Review: Feedback

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Feedback by Mira Grant
Published by Orbit on 11 October 2016
Pages: 469
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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The year was 2014. We had cured cancer. We had beat the common cold. But in doing so we unleashed something horrifying and unstoppable. The infection spread leaving those afflicted with a single uncontrollable impulse: FEED.

Now, twenty years after the Rising, a team of scrappy underdog reporters relentlessly pursue the truth while competing against the superstar Masons, surrounded by the infected, and facing more insidious forces working in the shadows.

Feed captured my imagination in a way I didn’t think possible. As someone who has absolutely zero interest in zombies, I didn’t expect to so wholeheartedly love a book set in a world filled with the walking dead. However, what made it so unique was the fact that everybody was used to living in an environment where they could be attacked and put down at any second. It focused on what happened after the zombie apocalypse, not during. To relive that experience from a different perspective… it intrigued me, so it didn’t take much convincing to pick up Feedback.

Feedback focuses on the team of bloggers who are covering the Democratic governor Susan Kilburn’s campaign: Ben, Aislinn (Ash), Audrey, and Mat. Once again, there’s a similar distribution of roles – Newsie (Ben), Irwin (Ash), Fictional (Audrey), and Techie (and also make-up blogger? Mat). Their relationships are a lot more convoluted than the Masons (which, after that third book, I didn’t think possible). Ash narrates the story – although once again, there are those blog posts from various characters at the beginning of each chapter – and she’s a fun narrator. I liked that a point was made into the showmanship of journalists in this brave new world – the fact that they create personas to cultivate a following. There are slight differences to the on-camera Ash and the Ash we see with her blogging team. I also really enjoyed the fact that we got to see the Masons in a less-than-flattering light. When they were the heroes of the story, we kind of glossed over their flaws. This time, they’re being highlighted.

Ash is Irish, and I have to admit that at times she felt like a bit of an Irish stereotype. Her turns of phrase didn’t always feel authentic, and sometimes it felt like an American imagining what an Irish person would be like. It was frustrating to have a character that came across as that inauthentic, and it would’ve helped the character a lot of Grant had had an Irish beta reader (if she did have one, they definitely didn’t do their job). This wasn’t just a problem with Ash, though. The characterisation just wasn’t as strong as it was in the other books.

Speaking of inauthentic, the fact that Mat was genderfluid felt shoe-horned in. As someone who is left-leaning in her politics and agrees with what Grant was saying about genderfluid individuals, I just felt like someone was preaching at me. When it comes to diversity, it should be something that’s treated as a non-issue. A character should be ‘the genderfluid character,’ they should be a character who just so happens to be genderfluid, and that definitely didn’t happen here. I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about Mat, other than that they were genderfluid. So much focus was placed on the characterisation, it took away from the plot of the story.

The main problem with this book is that it relies too much on the previous three. It’s advertised as being a new entry-point into the series, but if I were coming into this without reading the first three books, I would be utterly confused. There’s very little world-building, and I think that it’s assumed that the reader will have already read them. I was also left scratching my head a few times – certain events in the book were pretty big, and the Masons would’ve had to know about them. However, if they’d known about them, it would’ve changed the entire course of the story. No matter how badly either team wanted a scoop, ONE OF THEM would’ve had to reach out at some point, right? It’s life and death, guys.

Finally, because this gang was focused on figuring out a conspiracy theory that had already been solved… there wasn’t a whole lot of tension happening. When the story strayed from the original story, it was good. When the story unveiled events that we hadn’t been previously told, the stakes felt high. But ultimately, it led to… nothing. I wanted to love this, I really did. I just ended up with a bunch of lukewarm feelings about it.

★★★☆☆

Review: The Woman Who Fooled the World

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The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano
Published by Scribe Publications on 13 November 2017
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
Source:  Purchased
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Belle Gibson convinced the world she had healed herself from terminal brain cancer with a healthy diet. She built a global business based upon her claims. There was just one problem: she’d never had cancer.

In 2015, journalists uncovered the truth: this hero of the wellness world, with over 200,000 followers, international book deals, and a best-selling smartphone app, was a fraud. She had lied about having cancer — to her family and friends, to her business partners and publishers, and to the hundreds of thousands of people, including genuine cancer survivors, who were inspired by her Instagram posts.

