Review: Jessica Miller – The Republic of Birds

The Republic of Birds
Jessica Miller

Olga isn’t pretty or graceful like her sister Mira. Olga likes reading about maps and cartography and somewhat dreams of going to the unmapped blank to be the first female cartographer. Exiled from a comfortable life inthe capital, perhaps the icey wasteland holds something new for Olga.

I read this novel as a pdf on my laptop, and it’s unsurprising that I didn’t enjoy it perhaps as much as I might have. I’d received back in 2020 to review, but I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. I sped through it pretty quickly as it had very little substance and was quite predictable to boot.

I’m going to pop this book firmly into middle grade or very young teen fiction. The characters aren’t particularly nauanced, and despite getting some backstory on the parents, and an attempt at looking more into Olga’s powers, there’s not much substance to them. Far more could have been done with the magic/folk-lore side of things – I still feel uncertain what the main story was (besides the traditional gimmic that the siblings have to save oneanother).

And hey! It’s possible that you will learn something from it. For example, did you know that the side of the rocks that the moss grows on is dependent on where the sun rises? I feel like that’s something that might change with climate change.

I didn’t love the ending. It was pretty satisfying, but at the same time, it would have been pretty cool to be a yaga! Even just the tiniest hint that Olga would be able to overcome the restrictions of her gender would have been amazing. That perhaps could have pushed the book to 4 stars from me, but it wasn’t to be.

Text Publishing | March 2020 | AU$16.99 | eBook

Review: Toni Jordan – The Fragments

The Fragments
Toni Jordan

Caddie is a placid bookseller by day, and an avid Inga Karlson fan all the time. Named for a character in Karlson’s first novel, Caddie obsesses over the second book that was never published – The Fragments. After Caddie attends a Gallery showing of The Fragments, she meets a woman who gives her another line of the novel. Caddie is thrown into the path of academia once again and maybe romance too.

I didn’t read this when it was first released because it arrived as a PDF. Thus it’s taken me two years to read it! While it was a nice enough story, and had some important implications for writing, I found myself mainly frustrated and left unfulfilled by the novel.

If Inga was so filled with the need to write a story, why didn’t she write another? A while lifetime might be enough for that. This is something that you won’t fully understand until you read the novel yourself. The twist at the end seems believeable, but it makes the flashbacks in time a little confusing – if she’s not alive, why are we able to ‘hear’ these memories? It’s intriguing, and apart from the fact that I found Caddie a complete derp, quite enjoyable to read.

Caddie, what is wrong with you? Do you have no brain in your head? How can you possibly obsess over two men like that at once? Caddie’s relationships seemed to spiral out of control very quickly, and I found it unbelievable that someone who is smart enough to do a PhD and do research could be so clueless!

I felt quite on the fence about this novel – 3 stars from me. I wouldn’t reread it, and I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it to someone to rush out and buy it.

Text Publishing | March 2020 | AU$22.99 | eBook

Review: Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice (S)

The Paradox of Choice
Barry Schwartz

“In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains why too much of a good thing has proven detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. In accessible, engaging, and anecdotal prose, Schwartz explains how a culture that thrives on the availability of constantly evolving options can also foster profound dissatisfaction and self-blame in individuals, which can lead to a paralysis in decision making and, in some cases, depression.”

I was looking for a book to read at the local library. I had heard that this author wasn’t bad except I was looking for a different book by him. All I could find was this one so I thought I’d give it a try. Unfortunately it’s not really the right book for me or in my area of interest.

I completely agree with the argument of the book, which is that less is more in making decisions.
But I didn’t need to read a whole book about it. I was sold on the argument and idea early on. But then the book keeps going on about it more and more, and simply dragging it out in a way that wasn’t necessary.

