See my reviews for Nevermoor and Wundersmith

Hollowpox. The Hunt for Morrigan Crow
Nevermoor Book Three
Written by Jessica Townsend
Middle Grade, Adventure, Magic, Australian
Published September 29th 2020
518 Pages
Thank you to Hachette Australia
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Strange things are happening in Nevermoor...

Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge. To master the mysterious Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

But a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realises it's up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her and everyone in Nevermoor, in more danger than she ever imagined.

A pandemic is sweeping the streets of Nevermoor metropolis, infecting Wunimals and carrying the illness amongst the community. Wunimals losing their inhibitions and humanity. The Wunderous Society is determined to manufacture a cure as the community falls into disarray, Nevermoorians protesting the removal of Wunimals. Morrigan Crow has returned to the Wunderous Society, beginning her education as a Wundersmith in an underground facility. Stepping through moments preserved by the historical society, Morrigan can observe lessons from centuries past amongst long deceased Wundersmiths and a young, spirited Ezra Squall. 

Morrigan is beginning to master her abilities, attempting to find a balance between friendship and her education as she is consumed by the Wundersmith archives, yearning for knowledge. Since The infamous Ezra Squall was banished from Nevermoor, Wundersmiths have been feared and revered but the survival of the Wunimals community rests upon the shoulders of thirteen year old Morrigan Crow as Nevermoor learns a Wundersmith now walks amongst them. 

Morrigan Crow is a delightful young lady, rescued from the Wintersea Republic where our young heroine was mistreated and brought illegally to Nevermoor by Juniper North, an eccentric hotel entrepreneur. The Hotel Deucalion is magnificent with an eclectic assortment of employees who manage the hotel and care for Morrigan whilst Juniper is absent on official and often secretive Wunderous Society business, including the capture of infectious Wunimals. Fenestra the Magnificat is irritable, sarcastic and fabulous, soprano Dame Chanda Kali is delightful and friends Hawthorne and Cadence are wonderfully supportive, Hawthorne provides endless entertainment and light hearted moments throughout the series. 

One of the most striking aspects of Hollowpox, The Hunt for Morrigan Crow is the relevance of the storyline during the pandemic. How society has fractured and through ignorance, communities have become segregated and isolated. Children will recognise the similarities between our current pandemic and Nevermoor, encouraging discussion and understanding. The Nevermoor series is absolutely wunderous, a fantastical, breathtaking adventure that transcends middle grade literature. Atmospheric and categorically enchanting.

A Dance With Fate

See my review for A Harp of Kings
A Dance with Fate
Warrior Bards Book Two
Written by Juliet Marillier
Fantasy, Folklore, Celtic
Published July 2020
420 Pages
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia
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An accident. A forfeit of freedom. A descent into danger.

Liobhan, the young warrior and bard, has lost her brother to the Otherworld. Even more determined to gain a place as an elite fighter, she returns to Swan Island to continue her training. But Liobhan is devastated when her comrade Dau is injured and loses his sight in their final display bout. Blamed by Dau's family for the accident, she agrees to go to his home, Oakhill, as a bond servant for one year.

But Oakhill is a place of dark secrets. The menacing and enigmatic Crow Folk still threaten both worlds and while Brocc battles them in the Otherworld, Dau must battle his own demon, despair.

When Liobhan and Dau begin to expose the evil at the core of Oakhill, they place themselves in mortal danger. For their enemy wields great power and will stop at nothing to get his way. It will take all the skills of a Swan Island warrior and a touch of the uncanny to give them any hope of survival...

Returning from her maiden assignment in the Kingdom of Breifne, Liobhan is disheartened at the loss of her brother, choosing to remain with Eirne in the forest realm of the Fair Folk. Continuing their warrior apprenticeship, Liobhan and Swan Island comrade Dau enter the arena for their friendly, noncombative competition, Liobhan discarding her protective clothing as Dau falls heavily, concussed, scarcely unresponsive and visually impaired. Healers of the island cannot guarantee the return of his vision and as a warrior who relies on his senses, Dau is questioning his position within the company of elite soldiers. 

Dau is returning home to Oakhill Estate, his father and his advisors demanding compensation for the accident and to evade questioning about the mysterious Swan Island, Dau reluctantly agrees to return home. Liobhan is held accountable for the accident and volunteers to serve as a bond servant at the family estate, protecting Dau from the cruelty and maltreatment he endured as a boy. Seanan has assumed the position of Master of Oakhill while their father is ailing, a mysterious illness causing confusion and an inability to manage the family estate. Seanan is tyrannical and vindictive, a sociopath who derives pleasure from tormenting his younger brother Dau, using his humanity and gentleness as a weapon. Dau requires treatment but is isolated and his injuries festering, he experiences depression, anger and resentment.

