YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Fir…

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It’s time for a little YA and today’s book is a dark, shadowy tale of the power of nature and the puniness of humans.  We received Fir by Sharon Gosling from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We are the trees. We are the snow.

We are the winter.

We are the peace. We are the rage.

Cut off from civilization by the harsh winter of northern Sweden, the Stromberg family shelter in their old plantation house. There are figures lurking in the ancient pine forests and they’re closing in. With nothing but four walls between the Strombergs and the evil that’s outside, they watch and wait for the snows to melt.

But in the face of signs that there’s an even greater danger waiting to strike, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from illusion. All they’ve got to do is stay sane and survive the winter…

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I had high hopes for this one, given that it featured creepy trees – a collective character that, it must be admitted, surely doesn’t get enough coverage in YA – and a cold, dark setting that I hoped would be a mental escape from the unrelenting heat of Australian summer.  Unfortunately I ended up DNFing at just over halfway, having given the book plenty of time to grab my attention and hold it.

The two biggest problems I had with this one were the slow pace and the stilted dialogue mixed with tedious monologue. I just couldn’t be bothered to stick around and find out what the trees were planning, or indeed, if they were planning anything at all and not just a figment of the narrator’s imagination.  The suspense aspect takes its time in building up, which is perfectly forgivable, provided the characters around which the suspense is building are interesting enough to inspire a sense of protectiveness from the reader.  I found most of the characters to be reasonably unlikable – the teen narrator is angsty and moody, the father is arrogant and stubborn and the mother is overly conciliatory – and so would have happily seen them eaten by trees …or whatever…and for this reason, somewhere along the line the suspense morphed into a sense of impatience and a desire for the trees to get on with eating the characters…or whatever.

The one character who was written to be off-putting, the housemaid Dorothea, actually turned out to be my favourite, simply because at least she had a bit of nouse about her.  By the time I put the book down however, my feelings toward Dorothea had merged with my feelings for the hapless others and I would have been quite happy to have seen her eaten first…or whatever.

The setting was the definite standout of this story and set the appropriate tone of mild foreboding, and in some instances, blessed quiet.  Had the pace of the book been a bit quicker or had I given a hoot about any of the characters, I probably would have finished this, but I just wasn’t enjoying it enough to keep snow-ploughing on.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: The Hounds of Penhallow Hall

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We’re back with what is arguably my favourite reading age-group today – middle grade, with its boldly imagined worlds and indomitable characters.  Today I have a story we received from the publisher via Netgalley.  The Hounds of Penhallow Hall: The Moonlight Statue by Holly Webb and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft is a classic tale of a new home, loneliness and finding friends in unexpected places.  Here’s the blurb from Netgalley:

For Poppy, moving to Penhallow Hall is the fresh start she’s been longing for since the death of her father. Her mum has got a job managing the stately home and once the last of the visitors leave for the day the place is all theirs! One night, Poppy sleepwalks into the garden and wakes to find her hand on the head of one of the stone dogs that guard the steps down to the lawn. Then she feels him lick her cheek! The dog introduces himself as Rex, an Irish Wolfhound who lived at Penhallow many hundreds of years earlier. And he is not the only resident ghost – Poppy has also glimpsed a strange boy around the place. With Rex’s help she finds herself unravelling the story of his beloved master, William Penhallow, who was killed in the First World War aged only 17.

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Having a quick browse on Goodreads, it became apparent that Holly Webb has written quite a significant back catalogue of cutesy books about puppies, kittens, fairies and princesses for the younger end of the middle grade age bracket.  While there is a definite whiff of the cutesy about The Hounds of Penhallow Hall, the story overall fits nicely into the typical tropes about moving to a new, unexpectedly magical home with which the middle grade fantasy genre is replete.

There is really nothing new or particularly original about this story – a girl moves to a Big House with her mother, gets very lonely, discovers a fluffy magical companion and solves the mystery (such as it is) of a boy haunting the house.  There are no major problems to  overcome, no sense of particular danger or suspense and everything gets wrapped up quickly and easily with little struggle or fuss.  For that reason, this is one of those middle grade books that will appeal much more to younger readers than it will older readers of middle grade.

