fixated on getting down to the perfect size-10 to really impress William (whom she’s been corresponding with via letters and phone-calls, hell-bent on not letting him see her transformation until he returns to London to be awed in person).

The focus on Neve’s body insecurities is a big part of the book, and definitely a wound that Manning keeps prying open. But she does it in such a way as to let readers know that Neve’s perception of herself is distorted – granting us a wider look at society’s dictates on ‘perfection’ and ‘beauty’ versus personal happiness and health. For this reason, all that uncomfortable body-shaming and Neve’s berating works without being insensitive or needlessly cruel. I really tip my hat to Manning for this; other authors could have just let Neve have a Cinderella-esque story where she loses weight and gets the fabulous life as a bonus prize. But Manning actually prises this misconception open bit-by-bit throughout the story, and actually turns Neve’s body-image into a journey in itself.

The other reason I loved this book was Max. Hands-down, one of the best “bad boys” I've ever read. A smarmy editor at equally smarmy-sounding ‘Skirt’ magazine, he was set-up in a very conventional way, but by the end of the book became a very unconventional hero. 

In the glow of the streetlamps and the glare of neon signs, Neve could see that his hair wasn’t dirty but a glossy dark brown, and his skin had an olive tinge that suggested he’d tan at the first sight of the sun. Which wasn’t important right then. It didn’t matter how pretty he was when he had such an ugly soul.

Where Neve’s issues were very psychological and body-based, Max has emotional wounds that run deep. But I was glad that Manning didn’t write him as a through-and-through jerk – she lets Neve’s sister-in-law be the fat-shaming bully (with her own issues), not Max. Max is always appreciative of Neve’s body, as a lover of the female form (in all shapes and sizes). I loved this. Yes, he’s a ‘bad-boy’ in that he’s a real Lothario and plays on his good looks to be God’s gift to women, but he’s not cruel. He’s the epitome of charming, and I adored him.

Sarra Manning also has a wicked sense of humour. From the obligatory spanx-related jokes, to a WAGs mega wedding party and Neve’s pre-coitus nerves, Manning is a laugh-riot;

There was a part of Neve that was slowly liquefying on her Cath Kidston duvet cover even though she felt as if she should be running around the room, arms and legs flailing wildly as she emitted high-pitched shrieks of terror. 

I loved this book, absolutely. True, towards the end it got a bit waffling and lost in the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ portion of the story, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable read that took me one afternoon to finish. I’ll definitely be reading more Manning.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

‘Friends with Boys’ by Faith Erin Hicks

 From the BLURB: 

After years of homeschooling, Maggie is starting high school. It's pretty terrifying.

Maggie's big brothers are there to watch her back, but ever since Mom left it just hasn't been the same. 

Besides her brothers, Maggie's never had any real friends before. Lucy and Alistair don't have lots of friends either. But they eat lunch with her at school and bring her along on their small-town adventures.

Missing mothers...distant brothers...high friends... It's a lot to deal with. But there's just one more thing.


It’s Maggie’s first day of high school. After being home-schooled by her mum, in a class with her older brothers, Maggie is now going out into the big, wide public school system for the first time. It’s one of just many upheavals in Maggie’s life lately – from her mum bailing on the family a few months ago, to her dad becoming chief of police, her twin brothers Lloyd and Zander constantly fighting (more than usual) lately and her oldest brother, Daniel, being cast as lead in the school play. 

But this is just the beginning of strange changes and coincidences in Maggie’s life. When she starts school she befriends punk-pixie Lucy, and her mohawked brother Alistair – both of whom seem to still be reeling from some unspoken event that happened not so long ago. 

And then there’s the fact that Maggie’s ghost is back – a spirit from the churchyard has upped the ante and started following Maggie home, but to what purpose?

Friends with Boys’ is a graphic novel by Faith Erin Hicks.

I heard about this graphic novel through the Centre for Youth Literature, it came as recommended reading from Jordi for those who are just starting their love-affair with graphic novels. And I've got to say, as someone who has long loved young adult literature; this particular graphic novel makes for superb reading. It’s got a little bit of everything – from coming-of-age to school bullying, a little haunting and family saga. 

When we meet them, Maggie’s family have settled into a new routine without their mother, who up and left the family a few months ago. We get the impression, from the family’s new (if, slightly chaotic) routine and the awkwardness that ensues when their absent mother is mentioned, that they’re all just starting to settle into the new normal. Everyone really, except Maggie who is carrying around an anvil of guilt over her mother’s departure. Maggie is also having difficulty adjusting to life after home-schooling. As the youngest sibling, she was last to leave the comfort of her mother’s teaching, and she has missed having her beloved older brothers as classmates. In the public school environment she feels lost and invisible, maybe even a little bit abandoned by her busy and popular brothers.

Erin Hicks beautifully draws the chaos of high school as seen through Maggie’s eyes, and her customized maps. Especially in contrast to the lovable chaos at home, the painful monotony of high school is perfectly communicated in repetitive panels and we really understand why Maggie misses spending time with her brothers when they absolutely steal the limelight and the laughs in their appearances.

Lucy and Alistair are a welcome relief from the painful tribes and cliques of the school environment. Maggie perhaps doesn’t find it terribly odd that siblings Lucy and Alistair spend so much time together, when Maggie herself wishes her brothers would pay her more attention at school. But Lucy and Alistair have bad blood between them, and while their story isn’t terribly explosive, it is very raw and emotional, and very well paced by Erin Hicks.

What didn’t work so well for me was the ‘haunting’ storyline. Certainly it made for some interesting imagery, but I spent majority of the novel wondering what the purpose was … and at the end Erin Hicks has to have Maggie all but spell out the correlation between her haunting and her mum’s leaving. To me, it was an odd thread left dangling and never really satisfying. But that’s my only complaint in an otherwise flawless graphic novel about growing up, growing apart and fighting for your family. Beautiful.


Friday, January 10, 2014

‘Just One of the Guys’ by Kristan Higgins

From the BLURB:

Being one of the guys isn't all it's cracked up to be...So when journalist Chastity O'Neill returns to her hometown, she decides it's time to start working on some of those feminine wiles. Two tiny problems: #1--she's five feet eleven inches of rock-solid girl power, and #2--she's cursed with four alpha male older brothers.

While doing a story on local heroes, she meets a hunky doctor and things start to look up. Now there's only one problem: Trevor Meade, her first love and the one man she's never quite gotten over--although he seems to have gotten over her just fine.

Yet the more time she spends with Dr. Perfect, the better Trevor looks. But even with the in-your-face competition, the irresistible Trevor just can't seem to see Chastity as anything more than just one of the guys....

Chastity O'Neill has just been unceremoniously dumped by a too-skinny guy with freckled legs. His reason? She’s not “attractive” enough. The nerve! Just because Chastity is sportier, fitter and taller than him does not make her “unattractive” it makes him a pipsqueak, and not good enough for her. Unfortunately, now Chastity has absolutely zero dating prospects in the hometown she returned to six weeks ago. Even worse? The man she’s been in love with since adolescence is more handsome than ever, and attracting women left, right and centre.

Trevor Meade is an honorary O’Neill – practically a fourth brother to Chastity … or, at least, that’s what her family thinks. In actuality Trevor and Chastity shared an incredible two-night stand back in college, and Chastity has been in love with him ever since. Meanwhile Trevor never again mentioned their hook-up, and was even briefly engaged to another woman for a time. Now though, he seems annoyingly content to play the field.

“What’s your first name?” she asks. “Charity?” 
“Chastity,” I correct. One of my classmates smiles. “My father thought it was funny,” I explain. “My middle name’s Virginia.” 
“Ouch,” the woman says. 

‘Just One of the Guys’ was the 2008 contemporary romance novel from Kristan Higgins (who I’m currently obsessed with). 

So, I started reading this book and was a little concerned. This is now my 4th Higgins book I've read (in the post-Christmas break I gorged on two of her books in two days!) and I've noticed a theme in all so far – women with body issues. Or, rather, women whose bodies are a focus and commented on by others. In ‘The Best Man’ heroine Faith Holland was very voluptuous and sometimes self-conscious of her abundance. Posey Osterhagen in ‘Until There Was You’ was teased in high school for being a ‘bag of bones’ with the body of a ten-year-old boy and in ‘Just One of the Guys’ much is made of Chastity O’Neill’s broad shoulders and Amazonian stature. When she asks her long-time crush, Trevor Meade, if she’s conventionally pretty he counters with words like “striking” and “handsome”. I felt a bit uneasy at these heroines who have such backstory in their appearance, and initially worried that it was a bit of an over-emphasis. But Kristan Higgins writes these women with infinite care and tenderness, and pretty soon readers realise what it sometimes takes other characters the whole book to clue into – that these women are not defined by how they look, or their body-type. It’s refreshing, and even though it’s an obvious theme in all her books, Higgins eventually lets the body issues melt into the background as non-issues. 

