The Power of Phil Collins Compels You: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Just when I think I’ve started to gravitate away from YA books, gems like this reel me back in. I’ve heard My Best Friend’s Exorcism described as a cross between The Exorcist, Heathers and Beaches, and you know what, that’s about right. This book is all 80s vibes, malicious demon exploits (slash mean high schooler antics), and the amazing power of friendship. And gosh, it’s good.

Who, What, Where?

Our story revolves around best friends Abby and Gretchen who have been tight ever since they were ten years old. While partying at their friend Margaret’s lake house, the girls take LSD and Gretchen mysteriously disappears into the woods only to return hours later disoriented and dishevelled. Although Gretchen claims to be fine, in the weeks that follow she begins to act strange, scared and, eventually, cruel. As terrible things start to happen to their classmates, Abby tries to put the pieces together and starts to wonder whether Gretchen might in fact be possessed by a demon.

Time After Time

If you love 80s nostalgia, come right this way. I know I normally criticise books for an overreliance on pop culture references but, much like Ready Player One, this is an exception because I had a blast. I mean, even the chapter titles are named after 80s songs! The feel of the story and setting details (complete with ‘just say no’, rumours of satanic cults, and crazy 80s diet fads) are spot on, even the attitudes of the characters are believable for the time. The story itself also follows a similar trajectory to an 80s horror/teen flick and balances creepy and gory against a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to high school drama. It’s probably why it’s so bingeable.

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Although MBFE deals with horror themes like demonic possession and it’s marketed as involving “unspeakable horrors”, don’t go in looking for something genuinely scary. That isn’t what it is, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Sure, there are a couple of gross out moments, one of which involves a tapeworm, but it’s more on the side of paranormal thriller. Almost like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The possession itself happens fairly early but the book does require some patience afterward with regards to Gretchen’s transformation. It’s somewhat of a slow burn to reach the sly demonic mayhem you’re probably looking forward to most but, for me, it’s worth it.

Never Gonna Give You Up

While the nostalgia and high school horror is fun, the heart of the book is the friendship between Abby and Gretchen in all its Phil Collins sing-a-longing, roller-skating, late-night phone calling, ET loving glory. Hendrix fantastically sets up the bond between the two early on and it’s so easy to believe that the girls are as close as sisters, especially in the face of their difficult home lives. Despite being severely tested, it was lovely to see just how far Abby would go to save her friend, even at the risk of potentially permanently blowing up her own life. The exorcism scene itself hit me hard in the feels because the Devil may be strong, but ain’t nothing stronger than the love of high school besties.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn

I really enjoyed this book but there were a couple of little things that let it down. First, there are a few issues with the editing, particularly names, which caused some confusion during certain scenes. Not the end of the world, though. Second, I wish we’d gotten more clarity as to how Gretchen became possessed. We’re given a few puzzle pieces but never told how they fit together. Third, there are some references made to satanism and a murdered girl that are never expanded on. It’s kind of odd and I’m left wondering, was there a purpose or was it simply referencing the 80s satanism panic? Guess I’ll never know.


Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Sorry, couldn’t resist using another 80s song title. If you’re looking for a quirky and fun take on 80s horror that blends creepy with coming of age and features a heart-warming female friendship, pick this one up!

4 stars

(If I gave out extra points for awesome covers, the paperback edition pictured above would get so many. The old VHS look is ridiculously cool).

An Epic and Scientific Space Adventure to Save Humanity: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Would you look at that, only a few short weeks before the end of the year and here I am with a fantastic sci-fi read. Huh. Colour me shocked and impressed.

Who, What, Where?

Project Hail Mary follows Dr Ryland Grace, who mysteriously wakes up from a coma onboard a spacecraft with no memory of who is he is, how he came to be there or why. All he knows is that the rest of the crew is dead, there’s plenty of scientific equipment on hand and he’s nowhere near Earth. As Ryland slowly begins to piece together his history and mission, he discovers that he’s the only person standing between humanity and extinction.  

Get Your Science On

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. Firstly, most of the side characters are underdeveloped. They’re around for specific purposes but there isn’t much depth or attachment beyond that. Second, and more importantly, this book is really science-y. Like, really. Yes, I do realise it’s science fiction. I’m not a complete dummy. But, you don’t understand. It’s just SO science-heavy. I now know more about physics and the physiology of made-up microscopic species than I ever wanted to. To be fair, Weir does a great job trying to break down scientific theory and concepts for layman readers. Plus, it helps that his main character is a high school science teacher, accustomed to doing exactly this. Some of it is pretty interesting and a lot of it is extremely important to the story. It certainly enhanced the realism of the mission. Yet, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t paragraphs where I found myself skimming.

What in Outer Space is Going on Here?

PHM was an intense ride. That sounds weird considering there are so many stretches where the characters are conducting research or working through a problem, but it’s true. I’m sure there will be others who’ll find it snooze-worthy but, me, I was engaged in the story almost from start to finish. The plot has elements of Sunshine, The Martian, and Arrival woven into it, but it still feels like its own thing. I was hooked right from the first page and immediately intrigued by finding out what the hell was going on, why, and how Ryland of all people had ended up in this position. The first two questions are resolved without too much of a wait but the third takes far longer. I really liked the way the book’s mysteries unfolded gradually through Ryland’s discoveries and flashbacks as he remembered more and more of his past. I was also extremely invested in his efforts to solve humanity’s dilemma. The need for answers kept me flipping pages until the end, experiencing the successes and setbacks alongside the characters.

First Contact

BEWARE SPOILERS. During his mission, Ryland comes across an alien ship and ends up in a first contact situation with a being he names ‘Rocky’. I wasn’t expecting this plotline but I loved it, and the interactions between Ryland and Rocky were my favourite part of the book. It was such a wholesome and great friendship that I was willing to overlook how quickly they bridged the language barrier (I’ve seen Arrival, okay. Alien languages are complicated!). There were moments with buddy comedy vibes, which were fun, and I loved reading about the two working together and learning more about each other’s races.

