Book Review – ‘Contender’ by Taran Matharu

Title: Contender
Author: Taran Matharu
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Word/Page Count: 345 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Hachette Australia on June 11th, 2019
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)

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Blurb from Goodreads:

Introducing an epic new trilogy from Taran Matharu, author of the New York Times–bestselling Summoner series. 

Throughout history, people have vanished with no explanation. A group of teenagers are about to discover why.

Cade is settling into a new boarding school, contemplating his future, when he finds himself transported to another realm. He soon discovers their new world is populated with lost remnants from the past: prehistoric creatures, ancient relics, and stranger still — people. Overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Cade has little time to adjust, for soon he and his fellow classmates are forced to become contenders in a brutal game, controlled by mysterious overlords.

But who are these beings and why did they choose these teens? Cade must prepare for battle . . . because hiding is not an option.

The saying goes not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, what you see is what you get! The immediate impression upon seeing a depiction of the protagonist wielding a sword against dinosaurs is that this is an action-packed heart-pounding roller-coaster ride of a read and that is certainly the case right from page 1.

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Book Review – ‘Heartwood Box’ by Ann Aguirre

Title: Heartwood Box
Author: Ann Aguirre
Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Thriller
Publication Date: July 9th, 2019
Word/Page Count: 336 pages (hardcover)

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A dark, romantic YA suspense novel with an SF edge and plenty of drama, layering the secrets we keep and how appearances can deceive, from the New York Times bestselling author.

In this tiny, terrifying town, the lost are never found. When Araceli Flores Harper is sent to live with her great-aunt Ottilie in her ramshackle Victorian home, the plan is simple. She’ll buckle down and get ready for college. Life won’t be exciting, but she’ll cope, right?

Wrong. From the start, things are very, very wrong. Her great-aunt still leaves food for the husband who went missing twenty years ago, and local businesses are plastered with MISSING posters. There are unexplained lights in the woods and a mysterious lab just beyond the city limits that the locals don’t talk about. Ever. When she starts receiving mysterious letters that seem to be coming from the past, she suspects someone of pranking her or trying to drive her out of her mind. To solve these riddles and bring the lost home again, Araceli must delve into a truly diabolical conspiracy, but some secrets fight to stay buried…

This book caught my interest with that gorgeous cover and the blurb which per the author’s pitch is Stranger Things meets The Lake House. I recently binge-watched season 3 of Stranger Things, I’m a massive fan, so those vibes got me excited, and I’m old enough to have watched The Lake House when it was released 13 (!!) years ago, which makes me feel decrepit as the main character notes “If my great-aunt knows about it, then it’s probably pretty old.

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Unfortunately the sci-fi thriller conspiracies didn’t mesh well with the time-crossed love story, with not enough attention given to either leading to both plots feeling inadequately developed in the story. The premise was excellent as I could see the bones of a great book here, which is why I kept reading even when I was tempted to give up, but it was frustrating to see the lack of sufficient follow-through on either of the main elements because it kept me from being emotionally invested.

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ARC Review – ‘Wilder Girls’ by Rory Power

Title: Wilder Girls
Author: Rory Power
Genre: Young Adult, Horror
Word/Page Count: 320 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Pan Macmillan Australia on July 9th, 2019
RRP: $16.99 AUD (paperback)

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Blurb from Goodreads:

It’s been eighteen months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. Since the Tox hit and pulled Hetty’s life out from under her.

It started slow. First the teachers died one by one. Then it began to infect the students, turning their bodies strange and foreign. Now, cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for themselves on their island home, the girls don’t dare wander outside the school’s fence, where the Tox has made the woods wild and dangerous. They wait for the cure they were promised as the Tox seeps into everything.

But when Byatt goes missing, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. And when she does, Hetty learns that there’s more to their story, to their life at Raxter, than she could have ever thought true.

I added this book to my Goodreads TBR on December 22nd 2018, and now that I’ve finally closed the last page on this book, I’m reeling. This is a brutally dark and engrossing read, and while I don’t think ‘enjoyed’ is the right word, it definitely met my high expectations which only increased from anticipation after waiting for all these months!

Btw, in case you think I’m exaggerating about how dark this is, make sure you check out the list of trigger and content warnings posted by the author so that you can prepare yourself!

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ARC Review – ‘Call It What You Want’ by Brigid Kemmerer

Title: Call It What You Want
Author: Brigid Kemmerer
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Word/Page Count: 384 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Bloomsbury Australia on July 1st, 2019
RRP: $16.99 AUD (paperback)

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Blurb from Goodreads:

When his dad is caught embezzling funds from half the town, Rob goes from popular lacrosse player to social pariah. Even worse, his father’s failed suicide attempt leaves Rob and his mother responsible for his care.

Everyone thinks of Maegan as a typical overachiever, but she has a secret of her own after the pressure got to her last year. And when her sister comes home from college pregnant, keeping it from her parents might be more than she can handle.

When Rob and Maegan are paired together for a calculus project, they’re both reluctant to let anyone through the walls they’ve built. But when Maegan learns of Rob’s plan to fix the damage caused by his father, it could ruin more than their fragile new friendship…

This captivating, heartfelt novel asks the question: Is it okay to do something wrong for the right reasons?

