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Friday, March 28, 2014

'The Cursed' League of The Black Swan #1 by Alyssa Day

From the BLURB

Bordertown private investigator Luke Oliver’s beat is the dimensional fold in Manhattan between the human and supernatural realms. But now a secret from his past—the League of the Black Swan—has surfaced. Because Luke isn’t any ordinary P.I. He’s the Dark Wizard of Bordertown, and he never backs down from a fight.

But this time the fight threatens his life and his heart. Rio Jones, the only woman he loved, needs his help against a deadly menace. Luke pushed her away once before, so she’d never fall prey to the curse that threatens to destroy him. He swore he’d never let her go again.

Luke and Rio, with the help of the newly reformed League, must keep evil forces from taking over Bordertown—all the while battling a passion on the razor’s edge between danger and desire. And going to take everything they have just to stay alive.

Luke Oliver has a problem, and her name is Rio Jones. He met the attractive bike messenger months ago, and swore to himself that he’d stay away … and by “stay away” he meant occasionally stalk her and scope out her relationship status.

But Oliver can’t get involved with her. He’s been single for hundreds of years, and though she’s the most tempting thing to cross his path in all that time, he must remain strong and resist her temptation. Because Oliver is cursed – there’s a monster inside of him and losing his inhibitions to love could very well unleash it.

But then Rio Jones goes and gets a target on her back, courtesy of the League of the Black Swan. She’s also witness to a child kidnapping that gets her stuck in the middle of a faerie high court. Things get even more peculiar when orphan Rio is suddenly hounded left, right and centre about her upcoming 25th birthday – and starts receiving hints about who her parents might have been. 

Of course Rio knows Luke Oliver – he of the sexy, sexy and someone she’s delivered packages to in the past – and she turns to him for help. Because everyone knows he’s a powerful Dark Wizard, who could walk into the role of Bordertown Sheriff, if he had any such inclination. 

The only problem is that Luke Oliver is more than happy to help the beautiful Rio Jones … because he’s tired of lusting from afar, now that the fates seem hell-bent on throwing her in his path, he might just act on his instincts. God help us all. 

‘The Cursed’ is the first book in a new paranormal romance series called ‘The League of The Black Swan’ by Alyssa Day. 

There’s no other genre quite like paranormal romance for my quirky reading habits. It’s perhaps the one genre that I sometimes crave, but can over-indulge on and be put off reading again for months and months. I bought Alyssa Day’s ‘The Cursed’ back in 2013 when it was first released, anticipating that it might be a good book to have on hand the next time I got the reading-itch for some paranormal romance … and, boy oh boy, were my instincts right. 

First of all, this book falls into one of my most favouritest (but rarely done well) categories of paranormal romance – the happy coupling. That’s right – this is a book in which the protagonists establish their romantic connection in the first book, and it looks as though the series will follow them as a couple. I am quite partial to such books, Mercy and Adam in Patricia Briggs’ ‘Mercy Thompson’ series is probably my favourite example of a romance being established very early on and subsequent books focusing on the evolution of that romance. Ditto the spin-off series ‘Alpha and Omega’ with Charles and Anna. This in comparison to, say, Kate and Curran in the Ilona Andrews’ series whereby the couple start out as antagonists and do a lot of (albeit, delicious) toing and froing before getting together. BUT, the downside of an early established romance is often boredom, as I found with recent instalments in Jeaniene Frosts’ ‘Night Huntress’ series when Cat and Bones were head-over-heels from the start (seriously, don’t even get me started on last book ‘Up From the Grave’ except to say it’s a good thing that’s the last book) that made me realise there was more fun to be had in the chase than happily-ever-after right in the middle of a series.

I actually have high-hopes and a sneaking suspicion that Alyssa Day has set Rio and Luke up as an established couple with plenty of rough-patches in store to keep things interesting between them, but also enough fated attraction to ensure they keep their heat. Between Luke’s curse (exacerbated by falling in love, no less!) and Rio’s unknown origins, this is one couple who will be interesting as a united front, but still have so much to learn about one another and what their attraction means for their futures.
“Big, tough wizard crying like a baby,” he said, mocking himself, and she knew he wasn’t only referring to the remembered dream. “Real romantic, right?” 
She traced her finger over the curve of his sculpted lips and shushed him. “Maybe the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.” 
A thought occurred to her, though, and she laughed. “Except for ‘You were hurting, and I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how, so I blew something up.’” 
His face flushed, and she fell back on the pillow, laughing even harder. 
“You just blushed! After days of making me blush every time I turn around, I finally did it to you!” 
“Maybe I can make you blush again,” he murmured. 

A lot does happen in this book. Readers do get dropped into the world of Bordertown with very little back-story about this universe, and then the story hits the ground running with Rio witnessing a kidnapping and finding herself being offered recruitment into the League of the Black Swan. Then lots of fantastical creatures start coming out of the woodwork to discuss her 25th birthday … Not to mention a magic fox (Kitsune) also enters her life for reasons unknown – suffice to say; a lot happens in this book. But it’s never too jarring or messy, surprisingly, mostly because Day has grounded the story in Luke and Rio’s romance as the pivoting point (possibly even of the series). 

