Bruce’s Shelfies: Christmas in (Almost) July!

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It’s never too early to start thinking about Christmas, so today I am going to provide you with a round up of titles that I have my eye on for the second half of the year….you know, in case any of you feel like getting a little present for your friendly neighbourhood gargoyle.  These are books that I would love to get my grubby little claws upon had I a tad more disposable income and a bit more space on the TBR shelf.

First up of course is the hardback, illustrated, large format edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I managed to pick up a second hand copy of this edition of Philosopher’s Stone at a suitcase rummage late last year for $18.  BARGAIN!  Then I may or may not have recently splurged on this edition of Chamber of Secrets.  And in the same transaction I may or may not have ordered the hardback, 20th anniversary Ravenclaw House edition of Philosopher’s Stone.  And while we’re being honest, I may or may not have already actually put this edition of Prisoner of Azkaban on pre-order.  Because it’s releasing in October and you know, I wouldn’t want to be unprepared for Christmas or anything.  I regret nothing.

Next up is Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved A Family…

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I actually had plenty of opportunity to receive a review copy of this one back when it was released but at the time I thought it wasn’t really my thing.  Since then, the dwelling has had its own family of extremely friendly magpies come visiting on a regular basis and all of a sudden I desperately want to read this book.  The magpie in this one seems much more tame than even the highly trusting and relaxed birds that come almost into our kitchen when they visit, so I’m interested to read more about her.

Then there’s this atmospheric and creepy little number…

white is for witching

I can never go past a haunted house tale and White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi looks particularly enticing.

And then there’s Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw…

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I want this one so much I nearly pre-ordered it last week.  It’s got Helsings, a doctor to the undead, murderous monks and a murder mystery all in one.  How could I pass it up?

Then there’s Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans…

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I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Lissa Evan’s other books and this one looks like a bit of a change of pace.  The blurb sounds a bit subversive to me and I’m intrigued by that scary wabbit shadow on the cover.

Then there’s the Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson…

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It’s a graphic novel travel guide!!  I haven’t given up on my dream of visiting Japan and following in Mad Martha’s footsteps, despite financial impossibilities and the difficulties of getting stone on a plane and I think this book would be the perfect inspirational tome.

Then of course there’s Ben Hatke’s entire back catalouge…

mighty jack and the goblin king

But I’d settle for Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, being the second in the Mighty Jack graphic novel series.  I reviewed the first one earlier this year and I am itching to get my teeth into this next installment.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start for Santa, don’t you think?  What about you?  What books are on your Christmas list for 2017?

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: The Secret of Black Rock

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Today’s book is full of adventure and secrets, danger and hope and as such is the perfect winter read to snuggle up with.  We received The Secret of Black Rock by Joe Todd-Stanton for review from Walker Books Australia and here’s the blurb form Goodreads:

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Erin loves to lie on the jetty, looking for the weirdest fish in the sea—the weirder, the better! And she knows the best ones must be further out, where her mum won’t let her go . . .

Out there in the deepest sea lies the Black Rock: a huge, dark and spiky mass that is said to destroy any boats that come near it! Can Erin uncover the truth behind this mysterious legend?

The Secret of Black Rock is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, from its glowing golden endpapers to the layered blues and greens of the deep sea.  It reminded us strongly of another 2017 picture book release, Grandad’s Secret Giant by David Litchfield, due to similar themes of not judging a book by its cover and the need to preserve, protect and learn about the things we don’t understand.

The story opens with various characters recounting the horrors of Black Rock, a rock formation close to a coastal fishing village that has a reputation for destruction and danger.  Erin, however, is not afraid and will employ all her cunning and sneakiness to stow away on her mother’s fishing boat to catch sight of the Rock, despite its fearsome personification in the eyes of the villagers.  When Erin is accidentally thrown overboard, she discovers the Rock’s secret and attempts to reveal this to the villagers – but they misinterpret her message and set out to destroy the Rock once and for all.

