Review: ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli

Straight people should have to come out too. And the more awkward it is, the better.

Simon Spier is sixteen and trying to work out who he is — and what he’s looking for.

But when one of his emails to the very distracting Blue falls into the wrong hands, things get all kinds of complicated.

Because, for Simon, falling for Blue is a big deal …

Before I start this review, let me just express my disgust at myself that I accidentally bought the movie cover edition of this book (which is the one I’ve included above, so my rant makes sense). Normally I don’t care much about that sort of thing, but in this case the movie cover edition actually renames the book to the movie name (Love, Simon) rather than the actual name of the book, and I can’t even. I mean, Love, Simon is a fine name for a book, but it isn’t the name of this book. Ugh! You’ll see in the pic below that I hid the stupid fake title so that you read the real one.

Now I’ve gotten that out of my system…

I’m coming to the love of Simon quite late, I admit — and not because the movie came out, as I haven’t seen it, but just because my TBR pile is two entire bookshelves and, like, a Kindle full of goodies, and I can’t seem to stop myself buying more books. (It’s a problem. Send help. Or a TARDIS so I can catch up.)

Still, I can now confirm first-hand that everything everyone has told me about this book is absolutely true. It really is an adorably cute story about a couple of in-the-closet gay guys who fall in love via email while remaining anonymous to one another. It’s told from Simon’s perspective, and so a huge part of the story is spent trying to figure out who the mysterious Blue is. (BTW, I don’t mean to brag here but I totally guessed it from the first scene he was in. Ok, I guess I do mean to brag. >.< )

As much as the romance is adorable, the story also explores bullying, blackmail, complicated friendships, coming out and families — but at no point does it seem preachy or overwrought. It’s basically the best.

If you like contemporary young adult, flirting and drama geeks, this book is totally worth a look.

Excuse me, I have to order the sequel.

 

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Mini-review: ‘Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales’ by Justin Richards

WE ARE ALL STORIES, IN THE END…

Fifteen tales of ancient wonder and mystery, passed down through generations of Time Lords.

Dark, beautiful and twisted, these stories are filled with nightmarish terrors and heroic triumphs, from across all of time and space.

The first thing you need to know about this book is that — despite the name — the stories aren’t Time Lord fairy tales in the strictest sense. They aren’t fairy tales that Time Lords (the race of aliens that the Doctor is) tell their kids. Instead, these are retellings of traditional fairy tales, but as if they were told in the world of Doctor Who. There are five with the Doctor actually in them (Two, Nine, Ten and Eleven, from memory), and a bunch of others that feature the various alien races from the show.

The stories are, sadly, variable. Some of them are clever, a little unpredictable, and feature cameos from beloved characters. (For example, the lead character from ‘Little Rose Riding Hood’ is a younger version of Rose Tyler.) Others are kind of bland. I don’t know what fairy tale ‘The Twins in the Wood’ is based off, but despite that I found the story utterly predictable — it suffered from having no stakes whatsoever.

Still, the good stories did outnumber the bad ones, and if you’re a fan of Who, then the book is worth a read for ‘The Scruffy Piper‘ and ‘The Grief Collector’ alone. (Also, the hardcover is totally gorgeous, if a book’s aesthetic is important to you.)

If you’re not a fan of Who, read the Begin, End, Begin anthology instead — you won’t regret it.

 


Review: ‘Honest Love’ by Lauren K. McKellar

Book #1 in the Twisted Hearts duet

When you’ve got nothing left to live for, you’ve got nothing left to lose.

In one tragic moment, Cameron Lewis lost everything. His fiancée. His unborn child. His perfect life.

Now, he does what needs to be done in order to get by. Work hard. Play it safe. They’re his mottos, and he’s not going to break them.

Until a beautiful woman with the ocean in her eyes and freedom in her soul comes to his rescue. She’s never known the kind of tragedy he has — and that’s what makes her so damn appealing.

But can Cameron finally let go and risk that last piece of himself? Will honest love be enough?

