A Middle-Grade Mystery Double Dip Review: Best Mistakes and Girl Detectives…

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I hope you won’t have to search out your snack to accompany today’s double dip review, because that’s exactly what is happening in today’s two middle grade mysteries…although, technically, it’s not snacks that are being hunted down, it’s secrets and trickery.  Let’s jump straight in with a girl detective, shall we?

We received The Great Shelby Holmes: Girl Detective by Elizabeth Eulberg from Bloomsbury Australia for review and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Meet spunky sleuth Shelby and her sports-loving sidekick Watson as they take on a dog-napper in this fresh twist on Sherlock Holmes.
Shelby Holmes is not your average sixth grader. She’s nine years old, barely four feet tall, and the best detective her Harlem neighborhood has ever seen—always using logic and a bit of pluck (which yes, some might call “bossiness”) to solve the toughest crimes.

When eleven-year-old John Watson moves downstairs, Shelby finds something that’s eluded her up till now: a friend. Easy-going John isn’t sure of what to make of Shelby, but he soon finds himself her most-trusted (read: only) partner in a dog-napping case that’ll take both their talents to crack.

Sherlock Holmes gets a fun, sweet twist with two irresistible young heroes and black & white illustrations throughout in this middle grade debut from internationally bestselling YA author Elizabeth Eulberg.

Dip into it for… shelby holmes

…a fun and tongue-in-cheek mystery featuring a strong yet quirky female protagonist and an honest and down-to-earth narrator.  I will absolutely admit that when this landed on my shelf I immediately rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh sweet baby cheeses, not ANOTHER Sherlock Holmes spin off”, but I genuinely enjoyed this tale and quickly warmed to the characters mostly, I think, due to the endearing and self-deprecating voice of John Watson, the narrator.  John felt like a pretty authentic young lad who has just moved to a new city (again) and is faced with the task of making friends (any friends) to avoid having to think about his dad’s disappearing act.  Shelby is supremely annoying in some parts, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, but the author does a good job of pointing out (through John’s observations) her vulnerabilities and desire for camaraderie.  The story deals with a mystery involving a wealthy family and a disappearing dog which is solved eloquently in the end, leaving everyone something to think about.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t like Sherlock Holmes rebooted for youngsters?  This story certainly wouldn’t have made it onto my TBR had it not been sent to me for review, but I will happily admit that this would have been my mistake.  Even if you are a bit over re-hashed detective concepts for middle grade readers, this one is genuinely warm and worth a look.

Overall Dip Factor

I would certainly recommend this to young readers who enjoy mystery mixed with humour in a setting that allows real-life issues – like making friends, dealing with parental separation and moving to a new city – to come to the fore.  The characters are well-developed enough to give the story a bit of depth and the mystery is interesting enough to have youngsters guessing along until the big reveal.  This is definitely one of the more accomplished Sherlock Holmes homages I’ve seen about.

I will be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge 2017Popsugar Challenge 2017 under category #27: a book featuring someone’s name in the title.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Next up we have a tale of vintage cars, dog-walking and another set of quirky friends in The Best Mistake Mystery by Sylvia McNicoll.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Dogwalker extraordinaire Stephen Nobel can get a little anxious, but his habit of counting the mistakes he and everyone else makes calms him. His need to analyze gets kicked into hyperdrive after two crazy events happen in one day at school: the bomb squad blows up a backpack and someone smashes a car into the building.

To make things worse, that someone thinks Stephen can identify them. Stephen receives a threatening text. If he goes to the police, his favourite dogs, Ping and Pong, will get hurt. The pressure mounts when his new best friend, Renée, begs for Stephen’s help. Her brother has been charged with the crimes and she wants to clear his name.

Is it a mistake to give in to dognappers? How can he possibly save everybody? To find out, Stephen will have to count on all of his new friends.

Dip into it for… best mistake mystery

…a multi-layered mystery that can only be pieced together by someone who spends their time scanning the neighbourhood under the cover of dogwalking.  Stephen is a conscientious sort of a boy and Renee is a loyal friend with a rebellious streak.  Both kids need a friend and it turns out that hanging out with the “weird” kid needn’t be a bad thing.  The mystery in this one unfolds slowly, with different elements added as the days go on and it is not clear to Stephen and Renee – or indeed, the reader – how, or even if, certain pieces of the puzzle fit together. Every character has a backstory here, as one often finds in a small neighbourhood, and there are plenty of people who had the opportunity, if not the motive, to drive a car into the front of the school.  The same is true of the threatening texts that Stephen begins to receive – plenty of people could have had the opportunity – but why would anyone want to hurt Ping and Pong?

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of dogs.  I’m serious.  There is a lot of dog-walking, dog-feeding and general dog-tending going on here, and that’s before Ping and Pong come under the threat of dognapping.  I will admit that this became tedious after a while.  I understand that Stephen, as a character, is totally committed to his doggy clients, but I didn’t feel like I needed quite that much detail as to how he went about looking after them.

Overall Dip Factor

This is certainly an original story with a mystery that will have even the most committed mystery-readers puzzling along with the characters.  There are plenty of red-herrings thrown in and lots of possible motives for all sorts of characters, and in the end things aren’t exactly as our two protagonists imagined them to be.  I enjoyed watching the friendship between Renee and Stephen grow.  The author has done a good job of letting the trust build slowly, while the bonds between the two are forged through trial.  This wasn’t an outstanding read, in my opinion, but definitely worth a look if you can handle lots of doggy description and enjoy a complex, neighbourhood-driven mystery.

I hope if you have a canine in the house that you provided them with a nice treat while you read the preceding review, but I suppose if you didn’t there’s still time to do it now.

We’ll wait.

So, do either of these take you fancy?  Are you sick of rehashes of famous detective stories too?  Have you ever read a dog-walking mystery before?  Let me know!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Middle Grade Double-Dip Review: Magical Realism vs Legendary Monsters

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Sit back, relax, grab your favourite two opposing snacks and get ready to dip into some intriguing upper middle grade reads.  Before we get started, I’m just going to let you know that all of today’s books are going to contribute toward my Colour Coded Reading Challenge for 2017.  You can see my progress toward that challenge here.

I should also point out that I received all today’s books from HarperCollins Australia for review – thanks!

First up I have the companion novel to Time Travelling With A Hamster by Ross Welford, which I reviewed last week: What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible.  Also by Ross Welford, obviously.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Turning invisible at will: it’s one way of curing your acne. But far more drastic than 13 year-old Ethel Leatherhead intended when she tried a combination of untested medicines and a sunbed.

It’s fun at first, being invisible. And aided by her friend Boydy, she manages to keep her extraordinary ability secret. Or does she…?

When one day the invisibility fails to wear off, Ethel is thrown into a nightmare of lies and deception as she struggles to keep herself safe, to find the remedy that will make her seen again – and solve the mystery of her own birth…

what-not-to-do-if-you-turn-invisible

Dip into it for…

…charming characters, a solid friendship and some shenanigans involving a sunbed and seriously dodgy alternative medicine.  On immediately finishing the book I felt that I didn’t feel this one as much as Time Travelling with a Hamster, but with a bit of distance since the time I finished it, I’ve decided that I’m actually more fond of the main characters of this novel than the previous.  Ethel lives with her grandma and is bullied for having terrible acne.  Elliot is a recent blow-in from London and seems unaware of his status as social pariah.  An unlikely but heartwarming friendship is formed over the course of the book (and I mean that in the least vomit-inducing way possible) and by the end one can really believe the bond between Ethel and Elliot is authentic.  Did I mention that Ethel also suffers from spells of invisibility now and then?  Well, she does, and that’s where most of the humour comes in, but really, this is a story about family past and present and the family you build for yourself.

