Review: Anne Fine – Shades of Scarlet

Shades of Scarlet
Anne Fine

Scarlet’s parents have split up, they’re divorcing and Scarlet finds herself caught in the middle. While Scarlet tries to navigate school, friends and homework she somehow has to find time to also placate her parents – who want to know what the other one is doing, even if it isn’t Scarlet’s job to pass that on! It seems like her mom is at fault – but is her dad a problem too?

Another day, another book with a main character named Scarlet (see Skin Deep)! I wonder if it’s a common name at the moment. I’m sure that the author had some deeper meaning in mind when she named her protagonist, or perhaps she just thought of the colour red

You know what I also like about this novel? Scarlet isn’t automatically looking for a boyfriend/girlfriend to get herself out of the situation. I personally felt that her best friend was a bit off, but Scarlett herself was spot-on in her emotions and approach to life.

I like how this captured the side-conversations that adults sometimes have that kids aren’t meant to know about. So for example, Alice’s parents have some really inappropriate conversations that one/both girls see/overhear. In my experience, kids know when parents are being sneaky (I mean, not 100% of the time)! So holding conversations in the open is far more helpful for building trust.

I received this book very late compared to the publication date, so there are plenty of reviews around for it now. That being said, I feel like it’s a suitable Christmas gift for a 9-13 year old who has divorcing parents or just struggles to feel heard and understood. Scarlet has a lot of rage, anger and emotions to get out, just like the average teenager.

I’m going to give this one 4 stars. I think it would have appeal to a wide range of audiences, but would be most suitable as middle grade or young teenage fiction. I think that this is a worthy addition to school libraries.

Scholastic | 1st July 2021 | AU$24.99 | hardback

Review: Alicia Jasinska – The Midnight Girls

The Midnight Girls
Alicia Jasinska

Marynka has never been good enough for her Jaga. She’s always been too short, too slow and altogether unimpressive. The thing that keeps her going is her rivalry with Zosia. They clash frequently, looking to steal the hearts of princes for power. Finally a prince appears that has a pure heart, and they ride together to go to the capital – both with only one thing on their mind. Instead the girls find themselves falling for each other and they can’t let the other win.

First, the book title. There is only one Midnight girl. There’s also a Morning girl and a Midday girl. Technically they are all ‘monsters’, but to me they were more minions of their Jagas (witches). There’s a whole lot of alliteration going on there. Then again look at that glorious saturated colour in the cover.

Ok, my major question about this novel is – where are all the Princes coming from? It seems like Wack-a-Mole, as soon as a new prince appears one of the girls is after his heart. If all the princes keep getting killed, where are the new princes coming from? I can imagine them getting married and having their parents abdicate the throne sooner so that they can become king and survive, but I don’t think that’s quite how this works.

The implication is that there were many servants before Zosia and Marynka – what happened to them? Did they all get eaten by the Jagas? I need a little more detail! What is going to happen next? The original Jagas are sisters, what happens when one dies? How long have they actually been living for? How did they get to be witches? I’d read a prequel of that!

Can I get a drool about the delicious Polish delicacies showcased here? Maybe you are thinking at this point that I hated the novel – I didn’t! I actually really enjoyed it and kept thinking about it when I had to put it down to life. I loved the way that both protagonists refused to admit they were in love, rather than the usual trope of the main characters falling in insta-love at first sight. There was the backstory that at least showed their previous relationship.

I’m so sorry. I would have given this 4 stars, except once again Jasinska disappoints with the ending. Lesbian protagonists in a whole where being queer isn’t even mentioned (because it’s so normal)? Sign me up. But I don’t think I’ll be reading more from this author – The Dark Tide has the same ending problem, so I can’t expect it to change.

