Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

A dark blue cover with white text, and a flourished font for the title Caraval. There is a multipointed star behind the title and it is surrounded by red artistic flourishes around the title and author name.ARC Review:

Title: Caraval (Caraval #1)

Authors: Stephanie Garber

Publisher and Year: Flatiron Books, 2017

Genre: fantasy, young adult, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world . . .

Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I thoroughly enjoyed Caraval, it was a face-paced read that was enjoyable in the way that you don’t notice how much you’ve read until you should have gone to sleep an hour ago.  I loved the set up of the story and the game of Caraval with the mystery of its game master Legend.  The magic and the worldbuilding were deeply interesting and honestly I wish I could have seen more of this – especially inside the game world itself. For five days of game there was a surprising lack of detail and richness to the experience within it.

The characterisation was all pretty solid although I thought the father’s character was a little two dimensional as a villain. I loved the two sisters, although I was disappointed that they didn’t share more page-time together and I thought that there was a bit more telling about them rather than showing – Tella was almost absent from the book although critical to the story itself which I thought was actually a bit of a shame – I couldn’t relish in her triumph because I barely knew her. Scarlett was contradictory but in a good way and I thought I had a good chance to get to know her, but I thought that she was a bit too easily led and naive for someone who was supposed to be aware of being manipulated, based on her background. I did really love Julian’s character, and he was one of the stand out characters for me, he was complicated and interesting, was a great foil for Scarlett without being lost in her and without doing anything that made my teeth hurt.

I enjoyed the resolution to the story quite a lot, I thought it was quite fitting and I thought that the fact that there was a rhyme and reason to how Scarlett and Tella ended up at the game at all was well plotted. I was bewildered by the random arrival of the fiance – that whole sub-storyline was a bit clunky for me and I don’t think it played out as well as it could have. I didn’t much care for the cliffhanger, but I am glad to know that there’s more story, it was definitely compelling and enjoyable enough that I’m overtly looking forward to the sequel. This is an interesting YA novel, it’s not a coming of age, but it is a stepping out into the world in a way for the first time, and Scarlett comes to know herself and what she wants for her life a bit more, out from under the thumb of her father and the certainty of her betrothal. I love that the relationship between the sisters is so important and underpins the whole story even if they didn’t share the pages as much as I’d have liked, and overall I’d have loved to see more of Tella. Congratulations to Garber on an excellent debut novel.

Review: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira

Pale blue book cover with flowery font text for the title and author name, there is a silhouette of female figure in a white dress blurred in the background and pink curlicue flowers surround the text and the blurry figure. ARC Review:

Title: Bookishly Ever After

Authors: Isabel Bandeira

Publisher and Year: Spencer Hill Contemporary, 2016

Genre: young adult, romance, contemporary

Blurb from Goodreads:

In a perfect world, sixteen-year-old Phoebe Martins’ life would be a book. Preferably a YA novel with magic and a hot paranormal love interest. Unfortunately, her life probably wouldn’t even qualify for a quiet contemporary.

But when Phoebe finds out that Dev, the hottest guy in the clarinet section, might actually have a crush on her, she turns to her favorite books for advice. Phoebe overhauls her personality to become as awesome as her favorite heroines and win Dev’s heart. But if her plan fails, can she go back to her happy world of fictional boys after falling for the real thing?

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

As someone who really enjoys reading books, and enjoys in particular the relationships, romances and friendships in books this book was right in my wheelhouse! It’s a cute YA about a girl who likes reading and knitting having a crush, being crushed on and figuring out real life romance for the first time. I really like that Phoebe was both curious about and a bit bewildered by the contrast between real life romance and the romances in the books she was reading. I loved that she saw herself in the heroine protagonist’s role time and again, and that she aspired to romance as awesome as those she was reading about.

I really loved the naive fantasy at play here – nothing bad happened to Phoebe! I found the way the story unfolded to be really believable for me because she’s a teen girl with her first real life romance experience. She was clumsy, so was the boy she liked. I liked all the supporting characters actually, her friends were varied and interesting, I liked the happy queer romance that her friend was enjoying, I liked that Dev was Indian and heavily involved with his cultural background, including travelling back to India during the story. There were just nice touches that made it a bit more real for me.

That said, I have minor complaints about the story becoming clunky in the second half, the way the romance unfolded was believable  but it was an effort to keep reading in some places because while I hate insta-romance in most cases, things here also seemed to just take forever – but not in a slow burn awesome kind of way, there were slow places that were a little boring and the let down the pacing a little. This is a minor criticism, and as a debut novel it’s a great beginning.

If you like sweet romance that’s non-explicit involving books, knitting, archery and camping, I highly recommend this book, it was great fun, the characters were endearing and I enjoyed reading it a lot. This book stands alone really well. However, I understand that there is also second book in the series forthcoming, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that when it comes out.

Review: Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

A woman sits by a spaceship window with the glow of the Earth in silhouette visible. The title Martians Abroad is in orange, the author Carrie Vaughn's name is in white both in large letters at the bottom of the image.ARC Review:

Title: Martians Abroad

Authors: Carrie Vaughn

Publisher and Year:  Tor Books, 2017

Genre: science fiction, young adult

Available: January 17, 2017

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

A great new stand-alone science fiction novel from the author of the Kitty Norville series.

Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly’s plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth—the one planet Polly has no desire to visit. Ever.

Homesick and cut off from her desired future, Polly cannot seem to fit into the constraints of life on Earth, unlike Charles, who deftly maneuvers around people and sees through their behavior to their true motives. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there’s more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a fan of Carrie Vaughn’s urban fantasy series about Kitty Norville and I jumped at the chance to see her writing such a fun sounding science fiction story. Martians Abroad is fantastic from start to finish, the characters and story are engaging and the whole package is wonderfully entertaining – I couldn’t put it down.

I rarely start a review talking about world-building, but I think it’s worth remarking on here. I really like the future-Earth universe Vaughn has created. It was really believable – moving on from nations but not completely. Colonies on the moon and Mars and other places, and run by corporations with stakeholders. I really loved that we got to experience this world through the eyes of Polly who hasn’t been to Earth and hadn’t ever planned on it. It was a really unique view and it made me appreciate living on Earth myself in a lot of ways, open sky, water and space to spread out. There are tons of tiny details that have been included that made the universe real for me, plus it seems incredibly plausible to me that this kind of setup could happen in future.

Polly and Charles are great protagonists, twins but not really, siblings and very different from one another. I liked their friendship – it wasn’t an easy one but it was true to their characters and so was very real for me. I loved the character interaction at the Galileo school with all the other children – elitism persists even in the future, and the form in which it takes was not at all surprising. I also liked that there  wasn’t a strong romance vibe in this book, they’re teenagers and so there’s hints of it, but it never goes beyond what I’d expect of teens in that kind of setting – particularly Polly herself.

Polly is such a practical person, she’s seemingly fearless and unfazed by so many things – the kind of person to think that the things she does without thinking are things that anyone, or surely someone would do – but it’s consistently her. It’s not seen as ordinary but it’s also not the kind of thing that draws a magic-hero trope reaction either. The other teens are bewildered and grateful but don’t know what to make of Polly at all, her capability, competence and confidence show up in the kinds of areas where they’re lacking and they, even if the school doesn’t, recognise the value in what she brings to the table.

Another thing I appreciated was that even though there was school meanness, that it was qualified and that there were other things that happened and it wasn’t all about the trope of a misfit coming to fit in. In fact, by the end Polly still doesn’t exactly fit in and neither does Charles. But she makes friends and they stand by her, they share confidences and experiences together and the friendships grow from there in ways I really appreciated. The way in which there were obstacles to overcome and that they seemed contrived because they were was an awesome story element, I was quite impressed with how that came together in the end and with Charles’ decision to return to Mars. I was surprised by Polly’s intention to stay at Galileo, but I appreciated her optimism about getting through it and getting to become a pilot. I am glad that she did get some sense that she could access that career privilege based on how hard she’d worked and how selflessly she’d endeavoured to do ‘the right thing’ by others at the school.