Please note that my review will contain a tiny spoiler, one that is revealed in the first chapter or two of the story. If you’ve already bought the ebook, or are going to, and want to go in blind, then I’d suggest not reading any further.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: contemporary romance usually isn’t my jam, but Lauren K. McKellar is a contemporary romance author who is an auto-buy author for me. Her stories have that perfect combination of epic-level feels and the slow evolution of a relationship that never seems contrived. I love them!

After losing his wife, Bella, and his unborn child — and effectively losing his father — in a tragedy a couple of years before the story takes place, Cameron sought solace for a while in alcohol. One mistake during that period was enough to set him back on the straight and narrow: he drunkenly sleeps with a woman named Giselle, who bears a passing resemblance to Bella. Eighteen months later, she is sent to jail for drug offences (she’s a real class act) and hits Cameron up to look after her nine-month-old daughter, Piper.

Cameron is more than a little shocked to suddenly become a daddy, but he takes to it well. I really enjoyed the scenes early on where he’s adjusting to parenthood (especially parenthood in the light of his apparently untreated PTSD), and I adored Piper and her squishy cheeks and enthusiasm. McKellar wrote this story when her own child was a baby, and she really captured the wonder and worry of that time — although at least Piper is a good sleeper! If she weren’t, the story wouldn’t have gotten very far, I expect… 😉

The relationship with Everly develops slowly; her and Cameron’s attraction to one another is clear from the start, but Cameron struggles with the idea that he is being unfaithful to his wife, and that he is broken and unworthy of anything more. Everly is clearly hiding something about her previous relationship — I have my suspicions but won’t voice them here — but she is a midwife who’s good with kids and provides the sort of no-nonsense support that Cameron needs.

Once Cameron really grows attached to Piper, he naturally doesn’t want to lose her at the end of the three months and never see her again. I admit, I really struggled with this aspect of the story — through no fault of its own, but because the idea of losing access to a child really guts me. I had to put my e-reader down for a couple of days and come back to it. Still, McKellar’s writing (and my desire for closure) pulled me back in.

That brings me to the most important thing you need to know about Honest Love. I knew it was part of a series going in, but I didn’t realise the books were a two-parter — and that the first one ends with a cliffhanger! Aaaah! (YMMV, but I hate cliffhangers! Not wrapping up a metaplot works for me, but not cliffhangers!) The only good thing is that the sequel, Bitter Truth, is already out, so I don’t have to wait.

Thank goodness for that. 🙂

 


Review: ‘Ice Wolves’ by Amie Kaufman

Everyone in Vallen knows that ice wolves and scorch dragons are sworn enemies who live deeply separate lives.

So when twelve-year-old orphan Anders takes one elemental form and his twin sister, Rayna, takes another, he wonders whether they are even related. Still, whether or not they’re family, Rayna is Anders’s only true friend. She’s nothing like the brutal, cruel dragons who claimed her as one of their own and stole her away.

In order to rescue her, Anders must enlist at the foreboding Ulfar Academy, a school for young wolves that values loyalty to the pack above all else. But for Anders, loyalty is more complicated than obedience, and friendship is the most powerful shapeshifting force of all.

I read a lot of YA, but not a lot of middle grade fiction, which Ice Wolves is an example of. Still, I’m a fan of Amie Kaufman’s YA collaborations, so I decided to give this a go. And it was a lot of fun — I can see that it’s the sort of book I’d have loved when I was a teen. I mean, it has shape-changing dragons. And wolves. And a school where a boy learns to be a wolf (though he’s not that good at parts of it).

Of the twins, Anders is the follower. He’s clearly the introvert to Rayna’s extrovert, and after she is taken away from him, he struggles without her to take the lead and have his back. Watching him come out of his shell and make other friends is a delight. Still, he never forgets his devotion to his sister (in fact, his focus is a little single-minded at times). Rayna, on the other hand, isn’t in the story much; I had my doubts about her, but she won me over by the end of the book.