Something I really love about all Higgin’s books thus far is the camaraderie. Family (both blood and friends) are a big focus for all her characters, never more so than in ‘Just One of the Guys’ when Chastity is the sole girl in a family of fire-fighting brothers, with her father as Captain. And the brothers O’Neill definitely steal the show in their scenes, sometimes causing belly-aching laughter; 

Mom leans over and snatches the cover off the platter, unveiling her creation. Calling it dinner would be inaccurate and somehow cruel. 
Jack stares at it despondently. “That pot roast will come out of me the same way it goes in,” he announces. “Stringy, gray and tough. And with a great deal of effort.” 

“John Michael O’Neill! Shame on you!” Mom sputters as the rest of us try unsuccessfully to hide our laughter.

But the real reason I loved the O’Neill clan was for the backstories. There’s eldest brother Mark, married to Chastity’s best friend and currently going through a messy divorce after he admitted to cheating on his wife. Mark and Elaina aren’t the only O’Neill’s going through a rocky patch – in one of the best secondary stories I've read lately, Chastity’s divorced (but still very much in love) parents are at a Mexican stand-off when Mama O’Neill announces she’s going to join Chastity in the world of online dating, as she’s sick and tired of waiting for her ex-husband to retire and leave his first love – firefighting – behind for her. 

Then there’s Chastity herself – in love with her ‘honorary’ brother, Trevor Meade, who looks upon her as his little sister and best friend and ‘just one of the guys’. If I had any complaints about this book, it’s perhaps that Trevor and Chastity spent a little too much time in the ‘will they?’ of the ‘will they or won’t they?’ portion of the plot. I'd have liked a bit more evidence of them being the perfect match, instead of the brief flashbacks to a two-day dating period in college that’s so defined Chastity’s feelings for Trevor.

Another reason I love Higgin’s books at the moment (and especially this one) is that they’re dogs in all of them. Yep, in 2013 I became a “dog person” and have since gravitated to any romance book cover with a pooch. And Higgins doesn’t just deliver the cute, but the laughs with her canine characters. In ‘Just One of the Guys’ there’s a menstruating bloodhound to guffaw over, in a scene that had me in stitches and glad I was reading in the privacy of my bedroom. 


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

‘Until There Was You’ by Kristan Higgins

From the BLURB:

Posey Osterhagen can't complain. She owns a successful architectural salvaging company, she's surrounded by her loveable, if off-center, family and she has a boyfriend—sort of. Still, something's missing. Something tall, brooding and criminally good-looking...something like Liam Murphy.

When Posey was sixteen, the bad boy of Bellsford New Hampshire, broke her heart. But now he's back, sending Posey's traitorous schoolgirl heart into overdrive once again. She should be giving him a wide berth, but it seems fate has other ideas...

Liam Murphy is back in his hometown after being away for some seventeen years. He grew up in this small, idyllic town as the requisite bad boy complete with band and motorbike, a bad reputation and a killer track record with women. But then he left Bellsford, New Hampshire to follow his perfect girlfriend to California, marry her and raise their surprise baby. 

Now Liam has returned a widower and father to his sixteen-year-old daughter, Nicole. He’s back in Bellsford to be closer to Emma’s parents and Nicole’s only grandparents, to start up a motorcycle repair shop and try to get their lives back on track after Emma’s death, from cancer. But being back in the town that all too clearly remembers his less-than-stellar reputation (and those women who remember him for all the wrong reasons) is wreaking havoc on Liam settling down. As are his newly-developed OCD habits and panic attacks, bought on since his wife’s death.

Someone who isn’t exactly thrilled to see Liam return to Bellsford is Posey Osterhagen – her parents own the kitschy German-theme restaurant in town, and employed Liam there throughout his high school career. A couple of years younger than the bad boy of Bellsford, Posey was no different from every other girl in town who fell for Liam’s dangerous charm. He was her first love, and the first boy to break her heart when he fell hard for popular princess, Emma. 

Seeing Liam Murphy back in town puts Posey’s less-than-ideal life into perspective. Sure, she has one huge dog and three cats, a perpetually-unfinished church home that needs restoration and a successful salvage business. But she’s just got out of a bad booty call “relationship” and isn’t having any luck finding someone to settle down with. And then her celebrity TV chef (and well-endowed) cousin also returns to Bellsford, and Posey feels more dissatisfied than ever before. But when Liam Murphy starts noticing her – really noticing skinny, ‘bag of bones’ Posey Osterhagen for the first time – she has to be careful not to let her heart get ahead of her. 

