Bella Donna: Coven Road by Ruth Symes (Bella Donna #1)

Bella Donna 1.jpgTitle: Bella Donna: Coven Road

Author:  Ruth Symes

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Allen and Unwin/Picadilly

Published: 7th January 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 180

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: A witch, a cat and a lot of magic!

A witch, a cat and a lot of magic!

Some girls dream of being a princess, but Bella Donna has always longed to be a witch. The only thing she wants more is to find a family to take her out of the children’s home where she lives. But no one seems quite right until she meets Lilith.

With Lilith’s help, will Bella Donna be able to make both of her secret wishes come true?

Beautifully illustrated throughout by winner of the Egmont Best New Talent award, Marion Lindsay.

~*~

Bella Donna is an orphan, living at the Templeton Children’s Home with her friend Sam – the two are inseparable and keen to find their Forever Families – the ones who will accept them for who they are and what they love. For Bella Donna, she has always wanted to be a witch – and wants a family who will accept her for who she is and what she wants to be. When they’re five, they make a pact that they will both wait for their Forever Families – the ones who will accept them for who they are, and with whom they can be themselves. When Lilith adopts Bella Donna, she feels Lilith is the right person for her, but why? What is it about Lilith that makes Bella Donna think this is her Forever Family? What follows is a series of shenanigans as Bella Donna enters Coven Road, and starts her time there pretending to be something she is not, until Lilith helps her reveal her wishes and find her new identity within Coven Road – and from here, Bella Donna find a way to keep secrets, and when things go wrong, can Bella Donna fix things and save her new family?

This is a new series to Australia, by British author Ruth Symes. Told in first person from Bella’s perspective, the first book in the series is funny, charming and touching – a story of family and friendship, and acceptance set in what I imagine is a small, British village – it has that feel to it and all the charm of British children’s literature throughout the years and decades. Bella Donna is not a perfect female character. At nine years old, she makes mistakes, she isn’t quite perfect but at the same time she just wants to fit in: much like any child growing up.

It is her awkwardness and imperfections that make Bella Donna such a great character as she grapples with friendship at school and keeping her secrets back in Coven Road – secrets, that if she reveals, could mean she has to leave Lilith and Coven Road. Bella Donna also has a charming friendship with Sam from the children’s home that remains strong throughout and though she makes new friends, Sam will always be there for her, and she will always be there for him – it is a celebration of friendship between boys and girls, and a celebration of liking things that might not be seen as acceptable or normal – but somehow Bella Donna makes it all work – school, her new home, her new identity and family – and so begins a series that is charming and amusing, and a rather quick read – but very enjoyable for kids, and anyone who likes a good story about magic and witches.

What Bella Donna does is take the scary image of the witch and turn it on its head. Sure, Bella Donna dresses like you’d imagine a witch might, but the magic that resides in Coven Road draws on all aspects of witches and fantasy, and links them all together in a very creative and uplifting way that is charming and reinforces positive friendships and individualism. I look forward to seeing where Bella Donna goes next.

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The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars by Jaclyn Moriarty (Kingdoms and Empires #2)

whispering wars.jpgTitle: The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars

Author: Jaclyn Moriarty

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 24th October 2018

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 528

Price: $22.99

Synopsis:An enchanting and whimsical spell-filled fantasy novel from Jaclyn Moriarty, the highly-acclaimed author of The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone and the award-winning author of Feeling Sorry for Celia and A Corner of White, suitable for readers who loved A Most Magical Girl

I was taken by Whisperers at 2pm, so I never pulled the lever for the laundry chute.
That’s what bothered me most. 
This is way ahead in the story, though. A lot happened before that.

The town of Spindrift is frequented by pirates, Shadow Mages and charlatans. It’s also home to the Orphanage School, where Finlay lives with Glim, Taya and Eli. Just outside town is the painfully posh Brathelthwaite Boarding School, home to Honey Bee, Hamish and Victor, Duke of Ainsley. When the two schools compete at the Spindrift Tournament, stakes are high, tensions are higher, and some people are out to win at any cost. Before long, the orphans and the boarding school are in an all-out war.

And then Whispering Wars break out, and Spindrift is thrust onto the front lines. Children are being stolen, Witches, Sirens and a deadly magical flu invade the town, and all attempts to fight back are met with defeat.

Finlay, Honey Bee and their friends must join forces to outwit the encroaching forces of darkness, rescue the stolen children, and turn the tide of the war. But how can one bickering troupe outwit the insidious power of the Whisperers? And who are the two mysterious figures watching them from the shadows?

From the award-winning Jaclyn Moriarty comes a spellbinding tale of unlikely friendship, unexpected magic and competitive athletics.

