The Best Books I Read in 2014

December 21, 2014 § 1 Comment

2014 has been a busy year for me, and sadly that means I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would like. But in between work and study, I devote almost all of my spare time to reading, and I have encountered some wonderful books this year. Some of them, I can’t wait to write about, and I will have jumped straight online to review them. Others, I hold to myself, and try in vain to put together the words that would accurately portray how much I loved them. So here is a list of the best books I read in 2014 – some that I raved about and some that I quietly loved. All wonderful!

  1. Daughters of the Storm – Kim Wilkins

2014 1I don’t want to be that boring reviewer who just keeps saying how much she loves something, but…I love this book. I have pushed it onto everyone I possibly could, because I believe there’s something for everyone in Daughters of the Storm, which features my favourite character of the entire year – Bluebell. This one of the ones I wanted to rave about immediately after finishing, so you can read my review here. Also, side note – Kim Wilkins is absolutely lovely, so you can add that to the list of reasons to buy this book.

  1. Queen of the Tearling – Erika Johansen

Before I read Daughters of the Storm, I would have said that QoT was my favourite fantasy of the year. Now, I’d have to tie it, but it’s still brilliant. I haven’t had as much success convincing my friends and family to try this book, but it’s just as deserving as Daughters. Kelsea, the hero of this novel, is at once a mash up of Danearys Targaryen, Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger, and an entirely fresh character. Emma Watson got on board with Queen of the Tearling, so you know this is gonna be good. I will review this one in the coming months, as I plan a reread!

  1. Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone. It’s so hard to put into words how I felt reading this book. Maybe “emotional” would be a good starting place, but it still doesn’t even tap the surface of how it feels to be a part of the world that Ree and her brothers inhabit, if only for those 193 pages. Winter’s Bone is harsh and stark, in setting and in prose, but it is uplifting and life affirming at its close. Not only one of the best books I read this year, but one of the greatest I’ve ever read.

  1. The Last Policeman – Ben H. Winters 

2014 7I finished The Last Policeman only recently, and am still unsure of whether I want to read its sequel. You see, The Last Policeman was so affecting, so distressing, that I don’t know if I’m ready for another installment. An asteroid is six months away from hitting the Earth and devastating all human life, and recently qualified Detective Palace is called to investigate what appears to be another pre-apocalypse suicide. Existential in philosophy, hard-boiled in nature, The Last Policeman is traumatic and an exceptional work of genre fiction.

  1. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

I’m not one for chick lit, and I don’t go in for romance – so I was happy to find that Fangirl was neither. I have reviewed Fangirl (you can read it here), and I have rhapsodized about how it elevates fandom as a means of identity, so I won’t bore you with my love for the book all over again. What I will say, though, is that Rainbow Rowell recently announced that she is writing Carry On – the Harry Potter-esque novel upon which Cath’s fanfiction is based. TRUST ME WHEN I SAY THAT I HAVE A GIANT SMILE ON MY FACE AS I TYPE THIS.

  1. The Scorpio Races – Maggie Stiefvater

2014 3Maggie Stiefvater definitely has the capacity to become one of my favourite YA authors. I’ve read Shiver, the first in her werewolf trilogy and loved it, but sort of forgot to read the rest. For some reason, I picked up The Scorpio Races a few weeks ago, and for twenty four hours, nobody could see my face because the novel was stuck in front of it at all times. The Scorpio Races is a standalone novel about water horses, the dangerous animals that emerge from the sea every year on a Gaelic island. With sparse, melodic prose, Stiefvater paints a portrait of an insular community with its own set of values and ideals, and the two people who subvert those for the love of family, and of horses.

After reading The Scorpio Races, I immediately purchased the first in Maggie’s Raven Cycle, which is sitting patiently on my bedside table.

  1. The Girl Who Would Be King – Kelly Thompson

2014This book is brilliant. To call it a ‘feminist superhero story’ would do it no justice, but it’s probably a good start. There are few male characters in the novel, in part because the two protagonists are so very large. Bonnie, innately good and incredibly powerful, was literally born to oppose Lola. Lola really steals the show in The Girl Who Would Be King – she’s inherently evil and she doesn’t really understand why, but because she’s evil, she doesn’t care. Lola sets out to make herself the King of LA, killing anyone who stands in her path – except for Bonnie, who cannot be killed. This book also features a short epilogue with one of the best twists I’ve come across in genre fiction. Watch out for this one, it’s going to be big.

