Review: ‘Seeking Faith’ by Lauren K. McKellar

The inseparable are well and truly split.

Mack, Faith and Lacey, joined at the hip since they were kids, are about to graduate high school. You might think this sounds like a book about coming-of-age and taking that leap into adulthood.

It is — except one of them doesn’t make it …

Mackenzie Carter has one solid thing on the agenda for her future — get out of town and focus on her post-school studies. After all, she’s wanted to be a vet since she was a little girl, and nothing, not the thought of being apart from her two best mates or the idea that maybe she’s got more-than-friendly feelings for a sexy local surfer can alter that … can it?

Graduation changes everything.

Almost three years later, and Mack’s high school dreams are just that — figments of her imagination, thanks to the guilt that haunts her on a daily basis. Will a faux relationship with Byron Leckie be the thing she needs to get her life back on track? Or will it make everything worse?

One thing is for certain. When these two collide, the damage will be fierce. After all, graduation was never meant to end like this.

This is the second in the pair of companion novels that together comprise the Surfer’s Way series, parallel novels that look at the consequences of Faith’s death from the perspectives of her two best friends. I reviewed the first book, by Jennifer Ryder, here. (And if you’re flicking between the reviews, I recommend taking a moment to admire the cover art. The use of the same stock image has been so cleverly done here — it ties the two books together but is sufficiently different that you don’t get confused. I love it!)

I adored Seeking Faith. Mackenzie is a character struggling with guilt, forbidden love and a lack of direction that leaves her surviving rather than living, cut off from everyone she loves. Despite all this, when we first meet her, she isn’t flat and defeated — she still has the spark that defines her. I was cheering for her from the first chapter.

Her relationship with Byron evolves through both flashbacks and current day events, so that we get to see how they came to fall in love and be pulled apart. While Losing Faith (the other book in the series) is the story that tells you who killed Faith, Seeking Faith is the one that gives you the real, tangled backstory behind the events of graduation night.

Poor Lacey almost seems naive once you understand the full story.

As a writer, I’m amazed at the craft that has gone into these two books, that they each have their own puzzle and that neither one spoils the main secrets for the other. I take my hat off to both authors. Also, McKellar has this amazing knack for drawing you into her characters. She takes “show, don’t tell” to a whole new level. I’m in awe.

Like Losing Faith, Seeking Faith has some steamy sex scenes, so that’s something to be aware of if you’re worried about — or looking for — that sort of thing. It also has action, enough mystery to keep me (someone who isn’t normally a romance reader) hooked, and a hot leading man. What more do you need?

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‘A Handful of Knaves’ anthology — a quick announcement

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Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in speculative fiction. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, often somewhere in between, rogues are as likely to steal one’s heart as one’s purse, and show little remorse while helping themselves to either.

So why do we love them? Because they’re imperfect, fallible, and even vulnerable under that carefully-maintained, world-weary exterior.

Rogues represent something we rarely see in our daily lives: ordinary people prepared to take on the “powers that be” by way of guile and subterfuge. But are they only in it for the loot, or are they – deep down – romantic at heart?

Above is the summary from the call for submissions for the A Handful of Knaves anthology, which is being published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild in the second half of 2018. And I’m very excited to announce that one of my short stories, ‘The Best Heist Yet’, has been picked for inclusion. You can see the full list of authors and story titles here.

I’m thrilled to be working with the CSFG on this project, and will keep you in the loop as new information comes to hand.

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Me, keeping my cool about this announcement. (Image belongs to Disney etc etc.)

And now, returning you to your regularly scheduled long weekend (or not)…


Review: ‘Losing Faith’ by Jennifer Ryder

The inseparable are well and truly split.

Mack, Faith and Lacey, joined at the hip since primary school, are about to graduate high school. You might think this sounds like a book about coming-of-age and taking that leap into adulthood.

It is — except one of them doesn’t make it …

Lacey Marone had two solid things on her agenda for her future — working in the Pepperoni Palace until she figured out what the hell to do with her life, and getting together with her bestie’s older brother, Quade, who she’s crushed on since she was a kid.

