Picture Book Double Dip: Dragons and Planetary Terraforming…

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Grab some colourful snacks to accompany two colourful picture books for today’s double dip review.  We received both of today’s books from Bloomsbury Australia for review.  First up, we have There is No Dragon in this Story by Lou Carter and Deborah Allwright.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Poor old dragon. Nobody wants him in their story. Not Goldilocks, not Hansel and Gretel – no one. But Dragon will not give up! He shall continue on his course of finding someone who wants him in their story. ANYONE. His boundless enthusiasm surely won’t get him into any trouble. Surely …

A glorious story about dragons, heroes and ice cream with sprinkles. From author Lou Carter, a phenomenal new talent, and Deborah Allwright, illustrator of the bestselling The Night Pirates.

Dip into it for… dragon story

… a fun romp, and with such a sympathetically drawn protagonist, too! Poor old dragon is always the villain and he’s now fed up with having to fight (and lose) to the knight every single time. He wants to be a hero, but none of the fairytale folk can find room for a dragon in their stories. While assisting Jack (of beanstalk fame) on his mission, dragon accidentally sets in motion a chain of events that cause the sun to go out….but who could the fairytale folk possibly find who could reignite the sun? Enter the dragon of course!

There’s plenty of humour in this one, in both the text and cheeky illustrative details. The mini-fleshlings enjoyed spotting all the different fairytale characters and the surprise post-climax ending (ie: the last page!) even had us trip-trapping off to remind ourselves what happened in a certain fairytale story, so the book launched us on our own adventure.

Overall Dip Factor

Young readers, and especially those who are younger siblings or always shunted out of the “hero” role in imaginative games, will no doubt relate to poor old dragon, who really only wants a brief shining moment in the sun and a chance to break out of his stereotypically assigned role.

The combination of text and illustrative format means that the story rolls along quickly and we found this to be an all around winner as a pre-bedtime, relaxing read.

Next up we have one for the budding astronomers and engineers with Up, Up and Away by Tom McLaughlin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

What does it take to build your very own planet? Orson is about to find out.
He takes:
A cup full of rocks
A dash of water
A sprinkling of metal
A lot of nothingness
A big bang …
And before long, BOOM! He has it – a tiny planet with rings around it, right there in his bedroom! But it seems that BUILDING a planet is the easy bit; taking care of it is a different thing altogether. Over time, Orson realises that his planet needs to be free and that sometimes you have to let go of the things that you love the most …

A heart-warming story about life’s possibilities and disappointments with an uplifting ending that will resonate with all fans of Oliver Jeffers’ work.

Dip into it for…  up and away

…a remarkably cute story with a multi-pronged narrative that covers everything from environmental issues to the struggle of letting go. Orson is a boy who likes to make things and very handy at it too, he seems to be. After creating a very small planet in his own bedroom, a chain reaction begins that leads to Orson having to weigh up his love of his creation against the planet’s best interests. The ending might encompass the only sensible choice that Orson can make, but the author leaves the reader with a bit of hope that Orson and his planet might one day meet again.

The mini-fleshlings enjoyed this story and the busy illustrations but it didn’t grab them on first reading as I expected it might, given that both of them are avid makers of things using random bits of rubbish from around the house. I had a little trouble with the way the story meshed together (or didn’t) because I expected after the first few pages that the story might have a strong scientific bent. A few more pages in and I changed my mind to think that the story would focus on environmental issues regarding the proper way to care for a planet. A few pages on however, and the focus had changed again to an “if you love something, set it free” sort of vibe. This change of focus throughout meant that I didn’t feel the story hung together quite as well as it might have, but this was a small niggle in the scheme of things.

Overall Dip Factor

This would be a great choice as a literacy link for primary school classes in the early years who are covering planets in science. Orson’s makey nature is also a good source of inspiration for getting little ones making their big ideas for real.

So what do you think of this duo? Better than a roast-Knight sandwich with a space food stick chaser, I suspect!

Until next time,

Bruce

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Top Book of 2017 Pick: The Ethan I Was Before…

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Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is one for the middle grade readers who like something authentic and realistic, steeped in humour and depth.  We received The Ethan I Was Before from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from the city he loves to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. 

