My Votes for the Goodreads Awards!

November 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

So, I just voted in the Goodreads Best Books of 2014. I’m not the greatest advocate of Goodreads, given its affiliation with Amazon, but I voted in the poll for two main reasons:

  1. Much as we may hate to admit it, Goodreads is an important platform for authors, especially up-and-coming ones. Authors frequently request that if you enjoyed their book, you should leave a positive or starred review on Goodreads. I can’t review every book I read, so I do sometimes like to do this for the books I enjoyed. To be a ‘Goodreads Best Book’ is quite a boon for a book, so why not put my two cents in and help out the authors who have made my year awesome?
  2. I really like filling out surveys.

Oh, and I really only voted in categories where I’d read more than one of the books. Just FYI.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Fiction:

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld was, hands down, the best of the selection. This book is magical and sorrowful, and exceptionally moving. The author knows what she’s talking about, as she has worked closely with death row inmates. Read The Enchanted, and you might find yourself rethinking how you see death row criminals. Especially when you get to the unexpected, agonizing reveal at the end.

 Best Fantasy:

Tough choice, but had to go to Queen of the Tearling. One of my two favourite fantasies of the year, tied with Kim Wilkin’s Daughters of the Storm. If Emma Watson’s endorsement of QoT isn’t enough to tell you that this book is amazing, take my word for it: this is the next Hunger Games.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In by John ScalziScience Fiction:

Best Science Fiction:

For someone who doesn’t think they read SF, this was a surprisingly difficult choice. It came down to a trade off between Annihiliation by Jeff Vandermeer and Lock in by John Scalzi. Lock In won out, due to the sheer obsession that it incited in me for the short time it took to read it. The concepts and the plot will have you thinking long after you finish it!

 Horror Fiction:

I was torn between three contenders for this one. I loved Sarah Lotz’s The Three, was glued to Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, and The Girl with All the Gifts had me in its thrall from its first page to the last. All of these deserved my vote and the exposure that the Goodreads Best Book title might provide. However, at the end of the day, I wasn’t 100% sure that Girl with All the Gifts is true horror. Gotta make a decision somehow, so I scratched it. And The Three was pretty scary, but it didn’t incite the gleeful revulsion that Broken Monsters did. So, my vote went to the latter, with honorable mentions to two other books I really did love this year.

 Graphic Novel and Comics:

Saga. Always Saga. Nothing further.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Debut Goodreads Author:

Red Rising by Pierce Brown, which is one of the few books I have read twice this year. Honorable mention to QoT, which I almost voted for again, I loved it so much. Side note: pretty excited for Son of Ares to come out in Jan!

 YA Fiction:

We Were Liars by E. E. Lockhart. What a wonderful book. It’s impossible to tell you why, because of the twist at the end. The twist that you might see coming, that might sound predictable if I were to explain it to you, but which feels like an ice-cold glass of water poured slowly over your head as you come to realize you’ve been fooled all along… We Were Liars.

 YA Fantasy and Sci Fi:

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

Titles I considered nominating were: Red Rising (again); Laini Taylor’s Dreams of Gods and Monsters; and Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi. Dreams of Gods and Monsters was out of the running for one very simple reason – I haven’t read it yet. I loved DOSAB so very much that I keep finding reasons not to read Dreams of Gods and Monsters, because I simply can’t bear for it to be over. This might be a reason to vote for it in and of itself, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of Ignite Me. Red Rising obviously got scratched from this section because I’d already voted for it, and I wanted to share the love.

I would never have picked up Shatter Me, if it wasn’t for the recommendation of one of my dearest friends. Earlier this year, I burned through Tahereh’s trilogy obsessively. Ignite Me has everything – beautiful, poetic writing; a wonderful protag; a really exciting magic system; a dystopian society to be scared of, and a very intriguing romantic lead. (shoutout to Chapter 62!) I LOVED it, and it’s one of my favourite books of the year.

Did you vote in the Goodreads Best Books awards? Who got your vote?

Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins: 5-star Fantasy

November 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

Daughters of the Storm cover art

Daughters of the Storm cover art

The warrior.

