Review: ‘The Demon’s Lexicon’ by Sarah Rees Brennan

Nick and his brother Alan are on the run with their mother, who was once the lover of a powerful magician. When she left him, she stole an important charm – and he will stop at nothing to reclaim it. Now Alan has been marked with the sign of death by the magician’s demon, and only Nick can save him. But to do so he must face those he has fled from all his life – the magicians – and kill them. So the hunted becomes the hunter … but in saving his brother, Nick discovers something that will unravel his whole past…

It’s been a little while since I finished The Demon’s Lexicon, but life got busy and I haven’t had a chance to review it till now. That means this review might be a little on the short side, but I still remember the highlights.

As far as genres go, urban fantasy is my favourite and my best; you’ve probably guessed that if you’ve read any of my books. It’s also hard to find urban fantasy rather than paranormal romance, and I powered through this book because of that, happy as my dog when he sticks his face in front of the hose. (Just go with me here.)

Here are the things I loved:

Nick. This surprises me, because he’s the sort of brooding leading male that I cannot stand in paranormal romance novels. But because the story is told from his point of view, we get to see inside his head. We see his emotions (mostly fury or bafflement), and hear his thoughts. He clearly loves his brother, but he seems completely incapable of articulating that, or much of anything other than frustration and smart arse comments.

Nick lives in his head, even when it pains his brother, Alan, and when — to the reader — the solution is obvious. He isn’t a particualrly nice character, but he is fascinating. I enjoyed spending time with him in this book (though I definitely wouldn’t want to in real life, and I sure as hell wouldn’t date him). I’m in awe of Brennan for making a thoroughly dislikable character so fascinating.

The brothers. This falls out of the first point. It was so nice to see a portrayal of brotherly love in a book, prioritised far and above the tenuous romance plotlines with side character Mae. Alan and Nick have each other’s backs. For Nick, it has always been that way — Alan has always been there for him.

That’s why the merest hint that Alan might be keeping secrets sends him into a tailspin. It’s clear to the reader (I keep saying that, but there really are two layers to this story — what we see, and what Nick can comprehend) that Alan loves his brother and has his best interests at heart. But poor Nick just can’t see it.

The twist. Boy howdy. I sort of half guessed, but Brennan took it all the way. The ending alone earns this book a whole star on its own.

(The only thing that makes me sad is that I want to buy the second book in the same edition as the first, and it’s currently sold out on The Book Depository. Wah!)

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Australian Women Writers Challenge – 2018 wrap up (?)

The Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is part of a world-wide movement to raise awareness of excellent writing by women. It helps readers to challenge the subconscious stereotypes that govern our choice of books to read. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.

Last year, I failed both the reading challenges I set myself (Goodreads and Australian Women Writers), largely because I spent a lot of the year absorbed in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books, and those things are huuuuuge.

So this year I moderated my expectations of myself — reading and reviewing 10 books by Australian women writers (instead of 15), and reading 30 books overall instead of 40. But I’m up to date on my Stormlight books.

All this is by way of explaining why we’re only halfway through the year and I’m writing my “mission accomplished” post for the AWW challenge. :p

Here is a link to each review, as well as my star rating for each book. They are listed in chronological order.

*Yes, Jay is a dude, but Amie isn’t. So nyah.

** Yes, Meagan is American, but Amie isn’t. See above re: “nyah”.

And here’s a genre breakdown for those that like numbers:

  • Romance: 3
  • Young adult contemporary: 2
  • Speculative fiction: 5
    • Middle grade fantasy: 2
    • Science fiction: 2
    • Steampunk historical: 1

There are other excellent books by Australian women on my TBR pile, so I’m sure I’ll add to this list as the year progresses (I want to get to at least 15, to prove that I can). Still, I can tick this challenge off for the year. Woohoo!


Revew: ‘A Thousand Perfect Notes’ by C.G. Drews

An emotionally charged story of music, abuse and, ultimately, hope.

Beck hates his life. He hates his violent mother. He hates his home. Most of all, he hates the piano that his mother forces him to play hour after hour, day after day. He will never play as she did before illness ended her career and left her bitter and broken. But Beck is too scared to stand up to his mother, and tell her his true passion, which is composing his own music — because the least suggestion of rebellion on his part ends in violence.

When Beck meets August, a girl full of life, energy and laughter, love begins to awaken within him and he glimpses a way to escape his painful existence. But dare he reach for it?

I bought A Thousand Perfect Notes the same day that it arrived at my local bookstore (I checked the delivery date) and gobbled it up that night. The author is Cait from the popular Aussie blog Paper Fury; she has such a hilarious writing style on social media that you might — if you know her work — go into this book expecting it to be full of sunshine and cake.

Well, it does have cake, at least. And maybe a little sunshine, mostly in the form of the delightful August. But there’s a lot of darkness in this story. Beck is terrorised by his mother, both physically and psychologically. He has zero sense of his own self-worth, despite being a genius player and an even better composer. There were so many times that I wanted to just sweep him up and take him and his kid sister away, or get them some sort of help (or drop a piano on their mother, not gonna lie).

Part of me can’t even comprehend a world where a boy could be so thoroughly abused and no adults would step in to help, and that’s why it’s so important for me to read a story like this one, even though parts of it made me feel kind of queasy. For example, the shame Beck feels for being a fifteen-year-old boy abused by his mother feels so real. His efforts to keep his distance from August because he’s afraid of what his mother will do if she finds out he’s wasting perfectly good practice time on a friend (or even to complete a group assignment) are so, so sad. And his desire to protect his five-year-old sister from his mother’s wrath were super sweet, even as it made me furious that he needed to.

August is, on the surface of things, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (dear god, someone make her wear shoes!), but she has depth that a MPDG doesn’t, with her desire to get straight As in school and to save every animal in the world — even some that maybe shouldn’t be saved. She has hippy veterinarians for parents, eats hipster vegitarian food and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. She also doesn’t rush into a relationship with Beck, even though she clearly grows to like him. The evolution of their friendship into something that could be more is sweet to see.

Joey, Beck’s sister, is a wildcat in glitter and gum boots. I adored everything about her, even as I wouldn’t want to parent her. Yikes! (Of course, if she were actually being parented, then I expect she wouldn’t be so violent in the first place…) And the descriptions of Beck’s music are magical. I don’t know classical music that well, but this story let me feel the mood of music by different composers.

A Thousand Perfect Notes is a quick read that will break your heart, but you should read it anyway.


A children’s Harry Potter birthday party

My son just turned nine (wut) and had requested a Harry Potter party. Our house is very small with no discernable yard — and it’s winter here — so we decided on a “movie” pyjama party, based on my misguided theory that kids in their PJs would be less likely to run around shouting.

Needless to say, very little movie-watching took place. But fun was had regardless. I thought since it was a book-related party I’d share my experience here, in case it is of benefit to others.

(Note: Check the run time of the movie before you start. I forgot quite how long Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually runs — we didn’t quite make it through the movie before the other parents came to collect their kids. It wasn’t a big deal, though, given how little time was spent in front of the TV.)

The Food

Our budget didn’t stretch to actual Harry Potter brand food, especially since I’d have had to order it in from the UK, so I made do. We bought lolly snakes, chocolate frogs and other snacks, but then I gave them a Harry Potter theme by labelling each bowl with Honeydukes-inspired labels. (This also meant I could flag the contents of each for those kids with dietary requirements.)

For example, the snakes became “Basilisk Bites” and our Jelly Belly jellybeans were “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans”. My son and I got around the fact they weren’t every flavour by faking it, which the other adults got in on. “Oh, gross, I just got a soap-flavoured one!”

The “Cake”

My son doesn’t like icing (I know, right?) so we decided to do homemade muffins in house-coloured cupcake wrappers instead. I googled “butterscotch muffins”, thinking I’d claim they were butterbeer, and ended up using this recipe from taste.com.au. I found it was a little dry, so added a little extra buttermilk, and because we didn’t use the caramel sauce due to my fear of sticky pre-teens, I added a splash of maple syrup as well. I’m not a baker, generally, so I was pleased at how nicely they turned out.

The one Potter-ish food thing I did order was the cupcake toppers, which were super-easy to apply. I did have to add a very thin layer of icing sugar (with a splash of boiling water to make a paste), just to get the toppers to stick, but I got away with it. 😉

Wizarding Accessories

Wands

Far and away the most time-consuming (but satisfying) part of the party prep was making the wands. My talented friend Craig and I spent hours on these, though the materials themselves were quite cheap: a packet of wooden chopsticks, a glue gun and a packet of beads. Craig already owned the paint, which would’ve been a huge extra expense if I’d had to get it myself.

Each kid got to chose a wand — there were six children and twelve wands, so I get the spares! — and I’d done up a card for each one with a core and wood based on this page, so they all had unique “powers”. The kids spent the vast majority of the party dividing into tribes and flinging curses at each other. It was a little Lord of the Flies, not gonna lie, but they had fun.

Photos, detail work and amazing talent by Craig. Dribbly “organic” wands by me.

Wizard Hats

I painted the party hats black and then used my glue gun to stick stars all over them. Quick and easy!

Party hat graciously modelled by Professor McGonagall

The Games

Sorting Hat

All the kids who came knew their Hogwarts houses in advance (because we’re those sorts of people), but I’d downloaded and printed a couple of origami “sorting hats” from this site, which got quite a bit of use.

Pass the Parseltongue

This was regular pass the parcel, but with toy snakes, lizards and frogs in each layer.

Stick the Sock on the Dobby

I drew Dobby onto a sheet of A3 cardboard and then made socks for the kids to stick on him with sticky tac. I had prizes for those that got their sock into his hand and for the funniest placement (which ended up being an earring).

Musical Statues

As well as pausing the music, I used my wand to cast the charm “immobulus” (the freezing charm). It was a bit of a juggle managing both, so I had to get the other parents to judge who was out each round.

Other Games

I had organised a few other party games that we didn’t get to because the kids wanted to get back to flinging curses.

  • A “Celebrity Head” style game — I had a plain black party hat and some stickers that I was going to write Potter character names on so each child could have a turn at guessing who they were.
  • Memorise the spell — Starting with a “base spell” word, each kid has to repeat what has been said previously and then add a new word to the spell, going around in a circle, so that you end up with a string of gibberish.
  • Transfiguration class — I found a packet of animal noses and was going to get each child to cast a spell on themselves to “transform” and draw a nose from a bag.

The Prizes

Again, I didn’t have a huge budget for prizes, so I went for theme rather than brand. As well as the parseltongue lizards etc, I found a cheap pack of dragons at the local two dollar shop. I stuck some googley eyes on pompoms and called them pygmy puffs. I bought a grey Ikea rat to be Scabbers, and a little while owl to be Hedwig.

I had more prizes than we actually needed, so I divided up what was left into the party bags at the end. (Except for Scabbers. He lives with me now.)

Conclusion

All in all, everyone had fun — including me, as the whole thing appealed to my inner Ravenclaw. My boy has already told me he wants a Doctor Who party next year, which I think will be trickier.

For now, I’ll be over here, collapsed in a pile of wizarding robes and left-over lollies.


Review: ‘Unearthed’ by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

When Earth intercepts a message from a long-extinct alien race, it seems like the solution the planet has been waiting for. The Undying’s advanced technology has the potential to undo environmental damage and turn lives around, and Gaia, their former home planet, is a treasure trove waiting to be uncovered.

For Jules Addison and his fellow scholars, the discovery of an alien culture offers unprecedented opportunity for study… as long as scavengers like Amelia Radcliffe don’t loot everything first. Mia and Jules’ different reasons for smuggling themselves onto Gaia put them immediately at odds, but after escaping a dangerous confrontation with other scavvers, they form a fragile alliance.

In order to penetrate the Undying temple and reach the tech and information hidden within, the two must decode the ancient race’s secrets and survive their traps. But the more they learn about the Undying, the more their presence in the temple seems to be part of a grand design that could spell the end of the human race…

A lot of people are describing this book as Indiana Jones in space, which I get, but I think it has more of a Lara Croft vibe. That might be because Jules is English and relatively rich, or because Mia is an athletic young woman who’s used to scaling things in order to steal other things. (Yes, I’m splitting hairs here!) However, the main difference between the characters in Unearthed and either Indy or Lara is that Mia and Jules are teens, and neither of them knows how to use a gun. I liked that about them. If they’d been dual-pistol-weilding superheroes, the book would’ve felt far less authentic.

Unearthed is a dual-point-of-view story with alternating chapters told from Mia’s and Jules’s perspectives, but both characters carry the story equally well and I didn’t find myself hating one perspective and always wanting to get back to the other. They are quite different personalities, in that Mia acts on instinct and is all about survival, whereas Jules is a thinker, a linguist who wants to preserve the ancient temple sites and understand those that built them. (And hooray for the non-stereotypical gender roles there — I loved that!) But both of them are also there because of love for a family member back at home, which gives them common ground on which to build.

(On that point, it’s possibly unavoidable from a story point of view that both characters spend a bit of time naval-gazing, thinking about why they are on Gaia in the first place. Given the story starts after they are on Gaia, how else would we come to understand their motivations? I could have wished for a little bit less introspection, but I could see why it was there)

There is, of course, a budding romance between Mia and Jules. I say “of course” because anyone who has read any of the other books by Kaufman and Sponer will know that this is a hallmark of their writing together. (Likewise, Kaufman’s Illuminae books with Jay Kristoff each have a different romantic pairing take the lead in each book.) Unearthed is set over only a few days, and the characters spend so much time just trying to survive that they don’t really make it much past the mutual attraction stage. For me, that’s a good thing as it makes their relationship feel more realistic.

Some parts of the story are fairly straightforward and what you’d expect. The puzzles aren’t generally described in enough detail that you could solve them yourself, and — unlike Mia — I’m not a maths brain, so I’d definitely have been squished by falling rock or dropped into a ravine fairly quickly. Other parts of the story, though … I can’t go into details without spoilers, but there are a couple of massive plot twists in here, and I only saw part of one coming. I always love it when a book pulls the rug out from under me like this one did, so huzzah!

What I don’t love, though, are cliffhanger endings. The first sentence of the author acknowledgement is “Sorry about that.” All I have to say is YOU SHOULD BE. So I’ll just be sitting over here, crying quietly until the next book comes out in seven months.

 


Review: ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart–an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests — or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

A bookseller told me that Nevermoor was being touted as the new Harry Potter. But publishers have been making that claim for years, trying to tap into JK Rowling’s huge success, so I was a little scepitcal. Still, I’d already bought the book by that point (I am a book hording dragon, okay?), so I decided to give it a go anyway. And … I can see why they made the comparison.

This review might be a little gushy. Try to bear with me!

Morrigan has a couple of things in common with Harry in the first book of that series. Both are eleven, and both come from mundane families that intensely dislike them. However, Nevermoor isn’t set on Earth or any parallel thereof but in a fantasy world which has the states of the Republic and the more magical Free States. The former are still kind of magical — they use an energy called Wunder in a manner similar to electricity, but dragons are real and children born on Eventide are seen as cursed, causing all manner of disaster to befall those around them. The Free States are truly, spectacularly magical, though, and make the Republic (or at least those parts of it that we see) seem drab by comparison. They are quirky and fun, and I loved them.

Jupiter chooses Morrigan to be his first ever candidate for the Wundrous Society. He is an adorable, bizarre character who makes Dumbledore seem staid, but both men share the ability to dissemble, never answering straight questions. This is to Morrigan’s intense frustration, because she knows she can’t get into the Wundrous Society without a knack, and Jupiter, while assuring her all will be fine, refuses to answer questions about it.

I really enjoyed Morrigan. She’s bright and determined and just wants to find a true home and friends (and not be deported and face her fated death). She also dresses all in black (well, you would if your name was Morrigan Crow, wouldn’t you?) and is scared of the idea of acid-spitting land dolphins. What’s not to love? My other favourite characters were Jupiter and Fenestra, the giant talking cat who works at the hotel where Jupiter and Morrigan live. Fen is snarky and a little callous, but ultimately comes to regard Morrigan the way a mother cat might her kitten.

One interesting element of the book is the way that Morrigan — who entered the Free States illegally, without the appropriate immigration paperwork — is treated by the border police. One of them in particular is an a-grade bigot who regards illegal immigrants as less than human. There’s an opportunity for parents to discuss the concept of refugees with their kids after reading this book.

Nevermoor fits into the middle grade category rather than young adult. There are a few scary scenes, but nothing graphic, and no sexual content or bad language that might deter some parents from buying this for their kids. Or for themselves. I won’t judge!

After all, I’m super-keen to snap up the sequel myself. 😉


Review: ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I can’t remember how I added Boneshaker to my TBR shelf on Goodreads, but I was recently looking for inspiration for something new to listen to on audiobook and came across it. So I gave it a go.

Boneshaker is an alternative history steampunk with zombies, which you can pretty much get from the blurb and is frankly what sold me on the book in the first place. It’s also a lightning-paced story with very little downtime or introspection, and a badass leading lady.

Let me just say how much I enjoyed Briar Wilkes. She’s had a rough life — a father who’s renowned throughout Seattle’s outskirts (ie the remaining part of the city, outside the zombie-filled walls) as being a criminal cop who conducted a jail break right before his death. Even worse, she’s the widow of Leviticus Blue, the man who unleased the Blight in what people think was an attempt to rob the banks in the heart of the original city. As a result, she’s the most despised woman in the outskirts, and it’s made her hard.

She’s also a fiercely protecitve single mother to a slightly brash and reckless teenage boy. And that was my favourite thing about her. I can’t recall the last time I read a piece of genre fiction where the main character is a mother to an older child. (Briar is in her mid-thirties.) She’s not a robot — she gets scared and feels sad, though she’s been conditioned by the world not to show it. More than anything, she’s scared of losing Zeke.

I feel that.

Zeke himself is more frustrating. For a boy who considers himself to be worldly, he is at times incredibly naive — and his tendency to backchat when he’s unsure of himself did make me clench my teeth more than once. But he’s at heart a good kid, and I can’t for a second argue with the characterisation, even if I did want to smack him at times.

The story is fast-paced; the characters rarely get to rest, and the zombie scenes are good enough that it was a mistake listening to one as I was wondering through the mall, let me tell you! (I was wearing headphones, at least, so I only scared myself.) The dialogue is at times a bit stilted in the way it’s expressed — not so much the lines themselves but the way they are presented, the order of ideas. I don’t know if this would’ve annoyed me more on paper, but in the audiobook format it wasn’t too bad.

I love quite a few of the side characters, especially the other two female ones (Angeline and Lucy), as well as Swakhammer. I’m hoping that the other books in the series let us catch up with them all, because they deserve more page time.

If you like rollicking adventure/survival stories set in a highly polluted city where the air can kill you and super-fast zombies want to eat you, then definitely give Boneshaker a try.