Meandering through Middle Grade: A Different Dog…

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meandering-through-middle-grade

I’m back with another Paul Jennings new release today, courtesy of Allen & Unwin.  A Different Dog felt like a big departure from Jennings’ typical work, despite the fact that the twist in the tale is still present.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The gripping and surprising story of a boy, a dog and a daring rescue from the bestselling, much-loved author of the Don’t Look Now series and The Unforgettable What’s His Name.

The forest is dense and dark. And the trail full of unexpected perils. The dog can’t move. The boy can’t talk. And you won’t know why. Or where you are going. You will put this story down not wanting the journey to end.

But it’s from Paul Jennings so watch out for the ambush.

One of the best. From one of the best.

a different dog

A Different Dog by Paul Jennings.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th April 2017.  RRP: $14.99

When you’ve read almost everything a particular author has written over many years and suddenly they do something with a story you don’t expect, it can be hard to measure it against your previous experiences of their work.  So it was for me with this story.  A Different Dog has a much more subdued and sombre tone that much of Jennings’ previous work and the magical realism that often colours his stories and provides the impetus for his famous twists in the tail of the tale is absent here.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – just different from what I would have expected.

The story revolves around a boy who has been a selective mute (or possibly an anxiety-induced mute) since a traumatic incident involving a beloved pet.  He lives with his mother in livable poverty and is disconnected from peers due to his lack of speech.  While on a mission to win a cash prize in a community fun run, the boy witnesses a vehicle accident and attempts to help – but instead ends up trying to find his way out of the hillside terrain accompanied by a highly unusual dog, who was a passenger in the crashed vehicle.  Along the way home, the boy makes a number of life-changing discoveries…but his greatest challenge comes later when his friendship with the dog is tested by fate.

I quite enjoyed the subtleties of this story as a change from the wackier antics that embody Jennings’ usual fare.  Even though it is a reasonably short read, this felt more like a story for older readers who could appreciate the themes of grief, guilt and shame that ring-fence the boy’s image of himself.  There is a pointedness in the story relating to the cruelty of others, whether between humans or from humans directed at animals, and this left me with a bit of a sense of the sinister when I think back to the story.

On the whole, I think I prefer Jennings’ lighter works but A Different Dog is a thought-provoking read that uses a remarkably small word count to effectively raise questions about ethics, choices and making recompense for past mistakes.  This would be a great choice for reluctant young adult readers or those who require high-interest, low reading level tales for struggling older readers.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Adult Fiction Mental Health Novel “In Two Minds”…and I am.

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in two minds

I couldn’t resist the lure of a new novel featuring mental illness and its effects, from one of Australia’s leading psychiatrists, no less, and so here we are today with In Two Minds by Gordon Parker, founder of the Black Dog Institute.  We received our copy from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Dr Martin Homer is a GP with a naturally sunny disposition. Honourable, attentive and trusted by all of his patients, Martin has only ever loved one woman – his wife, Sarah.

When his mother dies suddenly, Martin’s comfortable life is thrown into complete disarray. After sinking into the black dog of grief and depression, he ascends to new heights in a frenzied, manic high. Now, he’s never felt better!

In between riding his new skateboard around the streets at night and self-medicating from his stash at work, the artificially elated and self-entitled Martin crosses paths with Bella, a beautiful and sexual young woman profoundly damaged by trauma of her own.

In Two Minds takes you on a quirky, rollicking journey that unveils the complexities of mental illness with wit and warmth. Gordon Parker’s impressive career in psychiatry reveals itself through extremely rich descriptions of depression, bipolar and borderline personality characteristics.

It must be said that when you’ve read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, featuring mental illness of one form or another, things do tend to get a bit samey.  This is one of the reasons I am in two minds about In Two Minds – if this had been the first novel I had read in which the protagonist has a breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit, I may have been more interested in the outcome.  Indeed, if I had not had the pleasure of spending some time in a psychiatric hospital myself, I may have been more entranced by the ins and outs of what happens when you are deemed no longer able to manage your own affairs without cocking things up in spectacular fashion.  If you have not had such an experience yourself, and you aren’t elbow deep in the back catalogue of “books about people losing their marbles in various painful and unexpected ways” then you should find In Two Minds to be compelling reading.