So it’s no surprise that Rio and Luke work very, very well as a couple. It helps that Luke isn’t your typical leading-man alpha asshole normally found in paranormal romance. He’s actually a bit of a shy geek, who happens to be a dark wizard of immense power and stunning physique (though he doesn’t seem at all self-conscious or self-aware of his handsomeness). He is alpha where Rio is concerned, but it’s more an instinctual reaction to her that he’s trying to tamp down, lest she get wigged out by his machismo. He hasn’t had a relationship for hundreds of years, and is very shy about trying to romance and woo the lovely Rio. 

Rio is also not your typical heroine – she’s an orphan with abandonment issues who’s always out to please other people, lest they leave her like everyone else ever has. She’s quite sweet and polite, smart and loyal but when threatened you realize she has a spine of steel. Together they work really well – and I’m going to enjoy reading how Luke’s anti-social shyness plays against Rio’s need to establish a connection with family. 

‘The Cursed’ is a stellar introduction to a new series, and definitely satiated (and maybe sparked) my paranormal romance/urban fantasy cravings. I’m definitely onboard for this new series, after Alyssa Day well and truly suckered me in with this book and that splendid couple.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A children’s lit prize of one’s own

This week for Kill Your Darlings, I wrote about the fabulous Readings Children’s Book Prize - a new Australian literary award for books written for children, aged 5–12. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

'Night Broken' Mercy Thompson #8 by Patricia Briggs

From the BLURB:

An unexpected phone call heralds a new challenge for Mercy. Her mate Adam's ex-wife is in trouble, on the run from her new boyfriend. Adam won't turn away a person in need, but with Christy holed up in Adam's house, Mercy can't shake the feeling that something isn't right.

Soon, Mercy learns that Christy has the farthest thing from good intentions. She wants Adam back and will anything to get him, including turning Adam's pack against Mercy.

On top of this, there's an even more dangerous threat circling. Christy's ex is more than a bad man - in fact, he may not be human at all. As the bodies pile up, Mercy must put her personal troubles aside to face a creature with the power to tear her world apart.

The story kicks-off with an unexpected phone-call from Adam’s ex-wife, Christy, begging him and the pack for help and shelter. Apparently, Christy got tangled with the wrong man and now she’s running scared after she suspects he killed another of her suitors.

Mercy is reluctant to let Christy into her home, and back into the pack’s fold – especially since many of the female werewolves who hate Mercy still consider Christy a good friend, and would welcome her back as their Alpha’s mate. But Christy is Jesse’s mother, and Mercy is secure enough in her and Adam’s relationship to, begrudgingly, let his ex into their home.

But it’s not just Christy’s jealous lover causing a stir for Mercy and the pack. One of the Fae has come knocking on Mercy’s door, demanding the Walking Stick be returned … the same Walking Stick that Mercy recently gave to her Coyote for safe-keeping. If she can’t get it back, the Fae promise retribution for Mercy and those she holds dear.

‘Night Broken’ is the eighth book in Patricia Briggs’s awesome ‘Mercy Thompson’ urban fantasy series.

Straight-up: I’ve given this book 3.5/5 and that is the lowest ever rating I’ve ever given a ‘Mercy’ book … and I’m a bit shocked, to be honest. 

I was so looking forward to this book, perhaps even more than usual, because in March last year I interviewed Ms Briggs and threw out the idea of (finally) meeting Adam’s ex-wife, Christy, and Briggs actually confirmed that my sneaking-suspicion would come to fruition in ‘Night Broken’. Why was I so eager to meet Christy, when Mercy, Adam and even Jesse seem to have a very low opinion of her? Mercy has, once or twice, reminisced about the days when Adam was married to Christy and she observed their rollercoaster relationship from her trailer. Mercy has also commented, rather bitterly, on what she perceives to be Christy’s short-fallings as a mother where Jesse is concerned. But I was interested to see her because Christy sounds so different from Mercy in everything from looks, to personality and backbone (namely, that Mercy has one). I think you’re always intrigued by ‘the ex’, particularly for the sake of comparison, and I was sort of hoping that Mercy would poke that wound (as I would) of asking Adam how he could have such wildly different tastes in his two wives. Also; now that Adam and Mercy are married and their relationship rock-solid, it’s always nice to keep throwing a hurdle or two their way – not for the sake of wrecking their romance, but certainly to keep it interesting (the pitfalls of boring after happily-ever-after that I found in Jeaniene Frost’s ‘Night Huntress’ series tells me this is a necessity). 

So, was it that the Christy storyline didn’t live up to my high hopes? Yes, and no. It was perversely pleasing to read that Christy is as awful in reality as she is in Mercy’s anecdotes and memories. But I don’t think this storyline ever reached climax or came to a satisfying resolution … I wanted Mercy to have an Alpha moment of staking her claim and putting Christy in her place, and it never quite got there for me. At the very end Briggs includes a bizarre mention of a prank Mercy pulled against Christy, but it’s mentioned at the worst possible time and held no relevance. Perhaps Christy will be sticking around for book #9, in which case this is an ongoing power-struggle and that’s fine. 

So was it the ‘whodunit’ mystery plot at the centre of this book? Yes, and no – again. Briggs relies on obscure mythology as the basis for her Big-Bad in this book, and it’s another one of those stories that has a complex retelling attached and is so far-flung and obscure that it doesn’t quite strike the right note of fear in me the same way that vampires or rogue werewolves do, for example. 

