#LoveOzYA : Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact

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I’ve been waiting excitedly for a year for this, the second book in Alison Goodman’s historical, fantasy, ass-kicking, demon-slaying Dark Days Club series to drop and thanks to HarperCollins Australia, I finally got my grabby paws on a copy of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact.  In case you haven’t come across this series before, we boldly claimed it as a Top Book of 2016 on January 1st last year, for its extraordinary blend of meticulously researched historical content and original and creepy paranormal elements.

If you haven’t read the first book, you really need to do that now.  Go on, we’ll wait.

The second book serves up more of the same delightful Deceiver destruction and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The second novel in the thrilling LADY HELEN series sees Helen following orders that could bring about betrayal and annihilation. 

Summer, 1812

After the scandalous events at her presentation ball in London, Lady Helen has taken refuge at the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where she is training to be a Reclaimer with the covert Dark Days Club.

As she struggles to put aside her genteel upbringing and take up the weapons of a warrior, Helen realizes that her mentor, Lord Carlston, is fighting his own inner battle. Has the foul Deceiver energy poisoned his soul, or is something else driving him towards violent bouts of madness? Either way, Helen is desperate to help the man with whom she shares a deep but forbidden connection.

When Mr Pike, the hard bureaucratic heart of the Dark Days Club, arrives in Brighton, no one is prepared for the ordinary evil he brings in his wake. He has a secret task for Helen and Mr Hammond, and the authority of the Prince Regent. They have no choice but to do as he orders, knowing that the mission will betray everyone around them and possibly bring about Lord Carlston’s annihilation.

Society takes a back seat in this second offering as Helen’s Reclaimer training begins in earnest.  Almost immediately though, spanners are thrown in the works as the Duke of Selburn appears in Brighton on a not-very-subtle reconnaissance mission on behalf of Helen’s older brother, while the man in charge of the Reclaimers, Mr Pike, turns up unexpectedly and changes the course of Helen’s loyalties irrevocably.  We also see a return of Delia, Helen’s much-maligned friend, and Pug, who provides equal parts wingwoman and comic relief.

The tone of this book is one of underlying disquiet as events seem to conspire against Helen and her band of Reclaimer friends at every turn.  Helen is forced to make decisions on the fly, the consequences of which could end up endangering people she loves, no matter which course she chooses.  Essentially, this book is Helen’s coming-of-age in the Reclaimer world. No longer is she a young lady to be protected and promenaded; Helen must now take her place as an active Reclaimer or risk her own life and the lives of those she loves.  The events of the story do a great deal to advance the world-building and “rules” surrounding the bond between Deceivers and Reclaimers and as such, there is a lot of new information for readers to absorb and join the dots around.

Action is portioned out throughout the story, with subterfuge, underhanded deals and espionage more the order of the day, although the final few chapters certainly make up for any lack of chase, escape and derring-do that might be lacking in the earlier parts of the story.  There are some important reveals in this story that will absolutely change Helen’s role in the Dark Days Club as well as her role in life generally.  Other parts of the story will make your skin crawl and the “ick” factor is certainly in play where particular characters of ill-repute are concerned.  For the romance fans, you can cut the sexual tension between Carlston and Lady Helen with a knife (and between another pairing that you might not expect!)  but for readers shipping that particular couple, it should be noted that the course of true love never runs smooth, particularly where demon-slaying is involved.

Once again, this is a hugely entertaining story with meticulous attention to detail for the time period and innovative fantasy elements from a strong voice in Australian YA fiction.  If you are a fan of either historical fiction or fantasy, you really are missing out if you haven’t added Lady Helen’s adventures to your nightstand reading pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Mondays are for Murder: Beloved Poison..

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I honestly didn’t think we’d get a Murderous Monday in this month.  Things were looking a bit shaky – time was running out, I’d had a crack at two separate candidates and found them lacking – but then along comes Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson, kindly provided by Hachette Australia for review, and all of a sudden we have a dark, stench-laden, historical, medical, gender-bending murder mystery on our claws.  Brilliant!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour’s Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.

Six tiny coffins are uncovered, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary’s old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgottenpast – with fatal consequences.

In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate and the gallows, Jem’s adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour’s destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. Murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

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Plot Summary:

Jem Flockhart is a young woman pretending to be a young man, working in the apothecary of (architecturally) condemned hospital St Saviour’s, under the guidance of her father and a host of unsavoury medical men.  When Will Quartermain rolls up as the man in charge of overseeing the relocation of interred residents of St Saviour’s graveyard, prior to the hospitals’ demolition, Jem is annoyed at having to share her sleeping quarters and worried that personal secrets may come to light.  While showing Will around the hospital chapel, Jem unknowingly unearths some strange, disturbing relics that will set off a chain of events that threaten nearly everyone Jem holds dear.  One murder follows another and unless Jem and Will can make some links between the past and the present, Jem may well end up accused of the crimes and facing the gallows.

The Usual Suspects:

Pretty much everyone who works at St Saviour’s hospital is a suspect in this unusual murder mystery.  The main doctors, Magorian, Catchpole and Graves, all have motives and shady pasts; the wives and daughter of two of the doctors may well have their own reasons to commit murder; and there are servants, prostitutes and street urchins who could all have played a part.  Given that this is a historical fiction with certain darkish overtones, nobody is entirely blameless of wrong-doing of one sort or another and most of the characters are hiding some sort of secret they’d prefer was kept from the public.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is a bit of an unusual pursuit, given that the first murder doesn’t happen until quite a way into the book.  Before that, the focus is more on figuring out the meaning behind the strange relics that Will and Jem discover.  Once the first murder occurs though, people start dropping like flies and the hunt is on in earnest.  It’s tricky to pinpoint the killer/s ahead of time though, because salient information is drip-fed throughout and relationships between characters are all important in unravelling the mystery.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the steady drip, drip, drip of an alchemist’s retort

If you love a good murder mystery format but are looking for something with a sinister twist and more secrets than you could poke a rag-covered stick at, then I definitely recommend picking up Beloved Poison.  There is so much more going on here than in your typical murder mystery that it actually took me a while to figure out that this was actually going to involve hunting for a murderer.  There’s cross-dressing, graveyard excavation, limb amputations, lady almoners, poisons and potions, degenerative diseases, executions, bizarre rituals, mental asylums, prostitutes, ghostly presences and surgery practiced without regard for cleanliness and hygiene.

If I had to boil this one down though, I’d say that it was about secrets and masks.  We find out early on that Jem is playing a gender-swapping role for reasons that are fleshed out (although not, in my opinion, entirely believable) as the story unfolds, and is assisted in this by a large facial birthmark.  Jem’s father has some secrets of his own, not least of which relating to the death of Jem’s mother in childbirth.  The doctors of the hospital are all playing their own agendas, and each have habits, mannerisms and methods of working that are decidedly unpalatable, and their wives and lovers are just as bad.

The best thing about this book is the pervading atmosphere of bleakness and unrelenting gloom that Thomson has set up.  The historical aspects are faithfully recreated and some of the medical details described in stomach-churning detail.  While the atmosphere is thick with a pervasive miasma of sinister goings-on, the book itself isn’t a depressing read.  Jem and Will, and even apprentice apothecary Gabriel and servant Mrs Speedicut, inject a certain sense of fervour and hope that provides a neat counterpoint to their unsavoury surroundings.  Even if you don’t pick this one up for the murder mystery aspect there is plenty to uncover as you peel back the mud-encrusted layers of the lives of St Saviour’s residents.

I was also happy to see that this appears to be a standalone novel.  After all the shocks and “blergh” moments in this one, I don’t think I could stomach a second foray into London’s stinky historical underbelly any time soon!

I am also submitting this one for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

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You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A YA Coming-of-Age Tale with a Beardy Twist: Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf…

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Let it never be said that I don’t give you something different every now and again, because today I have for you a YA fantasy tale that has bearded ladies, high stakes movie action, family drama and extreme sport all wrapped up in a charming little package.  Behold, Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, book one in the Ballad of Mabel Goldenaxe series by Sherry Peters!

Mabel has just been accepted for work in the mines of Gilliam and is now of age to begin looking for a mate and think about settling down to a life of mining and dwarflings.  Unfortunately for Mabel, she’s thin (a liability in Dwarf culture), her beard would need extensions to be considered thick and full, and for all intents and purposes, she would rather be throwing axes with her axe-throwing-champion older brother Mikey, than down the pub trying to win the affections of her male counterparts.  If that weren’t bad enough, Mabel’s best friend Emma seems to attract men like flies to fly paper and if Mabel doesn’t start pulling in the suitors soon, her Da may step in to do the work for her.  As Mabel tries to be true to herself, she is constantly being challenged by unexpected events – secrets about her absent mother seem to impact on her search for a mate in ways Mabel doesn’t understand, and Emma is behaving in an increasingly unfriendly way.  Just when Mabel thinks that things are becoming too much for one dwarf to bear, an opportunity arises that will force Mabel to choose between being her true self and doing what’s expected.

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Read it if:

*you can’t go past a book with a strong, bearded female protagonist

* you believe that dwarven culture consists of nothing more than digging and drinking

* you’ve ever felt the expectations of a family legacy weighing down upon you like a rocky bed full of emeralds

* you prefer when the common themes of coming-of-age in YA fiction are played out against a backdrop of ale drinking, axe-throwing and the ever-present chip-chip-chip of a community of (mostly) happy miners

I really enjoyed this book while I was reading it – Mabel is an engaging character and the world-building and cultural aspects of Dwarven life were well-developed and added a genuine feel to the overall plot. Peters has played this pretty straight – it’s not a satirical or humorous take on the fantasy genre, but a proper tale of working out one’s identity where the lead character just happens to be a Dwarf.  It was refreshing to experience familiar YA themes in such a different context and the author has done a wonderful job of keeping Mabel’s experiences authentic in a fantasy setting.

The plot moves from episode to episode in Mabel’s life, forcing her to learn new things about herself as she overcomes various challenges that pop up along the way. The ending is nicely hopeful, with the way left wide open for happenings in following books in the series, but readers could be equally satisfied with the ending were they planning to read this as a standalone. So lots of good things to enjoy about the book.

There were a couple of things about this book that either puzzled or irritated me though.  For starters, the title is a bit….bland.  Admittedly, I can’t think of a better one so I really shouldn’t criticise, but after having read the book it seems that there’s so much more to Mabel (and the plot) than just being lovelorn, as well as the fact that Mabel spends a lot of her time not that bothered about how quickly she finds a mate that the title feels to me like it doesn’t quite fit.  A personal qualm, no doubt, but one that irritated me disproportionately to my enjoyment of the book.

Also, I found this book to have a lot of (in my opinion) rambling that slowed down the forward momentum of the plot. Many of Mabel’s thought processes were repetitious both within each particular section of the plot and across different sections. There seemed to be a lot of time spent just going about her everyday business, with not much happening to move the plot forward. I really felt that this book could have done with some serious editing, to chop out the long descriptions of day-to-day existence and overabundance of introspection on Mabel’s part and just let her actions speak for themselves.

As I said though, I really did enjoy this novel – particularly the sections that turn elf and dwarf relations on their head and the theme of gender image that runs throughout as Mabel struggles to fit in as a Dwarven woman when she doesn’t have the right “look” or ambitions. This is that special kind of YA novel that would appeal to a much wider audience than just the typical, targeted age group and lovers of the fantasy genre will find lots to like and plenty of new twists on the expected reading experience.

If you’re looking for a coming-of-age YA novel with a fun, well-imagined fantasy twist then Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf could be the book for you.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Graphic Memoir GSQ Review: Tomboy…

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Welcome once again to a Good, Sad and Quirky review.  Today I have a memoir in graphic novel format that relates the tale of one Liz Prince, a girl who struggles to fit into the pre-packaged image of how a girl should look and how a girl should behave.  It’s a fantastically engaging book and one that may well become essential reading for anyone who feels that their biological attributes don’t match with society’s expectations as to how those attributes should be deployed.

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Tomboy is the story of Liz Prince – it chronicles the difficulties and triumphs she experiences from childhood into young adulthood and beyond, in identifying as a “tomboy”.  Liz likes baseball, superheroes and action figures, and feels most comfortable in jeans, a t shirt and her favourite cap.  She’s happy like this.  For her it is not a problem, it just is.  Imagine her surprise then, on discovering that the people around her, from her own siblings, to her classmates, to her teachers and coaches, seem to find this disconcerting in the extreme.  Tomboy covers the bullying that Liz experiences due to her boyish appearance, the difficulties in making and keeping friends that goes hand in hand with being visually different to one’s peers and the emerging problems that Liz encounters when trying to get to know boys in a romantic way while looking like a boy herself.  Tomboy is an important and emininently readable piece of work that speaks clearly to one girl’s struggle to figure out what exactly it is that makes a girl and where she fits on the spectrum of womanhood.

