Caraval Book One
Written by Stephanie Garber
Fantasy, Romance
Published January 31st 2017
416 Pages
Thank you to Hachette Australia
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Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far away, once a year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.
Under their father's oppressive rule, Scarlett and Donatella dream of fantastical far away worlds, where magic and freedom reigns. Year after year, Scarlett has been penning letters to the eccentric recluse Legend, the master of ceremonies throughout Caraval. When an invitation arrives, Scarlett is hesitant to leave her small island nation only days before her pending nuptials but enlists the assistance of Julian, a devious sailor who promises to deliver Scarlett and Donatella to Caraval in exchange for their remaining invitation. The game has begun.

Donatella has been captured as part of Caraval and Scarlett and Julian will need to join forces to solve each riddle. Beware, nothing at Caraval is what it seems. 

My Thoughts

On the conquered Isle of Trisda, siblings Scarlett and Donatella live under the oppressive rule of their father, a callous man who has betrothed Scarlett in order to keep her complacent. Scarlett is aware that her only escape is to become a bride, until an invitation arrives from the Master Legend, inviting Scarlett and Donatella to his island to participate in Caraval. Scarlett and Donatella have a turbulent relationship, although care for one another deeply. Their father cruelty contends his daughters against one another, often abusive and suppressing their freedom. After deliberation, the siblings are assisted by Julian on their journey to the island of Caraval, where Donatella is taken hostage under the guise of entertainment and the game has already begun.

I enjoyed the slow progression of the tentative friendship between Scarlett and sailor Julian, despite Julian's secrecy and Scarlett's reluctance to compromise. What emerges is a slow burning and sultry romance. Sexy, sexy romance. Scarlett is feisty and often judgmental but ultimately yearns for freedom, especially for sister Donatella. Julian's character is enigmatic and an opportunist but to find Donatella, Scarlett must place her faith in Julian's ability to navigate Caraval.
Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.
Scarlett is betrothed to a man only known through his penmanship, torn between her developing attraction for the arrogant and flirtatious sailor while anxious not to anger her quick tempered father. He's incredibly violent and rather than punish Scarlett, he will physically assault Donatella and Scarlett is determined to protect her sister.

One of the loveliest aspects of Caraval is the atmospheric beauty. Lyrical and exquisite, I was enamored by De Los Sueños, the private island where Caraval is held while shrouded in magic and an enchanting illusion of adventure. Beneath the surface, the island threatens to expose the sinister nature of Caraval. Deliciously dark, the world building is breathtaking, mature and refined.
Whatever you've heard about Caraval, it doesn't compare to the reality. It's more than just a game or performance. It's the closest you'll ever find yourself magic in this world.
Reminiscent of the lyricism of Laini Taylor, Stephanie Garber's debut made my heart flutter with delight. Caraval is wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully lyrical and an absolute pleasure to have immersed myself within the pages.

The Flywheel

The Flywheel
Written by Erin Gough
Contemporary, LGBT, #LoveOzYA
Published February 1st 2015
309 Pages
Published by Hardie Grant Egmont
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Seventeen year old Delilah drops out of high school when her romance with another girl goes horribly wrong. Preferring chaos to bullying, Delilah makes it her mission to save her dad's crumbling café, the Flywheel, while he finds himself overseas.

Accompanied by her charming troublemaker best friend Charlie, Delilah sets out to save the cafe, keep Charlie out of prison, and maybe get a date with Rosa, the beautiful flamenco dancer from across the road. But when life is messy enough as it is, can girl on girl romance ever have a happy ending?

This hilarious and accident prone novel is about how to be heartbroken and how to fall in love, about rising above high school drama and wrestling with problems that are, almost too big. It speaks directly to teens and assures them that they're not alone, and does it all with an abundance of heart.
While her father is on a reluctant journey of self discovery after his divorce, seventeen year old Delilah never imagined she would be managing the Flywheel, the small independent coffee house her father owns. Ostracised by her peers, Delilah is tormented for her sexuality and a secret relationship with callous Georgina, in which the teaching faculty believe she had coerced the popular student.

When the manager of the Flywheel is deported and her staff members pilfering dwindling profits, Deliah has no other option but to devote her time to the conservation of the small business with the assistance of best friend Charlie. Reluctant to love again, Delilah's infatuation with flamenco dancer Rosa and Charlie's chaotic romance, Delilah will be forced to contend with Crunch, a large business trying to force the Flywheel into insolvency.

My Thoughts

Delilah finds herself in a precarious position, running her father's small business while he's on an extended journey of self discovery and walking away from her education to ensure the coffee house survives against the push of big business. I absolutely adored Delilah. She's a resilient young woman who although self aware, still feels adolescent fragility as she navigates friendships, relationships and responsibility. She continues to endure homophobia, targeted accusations by her peers. Delilah is a lesbian and after a physical relationship with a fellow student, subjected to taunts that the education facility ignore.

Charlie is adventurous, boisterous and a charming young man with an appreciation of the fairer sex, seemingly infatuated with the thrill of the chase. Charlie was of an immense support to Delilah, thriving as The Flywheel's new in house chef, praised by patrons and creating a new environment by uplifting revenue for the flailing business. Charlie was hilarious, his jovial nature providing banter between he and Delilah and laugh out loud moments.

Although Delilah's parents are noticeably absent for almost the entire narration, Delilah speaks of an incredible fondness for her father and the support and unconditional love he provides, her reasoning behind wanting to save The Flywheel from bankruptcy rather than ask her father to return home. Delilah's relationship with her mother felt incredibly strained, having separated and moved to Melbourne with her younger, questionable lover. Insisting Delilah refer to her by her first name rather than mother, wanting to recapture her youth.

The romance between Delilah and Rosa was often turbulent but the epitome of teen relationships and their complexities. After her experience with Georgia, Delilah isn't interested in another covert relationship which poses an issue with Rosa's conservative family, unaware of her sexuality. It was a great exploration of the stages of sexual preferences and tolerances for experiences that are not your own.

The Flywheel is why I read Australian young adult fiction, wonderfully diverse narratives that represent our communities. Debut author Erin Gough is remarkable.

No Virgin

Trigger warning. This book contains a rape scene and victim intimidation.

No Virgin
Written by Anne Cassidy
Contemporary, Abuse, Mature Themes
Published January 2017
183 Pages
Thank you to Bonnier and Allen & Unwin
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My name is Stacey Woods and I was raped.

Stacey Woods is a seventeen year old girl who works hard at school and who tries to manage a complicated family set up. After a row she storms out. She meets Harry Connaught who seems to be everything she wants in a boy. But Harry has other plans for Stacey.

Stacey is the victim of a terrible sexual attack. She does not feel able to go to the police, or talk about it to anybody other than her best friend, Patrice. Patrice, outraged, when she cannot persuade her to go to the police, encourages Stacey to write everything down.

This is Stacey's story.
Stacey is a quiet, shy young woman who's petite and often forgotten. Since her younger sister became a mother at the tender age of fourteen, Stacey is often manipulated into caring for her child and pushed aside by her mother who has an inclination towards her younger sibling. Once a reprieve, her father's partner seems to scarcely tolerate his children and lately her closest confidant Patrice has been spending time with another, leaving Stacey feeling discarded and alone.

He's charming, charismatic and offers the seventeen year old refuge. Feeling resentful and rebellious, Stacey accepts his hospitality. Harry is endearing, attentive and is the perfect gentleman, luring Stacey into a false sense of security.

My Thoughts. Mild Spoilers Ahead

No Virgin is the harrowing, traumatic and compelling narrative of seventeen year old Stacey, the victim of Rape.

The reader is introduced to Stacey as a frustrated seventeen year old, a young woman living in the shadow of friend Patrice and placated by her mother who rationalises her younger sibling's behaviour. Stacey is demoralised by her sister and her feelings disregarded, ultimately compelling her to seek solace by temporarily leaving home. Stacey is demure and quietly spoken, sitting in the small coffee house sketching patrons when she's approached by the charming and handsome Harry. Their attraction is undeniable, so when Harry offers Stacey refuge, she accepts. An act of defiance against her mother.

