#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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Book Review: Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Title: Traitor to the Throne (Rebel of the Sands #2)
Author: Alwyn Hamilton
Genre: YA/Fantasy
Date Read: 30/01/2017 – 16/02/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

Contrary to what the dates above sort of indicate, it didn’t take me over two weeks to read this. I started it when I was in the wrong mood for it and only read perhaps 25% over a few days… a week or so later I came back and devoured the rest in the same amount of time.

During a surprise attack on the Rebel Camp, Amani finds herself taken prisoner and trapped in the Sultan’s harem, with no means of escape. She turns to spying, finding a way to sneak information out, but the Sultan has his own plans for her.

I know a lot of people were disappointed that Jin doesn’t play a bigger role in this book, but I actually really appreciated the fact that this wasn’t one of those cases where the middle book is mostly about the romance. Amani has to rely on herself, and there was no lovey-dovey-ness for the most part. I actually found myself annoyed when Jin showed up again, because then it did get a bit mushier, and I’m way more here for the political intrigue.

Speaking of which, SO MUCH political intrigue. We meet a few more princes and princesses, both loyal to the Sultan and not, as well as plenty of foreign dignitaries from all the surrounding countries. And the Sultan himself. I actually… really liked him? In the first book, he’s just that far-off evil villain, but we really got his side of things in this one. It’s not that he’s evil, exactly. It’s that he’s ruthless. And I really liked how unapologetic he is about that. Of course, his weakness is thinking he knows everything that’s going on, and that’s going to make for some interesting situations in the next book.

I think the reason this book and I got off on the wrong foot was the way it opens. It does not pick up straight after the events of the previous book; instead, it’s been a little while. The first few chapters give us an overview of the events that have happened off-page, but it really is just an overview, which is somewhat dissatisfying. Once I got past this, though, the book really started to pick up.

When I finished Rebel in the Sands, I felt a bit disappointed because the book had turned out to not be what I was expecting. I hadn’t been sure if I would even continue. But for whatever reason, I got excited about this one anyway, and I’m glad I read it. Now I’m looking forward to the third book and to seeing how the revolution pans out.


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

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“Everything is splendid, everything is just so!” // Review of “The Dark Unwinding” by Sharon Cameron

Title: The Dark Unwinding
Author: Sharon Cameron
Audio Book Narrator: Fiona Hardinham
Genre:
Historical fiction/steampunk(?)/YA
Date Read: 17/01/2017 – 26/01/2017
Rating: ★★★

Review:

A wonderful piece of historical fiction, with plenty of fabulous characters to get attached to. I will say at the outset though, that while it sells itself as steampunk, I wouldn’t put it in that category. Yes, clocks and clockwork automata play a role, but the aesthetic that comes with steampunk is absent. If anything, I’d call it a gothic mystery.

When her cruel aunt feels that her son’s inheritance is in peril, she sends Katherine Tulman to her uncle’s (the aunt’s brother-in-law) estate to see if he can’t be committed to an asylum, ensuring the safety of the family fortune. As Katharine depends on her aunt and cousin to survive, she is willing to all she can. That is, until she arrives at Stranwyne Keep and discovers that her uncle is a brilliant eccentric who employs 900 people on the estate who would otherwise be trapped in workhouses their whole working lives. And the more time she spends there, the more torn she becomes between protecting the people she comes to care for and protecting her only means of a future.

Let’s talk about Uncle Tully first. While the word is never mentioned – and would be anachronistic if it were, given the time period – it’s fairly clear that Uncle Tully is autistic. As far as I can tell (my experience is limited, admittedly), it is a very tender representation, too; from the moment you meet him, you curse Aunt Alice for wanting him anywhere near an asylum.  His excitement about his clockwork figures is so endearing, and you just know that there is the brain of a genius hidden in there, even if it isn’t always on show.

Katharine is also a well-constructed character. Her evolution from simply wanting to get the unpleasant business over and done with to caring deeply for those at Stranwyne and the torture of knowing that the truth will come out eventually, even if she lies for them, is well done.

My other favourite character was Lane Moreau, Mr Tully’s closest servant (more friend/family than servant, really) and also Katharine’s eventual love interest. Unlike a lot of male love interests in YA, he actually had a reason to be dark and brooding when Katharine first arrived, namely, he thought she was going to betray them all. I’m a sucker for the hate-to-love trope and it’s done wonderfully here. Lane comes to care for Katharine, too, especially after seeing how quickly Mr Tully takes to her. And the banter! There was so much banter, they were so playful when they were pretending they weren’t supposed to be on opposite sides of the situation. It was wonderful!

There are other great side characters as well. The ensemble cast is very colourful, but we would be here all night if I mentioned everyone. I also don’t want to mention certain other characters and give things away. .

The plot moves slowly, particularly in the first half of the book. The characters really are the focus, and the setting of Stranwyne Keep is also really well developed and described after Katherine’s original arrival. The lay of the land is quite important in the climax of the novel, so pay attention to all of that! Sometimes  I did find the descriptions of all the tunnels and secret doors and rooms a little confusing, probably not helped by the fact that I was listening to the audio book, so couldn’t just duck back a couple of pages or chapters to check things.

The climax itself is very exciting, though I did think the resolution of the situation with Aunt Alice and Cousin Robert was a little bit deus-ex-machina-y. Still, I was glad how things panned out. The book is definitely not a standalone, while many loose ends are tied up, some are not, and we are definitely left with questions. i plan to get to the sequel sometime in the very near future and revisit all these characters that I also came to really love.


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“What now?” “Everything.” // Review of “The Infinity of You & Me” by J. Q. Coyle

Title: The Infinity of You & Me
Author: J. Q. Coyle
Genre: YA/Sci-fi
Date Read: 01/11/2016 – 06/11/2016
Rating: ★★★★

Review:

After two DNFs in a row, it was wonderful to finally stumble across a book I really enjoyed!

Alicia has suffered hallucinations of dying worlds for years, despite therapy provided by a wealthy uncle and a myriad of medications. But on her 15th birthday, her estranged father shows up to tell her that they are not hallucinations at all, but glimpses into other worlds – branches off the real world that she and other people like her create whenever they make a choice. He tells Alicia that she needs to save a precious artifact that is hidden in one of the other worlds, in order to give those in the dying worlds a chance and save them from those who would try to take advantage.

Alicia felt like one of the most realistic YA protagonists I’ve come across in a long time. She’s not a special snowflake, nor does the author try to make her interesting by making her “quirky”. The book is in first person but I never felt like this was a teenager being written by an adult. The language flowed really naturally. The side characters were also well-constructed, and it was interesting seeing different versions of them in the different worlds Alicia visits.

The world-building was sometimes a bit tricky to get my head around. Multiverse stories can be tricky, and while it was a bit confusing at times, I think ultimately, Coyle handled this one rather well. The descriptions of the different worlds are very good, and I liked little touches like how different Alicia looks in each world, depending on the circumstances of how she has grown up.

As I’ve already mentioned, Coyle’s writing is very skillful. I knew from the first page, when we were plunged right into the middle of one of Alicia’s hallucinations that this was going to be a book I enjoyed. This is Coyle’s debut novel and I think this is an author we should definitely be keeping an eye on!


Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

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“Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.” // Review of “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow

Title: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow
Audio book narrator:
Kirby Heyborne
Genre:
YA/dystopian
Date Read: 18/08/2016 – 22/08/2016
Rating: ★★★

Review:

This is another book that’s tricky to rate, due to some parts being really awesome, and some parts being really… not. However, it is a truly relevant book for today’s society, to the point where there were certain scenes where I was nearly blocking my ears and whispering “Too real, too real!”

In the near-future, Marcus Yallow aka W1n5t0n online, and his friends are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, and are imprisoned by the Department of Homeland Security and treated inhumanely for a week. When they are released, they discover that San Francisco has been turned into a police state, where the population  are forced to give up their privacy in exchange for “security”. But Marcus and his friends are tech-savvy enough to go underground in cyber-space, and pretty soon, a movement is beginning.

I really liked Marcus as a lead character. He is unapologetically geeky. He’s into computers and crytopgraphy and old books and passionate about fighting for his rights. There were some interesting side characters, though so much of the plot unfolds through Marcus’ interactions with people online that it was a little hard to get to know everyone else. I did feel that the development of the female characters left a bit to be desired. The book is written in first person and Marcus would describe every girl or woman he met in terms of attractiveness, and only afterwards perhaps discuss other aspects of them. Overall, though, characterisation worked for the story that Doctorow was clearly trying to tell.

The thing that put me off the book was how info-dumpy it was at times. My partner and I have an arrangement where I drive to the shops then read or listen to a book while he goes in and gets the groceries. I listened to a ten or fifteen-minute diatribe about LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) during one of these shopping trips. There were similar ones about crytography, security systems, gaming, San Francisco geography and other things that I can’t remember right now because I started zoning out. These took me completely out of the story and screwed with the pacing; they killed all momentum the story was building.

As I said above, there were aspects of this book that rang really true in today’s society where we are all supposedly in danger of terrorist attacks. The panic, the additional “security” measures, the blind acceptance of government control by so many members of the public… while the exact technologies described in the book might be a little way off (or they might not; I get the impression they all exist in some form or another already), the methods of using them was incredibly realistic.

While it certainly wasn’t a five-star read for me due to the reasons above, I definitely recommend this book for everyone. It is a good eye-opener in a lot of ways.


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