The Skeleton Key is Tara Moss’s ninth novel and the third instalment in her Pandora English series. This is the first time I’ve read Tara Moss, and the reason for her widespread appeal was apparent to me from the opening scene. The Skeleton Key is an easy read: the sort of book you can fall through in a couple of sittings.

One of Moss’s greatest strengths is her ability to bring you up close to her distinctive, original characters. Funny, sassy, and yet also vulnerable, 19-year-old Pandora is a sharply drawn, believable character – one with whom you’ll feel an immediate connection.

All kinds of funky stuff are going down in her Great-Aunt Celia’s haunted digs in spooky Spektor, but Pandora makes the most of her otherwise very comfortable accommodation. The fact that she is staying rent-free and has access to Vlad, the silent but reliable undead chauffeur, also offsets the things that frequently go bump in the night at Number One Addams Avenue.

By day, Pandora works at Pandora mag in SoHo, alongside her goth pal, Morticia (yep – Vlad, Addams, Morticia – Moss has a lot of fun with monikers in this book and so will you.) Their boss, the mysterious Skye DeVille, keeps odd hours and refers managerial duties to her cool and officious deputy editor, Pepper.

As a foreboding Crow Moon looms over Manhattan, Pandora heads out for a night on the town with Lieutenant Luke, her dapper, otherworldly beau. When Luke smoke bombs in the middle of their enchanting evening, Pandora suspects foul play and returns to Spektor in search of clues.

Pandora is surrounded by an array of creepy and often deadly types (you’ll love the bitchy, savage supermodels, Blonde and Redhead, and the bleak widow Barrett, who endlessly roams the halls in her mourning dress when she’s not – um – hanging around).

Celia’s haunted mansion is a character in itself, with its trap doors, spectral inhabitants, and dark secrets. Fabulously fiendish Deus inhabits a casket in one of the mansion’s antechambers and speaks in strange riddles. One of the Sanguine (please don’t use the ‘V’ word), Deus is an unlikely ally upon whom Pandora is forced to depend.

Seventh in the Lucasta matrilineal line, Pandora in fact possesses arcane powers of her own. Handy, really, and she’s going to need all the help she can get when things turn super freaky. Throughout The Skeleton Key, Moss incorporates Gothic archetypes, myth, legend, and history, in an enormously enjoyable, escapist tale. It really is a lot of fun and I suspect that Moss had a great time weaving the various supernatural elements together.

At no point does the plot sag in this page-turning mystery. You don’t need to read the other Pandora English novels to enjoy The Skeleton Key, though it will whet readers’ appetites and you’ll likely want to track down the first two. Its December release date sees the latest Pandora English tale hitting shelves just as we’re looking for stocking fillers and it’s a great gift choice for fans of paranormal mysteries and fast, entertaining reads. With its vibrant characters, intriguing plot line, and healthy dose of wry humour, The Skeleton Key showcases Tara Moss’s command of her genre and apparently effortless ability to keep her readers on the hook until the very last word. Recommended.

Published by Pan Macmillan Australia, 1 Dec, 2012.

ISBN: 9781742611631

Paperback, 290 pages.



Blood Storm is the second instalment in Rhiannon Hart’s Lharmell series, which follows (Princess) Zeraphina of Amentia and her beloved animal companions, Leap and Griffin, in their ongoing campaign to defeat the Llharmellins and uncover more of Zeraphina’s mysterious past. By the conclusion of the first book, Blood Song, Zeraphina has aligned herself with Prince Amis of Pergamia’s best friend, the darkly enigmatic Rodden Lothskorn, in a victorious quest to defeat the Lharmellin leader. In book two, against the fantastic backdrop of various exotic and often forbidding lands, dark truths and curious yearnings continue to unfold.

Rodden and Zeraphina are bound by a secret that sometimes complicates their perilous mission. Along the way, their physical and mental endurance is tested as they battle for their lives against the Lharmellins and treacherous harmings, while constantly staving off their own deepening hunger – a hunger they must conceal at any cost. Meanwhile, Zeraphina’s unyielding mother, Queen Renata, is determined to see both her daughters married to princes of worthy kingdoms. Back in Pergamia, Zeraphina’s sister, Lilith, has accepted the hand of Prince Amis, and the focus is now shifting to her spirited younger sister who is turning seventeen and being pursued by the utterly loathsome Prince Folsum.

In Blood Storm, Hart’s world building really shines, too. Zeraphina and Rodden journey, via land, sea, and air, across a number of intriguing lands and we are introduced to various cultures and terrains with distinctive features. In Pol (Rodden’s home town) we meet the Jarmin — an exotic, gypsy-like tribe who embrace Zeraphina and Rodden with warmth and humour. Details about Jarmin life include folk tradition, clothing, language, and even craftsmanship, which contribute to interest and realism.

Hart also includes some lovely, innovative scenes where weapons are created for the final battle against the harmings. In a Pol glassblower’s shop, Zeraphina is mesmerised by an artisan and his apprentice as they demonstrate their craft for an audience. (Zeraphina will later discover that they are not just there to enjoy the show). Later in the novel, Rodden practises his chemistry skills (with some comical results) as he attempts to manufacture deadly Yelbar gas from Vitriol (‘the most important alchemical substance’).

Throughout both books, we are treated to scenes featuring Zeraphina working on her archery skills. Blood Storm sees her honing these, along with her equally crucial telepathic talents, including the ability to communicate with the formidable brants — their allies in the skies. The telepathic connection between Rodden and Zeraphina is a clever device Hart uses to successfully create ongoing tension and a sense of kinship and developing affection. And Zeraphine’s proficiency at mind control in the midst of harmings makes for some heart-stopping moments.

One of Blood Storm’s many pleasing themes is that of difference (royal/commoner, human/animal, human/harming). In each case, there’s a lesson to be learned about viewing the world from another standpoint. Through well-constructed interior monologue Hart creates an independent, resourceful, and sensitive character in Zeraphina. It’s very satisfying to see her passion and integrity matched by Rodden, who treats her with respect and kindness.

I particularly enjoyed the way the romance theme was handled: none of the cringe worthy love-at-first-sight stuff of fairytales; no swooning, cookie cutter damsel in distress. Instead, there is credible, simmering tension building between kindred spirits relying on each other in the face of danger (and the tension is further heightened by shocking revelations about Rodden’s past.)

You can easily enjoy Blood Storm without having read Blood Song, but I highly recommend that you get hold of both. The Lharmell series is entertaining, funny, smart, and full of adventure. And with the cliff hanger at the end of Blood Storm, you’ll most definitely want to get your hands on the third book.

Blood Storm– Rhiannon Hart (Lharmell book #2)

Random House, 1st August, 2012, paperback, pp. 364

ISBN: 978-1-74275-478-9



Paul Collins is a prominent figure in the Australian speculative fiction community. Co-editor of the highly successful Quentaris Chronicles, Collins is also a multi-award winning author and publisher. Mole Hunt is his latest book, the first of a trilogy centring on compelling anti-hero, Maximus Black. Eighteen-year-old Maximus is a star cadet with RIM (Regis Imperium Mentatis)—a galactic law agency. Ruthless, manipulative, and conniving, he is the ‘perfect psychopath’, slipping undetected through the treacherous streets and alleyways of Zetalon 6, hell-bent on revenge and galactic control.

The dystopian universe that Maximus inhabits is totally convincing and so deftly constructed by Collins that the reader might feel that it’s somewhere they’ve actually been—albeit an often unsavoury somewhere. Zetalon 6 has ‘four seasons: murky and clearing, twice a year’. Opportunists trade information, vicious mercenaries lurk in dingy bars, alleyways are infested with shady figures, and high-tech law enforcement procedures are implemented in a sometimes futile attempt to maintain law and order.

