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 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: ‘Fast’ by Lauren K. McKellar

Quinn Hamilton had it all—A grades, a loving family, and a spot on the waitlist for the latest Hermes handbag. The one item left unchecked on her to-do list was her brother’s best friend, Liam, and that was only because Braden was overprotective when it came to his mates.

When tragedy struck, Quinn was left with nothing. Not even the handbag made it.

Three years later, Quinn’s focused on the things that count—getting a steady job, looking after her mother, and playing it safe. Her dreams of working for a fashion magazine haven’t just left the building—they’ve dived into the gutter, never to be touched again.

But when completing a two-week internship in the city, Quinn meets someone who makes her do the one thing she’s been trying desperately to avoid—feel. Will this sexy man who knows so much of her history help her go after what she wants? Or is their brand of passion as outdated as last season’s trends?

She’s running from her past, but her past is running faster.

Life has been pretty hectic for me lately, so what better to read than a novella by the amazing Lauren K. McKellar? Her prose flows so smoothly and her story so quickly that this is truly a fast read — I gobbled it up in two sittings and was left with that satisfying “plentiful and delicious dessert” feeling. And I say this as a person who doesn’t generally read romance.

For fans of the genre, all the goodies are here: the girl, the guy, the obstacles that draw out the process of them getting together (but not too far; this is a novella). Quinn has scars on the inside that are worse than the scar on the outside: a massive case of survivor’s guilt means she subconsciously believes she doesn’t deserve happiness. Liam is an A-grade hottie who struggles with a minor case of the same. Together, they manage to muddle their way through to a place where they might be able to start healing.

Through Quinn’s eyes we also get another glimpse into the world of magazines, a place that the author knows well. It was nice to see Madison, the leading lady from Fame — although Fast had none of Fame‘s steaminess, unless you count the smooching.

I love Lauren’s writing. Regular readers of my blog will recognise the name; she is my editor, the one who I (as a professional editor myself) trust with my books. What this means is that you can buy her books — most of which are self-published — safe in the knowledge that they will be beautifully written and professionally treated. She has a keen eye for story and her editing game is amazing.

If romance is your thing and you’re keen to try a new author, why not give this novella a try? It’s a great way to discover someone new. You won’t regret it.


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.