The Omte Origins

The Lost City
The Omte Origins Book One
Written by Amanda Hocking
Fantasy, Magic, Paranormal, Romance
Published July 14th 2020
384 Pages
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia
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★★★★☆
Can she unlock the secrets of her past?

Ulla Tulin was abandoned in an isolated Kanin town as a baby. Taken in by strangers and raised hidden away like many of her kind, she has never stopped searching for her parents, or wondering about them.

When Ulla hears of a project designed to help those like her, in the beautiful city of Merellä, she seizes the chance to discover her true heritage. She enlists the help of Pan Soriano, who is both handsome and resourceful, a half human with telekinesis powers. And she must also contend with Eliana, a mysterious girl who claims she's being pursued. Though Ulla suspects there's rather more to the story.

Ulla and Pan work to unravel the truth about themselves and Eliana. But in the process, they realize that someone or something, is determined to stop them. And they face a force that will do anything to keep certain secrets.
She arrived during a snowstorm, carrying a dagger befitting for a warrior and sought shelter at the Iskyla lodging. Before dawn, the Omte warrior had departed, leaving behind a newborn child with the elderly couple. Ullaakuut Tulin is an orphan living with her new adoptive family in Förening, the Trylle capital, assisting with their children and continuing the search for the woman who abandoned her as a child. Learning ancient Scandinavian languages has guided the eighteen year old to an apprenticeship in the illustrious Merellä metropolis, the Inhemsk Project reuniting trolls of mixed blood heritage with their families. The Mimirin is an abundant research facility, library and university and Ulla will spend the next several weeks researching her origins.

Ulla is such a beautiful young woman, she's gentle, compassionate and charismatic, assuming she was born of Omte parents according to her statuesque physique. The Omte society are rarely forthcoming with information and trolls of mixed blood heritage are often degraded and endure adversity. Her journey is wonderful, her relationships and eagerness to learn is admirable. Ulla is determined and tenacious but allows herself to be vulnerable, creating an endearing character.

On the way to Merellä, she reluctantly agrees to escort Hanna, a sullen teenager who will be staying with her grandparents while Ulla is away but Hanna has other plans and the two journey to Merellä until Hanna's parents can collect their stowaway. Hanna bakes up a storm while Ulla and Dagny, her roommate, are at work and a few pages may now be crinkly from drooling. Hanna is such a lovely and vibrant character, her enthusiasm for life is infectious and I hope she'll also play a part in future installments or perhaps her own series.

The secondary characters are wonderfully vibrant. Panuk was born to a human mother and unknown father from the Kanin, a researcher at the Mimirin and Peurojen by night, an Elk shepherd. Dagny is Ulla's new housemate, a candid and detached assistant troglecologist researching the biology of the troll kingdoms and communities. Dagny is brilliant, I loved her no nonsense approach to life, including Ulla's mission to find her identity. Eliana is an interesting character. She's also a troll but with chameleon like abilities, wildly acrobatic and has absolutely no idea who she is or why she's travelled to Merellä. Dagny was more interested in solving the mystery of Eliana than Ulla's and it added a mysterious element to the storyline that I really enjoyed unravelling.

The Morning Flower
Omte Origins Book Two
Written by Amanda Hocking
Fantasy, Magic, Paranormal, Romance
Published August 11th 2020
416 Pages
Add to Goodreads
★★★★★
Welcome to a world in the shadow of our own, a fairy tale land where the dangers are real. In this second book in the Omte Origins trilogy, Amanda Hocking creates a new adventure in her much loved Trylle universe.

Will she finally discover her true home?

In the beautiful city of Merellä, Ulla, Pan and Eliana made an incredible discovery. Determined to learn more, they embark on a quest that takes them across the world, to find an ancient city that may hold the key to Ulla's heritage. But powerful enemies are close behind and they're catching up fast.

While Ulla and Pan race to unlock the past, they discover an earth-shattering secret. This will challenge everything they thought they knew about the troll world. And Eliana must make a difficult choice, with far reaching consequences. As their enemies draw closer, even the strongest bonds of friendship will be tested. But will they break at last?
In the Omte Origins series, we hear more about the origins of the trolls and their Scandinavian heritage, their history tightly woven among the Viking folklore. The mythology and legends of children's fairytales coming to life was beautiful and I hope it might lead the way to future series' set within this magical world.

It's been quite a while since a series has captivated me so entirely and that's one of my favourite aspects of Amanda Hocking's writing. They're entertaining reads and I inhaled both books within days. Being back in the Trylle world was lovely and although the Omte Origins series features an entirely new community of troll, characters and storylines, it was comforting to be back in a world I was familiar with. The Morning Flower, the second Omte Origins instalment is wonderfully adventurous, a beautiful exploration of folklore and culture, of lost cities and found family.

The Unadoptables

The Unadoptables
Written by Hana Tooke
Illustrated by Ayesha L. Rudio
Middle Grade, Historical, Friendship, Adventure
Published July 2nd 2020
400 Pages
Thank you to Penguin Books Australia
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★★★★
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek has been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once have the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the autumn of 1880, when five babies are left in outrageous circumstances: one in a tin toolbox, one in a coal bucket, one in a picnic hamper, one in a wheat sack, and finally, one in a coffin-shaped basket.

Those babies were Lotta, Egg, Fenna, Sem and Milou, and although Gassbeek might think they're unadoptable, they know their individuality is what makes them so special and so determined to stay together. Twelve years on the children still have each other, until a fateful night threatens to tear them apart. The gang decide to make a daring escape, beginning their adventure with only a scrap of a clue to guide them to their mysterious new home...
The Little Tulip Orphanage in Amsterdam is home to orphans Egbert, Lotta, Sem, Fenna, and Milou, children abandoned as infants under mysterious circumstances, the forgotten children shelved as unadoptable. With her journal of fantastical theories as to why she was found on the roof of the ophanage, in a coffin as a bassinet clutching a cat puppet, Milou knows it's only a matter of time before her parents, probably adventurous folk, return for her. They may have possibly dropped her basket on the roof while escaping a werewolf, as is probably customary for esteemed werewolf hunters. Nevertheless, she's certain they'll return before the horrible Matron's ultimatum, if the five children aren't adopted, they'll be left on the streets of Amsterdam to fend for themselves.

Matron Gassbeek is a horrendous woman, the children are impoverished and working until they're exhausted, a life of servitude and clasping onto what little possessions they have. It's no wonder when the ruthless and completely sinister Meneer Rotman arranges to purchase the children from Matron Gassbeek, the children gather their meagre possessions, the cat puppet and escape into the city.

What ensues is an adventure of resilience, mystery and a horrendously frightening villain who is determined to collect his purchases, the children. Meneer Rotman didn't count on the children being so inventive and resourceful, as they settle into their new life in an old abandoned windmill, once owned by Bram Poppenmaker, the maker of Milou's cat puppet.

The Unadoptables follows the narrative of Milou, resident storyteller, promising mystery solver and twelve year old miniature mother hen. Milou fiercely cares for her found brothers and sisters, often accepting responsibility for the wonderful childlike malarkey the children of Little Tulip Orphanage create, the Matron is a vile and malicious woman unfit to run a raffle, nevermind a children's orphanage. Milou has tried her damndest to be unadoptable, hanging onto the hope that her parents will return for her when safe to do so, clearly they're on an extremely dangerous adventure, hunting werewolves or hot air balloon aficionados and a catastrophe has befallen them and they'll return as soon as possible, how else would you explain an infant being left on the roof?

Milou's found siblings are absolutely delightful. Egbert is an artist, spending his days looking out over the city of Amsterdam, a budding cartographer with an impeccable eye for detail. Lotta is a tinkerer, a wildly imaginative inventor and handywoman. Sem is wonderfully creative, sewing, designing and repairing what little clothing the children own. Fenna loves to bake, she's gentle and compassionate and conveys her feelings by using body language and facial expressions, described as being mute. The children aren't officially related but they've chosen one another as their found family, despite the horrendous circumstances they find themselves in.

