Book Review: Small Spaces, by Sarah Epstein

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cv_small_spaces.jpgSmall Spaces is a gripping psychological thriller that will take you in a whirlwind of a ride, through an unexpected twists and turns. I found myself almost immediately hooked, and once this book had drawn me in, it refused to let me go – I finished it within a day. Aimed at the Young Adult market, it should also appeal to adults in search of a fast-paced read that will keep them guessing.

Tash Carmody has been traumatised since childhood, and it all began with a trip to the family homestead, where she stayed with her Aunt Ally. In this crumbling house, with its dark corners and mysterious noises, she met a sinister being that she named “Sparrow”. No-one else could see Sparrow, and no-one else would believe he existed, not even when Tash witnessed him kidnap a 6-year old girl, Mallory Fisher, from a local carnival. The girl was eventually found, alive, but has not spoken a word since, and her family moved away soon after.

Now, eleven years later, the Fishers have returned to Tash’s hometown, and, Sparrow too has returned. Mallory may hold the key to the torment buried in Tash’s past, and the dark secret that hangs between them. But, does Sparrow exist after all? Or is Tash more dangerous than she thinks?

Aside from the psychological aspect, there is a lot of typical teen drama happening: strong friendships (I particularly liked Tash’s Kiwi-friend, Sadie), catty High School girl rivalry, a fledgling romance, and some fairly serious family issues. This is a tightly written, gripping novel, and an impressive first offering from Australian author, Sarah Epstein. I can highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Small Spaces
by Sarah Epstein
Published by Walker Books
9781921977381

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Book Review: Wedlock, by Denis Wright

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cv_wedlock.jpgWedlock is the third book from Denis Wright, a High School English teacher. Aimed at teenagers, and intended as a quick, gripping read, it deals with some quite heavy stuff – but in a very accessible and easily relatable manner.

Lucy Sorrenson wants to be an average teenage girl. At home, she’s feels like the only responsible adult: with her father acting like a teenage muso, and her grandfather acting somewhat like a petulent child. She wants to be in the school play, go to parties, have fun with friends, maybe meet a nice guy.

What she doesn’t expect, and certainly doesn’t want, is to be kidnapped by a group of religious fantatics and snatched off into the remote countryside.

For Lucy now has a new role to play, the role of the “Maiden”. She has been chosen to save the world, or to be precise, to marry the leader of the cult, Master Isaiah, and bear to him a child – a child that will save the world.

Needless to say, Lucy isn’t particularly enthused by her newfound fate, and will go to any extent to escape, but playing against a cult is a dangerous game, and when you become too comfortable with your captors, are you really still a prisoner?

Wedlock explores the seductive power of fanatasism, and explores the effects of “Stockholm syndrome”. It is intriguing to watch Lucy transform from a fierce, stubborn teenager into a more complacent member of the group. Or is she?

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Wedlock
by Denis Wright
Published by OneTree House
ISBN 9780473421861

Book Review: A Memory of Fire, by R.L. Stedman

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cv_a_memory_of_fireThe spell-binding conclusion to the trilogy, A Memory of Fire is as memorising and eloquently written as its predecessors. Even without reading book two, it had me engrossed, although I would definitely recommend reading the trilogy in order (and a re-read will be in order for me!).

R.L Stedman is a New Zealand author, living in Otago. The first book in the trilogy, Necklace of Souls, received the Tessa Duder award in 2012 and has gone on to receive several more. It begins with Dana, a princess with a haunting destiny, bearing the burden of true dreaming. An orphaned boy, Will, takes up residence in the castle, first baking bread, then training as a warrior. He and Dana become drawn to one another, and romance blossoms.

A Memory of Fire begins with Will and Dana separated. Dana has sacrificed herself to save those she loves, and is now held captive in a strange city, her mind kept harnessed with drugs. She will have to entrust an unlikely ally to escape. Half a world away, Will is learning a new discipline in fighting – being trained by an enemy-turned-friend. But for all that he is learning, he wishes for nothing more than to be reunited with Dana, and with the help of his companions, an enchantress and a warrior, he will set out across an earthquake-ravaged landscape to be with her. However, many obstacles stand in their way, including betrayal.

