A Middle-Grade Historical Double Dip: Cave Boys and Gods of the Greeks…

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Salty snacks at the ready for another Double-Dip review!  Today I’ve got a pair of titles suitable for the middle-grade bracket that will appeal particularly to lovers of history and ancient myth and legend.  I suspect that, while both books will be enjoyed by girls and boys, these two titles are skewed a little toward the boyish end of the market.  But let’s plunge in!

Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age by David Zeltser is an illustrated prehistoric romp centering around a caveboy who just wants to Lug paint caves while the other caveboys bash small furry animals on the head with rocks.  When Lug and village weirdie Stony are banished from the tribe for failing to catch a jungle llama in the tribe’s Biggest Beast catching tournament, Lug thinks that he is doomed to wander the wilderness being a bit odd, like Crazy Crag.  After stumbling upon a rival tribe, Lug and Stony befriend Echo, a girl who has her own troubles fitting in with her people, her little brother Hamhock, and a friendly Mammoth, Woolly.  Together the group sets off to win their way back into Lug’s tribe – but little do they know that very soon, they will soon be facing a much greater challenge: trying to save their people from a rapidly changing climate (and its associated migrating sabre-toothed tigers).  Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age is a story about making friends, standing up for yourself, and the triumph of the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Dip into it for…

…plenty of humour, quirky illustrations and some cheeky takes on modern life reflected in a stone-aged context.  Despite appearances, this is a book that has a lot of heart and is trying to convey some complex messages about societal and environmental change in a way that’s accessible for younger readers.  There’s a nice spread of characters here too, so both boys and girls should find someone that they can relate to within its pages.

Don’t dip if…

…you want a quick read.  While this looks like it might be a book that you could knock over in one or two short sittings, there’s actually a lot going on.  There’s the initial storyline featuring Lug and his tribe and the Biggest Beast catching competition which results in Lug’s banishment.  Then there’s a section in which Lug and Echo meet and devise a plan to get Lug reinstated into his tribe, and finally there’s a whole new storyline about the encroaching environmental dangers to the humans in the story.  This last storyline pops up rather late in the piece, so at the point where I was expecting the story to wind down, a new major plot point was just beginning.  This may be off-putting for some if they are hoping for a reasonably short read.

Overall Dip Factor:

Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age is packed with the sort of quirky humour that many kids in the target audience enjoy.  The illustrations are done in a cave-painting style and are a nice addition to the book.  As an adult reader I didn’t enjoy this as much as the target audience should, but having said that, there are plenty of issues raised in the book that could start some robust discussion between young people and their adults – issues such as the concept of climate change and peoples’ responses to it, and how to balance competing ideas about what to do in the face of impending danger.  There’s also a nice theme about leadership running through the story that would provide a nice launching point in the classroom for teaching about leadership styles.

Next up we have Hades Speaks!: A Guide to the Underworld by the Greek God of the Dead by Vicky Alvear Shecter and J. E. Larson.

In the vein of the Horrible Histories series, this fictional non-fiction tome is narrated by Hades, the Greek god of the dead as he takes the reader on a little tour of his Underworld kingdom.  Beginning with a quick overview of who he is and how he fits into the Ancient Greek pantheon, Hades quickly turns to more pressing matters, such as the importance of funerary rites and what to bring with you if you want to get across the river Styx and enter the fields of Elysium.  Along the way the reader will be introduced to the happy-to-let-you-in-but-unwilling-to-let-you-out guard beast, Cerberus, Hade’s part-time wife Persephone, and become privy to a whole range of stories about others who dwell in the Underworld, or who have attempted to breach its walls.  Stick close to Hades, pay close attention to his counsel, and you may just make it out of the Underworld alive!

Dip into it for… hades speaks

…a particularly thorough and cerebral take on Ancient Greek mythology for an upper-middle-grade audience.  I was surprised at the level at which this book was pitched – I was expecting something more along the lines of the Horrible Histories series, with cartoonish illustrations and a highly visual format, but the book follows a fairly standard format with page or double-page spread illustrations appearing between chapters.  The book actually goes into a fair bit of detail, recounting relevant myths about each part of the Underworld, and giving a very detailed overview of how Hades and the Underworld fit into the lives of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re a struggling reader.  In my opinion, this book would be best tackled by confident readers who have an interest in myths and legends, because even as an adult reader I felt that there was a lot of information to take in.  The book does have a glossary at the end, but I imagine it could be quite tricky for the uninitiated to take in all the detail, even given the modern references and Hades’ sarky style of narration.

Overall Dip Factor:

This would be a great addition or companion book for those interested in Ancient Greek mythology, or for those who are looking for a way to get historical information into the hands of middle-graders in a palatable way.  The whole vibe of the book suggests to me that it would best suit the upper end of the middle grade bracket, or even those in the younger YA set who are looking for an alternative to straight fiction.  The illustrations are stark (but stunning!) detailed black and white line drawings that really add to the impression that these are “serious” myths – ones that have shaped Western culture and literature.  As an adult reader, I found it to be a succinct but detailed introduction to Hades and the Underworld, with a narrative style that really leant authenticity to the concept of touring the Underworld.  I’d certainly recommend this book to confident young readers who like to indulge their intellectual appetites through myth and legend.

Have either of these titles whetted your appetite? I hope so! I’m going to submit BOTH of these to the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge in category four: a book with someone’s name in the title.  If you’d like to know more about the challenge, or sign up (there’s still time!), simply click this delightful little button:

small fry
Until next time history buffs,

Bruce

*I received a digital copy of Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review*

*I received a digital copy of Hades Speaks from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review*

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Adult Fiction Read-It-If Review: Mr Wicker…

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Cheerio my pretties! Today I have an indie fantasy-paranormal-horror story for the grown-ups that features all manner of creepy goings-on.  I was initially drawn to it because of the raven on the cover (cool!) and the fact that it was set partly in a ghostly library (super-cool!) and partly in a psychiatric inpatient facility (count me in!).  I received a digital copy of today’s book, Mr Wicker by Maria Alexander from the publisher, Raw Screaming Dog Press (now there’s a name that gives you a good idea what sort of books they publish) in exchange for review – thanks!

Alicia Baum is experiencing a run of failures – her husband left her, her last book bombed in sales, and the bank is foreclosing on her house – and decides to end it all.  As she loses consciousness during her suicide attempt, Alicia finds herself inside a mysterious library with the sinister librarian, Mr Wicker, who informs her that his library holds a book containing Alicia’s lost memory – the one that is the cause of all her suffering to date.  Before she can take possession of the book, or move on into the (proper) hereafter, Alicia wakes to find herself in Bayford Psychiatric Hospital, under the control of the odious Dr Sark. 

Dr James Farron is a paediatric psychiatrist with a special interest in Alicia’s case.  Using funding for a research grant, Dr Farron is attempting to find out more about the mysterious Mr Wicker, a name that continually arises in the sleep-talk of children suffering trauma who are brought to the hospital.  Alicia is the first adult Dr Farron has ever encountered who has mentioned Mr Wicker, and he intends to find out why.

As the two cross paths in the hospital, danger is closing in from all sides, threatening to end Dr Farron’s career and Alicia’s life.  Unless Alicia can untangle the mystery of her missing memory, Mr Wicker may just open the door to some very old secrets indeed, that have the potential to change Alicia and Dr Farron forever.

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I’m going to do things a bit differently this time, as I tend to do when I feature books with some particularly sensitive or disturbing themes (and this book has a bit of both), so here is a “Don’t Read it if…” disclaimer for those who are faint of heart.

Don’t Read it if:

* you are in a fragile state of mind and the graphic description of a suicide attempt and violence against the female lead character is not something you want in your current reading experience

Now, onto the Read it if:

*you like your fantasy/horror stories to be raw, graphic and featuring more than a little violence, creepiness and smouldering sensuality

* you’ve ever been minding your own business and enjoying a quiet stroll in the park when out of the blue a large angry bird descends seemingly out of nowhere to chase, swoop and peck you … this point applies doubly if this has happened to you indoors

* when reading stories set in a psychiatric hospital, you prefer said hospital to employ practices more suited to a medieval torture chamber

*you believe fantasy/horror just isn’t fantasy/horror unless it takes a completely unexpected turn right in the middle of the story, preferably involving a little known ancient myth that features eternally repeating betrayal and murder

Mr Wicker was a lot more graphic in its horror and violence than the books that I usually read, but I suspect it will greatly appeal to those who regularly enjoy this genre.  Graphic descriptions aside though, the author manages to deliver a pretty complex storyline without losing control of any of the multiple plot threads.  Throughout the book, there’s a palpable sense of danger to Alicia, and the feeling that things aren’t what they seem.  A number of the hospital staff are less than professional, to say the least, and as the story unfolds the reader gets the idea that not only may Alicia be in danger from supernatural forces, but from some very human forces also.

Dr Farron is an instantly likeable, if somewhat stereotypical character, fulfilling the role of Alicia’s protector and champion when all around her seem to discount her experiences as the ravings of a madwoman.  The author manages to throw any stereotypes out the window with the introduction of a new and entirely unexpected (for me, anyway) plotline right in the middle of the book, that sheds light on the character of Mr Wicker and the reasons why he is so interested in Alicia herself.

Underlying all of this is Alicia’s missing memory and how this has contributed to her unraveling life.  This mystery is played out slowly, as Alicia dips into her family history in sessions with Dr Farron, but can’t quite grasp the memory that Mr Wicker guards so closely.  The inclusion of this personal psychological mystery as one of the major plotlines gives a nice break from all the other strangeness going on in the book and allows for a change of pace that I appreciated when it popped up every now and then.

Overall, I’d say that this book has a satisfying blend of fantasy themes, anticipated romance, family secrets, horror and mystery  and will appeal to those who are looking for a complex story with a lot of twists and turns.  And large, flapping birds appearing in odd places.  Mr Wicker is due for release on September 16th.

Until next time,

Bruce

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