The story itself had a bit of an old-timey feel, probably due to the oft-used content, but Polly is instantly likable, Rex is the kind of companion anyone would love to have, and the ghost boy, William, caves quickly enough from his stroppy mood to make us like him too.  I will admit that reading this book did strengthen my already quite strong desire to make a wolfhound part of the Shelf family, however impractical that may be.

I would have liked to see a bit more conflict in this book; conflict in the sense of a problem that Polly has to solve or overcome to give the narrative a bit of oomph or suspense.  As it is, the story arc is basic and there didn’t seem to me to be enough of a hook to keep independent readers engaged, unless they particularly love dogs.

Overall, this is one that fell short of my expectations, but should appeal to the younger end of the middle grade audience and those who would love the idea of a magical doggy companion.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: Two Titles That Deserve a Closer Look…

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This post should probably be a Reading Round-Up, but the two titles that I have for you today are worthy of a slightly more specific examination.  We received both from Allen & Unwin for review and there are some absolute delights here that drew the mini-fleshlings in and had them fully engaged in the reading experience.

Allow me to introduce to you Neon Leon, a chameleon with a slight camouflage-skills issue and a TOP BOOK OF 2017 PICK recipient from we Shelf Dwellers!

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Neon Leon by Jane Clarke & Britta Teckentrup.  Published by Allen & Unwin, February 2017.  RRP $19.99

Created by Jane Clarke & Britta Teckentrup, this delightful book is chock-full of subtle interactive prompts and colour bursts that will knock your socks off.  The picture above doesn’t really do the cover justice, because Neon Leon is most definitely an eye-burstingly bright pinky orange neon colour in the flesh, so to speak.  From the endpapers, that are so bright fluro they will make your ears bleed, to the hilarious incongruity of Leon sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb in various environments, this is a book that begs to be viewed again and again.

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I got a bizarre shiver of delight looking at each new habitat and appreciating how the illustrator has juxtaposed the stark stand-outedness of Leon with the skillful camouflage of his friends against beautifully textured backgrounds of leaves, rocks, sand and moonlight.  Aside from all the other interactive elements of the story (which I’ll get to in a minute), it would be great fun for mini-fleshlings to see if they can find all the non-Leon chameleons hiding in each page spread.

Now, about that interactivity!  This story isn’t your typical picture book story.  It is narrated in a style that truly involves the reader by asking questions and inviting readers to join in by guessing where the chameleons might be going or what they might be feeling.  There are also prompts for readers to say or do particular things at certain points in the story.  The youngest mini-fleshling in the dwelling, at three years old, absolutely LOVED whispering to Leon, “Don’t worry Leon, everything’s going to be okay” when instructed during a slightly sad point of the story and subsequently clapping and smiling with Leon as he finally finds what he is looking for. As well as being a fun read aloud between parents and mini-fleshlings, the interactivity of the reading experience makes this one a perfect choice for library or classroom storytime.

The final few pages will blow you away with the scale of the brightness in the illustrations and it’s almost impossible not to feel uplifted with such a whimsically charming ending coupled with the glorious colours.  We on the Shelf highly recommend Neon Leon as one of those rare and special picture book experiences.  In our opinion, it’s unmissable!

Another interactive book that has definitely piqued our interest is Town and Country: A Turnaround Book) illustrated by Craig Shuttlewood.  This innovative title is designed to be read both right side up and upside down, allowing youngsters to compare and contrast two different environments – in this case, the urban, town environment and the country.

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Town and Country (A Turnaround Book) by Craig Shuttlewood.  Published by Murdoch Books Australia, February 2017.  RRP: $19.99

 

The cover of this one basically sums up what you can expect from this book.  Look at the book one way, then flip it upside down and hey presto – a new scene emerges!  The book is designed a bit like a search-and-find tome, with each spread featuring a box with a selection of “town” or “country” things to find in each respective illustration.  In a clever twist, some things can be found in both the town and the country scenes, prompting discussion on how these particular things might be used (or, in the case of animals, be behaving) differently in each environment.  For instance, a rabbit in a country setting might be spotted frolicking in the woodlands, whereas the same rabbit in an urban setting might be seen inside a hutch.

The double spreads each have a different focus – occupations, trees and flowers, food, machinery and so on – so by the end of the book, readers will have absorbed a significant amount of non-verbal information about the two different environments.  The illustrations are absolutely adorable and there is plenty of humour to be found hidden in each image.

Initially, I began using the book as intended with the two mini-fleshlings, trying to find each specific image and discussing what was different about the two settings, but the elder mini-fleshling (six years old) quickly lost interest in that and we instead had a whale of a time poring over each image with the mini-fleshlings trying to find “themselves” in each picture.  Exchanges such as the following:

“You’re the busdriver!”

“No I’m not!”

“You’re abseiling from the helicopter”

“No I’m not!”

“YOU’RE THE ELEPHANT DOING A POO IN THE ZOO!”

“No, I’m NOT!”

“Yes you are!”

– pretty much sums up the engaging experience the mini-fleshlings had while poring over the illustrations in Town and Country.  We are all for picture books with innovative and interactive formats here on the Shelf and would definitely recommend this one to classroom teachers, librarians and anyone who has a need for picture books that combine information with fun.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

#LoveOzYA : Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact

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I’ve been waiting excitedly for a year for this, the second book in Alison Goodman’s historical, fantasy, ass-kicking, demon-slaying Dark Days Club series to drop and thanks to HarperCollins Australia, I finally got my grabby paws on a copy of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact.  In case you haven’t come across this series before, we boldly claimed it as a Top Book of 2016 on January 1st last year, for its extraordinary blend of meticulously researched historical content and original and creepy paranormal elements.

If you haven’t read the first book, you really need to do that now.  Go on, we’ll wait.

The second book serves up more of the same delightful Deceiver destruction and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The second novel in the thrilling LADY HELEN series sees Helen following orders that could bring about betrayal and annihilation. 

Summer, 1812

After the scandalous events at her presentation ball in London, Lady Helen has taken refuge at the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where she is training to be a Reclaimer with the covert Dark Days Club.

As she struggles to put aside her genteel upbringing and take up the weapons of a warrior, Helen realizes that her mentor, Lord Carlston, is fighting his own inner battle. Has the foul Deceiver energy poisoned his soul, or is something else driving him towards violent bouts of madness? Either way, Helen is desperate to help the man with whom she shares a deep but forbidden connection.

When Mr Pike, the hard bureaucratic heart of the Dark Days Club, arrives in Brighton, no one is prepared for the ordinary evil he brings in his wake. He has a secret task for Helen and Mr Hammond, and the authority of the Prince Regent. They have no choice but to do as he orders, knowing that the mission will betray everyone around them and possibly bring about Lord Carlston’s annihilation.

Society takes a back seat in this second offering as Helen’s Reclaimer training begins in earnest.  Almost immediately though, spanners are thrown in the works as the Duke of Selburn appears in Brighton on a not-very-subtle reconnaissance mission on behalf of Helen’s older brother, while the man in charge of the Reclaimers, Mr Pike, turns up unexpectedly and changes the course of Helen’s loyalties irrevocably.  We also see a return of Delia, Helen’s much-maligned friend, and Pug, who provides equal parts wingwoman and comic relief.

The tone of this book is one of underlying disquiet as events seem to conspire against Helen and her band of Reclaimer friends at every turn.  Helen is forced to make decisions on the fly, the consequences of which could end up endangering people she loves, no matter which course she chooses.  Essentially, this book is Helen’s coming-of-age in the Reclaimer world. No longer is she a young lady to be protected and promenaded; Helen must now take her place as an active Reclaimer or risk her own life and the lives of those she loves.  The events of the story do a great deal to advance the world-building and “rules” surrounding the bond between Deceivers and Reclaimers and as such, there is a lot of new information for readers to absorb and join the dots around.

Action is portioned out throughout the story, with subterfuge, underhanded deals and espionage more the order of the day, although the final few chapters certainly make up for any lack of chase, escape and derring-do that might be lacking in the earlier parts of the story.  There are some important reveals in this story that will absolutely change Helen’s role in the Dark Days Club as well as her role in life generally.  Other parts of the story will make your skin crawl and the “ick” factor is certainly in play where particular characters of ill-repute are concerned.  For the romance fans, you can cut the sexual tension between Carlston and Lady Helen with a knife (and between another pairing that you might not expect!)  but for readers shipping that particular couple, it should be noted that the course of true love never runs smooth, particularly where demon-slaying is involved.

Once again, this is a hugely entertaining story with meticulous attention to detail for the time period and innovative fantasy elements from a strong voice in Australian YA fiction.  If you are a fan of either historical fiction or fantasy, you really are missing out if you haven’t added Lady Helen’s adventures to your nightstand reading pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Mondays are for Murder: The 12.30 from Croydon

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As promised, here is the first of two Murderous Monday posts for February.  Today’s book is going to count toward the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge under category six, a book with a mode of transport in the title.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here. The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Croft is a bit of classic British crime fiction with a twist.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with. This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?”

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Plot Summary:

A tale of murder told from the point of view of the murderer, this book is an in-depth study of the carrying out of a “perfect” crime.

The Usual Suspects:

For the second time this year I am bringing you a “not your typical” murder mystery, in the sense that, from the very beginning – or thereabouts – we know who the murderer is.  This is because the book follows the main character as he plans and carries it out. This book is also different in the sense that it carries the reader through two inquests and a full trial before the story is done.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Even though we know who the killer is, it is fascinating to watch through his eyes as the police investigate here and there, seemingly moving closer and then further away from the clues that might give the murderer away.  The second half of the book deals with the murderer’s keen interest in the hunt put on by the police.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the roller-coaster of emotions of a murderer wondering whether or not he will be caught.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting into this one, even if the “mystery” element of the murder-mystery equation was thoroughly absent.  It was fascinating to follow the protagonist’s – Charles Swinburne’s – train of thought as a convenient solution presents itself to his financial and personal difficulties.  Despite being a murderous murderer, Charles is quite a likable and ingenious bloke, with a real knack for malice aforethought, once he gets going.

Some readers may find the story a tad repetitive.  Because we are privy to all Charles’s pre-planning, the information brought out at the inquests and trial is not at all new to us as readers, and by the end I did find it a bit odd that I was sitting through what amounted to a detailed retelling of the story that I had already read.  By that stage I was thoroughly invested in the outcome however, and putting the book down was no longer an option.  The ending is something of an anti-climax, in that it wraps up quite abruptly, but the author has done a fantastic job of tying up every possible loose end.

I would highly recommend this if you are in the mood for a bit of classic historical mystery, from a slightly unexpected angle.

Until next time,

Bruce

For the Love of Books Giveaway Hop!

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Book love is in the air and so we’re happy to be participating in the For the Love of Books Giveaway Hop hosted by Val at StuckinBooks.  The hop runs from February 4th to 14th.

The theme of this hop is sharing books that we love so I’m offering one winner a copy of the first book in one of my favourite YA Paranormal series, Lockwood and Co by Jonathan Stroud.

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From Goodreads:

When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . .

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions.

Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.

Set in a city stalked by spectres, The Screaming Staircase is the first in a chilling new series full of suspense, humour and truly terrifying ghosts. Your nights will never be the same again . . .

If you’ve already started the series, I’m happy to instead offer the winner their choice of any book from this series.  My giveaway is open internationally provided the Book Depository ships to your country for free.  Other Ts&Cs are in the Rafflecopter link.

To enter, just click on the Rafflecopter link below:

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

Now hop along and see what else you can win!  Click on the linky below to see the other participating blogs:

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Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Takeshita Demons

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TBR Friday

I know, I’m killing it!  It’s only February and I’ve already knocked over four out of my goal of twelve books from my TBR shelf for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017!  Today’s book is also going to count toward my progress in the PopSugar Reading Challenge in category #17, a book involving a mythical creature.  You can check out my progress toward all of my reading challenges here.

Today’s book is the titular book in Cristy Burne’s middle grade Takeshita Demons series, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Miku Takeshita and her family have moved from Japan to live in the UK, but unfortunately the family’s enemy demons have followed them! Miku knows she’s in trouble when her new supply teacher turns out to be a Nukekubi – a bloodthirsty demon who can turn into a flying head and whose favourite snack is children. That night, in a raging snowstorm, Miku’s little brother Kazu is kidnapped by the demons, and then it’s up to Miku and her friend Cait to get him back. The girls break into their snow-locked school, confronting the dragon-like Woman of the Wet, and outwitting the faceless Nopera-bo. At last they come face to face with the Nukekubi itself – but will they be in time to save Kazu?

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Ten Second Synopsis:
Miku, who loved hearing stories of Yokai from her Baba, has moved to England with her family. When a disappearing visitor knocks on the door, Miku is thrust into a dangerous situation, as Yokai of all types begin troubling the Takeshita family.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Close to a year

Acquired:

I picked up the first three in this series from the Library Cast-offs bookshop at Nundah, because they featured Yokai and I hadn’t heard of them before.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

A misguided belief that I would have to read all three in the series one after the other.

Best Bits:

  • These are by an Australian author – yippee!
  • If you are a fan of fantasy and mild horror for middle grade readers, then this should be a delightfully dangerous change of pace, featuring, as it does, monsters from the rich and complex mythology of Japan.  This opening book alone includes a nukekubi (a demon that can detach its head at night and send it out hunting), an amazake-baba (a demon that takes the shape of an old woman but brings sickness and disease if you let her in) and even some murderous curtains.  And that’s not the half of it.
  • If you are on the lookout for books featuring characters from diverse backgrounds, Miku and her family are Japanese, living in England.  There are plenty of Japanese words and descriptions of various customs scattered throughout, as well as a glossary of the demons that appear in the story at the end of the book.
  • The plot is deliciously creepy without being outright scary and so is perfectly suitable for younger readers.  As an adult reader I found it a fast and fun romp with a few spine-shiver-inducing elements.  Even though the protagonists are female, the action and monsters should appeal to young male readers also, making this a book that should be a winner for everyone!
  • It’s illustrated!  Throughout the book there are single page illustrations that help to bring the monstrous demons to life.
  • It’s only reasonably short.  I read it over about three days in short bursts, so it’s not an overwhelming read for independent young readers.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • I had a few cringes at the plotting at some points.  The heroines do overcome the demons at the end, but have a bit of help that comes along in quite a handy fashion.  There are obviously parts of this book, such as the references to the Takeshita’s house-spirit back in Japan, and the allusions to the powers inherited by the female line of the family, that will be expanded on further in later books in the series.  This didn’t bother me too much, because I already have the next two stories in my possession, but may be an sticking point for someone reading this as a standalone story.
  • The author has a tendency to throw in apparently random occurences here and there, such as the noppera-bo (faceless ghost) and the yuki-onna (woman of the snow).  These characters don’t end up having much to do with the story, so either they’ve been introduced to give the reader an idea of the variety of Japanese spirits getting around the place, or they might play a part in later books.  Either way, their inclusion did amount to a number of red-herrings that ended up being a bit annoying because I wanted to know what their role in the story was going to be.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Yes.  In fact I’m glad I’ve got the first three because I can continue the story at my leisure.  I’ll probably end up buying the fourth book before the year’s out too.  Reading them will also give me a good chance to use my brand new Yokai encyclopedia – yipee!

Where to now for this tome?

To the permanent shelf, to await its brethren.

Can I just say how much I’m enjoying the TBR challenge this year?  I feel really motivated to get those books that I bought with such excitement off the TBR shelf and into my brain, via my optic nerves.

Until next time,

Bruce