With strong characters, especially in Dana, I would recommend this series to young adults (and adult adults!) who enjoy the likes of Sarah J Maas. They are engrossing, well-written, and evocative, compelling enough to draw you thoroughly into their worlds and hold you captive until the conclusion. Best read together, in close succession.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

A Memory of Fire
by R.L. Stedman
Published by Waverley Productions
ISBN 9780473399573

Book Review: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

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cv_scytheIn a world where an artificial conscience maintains peace and prosperity, death has been conquered; no longer are you likely to die from disease or fatal accident, even age can be reversed. The only hand dealing death are the hands of the Scythes: humans selected specifically to keep the population stable and to maintain balance. It feels like a Utopia.

It is not.

Our female protagonist Citra Terranova’s life changes the day the Scythe knocks on her door. He’s not there to glean any of her family, but to take the life of her neighbour. While he waits for her to come home, he joins them for dinner. For no-one denies a Scythe anything. Male protagonist Rowan Damisch meets his first Scythe when he comes to glean a classmate. Rowan’s act of compassion – sitting with the boy as he dies – leads to alienation amongst his peers.

Both are soon recruited as apprentice Scythes: weighed down with the responsibility of selecting victims, and learning the art of killing. But corruption is growing within the Scythe society, and Citra and Rowan must band together to fight it – then they are informed of the final test: There can be only one, one of them must glean the other…

Utopia-turns-dystopia in a world where death has been defeated, but with it, some of the passion has leaked from the world. This story has been branded (by Young Adult author, Maggie Stiefvater) as “A true successor to The Hunger Games” and it does live up to that tagline, whilst retaining an intriguing freshness, despite following what is a very common theme within Young Adult fiction (the apprentice learning their trade).

The Scythe society is particularly novel: here is a profession in which you are truly forced to a distance by the general population, you are something of a celebrity, but everyone fears the day you turn up on their doorstep. The characters are each their own individuals, and watching the effect of their new responsibilities and how they react is both inspiring and terrifying.

For a fresh take on a tried-and-true formula, I would recommend Scythe to fans of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and other dystopic novels.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Scythe
by Neal Shusterman
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406379242

Book Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In, by Angelo Surmelis

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cv_the_dangerous_art_of_blending_in.jpgAs painful as it is powerful, The Dangerous Art of Blending In is not a story to be read lightly. It is one that will reach deep within, and squeeze painful fingers around your heart, making you ache with sorrow for the protagonist Evan Panos, rage with anger at his mother, and slap his father until he does intervene. It is a story about struggling with identity in a world that doesn’t readily accept you, about struggling to live up to your parents’ expectations, even though your mother will never accept you, about learning how to fight just to be yourself. Thus it will almost certainly kindle the emotions of the modern-day teenager, who will be able to identify with some, if not all, of Evan’s struggles.

Evan Panos is still coming to terms with the fact that at summer camp he kissed a boy, and he liked it. He’s gay, but terrified of his mother. Strongly religious, with a troubled past of her own (which is, obviously, no excuse for how she treats her son), she bullies, belittles and outright abuses Evan. His father, also afraid of his wife, seeks to comfort Evan in small ways – such as stealing him away to treat him to early morning donuts – but does very little to stop the abuse, or to reveal it. Instead, Evan must hide it, shrouding his bruises and cuts with lies of bicycle accidents and general clumsiness.

His only way to live is to blend in, to remain invisible, but events will conspire against him. It begins with a growing attraction to his best friend, Henry. An attraction that Henry reciprocates. But as their relationship heats up, so does his mother’s abuse, and some of his fellow students are, likewise, less than accepting. Evan’s only escape now lies in casting off his camouflage, and finding his voice in a world where he has survived by avoiding attention at all costs.

For anyone struggling in similar situations, Evan’s tale will likely be a painful but inspirational read. The author, Angelo Surmelis, is an award-winning designer and TV host, and, judging by the author’s note, although this is not intended as an autobiography, he “gave” Evan his story.