Through blood and steel, Bluebell has forged a reputation as an unkillable soldier. The eldest of the five princesses, she is fiercely protective of her family, unashamedly bloodthirsty in battle, and is ruthless in her decision-making. Pragmatic though she may be, though, Bluebell is not heartless.

Nothing is more important to her than peace in the land she will one day inherit, with the possible exception of her father’s health. When she discovers that the King has been poisoned with elf magic, she will stop at nothing to find the cure – and the person who cursed him.

 The magician.

For years, Ash has lived the academic life. Her elders tell her that the second sight she experiences cannot have manifested in one as young as she, but the truth is that she is plagued with unearthly visitations all the time. Ash abandons her studies without a second thought when she receives a sending from Bluebell, asking her to join her on journey back to their father’s kingdom. As the King’s condition is made clear, Ash realizes that the answer to his recovery may lie in the dark world of undermagic – and she may have to lead her sisters to its heart.

 The lover.

Rose was married to King Wengest as a peace offering brokered by Bluebell for the good of the kingdom. Her life with him is not uncomfortable, but Rose pines unendingly for Heath, the lover she can no longer be with. Her daughter Rowan brings her some happiness, but the possibility of Wengest discovering her true parentage is always looming.

It is Heath himself who accompanies Rose and little Rowan back to AElmesse. On the road together, and even in the larger convoy with Bluebell and her other sisters, Rose cannot deny herself the pleasure of Heath’s company.
Bluebell, who does not have room in her heart for a lover (or so Rose believes), warns her sister that her passion is not only selfish, but also dangerous. Fed up with having her love life dictated by political motivations, Rose ignores Bluebell’s instruction. The price for her disloyalty will be steeper than she realizes.

 The zealot.

Fifteen-year-old Willow wants only to be a loyal servant of the one true god Maava. Her twin Ivy disapproves of her piety, and the kingdom at large does not recognize the trimatyr faith, but Willow knows these are just trials she must endure. Though she barely knows her father, she is happy to care for him while her siblings leave to find an undermagician who can cure him. Alone with the king and his remaining guard, Willow is visited by Maava’s angels. She knows her destiny now: to become pregnant with the kingdom’s first trimatyr king.

The gossip. 

Although she is Willow’s twin, Ivy is truly the youngest of the princesses. Perpetually aware of her royal lineage, Ivy expects to be treated with the respect she feels she deserves – especially by the men who catch her eye. She resents being forced to go along with Bluebell’s attempt to find a cure for her father’s illness, and she’s immeasurably bored. That is, until she meets Heath.
Determined to take him to bed, Ivy can’t understand why he keeps rebuffing her. Despite this, Ivy follows him around with the determination of an infatuated teenager. She comes to realize that Heath’s heart belongs to her sister; her sister who is, in fact, queen of a neighboring kingdom.
Against her wishes, Ivy is sent to bring Rowan home to her father while Rose continues on with Bluebell and Ash. On the long journey back to Folcenham, Ivy considers the valuable information she has gleaned about her sister’s fidelity. What kind of trouble could she cause with this one small fact?

I do love a nice, magical forest. With a touch of eeriness about it, if possible.

I do love a nice, magical forest. With a touch of eeriness about it, if possible. Plenty of those in DotS.

Daughters of the Storm was pitched to me as ‘a female-centric Game of Thrones’. I’m always wary of comparisons to popular franchises, because I think they’ll inevitably be disappointing. Furthermore, I hadn’t read anything from Kim Wilkins before and didn’t really have any idea of whether she could pull off such a feat. I did, however, attend some of Kim’s lectures when I was a student, so I decided to take up the offer of the ARC.

DotS offers up a palate of political intrigue that is almost on par with GoT, so the comparison is actually not an unfair one. Just like in GoT, there is much contention for the throne, but in DotS, the contenders for the crown are mostly trying to preserve the tentative diplomatic balance that already exists.

What stands out most about Daughters of the Storm is the highly polished characterization. Bluebell is one of the best protagonists I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel, regardless of her gender. When you consider her as a female character…well. She stomps all over her competition.
Bluebell doesn’t upend any gender roles, necessarily. She simply doesn’t pay any attention to them. She’s a battle-hardened soldier by choice, covered in sinew and tattoos, and dresses in practical soldier’s garb all of the time. She expects to be referred to as ‘my lord’ instead of ‘princess’, and her sword is rather amusingly named the Widowsmith.

