Release Day Review – ‘Sugar Town Queens’ by Malla Nunn

TITLE: Sugar Town Queens
AUTHOR: Malla Nunn
GENRE: YA Contemporary, Coming-of-Age
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 312 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Allen & Unwin on August 3rd, 2021
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

From LA Times Book Prize Award Winner and Edgar Award Nominee Malla Nunn comes a stunning portrait of a family divided and the bonds that knit our communities.

When Amandla wakes up on her fifteenth birthday she knows it’s going to be one of her mother’s difficult days. Her mother has had another vision. If Amandla wears a blue sheet her mother has loosely stitched as a dress and styles her normally braided hair in a halo around her head, Amandla’s father will come home. Amandla’s mother, Annalisa, always speaks of her father as if he was the prince of a fairytale, but in truth he’s been gone since before Amandla was born and even Annalisa’s memory of him is hazy. In fact many of Annalisa’s memories from before Amandla was born are hazy. It’s just one of the many reasons people in Sugar Town give Annalisa and Amandla strange looks–that and the fact her mother is white and Amandla is brown.

But when Amandla finds a mysterious address in the bottom of her mother’s handbag along with a large amount of cash, she decides it’s finally time to get answers about her mother’s life. But what she discovers will change the shape and size of her family forever. 

This YA coming-of-age story centers around Amandla, a 15 year old biracial girl living in a South African township called Sugar Town. Born to a white mother with a black father who isn’t in the picture, Amandla has it tough growing up below the poverty line and trying to cope with her mother’s mental illness. 

Normally I wouldn’t pick up this kind of book as I assumed it was going to focus on misery porn, but I was completely mistaken. Yes, it addresses serious real life issues of poverty, racism and classism, but these are treated as factors that make up the background of Amandla’s life, it doesn’t dominate who she is or what she does. Amandla’s focus is on solving the mystery behind her mother’s past to try and bring her closure and help heal her spirit as it’s clear that Annalisa is suffering from unresolved trauma, and in the process, she discovers family she never knew existed in the wealthy Durban city. 

Amandla grows closer to some of her relatives, but also stirs up conflict and hostility as it transpires that deeply ingrained racism led to her mother being ostracized and worse. There are dark family secrets to be uncovered and a lot of heartache along the way, but what makes this book shine is that it highlights how strong the love is between mother and daughter, between Amandla and her best friend Lil Bit, and in the found family that develops as unexpected allies come together to help her reconnect with her roots. The author showcases how Amandla is blessed with love and support from many corners that the chief antagonist in this story lacks, for all their prestige and privilege. Instead of being a tough dreary slog, this ended up being heartwarming and uplifting and had many sweet moments that made me smile and a particularly hard-won victory that made me cheer. 

For a thoughtful, life-affirming story about the bonds of family and community, overcoming prejudice and proudly owning who you are, check out this book. You may shed a few tears (I certainly did!), but it’s a wholly rewarding reading experience not to be missed. 

Disclaimer: physical copy provided free from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Book Review – ‘Catch Us The Foxes’ by Nicola West

TITLE: Catch Us The Foxes
AUTHOR: Nicola West
GENRE: Thriller/Suspense
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 320 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Simon & Schuster Australia on July 7th, 2021
RRP: $32.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

Some secrets you try to hide. Others you don’t dare let out … Twin Peaks meets The Dry in a deliciously dark and twisted tale that unravels a small town

Ambitious young journalist Marlowe ‘Lo’ Robertson would do anything to escape the suffocating confines of her small home town. While begrudgingly covering the annual show for the local paper, Lo is horrified to discover the mutilated corpse of Lily Williams, the reigning showgirl and Lo’s best friend. Seven strange symbols have been ruthlessly carved into Lily’s back. But when Lo reports her grisly find to the town’s police chief, he makes her promise not to tell anyone about the symbols. Lo obliges, though it’s not like she has much of a choice – after all, he is also her father.

When Lily’s murder makes headlines around the country and the town is invaded by the media, Lo seizes the opportunity to track down the killer and make a name for herself by breaking the biggest story of her life.

What Lo uncovers is that her sleepy home town has been harbouring a deadly secret, one so shocking that it will captivate the entire nation. Lo’s story will change the course of her life forever, but in a way she could never have dreamed of.

I’m certain that CATCH US THE FOXES will throw even the most genre savvy reader off their game, I challenge anyone to predict how this plot unfolds! If you’re a fan of twisty thrillers that keep you guessing, this debut novel by Nicola West fits the bill to perfection. One moment you’ll be utterly convinced you know where the story is going, then in the next heartbeat, a blindside clobbers you over the head and leaves you reeling! 

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Book Review – ‘Love Is For Losers’ by Wibke Brueggemann

TITLE: Love Is For Losers
AUTHOR: Wibke Brueggemann
GENRE: YA LGBT/Contemporary
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 384 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Pan Macmillan AU on April 27th, 2021
RRP: $17.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

In this wry and hilarious queer romantic comedy, fifteen-year-old Phoebe realizes that falling in love is maybe not just for losers.

Did you know you can marry yourself? How strange / brilliant is that?

Fifteen-year-old Phoebe thinks falling in love is vile and degrading, and vows never to do it. Then, due to circumstances not entirely in her control, she finds herself volunteering at a local thrift shop. There she meets Emma . . . who might unwittingly upend her whole theory on life.

This is a laugh-out-loud exploration of sexuality, family, female friendship, grief, and community. With the heart and hilarity of Netflix’s critically-acclaimed Sex Education, Wibke Brueggemann’s sex positive debut is required reading for Generation Z teens. Think of this as Bridget Jones’ Diary, if it were written by Bridget’s daughter. 

LOVE IS FOR LOSERS is such a precious gem of a book, I want to hug it close and push it onto everyone to read. 

It’s narrated in the first person by Phoebe, a snarky, cynical teenager who is utterly self-aware about what a misanthrope she is and owns it. We witness every petty, immature thought that crosses her mind and while this is going to put off some readers, I LIVED for it. (only natural this resonated on a deep spiritual level since I myself used to be a petty, immature teenage girl) 

Phoebe has good reason to be a pent-up ball of insecurity and bitterness. Her best friend has ditched her for a boy just as her mother abandons her for yet another lengthy humanitarian mission. Sure, it’s selfish for Phoebe to begrudge her for caring about saving lives, but who wouldn’t be hurt in the same position? 

Fortunately, being in Phoebe’s head isn’t as miserable as you might think, I adored her sardonic inner monologue and biting, acidic observations about the people around her and society at large. She has a quirky, scientifically oddball way of analyzing things and it’s funny to read her conclusions.

This is a coming of age story that follows Phoebe in her transition from a loner who avoids people to…much the same, she’ll never be a people person, but  more vulnerable and allowing a select few people into her heart. A tentative friendship with fellow thrift shop volunteer Emma blooms into sweetest, most adorable slow-burn romance ever. And aside from dealing with normal teenage issues like crushes and exam stress, there’s also an examination of deeper themes of grief and depression which brought me to tears late in the book. 

Another winner for Pride Month, it’s a must-read! If the witty protagonist, female friendships and sapphic romance don’t reel you in, do it for the designer cats! (honestly died laughing every time they showed up on page)

Disclaimer: physical copy provided free from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Book Review – ‘One Last Stop’ by Casey McQuiston

TITLE: One Last Stop
AUTHOR: Casey McQuiston
GENRE: LGBT/Romance/Contemporary/Sci-fi
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 432 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Pan Macmillan AU on June 8th, 2021
RRP: $26.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Red, White & Royal Blue comes a new romantic comedy that will stop readers in their tracks…

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Jane. Dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible Jane. Jane with her rough edges and swoopy hair and soft smile, showing up in a leather jacket to save August’s day when she needed it most. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her. Maybe it’s time to start believing in some things, after all.

Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop is a magical, sexy, big-hearted romance where the impossible becomes possible as August does everything in her power to save the girl lost in time. 

If you need a book recommendation for Pride Month, look no further! ONE LAST STOP is the sapphic rom-com of my dreams and I need everyone to experience this magic with me!

The bizarre premise of a time-displaced lesbian stuck on a train for decades wouldn’t normally fit in a contemporary setting, yet I bought it without hesitation because of how grounded the characters are, despite their fantastical circumstances. Jane’s subway limbo is a fascinating mystery running throughout the book, creating tension as the reader yearns for her and August to find their happy ending, but can’t visualize how that may be possible. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s beautiful and feels completely earned and YES, damn it, I shed tears. 