Then graduation night changed everything. Almost three years later, Lacey won’t rest until she discovers the truth surrounding Faith’s death. She’s outcast by those who want to move on from the tragedy, as if the town’s sweetheart never existed.

Years after losing Faith, Quade Kelly returns home to Runaway Beach, determined to mend ties with his parents and cement a future in his hometown teaching at the local primary school. Quade soon learns that his sister’s ghost lives on, thanks to Lacey, the girl who still owns a piece of his heart.

Lacey is hung up on her quest for answers. Quade wants to bury his failures of the past. The pull between them can’t be denied but can the past be forgotten?

Truths will be uncovered and hearts will be cracked open wide. After all, graduation was never meant to end like this.

Losing Faith is one of a pair of companion novels; the other is Seeking Faith by Lauren K. McKellar, which follows Mack’s story. I am a huge fan of McKellar’s work, so I bought the pair and — on advance — read Losing Faith first. (You really seem to be able to read them in either order, but Losing Faith really whets your appetite for wondering what on earth Mack’s deal is!)

If I had to describe this book in one sentence it would be “love after tragedy in a sleepy coastal town”. I think I went into it expecting it to be a little bit more of a murder mystery than it was — Lacey is obsessed with finding the person responsible for Faith’s death in a hit-and-run accident, and with preventing something similar happening to anyone else. But her investigation doesn’t really have any sort of momentum within the book (understandably, as it’s three years later and any leads have petered out). It’s only when the clues are shoved under her nose that she puts everything together, well after I suspect most reads would have.

The romance between Lacey and Quade develops fairly quickly, but it doesn’t feel like insta-love because they have a long history of wanting to hook up from earlier in their relationship. The sex scenes are plentiful and also steamy (so be warned if that’s not your thing — though they get a big thumbs up from me). There is also a fair dose of the sort of humour you get in real life: foot cramps and mosquitoes and interrupting phone calls. I liked that realistic element, and that the book didn’t take itself too seriously.

The reason I’ve given Losing Faith 3.5 stars rather than a higher rating is that, for some reason, I didn’t connect with this story and its emotions as much as I wanted to or probably should have. I spent a couple of days after I finished it trying to figure out why, and I can’t put my finger on any one thing. The writing is good and Lacey is an enjoyable character to follow. I don’t normally read pure romance (McKellar’s work notwithstanding), so this might be an “it’s not you, it’s me” thing.

Still, 3.5 is a solid “I liked it”, and if you love romance by the beach and a hint of mystery, then this is definitely one for you to check out.


Review: ‘Carry On’ by Rainbow Rowell

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On — The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Carry On is the book inspired by the fictional characters in the young adult contemporary, Fangirl which I reviewed last year. In that book, the main character, Cath, is a huge fan of the Simon Snow series (which is, in turn, loosely inspired by Harry Potter); she writes a highly successful fanfic called ‘Carry On, Simon’, which is based in the Simon Snow world.

This novel is that fanfic. Or, at least, I like to imagine it is. It does have one of the key elements of Cath’s fanfic — that Simon and Baz are attracted to one another — which I don’t believe is in the “original” books whose world she’s writing about. Of course, it’s hard to say, given that the preceding six novels in the fictional world don’t actually exist! 😉

Carry On is the equivalent of the last book in the Harry Potter series, when all the skirmishes with the bad guy finally come to a head and everyone’s dark secrets are revealed. It has other Potter-ish elements (brainy female best friend, headmaster mentor who throws Simon in harm’s way, friendly gamekeeper, use of wands), and at the beginning it’s hard not to make comparisons, but the story goes off in a completely different direction.

And I loved it.

The magic system is cute and clever. Instead of pseudo-Latin phrases, spells in this universe use “magic words” — phrases that are used so often by humans that they become idioms or cliches that have entered the public’s consciousness. The more often the phrase is used, the more powerful the spell effect is that results. For example, “make a wish” to put out a fire (think birthday candles), or “hear ye, hear ye” to amplify your voice. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I’m a word nerd, so I loved it as much as I loved playing “spot the root word” in J.K. Rowling’s spell words.

Despite being a chosen one who never knew his parents, Simon isn’t actually that much like Harry. His life outside school is perhaps a little rougher than Harry’s, and Simon is an expert at going where he’s directed. He is paranoid about Baz (possibly even more paranoid than Harry is about Snape). He is also an expert at denial — not thinking about things that upset him — and doesn’t seem to have the same independent problem-solving ability that Harry does. Luckily, his best friend Penny is clever and organised. She’s like Hermione but with a little less empathy and tact. (And she’s Indian — her mother has a thing for P names.) I really enjoyed Penny’s point of view chapters.

I didn’t enjoy Agatha’s so much. She’s the ex-girlfriend, and almost entirely self-absorbed. She just wants to be left out of the danger and adventure so she can have a manicure, pine after True Love ™ and avoid all discussion of magic. But, although she is a bit frustrating, she’s also incredibly realistic. (I’d rather not get into danger saving the world either, thanks … and I did my share of pining at that age.)

Carry On is a multi-POV book — Simon, Penny and Baz get the lion’s share of the chapters, but there are chapters from maybe a half dozen or dozen other characters. That’s one of the things that reminded me of a lot of the fanfic I read back in the day, and made me think that this was more likely to be Cath’s version of the story rather than that of the original author, Gemma T. Leslie. (Okay, yes, I know both Cath and Gemma are creations of Rainbow. Shush!)

In terms of pacing, the book starts off a little slow. There’s a lot of backstory that is mentioned in passing — especially references to Baz’s past misdeeds. But once Baz enters the story personally, things really pick up and get interesting. For me, the reveals at the end were sufficiently foreshadowed that I guessed what was coming, but I still loved it.

And yes, the dialogue and the kissing scenes that the blurb mentions are excellent. 😉

 

 

 


Review: ‘The Last Days of Us’ by Beck Nicholas

Five teens, one derelict Kombi and an unforgettable road trip…

Six months ago, Zoey’s life went off the rails. After the tragic loss of her brother, she partied her way to oblivion, estranged her best friend, Cass, and pushed away her now ex, Finn. But when her destructive behaviour reaches dangerous heights, Zoey realises she needs to pull herself together and get her old life back, including her ex. There’s just one complication: Finn is now dating Cass.

Now, it’s the last week of summer and Zoey, Cass and Finn are setting out on the road trip of a lifetime to see their favourite musician, Gray, perform live, joined by Finn’s infuriatingly attractive bad-boy cousin Luc and his vibrant younger sister Jolie. Zoey thinks this is her chance to put things to rights and convince Finn they should get back together. But she wasn’t counting on her friends’ lingering resentment, Luc’s disarming sincerity, and Jolie’s infectious love for life to turn her plans upside down.

I bought this book yesterday, and finished it last night (well, technically this morning — it was after midnight). That’s something that never happens to me these days, so I needed you to know that upfront. I mean, I’ve owned this book for so short a time that I haven’t even taken a bookstagram pic of it to go with this review yet!

While some of the speed with which I read it is due to the relatively short length of this young adult contemporary, especially compared to the last book I reviewed here on the blog, most of it is due to Nicholas’s accessible writing style and the natural momentum of a road trip story.

But The Last Days of Us isn’t just any road trip story. Firstly, it’s Australian, set on the road between Adelaide and Melbourne as the characters travel there to see the musician Grey in concert. That has particular appeal for me, because — although that’s not a drive I’ve done myself — I’ve seen photos of a lot of the landmarks that the teens visit. It’s always self-affirming to see your own world in fiction.

Secondly, The Last Days of Us is a powerful exploration of grief and grieving. As the blurb says, Zoey is trying to piece her life back together after losing herself in alcohol and wild parties following her brother’s death. She has broken up with her boyfriend, has grown distant from her best friend (who is now dating her boyfriend, so that seems fair), and is estranged from her parents. She can see that her life is a mess, but the only way she can see to fix it is to try and return to the “old” Zoey, the one she was before Dan died. She tries to do this in a very literal sense — same haircut, same fashion sense, same boyfriend.

Some may find Zoey’s intention to get between Cass and Finn a little shocking, but it didn’t prevent me from being able to get behind her as a character. For a start, Zoey isn’t particularly nefarious about it. She doesn’t set out to directly sabotage Cass with Finn. She instead tries to reconnect with him, show him that the old Zoey is back (even if she’s not and never can be), and see if that is enough. Also, it’s clear from the beginning that Finn is a terrible choice for Zoey (and probably for Cass), so I guess I never expected Zoey’s scheme to go very far.

I’m not going to lie, those moments in the first half of the book where she tries to orchestrate things so she can talk to Finn alone are awkward as anything. But, here’s the thing — I found them so cringey because I remember how, when I was seventeen, I tried to arrange things so I could be with a crush. Not one that had a girlfriend, admittedly, but I was just about as ham-fisted about it as Zoey. I could really relate to her in that regard.

There are other elements of grief in the story, ones I won’t get into because of spoilers. They are fairly well telegraphed, and play out as you might expect — but that didn’t make them any less heartbreaking. Still, the scene that made me cry is one that is all Zoey, mourning for her brother. Her grief is so raw.

The relationship that develops between Zoey and Luc is sweet, and didn’t feel rushed despite the relatively short timeframe in which most of the book takes place. He is perceptive, is sweet without being a pushover when Zoey is rude to him, and provides an excellent foil for the shallowness that is Finn. Cass is a little more problematic as a character — she clearly struggles with having Zoey back on the scene and is insecure about her relationship with Finn, but she resorts to some pretty low comments for a supposed best friend. (She and Finn try to slut-shame Zoey, which did make me want to punch them a little bit.)

The other thing I really loved about this book was Grey, the teen musician they are travelling to see. He’s only in a couple of scenes, but excerpts from his songs (written by the author, obviously) are at the start of each chapter, so his fingerprints are throughout. His music leans towards tortured and broody, so the excerpts are a nice note … so to speak.

Definitely check out The Last Days of Us for an easy  but compelling summer read.


Review: ‘Oathbringer’ by Brandon Sanderson

In Oathbringer, the third volume of the New York Times bestselling Stormlight Archive, humanity faces a new Desolation with the return of the Voidbringers, a foe with numbers as great as their thirst for vengeance.

Dalinar Kholin’s Alethi armies won a fleeting victory at a terrible cost: the enemy Parshendi summoned the violent Everstorm, which now sweeps the world with destruction, and in its passing awaken the once peaceful and subservient parshmen to the horror of their millennia-long enslavement by humans. While on a desperate flight to warn his family of the threat, Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with the fact that the newly kindled anger of the parshmen may be wholly justified.

Nestled in the mountains high above the storms, in the tower city of Urithiru, Shallan Davar investigates the wonders of the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant and unearths dark secrets lurking in its depths. And Dalinar realizes that his holy mission to unite his homeland of Alethkar was too narrow in scope. Unless all the nations of Roshar can put aside Dalinar’s blood-soaked past and stand together — and unless Dalinar himself can confront that past — even the restoration of the Knights Radiant will not prevent the end of civilization.

I read the first two books in the Stormlight Archive back-to-back in the middle of last year, and I didn’t have to wait too long, relatively speaking, for the third book to come out. But, according to Goodreads, this is a ten book series. So I’ll be over here, crying. I have the mother of all book hangovers, you guys. I need a sixth star in my rating system for books like this one. It’s everything that the first two books were, only more so. As a result, I’m sure this review is going to be all AAAAH and NEEDS MORE!, and probably not very coherent.

Bear with me.

I say it with every review of a Sanderson book, but he is an amazing builder of worlds. This series puts the epic in epic fantasy. As I said the other day,  I listened to this on audiobook and the download was available in five parts. FIVE. For those playing at home, that’s fifty-five hours of listening time. (Goodreads tells me the hardcover is more than 1200 pages. The first two books clock in at over 1000 pages too.)

As well as using that space to build up a cast of characters that I love (and sometimes loathe), Sanderson also uses it to detail a word that is strange and unique in its plant and animal life. Plants retreat from predators and storms like crabs into shells. Animals are mostly shelled, as well, with gems for hearts, as are the parshmen former slaves that the blurb mentions. Occasionally, we see glimpses of familiar animals, especially horses, but also including “chickens” (a term for any feathered bird).

