Shouty Doris Interjects during…Into the White: Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey

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Shouty Doris interjects

We’re seeing less and less of Doris lately, but I’m happy to say that everybody’s favourite grouchy ill-tempered opinionated granny  person is joining us today to discuss Into the White: Scott’s Antarctic Odyssey by Joanna Grochowicz.  It’s a re-telling in narrative non-fiction style of Scott’s ill-fated mission to be the first to reach the South Pole and we received our copy for review from Allen & Unwin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Together, they have taken on the greatest march ever made and come very near to great success; never giving up, and never giving up on each other.

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica and the memorable characters, who with a band of shaggy ponies and savage dogs, follow a man they trust into the unknown.

Battling storms at sea, impenetrable pack ice, maneating whales, crevasses, blizzards, bad food, extreme temperatures, and equal measures of hunger, agony and snow blindness, the team pushes on against all odds.

But will the weather hold? Will their rations be adequate? How will they know when they get there? And who invited the Norwegians?

Into the White will leave you on the edge of your seat, hoping against hope that Scott and his men might survive their Antarctic ordeal to tell the tale.

into the white

Into the White: SCott’s Antarctic Odyssey by Joanna Grochowicz.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th April, 2017.  RRP: $14.99

I only knew the bare bones of this tale of epic adventure –

Shouty Doris interjects

Epic idiocy, you mean.

Yes, welcome back Doris.

As I was saying, before reading this book I only knew the absolute basics of Scott’s mission.  Actually, to be honest, I only knew about the very ending bit, with Oates’ famous, “I’m going out for a walk” quote and Scott’s subsequent death from hunger and exposure-

Shouty Doris interjects

His death from the crushing weight of his own egotism, you mean.

Thanks Doris.

…so finding out about the events leading up to the bit I knew about was both fascinating and completely baffling.

Shouty Doris interjects

There you are, you got to the nub of it in the end.  

So you agree with me, then, that this is essentially a story about a group of blokes on a boys’ own adventure who were supposed to be undertaking proper scientific research but decided to pick out pack ponies based on the colour of their hides?  Doesn’t sound very scientific to me, deary, and look where that got them!  Dead in the snow.  Them AND their unscientifically chosen ponies!

Yes Doris, I do have to agree with you there.  There was a certain sense of frustration that characterised this story right from the very beginning, although this had nothing to do with the writing of the story and everything to do with the facts.  The very first page tips you off, in case you know nothing about the mission, that Scott’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, but to discover the bizarre, avoidable and beginner-level mistakes that were made on the journey –

Shouty Doris interjects

by a third-time Antarctic adventurer no less…

-Quite! – made reading this feel like wading through snowbanks while wearing a wet-suit and flippers and dragging a massive box of rocks behind you.

 

Shouty Doris interjects

Enough of this shilly-shallying.  

Let’s cut to the chase.  

If you want to spend 250+ pages scratching your head, shouting “Turn back you imbeciles!” and hoping everyone gets sucked into an ice chasm, before finding out that it was all for nowt as the Norwegians beat them to it, this is the book for you.

I will admit that I did end the book wondering why Scott’s epic failure has been so lovingly recorded while Amundsen’s story – the leader of the Norwegian expedition that started closer, covered less dangerous terrain, and ultimately resulted in the first flag-planting at the South Pole – has been ignored.

Shouty Doris interjects

It’s because people like to read about people dying in horrible conditions with their toes frozen off.  It’s called Schadenfreude.

You may be right there, Doris.

To focus on the actual writing for a moment, as opposed to the historical event itself, while I found the information quite interesting, the narrative style felt a tad detached for my liking.  This may have been deliberate, in that it certainly contributes to the atmosphere of a long, fruitless slog toward ultimate failure and death, and also allows the reader to avoid becoming too attached to characters that will eventually die, but all in all reading this felt like more of a history lesson and less like something I would read for enjoyment at times.

