movies | reviews | Uncategorized

Review: The Neon Demon (SPOILER FREE)

July 22, 2016

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Nicholas Winding Refn’s newest film is a polarising one. The critics love it for its gorgeous cinematography and its astute commentary on the world of fashion modelling, but the public hates it for Refn’s characteristic lack of character development and, well, plot.

Me? I feel sort of in-between.

I’ll start with the obvious – The Neon Demon is, for the most part, very beautiful. Even its gorier scenes are made gorgeous with excellent use of colour and negative space. Beauty is central to the nature of the film, and typically, Refn reflects this in his cinematography. One minor criticism I have is that there’s a very sudden visual shift in the second half, and I feel as though this jolted me out of what would otherwise have been an uninterrupted visual experience.

Mirrors are used to great effect – almost every scene features a mirror somewhere, and the images in the glass are often all we see of a character –  a clear extension of the ‘beauty is truth’ metaphors evident throughout the film. Light is also used symbolically – one of the pivotal scenes features a shift from innocent, frigid blues to aggressively sexual reds.

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That particular scene also features one of the best uses of music I’ve ever heard. In fact, scratch that, this whole movie features the best use of music I’ve ever heard. Cliff Martinez’ score is a veritable presence throughout the movie, creating edge-of-your-seat tension in even the most innocent of scenes and punctuating the scary moments like a knife to the gut.

Which brings me on to my first semi-negative point: This is not a horror movie. I feel as though this is a source of disappointment for many viewers, so I’m uneasily sorting this point into criticism for now. It seems as though the trailer and early marketing materials presented the film as more of a gory torture porn movie than it actually turned out to be, and this has left many viewers confused and disappointed (because it’s not like they can just go and see one of the other millions of generic slasher movies out there, right?). Personally, I feel like The Neon Demon had plenty of tension and sinister moments right from the start of the movie, but I’ve heard plenty of audience members complaining that there wasn’t enough action and that what little action there was took too long to get started.

What action there is, though, is abrupt and visceral. I’m reminded somewhat of It Follows in that the majority of the film is simply there to ramp up the tension until the inevitable violent climax, and this is done brilliantly. There is no single moment in the film which feels ‘safe’ – the fear just builds and builds, and then explodes. The film as a whole is more ‘weird’ than ‘scary’. That’s my favourite kind of horror – but it’s not for everybody, and it’s certainly not  what a lot of the Neon Demon’s viewership seems to have signed on for.

Another turn-off for some viewers could be the sheer visceral nature of some scenes, and the undercurrent of fear that permeates every scene in the movie. The Neon Demon makes for some uncomfortable watching, and though a lot of that uneasiness comes from Refn’s characteristically minimalist dialogue, a great deal of it comes from the incredible performances of the cast. I’ve heard Elle Fanning’s performance of the protagonist Jessie called ‘dull’, but I prefer the term ‘naturalistic’. She does an excellent job of playing a believably naive character, and as that character develops, so do her mannerisms, her manner of speaking, and her poise.

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It’s difficult to pick out my favourite performances from a film that was full of incredible performances, but I particularly enjoyed Jena Malone’s performance as the darkly charismatic Ruby, a makeup artist who quickly befriends the ingenue Jessie. Since this is a spoiler free review I’ll keep my comments brief, but Jena Malone embodied her character, even in scenes where it must have been difficult to find something to relate to. From her very first line we get an immediate sense of who Ruby is and the faintest hint of her goals, and Malone’s performance only gets better from there.

My second stand-out performance has to be Abbey Lee as Sarah, a rival model. Her character is at turns pitiable and ruthless, and Abbey Lee handles these abrupt changes very well. Lee is a model herself, and one wonders whether her own experiences have informed her interpretation of Sarah’s character, because her performance is just so believable, despite, again, the unbelievable scenes she is required to perform. Plus, her character’s unflappability brings a touch of dark comedy to the most horrible scene in the movie, and provides low-key humour throughout.

