Friday, 24 February 2017

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty
Published February 20, 2017 by Harper Collins
Source: purchased
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina try to catch up once a year for some days away together. Now in their thirties, commitments have pulled them in different directions, and the closeness they once enjoyed growing up seems increasingly elusive. This year, determined to revive their intimacy, they each share a secret in an anonymous letter to be read out during the holiday. But instead of bringing them closer, the revelations seem to drive them apart. Then a fifth letter is discovered, venting long-held grudges, and it seems that one of the women is in serious danger. But who was the author? And which of them should be worried?

The Fifth Letter is Nicole Moriarty's third novel. Set in Sydney, the story follows a group of women in their mid-thirties. Joni, Deb, Trin, and Eden have been friends since they were twelve years old. Joni was the one who picked them out of her homeroom class and the girls have remained close for the past twenty-three years. Lately they've drifted apart and Joni feels as though she's the only one who cares. Determined to reconnect, she arranges another of their annual holidays, but the appearance of a threatening letter changes everything.

Told over multiple time lines, I found The Fifth Letter completely captivating. The flashbacks to 1993 perfectly captured high school in the 90s, and highlighted how the group dynamic first started. Joni's confessional conversations were a humorous touch, and the main plot line was a realistic look at the way friendships shift and develop over time. Even between close friends there can be rivalries, grudges, pettiness, and I'm sure readers will be able to relate to aspects of what the girls go through.

Each of the four main characters felt equally well developed, and though I favoured Joni, I liked that she wasn't perfect, she had flaws and secrets, just like the other three.

I found myself intrigued from the moment the fifth letter was printed, and that curiosity only grew over the course of the story. One minute I'd be sure I knew which letter belonged to each girl and who had written the fifth letter, and then something else would be revealed and my certainty would vanish. The plot, the twists, and the conclusion were all cleverly thought out and kept me guessing until the end.

Ableist language: idiot, crazy, insane, lame.

The Fifth Letter is a compelling mystery with a strong focus on the bonds formed between girls and women. The story is perfectly paced, surprising, and touching. I found it hard to put down and would highly recommend it to adults and older YA readers, too.

International readers: The Fifth Letter is also available in the USA and UK.

The Aussie cover is definitely the best version of the cover for The Fifth Letter, I love the pastel look and it was an easy one to paint.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles

The Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles
Published February 9, 2017 by Bloomsbury
Source: ARC from the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: It’s been a shattering year for seventeen-year-old Zoe, who’s still reeling from her father's shockingly sudden death in a caving accident and her neighbors’ mysterious disappearance from their own home. Then on a terrifying sub-zero, blizzardy night in Montana, she and her brother are brutally attacked in a cabin in the woods—only to be rescued by a mysterious bounty hunter they call X.
X is no ordinary bounty hunter. He is from a hell called the Lowlands, sent to claim the soul of Zoe’s evil attacker and others like him. X is forbidden from revealing himself to anyone other than his prey, but he casts aside the Lowlands’ rules for Zoe. As they learn more about their colliding worlds, they begin to question the past, their fate, and their future. 

Seventeen year old Zoe Bissell lives in Montana with her mum and her eight year old brother, Jonah. She used to love caving with her father, a man who was often absent from their lives for months at a time, but he died in a caving accident and his body was never recovered. During a snowstorm she meets a boy with no name. Zoe names him X and finds out he's a special sort of bounty hunter, he comes from hell.

Overall The Edge of Everything was unique and very imaginative. I spent a lot of the book thinking "how on earth did the author come up with this?!" because there were elements that were different and strange. But, there were a lot of typical YA fantasy elements too.

X is, of course, unimaginably hot. Zoe is overwhelmed with the state of his body, face, and hair. As the female lead Zoe is a bit of a loner, though she does have two friends. While Zoe immediately thinks X is hot and falls for him, X in turn feels a connection to Zoe, she even influences the way his body feels - perhaps this will be explained in the sequel.

I liked that Zoe's family remained a large part of the story instead of fading into the background or being kept in the dark. I also thought Zoe and Jonah's relationship was well developed and authentic. Jonah has ADHD, and while Zoe is not always as understanding or sensitive as she could be, she loves her brother fiercely.

