Utopirama: Hygge – Living the Danish Way

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If ever there was a time that needed a bit of added cosiness and sheltering from the winds of doubt and division, I think we can all probably agree that that time is now.  We see ourselves as contributors to the peace and unity of the world here on the Shelf and to that end, allow me to introduce you to Charlotte Abrahams new offering, Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way.  Don’t be alarmed though, for this is not another quick-fix, self-help, de-clutter-and-you-will-be-happy sort of book – quite the opposite in fact – but an exploration of the Danish concept of hygge and how it may contribute to the fact that Danes often top polls about the happiest nations on Earth.  We received a copy from Hachette Australia for review, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Candlelight is hygge; the smell of freshly brewed coffee is hygge; the feel of crisp, clean bed linen is hygge; dinner with friends is hygge. ‘Hygge’, pronounced ‘hoo-ga’, is a Danish philosophy that roughly translates to ‘cosiness’. But it is so much more than that. It’s a way of life that encourages us to be kinder to ourselves, to take pleasure in the modest, the mundane and the familiar. It is a celebration of the everyday, of sensual experiences rather then things. It’s an entire attitude to life that results in Denmark regularly being voted one of the happiest countries in the world.

So, with two divorces behind her and her 50th birthday rapidly approaching, journalist Charlotte Abrahams ponders whether it’s hygge that’s been missing from her life. Is it a philosophy we can all embrace? In a society where lifestyle trends tend to centre on deprivation – be it no sugar, no gluten, no possessions – what does cherishing yourself actually mean? And will it make her happy?

In Hygge, Charlotte Abrahams weaves the history of hygge and its role in Danish culture with her own attempts, as an English woman, to embrace a more hygge life. In this beautifully written and stylishly designed book, she examines the impact this has on her home, her health, her relationships and, of course, her happiness.

Light a candle, pour yourself a glass of wine, and get ready to enjoy your more hygge life.

hygge

Quick Overview:

Hygge is simple, hygge is person-centred, hygge is conscious enjoyment of things we find life-giving.  Hygge dispenses with guilt and deprivation in favour of full enjoyment of an experience while it is happening.  Given that this is a book exploring the Danish concept of comfort, cocooning and design that contributes to a happier life, I can only think that the author and publisher must consider it a success that I found the reading experience to be remarkably hyggelige indeed!  Even the cover of the book, which features some delightfully tactile felt trees reflects the mindset that happiness involves enjoying the moment – and if the moment you are in currently involves reading a book, why not make that book inviting to hold, to physically demonstrate how a simple, everyday thing can be turned into something special and pleasurable?

Abrahams is an Englishwoman researching the concept and lifestyle of hygge and therefore is an outsider, looking in on a practice and mindset that is intrinsic to being Danish (it appears), yet foreign to the rest of us.  In that respect, she has done a wonderful and accessible job in laying out the ideas behind hygge and its physical manifestations, given that we don’t even have a word for the conceptual whole she is describing in the English language.

The book is divided into a series of sections relating to the different aspects of hygge, beginning with the people-centred design behind many Danish objects – from furniture to lampshades to public spaces – and moving on to ways in which hygge manifests in peoples’ social connections and guilt-free indulgences.  In between examples of the ways in which Danes create hygge in various situations are interludes in which Abrahams examines her own life and describes her attempts to make small changes here and there to bring about a cumulative and conscious experience of heightened happiness.

Given that the Danes experience weather that is practically polar opposite (literally, I suppose) from that found in Queensland, some parts of the book relating to cosiness and retreat from raging frost and snow seemed a bit unattainable for Australian climates (which is probably why Australians didn’t come up with the concept of hygge), however Abrahams has done a great job of laying out the concept in a way that allows the reader to apply it to their own situation.

As I mentioned, reading the book – slowly, chapter by chapter – felt really hyggelig to me.  Even though reading multiple books is something I do every day, I don’t necessarily take the time to consciously note and enhance my reading experience if I happen to enjoy a book.  Inspired by Abraham’s small efforts, I ended up finishing this book while swinging in a hammock on the deck of a Queenslander, while jacarandas bloomed in front of me and a light breeze ruffled my stony ears.  Hygge! Australian style!

Utopian Themes:

Guilt-free experience

Mindfulness

Shelter from the storms of life

Companionship

Equal Participation

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the liberating experience of telling deprivation-freaks to sod off; that you’re ditching the ascetic, paleo, fun-free dinner out for a glass of whatever you fancy and time spent with people you actually like

Until next time,

Bruce

A Picture Book Double Dip Review: Death and Spiders…

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

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

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

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

Dip into it for…

everywhere and all around

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

Don’t dip if…

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

Overall Dip Factor

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

Bruce's Pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dip into it for…

spinfords

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

Don’t dip if…

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

Overall Dip Factor

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

A Posthumous GSQ Review: Spoiler Alert (You’re Gonna Die)…

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imageToday I have a book for those for whom the stench of a decomposing corpse fires up curiosity, rather than the vomiting reflex.  We received Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die by Korttany Finn and Jacquie Purcell from the publisher via Netgalley and found a delightful little book in Q&A format that is the perfect introduction for those wishing to scratch the itch of curiosity surrounding what happens to the dead immediately after death.  Let’s begin with the blurb from Goodreads:

One thing that you can be sure in life, is that it is going to end. How’s that for a buzzkill? A real life coroner challenged a few thousand internet strangers to ask her anything. The result is a collection of morbid and slightly embarrassing questions all about The End. Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die! will leave you with a new perspective on life. Print

The Good

imageIf you have any sort of interest in the workings of the death trade – that is, those people whose job it is to deal with the dead in any manner – then this is a concise and easy-to-read introduction that should suit you perfectly.  The questions and answers are divided into a number of categories both for ease of reference and so (I assume) you can skip over the bits that don’t interest you/gross you out/make you feel a bit weird for being too interested in them.  The book covers a pretty broad range of content, from information about the types of qualifications and work experience that you might need if you are thinking of getting into work in the post-life industry, to lesser-known methods for body disposal for those who think burial or cremation is too mundane, to what exactly goes on during an autopsy.  The book never gets too in-depth on any one topic so I wouldn’t recommend it for those who really want specifics on a certain area – although if you are looking for a book of that nature I would certainly recommend Working Stiff by Judy Melinek or Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlyn Doughty or even Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, which I read way back in that mystical time before I started blogging – but it’s certainly a thorough and accessible introduction.

The introductions to each category written by Korttany Finn are quite funny and Jacquie Purcell has mastered the art of dry humour, so you won’t get too bogged down in the sadness and unsightliness of close encounters with corpses.

The Sad

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The saddest part of my reading experience here is that I wanted it to be longer.  I wasn’t prepared for such a concise tome and so I was disappointed that it wasn’t more in-depth.  Also, although this is no fault of the authors, there were a whole lot of questions in the first section that are specific to the USA (and in some instances specific to the state in which Purcell works), which prompted the slightly irritating realisation that if I wanted to know about how things work in Australia, I would have to research it myself.  As my natural laziness prevents me from doing any such research, I will have to live with this feeling of slight irritation, until someone publishes and places in my hands a book which focuses on post-death practices in Australia.  **Newsflash! I just did a microsecond of research and found out that coroners in Australia are mostly lawyers or magistrates and one of the main roles of the coroner’s court is to investigate deaths that may have an impact on public safety (eg: bushfire related deaths) in order to improve policy and practice around these events to ensure that they are prevented or minimised in future**

The Quirkyimage

The fact that this book features answers by a coroner, as opposed to a funeral director or someone who does the work of handling corpses in some capacity, the perspective is slightly different from other books I’ve read on the topic.  It took me a few moments to realise that I wasn’t actually 100% sure what a coroner does, although I had some ideas.  Those who love crime shows like CSI will probably think they have a good idea about what a coroner does, but this book might change their minds!

Also, the book grew out of a question and answer thread run by Purcell on a parenting blog, so it’s good to know that the questions in the book were actually asked by actual people and therefore, if you have ever idly pondered similar questions, you are not as weird and morbid as you think you are.

Overall I found this to be an interesting interlude on my quest to read lots of books about death, with some fascinating information that I certainly hadn’t considered before.  If you are interested in this topic, but you’re looking for a reasonably quick read, then I’d certainly recommend you pick this one up.

alphabet soup challenge 2016

*I’m submitting this book for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge*

Until next time,

Bruce (and his psyche)

 

Mondays are for Murder: The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband…

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I have a new release, contemporary murder mystery for today’s Murderous Monday, having received The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen for review from the publisher via Netgalley. This is book number two in the Asperger’s Mystery series. I haven’t read book one, but that didn’t cause any particular dramas in terms of getting to know the characters or the situation in this one.

Let’s get cracking. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

For Samuel Hoenig, Asperger’s isn’t so much a syndrome as it is a set of personality traits. And as the sole proprietor of a business called Questions Answered, Samuel’s put his personality traits to good use, successfully answering every question he’s ever been asked.

But when his newest client asks about the true identity of her so-called husband, Samuel recruits his former associate Janet Washburn for insight into a subject that’s beyond his grasp—marriage. Working as a team seems to be the right approach . . . until the inscrutable spouse is found dead in Samuel’s office.

Feeling like he’s been taken for a fool, Samuel is more than willing to answer a new question posed by an unexpected inquirer: who killed the unfamiliar husband?

unfamiliar husband

Plot Summary:

When a lady comes to Questions Answered requesting that Samuel discover whether the man she is married to is actually her husband, Samuel is happy to take on the case, provided he can gain the support of his friend Janet. After Samuel and Janet are called out to their client’s premises on suspicion of abuse, the corpse of the man they are supposed to be investigating mysteriously appears inside Samuel’s office. Things begin to get a bit convoluted at this point, as Samuel’s original client doesn’t seem to want to be found, and Samuel’s only leads relate to people who don’t seem to exist.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of a tricky one. There’s Samuel’s original client, who seems to not to want to be found, there are some ex-wives of the dead man, and some mysterious colleagues of the dead man.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

The hunt is quite drawn out for reasons which I could not fathom. For keen-eyed readers, and I count myself among them, there are glaring clues given out early on in the story that will tip you off to the eventual reveal of the mystery. There are some red herrings offered, but I found that most of the hunt involved Samuel dialoguing with himself about people’s possible motives.

Overall Rating:

poison clip artpoison clip art

Two poison bottles for the long, drawn-out death rattle of a reader choking on their own impatience.

This was a big miss for me unfortunately. I thought the premise underlying the mystery was creative and interesting and I loved the idea that Samuel wasn’t a “detective” – just someone who endeavoured to answer his clients’ questions.  I’ve enjoyed plenty of books with main characters with Asperger’s Syndrome before, but this one just took too many tedious detours into Samuel’s psyche to keep me interested. My biggest problem was that Samuel seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time explaining certain aspects of human behaviour and relationships to himself that any neuro-typical individual would find bleedingly obvious. Too much of this, and I just lost interest in the mystery.

The most annoying thing about this book for me was the lack of puzzling that I had to do to hit on the answer before it was revealed. Without giving away any spoilers, there comes a certain point in the investigation during which information comes to light that matches up so perfectly with the manner of death that there really couldn’t be any other plausible result.

On the positive side, I really liked Samuel’s mum and Mike as characters.  The ending was certainly action-packed, even if the actual reveal wasn’t a particular surprise.  There is certainly potential for this series to be really engaging, if a bit of judicious editing is applied, but I don’t think I’ll be picking it up again.

As always though, don’t let my curmudgeonly grumbling put you off – if this book sounds like your cup of tea, give it a go and tell me what you think!