Martin Homer is an all-around good bloke.  He loves his wife, is wholeheartedly devoted to his work as a GP and generally sets the standard for good behaviour and personal growth everywhere he goes.  Bella is a woman with a past and a borderline personality disorder (**I’ve always wondered why the “borderline” part is added to the “personality disorder” part of that description, because there ain’t nothin’ “borderline” about Bella’s crazy, vitriolic antics**).  When Martin’s self-medicating after the death of his mother leads to a manic episode, the trajectories of Bella and Martin cross and Martin’s prior grip on his identity, his marriage and his work is shattered.

The story is told in alternating sections between Martin and Bella, with Martin’s story taking the primary position.  Really, this is a story about Martin and Bella is a bit player, albeit one whose back story is essential to the plot for her actions toward Martin to be in any way believable.  The author mentions the Madonna-whore complex early on in the story and all of the women presented here in any detail are indeed Madonnas (Edina, Martin’s mother, and Sarah, Martin’s wife) or whores (Bella, the Trophettes).  Bella’s early history, which the reader discovers at the end of the book, even indicates that she was a literal whore, working as a prostitute.  There was something unsettling about this for me, and I would have liked to have seen a few chapters written from Sarah’s point of view.  It seemed a little unfair to have such a focus on the man-slaying Bella and the existential crisis of Martin (post-mania) and so little focus on the woman who chooses to “stand by her man” as it were, despite the fact that he’s just undergone a major change in personality and behaviour.  In fact, had there been more of a focus on Sarah, this would have been a point that set this novel apart from the multitude that have gone before it; as important as the perspective of the sufferer of mental illness undeniably is, it would be instructive to read something from the point of view of the supporter – the spouse, significant other, family member – of the sufferer.

One thing that really does set this book apart is that it isn’t focused on talking therapy in any way.  Much is made in the early chapters of Martin’s past and the various tragedies and triumphs that shaped who he is.  I was expecting that this information would be somehow revisited later in the book as part of Martin’s recovery, but this wasn’t the case.  Instead, the section of the book dealing with Martin’s recovery is focused almost entirely on the various medications he is treated with, their side effects and the way they interact.  This may explain the slight disconnect I felt between the early parts of the story, in which Martin’s family and Sarah play such a strong role, and the latter parts, in which all of the key stressors and factors that almost certainly factored into Martin’s illness are glossed over in favour of his response to medication.  Even though it wasn’t what I was expecting, this certainly was a point of difference that makes this book stand apart from others on a similar topic.

The author may have even not-so-subtly inserted himself into the story by means of Saxon Marshall, Martin’s treating psychiatrist.  The name of this character struck me as interesting, and this may just be me receiving coded messages through the TV and novels here, but Saxon is the surname of the Master as played by John Simm in David Tennant’s run of Doctor Who, while Marshal is the given name of one of a psychiatrist character in Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch (see below).  I can’t help but wonder if this was a conscious choice of character moniker and if so, what does it say about ol’ Gordon Parker, eh?  (**Probably not much because it’s probably not a conscious naming device, and just me projecting.  It should have been though – mashing the two characters together is quite evocative, imo**).

I was a little confused at the ending of the book.  There is an ambiguous ending for Martin, which I think worked well given we, as readers, leave him so soon after his diagnosis and early recovery.  It was a clever move to end his story at this point and leave us wondering what became of him.  More curious however was the ending of Bella’s narrative trajectory.  Toward the very end of the book, we are privy to even more of Bella’s backstory and the introduction of a new key character in Bella’s life.  I couldn’t get a grasp on why this was included, unless it was only to set up Martin’s ambiguous departure, because it certainly didn’t heighten my empathy for Bella in any way and felt like too much of an information dump after the climax of the story.

