Sam & Ilsa’s Last Hurrah

Authors: Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

I was immediately drawn to this book. Who doesn’t love a good dinner party? I liked the idea of twins throwing a dinner party and inviting three guests each, but the other doesn’t know who they asked – it has disaster written all over it. After the first few chapters, I felt slightly cynical and was thinking that it was all too slick and too predictable. I stuck with it, though, and I will say you will enjoy the book if you let go of your cynism. I guess it could be quite a fun read. Though, because I am quite cynical, I thought the book was quite ridiculous.

It’s senior year for brother and sister Sam and Ilsa and time for one final dinner party at their grandmother Czarina’s rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The rules are simple: The twins may each invite three people and see how the guests interact. The premise is excellent and one that I could get on board with but I struggle with the book beyond the blurb.

Sam’s list of invitees is his ex, Jason Goldstein Chung who comes across as obnoxious and bitter. Ilsa’s ex, Parker, who appears to have no faults – he is sophisticated, gracious, kind and considerate. Sam’s final invitee is Johan, an Afrikaner whom Sam has been checking out on the Subway and he decides to invite to his dinner party (as you do!). Ilsa’s list consists of her school friend Li Zhang, KK Kingsley who is a rude socialite and I expect we are automatically supposed to dislike her because she’s presumedly white and privileged and finally Frederyk Podhalanski, a blonde Polish exchange student who communicates mostly through his sock puppet, Caspian. I never grasped the whole storyline with the sock puppet and I hope someone can help me with my blatant ignorance. I also found Caspian rude and obnoxious, but this was acceptable behaviour (for some reason) – once again, if someone could explain this “character”, I would appreciate it.

Like most dinner parties there is too much alcohol, too many exes in one room and too many unresolved “issues” and most of those issues seem to stem from the twins. The evening is narrated from alternating points of view over the evening – Sam & Ilsa. The book I gather is meant to be a humorous romp, but I thought it was severely lacking and it was trying too hard to be witty, hilarious and edgy. I found it all a little too politically correct and a good dinner party needs to be the opposite. This is one dinner party that won’t be remembered fondly, but I know, that others will hold it dearly in their hearts – each to their own.

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The Hazel Wood

Author: Melissa Albert

Publisher: Flatiron Books

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but from reviews that I have glanced over, I knew that it was a combination of twisted fairytale and emotional horror. I would venture to say that this isn’t a book for everyone. If you like your stories dark, black and cruel dive on in because you won’t be disappointed, but if you aren’t a fan of fantasy, well this book won’t be for you.

I think all of us at some time or another wonder what it would be like to venture into a novel we are reading. I think it was this premise that drew me to this novel. I will admit that there were times when I wondered if The Hazel Wood was a little “too much”, but then again if you like dark and twisted fantasy, this is the book for you.

The story revolves around Alice. Alice’s mother (Ella) is missing and Alice is determined to find her. The twist being that Alice thinks Ella has been kidnapped by sinister characters from land set in a fairy tale called The Hinterland.

Ella’s mother was a reclusive author of a cult book of fairy tales and it would seem that Ella has spent her whole life trying to escape her mother’s eccentric fans, life and bad luck. Alice has never read her grandmother’s collection of fairy tales nor has she ever met her grandmother. Her mother has protected her from that world. Of course, being denied access to this world has created an insatiable appetite on Alice’s behalf to know more. Also, Alice is convinced that Ella’s disappearance is directly connected to her grandmother’s fairy tales.

Alice’s grandmother is dead and finding a copy of her grandmother’s book is proving to be difficult. Alice enlists the help of her classmate and superfan of her grandmother’s book, Ellery Finch. Together, Alice and Ellery go off in search of The Hinterland.

Alice is a complicated character  – she is angry, prickly, princess-pretty and seems to believe that the world is against her. The supporting characters are strong and they provide a nice contrast to Alice.  Ellery is sensitive, kind, biracial and geeky. Her step-sister Audrey is marvellous – she is sultry, opinionated and whip-smart.

The Hazel Wood is beautifully written and Albert’s writing will bewitch you, but if you like your books realistic and you only tip your toe into the world of fantasy this book is not for you. It is also one of the most beautiful books I own, with a stunning cover and decorative endpapers.

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The Belles

Author: Dhonielle Clayton

Publisher: Freeform Books

I had wanted to read this book for a long time, so I deliberately didn’t learn much about it.  I do know that I loved the cover – beautiful and eye-catching. But as we all know, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover!

