Review: ‘Out of the Shadows’ by Ashlee Nicole Bye

Nobody ever said death would be easy…

From the streets of Melbourne to the bowels of Westminster, the delicate balance between life and death that is so painstakingly maintained by the reapers of The Order of Dark and Light is being tested by the return of an ancient threat. Tensions are rising within the hidden world of The Shadowlands and if this threat is not contained war will be inevitable. And the destruction of the human world is bound to follow in its wake.

Amidst this tension, eighteen year-old Sachi Manning is struggling to cope with the grief and guilt that has plagued her ever since her best friend was murdered six months earlier—that is, until she spots him seemingly alive and well and being held at scythe point by a hooded figure who looks more like a GQ model than the Grim Reaper.

Sachi shouldn’t be able to see through the glamours that shield Shadowlanders from the human world, so the reaper in question wants some answers. And so begins the craziest couple of weeks of Sachi’s life as she is drawn into a world of mysteries, magic, monsters, and mayhem, encountering dragons, faeries, soul-sucking demons, not-so-grim reapers, and even the Horseman of Death.

With a mix of heart, humour and hair-raising action, Out of the Shadows is the adventure of an afterlifetime, perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare and Kresley Cole.

The first thing I should note is that I received a copy of this book free in exchange for an honest review. Those who’ve read my review policy know that I don’t normally agree to such requests, so when Ashlee approached me I quietly snuck away and read the first couple of chapters of the book on Amazon before committing to anything. Just in case. 😉

I’m glad I took the chance, though, because I loved Out of the Shadows. Sashi’s world is amazingly complex, full of supernatural creatures, competing factions and a complicated process for managing what happens to souls when they die. It’s mostly set in Melbourne, and I loved the Aussie touch (although the reapers, the main supernatural faction to which we’re exposed, can teleport, so there are scenes in New York, London and elsewhere — it’s a bit like Paula Weston’s Rephaim series in that regard).

Sashi, the main character, is Australian-born but with Japanese ancestry. She is tiny and fiery and quick with a joke. Her voice was one of my favourite things about this story — she had me giggling more than once at one observation or another. For example, it’s a bit of an urban fantasy trope that supernatural leading men are all ripped hotties. At one point, Sashi actually calls some of the lads out on it, asking if there’s a pill or something, subtly undercutting the trope while leaving the eye candy safely intact for our reading pleasure.

My other favourite character is the reaper Moss, again just because he is hilarious. He and Sashi quite often have movie quote exchanges, and every T-shirt he owns has a funny line on the front. Given my own T-shirt collection, I approved. (Oh, and Beelzebub, Prince of Hell, is hysterical too, in a “I suspect he’s unstable and might start killing folks at any moment” kind of way.)

I know I’ve talked a lot about the humour, because it was one of my favourite things about the book, but I should also mention that Out of the Shadows has its darker moments. There’s a supernatural conspiracy going on, one with a body count and a reach that I can only guess at from the first book. There are plot twists I didn’t see coming, and one exceptionally sad and shocking moment that was a dagger to the old feels.

I approve.

For those wondering about the quality of the writing itself (always a valid question for small press and self-published works), I can confirm that Ashlee writes beautifully. I did see a handful of places where I’d do something different with commas, but they are the sort of things that only a sharp copyeditor is likely to notice … and I’ve seen books published by traditional presses with similar mistakes.

The only reason this isn’t a five-star read for me is that occasionally I got a little overwhelmed by the number of different factions. I was able to track the characters fairly easily but, because I read this as an ebook, I couldn’t easily flick back to earlier to remind myself of the differences between all the different types of reaper, for example.

Still, the confusion was temporary and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story. I’m very keen to read the next instalment in the series.



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.

 

 

 


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

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‘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: ‘A Corner of White’ by Jaclyn Moriarty

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The first in a rousing, funny, genre-busting trilogy from bestseller Jaclyn Moriarty!

This is a tale of missing persons. Madeleine and her mother have run away from their former life, under mysterious circumstances, and settled in a rainy corner of Cambridge (in our world).

Elliot, on the other hand, is in search of his father, who disappeared on the night his uncle was found dead. The talk in the town of Bonfire (in the Kingdom of Cello) is that Elliot’s dad may have killed his brother and run away with the Physics teacher. But Elliot refuses to believe it. And he is determined to find both his dad and the truth.

As Madeleine and Elliot move closer to unraveling their mysteries, they begin to exchange messages across worlds — through an accidental gap that hasn’t appeared in centuries. But even greater mysteries are unfolding on both sides of the gap: dangerous weather phenomena called “color storms;” a strange fascination with Isaac Newton; the myth of the “Butterfly Child,” whose appearance could end the droughts of Cello; and some unexpected kisses…

At the end of last year, fabulous teen blogger Emily Mead did a huge post with a mini-review of the 100+ books that she read in 2016. I added a bunch of books to my TBR pile as a result (curse you, Emily), and the first of these was A Corner of White.

This is actually quite a difficult book to review. It’s a parallel world story  (partly set in our world and partly in a fantastical other world — think Alice in Wonderland or, well, a bunch of other books). But it’s even more of a parallel world story than usual, in that the main characters, Madeline and Elliot, live very similar lives. Both live away from their fathers and are missing them. Both come to see what they believe are problematic elements of their fathers in their own personalities. Both of them are dissatisfied with their situation and want to leave it for one reason or another. Both are charming and loved by those around them.

But in some other ways, this book is quite baffling. I spent maybe the first third of it being dissatisfied and somewhat unengaged by Madeline’s real-world antics and her life, which was so quirky that it seemed, well, unrealistic. By comparison, Elliot’s life — in the magical kingdom of Cello — actually seemed more normal. Certainly he had more things going on than strange “homeschooling” classes and slightly deranged (albeit generally well-meaning) friends. His world and story were kept me guessing, whereas Madeline’s, well, didn’t.

If you’d asked me at 100 pages how I thought I’d be rating A Corner of White, it would have been three-star at best, despite the lovely prose and the unique world of Cello. Which made me sad, because I wanted to love it. Luckily for me, it turns out that once Moriarty got the bit in her teeth and got going, the story picked up and I raced through the rest of it. I didn’t see the plot twists coming, and I loved the way that Moriarty wove them all together at the end. I loved how Madeline’s introspective rambling about science and history drove Elliot nuts, but also taught him something valuable about his own world.

The way that the book ended, while not exactly cliff-hanger-y, definitely left me wanting more. Happily books two and three have already been released! Yay! (Now, hurry up, Mr Postman!)

Overall, this was a four-star read for me, based  on simple maths: three for the start, five for the end. I feel like Madeline would approve of that approach.

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Four stars