Meandering through (Aussie) Middle Grade: The Turnkey…

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meandering-through-middle-grade

Today I’ve got the final book in my recent run of World War II related reads, with The Turnkey by Aussie author Allison Rushby.  We excitedly received this one from Walker Books Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

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The Turnkey is a solid, original and intriguing tale that has the perfect blend of mystery, history and paranormal activity.  Flossie is the Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery in London, a job which involves ensuring that the dead interred in the cemetery remain – for the most part – peacefully at rest.  With the Blitz causing chaos every night, Flossie seeks solace in visiting some of the other Turnkeys in London’s major cemeteries.  On a midnight sojourn to St Paul’s Cathedral – a favourite thinking spot – Flossie encounters a ghost who shouldn’t, by the laws of the afterlife, be there (never mind that he’s dressed in the uniform of a Nazi SS Officer) and is drawn into a mystery that could tip the scales of the war in favour of the Nazis.

Flossie is an immediately likable character and throughout the story demonstrates her resilience, courage in adversity and compassion for those in difficult situations.  The Nazi officer, who we discover has an unexpected link to Flossie herself, is suitably evil and frightening, and each of the Turnkeys that we meet has his or her own personality, quirks and in some cases, secrets.

I always love books for young readers that aren’t set in schools.  Apart from the fact that being school-less allows the author to neatly avoid all those boring, repetitive, school-bully-based tropes, the non-school setting also makes books for young readers more accessible and interesting for grown up readers.  Such was the case with The Turnkey.  In fact, I kept forgetting that Flossie was meant to be twelve years old – albeit a reasonably long-dead twelve years old – such was the adult appeal of the novel. I love a good set-in-the-Blitz story also and the mix of bombed out London with the atmospheric cemeteries really worked to give a sense of the never-ending clean up and rescue operations that coloured that particular time in London’s history.

The pacing of this story was spot-on, with no filler material included to slow things down.  Reveals came at regular intervals with just enough new information to spur the reader on to discover the next twist in the ghostly Nazi’s plans.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to maintain all the threads of the story without losing the quality of each along the way.  By the end of the book the reader gets to experience the paranormal aspect of the Turnkeys working together (plus some patriotic and enthusiastic ghostly members of the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital), a journey into Churchill’s war rooms and the war rooms of the Nazis, a glimpse into the reality of those living and dying in the rubble and shelters and hospital wards of London during the Blitz, and a fantasy element featuring ancient artifacts.  None of these separate plot threads felt forced or tacked on and taken together they added greatly to the originality and atmosphere of the novel.

The only thing that could have made this book better – as I say with pretty much every book, everywhere – would be pictures.  I remember seeing a documentary or something on the Chelsea Pensioners and their red jackets and it would be awesome (and instructive for younger readers) to see some images of these iconic characters, as well as some images of the actual cemeteries or London during the Blitz for example.  There is a little author’s note at the back with some historical information and it was nice to see that the author had also consulted that seminal of cemetery-related tomes, Katherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead.  **I read this ages ago and thought I was amongst a select few, but it keeps popping up as a reference authors have used for lots of fiction books that I’ve come across.  Give it a read if you feel inclined.**

 

I’m fairly sure that this is intended as a standalone novel but I would be interested in seeing what happens next for Flossie.  Given that she’s dead and doesn’t have to age or experience the changes of growing up, it would be cool to see a progression of historical/fantasy/mystery novels featuring the Turnkeys of London’s major cemeteries in different time periods up to the present.  I’d read them, anyway!

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly World War II fiction and you can’t go past a paranormal twist I would definitely recommend hunting down The Turnkey.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Surprise! It’s an Indie YA Horror: In the Graveyard Antemortem

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graveyard antemortem

Now I know I said that I wasn’t going to be reviewing any more self-published titles for a while, but I decided to make an exception for In the Graveyard Antemortem by Stephen Stromp.  I had reviewed his earlier novel Cracking Grace a couple of years back, and since I enjoyed it I thought I’d give this one a go too.

And I’m glad I did.

In the Graveyard Antemortem is nothing at all like Cracking Grace, but it is a super-fun mix of murder-mystery, ghost story, creepy family drama and gory hack-fest.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

*Winner of Amazon’s reader-powered Kindle Scout program.*

Seventeen-year-old Lisa Jacobs is determined to solve her father’s gruesome murder. But before she can investigate in her own small town, she is forced to spend the summer with her Uncle Clayton, the owner of Grand Hallow—a massive funeral and mortuary operation the size of a small city.

Her move to Grand Hallow only deepens the mystery as she begins to suspect the strange and chilling occurrences there are linked to her father’s death.

With the help of her acid-tongued best friend and deadbeat brother, Lisa must unravel the secrets of Grand Hallow—before it’s too late.

In the Graveyard Antemortem is a mystery/suspense novel with a healthy dash of horror.

The first thing you need to do before reading this one is suspend your disbelief.  This is meant to be entertainment, not a reflection of reality.  It took me a few chapters to realise this and early on I was thinking, “But that wouldn’t really happen!” and “Why would she behave like that?”  and so on and so forth.  After I twigged that this wasn’t meant to be an actual, reality-reflecting murder investigation type book, I suspended said disbelief and things got a whole lot more fun and engaging really fast.

It’s no secret that I love books about cemeteries and morticians and the death industry in general, and this book features an absolute cracker of a cemetery.  It’s enormous and labyrinthine and you just know there are at least a few shady goings-on hidden amongst the viewing rooms and mausoleums and morgues.  Ned, the assistant manager character who initially brings Lisa to Grand Hallow (in a hearse, obviously), became my favourite by the end, in no small part because he reminded me so much of the “Yes” guy on the Simpsons:

Tina, Lisa’s potty-mouthed friend, also became one of my favourites, simply for the colour and life that she brings to the story, as well as her forthright manner.

