Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1) by Laini Taylor
Published March 28, 2017 by Hachette Australia
Source: ARC from the publisher
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around— and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he's been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo's dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? and if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.
Welcome to Weep.

Lazlo Strange would put his age at around twenty years old, but he can't be sure because he's an orphan, and like all foundlings in the Kingdom of Zosma, he was given the surname Strange. He was raised by the monks of Zemonan Abbey. As a child he loved to listen to stories told by one of the older brothers, and he enjoyed playing outside in the woods, despite the beatings he would receive afterwards. At age thirteen he was sent to the Great Library and there he remained. He was taken on as a librarian and soon began to write his own books about his favourite topic, the Unseen City, said to be on the continent of Namaa. Fifteen years ago the name of the city was known, but something caused it to disappear and from then on the city was only known as Weep.

A new book by Laini Taylor is definitely cause for celebration and I was very excited to read the first book in her new duology.

Strange the Dreamer is unique, heartbreaking, captivating, and magical. But, the beginning threw me a little, starting with the epilogue. I couldn't get the scene out of my mind, and it acted as a distraction as I kept waiting for that scene to happen in the story. I also found the pace to be quite slow as there was a great deal of backstory to get through. It was interesting and intriguing, but I couldn't help wondering when something was going to happen.

I shouldn't have worried so much because of course things did eventually happen, and about 200 pages into the book I was finally hooked. It mostly had to do with two of the main characters meeting, well sort-of meeting, and their relationship absolutely won me over.

The prose is beautiful, as to be expected. Heavily descriptive, it felt as though I was wading through words and imagery. I really couldn't read this book quickly, the writing forced me to slow down and savour it.

Strange the Dreamer is a slow burn sort of a story. There is a lot of scene setting and character backstory to begin with, but once the story picks up momentum, the mystery and romance will ensnare you completely.

Thank you to Hachette for my copy.

Cover design: Jantine Zandbergen

The UK/Aussie definitely got the better cover version for Strange the Dreamer, the intricate gold pattern on royal blue is just perfect.

For nails to match Strange the Dreamer, I started with a base of blue, sponged on a lighter blue, and then used gold for the detailing.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Published March 1, 2017 by Walker Books Australia
Source: the publisher
Rating: 5 stars

From the blurb: Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

The Hate U Give is Angie Thomas' debut novel. Set in the fictional suburb of Garden Heights, sixteen year old Starr Carter lives with her mum, dad, younger brother, and her older half-brother. At age ten she saw her best friend killed in a drive-by shooting and not long after that her parents decided to send the kids to Williamson Prep, a private school in another suburb. Now, after attending a party, she is the witness to another murder, this time at the hands of a police officer. Starr must walk the line between protecting herself and her family, and speaking up for justice.

Believe the hype. The Hate U Give is every bit as good as you've heard. What's even more impressive is that this is a debut novel. It needs to be in the hands of all teens, and adults, too.

At the heart of this story is Starr. A girl who feels as though she needs two personalities. She has to be black enough for Garden Heights, but she has to watch how black she is at school. She never wants to give her white classmates or teachers a reason to think of her as the angry black girl. She's been raised to watch herself around police, she knows to keep her hands in sight and not to make sudden movements. She struggles with switching between her two worlds and doesn't want them to ever collide.

The focus on family and community was heartwarming. Starr's got the support of an amazing extended family, and she's been raised to value her community and neighbourhood. It was great to read a story where the parents are involved the whole way through, and a story that depicted an open relationship where communication was valued.

I feel as though the alternative title for this book could have been "How do you solve a problem like America?" Where do you even begin to try and fix things? How can you change the minds of people who are racist? How do you stop the police force and judicial system from treating minorities unfairly? You start with sharing stories like this one. This story is heartbreaking and all too true. It's hard enough being a teenage girl, without also having to worry about being shot just for being black. Teens shouldn't have to see their friends murdered, let alone by police who should be protecting them. Starr's PTSD and fear after the murder was so palpable and she coped with it all amazingly. Her story is something to get people to face up to what's happening, to listen, and to show support.

