Yarning with Mad Martha about Nobody Likes a Goblin (+ a free crochet pattern!)

5

yarning with mad martha_Fotor (2)

Cheerio my dears!  Today is a red-letter day because not only do I have a wonderful picture book and pattern for you, I can also reveal that today’s book – Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke – is a Top Book of 2016 Pick!  The perfect choice for little (and large!) dungeon-crawlers everywhere, this gorgeous picture book turns RPG adventuring on its head and presents events from the point of view of the supposed villain.

Bruce's Pick

After having seen the tome on Netgalley and writhing in agony because it was offered by First Second Books, who don’t accept review requests from outside the U.S., we spotted it in PanMacmillan Australia’s catalogue and were THRILLED to be lucky enough to receive a copy.  Honestly, you should have seen Bruce leaping and twirling when the book turned up on the shelf!  I won’t keep you in any more suspense however – here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Goblin, a cheerful little homebody, lives in a cosy, rat-infested dungeon, with his only friend, Skeleton. Every day, Goblin and Skeleton play with the treasure in their dungeon. But one day, a gang of “heroic” adventurers bursts in. These marauders trash the place, steal all the treasure, and make off with Skeleton—leaving Goblin all alone!

It’s up to Goblin to save the day. But first he’s going to have to leave the dungeon and find out how the rest of the world feels about goblins.

nobody likes a goblin.jpg

I cannot praise this book highly enough.  Putting aside the charming and fun illustrations for the moment, the text of this book is incredibly sympathetic to Goblin’s plight, as his home is rudely invaded by adventurous “heroes” and the little introvert must take to the big wide hostile world for the sake of those he values.  My favourite part of the tale is when, after rescuing his friends from the hands of the adventurers, Goblin and his stalwart mate Skeleton are pictured quietly sitting together in the mouth of a cave, “awaiting their doom” while angry, pitch-fork wielding townsfolk amass above.

There’s something really touching about Goblin and the bonds of friendship he forms by the end of the tale.  For young readers who enjoy the RPG gaming world that encompasses the tropes that are reversed here, this will be a wonderfully affirming story that will provide a link between their reading and screen-based worlds.  It has already become a firm favourite amongst the mini-fleshlings in this dwelling, with the youngest (two and three-quarter years old) often calling out for “Nobody don’t like a goblin” as the preferred bedtime story.

We unanimously voted this a Top Book of 2016 pick and we think that Goblin and his friends will fill that special place of all memorable characters from childhood reading experiences.  For that reason, my dears, allow me to provide you with a free pattern to make your very own amigurumi crochet Goblin, so you can oppose anti-goblin sentiments while creating a cuddly little friend !  Read on for the pattern.

goblin and bruce 1_Fotor

We are also submitting this book for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

You can check out our progress toward that challenge here.

Yours in yarn,

Mad Martha

goblin and book 2_Fotor

Free Crochet Pattern – Goblin

This pattern is a bit fiddly, so is probably best suited to those with some experience of amigurumi.  The pattern is written using US crochet terms.

You will need:

Yarn (I used acrylic) in brown, blue, green, white, black, yellow.

4 mm hook

2.5 mm hook

Yarn needle

Scissors

Head/helmet:

Using brown yarn and 4mm hook, make a magic ring.

  1. Sc 6 in the ring.
  2. 2sc in each sc (12)
  3. *sc in next sc, 2sc in next sc* x 6 (18)
  4. * sc in next 2 sc, 2sc in next sc* x 6 (24)
  5. sc in each sc around (24).  Switch to green yarn.
  6. sc in each sc around (24)
  7. sc in each sc around (24)
  8. *sc in next 2 sc, sc2tog* x 6 (18). Begin stuffing head.
  9. *sc in next sc, sc2tog* x 6 (12)
  10. *sc in next sc, sc2tog* x 4 (8)
  11. sc2tog x 4 (4).  Sl st in next st, snip yarn and thread yarn tail through last four sc.  Pull tight and fasten off.

Helmet guard

Using brown yarn and 4mm hook, chain 20.  Slip stitch in the first chain to form a ring.

  1. sc in the next 10 ch, dc in the next 10 ch, sl st to the first sc
  2. Ch 2, turn, dc in next 10 stitches
  3. Ch 2, turn, hdc in next 3 stitches, dc in next 4 stitches, hdc in next 3 stitches.

Fasten off, leaving a long tail, and stitch to the bottom rim of the helmet, with the longer section at the back of the head.

Horns (make 2)

Using white yarn and a 2.5 mm hook, chain 6.

  1. Sc in 2nd chain from the hook and in each chain (5)
  2. Ch 1, turn, sc in each sc (5)
  3. Ch 1, turn, sc2tog, sc, sc2tog (3)
  4. Ch 1, turn, sc in each stitch (3)
  5. Ch 1, turn, sc2tog, sc (2)
  6. Ch 1, turn, sc in each stitch (2)
  7. Ch 1, turn, sc2tog, sl st to FO.

Whip stitch the two sides of the triangle together and sew onto either side of the helmet.

Eyes (make 2)

Using white yarn and a 2.5 mm hook, make a magic ring.

  1. Sc 6 in the ring.  Sl st to the first sc to close.

FO, embroider a black pupil in the centre and sew to face, slightly overlapping the rim of the helmet.

Jaw

Using green yarn and a 2.5mm hook, chain 13.

  1. sc in second chain from the hook and in each stitch across (12)
  2. Ch 1, turn, sl st in the next 3 sc, dc in next sc, sc in the next sc, sl st in the next sc, dc in the next sc, sl st in the next 3sc.

Fasten off leaving a long tail.  Attach to the bottom of the head, and using brown yarn, embroider along the top of the lip.

Nose 

Using green yarn and a 2.5mm hook, ch 4.

  1. sc in 2nd chain from the hook and in each chain (3)
  2. Ch 1, turn, sc2tog, sc (2)
  3. Ch 1, turn, sc2tog (1)

Fasten off and whip stitch two sides of the triangle together to form the nose.  Attach to face.

Body/Legs

Using brown yarn and a 4mm hook, complete pattern for the head up to and including round 4.

1-5. Sc in each sc around (24)

6. Switch to blue yarn.  Sc in each sc around (24)

7. Sc in next 12 sc, skip next 12 sc, sl st in the 1st sc (12)

8-10. Sc in next 12 sc (12)

Change to brown yarn.

11. Sc in next 12 sc (12)

12. sc in next 5 sc, 2sc in next 3 sc, sc in next 5sc (20)

13. Sc in the next 8 sts, dc in the next 4 sts, sc in the next 8 sc (20)

Stuff leg and body.  FO, Cut yarn and whip stitch bottom of leg closed to form boot.

Attach blue yarn in the first remaining sc on the body and repeat pattern from row 11 to form second leg/boot.

Arms (make 2)

Using blue yarn and a 4mm hook, make a magic ring.

1.Sc 6 in the ring

2-4. Sc in each st (6)

5. Switch to brown yarn. Sc in each st (6)

6-7.  Sc in each sc (6)

Stuff the arm, squeeze the opening shut and sl st across the opening.  Ch 3 picot 5 times to form fingers.  FO and attach to body.

Shoulder guards (make 2)

Using blue yarn and a 4mm hook, chain 7.

  1. Sc in 2nd chain from the hook and in each ch across (6)
  2. Ch 2, turn, hdc in each st across (6)
  3. Ch 1, turn, sc, dc in the next 4 sts, sc (6)

Fasten off and attach to the top of the arm.

Belt/Armour

Using brown yarn and a 2.5 mm hook, chain 30 and sl st with the first chain to form a ring.

  1. Ch 1, sc in each chain (30)
  2. Fur stitch (long) in the next 5 st, sc in the next 5sc, fur stitch in the next 5 st, sc in the next 5 sts, fur stitch in the next 5 sts, sl st to first st. (30)

FO, leaving a long tail.  Snip the loops of the fur stitch and sew the belt to the tummy over the join where the blue yarn changes to brown.Make sure the fur stitch sections are at the front and back, not the sides.  For the shoulder strap, chain the required length (to fit from belt, over shoulder, to belt at the back), ch 1, sc in each chain, then FO and sew shoulder strap into place.

Crown

Using yellow yarn and a 2.5mm hook, chain 30 and sl st into the first chain to form a ring.

  1. Sc in each chain (30)
  2. *Ch 5 picot (sl st, ch 5 and sl st in the same stitch), sc in the next 3 sc* repeat to end.  Sl st in final st.

FO, weave in end.

goblin and book 1_Fotor

 

 

 

 

 

Remade: A Jelly-Legs-Inducing, YA Read-it-if Review…

4

read it if NEW BUTTON

Even though today’s book is pitched at YA readers, it is not for the faint of heart!  Remade by Alex Scarrow is a post-apocalyptic thriller that, suprisingly, given our general aversion to post-apocalyptic fare, we couldn’t devour fast enough.  We were lucky enough to receive a copy from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Leon and his younger sister, Grace, have recently moved to London from New York and are struggling to settle into their new school when rumours of an unidentified virus in Africa begin to fill the news. Within a week the virus hits London. The siblings witness people turning to liquid before their eyes, and they run for their lives. A month after touching Earth’s atmosphere the virus has assimilated the world’s biomass. But the virus isn’t their only enemy, and survival is just the first step . . .

remade

Read it if:

*your response to any kind of catastrophe, from burning the toast to the coming of the end of days, is decidedly British: to have a cup of tea and a good lie down

*when you hear potential bad news reported in the media, your first port-of-call is a web forum for conspiracy theorists to find out what’s REALLY going on

*you don’t care for train travel (or indeed, public transport of any kind) on account of the fact that it provides no escape from the press of unwashed humanity

*you firmly believe that even though the human race has been reduced to a handful of scraggly survivors, that’s no reason to abandon good manners

The suspense in the opening chapters of this book was so craftily built up that it snatched me with its suspenseful claws and had me halfway through the book before I stopped for a break.  I knocked the rest over in just a few short sittings and I am pleased to say that this is a quality series opener with a very creepy premise.  Essentially, a virus appears in Africa with the unfortunate consequence that those who acquire it become reduced to jelly and then bones within minutes.  Worse than that however, is the suggestion that the virus may actually go looking for further quarry once the original host has been devoured.

Once it becomes obvious that the virus isn’t some 48-hour flash in the pan, there is a sense of inevitability exuded in the narration of the story.  Leon, Grace and their mother, while attempting to flee the spread of the virus, retain a certain resignation that infection and jellification will feature largely in their individual near-futures.  There was something about the inescapable nature of this virus and the extremely short-term goal setting it inspires in the main characters that was reassuring to me and I think allowed me to enjoy this story more than other post-apocalyptic YA novels I’ve read.  I didn’t have to worry about the ways in which they might achieve survival months or years down the track because there was a very real chance that they would be nought but a pile of bones within the next few moments.

My favourite part of the novel is an over-riding sense of Britishness that pervades it.  I realise that politeness and orderliness are not solely the province of the British, but there was such a feeling of warm familiarity that came over me as I was reading – particularly during the scene on the train – that I allowed myself a little chuckle at the fact that even during the collapse of civilisation, these characters were still prepared to maintain a semblance of decorum,  stiff-upper-lippedness and general good manners.

The virus itself is a clever character, if I may use that term, because it is unlike any virus that microbiologists have yet encountered.  It seems to evolve in stages, developing different ways of threatening those it didn’t mince first time around, thus providing for new and interesting dangers for our protagonists beyond the immediate run away screaming type response.   The ending provides a fantastic cliff-hanger in this regard and I would be interested to see where the story goes next.  Having said that, there is enough action and creepiness and character building going on in this novel to ward off feelings of desperation regarding the next stage in the story.

There are a few aspects of the plot that might grate on more seasoned readers of post-apocalyptic tales than I (convenient access to resources required for survival, for instance) and I did have a few questions when the reason behind the protagonists supposed “immunity” was revealed (namely that, based on my casual, and not at all scientific, calculations, I would have expected a much higher rate of survival given the key “immunity” factor).  These plot holes didn’t bother me too much though, mainly due to the absorbing action of the story and the excellent pacing.

While I will keep an eye out for the next book, I’m satisfied to wait for a bit and digest (pardon the pun) the relationships and character growth presented in this impressive offering.  I’d definitely recommend having a bash at this one if you are looking for a good old-fashioned scare-a-thon with a large helping of hope.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Venus Flytraps and Wandering Spirits: A Double Dip Review…

3

image

Today’s Double Dip review will have you walking (or possibly skating or gliding) on the wild side as we explore an illustrated, comedic middle grade offering featuring a talking Venus Flytrap, and a collection of traditional ghost and scary stories.  For this reason then, it might be best if you choose an accompanying snack that doesn’t spill easily, as we take no responsibility for clothes ruined due to spillage from jumping in fright or guffawing with mirth.  We received both of these titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley.  Let’s dig in.

