Saturday, 31 December 2016

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz
Published September 2016 by Harlequin Teen
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: Jasmine de los Santos has always done what’s expected of her. Pretty and popular, she’s studied hard, made her Filipino immigrant parents proud, and is ready to reap the rewards in the form of a full college scholarship.
And then everything shatters. A national scholar award invitation compels her parents to reveal the truth: their visas expired years ago. Her entire family is illegal. That means no scholarships, maybe no college at all, and the very real threat of deportation. But Jasmine won't give up. Because when the rules you lived by no longer apply, the only thing to do is make up your own.

Something in Between is a story closed to Melissa de la Cruz's heart as it closely mirrors her own story of immigrating to the USA. Jasmine de los Santos has worked hard at school, she's a perfectionist. She's cheer captain, she volunteers and she's determined to get into college. Her parents have set her a good example, both work hard and they expect Jasmine to do well. Jasmine's the sort of character that a lot of high school students will be able to relate to. There's so much pressure on kids today, and even though she feels tired, she will not admit it.

It was easy to understand Jasmine's fear and and anger when she finds out her parents have been keeping their status a secret. Jasmine doesn't want to see all her hard work go to waste. She left the Philippines age nine and no longer thinks of it as home.

Her relationship with Royce was sweet, though it did border on being a little dramatic at some points in the story. I also felt like the middle section dragged on a bit and the book could have been edited down a bit to keep the momentum going.

Something in Between is a story filled with hope and promise. It will appeal to teens and adults, and it's the sort of story we need to be reading now more than ever.

Abeist language: spaz, crazy, lame, dumb.

Thank you to Harlequin Teen for my review copy.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Assassin's Heart by Sarah Ahiers

Assassin's Heart by Sarah Ahiers
Published September 2016 by Harlequin Teen
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: In the kingdom of Lovero, nine rival Families of assassins lawfully kill people for a price. As a highly skilled member of one of these powerful clans, seventeen-year-old Lea Saldana has always trusted in the strength of her Family. Until she awakens to find them murdered and her home in flames. The Da Vias, the Saldanas’ biggest enemy, must be responsible—and Lea should have seen it coming. But her secret relationship with the Da Vias’ son, Val, has clouded her otherwise killer instinct—and given the Da Vias more reason than ever to take her Family down.
Racked with guilt and shattered over Val’s probable betrayal, Lea sets out to even the score, with her heart set on retaliation and only one thought clear in her mind: make the Da Vias pay.

I've had some good luck this year when it comes to reading unsolicited review copies. I'm not always a huge fan of fantasy, but more often that not when I've given an unknown book a try, I've enjoyed it.

I'd never heard of Assassin's Heart before receiving a copy, but I was intrigued by the unique premise. It started out really strong, I loved the idea of feuding assassin families, each with their own family mask and territory. I really liked that seventeen year old Lea was already in a relationship - finally a book that doesn't need to focus on a developing relationship. But things changed quickly in this story and while I was disappointed that the original relationship didn't last, it was still an intriguing and mysterious story.

Lea's love and loyalty to her family was admirable. It was understandable that she would want revenge, even if she had to include her boyfriend in the list of possible suspects. Lea is excellent at what she does, she's worked hard to become a skilled assassin and now she has to put all her knowledge to use to avenge her family.

However, once Lea reaches Yvain, the plot really slowed down and became quite repetitive. Lea is constantly swearing to herself that she will get revenge on the Da Vias, but she doesn't actually make a lot of progress. There's a lot of wandering around town, being captured/almost captured, escaping, training...but it really started to drag and I would have liked a bit more urgency.

I did like that the new romance that develops between Lea and Les wasn't rushed. They spend a lot of time together before things start to develop and it definitely wasn't the focus of Lea's story.

The ending wrapped things up nicely but it also felt like there was a sequel to come, and I'd be interested to see what direction the follow up would take. Overall Assassin's Heart was a surprising and interesting fantasy novel, filled with faith, love, and forgiveness.

Ableist Language: dumb, crazy, lunatic, idiot.

Thank you to Harlequin Teen for my review copy.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Beautiful Malice, Sweet Damage, and Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James

I've had Rebecca James' first two books on my bookshelf for years now, but for some reason I never got around to reading them. I decided this month I'd have a Rebecca James week and I borrowed her third book from the library. I'm so glad I finally read her books, they're fantastic! Below are my thoughts on each.

Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James
Published May 2010 by Allen & Unwin
Source: purchased
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Katherine has moved away from her shattered family to start afresh in Sydney. There she keeps her head down until she is befriended by the charismatic, party-loving Alice, who brings her out of her shell. But there is a dark side to Alice, something seductive yet threatening. And as Katherine learns the truth about Alice, their tangled destinies spiral to an explosive and devastating finale. 

Beautiful Malice is Rebecca James' debut novel. It's the story of seventeen year old Katherine Anderson (formerly Boydell). Her younger sister Rachel is dead, and Katherine has moved to Sydney to stay with her aunt so she can escape the aftermath. At her new high school she tries to keep to herself but she catches the attention of a classmate, Alice Parrie, and soon Katherine is swept up by Alice's personality and attention. 

There's a skill needed as an author to reveal a major part of the ending at the beginning - in this case the death of a main character or two, and still keep the story riveting and mysterious. Rebecca James has that skill. From the beginning I believed I knew who was going to die at the end but I was still curious about Katherine's past and how the story would unfold.

If my reading this year has taught me anything, it's that I don't often feel a lot of sympathy towards main characters dealing with grief, if the character they're grieving is unknown to me. But in this case, the reader gets to know Rachel via Katherine's backstory. Each time Rachel's death got closer, I became more anxious. At one point I had to stop reading because I knew I was about to read the most horrific scene and I felt too tense to continue. It's been a while since a book has elicited such a physical response in me.

The relationship between Katherine and Alice was an insightful look at female friendships. Katherine feels lucky just to be noticed by Alice, and so allows most of the power to sit with Alice. But Katherine's strength grew over the course of the story, her happiness slowly increasing the more she took control.

I have to say that when I realised that I had guessed incorrectly at the identity of one of the characters who would later die, I was sad. I also felt the final death scene wasn't as dramatic as I thought it would be, and it felt a little rushed.

Ableist language: idiot, insane, crazy, maniac, psycho, dumb, lunatic, moron.

Beautiful Malice is a thrilling, mysterious, and devastating story featuring believable characters with complicated lives. 

Sweet Damage by Rebecca James
Published April 2013 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: When Tim Ellison finds a cheap room to rent in the perfect location in Sydney it looks like a huge stroke of luck. In fact the room comes with a condition, and the owner of the house, the mysterious Anna London, is unfriendly and withdrawn. When strange and terrifying things start happening in the house at night, Tim wonders if taking the room is a mistake. But then his feelings for Anna start to change, and when her past comes back with a vengeance, Tim is caught right in the middle of it.

Sweet Damage is Rebecca James' second novel. Tim Ellison is in his early twenties but doesn't feel the same drive as some of his friends to go out and start a career. He enjoys swimming and surfing, working as the cook at his dad's restaurant, and pining after his ex-girlfriend, Lilla. But living with Lilla and her new boyfriend is not working out, so when a room becomes available in a beautiful old house at a low rental price, Tim takes it, despite wondering what the catch could be.

I immediately loved this story because it's set in Manly and Fairlight on Sydney's Northern Beaches. It provided a beautiful backdrop for the mystery, and I found it so easy to picture the locations described.

It was easy to like Tim, I admired him for not caving to the pressure to jump into a corporate job, just because it was expected of him. He's a loyal friend and a hard worker, but he also wants to enjoy life. While this was mostly Tim's story, Anna's perspective is also shown and I enjoyed the insight into her life. She has secrets and they're slowly revealed over the course of the story. I felt protective of her, and was glad Tim came into her life.

The setting, an old house called Fairview, added an element of mystery, and some of the occurrences were a little spooky and creepy. I did work out the culprit before the reveal, but I had completely different motives in mind, and I thought they had an accomplice - I'll share my thoughts on Goodreads because I can use spoiler tags.

Ableist language: insane, dumb, idiot, crazy, lunatic, mad, mental.

Sweet Damage is the type of new adult novel I can enjoy. It's mysterious, captivating, and clever. It focuses on life after high school, friendships, and relationships, without unnecessary drama or stereotypical characters. 

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the review copy.

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James
Published October 2014 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the library
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Cooper Bartholomew's body is found at the foot of a cliff.
That's the official finding, that's what everyone believes.
Cooper's girlfriend, Libby, has her doubts. They'd been
happy, in love. Why would he take his own life?
As Libby searches for answers, and probes more deeply
into what really happened the day Cooper died, she and
her friends unravel a web of deception and betrayal.
Are those friends – and enemies – what they seem?
Who is hiding a dangerous secret? And will the truth set them all free? 

Rebecca James' third book, Cooper Bartholomew is Dead, is set in the fictional town of Walloma. Cooper worked as a carpenter and furniture builder and lived with his mum. He and Libby Lawson reconnected after a chance meeting and began dating, despite not really hanging out together when they were in high school. Each of their friends has reasons for not wanting them to date, but they slowly fall in love. When Cooper is found dead, Libby knows it can't have been suicide and is determined to figure out what really happened.

Told from multiple perspectives and over two timelines - then and now, this story was compelling from the beginning. Knowing Cooper died didn't mean much at first, but as the story progressed and his character was revealed, it became much more emotional because I wanted to be able to change the outcome of the story.

Rebecca James really excels at writing realistic characters with depth. They never seem stereotypical or flat, there's always more to them, and it was intriguing to get to know the four main characters, Cooper, Libby, Seb, and Claire. Even the ones who were prickly at first grew on me, so it was all the more devastating to realise what had happened.

Ableist language: psycho, dumb, idiot, insane, crazy, midget.

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead is a mysterious, captivating story filled with intertwined lives, fully-realised characters, and a heartbreaking ending. 

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Portraits of Celina by Sue Whiting

Portraits of Celina by Sue Whiting
Published April 2013 by Walker Books
Source: the publisher
Rating: 2 stars

From the blurb: Celina O’Malley was sixteen years old when she disappeared. Now, almost forty years later, Bayley is sleeping in Celina’s room, wearing her clothes, hearing her voice. What does Celina want? And who will suffer because of it?A ghost story. A love story. A story of revenge.
Portraits of Celina by Sue Whiting is set in the fictional rural town of Tallowood. Sixteen year old Bayley Alexander and her family have moved there, leaving behind the beachside Sydney suburb of Cronulla. Her father died eight months ago and Bayley feels as though she's the one being relied upon to keep the family together. Her little brother has anxiety, her older sister is binge drinking, and her mum quit her job and decided to move them to an old family home beside a lake. Almost forty years ago Celina O'Malley, a distant relative of Bayley's, disappeared from the house and was never found. Now Bayley thinks she's being haunted and needs to figure out what Celina wants.

I've had Portraits of Celina on my shelf for three years and thought I'd finally get around to reading it over the end of year holidays. Unfortunately this book and I did not gel at all. I wanted to quit pretty early on but forced myself to keep reading in the hopes it would improve, finally I skim read the ending just to get it over with.

One of the first things I noticed was the overuse of the characters' names. During almost every conversation, each character is repeatedly named. No one talks like that in real life, it's more of a tv/movie trope, and it continued throughout the entire book.

The repetition continued with Bayley's thoughts. All she thinks about is Celina, often repeating her full name, Celina O'Malley, again and again. Not to mention thinking and talking about the peace chest and the clothing it contained. Perhaps this repetition could be seen as Celina's ghostly presence taking over Bayley's life, but it made for dull reading because it wasn't really Bayley's story, it was Celina's.

Another issue I had was the language. I'll list the ableist language below, but Bayley was constantly referring to herself as an idiot/moron/lunatic, and she also used these insults towards Oliver, the boy she has an insta-crush on, and in return her called her 'crazy eyes'. Told in first person, the reader unfortunately spends a lot of time in Bayley's had, and this habit really grated on me. Not only was she always insulting herself and others, she was constantly question-talking to herself - this is always jarring and interrupts the narrative.

A lot of the plot felt manufactured, as if certain elements had been shoved in to provide a typical YA read. The romance felt forced, there was no spark between Bayley and Oliver. They interacted but their dialogue never sounded authentic, and often their encounters ended in one of them flouncing off (there were a lot of overly dramatic scenes in this story). The ghostly element never felt spooky or scary. The murderer was obvious from the beginning of the book, and the final scene was predictable and anticlimactic.

Ableist language: crazy, cracked, nutter, idiot, mental, pinhead, wacko, psycho, lame, loony, fool, dumb, insane, moron.

Ultimately, Portraits of Celina didn't work for me at all. The setting and main story arc had potential, but unfortunately they were let down by the slow pace and all the repetition.

Thank you to Walker Books for my review copy.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Nevin

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Nevin
Published October 6, 2016 by Penguin Random House
Source: the publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed 'America's Fattest Teen'. But no one's taken the time to look past her weight to get to see who she really is. Since her mum's death, she's been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby's ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin too. Yes, he's got swagger, but he's also mastered the art of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a secret: he can't recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He's the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can't understand what's going on with the inner workings of his own brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don't get too close to anyone.Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game which lands them in group counseling, Libby and Jack are both angry, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world - theirs and yours.

