Monday, December 23, 2013

My Best Books of 2013 (for me)

It's almost Christmas, which means it's almost New Year's, which means it's almost the end of my reading for this year. I thought it might be a nice way to round out the year by listing my top reads in order of, well, awesomeness.

Five Top Books of 2013.

1. The Fault in our Stars.
The Fault in Our Stars
From the minute I put this book down, I knew that nothing was very likely going to move this from the top of a list like this if I ended writing one. This was the first book I ever read from John Green. I found it at times hilariously witty and at others... challenging... (by which I mean I put it down for a week because I couldn't deal with ALL THE FEELS). I'm glad that I persevered, though. This book has stayed with me ever since I read it.

I make it a habit not reading the back of books before I've started reading them for myself. Several years back, I went through a period where I kept reading the blurbs and turning myself off reading a number of books before I even opened the first pages. 

What I knew about this book was that John Green had written it. I knew that I loved a lot of the quotes I was seeing of him from this and other books and I knew that a couple of my friends had picked up books from him and liked them. Oh, and I knew he was one of the Vlog brothers, which I suppose didn't really have much to do with my choice to read the book, as they are completely different mediums.

What I did not know about this book was that it's a "cancer book". 

For the full review:

2. Gentlemen and Players.
Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris
I've read other books by Joanne Harris before. None of them have come even close to touching me in the way that this book did.

In my experience with her books, I've come to learn that there is a place in the middle where the plot lags, or the characters irritate me, or something just slows down enough for me to put the book down and pick something else up before going back to it.

That point didn't happen in this book.

For the full review:

3. The Book Thief.
The Book Thief
I'm not usually a fan of stories told in a time of war. They usually tell too much about how awful things were without giving much in the way of either plot or characters.

Instead of being unrelentingly confronted by the atrocities that happened during this time, we are given glimpses into the life of Liesel Meminger - the book thief, as judged by Death, our narrator.

This is not just a 'war story'. Far from it. At times sad, at others uplifting, this book explores themes of family and belonging, loss that has nothing to do with the war, friendship, community and kindness. It shows a shared passion for books and stories and the power those stories can have for a wide range of people. 

For the full review:

4. Delirium.
Delirium (Delirium #1)
There have been a lot of different dystopian fictions to come out in the last couple of years. I've read them all and I can honestly say (as much as I enjoyed Insurgent particularly), Delirium was my very top favourite.

Delirium is set in a world vaguely similar to Hunger Games and Legend where the government has taken over and decided that certain changes must be made to the clumsy way life used to run. In this case, the change was to love and desire. It is discovered, more than sixty years before the beginning of this book, that love is in fact a disease, causing delusions, erratic behaviour and, in the end, death.

What is truly insightful about this book is that most of the arguments given early in the book are so hard to argue against. 

For the full review:

5. The Night Circus.
The Night Circus
This book is part young adult, part literary fiction, part mystery and all a very arresting book from an author I hadn't heard of before this.

I think that this novel is none of these things and perhaps all of them. That is the beauty of this kind of book. It's something that just kind of exceeds expectations.

Second person passages continue every so often throughout the book, giving the reader a sense of being one of the circus goers that eventually form a culture of their own within the story. From beginning to end, this story is breath-taking, whimsical, beautifully lyrical, evocative and a whole bunch of other adjectives I could fill the page with.

For the full review:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Widening the Scope Pt. 2: One of the best posts to come out of Tumblr

So, people may have noticed I've started using Tumblr again. It comes and goes ;) I wrote this post because I saw something on Tumblr a couple of months ago that I didn't simply want to disappear as so many things in Tumblr do.

Already this month, I've written about strength as it relates to characters who are male and female. Now I want to pay attention to a different kind of diversity and, dare I say it, one that is closer to my own heart.

When I was a teenage bisexual girl, I found that there were a lot of books that related my experiences with guys, but none that would give those strange and outlandish feelings I had for girls any credence. Oh, there was Sarah Waters and the book that the BBC mini-series brought out into the spotlight, Tipping the Velvet.

Tipping The Velvet
(Also Fingersmith and, to a lesser extent, The Night Watch.)

That was... kinda it. More commonly, there were starting to be books that would feature a side character, or best friend of the main character, who was gay. I think that Holly Black's Ironside was the first book I read where the gay side character featured in a romantic relationship of his own. 

Ironside (The Modern Faerie Tales, #3)
It's not a fun feeling when you pick up a book only to find that the characters that should be there for you to identify with, at least in some books, simply aren't there. 

Polyamory is the other minority that just doesn't get a lot of play in books though, I will freely add, that it has gotten better already since two years ago when I wrote this post.

I mean... people are actually talking about it now. O.o 

Which brings me to the Tumblr post that inspired this babbling:

Hi Sarah, I really appreciated your response on asexual representation and was curious about your thoughts on the lack of poly representation in YA lit. (read more)

What follows is a well considered question asking to the cultural attitudes that may still too much influence what can and can't be published in YA literature. 

