#AWW2017 #LoveOzYA “What other beautiful things had fear been hiding from her? ” // Review of “A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares” by Krystal Sutherland

Title: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares
Author: Krystal Sutherland
Genre: contemporary YA/Magical realism
Date Read: 07/09/2017 – 11/09/2017
Rating: ★★★★

Review:

I’m beginning to think that I’m actually a YA contemporary fan, even though I always tend to preface reviews with “I don’t read a lot of contemporary, but…” Some of my favourite reads this year have been YA contemporaries, and this one is added to that list. 

Esther Solar’s family has been cursed by Death, and each family member is going to die from their worst fear. Esther doesn’t know what hers is yet, but when she is reunited with childhood friend, Jonah, they resolve to face each item on her list and see if she can’t get through to the other side.

This book has such a bitteresweet tone, but don’t let the surface fluffiness fool you. This book gets deep. And dark. It does not treat mental illness lightly, but shows how it can tear a family apart. The characters are great, but rather heartbreaking. In addition to mental illness, the book also tackles domestic violence and also pulls no punches there.

I loved the magical realism aspect for the most part. I found Sutherland’s characterisation of Death really fascinating, and the idea of Death being able to fall in love, and die, and be taken by surprise sometimes, I thought was awesome. The fact that it was never clear whether he was really there or whether it was all in Esther’s head worked for the most part, though I might have liked the ending to be a little less ambiguous. There was also a reveal towards the end about Esther’s grandfather’s interactions with Death, which was a reveal to the reader, but not to Esther. Up until that point, though, Esther had been acting as  though she hadn’t been aware of the facts that came to light here, and I felt it was cheating a bit to have her act that way for the sake of narrative convenience.

Still, I found myself getting a little teary at the end and not wanting to let these characters go. They certainly got under my skin.

Trigger warnings: self-harm, suicide, domestic abuse.


(This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017. Click here for more information).

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“When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn’t it?” // Review of “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Audio book narrator:
Jim Hale
Genre:
Historical/magical realism
Date Read: 09/08/2016 – 18/08/2016
Rating: ★★★★

Review:

Back in 2012, I started reading The Night Circus, but I gave up, only about 100 pages in. I think listening to the audio book was the way to go, as it meant sneaking it in when driving or cleaning, all those times when I can’t sit with a physical book in my hands. At times, I thought my final rating was going to be anything from 3 starts to 4.5, but I think the solid 4 probably is the best overall indication of my enjoyment.

There is not a huge amount of plot to this novel – two magicians, Celia and Marco, are pitted against one another by their instructors in a challenge where they can only be one winner. The challenge does not only affect them, though, for the Cirque des Reves is their venue and everyone who relies upon the circus or comes to love it is touched by the challenge. The lack of plot didn’t bother me too much for reasons I’ll get into below, but I did feel the reasoning behind the challenge could have been better (basically all the reason we get is that the two instructors wanted to know whose methods were better). Celia and Marco were asking all the time and there was never any indication of if they were doing well, who was winning, etc… it got frustrating after the first few times.

The plot does jump around in time a lot, which is difficult to keep track of when listening to an audio book. If I had had the print copy, I probably would have been flipping back a few times to check what year it was last time I met these characters.

But depsite all of that, the language is absolutely beautiful. The descriptions are wonderful; I could imagine every single exhibit in the Circus in exquisite detail. At first, I felt that Jime Hale’s voice a little bit too rough and jarring for the sort of prose he was reading, but after a while I got used to it. Read aloud, the descriptions have  a really lilting, poetic quality that was just delightful to listen to.

While I wouldn’t necessarily say I was one of these people myself, I would say this novel is best suited to those whose first loves are description and setting. Many a reader would find that the plot leaves too much to be desired, but I am glad I finally found a way to enjoy this.


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“The entire time she’d watched him … her features had remained serene. A flame in the mist.” // Review of “Flame in the Mist” by Renee Ahdieh

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genre: YA/Fantasy
Date Read: 06/08/2017 – 15/08/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

I don’t really know why this book didn’t impress me more. It ticked all my boxes for what makes a great YA fantasy. It was one of my most highly-anticipated releases this year, so there is a chance I just hyped it up too much in my head, or maybe I am actually still in my reading slump a bit. Either way, while this was enjoyable, it didn’t quite live up to expectations.

Mariko is on her way to be united with her betrothed, the son of the Emperor of Wa, when her convoy is attacked and everyone around her murdered. Certain that this is the work of the Black Clan, she infiltrates their ranks disguised as a boy, intent on finding out who sent them to kill her and why. But the more time she spends with them, the more she realises that there is more the Black Clan than their reputation would suggest, and there is also a lot that her sheltered upbringing has kept her blind to…

I did really love the Japanese-inspired world-building, even if I did have to flick to the back to find out what the Japanese words meant. I felt this was the strongest aspect of the novel. I do believe this shouldn’t have been sold as a Mulan-retelling or even as Mulan-inspired. There are plenty of stories about girls dressing up as boys. The resemblances of Flame in the Mist to Mulan were superficial at best. Why not let a story sell on its own merits rather than comparing it.

The characters were where I got stuck. For a start, I didn’t feel like there was a huge difference between Ranmaru and Okami, and even with the helpful prologue to establish a few things, I got lost trying to remember who/whose father betrayed whom.

Mariko was an interesting character in that she is far from the usual kick-ass babe who usually dominates the “strong female character” role. While I appreciated that, her coolness and rational nature actually made it a bit harder to connect to her. Yes, I realise I’m giving Renee Ahdieh a bit of a damned-if-she-does-damned-if-she-doesn’t situation here, but hey, I’m just describing the reading experience for me. I also found her repeated mantras about not being weak and striking when they least expect it quite repetitive and annoying, and I also didn’t buy a lot of the decisions she made. Maybe that’s why I didn’t connect with her.

That being said, I did really like some of her character development. Particularly towards the end, Mariko realises how sheltered she has been and that her family is not as good and honourable as she had always thought. She also realises that they Black Clan is not as evil as it has been depicted. I do like it when a character can come to those realisations.

I felt the romance was full of tell and little show. I’m actually not a fan of romances where one character falls for the other in spite of everything. As far as Mariko knew, Okami had wanted to kill her. Still wants to. She keeps telling herself that he’s her enemy, but hey, he’s sexy, and that can’t be helped or overlooked? I didn’t think there was any chemistry between them, so all their private thoughts about each other didn’t really do much for me.

I did enjoy the explorations of what it means to be a girl/woman, particularly in societies such as this one. Mariko’s experience is contrasted with that of Yumi, a young maiko (geisha), and Mariko realises that just because she aims for something more, does not mean that every woman will, but that it’s the opportunity that’s important.

This was my first experience of Renee Ahdieh’s writing; I’m yet undecided on whether to read The Wrath and the Dawn. While the writing was good, I don’t feel especially compelled to pick up the sequel when it comes out.


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#AWW2017 “How could she be so close, almost here, and completely out of my reach?” // Review of “The Space Between” by Rachel Sanderson

Title: The Space Between
Author: Rachel Sanderson
Genre: YA/Contemporary/Drama
Date Read: 05/08/2017 – 06/08/2017
Rating: ★★★★

Review:

Somehow, despite being in the same writing group as Rachel Sanderson for the past five years, I’ve never really sampled much of her writing until this year. I was so excited when she announced that she had published The Space Between, and grabbed myself a copy straight away. I’m glad to say I really enjoyed reading it; it’s a fantastic YA page-turner.

What should be a regular weekend away camping turns into a nightmare when Erica’s best friend, Daina, goes missing. Coming to terms with Daina’s loss also means coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t know all there was to know about her best friend, as well as trying to navigate messy relationships with both family and friends in the wake of tragedy.

The atmosphere in this book was what struck me the most. There’s a real rawness underneath everything. When Erica ached, I ached. I really felt under her skin. She did sometimes make decisions that I raised my eyebrows at and didn’t really support, but her actions were no more outlandish than a lot of other YA characters’, so it didn’t irk me too much. And they did help to move the plot forward, so there was that.

The writing style is fantastic, and very readable. The pacing is good throughout and I found the book hard to put down.  The set-ups for later revelations about Daina, Erica and their families were done well so when those revelations came about, they made a lot of sense without the story feeling predictable. There were a few moments towards the end where I felt myself tearing up a little; as I said, I felt really close to Erica and really had a sense of her loss.

While I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary YA, this is one I would definitely recommend (and not just because I know the author either 😉 )


This review forms part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge for 2017. Click here for more information.

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“But you’re an illusion. I created you.” “That doesn’t mean I’m not real.” // Review of “Daughter of the Burning City” by Amanda Foody

Title: Daughter of the Burning City
Author: Amanda Foody
Genre: YA/Fantasy
Date Read: 28/03/2017 – 06/06/2017
Rating: ★★

Review:

So it’s not this book’s fault that I was in a reading slump at the time I was reading it and that probably contributed to my rating. There were some genuinely good parts once the plot got going, but I did feel it spent quite a bit of time wandering without much happening.

Daughter of the Burning City tells the story of Sorina, an illusion-worker whose only real family are the illusions she creates. She knows that they’re not real, though… at least, so she thought, until one of them is murdered. But how do you kill something that never really existed in the first place?

For a while, the investigations seemed to be taking forever and nothing was happening. I’ve read a few reviews that claimed the romance never got in the way of the plot, but I would have to disagree. Quite a bit of focus was given to Sorina’s burgeoning crush on Luca, a boy who it is impossible to kill. I did find it interesting that Amanda Foody sought to include elements of demisexuality, though I didn’t really think that Sorina and Luca had known each other long enough when their romance took off for this to be an accurate representation (though I am pretty uninformed on this topic, so take my words with a grain of salt).

I also felt that the style of language clashed with the setting and tone of the book a bit. The book is written in first person and Sorina read more like the heroine of an punchy urban fantasy, rather than something closer to high fantasy.

The world-building was really interesting, though I felt there was a lot of potential that wasn’t fleshed out properly. A lot of the time, I couldn’t quite get my head around exactly how the city-sized carnival of Gomorrah managed to continue existing, how it moved, and how the different magic systems within it managed to operate.

The plot did pick up in the last third and I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the killer’s identity to be revealed. It was just a shame that it took a little while to get to that point.


(Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for supplying me with a free copy of this book in exchange for a review)

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#AWW2017 Book Review: “The Year of Freaking Out” by Sarah Walker

Title: The Year of Freaking Out
Author: Sarah Walker
Genre: YA Contemporary
Date Read: 12/07/2017 – 14/07/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

Part of my challenge-within-a-challenge for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge was to read at least two books by LGBTI* authors. This is my first one. 

Kim knows deep down that she is attracted to girls, and it’s only confirmed when she meets Rachel, who has recently transferred to her school. She doesn’t know how to confess any of this to her friends, though, and liking girls isn’t even the worst of the secrets she keeps from them…

I don’t normally enjoy first person narration, but Kim’s voice was very genuine so in this case it worked. I really enjoyed her friendship group as well. They honestly all sounded like individuals, and like teenagers, a tricky feat to manage. There’s the messiness of relationships, fights with parents, the general trying-to-figure-out-your-place-in-the-world struggles.

Along with sexual identity themes, the book also examines sexual assault and the impact that has on young people. It did feel a little at odds with the lighter tone of the narration of the book and most of its other events. However, I felt that it was handled well, especially the revelation that leads to Kim opening up about her own experiences towards the end of the book.

And now, since I have your attention, a rant about how non-heterosexual content is marketed in books. The back of this one describes Kim having to make the biggest decision of her life, between her “passionate friendship” with Rachel and her “feelings for her friend, Matthew”. That’s not the choice at all! I know this book is twenty years old, but Rachel is the one she has feelings for; she tries to convince herself she has feelings for Matthew, but she knows that it’s just an attempt to make herself “normal”. But we couldn’t have that on the back cover of a book! Someone think of the children! Or something.

I wouldn’t say this book had a profound impact on me, but I can totally understand the reviews that say they wish they had had this book when they were trying to figure out their own identities like Kim. It was a sweet, fun read though; definitely recommended if you enjoy coming-of-age YA stories.


This review forms part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge for 2017. Click here for more information.

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“I was a newborn vampire, weeping at the beauty of the night.” // Review of “Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice

Title: Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles #1)
Author: Anne Rice
Audio book narrator: Simon Vance
Genre: Historical fantasy
Date Read: 19/05/2017 – 21/06/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

Interview With the Vampire had been on my radar for a long time, initially started listening to it on audio when I saw it available on Overdrive. The writing is beautiful and sensuous, but very little happens and some of the content is a little bit uncomfortable, leaving me not entirely sure how I felt about it.

In a darkened room, a two-hundred-year-old vampire named Louis de Pointe du Lac tells the story of how he came to be what he is, the life he built afterwards, and how that life was threatened when he went searching for his own kind.

This is one of my partner’s favourite books, and when I was about halfway through, I did say to him, “So… does anything actually happen?” He replied, “No, not really” and that is something to be aware of. The book is big on its themes, exploring humanity and human nature from the perspective of the two main characters, one who lacks it and one who is desperate to cling on to it. The addition of Claudia, a girl transformed into a vampire at age 5 and eternally trapped in the little girl’s body, also adds to this, as she develops her own ethics and moralities over the years; coming to vampirism at such a young age means that she never really had a chance to grow up with any other form of morality except what Louis and Lestat teach her.

Given the book’s quite philosophical nature, I did find it a bit long. I actually abandoned the audio book about two-thirds of the way through and picked up the paperback instead to speed my way to the end. The last quarter does have more action; no sooner do they find other vampires in Paris, but they discover they are considered criminals for their supposed murder of Lestat, and as they figure out how to deal with this, the pace picks up.

I mentioned earlier that some aspects of this made me uncomfortable. This was mostly to do with the way some of the characters, particularly Louis, engaged with Claudia. While I did remind myself that after a while, Claudia was technically decades old, the sexualised way that the characters often referred to her or engaged with her,  with phrases like “my passion for her” (that was Louis, and I could never work out whether he meant that paternally or not) being used… yeah, the fact that she was still in a five-year-old’s body made me a bit squirmy.

Apart from that, though, it was interesting to visit such a popular vampire narrative and see where it all began.


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Book Review: “Beneath the Apple Blossom” by Kate Frost

Title: Beneath the Apple Blossom (The Hopeful Years #1)
Author: Kate Frost
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Date Read: 23/06/2017 – 24/06/2017
Rating: ★★★★

Review:

The experiences depicted in this book are worlds away from  any experience I have had, and worlds away from what I usually read, and yet I found myself unable to put it down (I’m starting this review at 12:54am after staying up to finish it, because I’m still thinking about it, and wide awake).

Beneath the Apple Blossom depicts the lives of four women with four very different experiences of motherhood and the journey towards it. Pippa and Connie meet online through a forum for women undergoing IVF and bond through the ups and downs of treatment. Georgie feels she had her first child too young, and isn’t ready for the second one her husband clearly wants. And Sienna has her heart set on never having kids, when her life is thrown into turmoil…

Frost presents these four women and their stories without any judgement, leaving the reader to form their own opinions. I think this is an advantage of the novel, as seeing the way things panned out and the way the characters reacted to events and to each other was what made me want to keep reading. I didn’t always agree with the choices the characters made, but I couldn’t really fault any of them for making them (well, maybe sometimes, but only a bit).

The only real qualm I had with the novel was that sometimes the characters’ thoughts got a bit repetitive. While I can appreciate that women going through the sorts of things that these characters are would have quite cyclical thoughts, as a reader, I sometimes found that returning to the same “Why did it have to happen this way? What am I going to do now?” trains of thought chapter after chapter became a bit stale.

