Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Spellslinger


By Sebastien De Castell (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9781471406119

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Kellen is almost sixteen years old and rapidly approaching his magical trials. Will he become a mage of Jan’Tep, like his powerful father Ke’heops? Or will he instead be declared an unmagical ‘Sha’Tep weakling’, destined only toserve a mage? The pressure is on. His younger sister, Shalla, has already sparked magical bands in multiple disciplines, but Kellen has none.

Desperate to avoid the shame of being declared Sha’Tep, Kellen passes his first trial by tricking his opponent into believing he is performing a spell against him. (‘Magic is a con game.’) Shalla pronounces him a cheat and then casts her own spell against him, hoping he’ll find some magic within to shield it. He doesn’t – and she nearly kills him. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger (Ferius Parfax) saves his life.

Ferius, whom the townspeople suspect to be a Daroman spy, empathises with Kellen and continues to look out for him. When Kellen discovers the shameful truth about the Jan’Tep people, and becomes a victim of their cruelty, he turns to Ferius – and a smart-mouthed squirrel cat, Reichis – to help him escape and find his own destiny instead. But who exactly is Ferius, and why is she so keen to help Kellen?

Spellslinger is the first YA fantasy novel in a new set of six books by Sebastien De Castell, author of the Greatcoats series. He describes the book as being set in the same universe as his Greatcoats series, but on a different continent – one ‘more akin to the American frontier’. The dark, western feel makes it quite a unique, magical story! The novel is fast-paced, told in first-person perspective, and broken up into four parts representing Kellen’s magical trials.

Essentially, it’s the story of a teenager trying to find himself. It’s about how he stands up to those who shame him, and finds his own direction in life. Kellen stops striving to become a Jan’Tep after he learns that ‘there’s no amount of magic in the world that’s worth the price of a man’s conscience’. With the support of Ferius and Reichis, he is ready to assume his place as the ‘Spellslinger’; a role that Ferius predicts ‘might just change the world’. Kellen leaves behind a trail of allies and enemies that will no doubt make the forthcoming books rather action-packed!

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Defy the Stars

Defy the Stars

By Claudia Gray (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9781471406362

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘She’s learned how to fight. Next she has to learn how to die.’

Noemi, a seventeen-year-old soldier from the planet Genesis, has three weeks to live. Her assignment to strike and destabilise the gateway to her planet will buy her people time in the war against Earth … at the cost of her own life. When Noemi veers off-course during a sudden attack from Earth, she discovers an abandoned ship with somebody onboard: Abel. A robot.

Abel is the long-lost creation of Burton Mansfield, an Earth-residing scientist whom some believe is a genius, others evil. The only ‘A’ model mech he’s ever created, Abel’s skill and cognitive reasoning is outstanding but his 30 years of isolation have produced a flaw in his programming. He has developed an ability to feel. When Abel reveals he knows how to destroy the Genesis Gate, Noemi orders him to help her secure the required items before she sends him to his death at the gate. (He is only a mech, after all.) But as they traverse the universe, and form a loyal alliance, Noemi feels uneasy about destroying him. Plus, the more she learns about the other planets the less she agrees with her home planet’s choices.

This is a fast-paced, gripping read by bestselling YA author, Claudia Gray. Noemi and Abel’s stories are told in alternating chapters in third-person perspective, and the progression of their relationship is fascinating. Abel’s near-human conscience constantly grapples with Noemi’s orders and his loyalty to Mansfield, providing much suspense in the story as to how he will act. Abel undergoes quite an existential battle as he tries to understand the motives behind Noemi and Mansfield’s opposing requests and behaviours. When caught in a terrorist attack, he:

‘… finds it hard to comprehend that humans don’t share the same directives he does. That their innermost beings don’t demand that they help protect one another’s lives. Shouldn’t that matter to a human even more than it does to a mech?’

The book is suitable for science fiction fans aged 12–18 years, but I believe it will appeal to a wider and older audience also. Outside of its planetary attacks, galactic descriptions and battleship commands is an enthralling relationship between two engaging characters … and a heartrending moral reflection on human nature.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Beware that Girl

Beware that Girl

By Teresa Toten (Bonnier Zaffre)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9781471406393

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘… But in the end, the main thing I learned – the best thing – was never to bring a knife to a gunfight.’

To play or be played, that is the question. Kate needs some serious social credibility and a secure place to live in order to forge her path to Yale University. She’s living in sub-standard accommodation across town and working as many hours as she can, outside of school, to support herself. She attends her elite high school by scholarship – and by inventing an address. Hiding a terrible secret, she is desperate to change her fate and keep her promise to her dying mother at all costs … she will go to Yale, no matter what it takes or who she has to use to get there. With everything she has been through, it is no wonder she is mentally unstable.

Then there’s Olivia. Do we feel sorry for Olivia? Also hiding a secret about her past? So lonely and desperate for friendship – real friendship – that she falls prey to Kate’s manipulative charms and invites her to come and live with her?  Or does Olivia have her own, dark agenda that puts Kate at terrible risk?

As this dark and thrilling novel twists and turns, the reader will question which of these girls deserves their sympathy. Teresa Toten, award-winning author of The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, cleverly uses short chapters with shifting perspectives to keep her readers on edge. The chapters alternate between Kate and Olivia, though Kate’s chapters are always in first-person perspective and Olivia’s in third. The chapters are always dated. The opening is set in the future, describing the two girls in a hospital scene. It is not clear which girl is barely conscious, and which is keeping vigil by her bedside. The answer is, of course, revealed in the conclusion of the book. The final chapter is deeply disturbing, suggesting that the victim is still not safe. The book might, therefore, leave the reader quite unsettled!

Beware That Girl is YA fiction, suitable for readers aged 14 – 17 years. The publisher suggests it might appeal to fans of Gossip Girl andPretty Little Liars. It raises themes of friendship, physical and psychological abuse, and mental health conditions in general. A film adaptation is in production.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: The Things We Promise

The Things We Promise

By J.C. Burke (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9781760290405

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Mum reckoned I was born a pessimist. “Polly Pessimistic” she called me … But it’s true, I can feel it. Sometimes I sense it early. Sometimes it’s not till it’s almost on top of me.’

The school formal is months away but Gemma and her best friend, Andrea, are super excited. Gemma’s talented and semi-famous brother, Billy, has promised he’ll come home from New York to do their hair and make-up. The girls can’t wait … they’re choosing hairstyles, arguing over dress lengths, and counting down the weeks. Gemma is hoping to get the attention of the boy she likes, Ralph.

Enter Polly Pessimistic. Gemma can’t help feeling that something is wrong at home. Her mother won’t admit that she’s stressed out aboutsomething … and she flips out when Gemma wants to ring Billy. There’s that niggling comment made by Vanessa, a girl at her school who knows Billy via her modelling work. (What does Vanessa know about Billy’s personal life that she doesn’t?) Then she discovers the death notice for Matt Leong, Billy’s old boyfriend, who died at the age of 25 from ‘a short illness’ … and watches, in disbelief, as her mother crumbles at the news.

In the early 1990s, teenagers wore midriff tops. They watched ‘Video Hits’ and ‘Degrassi High’. They knew who Bob Hawke was. They made phone calls from public phone boxes. And they probably heard the terms ‘AIDS’ and ‘HIV’ a lot. Award-winning writer, J.C. Burke, aptly set her novel in this era to raise awareness of AIDS and the fears, attitudes and ignorance of people during that time. Gemma perfectly summarises the author’s intent when she says, of AIDS: ‘… It’s the way it spreads everywhere. It’s like it’s infected my life. It’s infected me, the way I see people, the way I see the world.’

This stark, powerful novel for young adults is beautifully written and will appeal to a broad range of readers, including adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The author, an oncology nurse, writes insightfully about hospital procedures, infection control and home management. The novel will deeply resonate with teenage readers who know what it’s like to preserve a ‘normal’ school life while watching a loved one battle a terminal illness at home.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Trouble Tomorrow

Trouble Tomorrow

By Terry Whitebeach and Sarafino Enadio (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $16.99     ISBN 9781760291464

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Remember, if you want a door to open, education is the key.’

When you’re 15 years old, though, trying to find your next meal, self-improvement takes a significant back-step to self-survival.

Obelujo, whose name means ‘trouble tomorrow’, is a Ma’di boy living in South Sudan, not at all interested in joining the Rebel army. The first time they raid his village, he and his family hide. The second time, they are forced to flee in different directions. Obelujo’s father secures a place for him in a good boarding school before he leaves. ‘It is very important not to break your education,’ he tells Obelujo, who respects ‘his father’s wishes’ as ‘law’, despite his feeling of dread at leaving his family.

He immerses himself in his studies, while fighting off visions of his family’s fate. When he awakens to the sound of gunshots one night, he joins the crowd of people running for their lives. What follows is Obelujo’s uplifting, courageous story of survival. It includes a risky trek through a wild jungle, a terrifying capture by the Rebels, and a daring escape. It details his life in two refugee camps, where people’s starvation leads to violence at any cost (even murder). As Obelujo’s own hunger grows, he finds himself struggling to remain true to his Ma’di values. He begins to act aggressively and steal food. When Obelujo takes up an opportunity to study Agriculture, his life begins to change. The basic course leads him to a voluntary teaching position, and (later) a paid one. He joins a church choir where he meets and falls in love with Malia. He completes a Peace Education course, and learns that if he wants to change the world he must start with himself.

This confronting, heartwarming story is the true story of co-author, Sarafino Enadio, who migrated to Australia and is currently studying a Masters in Teaching. Terry Whitebeach is a writer and historian who travelled to South Sudan with Sarafino to witness the effects of the civil war. The novel is aimed at 13–18-year-olds and, given its topics of immigration, refugee camps, peacekeeping and the Sudanese Civil War, would make fantastic classroom reading. Sarafino’s enlightening story will definitely linger in your heart, along with a greater respect for the plight of refugees.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Frogkisser!


By Garth Nix (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9781760293512

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

True love’s kiss can break a spell, right? That’s what the fairytales say. But what if true love’s kiss isn’t available? What if, say, a fickle queen-to-be (whose suitor has been converted to a frog by her evil step-stepfather) is too disgusted at the thought of kissing an amphibian?

Enter Princess Anya … the younger, practical, responsible sister, who really just wants to put an end to her sister’s wailing and get back to her reading. Anya promises to find Prince Denholm and reconvert him. She is helped by the palace librarian, Gotfried, who offers two remedies: a spell for finding the frog, and a ‘Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm’ that can be applied in the absence of true love. It should be simple, but of course it isn’t. First, the frog she catches and kisses isn’t Denholm. Second, she’s out of lip balm.

Award-winning fantasy author, Garth Nix, slowly builds on Anya’s basic quest to kiss a frog and turns it into a humorous fairytale adventure of epic proportions. As her step-stepfather, Duke Rikard, grows stronger in power and attempts to steal the throne, Anya realises she needs to save her sister. And the kingdom. Other kingdoms, too. Plus restore the ‘All-Encompassing Bill of Rights and Wrongs’. Find allies. Build an army. Source obscure ingredients for more lip balm. Kiss lots of frogs. Oh, and possibly reassess her entire life vision.

Garth Nix has once again created a brave, admirable heroine, with traits reminiscent of Lirael and Sabriel. His writing is fresh and playful, with a hint of the absurd, all the while remaining vivid in description and intensity. I was delightfully taken aback at the amusing moments sprinkled within moments of action.  (For example, an awestruck Anya quietly observes a tree spirit … and her royal canine sidekick, Ardent, explains why dogs like trees. Amidst the Duke’s list of serious crimes is a charge for ‘improper cackling’, and there’s a Shakespearean-like character – ‘Gerald-the-Herald’ – who randomly enters a scene and obnoxiously shouts out headlines.)

Frogkisser! targets readers aged 13–16 years and will be made into an animated musical film by FOX Animation and Blue Sky Studios (creators of Ice Age). It is a stand-a-lone novel, but Nix has cleverly left behind some unexplained mysteries that would allow him to expand the story if he chooses.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website:

Posted in Young Adult Fiction

Book Review: Bone Gap

Bone Gap

By Laura Ruby (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99     ISBN 9780571332755

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

The phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ need not apply to this one. I was drawn to this book as soon as I saw the cover, and I wasn’t disappointed. Cornfields, beehives and a dark horse … I couldn’t figure out how it all fit together, but I knew I wanted to find out.

This alluring novel is best described as magical realism – it is a little fairytale-like, at times, and starkly realistic at others. It targets readers aged 14–18, and raises themes of family, love and self-worth.

It is a highly original, unusual tale set in a town called ‘Bone Gap’, where ‘the bones of the world’ are ‘a little looser’ and where people can simply fall away and disappear. Finn O’Sullivan is a handsome teenage boy who the locals are fond of, despite declaring him nutty. They call him ‘Sidetrack’ and ‘Moonface’ because he won’t look people in the eye. Finn lives with his older brother, Sean, whom the town adores.

When a young, beautiful girl called Roza appears in their barn, she charms the entire town with her beauty and playfulness. Then she is kidnapped and everybody is devastated. Finn was there but he can’t describe the kidnapper. Locals know that Bone Gap is full of magical ‘spaces one could slip into and hide’ … perhaps Roza simply disappeared as mysteriously as she arrived.

Finn is frustrated that nobody believes him – especially Sean, who was in love with her. When a magical horse appears in their barn one night, it leads Finn to Petey Willis, the beekeeper’s daughter, whom the townspeople taunt for her erratic appearance and behaviour. Finn and Petey fall in love, and she uncovers a remarkable truth about him. When Roza’s kidnapper turns up, Finn realises he himself needs to slip away from his world in order to find her.

Laura Ruby treats us to insights from Sean, Petey and Charlie Valentine (the town veteran), but the majority of the novel is told from Finn and Roza’s perspectives. She expertly overlaps the slow, mystical setting of Finn’s world with Roza’s frantic attempts to escape her captor. The effect creates a very gripping novel, making it a well-deserving winner of the 2016 ‘Michael L. Printz Award’.

This review was originally published on the Buzz Words website: