The Merit Birds: A YA “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Hold onto your hats, folks, it’s time for another “Five Things I’ve Learned” review.  Today I have a YA novel featuring a Canadian in Laos – The Merit Birds by Kelley Powell.  I received a digital copy from the publisher in exchange for review.  I should probably warn the faint of heart that this review WILL contain mild spoilers.  You have been warned.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Eighteen-year-old Cam Scott is angry. He’s angry about his absent dad, he’s angry about being angry, and he’s angry that he has had to give up his Ottawa basketball team to follow his mom to her new job in Vientiane, Laos. However, Cam’s anger begins to melt under the Southeast Asian sun as he finds friendship with his neighbour, Somchai, and gradually falls in love with Nok, who teaches him about building merit, or karma, by doing good deeds, such as purchasing caged “merit birds.” Tragedy strikes and Cam finds himself falsely accused of a crime. His freedom depends on a person he’s never met. A person who knows that the only way to restore his merit is to confess. “The Merit Birds” blends action and suspense and humour in a far-off land where things seem so different, yet deep down are so much the same.

the merit birds

So here are Five Things I’ve Learned from

The Merit Birds

1.  Travelling white folk have an almost uncanny ability to be intrusive, entitled and generally insensitive in cultures not their own.

2. Lao people are partial to the phrase boh penh nyang  – no worries.

3. Drinking and driving will get you into trouble.

4. In the worst of situations, sometimes all you can do is breathe.

5. Life is hard, but it’s harder when you don’t admit to your mistakes.

Right. I have mixed feelings about this book.  The Merit Birds is told through three perspectives, those of Cam, 18-year-old, whinging, pity-party-throwing, Canadian basketballer; Nok, youngest of three siblings, who could have gone to university but instead must work to support her family in the local massage parlour; and Seng, Nok’s older brother, who tries to be useful and has a burning desire to go to America.  The perspectives alternate as Nok and Cam form a tentative friendship and Seng tries to contact his older sister Vong in order to get to America and a better life.

The story begins slowly as the reader is introduced to Cam’s backstory and treated to his shock and dismay at having to live in a place such as Lao.  We meet the all-round good bloke and Cam’s next-door neighbour, Somchai, and find out more about Nok and Seng’s parents and why the siblings have been left on their own.  When Cam and Nok’s friendship develops into a romance, the plot begins to move more quickly and soon enough the story has more twists than a kinked-up garden hose.

I had a couple of problems with this book.  While I enjoyed the book overall, I felt Cam’s storyline was just a waste of space.  I know that must sound strange, given that Cam is the main character and the focus of the story, but I was far more interested in the Lao characters and would have quite happily read a book (with a few plot tweaks, obviously) based just around them.  Cam as a character didn’t really work for me because I couldn’t see how he had grown over the course of the book and he generally just brought the whole thing down for me because…

**Here’s some spoilers! Look away if you don’t want to know!**

…in the beginning Cam spends his time whining and moaning because he is living in Laos, but we are told that he actually had the option to remain in Canada but didn’t take it.  He’s rude, dismissive and generally a right little snot to his mother (for reasons that are clearly explained) but this didn’t endear me to him in any way.  He’s 18. An adult. This kid needs to grow up!  Then he physically assaults an opposing basketball team player to the point that he is in a serious condition.  When this comes back to haunt him later on in the book, it’s overshadowed by the false allegation and at no point does Cam ever take responsibility for cracking another person’s vertebrae.  Nor does his mother in fact.  Both just seemed shocked that anyone would be wanting to press charges over such grievous bodily harm.  And when, at the end of the book, Cam exits the prison into his mother’s waiting arms, I cannot help but feel that he will go trapping off back to Canada, complaining about how badly he was treated, never giving thought to the myriad of ways in which he contributed to his own sh*tty situation.