Bookworm loner Lisabet rapidly becomes Anders’s closest friend at the Ulfar Academy; she, Anders, and two other first years are put into a dorm together, in a way that is presumably designed to forge a bond between them and enable them to become a pack (in this context, a basic ice wolf military unit). Over time, he becomes friends with them all, as well as with a few other minor characters who we don’t see much of.

One of those minor characters, Jai, deserves a special mention. Jai is non-binary, and the book refers to them with a gender neutral pronoun without making a fuss. I loved that — I have a non-binary tween friend, and I squeed on their behalf, not gonna lie. I just wish Jai had been in the story more.

Another big diversity tick for the book is that Vallen is a trade town with a hugely multicultural population: Anders and Rayna are black, and I think Lisabet was white (honestly, I could only see her as Hermione, so I may be wrong there!). As with Jai, this was all accepted by the characters without a fuss. It was refreshing. (Also, check out the cover — hooray for the lack of whitewashing.)

That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry in the world of Ice Wolves — but instead of being based around skin colour or gender, it’s around the ice wolves vs scorch dragons dynamic. The ice wolves can’t see the dragons as other than selfish pyromaniac murderers, and Anders really struggles with this prejudice, even after his sister becomes one of them.

The story is easy to read and well-written; it has slower parts (a chunk of it is set in a school, meaning there are classes and research to deal with), but the pace does pick up towards the end.

Ice Wolves is a solid four stars for me, and I’ll be picking up the sequel when it comes out.


Review: ‘Johannes Cabal the Necromancer’ by Jonathan L. Howard

When I’m not releasing books, most of what I post on this blog is book reviews, so let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming (or irregularly scheduled, at any rate!).

A charmingly gothic, fiendishly funny Faustian tale about a brilliant scientist who makes a deal with the Devil, twice.

Johannes Cabal sold his soul years ago in order to learn the laws of necromancy. Now he wants it back. Amused and slightly bored, Satan proposes a little wager: Johannes has to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will be damned forever. This time for real. Accepting the bargain, Jonathan is given one calendar year and a traveling carnival to complete his task. With little time to waste, Johannes raises a motley crew from the dead and enlists his brother, Horst, a charismatic vampire, to help him run his nefarious road show, resulting in mayhem at every turn.

I picked up Johannes Cabal after a recommendation from the same friends that got me onto Brandon Sanderson; they were 100% right about that (I’m basically a Sanderson groupie now), so I was so here for this. Of course, Johannes is a very different type of story — a whimsical paranormal tale set on Earth (mostly) rather than high fantasy — but I still really enjoyed it.

As the blurb says, Johannes engages in a wager with Satan to win his soul back: gather one hundred signed contracts for the procurement of souls in a year or be killed and receive a one-way ticket to Hell. Of course, Satan isn’t totally unfair (ha!), and he is willing to loan Johannes the use of a Satanic carnival to help him on his way.

I rather liked Johannes, despite how amoral he is most of the time. He’s a man on a mission, and it doesn’t occur to him to pause and consider the ethics of his actions. In fact, he can be positively cut-throat; the fact he turns to a vampire to help him with the more human aspects of setting up a carnival is a pretty telling sign. It’s hard to know from this book whether Johannes’s personality is a result of his background (for a start, being a necromancer is rather grusome work) or whether it’s just who he is.

Given the story is set over the course of a year, it could have been quite long, looking at each of the hundred souls one at a time. Instead, we really only see a handful; the first is a bit of a case study for the approach Johannes and his crew tend to take. The middle chapters are mostly vignettes, as Johannes and Horst deal with one crisis or another, while the last part of the book deals with the last few souls and how the bet plays out overall.

This story is funny and, as I said, quite whimsical — especially the chapters set in Hell. At other times, it is quite dark. Under Horst’s influence, Johannes tends to target people who would have gone to Hell anyway — and we see enough of some of those people that I was sometimes left feeling like I wanted a shower. Still, the writing style reminded me a little of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, which is, needless to say, a high compliment. I laughed at inappropriate moments more than once.

Apparently the rest of the series isn’t quite so dark, or so I’m told. I’m curious to see where it goes next, and I enjoyed Johannes’s company. I’d be happy to spend more time with him in future — just not in a dark alley or similar!