~*~

The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars is the next in the Kingdoms and Empires series, that began with Bronte Mettlestone and her rather inconvenient adventures to visit aunts and hand out gifts to them, where she meets up with Alejandro and other friends – that is her story, and in the second book, we have two delightful and enthusiastic narrators – Finlay, from the Orphanage School, and Honey Bee, from the Brathelwaite Boarding School, a rather painfully posh school on the edge of town, and when the book opens, Finlay and Honey Bee are at each other’s throats, and their schools are neck and neck in a local sports competition – a competition that the Brathelwaite students desperately have to win if they do not want to incur the wrath of their headmaster – who is rather questionable and I sincerely didn’t trust him from the get-go. As time goes on though, both Finlay and Honey Bee – who alternate chapters and actually get to know each other – relate to the reader the rivalry between their schools, and the strange goings on in spindrift – children are disappearing, and each school thinks two mysterious children who keep popping in and out of Spindrift are from the respective schools, spying on the opposing school – but is this the case, or are they another entity entirely?

AWW-2018-badge-rose

Eventually, Finlay and Honey Bee realise that they must work together 0 and their friends must work with them and each other to uncover the truth about what has been happening with the help of two mysterious visitors who know more than they are letting on – visitors that readers of the previous book will recognise and enjoy seeing again. The Whisperers are back, as are the tales of Spellbinders and Witches and faery magic – and a set of twins – intelligent, smart and cheeky – to rival Fred and George Weasley – the latter of which would probably take Eli and Taya under their wing should the worlds meet, and the mischief caused would be wonderfully catastrophic, as well as dragons – my favourite final chapter line is “And that’s when the first dragon landed.” What a way to end a chapter! Alone, all these elements are effective – but together, they create an atmosphere of humour and mystery that is delightful and exquisite in its execution, and is an exciting plot, driven by magic of all kinds that weaves its way around the words and spellbinds the reader. As I read in, the surprises kept coming, and I was cheering for Finlay and Honey Bee, glad that they finally managed to get along, though their arguing made the story extremely amusing and brought a lovely sense of humour to the book, as did the way they broke the fourth wall, and spoke directly to the reader, and admonished each other for misleading or not telling the reader something – an excellent addition!

This series is shaping up to be spectacular one, and is yet another example of the fine, well-honed talent we have coming out of Australia, especially with our women writers, whose stories are often diverse, and cross a myriad of experiences and genres in both fiction and non-fiction, and this is only growing each year as we have more and more enthusiastic and wonderful talent entering the scene. A wonderful follow up, and hopefully, with many more to come.

The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

the dinner list.jpgTitle: The Dinner List

Author: Rebecca Serle

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 29th August 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:If you could invite anyone at all to a fantasy dinner party, who would be on your list?

‘We’ve been waiting for an hour.’ That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.

At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends with in her utterly captivating novel, The Dinner List, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetisers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, The Dinner List is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.

~*~

The Dinner List is a surreal novel, where each chapter of a distant yet recent past is sandwiched between a dream-world dinner. Sabrina is on the cusp of turning thirty, and her thoughts turn to a list she made years earlier: the five people she could invite to a dinner party if she could: her father, best friend, Audrey Hepburn, a former professor and the man she almost married. Throughout this dinner, discussions flow back and forth for four hours, leading into the chapters that fill in the story, with each section carefully omitting certain pieces of information as the reader seeks to discover what is happening, who is who and where they fit into Sabrina’s life.

Together, they traverse a myriad of topics, including love, life and what had brought them each to their respective places in their lives and at the time of the dinner. Sabrina is their anchor, and they each have something to impart or share with her to help her come to terms with recent events. As the novel slips in and out of reality and the surreal, dream dinner world Sabrina has created, life and magical realism collide to create a unique and unexpected story of friendship, hope, love and loss in the world of a millennial as she finds out where she belongs in the world, with a unique ending for what seems to be a romance-based novel, where things might not end up as happily ever after, but with a sense of closure and finality, and perhaps a sense of the reality of how life can really turn out for us, rather than riding off into the sunset together.

Sophisticated in its delivery, and surreal, but eloquent in its style, the mystery of who is who, where they fit in and why they are present at the dinner is slowly revealed to both reader and Sabrina, in a moving, funny and touching way that makes it a romantic story, but a realistic one that touches on the obstacles and tragedies we face in life.

This was a surprise delivery, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, yet the premise was interesting enough that I decided to give it a go. It’s an intriguing  take on the people that come in and out of our lives and what they mean to us.