I adored Brigid Kemmerer’s YA fantasy novel, A Curse So Dark and Lonely, so I was happy to receive an early copy of her new contemporary for review. I had a bit of anxiety hoping that I would enjoy this genre from her as much as I had with fantasy, but that concern turned out to be completely unwarranted, this was a fabulous read!

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ARC Review & Blog Tour – ‘All That Impossible Space’ by Anna Morgan

Title: All That Impossible Space
Author: Anna Morgan
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Word/Page Count: 288 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Hachette Australia on June 25th, 2019
RRP: $19.99 AUD (paperback)

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Blurb from Goodreads:

Amelia Westlake meets My Favorite Murder in this debut from a terrific new voice in Australian YA. Combines a realistic story about high school drama and toxic friendship with true crime – the endlessly fascinating Somerton Man or Taman Shud mystery.

15-year-old Lara Laylor feels like supporting character in her own life. She’s Ashley’s best friend, she’s Hannah’s sister-she’s never just Lara.

When new history teacher Mr. Grant gives her an unusual assignment: investigating the mystery of the Somerton Man. Found dead in on an Adelaide beach in 1948, a half-smoked cigarette still in his mouth and the labels cut out of his clothes, the Somerton Man has intrigued people for years. Was he a spy? A criminal? Year 10 has plenty of mysteries of its own: boys, drama queen friends, and enigmatic new students. When they seem just as unsolvable as a 60-year-old cold case, Lara finds herself spending more and more time on the assignment. But Mr Grant himself may be the biggest mystery of all…

Interspersed with fictionalised snapshots of the Somerton Man investigation, All That Impossible Space is a coming of age novel exploring toxic friendships and the balance of power between teacher and student, perfect for fans of Cath Crowley and Fiona Wood.

My personal measure of a book’s quality is whether a) I read it in one sitting, or b) if it compelled me to stay up ridiculously late to finish reading it. All That Impossible Space achieved BOTH. I wouldn’t have started it at 9pm at night if I had any idea it would keep me up past midnight, but I have no regrets!

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Book Review – ‘Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution’ by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Title: Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution
Author: e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Word/Page Count: 352 pages (hardcover)
Publication Details: by Walker Books Australia on May 1st, 2019
RRP: $19.99 AUD (hardcover)

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Synopsis from Goodreads:

More trouble at school and at home — and the discovery of a missive from her late soldier sister — send Angie and a long-ago friend on an RV road trip across Ohio.

Sophomore year has just begun, and Angie is miserable. Her girlfriend, KC, has moved away; her good friend, Jake, is keeping his distance; and the resident bully has ramped up an increasingly vicious and targeted campaign to humiliate her. An over-the-top statue dedication planned for her sister, who died in Iraq, is almost too much to bear, and it doesn’t help that her mother has placed a symbolic empty urn on their mantel. At the ceremony, a soldier hands Angie a final letter from her sister, including a list of places she wanted the two of them to visit when she got home from the war. With her mother threatening to send Angie to a “treatment center” and the situation at school becoming violent, Angie enlists the help of her estranged childhood friend, Jamboree. Along with a few other outsiders, they pack into an RV and head across the state on the road trip Angie’s sister did not live to take. It might be just what Angie needs to find a way to let her sister go, and find herself in the process.

Note: I haven’t read the first book and thought this functioned fine as a standalone

I knew from the synopsis that this was going to be a tough confronting read. I took a chance on this anyway because I desperately crave representation for queer girls and because this promised a road trip with friends so I figured there would be light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how difficult the first few chapters may be.

The good part was that the road trip portion of the book was excellent, a much-needed relief from the angst and suffering of Angie’s everyday life. The down side was that this road trip actually didn’t happen til close to half way through the book! I struggled to make it that far because the first half of ‘Fat Angie’ was so heartbreaking and made me waver between despair and fury.

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ARC Review – ‘Keep This To Yourself’ by Tom Ryan

Title: Keep This To Yourself
Author: Tom Ryan
Genre: Young Adult, Thriller
Publication Date: May 21st, 2019
Word/Page Count: 320 pages (hardcover)

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Blurb from Goodreads:

It’s been a year since the Catalog Killer terrorized the sleepy seaside town of Camera Cove, killing four people before disappearing without a trace.

Like everyone else in town, eighteen-year-old Mac Bell is trying to put that horrible summer behind him—easier said than done since Mac’s best friend Connor was the murderer’s final victim. But when he finds a cryptic message from Connor, he’s drawn back into the search for the killer—who might not have been a random drifter after all. Now nobody—friends, neighbors, or even the sexy stranger with his own connection to the case—is beyond suspicion. Sensing that someone is following his every move, Mac struggles to come to terms with his true feelings towards Connor while scrambling to uncover the truth.

I had such a good time reading this! I found it really engaging and raced through it, completely hooked by the twists and turns, and legitimately shocked and impressed by the end. YA mysteries can be hit-and-miss, but I thought this was very satisfying and tightly plotted.