But unlike, say, Brienne of Tarth, Bluebell is not hiding her femininity. It’s actually a part of her, just as much as her tattoos, or her sword. Bluebell is the heir to the kingdom, and she must make the political decisions everyone else is too scared to. As pragmatic as she can be, she does so with a degree of compassion and kindness that belies a feminine nature. In Bluebell, Wilkins has created a leader, a sister, a woman to be scared of – and all without making her an imitation of a man.

Kim Wilkins - click to go to her website.

Kim Wilkins – click to go to her website.

The scope of personalities that exist among Bluebell’s four sisters and the rest of the characters are varied and engrossing. The narrative plays out so well because each of the women has her own complex motivation and life story. Through the eponymous Daughters, Wilkins draws the reader into a world where politics matter, but where relationships are more important. She gives us a female leader who is not a matriarch, and not a queen, but a king.

Daughters of the Storm is one of my two favourite fantasy books of the year. It is my favourite Australian book of the year, hands down. If you’re a fan of the fantasy genre at all, I highly recommend this book to you.

Brisbane readers, do your bit to support your local independent booksellers, and pick up your copy of Daughters of the Storm from Pulp Fiction!  Also, like Kim Wilkins on Facebook here for updates and fun DotS stuff. Plus, she’s a cool lady.

International readers can pick up a digital Daughters of the Storm from Harlequin here. More news on where to buy it from if you’re outside Australia to come soon.

Still not sure? (Seriously?) Check a sample chapter here.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks to Pulp Fiction for the advanced copy, and to Bent Books for sourcing some of Kim’s other books for me. Thank you to Fantasy Faction for sharing this post, and also to Kim Wilkins, for putting up with my excitement for the last few weeks! 

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen and the Buffy Legacy

October 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a brilliant, groundbreaking show. The majority of the women in the show are unashamedly fierce, but there are also many who aren’t – just like REAL women! And the same goes for the men; some of them are stubborn and painfully arrogant, some of them are smart, shy and quiet (hiiii Oz), and some of them have hidden depths that only TRUE FANS appreciate. (Okay, I may still be a bit hung up on Spike. But who isn’t?!) There were vampires, werewolves, demons, ventriloquist dummies, goddesses, Keys, witches and proms. Don’t you miss it?

Harmony - will you ever learn? (she didn't)

Harmony – will you ever learn? (she didn’t)

Long before Willow turned dark, before Buffy died (the first time), and before Anya started threatening to hit things with frying pans, the Hellmouth opened beneath Sunnydale High School. A sixteen-year-old blonde chick showed up and started hacking away at the demons that began to manifest in and around the high school. The rest, as they say, is…well; it’s seasons two through seven.

Many attempts have been made to resurrect BTVS. Comics, novels, fanfic, Angel – you name it, the creators and the show’s fans have attempted it. Although I enjoyed them (and, uh, may have participated in the fanfic), I don’t really think any of these forays has truly captured the spirit of those glorious early days.

Readers of The Novelettes, I hold in my hands the legacy to BTVS. It is Michelle Knudsen’s Evil Librarian.

From Buzzfeed - #Sunnydale problems

From Buzzfeed – #Sunnydale problems

Cyn and Annie, best friends since who-knows-when, share everything. Under the rules of best-friendship, Annie has been subjected to Cyn’s mooning over Ryan Hadley for years. Really, it’s lucky that Annie hasn’t ever really had a crush of the same magnitude, because Cyn does enough swooning for the both of them.

As technical director of the school’s production of Sweeney Todd, Cyn isn’t really all that interested in the goings-on of the school library. And neither is Annie, really – until Mr. Gabriel arrives. The new school librarian is young, disturbingly handsome and just a little bit too charismatic for Cyn’s liking, but Annie has fallen head over heels for him. Mr. Gabriel seems to be taken with Annie too, which would be repulsive enough all by itself – but when Cyn walks in on the librarian covered in the blood of another teacher, she knows for certain: Annie’s life is in danger.