Until next time,

Bruce

A Utopirama from the Olden Times: Star Teacher

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Welcome to Utopirama, the place where I suggest books that are guaranteed to uplift the heart or, at the very least, not make you feel any worse than you did before you read them. The point of Utopirama posts is to highlight cosy reads across all genres that are perfect for those times when you need to retreat from the horrors of the world and escape to gentler place. Today’s selection fulfils this brief perfectly and also has the honour of being part of a series from my olden times. In fact, the earlier titles in this series of books can make the amazing claim of being the very first and second entries in my Book Depository wishlist, which now, ridiculously, boasts over 1200 individual titles.

Our book today is Star Teacher, the ninth in Jack Sheffield’s Teacher series, set in quaint Yorkshire village Ragley-on-the-Forest. When this popped up on Netgalley I was stunned to see that this was book nine – I stopped reading after book four, having skipped book three (and all subsequent instalments) due to the fact that our local library system didn’t have them (and I’m a cheapskate and therefore couldn’t possibly buy them). And all of a sudden, here was book nine!

That’s enough of my reminiscing though. Let’s get on with it. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s 1985, and as Jack returns for another year as headteacher at Ragley village school, some changes are in store. It’s the year of Halley’s Comet, Band Aid, Trivial Pursuit, Dynasty shoulder pads, Roland Rat and Microsoft Windows. And at Ragley-on-the-Forest, Heathcliffe Earnshaw decides to enter the village scarecrow competition, Ruby the caretaker finds romance, and retirement looms for Vera the secretary.

star teacher

Quick Overview:

The wonderful thing about this series (and series similar to it, of which there are many) is that you can stop reading at some point, pick up the lastest release some six or seven (or more) years later and absolutely nothing of substance has changed. It’s a bit like those long-running American soap operas – they of the drawn-out, moody stares and soft filtered lighting – except with fewer fake tans and a Northern accent. I came back to Jack’s life after a significant leave of absence to find things pretty much as they were in Ragley, albeit with a new baby in residence and having finally discovered which of the sisters he was keen on that he actually married.

That’s one of the interesting things about this book – while absolutely nothing of note happens throughout the preceding 200+ pages, the books always finish on a cliffhanger, usually relating to the problem that initially prompted you to pick up the book in the first place. For example, the last book that I read in the series finished on the cliffhanger of Jack making up his mind which sister he was going to pursue. This one, of course, leaves us hanging in the balance while the author strings us along, hoping we’ll buy the next book to find out whether Jack gets to remain as head teacher of Ragley village school.

The other utopiramic thing about the series is the continued references to current events, fashions and developments of the particular year in which each book is set. For example, Star Teacher is set over 1985 and 1986 so you can expect lots of mentions of the new technology of the era (the Commodore 128 computer for example!) and big events of that time (the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, for instance). I always find these references a great comfort, because while the characters are in various states of worry about such things, I, as a citizen of the future, can relax in the knowledge that I know how it all turned out.

As a Utopirama pick, you can’t go past the Teacher series, mainly because absolutely nothing painful, shocking or uncomfortable ever happens. This really is a series revolving around caricatures of the population of a small Yorkshire village (complete with phonetically rendered accents) and the head teacher of its school. On the flipside, of course, is the chance that things can get a bit tedious, because nothing painful, shocking or uncomfortable ever happens. I found that this instalment felt a bit tedious to me – although I will always go back to this series for those times when I need safe, escapist read. Provided the library has a copy of course.

Utopian Themes

Escape to the country

The carefree days of youth

Circle of friends

80s nostalgia

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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4 out of 5 bubbles for the unsurpassed serenity of a ruminant beast supremely unconcerned with the problems of humanity

Until next time,

Bruce

A YA Read-it-if Review: The Walls Around Us…

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imageimageWelcome to a read-it-if review that has been  looooong time coming. I’ve had today’s book on my review shelf from Netgalley for months and months and months (surely close to a year!) but I have only just got around to it because it is released this month.  I must admit I very nearly had a “I’ve waited so long to read this and it’s THIS BAD?” moment early on, but thankfully for all concerned, I ended up really enjoying the (figuratively) muddy plot and the confusing twists.  Today, then, I have for you The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.

walls all around us

Read it if:

*you prefer that if a book has to be mysterious and confusing, it had better be that way right from page one

* you always suspected that behind the tutu and perfect posture, ballerinas get up to some weird shit stuff

* you’ve never been too worried about ending up in prison because you have been blessed with a body shape that looks fab in shapeless overalls.

* you make it a point never to eat things you find growing on your walls.

The Walls Around Us is told from two points of view.  There’s Violet – self-assured, set-apart and biding time until she begins at Julliard. Then there’s Amber – beaten-down, self-conscious and biding her time until her release from a high security juvenile detention centre. The story begins with Violet as she prepares to dance in her ballet school’s showcase and reminisces about her old friend Ori, who died three years previously.  The first few chapters of the book did have me scrunching up my face in mild annoyance because the events of the moment are intentionally mixed up with not-quite-clear happenings from the past and this, coupled with the reasonably unpleasant personality of Violet had me fighting to remember why on earth I had requested this book in the first place.

I persevered though and was quickly rewarded with Amber’s chapters which, while still confusing – who was this girl and what does she have to do with anything? – suddenly got interesting as the magical realism kicked in. I’m not going to spoil anything for you here, but after riding out the initial parts of Amber’s story, it becomes apparent that there are two intertwining storylines here – one (Violet’s) which has a reasonably obvious trajectory for the most part, and the other which is completely baffling and will have you wondering, “how on earth is the author going to marry these two plot arcs up?”

On finishing this one I nodded appreciatively in the imagined direction of the author and tucked this book away in the “well, that was unexpected” category. I don’t think the style of this book will be for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed the strange combination of creepy, paranormal mystery and ordinary teen drama that pervaded the story. For me, the value of this tome is all in the clever construction of the narrative, using two mildly unreliable narrators to tell the story of a third party. The Walls Around Us is definitely worth a look if you are after an understated sort of paranormal mystery and are happy to persevere past a disorienting beginning.

Until next time,

Bruce

An MG Ghostly Haiku Review: Remembering Kaylee Cooper…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today for a poetical look at a new release middle grade ghostly tale from Curiosity Quills – Remembering Kaylee Cooper by Christopher Francis.  I only discovered after finishing the book that the author hails from my very own city of residence, so I had a moment of imagined comeraderie that he too was experiencing the ridiculous temperatures Brisbane turned on especially for the G20 summit…then I noticed that he no longer lives in Australia, so I silently cursed him for not sharing the ridiculous temperatures Brisbane turned on for the G20 summit.  But weather gripes aside, let us examine Remembering Kaylee Cooper.

From Goodreads:

Kaylee Cooper is certain that Alex will become friends with a ghost this year. Alex thinks that he is far too old to be listening to a first grader and encourages Kaylee to stop jeopardizing his important sixth grade social life. Kaylee doesn’t listen and finds awkward ways to spend as much time with Alex as possible, even if it means following him into the boy’s washroom.

Fed up, Alex develops a strategic plan to ultimately help him get rid of Kaylee Cooper for good.

However, he soon learns about the mysterious legend of Screaming Ridge that pulls an unlikely group of friends together, including the girl of his dreams, and the school’s meanest bully. When they discover that the legend is real, and that Kaylee Cooper is at the core of the mystery, Alex stares death in the face and helps save her from an eternal life of misery and confusion.

remembering kaylee cooper

Wouldn’t be seen dead

Hanging with a first-grade girl

Maybe vice versa 

Oh the mixed feelings about this book!  This is a quick, middle grade ghost story that is pitched at the perfect level for a young audience. There is just enough creepiness to satisfy those who enjoy a scare and just enough mystery for those who like a puzzle. Alex is a likeable protagonist and there is a palpable sense of comaraderie that develops between Alex’s classmates as the story progresses and the mystery deepens, which I particularly enjoyed.  It gave the story a bit of life and energy and opened up a sense of adventure.  The ghostly elements vary between being a bit predictable and hiding some unexpected twists and by the end I felt like everything had been wrapped up in a neat little package.  Depending on whether you enjoy your ghost stories with loose ends tied up, this will be satisfying or not so much.  I suspect though that middle grade readers will appreciate the resolution to the various puzzles that are presented in the story.

