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Sunday, August 31, 2014

'Like No Other' by Una LaMarche

From the BLURB:

Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart? 

Devorah is a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing. 

Jaxon is a fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls (unless you count his four younger sisters). 

They've spent their entire lives in Brooklyn, on opposite sides of the same street. Their paths never crossed . . . until one day, they did. 

When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the pair becomes stranded in an elevator together, where fate leaves them no choice but to make an otherwise risky connection. 

Though their relation is strictly forbidden, Devorah and Jax arrange secret meetings and risk everything to be together. But how far can they go? Just how much are they willing to give up? 

In the timeless tradition of West Side Story and Crossing Delancey, this thoroughly modern take on romance will inspire laughter, tears, and the belief that love can happen when and where you least expect it. 

There’s a storm raging across New York, and at a Brooklyn hospital two teenagers from vastly different worlds are about to collide.

Jaxon is sixteen-years-old and currently sitting by his best friend’s bedside, after Ryan attempted to jump a fallen tree branch with his skateboard and got a broken arm in the process. 

Devorah is also sixteen, sitting in a waiting room with her pious brother-in-law, Jacob, awaiting the premature birth of her first niece. As the generators power on, Devorah becomes increasingly worried for her eighteen-year-old sister Rose as she goes into labour; their parents are out of town visiting a sick aunt, and it’s down to Devorah to be her sister’s strength. 

But when Jaxon and Devorah – two perfect strangers who couldn’t be more opposite – get into the hospital elevator, they have no idea what fate has in store for them. The elevator stops and throws them into darkness – stuck, as the storm outside cuts power to the hospital. 

Forced to keep one another company, Devorah only remembers that the boy in the elevator is very tall, and black and she’s breaking ‘yichud’ by even just telling him her name – because her Jewish religious law says she cannot speak to men outside her family and unchaperoned … never mind that her family really wouldn’t want her talking to someone who is so very secular.

Devorah, Jaxon learns, is a Hasidic Jewish girl who lives practically next-door to him in Brooklyn … except she’s from the Hasidic community of Crown Heights. When he can’t contain his shock at this revelation, and Devorah replies with a snappy; “What? We all look the same to you?” he feels himself falling harder and faster for this girl than he ever has in his not-so-illustrious romantic history. 

And even though the two of them part ways after an elevator rescue – they both conspire to meet again, each intrigued by the other and consumed by the need to see where their attraction may lead … 

‘Like No Other’ is the new contemporary young adult novel from American author Una LaMarche. 

This book has been on my radar for a while now – after that gorgeous cover came out (illustration by Michael Kirkham) and the story promised some much-needed diversity in YA. I went into this book with extremely high-hopes … and by about 10 pages, I was relieved to discover that each and every one would be met. Because I knew after those 10 pages, that ‘Like No Other’ was going to be a deserving hit. 

The story begins on August 28 and ends on September 22 – and in that timespan we get alternate chapters told from both Jaxon and Devorah’s point of view. And even though it’s a relatively small slab of time for these characters, I was surprised that the whirlwind romance they enter into feels no less raw and vivid for being so condensed. Indeed, the page starts igniting with sparks from the moment of Devorah and Jaxon’s fateful meeting;

She stands up and takes a step toward me, and as the light filters down through the hole above us, like artificial moonlight on a movie set, I can really see her eyes for the first time, big and gray flecked with shimmering hints of sky blue, like someone bottled that moment when Dorothy steps out of her black-and-white farmhouse and into Oz. 
That’s the moment I know I’m in trouble.

But even though Jaxon and Devorah both tell their sides of the story, make no mistake that the real protagonist of ‘Like No Other’ is Devorah. She’s the one who goes on the bigger hero’s journey, and of the two of them she’s the one who most needs her world shook up, and her foundations rocked by Jaxon.

From our first meeting Devorah, readers will suspect that this is a girl who will not be tamed. Indeed, while reading this book I had many goosebump moments from LaMarche’s words, never more than when Devorah is witnessing the birth of her niece; 

I want to stand up and burst into applause – people do it for all kinds of lesser miracles: when a pilot lands a plane, when a pre-schooler bangs tunelessly on a piano; when sweaty men manage to throw a ball into a metal hoop, so why not now? Why not for this miracle? There is life in this room. A new life. And I saw it happen. 

Readers will then be surprised to discover that Devorah is considered to be the very definition of ‘frum’ (very pious) by her family and friends; she’s top of her class, respectful, modest and shuns technology and the secular world in a way that even her peers consider extreme (indeed, Devorah’s young brothers hide iPods and magazines). But, after her sister’s marriage and now her pregnancy (and only at the age of 18!) Devorah has to acknowledge that she’s scared of what the next two years will bring – when she’ll have to leave her education behind and her parents will go to the matchmaker to find her a husband. Devorah can quietly admit to herself that she’s not ready for that life, but it’s meeting Jaxon that causes her to start questioning the reasons why… 

Back in July I read 'Invisible City' by Julia Dahl, a murder-mystery set inside a Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn. From reading that book I was already familiar with a few traditions, and in particular the patriarchal system. Una LaMarche really must be commended for how tenderly she portrays this community and questions it – yes, through the character of Devorah she is critical of many aspects of how this community operates, but she never does so in a disrespectful way. In the acknowledgments LaMarche thanked a group of women – “I dove into ‘Like No Other’ knowing that the book would be doomed if I didn’t give Devorah a real, vibrant inner voice, family life and community, and I am forever indebted to the women who told me their stories so that I could tell hers.” That respect and attention to detail shines in the text, and young readers will be both captivated and forced to question the foundations of the community while still acknowledging Devorah’s deep love and respect for it. A hard balancing-act, but LaMarche does it.

Though Devorah’s is very much the larger character arc (purely for needing the most change in her life) Jaxon is a no less wonderful protagonist. Particularly because LaMarche touches on so many relevant racial tensions in this book; indeed, the horrible events surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri were playing out while I read the book, and highlighted the importance of continuing to campaign for diverse voices in YA such as LaMarche’s Jaxon: 

It’s funny; I forget sometimes how I might look to other people. I could be reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ on the 3 train, or walking down the street listening to a podcast on my phone, or coming out of my orthodontist’s office with Invisalign braces feeling like the biggest nerd on the planet, but some people don’t notice anything but an almost-six-foot-tall black man. After Trayvon Martin got shot in Florida, Mom wouldn’t let me wear a hoodie for six months. 

‘Like No Other’ was also a great book for teaching me so much. About the Hasidic Jewish community, of course, but LaMarche also highlights some pertinent historical markers that I never knew about – like the Crown Heights riot of 1991, when tensions between Hasidic Jews and the Crown Heights black community boiled over. This book has been praised for its diversity, and I do think it’s entirely deserving: 

“How does it feel to be a minority?” I ask him as we pass a big store called Judaica World. 
“Fine,” he says – the only answer that a privileged white kid can give to that question without getting a beat-down. 

I loved this book, and it’s going down as one of my favourites of 2014. It’s a tough book, even while cloaked in the very romantic story of Devorah and Jaxon. LaMarche is writing a deeper tale of star-crossed lovers, one that discusses racial and religious tensions, feminism and independence – an absolute triumph for Una LaMarche.


Like No Other is being released in Australia by Penguin Books Australia. Available from September 24. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Isla and the Happily Ever After' by Stephanie Perkins

From the BLURB:

From the glittering streets of Manhattan to the moonlit rooftops of Paris, falling in love is easy for hopeless dreamer Isla and introspective artist Josh. But as they begin their senior year in France, Isla and Josh are quickly forced to confront the heartbreaking reality that happily-ever-afters aren’t always forever.

Their romantic journey is skillfully intertwined with those of beloved couples Anna and Étienne and Lola and Cricket, whose paths are destined to collide in a sweeping finale certain to please fans old and new.

Isla has been in love with Josh Wasserstein for most of her high school life – though it takes a trip to the dentist and heavy medication for her to get up the nerve to have an actual conversation with him.

That conversation takes place at Kismet, a café around the corner from their respective New York apartments – and the fate aspect of that is not lost on Isla. You see, she and Josh actually attend the America School in Paris, so she has plenty of opportunities throughout the year to talk with him (and, actually he once commented on their mutual love of Joann Sfar – so there was that, their most significant exchange … until now). While still slightly high on dentist meds, Isla strikes up a conversation with Josh when she spies him at her favourite café drawing in his ever-present sketchbook, and because it’s Josh (!) and she’s feeling brave she can’t help but flirt with him … and be mortified the following morning when she remembers snapshots of their exchange.

Her best friend, Kurt, assures Isla it couldn’t have been so bad. But she’s not so sure Kurt really understands – partly because he’s on the autism spectrum and has a hard time reading people’s emotions – and partly because he’s borne witness to all the insignificant exchanges between her and Josh over the years (as Kurt also attends the America School) but he wasn’t there to properly catalogue the Kismet event.

Sure enough, when School’s back for the year Isla feels her connection to Josh has strengthened (and that fate is still playing a part, when she finds herself assigned to Josh’s old room from last year).

Something is happening between her and her crush-from-afar, Josh Wasserstein – they have a connection, and as they both start building on their Kismet encounter, the more she’s convinced that Josh can feel it too.

‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the third and final book in Stephanie Perkins’s romance YA series that started with ‘Anna and the French Kiss’, continued with ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ and will finally end with Isla and Josh’s story.

I was really nervous to read this book. ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ came out in 2011, a year after ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ … but ‘Isla’, although announced as the third and final book around the same time that ‘Lola’ came out, took three years to get here. Stephanie Perkins has been very open and honest about how hard this book was to write and explained the hold-up (which sounded like a combination of all the worst things that can happen to an author – writers block, lack of confidence and sheer exhaustion). Perkins also teased fans that this book would not be all smooth sailing for Isla … and that warning, coupled with the knowledge that this was her hardest book to write, was a little nerve-racking as a reader and fan. I didn’t know how Perkin’s creative struggle would translate to the finale of one of my favourite contemporary YA series…. But I can say, with hand over my heart, that Stephanie Perkins has done it. She has given fans the most wonderful of endings to this series.

It took me a while to get into this book, however. Probably down to a few niggling reader-worries going in, but I found myself starting to read ‘Isla’ and then putting it down … picking it up for a few pages, and then putting it down. I wasn’t getting hooked, initially, but once the story took us back to Paris (and the original setting of ‘Anna and the French Kiss’) I stayed glued to that page.

So, the book begins with Isla having her ‘Kismet’ moment with Josh (while high on meds, admittedly) – fans will recognise Isla as the few years younger pupil at the America School who Anna figured out was crushing on Josh, one of the boys in her group of friends. For the reason that Isla stretches back to the first book, it’s easy to fall into sympathy with her one-sided crush on the beautiful Josh Wasserstein (son of a senator, artist- extraordinaire and bad-boy of the America School who is always on his third and final warning);  

The next few days are unsettling. 
Josh is aware of me. 
Whenever he enters a room, an unmistakable mass of chaotic energy enters with him. It rattles the air between us. It buzzes and hums. And every time we surrender – every time our eyes meet in a flash of nerve – a shock wave jolts throughout my entire system. I feel frayed. Excited. Unravelled.
I both really loved the melodrama of ‘Isla’, and sometimes it bugged me (but only slightly). Look, a lot of the appeal of YA lies in the fact that it’s all about firsts – and the heightened emotions surrounding them. But so much of ‘Isla’ is about falling hard and fast – I mean, it’s like a piano falling on both Josh and Isla’s heads. And I loved that, I really did – but at one point Josh shows Isla a panel from his graphic novel memoir and he’s included a drawing of the two of them, and the thought-bubble ‘salvation!’ above his head. Moments like that made me chuckle, and I don’t think that was the intended reaction.

But I did love Josh and Isla. They feel like a couple straight out of a Cameron Crowe movie (I’m looking at you, Lloyd Dobbler!) they’re this perfect combination of sweet and heat – and, speaking of, Stephanie Perkins writes a seriously good sex scene that’s commendable for being about female satisfaction, without venturing into inappropriate smut. It was refreshing to read something so frank in contemporary YA.

My confession leaves him stunned. 
“There’s no story,” I say. “I saw you one day, and I just knew.”Josh stares at me. He looks inside of me. And then he kisses me with more passion than he’s ever kissed me with before.

I also really liked Isla's friendship with Kurt - who is on the autism spectrum (what was once called Asperger syndrome), though I did think they had a lot of problems with their friendship towards the end of the book that I don't feel were given proper page time. The Kurt/Isla friendship also had echoes of Sibylla and Michael's friendship (perhaps minus romantic undertones) from Fiona Wood's marvellous 'Wildlife', but I think Wood handled that friendship better than Perkins did in the end.

While I was worried that Stephanie Perkins’ struggles with writing this book would show through in the final product, I was actually surprised at how it helped shape Isla’s story. Anna and Lola’s romantic struggles were a mix of physical and emotional struggles – Anna had Etienne’s girlfriend to contend with, Lola had her current boyfriend at the time, and a long history with the Bell’s as her roadblocks. A lot of Isla’s struggles in coming together with Josh are internal, they’re her own hang-ups that she needs to conquer (though she tries to make out physical obstacles as her excuse, readers know better). I feel like that’s a reflection of what sounded like Perkins’ internal struggles to write this book (like her lacking self-confidence). Then there’s the moment when Isla offers some harsh editing critiques of Josh’s very personal graphic memoir – I feel like that was a little author moment creeping in, commenting on how hard (but necessary) it is to hear those criticisms. I really liked that Isla’s hang-ups were about her confidence, and overcoming something in herself – that was so interesting and relatable to me.

I also loved that we’re back in Europe with this book. I liked the San Francisco setting in ‘Lola’, but a lot of the fun in ‘Anna’ came from the Paris setting. This time we’re back at the America School in Paris, but there’s also a jaunt to Barcelona that I absolutely adored because I’VE BEEN THERE! and it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I particularly liked the description of Antoni Gaudí’s Catalan modernist architecture (which is like something out of a dream) and cathedral Sagrada Família:

It’s a monster. 
It wants me to cower. It wants me to weep. It wants me to save my soul from hell. Gaudí started work on this church in the late nineteenth century, but it won’t be finished for at least another decade. It stretches twice as high as the tallest cathedrals of France. It looks like a fantasyland castle – wet sand dripped through fingers, both sharp and soft. Bright construction lights are everywhere, and workers are tinkering around its massive spires in dangerously tall cranes.


‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the finale fans were hoping for. Isla and Josh are the perfect way to finish this series, and fans will absolutely squeal in delight when we get to catch up with Lola and Cricket, but especially Anna and Etienne.


Monday, August 25, 2014

A to Z of YA

I've written a little something for the wonderful Writers Bloc blog - in honour of Children’s Book Week 

Everyone should follow the Writers Bloc blog because they have some amazing posts, including the recent 'An Editorial Confession' and 'The Book That Ruined My Career (then found me another one)' not to mention weekly writing prompts

Sunday, August 24, 2014

‘Waiting on You’ Blue Heron #3 by Kristan Higgins

From the BLURB:

Does being nobody's fool mean that you're nobody's love?

Colleen O'Rourke is in love with love... just not when it comes to herself. Most nights, she can be found behind the bar at the Manningsport, New York, tavern she owns with her twin brother, doling out romantic advice to the lovelorn, mixing martinis and staying more or less happily single. See, ten years ago, Lucas Campbell, her first love, broke her heart... an experience Colleen doesn't want to have again, thanks. Since then, she's been happy with a fling here and there, some elite-level flirting and playing matchmaker to her friends.

But a family emergency has brought Lucas back to town, handsome as ever and still the only man who's ever been able to crack her defenses. Seems like maybe they've got some unfinished business waiting for them—but to find out, Colleen has to let her guard down, or risk losing a second chance with the only man she's ever loved.

Colleen O'Rourke is a modern-day Emma. At least seven children in her local town of Manningsport have been named after her, in thanks for matchmaking their parents. She’s drummed up plenty of business for the local bridal store and lots of people in town are lining up to have Colleen match them with their soul mates.

Colleen’s so good at matchmaking other people only because her own love life is so abysmal. Not many people in town know (because that’s just the way Colleen wants it) but she was burned by her first true-love and never recovered from the heartbreak.

Lucas Campbell was the new boy in town when Colleen was a senior, he and his cousin Bryce moved to town after Lucas’s mother died and his father was thrown in prison then sent to live with his aunt and uncle. Before Lucas Campbell arrived, Colleen was the perfect popular girl – adored by everyone, but always turning down dates from her male classmates. But that all changed when Lucas came to town – with his Spaniard eyes and reluctant smile. In Colleen, Lucas found someone that was just for him, and Colleen finally had someone worth taking a chance on.

But then it all came apart, quickly and devastatingly. Ten years later, Colleen still hasn’t let her heart recover from missing Lucas Campbell. So the last thing she needs is for him to breeze back into Manninsport – in town to spend time with his dying uncle and help get his dopey cousin straightened out and grown up, and reminding her of what they lost.

‘Waiting on You’ is the third book in Kristan Higgins’ ‘Blue Heron’ romance series.

I am so glad that I loved this book, after thinking ‘The Perfect Match’ was fairly ho-hum. This instalment takes us away from the Holland sisters, and focuses on local bartender and Faith’s best friend, Colleen (one half of twin-duo with her brother and restaurant co-owner, Connor). Colleen had been established as the expert flirt in town, and beloved amateur therapist who hears everyone’s problems when she pours them their brew. But it has also been hinted that a break up in Colleen’s past still haunts her to this day, which is why she’s more predisposed to flings than relationships, and no man has been able to turn her head in years.

I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled with an instalment that took us away from Blue Heron – I was actually hoping for a book about the Holland brother. But Higgins very quickly establishes Colleen’s broken-hearted past, and I was totally in her corner after getting the story of how Lucas Campbell screwed her over. And that’s the thing that bugged me a little about this book – when they were (admittedly) younger, Lucas did a stupid thing that spiralled into really hurtful and left a break in Colleen that still hasn’t healed. It’s bad, and will make you a little weepy when the whole, sad story is pulled out – but I never entirely felt like Lucas accounted for his actions or felt the right level of remorse. But maybe that’s just me.

Considering how hurt Colleen was by Lucas ten years ago, it’s understandable that when he returns to Manningsport she’s at def-con zero;

“About my new man,” she said. “I need someone hot and romantic and intelligent with a great sense of humour who can cook and is also a cowboy or a firefighter.” 
Faith snorted. “Okay, I’m thinking … uh … cowboys are pretty scarce. And for hot firefighters, we only have Gerard.” 
“You know what would be great? A tragic widower type, like Jude Law in ‘The Holiday.’ Definitely my type. Or Hugh Jackman in ‘Les Mis.’ Le sigh!” 
“Right, right. Impoverished fugitives who burst into song. Coming up empty, Coll.”

Something I really loved about this book (and something that Higgins does so damn well) is write robust and interesting secondary characters’ with back-stories to surround her protagonists. In Colleen’s world; it’s her father who cheated on her mother with ‘Gail the Tail’ ten years ago, but her mother has never recovered and to this day expects her ex-husband to come crawling back. Colleen has a beloved nine-year-old stepsister called Savannah who is struggling with her weight and body image, particularly when her mother is so body-conscious herself. And Colleen’s father hasn’t been apart of her life since he cheated on his wife and started a new family ten years ago. Then there’s Paulie – a local girl and princess to the Chicken King (who owns a chain of deep friend chicken stores) who asks for Colleen’s help in roping her dream man … who just happens to be Lucas’s cousin, Bryce. But when Lucas comes to town to spend time with his dying uncle, and straighten Bryce out with a job, he gets wind of Colleen’s matchmaking scheme and is not happy.

Higgins is brilliant at writing these interesting secondary characters to round-out her story and heroes, and ‘Waiting on You’ is one of the best examples of this.

I really loved Colleen. A few times Higgins slips in how beautiful and desired Colleen is, but I never resented her as I so often do when female characters are presented as practically perfect in every way. Colleen’s wicked sense of humour and compassion save her from venturing into Mary-Sue territory, as does her brilliant repartee with the people she loves, like her twin;

“Hey, placenta hog. Just because you were born three minutes sooner doesn’t mean you know everything.”

I also really loved Lucas, despite feeling that he didn’t account enough for his actions ten years ago (and, actually, in recent years when he didn’t attempt to reach out to Colleen). He has a really complicated history, that’s definitely dictating his current hang-ups. But his chemistry with Colleen is insane, and towards the end I definitely got the impression that he was reeling from the realisation that he lost so much ten years ago, with a couple of stupid mistakes.

This is probably the biggest emotional roller-coaster Higgins book I’ve yet read. She really presents a fractured couple in Colleen and Lucas, but she makes it work with a delightfully varied and sprawling cast of secondary characters with back-stories as interesting as the protagonists’. I got a little frustrated with the slut-shaming focus towards the end, but otherwise this was a fabulous instalment in the ‘Blue Heron’ series (I WANT MORE!!!!) and one of the best Higgins books I’ve read. Fabulous.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

'Rat Queens', Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery. Written By: Kurtis J Wiebe, Art By: Roc Upchurch

From the BLURB:

Who are the Rat Queens? A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all god’s creatures for profit. It’s also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief. This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!

It was only in November 2012 that I discovered the series that awakened me to the wonderful world of comics: ‘Saga’ by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Since first meeting Marko, Alana and bub Hazel I’ve become obsessed and now buy single-issues because I simply can’t wait for the Volumes.

But there is a downside to having been spoilt rotten with my introdiction to comics – and that is finding other, equally enthralling, series’ to get hooked on. I’ve had some luck with ‘Ms Marvel’ and enjoy the ‘Peter Panzerfaust’ series – but nothing comes close to my ‘Saga’ obsession … until now.

Comic fantasy series ‘Rat Queens’ is created by the man behind ‘Peter Panzerfaust’, Kurtis J Wiebe and published by my favourite, Image Comics. Roc Upchurch does the art, and ‘Saga’ favourite Fiona Staples the incentive covers.

‘Rat Queens’ Volume 1 is the collection of issues #1 to #5, and follows a group of female monster-hunters for hire – Hannah, Violet, Dee and Betty – who work hard and play hard (to the point of destroying the very town they’re often hired to save). 

When we meet them in issue #1, the Rat Queens are being given various monster clean-up assignments, along with groups of other mercenaries who have angered Mayor Kane with their violent revelries. But while on assignment cleaning up goblins, the Rat Queens are ambushed by an assassin and nearly murdered – they later discover the other mercenaries were similarly set-upon, and from there the arc becomes a ‘whodunit’ of who would want these lovable fucks-ups eliminated.

I fucking love this series. And my love is getting up there with my ‘Saga’ obsession, if my impatience for issue #8 (due out on September 3) is any indication.

I love this series because it’s so funny – and mostly of the rude and crude variety. The awesome foursome who make up the Rat Queens are delightfully detestable – Hannah is an Elven Mage with an attitude problem; she’s most likely to throw the first punch and when she gets mad, she gets scary. Violet is a blood-thirsty dwarf with family issues. Dee is a healer with some serious skeletons in her closet, and miniature Betty is a lesbian smidgen who loves mushrooms and brawling. These women feel a little like anti-heroes, insofar as they really do cause a lot of unnecessary violence and havoc in their town and it’s entirely believable that someone would be so fed-up with them they’d want them dead … but it’s because they’re this amazing mix of vulgar and sassy that I love them. They booze, brawl and bang their bed-heads – but they also have each other’s backs in the thick of battle, and are each dealing with personal problems that are slowly being teased out.

