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

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: Skinny Brown Dog

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picture book perusal button

It’s high time I featured a book with hat-wearing animals and in the absence of a Jon Klassen classic, today I am bringing you new release picture book Skinny Brown Dog by Kimberly Willis Holt and Donald Saaf.   I have not read a picture book that has had such a brain-twisting effect on me for quite a while and I’m still giving my head a good scratch over the underlying themes and issues in this one as we speak.  We received a copy of Skinny Brown Dog from PanMacmillan Australia and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Benny the baker leads a simple life. He makes delicious cakes, cookies, and muffins, and keeps his customers well fed and happy. When a skinny brown dog shows up on Benny’s doorstep, nothing Benny says can convince him to go away. While Benny insists that the dog isn’t his, customers soon grow as fond of the skinny brown dog as they are of Benny’s yummy treats. The children even name him Brownie—the perfect name for a baker’s dog.

Benny starts to wonder what it might be like to have a dog of his own. But it’s not until Brownie comes to his rescue that Benny realizes a dog can make for a very good friend. Full of winning characters (and delicious treats!) from the award-winning Kimberly Willis Holt, this book celebrates a very special friendship.

skinny-brown-dog

On first reading this story, I was immediately reminded of John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, because there seems to be a similar underlying metaphorical suggestion going on here..but I’m not 100% sure what it is.

That appearances are reflective of our attitudes?

The life-changing magic of giving someone a chance?

The importance of following Workplace Health and Safety Guidelines for small business?

I just don’t know!

Happily, while there are obviously layers to peel back within this story, I suspect that the more nuanced of these will go over the heads of younger readers, who will instead end up focusing on the charming and delightful story of friendship and acceptance.

Benny the baker (a bear) is a kind and gentle soul and his bakery is a hub for the community.  When a skinny brown dog turns up outside his bakery, Benny tries, unsuccessfully, to gently move it on.  Of course, no one can resist the lure of puppy dog eyes – especially when said eyes look like chocolate chips – and the dog, who is eventually named Brownie, is taken to heart by the community.  Benny, however, remains unmoved on the point that a bakery is no place for a dog…until an accident happens and Benny does some re-evaluation of what and who is important.

The illustrations bear an endearingly old-fashioned tilt, and evoke the community feel of times gone by, when people visited individual shops to buy their necessary goods and shopkeepers and patrons knew each other by name.  The repeated refrains from Benny – “He’s not my dog!”- and Miss Patterson (an elephant) – “Yes, I can see that” – are suggestive of the knowledge that young readers will have already picked up; that the skinny brown dog is slowly but surely becoming part of Benny’s life.  The ending is no less heartwarming for its predictability and the author has done a wonderful job of allowing Benny (and the reader) ample time to commit to the course of action that he has been trying to put off.

And yet….underneath the simple story of friendship and acceptance is a whole subtext that begs for careful deconstruction by older readers.

The world of Skinny Brown Dog is populated by animals (most of which wear some kind of jaunty hat), and while the majority of these animals talk and take on human roles, the skinny brown dog, who is eventually named Brownie, does not.  Despite the fact that he wears a suit and bowler hat throughout, just like everyone else.

See what I mean about underlying metaphorical suggestion?  There are animals who are obviously meant to be people, but Brownie, who is also dressed as a person, like the other people-animals, is clearly meant to be an animal.

Except when he’s not.

Like when he hands a dropped purse back to Miss Patterson, using his paw, with a tip of his hat.  Or in the final few pages of the story when Brownie is pictured on his hind legs, whereas previously he has got around on all fours.  Is Benny’s acceptance of Brownie as a friend and companion the catalyst for Brownie’s self-confidence and self-worth, represented by his new, upright stance?  Perhaps now that Benny is really “seeing” Brownie, the carefully constructed facade of Brownie being something “other”, and “not like us” has fallen away.

This is certainly a “more than meets the eye” sort of picture book that can be enjoyed on more than one level.  Much like its unassuming cover, the story itself beckons the reader on into the subtext of the story, to discover and create meanings beyond outward appearances.

The shelf brands Skinny Brown Dog highly recommended reading!