First up, we have Inspector Flytrap and the Big Deal Mysteries by Tom Angleberger and illustrated by Cece Bell.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

From husband-and-wife team Tom Angleberger, creator of theNew York Times bestselling Origami Yoda series, and Cece Bell, author/illustrator of the Newbery Honor graphic novel El Deafo,comes the start to a funny and clever illustrated chapter-book series about a mystery-solving Venus flytrap. With easy-to-read language and illustrations on almost every page, this early-chapter-book series is a must for beginning readers.

Inspector Flytrap in the Da Vinci Cold introduces kids to the humorous and wacky world of Inspector Flytrap’s Detective Agency, home to the world-renowned solver of BIG DEAL mysteries. The plant detective works tirelessly with his assistant Nina the Goat on his community’s unsolved cases. There’s no case too big, but there are definitely cases too small for this endearingly self-important plant detective.

Celebrating the disabled yet enabled, the character of Inspector Flytrap is wheeled everywhere (on a skateboard, of course) by his goat sidekick as this mystery-solving duo works on cases such as “The Big Deal Mystery of the Stinky Cookies” and “The Big Deal Mystery of the Missing Rose.”

On his first caper, Inspector Flytrap heads to the Art Museum’s Secret Lab to discover what important message lies in a mysterious glob on a recently discovered Da Vinci flower painting. The ingenious solution: Da Vinci was allergic to flowers, and the glob is, er, evidence of that ancient sneeze.

Combining wacky humor and a silly cast of characters with adventure, friendship, and mystery, the powerhouse team of Tom Angleberger and Cece Bell have created a uniquely engaging series that is perfect for newly independent readers and fans of Ricky Ricotta, Captain Underpants, and the Galaxy Zack series. Also included in these books are some graphic novel–style pages that will attract reluctant readers.

Dip into it for…  inspector flytrap

…an illustrated, slapstick adventure that has kid appeal in spades.  As you can probably tell from the cover, Inspector Flytrap is no stranger to utter ridiculum, given that he gets about on a skateboard pushed by an obliging goat.  This series is aimed at the lower end of the middle grade age bracket as it is filled with repetitive gags – such as everyone getting Inspector Flytrap’s official title wrong – and rather obvious (or ridiculously outrageous) solutions to the BIG DEAL mysteries.

Don’t dip if…

You are looking for a middle grade read that will appeal to adult readers as well as the target age group.  To be honest, I found this to be a bit of trial to read and I suspect that this is one of those MG offerings that will appeal to its target age group, but not necessarily to the adults who may have to read it to or with them.  Admittedly,  the odd guffaw did escape my stony lips at a few points due to the blatant and silly nature of the comedy, however I do not feel any need to follow up with Inspector Flytrap in his adventures that are yet to come.

Overall Dip Factor

This is one of those middle grade reads that blends visual and textual information to its great advantage. The illustrations add immensely to the appeal of the book as one would expect, and are integral to the telling of the story.  Keep an eye out for the unobtrusive sloth (the real hero of the tale in my opinion) and Nina the goat for providing much of the visual comedy.  Without question, this is another addition to that wealth of middle grade literature aimed at kids who just want to have fun with their reading.

Next up we have The Thing at the Foot of the Bed (and other Scary Tales) by Maria Leach and illustrated by Kurt Werth.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A mysterious hitchhiker, a lovelorn pig, and a backseat gangster are among the colorful characters that populate these spooky stories. Noted folklorist Maria Leach spins a tapestry of yarns that originated in the British Isles, New England, and the American South. Moody black-and-white drawings complement the stories, which range from humorous and playful to downright eerie.
There’s the one about the fellow who saw two eyes staring at him from the foot of the bed, and the one about the family that ran away from their malevolent household spirit only to find that it had come with them. The tale of the golden arm, a favorite of Mark Twain’s, is a standard of campfire gatherings. Other chilling stories recount scenes from haunted houses, ghostly visitations, and midnight trips to the graveyard. An amusing selection of “Do’s and Don’t’s About Ghosts” offers advice to those who go looking for scares as well as those who find them accidentally, and the stories’ sources and backgrounds are explained in helpful notes and a bibliography.

