Saturday, January 28, 2017

Movie Review: Raees (Hindi)

Here's a fact: I removed SRK from that pantheon inside my mind a few years back. Since he cannot stop doing that grand-romantic-gesture of his, hands stretched out, upper body bent at the waist with that stupid cocky dimpled grin on his face never wiped off. They kept saying he should learn to play his age and take a leaf out of Aamir Khan's book, maybe play a 'real' character instead of the same old superstar version of himself in every romantic movie. Even Salman Khan has learnt to take a beating ('Sultan') and toned himself down, not playing the Bhai, even trying to emote a bit.



So maybe this one's a start; for the legions of disappointed SRK 'fans' to get back to cheering. I truly sat up and was pleasantly surprised at this 'transformed' SRK; Shah Rukh gets his teeth right into the meat of this titular character of Raees, a small-time bootlegger in Gujarat where liquor is of course prohibited, in his latest movie, directed by Rahul Dholakia produced by, among others Farhan Akhtar who had given Shah Rukh some of his biggest movies, like Don. 

I don't know if Raees is going to reverse his fortunes but I truly believe that maybe, it's a start. We wrote off 'Fan' when SRK tried playing the double-role, an obsessive fan turning on his god-like idol but the story wasn't anything new. Too little, tool late. But even here, with this movie Raees, I don't think it's the story that matters. The rise of the small-time goon into the dreaded gangster who rules an empire, isn't new. But in fact, what is novel is the treatment of an SRK movie; at least in the first half where the narrative is real taut and the mood is grim and somber, befitting a rags-to-riches story. The movie is like a tribute to the Salim-Javed movies of the 70's-80's where every other dialogue leads to a wolf-whistle and the action keeps you on tenterhooks, replete with the Helen-item song ( this time, it's of course Sunny Leone grooving to sounds of Laila main Laila) 



Shah Rukh, with his retro-glasses and the kohl-lined eyes and the flowing pathani kurta exudes a ferocious leonine charm in the initial half - where his zeal to business, his shrewdness and daring wins him money and respect not just from his Fatehpur district but the movie audience who lionize his every fiery dialog and gritty and bloody action scenes. But the religious imagery worn on his sleeve, comes off a bit too strong by the second half where his manly charm and ferocity is overshadowed by his robin-hood act and this wish to 'do-good', making sure that he doesn't do the 'business of religion'. So it's a bit of the stretch of imagination, even for the die-hard but intelligent audience when he travels all the way to Mumbai one evening, to finish off the Muslim gangster and his sharp-shooter henchmen for having brought in RDX to set off bombs in his country. 

The second half drags but the one bright spot about the entire movie, is Nawazuddin Siddque. This powerhouse of a talent, proves that he can stand his own to the superstar charm of even Mr. SRK. His charming one-liners, witty repartees and the honest cop act who doesn't hesitate to bring down the mightiest of the criminals, is an absolute treat. I would say, if not to watch Shah Rukh try and redeem himself (at least in some parts of the movie) you should go watch Raees for Siddique’s brilliance. The scene crackles with energy, wit and anticipation whenever he steps up and his run-ins with SRK's bootlegger character is definitely paisa-vasool. We only wish there were more. The chutzpah and the unerring confidence is his style-signature that wins hearts and more. Oh and yeah, there is a heroine in the movie. I think her name ends in a Khan as well. But I clearly don't remember what her role was. Other than be in the songs (Uddi, Uddi and Zaalima are eminently hummable. Laila of course was a riot!) 

Atul Kulkarni, Jaideep Ahlawat and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub play their own meaningful roles besides the main two guys but I think, what Raees does very well, is to bring alive the small-town setting of Gujarat. Yes, it's an unabashed out and out commercial potboiler of a movie and doesn't do enough justice to the serious issues it plays footsie with - Hindu-muslim divide, the resultant riots and prohibition curfew etc. It probably shoots itself in the foot, trying to be a star-vehicle in the second half, Shah Rukh's initial swagger giving away to the angry, incessant hamming about 'Dhanda is Dharam' and we do feel a bit weary at the end, happy to see the predictable end of a gangster who lives violently. 

But all said and done, I personally felt this was a high for Shah Rukh Khan and pray that the movie does well enough for him to pick and choose, more 'character' roles of a similar fashion and not fall prey to his own larger-than-life stature. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dreadnought (Nemesis#1) by April Daniels

I haven't read a super-hero theme book in a while - (Note to myself: Need to speed up, finish the Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson, I have only read Steelheart.) and so when I read the excerpt, first chapters of Dreadnought by April Daniels, I just couldn't resist my trigger-happy finger from requesting a copy. And Baaam! < comic-book style large-sized fist slamming into you!> I am floored!


