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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Letters For Lucardo' by Noora Heikkilä

From the BLURB:

Ed Fiedler is a common man.

61 years old and employed as a scribe in a royal palace, his most regular client is Lucardo von Gishaupt, a forever-young aristocrat . . . and member of the mysterious and revered Night Court. When the eternally 33-year-old Lucardo and the aging Ed develop feelings for one another, both are forced to contend with the culture shock of a mortal man's presence among the deathless, the perilous disapproval of the sitting Lord of the Night Court, and Ed's own ever-present mortality, threatening to bring an end to their romance in the blink of an everlasting eye.

‘Letters for Lucardo’, written and illustrated by Noora Heikkilä is the first graphic novel in a planned four-part series from Iron Circus Comics.

I first heard about this book in a round-up of the best graphic novels and comic books of 2017, put out by The A.V. Club – a pop-culture website I greatly admire. I actually marked quite a few of the listed works for eventual purchase, but this one jumped out at me because it was marked as an LGBT+ vampire romance (and I do loves me some vampire and paranormal romance). So I decided to start here, and boy – am I glad I did.

However. I will say that in the condensed listicle style, A.V. Club did not warn that ‘Letters for Lucardo’ is an erotic graphic novel. They just said; “Heikkilä’s skill with expressions and body language are a little overwhelming” which I clearly brushed over (though to be fair, I could have deep-dived and found their original review which did stress the fact of ‘explicit erotica’). Because, yes, this is *explicit* erotica that I was not prepared for. I mean … I liked it. Heck, I loved the whole thing! While also blushing profusely and counting my lucky starts that I devoured this in bed with the flu and not, say, on the train during a city commute like I’d originally planned to.

Not only is this a vampire romance; it’s a vampire May-to-December, interracial, gay romance. Ed Fiedler is the 61-year-old human and scribe to Lucardo von Gishaupt (who has been 34-years-old for a few decades now) who is from an elite and mysterious society called the ‘Night Court’. The book begins with Lucardo admitting he has developed feelings for Ed over the course of a working relationship, and the book dives right into their first kiss and follows Ed’s giddy falling for the young vampire …

But as the two men fall deeper and deeper in love, Ed in particular has to deal with both the culture shock of Lucardo’s vampiric background (and the divide between their socio-economic standings), and the encroaching fact of Ed’s own frail mortality on their romance.

I loved this book. What’s really wonderful about it is how it deals with the emotional side of paranormal romance, minus action-thriller additions (which is really where most books about vampires end up existing). I mean, to a certain extent, all vampire romances are May-to-December ones. Edward was 100+ years-old when he meets 17-year-old Bella Swan, despite them both looking like teens. But in ‘Letters for Lucardo’ this fact is not taken for granted, but rather becomes a tender and heart-wrenching exploration of love surpassing all bonds.

Creator Noora Heikkilä’s author-bio at the back really hints at what this entire series is focused on, and portrays so beautifully;

She’s interested in stories about romance, creating soft spaces in rough lives, communication being an essential part of relationships and society, and the thought that nobody is too old or unskilled to start learning something new.

As to the erotic aspect … oh, boy! It’s probably up there with  ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ by Julie Maroh, and intensely hot. It doesn’t feel gratuitous, because it is so gorgeously harmonised with the entirety of Ed and Lucardo’s burgeoning romance and feelings for one another, but if you weren’t expecting it (like I wasn’t) I can imagine it’s a slight shock. A happy-shock, but a shock.

I also really loved the gentle fleshing out of the universe here – the alternate historical setting, in which the vampiric Night Court is a fact of life and their worship is both secretive and high-society. It does have a ‘Twilight’ Volturi feel, which I actually really appreciated because though I am a fan of those books (proudly) I will say that that whole world-building often felt like a giant missed opportunity, and I feel safer in wherever Heikkilä’s story is taking us.

Though a slim book one (of only 139-pages) this story packs a real emotional punch, and I am now so happily invested in this romance. But what’s really frustrating is – there’s nothing else quite like it. I mean – I did not know until I read ‘Letters for Lucardo’ that I needed LGBT+, interracial vampire romances in my life, STAT, but now here we are. And there truly is nothing else out there – in graphic novels, books, TV or movies – that quite fit the bill. AND – I am also having to deal with the fact that Book 2 of this planned four-part series isn’t out until second-half of 2018. I now have this void that ‘Lucardo’ left, and no way to fill it except with more of Noora Heikkilä’s overwhelming gorgeous story.


Monday, February 12, 2018

'Anatomy of a Scandal' by Sarah Vaughan

From the BLURB:

You want to believe your husband. She wants to destroy him.

‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ centres on a high-profile marriage that begins to unravel when the husband is accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is sure her husband, James, is innocent and desperately hopes to protect her precious family from the lies which might ruin them. Kate is the barrister who will prosecute the case – she is equally certain that James is guilty and determined he will pay for his crimes. A high-profile marriage thrust into the spotlight. A wife, determined to keep her family safe, must face a prosecutor who believes justice has been a long time coming.

A scandal that will rock Westminster. 
And the women caught at the heart of it.

‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is a new courtroom drama/crime-thriller from British author, Sarah Vaughan.

So. This was a dud. And I am seriously disappointed that I have started my reading year with yet another disappointing adult-fiction book.

The endorsement quote on the front-cover of ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ bills it as; “the best courtroom drama I’ve read since ‘Apple Tree Yard’.”  I do not know that ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is, but one of my favourite parts of reading Jodi Picoult for many years was the pattern her books followed – of going from human drama, to courtroom drama and I was hoping to get that same fix here. I also thought ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ could envelop different aspect of this courtroom drama – maybe the police, prosecution, media pundits … maybe some ‘State of Play’ vibes? Especially as the crime in question – the rape of a woman by a politician who had just ended his affair with her – seemed to be uncomfortably prescient for the times and Time’s Up we’re living in.

The novel is broken down between several narrators – though all told from third-person interiority – the bulk of the story comes from prosecuting barrister Kate, the wife of accused Sophie, and only two or three chapters from the accused himself, Westminster conservative politician and friend to the PM, James.

The present-day chapters leap from 2016 – when James admits to having had a five-months’ long affair to his wife Sophie, then to his being accused of a rape during a clandestine meeting in an elevator, with the woman in question – to the 2017 trial where Kate is prosecuting. But the novel also jumps backwards to 1992/1993 and the year at Oxford where James, Sophie, (now PM) Tom and a woman called Holly were all first-years on a collision course for some alluded-to awful circumstance.

This is an interesting premise, I’ll grant you. On the surface, it sounds a lot like last year’s psychological British drama series ‘Liar’ which likewise breaks down the “he said, she said” faults of the justice system when it comes to rape trials and convictions. There’s also much made of the fact that James is devastatingly handsome, and popular – which Kate as prosecutor freely admits leans on people’s unconscious bias in these matters – in that, I was reminded of another British drama in ‘The Fall’ about a good-looking serial killer (not rapist) but was also playing on subverting people’s assumptions around “villains” in these instances.

But, but, but … ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is a sloppy book. All tell, no show. Cheap tricks and no pay-off. And it honestly feels like editorial was rushed to meet the newsworthiness of the book in this moment of women bringing down predatory and powerful men. The book hurts because of that rush (note that the rape victim, Olivia, never gets to tell her story through her own, independent chapters. Because her story and rape is really just a prop for others.) – and honestly, I wondered why it was even green-lit when it actually cheapens the entire wave of change we’re living in right now. To put it bluntly – it’s written more like the sloppy “investigative reporting” (or lack thereof) of the Babe Aziz Ansari piece than the meticulous and precise reporting on Harvey Weinstein by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.

I’ll deep-dive into one of my biggest pet-peeves, but overall – Vaughan summarises. A lot. Even complicated emotions like Sophie first having to grapple with the fact that her husband whom she loves dearly, has been carrying out an affair for five months and is then accused of rape by the woman – all of that is brushed aside. Scenes of James trying to initiate sex for the first time since the scandal broke, and Sophie rebuffing him are later swept aside with oddly tight references to their resumed “lovemaking” later on. At one point in the middle of the trial, Sophie is wresting with her anger and fear for James when she whisks their two children away to the Devon countryside to escape scrutiny – and while watching them, she somehow has a light-bulb moment that ends with her *smiling* at the thought of James getting a ‘not guilty’ and their life going back to normal?

Kate as barrister is another one – early mention to a colleague she is having an affair with but whose wife has recently found out, are alluded to in one tantalizing sentence early on, and then never again. Beyond that, she has no interest or character development – we are repeatedly told that she has high-cheekbones and dresses androgynous, but beyond that … nada.  The tagline literally promises; ‘A scandal that will rock Westminster. And the women caught at the heart of it.’ But the women are hollow.

It’s a sloppy story, over all. One chapter from an entirely different secondary character’s perspective is used purely as exposition – to joint the dots out loud if we didn’t quite fit them all together from the previous chapter – and then we never get another chapter from them, having done their momentary Jiminy Cricket bit.

And though the book claims to be a courtroom drama, this aspect is more ‘tell’ than ‘show’. I can honestly say that reading newspaper accounts of Taylor Swift’s testimony was more heart-stopping, and had more interesting dialogue in the form of witness accounts.

So. This book is a dud when it comes to characters, storytelling mechanisms, writing … basically; everything sucks. Hard. But my biggest pet-peeve with this book was how LAZY and EASY it was.

The level of cliché to James as the “villain” was so frustrating. James and the Prime Minister are ex-Eton men, and all that that entails. They are quite clearly modelled on David Cameron and his set – and early allusions to a scandal during their time at Oxford very quickly conjured memories of “Piggate”, before it’s revealed how much more serious James’s past history is … And of course, these clichés of wealthy and entitled men belonging to a conservative party, largely made up of people who bought their way into positions of power (through socio-economic lottery, lordships, equally entitled family and friendship connections, etc.) while living hypocritical, scandal-filled lives is a cliché for a reason. To the point that James reels off a list of past conservative party men who lived through sex scandals, and still managed to have thriving political careers in spite of (and you bet it was an interesting week to start reading Anatomy of a Scandal at the same time that Barnaby Joyce’s gross hypocrisy was revealed).

So on the one hand – Vaughan is quite justifiably drawing on past public scandals and known political figures to build a believable character of James. His chapters do read on the knife-edge between typical entitled wanker, and outright sociopath – and as a reader you’re constantly asking yourself which he falls into (both, it’s definitely both – because – of course it’s both). moment.

