smythe_Way Down Dark cover imageBefore you open the cover of Way Down Dark, book 1 in a new YA Trilogy by UK author JP Smythe, I advise strapping yourself in tight and preparing for a bumpy, bloody, breathtaking ride.

This dark dystopian story is set aboard a spaceship called Australia. Australia, we are told, is one of many ships that was hastily built, loaded with people and dispatched into space hundreds of years ago. Earth was dying you see, and the ships were sent out in search of a new home for the human race. Only, they’re still searching. Well, Australia is anyway.

Life on Australia is far from idyllic. The book’s dramatic beginning, which is when we meet our central protagonist 17 year-old Chan, ensures there is absolutely no confusion about that. An assortment of gangs and cults reign over the various sections of the ship and the barbaric Lows, who are willing to slaughter anyone in their path, are leading a push towards absolute control.

The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it Chan must head way down into the   darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.

Wow. I was on board Australia with Chan and her story from the very first. The ship, with its hulking size and crude multi-level structure, is so artfully depicted I could see the rough curtain-drawn berths that line every floor and I could smell the hideous stench of the deep dark pit down below.

And Chan’s quest to find meaning within this impossibly bleak existence – to make a difference – pulled me along at breakneck speed all the way to the book’s new dawn conclusion (this is only book 1 of 3 remember).

I have to say Chan is one seriously tough female protagonist. I love the idea that girls who are about her age might read this book and gain something from the character’s fierce independence, her unwavering strength, and her always compassionate heart. And the absence of any real romance thread in the story is a positive. The book is stronger and fresher because of this.

In Way Down Dark, JP Smythe has crafted a Trilogy opening that offers dystopian YA readers something very different to the usual. The book is pretty violent but it also has a strong humanitarian message that gives the story real heart. I found it compelling.

Last year American author Veronica Roth’s hugely successful YA fantasy novel Divergent made a successful leap from the page to cinema screens. Well, Way Down Dark looks to be on its way to becoming a movie too. reports that Studio 8 has just optioned the novel.


johnston_thousand nightsTo save her sister she must face a demon.

For many years a cruel king has demanded that his people provide him with brides. They come from all of the districts in the city and all of the towns. They always die – some on the first night. Now it is her village’s turn to provide a wife. She knows that he will choose the most beautiful girl her village has to offer; her sister.

She will not allow it. Whatever the price of keeping her sister alive, she will pay it.

Before long her sister’s life will not be the only thing she is fighting for. With an inter-species war looming, she will have to fight for her family, her people, and the soul of a king…

When revisiting traditional stories, there’s always the possibility that the outdated morals will taint a modern day adaptation. In few stories is there more danger of this than the Asian/Middle Eastern story of One Thousand and One Nights. The story of Scheherazade regaling her royal husband with half-told tales to stay her execution for another night does her credit but obliterates any understanding a modern reader could have for him.

Because of this, I was reluctant to begin a book based on the One Thousand and One Nights tale, but curiosity overcame me. I cracked the spine and read the first page. Then the second. Before I knew it, I was halfway through the book and it was hours past my bedtime.

Suffice it to say that A Thousand Nights is a fantastic novel. It’s a short book, but makes the most of the words it uses. The writing is vivid, lyrical and precise. This book is a luxury to read, and it’s a surprise to find that each beautifully crafted sentence moves the story forward. No words are superfluous.

Unlike the original story, women are the front and centre of A Thousand Nights. In the traditional tale most of the women were present only to die. Even Scheherazade, who survives, is a framing device to tell stories mostly featuring men. In A Thousand Nights, women are the driving force for every major event. The unnamed main character decides her own fate without applying to anyone for permission. Her sister, though the one being saved, is no plot device to disappear once her part is over. She and the main character are connected even across the distance, and neither gives up on the other as they both work toward their goals.

In many ways this is a fairy tale flipped on its head. The bride is no damsel awaiting rescue. Instead it is the humanity in her husband that needs to be saved. He is helpless to free himself and she is his only hope.

A Thousand Nights is a lovely retelling of the tale of Scheherazade. With a focus on character rather than action, it manages to keep the fairy tale-like feeling of the original while exploring the intricacy of emotions a little deeper.

A Thousand Nights – E.K. Johnston

Macmillan (October 22, 2015)

ISBN: 9781447284116

griffiths_the-65-storey-treehouseSpending an evening in the company of a group of people who are as passionate as they are knowledgeable about books is about as close as it gets to paradise on Earth. Add a sinfully creamy crème brûlée with the barest sliver of a caramelised crust and it’s closer to heaven.

This pretty much sums up my night on Monday when I went to the 2015 Pan Macmillan Roadshow. Claire Craig, the company’s Children’s Publisher, kindly spent some of her very much in-demand time talking YA, children’s books, and the industry in Australia with me. She had a great deal of insight into all of those topics. Books are constantly variable, and the shift that’s happening in YA right now favours local Australian authors. Not for patriotic reasons. Readers – younger ones especially – don’t care where their books come from. They just want an enthralling read. Increasingly, it seems, Aussie authors are stepping up to fill that demand.

On that note, one of Claire’s personal favourites for the year is local author Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish. A relatively new author, Fiona Wood has never-the-less managed to amass a slew of awards and nominations for her first two novels. Claire was so passionate about this author that I’ve requested her novel and will be bumping it to the top of my TBR pile the moment I have it. Cloudwish follows Vietnamese-Australian Vân Uoc Phan as she tries to maintain a low profile and navigate high school. Unfortunately the best laid plans all too often collapse… Fitting in, standing out; a clash of cultures, and surviving high school; everything about this book makes me want to curl up with a copy of it and lock out the world.