Dip into it for...the thing at the foot of the bed

…a selection of traditional ghost stories ranging from mildly humorous to reasonably tedious, plus a bizarre collection of beliefs about ghosts and ghostly behaviour and some ghostly games to play.  I wasn’t aware on reading this that it was originally published in 1959, so the old-fashioned feel to the format and narratives isn’t so much old-fashioned, as contemporary for the time!  The stories are split into sections – scary tales, funny tales and real ones (although how the “real” ones differ from the others is unclear) – and each of the tales is linked to its supposed origins, as far as they are known.  This is quite a quick read, with most of the stories only taking up one or two pages each, along with an illustration.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for a book with actual scary tales.  It may be that Bart Simpson was correct when he posited that perhaps people were just easier to scare in “the olden days” but I found nothing even remotely scary about the stories contained in this book.  Also, the narrative style is so abrupt and unlike most writing for children today that I can’t imagine many younger readers will be particularly frightened by the stories either – which I suppose could be a good thing, if you’re a natural scaredy cat.

Overall Dip Factor

This book was a spectacular disappointment for me overall.  I can forgive some of the flaws given that it was published in a different era of reading, but the style of never kick a ghostwriting didn’t seem to lend itself to scary stories in my opinion.  One of the problems I had, that is peculiar to vintage texts, is that I had recently heard or read some of the stories contained here in much more interesting formats.  Don’t Ever Kick A Ghost turned up as a title story in an early reader belonging to the eldest mini-fleshling (pictured), while Julian Clary reads a cracking rendition of The Hairy Toe in an episode of Bookaboo, titled The Golden Arm in this collection.  There were a few stories that I enjoyed – Milk Bottles and Wait ‘Til Martin Comes being the standouts – but otherwise I didn’t find much to crow about.  Unless you are specifically looking for traditional ghost stories told in a narrative style common in the 1960s, you might be disappointed with this collection.

So did your clothes remain unstained by errant foodstuffs?  If not, it’s probably because of the content of the books.  I take no responsibility.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Gritty UKYA” Edition…

2

image

Pull out your best Round-Up hat, because today’s three UK YA titles are ones that you will be wanting to chase down.  We received copies of today’s books from Allen & Unwin for review.  Keep your eyes open my friends, we’ve got some live ones here!

Bad Apple (Matt Whyman)

Two Sentence Synopsis:

bad apple

Bad Apple (Matt Whyman) Published by Bonnier, 25th May 2016.  RRP: $16.99

When Maurice goes on a school trip to observe “trolls” in their settlement for his modern history class, he doesn’t expect to get quite so “up close and personal” with the inhabitants. When he discovers what is going on in the settlements, Maurice decides to risk doing the wrong thing for the right reasons and in doing so, blurs the boundaries between troll and human behaviours.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is one road-trip that bumps along apace and while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, still manages to raise some questions about the labels that we put on each other.  The first few chapters, in which we discover the origin of the under-dwelling trolls, are particularly engaging and the pace never slows enough to register any lag.  Maurice, Cindy and Wretch (not to mention Governor Shores) all have obvious flaws and strengths, which helps to drive the philosophical question about who should be classed a troll and who shouldn’t.  There is a certain sense of the ridiculous laced throughout the main trio’s antics, but the story is so fun and fast that there’s not enough time to dwell on whether or not the happenings are believable.  I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Whyman’s work after this – the absorbing but flippant narrative style really appeals to my sense of humour and I love a story in which fantasy or speculative elements are seamlessly inserted into an otherwise rather ordinary setting.  This is the sort of YA book that would certainly also appeal to adults who appreciate oddity in writing, as well as adult characters who would remind them strongly of the mix of enemies and allies that appear in any workplace.  I recommend this one for those looking for a quirky, fun change of pace with a thought-provoking twist.

Brand it with:

Notes from the underground, genetic testing, born to be wild

The Fix (Sophie McKenzie)

 

the fix

The Fix (Sophie McKenzie) Pulished by Faber Factory Plus (FfP), 25th May 2016.  RRP: $13.99

 

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Blake is a star striker on his football team, but at home his mum is struggling to pay the rent.  When Blake is offered the opportunity to earn some money by deliberately throwing his next match, it seems like the solution to Blake’s rent problem is right in front of him.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this book is touted as “super-readable” by a helpful sticker on the back, and as a “low reading level, high interest” book, it is a great choice for struggling or reluctant readers in the YA bracket who prefer shorter reads that get straight to the action.  This book is easily read in one or two sittings, with no unnecessary segues into side plots that might lessen the interest of the story overall.  The characters are quite two-dimensional, given the short word count, but there is plenty of action to ensure the reader stays engaged.  The book starts with a botched getaway attempt from a midnight kick-around session in Blake’s city’s brand new football stadium, and from that point on, Blake is forced to make some hard decisions over where his loyalties lie.  As it is so short, it’s hard to drum up too much excitement over having read this book, but it does exactly what it says on the tin, which is to pitch a tale of high interest to YA readers at an easily accessible reading level for those in the target age group.

