Tag Archives: novel

Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling

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Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling, novel, 325 pages, published by Chicken House in 2017.

It is 1577 in England; Queen Elizabeth sits upon the throne, Mary Queen of Scots is imprisoned for treason, London is filled with filthy streets and dubious characters, and witch-hunting is an active sport. In the little hamlet of Fordham, Alyce’s life is upturned when the hideous Mr Hopkins and his off-sider Caxton come to accuse her mother of witchcraft. Alyce is able to escape, but the witch finders are on her tail as she makes her way to London to deliver a letter to a man her mother said would help her. Her journey is not an easy one, but one that she does not have to make alone once she befriends a young actor, Solomon. As her powers swell uncontrollably, and the witch finders continue to hunt her, she can’t help but wonder, what is so important about her?

This was an interesting historical fiction, embellished with real witches capable of far more than healing herbs and mysterious incantations. I expected witchcraft, but not the historical aspect of the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart; I found this spin on history rather intriguing. The whole story was quite immersing, and flowed smoothly with good pace. It was a bit dark, with black magic and necromancy at play, with some violence and death, but that only added to the appeal. I did think that Alyce’s emerging power should have been more thoroughly explored.

I enjoyed falling into sixteenth century London, though I am glad I don’t have to live there! The description of the streets was so detailed, I could almost smell the stench of the markets, the foulness of unwashed bodies, and the murkiness of the Thames. It was not an appealing mix, but the sights of the Tower, the rickety shops and houses, the city gates, and the countryside beyond were much more enticing. The clothing and behaviour of the people matched the setting and time well, completing the scene expertly.

I connected more with Solomon than Alyce, despite feeling great sadness and pity for her situation. Solomon’s situation wasn’t a bunch of daffodils either, but he was less hardened by his experiences than Alyce seemed to be. I liked his amiable nature, and his occasional awkwardness; he was a good friend to Alyce before he even knew her well. Alyce was strong and determined, and sometimes wilful. They made a good pair. Many of the other characters were interesting too, though they were not as developed as Alyce and Solomon. I’m afraid that Caxton may visit my nightmares some nights… what a horrible beast.

Witchborn is suitable for upper primary and high school students. It is a good read for anyone who enjoys magic, witches and historical fantasy.

 

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Goodwood by Holly Throsby

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goodwoodcoverGoodwood by Holly Throsby, paperback novel, 384 pages, published by Allen & Unwin in 2016.

In 1992 in a sleepy little town in NSW something very unusual happens. Young Rosie White disappears overnight, leaving her mother devastated and the townsfolk speculating. Just one week later another member of the community disappears; Bart McDonald, local butcher, upright citizen, all round good guy. He went fishing and never returned. Could their disappearances be connected, or is it merely co-incidental? And will the citizens of Goodwood ever know the truth?

In Goodwood there are a few shops, a couple of drinking establishments and just out of town, a lovely lake, perfect for fishing and boating. Seventeen year old Jean Brown introduces us to this small town, where everyone knows everyone. And where everyone’s business is kept by the whole town. Some people have learnt how to keep secrets, but eventually most secrets come to the surface. Jean lives with her mother nearby her grandparents, who have been in Goodwood forever.

A complex web of secrets and intrigues shrouds the members of Goodwood, which only start to unravel after the shocking disappearance of two very different people. Like an iceberg, much more lurks beneath the surface in Goodwood, hidden behind the public facade of each household. There is plenty of gossip, and just maybe some of it is true. Rosie works in the takeaway shop, having just left school the year before. Jean is a little bit in love with Rosie, who seems so cool and in control. In contrast, Bart is middle-aged and always has time for everyone, even the annoying old lady that visits his shop everyday mostly for a chat. They are very different people, superficially without a lot in common, just what is it that links their disappearances?

Goodwood sucked me in very early on. The plot was intricate, the characters interesting, and the pace moderate. It is a most enjoyable read about small town life and the impact that a sudden and unexpected event can illicit among the townspeople. It also has coming-of-age elements as Jean learns more about herself, her relationships and her place within the community.

