Review: ‘Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology’

The YA event of the year. Bestsellers. Award-winners. Superstars. This anthology has them all. With brilliantly entertaining short stories from beloved young adult authors Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Will Kostakis, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty, Michael Pryor, Alice Pung, Gabrielle Tozer, Lili Wilkinson and Danielle Binks, this all-new collection will show the world exactly how much there is to love about Aussie YA.

I love the #LoveOzYa movement, as — like the Australian Women Writers Challenge — it’s a great way to raise awareness of Aussie homegrown fiction. The fact that they turned it into an anthology that involved some of my favourite Aussie writers is even better.

If you love YA, get this anthology, whether you’re Australian or not. You won’t regret it.

One Small Step by Amie Kaufman

This is a gorgeous (and rather tense) romance between female best friends on Mars. I’d love to read more about these characters. Make it so, Amie!

I Can See the Ending by Will Kostakis

This one’s an urban fantasy about a teen psychic who can see the future but can’t change it (and struggling with the sense of futility that generates). It was quite clever, and as sweet as it was poignant.

In a Heartbeat by Alice Pung

This is a contemporary about teen pregnancy. It was really well done, though probably not my favourite of the contemporaries.

First Casualty by Michael Pryor

This sci-fi was my least favourite in the anthology. It was well-written and had a ragtag Firefly vibe about it that I was digging till the main story got started and it turned into a transparent dig at one of Australia’s previous conservative government. I don’t have a problem with that, per se (I’m hardly conservative!), but the lack of subtlety detracted from the story for me.

Sundays by Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil is my favourite contemporary YA author because of the way she handles misfits and nerds, and this story really delivers. It’s set over one evening at a wild, drunken party.

Missing Persons by Ellie Marney

This story is a prelude to the Every trilogy (which is a mystery/thriller inspired by Sherlock Holmes), and describes how Rachel Watts meets James Mycroft and Mai Ng. The squee factor will be higher if you have read the trilogy … which I have, so squeee!

Oona Underground by Lili Wilkinson

This is another gorgeous romance about a teen girl in love with her female best friend, but is quite different to One Small Step. It’s magic realism with a bit of a Neverwhere vibe. I’d definitely read more about this world (though I didn’t love Oona as much as I probably should have).

The Feeling from Over Here by Gabrielle Tozer

This is a contemporary set on a coach ride between Canberra and Melbourne, with some use of flashbacks and a lot of desperate texting. It primarily explores school bullying, and the voice is wonderful. One of my favourites!

Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory by Danielle Binks

This is another poignant story about a teen girl coming to grips with her older brother’s decision to travel the world after graduation. The two kids are called Bowie and King, which is rather unfortunate, but King is deaf, and the description of the sign language is really fascinating.

Competition Entry #349 by Jaclyn Moriarty

This story was a lot of fun, and competes with The Feeling From Over Here for the most voice. It’s modern day(ish), but with time travel and an amazingly scatterbrained main character. It’s great!

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Review: ‘The Lovely Dark’ by K. A. Last

Three teenagers.
One witch.
Twelve souls.

Harvey Anderson always knew the universe was against him, but there’s a lot of stuff he never expected to happen, like having a crush on the most popular girl at school, and then falling into a giant hole in the middle of nowhere with her. And if that wasn’t enough, somehow they managed to release a soul-sucking, ancient witch as well. So yeah, there’s that. You’d think it’d be pretty hard to beat, but knowing Harvey’s luck, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

I was lucky enough to nab an ARC (advanced reader copy) of The Lovely Dark, which is scheduled for release later this month — just in time for Halloween. The release date is particularly appropriate, because this story is atmospheric and occasionally creepy as all get out. I was reading it in an empty house when the sun was going down, and brr!

The story starts with Harvey, his best friend Toni, and popular girl Lian as they get lost orienteering in the Aussie bush on school camp (who hasn’t done that — amirite?) and fall into an underground cavern that opens up during an earthquake. Toni is injured, so Harvey and Lian explore the cave system, trying to find a way out. Of course, given Harvey’s luck, they manage to release a soul-sucking, murderous witch instead. Whee!

Harvey is the point of view character. He’s afraid of the dark, which makes the scary night-time and underground scenes in this book twice as confronting as we see them through the filter of his terror. He is also very conscious of what the other teens think of him, and would prefer to escape into Netflix rather than deal with what is going on.

