Winter has come

The Road to Winter (Winter, #1)The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book took me by surprise. I was expecting another tired,formulaic dystopian novel and what I got was a well-written, thoughtful and genuinely engaging story populated with vivid and interesting characters.
Finn is a boy living on the edge. After his family, most of his coastal town and indeed it seems Australia, has fallen to a devastating disease, he survives. A loner before the pestilence, Finn has adjusted to his new life with his dog, Rowdy, killing his own food, growing some, and trading with his surviving neighbour, Ray, who grows more veggies and has chooks. Ray and Finn stay out of each others way most of the time, because there is another group of survivors, Wilders, who think they run the place. They treat women (who are rare now as the disease hit them worst) as possessions, tagging them with ID chips to keep tabs on them.
With Finn’s recount of how the disease took hold, and the breakdown of society that followed, Smith has a deft touch. Enough detail to be compelling, but nothing gratuitous either. We understand that Finn has survived with a combination of cunning, stealth and, it must be said, some fortuitous planning by his parents. And I have to say, Rowdy is the PERFECT name for Finn’s dog – inspired writing right there!
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Rose arrives. Nineteen year old Rose is a terrified escapee from the Wilders compound, with a secret I won’t reveal here – but it’s a doozy. She and her sister, Kas, have become separated and Rose believes the Wilders have recaptured her. Begging Finn to help her rescue Kas, Rose wins him over and they set off on a dangerous mission to take her back. The Wilders are in pursuit of Rose, so Finn is left with no choice but to help her – to save himself as well.

I like Finn – he is independent, but vulnerable – with a yearning for his old life characterised by sneaking away to surf.

Something that kept me in touch with my old life. It’s dangerous, not because of anything in the water but because of what’s on the land – who might arrive in town while I’m caught up enjoying myself. But it’s a risk that’s worth taking to stay sane.

With its boy-and-his-dog, a girl appearing from nowhere, and band of rabid testosterone-driven yahoos, this book had shades of Patrick Ness‘s The Knife of Never Letting Go, so if you enjoyed the Chaos Walking series, you might like this one. I am interested to see where the next installment takes us, as our protagonists are in more peril than ever by the end of the story.

Bring on book #2!
For ages 13 and up

Take a breath…

A Shadow's BreathA Shadow’s Breath by Nicole Hayes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review copy provided by author in exchange for a fair review

Tessa’s life has been pretty crappy for a long time. Her beloved Dad had an undiagnosed mental illness, where he changed almost overnight into a depressed and erratic shadow of his former creative self. He committed suicide a few years ago. Her mum, a sad and lost alcoholic, has a new partner, “the arsehole”, who likes to bash her and abuse Tessa too. She used to draw but the arsehole tore up a year’s work in a rage one day and she has not drawn seriously since.
Finally, after a terrifying close call, her mum finally kicked out the arsehole, changed the locks and is drying out. It’s still all new, but Tessa’s life is turning around. She has a caring boyfriend, a loyal best friend and now her Mum is being motherly after a long emotional absence.
And then the accident happens. Nick, Tessa’s boyfriend, misjudges a corner as they are driving in his car and now they are trapped in the wreckage at the bottom of a gully outside town. Now it’s a true battle of survival.
Nicole Hayes writes great contemporary fiction. The voices of these characters, particularly of Tessa, her mother Ellen, and her friend Yuki ring out loud and true. The story is told by switching back and forth between “now” (the aftermath of the crash) and “then” what preceded the crash. I think this device is used well – to illustrate how this battle for life after a terrible car crash and Tessa’s car crash of a life are equally devastating. It is clear Tessa is emotionally damaged courtesy of her past home life, but we are able to dig deeper into that thanks to the benefit of the “then” mechanism, which then helps us to understand the “now”.
As far as tone goes, I think this is closer to Hayes’ first novel The Whole of My World than her last novel, One True Thing. There is great emotional depth and exploration going on here. I feel like this is a very personal novel for Hayes. Her care in crafting the fragile but resilient Tessa, and the struggling but steadfast Ellen, in particular, is wonderful. I really liked Ellen – flaws and all, because she never gives up trying to get better, and she truly loves her daughter. Tessa is fluttering on the precipice of adulthood, but still has growing to do, and issues to confront as long suppressed memories about her father start to surface.
No spoilers here – I won’t tell you if they survive, or what the memories are – they are yours to discover as a reader. What I will say is that I feel privileged to have read this novel so early, because now I can try my damnedest to promote it to as many young adult readers as possible.
Congratulations Nicole Hayes – it’s another beautiful, true, heartfelt and heartbreaking story to add to the amazing OzYA lexicon.
For readers 14 and up.

Moving on…

Every Move (Every, #3)Every Move by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is my favourite of this trilogy. Rachel really gets to take centre stage this time around, and while Mycroft is still there, this is her story I think. Mr Wild, and his nefarious cronies, have pursued Watts and Mycroft back to Australia, and the body count grows quickly as their intimidation campaign steps into high gear. Wild wants the coin Mycroft has and it appears he will stop at nothing – including killing innocent bystanders – to bring the message home.
Mike and Rachel return to Five Mile to visit the family’s former home and Harris Derwent, a good friend of Mike’s, returns with them to Melbourne to “experience” a big city. Rachel is not impressed with Harris – writing him off as a bit of a lunkhead, but he offers to be her personal trainer and she gets to know him a bit better. After her traumatic experiences in London, Rachael is experiencing panic attacks and can’t be held – not even by Mycroft. Harris helps her to work her way back from these issues, by helping to restore her confidence with physical training – and as their friendship develops Watts realises Harris has his own scars to bear.
It’s nice to see Mai’s boyfriend, Gus, pop up again in this novel and to see that he and Mai are inseparable. They are a cute couple and are moving in together. As usual, Mai is resourceful and helpful as ever – I wonder if she’ll get her own series one day?
When Mike is badly injured by Wild’s henchmen in a botched attempt on Rachel’s life, Mycroft, Rachel and Harris head to Five Mile. This is done partly to draw them away from other family and friends, but also to force a confrontation and end the torment once and for all.
As usual, Mycroft has a plan and when Wild shows up in Five Mile to claim his prize Harris and Rachel think all the bases are covered and help will be on its way. And as usual, Mycroft has some twists and turns to send their way that once again put them all in grave danger.
Harris shows what he is really made of during the final confrontation by taking a bullet and his unrequited love for Rachel is evident. Rachel gets into the action too, falling into a quarry to almost certain death.
The story resolves itself well and not no-one comes out of in unscathed, as it should be. This is gripping suspenseful writing that takes each of the main characters on a journey not only of detection and crime-solving, but also a more introspective one – of self discovering and acceptance.
Can’t wait to see what’s next from Ellie Marney.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.

The word is suspense

Every Word (Every, #2)Every Word by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Watts and Mycroft are back, this time with a mystery that takes them to London, scene of Mycroft’s parents’ death in a car accident, and a case with many parallels to that incident. This mystery is more complex and sinister than the first, but still believable. Watts and Mycroft come across as such authentic people, it all makes sense. Mycroft is still trying to distance himself from Rachel, trying to protect her, but inexorably drawn to her.

Watts and Mycroft have chemistry, HOT chemistry, but it never gets in the way of the story. I admire the restraint shown by Ellie Marney in not taking things too far too early. It would be easy to do because Marney writes these scenes so well, but she holds off just long enough.

This overseas adventure leaves both Mycroft and Watts with emotional scars, to be dealt with in the next novel, Every Move. I look forward to reviewing it here soon.

Ben’s best friend

When Friendship Followed Me HomeWhen Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you enjoyed Wonder, you will love this book too. The story of Ben, and Flip – the dog who changes his life – is endearing and memorable. Flip is a stray, taken in by Ben and his mum, Tess. Ben’s life is a bit of a roller coaster. He is smart and good at school, but is relentlessly bullied and pushed around. His way of escaping this is through books. Mrs Lorentz, the local public librarian, makes sure Ben has a plentiful supply of educational and escapist literature. It is through the library that Ben meets Halley, the girl who believes in magic. Together they train Flip to be a reading dog, to help other children read, and their bond of friendship is quick and strong.
The relationship between Ben and Halley is wonderful. It has echoes of John Green’s writing, but without the sweet sentimentality of The Fault in Our Stars. Halley is a strong, feisty and loyal friend – and Ben is fiercely protective of her. They find each others flaws and it only strengthens their friendship – with a little help from the delightful Flip.
I loved the fact that Ben’s librarian has such an enduring and positive contribution to his life, and that reading has helped Ben understand people so well. I found Ben’s Aunt Jeanie and Uncle Leo entirely believable as fumbling, unexpected guardians, and Mr and Mrs Lorentz equally as believable as warm, caring and generous carers.
Griffin also brings Flip to life so well I could actually picture him in my mind as a read. Each time I read about Flip “surfing” or high-fiving the kids at reading group I smiled because, in my mind’s eye, I could see it.
I can’t tell you any more about the plot because of spoilers, but I will say that you better have a box of tissues ready as you read this one – great sadness and great joy are contained in its pages. I would love every child over 10 to read this book – it’s just such a wonderful story, really well written. Put it on your Christmas list.
For ages 10 and up.