What Sarah Rees Brennan did was reply with her own carefully considered responses, even going so far as to post, 

Here is a non-comprehensive but awesome list of YA books with LGBTQ and poly characters I found! (Linking to this one rather than the one at because it has a few indicators of favourite books and content, but is fantastic and amazing and everyone should read it!) ... So these are my (imperfect!) thoughts, summed up with I think it can be done, has been done, and I truly hope it will be done more.

Which even I didn't know about, so I'm more than happy to share about it here.

As if that wasn't all amazing enough, Melissa Marr weighed in with her own opinion:

"I’m always happy when folks comment on the poly resolutions in my Wicked Lovely books.  Yes, Radiant Shadows has a poly resolution.  So, too, does Darkest Mercy.  Sometimes the answer (in both life & fiction) is that what looks like a “love triangle” is actually NOT. Sometimes a person can have a healthy, happy relationship with two other people." (read more)

When people pull me up and ask me why I read so much YA fic, why I think it's so important: this. This is the answer to all those questions.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

New Release: Shelf Life, by Stephanie Lawton

Stephanie Lawton is an author I've had the pleasure of 'meeting' via a Twitter hashtag #NALit (New Adult Lit). She writes the kinds of books I would love to pen. And with each publisher she goes through, she unerringly seems to end up with some of the most winning, imaginative covers I've seen.

Want (Want, #1)ShrapnelNeed (Want, #2)

I'll admit, that when I first saw the cover for her latest release, Shelf Life, I thought we were in for a bit of a tamer read than what we'd seen before. 

In some ways, it is. Shelf Life isn't so much a romance as a year in the life of its main character. Pete. Not what I expected, but I like the way it built.

At its best points, this book had moments of Neil Gaiman and Francesca Lia Block. That's not to say this is a book with any magical elements. It's not. But the writing is descriptive, vivid. It gives you a sense of character, and solid views into the minds of the characters playing in the world.

The book culminates in this horrible storm that most of our main characters get stuck in. For this part of the book, there is not a page that is not fast paced or quick reading. Lindsey, our heroine, is portrayed as a bit of a brat in the early section of the book, but Stephanie brings her back into the fold with skill and empathy. Her return in the latter half of the book brings a comforting balance back to the book, though I often found myself wishing someone would pound on Lewis' door (Lindsey's brother and Pete's best friend) until he finally opened it.

The only character I couldn't find redeemable in the end was the character of Jay: the bully.

Shelf LifeThere were a couple of points I felt let the story down. It was a little bit slow to start, which can be forgiven, especially when the slowness was due to thorough world building. The slightly bigger point was that there felt like there was too much going one that was extraneous to the main plot. Characters were introduced and then dropped in favour for others and, though Pete thought of the friends that had come before, his university life felt like the opening to a separate book rather than a separate section in the same book of Pete's life. I found myself wanting to know more about Evan and Jenna. Instead, Jenna felt like a placeholder for Lindsey's return.

 There were also two scenes written from Jay's point of view in seemingly isolated parts of the otherwise first person narrative that I wasn't sure added the desired empathy for the character.Lastly, I thought the book might have benefited from a trigger warning for the event at the drunken party at the end of the first act. Otherwise, it was a thoroughly emotive book with many memorable characters, and a good edition to Stephanie's work.

To buy this release on Amazon:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

December Reading List 2013

It's very quickly warming up over here now that NaNo (November) is over. I didn't write anything else. Thinking of trying to get some more work done today if the heat doesn't end up frying my brain.

I can't even believe that this is the last month of 2013. And the last month this year I'll be putting together one of these reading lists. Crazy.

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An Ice Cold Grave
An Ice Cold Grave (Harper Connelly, #3)
I'm very much enjoying this series of books. Much better, in my opinion, than the Southern Vampire Mysteries series and without all the drama. This series is only four books long, so I'll be finishing it next month.

Magic Bleeds
Magic Bleeds (Kate Daniels, #4)
Getting through this series at a rate of knots because I'm reading it with some big fans of the series. After last month's book, however, I don't even mind. This book is going from strength to strength, just like Jim Butcher's Dresden books, and just like I was promised they would! People picking up this series: It's a slow burn, but it's worth it.

Dime Store Magic.
Dime Store Magic (Women of the Otherworld, #3)
Just when you think I'd be done with paranormal fiction for this month, I pull out this old favourite. Kelley Armstrong's Bitten is being made into a TV series starting out in January. I've read most of the books that the series is going to be based from but, sadly, I've never actually finished this one. So, into the pile for this month it goes!

Next on my list is Neil Gaiman!! After the huge success that was reading through The Ocean at the End of the Lane two months ago, I've been looking forward to reading this one with a group with baited breath. Not to mention, this is the book that the radio play read by Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Dormer, James McAvoy and others was based from. :D:D

The Lives of Christopher Chant
.The Lives of Christopher Chant (Chrestomanci, #4)
This just wouldn't be a month of my reading if I didn't go in for some Young Adult fiction. I absolutely loved my introduction to Diana Wynne Jones last month when reading Charmed Life and so I figure this book will be one of the first that I pick up to follow that up with this month. These books are fantastic, even for adults readers who haven't read them before and so don't have the nostalgic value of their first time reading it.

Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)
This is another book I'll be reading along with my group on Goodreads this month. I've never read anything that wasn't a Wheel of Time book from Brandon Sanderson before--even though I previously worked in a science fiction and fantasy book shop--and I've been told that this is something that needs fixing right away. Therefore, this is a book on my list for the month.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

MelbNano: 2013 Completed.

Many of you will remember that I was a fairly last minute joiner of this year's NaNo race. Yesterday, I finished the 50,000 words in 30 days, over two different novels and with two more novel ideas jumping up and ready to go. There's a part of me that is exhausted and done with writing (I wrote the 39,000 words in the lead up to the actual NaNo month...). That part of me is saying, 'Yeah, Nikki, just take the rest of the month off! Start writing again in December.'

I'll let you know how that goes ;)

I stopped actually "doing" NaNo for the last couple of years cause I hadn't managed to finish one for a while before that. I think the closest I managed recently was about 48,000 words. I hated that story by the end of it and couldn't pallet sitting down to pen even another 2k words. This year was different. Not only did I start the month halfway through a novel, and therefore get a refresher novel partway through, I loved what I was writing, almost the whole way through.

As well as that, I discovered this year all the write-in events happening around Melbourne, and attended many of them myself. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon thinking back fondly particularly to the Night of Manuscripting Madly held in South Melbourne at Complete Post.

I remember explaining this night to my mum beforehand.

Me: I'm going to an all night writing sleepover.
Mum: Do you know the other people who are going?
Me: Some.
Mum: .... Is there going to be drinking?
Me: .... No? But there'll be more than enough sugar and caffeine to keep us going!

And there was :D

I also managed to score my very own poster from the raffle that happened at about midnight.

So, a great big thank you to our organiser of all things NaNo-y, @notalwaysthere, and all the new friends I made who motivated me and kept me writing madly this month. It's been fun.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

I just saw Hunger Games: Catching Fire last night. It was my favourite of all three books so, as you can imagine, I was incredibly excited to see it.

There we were, sitting there, eating popcorn and waiting for the movie to start when the most exciting thing happened.

"See the story in a way the movie doesn't show: From inside her head."

The movie ads before the movie proper were encouraging viewers to read the books after the movie..

Hot damn, I don't know who was in charge of that marketing campaign (I also don't know why this hasn't been implemented from the start of Harry Potter) but I want to see more of these guys' work!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Widening the Scope Pt. 1: The Strength in Our Characters.

"The problem with strong women is..."

There isn't one. Obviously.

And yet, isn't it strange that this keeps on being something that people ask? Why do people write such strong female characters. You don't hear a lot of people wandering around asking themselves why do people write strong men. Or just... strong "characters".

I can't even believe that it was seven years ago that Joss Whedon got up to accept an award from Equality Now (but YouTube assures me it is so) wherein he made one of his most famous, and one of my favourite, speeches on why he keeps on writing strong women characters.

(You have to skip to about 2 minutes in to get to Joss' appearance.)

It's still a subject that's raised today. From online polls on the "Best Strong Female Fantasy Novels" to writer's panels in the Melbourne Writer's Festival that analyse the same subject. It's pervasive. 

I was going to write up a blog post that listed my favourite books with strong women from the titles I have read this year, but I decided... no. Instead, I want to dedicate a quick post on the top bunch of novels I've read recently with strong characters of both genders.

Strength comes in a lot of different forms. Physical strength, of course, is often given over to men, but there are a couple of books I would like to point out where mental aptitude is shown to be as important. 

In these three novels, we see characters Harry Dresden, Atticus O'Sullivan and Emma Brannon tested with magical skills and mental fortitude that often taxes them. These are the heroes of fantasy novels, the good that fights against evil. 

But not all novels are fantasy. 

Both main characters in The Fault in Our Stars show remarkable strengths of characters against the hands that were dealt to them. Both dealing with cancer and also dealing with a loved one who has cancer, these characters are strong, often humorous and continually in search of their dreams. 

I read the conclusion to Cassandra Clare's Infernal Devices a couple of months ago and what struck me and stayed with me was the strength of integrity and love that the two main male characters of this series showed not only towards the female love interest, but to each other. A lot of the time, women in teen fiction get slammed for their doe eyed responses to the men in their lives, but what I think made the love triangle in these novels so compelling was the fact that Jem and Will loved each other. They had a pre-existing bond that they would not lightly place anyone else above, for all that they came to esteem and love Tessa highly.