I found this novel quite nostalgic, pulling me back into my childhood. Through description and characterisation, the world as it was in the early nineties came flooding back. The writing perfectly captured that time, and I was left with a feeling of familiarity and contentment. It was like having a spotlight shone upon a time that I had mostly forgotten as a young child, and that brought pleasing memories forth. This helped me feel connected to Jean, and thus connected to the story. Goodwood was a delight to read.

Goodwood is reminiscent of Peyton Place and The Dressmaker; if you liked these, try Goodwood, I’m sure you will not be disappointed! It is suitable for upper high school students and adults, particularly appealing to mystery fans and those that enjoy the complexities of small community life.

 

*I received this book from the publisher as an uncorrected proof through an online competition. I did not receive any other remuneration, and the review is composed entirely of my own opinions.

Scream: The Spider Army by Jack Heath

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IMG_4946Scream: The Spider Army by Jack Heath, paperback novel, 139 pages, published by Scholastic Australia in 2015.

Yvette lives in Axe Falls, a town where some very unusual things have been happening. A recent earthquake has left part of the high school damaged, but the kids still have to attend classes. During a food-tech class, Yvette sees a spider, but it is no ordinary spider, this one has a vivid blue streak down its back. Everyone in town has heard rumours of these blue-back spiders, rumours rife with mystery, disappearances, and death. Yvette sees more blue-back spiders, and the medical centre begins to be inundated with spider-bite victims, will Axe Falls survive the spiders?

Scream: The Spider Army is the second book in the Scream series. I’ve always thought these sort of books are best read after dark, and by torchlight, if possible, to give the maximum creepiness effect. Reading this book reminded me of nights curled up reading Goosebumps books as a child. The Spider Army didn’t disappoint in spine tingling scariness. The blue-back spiders are seriously creepy, and evil, especially the spider queen. Having suffered a couple of spider bites myself, I chose to read this book with the light fully blazing!

The story is well written, fast paced and exciting. It had all the right elements of scary fantasy for kids. I finished reading it very quickly, as did my eight year old daughter. She loved it and immediately moved on to one of the other books in the series, telling me that “Jack Heath is now my favourite author!”. I can see a lot of Scream books in our future.

All of the characters were described with enough detail to picture them clearly, and the reader was able to get to know Yvette and her brother Josh a bit more deeply. I really liked Yvette, her courage, and ingenuity, and the way she wanted to help and protect her brother and friends. All of the school staff that were mentioned seem very odd, and mildly disturbing. A school caretaker like Mr Mortimer would have been scary enough, without a plague of strange blue backed spiders as well!

Scream: The Spider Army is suitable for middle and upper primary school students. Though older children may also enjoy it, it is probably a bit too scary for younger readers. As an adult, it didn’t have quite the goosebumps inducing quality that it did for my third grader, but I still enjoyed the story a lot. I will be reading more in the Scream series.

Power’s Out by Rachel Meehan

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Water's EdgePower’s Out by Rachel Meehan, e-book, 223 pages, published by Cherry House Publishing in 2013.

Two years on from when Paul and Nairne leave the Grear farm behind in Water’s Edge, sees them traveling the countryside with Dog, staying away from the towns and trying to survive. Civilisation is crumbling, bandits control the roadways and the city streets, and there is a dwindling number of people to trust. When they stumble across a self-sufficient community residing in an abandoned convent, they are taken in and given shelter in exchange for Nairne’s assistance with their wind turbines. The community consists of about thirty people working together to survive, including some young people similar in age to Paul and Nairne. This could become home for the pair, ending their wanderings. Nothing is that simple though. Danger is present as they set out to help the community acquire much needed parts and supplies, which means venturing far beyond the safety of the convent’s walls. Their past is also creeping closer, but will it catch them at last?