Having finished up the book, I had a quick flick through some similar books of my acquaintance and, as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, books featuring mental illness of one kind or another do tend to blend together after a while.  I definitely experienced shades of The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence (female protagonist with bipolar disorder), Terms and Conditions by Robert Glancy (professional male protagonist coming to terms with a change of identity concept and mental trauma), and most obviously, Irvin Yalom’s, Lying on the Couch (multiple psychiatrists go through various psychiatrist-y problems and as in all of Yalom’s work, boobs are mentioned a lot).

If you are looking for a truly original story about the whirlwind of depression, mania and psychosis, then I would suggest trying Kathleen Founds’ brilliant When Mystical Creatures Attack!  If you are an entry level journeyperson regarding novels about mental health or you have an interest in bipolar disorder, depression and mania generally, definitely give In Two Minds a go.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017 in category #51: a book about a difficult topic.  You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Blue Cat…

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meandering-through-middle-grade

It’s another book set in World War 2 today, this time set in Australia (and I’ve got ANOTHER World War 2 story for you next week – it must be something in the air), and this time aimed at a middle grade audience.  We received The Blue Cat by prolific Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A boy stood in the playground under the big fig tree. ‘He can’t speak English,’ the children whispered.

Sydney, 1942. The war is coming to Australia – not only with the threat of bombardment, but also the arrival of refugees from Europe. Dreamy Columba’s world is growing larger. She is drawn to Ellery, the little boy from far away, and, together with her highly practical best friend Hilda, the three children embark on an adventure through the harbour-side streets – a journey of discovery and terror, in pursuit of the mysterious blue cat …

the blue cat

The Blue Cat is told from the point of view of Columba, a young girl whose world is slowly being encroached upon by the war.  Everything that her headmaster assures the children could never possibly happen, seems to be coming about.  Her friend’s brothers are stuck as prisoners of war.  Air raid sirens interrupt otherwise lazy afternoons.  The spectre of lost mothers and lost homes looms large in the figure of Ellery, a German boy who has come to attend Columba’s school.

There is certainly an atmosphere of anticipation seeping through this novel and I was constantly poised for some significant action to take place.  Rather, the story unfolds gently through Columba’s interactions with her brash, larger-than-life friend Hilda and the silent Ellery.

Atmospheric as Dubosarsky’s writing may be, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing from this book.  The first candidate for the MIA label is the titular cat – he makes the briefest of brief appearances and doesn’t seem, as the blurb suggests, to be keeping any secrets at all. Rather, he seems to be acting like an ordinary cat: flighty, unpredictable and completely indifferent as to whether humans pay attention to him or not.

The second thing I felt that was missing here was some significant event to provide a point around which Columba or one of the other characters could experience some growth or change or…something.  Columba, as a narrator, is more of a bystander than an agent in her own life and while there are plenty of us who live through certain historical events without having them touch us in a significant way, I’m not sure that this perspective is the most effective upon which to base a protagonist.

One thing I did love about the book was the inclusion of primary source materials.  Instead of illustrations, every few pages a newspaper article, photograph or advertisement from the time pops up and I found these far more interesting and engaging than the actual story.  I also adored the poem by Friedrich Ruckert that was included (with a translation from the original German) as an afterword.

As I mentioned before, I spent the whole book waiting for something to happen and then…it just finished.  There is a certain amount of pathos in Columba’s growing understanding of loss and change, but I’m not sure that young readers would necessarily pick up on the subtleties of this.  I finished the book not hating it, but wondering why I had bothered, because none of the characters seemed to have undergone any significant change in outlook or personality by the end of the story.  It just felt like a way of passing the time.

I’m going to submit this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge under category #10, a book with a cat on the cover.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A MG Double Dip Review: Magic and Malodorous Mischief

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I hope you’ve got some stinky cheese accompanied by the sort of cracker that disappears quickly for today’s double dip review because we will be examining two middle grade titles rife with magic and malodour.