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Wow. Don’t be fooled by the cartoony style of the artwork, this is a book that packs an ideological and personal punch.  Before even a third of the way through the book, Mad Martha was nodding and tearing up, so close to home were the situations and emotions presented here by Liz.  The book follows a a chronological order, opening on a scene in which four-year-old Liz is screaming in an attempt to stop her mother from putting her in a dress.  From there we move on with Liz into her years in primary school and on towards middle and high school, by which point being the only comfortable tomboy in a crowd of pubescent teens becomes quite a challenge indeed.  The book finishes with Liz finding some stable ground as an adult in accepting how she is and how she wants to be and discovering that there is a community in which she can be socially accepted.

The art, as I mentioned, is in the traditional cartoon style and is both easy on the eye and perfect for conveying the humour underlying many of the situations Liz finds herself in.  See for yourself:

There’s plenty in the storyline that is though-provoking and touching and challenging, but there’s also a lot here that will be very familiar to anyone who’s beyond the age of 15, whether they had trouble fitting in with peers or otherwise.  In one sense, Liz is telling the story of any-teen in the struggles she has in making friends and finding her place and her passions, but over the top of that is her specific story of gender-image, which will also strike a chord with many teens, wherever they fall on the spectrum of appearing to be socially-acceptable.

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The only problem I had with this graphic novel is that I felt the pace started to drag a bit during the high school section of the memoir.  By that stage the issues that Liz was struggling with – particularly in terms of finding a romantic partner – had already been raised and the narrative seemed to get bogged down a little at this point.  That’s just my personal interpretation though, and I’m sure others will think differently.

There are also a few instances of swearing and “adult situations”, so if you’re not into that, steer clear.

Otherwise…I got nothing.  I really enjoyed Prince’s style in both artwork and written word.

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Two parts of this memoir really stood out to me as being original, in the sense that I hadn’t encountered them in fiction before.  (I realise that this is technically factual, in that it actually happened, but it’s a subjective retelling and presentation of a particular person, and in that sense, it reads like fiction).  The first was the very clearly outlined difficulties that Liz encounters as a heterosexual female whose personal fashion preference is decidedly masculine.  I haven’t encountered this in any YA before and I think it provided a real sense of depth to the story.  It got me thinking about how personal presentation and sexual preference are linked in our minds…if we see a woman dressed in man’s clothing, do we automatically assume she is a lesbian? If so, why?  How does this affect young people as their identity is emerging in the teen years – do they feel pressure to conform to gender image expectations and how does this affect them psychologically if they do conform or if they don’t?  These are things that I am still pondering and it was wonderful to see these presented realistically for a YA and new adult audience.

The second thing that jumped out in this particular memoir was Liz’s personal dislike (bordering on gut-wrenching hatred) of anything considered to be “girly”.  This was articulated fantastically throughout the memoir, and resolved somewhat in the latter part of the story as Liz begins to separate the idea or image of “girliness” being bad from the idea that being a girl (or a woman) is bad.  This part of the story raises some great questions about attitudes in wider society about females and femininity and the worth that is placed on boys’ activities (and therefore, boys) as opposed to girls’ activities (and therefore, girls).  While I’ve definitely come across these arguments in reading on feminism that I have eagerly devoured in the past, it was refreshing to see it presented in situ, as it were, as it unfolded in Prince’s life and development.

My overall take on the book?

A must-read, must-discuss, must-unpack book for anyone working with young people or anyone who has any interest in gender stereotyping.  And anyone who likes a good graphic memoir, really 😉

I realise I’ve blabbed on a bit here, but this really is one of those rare books that comes along and touches a nerve, inspires important discussions, and makes one cling all the more defiantly to one’s favourite, comfy, non-fashion-forward hat.

Tomboy is due for release on September 28th from Zest Books and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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