Review: Miss Mabel’s School for Girls by Katie Cross

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Never underestimate the power of a determined witch.

Letum Wood is a forest of fog and deadfall, home to the quietly famous Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, a place where young witches learn the art of magic.

Sixteen-year-old Bianca Monroe has inherited a deadly curse. Determined to break free before it kills her, she enrolls in the respected school to confront the cunning witch who cast the curse: Miss Mabel.

Bianca finds herself faced with dark magic she didn’t expect, with lessons more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. Will Bianca have the courage to save herself from the curse, or will Miss Mabel’s sinister plan be too powerful?

I did not know that Miss Mabel’s School for Girls is the first novel in The Network Series when I turned the first page. I often barley notice anything but the cover and blurb when sourcing my next read and only as the book became thinner and with too many holes to fill in those remaining pages did it dawn on me that I was now hooked by another series. Lucky for me by signing up to the newsletter I will get to read book two, Antebellum Awakening for free.

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It is easy to see why Cross won an award for this novel, it opens strong with a relatable protagonist and unveils quickly her driving force, one that many would sympathise with, who of us wouldn’t do anything to save the ones we love? And though it would be easy to look at the blurb and scream “Not more witches!” you would be missing out. Vampire Academy meets Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Miss Mabel’s School For Girls is a refreshing take on witches with no brooms, funny noses or even shiny red shoes.

The story follows Bianca, a gifted powerful sixteen-year-old girl who wants nothing more than her family curse removed so that her grandmother can be without pain, her mother not progress to the same fate and her own life not to end at seventeen. The story sets the scene and takes you quickly to the action; only shortly after arriving does Bianca enter herself into the school competition to be Miss Mabel’s assistant, the witch that cursed her grandmother, and the only one who held the power to remove the curse and save her life.

Bianca makes two fast friends and it is these two that ground her and keep the reader reminded of both Bianca’s age and her potentially doomed fate. Without them it would be easy to forget that she is simply a sixteen-year-old trying to survive as her depth of character can often portray her as well beyond her years.

Witches, curses, magical battles and more, Miss Mabel’s School for Girls offers you a chance to be welcomed into a new world of witchcraft. Hopefully it is the magical world Cross has created that is elaborated on in book two, as though the characters held depth, the surroundings often fell away, not leaving a lasting impression. This may have been done deliberately, to focus on the characters themselves, however without a strong place to set the character’s feet, some readers might find the story floating by rather than gripping hold of them.

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For me, this book is a strong 4 star read, and I am excited to continue Bianca’s story in book 2, Antebellum Awakening.

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Rebecca is a writer, mother, crafter and cake maker. With three children and a full time job, many of the characters bouncing around in her head will just have to wait to have their stories told. You can find her tweeting here.

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The best diverse characters (in my opinion)

In honour of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week this month, we’ve dedicated all our July posts to the issue of diversity in fiction. For more information on NAIDOC Week, visit their website here.

I love reading about diverse characters! It’s great when they are the star of the story, but my preference is to have them scattered throughout books, fitting into the cast just as real people fit into society and the lives of others. There’s actually a bookish term for this; incidental diversity. (Where a character’s difference is mentioned but not highlighted.) Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books with diverse main characters as well, but I’ll be honest … sometimes I find it difficult to connect and that’s all on me. It’s not the author or the character that’s the problem, but like most people, I connect best with characters to whom I easily relate … people like me. Now, I may be a straight, white woman, but I am diverse in my own way. I think we all are — we all have our own things that make us different to everyone else. There is no normal.

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Anyhoo, here is a list of my top 5 favourite diverse supporting and leading characters.

 

Magnus Bane: from The Mortal Instruments / Infernal Devices. There are so many things about Magnus that make him diverse; he’s Asian, he’s gay, he’s a warlock, he’s eccentric. But it’s not his diversity that puts him on my list. It’s his lovability. All of Magnus’s little quirks make him seem so real.