Ethan’s new home feels like the place for second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk. 

The Ethan I Was Before is a story of love and loss, wonder and adventure, and ultimately of hope.

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It took a little while for this book to hit me the way it did but having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, The Ethan I Was Before is definitely one of those special books for middle grade readers that will stay in the reader’s mind long after they’ve put it down. With a slight Bridge to Terabithia feel, Ethan moves to a new, insular town after a tragedy involving his best friend Kacey. When Ethan starts to form a strong bond with Coralee in his new school, his parents are understandably worried that his unresolved issues from the “Kacey incident” will resurface in this new friendship to the detriment of both kids involved. Little do his parents know, but Coralee seems to be just what Ethan needs to trust himself again and learn to trust others.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book that will have young readers questioning the motives of various characters – is Coralee really to be trusted with her “colourful” stories? Will Ethan’s brother ever want to talk to him since Ethan ruined his potential baseball career with the move? Is the big house haunted or is something more secretive going on amongst the residents of the town? I found these questions made the reading experience richer and was impressed to see that the author manages to flesh out each of these storylines by the end of the book and provide at least some answers to each. Part of the beauty of the story for me lies in the fact that no character is two-dimensional. Every significant character in Ethan’s sphere – both child and adult – is made more authentic by the issues that they are struggling with, all of which are revealed by the end of the book.

The book includes flashbacks of sorts and thereby slowly reveals the details of the Kacey incident. What happened during this tragedy may not be exactly what the reader expects – deliberately so, it seems – and this also allowed for a change of perspective on what exactly it is that Ethan is trying to process.

Overall, I found this to be a mature and quite sophisticated story for a middle grade audience that didn’t patronise readers by tying everything up in expected and obvious ways.

Until next time,
Bruce

Gabbing about Graphic Novels: The Park Bench…

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Today’s graphic novel is a ode to the humble park bench from Christophe Chaboute.  We received The Park Bench from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Chabouté’s enchanting story of a park bench was first published to critical acclaim in France in 2012. Faber now brings his work to the English-speaking world for the first time.

Through Chabouté’s elegant graphic style, we watch people pass, stop, meet, return, wait and play out the strange and funny choreography of life. Fans of The Fox and the Star, The Man Who Planted Trees and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood will find this intimate graphic novel about a simple park bench – and the people who walk by or linger – poignant, life-affirming and brilliantly original.

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Target Age Range: 

Adult

Genre:

Contemporary, realism

Art Style:

Line drawings, cartoon

Reading time:

About twenty minutes in one sitting

Let’s get gabbing:

The Park Bench is a longitudinal look at the life and times of a simple park bench, as seen through the eyes of those who use it.

One might not expect a great deal of feels, as the young people say, to arise in a wordless story about an inanimate object, yet The Park Bench is chock full of poignancy and moments that are quietly heartbreaking. The book follows various folk as they interact (or not) with a simple park bench, from the young sweethearts who carve a memorial to their love into the bench, to the elderly couple who routinely use the bench to share a baked snack, to the homeless man who just wants to have a kip without being moved on by a recurrent policeman. Some characters seem to be bit players, with a very small story arc – such as the businessman who trudges past the bench on his way to and from work and the jogger who uses the bench as part of his fitness routine – while other characters’ stories unfold throughout the tale. The story of the homeless man is, I think, the most developed of the bunch and the ending to that story is both satisfying and somewhat irritating, although it does prompt reflection on the various uses to which one can put their life and the vagaries of changing allegiances.

This is a right old doorstop of a book, yet it took me a very short time to get through it, given its graphic novel format. I suspect it’s one that is meant to be flicked through again and again, to allow details that were missed the first time to come to the surface.

The ending of the park bench’s story is quite bittersweet and filled with the same sort of quiet rebellion and “coming full circle” that colour the stories of many of the characters with whom the park bench has a relationship.

Overall snapshot:

I enjoyed this one, but the sparsity of text and the need to look carefully at panels that alternate between mostly blank and filled with action may not be to everyone’s tastes.

