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

1

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

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.

34806429

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
Advertisements

Meandering through Middle Grade: Running On the Roof of the World…

2

meandering-through-middle-grade

Today’s book is one that was an unexpected winner for me and highlights once again the plight of those forced from their homes due to political unrest.  We received Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Join 12-year-old Tash and her best friend Sam in a story of adventure, survival and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India. Filled with friendship, love and courage, this young girl’s thrilling journey to save her parents is an ideal read for children aged 9-12.

There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them. ‘Dalai Lama.’

Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.

And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins.

running on the roof of the world

I was somewhat hesitant going in to this book, simply because stories about child refugees having to flee their homes are by their nature, sad and distressing, and given what’s going on in the world at the moment, I can get a bit hand-shy of books that are too real in that regard.  Thankfully, Butterworth manages the story of Tash and Sam with great control so that while the dangers and sadness are apparent at every step, they aren’t so prominent as to overwhelm the reader.  In fact, Running on the Roof of the World is a remarkably accessible book for young readers who are interested in real life events and what’s going on outside their own bubble, written in a tone that is both moving and dignified.

Tashi’s parents are part of the secret resistance against the Chinese occupation of their village in Tibet.  After seeing a man set himself on fire in protest of the occupation, Tashi is shocked and awakened to the danger that is coming toward her own family.  After a surprise visit from the Chinese police, Tashi and her best friend Sam find themselves in a desperate dash away from the village, carrying a coded message from Tashi’s father and the resistance…a message they don’t know how to read or to whom it should be delivered.

The beauty of the book is in the simplicity and authenticity of the children’s journey.  After leaving their home in abrupt and unprepared circumstances, Tashi and Sam have one goal – cross the mountain pass into India and reach the Dalai Lama.  The simple acts of avoiding patrolling soldiers, moving from one spot to another and deciding who they can trust, all against the background fear of what might have befallen Tashi’s parents, feel very immediate throughout the book and heighten the suspense of the story.  The chapters are quite short, which made it easy to take the “just one more” approach and dig deeper into the story.  I also loved the mandala-style illustrations that adorn each chapter heading.

While the story eventually has a happy ending, it’s not without loss and trial and Butterworth does well to capture the uncertainty of the life of those seeking refuge in a way that young readers can appreciate.  I feel like this is a story that will stay with me for quite a while and not least because it deals with an occupied territory that is somewhat forgotten or just accepted in the West.

I would highly recommend this book as a classroom read aloud or simply as an engaging and moving story of two children alone in a hostile environment.  Having passed some time between reading the book and writing this review, I think Running on the Roof of the World deserves to be a Top Book of 2017 pick, because of its authentic tone and relevance to world events.

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #45: a book about an immigrant or refugee.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for the year here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: Do Not Lick This Book

3

picture book perusal button

Today’s book will have you running the gamut from “Oooh, that’s fascinating!” to “Bleeeeuuuuuuuuurrrrggh!” in a jolly and mildly nauseating romp around the world of microbes and their living environments…on your teeth, on your skin, in your intestines, inside this book, on your shirt….

We received a copy of Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her. Or you can simply open this book and take Min on an adventure to amazing places she’s never seen before—like the icy glaciers of your tooth or the twisted, tangled jungle that is your shirt. The perfect book for anyone who wants to take a closer look at the world.

do not lick this book

Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak & Julian Frost.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th April 2017.  RRP: $19.99

This is a bright and intriguing gem of a book that blends actual electron microscope imagery with cute cartoons and hilarious text to create a fascinating and mind-expanding look into the world of microbiology.  Readers are first introduced to Min (a microbe) and encouraged to touch the page to pick Min up and take her on a journey to discover other microbes that may be in your local environment.

And by local environment, we mean on your actual person.  Inside your mouth.  On your clothes.  On the paper of the book you’re holding.  That kind of local.

Each new environment is accompanied by a double page image taken by an electron microscope and these we found absolutely fascinating.  Who would have thought paper looked like a collection of discarded mummy bandages from Min’s point of view?Or that the surface of your teeth resembled something planetary from Doctor Who?  These images are absolutely going to blow the minds of young readers and I can’t wait to watch the reactions of the mini-fleshlings in the dwelling when they get their paws on this book.

The microbe characters share some hilariously mundane dialogue throughout the book and as the story continues, the reader picks up different types of microbe, so that by the end of the book you’ve had a good overview of different types of microbes in different environments.  The “Bleeeeeurrrgh!” aspect that I mentioned came right at the end of the book for me, as I read the handy little fact sheet that shows what the microbes, rendered as cartoons in the story, actually look like and we find out that Min is actually an E. coli.

I was totally absorbed by this little book (*as an aside, I find that I’m enjoying kiddy science books far more than I ought to, given that I am an adult*) and I’m certain that this will be a smash hit for young science buffs and a rip-snorter of a classroom read-aloud.  For these reasons, we have branded this book a….

Top Book of 2017 pick!

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

If you, or any mini-fleshlings of your acquaintance have an interest in science – or just general grossness and interactivity in picture books – you MUST check out Do Not Lick This Book.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Lotterys Plus One: A Top Book of 2017 Pick!

0

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

Yes, I know my last Top Book of 2017 pick was only last week, but today’s book completely earns the badge by being utterly original and beguiling and packed with such diversity it would make a conservative Christian’s head explode.

That got you interested, didn’t it?

We received The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (author of adult novels Room and The Wonder amongst others) from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Meet the Lotterys: a unique and diverse family featuring four parents, seven kids and five pets – all living happily together in their big old house, Camelottery. Nine-year-old Sumac is the organizer of the family and is looking forward to a long summer of fun.

But when their grumpy and intolerant grandad comes to stay, everything is turned upside down.How will Sumac and her family manage with another person to add to their hectic lives?

Internationally bestselling author Emma Donoghue’s first novel for children, with black-and-white illustrations throughout, is funny, charming and full of heart.

the lotterys

Although I have bestowed a TBo2017 title upon this tome, I will admit that it took me a chapter or two to get my bearings within this unconventional family.  Sumac is the middle child (ish) of seven.  She has two fathers – PopCorn and PapaDum – who are a committed couple.  She also has two mothers – MaxiMum and CardaMum – who are similarly in a committed relationship.  All four adults co-parent the brood of children who comprise biological children (of various of the parents) and adopted children, of which Sumac is one.  The cultural backgrounds of the family members include Indigenous Canadian, African, Indian, Caucasian and Filippina. The family live in a century-old house and are home schooled because the parents had the good fortune of winning the lottery – hence the family’s surname (The Lotterys) and the name of their dwelling (Camelottery).

You may be getting a bit of an idea by now as to why this book may not appeal to readers of a more conservative political bent.

The first thing you will have to get used to in this unusual book is that everything has a nickname.  As well as the parents’ nicknames, the children are all named after trees (and then their names are often shortened), and every room in their house has a punny name of its own.  Even the unsuspecting grandfather who is drawn into the organised chaos is given a fitting nickname – Grumps.  Because we are dumped straight into the fray from the first chapter, it was a little disorienting trying to sort everyone out into their proper place in the family, although this did turn out to be a good narrative device to demonstrate the busy nature of the family’s life.

Essentially, this is a book about a family dealing with an unexpected new arrival and having to work together to restore equilibrium to all their lives.  When PopCorn’s father, who is estranged from his son, develops dementia and is deemed unable to live on his own, he is taken in by the Lotterys, despite his obvious dislike of pretty much everything to do with the place – his son’s decision to partner with a man,  the multicultural mix of residents, the fact that one of the children prefers to be addressed as a boy even though she’s a girl, the pet rat, the “exotic” food, ad infinitum.  The story develops through Sumac’s eyes as she tries her hardest to be the helpful and logical child that she thinks her parents expect her to be.

Sumac is a delightful narrator.  Through her experience the reader really feels what it must be like for a child who loves her family and its quirks yet is consumed by annoyance and, at times, downright anger that this interloper, her grandfather, has the power to unravel the wall of familial protection that Sumac has built around herself.  The siblings of the dwelling are well written, each with his or her own personality and a healthy dose of sibling rivalry and antagonism which stops the story from descending into an unrealistic depiction of siblings of various ages living together.  After a few eye-rolls related to (a) my jealousy of the luck of the parents in winning the lottery and living the dream and (b) some of the hipster antics that they get up to, I appreciated the difficulties experienced by the adults as they try to negotiate their responsibilities toward a family member who is making life difficult for everyone in the dwelling.

The original setting and the unique family unit in The Lotterys Plus One slowly drew me in and won me over and I found myself eager to get back to the story every evening before sleep.  I expected this book to be a stand alone, so complicated was the set-up of the family situation, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that a sequel is already planned and titled (The Lotterys More or Less).

If you want to be surprised, challenged, confused, bemused and amused by a children’s book, I can’t do better than recommend The Lotterys Plus One to you.

Until next time,

Bruce

An Unexpected Top Book of 2017 Pick: It’s All A Game

0

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

I can honestly say that today’s book came out of left field as a Top Book of 2017 pick, andI never expected to be so absorbed and engaged by a book about the history of board games.  We received It’s All A Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to  Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Board games have been with us longer than even the written word. But what is it about this pastime that continues to captivate us well into the age of smartphones and instant gratification?

In It’s All a Game, British journalist and renowned games expert Tristan Donovan opens the box on the incredible and often surprising history and psychology of board games. He traces the evolution of the game across cultures, time periods, and continents, from the paranoid Chicago toy genius behind classics like Operation and Mouse Trap, to the role of Monopoly in helping prisoners of war escape the Nazis, and even the scientific use of board games today to teach artificial intelligence how to reason and how to win. With these compelling stories and characters, Donovan ultimately reveals why board games have captured hearts and minds all over the world for generations.

it's all a game

Upon reading the blurb for this one you may, as I initially did, think, “Hmm.  That sounds mildly interesting”.  On picking up the book and reading the introduction, which discusses the decline and rise of board game shops and cafes in various major cities around the world you might say to yourself, “How quaint! I wasn’t aware of those!”  And by the end of the second chapter, having read about the ancient game of Senet and the history of Chess, you would be forgiven for ignoring friends, family and important duties in your pursuit of further knowledge about the history of board games.

This book was bizarrely absorbing.

I struggled to put it down.

Since I finished it I have been pondering and planning how to (a) acquire more board games and (b) seamlessly integrate board game playing time into the lives of the fleshlings of the dwelling.

Honestly, this book is bizarrely, weirdly, totally absorbing.

I could not have predicted any of the fascinating and useful (for trivia nights, if nothing else) information about the creation of various board games.  Did you know Chess originated in India?  That Monopoly began its life as a game promoting the evils of capitalism?  Were you aware that the Japanese used table top board games to plan and role play the bombing of Pearl Harbour?  That rigged board game sets were sent to Allied prisoners of war in World War II in order to provide prisoners with tools they would need for escape?  That Cluedo originally had a bunch more characters?  That one of the most famed board game makers in America suffered from crippling paranoia that workers might leak developments in the factory?

I bet you didn’t.

I certainly didn’t, which is why I found this in-depth examination of board game playing and its social history endlessly fascinating.  The book is divided into chapters dealing with either specific board games (Chess, Backgammon, Monopoly, The Game of Life, Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit are all included, amongst others) or some aspect of society that has been influenced by the use of board games (the use of table top military manouvring games, the development of electronics and new forms of playing surface in board games, the rise of games for adults and “adult” **wink, wink** games, how characters or elements of games were switched to appeal to their cultural context).  The chapters have sections that are almost written in a narrative nonfiction style as the stories of the game inventors (and frequently their loss of expected fortune) are recounted.  Surprisingly, the stories often involve backstabbing, theft of intellectual property and not quite the number of rags to riches tales as you might expect.

What was most surprising, and inspiring, was the observation that board games and their variations are seemingly in high demand again as more people begin to look for non-screen-based ways to connect with family and friends.  If you have any interest at all in popular culture and the playing of board games, I highly recommend giving this book a read – mostly because I want to see whether it really is as endlessly fascinating as I experienced it – but also because by reading it, we might all kick-start a revolution toward face to face experiences again.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: Grandad’s Secret Giant

2

picture book perusal button

Today I have a sumptuous feast for the eye with David Litchfield’s richly coloured Grandad’s Secret Giant, which we received from Murdoch Books via Allen & Unwin for review.  Here’s the blurb from Murdoch Books:

A GIANT story of belonging and friendship from David Litchfield, author of the prize winning The Bear and the Piano.

He has hands the size of tables, Grandad said, legs as long as drainpipes and feet as big as rowing boats. Do you know who I mean?

Yes, sighed Billy. The Secret Giant. But he’s not real!

Billy doesn’t believe his Grandad when he tells him there’s a giant living in his town, doing good deeds for everyone. He knows that a giant is too big to keep himself hidden. And why would he WANT to keep himself a secret? But as time goes on, Billy learns that some secrets are too BIG to stay secret for long…

grandads secret giant

Grandad’s Secret Giant by David Litchfield.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 29th March 2017.  RRP:$21.99

Being a thrifty sort of gargoyle, I wouldn’t normally suggest that you run out and buy the hardback version of a book the moment it’s released, but I will make an exception in this case.  The reason you will want to get the hardback edition of Grandad’s Secret Giant is that that way, you will not miss out on the absolutely joyous experience of peeling back the marvelous dust jacket to uncover the luxurious, colourful, mesmerising image spread across the entire cover of this book.

The next thing you’ll want to do is get a load of the incredibly beautiful endpapers – the beginning one shrouded in blue and white shadows and a giant hiding, the final one infused with the warmth of early morning and the excitement and cosiness of making a new friend.

If  you haven’t been convinced by the preceding two paragraphs of high praise, do remember that we haven’t even got to the story yet.

Billy has grown tired of his Grandad’s tales of a giant who lives in their town and helps people out, even though they can’t see him – or scream and run away if they do.  He has made up his mind that he will not believe unless he sees the proof with his own eyes.  But will seeing the Giant bring out the best in Billy?

This is a delightful story of making mistakes and making things better, all wrapped up in a cosy grandparent-grandchild relationship.  The solution to Billy’s problem is heartwarming and creative and the story has an upbeat vibe about it that will give you a spring in your step for the rest of the day.

But those illustrations.

Oh, those illustrations!

I’m not sure whether its the medium or the particular colour palette, but the illustrations here are so vibrant and inviting that I couldn’t help poring over them for ages and wishing, just a little bit, that I could be sucked in to Billy’s world.  I was already familiar with Litchfield’s illustrative style from The Building Boy, but the page spreads in Grandad’s Secret Giant lend themselves even more perfectly to the story than in that previous book.

Little ones will love trying to spot the giant, who seems to blend in with his surroundings despite his inherent ability to stand out.  There is so much to see in the pictures the longer you look that this book will no doubt be brought out time and again before bedtime.

I realise I’m being a bit indulgent here, with three in the space of a fortnight, but because of the incredibly beguiling illustrations and the warmth of the story, I can’t help but name this a Top Book of 2017 pick!

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

Until next time,

Bruce

Mean Girls, Kidnap and the One Left Behind: The Fall of Lisa Bellow…

0

lisa bellow

Whoooot whooot whooot!

That’s the “intriguing read ahead” alarm, in case you didn’t recognise it.  Today’s book is adult fiction novel The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo.  We received a copy of this one from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and even though I didn’t know what to expect going into it, I know I wasn’t expecting such an absorbing, fascinating and subversive look at the inner workings of various minds….

On that tantalising little nugget, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When a middle school girl is abducted in broad daylight, a fellow student and witness to the crime copes with the tragedy in an unforgettable way.

What happens to the girl left behind?

A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind.

After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not.

So, what’s the social protocol if a tragedy befalls someone you don’t particularly like?  Is there an acceptable level of schadenfreude that can be bandied about or do you have to pretend that you really care deeply about the other person (who would never have given one single toss about you)?

What if you are the mother of the girl who isn’t kidnapped?  Surely there must be some concession to such a mother, an allowance of a certain amount of public joy that her child was spared, despite the unnamed terrors that may (or may not…but probably are) being committed upon the kidnapped child.

These are some of the questions that are explored in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, as viewpoints switch between Meredith (the un-kidnapped child) and her mother, Claire, in the aftermath of the Deli Barn robbery in which Meredith’s classmate (and locker neighbour) is kidnapped.  Lisa Bellow is one of the cool kids, a mean girl. Meredith is not.  Meredith is simultaneously unsurprised by the fact that the kidnapper would choose Lisa to abduct – skinny, blond-haired, beautifully shod Lisa – instead of plain, awkward Meredith, and drawn to the gap that Lisa has left in the hierarchy of middle school social totems.

Claire, Meredith’s mother, is unashamedly glorying in the fact that her daughter was spared the horrors of kidnap (and no doubt rape and murder) that has been visited upon the Bellow girl, but only on the inside.  She learnt long ago that sharing her more vengeful thoughts relating to those who would harm her children, even with the man she married, is not necessarily a path to peaceful relationships.  Since her son and Meredith’s older brother Evan was visited with a tragedy of his own, Claire has sensed the bonds between her and her children weakening, and her place in the family unit becoming more vague and nebulous.

This is not a book in which the focus is on the hunt for the kidnapper and a swift and action-packed resolution for Lisa.  This book is about ramifications.  The ripple effect that occurs when one person is removed from a social context slowly spreads to encompass all those to whom they were once connected, even in the smallest of ways.  The voice that the author has used here, both for Meredith and Claire, perfectly suited the complex emotional state that the two are working through.  There is plenty of dark humour, with a spotlight on those socially inappropriate thoughts we all have about revenge and people we deem nasty or lauded for absolutely nothing getting their comeuppance.  The jerky and somewhat detached narrative style perfectly suits the level of weirdness that one might expect to experience on having to slot back in to normal life immediately after a majorly traumatic event – especially one that is ongoing and unresolved.

Lest you think that this is a dreary, serious book, allow me to say that I thoroughly appreciated the characters of Evan and Mark (Meredith’s brother and father respectively).  Evan is so utterly likable that his presence is like a stabiliser for the craziness of the outside world….until it’s not.  Mark is a concrete helper, in that he will provide any kind of help necessary, as long as it involves a concrete object – picking up some tater tots from the store, providing new shoes on request – but is less helpful when it comes to spotting and managing emotional states on the verge of collapse.  These two characters provided a neat foil for the darker thoughts of Meredith and Claire and overall the author has done a stellar job of creating an authentic-feeling family in semi-crisis.

**On a side note, can I just say that I was ridiculously overjoyed when reading about the battling animals that Evan and Meredith played with as children (and sometimes still use) because…..I OWN THE EXACT SAME BATTLING ANIMALS!!!!! The ones in the book are surely based on the Papo range of mythical creatures.  I checked, and the Lion does indeed carry a sword in one hand and an axe in the other (although where Meredith and Evan’s Lion is missing a tail, ours is missing part of the axe – not due to biting though).  My favourite is the Rhino.  He guards Mad Martha’s yarn stash.  Just saying.**

I don’t normally enjoy “character relationship” books as much as I did this one, but there were so many aspects of the story that resonated with me on some level that I can do naught but tag this as a Top Book of 2017 pick!

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

Until next time,

Bruce