‘Guardian Angel’ book birthday and giveaway (and a sneaky secret project announcement)

It’s always exciting and nerve-racking (nervousciting?) releasing a book into the world — even a novella. For those that have missed me going on about it, Guardian Angel is an urban fantasy set in Sydney, featuring a handsome movie star lead, his friends, and his impossibly perfect new fiance. You can read an extract from the story here.

Background

Guardian Angel is both a new project and an old one. It first began its life in about 2004, when I began to experiment with longer-form fiction — until that point, I hadn’t had the stamina for anything beyond a few thousand words. (The original draft was about 15,000 words, and I was incredibly proud of myself at the time; of course, when I sat down at the end of last year to revisit and re-draft the story, it ended up at around 20,000 without me even trying. What can I say? I talk a lot more than I used to!)

Even though Guardian Angel is shorter than one of my novels, I have sought to give it the same care and attention as one of them — which means …

My obligatory thank you speech

Thanks to those who read the original version of Guardian Angel what feels like a thousand years ago now. Becca, I’m still waiting to see you publish — or self-publish — something of your own. You can do it. I believe in you! And thanks to Craig, who read the revised version of this story and helped me make it even better. You’re the bestest bestie a girl could ever want.

Also, thank you, love and cupcakes to my wonderful editor, Lauren Clarke, who asks all the hardest questions, spots even the tiniest inconsistencies, and only made me cry a little bit. (Kidding!) You’re worth your weight in gold, lady. And the cover is brought to you by the very clever Kim from KILA Designs; if you’re looking for an ebook or paperback design, you can find her on Facebook.

Thank you, as always, to my friends and family for putting up with my frequent absences and blank stares, for feeding me coffee and Bad Chicken, and for playing board games and keeping me sane: Mum, Dad, Kristy, Ali, Craig, Karen and Cassandra.

And finally, thank you to my son, who is now almost nine (wut?!). You make me laugh when I’m sad, amaze me with your quick-wittedness, and fill our house with love and wonder. Also, just so you know, little in this world makes me happier — or more conflicted — than when you beg to read “just one more chapter” at bedtime. I hope you never lose that passion for reading.

Giveaway

To celebrate the release of Guardian Angel, I’m giving away a $20 Amazon voucher. To enter, click the link below and perform any (or all) of the actions to score entries. The competition closes on 25 May.

Guardian Angel book birthday giveaway

Buy links

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Australia | Barnes & Noble
iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

Add on Goodreads

Blurb

Can her light hold back the night? 

There are two things actor Jordan Woodrow always swore were true: that there was no such thing as love at first sight, and that he could never love a fangirl. But after he met Brianna at a convention, everything changed.

Now, hallucinations creep at the edge of his days and nightmares scuttle through his sleep, and only Brianna can keep them at bay. When she is with him, everything is fine. No, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect.

Why can’t his family and friends see that?

P.S. A sneaky announcement

As well as working on Guardian Angel, I had another project on the go. Also a novella, this one comes out on 5 May — so next Saturday — and will be released under my Tammy Calder pen name. Please note that Tammy writes erotica*, so, unlike Guardian Angel, this link is for adults only. Not for kids. And definitely not for my mother. (Hi, Mum!)

Now that you’ve been warned, here is the link for more information on Tammy’s books. Possessed: His Ghostly Game, an urban fantasy ghost erotica, has been out for a few years, and Kiss of the Succubus, a high fantasy erotica, is now available for pre-order.

* Yes, I refer to my erotica pen name in the third person. Shush.


‘Guardian Angel’ excerpt and pre-order links

It’s less than a week till Guardian Angel hits the e-shelves (shush, that’s totally a thing) — 28 April is the big day, and I’m not at all nervous, ahahahaha. D: Seriously, releasing a book, even a novella, is always nerve-racking. But I am proud of this little story, and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

All the pre-order links are live, so you can buy Future You a present. And as Guardian Angel is a bargain at US$0.99 (around AU$1.30), Future You will be super-impressed at your frugality!

