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I rarely read anthologies. Even rarer still do I review them. To be honest, Zombies Vs. Unicorns exhibited the vast array of talent representative of anthologies that makes me hesitant to buy them in the first place, so I’m not quite sure why I feel inspired to review it as well. Perhaps it is because, amidst the variable levels of quality, I found a couple of stories that I wish had been fleshed out into full-length novels. Maybe I simply feel like establishing my allegience (despite my love for eccentric animals, I am Team Zombie all the way). Whatever the case, I’ve decided to give some brief impressions of my Zombies Vs. Unicorns experience.

The Highest Justice by Garth Nix

It could be a symptom of having been the first story I read way back when I bought the book (and thus having had the most time to languish unremembered in my thoughts), but I don’t recall being particularly enamored of this first story.  2/5

Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson

I’ve never read any of Johnson’s work before. Alright, truth time, I’d never actually heard of Johnson before purchasing this anthology, but I’ll surely be seeking out more of her work in the future. This story, though short, packed a huge emotional punch, and it delivered on so many fronts: a zombie plague masquerading as an infection, resultant sentient zombie who’s torn between kissing and eating his lover, bonus points for boy/boy romance, and great musical references. Really, this story earned the highest rating possible when it started things off with an Arctic Monkeys-inspired chapter title.  5/5

Purity Test by Naomi Novik

My boyfriend and I had an hour-long drive ahead of us, so I decided to read a story aloud to pass the time. Forty minutes later, my head hurt, and not simply due to sore vocal chords. I could barely manage to finish this story, and I’m still not quite sure what it was hoping to achieve.  1/5

Zombies Vs. Unicorns Anthology

Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan

Though I have The Forest of Hands and Teeth sitting on my bookshelf, the only piece of Ryan’s writing that I’d read thus far was a short story for the Enthralled Anthology (one of the only stories in that anthology that I wound up liking). Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for this one, as I found the nonlinear timeline confusing and the characters rather unsympathetic.  2/5

A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan

This story felt like an Angela Carter tale: slightly confusing, otherworldly, menacing, and wholly uncomfortable. I would never have thought a story about unicorns could feel so wrong, but Lanagan managed to create possibly the most disturbing story of the bunch.  4/5

The Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson

I’ve read a few of Johnson’s books, and this story read much the same as her other writings. I found it fun, but without a whole lot of substance or innovation. Still, she managed to keep me interested, which is more than I can say for a lot of the stories in this collection.  3/5

The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund

I’m a huge fan of Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series, but I haven’t read any of her unicorn books yet. That might change, if my reaction to this story is any indication. While I wasn’t particularly enamored of the characters featured in this story, she created a unique world unlike any I’ve read before. I’d like to see how much farther she can take the concept of killer unicorns before it starts to feel contrived.  3/5

Inoculata by Scott Westerfield

Westerfield’s world, while somewhat intriguing, read far too much like the introductory chapter to a series. It didn’t stand on its own two feet, which is a shame, since I felt that he had a whole lot more to say on this subject. Kudos for a subtlely drawn girl/girl relationship. 3/5

Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot

I’ll admit, The Princess Diaries series is a guilty pleasure. However, if this story is any indication of the tone of Cabot’s other series, I’ll be steering clear. Cabot was asking for ironic humorous chuckles, but I wasn’t feeling any. 2/5

Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare

I could go on for days about the various grudges I hold against Clare. Instead, I will simply say that, as usual, Clare has delivered an inadequately thought out world with a saccharine romance that just barely managed to keep me reading.  2/5

The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey

While I felt the idea for this one (an addicted unicorn; who knew?) was novel, the writing kept me at a distance. It was too reminiscent of the detached prose of Patricia McKillip, whose writing I simply cannot get into no matter how much others might love her.  Still, I recognize the quality of writing, even if I didn’t relate to it personally.  3/5

Prom Night by Libba Bray

Many other readers raved about this story, but it didn’t draw me in like most of the other zombie stories in this collection.  Unfortunately, I skimmed much of it, and so don’t have a whole lot to say.  1/5

Despite a lot of average writing, Johnson and Lanagan’s stories really knocked it out of the park for me, and so they managed to bump the rating for the whole anthology up a notch. Check this one out if you have the time.

I have an urban fantasy confession to make: witches have never really done it for me. I love the idea of magic in general, but for some reason, whenever I’ve been presented with an array of supernaturals to choose from, the witches always take last place. That being said, I rather enjoyed my brief excursion into Audrey’s world, although my reaction might be due in part to my witch-biased low expectations going in.

Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraftdoesn’t stray too far from the typical young adult paranormal mould, introducing us to a likable yet unremarkable heroine with self-esteem issues, a rushed introduction to the supernatural world, and a case of the dreaded insta-love. Still, while the book does commit the foregoing offenses, it does so in a manner that is almost charming in its lack of pretension. This book never takes itself too seriously, and while that tends to drive me crazy much of the time, here it was an asset that helped to offset the book’s more generic qualities. Audrey might not be particularly compelling as a narrator (not to mention her unfortunate

Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft by Jody Gehrman

ascent to Mary Sue status), but she is sincere and thus eminently more likable than so many of the young adult heroines that predominate in the genre at the opposite end of the spectrum. Audrey is tossed unceremoniously into a world she never knew existed, yet the vehicle for her education is a delightful secondary character who I hope resists becoming overshadowed as Audrey’s mom inevitably gets a larger page-presence in future books. Even the romance angle was cute, albeit inadequately explored. Still, Julian is a nice guy without a hint of being a broodingly secretive alpha-asshole, and rejoice! There isn’t a whiff of a triangle so far.

While reading, I couldn’t help but compare the book to other stories that I’ve encountered before, and honestly, Gehrman does little to dissuade the tendency. Pop culture references proliferate throughout, with more than a couple of nods to Harry Potter, yet I didn’t get any Rowling vibes. No, my brain ran to more obscure gems in the film arena such as Halloweentown and Simply Irresistible. If you can’t recall those cinematic wonders, don’t worry- your ignorance is forgivable. I can’t say the plot was enthralling, but it kept my attention, which is commendable judging by my reading record of late. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll be picking up the second book in the series, but if you’re looking for something rather frothy to while away a fall day, Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft is a good bet.

A few months ago I gushed about a recent contemporary romance I had the opportunity to review. It was called About Last Night, and its author is not only a singularly talented and exciting new voice in the romance genre, but she’s also a pretty cool person. Today I have the pleasure of asking Ruthie a little bit about her writing process, her take on the romance genre, and just what a romance author looks for in a real life hero. Read on to see what Ruthie has to say and to enter for a chance to win an e-copy of About Last Night!

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1. Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to be an

About Last Night by Ruthie Knox

author, and an author of romance novels in particular?

Actually, no, not that I can remember. I started writing toward the end of 2010, after reading a ton of Harlequin Blaze novels. I was in a yoga class, and I had an idea for a story of my own — a vacation fling romance set in Hawaii involving a tour guide and the geeky grad student who falls for him. So I wrote that, and then I wrote another one, and another, and somewhere in there I thought, “This is really fun. I want to keep doing this.” I found an agent, and the rest is history! (That first manuscript didn’t go anywhere, by the way, but the second one was About Last Night, and the third was Ride with Me.) I’ve never considered writing anything but romance novels. They’re the only thing I want to read and write at this point in my life.

2. Who are your favorite couples from the classics, from historical romance, and from contemporary romance?

Ooh, good question. Hmm. My favorite classic couple is … Can I stretch the definition of “classic”? Because I love nineteenth-century British literature, but I can’t think of any British couples I’d consider “favorites.” I do really love Celie and Shug from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, so I’m going to go with them. From historical romance, I have to go with Will Parker and Elly Dinsmore in LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory. *swoooon* And in contemporary romance — that’s tough! One couple that’s really stuck with me is Tara and Ford from Jill Shalvis’s The Sweetest Thing. I really believed they belonged together, in the end. Or maybe that they were stuck with each other. :-)

3. Is there a character trait that tends to turn you off to the romance when you’re reading?

I don’t like characters who are mean to each other. I’m fine with them fighting if they have strong motivations for their arguments, but I can’t hang in with a hero or a heroine who’s just plain cruel when there are options other than cruelty available to them. If it’s one or two cutting remarks, I’ll wait to see where it’s going — I thought Charlotte Stein did this really well in her erotica short Restraint — but flat-out assholery is difficult to redeem, for me. (I make an exception for Cara McKenna’s psychologically interesting assholes, who aren’t mean so much as terribly, terribly broken, with their brokenness manifesting as meanness. But that’s a whole ‘nother answer.)