Hannah has an inconvenient dalliance going with Mayor Kane’s head of police, the luscious Sawyer (against his better judgement and good sense). Betty is crushing hard on a girl who can’t see past her violent friends. Violet’s family are a mystery and painfully shy Dee has some secrets up her sleeve. I love that it takes a few issues for readers to start chipping away at the armour each woman wears, but the glimpses we see of vulnerable underbelly hint that this series and these protagonists have a long life in them …

And this series is funny – often juxtaposing gore-splattering, blood-soaked violence alongside awesome one-liners and the types of running jokes that Joss Whedon was known for.

I’m obsessed with ‘Rat Queens’, and I can see why this comic series has taken off in such a big way (it was voted for best new series in the 2014 Eisner Awards). It’s rowdy and rude, heartfelt and gory with four lovably riotous female protagonists who I both want to be best friends with, and would recommend crossing the street to avoid.


Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

My new column for Kill Your Darlings is all about a recent obsession of mine, the wonderful world of comics!

With big thanks to the awesome team at All Star Comics for providing some reading recommendations. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

'People's Choice Award' for Best Designed Book Of The Year 2014 - voting closes August 19!

Bookworld (the bookstore behind those awesome Pop Up Campaigns - bringing books to rural communities!) are hosting the 62nd Australian Book Design Awards (ABDA).

The ABDA is the longest running Australian graphics design award, with the aim to support and recognise outstanding Australian book designers. 

This year, Bookworld are inviting fans to vote in the People’s Choice Award for Best Designed Book of the Year on the Bookworld website - but voting closes August 19 so you have to vote today

To vote just click on the banner below: 

What I love about the ABDA People's Choice Award is that children's & YA books are on a level playing field with adult titles. Just check out some of the beautiful youth literature covers that are up for the award:


The People's Choice Award for Best Designed Book Of The Year will be announced at the ABDA Awards on Friday, 22 August.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

'Through the Woods' stories by Emily Carroll

From the BLURB:

A fantastically dark and timeless graphic debut, for fans of Grimm Tales, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and the works of Neil Gaiman

'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...

Emily Carroll is a storyteller, in the most primordial sense of the word. All of her illustrated gothic/horror stories feel like a conjuring of campfire tales told with a dash of folklore, urban legend and heady doses of fright. What makes this a particular accomplishment is that many people (like me) would have first discovered Carroll via her webcomics, scrolling through the panels of her stories, which are made no less terrifying for their original screen medium.

But now, for the first time, Carroll has gathered those webcomics in a book – ‘Through the Woods’ is her debut graphic novel collection of old and new stories.

I’ve been a fan of Emily Carroll’s webcomics since first stumbling across her website many years ago. I remember finding and falling in love with her work, even before I really got into the comic scene with the likes of ‘Saga’ and ‘Ms Marvel’. I don’t think I even really understood that Carroll was a comic artist back then – when I thought comics were all Batman, Superman and not much in-between. I think I just thought of her as a writer-illustrator who scared the beegeesus out of me with the story ‘His Face All Red’ (which is still my favourite).

There are five stories in this collection, plus an introduction and conclusion.

‘Our Neighbour’s House’ tells the tale of three sisters left to fend for themselves when their father does not return from his hunt, and what happens when a man in a wide-brimmed hat starts visiting them in the dead of night. 

‘A Lady’s Hands are Cold’ has a ‘Bluebeard’ feel, when a young woman goes hunting through her new husband’s house for the source of a mysterious song.

‘His Face All Red’ is my personal favourite, from Carroll’s original webcomics series. It tells the tale of a man who has it on good authority that the person claiming to be his brother is an impersonator.

‘My Friend Janna’ is about two friends who get into the medium business; contacting spirits of people’s deceased loved ones.

‘The Nesting Place’ introduces us to Bell, who is staying with her brother and his strange fiancée while she’s on school break … but discovers something terrifying in the woods near the house.

Carroll is a great gothic storyteller, but more than that she’s a wonderful short-story writer. She knows how to pack a lot into just a few sentences, and has mastered the art of building to a climax – really hitting home with great one-liners in particular. All of her stories feel like they fit on either the folktale or urban legend spectrum – either seeming like something harking back to medieval times (like ‘A Lady’s Hands are Cold’ reminding of the French folktale ‘Bluebeard’) or they feel urban legend in that “a friend, of a friend of mine” sense (like ‘The Nesting Place’).

The other thing I love about Carroll is that her illustrations often look like old-school children’s book illustrations, and that seems to make them feel all the more sinister. Some of them have quite a Miroslav Sasek or J.P. Miller look – but often the bright colours and round-faced characters are at odds with the creepy text. 

Not surprisingly, Carroll has cited children’s books as a big inspiration for her – from Charles Keeping to Andrew Lang (“Essentially any book that gave me nightmares when I was a kid is a driving force behind what I make now.”)

Carroll has been published in anthologies and her webcomics have made her quite famous (in fact, Carroll is illustrating the graphic novel adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Speak’, due out in 2016) but ‘Through the Woods’ is her graphic novel debut … but it definitely won’t be her last.



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

'Magic Breaks' Kate Daniels #7 by Ilona Andrews

From the BLURB:

No matter how much the paranormal politics of Atlanta change, one thing always remains the same: if there’s trouble, Kate Daniels will be in the middle of it… 

As the mate of the Beast Lord, Curran, former mercenary Kate Daniels has more responsibilities than it seems possible to juggle. Not only is she still struggling to keep her investigative business afloat, she must now deal with the affairs of the pack, including preparing her people for attack from Roland, a cruel ancient being with god-like powers. Since Kate’s connection to Roland has come out into the open, no one is safe—especially those closest to Kate. 

As Roland’s long shadow looms ever nearer, Kate is called to attend the Conclave, a gathering of the leaders from the various supernatural factions in Atlanta. When one of the Masters of the Dead is found murdered there, apparently at the hands of a shapeshifter, Kate is given only twenty-four hours to hunt down the killer. And this time, if she fails, she’ll find herself embroiled in a war which could destroy everything she holds dear…

**** SPOILERS! - of past books in the 'Kate Daniels' series, but also spoilers for Magic Breaks. Only read once you've read #7 and want to know why I only gave it 3-stars, mmkay? ****

‘Magic Breaks’ is the seventh book in the urban fantasy ‘Kate Daniels’ series, from husband and wife writing duo Ilona Andrews. In an author letter at the start of the book, Ilona Andrews highlight that in this book a huge story arc is coming to a close, while another one is just beginning – stressing that #7 is not the final book in the ‘Kate Daniels’ series (they’re contracted up to #10).

‘Magic Breaks’ starts shortly after ‘Magic Rises’ – Kate is preparing from the fallout of Hugh d'Ambray reporting back to her father, the powerful Roland, with news of her whereabouts. She’s plagued by guilt and nightmares over the death of Aunt B, while also putting on a good show as Consort for Beast Lord (and fiancée) Curran, who has a lot of wheeling and dealing to do since obtaining control of the Lyc-V cure Panacea. 

When Hugh finally shows his hand and makes his next move, the implications are devastating – an orchestrated war between the Pack and the People that Kate can’t see any way out of without involving Roland.

Ok. So. I’ve given this book a 3-star rating, and it’s something I’m still wrapping my brain around, even while I think I can justify the so-so rating. Because here’s the thing: I liked this book. I really, really did … but I expected more. More fallout, more heartache, more tough choices … just *more* and I think Ilona Andrews weren’t as ruthless as they needed to be. Let’s be honest – ‘Magic Breaks’ is the book. The one we’ve all been waiting for since first meeting Kate way back in ‘Magic Bites’ and being curious as to why this woman felt the need to be alone, to anticipate a bloody battle that would one day come, to hide in plain sight … this is that book. This is the book where the long game plays out, where the plot that Ilona Andrews laid groundwork for back in 2007 comes to a head. 

At the start of the book there’s a write up ‘From the Journal of Barabas Gilliam’, which both acts as a summary of past events and gives a deep sense of foreboding for what lies ahead… 
There is a storm gathering on our horizon. We will make a stand, but I wonder if it will matter in the end. 

Because everything has been leading to this moment – Kate facing off against Roland. He’s the big bad who has been built up as a God-like entity, with possible biblical origins and a devious mind – apart from trying to kill Kate when she was in the womb, and murdering her mother when that first plan didn’t succeed, Roland created the psychotic likes of Hugh d'Ambray and is responsible for the very magic world the Kate Daniels universe is set in. He’s a big freakin’ deal, as has been built up and established for six books now … I imagine fans going into this book are expecting bloodshed and hard choices, on behalf of Ilona Andrews and by extension – Kate. We know that her character journey has been from loner to responsible for a whole Pack of people (some of whom she loves dearly, others who’d like to see her die promptly) so it makes sense that at the culmination of that journey all she has become and established will be risked.

Except it’s really not. The hardest death Kate witnesses in this book is someone from her past who I can barely remember, and whose connection to Kate has to be reminded and established in lengthy paragraphs because we haven’t seen them for a few books now … it hurts her, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a glancing blow compared to some of the other characters who could have been sacrificed. I was all ready to have my heart torn out in this book – such is the cunningly ruthless writing I’ve come to know and expect from Ilona Andrews – but it never comes. There are near-misses, but no real casualties to hurt and impact readers. And that’s a problem for me. I’m not saying I wanted mass-slaughter of everyone’s favourite secondary characters, but when the build up has been so big the pay-off needed to match – and it just didn’t, I’m afraid. On two occasions Ilona Andrews came close to breaking readers hearts, but they pulled back. It’s like pulling a punch, in my opinion. 

On the one hand: yay! No sacrifice, no beloved characters to mourn. On the other hand … now that a new story arc has been set up that’s meant to topple the previous one for Big Bad, I’m not sure how convinced I am that they can pull it off. As a reader, I really don’t think there’s anything at stake. 

So, there. That’s my reasoning. I think the lack of ‘Kill Your Darlings’ ruthlessness made this a fairly light-weight instalment, when it should have been The Book it was built-up to be. I think I’ll be in the minority in this reasoning, but hopefully people can at least acknowledge where I’m coming from.

Another issue for me was the lack of Julie. Also at the beginning of the book there are character profiles, and when I read Julie’s is struck me all over again that she’s being set up to become a protagonist in her own right; 

Julie: she has a crush on Derek, who sees her as a little sister, and an adversarial relationship with Ascanio, who views her as a rival and potential romantic conquest … Julie had been infected with Lyc-V, the shapeshifter virus, and was going loup. Kate used one of her father’s rituals to save Julie’s life by washing her blood with her own, which bound Julie to her. Julie is unable to refuse Kate’s direct order, a fact that Kate and Curran hide from her. 

There’s just so much material there to play with, and I was excited to see how Julie would fit into the big storyline of ‘Magic Breaks’. Except she doesn’t … she has a couple of scenes, and Kate *talks* about her a lot, but that’s it. Really disappointing, because it felt like Ilona Andrews pulling more punches and avoiding writing the tough stuff (she’s the last person I want to read die, but being so young and human, not to mention bound to Kate, Julie is the most vulnerable … so I wonder if shuffling her off-screen was a way to avoid hard decisions where she’s concerned).

The lack of Julie also grated because ever since reading the ‘Magic Tests’ young adult short story, which appeared in the anthology ‘An Apple for the Creature’ (and is provided in ‘Magic Breaks’ as an extra at the back of the book) I’ve thought Julie needs her own spin-off. Maybe not YA, but definitely when she’s older Julie is interesting enough to hold her own. I asked this of Ilona Andrews last year, and this is what they said

A: We've talked about it. We would like to write an older Julie, maybe a love triangle between her, Derek and Ascanio. Lately though, my money is on the dragon guy. We're not YA writers though, and it might not work as well as we'd like. 

The lack of Julie is even more frustrating because, really for the first time in a long time, Derek and Ascanio have scenes together … and they’re funny! 

“Okay.” Ascanio took a step back. “I understand you need a moment.” 
“Would you like me to beat him?” Derek asked. 
“Personally, I don’t think this is a good time to be fighting among ourselves,” Ascanio said. “But if Mr. McBroodypants would like to see how much I’ve learned in the past year, I’d be happy to show him. It would make a lot of noise and draw a lot of attention with all the blood flying around.” 
Mr. McBroodypants took a step forward.

They’re developing such a great antagonism, that I really wanted to throw Julie into the mix to see what happened. 

“I can give it a shot,” Ascanio offered. 
“Sit your ass down, Don Juanabe,” Derek said. 
“Don Juanabe?” Ascanio pulled out his swords. 
“Don Juan Wannabe,” Derek explained. “See, I shortened it. If you still don’t get it, I’ll write it down for you after the fight.” 
“You’ve maxed your wit quota for the night,” Ascanio said. 

Derek and Ascanio were probably my favourite part of the whole book, which is itself an issue. Their comedic scenes were all that I really *loved*, which isn’t great in a book that’s meant to be a huge climax to the over-arching Big Bad story thread.

I mean, sure, I loved the Kate and Curran stuff too – especially that a lot of the book is Kate handling things on her own without relying on Curran overmuch. And, yes, I think Hugh d'Ambray is a sadistically great villain who I really enjoy reading. I’m excited about the set-up for books #8, #9 and #10. But I do think that Ilona Andrews pulled punches in ‘Magic Breaks’, and handled their readers with kid-gloves a little too much. I’m desperate for Julie to be given more to do, and by extension to see Derek and Ascanio grow up more alongside her (and, oh my god! I want that love triangle to play out SO BAD!). 

The fact is, ‘Magic Breaks’ was okay … but it could have been great


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