Penguin Random House | 30th November 2021 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Juliet Marillier – The Bridei Chronicles 2 – Blade of Fortriu (N)

The Blade of Fortriu

Juliet Marillier

Ana of the Light Isles is to be sent to make a strategic alliance for King Bridei with the Caitt in the North. Little does she know not everything is as it seems in Lord Alpin’s domain and the one person she will have to rely on is someone she cannot stand. Bridei’s right-hand man, Faolan.

Again there is a very clear romance throughout this book. However this time we have a love triangle set up between Ana, Faolan, and Drustan. Though it’s clear relatively early that the partnership will be Ana and Drustan. Again the threads of romance are wonderfully woven between the characters with enough time spent on each that we have an excellent understanding of the characters motivations and the growth that occur. Even with the new character on the scene in Drustan. Honestly, even with how wonderful Ana and Drustan are together, my heart ached for Faolan. His character growth was the best of all – even though it is clear he has more growing to do later.

Early on when Ana was being courted by Alpin it was a bit nerve wracking. But the more that the story progressed the clearer it was that he wasn’t ending up with him, snake that he was. An immense relief really.

The other part I liked about the romance, because that really was a focus of this story, was how even though Faolan had Feelings for Ana there was always a clear line of respect Faolan had both for Ana and Drustan. A respect that was reciprocated. The way Ana and Drustan loved each other didn’t preclude other ties. Even though it wasn’t the bond that Faolan wanted, he saw and respect the bond they shared in return. the complexity of those interactions towards the end of the books were marvelous and enthralling. It’s not a wonder I went on a binge of reading this author when this is the level of interaction the characters have throughout her books. Another 5-stars.

 

Review: Juliet Marillier – The Bridei Chronicles 1 – The Dark Mirror (N)

The Dark Mirror
Juliet Marillier
Bridei is being raised for great things, but he doesn’t know enough about them yet. When he rescues the foundling Tuala, he doesn’t know how this will change the course of his destiny. There is a very strong and clear romance to this book. Some of the moments you don’t see coming, and others you do, but all of them blend into each other in a gripping tale.
There is just enough information from the various perspectives to allow insight into the important characters. Enough for you to see how their actions reflect their motivations. Granted there are some you know far better than others Bridei and Tuala for instance get plenty of insight into how they feel and why the actions they take make sense.
I went into this knowing that its a trilogy so when I got to the end and it didn’t feel like an ending I wasn’t too surprised. Thankfully I had the next two books to dive right into. The ending pace feels urgent – not too surprising given the events that are unfolding. That urgency communicates to the reader effortlessly. During that last section of the book I could not put it down at all. I just needed to know!
I also loved all the small details into Pictish history. Granted this is historical fiction not fact but it was clear that Marillier do her due diligence. It left me with a desire to dive into the history to learn more. The only reason I didn’t is because I had the next two books to read! 5-stars from me

Review: Juliet Marillier – Blackthorn & Grim series (Dreamer’s Pool, Tower of Thorns, Den of Wolves) (N)

Blackthorn & Grim series (Dreamer’s Pool, Tower of Thorns, Den of Wolves)

Juliet Marillier

Dreamer’s Pool

If you were given a second chance at life from an executioner, even if it meant putting aside the one thing you were surviving for and abiding by rules that go against the grain of who you are for seven years, would you take it? This is the choice given to Blackthorn. She chooses life, bitter and regretful with the only thought of getting through those seven years to come right back to the same place to fight for justice. In return for her freedom from an unjust imprisonment by her enemy, Blackthorn has promised the Fae noble Conmael to use her healers gifts for good, answer all calls for help she hears, and seek no vengence. It honestly seems a little random that this comes at the beginning and its clear that Blackthorn will struggle to adhere to the restrictions set.

Once she gets to a place where she will be safe from re-imprisonment and sets up shop so to speak with her cell-mate Grim who was the first to ask her help without words no less. She is presented with a puzzle in the form of the Prince Oran’s betrothed, Flidais, who has recently arrived and appears to be so completely different from the maiden the Oran courted.