All of this made him seem realer to me than your average young adult protagonist … at the same time that I occasionally wanted to shake him a little, not gonna lie. But those moments where Harvey took action were glorious, just because I’d been cheering for him to step up for so long.

Toni is far and away my favourite character. She has a little bit of Hermione about her — she is the one who figures out what is going on and tends to be the voice of reason and competence throughout the story. I loved her. Lian was nice enough, and I could see why Harvey had a crush on her, but she was no Toni! 😉

K. A. Last hasn’t just gone for the wicked witch stereotype here, which is a relief (I’ve dabbled in paganism in my past, so I hate a bad stereotype). While there’s no doubt that the witch they release is evil, she has a tragic backstory and her nastiness is more than offset by the awesomeness of the other witchy characters that pop up throughout the story. (I won’t provide details, because spoilers.)

Other than how atmospheric this book is, my favourite thing about The Lovely Dark is the dialogue. There were actual, for real laugh out loud moments for me (something that doesn’t normally happen when I’m reading). Plus there’s a nod to Evil Willow from Buffy, which basically earned the book a star on its own. ❤

If you love your books spooky as all get out, with creepy birds and a high body count, then this is the story for you!


Review: ‘The Rithmatist’ by Brandon Sanderson

More than anything, Joel wants to be a Rithmatist. Chosen by the Master in a mysterious inception ceremony, Rithmatists have the power to infuse life into two-dimensional figures known as Chalklings. Rithmatists are humanity’s only defense against the Wild Chalklings—merciless creatures that leave mangled corpses in their wake. Having nearly overrun the territory of Nebrask, the Wild Chalklings now threaten all of the American Isles.

As the son of a lowly chalkmaker at Armedius Academy, Joel can only watch as Rithmatist students study the magical art that he would do anything to practice. Then students start disappearing—kidnapped from their rooms at night, leaving trails of blood. Assigned to help the professor who is investigating the crimes, Joel and his friend Melody find themselves on the trail of an unexpected discovery, one that will change Rithmatics—and their world—forever.

“Brandon Sanderson writes yet another novel full of amazing worldbuilding and story misdirection.” I fear I’m starting to sound like a bit of a broken record when it comes to his work, honestly. But it’s truuuuue.

Things that make The Rithmatist stand out from Sanderson’s usual fare are the target market (young adult) and the consequent reduction in the plot’s complexity from the typical Sanderson thousand-page monster. There are fight scenes, a little blood, and descriptions of some scary events, but otherwise this book would be suitable for younger teenagers.

The thing I loved most about The Rithmatist was the magical system, and … okay, yes, that is another pretty standard response from me when it comes to his work. In this case, the magic is derived from empowered geometry and art, drawn with chalk. Different shapes (circles, lines, sine waves) have different effects and can be combined in various ways depending on the strategy of the rithmatist. And simple creatures can be drawn that come to two-dimensional life and follow simple instructions. From such a straightforward premise emerge a quite complex series of strategies used in duelling and combat against the wild chalklings.

I have never been so excited about geometry in my life!

Joel is a glorified maths nerd. He has no particular interest in or aptitude for drawing chalklings (just as well, given he is also not a rithmatist) but is excellent at understanding and drawing the different patterns. He tends towards laziness and emotional insensitivity at the start of the story, but does improve as the tale progresses. Melody, a rithmatic student who is prone to overblown dramatics and is a master of chalklings but awful with rithmatic lines, is shunned by the other rithmatic students due to her incompetence (and, let’s be honest, her trying personality). I liked both of them, but was more fond of their introverted, kindly and conflict averse professor, Fitch.

Despite what you might assume, there is no romance in this book. Sanderson usually has a romantic plotline (although he tends towards awkwardness and the hottest anything might get is a chaste kissing scene), but not in this case. I suspect that Melody and Joel may get together down the track, especially given how regularly he notices that she’s pretty, but they at least become friends first, which I heartily endorse.

The mystery is of the whodunnit variety (I fell for the red herring; I’ll guess right next time, Sanderson, I swear). The Rithmatist isn’t as dark as his other young adult series, The Reckoners, but I preferred its mystery feel to the latter’s car chases and gun fights.

I definitely recommend this one!


