Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by MacKenzi Lee

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegan Books
Released: June 27th 2017 (in the US)
ISBN: 9780062382801

Read: October 28 2017

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A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is one which will need to be sourced internationally at this point. It’s a historical novel set in the 1700’s, with main character, Monty offering a strong narrative voice, who initially, seems very selfish and oblivious. This is realistic given his privilege and social standing. His father is a Viscount, and Monty is expected to toe the upper class line, however, he refuses. His rash and reckless behaviour takes a while to be explained. There is much trauma in his childhood, linked directly to his father’s discovery that Monty enjoys the (intimate) company of both girls AND boys. This attitude is historically correct, but as modern readers, we find this attitude abhorrent and unacceptable. While it hangs over Monty like a cloud, it doesn’t detract from the novel’s celebratory and hilarious tone. Of course, Monty grows as a character, and becomes much more worthy of the delicious Percy.

Monty and Percy are on their ‘Grand Tour’, an adventure that takes them around Europe (Yes! There’s a map!), including an author note at the end showing her extensive research on the times. Monty and Percy are accompanied by Monty’s sister Felicity, who is depicted as an enigmatic, surly bookworm. We can expect to see her story in the future, and honestly, I can’t wait.

I liked that this novel went places I didn’t expect, and while not everything was explained completely, the HEA was worth waiting for. There are pirates and gamblers and much shenanigans, mostly from Monty who really is just trying to do the right thing, and find his own place in this very narrowly conceived world. His courage and enviable flair are undeniable. It’s quite a long novel, and some patience is required while Lee sets up the location, the characters, and the situation. The ending is open, but hopeful. I will reread this one, for certain.

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Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood

Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell, Fiona Wood

Published: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: August 29 2017
ISBN: 9781742612744

Read: June 24 2017

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Take Three Girls doesn’t pull any punches. It’s cleverly crafted for maximum impact through a variety of formats—online forum posts, journal entries, lessons plans, letters to parents, and our three protagonists’ alternating points of view—covering nine weeks from July to September (then one epilogue post in December) of a wellness program involving Year 10 girls from a private boarding school.

The topics cover online sexual harassment, friendship dramas, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, honestly and frankly. Some content might be shocking to adults, but we suspect some ( a lot of?) girls deal with this sort of terrible slander, mostly by ignoring it or turning to friends for support. What’s also abundantly clear is that a lot of the shaming is flagrant lies, and yet there’s little the girls can do to repair their damaged reputations. It’s systemic and endemic. Getting this book into the hands of girls is crucial because it impresses on readers that this sort of behaviour can be and should be stopped. It gives them the knowledge that they have the power to stand up to bullies, and redirect the narrative.

What Kate achieves at the end is marvelous and empowering. We are left with unfinished stories, but Ady’s plea is universal and hopeful: I just want to know that whatever happens, I can handle it.

Clem is the heart, Kate is the mind, and Ady is the soul of Take Three Girls. It’s astonishing,  It’s real. It’s important. Watch this literary space awards next year!

Review: Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Released: April 4 2017
ISBN: 9781408883525

Read: January 29 2017

LETTERS

This contemporary young adult novel is a dual narrative story between Juliet and Declan. They go to the same school, and know each other by sight, but connect through letters without knowing each is the other letter writer. This allows them to open up and speak freely, but it’s not long before their secret and public lives collide.

These are two damaged teenagers, but they are also strong, and they feel real. Kemmerer writes authentic boys, tough and scary on the outside, but really, soft as butter, vulnerable and looking for meaning. The issues of grief, and trying to become a better person despite a neglected upbringing are not new, but this author brings a fresh approach, and readers easily identify with Juliet’s attempts to understand her mother’s death, and Declan’s desire to prove himself worthy of her affection.

Would sit alongside other notable contemporaries written by Emory Lord, Jennifer Niven, and Jandy Nelson. It’s another one we would recommend to boys who enjoy contemporary novels, even though the cover might dissuade them. Kemmerer announced that one of the secondary characters, Rev, who is Declan’s best friend will also get his own novel. It’s coming next April, and it’s great!!

Family ultimately shapes teenagers’ formative years, and Kemmerer links Juliet’s way of looking at world directly to her mother, and this is a very effective way to shake Juliet to her core. This is an emotional ride for both our main characters, and it’s great that they can depend on each other. I found this very satisfying.

