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REVIEWS

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For a full list of my reviews, visit my Review Index.

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?-sm



Happy Australia Day!!

To celebrate, I’m taking part in the Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop – open internationally. Don’t forget to check out all the other participating blogs.

2015-ausday

Another fairly quiet week last week, with typically mixed weather, little reviewing achieved (I am seriously behind again) and some good books read. I had some family over for dinner last night, which was yum, and I’m doing an 8-hour slow roast lamb today – haven’t done an 8-hour roast before, but it should be good! I can’t really think what I’ve been doing, I guess my days are a bit same-same with a small child to keep track of!

____________________________________

BOOKS FINISHED:

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E Lockhart (fun and insightful)
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina (excellent Fantasy! Really hard to put down!)

disreputable history of frankie interrogation of ashala wolf

____________________________________

BOOKS REVIEWED:

The Douglas Notebooks by Christine Eddie
Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier

Douglas notebooks winter be my shield

____________________________________

CURRENTLY READING:

I’m still reading Shakespeare: The Biography – books like this take me a while because they require more concentration on my part, and I have to give myself breaks by reading other, lighter fare now and then. But aside from that, I started reading:

merciless gods

Merciless Gods
by Christos Tsiolkas

Love, sex, death, family, friendship, betrayal, tenderness, sacrifice and revelation…

This incendiary collection of stories from acclaimed bestselling international writer Christos Tsiolkas takes you deep into worlds both strange and familiar, and characters that will never let you go.

____________________________________

WHAT’S NEXT:

Um, not sure. Oodles of choice, even among the books I need to read soon. Part of me is dithering because I’m not sure what I’ll be teaching this year, or this term, so I’m trying to make wise decisions and end up holding off entirely on titles that might be useful etc. This week I hope to read Shakespeare’s The Tempest (a re-read – I studied it in uni); Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (can you believe I’ve never read this before?) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (which I remember doing in high school but I’m not sure if we ever read the book; it’s the movie that I distinctly remember).

I also want to read, sometime soon, Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko, Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Swan Book by Alexis Wright and Michel Faber’s newest book, The Book of Strange New Things. These are all books I’ve had sitting around for ages. I have noticed, though, that I seem to jinx myself by posting in this ‘What’s Next’ slot – I almost always end up reading something completely different from what I post here!

tempest diary of a young girl lord of the flies mullumbimby burial rites gone girl swan book book of strange new things

Review: Winter Be My Shield

winter be my shieldWinter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier
Children of the Black Sun #1

HarperVoyager 2012
Trade Paperback
457 pages
Fantasy



In the kingdom of Ricalan, winter is a formidable force for many months of the year, as well as a useful ally in this time of invasion and attack. It’s not only the settlers from Mesentreia forcing the Ricalani tribes off their land as they’ve been doing for the last few decades, supported by Ricalan’s Mesentreian queen. Now they must also contend with forces from the Akharian Empire to the west. The Empire is also feeling the pinch from Mesentreia and its settler-invaders, and is using Ricalan as a battleground. But the Empire are also slavers, taking every Ricalani civilian after attacking villages, and the Ricalani army is doing little to stop them.

For Sierra, the ongoing battles – both ideological and physical – are merely a backdrop for her own personal hell. In Ricalan, as in Mesentreia, magic is against the law, hunted down, eradicated. Sierra was hidden by her parents until a powerful Akharian Blood Mage, Kell, now working for the king of Ricalan and his mother, comes for her. Sierra’s magical gift is fed by the emotions of others, particularly pain and suffering. And Kell, sadistic torturer that he is, has been using her to feed off his victims, store impressive amounts of power, all for him and his apprentice, Rasten. So she was there when Isidro was tortured, brutalised and defeated.

Isidro is foster-brother to the rightful king of Ricalan, Cammarian, the younger son of a minor southern prisoner of Mesentreian blood, Valeria, who was married to the Ricalani queen’s brother. The queen chose Cam as her successor, and upon her death his own mother tried to have him killed. Instead, he fled with Isidro, leaving the throne for his older brother, Severian, to take. They have been on the run ever since, falling in with various groups, not staying too long on any one tribe’s land lest they wear out their friends’ welcome. Until Isidro is captured and then rescued, and Sierra sets herself free. All three of them are being hunted by Rasten and Kell, but it is Sierra who poses both the real danger, and a real hope for salvation.