First up, it’s magic.  We received Goodly and Grave in a Bad Case of Kidnap by Justine Windsor from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Lucy Goodly is the new boot girl at Grave Hall, working for the cold, aloof Lord Grave. The other staff – Vonk the Butler, Mrs Crawley the cook and Violet the scullery maid – all seem friendly but Lucy soon notices that strange things are afoot in her new home – and not just Mrs Crawley’s experimental anchovy omelettes. There are moving statues, magical books and Lord Grave has a secret. Meanwhile, all over the country, children are vanishing. Could the mystery of the missing children be linked to the strange goings-on? Lucy is determined to find out…

goodly and grave

Dip into it for…

…an original framing of magic in middle grade and unexpected twists aplenty.  Lucy is in possession of a secret playing card that seems to be imbued with some kind of magical capacity, allowing her to win every game of poker she plays.  After being inexplicably beaten by Lord Grave and subsequently required to serve as his Bootgirl, Lucy has plenty of time in which to ponder how her magic card could have let her down so badly.  The author has plotted this story to ensure that the reader can never get too comfortable with the situation at hand before a strange new revelation crops up.  I was particularly impressed with the mechanical raven (which of course is hiding a secret) and young maid Violet’s stuffed frog toy (being, as I am, a fan of stuffed toys). The illustrations throughout the book also liven things up enormously, and these, as well as the little newspaper clippings here and there, will enhance the experience of young readers.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of young children playing games of chance inside houses of ill-repute well past their bedtime.

Overall Dip Factor

This story is a bit unusual in that instead of the usual single major plot twist three quarters of the way in, there are several revelations throughout that throw Lucy’s cleverly thought-out theories on their heads and force her to go back to square one and re-evaluate who she can trust.  The narrative style is light and slightly melodramatic and a tad silly in places, so is a perfect choice for young readers who like to mix mystery and magic with a giggle here or there.  I quite enjoyed the ending, as it provides a bit of a launching pad into the second book in the series – although I can’t imagine what might happen next!  I would recommend this one for fans of plucky young not-orphan stories set in a fictional past.

Next up, we have an Aussie offering from Alex Ratt (aka Frances Watts) & Jules Faber.  We received The Stinky Street Stories from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The first thing I noticed when I woke up on Sunday morning was a mysterious smell…

When Brian (‘call me Brain – everyone does’) awakes to a truly putrid pong, he knows it is up to him and his friend Nerf to neutralise it. But that putrid pong is just the beginning, because life on Stinky Street is a riot of rotten reeks, awful aromas and sickening scents. So grab a peg (for your nose) or risk being flattened by the fumes!

Dip into it for…  stinky street

…exactly what it says on the tin.  This is a collection of four short stories featuring Brian, his friend Nerf, and a variety of antics involving stink, pong, funk, stench, reek, miasma, whiff and malodour.  I am going to go out on a not-very-distant limb here and say that this book will definitely appeal more to your average eight-to-ten year old male lover of gross stories than any other cross-section of reading society.  The stories are completely silly and accompanied by suitably amusing cartoon style illustrations and emphatic font styles to enhance the reading experience.  The stories are all quite short and while the whole book could easily be read in one sitting by a confident young reader, unless you are a whopping great fan of stench-based narrative, it might be a good idea to take the stories one at a time.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of kid’s books that revel in being a bit majorly gross.

Overall Dip Factor

While this was not a book that I particularly got much out of as an adult reader, I will admit to perking up a bit upon the introduction of the Sweet Street Girls in the final two stories of the book.  This gang of girls (who live on Sweet Street – as opposed to Brian and Nerf, who live on Stinky Street) are witty, intrepid and unafraid of toil if it means turning the tables on the Stinky Boys.  These last two stories gave me a bit of hope that there might be a not-entirely-stink-based direction for these stories should there be a second book in this series.  I’d say this is strictly one for young fans of books in the style of Captain Underpants and Andy Griffith’s Bum books.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Unforgettable What’s His Name: A Maniacal Book Club Review…

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It’s been a number of years since I’ve read a book by Paul Jennings, so the Book Club was more than delighted to receive a copy of The Unforgettable What’s His Name, by Mr Jennings, and illustrated by Craig Smith, from Allen & Unwin for review.  Before I unleash the Club on this quirky and heartwarming tale, here’s the blurb from A&U:

Now you see him, now you don’t – an action-packed adventure about a boy who just wants to blend in, from a bestselling author/illustrator team.