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One last point which I found particularly striking – the female characters drive this film, not just in the sense that one of them is the protagonist, but in the sense that it is their stories, although shadily outlined, that are the most compelling, and their actions that bring the film to its climax. At its heart, The Neon Demon is a horror story about women, and some of the most frightening scenes in the movie are built on the kind of horrors that lurk in the back of every woman’s mind: ‘Can I trust this man?’ ‘Is someone watching me?’ ‘Are my friends really my friends?’

The male characters might as well be a footnote, and I say that despite the wonderful performances of creepy motel-owner Keanu Reeves and all-around nice guy Karl Glusman. The importance of the female characters and the comparative immateriality of the male characters was a refreshing reversal of the usual hollywood paradigm. It’s a reversal that I could stand to see more of, especially in horror. To quote Ruby: ‘It’s good to have good girls around.’

 

 

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board games | reviews | Uncategorized

Review: Tragedy Looper

June 16, 2016

I love a good time travel anime. From the gritty ‘oh my god I want to rip my own heart out and eat it’ twists of Umineko No Naku Koro Ni to the slightly less visceral but no less heartbreaking turns of Stein;s Gate, I love them all. I love the kooky sceptics, the lovable best friends, and the crazed yandere killers.

But most of all, I love the masterminds that always turn out to be behind it all.

Tragedy Looper is a board game that lets you be that mastermind.

Just as planned.

 

Actually, only one player gets to be the mastermind. The other three players get to be the colourfully-haired protagonists in this tale of time-loop tragedy, which I’m assured is just as fun. I say assured, because right off the bat the game limits itself somewhat by insisting that only one player can ever play as the mastermind, for much the same reasons that only one player can ever be the dungeon-master – because they know the plot.

Fair enough, for those of us with perfect eidetic memories that would be a problem, but for the rest of us one quick glance at the mastermind’s handbook is enough to say for certain that ‘nobody could possibly remember all of this!’ I know that, because that’s the exact reaction I get whenever I say ‘hey, does anyone else want to play the mastermind this round? I swear I haven’t just memorised everything that happens.’

A mastermind’s handbook contains everything they need to set up their dastardly plot, and believe it or not, that is quite a lot. First you have a selection of terrible events – a murder, a suicide, a suspicious aura about the hospital, a strange occurrence at the shrine. Then, the game provides you with a selection of colourful characters to puppetmaster your way through the game with. You have the standard selection of schoolchildren with a terrible destiny, plus a host of characters who fit into the respective sections of the game board – a shrine maiden for the shrine, a pervy office worker for the city, and a doctor and patient for the hospital.

Each character has their own motivations and hang-ups outside of their description. This is the ‘role’ that they play in the plot. For example, that innocent looking shrine maiden? Yeah, she’s a serial killer, and every time she’s alone with someone on her square, they’ll wind up dead by the next morning. That hapless patient? He’s your best friend, and if you don’t prevent that horrible incident at the hospital, it’s back to the beginning of the time loop for you.

The protagonists’ role in the game is to figure out which character has which role, and use it to their advantage. They can gain goodwill with characters to get special information that might tip the scales in their favour, but the canny player will quickly realise that there’s as much to gain from sacrificing everyone they meet to the serial killer as there is from dutifully protecting a police officer until they’re able to reveal the culprit of a tragedy.

Plays are conducted by placing cards upon characters, which are then flipped to reveal what that character does or which tokens are added to the character. Paranoia makes a character more likely to be the culprit of a tragedy. Intrigue makes them more likely to be a victim. Goodwill makes them more likely to help the players down the line – if they survive that long. Finally, movement cards allow the players and the mastermind to move characters from one section of the board to another.

This leads to what I think is the most interesting mechanics in the game – players are not allowed to confer about what cards they’re going to put down, and movement cards can cancel one another out. This means that it’s totally possible for the mastermind to set up a situation in which two players will completely screw each other over and basically murder the character they were trying to protect.

However, there are some downsides. For one thing, the rules state that the mastermind’s cards must always be resolved before the protagonists’. But sometimes a protagonist’s card directly conflicts with the mastermind’s card, and must be revealed right away. That’s me being incredibly nitpicky, though. A far bigger problem is that with all this moving around and placing tokens, there’s the potential for things to get very fiddly, very quickly. The game has some bigger +3 tokens to prevent this, but I’ve had multiple games where cards have been so covered in paranoia, intrigue, and goodwill that they’re impossible to read, let alone move around the board.

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[muffled voice from within token pile] just as planned!
Another aspect of the game that might turn new players off is its apparent complexity. The mastermind has a million things to remember, and although the handbook provides some handy tips to get the ball rolling on this horrorfest, there’s a lot of pressure to balance the game so that the protagonists neither win too easily nor fail too hard.

On the protagonists’ side, there’s the potential for the game to become very frustrating if the mastermind is more about winning than the thrill of the game. There’s even a paragraph on the back of the mastermind handbook that warns masterminds to sacrifice their opportunities to win to create a more satisfying game for the players. If that screams ‘BABBY MODE HAND HOLDING’ to you, I suggest not picking up the mastermind role, because basically all of it is walking players through the game and trying to ensure that they have a fair chance of winning despite the odds being overwhelmingly tipped in your favour. Personally, I find that really fun, but I can imagine that it’s not so great for everyone.

At the end of the day though, Tragedy Looper is a really amazing game. There’s a lot of room for creativity, and even a little bit of storytelling if that’s what you’re into. Depending on the temperament of the players and the level of complexity of the plot, games can last anywhere from half an hour to three hours, and every minute is incredibly fun. You can play the game co-operatively, giving your fellow players hints about what you might do without tipping off the mastermind, or you can be a lone wolf, throwing caution to the wayside to get to the heart of a mystery no matter what it takes.

And if you mess up?

You can always turn back time.

 

 

 

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Uncategorized | writing | writing tips

Worldbuilding? More like World Breaking.

February 13, 2016

 

I’m working on a project. It’s spiralling wildly out of control and part of the reason why is that this project of mine is set in what I’ve lovingly termed the post-post-apocalypse. We’re talking so far into the future that people don’t even remember the event that sent their distant ancestors running from their city flats and into the wild, there to live out the rest of their days in tenuous peace. We’re talking so far past the apocalypse that the apocalypse has literally no bearing on the content of the story any more, and yet still I have spent hours and hours researching likely apocalyptic scenarios in search of something that sticks.

Why is that important? Because the apocalypse might be irrelevant to the here and now of my story, but it forms the backdrop of literally everything and everyone in it.

Also, researching horrible apocalyptic scenarios that could reasonably happen in the next 50 years or so has been marvellous fun. Here’s how you too can cosy up with the NSA and start planning your very own apocalypse.

Step one was to decide on the sort of apocalypse I was interested in. I knew right away that I didn’t want anything too permanent, because I didn’t want my characters to still have to deal with imminent danger every day, and I didn’t want anything too fatal, because I wanted to actually have characters in the first place.

So, a sort of backwards engineering took place. I wrote down everything that I needed to be true ~500 years after the apocalypse. Here is that list:

  • The population of Britain has to drop from 61.4 Million to 18.8 million.
  • The population must have a reason to disperse into small countryside settlements.
  • Imminent dangers i.e radiation, famine, disease must either be avoidable or have been significantly reduced.

The good news (for most of us) is that it turns out most of the common apocalypse scenarios are totally survivable. The bad news for me is that most of the common apocalypse scenarios are totally survivable. I initially ruled out all-out nuclear war firstly because it seemed a bit obvious, and secondly because it seemed a bit untenable. The truth is that (according to nukemap) if a H-Bomb of 10.4 megatons were to hit London today, fatalities would number around 2,320,460. That’s terrible. But it’s not terrible enough. Even if that same H-Bomb hit every major city in the UK, the fatality rate would be a measly 5.5 Million, barely a dent in the total population – and everywhere south of Woking would be relatively untouched, along with most of Wales and Northern Ireland. That said, the fallout effects spread over everywhere else in the UK, across the North Sea, and even reach parts of Denmark. That’s bad news, because the effects of fallout hang around for (I couldn’t really find an accurate number on this) a really really long time. And that’s not the fun kind of fallout where you get three headed cows and giant blue dicked superbeings, it’s the kind of fallout where all your children die of radiation poisoning and you can’t grow any food and every day is a ceaseless struggle for survival in a decaying landscape and it could potentially last forever. 