Brand it with:

Money for nothing, divided loyalties, pacey reads

Johnny Delgado (Kevin Brooks)

 

johnny delgado

Johnny Delgado (Kevin Brooks) Published by Faber Factory Plus (FfP), 25th May 2016 RRP: $13.99

 

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Johnny lives in North Tower of the estate with his mum, after his dad – a policeman – was killed in a botched drug raid.  Hoping to make it as a private detective, Johnny will stop at nothing to find out the truth, particularly when it involves his family, but in doing so, will put those he loves in danger.

Muster up the motivation because…

…for a high interest/low reading level YA offering, this is a remarkably engaging and suspenseful book.  Despite this not being my particular preference for content in YA contemporary, I will admit to being riveted by Johnny’s story because it is action-packed from beginning to end.  This bind-up includes the first two stories in what has previously been published as two separate books – Johnny Delgado: Private Detective and Johnny Delgado: Like Father, Like Son – and despite the reasonably naff titles of those two books, the stories are actually aimed at readers of YA who can handle mature themes such as drug use, gang warfare and urban poverty.  The stories don’t shy away from the overbearing sense of despair and entrapment in the poverty cycle that pervades the estate in which Johnny lives, and the writing brings to life the depressing conditions of council house tenants living cheek by jowl.  The characters are, for the most part, authentic representations of the kinds of folk who might populate such an estate and Johnny himself is believable as a young man driven to discover the truth behind his father’s death.  The vivid action and, dare I say, believable violence contained in the stories will no doubt be a drawcard for reluctant male readers, but overall I would recommend having a look at this series simply for the exciting narrative style, suspenseful action and graphic depictions of urban life in a rough locale.

Brand it with:

Is that a gun in your pocket?, stairs or lift?, urban jungle

Have you mentally grabbed one of these books and stuffed it in your proverbial tucker bag yet?

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

Memoir as Fiction: Black British…

4

black british

We’re having a bit of a change of pace today on the shelf with some historical adult fiction that reads like a memoir, written by an Australian author and set in 1960s India during a time of social upheaval.  With India being one of the countries in whose history we are particularly interested (the other, of course, at the moment, being Japan), it would have been remiss of us not to get our collective paws on Black British by Hebe De Souza.  We were lucky enough to snag a copy from Ventura Press for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.

Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

Black British is, for the most part, a thinly-disguised memoir dressed up as fiction.  The story revolves around a woman who has returned to her ancestral home and ends up telling her life story to a stranger who asks a simple enough question: “Where do you come from, lady?”  The majority of the tale occurs in 1960s India, with extremely brief flashes back to the original chatting pair at the end of each chapter to link the sections together.

While I enjoyed the book, narrated by thinker and independent spirit Lucy, the youngest of three sisters living a comparatively wealthy upbringing as English-speaking, private school-attending young ladies surrounded by great swathes of people living in poverty, it was not the suspenseful and tumultuous ride suggested by the blurb.  I was expecting a lot more insight into the social upheaval of the time, but most of the story takes place within the walls of Lucy’s family’s compound and the girls are largely shielded from their family’s precarious social position and its implications by the adults in their lives.  Basically, I wanted the danger to feature more largely in the telling of a story that sees Lucy go from her early years of schooling to the cusp of adulthood with nary a scary experience to report – except for an overzealous monkey intruder and a very hairy cab ride after she ventures as a young adult into the community with her father.

Even though the book didn’t end up being quite as exciting as I expected, it remains an absorbing snapshot of a time and place undergoing rapid and permanent social change.  As English-speaking Catholics, Lucy’s family are well outside what was considered typical in her community and the struggles of being the outsider, even in one’s own home, are thoroughly explored. The prominent motif throughout the book is the security provided by a loving family unit and the ways in which adults nurture the enquiring minds of young people, even in situations that will cause the young person to move up a rung on the ladder of social maturity.