There is only a very small section of one chapter at the end with “what we can do”. That’s what I was waiting and wading through the rest of the book to read! Unfortunately it was more like a conclusion rather than an action plan. It was very repetitive and seemed like the author was just having a rant. It was also very heavily geared at Americans. Which is fine, except parts are just not relevant to me or people in other countries. For example, the private health system and even just the volume of choices at supermarkets, here it is nowhere near what’s in the book.

I would recommend it to anyone who is a complete “maximizer” as referred to in the book. But even still, you only need to read a bit of it to get the point. 2 stars.

Review: Eoin Colfer – The Wish List

The Wish List
Eoin Colfer

Meg Finn has a single wish – to show up her step-father Franco and get on with life without her Marm. Unfortunately for Meg, she now owes Belch a favour and it could end up with her dead. But is there something worse than just being dead? Definitely if you’ve been saddled with meeting an old-man’s wish list.

This was a sneaky reread just after moving house – the book ended up at the top of a box and so it called to me to read it. Oops? But then I discovered that I hadn’t reviewed it, so I hadn’t really gotten away with anything.

Ok, so this book isn’t theologically accurate, and I’d even call it theologically challenging. It’s kinda cute that the Devil’s second in command goes by the nickname ‘Bub’. This has put a lot of readers off apparently, but if you aren’t thinking of heaven and hell in the way you were perhaps taught in Bible school, then you’re going to enjoy the ride in this book. Everything seems so simple… until it isn’t.

Eoin Colfer is probably best known for his series with the boy genius Artemis Fowl, which has since been turned into a movie. Don’t go into this novel thinking that it will be that deep or have intellectual jokes. This is an early teenage book, perhaps middle grade fiction.

Weirdly, I occasionally get Garth Nix and Eoin Colfer confused. I think it’s because they were both the early fantasy that I got into as a teenager, and that they haven’t limited themselves to a single universe or concept. I’d sort of even forgotten that this novel existed on my shelf, hidden as it was with the other novels. I’m still giving it 5 stars, even if I’m no longer in the target age group.

Review: Luke Hines – Guilt-Free Snacks

Guilt-Free Snacks
Luke Hines

“Snacks are where many of us fall down when it comes to healthy eating. We are often too busy, too tired or just too plain uninspired to have an array of healthy options at the ready. Luke Hines comes to the rescue with Guilt-free Snacks, a delicious collection of 60 sweet and savoury snacks and simple ideas for eating well… Snack on, friends!”

Yum! I have to say that the cover image just says ‘eat me’, right? It’s Luke’s version of a Mars bar which is healthy. I haven’t made it yet, but I think I will, with a couple of substitutions.

I followed one of the ‘base’ recipes and created a delicious date/cocoa/peanutbutter ball. However, Luke makes sure to mention that you should restrain yourself while snacking… um, not possible? The food comes into my house, and then I eat it all at once. It’s just safer for me to not have it at all.

I read my way through this book, as much as can be said for a recipe book. I even was going to attempt some recipes! Unfortunately, the recipes in here contain two major components that add to the sweetness and protein content of the snack – monk fruit syrup and unflavoured collagen powder. I’d never heard about monk fruit syrup before this book! It apparently contains no sugar, but I’m not 100% sure what it does contain.

Collagen powder is much more familiar to me, as a replacement to soya protein. I’ve done my time of adding soya protein / whey powder to milkshakes for a protein boost – until I remembered that an egg does a similar role and is considerably cheaper. However, another great tip that Luke shares is that these can be made far in advance and stored, and that’s something that’s just not possible for something with raw egg.

This is the perfect gift for someone healthy if you don’t know what to buy them. They’re gluten free and can be made vegan and nut free very easily. I’ve got a Kris Kringle this year – I’m going to pair this book with some monk fruit syrup and collagen powder for the perfect <$50 gift. Go on, get out there and buy a copy – read it yourself first (make sure it’s guilt-free) and then gift to a person who you know is vegan / otherwise dietarily difficult to cater to.