Review: ‘The Undercurrent’ by Paula Weston

Eighteen-year-old Julianne De Marchi is different. As in: she has an electrical undercurrent beneath her skin that stings and surges like a live wire. She can use it—to spark a fire, maybe even end a life—but she doesn’t understand what it is. And she can barely control it, especially when she’s anxious.

Ryan Walsh was on track for a stellar football career when his knee blew out. Now he’s a soldier—part of an experimental privatised military unit that has identified Jules De Marchi as a threat. Is it because of the weird undercurrent she’s tried so hard to hide? Or because of her mother Angie’s history as an activist against bio-engineering and big business?

It’s no coincidence that Ryan and Jules are in the same place at the same time—he’s under orders to follow her, after all. But then an explosive attack on a city building by an unknown enemy throws them together in the most violent and unexpected way.

I finished The Undercurrent more than a week ago, but I’ve been caught up with other things and haven’t been able to sit down and review it before now. It’s a shame, because this book is amazing and you all need to hear about it so you can run out and buy yourselves a copy. (Or you could just skip the rest of the review, trust me, and head to the shops now. Go on, I won’t mind.)

Paula Weston is one of my most favourite discoveries from the last few years. I’ve raved about her Rephaim series plenty of times here on the blog, and I was very excited (and also a little embarrassed) when I discovered she’d released this gem a few months ago and I hadn’t heard about it. Needless to say, it went to the top of my TBR pile.

The Undercurrent is a futuristic thriller, set a few decades from now in a dystopian Australia where corporations’ influence has grown to the point that they are the driving force behind government policy. Australia has a developed a nuclear power plant and takes the world’s nuclear waste to store nearby (currently Australia has/does neither of those things). The army is available for hire by big corporations. GMO crops and genetically modified sheep are so pervasive that banks won’t provide hardship loans to farmers who refuse to grow them, and the most powerful GMO-pushing corporation, Paxton Federation, is on the brink of getting legislation through parliament that would effectively make it illegal not to grow their crops.

Enter Jules, daughter of former investigative journalist and resistance activist Angie De Marchi, whose body generates vast amounts of electricity she can’t control. She is notorious for having burned down a school building when she was 16, something that was an accident but that people assume was done at her mother’s behest. Since then, her mother has been blackmailed by an unknown individual to cut off her contact with the country’s leading resistance group, the Agitators — which Angie founded years before after her soldier husband was killed defending a PaxFed facility overseas.

When someone starts trying to kill Jules, things get complicated really fast.

I loved Jules, who has spent her entire life trying to bottle things up and maintain control of herself in a way that reminds me a little of Elsa from Frozen, but with more, erm, explosive consequences. Her mother, Angie, is fierce, stubborn, pig-headed, and in the centre of the action — not at all your stereotypical maternal mother figure or absent YA parent. Ryan, the studly soldier and love interest, struggles with his father’s disapproval of his decision to enlist. And Voss, Ryan’s commanding officer, is stoic, determined to complete his given task and more clued in to what’s really going on than anyone else. All these characters have chapters from their points of view, and we get to know them all quite well.

Paula Weston writes a fast-paced story, and this one is no exception. There’s a corporate conspiracy, layers and layers of scheming, a formerly peaceful protest group that has strayed into acts of terrorism, and farmers against the wall because they refuse to grow GMO crops. There is also a realistic romance, which is my favourite kind!

The other thing I liked was that PaxFed wasn’t purely an evil mega-corporation and, in some (fairly limited) ways, this dystopian world is a better place than ours. While PaxFed is no doubt motivated by profits, the reason for their GMO push (at least ostensibly) is the realistically achievable goal of ending world hunger. Electric cars are a reality and petrol-guzzling engines have been banned. Desalination plants have addressed some of Australia’s water-shortage problems, at least for those that can afford to take advantage of them. It’s these glimpses of the good coming out of the bad that make this world feel more realistic.

The Undercurrent has been marketed as young adult (because Australian publishers don’t seem to do the new adult category), but I wouldn’t recommend it for readers under 15 or 16. This is partly because of the content being a little more mature (for example, there is some swearing, a sweet sex scene, some drug references, and discussion of suicide), but also because the world and story are quite complex and take some following.

The Undercurrent a stand-alone novel, which makes me sad as I would have loved more of these characters. But if you want to try Paula Weston’s work and aren’t prepared to commit to a four-book series just yet, this is definitely the book for you.


Review: ‘The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky’ by Summer Heacock

A humorous novel about a cupcake shop owner with a physical ailment that’s kept her from having sex for two years, and the desperate antics that ensue as she tries to overcome it.

Having sex wasn’t a big priority while Kat Carmichael’s successful cupcake shop was taking off. But when she realizes that it’s been nearly two years since she and her boyfriend, Ryan, have been intimate, she makes a pact to break her dry spell-and cure her vaginismus, a muscular condition that can make sex physically impossible.

Out of guilt, Kat calls for a break in her relationship with Ryan, so that he can see other people while she attempts to fix the issue on her own. She throws herself into physical therapy, but soon discovers her solo mission is more complicated than she anticipated. Fortunately, Ben Cleary, the shop’s best (looking) customer, is also a physical therapist, and volunteers to help out.

As time goes on, however, the boundaries Ben and Kat have set between friendship and love quickly become blurred, leaving her more confused than ever about what to hang on to and what to let go.

I haven’t read a lot of chick lit before, so this book was a brilliant way to expose myself (har har) to the genre. It is hilariously funny, with a “what can go wrong probably will” vibe and a self-described Type A main character who doesn’t like to ask for help and regularly blurts out what she’s thinking and then regrets it later.

I love Kat. But I especially love her in the context of her friends/co-workers at the cupcake shop: feisty best friend Shannon, edible-glitter-obsessed bisexual Butter and shy bride-to-be Liz. The four of them are frequently bawdy and always frank with one another, and after Kat reveals her condition to the others in a truly giggle-worthy conversation, they band around to provide moral support and sex toys to help with her therapy.

The burgeoning relationship with Ben is adorable. He’s earnest and more than a little awkward, though he generally takes things with good humour. However, he’s not a doormat and when Kat crosses the line he isn’t afraid to tell her so. Despite everything, their romance is actually touching and sweeter than one of Butter’s cupcake recipes. I ship them so hard!

As for Ryan, I was prepared to hate him, as I assumed was traditional, but — although he’s not my type (or Kat’s, really) — he is good best friend material. It just takes both of them a while to figure that out.

Summer is great at setting up awkward situations and then letting the humour roll, but where she truly shines is in writing dialogue. Kat, Ben and Ryan are also all nerds, which warms my heart. This book is a great read for anyone who likes to laugh, isn’t too prudish, and wants to read about cupcakes all day.

It even comes with some of Butter’s recipes at the back, you guys. It’s basically perfect.


Review: ‘Obsidian’ by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Starting over sucks.

When we moved to West Virginia right before my senior year, I’d pretty much resigned myself to thick accents, dodgy internet access, and a whole lot of boring… until I spotted my hot neighbor, with his looming height and eerie green eyes. Things were looking up.

And then he opened his mouth.

Daemon is infuriating. Arrogant. Stab-worthy. We do not get along. At all. But when a stranger attacks me and Daemon literally freezes time with a wave of his hand, well, something… unexpected happens. 

The hot alien living next door marks me.

You heard me. Alien. Turns out Daemon and his sister have a galaxy of enemies wanting to steal their abilities, and Daemon’s touch has me lit up like the Vegas Strip. The only way I’m getting out of this alive is by sticking close to Daemon until my alien mojo fades. 

If I don’t kill him first, that is.

This is the second Jennifer L. Armentrout book I’ve read; the first was Half-Blood, the review of which you can find here if you’re curious. I saw a review that described Obsidian as Twilight, redone with the leading lady given a dose of spine. And I can definitely see the comparison. It is, however, another paranormal romance — and anyone who read my last review will know they aren’t usually my cup of tea. Why do I do this to myself?

Okay, here we go

I really like Katy. She’s a book blogger who spends a lot of her time reading and reviewing books (which is obviously an awesome hobby to have! 😉 ) and the rest of her time looking after her workaholic nurse mother: cooking, doing groceries, cleaning. Oh, and perving at the hot neighbour.

The neighbour, sadly, is an awful human being (or, actually, not, which you’ll know if you’ve read the blurb).

For the record, I never went through the bad boy phase, and I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to the moody and broody love interest type in a book. Daemon is, for me, no exception. He is instantly hostile to Katy, I guess because she’s getting human on his porch? He is rude, gets inside Katy’s personal space in a way I frequently found confronting, and is generally unlikeable.

He does have moments where he can be sweet, and, as a reader, it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that he’s trying to drive Katy away so she won’t befriend Daemon’s sister, Dee, and find out their secret (and that, later, he wants Katy away from him because he’s attracted to her and their love is forbidden etc etc). But that’s no excuse for his bad behaviour. And poor Dee a couple of times came across as a battered partner, apologising and cringing about her brother’s attitude. I felt so sad for her.

Now, to Katy’s credit, she doesn’t take Daemon’s crap. She admits to herself that she finds him hot and she lusts after him to her lady parts’ content, but she is more than happy to tell him what she thinks of him, and at no point does the off-the-charts tension between them cross over into (to me) inexplicable love. That fact alone is why I gave this book three stars — it is so unusual to find a paranormal romance where the leading lady doesn’t confuse lust for love, and is willing to say no to the pretty supernatural paramour when he finally caves in and deigns to be with her.

The story is fairly predictable. Katy gets herself in trouble on several occasions, and is saved by Daemon every time. (She does save him once too, which is nice.) The bad guys didn’t scare me as much as I’d hoped they would, probably because I didn’t really get their motivation. The writing is good (especially the kissing scenes), and the story ticks along fast enough that I wasn’t bored.

If you love paranormal romance, brooding-but-super-hot leading men, a heroine with a backbone, and some fairly serious sexual tension with very little follow-through, then this is the book for you.


Review: ‘RoseBlood’ by A. G. Howard

In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

This book broke my heart, you guys — and not in an “OMG, so many feels” way. No, it broke my heart in the sense that I wanted it to be so much more than what it was. I’m giving it two stars, which is “it’s okay” in the admittedly terse Goodreads star system. And it was okay. But I wanted it to be glorious.

I was a mad Phantom of the Opera fan in my teens. I haven’t read the original novel, but I have the Susan Kay novel and can sing the musical by heart. The idea of an urban fantasy inspired by the Phantom made me giddy with delight.

The first thing you need to know (and that I wish I’d known) is that, unlike Howard’s Splintered series, RoseBlood isn’t urban fantasy but its kissing cousin, paranormal romance. That means that the romance is the central focus of the plot, rather than a subplot. I’m not generally a huge fan of paranormal romance, for the same reason there aren’t too many pure romance stories that I enjoy. They just aren’t to my taste.

Secondly, RoseBlood uses the insta-love plot device via the mechanism of a soul mate — only in the book it’s referred to by the admittedly pretty phrase “twin flame”. The thing I didn’t find so pretty was that a twin flame was two people who shared a soul. Every time I ready about that, I cringed — not so much because of the cheesiness (although it is a tiny bit cheesy, let’s be honest) but because I couldn’t shake the mental image that the two parts of the soul were going to burst out of the two main characters in a spray of gore like baby monsters from Alien, desperate to be reunited.

(Sorry!)

Also, I found the romance more broadly a little problematic. Thorn, the male in the relationship, has all the knowledge and most of the power, and he regards the whole thing as preordained. At one point he tells Rune that they are destined to be lovers. He watches Rune sleep. Some (especially those who love Edward Cullen) will find this romantic, but I … did not.

Onto the things I did enjoy, the world is gloriously gothic. Rune’s school, RoseBlood, is all creepy props cupboards and chandeliers and secret passages behind one-way mirrors. It doesn’t have internet or cell phone access, increasing that very gothic sense of isolation. I loved the feel of it.

Just don’t ask why it’s called RoseBlood; we never find out, which is a shame.

I also enjoyed Rune’s aesthetic. She’s into handmade clothes and knitting, and has curly brown hair (something we don’t see that much of in spec-fic — I say this as a person with curly brown hair!). She does suffer from being a bit wet in the relationship stakes and doesn’t have the fire I prefer in my heroines, but I suspect that may be because Howard was trying to parallel Erik’s power over Christine in the original story.

Her friends are delightful and I wish they’d been in the book more. As for the Phantom himself, Erik is in the book, although as a largely off-screen menace and (occasionally) tragic figure. Still, in the love/hate balance I came down on the side of hate.

The paranormal element of the book is a little bizarre, but not the weirdest thing I’ve ever read in spec-fic. I won’t go into details, though, because I don’t want to include spoilers.

If you love paranormal romance, heavy gothic atmosphere, lush prose and Twilight, then RoseBlood is for you. If not, I’d suggest checking out the Splintered series instead.