The Big-Bad story, converges with Mercy’s issues with the Fae and Walking Stick, which also mean that a visit from Coyote is included in this book … and Mercy also gets to meet one of Coyote’s other children (a sort-of brother to Mercy) a man called Laughingdog. This is a new character we’re introduced to, and he’s a fabulous new edition – a coyote walker like Mercy, with Native American heritage and a serious hatred of their “father” Coyote. When she meets him, Laughingdog is actually incarcerated over a situation that Coyote orchestrated to get out-of-hand, not to mention good ol’ Coyote has gifted Laughingdog with foresight; 

He opened his mouth, then shook his head. “It’s not that kind of foresight. I don’t get dates, just possibilities. And if I did know, I don’t hate you enough to tell you.” 
“She doesn’t know any other coyote walkers,” said Honey. “She is married to a man who will be young a hundred years from now. She wants to know that she is not going to leave him tied to a woman who will slowly die on him.” 
Laughingdog looked at me. “I don’t know. Most walkers are like humans – most are mostly human anyway these days. Coyote doesn’t walk this ground much anymore.” He smiled a little, but it wasn’t aimed at me. “Most of Coyote’s children don’t have to worry about a long life, anyway. A fool and his life are soon parted, you know.” 

I really like Laughingdog; he’s cheeky and a little bit lost, and I like that he’s coming into the fold. 
So was my 3.5 about the emotional/romance elements in this book? Nope. Mercy and Adam are still the wonderful Mercy and Adam duo I’ve come to know and love – they have heat in this book (as always), poignancy and their relationship feels more rock solid than ever. Love them, no issues there.
So what was it that didn’t quite work for me in this book? 

Well … it felt a little like filler, because by book’s end nothing has really changed.

We’re now eight books into this series, and while there was huge upheaval when Mercy finally chose Adam over Samuel, and entered into the pack as his mate … there hasn’t been a great deal of change since then, some four odd books ago. I’m not saying I need Mercy to be barefoot and pregnant with Adam’s baby to feel like she, and this world, have forward-momentum. But I do need some changes to start happening to feel like the ‘Mercy Thompson’ books aren’t just self-contained mysteries, but rather a constantly changing universe in which the characters are three-dimensional and constantly changing.

Dare I say, I was halfway through ‘Night Broken’ when I almost hoped for a major character death to shake things up. Because when I got to the end of this book,

 I can’t help but feel change may need to come in threats to those she loves, more so than more Mercy life-or-death gambles.

All in all: I enjoyed this book, as I do all ‘Mercy Thompson’ instalments, but at eight books into this beloved series I need to start reading higher stakes and real change. 


Monday, March 17, 2014

Why I loved the 'Veronica Mars' movie

 all the spoilers. So many spoilers. I have seen the movie, so if you haven’t then stop reading right about now *

I’ve been with Veronica Mars since it first premiered in Australia on Network Ten. I was there through the thick and the thin, the move from UPN to The CW and my heart shattered when CW President, Dawn Ostroff, announced the show wouldn’t be coming back after its third season. It’s perhaps the only TV series I loved so much that I still, to this day, get angry over the fact that it got canned before entering into double-digit seasons (that’s saying something, since I’m also a fan of other prematurely cancelled shows ‘Wonderfalls’ and ‘Firefly’). Nothing else has filled that TV void of offering a smart, flawed and funny female heroine with a fast mouth, quit-wit and life-or-death storylines … that targeted a young audience. Seeing VM appear on lists of ‘shows that should never have been cancelled’ only pours salt in the wound.

And then Kristen Bell and show creator Rob Thomas put a call out to Marshmallows everywhere. Like its fans, the show’s cast and creators were clearly missing their tiny blonde one as much as we were – and they had a plan to do something about it.

Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC … and now here we are. A show that debuted ten years ago and has been (criminally) off the air for seven finally made it to the big screen – thanks to:

I gave them money. Of course I did, and I never had any doubts that once the Marshmallow-signal went out, the movie would get made on the strength of the show's cult-status and the still burning injustice of it ever having been cancelled in the first place. 

Now it’s here and I’ve watched it, twice (more viewings to come) and I loved it. LOVED it. Let me count the ways…


• Old Veronica. Our first introduction to Veronica Mars on the big screen after a seven-year hiatus from the small is her pulling out a middle-finger lipstick on a douche interviewee and deadpanning “do I look ruffled?” during her interview. YES. Twenty-eight-years-old or not, she’s still got it (was there ever any doubt?)

• Great music. I love that ‘You'll Never Find Another Love’ by Lou Rawls was playing during the climactic action scene. It was a hark back to when ‘Right Here, Right Now’ by Fatboy Slim played during the heart-thumping moment in Spit & Eggs.

• Keith Mars - Enrico Colantoni brings it, and reminds me that Veronica’s relationship with her dad gave the show real heart that translates beautifully nine-years-later when she’s starting to buckle under the weight of his pride.

• The references. Veronica riffs on Dante’s Inferno one moment, likens Piz to a “sexual sharknado” the next and fan-girls over ‘This American Life’ radio host Ira Glass (who has since fan-girled right back)  

• Swearing. Yes, TV Veronica was just as quip-witted without having the F-bomb in her back pocket, but it was nice to hear her deadpan a “fuck off” for once.

• LoVe. Revisiting this relationship that I ship so hard was bittersweet. On the one hand – SWOON: “What’s 180 days to us?” – on the other, it pisses me off that we only got 3 seasons of this couple that had so much potential to indeed be EPIC. Admittedly Thomas, Bell and Dohring all made slipping back in love with this coupling super easy, but the relationship brilliance of Logan and Veronica made me angry all over again that what should have been a long-running, complex romance didn’t get its proper TV lifetime … which is even more reason why this can’t be the end. I need more Logan and Veronica beyond this movie … also, ‘A Few Good Men’.