Until next time,

Bruce

Poison City: An Adult Fiction Read-It-If Review

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read it if NEW BUTTON

After a week of kidlit, I’ve got a grown-up book for you today, full of supernatural menace and shady police work.  We received Poison City by Paul Crilley from the publisher via Netgalley for review and were quite amazed to find out how closely it resembles one of our favourite supernatural police series….at least in the opening chapters.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The name’s Gideon Tau, but everyone just calls me London. I work for the Delphic Division, the occult investigative unit of the South African Police Service. My life revolves around two things – finding out who killed my daughter and imagining what I’m going to do to the bastard when I catch him.

I have two friends. The first is my boss, Armitage, a fifty-something DCI from Yorkshire who looks more like someone’s mother than a cop. Don’t let that fool you. The second is the dog, my magical spirit guide. He talks, he watches TV all day, and he’s a mean drunk.

Life is pretty routine – I solve crimes, I search for my daughter’s killer. Wash, rinse, repeat. Until the day I’m called out to the murder of a ramanga – a low-key vampire – basically, the tabloid journalist of the vampire world. It looks like an open and shut case. There’s even CCTV footage of the killer.

Except… the face on the CCTV footage? It’s the face of the man who killed my daughter. I’m about to face a tough choice. Catch her killer or save the world? I can’t do both.

It’s not looking good for the world.

Poison City is the first in a fantastical new series for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Lauren Beukes, Sarah Lotz and Stephen King.

poison city

Read it if:

*you think there should be more supernatural police dramas set in South Africa

*you suspect your dog might have a problem with alcohol

*you wish there was a clever narrative device springing from which, when a favourite character dies, is a cheeky method of slotting them straight back into the story

*for you, diversity in literature means opening up the floor to gods, goddesses, spooks and ghouls from every nation and creed

*you are really just hoping to find a gritty, edgy, funny, violent, unexpected police series that happens to feature vampires, orishas and the Almighty

Poison City was an unexpected find.  Having seen a brief review of it and become intrigued by the possibility of an alcoholic, talking dog, I knew it was only a matter of time before I laid claw on it.  What I didn’t expect was how much it reminded me of Ben Aaronovitch’s DC Peter Grant series.  This is one of the Shelf’s favourite series ever (and we can’t wait to receive book six, The Hanging Tree, on pre-order any day now!).  Honestly, the first few chapters of Poison City read exactly as if Peter Grant had moved to South Africa, suffered a great personal tragedy, and taken to hanging out with an alcoholic, talking dog.  While this felt a bit weird to being with, it certainly helped me to ease into the story.

The book features the (mis)adventures of “London” Tau, who works at the police department’s Delphic Division, solving crimes that involve creatures not of this world.  Or at least, not of the human part of this world.  The alcoholic, talking dog is his slightly sub-par spirit guide, who spends most of his time sleeping and generally not being very helpful. I had high expectations for the dog, but I feel he was a bit underused, as Tau spends most of his time, rather unsurprisingly I suppose, solving mysteries with his partner.  Police partner, that is.

The book is far more violent and edgy than the Peter Grant series, with some pretty graphic scenes of gore and hearts being ripped out and so forth.  If that’s not your bag, you probably aren’t going to want to venture into this one.  By the end, I was a bit put off by all the violence, but I have to admit that the last few chapters certainly culminated in some surprising revelations about who was behind the dramas causing headaches for Tau.

Overall, this was a fast-paced, action-packed read, punctuated with humour and twists that I certainly didn’t see coming.  If you are up for a fairly graphic police procedural with an ungodly twist, then I can definitely recommend Poison City as a worthy choice.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A Duet of Quirky Animal Cuteness: Basket Cat and Dog House…

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picture book perusal button

It’s time to focus in on picture books again and today I have a delightful pair of companion board books from UK illustrator Katie Abey, provided to us by Five Mile Press.  In her own words, Abey admits to filling her work with “puns and crazy animals” – check out her website…it’s puntastic! – and her cheeky, bright appealing illustrations are what prompted us to request today’s titles for perusal – Basket Cat and Dog House.  The two books feature separate stories, but will look like peas in a complimentary pobasket catd on your shelf.

Here is the blurb for Basket Cat from Goodreads:

Basket Cat loves baskets – big baskets and small baskets, tall baskets and even the washing basket! But all Basket Cat wants is a basket of her very own.
Where will she find one?

With a humorous story and amusing artwork this large board book will be enjoyed by children and adults alike!

dog houseAnd here’s what Goodreads has to say about Dog House:


Toby is lost. He knows his dog house is around here somewhere, but he can’t seem to remember where to find it!