***Spoilers over!***

Overall, I found this to be an original and engaging story, with the Lao characters, their culture and history the main points of interest to me.  I admit that I’m not really sure what message to take from the book (because I’m sure there’s some wisdom hiding in the pages, if I could only puzzle it out) but if you are looking for a YA novel that is different from your average contemporary romance, that features fleshed out characters and an alternative perspective then this may just be what you’re looking for.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Utopirama!: Find the Good…

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imageNonfiction 2015It’s Utopirama time again – a time to take a brief time-out from the horrors, suffering and general discomfort of daily existence and look toward a higher goal.  Today’s book is all about making that glass at least half-full before you metaphorically kick the proverbial bucket.  It is Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Helen Lende.  As it is also a memoir of sorts, I will be submitting it for the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.

find the good

Quick Overview:

 In brief, easy-to-digest chapters, Lende takes the reader through the wisdom she has garnered from time spent composing obituaries in the local paper for her fellow townsfolk, both well-known to her and otherwise. Each chapter is titled with a little nugget of truth and follows the salient life lessons that presented themselves to Lende on reflection, ranging from “stop and smell the fish”, to “put on a costume now and then”. The stories are gentle and often humorous, and packed with unspoken exhortations for the reader to dig beneath the thin veneer of daily life and appreciate the untidy, unexpected and unexplored bits of our existence and that of those around us.

Utopian Themes:

Let it shine

Everyday wisdom

Seize the day

Lemons to Lemonade

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

 

5 out of 5 bubbles for the wholesome goodness (and unexpected sting) of squeezing fresh citrus fruits

This is a quick and gentle read and one that would make perfect before-bed reading for those who like to wind down by slowly shedding the layers of negative emotion accumulated during the day. Lende’s voice chimes with welcome and life-affirming humour and the format of the book suits those who like to dip in and out and reflect on what they’ve read. This is a great choice for when you need a cosy, restful distraction, such as during the daily commute, or while waiting for an unpleasant appointment.

Progress in the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge: 5/10

Until next time,

Bruce

Fiction in 50 April Challenge: The Trouble With…

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fiction in 50Welcome to Fiction in 50 for April!   If you’d like to join in, simply create a piece of fiction or poetry in 50 words or less using this month’s prompt and post a link to your work of genius in the comments. If you want to share on twitter, don’t forget to use the hashtag #Fi50.  To find out more about the challenge and future prompts, simply click on the large attractive button at the beginning of this post.  This month’s prompt is…

the trouble with Fi50 buttonYou fill in the blank!

I have gone for a bit of cheekiness as usual, and after much editing and word-slashing I give you my contribution.  I have titled it….

The Trouble with Modern Parents

Dear Editor,

Out shopping, I noticed a lad rudely refusing fruit offered by his mother. I loudly mentioned that those who shun healthy food are more likely to die young from vile diseases.

Rather than thanks, I then received some choice language from the mother.

Society’s gone mad.

B. Goodfellow

I’m excited to see what others come up with for this month – our “fill in the blank” prompts always inspire a wealth of creativity.

For those who like to be prepared, next month’s prompt will be…

may fi50 challenge

Until next time,

Bruce

 

An Fi50 Reminder…and My Oddest Review Yet!

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Here’s a reminder for all you connoisseurs of micro-flash fiction – Fiction in 50 is kicking off for this month on Monday.  The prompt for April is…

the trouble with Fi50 button

You fill in the blank!

For more information on the challenge, just click the big button at the start of this post.  If you want to play along, just compose a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and link to your effort in the comments of my Fi50 post on Monday.  New players are always welcome!

Now onto…

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And my oddest review yet!

If you aren’t aware of the Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge for 2015, it basically entails choosing a level that suits your time commitments and reading books across a number of odd categories.  The real crux of the challenge is to get participants reading books that are odd FOR THEM.  For more information, just click on the big fancy button.

I’m doing quite well in my challenge so far, having read seven of my Audaciously Odd goal of 16 or more books for the year.  Today’s book certainly qualifies in the category of books with an odd subject matter but I won’t be adding it to my total just yet because…..I haven’t actually finished it.

Yes, you read that correctly.   I am going to attempt to review a book that I haven’t finished reading. Hold onto your hats.

The book is Mindtouch by M. C. A. Hogarth, the first book in the Dreamhealers Duology and I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley.  It was pitched as a “light, fluffy, asexual sci fi romance”.  A LIGHT, FLUFFY, ASEXUAL, SCI-FI ROMANCE! Honestly, how could I not take up that offer?!  And I have decided to review it now because it is very, very, very long and I’m enjoying it.  Therefore, I don’t want to quash my enjoyment of the novel by rushing through it to fit a review date.  So odd all round, really.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Seersana University is worlds-renowned for its xenopsychology program, producing the Alliance’s finest therapists, psychiatric nurses and alien researchers. When Jahir, one of the rare and reclusive Eldritch espers, arrives on campus, he’s unprepared for the challenges of a vast and multicultural society… but fortunately, second-year student Vasiht’h is willing to take him under his wing. Will the two win past their troubles and doubts and see the potential for a once-in-a-lifetime partnership?  