  1. The Fever – Megan Abbott

If you haven’t read a Megan Abbott novel yet, you’re doing yourself a
disservice. Megan writes about women in a way that no other author can. I’m a huge fan of her noir fiction, but The Fever is perhaps more accessible to non-genre fans. Like Dare Me, The Fever explores the horrors of female adolescent relationships. It’s entirely relatable and completely terrifying at the same time. An infectious disease that causes seizures grips the girls of a small high school, and nobody can work out what is causing their illness. Mass hysteria? Something in the water? You won’t be able to tell, because it’s Megan Abbott. 

  1. Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor (and Days of Blood and Starlight. I’m still holding on to Dreams of Gods and Monsters for a rainy day)

2014 8I have this stupid habit of not reading the books I am most excited about. This year, I have been massively excited about and have not read: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson and Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor. I harassed my booksellers on the day they were supposed to arrive, so I would know the second they landed, and then rushed into the store to get my hands on them (for WoR, it was a two-handed ordeal!). I then put them on my shelf, and told myself I would wait for the right moment to read them. The right moment still hasn’t come for Magician’s Land and for Dreams of Gods and Monsters. Both are the conclusion to incredible trilogies, and I don’t know why I can’t read them. But I think it’s because I just love them so much, I don’t want them to be over. It’s not even because I think they’ll end badly – I know they’ll end wonderfully. I just…can’t do it. Also haven’t watched the final seasons of my favourite shows, including Gilmore Girls, Frasier, and 30 Rock. I just…can’t.

Suffice it to say, I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone, to the extent that I cannot yet face its conclusion. Review here.

Also, I am halfway through Words of Radiance and it is so beyond excellent that I can’t yet articulate how much I love it. So maybe it will be Karou’s turn soon.

  1. Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

2014 5Last but not least, Tahereh Mafi’s trilogy, beginning with Shatter Me, was my favourite YA of the year. With flowery, musical prose, Mafi tells the story of Juliette, whose burgeoning superpowers are more frightening than they are magical. In The Juliette Chronicles, we go from Juliette’s asylum prison all the way to a military compound for superheroes, all the while watching a damaged protagonist become the physical and mental champion she was destined to be. Another awesome attribute of this series is the relationship side of things; Mafi is one of the few YA authors to really, truly portray the transition from one relationship to another without simplifying or minimizing any of the emotional content involved. Such a fun, addictive trilogy, for fans of dystopian YA looking for their next obsession.

 

As 2014 comes to a close, I’d like to thank Pulp Fiction Booksellers for giving me the opportunity to work with them at Supanova, and for providing me with ARCs throughout the year (including Daughters of the Storm)!

Happy Christmas to you if that’s your thing, and if not, I hope 2014 ends peacefully and happily for you all.

Look out soon for my picks for books to watch in 2015! x

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

Charlaine Harris’s MIDNIGHT CROSSROAD: An Advance Review

April 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

midnight-crossroad_612x924The first in a new trilogy, Midnight Crossing is the first book Charlaine Harris will publish after the conclusion of the Southern Vampire Mysteries (sometimes known as the Sookie Stackhouse series, or more recently, the True Blood books). As an author, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to publish a new book after the completion of your best-known series. It must be even more daunting to face a fandom that was, by and large, unhappy with the way you ended that series. Such is the dilemma Charlaine Harris faces, with the release of Midnight Crossroad.
I was lucky enough to receive a highly anticipated ARC of Midnight Crossroad from Pulp Fiction Booksellers. I loved this book, and I am interested to see how fans of the Sookie Stackhouse series are going to respond to Harris’ new direction.

Midnight is a middle-of-the-road town in Texas, consisting of a diner, a church, a New-Age store, a gas station, a nail salon-and-antique store, and a pawnshop. The town is populated almost entirely by the proprietors of those businesses, and the very occasional passer-by.
Manfred, a sometime genuine and oftentimes fraudulent psychic, moves to Midnight in the hope of starting afresh. He quickly becomes accustomed to the insular community, and learns that the Midnighters don’t take kindly to personal questions. Secrets aside, however, the Midnight residents happily take Manfred into their fold, and he finds himself establishing a home in the unusual town.

