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

Nick and his brother Alan are on the run with their mother, who was once the lover of a powerful magician. When she left him, she stole an important charm – and he will stop at nothing to reclaim it. Now Alan has been marked with the sign of death by the magician’s demon, and only Nick can save him. But to do so he must face those he has fled from all his life – the magicians – and kill them. So the hunted becomes the hunter … but in saving his brother, Nick discovers something that will unravel his whole past…

It’s been a little while since I finished The Demon’s Lexicon, but life got busy and I haven’t had a chance to review it till now. That means this review might be a little on the short side, but I still remember the highlights.

As far as genres go, urban fantasy is my favourite and my best; you’ve probably guessed that if you’ve read any of my books. It’s also hard to find urban fantasy rather than paranormal romance, and I powered through this book because of that, happy as my dog when he sticks his face in front of the hose. (Just go with me here.)

Here are the things I loved:

Nick. This surprises me, because he’s the sort of brooding leading male that I cannot stand in paranormal romance novels. But because the story is told from his point of view, we get to see inside his head. We see his emotions (mostly fury or bafflement), and hear his thoughts. He clearly loves his brother, but he seems completely incapable of articulating that, or much of anything other than frustration and smart arse comments.

Nick lives in his head, even when it pains his brother, Alan, and when — to the reader — the solution is obvious. He isn’t a particualrly nice character, but he is fascinating. I enjoyed spending time with him in this book (though I definitely wouldn’t want to in real life, and I sure as hell wouldn’t date him). I’m in awe of Brennan for making a thoroughly dislikable character so fascinating.

The brothers. This falls out of the first point. It was so nice to see a portrayal of brotherly love in a book, prioritised far and above the tenuous romance plotlines with side character Mae. Alan and Nick have each other’s backs. For Nick, it has always been that way — Alan has always been there for him.

That’s why the merest hint that Alan might be keeping secrets sends him into a tailspin. It’s clear to the reader (I keep saying that, but there really are two layers to this story — what we see, and what Nick can comprehend) that Alan loves his brother and has his best interests at heart. But poor Nick just can’t see it.

The twist. Boy howdy. I sort of half guessed, but Brennan took it all the way. The ending alone earns this book a whole star on its own.

(The only thing that makes me sad is that I want to buy the second book in the same edition as the first, and it’s currently sold out on The Book Depository. Wah!)


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: ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I can’t remember how I added Boneshaker to my TBR shelf on Goodreads, but I was recently looking for inspiration for something new to listen to on audiobook and came across it. So I gave it a go.

Boneshaker is an alternative history steampunk with zombies, which you can pretty much get from the blurb and is frankly what sold me on the book in the first place. It’s also a lightning-paced story with very little downtime or introspection, and a badass leading lady.

Let me just say how much I enjoyed Briar Wilkes. She’s had a rough life — a father who’s renowned throughout Seattle’s outskirts (ie the remaining part of the city, outside the zombie-filled walls) as being a criminal cop who conducted a jail break right before his death. Even worse, she’s the widow of Leviticus Blue, the man who unleased the Blight in what people think was an attempt to rob the banks in the heart of the original city. As a result, she’s the most despised woman in the outskirts, and it’s made her hard.

She’s also a fiercely protecitve single mother to a slightly brash and reckless teenage boy. And that was my favourite thing about her. I can’t recall the last time I read a piece of genre fiction where the main character is a mother to an older child. (Briar is in her mid-thirties.) She’s not a robot — she gets scared and feels sad, though she’s been conditioned by the world not to show it. More than anything, she’s scared of losing Zeke.

I feel that.

Zeke himself is more frustrating. For a boy who considers himself to be worldly, he is at times incredibly naive — and his tendency to backchat when he’s unsure of himself did make me clench my teeth more than once. But he’s at heart a good kid, and I can’t for a second argue with the characterisation, even if I did want to smack him at times.

