Nix_newtIn a departure from his usual style, multi award-winning science fiction and fantasy author, Garth Nix, has penned a brisk and playful regency romance in Newt’s Emerald. When a precious family heirloom, the Newington Emerald, is stolen, young Lady Truthful Newington determines to set off in pursuit of the culprit. This chase will take her to London, where she must assume the guise of a young French nobleman in order to discover further clues to aid her in unravelling the mystery. With the help of a wonderfully drawn great aunt, Lady Badgery, Truthful finds herself enmeshed in a world of rogues, dashing gentlemen, high society, and dastardly sorcery.

Fittingly, Nix has peppered this romantic comedy of errors and intrigue with a substantial and clever sprinkling of the highbrow vocab of yesteryear. I, for one, learned a range of historical terms and turns of phrase, and Nix even helpfully includes a glossary of terms at the back of the book. It comes as no surprise to find that he cites Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Patrick O’Brien as influences, having discovered their work as a teen. Newt’s Emerald, in fact, is the final incarnation of a manuscript Nix had first started writing all the way back in 1990.

And it’s good news for his readership that he returned to that earlier manuscript and crafted it into this rollicking, entertaining story. As a central character, Truthful is charming and vivid, and is possessed of a lively wit and impressive independence, despite her tender age. When she encounters the dashing and courageous Major Hartnett (‘of his Britannic Majesty’s Ninety-Fifth Regiment of Rifles’, no less), you bet you’ll be hoping for sparks to start flying. But Nix cleverly weaves the romantic element in with the fantasy and adventure – this isn’t your run-of-the-mill, teen romance. There are conniving characters to outwit, sleights of hand to perform, and a number of surprises that will delight you as they are revealed.

Although I loved earnest and principled Truthful, determined Hartnett, and even the evil sorceress, it was Lady Badgery who really stole my heart – a dry, acerbic, yet wise woman who suffers no fools and does whatever it takes to protect her great-niece, however frustrating that task sometimes proves to be. An eccentric character, she gads about dressed in robes and a favourite fez – sleeping when it suits her and dispensing with any censorship in her often caustic exchanges with visitors who irritate her. Essentially, she’s that unabashedly dotty, unapologetic old great aunt we all secretly hope to become one day.

Newt’s Emerald is a light-hearted, easy-to-read little jewel of a book and one which is sure to lift your spirits with its delightful characters and sense of downright fun. Grab a copy, settle in, and lose yourself in the ornate prose, exciting adventure, and, of course, romance.

Paperback, 232 pages

Published August 23rd 2015 by Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781760112653.

bec2012_TNBec Stafford’s review is courtesy The Spotlight Report


MeAndEarlAndTheDyingGirlPoster (1)Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an offbeat, yet moving, tale of friendship and loyalty. Greg is a nerdy teen who, with his best mate, Earl, spends his time making short films based on cinema classics. Greg generally does his best to steer clear of the school’s complex social web, instead preferring to spend his lunch hours in a favourite teacher’s office with Earl, where they watch their favourite directors’ films. One afternoon, Greg is approached by his mother, who tells him the sad news that one of his schoolmates, Rachel, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Furthermore, his mother insists that he reach out to Rachel and offer her companionship throughout her difficult time.

Based on Jesse Andrew’s popular novel of the same name, this film is by turns funny, sombre, touching, and uplifting. Told from Greg’s perspective, the melancholic moments are tempered by a teenage boy’s tendency to confront sentimentality with humour when faced with challenging subjects.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has added some playful, creative elements to an otherwise often heartbreaking tale. The well-selected cast is a delight. Thomas Mann (Project X) imbues Greg with just the right balance of idiosyncratic charm and introspection. As his buddy Earl, Ronald Cyler II turns in a strong performance demonstrating impressive comedy chops and onscreen charisma. As Rachel, Olivia Cooke delivers an understated, nuanced performance, which adds authenticity and emotional depth to the mix. Some of the other cast members will be familiar to movie goers: Molly Shannon is excellent in the role of Rachel’s mother and Nick Offerman is a hoot as Greg’s eccentric father.

It’s not surprising to learn that the movie was a hit at Sundance, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl makes for a moving, humorous, and relatable experience — one which will be appreciated by teens and adults alike.

Card_ ward againstYA fantasy author, Melanie Card, has delivered another winner. Ward against Disaster is the third instalment in her Chronicles of a Reluctant Necromancer series, released by Entangled Publishing. With the beautiful but dangerous Celia Carlyle at his side, Ward de’Ath is on the trail of a deadly soul-eater: the vesperetti, Allette. Assisted by a Tracker, Nazarius de’Serra, they are determined to put an end to the ongoing slaughter of innocents. Ward’s fearless allies follow him into Dulthyne, a town ensnared by dark blood magic, in which they face a series of challenging episodes with dark foe.

Throughout the novel, there are a number of fantastic combat scenes that make for a page-turning experience. The action is written convincingly and with great skill – the fights ring true, the desperation feels real, and the characters’ strength of will leaps off the page. A necromancer and physician, Ward makes for an intriguing, altruistic central character, and his magical connection to former assassin, Celia (who is also undead) inspires conflicting feelings in them both and increases the intensity of their respective spiritual and emotional journeys. Nazarius, on the other hand, has some secrets and, possibly, another agenda. Can he be depended upon as a trusted friend?

Card is a masterful world-builder: Dulthyne is a treacherous, sinister place that you’ll feel you’ve actually visited. With its citadels, mysterious passageways, and sparkling witchstone constructions, it heaves with darkness and secrecy. Card has also developed a rich, believable history for both her multi-layered, introspective characters, and the world they inhabit. Secret cults, ancient myths, and old magic combine to create a sense of depth and history.

We are left with a tantalising cliff-hanger which will whet readers’ appetites for the next book. If you’re new to this series, I do recommend starting with the first book, Ward against Death, only because it’s such a satisfying experience to follow Ward and Celia from their beginnings. Ward against Disaster can definitely stand alone as a brilliant, fast-paced, and twist-ridden read. Fans of Kristin Cashore and Sarah J Maas will love this compelling fantasy series and its memorable cast of characters. Recommended.

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

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