Review: ‘The Demon’s Covenant’ by Sarah Rees Brennan

Mae Crawford’s always thought of herself as in control, but in the last few weeks her life has changed. Her younger brother, Jamie, suddenly has magical powers, and she’s even more unsettled when she realizes that Gerald, the new leader of the Obsidian Circle, is trying to persuade Jamie to join the magicians. Even worse… Jamie hasn’t told Mae a thing about any of it. Mae turns to brothers Nick and Alan to help her rescue Jamie, but they are in danger from Gerald themselves because he wants to steal Nick’s powers. Will Mae be able to find a way to save everyone she cares about from the power-hungry magician’s carefully laid trap?

For those that missed it, I reviewed the first book in this trilogy here. It’s taken me a while to get to the second book because I wanted one in the same edition, with the matching cover, and it was super-hard to find. I ended up having to go online and get it second-hand. (Yes, I am that person.)

Anyway. To the review!

The Demon’s Covenant was an enjoyable follow-up to the first book in the series. Unlike the first, which is from Nick’s point of view, the second is from Mae’s. She’s clearly got a big-time crush on Nick, but she tries to ignore it for what are, frankly, very good reasons: he is still just as dangerous and unstable as he was in the first book. The only emotions he really, truly understands are rage and possessiveness. (This is all for good story reasons that I won’t go into because you really need to read The Demon’s Lexicon.)

In the same way that seeing Nick’s thoughts from the inside in the first book made him more sympathetic, seeing him through Mae’s eyes has a similar effect. Brennan is, frankly, a master — I’ve mentioned many times how much I hate the alpha male love interest who is violent and possessive to a girl for her own good. And I do hate that trope.

But here … well, it sort of works.

A lot of the plot is devoted to who is kissing/loves whom — Mae dates Seb despite her interest in Nick and Alan’s interest in her, for example — but the book still stayed true to its urban fantasy roots rather than crossing the line into paranormal romance. I couldn’t really see Mae’s attraction to Seb at first, especially given his history of bullying her brother, but it becomes pretty quickly apparent that she’s dating him for the same reason Buffy dates Riley in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer: he’s the normal guy in her abnormal world. (And look how that worked out…)

Still, the story is filled with secrets, lies and betrayals, not just with kissing, and I’m always there for that. My favourite character, far and away, is the sweet and hilarious Jamie, Mae’s brother. I’m sad that the third book isn’t from his point of view, honestly.

Also, the end made me cry. Not many books can actually do that.

Check out this series. Seriously.

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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.

 


Review: ‘This Is Where It Ends’ by Marieke Nijkamp

10:00 a.m. The principal of Opportunity High School finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.

10:02 a.m. The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.

10:03 a.m. The auditorium doors won’t open.

10:05 a.m. Someone starts shooting.

Told from four different perspectives over the span of fifty-four harrowing minutes, terror reigns as one student’s calculated revenge turns into the ultimate game of survival.

This book caught my eye last weekend in the bookstore because I recognised the author’s name from her involvement in the writing community, particularly as a PitchWars mentor. Then I read the blurb and the idea of it gave me chills, especially in light of what happened in Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last month.

This Is Where It Ends didn’t disappoint.

First, while I’m talking about the blurb, let me say that it’s a tiny bit misleading. This book isn’t really a “game of survival” — it’s not The Hunger Games set in a high school or anything like that. I loved THG, but TIWIE is contemporary, not spec fic; it is more realistic, and more dreadful. None of the characters manifest cool ninja superpowers or a talent with a crossbow that saves the day. They are scared teenagers who don’t want themselves or their loved ones to die.

Some of the story is told through flashbacks; the four characters all have a connection to the shooter in one way or another, and we get to explore that as the story progresses. But I don’t want to go into those connections any further, because there is a minor spoiler involved in who the shooter actually turns out to be.

The four characters are Autumn, the dancer from an abusive home; her girlfriend, Sylv; Sylv’s twin brother and teen rebel, Tomas; and track star Claire. Through them we get to see the shooting unfold from different points around the school. This means that — even at times when the characters trapped in the auditorium can’t do a lot other than watch and try not to die — the other characters have some ability to try and affect events, even in a small way. The way the storylines were interwoven was very well done, and all of the characters were well-rounded. (My only minor criticism is that I found the voices of all four characters rather similar. But each section starts with the narrator’s name, so it’s still easy to follow along.)

Another device that TIWIE uses is social media, with Twitter and blog posts at different points, as the event unfolds. Having read some of the tweets from during the Florida shooting, these particularly undid me (a little awkward when I was reading in the doctor’s waiting room, not gonna lie). They were so real — complete with a troll — and through them we got to watch smaller stories play out over the course of the larger one.

TIWIE isn’t a light read, by any means, but it is a powerful one, especially in light of the #NeverAgain movement. It doesn’t take a position on gun control — not overtly — but the fictional shooter in this book is so much like the real-life shooters we read about in school shootings. And he obtained his gun legally. Make of that what you will.