Overall the book was an excellent read to me. I liked how there was a deep platonic support between Blackthorn and Grim. That while it was clear she was frustrated she was bound to help him from her promise, his presence gave her someone who understood that hellscape of a prison they both escaped. Together they unravel the mystery of Flidais and the connection to the Dreamer’s Pool. Throughout the book there are enough hints that you can figure out the mystery right along with Blackthorn and Grim and the PoV switches between them both allowing a good insight into how their thoughts work.

Tower of Thorns

The second entry in the Blackthorn & Grim series. Both Blackthorn and Grim have settled into their life at Winterfells and have the support and goodwill of Prince Oran and his wife Flidais.

Now its an outside mystery that comes calling and ends up taking Blackthorn and Grim along for the ride. A noblewoman from the west comes looking for help and while Blackthorn is reluctant, the appearance of a friend from her past sways her decision to help. Again this book has hints of a standard fairytale. You can see how the threads are progressing as the story develops but as ever there is a slight twist away from the expected that just makes for a satisfying ending all around.

This book gives us more details into both Blackthorn and Grim’s past before they ended up in that prison together. Those details are a heart-rending as you would expect for two people who basically deemed themselves irredeemable. Together they seem to slowly get through their pain together. But there were some instances where I just which someone would give one or the other a shake to wake them up to what they were doing. It’s so clear throughout that Blackthorn and Grim rely and support each other in equal partnership. There isn’t romance in the traditional expected way but that level of support just shows how deeply important they have become to each other that they really would be a little lost without the other there.

Den of Wolves

The final book of the Blackthorn and Grim series. Again they are drawn into solving a mystery but unlike the previous mystery this time they are left having to solve the different part of the mystery separately. It makes for additional strain on their relationship but in the end the distance makes it so very clear that they what they share together is more precious then they ever would have thought.

This time we have a young woman caught up in a mystery of her birth and a man who has been returned from the fae realm. Again it’s up to Blackthorn and Grim to solve the mystery. But this time they are having to do it separately. The most frustrating part of this as the reader is because we get both viewpoints we know the information that would be so useful for them to share if they could just a get a moment to indeed share it. It made for a much more thrilling read than I would expect. And it demonstrated that both Blackthorn and Grim are very clever in that they can get most of the way through a mystery on their own. But there were key details that they each needed from each other for the whole story to become clear.

Overall it was an excellent read and I loved the development between Blackthorn and Grim in how they supported each other and so clearly wanted each other. This was seen in the little moments rather than the big events. In how they left unintended messages for each other when they kept just missing the time they needed together. Those moments and their reflections on those moments were poignant. Because it happened alongside this mystery rather than separate from it. Often this is missed in fiction is that the big events are the focus and the small detail that build a relationship and let it grow aren’t shown at all. Not so here, the small details a woven in wonderfully.

 

This series was my second exposure to Juliet Mariller and they were all so very satisfying. I loved Tamora Pierce as a teenager and Marillier hits the same notes that I loved then as an adult. It was a complete pleasure to read the Blackthorn and Grim series. The slow development of their friendship and partnership was just enjoyable between their adventures and problem solving. More than that the solid depiction that just being there together helped them made me happy. Solid 5-stars and I will no doubt come back to these books in the future when I’m craving a read that plunges me into another world so thoroughly.

Review: Lyndall Clipstone – Lakesedge

Lakesedge
Lyndall Clipstone

Violetta holds a lot of secrets, ones that might be important for her survival. Violetta doesn’t care much about herself though – she only cares for her brother and protecting him from his dark shadows. She is limited though – the Lord of Lake’s Edge gets what he wants – and he wants her brother. Violetta tags along to see if she too can fight the Corruption.

Oh no! He’s feeding the Lake Monster! Oh no, he is the Monster. Oh well, we all know that the main characters in books like these will fall in love. In fact, we can predict pretty much the whole storyline despite them pretending that everything is a huge secret.