For a rom-com, the story is unexpectedly deep and emotional, and while our star-crossed lovers are the main focus, I appreciate how the importance of family and friendships is highlighted too. We meet August as a steadfast loner, then witness her barriers being eroded by her ‘aggressively friendly’ roommates even as she falls for Jane. Her world feels more real and lived-in with the care shown by the author in fleshing out numerous side characters and developing their complex social dynamics.

This book is a love letter to the queer community, from celebrating its vibrant culture to fierce moments of solidarity as characters band together to somber scenes delving into tragedies in queer history that many have forgotten. Jane’s character being entrenched in the 70s offers a unique perspective on these events and it ties into August’s life in an unexpected and rewarding way. 

Check this out for the swoonworthy sapphic romance and utterly perfect found family, hysterical banter and entertaining inner monologue, plus a nuanced exploration of queer identity and community. 10/10, whole-heartedly recommend.

Disclaimer: physical copy provided free from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

ARC Review – ‘Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating’

TITLE: Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating
AUTHOR: Adiba Jaigirdar
GENRE: YA Contemporary, LGBT+
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 352 pages (Kindle edition)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Penguin Random House on May 25th, 2021

Blurb from Goodreads:

Everyone likes Humaira “Hani” Khan—she’s easy going and one of the most popular girls at school. But when she comes out to her friends as bisexual, they invalidate her identity, saying she can’t be bi if she’s only dated guys. Panicked, Hani blurts out that she’s in a relationship…with a girl her friends absolutely hate—Ishita “Ishu” Dey. Ishu is the complete opposite of Hani. She’s an academic overachiever who hopes that becoming head girl will set her on the right track for college. But Ishita agrees to help Hani, if Hani will help her become more popular so that she stands a chance of being elected head girl.

Despite their mutually beneficial pact, they start developing real feelings for each other. But relationships are complicated, and some people will do anything to stop two Bengali girls from achieving happily ever after.

Adiba Jaigirdar’s debut novel  ‘The Henna Wars’ was about two queer teenage girls from culturally diverse backgrounds falling in love against a competitive school backdrop and examining deeper themes like homophobia, racism and cultural appropriation. Her new book ‘Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating’ is also about two queer teenage girls from culturally diverse backgrounds, also features a school competition in the form of Head Girl elections and also examines social issues. Formulaic? Quite the opposite!

Some authors pivot after writing their first book and jump to something completely different like writing for a different age group or in a different genre. This author has written another sapphic YA novel which could’ve easily been a re-tread of her debut (and honestly, there aren’t enough books in this niche, so you wouldn’t get many complaints!), but instead she impresses by taking a similar sounding premise and spinning it off into an entirely new direction.

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Book Review – ‘Malice’ by Heather Walter

TITLE: Malice
AUTHOR: Heather Walter
GENRE: YA Fantasy, LGBT+
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 480 pages (hardcover)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Penguin Random House on April 13th, 2021

Blurb from Goodreads:

A princess isn’t supposed to fall for an evil sorceress. But in this darkly magical retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” true love is more than a simple fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there was a wicked fairy who, in an act of vengeance, cursed a line of princesses to die. A curse that could only be broken by true love’s kiss.

You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? The handsome prince. The happily-ever-after.

Utter nonsense.

Let me tell you, no one in Briar actually cares about what happens to its princesses. Not the way they care about their jewels and elaborate parties and charm-granting elixirs. I thought I didn’t care, either.

Until I met her.

Princess Aurora. The last heir to Briar’s throne. Kind. Gracious. The future queen her realm needs. One who isn’t bothered that I am Alyce, the Dark Grace, abhorred and feared for the mysterious dark magic that runs in my veins. Humiliated and shamed by the same nobles who pay me to bottle hexes and then brand me a monster. Aurora says I should be proud of my gifts. That she . . . cares for me. Even though it was a power like mine that was responsible for her curse.

But with less than a year until that curse will kill her, any future I might see with Aurora is swiftly disintegrating—and she can’t stand to kiss yet another insipid prince. I want to help her. If my power began her curse, perhaps it’s what can lift it. Perhaps, together, we could forge a new world.

Nonsense again.

Because we all know how this story ends, don’t we? Aurora is the beautiful princess. And I—

I am the villain.

MALICE is an incredible fantasy debut novel that ticks all the right boxes – compelling protagonist wrestling with her darker impulses, lovely sapphic romance and creative world-building that takes what we know from fairytales and gives it a unique twist. 

Alyce is reviled for her Vila heritage that gives her the ability to curse others in contrast to the Graces whose magic is used to enhance people’s beauty, wit and other qualities. Of course they still visit Alyce in secret to pay for her magic elixirs to cause harm to their enemies, even while they shun her in public. This leaves Alyce with an understandable grudge against the people of Briar – until she meets its princess Aurora who is nothing like what she expected.

I loved Aurora’s independence and determination to break the curse on her own terms instead of handing over rule of her land to whichever man bestows True Love’s Kiss upon her. The blithe way she befriended Alyce because of her differences instead of scorning her for them, and then her earnestness in pursuing her after Alyce pulls away won my heart. I understood Alyce’s hesitance given that a Vila ancestor of hers cursed Aurora’s bloodline and the royal family want her to keep away from Aurora, but the push & pull between them was SO GOOD, I held my breath hoping for them to fall together instead of apart, even with all the odds against them.

As someone who’s been waiting their whole life for a lesbian retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I’m definitely the target audience and this book absolutely thrilled me. But I’d also recommend it to fantasy lovers in general who are interested in retellings with a fierce feminist angle! Basically everyone should read this and flail at the cliffhanger ending with me until the sequel arrives.

Disclaimer: digital copy provided free from publisher via Netgalley for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Book Review – ‘House of Hollow’ by Krystal Sutherland

TITLE: House of Hollow
AUTHOR: Krystal Sutherland
GENRE: YA Thriller/Fantasy/Horror
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 304 pages
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Penguin Australia on March 30th, 2021
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)

Blurb from Goodreads:

Seventeen-year-old Iris Hollow has always been strange. Something happened to her and her two older sisters when they were children, something they can’t quite remember but that left each of them with an identical half-moon scar at the base of their throats.

Iris has spent most of her teenage years trying to avoid the weirdness that sticks to her like tar. But when her eldest sister, Grey, goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Iris learns just how weird her life can get: horned men start shadowing her, a corpse falls out of her sister’s ceiling, and ugly, impossible memories start to twist their way to the forefront of her mind.

As Iris retraces Grey’s last known footsteps and follows the increasingly bizarre trail of breadcrumbs she left behind, it becomes apparent that the only way to save her sister is to decipher the mystery of what happened to them as children.

The closer Iris gets to the truth, the closer she comes to understanding that the answer is dark and dangerous – and that Grey has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years.

HOUSE OF HOLLOW absolutely blew me away, this is definitely one of my favorite reads this year! 

It’s a genre-bending mix of thriller, dark fantasy, horror and family drama all effortlessly intertwined and perfectly served by a polished, lyrical writing style. The author has such a beautiful way with words that I frequently stopped to re-read certain sentences, and while I’m normally a fast reader, I consciously slowed myself down at points to luxuriate in the sumptuous descriptions and evocative, haunting turns of phrase.

We meet Iris Hollow the night an obsessed stalker breaks into her home to get close to the three sisters at the center of a famous mystery and whose violent attack is halted with a simple kiss from her eldest sister who demonstrates an uncanny ability to control others through touch. Weirdness blooms from the first page and only intensifies from there throughout this fast-paced, creepily atmospheric and tightly plotted story.

I was pleasantly surprised with the diversity of the characters with Iris being bisexual, her sister Vivi who is a lesbian and the hilarious Tyler, a Korean British, gender nonconforming model who used to date the eldest Hollow sister, Grey. These three embark on a desperate, dangerous search for her when she disappears once more, and in the process, Iris uncovers grim clues about their childhood disappearance and starts to piece together the dark truth behind what happened.

Fabulous fully-fleshed out characters, a cool spin on folklore and wry humor contrasting with moments of sheer horror make this a memorable, darkly enchanting read.

Disclaimer: Physical copy provided by publisher free for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

ARC Review – ‘Victories Greater Than Death’ by Charlie Jane Anders

TITLE: Victories Greater Than Death
AUTHOR: Charlie Jane Anders
GENRE: YA Sci-fi
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 400 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Titan Books on April 13th, 2021

Blurb from Goodreads:

A thrilling adventure set against an intergalactic war with international bestselling author Charlie Jane Anders at the helm in her YA debut—think Star Wars meets Doctor Who, and buckle your seatbelts.

Tina has always known her destiny is outside the norm—after all, she is the human clone of the most brilliant alien commander in all the galaxies (even if the rest of the world is still deciding whether aliens exist). But she is tired of waiting for her life to begin.