Even before all this happened I had never been like the other kids. I tried not to be seen. If I climbed a tree or hid among the bins, no one could find me. ‘Where’s What’s His Name?’ they’d say.

Then, one weekend, I got what I wanted. First, I blended in with things. But on the second day I changed.

I mean, really changed.

The hilarious story of a boy with an unusual problem, from children’s book legend Paul Jennings. Includes fantastic look-and-find colour illustrations.

 

The Unforgettable What's His Name by Paul Jennings & Craig Smith.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th October, 2016.  RRP: $14.99

The Unforgettable What’s His Name by Paul Jennings & Craig Smith. Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th October, 2016. RRP: $14.99

And here’s what the Maniacal Book Club have to say on the topic…

Guru Davemaniacal book club guru dave

When the eyes of the world are watching, will you step into the limelight or shrink into the shadows?  This is the dilemma faced by young What’s His Name.  To stand up and be counted, or overlooked, like a single monkey amidst a herd of leaping banana-chewers: only you can make the decision to be seen as you truly are.  We would all do well to take a lesson from young What’s His Name.  Blending in with your surroundings may solve your problem in the short term, but eventually, one must show one’s true colours, or risk remaining forever like a statue over a pond, while the moss slowly grows over one’s head.

To0thless

maniacal book club toothless

 

There are no dragons in this book.  There are a bunch of crazy monkeys that run all over town though, and a dog with no ears and a motorcycle gang, and even a boy who can transform into lots of cool things.  It sounds like a cool superpower but most of the time it isn’t very convenient for What’s His Name.  One time, one of the monkeys even tries to pee on him! They call that monkey the Big Pee!

I really liked Sandy the dog too.  This book has a lot of funny things in it and I think kids who like wacky adventures and unexpected things will like this book.  It would be fun to have a teacher read this book out in class because I think all the kids would be laughing.

Mad Martha

maniacal book club martha

This poem is inspired by Simon and Garfunkle’s folk hit Feelin’ Groovy.

Hello lampost, whatcha knowing?

It appears you have two ears growing.

And is that a hair or three?

Do, do, do, do, do

You’re transforming!

Bruce

maniacal book club bruce

 

Paul Jennings, it must be said, is a master of magical realism, with a narrative style all his own.  Whether it has been two weeks or twenty years since you last read one of his books, I can guarantee that you’ll fall straight back into his familiar way of storytelling.  The Unforgettable What’s His Name is a book about a boy who wants to fade from sight.  Painfully shy, the boy gets the jitters whenever he thinks people are watching him and this leads to some unique and giggle-worthy problems.  All the expected Jennings features are included here: unexpected and hilarious situations involving our protagonist, things going wrong at exactly the wrong moment, characters who aren’t necessarily what they appear to be on the outside, and at least one reference to pooh.

The book didn’t seem to me as laugh-out-loud funny as some of Jennings classic works, but there are certainly a range of events that will have readers cringing with embarrassment and wriggling with glee as all sorts of silly situations unfold, requiring skin-of-your-teeth escapes and some truly innovative solutions to problems.  The book is illustrated throughout with both black and white line drawings and double-page spread, full colour illustrations, which add to the magical aspects of the book.

Putting aside the craziness of being able to turn into a human chameleon when anxious for a moment, this book is at its heart a story about facing one’s fears and carving out a place to belong.  As in most of Jennings’ work, the bottom line notes that you don’t have to be the same as everyone else in order to fit in somewhere.

I’d definitely recommend this as an insta-buy for classroom libraries or as a treat for fans (new and old) of the quirky, unexpected mind of Paul Jennings.

Until next time,

Bruce and the gang

 

A Double-Dip Review to Make Your Skin Crawl: Humans as Monsters (and two more Top Books of 2015!)

