Meandering through Middle Grade: The Tale of Angelino Brown…

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David Almond is one of those authors that many people categorise as an “auto-read”; that is, such is the strength of his previous work, any new work that is published will be snapped up immediately by his fans.  It’s a bit that way for we shelf-dwellers.  We loved Skelling, A Monster Calls and Heaven Eyes, for instance, but found some of his other books like Clay and The Savage a bit too dark and depressing.  The Tale of Angelino Brown which we received from Walker Books Australia for review, felt like something new from Almond.  The magical realism and quirkiness were all still there, but oozing out of the pages was a sense of hope and a lightness in tone that we hadn’t encountered in Almond’s work before.  Before I say too much more, here’s the blurb from Walker UK:

A warm and witty tale from a master storyteller, author of Carnegie Medal-winning Skellig and internationally bestseller The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas

Bert and Betty Brown have got themselves a little angel. Bert found him in his top pocket when he was driving his bus. Bert and Betty’s friends think he’s lovely. So do Nancy and Jack and Alice from Class 5K. What a wonder! But Acting Head Teacher Mrs Mole is not so sure. Nor is Professor Smellie. Or the mysterious bloke in black who claims to be a School Inspector. Then there’s Basher Malone – big, lumbering Basher Malone. He REALLY doesn’t like Angelino. And it looks like he’s out to get him…

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There’s a real sense of joy that comes flitting through the text and images of this tome, from the opening lines of “Here we go. All aboard”, to the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired, flatulent angel of the cover.  This book felt quite uplifting to read throughout, which is not always the case with Almond’s work, and I couldn’t help but feel that this book would be a hit with both its intended young audience, and older readers who dared to venture into books for young readers.  The tone is generally light and humorous, without ever losing Almond’s signature sense of pathos directed toward certain of the more pitiable characters in the story.

The book opens on Bert Brown’s pondering about the deficiencies of the bus driving trade, when all of a sudden, Bert’s life is turned on its head by the discovery of an angel – a living, breathing, if somewhat flatulent and undersized angel!  The grumpy Bert brings the angel home to his wife Betty and the pair immediately become enamoured of the little creature and name him Angelino.  As the story moves on, Angelino becomes a treasured being among the children at the school at which Betty works as a lunch lady and with each passing connection, Angelino grows larger.  All is not well however, as unscrupulous and just plain unwise forces find out about Angelino and set into motion a plan to kidnap him for reasons nefarious.

This really is a delightful read, with lots of giggles to be had and a real sense of warmth about the quirky characters.  Almond has a way of making even the most odious of personalities at least pitiable, if not likeable, and there is much of that going on here with everyone from Kevin the Master of Disguise, to Mrs Mole the acting Headteacher and the truly monstrous Basher Malone.  Bert and Betty are the epitome of lovable however and felt like the true heart and soul of the book to me.

Themes of friendship, forgiveness and the forging of community can be found at various junctures of the story and Angelino, while never the most loquacious of characters, serves as a central focus around which unconnected characters come together.  The illustrations enhance the reading experience and wrap neatly around sections of text, giving extra life to the imagery generated by the writing.

I thoroughly recommend The Tale of Angelino Brown to current fans of Almond’s work as well as those who have never come across his work before.  I could see this being the perfect read aloud for a lower middle grade classroom, both for its humour and its gentle message of rallying around the vulnerable.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, under category #47: a book with an eccentric character, because eccentricities abound in this one.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Picture Book Perusal: The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course

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Today’s book is the perfect pick for the depths of winter, when you need a bit of sunshine and dry, parched desert in your life.  We received The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course by Ella Mulvey and Karen Briggs from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from A&U:

A warm and funny story about a unique Australian experience with a fantastic rhythmic read-aloud text.

In the big old ute, on the long red road, in the desert of my home, we all set off for the rabbit-hole golf course. It’s the best place around here to find rabbits.

We sit by the holes, we dig, we wait …

Thump tick, thump tick, thump tick

Where are all the rabbits?

A warm and funny Australian story.

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The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course by Ella Mulvey & Karen Briggs.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June 2017.  RRP: $24.99

From the moment we picked up this tome, we were positively disposed toward it, because we are actually acquainted with a family whose number plate is USMOB, so there was something familiar about the book before we even started reading.  The familiarity soon wore off however, as this is one story that depicts an event that no doubt only a small percentage of the population have ever experienced.

The story follows a group of kids who live in the Australian outback and go on a quest to find a pet rabbit.  Rabbits being plentiful in the wild in their part of the world, the kids begin digging in the dirt to uncover a rabbit hole and its inhabitants, but the rabbits are too wily and the kids go home empty-handed.  Happily though, they have such a good time digging and scraping and sleeping under the stars, that the absence of a rabbity pet doesn’t smart too much.

The strength of this book is in the repetition and rhythm of the text.  It is a “noisy” book, as I like to think of them, of a similar ilk to books like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, that invites readers to join in the repeated refrains.  As the day wears on, the cries of “Where are all the rabbits?” are expanded upon with noises relating to different activities – the bump-click of a ride in the ute, the shake-hop of bushes rustling with kangaroos, the pinch-pop of honey ant tucker – and little ones will no doubt love joining in with the different sounds.  The beautiful ochre tones of the illustrations evoke the desert country perfectly and provide an homage to free range children and the joys of being outdoors.

The mini-fleshlings in the dwelling did have a little trouble following the story, simply because, being city-dwellers, it seemed so foreign to their experience.  The fact that kids could just dig in the dirt and come up with a new pet was baffling to the oldest one, and he joined in the perplexity of the protagonists regarding the distinct lack of rabbits in the vicinity.  Where were all the rabbits?  How come the kids couldn’t find a single one?  And why wasn’t anyone wearing a hat in that blinding sun?  I suspect this story will be a bit of a sleeper; one that will require a few re-readings before the mini-fleshlings really warm to it.

Nevertheless, The Rabbit-Hole Golf Course is one that will fire the imaginations of city kids and have them yearning for an outdoor adventure.  This would be a fantastic pick for illustrating concepts about diversity in living environments.

Until next time,

Bruce

Yarning with Mad Martha: Dumpling Cats

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Cheerio my dears! It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it, since we last sat down for a yarn so I am making up for that dearth of craft-related natter with a charming crochet book.  Dumpling Cats: Crochet and Collect Them All! by Sarah Sloyer is a book of amigurumi patterns based on that popular app and game, Neko Atsume, or Kitty Collector for the non Japanese-speakers.  We received a copy from Dover Publications via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Waffles is a relaxed feline who loves to read, and Cheeks just can’t get enough to eat. These fun-loving characters are just two of the 25 dumpling-shaped crochet cats in this whimsical collection. The cuddly crochet critters were inspired by the Pokémon™-like craze Neko Atsume, a game that enables you to attract cats to your backyard and “collect” them. Each little dumpling has a name and personality points that add up to big fun!

You don’t have to be an expert to crochet and collect these adorable kitties — the patterns are suitable for crocheters of all skill levels. Easy-to-follow instructions are accompanied by full-color photos and simple drawings. The directions explain every stage, from ears to tail, and some of the patterns include accessories and costume items. Plus, there are bonus patterns for a cat bed, food bowls, and more!

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As craft and pattern books go, this one is quite high spec.  The patterns are clearly set out with extra pictures showing how to assemble the pieces, which is always helpful for those who like to see things step by step.  Between the 25 kitty patterns are “bonus” patterns for accessories such as bowls and beds so crafters can provide a bit of comfort for their crocheted kitties.  I jumped in with the pattern for Dusty, who is pictured on the left of the cover, but since the mini-fleshlings prefer Pokemon at the moment, I modified the ears and tail to make an Eevee instead.

The beauty of this book is that it is perfect for beginner amigurumists, because the patterns are simple to follow and result in a small plush that can be created in only a few hours.  More importantly though, from an experienced crocheter’s perspective, the patterns are basic enough that they provide a variety of good base shapes that can be modified, if you have the skills, thereby opening up a whole range of creatures that could be made.  I’m already planning a Pikachu mod based on one of the plumper shapes.

Apart from the uses that I can see this having in terms of creating new spin-offs using these patterns, the book didn’t entirely work for me because I prefer working with larger sized plushies.  The small plushies produced here, that fit into the palm of your hand, aren’t as forgiving when it comes to little mistakes that can be made here and there while following the pattern.  Again though, the small sized pieces mean that a finished piece that looks pretty much like the picture is achievable for those new to the craft.

I can see myself coming back to this book to gain inspiration from the adorably squishy body shapes of the dumpling cats and I would definitely recommend it to beginners and more experienced amigurumists alike.

Yours in yarn,

Mad Martha

Superheroes, Secrets and Tiny Horses: Kid Normal…

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It’s time for a bit of good old fashioned, super powered fun and I have just the book to fit the bill.  We received Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The first book in a laugh-out-loud funny adventure series for 8+ readers from popular radio personalities Greg James and Chris Smith.

When Murph Cooper rocks up to his new school several weeks into the beginning of term, he can’t help but feel a bit out of his depth.

And it’s not because he’s worried about where to sit, and making friends, and fitting in, or not knowing where the loos are. It’s because his mum has enrolled him at a school for superheroes by mistake. And unlike his fellow students, who can all control the weather or fly or conjure tiny horses from thin air, Murph has no special abilities whatsoever.

But just because you don’t have superpowers, it doesn’t mean you can’t save the day. Let’s hope Murph realises that, and quick – because not far away is a great big bad guy who is half man and half wasp, and his mind is abuzz with evil plans …

It’s time for Kid Normal to become a hero!

What a fun read this was!  It felt like a cross between X-Men and Little Britain and was a refreshing change of pace from the books I’ve been reading lately.   Kid Normal is not the most original story in the world – untalented kid makes good being the order of the day in many middle grade reads – but it is certainly funny, pacey and tongue in cheek, with a likable protagonist, a band of lovable misfits and some truly ridiculous(ly evil) villains.

Murph is a boy who has moved around a lot and when his mother finally discovers a school in which to enrol him in their new town, it is to Murph’s chagrin that the school turns out to be a secret school for the super-powered.  Having said that, not all of the “powers” evident in the attendees could really be classed as “super”, unless you count making a screeching noise with your teeth particularly super, so Murph, while the only one not endowed with a superpower, is not the only one struggling to fit in.

If you discount the superpower element, Kid Normal is a tried and true story of a young man who is lost and alone developing some solid, if unusual, friends and working together to overcome their difficulties.  In this case, the difficulty happens to be a giant wasp-human hybrid villain with a plan to take over the picnic world through the means of enslavement-inducing helmets, but apart from that, the story is one with which middle grade readers will be generally familiar.

The humour really is the driving force behind the story, with the book using a narrative style that invites the reader in and addresses them here and there.  The narrative style is fun and fast-paced and there were many moments that had me giggling along at the imagery produced.  Many of the adult characters are larger than life and readers won’t be able to help having a laugh at their over the top antics.  We absolutely fell in love with Hilda, the girl whose power is to produce two tiny horses at will.  I mean, what a brilliant power! Who wouldn’t want such an adorable skill at their disposal?

While my copy didn’t have any illustrations, the final edition of the book will be illustrated throughout, which will no doubt enhance the reading experience even more.

Kid Normal was a wonderful brain-break that celebrates the outsider, the kid who doesn’t fit the mould, in a supremely humorous way.  There is enough action and mystery to keep young readers happy and I highly recommend this to readers who love a rollicking tale that uses super-charged laughs to drive the action-packed outcome.

Until next time,

Bruce

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

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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.

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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

 

 

 

Post-Natal Exhaustion and Creepy House-guests: The Hours Before Dawn…

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The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin is a psychological thriller based upon those oft hideous first months of sleeplessness, exhaustion and physical and mental barrenness that can follow the birth of a child.   The book was first published in 1959 and won the Edgar Award in 1960 for best mystery novel.  We received a copy via Netgalley for review as Faber & Faber have reissued the book.  We are so glad we came across this novel because even as the attitudes and situations depicted in the book are clearly of their time, I have yet to come across a book that so flawlessly transcends social change to appear as relevant and likely today as ever.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Louise would give anything – anything – for a good night’s sleep. Forget the girls running errant in the garden and bothering the neighbours. Forget her husband who seems oblivious to it all. If the baby would just stop crying, everything would be fine.

Or would it? What if Louise’s growing fears about the family’s new lodger, who seems to share all of her husband’s interests, are real? What could she do, and would anyone even believe her? Maybe, if she could get just get some rest, she’d be able to think straight.

In a new edition of this lost classic, The Hours Before Dawn proves – scarily – as relevant to readers today as it was when Celia Fremlin first wrote it in the 1950s.

Although the book is a mystery with a psychological focus, Fremlin deals with the events with a remarkable sense of dry wit.  I initially thought that the book might be a bit dreary in tone, dealing as it does with an exhausted new mother, but Fremlin’s writing is incredibly enjoyable and droll and I couldn’t help having a bit of a giggle at certain wry observations.  This really helped carry the book and was part of the reason, I suspect, that I got through this one in a couple of chunky sittings.

The descriptions of the life of a stay-at-home mother with multiple children and a new addition are so absolutely spot on that it is obvious that Fremlin knows whereof she speaks.  Indeed, this edition features an introduction that describes how Fremlin based the story on her own experiences with one of her children.  The walking-dead exhaustion, the scrutiny of judging members of the public, the feeling that one must certainly be losing one’s mind when sleeping and nursing upright in a kitchen cupboard seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do to avoid waking the household during a night feed will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live with and care for an infant who is a difficult sleeper.

Similarly, contemporary readers will recognise people of their acquaintance in Mark, Louise’s “man of the house” husband, who seems to have little idea why Louise can’t keep it together on less than three hours of sleep a night, and the family’s neighbours who are by turns nosy, complaining and downright outrageous.  There are a few bits of the book that are “of the period” such as the moments when the mothers in the story are quite happy to leave their unattended infants for hours on end to attend to some other task or errand, but overall, the situations faced by Louise and new mothers of today are remarkably similar.

The psychological thriller aspect of the story relating to the family’s lodger, the mysterious Ms Vera Brandon, unfolds slowly and almost as an afterthought in Louise’s hectic, chaotic life.  This is somewhat made up for in the end however, with an action-packed and sinister denouement that features danger, death and daring escapes.

I thoroughly recommend this as the perfect pick for a fun and creepy holiday read, although it may not be wise to pick it up just now if you are a new mother.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Challenge under category #29: a book with an unreliable narrator.   You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for the year here.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a (Nordic Noir) YA Review: October is the Coldest Month…

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If you like your YA peppy, romantic and with a good dose of teen angst, you are going to be sorely disappointed (and possibly traumatised) by October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson, which we received for review from Scribe Publications.  Certainly one of the grittiest novels categorised as YA that I’ve ever read, the book takes the reader into the dark underbelly of a town in remote Sweden.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Vega Gillberg is 16 years old when the police come knocking on the door looking for her older brother, Jakob.

Vega hasn’t heard from him in days, but she has to find him before the police do. Jakob was involved in a terrible crime. What no one knows is that Vega was there, too.

In the rural Swedish community where the Gillbergs live, life is tough, the people are even tougher, and old feuds never die. As Vega sets out to find her brother, she must survive a series of threatening encounters in a deadly landscape. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s dealing with the longing she feels for a boy that she has sworn to forget, and the mixed-up feelings she has for her brother’s best friend.

During a damp, raw week in October, the door to the adult world swings open, and Vega realises that once she has crossed the threshold there is no turning back.

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Fittingly, given that the setting is a cold, outlying town in Sweden, the atmosphere of this book is bleak from the get-go and held me in an icy sense of fatalism throughout.  Vega is a teen in a predicament.  Her brother Jakob is missing, she knows why (although the reader isn’t privy to this information until partway through the book) and her stark existence seems like it’s about to become considerably more wintry should the police find Jakob before she does.  The narrative style has a distinct sense of detachment throughout, which is typical of noir I suppose, although I don’t read much of it, which actually made it a bit easier for me to keep reading through the bits that made my stomach churn.

The book features sex, violence and general criminal activity, so if any of those things turn you off, I would recommend you place this one back on the shelf and find yourself something more comforting.  Although this is a YA book in that the protagonist is a middle teen, the other characters, bar one – Vega’s love interest – are adults and careworn, to put it mildly, at that.  It very much feels throughout the book that Vega is well and truly out of her depth, trying to protect her brother while the significant adults in her life are involved in everything from black market hustling to murder.

Towards the end, the story feels a bit like a traditional murder mystery in that Vega starts to unravel the truth and various characters admit to playing various parts in the act in which Jakob was caught up.  I quite enjoyed this part of the story because things finally started making sense and the action ramped up in tandem with the pace of the story.

Overall, since this was quite a quick read, I found this quite absorbing and easy to fall into.  Noir is certainly not a genre I read often, given that I don’t necessarily love grittiness for the sake of it, but this was a good example of the genre and not overwhelming, given the shortish length of the story.  I would recommend this if you are a YA reader looking for something completely out there, or if you are a fan of edgy crime novels and need a quick fix.

Until next time,

Bruce