After a bit of a slow start where I was strangely very confused over the three different nationalities and who was of which country and where the story was even taking place (there is a map but I read it weird, don’t know how, and that started the confusion), Winter Be My Shield becomes a deeply engrossing, very interesting, solidly-constructed Fantasy story whose consistently measured pacing is nevertheless gripping due to the oodles of tension and anticipation throughout. I’ve spent a bit of time, in my summary, trying to provide some context and introduce the three nations, mostly because I had been so confused at first – in retrospect, it’s hard to see how I could have been confused, but there you go. Spurrier actually does a very good job of doling out the exposition in manageable bites, at relevant points in the story. You never quite get to the end of understanding of this world, though: for as well-crafted as the world building is, there’s always more to learn and reveal, and that helps add to the interest.

I enjoyed this story immensely, once I got into the swing of things and understood what was going on. There are several different ‘sides’ but only two main perspectives: Sierra and Isidro. Occasionally, Cam and Rasten get to share their perspective, and an Akharian mage called Delphine provides an absorbing Akharian perspective towards the end. The characters are fairly straight-forward, well fleshed-out, and realistically flawed and human. I was expecting Cam to be the main character – he’s a typical protagonist, being heir to a kingdom, a fugitive, handsome, charming etc. Blonde, too – that always helps (his mother’s blood; the Ricalani are described as being akin to Asian but very tall). So I was pleasantly surprised – and pleased – when it turned out that Isidro was a key protagonist alongside Sierra. Isidro is a more interesting character, more nuanced, and what happens to him – both at the beginning and at the end – adds to this.

Sierra could have been a bit of a formulaic character, but often manages to surprise. It’s not the first Fantasy story to feature a character like her, and in some ways this story, and Sierra, reminded me of Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series. Rasten could be a stand-in for the deliciously evil Hugh, and so on. But I wouldn’t go too far with such comparisons: the Children of the Black Sun trilogy stands clearly, solidly on its own feet, engaging with classic fantasy tropes while at the same time bringing new, or refreshed, ones to the genre. The magic system is uncomplicated yet intriguing, and Sierra’s untrained ability is fascinating. You also really feel for her – and Rasten before her (a great villain is one you can sympathise with, even if slightly)- when you learn what kind of mage she is, and how much of a blessing her ability could be if Kell hadn’t already started warping it for his own ends.

With a steady, slightly slow pace and a wealth of detail, Spurrier brings her wintery world to cold life. There’s violence, gore and pain, but also simple pleasures and a complex history in the process of being unlocked, discovered and revealed. By the end of volume one, the stakes have only become immeasurably higher, and Sierra in a wary working relationship, of kinds, with Rasten. Everyone has their own motives, their own plans, which cris-cross messily over each other. I look forward to reading the next two books, Black Sun Light My Way and North Star Guide Me Home, and seeing what happens to these interesting characters in this intriguing world. A well-written, exciting Fantasy that only gets more absorbing the further you read.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

________________________________________

Other Reviews:

“It’s been a little while since I read such an involved fantasy novel that wasn’t a sequel and/or by an established author. Winter Be My Shield is a striking debut…” Tsana’s Reads and Reviews

“This book is not for the faint of heart – there’s plenty of blood, guts and torture so it should appeal to fans of the A Game of Thrones ‘low fantasy’ style. … This is a sizzling debut from Jo Spurrier and I can’t wait to read more of her work.” The Oaken Bookcase

Winter be my Shield is a brilliant debut by an obviously talented writer and I look forward to reading the sequels. This is a book that will be enjoyed by connoisseurs of Fantasy but would also make a good starting point for those who are new to the genre. Definitely a book you don’t want to miss!” Speculating on SpecFic

“The scale is epic, but there’s also a nicely developing story of relationships – both romantic and platonic between the main characters. The stakes are high not only for a people but also for distinct individuals. I eagerly await finding the time to read Black Sun Light My Way.” Adventures of a Bookonaut

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop!

