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Georgiana89 (London)

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A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic
by V. E. Schwab
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

3.0 out of 5 stars fun characters, a well-thought out world, and an action-packed plot - but ultimately nothing that made it special or memorable, 22 Mar. 2015
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This book started with an interesting premise - there are three parallel Londons, which Ansari, a type of natural-born wizard, can walk between. The world building is strong, and you can well imagine the splendour of magical Red London, the terror of washed out, desperate and despotic White London, as well as Grey London, the one we know, but in the early nineteenth century.

Our protagonist is Kell, one of only two Ansari who remain in the world. He lives in Red London as an adopted son of the ruling family, and travels between the other two Londons on diplomatic missions - but can never quite resist the forbidden practice of collecting trinkets from other worlds and bringing them back to his own. Kell was likable and enjoyably powerful. The other main hero is Lila, a pickpocket in Grey London with big dreams, who ends up being Kell's travelling companion. Of all the characters, she was probably the most interesting, combining basic decency with an almost pathological love of stealing and stabbing, a habit of cross-dressing, and a dream of becoming a pirate. While I liked the other characters, they sometimes felt a bit stereotypical - she was that bit more interesting and unique.

We then have the main villains, the sadistic Dane Twins, brutal rulers of White London who bind people to their bill with magic and have subjects tortured for insufficiently enthusiastic bowing. I love a good villain, and though there was little to no nuance about them, they did make for entertaining - if disturbing - reading. There's also Holland, the other remaining Ansari and the Dane's main henchman.Again, he was gloriously sinister.

Kell's smuggling goes too far when he acquires a forbidden artifact from Black London, a place of strong magic that destroyed itself through its own power and was sealed off from the other Londons as a result. Cue magic, violence, scheming and people being possessed, as Kell and Lila embark on a suicidal quest to take the artifact back to Black London before it destroys everything.

So, we have fun characters wandering a well-thought out world, and an action-packed plot. It sounds like everything necessary for an excellent fantasy novel is present and correct. And there's no doubt that I enjoyed reading this and was keen to find out how it was all going to end. But somehow, it just didn't grip me, didn't get inside my head and make me truly care about the characters or dream about Red London.

In some ways, it felt like quite an old fashioned piece of fantasy. There were very clear cut goodies and baddies, and few hints of darkness in the former (with the possible exception of Lila) or redeeming features in the latter. I never had any doubts that the good guys would do the right thing and be successful, and I never felt that any remotely key character on the good side was in real danger. And ultimately, the convoluted, twisty plot was resolved in an extremely simple fashion. I don't want to overdo this criticism - there's something fun about truly heroic heroes and genuinely villainous villains and something satisfying about good being rewarded and evil punished. I'd just have liked to see something to give it a touch more bite. It felt like there was nothing I hadn't seen before, nothing that made this book really special or memorable or that made me want to rush out and recommend it to my fantasy-loving friends.

I would still recommend this on balance. I'm assuming that this is intended as the first installment in a series, and I would read a subsequent volume. At worst, I'd expect it to be another entertaining read, but I'd also hope that as the author got more used to the world, she can start to add in a little more edge and unpredictability.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Price: £9.78

4.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting ideas and a clever combination of autobiography, sociological study and manifesto for success, 28 Feb. 2015
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This is one of those books that I've heard so much about I almost felt as though I'd already read it. But the idea that women need to stop holding themselves back really resonates with me, so I decided to actually read the original.

Two things need to be pointed out. Firstly, while the central argument is indeed "speak up in meetings, go for promotions, ask for raises" etc etc, it's more nuanced than lots of commentators seem to suggest, and far from blaming women for their own lack of advancement is fully aware of the unconscious bias that both men and women can show in the workplace, and suggests ways in which women may have to handle negotiations and applications differently to men to not fall foul of managers' assumptions.

Secondly, as most people know, the author is the COO of Facebook and previously held senior roles at both Google and the US Treasury. She also had kids. She makes a token effort to point out how the arguments of this book also apply to women who don't want kids/stay at home mothers/women working in more menial roles, but fundamentally, this is aimed at at focussed on women who want to get to the top of professional organisations and probably also have a family. There's nothing wrong with that, and that's exactly the position I'm in, but it's worth pointing out so that other demographics don't read this and feel cheated.