• Vinnie Van Lowe and Cliff McCormack  - standing ovation for those two.

• Mr. Clemmons – admitting he’s missed Veronica. Be still my beating heart.

• Lovely Leo. I’m pretty sure Max Greenfield could have chemistry with a potted-plant. I was a big Deputy Leo fan, and until the LoVe revelation I was actually really rooting for Leo and Veronica. The scene they shared in the movie was electric with sparkage, and there’s a real part of me that thinks (epic as Logan and Veronica undoubtedly are) I’d quite like it if Veronica/Leo was explored again (or at least the idea flirted with). I also loved that in this scene Rob Thomas addresses the slight awkwardness of Veronica/Leo: “We used to make out... which was sketchy because you worked for the sheriff’s department and I was still in high school...”

• James Franco. If only because he knows about the injustice of being cancelled before your time (*cough* ‘Freaks & Geeks’ *cough*)

• Madison Sinclair – still a bitch, Amanda Noret still killing it in this role.

• Gaby Hoffmann as Ruby Jetson. She plays crazy so damn well (as you’d know if you saw her as Adam’s sister on ‘Girls’) I love that one of the favourite actresses from my childhood (‘Now and Then’ RULES) is making a serious comeback in all these cool pop-culture places. Love. Her.  Also: “dance better,” ← probably my new comeback to everything.  

• Krysten Ritter as Gia Goodman. Seriously, I don’t understand why ‘Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23’ was cancelled almost as much as I cannot fathom why ‘Veronica Mars’ was ever taken off the air. She’s amazing, and should be in more things.

• Deputy Sacks (played by Brandon Hillock) referencing this Mitchell and Webb skit. 

• Familiar faces. I love that Rob Thomas drew on minor characters from one-off episodes to populate this film’s storyline. The plot pivots around the death of Carrie Bishop (turned pop-star Bonnie Deville) who was played by Leighton Meester in the season one episode ‘Mars vs. Mars’ and Andrea Estella in the film (…but, actually, I do wonder if Rob Thomas wrote the script with Meester in mind and hoping she’d be in the film? She is a singer after all, and it’s sort of harmonious that after appearing in a one-off episode in VM, Meester went on to star in her own TV show ‘Gossip Girl’ – a success story much like Bonnie Deville’s) Susan Knight (played by Christine Lakin) also appeared in ‘Mars vs. Mars’ and the ramifications of that brief episodic storyline go a ways to explaining her in the VM movie. I also liked that Luke Haldeman (Sam Huntington) and Sean Friedrich (Kevin Sheridan) came back. Their being in the movie, even though they only appeared in a couple of TV episodes, adds to the feeling that these Neptune rich kids stick together and it’s a rather incestuous little community.

• The second storyline. Yes, Rob Thomas did a midseason TV-storyline equivalent by throwing out a subplot in the middle of the film’s main ARC. Maybe it’s not the done thing in movies, but I saw this as Thomas revelling in the multi-platform future of the VM franchise. There’s big potential for this unfinished storyline to be explored further in spin-offs (whether they be the books, webisodes, a new life on TV or the Bond-esque movie franchise Thomas would love for Veronica). In fact, the book spin-off is already coming; ‘The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line’ (terrible title, I know) is written by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, and is being released on March 25. The book will pick up where the film left off, following 28-year-old Veronica and featuring fan-favourites Logan, Mac, Wallace, and Dick. Perhaps Rob Thomas should have stuck to movie-plot conventions and not tried to bring a bit of the TV show’s rhythm to the big screen, but this is a movie that was crowd-funded after the TV show became a cult classic and kicked up a social media resurrecting storm – if anyone can play around with cross-pollination, it’s the movie that broke Kickstarter records.

• Weevil. This line especially: “Please get this case dismissed before anyone believes the words ‘time to party’ came out of my mouth.”

• Cinematography. Revelling in the cool, dark tones of noir – it’s a contrast to the ironic bubblegum colours of Veronica’s high school days and signifies a new maturity. Also, wardrobe department – I want everything that Bell wore, all the Helmut Lang jackets especially … but I also love that she pulled out her old PI bag once she committed to the case.

• Wallace, Veronica and Mac. The ‘Blazing Saddles’ inside-joke greeting (Candygram for Mongo) let me know these three have strengthened their bond over the last three years, distance be damned. I love that Wallace became a high school teacher, and Mac a confident, kick-ass successful-geek. I would have liked more scenes with the Wallace/Mac/Veronica threesome, because those were pure magic.

• The voiceovers. From likening Neptune to a Bruce Springsteen song to Veronica musing over a fridge magnet encouraging her to ‘accept the things you cannot change’ with little success.

• The End. Yes, it’s open-ended (there’s that head-nod to multi-platforms again, and future spinoffs). I actually like that Veronica has seemingly regressed by the end of the movie and is back to a square one that even closely resembles her teenage years. I like this because it’s the beginning of a new character ARC for our girl Veronica – and I can see leeway’s to more storylines from this end point. She has indeed thrown away her career, established an old-new relationship with a somewhat destructive individual and will be receiving ire from Keith who hoped and expected more for his little girl. There is so much room for exploration with this end, whereas there wouldn’t be if Veronica had just resumed her New York life and taken advantage of the opportunities thrown her way.