 Until next time,

Bruce

 

Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Guggenheim Mystery…

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What an interesting offering I have for you today!  I first encountered The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd back in 2008, a year or so after its release.  The story features Ted, a lad on the Autistic Spectrum, whose cousin Salim goes missing from one of the pods on the London Eye.  It is a brilliant locked room mystery story for middle grade and YA readers with an interesting narrator and compelling mystery.  Sadly, Siobhan Dowd, who was also the author with the original idea for David Almond’s excellent, now-turned-into-a-film book A Monster Calls, passed away from cancer in 2007 and it seemed that Ted and his mystery-solving prowess would be forever confined to a single tale.

Enter Robin Stevens, the author of brilliant historical schoolgirl detective series Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, and Ted has been given a new lease on life.  Stevens was brought in to continue Siobhan’s story and with only a title to work from – The Guggenheim Mystery – she was thrust into the breach.  We received our copy from Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Ted Spark. I am 12 years and 281 days old. I have seven friends.

Three months ago, I solved the mystery of how my cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

This is the story of my second mystery.

This summer, I went on holiday to New York, to visit Aunt Gloria and Salim. While I was there, a painting was stolen from the Guggenheim Museum, where Aunt Gloria works.

Everyone was very worried and upset. I did not see what the problem was. I do not see the point of paintings, even if they are worth £9.8 million. Perhaps that’s because of my very unusual brain, which works on a different operating system to everyone else’s.

But then Aunt Gloria was blamed for the theft – and Aunt Gloria is family. And I realised just how important it was to find the painting, and discover who really had taken it. 

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It has to be said that Stevens was a great choice for carrying on Ted’s story, because she can work a mystery like nobody’s business.  Even though it had been years since I had read Ted’s story (and I think I read it twice in quick succession at the time), Ted’s style of narration was immediately recognisable and I quickly remembered the atmosphere of The London Eye Mystery.  Stevens has done a wonderful job of recreating Dowd’s characterisation of Ted, but there is a definite Stevens stamp on the construction of the mystery.

Being out of his everyday context, Ted at first struggles with the mysteries of human relationships, as his cousin Salim and sister Kat seem to be shutting him out for reasons that aren’t clear to Ted.  The early chapters of the book are coloured in part by Ted’s feeling of loneliness as he sees his two closest companions moving on without him.  Once the mystery of the stolen painting kicks off however, and it is clear that Aunt Gloria is being framed (pun intended?), the relationship rifts are quickly healed and Ted even attempts to look at his family’s behaviour from a different viewpoint.

The mystery part of the story felt very much like Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike setups, and it was clear that the theft and its various elements – the timing, the smoke bombs, the suspects – had been tightly plotted.  I did find that this story lacked the emotional connection that was so heightened in The London Eye Mystery – and is present in most of Dowd’s work – but I suspect that was only because this particular mystery dealt with a stolen painting rather than a missing child.  Given that the stakes were not quite as high in this particular story – the loss of the painting not being as emotionally charged as the potential loss or death of an actual person – I enjoyed the story but wasn’t blown away by it.

I think it must be said that Stevens has done a worthy job here of recreating a memorable character in a new setting with nothing more than a title to go on.  It would be interesting to see if this series will be developed further and whether that emotional element from the first story can be reinvented down the line.

If you haven’t read The London Eye Mystery, you should really seek it out.  If you have, you really ought to check out this next offering and see how you think it stands up.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: I Just Ate My Friend…

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I’ve got a new book on the block for fans of subversive picture books of the style of Jon Klassen today, with I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

This beautiful, innovate picture book from an enormously talented new creator will make you laugh out loud. The search for a true friend is something everyone can relate to – from the very young to the very old.

I just ate my friend. He was a good friend. But now he is gone. Would you be my friend?

A hilarious story about the search for friendship and belonging… and maybe a little bit about the importance of impulse control… from an amazing new creator.

i just ate my friend

I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th July 2017.  RRP:$24.99

A monster realises the error of his ways after eating its only friend. Will the quest for a new friend result in success…or dinner?  This was a totally fun read that resulted in a few bemused looks as the realisation dawned that the monster did actually just eat its friend and now required a replacement.  For friendship, that is.  Not for eating.  Definitely not.