mindtouch

Now isn’t that cover just delightful? The promise of a light, fluffy, asexual romance between a skunky-centaur thing and a super-tall, mood-leeching empath.  Brilliant.  This is full-on sci-fi with an original, complex world, so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that Jahir (the tall one) and Vasiht’h (the four-legged one) end up as room mates at an intergalactic medical school for intergalactic psychiatrists.  The two lads form a friendship as Jahir comes to terms with living on a thriving university campus while being a reclusive introvert with the ability to read people’s moods if they get too close; and Vasiht’h tries to figure out where he wants to go in life and what career he should pursue against the high expectations of his large family.  In the meantime, the two friends become the staunch allies of a group of young children confined to the nearby hospital with serious illnesses.

I have been reading (off and on) since the beginning of February and I’m still only 31% of the way through.  At this rate, I won’t be finished til the end of the year, and that’s if I really put a singular focus on this book to the exclusion of my other reviews! But I am really enjoying this book. It has a gentle pace and a focus on exploring the characters.  It has a complex world with a multitude of species (both organic and genetically engineered) and a plethora of social rules to engage with.  Then there’s the philosophical discussions between the two main characters and the possibilities that these give rise to.

Essentially, I think this is a deeply thought-out piece of work and I don’t want to ruin what has been so far a satisfying and unusual reading experience by putting pressure on myself to finish it within a certain timeframe.  If you are looking for something totally different in the sci-fi sphere – something that is character-driven and concept-focused – then I encourage you to give Mindtouch a try.

Until next time,

Bruce

An MG Double-Dip Review: Alexander Baddenfield and Joe All Alone…

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I invite you to collect a portion of your favourite salty snack, pour out some delectable dip and jimageoin me for a tasty double-dip into some MG fiction.  Today I have a new release that I received from the publisher via Netgalley and a tome that has been sat on my shelf for at least six months (which in no way reflects the astronomical levels of excitement and desire that pushed me to buy it in the first place), so with this review I shall also be taking one step closer to the peak of Mt TBR.

But let’s push on. Our first tome is new release UKMG novel Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When thirteen-year-old Joe is left behind in Peckham while his mum flies to Spain on holiday, he decides to treat it as an adventure, and a welcome break from Dean, her latest boyfriend. Joe begins to explore his neighbourhood, making a tentative friendship with Asha, a fellow fugitive hiding out at her grandfather’s flat.

But when the food and money run out, his mum doesn’t come home, and the local thugs catch up with him, Joe realises time is running out too, and makes a decision that will change his life forever.

Dip into it for… joe all alone

…a sensitively rendered account of a young lad whose mother has chosen a man over her son.  Joe is a likeable, ordinary kid and I think a lot of young readers will relate to his matter-of-fact narration and the anxieties that sit in the back of his mind.  The book touches on themes of domestic violence, racism,  family breakdown, trust and identity and subtly balances the neglectful actions of Joe’s mother and father-figure with the cautiously caring actions of the adults in Joe’s block of flats. The friendship between Joe and Asha is believable and adds a bit of fun and banter to a story that has a pervasive atmosphere of loss and fear.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re wanting a fun, lawless romp featuring a cheery young lad who is happy that his parents have left (as indicated by the cover, and the tagline “No parents, no rules…no problem?”).  This really is a book that focuses on the deeper issues that Joe is facing and as the story progresses, Joe’s fears about what will happen next and who to trust are palpable.

Similarly, if you’ve read a lot of UK fiction in this kind of vein – kid with violent/absent/mentally-ill/drug-addicted parent struggles to find friendship and help to live a normal life – you might get the sense of having read this all before.

Overall Dip Factor

Joe All Alone is a solid addition to the MG literature featuring realistic, contemporary storytelling focusing on important social issues in an accessible way.  The diary format worked well in building up the suspense of what might happen if Joe’s mum didn’t return and also helped the reader focus in on Joe’s day-to-day struggles once it was apparent that his mum wasn’t coming back.  The ending was a surprise for me, given how realistic it actually was in terms of where a young person might find themselves once the adults in their life have abdicated responsibility for them.

While I did enjoy the book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this story was nothing new.  I suspect this is one of the problems of reading as a reviewer with a special interest in MG and YA – although I haven’t read a story featuring exactly this plot before, I’ve certainly read more than a handful that deal with the same themes and same sorts of characters and that does take some of the sparkle out of the story.  If you enjoy this genre though, or haven’t read a lot featuring these themes, Joe All Alone is definitely worth a look.

Now onto some real wickedness.  Here’s The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by John Bemelmans Marciano.  From Goodreads:

Alexander Baddenfield is a horrible boy—a really horrible boy—who is the last in a long line of lying, thieving scoundrels.  One day, Alexander has an astonishing idea.  Why not transplant the nine lives from his cat into himself?  Suddenly, Alexander has lives to spare, and goes about using them up, attempting the most outrageous feats he can imagine.  Only when his lives start running out, and he is left with only one just like everyone else, does he realize how reckless he has been.

Dip into it for… alexander baddenfield

…a delightfully droll tale in which a naughty boy gets his just desserts. Eventually.  This cheekily illustrated book is Edward Gorey for children (and their subversive parents) and I don’t feel too bad in telling you that Alexander dies in the end. Multiple times.  There’s also a shocking reveal about the real name of Alexander’s gentleman’s gentleman.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a tale in which the bad guy learns his lesson and turns over a new leaf – Ebenezer Scrooge this kid ain’t.  Also, if the thought of a young child dying in various horrible ways offends you, you should probably steer clear.  And there’s at least some surgical mistreatment of a cat.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is a completely quirky and unexpected trip into the philosophical origins of good and evil and whether or not a villain can ever really change his ways.  Also, it’s just a pretty funny romp through the death-fields with an arrogant little snot and his long-suffering babysitter. Keen-eyed readers will also appreciate the playful anagrammatic name of Alexander’s surgeon and the phonetically named cat.  This would be a great read-together for parents with left-of-centre offspring in the early middle-grade age range.

So there you are.  One seriously realistic read and one seriously ridiculous read.  Take your pick.  Or better yet, dip into both!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce’s Shelfies: The Book of Curious Lists…

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imageHello there! Today we’re getting up close and personal with another Shelfy, wherein I share with you some of the more interesting books on my shelf.  Today I have just the thing for the creatives among you and those who just love a good list.  Many years ago (well, maybe 5) I came across this darling little tome on the Book Depository:

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In case you can’t read it clearly, it is Curious Lists: A Creative Journal for List-Lovers published by Chronicle Books.  It was one of those books that I enthusiastically engaged with for a few months immediately after its purchase, and then put aside as other time-thieves took over my waking hours.  But the metaphorical chickens have come home to do some metaphorical roosting, because having picked it up again during out recent move, I found it was just perfect to share with you in this Shelfies feature as a little snapshot of Bruce as I was around about 2010.

Essentially, this is a sweet little hardback tome filled with prompts for creating lists.  But these are no ordinary lists, oh no.  These lists are strange, unexpected and sometimes just downright silly.  Let me demonstrate.

Here’s one of my favourite lists in the book: Collections of Things Beginning with the Letter S or O

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You can tell it’s one of my favourites due to the vigour with which I’ve approached the filling in of the list.  In fact, I was so enthusiastic about collections of severed limbs, that I’ve listed them twice. Such is the enjoyment that this little book brings.

Here’s another that got my mind whirring: Encumbrances for a Bike Rider

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I think it was the little illustration that piqued my imagination, but I found quite a bit of glee in mentally conjuring the image of a bike rider trying to balance a kennel of homeless puppies on his or her handlebars.  Or indeed, a couple of stone gargoyles.

Some of the lists I obviously used to demonstrate how hilarious I am.  Consider evidence A: Quotes Uttered at a Shakespeare Holiday Party

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Clearly I laughed like a drain when composing this list, no doubt wiping a granite tear from my eye as I did so.  And here’s another that I quite obviously was itching for someone else to read and enjoy, from around the time I was perched on a teacher’s bookshelf: Heartbreaking Words to Be Said to a Teacher

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The above picture also demonstrates that some of the lists had me baffled.  Cuisine Associated with Philadelphia remained sadly blank for the longest time until I happened to catch an episode of Dr Phil a year or two ago, in which the good Ph.D. visited Philadelphia and ate a cheese steak.  Of course I dashed off immediately to fill in my book of lists!