The Unadoptables is an endearing middle grade adventure, of perseverance, determination and resilience. Beautifully written and lovingly illustrated, an enchanting read for the young and young at heart.

Fin & Rye & Fireflies

Contains sensitive issues such as homophobia, transphobia and conversion therapy
Fin & Rye & Fireflies
Written by Harry Cook
Contemporary, Mental Health, Queer, Australian
Published August 2020
352 Pages
Thank you to New South Books
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★★★★☆
A gloriously upbeat LGBTQI novel of love, hope and friendship, showing that although it's not always rainbows and fireflies, life's too short to be anyone but yourself...

It started with a kiss... As love stories often do. Jesse Andrews had the arms of a Greek god and he was on the track team. The night of our kiss fell on a Friday.

Then, only a few days later, Fin's world is turned upside down and not in a good head over heels in love way, when Jesse cruelly outs him. An event which ultimately leads to his family leaving town.

But a fresh start isn't going to change the truth of who Fin is. And it's not going to stop his sexuality causing everyone all sorts of problems. Everyone, that is, apart from his new best friend Poppy, her girlfriend in waiting June, and his latest crush Rye... So, while Fin and Rye are enjoying some seriously intimate moonlit moments together, Fin's parents decide to pack him off to the local therapy camp.

It's a nightmare and there's no easy way out. Can Fin's squad hatch a plan outrageous enough to spring him before the conversion acolytes force him onto the straight and narrow?
As far as the town of Lochport are concerned, Fin Whittle is a heterosexual son, his parents are conservative members of the community and there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary here. His father certainly didn't evacuate his entire family because his son is gay and this fresh start, terribly disguised as a work promotion, is most certainly not a bigoted overreaction of the sexuality of your child. Most certainly not. They certainly aren't concerned about the welfare of their son after his sexuality became the hottest gossip in the small conservative and religious community, labelled as perverted with unnatural tenancies. Surely their new home in Lochport will set him straight. Insert fist shaking and extreme eye rolling here.

Fin is lovely and tenderhearted, he identifies as gay and although he's confided in a few close friends, isn't ready to tell the world just yet so when he was cruelly outed by his former crush, his confidence took quite the beating. His parents more concerned with how they're perceived rather than the mental and emotional wellness of their son, as though sexuality is a choice and his father can threaten the gay out of him. Fin's distress is palpable and confronting, especially for queer readers so please tread lightly friends. Fin's father isn't old school, as Fin's brother Elliot would describe him, he's a conservative asshole and a foreboding presence in Fin's life.

Lochport is a seaside town with a small and inclusive community of queer students representing gender, sexuality and straight allies. Poppy identifies as pansexual, she's totally in love with June, her former girlfriend, transgender and chairperson of the Queer Straight Alliance. June is a gentle soul, I loved her sense of justice and wanting to educate others to create an inclusive environment. Poppy is a firecracker, fiercely loyal to her friends, brutally honest and won't hesitate to knock anyone down a few pegs for being a dickhead. Everyone needs a Poppy in their life.

Rye, along with his trusty sidekick British Bulldog Thelma, is the perfect example of why we need more kind and compassionate male characters in young adult. He's wonderfully sensitive and wears his heart on his sleeve. Rye has anxiety and when it all becomes too much, escapes to his secret hideaway at Kettle Lake, chilling and watching the fireflies dance upon the water. At the lake under moonlit skies, Rye and Fin begin falling for one another, the coy smiles and gentle touches are beautiful and I treasured seeing them finding solace with one another.

I was absolutely horrified by Fin's father, his beliefs and straight up homophobia. His mother is slightly more understanding but allows Fin to be treated like shit to appease her husband. I wanted to slap them both into next week. Here you have a wonderful young man, smart, sensitive and compassionate, who just happens to be gay and he's stuck with these horrible shithead parents who send him to conversion therapy to brainwash the gay away. Thank goodness for Elliot, Fin's older brother who has returned home from travelling abroad. He recognised from an early age that Fin may have been gay and wants nothing more than to love, cherish and support his brother, standing up to their father so Fin isn't in this fight alone. I don't know what kind of Christian malarkey this is but I was fuming. Conversion therapy isn't something I know much about but how fucking dare anyone tell someone that falling in love, regardless of gender, is unnatural, that they're unnatural and these charlatan assholes should be imprisoned.

The heaviness surrounding queerphobia, conversion therapy and the issues the queer community face is balanced wonderfully with a hopeful and tender story of friendship, falling in love and the strength and resilience of queer teens. It's beautifully written and an incredible young adult debut from Harry Cook, who will no doubt become a force to be reckoned with. Just outstanding!

Book Tour & Giveaway!

To celebrate the release of Sing Like No One's Listening by Vanessa Jones on September first 2020, blogs across the web are featuring original content from Vanessa, as well as ten chances to win a finished copy plus a grand prize giveaway!

Sing Like No One's Listening
Written by Vanessa Jones
Contemporary, Mental Health, Romance, Music
Published September 1st 2020
384 Pages
Add to Goodreads
Purchase from Amazon or Indiebound
A moving story of grief and healing, sure to be a pure joy for any musical theatre aficionado.

Nettie Delaney has just been accepted into a prestigious performing arts school, the very same school her superstar mother attended. With her mother’s shadow hanging over her, Nettie has her work cut out for her and everyone is watching. To make matters worse, Nettie hasn’t been able to sing a single note since her mother died. Whenever she tries, she just clams up. But if Nettie’s going to survive a demanding first year and keep her place in a highly coveted program, she’ll have to work through her grief and deliver a showstopper or face expulsion.

All may not be lost, however, when Nettie stumbles upon a mysterious piano player in an empty studio after class. Masked behind a curtain, can Nettie summon the courage to find her voice? Or will the pressure and anxiety of performing come crashing down?

My Five Worst Auditions Ever by Vanessa Jones
In the very first scene in Sing Like No One’s Listening, the main character Nettie has a disastrous audition at the performing arts college she is desperate to get into. In honour of this, I thought I’d share my own worst audition experiences with you from my time as a performer in West End shows. Worryingly, there were lots to choose from!

Close the door on your way out
If I remember correctly, this was my second callback for Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre. I was up for the part of Fantine and, buoyed by the two successful auditions I had under my belt, I was feeling positive. Good, even. I knew my material, my voice was in great shape and I walked into the studio with the air of a girl who knows what she wants.

The song went well, I had a short interview with the panel, who seemed to like me, and that was that. No mistakes, no bum notes. Yay me! I thanked the team and went back over to the door, and that was when it all started to go downhill. I couldn’t get out of the room. The door was stuck. I pulled and pulled with all my might, rattled the handle, I even tried putting my fingers in the gaps at the sides to prise it open, but it was no good. I’ve had a fear of being locked in a room since I was little and the door handle came off the inside of my bedroom door, and my mind jumped straight to the worst case scenario, which involved locksmiths and the fire service and having to wait all day in a room full of important showbiz people who didn’t want me there.

After a minute, the casting director noticed that something was up. He asked me if I was alright.

No! I gasped. The door’s stuck. We’re trapped in here.
The corner of his mouth twitched. Darling, read the sign.

I looked up, and to my horror, saw a large sign reading Push. Humiliated, I touched the door and easily made my way out of the studio, the echoes of laughter following me down the corridor and pretty much all the way home.

Wishing you would somehow remember your words
This was my final recall for the part of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera. I was nervous beyond anything I’d ever known before. The first song the musical director asked me to sing was Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, which is one of Christine’s main ballads. I got through the first verse okay, but when the chorus hit, I blanked.

Shall we go again from the chorus? said the musical director, a little annoyed.
Uh, sure, thanks, I said. This was a one off. Put it down to nerves. Next time would be better, now that I had warmed up. He played me in, my brain going into overdrive to find the words. But nothing.