‘Until There Was You’ was the 2011 contemporary romance novel from Kristan Higgins. 

I have a new reading obsession, and her name is Kristan Higgins. A friend of mine started reading the ‘Blue Heron’ series (the first book I loved, second book more ‘meh’) which kick-started me to try one of Higgins’s stand-alones as a bit of light, fun reading over this Christmas/New Year holiday period. Two days later I've inhaled two of her books and started on a third, tracked down books from her backlist at my local library and bookstore. I am obsessed. And if you think it’s just a fluke with me – check out her (practically unheard of) star-reviews on Kirkus. I mean … no offense, but Kirkus can be quite snooty and some of their reviews of romance novels make me wince, but even they know what a star Kristan Higgins is! 

‘Until There Was You’ ticks so many romance boxes for me. There’s the reformed bad-boy (now the panicked father of a teenage girl!), a tom-boy heroine, small town setting and the haunted years of high school that keep coming back to bite the hero and heroine in the butt. It all just worked for me – particularly Posey Osterhagen who is possibly one of the most interesting contemporary romance heroines I've ever read. For starters; she’s adopted, and certain circumstances in her life have her reconsidering whether or not she wants to go searching for her birth mother. Her prerequisite outfit is jeans, flannel shirts and heavy leather boots (she works in a salvage yard) and she’s still plagued and made insecure by the body-image bullying she was tormented with in high school – being underdeveloped, she was accused of being a “bag of bones” with the body of a 10-year-old boy and, worst of all, nicknamed ‘Anne Frank’. When Liam Murphy – the older bad boy she pined for from afar – returns to town and they strike up a snarky reacquaintance with undertones of heat, she struggles to comprehend that this Golden God is interested in her.

I love that Higgins revisits a lot of old teenage traumas as they impact on characters later on in life. Even Liam struggles with his old bad-boy reputation upon returning to Bellsford. Women he doesn’t remember sleeping with are slipping him their phone numbers, and he’s doing business with men whose wives he deflowered. Not to mention his sixteen-year-old daughter, Nicole, is hungry for any dirt on her father’s teen reputation to use as ammo against him now. 

I also love that Higgins writes relatable female characters. No Mary-Sue’s here – Higgins writes women who are looking for love, panicked about being alone and going through all the typical cringe-inducing shenanigans of single life; 

‘Note to self,’ Posey thought. ‘Avoid singles events in church basements.’ The AA meeting was just about to wrap up (though the Serenity Prayer could be applied to dating: God grant me the courage to date the men who aren’t idiots, the serenity to accept the fact that many men are idiots, and the wisdom to know the difference.) 

And she writes a great sense of community, family and friendship. I was reading ‘Until There Was You’, half wondering if Higgins had this in mind as a series to revisit some of the secondary characters mentioned. This is a stand-alone, and ‘Blue Heron’ is in fact her first foray into romance series – but she’s a real natural at writing well-rounded secondary characters whose lives feel like they continue off the page and not wholly dependent on the protagonist. She’s not afraid to leave a few dangling threads and open-ended possibilities.

One thing that didn’t bug me, necessarily, but left me scratching my head was Liam’s deceased wife, Emma. There’s much made of the fact that Liam and Emma were the surprise golden-couple of Bellsford High School –bad boy falls for the good girl like something out of ‘90210’. When Liam returns and Posey hears of Emma’s death, she’s distraught and feels terrible for Liam, that he lost the love of his life. But the story is told from both Liam and Posey’s perspective, and from him we realise that Liam and Emma were in fact heading by typical way of a couple who marry too young and grow apart later on in life – and by the time Emma got sick, she and Liam were fighting a lot and the spark was all but snuffed from their marriage. When Posey and Liam start feeling sparks, she continually brings up Emma and asks him if he’s okay with starting something with someone new after his beloved wife. What I found odd was that, while readers are privy to the truth of his private thoughts, he and Posey never discuss the added stress of a deteriorating marriage on top of his wife’s dying. So I felt like Posey was left assuming that Emma was indeed the untouchable love of his life, and thus remained somewhat insecure about that because he never said otherwise. That was the one dangling thread in this story that bugged me, and only because it was mentioned so much that I felt for sure it would be addressed at some point. 