Ableist language: crazy, lame, idiot, fool, dumb.

The Hate U Give is a story that needs to be read by everyone. It's a story of family, loyalty, and standing up for what is right.

Thank you to Walker Books for my copy.

Cover illustration: Debra Cartwright
Cover design: Jenna Stempel

I love that the UK/Australian edition put a black girl on the cover because this is something that publishers used to avoid, but it's not really the most eye-catching of cover designs. The American edition is a lot more iconic and memorable, so I decided to do nails inspired by it and the story.

Starr loves sneakers and she's an excellent basketball player so I painted a couple of nails with Nikes and basketballs. Tupac is also mentioned often throughout the story, so I did nails inspired by the bandana he was so often photographed wearing.

Monday, 6 March 2017

All in the Blue Unclouded Weather, Dresses of Red and Gold, and The Sky in Silver Lake by Robin Klein

All in the Blue Unclouded Weather (The Melling sisters #1), Dresses of Red and Gold (The Melling sisters #2), and The Sky in Silver Lake (The Melling sisters #3) by Robin Klein
Published Feb 27, 2017 by Text Publishing (first published in 1991, 1992, 1995)
Source: the publisher
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: All in the Blue Unclouded Weather begins the story of the Melling sisters, four girls growing up in an Australian country town in the post war years. Vivienne is the youngest, always the last to wear the hand-me-down clothes—after Grace and Heather and Cathy—and always longing for something new and special. But although life is hard for the Melling family and the sisters have their tiffs, this is a heartwarming and often humorous story of loyalty and affection—under blue unclouded skies.
In Dresses of Red and Gold, the Melling sisters and their mother are preparing for a wedding. Cathy is to be bridesmaid and her dress is a thing of awe and beauty, but not in Cathy’s eyes—she hates the idea of being a bridesmaid. Vivienne would love to wear it, and perhaps she will.
In The Sky in Silver Lace, The Melling family has moved from Wilgawa to the city suburb of Lacey’s Bay. There’s a new school, a new place to live and new friends to make—this is exciting, but also terrifying, especially when the first potential friend Vivienne meets is large, bold and threatening.

Robin Klein is a name I know well, I'm sure a lot of Australian readers would too. In school we read Hating Alison Ashley, and I think we also put on a play of it as well. But I don't think I ever read the Melling sisters series. When I saw Text Publishing were re-releasing them with gorgeous new covers, I jumped at the chance to finally read these well-loved Australian classics.

All in the Blue Unclouded Weather is the first in the three book series about the Melling sisters: Grace, Heather, Cathy, and Viviene. They live in a small rural town called Wilgawa. Their dad is often away prospecting. When he is home, he's an embarrassment to them because of his homemade inventions and repetitive, fanciful stories. Their mother writes for the local paper and is often forgetful and confused. They're regularly visited by their cousin, Isobel Dion.

The book is made up of several stories, each one focused on a different character or event, and Klein's writing allows the reader to get to know the girls immediately. From the beginning I fell in love with the Melling sisters, and their loud, chaotic life. Their constant bickering, gossiping, and antics were so entertaining. My favourite would have to be Viviene and she also seemed to be the most well-developed character. She's the youngest and is so fed up of being poor. She hates that she gets clothes that have been worn by her three older sisters. She hates that she never gets brand new shoes. She hates that Majorie Powell won't invite her over to her beautiful house. I adored Viv's indignation as well as her imagination and love of the written word. She often quotes literature or poetry to herself and this endeared her to me even more.

Not only do we get to know the Melling sisters, but we're introduced to other residents of Wilgawa. Majorie Powell is a bully, she never invites people over and she terrorises the Gathin family. I felt for little Nancy Tuckett, harassed by her mother, and so bemused by the chaos of the Melling household. And dear cousin Isobel, so funny and fickle, not sure if she wants to be a Hollywood actress or a nun.

