Riding the rails to freedom

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was not what I expected. The Underground Railroad here is represented by an actual, rails and sleepers, railroad that moves through an impossible series of tunnels spiriting runaway slaves away to lives away from servitude and abuse. Told mostly through the eyes of Cora, the daughter of a slave, who wants more for herself than her masters will ever give. Cora’s road to freedom is a difficult and harsh one, and there are no punches pulled in Whitehead’s depiction of the slaves’ existence. Constantly referred to as “it”, and treated as chattel, the life of Cora and her friends Lovey and Caesar are horrendous. Ultimately there are signs of humanity amidst the carnage but, as it was no doubt in reality, these are rare and short-lived.
The Underground Railroad is a tale that keeps you reading, even though you know things are not going to improve quickly for the protagonists. The slave catcher, Ridgeway, is also compelling because he represents and exemplifies the mindset that allowed the vile slave trade to prosper in the Southern states of the newly independent nation.
Read it to see why it deserved the Pulitzer in 2017.

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Voices from the ‘grave

Godsgrave (The Nevernight Chronicle, #2)Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second installment in the Nevernight Chronicle is breathtaking. Hot, bloody and raw, this is Jay Kristoff at his best. Mia Covere is back, on a secret mission for the Red Church, but she soon learns that things are not always what they seem. New betrayals, new allies and new love for Mia force her to examine all she believes and the purpose of her life (to avenge the death of her family) starts to become less sure. Godsgrave itself is a shady and underhanded character and those who inhabit it are its equal. Mia uncovers conspiracy on top on conspiracy and she must choose ultimately between her path of revenge and her loyalties, such as they are.
If you like your fantasy sweaty, sexy and fast-paced; this is for you!
Ages 15 and up.

Boy Overboard

A Different BoyA Different Boy by Paul Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Jennings has done it again. This carefully crafted book has emotional resonance, complexity in narrative, and is wrapped in an engaging and approachable narrative that would suit ages 8 and up. It is a simple story, but adds complexity with alternating points of view. Anton the orphan runs away, somewhat inadvertently, and finds himself a stowaway on a ship to the “New Land”. There he meets Max, a boy who is has his own struggles – with learning and reading and life in general. Max’s mother cares for Anton, planning to adopt him as her own when they arrive at their destination. Then a near-tragedy changes everything. I don’t want to give away anything because I like to be spoiler free, but there will definitely be tugging on the heartstrings as this tale reveals its secrets to the reader.
Absolutely recommended and a lovely companion to the earlier A Different Dog by the same author.

Dem Bones….

All the Little Bones (Circus Hearts, #1)All the Little Bones by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the start of a great new series by Ellie Marney. Colm and Sorsha are a hypnotic combination and the back story of being on the run was perfect to throw them together. As usual the first kiss between the two protagonists is HOT, which is an Ellie Marney speciality. Marney effectively paints a picture of circus life and show folk well, and I look forward to reading more about this cast of characters. Can’t wait for All Fall Down to drop into my Kindle!

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Surviving the dark

After the Lights Go OutAfter the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Doomsday preppers…riiiight….I was not sure if I would enjoy this as much as Lili’s other novels. Sure, I knew it would be well-researched, and the writing would be impeccable, but preppers? I shouldn’t have worried. From the first page I was drawn in and couldn’t wait to know more. Pru and her sisters, twins Grace and Blythe, live with their Dad in the remote town of Jubilee. In the first pages of the book we see the girls dodging intruders and threats, but eventually learn it’s a drill their father makes them do on a regular basis. Already the reader is made to feel uneasy because Pru is a doomsday prepper, or at least the child of one, and they are not necessarily known for their rational view of the world. Having a possibly unreliable narrator just serves to make the story more interesting. Then, the unthinkable (except for preppers) happens. There is a massive disastrous event and all of a sudden nothing that relies on electricity, or that has circuitry, works. No cars, no phones, no radio, no TV. No electric cooking, etc. To make matters worse, there’s been an explosion at the mine where Rick, the girls’ Dad, works and only a few have survived. The girls are on their own, in their bunker, with only each other to rely on. “Family comes first” their father has drilled into them since their mother left, and the girls are determined to survive, even if it means denying the other people in town much-needed assistance. When someone tells the other townsfolk of the girls’ secret, things take a turn. I will not spoil the rest of the story, but this book is an absolute page-turner. Survival, romance, betrayal, violence, death, redemption – it’s all there and Wilkinson writes her narrative with admirable restraint. There would be a tendancy for someone less experienced to pump up the hyperbole and drama, but Lili Wilkinson allows the drama to develop from small things- things that become huge in remarkable and terrifying circumstances. If you like gritty and realist fiction with a dytopian edge, this is for you.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

This one has heart

Tin HeartTin Heart by Shivaun Plozza

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marlowe, the central character in Shivaun Plozza’s accomplished second novel is a fantastic protagonist. Flawed, fragile, but ultimately stronger than she realises, Marlowe is finding her way back into the world after having a life-saving heart transplant. Obsessed with connecting with the family of her donor, Marlowe is frustrating, but also highly likeable. Her mum is a “vegan warrior” who only wants the best for Marlowe, but she also tries to be her friend a little too much. I didn’t enjoy this character as much as I hoped to, but Pip, her wonderfully eccentric and self-confident little brother is an absolute delight. I kind of wish younger kids could get to read Pip too, because he is such a positive character. As such, Pip is a great reflection of Marlowe, who is often down on herself and others much of the time. No matter what, Pip can find the good in almost everything. As Marlowe’s relationship with the sister of her dead donor develops, the reader can see there is disaster looming, and when Marlowe starts falling for Leo, son of the local butcher, there is conflict of epic proportions brewing. No more story elements for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say Marlowe has to confront more than a few personal demons and work on mending lots of fences before the story ends.
Plozza’s writing is heartfelt and her dialogue, as in her debut novel Frankie, is absolutely on point. Leo is a laconic smart arse, but has a heart of gold. Marlowe is trying to break away from her family, but ultimately loves them more than anything. The realities of an adolescent trying to find her place, and settle into it comfortably are familiar, and handled here with aplomb. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.

A Great Find

FoundFound by Fleur Ferris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beth (Elizabeth) Miller lives in a small town, Deni, and has just started a relationship with local boy, Jonah. When we first meet them, Beth is trying to work up the courage to tell her father, “Bear” – a local teacher and karate instructor – about her boyfriend. Beth’s Dad disappears after the appearance of a nondescript white van and from that moment on, her entire life is turned upside down and inside out. Everything Beth thought she could be sure of in her life becomes shaky as she discovers her family has been in hiding from a dangerous, vengeful criminal who has now found out where they live.
I love how Fleur Ferris throws the reader immediately into the middle of the action in this novel. We have barely met Beth and Jonah when things begin to go pear-shaped, and the pace does not let up for the rest of the 300 pages. Beth turns out to be a highly capable and resourceful girl, because her parents have always been secretly preparing in case they were found out; but she is also incredibly fragile, trying to make sense of everything that is going on AND trying to keep herself and her family alive.
Jonah is interesting too – especially because he learns things about his own behaviour (he’s a bit of a selfish prick for a while), and he has great mates like the fantastic Warra to help pull him back into line. Willow, Beth’s best friend, is also well-drawn and the conversation between the two girls feels natural and easy.
I won’t give any more plot points away, but I CAN say that just when you think you know everything, there is another surprise or shock over the next page!
Fleur has found her stride here – a great mix of excellent scene-setting, and well-paced action – and has cemented her place as a premium writer of YA thrillers.
Highly recommended.

Consider Yourself Schooled

Teacher - One woman's struggle to keep the heart in teachingTeacher – One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching by Gabbie Stroud

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a teacher you will, at some point, recognise yourself in this book. I did and, while I am not a teacher, I work closely with students every day. If you are not a teacher, you will want to walk up to every teacher you know and THANK them for what they do every day. For how they care, for the time they sacrifice, for the absolute gut-wrenching crap they have to endure most of the time to make sure your children, OUR children, get the best education possible.
This is a harrowing read. No doubt. There are moments of emotional uplift, but mostly this is a very raw, very real account of how the joy of teaching, as a profession and a calling, is being constantly eroded and demeaned by powers who have no business dictating a letter, let alone dictating what the national curriculum should be. Gabbie Stroud’s voice is loud and clear. Teacher is a highly readable and extremely well-written memoir, and a searing indictment on our education system and its “standards”. Our education system is broken. This book won’t fix that, but Gabbie’s voice, the voice of so many educators out there, needs to be heard. By everyone. Read it, cry, then resolve to never let another child sit the NAPLAN and to tell your child’s teacher they are valued, that they MATTER. A heartbreaking call to arms. A must read for EVERY parent of school-aged children, and everyone else too. Highly recommended.

Murderous Reflections

Mirror MeMirror Me by Rachel Sanderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review copy was provided by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. Rachel Sanderson’s last book, The Space Between was a well-constructed thriller and Mirror Me is too. Sanderson Shows a surer hand here – the characters are more clearly realised, and the tension is tighter, and more nuanced.
Central character Abbie moves to the rural community of Derrington with her mother, Mum’s partner Stacey, and little brother, Tom. Mum is a doctor who is taking over the local practice for a year after the sudden departure of Dr O’Brien. Abbie has left her school, her BFF and everything she knows and feels safe with to come and live in the back of beyond. Initially she feels a bit our of her depth, but she makes some new friends and all seems to be going okay until she discovers she is the spitting image of another girl, Rebecca (Becky) O’Brien, who was murdered a year ago. Weird things start to happen. Abbie has dreams about Becky’s murder, she feels drawn to the house where it happened, and begins to obsess about the details.
Abbie also has to cope with a bully named Dave, a blossoming romance with a guy named Zeke, and a deepening friendship with the local handyman, Andy. Little by little coincidences start to stack up and Abbie is convinced the dead girl is trying to communicate with her.
Sanderson builds the growing tension well in this novel. The pace is just right. In The Space Between the ending felt a little rushed, but she takes her time here, giving the characters time to breathe and explore their own stories. The result is a really great, suspenseful story that had me gripped to the very last page.
Highly recommended.

I don’t give a f#ck if you like this review

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeThe Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. I EMBRACED this book. Mark Manson delivers much of his message with his tongue firmly in his cheek, and sometimes over-simplifies things, but the kernel of what he is trying to say is never in doubt. We are free to choose what we give a f#ck about, and those choices determine how successful/loved/important we think we are. There are many other books around sending the same message, but this one is the first in a long time I have read right to the end. Some friends of mine have not been able to get past the first few pages, which is a shame because this book pays off in spades in the last 4o pages or so. It is in those pages you come to understand Mark Manson, and why he’s written this book, and says the things he does.
My favourite piece of advice?
“When life gives you lemons, sometimes you just have to learn to like the taste of lemons.” Period.
So true. Sometimes life is just shit.
This book does not pretend it can make your life perfect, nor does it purport to be the “one guide” to living. What it DOES do, is demonstrate how to cut through your own bullshit; to kill the self-talk that can hold one back; to stop blaming everyone and everything else for the way you react to situations.
A great read and a timely wake-up call for me.