The illustrations here are so atmospheric, with the contrast between the warmth of home and the cold, roiling mass of the sea reinforcing the dangers of venturing too far from the safety of the shore.  When readers finally catch a glimpse of Black Rock they won’t be able to avoid feeling that the poor old rock has been a bit hard done by the fisherfolk, and will be hoping for a positive resolution to the story.  The mini-fleshlings in this dwelling also had a great time spotting all the different sea life that is depicted making their homes around the rock.

This story would be a great conversation starter in the classroom around issues of gossip and the negative effects that can come from judging without full knowledge of the situation.  Similarly, it would be the perfect choice for a bedtime read aloud on a cold and windy night, when the nature’s perilous side can feel all too real.  We Shelf-dwellers think it’s a winner.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Life in Death: Timely, Absorbing and Not for the Faint of Heart (or Stomach)…

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a life in death

Call me a ghoul if you like (a gar-ghoul?) but I have come, late in life, to a deep and abiding interest in the work of those who are employed in the field of death management. I just made that term up, but you get the idea.  Funerary workers, forensic pathologists, police – it doesn’t matter who, particularly, but I find the work they do fascinating and I find it helps a bit with acknowledging my own – and everyone else’s – mortality. A Life in Death by Richard Venables, which we received from the publisher via Netgalley for review, deals with a specific subset of post-death work; Disaster Victim Identification, or the recovery and reunification of a deceased victim of a natural or human-caused disaster with the victim’s next of kin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Detective Inspector Richard Venables (QPM, rtd.) has helped identify thousands of bodies all over the world, piecing together fragments from tsunamis, transport and other disasters to return the victims to their loved ones.

A world-renowned expert in Disaster Victim Identification who was a member of the UK Police’s Major Disaster Advisory Team, Richard’s destiny was shaped in part by his presence as a uniformed sergeant at the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster.

In A Life in Death, Richard tells his extraordinary story, of how death came to be a key feature of his personal as well as professional life, as well as how he coped with the biggest challenge of his life: the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the deadliest event of its kind ever experienced by human civilization, claiming 230,000 lives.

Upon his retirement from the Police in 2006, Richard was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in recognition of his distinguished service. In A Life in Death, Richard takes us behind the scenes of extraordinary events, explaining with compassion and searing honesty the absolute necessity of his work, his life’s passion.

As well as being an accessible and fascinating read, A Life in Death is, sadly, a particularly timely piece of work.  Reading this, as I did, just a day after the terribly tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London and a mere few weeks after terrorist incidents in Manchester and London, really brought home the importance of the work that Venables and his ilk complete, off-putting though it may be to think about.  In this tome, retired DI Richard Venables recounts his work in the police force in Disaster Victim Identification, from its early days in the 1980s, when those tasked with the recovery and identification of victims were often required to fly by the seat of their pants, so to speak, to the very recent past, by which time procedures had been created to ensure dignity for victims and their loved ones and the minimisation of mistaken identifications and psychological harm.

In case you should blithely stroll into this reading experience somehow unaware of what might lay within, this book graphically discusses corpses.  And not just corpses – putrefecation, body parts separated from their owners, untimely and violent death, mass casualty events of the recent past, the raw grief of victims’ families and the psychological scars that can come from working with death for a prolonged period.  So there you are.  You’ve been warned.

Having said that, it also deals with these topics in a respectful, non-gratuitous and dignified fashion.  I appreciated the tone of the work, and much like Judy Melinek’s excellent Working Stiff,  being the memoir of a forensic pathologist up to and including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the honest approach of the book allows the reader to absorb the technical information, feel moved by the human aspect of the work, yet never feel overwhelmed by the tragic nature of the cases being discussed.  Venables frequently notes the difficulties that people who work with death can experience psychologically and champions the importance of workplaces providing support and appropriate assistance.  Throughout the book it is also interesting to note ways in which this need for support has been written in to professional procedure, to ensure that workers receive that which they need.

Some of the unique problems discussed throughout the book include the difficulties with securing a scene or scenes immediately after a mass casualty event and the specific problems faced by those – be they emergency service workers or innocent bystanders – who arrive on the scene first.  You will be stunned, I’m sure, as I was, by the completely preventable causes of some of the incidents and the unimaginable horror that one person’s error or negligence can create. Similarly, the book touches on the thoroughness of the victim identification process and why this can cause upset for families of victims, due to delays that prevent families from having the death of their loved one confirmed.

Venables does a magnificent job of hitting the appropriate tone with a difficult and somewhat unpalatable topic.  While never resorting to outright humour or jollity, he nevertheless acknowledges the odd juxtapositions that occur within his line of work.  That while he loves his work and wants desperately to learn, practice his skills and improve the practice of disaster victim identification generally, to accomplish this requires mutliple people to die in unexpected and violent fashion with some regularity, for instance.  Similarly, he recounts a situation in which he believed that he was about to die a remarkably ironic death in a plane crash, thereby becoming one of the victims requiring recovery and identification that he had always worked with.

I was so absorbed by this book and found it such an easy read that I knocked it over in two days.  Since I was reading it amid reports of the Grenfell Tower fire, it was a bit of a surreal experience, but by the end I took some comfort in the fact that at the very least, the families and friends of those people who lost their lives in what will no doubt turn out to be an easily preventable tragedy, can be assured that the identification of the victims will be carried out with professionalism, in a way that respects the dignity of each individual, in spite of the shocking manner of their deaths.

Clearly, this book won’t be for everyone but if you have an interest in emergency response and the workings of the post-life industry in its various roles, you might consider giving this a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A Quirky Take on Parental Frailty: Goodbye, Vitamin…

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I’ve read quite a number of books featuring characters with Alzheimer’s or dementia in my time, but I’ve never come across one quite like Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.  We received a copy of this one from Simon & Schuster for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year.

Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become.

Most books about Alzheimer’s that I’ve come across tend to feature, at some point during the story, a scene or scenes that really bring home to the reader the harrowing disease that Alzheimer’s is – the way it erases the personality and memories of an individual and shatters the familiar ways in which family and friends have connected with the sufferer throughout their lifetime.

Goodbye, Vitamin is nothing like that.

In fact, Goodbye, Vitamin forgoes the inevitable destruction of the human brain and any relationships in which said brain was involved, and instead focuses on the ways in which Ruth, chaotic and underachieving daughter of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, tries to adjust to a life put on hold, while she helps out her mother for “just a year”.

I must admit, it was quite refreshing to read a book featuring a character with Alzheimer’s and not come away feeling angsty and unsettled at the prospect of literally having one’s mind slowly eroded from within.

The book is written in a sort of diary format, as Ruth recounts events in chronological order during her year back at home.  I generally find diary-type books engaging and so it was in this case.  I tend to enjoy that the sections can be quite short and so I feel like I’m getting somewhere with the book quickly.  Having said that, this isn’t an overly hefty read and things move along apace from the moment Ruth decides to give it a year until the poignant but hopeful ending.

Ruth has a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour and manages to reminisce on both her broken past relationship and her childhood relationship with her father without being particularly maudlin, but highlighting the weirdness that we accept as everday life.  Her father’s ex-students play a surprising and uplifting role in attempting to halt her father’s decline and I had a bit of chuckle at their cloak and dagger antics as well as their finding new excuses to take their “classes” off campus.

As much as this is a story about the decline of a family member and a change in the parent-child relationship, it is also a story about the chaos of early adulthood – yes, even up to one’s thirties!  Ruth is in as much a period of flux as her father as she tries to forget past mistakes and forge a new path in her career and life in general.

I would recommend Goodbye, Vitamin if you are looking for a convivial tale about an unwanted mental guest and the ways in which people choose to remember.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review!: Living on Hope Street…

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If you like your YA gritty and realistic, you’ve come to the right place because today’s book, Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren shines a light on the diversity of modern Australia and the changing face of the typical Aussie neighbourhood.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

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Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017. RRP: $19.99

We all love someone. We all fear something. Sometimes they live right next door – or even closer.

Kane will do everything he can to save his mother and his little brother Sam from the violence of his father, even if it means becoming a monster himself.

Mrs Aslan will protect the boys no matter what – even though her own family is in pieces.

Ada wants a family she can count on, while she faces new questions about herself.

Mr Bailey is afraid of the refugees next door, but his worst fear will take another form.

And Gugulethu is just trying to make a life away from terror.

On this street, everyone comes from different places, but to find peace they will have to discover what unites them.

A deeply moving, unflinching portrait of modern Australian suburban life.

There’s a certain grittiness wrapped in dry humour inherent in many Australian stories and Living on Hope Street is no exception.  The book opens on a shocking scene of family violence, that deftly introduces the protagonists, Kane, Sam and their mother Angie and sets the scene for further conflict later in the story.  Chapter by chapter, the reader is introduced to the other characters who live on Hope Street and the ways in which their stories are interconnected.

There’s Mr Bailey who has lived on Hope Street with his wife Judy since the distant past, and who struggles with the brown faces that seem to populate his space. No matter how hard he tries, he always seems to say the wrong thing to his Indian son-in-law. Mrs Aslan is Kane and Sam’s Turkish widower neighbour, who provides support to Angie, the boys’ mother, even as she mourns her own estrangement from her daughter and granddaughter.  Ada, Mrs Aslan’s granddaughter, comes to play a role in Kane’s life later in the book and we are also introduced to Gugu, a young girl from a family of African refugees, whose presence and friendship provides stability for Sam.  Along with these main players, Kane and Sam’s violent father is an ever-lurking presence, while the Tupu family across the road, a group of friendly Arab young men and Mrs Aslan’s daughter (and Ada’s mother) play bit parts to round out the experience.

The constantly changing narrators and the fact that some of these narrators, like Mrs Aslan and Sam, have idiosyncratic ways of “talking” in their particular chapters, might be off-putting to some, but I found it enhanced my experience of the story because each character contributed a new perspective to each situation.  The chapters aren’t overly long either, which means that you are never more than a few pages away from a fresh voice and a new take on what is going on.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to give each narrator an authentic voice and clear motivations and back story.

Overall, I found this to be one of those books that you can’t help but read one more chapter and one more chapter until you are thoroughly sucked in to the lives of the characters.  With a dramatic ending that hints at a renewal of hope for many residents of Hope Street, this book really has everything you could ever want in a realistic contemporary YA tale.

I can see this one being up for CBCA nominations next year, that’s for sure.  Living on Hope Street is flying the flag for an inclusive, diverse community and shows that this is possible, despite cultural differences.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Suit Your Selfie…

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It’s time to gab about graphic novels again and today’s selection is a collection of comic strips for the middle grade set.  We received Suit Your Selfie: A Pearls Before Swine Collection by Stephan Pastis from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Gather ‘round the smartphone, kids! Stephan and the Pearls gang are back with a whole album’s-worth of jokes, jabs, and cringe-worthy puns.
 
Even Rat cracks a smile in this fifth Pearls Before Swine collection tailored for middle-grade readers. Witty, wacky, and occasionally wise, Suit Your Selfie is more kid-friendly fun from the New York Times best-selling author of Timmy Failure.

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade

Genre:

Humour, comic strips

Art Style:

Cartoon

Reading time:

About twenty minutes in one sitting

Let’s get gabbing:

I hadn’t come across this series before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I certainly didn’t expect the sophisticated level of humour in the comic strips, given that the blurb says that this is aimed at middle grade readers.  Perhaps they mean upper-middle grade….right at the upper end…because a lot of the content seemed a bit too grown up to appeal to middle graders.  I don’t mean that it was inappropriate for kids, but that some of the topics – like getting the address for an aunt’s funeral, the creator of the comic having a mid-life crisis and a goldfish worried about its own mortality – just seemed aimed at an older audience.  I found myself having a hearty chuckle at some of the strips because they were absolutely relatable to the struggle of adulting. The struggle is real!  Some of the vocabulary seemed too advanced to be credibly aimed at a young audience also.  This certainly didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book.  In fact, I found most of the comics to be hilarious or at least chuckleworthy – I’m just mildly baffled as to why it has been labelled as “middle-grade”.