When one of his neighbors suggests a “welcome to Midnight” picnic in Manfred’s honor, the whole town treks out to a picturesque mountain spot. The social occasion is brought to a screeching halt when one of Midnight’s citizens stumbles upon a dead body – unmistakably that of Aubrey Hamilton, former girlfriend of the pawnshop owner, Bobo.

The confirmation that Aubrey was murdered, and not just a runaway, throws Midnight society into disarray. Knowing that the killer had to have been one of their own, the Midnighters become suspicious and frightened.

The usually conservative members of the community find themselves having to disclose more and more about their pasts and their unusual abilities in order to avoid being targeted as Aubrey’s murderer. Before long, Midnight is embroiled in a conspiracy involving bikers, white supremacists and a mysterious legend that may or may not have a basis in reality.

deadtotheworldMidnight Crossroad is most definitely not the SVM. For one thing, it’s far more serious than the Sookie Stackhouse books. In the SVM series, Sookie’s sassy narration could lighten even the gravest predicaments (pun intended – sorry…). In Midnight Crossroad, Harris employs a third-person omniscient narrator, with multiple points of view – quite a change from her usual MO. Instead of forming a comfortable relationship with a single, familiar narrator as we did with Sookie, readers will instead find themselves immersed in the community of Midnight. It’s quite an eerie effect, especially as we begin to unravel the truth of Aubrey’s murder.
While the Sookie Stackhouse books were arguably focused on romance, Midnight only gives it a periphery acknowledgement. Manfred finds himself drawn to one of Midnight’s most mysterious citizens, and Fiji, the town witch, is trying to suppress her feelings for Bobo, but it’s only a small part of a much more interesting narrative.
Most fascinating to me, however, was the fact that any reference to the supernatural was extremely casual. Fiji is a witch, but the full extent of her abilities is left largely unexplored. Manfred comes from a family of genuine psychic ability, but we’re not really given any insight into whether he’s just carrying on the tradition, or if he’s got a true gift. Lemuel is a vampire, but he’s not one of Bill or Eric’s brethren. He seems to subsist on energy, rather than blood – although he did mention that “the synthetic stuff” just doesn’t cut it for him, a reference Sookie’s fans will appreciate.
I knew very little about Midnight Crossroad when I started it, but I did expect that it would be another addition to Harris’ canon of supernatural or paranormal works. It’s actually quite difficult to define, now that I’ve finished it, because the references to the supernatural elements of the town are so minimal that it could almost be classed as magical realism. Overall, it gives the impression that there is much more to the town of Midnight than this first book has divulged.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

You might find a street such as this in Midnight.

I loved Midnight Crossroads. I missed my bus stop on not one, but two separate bus trips because I was so engrossed in it. With a few small alterations, this book could have been “twee” or overly kitschy, but Harris confidently walks the line between intriguing darkness and heartening community. Midnight Crossroads was an excellent follow-up to True Detective, as it carried on the Southern Gothic theme, but also served as a reintroduction to genre fiction (I had been suffering a bit of genre burnout beforehand). I recommend it not only to Sookie’s fans, but to anyone who is fed up with traditional urban fantasy. If you aren’t quite ready to let go of the eerie South yet, pick up your copy of Midnight Crossroad on release day.

Midnight Crossroad is released in America on May 1, and in Australia on May 6. Please order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers – you can add them on Facebook here.

I received a reviewer’s proof copy of Midnight Crossroads in exchange for providing my honest feedback to Pulp Fiction Booksellers. The copy I read was not the final edit, and may be subject to publisher’s editing prior to its publication. Thanks again Beau, Iain and Ron for providing me with this excellent book.

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Ten Things I loved about Derek Landy’s SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT

December 15, 2013 § 3 Comments

1. Skulduggery is a magical skeleton detective.
Just stop and think about that for a second. So many children’s authors would expect their young readers to simply suspend their disbelief and accept that, in the world of this novel, magical skeleton detectives are just part of how things roll. Not so Derek Landy. Instead, Skulduggery’s past and his current status as animate skeleton are explained so matter-of-factly that the reader is able to place complete trust in the potential of this world to exist. Skulduggery is witty, droll, powerful, loyal and just a little bit shifty. Few titular characters are as likable as the skeleton detective.

Skulduggery is illustrated by Tom Percival

Skulduggery is illustrated by Tom Percival

 

2. The meta-fictional sense of humour
Skulduggery Pleasant is a book that is constantly aware of its genre, and of the reader’s scepticism. Rather than trying to overcome this with detailed descriptions and overwhelming world-building, Landy instead turns this into a basis for humour.  Skulduggery Pleasant literally made me laugh out loud so often that I repeatedly garnered odd looks from my fellow passengers on public transport.

“China is the same age as I am, and even I have to admit that she wears it better!” He laughed, then stopped and peered at her. “Because I’m a skeleton” he explained.” 

“A living skeleton isn’t enough for you, is it? What does it take to impress young people these days?”

“Doesn’t sunlight kill them? Doesn’t it turn them to dust, or make them burst into flames or something?”
“Nope. Vampires tan, just like you and me. Well, just like you. I tend to bleach.”

3. The character’s names are excellent.
The magic system in the world of Skulduggery Pleasant is based upon names. Individuals are given three names – their given name, the name they choose, and their true name. Some of the names that characters choose for themselves are simply wonderful:  Skulduggery Pleasant, for one, but also: Mevolent, the evil sorcerer; Meritorious, one of the wise Elders; Ghastly, the scarred but kindly tailor; and China Sorrows, dangerously beautiful librarian.

I really love Tom Percival's illustrations!

Meet Valkyrie Cain, also known as Stephanie Edgley. I love Tom Percival’s illustrations!

4. Stephanie’s inquisitive and enjoyably bossy personality
I’m so tired of reading reviews that praise “strong female characters.” It’s a concept I can no longer be bothered engaging with, because I think I believe it is more detrimental than it is helpful to depictions of female characters. What fiction, especially children’s fiction, needs more of are characters like Stephanie. Through a combination of inheritance and conscious choice, Stephanie finds herself fully immersed in the magical world of Skulduggery and his companions. Certain that she is now on the path to realising her life’s goals, she pesters, annoys and frustrates Skulduggery into taking her on as an apprentice. Stephanie is whip-smart, insolent and determined. In other words, she’s an actual twelve-year-old girl, and not an idealised “role model” coming to us from the top of an unrealistically high pedestal.

Well said.

Well said.

 

5. The book does not speak down to its readers
This is not a book dumbed down for its young readers. Now, it should be noted that the narration, content and language used are all age-appropriate, but in no way is it lowered in either quality or context for the younger reader. This means that Skulduggery Pleasant is just as enjoyable for the adult readers as it is for the kids!

6. The cleverly revealed layers of the plot
In addition to the highly entertaining dialogue, the plot of the first novel is fast-paced, action-packed and character-driven. All the things that you need to make a compulsive read. The author pays homage to the noir tradition, but also splices in all manner of pop-culture references (not the least of which is Lovecraftian!).

Mr Landy and Mr Pleasant - creator and creation.

Mr Landy and Mr Pleasant – creator and creation.

7. The relationship between Skulduggery and Stephanie (later Valkyrie)
Skulduggery is Stephanie’s teacher, mentor and protector. In turn, she is his loyal protégée. At times, they act like bickering siblings, and they’re certainly not afraid of being open with one another, but it’s quite clear that they are fiercely protective friends. It is refreshing and endearing to read about a genuinely caring relationship which is not based on romance. Skulduggery and Stephanie are simply in this together because they want to be, and that’s lovely.

“…what I was going to say is there’s something about you that is really annoying, and you never do what you’re told, and sometimes I question your intelligence—but even so, I’m going to train you, because I like having someone follow me around like a little puppy. It makes me feel good about myself.”
She rolled her eyes. “You are such a moron.”
“Don’t be jealous of my genius.”
“Can you get over yourself for just a moment?”
“If only that were possible.”
“For a guy with no internal organs, you’ve got quite the ego.”
“And for a girl who can’t stand up without falling over, you’re quite the critic.”
“My leg will be fine.”
“And my ego will flourish. What a pair we are.”