Mark 2.0

As a main character, Ryland has some big similarities to The Martian’s lead, Mark Watney. Both are scientists, astronauts (technically), lone humans in remote locations, and rely on humour in their narration to lighten the mood. Admittedly, there are some differences – Ryland is a molecular biologist and generally avoids real curse words while Mark was a botanist and his favourite word was four letters long and started with an ‘F’. Ryland also gets ridiculously excited about science in a way I don’t remember Mark doing and has much more to worry about than his own survival. Regardless, if you weren’t a fan of The Martian for character reasons, you’ll likely have similar gripes here. Personally, I found Ryland easy enough to spend 500 pages with and I enjoyed his sense of humour, even though he’s terrible at naming things (or is he fantastic? It’s hard to tell).

Armageddon with a Smile

Something I really appreciated about PHM was its amusing and upbeat tone. Despite the serious nature of plot, the story doesn’t feel extremely heavy and bleak all the time. There’s hope, positivity, persistence, humour, and every time the characters hit a major speed bump, they’re disappointed, but they keep working the problem. The ending is also pretty uplifting and suited to Ryland’s character, although I do feel it could be slightly divisive.


Altogether, this was a great sci-fi read and I feel bad for putting it off for so many months. After hearing lots of not-so-positive things about Artemis and deciding to give it a miss, it’s good to know that Weir’s writing is back to the standard he set with The Martian.

4 stars

The Hunger Games But Make Them Magicians: All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

I’m a simple person. I see descriptions of a book that say a The Hunger Games type competition with magic and Game of Thrones family dynamics, I read it. No questions asked.

Who, What, Where?

In the remote city of Ilvernath, seven families are bound by an ancient curse which requires that every generation they select one member to represent them as their champion in a tournament to the death. The winner earns their family exclusive control over the city’s high magic supply, the world’s most powerful resource. In the past, the villainous Lowe family has won nearly every tournament, but the recent publication of a scandalous tell-all book has suddenly thrust the competition into the international spotlight, providing the opportunity for another family to potentially take the crown.

Makin’ Magic

Magic is my literary crack. So, when a book has good magic going on, it gets major brownie points. The magic system in All of Us Villains is interesting. Sure, there are foggy elements, but while I do need more explanation than ‘it’s magic’, I don’t always require a complete scientific breakdown for a system to work. Here, spells & curses are crafted using recipes with specific ingredients and either common or high magic. After, they’re placed inside a vessel, e.g. a ring, until they’re cast by the holder. Spells have different power classes and this impacts their difficulty to craft and cast. Those made using high magic are far stronger, bumping up their class, which is why control of the town’s supply is so desirable. Here, magic fantastically walks the line between requiring planning/skill and still being flexible enough to use quickly in intense situations. You can tell the authors spent time thinking about how it would function within their world and this is great considering how crucial it is to the story.

I should mention though, when it comes to the world building beyond this, things are hazy in spots. It can be difficult to understand how the broader world functions beyond the competition. This is especially the case when you consider the tell-all book revealing the competition to the world.  

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

AoUV spends a good amount of time leading up to its competition. As a result, the book has the space to properly establish each of its major characters, their families, and the tension between them. Yet, it doesn’t linger long enough to kill the anticipation. The competition kicks off around halfway, at which point I was excited for some fast, furious and brutal magical conflict. However, after a few pages, the pacing slows down a lot and focus shifts towards alliances, collecting artifacts, and the personal obstacles facing certain characters. While I didn’t mind this exactly, I wish there’d been a couple more actively aggressive competitors present to raise the stakes for the others earlier on. In other words, there aren’t any deaths for some time, so don’t expect a bloodbath right from the get-go. Although, things do eventually pick up again making for some exciting scenes, one involving a giant sea dragon and another a river of blood.

Alongside the champions fighting it out, the arena also has a few magical extras to keep things interesting – landmarks and artifacts. Landmarks act as bases of operations or strongholds for whoever claims them first. Each has its own unique benefits, so champions need to strategise wisely about which to target. Then we have artifacts. These appear in the competition at random times and bestow special abilities upon the user, such as a cloak that protects the wearer from offensive spells. I loved the idea of these (especially where one’s appearance would force champions into conflict to try and get to it first) and am keen to see more of them in the sequel.

Break the Curse

You might (not be) surprised to hear that the book also involves a ‘break the curse’ plotline. I can’t say much because of spoilers, but my feelings are mixed. I really like the direction being taken into the sequel with regards to the plot itself. However, there’s a connected subplot that arises late in the book which I found frustrating as it seems like it’s only introduced to force a conflict between two characters.

Champions with Something to Prove

For me, one of the best parts of AoUV was its characters. The book is written in limited third person from the perspective of four of the seven champions, and each has their own distinct personality, family backstory, and goals. Our cast consists of: Isobel, a talented spellcrafter pressured into representing the shady Macaslan family after being named champion by the media; Alistair, of the powerful and sinister Lowe family, raised to win from birth and taught to be a monster to survive; Briony, who has always dreamed of being the Thorburn champion and achieving hero status by winning; and lastly, Gavin, the champion of the weak and dismissed Grieves who is desperate to prove himself and regain respect for his family, whatever it takes. All four were compelling leads and I really enjoyed spending time with them. Still, I can’t help but wish they’d been slightly more “villainous” at times to increase the twists and drama.


All of Us Villains is a fun and engaging YA fantasy read that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did. While there are things that could be improved upon, I highly recommend picking this up if it interests you. I know I’ll be looking out for the sequel next year to see how everything wraps up.  

4 Stars

All of Us Villains will be released on November 9th 2021.

**Thank you to Netgalley & Tor for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review**

Religious Fanatics, Families with Secrets and an Unsolved Kidnapping Case: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

The Nowhere Child is a good reminder as to why I should read more books from Australian authors. It’s honestly such a shame that I cover so few because this was a great mystery read, especially for a debut.

Who, What, Where?