I’m so sorry, I said. Could you remind me of the lyrics, please?
The casting director looked at me as if I’d just told her Prince Charles was outside waiting to audition. It’s wishing you were somehow here again? she said drily. The... title of the song?

I’m still waiting for the call.

I’m only doing this for kicks
Dance call, can’t remember the show. Could have been Beauty and the Beast. Something with a lot of kicks, anyway. We’d learnt the routine and it was my turn to be called up to dance. Everything was going well until my shoe suddenly came loose (how?) and flew off into the air. The room looked on in horror as it connected with... the choreographer’s face. Ice was fetched, a chair brought out and a thousand grovelling apologies were made by me. When the names of all the people who had made the cut were read out, the casting director said Vanessa, actually, scrap that. I mean, fair enough.

Cry Me a River
This one actually wasn’t funny at all. On my way to the audition, which I was running late for, a girl in my carriage on the train started having a fit. Alarmed, I went over to see if she was okay, which she clearly wasn’t. I was unsure what to do, apart from make sure her head was cushioned and that she wouldn’t hurt herself, which I’d read somewhere. After I’d done that, I called down the carriage for help. The other passengers looked up from their newspapers and phones, and then ignored me. Like, who does that? Panicking, I pulled the cord for the train to stop and waited for the paramedics to arrive. As soon as they did and I could see that she was going to be fine, I ran all the way to my audition, arriving sweaty, late, stressed, and angry that no one had helped me. Someone on the panel asked me if I was okay, and instead of saying, Yes, just a bit of a rush to get here or something equally as bland, I told them the whole story. And what’s worse, I ugly cried the entire way through, and continued to do this during my song, which unfortunately wasn’t the kind of song that lent itself to tears. They were sympathetic. I did not get the job.

High Enough For You?
This was a casting for a brand new, off West End show. The kind of job you hope you’ll land because it could be the start of something much bigger. A chance to create a role, the prospect of a West End transfer, an Olivier award... At this stage in development, however, they couldn’t even afford an accompanist on the piano, so it was stated on the breakdown that we would be asked to sing acapella. Which would have been fine if I hadn’t randomly decided to start my song almost an octave too high. When I realised my mistake, I stopped and changed keys, right? No. I decided to push on to the end. How difficult could it be? The result was an ending that was now something only dogs could hear, especially in my Lina Lamont voice, which was the only way I could get up there. No Olivier. This time.

Something I’ll never forget is when I came out of that audition, I saw a girl who’d been in the year above me at college, waiting to go to class in another studio. I told her I’d ruined my audition by singing too high, and she said, Oh, don’t worry about it,  I’ve had so many bad auditions I couldn’t even count them. It’s part of the job.

It stayed with me, the way she was so unfazed. The more I thought about it later, the more I realised how right she was, failure is part of the job. As soon as I accepted that, not only did I start to do a lot better in auditions, but I didn’t stress as much about them. It’s like, yes, we all want to do well, but sometimes it’s okay to fail. You can just get back up and try again. Possibly learn something. And who knows? Maybe there’s something better around the corner...

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Giveaways

One person will receive a finished copy of Sing Like No One's Listening. US and Canadian residents only. Ends September 13th 2020. If you are under sixteen years of age, please ask your parents for permission.


Win a copy of Sing Like No One's Listening and a wireless bluetooth karaoke microphone. US and Canadian residents only. Ends September 13th 2020. If you are under sixteen years of age, please ask your parents for permission.


About The Author
Vanessa Jones trained at Laine Theatre Arts and went on to be a musical theater actor in West End Shows, including Sister Act, Grease, Guys and Dolls, Annie Get Your Gun, and Mary Poppins. She began her writing career with a stage play for a fringe theater and also works as a freelance copywriter and editor. She lives in England with her fellow chimney sweep.

You can find Vanessa on Twitter   Instagram   Facebook   Website

House of Dragons

House of Dragons
House of Dragons Book One
Written by Jessica Cluess
Fantasy, Dragons, Magic, Romance
Published June 16th 2020
448 Pages
Add to Goodreads
★★★★
Five royal houses will hear the call to compete in the Trial for the dragon throne. A liar, a soldier, a servant, a thief, and a murderer will answer it. Who will win?

When the Emperor dies, the five royal houses of Etrusia attend the Call, where one of their own will be selected to compete for the throne. It is always the oldest child, the one who has been preparing for years to compete in the Trial. But this year is different. This year these five outcasts will answer the call.

The Liar. Emilia must hide her dark magic or be put to death.

The Soldier. Lucian is a warrior who has sworn to never lift a sword again.

The Servant. Vespir is a dragon trainer whose skills alone will keep her in the game.

The Thief. Ajax knows that nothing is free, he must take what he wants.

The Murderer. Hyperia was born to rule and will stop at nothing to take her throne.
The five eldest children of the royal estates of Etrusia will answer The Call, their kingdom seeking a worthy competitor to succeed the Emperor, chosen by the Great Dragon and overseen by Their Graces, high priests of the temple of Delphos. Except the second born, the servant, the bastard child and the pacifist are chosen in their stead, those untrained and ill prepared. In the kingdom, the eldest member of each royal linage is conditioned and trained to take part in a series of tests known as The Calling, where the mythical Great Dragon chooses a child and their dragon mount to compete. The narrative is told from five points of view, each character easily distinguishable and a glimpse into their lives before and after The Calling, as they struggle with the expectations placed upon them.

Emilia has lived in isolation, her parents believing she is dangerous and concealing her illegal ability. Being chosen for The Call is an opportunity for Emilia to escape her confines, she hadn't expected to find former childhood friend Lucian also competing in the trial. Lucian has conquered lands and its people alongside his father and warmonger sibling, leaving the young man traumatised and vowing to atone for his brutality and using a pacifist approach to conflict. Emilia and Lucian are both wonderful characters, gentle, compassionate and both wanting to avoid the brutality of the trials. It was lovely to see them reconnect as tentative friends and watch their subtle attraction develop.

One of my favourite characters is Vespir, the servant and dragon keeper. Vespir is a servant within one of the royal houses, treated with contempt and seen as less than human. Her true companions are the dragons within her keep until she falls in love with the boss' daughter. Vespir shouldn't be underestimated, she's a survivor, she's resourceful and deliciously crafty. Although in a gentle, totally non backstabby kind of way unlike Ajax. Ahh Ajax, the bastard son, among a sea of bastard children, created from a sexual assault and tormented by his noble father and his legitimate children. Ajax has always struggled to fit in, surviving through any means necessary. He's well aware his lack of attractiveness means he can slip under the radar, a little like a cheeky cat burglar, although not as slick as he pretends to be.

A fair warning about our last competitor, she's ruthless and bloodthirsty beyond compare. Hyperia isn't a young woman to be played the fool, she's cold, calculated and will allow no one, absolutely no one to stand in her way of becoming victor. Oh my goodness, this girl makes Mia Corvere look like a Catholic school girl. She lives for her kingdom, the admiration of her father and the fear she instils in others. 

The world building is breathtaking. Spiralling cities steeped in history and grandeur, rustic villages and desolate woodlands, beautifully atmospheric and wonderfully imagined. And the dragons! When a dragon hatchling is born, they choose their human companion, connecting to their spirit as dragon and rider become one. When their human companion passes, their dragon eats them which wouldn't be an altogether bad way to go. I loved Dog especially, Ajax' companion. He's playful, loyal and befitting of his name. 

House of Dragons was glorious and left me wanting more! The brutality, the loyalty, companionship and moments of friendship among the fierce competitiveness is entwined so beautifully, shades of a young adult Game of Thrones that even reluctant fantasy readers will enjoy. Best be off, need to see a man about a dragon.

