Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Guggenheim Mystery…

0

meandering-through-middle-grade

What an interesting offering I have for you today!  I first encountered The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd back in 2008, a year or so after its release.  The story features Ted, a lad on the Autistic Spectrum, whose cousin Salim goes missing from one of the pods on the London Eye.  It is a brilliant locked room mystery story for middle grade and YA readers with an interesting narrator and compelling mystery.  Sadly, Siobhan Dowd, who was also the author with the original idea for David Almond’s excellent, now-turned-into-a-film book A Monster Calls, passed away from cancer in 2007 and it seemed that Ted and his mystery-solving prowess would be forever confined to a single tale.

Enter Robin Stevens, the author of brilliant historical schoolgirl detective series Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, and Ted has been given a new lease on life.  Stevens was brought in to continue Siobhan’s story and with only a title to work from – The Guggenheim Mystery – she was thrust into the breach.  We received our copy from Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Ted Spark. I am 12 years and 281 days old. I have seven friends.

Three months ago, I solved the mystery of how my cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

This is the story of my second mystery.

This summer, I went on holiday to New York, to visit Aunt Gloria and Salim. While I was there, a painting was stolen from the Guggenheim Museum, where Aunt Gloria works.

Everyone was very worried and upset. I did not see what the problem was. I do not see the point of paintings, even if they are worth £9.8 million. Perhaps that’s because of my very unusual brain, which works on a different operating system to everyone else’s.

But then Aunt Gloria was blamed for the theft – and Aunt Gloria is family. And I realised just how important it was to find the painting, and discover who really had taken it. 

guggenheim mystery

It has to be said that Stevens was a great choice for carrying on Ted’s story, because she can work a mystery like nobody’s business.  Even though it had been years since I had read Ted’s story (and I think I read it twice in quick succession at the time), Ted’s style of narration was immediately recognisable and I quickly remembered the atmosphere of The London Eye Mystery.  Stevens has done a wonderful job of recreating Dowd’s characterisation of Ted, but there is a definite Stevens stamp on the construction of the mystery.

Being out of his everyday context, Ted at first struggles with the mysteries of human relationships, as his cousin Salim and sister Kat seem to be shutting him out for reasons that aren’t clear to Ted.  The early chapters of the book are coloured in part by Ted’s feeling of loneliness as he sees his two closest companions moving on without him.  Once the mystery of the stolen painting kicks off however, and it is clear that Aunt Gloria is being framed (pun intended?), the relationship rifts are quickly healed and Ted even attempts to look at his family’s behaviour from a different viewpoint.

The mystery part of the story felt very much like Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike setups, and it was clear that the theft and its various elements – the timing, the smoke bombs, the suspects – had been tightly plotted.  I did find that this story lacked the emotional connection that was so heightened in The London Eye Mystery – and is present in most of Dowd’s work – but I suspect that was only because this particular mystery dealt with a stolen painting rather than a missing child.  Given that the stakes were not quite as high in this particular story – the loss of the painting not being as emotionally charged as the potential loss or death of an actual person – I enjoyed the story but wasn’t blown away by it.

I think it must be said that Stevens has done a worthy job here of recreating a memorable character in a new setting with nothing more than a title to go on.  It would be interesting to see if this series will be developed further and whether that emotional element from the first story can be reinvented down the line.

If you haven’t read The London Eye Mystery, you should really seek it out.  If you have, you really ought to check out this next offering and see how you think it stands up.

Until next time,

Bruce

Keep in a Cold, Dark Place: Good Advice for Potatoes and Monsters…

0

meandering-through-middle-grade

Today’s middle grade creepy, action tale features a brilliant cautionary tale for those who like to keep unusual pets at home.   We received Keep in a Cold, Dark Place by Michael F. Stewart from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Reaching for her dream, Limpy unleashes a cute, fluffy, NIGHTMARE …

Keep in a cold, dark place. That’s what’s written like some ancient law on every bag of potatoes the family farms. And it’s where Limpy fears she will always remain.

It’s also carved on a box of spheres she discovers in the cellar. Spheres that hatch.

Cute at first, the creatures begin to grow. Then the chickens disappear. The cat is hunted. And something sets the barn ablaze. To survive, Limpy will need to face her greatest fear. The whole family will. Or they may end up in a cold, dark place indeed.

keep in a cold dark place

Limpy is the only daughter in her family and was unlucky enough to have her mother die while giving birth to her.  Her father is so stricken by grief that he keeps a potato-sack effigy of his dead wife in their home, her brothers are alternately bullying and selectively mute and Limpy wants nothing more than to escape her dreary existence and go to art school far away from their failing potato farm.  After discovering a strange box in the potato cellar, Limpy begins to hope that maybe her impossible dream isn’t so unlikely after all…but at the same time, she may have just unleashed an unholy terror onto the farm that could be the end of her broken family.