Will Toby ever find his way home?

We were immediately drawn to the bold colours of the front covers and the adorably quizzical looks of the animal protagonists and I suspect these features will appeal enormously to the little people at whom these books are pitched.  The younger mini-fleshling demanded the reading of the pair as soon as she laid eyes on them and after due consideration, pronounced Basket Cat her favourite of the two.  This could be because we share the dwelling with a cat of similar features to Basket Cat, while the dog of the dwelling bears little resemblance to the protagonist of Dog House.

And rarely, if ever, ends up in trees.

The stories are fairly simple, but the extra details provided in the illustrations add a level of humour to the short bursts of text.  Basket Cat’s baskety dreams are quite amusing and the cranky faces of the bees disturbed by Toby (the dog) certainly provide some subtle character development that can be pointed out to attentive little ones.  Once again though, as is the case for many picture books featuring animals, facial expressions are everything and Abey seems to have the knack for creating hilarity and changes in emotion with just a few small changes in penstroke.

Can I also mention how much I appreciate the board book format?  As a Bookshelf Gargoyle I spend a lot of time watching helplessly as mini-fleshlings systematically (with intent or otherwise) destroy picture books, so the sturdy, chewable, wipe-worthy format in which these books are presented goes a long way to ease my troubled mind.

I suspect Katie Abey will be one to watch as an up-and-comer in the picture book scene and I will be interested to see what she hatches next, if the quality of these, her debut efforts, are anything to go by.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Shouty Doris interjects during….Lily and the Octopus!

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Shouty Doris interjects

Doris and I are with you today to discuss a new release contemporary novel that features some major elements of magical realism and at least one characterful dog.  As we all know, Shouty Doris is a big mouth  a blabberchops free with her opinions, so I’m warning you now, this review may contain SPOILERS.  You have been warned.

We received a copy of Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Combining the emotional depth of The Art of Racing in the Rain with the magical spirit of The Life of Pi, Lily and the Octopus is an epic adventure of the heart.

When you sit down with Lily and the Octopus, you will be taken on an unforgettable ride.

The magic of this novel is in the read, and we don’t want to spoil it by giving away too many details. We can tell you that this is a story about that special someone: the one you trust, the one you can’t live without.

For Ted Flask, that someone special is his aging companion Lily, who happens to be a dog. Lily and the Octopus reminds us how it feels to love fiercely, how difficult it can be to let go, and how the fight for those we love is the greatest fight of all.

Remember the last book you told someone they had to read? Lily and the Octopus is the next one.

lily and the octopus

So Lily and the Octopus centres around young man and his relationship with his aging dachshund, Lily.  Things are going mediocre-ly for Ted, when he discovers an … octopus… on Lily’s head.

Shouty Doris interjects

Octopus indeed. He’s not fooling anyone.

Yes, well, I’d have to agree with you there, and I don’t think it’s particularly a spoiler to say that the octopus is not a literal octopus but a figurative one, indicative of the fact that Lily is sick.  Possibly life-threateningly sick, as frequently happens with pets of a certain age.  The point is, Ted refers to this …thing.. as an octopus for almost the whole book and even ends up having conversations with it.  Therein lies the magical realism in the story.

Shouty Doris interjects

Therein lies the lunacy more like.  That Ted needs to get out more.  He’s far too co-dependent on that dog if you ask me.  A grown man, too.  

Ted is indeed very invested in his relationship with his dog.  He is in between romantic relationships and on discovering the cephalopodic threat to Lily, begins to withdraw from his friends even more.  As the book continues, we discover more about the back story as to how Ted came to be Lily’s owner, and a previous life-threatening illness that Lily overcame.  We are even privy to his weekly battles with his therapist, Jenny.

Shouty Doris interjects

Why on earth would you waste money on a therapist for whose opinion you are indifferent?  He has more money than sense, that Ted.    Anyone who spends money on inflatable sharks needs their head examined if you ask me.

You’ve brought up a good point there, Doris –

Shouty Doris interjects

All my points are good points. 

– because up until about two-thirds into the story, the only bizarre thing about the book is Ted’s unwillingness to address Lily’s octopus for what it really is.  Once the book hits the two-thirds mark however, the magical realism is ratcheted up a notch and a number of chapters go full allegorical mode as Ted battles his inner demons on a very strange stage indeed.  I shan’t spoil any of that bit for you –

Shouty Doris interjects

Can I, though?

– no – but I found it to be a bit much for my tastes.  It is certainly the most action-packed part of the book and an important turning point for Ted, but by that stage, I knew what the outcome was likely to be, had accepted it, and was just waiting for Ted to do the same.

Shouty Doris interjects

He was very slow on the uptake, wasn’t he?  Everyone knows that any time a cute, cuddly animal appears in a book or film, it’s one hundred per cent certain that it will end up – 

THANKS DORIS!  I think I hear The Bold and the Beautiful starting! I’ll shut the door so we don’t disturb you!

Shouty Doris interjects

*Shuffle, shuffle, creak*  

Alright, Ridge-y boy, come and tell Doris all about it.

Right, now she’s gone, we don’t have to worry about major spoilers.  Although…I have to say that overall, I didn’t particularly connect with Ted as a character, despite his everyman status, apart from the shared experience of pet ownership and the inevitable existential angst – for ourselves or by proxy – with which many of us grapple.  I did find this to be an interesting, if not riveting, read and enjoyed how the author at least took a risk on the magical realism aspects to explore the more depressing parts of human existence and its inevitable finality.  The ending is hopeful and quite charming really, so if you are a fan of subtly humorous ponderings about the looming demise of each of us as individuals, and you love a cute dog story (for Lily truly is a little cutey, with a distinctive voice) then this would be a great pick.

Until next time,

Bruce (and Doris)

 

The Maniacal Book Club Reviews…Captain Pug!

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I hope you’re ready for cuteness overload today because the Maniacal Book Club is pleased to introduce you to an adorable (and hardy!) little protagonist who will likely steal your heart, as well as your jam tarts.  I speak of Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas, who is making his debut in a delightfully illustrated early chapter book by Laura James and Eglantine Ceulemans.  We received a review copy of Captain Pug from Bloomsbury Australia and he has immediately become a favourite of the eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling.  But let’s find out more about this intrepid Pug!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Pug is going on a seafaring adventure. He’s had jam tarts for breakfast. He’s wearing a smart sailor suit. There’s just one problem. Pug is afraid of the water!

Captain Pug is the first book in a glorious new illustrated series for fans of Claude and Squishy McFluff.

Captain Pug

How could you not love that sweet little puggy face?  Here’s what the Book Club think:

Guru Dave

maniacal book club guru dave

What does it take to follow one’s dreams? Courage, persistence and a sense of adventure.  What does it take to follow the dreams of one’s owner? All of the above plus a fancy hat.  We can learn much from the tenacity of young Captain Pug, who presses on despite a fear of water, to fulfill the hopes of his fine Lady Owner.  We can also learn much from Pug’s experiences in the gastronomic field – namely, the truth of that old piece of household wisdom about refraining from swimming (or indeed sailing) immediately after eating.

To0thless

maniacal book club toothless

There were no dragons in this book.  There is a cool little dog who tries to be the captain of a boat but he keeps getting seasick because he eats everything he sees.  I liked the two Footmen who had to carry the dog’s owner around in a chair.  I can imagine Bruce in a chair like that.

The ending is pretty exciting, with helicopters and a big ship and I really liked all the pictures.

Pug is pretty funny but I hope there’s going to be a Pug book with a dragon in it soon.

Mad Martha

maniacal book club martha

Captain Pug, oh Captain Pug!

Cute as a little red ladybug.

He keeps up his morale as he sails the canals!

Hits the right note while in a rowboat!

Proves no pug is finer while on a cruise liner!

Captain Pug, oh Captain Pug!

There’s no other dog we would more like to hug.

Bruce

While I’m not entirely smaniacal book club bruceure about the technique involved in Mad Martha’s poem, I do have to agree with her sentiment about just how charming Captain Pug is in this attractively presented little tome.  I am always a little skeptical of advertising material that insinuates that a reader will love this new book if they are a fan of an already published author or work, particularly when all the stories have in common is the fact that a dog is the main character.  The media release that came with this book indicated that it would be lapped up by fans of Aaron Blabey’s morally bankrupt picture book hero, Pig the Pug, presumably due to the pugginess of Captain Pug.  The eldest mini-fleshing in the dwelling, at five years old, is a massive fan of the aforementioned Pig, but I wasn’t sure he was going to enjoy this one simply because it had a pug on the cover.  Allow me to be the first to admit my ill-placed skepticism however, because after watching the read-aloud of this book (which took only two sittings) the mini-fleshling was already asking how long he would have to wait before the second book (Cowboy Pug) comes out. *January 2017, for those who are interested!*