This book is a sensitive and intelligent portrayal of a superhero origin story - heavily exploring themes of LGBT in a manner that is at once, refreshing and original from the point of view of a fifteen-year. Daniel(le) Tozer, is a trans-gender and has always wanted to be a girl but has never had the courage to come out of the closet. Instead resorts to hiding behind parking-garage walls to indulge in something simple yet guilty, like painting toe-nails. But that's when the world's greatest superhero, Dreadnought drops dead from the sky and in a bizarre and shocking turn of events, transfers the mantle and powers to her. And its not just the super-powers that she inherits. But the body she always wanted, that of a girl.

Rapturous with joy and yet, guilty as hell - Danny's world is suddenly turned upside down and she realizes she isn't ready to handle this change. Nor is the world. Starting with her dad, who has always called his 'son' a pussy for being weak and wants 'him'to be strong. A mom who doesn't stand up for her and secretly wishes she had her 'son' back. And then, there is David, once Danny's best friend, who suddenly develops a keen interest in her and wants to 'date' her.

And of course, there is the larger problem of this 'super-villain' called Utopia, who had killed the previous Dreadnought. There is of course, the fragmented upper-echelon of a superhero chairing committee comprised of the world's greatest superheroes, the Legion Pacifica, who want to give her a provisional membership, provided she abide by some rules. But even here, Danny's path isn't smooth - there are those within the legion who spit-fire at the very fact that she is a 'trans-gender' and others who of course, want to make 'use' of her prowess.

You see, while the book broaches an emotional topic and does a fine job indeed of portraying the mental tussles of a fifteen-year old, the alternating bursts of supreme confidence and blundering vulnerability which crowd out the minds of such, it still remains an amazingly entertaining fare. The pacing is spotless, the world-building maybe a bit sparse but the author still gives us a picture of this world filled with superheroes, a sort of hierarchical strata between these caped crusaders ( from black, to grey and then white, the highest form of super-prowess) and of course, it is interspersed with some crackling high-octane super-hero showdowns that leads to crumpled buildings and nuked craters in the earth.

The main voice is that of Danny, this girl who has to come of age, figure out her super-prowess all the while struggling to come to terms with her gender issues. Its a fun, irreverent and yet sensitive characterization. A girl juggling homework and saving crashed-up airlines at the same time, who finally decides to confront her detractors and also that super-villain determined to nuke the world into nothingness. The rising tension finally explodes in those final chapters and makes for an immensely gratifying read.

Apart from Danny, there are of course others who help her get past the finish-line: Sarah, or Calamity, a superhero or meta-human who loves playing the vigilante and befriends Danny in these difficult times. And then, there is Doc Impossible, a super-techie who loves chain-smoking and almost becomes that mother-figure for Danny as her own family disowns her.

An emotionally rich, action-packed super-hero origins story that dares to take an intelligent stand on the sensitive LGBT themes and does it spectacularly right. Loved it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday

Keeping in with the Wednesday themes of noting down some of the noteworthy releases coming up for the year, this week on this meme (run by Jill @ Breaking the Spine) I'm extremely kicked about this standalone book in the Universe of Emperor's Blades, the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne - that really saw Brian Staveley catapult to the top-list of my favorite-fantasy-writers. The series, by the way, is finished and can be read as an excellent fantasy magnum-opus of the grim-dark and brutal variety that has it all - politics and war on an epic grand scope, sibling rivalry, ancient magic and secrets - executed in the most amazing manner that feels so heartrendingly and yet so good.

(Read my reviews of Book-I, Book-II and Book-III )

So when I came to know that Brian is writing another novel in the same universe and this time, focusing on one of the minor characters story-arc ( Ahem - Pyrre, the Assassin!) I was so thrilled. And now, finally it's going to be out in a few months and I cannot wait to get my hands on the same!

This one's called Skullsworn, comes out April 2017 and in Brian's own words,

"My newest book, Skullsworn, is about an assassin, Pyrre, who goes back to the city of her birth to pass the final test of her religious order: killing ten people in a month. She’s not all that worried about the killing—after all, she’s been training for fifteen years among some of the most deadly men and women in the world. The trouble is, the test stipulates that among the ten offerings, one must be a person that she loves. And Pyrre has never been in love. So it’s a romance novel—some kissing, some heartache, some sex—but with monsters, murder, and buckets and buckets of blood."


Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer--she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including "the one you love / who will not come again."

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love...and ending it on the edge of her sword.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Resistance by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky ( Divided Elements # 1)

Even though epic fantasy is my favorite genre when it comes to speculative fiction, I find of late I've been veering more into 'easier' sub-genres to read, like urban fantasy or the dystopian settings. Now easier of course is a relative term as I generally tend to blast through the urban/dystopian settings relishing the pace and thrill of a novel set in times and a world, familiar to the ones we are in. And so, when I first requested for Resistance, the debut novel from Mikhaeyla Kopievsky that is the first part in an intended series, Divided Elements - the premise looked familiar and a path, well-trodden before.