Written by the same multi-award-winning journalists who uncovered the details of Gibson’s lies, The Woman Who Fooled the World tracks the 23-year-old’s rise to fame and fall from grace. Told through interviews with the people who know her best, it unravels the mystery and motivation behind this deception and follows the public reaction to a scandal that made headlines around the world.

The Woman Who Fooled the World explores the lure of alternative cancer treatments, the cottage industry flourishing behind the wellness and ‘clean eating’ movements, and the power of social media. It documents the devastating impact this con had on Gibson’s fans and on people suffering from cancer. Ultimately, it answers not just how, but why, Gibson was able to fool so many.

Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano first broke the Belle Gibson story back in 2015. I was fascinated by it: a woman who was my age, had all these accolades, who was validated by so many people – in some cases, very powerful people – had become one of the most infamous con artists.

I didn’t hear about Belle Gibson until Donelly and Toscano originally broke the story of her company, The Whole Pantry, ‘fundraising’ for charity and the charities never receiving the money. At the time, I really felt for her victims: as hard as I found it to believe that healthy eating and clean living could cure cancer (if that was all it took, oncologists would be getting their patients to do it), I’m sure if I had been told I had cancer, I would be desperate to try anything. Belle Gibson preyed on cancer patients and their families. In the process, she destroyed careers at Penguin, the largest book publisher in the world, and Apple, arguably the largest company in the world, because nobody bothered to fact check her story. However, I also began to feel sorry for her. The internet is where human decency goes to die, and it was just one massive pile on. I could only imagine how terrifying it must be to receive multiple death threats. This book covers the whole sordid affair: from Belle’s humble beginnings in Launceston and childhood in Brisbane to her ‘diagnosis’ in Perth and eventual move to Melbourne.

For the most part, this new breed of wellness gurus is white and female, young and attractive, engaging, and media-savvy. Some are yoga teachers, or personal trainers, or martial-arts instructors, but scant few have any qualifications that equip them to give health advice. What they do have is an Instagram account.

Donelly and Toscano link Gibson’s success  to society’s obsession with consumerism and the rise of greater access to information (and, in turn, the spread of misinformation). They point out that the ‘wellness’ industry is dominated by well-off white women with an Instagram account and absolutely zero qualifications. As a sort of B-story, they look at Jessica Ainscough, the ‘wellness warrior.’ Ainscough was diagnosed with cancer at 22 and decided coffee enemas would cure the problem. She’s now dead. As is her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and believed in the same alternative treatments as Ainscough. If you’d like to know more about Ainscough’s story, Donelly and Toscano reference a piece written by Sam de Brito that’s well worth your time. Donelly and Toscano don’t go too hard on Ainscough for peddling alternative therapies as a cure for cancer – most probably because she did have cancer, and she genuinely believed in these therapies until it was too late (Ainscough would eventually turn to chemotherapy in her last few months).

Donelly and Toscano also talk critically about who put people like Gibson and Ainscough in a position to talk about ‘alternative’ therapies and – at least in Gibson’s case – peddle their lies to hundreds of thousands of people: the media. Apple and Penguin gave credibility and a sense of legitimacy to Gibson’s story. Apple, so eager to make money off of Gibson, are probably more to blame than Penguin. If anything, their glowing endorsement of her was what probably led Penguin to not ask any questions about her story when they signed her. That said, Penguin are not completely absolved of all responsibility: a particularly chilling scene is when Penguin’s PR team is prepping her for journalists asking about the holes in her story. You can watch video of it here.

The part that got me most was where Gibson’s mother, Natalie del Ballo, was introduced. Gibson’s dysfunctional childhood is perhaps the only true part of her story, and her mother comes across as a gold digger out to mine everything she can from her daughter’s sudden infamy. It broke my heart a little, and made me wonder if Gibson had ever had some hope of being a well-adjusted adult.

Donelly and Toscano’s book is a stunning, fast-paced expose of The Whole Pantry. Positing larger questions of the dissemination of (mis)information and the ethics of the health and beauty industry, it is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Gibson and her empire that will give you faith in the power of long form journalism. A must read.

★★★★★

Archive: Emma

I originally posted this review on 31 December 2014 on What Kim Read Next (Blogspot) and have reposted it here.