Was it perfect? No. A few niggling little things – like why Lily Kane not being mentioned during the memorial slideshow at the High School reunion? To wishing that the film had expanded on Veronica admitting the reason she hasn’t worked a PI case is that; “The price was too high. It ruined friendships and relationships. It cost me some opportunities along the way...” that, didn’t really translate to me (what friendships? She still has Wallace and Mac) if the relationship she’s alluding to is Logan, then I wish we’d seen that. This epic couple have not seen each other for nine years, and Logan seemed totally chill about that?  I think if this back-story had been explored a little more, then we could have had at least one scene of real heat between Logan and Veronica – they were still sizzling in this movie, but Logan came across a bit sedate in a few scenes, and I actually think it needed him blowing up at Veronica and what they lost to feel like the old LoVe.

But my overriding thought as the credits rolled was: MORE. And I hope that’s a reaction the film ignites in everyone – that Veronica still has plenty of life left, whether it be on the big screen or small (or, heck, webisodes) and this cannot be the end.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

'Murder of Crows' The Others #2 by Anne Bishop

From the BLURB:

After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murders of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside's shape-shifting leader—wonders whether their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or of a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

Jar of honey.

Hide the children.



Hide the children.



Hide the children.

It’s only been a few months since Meg Corbyn entered the Lakeside Courtyard and became the first human to break all the Others’ rules. As human liaison Meg managed to befriend everyone – from the vampires to the Crowguard, the elementals and mysterious Other, Tess … but especially the Wolves. Forming a close bond with pup Sam, Meg became his closest friend and eventually formed a close friendship with Lakeside leader, Simon Wolfguard.

Since she arrived in the dead of night, during a terrible storm, Meg and the Others have slowly come to understand what she is that’s so compelling and not-prey: cassandra sangue, a prophet who was kept in a compound with other girls who are made to cut their skin, for a hefty price, in order to see the future. But Meg got away, and settling into Lakeside has changed her life.

Until the visions she has foretell of danger at every turn.

Some humans are turning on the Others, and the HFL (Humans First and Last movement) is gaining dangerous momentum. Meg sees visions of the Crows being poisoned, and a stranger coming to Lakeside … Hide the children. 

‘Murder of Crows’ is the second book in Anne Bishop’s marvellous ‘The Others’ series.

Last year, Anne Bishop’s first book ‘Written in Red’ took me completely by surprise. I delved into her ‘The Others’ series, based purely on the rave reviews I’d been reading on Goodreads and book blogs – everyone telling me I had to give this book a read and discover a wonderful, complex new urban fantasy series. Boy, they weren’t wrong – and with this second book, Anne Bishop gives readers a bare hint at the long road ahead for Meg, Simon and the entire Lakeside Courtyard in the complex, dazzling world of ‘The Others’.

‘Murder of Crows’ picks up very soon after ‘Written in Red’, and a few horrors from that first book are mentioned and go a long way to creating this atmosphere of fear on the precipice as more dangerous events unfold for the Others. Simon is still concerned that someone tried to take Meg and Sam, human police officers are still speculating over how Asia Crane died … and the wider human community are becoming reckless and courting danger, particularly with this Humans First and Last movement. When Meg starts having visions (and succumbs to her need to cut, tingling under her skin warning that she has a prophecy to tell) it all but confirms that change is in the air, and a war may be imminent. 

A large focus of this book is on Meg as a cassandra sangue – the Courtyard become concerned with finding The Controller who kept Meg and a cartel of other female prophets in an unknown location, and human doctors who helped Meg during ‘Written in Red’ are wanting to study her kind, and try to discover if she can live a relatively “normal” life without dying from cutting, or succumbing to the madness of prophecy. 

Another big tease (certainly not a consuming focus, but it’s on the periphery) is Simon and Meg’s changing relationship. There’s a big to-do made about the fact that Simon changed into his human form one night, while sleeping with Meg as Wolf – this shifts their dynamic, and has Meg questioning how she feels for Simon and vice-versa. She’s trying to sort out her complex emotions over Simon as Wolf sleeping with her, and Simon the man. Simon, meanwhile, only knows that he likes cuddling up to Meg on the couch and watching movies, when he’s Wolf and she pats his fur. He likes licking her fingers clean of butter popcorn, he misses her when they’ve not spoken for a while and her scent is calming. But, Others are warning Simon not to become “too human” and there is an underlying warning that Meg being cassandra sangue (thought to have only 1000 cuts before she dies or goes mad) may be a tricky companion … never mind that an Other and a human having anything deeper than a sexual dalliance is all but unheard of.

I’m really enjoying the gentle teasing of this relationship between Simon and Meg. Readers and plenty of secondary characters may already know what’s unfolding between them, but there’s real joy in reading how slowly they’re both figuring themselves and each other out. Unlike most Urban Fantasy series, I’m not at all concerned about this romance being such a slow burn – it’s indicative of their characters, the tensions in this world and acts as an occasionally nice reprieve in a story that’s so focused on dangerous politics, incredible creatures and human depravity; 

What did they say? Tess asked the Crows who were perched on the roof. They, too, were watching.
They say the Merry Lee is a Wolf lover and is going to get what she deserves, Jake replied. Is the Merri Lee having sex with a Wolf?
It wouldn’t be Simon, Jenni said. Simon likes our Meg. A pause. Do Simon and Meg have sex after they play?
No, Tess said firmly. Simon’s relationship with Meg was too complex for anything as simple as sex. And asking about that will upset Meg.

