The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein – Review

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Goodreads Link

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury for the ARC!

The Pearl Thief was a book I especially enjoyed for the characters (Julie and the supporting characters were all fantastic), the overall plot, and the historical period with the Scottish setting. Whilst the mystery could have improved in some aspects, it’s nevertheless a book I’d recommend.

Having read Code Name Verity made some aspects of Julie’s life, personality and character development more interesting, but otherwise, it won’t detract from anything if you read this without being familiar with it.

Summary:

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

My thoughts:

Julie and her character development

  • First off, the text makes it pretty clear that Julie’s queer (bisexual from what I gather). Was great to see this represented!
  • I loved how her voice throughout the book was distinctive and immersive. She’s clearly different from and much younger and less experienced than in Code Name Verity, but her voice, wit and humour were so distinctly reflective of her delightful personality
  • Julie’s character arc throughout the story involved the experience of her expanding her worldview, gaining an understanding of the prejudice faced by her friends (the McEwens, who are Scottish Travellers — more on them below), and how she reflects on her economically & socially privileged position in comparison to them when they are unfairly blamed. Whilst I usually shy away from such narratives, here it was done in a nuanced and respectful way which made me appreciate how it turned Julie into who she becomes later on. So overall, it was a compelling part of her character development.

The supporting characters

  • Not only Julie, but the other supporting characters were fantastic and distinctive
  • Ellen and Euan McEwen were definitely the most fascinating and holistic characters out of the supporting cast. I loved how intelligent and independent they were, and the way their relationships with Julie developed as they worked together was fun to read about. This was especially true for Ellen, whose attitude towards Julie shifts throughout the book. The scene where the two of them to see a show together was a lot of fun.
  • Julie’s brother Jamie was such a delight, and I loved the supportive relationship between the two of them.
  • Mary Kinnaird was also admirable (in spite of her flawed actions near the beginning of the book, which are addressed) and the ‘villain’ characters were realistically frightening.

The mystery

  • There was a good set-up for the mystery in this story — a flashback at the beginning of the book was intriguing and tied in well with the substantive part of the plot
  • The rest of the first part of the mystery, however, could have been better. After the main incident which starts it off and leaves Julie in hospital, part of the mystery involves an amnesia storyline, which I wasn’t a fan of (clichéd and often leads to convenient revelations)
  • The rest of the book did make up for this with additional clues and revelations. The ending, whilst not entirely unpredictable, did involve a few twists that surprised me. It also wrapped everything up well, which I really appreciated.
  • Additionally, something The Pearl Thief did really well was how the transitions between the mystery plot and the character-focused aspects of the book were seamlessly woven together.

The setting and time period

  • I’m not familiar with the Scottish setting of this book, so this was really interesting to read about. Distinctive aspects of their surroundings (the rivers, fields, castle and villages) and experiences were written beautifully and made the story unique
  • The dialogue and writing seemed to reflect the time period better than Code Name Verity did; as someone who loves historical fiction, I really liked this.

Overall, The Pearl Thief was a fun dip back into Julie’s character, within an interesting plot and setting. It’s fairly different in tone from Code Name Verity, but in a way that fit the character and storyline, and I recommend it for other historical fiction/mystery readers.

Related recommendations: the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens, set in 1930s England, is a great middle grade mystery series (with a Hong Kong Chinese narrator/one of the protags). The A Tyranny of Petticoats anthology is another great one about young women in historical times. I’ve had Y.S. Lee’s A Spy in the House and the rest of the Agency mystery series on my radar for a while (also an Asian protag and author, yaaaay).

Have you read The Pearl Thief or any of Elizabeth Wein’s other books before? What did you think of them? Are there other historical mysteries or historical books focused on young women which you’ve read or would like to read?

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#LoveOzYA Recent Highlights

*Note for Read Diverse 2017 – Does My Head Look Big in This and Night Swimming are by authors of colour.

There are a couple of Australian YA books I’ve read since the beginning of the year which I really enjoyed, but haven’t yet gushed about and recommended properly. So, today’s post is a round-up of these!

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Frankie by Shivaun Plozza

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

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Frankie Vega is angry. Just ask the guy whose nose she broke. Or the cop investigating the burglary she witnessed, or her cheating ex-boyfriend or her aunt who’s tired of giving second chances…

When a kid shows up claiming to be Frankie’s half brother, it opens the door to a past she doesn’t want to remember. And when that kid goes missing, the only person willing to help is a boy with stupidly blue eyes … and secrets of his own. Frankie’s search for the truth might change her life, or cost her everything.

My highlights from Frankie:

  • Frankie had such an incredible, compelling voice. In the best way, she reminded me of the protag Gilly from The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson – fierce and apparently indifferent to those around her but with depths and vulnerabilities that really twist your heart when they come to the surface.
  • The setting was so detailed and really came alive throughout the story, which I loved! (Especially since it’s in Melbourne, Australia)
  • The mystery about Xavier, and the uncertainties about Frankie’s future, really kept me reading as the story progressed, and the supporting characters (especially Frankie’s aunt) were all fantastic
  • The emotions at the end of the story were so powerfully written, and overall I feel there was a good balance between tying up the storyline and leaving things open-ended

Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

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Sixteen-year-old Amal makes the decision to start wearing the hijab full-time and everyone has a reaction. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, people on the street. But she stands by her decision to embrace her faith and all that it is, even if it does make her a little different from everyone else.

Can she handle the taunts of “towel head,” the prejudice of her classmates, and still attract the cutest boy in school? Brilliantly funny and poignant, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel will strike a chord in all teenage readers, no matter what their beliefs.

I’m still having trouble summarising what an incredible book this was – and this is something that’s really rare for me! Here are some of my highlights from the book:

  • Amal is seriously one of the most hilarious teen characters I have ever come across – her voice was incredibly real and had me laughing out loud (which, again, is REALLY RARE for me when reading!). It was also inspiring to see her strength in spite of all the prejudice she faced. Also, the audiobook narrator is fantastic – if you like audiobooks and can access it, I definitely recommend it.
  • It’s so refreshing to see how honestly it recognised and made counter-arguments against casual racism/prejudice. Naturally this focused on Islamophobia, but was not limited to it.
  • Leading on from the above two points, there are several more poignantly relevant societal issues that the book addresses, but it shows it through Amal’s family relationships, her strengths, and her hilarious voice – so it always felt naturally included. Internalised racism, assimilation, family expectations, close-mindedness in relation to tradition and the misuse of Islam, modesty, and empathy – all of these were raised and woven brilliantly into the narrative.
  • Amal’s friendships were lovely! Female friendships really come to the forefront in this book and each character is fleshed out. Leila’s storyline was heartbreaking but tackled so well and beautifully moving; I also loved the relationship between Amal and her next-door neighbour. The cultural diversity amongst the range of characters was almost bizarre to read, in the best way possible – I’ve never ever read a book which just feels like Australia the same way as this one does – it’s never tokenistic, but informed the identities of the characters in a beautiful way.
  • The not-really-romance and issues within her relationship with Adam were addressed well. I’d never found him that compelling as a character but was cheering at how well Amal stuck to who she was, and to her beliefs.
  • Seriously just. read. this.

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

9781925498165Steph Bowe is back. Night Swimming is a love story with a twist, and a whole lot of heart.

Imagine being the only two seventeen-year-olds in a small town. That’s life for Kirby Arrow—named after the most dissenting judge in Australia’s history—and her best friend Clancy Lee, would-be musical star.

Clancy wants nothing more than to leave town and head for the big smoke, but Kirby is worried: her family has a history of leaving. She hasn’t heard from her father since he left when she was a baby. Shouldn’t she stay to help her mother with the goat’s-milk soap-making business, look after her grandfather who suffers from dementia, be an apprentice carpenter to old Mr Pool? And how could she leave her pet goat, Stanley, her dog Maude, and her cat Marianne?

But two things happen that change everything for Kirby. She finds an article in the newspaper about her father, and Iris arrives in town. Iris is beautiful, wears crazy clothes, plays the mandolin, and seems perfect, really, thinks Kirby. Clancy has his heart set on winning over Iris. Trouble is Kirby is also falling in love with Iris…

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe releases on April 3rd! Here are some of my highlights from the book:

  • The story centres on a same-sex romance, which was so great to read. The depiction of how Kirby felt towards and admired Iris from the start was so well-written and Iris was such a sweet and lovable character. The scenes they had together as they slowly got to know each other more were enjoyable and moving.
  • There are also multicultural supporting characters (Iris is biracial, Kirby’s best friend Clancy is Chinese-Australian, another character, Nick, is Greek) and excellent mental illness rep.
  • I loved Kirby and Clancy’s friendship, which was both positive and complex. The scene at the end when they finally confront each other and properly open up about their fears and worries was so satisfying to read.
  • The family relationships in this book were really touching. The issues with Kirby’s father were addressed so thoughtfully and holistically, in a way that felt incredibly real. The characterisation of her grandfather Cyril, and the effect of his dementia on her and her mother, was also really strong – and it’s not something we see often in YA contemporary.
  • Finally, the humour and characteristic quirky fun in Steph Bowe’s books were also fantastic here.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

Publisher’s Website

Summary:

29340956Kate and Harriet are best friends, growing up together on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. As daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community. When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. But one moment in McPhail’s hut will change the course of their lives forever.

Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a stunning debut novel about friendship, love and loss, one that questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.

Skylarking was the first historical fiction book I’d read in a while, despite it being my favourite genre; and it was a great one to get me back into it. It’s more of a crossover book in terms of age group – I haven’t seen it marketed as YA, but it centres on young characters and their experience of growing up.

My highlights from the book:

  • The writing was so incredible – I always admire writers who can describe what seems ordinary in an immersive, intriguing way
  • Kate was a fantastic character – I love how spirited she was, and this was especially clear in her longing for adventure. Additionally, I loved the coming-of-age themes that the story emphasised.
  • The SETTING. The isolated Australian cape of a lighthouse. So breathtaking to read about, and all throughout the book I could see, hear, and feel everything so clearly.
  • The historical period was also used very well – the narrative was accessible but prompted me to reflect on issues specific to the period, and those which remain relevant to us now.
  • At first I was hesitant about the climax (which is based off a real incident), and unsure about how well it worked with the build-up to it. But in the scenes that followed, I loved how strongly the emotions came across, and it prompted me to reflect on the story in a different way. Ultimately, it was very moving and thought-provoking

Have you read, or do you plan on reading, any of these books? What are your thoughts?

And a quick note to everyone: I’ve got a lot of assessments + general busy-ness coming up, so I won’t be on Twitter or blog-hopping much for the next 2-3 weeks. I’ll be sure to respond to any comments here though, and will definitely be back after that.

Diversity Spotlight Thursday #4

Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a meme started by Aimal at Bookshelves and Paperbacks; you can read the announcement post here. Each spotlight involves sharing:

  1. A diverse book I have read and enjoyed
  2. A diverse book that has already been released but I have not read
  3. A diverse book that has not yet been released

Read and enjoyed: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Goodreads Link

Summary:

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.

Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I reread this recently and it was an absolute delight. Woodson’s writing was beautiful, immersing me completely as it evoked her family life and world as a child. Telling the memoir in verse was especially effective in evoking emotions, and the sense of times gone past.

As a writer, I enjoyed the details of her coming to realise her intuitive passion for words and storytelling and began to write. I especially loved this moment, when she discovered a picture book with an African-American child and realised “that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of the book/that someone who looked like me/had a story” – it was incredibly moving.

TBR: Ida by Alison Evans

Goodreads Link

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Summary:

How do people decide on a path, and find the drive to pursue what they want?

Ida struggles more than other young people to work this out. She can shift between parallel universes, allowing her to follow alternative paths.

One day Ida sees a shadowy, see-through doppelganger of herself on the train. She starts to wonder if she’s actually in control of her ability, and whether there are effects far beyond what she’s considered.

How can she know, anyway, whether one universe is ultimately better than another? And what if the continual shifting causes her to lose what is most important to her, just as she’s discovering what that is, and she can never find her way back?

Ida is an intelligent, diverse and entertaining novel that explores love, loss and longing, and speaks to the condition of an array of overwhelming, and often illusory, choices.

I’ve been so looking forward to reading Ida, which was released in Australia in January – it’s so rare to see ownvoices stories of genderqueer characters, and I’ve heard a lot about how great the queer rep is + how naturally it’s integrated.

Whilst I’m not generally a sci-fi reader, the premise does sound really interesting – a blend of contemporary and realism with the classic coming-of-age/finding your path YA and New Adult concerns. Should be a thought-provoking read!

Not Yet Released: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Goodreads Link

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When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

You had me at ‘conspiracy of history and magic’. The Cold War’s a fascinating period of history, and I’d love to learn more about it through this story. This is an ownvoices book, featuring a Jewish-American protag.

Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts?