The second book of the Troubled Times series, Power’s Out, was fast-paced and exciting. With lots of action, it is an exhilarating ride of survival. There was much more explicit violence in this story than its predecessor, which helps to illustrate how civilisation has fallen back to more instinctual behaviours as the world around it falls apart. When the constraints of society fall away and there are no longer any policing bodies to enforce laws, there is violence for gain, and violence for enjoyment. This is a terrifying insight into base human nature, but one which I think is rather accurate. There are plenty of unscrupulous people taking advantage of others in stable communities, but when there is no one to enforce the law, or those enforcers are corrupt, there arises the opportunity for these behaviours to increase. And that’s what we see in Power’s Out. The scenes of violence are vivid and scary, but the people behind the violence are even scarier!

It is easy to step into the Scottish landscape portrayed in this book, and follow along with Nairne and Paul, experiencing what they experience. All of the characters are richly described and developed, allowing the reader to get to know them. With the introduction of more characters from the community, different aspects of Nairne’s and Paul’s characters become evident. Paul and Nairne have become extremely close during their traveling and it is hard to let others in, though they are each tempted by a young member of the community. There are a lot more characters to get to know too. Suddenly Nairne and Paul don’t just have each other to rely on and interact with, they have to cope with others, most of whom do not realise how dire their situation really is. I liked Ronnie a lot. He’s a bit of a clown, but he is also loyal and caring. Iain, I didn’t like as much, he was a prig, but I think most of that came from being jealous of Paul and Isobel. She seemed a bit oblivious to how Iain felt about her, but perhaps she just didn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. She certainly took to Paul, and was likable as a character. I particularly liked Isobel’s father, Jack. He was sensible, kind, intelligent, and fair. He was also very accepting of Paul and Nairne, and was ready to learn from them and to be assisted by them, an attitude that not everyone in the community shared. The older members of the community, including their leader, Arthur, for the most part, were a bit naive, believing that things could continue as they were indefinitely, that they would be left untouched by the outside world.

The end of Power’s Out was very intense. I felt quite anxious as I read the last few chapters, wondering if Nairne and Paul would make it through, if the community would survive, and how things would play out. It left me feeling rather desperate to read the final installment of this wonderful trilogy!

Power’s Out is suitable for high school students through to adults. It contains violence and some bad language. The themes of societal breakdown and environmental disaster could be frightening for less mature readers.

 

*I received this book as a digital copy from the author, who asked me for an honest review of this book. I did not receive any other remuneration, and the review is composed entirely of my own opinions.

The Rain by Virginia Bergin

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IMG_4096The Rain by Virginia Bergin, paperback novel, 386 pages, published by Macmillan Chidlren’s Books.

Ruby Morris is just a teenager living in a small town in rural England when the end of the world as she knows it arrives in the form of killer rain. One minute she’s passionately kissing the boy of her dreams, the next, people are dying. The merest touch of the poisonous water is enough to kill, wiping out millions within a few days. Ruby sets out across the country to find her Dad, putting her survival skills to the test.

The basis of The Rain is an apocalyptic event, causing a devastating loss of human life. The cause behind the development of killer rain is established clearly and early on in the story, which seems to be rare among books of this genre that I have read. A contaminated water source is a great start for an apocalypse, though I was surprised by the violent and bloody way in which people affected by the water died. Complete loss of a safe water supply is truly a terrifying thought. The story dealt with the short-term requirements of finding safe water to drink and ahelter, but didn’t explore the complications that would arise due to such finite resources. Perhaps the sequel, The Storm, will delve deeper into the more long-term consequences of contaminated rain.

The Rain is written in the first person as Ruby. I tried hard to like Ruby, she’s just lost her family and her friends, and she’s trying to survive in this new and dangerous world, and I could feel sorry for her, but I couldn’t really like her. Before the rain came, she was obviously one of the popular kids, stuck-up, selfish, shallow and egotistical. Not exactly the perfect picture of someone who will rebuild the world post-apocalyspe, but I thought she would start learning to be someone of more consequence on her journey. I didn’t like the way that she treated Darius, as if he was completely beneath her. She refers to him as a nerd, but he is smart and practical, exactly the sort of person you should want on your side if the world ever comes to an end. I was disappointed that Ruby still considered Darius to be socially inferior despite the whole of humanity crumbling about them. And instead of collecting practical supplies, she loots make-up and clothes her mum and stepdad would never have let her wear. Hey, I’ve never been part of an apocalypse, so who knows what crazy things I would do, but I just can’t imagine mascara and sequins will be high on my list of things to do.

