The Monster on the Road is Me: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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I have PanMacmillan Australia to thank for today’s awesome read of awesomosity.  The Monster on the Road is Me by J. P. Romney is by turns a funny, strange and creepy exploration of Japanese folklore in a YA contemporary setting and we absolutely loved it from start to finish. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we have branded it a “Top Book of 2016” pick!

Bruce's Pick

But more of that in a minute.

Let’s start with the blurb from Goodreads:

 It starts with the crows. When you see them, you know he s found you.

Koda Okita is a high school student in modern-day Japan who isn’t very popular. He suffers from narcolepsy and has to wear a watermelon-sized helmet to protect his head in case he falls. But Koda couldn’t care less about his low social standing. He is content with taking long bike rides and hanging out in the convenience store parking lot with his school-dropout friend, Haru.

But when a rash of puzzling deaths sweeps his school, Koda discovers that his narcoleptic naps allow him to steal the thoughts of nearby supernatural beings. He learns that his small town is under threat from a ruthless mountain demon that is hell-bent on vengeance. With the help of a mysterious – and not to mention very cute classmate – Koda must find a way to take down this demon. But his unstable and overwhelming new abilities seem to have a mind of their own.

monster-on-the-road-is-me

And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Monster on the Road is Me by J. P. Romney:

1. It is highly unlikely that attacks of narcolepsy could ever be considered a superpower.  But then again…

2. When chatting with a mysterious new girl in order to size up whether she would be good girlfriend material, always be sure to check whether or not said mysterious girl is in fact human.

3.  Shiitake farming is a perfectly honorable occupation.

4. When the weight of the world gets too much, there is always cosplay.

5. If you ever lay eyes on a three-legged crow, it’s already too late.

Given that this is a Japanese story written by an American author, it would be reasonable to think that there may be some cultural aspects to the characterisation or plot that don’t quite sit right.  Happily, Romney has managed to avoid any major pitfalls of blending a Western brain with an Eastern narrative and has combined the best of both worlds.  While the story is narrated by Koda, a Japanese boy, it’s clear that Romney has slipped in some of his own curiosities about Japanese life and culture into Koda’s narration.  The brand tag line of a popular form of lolly, for example, or the events included in the school’s athletics day are two things that are highlighted as being more than a little …unexpected, perhaps…and I think this is a nod from the author to his not-Japanese readers and an affectionate tip of the hat to the idiosyncrasies of contemporary Japanese culture. I found them suitably amusing, I must say.

In fact, the humour throughout the story is one of the book’s most appealing features. Koda, as a narrator is hilariously self-deprecating and he is supported by a cast of similarly amusing, and bizarre, characters.  My two favourites of this supporting cast were Yori, the cosplaying ex-school-bus-driver-turned-accountant who fights crime by night on Youtube and Ikeda-sensei, the ex-sumo wrestling high school gym teacher with an ill-concealed dislike of high schools, gym and teaching.  I will admit to getting the giggles (yes, giggles, not guffaws, chuckles or belly laughs) during a scene in which a kappa (a Japanese river spirit) possesses some of Koda’s friends.  All in all, Romney’s style of comedy matched mine perfectly, which no doubt contributed to my enjoyment of the story.  If you aren’t a fan of dry banter mixed with ridiculous antics, you may not find it as funny, but at least now you’ve been warned.

Amidst the humour are some decidedly creepy elements.  The swarm of crows and the multiple suicides certainly bring the mood down a little and it’s obvious that there is some higher power that has set its will against the good folk of Kusaka town.  I can’t say much more here because it relates to the major mystery elements of the story, but I loved the way things moved between ordinary, teen problems and major supernatural sh*tstorm problems without missing a beat.

I’m not sure if this book is going to be part of a series or not – the ending here is a definite ending, yet there is scope, given what has been revealed about the characters, to expand on the story – but either way, I would highly recommend getting lost in the world that Romney has created here.  As some of the characters in the book can no doubt attest (Shimizu-sensei, I’m looking at you here), The Monster on the Road is Me is the very essence of escapist storytelling.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Escape! Three Cracking Titles for Younger Readers…

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September school holidays are kicking off tomorrow here in Queensland and with the hotter weather back (after a shocking two labyrinth-lost freedom-swimmer omnia
minute absence), many people might be starting to think about escaping on a relaxing getaway.  To ensure that your reading needs are covered, here are three quite excellent titles involving escape, for middle grade and YA readers.

First up, we have Omnia by Laura Gallego Garcia, translated from the original Spanish by Jordi Castells.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

All you have to do is imagine—the Omnia superstore has anything you could ever dream of.

Where else but Omnia would a boy go looking to replace a one-of-a-kind stuffed bunny that happens to be his baby sister’s favorite toy? Scrolling through the online retailer’s extensive inventory, Nico finds what looks like a perfect match, but the item is lost somewhere in the vast Omnia warehouse. He doesn’t believe it, so he stows away in a shipment being returned to the warehouse to search for the bunny himself.

Nico quickly gets stranded on the island of Omnia, a fantastical place that does much more than sell everyday items. It is a hub for a business with intergalactic reach, and while stray visitors to Omnia are welcomed warmly, they are not permitted to leave, ever.

The adventure of a lifetime awaits Nico as he searches for the beloved toy and tries to find a way to return home.

omnia

We absolutely adored this unusual middle grade sci-fi adventure story that was a delightful mix of Charlie and the CBruce's Pickhocolate Factory and and the inside of a TARDIS.  In fact, it felt like such an original story that we have labelled it a Top Book of 2016 pick.  Nico is a supremely sympathetic protagonist and an unfailing optimist and his firm commitment to finding a replacement for his sister’s favourite toy (also a family heirloom!) is commendable.  I loved the imaginative features of the Omnia warehouse – I won’t spell these out here because it would spoil the fun for first time readers – and the inclusion of some very unexpected individuals that gave the world an expansive feel, despite the fact that most of the story takes place entirely within the warehouse of the Omnia online store.

Omnia as a whole felt like an energizing story, with twists a-plenty, but twists that I didn’t expect and didn’t necessarily predict.  The story never becomes too sinister, yet Nico clearly has some troubling problems to overcome before he can achieve his goal  It was fantastic to see that instead of taking the easy, well-trodden “evil villain running a secret empire” route, the root causes of Nico’s problems were recognisably more human in origin.  The ending comes along quicker than one might expect, but I appreciated the fact that Gallego doesn’t faff about and draw out the final scenes simply to lengthen the wordcount.  If you are a jaded reader of middle grade fiction who is sick of the same old fantasy and magic tropes being played out time and again, Omnia will be a refreshing change, without compromising on a sense of adventure and new discoveries.

Next up we have a historical fiction for upper middle grade and YA readers by Wai Chim, Freedom Swimmer.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields…When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams…But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.

freedom-swimmer

Freedom Swimmer (Wai Chim) Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th August, 2016. RRP: $16.99

I will admit to knowing very little about the history (either ancient or modern) of China and this book was a perfect introduction to the historical period of the Cultural Revolution under the rule of Mao Tse-tung and the ways in which the Chinese people responded to massive social change.  Ming is a shy village boy who lived through years of famine which brought about the death of his family.  Alone and in a precarious social position, Ming tries to uphold his part in the work of the village while under the wing of his closest friend, Tiann.  Li is a good looking, educated city boy who arrives in Ming’s village as part of an exercise by the Red Guard to learn about the working life of the “peasants”.  While Li is familiar with and supportive of Mao’s teachings, he is open-minded and friendly, something some of his comrades in the Guard see as a precursor to possible reactionary thinking.

