The Million Pieces of Neena Gill

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill
Written by Emma Smith - Barton
Contemporary, Mental Health, Diverse
320 Pages
Thank you to Penguin Teen Australia
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How can I hold myself together, when everything around me is falling apart?

Neena's always been a good girl, great grades, parent approved friends and absolutely no boyfriends. But ever since her brother Akash left her, she's been slowly falling apart and uncovering a new version of herself who is altogether more dangerous.

As her wild behaviour spirals more and more out of control, Neena's grip on her sanity begins to weaken too. And when her parents announce not one but two life changing bombshells, including that they want her to have an arranged marriage, she finally reaches breaking point. But as Neena is about to discover, when your life falls apart, only love can piece you back together.
Be happy. That was the last words Akash Gill told his sister Neena before disappearing that night, asking her to sneak out to a party with him. It's been seven months since he left, seven months since Neena's mother has left the house, seven months since their lives were irrevocably changed. Neena has always been a model student and loyal friend, navigating the world with Akash at her side. Since he disappeared, Neena's life is no longer her own. She sneaks out to meet his former girlfriend Fiona, hoping to find information on why he left, drinking to numb the pain and follow Akash's path, living life according to where the winds blow. Not how their parents dictate.

Neena Gill is an interesting character, her grief is palpable as we discover the impact Akash's disappearance had on the quiet and reserved young woman. Neena increasingly isolated herself from her best friend Raheela and although as a result of her unimaginable longing, Neena meets Josh at a party through Fiona, her brother's former girlfriend and the two instantly hit it off. Neena is quite the unreliable narrator, shaking off her so called good girl status in the pursuit of information. At first. She becomes a fixture in Akash's social scene, soon realising there was more to her brother than the artist, the covert party boy, a son, a boyfriend and the spark that set the world ablaze.

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill explores the turbulent and often confronting themes of grief, alcoholism, mental illness and substance abuse, issues that were beautifully written with incredible care and consideration. It also portrays the expectations placed upon the offspring of immigrant parents and I really enjoyed the interactions between Neena and her Pakistani born parents once they found common ground.

Although the reader is introduced to Akash through brief snippets and Neena's memories of their childhood, his character is larger than life. The storyline slowly navigates around his character as the central focus and how the disappearance of a loved one leaves a gaping hole in the lives of friends and loved ones. It also explores the many facets of grief, denial, isolation, destructive behaviour, self sabotage, depression and anxiety. Neena's mother developed agoraphobia and was unable to leave the house, the couple's friends coming over each night to banquets Neena's mother would spend the day preparing, Neena's father spending long hours at work to avoid the confrontation of home while seeking solace in his local church to pray for his wayward daughter.

The romance plays a very small role throughout the narrative, which I appreciated tremendously. Neena's life is complex enough and although her relationship with Josh brought her joy, it was a bandaid for a much larger issue. Josh's character was lovely, gentle with Neena and genuinely cares for her. Her brother's former girlfriend Fiona appears to be unlikeable and not only enabled Neena's behaviour but manipulated Neena and used her to her advantage. Neena often perceived her world and the interactions with others entirely different to how they were portrayed, Fi is still questionably sketchy as she's strongly disliked by Neena's parents and her former best friend Raheela but also struggled with life without Akash.

One of my favourite aspects of The Million Pieces of Neena Gill was the writing. It was beautiful and well considered. A story of hope, healing and learning to live in the moment. A deeply moving, poignant and quietly stunning prose from an brilliant debut author in Emma Smith - Barton.

The Darkest Bloom

The Darkest Bloom
Shadowscent Book One
Written by P. M. Freestone
Fantasy, #LoveOZYA
448 Pages
Thank you to Scholastic Australia
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Across the Aramtesh Empire, scent is everything. Prayers only reach heaven on sacred incense, and perfumes are prized status symbols. Seventeen year old Rakel has an uncanny ability with fragrances, but her skills aren't enough to buy her dying father more time.

Ash bears the tattoos of an imperial bodyguard. When his prince, Nisai, insists on a diplomatic mission to an outer province, Ash is duty bound to join the caravan. It's a nightmare protecting Nisai on the road. But it's even harder for Ash to conceal a secret that could see him exiled or executed.

Rakel and Ash have nothing in common until smoke draws them to a field of the Empire's rarest flower. Nisai's been poisoned, flames devour the priceless blooms, and the pair have suspect clinging to them like a bad stench. Their futures depend on them working together to decipher clues, defy dangers and defeat their own demons in a race to source an antidote before the imperial army hunts them down.
Rakel Ana is an aspiring perfumer, currently selling her fragrances and scents on the black market to afford her fathers medication as the Affliction slowly claims his life. Since her mother passed away shortly after childbirth, Rakel and her father have struggled to make ends meet, moving out to the pastoral landscape outside of the city for a simpler life, growing up alongside childhood friend Barden who now is in the employ of the palace. Her father, once a decorated soldier for the Aphorain Province, survive on his meagre pension and barely scraping by. As his body is claimed by rotting flesh, Rakel has no other option but to use her skills as a Scent Maker and apply to become an apprentice perfumer of the capital, a position typically reserved for the children of the wealthy and prestigious families of the Aramtesh Empire.

Punished for insolence, Rakel is forced to serve under the prestigious Scent Keeper Sephine, a woman she blames for the death of her mother when she chose not to save her life. While Rakel worries about her ailing father, the palace becomes embroiled in a deadly scandal, the grounds have been set ablaze, Crown Prince Nisai has been poisoned and the only person who can cure the prince may have been the cause of his demise. When Rakel is found in the gardens with the Crown Prince's personal guard and an unconscious Crown Prince Nisai, she becomes a scapegoat. Together with personal guard Ash, Rakel is on the run to find a cure for the Prince and clear her name before it's too late.

The Darkest Bloom was a delightful surprise! Told in dual points of view from the perspective of Rakel and Ash, both with a vested interested in saving the life of the First Prince and heir to the Aramtesh Empire, Prince Nisai. I love narratives where strangers are thrown together for a common goal and although Rakel and Ash appear to be akin to chalk and cheese, they have more in common than first thought.

After a chance meeting on the streets of the capital, Ash was rescued by the First Prince who insisted on bringing the then young orphan to the palace in what was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Ash begun training as a Shield, a personal guard to Nisai while becoming his closest companion. Perhaps even a case of unrequited love as Ash hints at his bisexuality later in the narrative. Ash and Nisai share a secret that slowly unravels as Ash shares his story. Their secret only strengthens their bond as Nisai will do anything to protect his friend, Ash returning the sentiment in kind. Their bond was beautiful and although Nisai spends the majority of the narrative unconscious, we see how affectionate the two young men are through Ash's memories and point of view.

After Rakel is aided by a mysterious rescuer and upon fleeing the dungeons, Ash quickly tracks her down and with only a riddle from the Scent Keeper to go by, the two decide to venture to find a cure to wake the unconscious prince before time runs out. Along their journey, they must gather five ingredients from the vast corners of the empire, avoiding capture by the Rangers, captained by Nisai's half brother who is seeking justice for the poisoning of his sibling.

It was beautiful and so incredibly atmospheric. Using scent to guide readers throughout the narrative of adventure and a slow burning romance, reminiscent of the earlier Throne of Glass novels. Where The Darkest Bloom differentiates is that the narrative has a distinct feeling of sensuality. The romance is secondary to the storyline but I loved the intense attraction as Rakel and Ash learn more about one another. It ends n a cliffhanger that teases readers of what's to come in book two, I'm excited and can't wait! Captivating and beautifully written, enthralling and enchanting until the final page. 

Daughter of Lies and Ruin

See my review for A Curse of Ash and Embers here
Daughter of Lies and Ruin
The Witches of Blackbone Book Two
Written by Jo Spurrier
Paranormal, Witches, #LoveOZYA
352 Pages
Published September 24th 2019
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If they didn't want to get turned into beasts and used to fuel a ritual, they shouldn't have attacked a witch. That's all there is to it.

There's something strange brewing in this tinder dry forest, a girl with a sword and a secret, a troupe of vicious bandits vanished without a trace, beasts that don't belong and a witch with a macabre plan.

Elodie hasn't been learning witchcraft for long, but she knows enough to be worried, and the fact that her mentor Aleida wants to pack up and leave in short order isn't helping to settle her nerves.

Elodie just hopes to get everyone out of this mess unharmed, but it's looking more unlikely with every passing hour. And when the strange witch's ire falls on her, Aleida's wrath sparks a fire that threatens to scorch the earth itself.
Elodie Blackbone is an apprentice sorceress, bygone is the young woman denied an education and labouring on her family farm, now disciplined in the artistry of witchcraft under the guidance of Aleida Blackbone. The two new companions have departed the Black Oak Cottage in Lilsfield and travelling the dusty, lonely roads when ambushed by a band of roadside bandits ransacking the wares and treasures of stagecoaches and travelling merchants.

Elodie is no longer the naive young woman summoned to the Black Oak Cottage and although she's wisened to the world of sorcery and alchemy, the young apprentice is continuously experimenting with her newfound abilities under Aleida's guidance. Elodie has the ability to inhabit the body of wildlife and birds, often soaring high about the landscape and observing their journey from the skies. Unlike Aleida, Elodie also has the ability to walk between worlds, opening a fissure and guided by an ethereal sprite.

Aleida slayed Gyssha Blackbone and the protege has now become the mentor, albeit cursed by her predecessor. Weakened by the fissure opening to the otherworld, Aleida and Elodie depart the cottage, along the journey they meet the stoic and resolute Kara, being held at the local abbey since her father disappeared. Armed with her sword, Kara has enlisted the aid of local bandits to escape and is searching for her father, an outlaw masquerading as a mercenary while throughout the arduous, backbreaking landscape, an otherworldly disturbance is gathering. Men have become monsters, manipulated by a mage taking shelter in the desolate mountains.

Kara is an interesting character, surly and unapologetically ambitious. Kara has been unwillingly taken into the care of the abbey, devising her escape to find her father as the arrival of Aleida and Elodie provides the opportunity to disappear under the cover of darkness. Although her father is an outlaw, Kara remembers her father for his kindness, a gentle father and loyal friend and after Elodie's insistence, Aleida reluctantly agrees to assist the young brusque woman. The conflict and intensity within Elodie and Aleida's tentative friendship emanates from Kara and their conflicting opinions. Elodie's humble beginnings have resurfaced as a humanitarian crusade, playing the role of saviour especially where Kara is concerned. She constantly undermines Aleida, questioning her judgement and expertise. It's frustrating but an important learning moment for Elodie, it also brought out a compassionate and gentleness from Aleida who masks her emotions.

The subtle attraction between Elodie and Kara is enchanting, although it seems to impair Elodie's judgement and her ability to make rational decisions. Given her interest in Kian in A Curse of Ash and Embers, Elodie may identify as being bisexual. Friendship and sisterhood are the central focus of the Witches of Blackbone series, independent women in an environment where women are chaperoned by men, often dominated by men and their significance determined by men. Capable women with the ability to slain grown men, those who share a quiet resilience, who encourage and endure. The sisterhood who are reclaiming their sovereignty.

Simply magical. 
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