2015-ausday

To celebrate Australia Day and Australian books and authors, Shelleyrae of Book’d Out has organised the third annual Australia Day Giveaway Blog Hop. Australian book bloggers are invited to participate each year, to host a giveaway of an Aussie book.

This is my first time participating in this particular blog hop, and I’m very excited because I have a wonderful book to offer as a prize.


Australian edition - this is the edition available to win.

Australian edition – this is the edition available to win.

Giveaway Prize: The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly
>> You can read my review here.

Summary: What happens when three ordinary people undergo radical medical treatments that make them international curiosities? They become wonders.

Leon has a small visible mechanical heart; Kathryn has been cured of a rare genetic disorder but is now covered in curly black wool; while performance artist Christos has metal wings implanted into his back. Brought together by a canny entrepreneur, the Wonders are transformed into a glamorous, genre-defying, twenty-first-century freak show. But what makes them objects of fascination also places them in danger.

Challenging our ideas about celebrity, disability and the value of human life, The Wonders is a boldly inventive, acute and moving novel from one of Australia’s finest authors.



Open: Internationally

To enter: Simply fill out the form below, and leave a comment telling me about a favourite book by an Aussie author you’ve read, and why you loved it. (One entry per person please.)

Rules: Giveaway runs from Saturday January 24th to Tuesday January 27th (midnight Australian Eastern time).

The winner will be selected randomly by Random.org and notified by email.

Please do not include your email or mailing address in the comments.

(If I don’t hear back from the winner within three days I will have to re-draw.)

I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out there in February 2015.)

I love the North American cover! (The Wonders is due out there in February 2015.)








Don’t forget to visit the list and hop on over to other participating blogs and enter to win great book giveaways!

Review: The Douglas Notebooks

Douglas notebooksThe Douglas Notebooks by Christine Eddie
Translated by Sheila Fischman

Goose Lane 2013 (2007)
Trade Paperback with Flaps
178 pages
Fiction; Fable



I’ve read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I describe it, dreamlike? quality to them. They’re less anchored by daily minutiae, somehow. It’s a quality, a tone or atmosphere, that I can’t quite put my Anglo finger on yet. Suffice it to say that, The Douglas Notebooks seems to me like a novel only a French person could write. Which is a compliment, trust me.

This is a fable, but in a loosely-defined sense. It seems to float, not tethered to any particular time or place, in order to tell a tale that is both strange and at the same time, perfectly ordinary. The writing itself is what gives it its fable-like quality, the sensation that you’re reading something ancient yet contemporary. With a story such as this, in which the writing itself it like a living organism, both the writing and the story are impossible to separate, much like classical music and the piano.

In an undisclosed place in the world (but most likely Quebec) at an undisclosed time (but most likely post WWII and onwards), a rich and powerful businessman, Antoine Brady, and his wife Alexina, have a daughter, and then a son – Romain. Romain will inherit an empire, but he is different from his family, and made to feel constantly at fault.

…their younger son, though perfectly normal, never knew exactly how to behave with his nouveau riche family who kept up relations only if they were public. To the questions Romain asked – naively, timidly like all children his age – they made no reply, or replied too quickly and off the point. Not now. How can you think such a thing? Will you please keep quiet! The little boy wandered the gleaming corridors of the manor house with its fake turrets; he hid in the folds of the curtains, hands stroking the heavy velvet; he curled up on the landing of the imitation marble stairs that was wide enough to hold two family trees. In the end, he did indeed keep quiet. [p.13]

Romain couldn’t stand up straight. Romain waddled like a duck. Romain put his elbows on the table and, more often than not, started fights. Romain was too much this and not enough that. When a word dared to exit his mouth, it disconcerted. It wearied his mother, irritated his father. Awkwardness, foolishness, absent-mindedness. All was Romain’s fault. Even the rain that rotted the crops. [p.15]

At his eighteenth birthday, Romain announces that he is “leaving to live in the country for a while.” No one believes him, and no one thinks he can look after himself. Mostly, no one knows anything about Romain or what he can or can’t do. Even after he packs a simple bag and leaves, no one really understands that he’s gone; they’re still deciding what private university to send him too.

