Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Books I'm Squeeing About in December

I have been unbelievably lucky with books this last month, actually I’ve been unbelievably lucky with books this last year! I’ve had such a good run of amazing novels! But now with Christmas looming on the horizon it’s time to look ahead to December’s books.
I’ve been lucky enough to read all of these prior to release, and I can tell you that these three are awesome books to get. Put them on your Christmas list, buy them for a friend, just make sure that they find their way into your hands in some way this month!

6th – Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
In the magical underworld of Victorian London, Tessa Gray has at last found safety with the Shadowhunters. But that safety proves fleeting when rogue forces in the Clave plot to see her protector, Charlotte, replaced as head of the Institute. If Charlotte loses her position, Tessa will be out on the street and easy prey for the mysterious Magister, who wants to use Tessa's powers for his own dark ends.
With the help of the handsome, self-destructive Will and the fiercely devoted Jem, Tessa discovers that the Magister's war on the Shadowhunters is deeply personal. He blames them for a long-ago tragedy that shattered his life. To unravel the secrets of the past, the trio journeys from mist-shrouded Yorkshire to a manor house that holds untold horrors, from the slums of London to an enchanted ballroom where Tessa discovers that the truth of her parentage is more sinister than she had imagined. When they encounter a clockwork demon bearing a warning for Will, they realize that the Magister himself knows their every move and that one of their own has betrayed them.
Tessa finds her heart drawn more and more to Jem, though her longing for Will, despite his dark moods, continues to unsettle her. But something is changing in Will; the wall he has built around himself is crumbling. Could finding the Magister free Will from his secrets and give Tessa the answers about who she is and what she was born to do?
As their dangerous search for the Magister and the truth leads the friends into peril, Tessa learns that when love and lies are mixed, they can corrupt even the purest heart.

Wow. Just wow. I read this book a couple of weeks ago and it completely blew me away. I adore all of Cassie’s writing but this has to be her best work to date – character driven, high emotional stakes and swoon worthy boys, what more could you want?
You can read my non-spoiler review ahead of time here.
But in the mean time, get it on your wish list!

20th – Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder
Laying hands upon the injured and dying, Avry of Kazan assumes their wounds and diseases into herself. But rather than being honoured for her skills, she is hunted. Healers like Avry are accused of spreading the plague that has decimated the Territories, leaving the survivors in a state of chaos. 
Stressed and tired from hiding, Avry is abducted by a band of rogues who, shockingly, value her gift above the golden bounty offered for her capture. Their leader, an enigmatic captor-protector with powers of his own, is unequivocal in his demands: Avry must heal a plague-stricken prince—leader of a campaign against her people. As they traverse the daunting Nine Mountains, beset by mercenaries and magical dangers, Avry must decide who is worth healing and what is worth dying for. Because the price of peace may well be her life...

I adore Maria V. Snyder’s books. Her fantasy is truly brilliant, with a style that Tamora Pierce fans will love. She creates fabulously believable and strong heroines, delicious romance that takes time to simmer and develop, and brilliant plots that sweep you away in her incredibly detailed lands. ‘Poison Study’ remains my favourite of her books, but this books marks the start of a new series and a brilliant one at that, in a whole new world. A must for fantasy fans.
You can read my review non-spoiler review here.

27th – Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Every other day, Kali D'Angelo is a normal sixteen-year-old girl. She goes to public high school. She attends pep rallies. She's human.
And then every day in between she's something else entirely…
Though she still looks like herself, every twenty-four hours predatory instincts take over and Kali becomes a feared demon-hunter with the undeniable urge to hunt, trap, and kill zombies, hellhounds, and other supernatural creatures. Kali has no idea why she is the way she is, but she gives in to instinct anyway – even though the government considers it environmental terrorism.
When Kali notices a mark on the lower back of a popular girl at school, she knows instantly that the girl is marked for death by one of these creatures. Kali has twenty-four hours to save her and, unfortunately, she'll have to do it as a human. With the help of a few new friends, Kali takes a risk that her human body might not survive… And learns the secrets of her mysterious condition in the process.

This book was such a fresh idea and such a brilliant plot that I was completely blown away by it. Jennifer’s writing is fresh, light, funny, and incredibly beautifully created. Her characters were fab, the plot truly sensational and I cannot wait for this book to hit the shelves so I can re-read it in its finished format. Gritty, dark, with plenty of humour, a brilliant new urban fantasy novel for the end of the year.
You can read my review here.

Monday, 28 November 2011

One Year Blogiversary Book Give Away!