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Book Review – ‘We Are Blood And Thunder’ by Kesia Lupo

Title: We Are Blood And Thunder
Author: Kesia Lupo
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Word/Page Count: 448 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Bloomsbury Australia on May 6th, 2019
RRP: $16.99 AUD (paperback)

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Synopsis from Goodreads:

In a sealed-off city, it begins with a hunt. A young woman, Lena, running for her life, convicted of being a mage and sentenced to death. Her only way to survive is to trust those she has been brought up to fear – those with magic.

On the other side of the locked gates is a masked lady, Constance, determined to find a way back in. She knows only too well how the people of Duke’s Forest loathe magic. Years ago she escaped before her powers were discovered. But now she won’t hide who she is any longer.

A powerful and terrifying storm cloud unites them. It descends over the dukedom and devastates much in its wake. But this is more than a thunderstorm. This is a spell, and the truth behind why it has been cast is more sinister than anyone can imagine … Only Lena and Constance hold the key to destroying the spell. Though neither of them realise it, they need each other. They are the blood and they have the thunder within.

What a riveting fast-paced fantasy debut this is! I’m so impressed with the author for crafting two compelling female protagonists and a well-written standalone story for her first outing in this genre.

I’m a little over those long drawn-out series that end on cliffhangers in every installment, so it’s a blessed relief to experience a fully self-contained story in this book! I really appreciate the compact storytelling with clear plot arcs that are built on and paid off by the end of the book, complicated character dynamics that continuously evolve throughout plus fantastic world-building, all conveyed in beautifully flowing easy-to-read prose. There was a ton of detail communicated effortlessly without the reader being bogged down in exposition, and I could visualize everything so vividly.

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Book Review – ‘How It Feels To Float’ by Helena Fox

Title: How It Feels To Float
Authors: Helena Fox
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Word/Page Count: 384 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Pan Macmillan Australia on April 23rd, 2019
RRP: $9.99 AUD (ebook)$17.99 AUD (paperback)

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Synopsis from Goodreads:

Biz knows how to float. She has her people, her posse, her mom and the twins. She has Grace. And she has her dad, who tells her about the little kid she was, who loves her so hard, and who shouldn’t be here but is. So Biz doesn’t tell anyone anything. Not about her dark, runaway thoughts, not about kissing Grace or noticing Jasper, the new boy. And she doesn’t tell anyone about her dad. Because her dad died when she was six. And Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface–normal okay regular fine.

But after what happens on the beach–first in the ocean, and then in the sand–the tethers that hold Biz steady come undone. Dad disappears, and with him, all comfort. It might be easier, better, sweeter to float all the way away? Or maybe stay a little longer, find her father, bring him back to her. Or maybe–maybe maybe maybe–there’s a third way Biz just can’t see yet.

This is a debut by an Australian author featuring an Australian teen in Wollongong – I don’t read as much #loveozya as I should, so I’m glad I was given a chance to read this. The book takes you on a journey through the fractured mindscape of our protagonist, Biz, as she teeters on the verge of a breakdown.

As someone who has lived with depression for over a decade, I’m drawn to books that deal with mental health issues. What I really appreciate is that this is an #ownvoices book so the themes of mental illness are handled sensitively and with a more realistic portrayal than I sometimes encounter. Biz is so believably portrayed and fleshed out that I choked up with tears on several occasions because her pain is so tangible, it leaps off the page and practically smothers you. I finished the book in a puddle of tears, but it was a cathartic reading experience that caused the good healing kind of crying jag.

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Book Review – ‘Watch Us Rise’ by Renee Watson & Ellen Hagan

Title: Watch Us Rise
Authors: Renee Watson, Ellen Hagan
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Word/Page Count: 368 pages (paperback)
Publication Details: by Bloomsbury Australia on March 4th, 2019
RRP: $15.99 AUD

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Synopsis from Goodreads:

Jasmine and Chelsea are sick of the way women are treated even at their progressive NYC high school, so they decide to start a Women’s Rights Club. They post everything online—poems, essays, videos of Chelsea performing her poetry, and Jasmine’s response to the racial macroaggressions she experiences—and soon they go viral. But with such positive support, the club is also targeted by online trolls. When things escalate, the principal shuts the club down. Jasmine and Chelsea will risk everything for their voices—and those of other young women—to be heard.

Watch Us Rise has two protagonists who narrate in alternating chapters – there’s Jasmine, a plus-size black girl who is an actress and writer, and her best friend Chelsea, who is an average-size Caucasian girl that writes poetry. Their other two best friends are Nadine, a Japanese Lebanese singer, and Isaac, a Puerto Rican artist.

First of all, massive props to this book for its commitment to diversity and representation, because this is more true to life than books that focus on predominantly white casts. I also really appreciate its dedication to female friendship and the way that Jasmine and Chelsea constantly support and raise each other up throughout the story. Sometimes this would be a set-up for them to have a falling out, followed by a period of bitterness before the reconciliation, but thankfully Watch Us Rise was more interested in the girls being there for each other, which was fantastic. Plus it was great to see Isaac as a feminist ally instead of excluding boys from the narrative altogether, and that he had interactions with both the main girls, instead of just his crush, which made the friendship dynamics more real and lived-in.

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