Freedom Swimmer is pitched at just the right level for young readers to get a glimpse of the oppressive nature of life for Ming and the people of China generally, without having to go into the more confronting details of how “reactionaries” were treated.  These details are hinted at, and there are some violent scenes, but rather than focusing on the horror of an oppressive military regime, the author has done a great job at highlighting the personal responses of Ming and Li to changes in their communities and families.  Before reading this book, I had no idea that Freedom Swims were a “thing” and this would be a fantastic novel to use in lower secondary classrooms to introduce the idea of asylum seeking, the ways in which people are forced to leave their home countries, and what might happen to them if they successfully manage the escape or if they don’t.  Given that this is a topical issue in Australia at the moment, historical instances of asylum seeking are a valuable contribution to the discourse on what exactly a refugee is and how different countries respond to those seeking asylum.

Putting the “issues” of the book aside for a moment however, Freedom Swimmer is a tight, engaging historical novel with relatable characters and writing that makes this recent historical period immediately accessible for young readers.

Finally, we have Labyrinth Lost, the first in the Brooklyn Brujas series, by Zoraida Cordova.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

labyrinth-lost

Being the jaded, cranky old fusspot that I am, it is always exciting to come across a book that features a whole new experience of magic.  Having read more than a few YA books that feature magic in my time, I tend to get that samey feeling quite a bit.  I am pleased however, to note that Labyrinth Lost had me sucked right in to Alejandra’s world of witches and sorcery…for the first part, at least.  Cordova’s magic system here is a mix of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean myth, folklore and ritual and as such, the imagery fairly leapt off the page.  The initial part of the story, in which Alex is trying to figure out how to avoid her Deathday party, is urban fantasy at its best, with the magical, mythical elements expertly blended with the mundane world of school and relatives.

I was more than a little disappointed to see this part of the story end, but end it does when Alex and her reluctant accomplice, Nova, are drawn into the world of Los Lagos, in which magic reigns and the curse of a creature called the Devourer is laying waste to the land.  Now don’t get me wrong: this part of the book was still exciting and creative, but I haven’t read a really original-feeling urban fantasy YA novel for such a long time that I wanted that part to continue indefinitely.  Once the characters had arrived in Los Lagos, it felt like more familiar tropey territory, even though the world itself was quite original and unexpected.

The greatest thing about this book (apart from the kick-ass urban fantasy beginning) is the focus on identity and family relationships throughout.  Alex, despite being set apart as a witch, struggles with the common problem of feeling disconnected from her family; wanting something other than the path that is expected of her.  I’ll be interested to see where this series goes – I hope there’ll be more urban settings in the sequel.

So, be it by water, by magic portal or by pneumatic postal tube, I hope you find a way to escape these holidays!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Children’s Book Week Chaser: Three Visually Stunning Australians…and a Giveaway (Int)!

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picture book perusal button

I know, I know, I’m a week late, but what I have for you this week is definitely worth the wait.  As you may or may not know, last week was Children’s Book Week in Australia and, never one to let the party end once the official celebrations are over, I am happy to announce that the rest of this week will be Children’s Book Week around the Shelf! Woo hoo!  You can expect new release (and a couple of older titles) perfect for the younglings in your life, right here, every day until Friday.

I am also pleased to announce that we’re kicking off with THREE (count ’em!) TOP BOOK OF 2016 PICKS!!

Bruce's Pick

As well as an International GIVEAWAY!!

Before you explode with excitement, let’s crack on!

Today I have three eyeball-burstingly attractive books for you from Australian authors.  One is a heartwarming book about numbers for the littlies, one is a steampunk cautionary tale for the tweens, and one is a jaw-droppingly incredible, atmospheric and significant piece of wordless storytelling for pretty much any age reader.  We should begin with heartwarming, don’t you think?

theres not one

There’s Not One (Jennifer Higgie) Published by Scribble, September 2016. RRP: $24.99

*We received a copy of this title from Scribble Publishing for review*

From Goodreads:

This joyous debut from well-known writer and editor Jennifer Higgie (Frieze Magazine) celebrates both the individual and the diversity of the world around us. In kaleidoscopic colour, Higgie takes young readers on a journey from some of life’s most important things (baked beans!) to some of life’s biggest wonders (stars!). The perfect early picture book for budding art lovers!