The world after an unexplained apocalypse, in a time possibly in the future with the society divided into clear hard hierarchical stratas called Elementals based on their affinity to different forms. Called out as Air, Earth, Water and Fire. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I realized that this one, was different. I was in for a shock with this book. In a good way. Resistance has been compared to the Divergent series, being touted as Divergent for the Adults but I think the similarities end in just that premise about the societal strata being decided based on your inherent affinity to a skill. This book, definitely goes way beyond the normal in defining those 'affinities' ( And in that manner, is miles ahead of a superficial comparison to the Divergent series, never losing track of the bigger question about what happens if you are a 'Heterodox' with natural affinities to more than one Element?) Mikhaeyla then goes on to do a mind-fuck on the reader as you realize that you're stuck inside the protagonist's head whose natural alignments have been tampered with, so to finish a mission but her re-alignment might have cost her more than just her job!

As I got sucked deeper into this well realized beautiful world, I realized the book is an interesting mix of dystopian setting layered on with a science-fictional society; This strict society has rigid rules about conforming to a preordained and pre-programmed manner of thought and deed. There is a steep learning curve here and my initial few chapters were slow as Mikhaeyla doesn't take the easy route and instead, writes in a lucid, intelligent manner that challenges the reader to take pause and note down the world being built around Anaiya, the main protagonist.

Anaiya, is a Fire Elemental - and a Peacekeeper tasked with the maintaining Orthodoxy ("The right way to think and act, as you are pre-programmed") in the society. Fire Elementals are by nature, enhanced with superior physical endurance, abilities to sense the "weight" of a public space that let's them ascertain the levels of risk of riots through such gathering, a sixth sense about dangers and also are able to project into the future about the different possibilities of an event, through "future-searches". Now while Anaiya is a conscientious and hard-working Elemental, striving for promotions and accolades, she is also trying hard to get out of the shadow of her former mentor, Kane - who incidentally is the most high-profile case of "Heterodoxy" - of someone willing to go against the collective societal rules, of  not conforming to their own pre-ordained affinities and willing to be a rebel.

So right from when we meet Anaiya, she is a tortured soul, her fragile mindspace warring with these thoughts of shame and insecurity in this regimented society. She is also constantly striving to compete with her current Peacekeeping partner, Niamh - a ruthlessly ambitious Fire elemental who doesn't shy away from breaking the rules, just to get ahead and be promoted to higher ranks. And to make matters worse, the Heterodoxy is now slowly raising its ugly head in the society, where a group of secret rebels are raising their voices against this tyranny. Painted Murals, with the word 'Resistance' written in large appear on buildings and walls. And then it hurts that Niamh, her partner who has risen steadily through the ranks, is actually the one who picks up Ani for an experimental operation; Something that has never before been attempted, a realignment of one's brain-functions mapping to a different Elemental affinity. Ani is sent on a covert mission, to break into a group of Air Elementals, suspected of Heterodoxy.

Things get really complex behind the enemy lines. So Anaiya, now an Air Elemental experimenting with music and sounds, starts to doubt herself, questioning her own loyalty towards the larger cause as she sees the world in a completely light as an Air Elemental. And since complications have a way of nesting down together, Ani's heart goes and and does a complete fillip on her: Falling for the wrong guy, a mysteriously charming stranger, Seth; An air elemental friendly with this group that matches the suspect profile as built up by the Analysts back in the Peacekeeping force.

I loved the ideas in the book, no two ways about it. They are original and ambitious - and despite being a debut, the quality of the writing has the assured aplomb of a seasoned writer. The pacing is quite on your nose and you get swept along, in the rising levels anxiety and tension as Ani struggles with her mind and the newly minted feelings that resist with her sense of loyalty buried deep-down. Mikhaeyla's society is convincing and the setting of this post-apocalyptic Paris where drugs, sex and night life spill out into the streets full of Izzakaya bars is utterly arresting.

The characters that fill up this wondrous speculative world, are also nicely drawn up - complementing the thought-provoking narrative. Seth, as the mysterious Air Elemental whom Ani falls for, is quite a charming personality, strong with rock-hard beliefs and a creative bend of mind. There are others in the group - like Rehd, quite the open rebel-child who is flashy and life-of-the-party effervescent, while Kaide is the strong, silent companion, a less flashy but more intellectual and creative shadow to these two. And of course, there is Niamh, whom we would love to hate. For his deep-rooted ideals and brutally unforgiving ambition that forms his core.