This was a great, standalone science-fiction novel, it’s perfectly tuned as a Young Adult novel too. I love that it’s standalone, but the universe is so interesting and has such potential that I have a faint hope that there could be more standalone novels in the universe.  If you like science-fiction that is thoughtful, fun and has great characters in a fully-realised world then Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn is well worth your time.

Snapshot 2016: Interview with Justine Larbalestier

Snaphot Logo 2016

I’m glad I was reading my interview with Justine Larbalestier during the day time when the sun was out because her insight into psychopaths and in particular women who are psychopaths is truly chilling!  I interviewed Justine as part of Snapshot 2016 and the interview is reposted here from the Australian SF Snapshot Project. #Snapshot2016


Justine Larbalestier author photoJustine Larbalestier is an Australian–American author of eight novels, two anthologies and one scholarly work of non-fiction, many essays, blog posts, tweets, and a handful of short stories.

Her most recent book, My Sister Rosa, is about a seventeen-year-old Australian boy whose ten-year-old sister is a psychopath. It’s set in New York City and published by Allen and Unwin in Australia/New Zealand and will be published on 15 November 2016 by Soho Teen in North America.

My previous novel, Razorhurst, takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, meet over the dead body of Dymphna’s latest lover, Jimmy Palmer. Of her other books the most popular are the novel Liar and the Zombies Versus Unicorns anthology which she edited with Holly Black.

Justine lives in Sydney, Australia where she gardens, boxes, and watches too much cricket, and also in New York City, where her game of choice is basketball. She’s a season ticket holder for the New York Liberty.

 

You were a WisCon 2016 Guest of Honour, what was it like returning to Wiscon having previously attended as a regular con-goer in comparison to attending as a guest? Also, what was your favourite part of the experience?

It was strange. Though I was once a regular con-goer there, I hadn’t been in ten years. Last time I was there YA had almost no profile. I was asked, “What is YA?” Some folks were sneery, “Why would you write about teens? Ewww.”  Which is part of why I stopped going. But ten years later that had totally changed. I felt very welcomed and there were many other YA writers and readers there.

Aside from being a co-GoH with Nalo Hopkinson and Sofia Samatar, who are both incredible, my favourite thing was doing a panel on evil women with Mikki Kendall. She’s been doing research on female serial killers and I’ve been researching psychopathic women. She’s one of the smartest, wittiest writers around, as well as being an historian. It was the most informative fun ever. I wish all my panels were with her.

Razorhurst - coverYou’ve been working through the ideas surrounding ‘evil women’ in your recent writing. What have you most enjoyed exploring about the concept of evil so far?

I’m fascinated by the idea that women are naturally good on the one hand, yet on the other, there’s all the stuff about women being diabolical temptresses on the other. I’ve long been obsessed with Femme Fatales. I watched too many Films Noir, I guess. Razorhurst was my first book that featured one, but it won’t be my last. (To be clear, I don’t think any group is naturally good or bad. Google Australia’s Katherine Knight if you want a really gruesome example of a woman killer.)

For a long time there was a belief that there weren’t women serial killers. Or, rather, that they were rare. Possibly because women aren’t seen as capable of that level of violence? Spoiler: they are. But it’s becoming apparent that many female serial killers were simply overlooked because they mostly don’t kill in a showy way. No chopping up bodies, no taunting letters to the police. The women don’t want to be caught. They tend to work as carers and poison/suffocate their victims. Not many people realise that Arsenic and Old Lace was actually based on a real life case and that that real life case was absolutely typical of how women serially kill. Women also tend to get away with their murders more often because their kills look more like natural causes.

The same thing with female psychopaths. Experts say that for every twenty male psychopaths there is only one female one. But when I tried to find where that figure came from it, turned out it pretty much comes out of thin air. Experts don’t know how many female psychopaths there are because little research has been done on them. I suspect female psychopaths are under-diagnosed.

The evil women that are part of our mythologies tends to be evil in terms of their roles as wives/girlfriends and mothers: Medea, Jezebel, Delilah etc. Even when women are being evil to other women in those stories it’s usually because they’re in competition for men. A lot of fictional depiction of female evil assumes heterosexuality and probably wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. The obvious exception being all those evil lesbians, but they’re seen as evil because of their rejection as men, so it’s still an evil understood in terms of mainstream understandings of sexuality. I.e. the only reason you would turn your back on men as a woman would be because you’re evil.

I’ll stop now as this is turning into a long-arse essay but, as you can tell, I have loads to say on this topic. Hence my writing yet another book about a female psychopath. This time she’s seventeen, rather than ten as in My Sister Rosa, and it’s from her point of view, not from that of her old brother.

My Sister Rosa - cover

Aside from the psychological thriller you’re currently working on, do you have anything speculative in the works?

The kind of psychological thrillers I’m writing are monster novels, which I think are definitely part of speculative fiction. Psychopaths have been figured as monsters for decades now. In fact, I’d argue that most monsters in horror, science fiction, thrillers etc. are human, and when they’re not like, for example, the Godzilla movies, it’s often the evil military trying to fight them, who are the real monsters. With good reason, we fear ourselves the most. And the psychopath, the person with no empathy and no remorse, is kind of the distillation of our fears about our fellow humans.

I do not mean that psychopaths are literally monsters. Just that they’re figured that way in the genre and, let’s be honest, in much reporting of real life cases. What interests me the most about the way we see psychopaths is that they are human. So how do we deal with that? Not very well. How do we deal with the fact that a great deal of the evil inflicted on humans is inflicted by humans who aren’t psychopaths. We don’t.

What Australian work have you loved recently?

This is so hard because I know many brilliant Australian authors but if I praise some of them I’ll be leaving others out. I also worry people will think I’m recommending them because they’re my friends, which I would never do, but it’s what some assume. Besides I recommend my friends’ books on Twitter often.

So I’ll recommend two Aussie writers I’ve never met. Check out Ambelin Kwaymullina. She has a fantastic YA trilogy, The Tribe, that’s not like anything else out there. In non-fiction I loved Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt, which is a witty, well-researched account of the Eliza Fraser story, but this time including Indigenous versions of what happened. It’s the best kind of history because it made me rethink what I thought I knew. A must read.

Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?

Honestly, on most long plane flights there’s already an author sitting next to me. On the other side of me I think I’d prefer to have an interesting person from a completely different field. Lately, I’ve taken to questioning folks about the most common accidents in their occupation so I can figure out “accidental” ways my psychopath could bump people off. So sitting next to an expert on accidental deaths would be the best thing ever.

Snapshot 2016: Interview with Marianne de Pierres

Snaphot Logo 2016

Marianne de Pierres remains one of the most versatile authors writing in the Australian scene, she’s not afraid to tackle any kind of story that takes hold of her and she’s always up for trying something new. Plus, she’s also great fun to have around! This interview is part of Snapshot 2016 and is reposted from the Australian SF Snapshot Project. #Snapshot2016.


Marianne de Pierres Comic Con 2016 author photoMarianne de Pierres received the 2014 Curtin University Distinguished Australian Alumni Award for significant and valuable contributions to society. This award was granted in recognition of her feminist speculative fiction. She is the author of the award-winning Sentients of Orion and Peacemaker series. Her young adult Night Creatures trilogy was listed as a Recommended Read by both the Stella Prize and Victoria Premier’s Literary Award panels. Under the pseudonym Marianne Delacourt, she has also written a series of crime novels for which she has received a Davitt Award. She is a writing educator and mentor, a proponent of Transmedia, and has been involved in several successful creative partnerships.

You’re working on feminist science fiction for your PhD project, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your research and reading so far?