The book contains chapter heading illustrations throughout and also features actual photographs from the expedition in the centre.  These were a great touch and added the needed link with the reality of the conditions under which the expedition was labouring to bring the story to life a little more.  At the end of the book a collection of appendices includes short descriptions of Scott’s prior attempts on the South Pole alongside Earnest Shackleton, as well as as Shackleton’s later, unsuccessful Antarctic mission.  A short section on Amundsen’s expedition is included here too, which I found most interesting.

If you know any young history buffs in the upper middle grade and YA age bracket –

Shouty Doris interjects

Or people who enjoy a good dose of Schadenfreude, while reading about people dying in horrible conditions with their toes frozen off…

-you might recommend Into the White.  I can’t say I really loved reading it because although the story itself contains plenty of action and setbacks that should have kept me interested, I got caught up in the epic folly of so many of the decisions that were made along the way that resulted in the men’s deaths.  And I just can’t get over their whoppingly unscientific choice of pack pony.

Any final thoughts, Doris?

Shouty Doris interjects

Needed more women in it to tell the blokes how ridiculous they were being.

Thanks for that Doris.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge under category #14: a book involving travel.  You can check out my progress toward all my challenges for this year here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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?

turnkey

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

 

An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: Heraclix and Pomp…

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Welcome to a Read-it-if for grown ups who like swords, sorcery, fairies, monsters and general villainy and  mystery.  I received a copy of Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest Aguirre from the publisher via Edelweiss after being intrigued by a tantalising blurb which promised monsters and fairies acting in cahoots.

Heraclix is a reincarnated creature patched together from random body parts.  Pomp is a fairy who is facing certain disembowelment at the hands of villainous sorcerer.  From this happy beginning springs a friendship that is destined to cross the borders of life itself.  After escaping with only their lives from the aforementioned villainous sorcerer, Heraclix and Pomp set out across a land rife with conflict to discover who and what they are.  Pursued by various groups and individuals that seem to want them dead (or at least imprisoned), Heraclix and Pomp befriend a warlord-turned-healer, inveigle themselves into a secret society and even make a depressing jaunt into Hell before getting to the crux of the matter and facing off against the sorcerer at whose ill-advised dabbling this story began.

Heraclix and Pomp

Read it if:

* you believe monsterism is as monsterism does

* you are firmly convinced that spending too much time hanging around in front of the mirror can be hazardous to one’s health (and soul)

* you are of the unwavering belief that tattoos can be redemptive

* you have learned, by experience or otherwise, when being pursued by a mob with torches and pitchforks, it is best to run first and gauge the general mood later

When deciding to pick this book up, I was drawn to the heady atmosphere of oddity that seemed to emanate from the descriptions of the main characters.  A patchwork man of monstrous countenance and open heart? Wonderful.  A cheeky fairy learning to exist in the mortal world? Sure, bring it on.  All the other stuff would sort itself out, I thought, if I could just read a story with these interesting characters leading the way.  And for the most part, thoughtful, purpose-driven Heraclix and well-meaning, curious Pomp were enough to keep me engaged in this complex world.

I must admit that I was utterly astounded when I saw that the print version of this book has only 280 pages, because reading it on the Kindle had me thinking I was wading through a 500 page epic.  Aguirre has packed a lot of action into this tale and it certainly felt to me to be a hefty read, and not one that I would pick up for a bit of light diversion.  It’s more a tale that needs a committed reader, because the magical elements dip in and out and interweave themselves with real places, and if you’re not paying attention, it would be easy to lose the thread of the whos and whats and wheres of our intrepid pair.  I found that after the eventful and enlightening trip to Hell that the pair undertake (about two thirds of the way through) I began to lose the thread of the story just a little, and never quite regained it to my satisfaction.  I could fully grasp the events of the final third of the plot, but I suspected I was missing some important nuances.

Overall, this is a story that features a very strong sense of place and culture: as Heraclix and Pomp traverse Europe, the places that they visit seem to have their own life and exert an influence over the pairs’ decisions.  If you are very familiar with the lore of various old cities in Europe, you’ll probably appreciate this far more than I did, as my vague knowledge about the magical history of Prague (for instance) didn’t really cut it in terms of understanding the nuance of the story.  As it was, I simply appreciated the changes in atmosphere as Heraclix and Pomp moved about the place.

