Tomes from the Olden Times: Grandad’s Gifts…

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image Welcome, young and old to Tomes of the Olden Times, the feature in which I discuss books that I particularly remember from times long past.  Today’s gem is an exquisite short story/long picture book from that genius of Australian short-storytelling for children, Mr Paul Jennings.  If you have never read anything by Paul Jennings, you are doing yourself a grave disservice.  Go and correct this at once. No, actually, wait until you’ve read this post, THEN go and correct this in a timely fashion. Today I wish to discuss Grandad’s Gifts, written by Jennings, hauntingly illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe and first published in picture book form in 1990.  That’s 25 years ago folks. Yep, it makes me feel old too. The book tells the short but spook-laden tale of Shane, a young lad who moves with his family to live in the house of his late grandfather.  While there, Shane opens a forbidden cupboard, uncovers a long-hidden secret and sets about righting a wrong in his family history.  Here’s the (rather spoiler-filled) blurb from Goodreads: This is a chilling picture book with a twist in the tail, as Paul slowly brings a fox back to life by feeding its fur with lemons from the tree above its grave. But it’s the lemons above Paul’s grandfather’s grave that give the fox its final gift, sight… grandads gifts When Grandad’s Gifts suddenly popped back into my consciousness many moons after first encountering it, I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten about it for so long.  I immediately tried to hunt it down but had a great deal of trouble finding it in print.  Then, one glorious day, as I was rifling through some second-hand library books I spotted it.  Not the cover that I remembered, but still, that title and that author and I knew I had found it.  And pretty darn pleased about my little score I was too. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what makes this story so mystical and memory-worthy, but I can assure you that it is one of those special books that you really should endeavour to get your hands on.  Trust me on this. When first I was introduced to this story, in a classroom setting, I remember being stunned by the …well, stunning…illustrations.  So realistic, so engaging, so erring on the side of the magical in the realm of magical realism.  Here’s one:  image And here’s another: imageAnd one more, for luck:

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Boo! That one got you in, didn’t it?!

I think the realism of the artwork really gave this story its spook-factor.  There is something haunting about these pictures that embeds itself in the memory and brings the story right off the pages.  They are the perfect accompaniment to Jennings’ particular brand of quirky strangeness.  Any young Australian worth their salt (and any Australian teacher worth theirs) would be familiar with the hilarious and weird short stories of Paul Jennings.  Some of these, notably his Round the Twist stories,  were later turned into a television series, whose theme song will no doubt still be stuck in the heads of some.  *Mentally sings: Have you ever…ever felt like this? When strange things happen, are you goin’ round the twist?*

Apart from being deliciously creepy though, the book is also remarkably touching, as we get carried along with Shane’s mission to free his furry, cupboard-strewn friend.  This is one of those stories that proves the power of story-telling – it’s one I did actually forget about for a period of time, but once I remembered it, the experience of first hearing it came back in vivid detail from the depths of decades past.

I would highly, highly recommend hunting this book down if you can and reading it with any kids in your vicinity aged around seven or older.

Until next time,

Bruce  

The Book of Storms: An MG Haiku Review…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today bringing you the first haiku review of the year and ticking another book off the mile-high TBR stack.  I was intrigued by the gorgeous cover and the beautifully written first chapter of this one and so I pre-ordered it…and then let it sit on the stack for a month or two, as is the way with so many of the books that I just have to have right now.

Allow me to introduce you to the original, exciting, disturbing, fantasy action-adventure that is The Book of Storms by Ruth Hatfield.

Danny’s parents are storm-chasers and it isn’t unusual for the pair of them to leave Danny alone at the drop of a hat (or cloud) to race off after an impending downpour.  When Danny awakes one morning to find that his parents have not returned, he doesn’t know just how much his life is about to change.  After finding a pristine stick in the charred remains of a lightning-struck tree in his backyard, Danny suddenly discovers that he can talk to animals and nature and uses this unexpected skill to try to track his parents.  He sets off, accompanied by next-door’s cat Mitz, on a wild chase after a reclusive old man who may hold the key to his parents’ disappearance.  Little does he know however, that someone is on his tail – an ancient and sinister someone who will stop at nothing, even death, to take possession of what Danny holds.

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It’s raining, pouring

So here’s a little warning:

Hold onto your sand

I am pleased to report that this truly is an undiscovered gem in the pebblemix of middle grade fantasy.  I know there’s a lot of great middle grade fantasy out there – I have enjoyed more than my share, to be sure – but Hatfield has created a highly original and fresh overall experience in The Book of Storms.  I was impressed by this book, which is a rare thing these days as having so many review books cross my part of the shelf, it can get to feeling like I’ve seen it all before.

The first impressive part of this book for me was Hatfield’s creation of the truly disturbing and complex character of Sammael.  I was surprised and, later, engrossed by the inclusion of Sammael; a seemingly immortal being who trades creatures whatever they most desire for their life force (or soul, or sand or whatever else you would like to call it).  He is utterly amoral and is clearly missing the empathic part of a human brain, as his dealings demonstrate.  His companion is a wolfhound-who-is-not-a-wolfhound, Kalia, who suffers daily from Sammael’s temper and dislike but offers only adoration in response.  I was surprised at Sammael’s inclusion because I really haven’t seen a truly, deeply unsettling villain such as this in literature for this age group since J.K. Rowling gave us old Lord Voldy.

The other impressive bit was some incredibly engaging pieces of descriptive prose scattered throughout the book.  The prologue, describing Danny’s dream experience as the storm that takes his parents rages outside his window, drew me in immediately.  Hatfield’s writing is vivd and emotive and it was a real joy to come across these bits in a book intended for this age group.  Clearly, the lady’s got narrative game.

So while there were parts of this book that had me applauding its ingenuity and non-conformity, there were other parts that read exactly like your standard, common-or-garden middle grade fantasy.  There’s all the expected tropes – the parentless child, forced to embark on a life-changing quest; the insurmountable enemy; the disbelief of family and friends leading to the child hero going it alone – and at a couple of points I really just wanted things to hurry up a bit.  I got a tad bored with the recurring conversations between Danny and his older cousin Tom, regarding the latter’s disbelief about the former’s ability to speak to animals.  There was a little bit too much thinking before doing in the first half of the novel for my liking.

But then…the ending!  Not the climactic ending, although that was good in itself, but the post-climax ending, in which a little conversation sparks an ambiguous resolution to the whole shebang.  Brilliant. Well done you, Ruth Hatfield.  This nice little attention to detail (and character) right at the end of the story, when the reader is lulled into thinking that everything is all neatly wrapped up is what made me really sit up and take notice.  Hatfield is definitely going on my “watch list” from now on.

I hope you have enjoyed this beginning jaunt into haiku for the year.  May it be the first of many!

Cheerio 2015ers,

Mad Martha