I thoroughly enjoyed this original and layered middle grade horror-action story. Other reviewers have compared the story to the film Gremlins and there are certainly shades of that fun film in the parts of the book relating to the “pets” that Limpy discovers, but in addition to that, Stewart has crafted an emotional story about grief, moving on and coping with change that is forced upon you.  There’s a definite atmosphere of oppression and depression that emanates from the descriptions of the farm and the town in general and the reader can definitely understand Limpy’s deep need for escape.  The depictions of Limpy’s family life were, at times, difficult to read as the grief and anger of her father, particularly, is raw and toxic despite the passing of time.

When the creatures that Limpy discovers stop being so cute and fluffy in favour of being more scaly and rampaging, the book alternates between bursts of chaotic action and poignant personal discoveries, as Limpy and her family face their deepest fears in order to save themselves.  Part of the emotional draw at the end of the story, I think, depends on the fact that Limpy is the only girl in this part of the story, and it is her older brothers and father (as well as some male neighbours) that have to put aside their bravado and acknowledge those things that make them frightened and hold them back.

I love that the author has selected a monster that isn’t so common in children’s literature, or “monster” stories generally, so the book provides an opportunity for young readers to discover a legend that they may not have encountered before.  I would highly recommend this book to adventurous young readers who enjoy action and fantasy elements blended with real-life problems.

I’m submitting this one for the Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2017 in the brown category.  Check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

What I Don’t Know About Plants Will Fit Into This Enormous Book: Botanicum…

6

botanicum

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know a great deal about plants.

I would like to.

I have a general interest in things that grow in the earth, particularly species that are native to Australia, but I feel like flora and its related topic of gardening is one of those that is so big and specialised that I don’t know enough about it to know how much I don’t know.

If that makes sense.  Which it probably doesn’t.

I see it as a nebulous topic, let’s say, beyond the reach of knowing of we mortal (stony) folk with just a passing interest.

But when I saw Botanicum by Katie Scott and Katy Willis from Five Mile Press on offer for review, I knew this was my chance to dip a toe into a hitherto unexplored world.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The 2016 offering from Big Picture Press’s Welcome to the Museum series, Botanicum is a stunningly curated guide to plant life. With artwork from Katie Scott of Animalium fame, Botanicum gives readers the experience of a fascinating exhibition from the pages of a beautiful book. From perennials to bulbs to tropical exotica, Botanicum is a wonderful feast of botanical knowledge complete with superb cross sections of how plants work.

Given that I don’t know much about plants, I thought I would instead explain to you the things you really need to know about Botanicum; those things that will inspire you to make this eye-catching book part of your collection.

1. It’s impressively large.

You know how in some middle grade, usually fantasy stories there might be a scene where some kids stumble across a dusty old book in a forgotten or forbidden library?  They pull it from the shelf and it’s heavy and the paper is thick and it’s filled with arcane knowledge that will provide the key to whatever mysterious problem they have to solve?

This is that book.  (Except for the old, dusty part).  Here’s a picture of me posing beside our copy, to give you an idea of scale:

botanicum-cover-scale

It’s the perfect size to lay out flat on a table or on the floor, so all of your friends can gather round and point enthusiastically at that bit of information that will move your quest forward.  Seriously, the size and format of the book just screams “Enticing information contained within!”

2. It champions white space.

Unusually for a non-fiction tome, Botanicum makes brilliant use of white space to ensure that the reader doesn’t feel like they need a magnifying monocle to read the text.  Here is one of the page spreads to give you an idea:

botanicum-page-spread-2

Each page spread is devoted to a small amount of pertinent information about the plant type in question, accompanied by a page of beautifully illustrated examples of the plant type.  The fact that the book is so big means that the pages lie satisfyingly flat, allowing you to pore over the pages to your heart’s content.  The book covers a wide range of plants, from mosses, fungi and ferns to the giant sequoia, succulents, carnivorous plants, vines and fruit trees.  Truly, if you want to know some basic background about things that grow, or how to tell your hornwort from your hellebore, Botanicum would be a great place to start.

3. It’s eye-poppingly gorgeous to look at.

It’s pretty obvious, from the endpapers to the chapter headings, that the makers of this book know a thing or two about visual design.  Everything about this book is visually appealing – the fonts, the colours, the layout – hell, even a cross-section of a breadfruit made Mad Martha want to pull out her crochet hooks and start recreating it in yarn.  The book has the kind of illustrations that you want to tear out (carefully), frame and put on your wall.  Like this one:

botanicum-wildflowers

And while I’m at it, here’s a glimpse of the gorgeous endpaper designs, that also features in between chapters:

botanicum-page-spread-1

Let’s be honest: even if you know nothing about plants and have no interest in learning about plants, if you pop this one on your coffee table, guests you wish to impress are going to be fooled into thinking you’re a botanical genius.  Or at least a botanical enthusiast.

I get that this is probably a book with a specific, and possibly quite narrow, audience, but do yourself a favour and try and get your hands on a copy of Botanicum, if only to appreciate the beauty of the design.  I am now on a quest to procure a copy of one of the earlier books in the Welcome to the Museum series, Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott, because I suspect the mini-fleshlings would be bowled over by it.

Many thanks to Five Mile Press for providing us with a copy of Botanicum for review.

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Book Cover Designs

2

It’s been a good long while, but the time has finally come for another Utopirama post!  For those unfamiliar with the concept of my Utopirama posts, the idea is to present some reading options for those times when you just need a book that will inspire feelings of calm and relaxation.  Cosy reads, if you will, in which nothing bad happens and only the good things intrinsic to living in this crazy world are highlighted.  Today’s book is one for all of you, I can just tell: Book Cover Designs by Matthew Goodman.  Yes indeedy, this is a book about book covers.  Brilliant!

We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Browse more than 500 book cover designs and listen to more than 50 of today’s top designers discuss their process for creating the perfect book cover. Award-winning creative professionals fromaround the world have applied astonishingly clever cover concepts that playslyly on titles and themes of international bestsellers, both classic andmodern, adding new dimensions to the books and breathing new lifeinto bright ideas. Literature lovers and graphic illustrators of all types, aswell as book design students and professionals, will relish thisinspiring collection of covers of fiction and nonfiction, history and sciencebooks, novels and short stories, from old favorites to popular 21st-centurytitles. For future designers looking for inspiration, as well as hopeless coverlovers, Book Cover Designs is a must-have design reference for any collection. Feelfree to judge these books by their covers.

book cover designsQuick Overview:

Essentially, this book does what it says on the proverbial tin, providing pages and pages and pages of mesmerising book covers for your viewing pleasure.  The book is divided by designer, with each featured designer having an introductory page in which their background and design approach is listed, followed by a number of pages of their designs.  The perfect coffee table book, Book Cover Designs offers a wonderful selection of covers of which some will be familiar and some will be so fresh and intriguing that you’ll rush off to pop the title on your TBR list.

The only niggle that I could find in these pages is the fact that the majority of the designers featured are young and Caucasian.  This may not be a bother to you in the slightest if you are focusing on the covers themselves, but I thought it a shame that there wasn’t a greater diversity of designers – in age and race particularly – and their work, presented.  Perhaps that could be something for the publishers to consider when signing off on Book Cover Designs: The Second Edition!  Similarly, the books featured here are generally adult titles (with a few YA thrown in) and I would dearly love to see the same concept developed using children’s books.

Whatever though, if you are a fan of reading and you enjoy a good browse, you will definitely derive pleasure from flicking through this tome.

Utopian themes:

Guilt-free judgement

A Reader’s Paradise

Aesthetic Pleasure

Cover Love

Protective Bubble-o-Meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

3 out of 5 protective bubbles for the reverent first touch of a brand new book cover

Until next time,

Bruce

Some Festive Frivolity: How to Draw Sharks…

3

It may sound odd to you Northern Hemispherites, equating festive frivolity with sharks, but where I come from, having a shark intrude on your Christmas relaxation time is a very real possibility.  Provided you spend part of the Christmas break in the water. At the beach.

And of course, we all know that Sharknadoes could happen at any time.

Anyway.

Today I have a brief but shark-filled offering from the intriguingly named Arkady Roytman, from the publisher via Netgalley, that features everyone’s favourite ocean predator: How to Draw Sharks.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

With this step-by-step guide on how to create images of the marine world’s fierce predators, kids can learn to draw creatures from the top of the ocean’s food chain in just a few simple steps. This easy-to-follow book illustrates the use of basic geometric shapes to form 31 varieties of sharks, from the great white and the hammerhead to the tiger, bull, and saw sharks. Blank practice pages offer plenty of room to perfect your style.

how to draw sharks

I wouldn’t normally request such a book for review on this blog, as you loyal readers would well know, but for some reason I became enamoured of the slightly, not-very-inspiring-but-certainly-achievable image on the cover.  So I thought “What the heck! Sharks have a place on the Shelf after all!” and requested it.  And I even had a crack at drawing the cute little guy on the cover:

great white

And it would have been remiss of me not to include witty speech bubbles.

The Great White of the cover turned out to be pretty simple to achieve and so I had a crack at some of the other, more obscure shark breeds.  Here’s the Crested Bullhead shark:

crested bullhead

See what I did there?

And here’s the mildly-anxious-looking bamboo shark…

bamboo shark

…complete with a quote borrowed from Marvin the Paranoid Android.

To be honest, this isn’t the greatest step-by-step guide I’ve ever seen.  Sure, there are four steps to each drawing, but  the order of the steps is not immediately clear as they are not numbered.  Similarly, there are quite a few alterations at each step and inexperienced or younger readers may find it tricky to follow the steps without getting frustrated.  The first step for each drawing consists of a collection of basic shapes, which is easy enough, but subsequent steps include dashed lines and heavier lines that indicate line breaks or overlaps.  The meanings of these line breaks and heavier lines is never clearly articulated however, so it is left to the individual to figure out their meanings (and how they will render them on paper).  I will admit to having a bit of difficulty with the latter two drawings, but I got there in the end.

And I’m quite happy with the results.

One of the good things about the book is that apart from including a whole slew of obscure (to me) shark breeds, there are a range of different positions featured as well.  This means that you aren’t just drawing all sharks face-on or side-on, but have a variety of options to pick from.  Also, as there were some shark breeds here that I had never seen before, it encouraged me to actually do a bit of research and find out some more about these mysterious, toothy creatures.

Overall, I do feel that this is a pretty specific topic to base a drawing book around – I would have plumped for a “How to Draw Sea Creatures” title before I honed in on one specific species, ordinarily- but if you are a shark obsessive lover you’ll go head over fin for this tome.

And it’s a good starting point for generating your own hilarious shark-based cartoons. (See above).

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

A Nonfiction “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review: Owls…

7

image

Who doesn’t love the bug-eyed, stealthy swoop and quiet wisdom of the majestic owl? Nobody, that’s who.  Today’s book, as you may have guessed, is devoted to these mystical, mysterious, mouse-eating birds and as it is a factual tome, I am submitting it for the Nonfiction Reading Nonfiction 2015Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.  Keen-eyed readers will know that I’ve already technically completed this challenge, but I’m going to see how many nonfiction books I can knock over in the remaining months of the year anyway.

But we were discussing owls, weren’t we?  We received the delightful little illustrated tome, Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, by Matt Sewell, from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In this beautiful follow-up to Our Garden Birds, Our Songbirds and Our Woodland Birds, street artist Matt Sewell captures the world’s most evocative bird: the owl. In his much-loved pop-art watercolours and accompanied with his whimsical descriptions, Matt Sewell expresses the individual characters of owls as never before.

From tiny Elf Owls to huge Eagle Owls, from the mysterious creatures of the night to an impossibly fluffy baby owl, they are undoubtedly one of the world’s most intriguing feathered friends. These wise, magical birds are otherworldly in their striking colours and stature, and it’s not just birdwatchers who are obsessed. With 50 hand-selected, hand-painted owls, this is a delightful gift which appeals to owl lovers, bird-watching enthusiasts, children, adults and art and design fans alike.

Owls

So here are five things I’ve learned from

Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird

  1. Owl facial expressions can be unintentionally hilarious.
  2. “Flammulated” is an evocative and exciting word which should be used far more often.
  3. “Flammulated” means red-hued.
  4. The Flammulated Owl is reddish.
  5. Owls tend to creep people out and as a result, have become the basis of many myths and legends.

This is a fetching and enchanting little book featuring short, witty descriptions and gorgeous illustrations of some fifty types of owl.  Not being possessed of a great expanse of knowledge about owls, this was the perfect, whimsical introduction to these masters of nocturnal stealth.  The descriptions of each owl are only one to two paragraphs in length and so the book is perfect for dipping into as the fancy takes you, but is equally suited to a cover-to-cover type of attack.

My favourite, in case you hadn’t guessed, was the Flammulated Owl both for its stimulating name and its interesting reddy-brownish colouring.  The illustrations in this book are just wonderful and perfectly compliment the light-hearted tone of the text.  Apart from our flammulated friend, I was also quite taken with the Collared Scops Owl (looking set for a walk-on role as an alien in a Doctor Who episode), the Greater Sooty Owl (a mystical looking Australian owl with excellent night camouflage) and the Crested Owl (unmatched in eyebrow prowess).

The last few pages of the book are devoted to a spotter’s checklist, featuring smaller pictures of each of the owls, so that keen readers can tick off the exotic owls as they spot them.  This is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek feature I suspect, but fun for inspiring the latent bird-watcher inside the armchair enthusiast.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge: 12/16 

Until next time,

Bruce

Graphic Novel Read-it-if Review: Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer…

8

image  image

Cheerio all – today I have a little graphic gem that also happens to be a reimagining of the well-known story of Pinocchio, he of the honesty-related nose tumours.  Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer  by Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins, in the complete edition presented here, is a hefty, action-packed, beautifully drawn retelling of the original tale, with added monsters.  If you’re a fan of graphic novels that take more than fifteen minutes to flick through, this may well be the one for you.

When Pinocchio’s town is invaded by mysterious, deadly vampires, he makes the serendipitous discovery that a nose that grows when you lie can also be harnessed to produce pointy stakes on demand – stakes that can then be used to have at those nasty undead monsters!  Armed with nothing but the truth and a stake-producing schnoz, Pinocchio and his friends Master Cherry and Fairy Carpenella vow to travel together until the vampire menace is eradicated.  Along the way they’ll face tragdy, friends-turned-foe, a puppet army of reinforcements, a potential romantic relationship and a little bit of magic.  He may not be a real boy, but Pinocchio could well turn out to be a hero.

pinocchio vampire slayerRead it if:

* you’ve ever serendipitously come across a hitherto undiscovered function for an under-utilised body part

* you associate fluffy bunnies with a sense of impending doom

* you are of the opinion that being a magical, sentient, vampire-slaying puppet outweighs being a real boy any day of the week

* you can’t resist a familiar tale that has been spruced up by the addition of a famous beast of myth

Let me start by saying that while this tale didn’t pan out quite as I expected it to, based on the cover and blurb, I really enjoyed it and found myself engrossed in the toils of Pinocchio and friends.  As has happened quite often over the course of my “Fairy Tale Makeovers Review Series”, I became aware of the fact that I have a very sketchy memory of the original tale, so I can’t comment on how the addition of vampires enhanced or ruined the story.  I will say however, that the book provides a very comprehensive (and enlightening) foreword explaining how this particular incarnation of the story is faithful to the original tale.  The first few pages also display a basic retelling of the original story to bring readers up to speed on how vampires have come to inhabit an originally vampire-free fairy tale.

The story was originally released as a trilogy which has been collected here in this complete edition.  I was only able to access half to two-thirds of the book through Netgalley due to the file size, but I found it a very satisfying reading (and viewing) experience.  The artwork is of the traditional comic/cartoon style and the frames are really well formatted and designed – one gripe I have with graphic novels, especially in digital form, is the fact that sometimes there’s too much text in certain frames or the text is too small or something of the sort, requiring a great deal of concentration to follow.  I’m happy to report that I experienced no such drama here and I was able to immerse myself in the art and narrative as quickly as my download speed would allow. (Which incidentally wasn’t very fast…I’d suggest getting this – or any other graphic novel – in print).  Here’s an example for you…

pvs_2monsterminator

As far as the story goes, there was a great mix of humour, action, intrigue and vampire-slaying.  There was also a tiny bit of potential romance, which rounded the story out nicely and gave a bit of realism to Pinocchio’s desire to become human.  The puppet army was a really interesting development to the story and ratcheted the action and humour up at an opportune time, but the stars of the tale for me were the Rabbits of Ill-Portent – a quartet of furry doom-sayers that turned up unexpectedly an injected a bit of a giggle swathed in impending destruction.  Here they are in action:

rabbits of ill portent

Overall, I found this to be a surprisingly engaging read.  I should point out that the surprising part relates to my surprise at how engrossing I found the story, given that it was in graphic novel format – not because I thought it wasn’t going to be any good.  I recommend you have a look if you’re a fan of retellings that feature a bit of monster-mayhem but also hold their own in the “good narrative” stakes.

Until next time,

Bruce

twitter button Follow on Bloglovin Bruce Gargoyle's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

//