The story is fast-paced; the characters rarely get to rest, and the zombie scenes are good enough that it was a mistake listening to one as I was wondering through the mall, let me tell you! (I was wearing headphones, at least, so I only scared myself.) The dialogue is at times a bit stilted in the way it’s expressed — not so much the lines themselves but the way they are presented, the order of ideas. I don’t know if this would’ve annoyed me more on paper, but in the audiobook format it wasn’t too bad.

I love quite a few of the side characters, especially the other two female ones (Angeline and Lucy), as well as Swakhammer. I’m hoping that the other books in the series let us catch up with them all, because they deserve more page time.

If you like rollicking adventure/survival stories set in a highly polluted city where the air can kill you and super-fast zombies want to eat you, then definitely give Boneshaker a try.

 


Review: ‘Scrappy Little Nobody’ by Anna Kendrick

A collection of humorous autobiographical essays by the Academy Award-nominated actress and star of Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect.

Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”

At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.

With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she’s experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can—from her unusual path to the performing arts (Vanilla Ice and baggy neon pants may have played a role) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial “dating experiments” (including only liking boys who didn’t like her back) to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual “man-child.”

Enter Anna’s world and follow her rise from “scrappy little nobody” to somebody who dazzles on the stage, the screen, and now the page—with an electric, singular voice, at once familiar and surprising, sharp and sweet, funny and serious (well, not that serious).

I’m a relative late-comer to Anna Kendrick fangirl status. I’d seen her in various shows, but got a crush on her as Beca in Pitch Perfect. (I fairly regularly get crushes on people who can sing. It’s a thing.) Then I listened to Scrappy Little Nobody on audiobook and it went from crush to true love. ❤

The first thing you should know is that Anna narrates the audiobook version of her autobiography, and she reads it in a conversational way that made it feel like she was sitting in the car beside me (I listen to audiobooks while I commute, mostly), ranting about her first relationships and her childhood awkwardness. And the thing was, it was all so relatable … despite me not being a cute actor and Broadway star. (I am about her height, though, and I’m a brunette, so we’re basically twins?)

Anna focuses for the most part on the first 20 or so years of her life — how she got into acting, her first few roles, her first crushes and sexual partners. After that, the chapters/essays tend to hop around a bit more, dipping into various, celebrity-based experiences, like dodging the papparazi and presenting at an awards show. Anna more or less admits that she could have gone into a lot more detail, hinting at the various assholes she’s worked with over the years, but that she still wants to be able to get a job in the industry afterwards. (I look forward to the tell-all book she writes when she retires.)

For me, the single most relatable part of the book was the section about Anna dating. She says at the start of the book that she’s changed the names of a lot of the non-celebrities she talks about. Given how raw she is about some of them, I can see why! Her first three partners were assholes in one way or another, or had asshole-ish moments, and she is brutally honest about how she put up things from them that she shouldn’t have, simply because she was young and inexperienced and didn’t think she deserved any better. That basically describes most of my twenties (Anna was a faster learner than I was). She describes how her first partner slut-shamed her for enjoying sex, her second one was a self-absorbed “musician” with whom she couldn’t enjoy sex, and her third called her a slut because she refused to tell him how many partners she’d had before him.

Ugh.

Anna is also rather casual about mentioning drinking and drug use (mostly weed), and even more casual about swearing (I never found it unwarranted, but I do occasionally have a potty mouth myself). Those combined with her mention of her shoplifting phase are the sorts of things that might discourage some parents from letting their teens read this book, but that would be a shame. There are lot of good messages to be found in here, especially for teenage girls.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes, so you can see what I mean:

“Don’t try to participate in anyone else’s idea of what is supposed to happen in a relationship. You will fail.”
“But at nineteen I did spend a short and regrettable period in a classic trap: trying to fit into something I hated, just to prove to myself that I could.”
“Some bitter boys reading this might accuse me of ‘friend-zoning,’ but I’d like to say that even if a girl has misinterpreted a situation that someone else thinks was obvious, she does not owe her male friends anything.”