Just when you think things can’t become any more complicated, enter Anneke Longshadow: a real match for Collins’s anti-hero. Fiercely intelligent; physically powerful; damaged, but morally upright, Anneke acts as Maximus’s binary opposite. How refreshing to encounter a central female character who’s every bit as complex and resourceful as her male counterpart. Word has spread among RIM operatives that a mole has infiltrated the agency and Anneke is determined to root out the traitor. Max, filled with secrets and motivations of his own, finds himself inextricably connected to Anneke in a page-turning, pulse-quickening battle of wits, physical dominance, and exhilarating daring.

I just love spending time with these characters—it’s a rush to be caught on the precipice of their perilous situations, only to be rescued at the last minute by their ingenuity and lightning-fast reflexes. Thrilling plot aside, what I love most about Mole Hunt is the sheer joy of Collins’s inventiveness; the imaginary technology is amazing. And not all authors can pull this off. I’ve read many a book that overdoes this sort of thing until it becomes a distraction. Some sci-fi writers sacrifice characterisation in favour of technology; it’s to Collins’s credit that Mole Hunt has both. In spades! Directional locator bands, attractor field generators, anti-static suits, astrogation charts,  hover cars, e-paper—I couldn’t get enough of it.

It’s so much fun watching the tale unfold from the perspectives of these charismatic characters as they use every reserve of cunning and practicality to outmanoeuvre one another. Traps are set, tracks are traced, wits are sharpened, and bodies are pushed to the limit. And in this epic struggle, Collins asks us to consider questions of loyalty, morality, identity, and life choices.

There’s plenty to recommend about Mole Hunt. The trilogy is being pitched at a 12+ male audience, though I think its actual readership is far wider. Anyone who enjoys an action-packed sci-fi, with imaginative environments and gadgetry, an absorbing plot, and memorable characters will love this. Simply put, it’s enormously entertaining. Put Mole Hunt at the top of your reading list and be on the look out for book 2: Dyson’s Drop. I sure will be.

Mole Hunt trailer: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3S-eKDYqpEs

Mole Hunt – Paul Collins

Published, June 2011, by Ford Street Publishing

Paperback, 347 pages

ISBN: 9-781-921-665-2-64



Michael Pryor is a rare talent in the Young Adult literary field. Having published over twenty books and forty short stories, he’s also been nominated for a number of prestigious awards, including the Ditmar and the Aurealis. A versatile author, Pryor’s work ranges from literary fiction through to science fiction and humour. He writes for both Young Adult and younger readers. His most recent YA series, The Laws of Magic, comprises six books, the last of which he is currently working on. The penultimate book in the series, Moment of Truth, has just been released to critical acclaim.

I must confess that I hadn’t read Michael Pryor’s work before picking up this book and it’s testament to his talent that I’m now dying to devour his back catalogue. A thorough researcher and history buff, Pryor has injected this weighty novel with military accuracies and technical detail that bring to life his quasi-WWI setting. You get the impression, while reading Moment of Truth, that you’re receiving a subtle, yet comprehensive tuition, along with a wonderful tale of spies and battle on the world stage. And you are. In a recent interview, Pryor described his research as a two-stage process: a general investigation into the major events of the period (in this case, pre-World War I), including political, military, arts, scientific, and social development, and closer research into the reality of living in that period on a daily basis. This meticulous attention to detail lends Moment of Truth a uniquely enjoyable quality: concealed within the sheer escapism of this engrossing novel is a revelatory history lesson, which further heightens the realism of the story.

The novel’s well-rounded central character, Aubrey, is a serious-minded 15-year-old— one who inspires affection and admiration. I can imagine a male readership finding no problems in identifying with him as he confronts each new challenge with a mixture of intrepidity and caution. His loyalty, humility, and resourcefulness are equally as endearing as his weakness in the company of attractive young women. Should he risk the affection of his beloved Caroline for the uncertainty of the formidable, intelligent, and mysterious Sophie? For all his strategising and taking charge, Aubrey is, ultimately, an adolescent, with all the associated flaws and insecurities. It is in Aubrey’s exchanges with his friends and love interests that Pryor’s powers of observation and wit really shine.

In quaint and elegant language evocative of the time, Pryor sends his cast of military strategists, magic experts, politicians, and villains racing towards a climax that will stun and delight. When Aubrey and his secret espionage unit are engaged in a particularly tense moment of combat, his comrade George addresses him:

‘I thought so too, old man.’ George paused a moment and seemed to enjoy Aubrey’s

puzzlement. ‘You see, old man, I like to keep you on your toes. Sometimes, when I’m

supposed to give a compliant “What did you think?” response, I prefer to throw in a googly.’

Gorgeous!

The ingenuity, research, and humour Pryor brings to this delightful book can’t be praised highly enough: his inventiveness is endlessly entertaining; his detail is utterly delicious in its sure-handedness; his ability to draw a wry smile is matched only by his aptitude for expressing events of great gravity in language that is at once sensitive and evocative. The reader puts down this latest offering by Michael Pryor with a sense of great satisfaction, yet a nagging disappointment. After having been lost in such a well-told tale of magic and espionage, it is a wrench to leave Aubrey and his friends to return to the real world beyond the covers of this book. The good news is that The Laws of Magic Part 6 (Hour of Need) is set for release in 2011, so the wait for the final instalment of the series shouldn’t be too unbearable. More Young Adult novels need this depth and research. In a YA universe saturated with books of an increasingly superficial nature, it’s refreshing to discover a book as well-written and engaging as Michael Pryor’s Moment of Truth.

Moment of Truth – Michael Pryor

August 2nd 2010 by Random House Australia

Paperback, 428 pages

ISBN 9781741663099



If you’re a fan of romance and intrigue, you’ll love this novel by award-winning author, Rosemary Clement-Moore. Sylvie Davis, the main protagonist, is a self-assured, wise-cracking teen with a strong will and a sly wit. When her dream of becoming a world-famous ballerina ends after a disastrous stage fall, she is forced to reassess her life and shift her considerable focus elsewhere. In an effort to curtail a lapse into depression and substance abuse, she is sent to Alabama under the care of distant relatives. Her family believes that the change of scenery will be just what the doctor ordered.

Instead, Sylvie finds herself growing more perplexed; she meets two young men between whom her affections quickly become torn. There is the intelligent, brooding Welshman: Rhys, and the expansive, all-American boy: Shawn (whose mutual disdain becomes increasingly evident throughout her stay). To further add to Sylvie’s confusion, occurrences of a supernatural bent are starting to take place around her, causing her to question first her sanity and then her resolve. With only her beloved lapdog, Gigi, as a reliable companion throughout the unfolding mystery, Sylvie learns to follow her heart and trust her instincts.

Clement-Moore’s characterisation is top-notch: Sylvie is a memorable lead character, delightfully complex in her reactions and dialogue. Her romantic interests are equally appealing: mysterious Rhys is coolly charming and aloof; charismatic Shawn warms a room with his megawatt smile and easy company. Aside from its involving plot, the book’s strength lies in its utterly real observation of daily life — Clement-Moore has a real knack for describing the sometimes very awkward exchanges between her characters and the way they interact with their environment. If you’re looking for a fast, punchy read, this isn’t it. Instead, prepare to be slowly drawn into Sylvie’s psyche, and to watch family secrets and mysterious events unfold through her somewhat cynical eyes.  At 518 pages, it’s not a quick read, either; so, be prepared to commit to this substantial, cleverly-woven romantic mystery.

Splendour Falls – Clement-Moore

September 8th 2009 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers (2009)

Hardcover, 518 pages

ISBN

0385736908    (isbn13: 9780385736909)

literary awards

YALSA Best Fiction Nominee for Young Adults (2010)



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