‘Murder of Crows’ has many gut-churning, horrible scenes and realizations – about how the humans are retaliating against the Others, how Meg and other cassandra sangue have been treated and how factions of humans are turning on those who they see as siding with the Others. This book certainly marks a transition in Anne Bishop’s world, where violence is in the air and something is going to break very, very soon. This book has me even more intrigued about ‘The Others’ series. 

And while there’s lots of dark foreboding in this instalment, Bishop also writes brevity very well, particularly where Others and humans diverge; 

He paused in the doorway. “Human females. They’re kind of crazy during this time, aren’t they?” 
“If you choose to believe the stories written by male writers,” Vlad replied. 
They heard a bang and thump from the kitchen, followed by Meg yelling at something.Simon sighed. “That many males can’t be wrong.” 

If there was any aspect of this book that felt lacking to me, it was in missing the character of Sam, and not being able to see his and Meg’s relationship unfold along with everyone else’s. I completely understand why, after wanting to be in a cage for so long, young Sam should be with other pups – but I missed him having a big role in Meg’s life, and felt like that was one layer of Meg’s new world that needed to be revisited in this second book. 

Anne Bishop’s ‘The Others’ series is certainly one of the most compelling new additions to the urban fantasy realm, and a must-read for anyone who craves fantastical stories … but also for people who are new to fantasy but are not keen on the latest spate of erotica vampires/werewolves etc. Anne Bishop’s world is complex and darkening, her characters are loveable and fascinating, and their relationships are being subtly teased out along with this vastly dangerous and layered universe.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

'Werewolf Sings the Blues' A Midnight Magic Mystery #2 by Jennifer Harlow

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

The last thing Vivian needs is to be thrust into a werewolf war.

If Vivian Dahl's life had a soundtrack, every song would be the Blues. She's pushing thirty, her singing career is going nowhere, and the partying lifestyle is taking its toll. Plus, a mysterious man is stalking her. But when she's abducted from a singing gig, Vivian is surprised to see her stalker become her saviour. Jason is her werewolf rescuer sent by the biological father who abandoned her as a baby. Finding herself on the run, Vivian drives across America with the enigmatic Jason and learns about the werewolf war her father's pack is caught in. Now that an opposing pack has targeted her, Jason will stop at nothing to make sure Vivian's song isn't cut short.

Vivian Dahl is one tough cookie. She doesn’t let life get her down, even when her singing career has stalled with wedding receptions, her family could care less about her and two divorces say she’s an asshole-magnet. Oh, and she’s not even thirty yet. 

So when two US Marshals come knocking, Vivian isn’t all that surprised that one of the men from her life has landed her in hot water – she just never expected it’d be the first man who ran out on her, her father.

But what Vivian can’t wrap her head around is when bullets start flying and a big, gorgeous, blonde-haired hunk comes to the rescue . . . Turns out, these US Marshals aren’t exactly friendly. They’re looking to take Vivian back to their leader, who happens to be a werewolf. A werewolf who is currently in the middle of a bitter feud with Vivian’s dear old dad, Frank Dahl, who is Alpha of a werewolf pack. 

Big, tall and blonde is Jason – Frank’s adopted son and Vivian’s sent-for saviour here to take her home to the wolf compound and safety. 

This is going to be a road-trip from hell, but it’s just the beginning of a whole lot more bad luck for Vivian Dahl.

‘Werewolf Sings the Blues’ is the second book in Jennifer Harlow’s urban fantasy series ‘A Midnight Magic Mystery’, and is set seven years before the first books ‘What’s a Witch to Do?

The first book in this new series was ‘What’s a Witch to Do?’ released March 2013, and I loved it – easily one of my favourite books to come out of 2013. So I was over-the-moon excited when the second book came my way . . . but this second outing didn’t have the same charm as the first, and actually very few ties to mark this as the second in an ongoing series.

Something I loved in ‘What’s a Witch to Do?’ was the protagonist Mona McGregor – terminally celibate High Priestess of her local witch coven who raised her sister and when we met her in that first book, was raising her two nieces. She was such a down-on-her-luck trooper who really took on everyone’s problems and left very little room for her own. I loved her – she was selfless, a little bit overweight and terribly lonely. She was a great first protagonist who instantly got me on side and laughing. By contrast, new protagonist in ‘Werewolf Sings the Blues’ is about as different from Mona as oil and water. Vivian is a Southern Californian singer whose career has reached a plateau with wedding gigs. She does drugs constantly and recreationally, has had two fantastically failed marriages and expects to attract the wrong sort of men. She’s 29 and a very prickly protagonist indeed.

Now, on the one hand I commend Jennifer Harlow for breaking out of the urban fantasy female character mould. More often than not they’re attractive Mary-Sue’s who are really extra-special at their supernatural-given talents and happily attract enough men to form a neat love triangle. Snore. Mona broke that mould too by being a little chubby, a little plain and in her mid-to-late thirties (from memory?). Vivian breaks it by being a lot inappropriate and even a bit damaged – from the casual sex to the casual drug-taking; she’s definitely not your typical urban fantasy heroine.