So how much of it is fact and how much fiction? I cannot say for sure, but I know that you will yearn for Evan to make his stand against his mother, to finally say “Enough”. That you will love the touching moments between he and Henry. And that you won’t want to put this down until you’ve turned that last page.

Recommended for fans of John Green, Jennifer Niven (who inspired Surmelis to write the story), and Rainbow Rowell.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Dangerous Art of Blending In
by Angelo Surmelis
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143790150

Book Review: Air Born, by J. L. Pawley

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cv_air_bornJ.L. Pawley is a young writer, hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Air Born first found its wings via Wattpad, where Pawley established quite a readership – and with good reason – before self-publishing her book, then having it picked up and refined by local publisher, Steam Press, and it can now be found in bookstores across New Zealand.

Many of us have dreamed of flying, and for American teenager Tyler Owens, that desire is about to become heart-racing reality.  Despite suffering from recent, almost debilitating back pain, he’s not about to let that stop him from experiencing his first solo sky dive. But it all goes horrendously wrong, when the swelling along his spine ruptures into a glorious pair of wings. With the entire event captured on video and broadcast across the world, Tyler does not have much chance to enjoy his new mutation – instead he’s running for his freedom, pursued by the sinister Evolutionary Corporation and heralded by the  impassioned Angelists.

But Tyler is not alone, because across the world other teenagers – all recently turned 17 – are experiencing similar “wing births”.  These seven teenagers are drawn together, to become a flock (or rather, a flight). Together, in the Californian desert, they must learn how to control their newly-sprouted limbs and master the art of flight, before they are hunted down.

Adrenalin-fueled and engaging, this is an action-adventure that should appeal to fans of the CHERUBS series, and James Patterson’s Maximum Ride. Flying is no easy feat, and Pawley has put a lot of thought into the biology of her icarian race. Whilst the story is fast-paced, and the characterisation strong – I particularly liked the character of Tui, a bold and out-spoken girl from New Zealand – there are perhaps not as many questions answered as I would have liked; there is much to be learned of the background behind these winged teenagers, which I suspect will be explored in further novels.

A strong debut, and I look forward to following the adventures of this Flight further.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Air Born
by J. L. Pawley
Published by Steam Press
ISBN 9780994138798

Book Review: Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

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cv_the_book_of_dust_la_belle_sauvage.jpgIn 1995, Philip Pullman’s novel, Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) was released. The trilogy that followed has won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Book of the Year, as well as spawning a (rather disappointing) movie, and capturing the hearts and imagination of thousands of older children, teenagers, and adults alike. It took us to an alternate universe, where every human has their daemon – an animal companion that is an extension of your soul made flesh. Whilst a child, daemons are fluid shape-shifters, but once matured, they settle into the form that most truly reflects their human’s personality.

Now, 17 years after the release of the final book, Pullman invites us back into Lyra’s Oxford, and once more immerses us into her world. There is an aspect of an origin story here, with Lyra being a baby, on her journey to Jordan College. Our hero is Malcolm Polstead – an eleven-year-old who works in his parents’ inn. When he hears world that the local Priory of St Rosamund has taken into their charge a baby, his interest is immediately kindled. Meanwhile, the appearance of imposing and frightening outsiders within their small village is causing conflict and fear. Children are encouraged to spy on their parents, and it is difficult to know whom to trust.

Everything draws to a dramatic climax when a terrible flood strikes the village, and Malcolm is cast adrift, in the company of Alice, an older, outspoken girl with whom he has a strained relationship, and with little Lyra in their care. They flee across the country, facing a series of challenges: some natural, some supernatural, all the while being pursued by a charismatic scientist and his foul daemon.

With elements of fable, La Belle Sauvage is a spell-binding return to a world we can never forget, with a new cast of characters – and a foul villain – whilst many familiar faces, and hints at what the future will bring. Whilst one can read it independent of His Dark Materials, I believe the events will hold a greater gravitas if one has already enjoyed that series.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Book of Dust Vol 1: La Belle Sauvage
by Philip Pullman
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780857561084