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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Isla and the Happily Ever After' by Stephanie Perkins

From the BLURB:

From the glittering streets of Manhattan to the moonlit rooftops of Paris, falling in love is easy for hopeless dreamer Isla and introspective artist Josh. But as they begin their senior year in France, Isla and Josh are quickly forced to confront the heartbreaking reality that happily-ever-afters aren’t always forever.

Their romantic journey is skillfully intertwined with those of beloved couples Anna and Étienne and Lola and Cricket, whose paths are destined to collide in a sweeping finale certain to please fans old and new.

Isla has been in love with Josh Wasserstein for most of her high school life – though it takes a trip to the dentist and heavy medication for her to get up the nerve to have an actual conversation with him.

That conversation takes place at Kismet, a café around the corner from their respective New York apartments – and the fate aspect of that is not lost on Isla. You see, she and Josh actually attend the America School in Paris, so she has plenty of opportunities throughout the year to talk with him (and, actually he once commented on their mutual love of Joann Sfar – so there was that, their most significant exchange … until now). While still slightly high on dentist meds, Isla strikes up a conversation with Josh when she spies him at her favourite café drawing in his ever-present sketchbook, and because it’s Josh (!) and she’s feeling brave she can’t help but flirt with him … and be mortified the following morning when she remembers snapshots of their exchange.

Her best friend, Kurt, assures Isla it couldn’t have been so bad. But she’s not so sure Kurt really understands – partly because he’s on the autism spectrum and has a hard time reading people’s emotions – and partly because he’s borne witness to all the insignificant exchanges between her and Josh over the years (as Kurt also attends the America School) but he wasn’t there to properly catalogue the Kismet event.

Sure enough, when School’s back for the year Isla feels her connection to Josh has strengthened (and that fate is still playing a part, when she finds herself assigned to Josh’s old room from last year).

Something is happening between her and her crush-from-afar, Josh Wasserstein – they have a connection, and as they both start building on their Kismet encounter, the more she’s convinced that Josh can feel it too.

‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the third and final book in Stephanie Perkins’s romance YA series that started with ‘Anna and the French Kiss’, continued with ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ and will finally end with Isla and Josh’s story.

I was really nervous to read this book. ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ came out in 2011, a year after ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ … but ‘Isla’, although announced as the third and final book around the same time that ‘Lola’ came out, took three years to get here. Stephanie Perkins has been very open and honest about how hard this book was to write and explained the hold-up (which sounded like a combination of all the worst things that can happen to an author – writers block, lack of confidence and sheer exhaustion). Perkins also teased fans that this book would not be all smooth sailing for Isla … and that warning, coupled with the knowledge that this was her hardest book to write, was a little nerve-racking as a reader and fan. I didn’t know how Perkin’s creative struggle would translate to the finale of one of my favourite contemporary YA series…. But I can say, with hand over my heart, that Stephanie Perkins has done it. She has given fans the most wonderful of endings to this series.

It took me a while to get into this book, however. Probably down to a few niggling reader-worries going in, but I found myself starting to read ‘Isla’ and then putting it down … picking it up for a few pages, and then putting it down. I wasn’t getting hooked, initially, but once the story took us back to Paris (and the original setting of ‘Anna and the French Kiss’) I stayed glued to that page.

So, the book begins with Isla having her ‘Kismet’ moment with Josh (while high on meds, admittedly) – fans will recognise Isla as the few years younger pupil at the America School who Anna figured out was crushing on Josh, one of the boys in her group of friends. For the reason that Isla stretches back to the first book, it’s easy to fall into sympathy with her one-sided crush on the beautiful Josh Wasserstein (son of a senator, artist- extraordinaire and bad-boy of the America School who is always on his third and final warning);  

The next few days are unsettling. 
Josh is aware of me. 
Whenever he enters a room, an unmistakable mass of chaotic energy enters with him. It rattles the air between us. It buzzes and hums. And every time we surrender – every time our eyes meet in a flash of nerve – a shock wave jolts throughout my entire system. I feel frayed. Excited. Unravelled.
I both really loved the melodrama of ‘Isla’, and sometimes it bugged me (but only slightly). Look, a lot of the appeal of YA lies in the fact that it’s all about firsts – and the heightened emotions surrounding them. But so much of ‘Isla’ is about falling hard and fast – I mean, it’s like a piano falling on both Josh and Isla’s heads. And I loved that, I really did – but at one point Josh shows Isla a panel from his graphic novel memoir and he’s included a drawing of the two of them, and the thought-bubble ‘salvation!’ above his head. Moments like that made me chuckle, and I don’t think that was the intended reaction.