The short answer is “everything”. It’s been a wonderful and soaring learning curve for me: from Donna Haraway’s cyber-feminsim through to the post-feminist theorists. More specifically though, my topic examines how certain female speculative fiction authors imagine future feminism in their work. The most surprising discovery is the conclusion that I’m beginning to draw from an analysis of three particular texts. I’m using vN by Madeline Ashby, God’s War by Kameron Hurley, and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes as my case studies. Though set in vastly different worlds and written in diverse styles, there are some strong commonalities in their subtexts. But you’ll have to read my exegesis to find out what those are! No spoilers yet.

Sharp Shooter - coverThe recent re-release of ‘Sharp Shooter’ internationally is so exciting and I’m so looking forward to the release of the fourth novel in the series! Can you give us a hint of what we can expect from Tara’s next adventure?

Thanks Ju! I am also really thrilled that Twelfth Planet Press have picked up the Tara Sharp series for their Deadlines imprint. The books are being re-released over the course of this year with new covers, and each one has been revised, and in some instances new material has been added. Cathy Larsen is producing some splendid new artwork. Book 4 will be out around November and is titled Sharp Edge. Things are ‘hotting up’ between Tara and Nick Tozzi and she’s not sure she can handle it, so (in usual fashion) she plunges into her latest adventure to avoid having to make decisions. This means helping her ex-fiancée, Garth, with a money laundering problem and disentangling herself from the bikie gang to whom she owes a favour. Cass and she also move out of Lilac Street. Everyone’s lives are evolving.

One of your strengths as an author has been your ability to work across genres, from YA and urban fantasy to science fiction, crime and dystopia. Do you have a favourite amongst the genres you’ve written in and are there any you’d still like to try out?

Funny you should mention that! Once my PhD novel is complete, I plan to work on a biography about a man named Colonel Herman Thorn, who lived in early 19th Century New York and Paris. I’m so obsessed with this story that for the first time in my life, I feel compelled to write non-fiction, and I refuse to be daunted by the fact that it’s a new genre for me.

In terms of my previous fictions… as long as it’s speculative, I love it! No favourites there. 🙂

What Australian work have you loved recently?

Pamela Hart’s (aka Freeman) historical novels are some of the best world building I’ve read. Pamela’s a terrific writer in all genres, but I agree with her husband (author Stephen Hart) who says she’s really found her niche here.

Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?

Octavia Butler. I’d be interested in pretty much anything she had to do or say.

Snapshot 2016: Interview with Sean Williams

Snaphot Logo 2016

This is the first of the interviews I conducted for Snapshot 2016 with the always lovely Sean Williams, reposted from the original over at the Australian SF Snapshot Project. #Snapshot2016.


Sean Williams - Photo by James BraundSean Williams is an award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over forty novels and one hundred stories, including some set in the Star Wars and Doctor Who universes, and some written with Garth Nix. He lives up the road from the Australia’s finest chocolate factory with his family and a pet plastic fish.

Although your Twinmaker series concluded with the release of ‘Fall/Hollowgirl’ last year, it looks like this universe still has a hold on you. Is there more to come from within the Twinmaker universe?

The Twinmaker universe, and the idea of the matter transmitter, definitely still has a tight grip on me. Apart from the fantasy landscape of The Stone Mage and the Sea, which I’ve returned to more than a dozen times, this is the world I’ve most visited, with four novels and over forty short stories so far, plus a PhD thesis to prove that I’m taking it all very seriously.:) I have a couple of stories yet to come, and there are still ideas kicking around. One is to write a non-fiction book on the rise and fall and rise of the teleporter. If I could drop everything in order to do that, I would. Then I’d be done with it. Maybe.

Because, honestly, this has been obsession for more years than I care to count. The first “serious” story I ever wrote, i.e. thinking that I might actually have a shot at being a writer, was a matter transmitter story. That was in 1989. Going back even further to 1978, I wrote a mammoth epic, or so it seemed when I was eleven years old, and it too featured a matter transmitter. If anyone’s looking for recurring tropes in my work, this would be the one that stands out. I would justify this obsession by saying that it’s the ultimate science fiction trope, the one that allows an author to explore every imaginable idea, except for travel back in time (and hell, Michael Crichton used it to do even that). But really it’s because I think it’s cool … and the ideas it generates just keep on coming.

Fall - Twinmaker - cover

You’re well known for writing science fiction and dystopia, and I’m a particular fan of your fantasy work. Do you think you’ll continue to work across genres?

Most likely. I’ve always liked moving across genres and styles. It keeps me from getting stale–or so I tell myself. Maybe it’s really just to keep me from getting bored. One thing that’s stopped me from writing much horror lately is the feeling that, if I’ve played with a trope once, it’s time to move on. Of course, given the answer to the question above, some tropes comprehensively break that rule. I’ve also come back to some styles or worlds many times over, but only when I feel like I have something more to say about or with them.

Forthcoming projects include my first ever published 1st-person novel, my first mainstream novel, and my first medieval fantasy (co-written with Garth Nix). At the same time, I have a space opera novel kicking around, and I’m actively researching another book set in the world of the Books of the Change. Plus the non-fiction book on matter transmitters. So there’s lots of old and new stuff to keep me interested for a while yet.

In your blog you mention two YA novels that you’re writing. What is it that draws you to YA?

The first of the two YA novels is In My Mind, a first-person novel set in the present day that uses speculative elements to explore social anxiety and chronic pain; that’s sold in the US, and I’m editing it at the moment. The second is Impossible Music, a mainstream novel about deafness and music. It earned an Australia Council Grant (for which I’m incredibly grateful, times being tough) and is still in the research phase. Both are very personal novels, dealing with things that are very close to me, or things I have suffered myself (particularly In My Mind, which was difficult to write as a result). They’re topics I find easier to write about in YA because they speak to the age I was when I discovered/endured them in real life. More or less. These aren’t memoirs, but they do come from very intimate spaces that I don’t normally foreground in my fiction.

In general, I find a freshness, a vividness, a rawness, and an immediacy to YA fiction that is very appealing to me. As genre writer, and reader, I am drawn to stories that pull few punches in terms of plotting and characterisation. Themes, subtext and style are equally important, but I don’t want them foregrounded to the point where they seem to become the point, if that makes sense. Finding the right balance between the many facets of storytelling is one of the most challenging things about being a writer–and a reader as well. There’s nothing more rewarding than finally getting it right.

What Australian work have you loved recently?

Justine Larbalestier’s My Sister Rosa, Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Colours of Madeleine series, Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, Deb Biancotti’s Waking in Winter, Anna Smaill’sThe Chimes, Zeroes by the fabulous Westerfeld/Lanagan/Biancotti trio. I’m also going on a bit of an Elizabeth Knox binge lately; her Dreamhunter duet really hit the spot. (I’m conflating a couple of New Zealanders with the Australians here, but I figure it’s okay to be inclusive. Hopefully!)

Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?

I wish I’d met Robert Anton Wilson when he was alive, so I guess that’s my answer. It would be fair to say that his Schroedinger’s Cat books literally changed my life (more than Illuminatus! although he’s more famous for them). I was a teenager thinking thoughts that didn’t really fit into the box I was living in, and here was the guy writing about exactly those things, but with a sense of humour and wonder sorely lacking in the other pundits I’d stumbled across. He had a joyous knack of telling stories that underpinned everything he wrote. If I had the opportunity to hear some of those stories in person, I would take it in a flash.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway - coverARC Review:

Title: Every Heart a Doorway

Author: Seanan McGuire

Publisher and Year: Tor, 2016

Genre: fantasy, young adult, new adult

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How have I not read any of Seanan McGure’s work before?! Especially given my love of urban fantasy?! In any case, this was my first foray into McGuire’s work and I could not put the book down. Every Heart a Doorway is simply magnificent and is an instant favourite for 2016, without question.

Every Heart a Doorway has one of the most interesting fantasy premises I’ve come across in a long time and it’s beautifully executed. The world building for the story is sublime and I want to read so many more stories set in this universe! Not only were the setting and world building engaging, the characters leapt off the page and brought the story to life for me. I could imagine their voices, the way they looked, everything so clearly.

