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. 

Infinity Son

Infinity Son
Infinity Cycle Book One
Written by Adam Silvera
Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, LGBT
368 Pages
Published January 2020
Thank you to Simon & Schuster Australia
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★★☆
Growing up in New York, brothers Emil and Brighton always idolized the Spell Walkers, a vigilante group sworn to rid the world of specters. While the Spell Walkers and other celestials are born with powers, specters take them, violently stealing the essence of endangered magical creatures.

Brighton wishes he had a power so he could join the fray. Emil just wants the fighting to stop. The cycle of violence has taken a toll, making it harder for anyone with a power to live peacefully and openly. In this climate of fear, a gang of specters has been growing bolder by the day.

Then, in a brawl after a protest, Emil manifests a power of his own, one that puts him right at the heart of the conflict and sets him up to be the heroic Spell Walker Brighton always wanted to be.

Brotherhood, love, and loyalty will be put to the test, and no one will escape the fight unscathed.
In a borough of New York City, brothers Emilio and Brighton live in a society where bloodlines determine your allegiance. Spell Walkers are assigned to protect the local community, Celestial beings who have inherited abilities, manipulating elements to defend the mundane against malevolent Blood Casters, those with abilities derived from consuming the blood of a Phoenix.

Brighton idolises the Spell Walkers, believing his own ability will manifest upon their eighteenth birthday. Brighton is an online sensation, documenting infamous Spell Walkers on his Celestials of New York channel for subscribers. Brighton and Emil are contrasting characters, Emil abhors confrontation and violence, Brighton is pursuing the limelight and although the brothers are on vastly different journeys, encourage and strengthen one another unconditionally.

The Spell Walkers are engaged in warfare with a syndicate of Blood Casters when Brighton, Emil and friend Prudencia are accosted and pursued through the bustling streets of New York. Confronted on the underground subway, Brighton is seconds away from his demise when Emil conjures Phoenix Fire.

Infinity Son is an interesting read. New York City on the threshold of conflict, Emil becoming the reluctant chosen one in a metropolis segregated by those with abilities, Celestials and the mundane population. Specters illegally consume the blood of mythical creatures and Spell Walkers protect the community from Specters and an organised crime syndicate. The premise is wonderful and although entertaining, I'm left with more questions than answers and at times, confused by the multiple characters and points of view.

I'm not entirely sure how to review Infinity Son and find no pleasure in writing less than favourable reviews but unfortunately, I was disappointed by Adam Silvera's first fantasy novel. In the beginning, I found it difficult to differentiate between the voices of siblings Brighton and Emil and although they are contrasting characters, the multiple narratives didn't allow me to feel a sense of who they were beneath the surface. Emil is the likeable brother of the two, he's selfless and compassionate, supportive of his brother and mother, who barely rates a mention until nearing the end. Brighton is a character that represents the often stereotypical judgement from adults, aggressively obsessed with social media, narcissistic and needing validation. His character seemed like a caricature of an adolescent and becomes increasingly irritating as the narrative progresses.

The diversity of characters is wonderful. Brighton and Emil are Latinx, Emil identifies as gay, Ness is of Dominican heritage, sapphic secondary characters and characters of colour. The sapphic relationship between two secondary characters was lovely and wonderfully gentle and seeing same sex relationships explored in young adult literature is commendable, adolescents finding solace within characters. Emil and Ness share an attraction but their relationship felt dubious, not entirely certain that Ness wasn't manipulating Emil's emotions or because characters were underdeveloped, their connection felt insincere.

The narrative would have been better suited to a middle grade novel, the absence of elementary world building and characterisation created a storyline that lacked conviction and spirit, two elements readers find synonymous with Adam Silvera novels. I'm still confused how a decapitated character came back to life in the next chapter. Infinity Son is better suited for younger young adult readers or Adam Silvera fans and although this one missed the mark for me, I'm looking forward to seeing what he's working on next.

The Mercies

The Mercies
Written by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Romance
256 Pages
Published January 28th 2020
Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia
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★★★★★
On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.

Now the women must fend for themselves.

Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilised world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave's The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.
Throughout the island fishing village of Vardø, the women grieve for their husbands, their sons and their fathers as the weather churned the ocean, the fishermen losing their lives. The women of Vardø gathered their deceased loved ones, waiting until the season thawed the hardest terrain and farewelled those captured by the ocean as a man arrives on the Norwegian island. A man of the church to guide the female community spiritually and morally.

Maren Magnusdatter has lost her father, her betrothed and her brother, a newlywed young man expecting his first child. To survive, the women must become self reliant and although the newly appointed Christian Pastor believes it to be improper, food is scarce and the women, more than capable, embrace the role of hunters and gatherers.

The Mercies is based on an event that occurred during the early seventeenth century. A storm decimated Finnmark, forty men lost their lives in Vardø where it is said that the sky and sea merged to drown ten fishing vessels, resulting in the now infamous Vardøhus witch trials and genocide of Indigenous Sámi communities.

Maren is a formidable young woman, intelligent and resilient. Since the storm claimed the lives of the men of Vardø, including her father, brother and her betrothed, the atmosphere within the small coastal village is precarious, women who place their faith in Christianity and those who are tenaciously pursuing their independence. Neither mutually exclusive. The Christian women of Vardø are relying upon the Pastor and Lensmann Absolom Cornet, a Scotsman on behalf of the Monarchy instilled to ensure Christian values are being adhered and practised. The brutality and violence against women is confrontational, women are expected to marry and bear children, serve their community and attend church services. The Lensmann appointment has reverberated throughout the village, creating fissures within the community. On his journey to the small fishing village, Lensmann Cornet married Ursula, a dispirited young woman who reluctantly abandoned her family, her once privileged life and stately home for a small homestead on the island.

The tentative companionship of Maren and Ursula is tender and beautiful, Ursula enlisting the guidance of Maren to learn the customs of the Vardø community and tending to her home. As the Lensmann travelled under his appointment of the monarch, Ursula and Maren begun to depend on one another. Although Maren was betrothed to the young son of a village fishermen, she is attracted to women, preferring their company. Especially Ursula.

Maren's mother is becoming increasingly volatile, choosing the company of the Christian townswomen and isolating Diina and her grandson. Diina's shamanic faith victimising the young mother still grieving for her husband. The courage and fortitude of the women of  Vardø is inspirational, especially Kirsten Sorensdatter, trouser wearer and reindeer caretaker. Kirsten's independence reverberates in whispers throughout the village, those who disobey the Lensmann and refuse to follow the teachings of Christianity are branded as witches, held responsible for the storm. The women guided by Kirsten didn't survive, they thrived until the Lensmann arrived.

The Mercies is a narrative of quiet feminism and the fortitude of woman. The women of Vardø refusing to yield as they are sentenced to death by those shielding behind their faith. Women who refuse to adhere to Christianity and traditional female roles of caregivers, wives and homemakers are branded and sentenced. A remarkable story and beautifully told, The Mercies is unequivocally breathtaking.

Dark Blade

Dark Blade
Whispers of the Gods Book One
Written by Steve Feasey
Fantasy, Mythology, Magic
352 Pages
Published August 5th 2019
Thank you to Bloomsbury Australia
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★★★★☆
A sweeping epic fantasy perfect for fans of the summoner trilogy by Taran Matharu and shadow and bone by Leigh Bardugo.

When gods fail, who will keep the darkness out?

Lann knows nothing of his mysterious past, but by his fifteenth birthday he will come face to face with destiny. For Lann must wield the Dreadblade, an ancient sword forged to defeat terrible monsters.

Across the mountains a king has been murdered. His daughter, Astrid, is a warrior with no desire to bear the crown. Only she can uncover her father's killer before her brother is framed for the crime.

Evil is stirring. Lann and Astrid are the kingdom's last defence. Together, they must face the greatest darkness their world has ever known.
The Dreadblade speaks the language of the old Gods, a weapon forged to eradicate monsters and evil from the world. Once wielded to destroy the darkness brought upon the world, a warrior consumed by the power of the black sword attempted to kill the gods, drowned for his bloodthirst and greed.

Lannigon Fetlanger is a farm boy but rather than working the land, Lannigon immerses himself in books, knowledge instilled in him by his late mother. Since her passing, Lannigon's father has becoming increasingly volatile, a drunkard who mourns his wife after she passed giving birth to his stillborn son. When his father is slaughtered by a monster, Lannigon barely escaped with his life, losing his sight during the attack as he lay crumpled on the forest floor.

Lannigon is taken in by Fleya, a witch versed in old magik and craft, teaching the now vision impaired boy about botany. Lannigon seeking solace in the rich earth tending to his seedlings. As Fleya is needed in a neighbouring town, Lannigon is awoken by a man offering to restore his sight if he chooses to wield the blade drenched in blood, a weapon as fierce as it is frightening and Lannigon agrees to the offer.

Lannigon Fetlanger is an intriguing young man, gentle and considerate, still grieving the loss of his mother. Escaping the monster who slain his father, Lannigon falls and a sharp blow to the head results in his vision impairment, engulfed by darkness as he finds himself alone. Fleya is a witch and healer, tending to the local community with her homegrown medicinal elixirs. She offers to take Lanningon in while farmhands manage the family farm, teaching him about botany and how to care and grow ingredients within her small garden. Seeking solace in the rich soil, Lannigon feels at ease within the her presence and although Fleya appears to be a youthful and beautiful woman, it isn't until he takes possession of the Dreadblade that he sees the world for what it truly is, Fleya included.

The Dreadblade itself has a long, sorrowful history. Forged and last wielded by a man who had planned to kill the Gods, Lannigon unaware of the blade's history upon accepting the position of sword keeper, the Dreadblade is bloodthirsty and acts of its own accord. A war is brewing, a thin veil separating Lannigon's world and a world of hideous monsters unleashed by a mere boy, a young man determined to make the world suffer for his own grief and the hand he's been dealt. Dabbling in necromancy and dark magik.

Across the Kingdom, the King has been slain. Astrid Rivengeld is the daughter of the slain King, her brother ascending the throne until he is held captive, assumed responsible for the death of their father. Astrid has no desire to attend court as a Princess, she's a Shield Maiden and the first royal of her kind. Sharing the same goal as Lannigon and along with Fleya, the three set off across the Kingdom to save the throne and stop the rift into the netherworld from opening. I loved Astrid, such a formidable young lady and although her character is a stark contrast to Lannigon, the two compliment each other wonderfully and forge a tentative friendship.

Dark Blade draws upon the Viking civilisations and mythology, fictional Nordic Gods and monsters crossing a divide between worlds. The world was beautifully imagined and wonderfully portrayed. Absolutely loved it!
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