The pacing was a little uneven. The beginning was intriguing, the middle dragged with all the info on caving and Zoe's dangerous escapades, and then the end picked up again. I also noticed some mistakes and things that seemed to have no explanation, but I was reading an ARC, so perhaps these were corrected in the final edition. My one main issue, and I'll have to be vague to avoid spoiling readers, is that I didn't believe Zoe's choice when it came to the big decision she had to make.

Ableist language: SO MUCH. Spaz, insane, maniac, crazy, lame, psycho, freak, dumb, idiot, nuts, lunatic, demented, psychopath, looney, mental. Most of these words were used in the first 12 pages alone, but were also used frequently throughout the rest of the book.

The Edge of Everything is an intriguing and unique take on YA fantasy with some elements that allow it to stand out, combined with the typical elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for the ARC.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Before You Forget by Julia Lawrinson

Before You Forget by Julia Lawrinson
Published January 30, 2017 by Penguin Random House
Source: the publisher
Rating: 2 stars

From the blurb: Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.

I've put off writing my review of Before You Forget, Julia Lawrinson's latest book because I never enjoy being negative about AussieYA. I read another of Julia's books, Losing It, when it came out and loved it (it got five stars from me) so I expected to feel similarly about her new release, unfortunately that wasn't the case.

Another factor that makes it hard to comment on a book is knowing it's based on the author's life. Julia has written about how this story is based on her daughter's experience of living with a father who develops younger onset Alzheimer's, and so any criticism I have of the story or the characters feels like a criticism of the author and her family, and I want to be clear that is not my intention. It pains me that I didn't enjoy a story that is clearly so personal to the author.

Seventeen year old Amelia is in year twelve and is focused on her love of art. However, her teacher is quite critical and Amelia yearns for approval and praise, much like how she behaves in her relationship with her father. Her dad used to be a lot more involved in her life but lately he's quick to anger and often vague, meaning he no longer takes an interest in her work.

Despite being in year twelve, there was never any urgency or pressure that goes along with being in the final year of school. Nor did Amelia seem like a seventeen year old, I would have placed her at around 12-14 years old, based on her behaviour and the way she communicated.

The story tried to tackle eating disorders in a side plot featuring Amelia's best friend, Gemma. Gemma felt a little shallow as far as character development goes, and I didn't feel as though her anorexia was treated with sensitivity. Amelia also deals with anxiety, her parents' alcoholism, a potential romance, new friendships, and her art, but the length of the novel meant none of these issues got explored in depth.

Last year I read another book about a family dealing with Alzheimer's disease, Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell. It's a heart-wrenching, emotional, and hopeful story. Unfortunately, I kept comparing Before You Forget to Forgetting Foster, and I didn't feel anything. With a premise that sounds so heartbreaking and isolating for the family, I expected to feel a range of emotions, but I never connected to Amelia and so her story left me unmoved.

Reading about how this story came together, memories and incidents pieced together into a narrative, my experience with the story makes a bit more sense. Overall it felt disjointed, it didn't flow, and the scene changes often felt choppy. This might work for some readers, but it did not work for me.

Ableist language: retarded, nuts, dumb, crazy, fool, demented, idiot, lame.

Before You Forget is a novel that attempts to highlight many issues but lacks the depth and exploration that such serious and devastating topics need. It's still wonderfully Australian and does manage to depict how a family copes, or doesn't cope, with the diagnosis of younger onset Alzheimer's.

Thank you to Penguin Random House for my copy.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Published May 2016 by Serpent's Tail
Source: borrowed from the library
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb: Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I'd been seeing it everywhere, who could ignore that stunning cover, but I thought it might be a little dark for me. I was wrong, this book was such a wonderful, unique story. I loved the historical aspect, the mystery, the unpredictability of the plot. It was captivating, touching, atmospheric, and beautifully written. I loved it so much that I need to buy a copy for my very own, my only question is: do I buy the original cover or the special (but hard to acquire) Waterstones edition?

Cover designer: Peter Dyer

This cover! It is just beautiful, I could stare at it for hours. It's definitely one of my favourite book covers.

I started with a base of black nail polish and used acrylic paint for the serpent, flowers, and leaves.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

January Reading and Writing Recap

I decided this year I'd try and do a monthly recap of my reading and also my writing, which I haven't talked about as yet. But, as I write this, it's February 11, so I am going to backdate this post to Feb 1 and try to be more prompt in March!


In January I read 20 books, which is pretty standard for me. I'd be happy to keep this rate up for the year, even though I know I probably need to read less if I want to make time for writing. 14 books were physical copies, 3 were audio books, 3 were ebooks. Most of them were YA but a couple were adult fiction, one was a classic, and 3 were travel memoirs.

If you want to check out what I'm reading during February, you can follow my bookish IG account @booksandmanicures. My nail art is over at @TheBookishManicurist.


In May last year I finally decided to start writing a YA novel. It's something I'd thought about on and off but never really thought I'd try. I got an idea and felt compelled to start writing, so I did. I started with planning characters, setting, backstory, and then began writing, not really knowing where I would end up.

This coincided with reading Paper Hearts Vol. 1 by Beth Revis. Beth, a best-selling YA author, released 3 ebooks on writing, publishing, and marketing. I saw Vol 2 available on Netgalley so I requested it and then purchased Vol 1 via the Kindle app. Reading Volume 1 really changed the way I write, but also the way I read. It gave me insight into why authors choose certain styles and I highly recommend it to book bloggers/reviewers, as well as to writers.

So, inspired by Paper Hearts Vol 1, I decided to use one of Beth's suggested plans and plot out the major moments, scenes, and places I thought the MC and story needed to go. Trying to write once I'd done this felt a little restrictive, like I was killing time in between those major plot points, but eventually I got back into the story and I kept up my writing throughout June and July. I wasn't writing every day, probably only every 2-3 days, but I was making progress.

Come August I slowly forgot about my story and, though I would think about it from time to time, and discuss it with a friend who's also writing their first novel, I didn't make time to write. But, when I heard NaNoWriMo was about to begin, I decided to unofficially participate.

Previously I'd been trying to fit my writing in first thing in the morning. I get up early each day, 3.30am to be precise, because I have a set routine I think of as the three Ms: Morning Pages, Movement (yoga, dance or HIIT), and Meditation. I've been meditating daily for over 2 years now, and I've been writing Morning Pages for 1 and a 1/2 years. Both of these tasks are so habitual now, I never miss them.

Despite all that in the morning, I was still trying to make time to quickly sit down with my laptop and get down at least 500 words before leaving for work. But some mornings I'd run late or something would slow down my routine and I would have to skip writing. Later in the day I'd think about doing it but never actually get around to it. Until I realised I needed to use an evening activity as my habit trigger.

I have three cats and two of them are greedy little things. The third one will allow the other two to push her out of the way when eating, so I have to watch them eat in the morning and the evening. Their evening meal takes longer, so I'd sit at the kitchen bench while they would eat. Previously I'd read, but during November I wrote almost every night. But towards the end of the month I let my enthusiasm wane again. Come the end of December I decided January 1st was going to be my day to recommit - I love starting new habits on January one (eg. I started meditating on Jan 1, 2015).

I wrote every night for the month of January, even on a night when I'd been to a book event and got home late. Because I always have to sit and feed the cats, I get my laptop out even if I really don't feel like it. I find once I start, I can easily get down 500 words or more.

I'm not editing as I go, instead I'm just writing. My only goal is to move the story forward. I'm going with the advice that the first draft is where you get it all out, and you can edit once you're done.

Some of the things that have inspired me along the way:
  • Reading - I have always been a voracious reader. I read widely as a child and teen, then over the past 5-6 years I focused on YA, but now I am widening my choices, especially by using audio books to get through large classics and memoirs. 

  • The So You Want to Be a Writer podcast - I can't remember how I discovered this podcast, possibly while googling writing courses, but I think I've been listening to it since April-May 2016. When I discover a podcast I like, I enjoy going back to the beginning and working my way through the old episodes (I've done this with the Rich Roll podcast, another one I highly rec.) With SYWTBaW, I've been listening from both ends - I've worked my way up from 1 to about 70, but I've also listened to the most recent 50, so I should catch up on the middle episodes sometime soon. Each episode has great tips for all sorts of writers, and the interviews are always varied, but often the writing tips are similar (read, write, finish). Sometimes I won't think I'll get anything out of an interview and then I'll be surprised by what I learn. Some great Aussie YA authors have been interviewed, too: Rebecca James, Nicole Hayes, Kate Forsyth, Gabrielle Tozer, and Fleur Ferris.
  • The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron - I finally picked this up after seeing so many recommendations, particularly in regards to the Morning Pages. I worked my way through about 7 out of the 12 weeks and I do plan on going back and restarting, but even if I don't, I am so glad I finally started writing MPs. I make mine an exercise in speed writing because spending 20 minutes on them was taking up too much time in my morning routine. I can usually get 3 pages of scrawl done in 6 minutes.

  • On Writing by Stephen King - I was given a copy of this back in 2001 and I remember reading most of it, probably stopping when it went from memoir to writing advice. I picked it up again in May last year and read it slowly over the course of a few months. I definitely plan on taking King's advice and putting aside my first draft when I'm finished, and then moving onto something else.
  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert - I read this in 2015 more because it appealed to the artist side of me, but I think a lot of the writing advice stuck with me. I borrowed this from the library so I plan on buying myself a copy so I can reread and annotate it.

I'm probably forgetting some books but I can always mention them next month. For now I'll say that I really enjoy my writing time each evening. I tend to zone out and before I know it 500+ words are down and the cats have finished dinner. It's also fun watching the word count go up. Over the course of January I went from 22K to 42K and I am thrilled with that progress. I'm aiming for around 60K as the standard length of a YA novel. I should be able to finish it in February if I stick to my writing habit, so I hope I have positive news next month!

If you have any writing book recommendations, I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
Published January 10, 2017 by PanMacmillan
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life - she's been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He's deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she's assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn't matter that Steffi doesn't talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she's falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder is Sara Barnard's second novel. I absolutely loved her debut, Beautiful Broken Things, but I didn't have the same intense feeling for AQKoT.

Sixteen year old Steffi Brons lives in Bedfordshire. She spends school terms living with her dad and step-mum, and holidays with her mum, step-dad, and younger half-sister. She was diagnosed with selective mutism aged 4 and also has severe anxiety, especially in social situations. Steffi talks to her family and to close friends, but is unable to talk in class or to strangers. She starts sixth form at Windham High School, minus her best friend, Tem. She's asked to show a new student around, Rhys Gold. Rhys is deaf and Steffi is assigned to him because she has some knowledge of British Sign Language.

The good thing about this story is how diverse it is. Steffi portrays life with severe anxiety, Rhys and Tem are both children of immigrants, and as already mentioned, Rhys is deaf. Steffi also juggles living between two houses since her parents are divorced and this felt very true to real life.

But though I loved the diversity, I never fully connected with the story or the characters, and therefore didn't have any strong emotional reactions to anything that happened. It's a very romance centered story, but that aspect was believable as it was Steffi's first first serious relationship. The relationship is very quick to start but the portrayal of sex for the first time was honest and realistic.

While A Quiet Kind of Thunder didn't capture my love, I definitely suggest reading Sara's first book, Beautiful Broken Things, because it is stunning.

Ableist language: dumb, gormless, lame, idiot, crazy.

Thank you to PanMacmillan for my ARC.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Beachside Bookshop's First Birthday

A year ago a wonderful bookshop opened in Avalon on Sydney's Northern Beaches, Beachside Bookshop. Libby and her staff have lots of experience and incredible passion for books, especially when it comes to YA fiction, specifically Australian YA fiction.

Libby requested some nails to celebrate their top 5 bestselling books of the year: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar, Promising Azra by Helen Thurloe, Breathing Under Water by Sophie Hardcastle, The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis, and Bro by Helen Chebatte. As well as a set to match their lovely stripey logo.

The shop has an excellent range of YA, middle grade, children's books, as well as new adult ficton releases, and they have regular author events. If you're in the area, I highly recommend you stop by to support this fantastic independant bookshop.

Shop 20, 11 Avalon Parade
Avalon Beach NSW 2107