My one grouch with the novel is probably, with the internal struggles and the vacillating nature of the main protagonist that tended to drag things down a bit in the middle. While at heart this one is a book about a revolution, it surprisingly is kept clean when it comes to violence. There are hints of how well Mikhaeyla can layer in some heavy-duty action scenes (Eg. Peacekeeper detaining any riots) if it comes to that but there aren't too many explicit conflicts that require this.

A book that would appeal to fans of dystopia (Think 1984, George Orwell) Resistance is an utterly thought-provoking and subversive book in this genre - Highly entertaining, poignant and brutal by shades, Divided Elements is an original novel, pushing the boundaries of this genre - and Mikhaeyla is surely a writer to watch out for. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Raven Song (Inoki's Game # 1) by IA Ashcroft (Blog Tour)

Raven Song is the first book in this series called Inoki's Game, by IA Ashcroft introducing us to this dark, dystopian world, teetering after a nuclear holocaust, filled with magic and inexplicable dangers. I took this up on a whim after I read the premise of the book. I signed up for the blog tour ( and as usual, I got a bit late in posting the review!) and started the same, the last week of my holiday season hoping I could whizz through it. Alas - a combination of reasons saw me plod through it and not wrap this up in time. Well, mainly two reasons. The pacing of the novel and of course, the new year rush that crowds in on your time.


About the Book

A century ago, the world burned. Even now, though rebuilt and defiant, civilization is still choking on the ashes.

Jackson, a smuggler, lives in the shadows, once a boy with no memory, no name, and no future. Ravens followed him, long-extinct birds only he could see, and nightmares flew in their wake. Once, Jackson thought himself to be one of the lucky few touched by magic, a candidate for the Order of Mages. He is a man now, and that dream has died. But, the ravens still follow. The nightmares still whisper in his ear.

Anna’s life was under the sun, her future bright, her scientific work promising. She knew nothing of The Bombings, the poisoned world, or the occult. One day, she went to work, and the next, she awoke in a box over a hundred years in the future, screaming, fighting to breathe, and looking up into the eyes of a smuggler. Anna fears she’s gone crazy, unable to fill the massive hole in her memories, and terrified of the strange abilities she now possesses.

The Coalition government has turned its watchful eyes towards them. The secret factions of the city move to collect them first. And, old gods stir in the darkness, shifting their pawns on the playing field.

If Anna and Jackson wish to stay free, they must learn what they are and why they exist.

Unfortunately, even if they do, it may be too late.

Raven Song is the first of a four book adult-oriented dystopian fantasy series, a story of intrigue, love, violence, and the old spirits in the shadows who wait for us to notice them again. Readers of Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, and Charlie Human will enjoy this dark magic-laced tale rooted on the bones of what our world could become.


Author Bio:

I. A. Ashcroft has been writing fiction in many forms for almost twenty years. The author's first book, written at age seven, featured the family cat hunting an evil sorceress alongside dragons and eagles. This preoccupation with the fantastical has not changed in the slightest.

Now, the author dwells in Phoenix, AZ alongside a wonderful tale-spinner and two increasingly deranged cats. Ashcroft writes almost exclusively in the realm of darker fantasy these days, loving to entertain adults with stories of magic, wonder, despair, violence, and hope, bringing a deep love of mythology into every tale penned. The author also loves diverse and intriguing casts of characters.

When not buried in a book, one might find Ashcroft learning languages, charting road trips, and playing tabletop RPGs with clever and fun people.


You can buy the book here: Amazon || Barnes & Noble || Kobo

Review

There's nothing wrong with the plot itself and its a fairly original, fresh take on the dystopian fiction. We land right in the middle of a futuristic society, living in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, a technologically created 'barrier' protecting the atmosphere within the cities and people protected from the mutations and 'magic' as spread by the nuclear poisoning by this government agency called 'Coalition'.

Into this chaotic mess, we land in with Jackson, a smuggler with 'weird dreams' problems who as a boy has no memory of his past and Anna, a research scientist who lands up in current times trapped in a box, having no memory of how she time-traveled from the past. And of course, both of them have unexplored talents that ticks off the antennae of the government agents - and a lot of other nefarious organizations for their own vested goals.

You see, both our protagonists have this 'memory' issue. While a powerful hook in itself, I thought this premise left too much questions unanswered. And Ashcroft doesn't make it easy on the reader either - While the tension is cranked up slowly higher, we are left fuming, impatient and tapping our foot as both Jackson and Anna play the bumbling idiots, waiting for circumstances to land them in hotter soup than they already are. I felt both the leads tended to play the 'helpless' because of the raw hand dealt by Fate way too often. The initial first half of the book, there really wasn't much happening, Ashcroft setting up his lead characters with a lot of introspection.

And indeed, the beauty of the book is that there is a lot of that introspection that moves the plot forward. There is back-stories to both Jackson and Anna - recurring dreams, moving shadows and of course, the presence of the mysterious ravens. As an urban fantasy that weaves down the streets of dark and devilish, Ashcroft does a bang-up job. The tropes are of course there, the Chosen Ones and Old Magi who can guide the lost ones etc - but right around the halfway mark, Ashcroft does a complete 180-degree flip and reveals one of the main antagonists; and this literally blew me away and made me sit up. He does a great job of painting up the characterization of the villain and weaves in some of the random narratives into this explanation.

Jackson and Anna both are well fleshed lead characters but somehow, they don't exactly behave in the way you would expect the hero/heroine of an urban fantasy to act. They get to their grooves eventually but Ashcroft makes them take their sweet time, getting to their powers. Riddled by self-doubts, unreliable memories and craven, because of extenuating circumstances they are thrust into, Jackson and Anna definitely weren't my favorite people. There are characters introduced early on who don't get so well utilized ( Hello, Genial Old Man Magi!) by the end of the story. And well, there weren't too many pay-offs for the questions built up over the course of this story.

For all this, I am going in with a 3-star; Somewhere past the half-way mark, Ashcroft really rises the quality of his writing, jump-starts the plodding narrative injecting a lot of tension and some well set up action. The jittery Jackson and Ann-combo really made my day in those few heart-wrenching moments when they take on the villain together. With just too many questions left unanswered and cryptic clues about Inoki's Game, it is obvious Ashcroft is in this for the long haul. Color me curious, I will get on that ride. The Game, as they say, is ON.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday

This week, the second Wednesday of the year, keeping in with the traditions of ringing you guys in on what's hot and eagerly-awaited-for-release on the book circuit (meme originally started by Jill of the Breaking the Spine blog), we are delighted to present - an action-packed YA/LGBT-themed superhero thriller called Dreadnought ( Book One, Nemesis) by April Daniels.

( I read the first couple of chapter excerpts and it's nuts! A boy who is a girl inside, watches the greatest Superhero on earth get blown apart and then inherits the super-powers to actually, become the girl she always wanted to be. The tone is really funny - and of course there is bound to be some really cool superhero fights. So I am definitely in on the ride!)


(NB - The exclusive cover reveal happened on The Mary Sue blog)

An action-packed series-starter perfect for fans of The Heroine Complex and Not Your Sidekick.

Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderer—a cyborg named Utopia—still haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.

Dreadnought comes out on 24th Jan, 2017 from Diversion books and is up for preorder now.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Blog Tour : Review & Excerpt from Freeks by Amanda Hocking


Amanda Hocking has been a publishing sensation - with more-than-a-million-copies sold of her massive hit series, "Trylle trilogy" - and from what I could gather, I definitely think she is a prolific writing machine. Putting out one book after the other in humanly impossible time intervals.
So Freeks came out on Jan 3rd, 2017 and I was lucky enough to have snagged an early copy and be a part of the . Having never read a Hocking book before, I was eager to dive in - and the dry dusty carnival setting in this cold, mysterious town called Caudry really lured me in.



The story is about Mara, a teenager on the cusp of her adulthood, who has been leading the life of a nomad, along with this Travelling Circus group. She lives in a Winnebago trailer along with her mother, who poses as a diviner for the circus but actually is a necromancer who can talk to spirits. In fact, everybody in the group have some paranormal abilities - self-healing, super strength, animal control, pyrokinesis, telekinesis, you name it. Gideon's Travelling Circus has been home to these people with strange abilities whom the society has shunned and cast out. And for this reason, everybody are real close to each other. As the story begins, the group has fallen on pretty hard times and so, when Gideon, the head of this group gets an invite to set up carnival in this small town called Caudry in the middle of nowhere with the promise of good payment, they take up the offer readily and pitch tents outside town.

Mara, a spirited and intelligent young girl, who prefers books to parties decides to explore town - and gets invited for a random birthday party in town on account of having helped out the birthday girl with her drunken oaf of a boyfriend; And here's where she meets Gabe, a brooding handsome young man, to whom she is immediately attracted to. Gabe also happens to be a rich, his family being one of the oldest and most respected in the small town of Caudry. Initial teasing remarks soon give way to confused heady feelings for each other - as the cupid gets stronger with every other 'date' of theirs. Having pitched up the carnival for at least a week, Mara knows this might not last - and she shouldnt get attached to 'townies' but something about Gabe hits her the right way. They try and catch up every other day and the feelings get hot and heavy on both sides.