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I hope you’ve chosen the most fortifying snack you can think of, because today’s Double-Dip is truly monstrous. I’ve got one adult fiction (or at the very least, upper YA) from one of my new favourite authors and a super-original YA nightmare-scape jaunt from an Australian author. The first, Monsters by Emerald Fennell, I acquired under my favourite author auto-buy policy and the second, In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker, I won in a competition from the publisher Allen & Unwin.

I also have to tell you that both of these books are making my Top Books of 2015 list for originality and the unexpectedness of their respective storylines.

First up: Monsters by Emerald Fennell. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Set in the Cornish town of Fowey, all is not as idyllic as the beautiful seaside town might seem. The body of a young woman is discovered in the nets of a fishing boat. It is established that the woman was murdered. Most are shocked and horrified. But there is somebody who is not – a twelve-year-old girl. She is delighted; she loves murders. Soon she is questioning the inhabitants of the town in her own personal investigation. But it is a bit boring on her own. Then Miles Giffard, a similarly odd twelve-year-old boy, arrives in Fowey with his mother, and they start investigating together. Oh, and also playing games that re-enact the murders. Just for fun, you understand… A book about two twelve-year-olds that is definitely not for kids.

Dip into it for…monsters

…exactly what it says on the tin: Murderous minors, suspect elders and some seriously twisted behaviour. The unnamed young narrator is reasonably unlikeable – although as the story progressed I did gain a smidgeon of sympathy for her – and her new friend Miles is one of those kids that you would definitely NOT want to have to sit next to at school (even if he wasn’t homeschooled). The tone is very matter-of-fact and the tale baldly told which suits the highly suspicious goings-on perfectly. Contrary to what you might expect from the blurb, there isn’t a great deal of gore and blood-splatter here, but there is definitely an undercurrent of mind*uckery. The ending also hit me for six – it was unexpected and quite fitting, to say the least.

Don’t dip if…

you think this is a light-hearted tale featuring rambunctious pre-teens. There are references to sex, abuse, violence and even some quite ribald language, so this is not a book aimed at a middle grade audience. Similarly, if you don’t like seeing animals harmed in books (never mind about the people), there are some parts of this story you will need to avoid.

Overall Dip Factor

I had been anticipating Monster’s release since I first heard about it, way back when it didn’t even have a cover. I can’t say that this is a book I “enjoyed” – it was too uncomfortable a read for that – but I was certainly impressed with this change in direction from Fennell’s earlier works. It reminded me a lot of Rotters by Daniel Kraus, a book that was similarly creepy and stomach-churning, with elements that made it highly memorable and compelling, if not necessarily agreeable to a tender constitution. I will be hugely interested to see what else Fennell comes out with if Monsters and the Shiverton Hall books are any indicator of her talent.

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*Bruce just chiselled another book out of Mount TBR!*

Now on to In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Three years ago, Alice’s identical twin sister took a gun to school and killed seven innocent kids; now Alice wears the same face as a monster. She’s struggling with her identity, and with life in the small Australian town where everyone was touched by the tragedy. Just as Alice thinks things can’t get much worse, she encounters her sister on a deserted highway. But all is not what it seems, and Alice soon discovers that she has stepped into a different reality, a dream world, where she’s trapped with the nightmares of everyone in the community. Here Alice is forced to confront the true impact of everything that happened the day her twin sister took a gun to school … and to reveal her own secret to the boy who hates her most.

Dip into it for…in the skin of a monster

…an unexpected tale that blends mental health, identity and the power of dreams (and nightmares) in a highly engaging tale that will greatly appeal to readers of YA. The first few chapters of the book dump the reader in the deep end a bit, with an immediate introduction to the strange dreamscape that Alice eventually finds herself in, but once the initial world-building is out of the way and the dreamscape exchange set up, the plot rolls along at a hurried pace. The changing points of view between Lux and Alice work well to drip-feed the reader the information they need to keep half a step ahead of the characters and attempt to puzzle out the scenario before the surprising ending.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for a standard, chirpy YA plot that hands you all the answers and leaves you with a predictable outcome. This book has a slow burn plot and the reader needs a switched-on brain to avoid missing important links as Alice’s story unravels. Similarly, if you’re looking for a typical YA romance plotline where the rugged loner boy falls madly in love with the broken, honest girl you will be sorely disappointed – the romance in this one is much more authentic and surprising than that.

