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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

‘Almost Midnight: Two Short Stories’ by Rainbow Rowell

From the BLURB:

Almost Midnight by Rainbow Rowell is a beautiful gift edition containing two wintery short stories, decorated throughout for the first time with gorgeous black and white illustrations by Simini Blocker.

Midnight is the story of Noel and Mags, who meet at the same New Year's Eve party every year and fall a little more in love each time . . .

Kindred Spirits is about Elena, who decides to queue to see the new Star Wars movie and meets Gabe, a fellow fan.

‘Almost Midnight: Two Short Stories’ by Rainbow Rowell is a limited-edition collection of two of the author’s short stories – one appeared in the ‘My True Love Gave to Me’ anthology, edited by Stephanie Perkins and ‘Kindred Spirits’ was previously published as a World Book Day title. This special pocket-book also includes beautiful illustrations by Simini Blocker.

This book is 127-pages, and both of the short-stories are available elsewhere and have probably already been read by Rowell fans. But kudos to publisher Macmillan, they have made up for this with a genuinely gorgeously packaged book – pocket-sized it may be, but it’s hardback with a sparkly cover and Blocker’s illustrations really are stunning. The whole package is really paying service to the Tumblr and #Bookstagram communities who – arguably – played a huge role in spreading the word about Rowell’s books and put a spotlight on her stories. The fandom is real, and they will be really happy with this collectible, to be honest.

‘Midnights’ is definitely the better of the two stories – as evidenced by the little fandom that main characters Noel and Mags have accumulated since ‘My True Love Gave To Me’ came out in 2015. It’s everything that Rowell is exceedingly good at writing – awkward but loveable female characters navigating self-doubt, but ultimately finding affection from someone who wants them to just be themselves.

‘Kindred Spirits’ is set in a lousy movie line anticipating the first screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and while it is more cutesy fun it does feel like the whole short was constructed around using the (admittedly great) pun “The Force Asleepens.”

Look, I think ‘Almost Midnight’ (retailing at AU$20) is really sweet, and will definitely be snapped up by Rainbow Rowell- aficionados … especially because her last full-length book came out in 2015 with ‘Carry On’, there’s no news on what her next novel will be, her latest ‘Runaways’ comic venture isn’t necessarily going to satiate all of her fiction-fans, and her graphic novel with Faith Erin Hicks (‘Pumpkinheads’) isn’t due until 2019.

I’m going to give this 4/5, only because – from the Australian market perspective – it kinda boggles the mind that a publisher can produce a 127-page mini-book of two short stories that have probably already been bought by the readers (and it costs $20 to do so! Or AU$12.99 on Kindle!) … But, y’know what? – that’s me, I totally bought it! But for teens – they could buy a full-length YA for $16.99 and get more bang for their buck. I just think that ‘Almost Midnight’ is mostly about producing something to be shared on social media …


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

‘The Duchess Deal’ Girl Meets Duke #1 by Tessa Dare

From the BLURB:

When girl meets Duke, their marriage breaks all the rules…

Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.

His terms are simple:
  • They will be husband and wife by night only.
  • No lights, no kissing.
  • No questions about his battle scars.
  • Last, and most importantly… Once she’s pregnant with his heir, they need never share a bed again.

But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:
  • They will have dinner together every evening.
  • With conversation.
  • And unlimited teasing.
  • Last, and most importantly… Once she’s seen the man beneath the scars, he can’t stop her from falling in love…

‘The Duchess Deal’ is the first book in a new historical romance series by Tessa Dare, called ‘Girl Meets Duke.’

Yes I have finally, finally, finally read this much-anticipated book and it was indeed worth the wait.

‘The Duchess Deal’ is very much borrowing from the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ trope (which is itself, harking back to the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros), about a scarred war veteran who takes a seamstress as his wife – purely for the purposes of begetting an heir, and under the condition that there be no true love between them … which of course all unravels when they start to get to know each other.