Other suggestions for this list would be gratefully received.  Of course, I could just google the information, but where’s the fun in that?  Apart from Philadelphian cuisine, here are some other lists that I’m stuck on:

Zip Codes in New York

Evergreen Shrubs of Ireland

Weeds that are also not Weeds

Beaches of Southern California

Rural Areas mentioned in Hemingway Stories

Any suggestions received will duly attract a “suggester’s credit” in my little book, of course.  While you’re thinking, here are two more lists that I filled in with only one entry.  Obviously I thought these single items were sufficiently hilarious that I need add no more!

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Equally hilarious suggestions will of course be gratefully received.

I’m interested to know if anyone else out there is in possession of this wondrous little list repository and if so, how it illuminates their life.  Or indeed if anyone has something similar, I would love to hear about it.

Until next time,

Bruce

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Robots, Insomnia and Plague…

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Welcome to another reading round-up! Today we have a bit of YA thriller, a bit of literary fiction and a bit of graphic novel gore, so hopefully you’ll find something you like within the herd.  I received two of these titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley, and a third from the author.  Let’s ride!

Sleepless: Narrowdale #1 (Michael Omer)

Two Sentence Synopsis:sleepless

When Amy moved from L.A. to the boring suburb of Narrowdale she was pretty sure she was about to experience some big changes in her life – not necessarily for the better. Finding new friends turns out to be the least of her worries however and when the terrifyingly realistic nightmares begin, Amy knows that there’s something strange running beneath the ordinary exterior of her new town.

Muster up the motivation because:

This is a fairly original and engaging take on a paranormal horror story for the YA set. It’s probably not going to win any awards for the standard of the writing, but there’s plenty of spook factor here – cue creepy whistling outside a young girl’s window at night – and enough snarky banter to keep the young folk interested. Omer has created an interesting setting in Narrowdale, where the homeless folk seem to be telepathic (and mildly prescient) and you’re never quite sure whether you’re talking to an ordinary person or a revenant from the past, so for that alone, this is worth a look.  Extra points for the awesome cover art.

Brand it with:

Catchy tunes; missing, presumed dead; heated daydreams, YA paranormal

Spread: Volume 1 (Justin Jordan, Kyle Strahm [ill], Felipe Sobreiro [ill])

Two Sentence Synopsis:Spread-Preview-1

A bloke named No is trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic, plague-ridden world, when he stumbles across a dead woman’s baby. No’s life looks set to become far more complicated, until the baby inadvertently reveals an extremely handy post-apocalyptic, plague-destroying ability.

Muster up the motivation because:

If gore and blood splats and hand-to-hand violence is your kind of thing, Spread will be right up your plague-festering alley. If you like heartwarming stories featuring gruff men saving cute little babies, this will also be right up your alley (presuming you can handle large amounts of blood-splatting gore). I don’t normally go for highly violent graphic novels, but I picked this one up because the fantastic juxtaposition of No and baby (named Hope, for the present time) on the cover screamed “Oddity Odyssey Challenge!” at me and I found that the story was engaging enough that I could put up with the graphic violence. I quite enjoyed the wily and carnivorous ways of the plague creatures too, and No is really just a big softy carrying a throwing axe.

Brand it with:

Post-apocalyptic cuteness, awwww-ful violence, fun with plague creatures

A Robot in the Garden (Deborah Install)

Two Sentence Synopsis:robot in the garden

Ben wanders outside one day to find a decrepit and slightly confused robot sitting under his tree, looking at the horses. Ben seems to think the robot – Tang – can be useful, but is there really a place in a world full of android servants for a rustbucket like Tang?

Muster up the motivation because:

If nothing else, this is a cute story of an unlikely friendship. The plot arc is fairly predictable – underachieving man finds useless robot and tries to integrate it into his home, man stubbornly sticks with robot despite disruption to his marriage, man undergoes dramatic personal change and rectifies underachieving ways with robot in tow. I didn’t really connect with the character of Ben (or Tang, for that matter) and so I think that affected my enjoyment of the overall story but if you’re looking for a gentle, unusual and fairly humorous story featuring unexpected robots, this would be a good pick.

Brand it with:

DIY, it’s-me-or-the-robot, postmodern fable, artificial intelligence

So there you have it, another herd of wild books rounded up and safely corralled.  Hopefully there’s something in there that takes your fancy.  I’m also submitting Spread for the Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge under the category of odd subject matter, because I don’t normally read such graphically violent books.  Particularly graphically violent books narrated by a baby.  If you’d like to find out more about the challenge, just click this button:

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Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge Goal: 7/16

Until next time,

Bruce