But I did love Josh and Isla. They feel like a couple straight out of a Cameron Crowe movie (I’m looking at you, Lloyd Dobbler!) they’re this perfect combination of sweet and heat – and, speaking of, Stephanie Perkins writes a seriously good sex scene that’s commendable for being about female satisfaction, without venturing into inappropriate smut. It was refreshing to read something so frank in contemporary YA.

My confession leaves him stunned. 
“There’s no story,” I say. “I saw you one day, and I just knew.”Josh stares at me. He looks inside of me. And then he kisses me with more passion than he’s ever kissed me with before.

I also really liked Isla's friendship with Kurt - who is on the autism spectrum (what was once called Asperger syndrome), though I did think they had a lot of problems with their friendship towards the end of the book that I don't feel were given proper page time. The Kurt/Isla friendship also had echoes of Sibylla and Michael's friendship (perhaps minus romantic undertones) from Fiona Wood's marvellous 'Wildlife', but I think Wood handled that friendship better than Perkins did in the end.

While I was worried that Stephanie Perkins’ struggles with writing this book would show through in the final product, I was actually surprised at how it helped shape Isla’s story. Anna and Lola’s romantic struggles were a mix of physical and emotional struggles – Anna had Etienne’s girlfriend to contend with, Lola had her current boyfriend at the time, and a long history with the Bell’s as her roadblocks. A lot of Isla’s struggles in coming together with Josh are internal, they’re her own hang-ups that she needs to conquer (though she tries to make out physical obstacles as her excuse, readers know better). I feel like that’s a reflection of what sounded like Perkins’ internal struggles to write this book (like her lacking self-confidence). Then there’s the moment when Isla offers some harsh editing critiques of Josh’s very personal graphic memoir – I feel like that was a little author moment creeping in, commenting on how hard (but necessary) it is to hear those criticisms. I really liked that Isla’s hang-ups were about her confidence, and overcoming something in herself – that was so interesting and relatable to me.

I also loved that we’re back in Europe with this book. I liked the San Francisco setting in ‘Lola’, but a lot of the fun in ‘Anna’ came from the Paris setting. This time we’re back at the America School in Paris, but there’s also a jaunt to Barcelona that I absolutely adored because I’VE BEEN THERE! and it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I particularly liked the description of Antoni Gaudí’s Catalan modernist architecture (which is like something out of a dream) and cathedral Sagrada Família:

It’s a monster. 
It wants me to cower. It wants me to weep. It wants me to save my soul from hell. Gaudí started work on this church in the late nineteenth century, but it won’t be finished for at least another decade. It stretches twice as high as the tallest cathedrals of France. It looks like a fantasyland castle – wet sand dripped through fingers, both sharp and soft. Bright construction lights are everywhere, and workers are tinkering around its massive spires in dangerously tall cranes.


‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the finale fans were hoping for. Isla and Josh are the perfect way to finish this series, and fans will absolutely squeal in delight when we get to catch up with Lola and Cricket, but especially Anna and Etienne.


Monday, August 25, 2014

A to Z of YA

I've written a little something for the wonderful Writers Bloc blog - in honour of Children’s Book Week 

Everyone should follow the Writers Bloc blog because they have some amazing posts, including the recent 'An Editorial Confession' and 'The Book That Ruined My Career (then found me another one)' not to mention weekly writing prompts

Sunday, August 24, 2014

‘Waiting on You’ Blue Heron #3 by Kristan Higgins

From the BLURB:

Does being nobody's fool mean that you're nobody's love?

Colleen O'Rourke is in love with love... just not when it comes to herself. Most nights, she can be found behind the bar at the Manningsport, New York, tavern she owns with her twin brother, doling out romantic advice to the lovelorn, mixing martinis and staying more or less happily single. See, ten years ago, Lucas Campbell, her first love, broke her heart... an experience Colleen doesn't want to have again, thanks. Since then, she's been happy with a fling here and there, some elite-level flirting and playing matchmaker to her friends.

But a family emergency has brought Lucas back to town, handsome as ever and still the only man who's ever been able to crack her defenses. Seems like maybe they've got some unfinished business waiting for them—but to find out, Colleen has to let her guard down, or risk losing a second chance with the only man she's ever loved.

Colleen O'Rourke is a modern-day Emma. At least seven children in her local town of Manningsport have been named after her, in thanks for matchmaking their parents. She’s drummed up plenty of business for the local bridal store and lots of people in town are lining up to have Colleen match them with their soul mates.

Colleen’s so good at matchmaking other people only because her own love life is so abysmal. Not many people in town know (because that’s just the way Colleen wants it) but she was burned by her first true-love and never recovered from the heartbreak.

Lucas Campbell was the new boy in town when Colleen was a senior, he and his cousin Bryce moved to town after Lucas’s mother died and his father was thrown in prison then sent to live with his aunt and uncle. Before Lucas Campbell arrived, Colleen was the perfect popular girl – adored by everyone, but always turning down dates from her male classmates. But that all changed when Lucas came to town – with his Spaniard eyes and reluctant smile. In Colleen, Lucas found someone that was just for him, and Colleen finally had someone worth taking a chance on.

But then it all came apart, quickly and devastatingly. Ten years later, Colleen still hasn’t let her heart recover from missing Lucas Campbell. So the last thing she needs is for him to breeze back into Manninsport – in town to spend time with his dying uncle and help get his dopey cousin straightened out and grown up, and reminding her of what they lost.

‘Waiting on You’ is the third book in Kristan Higgins’ ‘Blue Heron’ romance series.

I am so glad that I loved this book, after thinking ‘The Perfect Match’ was fairly ho-hum. This instalment takes us away from the Holland sisters, and focuses on local bartender and Faith’s best friend, Colleen (one half of twin-duo with her brother and restaurant co-owner, Connor). Colleen had been established as the expert flirt in town, and beloved amateur therapist who hears everyone’s problems when she pours them their brew. But it has also been hinted that a break up in Colleen’s past still haunts her to this day, which is why she’s more predisposed to flings than relationships, and no man has been able to turn her head in years.

I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled with an instalment that took us away from Blue Heron – I was actually hoping for a book about the Holland brother. But Higgins very quickly establishes Colleen’s broken-hearted past, and I was totally in her corner after getting the story of how Lucas Campbell screwed her over. And that’s the thing that bugged me a little about this book – when they were (admittedly) younger, Lucas did a stupid thing that spiralled into really hurtful and left a break in Colleen that still hasn’t healed. It’s bad, and will make you a little weepy when the whole, sad story is pulled out – but I never entirely felt like Lucas accounted for his actions or felt the right level of remorse. But maybe that’s just me.

Considering how hurt Colleen was by Lucas ten years ago, it’s understandable that when he returns to Manningsport she’s at def-con zero;

“About my new man,” she said. “I need someone hot and romantic and intelligent with a great sense of humour who can cook and is also a cowboy or a firefighter.” 
Faith snorted. “Okay, I’m thinking … uh … cowboys are pretty scarce. And for hot firefighters, we only have Gerard.” 
“You know what would be great? A tragic widower type, like Jude Law in ‘The Holiday.’ Definitely my type. Or Hugh Jackman in ‘Les Mis.’ Le sigh!” 
“Right, right. Impoverished fugitives who burst into song. Coming up empty, Coll.”

Something I really loved about this book (and something that Higgins does so damn well) is write robust and interesting secondary characters’ with back-stories to surround her protagonists. In Colleen’s world; it’s her father who cheated on her mother with ‘Gail the Tail’ ten years ago, but her mother has never recovered and to this day expects her ex-husband to come crawling back. Colleen has a beloved nine-year-old stepsister called Savannah who is struggling with her weight and body image, particularly when her mother is so body-conscious herself. And Colleen’s father hasn’t been apart of her life since he cheated on his wife and started a new family ten years ago. Then there’s Paulie – a local girl and princess to the Chicken King (who owns a chain of deep friend chicken stores) who asks for Colleen’s help in roping her dream man … who just happens to be Lucas’s cousin, Bryce. But when Lucas comes to town to spend time with his dying uncle, and straighten Bryce out with a job, he gets wind of Colleen’s matchmaking scheme and is not happy.

Higgins is brilliant at writing these interesting secondary characters to round-out her story and heroes, and ‘Waiting on You’ is one of the best examples of this.

I really loved Colleen. A few times Higgins slips in how beautiful and desired Colleen is, but I never resented her as I so often do when female characters are presented as practically perfect in every way. Colleen’s wicked sense of humour and compassion save her from venturing into Mary-Sue territory, as does her brilliant repartee with the people she loves, like her twin;

“Hey, placenta hog. Just because you were born three minutes sooner doesn’t mean you know everything.”