To give you an idea about how different There’s Not One by Jennifer Higgie is to your typical “counting” book for preschool aged children, here’s a glimpse of one of the double page spreads:

theres not one page spread

So much for the “One monkey, two bananas, three chunks of poo being flung” format you were expecting!  There’s Not One bypasses the smaller numbers and makes a beeline for those things which are, in many ways, quite difficult to quantify.  Raindrops, for instance.  Stars.  Colours.  Methods of transportation.  This book will attempt, in the most gentle way possible, to stymie your little one’s counting finger and open their mind to a broader perspective on number.  The eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling seemed to take the phrase “too many to count” as a personal challenge and repeatedly attempted to count the individual stars on the star-counting page.  He happily gave up after a few attempts, and turned his attention to the page with “a zillion” baked beans instead, so in that regard, this is a great book for occupying the attention of the more stubborn younglings of  your acquaintance.

There is a completely unexpected twist at the end of this book that is the perfect way to round out the imagining of numbers of such large scale.  The aforementioned mini-fleshling, on hearing the last few pages of the book, stared off into the distance for a few silent moments, before slowly smiling in a way that indicated a revelation of incredible magnitude had just slithered into his consciousness.  It was quite the most heartwarming thing this stony old gargoyle had seen in quite a while and made the reading experience completely worthwhile.

I would recommend this heartily to those aged between three and maybe seven years; those children who are of an age to get a grasp on the fact that some things come in quantities to large to be counted with a child’s pointing finger.  Having said that, those younger than that will adore the bright colours and patterns, even if they don’t quite grasp the concepts being relayed.

Judging from the mini-fleshling’s reactions to There’s Not One, we have to note that Higgie is on a winner here.

mechanica

Mechanica (Lance Balchin) Published by Five Mile Press, 1st September 2016. RRP: $24.95

*We received a copy of this title from Five Mile Press for review*

From Goodreads:

In this field guide from the future, a dashing explorer—Miss Liberty Crisp—details amazing creatures known as Mechanica: human-created life forms designed to replace extinct species. 

Set in the twenty-third century, the book describes how Earth could no longer support wildlife. The warnings had been ignored. Corporations continued to expose the environment to chemical and radioactive waste, and many Earth species began to disappear. By 2200, vast areas of the world had become uninhabitable and wildlife extinct. In place of the lost wildlife species, the corporations began to create Mechanica. But the Mechanica escaped their confinement, and started to develop in the wild on their own. Filled with inventive and awe-inspiring images and details, this book is sure to spark readers’ imaginations! Kids will marvel at the steampunk-inspired renderings of mechanical bugs, birds, bats, snakes, and more!

Who doesn’t love awesomely inventive creatures repopulating a post-apocalyptic landscape?  No one, that’s who!  Mechanica, with its slightly larger than average hardback format is sure to pull in both reluctant and unstoppable readers alike.  The book begins with a few pages detailing the world in which the mechanica thrive and the circumstances in which they were brought about.  Each page spread features clear and detailed images of the mechanical creature under discussion, plus a brief description of how it came to be and where it is commonly found:

mechanica page spread

The effective use of white space means that younger readers shouldn’t become overwhelmed by the amount of text per creature, and the handy index at the back means that youngsters can look up their favourite mechanica in a snap.  As an adult reader, this is quite an absorbing picture book, given the history and background that has been created for each creature.  The brief descriptions bring to life the environmental chaos that has resulted from the actions of humans and the overall sense of the book had me bringing to mind the “life finds a way” mantra/warning from the original Jurassic Park film!

This book has so many applications for the upper primary classroom that teachers would be foolish not to pick it up.  Off the top of my head I can think of curriculum links for art, history, geography, science, drama and both creative and nonfiction text creation.  Curriculum links aside, though, this is quite simply a beautifully produced text with original and engaging subject matter that will draw the eye of discerning readers of any age.

small things

Small Things (Mel Tregonning) Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th August, 2016. RRP: $29.99

*We received a copy of Small Things from Allen & Unwin for review*

From Goodreads:

On the cusp of having everything slip from his grasp, a young boy has to find a way to rebuild his sense of self. An ordinary boy in an ordinary world. With no words, only illustrations, Small Things tells the story of a boy who feels alone with worries but who learns that help is always close by. An extraordinary story, told simply and with breath taking beauty.

Even before opening this book, it’s obvious that it’s going to be an eye-popping reading experience.  Perhaps it’s for the best then, that this is a wordless picture book and one from which readers will take their own diverse impressions.  Small Things follows a period in the life of a young boy who is obviously struggling emotionally at school and home.  Given that there are no words, it is not explicitly stated that he is suffering from depression or anxiety, but for those who have experienced these afflictions for themselves, the visual cues will be obvious.  As the book continues, the reader is given glimpses into why things might seem so bad for the protagonist – but there are also clues that hope and support are around the corner.

The page spreads range from single page illustrations to the more typical graphic novel format of multiple frames to a page:

small things page spread

I found that these multi-framed pages required a bit of time and energy to peruse, as I didn’t want to miss anything that might be tucked away in the corners of the images, or misinterpret the story because I was skimming.  The monochrome colour scheme is essential to convey the atmosphere of the boy’s headspace, but I found that it too required a more focused approach to “reading” the story.

Despite the end of the story offering some sense of hope and normalisation to the boy’s experience, I was left with a lingering sense of dread that may or may not be related to the personal mental health experiences of the she-fleshling in our dwelling.  Because I jumped straight into the book without first reading the press release that accompanied it, I was unaware that this book is published posthumously to the author’s suicide, and the final illustrations were completed by that giant of Australian story-telling, Shaun Tan.  I left the book with the feeling that the story was poised on a knife-edge, even though the boy’s demeanor indicates that things might be looking up for him.  This ambivalence is no bad thing I suspect, because the complexity of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety invite such contradictions and this is something that needs to be openly discussed and acknowledged.

Although I would recommend this for older children, say upper primary and above, as well as adults, I think readers will engage with this book on their own level.  The more disturbing nuances of the imagery will probably go over the heads of readers at the younger end of the age bracket, but they should still appreciate the need for a sense of belonging and support that the book conveys.  Similarly, older readers will be able to uncover much more complex themes in the visual journey.  Whatever the age and maturity level of the reader however, this is a story that deserves a conversation – so be sure to share your opinion once you have drunk it all in.

Giveaway Time!!

One winner will be able to choose one of the above books as their prize!

This contest is open internationally – hooray!

To enter, answer this question in the comments below: 

Which of these books would you most like to win and why?

Giveaway will run from the moment this post goes live (now!) until midnight, Sunday September 4th, 2016, Brisbane time.

I will select one winner from the pool of eligible comments using a random number generator.  The winner will have 48 hours to respond to a congratulatory email before a new winner is chosen.  I will not be responsible for prizes lost or damaged in transit.

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

A Maniacal Book Club Review (and Top Book of 2016 Pick!): The Girl Who Drank the Moon…

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Well, we all agree – today’s book is a Top Book of 2016 pick!  

Bruce's Pick

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is a delightfully original fantasy tale for middle grade readers featuring dragons, swamp monsters, magic, abandoned babies and a whole lot more.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley for review, but were unprepared for the complex and well-plotted story upon which we were about to embark.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and deliver them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. 