8. The fact that Skulduggery Pleasant is not yet a movie franchise
This is surprising, because it’s a series bound for the silver screen. I’m delighted to have found these books before they get to movie-stage, because it could be done so very badly. Derek Landy’s novels are eccentric, quintessentially Irish and highly imaginative, and I worry that they would not translate effectively through the lens of a Hollywood camera. Read them before a film comes out, so you can make up your own mind.

Does this logo not scream "opening credits" to you?

Does this logo not scream “opening credits” to you?

9. The darkness that counterbalances the humour
Many children’s novels lean toward the saccharine in order to avoid frightening young readers. Few authors manage to walk the line between humour and darkness, but Landy carries it off without a hitch. There are scenes of surprising darkness in Skulduggery Pleasant, but the characters balance this out with unexpected quips and flippant commentary. Indeed, when Skulduggery is faced with somewhat graphic torture, he lightens the mood considerably by  simply laughing at his captor.

10. The fact that this is a whole series I get to discover
These are the kind of books I look forward to reading during my breaks, on the bus and before bed – an escape into a world with vivid characters, a multi-faceted magic system and an endless font of humour.

And they're the good guys.

If the first book is anything to go by – I love this series.

Megan Abbott’s BURY ME DEEP – Thrice is confirmation.

November 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yet more beautiful cover art - Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott

Yet more beautiful cover art – Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott

When Marion Seeley’s disgraced husband leaves for a position abroad, she is unbearably lonely. Although he left her with a modest amount of money, accommodation and some new clothes, Dr Seeley was the only person she ever spent time with. Marion, who works as a medical administrative assistant, knows that if she doesn’t move beyond her comfort zone, she will be condemned to a life of loneliness. When Nurse Louise Mercer invites her for a girls’ night, Marion boldly accepts – even knowing Louise’s reputation as a relentless party animal. Louise and her roommate Ginny welcome Marion to their circle with open arms and suddenly, Marion has a family. Ginny has tuberculosis, but Louise is committed to providing her with the medication and care that she needs. Marion is moved by the girls’ devotion to one another, especially throughout the wild parties and impromptu gatherings that seem to be the norm at their house.

‘I can’t know what you mean, Louise. I can’t. Elsie’s an everyday girl like we are, I am, I don’t know what you are, I don’t know it now,” Marion said, feeling suddenly dizzy, feeling suddenly the prickly junipers bursting before her eyes, making her head quaky. Who were these women? she wondered. Who were they and what was she?

Louise introduces Marion to Gent Joe Lannigan, their friend and benefactor. Gent Joe runs a chain of pharmacies, and his generosity has saved Ginny’s life on more than one occasion. Marion they are entangled in a fiery affair.
Only peripherally aware of Louise and Ginny’s resentment of her closeness with Joe, Marion is stunned when Louise confronts her. When Ginny pulls a pearl-handled pistol from her lingerie drawer, Marion has no choice but to shoot the girls who took her in so willingly.

Marion, there are things you are sure you’d never do, Louise had said to her once. Until you have

What follows is so unexpected that I hesitate to describe it to you for fear that it would detract from the experience of reading the novel first-hand. The remainder of the book is concerned with the disposal of bodies, the covering up of two murders, the laying of blame and the path to redemption.

Pulp-style cover art for Bury Me Deep

Pulp-style cover art for Bury Me Deep

In BURY ME DEEP, as in DIE A LITTLE, Abbott brings the femme fatale to life. While DIE A LITTLE was concerned with which of the central women was the more powerful, BURY ME DEEP explores the concept in a little more depth. Initially, Marion is the shrinking violet to Louise and Ginny’s party-girl personas, but as the plot jack-knifes midway through the book, her psyche begins to unravel. Propped up by an unexpected source of support, Marion reconstructs herself. After the trauma of Louise and Ginny’s death and the complications of her affair with Gent Joe, there’s no way that she could remain the wallflower she was when her husband first left.

As a protagonist, I found Marion fascinating. She is aware of the fact that she is being corrupted from the inside out, but is also powerless to stop the process. Her self-awareness is the very same quality that allows her to build herself back up again and to enact elegant revenge against the person who most deserves it.