I also really loved Lucas, despite feeling that he didn’t account enough for his actions ten years ago (and, actually, in recent years when he didn’t attempt to reach out to Colleen). He has a really complicated history, that’s definitely dictating his current hang-ups. But his chemistry with Colleen is insane, and towards the end I definitely got the impression that he was reeling from the realisation that he lost so much ten years ago, with a couple of stupid mistakes.

This is probably the biggest emotional roller-coaster Higgins book I’ve yet read. She really presents a fractured couple in Colleen and Lucas, but she makes it work with a delightfully varied and sprawling cast of secondary characters with back-stories as interesting as the protagonists’. I got a little frustrated with the slut-shaming focus towards the end, but otherwise this was a fabulous instalment in the ‘Blue Heron’ series (I WANT MORE!!!!) and one of the best Higgins books I’ve read. Fabulous.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

'Rat Queens', Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery. Written By: Kurtis J Wiebe, Art By: Roc Upchurch

From the BLURB:

Who are the Rat Queens? A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all god’s creatures for profit. It’s also a darkly comedic sass-and-sorcery series starring Hannah the Rockabilly Elven Mage, Violet the Hipster Dwarven Fighter, Dee the Atheist Human Cleric and Betty the Hippy Smidgen Thief. This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!

It was only in November 2012 that I discovered the series that awakened me to the wonderful world of comics: ‘Saga’ by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. Since first meeting Marko, Alana and bub Hazel I’ve become obsessed and now buy single-issues because I simply can’t wait for the Volumes.

But there is a downside to having been spoilt rotten with my introdiction to comics – and that is finding other, equally enthralling, series’ to get hooked on. I’ve had some luck with ‘Ms Marvel’ and enjoy the ‘Peter Panzerfaust’ series – but nothing comes close to my ‘Saga’ obsession … until now.

Comic fantasy series ‘Rat Queens’ is created by the man behind ‘Peter Panzerfaust’, Kurtis J Wiebe and published by my favourite, Image Comics. Roc Upchurch does the art, and ‘Saga’ favourite Fiona Staples the incentive covers.

‘Rat Queens’ Volume 1 is the collection of issues #1 to #5, and follows a group of female monster-hunters for hire – Hannah, Violet, Dee and Betty – who work hard and play hard (to the point of destroying the very town they’re often hired to save). 

When we meet them in issue #1, the Rat Queens are being given various monster clean-up assignments, along with groups of other mercenaries who have angered Mayor Kane with their violent revelries. But while on assignment cleaning up goblins, the Rat Queens are ambushed by an assassin and nearly murdered – they later discover the other mercenaries were similarly set-upon, and from there the arc becomes a ‘whodunit’ of who would want these lovable fucks-ups eliminated.

I fucking love this series. And my love is getting up there with my ‘Saga’ obsession, if my impatience for issue #8 (due out on September 3) is any indication.

I love this series because it’s so funny – and mostly of the rude and crude variety. The awesome foursome who make up the Rat Queens are delightfully detestable – Hannah is an Elven Mage with an attitude problem; she’s most likely to throw the first punch and when she gets mad, she gets scary. Violet is a blood-thirsty dwarf with family issues. Dee is a healer with some serious skeletons in her closet, and miniature Betty is a lesbian smidgen who loves mushrooms and brawling. These women feel a little like anti-heroes, insofar as they really do cause a lot of unnecessary violence and havoc in their town and it’s entirely believable that someone would be so fed-up with them they’d want them dead … but it’s because they’re this amazing mix of vulgar and sassy that I love them. They booze, brawl and bang their bed-heads – but they also have each other’s backs in the thick of battle, and are each dealing with personal problems that are slowly being teased out.

Hannah has an inconvenient dalliance going with Mayor Kane’s head of police, the luscious Sawyer (against his better judgement and good sense). Betty is crushing hard on a girl who can’t see past her violent friends. Violet’s family are a mystery and painfully shy Dee has some secrets up her sleeve. I love that it takes a few issues for readers to start chipping away at the armour each woman wears, but the glimpses we see of vulnerable underbelly hint that this series and these protagonists have a long life in them …

And this series is funny – often juxtaposing gore-splattering, blood-soaked violence alongside awesome one-liners and the types of running jokes that Joss Whedon was known for.