Don’t dip if…

…you have a pathological aversion to sunbed use.  I, hailing from the country with the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, have a natural and pathological aversion for sunbeds given the fact that they are proven to increase rates of deadly skin cancers, and have rightly been banned here.  It did grate on me that Ethel happily gets into one multiple times throughout the story and I feel there should be some author’s note at the end (or the beginning, or throughout) that plainly points to the dangers of placing your naked skin under intense UV radiation for any period of time for the sake of a bit of a tan.  It will kill you people.

Admittedly, this is not a good enough reason not to read the book though.

Overall Dip Factor

This was a thoroughly enjoyable story that skilfully incorporates elements of magical realism to lift the plot out of the expected boundaries for contemporary middle grade and YA “issues” books.  Yes, Ethel is dealing with some difficult issues about identity, bullying, loyalty and honesty, but the inclusion of the invisibility works both as a humorous side plot, and a metaphor for escaping one’s problems and taking decisive action.  Elliot is a fantastic character who, it seems, can only be himself and this provides a nice foil for Ethel’s desire to become someone different.  All in all this is a strong contemporary story about growing up, with the added bonus of fun and fantasy woven in.

Next up, I have a two for one deal, with the first two books in the Darkmouth series by Shane Hegarty – Darkmouth: The Legends Begin and Darkmouth: Worlds Explode.  These have been out for a while now, but I received them to review as part of a jacket  re-design release.  Here are the blurbs from Goodreads:

Darkmouth: The Legends Begin

A monstrously funny debut from the new star of middle-grade adventure. Ages: 9+

There are towns where the border between our world and the world of monsters – properly called Legends – is thin. One of those towns is Darkmouth.

There, our hero Finn is the son of the last remaining Legend Hunter – which means that one day soon he will be the last remaining Legend Hunter.

Except… he’s a bit rubbish at it. And in a spectacularly unfortunate coincidence, the terrifying leader of the monsters is in the midst of planning an all out attack on earth… in Darkmouth.

Darkmouth: Worlds Explode

The second book in the monstrously funny and action-packed new series: Darkmouth. It’s going to be legendary.

The adventures of the most unfortunate Legend Hunter ever to don fighting armour and pick up a Dessicator continue…

On a list of things Finn never thought he’d wish for, a gateway bursting open in Darkmouth was right up there. But that’s about his only hope for finding his missing father. He’s searched for a map, he’s followed Steve into dead ends, but found nothing. And he’s still got homework to do.

But soon Finn and Emmie must face bizarre Legends, a ravenous world and a face from the past as they go where no Legend Hunter has gone before. Or, at least, where no legend Hunter has gone before and returned with their limbs in the correct order.

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Dip into it for…

…a pedestrian series opener that improves by the end of book two.  I found the second book of a much higher quality than the first mostly due to the fact that in the first book Finn, the protagonist, is sulky, his father Hugo is pushy and I could pick the inevitable betrayal from a certain character from the second they stepped on to the scene.  There is something seriously slow about the first book in the series that made me hesitant to pick up the second, but thankfully the second book featured much more of what I was expecting.  There was far more humour, a more interesting setting and problem to solve and the new character, Estravon, was far more interesting than any of the characters in the first book.  The action in the second book seemed more natural – in that there seemed to be obvious reasons as to why conflicts were occurring and the ending was both surprising and fast-paced.

An unexpected bonus in the books is the full page illustrations scattered here and there, as well as various other smaller images placed in between bits of text.  Regular followers of this blog will know that I think pictures make every book better and it was a nice touch to see the artist’s renderings of the Legend characters particularly.

Don’t dip if…darkmouth-2

…you’re expecting, as the blurb promised, that the stories will be “monstrously funny”.  There are a few smile-inducing moments here and there as well as a few dry asides, but unless you find sadsack teenagers and overbearing parents particularly amusing, you aren’t going to be slapping your thighs throughout.

