Review: ‘Bitter Truth’ by Lauren K. McKellar

Book #2 in the Twisted Hearts duet

You can run, you can hide, but the truth will always find you.

Everly Jenkins knows darkness — but that doesn’t stop her living life to the max. Not until she meets Cameron Lewis, the tragic reminder of her past that she just can’t seem to shake.

Being “just friends” with a man who sends her soul flying and her body up in flames is near impossible — until her secrets come out, leaving her alone.

Will the darkness overcome her once again? Or will Everly fight for the man she loves and help him face the bitter truth?

I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, which means being cryptic (and therefore fairly brief).

The first thing you need to know is that you really shouldn’t start with the second book in this series. You’ll be hella confused, and miss all of the good feels in the first book, which I reviewed here. That being said, the first third or so of Bitter Truth covers the same events as in Honest Love, but from Everly’s perspective. I really enjoyed this part of the book, with its glimpses into what Everly’s deal really is.

I enjoy Everly as a character. She’s gone through some pretty dark times and come out the other side with the willingness to fight, not just for herself but for Cameron and what he wants more than anything else as well — custody of his baby girl, Piper. She fights for him when he doesn’t even want to see her, and frankly I’m glad this part of the story was from her perspective rather than his, because I found his slump at the start of Bitter Truth a little frustrating (if understandable).

Lauren K. McKellar does what she describes as “romance with feels”, and one of the things that has made her an auto-buy for me is that her books never feel predictable even while they stay true to the romance genre (which can be rather formulaic). There was one moment in Bitter Truth where I was absolutely certain I knew what was going to happen next. I really struggle with super-cringeworthy moments in fiction (you know, the ones where you want to hide your face so you don’t die of secondary embarrassment), and I thought this was going to be one of them — so much so that I had to put the book down and gather myself in order to keep reading.

I should’ve had more faith, because not only did what I was expecting not happen but the whole story took a turn for the even-more-awesome.

This duology has a smoking hot couple, an adorable toddler, a conniving ex who still manages to be somewhat sympathetic at times, some tragedy, some steamy sex scenes, lots of beach scenes that made me hanker for my next coastal holiday, and a happily ever after. What more could you want?

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Australian Women Writers Challenge – 2018 wrap up (?)

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is part of a world-wide movement to raise awareness of excellent writing by women. It helps readers to challenge the subconscious stereotypes that govern our choice of books to read. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.

Last year, I failed both the reading challenges I set myself (Goodreads and Australian Women Writers), largely because I spent a lot of the year absorbed in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books, and those things are huuuuuge.

So this year I moderated my expectations of myself — reading and reviewing 10 books by Australian women writers (instead of 15), and reading 30 books overall instead of 40. But I’m up to date on my Stormlight books.

All this is by way of explaining why we’re only halfway through the year and I’m writing my “mission accomplished” post for the AWW challenge. :p

Here is a link to each review, as well as my star rating for each book. They are listed in chronological order.

*Yes, Jay is a dude, but Amie isn’t. So nyah.

** Yes, Meagan is American, but Amie isn’t. See above re: “nyah”.

And here’s a genre breakdown for those that like numbers:

  • Romance: 3
  • Young adult contemporary: 2
  • Speculative fiction: 5
    • Middle grade fantasy: 2
    • Science fiction: 2
    • Steampunk historical: 1

There are other excellent books by Australian women on my TBR pile, so I’m sure I’ll add to this list as the year progresses (I want to get to at least 15, to prove that I can). Still, I can tick this challenge off for the year. Woohoo!


Revew: ‘A Thousand Perfect Notes’ by C.G. Drews

An emotionally charged story of music, abuse and, ultimately, hope.

Beck hates his life. He hates his violent mother. He hates his home. Most of all, he hates the piano that his mother forces him to play hour after hour, day after day. He will never play as she did before illness ended her career and left her bitter and broken. But Beck is too scared to stand up to his mother, and tell her his true passion, which is composing his own music — because the least suggestion of rebellion on his part ends in violence.

When Beck meets August, a girl full of life, energy and laughter, love begins to awaken within him and he glimpses a way to escape his painful existence. But dare he reach for it?

I bought A Thousand Perfect Notes the same day that it arrived at my local bookstore (I checked the delivery date) and gobbled it up that night. The author is Cait from the popular Aussie blog Paper Fury; she has such a hilarious writing style on social media that you might — if you know her work — go into this book expecting it to be full of sunshine and cake.

Well, it does have cake, at least. And maybe a little sunshine, mostly in the form of the delightful August. But there’s a lot of darkness in this story. Beck is terrorised by his mother, both physically and psychologically. He has zero sense of his own self-worth, despite being a genius player and an even better composer. There were so many times that I wanted to just sweep him up and take him and his kid sister away, or get them some sort of help (or drop a piano on their mother, not gonna lie).

Part of me can’t even comprehend a world where a boy could be so thoroughly abused and no adults would step in to help, and that’s why it’s so important for me to read a story like this one, even though parts of it made me feel kind of queasy. For example, the shame Beck feels for being a fifteen-year-old boy abused by his mother feels so real. His efforts to keep his distance from August because he’s afraid of what his mother will do if she finds out he’s wasting perfectly good practice time on a friend (or even to complete a group assignment) are so, so sad. And his desire to protect his five-year-old sister from his mother’s wrath were super sweet, even as it made me furious that he needed to.

August is, on the surface of things, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (dear god, someone make her wear shoes!), but she has depth that a MPDG doesn’t, with her desire to get straight As in school and to save every animal in the world — even some that maybe shouldn’t be saved. She has hippy veterinarians for parents, eats hipster vegitarian food and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. She also doesn’t rush into a relationship with Beck, even though she clearly grows to like him. The evolution of their friendship into something that could be more is sweet to see.

Joey, Beck’s sister, is a wildcat in glitter and gum boots. I adored everything about her, even as I wouldn’t want to parent her. Yikes! (Of course, if she were actually being parented, then I expect she wouldn’t be so violent in the first place…) And the descriptions of Beck’s music are magical. I don’t know classical music that well, but this story let me feel the mood of music by different composers.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is a quick read that will break your heart, but you should read it anyway.


Review: ‘Unearthed’ by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

When Earth intercepts a message from a long-extinct alien race, it seems like the solution the planet has been waiting for. The Undying’s advanced technology has the potential to undo environmental damage and turn lives around, and Gaia, their former home planet, is a treasure trove waiting to be uncovered.

For Jules Addison and his fellow scholars, the discovery of an alien culture offers unprecedented opportunity for study… as long as scavengers like Amelia Radcliffe don’t loot everything first. Mia and Jules’ different reasons for smuggling themselves onto Gaia put them immediately at odds, but after escaping a dangerous confrontation with other scavvers, they form a fragile alliance.

In order to penetrate the Undying temple and reach the tech and information hidden within, the two must decode the ancient race’s secrets and survive their traps. But the more they learn about the Undying, the more their presence in the temple seems to be part of a grand design that could spell the end of the human race…

A lot of people are describing this book as Indiana Jones in space, which I get, but I think it has more of a Lara Croft vibe. That might be because Jules is English and relatively rich, or because Mia is an athletic young woman who’s used to scaling things in order to steal other things. (Yes, I’m splitting hairs here!) However, the main difference between the characters in Unearthed and either Indy or Lara is that Mia and Jules are teens, and neither of them knows how to use a gun. I liked that about them. If they’d been dual-pistol-weilding superheroes, the book would’ve felt far less authentic.

Unearthed is a dual-point-of-view story with alternating chapters told from Mia’s and Jules’s perspectives, but both characters carry the story equally well and I didn’t find myself hating one perspective and always wanting to get back to the other. They are quite different personalities, in that Mia acts on instinct and is all about survival, whereas Jules is a thinker, a linguist who wants to preserve the ancient temple sites and understand those that built them. (And hooray for the non-stereotypical gender roles there — I loved that!) But both of them are also there because of love for a family member back at home, which gives them common ground on which to build.

(On that point, it’s possibly unavoidable from a story point of view that both characters spend a bit of time naval-gazing, thinking about why they are on Gaia in the first place. Given the story starts after they are on Gaia, how else would we come to understand their motivations? I could have wished for a little bit less introspection, but I could see why it was there)

There is, of course, a budding romance between Mia and Jules. I say “of course” because anyone who has read any of the other books by Kaufman and Sponer will know that this is a hallmark of their writing together. (Likewise, Kaufman’s Illuminae books with Jay Kristoff each have a different romantic pairing take the lead in each book.) Unearthed is set over only a few days, and the characters spend so much time just trying to survive that they don’t really make it much past the mutual attraction stage. For me, that’s a good thing as it makes their relationship feel more realistic.

Some parts of the story are fairly straightforward and what you’d expect. The puzzles aren’t generally described in enough detail that you could solve them yourself, and — unlike Mia — I’m not a maths brain, so I’d definitely have been squished by falling rock or dropped into a ravine fairly quickly. Other parts of the story, though … I can’t go into details without spoilers, but there are a couple of massive plot twists in here, and I only saw part of one coming. I always love it when a book pulls the rug out from under me like this one did, so huzzah!

What I don’t love, though, are cliffhanger endings. The first sentence of the author acknowledgement is “Sorry about that.” All I have to say is YOU SHOULD BE. So I’ll just be sitting over here, crying quietly until the next book comes out in seven months.

 


Review: ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart–an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests — or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

A bookseller told me that Nevermoor was being touted as the new Harry Potter. But publishers have been making that claim for years, trying to tap into JK Rowling’s huge success, so I was a little scepitcal. Still, I’d already bought the book by that point (I am a book hording dragon, okay?), so I decided to give it a go anyway. And … I can see why they made the comparison.

This review might be a little gushy. Try to bear with me!

Morrigan has a couple of things in common with Harry in the first book of that series. Both are eleven, and both come from mundane families that intensely dislike them. However, Nevermoor isn’t set on Earth or any parallel thereof but in a fantasy world which has the states of the Republic and the more magical Free States. The former are still kind of magical — they use an energy called Wunder in a manner similar to electricity, but dragons are real and children born on Eventide are seen as cursed, causing all manner of disaster to befall those around them. The Free States are truly, spectacularly magical, though, and make the Republic (or at least those parts of it that we see) seem drab by comparison. They are quirky and fun, and I loved them.

Jupiter chooses Morrigan to be his first ever candidate for the Wundrous Society. He is an adorable, bizarre character who makes Dumbledore seem staid, but both men share the ability to dissemble, never answering straight questions. This is to Morrigan’s intense frustration, because she knows she can’t get into the Wundrous Society without a knack, and Jupiter, while assuring her all will be fine, refuses to answer questions about it.

I really enjoyed Morrigan. She’s bright and determined and just wants to find a true home and friends (and not be deported and face her fated death). She also dresses all in black (well, you would if your name was Morrigan Crow, wouldn’t you?) and is scared of the idea of acid-spitting land dolphins. What’s not to love? My other favourite characters were Jupiter and Fenestra, the giant talking cat who works at the hotel where Jupiter and Morrigan live. Fen is snarky and a little callous, but ultimately comes to regard Morrigan the way a mother cat might her kitten.

One interesting element of the book is the way that Morrigan — who entered the Free States illegally, without the appropriate immigration paperwork — is treated by the border police. One of them in particular is an a-grade bigot who regards illegal immigrants as less than human. There’s an opportunity for parents to discuss the concept of refugees with their kids after reading this book.

Nevermoor fits into the middle grade category rather than young adult. There are a few scary scenes, but nothing graphic, and no sexual content or bad language that might deter some parents from buying this for their kids. Or for themselves. I won’t judge!

After all, I’m super-keen to snap up the sequel myself. 😉


Review: ‘Obsidio’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza — but who knows what they’ll find seven months after the invasion?

Meanwhile, Kady’s cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza’s ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys — an old flame from Asha’s past — reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.

This series, you guys.

Obsidio is the third book in The Illuminae Files trilogy. (You can read my reviews of the first two books, Illuminae and Gemina, here and here.) It continues in the same vein as the first two books, told through “found footage” and transcriptions of camera footage. There is some art included, as was the case in Gemina — though not as much this time.

I love love love this series, you guys. I love the way it’s presented. I love that we get a sense of these characters through chat logs and camera footage and diary entries. I love that the lines of dialogue describing the actions of spaeships themselves swoop and twirl across the page, and that the lines belonging to everyone’s favourite crazy computer, AIDAN, are filled with glitches and code. As well as being a great story, this trilogy is a work of art, in the visual sense. Everyone should own it.

As far as Obsidio goes, specifically, I gave it five stars — the same as for the rest of the series — though, if I had to pick a favourite of the three, I think Gemina would win. It’s a near thing, though.

Asha and Rhys are older than the other leads in this series. They had a history as teens, and are now meeting up again in their twenties. But they aren’t the stars of Obsidio the same way that the other two couples are of their books, because Kady, Ezra, Hanna and Nik are all part of this story as well. The book switches between events on the Mao and events on Kerenza, the planet where everything kicked off in the first place.

It’s sometimes easy to forget how old the protagonists are in these stories; one of the things I liked about Obsidio was how some of the minor characters expressed horror at being expected to take directions from teenagers. (I’m not saying I like people ignoring teens — I wouldn’t read so much YA if that were the case — but it was very realistic to have a seasoned, grizzled adult express incredulity at some of the things that our four teen heroes have done. These kids have had a very bad few months.)

The Illuminae Files have broken the mould. I can’t wait to see what other books follow in their footsteps — and I can’t wait to see what Amie and Jay get up to next.


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. 🙂