The book reads like a cross between Please Mr Panda and Ugly Fish as once the friend has been eaten, the protagonist monster goes on a hunt for a new buddy, asking all manner of variously weird, winged, toothy, leggy creatures whether they’ll be its friend.  All the creatures asked have perfectly valid reasons for denying the request (except for the cranky looking fanged dragonfly thing that responds simply with a “No”) and it quickly becomes apparent that the monster may well have eaten its only friend.

There is definitely a Klassenesque feel about the story, with the eating of the friend presented bluntly, with no explanation as to why the monster may have felt the need to nosh on its only mate.  The monster differs from most of Klassen’s morally bankrupt characters however, in that it seems genuinely remorseful once the consequences of its actions become apparent.  Those who enjoy reading these subversive types of picture books can probably guess what happens in the end, but it will be no less of an enjoyable read for guessing correctly.

The illustrations consist of bold, bright colours set against a deep green, blue and black background and we just loved the array of strange creatures that populate the story.  The text comes in short bursts so the book is perfect for little ones just learning to read as they will quickly come to remember the words on each page thanks to the repetition in the text.

The best indicator that the mini-fleshlings enjoyed this book is that upon finishing it, they immediately requested that it be read again.  I’m not sure whether this had something to do with the disbelief of how the story ended, but they definitely wanted to go back and have a second look at this funny, quirky and just a little bit scary story.

Until next time,

Bruce

DNF with Massive Potential: Give Me the Child…

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Although today’s book was a DNF for me, I would still heartily recommend it to you if you enjoy psychological thrillers featuring creepy children.  We received Give Me the Child by Mel McGrath from Harlequin Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

An unexpected visitor.

Dr Cat Lupo aches for another child, despite the psychosis which marked her first pregnancy. So when Ruby Winter, a small girl in need of help, arrives in the middle of the night, it seems like fate.

A devastating secret.

But as the events behind Ruby’s arrival emerge – her mother’s death, her connection to Cat – Cat questions whether her decision to help Ruby has put her own daughter at risk.

Do we get the children we deserve?

Cat’s research tells her there’s no such thing as evil. Her history tells her she’s paranoid. But her instincts tell her different. And as the police fight to control a sudden spate of riots raging across the capital, Cat faces a race against time of her own…

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Even though I DNFed this at 81 pages (chapter nine), it is not for the reasons you expect.  In fact, for the 81 pages I read, I was engaged, creeped out and thoroughly looking forward to the storm of batsh*t crazy that was no doubt going to explode in the second half of the book.  The reason I put this book down is purely because I could no longer bear to read about one of the characters – Cat’s “King of the Manchildren” husband, Tom.

But back to the good bits.  The book is a psychological thriller based upon the question of what would one do if a long-lost child turned up on the doorstep needing sanctuary…but said child was also significantly emotionally damaged.  This is the situation in which Cat finds herself, when the product of Tom’s affair (undertaken when his wife was in the HOSPITAL, PREGNANT and suffering from PRE-NATAL PSYCHOSIS!!) is unexpectedly thrust into the bosom of their family after the death of the child’s mother.  From the get-go, Cat is uneasy about the arrangement (perfectly understandably, one would think) and as she goes about tying up the loose ends of the child’s life, discovers some events which give her pause…not least because Cat is a doctor who deals with children displaying characteristics of psychopathy.

The story begins to unfold as you would expect.  There are incidences that send a shiver up your spine.  Cat tries to be welcoming to Ruby (the child) but is conflicted by her resentment of her manchild husband whose manchild actions have caused such disruption to the family.  Tom begins to show more loyalty to Ruby than Cat.  The suspense is taut, the potential for exciting and thoroughly spine-tingling disaster is ready for tapping….

…but then I just snapped.  When Tom – philanderer, crap husband and emotionally immature asshat – tells Cat that she’s being paranoid (a direct attack designed to shame her for having a completely unavoidable episode of mental illness in pregnancy) and that he won’t get his new child (who has obviously experienced trauma and neglect) therapy in order to ease the transition into her new family, I could not stomach reading one more second of book that had Tom in it.  In fact, I was wishing fervently that Tom could somehow be whooshed out of this book and into the Game of Thrones series, there to be eviscerated by whatever would be the most painful means.

Perhaps my irritability trigger is heightened at the moment.

But I just couldn’t bear to share the story with Tom any more.

However, I would love to know how it ends.  If you do happen to read it – and I really hope you do because it has all the hallmarks of a spectacular psychological thriller – please let me know how it ends.

And if Tom somehow manages to get off scot-free, feel free to make up some horrible fate for him.  I’ll believe you.

Until next time,

Bruce

Corpselight: Paranormal Creatures and Pregnancy on the Streets of Brisvegas…

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If you are as much a fan of Ben Aaronovitch’s DC Peter Grant series of paranormal police procedural novels as we are, you really should prick up your pointy, furry ears for the book we have for you today.  We received Corpselight, being the second book in Angela Slatter’s Verity Fassbinder paranormal detective series, from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Life in Brisbane is never simple for those who walk between the worlds.

Verity’s all about protecting her city, but right now that’s mostly running surveillance and handling the less exciting cases for the Weyrd Council – after all, it’s hard to chase the bad guys through the streets of Brisbane when you’re really, really pregnant.

An insurance investigation sounds pretty harmless, even if it is for ‘Unusual Happenstance’. That’s not usually a clause Normals use – it covers all-purpose hauntings, angry genii loci, ectoplasmic home invasion, demonic possession, that sort of thing – but Susan Beckett’s claimed three times in three months. Her house keeps getting inundated with mud, but she’s still insisting she doesn’t need or want help . . . until the dry-land drownings begin.

V’s first lead takes her to Chinatown, where she is confronted by kitsune assassins. But when she suddenly goes into labour, it’s clear the fox spirits are not going to be helpful . . .

Corpselight is the sequel to Vigil and the second book in the Verity Fassbinder series by award-winning author Angela Slatter.

It must be noted that Brisbane, my ancestral home and current shelfing ground, is not commonly the setting for books featuring fantasy and paranormal happenings.  In fact, the last one I read with Brisbane as a setting was Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw, four years ago.  Despite this, Slatter has had a damn good crack at trying to create a paranormal paradise in our fair city in Corpselight, with, among other creatures, a mud-slinging Scandinavian nasty and a skulk of kitsune who have no doubt taken advantage of the quick nine hour flight from their home country.

The quick-witted tone of Verity’s narration moves the plot along apace and despite the many, many references to her pregnancy in the first few chapters (including the truly remarkable revelation that at thirty-two weeks along, she sleeps soundly all night), it’s easy to get sucked in to the initial mystery on offer – the mysterious repeat appearance of stinky, coating mud inside an upmarket Paddington house.  Much like in the Peter Grant series, Verity works with various connections in the paranormal underworld as well as seemingly ordinary people who have taken advantage of Weyrd-Human relations – the ubiquitous insurance agency chief amongst them – to dig deeper and uncover the truly unexpected source of the mud-slinging.  I did find that the narration was slowed a little in the early chapters by information dumps about the events of the previous book.  These were necessary from my point of view, considering I hadn’t read the first book, but I wonder whether there might have been another way to accomplish the same task without slowing the narration – a cast of characters at the beginning, perhaps, or something similar.

I’m sure that most readers won’t have any problem at all with Brisbane as a setting, but for some reason I found it enormously difficult to try and pair places mentioned that I know with the existence of fantasy elements.  I’m not sure why that is. I’m sure if the setting was Melbourne or Sydney or some other Australian city I wouldn’t have had this problem, but because Brisbane seems so unlikely to me as a paranormal setting, what with being a resident, it took an awful lot of effort to suspend my disbelief.  Although I will admit to a little flash of schadenfreude when I noted that the mud-afflicted house was in Paddington.  Sucks to be you, richy rich!

There were some reasonably complicated reveals toward the end of the book relating to Verity’s mother and other family members, that may have been clearer to those who have read the first book, but provided for an action-packed finale.  The fact that Verity gives birth halfway through the book was also an unexpected spanner in the works but provides a new lens through which Verity views the sinister events that are unfolding around her.

Overall, if you enjoy urban fantasy novels and appreciate some diversity in the paranormal creatures you encounter in your reading then you should definitely give Corpselight a go.  If you aren’t a fan of jumping in at the middle of a series, start with book one instead – Vigil.

Until next time,

Bruce