Vaughan leads the reader the same way a lawyer does a witness. There is no gray-scale in this story, no ‘whodunit’, really – no meandering off the path from Point A to Point B. James is an awful character who is awful and shown repeatedly to be awful and is then revealed to absolutely be awful and – oh! – look at the other awful thing they’ve done. Um. Okay? Was … was there meant to be some guess work in this? At one point James says; ‘Look what Blair did with the Iraq dossier.’ AS A DEFENCE. And, reader, I eye-rolled. I eye-rolled hard. WE GET IT. He’s a Tory wanker. So what else is new and interesting? The fact that he’s ex-Eton with the moral outlook of Stephen Miller was just too quiet a characterisation until that line. Ugh.

But part of me wondered if the book wouldn’t have been more interesting, and kept me guessing (as opposed to outright believing James is guilty and thinking the whole thing was a sloppy snooze) if he had been a member of – say – the Labour party? More a Jeremy Corbyn than a David Cameron. As the Time’s Up movement rallies on, there are layers of abuse and gaslighting being revealed – in Hollywood specifically, but also as it alludes to the everyday too. Take the case of Louis C.K. – whose allegations of sexual degradation led to articles examining ‘Threat of Fake Male Feminists’ and ‘17 Types Of Male "Feminists" That Need To Be Stopped’. Joss Whedon’s problematic behaviour involving women and power structures have also been taken to task when talking about toxic ‘male feminists’.

I think this could have been an interesting angle to take a gander at, in ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’. Just as the myth of a rapist being a perfect stranger you meet down a dark alley (rather than somebody known to you, often a family-member) so too is there a myth that once existed but is now being debunked, of a male progressive feminist – with some now revealed to be dressing up as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, to perpetuate harm against women.

As the woman trying to bring a conviction against him, Kate often muses on how frustrated she is that James is such a good-looking man, because it instantly raises the sexist objectifications and biases from the jury (“would he really need to rape someone to get some? A good-looking guy like him?”). But as a conservative running on family values blah blah blah, it’s also deliciously hypocritical that he carried out a five-months long affair and that is an easy mark against him. My thought was how much more complicated could the story have been if, say, James had been a liberal Justin Trudeau-type, replacing ‘conservative family values’ with ‘progressive feminist establishment’? (not that I want such a narrative to come to non-fictional fruition, mind!) But just to shake the narrative up a little bit, and truly keep me guessing as a reader. I hope someone writes that book (if they haven’t already? @ me recs!) – but that someone was never going to be Sarah Vaughan. Jodi Picoult, she is not. Hell – if I’m honest –I’ve seen more complex episode of Law & Order SVU.

This book was an awful, amateur hour soggy “drama”. There’s a ‘Guaranteed Great Read or Your Money Back’ sticker on my copy, and I am honestly thinking of making good on the publisher’s promise for the first time ever on that.

Why was it even called ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’? Is … is this a really crude reference to James’ penis and trying to decipher consent at the point of penetration? I don’t care. I don’t know why I kept reading – I honestly think it was just to see if the last line of the book was going to be; “AND – he fucked a pig, once.” Because – honestly – I wouldn’t have put it past Vaughan to end with one final anvil-drop of subtlety.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

'Still Me' Me Before You #3 by Jojo Moyes

From the BLURB:

The third Lou Clark novel by Jojo Moyes, following the number one international bestsellers Me Before You and After You.

Lou Clark arrives in New York ready to start a new life, confident that she can embrace this new adventure and keep her relationship with Ambulance Sam alive across several thousand miles. She is hurled into the world of the super-rich Gopniks: Leonard and his much younger second wife, Agnes, and a never-ending array of household staff and hangers-on. Lou is determined to get the most out of the experience and throws herself into her job and New York life within this privileged world.

Before she knows what's happening, Lou is mixing in New York high society, where she meets Joshua Ryan, a man who brings with him a whisper of her past.

In Still Me, as Lou tries to keep the two sides of her world together, she finds herself carrying secrets - not all her own - that cause a catastrophic change in her circumstances. And when matters come to a head, she has to ask herself: Who is Louisa Clark? And how do you reconcile a heart that lives in two places?

‘Still Me’ by British author Jojo Moyes is the third book in what has become her  ‘Me Before You’ series, which began with ‘Me Before You’ and followed up with second book, ‘After You’.

I will fully admit that I have a complicated relationship with these books. I read ‘Me Before You’ in 2012, while on holidays in Sydney – I literally walked into a bookshop and picked up one of the books on a ‘new releases’ table, and dived right in without knowing a fig about the story or author beyond the blurb. I loved it. I cried buckets. I thought about it for days afterwards. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I became aware of ‘Own Voices’ reviewers who were pulling apart the toxicity and ableism in the story, and then really honing in when news of a film adaptation became even more problematic.

That was also part of my reluctance to read second book ‘After You’ – not just because a sequel some four years after the first book was released (and clearly designed to cash-in on the movie coming out) but also because I now had blinkers off to the problems. Thankfully ‘After You’ fully avoided the traps of the first book and leaned into being a universal story of living with grief, and all that that entails – including falling in love again. I really enjoyed it, and given the somewhat cliff-hanger emotional ending I was excited to discover Jojo Moyes bringing a third instalment, ‘Still Me’ – which follows Lou Clark after moving to New York for a new job, and thus beginning her new relationship with paramedic Sam as a long-distance one.

It took me two days to read this, and then on the home stretch I stayed up until 2AM to finish. Now, that’s not necessarily because it was so amazingly brilliant, but because I’m experiencing a slight new year reading malaise and can’t really get started or stuck into anything … until ‘Still Me’ came along.

It is not a brilliant book, and is certainly a pail in comparison to my enjoyable reads of the first and second instalments. But I needed to know how it would all end, because Lou Clark has truly grown on me. Stripey leggings and all.