What is interesting about this historical romance though, is how it perfectly illustrates the responsiveness of the romance genre to changing social norms and political discourse. I had read Tessa Dare talking about writing this book right when Donald Trump was elected, and how suddenly this ultra-Alpha hero she wrote just didn’t cut it anymore. She had to address the issue of a woman falling for an outwardly vile person who is actively trying to put her off falling for him … look, the Duke of Ashbury is no pussy-grabber by any means. But there’s clearly been a lot of work put into him showing his true (kind, caring) colours to wife Emma, and putting on a mask to the rest of the world. It works – astonishingly well.

What else works is the little asides that Dare throws in, referencing the here and now. Like this wink-wink that actually had be GASPING for joy;

“Forgiveness requires penitence. She was warned. Given every explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted in her sinful behaviour, and she would not repent of it.”

Yes. This is Tessa Dare at her clever best, and the romance genre proving itself as the most feminist in publishing – women writing women for women, and proving that a woman’s place is in the resistance.

This book was hot with heart, and I was 1000% here for it. I am so excited for more instalments about this group of clever and commanding women.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

#LoveOzLit - Books Gift-Guide for Christmas!

Hello Darling Readers!

It’s November – which means Christmas is *just* around the corner. I decided to put this post together for anyone who is like me, and prefers to be super-prepared for Chrissie, rather than set foot in a shopping centre at any point during December.

Well, it was that, but also – I really wanted to put together a Books Gift-Guide for Christmas, that celebrates some of the amazing Australian Youth Literature titles we had come out in 2017. And encouraging everyone to not only buy books as gifts, but AUSTRALIAN books – because we have some serious fabulousness!

I know lots of people think that books are too personal a gift to give; because it’s all about individual likes, and dislikes (also trying to guess what’s already on someone's shelves!) but I’m with the Icelanders on this one, who – and I quote! – “have a beautiful tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the night reading.” How gorgeous does that sound?!

So, consider this your Aussie version of a Bokatidindi Books Gift-Guide! For all the young people in your life, who you’d like to gift some #LoveOzLit this Christmas!

I have restricted it to books released in 2017, and no sequels for that reason too (sorry!) And of course - this is a purely subjective list based entirely on my personal picks - though I have tried to cover a range of genres, etc. 

And – full disclosure of nepotism – the #LoveOzYA Anthology does indeed feature … but – c’mon! – it’s a book celebrating our national youth literature, with a smorgasbord of genre (so if you don’t know what the teen in your life is into it’s PERFECT!) – AND, it’s short-stories for the time-poor teen (also because short stories are freakin’ marvellous and they’ll appreciate it as something other than the Edgar Allen Poe examples they had to study/suffer in school. Sorry, Poe!)

Ummmm ... speaking of the #LoveOzYA Anthology - it's one of the books you can vote for in ABC's The Book Club 'Five of the Best' of 2017 and if you could please vote for it I would be endlessly grateful! (honestly, this is such a long-shot but if the lead-up to Christmas isn't the time to hope, then I don't know when is!) 

Without further ado – 

Happy #LoveOzLit!


Picture Books:

·      That Christmas Feeling by Lili Wilkinson, illustrated by Amanda Francey
·      Hello, Melbourne! by Megan McKean
·      Peas and Quiet by Gabrielle Tozer, illustrated by Sue DeGennaro
·      Yakanarra Songbook: About Our Place in Walmajarri and English by Jessie Wamarla Moora
·      I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon
·      Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Francesca Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
·      Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries
·          At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh
·          Storm Pearl by Kerry Anne Jordinson
·          Koala Bare by Jackie French, illustrated by Matt Shanks
·          Ten Pound Pom written by Carole Wilkinson, illustrated by Liz Anelli




Junior Fiction:

·      Super Moopers series 
·      Pip and Houdini by J.C. Jones
·      Patty Hits the Court: Game Day! #1 by Patty (Patrick) Mills, Jared Thomas
·     Grover, Stretch and the Broken Leg 'Grover McBane Rescue Dog Book #5' by Claire Garth, illustrated by Johannes Leak
·      To the Lighthouse by Cristy Burne
·      The Beast of Hushing Wood by Gabrielle Wang
·      Party Time 'Hot Dog, Book #2' by Anh Do, illustrated by Dan McGuiness
·      Jehan and the Quest of the Lost Dog by Rosanne Hawke
·      Tashi Storybook: Special Edition by Anna Fienberg, illustrated by Kim Gamble
·      The Wayward Witch and the Feelings Monster: Polly and Buster Book #1 by Sally Rippin




 Middle Grade: 8-12 year-olds

·      Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
·      Accidental Heroes: The Rogues #1 by Lian Tanner
·      Marsh and Me by Martine Murray
·      The Vampire Knife 'The Witching Hours Book 1' by Jack Henseleit
·      The Fall by Tristan Bancks
·      Have Sword, Will Travel by Garth Nix and Sean Williams
·      My Australian Story: Our Race for Reconciliation by Anita Heiss
·      How to Bee by Bren MacDibble
·      The Shop at Hoopers Bend by Emily Rodda
·      The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrated by Kelly Canby



Young Adult: 14+

·     Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology edited by Danielle Binks and featuring short-stories by Amie Kaufman Melissa Keil Will Kostakis Ellie Marney Jaclyn Moriarty Michael Pryor Alice Pung Gabrielle Tozer Lili Wilkinson
·     Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell, and Fiona Wood
·      Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian
·      No Limits by Ellie Marney
·      The Undercurrent by Paula Weston
·      In The Dark Spaces by Cally Black
·      Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren
·      Because of You by Pip Harry
·      The Dream Walker by Victoria Carless
·      Night Swimming by Steph Bowe
·      Ballad For a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield 
·      Frogkisser! by Garth Nix
·      Remind Me How This Ends by Gabrielle Tozer
·      Gap Year in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor
·      Untidy Towns by Kate O'Donnell
·      The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil
·      A Shadow’s Breath by Nicole Hayes
·      Trust by Kylie Scott



P.S. – I’m also a big fan of Read Local, Buy Local – so if you’re looking to purchase books this Christmas, please do so from an Australian-retailer and support local businesses! Find your nearest independent bookshop via this website;
And if you really want to buy books online – Dymocks and Booktopia are *great* options (who won’t hit you up with $$$ shipping fees!)

P.P.S. – if you do get books as pressies this year (YAY!) but need to clear some room from your choc-a-block shelves … or – heck! – even if you’re a Book Blogger/Vlogger who needs to do a Bookish Spring-Clean, may I please suggest you donate any unwanted (but great condition!) books to either Brotherhood Books or The Footpath Library?! Two wonderful organisations who do a lot of good in our community! Thanks :-)

Aaaaaaaaand once more, with feeling - please vote for Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology as one of the 'Five of the Best' books of 2017!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

'Alex & Eliza' by Melissa de la Cruz

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

1777. Albany, New York.

As battle cries of the American Revolution echo in the distance, servants flutter about preparing for one of New York society's biggest events: the Schuylers' grand ball. Descended from two of the oldest and most distinguished bloodlines in New York, the Schuylers are proud to be one of their fledgling country's founding families, and even prouder still of their three daughters - Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit; Peggy, with her dazzling looks, and Eliza, whose beauty and charm rival those of both her sisters, though she'd rather be aiding the colonists' cause than dressing up for some silly ball.

Still, Eliza can barely contain her excitement when she hears of the arrival of one Alexander Hamilton, a mysterious, rakish young colonel and General George Washington's right-hand man. Though Alex has arrived as the bearer of bad news for the Schuylers, he can't believe his luck - as an orphan, and a bastard one at that - to be in such esteemed company. And when Alex and Eliza meet that fateful night, so begins an epic love story that would forever change the course of American history.