I never got around to reading Jennifer Nevin's debut, All the Bright Places, but it's a book I've been meaning to read because I know it's well-loved. So when I saw her second novel was being released, I jumped at the chance to read it.

Holding Up the Universe is a cleverly told story of two very distinct and realistic characters. Both Libby and Jack grabbed me from the beginning and I was intrigued to get to know them. Libby is amazing, she has been through so much from her mother's sudden death to her life-threatening weight gain, but she is unbelievably strong and determined. Jack is dealing with prosopagnosia - the inability to recognise faces, even those of your loved ones and closest friends. His fear of being teased, lied to, or attacked was so palpable, it was easy to see why his anger got out of control.

It was endearing to watch the relationship between Libby and Jack develop and to see each of them grow over the course of the story. Each of their conditions is written about honestly and with sensitivity. The ending was sweet and hopeful, and left me a little teary.

Ableist language: freak, dumb, crazy, idiot, lame, imbecile, moron, maniac.

Thank you to Random House Australia for the ARC via Netgalley.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Fly on the Wall by E.Lockhart

Fly on the Wall by E.Lockhart
Published: December 2016
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: At the Manhattan School of Art and Music, where everyone is unique and everyone is 'different', Gretchen Yee feels ordinary. It doesn't help that she's known as the girl who sits alone at lunch, drawing pictures of her favourite superhero, just so she won't have to talk to anyone. Her best (and only real) friend is there for her, but that's only if she's not busy - she's always busy!It's no surprise that Gretchen isn't exactly successful in the boy department. Her ex-boyfriend is a cold-fish-sometimes-flirty ex who she can't stop bumping into. Plus, she has a massive crush on a boy named, Titus but is too scared to make the first move. One minute he seems like a sensitive guy, the next, he's a completely different person when he's with his friends. She can't seem to figure boys out! Gretchen has one wish: to be a fly on the wall in the boy's locker room. What are boys really like? What do they talk about?This is the story of how one girl's wish came true.

E.Lockhart has been one of my favourite authors, ever since I read the Ruby Oliver series. I quickly followed that with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, Dramarama, and We Were Liars. I've been putting off reading Fly on the Wall because it would be my last book of hers until her next release, but I'm so glad I finally read it.

Gretchen was so easy to like. She's a talented artist but even at her school, which specialises in the arts, she feels as though she's not good enough. She loves to draw in a comic/graphic novel style and one teacher in particular is very critical of her. Gretchen's also dealing with the feeling that her best friend Katya is pulling away from her, the divorce of her parents, and she fears she'll never have the courage to tell Titus, her long term crush, how she feels.

All of these issues will make for a relatable read for teenagers. The one things that stands out as different from the typical teenage experience, is that for a week Gretchen spends time as a fly in the boys' locker room.

What I liked about this was that how or why Gretchen became a fly isn't a priority. What she learns about boys, the school, and herself, are far more important. Gretchen doesn't dwell on it, she just accepts it and it leads to growth and change.

Ableist language: half-wit, idiot, insane, dumb, maniac.

Problematic language: Titus' friends use words such as fag, faggot, and gay as insults a lot. But, Titus eventually tells them off which was great to see.

Fly on the Wall is a quick, fun, honest, unique story that is perfect for high school teenagers.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my copy. RRP A$16.99.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily (Dash & Lily #2) by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Published November 2016 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: Dash and Lily have now been going out for nearly a year - and it's been a really hard year. Lily's beloved grandfather had a heart attack and fell down some stairs. He survived, but his recovery has been slow. Lily insists that everything's fine. But Dash knows that her spirit is sagging. Her enthusiasm has been exhausted. And even with Christmastime, her favourite time, approaching, she doesn't really feel...anything.Action must be taken. There are twelve days until Christmas. Twelve days for friends and family to take Manhattan by storm to help Lily recapture the magic of New York City in December. Twelve days to find Lily's cheer, and help her fall in love with life again. Twelve days left for Dash and Lily...?

It's been almost five years since I read Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan but I had no problem slipping back into their world. It's been a year since we last caught up with them and it's now December 13. Dash still feels as though Lily's brother Langston hates him, but when he asks Dash to meet him, he goes along. Langston wants to talk about Lily. She hasn't been happy since her grandfather had a heart attack. Lily has tried to take on his full time care herself, while also attending school and running her dog walking business. Dash feels as though she's slipping away from him and he agrees to try and cheer her up before Christmas Day.