Dau is a Swan Island warrior and without his vision, the feeling of hopelessness is palpable as he contemplates suicide as an alternative. A Dance with Fate explores the trauma of mental health and a diagnosed disability. Visually impaired, Dau is overwhelmed by his remaining heightened senses and begrudgingly accepts assistance. 

As the mysteries of the Oakhill Estate emerge, Brocc remains in the forest realm with Eirne and her fair folk community as he discovers the torture and slain Crow Folk mutilated within the surrounding forest. Brocc is a humanitarian, he cares deeply for his community of small folk and his wife, who is becoming apathetic and distant. Their relationship is entirely superficial. Brocc sacrificed his family, community and position on Swan Island to join the otherwordly community and although Eirne cares for her community, Brocc is their protector, using his voice to protect the Fair Folk from the ferocious Crow Folk attacks. In one particular instance, a messenger reveals that Liobhan may be endangered and rather than forewarn her husband, Eirne chooses to conceal the information, creating a further divide. One of my favourite characters of the otherworld is True, the unassuming and philosophical protector and along with True, the fair folk are beginning to welcome Brocc into their community as a valued family member.

As Brocc and Eirne's relationship begins to fracture, the tentative attraction between Liobhan and Dau is beginning to blossom into a beautiful and delicate intensity. We see Liobhan's compassion and vulnerability, encouraging Dau to remain positive despite the circumstances and guiding a young stable hand in caring for Dau's injuries. Corb is a wonderful character, gentle, patient and although Dau resents not being able to tend to his own injuries and his bruised ego, he and Liobhan come to care for the young man.

The striking aspect of the Warrior Bards series is the atmospheric, whimsical narration infused with Celtic folklore. A Dance with Fate is an engaging and delightfully whimsical installment that explores disability, mental wellness and traumatic disorders. Beautifully lyrical and a remarkable read by one of Australia and New Zealand's finest authors. Juliet Marillier is a national treasure. 

Harrow Lake

Harrow Lake
Written by Kat Ellis
Contemporary, Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Published August 18th 2020
320 Pages
Thank you to Penguin Teen Australia
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Welcome to Harrow Lake. Someone's expecting you.

Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker, she thinks nothing can scare her.

But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she's swiftly packed off to live with a grandmother she's never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father's most iconic horror movie was shot.

The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there's someone - or something - stalking her every move.

The more Lola discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola's got secrets of her own. And if she can't find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her.

Soirees, premières and receptions celebrate acclaimed filmmaker Nolan Nox. Behind the abrasive façade is an overbearing father, placing his professional livelihood above the wellbeing of his daughter. Apart from the occasional industry gathering, Lola Nox is a recluse, forbidden to leave their New York City apartment. Nolan reminding Lola of how her mother abandoned their family. Lola is looking for adventure and against Nolan's wishes, leaves the apartment only to return home to a horrifying crime scene. Nolan has been brutally wounded and while his life hangs in the balance, Lola is sent to live with her estranged grandmother in Harrow Lake, where Nolan produced his infamous cult film Nightjar.

Lola is an interesting character. She's likeable but it becomes apparent that she's a product of her environment, living her life according to Nolan's rules. Rules which aren't necessarily to keep her safe but to control her. As Nolan recovers in hospital from his injuries, Lola has been sent by her father's friend and assistant to her estranged grandmother's house in Harrow Lake. It just happens to be the twentieth anniversary of the Nightjar film release, with the community celebrating each year with a festival.

Lola's estranged grandmother's property is surrounded by a gnarly forest and under the thick canopy, residents whisper the urban legend of Mister Jitters roaming the forest searching for a Little Bird, the community offering teeth to an ancient tree in the forest to keep their families safe. Much weird indeed. Although Harrow Lake is eerily atmospheric, there's an overwhelming sense of wrongness. It's no wonder Lola's mother Lorelei was so eager to escape when she met Nolan and played the role of Little Bird in the original film. 

The fairground is home to the carnival created for the Nightjar film, built amongst the landslide caused the mountain to collapse and bury the historical church in a sinkhole. Urban legend tells the story of Mr Jitters, a centuries old man who was said to have been buried alive and survived by cannibalism. The local folklore warns children of venturing into the forest or risk being captured by Mister Jitters. Mister Jitter's is the stuff of nightmares and even though the residents of Harrow Lake laugh it off as being superstitious, most of them believe something is lurking around the town. 

Strange happenings are afoot friends. Lola's suitcase disappears and she's forced to wear her mother's Little Bird costumes. The likeness is uncanny to the point where even her elderly grandmother believes Lola is Lorelei. Lola is staying in her mother's room where jitterbugs line the shelves and tremble sporadically. It's creepy as hell and made my skin crawl. Lola is determined to unravel the mysteries of her mother, why she was adamant in leaving Harrow Lake and why did she return before abandoning her only child? 