This giveaway is now closed.
Winners will be announced 1/12/11

As you have probably gathered by now from the incessant amount of crazy I’ve insisted on pouring out today – today is my blog’s one year anniversary.

A year ago today, I decided to start writing reviews of the books I was reading. I never expected anything major to come of it, I just enjoyed writing my thoughts on what I was reading and sending them out into the ether. I never could have anticipated the incredible year I’ve had as a result of it.

I’ve met some very awesome people – most notable mentions must go to Elle from The Book Memoirs who is straight up fabulous, and the amazing Angie from Angieville who never fails in persuading me to read something. I’ve had opportunities to read some amazing books I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and as a result been introduced to some awesome authors, and been in contact with some of my favourite authors, who haven’t seemed to mind my crazy fan girl squeeing at how awesome they are. Particular mentions go to – Gail Carriger, Ali McNamara, Deanna Raybourn, Cassandra Clare and the wonderful Sarah Rees Brennan.

So, after that little heartfelt splurge, I think a giveaway is in order.

I have for three lucky people, three fabulous ARCS.

One copy of ‘Fracture’ by Megan Miranda to give away, and two copies of ‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan (full details of the books will be given below.)

If you would like to be in with a chance to win, all you need to do is tell me what your favourite book from this year is and why. Leave a comment in the comments section below, and if you have a preference over which book  you’d like to receive let me know that as well. If you’re a follower of my blog that is always a bonus, but not a necessity.

Winners will be drawn at random out of a hat and then notified.

The give away will be open from when this post goes live on 28th November until Midnight UK time on 1st December 2011. 
The giveaway is open internationally.

You have two days, so get to it!

Fracture by Megan Miranda
Release date: 5th January 2012
Eleven minutes passed before Delaney Maxwell was pulled from the icy waters of a Maine lake by her best friend Decker Phillips. By then her heart had stopped beating. Her brain had stopped working. She was dead. And yet she somehow defied medical precedent to come back seemingly fine -despite the scans that showed significant brain damage. Everyone wants Delaney to be all right, but she knows she's far from normal. Pulled by strange sensations she can't control or explain, Delaney finds herself drawn to the dying. Is her altered brain now predicting death, or causing it?
Then Delaney meets Troy Varga, who recently emerged from a coma with similar abilities. At first she's reassured to find someone who understands the strangeness of her new existence, but Delaney soon discovers that Troy's motives aren't quite what she thought. Is their gift a miracle, a freak of nature-or something much more frightening?
The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
Release Date: 5th January 2012

Armed with a suitcase and an old laundry bag filled with clothes, Kasienka and her mother leave Poland and head for the UK to find her father. Life is lonely for Kasienka. At home her mother's heart is breaking and at school Kasienka finds it impossible to make new friends. While the search continues, Kasienka is kept afloat by William, a boy she meets at the local pool who understands what it means to lose someone and who swims with Kasienka towards her new life.

Review: Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott

A powerful tale of magic, love and revenge with a strong female lead set in fairy-tale Japan; this is "Cinderella" meets "Memoirs of a Geisha". Trained in the magical art of shadow-weaving, sixteen-year-old Suzume is able to recreate herself in any form - a fabulous gift for a girl desperate to escape her past. But who is she really? Is she a girl of noble birth living under the tyranny of her mother's new husband, Lord Terayama, or a lowly drudge scraping a living in the ashes of Terayama's kitchens, or Yue, the most beautiful courtesan in the Moonlit Lands? Whatever her true identity, Suzume is destined to capture the heart of a prince - and determined to use his power to destroy Terayama. And nothing will stop her, not even love.

I read and reviewed Zoe Marriott’s debut novel ‘The Swan Kingdom’ a few days ago, and loved it. It had a few flaws, but as I said then, if that was her debut novel, as she progressed and wrote more novels her writing was going to be epic. And it so is.

‘Shadows on the Moon’ is Marriott’s third novel and a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Cinderella’ – however it is such a break away from the original tale that it has become an entirely fresh, new and unique tale in its own right. Spreading over months with Suzume taking on many different personalities, it has an epic quality that I haven’t really witnessed before in a fairy-tale retelling.

The tale is set in feudal Japan, but with a masterful blend of history and fantasy woven together. I really enjoyed the whole fairy-tale-esque feel to it. It had the same qualities of all those fairy tales I loved as a child but with the added bonus that the main character had an edge and a passion that meant she wasn't about to lie down and wait for her prince to rescue her.  In fact, she will actively push her prince away if it looks like he’s going to get in the way of her main goal.

The fairy tale setting gives the novel plenty of charm, with the writing style complimenting it with its beautiful lyricism and poetic moments. Marriott is a truly brilliant writer who is able to evoke so many feelings and images, and wrap them around you until you are completely immersed in Suzume’s world. 
Despite the tragedies she is forced to endure, I found myself hating every moment I had to put the book down, wanting to stay in Suzume’s world for as long as possible.

Marriott also explores the idea of the unreliable narrator in Suzume. She’s young, innocent and forced to grow up too quickly through the horrors she’s witnessed and the lack of support or love from any family members. Suzume believes she has done terrible things – she’s suffering from not only PTSD but survivor’s guilt as well, and she acts impulsively to try and ease her pain. However we only ever have her word on events, so it’s fascinating for events to twist and turn on their heads as she realizes her assumptions have not always been correct.

Marriott also explores the idea of Suzume taking her internal pain and making it external, through inflicting pain on herself via cutting. It’s never glorified, but it is heartbreakingly realistic, and Marriott does an incredible job of keeping Suzume on the fine line between strong and weak, hard and determined, yet soft and broken, and inflicting pain on herself versus killing herself. She says it herself, she never meant to do anything wrong, she was just trying to have some semblance of control on her life.
It’s a very delicate subject expertly handled.

Shadows on the Moon is incredible for its handling of some of the ugliest human emotions in an incredibly beautiful way. I found the relationship between Suzume and her mother to be particularly fascinating as the mother’s cruelty is revealed to the reader as it is to Suzume – the vindictive resentment and jealousy – and so the reader is effected with the same impact that Suzume herself is as she realizes the extent of her mother’s betrayal.

With all the self destruction in the novel, Marriott lures the reader into thinking that this is the only ending that Suzume is destined to have, but at the last moment gives her a final chance for salvation – after all, what fairy tale is complete without a happy ending?

Marriott has outdone herself with this latest novel, a truly breath taking work of fiction that takes some of the harder realities of the human spectrum and tackles them with grace and finesse, making them beautiful in a whole new way.

Definitely an author to watch out for. Her next book ‘Frostfire’ is due for release on 5th July 2012.

Clockwork Prince Book Trailer

As if to join in the celebration today, EW have finally released the Clockwork Prince book trailer. Not too fussed on the guy playing Jem, but the trailer is otherwise brilliant! (And narrated by the lovely Ed Westwick)

Seeing the trailer has gotten me all kinds of excited for the release and to be able to talk properly to others about the book.

Check it out for yourselves at the link below!

@EWshelflife and @dirtyrobber present The Clockwork Prince Book Trailer


Author Q &A with Deanna Raybourn

My blog is, as of today, officially one year old. Can you believe it? They grow so fast! As a result I have planned all sorts of goodies to help the celebrations along and they will be appearing throughout the day.

First of all, one of my all-time favourite authors was incredibly lovely and agreed to do a Q&A as part of the festivities. Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis will know I will wax lyrical about her to anyone who will listen – please welcome, Deanna Raybourn, author of the fabulous Lady Julia Grey series, and the standalone novel ‘The Dead Travel Fast’.

“You are perhaps most well-known for your Lady Julia Grey series, the latest of which we were treated to in July of this year. Will there be more books in the series for us addicts? Or are you working on something new and exciting to tempt us with? (and can you tell us a little bit about what you’re currently working on?)”

Whether or not I write more Lady Julia books is up to my publisher! I have a synopsis ready to go for the book immediately following The Dark Enquiry in the series, so I'm good to go when they are. Right now I'm taking a break to write something VERY different! It's 1920s Africa with a flapper heroine. It is such a departure from my comfort zone, but it's so exciting to write. It's called A Spear of Summer Grass and will be out May 2013.

“Can you tell us a bit about your developing process – how the ideas come to you, how you process and develop them?”

It's alchemy and this is probably the question I find most difficult to answer because all I can say is it comes down to how writers process the stimuli that everybody encounters every day. A writer friend and I were tweeting back and forth last month because she was walking across the park and found a wallet and no one had claimed it after several days despite her efforts to return it. We theorized that the owner was dead--killed so the organs could be harvested on the black market, abducted by a jilted lover, had thrown away the wallet in an effort to walk away from the old life and start anew. Normal people might have stopped at, "Gee, I wonder why the wallet's still here." We could have carried on for DAYS with our brainstorming. It's just a weird way of looking at odd little bits and bobs of information and piecing them together in a new way. 

“And indeed about your writing process – do you have specific times of day or habits and routines?”

My process is changing as I evolve as a writer, but one thing that never varies is that I work best in the morning when my energy is fresh. I have experimented this time with adding in a second work session some days. I do have to restrict how much I do at any given time. I don't like to write more than an hour and a half or two hours at a time. When I start a book I have a page minimum each day to ensure I'm making progress; about halfway through that changes to a page maximum so I don't rush the ending. My page counts make certain I'm not wrecking my pacing.

“Does anything in particular stimulate your writing, for example listening to a specific type of music?”

I make a playlist for each book--usually classical and soundtracks. If there are any ethnic or regional factors in the book, I try to get some of that into the music as well to help me set the scene. Of course, I've blown that entirely out of the water with the current book! I have a playlist of African music and 1920s speakeasy tunes, but I've ended up listening to contemporary club music instead. I'm sure I'll use that playlist when it comes to rewriting the book. I think I was so far out of what was comfortable for me, I needed something really driving and fast and in your face to get me through the first draft!

“The level of research involved for your novels must be staggering, do you have any particular sources that have helped you develop Lady Julia’s world?”

The internet. When I wrote the first book, the internet was just beginning to be a good source of information, but since then it's just exploded, and there's almost nothing I can't find out in about four seconds. I hyperventilate with gratitude on a daily basis that I get to write in an era when so much is right at my fingertips. I've also built a modest little library of Victorian research books that I add to with each new book I write. I go through probably 60 research books for each title depending on how much new material I need to learn. 

“Have you always wanted to be a writer – was there something in particular that drew you to it?”

I was always a writer, always making up stories in my head. I toyed with the notion of getting a law degree and I did teach for a few years, but I always knew this was where I would end up. I wrote my first novel when I was 23 and I've been writing full novels ever since, so I've put in a fair bit of time!

“Which was the hardest book for you to write in the series?”

The first book was difficult because it was the first novel I wrote that really worked. And I was writing in a vacuum--no feedback from an editor because it wasn't under contract when I wrote it. The second was difficult because I learned to rewrite on that book--I had an editor by then and she was beginning my education as a writer. And the third was hard because I tore that one apart before I showed it to my editor and put the lessons I had learned from book two into action on my own. Book four was a challenge because it was the first one back after writing a stand-alone. Book five was probably the easiest!

“And which book are you must proud of?”

The one I'm working on now. It's turning me inside out and that's a good thing. I think it's important to be scared and to do it anyway, at least it is for me. That's the only way I grow as a writer.

“What are your favourite authors or books to read?”

Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Bill Bryson, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, Marlena de Blasi, Alice Hoffman, Dodie Smith, Mary Stewart. And a thousand others!

“And finally, will you be doing a UK tour at some point in the near future?”

I would LOVE to do a UK tour! I do hear from readers there, and I'm a devoted Anglophile so that would be a straight-up pleasure. 

Once again, I would like to say a huge thank you to Deanna, who not only was lovely enough to agree to this, but also continues to share with us her fabulous books and imaginings.

You can visit Deanna’s blog here for more regular news and updates

You can also read my reviews for her latest two books here:
The Dark Road to Darjeeling
The Dark Enquiry

Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare

Release Date: 6th December 2011

A special thank you to Elle at The Book Memoirs and Ruth at Walker Books for giving permission to review prior to release.

In the magical underworld of Victorian London, Tessa Gray has at last found safety with the Shadowhunters. But that safety proves fleeting when rogue forces in the Clave plot to see her protector, Charlotte, replaced as head of the Institute. If Charlotte loses her position, Tessa will be out on the street and easy prey for the mysterious Magister, who wants to use Tessa's powers for his own dark ends.
With the help of the handsome, self-destructive Will and the fiercely devoted Jem, Tessa discovers that the Magister's war on the Shadowhunters is deeply personal. He blames them for a long-ago tragedy that shattered his life. To unravel the secrets of the past, the trio journeys from mist-shrouded Yorkshire to a manor house that holds untold horrors, from the slums of London to an enchanted ballroom where Tessa discovers that the truth of her parentage is more sinister than she had imagined. When they encounter a clockwork demon bearing a warning for Will, they realize that the Magister himself knows their every move and that one of their own has betrayed them.
Tessa finds her heart drawn more and more to Jem, though her longing for Will, despite his dark moods, continues to unsettle her. But something is changing in Will; the wall he has built around himself is crumbling. Could finding the Magister free Will from his secrets and give Tessa the answers about who she is and what she was born to do?
As their dangerous search for the Magister and the truth leads the friends into peril, Tessa learns that when love and lies are mixed, they can corrupt even the purest heart.