I don't remember much of the first book, but it was easy to get to know Dash and Lily again. They are both such fully formed characters, it's hard to imagine they don't actually exist. Because we get both sides of their story, it's easy to see where they're going wrong. Neither of them are saying what they actually need or feel. Dash feels useless and assumes Lily wants time alone. Lily feels as though Dash doesn't love her and finds her to be a chore. It was really fun and sweet to watch them over the course of two weeks. Both of them go to great lengths to do nice things for each other, even if they don't always turn out as planned.

Ableist language: dumb, lame.

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily is a really quick read, and one that will have you wishing it was Christmastime. It's fun, heartwarming, and full of hope.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy. RRP A$19.99.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
Published September 2016 by Harper Collins AU
Source: the publisher
Rating: 5 stars

From the blurb: Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At eighteen she's already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she's learned how to forget it. The thick glass of a mason jar cuts deep and the pain washes out the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don't have to think about your father and the bridge. Your best friend who is gone forever. Or your mother who has nothing left to give you.
Every new scar hardens Charlie's heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen to find your way back from the edge. 

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow is an absolutely stunning debut novel. She states in the author's note that it took her nine years and fourteen drafts to write. That dedication really shows in the quality of her writing. I am so impressed with just how amazing this book is.

Seventeen year old Charlotte Davis is in a facility for girls that self-harm. She's undergoing treatment after a diagnosis of NSSI (non-suicidal self-harm). She's had a hard and rocky life up until this point: her father committed suicide when she was eight. Her mother verbally and physically abused her. Her best friend attempted suicide and suffered brain damage. She left home and lived on the street for eight months, sharing a van with a drug addicted boy and his friend, winding up at a house where a man kept girls drugged and sold time with them to the men who frequented the residence.

A less-skilled author would have made a mess of a story like Charlie's. It would have been overly dramatic, angsty, forced, disrespectful. But Glasgow's sensitivity and experience shines through in this novel. She writes with honestly and compassion.

From the moment Charlie is introduced, I wanted to protect her. I found myself tearing up each time she was showed kindness by another character. I felt hopeful but also sad that she was having to go through life alone. I could understand each time she took a step backwards instead of forwards. It never felt as if she was deliberately self-sabotaging her recovery, it showed she was trying to cope the only way she knew how.

The pacing was really well done. It takes time for Charlie to reveal her past and her story is captivating. I could picture her life vividly and found myself completely absorbed.

There isn't a lot of self-harm in the story. Yes, it's mentioned a few times and described in detail, but this story is about so much more than that. It's about love and self-love. It's about hope and faith. It's about finding yourself and knowing your life is worth living.

Ableist language: crazy, freak, dumb, psycho, loony, wacko, loopy, mental, 'have a fit'.

Girl in Pieces is a heartbreaking and intense story of one girl's recovery, but most importantly is full of hope. A beautiful and brutal story, it's now one of my favourite books of 2016 and all time.

Thank you to Harper Collins for my review copy.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Lobsters by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Lobsters by Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison
Published June 2014 by Chicken House
Source: purchased
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: Sam and Hannah only have the holidays to find 'The One'. Their lobster. But instead of being epic, their summer is looking awkward. They must navigate social misunderstandings, the plotting of well-meaning friends, and their own fears of being virgins for ever to find happiness. But fate is at work to bring them together. And in the end, it all boils down to love.

I love #UKYA as much as I #LoveOzYA so when I saw friends saying Lobsters was hilarious, I knew I had to read it. While I enjoyed it overall, the story felt a little forced and I definitely didn't find myself laughing out loud. My main issue is that stories that revolve around miscommunication annoy me to no end. When the plot could be solved by a character saying one short sentence, I lose all belief in the story. Sam and Hannah's problems could have been cut short as soon as they met after the party, but instead they're prolonged for the rest of the book. There was also lot of unnecessary drama and that never makes for a fun read.

Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood for this book, and I wouldn't mind giving it another go one day.

Ableist language: mental.

Cover design: Studio Helen

This is such a fun cover and suits the story perfectly.

I started by sponging on three green nail polishes: Barry M Mint Green, CG Higlight of my Summer and CG Too Yacht to Handle, I sponged on white polish for the clouds. I used acrylic paint for the lobsters and the daisies.