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
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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

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

Fiction in 50 July Challenge: After Dinner…

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Welcome to the Fiction in 50 micro-writing challenge for July, with the prompt:

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If you’d like to join in, just create a piece of prose or poetry in fewer than 51 words and link it up in the comments section of this post.  For more detailed information on the challenge and future prompts, just click here.

I’ve gone with a somewhat grim interpretation of the prompt this month and have titled my contribution….

Insomniac

The last bites of dinner still redolent on his tongue signaled the beginning of the long, dead hours between this moment and the early hours in which the world would once again begin to stir.

He sighed. 

Stroked the cat beside him.

Braced himself to fend off the whispers.


 

I look forward to seeing what other people have come up with this month!

Our prompt for August will be…

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Until next time,

Bruce

Fi50 Reminder and TBR Friday: The Luck Uglies…

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It’s that time of the month again – Fiction in 50 kicks off on Monday!  To participate, just create  a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and then add your link to the comments of my post on Monday.  For more information, just click on that snazzy typewriter at the top of this post.  Our prompt for this month is…

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Hope to see you there!


TBR Friday

Today I’ve got a book that’s been on my TBR list for a while and was also one of the books I nominated at the start of the year as a title that I would particularly like to tick off in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017.  Allow me to present to you my thoughts on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham.

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Ten Second Synopsis:

Rye lives in Drowning, a town that has been free of rampaging Bog Noblins for many a long year, thanks to the historical intervention of the Luck Uglies, a band of masked Bog Noblin slayers.  The Luck Uglies have now disbanded thanks to the pompous and arrogant Earl Longchance and the village of Drowning is feeling the rumblings of the Bog Noblins once again.  Why has Rye’s mother set so many house rules? What is the blue glow that eminates from the necklace that Rye has been told never to take off?  And who will protect Drowning now that the Luck Uglies have gone?

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Two years?  I’m not 100% certain, but roughly that long.

Acquired:

I picked this one up on layby a couple of years ago because it was a good price.  I really wanted the edition with the cover pictured above, but decided to cut my losses and just grab it while it was on special even though the cover wasn’t the one I wanted.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

I have a couple of books on the TBR shelf that seem similar in content and length, so could never make a decision on which one to start with.

Best Bits:

  • The world building here is as solid as all get out.  Durham has created a perfectly believable world with its own monsters and guild of criminal saviours and much of it felt quite original.  I liked the house rules that Rye had been given and these played a large role later on in the story, so it was good to see that all the bits of the world that Durham had set up were being intertwined more deeply as the plot developed.  On reflection, this had a similar vibe to Garth Nix’s Sabriel.  Although the plots and target audiences are quite different, both stories feel like the beginning of an epic, with a focus on setting things up for more complex interactions further down the track.
  • The story had a cerebral feel about it and managed to avoid the usual tropes of series-opener middle grade fantasy offerings.  The story itself is quite meaty and it was obvious that this book is the start of something much bigger.
  • There are a few characters who turn out to be more than they seem, or are much more integral to the story than they appear early on, and it was interesting to discover that the characters that I thought would be important weren’t so much.
  • Shady, Rye’s house cat, was one of my favourite bit part players, and it looks like I was right to place my loyalties there, because Shady has a larger role later on in the story.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • The pace of the book was quite slow, with much of the action taking place in the last few chapters.  At times I didn’t mind this at all and at other times I was wishing that something would happen to give the story a bit of a kick along.  The majority of Rye’s discoveries take place covertly, on sneaky missions, and while this does allow a slow reveal of information, I did find myself wondering, “Where is this going?” more than once.
  • I didn’t feel like Rye’s friends, Quinn and Folly, and some of the minor characters, were explored deeply enough.  This may be rectified in later books, but it seemed like Folly and Quinn were just narrative devices to smooth Rye’s plot arc sometimes rather than characters in their own right.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

I enjoyed it, but could probably have just borrowed it from the library.

Where to now for this tome?

Not sure.  I’m not entirely convinced that I’ll continue on to the next book in the series, so I may end up passing this one on to a mini-fleshling of the right age and interest set.

So that’s book number 13 in my climb up Mount Blanc.  You can check out my progress toward the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017 here.

How goes your TBR pile?

Until next time,

Bruce

My Lovely Frankie: An Evocative, Timely and Insightful Glimpse into Catholicism of the Past…

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My Lovely Frankie by Judith Clarke.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June, 2017.  RRP: $19.99

I sit on the shelf of practicing Catholics.  The he-fleshling has a cousin in the clergy and an uncle who is one of Australia’s most prominent theologians.  The she-fleshling’s father spent time in the seminary training to become a Christian brother.  They are Catholics that, being of the post Vatican II era, fully grasp and vehemently despise – as many non-Catholics do – the hypocrisy and power hungriness that characterises the culture of the Church in general and the clergy in particular.  When the she-fleshling’s father left the seminary to pursue marriage, his parents were sent a note of condolence on his (from the clergy’s point of view) ridiculous and life-wrecking decision.  So I fully appreciated the gentle and accurate rendering of life in a 1950s seminary that Judith Clarke has created in historical YA novel, My Lovely Frankie.  

If you are not Catholic, have no knowledge of how the Catholic clergy works and has worked in the past, or have no insight into how the Church has changed (and more importantly, how it hasn’t) over the past 70+ years however, you may be mildly to majorly baffled by the decisions made by some of the characters in this book.  With that advisory message under our belts, let us continue.

We received our copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A masterful, moving story about a teenage boy caught between faith and love, by one of Australia’s finest YA writers.’Frankie believed in Heaven quite literally, as if it was another lovely world out past the stars. And when he spoke the word “love”, it seemed to spring free and fly into the air like a beautiful balloon you wanted to run after. But I couldn’t tell my parents about Frankie, not properly. I told them I’d made friends with the boy in the room next to mine, and how he’d come from this little town out west. I couldn’t tell them how he was becoming the best thing in my world. I couldn’t tell anyone, I hardly admitted it to myself.’

In the 1950s, ‘entering’ the seminary was for ever, and young boys were gathered into the priesthood before they were old enough to know what they would lose. Tom went to St Finbar’s because he was looking for something more than the ordinary happiness of his home and school.But then he discovered that being able to love another person was the most important thing of all.

For Tom, loving Frankie made him part of the world. Even when Frankie was gone…

Although this is classified as a YA novel, I think it’s safe to say that the setting and historical background underpinning Tom’s reflections will be lost on many current twelve to seventeen year old readers.  I think it was a lucky thing that I have a background knowledge of Catholicism and the structure of the Church both on a personal level and through tertiary studies, because it allowed many parts of the book to resonate with me in a way that might not be possible for young readers of today, be they Catholic or otherwise.  Couple that with the fact that the narrative style of the book is reflective, gentle and lacking in action for the majority of the novel and this may not be seen as a winner for its target age group.

Nevertheless, if you have any interest in historical novels and themes of coming of age against difficult social circumstances, I would encourage you to give My Lovely Frankie a go.

Tom decides, of his own accord, to enter the seminary and train to be a priest.  While this may not have been a strange decision in the 1950s – indeed, for Catholic families with multiple sons, it was almost a given that at least one boy would go into the Church – for Tom, this decision could be classed as a bit unusual because he is an only child and his parents don’t seem to be particularly pious or involved in the Church.  Nevertheless, Tom stands by his decision and while in the sparse, regimented and emotionally distant environment of the seminary, he meets Frankie.  Frankie is a breath of fresh air in the stale corridors, and felt to me almost like a St Francis of Assisi character; the one who is out frolicking amongst the baby animals while the others are restrained by tradition and discipline from admitting to and engaging with the beauty of life.   Tom becomes fascinated with Frankie and when Frankie mysteriously disappears from the seminary later, it affects Tom such that his whole life is coloured by the loss.

The story opens on Tom’s dotage and the reader is privy to the importance that Tom has placed on his relationship with Frankie, fleeting though that relationship was.  From there, the book flicks back to Tom’s youth, and the decisions that led him to enter the seminary – and perhaps more importantly, the decisions that caused him to remain there.  Alongside the tale of friendship and unrequited romance between Tom and Frankie, the book highlights themes of emotional connection and the development of empathy (or lack of it) in an environment as restricted as the seminary.

Clarke has cleverly thrown up many of the issues that are major factors in the train wreck that is the current state of Catholic clergy, including the enforced separation of young boys from their families while training to be priests, an overblown sense of superiority bestowed upon those who would be priests and a complete lack of acknowledgement or understanding about key aspects of being human, such as sexuality and emotional connection.  Through Tom’s eyes, Clarke brings to light the great injustices and suffering that have been the result of such a regime, both for those within the clergy and those who have been impacted forever by the actions of clergy members.

Allow me to share with you one of the most telling lines of the book for me, in which Tom reflects on the constant nighttime crying of the youngest kids at the seminary:

“…it was part of our training, our formation: for us there was no use crying because no one would ever come to comfort us.  Like soldiers, we were being taught to have no pity for ourselves, and even then the edge of it struck me: that if you had no pity on yourself, how could you have it for other people, ever?”

My Lovely Frankie, page 119

Once again, although I found the book absorbing and thought-provoking and bang-on accurate in its setting and atmosphere, I am still struggling to see how this will appeal to a contemporary audience of teenagers.  Perhaps if any of you give it a go, you’ll let me know your thoughts?

Until next time,

Bruce

The Deadly Perils of Social Media: Friend Request…

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Today’s book is a psychological thriller that deftly describes the perils of getting back in contact with people from your past.  We received Friend Request by Laura Marshall from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Louise first notices the new girl who has mysteriously transferred late into their senior year, Maria seems to be everything the girls Louise hangs out with aren’t. Authentic. Funny. Brash. Uncensored and unapologetic. Days into their acquaintance, Maria and Louise are quickly on their way to becoming fast friends.

Decades later, when Maria reaches out over social media, Louise’s heart nearly stops. Long-buried memories quickly rise to the surface–those first days of their budding connection, the awful judgment of the young women who felt at the time like her sole gateway to belonging. The fateful, tragic night that would change all their lives forever.

Her entire adult life, Louise has known if the truth ever came out, she could stand to lose everything. Her job. Her son. Her freedom. Maria’s sudden reemergence threatens it all, and forces Louise to reconnect with everyone she’d severed ties with to get away from the past. Trying to piece together exactly what happened that night, she soon discovers there’s much she didn’t know. The only certainty is that Maria Weston disappeared that night, never to be heard from again–until now.

I will be the first to admit to being reluctant to reconnect on social media with acquaintances from the distant past and this book did nothing to dissuade me from clinging to this anti-social stance with a vengeance.  Louise made some poor choices (as they would be described in today’s school disciplinary lingo) as a high school student and carries immense guilt due to the terrible outcome of a vindictive prank in which she was involved.  Years later, with a child, successful career and recent divorce under her belt, Louise is disconcerted to receive a friend request on Facebook from the victim of her high school stunt, a woman Louise – and all who knew the girl at the time – thought to be dead.  The request sends Louise plummeting back into the insecurities and confusion of her high school-aged self as she is forced to confront her past actions while trying to ensure that her son Henry is untouched by this new danger.

This was a book that I enjoyed while I was reading, but in the end, lacked a certain something.  There is certainly suspense throughout as we puzzle out with Louise who it might be who has sent the request and the associated questions – why Louise? Why now? – and a mounting sense of dread as Louise’s old school friends come in for a request as well.  The ending, although unexpected, just lacked that heightened sense of terror that I was hoping for, in which I’m flipping pages and trying to read faster and faster to find out if the worst will happen.  Rather, on discovering whodunnit, I had more of a feeling of “Well, that was unexpected!”  The story also has a bit of a double-header in terms of who did what to whom, so the mystery is extended beyond a single reveal.

The author did a good job of providing multiple red herrings with plenty of characters both from Louise’s past and new acquaintances, with something to hide.  The book flicks back and forth between the present and Louise’s final year of high school, during which the turbulent relationship between Louise, Maria and Louise’s girl-idol, Sophie is played out with tragic results. The actions of the fateful leaving party, during which Maria dies – or does she? – are revealed piecemeal throughout the book, so it is quite a long while before the reader has a good grasp of why Louise might be a target for Maria’s posthumous friend request.

Overall, this was an arresting read for the most part and one that I would recommend if you are a fan of contemporary mysteries that feature a bit of murder and suspense.  Reading this one might be a good reminder to check your privacy settings on your social media accounts too!

Until next time,

Bruce