The book combines three elements - stories from her rise to the top, mixed with anecdotes about successes and set-backs amongst her friends, family and colleagues, sociological research and commentary on the experience of women in the workplace (impressively footnooted), and a sort of manifesto for how women can maximise their careers. It occasionally felt like an uneasy combination, but on the whole, it worked well.

It was a little repetitive in places, there was a bit of name-dropping and "humble-bragging" ("I won this top award at university, but I didn't tell anyone because I wanted them to like me"), and I sometimes got the impression that the author fundamentally felt that her way was the right way and other women were doing it wrong. Despite that, I came to rather like Sheryl and her outlook, and I definitely took away some useful things to think about.

Worth a direct read - rather than a read of a comment piece attacking or supporting it - if you're either a woman trying to make it in the professional world, someone with an interest in the sociological aspects of woman and work, or if you just want an inspiring tale of a woman who's done fantastically well in a male dominated environment.

Price: £6.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Amusing read with some surprisingly profound bits mixed in, 28 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Bossypants (Kindle Edition)
Probably rather unusually for a reader of this book, I'e had very little exposure to Tina Fey beyond the ubiquitous Sarah Palin sketches that did the rounds a few years ago. I picked it up because I'd seen a few quotations from it that I found both clever and amusing - if you're debating whether this is for you, I'd suggest you take a look at some of them on Goodreads and see if they work for you.

"“Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? “I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.”"


“So, my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”

The book is a mixture of autobiography and musings on life, particularly around comedy/acting and being a woman. It's all delivered with a healthy dose of humour, but parts of it end up being quite moving and profound too. I wouldn't say it either had me rolling around on the floor shaking with laughter or re-examining my life, but it's good fun and worth a read whether you're an existing fan or not.

The Book of Strange New Things
The Book of Strange New Things
Price: £7.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Clever mingling of sci-fi world-building and literary musings, but far too lacking in plot, 28 Feb. 2015
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On the one hand, this book deals with big questions like the nature of faith and the importance of love. On the other, it introduces a race of aliens and creates a whole new culture, language and script for them, and describes a world where the atmosphere has texture and water is green. Yes, it's one of my absolute favourite things - a book that unashamedly combines the most highbrow literary sentiments with the most imaginative genre fiction, like the best bits of Margaret Atwood or David Mitchell.

The plot concerns Peter, a born-again Christian (and former alcoholic, drug-user and petty criminal) who leaves behind his beloved wife to carry out missionary work with humanoid aliens on another planet, which an earth-based corporation is trying to colonise and make habitable for humans. Half of the book focusses on the strangeness of life on this planet, both in the sterile, passionless base the corporation has developed (having screened all staff to select only the most stable and dull people) and out in the wild where the aliens live. This is half minutiae of daily life, half meanderings on Christianity as he preaches to the extremely receptive natives and extremely skeptical settler. A large focus of the books, however, is the electronic messages Peter exchanges with Bea, his wife, which quickly show three things: things are going fundamentally wrong on earth, with environmental and financial disasters and collapsing Governments, she's losing her trust in and love for Peter, and she's losing her faith in God.

Whatever is going on on earth actually seems a lot more interesting than what's going on in space, but we only get snippets, explained by an increasingly hysterical Bea. She wasn't allowed to accompany Peter due to not meeting the company's strict selection criteria around stability and self-reliance, so there's always a lingering suspicion that's she's over-reacting. Peter, on the other hand, underreacts to all the horrific news and his wife's evident distress in a way that's quite chilling. Is it just impossible for him to imagine things happening that far away, in the same way we always manage to block out thoughts of famine in Africa? Is the alien culture having some sort of strange effect on him? Or has there always been something wrong with him on an emotional level? Reading between the lines of their communications to establish both facts and feelings is a fun intellectual game, and the letters are always touching.

On the other hand, it's hard to get away from the fact that this book ultimately revolves around sermons, letters between a bickering couple, and the minutiae of life on a base that could as easily be in the antarctic or the desert as on an alien planet. There's almost no plot. If I say there's a former alcoholic, away from his wife, dealing with aliens who seem entirely friendly, there's three things you might expect to happen - a relapse, an affair, a shocking revelation about the aliens. But no. Everything is as it seems, and Peter gets methodically on with the task ahead of him. Sorry if that sounds like a spoiler, but it's not, because there is literally no storyline to spoil. I enjoyed all the description and world-building and philosophical pondering, but I don't think it makes me too much of a philistine to have craved just a little bit of action or twist mixed in with it all. Alternatively, I think could have been made quite a lot shorter without losing anything. Several scenes seemed to go back over the same old ground.

Overall then, an impressive novel and a moving one, but not an entirely enjoyable one. But I do think authors always deserve credit for mixing genres and subverting people's ideas of what high and low brow fiction look like, and I would cautiously recommend this as a rather different read.

The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle Book 1)
The Raven Boys (The Raven Cycle Book 1)
Price: £4.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Tarot, welsh mythology and posh boys - the perfect ingredients, but somehow it didn't quite grab my attention., 28 Feb. 2015
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I had high hopes for this book, based on the fact that it contained three of my favourite things: tarot cards, welsh mythology, and posh boys. And on the whole, it did a good job on all three points,
It tells the story of Blue, who lives with her psychic mother and equally psychic extended family and family friends. I loved the family set up and thought the secondary characters were well established. It was nice to read something where the heroine had a happy home life and was genuinely close to her mum, and the combination of domesticity and magic at her house was well done.

Uniquely amongst her family members, Blue isn't psychic or otherwise magically talented, but she does have the ability to enhance other people's psychic and magical abilities simply by standing close to them. Blue was likable and well-developed, and I liked this balance between making her interesting, but actually having her less rather than more "special" than most of the supporting characters.

Ever since she was young, every psychic Blue has met (and she's met lots) has prophesied that she'll one day kill her true love with a kiss. She and her family just treat this as an established fact, and as a result, she's never risked kissing anyone. Her family also take part in an old tradition - that in certain places (which we later discover to be ley lines) on St Day, it's possible to see the ghosts of everyone within a certain distance who will die within the next twelve months. Unlike her mother et al, Blue can never see these ghosts, but goes along every year to enhance her mother's abilities. Until, when the book opens, she finally sees someone - the ghost of a boy from the local posh school, who she's never met in real life, but who introduces himself as Gansey. Blue's aunt explains that the fact she was able to see him means one of two things - either he's her true love or she is going to kill him. And considering the prophecy, she suspects it's going to be both. It certainly makes for a dramatic opening to the novel!

Now, a lesser book would have spent the next two hundred pages with Blue falling in love with Gansey and agonising over whether she can risk kissing him. And to be fair, there's a tiny bit of that. But mostly, the focus shifts to Gansey himself, specifically, his obsession with finding and waking an ancient welsh king who's meant to be buried under a leyline in Virginia. Now, on paper, Gansey should be pretty much my perfect character. "Posh, rich and strongly interested in mythology" is more or less what I'd write in the "looking for" box on a dating site if I was single. In practice, I quite liked Gansey, but he didn't quite gel with me. His "I feel empty being so rich so I must achieve something" spiel got a bit trying

We also spend a lot of time meeting Gansey's three friends who support him in his quest - Adam, a very intelligent and driven scholarship boy with an abusive family, Noah, who tends to be described as "smudgy" and not do much, and who there's ultimately a bit of a revelation about, and Ronan, an archetypal arrogant rich kid from an Irish family, who has gone completely off the rails since his father died in mysterious circumstances and who loves to fight. Those one line descriptions don't really do justice to the subtly drawn characters and the depth of their interactions with each other and eventually, with Blue. It was a great portrayal of male friendships and conflicts. I didn't entirely like any of these characters in isolation, but they worked well as a group. And interestingly, it's Adam - probably the most sympathetic of the four - that Blue has a romantic interest in in this book. Gansey is fairly fundamentally not her type, but it's clear there's something there. I can only assume we're gearing up for a love triangle in subsequent books, but on the evidence of this, I suspect the author will handle it sensibly.

So lots of interesting and well-drawn characters combined with an interesting premise. But somehow, while I enjoyed this, it just didn't grab me. Part of the problem was that over the course of a fairly long book, very little really happened. And when something dramatic finally does occur towards the end, nothing much seems to come of it. And while I appreciated the way the romance wasn't front and centre, it could have done with a little more punch. Some of the book also just felt very weird, almost dreamlike.

Part of me is intrigued about where this is going to go, part of me isn't sure I have the energy for three more books if they are all this slow burn. But apparently the sequel focuses on Ronan, who probably ended up being my favourite of the group of four, so while I won't be rushing to pick it up, I'll probably give it a go at some point.

Every Day
Every Day
Price: £3.79

4.0 out of 5 stars Unique premise and interesting thought experiment, 2 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Every Day (Kindle Edition)
I'd been meaning to read this book for a while, intrigued by the concept of A, a narrator who wakes up in a different body each day and lives their hosts' life for that day. They have no body to call their own, and therefore no sense of their sex, gender, sexuality or race. It was a very original idea and was mostly very well executed. This "entity's" voice radiated out of the page, striking a good balance between having a consistent personality and being influenced by each body their found themselves in.

There were really three things going on here. One was a sort of paranormal story, where you just enjoyed and wondered at the strangeness of A's life. I loved reading about their experiences. I'd have liked to see more explanation, more mind-bending weirdness and more attempts to bend the rules, but fundamentally, that wasn't what the author was going for.

The second aspect was a very strange love story. One day, A is in the body of a rather unpleasant boy and falls in love with his girlfriend. A then keeps trying to met her in different guises, before telling her the truth, after which they try to make their very unconventional relationship work. The concept of the romance was intriguing, but the actual relationship just didn't quite grab me. The first chapter, where the two of them meet, was super cheesy and one of the worst examples of "insta-love" I've every come across. I often don't mind that, but it jarred me here. Why this girl? There just didn't seem to be anything special about her - if anything, she seemed very ground down and unambitious. While I didn't quite buy into their relationship, I enjoyed the question of whether you can love someone's mind/soul enough to ignore what their body looks like and the fact that, on some days at least, they appear to be a different gender to the one you're attracted to. I suspect the answer is probably yes - but probably not within a few days of meeting them for the first time!

The third aspect of the book was a quick run through of the lives of all sorts of people, that A inhabits for one day. It was fun coming across so many characters and so many mini life stories. Many of these were touching and well done, though some felt cliched and some felt preachy. And weirdly, in amongst all the talk of acceptance, there were also some odd anomalies - while the book made clear it was fine to be bi, trans, depressed etc (all noble sentiments), it was oddly scathing about people being obese, drug-addicted, or interested in their appearance.

There was some interesting stuff about the extent to which there are or aren't real differences between people versus the extent to which it's all perception and cultural context, and while the idea of someone who doesn't have all that baggage was interesting, I felt it ultimately overplayed the extent to which absolutely all gender and all sexuality is pure cultural construct. Some aspects? Absolutely. All? Probably pushing it. I also thought A was very judgmental when they got upset about the girlfriend being uncomfortable with doing anything sexual when A was in a girl's body. I don't think it's homophobic to be absolutely fine with other people being gay or bi while being personally straight! Still, I think this would be a great book to give to someone who was struggling with either their sexuality or their prejudices.

Finally, a minor annoyance - the book lives or dies on its portrayal of someone with no sex or gender. But for some reason, I couldn't stop thinking of A as male. I think partly it's because they are male when readers first meet them, partly because they have a relationship with a girl who definitely thinks of herself as straight, and partly, perhaps, because the male author somehow gave them what felt to me like a male voice. All of that is perhaps unavoidable, but the stupid thing is that the blurb refers to A as "he" thereby completely missing the point and pretty much ruining my mental perception of the character.

