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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