The Brink of Darkness by Jeff Giles (Edge of Everything #2)

the brink of darkness.jpgTitle: The Brink of Darkness
Author: Jeff Giles
Genre: Young Adult, Speculative Fiction, Fantasy.
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 1st August 2018
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352
Price: $16.99
Synopsis: Things have changed for seventeen-year-old Zoe ever since the dramatic events that brought her together with the mysterious X. In order to save Zoe and her family, X did the unthinkable – he traded their freedom in exchange for his captivity in the Lowlands forever.

But being back in the Lowlands has its advantages. It gives X the chance to discover his past, which could be the key to breaking the Lords’ hold on him forever. Little does X know that Zoe has her own plan to reunite with him . . . one that risks her life and brings her perilously close to losing all that she and X are fighting for.

Gripping and full of heart, this epic continuation of Jeff Giles’ series–which already has rave reviews from Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson and New York Times bestselling author James Dashner, among numerous others–will bring readers right to the edge of everything.

~*~

X is back in the Lowlands, after trading the freedom of Zoe’s family to live in captivity forever. In Zoe’s world, she must grapple with the death of neighbours, and living with Rufus, who is involved with her mother, as well as protecting her brother Jonah, and hiding X and his secret from her friends, Val and Dallas. Until the three friends are confronted by an angry hunter, and Ripper comes to their rescue, and the story of X and the Lowlands is revealed. From there, Zoe must find a way to help Ripper on her quest, and rescue X from the Lowlands, as well as maintaining her family’s safety and not revealing the truth to them if she can help it. Over several weeks, Zoe will assist Ripper on her quest, and together with Regent, they will help X find his mother and overthrow Dervish, who has been trying to control the Lowlands. But whether Zoe and X will come out unscathed, will be another piece of the puzzle all together.

This follow up to The Edge of Everything, published in February last year, picks up shortly after the death of Zoe’s neighbours and Z’s condemnation to the Lowlands. This follow up feels more X focussed, where he’s on a quest to try and free himself of the Lowlands, and keep Zoe safe, and also, find out where he came from and who his parents are. Through this journey, Ripper, Regent and Zoe help X, whose life has only ever been the Lowlands, until he met Zoe. Whilst Zoe and X are in love, the drive for X to find out who his mother is drives the narrative more as he searches for a sense of self.

The other important relationships are between Zoe and her brother, Jonah, who is always there for his sister, and Zoe and her friends, Val and Dallas, whose presence in Zoe’s life give her some grounding, yet at the same time, is something she pulls against and tries to resist, especially towards the end. It is slightly darker than the last book, however, not overly.

Much like The Edge of Everything, The Brink of Darkness has light and hope as well as darkness and devastation, tying into the themes of life and death, and love in all its forms that permeate the novel. It is filled with family and friends, conflict and resolution, and the fights that families have and then forget when it looks as though the worst may have happened, but they all come together in the end.

The Brink of Darkness read like it wrapped up everything that happened in both this book and the first book, The Edge of Everything, where everything felt settled and tidy, yet with a fairly open ending to imagine what happens next. Throughout the novel there is a sense of unease or foreboding that something nasty is going to happen, but this adds to the suspense and mystery surrounding Zoe and X. Jonah is adorable, and always optimistic – again, my favourite character in the book. Overall, this was enjoyable to read and those eager to find out what happens will not be disappointed.

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The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

psychology of time travel.jpgTitle: The Psychology of Time Travel

Author: Kate Mascarenhas

Genre: Science Fiction/Crime

Publisher: HarperCollins Australia/Head of Zeus

Published: 1st August 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A time travel murder mystery, set in a female-centric alternate world.

A time travel murder mystery from a brilliantly original new voice. Perfect for readers of Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven . 1967 : Four female scientists invent a time travel machine. They are on the cusp of fame: the pioneers who opened the world to new possibilities. But then one of them suffers a breakdown and puts the whole project in peril… 2017 : Ruby knows her beloved Granny Bee was a pioneer, but they never talk about the past. Though time travel is now big business, Bee has never been part of it. Then they receive a message from the future – a newspaper clipping reporting the mysterious death of an elderly lady… 2018 : When Odette discovered the body she went into shock. Blood everywhere, bullet wounds, that strong reek of sulpher. But when the inquest fails to find any answers, she is frustrated. Who is this dead woman that haunts her dreams? And why is everyone determined to cover up her murder? What readers are saying: ‘A complex murder mystery thriller that offers something new and exciting … I was gripped!’ ‘Fantastic! The plot was hugely thought-provoking and the characters engaging’ ‘A fascinating, thought-provoking thriller about time travel, murder and a conspiracy that threatens to explode through time’

 

 

~*~

 

In 1967, four female scientists – Barbara, Grace, Lucille and Margaret – invent a time machine. The initial tests send them minutes, or hours into the future, before they start travelling years, and decades into the future, meeting their future selves and future families, and form an organisation called the Conclave, where they work within their own laws, uninhibited by the courts of England. As the novel goes back and forth between 2017, 2018 and various years of significance for the four scientists and the rest of the time travellers they work with, there is a death in a museum, a woman is found shot to death, but with no discernible evidence pointing towards a suspect or weapon. In 2017 and 2018, Barbara’s granddaughter, Ruby, crosses paths with a time traveller to be, Odette, and the intersection of their lives starts to reveal more secrets about the Conclave and those involved and those to come.

 

In this diverse, and female driven novel, various identities are explored, and the idea of time travel, and being able to interact with ones future and past selves, see their deaths but go back to one’s own time and see them again, and the implications of actions taken during time travel that can influence ones future are all explored in Kate Mascarenhas’ first novel, The Psychology of Time Travel.  Her characters are typically English, yet interspersed with the diversity of race and sexuality, giving the novel an atmosphere that is delightful to read and engaging, because the diversity is broad, and incorporates age, and personality as well, ensuring there is something to like for all readers.

 

Equally delightful was the entirely female main cast – showing the power of femininity, representing women as they are, with flaws, with varying characteristics, of different races, sexualities and also disability and mental illness. The story does not shy away from the rather harsh side effects of time travel on some of the characters, nor does it shy away from the devious nature of others, and the mistrust that time travel can bring for some people, the conflict of needing to know, but not wanting to know, of wanting to tell people what is to come, but at the same time, wanting to protect them from this knowledge, creating emotional journeys for all the characters amidst their penchant for science and time travel.

 

The raw humanity and the feminism that drives this female centric novel, where women are who they are, where they have family and relationship conflicts like anyone but where they accept each other without judgement for the most part, is a wonderful example of the power of female driven stories, where women can see themselves represented in a variety of ways and not just in the archetype of maiden, mother or crone, or as romantic desires – which there is nothing wrong with these topes, it is always nice to see women taking centre stage in narratives and points in history where their stories might have been overpowered by others.

 

It is important to see the kinds of representation in other fiction that is present here: female, bisexuality, lesbians, mental health, and different races, all on the spectrum of these aspects of identity that make up who we are as humans. It is a refreshing book to read with these aspects of the characters so raw and front and centre, with a realism about them that doesn’t shy away from the realities of the lives of these women as they travel through time and space. It is an intriguing book with a very curious premise, a time travelling murder mystery, where all the pieces of the puzzle do not fit as neatly together as one would think, yet this is exactly what makes it work so well, and gives it the story its unique characteristics.

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Bookshop Girl by Chloe Coles

bookshop girl.jpgTitle: Bookshop Girl

Author: Chloe Coles

Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Bonnier/Hot Key/Allen and Unwin

Published: 25th July 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 240

Price: $14.99

Synopsis:A hilarious tale of female friendship, bookshops and fighting for a cause – perfect for fans of Holly Bourne and Louise Rennison.

Bennett’s Bookshop has always been a haven for sixteen-year-old Paige Turner. It’s a place where she can escape from her sleepy hometown, hang out with her best friend, Holly. and also earn some money.

But, like so many bookshops, Bennett’s has become a ‘casualty of the high street’ – it’s strapped for cash and going to be torn down. Paige is determined to save it but mobilising a small town like Greysworth is no mean feat.

Time is ticking – but that’s not the only problem Paige has. How is she going to fend off the attractions of beautiful fellow artist, Blaine? And, more importantly, will his anarchist ways make or break her bookshop campaign?

~*~

Paige Turner – her real name, not a pseudonym – is sixteen, and works in her town’s local bookshop, Bennett’s. She’s saving up to go away to university, but the impending closure of Bennett’s threatens to ensure she never gets out of Greysworth. Paige and her friend, Holly, and the rest of the staff plan an intervention – protests, a petition – they undertake a month-long campaign to #SaveBennetts, getting local businesses and authors on board, and garnering support from the local community, starting with neighbouring stores and the art school. Here she meets Jamie, and a fellow artist, Blaine, who works at the local stationery store, and is a bit or an anarchist – she wants his support but at what cost?

Bookshop Girl is exactly my kind of book and Paige is a character that is easy to identify with. She’s not perfect and perky all the time – her flaws show through realistically, and they are acknowledged, as is her family reality and what they are going through. Having a character like Paige, more interested in books and studying rather than looks or a boy is a refreshing sight in Young Adult literature – in fact, it is a refreshing thing to see in literature for any age group and demographic. This is a book about standing up for what you love and doing whatever you can to keep it – be it books, family, whatever your cause is – the activism to save the beloved bookshop is what drives the plot in this book.

Seeing a character like Paige – driven by a passion other than wanting a boyfriend – though she does develop a crush, her bookshop, art, family and best friend Holly are much more important to her – is like a breath of fresh air, ad reminds readers that it is okay that they’re not perfect, that they can be the way they want to be, and that being awkward as a teenager or young adult is okay – you don’t have to be perfect. Embarrassing things happen to Paige – and they are relatable events, from dropping personal items out of a bag, to art class and school, and family – Paige is the kind of character girls need to read about for the very reason that she is so genuine and could be any one of us.

The love of books and bookshops in this debut novel from Chloe Coles is lovely and shows that not everyone needs technology to be happy – it is useful, yes, as is shown in Bookshop Girl, pushing the campaign and ensuring the bookstore remains open – but it does not replace the fabulous feeling of a bookstore and the books to be found within the shelves, and the adventures and friends to find.

A funny, heartfelt book about activism, protests and standing up – first and foremost – for what you love and believe in, and friendship in a world so often dominated by the need to be perfect in everything.

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If Kisses Cured Cancer by T.S. Hawken

Title: If Kisses Cured Cancer

Author: T.S. Hawken

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fictionif kisses cured cancer.jpg

Publisher: Seahawk Press

Published: 1st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 466

Price: $30

Synopsis:If Kisses Cured Cancer is a story about life in a growing coastal town, falling in love and stealing shopping trolleys.

Matt Pearce is depressed, working an uninspiring job and lacking any prospect of dragging his life out of mediocrity. That is until he meets Joy: a cancer survivor who lives beyond the rules of normal people.

As the pair go on a series of unusual dates – from hijacking fish n chip orders, to ‘extreme people watching’ at the airport – their love for each other grows. But Joy’s past is about to catch up with her, and a hidden secret could tear the two apart forever.

If Kisses Cured Cancer is a quirky look at finding love in unlikely places. It is about the importance of connecting with those around you, enjoying every moment and not being afraid to go skinny dipping in the forest.

It will have you in tears of joy, tears of sorrow and tears of laughter.

~*~

When we meet Matt Pearce, he is working in a job he hates, with no real idea of where he wants to be in life – he feels he’s forever going to be stuck in the monotony of customer service and scripts he must adhere to without ever being able to actually help people. Until he sees a young woman hijack a trolley at the supermarket and take groceries that aren’t her own and buy them for herself. Intrigued, Matt follows her – the trolley thief – and a relationship starts to form, based on stealing trolleys, hijacking fish and chips orders, and extreme people watching at the airport. This woman is Joy, a cancer survivor who lives each day as it comes, determined to get the most out of life before her past catches up with her – and forces her to keep a secret from Matt that he never saw coming.

When Matt finds out what is happening to Joy, he tries to put his plans for university on hold to try and help her, to get her through this rough patch of her life. But her determination to go out on her own terms and without holding him, and her friends back, is the defining characteristic of Joy as she tries to face what is to come without fear, and without worry for herself, but concern for those she is leaving behind.

This was a bittersweet story – sad, but at the same time, happy and realistic. It didn’t shy away from the hardships and flaws of the characters, and it allowed Matt, Z, Joy and Gerard to be themselves, to discover what they want their lives to be, from jobs to study to simply living for each day as it comes. It is about love, friendship, life, and death. About taking chances and new leaps towards the future that you had not ever thought was possible.

What I liked about this novel was that despite it’s title, it didn’t dwell overly on Joy’s cancer, which only showed up and overshadowed her in about the last third of the book. Instead, it combines a character who feels at a loss in his life, with one who has such zest for life, it is infectious to Matt and his friends who rally around him when he decides to go to university, and branch out into a new venture, and see him through caring for Joy towards the end, and creates a feeling of family, who are willing to help each other. Brought together by a desire to help people and do what makes them happy, Matt, Joy, Z – a former work colleague of Matt’s, and Centrelink call centre employee – Gareth – show that the unexpected changes and ups and downs in life can push us into decisions and pathways we never thought possible.

I was contacted by the author to review this book and decided to give it a go – at first, unsure of what I would encounter, but in the end, I did enjoy it. The fact that it had several strands and elements given equal attention, without a primary focus on one over the other ensured that there is something in there for all readers of this book. It is emotional, but all good books tug at the heartstrings, make you laugh and make you angry at some things – they move you, which is exactly what this one does. A well written book.

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