Unbelievably Good – Strange but True Mid-Grade Reads

Tweens and teens love dipping into the world of fantasy. The more quirky the premise, the more unbelievable the outcomes, the better. These middle grade novels serve up a mind-bending mixture of almost too-whacky-to-believe storylines showcasing time travel, ghosts and gigantic invisible felines. Strange but delightfully, true.

Frankie Fish and the Sonic Suitcase by Peter Helliar and Lesley Vamos

A forever morphing, triple paced collision of Doctor Who meets Top Gear is one way of describing Pete Helliar’s first foray into writing for kids. His enthusiastic use of wacky, over the top metaphors is a touch extravagant at times but oh, do they provoke some face-wrinkling chuckles.

Francis (aka Frankie) Fish’s race against time back into time has all the hallmarks of a mega time travelling adventure with one difference; he is making the journey in desperation to preserve the existence of the Fish family line of which he may or may not still be a part of (it all depends on the battery!). And he’s doing it with his very grumpy, slightly geriatric, grandfather.

Continue reading Unbelievably Good – Strange but True Mid-Grade Reads

Review: Night Swimming by Steph Bowe

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Night Swimming by Steph Bowe was a piece of adorkable cuteness! It’s such a good example why Aussie YA is absolutely the best and so entirely special. I’ve loved Steph Bowe’s previous books (Girl Saves Boy and All This Could End) and I’m so glad she’s back writing again with this one! It has goat puns, quirky humour, dry wit, book lover appreciation, and features a super cute gay romance. Plus it’s set in a small dusty Australian town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Oh. And there’s crop circles. Because of course.

The story centres around Kirby, who is one of the only two teens in the town. Her best-friend-by-default is Clancy Lee, son of the local Chinese restaurant owners. They have the most hilarious witty dialogue of ever and I can’t get enough of it! Kirby is working as a carpenter apprentice and fast approaching the doomed decision of What Do I Do With My Life.

Kirby is also such a fabulously relatable protagonist! She has a great sense of humour and she is very obsessed with books. Although she claims she has a “book buying problem” which is obviously nonsense because when is buying books a problem? It’s a lifestyle, Kirby, you’re fine. When the new girl Iris comes into town, Kirby can’t work up the courage to admit she likes her. The adorkable awkwardness is equal parts hilarious and definitely relatable. Plus Kirby is a huge fan of chips and I mean…who isn’t.

The plot isn’t super faced paced, but it’s full of interesting happenings. Someone’s making plot circles in the local fields (aliens?!) and Clancy is putting on a musical for the sole reason to impress the new girl, Iris. There’s flood warnings coming and goats eating everyone’s shoes and is Kirby’s mum secretly dating the local Greek grocery store assistant?!

There is a love triangle, but it’s not a super angsty one. When Iris arrives, both Kirby and Clancy immediately fall in love with her…but it’s Kirby who actually tries to befriend her while Clancy maintains a more dreamy idea of Iris’ imagined perfection. Iris is part New Zelander and part Indian and is the daughter of a new restaurant owner, bound to give Clancy’s family a bit of friendly competition. She’s also definitely hiding the reason they moved out and Kirby is definitely curious about that. But I appreciated how the romance was “Friendship to Lovers” because I think it makes it so much stronger and sweeter!

OTHER THINGS TO LOVE

  • beautiful but horrible puns
  • small dusty country Aussie town
  • Kirby was fat and while she fretted over it occasionally she was also okay wiher her body and sent great messages of self-love
  • the romance was basically ADORKABLE with Kirby spending 5 hours sending a text that says “sure”
  • bookworm appreciation
  • a pet goat named Stanley who will eat your shoes and soul
  • Aussie slang which is my favourite
  • Kirby’s grandpa features in the story
  • excellent diversity representation

I fully adored this book! I laughed out loud and ate it faster than a goat with a tasty stolen slipper. Steph Bowe is a master storyteller and I was engaged the entire time with the quirky and fabulous writing style. It summarises the awkward and awesome that is the life of a teenager and the tale is poignant as well as downright fun.

Review: Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik

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Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik is simply an excellent novel. It’s all about friendship, love, sibling relationships, and Autism. And also it’s quite decidedly about the realisation that ice cream outings are the key part to living a happy life. (Ice cream is important, okay? Remember that always.) I’m endlessly pleased that it had such a lovely representation of Autism! The author has an ASD child and you can really tell she knows and understands the complexity of the spectrum. Plus it’s actually a positive view of Autism which was so refreshing. I just can’t praise this book enough!

The story is by the point of view of Chloe, who is neurotypical, and she has an older sister named Ivy who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Chloe could be viewed as a typical “queen bee”, who has the perfect boyfriend, is popular at school, and is blonde and beautiful. But shallowness? #Nope. She cares about her sister, about feminism, about thinking for herself. And when she notices that Ivy seems to be wishing to find someone to love, Chloe embarks on a mission to try and find Ivy a boyfriend.

I loved Chloe and Ivy’s relationship! Chloe is 17 and Ivy is nearly 21, but Chloe functions in more of the “big sister” role, with Ivy’s Autism making her struggle with communication and relating to people. Ivy doesn’t express emotions/feelings easily and she’s not independent, with her parents (sadly) not doing much to help her in that respect. I think it was perfectly fine that Ivy was staying quietly at home, but I also loved that Chloe was intent on making sure Ivy got to experience other aspects of life — if she wanted them. But I won’t deny the parents were pretty problematic and nearly neglectful. Not in a malicious way, just in a “this is too hard, what do we do with Ivy” so while they cared and loved her 100% of the time, they didn’t attempt to help her with life. So be warned: there’s plenty of ableism in this book. From Chloe’s friends making ableist comments to people treating Autism like a disease that needs curing. But the book tackles the issues head on and address them, which is just so needed.

I also liked the contrast of the sisters with the two brothers, David and his brother, Ethan, who also has Autism. While David and Chloe are rather nemesis at school, Chloe unknowingly sets up a date between Ethan and Ivy. So David and Chloe (being carers of their siblings in the date outings) end up spending a lot of time together. It is a fabulous show of a slow-build friendship between them! And as David stopped being an acidic lemon drop and Chloe stopped being so judgemental, I really started to ship them! They were adorable. And can we just say character development for both of them was A+!? Because it absolutely was!

The representation of ASD was also magnificently done. Ivy and Ethan were so sweet and I loved that the book showed so many positive sides of Autism! It also underlined how complex the spectrum is, with individuals having such different capabilities, thoughts, and expressions. Ivy and Ethan were both intelligent and loving.

“You know, if we were pushing our siblings in wheelchairs, people would be nice to them and to us. They’d be like, Oh, the poor handicapped people and their wonderful siblings! Let’s hold doors for them! But Ivy and Ethan…they basically look like everyone else, with just these tiny differences in how they behave and move. And that bugs people. They don’t know what to do with that. It’s like people have a place in their brain for normal, and they have a place in their brain for something obviously wrong, but they can’t deal with something just a little bit different. And it makes them uncomfortable. And when people are uncomfortable, they act like jerks.”

And see that quote? The book is just stuffed with incredible thought provoking and accurate realisations like this. I’m so glad it exists! I definitely recommend this one! The characters are absolutely cute and complex and relatable and the dialogue was one of my most favourite things. There’s banter and wit, and also ice cream outings and a lot of coffee. It underlined the message that Autism isn’t brokenness or bad and showed that everyone is capable of and needs love.

Doodles and Drafts – Jess Black Paws for Thought

Jess Black, author of the new Little Paws series joins us at the draft table today to share her inspiration behind these heartwarming story lines. Puppies, chewed shoes and big responsibilities are all part of training a guide dog puppy. The Little Paws series has them all plus buckets of cute puppy appeal to boot. Here’s what Jess has to say:

Writing the Little Paws series was a very positive experience for me. The story lines are fun, there’s plenty of puppy mischief, it’s a family friendly story line but most importantly the kids in the stories are in charge and at the forefront of the story.

Of course, what’s at the heart of the stories is bringing a gorgeous little puppy into your home and committing to raising it on behalf of guide Dogs. This meant that the series involved my spending lots of time with puppies in training with Guide Dogs Australia, understanding what it takes to be a Guide Dog and the impact that having a dog has on the life of a client. This added depth and meaning to writing the stories.

Continue reading Doodles and Drafts – Jess Black Paws for Thought

Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

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The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz was a beautiful story of family and friendship and tacos. Plus just look at that cover! It is beyond gorgeous and just promises such good things of this book. Listen to the cover. Heed it. I also utterly adored Sáenz’s other book, Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe, so I’m really glad his latest novel lived up to my expectations!

The story is about Sal and his last year of highschool. It’s a quiet story and it focuses on relationships and characters that end up seeming so real, you wouldn’t be surprised if you met them on the street. It’s about loss and love and also about prejudice and discovering who you are and what you’re meant to do. Sal’s white and has been adopted by his loving Mexican gay father, and he’s never wanted for any other family. But he does have questions. And he realises how intensely loved he is as his best friend Sam loses her mother and he has to support her through a rough time. It’s a precious story and full of humour and relatable thoughts that all teens have. Also the amount of tacos is glorious and you will be hungry after reading it. Be ye warned.

“But, see, it’s not where I come from that matters — it’s where I’m going.”

I was actually really impressed that it had no romance! Sal is best friends with Sam, but they stay that way: best friends. It was sweet and precious and a much needed reminder that girls and guys can be just friends. It’s equally important to remember that not everyone meets the love of their life in highschool!

I really loved Sal and Sam’s friendship. They make fun of each other and joke around and protect each other fiercely. Sam is pretty judgemental at the start and often says things that hurt Sal without realising it. Her character development is A+ as she matures.

I appreciated the glorious representation of so much diversity too. It’s set in Mexico and almost the entire cast are people of colour, with many featuring LGBT characters too.

Sal’s father is also one of the most perfect parents a YA book has ever seen! He really loves and cares for his son and is a huge influence in his life. He basically ends up adopting Sam too, and if he finds a kid who is down and out…he plays Rescue Father. He teaches the kids what it is to be a good person, and I loved this aspect of the story so much.

Dad always said that there was nothing wrong with crying and that if people did more of it, well then, the world would be a better place.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life was a fantastically amazing story and I couldn’t love it more! It features positive parent role models, emphasizes the importance of friendship and acceptance, and talks about breaking stereotypes and being unapologetically yourself. It tackles serious topics like racism, death, fear, and feeling lost. And I think it’s intensely relatable, especially the part where Sal got sick and missed out on Thanksgiving dinner and was very disappointed. #relatable The friendship levels were pure golden and the writing was everything. A book I definitely recommend!

Birds, Animals and Seasons in the CBCA Early Childhood Short List

The 2017 CBCA Early Childhood Short List features animals (as always), with two picture books specifically about birds. Two books are about farms and one is set on a Northern Territory camp. Family remains an evergreen theme and humour is the core of some of the books.

Go Home, Cheeky Animals! written by Johanna Bell, illustrated by Dion Beasley (A&U)

This funny story is the stand-alone sequel to Too Many Cheeky Dogs. The book is sponsored by the NT Government and has an engaging narrative with a cyclic structure based on the seasons and changing weather. Animals are the highlight, though. At first, too many cheeky dogs keep the other animals away. Then the rains bring a gang of goats, the sweaty season brings a ‘drove of donkeys’, cool winds bring a herd of horses and drought brings a bunch of buffaloes and caravan of camels. But when it storms, ‘all the cheeky animals go crazy’. And the cheeky dogs do nothing to stop them, for a while …

Illustrator, Dion Beasley is a 24-year-old Indigenous man with muscular dystrophy. He is also deaf so he and author, Johanna Bell, collaborate using Skype and sign language. He has a naïve drawing style with plenty of humour, such as how he shows when something happens to Grandpa’s pants, and when goats drive. The endpapers give an overview of all the animals. Children could practise counting animals throughout the book and the Too Many Cheeky Dogs website includes a child-friendly activity of making wrapping paper with cheeky dogs.

Family is important to this story and includes Dad, Mum, Grandpa, Uncle, Aunty, brother, sister, but no Grandma. Nannie Loves fills this gap.

 

Nannie Loves by Kylie Dunstan (Working Title Press)

Nannie lives on a cosy and inviting farm, with ‘rolling hills, a muddy creek and lots of paddocks, green in winter, brown in summer’. It is a quintessential Australian setting and makes us want to walk into the story. The scenes are contained to provide an appropriate focused framework for young readers; there is repetition of the words, ‘Nannie loves …’ to help beginning readers; and there are some wordless pages.

Nannie collects her mail wearing her gumboots. She loves her letters, her animals, her garden and her family. She laughs with her family who help her work around the farm. She loves them and she loves the young narrator. This book has a gentle humour, such as when Nannie watches for Grandpa in one of his many checked shirts.

Kylie Dunstan has used paper collage, gouache and pencil.

The greens of Nannie’s farm change to browns of a drought-stricken farm in All I Want for Christmas is Rain.

All I Want for Christmas is Rain written by Cori Brooke, illustrated by Megan Forward (New Frontier Publishing)

This story begins clearly with an illustrated bird’s eye overview of a dry farm. In the rhyming text, the protagonist, Jane, asks Santa for help with her family’s threatened property, ‘My mission was clear – I had hatched a great plan: I would ask for help from the great bearded man.’

Santa seems to fulfil her wish and there is a particularly evocative picture of the family dancing in the rain and mud on Christmas Day.

Children could extend their experience of this story by reading some other Australian Christmas stories such as Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King’s Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle and Colin Buchanan‘s books, or by painting an Australian farm scene using mud.

In contrast, The Snow Wombat is set in a very different part of Australian.

The Snow Wombat written by Susannah Chambers, illustrated by Mark Jackson (A & U)

Showing a wombat’s life in the snow is an original idea for a picture book. Like some of the other useful endpapers in books described here, these endpapers are a highlight and show a map of the wombat’s movements and haunts.

Every sentence begins with the word ‘snow’, and many begin with the phrase ‘snow on …’, which is helpful for beginning readers. The repetitive, simple text becomes even more predictive, encouraging young children to say or ‘read’ the rhyming word.

After reading the book, children could make wombat footprints in ‘snow’ using baking powder and conditioner or shaving cream. Tracks of some of the other animals in the book could also be made by indenting the ‘snow’ with fingers or sticks.

In a different illustrative style, cartoon seagull, Chip, follows with a funny story.

Chip by Kylie Howarth (Five Mile Press)

Chip loves eating chips – fat, skinny, soggy, sandy, crunchy, spicy chilli-dipped chips – even though he doesn’t feel well afterwards. This is a tale about healthy eating in the guise of a hilarious story about Chip and the length he goes to eat when people are banned from feeding the gulls.

The illustrations include newspaper collage (apt because it’s used for wrapping fish and chips; a newspaper article also features). My favourite illustration shows Chip with a noodle box on his head and noodles streaming out like hair.

Another bird protagonist in the Short List is Gary.

Gary by Leila Rudge (Walker Books Australia)

 

Gary is a racing pigeon who can’t fly but dreams of adventure. He works on his scrapbook of travel mementos on race days when he’s left alone in the loft, even though he’s never travelled. When he lost his balance one night, he fell into the travel basket and was carried far from home to the city. Of course the racing pigeons flew home, but Gary was left by himself. Fortunately he had his scrapbook of travel mementos and was able to plot his way back to the loft.

This is a very appealing story of overcoming obstacles or disability and of flourishing in different surroundings. New situations can be frightening for children and Gary demonstrates courage and ingenuity, which could help young readers.

The illustrations are created using mixed media and, again, in this book we find interesting endpapers.

After reading the story, children could use found objects and mixed media to create their own scrapbook about travel.

Alex Ratt & Stinky Street Stories

Hi Alex Ratt, could you tell us about yourself and your alter-ego? 

That’s a very existential question! I have to decide which is me and which is the alter ego…Well, I was Frances Watts first, so let’s start with her—I mean me.