‘Until There Was You’ kick-started my Kristan Higgins obsession. From here I went out and bought/borrowed as many of her books as I could get my hands on, and now I’m happily obsessed.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Series I read

So, I was having an interesting Twitter-talk with the lovely blogger Wendy Darling of Midnight Garden … we were discussing our love of Karin Slaughter and how dedicated we are to her series, and why. 
It’s an interesting thing to think about – the series you read. Especially interesting for me, when I think of the series I've stuck with for the long-haul, and those I've let fall by the wayside. 
There are actually plenty of books that I dropped half-way through their never-ending series and for various reasons. ‘Stephanie Plum’ just got stale. ‘The Hollows’ was writing relationship cheques that the characters weren’t cashing, in my opinion. ‘Anita Blake’ just got … not good … though I still recommend this series, just with the asterisks of; “They get really bad around ‘Obsidian Butterfly’ – you have been warned.” I’m even teetering with J.R. Ward’s ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ because it’s getting pretty ridiculous to just keep filtering in new characters I don’t give a damn about just to keep this world alive.  
So, there are plenty of series I've abandoned. Maybe I’ll get back to them one day (I do occasionally sneak-peeks at Amazon reviews of ‘The Hollows’ to see if Ivy and Rachel’s romance is being further developed) but I mostly think the ship has sailed.  
So what are the series I've committed to, and can’t see myself ever wavering from? What makes them so special? There aren’t many – but below are the (ongoing) series I read religiously and feel quite devoted to.  

Grant County by Karin Slaughter 

Karin Slaughter will always hold a special significance for me, and not just because ‘Blindsighted’ was the first book I ever reviewed on this blog. Rather, it’s because ‘Grant County’ was the first crime-thriller series I ever persevered with. In the past I'd tried making a dent in my mum’s impressive Patricia Cornwell collection, but was totally unmoved by the first book. And then I tried Slaughter (possibly because her name in crime-fiction seemed an easy win) and ‘Blindsighted’ absolutely hooked me. It wasn’t even that, as a novice in the genre, ‘Grant County’ was “lite” crime-fic (ask anyone; Slaughter writes some of the nastiest, goriest worst violence against women . . . sometimes, she reads like the Patrick Bateman of crime-fic) rather, what hooked me in Grant County was the characters and, more importantly, the relationship between series protagonists Sara Linton and Jeffrey Tolliver – the county coroner and local police chief, respectively . . . and ex-husband and wife. There was a moment in ‘Blindsighted’ when Jeffrey is really unprofessional and says this to Sara, after she’s conducted an autopsy;

‘Sometimes,’ he began, ‘when I wake up in the morning, I forget that you’re not there. I forget that I lost you.’ 
‘Kind of like when you forgot you were married to me?’ 
He walked toward her, but she stepped back until she was a few inches from the cabinet. He stood in front of her, his hands on her arms. 
‘I still love you.’ 
‘That’s not enough.’ 
He stepped closer to her. ‘What is?’

In my 2009 review of ‘Blindsighted’, I express an annoyance at how little Slaughter feeds readers about Jeffrey and Sara’s marital demise, especially since sparks are still there . . . it frustrated me then, but now I can see that that’s actually what kept me coming back to this series. Yes, the whodunit mysteries are terrifying and brilliant, but it was Slaughter’s impeccable and thorny characters and their relationships that kept me coming back. 

Will Trent by Karin Slaughter 

For that reason, I didn’t know if I could make the trek from ‘Grant County’ to her new ‘Will Trent’ series (especially after I felt so bruised following some ‘kill you darlings’ cruelty. . . ) but then Slaughter bought all the romantic complications of ‘Grant County’ and amplified them by including one of the most genuine and charming but horribly tortured characters, ever, in Will Trent. 

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

You want to know how much I love this series? I named my dog ‘Murray’, after the character of young Ian Murray (and mostly because ‘Rollo’ didn’t suit my little jackshund). This is the series that has my deep and abiding love, a love that will never waver and is willing to wait 5 years between books . . . It is a love that grows stronger with each new instalment, as I’m left to pine after characters and wonder on their predicaments (no mean feat, since books often finish on cliff-hangers that are more hand-biting than nail-biting). 