TNC centres around Kim, a photography teacher living in Melbourne whose life quickly changes when a man informs her that he believes Kim to be the victim of a 26 year old US child kidnapping case. As much as she tries to deny it, the more Kim looks into it, the more obvious connections become apparent between herself and the missing toddler, Sammy Went. Needing to know more, Kim travels to the small town of Manson, Kentucky to try to find out the truth about her “mother” and past.

Write Like the King

Something I really liked about this one was White’s writing style. It’s engaging, easily digestible in large amounts and I found that fifty pages often went by in the blink of an eye. White’s also very good at paying attention to the right kinds of small details to develop vivid settings and meaningful characters without overwhelming the reader. As a result, there’s a good sense of place and it was easy for me to imagine Manson as a real small town in Kentucky – the way it looked, felt and the type of people who lived there (religious extremists with a thing about snakes apparently). White’s approach to storytelling in parts of this actually reminded me a bit of Stephen King, particularly books like Salem’s Lot or The Institute, but still with its own distinct feel and no supernatural elements, of course. Considering White supposedly took cues from King’s On Writing, this makes sense.

More About the People

I was expecting The Nowhere Child to be a twisty, thriller type read. As things turned out, it was more of a slow build mystery with characters and relationships at its heart. The book is told in dual timelines. In the present we have Kim realising who she is, travelling to the US and connecting with people from Sammy’s past. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, we follow multiple characters in Manson and witness how Sammy’s disappearance impacts her family and the town as a whole. Some of the things the book focuses on include the marriage between Sammy’s parents, influence of The Church of the Light Within, bias of the town towards people of certain backgrounds, and pressure on the police force to find the culprit. A few of the plot threads, such as the darker side of the church, could probably have been expanded on slightly, and I wish there had been more meat to the POV of Sammy’s teen sister, Emma. Regardless, I can’t complain too much as I felt like most of the major characters were satisfyingly fleshed out to the degree they needed to be for the story to have an impact. Although several of them made some questionable choices, I was able to sympathise with nearly all of them in some way. A couple could probably have been better utilised in the present timeline but I can understand the desire to focus on Kim’s journey.

Unraveling a Kidnapping 

The novel gets stuck into the main kidnapping plot pretty much straight from the get-go but does eventually slow down somewhat. Still, I found that the use of the dual timelines kept momentum going for the most part (along with the shorter chapters). While I had plenty of moments of frustration when one timeline cut off at a dramatic moment, I was quickly engaged in whatever was happening next in the alternate story. The 90s chapters involve the police trying to investigate the kidnapping, however, not much comes of these efforts for a long time so the book doesn’t get into the real substance of the mystery until a fair way in. For this reason, after some time I started to get increasingly worried that I’d be disappointed with the ending. As it turned out, the book finished strongly with events culminating in an exciting climax and an ending which felt mostly believable with the puzzle pieces previously given to the reader. There were also a few small, emotional moments for some of the characters which I appreciated, too.


As you can probably tell, I had a great time reading this one and will definitely be giving Christian White’s second novel, The Wife and the Widow, a read in the future. If you’re looking for a well-written and engaging take on the old kidnapping mystery story, I highly recommend giving The Nowhere Child a look.

4 stars

Mini Reviews | Let’s Get Romantic: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang & The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Let me set the scene: It was December of 2018. There were four days left in the month and I was but 3 small books short of a beautifully round 90 reads for the year. And so began my chick lit binge. I mean, what’s easier to blitz through in the space of a day than adorable couples having steamy sex whilst also being frustratingly unable to see just how perfect they are for each other? Exactly.

With that in mind, I found myself tackling The Kiss Quotient & The Hating Game – two extremely popular contemporary romance books that seem to have been popping up online in recent months so frequently it feels like an epic game of internet whack-a-mole. Admittedly, it’s been a good long while since I’ve read a book in this genre, but it turns out that getting back on the horse isn’t even close to difficult. Here’s how things went with the guilty-pleasure-a-thon.

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang |GR

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The premise of The Kiss Quotient is simple: Our leading lady is Stella, a thirty-year-old, talented econometrician with little romantic experience and Asperger’s. Hoping to improve her skills in the… “love” department, Stella hires Michael, a mixed-race escort in huge debt with a whole lot of emotional baggage. Spoiler: the two fall for each other. 

Let’s get this out of the way first, yes, the storyline is completely unrealistic. It’s Pretty Woman in reverse and would in no way happen in real life, but as I happen to freakin’ love Pretty Woman, no complaints from me.

What does frustrate me is the forced will-they-won’t-they tension in the second half. We all know you will SO STOP BEING SO OBTUSE AND SAY YOU LOVE EACH OTHER! The conflict is mostly boiled down to both parties thinking they’re not good enough for the other or that their baggage is a problem for the other person. It clearly isn’t because if it were, they’d be a complete ass. Gawd, I hate miscommunication.

This frustration aside… I really enjoyed The Kiss Quotient. The leads are so damn likeable and the romance is ridiculously sweet. I’m not autistic but even I could relate to Stella, and because of how well she’s written (Hoang herself is autistic), it’s also very easy to understand her. She’s endearing, successful and I love the fact that she comes to realise she shouldn’t have to change for anyone. Michael, too, is really lovely. He’s creative, protective, makes sacrifices for his family, and accepts Stella exactly as she is. Also, did I mention he looks like a Korean tv star? *swoon* (bonus points for including ethnic diversity too). But honestly, the best part is that they fit together so perfectly. Even just reading about the two eating ice cream makes me go aww. Get married and have babies already.

To answer your question, yes, there are several sex scenes and yes, they’re graphic. BUT, somehow they’re also the perfect combo of sweet and sultry. Hoang builds up to them slowly and oh my god, consent. Consent is dealt with so well in this book. Michael wants Stella to be entirely comfortable with whatever they do and he’s willing to take it very slowly to get there. It’s both hot and romantic. Let’s say it together kids, consent is sexy.