My heart went out to Nancy and I was particularly taken by her experience having tumbled into a world that wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, as some of the worlds in the books were described, but one that is more silent, deeper and a bit darker. I am absolutely a fan of sunshine, unicorns and rainbows without question, but my experience of that is enhanced when there is shadow and darkness to the lightheartedness. I also love how well McGuire demonstrates that sunshine and rainbows do not inherently equal benevolence or fairness, and that the darker or creepier worlds are not necessarily malevolent or evil.

What especially struck me about this novella, and I think it’s an aspect that makes this particularly good reading for young/new adults is the way in which Nancy experiences isolation and difficulty with her family after she returns from her world. Nancy’s experience parallels the experience of many who are struggling personally with something that their families don’t or can’t understand. Across the experiences of other characters in the novel like Kade, Jack, Jill and Sumi, the concept of family and the relationship with family as being complex, fraught and difficult on several levels is explored including having family, not having family, being loved and wanted, or unwanted and misunderstood by family.

Additionally, the novella includes a spectrum of characters with different experiences, not all of them are white, one is asexual and another is transgender, and this too mirrors the experience of people reading who want to see themselves in fiction, and see how other characters think about their lives, feelings and experiences and process them. I sincerely wish I had a book like this for when I was growing up, I needed this book growing up and I needed it now to look back on my past and growing up and the impact of being misunderstood and out of place on me. That profound sense of not belonging so much that you lose yourself in fantasy trying to cope – for the characters in the story that’s more literal than metaphorical but it really hit home for me. Wanting to belong and trying to find that place, finding it and losing it, trying to find a new sense of home and belonging afterwards. This story is profound on several levels.

I also love the overt feminism of the story in considering why there are so many more girls than boys who go through secret doors into hidden worlds. The idea of boys being too loud to be easily missed, and the expectations and assumptions about how boys play and what will happen to them versus the way in which we seek to protect girls, but also how we impose upon them a silence and stillness that means that it is easier for them to be misplaced, should they find a door and go wandering. This is a pointed commentary and it draws on the generalisations bound up in traditional gender roles reflecting not only a bitter truth contained within, but also the constraint that is imposed upon people to be, to not be, to conform a certain way.

I have no criticisms to level at this novella, as one reviewer put it: it’s damn near perfect. It packs an emotional punch, it’s beautifully written, the length is accessible – it’s neither too long nor too short and it leaves you wanting more. I am my own doorway, I am the only one who gets to choose my story and I make the decisions that govern my narrative. Every Heart a Doorway will stay with me for the rest of my life.

 

 

Review: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016: Book #2

Escape YA Bookclub Profile ImageEscape Club Bookclub: January

Title: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1)

Author: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016

Genre: Young adult, dystopia, science fiction

Blurb from Goodreads:

The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.

Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

Illuminae - coverMy Review:

What an interesting format this book comes in! I was engaged by the confidential file release style of storytelling, it was interesting and let the story unfold in an unusual way. I will say that it is not very accessible, the art is gorgeous but hard to appreciate if you’re not great at holding books, or reading it on a phone screen (as I was). There were sections I skipped because I couldn’t zoom in to read some of the artistic text. However, I enjoyed the story so much that it didn’t do much to take away from the experience for me. I think this is perhaps something that the publisher would do well to consider for the future books – please keep the art, but please make it more accessible.

I really liked Kady as a protagonist, she was an interesting mix of typical teenage angst mixed with the trauma of having her whole life fall apart, both when the illegal colony was attacked and at several points while on the ship. This is an intense read – the suspense of the story is gripping and at times I found I needed to either put it down for a bit or keep reading because of the story intensity. I was so invested in finding out what happened, what was happening as the story unfolded. I thought it raised some interesting notions about AI, about hacking and government, transparency, authority and ethics in crisis situations.

I didn’t much care for Kady’s boyfriend, at no point did he come across as anything other than a jock that was largely incapable of an original thought, if not for Kady. However, that said the way in which the romance was portrayed, the having broken apart but finding that the circumstance and familiarity amidst horror drew them back together made sense to me. And, it also makes sense to me, that the crisis being all it was drew them even closer and more attached as time went on – especially given they were separated by being on different ships and so couldn’t physically get to one another (or grate on one another) in person.

The ethics of the story are complex (and spoilery).

— (spoilers) —

While Kady has a strong sense of the moral right and good thing to do, I think that the story provides good context for the other points of view. Is it the fact that the AI destroyed a ship in accordance with its programming to preserve the best chance of survival for the fleet based on its own logical deduction without human input, or the destruction of the ship itself that is the crime? Is it both? I appreciated that there was no obvious easy answer and that while Kady didn’t grapple with this herself so much, other people did and their points of view are presented as part of the documentation that tells the story.

— (end spoilers) —

Interestingly, the worldbuilding for this book is minimal – which works for the story. There is an illegal colony, there are ships in space – it’s a big area of space, and there’s a station the ships head toward the long way around because of damage to technology. We know little more about the greater context of the society (societies?) on a larger scale, how government and business and politics work, what races and factions are involved. It’s largely a mystery and while I wondered about it while reading, it’s not relevant to the story. Only what is relevant to the story and immediate situation is shared and it works to emphasise the insular nature of the tiny fleet clinging to survival.

The story could seem implausible, outlandish. However, I was reminded both of ‘Alien’ and also ‘Gravity’ while I was reading – and those descriptions could easily be applied to both of those media. What is also similar is the quality of the storytelling and how compelling it is – my suspension of disbelief was thoroughly engaged and I was absolutely caught up in the action, heart in mouth right to the end. And then I felt like I’d lost a friend because it was just ended and there was no more.

The book draws on tropes, the chosen one succeeding against the odds is probably the most gratuitous one. However, overall I think it executes the use of them reasonably well, and pink haired teenagers are hardly an unusual concept – it just seemed to be part of who Kady was and the authors successfully brought her to life for me, where perhaps in other situations the make up of her character might have annoyed or disappointed me more. The character relationships are presented as heteronormative, people as cisgendered and no one appeared to have any kind of disability. Similarly, I don’t recall any discussion of race and so the default may be assumed as ‘white’ given nothing is done to subvert or draw attention to this fact. Having noted these things and that I hope future books address these points. I also hope we get to see more of Kady in the books to come – I’ll be avidly looking forward to more in this series.

AWW15: The Foretelling of Georgie Spider by Ambelin Kwaymullina

The Foretelling of Georgie Spider - coverAustralian Women Writers Challenge: Book #10

Title: The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (The Tribe #3)

Author: Ambelin Kwaymullina

Publisher and Year: Walker Books, 2015

Genre: urban fantasy, mythology, science fiction, dystopia, eco-dystopia, post-apocolyptic, young adult

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

A storm was stretching out across futures to swallow everything in nothing, and it was growing larger, which meant it was getting nearer… Georgie Spider has foretold the end of the world, and the only one who can stop it is Ashala Wolf. But Georgie has also foreseen Ashala’s death. As the world shifts around the Tribe, Ashala fights to protect those she loves from old enemies and new threats. And Georgie fights to save Ashala. Georgie Spider can see the future. But can she change it?

 

My review:

I went straight onto the third book from reading the second and I’m so glad I was able to do this because I don’t know how I’d have waited  for the stunning conclusion to this series! Wow. I loved this book, I loved this series, I hope that it is being read and loved by so many people across Australia and the world because it’s well deserved. I have fallen in love with Ambelin Kwaymullina’s writing style – I don’t think I’ve had a writer crush develop this quickly since I came late to Juliet Marillier’s work! And that’s a reasonable comparison to make in terms of the quality of writing, how beautiful the prose is and how much it draws you deeply into the story, allows you to feel like you really know the characters, almost like you’re in the story yourself. The worldbuilding in this series is also astounding, I can picture this post-apocalyptic world, the cities and the society and the Firstwood, and the way this comes to life in my imagination is absolutely a testament to Kwaymullina’s skill.

And the story! Oh the story! I loved Georgie in the first book, and I’m so glad she’s got her own book and she gets to be a hero in her own way! I love the way this story was put together, both happening in the present, and happening in the past – this really emphasises Georgie’s connection to her ability and how time is a bit fuzzy for her. I love the way that she focuses on what she considers important, but also discovers more about herself. I loved getting to know Georgie, and through her, also Daniel. This book is not as simple as the premise simply to save Ashala  Wolf, it’s about an idea, about change, about the future and about making a difference. Everything comes together in such an interesting way, it’s less twisty than book 2, but the story has you absolutely in its grasp from the first page and you just have to see how it all comes together, how the story concludes.

Stories of The Tribe talk of a post apocalyptic world in flux, a world where although society has embraced many positive changes there still remains inequality, greed, power mongering and malice. What an interesting way Kwaymullina has explored the potential growths and changes in our society in this fictional nearish future book. This book and this series will keep me thinking and questioning for a long time to come. It’s deep and it digs in, the book and this series have something important to say for all who read and I hope they’re left thinking, questioning, looking deeper as I have been.

I hope there are many more awesome books from Ambelin Kwaymullina, I want to read them all, a hundred times over. I’ll be revisiting this series for sure, and I’m absolutely certain I’ll see and learn new things with a second and any subsequent readings.

 

AWW15: The Disappearance of Ember Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina

The Disappearance of Ember Crow - coverAustralian Women Writers Challenge: Book #9

Title: The Disappearance of Ember Crow (The Tribe #2)

Author: Ambelin Kwaymullina

Publisher and Year: Walker Books, 2013

Genre: urban fantasy, mythology, science fiction, dystopia, eco-dystopia, post-apocolyptic, young adult

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

“However this ends, you’re probably going to find out some things about me, and they’re not nice things. But, Ash, even after you know, do you think you could remember the good? And whatever you end up discovering – try to think of me kindly. If you can.”

Ember Crow is missing. To find her friend, Ashala Wolf must control her increasingly erratic and dangerous Sleepwalking ability and leave the Firstwood. But Ashala doesn’t realise that Ember is harbouring terrible secrets and is trying to shield the Tribe and all Illegals from a devastating new threat – her own past.

 

My review:

Given how much I loved the first book in this series The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, it’s ridiculous how long it took me to get my hands on the next books in the series! And I’m so very glad I did – this is a brilliant follow up to the first book, I am so in love with this series, with this world, with Kwaymullina’s writing. Wow. Australian speculative fiction doesn’t get much better than this honestly. And I say speculative fiction because this series crosses genres, it’s a bit of several things – enough a little of several things to lay some claim to them, it does so beautifully.

This book picks up not long after the events in the first book, Ashala is still trying to come to terms with things, especially that her Sleepwalking ability isn’t exactly working right. However, with Ember missing needs must and she returns to her sense of self and goes looking. I can’t say much about this book and the story without spoiling things, only that this book takes the story in an unexpected direction, delightfully twisty and I didn’t see any of it coming! We do get more of a glimpse of how the present world of the books came to be, the philosophy and the idea of the Balance as universal governing principle.  I loved that we got to learn more about who Ember is as a person and understand her connection to the Tribe, to the world at large and just how much a role her story plays in the overarching story across the books.

I love that this book is also a story about the struggle for political change, the struggle to make things better, the struggle for equality that parallels so many conversations we’re having now in our real day-to-day lives. Kwaymullina highlights astutely and with insight the conversation about Othering and society, what it means, what happens and suggests that everyone is part of the Balance – abilities or not, but also, this mirrors the idea that either we all have human rights, or we don’t… there’s no actual in-between that makes any sense.

 

Review: Dragonfriend by Marc Secchia

Dragonfriend - coverTitle: Dragonfriend (Dragonfriend #1)

Author: Mark Secchia

Publisher and Year: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Genre: epic fantasy, YA

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Stabbed. Burned by a dragon. Abandoned for the windrocs to pick over. The traitor Ra’aba tried to silence Hualiama forever. But he reckoned without the strength of a dragonet’s paw, and the courage of a girl who refused to die.

Only an extraordinary friendship will save Hualiama’s beloved kingdom of Fra’anior and restore the King to the Onyx Throne. Flicker, the valiant dragonet. Hualiama, a foundling, adopted into the royal family. The power of a friendship which paid the ultimate price.

This is the tale of Hualiama Dragonfriend, and a love which became legend.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I was in the mood for a story involving dragons – and in particular where they were awesome and not the Enemy. Dragonfriend is a gorgeous book and story, the protagonist Hualiama – Lia – is fantastic! I really enjoyed this book from start to finish.

I loved the characters in this book and the way they interact with Lia – in particular the dragons Flicker and Grandion. I loved the depth of friendship and caring between these characters and the way that grows and changes over time. I love the way they learn to value each other and the background and culture they come from – all different! I love the way Lia gets to forge her own path on her own terms – and no one seems to think that’s unusual short of her family (and I expect there’s more to tell there).

The story is action filled and weaves between goals that are ‘the right thing’ with at least some sense of moral obligation and also heart goals that involve Lia being her own person and creating her preferred life for herself. I love that while this is a story of Lia discovering her origins, it’s not filled with self pity, I like the way she as a character emotionally engages with things as it’s both believable and moving for her character – neither too mature or too over-dramatic. Finally, I love the martial arts form she learns – and although it seems like her proficiency with it grows way too quickly, I appreciate that she’s been dancing a lot longer than she has been fighting, but that the style is based specifically on dancing. I love the strength in that idea and of course dancing martial arts is not a new thing, but I think it’s used particularly well here for Lia.

The names in this book are typical epic fantasy in style – not unexpected but made me roll my eyes a little. Still, everything was consistent and worked well with the overall worldbuilding in the book. I’m fascinated by the series of islands and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series not only to find out what happens in the story, but also to explore more of the world and its peoples.

For me, this book was a perfect fantasy story. It had all the elements I was looking for in the story, it was tightly written with a great plot, interesting protagonist and supporting characters with great relationship dynamics, and the world building was engaging. I’ve been deliberately reading a lot less books by male authors – in many cases because I haven’t been enjoying them as much, they haven’t been giving me the kind of stories I fall in love with. However, Secchia has done a superb job overcoming any resistance I might have had, this book was a genuine pleasure to read. There’s so much I enjoyed about this book and although it came as a surprise, it was a very welcome one. I’ll be looking forward to reading the next book most certainly!

Review: Last of the Firedrakes by Farah Oomerbhoy

Last of the Firedrakes coverTitle: Last of the Firedrakes (Avalonia Chronicles #1)

Author: Farah Oomerbhoy

Publisher and Year: Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2015

Genre: fantasy, young adult

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

16-year-old Aurora Darlington is an orphan. Mistreated by her adopted family and bullied at school, she dreams of running away and being free. But when she is kidnapped and dragged through a portal into a magical world, suddenly her old life doesn’t seem so bad.

Avalonia is a dangerous land ruled by powerful mages and a cruel, selfish queen who will do anything to control all seven kingdoms—including killing anyone who stands in her way. Thrust headlong into this new, magical world, Aurora’s arrival sets plans in motion that threaten to destroy all she holds dear.

With the help of a young fae, a magical pegasus, and a handsome mage, Aurora journeys across Avalonia to learn the truth about her past and unleash the power within herself. Kingdoms collide as a complicated web of political intrigue and ancient magic lead Aurora to unravel a shocking secret that will change her life forever.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed this book, it’s a great debut novel from Oomerbhoy and I look forward to the release of the rest of the series. The Last of the Firedrakes is a magical coming of age story, it’s filled with adventure and fairytale majesty complete with a pegasus. This book reminded me a lot of the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce – the same kind of over the top magical elements, but done just right so I don’t mind that the protagonist is super powerful, pretty and endowed with all kinds of special-ness. Aurora’s story is interesting right from the beginning, and although she’s thrust into a world she had no idea existed, she starts to learn the ropes pretty  quickly.  Things come together for her, sure, but she navigates conflicts and adverse events herself and in her own way – I really like that. I loved that she made mistakes and learned from it, I love that she grew as a person and went from scared and freaked out to being able to contemplate her role in Avolonia.