But she’s pretty darn kick-ass too. Everything that makes her an unconventional heroine also makes her a ballsy one – she knows how to steal a car, avoid police detection and go off-grid. She’s the best sort of partner-in-crime to have by your side, as Jason very quickly realises. 
But she’s also very angry. Believing her father abandoned her and her mother when she was a baby, being ignored by her mother’s second family and a slew of bad-mistake boyfriends have taken a wrecking ball to Vivian’s trust and ego which has turned her into a very angry, defensive woman. It’s really hard to sustain that anger throughout the book, and became a bit exhausting for me to the point that I was desperate for a bit of let-up in Vivian’s tough-as-nails, angry-spitfire personality. 

This is also a 360-page book, and the majority of it is spent with Jason and Vivian on the road as they make their way to Virginia. These scenes started to feel very one-note as Jason and Vivian rent cheap motel rooms, duck and run from the werewolf rivals who are on their tails and Vivian tries to seduce the shy and staid Jason;  

Damn, he’s like a robot. I can’t find an emotion anywhere on his face. It’s unnatural.  
“The sooner you accept this new situation you find yourself in, the easier this will be for us both. I am on your side, Vivian.”  
He starts towards the trunk of the car. “All I want to do is escort you safely back to Maryland where we can all protect you until the danger’s passed.” 
“You want to escort me to my father. Who is king of werewolves. I’m sorry, did you forget to take your pills or something? Are the aliens telling you to do this, Blondie?”  
He opens the trunk. “My name is Jason.” 
“I like Blondie better,” I say with a sneer.

The whole time they’re on the road, Vivian’s father is in the back of her mind – she’s going to meet the man who she’s spent the better half of 30 years assuming abandoned her. But when she actually arrives in the compound, the scenes between Vivian and her father Frank are miniscule in relation to what sort of closure Vivian needs.

My other issue with the book was that it didn’t feel like a sequel to ‘What’s a Witch to Do?’. ‘Werewolf Sings the Blues’ is actually set eight years before ‘What’s a Witch to Do?’ – Which is the first thing that threw me and had me wondering ‘why?’. I mean, sure, Mona and her werewolf (soon to be) beau Adam Blue make an appearance and it’s very cute that we know the truth about them while Adam acts very distant with Mona in this book. But I thought Harlow was setting up a series with the common denominator being the setting of Goodnight, Virginia. But the werewolf compound is a little outside of Goodnight. So that makes me wonder if the common thread in this ‘A Midnight Magic Mystery’ series is the werewolf pack? The fact that I’m not 100% sure of the common thread running throughout this series is not good and the leapfrogging timeline makes it even more disorientating to get into the rhythm of this series. 

Some things really worked for me. I liked the mystery in this book and I did warm to Vivian in the end. She and Jason were great, and I loved how opposite-attracting they were. But this was also a very violent book, and a lot of stuff happens to women in this instalment that had me feeling queasy. I feel like violence in urban fantasy needs to be introduced gradually – I’m thinking of Sookie’s stomach-turning torture in the ninth ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ book by Charlaine Harris, or Mercy Thompson being raped in third book ‘Iron Kissed’ by Patricia Briggs. It’s just a lot to swallow in only the second book of a new urban fantasy series, but I do hope the repercussions of what happened are explored in subsequent books (but, again, the timeline of this being seven years prior to book one would make that near impossible?) I'd just hate for that to be thrown out there for the sake of this storyline, but not have it be addressed later on, is all I’m saying.

All in all, this wasn’t as fun a book as the first one. Vivian was a prickly protagonist to spend 360-pages with, and I feel like very little was resolved or even addressed in her complicated life. The timeline threw me way off course, being set seven years before book one and I’m still a little hazy on what the ‘Midnight Magic Mystery’ is actually all about. The violence in this book also unsettled me, but I'd be less devastated by it if it’s not just swept under the rug for convenience in this book and it remains a talking-point for other books in the series. I’m still invested in Jennifer Harlow’s new urban fantasy series (indeed, I hope there are more books planned for this series!) I’ll just be very interested to see where the third book leads . . . 


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The fault with a sick-lit debate

My new column for Kill Your Darlings is 'The fault with a sick-lit debate' looking John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, Esther Earl's posthumous This Star Won't Go Out and A.J. Betts's Zac & Mia

Friday, March 7, 2014

‘My Life Next Door’ by Huntley Fitzpatrick

From the BLURB:

"One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time."

The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, messy, affectionate. And every day from her rooftop perch, Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs up next to her and changes everything.

As the two fall fiercely for each other, stumbling through the awkwardness and awesomeness of first love, Jase's family embraces Samantha - even as she keeps him a secret from her own. Then something unthinkable happens, and the bottom drops out of Samantha's world. She's suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?

A transporting debut about family, friendship, first romance, and how to be true to one person you love without betraying another.

Samantha Reed has always been fascinated by the Garrett’s, who live next door. Her own father left when she was a baby, and her sister Tracy was only a toddler, leaving her mum to raise them alone in a big, imposing house with perpetually vacuumed carpets and fresh-made lemonade always in the fridge. 

By contrast, the Garrett’s are a large family who always seem to have a baby just born or on the way. Mr and Mrs Garrett are always kissing one another in their backyard, and all the siblings seem to lead vastly different lives while being close-knit. 

Samantha knows all this because she watches them – the Garrett’s – “those Garretts”, as her mother calls them. She’s fascinated by their lovely, messy lives that she watches from a distance … until the day one of them approaches her. Jase is the second oldest, with a beautiful smile and generous soul. Over one summer Samantha gets closer and closer to him, and his generous family.