It’s all wonderfully detailed, and — as this is a Brandon Sanderson novel — the details are important to the story, to the whole. I can’t say more than that without spoilers, but that’s been my experience of all his fantasy books so far; I think he is perhaps being self-indulgent, but it turns out, OMG, it was all relevant. He is a genius. (Have I reached my gush quotient yet?)

In terms of the characters, familiar faces from the first two books are here. My favourites are still Shallan and Kaladin (who I still ship, not gonna lie — a weird combo for me, as I usually dismiss the brooding character as a love interest), with Dalinar coming in a close second. Wit, surprisingly, is third.

I adore Kaladin so much I drew fanart of him while listening to the book the other day. It’s below, because apparently I have no shame. Don’t laugh too hard.

In terms of the plot, this book actually ties things off really nicely, and it could have been a good finish to a trilogy if that was the way Sanderson had wanted to go. Of course, there are still dangling plot threads, some of them huge — and I’m glad I get more Stormlight Archive.

But there’s something that really came to the fore for me in this book, something that pushed it onto a whole new level. I mentioned in my review of the first book in the series, The Way of Kings, that Kaladin suffers from depression; Shallan also had issues to do with suppressed memories. It becomes apparent throughout this book that almost all the heroes are broken. I won’t name names, but various characters struggle with (among other things) alcoholism, drug addiction, sensory processing disorder, PTSD, and multiple personality disorder. And there’s no magic cure for any of these things, like you see in some books. The characters are broken and they strive and fail and succeed and are so authentically human.

I loved it.

Yes, I drew fanart of Kaladin like I’m a teenage girl. (And, yes, his eyes are too big because I’m super-rusty at drawing people.)


My 2017 in review

This is the first time I’ve sat down to write one of these year in review posts where I’ve felt like my successes have been qualified. Where I haven’t felt as proud of myself as in previous years.

On writing

The Lucid Dreaming duology, as endorsed by (my) Lara Croft (PopVinyl)

I finished writing, edited and self-published False Awakening, the second book in the Lucid Dreaming duology. But, since then, I haven’t managed to start my next novel, and my promo efforts have been lackluster at best.

I have done other things; I wrote and submitted a short story for an anthology (which I’m still waiting to hear back about), and this month I’ve been working on a novella I originally wrote more than ten years ago. But I had this huge period in the middle of the year where it felt like I didn’t achieve much of anything.

A lot of that was due to real-life pressures. My work has been short-staffed all year, and insanely busy since May. I edit for a living, as I’ve said before, and the idea of coming home and sitting in front of a PC after sitting in front of a PC all day was just too exhausting. As a result, I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing. Blog posts and reviews, sure, but books? Not so much.

I’ve been working on that over the last couple of months, though not with a novel (yet). Still, I will definitely have a couple of releases for you this year. Woohoo!

On reading

This is the first year since I started doing the Goodreads and Australian Women Writers challenges that I haven’t quite met me goals. For the Goodreads one, I set a goal of 40 and read 31. And for the Australian Women Writers challenge, I set a goal of 15 and read 11. At least I got close in both, right? (Right?)

A lot of the blame here goes to Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. When I set my Goodreads goal, I didn’t anticipate discovering (and adoring) this series, and each of these books is over 1000 pages. That’s three regular novels for one Stormlight one. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of the third one in the series, and the download is available in five parts. FIVE. If I hadn’t been reading them, I would have nailed my goal, for sure! 😉

Goodreads produced a handy summary, an extract of which is below. If you’re desperate to stalk my reading (and why wouldn’t you be?!), you can find the rest of the blog post here.

My 2017 reads

My resolutions

In light of all this, my writing resolutions for 2018 are very straightforward:

  • Do better.
  • Forgive myself at times I don’t do better.

I figure that’s pretty comprehensive!

What about you? How did you do with your reading (and, if applicable, writing) in 2017? Tell me your triumphs, or commiserate with me on your woes. ❤