If that price doesn’t convince you, you can find an excerpt below. Enjoy.

Pre-order Links

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Australia | Barnes & Noble
iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

Add on Goodreads

Blurb

Can her light hold back the night? 

There are two things actor Jordan Woodrow always swore were true: that there was no such thing as love at first sight, and that he could never love a fangirl. But after he met Brianna at a convention, everything changed.

Now, hallucinations creep at the edge of his days and nightmares scuttle through his sleep, and only Brianna can keep them at bay. When she is with him, everything is fine. No, it’s better than fine—it’s perfect.

Why can’t his family and friends see that?

Excerpt

Jordan was dreaming.

He knew it was a dream, because he was on the set of Beyond Deathgate, and he knew, even dreaming, that he’d finished filming that movie three years ago. It had already premiered, and it had been a hit. They were negotiating the sequel.

But knowing that didn’t change the dream.

He was back in the spideresque cavern, but he was in his pyjamas, not Aldron’s trademark blue leather armour. There were no film crews hovering around the edges of the room, no cameras on tracks or scurrying assistants carrying messages or coffee. The domed ceiling was full of heavy cobwebs and shadowed darkness, not a lighting rig.

He turned around to look behind him … or tried to. He couldn’t move. A thick, sticky web was wrapped around him, cocooning him, its strands gleaming sullenly in the uncertain light. He looked down at himself; his hands were crossed over his chest, like the corpse at a funeral, and bound as tightly as if he wore a straitjacket. His feet were bare in the thick detritus on the floor of the cavern. The frail skeletons of small animals looked up at him with accusingly empty eye-sockets from amid the decomposing leaf matter.

Something squirmed against his toes.

Oh, god! Jordan made a small, panicked sound in the back of his throat. He tried to lift his feet, but he couldn’t—the web didn’t have enough give in it for him to bend his knees. His pulse thundered in his ears. What the—?

That was when he smelled it.

His brain struggled to find a word for the foul reek that drifted through the tunnels. Struggled and failed. Maggot-infested meat rotting in the sun? The stench of untreated sewerage? It was both those things, and more. His eyes watered with the acrid stink of it, and he thrashed against the web that bound him. He knew what was coming. The spideresque: half human, half spider, all black malevolence and aching hunger. She was going to scuttle into the cavern, and she was going to devour him. And this time he had no Ring of Emrys to save him.

The huge, bloated shape of the spideresque appeared, silhouetted against the roughened stone of the far wall. Her stench washed over him, stronger now. He coughed, retched. It’s a dream, he told himself. It has to be. But that initial certainty seemed far away now. A second thought came, barely a whisper: I’m going to die. Despair flooded him, weighing down his limbs and settling like a rock on his chest. What’s the point in fighting?

There was no point. He hung in the web, a fly ready to be eaten.

“Get back!”

Jordan lifted his head, relieved at the sound of that familiar, beloved voice. Brianna stood before him, facing the beast. She was dressed in lambent white, a vision of Emrys herself; her hair glowed with its own golden light, casting soft shadows across the webs that ensnared him. She held one hand before her, palm outward toward the spideresque. “Get back,” she yelled again. Her light grew brighter—so bright his eyes began to water. “Leave him alone!”

The monster shrieked, rattling its forelegs together. Dust rained down from the ceiling with the force of its cry, and it paced back and forward—but it drew no closer. Finally, unable to face the purity of her light, it retreated into the shadows with a final, protesting wail. The reek of its body faded.

Brianna turned to him, her brilliant emerald eyes wide, and reached out to touch the webs. They disappeared, and he collapsed into her arms.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

At her words, they were transported onto a field of grass whose blades were so soft they were like feathers beneath him. Flowers bobbed in the breeze, yellow and perfect. The trees whispered at the edge of the field, and the sky was a brilliant, aching blue.

Brianna cradled him against her chest like a baby as he wept with relief. “It’s okay,” she murmured, “I’ll protect you. Don’t you worry. Your guardian angel is here.”