Finally, the book just advocates a really lovely idea – that it’s not just okay to be different, it’s these differences that make you loveable. You are who you are, not something to be fixed.

Can recommend as a super nice way to spend a frantic afternoon reading to meet a ridiculous book goal.

The Hating Game – Sally Thorne | GR

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Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman are executive assistants to the two CEOs of the recently merged, Bexley Gamin publishing house. The problem is, they hate each other. Lucy can’t stand Josh’s serious and uptight demeanour, while Lucy’s colourful clothes and bubbly attitude drive Joshua nuts. When both come up for the same promotion, they make a deal – winner gets the dream job, loser resigns. Except, as decision day comes closer it turns out that perhaps Lucy doesn’t hate Joshua after all, and maybe he doesn’t hate her either. But is it real or just another round in their long-running hating game?

If there’s one thing I can say for sure about The Hating Game, it’s that it’s funny. Not just an extra hard exhale kind of funny but actual chuckle funny. The banter between Josh and Lucy, both barbs and flirting, is great but also really shows off their fantastic chemistry. Honestly, having such a smooth back and forth with another person = the dream. Snipping aside, the more personal conversations between the two are really nice as well. Slowly we get to see each character gain a better appreciation for the other and understand their issues such as Josh’s problems with his dad and Lucy’s loneliness.   

If you enjoy the enemies-to-lovers trope, this has got your name on it. I do have to say though, that I wish the enemies section or early part of the transitional period had lasted longer as once that part of the storyline kicks in, it does go a bit full throttle. The tension becomes less about how they feel about each other and more when they’re going to sleep together. Sure, that can be fun, but it does turn Lucy into a bit of sex-crazed nut for a while and result in a whole bunch of scenes that build to nothing.

Again, yes, there’s sex scenes and yes, they’re not airy-fairy either. The more graphic scenes don’t really appear until towards the end of the book apart from one exception, *spoiler* a sex dream of Lucy’s which I still kind of question the necessity of in such heavy detail. Regardless, all are glasses-steam-up level hotness, never fear.  

I quite liked Lucy as a narrator and she cracked me up repeatedly. There was the occasional childish or silly comment/action and, god, I wish her height hadn’t been repeated every two bloody seconds, but still, I appreciated her drive, sense of humour, balls (that ending, you go girl) and confidence. Josh’s at times dominating personality and aggression dragged his character down for me (ugh, alpha male bullshit) but then he’d have a particularly sweet moment with Lucy, do that…smile thing and I’d cave. Damn it.

Not perfect, but certainly a solid contemporary romance and fun way to spend a few hours. Go forth and enjoy.    

Murder, Lies, & High School Drama: One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

4 stars

OOuiL

Add one part The Breakfast Club, another part Riverdale, a touch of Gossip Girl, and a sprinkle of Pretty Little Liars. Mix well.

The finished product: One of Us is Lying.

Actually, if I’m being completely honest, what this book really reminds me of, bear with my geekiness here, is an old PC game I used to play as a kid based on Nancy Drew. We’re talking 1998 old. It was called Secrets Can Kill and involved a student who had been blackmailing a bunch of people for things like steroid use and cheating on an exam, before eventually being murdered. If you’ve played this, OoUiL seems far less dramatic in comparison but both are fun in their own way.

Who, What, Where?

Five students enter detention. Less than an hour later, one of them is dead. Our suspects:

  • Addy, the popular girl who can’t seem to do anything without her boyfriend.
  • Cooper, the rising, young baseball star with a wicked fastball.
  • Nate, the school drug dealer, currently on probation and the easy scapegoat.
  • Bronwyn, top of her class and destined for Yale.

All have secrets, but which of them murdered Simon, Bayview High’s resident blogger and gossip king, to stop them getting out?

Why You Should Read This Book

Likeable but Not Loveable

The Bayview 4, as they’re labelled in the aftermath of Simon’s death, are all likeable characters. Are they amazingly memorable? Probably not, but they’re still very enjoyable to read about, especially as each takes ownership of their secrets and begins to reorganise their lives in really positive ways. Addy, in particular, is a great example of this. She begins the story as a human doormat and by the end has cut the toxic people from her life, started focusing on herself, and stopped worrying about what others think of her. You go, girl.

Human Connection

What was also really nice to see was the friendships that developed between the central 4 and the support each provided for the others during a pretty crappy time. Here are four completely different people, in different social circles and yet, even under circumstances that encourage them to turn on each other, they come together (there’s an especially great, and surprising, scene involving Nate standing up for Cooper after the release of some private information). It’s because of this trust and connection that they’re ultimately able to “solve the case” – perhaps Mystery Inc. is in need of some new members?

Romance

I’ll keep this quick – there’s a romantic relationship between two members of the Bayview 4 and it’s actually quite a nice addition to the story. It doesn’t take over the plot, it’s doesn’t become annoying, and the characters have a great dynamic with one another because of their differences in background and personality.

Representation & Tough Topics

I know, I know, we really need to stop commending books just because they happen to include even a little diversity or tackle a few bigger issues but I’m going to do it anyway. McManus’s characters are inclusive of Latinos, LGBTQ individuals, and people from low socio-economic backgrounds and broken homes. The book deals with elements of mental health, abusive relationships, bullying, and slut-shaming. While none is gone into in great depth, they’re all handled reasonably well and I really like how each served to enrich the story.

Why You Might Want to Skip It

Who Are you?

One of the most noticeable things as I was reading was the difficulty I experienced on many occasions of remembering who’s POV I was reading at any given time. Sure, the personal details were different but without one coming up for a while, things started to get a little…ambiguous. It was particularly problematic during scenes in which members of the Bayview four were together. I’d start a conversation believing I was Bronwyn only to find out it was Addy, or even Cooper. I’ll admit, this may be partly an attention issue on my end but I still believe the tone of voice could have been more distinct.

Well this Makes Zero Sense

There are a lot of things that really don’t add up in this book and it’s frustrating. Even worse, the characters point out these flaws as if to say, yes I recognise the fact this should have happened but oh well!

