Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Mighty Jack…

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Today I’m bringing you another Ben Hatke graphic gem because Ben Hatke is awesome.  I picked up Mighty Jack from the library a week or two ago and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it even more than the Zita the Spacegirl books.  It’s a big call I know, but bear with me.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jack might be the only kid in the world who’s dreading summer. But he’s got a good reason: summer is when his single mom takes a second job and leaves him at home to watch his autistic kid sister, Maddy. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s boring, too, because Maddy doesn’t talk. Ever. But then, one day at the flea market, Maddy does talk—to tell Jack to trade their mom’s car for a box of mysterious seeds. It’s the best mistake Jack has ever made.

What starts as a normal little garden out back behind the house quickly grows up into a wild, magical jungle with tiny onion babies running amok, huge, pink pumpkins that bite, and, on one moonlit night that changes everything…a dragon.

mighty jack

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Fantasy, fractured fairy tales

Art Style:

Ben Hatke style!

Reading time:

Took me about half an hour total spread over two sittings

Let’s get gabbing:

I’m going to dispense with reiterating how much I love Ben Hatke’s illustrative style and adorable original creatures and just get on with talking about the story.  Although, if you’ll indulge me, this series has a ridiculously cute little onion headed species that Mad Martha is dying to recreate in yarn, but as she doesn’t have the time just now, we’ll have to wait for that particular treat.

This is the good old fashioned kids-stumbling-upon-hidden-magic-right-in-their-own-backyard combined with meeting-a-friend-with-a-bizarrely-cool-skill style of fantasy that anyone who has loved fantasy and magic stories since childhood will definitely appreciate.  Since Jack’s mum has to work two jobs just to make ends meet, Jack is often left to look after his little sister Maddy, who is nonverbal.  When Maddy wanders off at a local market, Jack manages to find her talking to some strange people (who you will certainly recognise if you have read the Zita the Spacegirl series!!) and ends up trading his mum’s car for a box of seed packets when Maddy unexpectedly starts talking.

When the kids plant the seeds in the yard they’re in for a massive shock – because the garden that sprouts is full of sentient plants, adorable onion-headed creatures and some vines that are a bit too grabby for comfort.  When Jack’s swordplay-mastering, home-schooled neighbour Lilly (oh, I’ve only just realised that she has a botanical name…coincidence?) turns up to help out, Jack has to decide whether to trust her and let her into the family’s troubles or take the easy route and keep shutting everyone out.

I love, love, love, love this story.  Apart from the fantasy elements (enormous snails, anyone?) there is a strong subplot about acceptance, trust and the perils of relying on oneself when others are willing to contribute.  Mighty Jack doesn’t have the humorous undertones of the Zita series, relying instead on a sense of adventure and risk to drive a suspenseful, but exhilarating plot.  Once again Hatke has created female characters that are full of depth, with unexpected skills and for this reason, the book will appeal to both boys and girls.  There’s a certain echo of the Spiderwick Chronicles in this story, but Hatke has done it better.  I really can’t wait now to get my paws on the second book in the series – Mighty Jack and the Goblin King – by hook or crook.

 

Overall snapshot:

This is another brilliant addition to Hatke’s growing catalogue of work.  If you haven’t yet introduced his graphic novels or picture books to your younglings, you must really correct that oversight because these are modern classics that deserve to be re-read again and again.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Optimists Die First…

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Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen combines craft, social anxiety and art therapy in a light-hearted tale of love overcoming fear.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from GoodreadsGoodreads:

Life ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

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Having read and enjoyed Nielsen’s work before, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for going into this and I wasn’t disappointed.  Much like in Word Nerd, Nielsen combines a quirky hobby with a serious social issue – in this case, young people’s mental health – and manages to successfully blend seriousness and humour.

Petula is still grieving the loss of her younger sister and has developed a major generalised anxiety disorder partly from the guilt she feels about her possible role in her sister’s death. New boy in therapy group, Jacob, seems to take his prosthetic arm in stride and although he is secretive about the reasons he is in therapy group in the first place, is able to bring the group together in a way they haven’t managed before.  As the two become better friends, it will be the issue of guilt – perceived and actual – that may drive the two apart even as it brings them together.

Even though there is a bit of romance in this one, I still quite enjoyed Petula and Jacob’s road to friendship and the connections they make with the others in their therapy group.  There are a few twee bits here and there – particularly the ridiculous activities suggested by the leader of the art therapy group – but overall the book shows the growth of the characters and the group in a realistic (if simplistic) way.