Camp

Camp
Written by L.C. Rosen
Contemporary, Romance, LGBT
Published July 2nd 2020
384 Pages
Thank you to Penguin Books Australia
Add to Goodreads
★★★★☆
Sixteen year old Randy Kapplehoff loves spending the summer at Camp Outland, a camp for queer teens. It's where he met his best friends. It's where he takes to the stage in the big musical. And it's where he fell for Hudson Aaronson Lim, who's only into straight acting guys and barely knows not at all straight acting Randy even exists.

This year, though, it's going to be different. Randy has reinvented himself as Del, buff, masculine and on the market. Even if it means giving up show tunes, nail polish and his unicorn bedsheets, he's determined to get Hudson to fall for him.

But as he and Hudson grow closer, Randy has to ask himself how much is he willing to change for love. And is it really love anyway, if Hudson doesn't know who he truly is?
Randy Kapplehoff is a self proclaimed theatre connoisseur, gentle, compassionate and fabulously queer. Each summer, Randy escapes small town Eastern Ohio for Camp Outland, a camp for adolescents identifying as queer to celebrate their identities and individuality within a supportive environment. Randy has undergone a transformation this year, a masculine and muscular version of himself in the hope of snagging himself a boyfriend. Not just any boyfriend but the manly man of men, Hudson. Gone are the unicorn bedsheets, the showtunes and nail polish in a lovely shade of Unicorn Trampocalypse and hello to sportsball, highfives and friendly arse patting. Strictly in a that was a great thing you did with that sportsball kind of way.

Randy is a brilliant character, sixteen and crushing entirely too hard on Hudson. After a small and totally normal amount of internet investigation, Randy learns that Hudson only likes masculine, straight presenting men, feminine or androgynous people need not apply. Hudson is an interesting character, his enthusiasm and tenacity is intoxicating but beneath his audacious manly man exterior is a scared young man and casualty of his environment. When Hudson came out to his parents, they were less than accepting so for Hudson, playing the straight presenting, various sportsball loving son was a coping mechanism to feel accepted. Supportive, understanding Randy gently helps Hudson to see that feminine or androgynous people are not stereotypes, having a preference for Unicorn Trampocalypse nail polish and being gay is not mutually exclusive.

Camp Outland is a wonderfully supportive environment and employs predominately queer counsellors and team members, understanding the issues facing queer teens. I imagine that many queer teens who are facing upheaval and adversity in their lives would benefit from having someone to talk to who understands and has been through similar experiences and it was a lovely touch to see the camp adults interacting with campers so positively and compassionately. The counsellors arrange activities so the campers don't have many opportunities to get it on but are incredibly sex positive and well aware that large groups of teens are going to get frisky and encourage safe sex, even providing protection for those hooking up. It's just another aspect of L.C. Rosen's novels that I absolutely love, acknowledging that some teens are sexually active and consent and education on being safe are so incredibly important. 

Although Camp is a hilariously fun read, it also discusses toxic masculinity, prejudice, self esteem and mental health, both Randy and Hudson express feelings of isolation and feelings of erasure as both young men feel they need to conceal their identities to be accepted by straight, often queerphobic society. It highlights the need to create inclusiveness within our communities and as allies, to boost voices within the queer community to educate and spread awareness. 

It was absolutely brilliant! L.C. Rosen is a remarkable author creating brilliantly entertaining queer young adult novels with heart and a side of jazz hands. Superb! 

It's Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake

It's Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake
Written by Claire Christian
Contemporary, Romance, LGBT, Adult
Expected Publication September 29th 2020
288 Pages
Thank you to Text Publishing and Netgalley
Add to Goodreads
★★★★
Noni didn’t expect to be starting over again at the age of thirty six. But eighteen months after the end of her long term relationship, she knows it’s time to find out what’s next.

While an encounter with a sexy blonde firefighter is a welcome entry back into the dating world, Noni soon realises she’s looking for more than just a series of brief, if pleasurable, encounters.

That’s how she finds herself travelling to Europe to track down the one that got away: the alluring, elusive Molly. But Europe has other surprises in store, not least of which is Beau, a tall, sexy, tattooist from Edinburgh...
Noni Blake lives her life in shades of beige, she's dependable, steadfast and on the verge of embarking on a pleasure quest throughout Europe. Noni is a formidable woman, we first meet Noni as she's healing from the breakup of her nine year long relationship with Joan, sharing a mortgage and child of the four legged variety. The split was amicable but while Joan has seemingly moved on, Noni uses the opportunity to step out of her beige comfort zone and take life by the balls.

Leaving her fabulously gay best friend behind in Australia, Noni departs for London, a to do list in hand, quite literally. Molly is the one that almost was but neither she or Noni could get their shit together and hook up. So rather than always wonder, Noni plans on making the next six months count.

Sexy times, horrendous sexual encounters, new lingerie, posing nude, drinking, indulging and one incredibly sexy viking later and Noni finds herself the embodiment of female empowerment. The new sexy and confident Noni lives her life to the fullest and I absolutely adored her. She's plump, a bit of a bogan and responsible for her own orgasms. She's bright, outgoing and is learning to embrace her imperfections and find comfort in her own body. I loved Noni's authenticity. She's insecure and vulnerable and completely relatable. She owns her sexuality and after years of teaching and putting others happiness before her own, she's finally finally putting her own needs first.

Noni is bisexual and after her nine year relationship ended, a one night stand prompts her to pack up her life and travel. It's inspirational, not to mention incredibly brave. In much the same way that Marie Kondo asks, does it spark joy, Noni is seeking pleasure through travel, friendships, lovers and finding moments of happiness. Temporary pleasure comes at the hands and mouths of people she meets along her journey, from a female firefighter, high school principal, magician, the one who could have been and the Viking, the gentle and kind tattoo artist Beau. Her sexual misadventures are hilarious, even kinky in some instances but Noni takes each experience in her stride and along with her close circle of friends from home and abroad, is discovering she prefers unbridled, adventurous Noni.

The Viking was delightfully unexpected. On a whim, Noni decides to get herself inked while in London, walking in off the street into small tattoo studio where she meets artist Beau, bearded, burly and gentle and as he marks her skin, she's fantasising about getting on on the table and girl, merry orgasm to you my friend. Beau isn't just a conquest, he could very well be the love of Noni's life but beyond her pleasure quest, her new life of saying yes, of friends and parties and painting the town not quite red because she's still a responsible adult, Noni has her friends, family and career in Australia and Beau seems content to enjoy their fling while it lasts.

Oh how I loved It's Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake! It's fun, flirty and outrageously funny but beneath the surface lies a book about falling in love with yourself. There's a little bit of Noni in all of us. 

The Dark Tide

The Dark Tide
The Dark Tide Book One
Written by Alicia Jasinska
Fantasy, Witches, LGBT, Romance, Australian
Published June 2nd 2020
336 Pages
Thank you to Penguin Australia
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★★★★☆
Every year on St. Walpurga's Eve, Caldella’s Witch Queen lures a boy back to her palace. An innocent life to be sacrificed on the full moon to keep the island city from sinking.

Convinced her handsome brother is going to be taken this year, Lina Kirk enlists the help of the mysterious Thomas Lin, her secret crush, and the only boy to ever escape from the palace after winning the love of a queen. Working together they protect her brother but draw the queen's attention.

Queen Eva cast away her heart when her sister died to save the boy she loved. Now as queen, she won't make the same mistake. With the tide rising higher than ever before and the islander's whispering that Eva's magic is failing, she's willing to sacrifice anyone if it means saving herself and her city.

When Thomas is chosen as sacrifice, Lina takes his place and the two girls are forced to spend time together as they wait for the full moon. But Lina is not at all what Eva expected, and the queen is nothing like Lina envisioned. Against their will, the two girls find themselves falling for each other. As water floods Caldella’s streets and the dark tide demands its sacrifice, they must choose who to save: themselves, each other, or the island city relying on them both.
The tides begin to rise over the city of Caldella as the eve of Saint Walpurga approaches, the Queen choosing a sacrifice to appease the dark tide.