Overall snapshot:

I thoroughly enjoyed this little collection as an adult reader, so don’t be put off by the middle grade tag.  There’s plenty here for those who like their jokes one comic strip at a time…in fact, it’s exactly the kind of thing we old-timers who read newspapers would happily flick straight to the back page to read over morning coffee.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

TBR Friday: Over My Dead Body…

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TBR Friday

Following hot on the heels of last week’s TBR Friday, I have another contribution for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017 climb! I’ve snuck in a sneakily short read that’s been sitting on my TBR shelf for ages.  It wasn’t on my list to get through this year but because it was so quick to read, and I’m behind on my review schedule, I thought I’d knock it over and at least feel like I was making progress toward some kind of reading goal.  This week it’s book two in Kate and Sarah Klise’s 43 Old Cemetery Road middle grade series, Over My Dead Body.

Ten Second Synopsis:

Following on from the events of book one of the series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, abandoned child Seymour Hope, cranky writer Ignatius Grumply and ghostly Olive C. Spence are dwelling happily at Spence Mansion, when nasty sort Dick Tater investigates the living arrangements, and throws Seymour in an orphanage and Ignatius in an asylum.  Determined to reunite, Olive must put her ghostly skills into action to defy Tater and bring her boys home.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Three years less a month.  Bought in July 2014!!

Acquired:

From the Book Depository.  I bought all four of the books in the series at the same time and have since left all but the first languishing on the shelf.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

It’s a short book so I’ve always had the feeling that I could rip through it any old time.  Of course, with its series brethren on the shelf there has always been the lingering sense that I’d have to read them all at the same time.  Still, this is no excuse, because I could probably get through all of them in less than two hours total.

Best Bits:

  • I had completely forgotten that these books are formatted as a series of letters, newspaper articles and illustrations (which means I’ll also be submitting it for the Epistolary Challenge – hooray!).  In fact, Olive, the ghost, ONLY communicates through letter writing (and interrupting other people’s written work).  The constantly changing fonts and heavy emphasis on illustration is a major strength of the series.
  • I had sort of forgotten what had happened in the first book, since it’s been three years since I’d read it, but it was easy enough to pick up again.  The book has a little illustrated recap at the start so any readers new to the series will be brought up to speed.  It was interesting to see Ignatius being not so grumpy this time around, but Seymour’s parents are even nastier and more conniving here, if that’s possible.
  • Once again, Olive is beguiling as the ghost of an elderly mystery writer.  I loved how the townsfolk help her out despite claiming not to believe in her existence.
  • I still think this series is an absolute winner for early middle grade readers.  The story is quick and engaging, the format is brilliantly accessible and the characters are quirky enough to keep the attention.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • This story didn’t grab me quite as much as the first book did.  The plotline of Dick Tater trying to burn books and cancel Halloween seemed a bit silly really.  Luckily, it’s such a quick read that even if the story was a bit underwhelming, the format and the brevity make up for it.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

I’m glad I’ve got the series ready to go, because I want to see if the next book is as good as the first.

Where to now for this tome?

Not sure.  I might hang on to all the books til I’ve finished the series, then put them in Suitcase Rummage as a set.  Or donate them to the mini-fleshlings’ school library.

And with that, I have reached Pike’s Peak – twelve books – and my Mount TBR Challenge goal for the year.  I haven’t officially made the decision to extend my goal yet.  I’m going to ponder it a little more.  Stay tuned!  And you can check out my progress toward this year’s reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce