Utopirama: A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home…

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Welcome once again to the semi-regular Utopirama feature, wherein I aim to heighten awareness about certain books that promote that feeling of happiness and that sense of all being right with the world.  Books featured in Utopirama posts are cosy reads, in which nothing occurs to disturb your equilibrium.  Today’s offering is one for the dog-lovers. And also for the nursing home lovers (in case any exist).  And finally for lovers of old age.  It is, of course, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern.

dog nursing

Quick Overview:

The book follows the story of Sue, and her loveable dog Pransky, who decide that the time is ripe for some volunteering in order to make their corner of the world a better place.  In the face of reasonably large odds (Pransky’s lack of desire to participate in the process, for one) Sue researches the requirements needing to be satisfied for herself and Pransky to become a therapy team and then tries to whip (metaphorically, obviously) Pransky into shape.  After passing the rigorous test for therapy dog teams, Pransky and Sue begin to volunteer at their local nursing home.  From the cranky to the welcoming to the downright not-quite-sure-what’s-going-on, Pransky and Sue encounter and engage with every possible attitude, state of mind and personality in their weekly visits to the elderly residents, proving in the process that sometimes the most effective form of healing and connection can be packaged in the shape of a big furry pillow. With dog breath.

Utopian Themes:

Comfort for the Afflicted

Going Gently into that Good Night

Furry Friends

Communicating beyond Words

Cultivating Virtue

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

5 out of 5 bubbles for the gentle whuffling of a hound all a-snooze

This is the perfect read for those who like a dog book in which you can be sure that the dog doesn’t die at the end.  Although, a lot of the old people do.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Surprised by Joy (and a feathered fowl): The Duck and The Darklings…

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Welcome literary wayfarers! I have something special for you today.  Once every so often, a picture book comes along that is as visually appealing as it is moving, as lyrical in prose as it is engaging in content.  The Duck and the Darklings is just such a book.  The book is the product of another successful and inspiring collaboration between Glenda Millard (who I have mentioned on the blog before, here) and Stephen Michael King, and as soon as I heard about it, I put it on my “must buy that soon” radar.  Thanks to the delightful cake-eating competition-purveyors at Allen & Unwin however, I was lucky enough to win a copy, sparking my admiration for the book and the post that you are now skimming reading with great care and attention.

the duck and the darklings

Peterboy and his grandfather live among the Darklings in a hole in the ground in the land of Dark, below the ruined world above.  Peterboy longs to bring some light to his grandfather’s life and in his search he finds Idaduck.  He brings the broken duck to his grandfather and together they set about healing the creature.  When Idaduck is ready to leave them, the Darklings shine the lights from their candle-hats to show her the way and in doing so, discover that Idaduck has brought them something they needed more than anything – hope in the power of healing.

The themes in this book are familiar to fans of Millard’s work – hope, caring for others and finding joy in tiny, ordinary moments – but she has certainly outdone herself this time in creating a story dependent on so much fantasy world-building in such a small package.  This book feels like an epic fantasy condensed onto a post-it note, with peaks and lulls, hope, sadness and inevitability perfectly paced across 32 pages.  The prose is exquisitely lyrical, with a natural rhythm that provides the dreamlike quality underpinning the story.  King’s illustrations provide the visual realisation of Millard’s words and his familiar style perfectly conveys the gloominess of the Darklings’ underground home and the curiousity and hopefulness of Peterboy.  Rather than saying too much more about it, I’ll give you some examples:

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He has also inspired Mad Martha to start crocheting a hat like Peterboy’s.  Maybe without the candle though, despite it’s undisputed usefulness.

If you can get your paws, claws or hands on a copy of this book, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.  For my money, I think it’s one of those rare treasures that will do more for the adults reading it than the mini-fleshlings – but I’m sure they’ll love it just as much.

Until next time,

Bruce

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July New Release Giveaway Hop! Win stuff! and stuff…

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Flash giveaway! Hooray! 

I saw the sign ups for this one and I just couldn’t resist joining in.  The July New Release Giveaway Hop is hosted by Bo-ok Nerd and runs from July 15th to 31st.  It is a hop, as well, so don’t forget to hop along and check out the other participants’ giveaways in the linky at the end of the post.

The idea of this hop is to give away a book that has been released in July 2014.  Obviously, there’s a veritable stack of such books and the header image might give you an idea of some of them.  You can also find some ideas here at Goodreads.  I will remind you of a few books that have been/will be released this month that have appeared/are soon to be featured right here on the shelf:

what milo saw the girl from the well irregular verbs and other stories frankenstein journals alias hook

My giveaway is open internationally as long as the Book Depository ships to your country for free.  One winner will be selected randomly by rafflecopter and will be able to pick a book of their choice up to the value of $20AUD AS LONG AS IT HAS A JULY 2014 PUBLICATION DATE.

click to enter button

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck! Now don’t forget to visit the other participating blogs:

Until next time, Bruce  

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A Middle-Grade Double-Dip: Awkward Falls and Unladylike Murders…

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Turn your salsa up to extra-hot folks, because I have two books for you today that will set your tastebuds tingling (in a metaphorical sense, obviously).  Both are aimed at the older end of the middle-grade audience, both feature shocking murders, and both also feature a team of two young friends intent on solving the respective mysteries presented.  Let us begin!

First up, we have The Orphan of Awkward Falls by Keith Graves.  I’m going to be submitting this one as my entry in category seven of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with something unsightly in the title – because there’s nothing more unsightly than an awkward fall!

awkward fallsWhen Josephine moves to Awkward Falls with her parents for her father’s new job, she can’t resist poking around in the abandoned mansion next store.  Unfortunately for Josephine, the mansion next store is not abandoned, and she is promptly taken prisoner by an overprotective automaton, and presented to one Thaddeus Hibble, a small boy with all the bearings of a nutty professor. Thaddeus lives alone in the mansion with his robot butler and frankensteinish cat, carrying out experiments, all the time in constant hope for his parents’ return, and in constant fear that he will be discovered and shipped off to the orphanage.

At around about the same time as Josephine’s family is moving in to their new home, Fetid Stenchley, resident of the Asylum for the Dangerously Insane and cheerful cannibal, is planning an audacious escape.  Stenchley also has reason to come poking around Thaddeus’ mansion…because Stenchley used to be the assistant of Thaddeus’ grandfather. Before Stenchley murdered him, of course. 

Unbeknownst to Josephine and Thaddeus, danger has broken loose and is now making its way slowly but surely toward Awkward Falls.  But other secrets are about to be uncovered and for our two young heroes, the information that they unearth could change the course of their own personal histories…forever!

Dip into it for…

…a super-original book with fantastically creepy illustrations and quirky, but likeable characters.  The story drew me in immediately and though this is pitched at a middle-grade audience, with the protagonist being thirteen, there’s a lot here that is far more suited to the adult reader with a slightly juvenile attitude (ie: me).  There’s action a-plenty here, wacky inventions (including the aforementioned robot butler and frankensteinish cat) and a pervasive underlying theme about the importance of friendship.  Graves obviously has a reasonably dry sense of humour because I laughed at a lot of the bizarre situations and was continuously double-checking to make sure I had actually picked up a kid’s book.

Don’t dip if…

…you have a sensitive stomach, or you are a child reader who does not wish to be scarred for life.  While this book is super-original, it also features the super-original use of open-brain surgery on the criminally insane, a cannibalistic murderer, descriptions of implied cannibalistic murdering, genetic experimentation on animals, the unlawful exhumation of a corpse (with accompanied illustration), the reanimation of said corpse and a range of other gorily odd bits and pieces that one wouldn’t expect to find in a book for this age-bracket.  I did question the inclusion of many of these darker elements – particularly the illustrated corpse exhumation – although I decided that as an adult reader, these added to the atmosphere of the story.  If you’re a kid though, I’d probably skip those bits if I were you.

Overall dip factor:

As a concerned gargoyle citizen, I would say that if you’re planning to give this one to your kid to read, you probably should read it yourself first.  Otherwise, I heartily recommend it – I really loved the story and while I had to contend with a bit of stomach-churning imagery as I was reading, the book as a whole was both original and engaging.

Now onto the much-less-ambiguously targeted Murder Most Unladylike, the first Wells and Wong mystery by Robin Stevens.

murder most unladylikeThere’s been a murder at Deepdean School for Girls, but where is the body?  Hazel Wong, the logical and precise secretary of the Wells and Wong Detective Agency, unwittingly stumbles across the body of Science Mistress Miss Bell in the gymnasium – but in the time it takes her to alert her friend Daisy Wells, the body disappears.

Without a body, or any proof of a murder, Hazel and Daisy find that it’s quite difficult to catch a murderer!  As secrets old and new are unearthed and potential motives  come to light, the girls look to be making progress – until another mistress dies in suspicious circumstances, and Hazel begins to wonder whether she and Daisy will be next.  But with Daisy’s intrepid investigative skills and Hazel’s accurate recording of events, the girls know that soon they’ll have their man (or woman).  Look out murderers – Wells and Wong are on the case!

Dip into it for…

…a combination of good old-fashioned boarding school story and Christie-esque murder mystery.  The moment I saw the cover of this book, read the blurb and found out about the author’s interest in Agatha Christie, I had to have it (hooray for preorders!), and it didn’t disappoint.  Set in 1934, the writing is delightfully nostalgic, without being too difficult for youngsters of today to understand, although Stevens does provide a handy glossary of 1930s English schoolgirl slang at the end for the uninitiated.  If you can imagine murders occurring at say, Malory Towers or St. Clare’s, but with a bit more oomph in the main characters, then you’ve pretty much got the idea of what this book is going to be like.

Hazel is a tentative narrator who is very aware of her differences from the other girls, hailing as she does from Hong Kong, and sensitively relates some of the difficulties inherent in making friends and staking an authentic identity in a largely mono-cultural environment.  The parts of the book dealing with Hazel and Daisy’s friendship are an interesting inclusion and broaden the story’s appeal above that of a simple kid-detective romp.

The plot reads much like a Christie novel, with multiple suspects, red herrings a-plenty and a satisfyingly thorough reveal-scene at the end.  All of this adds up to me pre-ordering book two, Tea and Arsenic, so I can dip into that one as soon as it’s out!

Don’t dip if…

…um…you don’t like murder mysteries? There’s not a lot wrong with this book, but admittedly, as is the case with most murder-mysteries, there is a lot of conversation, recapping and consolidating the evidence and those who enjoy lots of action might find that a bit off-putting.  There’s also quite a bit of friendship/everyday school life type stuff added in, given that it’s a school story, so if you’re hoping for a plot completely focused on the murder, you might be disappointed.

Overall dip factor:

If you’re a fan (of any age) of murder mysteries, dip into it.  If you love boarding school stories, dip into it.  If you enjoy historical fiction of this era, dip into it.  If you like girly friendship stories with plucky protagonists, dip into it. Oh, just go on, you know you want to!

I have to say, that after finishing this book, I got so attached to Hazel in particular, that on remembering when the book was set I suddenly realised that by the time Hazel and Daisy turned seventeen, they would have been slapped right into the middle of the second World War…and I was WORRIED for them!  I was particularly worried about Hazel, given that she’s from Hong Kong – I didn’t know which was better, to stay in England and face the war in Europe or return to Hong Kong and become stuck in the war in the Pacific…obviously, Stevens is good at writing believable characters, otherwise I wouldn’t be wringing my claws over fictional characters that would probably be dead by now, war or no war.

Oh, and just for our American friends – if you’re looking for this book on your side of the Pond, it will be released under the title Murder is Bad Manners in April next year.  Beautiful cover though:

murder is bad manners

I particularly like the body in the wheelbarrow in the bottom corner being carted off in a jaunty fashion.

And for those interested in participating in (or just want to know more about) the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge, simply click here.  To have a look at some of the entries from those already on the Safari Bus, click on this attractive little button:

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And then come join in! There’s still plenty of time!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: Irregular Verbs and Other Stories…

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Afternoon story-lovers! Today I have another title for the grown-ups and this one is a collection of short stories, something that I know many of you love to indulge in (for both reading and writing).  Irregular Verbs and Other Stories by Matthew Johnson features a whole range of short delights that run the gamut from accidental time-travelling folk from ancient civilisations, to the deliberate time-travelling citizens of a future Now.  But there’s more – much more than just time travel – to whet the appetite of anyone who likes to get stuck into a good yarn, and knows that for some readers, it’s better to be in it for a good time, than a long time.

irregular verbs and other storiesRead it if:

*you keep meaning to read a short story collection, but never quite get around to picking one up (surely it can wait…what harm could waiting do?)

