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

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr
Published January 3, 2017 by Penguin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars

From the blurb: Flora has amnesia. She can't remember anything day-to-day: the joke her friend made, the instructions her parents gave her, how old she is.
Then she kisses someone she shouldn't - and the next day she remembers it. It's the first time she's remembered anything since she was ten.
But the boy is gone.

The One Memory of Flora Banks is not going to be an easy book to talk about and I think it's best not to read too much about it, in case the plot gets spoilt for you.

Seventeen year old Flora lives with her parents in Cornwall. She has had no short-term memory since the age of ten so she relies on notes written on her hands and arms, as well as a notebook with information in it, written by her mother. When she rereads this, she discovers the cause of her memory loss was the removal of a tumour. She takes medication and will always live with her parents, in their house, in the same town. Sometimes she remembers an older brother, Jacob, but he no longer lives with them. She has one close friend, Paige, they've known each other since they were little.

I spent most of this book feeling confused but intrigued. I felt as though there was something off about Flora's life, especially when it came to her parents. Her situation would be difficult to deal with, she is often confused, disorientated, and scared. Sometimes she's even mad at herself for not being what she considers normal. She often regresses and thinks she's a ten year old girl. Not only was this sad for her, but I also felt for her parents (to a degree) and for Paige, who has stuck by her for years.

I suppose the confusion I felt as a reader, which increased as the story went on, could have been intended to mimic Flora's own confusion as she spends a week alone at home while her parents go to France to see her brother. Flora is a very unreliable narrator, but I was prepared to go along on her journey to see where she'd end up.

Unfortunately the ending was a little underwhelming and I felt as though the story collapsed in on itself. Prior to that the tension and intrigue had been building, but the big reveal fell flat. I also had a lot of questions about just how much Flora would have been able to do, as a girl whose knowledge and memories stopped at age ten.

The One Memory of Flora Banks is a captivating and intriguing story of a girl desperate to prove she can live a life fuller than the one her parents intend for her. Despite the underwhelming twist, the story ends on a hopeful note.

Thank you to Penguin for my copy.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A List of Cages by Robin Roe

A List of Cages by Robin Roe
Published January 10, 2017 by Disney-Hyperion
Source: the publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 5 stars

From the blurb: When Adam Blake lands the best elective ever in his senior year, serving as an aide to the school psychologist, he thinks he's got it made. Sure, it means a lot of sitting around, which isn't easy for a guy with ADHD, but he can't complain, since he gets to spend the period texting all his friends. Then the doctor asks him to track down the troubled freshman who keeps dodging her, and Adam discovers that the boy is Julian--the foster brother he hasn't seen in five years.
Adam is ecstatic to be reunited. At first, Julian seems like the boy he once knew. He's still kind hearted. He still writes stories and loves picture books meant for little kids. But as they spend more time together, Adam realizes that Julian is keeping secrets, like where he hides during the middle of the day, and what's really going on inside his house. Adam is determined to help him, but his involvement could cost both boys their lives.

A List of Cages is Robin Roe's debut novel. Fourteen year old Julian has lived with his uncle for the past four years. Prior to that he was in foster care after the death of his parents. Julian misses his parents everyday. They were wonderful parents and he doesn't understand why they would leave him. Adam, a senior, has ADD. He lives with his mum, a former social worker. He's a pretty happy guy, he has a bunch of close friends, and he manages his ADD using homeopathy and nutrition, something he started after he reacted badly to medications a few years back and his mum decided to try a different approach.

I didn't know much about the plot of this book when I requested it, it was mostly a cover-choice, but I'm so glad I read it. I was about to say that I enjoyed it, but I don't know if I can use the word enjoy with a book like this. I haven't had such a visceral reaction to a book in a long, long time. I felt a range of things: sickened, sadness, disgust, anger. And I really felt them, so much so that I had to keep stopping to take a breath and calm down. I know this sort of reaction might put people off, but I hope you won't let it stop you from reading this amazing book.

Julian's life felt so real and scary. From the first time his home is described I could feel the creepy and anxiety-inducing environment that he lives in. Julian's uncle is abusive, seeming to stem from his own trauma as a teenager. Julian has been enduring this for so long that he doesn't want anything to change, he doesn't want to be punished for getting his uncle in trouble. It was absolutely heartbreaking.

Adam comes back into Julian's life just at the right time. Julian's school attendance is slipping and he often hides in a secret room at school, but once Adam starts hanging out with him, he's able to make some progress.

My only issue, and it's a minor one, was the ending. There's a dramatic final scene and while something major happens, the consequences for one of the secondary characters was never explained. Also, despite feeling so much throughout this story, I didn't feel quite as connected to Julian or Adam as I would have expected.

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

A List of Cages is an impressive, compelling debut novel, and a powerful, important story. It's perfectly paced, hauntingly atmospheric, and so real it's heartbreaking.

Thank you to Disney Hyperion for my Netgalley copy.

Cover design: Liz Casal and Marci Senders.

I love this cover, it stands out with the bold choice of navy blue and yellow on white, and it was definitely a major factor in my decision to request this book. 

I started with a base of white nail polish and used navy blue and yellow for the illustration.