Pan Macmillan | 7 December 2021 | AU$26.99 | paperback

Juliet Marillier – The Bridei Chronicles – The Well of Shades (N)

The Well of Shades

Juliet Marillier

In this final novel of the Bridei Chronicles, Faolan must return home to put to rest the demons of his past. In doing so fulfilling his promise to Ana. It turns out that his return also brings him to Elle in a fortuitous meeting for them both.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. It marks an outstanding end to the trilogy and a come full circle for Faolan as a person growing past his pain and letting himself be human again after the events of the second book resulted in him having to face his past again. There is also Tuala learning more of her past, Bridei struggling with his choices and in keeping his kingdom together following his past success, and Briochan learning to own up to his pride and past mistakes as Bridei’s foster father.

Once again we have a romance that threads through the main narrative and the bulk of the book is told from the two halves of that growing relationship. All the while Faolon is still doing his job for King Bridei, but its clear that as he is completing this task he is growing and healing so much as a person. Enough that he wouldn’t not be able to continue in his role of spy and assassin with these new people in his life.

Elle is the new character for this book and she brings a completely different perspective to King Bridei’s court as a complete outsider. But her place as someone important to Faolan does smooth a lot of the way for her. It’s also clear that alot of Bridei’s court have no idea how much has changed for Faolan. But it’s a credit to Bridei that even as busy as everything is, he still listens when Faolan really wants to talk – reaffirming something he said to Faolan in the first book about needing a man, and friend, he can trust at his side.

There does seem to be some loose ends with the incursion of the christian faith in the very pagan Fortriu. But overall it was an excellent read and conclusion to the series. It made my heart happy that Faolan was able to find a happy ending with Elle. Once again 5-stars.

 

Review: Shane Jenek – Caught in the Act

Caught in the Act: A Memoir
Shane Jenek aka Courtney Act

“Boy, girl, artist, advocate. Courtney is more than the sum of her parts. Behind this rise to national and global fame is a story of searching for and finding oneself. Meet Shane Jenek. Raised in the Brisbane suburbs by loving parents, Shane realises from a young age that he’s not like all the other boys. At a performing arts agency he discovers his passion for song, dance and performance, and makes a promise to himself: to find a bigger stage. … Told with Courtney’s trademark candour and wit, Caught in the Act is about our journey towards understanding gender, sexuality and identity. It’s an often hilarious and at times heartbreaking memoir from a beloved drag and entertainment icon. Most of all, it’s a bloody good time.”

This book will be an eye-opening and brilliant ride for anyone who is part of the queer family, or would like to know more about the lives of the queer. That being said, it’s important to remember that this is the experience of only a single person. Shane/Courtney is one of the newer queers on the scene – which is to say that unlike other books I have read (nonfiction –Β My Epidemic; fiction – The Things We Promise), the specter of HIV/AIDs isn’t the main ‘threat’ to Courtney. Instead it comes in the form of front-page homophobia (you’ll never have a job with kids if you’re gay) and TV-show nastiness/misperceptions.

There’s a lot of navel gazing in this memoir which can largely be enjoyed, actually. The only points for me where this got a bit cloying was at the end and I actually would have been happy enough to end it perhaps a chapter earlier.

Who knew that casual sex could be so interesting? Or so nuanced? Shane/Courtney illuminates the way that sex can be viewed as a pleasant distraction but also a way of learning about yourself. Even if you have previously read about male-male sex and been perhaps disgusted, it’s worth reading this book to get a different perspective.

I have a friend in mind who I am going to give this book to for Christmas. I know he’s going to love it, because he’s a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I personally don’t understand the allure of the show, but this book totally made me rethink the other reality TV shows I’ve watched and their portrayal of people as Characters (Lego Masters I’m looking at you).

If I gave non-fiction stars, this would be getting a 4.5/5. This was a very enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend to a range of audiences, even those people you might think would be interested.

Pantera Press | 2nd November 2021 | AU$32.99 | paperback

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.