There was one inexplicable element to this tale that drove me nuts while I was reading and disrupted my ability to remain in the story world.   For some strange reason, the author has given ridiculous surnames to all the teachers in the story, and alliterative names to most of the kids (but not all). The teachers were called Stoolpigeon, Humblewick, Allthumbs and Monobrow….really? Monobrow? The kids were called Damian Dermite, Madelyn Mayfeather, Henry Horkenminder…Why? For me, the use of unlikely names just gave the characters a silly, cartoonish feel when the plot seems to be aiming for an atmosphere of mystery and slight danger.   This really affected my overall enjoyment of the book and I wish it hadn’t been the case.

This next bit is a bit spoilery, so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled!!

Another small niggle I had with the plot was the fact that Kaylee was supposed to have died in 1962, having been born in 1954. Why then, I wondered, was she described by more than one character as as being dressed as if she lived 100 years ago, in long dresses and leather boots with long stockings? This bit didn’t tally for me and as I’m a pedantic sort of a reader, caused me to be mildly cranky with the whole book.

Spoilery bit over – normal service resuming….NOW!

Putting aside my minor irritations, this is a solid ghost story that should appeal to fans of middle grade mystery of your acquaintance. There are a few elements in the plot that are fairly predictable, but also a few that come completely out of left field and add to the puzzle that Alex and his friends are trying to solve. Pick this one up if you’re looking for a light, fun read with a spooky twist.

Cheerio my dears,

Mad Martha

BirdCatDog: A Maniacal Book Club Review…

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Welcome, bookish creatures of all persuasions, to this Maniacal Book Club review.  Today we are discussing the wordless graphic novel BirdCatDog by Lee Nordling and Meritxell Bosch.birdcatdog2

BirdCatDog is a wordless picture book that follows three animals (guess which ones!) simultaneously as they go about their daily errands.  For each animal, there is at least one surprise in store and as paths cross and some other animals from the wild side of the fence make an appearance, things become very tangled indeed.  All ends happily enough though, and the reader is left with the message that no matter who the “main character” portrayed in the story happens to be, we are all the heroes of our own little tail tale.

 

maniacal book club guru daveGuru Dave

Creatures of flesh, creatures of stone – it matters not.  What matters, dear friends, as is pointed out to us in this tale-with-a-hidden-message is that perspective is all important!  Each of us sees the story in our own way, but if we look at it from a different angle, we may notice something we haven’t seen before.

This book will help you to look at things from a new perspective.  Perhaps if Messrs Nordling and Bosch were to follow us all around and document our daily doings in such a way as they have for these lucky animals, there would be much less conflict in the world.  It is possible.

maniacal book club toothlessToothless

No dragons in this book. There is a wolfish big dog, and a hawkish bird of prey and a nasty looking mountainish cat, so if you mashed them all together they would make a pretty cool predator creature.
I liked the way the stories get all mixed up at the end and how each animal gets into scary trouble and gets chased around by bigger, nastier animals.

There’s no words either, which is good because sometimes it’s better just to look at the pictures really closely and make up your own story.  It would be better if there was at least a small dragon in it.

maniacal book club martha

Mad Martha

A dog, a cat, a bird

form a story and each gets a third.

So keep your eyes peeled

once they’re further afield

or you may find your path becomes blurred.

 

maniacal book club bruceBruce

Take it from me folks, this book is going to be a hit in upper years primary classrooms, because there is nothing more fun than a wordless book with a complex story.  BirdCatDog is unusual in that it sets up a challenge for the reader right at the very beginning – do you try and “read” it like a normal book and take in the story in its entirety, page by page, or do you follow the handily colour-coded strips and take it in one animal protagonist at a time?  And if you pick the latter option, which animal will you choose to follow first?

The genius element to this book is that it demands rereading.  In order to appreciate the overarching story, you simply have to flick back to the beginning multiple times, so this will be a great choice for engaging those reluctant readers in a book-based activity. 

The art is beautifully done in a cartoon style, with the colour-coding followed throughout to lend continuity – blue for bird, green for cat and yellow for dog.  The imagery in each vignette is deceptively simple, but when taken together at the page level, creates a complex visual experience that demands closer attention. 

Another engaging element of the book is the questions posed by all the characters in the story – who is the hero of the story? Are there multiple heroes? How can that be?  There is so much potential here for the classroom in opening up discussion about storytelling and bias – whose perspective is important and who gets left out? How do we decide whose perspective is the most important?

Leaving the classroom applications to the side though, this book is simply a visual treat and will provide plenty of entertainment for readers young and old as they unravel and then retangle the threads of each creature’s escapades.  I definitely recommend having a look at BirdCatDog if you are a fan of stories told in a visual medium (and even if you aren’t!).

Until next time,

Bruce (and the gang!)

*I received a digital copy of this title for review from the publisher via NetGalley*

 

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A YA Read-it-if Review (AND GIVEAWAY!) for Lovers of School Stories, Parallel Worlds and Lunacy: Belzhar…

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Welcome one and all to today’s Read-It-If; a nicely layered story that hit all the right notes in the correct order for me and at a comfortable volume for a memorable reading experience.  I received a copy of Belzhar  by Meg Wolitzer from Simon and Schuster Australia after lusting after its intriguing title and arresting cover for quite a little while.  I am also in possession of a sweet little paperback copy of Belzhar courtesy of Simon and Schuster that needs a new, loving home.  Australians who wish to apply for the privelege can enter using the rafflecopter link in this post.  Hurrah!

Now, let’s explore the strange and alluring experience that is Belzhar, shall we?
After the sudden loss of her first love Reeve, Jamaica (Jam) falls apart emotionally and is sent to spend a term at therapeutic boarding school, The Wooden Barn.  On being unexpectedly enrolled in the coveted Special Topics in English class, Jam meets four other teens – Sierra, Casy, Marc and Griffin – who are also dealing with traumatic life events that feature loss or grief.  The Special Topics class are furnished with a red leather journal and a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and are required to complete both as their task for the semester.  When Jam and the others write in their journals however, they are transported in their minds to a seemingly perfect place in which the traumatic events of their past never occured.  They name this place Belzhar, but as the end of their journals draws closer, the group begin to worry about what will happen once their journals are filled.  Will they choose to move on and leave Belzhar behind, or find a way to keep their perfect worlds open forever?

 

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Read it if:

* you like your contemporary school/romance/teen-angst reads to feature a mildly fantastical twist

* you like your fantastical twists to feature an even more intriguing twist of realism

* you are prepared to put up with an awful lot of pining and reminiscence on the part of the main character

* you’ve ever bought a note book with a beautiful cover because you are convinced that writing in it will induce some sort of magical power (I know I’m guilty of this one)

The first thing you’re going to notice when dipping into Belzhar is that Jam, the 15 year old main character, REALLY misses her boyfriend, English exchange student, Reeve.  Some people are going to find Jam’s ongoing desolation at his loss quite tedious in a very short period of time.  I was nearly one of those people – until I remembered that Wolitzer was writing a 15 year old character, and as anyone past their teenage years will know, 15 year olds have been known through the ages as liable to get hung up on certain issues, particularly when those issues involve a first love.  So while I did find Jam’s despair fairly annoying in parts, I felt that it was appropriate to the character’s age and situation, so I went with it.  Consider yourself duly warned.

To me, Belzhar was like the Narnia of the teen grief-and-loss set.  I appreciated the way that Wolitzer used familiar tropes such as the inspiring and enigmatic teacher and the teens’ passage into another world through an ordinary object in order to set (most of) the characters on the path from ignorance to insight.  While the ending of the story (in terms of the characters’ states of mind) is fairly predictable, there are a few twists before that ending that throw the fate of certain people into doubt and provide fresh insight for the reader into the earlier parts of the story.

The references to Sylvia Plath and her work will no doubt be a drawcard for some – not me, incidentally, as I found that story to be not so much depressing as woefully tedious – but Plath’s work is only really discussed in a perfunctory manner as something that the Special Topics class could relate to.  Although admittedly, as I’m not an expert on Plath I could well be missing some major nuance here.  If so, please excuse my ignorance and feel free to enlighten me!

While this wasn’t a groundbreaking novel in my opinion, there is plenty here that will pique the interest of those who are looking for a contemporary novel containing a slight flight of fancy and featuring teens working through a range of difficult life experiences.  Themes of friendship and emotional risk are highlighted and readers can make up their own minds about whether or not living in a perfect idyll created by one’s own psyche is a necessity or a hinderance when working through episodes of loss.

I would recommended Belzhar particularly for those at the younger end of the YA age bracket, with the caveat that older readers may be put off by the teen-ness of the main character.

Belzhar will be released in Australia on October 9th, but Australian readers can have a bash at winning a free copy using the rafflecopter link below.  Good luck!

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

Until next time,

Bruce

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A YA Read-it-if Review: Cooper Bartholomew is Dead…

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It’s back to some YA (well, closer to NA actually), teen drama goodness for today’s Read-it-if Review, with the cheerily titled Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James (Australian! Woot!).  I was kindly provided a copy of this intriguing tale of mystery and romance by Allen and Unwin in exchange for review.

The body of Cooper Bartholomew is found at the base of a cliff and all who knew him are shocked and devastated at Cooper’s tragic end, presumed to be suicide.  But what could possibly have caused good looking, charismatic, newly-in-love Cooper to end his life in such a way?  Told from multiple points of view and jumping between the weeks before Cooper’s death and the weeks after, the story of Cooper, his new girlfriend Libby, and old friends Claire and Sebastian unfolds to reveal some long-held secrets that might shed light on why Cooper died…and whether anything could have been done to prevent it.

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Read it if:

*you like a mystery that slowly unravels, leaving suspicion, doubts and a little bit of tangled yarn at the end

* you like your YA characters to be believable, rather than two-dimensional or stereotypical (or both)

*you’ve been waiting and waiting for a YA novel to feature the fates and fortunes of the post-high-school set in small town Australia

Straight off the bat, let me say how impressed I was with the overall experience of reading this book.  The plot is tight, the narrative style is interesting and well constructed and the characters – oh the characters! – are so believable it’s almost painful.  James has done an incredible job, in my opinion, of creating characters that represent pitch perfectly the range of vices and virtues that appear in all of us once school is over and done and we have to figure out who we’re going to be in this strange real world.  This was the greatest strength of the story for me and ultimately what kept me interested through the mushy romance bits between Cooper and Libby.  Well done Rebecca James *insert sound of stone paws clapping heartily here*

Another great bit about this reading experience is the narrative style that features multiple points of view and multiple timeframes.  Regular readers of this blog should know that I just love this writing style and once again it drew me into the story with short, engaging chapters introducing the characters and their relationships in a highly readable way.  In fact, the book opens with Cooper in his final moments pre-death and his surprisingly lucid musings are a great launching point to plunge (sorry, horrid pun in the circumstances) right into the tangled web of secrecy that has led to this point.

Regarding the plot and the elements of mystery surrounding Cooper’s seemingly happy life and strange and unexpected death, clues are thrown out fairly early for the keen-eyed reader but the whole situation is not revealed until the final few chapters, keeping the suspense high throughout.  I admit that I did have my suspicions about halfway through the book, and these turned out to be kinda right and kinda wrong, so in the end I was satisfied with both my level of sleuthery and the author’s level of tricksiness.

This book is going to appeal to a whole range of YA/NA fans – fans of standard contemporary romance, fans of mystery, fans of friendship dramas – and even if you aren’t a big YA fan, the writing and characterisation is strong enough to draw you in anyway, despite the age of the cast.  I expected that I would be fairly interested in this book, but it has far exceeded my expectations and I will certainly be keeping an eye out for James’ other work from now on.

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead is released in October.

Until next time,

Bruce

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