The Belles is beautifully written, almost to the point where you can visually see the descriptions come off the page. Dhonielle Clayton doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Though personally,  I did love this about the book. Clayton’s words and descriptions are scrumptious. Almost every page has a description exquisite to read.

Glass canisters hold colourful liquids. Golden pins poke out of a pink velvet cushion. Carts hold tiers of pastries frosted in rose-petal pinks and pearly whites and apple reds, flutes overflow with jewel-tone liquids and sugar-dusted strawberries and pomegranates sit in glass bowls. Vases spill over with flowers in a rainbow of colours.

Though, I love the decadent and gorgeous descriptions I am not sure they will be for everyone. I can imagine after awhile that they become tedious for many readers and readers will find themselves skimming over the rich descriptions to get on with the story.

The story revolves around a land called Orleans, where everybody is born ugly – skin is grey and eyes are red. This is the natural state of the citizens of Orleans. And this is where the Belles come into play. It is their role to transform the citizens of Orleans – to keep them beautiful.

Belles are kept in seclusion until their sixteenth birthday when they are delivered to Orleans in a grand ceremony.

Descendants of the Goddess of Beauty, blessed with the arcana to enhance the world and rescue the people of Orleans.

Of course, like everything that is sought after, beauty in Orleans comes at a price – changing one’s appearance is a painful process.  The citizens of Orleans are obsessed and are willing to pay whatever price is needed to keep themselves beautiful and relevant.

Within the book, we have our flawed heroines and we have our villains. The villains in this story are cruel, twisted and dark and have an insatiable appetite to destroy and mock. The villains appear to have no redeeming features and tend to get darker and more ruthless as the book progresses.

I did find the book hard to get into and though I found the writing gorgeous, at times, though,  it did hinder the story. The book does start to get its rhythm about a third of the way through and everything starts to fall into place and you understand where Clayton is going with the story.

The story ends on a cliffhanger and it does leave you wanting more, mainly since the book’s pace develops quite quickly at the end and you are taken on quite a ride.

I do worry that Clayton will alienate a lot of readers with her rather elaborate prose (mainly male readers). I find that most males will read a book with strong female characters, but I am not entirely sure that male readers will persevere with this story. I found the cover quite beautiful and it drew me in but will it alienate male readers? Clayton wrote this book after eavesdropping on a conversation that a group of males were having, so isn’t part of the point of this book to make men understand those unrealistic standards of beauty are destructive and dangerous? How can this be achieved if men do not read this story? I don’t like to stereotype men but working in an all boys school tells me that this book will be a hard sell to young male readers.

 

Optimists Die First

 

Author: Susan Nielsen

Publisher: Andersen Press

Well, when you consider yourself a cynic and your boyfriend gives you a book called Optimists Die First you are hooked without even reading the title or the blurb. I didn’t read the blurb at all; I just started reading. I enjoyed this book. I wouldn’t say that it is the best- written book that I have read, but it is an enjoyable read with great characters.

The main character Petula is eccentric, likeable and funny. Petula is still reeling from the death of her little sister, Maxine. Sixteen old Petula blames herself for her sister’s death and as a result now realises that freak accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Petula now lives her life on high-alert and is always fearful of bad things happening and as a result, she has developed a wide range of fears (though, to be perfectly honest I thought some of her worries were quite rational).

Petula even has a list of lessons that she learnt from her sister’s death.

Life is not fair. Tragedy can strike when you least expect it. Always expect the worst. That way, you might stand a chance of protecting yourself and the ones you love.

You would think from that list that this was going to a book with no light or humour but even when Petula is at her most cynical Nielsen writes her with warmth and humour. I also think that if you are an introvert, you will be drawn to Petula and her eccentric ways. Who hasn’t felt this way (as an introvert) when the teacher announces that the assignment will be completed in pairs.

My skin felt clammy. My heart started pounding. Pairs were for the socially adept. I would have to talk to Mr Watley. Get an exemption, for medical reasons. He could write me a note. No longer plays well with others.

It is the characters that make this book. Susin Nielsen writes flawed, loveable characters very well. Petula is forced to attend a group art-therapy course for emotionally, disturbed teens and this is where we are introduced to a supporting cast of characters. What I love the most about this book (at the beginning) is that the kids who attend group therapy aren’t being helped by therapy. They are resentful and are raging against the system. Of course, it the friendships that they form that helps them to heal.

In the beginning, the group show a lot of anger and disinterest towards each other, then enters Jacob. Jacob is charismatic and optimistic and he somehow manages to draw this group of misfits together and make them a group of friends. Jacob takes a particular interest in Petula and he becomes determined to make her live life because he feels that she has stopped living.

