#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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“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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“Many have tried to kill us. All have failed.” // Review of “Magic Study” by Maria V. Snyder

Title: Magic Study (Study #2)
Author: Maria V. Snyder
Genre: YA/Fantasy
Date Read: 28/03/2017 – 06/06/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

Like the first book in the series, this one was easy to read and offered an intriguing plot. However, once again, I wasn’t invested in the romance and some parts went on a bit long. 

Magic Study is set in Sitia, the country neighbouring Ixia, where Yelena grew up. She is reunited with the family she hasn’t seen in 14 years, and begins to study magic and learn to control her powers, but a rogue magician and a brother who doesn’t know how to deal with the return of his lost sister are causing havoc.

I really enjoyed the expansion of this world. The set-up in Book 1, with the Commander’s takeover of Ixia was interesting, but now we see it from the POV of the Sitians, who can’t understand the Commander’s methods, and who see him and Valek as little more than power-hungry murderers. Yelena finds it hard to reconcile the people she knows and loves with the Sitian attitudes towards them. I really enjoyed that this was so messy and complicated, and that there was no black and white about these circumstances.

I still wasn’t especially invested in Valek and Yelena’s relationship, and I actually enjoyed the story a lot more before Valek turned up again. I also thought the climax and resolution were a little too dragged out; the action was good, but went on a bit long. Overall, though, I felt this book was on a par with this first one in terms of readability and enjoyment value, and at the moment, I’m still keen to continue with the series.


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“To Yelena, our newest food taster. May you last longer than your predecessor.” // Review of “Poison Study” by Maria V. Snyder

Title: Poison Study (Study #1)
Author: Maria V. Snyder
Genre: YA/Fantasy
Date Read: 23/05/2017 – 26/03/2017
Rating: ★★★☆

Review:

A 3.5 rating belies how quickly I read this book and how much I wanted to return to it whenever I wasn’t reading. It does sum up my overall impression when I reached the end of the book, though.

On the eve of her execution for murder, Yelena is presented with a choice: face the noose or become the Commander’s new food taster. She chooses the latter, but testing food for poison is only one of several challenges she has to face: there’s the father of the man she murdered, burgeoning feelings for her captor and mentor, not to mention the latent magical power she seems to possess in a country where magic is outlawed.

Yelena is a really strong character; she has a horrible past that we learn of bit by bit, but she also learns fast and is a quick thinker. The other characters are all well-constructed. Valek, Yelena’s trainer and eventual ally, is an interesting study in contradictions. Commander Ambrose provides several surprises to both Yelena and the reader in the way he runs the country he overtook. Other side characters such as Ari and Janco, soldiers who agree to train Yelena in self-defence after she unwittingly gets them  promoted; Irys, a master-magician from  the south, and the various Generals and other members of the Commander’s staff provide a really great ensemble.

The romance felt a bit rushed towards the end. While I knew it was coming, I think the fact that the book is in first person from Yelena’s point of view meant that Valek’s feelings were never really clear until he declared them outright (a couple of characters did say things like “I think he m ight be sweet on you” but Yelena firmly denied it). And an outpouring of feelings didn’t really feel right for Valek’s character, so it felt a bit weird.

I did love the world-building. The history of the Commander’s takeover of Ixia was nicely woven through the narrative, and it was nice to read a fantasy not set in a kingdom. The national traditions were also really fun to read.

While I have heard that the next two books in the series don’t live up to this one,  I am keen to hear more about these characters, so I will be checking them out. (also I own them, so I might as well). WIsh me luck!


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Book Review: “The Edge of the Abyss” by Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2)
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genre:
YA/sci-fi/LGBT
Date Read: 26/04/2017 – 02/05/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this sligthly less than its predecessor was because I was sick while I was reading it. Not that it was necessarily any worse. My head was foggy, which made it harder to follow, so I guess my rating and review reflect that.