Whilst I adore any of Cassandra Clare’s writing, there is something very special about the Infernal Devices series that is missing from her other books. I don’t know if it’s something about the period, where every look and touch means a hundred fold more than it would in our time, or whether the backdrop of Victorian London provides more of an atmosphere for the Shadowhunters to inhabit, but there was something very special about ‘Clockwork Angel’ and it’s back, multiplied a hundred fold in ‘Clockwork Prince’.

We are back with the characters we grew to know and love in ‘Angel’ only this time we’re treated to more, a deeper understanding behind the faces, and higher stakes for all concerned.
We’re once again on the hunt for the Magister – who truly becomes more terrifying by the book. Clare has created a masterful villain, one who despite his human origins holds more menace and horror than most supernatural terrors. But whilst the hunt provides a backdrop and a motive, the real heart of ‘Clockwork Prince’ lies in the character development, for all concerned but most notably for Tessa, Jem, and particularly Will.

Tessa Gray is one of the most brilliantly written female protagonists around in young adult fiction. Clare established her in Clockwork Angel and has worked hard to improve upon this in Clockwork Prince. She’s kind, loyal, and loves so blindly and passionately it consumes her. But not only that, she can take care of herself, and can see weaknesses and understands that sometimes she does need to ask for help from others. She is the perfect blend of independent, strong, feisty and compassionate that it makes it completely believable that both Jem and Will could – and do – love her.

And Will – oh my what a transformation. The foundation that Clare builds in  ‘Clockwork Angel’ was just the beginning. We get a plethora of backstory, an insight into his mind, his thoughts and his belief system that has shaped him over the last five years of his life. Clare takes an incredibly handsome but for the most part incredibly cruel character and develops him into an incredibly broken yet beautiful character. Whilst I liked him in ‘Clockwork Angel’ I think I finally grew to love him throughout ‘Clockwork Prince’.

Jem on the other hand has gone from one of my favourite fictional boys, to my favourite fictional boy. He’s sweet and caring and shows nothing but compassion and love for those around him – even when they don’t deserve it. However, he’s also shown a darker side, a stronger side that wasn’t as obvious in ‘Clockwork Angel’. Whilst Will burns more obviously, Jem’s is a subtler fire, that flares into life at some unexpected moments, and produces some of Clare’s steamiest writing to date.

One of Clare’s many and fabulous talents includes creating brilliant love triangles with no clear winner. In most fiction these days there is usually a clear winner – a boy that regardless what else happens will inevitably sweep off with the girl. However when faced with the choice between Jem and Will, there is no clear winner – they are both incredibly deserving, brilliant characters in their own right, and it is a tribute to Clare’s skill that I found myself rooting for one on one page, and then a few pages later was completely swept away by the other. I loved watching how the triangle plays out throughout ‘Clockwork Prince’ but I have a feeling that is nowhere near the end of it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how their interactions continue. Just let them still be as steamy as some of the scenes in ‘Clockwork Prince’ and I shall be a happy girl…

“Reparations,” said Jem very suddenly, setting down the pen he was holding.
Will looked at him in puzzlement. “Is this  a game? We just blurt out whatever word comes next to mind? In that case mine is ‘genuphobia’. It means an unreasonable fear of knees.”
“What’s the word for a perfectly reasonable fear of annoying idiots?” inquired Jessamine.

Her dialogue sways from the hysterical one liners that have you laughing out loud, to the deeply personal moments that make you want to hold onto the words until they’re engraved in your memory. Viscerally gritty prose that flows so exquisitely that you often forget that you are even reading at all. I became so immersed in the book that it felt as real and touchable as watching a movie, rather than reading words on a page. It’s an incredible talent and one that marks Clare as one of the best young adult writer’s around at the moment.

Clare fans will anticipate the inevitable cliff hanger at the end of the book, and they won’t be disappointed. Whilst lacking the mind numbing punch of the latest finale in ‘City of Fallen Angels’ it is a quieter moment with all of the intensity and shock that you could possibly want.

‘Clockwork Prince’ has to be my favourite Cassandra Clare book to date, and is definitely one of my favourite books of the year, but it’s left me yearning to find out how the final act will play out in the final instalment of the trilogy…

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Author Q & A with Ali McNamara

To celebrate the release of Ali McNamara’s latest book ‘Breakfast at Darcy’s’ which is available from today, I was lucky enough to be able to ask Ali some questions about the book, her writing, and her love of chick lit!
A huge thank you to both Ali and to Hannah Hargrave for making this happen.

“Your first novel ‘From Notting Hill with Love… Actually’ was a huge success, were you surprised by the response to it?”

Incredibly. People’s response to the story and especially to the character of Scarlett has quite blown me away. Even now a year on it’s rare for a day to go past when I don’t get an email or message of some sort about the book, and I really do appreciate every single one of them.

“What can we look forward to in your new novel ‘Breakfast at Darcy’s’?”

Breakfast at Darcy’s is about a girl called Darcy who finds out at a funeral she’s the sole beneficiary of her Aunt’s wealthy estate. But the terms of her Aunt’s will state before Darcy can inherit any of her money she must go and live on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland for a whole year, and set up a new community of people to live there with her.
Being a city girl, Darcy doesn’t find the switch from high-heeled boots to wellington boots an easy one, or for that matter any of the other many changes that the island of Tara has in store for her…

“Do you have any particular patterns of habits when you’re writing?”

I’m very bad at organising my writing time and used to berate myself daily for it. But it was only when I read an interview with another well established novelist who seemed to work in a very similar way to me, that I realised the way I write works for me, therefore it’s ok!

“Your books are fabulous fun to read, are they as much fun for you to write?”

Great fun. But lots of hard work too. The first draft (the part where you’re dreaming up the story) is the part I love the most. I don’t like the editing part that come after, and there’s always lots of that to do!

“The research for ‘From Notting Hill with Love… Actually’ must have been quite fun, were you sick of the films by the end of it? And what sort of research did you do for ‘Breakfast at Darcy’s’?”

No, I love my rom-coms, it was a joy to be able to sit and watch all those films again for ‘From Notting Hill with Love…Actually’ and call it work! I got the idea for Breakfast at Darcy’s when I was on a touring holiday of Ireland and my husband and myself were parked up one day over looking the island of Great Blasket in County Kerry.

“Will you stick with Chick Lit, or explore other genres next?”

I write the way I write. If that fits into a particular genre then so be it. I don’t set out to fit in. Never have, never will do! ;-)

“Have you got any UK tours or signings planned?”

Yes, I’m doing a Breakfast with Ali tour! http://www.alimcnamara.co.uk/breakfastwithali

You can read my reviews for ‘From Notting Hill with Love… Actually’ and ‘Breakfast at Darcy’s’ here.
You can also purchase copies of the books from Amazon, or from your nearest local book store.

A huge thank you again to Ali for giving us her time, and I hope you love her latest book as much as I did!

Review: Breakfast at Darcy's by Ali McNamara

When Darcy McCall loses her beloved Aunt Molly, she doesn't expect any sort of inheritance - let alone a small island. Located off the west coast of Ireland, Tara hasn't been lived on for years, but according to Molly's will Darcy must stay there for twelve months in order to fully inherit, and she needs to persuade a village full of people to settle there, too. Darcy has to leave behind her independent city life and swap stylish heels for muddy wellies. Between sorting everything from the plumbing to the pub, Darcy meets confident Conor and ever-grumpy Dermot - but who will make her feel really at home?

‘From Notting Hill with Love… Actually’ was a true gem of a debut at the end of 2010 from Ali McNamara. It remains the best chick lit I have ever read – smart, funny, brilliantly written with a fabulously unique twist, and with beautifully swoon worthy romance.
As a result ‘Breakfast at Darcy’s’ – McNamara’s second novel, was always going to have to work incredibly hard to live up to her first.

And it comes so very close to perfection. Don’t get me wrong, it is a stunning book; truly brilliant romance, brilliant storytelling and some humour that had me laughing out loud. There were just a couple of things that niggled at me because I had such high expectations – but I’ll get to those in a moment, let’s talk about the awesome stuff first.

Darcy – talk about character growth throughout a novel! She starts off as someone completely hidden behind this persona of clothes and make up she’s created for herself, completely obsessed with the labels she’s wearing and how much of a bargain they were – constantly trying to justify her increasing mountain of debt to herself. But when she gets to Tara, everything changes. She shrugs off the person she was pretending to be and lets her true self shine through and she’s so strong and capable, and completely loveable. I loved watching her transformation from this slightly remote person into a heroine I could identify with, who took everything that was thrown at her and shook it firmly and told it to behave.

Dermot, oh my. This goes for Conor as well, but Dermot was really my favourite of the two boys. McNamara really knows how to create believable, flawed but loveable men that you just want to pull into a great big hug (or alternatively slap at some moments...) She really captures the romance, from the tiny little gestures right down to the overblown romantic ones, her romances are one of the big highlights of the novels for me, they're fabulous, blush worthy, awesomeness.

Whilst the set-up is all really good, the novel really gets going as soon as they get to Tara, she really is the centre of the book. Everyone comes together and develops and changes and bonds, and I could have quite happily read another thousand odd pages on life of the island, both during that year and beyond it. It was a brilliantly written place that completely drew me in and made me feel safe and comfortable and completely at home. Hell, I finished the book and debated upping sticks and moving to a remote island myself, it certainly seems the way to go. And if you can promise me an experience like Darcy’s I will be there like a shot.

I would have liked to see more of the islanders, I felt that we didn’t get to see them as individuals very much, it was more of a collective. For example, apart from the odd line and a tiny bit of description from Darcy’s perspective I didn’t feel like I knew any of them that were chosen to come and live on Tara apart from Niall, Conor, Dermot and Roxi. Whilst I liked the community spirit that definitely comes through, I wanted to learn a little more about the individuals and why they wanted to come to the island, it’s quite an extreme move, and I didn’t feel like they were really fleshed out without some of the backstory.

I did have a couple of problems with some aspects of the book. Firstly the title, which I know is probably just me personally. After the brilliant ‘From Notting Hill with Love… Actually’ I was expecting the title to mean more to the book. Aside from the obvious play on ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ which is referenced briefly in the book, the title remained a little bit random for me, and I kind of expected it to have more relationship with the novel.

Secondly, the romance. We all know in chick lit that our heroine is going to have two yummy boys to  choose from (and potentially make out with) and that only one will turn out to be her one true love. McNamara uses this brilliantly, but I felt a little bit cheated out of the romance. Yes Darcy and her OTL have a few moments of really breathless anticipation, and they grow into friends in a way that most books miss out in the relationship process, but then it suddenly turns into ‘hey we’re in love!’ Where is the kissing? Where is the moment? I felt a bit cheated out of that, and as a result was left a little bit disgruntled, despite the gorgeousness of the final moment.

I also wished we could have had a bit more development of Darcy’s backstory. There’s a lot of her suppressing memories throughout the book, and forgetting parts of her childhood, and whilst there is a revelation of sorts part way through, I wanted something more, some moment where we find out more about her childhood and everything she’s fought down.
On the plus side I loved the reminiscing about Aunt Molly. I loved finding out more about her character despite her death, and she becomes almost part of Tara, an entity in her own right that we learn about and remember through Darcy.

But my few problems with it are just me being picky because McNamara’s writing is so good. Everything else is so deliciously brilliant that the personal niggles fade into the background and it remains a brilliant book, one you can sink into and really appreciate the writing, the characters, the humour and fabulous plot. McNamara marked herself as one to watch with her d├ębut, and she’s cemented her status with ‘Breakfast at Darcy’s’.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Review: Entwined by Heather Dixon

Azalea is trapped. Just when she should feel that everything is before her . . . beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing . . . it's taken away. All of it.
The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. And so he extends an invitation.
Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest.
But there is a cost.
The Keeper likes to 
keep things.
Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late.
There have been a lot of retellings of well-known fairy tales over the last few years, but one of my childhood favourites has always been the twelve dancing princesses. I had a picture book as a child that showed the tale in such beautiful detail that it’s one that has stayed with me throughout the years.
However, ‘Entwined’ is certainly one of the best retellings of the tale that I’ve come across. Dixon takes the original fairy tales and puts an entirely fresh spin on it. Instead of the mother of the princesses being dead, we see her prior to her death and she is a constant presence throughout the book, both in the girls memories and thoughts but also in the very act of mourning and the magic of the castle.
The Princesses are left with the King, a parent who at first doesn’t seem to care about the girls now their mother has gone, and leaves them alone to go to war for the better part of the years mourning.
The King was a brilliantly well played character. At first he comes across as your stereotypical non-caring parent who has been left with children he doesn’t really want. However, Dixon takes that image and turns it on his head – he does care, he tries, he fails, he gets grumpy, and he tries again. He was one of my favourite characters because he started out not particularly nice, and grew and developed and came to appreciate all he still had, not all that he had lost.
And the dancing, Dixon describes it beautifully, you can see the movements in your head. The dancing springs out of a need to keep grief at bay, to keep the memory of their mother close and to hold the girls together as a family unit. There is no curse already in place at the start of the book, the magic ballroom is a place discovered to help them try to recover some sense of normalcy in a world that has been very much turned upside down.
Whilst the eldest Princess, Azalea is the main focus of the story, the rest of the sisters all get their own threads, personalities and traits. The hard part of this tale is usually trying to create a family of twelve princesses without leaving any as one dimensional flat cut outs. But Dixon manages to create a family unit that is so strong and so lifelike that that alone is a huge achievement – add to that the rest of the novel and this is the best fairy tale retellings I’ve read.
The magic involved is both beautiful and thrilling and terrifyingly horrible. The novel had some of the most frightening moments I’ve read in a while, and yet it could also be amusing and gorgeous as well. The final battle was incredibly well done, and I couldn’t have put the book down if I’d wanted to, it drew me in and gripped me entirely.
The writing is exquisite – it sweeps you up and carries you along in this world of dances, grief and trying to keep a family unit together. Dixon has a beautiful writing style and knows when to keep the words sweet and delicate, when to turn terrifying, and when to insert her very brilliant humour into the mix.
“Down with tyranny!' Bramble cried. 'Aristocracy! Autocracy! Monocracy! Other ocracy things! You are outnumbered, sir! Surrender!” 
I did have one tiny weeny grump. Why do characters insist on deciding they are in love. Sure ok after pages and pages of becoming friends and getting to know each other this is less frustrating because it is believable. However, when they haven’t had many scenes together or much time to get to know each other, to suddenly have this funny feeling and go ‘oh hey, I think I’m in love!’ really frustrates me. For that matter why do they have to have that ‘decision’ at all? Why can’t it just be left ambiguous and left to the reader to interpret? Take ‘The Scorpio Races’ – there is no wild declaration, no moment of hey I think I might love him. Just two people getting to know each other, who have an intense connection and take it further – there is no label. Anyway, this book just happened to do this and it peeved me, but this mini rant is aimed at a lot more books than just this one – it just happened to emerge here. Rant over.
 “He's around the twist,' said Azalea. 'Breaking all the windows? He's mad.' 
'Ah, no,' said the King. 'It's only madness if you actually do it. If you 
want to break all the windows in the house and drown yourself in a bucket but don't actually do it, well, that's love.” 
So if you like fairy tales, read this book. If you love dancing, read this book. If you love tales of princesses and dashing men and terrible magic, read this book. Hell, just read this book anyway, it’s fabulous in all the right ways and I am so glad I picked it up. So please Heather Dixon, write some more, this book was awesome and I would quite happily buy anything and everything you ever write. But in the mean time, I recommend checking out Heather’s blog, which had me crying with laughter at more than a few moments. http://story-monster.blogspot.com/

Monday, 21 November 2011

Review: The Swan Kingdom by Zoe Marriott

Shadows fall across the beautiful, lush kingdom after the queen is attacked by an unnatural beast, and the healing skills of her daughter, Alexandra, cannot save her. Too soon the widowed king is spellbound by a frightening stranger, a woman whose eyes reflect no light. In a terrifying moment, all Alexandra knows disappears, including her beloved brothers, leaving her banished to a barren land. But Alexandra has more gifts than she realizes as she confronts magic, murder, and the strongest of evil forces, and is unflinchingly brave as she struggles to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Fantasy lovers will be held in thrall by this tale full of visual detail, peppered with a formidable destructive force and sweetened with familial and romantic love.

I’d heard some amazing things about Zoe Marriott, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t discovered her books yet, so I settled down to start with her debut novel ‘The Swan Kingdom’ – and was completely captivated.

Marriott takes a very old style approach with both the story and the writing, it reads like some of the old fantasy’s and it’s an intriguing take on an old fairy tale. The backdrop of such a beautiful landscape with strong magic, evil step-mothers and kingdoms, princes and curses made me feel right at home. Whilst I love some urban fantasy most of the time, to step back into full fantasy reminiscent of Tamora Pierce is guaranteed to make me smile. 

Alexandra is a lovely protagonist, just the right blend of strength, naivety and love to make her a truly wonderful character to follow. I did become a little frustrated with her at times as it takes her an awfully long time for her to finally start doing something to set things right. On the one hand you could argue that she needs that time to grow, mature and develop into herself and her power, but if that is the case I would have liked a little more storytelling around that, instead of the period of inactivity before it all kicks off.

I love the romance that unfurls at the books heart, it provides a perfect complement to the familial love that already makes up the core. It was a refreshing change to see such a close knit family in fiction, usually in these tales the brothers are not so willing to listen or protect their younger sister, so I really loved seeing these relationships develop and watch how they drive the book to its inevitable conclusion.

The book does have a few errors and passages that dragged a little when they could have been tighter, but these are inevitable with a first novel, and in truth it just left me more excited to read her next books. If this is what she wrote in her first book, and she continued to develop over the next few books, her writing would be truly exquisite!

So because of the little flaws, it’s knocked if off a five star review, but is a solid four star. A beautiful retelling of an old fairy tale, with very well developed characters, a beautiful narrative and a huge amount of excitement to see what Marriott writes next.