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this enmagicked girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. To keep young Luna safe from her own unwieldy power, Xan locks her magic deep inside her. When Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, her magic begins to emerge on schedule–but Xan is far away. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Soon, it is up to Luna to protect those who have protected her–even if it means the end of the loving, safe world she’s always known.
girl who drank the moon

And here’s what the Maniacal Book Club have to say on the topic…

Guru Davemaniacal book club guru dave

If a baby is left in the forest and no one is around, will anyone hear its plaintive cries?  That depends on who you ask, according to the stories passed down in the Protectorate and the Free Cities. Perhaps it will be heard by a witch.  Perhaps a saviour.  Perhaps its heart-broken mother.  If you were to ask a Guru, he might say that a special child like Luna will always find a way to have her voice heard by the people who matter.  Even if that voice is silenced by loss and witchery.

To0thless

maniacal book club toothless

 

THERE IS A DRAGON IN THIS BOOK!!!!  Fyrian is the dragon and he is tiny and funny and he is Luna’s pet but before that he was Xan’s pet.  Xan is the witch and Fyrian calls her Aunty Xan.  There is a sad story about what happened to Fyrian’s family but I can’t tell you what it is because Bruce says that would be spoiling it.  Even though Fyrian is really tiny he turns out to be important in the end.  I really liked Aunty Xan too and especially Glerk.  Glerk is a swamp monster and also a poet.

I think kids who love adventure and dragons would like this book.

Mad Martha

maniacal book club martha

Under the moon, 

in a dark, hidden forest,

a baby is taken from her home.

Under the moon, 

in a dark hidden forest, 

a girl finds a home.

Under the moon, 

in a dark, hidden forest,

a girl makes a home

in her heart.

Bruce

maniacal book club bruce

It’s a tricky thing these days to find a book – in any genre, for any age group – that feels like a breath of fresh air.  The Girl Who Drank the Moon, while using some familiar themes from children’s literature, feels like it has been put together in a wholly new way.

The story is a complex mix of fantasy, family drama and socio-political tussle that plays out over the span of Luna’s young life, culminating in a satisfying finish in which the inner doubts and flaws of various characters are realised, overcome (in some cases) and incorporated into new lives, and we witness Luna’s transition to almost-adulthood.

There are a great range of original characters here, from Xan, the “witch” who does what she deems to be right despite not understanding why a certain city continues with a bizarre and seemingly useless ritual; there’s Glerk, the swamp monster who was born at the beginning of the world (or did he birth the world at the beginning?) and is Xan’s firm friend and resident poet; and Fyrian, the tiny dragon who thinks he is enormous and seems capable of nothing but pure love and joy for his odd little family.  There is also an unexpected villain (about whom I shall say no more in order not to spoil things), a desperate, grieving mother who becomes far more than the madwoman she is branded to be and a pure-hearted, and a pure-hearted ordinary man who loves a pure-hearted ordinary woman and wants nothing more than to live a peaceful life in the bosom of his family.

Reflecting on this one, I can see some underlying themes of integrity in the midst of confusion, standing up for what’s right, even if it means standing alone, and the fact that great suffering can, in some cases, find great healing, given time and the right circumstances.  While these themes aren’t laboured by the author, their inclusion gives this story depth and raises it above the level of your typical middle grade fantasy adventure.  There are real lives playing out in this world of magic, and it’s a wonderful thing for authors to trust that young readers can handle difficult topics if they are presented with authentic characters.

I highly recommend this to adult readers as well as younger ones, as the story is one that defies being labelled with a particular age-grouping.  We definitely suggest having a crack at this one if you are a fan of magic and fantasy in a context that doesn’t discount the need for characters that feel real and deep and developed.

Until next time,

Bruce (and the gang!)

 

Ollie’s Odyssey: A Top Book of 2016 Pick!

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Bruce's Pick

We’ve got a right old beauty for you today: an early middle grade, art-fest, epic-quest beauty chock full of original characters that you will just want to cuddle (or run away from…depending).  Today’s book is also a Top Book of 2016 pick for its stunning visual appeal and gorgeous presentation.  So what is today’s book?

It’s Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce, which we received gratefully from Simon & Schuster Australia for review.  I won’t keep you in suspense any longer though – here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Can a beloved but lost stuffed rabbit save himself and other Losts from becoming the most feared designation of all: The Forgotten? Find out in this epic quest from the author of The Guardians series and the creative force behind The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.

Ollie is a favorite. Of all the toys in Billy’s home, the stuffed rabbit takes top rank: everywhere Billy goes, so goes Ollie. But being a favorite is more than a privilege—it’s also fraught with danger. Because of Zozo.

Zozo has never been a favorite. An amusement park prize who was never chosen, Zozo has grown so bitter that, when the amusement park closes, he seeks revenge on every toy lucky enough to be a favorite. He wants them all to become The Lost, and even better, Forgotten.

When Billy accidentally leaves Ollie under the table at a wedding, Ollie finds himself on an unplanned adventure, kidnapped by the nefarious Zozo and his gang of creeps and faced with the momentous task of saving not only himself, but all the other stuffies who are “lost” as well…

With nods to Toy Story and Knuffle Bunny, but with that insoucient joie de vivre that is all William Joyce’s and Moonbot’s own, here’s a look at what REALLY goes on with your stuffed animals when the lights are out.

ollies odyssey

We had our collective eye on this from the moment we saw the cover and read the blurb, but we were unprepared for the incredible thud of loveliness when this hardback treasure landed on the doormat.  Just to give you an idea of the gasp-worthiness of this book’s presentation, here’s a taster:

Pretty impressive, no?  One of the biggest pleasures of the reading experience of Ollie’s Odyssey is the tactile nature of the book itself – it’s satisfyingly heavy, the pages are tinted with a slight sepia tone and those eye-popping illustrations are not rationed out but appear regularly every few pages.  There are even a couple of double page spreads that take things to the next level.

Just from flicking through the illustrations, it’s obvious that the book contains some highly original characters.  Reminiscent of Jim Henson’s original characters in films like the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Joyce has pulled out all the stops in exploring the dark underbelly of children’s imaginations, while trusting that the overall courage and warmth of the main characters will keep his young readers on the right side of the “frights” divide.  Besides, all the best stories push the reader a little bit in the scares department, don’t you think?  We especially loved the junkyard characters as they reminded us strongly of a more innocent version of the creations in Garry Kilworth’s Attica, one of our favourite books.  There’s an enormous amount to be said for taking a risk with inanimate objects as characters and plumbing the theme of forgotten, lost and useless entities.  Something about these kind of characters certainly fires our imaginations and generally leads to the characters taking on lives of their own in our heads.

Ollie is possibly the most adorable original character we’ve seen in a while, a teddy-bunny with his own dialect that has grown out of being the favourite toy of a young lad from birth to kid-hood.  Despite being a “homemade”, kid’s will definitely see their own favourite toy reflected in Ollie and will no doubt cheer him along as he takes on a seemingly insurmountable quest to get back to his boy.  There will be obvious comparisons made between this book and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, both for the presentation and the content.  Ollie’s story is a bit simpler and less heart-breakingly emotional than Edward’s though (from what I can remember of Edward’s story anyway – it’s been a while since I’ve read that one), which makes it a great choice for a read-aloud or read-together for those just moving into the middle grade age bracket.

Mad Martha was so enamoured of Ollie that she couldn’t resist whipping up a pocket-sized Ollie to join us on the shelf.  Ours doesn’t contain the contentious bell-heart, but will be a cherished Shelf-denizen nonetheless:

pocket ollie

I would definitely recommend getting your dexterous human hands on Ollie’s Odyssey.  Apart from the fact that it would make a jaw-dropping gift for some lucky mini-fleshing, Ollie is a character that deserves a place on your shelf.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

A Picture Book Double Dip Review: Death and Spiders…

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Today I have two beautifully presented picture books for you and one of them is so delectable I have designated it a Top Book of 2016 pick!  We received both of these tomes from their respective publishers via Netgalley.

First up: Everywhere and All Around by Pimm Van Hest and Sassafrass de Bruyn.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Yolanda’s mom has died.
One moment she was breathing. And the next moment she wasn’t.
She was there, and yet she wasn’t.
Where could her mom be now?
“If you look for me, my darling, you will find me,”
her mom had told her.
So Yolanda decides to go looking.
Looking for her mom who died.
Along the way she gets help and insights from some wonderful people.

A poetic story about loss and about a little girl’s inspiring belief and touching confidence.

Dip into it for…

everywhere and all around

…a gorgeous, evocative ode to a mother’s love and the power of memory, presented in an  accessible way for even the smallest mini-fleshling who has experienced grief.  This is an impressive piece of work that blends sensitivity with the starkness of death, presented with atmospheric illustrations that inspire the imagination and beautifully reflect the emotions associated with grief and loss.  The story, which involves Yolanda asking others where her mother might be, is reminiscent of Mem Fox’s classic Wilfred Gordon  McDonald Partridge, as Yolanda “collects” ideas about where her mother has gone.  The result is a moving presentation of the ways people – and especially little people – find meaning in death. If you work with children in any capacity, but especially in education or counselling, you need this book in your life.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re hoping for a book filled with euphemisms for our final curtain.  There is nothing cutesy or gimmicky about this book and no punches are pulled when reflecting the reality of death as final loss.  The book is all the more powerful for this in my opinion.

Overall Dip Factor

I’m not often blown away by the quality of a picture book, but this one is a class apart.  The text and illustrations work so perfectly together to address a difficult topic and the end result is a memorable reading experience that will be returned to again and again.  Despite its refusal to tippy-toe around the trickier parts of death, this book is steeped in reassurance that our loved ones are not gone as long as they are remembered with fondness.

Bruce's Pick

Unsurprisingly, Everywhere and All Around is one of my Top Book of 2016 picks!

Next up we have The Spinfords by AnnMarie Martin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

What’s the one thing in the world that scares kids the most? Being different.

But not Salvatore. You see, Salvatore’s webs are different. Much to his family’s disappointment. Because this family of circus-performing spiders has built their act off tradition. Webs are circles, period.

But not Salvatore’s. And over his father’s squashed body is he going to let him perform with them. It would ruin all they worked for since Grandpa Sebastian Spinford started their show back in 1934. But Salvatore knows better. He knows the crowd is craving something new and fresh. And with his grandfather’s help, he’s going to prove it.

Salvatore’s story will give children of all ages the confidence to be themselves, no matter what.

Dip into it for…

spinfords

…a bright, humorous story about a little spider with big ideas.  The highlight of this book for me is in the illustrations.  The contrast of the bright, bold colours and shapes against the dark blue background and luminous spotlights really bring the circus atmosphere of the story to life.  Salvatore is a likable little guy with an urge to be creative and a desire to stand out from the crowd.  His family are well-meaning in discouraging him from branching out in his web building, but ultimately, Salvatore must make the tough decision to show his true webby colours.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t like picture books that have a mismatch between format, intended audience and amount of text.  There is a lot of text for the picture book format and I found the font used, while being an artistically appropriate choice, difficult to read as it was too closely spaced.  Similarly, this felt to me like it would work better in an early reader format, given the amount of text in the story.

Overall Dip Factor

This is a fun, engaging story for the five to eight year old market.  The amount of text would make it tough choice for younger readers with shorter attention spans, but that slightly older bracket should find much to enjoy and much to relate to in creative, determined Salvatore.  For me, a more considered use of space in the text would have enhanced the reading experience, but apart from that, I found this to be a funny, well-presented offering.

I hope you’ve found something to sink your reading teeth into here folks!

Until next time,

Bruce