The book deals with a number of social issues including domestic abuse and the place of people identifying as homosexual in an unforgiving culture and time, and as the reader experiences these issues through Lucy’s eyes, it is clear that situations that one might consider black and white, move through every shade of grey when considered in a larger social context.  The implications for individuals of their life choices – whether to remain in an unhappy marriage or relegate oneself to a life of hardship, for instance – are offered as fodder to fuel Lucy’s own looming crisis: to remain in the only home she knows, despite her outsider status and the ever-present threat of violence and hardship, or leave her roots behind for the sake of building a comfortable future.

This is certainly a book that focuses on familial relationships as a means for exploring the wider social conflicts that influence the decisions we make as individuals.  As a fictional memoir, it is engaging and the characters are fleshed out and authentic.  I would have liked to have seen more made of the Lucy of “twenty-one years later”.  The tiny flashes we get of the Lucy who has returned to her homeland in search of belonging felt a bit contrived, as so much of the focus was on the period set in the 1960s, and I would have liked to have been privy to what Lucy did with, at least, some of her life since her family’s decision to move away.  Nevertheless, this is a strong debut from De Souza and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next – particularly something that is wholly fictional.

If you are looking for historical fiction that reads like a memoir and places an emphasis on growing up as an outsider in one’s own land, you should certainly give Black British a look.

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Pigeons, the Elderly and Personal Growth…

1

It has been a considerable while since I last put up a novel in the Utopirama category, but today’s delightful little tome simply could not fit anywhere else.  We received a copy of Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger via Netgalley and as it is a translation from the original French, I should probably mention that the translator was Frank Wynne – this will be important to know later.  Let us begin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous, heartwarming story follows the intellectually dim-witted 45-year-old Germain as he meets and slowly gets to know 85-year-old Margueritte, who sits in the park every day watching the pigeons and reading. She speaks to him as an equal, something his friends rarely do, and reads to him, sparking in him a previously undiscovered interest in books and reading. When she reveals to Germain that she is starting to lose her eyesight to macular degeneration, he is inspired for the first time in his life to work at reading so that he can read fluently to his new friend.

soft in the head

Quick Overview:

This is a novel in which, I can happily report, nothing particularly distressing occurs.  The old lady does not die in the end.  There is a bit of language and sexual allusions, to warn those who are squeamish about such things, but overall the story explores the developing friendship between Germain and Margueritte, as well as charting Germain’s growth in self esteem, motivation and personal purpose.  If this sounds like it flies a bit too close to the winds of tedium for you, I can assure you that the gentle pace is more than made up for by the charmingly personable narration of Germain.  The effect of the whole story is a lingering sense of upliftedness and an appreciation for the small things in life.

I have had a bit of trouble with translations from French in the past, for reasons that I can’t quite pick.  Perhaps I’m just not finely attuned to the French sense of humour.  This translation though, was excellent, in that it kept the Frenchness of the characters and story and setting, yet seamlessly incorporated turns of phrase in the English vernacular that added to the atmosphere and allowed the characters to be more fleshed out for an audience unfamiliar with the nuances of the French language and lifestyle.  The narrative style was immediately engaging, and Germain is such a likable and sympathetic narrator that I couldn’t help but take his arm and stroll along into the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Netgalley, you will be unaware that reviewers may request books months before their release date and it was just such a circumstance that had me completely forgetting the specifics of the blurb before I began reading.  For this reason, I went into this story thinking that Germain was in his early twenties rather than mid-forties.  His style of narration and continual admissions to being slightly below par in the intelligence stakes did nothing to dispel this misconception, so I was more than a little surprised when Germain mentions about halfway through the book that he is actually 45!  After allowing my brain a few chapters to reconceptualise the main character, I quite easily got back into enjoying the flow of the story.

This would be the perfect pick for a lazy holiday read or to keep on your nightstand for when you need a gentle easing into sleep.  It’s funny, touching and generally focused on finding the good in people and the magic that can happen when an unexpected friendship bears the fruit of positive change in the participants.

Utopian Themes:

Books as solace for the weary heart

Traditional skills and hobbies

Intergenerational friendship

Overcoming adversity

Forgiveness

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

Five out of five protective bubbles for the simple pleasure of feeding pigeons from a sunny spot on a park bench.

Until next time,

Bruce

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Japan for Younger Readers” Edition…

1

image

We’re off to Japan today to explore some titles ostensibly for those younger than I, with three books for middle grade and young adult readers.  Let’s get amongst it!

