Friday, 12 January 2018

Book Review: Valentine, by Jodi McAlister

Valentine (Valentine, #1)Valentine by Jodi McAlister
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Okay, so I read this in a day, what do you reckon? IT WAS AWESOME! I received this as part of my subscription to the Never Never Book Box, an Aussie spec-fic bi-monthly book-and-look box, and I couldn't be happier with the selection this month. A modern Australian fairytale set in small-town New South Wales populated with wholesome, believable and relatable young characters swept up in a gritty, sometimes gruesome fairy mystery - while not a perfect read, any issues were minor enough that I still genuinely enjoyed every single page of this book, and I will be preordering book two.

The premise: Pearl, Finn, Cardy and Marie were all coincidentally born on the same day in the same small town. Pearl and Marie are friends, Pearl has a crush on Cardy, but Pearl HATES Finn, class clown and nemesis. She can't stand him. Or is completely hot for him. Either way, she thinks about him all the time. Very YA, but that's okay, because it's a YA book about Year 11 students, and... I remember it being like that. The story starts at a high school party out in an abandoned stable, where a beautiful black horse appears and seems to transfix everybody present. In the week following, Marie, the one person to interact with the mysterious animal, stops coming to school, and it becomes clear that tragedy has come to their town, though rational explanations are elusive.

Thrown together in the weird circumstances that follow, Pearl and Finn bicker, argue and snap at each other constantly as they attempt to solve the mysteries and not die. The sexual tension is beautifully built and played out through this narrative. I love the intensity set up between them by the uncertainty of the deaths and disappearances of their classmates, and their growing understanding of the machinations of the fairy courts manipulating their lives. Sometimes these characters got a bit dramatic ("I won't let you do that for me!") but they spent most of their time annoyed with each other, or being snarky (some very funny dialogue), and I liked that enough to get me through the sappy bits. Plus, when they eventually stopped arguing, they were hot.

I found this book refreshing. Teen characters pointing out "But I'm seventeen. What do I know about XYZ?" and having to ask their guardians for permission to do things like actual kids, and getting online to research their supernatural problems only to come up with 8 billion unhelpful search results, all helped to establish both the realism, and my position to the book as an older, wiser reader, like a little wink from an intelligent writer. She knows that all YA adventures are unrealistic! So here, have some real kids that feel real, from a place that feels real (and it did - I LOVED reading about an Australian setting, it was like I was there with them, it was so relatable) and put them in real circumstances and now throw a crazy story at them. They reacted superbly! I liked the Indigenous heartthrob and the ranga ex and the diverse cast. I liked the hippie names of Pearl's family, though others mightn't. I'm a teacher, trust me, weird names happen! I really liked the approach here to the chosen one trope. For the protagonist to not be the one with the powers made Pearl's struggles more interesting because she had more to protect with her secrets and lies, and less she could do about it.

I also liked the consistency of the characters. Phil could have been fleshed out more, but she was constant in her practicality and flat-out no-nonsense attitude, and I liked her. I hope to see more of her in Ironheart. Shad and Disey felt real, one easy and the other tough, their bond stretched and challenged by the difficulties imposed on their family. And I really, really liked Finn. Best book boyfriend in a long time!

I think this is a great YA read for lovers of paranormal/fairy romance, but especially for Australian readers who otherwise might believe, as other such books would have you believe, magic only happens in nondescript small-town America or England.

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Book Review: The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski


I am not a proper gamer, and have no familiarity with this story world previous to reading. As such, I didn't really know what to expect, except magic, swords, travelling, probably some gore and horror and a bit of nudity and rated language. It has all that stuff. It has some really excellent action sequences that are highly visual and genuinely engaging, very similar to how I imagine a game version of this story would appear. Right from the first striga battle, I could see Geralt in my mind, impressive and quick and cool, dodging and swiping and parrying, and I was impressed by the writing of those scenes, even if the character was maybe a little bit *too* cool, making him difficulty at times to connect with. But that's a forgivable trait of a story-driven narrative. This author writes action superbly.

I wasn't won over by it, but I respect the unusual narrative style, apparently a set of unconnected adventures (possibly time-ordered, but not necessarily) retold later to an audience of one silenced (and literally silent) character. Because this didn't really seem to build to anything, the book felt to be lacking in cohesion, and though the final recount in the set was arguably the most dramatic and most exciting, it involved characters introduced much too late in the book for me to feel invested in their outcomes. Geralt, too, is distant even to the reader, and I was never really that afraid for him. Evidently this is the first in a much larger series, opening up to a massive world built first by the author and then by the expanded media platforms that have taken it on, and I imagine a lot of this was set-up for the rest.

The benefit of the unrelated tales meant the story had a cool way of playing with traditional fairytales and turning them on their heads. I liked the "no one is really good, no one is really bad, and whatever you've heard is probably wrong" message that permeated the story. That was a strong theme to work with, and I appreciated that. I enjoyed the little spark I felt whenever I recognised a fairytale within the stories Geralt was told. "Oh! She's Snow White!" etc.

A complaint I would make of this book was info-dumping, which made the book read like an RPG at times. Stranger rolls into town, gets into brawl in pub, is brought before local lord guy, local lord guy sits and monologues about the town's whole history for pages on end. This works in games where the monologue comes up as text you can scroll through, but these are meant to be believable people. They seemed to need to tell whole narratives to explain "I made someone angry and I think they cursed me. Now I have this problem. Can you help?" It fumbled the pace of the story but also fumbled the characterisation, because no one talks like that, so it made it hard to 'hear' them in my head as I read.

The book also has a near-constant fixation with describing female characters according to their sexual attractiveness/availability/potential to the male characters, which after the third mention of rape and about the fiftieth offhand comment about hands up skirts, bums being pinched, girls giggling at crude jokes made at their expense, thighs on display and 'the curve of her breasts', started to really, really distract from the quality of the storytelling. I just don't need to know about every single woman's thighs to be able to picture PUB SCENE. I inferred the thighs. When twelve bad guys ride up and one is a woman, I don't need to know how low the cut of her shirt is or how her skirt hangs from her hips to know she's a chick. Where's the description of one hot bad guy's amazing arms, or the sexy scar across his bare strong shoulder? Women were sexual objects in almost every single description of them in this book, or, if they were not, it was ensured that their unattractiveness, weight or age was conveyed quickly as the reason why they were unworthy sexual conquests. Lovely. It was so prolific, and considering it did nothing to advance the story, I found myself thinking more about what kind of view this author must have of women than I was about the story, and then by the end I'd already decided I wouldn't be reading the rest of the series.

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Monday, 8 January 2018

Book Review: Wintersong, by S. Jae-Jones

Wintersong (Wintersong, #1)Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charming, sensual, bittersweet and beautifully written, this is the best book I have read in a long time. I wanted this book from the outset because of the cover, and in a strange twist, the book was as good as the cover suggested. The Bavarian setting and Victorian (?) time period gave this story a plush, shadowy sort of beauty, nestling the story and the characters into this gothy, gloomy imagery of true winter. From these shadows, it's all too believable that Liesl's childhood fairytales might creep to life. And they do.

Liesl is the unremarkable eldest daughter of a washed-up musician, now an innkeeper. She spends her time hurrying about after her sister, the town beauty about to marry Liesl's childhood crush, and giving her all to the dreams of her little brother, a talented violinist on the brink of a brilliant career, without much care for her own secret desires for magic, wonder, and music. She sidesteps the superstitions and tales of her bitter grandmother despite growing up believing every word, and pays for it when her sister is taken by the Erlkönig for his bride in the Underground. What follows is Liesl's desperate attempts to wade through the magic of fairytales come true to save her sister, and her self-realisation in the process.

There's a Labyrinth retelling feel for the first half. The Goblin King, the Underground, the race to save a sibling lost to arrogance and poor choices. I like, though, that this story diverges from that one by the halfway point and becomes its own beast. Liesl's conflicted desires drive the story onward into something both sad and luscious at the same time. I loved her dynamic relationship with the unknowable Erlkönig but also the very unique loves she has for her brother and her sister. Her relationships with each of her siblings is so very different, and I appreciated this distinction - a fiery and argumentative yet unshakable love between sisters so close in age, a protective and sweet love between a big sister and a frail little brother.

I *loved* the visual way this book approached music and composition. I felt like I could see and feel the music Liesl made in the way the author wove the shape and emotion of music into the narrative. Liesl is made of music - she thinks in musical terms, and itches to compose, and she sees it in everything and everyone. I liked her plenty as a lead character for her practicality and determination, but the music made her real, and gave perspective to all she did and achieved.

I am very excited to know there's a sequel coming out this year!

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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Book Review: The Stray, by Amanda Geisler

The Stray (The White Wolf Trilogy, #1)The Stray by Amanda Geisler


A young adult novella in the same stream as Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and New Moon, The Stray follows the perspective of a number of supernatural teens living in small-town New Jersey. Rya Garcia, a werewolf and the heir to position of alpha to her pack, makes a bold move when she insists on breaking a stray werewolf out of captivity in order to help preserve the secrecy of their existence. She uses her influence with Zac, the son of the town's resident werewolf researcher, to gain entry onto the compound where the stray is kept, but quickly discovers that interest in her kind is much more prolific and advanced than any of them had known.

Geisler begins her story with impact, straight into the action of a wolfpack meeting out in the forest at night. Rya attends with her trusty sidekick Toby, and puts forward her suggestion about the stray to Erik, the bitter, angry black wolf who has forced his way into power over the rest of the werewolves in the absence of Rya's parents. The lore of werewolves is clearly significant to the author, and is woven throughout the story.

From here, some of the pacing was a little off, meaning that significant characters weren't consistently present throughout the story or were introduced quite late in the piece, undermining some of their impact, leading to some confusion and sometimes lacking in adequate consequences for total satisfaction of storytelling. Though not my favourite of the wide cast of characters, I appreciate what Geisler was aiming for in her creation of Rya, an independent, strong young female lead. Her aggression got the better of her several times throughout the story, and I hope this will backfire on her in future stories to create more drama and conflict as she attempts to assert her dominance. I connected more with Toby, who I thought was fun and loyal, very much depicted as the friendly puppy at Rya's side, and Colby, though I wish he was in the story sooner. His mildness and togetherness gave some balance to the rash cast of younger characters whose recklessness gets the story started. There were also some questions left unanswered about how the human population had become aware of the wolves in the first place, and Erik's human backstory. With two more books in the series yet to be released, and with Geisler just starting out in her authorial career, it can be hoped that these characters and subplots are more fully developed in coming stories.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Book Review: The 100, by Kass Morgan

The 100 (The Hundred, #1)The 100 by Kass Morgan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm a big fan of the show and I understand that it's unfair to compare the two due to the differing strengths and opportunities of each medium, but I don't think this novel lived up to its potential. Such a shame! I wanted to like this, and I wanted it to delve more into the relationships and the true depths of the characters in the way only a novel can. But alas. This novel is more teen than young adult, with a lot of focus on best friends and boyfriends and feeling betrayed and left out, though with a couple of YA elements thrown in to age it that could have been utilised more powerfully.

Introducing the same premise from which the show was spawned, young space-dwelling characters Clarke, Wells and Bellamy find themselves stranded on an unfriendly post-apocalyptic Earth, fighting for survival. They set up camp and instinctively follow the lead of Wells, the son of the Chancellor who damned them all by sending them down to a possibly radioactive world, because he's the only person who seems to have his act together. A ragtag group of 100 juvenile delinquents, there's a bit of infighting and power struggle, as one would expect between such extreme characters in such an extreme circumstance. Only, sadly, it doesn't feel all that believable. The characters are underdeveloped and flat. Their reactions to events are let down by the lack of description, feeling or build-up, resulting in character deaths that could go unnoticed, their impact minimal. It's a pity, because this book reads like a first draft script for the pilot episode of the show, following the same events for the most part, and there was so much more that could have been done with these diverse characters in this extreme setting. As the show proved.

Probably the highlight of the book for me was Glass, a character left out in the show, or rather, amalgamated with Clarke to give her some substance. Glass escaped the dropship just as Bellamy boarded, and tells the story of events that transpire on the arks in the days and weeks following. Her main focus is on her boyfriend, which didn't entertain me all that much, but I was interested by her day-to-day life, showing how people truly live on board the life-saving arks, such as exchanging and recycling materials at a market because there's nothing new, ever, to work with when you're an isolated space community. I liked that concept, and how it (and other technologies we don't have today but which could conceivably exist by that time in the future) was normalised into her society.

Unsure if I'll read the rest of the series. I don't think I'm the right audience. This book would suit a younger reader looking for angst and romance over science fiction.

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Friday, 15 September 2017

Six Things I’ll Do In Six Weeks When My Thesis Is Submitted



If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives. 

-Lemony Snicket 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

With the final FINAL deadline for my Masters thesis now six weeks away, to the day, I’m obviously feeling the crunch (hello and goodbye, September break – you are spoken for!) but also really starting to miss some of the leisure activities that have been shelved as the year has progressed. Below is a non-comprehensive list of the things I plan to do when the thesis is done.



Read books 

Oh god, YES, BOOKS!!! Having no time hasn’t stopped me from accumulating and desiring books, and my bookshelf is currently home to exactly 83 unread books (yes, I did just hop up and count them) along with many, many more read ones that I’d LOVE to have time to reread. I actively avoid libraries and bookstores because they just add more to my to-be-read list and it feels like a painfully long time since I could just stumble across a new book and sit and indulge in it right then and there. 


Watch movies 

So, I heard Wonder Woman is coming out – oh, missed another one. There’s still a Blockbuster Video hire store proximal to me and my membership card is going to get a workout these Christmas holidays as I binge my way into the modern cinematic era.  


See my friends 

Supposing any of them even remember me, I am really looking forward to having the time to actually see my friends. Not just liking their posts on FB; not just giving them an apologetic wave on my way past their classroom to do my photocopying; not just indefinitely rescheduling lunch with them. I miss having the time to go for our weekly walks and play in the park with my nephewling and wander around Southbank browsing the markets chatting even though it’s always the same stuff for sale. I miss having the time somewhere in my foreseeable future in which I could fly to Rockhampton or Gladstone for a weekend to spend time with my more distant friends. Studying and teaching full-time has been impossible to balance with sustaining non-daily relationships and I am so grateful to have the amazing (and understanding) friends I’ve got. I’m excited to see more of all of you. 


See my family 

As above. While I’m quite sure my parents haven’t forgotten they have a daughter, it would be prudent to remind them more frequently to ensure this never happens. Also I miss them. I would like to find more time to visit with my cousins and grandma, who are relatively local, and to get to New Zealand more to see my family over there. Everyone is very supportive of me and my study, of course, and I’m grateful for that encouragement and belief in me, but it sucks how much time it’s sapping from me at this crunch-time point. 


Watch TV 

People are always like, “Are you up to date with Supernatural?” “Have you watched Battlestar Galactica?” “Did you ever end up finishing Hannibal?” I have SO MUCH television to catch up on, and also have other great shows coming out later this year that I’m invested in: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for one, and Stranger Things, which are both releasing their second season right after my thesis is submitted. How fateful is that??! 


WRITE!! 

The one you’re all waiting to hear. Yes! The weekly ritual of devoting two hours on a Wednesday night to creative writing has been cute, but is hardly a replacement for good, wholesome writing time. I’m looking forward to whole weekends where I get lost in a scene and have to be reminded to eat. When half my brain is stuck in a guilt cycle of “You should really be working on something else right now, shouldn’t you…?” it’s been impossible to make any real progress on my actual books this year. I’m eager to shrug something off and replace it with book writing.


Now all I need to do is maintain the illusion that finishing the thesis will clear out my schedule completely, and to forget that the thesis deadline falls at the start of reporting season at school, and to forget that report cards are followed by Year 2 swimming week, and to forget that swimming week is followed by classroom clean-up… I need a holiday from my life.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Book Review: Devil's Advocate, by Jonathan Maberry

Devil's Advocate (The X-Files: Origins, #2)Devil's Advocate by Jonathan Maberry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved so much about this book. I didn't know what to expect as I hadn't read the author before, but that left only room to be impressed. Set around what those of us in the know can recognise immediately as an X-File (of the paranormal experiment conspiracy type), teenage Dana Scully explores an early interest in the occult and paranormal before this faith is burnt, revealing the inner sceptic we know and love from the series later in her life. The depiction of little Scully is very satisfying - she's the classic good-girl, of course, smart and sensible, but she sticks up for herself and the voice Maberry delivers her in is entirely believable as a young version of the Scully we meet in the pilot. As the story follows a fifteen-year-old Dana, we get an insight into her childhood and family life that before we could only infer, and it too is gratifying, in particular the relationship between Dana and Melissa. Scully's sister is only a relatively small recurring role, for a short time, in the series, but is expanded here to depict a truly loving and close sisterhood between the girls, with Dana as the little sister always looking up to the elder but simultaneously growing into her own person. The dynamic is warm and fun, and I took great pleasure from the many passages of prose where the girls shared a scene. The other highlight for me were the words themselves. I wish I could remember every playful or meaningful line, but there were too many; the characterisation surprisingly consistent for an adult male writing a teen girl (extra kudos) and so there are many great and quotable Scully-esque lines from her inner monologue. There were many places where I stopped to reread a line or paragraph because I love a beautiful arrangement of words, but I suppose nothing compares with little Dana admitting she has visions, or naively uttering the famous lines 'The truth is out there' and 'I want to believe' years before she would ever meet Mulder. Really, really happy with this book, and only wish I'd had the time to read it more solidly, because X-Files is made for bingeing. Recommended for Scully fans.

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