But this is also the summer that Sam’s mother goes into over-drive trying to win the town elections, going so far as to bring in a Washington big-wig to call the shots for her suddenly very conservative campaign. It’s the summer that Sam and her best friend Nan decide they have to save Nan’s brother, Tim, from himself. And it’s the summer that Sam falls in love for the first time … and has to choose between family and morality, right and wrong.

‘My Life Next Door’ was the 2013 debut young adult novel from Huntley Fitzpatrick.

Oh my gosh; I’ve been hearing a lot about this book! For a little while there it was all anyone could talk about, and I saw this cover popping up on numerous book review blogs … which pretty much guaranteed that I’d wait for the hype to die down before seeing for myself what all the fuss was about. And, while I do get it, I’ve got to say I wasn’t as swept up in this book as so many other people seemed to be.

Fitzpatrick, I will say, is very good at setting the scene. We have Samantha settling in for a long, boring summer with her sister Tracy vacationing with her latest tennis-player boyfriend, and Sam either stuck at home or one of her two jobs while her mother goes into over-drive with her new political campaign. Sam’s friends also seem set to abandon her for the summer – Nan is studying hard in preparation for college selections, and Nan’s older brother Tim (once Sam’s closest friend) has been kicked out of school and seems on his way to trouble, getting high every day and losing every job within a week of starting. 

Sam seems a lonely sort of girl – having been raised by a single mother who never seemed very at ease in the parental role, Sam’s mum is cleaning obsessed (verging on OCD) and now career-driven since being elected to local council. Here, Fitzpatrick lays a wonderful contrast to Sam’s solitary life in a big, clean house – with the Garrett’s who live next door in constant chaos, and with so many children that strangers often comment that they “must be Catholic” (they’re not, Mrs Garrett just loves babies). Sam has long been fascinated by the Garrett’s who live next door, because she has a perfect view of their backyard from her bedroom window perch.

The first half of this (rather long, at 394-pages) book is all about Sam entering into the world of the Garrett’s, having been introduced by second oldest boy, Jase. And this is a lovely introduction to this family that Fitzpatrick writes with tender comedy, particularly around the toddlers of the clan; 

“Is Jase already going to marry you?" 
I start coughing again. "Uh. No. No, George. I'm only seventeen." As if that's the only reason we aren't engaged. 
"I'm this many," George holds up four slightly grubby fingers. "Jase is seventeen and a half. You could. Then you could live in here with him. And have a big family." Jase strides back into the room, of course, midway through this proposition. 
"George. Beat it. Discovery Channel is on." 
George backs out of the room, but not before saying, "His bed's really comfortable. And he never pees in it." 
The door closes and we both start laughing.

I enjoyed getting to know the Garrett’s as much as Sam does, truly. They’re a delightful family, although I was a fair way into the book when I started wondering what, exactly, made them so interesting? … They don’t exactly present conflict. Big they may be, but they’re a very functional and loving family who don’t seem to have cares beyond an annoyance for perfect strangers commenting on their sheer size (and questioning why Mr and Mrs Garrett don’t stop with the baby-making). Sure, there’s oldest sister Alice who’s studying nursing and has a reputation as a heart-breaker. Joel is the oldest brother who rides a motorcycle and has scored a full sport scholarship. But we spend so much time seeing the Garrett’s through Sam’s eyes, and beyond understanding why they hold so much fascination for *her*, as a reader I didn’t really know where the story was going with them as the focus…

On the other hand, Sam’s life is full of drama. There’s her ex-best friend Tim who has suddenly gone off the rails and can’t seem to find his feet, no matter how much everyone tries to help him. He’s witty and bitter, heaping out doses of sarcasm that belies how really scared he is to be this directionless. I thought he was wonderful and intriguing, and I’m so glad Fitzpatrick has a book coming out based around Tim, called ‘The Boy Most Likely To’ set for 2015 release.

“Why do all the hot girls want the jocks and the good boys? We losers are the ones that need you.” 

Then there’s Nan – a real stress head who is concerned by her college prospects and her brother’s welfare, and whose friendship with Sam starts to warp when some harsh truths and jealousies are revealed.

There’s also Sam’s mum, who is campaigning for re-election with the help of a sleazy (younger) Washington man who seems to have cast a spell on her. Suddenly Sam’s mum is scary-driven, and her conservative politics are starting to concern Sam – from her stance on migrants to same-sex marriage. I would have actually liked more about how clashing ideals between Sam and her mum was impacting their relationship … but what’s offered with this story is strong enough as is, and had me fascinated.

By contrast, the Garrett’s are just sort of – there. Sure, Jase is lovely and Fitzpatrick certainly scores points for writing a tender romance for Sam, complete with realistic sexual encounters. But where’s the interest with this family?

… And then just as I was thinking that, something shifts in the second-half of the book. It actually read like Fitzpatrick realised she was writing this lovely, ho-hum book about a girl who becomes entwined with this big, happy family next door, and while that’s great, it does not an interesting story make, so she decided to BAM! throw some serious obstacles in the way. It read a bit outlandish to me, and was a jarring contrast between the first and second halves of the book. 

All in all, I thought this was a nice story. The Garrett’s are nice, Sam is nice and her romance with Jase was nice. But the real meat of the plot for me came from Sam’s relationship with her mum and secondary character Tim’s battles with himself. The sudden plot about-turn in the second half certainly read like someone who realised her story up until then had been fairly ‘nice’ but uneventful. I’ll definitely read Tim’s story, ‘The Boy Most Likely To’ but ‘My Life Next Door’ was only okay for me, nothing groundbreaking.


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