No Virgin isn't a contemporary romance, although Harry's charisma will lure readers into a false sense of security. Stacey's narrative is veracious and compelling. Preceding the sexual assault, Stacey feels a compulsion towards Harry as he's attractive, alluring and compassionate. He's also a predator. The impact of Stacey's sexual assault is profound and confronting. She's incapable of verbalising the trauma of rape and at Patrice's suggestion, documents her experience.
After the rape I didn't leave straight away. I was so shocked. I stayed in the bathroom with the door locked. I sat on the floor beside the toilet and felt the cold tiles against my legs, my toes curled on the ceramic floor.
The trauma Stacey experiences is palatable. As a victim of sexual assault, Stacey internalises her trauma and only confides in Patrice about the incident, leading to writing down the precursor that lead to that moment. Experiencing remorse, despondency and insecurity, Stacey reflects on her brief relationship with Harry and impact of the assault isn't truly realised until she begins to revisit the incident through her written words. I was enraged how the perpetrator normalised the sexual assault, maintaining she was an active participant. Much in the same way rape culture perpetuates that the victim is at fault, rather than placing the blame upon the predator.
The story, once I'd written it and read it over a few times, was like a testament to my own stupidity. How could I have been so naive, so swept up in my own romantic daydreams, not to realise that there was a subtext to what was happening?
Patrice was an incredible support for Stacey, persevering with gentle suggestions to speak to a crisis councilor and report the assault.

Although No Virgin is an incredibly poignant and crucial narrative, I couldn't understand Stacey's attraction to Harry after the assault and unfortunately, those psychological elements were not explored. The event progression before the assault felt inconsequential, compared to the sexual assault and emotional impact. I would have preferred to have the emotional turmoil and justice explored for not only Stacey's character, but teens who may have experienced sexual assault themselves.

Blog Tour: A Quiet Kind Of Thunder

A Quiet Kind Of Thunder
Written by Sara Barnard
Contemporary, Romance, Diverse Fiction
Published January 12th 2017
320 Pages
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia
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Steffi doesn't talk, but she has so much to say.
Rhys can't hear, but he can listen.
Their love isn't a lightning strike, it's the rumbling roll of thunder.

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life, she's been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He's deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she's assigned to look after him.

To Rhys, it doesn't matter that Steffi doesn't talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she's falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

From the bestselling author of Beautiful Broken Things comes a love story about the times when a whisper is as good as a shout.
From four years of age, Steffi had been diagnosed with Select Mutism, a precursor to an often debilitating social anxiety disorder. Now at seventeen years of age and using basic sign language when she cannot find her words, Steffi has devised an agreement with her parents. Steffi's one ambition is to attend university, studying animal welfare. The proposal, to begin verbalising to her peers for her parents to consider a further education. With her best friend now attending college, Steffi has never felt as distant and alone... Until Rhys.

Rhys is a passionate, friendly and charismatic young man who also communicates through sign language, having transferred from an aesthetic and sensory environment and enrolling to provide himself with the challenge of navigate the auditory environment of high school. Conversing with the use of sign language, begins a tentative friendship developing into a gentle relationship of tender words and lingering kisses. 

My Thoughts

Steffi was a wonderful character, a precocious girl with a gentle disposition. Since the tender age of only four years old. Steffi has suffered from selective mutism and in recent years has developed severe and paralysing anxiety, tormented by her peers. Through therapy and now medication, Steffi has been working towards her ambition of learning to speak, only comfortable when speaking with family members and her best friend, who is now enrolled at University. Steffi's anxiety was palpable, her internal monologue was fascinating although pensive, her frustration at not being able to physically speak due to her anxiety was distressing especially seeing she was offered little support from the education faculty.
I move slowly so people won't notice I'm there, because running in public is as loud as a shout. 
Her parents now divorced and remarried to their respective partners, Steffi shares how her mother would often manipulate the young girl into speaking, frustrated at her lack of progress. She was against the prospect of her daughter learning basic sign language to communicate, believing it would hinder her development and thus failing as a parent. Thank goodness for Steffi's father who was supportive and although concerned about his daughter, refused to limit Steffi's ability and encouraged her from a young age. Their lives all irrevocably changed after the tragedy they rarely speak of, but binds their family together.
Meekness is my camouflage. Silence is my forcefield.
Rhys was absolutely lovely, vivacious and inspiring. Rhys is hearing impaired and communicates with the use of sign language. Having previously attended a sensory school, he's now enrolled in public education as a challenge and precursor to becoming a games developer. Placed together through a shared understanding of sign language to communicate, Rhys and Steffi begin a wonderful friendship based on a fondness for one another, rather than their perceived limitations. It was one of the loveliest romances I've had the pleasure of reading in young adult. A gradual relationship built upon friendship and a mutual respect despite their differences.

I appreciated Steffi's friendship with her best friend, although Steffi seemed a little too judgmental when disclosing her fondness for relationships. September Samatar is passionate and impulsive, the two having been friends since their mothers having met at the Refugee Council. September brings a sense cultural diversity throughout the storyline, which also touches on the racism the young teen experiences. I did feel Steffi begun to abandon her best friend in favour of Rhys at times.

As their relationship develops, it was wonderful to see that neither character was denied the teenage experience. A Quiet Kind of Thunder also explores mental health, friendships, relationships and romantic relationships. It is remarkably sexually positive and promotes safe sex practices in which I applaud Sara Barnard for her pragmatical approach.

Sincere and endearing, A Quiet Kind Of Thunder was a beautifully written narrative that breaks down the barriers of communication. Exquisite, wonderful diverse and explores the infinite potential of the human condition.

The First Third

The First Third
Written by Will Kostakis
Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, LGBT
Published July 24th 2013
248 Pages
Published by Penguin Books Australia
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Life is made up of three parts. In the first third, you're embarrassed by your family. In the second, you make a family of your own and in the end, you just embarrass the family you've made.

That's how Billy's grandmother explains it, anyway. She's given him her bucket list and now it's his job to glue their family back together.

No pressure or anything.

Fixing his family's not going to be easy and Billy's not ready for change. But as he soon discovers, the first third has to end some time. And then what?

It's a Greek tragedy waiting to happen.
Yiayia is a formidable woman, even as she's confined to her hospital bed after having collapsed at the Orthodox Easter church service. Bill Tsiolkas should have been beside his elderly grandmother as she stumbled but left to pursue his first kiss.

While Yiayia lies frail in her hospital bed, Billy has been tasked to find a husband for her single mother, bring his brother Simon home from Brisbane and to fix Peter, his younger, volatile sibling. The legacy and sense of family have now been ensured in Billy's trust, Yiayia is determined to unite her family. 

My Thoughts

The First Third is a hilarious and heartwarming narrative of European Australia and our familial, unconditional acceptance. According to Yiayia, life is lived in thirds. The first third, you're embarrassed by your family. The second, you create your own family and in the third fragment of life, you're old enough to embarrass the family you've created. Billy is currently living the first third when his grandmother is hospitalised, his Yiayia the matriarch that binds their family together. The Tsiolkas family is fractured. Since his father abandoned his family, Billy's mother has raised three boys with the help of Yiayia but as her boys reach adulthood, finds herself wanting to explore new relationships. Yiayia has entrusted Billy with a series of impossibles to harmonise their family, finding a new husband for his mother first and foremost.

Simon now lives in Brisbane, living with the freedom he was not afforded in Sydney and Yiayia has asked Billy to find a lovely girlfriend for his other brother, unaware that Simon is gay. Lastly, Peter. Billy's younger brother is erratic and volatile, his only familial relationship with his grandmother who has asked Billy to fix his brother. A series of impossibles.

Billy is a sensitive young man. Reserved, delightfully awkward and quietly intelligent. I cherished how he adored and respected his grandmother, a rarity for positive parental and grandparental involvement in young adult novels. He has a wonderful and at times, hilariously humiliating relationship with his mother from fashion consultant to being asked to revise his mothers sexual text messages. Ultimately, Billy wants his mother to be happy and find a partner that can absorb the heartache left when his father walked away from their marriage. 

Billy's friendship with best friend Lucas was a wonderful influence on his life. Affectionately known as Sticks, Lucas has cerebral palsy and although he appoints himself as a romance aficionado, is looking for a young man who see Lucas for Lucas, despite his disability. Lucas was a breath of fresh air and I appreciated that his sexuality and disability weren't used to further his narrative. I loved their friendship and open candidness, it was an absolute pleasure.