So after a slightly apprehensive start, I freely confess to being won over by the fun, charming, humorous adventures of this cute little pug (who of course looks even cuter in a sailor hat).   One of the best things about the book is that it is illustrated throughout, with pictures placed strategically around the text.  This was an enormous boon to the mini-fleshling, as he is not quite ready for pictureless read-alouds but can handle listening to longer bits of text when there are pictures to help him keep up with the story.  The book also makes clever use of fonts and text enlargements to aid the newly confident reader.

The first few chapters moved a bit more slowly than I would have liked, setting up Lady Miranda (Pug’s owner), her life of luxury, and her dreams for Pug to achieve glory as a charmingly attired sea captain.  The second half of the book moved a lot quicker as Lady Miranda and Pug inadvertently become separated and Pug must face the trials of overcoming his fear of water in ever more precarious (and amusing) situations.

I would heartily recommend Pug’s first outing as an engaging read-aloud or read-together for those taking their first steps into longer books or for more confident readers who love a bit of silliness and a whole lot of beguiling illustration.

The Book Club gives this book:

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Eight thumbs up!

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth…

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It’s Utopirama time again and today’s guaranteed mood-lifter is the perfect coffee table book for those times when your internet connection is dodgy and your access to funny animal videos is cut off.  We received Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth by Guinnevere Shuster from the publisher via Netgalley and you’ll be pleased to know that inside the book you can expect to find exactly what it says on the cover.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Man’s best friend! What better way to showcase adoptable dogs than by letting their true personalities shine in a photo booth! In the tradition of the best-selling dog photography book, Underwater Dogs, Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth wins the heart of all dog lovers.

Often seen as sad, rejected, and behind cold metal bars, it’s no wonder people would avoid images of shelter dogs awaiting forever homes. From talented photographer (and now public figure and adoption champion) Guinnivere Shuster comes Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth, a guaranteed-to-make-you-smile photo book featuring shelter dogs in a brand-new light. Get ready to see the cutest canine portraits you’ve ever seen! Guinnevere’s fantastic photos went viral  and have been featured on websites, in magazines, and on television programs all over the world: Good Morning America, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, The Huffington Post, Time, The Daily Mail . . . even celebrities have gotten in on the action: Amy Poehler, Cesar Millan, and Zooey Deschanel have made statements and posts declaring their love of Guinnevere’s work. After the adorable and up-for-adoption photos of these furry friends were seen and enjoyed by millions, adoption rates at Utah’s Humane Society skyrocketed.

The book features 100 dog photo booth style photographs, each accompanied by a short story about the dog’s personality, how the dog ended up in the shelter, and the adoption date. A follow-up will conclude the book, with photos of some of them with their new families.

A portion of the proceeds of this book will benefit the Humane Society of Utah and Best Friends Animal Society.shelter dogs.jpg

Quick Overview:

There’s not much to say about the content of this book that you can’t already infer from the title, but each page features a different shelter dog with four images and a little blurb about how it came to be in a shelter in the first place. If you’re a dog lover, the book is worth it for the images alone: some are pretty funny, like the one on the cover, while others are more subdued.  They portray a wide range of breeds and personalities however, and having a quick peek at the next dog becomes a bit addictive after a few idle page flicks.  The end of the book shows some of the dogs in their new forever homes with their new families which is a nice touch and no doubt goes some way to fulfil part of the book’s purpose – to encourage people to adopt shelter dogs rather than buy from pet shops or sellers who may be engaging in inhumane practices like puppy farming.

The only thing that I found dystopian about the book were the excuses given for the dogs ending up in the shelter in the first place.  There were far too many “owner had to move and couldn’t take the dog with them” type stories for my liking, which begs the question, “why didn’t you think about that before you bought the damn dog?” or alternately, “why can’t you find a dog friendly place to move to?”

As well as all the cute dog pictures, proceeds of the book’s sales go to help animal rescue centres in the US.  Winning!

Utopian Themes:

Human’s best friend

From despair to hope

Saving the day

Smile for the camera

Protective Bubble-o-Meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

Five out of five protective bubbles for the joyful flapping ears of a rescue dog heading to its forever home with its head out the window of the car.

Until next time,

Bruce