Isn’t the cover gorgeous? Ultimately it’s not the forest that is even relevant, or the lake. The interior of the house and the garden get the most attention, but maybe Violetta’s mind is the main attraction? I had such high hopes when I requested it, but it was hopeless. I felt like I’d wasted my time reading in.

Look, I’ve categorized it as teen fiction, only because there are some racy scenes there. My hunch is that the Lord of Under is going to be nursing a baby in 9 months time! Unfortunately the storyline is too simple and there isn’t enough character growth to truly belong to the teenage category – I think it could even be an advanced middle grade fiction except for the sexual elements. There’s also a hint of LGTBIQA* relationships, but these aren’t convincing or deep.

I got to the end of this novel, and I discovered that it’s only the first in a series! Honestly, it felt like half a book. There was a whole lot of telling rather than showing going on, and the ending wasn’t complete. I tried retelling this as a oral story at bedtime, and my audience was very unimpressed with the ending. I personally felt that I hated the characters enough that I would have been perfectly happy (even overjoyed!) that one or more of them died. 3 begrudging stars from me.

Pan Macmillan | 31 August 2021| AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Sosuke Natsukawa – The Cat Who Saved Books

The Cat Who Saved Books
Sosuke Natsukawa

The death of Rintaro Natsuki’s grandfather only strengthens Rintaro’s determination to stay at home, in the bookshop that holds fond memories for him. Yet, the bookshops are perhaps a dying trade – and Rintaro doesn’t feel strongly enough about anything to protect it from his loving aunt. But perhaps the cat can save the bookshop, and him too.

Some of the ideas in this novel were just too foreign to work with my understanding of the world. There’s no such thing as a ‘class rep’ and there is no chance that a teenager would be left in charge of a bookshop. Also, students generally aren’t allow to miss that much school without serious consequences in Australia.

I think that unfortunately this book loses a lot of its charm in the translation. Maybe I’m just not its target audience? I think that the audience it would suit are teenagers who are slightly more immersed in Japanese culture or literature, who are of the bookish inclination.

I loved the idea of a cat that cares about books, and I found the three labyrinths quite engaging. Hopefully other readers also find these ideas thought provoking. My favourite was perhaps the man trying to cut books down to a single word to compress the meaning of them. This is so true, and you see it in abridged audio books! Why would you cut out the best bits?

I think it’s somewhat unfair of me to assign this book a star rating as it just wasn’t aimed at me. Maybe I’ll give a 3 stars, but I’d consider 4 stars for the right audience. It’s a thin volume that can be knocked over in a short reading period (it took me around 2 hours). It’s probably great to borrow from a library or buy online to give as a gift, but I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for you to rush out to buy your own copy.

Pan Macmillan | 14th September 2021 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Tobias Madden – Anything But Fine

Anything But Fine
Tobias Madden

Lucas’ life is wrapped up in ballet. Ballet is his whole life – he practices and practices and lets his schoolwork slide. Terrifyingly he slips and suffers a potentially career ending injury that also causes him to suffer the teenage fear of changing schools and losing his scholarship.

I’m not sure how I felt about Lucas’ relationship with his OT (occupational therapist). I also wasn’t 100% sure why he wasn’t seeing a physiotherapist? And honestly, it sounded like he would have also benefitted from seeing a psychologist. As many Australians would know though, mental health isn’t a ‘done thing’ and finding appointments is hard. Lucas’ dad is lovely and supportive though.

Starting at a new school is hard for anyone, but try being gay and on crutches in a small rural school. I think this novel is quite a realistic view of high school and homophobic people. Also, Lucas’ new friend is Muslim, and we also see some horrible Islamophobia. Oh! And don’t forget parental expectations for medical school. There’s a lot packed into this novel, and you won’t be disappointed.

The teenage love story is cute, but also filled with respectful relationships and understanding parents. There’s a few ‘racy’ scenes here, but nothing too blushworthy to a teenage male (from what I know about being a hormonal teenager, anyway). You’ll find it slightly less, um, provocative than Jack of Hearts (and other parts) for example.