4. Do you find romantic inspiration in real-life events? What’s one of the romantic things someone has done for you or for someone you know?

Um, not really? Honestly, if you met me, you would probably think I was the least romantic person you’ve ever met. I don’t really like emotional spectacles of any kind, so real-life romantic gestures make me cringey. But my parents have been married for forty years, and my dad sometimes says that my mom’s been five different women since he met her. I find love that is willing to embrace challenge and change is very romantic — which is one reason that I’m on record as having a difficult time with epilogues. They often feel so static to me (Look! Everything is perfect!), whereas my idea of romance is a relationship that remains open to constant evolution. I conceive of the happy-ever-after as a brief, perfect moment at the end of the book, followed by the resumption of real life.

5. If you could piece together the perfect romantic hero Frankenstein creation from existing romance novel characters, what would he look like (personality-wise, not physically, although that’s fine too!)?

Oh, but this is what I do for a living, right — piece together perfect romantic heroes, all Frankenstein’s-monster-like? Some people use photographic inspiration to come up with their heroes, but mine exist purely in my head. One that I’m working on right now has a lot of the personality of sheriff Seth Bullock from Deadwood — he’s intense and furiously dedicated to Right with a capital “r.” Throw in a splash of Germanic orderliness and that delicious accent, à la Ralph Fiennes, plus the whole overwhelmed-single-parent dynamic from Mr. Mom and some crazy-hot skills in the sack, and you have the man who is currently occupying my stray thoughts. I’m calling him Otto Schoen. We’ll see how he turns out. :-)

6. We all have fangirl moments, so fess up; when was the last time you fangirled?

Oh, I’m a fangirling machine. Half my Twitter friends are people I’ve fangirled. Romance novelists are so nice that pretty much everyone I’ve ever gone gushy over has turned out to be someone I consider a friend. I stalked Cara McKenna in an embarrassing fashion after I read her (genius) erotica book Skin Game. First I e-mailed her, and then I joined Twitter primarily for the purpose of further stalking. Then I made friends with all her friends. Then I got the same haircut as her and started shopping everywhere she shops, and then I stole her husband. After that, I got arrested.

Wait, no, scratch the husband bit. That was a movie I saw once. But most of the rest of it is true, for realz.

Thanks for having me and for asking such great questions! This was fun.

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Ruthie has offered to send one lucky reader an e-copy (format of winner’s choice) of About Last Night. To enter, leave a comment letting me know what you’re romance hero Frankenstein’s monster would look like, along with an email address so I can contact you if you win. Contest is open until midnight, October 5.

Where You Hurt the Most demonstrates perfectly the harmony that emotional impact and intimate detail can have in well-done erotica. Brooke’s story is only about fifty pages long, yet she manages to pack a larger punch in few words than many authors I’ve read of late who have failed to make me resonate with their characters after reading an entire series’ worth of interactions.
Brooke’s story can be seen as a modern-day Beauty and the Beast tale, and as in most of the best adaptations, the “Beast” isn’t the only one who needs saving in this story. Adrian is a man seemingly content with his lot in life. He loves his career as an escort, as it allows him to indulge in his favorite activities: sex, connecting with other people, and appreciating the simpler pleasures in life.

Where You Hurt the Most by Anne Brooke

Adrian easily could have come across as shallow, but instead his innate sensitivity and sympathy lift him above the superficial definition that his career could otherwise brand him with. We don’t learn much about Adrian’s past, yet his first-person narration is an honest-enough reflection of his nature that we don’t need to know more than the spare details we’re provided with. In contrast, while we are given a good picture of the traumas and losses that Dan has endured, leading to the disfigurement that now hinders his confidence and happiness, his emotions are a bit harder to read. We see him only through Adrian’s eyes, and since the story is so short, our glimpse isn’t a particularly comprehensive one. Yet in only a few encounters, Brooke made me believe in the relationship that grows between her two characters, even if neither of them can quite account for its cause. This is the type of writing I love, simple and sparse yet used to tenderly convey a connection of spirit that defies logic or explanation.

Because the story is so brief, I hesitate to say more lest I ruin the revelations that lay within. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Brooke’s writing in the future.

 

I’ve been holding my breath for Thieftaker to come out since last year. D.B. Jackson isn’t an author I’ve read before,  yet he seems to have built himself a nice following. Thieftaker represents the subgenre of historical urban fantasy, one that I haven’t had much exposure to, and I’m sorry to say that I doubt I will be reading much of it in the future either. That shouldn’t be taken as a statement against Jackson’s abilities as a writer nor Thieftaker as a novel. This wound up being a read in which I could sense the quality of writing, but simply couldn’t connect on a personal level.

Thieftaker takes place in 18th century Boston, a setting that I never anticipated

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

being featured in an urban fantasy novel. Yet depite its unlikely locale, Thieftaker has all the trappings of the genre, in particular a skilled narrator in Ethan Kaille. Ethan reminded me of what Harry Dresden’s ancestor might have been like. That might be part of the reason why Ethan and I never clicked. (I only got through the first two books in The Dresden Files). I love reading books told from a male point-of-view, but not when the male in question exhibits that annoying habit of stoicism that so often seems to accompany the Y-chromosome. Ethan clearly has much in life that he’s passionate about: his profession as a thieftaker (a fascinating and apparently real relic of historical times), his failed engagement to a beautiful woman of his past, the question of whether to commit to the beautiful woman in his present, and the potentially lethal frustration of dealing with his main competitor, the (obviously beautiful) Sephira. Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and so less susceptible to this particular power of suggestion, but I got a bit tired of hearing about all of the beautiful women in Ethan’s life, no matter their relationship with him. I found Sephira in particular was a tiresome character, as her continual presence causing trouble in Ethan’s life never convinced me of anything aside from her feral grace. While we are told that she is a deadly foe, I witnessed no evidence of her competence aside from the muscle exhibited by her hired goons.

Despite my grievances, the magical system that Jackson has created is rather compelling and I’m sure that many will not have the same issues relating to characters as I did. I have no doubt that Thieftaker will be one of the breakout fantasy books for the year; it just wasn’t for me.

I’ve had Anna Dressed in Blood on my TBR list for quite a while now, and with high priority. The only reason it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it is because I’m unforgivably cheap and I haven’t been able to find a copy used. So when I saw a shiny new Barnes and Noble coupon sitting in my inbox a few weeks ago, I knew what book that discount would go toward. I won’t lie; my expectations for Anna were pretty sky-high after reading nearly universal praise from my fellow bloggers. Based on the reviews I had read, I was anticipating this to be a read rather outside of my comfort zone. While I thoroughly enjoy a good Grade B horror movie, the campier the better, horror often has the capacity to freak me out, particularly that of the haunting-ghoul-in-abandoned-house/hospital/mental ward variety. From what I’d read of Anna, it seemed to fit the bill of every story that has me watching the shadows at night, and the first few chapters did nothing to dispel me of this notion. Anna‘s opening is electric, spares no punches, and quite frankly, had me doubting whether it was wise to continue reading it when I knew I’d be going to sleep all by my lonesome that night.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Unfortunately, despite my misgivings, I wish Blake had been able to sustain the sheer creepiness of the novel’s early chapters, but ultimately Anna failed to live up to its hype. I couldn’t help but be let down the further I read, especially when the book had initially promised to deliver a truly unique, mostly unexplored level of scare for the YA genre. Blake had the potential to knock it out of the park, and when Anna first appeared on the page I was sure that she had. The Anna of the early chapters is like no other protagonist I’ve read in the genre, perhaps not quite unapologetic in her wrath, yet utterly frightening nonetheless. What’s more, she had presence on the page; I anticipated her return at the same time that I feared it, and though I wanted to learn about her history that had led her down this path, I didn’t feel that I needed to. It was enough to witness rather than needing to see behind the scenes.

Cas wasn’t quite as successful a character for me, though I appreciate Blake’s contribution to an unfortunately small pool of young adult books narrated from the male perspective. It’s not as if Bake failed to create a believable male teenage voice, but I nevertheless didn’t connect with Cas. It might be due in part to the wealth of backstory that Cas relates to the readers; I tend to have difficulty getting to know a character through anecdote alone rather than by witnessing the events as they occur. Still, I loved Cas’s interactions with Anna and couldn’t wait to see how Blake would justify Cas’s feelings for someone who can be so very inhuman. Sadly, things fell apart for me around the midway point, as the qualities I had loved until this point simply vanished. Anna’s unsettling demeanor, the sense of foreboding, the potential for development of great side characters like Thomas and Carmel take a backseat as, with a bit of magic and a pinch of luck, Anna is transformed from Samara’s long lost cousin into an utterly generic teen queen.

Suffice it to say, the Anna of the book’s second half was not a character to inspire awe in the reader. I’m glad that Blake didn’t completely neuter her main character, as at least Anna retains the ability to turn freaky-eyed and fabulous, but by allowing Anna to achieve her humanity so abruptly, Blake took the easy way out. Compared to reading about Cas’s struggle to come to terms with his feelings for someone with questionable merits and dubious morals, allowing Anna to toggle between murderous wraith and sympathetic victim made the whole affair seem far too sanitized.

Today I’d like to welcome Susan Vaught, author of the recently released Freaks Like Us. When I read Freaks earlier this year, it immediately vaulted to the top of the Books for 2012. I’m so pleased to be part of her blog tour to celebrate the release of this fantastic novel.

Now, I turn things over to Susan to learn a bit about the writing process that went into Freaks.

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I have two primary types of writing experiences:  ouch and aaahhh.

Ouch is rather like a dental procedure where I dread, avoid, act like I’m in pain the entire time I struggle with the story, and usually hate what comes out for a good long time. Aaahhh feels natural and easy, with a lot of flow and even more obsessiveness, where I sit for hours and hours, writing so quickly I get my fingers tangled in the keys. I get irritable if interrupted, my family avoids me, my pets forget what I look like, and everyone at my day job is sure I’m mad at them about something because I keep a faraway, distracted look most of the time.

Freaks Like Uswas one of the natural, obsessive, wonderful, synergistic experiences.

Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught

Definitely aaahhh! I knew I wanted to write a story with a main character who had Schizophrenia, but it took several years for the right character, situation, and voice to come to me. I struggled a bit with the first chapter, trying to be sure everyone could related to Jason (Freak) as much as I could. People with Jason’s illness sometimes don’t make good connections with other people, even though they very much want to. Jason has that problem in the story. I just didn’t want readers to experience it, too. I also worked to find a way to let readers really feel and understand the impact of Jason’s hallucinations and internal distractions, which wasn’t easy to do given that I was working with print and not audiovisual media. From the moment Sunshine disappeared, everything got easier—and I didn’t know she was going to disappear until I wrote that sentence at the end of the first chapter.

Sometimes stories do that—take their own twists and turns. All I can say about that is, aaahhh!

The whole time I worked with Freaks, I could see all the people and events in my mind, clear as photographs, like I was watching a movie. The people and events felt—and still feel—very, very real to me. Readers always ask me if I based a character or a series events on real people, or things that have really happened to the patients I see. To that I have to say yes, and no. Jason and his friends aren’t copies of any one patient I’ve treated in my years of being a psychologist, but I have seen their symptoms in a lot of different folks, in a lot of different situations. I have always respected the struggle people with Schizophrenia have, day to day, just to take care of themselves and relate to other people, and I have always wanted to honor it. I believe Jason and the thousands of readers who have Jason’s issues, have a lot of strength and courage that people might not appreciate if they don’t look closely enough.

I hope readers enjoy Freaks Like Us as much as I enjoyed writing it!

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To learn more about Freaks Like Us, check out the Bloomsbury Teens Facebook page here.

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