That sounds like a lot of complaints, but it's mostly only because the book really engaged me and got me thinking and mentally debating some of the points it raised. If I disagreed with some of its portrayals and angles, it's only because it raised such interesting questions. There were things about the book that annoyed me and others things I loved. On balance though, I'd definitely recommend it for a really unique and mostly well-executed read.

Quicksilver (Ultraviolet Book 2)
Quicksilver (Ultraviolet Book 2)
Price: £3.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable sequel, but lacks the magic and mystery of the first book, 2 Feb. 2015
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I loved Ultraviolet, the first book in this series, but was quite surprised to learn that it had a sequel, as it had the feel of a standalone and wrapped the central mystery up nicely. If you haven't read the first book, look away now, because you can't talk about this book without massive spoilers for the first one, and that's a story that's best read cold.

This book was quite different from the first one, most obviously because instead of Alison from the first book, it follows Tori, the popular girl who disappeared and who turned out to be an alien. Though I missed Alison, it was interesting to get a different perspective, and while she'd never seemed like the nicest person from Alison's perspective, she came across as very likable in this installment, and had a good, strong voice.

The story was interesting, with some good twists and turns and some shocking moments - the author doesn't go in for unadulterated happy endings or giving her characters and easy get out. That said, this book lacked two of the main things that made Ultraviolet really special. Firstly, Alison's synesthesia. Here, it's sort of replaced by Tori's brilliance at engineering and design, as well as her asexuality. Both these things were interesting and certainly made for a rather different portrayal of a teenage girl than you generally get in YA lit, but they weren't as fascinating. Secondly, half the fun of Ultraviolet was not knowing what was going on or what genre the book was. Here, we're in clear, unequivocal sci-fi territory - and while there's nothing wrong with that, it killed some of the suspense. Finally, there were a few aspects of the plot that didn't quite make sense to me.

Overall then, this was a decent read and it's nice to read about a very different teenage female heroine. But ultimately, it was a much more normal book than Ultraviolet, so didn't fascinate me anywhere near as much.

Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A book that plays with your mind until you've no idea what genre you're reading, 2 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Ultraviolet (Kindle Edition)
I hugely enjoyed this book for three main reasons. First, the unusual device of having the story be told be someone who has Synesthesia - a real condition where senses merge into one, so that you smell sounds and taste colours, etc. It made for some very unique descriptions, and though I found it a little jarring at first, it ultimately really enriched the book.

Secondly, most of the book is set in a teenage mental institution, and it really conjures up a great sense of horror and panic. Unlike some literary depictions of asylums, no one was sadistic or neglectful or corrupt, and nothing truly awful happened. The staff care about our sectioned heroine - but the grinding horror of not being allowed home, of taking medication with unpleasant side effects and being constantly monitored was almost more traumatic to read about than a more OTT depiction.

Thirdly - and this was the thing that really made the book special for me - I just didn't know what was going on or what genre of book I'd landed in. Our narrator, Alison, has been sectioned after she had a fight with a school mate, who disappeared into thin air in front of her, causing her to seemingly have some form of nervous breakdown. No one has seen the other girl since. The police believe she has something to do with it, the doctors think she has a serious mental illness. And the great thing is that I didn't know what to believe. It felt equally plausible that Alison was schizophrenic and had imagined the other girl disappearing, that she'd killed her accidentally and was in shock and denial, or that something supernatural has happened. For the majority of the book, I didn't know whether I was reading a crime thriller, a gritty study of mental illness or a paranormal novel. For the full effect, I'd recommend you're very careful around reviews, even if you're usually okay with spoilers.

In the end, everything is explained and wrapped up convincingly - though not too neatly. And in between, there's some great character development, some challenging of perceptions, and a rather sweet romance. Definitely worth a read if you're looking for something a bit different.

Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Decent enough sequel, but like it's predecessor, never really fulfills its promise, 2 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: Ironside (Kindle Edition)
I vaguely enjoyed the first book in this series, but ultimately felt fairly underwhelmed and unsure whether I wanted to bother with the sequel.
In the end, I decided to give it a go. There's actually another book between Tithe, the first installment, and this one, but that apparently dealt with a whole different cast of characters and an only tangentially related plot, and I didn't feel sufficiently invested in the world to bother with that, so I jumped straight to this final volume to find out what happens to Roiben and Kaye.