This is a worthy addition to teenage queer fiction. It hits all the right notes about consent and waiting until you are ready, while also sensitively exploring the problems of high-school and jock culture. I’m giving this 5 stars, and giving it a pride of place on my shelf. I look forward to seeing more from this author.

Penguin Random House | 31st August 2021| AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Mage Storms Trilogy

Mage Storms Trilogy
Mercedes Lackey

“Karse and Valdemar have long been enemy kingdoms, until they are forced into an uneasy alliance to defend their lands from the armies of Eastern Empire, which is ruled by a monarch whose magical tactics may be beyond any sorcery known to the Western kingdoms. Forced to combat this dire foe, the Companions of Valdemar may, at last, have to reveal secrets which they have kept hidden for centuries… even from their beloved Heralds.

It had been a while since I read the later novels in Lackey’s (in)famous Valdemar world, so I picked this one up as an easy read. I actually didn’t even finish reading the Mage Winds series before doing so. I found it interesting that perhaps my distaste of non-Herald protagonists or my dislike of multiple perspectives in a novel set me up to view this one unfavorably.

While I enjoyed the novelty of having Karal’s perspective, I found it difficult to relate to him because he was truly a priestly type. I much preferred An’desha as being more relatable and showing some really decent character growth. Something I really didn’t ‘get’ was Florian’s role, and why Karal was convinced he was important (and why didn’t Florian just bond with him, huh?)

This is very slow as well, which doesn’t help. Every movement of Karal is detailed, from lighting candles through to taking notes. I needed a little more action! And the epilogue is a bit of a joke, given the HUGE leadup. Perhaps I found it a let-down compared to Brandon Sanderson’s novels, because there was very little chance that my favourite (or indeed any) characters would be killed off.

Obviously I’ve reread these, but probably with a span of at least 7 years between reads. Although that should qualify this series of novels as an automatic 5 stars, I think I’ll just give them 4. They just aren’t as good as my favourites such as the original trilogy (Talia, Arrows of the Queen) or Alberich/Skif (Exile’s Honor/Valor, Take a Thief). However, they are excellent compared to the most recent Foundation Chronicles!

Review: Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon – Owl Mage Trilogy

Owl Mage Trilogy
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Darian’s parents were lost to the forest some years ago, forcing Darian into apprenticeship with the local mage. Darian can’t see the point of magic – why would he lift a apple with his mind when he can do it with his hands? However, after his village is invaded, he accidentally flees into Hawkbrother territory – this sets him on a path where magic might be important.

These books, particularly the first one, require a suspension of disbelief. It’s so unlikely that Justin would suddenly want to change the way he deals with Darian in the first book – just before we get a sudden jolt of energy into the plot. Many of the outcomes for Darian also don’t make sense given that he’s just a man and doesn’t seem to actually have that much useful to offer society (apart from being a politician).

Man, these books are sllooooowww. I remembered from the last time that I read them that I largely skim read the first novel because it was very, very slow. The climax comes very late in the book (which would be fine) but the main character is largely self-absorbed and honestly quite irritating and unlikely.

The first novel is ok, pretty good really, but then the second book isn’t memorable at all. I honestly can’t remember it at all. The best of the three is the the finale – but I still had problems with it. Looking at the different cultures with a critical eye, I found the treatment of the Northern Barbarians to be frankly insulting. It’s implied that the Hawkbrothers are just so much smarter and well prepared by the tribes – even though as far as I can tell they are all human. There’s always going to be a mix of ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ people, but that’s not what it seems like at all.

I’ve obviously reread these, so that’s kinda an automatic 5 stars, but I wouldn’t recommend these for someone just starting out on discovering Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. I wouldn’t even let you read them as a capping to the very successful Valdemar series. Maybe just toss them in for a light read if you want to be inside a fictional and unlikely teenager’s head.