* you ever made up a pretend language as a kid and wish you’d written it down (mainly so that you could use it to escape awkward social situations)

* you’ve ever had nightmares about elderly zombies, gnashing their terrible dentures and waving their sharpened-to-a-point bus passes

*you appreciate a writer who can drag you in with only a few short sentences, over and over and over again

 

I was pleasantly surprised by this collection because, although I enjoy reading short stories, I often find that collections can be hit and miss.  With Irregular Verbs I was happy to discover that not only did I enjoy the vast majority of these stories, but I also found myself deeply engaged in the tales within the first page.

Johnson seems to be a master at efficient, realistic world-building.  A number of the stories take place in alternate versions of our own time, or worlds that feature some aspect of time travel and I never felt like I had to work to figure out what was going on.  Within the first page or two, I was totally drawn in and the idiosyncracies of each world seemed perfectly reasonable.

My favourite stories of the bunch included the opener, which features a world in which complete languages are habitually created between partners, neighbours and small communities but are subject to the flimsy commitment of conversation in order to remain alive.  A timely warning appears in a tale in which those things that we can’t seem to find time for have been turned into commodities, ready to be purchased on easy-to-manage monthly installments.  Johnson also tries a new take on the Zompocalypse, with old-age pensioners making up the bulk of the shuffling hordes (complete with slippers and dressing gowns).  Another highlight for me was the one-way time-travel tale in which welcome centres have been created to deal with a strange anomaly in space/time that causes random groups of people from Ancient Roman times to be whisked into contemporary history.

Overall, I found this to be a fascinating collection of stories that deal with scenarios that give pause for thought.  Whether it’s the question of what exactly it is that keeps a common history safe in the minds of a society, or the conundrum of end-of-life directives for a being that seems to be immortal, these tales will get you thinking and I recommend it for the fearless, intrepid sort of armchair traveller.

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories was released on June 18th, and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: Alias Hook…

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Top of the Neverland to you all! Today I have a slightly unusual candidate for my fairy tale makeover series, in that the story being retold isn’t exactly a fairy tale. But it does have fairies in it. So that’s close enough for me.  I speak, of course, of Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen which tells the well-known story of Peter Pan from the point of view of the much-maligned Captain Hook, and does so in the most unexpected of ways.

I must admit firstly that I have never read, nor indeed watched, the story of Peter Pan, on account of the fact that Peter himself always struck me as a smug little git.  For that reason, I only have a vague knowledge of the original story, but this did not hinder my enjoyment of Alias Hook one jot.  In fact, I probably enjoyed it more, because I was already sympathetic to Hook’s viewpoint.  Anyway, let’s get on with it before I start to waffle.

James Benjamin Hookbridge was by all accounts a scoundrel of the highest order when he walked in the ordinary world.  However, after being mysteriously whisked away  with his ship and crew to a land ruled by a young, flying vagabond for centuries on end, it could only be said that Hookbridge, now the dastardly Captain Hook, is inwardly a broken man.  For years unnumbered, Hook has watched his crews brutally murdered by Pan and his Boys, while he himself is drawn, constantly and  unwillingly, into Pan’s violent and manipulative games.  But when a grown-up woman appears out of thin air on Hook’s ship, it is apparent that Pan may be losing control over his land of eternal youth.  Is it time for Hook himself to grow up? And can he throw off the shackles of his villainous past, or will he be trapped forever in the Neverland to suffer Pan’s twisted version of eternal life?

alias hookRead it if:

*you think Peter Pan is a smug little git

*you have ever been forced to play the same game with a toddler or small child ad nauseum, with no hope of escape in sight

*you’ve ever faked your own death in order to escape a repetitive and tedious social situation

*you quite like dressing up in fancy hats…preferably adorned with a feather or two

I was totally surprised by how cerebral this book turned out to be.  I was expecting something light, with a bit of parody; a cheeky protagonist with a “stickin’ it to the man (boy)” attitude, but this book was by turns dark, insightful, poignant and …well…dark again.  It really is a grown-up’s tale of redemption, focusing on the dilemma of how one might successfully change the habits of a lifetime (or several lifetimes, as the case may be).

As I mentioned, you really don’t need to know very much about the original Pan story to get into this book, as only the bare bones are used – the not-growing-up clause, the Wendys who mother the Boys – and I felt that this was a real strength as it allowed Hook to rule the story on his own terms, as it were.  To that end, there’s plenty of mindless violence – mindless in the sense that it is carried out mindlessly, not mindless in the sense of being gratuitous – a bit of rumpy-pumpy, at least one highly anti-social fairy and a whole bunch of soul-searching.  The addition of Stella (the aforementioned grown-up woman) is both the catalyst and the obstacle to Hook’s eventual redemption and bid for freedom.  The final epiloguey ending bit was both expected but fresh.  In fact, if I had to describe it in one word I’d say it was just darling.

(See what I did there? Geddit?!! Wait, the kids in the original Peter Pan have the surname Darling don’t they? I hope so, otherwise that joke is going to be a major flop).

Alias Hook had me dwelling on it days after I’d finished reading, which is the mark of a good read.  If you are looking for a book that you think will be reasonably familiar and predictable then this isn’t the book for you.  Alias Hook has a lot more going for it than your average “alternate point of view” retelling, so I suggest you set aside some quality reading time and delve into the one-part magic, two-parts torment experience that is Hook’s Neverland.

Alias Hook is published on July 8th and I received a digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Just Couldn’t Put It Down Giveaway Hop!

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Just-Couldn't-Put-It-Down-July

Welcome to my stop on the Just Couldn’t Put It Down July Giveaway Hop hosted by Stuck in Books!  The hop runs from July 7th to July 20th and features lots of bloggers giving away copies of books they consider to be gripping reads, so don’t forget to check out the linky at the end of this post so you can hop around and try your hand at winning more cool stuff!

The book I am offering today is a middle-grade fantasy book that is told in a series of letters, emails and newspaper cuttings and features pages full of awesome illustration.  I speak, of course of the first book in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series by Kate Klise – Dying to Meet You.

dying to meet you

Once-famous author of children’s ghost stories, Ignatius B. Grumply decides to rent a holiday house for the summer in order to finish writing (well, start writing, actually) his first book in 20 years.  Unfortunately for Ignatius, 43 Old Cemetery Road is already occupied – by 11-year-old Seymour, his cat, Shadow, and the ghost of the previous owner, Olive Spence (who also just happens to be an avid writer. And 197 years old).  So begins an unmissable correspondence betwixt old man and young lad, in which house rules are established and everyone tries to muddle along together.  That is, until Seymour gets word that his parents (who ran off on a lecture tour abroad, leaving Seymour at home) have decided to demolish number 43 – will Seymour and Olive be able to convince I.B. Grumply to help them find a way to save their home?

If I had discovered this book when I was an eight or nine year old, it would have immediately become one of those books that I read and re-read and re-read until the pages were all dog-eared, vegemite stains covered the edges of the pages and the covers were all bloated from having been repeatedly dropped in the bath.  It has all the hallmarks of a modern classic for the younger end of the middle-grade age group – humour, punny names, easy to follow text, eye-catching illustrations, formatting that spurs the imagination, as well as a story featuring ghosts, grumpy (and absent) grown-ups and a big old house with oodles of history.

I’ve immediately purchased the rest of the books in the series (not something I do often, I assure you!) and now I am giving one lucky reader the chance to experience this fun, fantastical series too.

So here’s my giveaway:

ONE winner can choose EITHER:

* paperback copies of the first two books in the series – Dying to Meet You and Over My Dead Body

OR

* a hardback copy of book number one – Dying to Meet You

The giveaway is open internationally, provided the Book Depository ships to your country for free.  Other Ts and Cs are available to view in the rafflecopter form.

click to enter button

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Good luck! Don’t forget to hop around to the other participating blogs. You can find the full list here:

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Until next time,

Bruce  

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