To no one’s surprise, the 65-Storey Treehouse is doing amazing things for the book industry. Released in August, it is the fastest selling Australian title in history moving 70, 000 copies in its first week.

Rainbow Rowell has a new book out in October. Carry On is Rowell’s first foray into all-out fantasy. It’s linked to Fangirl in as much as it’s the story of Simon Snow, the fictional character who is the basis for Cath and Wren’s fanfic, and sounds fantastic. And the question on everyone’s lips – okay, okay, the question on my lips – is will there be slash?

With these amazing titles, I can see that my 2016 reading list is going to balloon this Christmas. Now I just have to decide what to read first…


Alison Mather_HThe recipe is from the ‘ABC Delicious – Simply the Best’ cookbook, by Valli Little. It’s simple but time-consuming, so best to start a day or so ahead. It’s done in three stages, with cooling and setting time between, so the labour can be split up. To make the recipe lactose and gluten-free for those that need it, I used LF versions of the milk, cream, cream cheese, GF arrowroot cookies and Nuttelex in the base. It worked fine ~ A. V. Mather



300 g shortbread of digestive biscuits

¼ cup (25g) cocoa, sifted

80g unsalted butter, melted

8 gold-strength gelatine leaves (I have no idea what these are, I just used regular)

1kg cream cheese at room temperature

1 ¼ cups (275g) castor sugar

1/3 cup (80ml) milk

300ml thickened cream

¼ cup (60ml) rosewater

2x250g punnets strawberries, hulled and halved


Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C. Grease a 22cm springform cake pan.

Place the biscuits and cocoa in a food processor and whiz until fine crumbs. Add the butter and pulse to combine. Press mixture into the base of the cake pan. Place in the oven for 10-15 mins, cool on counter, and then place in the fridge to chill.

Soak 5 gelatine leaves in cold water for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place cream cheese and ¾ cup (165g) sugar in cleaned food processor and whiz until smooth. Place the milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to just below boiling point. Squeeze excess water from the gelatine, then add the gelatine to the milk, stirring until the gelatine has dissolved. Cool slightly, then add to the cream cheese mixture in the food processor and whiz to combine. Transfer to a bowl.

Beat the cream with electric beaters until soft peaks form, then fold into the cream cheese mixture with 1 tablespoon rosewater. Pour the filling over the biscuit base and gently tap the pan on the bench to dispel any pockets. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for 4 hours or until filling is set.

Meanwhile, place the strawberries and remaining ½ cup (110g) of sugar in a large bowl with ½ cup (125ml) of water, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cover the bowl tightly with foil and place over a pan of simmering water (don’t let the bowl touch the water). Simmer for 20 minutes, topping up the pan with more water if needed, until the strawberries are very soft.

Soak the remaining 3 gelatine leaves in cold water for 5 minutes.

Pass the strawberry mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl – don’t press down on the fruit, or the jelly will be cloudy. While the juice is warm, squeeze excess water from the gelatine, then stir the gelatine into the juice until dissolved. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons rosewater. Cool completely, then place in the fridge for 15 minutes until just starting to thicken. Pour the strawberry jelly over the cheesecake, then return to the fridge for 3-4 hours until the top has completely set.


Alison MatherI had the pleasure of attending the Hachette Roadshow last week, alongside fellow MDPWeb staffer, Joelene Pynnonen. The Roadshow is an annual event for those in the book trade and stops at major centres in Australia. It’s great fun and showcases the breadth of Hachette’s new and upcoming releases for Christmas and beyond.

It was easy to become giddy over the glittering array of food, bubbles, books and, yes, goodie bags. The mood was chatty and festive, the new releases tantalising, and the asparagus spears to die for!

For YA readers, there is much to look forward to in the coming months. Included in the gift bag was a copy of ‘Only Ever Yours’, by Louise O’Neill, a dark piece of hard-hitting fiction that has garnered international attention. It offers a view into a world in which girls are groomed to become ‘companions’ for the elite. Taught that their only value is in their perfection, the pressure becomes too much for two best friends. Everything starts to unravel in their final year of school, on the cusp of being chosen as brides, when the future is all that matters.

This one promises to be riveting and I can’t wait to read and review it.

untitledAnother to look out for is ‘The World According to Anna’, by Jostein Gaarder (of ‘Sophie’s World’ fame). Sixteen year old Anna starts having visions of a future time; a bleak world where she witnesses her own descendants sifting through the ashes that are left. She begins to believe that it is her destiny to change the future, or disaster will ensue.

Anyone who loved Lemony Snicket will want to catch ‘Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head’ by Lauren Oliver and HC Chester, for an overload of freaks, wonders and oddities. Fans of a good series can look forward to the VERY LAST EVER instalment of How to Train Your Dragon, ‘How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury’; the third in The Mapmaker Chronicles, ‘Breath of the Dragon’; and Book Two of Zarkora, ‘The Lost Kingdom’, by Nicholas and Alison Lochel.

I managed to exchange a few words with Nicholas and Alison, who were present on the night to promote their Zarkora series. The Brisbane-grown siblings have worked hard over the years as self-publishers, and it is wonderful to see it paying off so successfully. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with the Lochels on, and for my own review of the first book of the series, ‘The Fyrelit Tragedy’.

The reading landscape is looking good for YA enthusiasts, thanks to the team at Hachette Australia. Make room on your bookshelves, folks, they’re all coming soon.

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