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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: ‘Unearthed’ by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: ‘Boneshaker’ by Cherie Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel that.

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

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

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

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

 


Review: ‘Scrappy Little Nobody’ by Anna Kendrick

A collection of humorous autobiographical essays by the Academy Award-nominated actress and star of Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect.

Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”

At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.

With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she’s experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can—from her unusual path to the performing arts (Vanilla Ice and baggy neon pants may have played a role) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial “dating experiments” (including only liking boys who didn’t like her back) to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual “man-child.”

Enter Anna’s world and follow her rise from “scrappy little nobody” to somebody who dazzles on the stage, the screen, and now the page—with an electric, singular voice, at once familiar and surprising, sharp and sweet, funny and serious (well, not that serious).

I’m a relative late-comer to Anna Kendrick fangirl status. I’d seen her in various shows, but got a crush on her as Beca in Pitch Perfect. (I fairly regularly get crushes on people who can sing. It’s a thing.) Then I listened to Scrappy Little Nobody on audiobook and it went from crush to true love. ❤

The first thing you should know is that Anna narrates the audiobook version of her autobiography, and she reads it in a conversational way that made it feel like she was sitting in the car beside me (I listen to audiobooks while I commute, mostly), ranting about her first relationships and her childhood awkwardness. And the thing was, it was all so relatable … despite me not being a cute actor and Broadway star. (I am about her height, though, and I’m a brunette, so we’re basically twins?)

Anna focuses for the most part on the first 20 or so years of her life — how she got into acting, her first few roles, her first crushes and sexual partners. After that, the chapters/essays tend to hop around a bit more, dipping into various, celebrity-based experiences, like dodging the papparazi and presenting at an awards show. Anna more or less admits that she could have gone into a lot more detail, hinting at the various assholes she’s worked with over the years, but that she still wants to be able to get a job in the industry afterwards. (I look forward to the tell-all book she writes when she retires.)

For me, the single most relatable part of the book was the section about Anna dating. She says at the start of the book that she’s changed the names of a lot of the non-celebrities she talks about. Given how raw she is about some of them, I can see why! Her first three partners were assholes in one way or another, or had asshole-ish moments, and she is brutally honest about how she put up things from them that she shouldn’t have, simply because she was young and inexperienced and didn’t think she deserved any better. That basically describes most of my twenties (Anna was a faster learner than I was). She describes how her first partner slut-shamed her for enjoying sex, her second one was a self-absorbed “musician” with whom she couldn’t enjoy sex, and her third called her a slut because she refused to tell him how many partners she’d had before him.

Ugh.

Anna is also rather casual about mentioning drinking and drug use (mostly weed), and even more casual about swearing (I never found it unwarranted, but I do occasionally have a potty mouth myself). Those combined with her mention of her shoplifting phase are the sorts of things that might discourage some parents from letting their teens read this book, but that would be a shame. There are lot of good messages to be found in here, especially for teenage girls.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes, so you can see what I mean:

“Don’t try to participate in anyone else’s idea of what is supposed to happen in a relationship. You will fail.”
“But at nineteen I did spend a short and regrettable period in a classic trap: trying to fit into something I hated, just to prove to myself that I could.”
“Some bitter boys reading this might accuse me of ‘friend-zoning,’ but I’d like to say that even if a girl has misinterpreted a situation that someone else thinks was obvious, she does not owe her male friends anything.”


Review: ‘Obsidio’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza — but who knows what they’ll find seven months after the invasion?

Meanwhile, Kady’s cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza’s ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys — an old flame from Asha’s past — reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.

This series, you guys.

Obsidio is the third book in The Illuminae Files trilogy. (You can read my reviews of the first two books, Illuminae and Gemina, here and here.) It continues in the same vein as the first two books, told through “found footage” and transcriptions of camera footage. There is some art included, as was the case in Gemina — though not as much this time.

I love love love this series, you guys. I love the way it’s presented. I love that we get a sense of these characters through chat logs and camera footage and diary entries. I love that the lines of dialogue describing the actions of spaeships themselves swoop and twirl across the page, and that the lines belonging to everyone’s favourite crazy computer, AIDAN, are filled with glitches and code. As well as being a great story, this trilogy is a work of art, in the visual sense. Everyone should own it.

As far as Obsidio goes, specifically, I gave it five stars — the same as for the rest of the series — though, if I had to pick a favourite of the three, I think Gemina would win. It’s a near thing, though.

Asha and Rhys are older than the other leads in this series. They had a history as teens, and are now meeting up again in their twenties. But they aren’t the stars of Obsidio the same way that the other two couples are of their books, because Kady, Ezra, Hanna and Nik are all part of this story as well. The book switches between events on the Mao and events on Kerenza, the planet where everything kicked off in the first place.

It’s sometimes easy to forget how old the protagonists are in these stories; one of the things I liked about Obsidio was how some of the minor characters expressed horror at being expected to take directions from teenagers. (I’m not saying I like people ignoring teens — I wouldn’t read so much YA if that were the case — but it was very realistic to have a seasoned, grizzled adult express incredulity at some of the things that our four teen heroes have done. These kids have had a very bad few months.)

The Illuminae Files have broken the mould. I can’t wait to see what other books follow in their footsteps — and I can’t wait to see what Amie and Jay get up to next.


Review: ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli

Straight people should have to come out too. And the more awkward it is, the better.

Simon Spier is sixteen and trying to work out who he is — and what he’s looking for.

But when one of his emails to the very distracting Blue falls into the wrong hands, things get all kinds of complicated.

Because, for Simon, falling for Blue is a big deal …

Before I start this review, let me just express my disgust at myself that I accidentally bought the movie cover edition of this book (which is the one I’ve included above, so my rant makes sense). Normally I don’t care much about that sort of thing, but in this case the movie cover edition actually renames the book to the movie name (Love, Simon) rather than the actual name of the book, and I can’t even. I mean, Love, Simon is a fine name for a book, but it isn’t the name of this book. Ugh! You’ll see in the pic below that I hid the stupid fake title so that you read the real one.

Now I’ve gotten that out of my system…

I’m coming to the love of Simon quite late, I admit — and not because the movie came out, as I haven’t seen it, but just because my TBR pile is two entire bookshelves and, like, a Kindle full of goodies, and I can’t seem to stop myself buying more books. (It’s a problem. Send help. Or a TARDIS so I can catch up.)

Still, I can now confirm first-hand that everything everyone has told me about this book is absolutely true. It really is an adorably cute story about a couple of in-the-closet gay guys who fall in love via email while remaining anonymous to one another. It’s told from Simon’s perspective, and so a huge part of the story is spent trying to figure out who the mysterious Blue is. (BTW, I don’t mean to brag here but I totally guessed it from the first scene he was in. Ok, I guess I do mean to brag. >.< )

As much as the romance is adorable, the story also explores bullying, blackmail, complicated friendships, coming out and families — but at no point does it seem preachy or overwrought. It’s basically the best.

If you like contemporary young adult, flirting and drama geeks, this book is totally worth a look.

Excuse me, I have to order the sequel.