Review: ‘The Secret Science of Magic’ by Melissa Keil

Sophia is smart, like genius-calculator-brain smart. But there are some things no amount of genius can prepare you for, and the messiness of real life is one of them. When everything she knows is falling apart, how can she crack the puzzle of what to do with her life?

Joshua spends his time honing magic tricks and planning how to win Sophia’s heart. But when your best trick is making schoolwork disappear, how do you possibly romance a genius?

In life and love, timing is everything.

I know I’ve said this before (possibly in my last review of a Melissa Keil book), but I want to be Melissa Keil when I grow up. She writes the most amazingly geeky and relatable (to me) characters.

In The Secret Science of Magic, we have Sophia, a maths genius and Doctor Who fan who has all the hallmarks of being on the autism spectrum disorder (although she is bafflingly never diagnosed), along with a massive helping of anxiety attacks and self-doubt (presumably from the lack of diagnosis and treatment). She’s also a POC, although her family is very “Australian” as far as I can tell — if there were any elements from other cultures in there I missed them.

Sophia is struggling through the last year of high school, trying very hard not to think about her only friend’s impending departure to study medicine in the US. She’s acing most of her classes and doing university-level maths on the side, but was pressured into doing drama, which she hates and is terrible at. She has fixated on a Russian maths genius who went off the rails, trying, in her methodical way, to figure out where he went wrong so that she can avoid it — a bit like Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, but without the road trip.

Elsie, Sophia’s best friend, is from a largish South Asian family, with three brothers who look lout for Sophia the way her own brother generally doesn’t. But there is growing tension there, which Sophia doesn’t really understand. The clues are all there, not just for the reader (as is often the case) but for Sophia too — the problem is that Sophia simply doesn’t know how to recognise or interpret them.

(I’m so mad at Sophia’s counsellor, by the way. We never actually see said counsellor, but surely if they were halfway competent they could have recognised what was going on with her! Gah!)

Joshua, the other point of view character, has a long-standing crush on Sophia, a lisp that emerges when he’s anxious, and a talent for magic tricks. He decides to finally start wooing her, getting her attention with tricks that are mostly cute and motivated by a desire to help her with her various problems, but that sometimes cross the line for me (for example when he stole her watch; even though she did get it back later, that was uncool, Joshua!). Happily, he does grow over the course of the book and, by the end, he comes good. 😉

I really enjoyed this story, which — more broadly — tackles the YA issues of “coping with the end of school” and “what next”, as well as the universal human issue of self-acceptance. The romance was tentative and sweet, and my heart broke for Sophia and her confusion and social anxiety. The Doctor Who references made me happy, and Josh’s various magic tricks, while not really my thing, made me smile.

Melissa Keil’s books are ones I wish I’d had as a teenager; I’m totally buying copies for my friends’ geeky pre-teen when she’s a few years older.


Review: ‘The Special Ones’ by Em Bailey

Esther is one of the four Special Ones. They are chosen by him to live under his protection in a remote farmhouse, and they must always be ready to broadcast their lives to eager followers in the outside. But on renewal day when he decides that a new Esther, Harry, Lucille or Felicity must take their place, the old ones disappear – forever. The new ones don’t always want to come, but soon they realise.

Until one day Esther has a realisation of her own – and it changes everything.

This book, you guys. After spending literally months in one world, reading a huge trilogy, zipping through this little thing was like a breath of fresh air.

A breath of creepy, creepy fresh air.

The premise of the story is four young people — a pre-teen girl, two late-teens girls and a young man — living in an Amish-style farmhouse where they are forced to play the roles of a long-dead family. Rules govern every aspect of their lives; for example, Esther, the main character, isn’t allowed to touch others or leave the farmhouse veranda. Transgressions are punished.

But the farmhouse is more like the Big Brother house … only it’s famous in a niche corner of the internet rather than being broadcast on national TV. There are cameras everywhere, and each night the four need to chat to their loyal followers, each providing advice on “their” area of expertise. The chats are monitored so they can’t ask for help, and they are so effectively brainwashed that some of them don’t want to.

It’s a creepy, Amish reality TV cult, where kidnapping a new member is standard practice after a previous one leaves to be “renewed” (and, Esther assumes, murdered). It’s also set in remote Australia, which I loved — the magpies, the drought, the thundering summer rain.

The various tensions between the four characters were well described and gripping; I was certainly never bored. There’s a bit of a romantic subplot here, but it’s not the main focus of the story. I was personally more attached to little Felicity, a girl who wouldn’t be much older than my son and who struggled to remember all the rules … even the fact she wasn’t allowed to use her real name. Poor wee thing!

However, like every story I’ve ever read or watched about mysterious, seemingly omniscient evildoers, I did sometimes wonder how “he” managed to do everything he did to keep the farm running day-to-day and the followers from realising that their heroes were brainwashed prisoners. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I did wonder how it was possible for one human, no matter how much of an evil genius they are.

This niggling doubt is the only thing that stopped this from being a five-star read for me, and (as you can see) not by much! I’ll definitely be hunting for a copy of Em Bailey’s other book.

 

 

 


Cover reveal for ‘False Awakening’ — sign-ups now available

It’s hard being the second sibling (or so my friends who are second siblings assure me). Certainly that seems to be true of books, too. For the longest time, Lucid Dreaming, first in my adult urban fantasy series, got all the attention, the cover, and the series named after it.

But now it’s time to shine for the second book in the series, False Awakening, with its very own cover made by the fabulous KILA Designs!

The cover reveal is scheduled for 7 May. You can sign up here, which is an excellent way to get to see it first!

And, to celebrate, I’m offering Lucid Dreaming free to reviewers in all ebook formats. You can sign up for THAT here, or just email me directly. I don’t bite.

Hard.

Seriously, I am so excited to be able to share this cover with you … almost as excited as I am at the idea of photographing the two books together, united at last! ❤

False Awakening blurb

Melaina, half-human dream therapist, just wants her life to return to normal. Yes, her Oneiroi father is in prison and, yes, the place she worked burned down, but she has a cute boyfriend and a new house. She beat the bad guy. She’s earned a break. Right?

Unfortunately for Melaina, people are still getting possessed by nightmare spirits; the police are investigating her past; and the bad guy’s brother, the Morpheus himself, is coming to town to demand answers. When a deranged ex-nurse checks himself out of hospital on the same day her cousin runs away from home, Melaina is dragged into a fight not just for her life but for her soul.

Goodreads


Review: ‘A Tangle of Gold’ by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Kingdom of Cello is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception has been revealed and the Elite have taken control, placing the Princess, Samuel and Sergio under arrest and ordering their execution. Elliot is being held captive by the Hostiles and Colour storms are raging through the land. The Cello Wind has been silent for months.

Plans are in place to bring the remaining Royals home from the World but then all communication between Cello and the World will cease. That means Madeleine will lose Elliot, forever.

Madeleine and Elliot must solve the mystery of Cello before it is too late.

A Tangle of Gold is the final book in The Colours of Madeline trilogy by Aussie author Jaclyn Moriarty. You can find my first two reviews here and here. I commented in my review of the second book that the series title didn’t quite work for me, because Madeline’s parts of the story in the first two books were the less engaging parts.

It’s fair to say that, in the third book, Madeline finally comes into her own. I can’t say much more than that, because it’d be spoiler-tastic, but at last she becomes more than bizarre homeschooling, her mother’s illness, and her quirky friends.  Events in Cello rather than in the World (what they refer to Earth as) are definitely where the story is at, and they drive events. But there’s a lot more crossover, not just a parking metre-based postal service, so the World side of things gets a lot more interesting.

There are things that you need to know about these books if you are considering giving them a go:

  • Moriarty’s prose is beautiful. It’s lyrical and strange at times, but always beautiful. I’m sad that she never truly described the Cello Wind (which is alluded to often but remains off camera, so to speak). It would have been glorious.
  • Her world-building is astonishingly detailed. As a result, sometimes the story feels like it’s dragging a little, but things are always happening — even if their significance doesn’t become clear till later. Which brings me to…
  • The plot twists. OMG. There are things resolved in the third book that were delicately foreshadowed in the first. And some of these twists blindsided me. I usually guess or at least suspect in the right direction of plot twists, but I was way off base on this one, several times.

If you have the patience to read three 500-page books, and love parallel world stories with a truly unique alternate world and intense, intellectual and quirky characters, then this is the series for you.


Review: ‘The Cracks in the Kingdom’ by Jaclyn Moriarty

Princess Ko’s been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can’t get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence may be a devastating war. So under the guise of a publicity stunt she gathers a group of teens — each with a special ability — from across the kingdom to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello.

Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined than ever to find his own father. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot’s value to the Alliance is clear: He’s the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine.

Through notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home. The stakes are high, and the writing by turns hilarious and suspenseful, as only Jaclyn Moriarty can be.

This is the second book in The Colours of Madeline trilogy by Sydney writer Jaclyn Moriarty. I finished it last weekend, and it’s taken me a while to sit down to write a review — largely because it took me more than a month to read, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why.

Other than general life busyness and the danger of reading hardcover books in bed when you’re tired (ow), the obvious reason is that all the books in this series are quite long (and also heavy — ow). This one is almost 500 pages, and maybe my attention span isn’t what it used to be, but it just seemed like a lot. If you’ve read the first book in the series (or my review of same), you will know that the series is a parallel world tale where one of the two main characters, Madeline, is in England while the other is a boy named Elliot who lives in a magical modern-day equivalent of Earth that is called Cello. Moriarty puts a lot of work into world-building as far as Cello goes. Like, a lot. There are extracts from guide books, for example, and newspaper clippings, as well as the letters that the blurb mentions. They are relevant to the story, but gosh there are a lot of them!

There were some parts of the story that dragged and — despite the name of the trilogy — they are almost all Madeline’s sections. She doesn’t have as much to do in the second story other than live her quirky life, post some letters, and be increasingly interested in Elliot, who is (apparently) forever unattainable.

Elliot on the other hand is a very interesting character, as are the other members of the Royal Youth Alliance, Ko, Kiera, Sergio and Samuel. I far enjoyed reading about their meetings and efforts to rescue the royal family. That’s where all the action in the book is. (Sorry, Madeline.)

I realise this review might seem lukewarm, but I really did enjoy most of it — hence the four stars! I went straight into the last book in the series, and I’m hoping I can get it done more quickly than this one. 😉


This month on Aussie Owned and Read we’ve been doing a round robin series of interviews. I was interviewed by the lovely Heather Bosevski; you can find it here. I on the other hand interviewed spec fic author Sharon M. Johnston, and you can find that one here


Review: ‘The Wife Drought’ by Annabel Crabb

thewifedrought_cover

‘I need a wife.’

It’s a common joke among women juggling work and family. But it’s not actually a joke. Having a spouse who takes care of things at home is a Godsend on the domestic front. It’s a potent economic asset on the work front. And it’s an advantage enjoyed – even in our modern society – by vastly more men than women.

Working women are in an advanced, sustained, and chronically under-reported state of wife drought, and there is no sign of rain.

But why is the work-and-family debate always about women? Why don’t men get the same flexibility that women do? In our fixation on the barriers that face women on the way into the workplace, do we forget about the barriers that – for men – still block the exits?

The Wife Drought is about women, men, family and work. Written in Annabel Crabb’s inimitable style, it’s full of candid and funny stories from the author’s work in and around politics and the media, historical nuggets about the role of ‘The Wife’ in Australia, and intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia.

Crabb’s call is for a ceasefire in the gender wars. Rather than a shout of rage, The Wife Drought is the thoughtful, engaging catalyst for a conversation that’s long overdue.

I’ve had a bit of a crush on journalist Annabel Crabb for years, something that was crystalised when I saw her speak at an event last year. She’s an incredibly engaging and intelligent speaker, both funny and charming. At the time, the audiobook of The Wife Drought wasn’t yet available, and I never quite got around to buying the paperback. I was therefore very excited at the end of last month to discover that the audiobook had finally been released and that Annabel herself was the narrator.

The Wife Drought is both demoralising and insightful, often at the same time. It defines a “wife” as a part time or stay at home partner who does the bulk of the domestic duties — cleaning, school drop offs, dealing with tradies — so as to free the other partner up to pursue earning a crust. A “wife” can be a man by this definition, but the truth is that it is almost always a woman. And it’s a huge economic benefit to have one.

Annabel is a journalist, and you can see her thoroughness in this book: she draws on a number of studies that talk about pay gap trends, division of housework, divorce rates in relationships where women become suddenly successful, women in politics, social expectations on both the husband and the wife*, and much more. Interspersed throughout are often lighthearted and always illustrative anecdotes. A lot of the conclusions she draws seemed obvious to me once she’d pointed them out, but as I haven’t read a lot of feminist literature they were a bit of a revelation.

(* Note that this book is about the male and female partner dynamic. While Annabel acknowledges the wonderfully diverse society that we live in, The Wife Drought tackles the most common relationship structure. I am a single parent — no wife for me! — and I still found it fascinating.)

As one example, the book considers the idea that women are better at raising kids in light of the concept of specialisation and the human tendency to seek the most efficient or economical solution. Given that women usually stay at home with the baby in the first few months, they are the ones who get the early child-rearing experience. It’s not that they are genetically predisposed towards changing nappies; they just get more practice. As for why they stay home, Annabel points to the typical difference in pay between a man and a woman as the primary explanation. (She doesn’t touch at all on the push for women to breastfeed and how difficult that can be if a woman returns to work, which I thought was a curious omission.)

Another point that Annabel makes is that the expectation that fathers will go back to work after their children are born and, if anything, work even harder to support them is actually just as detrimental to dads and their relationship with their kids as it is to their wife’s career. The judgement (and condescending praise) heaped on men who do traditionally feminine childcare duties is a barrier to men who also want to “have it all”.

The overarching argument of the book is that women have seen a huge change in the way we get to live our lives. We are not banned from working while married anymore (yes, it used to be a thing). We are permitted — and often encouraged — to work and have children. But men haven’t seen a concurrent revolution in what society expects of them.

There isn’t an earth-shattering revelation for how to achieve this, of course. It’s a slow process, where men have to not only be given access to the same leave conditions but not be punished in the workplace for exercising the rights that they do have. The change is coming, enabled in part by the digital revolution and an increased ability to work from home. But it is slow.

Four stars


Review: ‘Untamed’ by A. G. Howard

untamed_cover

A post-Ensnared collection of three stories—available in both print and e-versions.

Alyssa Gardner went down the rabbit hole and took control of her destiny. She survived the battle for Wonderland and the battle for her heart. In this collection of three novellas, join Alyssa and her family as they look back at their memories of Wonderland.

In Six Impossible Things, Alyssa recalls the most precious moments of her life after Ensnared, and the role magic plays in preserving the happiness of those she loves. Alyssa’s mother reminisces about her own time in Wonderland and rescuing the man who would become her husband in The Boy in the Web. And Morpheus delves into Jeb’s memories of the events of Splintered in The Moth in the Mirror, available in print for the first time.

This collection expands upon Ensnared‘s epilogue, and includes some deleted scenes to provide a “director’s cut” glimpse into the past and futures of our favorite Splintered characters.

This book is set after the end of the Splintered trilogy, and contains three stories that reveal more about the world — about events that come after the end of Ensnared. As a result, it’s super-spoiler-y, and really won’t make sense if you don’t read the trilogy first. You can find my review of the first book in the series here, if you want to see whether it’s something you might be interested in.

Please note that the rest of my review does contain mild spoilers for the end of the trilogy; it’s more aimed at people who are familiar with the books and are deciding whether to pick up this compilation. Read on at your own peril.

The first story, The Boy in the Web, contains backstory about Alyssa’s parents and was sweet enough, though I really wanted more to happen.

The second, The Moth in the Mirrror, is a bit of a non-entity in that it’s some of Jeb’s story from the trilogy told through Morpheus’s eyes — and, yeah, I didn’t really like Jeb that much, so I could have lived without it.

The third one, Six Impossible Things, is the story that I was really keen to read: the transition from Alyssa’s life with Jeb to her life with Morpheus. I liked it best of the three stories, although all the reminiscing by the characters towards the front end of the story dragged a little.

A. G. Howard can write. Her prose is glorious. But this book felt a little bit like fanfiction, a “what comes after the happily ever after” story. I could live without it in the same way that I wasn’t a fan of the end of the Harry Potter series — I didn’t need to know what Harry named his kids, or what Alyssa and Jeb did. The original trilogy had action and tension, and there was almost none of the former and not as much of the latter as I would have liked.  What there was was a lot of “look how perfect their lives are”.

Also — bigger spoiler here — the way that Alyssa is made a virgin again after having three kids during her mortal life made me twitch. The way she seemed to forget how childbirth worked after having three kids made me roll my eyes. Morpheus loved her when she was frail and old, so why was it necessary that she have her “innocence” restored along with her youth? It erased her family and her womanhood in a very literal sense. Blah.

Untamed was nice enough. It was an easy read. But it didn’t wow me the way the original books did. While I’d still highly recommend the original trilogy, you can give this one a miss.

aliceandqueenie

Three stars