Top 5 Books of 2016

2016′s been pretty good for reading – I’ve read 53 books so far this year (this includes some very short ones and graphic novels) and am aiming to get to 60 in the remaining month.
Writing reviews has increased my enjoyment and fulfilment, by pushing me to articulate my thoughts and examine books more critically. I found two books that gave me the I’ve been waiting for this book my whole life/this was written just for me feels. Below, in the order I read them, are my top 5 books of 2016.

Content warning: brief discussions of genocide, depression, and suicide

1. Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

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Set in San Francisco in 1906, Outrun the Moon tells the story of fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong: determined to escape from the poverty in Chinatown, she uses her cunning to get herself into a prestigious school, where she pretends to be an heiress from China. Mercy faces both amusing and painful challenges in her early days there, but on April 18, a massive earthquake hits, destroying her home and school. Despite the tension and the tragedies that occur as a result of this, Mercy finds strength along with her friends, and remains determined to help those in need around her.

It’s rare that I’d be so hyped up for a book and yet it still surpasses my expectations. I fell in love with Mercy’s incredible narrative voice, the historical setting, and was touched by the thematic focus of the book: on friendship and overcoming differences in times of tragedy.

See my more detailed review here if you’re yet to read the book, and if you have, I also wrote a more reflective piece on it, Hidden Voices of History.

2. Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

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This is actually only nonfiction or Australian book on the list. I really liked Alice Pung’s other books before reading this, Unpolished Gem and Laurinda, but was still in awe of how moving Her Father’s Daughter was. A memoir told in third person from two perspectives, it explores the relationship between the author and her father, who had survived genocide in Cambodia before he was resettled
in Australia. The portrayals of her father’s love and fears are beautifully empathetic, and showed the subtle ways that these nuances have built up over their life. I also enjoyed the beginning with the author’s relatable observations of China, and though the middle section in Pol Pot’s Cambodia was confronting, I’m so glad I read it for its insight and honesty.

3. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

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Based on Ned Vizzini’s own experiences in a psychiatric hospital, It’s Kind of a Funny Story tells the story of fifteen-year-old Craig wrestling with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation. Until, after a particular suicidal episode, he decides to call for help and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital. Through his experiences and the people he meets there, he is finally able to confront the issues weighing upon him and move towards a more hopeful future.

It’s rare for a book to evoke such strong emotions in me, the way this book did – I was choking up in the first 30 pages (which, for an
unemotional brick like me, is the equivalent of crying one’s eyes out over a book). Its greatest strength was in Vizzini’s ability to write with such emotional rawness and honesty, conveying the experience of depression with powerful poignancy. I also appreciated the humour and hope throughout the book. It’s heartbreaking to know that Vizzini himself committed suicide in 2013, especially because, unsurprisingly, it’s a book that has helped and had an impact on many young people, me included. I only wish I could have read it when I was in high school.

4. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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A family and character portrait, this book begins with the discovery that the Lydia, the daughter of interracial couple Marilyn and James Lee, has been found dead in a local lake. The book then weaves past and present, and perspectives from all the family members – Lydia, her parents, and her siblings Hannah and Nath – to explore the delicate balances of this Chinese American family, their backstories, and the ways gaps and silences have built up in their relationships to prevent them from truly understanding one another. Ng’s writing is immersive and moving, making  the most simple moments tense and gripping, and depicting profound emotional detail and nuance.

5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

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It’s unbelievable that I haven’t read the whole of Jane Eyre until now, considering:

  • It was my Year 12 English Extension 1 teacher’s all-time favourite book
  • I loved Charlotte Bronte’s poetry, and I wrote a story about her life, and from her perspective, for our study of Romanticism in that subject
  • Cloudwish by Fiona Wood is one of my favourite books, and it features a protagonist who idolises Jane Eyre

But I finally got to it last month, and finished it this week. The writing is beautiful, drawing me in with both Jane’s voice and evoking the details of her world. Jane is the quiet girls’ hero indeed, and inspiring in the way she stuck to what she felt was right despite her relative lack of power in society. I loved the ending, which was so much more intense than I expected. This is now up there with Frankenstein as one of my favourite classics.

Looking forward, I’m thinking I’ll set a slightly lower aim of reading 50 books in 2017, and focus on depth – reviewing more consistently and critically, and learning from other authors in ways that apply to my own writing. I’m also aiming to be more conscious of the diversity of representation in what I read – I’ve naturally been drawn to and prioritised diverse books and authors up to now, but will take more active notice of it from now on. Feeling excited already!