Everyone gets Lucky

Everybody Sees the AntsEverybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OMG, I loved this book. By the time I hit page 175 I was on a roll and finished the last 110 pages just minutes ago.
Lucky Linderman is a fully fleshed out, resilient, feisty funny kid. He has borne the brunt of Nader McMillan’s bullying for a long time, and everyone, including Lucky, is in denial.
His dad, Vic, doesn’t know how to be a father because his own father was MIA in 1972 in Vietnam. His Mum, Lori, swims so much (to distract herself) Lucky calls her a squid. Both parents have ignored Nader’s abuse of their son for a disgraceful number of years – until one day Nader leaves a very obvious mark and Vic and Lori’s relationship is pushed to the brink. That day, Lucky and Lori leave for a few weeks in Arizona with Lori’s brother, Dave, and Dave’s wife Jodi.
While in Arizona Lucky has vivid dreams where he speaks to his MIA grandfather, and attempts to rescue him and bring him home. At the same time, mentally unstable Jodi prods and pokes Lucky with questions and accusations, attempting to slot him into some sort of “troubled youth” box. Uncle Dave appears to be the Dad Lucky has craved – until he learns a secret about him that changes his perception. Bit by bit, Lucky starts to confront the awful parts of his life and along the way we see his fantastic dry sense of humour, and also feel his pain. Meeting Ginny, a girl he sees at church with his aunt and uncle, is a turning point for Lucky. She is someone whose life has some parallels with his. Both of them are allowing other people to determine their destiny. Ginny has a plan to change that – and Lucky becomes part of the support network that allows her to do so.
Some of this book is confronting – especially for anyone who hasn’t been bullied before. For those of us who have, we recognise ourselves in Lucky and we are absolutely rooting for him all the way as he takes his life back and gives himself control over what happens to him.
Suitable for ages 14 and up

Lies, damned lies, and half-truths

Mayan Mendacity (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth #2)Mayan Mendacity by L.J.M. Owen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Copy provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I started this book with some trepidation. I had read Olmec Obituary and not enjoyed it as much as I hoped I would. Whilst I had been a fan of the story itself (mostly), Elizabeth Pimms was not my favourite protagonist. I am happy to report she started to grow on me a bit in this next novel. Elizabeth is dumped by her feckless boyfriend, Luke, in the opening chapters of the novel, but only after he has informed her he has arranged for her to analyse remains found in a Mayan city. She is devastated, but the readers know she has totally dodged a bullet. Luckily, she now has the remains to focus on, and focus she does. There is also the question of the antagonistic Mai, who we learn could be Lizzie’s half sister. Through her friend Alice, Elizabeth arranges DNA testing – which provides a nice stream of tension throughout the story.
I found the archaeological story in this novel much more interesting than the first – the story of Lady Six Sky was fascinating, and quite riveting. She was certainly a woman to be reckoned with, and not one to cross. I appreciated this part of Owen’s storytelling much more this time around and I enjoyed the writing very much. However, I still struggled to feel engaged by Dr Elizabeth Pimms. The bit-players were the ones I found more interesting. Her sister Sam, driven like Elizabeth, but a little more emotionally intelligent; the increasingly gorgeous workmate Nathan – always there being supportive and nurturing; Alice – the grad student who knows her way around genetic material; Matty -the disabled brother who just wants to look after his big sister. Those characters felt more believable to me, more accessible. Again, it is about little things with Elizabeth. This time she was more or less okay until almost the end of the book; when she gives her family a new games chest – containing classic board games such as Cluedo and Monopoly. Elizabeth has a crisis over giving her family a game of Monopoly:

“Elizabeth had felt uneasy about replacing their Monopoly set, given that its female inventor and patentee Elizabeth Magie had been well and truly Franklined out of her rightful rewards by the patriarchy. The idea that Elizabeth was lining the pockets of the corporation that man-washed Magie from the pages of her own history troubled Elizabeth’s conscience. Nonetheless, the boardgame was a staple of family gatherings, and Elizabeth had been able to use it as originally intended by its creator – to strike up conversations examining the horrors of unrestrained capitalism”

WHAT? Up until this moment, on page 328 no less, we have had no indication of Elizabeth’s rancour against “the patriarchy” and frankly I understood Sam’s frustration with Elizabeth if she used a game of Monopoly to have a conversation about the “horrors of capitalism”. Seriously – the whole tone of the novel changed to preachy and it rankled.
Also, the term “phrenic library” still does not appear in the glossary in the back of the book, which I feel is a major oversight. And, on the subject of that very library, if this library exists in Elizabeth’s subconscious, but under her control as we are led to believe, how the hell does a STRANGER appear in it?
The third novel, Alexandrian Athenaeum, had better have some pretty convincing explanations for that, because if it doesn’t I’m not sure I can go on following Pimms’ adventures. They will just be too far-fetched all together.
Suitable for ages 15 and up.

The most annoying protag ever

Olmec Obituary (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #1)Olmec Obituary by L.J.M. Owen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review copy supplied by publisher in exchange for a fair review.

When I was first contacted about possibly reviewing this book, I was excited by the prospect of the central character. Not only is she an archaeologist and expert in paeleogenetics, but she is a librarian too! As a librarian myself, this book was high on my TBR pile. What a shame it didn’t live up to my expectations.
Dr Elizabeth Pimms is called back from a dream dig in Egypt to attend the funeral of her beloved father in Canberra, her home town. She leaves her boyfriend, Luke, behind and ends up having to stay in Australia to help support her quirky family so they can afford to pay for her brother Matty’s surgery. She completes a post graduate library qualification and starts work at the National Library to work on old maps. Along the way, she makes friends with Nathan (my favourite character in the book) and an enemy of a woman named Mai – who takes an instant dislike to her.
Elizabeth is asked by an old archaeology classmate to do some work on identifying and classifying some bones from a dig in Mexico – from an Olmec cemetery.
Throw in underlying guilt and blame from the car crash that killed their mother (and left Matty unable to walk) years earlier, a boiling conflict with a bratty sister and a family home that sounds like a cross between Hogwarts and the Brady Bunch and you would think I would find this an enjoyable read.
I did not. I really wanted to like Elizabeth, but I found her incredibly annoying. She is quick to pass judgement, remarkably naive and pretty conceited. Her family treats her like a princess, and not in a good way. I found myself yelling at this book several times as I read it – saying “Just take CONTROL of your life, you wimp!” For someone so accomplished, her character is infuriatingly skittish and lacks confidence. It drove me crazy. Her friends, Nathan, and philologist Henry are far more appealing and just as quirky, but somehow they both have their lives sorted out. I just got so impatient with Lizzie. She is only 26 years old in the book, so she is still quite young, but everyone around her, including her younger brother, just seems to have a better handle on life.
The reason for my frustration might stem from the fact that Owen really locks in some librarian/academic woman stereotypes with Lizzie. She lives at home with her parents, she has 4 cats, she is a librarian, she’s a bit of a loner, she likes correcting everyone. L.J.M. even makes her a literary snob. When Elizabeth works on the customer service desk in the Library, a teenage girl asks for a copy of the latest vampire novel (we are led to believe it is Twilight or something similar). Elizabeth actually asks herself:

“…was it right to be complicit in people reading nonsense when better books were so readily available?”

How dare she? How dare L.J.M. Owen diss “popular” fiction like that? I mean, I don’t like Twilight myself, but if someone wants to read it, more power to them! Especially a teenage girl! Things like this constantly frustrated me about this character. By far the worst thing, though, is Elizabeth and her phrenic library. I assumed this was a device used by Elizabeth to aid her eidetic memory, but there was not explanation of what it was or how it worked until the very end of the novel. There was not even a reference at the end of the book (with all the recipes and other paraphenalia) with a working definition! For someone who is a librarian, the author dropped the ball here.
Leaving Elizabeth aside, there are other things I find appealing about this book. Firstly, the flashbacks to the Olmec period are great – loved the painting of the story behind the bones. Secondly, the mystery of the bones and why some evidence doesn’t add up (the mystery) is also great- I really enjoyed the progress of that part of the story. Nathan, Elizabeth’s colleague at the Library, is a sweetheart – a bit of a fantasy librarian in many ways. He’s funny, smart, sensitive, loves cats and I think is a little bit in love with Elizabeth – though nothing happens between them except friendship in this novel.
I am now reading Mayan Mendacity to see if Elizabeth can win me over. The rest of her family, and the support cast have – now she has to step up and show me she is more than the stereotype, that she can break away from it. I really want her and Nathan to become flatmates. Fingers crossed…review to follow soon.

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This book is Murder

Murder in MississippiMurder in Mississippi by John Safran

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Safran is the king of self-deprecation. It serves him well in this true-crime tale of US race relations and homophobia. 9 months after interviewing Richard Barrett, a white supremacist, for his ABC series, Race Relations, Barrett is found dead in his burning house, wearing nothing but his underwear. The man arrested for the crime, Vincent McGee, a black Mississippian, does not deny killing him. When Safran reads about this case in the newspaper, he feels inextricably drawn back to the city of Pearl, Miss. to investigate what happened and why.
The reception John receives is not a welcoming one. Race Relations did not paint Barrett, or the white supremacist movement in a good light and they are pissed. But, as he digs further into the muck that is the underbelly of Pearl, Safran discovers that Barrett was not necessarily anyone’s favourite guy either. As John Safran is drawn further and further into the web of lies, half-truths and shady dealings the reader is very aware the situations he finds himself in are dangerous, risky. For Safran, it seems the riskier the venture, the better he likes it. He is, after all, a documentary maker at heart.
Throughout the book John Safran’s humour and quirky take on humanity are evident, and he is not above taking the piss out of himself and his “Jewishness” too. More than once I found myself laughing out loud picturing this pasty blond Aussie in the middle of a race relations nightmare – because he wanted me to. I even found myself becoming scared for him when Vincent started making demands of Safran that he wouldn’t even ask a relative to do for him – like propose marriage (as a proxy) to Vincent’s girlfriend.
Whilst the story was all too real, Safran often makes it feel like we are watching a movie – waiting for the next twist in the tale. It certainly kept me going right to the end, and I am sure it will do for you too.
For ages 16 and up.

The Devil is in the detail

Tell the Truth, Shame the DevilTell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, this amazing tour de force, was a joy to read. Not only because it was written by the revered Melina Marchetta, but also because it is a well-paced, intriguing mystery/suspense novel. Honestly, is there nothing this author cannot do?
Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil begins with a phone call, as many great mysteries do, communicating to Bish Ortley that a bomb has exploded on his daughter’s tour bus in Calais. Bish, currently suspended from the Met, races through the Channel Tunnel not knowing what he will find at the other end. We know early on that the relationship between father and daughter is strained.

“a postcard from Bee: You said to send you a line from Normandy. That was it. No Dear Dad or Miss you heaps. As someone used to spending his days dealing with the scum of the earth, Bish Ortley found no species crueller than the adolescent female.”

As the tale progresses, we get a better picture of Bish as a flawed and struggling man – one who still carries enormous guilt over the death of his son – and a man who has to learn to like himself again.
Bish gets drawn into the investigation of the bombing courtesy of a former school friend, Elliot, who now works for the shadowy “Home Office”. Bish is sent running all over the countryside at Elliot’s beck and call as two students from the tour- Violette and Eddie- go missing. Violette’s mother, Noor, is in prison for a bombing years before and Bish put her there. Now it is a race against time to find Violette and Eddie to determine if they had anything to do with the bus disaster, and also to protect them in case they didn’t and were in fact the intended victims of a revenge plot. Bish’s relationship with daughter Bee becomes inextricably linked to his search for Violette and Eddie – a quest for redemption.
Twists and turns abound. Marchetta certainly knows how to push a story along, and while Bish, his mother Saffron, and Noor are the central adult characters I found the teenagers in the novel were the characters who really drove the plot. Everything that happens in the book depends on what the kids do or don’t do. What they say or don’t say. This is the genius of this story. No matter what, all the young people are where the plot pivots into new directions. And these kids are smart, resourceful and more self-aware than most of the adults, which is really refreshing too. I don’t want to say too much more because half the joy of this book is the careful and meticulous unfolding of the narrative and I have an anti-spoiler policy. I will say that this is a fantastic new direction for Marchetta, which will open her writing up for a whole new audience, as well as amply satisfying her existing fans. I’m actually kinda jealous.
For ages 15 and up