Marion also comes to appreciate and understand those who wronged her. I think it would undermine her strength to say that she simply forgives them for the danger they put her in – rather, she develops a kind of profound empathy for the people who have harmed her. One might even say she loves them.

“I look at you, Marion,” he said, “and all I see is death. I see dead girls and sorrow. It is not fair, but there it is. I can’t look at you without thinking of that night. Your beauty is blinding but behind it I see death.” 

While DIE A LITTLE transported the reader to the merry indulgence of the fifties, BURY ME DEEP makes plain the stark desperation of the thirties. Reading this book in an era of relative luxury made me realise just how much of an impact the Depression would have had on the everyday life of a woman my age in the thirties.
When Marion buys herself in a tiny bar of nougat and realises that this indulgence will cost her hot meals and shampoo for a week, I think I nearly had a heart attack. I am constantly impulse-purchasing, and I buy four to five books per week. How would I have survived the Depression if a single chocolate could have destroyed my self-sufficiency for an entire week (Answer: I wouldn’t have)?

Winnie Judd, The Trunk Murderess, 1931

Winnie Judd, The Trunk Murderess, 1931

BURY ME DEEP is inspired by the case of “The Trunk Murderess”. In October of 1931, the bodies of a girl and her roommate were discovered in a pair of trunks at a train station in LA. When a young doctor’s wife comes forward and turns herself in, she is saved in much the same way that Marion is. Abbott admits to having been forced to fictionalise those aspects of the story that historical evidence neglects, but by and large, BURY ME DEEP strongly resembles the reality of the tabloid sensation that was The Trunk Murderess’ crime. The fact that this book is based on the experiences of a real-life woman makes it a much more sobering tale than DIE A LITTLE.  The scene at the train station, where the contents of the infamous trunks is called into question, is actually quite sickening when you remember that there were once two bodies, two wild party girls brought to a horrific end, and transported in much the same way.

BURY ME DEEP is a much more sophisticated novel than DIE A LITTLE. This is to be expected, given that DIE A LITTLE was Abbott’s first, but the evolution of Abbott’s ability as a writer is enormously apparent.  Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence, three times is confirmation. If there was any chance that Megan Abbott’s DIE A LITTLE was a fluke, DARE ME allayed those doubts. And now, with BURY ME DEEP, I can confirm: Megan Abbott is one hell of a writer.

Want a copy of BURY ME DEEP? Contact Pulp Fiction Booksellers on (07) 3236-2750 if you’re in Brisbane. Alternatively, visit them online  and add them as a friend on Facebook.

Like the sound of Megan Abbott? Check out her website here, and read my reviews of DIE A LITTLE and DARE ME by clicking on the links.

Dare Me – Megan Abbott

October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

DARE ME, Megan Abbot

DARE ME, Megan Abbot

You know how people ask those questions about where you were when something monumental occurred, and you can immediately recall the day, the hour, the very moment that you heard the news? I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when I turned the final page of Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS. Sitting on a bus, with one of my headphones in, Placebo wailing away in the background, trying to come to terms with the fact that I had to start a shift at my retail job and carry on as usual after having just finished one of the most incredible books I’d ever read. Finishing THE MAGICIANS was, in some inexplicable way, a life-changing event for me: a new kind of reading experience, fiction with a different kind of resonance.

THE MAGICIANS is, if not my favourite book, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Oddly, this book is a kind of sacrilegious mix of Harry Potter and The Secret History, both of which are my favourites. Since I finished it about a year ago, I hadn’t come across another novel that had the same kind of impact (although THE MAGICIAN KING came pretty damn close). Today, I finished Megan Abbott’s DARE ME, and for the second time, my world has ever-so-slightly shifted.

Football players throw a ball around. We throw each other.