Meanwhile, Romain makes a home for himself in some woods, near a river, some seventy-six-days’ walk from his parents’ home. He builds himself a cabin, plants the seeds he’s brought with him in a clearing, and catches fish in the river. With the money he saved up over the years, he makes small purchases in nearby villages, each trip an adventure. In one such village he encounters Éléna, the apothecary’s assistant.

Éléna Tavernier came to the village of Rivière-aux-Oies by way of a convent, the Little Sisters of Saint Carmel, where she had fled to after her abusive father dies when their house catches fire. Éléna first encounters Romain’s music – he took his clarinet with him, and plays it in the woods – when out gathering herbs and plants for making medicine. The pair fall in love, and soon Éléna is spending more time with Romain – who they rename Douglas, after the tree – than with Mercedes, the apothecary. And then comes the baby, and everything changes.

In simple terms, a fable is a very short story featuring anthropomorphised animals, plants or other natural phenomena, and a moral or message. The Douglas Notebooks doesn’t fit that definition in a conventional sense, though it does feature a tamarack tree (Larix laricina), a deciduous conifer, which Douglas comes to believe is – well, I can’t tell you who without spoiling things. But the tree is a recurring motif, certainly, and in some ways, Douglas himself is almost uncivilised to the point of being closer to nature than to anything human. As for a moral or message, it isn’t readily apparent but is possibly to do with time, progress, love, change – themes like that. It’s anti-development, pro-preservation of the forests seems pretty evident, as is the understanding that you can’t stop it.

The sense of time being flexible, or not quite realistic, is best captured in medieval-like nature of Rivière-aux-Oies – before Antoine Brady comes and makes a deal to develop the land and build a big shopping centre; after that there’s no turning back the tide. The novel is like a time-lapse video of modernity and progress, with several centuries collapsed into just a few short decades. It adds to the surreal, hazy, fable-like quality of the novel, and comes back to this idea that the writing and the story are inseparable.

It’s quite a sad story, in some ways, yet certain characters have the chance at happiness and the outcome of tragedy leads to contentment. It’s told in short segments, divided into parts named after cinematography directions: Location; Close-Up (and fade to white); Wide Shot; High-Angle Shot; Dissolves; Fast Motion; Music; and The End (followed by “Credits (in order of appearance)”, which is like those brief summaries at the end of a movie telling you what happened to certain characters later). The headings work literally, but their cinematic meanings lend a grand scope to the story, a way of making it both an intimate, small tale and also a broader, global story with universal themes.

While I can’t discuss it too much without giving away plot details (and in a short novel light on plot, I already feel like I’ve given too much away), it’s a story that speaks to the heart and contains enough recognisable tropes within a less familiar style, to appeal to many readers. Fischman, an award-winning Canadian translator, has done a fine job of retaining the style and voice of Eddie’s original, I’m sure – I feel it’s safe to say this even without having read the original French novel, because the English version feels and sounds so very French. The Douglas Notebooks is a hauntingly beautiful story, poignant and steeped in layers of meaning, old-fashioned in style yet speckled with timely, modern images and messages. A quick read, it no doubt ripens upon re-reading, though like any fable or fairy tale, it’s an enjoyable read on the surface, too.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

Canadian Book Challenge 8 Pic 5

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Other Reviews:

The Douglas Notebooks is a peculiar book, a tricky thing, and I’m not surely I’ve completely made sense of it yet. […] Which is not to say that The Douglas Notebooks is difficult to approach as a reader, or that I had to work hard to enjoy it. On the contrary, it was an easy book to slip inside, a fast and lively read.” Pickle Me This

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?-sm


I’ve been having lots of quiet days at home, looking after my son and trying to catch up on reading and reviewing. Seems like I can’t break the 4-books-to-review pile! At the moment it’s sitting on five, with one left from December to do. I’m really hoping to catch up completely before the school term starts so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

On Saturday I’ll have my Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop post up, so you can enter my giveaway. And you can sign up for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge any time during the year. Hope you’re all having a great January. Here’s what I got done over the last 2 weeks:

POSTS

Flash Fiction: “The Invisible Man” (100-word story)

