Monday, 27 March 2017

The House of Secrets by Sarra Manning

The House of Secrets by Sarra Manning
Published January 10, 2017 by Sphere
Source: Hachette Australia
Rating: 5 stars

From the blurb: An ordinary house on an ordinary street, built in 1936 and never lived in. Its rooms might be empty, but this house is full of secrets.
When Zoe and Win, raw and reeling from a recent tragedy, move into their new home it's meant to be a fresh start and a way to mend the holes in their relationship.
But pushed to the back of a cupboard is a suitcase that's been gathering dust for eighty years. Inside is a wedding dress, letters and a diary all belonging to a woman called Libby. And there's something else in the suitcase, something that echoes Zoe's own pain.
Zoe follows Libby's trail from Paris to Spain on the brink of Civil War to secret trysts in London, and as Libby finds the courage to live and love again, Zoe begins to let go of her own grief.
But when Libby's story takes a darker turn, Zoe becomes increasingly obsessed with discovering what really happened all those years ago. Because if Libby managed to get her happy ever after then maybe Zoe and Win can too . .

Sarra Manning is an author who can write for both YA and adult readers, and I'm always eager to read her latest book. The House of Secrets, her new adult release, follows the lives of two women living in London: Zoe in the present day, and Libby in 1936. This style of intertwined stories reminded me of Manning's previous adult release, After the Last Dance, and it's a style I really enjoy.

In January 1936 King George has just died. Libby, an actor and dancer, has moved in with her mother-in-law after her husband of only five months left her. She's healing after a painful incident and is need of a new job. She agrees to help out a married man in need of proof to allow his wife to divorce him, leading her to spend a weekend away with an older man, Hugo.

In 2016 Zoe and Win have just purchased an old house in Highgate. They had to jump through hoops to get it, but Zoe was determined to make it theirs and to fix it up themselves. Zoe and Win's relationship has been strained since it was discovered Zoe had an ectopic pregnancy, one that almost killed her. When they discover an old suitcase containing Libby's diary, Zoe becomes captivated by her life story.

Just as Zoe was captivated by Libby's story, I found this book captivating right from the start. Both women are in pain, physically and mentally, and it was easy to see why Zoe would pin her hopes on Libby's story. Their lives intertwined perfectly and it was easy to alternate between each point of view. Libby's story was intriguing as I just couldn't work out how her suitcase eventually ended up in the house. It was also fascinating to learn about the divorce laws of the time, and how that was reflected by King Edward's choice to abdicate so he could marry the woman he loved, despite the political backlash. Zoe's story was just as heartbreaking and I had my fingers crossed for her and Win the entire time.

The house in Highgate felt like another main character, it was so easy to picture due to the beautiful descriptions of each room. The progress of the renovations moved slowly, mirroring Zoe and Win's relationship as it began to rebuild. As with so many of Manning's books, the city of London features heavily and I always feel as though it's described with love and attention to detail. I could feel how much research had been done and it was shown in the vivid descriptions of both the past and present city.

Manning has a knack for writing about real relationships and I could see this being a book that a lot of readers relate to in one way or another. I found myself crying at different points because it was so sensitively written, especially when it came to dealing with the pregnancy difficulties both women experienced.

The House of Secrets is a compelling, heartfelt story of two women in different times, but with similar lives. It's beautifully written, well researched, and filled with unforgettable characters.

Thank you to Hachette for my copy.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Robin Klein

Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Robin Klein
Published Feb 27, 2017 by Text Publishing (first published 1989)
Source: the publisher
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Seymour is bored and lonely, and running from a gang of kids when he opens a back-lane gate. And there is Angie. She is older than Seymour, confident, cool and alluring, and she treats him with the affection of an older sister. Seymour is captivated—through Angie he is awakened to the fun and adventure in life. But Angie has a dark side—a secret that threatens to destroy her. And as Seymour begins to understand that all is not well he knows he has to help her.

Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Robin Klein is an iconic Australian classic. But, as I mentioned in my review of the Melling sister series, it's a book I missed out on reading as a child. I am thrilled that Text Publishing have released this beautiful new edition so that I could finally read this story.

Eleven year old Seymour Kerley has been sent to stay with a friend of the family, while his parents separate. It's the school holidays and there are plenty of things he'd rather be doing, but Thelma tells him he must stay in the house while she's out at work because Seymour's mother is afraid his father will try to kidnap him. Seymour knows his mother is being dramatic to garner attention and pity and eventually he leaves the safety of Thelma's property by jumping the back fence. After a chance meeting with twenty year old Angie Easterbrook, he beings exploring the city in her company.

Seymour is such a good kid. He tries his best to behave because his mother has bought him up to mind his manners and do as he's told. But, he's troubled by his parents' separation and doesn't think his father is being treated fairly. Watching him grow in confidence was wonderful. At the beginning of the book he's frightened of other children, but by the end of the book he's able to fend for himself.

Seymour's interactions with Angie are bittersweet. Adult readers will have an idea of the trouble Angie is in, but younger readers might be in Seymour's shoes, easily believing the stories she tells. It's clear Seymour is enamoured with Angie, she appears confident, in control, and so wordly to him.

Came Back to Show You I Could Fly is a story of friendship, loyalty, and compassion. It's simply told but perfectly captures the difficulty families face when dealing with addiction.

Thank you to Text Publishing for my copy.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Things We Promise by J.C. Burke

The Things We Promise by J.C. Burke
Published March 2017 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: It's the early 1990s and all Gemma can think about is looking perfect for her first school formal. Gemma's brother Billy - New York's up and coming hair and make-up artist - has made her the ultimate promise: he's returning home especially to 'create magic' on her and two friends for their end-of-year formal. Gemma's best friend, Andrea, is convinced it'll be their moment to shine; Gemma hopes it's the night Ralph will finally notice her.
But when Billy arrives home from New York, Gemma's life becomes complicated. Her family's been keeping secrets; friendships are forged and broken; and suddenly the length of her formal dress is the least of her worries.

Set in Sydney during the AIDS epidemic, The Things We Promise by J.C.Burke tells the story of Gemma Longrigg and her family. Gemma's in Year 11 and is counting down the months until the formal. Her older brother, Billy, has promised to do her hair and makeup and will make the trip home from NYC where he currently lives and works with his partner, Saul.

Gemma loves fashion and music. She's already begun planning her formal look, despite it being months away. Gemma's an overthinker, but she's fully of aware of this fact. She worries a lot, and slowly starts to realise that secrets are being kept from her. She and her mother get along well, but her father treated Billy abhorrently, before and after he came out, and eventually left to work on an oil rig.

The Things We Promise explores a time in history that a lot of teenagers are probably unaware of. I only have a vague memory of the Grim Reaper ads. The discrimination and abuse that gay men faced is absolutely shameful. Friends and family would shun them, some medical professionals wouldn't even see them as patients let alone operate on them. It's definitely a period in time that needs to be remembered, and the message of tolerance and compassion is universal and timeless.

Gemma struggles with keeping Billy's diagnosis a secret from her friends, often resorting to lying, understandably. Her friend Andrea reacts in a negative way, but she's clearly influenced by her parents' fear, and their friendship suffers because of it. Louise, Ralph, and Vanessa were bright spots in that Gemma's friendship group grew and she found there were people willing to support her.

I think what let the story down was how obvious all the secrets were, and how long it took Gemma to work things out. The reader is treated to a lot of her inner monologue and question-talking which slowed down the story.

Ableist language: idiot, mental, psycho, insane, schizo, lame, dimwitted, dumb, spack.

Problematic language: Gemma uses the term transvestite in a derogatory manner.

The Things We Promise is a moving and heartbreaking story of a family battling HIV and AIDS, at a time when there was a lack of support and understanding. It's a reminder to never forget and to work towards education and tolerance every day.

Thank you to Allen and Unwin for my copy.

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: