Meandering through Middle Grade: The Hounds of Penhallow Hall

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meandering-through-middle-grade

We’re back with what is arguably my favourite reading age-group today – middle grade, with its boldly imagined worlds and indomitable characters.  Today I have a story we received from the publisher via Netgalley.  The Hounds of Penhallow Hall: The Moonlight Statue by Holly Webb and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft is a classic tale of a new home, loneliness and finding friends in unexpected places.  Here’s the blurb from Netgalley:

For Poppy, moving to Penhallow Hall is the fresh start she’s been longing for since the death of her father. Her mum has got a job managing the stately home and once the last of the visitors leave for the day the place is all theirs! One night, Poppy sleepwalks into the garden and wakes to find her hand on the head of one of the stone dogs that guard the steps down to the lawn. Then she feels him lick her cheek! The dog introduces himself as Rex, an Irish Wolfhound who lived at Penhallow many hundreds of years earlier. And he is not the only resident ghost – Poppy has also glimpsed a strange boy around the place. With Rex’s help she finds herself unravelling the story of his beloved master, William Penhallow, who was killed in the First World War aged only 17.

hounds-of-penhallow-hall

Having a quick browse on Goodreads, it became apparent that Holly Webb has written quite a significant back catalogue of cutesy books about puppies, kittens, fairies and princesses for the younger end of the middle grade age bracket.  While there is a definite whiff of the cutesy about The Hounds of Penhallow Hall, the story overall fits nicely into the typical tropes about moving to a new, unexpectedly magical home with which the middle grade fantasy genre is replete.

There is really nothing new or particularly original about this story – a girl moves to a Big House with her mother, gets very lonely, discovers a fluffy magical companion and solves the mystery (such as it is) of a boy haunting the house.  There are no major problems to  overcome, no sense of particular danger or suspense and everything gets wrapped up quickly and easily with little struggle or fuss.  For that reason, this is one of those middle grade books that will appeal much more to younger readers than it will older readers of middle grade.

The story itself had a bit of an old-timey feel, probably due to the oft-used content, but Polly is instantly likable, Rex is the kind of companion anyone would love to have, and the ghost boy, William, caves quickly enough from his stroppy mood to make us like him too.  I will admit that reading this book did strengthen my already quite strong desire to make a wolfhound part of the Shelf family, however impractical that may be.

I would have liked to see a bit more conflict in this book; conflict in the sense of a problem that Polly has to solve or overcome to give the narrative a bit of oomph or suspense.  As it is, the story arc is basic and there didn’t seem to me to be enough of a hook to keep independent readers engaged, unless they particularly love dogs.

Overall, this is one that fell short of my expectations, but should appeal to the younger end of the middle grade audience and those who would love the idea of a magical doggy companion.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

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An MG Double-Dip: Bubbles and Boy Bands…

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It’s middle grade Double-Dip time again!  I just love getting stuck into the middle grade titles – my TBR shelf comprises about 75% middle grade titles and it’s a reading age-bracket that we just can’t get enough of.  Today we have a boy in a bubble and a girl competing with a boy band.  Grab your snack and dive in!

First up we have Girl vs. Boy Band: The Right Track by Harmony Jones, the opener of a new series aimed at tween girls who aren’t quite ready for YA contemporary titles but are craving a bit of innocent romantic interaction.  We received this one from Bloomsbury for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Talented but painfully shy eighth-grader Lark secretly writes feisty, heartfelt songs about her life-about school, crushes on boys, not getting along with her mom, and missing her dad who lives in Nashville. But that secret becomes harder to keep when Lark’s mother, a music record executive at her own label, announces that British boy band Abbey Road will be coming to live with them while they make their first album!

Sharing her L.A. house with three noisy, mischievous rising stars isn’t as glamorous as expected, especially when things aren’t going smoothly with the band members. When one of them plagiarizes one of Lark’s songs and passes it off as his own, will Lark gain the courage to step into the spotlight herself?

Dip into it for…girl vs boy band

…innocent adventures with a self-effacing and  down-to-earth main character who is going through some majorly disruptive life events.  Lark is a girl with a lot of talent but not much confidence, whose recent family breakup has meant that she has had to move to a new town.  Her best friend Mimi provides the comic relief and the encouragement and the strong friendship developed throughout the book will appeal to young female readers.  As indeed will the attractive young males that suddenly appear in Lark’s house, due to her mother’s job as a musical talent agent and recording studio boss.  Generally, this is a story featuring a positive pair of female leads, pitched at a female audience on the cusp of the teenage experience.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not up for a tween-girl issues fest.  I will admit that this is not my kind of book, and while there is obviously a gap in the market that needs to be filled with age-appropriate content for young women who are venturing into the romance/contemporary genre and need something slightly less adult-themed than your typical YA title, I cannot picture the actual young person who will pick up this book and get excited about it.  Clearly, I am not the target audience for this one.

Overall Dip Factor

If you can stomach tween-angst (or you are a tween), then this is a fun, light read with some beguiling main characters on a crazy, growing-up adventure.  There’s a bit of diversity thrown in, in that Mimi, Lark’s best friend is Latina.  This is a good opening piece for what will be an ongoing series with a slight cliffhanger ending that will entice readers to seek out the second book.  Overall, I enjoyed the friendship between Mimi and Lark and the focus on Lark gaining confidence to shine her light, as it were.

Next up we have The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster, which we received from Simon & Schuster Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

They call it a crash when the blood goes from my head to my feet, pours out into the room and drains through a hole in the middle of the floor. They call it a crash when the walls start spinning and the pictures blur. Then the ceiling turns black and the floor turns black and I don’t know which way I’m facing any more.

Eleven-year-old Joe can’t remember a life outside of his hospital room, with its beeping machines and view of London’s rooftops. His condition means he’s not allowed outside, not even for a moment, and his few visitors risk bringing life-threatening germs inside his ‘bubble’. But then someone new enters his world and changes it for ever.

THE BUBBLE BOY is the story of how Joe spends his days, copes with his loneliness and frustrations, and looks – with superhero-syle bravery, curiosity and hope – to a future without limits. Expect superheroes, super nurses and a few tears from this truly unique story.

Dip into it for…the bubble boy

…a remarkably engaging story, considering that all the action takes place entirely in the one room!  Joe is a winning narrator, and despite the fact that the majority of the other characters in the book are adults, the story never loses the feel of being a middle grade read, told by a middle grade-aged protagonist.  The inclusion of Henry, Joe’s fellow bubble boy from America, and their regular Skype chats, plus the computer forum interactions between Joe and various others provides a nice change in format from the typical text, and reflects the sense that it is mostly tiny changes in day-to-day routine that Joe looks forward to.  There are some big issues at play here, but Foster manages to keep most of them in balance with a deft hand.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for an action-packed adventure.  Much like a long, uneventful hospital stay, the book moves at a leisurely, predictable pace with stretches of sameness punctuated by startling interludes.

Overall Dip Factor

This is a middle grade “relationship and growth” novel that is atypical in the telling.  While there are challenges and sad events that Joe has to face, there is an undeniable sense of warmth and security running through the book that neatly compensates for the more ominous elements of Joe’s life.  On reflection, I wonder how the book might have read differently, had Joe’s parents been in the picture, but that is just idle curiosity.  Overall, The Bubble Boy is an intriguing and thought-provoking (and quite funny) foray into middle-grade sicklit (!) and a strong second offering from Foster.

I hope your appetite for middle grade reading has been sated somewhat by these two titles!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Tomes from the Olden Times: The Third Form at St. Clare’s…

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So today’s Tomes from the Olden Times – the feature in which I re-read a book from my ancient past and pass on some insightfully insightful insights into the experience – has gone off the rails a little bit.   The reason for this will become apparent as you read on. I did intend for this to be the crème de la crème of Tomes of the Olden Times posts; a real ripper that shot you straight back to childhood and in a way, that could still happen. It did for me while I read this offering. And afterwards, it has left me wondering if I don’t have some kind of early onset senility. But anyway, on with the show!

Today’s tome is The Third Form at St. Clare’s, part of Enid Blyton’s wildly popular boarding school stories (the other of course being Malory Towers, in which I also indulged long ago), featuring twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan as the main players. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The holidays are over and twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are dying to get back to school. The big question on everybody’s lips is, who will be head girl? But a terrible accident and an hilarious school play show the true leaders in the third form, but they also show up the cheats and cowards.

third form

Sounds like a typical Enid Blyton adventure, right? Well, my friend, I thought so too. But herein lies the confusion. This title is, in fact, NOT part of the original series, but an add-on penned by Pamela Cox as a way to flesh out the original Blyton series.

Shocked?

So was I. Not so much by the fact that another writer had been called in to modernise Blyton’s work, but by the fact that I would have sworn blind that I had read this book as a kid. And yet I couldn’t have, because it was written in 2000. This was the bit that had me scratching my head and trying to remember the number for the Alzheimer’s hotline. As I was reading this story, I even deluded myself that I knew how it was going to turn out (due, of course, to my incredible ability to recall children’s literature). I predicted correctly, but I suspect that this was because the story follows the expected Blyton formula, rather than the fact that I had read it before (which I obviously hadn’t).

Confused yet?

Yes, me too. So it turns out, on further research, that for some reason Blyton didn’t stick to the one-book-per-year formula found in most boarding school series (including her own) for the girls of St. Clare’s but instead wrote three first form stories, one second form story, skipped third form altogether, wrote one apiece for forms four and five and left sixth form out. Cox was brought in around the time of the series’ latest re-release to pen tales for the missing form years and it was one of these gap-fillers that I managed to pick up in my search for a blast from the past.

On the surface, everything appears as it should be. All the familiar characters are there, including wild circus gypsy girl Carlotta (who was a favourite of mine back in the day) and the book obviously reads enough like a Blyton to have tricked me into thinking I had already read it. There are a few little signs along the way that the story has been brought into the new millennium, with mention of coffee shops (Egad! Surely tea is the only reputable beverage in an English boarding school!) and a few turns of phrase that didn’t ring quite true to the old stories. There are also the old favourite plotlines of practical jokes, midnight feasts and sending people to Coventry.