Lina lives within the village of Caldella, a passionate performance artist who after an altercation with brother Finley, is unable to dance in the festivities. On the eve of Saint Walpurga, Finley evades Lina and despite pleading with her brother to remain at home, Finley escapes into the village to entertain the revellers. Lina and Finley have an interesting sibling relationship, Lina tolerates his temper and possessive arrogance and Finley indulges in the attention of the villagers. Lina is a capable young woman and although she exudes confidence while performing, she is subservient within their sibling relationship.

Throughout the township, Eva and her companions meander the streets in search for a sacrifice, luring an unsuspecting young man back to the palace where he will be sacrificed to the dark, rising tide. Eva is the new Witch Queen, inheriting the title from her late sister, a Queen who sacrificed herself to the tides after finding love with villager Thomas. Thomas returned home to his family and now Eva is seeking retribution. Eva is a formidable young woman, fierce, determined and effortlessly debonair in her pantsuits, until Lina volunteers as the dark tide sacrifice to save Thomas, her beloved.

The final day of the winter season and the eve of Saint Walpurga, the village of Caldella is illuminated under the enchantment of the festivities, witches converse with villagers. The enchanting Caldella is reminiscent of the idyllic waterways of Venice, romantic and romanesque. Emerging over the village is the palatial home of the reigning Queen, where Thomas is being held as a sacrifice, Caldella is beautifully illustrated throughout The Dark Tide, a community swelling with liveliness and vivacity.

Lina and Eva are characters of contrast, Lina is compassionate and considerate, Eva is brusque and detached and although Lina is held captive as the dark tide sacrifice, their attraction is smouldering. As the narrative progresses, Lina and Eva blossom and flourish as individuals. Lina's confidence and fortitude is a beautiful aspect of her journey of discovery and self realisation, discarding her naivety and desperation to please others. Eva is conflicted by her ambivalence, undermined by her closest adviser, the village community and herself, believing the dark tide has been enraged by the sacrifice of her sister and former Queen.

The Dark Tide is formidable and meticulously imagined, a mesmerising read of sacrifice and redemption, atmospheric and beautifully lyrical. Alicia Jasinska has created an exquisite debut novel, unequivocally enchanting. 

You Were Made For Me

You Were Made For Me
Written by Jenna Guillaume
Contemporary, Friendship, Romance
Publishing August 11th 2020
336 Pages
Thank you to Pan Macmillan and Netgalley
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★★★★★
The day I created a boy started out like any other.

Katie didn't mean to create a boy. A boy like a long lost Hemsworth brother. Six foot tall with floppy hair and eyes like the sky on a clear summer's day, whose lips taste like cookie dough and whose skin smells like springtime.

A boy who is completely devoted to Katie.

He was meant to be perfect.

But he was never meant to exist.
Let's summarise. Single Katie wants a dreamboat boyfriend for her very first kiss. So what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night with six feet of solid, yet alluringly strange boy hunk in your bed? Freak the hell out.

A dash of handsomeness, a pinch of blonde dreamy locks, a sprinkle of smoking hot body and generous amounts of kindness and you too can create your very own Guy. Of course there's more to the recipe and lots of sciencey goodness but now Katie has a very real and very much naked Guy in her room, staring at her adoringly and content to live under her bed until she knows what to do with him.

Girl, have at it.

Thankfully Katie can rely on her always dependable friend and next door neighbour Theo to have her back. If it weren't for Guy's weird and wide eyed wonder, no one would believe this tall, handsome hunk of a boy was only hours old. Kate is a natural storyteller and with input from best friend Libby when she starts rambling or using the word tongue far too often than necessary, Katie shares her story about creating the perfect boy.

Katie, Libby and Theo aren't part of the popular clique, in fact she and best friend Libby have been the target of the downright nasty and pretentious Mikayla. Even her maybe, sometimes boyfriend Declan Bell Jones is perfect, if only Katie could steal him from Mikayla's taloned clutches. Katie's had the hots for him as long as she can remember and all of Libby's eye rolling still isn't enough to douse those burning loins. Declan is no Guy and while he may seem nice, he's just another wanker with the need to feel adored. I believe he's also still looking for his spine.

You Were Made For Me is a feel great, laugh out loud romantic comedy, like a nineties teen film that'll have you swooning and peeing a little, regular toilet breaks are highly recommend. It's utterly delightful, a little bit batshit and hilariously funny. We could all use a hefty dose of fun and fluff and this is perfection.

We first meet Katie as she's pining away over the unobtainable boy, you know the type, he's usually popular, his girlfriend is a horrible bitch and he's typically a bit of a dimwit. On a girl's night in, Kate and bestie Libby are pretending to create the ideal guy, Libby ensuring she added a penis because no one deserves plastic genitals. Feeling better about her lack of boyfriend and kissing, Katie tucks her makeshift tiny boyfriend into bed. Sciencey and magical stuffs occur, which I believe is the technical term and that is how you end up with a hunk in your bed. Probably best not to try this at home kids, results may vary.

What ensues is a journey of learning, hard lessons and realising that there's no such thing as perfection, although Guy comes pretty close. A story of friendship, awesome friends, shitty friends and that guy you thought was hot? He's a massive wanker. You Were Made For Me also touches on grief, Theo having lost his mother to cancer. Infidelity, someone can't seem to keep their own tongue in their mouth and body shaming. Theo is often teased by his family and peers for his weight. 

I loved the diversity of characters. There is a discussion surrounding sexuality when a character identifies as asexual and aromantic and it was brilliant to see that spoken about on the page so positively. Libby is Filipina Australian, she's intelligent, witty and an incredibly loyal friend. She also experiences taunting and racism at the hands of Mikayla and her minions.

Jenna Guillaume has cemented herself as Australia's young adult romantic comedy author and my love her her knows no bounds. This was absolutely delightful, fun, fluffy and super cute. Also, a handy guide when faced with a large, ridiculously good looking man doll come to life in your bed while you're asleep.

The Map from Here to There

The Map from here to There
The Start of Me and You Book Two
Written by Emery Lord
Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
Published March 31st 2020
400 Pages
Thank you to Bloomsbury Australia
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★★★☆
It's senior year, and Paige Hancock is finally living her best life. She has a fun summer job, great friends, and a super charming boyfriend who totally gets her. But senior year also means big decisions.

Feeling the weight of the rest of her life Paige starts to panic. Everything is exactly how she always wanted it to be, how can she leave it all behind next year? In her head, she knows there is so much more to life after high school. But in her heart, is it so terrible to want everything to stay the same forever?

Emery Lord's signature storytelling shines with lovable characters and heartfelt exploration of life's most important questions. There will be break ups, make ups, a road trip, and even a wedding. Through it all, can Paige figure out what happens in the after part of happily ever after?
Paige Hancock's world fell apart after her boyfriend Aaron drowned in a tragic accident, her steadfast friends were there to support her through the trauma and anxiety, including Max, Paige's friend and now boyfriend. Paige and Max have just spent the last few months apart, Paige exploring New York City and her dream of one day becoming a screen writer, while Max has been holidaying in Italy. Reuniting before embarking on their final year of school and together with their group of friends, their final year before scattering across the country for collage.

Paige is a planner, she likes to know where she's going before she begins her journey, to schedule her time and organise her life in an orderly manner, so collage applications are especially stressful, the fear of the unknown. Beneath Paige's anxiety is a brave and fiercely determined young woman wanting to pursue her dreams of becoming a screenwriter, although lately she isn't so sure. The eldest daughter of her journalist father and mother, her parents understand the pressure Paige places upon herself and remind her of the importance of caring for herself, even if Paige herself doesn't quite realise how debilitating her anxiety is becoming. Her parents are in a precarious situation, separated but continue to date one another, her mother placing stability and the emotional welfare of Paige and her younger sister before her own needs. Their family unit might be a little unconventional but it works, the Hancock girls giving their blessing for their parents to remarry again.

In her final year, Paige is determined to shake things up, on the cusp of adulthood, deciding on colleges, careers and finding her feet as Paige, not as Max and Paige. Throwing away her planner to become carefree and spontaneous, creating a final year bucket list of all the cheesy and typical teen experiences before college. Paige is a wonderful character as an individual but she seemingly lost her sense of identity within her relationship with Max. Although Max is supportive, Paige needed to be challenged and trusted, Max all but accusing Paige of being unfaithful for spending time with the delightful Hunter Chan, workmate and friend. A double standard considering how often Max speaks to Tessa, Paige's best friend. I didn't dislike Max, I just didn't like who Paige was in her relationship with him.

Although I enjoyed The Map from Here to There, it wasn't nearly as enchanting as The Start of Me and You which was fun, lighthearted and a feel great read. Paige and Max seemed entirely too serious for two teens on the cusp of adulthood. I appreciated that Paige wanted to spread her wings and shake up her routine, Many young adults will relate to the pressure she places upon herself and the daily struggle of balancing her education, life, family, friendships and also working part time.

There's something just so incredibly lovely and gentle about an Emery Lord novel and although I didn't love it as much as The Start of Me and You, still a wonderful, feel great read.

The Highland Falcon Thief

The Highland Falcon Thief
Adventures on Trains Book One
Written by M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman
Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli
Middle Grade, Adventure, Friendship, Mystery
Published January 31st 2020
256 Pages
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia
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★★★★
Harrison Beck is reluctantly joining his travel writer Uncle Nate for the last journey of the royal train, The Highland Falcon. But as the train makes its way to Scotland, a priceless brooch goes missing, and things are suddenly a lot more interesting. As suspicions and accusations run high among the passengers, Harrison begins to investigate and uncovers a few surprises along the way. Can he solve the mystery of the jewel thief and catch the culprit before they reach the end of the line?

Hear whispers in the dining car, find notes in the library, and unknown passengers among the luggage as you help Harrison to solve the mystery aboard one of the world's grandest trains. Fast paced and packed with illustrations and clues, Adventures on Trains is a stop you won't want to miss!
Eleven year old Harrison Beck is spending four days with his eccentric uncle and author Nathaniel Bradshaw, journeying across the British countryside upon The Highland Falcon, his mother heavily pregnant with her second child. bringing a new sibling for Harrison into the world. Harrison reluctantly boards The Highland Falcon, a steam powered locomotive on her final journey before decommissioned into retirement. Harrison isn't a train enthusiast like his uncle, documenting her final journey but adventure awaits onboard the locomotive for the wealthy and infamous passengers, a stowaway and the British Prince and Princess as a jewel thief journeys among them.

Harrison is a lovely young man, courteous and reluctantly boards The Highland Falcon, the only child on the journey from Crewe to Scotland until Harrison discovers a young stowaway. Marlene Singh is a railroad enthusiast and befriends Harrison as they begin their adventure across Britain.

The jewel heist has begun. Someone had been thieving from wealthy socialites and society members and when a brooch, earrings and and absurdly, the Atlas Diamond necklace as worn under security by the royal Princess herself disappears onboard, Harrison and Marlene are determined to unravel the mystery and find the culprit.

The Highland Falcon Thief is unequivocally delightful. A mystery adventure on the railway, surprising and wonderfully engaging. Throughout the narrative, learning about the romance of the railways was lovely, the almost obsolete steam powered locomotives and the journey onboard, an adventure itself. As Harrison sketches various scenes of interest, the illustrations are recreated throughout, enchanting and delighting middle grade readers. Simply brilliant.

Please Don't Hug Me

Please Don't Hug Me
Written by Kay Kerr
Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Australia
288 Pages
Published April 28th 2020
Thank you to Text Publishing
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★★★★★
A funny serious own voices story about what happens when you stop trying to be the person other people expect you to be and give yourself a go.

Erin is looking forward to schoolies, at least she thinks she is. But things are not going to plan. Life is getting messy, and for Erin, who is autistic, that’s a big problem. She’s lost her job at Surf Zone after an incident that clearly was not her fault. Her driving test went badly even though she followed the instructions perfectly. Her boyfriend is not turning out to be the romantic type. And she’s missing her brother, Rudy, who left almost a year ago.

But now that she’s writing letters to him, some things are beginning to make just a tiny bit of sense.
Please Don't Hug Me is compulsory reading. Narrated from the perspective of seventeen year old Erin as she shares her thoughts in a series of letters to her brother Rudy. Rudy was a popular young man and after a disagreement with his parents, escaped the confines of the family home and the expectations of his parents. Five year old Oliver barely remembers his brother, their mother is consumed by keeping her family together while their father searches for understanding at the local tavern, drowning his sorrows in alcohol.

Erin is an intelligent and incredible young woman, navigating a neurotypical environment from the perspective of a person on the spectrum and sharing her intimate, analytical, and often tumultuous thoughts on life, love, friends, family and autism. Erin begins her correspondence as she prepares to look for casual employment, leaving her previous position feeling misunderstood and underappreciated, resulting in an outburst. For Erin, feeling emotional and overwhelmed are two instances in which her psychologist encourages her to practice being present in the moment, while Erin keeps a secret list of her indiscretions each day to release her tension and as she enters her final year of school, Rudy is missing her important milestones.

Beyond her family, Erin has only confided in two friends of her diagnosis, her best friend since childhood Dee and her boyfriend, the disappointing Mitch. Dee is friendly, created from sunshine and laughter and understands when Erin is feeling overwhelmed, arming herself with doughnuts and waiting on her doorstep. Dee is charming, lighthearted and a young woman also finding her place in the world but her friendship with Erin wasn't always a positive influence on Erin's mental health. Especially at school, allowing her friends to make Erin feel uncomfortable. Her friendship is important to Erin but also restricted her personal growth as she transitioned into adulthood.

As Erin begins in her new position at a clothing store predominantly for seniors, she develops a friendship with Agnus, an Indigenous, Quandamooka young woman, musician and activist who endures depression. Aggie is a wonderful influence on Erin, allowing her to guide their friendship so she feels comfortable, offering support and understanding. In comparison to her friendship with Dee, their friendship signified a new and exciting chapter of life for Erin.

Throughout her letters, we see Erin grow in confidence, learning to care for herself and others and coping mechanisms. Please Don't Hug Me encourages awareness of those on the spectrum, empathy and the mentality from neurotypical society. Observing our environment through the thoughts of Erin was remarkable and profoundly intimate, navigating social situations, employment, her education and friendships and relationships. It was beautiful, poignant and an incredibly important read, as neurological conditions are rarely discussed in young adult literature.

Sincere, unflinching and achingly beautiful, Please Don't Hug Me is an exceptional and remarkable debut.

The Near Witch

The Near Witch
Written by V. E. Schwab
Fantasy, Witches, Romance, Paranormal
320 Pages
Published January 2020
Thank you to New South Books
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★★★★
The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children.

If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company.

There are no strangers in the town of Near.

These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life.

But when an actual stranger, a boy who seems to fade like smoke, appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true.

The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion.

As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi’s need to know about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.
In the quaint town of Near, the Near Witch sings the hills to slumber each night from her resting place on the moors, the children sing as they play throughout the village. Sixteen year old Lexi Harris remembers the stories her father told her as a child, of the Near Witch and village children who we welcomed to play in her garden, a centuries old fable told by generations of Near, until a boy was found in her garden and the witch was banished to the moor.

Since her father passed away, Lexi lives with her younger sister Wren and her mother on the fringe of Near, the witch whispering on the winds that swept through the moor each night as a stranger arrives in town and Near is awash with speculation. Whispers on the wind are waking children from their slumber, lured into the forest in their nightgowns and disappearing and the town suspects the stranger is stealing their children.

Centuries past, the Near Witch lived on the Near fringe, her cottage garden captivating the village children on the moor. The children of Near sing the fable of the fated witch who sings the hills to sleep at night. If you listen carefully, you can hear her calling on the winds that swept through the moors.

Near is a grudging, prejudice community, thriving on restlessness and governed with a firm hand by three archaic council members, while a vigilante group gathers to restore order. Lexi and sister Wren lost their father three years prior, their father a wonderful man who believed in the folklore of Near and taught his children consideration, independence and to appreciate the Near folklore, including Magda and Dreska Thorn.

Fear is a strange thing, he used to say. It has the power to make people close their eyes, turn away. Nothing good grows out of fear.
Magda and Dreska are the eldest residents of Near, living on the fringe of town on the moors, as the Near Witch once lived. As a young girl, Lexi and her father would visit the sisters who have been ostracised by the village community. The witch siblings are providing the stranger with refuge as the children begin to disappear during the night. Lexi suspects the Near Witch, the villagers accusing the stranger of abducting their children. Lexi is intrigued by the newcomer, his secrets and his story, the young man with the dark fathomless eyes and ashen skin. He is nameless, homeless and Lexi is determined to prove his innocence.

The villagers are positively dreadful, dishonest and vengeful, incredibly chauvinistic. At sixteen, the girls within the village and allowed to legally marry and often betrothed. Women are bakers, seamstresses or homemakers, Lexi consistently reprimanded for wearing the workboots and knife of her father who taught his daughter independence. The men of the village refusing to listen to the resolute young woman who begins skulking around the village at night in the hope to discover where the children have gone.

The trees all whisper, leaves gossiping. The stones are heavy thinkers, the sullen silent types. He used to make up stories for everything in nature, giving it all voices, lives. If the moor wind ever sings, you mustn’t listen, not with all of your ears. Use only the edges. Listen the way you’d look out the corners of your eyes. The wind is lonely, love, and always looking for company.

The Near Witch is enigmatic and enchanting, immersed in mesmerising folklore of a small village community. The lyrical prose is unequivocally captivating.

Deep Water

Deep water
Written by Sarah Epstein
Mystery, Contemporary, Australian
400 Pages
Published March 2020
$19.99
Thank you to Allen & Unwin Australia
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A gripping mystery about a missing boy and a group of teenagers, one of whom knows something but isn't telling, from the award winning author of Small Spaces.

Henry Weaver is missing.

Three months ago, thirteen year old Henry disappeared from The Shallows during a violent storm, leaving behind his muddy mountain bike at the train station.

Mason Weaver is trapped.

While Mason doesn't know who he is or what he's capable of, he knows the one thing binding him to this suffocating small town is his younger brother, Henry.

Chloe Baxter wants answers.

Why would Henry run away without telling her? One of Chloe's friends knows something and she's determined to find out the truth.

As Chloe wades into dangerous waters and mason's past emerges, a chilling question ripples to the surface. How far would you go to keep a secret?
In the small town of The Shallows, the community has endured bushfire that ravaged the land and a torrential storm on the night that thirteen year old Henry Weaver disappeared, three months ago. Chloe Baxter has returned to The Shallows from Sydney, her parents separating when her mother was desperate to escape the small, working class town. Chloe's father manages a small roadside motel once popular with tourists and those passing through The Shallows, now small businesses barely keeping their heads above water since the local economy survived on the tourist trade.

Returning to town, Chloe is determined to find Henry once again, placing missing posters around Sydney provided no information to the whereabouts of her friend and upon return home, plans to begin the search once more. What happened to Henry? Why didn't he tell Chloe he was leaving and why is his older brother Mason so hellbent on destroying his life?

Deep Water begins with the story of the Weaver family, Henry, older brother Mason and their mother, a woman surviving on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. Growing up in the Weaver household, the boys are being abused by their mother, Mason's father has always been absent and Henry's father left for the big smoke, no longer able to withstand the physical and mental abuse. Mason has always tried to protect Henry from their mother's rage, bearing the brunt of her abuse and neglect as Mason begins to spiral downwards, desperate to escape The Shallows. Mason is an incredibly multilayered character, he's sensitive and hides his feelings in a bottle of alcohol, destructive behaviour and a notorious reputation.

Chloe is an interesting character, she's relatable but often unlikable and still carrying the grief of losing Henry, determined to find her friend and the brother she always wanted. On the night Henry disappeared, Chloe was meeting Raf, her best friends brother. Together they huddled in the small, ramshackle hut in the surrounding bush as Henry braced the storm and never returned home. Chloe and Raf kept their liaison a secret, to their friends and even the local authorities investigating Henry's disappearance, the local police officer once involved in an affair with Chloe's mother before she left The Shallows.

The most striking aspect of Deep Water is the writing, a masterclass in how to write multiple, multilayered characters while creating an exhilarating storyline. Australian young adult book of the year, without a doubt. The reader is introduced to each character as a dual narration from both Chloe and Mason, with sporadic chapters from Henry talking to a new friend he made online, Chloe's privileged life, although not perfect and Mason as he struggles to survive. Their characters are contrasting and once friends, as Henry was adopted into their ragtag group of friends, Mason begun to isolate, feeling left out of his friendship circle as Henry became more embedded. It's an issue that Mason resents Chloe for, choosing Henry's friendship and not reaching out to him. It's messy and realistic and written so beautifully, the delicate threads between friends becoming severed and mended in time.

Besides Chloe and Mason, I enjoyed the sibling relationship between Sabeen, Chloe's best friend and her brother Raf, Chloe's crush. Sabeen and Raf are wonderful, Sabeen a loyal and compassionate young woman and Raf, a quiet young man who has adored Chloe from a distance for the past few years. Sabeen's father is from Pakistan, a sperm donor Sabeen proudly announced when she and Chloe met at the tender age of only six years old, her mother's both own and run the local pizzeria, feeding the small brood of friends. Tom was an interesting character. Also part of their friendship circle since they were children, Tom's father is in prison while he was raised by his grandparents, his grandfather owning the local oddities store come makeshift pawnshop. Tom escaped The Shallows, studying at university while maintaining his friendship with Chloe and although unaware of his intentions, Tom is keen on Chloe despite her feelings for Raf.

Deep Water raises the discussion of several important issues throughout our communities. Poverty and low socioeconomical conditions, family violence, parent infidelity, alcoholism, violence, toxic masculinity and grief. Wonderfully diverse characters and stories threaded together with care and compassion.

It's magnificent.

The Year the Maps Changed

The Year the Maps Changed
Written by Danielle Binks
Middle Grade, Family, Friendship
304 Pages
Published April 28th 2020
Thank you to Hachette Australia
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★★★★★
I was eleven when everything started and twelve by the end. But that's another way maps lie, because it felt like the distance travelled was a whole lot further than that.

Sorrento, Victoria. 1999.

Fred's family is a mess. Fred's mother died when she was six and she's been raised by her Pop and adoptive father, Luca, ever since. But now Pop is at the Rye Rehabilitation Centre recovering from a fall; Luca's girlfriend, Anika, has moved in; and Fred's just found out that Anika and Luca are having a baby of their own. More and more it feels like a land grab for family and Fred is the one being left off the map.

But even as the world feels like it's spinning out of control, a crisis from the other side of it comes crashing in. When 400 Kosovar Albanian refugees arrive in the middle of the night to be housed at one of Australia's safe havens on an isolated headland not far from Sorrento, their fate becomes intertwined with the lives of Fred and her family, as she navigates one extraordinary year that will change them all.
Down on the Mornington Peninsula, in the small township of Sorrento, the tides are about to change. It's 1999 and for eleven year old Winifred Owen Ricci, her life is experiencing a shift of seismic proportions. Since losing her mother a few years ago, it's been Fred and her stepfather and police officer Luca against the world, her small family unit including her grandfather, who grieved together and supported one another through the loss of their partner, their mother and their daughter. Luca officially adopted Fred at three years of age but when Anika and her son Sam move into her family home, Fred isn't quite sure where she fits in anymore. Luckily she has the neighbours and best friend Jed, short for Jedi and a nickname given to him by his parents that stuck. Jed has been a part of Fred's life forever, through losing her mum, through her roof climbing escapades and now through Anika and Sam moving into the home she once shared with her mother while her grandfather is in a rehabilitation facility after a fall.