By far, the most annoying thing is how the police handle the murder investigation. Their efforts are focused almost entirely on the four main characters to the point that nobody else is even considered a suspect. This is ridiculous considering the fact that the victim is a guy who pissed off almost everyone at school and has how many squillions of enemies.

To make it worse, it feels like the police haven’t even bothered to do extensive research on their victim. Bronwyn’s sister, a high schooler, does a better job in two days than the police do in weeks. Worse still, key pieces of evidence aren’t followed up on correctly or just outright ignored, e.g. the mobile phones used to suspiciously get everyone into detention at the exact right time, or the accident that occurred just at the right time outside the classroom window.

It’s not realistic, it’s frustrating as hell, and it feels like these things are overlooked just so the core characters get to act like super sleuths and solve the crime in the end.

A Predictable and Flat End

As Sherlock Holmes says, once you rule out the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth. OoUiL provides us with only a few fleshed out suspects and once we rule out the main ones, which you’ll do quickly, the truth of the matter, or something close to it, will be pretty clear early on. Personally, I wish the ending had been more shocking, but aside from perhaps one person’s involvement (which seemed quite extreme, almost soapie) it at least made sense in the context of the story.


Despite the problems and sense of realism, One of Us is Lying was an enjoyable read with some solid characters and a decent enough plot to keep me engaged until the end. Well done to McManus for a great debut novel.

4 Stars 

Love Ashley

A Lost “Princess”, a Kraken, Exploding Robot Dogs, and Some Big Moral Questions: Lifel1k3 by Jay Kristoff

4 starsLifel1k3

If any of you have spent time looking through my blog, you’d know that I love Jay Kristoff books. As in, would give up red velvet cake (one of the best things in the world) forever to get my hands on the third Nevernight book.

Alright, alright, maybe for like a month. Forever seems a little bit harsh.

Anyway, for this reason I was practically jumping out of my seat in excitement when I saw Jay was starting a new YA series. Robots! Awesome female characters! Romance! Crazy adventures across a radiation filled wasteland! I was like, GIMMIE.

[Insert witty blurb summary here]

Joking.

Lifel1k3 centres around Eve, a scavenger/bot fighter with a killer faux hawk. When she and her friend Lemon Fresh (I kid you not, the girl was named after a washing detergent) discover the remains of a human looking AI, a Lifelike named Ezekiel, their lives suddenly get massively complicated. Next thing they know, Eve’s grandpa has been kidnapped, everyone from street gangs to a gun toting preacher is trying to kill them, they’re trapped in a kraken’s stomach, and what are these strange visions Eve keeps seeing?

Why You Should Read This Book

Jay Does Characters Right

One of Jay’s strengths has always been his characters. They’re diverse, deep, and always successfully walk the line between strong and vulnerable. These characters are no exception. Here, our central four are Eve, our MC, Lemon, her smart mouthed best friend, Cricket, Eve’s small robotic companion and voice of logic, and Ezekiel, the lifelike with the perfect dimples. I quite liked these characters. They’re well written and very different from each other, and because of that the dynamic between them is a lot of fun. Their interactions during the book’s times of crisis can essentially be summarised as:

*Obstacle arises*
Eve: I have to save my grandpa, so here is my highly dangerous plan! But you guys should go home, I don’t want you to get hurt.
Lemon: I am a babelicious badass. You need me and I refuse to deprive you of my witty commentary.
Cricket: This is a very, very bad idea. Do not do this highly dangerous plan.

*outvoted*

Cricket: I hate democracy.
Ezekiel: I will throw myself into said extremely dangerous situation for you Eve because I’m basically indestructible and feeling guilty over some mysterious secret.
Kaiser (Eve’s robot dog, built fitted with explosives): Woof!

I have to say though that part of me was slightly more interested in the side or “bad” characters. We don’t get a heap of development on them but based on the end of this book I’m expecting a lot more in the next one. Give me robot emotional drama!!!!

Pop Culture Puzzle Pieces

*Minor spoiler* Alright, I admit, it took me a shamefully long time to recognise the fact that this was, in part, an Anastasia retelling. I majored in history at university and adore the animated film, and yet, I was about three quarters of the way through before my slow brain finally went, wow, this family all has names super similar to the Romanovs, and they were murdered TOO, and the daughter…oh.

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I really loved this aspect of the story. I mean, dystopian Anastasia with robots? You can’t beat that. These tie ins also added elements of mystery and tragedy to the story but don’t worry, they don’t also make it over the top predictable.

Lost “princesses” aside, Lifel1k3 delivers on the whole bunch of pop culture references found on its cover and it does so without feeling cliché or mishmashed. There’s a dramatic car chase that screams Mad Max, there’s a teensy bit of X-men awesomeness to one character, and if you enjoyed Blade Runner you’ll definitely find a lot to like here.

  • Destroyed world? Check.
  • Humans with God complexes? Er, check.
  • Major moral questions about the rights of artificial intelligence and what is human? Dooouubbble check. Actually, make that triple check.

In other words, the plot has action, emotion, and depth along with Jay’s usual, quirky kind of humour scattered throughout.

Twisty

Kristoff always gets you right at the end. Jackass.

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Just kidding. I love you and your awful (aka. great) plot twists (aka. gut punches).

Ending and Sequel potential

Jay leaves this book in an interesting place going forward. The fallout of the twist pushes the characters in an unexpected direction and I’m not exactly sure where it’ll end up. Additionally, there are a lot of big players (major tech companies and other Lifelikes) mentioned during the book that are missing from the climax of Lifel1k3 which I’m really excited to see show up further down the track.

Why it Might Not Be For You

Are you Speaking English?

Along with all the other world building, Jay’s also created his own assortment of new slang and jargon. While it’s certainly realistic (new terms get invented so quickly these days that I have trouble keeping up. On fleek? Bae? Who comes up with this shit?) it does tend to create a bit of fish out of water syndrome. At the start of this book, I had no clue what anyone was bloody talking about.