And apart from all of that, if nuclear war ever actually became a threat, we (and by ‘we’ I mean the very rich and maybe some lucky engineers) would likely have a contingency plan. Like some kind of massive shelter. And maybe 500 years after that nuclear war we’d be able to reemerge from our shelters into a very different but very survivable landscape, but that story is called Fallout and it’s full of glitches anyway.

Let’s rule out some other scenarios. No meteors. 99% of the time they are totally harmless, and the one percent of the time they’re not they’re totally fatal. That’s ‘totally’ as in ‘they are responsible for at least one mass extinction event’, not ‘totally rad’. Ditto for solar flares, which would incinerate all life on earth in moments and probably won’t happen until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle several billion years away.

So let’s talk zombies. Well actually let’s not, because I ruled out zombies because they are a dumb idea that has been done to death, resurrected, and whacked in the head repeatedly until all semblance of consciousness has been destroyed. Let’s talk instead about the possibility of pandemic. A pandemic is like a zombie apocalypse, but less bitey and with more sneezing. As anyone who’s ever played Pandemic 2 (or its blatant ripoff, Plague Inc.) knows, it’s totally possible for the right virus to completely wipe out humanity. It’s also completely possibly for that virus to wipe out a little bit of humanity and die out because it wiped out a bit too much. Perfect.

Now let’s take that virus, or maybe another virus, or a parasite, or a particularly tenacious bacteria, and give it to our food. The 2001 foot and mouth epidemic (sorry, epizootic) in Britain resulted in the deaths of around ten million livestock. Fusarium Wilt is in the process of wiping out banana supplies the world over. Bees are dying out, which means that our plants are becoming harder to pollinate. We rely on GMOs which may or may not be susceptible to horrible diseases (no sources for that one, because this is a worst case scenario, remember?). The long and the short of it is, we are a few poorly-timed outbreaks away from nationwide famine. Throw in some new strains of flu, ebola, or meningitis in there and we have the makings of a pretty plausible minor apocalypse. People mass-evacuate from cities as the virus spreads among the densely packed population. Food shortages mean that the government resorts to rationing, which widens the class divide still further, which leads to rioting, distrust, insurrection, which leads to a military response… and it goes on.

If that seems a bit much, remember that the apocalypse is unlikely to be a single event, but rather a series of horrible, horrible mishaps. It will have to take place not just in one country, but in every country worldwide. Every failsafe must fail to be safe. Maybe war will be involved – it certainly hasn’t been beyond humanity in the past to pass up helping their fellows to make an ill-advised power grab. I’m not saying that the scenario I’ve envisioned is the most likely apocalypse, but it’s certainly the most workable one for me. Maybe your apocalypse will be different. The most important thing when planning world-end scenarios is to have fun, be yourself, and leave as much as you possibly can to artistic license. That’s how you avoid spending all night explaining to your new buddies in the sharp suits why you needed to know the effects of an improvised nuclear weapon in inner-city London.

 

 

 

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The Library of Babel

February 3, 2016

Imagine a library. In this library is every word that has been, and will ever be, written.

If the concept seems familiar, perhaps you’ve read a short story by Borges, called ‘The Library of Babel’, which revolves around a similar collection of volumes upon volumes of every word ever written in every possible permutation.

Borges’ Library is a hypothetical. A thought experiment. The notion that a colossal library filled with every work of literature, every hastily scrawled love note, and every council tax bill ever written is an entertaining thought, but is surely, sadly, an impossibility.

It exists.

Libraryofbabel.info is the brainchild of Jonathan Basile, a computer programmer and self-described ‘librarian of Babel’. Within the virtual stacks of the library, a program whirrs away, frantically tapping out letter after random letter, filling books and neatly tidying them away upon the shelves. Unlike Borges’ Library, which features books which are, although bizarre, at least somewhat comprehensible, the vast majority of the ‘books’ in Library of Babel are absolute gibberish, occasionally interrupted by legible words, or even entire paragraphs. Perhaps a better comparison would be to the proverbial room full of monkeys, eternally striving to type the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, unlike those poor immortal monkeys, Library of Babel actually has typed the works of Shakespeare. At least, it’s typed 3200 characters worth of the works of Shakespeare.  It’s also typed The Aeneid.  And the wikipedia page for ‘The Library of Babel’. And this very blog post.

It’s not a trick, Basile explains. Anything you find while surfing the Library’s shelves will remain exactly where you find it, forever. ‘We do not simply generate and store books as they are requested – in fact, the storage demands would make that impossible.’

So I’m left to ponder a couple of pretty tough questions.

  1. If everything I will ever write has already been written by an insane typing robot, can I truly say that anything I write will be ‘original’?
  2. If the next bestseller is lurking somewhere in this huge collection of text, could I steal it, publish it, and make a killing?

I’ll address the Question #2 first, because I’m feeling too upbeat to tackle Question #1, and because Question #1 is a concept that’s already been tackled at least a dozen times.

So anyway, Question #2. The ‘if’ is not a hypothetical – there is no question that somewhere in the Library of Babel, the next Harry Potter, the next 50 Shades, or the next horrible amalgamation of the two, is waiting to be discovered. The sheer number of iterations of different words and letters almost guarantees that this will be the case. And should someone discover the magical sequence, copy+paste it, and ship it off to a publisher, it would be impossible to prove that they had in fact stolen it from a virtual room full of monkeys. It would be the perfect crime.

Of course, all of this supposes that someone will actually be able to find that bestseller. A quick skim through the first few pages of the first book on the first shelf in the first room of the Library (entitled tig .xswfor the curious) reveals that most of what you will find in the Library will be complete and utter gibberish. It would take somebody a lifetime, maybe ten lifetimes, to sort through the books in the first room alone. Which is why Basile built a program to do that exact thing in the first place.

Which brings me to the big failure of the Library of Babel. I’m reminded somewhat of a question I ran into on willyoupushthebutton.com that went: ‘You can have infinite knowledge on every subject, but you will never be able to tell anyone what you know.’ That situation is embodied in the Library of Babel. One of those books will be 409 pages of random letters and 1 page of a snippet from the Library of Alexandria, and we might never know. Now that the Library of Babel is (probably) complete, there’s been a substantial effort on the forums to collate and analyse what information (if any) there is to be found. They have some pretty cute ASCII art. There’s also a guy searching for his own obituary. So far, no bestsellers. So far, no library of Alexandria.

So far.

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized | writing

Write Every Day: My New Year’s Resolution

January 4, 2016

Well okay, it’s January 4th. I’m a bit late off the mark for a proper New Year’s Resolution, and that’s precisely why it’s so important for me to have one.

Back in November, I managed to not just write every day, but to stick to a pretty high wordcount goal as well. Some days were easier than others – one day I might write 4,000 words, only to fall behind and churn out a lacklustre paragraph the day after.

So there’s no wordcount goal. The only requirement is that I write something reasonably creative every single day from now until next year. It might be a blog post, it might be a short story or a poem – it might be a few more pages of that novel I’ve been working on. I’m feeling good about this – let’s see how long I can keep it up!

Does anyone else have any writerly New Year’s Resolutions they’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them. Let’s stick to our goals together!

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Octarine: Submissions now open!

October 19, 2015

Recently I’ve gotten myself involved with an exciting new project. It’s called Octarine, and it’s a student-run literary magazine based at the University of East Anglia. What drew me to Octarine was that their mission statement rejects the insular nature of most student magazines – Octarine wants to showcase work from beyond the confines of the university, and reach out to the wider Norfolk literary community.

Why bring this up now? Well, submissions have just opened for Octarine’s very first issue, and I can’t contain my excitement any longer! I feel so lucky to be involved with such an amazing project, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing our first issue in print.

I’m part of the editing team, so if you’re interested in having me hunch over your work in the early hours of the morning, nitpicking away at your precious literary babies, you can submit it now by sending it to octarinemagazine@gmail.com with the title SUBMISSION (TITLE, YOUR NAME).

