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: Stephen Covey – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (S)

Powerful Lessons in Personal Change
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey

“One of the most inspiring and impactful books ever written, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has captivated readers for 25 years. It has transformed the lives of presidents and CEOs, educators and parents—in short, millions of people of all ages and occupations across the world. This twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Stephen Covey’s cherished classic commemorates his timeless wisdom, and encourages us to live a life of great and enduring purpose.”

This book was pretty much as I expected. It’s thick, large, and long, which is good for stopping and starting and sinking into. I liked some parts of it, I think more of the good parts were at the start than the end – this is different from most of the business books I read.

Overall it was fairly good. The downside was its length because you never know when a good bit might come up. So you could be reading a patch of average or just felt like this part could be edited out and condensed and then suddenly be hit with something insightful. A lot of the book at the start dragged out, including the Introduction before even getting to habit one.

The 7 Habits are as follows:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

The 7 habits aren’t particularly new or anything different. But the author does have some different perspectives, points and tips under each one. I found some of these hidden gems and stories under each. But overall the habits are nothing new.

I would recommend it for anyone who is in sales or a leadership role. However the principles could be applied to anyone’s personal life who wants to foster continual learning. I wouldn’t re-read it again but it was good. 4 stars.

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: 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.

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: Nat Amoore – The Right Way to Rock

The Right Way to Rock
Nat Amoore

Mac knows he loves music, and his favourite genre is musical theatre. He’s pretty darn good at guitar, but his real passion is writing lyrics. When he gets the news Watterson Primary is going to shut down the creative Arts, he’s determined to do something to save them. Can he pull off a musical to save them? Or will his mom’s rock dreams get in the way?

I loved how each chapter of the book started off with a musical interlude so to speak, of different popular tunes with new Ethan-relevant lyrics added. There were only a couple of missing points where I didn’t get the musical reference.

I found myself lol-ing at this book pretty frequently! This author has a fantastic turn of phrase that will make this novel appreciated by all ages. The tics of Tourette syndrome were super annoying, and I was so grateful that I wasn’t reading this aloud. I have to give points to the author for presenting a neurodiverse cast though. Did you know that despite typical portrayals in media, only 10% of people with Tourette have swearwords as their tics (coprolalia)? It makes sense to me, honestly because if it’s something that presents in childhood, there’s no guarentee that the child actually knows swear words!

I didn’t understand how Mrs. Moshie fit into the story line. I was somewhat confused as to how she could be considered a suitable caregiver for the two kids. I found myself still wondering about the next steps after the conclusion of this novel. That means that this book must have had pretty fantastic world building!

I picked this up not really realising what age group it was for, and not knowing that it’s the third book set in Watterson. This didn’t really matter to me, even though I guess, !spoilers! for the other two books. I’d give this to any pre-teen boy or girl to read as a lighthearted way to understand that being different is totally ok. 4 stars from me.

Penguin Random House | 1st June 2021 | AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Philip Reeve – Mortal Engines (K)

Mortal Engines
Philip Reeve

Tom has lived all his life in London – not the city as we know it, but a giant monstrosity on wheels, which captures smaller settlements for spare parts and enslaves those aboard. Everything changes, however, when a young girl with a prominent scar is captured and his life changes forever. The pair fall off London and must make their way back on foot.

This was quite a nice light read, the story was interesting but simple to follow, and I had no trouble understanding what everyone was doing. This was particularly impressive to me, as there are times where the story is split between 3 different POVs, and I usually find that I struggle to keep everything in my head when this occurs.

The characters were all interesting and 3-dimensional characters. Even the villains had something more to offer than simply being evil for evil’s sake, or just wanting power. My favourite part of this book was absolutely the secondary characters, as they all had interesting traits to make them unique and help them stand out. That said, this emphasis on making every character stand out did somewhat decrease the realism, as some of the character traits didn’t quite make sense in context, and did not seem like they would be feasible in real life

While the characters themselves were interesting, the character progression in the book felt a little forced. The main example of this is with the main characters Tom and Hester. In the beginning of the book, Tom consistently thinks of Hester in insulting terms – often describing her as ‘ugly’ due to the scar on her face. It felt forced and a little rushed when he went from this to finding that he ‘would miss her lop-sided smiles’. I feel it would have been better if it had taken him longer to come to this conclusion, or if he’d had conflict with himself about his feelings towards her clashing with his opinions on her looks.

One other issue I found was Hester seemed to be too worldly. While the main character of a story is typically more interesting than the average person, and Hester’s backstory explained why she may have met lots of people, it felt unrealistic, as she had a personal connection with almost all of the villains in the book. Some of these connections definitely benefited the story, but there were others that did not contribute much, and I wish hadn’t been included.

I’m giving this story a 4/5, as the idea and storyline were amazing, and far outshone the issues I had with the writing. I feel this book would be best for a younger audience but could be enjoyed by anyone.

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