I also quite enjoyed the teenage romance feel of things, it didn’t quite come across as ‘instalove’ the way it can often do in young adult books, particularly YA fantasy, instead it was like a teenage crush that hit, and then unfolded bit by bit, complete with finding out that the other person does indeed ‘like’ you that way too. It was cute. I was pleased at Aurora’s emotional maturity as the story progressed and her feelings for Rafe grew. In finding out that a genuine relationship in the open was impossible she sticks to her principles and boundaries – more books should do this. While I don’t think this romantic plot is finished by any means, I hope they don’t end up together, I hope that this is one of those times where choosing the right thing is hard, doesn’t really feel great and you wonder. I wish more YA books explored complicated ways in which romance  and relationships happen – this is a good start and I hope it continues that way.

I read this book as I finished studying for and sitting my end of semester exam and it was a welcome joy to read, lighthearted and uplifting, optimistic and very much forces of good seeking to triumph for the good of all, with their help, over forces of evil which seek domination. This book is the perfect description of a sometimes food – a reward, sweet, satisfying and beautiful – but not something you’d subsist on. I find it a little harder to get into epic/high fantasy style books these days – in theory I love them, but they’ve disappointed me so often in the past. This book definitely doesn’t disappoint and it gets me excited about fantasy, magic, dragons and castles again which is a lovely feeling.

I also love the way that, even though Aurora is a long lost princess, has super-powerful magic, and is striking if not beautiful, she has flaws, there are consequences for her mistakes, the bounty she discovers in herself doesn’t magically ‘fix’ everything and sometimes causes more issues and it seems to highlight that message that the grass is not always greener, and that beauty and power are not the be-all and end-all. At least, that was one of the things I took away from the book, because Aurora is also always trying to be a better person, she tries to give people the benefit of the doubt even when they’re unkind, she treats people around her well regardless of their status/position – not perfectly, but she’s still a teenager and still figuring things out – that shows and the whole package is awesome.

This is not a book of twists or surprises, you get exactly what you expect from this fantasy story about a girl who finds out she’s a long lost princess. This isn’t a bad thing, this is one of the strengths of the book – you can just enjoy it and trust that it’s going to deliver this experience, perhaps even exceed your expectations. Where it could perhaps do better is that all the characters present as able-bodied, neurotypical, and straight. The implications of racial elements are hinted at with discussion of how the fae are treated, but it’s not looked at in any real depth, although there is potential for this. This book with this kind of fantasy plot is not a surprise or a revelation, but it takes what you expect from this story form and delivers it with an awesome teenage protagonist that you enjoy cheering for.

Last of the Firedrakes was such a joy to read.

Review: Kricket Series by Amy A. Bartol, books 1-3

NetGalley Review

An eARC of these books was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I do have to note outright that I do not recommend these books, they are problematic in ways that are never resolved. It’s not romance, it’s rape culture with badly drawn tropes. These are directed toward a YA market, and given my issues with the story and characters, find this quite disturbing. 

Under Different Stars coverTitle: Under Different Stars (Kricket #1)

Author: Amy A. Bartol

Publisher and Year: Amazon Publishing, 2013

Genre: YA, romance, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Kricket Hollowell is normally not one to wish upon stars; she believes they’re rarely in her favor. Well versed at dodging caseworkers from Chicago’s foster care system, the past few years on her own have made Kricket an expert at the art of survival and blending in. With her 18th birthday fast approaching, she dreams of the day when she can stop running and find what her heart needs most: a home.

Trey Allairis hates Earth and doubts that anyone from his world can thrive here. What he’s learning of Kricket and her existence away from her true home only confirms his theory. But, when he and Kricket lie together under the stars of Ethar, counting them all may be easier than letting her go.

Kyon Ensin’s secrets number the stars; he knows more about Kricket’s gifts than anyone and plans to possess her because of them. He also knows she’s more valuable than any fire in the night sky. He’ll move the heavens and align them all in order to make her his own.

When everything in their world can be broken, will Kricket rely upon love to save her under different stars?

My review: 

Kricket is an interesting heroine, although seems to hit all the tropes for both looks and intelligence, plus a hard-luck past. Still, I like the way she engages, like the way the story begins. The writing tends toward info dumping, and it’s a bit slow in places, filled with tropes but not well done. I love tropes done well, but a lot of these made me cringe. Overall I quite liked the alternate universe in which Kricket finds herself. I read this because I was invested in her struggles (despite the make up of her character – although that was tempered somewhat by the fact that apparently that’s run of the mill in this alternate universe. Yes, I’m applying ‘handwavium’* with abandon here).

I kept reading this book (and the subsequent ones) because of some of the more disturbing plot elements and relationship dynamics that I hoped would be addressed. Relevant to my review for this book is the way that Kricket doesn’t seem to be able to make choices for herself and she ends up in various situations that aren’t great because of others’ who make decisions on her behalf. It’s very overtly gender essentialist although Kricket says all the right things about demanding independence – practically all the characters she meets who are male fall over themselves to be with her or have sex with her, and few end up having any genuine respect for her. Add that to the overdone over-protective streak of some of the characters once they decide she’s not the enemy and that they actually like/love her and want to look out for her, it doesn’t sit well. Kricket may not be a damsel in distress, but the other characters in the story try very hard to put her in that box.

And although in her own voice she rails against this – it’s frustrating to read. It’s also not an example I’d like to pass onto young people about how to navigate that kind of thing. Secondly, the development of the romance between Kricket and Trey is frankly unbelievable, I didn’t get the connection between them much at all – healthy respect and even friendship the way the other soldiers treated her, sure. But not romance. And on that note, while I’m good at handwaving and I’ve definitely done so for relationships I found problematic in other books, this romance didn’t sit right with me because of the differences in power dynamics as well as age and experience. Age and experience I can overlook in various contexts if it’s handled well, but I don’t think it was here and as such it came across as creepy – if less creepy than Kyon’s obsession with Kricket.

Overall I kept reading because I desperately wanted to read how things were addressed, dealt with, acknowledged, how Kricket empowered herself and what she did to get there. I could absolutely have gotten behind that. But… that’s not what happened in the first book. So I went onto the second, hoping that it was a bigger story building into something I could enjoy more and appreciate better.

 


Sea of Stars coverTitle: 
Sea of Stars (Kricket #2)

Author: Amy A. Bartol

Publisher and Year: Amazon Publishing, 2015

Genre: YA, romance, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Eighteen-year-old Kricket Hollowell was looking for her place in the world when she discovered that the universe was bigger—and more dangerous—than she had ever dreamed. Now, whisked across space to the planet Ethar, Kricket learns that her genetic ability to see the future makes her a sought-after commodity…and the catalyst for war between her star-crossed parents’ clans. According to Alameedan prophecy, one house will rise to power and the other will be completely wiped out, and Kricket’s precognition is believed to be the weapon that will tip the scales.

A target of both the Rafe and the Alameeda houses, Kricket finds protection—and a home—in the arms of Trey, her Etharian bodyguard-turned-boyfriend. But her visions of what’s to come disturb her deeply, especially since she must discover whether the gift of foresight will allow her to rewrite the future, or if her fate is as immovable as the stars.

My review: 

Book 2 of this series starts off looking up, but I felt like by the end it doesn’t really go anywhere. There are some nice character interaction moments, and I liked that Kricket got to save everyone once. I enjoyed that Kricket’s meeting with Charisma – Trey’s ex partner – was positive, although it did come across as a little saccharine. Also what the actual fuck is with the patriarchal nature of this worldset? It’s not actually worse than Earth on Ethar, but some of the overt views are really crap and again… it’s not something I’d want to give to other young adults as an example of dealing with this kind of stuff.