“An evil librarian is taking over the school. He appears to be making my best friend his special evil library monitor.”

All over the school, students are exhibiting disturbing signs of some kind of brainwashing. Only Cyn, and the object of her affections, Ryan, seem to notice that the zombie-like entrancements are connected with Mr. Gabriel. All of a sudden, Cyn and Ryan find themselves in the middle of a demon war – with their high school as the battlegrounds.

“Because, you know, evil demon librarians, not so much known for the honesty policy.”

Seriously, though, Cyn’s got other things on her mind than stopping the denizens from hell ripping her school to shreds. She’s only got three weeks until Sweeney Todd’s opening night, and there’s so much to do! Normally, she’d need a lot of time to analyse the progress between she and Ryan, but she’s had to put all that energy into saving Annie from becoming a demon bride.

But she loves Annie. So much so that she’d go to Hell and back to save her. Which is lucky, since that’s exactly what she’s going to have to do.

My favourite cover art of the year.

My favourite cover art of the year.

Since reading Fangirl, I’ve been more interested than normal in well-developed romances, particularly those that are a sidebar to the main plot. Ryan and Cyn’s story is just the right balance of awkwardness, humour and sweet determination to get it right. Just like Cath in Fangirl, Cyn’s relationship with Ryan develops and grows along with Cyn. That is the sign of a romantic subplot done right!

Although Evil Librarian is being touted as Knudsen’s YA debut, I really believe that adults are going to get just as much out of this novel – if not more – than teenage readers. At twenty-four, high school might be over for me, but BTVS dialogue is still present in my everyday life (whether my friends know it or not). I think that as an adult, you might have the capacity to find this book funny in a way that teenagers won’t yet be able to.

“He looks at me again and the flames vanish and the knife is gone and his voice goes light and breezy and all coffee-shop conversational, as if he wasn’t just one second ago impaling me with fiery eyes and discussing the dark fate of my best friend and the souls of all my classmates.”

Evil Librarian feels original and familiar all at once. It’s funny, dramatic, kind of gross and very sweet. Without ever copying anything from Joss Whedon, Knudsen manages to capture everything that I loved about Buffy and bring it to an original setting in a new universe. It’s selflessness and scathing sarcasm in the face of the actual bloodthirsty monsters. It’s flippant quips when your world it is coming crashing down around your ears. It’s the ferocity of adolescence, channeled into all-encompassing friendship; the kind of friendship you’d die for.

Want a copy of Evil Librarian? If you’re in Brisbane, grab one from Pulp Fiction, now at Adelaide Street.

PS – I have a Gentleman T-shirt. I don’t actually wear it in public because it’s kind of scary. But here you go:

Hush, hush.

Hush, hush.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: How to be an Introvert

October 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Fangirl cover art by Noelle Stevenson

Fangirl cover art by Noelle Stevenson

Cath has always preferred the fictional world over reality. She particularly loves the Simon Snow series, about a boy and his vampire roommate at school for the magically gifted. In fact, maybe “love” is not a strong enough word for how Cath feels about Simon and his vampiric frenemy, Baz. After all, she is the author of Carry On, Simon, the most widely read Simon Snow fanfic on the Internet. When she was younger, Cath used to write Carry On, Simon with her twin sister, Wren. Even though she’s always been the more outgoing one, Wren was always supportive of Cath’s reclusive ways. But as they prepare for their first year of college, Cath’s worst nightmare comes true – Wren doesn’t want to share a dorm room. Completely unprepared to broach a campus life without Wren by her side, Cath feels her anxiety rear its ugly head. She’s tempted to just stay at home in the bedroom she and Wren have always shared, but her father insists that she give the college life a try. Vivacious Wren takes to college like a duck to water. She’s on top of her classes, she gets on well with her roommate, and her social life is booming. Between attending parties and recovering from them, Wren doesn’t have any time for Cath. Reagan, Cath’s roommate, is…not someone Cath would normally choose to spend time with. She’s bossy, loud, has no qualms about speaking her mind and she thinks Cath needs a life. Cath doesn’t necessarily disagree, but she’d rather not be told so often (and so loudly). Reagan’s friend Levi is always hanging around, interrupting Cath’s much-needed writing time with persistent attempts to get to know her. Spending time with Reagan and Levi is uncomfortable, but not unpleasant, and she starts to settle in. She’s coping with her classes, still on top of Carry On, Simon, and is even managing without Wren. Cath is okay. And then, she’s not. The slow unraveling of her life does not take Cath by surprise; rather, her stress creeps up on her cumulatively (slowly, and then all at once?). She fails one of her papers, and she’s stumped as to how to approach the next one. Her slowly developing relationship with Levi grinds to a screeching halt when she walks in on him kissing another girl. Her estranged mother returns to her life, and wants to get to know the daughters she abandoned. Their mentally ill father relapses, and Wren is AWOL when Cath needs her.

If given the choice between going to a party and sitting at home with a book and a cup of tea, I, like Cath, will invariably choose the latter. When faced with a confronting situation, my brain, like Cath’s, will invariably choose to assume that the worst-case scenario is happening. It would not be unreasonable for me to call myself a fangirl…I do own a replica of Hermione’s wand, after all. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the Simon Snow series pays homage to Harry Potter, and I know my readers won’t be surprised to hear that I relate to the Harry Potter novels in the same way that Cath does to Simon Snow (minus the fanfic). Ninety percent of the time, I feel more comfortable in the fictional world than I do in the real world. Fangirl is Cath’s story. And it’s also mine. fangirl1   When I read the blurb on the back of the novel, I predicted that this book would end with Cath moving on from Carry On, Simon, emerging from her life as the eponymous Fangirl and participating in the real world along with her sister. But Cath’s fandom is a part of her identity, and the author did not belittle this. Instead of becoming a more “socially acceptable” person, Cath simply becomes a stronger version of herself. I loved that the author represented Cath’s relationships with her sister and her mother in a realistic light. Wren is not a perfect person. The novel’s resolution did not see her realizing the error of her ways and becoming the supportive, attentive sister Cath needs. Instead, Cath came to terms with Wren’s role in her life, and appreciated her for what she could offer her. How wonderful, and how empowering, to read about a character afflicted with stressful situations and relationships that she does not necessarily fix, but learns to manage. I loved that. It was also refreshing to find that, although the plot does incorporate a budding relationship, romance was not the focus of the novel. Instead, it is a part of the larger story that is Cath’s life, and the way that she comes to be with Levi is all wrapped up in her development as a person. I loved Fangirl in a way that made me feel both protective and proud of it. I actually delayed finishing it, I loved it so much.But I also wanted to buy a hundred copies of it and give one to everyone I know, so that they might have the opportunity to feel as comforted as I did when I finished this book. No matter how I may feel about John Green these days, I have to say, he summarized this feeling perfectly in The Fault in Our Stars:

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”

This book is for anyone who is “very active in the fandom”. It’s for anyone who has ever experienced the endless, stifling pressure that is anxiety. It is for the black sheep, the outcasts and especially, for the introverts. It’s for the readers and the writers, and the Harry Potter lovers. It’s for you.

The Upside of Being an Introvert by Noelle Stevenson

The Upside of Being an Introvert by Noelle Stevenson

Brisbane readers can pick up a copy of Fangirl at Pulp Fiction Booksellers, now located on Adelaide Street. Visit their website here for more details, or for info on how to place a mail order.

Omens by Kelley Armstrong: The Female Protagonist We Deserve

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cover art for Omens

Cover art for Omens

Olivia Taylor-Jones has lived a life of privilege. Adopted into a wealthy family as a small child, she spends her time volunteering at a women’s shelter. She’s engaged to a promising young man with senatorial aspirations, and she has the freedom to attend as many charity dinners as her societal obligations should require.
When the news breaks that the Olivia is the long-lost daughter of renowned serial killers, her world is shaken. Her biological mother all but disowns her and her fiancée is primarily concerned about how this bad press might affect his political career. Hounded by the media, she takes cover in the small town of Cainsville.
Olivia’s biological mother, Pamela, reaches out to her from jail. She swears to her daughter that she didn’t commit the murders she’s been convicted of, and implores Olivia to investigate the crimes for herself.
In need of some legal expertise, Olivia teams up with a local lawyer, Gabriel Walsh. As she delves deeper into her biological parents’ past, she unearths more than a couple of sinister secrets. But with crucial information on the line, she has no choice but to push on with her research – no matter the cost.