I definitely recommend this book, even if motherhood and constant talk of babies isn’t really your thing (it’s not mine). This gives insight into the struggles all sorts of women go through, as well as identifying those “what not to do” moments for the rest of us (I already knew this, but for anyone else, don’t say “You can always adopt”, no matter how good your intentions are by it). After giving five stars to Kate’s debut novel, The Butterfly Storm, a few years ago, I was fairly confident I would enjoy this one, and she does not disappoint.


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Book Review: “Ensnared” by Rita Stradling

Title: Ensnared
Author: Rita Stradling
Genre:
fairytale retelling/sci-fi
Date Read: 14/06/2017 – 19/06/2017
Rating: ★★

Review: 

I was really excited to read a futuristic retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Unfortunately, this one had a few too many elements that made me feel a bit iffy, so I ended up not enjoying it much in the end.

To save her father from prison, Alainn Murphy takes the place of a robot that looks just like her, in the home of Lorccan Garbhan, a disfigured billionaire who has never been outside the tower he grew up in What she expects is a life of servitude, but that’s not what she ends up getting…

There were some things I did like, so let’s talk about those first. I liked most aspects of the near-future world, including the variety of different robots and AI. I also liked the villain of the piece (I won’t give too much away). I thought the character’s motivations were quite well done,  but I did feel that the climax was a bit too drawn out.

The thing that bothered me the most about this story was that as the romance developed between the two main character, Lorcann still thought Alainn was a robot. Even when they start having sex. Even when he starts proposing to her. There was a point where Alainn’s brother says something about Lorcann’s subconscious knowing she was human even if he hadn’t consciously figured it out yet, but that wasn’t enough for me. This could have been explored really well, but instead, it was barely looked at, other than Alainn feeling guilty for continually finding reasons not to tell Lorcann the truth.

As I said before, I felt the climax was a bit too drawn out, and the same could be said for several sections. The book felt too long and there were sections were I was bored enough to consider not finishing. I think this book could have worked really well with a bit of tightening up and a deep exploration of the issues it brought up (and hey, I read an ARC, so for all I know, this did come out more in the final version), but as it was, this was definitely not what I hoped for.


Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for providing me with a free copy of this book for review.

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#AWW2017 Book Review: “the Betrayal of Bindy MacKenzie” by Jaclyn Moriarty

Title: The Betrayal of Bindy MacKenzie
Author: Jaclyn Moriarty
Genre: YA contemporary
Date Read: 08/06/2017 – 13/06/2017
Rating: ★★

Review:

This is the fourth Jaclyn Moriarty book I’ve read this year, and it was definitely the strangest. While the writing was up to her usual standard, I am still not quite sure what to make of the convoluted plot and… interesting stylistic choices.

Bindy MacKenzie is the top of her class. She has been employee of the month at Kmart seventeen months running, she offers study groups for her fellow students, but she resents having to show up for a new class, Friendship and Development, which she feels takes away from valuable study time. But lately, she’s been feeling lethargic and sick, and doesn’t even care when other students are receiving higher marks than she. What could be causing this sudden change?

The first thing is, Bindy is not an easy character to warm to. She thinks herself far superior to her fellow students, and talks like the heroine of a Jane Austen novel (which is fine in a Jane Austen novel, but weird in a YA contemporary). Of course, getting over herself is a major part of her character arc, but it meant that I spent a good deal of the book being annoyed at her.

The second thing is the format. The novel is epistolary in nature, taking the form of Bindy’s diary entries, transcripts she makes of others’ conversations, memos and emails, amongst other things. It sometimes made it hard to get a real hand on the other characters as well, since we were seeing them all from Bindy’s judgey perspective and couldn’t really get a sense of them as themselves until towards the end.

The titular “betrayal” seemed quite far-fetched, though there were clues throughout the book. Still, it seemed unlikely that people would go to that much effort. Overall, when I reached the end of the book, I was left feeling non-plussed, and not quite sure what I had just witnessed, which isn’t a great sign.


(This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017. Click here for more information).

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