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Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by Borough Press on 6 November 2014
Pages: 361
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Sometimes it takes time to discover who you really are. And for Emma Woodhouse the journey is only just beginning. After graduating, Emma returns home to Norfolk, where she plans to set up a design business. But that summer, as Emma begins to match-make various friends and neighbours, some important lessons about life and relationships await her…

Jane Austen’s Emma is a finely crafted novel. Clues are carefully woven throughout the story, so that the astute reader can pick up on the mystery of the novel. McCall Smith’s Emma lacks the finesse of the original. I had really high hopes for The Austen Project, but after reading Val McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey and McCall Smith’s take on Emma, I think that it’s safe to say that this project is not for me. There really is no author like Austen, and these retellings are quite weak. Maybe I’ve been especially hard on this one because Emma Woodhouse is my favourite Austen heroine, but I was immensely disappointed with McCall Smith’s offering.

In order to modernise an adaptation, you need to follow the general plot of the original, while making changes that both update it to a modern setting and make sense within the original narrative. It’s what made Clueless such a great modernisation of Emma and Bridget Jones’s Diary an interesting take on Pride and Prejudice.

The original Emma is an incredibly sheltered young woman, who is wealthier and therefore social superior than almost every individual in Highbury. She has no equal in Highbury, and literally befriends Harriet so she would have somebody to walk with. This Emma is unlikeable, selfish and nasty. It’s kind of implied that the only reason Emma befriends Harriet is because she is overwhelmed by her beauty… to the point that Emma wonders if she is gay. The original Emma was upfront with Harriet about Elton’s proposal and takes her share of the blame – this Emma spins a web of lies in order to come out completely blameless. Emma is also supposed to be clueless in regards to Elton’s true character, only realising the littleness of his character after his proposal – but here, Emma is completely aware of it the entire time! Similarly, my favourite part of the original Emma is the mystery surrounding Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill – this is similarly downplayed. Frank Churchill is an overgrown child, Jane Fairfax, while accomplished, has none of the goodness of the original, and both manage to be unlikeable in the little page-time they have.

Harriet is even thicker than the original, so I was very surprised when [SPOILER ALERT!] she managed to hide the fact that she’d been dating Robert Martin the entire time from Emma. Knightley barely features in the book, which makes one wonder when Emma had time to fall in love with the man. Their interactions are reduced to Knightley chatting to Emma on his way out the door. The original Miss Taylor was Emma’s friend and mother figure as well as governess, this Miss Taylor is entirely responsible for Emma’s disgusting personality.

The first quarter of the book is filled with descriptions of Emma’s early life, which means that the first quarter of the book is more tedious than the rest. It does nothing to advance the plot, nor provide any real insight into Emma’s character, except to add to the perception that she’s a horrible human being. This novel is about half as long as the original, but it took me twice as long to read, and the entire time I was checking how many pages I had until the end. If you want to get into Austen, read her novels. The Austen Project is just a very pale imitation.

★★☆☆☆

Review: The City of Brass

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Published by HarperVoyager on 14 November 2017
Pages: 544
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike.

But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust.

Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes…

Be careful what you wish for.

I still don’t know how I found out about this book – an ad banner on Books and Publishing? A recommendation on GoodReads? All I know is I saw it somewhere on the Internet and bought it from the Book Depository immediately. I’m so glad I did, in a year filled with some STELLAR books, this one stands out.

This book is a good example of what an exciting genre new adult fiction can be – dealing with more serious issues than young adult fiction, but not quite as mature themes as typical ‘adult’ fiction (which is a varied and wide-ranging genre, and hard to pin down). It is one of the few fantasies I’ve read that has taken from Muslim/Islamic traditions and that is set in Africa – Egypt, to be exact (yes, I know that Egypt is a transcontinental country, but it’s considered a regional power in Africa, don’t @ me). Early on in the story, there are mentions of Napoleon and French occupation, which would place this story somewhere between 1797 and 1801.

The human world – which is incredibly important to the story – seems to sit alongside the magical world, which is populated with different creatures whose abilities vary according to their element (fire, water, earth, or air). The magical beings are split into tribes, and the shafits – halfbloods – kind of get treated like the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar, or the Stolen Generation. They are treated horribly: they are arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, their children are taken away and sold into slavery, they live in poverty, and are denied access to medical treatment, food… the list goes on. Ultimately, this is a story about oppression and persecution, and it mirrors what we see in the real world around us.