Lou’s new job in New York (supplied by physical therapist friend Nathan) involves being a companion of sorts to a rich New York wife called Agnes Gopnik, who is struggling to adjust to her role as second wife amidst the glitz, glamour and fundraiser events her husband’s role require she attend. Agnes is also originally from Poland, and missing her family terribly, and part of Lou’s job is to simply provide companionship that she’s not getting from the cold-shoulders of NY’s elite.

While finding her feet as a newbie to New York and adjusting to a very different care-giver role, Lou is also missing her new boyfriend Sam – who she had been with for only a few months, before he urged her to take this job of a lifetime. But there’s every indication that their new relationship can weather the storm of a year apart, considering the extraordinary circumstances that bought them together – Sam grieving his dead sister, Lou grieving for Will Traynor – and then Sam getting gravely injured while out on a job. All of which has seen them fall fast and hard for one another.

The Lou in New York storyline is seriously lacklustre. Agnes Gopnik is a character sadly made of clichés, right down to the Pigeon-English dialogue she spouts. Her story is clearly built up to be something more than I certainly felt, as a reader … and while Moyes tries a do-over with another character to pull on Lou’s heartstrings, this one felt like a slightly maddening U-turn and never quite landed an emotional punch.

I wish we’d gotten more Sam, but predictably the fact that we don’t is kinda the whole point. But I still feel like there’s more to know about him, and there were so many times in the book where (for the sake of an adrenaline injection in the staid story) I wished Lou would lean into confrontation, and tackle situations head-on. The fact that she doesn’t (repeatedly) leaves the novel with a feeling of a held breath, and even by the end I still felt there was a lot left unsaid that needed to be aired if this was to be the last instalment.

The other negative of ‘Still Me’ is the memory of Will Traynor awkwardly shoe-horned in for relevancy. I thought ‘After You’ was going to be a train-wreck, when it was revealed that Will had a surprise love-child, but that storyline worked well. In this book Will’s spectre comes in the form of two or three old letters he wrote during his time in New York, and also – a lookalike American who gives Lou pause. Josh is another awkward shoehorn, but there was some purpose to his presence which was, I thought, to show Lou that had Will never had his accident – he probably would have kept on being an entitled banking prat, who’d have never given her and her wacky style a second-glance.

Ugh. This book was … fine. Hovering somewhere between a 2.5 and a 3. I am at a point now though, where I hope we’ve seen the last of Lou Clark. There’s no part of me that doesn’t think she’ll be just fine, and living a fantastically messy and sparkly life. I’m good now. Let’s be done.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

'My Most Excellent Year' by Steve Kluger

From the BLURB:

Best friends and unofficial brothers since they were six, ninth-graders T.C. and Augie have got the world figured out. But that all changes when both friends fall in love for the first time. Enter Al‚. She’s pretty, sassy, and on her way to Harvard. T.C. falls hard, but Al‚ is playing hard to get. Meanwhile, Augie realizes that he’s got a crush on a boy. It’s not so clear to him, but to his family and friends, it’s totally obvious! Told in alternating perspectives, this is the hilarious and touching story of their most excellent year, where these three friends discover love, themselves, and how a little magic and Mary Poppins can go a long way.

‘My Most Excellent Year: A NOVEL OF LOVE, MARY POPPINS, AND FENWAY PARK’ is a junior-YA novel that advanced Middle Grade readers would also enjoy, written in 2009 by American author Steve Kluger.

I actually read this book last year – though “inhaled” might be more accurate. But I needed to sit on it for a bit before writing a review, because I did read it in a fever I wanted to let that break first. Since then I have done a re-read (albeit – a fairly fast one, flicking through to get to my favourite parts) and now I feel I can most confidently say …

This has become a new favourite beloved book for me. Absolutely!

On the surface, this book is trying to do a lot. And at 403-pages, it almost seems too ambitious. Then when you start breaking down the plot, Kluger does indeed seem to be in waaaaaaay over his head.

To begin with; there are three teen narrators, plus the occasional cameo by their adult parents.

There’s Anthony Conigliaro Keller (‘TC’ for short), Alejandra Perez, and Augie Hwong. Ostensibly they’re each narrating using the classroom English assignment, answering a question about their ‘Most Excellent Year’.

The adult cameos are all done in epistolary form – things like Augie’s critic mother, using snippets of her newspaper arts column. But the more interesting (and mini, contained secondary story in itself) comes from TC’s widowed father, Ted, who has an ongoing email exchange with one of TC’s teachers, Lori – which is 100% tentative flirting that morphs into an outright relationship (with a little extra help and advice occasionally, from Augie’s father to Ted). There’s also memos written on ‘The United States Secret Service’ stationary from one Agent Clint to Alejandra, whom he used to guard because her father is an international diplomat.

…. Okay. And that’s JUST the secondary adult characters.

See what I mean about Kluger appearing to throw everything in, *including* the kitchen sink?!

BUT IT WORKS. I promise you.

The teens each have their own distinctive first-person voices and interesting backgrounds/character-arcs, but they also beautifully harmonise together.

TC’s mother died when he was six, and he’s still coming to terms with how to miss her and grieve, without always being sad. He’s also crushing hard on the new girl at school, Alejandra ‘Ale’ and devising a plan to sweep her off her feet – while also becoming a big brother figure to an orphaned young boy called Hucky, who’s almost as big a baseball fan as TC himself.

Augie has designs on being a Broadway star one day, and figuring out his complicated feelings for classmate Andy – and grappling with having to tell his parents how he feels about boys. While Ale is trying to figure out how to break it to her professional politician parents that she’d rather pursue a singing career than a senate one (she’s also grappling with her burgeoning crush on inappropriate TC – who reminds her of a Kennedy brother).

TC and Augie are more like brothers than best friends – to the point that their parents collectively think of them both that way too, and they each have a carved out space in the other’s home for their constant sleepovers. Their friendship began at the age of six, right around when TC lost his mother … and it has grown deeper and stronger ever since. This year – the boys’ Most Excellent Year – they’re each helping the other to figure out their respective loves (Ale and Andy) and their general place in the world.  

So. There is a lot happening here – and these stories and narrators are constantly interchanging and handing the narrative down the line, like a baton relay race that keeps the whole thing moving at a clip. I will say that the arc about orphaned boy Hucky being taken under TC’s wing (and then – by extension – under Augie and his family’s too, and Ale also) does become the orbiting focus by the second-half.

But Kluger covers a lot here. TC and Ale’s unfolding romance – which goes from hostility (on Ale’s part) to begrudging interest and then mortified reciprocation is one finely plucked tune. As is Augie’s realisation of his sexuality and first fluttery (and returned) feelings for classmate Andy.

Augie’s storyline is probably a stand-out, for being so unique in this junior/MG realm. What I loved is that it becomes more than apparent (through email exchanges amongst the parents, and TC’s interiority) that everyone knows Augie is gay, and they’re all excited to see his unfurling feelings for Andy come to light … but they’re also very aware of needing to let Augie come to this realisation himself, and tell them all himself. It’s a beautiful telling, and because Augie is probably the biggest scene-stealer, with the funniest chapters it’s really wonderful how Kluger manages to play his romance (and occasional bump/heartbteak) with Andy on a much more tender and harmonious note.

This novel shouldn’t work. On paper it’s all over the place, and trying to be and do so many things. But Kluger plays it beautifully. Like I said – the fact that each teen narrator (plus their parents, providing filler-context) each gets a turn at moving the story along, it does have a rollickingly good pace. Ale, TC and Augie each have such distinctive voices too – and that’s where Kluger shines, is in his characterisation and ear for voice/dialogue.

‘My Most Excellent Year’ doesn’t just feel like it could have been three books, mashed into one. Realistically Kluger could have taken any one narrative arc and made an entire novel out of it – but putting them all together gives these kids and their stories such robust life … it puts a delicate point on the changes kids go through at this marvellous, ever-moving age when they start defining who they are by what they love. When they start figuring themselves out. It’s honestly, such a glorious 403-pages of tenderness and hilarity, truth and heartache. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I want to read more just like it but, sadly and gladly, I think Steve Kluger and this book are in a league all of their own.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

'The Ones Who Got Away' #1 by Roni Loren

From the BLURB:

Liv's words cut off as Finn got closer. The man approaching was nothing like the boy she'd known. The bulky football muscles had streamlined into a harder, leaner package and the look in his deep green eyes held no trace of boyish innocence.

It's been twelve years since tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a few students survived that fateful night—a group the media dubbed The Ones Who Got Away.

Liv Arias thought she'd never return to Long Acre—until a documentary brings her and the other survivors back home. Suddenly her old flame, Finn Dorsey, is closer than ever, and their attraction is still white-hot. When a searing kiss reignites their passion, Liv realizes this rough-around-the-edges cop might be exactly what she needs...

‘The Ones Who Got Away’ is the first book in a new contemporary romance series by US author Roni Loren.

The basis of this new series is a group of high school classmates who were the survivors of a shooting. When the book begins, they’re all coming home for the first time to participate in a documentary about the tragedy – with the purpose of raising funds for a charity. We meet a group of female classmates who were not friends before the shooting occurred, but who banded together in its aftermath and even made a pact to live lives that would honor the deceased.

One of the women is Liv Arias, who has a story of heartbreak within the wider tragedy. She was the poor girl from the wrong side of town, secretly dating rich and charismatic Finn Dorsey – at the time of the shooting they were locked in a closet together, and locking lips … until shots were heard, and Finn left Liv alone to go and find his “real” date, and in doing so led the shooter right to Liv’s hiding place. She was spared, but she hasn’t seen Finn since he skipped town after graduation until now.

I really liked the set-up of this series. Under a different author, it could have been a gauche and clumsy premise – but Roni Loren hits subtle notes of grief and trauma. I think part of the success is that she doesn’t give us flashbacks to the high school shooting itself, but focuses entirely on the grown adults who are still dealing with the consequences of the horror, even twelve years after the fact.

I will say that Finn’s background is slightly outlandish. When he attends the reunion, he’s coming off the back of an FBI undercover stint that saw him assume a new identity for two years. There’s a whole thing about how he joined the FBI to somehow seek retribution against the gun-runners who sold the weapons to the teen offenders of his high school’s shooting. Yeah. It’s a lot. And never really works in the plot. Loren could have more plausibly just had him in law-enforcement, or military etc. as a way to combat his fear of victimhood and had an equally convincing background – instead it’s that, coupled with a white-knight savior complex and it’s a character development she works hard to seem plausible, but never really does.

More importantly – his and Liv’s romance is HOT and on-point. Part of me was actually hoping to get flashbacks to their teen-selves, because that young and fraught romance sounded delicious. But I am really glad that we only get them in the here and now, because Roni Loren layers their tensions so beautifully … and I don’t think it would have worked if we’d just met them with teen-angst and socio-economic divide. It’s better to meet them with that history from their teen years, plus the tragedy, plus time. It dials them up to about 1000 and makes their romance that much more delicate and white-hot.

Like I said – the one drawback was Finn’s OTT back-story in the FBI. But overall this was a solid set-up to a contemporary series, and I’m already looking forward to book 2 – coming out in June.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fence #1 and #2 by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad

From the BLURB:

Sixteen-year-old Nicholas Cox is an outsider to the competitive fencing world. Filled with raw talent but lacking proper training, he signs up for a competition that puts him head-to-head with fencing prodigy Seiji Katayama...and on the road to the elite all-boys school Kings Row. A chance at a real team and a place to belong awaits him—if he can make the cut!

‘Fence’ is a new young adult comic series from Boom! Box, written by C.S. Pacat and illustrated by Johanna the Mad. It launched in November and only two issues have been released so far – but it is going to be a once-a-month schedule, with the first Volume of issues 1-5 due for July 2018 release.

First of all – Boom! Box (or, Boom Studios) is hella smart. They are the publisher behind what feels like a new wave of comic books – ones that are more diverse, inclusive and directly aimed at a young generation who weren’t previously swayed by the offerings of Marvel and DC. Boom is responsible for such groundbreaking and popular series as Giant Days, Goldie Vance, Misfit City and perhaps most popular of all among certain fandom’s  - Lumberjanes.

Boom are also part of a new era in comic books fusing with fiction writers like never before, and especially those who have appeal to younger (teen, mostly) readers – such as Rainbow Rowell partnering with First Second Books for a graphic novel called Pumpkinheads, to be illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks and releasing in 2019.

Boom inviting C.S. Pacat to create her own YA comic book was a bold, and smart move. Given that Pacat didn’t launch her career (into the stratosphere!) with a YA series, rather her debut ‘Captive Prince’ trilogy was LGBT fantasy romance (some would say erotica, at times) that found a huge teen fanbase because it started life as an online serial of original fiction that went viral, before being acquired by traditional publisher Penguin Random House. In any case – Pacat’s series became huge, particularly in the ways it highlighted and proved young people’s craving for more LGBT stories across all genres.

Giving her the reigns to develop her own comic series at the height of this popularity is pure genius – and it pays off (tenfold) in ‘Fence’. Set at the prestigious Kings Row boarding school and following a group of boys trying to come together as an elite fencing team to take out the top-ranked competitors. The series is focused on rivals, teammates and roommates Nicholas Cox and Seiji Katayama.

Two issues in and this world already feels so full and vibrant (a testament to this is how it’s already impressively sparked Tumblr imaginations). There’s a huge focus on rivalries and love affairs, skeletons in the closet and backstabbing afoot. The series has echoes of 2001 film ‘Lost and Delirious’ for me, maybe with a little ‘One Tree Hill’ and a feel of something like ‘Kids on the Slope’ or ‘From Up on Poppy Hill‘ thrown in. But honestly, ‘Fence’ is so wholly original it’s hard to quite put your finger on all that it evokes. Except to say it’s building a wonderfully full cast of characters, based in a small student community and with so much room for drama and emotional action – I’m already salivating at the possibilities!

Illustrations by Johanna the Mad make me crave this being turned into an animated-series, even though it would work equally well as live-action drama there’s just something about the art that sumptuously fits the whole unique story.

If you haven’t already, do start collecting all the ‘Fence’ issues and jump on this series bandwagon – I guarantee that even these two issues will fuel your imagination for what’s to come, and if that’s the case you can easily tap into an already very full and vibrant fandom that’s emerged in the wake of its decadent genius.


Saturday, December 30, 2017

18 Books I am Looking Forward to Reading in 2018

Hello Darling Readers,

I really wasn’t going to do this. I really was not going to compile a list of books I’m most looking forward to in 2018. Honestly, I always get a slight case of listicle-fatigue by this time of year (Emily Nussbaum on Twitter goes on *the best* rants against Best-Of lists), and the other day Kelly Jensen summarised it so brilliantly, why these lists are sometimes redundant in books;

And yet, here I am. Going to give you an ’18 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2018’ list. Because I need to keep a record somewhere of the books I need to pre-order, AND because I’d genuinely like a place to fan-girl about certain titles.

Of course, I would like to list every singe book that I represent as agent (and that should just go without saying forevermore!) But I’ve narrowed this list of 18 books down to only those that have firm release-dates and covers. If you would like a list of those books I rep that you should absolutely look out for in 2018 (and beyond!) then please to visit here ---

The whole release-date and cover proviso also means that the below list (of only 18 books!) is also not extensive, obviously. I would, for instance, love to include Kristan Higgins’ new book ‘Good Luck With That’, scheduled for August 2018 release – but I can’t. Because there’s no cover yet. Just know that I am *terribly* excited and remaining in a permanent state of fingers-crossed that I’ll be approved on NetGalley for it. Also – I think I will literally cry when I get to hold a copy of ‘The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy’ by Mackenzi Lee in my hands (October 2nd. WHYYYYYY!!!?!)

As it is – please enjoy my very brief list of 18 Books I am Very Much Looking Forward to Reading in 2018.

Oh – and Happy New Year!
Here’s to kindness following us into a clean-slate.
And level-heads prevailing, everywhere.


The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
January 30th 2018

I seriously know so little about this book, except that a bunch of Australian booksellers who I trust 1000% were given early-copies and RAVED about it. Luckily I won’t have to wait long to know what all the fuss is about with this fantasy YA, as it’s a January release and I’ve already pre-ordered it. I am THAT confident in bookseller taste. Of course.

Women of War series
Book #1 – February 20th 2018
It’s pretty safe to say 2017 was a horror show. But there were some bright spark moments. Case in point: the first season of AFL Women's national Australian rules football league began in February 2017 with eight teams for female players. It was a landmark moment, and I am absolutely positive that it has already spawned a whole new generation of young people who just accept that women and girls can do any damn thing they want to. So I am absolutely onboard with Escape Publishing putting out a romance series that puts these women front and centre of their own romance stories. 
Right now all three of these instalments appear to be centred on female-male romance pairings (I think? Forgive me if I'm wrong!), and I do hope if that's the case that the series expands to include lesbian and other romances too. Because of course, part of what’s been great about Women’s AFL coming in has been seeing how these players have opened up conversations about LGBT+ rep in Australian sports.

R Is for Rebel by J. Anderson Coats
February 20th 2018
This blurb for the middle-grade book sounds like pure gold to me: “Princess Academy meets Megan Whalen Turner in this stunning novel about a girl who won’t let anything tame her spirit—not the government that conquered her people, and definitely not reform school!”

A Princess in Theory (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole
February 27th 2018
Obviously I am a staunch Republican (American readers – don’t worry, it just means I want Australia to become a republic. Something you lot did back in 1783.) However, it goes without saying that the No.1 romance I am looking forward to in 2018 is the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Also naturally – I want everyone to bring me ALLLLLLLLL the royals romances in 2018 (I already thank Netflix profusely for A Christmas Prince, obvs).
I am eyeing YA offering Royals by Rachel Hawkins (May 2018) but the one that is giving me serious goosebumps is from one of my favourite romance authors, Alyssa Cole. The blurb alone already has me envisioning a Netflix adaptation, okay?! “Between grad school and multiple jobs, Naledi Smith doesn’t have time for fairy tales…or patience for the constant e-mails claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince. Sure. Right. Delete! As a former foster kid, she’s learned that the only things she can depend on are herself and the scientific method, and a silly e-mail won’t convince her otherwise.”

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages by edited by Saundra Mitchell
February 27th 2018
Naturally, I love a YA short-story anthology. This US one does indeed sound exceptional, and I don’t think it’s unkind to say that any other YA Anthologies planned for next year’s slate and beyond will have to work hard to meet or surpass the bar that this one is sure to set: “From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth-century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.”

Hello Stranger (The Ravenels #4) by Lisa Kleypas
February 27th 2018
Considering the first book in this series – ‘Cold-Hearted Rake’ – left me, well, cold and I didn’t even attempt to crack open second book ‘Marrying Winterborne’, it’s pretty impressive that the fourth instalment of Kleypas’ historical romance series makes the cut here. But, she turned it all around with 2017’s ‘Devil in Spring’, which featured the offspring of beloved ‘Wallflowers’ couple, Evie and Sebastian in his very own romance. I was hooked, and ‘Devil’ was a favourite book of 2017 for me. ‘Hell Stranger’ will be all about a couple we met in ‘Devil in Spring’ – one half of which is Dr. Garrett Gibson, the only female physician in England. YAAAAAAAAAAAAS.

White Night by Ellie Marney
March 1st 2018
“In Bo Mitchell's country town, a 'White Night' light-show event has the potential to raise vital funds to save the skate park. And out of town, a girl from a secretive off-the-grid community called Garden of Eden has the potential to change the way Bo sees the world. But are there too many secrets in Eden?”
Ellie Marney owns my bookish heart and I will read anything and everything she writes, forever more. Because she’s a genius, and a national Australian treasure. And she writes the HANDS-DOWN best romances this side of the Southern Hemisphere.

Burn Bright (Alpha & Omega #5) by Patricia Briggs
March 6th 2018
So if you didn’t know, in January 2017 Patricia Briggs’ husband Mike passed away suddenly.  The entire book-community built around Briggs’ ‘Mercy Thompson’ and other series were devastated, since Mike played a big role in updating her website, blog and communicating to her fandom generally. None of us would have been surprised or upset if Briggs announced her publishing schedule was on-hold in the wake of his passing. But here we are, with the fifth instalment in her spin-off ‘Alpha and Omega’ series (the first we’ve had since 2015) due for 2018 release, and I know I am in absolute awe of her, and incredibly grateful that she’s still creating. 

In Search Of Us by Ava Dellaira
March 6th 2018
Dellaira’s contemporary 2014 debut ‘Love Letters to the Dead’ remains one of the best YA novels I have read – easily – in the last decade. An epistolary novel framed around one young woman expounding her grief over her sister’s death by writing letters to her dead heroes – from Kurt Cobain to Judy Garland. It is a heartbreakingly earnest premise that packs a wallop with Dellaira’s pitch-perfect voice. But 2014 was also the year of Jandy Nelson’s ‘I'll Give You the Sun’ (a book, which – don’t hate me! – I really don’t rate) and I feel like Dellaira wasn’t given the proper contemporary-YA kudos she deserved. I hope with this second novel from her, she makes a bigger landing and marks herself as one of the best authors writing for teens since Stephen Chbosky.  From the sounds of it, ‘In Search Of’ could most definitely be a book to make everyone sit up and take notice; “The parallel story of a mother and daughter each at age seventeen. Marilyn's tale recounts the summer she fell in love and set out on her own path. Angie's story is about her search for her unknown father.”

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
March 19th 2018
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a story about stories: those we inherit, those we select to define us, and those we decide to hide.”
This Australian debut is giving me ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh vibes, maybe with the literary styling of Jessie Burton. In any case, it has had a stellar turn of international sales ( which is always a good sign that something groundbreaking is afoot … I have my eye on this one, and a very good feeling about it.

Neverland by Margot McGovern
April 1st 2018
AH! See. One of my authors I rep – but since it has a cover and release date, I absolutely had to include this one. Also because I have loved and wanted to own a flesh-and-blood book of this tale since I first read the blurb when Margot’s manuscript was shortlisted for an unpublished prize back in 2015. But don’t just take my word for it – the book is racking up some impressive endorsement quotes from authors I thoroughly admire. Like this from Allyse Near: “Darkly sublime, subversive and haunting, lush and honeyed – everything I love in a book. ”
Me too, Allyse. Me too.

Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough
April 2nd 2018
From the Blurb: “Harriet Price is the perfect Rosemead Grammar student – wealthy, smart, overachieving – while Will Everhart is a social-justice warrior with a chip on her shoulder. But when a worrying incident with their swimming coach goes unnoticed by the authorities, the unlikely pair creates an elaborate hoax to bring him down.”
Hello. I love Erin Gough, and have been waiting for her follow-up book for exactly 435-years (that’s book-years, from 2015). That this second book from her sounds like ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’ by E. Lockhart meets 1998 film ‘All I Wanna Do’ (or, ‘Strike!’ depending on your region) just fills my feminist heart with pure, fizzing joy. Also - this cover by Jess Cruickshank is to die for. 
Up your ziggy with a wa-wa brush, indeed.

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
April 24th 2018
Remember that really mediocre 2016 movie starring Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and Jessica Chastain – ‘The Huntsman’? Well this debut book kinda sounds like that, minus the mediocrity. It’s also got a big ‘Vikings’ vibe going on (I think? I dunno? – I haven’t seen the show, but the word “fjord” is used in the blurb?) and I am here for it and I really need a new YA fantasy to get excited about in 2018.

My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan
April 24th 2018
Well, this is awkward. Julia Whelan is an actress who starred in one of my all-time favourite TV shows, ‘Once & Again’ … a show I used to write FanFiction for, including stepbrother-stepsister pairings of her Grace character and Shane West’s Eli. Nowadays, Julia has become one of the BEST (and my fave) audiobook narrators in the industry, and NOW she’s gone even higher in my estimation (I did not think that was possible?!) by writing a contemporary romance. And – HERE’S THE KICKER – there’s already a major motion picture adaptation in the works, starring Supergirl’s Melissa Benosist and (hold. me.) Outlander’s Sam Heughan.

Julia Whelan – I am ridiculously excited to read this, and you have exceeded my wildest FanFic imaginings by having Grace Manning grow up to write romances that Jamie Fraser will act out. I tip my hat to you, and if you’re ever in Australia let me take you out to dinner because I think we need to become best friends? Mmkay? And please don’t let this entire paragraph make me sound utterly bonkers.

Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead
May 1st 2018
Look, I was already going to read this because Rebecca Stead is one of my favourite writers of all time. I worship the woman. And this new book of hers (coupled with the literary might of ‘A Mango-Shaped Space’ Wendy Mass) means this is a no-brainer. That the blurb is also evoking a bit of E.T. feels doesn’t hurt either; “A classic middle-grade tale of magic and friendship, about a girl who helps an old friend find home.”

Magic Triumphs (Kate Daniels #10) by Ilona Andrews
May 8th 2018
Okay. *BREATHE*. I can barely contain my excitement and sadness for THE VERY LAST BOOK, EVER in Ilona Andrews’ ‘Kate Daniels’ series. I just … I can’t even begin thinking about all the fan-theories floating around out there and I will need to put myself in a bunker for the few HOURS it’ll take me to consume this book. And – OMFG! – please tell me that Julie is going to get her own series with Derek and Ascanio featuring. Please please please. I have been harping on about this since forever, but now with Kate’s wrapping up I feel like I can practically taste the very real possibility of it. PLEASE. Please.

The Fortress by S.A. Jones
June 1st 2018
Full-disclosure: this is an author repp’ed by the Jacinta di Mase Agency that I work for. BUT – I have not read it yet. Delayed satisfaction, ftw! All I know is this book is a gutsy inversion of Charlotte Wood’s ‘The Natural Way of Things’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. For me, knowing the pitch, it also sounds right up the alley of anyone who loves Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine De Landro’s ‘Bitch Planet’ comic book series.
Ummmm – hell yes. Gimme. The blurb also promises that; “This absorbing, confronting and moving novel asks questions about consent, power, love and fulfilment. It asks what it takes for a man to change, and whether change is possible without a radical reversal of the conditions that seem normal.” SIGN ME THE FUCK, UP.

Wicked and the Wallflower (Bareknuckle Bastard #1) by Sarah MacLean
June 19th 2018
Sarah Maclean is one of the best historical romance authors writing today, and a new series from her should be celebrated with a ticker tape parade. This one sounds particularly spirited and sparkly; “When a mysterious stranger finds his way into her bedchamber and offers his help in landing a duke, Lady Felicity Faircloth agrees—on one condition. She's seen enough of the world to believe in passion, and won't accept a marriage without it.”