First up we have a tome that I bought to satisfy my own curiosity about an emerging juggernaut of popular culture (emerging in the West, at least), the Studio Ghibli creation, Totoro.  Of course, being a Bookshelf Gargoyle, I turned first to see if I could experience the story in the printed word before I resorted to DVDs, and behold, there was a beautifully presented, illustrated novelised version of the film for young readers. Oh look, here it is!

My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, novelised by Tsugiko Kubo)

Two Sentence Synopsis:

my neighbour totoro

Satsuki and Mei move to a “haunted house” in the country to be closer to their mother, who is residing in the hospital with an illness. After Mei discovers a forest guardian spirit named Totoro, in the nearby woods, Satsuki is desperate to meet him as well.

Muster up the motivation because…

…Not having seen the film, I can’t say whether or not this is a faithful retelling of the film, but on its own it is a delightful story about two sisters and their move to a new, rural village.  As I was reading I was reminded strongly of the innocence and gentle rhythm of an Enid Blyton story, but without the ginger beers.  I was somewhat disappointed that more of the characters from the fandom didn’t appear in the story – only Totoro himself and the Catbus – but the story focused more on Satsuki and Mei than on the magical creatures.  Similarly, many of the illustrations only featured the girls doing reasonably ordinary things.  Overall, I really loved reading the book but in case you are in a similar position as I, the story covers Satsuki and Mei’s growth in their new home, with only the wispiest wisps of foray into the magical forest world of Totoro.

Brand it with:

forest guardians, weeding and planting, bus stops, getting to know your neighbours

Next up is a darkly comic YA offering….

Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse (Otsuichi, translated by Nathan Collins)

summer fireworks and my corpse

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Satsuki is playing in a tree with her friend, when she is pushed off the branch, falls and dies.  She then narrates the tale of how her murderous friend and the friend’s brother attempt to hide her body so as not to get into trouble.

Muster up the motivation for…

…an absolutely ripper quirky little gem of a tale.  Given that this is a translation, I’m not entirely sure if the translation is a bit clunky or the original voice of the story is simply cold and detached.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short tale, in which Satsuki wryly narrates her experience as a corpse, being dragged (quite literally) from pillar to post by her young friends as they try to escape detection.  The older brother character, Ken, is quite nonchalant about the whole situation, and calmly solves problems as one well-meaning sticky-beak after another threatens to ruin the charade.  The events in the book occur in short enough a time so that things don’t become utterly ridiculous and unbelievable, yet there is still a subtle sense of “Weekend at Bernie’s” that underlies the whole ordeal.  The ending is an absolute cracker that I did not see coming at all and threw the rest of the story into a new light.
As an added bonus, the book includes a second, shorter story featuring dolls, ghosts and a young girl working as a housekeeper in the home of a rich widower.  This story actually had my mind working far more than the main one, with a much more ambiguous, but equally satisfying, ending.

Brand it with:

What’s a little murder between friends?, hide and seek, thanks for the memories

Finally, we have a YA historical fiction with a touch of the ole’ swordplay.

Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale (David Kudler)

risuko

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Risuko, “Squirrel”, wants nothing more than to climb, to escape her home life of poverty.  When she is sold to a travelling noblewoman, her life changes beyond anything she could have imagined, and her father’s legacy will place her in danger.

Muster up the motivation because…

…being a historical novel for young adults set in sixteenth century Japan, this is different enough from the typical YA offering to warrant some attention.  It didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected, and the writing felt too American in voice to be really authentic, but there was enough going on here to hold my interest.  Throughout the book there is the mystery to solve of why Risuko has been taken and what it is she is being trained for, and with most of the characters keeping their cards close to their respective chests, the reader is never exactly sure who is trustworthy.  The Korean chef character was my favourite as he is the only one who seems to be exactly who he seems, although his dialogue is burdened with a weirdly Scottish sounding brogue.  The ending, in an enormous departure from the rest of the novel,  is action-packed and laced with emotion.  Overall, this felt a bit unfinished to me, with pacing issues and an oddly detached narrative voice, but will certainly be of interested to those who are prepared to invest themselves in the character and setting from the get-go.

Brand it with:

living by the sword, onward and upward, born to climb

So there you have it.  I hope there’s something in there for you to get your teeth into.  I will hopefully continue the trend of reading more Japanese books this year – I’ve spotted some very enticing little tomes coming out in the next few months, and I have also ordered the picture book rendering of the My Neighbour Totoro films, so I will be able to report back on whether I have learned anything more of this intriguing pop culture phenomenon.

Until next time,

Bruce