I’m obsessed with ‘Rat Queens’, and I can see why this comic series has taken off in such a big way (it was voted for best new series in the 2014 Eisner Awards). It’s rowdy and rude, heartfelt and gory with four lovably riotous female protagonists who I both want to be best friends with, and would recommend crossing the street to avoid.


Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

My new column for Kill Your Darlings is all about a recent obsession of mine, the wonderful world of comics!

With big thanks to the awesome team at All Star Comics for providing some reading recommendations. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

'People's Choice Award' for Best Designed Book Of The Year 2014 - voting closes August 19!

Bookworld (the bookstore behind those awesome Pop Up Campaigns - bringing books to rural communities!) are hosting the 62nd Australian Book Design Awards (ABDA).

The ABDA is the longest running Australian graphics design award, with the aim to support and recognise outstanding Australian book designers. 

This year, Bookworld are inviting fans to vote in the People’s Choice Award for Best Designed Book of the Year on the Bookworld website - but voting closes August 19 so you have to vote today

To vote just click on the banner below: 

What I love about the ABDA People's Choice Award is that children's & YA books are on a level playing field with adult titles. Just check out some of the beautiful youth literature covers that are up for the award:


The People's Choice Award for Best Designed Book Of The Year will be announced at the ABDA Awards on Friday, 22 August.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

'Through the Woods' stories by Emily Carroll

From the BLURB:

A fantastically dark and timeless graphic debut, for fans of Grimm Tales, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and the works of Neil Gaiman

'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...

Emily Carroll is a storyteller, in the most primordial sense of the word. All of her illustrated gothic/horror stories feel like a conjuring of campfire tales told with a dash of folklore, urban legend and heady doses of fright. What makes this a particular accomplishment is that many people (like me) would have first discovered Carroll via her webcomics, scrolling through the panels of her stories, which are made no less terrifying for their original screen medium.

But now, for the first time, Carroll has gathered those webcomics in a book – ‘Through the Woods’ is her debut graphic novel collection of old and new stories.

I’ve been a fan of Emily Carroll’s webcomics since first stumbling across her website many years ago. I remember finding and falling in love with her work, even before I really got into the comic scene with the likes of ‘Saga’ and ‘Ms Marvel’. I don’t think I even really understood that Carroll was a comic artist back then – when I thought comics were all Batman, Superman and not much in-between. I think I just thought of her as a writer-illustrator who scared the beegeesus out of me with the story ‘His Face All Red’ (which is still my favourite).

There are five stories in this collection, plus an introduction and conclusion.

‘Our Neighbour’s House’ tells the tale of three sisters left to fend for themselves when their father does not return from his hunt, and what happens when a man in a wide-brimmed hat starts visiting them in the dead of night. 

‘A Lady’s Hands are Cold’ has a ‘Bluebeard’ feel, when a young woman goes hunting through her new husband’s house for the source of a mysterious song.

‘His Face All Red’ is my personal favourite, from Carroll’s original webcomics series. It tells the tale of a man who has it on good authority that the person claiming to be his brother is an impersonator.

‘My Friend Janna’ is about two friends who get into the medium business; contacting spirits of people’s deceased loved ones.

‘The Nesting Place’ introduces us to Bell, who is staying with her brother and his strange fiancée while she’s on school break … but discovers something terrifying in the woods near the house.

Carroll is a great gothic storyteller, but more than that she’s a wonderful short-story writer. She knows how to pack a lot into just a few sentences, and has mastered the art of building to a climax – really hitting home with great one-liners in particular. All of her stories feel like they fit on either the folktale or urban legend spectrum – either seeming like something harking back to medieval times (like ‘A Lady’s Hands are Cold’ reminding of the French folktale ‘Bluebeard’) or they feel urban legend in that “a friend, of a friend of mine” sense (like ‘The Nesting Place’).

The other thing I love about Carroll is that her illustrations often look like old-school children’s book illustrations, and that seems to make them feel all the more sinister. Some of them have quite a Miroslav Sasek or J.P. Miller look – but often the bright colours and round-faced characters are at odds with the creepy text. 

Not surprisingly, Carroll has cited children’s books as a big inspiration for her – from Charles Keeping to Andrew Lang (“Essentially any book that gave me nightmares when I was a kid is a driving force behind what I make now.”)

Carroll has been published in anthologies and her webcomics have made her quite famous (in fact, Carroll is illustrating the graphic novel adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Speak’, due out in 2016) but ‘Through the Woods’ is her graphic novel debut … but it definitely won’t be her last.