However, Caudry isn't just another sleepy, swamp-ridden town where the folks would enjoy some magic and tiger tricks. Strange things are happening. Everybody with magical abilities are feeling that something is wrong - their natural abilities are diminished and there's an awful sense of creeping dread that hangs around the circus. And then, one night, the strong-man in the circus gets attacked by a mysterious creature, rending him bloody and on the verge of death. The attacks continue every night leaving Gideon and his troupe frightened, confused and fragmented, on their decision to stay or leave.
Meanwhile, Mara is conflicted with her feelings for this 'boy' - and also, the creeping cold in this strange town has been giving her nightmares that she cannot explain. Tensions escalate as the events tumble towards an explosive climax where Mara has to choose between her 'love' or save her 'family' - the Circus group.

It's a very interesting YA paranormal romance - and is the first of the kind, I'm reading after a long time. I usually steer clear of the "Twilight" books but I had to try out Amanda Hocking after her name frequently surfaced on all things "good and great". I really liked the way the narrative proceeds, setting up the whole circus group and the characters in the group are very well crafted. Mara and Gabe of course are the central points of interest in this 'romantic' story but there are tons of others I grew to like in the course of reading.

Lyanka, the harried middle-aged mother, torn between her visions and her lack of ability to 'care properly' for her teenage daughter, trying her best to be friends with this girl whose hormones drive her decisions. There's Gideon - the leader of the group, a strong-willed fearless leader who sticks to his guns and runs a tight shop when it comes to his circus and who takes responsibility to protect his whole 'family'. There's Roxie, a fireball of a young girl, beautiful and strong who's shaken off the worst of what's happened to her and takes life head-on. Zeke and his two beautiful tigers. These characters really make the circus or the carnival come out real and I think, Amanda's effortless writing puts the shine on it.

Mara comes across as a fearless and intelligent heroine, willing to take the risk to protect those she loves. There are times when I did want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her as she wandered heedlessly into danger - but overall, she's a very endearing protagonist, admirable for her qualities of being level headed and practical. Gabe, now is the perfect foil, the swoon-worthy, sweet handsome boy who stands by his girlfriend come hell, come highwater. A trope we've come to expect in YA paranormal featuring strong heroines, no complaints though.

The pacing is even and having churned out a few whole completed series by now, Amanda's writing is top notch and keeps you glued to the flying pages. The ominous sense of dread surrounding the mysterious town of Caudry keeps mounting. And this was deftly done without losing steam on how the slow-burn romance also builds up.

I only had one grouch with the whole book; the ending and the central conflict that powers the narrative felt rushed and incomplete. The climax and the way the problems were dealt with seemed overly simplistic - and the reader might feel a bit cheated. But perhaps we will get to see more of both Mara and Gabe as the travelling circus moves on, headed for a new adventure. I for one, am buying ringside tickets for the next show.

And to whet your appetite, here's a sneak-peek -

5. Carnival Unlike many of the other members of the sideshow, I didn’t have a specific job. My mom was a fortune- teller, Gideon did a magic show, Zeke had his tigers, Brendon andhis family did acrobatics, Seth was a strongman. My best friend Roxie Smith wasin two acts— she helped out Zeke, and did a peepshow revue with two other girls.I had no talent. No special ability, making me essentially aroadie. I did what was needed of me, which usually involved helping set up andtake down, and various menial tasks. I cleaned the tiger cages and emptied outlatrines when I had to. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it was crucial to our way of life. Since Roxie worked with the tigers, Mahilā actually tolerated her. Roxie was helping me clean out the tiger cage they traveled in. The cage wasopen to a fenced-in enclosure Seth had built, so the tigers could roam as theypleased.Safēdalounged in the grass, the sun shining brightly on her white fur. Whenever westopped, Safēda seemed content to just lay in the sun, sleeping the entiretime, but as the older tiger, it made sense.Mahilā paced along the fence, occasionally emitting an irritatedguttural noise in between casting furtive glances back toward Roxie and me. Hergolden fur was mottled with scars from her past life in the abusive circus,including a nasty one that ran across her nose. “So where did you go last night?” Roxie asked, her voice lilting in a sing song playful way. She was out in the run, using a hose to fill up ablue plastic kiddie pool so the tigers could play in it, while I was on my hands and knees scrubbing dung off the cage floor. Her bleached blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the sleeves of her white T- shirt were rolled up, revealing her well-toned arms. The cut- off jean shorts she wore barely covered her bum, and her old cowboy boots went up to her knees— her chosen footwear anytime she was at risk of stepping in tiger poop. With fair skin, full lips, large blue eyes, and a dainty nose, Roxie was pretty and deceptively tough. Being a beautiful carnie was not an easy job, and dancing in the revue under the stage name “Foxy Roxie” didn’t help that. But she made decent money doing it, and Roxie never put up with anybody’s crap. I’d seen her deck guys much bigger than her and lay them out flat on their backs. “I was just at a party,” I said as I rinsed the brush off in a bucket of bleach and warm water. “A party?” Roxie looked over at me with a hand on her hip. “How’d you get invited to a party so fast?” I shrugged. “I was just exploring town, and I saw some people hanging outside of this big house party, and they invited me in.” “So what are the people like here? Are they nice?” Safēda had gotten up and climbed into the pool, and then she flopped down in it, splashing Roxie as she did. Roxie took a step back, but kept looking at me. “I don’t know. The people I met last night seemed nice, and they were superrich, so that bodes well for the town, I guess.” “Like how rich?” Roxie asked. “Like their house is practically a mansion.” I dropped the brush in the water and sat back on my knees, taking a break to talk to her. “It was the nicest house I’ve ever been in, hands down.” “Is that why you spent the night there?” Roxie understood my fascination with houses. Well, “understood” wasn’t the right word. It was more like she knew of it, but didn’t understand it all. She’d grown up in an upper- middleclass family, in nice houses with basements, and thought they were about as boring and lame as she could imagine. “Partly.” I nodded. “It was a really amazing house. There were pillars out front, and the front hall was bigger than my trailer.” “It’s just a house, Mara.” Roxie shook her head. “I know but . . .” I trailed off, trying to think of how to explain it to her. “You know how you felt when you first joined the sideshow two years ago? How everything seemed so exciting and fun, and I was like, ‘We live in cramped trailers. It kinda sucks.’” Roxie nodded. “Yeah. But I still think this life is a million times better than my old life. I get to see everything. I get to decide things for myself. I can leave whenever I want. There’s nothing to hold me back or tie me down.” She’d finished filling up the pool, so she twisted the nozzle on the hose to shut it off. Stepping carefully over an old tire and a large branch that the tigers used as toys, she went to the edge of the run and tossed the hose over the fence, before Mahilā decided to play with it and tore it up. She walked over to the cage and scraped her boots on the edge, to be sure she didn’t track any poop inside, before climbing up inside it. “So what was the other reason?” Roxie asked. I kept scrubbing for a moment and didn’t look up at her when I said, “Gabe.” “Gabe?” Roxie asked. “That sounds like a boy’s name.” “That’s because it is.” “Did you have sex with him?” “No.” I shot her a look. “We just made out a little.” “What what what?” Luka Zajiček happened to be walking by just in time to hear that, and he changed his course to walk over to the tiger cage. “Is that what you were up to last night?” “That’s what sucks about living in a community so small. Whenever anything happens, everybody knows about it right away,” I muttered. Luka put his arms through the cage bars and leaned against it, in the area I’d cleaned already. Since he was rather short, the floor came up to his chest, and his black hair fell into his eyes. His eyes were the same shade of gray as mine, but his olive skin was slightly lighter than mine. We first met him when he joined the carnival four years ago, and the first thing my mom said was that she was certain that we were related somehow. Unfortunately, Mom knew next to nothing about our family tree to be able to prove it. All she could really tell me was that we were a mixture of Egyptian, Turkish, and Filipino, with a bit of German thrown in for good measure. Luka had been born in Czechoslovakia, but he’d moved here with his family when he was young, so he’d lost his accent. He had recently roped me into helping him with a trick. He’d stand with his back against a wall, while I fi red a crossbow around him. Originally, Blossom had been the one to help him, but she kept missing and shooting him in the leg or arm, so he’d asked me to do it because I had a steadier hand. “So you made out with some local guy last night?” Luka asked, smirking at me. “Are you gonna see him again?” “He’s a local guy. What do you think?” I asked, and gave him a hard look. Luka shrugged. “Sometimes you bump into them again.” “And that goes so well when they find out that I work and live with a traveling sideshow,” I said. The floor was spotless, or at least as spotless as tiger cages can get, and I tossed my brush in the bucket and took off my yellow rubber gloves. “We can’t all meet our boyfriends in the sideshow,” I reminded Luka as I stood up, and it only made him grin wider. He’d been dating Tim— one of the Flying Phoenixes— for the past three months. “But you didn’t see Blossom anywhere in town last night?” Roxie asked, and Luka’s smile instantly fell away. A sour feeling stirred in my stomach, and I looked out around camp through the bars of the cage, as if Blossom would suddenly appear standing beside a trailer. As I’d been doing my chores all morning, I kept scanning the campsite for her, expecting her to return at any moment with a funny story about how she’d gotten lost in town. But so far, she hadn’t. And the longer she went without coming back, the worse the feeling in my stomach got. I shook my head. “No. I didn’t see her at all last night.” “She’s gotta turn up, though, right?” Luka asked. “I mean, it’s not like there are really that many places she could’ve gone considering she has no money or car and she’s in a small town.” The tigers were still down in the run, so I opened the side gate and hopped down out of the cage. Roxie got out behind me, then we closed the door. “I should talk to Gideon,” I decided as Roxie locked the cage up behind me. “It’s not like Blossom to do this.” “It’s not totally unlike her, though,” Roxie pointed out. “When we were in Toledo six months ago, she dis appeared for a few days with that weird commune, and came back just before we were leaving, totally baked out of her mind.” Blossom had grown up with parents who pretended to be hippies but were really just a couple of drug addicts. That— along with her unexplainable telekinesis— led to her dabbling with drugs and alcohol at a young age, before the state intervened and shipped her off to a group home. My mom tried to keep her clean of her bad habits, but sometimes Blossom just liked to run off and do her own thing. That wasn’t that unusual for people who lived in the carnival. “But if you’re worried, you should talk to Gideon,” Roxie suggested. “Luka’s right in that Blossom really couldn’t have gone far. Maybe you can scope out Caudry.” “Since that sounds like a mission that may take a bit of time, can you help me and Hutch with the museum before you talk to Gideon?” Luka asked. “The exit door is jammed, and we can’t get it open, and Seth is busy helping set up the tents.” “Sure. Between me and Mara, I’m sure the two of us can get the door unstuck,” Roxie said. I dropped off the bucket with the other tiger supplies, and then followed Roxie and Luka away from our campsite to the fairgrounds on the other side of a chain- link fence. We always stayed close to the rides, the midway, and the circus tent, but we didn’t actually sleep there. It was much better for every one if we kept our private lives separate from the crowds. Many of the games were already set up, and the Ferris wheel was in the process of being erected as we passed. Near the end of the midway was along black trailer painted with all kinds of frightening images of werewolves and specters, along with happier pictures of mermaids and unicorns, and the sign was written in bloodred:

Beneath that were several smaller signs warning “Enter at your own risk. The creatures inside can be DISTURBING and cause NIGHTMARES.” The entrance to the left was open, but the exit door at the other end was still shut. Wearing a pair of workman’s gloves, Hutch was pulling at the door with all his might. His neon green tank showed that his muscles were flexed and straining in effort. The bandana kept his dark brown hair off his face, but sweat was dripping down his brow. “Let me have a try, Hutch,” Roxie said. “What?” He turned to look back at her. “Door’s stuck.” “I can see that. That’s why I said let me have a try.” “Okay.” Hutch shrugged and stepped back. Hutch’s real name was Donald Hutchence, but nobody ever called him anything but Hutch. He didn’t have any special powers, unless you considered being really agreeable and easygoing a super power, so, like me, he was left doing whatever else needed to be done. Roxie grabbed the door and started pulling on it, and when it didn’t budge, I joined her. “Luka, go and push from the inside,” Roxie commanded through gritted teeth. Both Luka and Hutch went inside, pushing as Roxie and I pulled. And then all at once, the door gave way, and we all fell back on the gravel. I landed on my back, scraping my elbow on the rocks. Roxie made it out unscathed, and Hutch fell painfully on top of me, so he’d avoided injury. Luka crashed right on the gravel, though, and the rocks tore through his jeans and ripped up his knees and the palms of his hands pretty badly. “Do you need me to get a Band- Aid or anything?” Hutch asked as he helped me to my feet. “No, I’ll be okay.” I glanced over at Luka and the blood dripping down his knees. “What about you? Do you want anything?” “Nah. Just give it a few minutes.” Luka waved it off and sat down on the steps leading up to the museum door. No matter how many times I saw it, I couldn’t help but watch. His knee was shredded, with bits of gravel sticking in the skin. Right before my eyes, the bleeding stopped, and the rocks started falling out, as if pushed by his flesh, and the skin grew back, reattaching itself where it had been little mangled flaps. Within a few minutes, Luka’s knee was healed completely.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Well, Hullo there 2017!

2017 crept upon me, unnoticed.

















Literally. I wasn't prepared for the calendars to flip over a new page. a new YEAR. I was off vacationing in the jungles of Angkor Wat and busy bumming away on the beaches of Krabi, the real world a forgotten hazy dream, my only reality being the brilliantly azure stretches of the sea, the twisting gnarled roots growing out of the magnificent ruins of an empire and civilization, long forgotten - And then, time pulls a fast one on me. Damn, where did year 2016 go?

I still use terms like, "Earlier this year" - like it wasn't early enough now (snort!) But yeah, so coming back to the reading challenges, I think I hit an exact 52 books this year. One book, a Week. I really did hit a slump mid-year and didn't quite catch up on the challenge I set for myself but no complaints. I did get some writing done as well, hit close to sixty thousand words on my second book, started off a short story that might just become a novella ( ~ eight thousand words for now) - and well, also kicked off my Travelogue! ( combining the love for writing with travel!)

Personally, this year has been quite a roller-coaster but as with all travails and adversity one faces, I am hoping this one year has made me stronger.

So here's to another fantastic year to come, to another 365 days of great books and good writing. Cheers 2017!