I did feel that the retribution of the girls toward one particular wrong-doer in the story read entirely differently in a contemporary setting though. As the entire form decide to punish a girl for her underhanded behaviour by sending her to Coventry (ie: completely ignoring her and actively excluding her from membership of the form group), I did get a strange sense that this scene might come off seeming far more sinister to modern-day youngsters than Cox might have bargained for. As a youngster, when I had read such a scene in Blyton’s works, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eyelid and probably cheered along at such justice being done to an obviously guilty party but on reading it with the current social climate in mind, the scene felt uncomfortably like mass cyberbullying of the sort that sends young people to mental health wards or, in some tragic cases, suicide. It’s probably lucky that the St. Clare’s girls didn’t have access to social media or things could have gotten completely out of hand.

Overall, I think Cox has done an admirable job in penning a story that could slot right into the series without a second thought and young contemporary readers discovering Blyton’s school stories for the first time will no doubt be thankful that the series has been given these additions.

As a “Tomes from the Olden Times” pick, this turned out to be an incredibly disorienting experience. I feel mildly cheated that I haven’t actually re-read a St. Clare’s book and so now I have to go and seek out another one (although I suspect I’ll jump ship back to Malory Towers – you know where you are with the Malory Towers girls).

I’d love to know from any of you though: What are your favourite St. Clare’s moments? And have you read any of Cox’s new additions? What did you think?

Until next time,

Bruce

Haiku Review (and a giveaway heads-up): The Purple Girl…

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Good morning my bookish brethren and shelfish sisterhood, it’s Mad Martha with you today with a Haiku Review of another not-to-be-missed title.  Today’s fresh off the press offering is The Purple Girl by Audrey Kane.  I received a copy for review from the publisher via Netgalley – we thank thee!

The Purple Girl is a middle grade fantasy adventure that centres around Violet, a girl who was born …well…violet.  Violet’s skin is purple and everything she touches takes on a purplish hue for a few moments after she moves on.  Her parents keep her away from most ordinary folk for her own protection, but occasionally venture out amidst taunting and frightened looks to participate in usual village business.  On meeting a gypsy girl who promises to remove Violet’s purple for the small price of her voicebox, Violet is presented with a choice – should she blend in with those around her and live the life she imagines or is her voice too precious to lose?  Once Violet makes her decision, it seems that new opportunities pop up from everywhere to challenge her resolve and push her to be independent. After all, she’s growing up – surely it’s time for her parents to let her go?

Buy the book here

the purple girl

Little lilac lass

ventures over garden wall

seeks key to freedom

This book was completely out-of-the-box for me.  I read the blurb, expected a bit of a fairy-tale-ish, atmospheric sort of choreographed adventure and was blown away by the sensitivity with which Kane has created the characters and the story that unfolds for them in these pages.  This was an unexpected joy to read.

Violet, the protagonist, is neither a shy, retiring petal nor a swashbuckling, all action GI Jane – she’s simply an ordinary person with a less than ordinary …skin condition, I suppose you could say.  This was refreshing, I must say, as many books these days, especially those aimed at middle grade or tween girls, seem to rely on one or the other of those stereotypes (or one that turns into the other).  To have a rounded female with believable flaws really added to the book as a whole, and moved it away from that run-of-the-mill, all-been-done-before vibe that can happen so easily with books for this age group.

The story was at once complicated but simple.  There were a number of plot twists that pushed the action forward, but they occured gently and almost naturally based on Violet’s actions.  There are a lot of different elements to the plot – Violet’s encounter with the gypsy girl, her discovery of a mysterious jewelled book belonging to her father, the relationship between Violet and her first real friend, Frankie, and Violet’s ability to sing.  All of these elements contribute to the story, but none takes precedence over another.  It was a strange experience reading, because every time one of these plot twists arose, I immediately thought, “Oh, I know where this is going!” but not once was I right!  It’s a wonderful thing to be surprised more than once in a story that you think you probably already know, or could figure out from the blurb or the picture on the cover.

Oh, did I mention it’s illustrated?  Yep, it was a (lovely) surprise to me, but there are a few illustrated pages throughout and they have the same dream-like quality as the front cover.

This would be a fantastic read-aloud for tweens, particularly girls, as the action in the book is tempered with a certain gentleness in the telling.  It’s also a reasonably fast read, so could be completed over a few sessions easily.

The Purple Girl was released on the 8th of January, so it’s available to purchase right now – good news, hey! – and you can buy it for yourself at Amazon, by clicking here.

But even better than that – the author, Audrey Kane, who will be visiting the Shelf on Monday for a spotlight post, has also been generous enough to put up a SIGNED paperback copy of The Purple Girl for one lucky reader to win…and better than that, it’s an INTERNATIONAL competition! Hooooooorayyyy!  So be sure to pop back on Monday for your chance to win.

Adieu until we meet again, my many-hued friends,

Mad Martha

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