Review: The Things We Promise by J C Burke

The Things We Promise by J C Burke

Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Released: March 22nd 2017 (in Australia)
ISBN: 9781760290405

Read: 29 December 2016

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I am going to spend some time over the next few weeks, transferring (and extending) some of the reviews I wrote for Riverbend Standing Orders through 2017. It’s a terrific service (#biased), and if you are in a school, you might want to consider subscribing to receive some awesome texts. My reviews are primarily directed at adults who hand out books to teens, so they may be slightly spoiler-y, and often provide little plot summary.

J C Burke has written a raw yet restrained story about grief and life. It’s clear she has personal memories of the time about which she writes, and her affection for her characters shines through.

Protagonist, Gemma’s narrative voice keeps the story moving forward amid sadness and nostalgia. Burke’s style is chatty and breezy, but her subject matter is dark. The 1990’s don’t seem all that long ago (to me), and teenagers today have their own understanding of the mistrust and misinformation spread about the AIDS epidemic. But while this is an intimate portrayal of one young man’s situation, it could be any one of our friends or family members. The inclusion of stories of other men broadens the scope beyond Billy’s tragedy.

There are other things going on in Gemma’s life, and Burke deals with them all thoughtfully, while never diverting the attention away from what is her primary motive– to highlight the injustice faced by people with AIDS, and to mourn the loss and waste of young lives. Billy and Gemma’s mother represent liberal and supportive voices quietly suffocated by the fear and judgement so prevalent at the time. By the end, Gemma is reconciling her grief, with Burke carefully leaving her in a happy place, which provides a satisfying resolution for readers. This mature book will be suited to senior students who enjoy serious books with gritty realism and not necessarily happy endings. There is a hint of romance, and realistic friendship drama, but most importantly, there are positive and sensitive representations of what young gay men faced, and how they dealt with the isolation with dignity and courage.

I found The Things We Promise moving and profound.

Review: Any Way You Slice It by Kristine Carlson Asselin

Any Way You Slice It by Kristine Carlson Asselin

Published: Wicked Whale Publishing
Released: November 15 2017 (first published in 2015)
ISBN: 9780999420508

Read: October 30 2017

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This is a re-release of a romantic YA that was first published in 2015. It’s extremely entertaining and full of miscommunication and desperate attempts to keep secrets, but Asselin knows how to balance the drama with realism. Pen never gets too carried away until right at the very end, when her frantic efforts are of course blindsided. She was never going to be able to keep the secret of her playing ice hockey from her parents for much longer, but it was fun to watch her try.

Pen’s troubles are more than just hockey. She actually has no desire to attend culinary school either, and take over the family pizza business. It’s these uncertainties and her belief that her parents have very high expectations of her that keep her from being open with them. When Jake challenges her to take some risks, Pen is forced to think about many aspects of her life, and it’s both positive and authentic.

The sub plot involves Pen’s father trying to get his pizza restaurant onto a reality TV show. He’s so keen to develop his brand, he makes some pretty bad decisions about this, allowing Pen and her grandmother to bond over his prospective embarrassment. The friendship between Lori and Pen is also explored well, and shows the highs and lows of trying to be truthful to yourself as well as to others.

One of the best aspects of this book is that it’s sweet enough to give to a younger teen. There is little swearing, or under age drinking, and the romance is kept to kissing. The story proves that graphic scenes aren’t necessary to create and sustain a good plot. Pen is flawed but her heart is in the right place. Jake has a bad reputation, but we learn that he’s been misjudged. Even the boys who try to stand in Pen’s way aren’t always obstructionist, and ultimately Pen’s dad listens and accepts her point of view.

Copy provided by Netgalley and read with thanks. Recommended to readers who love their stories packed with fun and angst. The romance is sweet, and the family drama is strong. There’s a strong, positive hockey component, and Pen isn’t forced to play on a girl’s team. Released (in the US) on November 15.

Review: Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Published: Feiwel & Friends US (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Released: November 7 2017 (in the US) November 14 2017 (in Australia)
ISBN: 9781760555313

Read: September 17, 2017

This is a bold, ambitious novel dealing with many of the big questions challenging contemporary society. Placing it in a fictional world with super heroes brings a much welcome degree of separation, allowing teenagers to consider the political and social mores objectively, before making connections to their own world.

Meyer gives us both sides of the super hero debate. How much should we ‘ordinary folk’ rely on those with powers to aid us? The Anarchists believe people should rely only on themselves, and not on governments or organisations. Prior to the start of the book leader Ace, initiated chaos and destruction to force people to be more self-sufficient. It creates a power vacuum quickly filled by villains and terrorists, which leads to further decaying of civilisation.

To try to balance the evil over running Gatlon City, the Renegades appear, and ultimately triumph, but now twenty years on, have themselves fallen into corrupt and bureaucratic ways, with regular citizens still desperate for help. We are told Ace perished in the final battle and his legacy lives on in a very small number of Anarchists, one of whom is our leading lady, Nova.

Our leading man Adrian, naturally, fights for the Renegades, and when Nova infiltrates to cause maximum disruption, the scene is set for a push and pull of epic proportions. While we despair about Nova’s goals, we also have enormous sympathy as she witnessed the violent deaths of her family when she was very young. Her need for vengeance keeps her angry and motivated.

Adrian is filled with idealistic dreams of gaining affirmation. He wants to ‘do good’ and ‘be a hero’, but somewhere things become muddled, not only with his attempts at creating a (second) super secret identity, but also the distraction that is enigmatic Nova. Nova’s on her own journey of discovery; it’s not surprising that she realises her version of truth is far too simplistic. Never mind her attraction to a boy who lives a life of privilege and oblivion to some harsh realities.

Clocking in at over 560 pages, Meyer creates a crumbling world bursting at its seams. While there does seem to be some stability, we can see the grey twisty complications are going to expose a brittle foundation. Some of the Renegades are behaving badly, and not all the Anarchists deserve punishment.

The plot builds to a climax that involves betrayal and threatens exposure. As it is the first in a new series, Meyer leaves us trembling for more, not only in regards to the complex relationship between Nova and Adrian, but also with a myriad of sub-plots including the secrets surrounding Adrian’s younger sibling, Max, the unsolved mystery of the death of Adrian’s biological mother, and of course, Nova’s ultimate revenge. I have one niggle that I need to talk through with someone else (anybody? anybody?) who has read it, but it didn’t diminish my pleasure and appreciation of such a clever book. Great to see so many entertaining and well written genre novels for teens in this second part of the year.

Highly recommended for readers who love the idea of building a super hero origin story, and who like their plots twisty and overflowing with characters. Both our leads are troubled and while they do team up to solve crimes, they are also keeping a lot from each other. There are inclusive characters, including Adrian’s adoptive parents—two male super heroes in a strong loving relationship, and a range of ethnicities scattered among the secondary characters. Its pacing balances tense action and moments of quiet introspection carefully and deliberately. There are major reveals at the end, but are foreshadowed and not completely unexpected. I was fully engaged with this long, absorbing novel, and am eagerly anticipating the next. Renegades is out today in America, and due to be released in Australia on November 14.

 

 

Review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

Published: Allen & Unwin
Released: November 1 2017 (in Australia)
ISBN: 9781760297176

Read: October 19 2017

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At 109 chapters and over 500 pages, this story will challenge some young readers. But it is worth it because we are taken into a world that is fully realised, but never over-explained. We travel with Bronte to visit ten Aunts, and they are distinct individuals, and nothing feels repetitive or cliched. Each moment of revelation is seamlessly woven through the storyline, so that when its significance is inevitably realised, readers are not surprised or jolted out of the narrative.

The underlying sadness and pain take a while to leak through. Bronte is seemingly accommodating and well-mannered, so much of her point of view is coated with a stiff-upper-lip resolve. However, she also displays tremendously brave behaviour and very acute observations, and slowly we are given a glimpse into how she really feels about the disappearance and death of her parents. There is anger of course, and a longing that permeates her quest. It’s only late in the novel we are told that Bronte is reliving the story two years after her adventures. As a 12 year old, her perspective is wiser and gently scathing towards unkindness and narrow-mindedness. This is very subtle and is a further layer in a cleverly constructed story.

Moriarty incorporates humour to great effect. Each Aunt is accompanied by other characters who test Bronte’s mettle (ha. See what I did there?), and her ability to adapt and learn shows young readers about resilience and reward. Aunt Sue’s boisterous sons are delightful and generous, and Aunt Nancy’s clever daughters are wily and honest. Taylor’s no-nonsense offer of friendship arrives at exactly the right time, and the boy with no shoes is a mystery Bronte refuses to leave unsolved. I could go on listing other wonderful characters – the noisy librarian is particularly welcome, and the water sprites are effusive and jubilant—but to do that would spoil much of the wonder and delight of the novel. It’s best you discover them on your own.

The final quarter where all the clues fall together into the intricately woven climax keeps readers madly turning pages to watch Bronte stay one step ahead of the evil threatening her family and her identity. She needs all her skills and friends to triumph, and it’s an astonishing and wholly satisfying defeat. Then we have the final pages of reflection and quiet acceptance of her new reality. If I wanted more here, well, that’s ok. Those final poignant pages are all the more powerful for their low key and concise conclusion.

This ambitious and clever novel seems geared towards younger readers, but I believe anyone will love it. I think everyone should read it, actually.

Review: All the Ways to Here by Emily O’Beirne

All the Ways to Here by Emily O’Beirne

Published by: Ylva Publishing
Released: November 1 2017
ISBN: 9783955338961

Read: October 25 2017

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All the Ways to Here is a follow up to Future Leaders of Nowhere, which came out back in March this year. I reviewed it back then. I loved meeting back up with Willa and Finn, this time back in their homes, with their families, returning to routine, school, and the expectations thrust upon them in their leadership roles. I know the feeling that Willa describes–she feels different having experienced and lived a different life for three weeks, but back home everything seems to remained the same.

It doesn’t take long for conflicts to emerge. Not between the girls. What I especially loved about All the Ways to Here is that Willa and Finn stay strong despite all the inner turmoil and the external pressures they face, both individually and as a couple. There was one moment where Willa pushes Finn away, and for a tiny minute, it seemed like it might work. But Finn doesn’t give up, and what could have been a terrible mistake instead turns into a poignant and strengthening scene.

While we have dual points of view again, they don’t necessarily follow Willa then Finn, then Willa and so forth. Sometimes we have two chapters by the same character. It didn’t worry me. I was happy following either one. Their stories run in parallel, and while they are always in each other’s lives, some problems are dealt with alone. That’s realistic, and it worked.

Willa’s main concerns involve her absent father reappearing to ‘help’ when Nan is incapacitated. Willa faces conflict but doesn’t really have much time to devote to sorting through her mixed emotions, given she is attempting to parent her younger siblings, pass exams, and substitute for a student leader. Not to mention trying to maintain burgeoning friendships with Amira and Eva. The introvert yearns for quiet and solitude, while everyone else demands attention, opinion and action. She works through it all, and it’s easy to see that Finn by her side is welcome and wanted.

Finn also faces family issues, and her parents’ separation weighs heavily on her mind. As well, her interest in school leadership requirements is waning, and there’s a community group to rescue. Landscape is used to reflect her confusion and descriptions of her art remind us of her romantic side. Finn’s capacity for love and wisdom is really beautifully depicted. As is Willa’s quiet ferocity. It’s great to see these traits develop further, and lead the girls in directions unexpected yet thoroughly fulfilling. I particularly want to mention the way sex is handled here–with delicacy and balance, and with much authenticity.

You can probably tell I really enjoyed this. I don’t usually link to places of purchase, but this is a European publication, even though the author is Australian. It’s not widely available, so I urge you to go to the Ylva Publishing website and purchase any one of Emily’s books. The three I have read have all made me swoon and snort in equal parts. I am a huge fan.

Thanks to Ylva and Emily O”Beirne for advancing me a copy to read. All the Ways to Here comes out on November 1st.

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Review: Wilder Country by Mark Smith

Wilder Country By Mark Smith

Published by: Text Publishing
Released: August 28 2017
ISBN: 9781925498530

Read: September 27 2017

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Mark Smith’s debut novel The Road to Winter, was a breakout hit with Australian YA audiences last year. I bet more than a few adults also discovered it, because even though protagonist Finn is only 15, his wisdom, his careful strategising, and his determination to survive connects him to much older readers. As well, its tight structure and compelling plot are strong attractions for today’s time-poor, action-seeking audiences.

If you haven’t read it, I urge you to. It’s a post-apocalyptic story, set in the not-too-distance future, and many of its themes resonate in today’s society. The treatment of the asylum seekers, the grab for power, and the terrible reality for women and girls are depicted in chilling, factual tones. Thankfully a lot is left for us to read between the lines meaning, it never gets too graphic or disturbing.

It’s only been a year to wait for Wilder Country. Finn, Willow and Kas are back, and are on the search for Rose’s baby, Hope. We see Finn and Kas alternate the roles of leader and follower. Sometimes, Finn is gung-ho and springs to action, but mostly it’s Kas, fierce and undeterred, who takes up the fight against the Wilder gang. When we think about the ruin of civilisation, our immediate thoughts are of cruelty and fear. We automatically assume everyone will be out for him or herself, and survival is only for the strong and the selfish. It’s an idea that’s been present in literature like, Lord of the Flies, The Road, and The Handmaid’s Tale and many others, so it’s unsurprising that here, a group of men have all the power and any luxuries to be found.