I started reading ‘Outlander’ back in 2007, and was quite lucky in that I got to consume books 1–6 over one summer holiday. Since then I've only had to wait for ‘An Echo in the Bone’ and now ‘Written in my Own Heart’s Blood’, which is coming June this year. Of course, when I tell people that I’ll have to clear a week of my life in order to sit down and properly read & appreciate Gabaldon’s latest offering, they look at me with a somewhat perplexed expression. These are 800+ page books (‘Written in My Own Heart’s Blood’ is actually rumoured to be 1008 pages) and the series is now eight-books deep . . . then I explain that these are kinda time-travelling books (but not really) that cover historical events like the Battle of Culloden and the American Revolution, but at the centre of it all is a love story between an ex-army nurse from the 1940s and a 1700’s Highland warrior called Jamie Fraser (*cue swoon*). At this point, I find myself alone on a soapbox talking to empty air. And that’s okay, I get it. These books are hard to surmise, and it doesn’t help when my love for them leaves me utterly inarticulate and I usually just grunt appreciatively; “Oh my God, Jamie is so amazing and these books are just so URGHkeejiwjwioeufjnkndewmdkwjo . . .  y’know?” 

Though I do fully anticipate that the Starz TV adaptation will bring quite a few newcomers to this wonderful series (I mean, have you seen the lead actor? Yowza). 

Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs

This is another series that I have a serious soft-spot for, because it was the first urban fantasy I ever read and it converted me to a genre that I'd previously been pretty snooty about. 

But, if I’m honest, I almost didn’t read beyond ‘Moon Called’. I remember at the time reading and enjoying it, but not being sure if it was a series I'd be sticking with … but then there was a moment in the last six pages. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when I knew I'd be coming back for more;

… ‘So, Bran tells me that or ordered you to keep an eye out for me.’ 
He stopped laughing and raised both his eyebrows. ‘Yes. Now ask me if I was watching you for Bran.’ 
It was a trick question. I could see the amusement in his eyes. I hesitated, but decided I wanted to know anyway. ‘Okay, I’ll bite. Were you watching me for Bran?’ 
‘Honey,’ he drawled, pulling on his Southern roots. ‘When a wolf watches a lamb, he’s not thinking about the lamb’s mommy.’

And I was sucked right in. It was Briggs layering mythology on top of whodunit central-story and throwing in a tangled relationship web to boot. ‘Mercy Thompson’ remains the benchmark for all other urban fantasies for me. I can only think of one other UF author who has done such a fine job of building up a protagonist’s world from the ground-up …

Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews

‘Kate’ and ‘Mercy’ came out around the same time (2007 and 2006, respectively) and have roughly the same number of books in the series right now. But they’re totally different, while also hooking me for very similar reasons.

Much like Mercy, when readers first met Kate in ‘Magic Bites’ she was the epitome of a loner. She had secrets to keep and a past to keep hidden, and she had been raised not to trust anybody but herself. But slowly, slowly husband/wife writing-duo Ilona Andrews teased out a love/hate relationship for Kate in the form of were-lion Curran. Now in the upcoming seventh book ‘Magic Breaks’ (out in July) the very fact that Kate has now accumulated a family and a whole community who depend on her – she has so much more to lose. 

I think both ‘Kate’ and ‘Mercy’ keep me coming back because I’m so invested in the heroines’ journey. I've seen them come leaps and bounds, completely change and transform for the people they love – and now all that they’ve gained is teetering on the edge and is in constant threat of being taken away from them. Of course I’m going to stick around for the long-haul, when the journey has been so rewarding.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Fiona Staples (Illustrator) 

I remember reading this and going, “Ohhh. Okay. Now I get it.” Now I get how people can be so obsessed with graphic novels/comic books. Now I get the impulse to rock up to a convention centre decked out like your favourite character. Now I get the visceral *need* to know what happens next, and not give a damn if you get drip-fed in small instalments that always end on a cliff-hanger. Now I get it, thanks to ‘Saga’. 

This is the first comic series I've dedicated myself to. I’m so obsessed that I can’t even wait for the Volume’s to be released, I now have a standing order to receive each instalment once a month.

What hooked me is just damn good story and these characters who I instantly started rooting for. It’s an intergalactic love-story about Alana and Marko who have gone AWOL from their respective armies in order to raise their daughter, Hazel. The story is actually narrated by Hazel, who is a baby when the story begins but is looking back and narrating as a somewhat older, wiser soul … and that’s probably what really hooked me. The knowledge that Hazel grows up and has her own problems somewhere in the future that she’ll get around to telling the reader, once we understand the whole background to her complicated life. I love it. I especially love that Brian K. Vaughan was inspired to have Hazel narrate by reading children’s books to his kids, which often adopt that sort of whimsy. 

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