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: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Girls of Paper and Fire
Natasha Ngan

Lei has been blissfully unaware of the wider society – apart from a raid that took her mother 7 years ago. When she is selected to become one of the king’s eight concubines she doesn’t feel it’s an honour and dreads serving a king brutal enough to order the complete destruction of villages. Lei doesn’t know how she will survive – but when she finds herself falling in love, she realises that there is more to life than serving and hating.

In a beautifully realized fantasy setting, it’s a love story, and yet at the same time other things are going on. To start with Lei isn’t that keen on being chosen – but decides to make the most of things to protect her family. I loved her fiery spirit, even if the early pages of the book were all a bit boring as they focused on the concubines getting to know one another.

I found the ending a little disappointing. Honestly, it would have been better if that particular character had died, because I could see where a power gap could still occur. For example, the mysterious shamans. What was their reasoning for keeping the balance of power stable? What did they get out of it?

Many reviewers have said this should come with a trigger warning for rape and abuse. I think it’s fair to say it did come with a bit of notice about that, as the beginning pages of the novel (at least in my copy) were links to rape and abuse hotlines for people who were in such terrible situations.

I picked this up at the library because I was pretty sure I’d seen other bloggers raving over it! I saw that there were the first two books on the shelf and promptly googled it to check how many books it was going to be. Unfortunately for me, it’s a trilogy and the third book isn’t published yet! I’ll give it four stars, and worry about reading the third when it comes out (probably again borrowed from the library).

Review: Kalynn Bayron – This Poison Heart

This Poison Heart
Kalynn Bayron

Briseis has a gift that is held in check by Brooklyn lack of green spaces. Her ability is to cause plants to thrive – even the deadly poisonous ones. After a rough year at school (trying not to cause the plants in her teacher’s windows to grow vigorously), Briseis is hoping to spend the summer helping her moms run their flower shop. Instead, she finds that she has inherited a rambling estate and garden from her birth mother.

I was a little hesitant to read this novel, because I had enjoyed Cinderella is Dead right until the disappointing ending! Once I picked it up though, I was hooked. Bri’s character was fleshed out and her feelings obvious. I didn’t mind the so-called ‘slow burn’, I liked getting to know Bri’s family, circumstances and normal behaviors before she was tossed into a new world of plants, poisons and family secrets. Add in some Greek mythology and there was a tale I wanted to keep reading.

Other reviewers have complained that the author doesn’t use words such as lesbian to refer to Bri’s moms. I actually appreciated that! It’s not like every straight couple in other novels are said to be straight! Equally, it’s not stated that Bri and her moms are people of colour – it’s up to the reader to pay attention to the little nuances in physical appearance and habits to realize this (although this is probably given away by the beautiful, luscious cover art).

Let’s talk about the ending in general terms at least. Did I like it? No, no I did not. I honestly felt as if the publishers had told the author “Hey, we think this will be a big hit, make sure you prepare to write a sequel.” So then Bayron was required to leave it open! In the end, I didn’t like the way the antagonists showed up as there were too many holes in the reasoning.

Ultimately my take on this novel is to go buy it! But without knowing when the sequel will come out (or whether this is a duology/trilogy etc.) try to go into it realising that you’ll have to be patient to see the next installment. I’m not patient! So it’s four stars from me (to be updated if the second book is as fantastic as the first).

Bloomsbury | 29th June 2021 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review – Amy Beashel – The Sky is Mine

The Sky is Mine
Amy Beashel

Izzy may have drunk too much at that one party, but she shouldn’t keep getting mocked about it, and certainly not pressured into sex. But Izzy isn’t sure who she is, and where her own self-worth is. Her step-dad Daniel puts a lot of pressure on her by mocking her mother and touching her in the wrong way. Can Izzy be strong enough to stand up for herself and by herself? Does she have to go it alone to survive?

I struggled to get into this book because I was too afraid of what might happen. Having just read Fighting Words, I felt like I couldn’t deal with another child sexual abuse novel. Then, I picked it up again because I thought it deserved another chance. Then, the mobile internet went down, and next thing I knew I was stuck into reading it.