What I did find refreshing and fun and brain-building was the need to use the Kindle’s dictionary feature reasonably often during my reading, thanks to Aguirre’s vocabulary-expanding text.  I quite enjoyed hovering over a certain word or phrase (just to double-check its meaning, you understand!)  as I don’t often run across a book containing hitherto unforeseen (or rarely seen) words.  Some of the crackers I picked up included fumarole, janissary, senescence, celerity and concrescence.   Go on, look them up. Of course, on having embraced the use of this feature on the Kindle, I am now continually frustrated that I can’t do the same in printed books.  Ah well.

If you like a bit of magic, philosophy and sword-thwackery presented in a well-executed package, Heraclix and Pomp could be the book for you.  While it’s not for the fainthearted, it will definitely draw you in and have you pondering what it means to be human, and how redemption can be earned.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Adult Fiction Haiku Review: When Mystical Creatures Attack!

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imageWelcome my dears, to another haiku review with me, Mad Martha.  Today I have a book for you that is bizarre, hilarious, tragic, poignant, silly and moving all at once.  Well, I suppose not all at once. In turns, perhaps.  Suffice to say that Bruce and I agreed it has been the strangest and most rewarding reading experience of the year for us.  Let’s take a stroll into this unusual story, shall we?

When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds follows, in spectacularly disjointed fashion, the fortunes of (ex) high school English teacher Laura Freedman, and two of her (ex) students, Janice Gibbs and Cody Splunk.  Told through (amongst other things)emails, letters, school assignments, diary entries and psychiatric hospital workbook exercises, the reader is taken on a journey with Laura, Janice and Cody as their lives ebb and flow through lunacy, partial success and embarrassing failure.  Within these pages is a micro-level social history, depicting three individuals trying to eke out a satisfying existence in an uncaring universe…as well as a treatise on how mystical creatures could be harnessed to solve the problems of our time.

 

when mystical creatures attack

When life gives lemons

throw all but one at haters

then make lemonade

I know I’ve just said it, but this book really warrants saying it twice – this was both an utterly discomfiting and unutterably satisfying reading experience.  I have never seen a narrative format quite like this one. The style and the format will definitely not be to everyone’s tastes, but if you are looking for a read that is out of the ordinary and as deeply thought-provoking as it is silly, then I thoroughly recommend giving this one a try.

The book opens with a selection of essays from Laura Freedman’s English class, in which she asked them to write a story in which their favourite mystical creature solves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time.  While reading essays titled, “How the Giant Squid Made Me Stop Being Pregnant” and “How the Cephalopod Balanced the National Budget”, I kind of got the feeling that this was going to be a funny book.  As the second chapter segues into sections of the welcome manual for the Bridges Psychiatric Wellness Solutions residential facility, and the third leads on to email correspondence between Janice and Laura, with Janice trying to find out why her teacher suddenly left school, it becomes apparent that this story is not all it appears on the surface.

I don’t want to spoil the story too much for you, so I’m not going to give you much more detail as to the content of the book.  I went into it fairly blind, requesting it for review mostly because of the title and the tantalisingly short blurb and I think that lack of knowledge really enhanced my reading experience because I got to discover the characters’ back stories without any prior knowledge.  Initially it was tricky to sort out what exactly was going on, as no two chapters follow the same format and the story jumps around in both time, place and point of view, but after a while it became easier to untangle who was who and what was what.  There was even a chapter written in the second-person perspective which was disorienting, but ultimately, all these twists and oddities suit the story and deeply complement the struggles of the main characters.

As a fan of books featuring themes about mental health and illness, I have to say that this was authentic in its portrayal of the far-reaching effects of mental illness and also beautifully captured the twinned senses of hope and despair that so often accompany those suffering from mental illness in various forms.

When Mystical Creatures Attack! is a beautiful piece of work that is daring in its stylistic audacity and ultimately both poignant and rewarding.  Give it a go if you’re an open-minded reader who doesn’t mind leaping into the literary as-yet unencountered.

Yours in exciting new narrative,

Mad Martha

*I received a digital copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley*

 

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