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Thursday, April 23, 2020

‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’ Curseworkers #2 by Brigid Kemmerer

From the BLURB:

In the sequel to New York Times bestselling A Curse So Dark and Lonely, Brigid Kemmerer returns to the world of Emberfall in a lush fantasy where friends become foes and love blooms in the darkest of places.

Find the heir, win the crown.

The curse is finally broken, but Prince Rhen of Emberfall faces darker troubles still. Rumors circulate that he is not the true heir and that forbidden magic has been unleashed in Emberfall. Although Rhen has Harper by his side, his guardsman Grey is missing, leaving more questions than answers.

Win the crown, save the kingdom.

Grey may be the heir, but he doesn't want anyone to know his secret. On the run since he destroyed Lilith, he has no desire to challenge Rhen--until Karis Luran once again threatens to take Emberfall by force. Her own daughter Lia Mara sees the flaws in her mother's violent plan, but can she convince Grey to stand against Rhen, even for the good of Emberfall?

The heart-pounding, compulsively readable saga continues as loyalties are tested and new love blooms in a kingdom on the brink of war.

‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’ is the 2020 second book in Brigid Kemmerer’s ‘Cursebreakers’ series – that will have a third book out in 2021, ‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly.’

So; much as it had the traditional problems of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (I don’t want to use the term “Stockholm syndrome” because – surprise sexism alert! – it has a really awful genesis and no grounding in science, which is something I literally learnt yesterday!) I really loved first book ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’. I actually loved first book so much, that when I began reading ‘A Heart So Fierce and Broken’ I was a little bit bummed to realise that this second book is no longer using Rhen and Harper’s alternative POVs, but instead we have King’s guardsman Grey (and recent revelatory heir to the throne of Emberfell) and newcomer Lia Mara, daughter to the rival Syhl Shallow Kingdom as the new protagonists.

Harper and Rhen appear briefly at the start and awfully, in a totally new set-up for their character’s trajectories but then we go off and follow Grey and Lia Mara on their journey to escape increasingly terrible soon-to-be King Rhen and the royal legacies Grey doesn’t want, and Lia Mara has been denied as the first-born daughter who is not the chosen Queen successor.

I was really worried when I started this book that I wouldn’t be able to get into it, and then that’d be all the steam gone out of my sudden reading-surge pulling me out of my slump. But then somebody on Instagram encouraged me that they had enjoyed this second book more than the first, so I put aside my curiosity about what Rhen and Harper were getting up to and actually found myself getting caught up in the on-the-run story of Grey, Lia Mara and co. and the romance that slowly develops between this reluctant usurper and overlooked Princess.

I think the ultimate strength of Kemmerer’s book is that it doesn’t feel like filler, it actually all feels like it’s winding towards a fabulous cliffhanger to then launch us into a really complex third book, ‘A Vow So Bold and Deadly’. And I’ve gotta say – the cliffhanger in ‘Fierce and Broken’ is even better than the one at the end of ‘Dark and Lonely’, and I already thought that was pretty genius.

Third book is coming 2021 (so far AWAY!) and I am really looking forward to whose POV we’ll be getting (my hope and assumption is Rhen and Grey, and if that’s the case I’d actually be super keen to read a little flip in the typical fairytale-retelling that sees the princes and men pull focus and have to learn love and risk-avoidance at a time of potential war.)  

I am so enamoured of the ‘Cursebreakers’ series and what Kemmerer is doing here, with considerable skill and flair. This feels like the freshest take on fairytales that I’ve read in a long while, and a lot of that comes from the gender-flipping and playing that she’s working with and just generally the fact that she’s an A++ storyteller. I cannot wait for Book No. 3 – 2021 has never felt so far away with the way 2020 is going, but I can be patient and in the meantime I might go back and re-read Kemmerer’s ‘Elementals’ series just to keep this ball rolling!


Friday, April 17, 2020

'A Curse So Dark and Lonely' Cursebreakers #1 by Brigid Kemmerer

From the BLURB:

Fall in love, break the curse.

It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.

Nothing has ever been easy for Harper. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she's instead somehow sucked into Rhen's cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom.

A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn't know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what's at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ by Brigid Kemmerer is the first book in her young-adult fantasy ‘Cursebreakers’ series that came out in 2019.

I first started reading Kemmerer back in 2012, with her YA ‘Elementals’ series – and since then, she’s just become a YA-force with a slew of contemporary stand-alones, five books in the ‘Elementals’ overall and now the hugely successful ‘Cursebreakers’ series. And with ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ you definitely get the feeling that you’re delving into a new world by a seasoned author who absolutely knows her niche and writes to it *exquisitely* well.

Case-in-point is how entertaining and fresh this first ‘Cursebreakers’ is, even through the fact that there have been a *lot* of Fairytale retellings in YA recently and always; from ‘The Lunar Chronicles’ by Marissa Meyer, to the particularly expansive realm of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retellings specifically (‘Beast’ by Brie Spangler, ‘Cruel Beauty’ by Rosamund Hodge, ‘Hunted’ by Meagan Spooner … there are truly *so* many!). ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is an odd beast (sorry) in particular, because it is a beloved Disney-version but also it is an incredibly problematic fairytale (even knowing that all fairytales are misogynistic cautionary tales designed to keep women in check). The best summary I’ve seen of the specific ‘Beauty and the Beast’ issues comes from YouTuber Lindsay Ellis, and her 2017 video ‘Is Beauty and the Beast About Stockholm Syndrome?’ (SPOILER: kinda yes)

Modern retellings have had to really push a boulder up a mountain to counteract the inherently icky aspects of B&B, and the thing is … they still exist in ‘A Curse So Dark and Lonely’ and they are still a problem, but; I still really enjoyed this book regardless, and truly appreciated Kemmerer’s deft hand in this retelling enough to not really care … which could also be linked to my just wanting to fall into a book during pandemic. And this novel 100% achieved a couple nights of taking my mind off the world, so I’m probably feeling disproportionate gratefulness here too, but still – I think this book works!

First of all; there’s a little ‘Enchanted’ (the 2007 film) going on here, in that there’s the magical world of Emberfell lurking behind Washington D.C. where heroine Harper lives a hard life with her brother and dying mother, when she is accidentally abducted by King’s guardsman Grey, and bought to the world of Emberfell which is currently 300-seasons into a curse. Prince Rhen slept with the wrong witchmage and sparked her ire, turning him into a deadly monster at the end of each season until he finds his true love. Grey has been slipping into our world to widen the net of women to bring back to his prince to try and make fall in love with him, and Harper happens to be the unwitting and unlucky latest candidate.

So – yes – abduction still a marker of this series. As is the disgruntled sexy witch who puts a curse on a selfish prince because he dismissed her affections. Kemmerer also somewhat disturbingly introduces a fair amount of suicidal ideation for Prince Rhen, who is truly at the end of his tether when it looks like his 300th woman is even less inclined to love him, more likely she’ll beat him to death with a rusty pipe … yes, there are problems. See the aforementioned Lindsay Ellis video.

But – there’s a lot to admire here too. Harper is a heroine with cerebral palsy, which is represented here – I think – with a lot of tenderness and spunk. Harper undergoes this transformation to warrior princess in a lot of ways, and I appreciated that she pondered her own ability while delivering action and heroism in spades. My real bone to pick is how many times derogatory terms like ‘cripple’ are used; I’d have much preferred incidental diversity in a lot of ways, and I think Harper’s own ability to prove herself to herself would have been more than sufficient.

I also really did love the dynamic of Grey, Rhen and Harper …. And yes; there’s tension here (was it just me though, who thought Rhen and Grey had a little somethin’-somethin’? I thought *that* would have been a great twist to the fairytale!) and the cliffhanger ending happily suggests that this threesome will become an even bigger story in book #2 (which I am starting ASAP!)

Overall; there were problems. Sure. But like I said – Kemmerer has an uncanny ability to write seamlessly and draw readers in, even to somewhat tired tropes and adaptations. She does it again here, and to great effect – I loved it.


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

'Who's Your Real Mum?' picture-book review, and interview with author Bernadette Green

Received from the Publisher 

Hello Darling Readers,

I am truly so delighted to have an interview on my blog (the first one in a LONG time!) and it’s with a dear friend of mine.

Bernadette Green and I worked for years at the same indie publishing house, and when I knew her she was always writing and creating. What looms most large in my memory was her fabulous stories of how she met her partner (from memory; there was a hay-bale fire involved, I’m not even kidding – nobody was hurt) and her two amazing children who were utter delights and a credit to their mothers. So I am absolutely thrilled to see that in 2020 – a year when there’s so much, and I mean SO MUCH to be down about – that I can take a moment in my little corner of the world to celebrate someone very dear to me, and congratulate them on a truly inspired and inspiring project.

Who’s Your Real Mum? is Bernadette’s debut picture-book, beautifully illustrated by Anna Zobel and out now with Scribble!

Here’s the blurb;

When Nicholas wants to know which of Elvi’s two mums is her real mum, she gives him lots of clues. Her real mum is a circus performer, and a pirate, and she even teaches spiders the art of web. But Nicholas still can’t work it out! Luckily, Elvi knows just how to explain it to her friend. . .

It is such a gorgeous story with an understanding and tender heart. There’s a lot of humour within, a nurturing of curiosity and absurdity but overall; it’s a story about family, and love – always love. This book is an essential for any library, school, and personal picture-book collection and will be wonderful reading for all types of families – those for whom the question or variation of Who’s Your Real Mum? will be well-trod territory, and for those families who’d be more inclined to ask such questions. This is a book for everyone; it does that very rare thing of being both a conversation-starter and answerer for kids young (and old!).

Anna Zobel’s illustrations also feel timeless, and lend this book the feeling that it’s bound to be a beloved classic.

I’m so, so, SO in love with this book – it has brightened my days, and will be one I gift to many new families in my life. So I’m also delighted to have had the opportunity to pose some questions to Bernadette and pick her brain a little bit …

Q: Tell me about how you got published (agent or slush pile)?

I was studying Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT when author, Kate O’Donnell, came in to speak about YA writing. In her introduction she mentioned she was the production editor at Scribble kids’ Books. It was always being drilled into us to network and put ourselves out there, something I struggled with, but here was an opportunity too good to let go. It helped that Kate was incredibly friendly, so during the break I asked if I could talk to her about my picture book manuscript. Kate heard my pitch and a couple of days later I got an email asking if I could send it in.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Who's Your Real Mum?’ - from first
idea to final manuscript?

I wrote and polished it over a couple of months in late 2015. Then I left it for six months, came back and re-worked it, showed it to a friend and re-worked it again. I sent it to Scribble a couple of years after first writing it. There it went through some initial light edits and when illustrator, Anna Zobel, came on board I was asked to make some more changes. These were around writing some new fantasy scenes and pitching the story to a younger age group. Overall, from first word on paper to the final copy edit, it was a bit over four years but during this time there were long periods where the manuscript rested.  

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the
character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?

It depends on the story, for Who’s Your Real Mum? It began with both the theme and the characters.  At the same time, one of the parts of this book that has never changed is the ending. While I didn’t start with the ending, once it was written it felt right and so while the rest of the story was moved around and edited, the ending grounded the story and made it clear where it was going.  

I am currently writing a middle grade novel and the initial idea started with a character. About seven years ago I was staying with my family at a friend’s in Daylesford, my girls were quite young and we were discussing the lack of female superheros and before we left for home I had Nuwa, an introverted, anxious and reluctant superhero, that I have loved building a world around.  

Q: Did you always want to write picture-books?

I’ve written some short stories for adults, but all my longer works are for children and teenagers. After having children, picture book writing was a form I was particularly drawn to. Some of my favourite memories of when my kids were little was cuddling up with a good book. Even though my kids are now almost both teenagers, we still have all their favourite picture books. They not only hold the story within, but my children’s childhood now feels imprinted between the pages.

Q: How did you find your way to telling *this* story for *this* age-group?

I wrote this story because who’s your real mum? and variations on that question, were something my kids were asked at school. It’s a question with a lot of weight and I wanted to take some of the heaviness out of it. With the hope of taking pressure off kids from same-sex parented families, while at the same time creating something that respected the natural curiosity in children.

Initially I wrote it for early school age children but my editor, Kate O’Donnell, suggested aiming it at a younger audience. Nicholas is the character who insists there can only be one real mum, he asks for clues so he can work out which mum it is. By removing some of Nicholas’s dialogue asking for another and a better clue, it softened the tension between Elvi and Nicholas and shifted the story to a younger age group. 

Q: What was your favourite scene to see illustrator Anna Zobel bring to
life on the page?

I couldn’t be happier with Anna’s illustrations, so it’s very hard to choose just one but if I could have had a superpower as a kid it would have been to fly. So, for me it would have to be the pages with the dragon and the pelicans, who are quite happy to take the kids for a ride.

Q: What do your two girls thinking of you being a published author?
They’re happy and proud. They both like the story and when I first wrote it my youngest drew the images for a dummy book. And of course, it was inspired by them and their experience so they both feel close to it.

Q: Picture-books have become so sophisticated and incredibly diversified in
recent years. I wonder if you can list five classic picture-books you love, and five more-recent titles you've delighted in?

Five classics
·      Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd. I love that cat.

·      The Gruffalo’s Child written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Alex Scheffler

·      When my kids were little, they loved Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole.

·      Another favourite was Goodnight, written by Claire Masurel and illustrated by Marie H. Henry

·      Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel.

And five slightly more recent titles
·      The Red Tree by Shaun Tan shows sadness beautifully and reminds us that it can come and go whenever it likes.

·      A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin. Exquisite playful pictures using a mooncake to show the phases of the moon and the love between a child and their parent.

·      Lubna and Pebble, written by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Daniel Egneus. A gentle telling of one girl’s story as she tries to find comfort in a refugee camp.

·      We’re Amazing 1,2,3! A Story about Friendship and Autism (Sesame Street) written by Leslie Kimmelan and illustrated by Mary Beth Nelson.

·      And Tango Makes Three, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole. It’s not a recent book but I included it because it’s based on a real story about penguins and yet it was still banned in many places. 

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit

I’m working on a couple of picture books which I hope to submit to my publisher later in the year. And with my middle-grade novel that centres around Nuwa, the reluctant and anxious superhero, I hope it gets picked up this year or next.  

Q: Favourite author(s) and book(s) of all time?
I’ll do adults and kids.

I know this is old, but I’ve never forgotten the impact of Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.

I loved J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

The Naming of Tishkin Silk by Glenda Millard is one of the saddest and most beautiful books I have ever read.

In picture books I love, A Sick Day for Amos McGee written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead. This beautifully illustrated book focuses on kindness and friendship.

Q: What are you reading, loving and recommending right now?

I’m reading and loving Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee. The first paragraph is exquisite, and it keeps on giving.  
I’m also enjoying listening to The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young picture-book writers?

I found studying picture book writing enormously helpful, it’s a very different form to novel writing. But most importantly, write something that has an emotional impact on you, whether it’s laughing, crying or just giving you a warm feeling all over.

Who's Your Real Mum? is out now in Australia and New Zealand - with Scribble!

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