And then it does—and maybe Tina should have been more prepared. At least she has a crew around her that she can trust—and her best friend at her side. Now, they just have to save the world.

From internationally bestselling author Charlie Jane Anders (All the Birds in the Sky) comes a thrilling adventure set against an intergalactic war—Anders’s long-awaited YA debut.

In many a book, the main character is the Chosen One with a special destiny which they are often unaware of and thrown into the plot with confusion and complaints of ‘Why me?‘ I’ve always wanted to read a story where the protagonist DIDN’T resist the Call To Adventure and embraced it whole-heartedly like many of the sci-fi nerds among us would if given the chance. Victories Greater Than Death gives me that story I’ve been waiting for with a great subversion where our Chosen One Tina is well-aware that she’s a clone of an alien commander just biding her time growing up hidden on Earth until she’s old enough to rejoin the war. Far from railing against her fate, we meet her impatiently testing out ways of activating the beacon inside her which will summon the aliens to reclaim her!

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Book Review – ‘Dead Space’ by Kali Wallace

TITLE: Dead Space
AUTHOR: Kali Wallace
GENRE: Sci-fi/Horror
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 336 pages (paperback)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Berkley on March 2nd, 2021

Blurb from Goodreads:

An investigator must solve a brutal murder on a claustrophobic asteroid mine in this tense science fiction thriller from the author of Salvation Day.

Hester Marley used to have a plan for her life. But when a catastrophic attack left her injured, indebted, and stranded far from home, she was forced to take a dead-end security job with a powerful mining company in the asteroid belt. Now she spends her days investigating petty crimes to help her employer maximize its profits. She’s surprised to hear from an old friend and fellow victim of the terrorist attack that ruined her life–and that surprise quickly turns to suspicion when he claims to have discovered something shocking about their shared history and the tragedy that neither of them can leave behind.

Before Hester can learn more, her friend is violently murdered at a remote asteroid mine. Hester joins the investigation to find the truth, both about her friend’s death and the information he believed he had uncovered. But catching a killer is only the beginning of Hester’s worries, and she soon realizes that everything she learns about her friend, his fellow miners, and the outpost they call home brings her closer to revealing secrets that very powerful and very dangerous people would rather keep hidden in the depths of space.

Kali Wallace is an author who refuses to be pigeon-holed and jumps at whim from one genre to another, writing for various age groups from dark YA fantasy novels to whimsical middle grade fantasy to adult sci-fi horror. Her first offering in the latter category was the phenomenal Salvation Day in 2019 and she has returned to that well in the upcoming Dead Space.

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Release Day Review – ‘A Dark and Hollow Star’ by Ashley Shuttleworth

TITLES: A Dark and Hollow Star
AUTHOR: Ashley Shuttleworth
GENRE: YA Fantasy
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 512 pages (hardcover)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Hodder & Stoughton on February 25th, 2021

Choose your player.

The “ironborn” half-fae outcast of her royal fae family.
A tempestuous Fury, exiled to earth from the Immortal Realm and hellbent on revenge.
A dutiful fae prince, determined to earn his place on the throne.
The prince’s brooding guardian, burdened with a terrible secret.

For centuries, the Eight Courts of Folk have lived among us, concealed by magic and bound by law to do no harm to humans. This arrangement has long kept peace in the Courts—until a series of gruesome and ritualistic murders rocks the city of Toronto and threatens to expose faeries to the human world.

Four queer teens, each who hold a key piece of the truth behind these murders, must form a tenuous alliance in their effort to track down the mysterious killer behind these crimes. If they fail, they risk the destruction of the faerie and human worlds alike. If that’s not bad enough, there’s a war brewing between the Mortal and Immortal Realms, and one of these teens is destined to tip the scales. The only question is: which way?

Wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

In this ambitious debut by Ashley Shuttleworth, A DARK AND HOLLOW STAR injects magic into modern day Toronto with the existence of secret magical communities partitioned away from regular humans, but still nestled alongside them. That choice gives the book a unique feel as most stories about fae portray them in a separate world altogether, but keeping mundane mortals in the mix adds higher stakes, more complicated politics and a bunch of fun pop culture references.

My favorite part of this book is that all four main characters are queer. Normally I hope in vain that an author will have just ONE character with LGBT+ rep and my cup overrunneth with joy at the f/f and m/m ships we’re treated to here! 

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