The story is told from two perspectives, something I normally can’t stand… but this worked. Our heroine, Nahri, is about 20 (she can’t be sure), and makes a living as a street healer, con artist, and thief. While she is hired to cleanse and heal people at Zar ceremonies, where she also leads prayers to banish ifrits, she finds the idea of magic preposterous… until she accidentally summons a daeva. We also see the story from Ali’s perspective. He is the King’s second son, destined to live unmarried and celibate, lest there be too many heirs for the throne. He’s extremely religious and his personality is quite… rigid. I really loved watching the friendship between the two blossom, because both characters are so self-righteous and have to learn to compromise. There are some great characters in here, but nobody is painted as being all good or all bad – they are all shades of grey, and it serves as a reminder of how dangerous it can be to hero worship someone and believe that they are anything more than a person.

If you’re looking for more diversity in your fantasy, pick this book up! It is a powerful debut novel, and one of the greatest debuts I’ve ever read – wonderfully plotted, exceptional prose, strong characters, and representation! Please show publishers that stories about characters of colour are just as marketable, digestible, and wanted as stories about white characters. Show this book the love and hype it deserves, and add it to your TBR pile.

Recommended for: fans of N.K. Jemesin’s Dreamblood duology

★★★★★

Review: Crooked Kingdom

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Orion Children’s Group
Pages: 536
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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Kaz Brekker and his crew of deadly outcasts have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets – a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.

It never fails to amaze me just how much Leigh Bardugo has grown as a writer between Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows. This has been sitting on my shelves since it was published, and I was finally in the right mind set to sit down and read it. I loved it. Where do I even begin?

I hate books with multiple perspectives. It’s rarely done well and it pulls you out of the narrative. It didn’t happen here. Bardugo has plotted this book masterfully, balancing six character arcs and developing high stakes for everyone involved. Everything that made Six of Crows so popular is present: the stellar world-building, characters that you have a strong emotional connection to, a brilliant plot. The heist planned in this book is quite different to the first book, more calculated and political than the non-stop action of the original heist.

In terms of characters, it feels like Kaz has the least amount of growth. That kid moves at a glacial pace, and it is frustrating to watch him get himself into some of the situations he gets himself into. He’s also brilliant, cunning, and whip-smart. He always seems to be five steps ahead of everyone else, which makes it so much better when the threads of plot start coming together and you realise where the story is heading. Proving that they balance each other out, I felt that Inej had the most growth. Mostly in terms of realising she’s not infallible (as all young adults eventually do), and pushing herself as a person and fighter. Wylan and Jesper are forever my favourites, and that’s all you need to know.

If you’re here for the ships, you won’t be disappointed. They all feel organic, true-to-character, and don’t overpower the main storyline (romance masquerading as a fantasy, I think not).

In a market that is as overcrowded as the young adult fantasy genre, as a reader it often feels like you will never find something original – heck, even something that’s well-written (a marketable idea will get you everywhere, just ask Stephenie Meyer, Veronica Roth, Sarah J. Maas…). Crooked Kingdom is proof that there’s still talented writers keeping the genre alive.

★★★★☆

Review: Nevermoor

IMG_3322.PNGNevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, narrated by Gemma Whelan
Published by Hachette Australia on 10 October 2017
Length: 11 hours
Format: Audiobook
Source: Free download via Audible

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.

I was initially really reluctant to read this – it has been getting so many comparisons to Harry Potter, and I’m always wary of books who are touted as the next Harry Potter. And this book had a fanfare surrounding its publication. There was a fight to publish this book at Frankfurt Book Fair, with eight publishers bidding on the MS. Fox had purchased the film rights before it was even published. Dare I say it? The comparisons are right. Nevermoor is really good, striking that balance of whimsy and realism found in Harry Potter.

Jessica Townsend has a gift for characterisation. I think that Morrigan Crow is going to be up there with Hermione Granger and Matilda Wormwood in beloved heroines and female (fictional) role models. She is courageous, tenacious, and kind and while she makes some questionable choices… she’s 11. I’ll be interested in seeing how she ages and grows throughout the series. She’s really a heroine you can get behind: you become excited for her when she accomplishes something, and feel for her when she’s crushed.

My personal favourite was Cadence Blackburn, who is kind of set up as an antagonist, but mostly came across as Hermione pre-troll attack in Philosopher’s Stone: desperate for a friend. My other favourite was Fen, a very sassy wildcat (yes, you read that correctly). I’m sure Jupiter North and Hawthorne will be fan favourites, they’re full of life and jump off the page.

Also the villain of the series… strap yourself in, folks. It’s going to be a doozy. I don’t want to give anything away, but he’s fantastic. Unusually for a children’s villain, he appears to have a few shades of grey (I mean, it’s upfront that he’s a murderer. His interactions with Morrigan intrigue me though).

The book is well-plotted and quite engaging, with the events centred around trials for the Wundrous Society (think the Triwizard Tournament, with 500 11-year-olds and no death). For Morrigan, the stakes are a little higher: as a child on the Cursed Register, she was supposed to die on Eventide. Her choices are to win a place in the Wundrous Society, or return to the Republic and die. The tasks were unusual, and actually revealed quite a lot about Morrigan’s character.

I listened to the audiobook and I really enjoyed it. It was quite atmospheric, and Gemma Whelan’s performance was incredible! She has a knack for accents and voices, and her performance really set the tone for the book.

If you have a child who is just getting into chapter books, this will be perfect for them. However, it’s a book that has appeal for adults and children alike, and will remind older audiences of what it’s like to be captivated by a book for the first time. It is the first in a nine-book series, and I cannot wait to see where Townsend goes with this story.

Recommended for: fans of Roald Dahl

★★★★☆

Review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone

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The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrated by Kelly Canby
Published by Allen & Unwin on 1 November 2017
Pages: 496
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates. This did not bother me as much as you might think – I hardly knew my parents.

Bronte Mettlestone’s parents ran away to have adventures when she was a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. She’s had a perfectly pleasant childhood of afternoon teas and riding lessons – and no adventures, thank you very much.

But Bronte’s parents have left extremely detailed (and bossy) instructions for Bronte in their will. The instructions must be followed to the letter, or disaster will befall Bronte’s home. She is to travel the kingdoms and empires, perfectly alone, delivering special gifts to her ten other aunts. There is a farmer aunt who owns an orange orchard and a veterinarian aunt who specialises in dragon care, a pair of aunts who captain a cruise ship together and a former rockstar aunt who is now the reigning monarch of a small kingdom.

Now, armed with only her parents’ instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates – and the gathering suspicion that there might be something more to her extremely inconvenient quest than meets the eye…

Jaclyn Moriarty is easily one of the most talented writers to come out of Australia. Regardless of what genre she’s writing in, she always seems to produce something magical and completely original (although I must admit, the whimsical tone to her writing feels better suited to fantasy). The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is her first offering for younger readers (9-12 year olds), and Moriarty knocks it out of the park.

This may have been a fantasy novel, but it really felt like an exploration of family dynamics. Every time Bronte visits an aunt, she learns something new about her parents and the importance of family. As always, Moriarty’s characters are vividly drawn. All of the aunts have their own distinct mannerisms and characteristics, but they still feel like they are part of the same family. I liked that a point was made that Bronte had never met a lot of her aunts, or had only seen them a handful of times. In so many books, characters seem to come from big families that live on top of one another; the Mettlestones are not close, but they still care for one another in their own ways. It felt more realistic to me, and I really enjoyed this dynamic, especially as it played a big role in the ending. My favourite relationship was Bronte and Aunt Carrie, but honestly, all of the aunts were interesting and jumped off the page.

There were a lot of twists that, as a reader outside the target demographic, I could see coming; I imagine that a younger reader would be surprised and really enjoy them. The book was well-written and easy-to-follow, and the chapters were short enough that it would still be engaging for a younger reader who struggles with reading. The illustrations by Kelly Canby are the perfect accompaniment to the story. Canby’s drawings have the same whimsical tone that Moriarty’s writing has and kind of make you feel like you’re reading a fairy tale.

