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

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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.

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

The 5 Things I Want You To Know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone

May 10, 2014 § 3 Comments

This is the best cover available for the book.

This is the best cover available for the book.

I started this book once before, and only made it about fifty pages in. For some reason, it just didn’t strike me as anything special. The protagonist was odd, and I couldn’t relate to her.  I found the setting alienating, and couldn’t get a clear picture of the “otherworldly” element. In all honesty, I just didn’t get it, and I didn’t believe the hype (haa). Next!

When I attempted Daughter of Smoke and Bone for a second time, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness I’d tried again. If I hadn’t, I would never have had the opportunity to immerse myself in one of the most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve ever come across.

Karou is an art student at a specialist college in Prague. She has a reputation for oddness: her blue hair seems to grow out of her head that way, and her drawings of mythological characters seem to have a life of their own. Strange things seem to happen around Karou, but when her friends ask her about it, she simply deflects their questions with a wry smile and a vague response.

Unlike her best friend Zuzanna, Karou has no family in Prague. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have family anywhere on Earth. Nobody seems to know how she ended up in a tiny artist’s college in Prague, or even why she can speak fluent Czech. Karou, it seems, is a mystery.

You can't read this book and not want to go to this city.

You can’t read this book and not want to go to this city.

Unbeknownst to her classmates, Karou has access to numerous portals to another realm. When she steps through one of these scattered doorways, Karou comes face to face with chimaera – hybrid beasts that wouldn’t be out of place in Pan’s Labyrinth. A gorgon-esque woman with the body of a snake and the torso of a human and a huge beast with the head of a ram and the legs of a lion greet her when she crosses the threshold from the human realm into Elsewhere – these are Issa and Brimstone, Karou’s surrogate parents.
Although her chimaera family is even more caring than the average human parents, they have never truly revealed to Karou how she came to be in their care. Brimstone, a merchant who specializes in the trade of teeth, sends Karou all over the globe in search of his unusual produce. Despite this, however, she has no idea what he actually uses the teeth for. With no context for her life, and an endless stream of questions about her very existence, Karou lives with a perpetual feeing of emptiness.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot of the novel. Not really knowing much about the book meant that it had every capacity to shock and surprise me – which it did, in spades. Instead, I’m going to tell you the top five things I want you to know about Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

1. It is not – repeat, NOT – another YA paranormal romance. While there is a romantic element, it quickly becomes apparent that the focal relationship is only a catalyst for a much more interesting concept: war. And once the war arrives, the romance (quite rightfully) dissipates.

2. While we’re talking about things that this book is not, let me just say that it is not another urban fantasy. In fact, by the time you get to the second book, you’ve almost entirely left the human world, so there’s nothing urban about it. I think it would therefore be fair to class Days of Blood and Starlight as hard fantasy. And, you’ll be pleased to hear, there’s not a vampire in sight.

Lovely fan art - artist unknown (please comment if you know who made this so I can credit them)

Lovely fan art – artist unknown (please comment if you know who made this so I can credit them)

3. In a quietly unassuming way, all of the female characters in the novel are heroic. Karou herself is a beacon of strength, particularly in the face of borderline depression, but even the peripheral women are awesome. Zuzanna, Karou’s best friend, is brilliantly drawn and aggressively fierce, and it’s worth reading this book for her character alone.

Side note: Zuzanna and her boyfriend Mike bring a much-needed light-heartedness to the story, as well as a certain romantic element which is not dependent on a “will they or won’t they” dynamic. Mik and Zuzanna have their own mini-novella, Night of Cake and Puppets, which is adorable and funny, just like they are.

4. I don’t really believe that this is a YA novel. The plot is more complex than most other YA books I’ve read, and the themes and concepts it addresses feel more like adult fiction. While I unashamedly adore YA fiction, I do feel as though Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a more fulfilling read because of its maturity.

Ugh. Just, ugh. This is such a poor representation of the book.

Ugh. Just, ugh. This is such a poor representation of the book.

5.  Please, please don’t judge this brilliant book on this very poor cover art. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is so much more than this silly cover. It’s not about masquerades and balls (although there are some in there) and boys and pretty magic. It’s about war, identity, cultural heritage and friendship. It is a dark, moody novel, and it deserves so much more than this vapid design that gives it no edge over all the cut-copy paranormal YA on the shelves currently.

 

So there you have it. I hope I’ve convinced you to read it, because you really should.

 

Two post-scripts:
1. Apologies for the lack of reviews of late – I’ve recently begun studying a Master of Information and Library Management, and I’m still getting the hang of balancing work, study, blogging and reading!

2. Pulp Fiction is MOVING. If you’re in Brisbane, go check out their 20% off sale to grab a bargain before they move to their new premises (which are very close by – details will be posted soon on their Facebook).

In case you missed it, there's a sale on.

In case you missed it, there’s a sale on.