Aside from the few moments early on where Kricket gets to save herself and the others, she remains very much a commodity and I feel like this fact is reinforced well and truly above and beyond what is necessary. I don’t feel like her companions were effective in objecting to her status as someone seen as a commodity by others in their world. Also, in the end she ends up in the hands of the violent sociopath Kyon anyway. And is coerced into being a reluctant informant. I read speculative fiction because there’s enough of the real world to deal with on a daily basis, but this is straight out of something in my news feed. It’s nasty and insidious and is presented as though Kricket is a heroine for dealing with things, Kyon is presented as being insane but also as something of an antihero to sympathise with, Giffen is out to use her straight up – but at least he’s honest about it. Kricket’s so-called father is essentially meaningless in the story and the writing failed to give me any investment in the war at large overall – it was too impersonal and Kricket’s experiences were largely too removed from the war happening for it to be meaningful.

Again in reading this book I was left with a desperate sense of wanting it to be part of a larger story where Kricket gets to triumph for herself and the nasty, insidious, rape culture aspects of the story would be owned and dealt with in some way I could stomach. It didn’t happen, but I proceeded to the third book hoping, because it does read as though there’s a build up to some momentous event.

 

Darken the Stars coverTitle: Darken the Stars (Kricket #3)

Author: Amy A. Bartol

Publisher and Year: Amazon Publishing, 2015

Genre: YA, romance, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Kyon Ensin finally has what he’s always wanted: possession of Kricket Hollowell, the priestess who foresees the future. Together, their combined power will be unrivaled. Kricket, however, doesn’t crave the crown of Ethar—she has an unbreakable desire to live life on her own terms, a life that she desperately wants to share with her love, Trey Allairis.

As conspiracies rage in the war for Ethar, Kricket’s so-called allies want to use her as a spy. Even those held closest cannot be trusted—including Astrid, her sister, and Giffen, a member of a mysterious order with a hidden agenda. But Kricket’s resolve will not allow her to be used as anyone’s pawn, even as the Brotherhood sharpens its plans to cut out her heart.

As the destiny prophesied by her mother approaches, Kricket will backtrack through her fiery future to reshape it. For she knows one thing above all else: the only person she can truly count on is herself.

My review: 

I very nearly did not finish this book because the rape culture and romanticising of domestic/intimate partner violence was a significant part of the story throughout most of the book. It sat really uncomfortably with me. At this point having invested two previous books, I was quite invested in Kricket as a character (having long handwaved the badly drawn tropes of her character make up), but it was just grim to read – and not in a good way. It’s like watching some of the worst elements of society unfold before you, but painted in pretty colours as though it will hide the ugliness. Plenty of people think these books are the best ever, that they’re super romantic and so on so clearly that’s worked but I’m reading this with constant discomfort.

I liked that Kricket managed to escape with another of the priestesses back to Earth. The ending is both satisfying and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth – it’s not the empowerment I’d wanted for Kricket, but it is freedom and one she’s chosen. At no point do any of the relationships that Kricket is invested in really come through for her, not her sister, not her father, not Trey or the soldiers, certainly not Kyon. It’s just her surrounded by a whole lot of betrayal and sacrificial expectations. I feel like Kricket both simultaneously rejected and embraced the martyrdom of the story outcome, it’s part of the bad taste I think.

I doubt this is the end of the series, but I doubt I can be convinced to read any others. I can deal with this ending and write this whole experience of this series off as a bad idea, and evidence that just because you can read a book, and just because you hope that it will all come out in the wash, doesn’t mean you should read it, doesn’t mean the crap will be addressed. I should know that already, but apparently it’s one of those lessons you need to learn more than once.

I do not recommend these books at all. They do not take you to a good place, they do not leave you in a good place. They are not good examples of pretty much anything for young adult readers. The tropes are badly drawn and anything interesting is overwhelmed by the creepy rape culture factor. I’ve gone to the trouble to share my reviews and write up this post because I think it is incredibly important to challenge problematic things and to say what’s not okay about them.

 

*Handwavium refers to my ability and perceived need to handwave elements of something that I either find unbelievable, out of place, badly used tropes, or sometimes even offensive. (If I stopped watching and reading anything that was problematic well, I would read and watch very little, and that’s not how I roll, considered criticism and engagement for the win.)

Review: Pawn by Aimee Carter

Pawn - coverEscape Club Bookclub: January

Title: Pawn

Author: Aimee Carter

Publisher: Harlequin Teen, 2013.

Genre: Urban fantasy, near future, dystopia, young adult.

Blurb from Goodreads:

For Kitty Doe, it seems like an easy choice. She can either spend her life as a III in misery, looked down upon by the higher ranks and forced to leave the people she loves, or she can become a VII and join the most powerful family in the country.

If she says yes, Kitty will be Masked—surgically transformed into Lila Hart, the Prime Minister’s niece, who died under mysterious circumstances. As a member of the Hart family, she will be famous. She will be adored. And for the first time, she will matter.

There’s only one catch. She must also stop the rebellion that Lila secretly fostered, the same one that got her killed …and one Kitty believes in. Faced with threats, conspiracies and a life that’s not her own, she must decide which path to choose—and learn how to become more than a pawn in a twisted game she’s only beginning to understand.

My Review:

I finished this book this morning while on my way to do yet more wrestling with a government organisation about my worthiness to study, to make something of my future that doesn’t include welfare and whatever job I can get at any given time. So this one kind of hit me right between the eyes. I really identified with Kitty, and the antics of the family in power also rang true to me – from that outside perspective wondering how they can be so blind and also knowing that for some of them at least, the privilege is no picnic.

And yet, privilege is privilege, regardless of how that status gets defined and that doesn’t get diminished just because there is struggle. I thought that the book demonstrated the difference between personal struggle and systematic oppression really well actually – and did so in a way that didn’t single out any particular group in terms of skin colour or lifestyle etc. It’s still worth noting that the family in power are white and conventionally attractive, and there are no notable characters of colour in the book. Similarly, no mention of any queerness. The aged and those with disabilities are essentially disposed of wholesale and I think the way that happens as an arbitrary line demonstrates very obviously that there’s an issue with discrimination at hand – hopefully that makes other readers question the way people who are older and people who have disabilities are treated in the here and now.

The book is a YA gem, and sophisticated enough for adult readers to enjoy easily – and indeed I think they’d benefit from reading this book. It’s a book about the state of society and that’s always a subject worthy of consideration and comparison – fiction to the real, the near-future of the book, to how things are now.

This book was easy to read, it flowed nicely and neither gave too much away nor hid things away and obfuscated too much – reveals happened at points that made sense and enhanced the overall story narrative. I’m really looking forward to the next book.

2014 Reading Overview and Favourites of the Year

What a year it’s been in terms of reading for me! In January of 2014 I set myself the challenge to read 75 books during the year, and I completed that just on the 31st of December. I’m very pleased with this result because it doesn’t include any of the reading I did specifically for study, and much of my year was focused heavily on studying and academic reading. It also means that a significant chunk of my reading was very fluffy paranormal romance reading, it really helped me get through my semesters. If you’d like to see the books I read in the past year, Goodreads conveniently compiled a shelf of them.

This year there were quite a lot of books that I thought stood out – and unashamedly I’ve included all of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books that I inhaled at the beginning of the year. And what an awesome experience they were – I was so sad when I got to the end and there was no more. I am very much looking forward to reading the Custard Protocol books featuring Prudence.

Other new to me authors from this year’s favourite reads included Anne Aguirre, Ambelin Kwaymullina and several authors in a short story anthology. There were also favourites from the year’s reading from consistent favourite authors of mine: Anne Bishop, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Michelle Sagara, Patricia Briggs, and Juliet Marillier.