Overall Dip Factor:

I found this to be a bit of a challenge in the beginning, as the reader really is dumped in the deep end of the dreamscape and is forced to hang in there (along with the characters!) until things start to become clearer.   I was super impressed with the way that Barker has steered clear of the expected fantasy/paranormal tropes and delivered both a world and storyline that is deeper and more challenging than is typically found in YA. The use of twins – one a murderer and the other left to remind the town of a murderer whenever they see her face – was clever and the themes of identity, individuality and our responsibility to those we love is seriously explored in Alice’s recounting of events to her deceased sister. Barker doesn’t neglect the minor characters either – a number of other innocent victims’ back stories are considered here, with the consequences of Alice’s sisters’ actions played out in reality and in the land of nightmares. In the Skin of a Monster is one of the most original, compelling and thought-provoking YA reads I’ve encountered in a while, with the added bonus of a touch of fantasy and a genuine philosophical reflection on the ramifications of our actions…and inaction.

So what do you think of these little beauties? Are they good enough to make YOUR Top Books of 2015 list? Let me know what you think!
Until next time,

Bruce

 

What’s In a Name Challenge: Creepy and Maud…

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Obstacle Number 4+ in the What’s in a Name Reading Challenge: Creepy and Maud by Dianne Touchell…

Taken from: the Non-Christie Listie as a late replacement

Category: Five – a book with an emotion in the title

Once again, I’m making a bit of a tenuous link for this category, but I figure if it’s possible to “feel creepy”, then creepy must be an emotion.

Creepy and Maud is told from the alternating viewpoints of Creepy (not his real name…obviously) and Maud (not her real name….less obviously); teenage neighbours who conduct most of their interactions through the use of binoculars and messages flashed through their respective windows.  The story explores how the friendship – if you can call it that – develops amidst the daily dramas of life in the teens’ less than idyllic family settings.

 

 

creepy and maud

This Book’s Point of Difference:

Well. I suppose this one differs from most YA stories in that while it focuses on the relationship between teenagers of the opposite sex, there is no reference to romance. Not even a hint of it.  It’s not really that kind of book.

Pros:

– Once again, this book has that lovely familiar feeling common to many Australian stories. Well, familiar if you are an Australian anyway.

– There’s a lot to keep you interested in the content here – intriguing relationship dynamics abound.  Creepy’s parents communicate almost solely through the medium of shouting (and on occasion, acts of irate dog), Maud resorts to speaking only in French with particular irksome people in her life and the mothers of the two teens are engaged in a titanic struggle over the etiquette involved in borrowing and loaning casserole dishes. 

– The book doesn’t pull any punches. If you like your YA fiction gritty and realist, then you’ll probably take to this one like a duck to duck-friendly wetland environments.

Cons:

– Along with the lovely sense of familiarity common to Australian stories, Creepy and Maud delivers a standard dose of that depressing sense of realism and un-sugar-coated discomfort also common to many Australian stories. There is a bit of humour to lighten the load, but for some I fear this book may come off too dreary to really enjoy.

– I’m not sure whether it was just me and my cold, stoney heart, but I didn’t really feel overly sympathetic towards the two main characters.  I’m not sure whether I was supposed to. But this was a bit of a con for me, if only for the fact that it would prevent me bothering to re-read this title.

Overall, I found this a slightly uncomfortable reading experience, although I can see why it was shortlisted for a Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Older Readers (a high accolade indeed!).  I felt there was something missing in the connection between the characters that stopped it from really reaching the “must-buy/must-re-read” category for me.  On the other hand, Touchell’s debut is a solid read if you enjoy YA books that explore themes of unconventional friendship and the ugly repercussions for those who insist on being a square peg in a round hole (or indeed, vice versa) in certain environments.

Until next time,

Bruce