I liked that it was never really defined how ‘fat’ Izzy was, and whether it was within her own mind, Daniel’s mind or someone else’s mind. Equally, I think that either her best friend or her best friend’s girlfriend was a woman of colour? But I’m not 100% sure who was who. I think that this makes this novel easier to see yourself in it and helps the reader connect with the main character.

This is a powerful and yet sobering read. There is a huge push at the moment in Australia for people experiencing domestic violence to be confident enough to stand up against it, and ask for help. What this novel introduces is providing some more personal insight into what it might be like for a family experiencing this negative behavior. It’s easy to say that you’d do things differently if you were in that situation – but leaving is certainly not as easy as it might seem to an outsider.

This is a well-spent $10 worth of novel. I’m not sure that I could bear reading it again though. What brings its rating down to a 3.5 is that it is so very, very British in its pronunciation and word-usage. I don’t have a problem with swear words, but I do have a problem with ‘innit?’ No. I really hope no one actually speaks like that – it’s just like most Australians don’t greet others with ‘How’s it going, mate?’ Anyway, language like that served to interrupt my reading.

Allen & Unwin | 6th February 2020 | AU$7.99 | paperback

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Apex (N)

Apex
Mercedes Lackey

After discovering the plot in the sewers, and protecting Apex from a mass invasion. Joy continues to protect the city with her Hounds. With new allies things seem brighter than ever. But there are forces among the Othersiders and within the city who are conspiring for their own agendas.

The third installment in the Hunter series give a good continuation to the second book. Not an easy task since the second book ended post a climatic battle and triumph. The tension stays high with Joy stepping carefully around the Psicorp leader who she encountered in the previous book.

We have Joy teaming up with new Hunters helping lend a hand to the Elite. This get more Hound descriptions! Which makes me happy, I loved the descriptions of the different hounds and their different abilities. Another aspect of this that I loved was that even though Joy and the other Elite are just that, they still ask for an get help from the other Hunters. It embodies the feel of its about teamwork first and foremost. And that there is nothing wrong with stating extra hands are needed.

We get more of an outside focus beyond the city of Apex in this book. Which is a nice expansion to the world. As well as a few more new characters from the Othersiders. It gives a small fraction of the other side of the fence so to speak. Like A small taste of the greater details. It’s a frustrating balance that Lackey didn’t quite manage this time around. I wanted to know more. Overall the book left me thinking that there must be another book coming because it felt like there were too many holes in the series overall.

I mentioned a few about Ace and about the plots Joy uncovered in the first and second books. we got a couple of those resolved but additional larger mysteries that we don’t manage to get answers to sadly. Another thing that bothered me was a couple of locations seemed to get rehashed. Joy visited a noodle shop in the second book. Then when she goes back here in this book its like she never had visited. More annoying is that we get a bigger issue with the Folk not being known to teleport and Joys surprise regarding this. Yet in the first book she notes the Folk mage she encounters early on teleports. It was frustrating to have such errors in what was otherwise an enjoyable read to me.

Overall, it really feels like there should be another book following up after this to really close out the series. But just because I want more detail about the behind the scenes plots doesn’t mean Joy will actually learn about the motives of other characters. Much like the real world. It was a relaxed low stress read for me, desire to know more aside.

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Elite (N)

Elite
Mercedes Lackey

Hunter Joy has largely settled in Apex. She’s managed to advance to Elite Hunter and now has a new mission from her Uncle, the city’s Prefect. However danger and conspiracy abound as she traverses the sewers beneath the city.

This makes for a nice follow up to Hunter. We get to see more details about life in Apex. Beyond the superstar treatment the previous book gave Joy for generally being a new hunter with impressive skills. There are additional characters we get to know as well as a clearing picture about some of the Othersiders only briefly mentioned before. We also get more information on some previous characters from the first book. They get additional time for us to get to know more than the picture they display the world which gives the world more depth and feeling.

One of the great things is the way different Hunters are portrayed with different skills. It gives a great element of team work between hunters, combining their skills and magic to overcome the odds.

We do see Ace again, after his previous downfall. Towards the end there is a feeling of more at play in the overall story but it doesn’t really eventuate in this book to anything concrete. It could just be a small detail that we will never know since the story is told from Joy’s point of view. Only time will tell.