It's a quiet part of the world but lately Fred has felt an ache in her chest, the news from overseas blasting in every home across the country, Kosovo Albanian refugees are driven from their homes by the Serbian army, their country left in ruins, destroyed lives and displaced families. The Australian government were adamant that Australia wouldn't help provide refuge but under public pressure, brought the Kosovo Albanian refugees to Australia under the cover of darkness and hid them away in inhumane detention centres. Fred has a beautiful sense of rightness instilled in her, she isn't sure why anyone in town would protest against helping these people flee their wartorn country, like Mister McMillan who owns the cafe on the main strip. For the most part, the people of the Mornington Peninsula are welcoming, including Fred, Anika, Sam and Luca, who is volunteering at the former army barracks now accommodation for the refugee community.

Being eleven is dreadful sometimes. Fred is in her final year of primary school, a new younger brother who's not really your brother and another on the way, Fred feeling increasingly isolated as Anika and Luca gently announce that their family is expanding. Fred's world is being turned upside down and she doesn't like it. One. Bit. The Trần family next door are wonderful, especially Jed's mother Vi, who has been a mother figure for Fred and an incredibly warm, maternal woman. Vi and her husband are both Vietnamese and met in Australia after fleeing their homeland. With so many diverse, non nuclear and blended families within our communities, it was wonderful to see Fred and Jed's families so beautifully written with compassion and care.

This is very much a coming of age story for Fred but where it differs from most middle grade, is that this isn't only Fred's journey, it's the journey of healing and growing for an entire community through the eyes of an intelligent and astute young woman. I see so much of myself in Fred at that age, learning about the many facets of  love, our place within the world and who we want to become. Fred has so many positive role models in her life, Luca and especially Anika. Anika is learning how to parent an almost teen girl and allowed Fred the space to grow and form her own opinions. Although it took a while for Fred to see Anika as someone loving and caring in her life, Anika loved Fred so dearly and is a beautiful example of step parenting written in a positive light.

The secondary characters are lovingly created such as Mr Khouri, their geography teacher who created a fun and inclusive learning environment and Nora, who is a heavily pregnant refugee Fred meets at a hospital visit during Anika's pregnancy. Although most of small town Sorrento and the wider community are welcoming, Fred's friend Aiden begins coming to school with the wildly racist opinions of his father, repeating what's being said at home. Seeing Aiden grow and form his own opinions was such an incredible moment and although he respected his father, he begun to see that he wasn't always right and Aiden didn't need to agree. It was a yes! moment that readers will enjoy.

This isn't a heavy read by any means, there's plenty of lighthearted moments of mischief and laughter but it also raises serious issues such as asylum seekers and how they're treated as less than, especially in Australia. Australia has a terrible history of colonisation and the treatment of First Nations people, we've learnt nothing about the treatment of people and basic human rights. Our current government is the same government who was in power in 1999, when The Year the Maps Changed takes place, same party with interchangeable white men with money. Heartless bastards, the politicians and those who voted for them. The Year the Maps Changed isn't political, instead it provides middle grade readers with the human side of seeking asylum, Nora and children Merjeme and Arta are the fictional faces of those who have been forced to leave their homeland, travel to a strange, new country and then locked up like petty criminals for seeking safety. It only highlights that we're no better than the governments that we vote for and we desperately need to bring about change for the people that Nora, Merjeme and Arta represent.

The Year the Maps Changed is heartachingly beautiful. Danielle Binks has created an exceptional debut novel of warmth, compassion and finding your place in our ever changing world.

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The Vanishing Deep

The Vanishing Deep
Written by Astrid Scholte
Fantasy, Dystopian, Science Fiction, Romance
416 Pages
Published March 2020
R.R.P $19.99
Thank you to Allen & Unwin Australia
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★★★★★
Two sisters. One dangerous secret. Twenty-four hours to uncover the truth.

Seventeen year old Tempest was born into a world of water. The most skilled diver on the Equinox Reef, she searches drowned cities with her older sister Elysea, seeking out old world treasures to trade for Notes. After Elysea mysteriously drowns, Tempest scavenges the ruins alone, driven to collect enough Notes to buy her sister's life for 24 hours, and to finally learn the secret she had kept until her last breath.

However, once revived, Elysea convinces Tempest to break her out of the Palindromena research facility and they embark on a dangerous journey to discover the truth about their parents' death. But they're pursued by two Palindromena employees desperate to find them before Elysea's time is up, and to prevent them from uncovering the secrets behind the revival process and the true cost of restored lives.

Dead or living, everyone must pay the price.
The Great Waves decimated the planet, creating underwater graves as the cities were submerged. Tempest lives in a towering building upon the waves, exploring the ruins below the water to survive. It's been five years since her parents passed away, shortly before her sister Elysea drowned, grieving for the loss of her family.

Those who have drowned upon the water are retrieved, their bodies placed in a cryogenic state until their loved ones pay handsomely for one last day. The dead are awoken for twenty four hours and then put to rest once more. Tempe plans to revive her sister, believing Elysea is responsible for the death of their parents. Palindromena promises the lasting memory of a reunion with your loved one, a final goodbye for those who have been left behind. While the communities of the Equinox Reef live in apartments above the waves, Palindromena monopolises the small island upon the reef and for Lor, the facility provides a sense of solace and isolation. Hiding among the tanks that hold the deceased until they are revived by their families or discarded, Lor retreats into his own thoughts, of the friend he once lost and the survivor guilt he endures each day.

Tempe and Lor are both wonderful characters and not too dissimilar, both share a strong moral compass and analytical view of their world. Lor resides within the substructure of the Palindromena facility, the basement his respite from the unethical procedure of restoring lives. Lor is a gentle character, emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. His thoughts are consumed of the guilt of losing his friend in a rock climbing accident, Lor survived and the guilt has caused him to live his life hidden among the dead, isolated and secluded from the world.

Tempe and Elysea are contrasting characters and although Tempe is angry a deeply feels what she believes is her sister's betrayal, the two siblings care for one another. Elysea is spirited and carefree and despite her current circumstances, wants to spend her final day experiencing the yearly Equinox festival, dancing and enjoying what little of her life remains. Through Elysea's experience, Tempe realises that she wasn't living but simply surviving and although Lor provides an attractive distraction, Tempe continues to place her sister's well being first and foremost.

The Earth flooded in a historical disaster known as the Great Waves, land disappearing beneath the ocean and those who survived now live in salt laden highrise towers jutting from the sea. Relics from the Old World are now hidden below the waves, treasures looted by divers brave enough to endure the waves that decimated their world. The ocean has become a source to sustain communities, providing a livelihood for those living above the watery graveyards. The world building is eerily beautiful and one of my favourite aspects of The Vanishing Deep.

The world flooded and valuable land and resources disappearing beneath the sea. A frightfully prophetic world that raises discussion of environmental impact and global warming, issues rarely mentioned in young adult literature. At the centre of the narrative is the moral dilemma of life and playing God. Resurrection, only to spend the next twenty four hours isolated in a concrete room within the Palindromena facility. You can't leave and you need to lie your way through every conversation because they can't discover they've died. What isn't clear to the grieving loved ones, is how the process works. Without giving too much away, the how provided an intense urgency throughout the storyline which blended beautifully with the emotional impact of Tempe and Elysea's reunion, the secret surrounding the death of their parents and coming to terms with losing your sister all over again. 

Lovingly imagined, atmospheric and beautifully portrayed, The Vanishing Deep is exquisite. 
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