I generally quite like apocalyptic and dystopian novels, and this novel was okay, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected. My difficulty in liking Ruby really clouded my enjoyment of the story. The abrupt ending of the story surprised me too, until I realised that there was to be a sequel. The Rain left me with lots of questions. I’m wondering how society will develop without a clean source of water, not only to drink, but to produce food as well. Will the rain become safe again, will there be tests developed to identify safe water? And what happens to Ruby, Darius and Princess? I’m interested enough to read the second book, and it leaves me with hope that Ruby will develop into a more likeable heroine.

Due to the complicated themes contained within this novel, The Rain is most suitable for high school students and up.

 

Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick

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IMG_37131Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick, paperback novel, 392 pages, published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.

Britt Pfeiffer has convinced her best friend, Korbie, to backpack through the Teton Ranges in Wyoming for the spring break of their final year of high school. The girls have very little experience hiking through the ranges, but Korbie’s parents’ own a large cabin on the shores of a lake in the mountains, which they can use as a base for their adventure. The weather turns foul as they journey up the mountain, forcing them to abandon their vehicle and seek shelter from the driving snow. Sodden and fatigued they find salvation in a small cabin in the forest, where two young men are also waiting out the storm. For two pretty and exuberant girls, it should be fun to shack up with two handsome lads like Mason and Shaun for the night, but the boys have plans, and the girls are at their mercy. Britt finds herself fighting her way down the mountain through the dark and swirling storm, surrounded by dangers both environmental and human.

Elements of adventure, mystery, suspense, and romance are intertwined in this captivating young adult novel. Black Ice was a sled ride through the mountains, full of twists and dark turns, that kept me guessing. There were some well written action sequences, with plenty of teenage deliberation and introspection, and some non-graphic romantic scenes. It was an exciting read with palpable tension, that I blew through quickly as I needed to know what happened next.

The characters were all rather bratty and entitled, and I greatly disliked Korbie and her brother, Calvin. It seemed incongruous that Britt would be friends with Korbie, but they had been friends for a long time and it is often hard to let those relationships go. I liked the way that Britt developed as a character through the story. From reliance on the men in her life while taking them for granted, she grows to be a more resourceful, strong and independent leading lady. This traumatic experience strengthens rather than unravels her, always good for a female protagonist. Mason was a very complicated, yet intriguing character which many moods and secrets. He could have gone either way for most of the book, while Shaun was obviously derailed and dangerous. The shallowness and selfishness of several of the characters served to highlight the complexity and intensity of Britt and Mason.

Being a young adult novel, plenty of teenage issues were touched upon, relationships, first love, kissing, physical and emotional insecurities. This helps to shape the novel into something that teenagers can relate to, and it seems to be endemic in this genre. While the sexual elements of this book were quite tame, there was violence and death that may disturb more innocent or immature readers.

Black Ice is most suitable for middle to upper high school students and beyond.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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IMG_2509The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, paperback novel, 313 pages, published by the Penguin Group in 2012.

Since Hazel was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she has withdrawn from school, her friends and from the world in general. Her parents fuss over her and encourage her along to the Cancer Kids Support Group at a nearby church hall. The group is constantly changing as some of the kids have treatment or pass on. Regular support group goer, Isaac, brings along his friend Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor, for support one evening, and Hazel’s life changes dramatically.

The Fault is Our Stars is a poignant tale of love, death and life. Hazel and Augustus are living with death just over the horizon, and they try to live well, for themselves, each other and their families, though they face many more challenges than the average teenager.

Augustus and Hazel are not average teenagers, and I found them to be more sophisticated in their life views and speech. The obstacles that they have encountered have matured and changed them despite their youth. I liked them. I enjoyed their banter, and the way they were together. I liked Augustus’ terrible driving and his sense of humour, I liked Hazel’s intelligence and composure, her tenacity and her laughter. And I completely understand Hazel’s obsession with the book she has re-read dozens of times, and her intense desire to know what happened after the story ended so abruptly. The characters had taken on life for her, as so many characters do for me. Hazel and Augustus came out of the book as I read, making their journey part of my life too.

Beautifully written, insightful and real, this emotional story will stay will me forever. I laughed and I cried and cried, and had to put the book down for a couple of days before I felt like I could finish it. And all the while I was thinking about Augustus and Hazel, and how I wanted them to grow old together, to laugh and love and be together into a future where I know they can not venture. They did not waste the time they did have together, and this is a reminder to live our days to the full and not to let opportunity slip by.

I think the themes in The Fault in Our Stars may be too overwhelming for most primary school students, so this is a book best left to read in high school or beyond. It is a book that will touch you, that will remind you that life is precious, and that will make you want to hug your kids tight and never let go. Read it and let Hazel and Augustus into your heart.

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn

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IMG_1572The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn, paperback novel, 296 pages, published by University of Queensland Press in 2013.

Life is normal and reasonably predictable in the Blue Mountains region of Australia, where Fin is a fairly typical teenage boy. He rushes to school, hangs out with his mates, tries to impress the girl he likes, argues with his brother and is disappointed by his parents’ divorce. Such worries quickly become trivial when a nuclear winter descends upon Australia after nuclear missiles are launched between nations in the northern hemisphere. Fin and his little brother, Max, find themselves alone in a world turned upside-down overnight. The landscape is frozen and bleak, the situation grim with little cause for hope. Supplies of food and drinking water are limited and there is no electricity, no running water, and no help to be found.

What a stunning debut novel for Claire Zorn. The Sky So Heavy is an apocalyptic novel for young adults, suitable for high school students and up. I enjoy the genre of apocalyptic novels, and this book did not disappoint, though it was tamer than many of the adult novels I have read, making it much more suitable for younger readers. I highly recommend this book for high school students.

The situation in which Fin and Max find themselves is a terrifyingly realistic scenario, so well written, I could almost feel the desolation, the desperation and the fear. Life could progress just like this if nuclear war were to happen, and that makes this read particularly scary. Reading The Sky So Heavy made me want to go out and stock up on canned food and bottled water!

The characters are well developed, allowing the reader to know them, and conjure them in our imaginations. I liked all the characters, though Max was a little whiney, but what twelve year old brother isn’t! And given that all the parental figures in his life are gone and possibly dead, his reaction to his circumstances seems natural. Fin, Noll and Lucy are older than Max, but still they are faced with the same fears, apprehensions, worries, frustrations and uncertainties. Fin has the added burden of being responsible for Max. In a world that adults would struggle to navigate, this group of teenagers show bravery and compassion that would escape many, but also a strong desire to survive. These feelings are well expressed throughout the book, creating a realistic and compelling experience for the reader.

I will be eagerly watching for future novels by Claire Zorn. I think there will be more brilliance to come from this new author to the field of young adult fiction in Australia.

 

* The Sky So Heavy was an honour book for the 2014 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year in the Older Readers category.

Harry the Poisonous Centipede by Lynne Reid Banks

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IMG_8239Harry the Poisonous Centipede by Lynne Reid Banks and illustrated by Tony Ross, paperback, 159 pages, first published in 1996 by Collins, this edition published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2012.

Harry is a young poisonous centipede, whose name is actually Hxzltl, but since Centipedish has no vowels, it is much too hard for humans (Hoo-mins in Harry’s world) to say. Harry lives underground in damp tunnels with his mother, Belinda, and he spends his time playing with his best friend George, another young poisonous centipede. George is known for his reckless and adventurous nature, often pulling Harry into his escapades.

Belinda strictly forbids Harry to play near or go up the up-pipe, as that is where the Hoo-mins are and they are very, very dangerous. Of course, this doesn’t deter George at all, he actually wants to see a Hoo-min for himself. And as usual, his bravado sways Harry into tagging along for the ride. In an emergency, Belinda tells the young centis to climb the up-pipe to save themselves, and Harry and George have a frightening, but exhilarating adventure in the world of the Hoo-mins.

This was an enjoyable tale that I wanted to read to the end to find out what happened to Harry and George. It is written in a pleasing way, and interspersed with some black and white illustrations. At the end of the story there is some extra bug related content, including some centipede facts, activities and a quiz. It is suitable for lower to middle primary school children to read themselves, but my preschooler liked it too.

The Princess Diaries Series by Meg Cabot

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The Princess Diaries are written in first person as Mia writing entries into her journal. The language used is appropriately teenager-ish with lots of “Why me?” and “I am not even kidding”, an extremely annoying phrase, as well as plenty of obsessive comments about boys, kissing, breasts and other teenage behaviours. For this reason, I think it would be unsuitable for children below upper primary or early high school to read.

IMG_4928The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot, paperback, 230 pages, published by Macmillan Children’s Books in 2001.

Mia Thermopolis thinks she is just a normal high school student with normal teenager problems, like flunking algebra, and lack of breast development. She thinks she is unattractive, unpopular, and flat-chested, and is sometimes bullied by the popular jocks and cheerleaders at school. Her best friend, Lilly, is a genius with tendencies towards being a bit domineering and superior, and Mia finds her brother, Michael, very attractive, but she can’t tell Lilly that. Mia lives in New York City with her artist mother and their extremely overweight cat, Fat Louie. Also her mum is dating her algebra teacher, the one subject she is currently failing. Her father lives in Europe in a small country called Genovia, and for her first fourteen years, Mia has thought he was a rich politician there, but then she discovers that her father is actually the reigning monarch of Genovia, and in turn Mia is the Princess of Genovia. That is when her life is turned upside down, and she has to face reporters, her Grandmere’s princess lessons, and having a bodyguard tag along on her every move, even around school. She records her adventures in the journal her mother gave her in the hopes that she might express her feelings somewhere at least, even if she won’t tell her.

I actually really enjoyed this book. It was entertaining and funny, and I came to like Mia. Of course, I could hardly see Mia as an average teenager though, even before it is revealed that she is a princess. After all, her mother is a well-known artist, and she spends summers and Christmases with her father at her Grandmere’s chateau in France. She attends what appears to be an expensive private school and mingles with geniuses on a daily basis. Her best friend, Lilly, has her own public access show, which Mia helps to film, and Michael publishes his own webzine.  That is hardly the life of an average teenager. And did it really come as such a surprise that her father was royalty? Where did Mia think all of that money came from, why does her Grandmere have before and after hour privileges to the shops in Genovia, why does her Grandmere’s chateau require a private airstrip, why doesn’t she spend her holidays at her father’s home? And why hasn’t she asked her father any of these questions? If you can just accept the premise that Mia believes herself to be a normal teenager, and that she really hadn’t asked herself any of those questions about her father, the story is quite enjoyable.

 

IMG_4927The Princess Diaries: Take Two by Meg Cabot, paperback, 213 pages, published by Macmillan Children’s books in 2001.

In the second book of the Princess Diaries, Mia has new problems to deal with. Her mum is getting married to her algebra teacher, whom she still refers to as Mr G, despite the impending certainty that he will soon be her stepfather. And her Grandmere has taken it upon herself to organise a most grandiose affair for the wedding, which Helen (Mia’s mother) will never agree to. Part of that included inviting Helen’s parents, whom she doesn’t get along with particularly well, all the way from Indiana, along with Mia’s cousin Hank. And if that isn’t bad enough, she has to cope with press interviews, and a secret admirer that she hopes is Michael, about which she still can’t talk to Lilly about it. Another enjoyable story about an unlikely teenage princess moving through the hazardous world of family, friends and high school.