TIWIE3


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: ‘Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology’

The YA event of the year. Bestsellers. Award-winners. Superstars. This anthology has them all. With brilliantly entertaining short stories from beloved young adult authors Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Will Kostakis, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty, Michael Pryor, Alice Pung, Gabrielle Tozer, Lili Wilkinson and Danielle Binks, this all-new collection will show the world exactly how much there is to love about Aussie YA.

I love the #LoveOzYa movement, as — like the Australian Women Writers Challenge — it’s a great way to raise awareness of Aussie homegrown fiction. The fact that they turned it into an anthology that involved some of my favourite Aussie writers is even better.

If you love YA, get this anthology, whether you’re Australian or not. You won’t regret it.

One Small Step by Amie Kaufman

This is a gorgeous (and rather tense) romance between female best friends on Mars. I’d love to read more about these characters. Make it so, Amie!

I Can See the Ending by Will Kostakis

This one’s an urban fantasy about a teen psychic who can see the future but can’t change it (and struggling with the sense of futility that generates). It was quite clever, and as sweet as it was poignant.

In a Heartbeat by Alice Pung

This is a contemporary about teen pregnancy. It was really well done, though probably not my favourite of the contemporaries.

First Casualty by Michael Pryor

This sci-fi was my least favourite in the anthology. It was well-written and had a ragtag Firefly vibe about it that I was digging till the main story got started and it turned into a transparent dig at one of Australia’s previous conservative government. I don’t have a problem with that, per se (I’m hardly conservative!), but the lack of subtlety detracted from the story for me.

Sundays by Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil is my favourite contemporary YA author because of the way she handles misfits and nerds, and this story really delivers. It’s set over one evening at a wild, drunken party.

Missing Persons by Ellie Marney

This story is a prelude to the Every trilogy (which is a mystery/thriller inspired by Sherlock Holmes), and describes how Rachel Watts meets James Mycroft and Mai Ng. The squee factor will be higher if you have read the trilogy … which I have, so squeee!

Oona Underground by Lili Wilkinson

This is another gorgeous romance about a teen girl in love with her female best friend, but is quite different to One Small Step. It’s magic realism with a bit of a Neverwhere vibe. I’d definitely read more about this world (though I didn’t love Oona as much as I probably should have).

The Feeling from Over Here by Gabrielle Tozer

This is a contemporary set on a coach ride between Canberra and Melbourne, with some use of flashbacks and a lot of desperate texting. It primarily explores school bullying, and the voice is wonderful. One of my favourites!

Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory by Danielle Binks

This is another poignant story about a teen girl coming to grips with her older brother’s decision to travel the world after graduation. The two kids are called Bowie and King, which is rather unfortunate, but King is deaf, and the description of the sign language is really fascinating.

Competition Entry #349 by Jaclyn Moriarty

This story was a lot of fun, and competes with The Feeling From Over Here for the most voice. It’s modern day(ish), but with time travel and an amazingly scatterbrained main character. It’s great!


Marriage Equality: a Non-Bookish Post

Before Isla’s Inheritance was released, when I was a wee baby writer (so, like, four years ago), I did a lot of reading on author promo. A lot of those articles talked about how you shouldn’t discuss controversial topics such as politics or religion, because you could offend potential readers and scare them away.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that’s a piece of advice I follow more in the breech than the observance, especially these days. The world gives me many feels, many of them ranty. But here on my blog, and on my Facebook author page, I have tended to maintain more of a bookish focus.

Today I’m changing that, just for a minute.

The background

#LoveOzYA rainbow

Those of you who are overseas might not be aware, but Australia (to our shame) has yet to legalise marriage equality. Same-sex couples can be recognised as being in a de facto relationship, the same way heterosexual couples can. But marriage confers additional rights to a spouse that a de facto partner isn’t entitled to, mostly around medical issues and death.

The fact we haven’t gotten it done here is due to a whole lot of reasons that boil down to a lack of intestinal fortitude on both side of politics — but, most recently, the extreme right-wing members of our right-wing government have orchestrated a new delaying tactic: a non-binding, voluntary postal survey to see what Australians think of the idea. Let me just repeat that, so you can really appreciate it for what it is. A NON-BINDING*. VOLUNTARY. POSTAL. SURVEY.

*Non-binding as in members of parliament can choose to ignore the results and vote however they want to.

The consequences

Opponents of such a survey have worried about the kind of campaigns the no vote folks will put out, and the effect that those will have on LGBTQI kids. The first of those ads, sponsored by a coalition of Christian organisations under the guise of “concerned mothers”, aired this week (before the government has gotten around to passing laws to ensure that the advertising around this campaign can’t be misleading or deceptive; best get on that, pollies!).

Unsurprisingly, the arguments put forward by the ad weren’t about why we shouldn’t give equal rights under the law to couples who choose to get married, regardless of what’s in their pants. They were the “thin edge of the wedge” argument: if we allow gays to marry, this will mean that schools will suddenly start educating our children in things we don’t approve of (presumably like empathy and kindness?).

You can read a brilliant deconstruction of the ad here.