I have written twenty-two books, ranging from picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson) to historical novels for young adults (most recently The Peony Lantern, set in nineteenth-century Japan). And then there’s my less fragrant alter ego, Alex Ratt. I thought being someone completely different would allow me the freedom to write something completely different—hence Alex Ratt. (Also, Alex Ratt has a big bushy false moustache and Frances doesn’t. And who wouldn’t jump at an excuse to wear a false moustache?!)

Who is Jules Faber? 

Jules Faber, I’m delighted to say, has a much more straightforward identity: he is Jules Faber! He is also an extremely talented cartoonist and illustrator, well known for his work on Ahn Do’s Weirdo series and David Warner’s The Kaboom Kid series.

How important are the illustrations in this book?

The illustrations are integral. The Stinky Street Stories (Pan Macmillan Australia) should feel welcoming and accessible to all kinds of readers, whether they are confident readers or not, and the illustrations do so much to convey the humour that is inherent in the text. One thing I particularly loved about working with Jules on this book is his spirit of adventure. Whatever wacky image I can dream up, he is prepared to draw. A sculpture of a rocket ship made entirely of carrots? No problem!

What type of comedy do you write?

Despite the word ‘stinky’ in the title, I don’t actually see the humour in The Stinky Street Stories as focusing on the gross. To me, the real humour is in the absurdity of situations and images. And the challenge is to take the absurdity and, within the bounds of the story, make it logical.

How do you get your readers to laugh out loud (as I did about some carrots and a pumpkin head)?

I’m glad you liked those bits—that’s exactly what I mean about the humour being absurd rather than gross. That’s where I find those laugh-out-loud moments: in unexpected juxtapositions, in ideas pushed to ridiculous extremes, in characters who treat these hilarious scenarios seriously.

Brian is a very funny character. Could you tell us about him, his sister Brenda, and any other characters?

Brian (‘call me Brain—everyone does’) has a somewhat overinflated sense of his own intellectual prowess, which is why he is able to meet absurdity with seriousness. His friend Nerf is the perfect sidekick, being just ever so slightly dafter—but loyal and good-hearted. The real brain of the family is Brian’s sister Brenda. And in his heart, Brian knows it to be so, and calls on her in moments of crisis.

What is your favourite scene in The Stinky Street Stories? 

You picked it yourself: the pumpkin heads. Because within that particular story, ‘The Ripe and Rotten Reek’, it not only makes perfect sense for Brian and Nerf to be running across a field with pumpkins on their heads, it is a positively brilliant plan!

Who do you hope reads this book?

Everyone! By which I mean boys and girls. I had a lot of fun turning gender stereotypes on their heads. The (anti)heroes might be boys, but the girls have a strong, smart, sassy presence. And, as I said above, I hope the book is enjoyed by confident readers and reluctant readers—we (by which I mean the whole village that makes a book: the author and illustrator and publisher and editor and designer) were determined to make it a book that had something to offer every kind of kid and every kind of reader.

What’s next in Stinky Street?

The second in the series, 2 Stinky, will be published in August. There are smelly sewers, pongy penguins…and a house of (stinky) horrors!

What other humour have you written? 

All my books have humour in them—it’s just the way I’m wired—but the first overtly humorous books were those of the Ernie & Maud series, featuring trainee superhero Ernie Eggers and his trainee sidekick: a sheep called Maud. More recently I have contributed stories to two humorous anthologies, Laugh Your Head Off and Laugh Your Head Off Again.

How many aliases do you have?

Oh dear…You’re on to me, aren’t you?! The truth is, Alex Ratt is not my only pen name. Frances Watts is a pen name too. (Yes, my pen name has a pen name.) My real name is Ali Lavau, and I am a very serious book editor who hardly ever wears a false moustache to work.

Thanks very much, Alex, Frances, Ali …

Thank YOU! (I loved these questions.)

And – here is a video about the book! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wORzbpzfTzs&feature=youtu.be

5 Amazing YA Russian Fantasy Books

Reading is obviously the best thing ever for a myriad of reasons, but one thing I particularly love about it is: the ability to travel without leaving your comfy reading nook. So what could be better than nestling down with some books inspired by other countries, mythologies and cultures? I particularly adore epic fantasy with Russian influences! Russia is such an amazing country, with a complex and interesting history. Just add in a bit of magic. A dollop of teenage heroes saving the day. A smidge of adventure. And you’re sure to have a novel that will win admiration!

Today I’m listing 5 amazing Young Adult fantasy books with Russian influences!


 

SHADOW AND BONE

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This is one of my most favourite epic fantasy series ever! And for a bonus? It’s set in the country of Ravka which has decidedly glorious Russian influences. It’s all about the Grisha, who are magicians employed by the throne, and they’re separated into warriors or scientists or artists or healers. The story follows Alina who’s just discovered she is a Grisha and is being trained for battle.

It has action and adventure and several darkly villainous characters you might accidentally fall in love with while they do evil to do “good” in their opinions.

 

EGG AND SPOON

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This is by the famous author of the novel Wicked! It gloriously mixes many Russian folklores into this complex tale centring about Baba Yaga, the infamous witch. It stars a very poor girl, Elena, who’s starving, and accidentally gets caught up with a noble family on a train and swaps places with their rich daughter. In an effort to see the Tsar and help her brother who’s been stolen off to war, Elena tries to play the part of rich noble…and fails spectacularly. While Eketerina is off having perilous adventures enlisting the devious with Baba Yaga to help her get home.

Baba Yaga’s sass is basically the greatest thing you’ll ever read. It’s quite a long and slow novel, but so worth it for the magical and creative tale!

 

VASSA IN THE NIGHT

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This one is a little different to the others, because while it is still fantasy, it’s modern fantasy! It’s set in present-day-Brooklyn in the USA where the city suddenly is losing daylight. The nights are getting longer and it’s a bit of a problem. It also features a convenience store with the fearsome Babs Yagg who owns it and also cuts off shoplifter’s heads and displays them in the windows. A girl named Vassa and her magical doll end up tricked into Babs Yagg’s servitude. But leaving alive will be an interesting challenge.

This book is absolutely bizarre! In the best possible way! It captures the heart of so many vibrant folk tales, gives them a modern twist, and adds in magical realism elements that will thrill and disturb.

 

THE WOLF WILDER

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This is a gorgeously written tale about a girl who raises wolves in the woods with her mother. It’s popular for the rich to keep wolves as pets, but when they tire of them, the wolves get “released” into the wild…only to die because they can’t take care of themselves. Feo trains them to be wild again. Only when the army comes to call and disturbs her life, she ends up begin swept up in the revolution instead. This book is really beautiful and features lovely illustrations!

 

THE CROWN’S GAME

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BUY HERE

This is a historical based Russian fantasy, set in the time of the Tsars. But just add in a little magic, okay? It features two enchanters, Nikolai and Vika, who must compete in a challenge to become the Tsar’s own enchanter. And there can only be one. With the stakes so high it’s impossible to put the book down! The magic is beautiful and imaginative and features the two enchanters creating amazing and incredible things as they try to display who’s more powerful while avoiding falling in love. It also features a rambunctious prince and the casual destruction of everything you love.

And even better: The sequel and stunning conclusion, The Crown’s Fate, is coming out in May! So this is a perfect time to start this series.

Dealing with Dilemmas – School Holiday Reads Sorted

The first round of school holidays is upon us. Kid induced dilemmas are rife. How do you deal with them? Whip out one of these chuckle-creating reads and indulge in ten minutes or more of togetherness time, is how. These picture books are guaranteed to make molehills out of mountains.

Busting! By Aaron Blabey

Lou’s dilemma matches my own on an almost hourly basis. But what is Lou to do when the queue to the loo is so long. Anyone with a weak bladder like me or toddlers with the inexplicable ability to ignore the call of nature until the last absolute possible minute will adore this ode to toilet queues. Busting! is all those desperate dashes through the supermarket, late night dreams of locked toilet stalls and screaming brakes on the motorway for verge-side emergencies rolled into rollicking rhyme and goofy pictures. Just brilliant. Potty humour has never read so well.

Suitable for potty training youngsters from three years and up.

Scholastic Press March 2017

I Don’t Want Curly Hair by Laura Ellen Anderson Continue reading Dealing with Dilemmas – School Holiday Reads Sorted

Review: Vicious Circle by C.J. Box

It all begins when when Dave Farkus — longtime troublemaker and unlikely partner in many of Joe Pickett’s inadvertent escapades — phones Joe from Stockman’s Bar to say he’s overheard a conversation about Joe and his family. He’s cut off before he can provide any concrete information, but the implication is clear: the Pickett clan’s a target. And when Farkus turns up dead — brutally executed by unknown assailants — Joe know something is amiss. He quickly ties it together — presumably at least — when he discovers Dallas Cates, the disgraced rodeo star who ran off with Joe’s daughter April, dumped her out of his truck, and ended up in the prison, has just been released, and is out for vengeance after the deaths of his father and two brothers. But is everything really as open-and-shut as that scenario suggests?

Vicious Circle will resonate most for those who are keenly aware of the two families’ fraught history; readers who’ve been waiting for the final showdown for a couple of books now, knowing it would be vicious and bloody. There isn’t much new here — this is the C.J. Box formula perfected — but the Joe Pickett series is one that hasn’t surpassed its use-by date, and still provides plenty of action and excitement.

Review: Lucky Few by Kathryn Ormsbee

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Lucky Few by Kathryn Ormsbee was such an adorable and pleasant surprise! I picked it up when I heard it was about homeschoolers, and since I spent most of my school life doing just that…I was super keen to see how homeschooling would be portrayed in this book. It can be a controversial topic, with people only seeing the negatives. But what school system isn’t flawed?? If homeschooling works for you = it’s excellent! I absolutely appreciated how beautiful this book was in its representation of homeschooling. It was funny and nerdy and completely dorky at times and managed to be heart-wrenchingly poignant on top of that. Because, you know…all the good books like to hurt you.

The story centres around the perspective of Stevie who discovers a “dead” boy in her neighbours yard. Except he’s not dead, just faking it. They slowly become friends and Stevie joins in Max’s quest to fake his death 23 times. For him, it’s closure after he had a near fatal accident. Although there might be more to his story than he’s letting on. Together with Stevie’s BFF, Sanger, the three get into hair-raising schemes that often end in near true tragedy.

I really loved the representation of diversity in this book! Not only does Stevie homeschool, but she also has Type 1 Diabetes which affects her life all the time, including a near death experience in her childhood that haunts her. Sanger also has two mothers and there’s diversity of skin colour as well. I also love how the minority aspects fit into the story and weren’t just fluttering around in the background. They affected their lives and were beautifully represented.

The characters were absolutely my favourite part! They seemed utterly real. And maybe it was a homeschooler aspect helping me to relate, but I also just adored the intelligent, nerdy, sassy, and deep thinking that went down in this novel. I think any teen could relate to these three fantastic friends! Their banter is absolutely on point and I found myself cracking up multiple times. Plus any book that features a strong female friendship gets the thumbs up from me. Stevie and Sanger do not let silly things come between their deep bond. “Sisters before misters” as they say.

The romance between Stevie and Max was absolutely adorable. I also appreciated the fact that the romance was only a small aspect of the story. It was firstly about (a) friendship, (b) Stevie sticking up for her activist believes; (c) talking very brutally honestly and openly about death, fears, and phobias; and (d) discussions on judging others and how that affects everyone. But still absolutely shipped Max and Stevie though! They were so cute and awkward and their romance was slow-burn and winning.

The writing was also totally addictive! I didn’t want to stop reading! Although it did move along a little slower than the average book I gnaw through, but perhaps this is because I was savouring every line and often had to stop and laugh my head off. As you do for excellent tomes.

Lucky Few is definitely a must read! It will appeal to homeschoolers and non-homeschoolers alike, with the dorky and relatable characters and the humour and the slightly dark death-pranks that forge strong bonds between the three and also cause them all to nearly really die on occasion. It was morbid and sassy and clever. It also shows that homeschoolers are “normal” people, who also fail tests and watch show reruns and eat tacos and fake their deaths. Absolutely normal.