At first, the squad is reluctant to accept the new Coach. Regal, closed-off and hard as nails, she is everything the cheerleaders aspire to. Under her regiment, they begin to flourish: as their bodies shed excess fat in favour of hard muscle, their determination to better their routine turns to obsession. Every girl wants to be the lightest, the fastest, the lithest, so that she may be chosen as the Flyer. Before Coach, there would have been no doubt that Beth would be Top Girl, the apex of the pyramid. Captain of the squad and dictator of the group, Beth and Addy have been best friends since before they even had a choice.
But now that Coach has commanded Addy’s loyalty, Beth finds herself backed into a corner. No longer Top Girl, Captain or even Addy’s priority, she sinks into a maelstrom of destruction and betrayal. Beth invests her body, mind and soul in bringing the Coach to her knees, and never once stops to consider the cost.
The fraying rope in a tug-of-war, Addy is forced to decide who to trust, maybe with her life: her lifelong best friend, or the Coach who remade her?

The world of cheer makes Tyler Durden’s Fight Club look like a casual warm up. The physical demands of a cheerleader’s body are akin to a ballerina’s, and each and every stunt is a calculated risk. To successfully pull off the stunning moves they aspire to, Addy and her squad are dependent on their own strength and the capability of their teammates. I don’t think anyone would underestimate the athleticism involved in being a cheerleader, but before I read DARE ME, I never considered the fact that so many of the stunts we see cheerleaders do are truly a matter of life and death.  If someone falls from the top of a pyramid, or lands badly from a basket toss, they could very easily break their neck. At least with Fight Club, if someone goes limp, taps out or says stop, the fight is over…

Eyes on the Flyer’s eyes, shoulders, hips, vigilant for any sign of misalignment, instability, panic.
This is how you stop falls.
This is how you keep everything from collapsing.
You never get to see the stunt at all.
Eyes on your girl.
And it’s only ever a partial vision, because that’s the only way to keep everyone up in the air.

… Standing back, it’s like you’re trying to kill each other and yourselves.

Mrs Abbott, you have a new convert in me.

Mrs Abbott has a new convert in me.

In DARE ME, Abbott brutalises female relationships. She unflinchingly portrays the co-dependency of female friendships with such honesty that I actually found it a bit uncomfortable to read. Addy and Beth’s lives are so entwined, their personalities so enmeshed that they are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. I found Collette (Coach) and Addy’s friendship a little disturbing, however; a twenty-seven year old woman should not need a seventeen year old girl to affirm her life decisions. In a lot of ways, I saw Coach as Beth, ten years after high school graduation – living a cold, empty life, with little to be happy about and much to obsess over.

I don’t think there’s a single, truly likeable character in DARE ME. Like DIE A LITTLE, I didn’t trust or fully invest in the narrator, but for entirely different reasons. DIE A LITTLE is quite clearly a mystery novel, so I was suspicious of Lora from the outset. Entering into DARE ME, however, I wasn’t entirely sure of the novel’s genre. Something about the way that Addy cowed to everyone’s agenda, and then secretly seethed about it set my teeth on edge. It just didn’t feel right, and it was very unsettling. I loved it.

Gone is the affectionately critical portrayal of female adolescence (not that it wasn’t appreciated, Tina). Here is the truth, the essence of competitive femininity. Here is female power, and its cost. Here is the cult of cheerleading. I’m still not sure if I want to join.
DARE ME is an odd mix of Fight Club, Black Swan and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It taps into a culture of vicious obsession and explores the relationship between determination and desperation. It’s the second novel I’ve read by Abbott, and I’m possibly even more impressed with it than DIE A LITTLE. Buy the book, set aside a few hours and prepare to be impressed.

Contact Pulp Fiction Booksellers on  (07) 3236-2750, visit them online or add them as a friend on Facebook.
If you haven’t already, check out my review of DIE A LITTLE, Megan Abbott’s first novel.

I pair the books I read with the music I listen to…
Sixteen year old New Zealand singer LORDE is wise beyond her years. Her breakout record Pure Heroine is topping charts left, right and centre, so if you don’t know her name by now, you will soon. Lorde’s first single Tennis Court is the perfect musical representation of DARE ME, particularly when paired with its stark, unsettling film clip. Lorde, who writes about the “loneliness, fake friends and real friends” that are all a part the life of a sixteen year old girl, is the ideal accompaniment to Abbott’s brilliant novel. Check out the video by clicking on the photo below.

LORDE - Click for a link to the video for Tennis Court

LORDE – Click for a link to the video for Tennis Court

We are phalanx-spread four deep across the floor. Oh, the roaring, if only you knew.

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