I particularly enjoyed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Cosmo, a character in one of Nielsen’s other books.  Despite the fact that the ending is pretty predictable from the outset, I liked spending time with these characters and I appreciate the way that Nielsen manages to address difficult issues without ever losing the ability to inject humour into the situation.

I’m also submitting this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in the category of a book by or about someone with a disability.  You can check out my progress toward this year’s challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Title Fight Reading Challenge: Of Better Blood…

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Title Fight Button 2016

So today I present my first KO in the Title Fight Reading Challenge 2016 (which I happen to be hosting), with a historical middle grade fiction novel about eugenics and what it means to be different.  I received a copy of Of Better Blood by Susan Moger from the publisher via Netgalley and I will be submitting it in category five of the Title Fight Challenge: a book with an injury (or something implying an injury) in the title.  I think “blood” fits quite nicely there, don’t you?

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Teenage polio survivor Rowan Collier is caught in the crossfire of a secret war against “the unfit.” It’s 1922, and eugenics–the movement dedicated to racial purity and good breeding–has taken hold in America. State laws allow institutions to sterilize minorities, the “feeble-minded,” and the poor, while local eugenics councils set up exhibits at county fairs with “fitter family” contests and propaganda. After years of being confined to hospitals, Rowan is recruited at sixteen to play a born cripple in a county fair eugenics exhibit. But gutsy, outspoken Dorchy befriends Rowan and helps her realize her own inner strength and bravery. The two escape the fair and end up at a summer camp on a desolate island run by the New England Eugenics Council. There they discover something is happening to the children. Rowan must find a way to stop the horrors on the island if she can escape them herself.

of better blood

What an interesting mash-up of genres and issues this story is!  What begins as the story of a young girl overcoming disability, family bigotry and exploitation morphs into a ripping murder-mystery, fight-for-survival-on-an-isolated-island, survivor type tale.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale (although the end third of the book was by far the most exciting), because it seemed to cover all the bits and pieces that I like to see in middle grade fiction.

Rowan starts off as a privileged white girl from a rich family that has a vested interest in the eugenics movement.  When Rowan develops polio and loses the use of one of her legs, not only does she have to overcome pain and isolation, but also silence from her father who seems to have abandoned her in her “weakness”.  This early part of the story flicks between Rowan’s present-day travails – in which she is forced to play “Ruthie”, the crippled simpleton daughter, in a travelling carnival show that touts the ideals of the benefits of eugenics – and her life before.  We are privy to the abrupt change in affections of Rowan’s father toward her, and the parade of medical professionals – some sympathetic to her plight, some not – to whom Rowan is subjected during her recovery.

During her time in the Fitter Families show, Rowan meets Dorchy, a rowdy, independent girl from a carnival family, and this friendship drives the rest of the novel.  The relationship building here is done sensitively and will really appeal to female readers of the target age group.  Though the girls come from different socioeconomic backgrounds (as will become apparent later in the book), they are possessed of a similar undaunted spirit and the desire to make their own ways in the world.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the action-packed turn that the last third of the book would take (despite the fact that it’s flagged in the blurb), but it drew me in completely and I desperately wanted to know how it was all going to end up.  Two young girls alone on an island with a bunch of orphan kids, some reclusive caretakers, a very rich woman and her daughter and a doctor at the “cutting edge” of eugenics technology? What could possibly go wrong?!

This section of the story really brings home the point that the author is trying to make about this period in history and the dangerous attitudes that can be fostered when we try to place labels on those we think are unfit or unhelpful to society.  Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy the period details here, while general readers of middle grade will appreciate the pacey plot and the continuous changes in the girls’ situations.

So for a first bout, this one certainly came out in my favour!  If you’d like to know more about the Title Fight Reading Challenge (and sign up!) just click here.  I’m also submitting this book for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenged hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

You can check out my progress for that challenge here, if you’re interested.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband…

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I have a new release, contemporary murder mystery for today’s Murderous Monday, having received The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen for review from the publisher via Netgalley. This is book number two in the Asperger’s Mystery series. I haven’t read book one, but that didn’t cause any particular dramas in terms of getting to know the characters or the situation in this one.

Let’s get cracking. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

For Samuel Hoenig, Asperger’s isn’t so much a syndrome as it is a set of personality traits. And as the sole proprietor of a business called Questions Answered, Samuel’s put his personality traits to good use, successfully answering every question he’s ever been asked.

But when his newest client asks about the true identity of her so-called husband, Samuel recruits his former associate Janet Washburn for insight into a subject that’s beyond his grasp—marriage. Working as a team seems to be the right approach . . . until the inscrutable spouse is found dead in Samuel’s office.

Feeling like he’s been taken for a fool, Samuel is more than willing to answer a new question posed by an unexpected inquirer: who killed the unfamiliar husband?

unfamiliar husband

Plot Summary:

When a lady comes to Questions Answered requesting that Samuel discover whether the man she is married to is actually her husband, Samuel is happy to take on the case, provided he can gain the support of his friend Janet. After Samuel and Janet are called out to their client’s premises on suspicion of abuse, the corpse of the man they are supposed to be investigating mysteriously appears inside Samuel’s office. Things begin to get a bit convoluted at this point, as Samuel’s original client doesn’t seem to want to be found, and Samuel’s only leads relate to people who don’t seem to exist.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of a tricky one. There’s Samuel’s original client, who seems to not to want to be found, there are some ex-wives of the dead man, and some mysterious colleagues of the dead man.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

The hunt is quite drawn out for reasons which I could not fathom. For keen-eyed readers, and I count myself among them, there are glaring clues given out early on in the story that will tip you off to the eventual reveal of the mystery. There are some red herrings offered, but I found that most of the hunt involved Samuel dialoguing with himself about people’s possible motives.

Overall Rating:

poison clip artpoison clip art

Two poison bottles for the long, drawn-out death rattle of a reader choking on their own impatience.

This was a big miss for me unfortunately. I thought the premise underlying the mystery was creative and interesting and I loved the idea that Samuel wasn’t a “detective” – just someone who endeavoured to answer his clients’ questions.  I’ve enjoyed plenty of books with main characters with Asperger’s Syndrome before, but this one just took too many tedious detours into Samuel’s psyche to keep me interested. My biggest problem was that Samuel seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time explaining certain aspects of human behaviour and relationships to himself that any neuro-typical individual would find bleedingly obvious. Too much of this, and I just lost interest in the mystery.

The most annoying thing about this book for me was the lack of puzzling that I had to do to hit on the answer before it was revealed. Without giving away any spoilers, there comes a certain point in the investigation during which information comes to light that matches up so perfectly with the manner of death that there really couldn’t be any other plausible result.

On the positive side, I really liked Samuel’s mum and Mike as characters.  The ending was certainly action-packed, even if the actual reveal wasn’t a particular surprise.  There is certainly potential for this series to be really engaging, if a bit of judicious editing is applied, but I don’t think I’ll be picking it up again.

As always though, don’t let my curmudgeonly grumbling put you off – if this book sounds like your cup of tea, give it a go and tell me what you think!

Until next time,

Bruce

An Fi50 Reminder…and an Atmospheric Bit of Literary Horror

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imageBefore we crack on with our book for today, I would like to remind all comers that Fiction in 50 for August kicks off on Monday. If you’d like to join in, just compose a fictional piece of writing in fewer than 51 words based on our monthly prompt, and then pop back on Monday to share your link in the comments section.

This month’s prompt is…

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If you’d like more information about the challenge, just click on the challenge button at the top of this post.

Now on to the atmospheric bit of literary horror that I promised in the title.  The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley is an unsettling tale of faith and family and straying from the expected path.  I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney – that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest. It was impossible to truly know the place. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is. I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn’t stay hidden for ever, no matter how much I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried to forget…

the loney

 

The Loney, as much as it was absorbing and haunting, was also a book that left me mildly dissatisfied by the end.

And disoriented.

And fairly creeped out.

Liam, our narrator, is a typical young Catholic lad, caught between the Church, his boyishness and his mother. His older brother Andrew is not all that his mother hoped he would be, experiencing as he does some unidentified developmental delays, and the boys’ mother fervently hopes that her eldest son will be healed by the grace of God, and his mother’s faith. The family and a small number of fellow parishioners travel on a pilgrimage every year to “the Loney” – a remote, unhospitable place that is home to a shrine that Liam’s mother believes will be the site of Hanny’s healing.

The story follows the group as they return to the Loney after a decade’s absence, with a new, more liberal priest in tow. From meeting odd and unreadable village folk to finding a long-hidden room in the house in which they’ve always stayed, the visit is a long, confounding and demoralising experience filled with disappointments and unexpected surprises. Through it all, Liam steadily narrates the events as he sees them as they roll on towards a climax that is both inevitable and utterly out-of-the-blue.

