Review: Zach Jones – Growing Up in Flames

Growing Up in Flames
Zach Jones

After Kenna’s mother Ava dies, Kenna must live in the tiny town that Ava grew up in. Kenna struggles with guilt and PTSD from the bushfire that took her mother’s life. Noah lives with the trauma of his childhood and the call of flames. When the two collide, their paths cross for better or for worse.

Growing Up in Flames is theoretically a great young adult novel about the impact of potential bushfires on teenagers growing up in remote and regional areas of Australia. Unfortunately, although the main characters seemed to fear fire, it seemed to be used as a plot point that didn’t actually have a reasonable or even legally appropriate ending.

I found the jumps forwards and backwards in time quite confusing and I was frankly quite disgusted at the behaviour of some of the characters. I felt like there were quite a lot of legal guidelines crossed – particularly the psychologist that is theoretically treating the two main characters who just happened to become friends. And also that the psychologist gives tacit approval for Noah dosing his mother.

I’m sure that things were very different back then (1970s?) but the fact that Kenna’s mom and boyfriend basically blame someone/anyone else for their problems is reprehensible. Not to mention that they then let someone else end up in a wheelchair and show no signs of remorse.

I knocked this over in about 2 hours sitting outside in the sun with a good drink in hand but I don’t think there’s any way to actually enjoy this novel. I’m going to give it three stars but again I don’t really know who it’s aimed at. You could give it to teenagers but only really if you want them to set things on fire – so it’s probably not a great idea for summer reading.

Text Publishing | 1 March 2022 | AU$ | paperback

Review: Jo Browning Wroe – A Terrible Kindness

A Terrible Kindness
Jo Browning Wroe

William Lavery comes from a long history of embalmers and is proud of the work he does. Little does he know that the first professional job he does will bring his history, his present, and his future crashing together. While William tries to make sense of his life, the others who care about him are thrown aside and expected to cope.

A Terrible Kindness was a bit of an odd book in the way that it jumped forwards and backwards through time. What I was expecting was a book that had a bit more about the intricacies of embalming and looking after body after it has died. From the back cover, I thought that I was going to learn about different techniques that could be particularly used in an example where the bodies were quite degraded. Also, a direct discussion of about how traumatic it can be to embalm a child.

Unfortunately, this book seemed to be more about mental turmoil of the main character and how his background as a choirboy impacted his life choice to become an embalmer. I found myself very frustrated at times at the undercurrents of, not sexual tension, but hints of homosexuality that affected his wife and his friendships. It was weird to me that this was a thing that needed to be discussed. The music could have been a marvelous distraction and addition, but instead it seemed largely gratuitous and offensive.

In the end I wasn’t really sure what I got out of reading the book. I wouldn’t read it again because I already know what happens in “the big reveal” of what went wrong. What happened when he was a teenager isn’t as exciting as you think it will be, and the ending left me unsatisfied. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to end it like that! How did William just walk away!? I don’t understand how any man could think that it’s a good idea to walk away from your life and make your wife try to choose someone else. If his life was soo terrible, why was suicide not an option? It was an option for others in similarly dire straights, why not William?

I finished the novel out of a sense of duty. I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it if I knew the ending. 3 stars from me. I’m not sure who to recommend this novel to.

Allen & Unwin | 1 February 2022 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Jack Delosa – Unwritten (S)

Jack Delosa

“Unwritten presents a startling, revisionist approach to our understanding of entrepreneurship and living a life that aligns with your purpose. Through personal reflection and stories of unconventional wisdom, adversity and success, Jack examines what it means to be great, how we can achieve our life’s best work, shape the world around us for good and leave a legacy far more valuable than wealth alone.”

I read this book as an audio book. Some parts I thoroughly enjoyed, and other parts I completely tuned out of. Although I normally enjoy hearing real life stories, some of them were not that great or I have heard them many times before – for example: Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King Jr “I have a dream speech” and Richard Branson. Some stories, particularly the case study examples, were good though and had me listening for more.

I don’t think the author told their own life story very well and he often either came across as bragging or the story wasn’t really relevant. Most stories in general didn’t really link to any points that the author was making or the point just got lost along the way.

The author’s points were basically follow your vision, do what you want to do and disregard the status quo. I liked the OPRs (other people’s rules), but the message seemed to get lost and it was just thrown in again every now and then in between a lot of stories.

It’s just another inspiration or motivation book and nothing special. It isΒ  a good reminder to follow your vision and mission. 3 stars.

Review: Lucinda Riley – The Seven Sisters: Maya’s Story

The Seven Sisters: Maya’s Story
Lucinda Riley

Maya’s Pa Salt has passed away unexpectedly, and Maya finds herself lost without him and his solidity in their Genevan home. Not even her five sisters can console her – Maya was the first and most beautiful of them all. Challenged to find out her true history, Maya embarks to Rio where her story somehow began.

I slogged through this one for you all – it was an almost 20 hours behemoth of a talking book, and I only got through it because I couldn’t be bothered finding a different audiobook to listen to while painting. It was that bad that I sometimes considered silence a better option. It was repetitive in parts, and it was obvious what the ending/outcome of Maya’s search would be.

The level of detail is stifling – we know exactly what they eat, but it’s lacking the visceral responses that must be there. Wooh! We are in France, we must once again eat olives, cheese and bread. Oh no, she’s sad she doesn’t have her one-true-love.

I thought I had previously read one of this series, and found it to be The Storm Sister. It looks like I didn’t really enjoy that one either. The only reason I borrowed this was because I recently saw some hype about ‘The Missing Sister’, which will be the concluding novel of the sequence. I shouldn’t have bothered. I’m giving it three stars because I finished it, but honestly you shouldn’t waste your time on it. Tighter editing and word-count limits could have massively improved this novel.

Chris d’Lacey – The Last Dragon Chronicles Series (A)

The Last Dragon Chronicles Series
Chris d’Lacey

“When David moves in with Elizabeth Pennykettle and her eleven-year-old daughter, Lucy, he discovers a collection of clay dragons that come to life. David’s own special dragon inspires him to write a story, which reveals the secrets behind a mystery. In order to solve the mystery and save his dragon, David must master the magic of the fire within – not only with his hands but also with his heart.”

This is a review of all five books in the initial series, written by a 12-year old reader who was promised a trip to the library if she wrote one! Who am I kidding, we would have gone anyway… I’ve had to reword slightly so that it isn’t filled with spoilers.

I really enjoyed these novels up until the last book. The other four were compulsive and absorbing reading, but the ending of the fifth ruined the series for me. There was a lot of death and it didn’t seem like a good ending.

My favourite parts were the clay dragons and the short stories, anything with a dragon would be good enough for me. My favourite character was Liz because she was good at making clay dragons. I could have done without Dr Bergstrom’s character. He didn’t do anything and disappeared with no explanation.

I’d recommend it to anyone who likes characters dying. It’s aimed at my age or slightly older. It’s for dragon lovers because they are awesome dragons. 3.5 stars for the series because the ending was terrible.

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: Lyndall Clipstone – 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: Hayley Lawrence – Skin Deep

Skin Deep
Hayley Lawrence

Scarlett went from being a beautiful, graceful dancer to a scarred outcast in the space of an afternoon. She’s desperate to get away from people’s expectations – and her dad is willing to take her up into the mountains to get away. But there she finds she can’t be alone – and maybe she doesn’t want to be.

I confess that I found this novel somewhat unrealistic and underwhelming. I didn’t find it thought-provoking because I didn’t think that the overall treatment of Scarlett’s scars was reasonable. I wanted to be fair to this novel, so I went to do a little digging on what research the author did before/during writing it. I couldn’t find much.

Yes, girls are definitely treated differently in terms of ‘pretty’, ‘cute’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, but it’s also true of guys to an extent. There are definitely the ugly guys who also get picked on by the ‘jock’ types. This book makes it seem like only women have the problem! And that only shallow women only think about looks, which is also untrue.

It seemed like a low technique to have the secondary character Eamon just accept Scarlett – because it seemed as if his sister was the pure reason that he felt that way. The abrupt turn-around of Scarlett’s friends also seemed shallow and unlikely. Finally, I didn’t care for the romance that sprung up – how convenient that Scarlett and Eamon might spend some more time together! I also had a Bridge to Terabithia moment which honestly could have made the novel more poignant for me.

If you have an overactive imagination like mine, please note that there should be a trigger warning for skin peeling. I can’t get a particular phrase out of my mind! However, the majority of references to her scars are that they are ugly and really that way because of the muscle loss.

I’m giving this 3 stars – hopefully it’s thought-provoking for younger readers, but if you really want to get inside someone’s mind who has been badly scarred, Brent Runyon’s Burn Journals remains the gold standard in my mind (I appear to have not reviewed that novel in particular, but I have reviewed his Surface Tension).

Scholastic | 1st July 2021 | AU$15.99 | paperback