A lot of passion has gone into making Octarine, and so that’s the theme of our first issue. Specifically, we’re looking for submissions themed around this quote, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“I want to know what passion is. I want to feel something strongly.”

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1 Year Later…

August 10, 2014

Well, it’s been over a year since I started this blog. Along the way I’ve learned a lot of things, and none of them are to do with writing blogs. Sorry.

I think my favourite part about this blog has been having the ability to broadcast whatever I like across the internet. It’s been good sharing my (unpopular) opinions on music, video games, and the dreaded feelings. It’s been even better seeing people respond to those opinions. It’s good to know that I’m not just shouting into the void. So thank you, everyone who commented, reblogged, liked and shared my stuff. I really appreciate it!

So what’s next for me? Well, to begin with, I want to increase my output here. I’ll be posting a lot more of my own work, both extracts from things-in-progress and finished pieces. I want to write more reviews, and introduce more interesting things that I’ve come in contact with to the rest of the world. I also want to share more writing tips, which is something I’ve been pretty lax on lately.

In the present moment, however, I’ve embarked upon a writing project with my awesome friend Izzy Ball. It’s called Witch Lad, and you should definitely, definitely check it out!

 

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The Really Good Stuff I’m Reading Right Now : Wizard Detectives Edition

August 7, 2013

I read a LOT of books. It would basically be my job, if my job wasn’t writing them myself. So, I figured I’d do a little feature every week or so where I show off the best of the books I’m reading right now. This week features…

(drumroll please)

Ben Aaronovitch : The Peter Grant Mysteries 



I’m lying a little bit when I say I’m reading these right now. I actually read Rivers of London, the first in the series, in March last year. An amazing friend of mine told me it was the best book she’d ever read, which seemed as good a recommendation as any – and she was right, too. I read the whole book overnight – which made the scary parts (of which there are many) even better, and the funny parts (of which there are even more) even funnier. Delicious. I lapped it up, and I distinctly remember reaching the final page at about 6AM, as the sun was creeping in through my windows like an unusually cheerful vampire on the prowl, and thinking ‘Wait, is that all?’


I’m going to go ahead and warn you, potential readers, that these books are literally unputdownable. That’s a lie. You can put them down if you really have to (Like, if your house is on fire or something) but you really, really won’t want to. Rivers of London had me hooked from the first page, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the other two books in the series, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground, were equally brilliant.

These aren’t the kind of whodunnits you’d take Miss Marple to. They’re gritty, horribly realistic, and full to the brim with mild – to – moderate peril. There’s also wizards, if you object to that kind of thing. Yep. I said wizards.

Kawaii wizards! 

Rivers of London introduces us to DC Peter Grant, a regular run of the mill bobby on a routine murder investigation, who’s only witness happens to be a ghost. This, surprisingly enough, catches the attention of the top-secret paranormal wing of the London Met, which leads to DC Grant becoming the only apprentice wizard in London, and throws him feet-first into London’s seedy magical underworld as he grapples with every supernatural creature under the eerie full moon, from ghosts to (minor) goddesses, all while trying to get to the bottom of an ancient mystery that nearly gets him killed. More than once. Everyone with me so far? Good. It gets better.

Book Two, Moon Over Soho, introduces us to The Little Crocodiles, a group of black – uh ‘Ethically Challenged’ – magicians, educated at Oxford and now the puppeteers behind London’s criminal underworld. But that’s the least of DC Grant’s troubles – someone’s killing jazz musicians by feeding on their life-force, and if the perp isn’t apprehended asap, DC Grant’s Dad could be the next victim. A slightly disappointing sequel hook and an ominous lack of resolution mark this one out as a definite ‘second book in the trilogy’, but it’s still just as gripping and tense as the first. Aaronovitch keeps the tension up all the way to the end, and beyond – I don’t even remember the gap between putting Moon Over Soho down and picking Whispers Underground – I was that excited to keep reading. Seriously, I moved house and barely even noticed because I was still completely absorbed in these books. They’re so good.

And if, like me, you’ve been eagerly awaiting the next in the series, you’ll be happy to know that as of the 25th of July 2013, Broken Homes is available in hardcover in U.K bookshops. It looks like this :

Now go buy it! 


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