The thing that infuriates and upsets me most about this particular ad are the implied judgements. That a kid who is trans and wants to wear a dress to school is somehow deviant (based on the assumption that a man who wants to be female is weak and wrong, with all the glorious sexism that entails). I feel awful for all the trans girls (and cis girls) who see and internalise that message.

The arguments

One thing I keep reading (when I read the comments, which, I know, is stupid) is that supporters of marriage equality don’t respect religious folks’ rights to equality and to speak their minds. But someone’s opinion that another person doesn’t deserve rights the first person has is not equal to the other’s opinion that they should be treated equally. One is about protecting privilege; the other is about asserting that a citizen of this country has the right to be treated fairly under the law, regardless of their sexual preference.

And people have the right to judge the first person’s exercise of free speech accordingly.

It’s also telling that the cases being made for the no vote are red herrings (horror at school programs promoting tolerance, defence of “free speech”, rejection of “political correctness”). The postal survey doesn’t ask about any of those things; it asks whether people of the same sex should be allowed to marry. But the truth — that some people are religiously or personally uncomfortable with the idea of gay people — is much harder to defend in a way that sways votes.

No one is saying that Christians or followers of any other faith have to marry someone of the same sex. No one is forcing them to officiate a gay wedding, or to attend one. They can regard marriage between a man and a woman as a holy sacrament till the end of days. But they don’t have the moral right to deny others access to the same legal rights under the law that they themselves enjoy. That is the height of arrogance and the definition of privilege.

And, frankly, I’ll never understand why some people are so desperate to interfere in the bedroom lives of other (consenting) adults.

The personal

I am a cisgendered middle-aged woman: I identify as the gender I was born with. My awareness of my sexuality has changed over time, from being unquestioningly heterosexual to recognition that I am at least a little bit bisexual. I mean, have you seen Kate McKinnon and Gal Gadot?! (I expect that will be a surprise to anyone in my family that reads this — hi, Mum!) I describe myself as “heterocurious”, generally.

Still, I don’t consider myself to have a direct vested interest in the outcome of the vote postal survey, because I can’t imagine a situation in my life where I’ll choose to remarry (to either a man or a woman). But, regardless, the result of the survey affects those I love. I have many same-sex attracted friends: gay, lesbian, bisexual and pansexual. I know polyamorous folks who have more than enough love to go around. One of the most amazing children I know is genderqueer (I am learning to say “they” as a singular personal pronoun, something my grammarian heart never thought I’d be able to adapt to). And I know an intersex person — one who was born with genitals that were neither male nor female.

All of these people are valid and almost all of them are potentially affected by the marriage equality vote (with the possible exception of the heterosexual parties to polyamorous relationships; if polygamy becomes legal in my lifetime I’ll be shocked). That makes it my fight.

The writing

Both of my book series have LGBT elements, although in neither case is it the main plotline, and the main characters in each case are straight. But the next book I write will be a F/F fantasy steampunk. So I guess this post will have served one purpose if it drives offended readers away from my books: I’ll have filtered them out before I released that book and earned a slew of bad reviews. #winning

Seriously, remember, Australian peeps:

VOTE YES!


Review: ‘Taken by Storm’ by Emmie Mears

Taken by Storm

Stripped of her Silver Scale, made a pariah by the Summit, and with a price tag the size of Kentucky on her head, Ayala is on her own. Gregor Gaskin is still missing, and when Ayala discovers he’s far outside the Mediator territory line, she will unravel more about the Summit than she ever thought possible. Finding Gregor will take her far from home, but catching him might hit her right where she lives — and Gregor’s plans may just release hell on earth before she can stop him.

Taken by Storm is the third book in the Ayala Storm series. It doesn’t stand alone, so if you like fast-paced urban fantasy set in an alternate-world USA, I recommend you start with the first book and go from there.

It’s hard to review books this far into a series without spoilers, so please forgive the rather vague review.

Book three continues to deliver on the promises the first two books made: a sassy leading lady who is struggling more and more with who she is and how she fits into her world; an awesome best friend; a hint of romance (but no “love at first sight”); and more fight scenes than you can spray a flamethrower named Lucy at. The story is so fast-paced that it leaves you breathless. Even when you think Ayala might get a bit of downtime, things inevitably go wrong. Poor girl.

Ayala becomes less of a loner, which is great to see (especially after she got schooled in the previous book for complaining she had no friends), and we also discover that she’s bisexual, though it’s not presented as a big deal, just accepted as part of who she is. I really liked that element.

Plot-wise, we get to discover explanations for a few Mediator secrets and about the world more broadly, and there is closure on some story arcs while others — primarily what the demons are up to, which is the primary meta-plot for the series — are elaborated on but not resolved.

As with the previous book, there isn’t any sex. There is situationally appropriate swearing. And I’ve preordered the next (and I believe last?) book in the series, which comes out later this month.

Waiting is hard, you guys.

Taken By Storm

Four-and-a-half stars


AussieOwned_ContributorIn case you missed it, this week over at Aussie Owned and Read, I blogged about five new releases that are coming out to keep you warm this winter!