Kas’s anger is just. She and sister Rose were treated very badly. While Finn struggles with his innate mercy and infinite compassion, Kas has no qualms at all to maim or kill people who try to control her. There is one scene very early one where someone has a clear intention to have his way with Kas, and readers see Kas has few options open to her to avoid being taken advantage of. Readers will wrestle too with their moral compass. Is Finn right to hesitate to take action? Or has he every right to put himself and his friends before these greedy men? It’s challenging stuff, but this never detracts from its goal of being an exciting and fast-paced read.

Wilder Country involves a lot of traveling, meeting up with friends and foes, and Finn confronting his own limits and pushing his boundaries. Smith does a great job of expanding the premise of Finn and his crew versus Ramage and his, by introducing another group of characters who have their own agenda. Clearly how this group impacts on Finn and the Wilders will be the foundation of the next book, Land of Fences. Our understanding of them is limited, and the mystery works to keep our interest in the series.

Wilder Country is out now, and is highly recommended. It is not a standalone, and the first one needs to be read before getting into this one.

 

Review: Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Published by: Feiwel & Friends
Released: February 28 2017 (in the US)
ISBN: 9781250095961

Read: September 24-25 2017

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Most of the books I review here are ones I receive from Netgalley. The other advanced copies I read are reviewed elsewhere. But now I have more time to read for myself, I hope to add books that have been on my to-be-read list for a while, ones that I have heard about and have been keen to read. Daughter of the Pirate King is one such book, and I am pleased that it lived up to my expectations.

A caveat of sorts. Books about pirates do cause me some consternation. I remember a judging panel I was once on, where another judge confronted us all with a strong anti-pirate stance. The argument was based on the fact that today, pirates still exist, and the trauma they cause is real and horrifying. That to create a romanticised view of them was to do a disservice to people who are robbed, kidnapped or worse by these opportunists. It was a discussion mostly around picture book depictions, and how we continue to create pretty, fanciful pirate books, and how offensive this is. I certainly haven’t forgotten that explanation, and so every time I see a pirate book, I am much more cautious and careful.

However, pirates are present in films, TV shows as well as books, and it’s difficult to completely ignore their presence. This year I created a ‘nautical’ shelf on GR to accommodate a growing number of books where characters live life on oceans or rivers, and villains in those books are often a variation of a pirate character. What’s tricky is a situation in which the pirate character is the protagonist, and readers are asked to identify with him or her, and we all know pirates loot, ravage and destroy. How can we reconcile that?

Easily, actually. The same way we accept vampires or gangsters, thieves or vikings. Authors present characters as flawed individuals and readers accept them or not. It’s up to us.

Right, so, on with the review. Finally. Alosa is the title character. As daughter of the pirate king, she agrees to be taken captive and sneakily hunt down a piece of an important, life-changing map. Right from the beginning we are aware we follow an adept, clever, confident girl, a captain of her own crew, a skilled fighter, and a scheming opportunist. Alosa has deliberately put herself in harm’s way, has a clear plan to follow, but is capable of working outside it when the situation requires, which happens often. Not surprising really, considering she is dealing with well, other pirates.

Alosa reveals her secrets slowly. Her dark back story only makes her more appealing and sympathetic. When she fights for her life towards the end, we are glad of all the gifts and skills she possesses, even though we know how much she suffered to have them. I loved her too cocky, too confident snark, but ultimately she has every reason to be arrogant. She really is that good.

The romance is a slow smolder. The trust builds with Riden (pronunciation, anybody? Ree-din? Ry-den?) even while they eye each other suspiciously, and lie to one another (and themselves). Their banter is consistently good fun and revealing, and inevitably why they are able to save each other. The conclusion is a mix—some plot points are wrapped up, but the major story line is left open for at least one more follow up.

Daughter of the Pirate King contains a strong and determined main character, who never gives up. Alosa’s story is a blend of the her time as a prisoner, as she tries to locate the map and gets to know her enemies, and flashbacks to her upbringing, her own crew, and the larger story of the mysterious map. Truly, the dialogue is witty and snarky, an obvious contrast to the dire situation of being the only woman on a ship inhabited by immoral men. It’s not long or drawn out, and this conciseness keeps the narrative tight and tense. Yes, it’s a fun fantasy tale, but it also continues the trend in YA of depicting independent females in charge and capable, and developing diverse secondary characters who bring nuance and texture. Highly recommended.