Broadly speaking, this book had the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor: an enjoyably gritty "real world" and dark, bloody fairyland, and some interesting twists and turns and faerie politicking - but at the same time, a love interest who didn't really blow me away and other characters I struggled to really identify with.

It's perfectly fine as a light read for anyone who likes Fae fiction and worth a read if you enjoyed Tithe, but it just didn't do anything special or really capture my imagination.

Price: £3.66

5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing book for anyone that loves writing or the literary world, 14 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Afterworlds (Kindle Edition)
Afterworlds is two novels in one. Half of the book tells the story of Darcy, an eighteen year old who's just published her first novel moving to New York to try to make it as an author while falling in love, growing up and doing lots of rewrites and publicity tours. Every other chapter is Darcy's novel, a YA paranormal about a girl who becomes a "reaper" or "psychopomp" tasked with helping souls to cross into the afterlife, and who falls in love with a sexy Hindu death god (yes, really - makes a change from vampires, I suppose!).

I suspect that I wouldn't have particularly enjoyed either of these stories anywhere near as much if they were standalones. The paranormal novel was a fun but very standard example of its genre, and I'm not usually a massive fan of contemporary YA. But together, they worked brilliantly. I found it fascinating to see how the paranormal novel changed in response to both edits requested by Darcy's editor and her own life experiences. I've several books with extracts of a character's writing in them, but never one that gives you the whole book.

The paranormal sections were both a gentle mockery of and loving homage to the genre, while the "real" sections were a bit of an ode to the joys of writing, as well as something of a satire of the modern YA scene. To really enjoy this book, I suspect you've got to have read a few paranormal romances, good and bad, in your time, and either write yourself and/or be very involved in the world of Goodreads, book blogging etc. Some of Darcy's writer friends and rivals were clearly based on real authors - looking at the acknowledgements page might give some clues!

As I writer of paranormal novels myself, I kept veering between amusement and painful recognition. The way that Darcy ruthlessly takes places she's visited and snippets from conversations with friends and personality traits of people she meets and incorporates them into her book was so close to my natural way of working that it really made me smile when things mentioned a few chapters back in the "real" sections subtly cropped up in the paranormal sections. The pain of incorporating editors' comments was also beautifully well done, in particular the on-going debate about whether Darcy was going to change the ending of her novel to make it happier. The one extra thing I'd have liked to see would have been a few snippets of Darcy's first draft - the version we're reading is meant to be the final, published version, and it would be interesting to see how things changed, in particular the ending.

Away from the writing, I also really liked Darcy's romance with a fellow (female) author and the sheer wish-fulfillment fun of her life in New York. To get the most out of this, I think you need to suspend your disbelief with Darcy's own story just as much as with her paranormal novel. Yes, it's a little far-fetched that a very young, first time author would get taken on by the first agent she applied to, given a six-figure, two-book publishing deal, find a nice apartment, get a new circle of cool friends and generally have everything go near-perfectly for her in life and love. But then, it's also a little far-fetched that someone would become a psychopomp and fall in love with a sexy Indian death god, and in a way, I don't think the "real" story is meant to be any more realistic than the "imaginary" one. There are books about struggling writers desperately trying to get a break and that is not what this book is trying to achieve. That said, if just for my self-esteem levels, I might have preferred it if it was suggested that Darcy had tried a few agents before one of them bit or that she'd written another book before the one that sold, or even some suggestion that she'd done lots of editing to start with - she seemed to do NaNoWriMo and then press send!

I can see why not everyone enjoyed this book. The Darcy sections are maybe a little too much like one big in-joke for anyone who doesn't know what NetGalley is, and the paranormal novel sometimes treads a fine line between its need to be enjoyable in its own right and its need to show the faults with Darcy's writing and feel like a first novel. Personally though, this is one of my favourite books in a long time and really helped to remind me both of how hard writing can be, and of how much I love to do it.

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