 Never having read any of Kelley Armstrong’s books before, I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Omens. I probably wouldn’t have looked at it twice if my bookseller hadn’t told me it was about “a small country town where everything is not as it seems”. So I took a chance, and I bought it. At first, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked the book’s premise. Then I found myself looking for opportunities to sneak a few extra pages in. And then, at about the halfway point, I could barely put Omens down.

Kelley Armstrong is well known for her paranormal romance series, Otherworld. From what I understand, this series is fairly popular, so one can imagine that divergence from her most successful genre would have been a risky endeavor. In some ways, I suppose, this reflects the shift Charlaine Harris made when she published Midnight Crossing. Although I liked the new Harris offering, Armstrong has definitely made the transition much more seamlessly. Where Charlaine Harris was unable to fully release the vampire trope that catapulted her into the mainstream, Armstrong begins Omens with a clean slate. No vampires, no werewolves, no obvious supernatural entities. But there is a kind of psychic energy in the air in Cainsville, and the elders of the small town seem to be able to tap into it.

One crow sorrow, two crows mirth...

One crow sorrow, two crows mirth…

 Omens is written in first person, from the perspective of Olivia Taylor-Jones – also known as Eden Larsen. It is frightfully tempting to bring out all the cliché adjectives to describe her: strong, smart, determined, beautiful…but that would trivialize how brilliant she is. 

Olivia is not strong – she is fierce. She finds out her parents are serial killers, leading to her wealthy biological mother disowning her. On top of that, her fiancée is less than supportive, and the media are having a field day. Now, if this happened to me, I’d dissolve into a quivering mess of anxiety and hole up in my bedroom until it passed. Not so, Olivia. Fighting her way through the press, she flings her engagement ring at her undeserving fiancée, withdraws a small amount of cash from her sizeable trust fund and hits the road. The transition from a life of luxury and privilege to borderline poverty does not faze Olivia. Bracing herself against new challenges, she finds a job, works her butt off, and establishes a new life in Cainsville.
She is not just smart – she is shrewd and tenacious. Faced with the challenge of proving her parents’ innocence, she enlists notoriously aggressive lawyer, Gabriel. Without her former wealth behind her, Olivia relies on her intellect and astute observation skills to negotiate for Gabriel’s service. And once he’s on board, Olivia refuses to play the role of coddled client. Instead, she forces Gabriel to lower his fees by stepping up as his assistant. And she kills it in the legal research department, of course.
To wrap up my rhapsody on Olivia – she has a degree in Victorian literature, has no interest in being a senator’s wife, and can read meaning in the “omens” littered throughout her life. What else do you want in a protagonist?
Oh, and just a note on romance – there is none. Given that this is the first book in a series, there’s definitely room for it to be developed, but for now, readers will enjoy getting to know Olivia (and, perhaps, Gabriel…).

Welcome to Cainsville.

Welcome to Cainsville.

Omens is the kind of unassuming book that you might ordinarily pass by. It sort of doesn’t fit the exact parameters of either crime or fantasy, but rather straddles the two. The unfortunate truth is that because it takes a little from columns A and B, readers of both genres might bypass it. However, I could. Not. Put. It. Down. So if you’re willing to try something a bit different, and you’re somewhat fascinated with small-town stories and/or murder, you might like to pick up Omens next time you visit your local bookseller. Take heed, though you might want to cancel your plans for the next few days…

Like the sound of Omens? You might also enjoy Midnight Crossing by Charlaine Harris. Check out my review!

Sycamore Row: It’s As Good As I Wanted It To Be

July 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

Cover art for Sycamore Row

Cover art for Sycamore Row

Three years after his success in the infamous Hailey trial, Jake Brigance’s clientele are nearly non-existent. He’s still recuperating from the Klan attacks on his now destroyed home, and he’s barely scraping by financially. Although the Clanton community respects Jake for the stand he took for Carl-Lee, the town is still divided by deep-seated racism.
Dying of lung cancer, wealthy lumberyard magnate Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on Sycamore Row. The day after Hubbard’s suicide, Jake receives a handwritten letter from the deceased man. The letter contains very specific instructions for Jake: Hubbard has written a new will, one that abolishes all of his previous wills, and he wants Jake to defend it in court.

Previously, Seth Hubbard’s substantial estate had been left to his two greedy children. The new holographic will, however, stipulates that 90% of his fortune goes to his black housekeeper, Lettie Lang.

Eager for the work, Jake takes on the responsibility of defending the will. Unsurprisingly, the former beneficiaries of the Hubbard estate contest the new stipulations, arguing that Lettie exerted undue influence over their dying father. Lettie herself is less happy about her potential inheritance than she is confused about why she’s been chosen as its heir.
Did Seth have a reason to leave his money to his housekeeper? Or did he do it just to antagonize the children who abandoned him in his illness? Did his children deserve to be publicly shamed by the insinuation that they are nothing but selfish money-hounds? Where is the long-lost brother to whom Seth has left five percent of his estate? And why did he disappear in the first place?
With an unprecedented fortune on the line, Clanton is once again catapulted into a racial conflict. The trial looms closer, and the significance of Seth Hubbard’s decision becomes apparent – but unless Jake and his legal team can uncover his reasoning, their case seems doomed.

***

Sycamore Row is the sequel to A Time to Kill, which is one of my very favourite novels, but I didn’t rush out and buy Sycamore Row when it was released. The premise didn’t exactly grab me. ATTK is about a murder trial – how could a will contest possibly be as exciting?

Well, it’s not. There’s not as much on the line as there was in the Hailey case of ATTK, and somehow, it doesn’t matter as much. But I enjoyed Sycamore Row as much as ATTK, although for different reasons.
While A Time to Kill is dark and suspenseful, Sycamore Row is more focused on characterization. For fans of ATTK, it’s interesting to see how Jake and his family have coped with the aftermath of the Hailey trial. Because the plot of A Time to Kill is so absorbing, it’s easy to forget how great Grisham’s characterization can be. Rufus Buckley, made famous by Kevin Spacey in the ATTK film (in something of a pre-Underwood performance, if you ask me), shows up again in a rather different capacity than when we last saw him. Lucien Wilbanks, still a drunk, is determined to re-sit the bar exam and practice law again, inspired by the intrigue of the Carl-Lee Hailey case. And Harry Rex, vile as ever, is still the greatest legal mind in the area.

Rufus Buckley, you evil SOB.

Rufus Buckley, you evil SOB.

I particularly liked Portia, Lettie Lang’s daughter, who returns to Clanton from deployment in the army. Determined to help her mother win the money that could change her life, Portia takes a position on Jake’s team as a paralegal. Polished, articulate and a formidable academic, Portia is something of an outcast in her family. But her dedication to her mother and her determination to ensure a fair verdict is both moving and inspiring. Even better is her relationship with Jake – Portia has no qualms about giving her boss her honest opinion, even to the point of argument, but Jake respects her all the more for it. Unlike in ATTK, though, where Jake and Roark came close to having an affair, Jake and Portia’s relationship is wholly platonic, and I loved seeing it unfold.

A sequel twenty-five years in the making, Sycamore Row is a worthy successor to Grisham’s wonderful breakout novel. Although the plot doesn’t move as quickly as ATTK, Sycamore Row does still have some twists up its sleeve. It also takes an insightful look at the way that wealth and its transfer can affect people, both as individuals and a community at large. Regular readers and my real-life friends will know that I never really recuperated from the season finale of True Detective. Something about that show…I can’t even really explain it. It’s like a part of me got stuck in the South with Rust and Woody, searching for the King in Yellow. Ever since the end of TD, I’ve been drawn to books set in the South. So I enjoyed Sycamore Row for the chance to return to the South, to the troubled town of Clanton, amongst characters I was happy to see again. Recommended!

Gratuitous Jake Brigance, because he's lovely

Gratuitous Jake Brigance, because he’s lovely

The Three: A Horror Novel for Skeptics

June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cover art for The Three

Cover art for The Three

On Black Friday, 2011, four planes went down at exactly the same time, in four separate corners of the globe. Only three children survive – in Japan, Hiro; in America, Bobby; and in the UK, Jess, whose twin sister and parents perished.
  With no explanation as to why the planes crashed, the survival of the children – dubbed ‘The Three’ by the ravenous press – is nothing short of a miracle.
  Bereft of their parents, The Three are placed into the custody of their next-of-kin. While their new guardians are overjoyed to have them alive, each becomes concerned, and then disturbed, by the children’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.

For me, horror novels present the ultimate obstacle in the suspension of disbelief. In order to accept that Carrie is going to rain fire on her bullies, we first must accept that she has telekinetic powers. Somehow, I find it harder to accept this version of reality than the one i in which a Ministry of Magic hides an entire population among everyday British citizens. Maybe that’s because horror, as a genre, doesn’t need to establish an entirely new world from the ground up in order to set the stage for its conflict.

The Three is a horror novel for skeptics. For one thing, it doesn’t take a great leap of faith to imagine the terror that would arise from four planes going down at the same time in different parts of the world. With this narrative device, Lotz draws upon an all-too-familiar fear that the world as we know it is about to change. As I didn’t really have a problem believing that planes could be the modern harbinger of “end times”, the novel sucked me in from the get-go.

South African author Sarah Lotz

South African author Sarah Lotz

All over the globe, people are reacting to the events of Black Friday. In America, Pastor Len believes that The Three are the first of the four horsemen, and that their arrival is a sign that Judgment Day is close at hand. Evangelism borders on mass hysteria as the Bible Belt latches on to Pastor Len’s message. In Japan, a cult forms around Hiro, the six-year-old survivor of the plane that went down in Osaka. Hiro’s eighteen-year-old cousin, Chiyoko, whose family is bound up in the creation of “surrabot” androids, is now his primary carer. Chiyoko’s online conversations, detailing how she feels about the events of Black Thursday and Hiro himself, form the basis of Hiro’s story. This was my favourite subplot of the novel. In England, Paul struggles to care for his niece Jess as her behavior becomes increasingly disturbing.

The Three is written in an epistolary format – that is, as a series of documents and clippings. It’s also a book within a book, given that the majority of the novel is taken up with excerpts from investigative journalist Elspeth’s narrative history of Black Thursday and its aftermath. This format, which readers might recognize from the recent horror hit World War Z, tends to officiate a horror story in a way that traditional prose cannot. For the skeptical reader, it can be tough to accept not only the apparatus of horror, but also a single, or limited, perspective of the event. The story of The Three is more believable because of the number of people telling it, their various relationships to the incident and the children themselves, and their differing characters. Each of the characters brings a different set of biases, personalities traits and circumstances to the Black Thursday tragedy, and through their collective perspectives, we see an ominous truth being shaped.

US cover art for The Three

US cover art for The Three

The narrative emerges piece by piece from all over the world. It’s a slow burn, and at first, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. The lack of specificity lends an unshakeable sense of eeriness to the novel – the reader is constantly questioning the nature of Black Friday and The Three, because something simply doesn’t feel right.

The uneasy feeling of foreboding culminates in an epilogue that can only be described as downright scary. Elspeth, the author of the “book within a book”, decides to revisit the story of The Three, and travels to the infamous suicide forest in Japan. What she finds there will likely have you sleeping with the light on for a few nights after you finish the book.

Why would they need a reason? Why do we hunt when we have enough to eat? Why do we kill each other over trifles? What makes you think they needed any more motivation other than to simply see what might happen?

The Three is a horror novel for people who think they don’t like horror novels. Lotz is a master of suspense, and her characterization is far better than I’ve come to expect from the horror genre. With the international scope of World War Z and the intensely personal nature of Dictaphone transcripts, internet conversations and journal entries, The Three leaves no stone unturned. If you’re in the mood for something scary, this novel is worth your time.

Want a copy? Brisbanites, head to Pulp Fiction’s new store on Adelaide Street! Visit their Facebook page here. Wherever you may be, be sure to support your independent booksellers!

Are you a fan of horror? Check out these reviews, too!
M. R. Carey’s THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
Jeff Vandermeer’s ANNIHILATION
a
nd Mira Grant’s PARASITE

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