The story has a few distinct parts to it – or at least they felt distinct to me as I was reading.  The first focuses on the murder of Lisa’s father and the unexpected intervention of her estranged Uncle Clayton.  The second part really makes a feature of Grand Hallow and we start to see that all is not as it appears at this vast necropolis.  After that there is a section in which Lisa doesn’t know who she can trust – I found this to be quite a suspenseful part of the story with lots of action, although….the next bit blows all that to pieces and turns the story right on its head as some rather unsavoury practices are brought to light and the murder is finally solved. HA! BUT IS IT REALLY SOLVED?!  You’ll have to read to the end to tie up all the loose threads – and this final part of the story features most of the gore and horror action in a satisfyingly exuberant fight to the death.

If you are looking for a YA book that contains an absorbing mystery (well, more than one actually), a good dose of atmospheric suspense, some twists that you won’t see coming (and will probably make you go “Ew”, when you get to them), and a solid helping of supernatural tumult, then I would highly recommend giving In the Graveyard Antemortem a crack.

I received a copy from the author for review, but you can pick it up at either of these two Amazon sites:

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HN4DJ9E

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01HN4DJ9E

Now don’t take this to mean that I’m reviewing self-published tomes again, because I’m not.  This was an enjoyable aberration and my policy still stands for now.

Until next time,

Bruce

Magrit: An MG Good, Sad and Quirky Review…

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Today’s review nearly ended up being a “Great Expectations…” review because my level of expectation for today’s book was impossibly high, but I have decided to unleash my psyche on you instead.  Magrit by Lee Battersby (author of such bizarre adult fiction favourites of the shelf as The Corpse-Rat King and The Marching Dead) is a middle grade, beautifully presented foray into a graveyard full of surprises.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Magrit lives in an abandoned cemetery with her friend and advisor, Master Puppet, whom she built from bones and bits of graveyard junk. One night as Magrit and Master Puppet sit atop of their crumbling chapel, a passing stork drops a baby into the graveyard. Defying Master Puppet’s demands that the baby be disposed of, and taking no heed of his dire warnings, Magrit decides to raise the baby herself. She gives him a name: Bugrat. Magrit loves Bugrat like a brother But Master Puppet know all too well what will happen when Bugrat grows up – that the truth about them all will be revealed.

magrit

The Good:image

If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and have wished that there existed a book very like it, but suited to a younger audience, Lee Battersby has fulfilled that wish in Magrit.  The book is set in a beautifully atmospheric cemetery, wherein the inhabitants lie forgotten and a self-contained, private sanctuary has been chiseled out of the silence.  Magrit is an easy character to follow along with; a carefree nearly-ten year old, whose imagination is fed to bursting by her mouldering home and her questions answered by the all-seeing Master Puppet.  Master Puppet is a great, original character, I must say – a skeleton patched together from various discarded bones and lashed to the cross atop the cemetery’s chapel, dispensing wisdom and criticism in a voice that is practically audible while you read.  The plot is easy to follow for young readers, and while adult readers (and indeed, canny youngsters) may pick up on which way the wind is blowing reasonably early in the story, the ending is unexpected and satisfactorily ambiguous.

The Sad image

If you have not read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, then this criticism will pass you by and not affect your reading of Magrit at all.  If this is the case for you, I am truly happy that you have yet to discover the magic of both of these wonderful books.  The only problem I had with this story is that it felt far too much like The Graveyard Book.  So much so, in fact, that I felt like Bod and Magrit could have easily lived in Bod’s graveyard at the same time, with Magrit’s corner cordoned off in some way so that the two never got around to meeting.  The reason this was a problem is that because I read The Graveyard Book years ago on its original release (our dust-jacketed, hardbacked edition has pride of place on our shelf, with only slight paper-specklage after eight years), and have since re-read it multiple times, Bod, Silas and the gang have taken up residence in my brain as the superior graveyard-dwelling crew.  Again though, if you haven’t read The Graveyard Book, you should find Magrit and Master Puppet entirely original and thoroughly unique.

I would also have loved to have seen a bit of the quirky, bizarre humour that Battersby inserts into his adult fiction works make its way into Magrit’s story.

The Quirkyimage

The presentation, both inside and out, of this first edition of Magrit is something else entirely.  For a start, the textured hardback cover fits neatly in your hand and the raw edges of the pages are tinged an inviting pale purple.  The beautiful papercut illustration on the front sets the tone for the gorgeous reading experience awaiting you.  The pages inside are bordered in similar papercut designs and Master Puppet’s dialogue is always printed in a spectacularly eye-popping font, which is both a handy visual cue for younger readers and serves to enhance that unique character voice that I mentioned earlier.  Overall, there has been a great deal of consideration put into the visual presentation of this book and it greatly enhances the reading experience.  I can just imagine the coveting that will go on amongst mini-fleshlings when this one hits the school library shelves!

I also loved that Battersby references Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead in his acknowledgements.  This is a reasonably large and dense non-fiction tome that I checked out of the library years ago, before I started blogging, as part of my attempt to read all the death-related things.  I just like the idea that other people have read a reasonably obscure book that I randomly checked out of the library many years ago.

Overall, I am so glad I pre-ordered this one and didn’t wait around on the off-chance that I would get the opportunity to get a free review copy.  This is definitely a book that you won’t regret purchasing and displaying in a prominent place on your shelf to amaze your friends and confuse and dismay your enemies.

Until next time,

Bruce (and his psyche)