The second book in the series, Dresses of Red and Gold, still has a strong focus on Viv, but Klein also allows the reader to get to know Heather a little better via her story of community service. There's a strong emphasis on doing good in this book, an influence from their local church, but the girls often find it hard to be good because sometimes that means missing out or going without.
Another change in the second book is that Grace has left the family and moved to the city to study and work. The three girls that remain are even more aware now of the money troubles their family faces.

The third and final book in the series is The Sky in Silver Lace. The family, minus Mr Melling, have moved to the city, but they don't have a permanent place to stay. First they stay with family, where they are made to feel unwanted and in the way. Then Mrs Melling takes a live-in housekeeper job for a stern old Captain, and finally they move to a small apartment of their own.

Heather and Cathy attend a girls school where each of them navigates new friendships and tries to blend in as best they can with their second-hand uniforms. Viv is scared of the kids in the city, she's so lonely and would love to make new friends.

This was the saddest of the three books because I knew it was the last, and I noticed a sense of melancholy woven through the stories. It was hard to say farewell to the family, but I was left with a sense of hope. The girls have proven their strength and adaptability over the course of the series, and I could imagine they would make the best of their lives going forward.

All in the Blue Unclouded Weather, Dresses of Red and Gold, and The Sky in Silver Lake are such wonderful, honest, Australian stories, still relevant to readers today. The sisters are a delight to read about, their adventures are entertaining and touching. I hope a new generation of readers fall in love with this family as much as I did.

Thank you to Text Publishing for my copies.

Cover illustrations: Eisfrei and Sundra
Cover design: Imogen Stubbs
Series design: W.H. Chong 

Text Publishing consistently have some of the best book covers around, and these new additions to the Text Classics series are beautiful. I love the watercolour illustrations, the yellow gingham background, and the borders made up of different leaves. 

I decided to combine all three covers into one manicure. I began with a pale yellow base and painted on the yellow gingham print. Then I painted all the different items over the top.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley
Published January 31, 2017 by Harlequin Teen
Source: ARC via Netgalley
Rating: 2 stars

From the blurb: Fifteen-year-old Aki Simon has a theory. And it's mostly about sex. No, it isn't that kind of theory. Aki already knows she's bisexual—even if, until now, it's mostly been in the hypothetical sense. Aki has dated only guys so far, and her best friend, Lori, is the only person who knows she likes girls, too. Actually, Aki's theory is that she's got only one shot at living an interesting life—and that means she's got to stop sitting around and thinking so much. It's time for her to actually do something. Or at least try. So when Aki and Lori set off on a church youth-group trip to a small Mexican town for the summer and Aki meets Christa—slightly older, far more experienced—it seems her theory is prime for the testing. But it's not going to be easy. For one thing, how exactly do two girls have sex, anyway? And more important, how can you tell if you're in love? It's going to be a summer of testing theories—and the result may just be love.

I really wanted to love Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley. The cover is beautiful and I like that the publisher didn't shy away from showing two girls who are clearly more than friends on the cover. Though, once I started reading and realised that Aki is black, I thought it was a bit of a shame that the sunset-tint used on the cover didn't make this fact obvious.

My first issue was with the representation of a biracial black girl because this book is written by a white author. I'm white, so I'm not really in a position to comment, but I did wonder at the rep and would be keen to read reviews written by black Americans. Aki did talk about often being the only black girl, but this wasn't something explored in depth.

My second issue was with the LGBTQIAP rep. Aki is discovering who she is, at the start of the story she's sure she's bi, but as her summer progresses she becomes unsure, sometimes wondering if she's lesbian not bi. Her best friend refers to her as gay, so does her brother, and usually Aki doesn't bother to correct them. She makes assumptions about Christa, a girl she meets at the camp, and Aki isn't as understanding as she could be. Christa is extremely worried about how her parents would react if they found out she was bi, but Aki doesn't seem to respect this, even though Christa is distressed several times throughout the story.

A lot of this I could write off as simply the experience of being a teen. Just because you know you're bi, doesn't mean you instinctively know what to say and how to react to the things people say or do. Aki is only 15 years old and hasn't had a lot of life experience. I'm sure this is something that would change with time and education. And just because you're sure about what you are, doesn't mean other people are, and you can't force them. But on the other hand, it could be interpreted as bi erasure and teens might read this and think the things that are said in the book are fine or that they don't have a right to speak up when people say the wrong thing.

The exploration of sex between two girls was well done and I applaud the author and publisher for the level of honesty and detail. There are girls who'll read this and feel empowered, who will know what they feel and what they want are absolutely ok. The issue of safe sex was addressed too - Aki seeks out a college health centre and is given free gloves and dental dams. I did think the gloves were overkill, I've never read a scene where a boy and girl have to use gloves to touch each other, so why should girls have to use them? But perhaps this is something taught in US schools. 

I found the story really slow and lacking in direction. Normally I read YA books in 1-3 days. 5-6 days is slow for me. This book took me 12 days! I found it forgettable and it was a real chore to get through it. The drama felt forced and over the top. There was a lot of secret keeping and arguments that became repetitive. There was bullying involving a gay teen that was never addressed. I kept wondering why the story was set in Mexico, because the group didn't seem to do much while there. Often the story felt like one long PSA rather than a narrative. Overall the story could have been tightened up and probably shortened to keep the pace at a reasonable speed.

Ableist language: dumb, idiot, insane.

Our Own Private Universe was a little disappointing, but definitely worth a read for the bi love story, especially for teens who find themselves in a similar situation to Aki. We need more diverse stories, and while this one had some minor issues, it could be just the book teens need to read.

Thank you to Harlequin Teen for the ARC via Netgalley.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

February 2017 Reading and Writing Recap

I'm back with my monthly reading and writing recap, a feature I started last month.

February TBR at the start of the month


I read 18 books in February: 13 were physical copies, 2 were ebooks, and 3 were audio books.

My reading felt a little off this month. I found it hard to pay attention and a couple of books took me longer than I usually like. That's never a good sign for me, it usually means I'm not enjoying the book but I don't dislike it enough to DNF.

The physical copies I read this month, minus some library books

You can follow what I'm reading via Goodreads or my bookstagram account: @booksandmanicures.

On a related note, I got new bookshelves! My boyfriend and I paid a visit to Ikea and picked up three Kallax shelves, put them together, and added castors so they're easy to move. These are up in the loft which is where I store all the books I've read and want to keep. This is triple the bookshelf space I had previously so I am one happy booklover.

I also got the chance to meet Melbourne YA author Nicole Hayes when she visited Sydney for a bookshop tour. I went up to Beachside Bookshop and got my books signed.


In January my goal was to have 60K words by the end of February. I'm happy to report I achieved that. Yesterday I reached just over 60K words and I'm calling my first draft DONE! As I mentioned, I haven't been editing during the writing process, so of course I've already thought of a dozen things I want to add or remove from the story. But, I'm going to take Stephen King's advice and leave my first draft for six weeks and move onto something else before I reread and begin editing.

As of today I'm going to begin work on a new story. Again it will be a contemporary YA novel set in Australia, and I'm going to do some planning and plotting before I start writing. My rough average seems to be 20K words a month, so I'm going to make that my goal for March.

I had one writing book I wanted to read last month, but unfortunately I neglected to start it until only a few days ago. The book is How Writing Works by Roslyn Petelin. It's aimed at professional writers, but there's advice in there that's applicable to creative writing too. It's due back at the library, but it's a book I'll be returning to in the future.

Some websites and blogs I'd like to check out this month:

Monday, 27 February 2017

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Published March 2017 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps - gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young beautiful Roza goes missing, the people of Bone Gap aren't surprised. After all, it isn't the first time someone's slipped away and left Finn and Sean O'Sullivan on their own.
Finn knows that's not what happened with Roza. He knows she was ripped from the cornfields by a man whose face he can't remember. But only Petey Willis, the beekeeper's fiery daughter, suspects that lurking behind Finn's fearful shyness is a story worth uncovering.

Seventeen year old Finn O'Sullivan lives in the small Illinois town of Bone Gap. It's the summer before his senior year and he's planning to work with his best friend Miguel, and to study for college applications. Finn lives with his older brother, Sean. Sean gave up his dream of studying to become a doctor when their mum left to live in Portland with a man she started seeing. The boys have lived alone together ever since, until Roza showed up one year ago. It's been two months since Finn saw her get kidnapped, but no one believed him and he's the only one who wants to continue the search for her.

The writing in Laura Ruby's debut, Bone Gap, is beautiful and I immediately found myself immersed in Finn's story. He was admirable from the start. He's put up with so much; his parents leaving, the names he's called by the townsfolk, the bullying, but he's turned out to be a gentle, loyal boy. He's also different from other people, he can hear animals and plants talking to him.

Roza's story was just as intriguing but even more heartbreaking. I kept trying to figure out what was really happening to her, so sure that eventually everything she was going through would be shown to be an illusion or a hallucination.

I adored the blooming romance between Finn and Petey. It was so awkward, honest, and realistic. It was beautiful and sweet, and gave each of them a chance to grow and change.

I don't read a lot of magical realism so I think I was expecting a more conclusive ending, sort of like when you've spent time reading a book with an unreliable narrator and at the end you find out the truth. That's not the case here and I just accepted it. Did I want a little more? Sure. But, I understand that's not the way a story like this works, and I was happy with the way things ended.

Ableist language: nuts, dumb, idiot, lunatic, lame, crazy.

Bone Gap is an absolutely stunning and impressive debut. It's beautifully written, detailed, and imaginative. You will fall in love with the main characters and be swept away in their story.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my ARC.

Cover illustration: Melissa Castrillon

This is such a beautifully illustrated cover and it suits the story perfectly. It's also the sort of cover that I love to paint because it's so detailed and colourful. I started with a base of dark purple polish and used acrylic paint for the illustration.

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty
Published February 20, 2017 by Harper Collins
Source: purchased
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina try to catch up once a year for some days away together. Now in their thirties, commitments have pulled them in different directions, and the closeness they once enjoyed growing up seems increasingly elusive. This year, determined to revive their intimacy, they each share a secret in an anonymous letter to be read out during the holiday. But instead of bringing them closer, the revelations seem to drive them apart. Then a fifth letter is discovered, venting long-held grudges, and it seems that one of the women is in serious danger. But who was the author? And which of them should be worried?

The Fifth Letter is Nicole Moriarty's third novel. Set in Sydney, the story follows a group of women in their mid-thirties. Joni, Deb, Trin, and Eden have been friends since they were twelve years old. Joni was the one who picked them out of her homeroom class and the girls have remained close for the past twenty-three years. Lately they've drifted apart and Joni feels as though she's the only one who cares. Determined to reconnect, she arranges another of their annual holidays, but the appearance of a threatening letter changes everything.

Told over multiple time lines, I found The Fifth Letter completely captivating. The flashbacks to 1993 perfectly captured high school in the 90s, and highlighted how the group dynamic first started. Joni's confessional conversations were a humorous touch, and the main plot line was a realistic look at the way friendships shift and develop over time. Even between close friends there can be rivalries, grudges, pettiness, and I'm sure readers will be able to relate to aspects of what the girls go through.

Each of the four main characters felt equally well developed, and though I favoured Joni, I liked that she wasn't perfect, she had flaws and secrets, just like the other three.

I found myself intrigued from the moment the fifth letter was printed, and that curiosity only grew over the course of the story. One minute I'd be sure I knew which letter belonged to each girl and who had written the fifth letter, and then something else would be revealed and my certainty would vanish. The plot, the twists, and the conclusion were all cleverly thought out and kept me guessing until the end.

Ableist language: idiot, crazy, insane, lame.

The Fifth Letter is a compelling mystery with a strong focus on the bonds formed between girls and women. The story is perfectly paced, surprising, and touching. I found it hard to put down and would highly recommend it to adults and older YA readers, too.

International readers: The Fifth Letter is also available in the USA and UK.

The Aussie cover is definitely the best version of the cover for The Fifth Letter, I love the pastel look and it was an easy one to paint.