Brian: from I’ll Give You The Sun. Yes, one of the main characters is also gay, but it was this supporting character who grabbed my heart. Perhaps it was because I found Noah difficult to connect with, or perhaps it was because of Brian’s quirks and eccentricities. Brian, like Magnus, felt so real he could have been the boy living next door to me.

Josie Alibrandi: from Looking for Alibrandi. This homegrown book is so awesome it’s been on the school reading list for twenty years. It was an important book long before #weneeddiversebooks was even a thing. Josie is an Italian-Australian struggling to find her true self due to clashes in both sides of her culture. If you’re looking for a character dealing with accepting her diversity, than look no further than Josie.

August Pullman: from Wonder. I’m not sure if this one falls more on the middle grade side of the fence than the young adult side, but I think it rates a mention because WOW. Auggie is one of those characters that moved me so much I’m sure he’ll stay with me forever.  Even though he was born with a facial deformity, August is just an ordinary kid, wanting ordinary things … like friendship. Wonder really highlights that despite our differences, we’re all the same underneath.

Evie: from Am I Normal Yet. She’s white, she’s straight, she’s middle class … so why is she diverse? Like many of us, Evie faces a mental illness that leaves her far from fitting into the ‘normal’ mold. What I love about this character is that she shows that diversity isn’t all about race, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s about so much more. I loved that Evie’s struggle feels real. She doesn’t fit in and she knows it, but tackling that … well, it’s not easy.

 

And those are my top five! Who are your favourite diverse characters? Have you come across any that I’ve missed?


Stacey NashStacey Nash has written her very own diverse character; a girl who suffers from an usual sleeping disorder. To find out more about this young adult author or to connect with her on social media (where she tries to be engaging), check out these places: www.stacey-nash.com, instagram, twitter, facebook.

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If you listen…

In honour of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week coming up this month, we’ve dedicated all our posts to the issue of diversity in fiction. For more information on NAIDOC Week, visit their website here.

I like to read diverse books, I think it’s important but it wasn’t until one of my favourite small readers asked me for a book with a hero/heroine ‘like her’ that I really started to understand. Even now, I know I’m only doing my best and can’t completely get it.

This small reader has significant hearing loss. She’s not completely deaf and she doesn’t think it should be a ‘plot’ so much but she wants to read about girls like her. Having adventures, friend issues, falling in love, fighting dragons – and maybe wearing their hearing aids or getting into trouble cos the battery is flat and they have to pretend to have some idea of what’s going on around them.hearing aid

She gave me advice when I had a character go deaf in my sci-fi series (LIFER, TEMPER) and is helping me with my first hard of hearing contemporary heroine. I feel getting the details right is important but am aware they won’t be right for all readers who might have hearing loss. I believe the character is more than her hearing and hope to show that. It’s a challenge for me as a hearing person, but one I think is worthwhile.

Have you read any books with a character with hearing loss?

:)

Beck

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I always wanted to write. I’ve worked as a lab assistant, a pizza delivery driver and a high school teacher but I always pursued my first dream of creating stories. Now, I live with my family near Adelaide, halfway between the city and the sea, and am lucky to spend my days (and nights) writing young adult fiction.

Writing Diverse Right

 

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More and more publishers are seeking diverse works (for good reason), and while more writers WANT to write diversely, most don’t feel qualified. So how do you write to something you don’t know? We have put together a few tips to help you get started.

 

Step 1

Unless you have first-hand experience within the minority you wish to write, then you must first admit you know NOTHING!

Step 2

For most authors research is key in any case, however if you plan to write about a minority then whether you are a pantser or plotter research is your logical next step. This goes beyond a simple Google search…

Step 3

Talk to people. Twitter, Facebook, the corner cafe, get out there and find out about people’s experiences. Most people are more than happy to talk to and educate others.

Step 4

So you want to pick up that pen…not yet. Take what you have learned so far and now look at what is out there already. There is no point writing diversely to fit the trend, like all books, yours must have an original point of view. Make sure your diverse characters fit the world you’ve put them in.

Step 5

Write the damn thing. Then polish until perfect.

Step 6

Find sensitivity readers, unlike your usual Beta readers, you want your sensitivity readers to point out any flaws in the representation of your diverse characters.

Step 7

Unless you are writing someones biography, completely factually based and irrefutable, then  your characters experiences may be viewed still as an inaccurate representation. By taking the time to do the steps above, your chance of backlash is decreased. Remember you cannot please everyone, some people didn’t like that vampires could sparkle.

Step 8

If you do make a mistake, apologise and learn from it.

 

Everyone deserves to be represented, and to see themselves as the heroes in novels.

The #ownvoices and ‘We Need Diverse Books’ initiatives are driving the movement, so hopefully, one day not too far away, we won’t need ‘diverse’ books, we will simply have novels that represent a wide range of diverse peoples.

What do you think? Are there any steps we’ve missed? What are your experiences with writing diversely?

Heather and Rebecca live on the coast of Australia, a place rich in diversity. They’re both proud to live in a multicultural society, and be part of multicultural families.

Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from.

Destined to wind up “wed or dead,” Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him… or that he’d help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is.

I can’t believe this book has been sitting on my desk for MONTHS and I’ve only just gotten to it.

Rebel of the Sands is steeped in Middle Eastern mythology, with a distinctly ‘old Western’ feel. Right from the beginning there is so much detail and vivid world building that you are grounded in the setting without too much guess work. From the Sultim Trials to the Buraqis and Nightmares, it was the kind of book that I not only loved reading, but made me want to go and find out more.

All Amani wants is to get to Izman, and leave Dustwalk, and 99% of the people there, for dead. When a foreigner and a buraqi mysteriously show up in Dustwalk, she dons a disguise and gets the hell out of there. Amani and Jin journey across the sands from town to town, uncovering more and more unexplainable things. Amani knows Jin is hiding something, but she can’t help trusting him.

Amani is the MC, and she’s a gun-toting spark in a land of sand. This girl has so much sass it makes my mouth look tame, and was one of the things that drew me to her and convinced me this was an MC I could stick with for 300+ pages. She’s also hopelessly naive about the male-dominated world she leaves in which normally frustrates the hell out of me, but Amani is a fighter and she doesn’t let anything hold her back.

Jin is her partner-in-crime/love interest (like, duh! It took all of five seconds to pick this one) and he’s just as much fun as she is. Their banter is perfectly balanced and Amani proves right away she’s not going to let some pretty face get in the way of what she wants.

One of Hamilton’s gifts is writing strong side characters. And thank goodness because there were SO many mentioned that came in and out of the novel, yet I can remember everyone of them. The towns they visited were distinct and while the Middle Eastern names were foreign to me, I was able to keep all them all straight in my head.

This book, I felt, was leading towards two main reveals. One–to do with Jin–was obvious almost as soon as he was mentioned. I think just about anyone who’s read any YA book ever would have spotted that one. The other–involving Amani–was harder to pick. I’m not sure if I simply turned my brain off to it but really, there are a thousand and one hints throughout the book, so much so Hamilton might as well have bludgeoned me with them. Once it was revealed, and all the pieces slotted together, I felt like the most oblivious person ever.

I loved this book. So much. If you’re after an adventure with a bit of banter, chemistry, and a whole lot of mythological creatures you need to get in on this.

Can’t wait for book two.

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Heather is brewing baby number two, working on book three, and trying to make Mr 20mo feel involved in both areas. Tweeting here

 

Diversity: Are you the right person to write this?

#OwnVoices has become an important topic in the writing community for a variety of reasons. One of the most important ones being because every person should be able to read authentically about themselves in novels, not through a stereotyped lense. However #Ownvoices does not mean that you can only write in your lane (your own ethnicity, experiences, sexuality, life). But it does mean you need to be sensitive to perpetuated stereotypes that are offensive to groups and avoid them like the plague.

It also means you need to stop and ask yourself “Am I the right person to write this story?”

This is the question that was posed to me, and the rest of the audience, at the Romantic Times Conference Diversity Panel. And that question put so much in perspective for me.

On one hand, I cringe when I see the stereotypes around OCD. As someone who has that mental health condition, has come to understand the complexity of it and how broad the symptoms can be, I do get a little offended when I see people joke about the condition in ways that clearly show a lack of understanding. I also see it when people don’t understand there are more than 60 types of epilepsy, a condition my son has, and are so freaked out when they see him have a seizure. Most people think people with epilepsy fall down and thrash  or shake no the ground, where as my son zones out.

But at the same time I’ll admit it, #ownvoices made me feel uncomfortable at first because I felt like I had broken its rules by having a main character that that was of a different ethnicity to me. But that question made me realise it was my story to tell.

One of the themes in DIVIDED is about identify and finding where you belong. And when I was young, I didn’t always know if I belonged.

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From left: Me, my sister and my father.

I grew up in a typical white family. Except I didn’t look white. And I didn’t look like the rest of my family. People thought I was adopted. People wouldn’t believe my sister and I were actually related. Kids in primary school teased me cruelly and said I was a half-caste (a disgusting and offensive term that is like calling someone a mudblood). In high school I wasn’t teased, but the assumption I was of indigenous heritage continued from both white people and indigenous people. And outside of school, family friends joked I was the Aboriginal milkman’s daughter. For a time this resulted in an identity crisis.

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From left: Me, my sister and my cousin.

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From left my sister, me and my cousin

It impacted on me so much that I rifled through my parents files looking for the adoption papers. I found an x-ray of my mum when she was pregnant with my sister and thought I had found proof because there was not one of me. Turns out it was me! I didn’t read the date correctly, proving I fail at being Nancy Drew.

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My mother and me

I don’t remember when it happen, but eventually I let go of those feelings of isolation and embraced the fact that I get a lot of my looks from my two grandmothers – my Scottish curly-haired nana and my extremely olive-skinned grandma with German highlands heritage. And the older I got, the more people could see the similarities between me and my mother.

We are the sum of our life experiences, which can include what we observe, research and experience as a family member or friend. You can write about things that haven’t happened directly to you. You can write about characters that are different to you. But what we must be mindful in our writing that we are not diminishing others along the way.

Sharon is a writer from Mackay, Queensland, who loves writing ‘what if’ stories. Her first novel DIVIDED is out now with City Owl Press, with he sequel SHATTERED due out in November. You can see the awesome new cover here.

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Losing my (diverse) virginity

In honour of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week coming up this month, we’ve dedicated all our posts to the issue of diversity in fiction. For more information on NAIDOC Week, visit their website here.

I remember losing my (diverse) virginity, the first book I ever read that opened my eyes to diversity in reading. I was a teenager, possibly thirteen or fourteen, whenI got my  hands on My Place by Sally Morgan. This was biography sees our Aboriginal heroine, Sally, finally finding her place in the world. It’s a mystery about finding your identity, and working out where you truly belong in the world.

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Next, I went on to read Looking For Alibrandi, by Melina Marchetti. Again, this book dealt with someone who had a different heritage to my own. Josie is an Aussie teenager with Italian heritage, and finds it hard to fit in within her school society. This book became one of my absolute favourites as a young teenager, and took pride of place upon my shelf with My Place.

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Now, when people ask me about some of my favourite diverse books, these two instantly come to mind–but it’s a little surprising. What I remember loving most about these books doesn’t have a whole lot to do with colour or race or religion. What I LOVED about these books were the amazing heroines. Sally, a real woman who was so strong in her life’s journey. Josie, a fictional character who fought for what she believed in. Yes, both stories came with the added bonus of diversity, allowing me as a reader to have a glimpse into a life unfamiliar to my own, but at the core they were good, solid books with good, solid characters.

I think it’s absolutely important to  have diversity in what we read and what we write. Diversity is such a part of life–we see it every day, and I love that despite being a teenager and having my options for diverse books seeming limited, now, as an adult, diverse books are easier to find. However, what I love most about that is that reading a really good diverse book doesn’t feel like you’re reading a “diverse book”–just immersing yourself in another amazing story.

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Lauren K. McKellar is an author and editor of both fact and fiction. You can learn more about her at her website or over on her Facebook page.