The bulk of the tale are events from Liam’s past and throughout the book the reader is treated to some tantalising pieces of Liam’s present life, wherein the situation is obviously far removed from the events being described. These snippets give us the idea that the relationship between Hanny and Liam in the present day is at odds with what we are being told about their experiences in the past, and this juxtaposition is critical to the events that make up the unexpected ending.

I mentioned earlier that the book left me feeling mildly dissatisfied and that was mainly because I felt that the intertwining of Liam’s past and present could have been used to far better effect if there had been more included about Liam and Hanny’s present relationship. I can’t say too much because it would spoil the ending for future readers, but after I had finished the book I definitely felt like I wanted more of that bit – “that bit” being the events of the last two chapters, which took such a twist that I just wanted more information.

If you are looking for a different sort of a literary read, which focuses deeply on relationships between family members, will be very familiar and relatable to Catholics of a certain age and expertly exudes a haunting and unsettling atmosphere throughout, then I would highly recommend picking up The Loney. And if you do, please tell me what you thought of the reading experience, because I’m still feeling a bit unsettled about it even now.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

An Aussie “Top Book of 2015” Read-it-if Review: The Beauty is in the Walking…

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Welcome to another Read-it-if Review, this time with an Aussie book by a veteran Aussie author that deals with disability, diversity and big decisions. I gratefully received a copy of The Beauty is in the Walking by James Moloney from Harper Collins Australia for review. Understated and thoroughly likeable, I have placed this story on the pedestal labelled “Top Books of 2015”. Said pedestal is starting to fill up nicely; this is the fifth book upon which I have bestowed this illustrious title.

Anyway, great books don’t review themselves (or I’m out of a job!) so let’s get on. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Everyone thinks they know what Jacob O’Leary can and can’t do – and they’re not shy about telling him either. But no one – not even Jacob – knows what he’s truly capable of. And he’s desperate for the chance to work it out for himself. When a shocking and mystifying crime sends his small country town reeling, and fingers start pointing at the newcomer, Jacob grabs the chance to get out in front of the pack and keep mob rule at bay. He’s convinced that the police have accused the wrong guy; that the real villain is still out there. And he’s determined to prove it – and himself – to everyone.

beauty in the walking

Read it if:

*you’ve ever been outshone by a better looking/more talented/ (insert superlative here) sibling, friend, school mate or passer-by

*you have ever had a teacher that you simultaneously admire and want to punch in the face

*you’re looking for some YA that has thought-provoking content, promotes diversity and steers away from the overused storylines that populate bookstore shelves for this age group

*you secretly want to be thought of as a righter of wrongs, a champion of justice and generally someone who can speak publicly without fear of dribbling.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is something about books by Australian writers, set in Australia that ooze familiarity and comfort. From the moment I took in the exquisite cover of The Beauty is in the Walking, to the first few laid-back chapters, I knew I would be in for an immersive and understated tale of growth and change.

The best thing about this book is that it is unexpected in many ways.

*Please note that I am about to ruin some of that unexpectedness so if you would like to discover the unexpectedness for yourself, you should probably skip the next two paragraphs*

After reading the blurb, I thought I knew generally what this book would be like, but I was unprepared for a main character with Cerebral Palsy (CP), and a resultant mobility impairment. It’s obvious from the beginning that there is something different about Jacob, but the actual naming of his disability doesn’t come straight away, allowing the reader to meet him as he is, rather than having a preconception of what he might be like, based on a label. I feel that Moloney has done an excellent and realistic job of creating a character with a medical condition that imposes certain limitations on how that character moves through the world.

Being that I sit on the shelf of a fleshling with a similar mobility impairment (although not CP) I was surprised at how Moloney has so authentically incorporated this aspect of Jacob’s life into the story. Sometimes the impairment is right at the forefront – embarrassing, painful and inconvenient – and sometimes it’s part of the scenery, unworthy of notice or mention. Similarly, the different reactions of various people to Jacob’s disability run the gamut from overcompensation to celebration. This was part of what made the book feel realistic and it’s no wonder I was drawn in so deeply to Jacob’s quest to break out of the bonds of expectation.

*Alright skippers, you can start reading again now!*

When a number of animals around country Palmerston are killed in vicious attacks, the flimsiest of evidence points toward newcomer to the town, Mahmoud Rais, a Muslim student whose father has taken over the supervision of halal preparation at the local meatworks. Jacob doesn’t fully understand his motivation for doing so, but immediately leaps to Mahmoud’s defence as he is chased by an angry mob of kids. As the town grows more and more convinced that Mahmoud is the guilty party, and the local press and police seem to be encouraging that conviction, Jacob faces a choice about whether it’s worth protesting Mahmoud’s innocence.

Partway through the book I began to worry that this was going to become a clunky sort of declaration of the dangers of leaping to conclusions, with two-dimensional Islamic characters and a cursory diatribe against kneejerk prejudice. Of course, I should have known better and trusted in the talents of Moloney as an experienced writer, because the direction that the story takes could not be further from what I have described.

Instead of attempting to defy stereotyping of a minority by creating characters that would end up being a very small sample of the minority being stereotyped, Moloney has focused the story on Jacob and his thought processes as the events of the investigation are played out. The reactions of others – his parents, schoolmates and teacher – are presented for Jacob to navigate and the pr0s and cons of voicing one’s platform on social media are also explored.

The thing I enjoyed most about this story though, was the fact that the events are presented in the context of Jacob’s final year of school and the decisions that he has to make about his future, both in terms of what he wants to do and who he wants to be. Along the way the story touches on first love, bullying and discrimination, challenging authority and trust – in others and oneself.

If you are looking for an engrossing, surprising and authentically told story – whether you are a reader of YA or otherwise – allow me to suggest The Beauty is in the Walking as a worthy choice, featuring a young male protagonist with an original voice and content that is both topical and perennial.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Ripping, YA Read-it-if Review: Boo…

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Today’s Read-it-if Review book, I am pleased to announce, has made it onto both my “Top Books of 2015 (so far)” list (which currently only has two other listings) as well as….drum roll please….my Goodreads Favourites list!

*spontaneous applause*

I should probably warn you then that this review WILL include gushing praise.

Today’s book is Boo by Neil Smith. I received a copy of this YA book – which I think is actually adult fiction cleverly disguised as YA – from the publishers via Netgalley. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a ‘gommer’, a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from the volatile Johnny, a classmate killed at the same school, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives. In a heartrending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.

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Read it if:

*you like books that feature diverse characters. Even if they’re dead.

*you are either (a) energised or (b) repulsed by the thought of being stuck as a 13-year-old in the afterlife

*you’ve ever been part of a chanting mob

*you like nothing more than discovering something curious turning up in an unexpected place

Now on to the gushing praise!

I have not experienced the kind of satisfaction that I felt on finishing Boo in a long, long time. Here, thought I, is a perfectly constructed tale that is expertly paced, filled with authentic characters, and can be appreciated by those well beyond the YA age-range at which it is marketed. I picked up Boo thinking it would be a reasonably quirky take on the paranormal, life-after-death plot that I generally enjoy, but Smith has created much more than just a fun, creative read here.

For a start, the afterlife that he has created is both expansive and perfectly contained, as well as being pretty original. For in the afterlife in which Boo finds himself, all the residents are 13 years old – the age at which they died. Some died years ago and some are “newborns” like Boo, but all can expect (barring a few exceptional cases) to hang around “Town” as they call it for approximately 50 years, before disappearing into Zig-knows-where. The concept of “Town” reminded me strongly of Neal Shusterman’s afterlife in the Skinjacker series that begins with Everlost. While the similarities are there, Smith’s afterlife doesn’t have the menacing, mysterious undertones of Shusterman’s post-death experience, and feels like a place in which all things have the potential to be made right.

The characters here are diverse (in ethnicity, ability and personality) and felt particularly authentic to me as an adult reader. All of the four main characters have their flaws but come across as complex and layered. I admit to having a soft spot for Esther, the young lass with dwarfism who is applying to be a do-gooder but can sling a stinging one-liner with the best of them. Boo is also a delightful narrator and it didn’t take long for me to relax into his easy narration.

The highlight of the story for me was the depth to which Smith is prepared to take young readers as the narrative unfolds and the events surrounding their untimely deaths are brought to light in Boo and Johnny’s memories. There are twists in this tale, but it didn’t feel like they were thrown in to shock, but to provoke thought from the reader. As these plot twists are revealed I was more and more impressed with the way the author constructed the story. This could have so easily been a two-dimensional, didactic tale in which certain characters were labelled goodies and baddies, but Smith has taken his characters far more seriously than that. The sensitivity with which the boys’ story is rendered was simply a joy to behold.

If you’re looking for a YA read that is, in my opinion, above the common herd, then you should make a point to search out Boo. I will certainly be making it my mission to collect it in print for my shelf.

Until next time,

Bruce