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Eventually it clicks but by then it’s become just plain frustrating. I mean, why the hell does Lemon have to refer to Eve as her “bestest” CONSTANTLY???
To help you out, the two main terms to know are:
Fizzy – good, awesome
True Cert – surely, for sure, honestly

Romance…Eh

So yeah, there’s some romance. There are moments where it’s sweet and all, but it’s also a bit wishy-washy and fast which is a bit disapponting considering how important it is to part of the plot.

Big World, Little Reader

The world in Lifel1k3 has a lot to it. Gangs, crazy geographical features like glass storm wastelands, robot krakens running around the ocean floor, warring and wealthy tech companies, robots… it’s complicated. We often complain about authors info-dumping to the point where our brains explode. My problem at the beginning of this book is that there wasn’t enough info. I was thrust into a world with language, culture, technology, and environments that I was entirely clueless about and Kristoff kind of carries on with the story as if he just assumes you too have seen his super-secret world building word document. It certainly improves with time but there’s still a lot I don’t know. I’m sure book two will help me out.DividerWhile it’s certainly no Nevernight, I can safely say that Lifel1k3 was an largely enjoyable sci-fi, dystopian, action packed ride with a lot of heart, and I’ll highly likely be picking up the sequel when it comes out.

4 StarsLove Ashley

The End’s Not Near, It’s Here: Obsidio (The Illuminae Files 3#) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

4 stars

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And just like that chums, The Illuminae Files come to a close.

Our characters have faced bombs, zombie viruses, crazy AIs, trained mercenaries, brain sucking alien worms, the potential collapse of the time space continuum, and in this installment they now come face to face with the scariest thing of all…

People.

Desperate, stubborn, follow orders blindly, people.

So, let’s get to it.

The Gang’s All Here!

After the events of the first two books, all of our major characters are now in the same place at the same time. *Cheers* This means that we get to see some nice little interactions between familiar faces. Are you in need of some Kady and Ella bonding time over their technical wiz skills? We got that. How about Hanna and Kady boosting one another’s moral in adorable ways (hint: there may or may not be sketches involved)? Yep, that too. Or, what about Ella turning her famous sass on a certain confused AI? Check. But I’m telling you, the best part, the thing I never even realised I needed in my life until now, was:

An Ezra-Nick bromance.

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OH, YEAH BOYS AND GIRLS. We have a winner.

I don’t want to get into specifics because spoilers (okay just one little spoiler: Parachute. Have fun with that one). However, one thing I should note about Obsidio is that there felt like a lot less fun character interactions than we saw in Gemina or Illuminae. While those books seemed to balance their plot’s oh-shit-we’re-all-going-to-die elements against character development and humour equally, this one doesn’t manage to do so as much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s there, just bogged down a bit by the accumulation of all the crap that’s happened to the characters. Part of me wonders whether it’s because the roster of characters has gotten too large now to showcase individuals in depth or simply because these characters have already had their respective books to shine and it’s now our new characters’ time in the spotlight.

New Faces

Aside from our existing fan favourites, in the series’ usual fashion, Obsidio introduces two more central characters to the roster – Asha Grant and Rhys Linden. So it turns out that after the evacuations from Kerenza, a whole bunch of people were left behind on the planet under BeiTech occupation and, as you can probably imagine, life pretty much sucks down there. Low food, freezing cold, BeiTech soldiers locking up families as motivation for the miners, and shooting civilians for even the most minor infractions. This place is in desperate need of a resistance. Good thing its got one.

If Asha’s surname sounds familiar, it’s because she’s Kady’s cousin. She’s a pharmacy student and a member of the Kerenza resistance. Like the other Illuminae women, Asha is smart, brave and good-hearted, but still manages to feel distinct from the previous MCs. She isn’t amazing with computers, doesn’t know martial arts, but damn, girl can take a punch and is still brave enough to whack a soldier in full armour with a chair when it matters. Twice.

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Rhys, in true star crossed fashion, is a tech specialist recently reassigned to Kerenza as part of the BeiTech invasion force and also happens to be Asha’s ex-boyfriend. How do ya like that for coincidence? Or as writers like to call it: PLOT. Upon arrival, Rhys is horrified to learn exactly what he’s ended up a part of but soon comes around to assisting the resistance. Rhys is definitely likeable – he’s ace at cards and never without perfect hair, but perhaps overshadowed slightly by the male characters that have come before him. Still, both Rhys and Asha have a great dynamic and are worthy additions to our crew.

Let’s Get Serious

When Jay and Amie spoke about the book at launch, they said it was the one they were most proud of. No aliens, no viruses, just people doing what they genuinely believe is right. This explanation certainly fits when applied to the conflict between the crews of the Heimdall and Hypatia. Each side strongly believes they know the right course to take and despite their dodgy actions, deep down, both are coming from a place of good.

Where our authors’ explanation falls down a little is the BeiTech soldiers. Obsidio gives a decent amount of page time to these guys– they play cards, share stories, and go about their duties, all in an effort for us to say: hey, these guys are human beings just doing their jobs. They didn’t ask to be here, their survival is now at risk, and to them, these Kerenza civilians are criminals.  These are the explanations offered to validate their side of things and make this a shades-of-grey equation. The only problem is, it’s not very successful. Instead, their protestations come off as either: (a) I will kill a whole bunch of people as long as it helps me up the career ladder or off this damned planet, or (b) I will cling to whatever explanation will help me remain in denial and live with myself. While the BeiTech soldiers may not be moustache twirling villains, they’re most certainly the bad guys here. Why? Because there’s always a choice: to stop, to question, to act. And nearly all of them failed.

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Yet, the story and characters still work very well on a different level because of their ability to act as a reflection of the real world. Were you to look for similarities in the present day and throughout history, you’d find them easily and that’s why the story is so believable, horrifying and well-written.

Not a Bang, Not a Whimper, Somewhere in Between

We all know Illuminae is fond of its bang, crash endings and massive, screw you plot twists (I’m still not over book one. I died a little and never recovered). However, Obsidio doesn’t really have anything to match the twists found in the first two books. There’s a moment in the middle of the story which is pretty awful (emotionally, not plot wise) but because of the character it concerns, it’s not unexpected (plus it’s foreshadowed). There’s another similar ‘oh no’ moment towards the end of the story but by this point it’s kind of like, I ain’t falling for that again, folks. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me and er…fool me three times, nuh uh. Not happening, you big kidders.

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You know these books are full on when even a big space battle with nukes feels like a tame way to climax the series, but I understand Jay and Amy’s need not to go too big this time around because they needed to be able to pull it back far enough in order to provide nice resolution. Speaking of which, there is a nice resolution. Cuteness and joy abounds, emphasised by a lovely final image by Marie Lu. Don’t you dare go flipping for it though!

To sum up, while Obsidio may not have been my favourite book of the trilogy, it was most certainly an exciting, well-crafted and amusing read, and a worthy conclusion to an absolutely fantastic series. I can’t wait to read Amy and Jay’s next collaboration and if you haven’t read any of The Illuminae Files books yet, now’s the time to start. Get moving!

4 Stars

Q: Have you read this one yet? If so, what did you think?

Love Ashley

King of the Nerds: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

4 stars

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It’s cool to be an obsessive, geeky fanboy. Or girl.

Are you a lover of video games?

Interested in fantasy and science fiction?

Ever wish you’d been a kid in the 80s?

If you said yes to any of the above questions, then Ready Player One is the book for you.

It’s 2045, and just like with every other dystopian novel, the world has gone to, for lack of a better description, complete shit. Pollution’s high, people live in massive stacks of shoebox like units with a tendency to collapse, there’s been a slight energy crisis, everything’s ridiculously expensive, and life just generally sucks.

Luckily enough, there also happens to exist the king of all massively multiplayer online games, The Oasis. In order to get away from the awfulness of the existing world, people pop on their headsets and immerse themselves in this wonderland of pop culture and adventure.

Our story begins when the creator of The Oasis, James Halliday, suddenly dies, leaving instructions stating that whoever is able to successfully crack his clues, solve a series of puzzles, and locate three keys hidden within The Oasis itself, will find his “egg”. Whoever finds the egg will both inherit his entire (and epically massive) fortune and gain full control of The Oasis. But in order to succeed, you’ve got to know pretty much everything about all of his favourite things from the 80s.

*dramatic drum roll* Dum. Dum. DUMMMMM!!

Enter…this guy:

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Wade Watts – an overweight  (less so in the film), socially-awkward teenager who’s devoted years of his life to studying everything included in Halliday’s manifesto of 80s pop culture (and people say I’m a nerd) in the hopes that somehow, someday, he’ll find the first key.

Spoiler alert, except not really, he does.

This starts off an epic race between regular Joe fans searching for the keys and the enormous corporation, IOI, which wants to turn The Oasis into an exclusive, money-making machine of EVIL!

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Why You Should Read this Book:

Pop Culture Galore

Cline is a fanboy, pure and simple, and he litters his book with references to everything you can possibly imagine. As someone who’s grown up playing video games, enjoying fantasy and sci-fi, and watching older movies, this book can be some serious fun. I have never felt so superior in my nerdom as I did reading this. It’s like, YES, SEE? This information wasn’t all for nothing after all! I have found my people!

Full Steam Ahead Plot

Cline definitely has a good grasp on pacing. The story is constantly moving and I was riveted, waiting to see where the next clue would lead and what challenge Wade and the other top 5 players would have to face next. Better yet, it’s not just inside The Oasis that the drama is unfolding, as IOI starts to try and thin out the competition in real life.

Will Wade and friends all make it out alive? WE JUST DON’T KNOW!

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The stakes are high and the novel’s action continues to gradually ramp up over the course of the story (except for a small section three quarters of the way in where things are a bit calmer) to an exciting climax that certainly didn’t leave me unsatisfied.

Characters

The characters in RPO were one of my favourite parts of the book. They’re diverse, well developed, relatable, and likeable, likely because Cline based them off people he’d actually met in the gaming community.

A lot of people have criticised Wade as being a bit of a Gary Stu but when you put into perspective the fact that he’s had nothing but time to sit around and learn about all of this stuff for years on end (living the dream, basically), he makes quite a bit of sense.  Also important is the fact that Wade does have his limitations and very much requires the help of the other competitors to progress forward in the hunt, just as they need his help in return.

Other star characters include Wade’s friend, Aech (‘H’), a character whose full potential isn’t realised until the last third of the novel and who had a twist I was totally here for, and blogger/kick-ass egg hunter, Art3mis –  because that’s right boys, girls can be amazing gamers too.

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Why this may not be for you:

Details, Details, Details

Okay, there’s two kinds of detail here and both have the potential to piss people off to DNF proportions.

Pop Culture Overload

Yes, I realise I just mentioned these references as a positive but the problem is that there’s TOO many of them. As in, somehow manages to fit about five different ones into one paragraph. It’s overload. Now, you don’t have to understand all of them to enjoy the book but I feel as though RPO would be extremely boring if you didn’t recognise at least some. Have I ever played Everquest or watched Ladyhawke? No, but Wade flying around in a Star Wars X-wing, mentions of an Oasis replica of the Firefly universe, and an extended sequence spent wandering through Zork’s White House? Now, that’s undeniably cool. However, after a while, the novelty does wear off a little. It verges into wanky territory at some points and becomes just difficult not to get bogged down in at others.

Technical Detail

Now this is where Cline lost me. I just have to say it, I really don’t give a crap about the inner workings of computer or gaming systems. I especially don’t give a crap about the inner workings of computer or gaming systems from the EIGHTIES. If you’re like me, be warned, there are several sections in which Wade discusses this kind of thing at length and this is essentially what I looked like:

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In other words, prepare thy eyes for skimming.

The Bad Guys

By now I think we’re all accustomed to the trope of the mega-corporation willing to do anything to achieve their ends, aka money. This story is no different. IOI wants to fully commercialise The Oasis and they’ll kill, kidnap and do God knows what else to get there. To be blunt about it, as a villain they’re cliché, boring and one-dimensional, and I’m still slightly confused about the full extent of what they were hoping to realise beyond the whole revenue thing.

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This was an enjoyable read for me overall. The book definitely had some issues in terms of its writing on occasion but because of how quickly I gobbled it up, I feel like giving it anything less than four stars would be kind of a disservice. So four stars it is.

4 STARS

The Descent to Hell is Easy: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

4 stars

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A large chunk of you have probably already read this particular release by now but as I’ve just read it and it’s still fresh in my memory, I’m going to review it anyway. These days I don’t often sit around excitedly waiting for books to come out, I’m too busy trying to conquer my existing mound. Still, I was actually really looking forward to reading this one and because I refrained from reading anything other than the blurb beforehand, I avoided a first class ticket all aboard the hype train. Woot, woot!

The gist: TCP centres around seventeen-year-old, Jude, who after the murder of her parents is forced to grow up in Faerie along with her two sisters under the guardianship of her parents’ murderer. Not as prisoners, we’re talking confusing pseudo-parent relationship here.

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To make matters worse, the fey are kind of well…awful. If they’re not trying to eat or control Jude, they’re most certainly trying to frighten and torment her, especially the punk ass faeries she’s stuck going to school with. So fair warning, you will spend the first part of the book basically just thinking:

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Until BAM. In comes…

faerie politics,

espionage,

ALLIANCES,

MURDER,

PLOTTING!

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Okay, getting a teensy bit carried away, but you get the point – lies, twists and stabby-stabby. I don’t want to dwell too much here because spoilers, but a lot of the drama revolves around the faerie royal family and the throne. It sends everything into chaos and drives our protagonist to become increasingly more morally questionable in her search for power after too long being one of the powerless.

Why you Should Read this Book:

It Starts and Ends with a Bang

We begin with several murders and end with political machinations and a side of murder.

Characters in Shades of Grey

There are pretty much no characters in this book that can be considered straight forward good or bad, which is great because character complexity is what we all want. The fey that populate Faerie each have their own self-centred drives, mean streaks and chequered  pasts, including those characters that we’re supposed to root for and those who seem a-okay for chunks of the time.

Even our main character, Jude, isn’t immune from this, possessing a underlying bloodthirstiness and craving for power as great as any faerie’s – one that becomes increasingly apparent as the story goes on and is likely to bite her in the ass later. While she may not always be a likeable character, she’s definitely an engaging one.

Then, of course, there’s Prince Cardan. Ah, Cardan.

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…And apparently so does Cardan. Damn it, you just had to go and develop (a) depth and (b) an amusing, sarcastic sense of humour. *sigh* I guess sometimes you just can’t help but root for the asshole. I’m not saying I’m swooning but by the end of the book I definitely enjoyed every time he turned up on the page. But hopefully it’s okay because I consciously recognise the fact that he’s scum.

Politics, Secrets and Lies, Oh My!

A lot of people have said this is faerie Game of Thrones and I guess the analogy works to a degree, just don’t expect as much complexity. Still, the enjoyment factor was definitely there for me. I really loved reading as the power plays, plotting, and twists unfolded during the fey and Jude’s struggles for power. A lot of people were quite shocked by the sudden turns in the book, me not so much, but they’ve provided a great foundation to get excited about going into book two.

Writing

This has been a bit of a divisive one. World building aside, I quite like Black’s style and voice. It’s a little bit dark, a touch twisted, doesn’t dwell too much on imagery, and manages to come up with some great lines, particularly where they relate to Jude’s assessments of herself. A few examples:

“I have lied and I have betrayed and I have triumphed. If only there was someone to congratulate me.”

 “Desire is an odd thing. As soon as it’s sated, it transmutes. If we receive golden thread, we desire the golden needle.”

“That’s what comes of hungering for something: You forget to check if it’s rotten before you gobble it down.”

Reasons you May Not Enjoy this One:

Pacing & Direction

This is a book that takes a while to really get going. The first half revolves around Jude’s interactions with her family and the fey in her class, and her desire to try and prove herself at a tournament. For some people this’ll be too slow pace wise and worse, for a long time these events are going to seem unconnected and without any real purpose. By the end you’ll understand their importance in getting Jude and events to where they needed to be but until then it might put people slightly in struggle town.

Unlikeable or Just Plain ‘Eh’ Characters

TCP contains a lot of unlikeable characters without a balanced amount of loveable ones. While my perceptions of people improved over the course of the novel, I can safely say that while there were several characters I liked, there were none I loved and if they’d been killed off I probably would have just gone:

However, I can see why it might be the case in this kind of story where basically everyone’s motives are suspect.

Jude herself is also slightly difficult to relate to or like at times. While her strength and smarts are great, her arrogance, whining, and keenness to out awful the faeries, not so much.

“If I cannot be better than them, I will be so much worse.”

Additionally, a lot of her traits and skills are kind of just thrown at the reader without much development or explanation which makes bonding with her as a MC a bit difficult.

World Building

After reading the entire novel I still know very little about the world it’s set in – the inhabitants, the social hierarchy, usage of magic, interactions with the human world, war, the broader politics of Faerie, etc. It’s a bit like a puzzle where you can make out small details in the tiny sections you’ve completed but on the whole, you have no idea what the damn thing’s supposed to be yet. Is it a bird, is it a plane, no it’s….lack of proper world building. I get it, we all hate info dumping but a little more than general vagueness is always much appreciated.

Despite it’s flaws, I really enjoyed The Cruel Prince and raced through it in the space of about two days. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you go into it, ignore the hype, try to appreciate the book for what it is, and hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself. As for me, I’ll be over here, eagerly awaiting The Wicked King. *whistles*

4 stars

Read this one too? What were your thoughts?