Mini-Review: ‘Iron Lights’ by Felicity Banks

Emmeline Muchamore was respectable once. Her sweetheart, Matilda Newry, certainly put a stop to that. But when Emmeline gains magical insight into a disastrous future battle, she weaponises her wild reputation in order to draw trouble and death away from her adopted home … risking everything and everyone she loves in the process.

Iron Lights is a steam-powered tale of honour, love, magic, adventure, and mechanical spiders.

This will be a short review, because it’s of the third book in the series, and I always feel like people would find the reviews of the first — or even the second — book more useful. Also, everything I said in those reviews is true of Iron Lights (except that the back matter isn’t a story in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure but a series of of letters from side characters in the main book).

I really enjoy Emmaline as a main character. She’s the sort of intellectually curious scientist and adventer that I can’t recall seeing much of in fiction (even if she does lean a little towards the “mad” variety of scientist, if I’m honest). She’s also unfailingly polite; devoted to her sweetie, Matilda; and capable of coming up with the most harebrained schemes I think I’ve ever seen! I wonder if it’s because she gets the science of things, but not necessarily the humanity of them. Seriously, some of her schemes in this book were never going to end well!

I love the world that Iron Lights is set in, with its magically activated metals, clockwork soldiers and cyborg-ish creatures. I also love Banks’s writing style. It’s beautiful, and is a large part of how Emmeline’s pure Britishness is conveyed. I’m always left wanting more, wishing the stories weren’t quite so fast-paced, because I don’t want them to end.

If you enjoy alternative worlds and steampunk, and would like to see both of those things in a colonial Australian setting, then check this series out.

 

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Review: ‘I Am Princess X’ by Cherie Priest

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X? When May looks around, she sees the princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon — her best friend, Libby, who lives.

I originally discovered Cherie Priest’s books over at Audible in the form of her historical steampunk zombie series, the Clockwork Century. (You can read the review of the first book here if you’re curious.) Sadly for me, after the third book, the series wasn’t available for me to buy on audiobook — I don’t know why. So I went hunting to see what other book series she had, and found (and was intruiged by) I Am Princess X. However, because the book includes comic illustrations that tell the story, I decided this was a book better read than listened to, and here we are.

This story is a fun mystery/thriller read, and the comic sections give it an extra something. They are beautifully illustrated by Kali Ciesemier, who drew a gorgeous Princess X. The book is worth buying for those alone, honestly — I loved studying them for the clues before reading on to see what May thought of them. And the investigations that followed were fun to follow along with.

One thing that was refreshing to see in this book is that it’s a YA with no romance. There is a male counterpoint to May, a late teen named Trick who helps her with the IT side of things, and I kept waiting for there to be a spark between them — it’s so common in YA that it was my default expectation, I guess. But I don’t require my books to have a romance sub-plot so the book didn’t suffer for it, in my opinion. (YMMV.)

The only thing that I didn’t 100% love about this story was that some of the decisions the characters made in the final confrontation confused me. It’s hard to say what they were without spoilers, but I think they made the situation more perilous for themselves than it had to be, and the reasons for doing so either weren’t clearly articulated or I missed them. (I did stay up very late finishing this, so it could well be the latter!)

Regardless, if you love a mystery that builds to a thriller-style climax, one with gorgeous art to go with it, then definitely check out I Am Princess X.


Review: ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ by Becky Albertalli

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually right on the beat – but real life is a little harder to manage. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends she’s bisexual, not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high and it’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting – especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended …

This book is the sequel to Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and if you haven’t read that or at least seen the movie (Love, Simon), Leah contains some major spoilers for it. So, you know, get onto that. (My review of that is here if you need further prompting.)

Leah on the Offbeat was a quick read. Albertalli is an absolute star at writing dialogue. A lot of of this story is told that way, with less of a focus on the text surrounding it, and it really works in this context. (Especially with the nerdy banter — all the Harry Potter jokes! Aah!) But dialogue does make for a faster read than pretty much any other type of writing.

Leah, the point of view character, is such a contradiction of a character. She’s anxious and closed off, and it makes her sarcastic and moody. She can be downright nasty at times — I especially felt bad for her poor mother. And at the same time, Leah is a totally relatable teen who struggles when she’s presented with awkward moments and socially tricky situations. I’m not saying I endorse some of her behaviour by any stretch — and her apparent inability to apologise when she screws up is a thing she doesn’t really grow out of during the course of this story — but I can understand it. I can relate to it. I know I had moments like that as a teen, though I was never as cool as Leah is.

There is one scene in Leah that a lot of people find problematic, and I can totally see why. It’ll be no surprise from the blurb that Leah falls for/has fallen for one of the females in her friendship group. (I won’t say who, because spoilers, but it becomes clear pretty early in the story.) That friend is questioning her own sexulaity, and goes from “hetero experimenting” to “lowkey bi” to “bi” over the course of the book. When the friend tells Leah she’s lowkey bi, Leah lashes out at her — which a lot of people see as policing the friend’s sexuality, and as totally uncool. Which it is.

But here’s the thing. I found that scene a bit of a revelation, as someone who has thought of herself as “lowkey bi” for a few years now (though not in those words). Because Leah’s reaction articulated perfectly for me why I’d be concerned about getting into a relationship with a woman. What if I wasn’t bi enough? Would it be fair to her? I felt seen. And the fact that Leah’s friend actually comes through the other side in this story to find acceptance was really heartwarming for me. (Also, if any of my family are reading this, uh, hi?)

Anyway. More broadly, the rep in Leah is everything you could hope for. Leah is fat and generally not ashamed of it, but has moments — like when she’s chosing a prom dress — where it is rubbed in her face. Those felt super-real to me. There is also a black character who deals with racism, as well as Simon and “Blue” (real name withheld due to spoilers), the gay pair from the first book, and minor characters from other minorities. You can tell that Albertalli did her homework. (I don’t know what her background is, but no way is she writing Own Voices for all those different groups at once!)

As far as the non-romance part of the story goes, Leah is a fairly traditional “last year of high school in Amerca” story: chosing colleges, changing friendship group dynamics, prom. I think that works, though, as a backdrop to Leah’s story more broadly.

Overall, I’d rate Leah as 4.5 stars — not quite as brilliant as Simon, but still definitely worth the read.


Goodreads reading challenge – 2018 wrap-up

I love my reading challenges, both the Australian Women Writers one and the Goodreads one. They help me stay motivated and remember not to let all the shiny things in life — like the Sims — distract me too much from all the books on my to-be-read pile. (As if the wavering, towering stacks weren’t enough reminder to chip away at them before they topple and crush me to death!)

I didn’t do one of these dedicated posts in 2017; I think I was a bit deflated at the fact I missed my reading goals that year. But in 2018 I lowered my Goodreads goal (and then met the 2017 goal anyway, as you do), which helped. It was all part of my 2018 resolution of being kinder to myself. Also, I didn’t have to power my way through all those Sanderson Stormlight Archive books in 2018, which helped even more — I only read one, which I’d already started when 2018 began. 😉

So here are the books I read in 2018, with some handy statistics for my own amusement. I haven’t included my own books that I’ve read in the editing process — except for A Hand of Knaves, given most of that book wasn’t by me — because then Goodreads asks me to rate them and I don’t feel comfortable rating my own books.

  • More than 75% of the books I read were by women writers (or had at least one woman writer contributor, in the case of the anthologies). Most of that was Sarah J. Maas (five books), and a decent number of female authors by whom I read three books. I am nothing if not consistent.
    • 31% of the books I read were part of the Australian Women Writers challenge, which clearly had a lot to do with the preponderance of women in my reading overall.
  • I read 69% speculative fiction (see again re: consistent, and also, teeheehee), of which the top three four categories were:
    • fantasy — 29%
    • steampunk — 12%
    • urban fantasy and science fiction — 10% each
  • Format-wise, 52% of my reads were paperback or hardcover books; 31% were audiobooks; and 17% were on my Kindle. (That’s pretty consistent with the 2016 numbers. The TBR pile topple-over threat is less intimidating for the digital ones.)

How did you go with your reading in 2018? What was your favourite book (or your favourite top five if you’re like me and can’t commit to one)?

Oh, and if you want to follow me on Goodreads and see all my reviews — although I almost always cross-post them here — you can find me here.


Mini-Review: ‘A Hand of Knaves’ short short anthology

Rogues, thieves, pirates and ne’er-do-wells abound in speculative fiction. Sometimes heroic, sometimes villainous, often somewhere in between, rogues are as likely to steal one’s heart as one’s purse, and show little remorse while helping themselves to either.

So why do we love them? Because they’re imperfect, fallible, and even vulnerable under that carefully-maintained, world-weary exterior.

Rogues represent something we rarely see in our daily lives: ordinary people prepared to take on the “powers that be” by way of guile and subterfuge. But are they only in it for the loot, or are they–deep down–romantic at heart?

I have a policy of not rating or reviewing my own books (even over at Goodreads, where author reviews are a thing), but in this case I will, partly because I’m just one contributor, and partly because there are lots of awesome Aussie writers in here and I love to support Aussie fiction (especially by Aussie women, given I do the Australian Women Writers challenge every year). Also, in case you were wondering, I can’t profit any further from sales of this book — so there’s no financial incentive for me to lie. 😉

I’m honestly a little blown away by the talent on display in AHOK (especially because I apparently duped the editors into letting my story sit alongside the others!). There are rollicking space pirate adventures; beautiful stories full of slow magic and whimsy; time-travel and psychic tales that twisted my brain in knots; and vignettes that were gorgeously atmospheric and left me wanting more. There are LGBTQ+ and POC stories, too, which I always love reading. Oh, and one story that is told entirely in quotes from witnesses. (Literally just extracts of dialogue, but you still can see the tale emerge!)

If you can track down a copy of this anthology, please do. I strongly recommend it!


Review: ‘The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up’ by James Rallison

Hilarious stories and advice about the ups and downs of growing up, from a popularYouTube artist and storyteller.

Like any shy teen turned young adult, YouTube star James Rallison (“The Odd 1s Out”) is used to being on the outside looking in. He wasn’t partying in high school or winning football games like his older brother. Instead, he posted comics on the internet. Now, he’s ready to share his hard-earned advice from his 21 years of life in the funny, relatable voice his fans love.

In this illustrated collection, Rallison tells his own stories of growing up as the “odd one out”: in art class with his twin sister (she was more talented), in the middle school locker room, and up to one strange year of college (he dropped out). Each story is filled with the little lessons he picked up along the way, serious and otherwise, like:

* How to be cool (in seventh grade)
* Why it’s OK to be second-best at something, and
* How to survive your first, confidence-killing job interviews

Filled with fan-favorite comics and never-before-seen material, this tongue-in-cheek take on some of the weirdest, funniest parts of life is perfect for both avid followers and new converts.

Astute readers of my blog will have noticed that this isn’t my usual kind of read. I ordered the book for my son for Christmas, and since I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of TheOdd1sOut YouTube channel, I decided to give it a read.

James is a cartoonist who does storytime animation — he has a relatively simplistic animation style that he uses to convey relatable and funny stories. I like it when my son watches that sort of YouTube content, because it generally involves less OBNOXIOUS SHOUTING than the Let’s Play type channels, and more, you know, stories.

This book is short (unsurprising given the target audience is middle grade children), and filled with cute pictures that perfectly capture the mood of the various anecdotes — the pictures are freshly drawn, not just stills from the original videos. And there were a couple of genuine LOL moments for me, both of them in stories that I hadn’t already heard.

But here’s the thing. I haven’t watched a huge amount of TheOdd1sOut, but the videos I have seen are the most popular ones … and those seem to be the ones that are included in this book. There were only two or three chapters in this book that I hadn’t already seen the videos of. If the ratio had been the other way around (mostly new content with a couple of chapters of already-used anecdotes), I suspect this book would’ve earned the full five stars from me. And I can see that some readers might be put off by that.

Still, if you’ve got a YouTube obsessed kid who you want to encourage to read more, or one who’s a fan of James’s, this book is definitely recommended. It’s clean, funny and kid-friendly.

UPDATE: My son loves that there are so many stories he’s already seen in video form. So maybe the publishers know more about kids than I do!


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

DemonsSurrender_cover

The Goblin Market has always been the center of Sin’s world. She’s a dancer and a performer, secure in her place. But now the Market is at war with the magicians, and Sin’s place is in danger. Exiled from the market she loves, Sin is thrown together with Nick and Alan — whom she’s always despised.

Alan has been marked by a magician and can be tortured as the magician pleases. As Sin watches Alan struggle to continue to protect the demon brother he loves, she begins to see him in a new light. When Alan is finally possessed as a punishment for Nick’s disobedience, Sin can only watch helplessly as the boy she has grown to love is destroyed. No one ever comes back from a possession — ever. But no one else has a demon for a brother. How far will Nick go to save Alan? And what will it cost them all?

It was a bit disappointed going into The Demon’s Covenant that Jamie wasn’t the POV character (or Alan; he’s the most unreliable character in the trilogy – but that would make him fun to follow!). Sin was too much of a side character for me, going in, and I didn’t understand why she was the focus.

I think the short answer is that she is the love interest for Alan, and the character who truly knows the Goblin Market, so through her we get to see more of it. I love Alan and his sneakiness and devotion to his brother (plus: charming book nerd), and Sin is a great match for him. I did love that part of the story.

And Sin is a great character in her own right. She is an astute and clever performer, a chameleon, used to doing what she needs to to get things done. She’s a dancer not afraid of using her sexuality to exploit the ignorant – but she knows what her lines are as far as that goes, and she doesn’t compromise on them.

The Goblin Market side of things, though … yeah, that didn’t work for me. The competition Merris insists on between Sin and Mae is super-problematic. Sin is the poor woman of colour who has grown up in, and been trained to run, the market. Mae is the rich white girl used to getting what she wants and who has been to maybe three or four markets. How is this even a competition? I mean, I liked Mae in the previous book, but she needs to get back in her box. How dare she think she’s entitled to what is basically Sin’s birthright? Ugh!

Also, the two girls get on quite well even early on in the story. That it never occurred to either of them to work together, pool their differing talents and share the role, baffles me.

Anyway, I’d still recommend this series – especially the first book, which is wonderful, clever, and focuses on familial love in a way we rarely see in urban fantasy.