This book is the perfect book for young readers of fantasy (and older ones, too!), and can be read independently or together. The visits to the the aunts unfold within a larger narrative, so I think that it would make the perfect book to read in multiple sittings with your child before bed. That said, I read it in one sitting and really enjoyed it! I had a lot of fun piecing together all the clues, and ultimately found it an addictive and fun read. If your child is not quite ready for Harry Potter, this book would be the perfect story to introduce them to the fantasy genre.

★★★★☆

Review: A Torch Against the Night

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A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
Published by HarperVoyager on 22 August 2016
Pages: 464
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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A Torch Against the Night takes readers into the heart of the Empire as Laia and Elias fight their way north to liberate Laia’s brother from the horrors of Kauf Prison. Hunted by Empire soldiers, manipulated by the Commandant, and haunted by their pasts, Laia and Elias must outfox their enemies and confront the treacherousness of their own hearts.

In the city of Serra, Helene Aquilla finds herself bound to the will of the Empire’s twisted new leader, Marcus. When her loyalty is questioned, Helene finds herself taking on a mission to prove herself-a mission that might destroy her, instead.

HOLY CROW, IS IT APRIL 2018 YET?! I have had this on my shelves since its release, but I loved An Ember in the Ashes so much I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Since most YA is packaged as a trilogy these days, I’ve read so many sequels that just do not live up to their predecessors. Thankfully, A Torch Against the Night suffers no such fate.

“So long as you fight the darkness, you stand in the light.”

Once again, this story is told from multiple perspectives: Elias, Laia, and Helene. If I had one quibble, it’s that there’s no real distinction between the three voices. They are such starkly different characters and their stories go on such different paths that I would’ve liked to have some variation between the three. That said, there was a good pace to the story and there was a rhythm that made this book hard to put down.

I didn’t really care for Helene in the first book, but she just blew me away in this one – if Tahir wanted to create a spin-off for Helene, I would read the heck out of it.  In a novel filled with fierce, complex, intelligent, powerful women, Helene stands out from the pack. My heart hurt for her and the impossible situation she was put in. This world is brutal, and Helene does what she has to to survive. The character growth that she displays in this book is incredible, and I cannot wait to see where Tahir takes her journey.

I also loved getting to see Elias’ adopted family. He has a mother who loves him, and it was so heart-warming to read. Their relationship just jumped off the page, especially when Mamie Rila started a riot to help Laia and Elias (Ilyaas!) escape the Masks.

There were some amazing secondary characters – Avitas Harper (please play a larger role in the third book), Keenan (did NOT see that coming), Shaeva (oh, sweetie), and Afya (QUEEEEEN!).

The Commander… I can’t move past it: she seems evil for the sake of being evil. It was a problem for me in the first book, and it was a problem for me in this one. Perhaps it’s because her backstory is a mystery, but I can’t tell what her motivations are, and it frustrates me. If the woman’s willing to poison her son, I want to know how she became so callous. Similarly, the Warden felt unnecessarily evil.

I did enjoy Marcus as a villain. He is very cunning and clever, and while I dislike him as a character, I enjoy him as a villain.

This book was a slow burn, but put everything into place for what will be an amazing finale in the trilogy. Tahir has taken a common YA story and turned it into something completely original and un-put-downable.

★★★★★

Review: The One Memory of Flora Banks

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The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr, narrated by Rosie Jones
Published by Penguin Random House on 12 December 2016
Length: 8 hours 9 minutes
Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased
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Seventeen-year-old Flora Banks has no short-term memory. Her mind resets itself several times a day, and has since the age of ten, when the tumor that was removed from Flora’s brain took with it her ability to make new memories. That is, until she kisses Drake, her best friend’s boyfriend, the night before he leaves town.

Miraculously, this one memory breaks through Flora’s fractured mind, and sticks. Flora is convinced that Drake is responsible for restoring her memory and making her whole again. So when an encouraging email from Drake suggests she meet him on the other side of the world, Flora knows with certainty that this is the first step toward reclaiming her life.

With little more than the words “be brave” inked into her skin, and written reminders of who she is and why her memory is so limited, Flora sets off on an impossible journey to Svalbard, Norway, the land of the midnight sun, determined to find Drake. But from the moment she arrives in the arctic, nothing is quite as it seems, and Flora must “be brave” if she is ever to learn the truth about herself, and to make it safely home.

If I had to sum this book up in one word, it would be… eh. It was an interesting premise, but poor execution.

First off, Flora’s characterisation was not done all that well. It takes a skilled author to pull off an almost-adult character with the mind of a child, and unfortunately Flora’s immaturity was grating. It didn’t help that she also felt a bit like a Mary Sue  – inexplicably, no matter where she went, everybody was willing to help her – a stranger – and found her endearing. They all seemed to take it in stride when she (repeatedly!) couldn’t remember who they were.

Also, Flora hasn’t made a new memory since she was ten years old. She’ll look in the mirror and has no idea who she is, because she isn’t expecting to see her 17-year-old self. So how the heck did she manage to get from Penzance to Whoop Whoop, Norway without ANY PROBLEMS WHATSOEVER?! It was so incredibly frustrating to listen to something that unrealistic. There were also a lot of things that didn’t really make sense if she had no new memories, like… most ten-year-olds wouldn’t be shaving their legs, so why is she? How does she know how to get herself to the airport, catch a train, row a boat? How can she use some of the words she uses? I’m assuming that there would be some developmental issues with the kind of memory loss Flora displays (if someone more educated on memory loss knows otherwise, please let me know!). There were just a lot of plot holes that couldn’t be chalked up to the unreliable narration.

In terms of the other characters, Flora happens to be saddled with some of the worst humans known to mankind. Drake, the boy she has a crush on, can only be described as a jerk (to put it nicely). He’s 19, and knowing that Flora thinks of herself as a ten-year-old, kisses her and makes her believe they’re in a relationship. However, he’s dating Paige, who, upon learning Flora kissed her boyfriend, cuts Flora out of her life completely. Which would be understandable, but Flora’s parents are going to France for a week and have asked Paige to care for Flora while they’re gone. A PHONE CALL IS NOT ADEQUATE CARE, PAIGE. Inexplicably, they’re friends again by the end of the book. But the characters who take the cake are Flora’s parents, who win the award for World’s Worst Parents.

The things I liked about this book? Her relationship with her brother (unfortunately who mostly stays off-page and we only get to know through his emails to Flora), which has such a huge impact on her story. Rosie Barr’s performance is also top-notch, it gets a whole star for that alone.

Ultimately, this book suffered from poor characterisation, terrible pacing, and trivial treatment of serious issues, and was rather unmemorable in the grand scheme of things.

★★☆☆☆

Review: The Language of Thorns

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The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Orion Books on 26 September 2017
Pages: 281
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.

Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, no. 1 New York Times-bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.

This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, all of them lavishly illustrated with art that changes with each turn of the page, culminating in six stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.

Man, I thought Bardugo had really stepped up her game between Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, but after reading The Language of Thorns, I can safely say I’d be happy if she just wrote short stories for the rest of her career. This collection was so good – conforming closely enough to the fairy tale format to feel familiar, but original enough for the stories to be distinct from the crowd of fairy tale retellings on the YA market.

“Come now, Ayama. You know how the stories go. Interesting things only happen to pretty girls.”

Three of these stories have already been published – Little Knife, Witch of Duva, and The Too-Little Fox – I don’t usually read the ‘novellas’ that often accompany popular YA series, so I went into this not knowing what to expect. I saw influences from fairy tales such as The Nutcracker (The Soldier Prince was the only one that felt like a straight-up retelling), The Litle Mermaid, and Hansel and Gretel. I’m sure those more familiar with fairy tales can find more influences. I liked that Bardugo completely turned the fairy tale genre on its head while retelling them. So often a plot twist would just come out of nowhere, but it felt authentic and true to the story. You think you know how the story ends, but all of these stories ended in ways I was not expecting. Given how little time we got to spend with the characters, it is a testament to Bardugo’s talent to how complex the characters were, and how quickly you came to care for them.

The illustrations on the side of the page were absolutely sumptuous, and I loved how they slightly changed as the story progressed. You could tell how much care and love went into the production of this book, and it just made my reading experience that little bit better. One slight annoyance – the font goes between teal and maroon (in keeping with the colour scheme of the illustrations), and I think I would’ve found it easier to read black don’t. That said, it’s a tiny thing to pull up and didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the tales.

My favourite tale was, hands down, The Witch of Duva. More of this, please.

Recommended for fans of: Lips Touch Three Times

 ★★★★☆