The most striking aspect of Harrow Lake is how the story unravels, a nonlinear narrative shared amongst the community as the history of Lorelei and their town is revealed. Unreliable narrators, those with alterative motives and those who are determined to safekeep the secrets of their strange, foreboding town. Kat Ellis has created a superb vintage horror that will enthral readers until the final page.

Before the Beginning

Before the Beginning
Written by Anna Morgan
Contemporary, LGBT, Mystery, Romance
Published September 29th 2020
240 Pages
Thanks to Hachette Australia
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Schoolies week, that strange in between time when teenagers move from school into the adult world. It's a week when anything is possible, and everything can change.

Grace is questioning everything she thought about herself, and has opted not to join her clique of judgemental friends for schoolies, instead tagging along with her brother Casper and his friends. Casper, an artist, is trying to create the perfect artwork for his uni application folio. Overachieving, anxiety ridden Noah is reeling from a catastrophe that might have ruined his ATAR result. And Elsie is just trying to figure out how to hold their friendship group together.

On the first night of the trip, they meet Sierra, a mysterious girl with silver grey hair and a magnetic personality. All of them are drawn to her for different reasons, and she persuades them to abandon the cliched schoolies experience in favour of camping with her on a remote, uninhabited island. On that island, each of them will find answers to their questions. But what does Sierra want from them?

Grace is an attentive daughter, admired among her congregation and an intelligent scholarship recipient. While awaiting her results, Grace is contemplating an apprenticeship with her congregation, reluctantly deciding to spend her postschool celebrations with her brother Casper and his friends in the seaside town of their childhood vacations. Casper hopes to complete his artists portfolio for university applications and along with best friends Elsie and Noah, spending a few days to celebrate, commiserate and ponder their futures.

Although narrated by several characters, Casper, Elise and Noah, Grace is the interloper. Grace and Casper shared a wonderful sibling relationship as children, while Casper pursues his artistry, Grace continued her involvement within the church, creating tension and alienating the young siblings. Grace is a likeable young woman, her faith has caused her to feel isolated from her friends and family as she often appears as being judgemental, culminating in being confronted by Elise. Elise barely tolerates Grace, although not by virtue of her religious beliefs but because every conversation with Grace is about her faith, while she pays little attention to anyone not sharing her own principals. 

Soon after arriving at the seaside cottage, the group of four unlikely travel companions meet Sierra, a spirited young woman who convinces them to spend the the next few days illegally camping on the abandoned Shearwater Island. On the island, the serene and tranquil atmosphere allows friendships to blossom, tentative romances to begin, declarations of unrequited love and conceding that life isn't always ideal but our mistakes allow us to mature as individuals. 

The characters are wonderfully contrasted. Noah was awarded with a scholarship to a prestigious private school, his mother's expectations only secondary to his own. As a result, he's incredibly anxious and overwhelmed. Elise and Casper share a codependent friendship and although Casper is seemingly unaware, Elise harbors immense feelings for her friend. The friendship blossoming between Elise and Grace was beautiful and although they both found aspects of one another's personality irritating, like Grace learning to listen to others without judgement and Elise learning patience, they found middle ground and a mutual respect for one another. Sierra was never a looming presence over their friendship group but she brought out the best in some characters, Grace especially and the worst in others, namely Casper. I wasn't fond of Casper. He's flighty and only concerned about himself, the attention others are giving him and is verging on tantrum throwing when he doesn't get his own way. Namely Sierra.

The romance between Grace and Sierra was unexpected but really lovely for the most part. Rather than Sierra encouraging Grace to explore her identity, it seemed to be the island itself and their surroundings that allowed Grace's spirit to soar and it was beautiful. Although she doesn't talk about her sexuality, I can imagine it wasn't something she was able to discuss with her friends from church, incredibly judgemental girls who felt the need to issue an announcement body shaming girls who want to wear bikinis, very much implying that the female body is a distraction for men and to cover up with a modest bathing suit. It's no wonder Grace took her chances camping with Casper and his friends, her friends, what little we hear about them, are horrible and use their faith as a reason to exclude and shame others. That seemed to be Grace's turning point.

The writing itself is magical, as Anna Morgan has creates a narrative that slowly unravels on each page. Who is Sierra? I loved the Australian summer atmosphere of Shearwater Island, the mystery, intrigue but most of all, the character development. Anna Morgan is a masterful storyteller, creating journey's of discovery, of acceptance and finding your way into the world, placing importance on the journey rather than the destination. 

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