James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA: to Soothe post-True Detective Blues.

March 16, 2014 § 2 Comments

As the end of True Detective drew near, I began to panic. I had become addicted to the madness, the obsession and the convoluted relationship between Marty and Rust, and I didn’t know where I’d get my fix when the penultimate eighth episode was done and dusted. True Detective was unlike anything I’d ever seen or read, so I had no idea where to start looking for something similar. Fortunately, Pulp Fiction came to the rescue, and recommended that I start out with James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA.

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I miss you, Rust.

As you may be aware, The Black Dahlia refers to an actual, exceptionally gruesome murder. Elizabeth “Betty” Short, a star-struck would-be actress, was found brutally murdered in Los Angeles in January of 1947. Her murder remains one of the oldest unsolved homicide cases in Los Angeles’ history, and has long been a subject of fascination for scholars and entertainers alike. Ellroy’s version of The Black Dahlia’s tale is fictionalized by necessity, but remains true to the facts as much as possible.

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Betty Short – famous in death, if not in life.

Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert is working his way through the ranks of the LAPD when he is presented with a major PR opportunity. An amateur boxer with a reputation for his cool-headedness in the ring, Bucky is asked to go up against Lee “Mr Fire” Blanchard, a colleague in the Warrants division, to drum up public support for the police department. Despite being lighter than Blanchard, Bucky finds that competing in the fight might open up doors that would otherwise remain closed to him – so he accepts.
When the fight between the now-infamous “Mr Fire and Mr Ice” drums up enough support for the police to be approved for an 8% pay rise, Bucky finds himself faced with more opportunity than he knows what to do with. He takes a promotion and a partnership with his rival, Lee Blanchard, in the Warrants division. As they develop a partnership, Blanchard and Bleichert find that their contradictory natures are, in fact, complementary, and the pair find professional and personal success together. On a routine bust one night, Lee and Bucky find themselves in the middle of a crime scene – the worst murder that LA has seen in decades.
Elizabeth Short is found bisected at the waist with her innards removed and her mouth slashed from ear-to-ear. Despite not technically being on the homicide beat, the prolific partnership of Blanchard and Bleichert are assigned to the case of the murder of the Black Dahlia.
As the investigation deepens, Lee and Bucky become obsessed with finding and apprehending the sadist responsible for Betty Short’s horrific murder. And just as their boxing strategies differ, Lee and Bucky find their obsessive tendencies manifesting in different ways. Bound by the woman they both love, they are forced to work with and against each other in order to stay sane, and to keep one another alive.

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James Ellroy, looking suspiciously like John Malkovich

The case of the Black Dahlia is, as you know, unsolved. And, as we also know, Ellroy’s account is a fictionalized one – but that doesn’t stop him from naming a culprit. I expected the novel to focus on the degradation of Bleichert and Blanchard’s mindsets, and I would have been happy with this – but Ellroy stepped it up a notch, and ID’d a killer in the process. And just in case this alone wasn’t enough for the reader, the killer’s identity comes in the form of a major twist – and THEN, it takes a roaring bend to tie up ends that you didn’t even realize were loose. After all that, the story ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note – what more could you want?

I think I’m a bit late in jumping on the Ellroy bandwagon. He’s already a highly respected crime writer, and considered one of the best contemporary noir authors. But I’d like to rhapsodize anyway. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a compelling examination of the way in which trauma, both direct and indirect, has an interminable knock-on effect. It is an investigation of the life of a homicide detective, and a lament for the way in which his life is irrevocably changed by the atrocities he faces daily. It is a portrait of psychopathy on several levels, and a study of the way in which human beings use each other. It is dry, sparsely written and utterly compulsive. It is haunting, affecting and highly disturbing, and I couldn’t put it down.

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Cover Art for Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia

As with any true crime derivative, I think it’s important to remember the victim. In the case of THE BLACK DAHLIA, Ellroy never forgets that at the heart of this fascinating story is a girl whose life was cut too short by the worst means possible, and that our fascination comes at the cost of her life. However she chose to live her life, Betty Short never got the chance to turn it around, or even to decide whether she wanted to. That is the tragedy that permeates the pages of Ellroy’s addictive noir novel, and never once does he cheapen the experience of the oft-forgotten victim.

If you’re missing Rust and Marty’s dysfunctional partnership, and you’ve a taste for hard-hitting noir, THE BLACK DAHLIA is a must-read.

Are you a Brisbanite? Then surely, you know where to go by now – go and visit Pulp Fiction in Central Station and ask them to order you a copy.

I actually bought my copy of The Black Dahlia from the wonderful second-hand bookstore, Bent Books! Located in Brisbane’s West End, Bent Books is full of unexpected finds and lovely people – go check them out too.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

Plus, you can get one of these groovy totes.

 Got a recommendation for a book like True Detective? Leave me a comment below!

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