As with the previous book definitely targeted towards the younger side of young adult. But a good leisure read for adults that don’t want something deep or heavy thought to read. Again sits somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Hunter (N)

Hunter
Mercedes Lackey

Monsters came forth from the Otherside after the Diseray. The catastrophe destroying human civilisation. But something else came with them, the last hope, the Hounds. Joyeaux Charmand is a hunter for her small community and has been for a long time. Now called to serve Apex City, where the best hunters protect the most important people.

I’ve been a fan of Lackey’s writing since I was much younger so I’m always eager to read a new one of her novels. This one was a different feel to her Valdemar series. I enjoyed reading about the different Hounds that different hunters have and learning about the way the world was in this novel. I enjoyed a large degree of the descriptions – since Joy is essentially a newcomer to Apex she notices things in a lot of detail that provides some excellent fodder for imagining the scene. We learn a lot in the first few chapters in a way that is very sudden. So keeping it in mind through the book is a bit difficult. The writing is geared towards young adult readers but makes for a relaxing read for an adult.

Very post-apocalyptic feel, with a good helping of redevelopment of politics. Though there is only the barest fringe of that holding center stage in the book. I mostly enjoyed the characters, there were some oversimplifications between the main character Joy and the people she interacts with. But nothing that made the book unreadable. The characters that are clearly in Joy’s corner are notable and different. Though there is a degree of one-dimensional-ness to them that gradually begins to fade when joy interacts a bit more.

There was at least one loose end regarding Hunter Ace, a semi antagonist of Joy. Just a throw-away line that just seems to be mentioned and never brought up or explored again. I would have loved to know a little more background beyond him being arrogant for arrogance’s sake. Still it was nice to see how Joy approached and handled the pressure.

This was a re-read for me, as Lackey remains a good comfort read. But to give it a rating I think it was sit somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. It really can’t match with story depth that shows good and bad for all characters. But comfort reads have their place as well.

Review: Zoe Sugg & Amy McCulloch – One For Sorrow

One for Sorrow
Magpie Society #1
Zoe Sugg and Amy McCulloch

Audrey is fleeing something and Ivy is trying to move on with her life after a death. Audrey is confused by the rules and other stuff and Ivy has no time for her. There seems to be a mystery – but does anyone know the truth?

This reads as a novel with two authors – Zoe wrote the chapters from one character perspective and Amy wrote the chapters from the second character perspective. I’m not sure that this really works. Somehow Ivy has it stuck in her head that Audrey is a complete prat, but at the same time Audrey seems to unreasonably hate Ivy? Even more so, the staff seem to either be cute, or completely unreasonable. There’s no consistent characterisation or actions.

I was personally unmoved by Audrey’s final big reveal. It made 100% sense that she would be creeped out by drownings, but I didn’t really get it. There’s frequent mentions of the school therapist getting plenty of work, but we never actually see any of them attending a counselling session – and some of these girls really need help. I felt like therapy was belittled when it could have actually been a useful tool.

I found it disgusting that Teddy just presumed things about both Ivy and Audrey. Getting a creepy teacher to leave school is one thing, but being a creep as a teenager can lead/suggest bad behaviour in adulthood. Just like in Foul is Fair, being rich seems to excuse you for a lot. People need to be able to report problems and feel like they are being heard and that there is action.

I was wary of this novel from the beginning because I knew it was part of a series. However, in the end although some have identified it as a cliff-hanger, I was pretty bored by that point. There’s no resolution.

As an Australian, I figured I knew what a magpie was. Imagine to my surprise that what we call a magpie is not a magpie to the rest of the world! Pretty typical of Australia, really. Anyway, these magpies are closely related to crows, and they’ve always had some superstition around them, which the authors take advantage of as a springboard for a secret society.

Another day, another boarding school drama. Are people this lucky just going to boarding school? Sounds like hell to me, particularly if you don’t happen to get along with your room-mate. I get going to a boarding school if your local school is truly horrible or your parents don’t have time for you. Surely the majority of readers can’t be boarding school students… It reminds me of my childhood where boarding school sounded cool because I didn’t go to school – Enid Blyton’s “The Naughtiest Girl in the School” anyone?

The more I write this review, the less impressed I am in this novel. There could have been so much more! And I’m still not sure if ‘magic’ is involved or not. Let’s go with 3 stars, and I MIGHT read the next (or at least a summary of it).

Penguin Random House | 29th October 2020 | AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Flynn Meaney – Bad Habits

Bad Habits
Flynee Meaney

Alex (she/her) doesn’t want to be at a Catholic boarding school. She wants nothing of gender traditions, boyfriends and study. In the spirit of getting kicked out, she decides to put on “The Vagina Monologues” to really shock the school into expulsion!

Alex is a badass young woman who speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to teach sexual education and action it. That being said, as the point-of-view is only hers, it was difficult to work out how much was her internal attitude and how much was her outer persona. At times, it seemed as if it was all a front – inside she’s just as scared about growing up as other kids.

There’s some lighthearted lol moments, yet this novel manages to get some important messages out. Sexual health? Tick. (ir)Responsible parenthood? Tick (and how I wish Australia had something like Planned Parenthood). Tampons? Yep, it has those too. Alex is a vehicle for change within her school and also somehow ignorant of the types of feminism that are equally valid. It’s a far better example of feminism than Juliet Takes a Breath, but it is still missing the trans* element that needs to be added to the feminist ‘agenda’.

What fell flat for me was a lack of actual action! Things seemed to be happening basically in a vacuum, with study and classes taking a back seat. That’s fine and all, but it seemed to me like all they did was plan extra-curricular activities. The play is supposed to be the highlight of the novel, but it never really happens. I also didn’t buy into the ‘best friends forever’ theme.

I’ve just realised that this is the third book in a row that had the setting of a boarding school. Now, maybe it’s just me, but boarding school always seemed to just be for rich people, and magicians! This novel doesn’t break the mold either. Still, it was a decent enough read that although I was somewhat embarrassed to read it (bright pink and yellow cover, anyone?) I did polish it off in a single sitting. For that, I’m going to give it 4 stars, and recommend it to teenage girls who need a strong female protagonist that isn’t afraid to say ‘vagina’.

Penguin Random House | 16th February 2021| AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Amy Tintera – Reboot Duology

Reboot and Rebel (Reboot Duology)
Amy Tintera

Wren 178 is the oldest Reboot in the system. She died once, and it took 178 minutes for her body to reboot and become superior to a human one – no emotions, no problems. Wren’s favourite part of the job is training new reboots to kill ‘bad’ humans effortlessly. She always gets her first pick of trainees, and she always picks the ones that took a long time to reboot – only the fittest and hardest can survive. In a fit of confusion, Wren chooses Callum 22 to train, and then finds that she isn’t quite the emotionless monster she thinks she is.

I felt some confusion on why the virus was only in Texas. I didn’t get a sense of anything in the rest of the global landscape. It would have been better, I think, if this had just been set in a new world. I spent a fair amount of time wondering what the other states/cities of the USA were doing about the virus. Is there scope for a sequel where Wren takes on other states that treat reboots like property?

I had some unanswered questions. Why wasn’t HARC looking into why adults that caught KDV went crazy? I feel like since some of the drugs they were testing on the under 60’s (Reboots that revived under 60 minutes) caused craziness rather than obedience, and the adult link could be useful.

This is a successful perversion of the fact that in some countries, war has created ‘child soldiers’. The ‘civilised’ countries can’t believe that someone would do that to an innocent child – but Tintera takes that concept and makes it worse. You only need to be 10 to train to be a Reboot soldier.

There’s a whole lotta kissin’ in these novels. Sure, two of the characters eventually have sex, and sex seems to be a sort of substitute for love/feelings earlier in the series – but it’s not satisfying. It’s not even that obvious, so you could even give this to a teenager who isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of sex yet.

I have to say that I was very disappointed in the ending of this. Riley was dealt with far too calmly, and the escape from HARC unlikely. I guess that it seems quite straight forward that the threat could be contained. This fits the feeling of the Ruina series (reviews here) where the first book was a fantastic 5 stars, but the later ones left me cold with only a 3 star rating. So it’s a 4 star average for this one – fun to read, but not a reread.