When Santa Elena’s ship, The Minnow, is attacked by a Reckoner without any trainer or companion ship, Cas Leung realises that  it is another of Fabian Murphy’s beasts, sold to pirates who were unable to train it and turned it loose. Realising that this is just one of many, Santa Elena convenes The Salt, a network of pirates, to try to take back the oceans.  But that’s going to be harder than it looks, and with Cas’s skills, she’s going to be right on the front line.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book that wasn’t really dealt with in the previous one was that Cas had to face up to how her disappearance affected her family. Some of my favourite scenes where those where she was trying to process that, and an eventual conversation she has with her brother, just before the climax.

As with the previous book, the plot is tight and the writing is solid. Cas’s relationship with Swift devleops at a good pace now that they are on equal footing, and I liked how complicated it got at times. There was just something that left me feeling a bit disengaged, though. As I said above, that may have been more on my end than Skrutskie’s. While I could see that technically, the book hit all the right boxes, I just wasn’t feeling it.


(Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review)

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Book Review: “The Abyss Surrounds Us” by Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genre:
YA/sci-fi/LGBT
Date Read: 20/04/2017 – 26/04/2017
Rating: ★★★★

Review:

I hyped  this book up to myself quite a lot, and while I have a feeling it didn’t quite live up to my hopes, it was still a really solid, enjoyable read.

Cas Leung is a Reckoner trainer, swimming alongside one of the giant genetically-engineered monsters that accompany ships through the NeoPacific and protect them from pirates. But on Cas’ first solo mission, she is captured by a pirate captain who wants her to raise and train the Reckoner pup that they have illegally obtained. And on top of that, she has to deal with burgeoning feelings for one of the other pirates, a pirate girl called Swift.

Regular readers of my blog know that  I’m not usually a fan of first person and I’m definitely not a fan of first person present tense, and yet somehow it works in this one. It’s really consistent, and the voice never really wavers, and so it worked.

Cas is a strongly-written character. She has plenty of doubts about her situation, but knows what she needs to do in her circumstances. I did find her character arc a little unbelievable; she becomes a lot darker than she starts out, but I didn’t quite feel the progression. Ditto her feelings for Swift, though for the most part I did like the way their relationship progressed in and of itself. I’ve seen a number of reviews calling it Stockholm Sydnrome, but I don’t feel that that’s the case. Or at least, it might be, but it feels less squiffy when both the characters are self-aware enough to acknowledge the power imbalance between them.

I really enjoyed the world-building, particularly the idea of the Reckoners and how the eco-systems are carefully managed to ensure that the Reckoners don’t completely destroy the ocean. I didn’t make as much sense of the governments of the future presented in the book. The idea of many smaller governments across the world that could actually look after their constituents made a bit of sense, but it didn’t seem especially viable.

I bought this book because I received the sequel as an ARC. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have ever heard of it, and I’m glad it was brought to my attention.


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“But perhaps I have enough time to figure out a few mysteries of my own” // Review of “The Secret Science of Magic” by Melissa Keil

Title: The Secret Science of Magic
Author: Melissa Keil
Genre: contemporary YA
Date Read: 13/04/2017 – 17/04/2017
Rating: ★★★★☆

Review:

Melissa Keil would honestly have to try pretty hard to disappoint me. I may not read much contemporary YA, but I will pick up anything she writes. This is her most recent book, released at the beginning of April, and it does not disappoint.

Sophia is a certifiable genius, but she can’t always read other people correctly and the mysteries of what the future may hold are giving her panic attacks. Joshua is obsessed with magic, and has harboured a crush on Sophia since Year 7. But how do you romance a genius when you’re barely scraping by?

Melissa Keil writes authentically geeky characters that I’ve always felt were “my people”. I think, though, that this was the book where I felt this the strongest. On top of that was the racial diversity that was never presented as a “thing”: Sophia is from a Sri Lankan family and her best friend is Indian-Australian. Sophia also suffers from anxiety, and while it is never stated explicitly, it’s fairly clear she is somewhere on the autism spectrum.

The romance was a cute slow-burn, exactly how I liked it. I got invested in these characters and their relationships, as well as in their other issues. While both POVs were in first person, it was never confusing.  The side characters were also well-constructed; no one felt two dimensional. I read my reviews of Melissa Keil’s other two books when I started writing this one, and I mentioned in one that it did feel a little bit like she had reused some ideas from her first book in her second. That was never a concern with this book.


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

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