The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke

unadoptablesTitle: The Unadoptables

Author: Hana Tooke

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Puffin

Published: 2nd July 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: The amazing humour and world-building of Nevermoor meets the wisdom and warmth of Rooftoppers in this most un-ordinary adventure about five amazing children . . .

‘Milou,’ Lotta said softly. ‘We need adoption papers to leave. And no one except that horrid merchant wants us.’
‘Well then,’ replied Milou with a grin. ‘We’ll just have to adopt ourselves.’

In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek has been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once have the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the autumn of 1880, when five babies are left in outrageous circumstances: one in a tin toolbox, one in a coal bucket, one in a picnic hamper, one in a wheat sack, and finally, one in a coffin-shaped basket.

Those babies were Lotta, Egg, Fenna, Sem and Milou; who were swiftly and firmly deemed ‘the unadoptables’. Twelve years on the children still have each other – until the fateful night a most sinister gentleman appears and threatens to tear them apart. The gang decide to make a daring escape, fleeing the frozen canals of Amsterdam for an adventure packed with puppets and pirate ships, clock-makers and cruel villains – and with only a scrap of a clue to guide them to their mysterious new home . . .

~*~

The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke is set in Amsterdam in the 19th century, in a world where orphans contend with pirates, puppets, clockmakers and cruel villains to find a home and a place where they truly belong. Fenna, Lotta, Sem, Egg and Milou are known by the matron of Little Tulip Orphanage as the unadoptables. Lotta has twelve fingers, Fenna is a mute, Egg has a shawl that reminded the matron of rotten eggs, Sem arrived in a wheat sack, and Milou arrived on a full moon – and has theories about where her real parents and believes they’re coming for her.

When Rotman comes to adopt the five orphans, Milou and her friends realise something is wrong, and they escape, only to find themselves pursued by Rotman and the Kinderbureau, as they try to make a life at the Poppenmaker theatre where Milou believes her parents come from. Whilst here, Milou uncovers several secrets and together with her friends, forms her own family – yet she is still keen to solve the mystery of Bram Poppenmaker.

This book was filled with mystery, history, and a sense of doom at times that would always give way to hope and wonder. Here there are five children – determined and hopeful that they can have a good life. Instead of waiting around they make one for themselves. And whilst doing so, they uncover crimes and mysteries that bubble beneath the surface from page one – there is always a sense of whimsy and wonder yet at the same time, a sense that something doesn’t feel quite right – as though at any moment, something could go horribly wrong – and nobody is quite sure what it will be or how to handle it.

Hana Tooke manages to move through nineteenth century Amsterdam wonderfully – showing readers the city, and the canals in detail that etches them in the reader’s mind, and also, makes the city feel as though is its own character. I loved the way the mystery was woven throughout, and not immediately solved, but tiny crumbs and clues dropped at just the right time, and the orphans were resourceful, and all had character arcs and growth that worked well with the novel, especially Milou. I think she was my favourite, although it was hard to choose one as they were all great characters. What worked well with this novel was its setting – because this allowed Milou and her friends to escape easily – these days, with phones and technology, it could be harder – doable, but the mystery would be solved sooner than Milou solved her family mystery.

In a very unordinary, exciting and unusual adventure, this new middle grade offering is fantastic, filled with whimsical illustrations, it pulls you into a different world of puppets and trickery – and villains like Gassbeek and Rotman, where you cheer for the orphans. Whenever Gassbeek and Rotman were around, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up – a warning that something wasn’t right, and I found myself reading late into the night to finish this one – I had to find out if Milou and her friends found their family, and if Milou was right about Bram Poppenmaker. It felt like so many familiar children’s novels and yet at the same time, felt so unique and so fresh that I don’t think there is anything to compare it to, yet it would sit comfortably with books like Nevermoor on a shelf of wondrous tales that have a sense of magical realism about them and that make their world feel so real, I could easily fall in and find myself living there.

A great new middle grade novel!

Books and Bites Book Bingo Travel Memoir: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

books and bites game card

 

A travel memoir is one area I wasn’t sure what I would find – but as with all my challenges, I have been finding fun and inventive ways to interpret the categories I thought I might struggle with. This time I am marking off my thirteenth square and gaining a BINGO for the first row. I have checked off travel memoir but done something a little different and bent a fictional book with travel in it to work here.

 

books and bites game card

I used The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by LD Lapinski – the review went live on the 28th of April. When Flick discovers a travel agency unlike any other and is invited to join the Strangeworlds Society. With all the travelling Flick and Jonathon Mercator do, it feels and reads like it could be a travel memoir – as we experience the journeys as they do. In this way, it has a sense of travel memoir, even if told in third person and the action takes place as we’re reading and isn’t described after the facts as one typically finds with a travel memoir.

strangeworlds

 

It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but in the current isolation climate, I’m finding I could be doing that a lot over the next few months – and I’m trying to use new reads as much as possible, and will slot re-reads in where I need to.

 

Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whateley

Peta LyreTitle: Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal

Author: Anna Whateley

Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 28th April 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 248

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: At sixteen, neurodivergent Peta Lyre is the success story of social training. That is, until she finds herself on a school ski trip – and falling in love with the new girl. Peta will need to decide which rules to keep, and which rules to break…

‘I’m Peta Lyre,’ I mumble. Look people in the eye if you can, at least when you greet them. I try, but it’s hard when she is smiling so big, and leaning in.

Peta Lyre is far from typical. The world she lives in isn’t designed for the way her mind works, but when she follows her therapist’s rules for ‘normal’ behaviour, she can almost fit in without attracting attention.

When a new girl, Sam, starts at school, Peta’s carefully structured routines start to crack. But on the school ski trip, with romance blooming and a newfound confidence, she starts to wonder if maybe she can have a normal life after all.

When things fall apart, Peta must decide whether all the old rules still matter. Does she want a life less ordinary, or should she keep her rating normal?

A moving and joyful own voices debut.

~*~

Rules help Peta navigate her life, and the social world around her. She is neurodivergent – ASD, SPD and ADHD – and these rules help her remind herself how to act around people who might not understand her neurodivergence, and the way she is, and how she might fit into society. Her friend Jeb, and Aunt Antonia have helped her with these rules and working out how to do things, and supporting her for who she is for many years. Ever since her parents gave up and quit, Peta has been living with Aunt Antonia – Ant, as she calls her, attending a local College for years eleven and twelve, and has had some success in keeping her routines and normal ratings steady.

When Sam starts school, and Peta’s careful routines that help her maintain her normal crack as they head on the school ski trip, Peta starts to find new confidence in romance, – can she have a normal life, or will her old rules matter when things fall apart?

AWW2020

This is a touching, evocative and honest own voices debut that can spark a conversation about what is normal. Is normal what society deems normal, or does everyone have their own normal that should be accepted. Or are both right? Can society have an expectation of appropriate behaviours and interactions that we learn through socialisation whilst we are able to maintain our own individual normal and individual routines at the same time? This is perhaps one of the most complicated things to unpack yet also, the simplest. For Peta, what she does is normal – her normal, Jeb’s normal, Ant’s normal. Normal in their lives – like in everyone’s lives – is what they know and experience.

Yet at the same time, there are societal ideations and expectations of what is normal, and all the characters must navigate this. To add another layer, the normal of the College Peta, Jeb and Sam attend is different again – every student is different, has a different normal and I think it is safe to say, nobody seems to fit into what society and others around them demand and expect is ‘normal’ – like Big Kat.

So what is normal? Normal is me, normal is you. Normal is Peta, and normal is the author, Anna Whateley. Normal is what we make of it, and our lives, our routines. We can change and adapt our normal as our confidence grows and as we find our place in the world as this book shows through Peta and her experiences at the snow, and how it helps her uncover and begin to talk about her feelings, what she wants to do, and how to let other people in.

Her character is authentic – and many of her experiences are based on Anna’s, which is what makes this book engaging, fresh and honest. It works on all levels.  I loved the support Peta’s friends and school gave her and I loved how she resolved things – it felt honest and fair, and made the book feel as much about friendship, family and coming of age as it did about the romance – and it was Peta’s rules and structure that helped shape how she approached things and that hopefully, gives readers an insight into what people who had ASD, SPD, ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions go through. This will differ from person to person, but hopefully this will resonate with people as well. The way Peta interacts might not be the same for everyone in her position – yet through this book, maybe readers can learn ways of helping – or how to ask what they can do to help – or just to listen and make an effort to understand.

Seeing how Peta grappled with being honest and blunt and how this wasn’t necessarily socially acceptable was an eye opener, and can open up conversations, I hope. How one person sees and understands the world is not the same as others – and throughout the novel, we see Peta trying to walk the tightrope of how to interact socially and act according to her normal. In a sense, trying to find what some might call a happy medium to please everyone, and herself.

It deals with themes of family, friendship, LGTBQIA relationships, and invisible disabilities in a way not often seen – in a positive way, where for sure, bad things happen but it is resolved and understandings are reached, and a normal way of life is forged for everyone involved. A great read for teens who want to see themselves represented and also for those who wish to understand these issues.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

strangeworldsTitle: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Author: L.D. Lapinski
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Orion/Hachette Australia
Published: 28th April 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 380
Price: $16.99
Synopsis: Pack your suitcase for a magical adventure! Perfect for fans of THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES and THE POLAR BEAR EXPLORERS’ CLUB.
At the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, each suitcase transports you to a different world. All you have to do is step inside . . .
Pack your suitcase for a magical adventure! Perfect for fans of THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES and THE POLAR BEAR EXPLORERS’ CLUB.
At the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, each suitcase transports you to a different world. All you have to do is step inside . . .
When 12-year-old Flick Hudson accidentally ends up in the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, she uncovers a fantastic secret: there are hundreds of other worlds just steps away from ours. All you have to do to visit them is jump into the right suitcase. Then Flick gets the invitation of a lifetime: join Strangeworlds’ magical travel society and explore other worlds.
But, unknown to Flick, the world at the very centre of it all, a city called Five Lights, is in danger. Buildings and even streets are mysteriously disappearing. Once Flick realizes what’s happening, she must race against time, travelling through unchartered worlds, seeking a way to fix Five Lights before it collapses into nothingness – and takes our world with it.
A magical adventure for 9+ readers that will take you to whole new worlds.

~*~

A suitcase is an ordinary object – something you pack to take on holiday. Not so in the Strangeworlds Travel Agency in Little Wyvern. When twelve-year-old Flick and her family move from the large city to the smaller town of Little Wyvern, exploring her new town during the summer has Flick stumbling across an old shop called Strangeworlds Travel Agency – which to most people, might just seem like a travel agency you can book holidays with. But to Jonathon Mercator, the Custodian of the agency, and Flick Hudson, it is something else. It is a place of portals to new worlds, traversed by members of the secret Strangeworlds Society, a multiverse that is in trouble when Flick uncovers something that Jonathon says nobody has been able to do for generations.

So begins Flick’s adventures, jumping in and out of suitcases with Jonathon as she learns about her gift, the multiverse and Strangeworlds, until she discovers why Jonathon really needs her – and it has to do with something she’s able to see in the suitcases that he can’t. When Flick begins to break the rules to find out what is going on, she finds out she needs to fix things before every world including hers, vanishes.

This was a fantastic read, taking the idea of portals into new worlds, and creating something new. In every chapter, Flick travels, so it is also almost like a fictional travel memoir of the journeys Flick and Jonathon take into various worlds, a log of their quest and journeys. It all seems impossible, but in the world of Little Wyvern, anything is possible, and the consequences of staying in a world longer then you should – for time moves differently in each world, and you need to be mindful of this. L.D. Lapinski has taken all those classic elements – magic, portals and a new town, and a child who is either an orphan, or has parents who are always away, and brought them together into something fresh and new. I’m curious to see whether this is a standalone, or the beginning of a new series – either way, it works for both, and allows the reader scope to imagine what could happen next. It is the perfect middle grade book, and I think anyone who wishes to read it. It has that sense of magic that books like Narnia have, in its ability to enchant and transport readers to worlds beyond what they’re living and experiencing.

This was a great middle grade book, and works well as a stand-alone, but equally well as the start of a new series. I loved escaping to Little Wyvern, and visiting again would be fun.

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

deathless girls.jpgTitle: The Deathless Girls

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Genre: Historical, Gothic, Fantasy

Publisher: Bellatrix/Hachette

Published: 24th September 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 310

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Gothic, intoxicating, feminist and romantic – this is the breathtakingly imagined untold story of the brides of Dracula, by bestselling author Kiran Millwood Hargrave in her much-anticipated YA debut.

Gothic, intoxicating, feminist and romantic – this is the breathtakingly imagined untold story of the brides of Dracula, by bestselling author Kiran Millwood Hargrave in her much-anticipated YA debut.

They say the thirst of blood is like a madness – they must sate it. Even with their own kin.

On the eve of her divining, the day she’ll discover her fate, seventeen-year-old Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are captured and enslaved by the cruel Boyar Valcar, taken far away from their beloved traveller community.

Forced to work in the harsh and unwelcoming castle kitchens, Lil is comforted when she meets Mira, a fellow slave who she feels drawn to in a way she doesn’t understand. But she also learns about the Dragon, a mysterious and terrifying figure of myth and legend who takes girls as gifts.

They may not have had their divining day, but the girls will still discover their fate…

~*~

Kizzy and Lil are Travellers, whose lives change forever when they are enslaved by Boyar Valcar and taken from their community. Lil tells the story – so everything we see is shown through her eyes, and her understandings and feelings for her sister, and those she meets at the castle, like Mira, and her love for her brother and those she fears she will never see again.

In the castle, as they work, rumours swirl around about what happens to the girls who disappear – until Kizzy is taken, and this sets in motion a series of events that leads Mira, Fen and Lil to search for and save Kizzy and brother Kem from an unimaginable fate – but at what cost. and where will everything lead them all?

Set a few hundred years in the past, maybe three or four hundred years, The Deathless Girls follows Kizzy and Lil as they are ripped from a life they know and into one that they will ever escape from. It draws on the myths and stories of Dracula and his brides, and their untold story. The first half move slowly, as pieces of the puzzle are slowly revealed and as hints towards the fates of Kizzy and Lil are dropped for the reader to follow – and it is done quite cleverly, so whilst it is slowly, it doesn’t feel slow or meander too much.

The turning point, where Kizzy is taken, is where it picks up. More questions arise but these foreshadow what is to come and what the rest of the book had been heading towards. Whilst not the ending I had hoped for, it was perhaps what I had expected from the title and the hints that had been dropped throughout the novel – especially when it came to some of the characters.

This book is aimed at a young adult audience – and I don’t think you need to know the Dracula myths or stories to enjoy it – it can stand alone as its own story, but can also be read alongside a reading of the Dracula stories and myths that people do know. Either would make for an interesting discussion and reading, as each explore different themes. Here, the power of the women involved and their choices and lives, and what leads them to their fate are highlighted. They have agency and personhood, rather than just being a passive victim.

Whilst a vampire novel in a way, the vampire element, and Dracula element only becomes clear towards the latter half. For the first half or so, the divining by Cook and the other things that are hinted at could have led to anything, which is perhaps what makes it powerful and different to what usually constitutes a vampire novel. I’m sure there will be a very keen audience for this book, I I hope future readers enjoy it.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval .jpg

Title: Caraval

Author: Stephanie Garber

Genre: Fantasy/YA

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Published: 31 January 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 402

Price: $24.99

Synopsis: Welcome to Caraval, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.

Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.

When the sisters’ long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show’s mastermind organiser, Legend.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.

~*~

Caraval begins with a series of letters between Scarlett and Legend, the owner of Caraval over several years. Trapped on Trisda, one of the Occupied Isles, Scarlett’s only chance of escape, and her sister’s only chance – is the marriage her father, Governor Dragna – has arranged. Scarlett only has letters from her betrothed to go on, and so believes he is a kind man, yet she does not know his name. Scarlett’s mother disappeared many years ago, a mystery that nobody has solved. Scarlett and Tella long to get out from under the control of their father. When tickets arrive from Master Legend they see their chance and, Julian, a sailor, agrees to take them. Little do they know that everyone heading to Caraval will have ulterior motives, and things won’t be what they seem at Caraval.

Set in a fantasy world where dresses change colour and style, and where people are simply actors in a game, controlled by someone with strange powers, Caraval holds back as much as it delivers to the reader. Some secrets are kept secret, and it is not clear who can be trusted – can anyone be trusted? It is a game where participants follow the clues to win a coveted prize – one that some might even kill for – the dangers of Caraval and to Scarlett and her sister, Tella are everywhere, even at Caraval. Scarlett must work out if she can trust Julian – is he who he says he is, or does he know more about the journey to Caraval and her fiancé than he lets on?

Caraval had a nice balance of the fantasy, the adventure, and love – between sisters, and other kinds of love that develop throughout the story. Scarlett’s drive to find her sister is at first driven by her need to get home for her wedding, and is therefore her participation in the game takes time to evolve. Given that she has lived in fear of her father, her change in tactic and self-sacrifice soon comes through and she is caught up in the game, hurtling towards a disastrous series of events she could never see coming – it surprised me, as did the ending. The intrigue carried through the entire novel, and I hope there is a follow-up, because the ending felt complete in some ways but not in others.

A great read for fans of fantasy, Young Adult and a touch of genre blending that creates a storyline that kept me reading for hours. It is a delightful first novel from a debut writer, Stephanie Garber.