2014: The Year in Review and My Top Ten

The Shelves Are Groaning

And while I’m here, I’ll just add that for the past several months, I’ve had problems leaving comments on other people’s WordPress blogs. I’ve no idea why. Occasionally it works, but usually it doesn’t. I write these big enthusiastic comments in discussion and ask questions, hit publish and POOF! gone. Lately I have been reading and commenting on people’s blogs, but the comments are vanishing. Blogger is okay. Disquis (is that the right spelling?) is fine. Just WordPress. Very frustrating! (Giraffe Days is a WordPress blog, too.) So sorry if it seems like I’m being unfriendly. :)

____________________________________

BOOKS FINISHED:

Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier (really good fantasy)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (very intense, very gripping)
The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood (hauntingly beautiful at times)
A Waltz for Matilda by Jackie French (love love LOVED it!)
Fairway to Heaven by Lily Malone (refreshing and fun)

winter be my shield narrow road to the deep north alphabet of light and dark a waltz for matilda fairway to heaven

____________________________________

BOOKS REVIEWED:

Let the Land Speak – A History of Australia: How the land created our nation by Jackie French
Bound by Alan Baxter
Defiance by CJ Redwine
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

let the land speak bound defiance mad scientists daughter narrow road to the deep north enchanted dead ever after

____________________________________

CURRENTLY READING:

shakespeare the biography

Shakespeare: the Biography
by Peter Ackroyd

I am only about a hundred pages into this but I’m enjoying myself so much more than I thought I would. Ackroyd has an easy, smooth and readable style, and works at building a picture with details and making connections. You can watch the historian at work, as he speculates based on what is known and uses broader knowledge of the era to fill in the gaps.

____________________________________

WHAT’S NEXT:

interrogation of ashala wolf

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf
by Ambelin Kwaymullina

“There will come a day when a thousand Illegals descend on your detention centres. Boomers will breach the walls. Skychangers will send lightning to strike you all down from above, and Rumblers will open the earth to swallow you up from below. . . . And when that day comes, Justin Connor, think of me.”

Ashala Wolf has been captured by Chief Administrator Neville Rose. A man who is intent on destroying Ashala’s Tribe — the runaway Illegals hiding in the Firstwood. Injured and vulnerable and with her Sleepwalker ability blocked, Ashala is forced to succumb to the machine that will pull secrets from her mind.

And right beside her is Justin Connor, her betrayer, watching her every move.

Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf?

Review: Dead Ever After

dead ever afterDead Ever After by Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse #13

Ace Books 2014 (2013)
Mass Market Paperback
306 pages
Urban Fantasy; Paranormal Romance; Mystery



This review contains minor spoilers.

The thirteenth and final book in the Sookie Stackhouse series (originally called the Southern Vampire series) is really about tying up loose ends and finalising Sookie’s love life. For the last several books, she’s been in a mostly-intense relationship with Eric, a very old vampire and sheriff of Area 5, a designation among the powerful vampire political structure in which the United States, along with the rest of the world, is divided into small kingdoms ruled by vampire kings and queens. The vampires aren’t the only paranormal beings in this alternate world: there are also weres, shapeshifters, demons and various kinds of Fae (including fairies), as well as human witches. Over the course of the series, Sookie has discovered them all, not least the fact that she has a bit of fairy blood in her, that the ruler of the fae is her great-grandfather, and that here telepathic ability was actually a gift from her half-demon godfather (also a lawyer – oh the irony!).

The first half of the series was really very good, each book a sort-of standalone mystery that adds to a bigger kaleidoscopic picture in which Sookie is a sometimes key piece. Sookie went through quite a spread of supernatural lovers, but never seemed to settle on any one man until Eric. Yet the last few books, Harris has very clearly been driving a wedge between them, and making it clear that their relationship just can’t work. The romance died in the 12th book, so it was no surprise that their relationship finally, clearly ended here. I’m more surprised that so many fans (who come across as a bit obsessive, frankly) declared feelings of disappointment and betrayal (Harris even received death threats). I always thought Sam would be the one she ended up with in the end – there was just something quietly solid and human-enough about him, waiting in the background. Plus, perhaps because he’s essentially as human as Sookie is, he’s of her ‘kind’, doesn’t come with a host of archaic rules or (to Sookie) bizarre cultural expectations, like all her other lovers did. He’s very much the ‘boy next door’ type, steadfast, loyal and clearly in love with Sookie. It just took Sookie a long time to work through the dazzle and excitement of vampires to realise that love doesn’t need danger to be real. Works for me.