‘Alex & Eliza’ is the 2017 fictional YA retelling of the romance between America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton and the daughter of a Revolutionary War general, Elizabeth Schuyler – by US author Melissa de la Cruz.

Full disclosure; this book was not exactly what I would call “good”, but I gobbled it up in a day anyway, such is my fascination and obsession with all things ‘Hamilton’ the musical – upon which coattails this book is riding.

There are quite a few signs that this book was somewhat rushed to print, so as to meet the Hamilton craze sweeping pop-culture. First and foremost is Melissa de la Cruz’s authors note, which says she first attended the musical in 2016, and immediately decided to write a fictional account of the (somewhat?) central romance between protagonist Hamilton and his wife, Eliza. HAMILTON the musical premiered on Broadway on January 20, 2015 and it was a pretty immediate ignition of popularity and not at all hard to read the writing on the wall, of the phenomenon this musical was sure to become (I remember a friend of mine attended Book Expo America in 2015, and was baffled that there was an impromptu choir of teens singing the songbook in the middle of the book hall?) But still – I am very dubious of de la Cruz saying she saw the play for the first time at some point in 2016, and the book is now out (released in America, April 2017). That’s a FAST turn-around for publishing, and it somewhat shows in the quality of the work …

Firstly I should say I’m not all that surprised that this book isn’t great (to mine eyes, at least). I’ve tried reading a few of de la Cruz’s books and they’ve just never, ever grabbed me. First with her early-2000’s paranormal YA romance series ‘Blue Bloods’ – when I was consuming a LOT of subpar paranormal romance at that time, it kinda speaks volumes that hers was where I drew the line and could not invest. I also LOVED the TV show ‘Witches of East End’ which was – again – paranormal romance kitsch, and based on de la Cruz’s ‘Beauchamp Family’ adult romance series which I tried to read because I so loved the TV show, but … nada. Again – it was just too clunky and slow for my liking, and although I love romantic kitsch that involves supernatural *anything* I could not get past her delivery. My last ditch effort with her was YA contemporary book ‘Something in Between’ – but again, I found her writing mediocre at best, and gave up after a few chapters. I generally just can’t with Melissa De La Cruz – but clearly it’s just me because she has a HUGE backlist and impressive following (and her track-record for adaptation is kinda outstanding). But still – I found everything I disliked about Melissa de la Cruz’s writing previously, to be present in ‘Alex & Eliza’ too. Mainly – I think she tends to butcher a great concept with laboured, mediocre delivery. Ouch … sorry. But it’s true. She’s kinda the literary equivalent of a bad film ruining a great trailer. The blurb hooks you, but the actual writing puts you off.

With ‘Alex & Eliza’ the fault I think lies in the fact that historical romance is not de la Cruz’s forte, at all. And it shows. The rhythm of the writing is … off. I don’t know how to describe it, other than laboured. It reminds me of high school students essay-writing, where they think they need to incorporate “wherefore art thou” and endless conjunctions of “therefore” and “consequently” to sound smart. Obviously I read historical romances all the time, and the language is genre-specific but I never notice it and it doesn’t break my reading rhythm – whereas in this book it stuck out like a sore thumb.

There were also countless instances where de la Cruz had clearly researched a point of the period and her research showed, with a clunk. This is just one seemingly small example of what I’m talking about … where de la Cruz clearly asked herself; “What did people in 1780’s America use as a hot water bottle when hot water bottles weren’t invented yet?” and when she found the answer was very chuffed with herself so made the point three goddamn times.

When Eliza’s feet were finally as pink as a newborn’s Aunt Gertrude rang the bell for a maid to take Eliza up to her room with a brazier to warm the sheets. The maid plucked several coals from the fire and laid them in the brazier, which sizzled all the way up the stairs. She ran the brazier under the bedclothes for a full five minutes until the sheets were fairly smoking, then helped Eliza off with her dress and into one of Aunt Gertrude’s nightgowns because Eliza’s trunks were still lashed to the top of the broken carriage seven miles away.

Historical research, I think, should sort of be like a lift in ballet. I don’t want to see someone straining and labouring over the effort – as I did here, and countless other times.

There are writers who know their way around a cotillion and revolutionary red-hot romance – but de la Cruz is not one of them. I can imagine someone like Sarah Maclean (whose YA historical romance ‘The Season’ is OUTSTANDING!) would have absolutely SLAYED with this concept. Likewise – I’m currently still feeding my ‘Hamilton’ obsession with a trio of inspired romance stories by historical romance writers in ‘Hamilton's Battalion’ and *that* is delivering outstanding goods and I think a Courtney Milan or Alyssa Cole could have likewise taken this Alex & Eliza YA romance concept and just … BLITZED it! I actually still hope that just because de la Cruz got in early, it doesn’t mean we won’t see more Hamilton-inspo YA offerings (I’m keeping abreast with this Goodreads list, though it does seem to be adult-dominated right now).

But okay – execution aside. Was the actual bones of this book good, the romance? Um. Well. No – not really.

If you know anything about Hamilton the musical you’ll know that Alex and Eliza don’t exactly have a fairytale romance in the context of that fictionalised biography … what with her sister Angelia also vying for Hamilton’s affections, and the second-half upset of The Reynolds Pamphlet. Even in the musical context that de la Cruz is more referencing, Alex & Eliza are a hard-sell as OTP and HEA – given everything.

But can we also talk for a moment about how the real Alexander Hamilton was kinda a total jerk? (I know, I know – it’s hard to separate the man from Lin Manuel Miranda, but gimme a second here). Hamilton was a good-looking guy with a low station in life and serious insecurities stemming from that. He was a kinda total dick – as a person. Great treasury secretary and writer, for sure! But he’d have been a nightmare husband.

The period that de la Cruz is writing about in ‘Alex & Eliza’ – their initial meetings and coupling – there’s plenty of historic evidence that highlights Hamilton’s douche-baggery. For one thing – it’s pretty obvious that he had designs on a Schuyler sister to elevate his station. There are letters between him and his good friend (/probably paramour) John Laurens where he basically plots his ladder-climbing via marriage. But put that aside – the way he even writes about Eliza is … atrocious. Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Laurens, advising of his engagement;

I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes--is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. 
Ummmm. Exsqueeze me?

Let’s also talk about how when he was courting Eliza and writing to her, his flattery left a lot to be desired;

A new mistress is supposed to be the best cure for an excessive attachment to an old— if I was convinced of the success of the scheme, I would be tempted to try it— for though it is the pride of my heart to love you it is the torment of it to love you so much, separated as we now are. But I am afraid, I should only go in quest of disquiet, that would make me return to you with redoubled tenderness. You gain by every comparison I make and the more I contrast you with others the more amiable you appear.

Can we just – for a moment – spit all over Hamilton’s highest endearment to Eliza being that she’s “amiable”? He even signs off this same letter with;

Adieu My Dear lovely amiable girl. Heaven preserve you and shower its choicest blessings upon you. 
Puke. A guy calls me amiable and I’m gonna amia-ball him in the nuts.

But there’s certainly something here that a writer can play around with – turning Hamilton and Eliza into an almost Beatrice and Benedict type pairing – having fun by portraying all the ways that Eliza does not intend to be amiable.

De le Cruz does this to an extent, but it falls entirely flat. Sitting somewhere between too beholden to the musical and history, and not enough of her own writing flair making them well-rounded and romantic.

Maybe the heat and flair will more come with second book ‘Love & War’ that appears to hint at all the ways Alexander Hamilton would have been an aforementioned *terrible* husband to put up with?

Also – don’t come into this book expecting a Hamilton/Angelica/Eliza love-triangle. In de la Cruz’s account, Angelica of this book wanes in comparison to the spunk and spirit of ‘Satisifed’-singing Angelica Schuyler of the musical … in this book, she’s seemingly enamoured of her rich catch John Barker Church. And yes, this is somewhat disappointing because that one uttered line “At least I keep his eyes in my life…” from Renée Elise Goldsberry on the musical soundtrack can sustain me for DAYS! Also if you want to get technical about it, John Laurens is actually the more natural (and real) candidate for a love-triangle between Alex and Eliza … and I would have been 1000% here for that, let me tell you!

Look, I have been very harsh in this review – only because my love for Hamilton looms so large and I did have high expectations for this, regardless of my track record with de la Cruz reads. I think there’s just a big part of me that wishes they’d gone for quality over being first off the rank with YA to meet Hamilton-fever. Speaking of – there’s not even many fun Easter-egg references to Lin Manuel Miranda’s lyrics in this book. I think there was use of the word “ruffian” which … congrats? Another instance I think where, if this book had been more thoughtfully planned and edited and laboured over then all of that pop-culture background could have been a lot more charmingly and cleverly done. But as it is – it’s another missed opportunity and clunker.

BUT – I did gobble this up, regardless of my many issues with it. And I can appreciate that de la Cruz has actually tried to write this in such a way as it will be accessible for the young audience of all ages who love Hamilton – so I’d actually say that reading age for ‘Alex & Eliza’ starts at about 12. Which is impressive for historical-fiction romance.

Overall I know that people who love Hamilton will be like me and persevere just because we’re insatiable. But I am holding out hope that there will be far superior stories on offer, and soon!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

'Fall Girl' by Toni Jordan

From the BLURB:

‘The secret to having people give you money is to act as though you don’t want it.’

Meet Ella Canfield, highly qualified evolutionary biologist. Attractive, if a little serious-looking in those heavy glasses—but then she’s about to put her career on the line. Dr Canfield is seeking funding for a highly unorthodox research project. She wants to prove that an extinct animal still roams in one of Australia’s most popular national parks.

Meet Daniel Metcalf, good-looking, expensively dishevelled millionaire. Quite witty but far too rich to be taken seriously. He heads the Metcalf Trust, which donates money to offbeat scientific research projects. He has a personal interest in animals that don’t exist.

Problem number one: There is no such person as Dr Ella Canfield.

Problem number two: Della Gilmore, professional con artist, has never met anyone like Daniel Metcalf before.

Someone is going to take a fall.

‘Fall Girl’ was the 2011 novel from Australian author, Toni Jordan.

Yes – this is my newfound Toni Jordan obsession continuing. Deliciously. Deliriously. Thanks to the character of Della Gilmore.

‘Fall Girl’ is indeed all about a family of scam-artists (emphasis on *artist*) and young woman Della who had a most unconventional upbringing, learning from her Fagin-esque father all the tricks of the scam trade. When we meet her she’s in the midst of her biggest haul yet – for a scientific grant being offered by the handsome millionaire, Daniel Metcalf. Della is posing as a scientist on the hunt for the biggest breakthrough of the decade – the Tasmanian Tiger.  

What follows is a Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn type romance that also reminded me of nothing so much as the brilliant (if underrated, in my opinion) 2015 film ‘Focus’ starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Maybe with a smattering of 2004 British TV show ‘Hustle’ thrown in for good measure.

I’ve really gone from 0 to 100 with Toni Jordan – who I think I can now confidently count as one of my favourite authors. Hands down. ‘Fall Girl’ cemented the deal for me – a sexy and clever caper, that kind of reads like a magic trick (or another sleight of hand) … she waggles this high-stakes scam with a searing romance running underneath as the heart of the plot, but at the same time she’s unearthing a family drama and delicate character portrayals of an unconventional family unit, out of time and out of step with a changing world. I loved it.

I still have one more Toni Jordan book to read – her first historical novel ‘Nine Days’ – which I know will be a real change of pace, but one I’m curious to read. And after that …? I think I’ll become rather desperate for my next fix!