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Monday, August 7, 2017

YA Lit Fest - Doncaster Library, VIC

‘All the Little Liars’ Aurora Teagarden #9 by Charlaine Harris

From the BLURB:

Aurora Teagarden is basking in the news of her pregnancy when disaster strikes her small Georgia town: four kids vanish from the school soccer field in an afternoon. Aurora's 15-year-old brother Phillip is one of them. Also gone are two of his friends, and an 11-year-old girl who was just hoping to get a ride home from soccer practice. And then there's an even worse discovery at the kids' last known destination, a dead body.

While the local police and sheriff's department comb the county for the missing kids and interview everyone even remotely involved, Aurora and her new husband, true crime writer Robin Crusoe, begin their own investigation. Could the death and kidnappings have anything to do with a group of bullies at the middle school? Is Phillip's disappearance related to Aurora's father's gambling debts? Or is Phillip himself, new to town and an unknown quantity, responsible for taking the other children? But regardless of the reason, as the days go by, the most important questions remain. Are the kids still alive? Who could be concealing them? Where could they be?

With Christmas approaching, Aurora is determined to find her brother . . . if he's still alive.

‘All the Little Liars’ is the ninth book in Charlaine Harris’ recently-rebooted ‘Aurora Teagarden’ cozy-mystery series, about a sleuthing librarian and her little town of Lawrenceton, Missouri (the first few books of the series have also recently been adapted into a bunch of quite-okay but much tamer than the books, Hallmark Movies starring Candace Cameron Bure).

I say this series has been “rebooted”, because the last we saw of Aurora was the 2003 book ‘Poppy Done to Death’. Harris wrapped up (or so we thought) the Aurora Teagarden mystery series, just as her ‘Sookie Stackhouse: Southern Vampire’ series (which would eventually become the ‘True Blood’ TV series) was really taking off … around book three, ‘Club Dead’.

I know Charlaine often gets asked which of her backlist mystery series she’s most likely to revisit with new books – and her answer has long been ‘Aurora Teagarden’, purely because that’s the universe where she still has story-ideas. I, personally, would give *anything* for more books in ‘Lily Bard’ which is my go-to “Must Read Charlaine Harris” rec, but I was fine to have new-anything from Ms Harris. However … the rebooted Aurora is a little odd.

For one thing – you definitely can’t come to ‘All The Little Liars’ without having read all previous eight books in the series. I assume though, that part of the reason Aurora ‘Roe’ has been revisited is because Charlaine has nabbed a whole bunch of new readers in the time since ‘True Blood’ and the Hallmark movie adaptations – the covers have been redesigned, there are omnibus editions out now … so certainly, I think there are new readers coming to these books and her entire backlist. Charlaine Harris has been revisiting and rebooting a few of her series lately, in general. ‘Midnight, Texas’ (which is now also a TV show, and not half bad) was Charlaine bringing together a bunch of random secondary characters from all her past series.

But for those of us who stuck with Aurora from the very beginning, it’s hard to forget the weird transition the series went through around book 6, ‘A Fool and His Honey’ which is when (SPOILER ALERT) – Aurora’s husband, Martin, was killed off. This was undoubtedly a shock, and Charlaine tried to reign in a happy ending in books 7 & 8 by reintroducing a love interest from book 1 in crime-mystery writer, Robin to pair off with Auroa at the 2003-conclusion of the series. But it was a little clunkily done. While also not surprising in the least – because if there’s anything I’ve learnt from reading every single Charlaine Harris book, ever – it’s that she does not like traditional pairings for her heroines. She likes to pull the rug out from under readers … she’s very much of the Louisa May Alcott school of ‘Professor Bhaer + Jo’ romancing, more so than the Team ‘Laurie + Jo’ thinking. Fair warning for anyone wanting to get stuck into her backlist books (which you totally should!) but she likes to serve her readers spoonfuls of salt with their happily-ever-after’s

So ‘All The Little Liars’ picks up where 2003 Aurora left off – married to Robin, and expecting a baby while also being guardian to her little half-brother.

The mystery in book nine, pivots around the disappearance of Aurora’s brother, Phillip, two of his friends and 11-year-old daughter to the local priest. The case was interesting enough – and certainly provided an opportunity to seamlessly revisit all of Roe’s family members and townsfolk friends (to rejig a few reader-memories, I’m sure). But it got a little boring.

Now, I’ve always been a big fan of how Charlaine Harris – in her cozy mysteries – actually teases out how boring and mundane violence and crime are, and she’ll often observe a whodunit over the course of, say, a week and really show how boots-on-the-ground grinding an investigation can be (interspersed with tense interactions and repercussions on the lives of those waiting for a culprit to be found). But this mystery was missing kids, and even if it’s not accurate, I felt like there should have been higher-levels of tension and panic from everyone involved.

I also struggled with this one because I wasn’t getting much from the Aurora/Robin relationship. I really liked Martin (though weirdly, in this book Roe makes quite a few throwaway comments about how overbearing and tricky he was as a husband?) … but Martin and Roe’s relationship was intense and hot, and a sexy harmonising to the gritty crime-of-the-week being explored. Robin, while more sedate and solid for Roe – is not so fiery and passionate as Martin, and therefore bought that balance of crime/family down a couple notches.

All in all this one was … a disappointment. I’m still here for the next book in the rebooted series, ‘Sleep Like a Baby’ coming September this year. But I’ll keep my expectations a little more in check.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My MWF Top 5 Picks!

Hello Darling Readers!

I am so, so, so excited to be involved in the glorious Melbourne Writers Festival once again. It is always a somebody-pinch-me! honour when I get invited to attend and talk books with authors and creators I so admire. 

But this year feels really especially special because I get to talk about my own book, the #LoveOzYA Anthology AND ... there are some pretty spectacular guests I'm thoroughly thrilled to be seeing and chatting to! 

So, without further ado, here are my MWF Top 5 Picks ... 

Angie Thomas: YA & Activism
Giving voice to young black Americans and chronicling their experiences of racism, The Hate U Give is the year’s most outstanding YA novel. Hear from author Angie Thomas as she argues for writing that can turn the political into the deeply personal as a way to inspire action and speak truth to power. Be inspired by this young, outspoken writer who is ready to hit three truths home: that life fuels art, art mirrors life, and books can change lives.

The Bone Season
She’s been called the next JK Rowling for her bestselling fantasy series, The Bone Season – the first book of which was published when she was just 21. Now three novels in, British author Samantha Shannon invites you into her dystopic world.

Celebrate local YA with the best in the biz! #LoveOzYA authors Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung discuss the importance of representation, telling Australian stories and why YA is important for teens and adults alike. With Danielle Binks (that's me!)

Harry Potter Day
Accio good times! Whether youre a Muggle, wizard or Squib, join us for a free all-ages celebration of 20 years of the boy who lived. With live performances, a Sorting Hat, story time and more, share in the magic of the wizarding world with Professor Frankie Falconette. Wear your Hogwarts robes for a chance to win prizes. Mischief managed!

Teens at Signal
Emerging creative? Look no further than Signal for a host of great free events over two days, with
podcasting tips, creative writing workshops and a chance to ask your favourite YA novelists about their work.
Workshop: A Seat at the Table – Still Nomads
YA AMA – Danielle Binks, Melissa Keil, Angie Thomas
Workshop: Webseries – Hayley Adams
Live Podcast: Starving Artist – Honor Eastly, Brodie Lancaster, Celeste Mountjoy, TextaQueen

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'When Rosie met Jim' short-story by Melina Marchetta

From Melina’s Facebook post:

The Review of Australian Fiction ( has a great concept where a well-established writer asks a talented writer, who may be lesser known, to also submit a short story…

My short story is called When Rosie met Jim. It’s about a young woman who finds herself stranded in a Queensland town during a flood, where she meets a guy named Jim. (the title is quite literal, and yes, it’s him for those who know my previous work).

Mine will be the first chapter of the novel I’m writing, which unlike the short story, is set in the same part of Sydney I tend to write about in my contemporary novels.

Here’s the first line;

It’s rained for forty days and forty nights, so when a guy who looks like Jesus in orange SES overalls comes to stand next to her, Rosie thinks it’s all a bit biblical.
I was lucky enough to be sent a sneaky early copy of ‘When Rosie Met Jim’ … and for anyone who knows me even a little, you’ll know what a big deal it was for me to start reading this story. And if you don’t know me at all – well, – here I am in a Buzzfeed article, writing about how Melina Marchetta basically changed my life.

When Rosie met Jim’ landed in my inbox when I was at Sydney airport, flying home after the Writers’ Festival. I glanced at my phone, felt a rush of blood to the head and heart … then promptly walked to my gate, sat down and started reading. And crying.

I was crying because it’s kinda sad. And beautiful. But mostly I was crying because I’ve missed these characters … well, character in Jimmy Hailler (though others are alluded to). He first appeared in the 2003 novel ‘Saving Francesca’ – then was conspicuously absent (but mentioned) in Melina’s follow-up, 2010 novel ‘The Piper’s Son’. 

I’ve worried about Jim in the intervening years. I have wondered what he’s up to, if he’s okay, and who he loves. When Rosie met Jim’ is but a taste of those questions about to be answered in a full-length novel.

This teaser also includes our meeting Rosie – the female protagonist of said novel. And what comes across so achingly clearly in this short story is how lonely Rosie is. And Jim too.

He’s gone when she wakes in the morning and she’s relieved they don’t have to do the polite stuff. Outside, it’s drizzling and steamy and her tee shirt’s pasted onto her with the grime that comes from humidity and sweat. A couple of utes and four wheel drives pass her by, packed with possessions being taking to higher ground. Rosie wonders if she’s left it too late to get out of this town.

Rosie, to me though, is another indestructible Marchetta heroine. The moment I read the line "Rosie doesn’t believe in anything hopeful" I instantly thought of Violette and Quintana ... and Taylor Markham. All the warrior women; the defiant ones who stay with you long after the last page. I can’t wait to read her story, and how it’ll (hopefully) become Jim’s story too.

Back in 2010, after I first read ‘The Piper’s Son’ I wrote a review – and hit on the closest thing I think I’ve ever come to explaining what Melina’s novels do to me. What they mean to me; 

… this follow-up book is like catching up with old friends down at the local; we know and love them, we’ve missed them and now they’ve returned, just like we've always known they would.

This is still true – of When Rosie met Jim’ too. And it’s why I cried, because these characters mean something to me. I hold them dear. I hold them dear.
And I’ve missed them. Missed him.

He shakes his head. 
‘It got to me a couple of years ago when my grandpop died and I had to get out of our flat because it was housing commission and someone else was waiting in line for it. And I realized I didn’t have a home so I disappeared for about a year. My friends aren’t the type to let go, which is a good thing, so I ended up back in Sydney couch surfing. A couple of months ago, I’m living with my best mate’s family and she convinces me to track down my mum.’

Thank you, Melina.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

'Ballad for a Mad Girl' by Vikki Wakefield

Book received from Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Everyone knows seventeen-year-old Grace Foley is a bit mad. She’s a prankster and a risk-taker, and she’s not afraid of anything—except losing. As part of the long-running feud between two local schools in Swanston, Grace accepts a challenge to walk the pipe. That night she experiences something she can’t explain.

The funny girl isn’t laughing anymore. She’s haunted by voices and visions—but nobody believes a girl who cries wolf.

As she’s drawn deeper into a twenty-year-old mystery surrounding missing girl Hannah Holt, the thin veil between this world and the next begins to slip. She can no longer tell what’s real or imagined—all she knows is the ghosts of Swanston, including that of her own mother, are restless. It seems one of them has granted her an extraordinary gift at a terrible price.

Everything about her is changing—her body, her thoughts, even her actions seem to belong to a stranger. Grace is losing herself, and her friends don’t understand. Is she moving closer to the truth? Or is she heading for madness?

‘Ballad for a Mad Girl’ is the new young adult book from Australia author Vikki Wakefield.

Vikki is one of my favourite authors writing today. Hands down. I have loved all of her books, and even though Ballad marks the biggest departure from her contemporary backlist – it’s another one of hers that I’ll cherish and count among my new modern, Aussie YA favourites.

Where as in the past Vikki has written very gritty, realist teen narratives – Ballad is a bit of a horror/speculative-fiction change-up, in which protagonist Grace Foley finds her body inhabited by the ghost of a teenage girl who died tragically, decades ago. Grace finds her ghostly companion after a death-defying school challenge goes horribly wrong, and in the midst of her deep-seated grief over the death of her own mother a year ago.

Now Grace’s dog is wary of her and biting mad, she of – zero artistic talent – can suddenly draw haunting portraits, and there’s a girl always standing in the corner of her room at night.

Even though there are horror and gothic threads in this book, long-time fans of Vikki’s should know that they’re still getting a gritty novel from this beloved author who is celebrated for her gut-punching YA – because she knows that speculative-fiction without relatable backbone means nothing. Vikki takes the haunting and uses it as an extension of Grace’s grief and denial over her mother’s death, as well as her uneasiness over growing up and apart from her core group of friends. There were times when I felt like maybe there were one-two-many metaphoric ideas happening – between the death of Grace’s mum, and her friendship dramas, as well as Grace’s own mental health questions – but by the end all of these narratives were bought together rather neatly for a satisfying, if haunting conclusion.

Vikki Wakefield is one of the most creative and daring authors writing for young adults today. Ballad for a Mad Girl is an Aussie YA Gothic tale that smartly uses the supernatural to explore the depths of grief and growing up, and the pain to be found in both. This is a caring and keening novel, creepy but tender and wholly marvellous.


Monday, May 15, 2017

'Tanner' American Extreme Bull Riders Tour #1 by Sarah Mayberry

Received via NetGalley

From the BLURB:

He’s used to risking it all in the ring, but nothing prepared him for love…

After flying half-way around the world to surprise her boyfriend, Evie Forrester finds herself heartbroken and stranded in a strange city. What could be a total disaster becomes something else when a tall, dark bull rider turns out to be a white knight in disguise. Evie isn’t sure she needs saving, but Tanner Harding is a difficult man to deny. He’s even harder to resist…

Tanner Harding can tame a monster bull with ease, but he never expected to be floored by someone like Evie. Sparks fly between them until injury threatens to end Tanner’s career –and suddenly he’s the one in need of a rescue.

Evie can’t turn her back on her wounded hero and, as Tanner struggles with his recovery, she’s not sure she can guard her heart against him either. Tanner knows Evie has slipped under his skin, but she lives in Australia and his future is under a cloud. Can two people with too many reasons to walk away make the bold decision to stay?

‘Tanner’ is the first book in a new alternate-writers series from Tule Publishing, called American Extreme Bull Riders Tour – and this first instalment is written by Australian romance author (and one of my fave-of-faves!) Sarah Mayberry.

Now, cowboys are not really my thing. Every romance reader has their trope-of-choice; and cowboys just aren’t mine. My bestie is all about the ice-hockey players, while I’m more of a Scotsman in a kilt kinda gal … but the whole Western Romance/Cowboys/Bullriders thing has just never been on my radar. Until now.

The series starts out with 25-year-old naïve Evie, flying all the way from her family’s farm in Australia to Tulsa in America, to be with her long-distance boyfriend (and childhood crush) Troy, on the last 2 weeks of his Extreme Bull Riders circuit tour. But when Evie arrives she’s met with the shocking realisation that Troy hasn’t been anywhere near as invested in their relationship as she was – and has in fact been bedding buckle bunnies for the months that Evie was pining for him and planning her grand-gesture surprise arrival.

The one person to witness the full-force of Evie’s uncovered betrayal is Troy’s opponent on the tour, Tanner ‘Hard Man’ Harding – a famous Bull Rider tipped to win this circuit. Against his better judgement, Tanner is moved by Evie’s plight – and impressed with her stoicism in the light of such betrayal. He rescues Evie from a seedy motel, and insists she take the spare bed in his Hilton hotel room – and stay with him for the few days it takes her to sort out a plan for the two weeks she’s stuck in America on a non-refundable plane ticket.

But pretty soon Evie is forgetting all about Troy and her heartbreak; so focused on the kindness and gruff compassion of Tanner, not to mention an impressive body crafted from years on the Riding circuit. Tanner, for his part, quickly becomes infatuated with Evie – her iron-will, and sweet disposition – and the two of them fall into an intense and loving fling that only grows stronger when an accident forges a friendship in the fires of tragic circumstances.

There was a small silence, but as he climbed back into bed she blew her nose. Not a delicate little lady honk, either. 
“Thank you.” Her voice was thick with tears. “Sorry if I’m keeping you awake. I think it’ll pass soon.” 
“Don’t apologize for having your heart broken,” he said. 
Troy was the one who should be apologizing. Tanner had no problem with anyone taking pleasure where they found it, but trying to have a bet each way struck him as being greedy and more than a little selfish. If Troy wanted to play, he shouldn’t have made whatever promises he’d made to Evie, and vice versa. 
She blew her nose again, then he heard the sound of her moving around in the bed, changing position. 
“I think maybe I came to Tulsa to have my heart broken,” she said very quietly.  

Sarah Mayberry’s Tanner is more of what I love from this auto-buy author. Her characters often start out in the trickiest of circumstances – in this case, Evie getting her heart broken by her childhood crush in the first two chapters! – but the strength of Sarah’s romances is how these character get back up again and find their way to happiness in spite of the worst circumstances.

The other thing I love about Sarah Mayberry’s books is that they’re just so darn hot – and Tanner has got to be one of her hottest yet! I said I didn’t like cowboys so much, but Sarah has imbued this hero with a commendable chivalry and tender compassion that’s mouth-wateringly tempting. There were a few times when Tanner could have been seen to come across as He-Man bossy, but when his particular brand of take-charge gruffness was up against Evie’s own iron-will, it only made for a spectacular coupling with a give-take that was so much fun to read!

I’m keen to read more from the American Extreme Bull Riders Tour, even if Sarah isn’t penning the next three … She’s coaxed me over to the Cowboy-Trope side, and has sprinkled this first instalment with enough intriguing characters that I’m now keen to follow their stories (not least among them being Troy, because even though he does something awful to Evie in this book – there’s hints of a dark past that needs addressing before he can open himself up to love!)

Sarah Maybery is one of my favourite, favourite, favourite romance writers – ever! – and Tanner has just made its way onto my Top 5 faves from her list. Which is really saying something!



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

'First & Then' by Emma Mills

From the BLURB:

Devon Tennyson wouldn't change a thing. She's happy watching Friday night games from the bleachers, silently crushing on best friend Cas, and blissfully ignoring the future after high school. But the universe has other plans. It delivers Devon's cousin Foster, an unrepentant social outlier with a surprising talent for football, and the obnoxiously superior and maddeningly attractive star running back, Ezra, right where she doesn't want them - first into her P.E. class and then into every other aspect of her life.

Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights in this novel, a contemporary YA romance about love—for the unexpected boy, for a new brother, and for yourself. First & Then comes from Emma Mills, the YouTube vlogger and co-creator of the popular "life skills" channel, "How to Adult" which currently has over 160,000 subscribers.

‘First & Then’ was the 2016 debut young adult contemporary by Emma Mills.

I’m really loving Emma Mills’ young adult stories – and I think a big reason that they work for me is her embracing and amplifying of relatable and ordinary teen stories.

‘First & Then’ follows senior Devon Tennyson soon after her cousin Foster comes to live with her family. Foster’s father died and his mother wasn’t capable of caring for him, so sent him to live with his uncle. Devon is adjusting to life with Foster, who has a very quirky way about him that’s both endearing and frustrating.

Devon is also nursing a crush on her best friend and football player, Cas – and finding herself thrown into mandatory gym class torture with her high school’s star football player and “all-America”, Ezra Lynley. 

Devon’s three relationships with these boys will intersect over the course of her final year of high school, in a range of surprising and crushing ways.

I saw this on Tumblr the other day, and I snorted because it’s 100% true;

But Emma Mills is in a category of YA authors who embrace the mundanity of high school and growing up – interspersed with the pain and awesomeness of it too. Mills actually writes about her characters doing homework, attending football practice, slogging through college essay-writing and just generally being teenagers. Sometimes this is amazing, and offers up the sorts of quiet revelations readers can actually relate to – other times you wish she’d stay in the bigger moments a little longer, like house party confrontations and homecoming dramas. But overall there’s something about Emma Mills and ‘First & Then’ that reminded me a little of ‘Saving Francesca’ by Melina Marchetta, for embracing the relatable and revelatory.

This is the year of Emma Mills for me – I started by reading her second book ‘This Adventure Ends’ in January, and I’m definitely reading her forthcoming ‘Foolish Hearts’ and now I’ve read her first. I am finding that Mills’ excelling at the ordinary can sometimes be a downfall too – as in ‘This Adventure Ends’ when I realised there was no actual denouement or satisfactory rise in action, but ‘First & Then’ does a much better job of that ordinariness overall, particularly when dealing with matters of the heart.

Devon is a big Jane Austen fan, so a lot of the romance is a hark back to the tangled miscommunications that Ms Austen so enjoyed, and it serves Mills well in this book;

“Listen, Dev …” 
Nothing good ever started with listen. It was never “Listen, you just won twenty-five thousand dollars.” “Listen, I have a huge crush on you.” I think the general theory was that you had to tell the other person to listen because you were about to tell them something they didn’t want to hear. And I definitely didn’t want to hear the end of Ezra’s listen, because it was probably something along the lines of “I hope we can still be friends.”

I will say that Mills wrote a few of her secondary characters a little too well, and I was frustrated at the end when I didn’t get conclusive resolutions or revelations about their hinted-at bigger stories – Jordan and Marabelle, especially – but maybe this means she has plans for sorta-sequels down the line?

What I especially loved about Mills embracing ordinary teen life in this book was the concentration on football and “jock” players that didn’t pander to extremes or clichés. The football boys Devon is friends with are nice and ordinary, lovable, goofy, cocky, egotistical … they’re not ‘Friday Night Lights’ or ‘Varsity Blues’ or parodies of high school football Gods, and they’re not the (perhaps sometimes more realistic) teen predators and misogynistic Neanderthals – they’re just guys, and that was actually surprisingly refreshing because they felt more three-dimensional, rather than props for stories with underlining moralistic preaching.

I’m really loving Emma Mill’s style, and I am looking forward to third book ‘Foolish Hearts’. Sometimes her embracing of the ordinary is a hit (‘Frist & Then’) other times it misfired (‘This Adventure Ends’) – but either way, she sure makes the journey enjoyable.