The foundation of The Sidekicks is a strong sense of family. Boisterous, meddlesome families. It was wonderfully diverse and represented Australia and our communities. It was beautiful, uplifting and why I read Australian young adult novels. It gives you a sense of being home.

It was magnificent. Will Kostakis is an author who writes with honesty and humor, creating engaging characters that you'll hold dear to your heart. I loved the sense of family. The relationships and friendships that are wonderfully blemished but ultimately complex. Get the tissues ready for this one, you'll need them.

Read as part of the #DiverseReads2017 challenge.

Freedom Swimmer

Freedom Swimmer
Written by Wai Chim
Historical, Friendship, Diversity
Published September 1st 2016
272 Pages
Published by Allen & Unwin Australia
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This incredible tale about two boys' swim from mainland China to Hong Kong in search of freedom from poverty and oppression is inspired by a true story.

Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China's Great Leap Forward, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields.

When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party reeducation program, Ming and his friends aren't sure what to make of the new arrivals. They're not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn't be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams.

But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible. Freedom.
Ming stands on the bank of the river, a farewell to his mother who now joins the procession of souls taken by years of famine. His father died attempting to swim to Hong Kong, escaping the communist regime. Starving and alone, Ming is eleven years old when Fei is seeking refuge, one night of shared sorrow ensuring a friendship of support and comfort spanning distance and time.

Toiling the impacted earth, Ming labours for meager rations when under a Mao regime, the village of Dingzai has been selected for reeducation, expected to learn the teachings of their leader while the young men of the Red Guard are sentenced to the toil as humble farmers. Spreading the message of Mao. Li  is serving his leader, the Red Guard member an exemplary young man who is commended for his loyalty and dedicated to the teachings of his leader.

Ming and Li form a tentative friendship, relying on one another for support, guidance and compassion. Tension is high in the small farming village of Dingzai, famine and neglect have taken their toll and the only refuge is a liberal Hong Kong, a tumultuous Freedom Swim across the channel or risk being labelled as a reactionary thinker.

When you have nothing left, you have nothing left to lose.

My Thoughts

A few weeks ago I read a review for Freedom Swimmer on Happy Indulgence and was touched by Jeann's review. She spoke about how her family had migrated to Australia in which most families search for freedom and an environment to raise children, allowing them to prosper. It's a narrative echoed by so many Australian families, our neighbours, our friends and family members. Ming's story is passionate and breathtaking but most of all, it instills hope and a sense of understanding, learning not to take our freedom for granted.

Orphaned at the tender age of only eleven years old, Ming is a mere boy in a village where children sow the fields in communist China, not afforded an education unlike wealthy families living within the city, Ming is an outcast since his father attempted the treacherous swim to Hong Kong.

Titled Freedom Swimming by the media, an overwhelming number of young men and women made the journey to freedom, escaping Maoist guards with dozens of barely adult bodies washing up on the Hong Kong shoreline. Famine swept throughout China and for many citizens, escape was their only means of survival. Wai Chim was inspired by her own father's story, he too was a Freedom Swimmer in the early seventies and now lives a peaceful life in New York. An inspiration.

Freedom Swimmer is told in duel narratives from both Ming and Li, both young men are wonderfully written and will appeal to the wider audience with the characters conversing in modern English. Readers experience China's Cultural Revolution through the eyes of two young men, wanting justice for the treatment of so many and hopeful for their freedom. Freedom Swimming was an incredibly treacherous era, with many media reports believing it was a significant precursor to cultural change.

Australia is a multicultural country not without fault. Asylum seekers from war ravaged countries are modern day Freedom Swimmers, seeking refuge and safe passage for their families only to be placed in detention. Unless you identify as an Indigenous Australian who remain our traditional land owners, we are all migrants seeking the same freedom and prosperity and Freedom Swimmer further highlights their plight.

Inspirational, poignant and quietly beautiful, Freedom Swimmer is a journey of bravery and the strength we draw from solidarity and compassion.
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