Before I give you the full list of my 2014 favourite reads, I’ll also give a few honourable mentions. I really enjoyed Allison Pang’s Abby Sinclair books, as well as Linda Robertson’s Persephone Alcmedi series. Additionally after resisting the absurdity of a werewolf named Kitty, I really enjoyed Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series. Many people counted Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice amongst their favourites, and I really enjoyed it – especially for the way it explored gender and assumptions, but it wasn’t a favourite for me.

Favourite Reads for 2014:

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf - coverThe Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (The Tribe #1) by Ambelin Kwaymullina

This was one of my stand out favourite reads for the year, and one I read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Excerpt from my review: I adored the story building in this, so many layers, puzzles and I was delighted at every stage of the reveal. People talk about this not being fantasy and I see what they mean about labelling it Dystopian Sci-Fi, but for me it seems to be Urban Fantasy, one with a distinctly ecological bent that I found very satisfying.

 

 

Kaleidescope - coverKaleidescope – anthology by Twelfth Planet Press

Excerpt from my review: I should begin writing this review by pointing out that generally speaking, I’m not a short story reader. I want to enjoy this style of story more than I generally do. However, Kaleidoscope from Twelfth Planet Press edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios is an example of how awesome short stories can truly be! This anthology is truly exceptional. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to choose the stories because they’re all fantastic in their way – if these were the ones that made it in, I am sure that just as many stories came really close and I’m sure many of them were also exceptional.

 

 

Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger:

Souless - coverSouless (The Parasol Protectorate #1)

There is so much to love about this book, and this series. Firstly, a character that is both eccentric and also invested in her perceived place in society, a woman, who enjoys food, and where what she’s wearing is discussed in relation to the story and as part of the world-building. The tea. Alexia is a marvellous character and I haven’t been able to put down the series since I started it.

 

 

 

 

Changeless - coverChangeless (The Parasol Protectorate #2)

Loved this again, still frivolous and fun, more plot arc and adventures. Also personal history. Plus, getting to enjoy Alexia in her new role! Love Ivy so much.

 

 

 

 

 

Blameless - coverBlameless (The Parasol Protectorate #3)

One of the reasons I loved this book so much is that it speaks to the impact and consequences of social mores on someone – especially those that are utter idiocy. I also love that Alexia is completely herself and acts completely true to character and decides to go off and have adventures and clear her name. While pregnant. I also love her complex feelings and relationship with her pregnancy.

 

 

 

 

Heartless - coverHeartless (The Parasol Protectorate #4)

Because of course you go off saving Queen and Country when you are at the very end stages of your pregnancy! I love the way this book is put together, I love that not even late stage pregnancy slows Alexia down much – certainly not her brain or sense of what needs to be done in any case. I love the arrangement she comes to with Lord Akeldama – who remains one of my favourite characters in this series along with Ivy and Biffy. And Lyall and Genervieve. Oh hell, I actually adore all the characters. This is one of the more over the top stories involving Alexia – and that’s saying something, but it’s also still really satisfying. And there’s a baby at the end!

 

 

Timeless - cover

Timeless (The Parasol Protectorate #5)

** spoiler alert **

What an interesting end to this series! It’s still frivolous and manic in the adventure, there is still a hefty focus on the importance of tea, and I love the inclusion of families and children in adventures! I love Lord Akeldama as a doting father, and the description of bathtime horrors! I love the way Ivy becomes a queen as part of the resolution in the end – how marvellously unexpected and just thing to balance out Lord Akeldama’s influence given his successful shifting of Countess Nadasdy out to the middle of nowhere! I like how things ended for the book, the story arc and characters it was very satisfying.

 

The Others series by Anne Bishop

Written in Red - coverWritten in Red (The Others #1)

The universe for this story is so compelling! I really love the narrative where humans are not the dominant species, are not in charge. I love the characters and their interactions, particularly Meg and her willingness just to try stuff out. I picked this up and couldn’t put it down (and had to start the next right away). This definitely affirms to me why Bishop remains one of my favourite authors.

 

 

 

Murder of Crows - coverMurder of Crows (The Others #2)

I picked this up the very minute after finishing ‘Written in Red’ despite it being 3am. I loved it, loved the story and consequences for actions. Still love the narrative where humans aren’t the dominant species. Love the connections, interactions and growth of the characters. Can’t wait to get the next one in my hands!

 

 

Sirantha Jax series by Anne Aguirre

I loved this entire series, however 2 books were absolute stand outs for me – largely because of the unusual relationship engagements and narrative elements explored by Aguirre.

Doubleblind - coverDoubleblind (Sirantha Jax #3)

This is one of my favourite books of the series and in particular I loved the insight into Ithtorians as a culture and in particular to Vel as Jax’s friend. I loved the way in which relationships grew, changed, were damaged and not easily repaired. I loved the continued reinforcement of the importance of personal autonomy in relationships and not sacrificing the self blindly to the couple dynamic. I like that in this book I started to see glimpses of poly style relating between Jax, Vel and March.

 

 

 

Aftermath (Sirantha JaAftermath - coverx #5)

This book is a book of consequences, intended and unintended and also of relationships, dynamics, connection, love, self awareness and autonomy. There were several parts in this book where I just *exclaimed* because they were specifically non-creepy and non ‘2 halves make a whole’ relationship dynamics. Changing yourself to fit someone else’s needs rarely goes the way people would intend it and the harder choice to let go or to not compromise doesn’t provide joy in the short term.

I love that the problems in relationships are still being worked out, that there’s space for things to resolve even if the how is currently unavailable. I love the depth of the connection that has grown between Jax and Vel, I love that here the poly glimpses from book 3 become much more obvious and yet still nuanced – Aguirre recognises that relationships of significance can vary greatly in how that significance is expressed and experienced. I love the hell out of this book, in particular for the seeking to right past wrongs, and tying up loose ends of story. Easily my favourite of the series.

Cast in Flame - coverCast in Flame (Chronicles of Elantra #10) by Michelle Sagara

I love this series so wholeheartedly, I think it’s my favourite one currently. Kaylin never disappoints and this book is no exception. I really love the way the concept of home, of value – your place in the world is explored in this book. I like a more vulnerable Teela dealing with the aftermath of the previous books. I adore Helen. Everything about this book is just so satisfying, it’s like a warm hug and one of my favourite kinds of books to read.

 

 

 

Shiver of Light - coverShiver of Light (Merry Gentry #9) by Laurell K. Hamilton

I still just love these books, they speak directly to my id and make me happy in ways that no other books do. Ridiculous as it may seem, these are some of my favourite books to read and reread.

 

 

 

 

 

Ravenflight - coverRaven Flight (Shadowfell #2) by Juliet Marillier

Excerpt from my review: I love Neryn as a character and I’m deeply invested in her story. I loved the continuation of this story, I love the interaction between Neryn and Tali, it’s everything I often get from male warrior companionship and so rarely get to enjoy in relation to female characters. Neryn isn’t a warrior but she and Tali are joined in their determination to win freedom for her country. Their friendship starts with such awkwardness and the growth is gradual and sincere.

There’s nothing contrived between these characters, you as the reader are simply invited in to witness the unfolding of the story, including of the friendship shared between these two characters.  I also really love Neryn’s romance with Flint in this book, it’s ephemeral and unrealised – it’s a romance of the heart and mind, it’s a promise that is yet unfulfilled and yet deeply hoped for. I love this expression of romance as being something that drives both characters to succeed, but also the way it reveals a weakness that can be used to exploit them.

Witch With No Name - coverThe Witch With No Name (The Hollows #13) by Kim Harrison

What an awesome book! This is one of my favourites this year, and a great place for this series to either pause or end. I love Rachel, I love that she’s grown up so much and is really wanting to build a relationship with Trent, but also the way that she, Ivy and Jenks are still so deeply connected and bound to one another through love and looking out for each other. I also really loved the way Rachel tries to make it possible for the demons to enter society proper – so heartwarming. Can’t say enough good things about this.