There are a lot of heavy themes in this book – death of a child, drink-driving, car accidents, drug use and alcoholism but despite these heavy themes, the book remains light-hearted with a cast of endearing characters.

Another aspect of the book that I loved was all the pop culture references. There are lots of book, movie and music references.  Nielsen weaves these references into the story in quite a simple and easy way.

Good God. ‘Harriet the Spy is only the best kids’ book ever written. Louise Fitzhugh gave the world a whole new type of female protagonist. One that was feisty and opinionated and sometimes quite mean.’

Even though I do feel that the book is quite averagely written. I was drawn to Petula. I saw a lot of myself in Petula and this is why I liked the book because I was so connected to the character of Petula.

‘Loads of reasons. For one thing, he doesn’t read. This speaks of poor moral fibre and probably poor intellect.’

Optimists Die First is heart-warming, empathetic and often hilarious – a delightful read.

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People Like Us

Author: Dana Mele

Publisher: Putnam

People Like Us is one of those books that checks all the boxes.

Great cover ♥

Intriguing blurb ♥

Setting (private boarding school) ♥

So it was with great excitement I began reading this book, I was keen to immerse myself in the world of prep school drama, but this is a book that is lacking.  Don’t get me wrong it isn’t a bad book but nor is it a great book. It is an easy read, but I don’t think there was any time that I felt shocked or surprised. It is one of those books that you kind of see all the twists and turns coming. It is hard to give a proper review without giving away what happens in the book, but suffice to say that the book is predictable rather than unpredictable.

Yes, there is murder, backstabbing, revenge, alcohol and sex but somehow it is all a little contrived and a bit too polished. There is nothing authentic in this book. Mele does create a cast of razor-sharp and intelligent students and I do believe she handled the fluid sexuality of the characters well, but when I finished the book, I immediately forgot about the characters and didn’t think of them again. The characters are a little too ‘Gossip Girl’ and nothing is surprising, unusual or distinctive about any of them. You don’t feel drawn to any of the characters.

Though, maybe it is just me. Looking at the ‘Goodreads’ reviews, this was a popular and well-liked book. Personally, I like my books to be more raw and gripping rather than predictable and sophisticated. And that was another thing there was no humour. Yes, I know it is meant to be a creepy, disconcerting thriller but still all books need humour. There needs to be light and shade to balance out the dark and dense, but this book lacked the nuances needed to make it moving or gut-wrenching.

For me, this book lacked the creepiness that was needed to make it a genuine thriller. Not once was I on the edge of my seat with anticipation of what was to come next. I wanted edgy brilliance and instead, I was given a good but not excellent prep school drama.

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The Centre of My Everything

 

Author: Allayne L Webster

Publisher: Random House Australia

The Centre of My Everything by Allayne L Webster was recommended to me by a friend. At first, when I started reading it, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I think my initial reserve was that it was too close to home. This is a book that captures Australian small town living and it doesn’t hold back.

The book is set in small-town Mildura, where everyone knows or thinks they know everyone. The first character we meet is Corey. Corey is a football hero and high-school drop out who is struggling in the real world. On first meeting Corey it is quite easy to write him off as a loser, but as the book progresses we learn more about Corey and there is a lot more to him than initially meets the eye.

It is pretty easy to dislike Corey, particularly in the opening chapter when we learn that Corey and his mate Hamish have gone on a bender and stolen bones from the local cemetery. Upon reading this, I wasn’t particularly sure I wanted to keep reading but having grown up in small towns I know that sometimes things that happen don’t always define the person involved.

The next character to be introduced is Tara. It is relatively clear from the beginning that Tara is a disaster. She’s a beautiful disaster, but still a disaster. Her mother is off travelling with her boyfriend and has left Tara to fend for herself and Tara isn’t coping. Tara hasn’t had the best upbringing. Her mother hasn’t been the best role-model.

Next, we are introduced to Justin, who has come back to Mildura after leaving ten years earlier, at the age of fourteen when his mum committed suicide. Justin found drugs in the city but has come back to Mildura clean and looking for answers. His father is the local drunk and is seen most days propping up the bar at the local hotel.

Finally, there is Margo. Margo is aboriginal. She’s not into drinking, partying or messing up her life. Margo wants to escape Mildura and she is working hard at school, so she can leave Mildura and make a life for herself. Out of all the characters, Margo comes from the most stable home.

The book follows the characters and what results is a raw and riveting tale. This is a no-holds-barred book and how refreshing is that to read. I think that’s what holds people back from truly appreciating this book. This is real life and sometimes real life is difficult to read. At the moment I am reading an American YA book and I think that the most significant difference I noticed between the two is that American books are polished (but not always in a good way). Australian YA fiction tends to give us the flawed characters that are relatable. Australian authors don’t sugar-coat characters or a story and Allayne L Webster, in particular, has written a story that is beautifully Australian. Yes, at times it is crude and gut-wrenching, but for lots of Australians so is life.

This is a cautionary tale about binge drinking, but it is never condescending or blaming. Young people don’t always make the smartest decisions, but I think what this book shows is that a bad decision doesn’t have to define you. There are ways out of bad choices. The Centre of My Everything shows that there is hope for everyone, not just the chosen few. Your life may feel like it is out of control, but life can turn around for the better.

The book also presents to us the idea that how someone is presented is not always who they are as a person. That when treated with respect and love a person can show a different side. This happens to all the characters but in particular Corey and Tara. From the outset, these two characters are the most difficult to like. It would seem as though they are wasting their lives away with alcohol and bad decisions. It would also appear that they are no-hopers – not very smart and very little going for them except their good looks and charisma. Through the book, we learn that there is more to Corey and Tara and with compassion and understanding they show what potential they do have. Webster gives us two teenagers who are doing the best they possibly can under the circumstances that they have been handed in life. Neither of the two has had good role models in their life and when they are shown a different way of life they embrace their lives in more positive ways.

The Centre of My Everything is quintessential Australia. It is funny, crude, intense, moving and gut-wrenching. It isn’t always an easy read, but it is a book that will stay with you long after you read it and aren’t these still the best books. The books that make you think, question and wonder. What I loved most about this book is that it is a book about forgiveness and as they say, “to err is human; to forgive divine.”

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Ballad For A Mad Girl

Grace Foley is the girl who lives by her own rules. She’s the prankster in her small group of misfit friends. Grace is the one who always pushes the boundaries. Her friends ground her and they may be the misfits of the town, but they each have a place in their small circle – Grace is the funny one. The trouble is that Grace’s small group is growing up and they are changing and unlike Grace, they want more than what their group can offer them. Grace fears change because change has not been kind to Grace Foley.

Wakefield draws you into Grace’s narrative immediately when in the opening pages of the book Grace sneaks out of home to defend her position as the record holder for the fastest time crossing the 40-metre pipe running 15- metres above a gully at the local quarry. Grace has completed the pipeline run hundreds of times and she is fearless when it comes to this challenge, but this particular night she freezes and is paralysed with fear.

“I stop, steady myself, blink. Stretch my arms and wait for the edges of the world to come back. Fear is in front of me now, and to the side, above and below.”

Not only is Grace paralysed with fear. A strange blue mist has crept in and Grace begins to see, feel and experience the presence of another.

“I trace the word with my finger. It shimmers. A sharp impact near my ribs knocks me sideways and the pipe seems to buckle and twist. My legs lose grip. Close by, someone is sobbing as if their heart could break.”

After that night Grace begins to change, even though she’s desperately trying to hold on to the world, she knows. Grace learns of a mystery that is associated with the gully – a twenty-year-old mystery. A blonde, blue-eyed teenager named Hannah Holt disappeared without a trace and it’s rumoured she’s buried in the gully.

Grace is convinced that Hannah is haunting her. Hannah wants Grace to reveal the truth of what happened that night. That until Grace can do this, she won’t be free of Hannah.

Wakefield writes so beautifully and hauntingly; you feel the creepiness of what is happening to Hannah so vividly.

“A lone crow drifts in lazy circles above. Overhead, the powerlines are humming, and the pitch is maddening. I cup my hands over my ears and lean against the tree. My vision is leached – it’s as if I’m the only person breathing in an abandoned world.”

Wakefield writes her characters so tenderly that you truly ache for them and the dilemmas they find themselves in and Grace is no exception. Wakefield’s characters are real and nuanced.

Vikki Wakefield’s writing is to be appreciated and though this is a book that you want to read quickly because of the riveting mystery. Do yourself a favour and slow down because you may miss those moments that only add to Wakefield’s brilliance. Savour her writing.

Ballad For a Mad Girl is a beautifully creepy book. There is Wakefield’s usual edgy brilliance combined with a thrilling mystery. Ballad For a Mad Girl is Vikki Wakefield at her best – brilliant, edgy and disturbing.

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