I’ve always enjoyed the steady pacing, quiet, almost matter-of-fact tone and Sookie’s practical approach. The stories are well grounded in a fictional reality because of the time Harris spends creating Sookie’s days – the uneventful ones, where she cleans and gardens and goes shopping. Such details help balance the supernatural stuff, and make Sookie a relateable narrator. Harris has maintained that tone and pacing throughout, though some books are more exciting and plot-driven than others. Perhaps Dead Ever After lacked a central plot to anchor it, perhaps it was a bit scattered – and forgettable. I initially rated this 4/5, but coming to write this review, I’ve realised I can’t remember very much at all of what happens, only a few details here and there. There is, of course, a plot against Sookie’s life – much more personal than before, and coming from two fronts. The revelation of who is behind it is both a surprise and a bit of a disappointment. But it makes enough sense that it works.

Dead Ever After is a merry-go-round of previous characters: almost everyone from past books makes an appearance here, if they’re still alive. Her brother gets married. She renews her friendship with Tara. Quinn, the weretiger, comes onto the scene, as does Alcide. Good guys and the less-good. It’s like a “This is Your Life” episode. By the end, we’re left feeling good that Sookie’s life will be much less chaotic or scary (or exciting) from now on, that she’s financially stable and has a boyfriend who won’t (or can’t) change her very nature. All’s good in Sookie-land. Isn’t that what you want at the end of a series?

It’s been a fun ride, with its ups-and-downs, its exciting books and its filler books, machinations, big plots and small, home-grown ones. Sookie’s come a long way but she’s still, at heart, the same woman she was at the beginning, just more confident, more knowledgeable, more at peace with who she is. They’re good, fun reads that dabble with big themes of family, love, trust, racism, belonging etc., giving them plenty of meat to chew on. I’ll miss Sookie, but I know I can always start again and enjoy the stories all over again. That, surely, is the sign of a good, long-lasting fantasy series.

________________________________________

Other Reviews:

“The good news is that there isn’t much of the inept fae story line in this book (although, to be honest, there isn’t much of a story line at all). Nevertheless, it’s a book fans of Sookie have to read. The series was very good when it was good, and pretty bad when it was bad, but it was hard to resist all the same.” Rhapsody in Books

“I’m still glad I read Dead Ever After, but it didn’t provide me the kind of series closure I had hoped for. I didn’t need a saccharine ending, but I wish it had been a more surprising journey. Despite my misgivings, this one is still a must for Sookie fans. You need to know how it ends, if only so you can say you wish it had been handled differently.” Vampire Bookclub

Dead Ever After was supposed to be the book that ties up loose ends. It was supposed to give the readers some peace of mind and to be the climax of everything. I mean, we wanted big explosions, steamy sex, twists and turns and finally closure. Unfortunately Dead Ever After did nothing of the sort. … My personal opinion is that Charlaine Harris should pull this bloody book from the shelves ASAP and rewrite it.” Tentacle Books

“The shocks and secrets are what make this book good. I will say that yes the ending is not what alot will expect especially with how this series has been going and being shown on tv (True Blood.) But die-hard Sookie fans (such as myself) will love the book no matter what.” Curling Up With a Good Book

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

Flash Fiction ~ The Invisible Man

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly meme hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields at Addicted to Purple. Each week she posts a new photo prompt and participants craft an original short story with a 100-word limit.

PHOTO PROMPT – Copyright – Jan Wayne Fields

PHOTO PROMPT – Copyright – Jan Wayne Fields


On Monday evenings, she taught a little boy piano.

She always left the window open, and he would see the flash of her white hands as they struck the keys, fingers bent just so. Even across the walled-in courtyard, he could trace the sweep of her jaw, her curved lips.

Whenever she looked out, her eyes gazed at something beyond glass and stone, above his head, something that wasn’t there. I’m here! he wanted to shout. Can’t you see me?

But she never did, and he never crossed that courtyard to say the words that might have made him visible.

word count: 100

Review: Enchanted

enchantedEnchanted by Alethea Kontis
Woodcutter Sisters #1

Graphia 2012
Trade Paperback
305 pages
YA Fantasy



Book Blurb:

It isn’t easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland — and a man Sunday’s family despises.

The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past — and hers?

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is blithe and bonny and good and gay.

Sunday is the youngest of the Woodcutter children, with six older sisters and two brothers, plus an adopted Fey brother, crammed into a house that resembles a boot. The eldest son, Jack, had, long ago, gone to work at the palace where, so the story goes, he had been cursed in punishment for kicking Prince Rumbold’s dog. Sunday doesn’t really know what happened after that, only that there is a deep animosity for the royal family from her parents.

She never expects to meet anyone from the royal family, of course. Life is full and busy enough as it is at home. She snatches moments of peace to go with her notebook to the pond to write in solitude. Sunday loves to write stories, but she long ago discovered that whatever she writes has a tendency to come true, so now she’s careful to only write of things that have already happened. Still, she feels she has a boring life, and as the child named for Sunday, she is graced with cheerfulness – another trait she feels make her less interesting, especially compared to her colourful sisters.

Monday married a handsome prince after spending a night on a pile of mattresses through which she could feel a pea; Tuesday danced herself to death in a pair of enchanted slippers; Wednesday is strange and distracted and spends most of her time gazing at the moon and thinking; Thursday left to join her pirate husband as captain of a ship, sailing around the world and periodically sending back marvellous gifts; Friday is full of generosity and selfless deeds, making clothes for orphaned children; and Saturday works hard on the farm with her father and other brother, wielding an axe.

It is a magical family – more so than Sunday ever realised, when her fairy godmother, Aunt Joy, arrives to present them with gifts, and train Sunday. Prince Rumbold has announced three consecutive nights of balls, to which every single young woman in the land has been invited, and so the unmarried Woodcutter sisters must all attend. At the palace, all is not right for the prince. Still recovering from having been turned into a frog, and anxious over whether Sunday will recognise him or love him still, he is haunted by the shade of his deceased mother. His unnaturally youthful-looking father, the king whose name has been forgotten, has decided the balls present an excellent opportunity for him to find a new wife. When, on the night of the first ball, the king sets his sights on one of the Woodcutter girls, Rumbold becomes increasingly aware that there is something very wrong with his father, and hence the kingdom.

This is a retelling of not just one fairy tale, but several, all seamlessly and excitingly meshed together. Sunday lives in fairytale world, a fantasy land not unlike Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, but unlike other, similar-style Fantasy stories, Kontis has borrowed straight from classic fairy tales rather than invent something new. And for the most part, it works. Some other reviewers have remarked that it can feel too crowded, and I have to agree that towards the end there was a bit of this. But what really made Enchanted stand out was what Kontis does with these fairy tales.

There isn’t really one definitive version of each tale, they were always being altered by the teller and that’s part of the fairy tale genre, so you can’t really bastardise a fairy tale (though we could argue that Disney has come extremely close, with its saccharine versions). Kontis has taken elements from several different tales and woven them into her plot in imaginative ways, so you never feel like it’s a predictable story. Far from it: you never quite know where the story’s going to take you next.

Sunday is a lovely character. I was afraid she’d be too ‘good’ or happy, in that dull way (but Friday takes that role, in this book at least). She has plenty of positive traits, such as patience, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and loyalty. But she’s still young – fifteen, going on sixteen – and a bit self-absorbed (the world revolves around me kind of thing). Not to an irritating extent, more of a means of making her a realistic, and relateable, teenager. She carries most of the story but is by no means the heavy lifter.

That role lies with Rumbold. If Sunday’s world is one of sunshine and life and laughter, Rumbold’s is a dark, oppressive one of secrets, mysteries and betrayal. That’s classic approach: associate the positives with the open, natural countryside, and associate the evils of the world with stone, politics, greed (humanity, in other words, versus the natural world). This is by no means the only dichotomy – the opposite can also be true, wherein the natural world takes on a supernatural quality and becomes dark, mysterious, unpredictable, menacing even. Here, it is the nature of greed and power (the greed for power) that lies at the heart of the kingdom’s troubles – coupled with the means to achieve power: Rumbold’s fairy godmother (and Aunt Joy’s sister), Sorrow, who enables the king. The temptation is there, and he took it.

Rumbold is not a Disney hero. He is quiet, troubled, thoughtful and a bit anxious. He is recovering slowly from his time as a frog – he’s lost weight and is always exhausted – though this, it turns out, has another root cause. He’s uncomplicated and honourable, so there’s never any uncertainty on the part of the reader that he would be good enough for Sunday. He’s worthy, and he’s tested. He can also be a bit slow on the uptake for someone who lives in an enchanted land, surrounded by magic and curses. We’ll have to excuse him though: he did, after all, spend several months as a frog, forgetting who he really was.

There are different kinds, or forms, of love, and the way Kontis writes the early relationship between Sunday and the frog (which doesn’t bear much resemblance to the common versions of the fairy tale as you would know it, it simply features a girl, a frog, a golden ball and a kiss of love) made it quite easy for me to believe in their kind of love, a love of friends that went as deep as the recognition of kindred spirits. A simple love, but a true one. It is merely the start, and when they meet again at the ball it is that recognition of spirits that persists, and leads to something stronger, more human.

Yet this is a relatively short novel, and the second half felt a bit rushed. True, part of that is the build-up of tension and suspense, as the plot becomes more central. But I did have this feeling of wanting to spend more time with the characters, because they were so interesting and I didn’t quite feel like I’d got to know them well enough to really invest in their story as deeply as I wanted to. This is where the traits of a fairy tale don’t always translate well into a Fantasy novel. Fairy tales don’t do character development: they do stereotypes, caricatures, clichés. It’s how you keep them short. They don’t explain things, they don’t need to. At best you have connections – they’re stories with beginnings, middles and ends, after all. Kontis keeps the tone of a fairy tale in places, especially with a touch of humour and irreverence, but really this is a Fantasy novel, and as such I really wanted more meat on the bones. Perhaps it’s a testament to her good ideas, characters and plotting that I was getting into it so much that I wanted more: more depth, more time.

But really, it seems silly to complain about such things. Kontis set out to write a Young Adult Fantasy novel loosely based on much-loved fairy tales, and as such, she succeeds admirably. This was rollicking good fun, with little surprises tucked away here and there that sprang on you when you least expected it, and a beautiful balance of light and dark. I may have wanted more, but if that’s the case, I should just read the sequel, Hero, about Saturday’s adventures. For engaging, lively, vigorous and inventive Fantasy, Kontis is one to watch.

________________________________________

Other Reviews:

“The book is kind of exhausting, to be honest. There are so many threads of so many potentially good separate stories. The novel is not even long enough to accommodate all the stories it is trying to tell. I don’t know you guys. I think I would like to read whatever Kontis reads next because while I don’t doubt her ability to spin a tale, I think Enchanted does not do too good of a job in giving us an accurate glimpse of her true skill.” Bibliophilic Monologues

“If you’re looking for a unique re-telling with a deliciously dark twist and a cast of characters that is easy to love, I recommend picking up this book. I know that this is supposed to be a seven book series, one for each sister, and I can’t wait for book two, HERO. Kontis is an expert storyteller, nothing can hold her amazing writing ability from shining through and she has me eagerly anticipating her future novels.” Lili’s Reflections

“The only real issue I have with this book is that while the world building is well done, and I enjoyed the re-interpretation of fairy tales, it sometimes feels like Kontis tries to cram every fairy tale into the book and somehow connect it with Sunday’s family. Sometimes it’s well done; sometimes it falls flat, and towards the end trying to connect all the threads just becomes too convoluted and overwhelming.” Book Thingo

“Reading fractured and retellings of fairy tales never gets old in my book so I was thrilled when I came across Alethea Kontis’ first installment of the Woodcutter Series. Almost immediately I knew I had discovered something special. With a well versed pen, Kontis creates a bewitching and delightful world with characters that will keep you spellbound until the final chapter closes.” Silver Petticoat Review

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