Overall Dip Factor

I wish that I had just completely skipped The Legends Begin and started with Worlds Explode because it is far the better written of the two.  The pacing is more balanced, the reveals are more surprising (and therefore engaging) and generally the story flows a lot better than in the first book, which is marred by Finn’s constant musings about how he will never be as good as his father and woe is him etc, etc.  The second story also allows for more character development, as Emmie, Steve and Finn are thrown into situations that they haven’t prepared for and therefore have to draw on their own wiles to solve problems rather than have Hugo, Finn’s father, step in to solve everything.  I’m still a little hand-shy about the series to tell you the truth, but the ending of Worlds Explode in particular has me interested in what might happen next.  If only Hegarty could have brought the quality of writing at the end of the second book to bear in The Legends Begin, I’d be giving this series an unreserved thumbs up.

I hope your snacks lasted the distance and didn’t pita off toward the end (see what I did there?!)

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

A YA Double Dip: Beasts of Fantasy and Rocky Realities…

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Sit down, relax and take up your favourite snack for today’s YA-focused double dip review.  I’ve got a contemporary that deals with mental health and teen friendships, and a fantasty retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in a mythical Japan, so take your pick and let’s wade on in.

First up we have Made You Up by Francesca Zappia. which we received from HarperCollins Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Reality, it turns out, is often not what you perceive it to be—sometimes, there really is someone out to get you. Made You Up tells the story of Alex, a high school senior unable to tell the difference between real life and delusion. This is a compelling and provoking literary debut that will appeal to fans of Wes Anderson, Silver Linings Playbook, and Liar.

Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.

Funny, provoking, and ultimately moving, this debut novel featuring the quintessential unreliable narrator will have readers turning the pages and trying to figure out what is real and what is made up.

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Dip into it for…

…a funny and engaging story full of quirky characters that won’t make you work too hard, but still contains some unexpected twists here and there.  Despite the potential heaviness of the topic – the lead character Alex has schizophrenia and has difficulty differentiating her hallucinations from reality on occasion – this book has quite a light tone for the most part and characters with personality traits that will make you laugh.  Alex can be forgiven for having trouble figuring out what’s real and what’s not at her new school, because it is a bit of a bizarre place.  There’s Miles, the sometimes-German-speaking head of the detention club, a scoreboard that gets more attention from the Principal than the students do, and a bunch of strange goings-on that would have even the least imaginative person around scratching their heads and wondering whether they had slipped into the twilight zone.  As well as Alex’s condition, the book also deals with making new friends in an untrustworthy situation, caring for ill parents, navigating the precarious halls of high school and finding a place to fit in.

Don’t dip if…

…you like a straightforward story where everything is as it seems.  Alex tells us straight up that for her, reality isn’t always exactly as it appears, and unless she records it on her trusty camera, she won’t have a hope of keeping reality straight.  Funnily enough, this bleeds over a bit into the story, so if you don’t like second-guessing every single action and word of every character to test for its voracity, this probably won’t be the book for you.

Overall Dip Factor

I did enjoy this book, although not as much as I expected to.  I had heard great things about it around the blogs and given that it has a mental health theme, I thought it would be up my alley, but there were a few elements that didn’t ring quite true to me.  I loved Alex’s little helpmates – her camera and magic eightball, that help her separate the real from the unreal – but the book situated the schizophrenia more as a cute quirk than as the actual, devastating and debilitating (and in a third of cases, deadly) condition that it is.  There were also a few parts with Alex’s parents right at the end which seemed like a pretty unbelievable response to the situation in question, but I can’t say any more about that because, spoilers.  I suppose I shouldn’t really complain because the book never claimed to be one that was going to deal with mental illness in a realistic and meaningful way, and I really did enjoy the light tone and the main characters (and especially the triplets!) so I can recommend it to those looking for a humorous, reasonably light YA coming-of-age tale with some elements that you won’t see coming.

Next up we have Barefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott, which we received from Walker Books Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A companion title to Zoë Marriott’s critically acclaimed Shadows on the Moon, BAREFOOT ON THE WIND is a darkly magical retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” set in fairytale Japan.

There is a monster in the forest…

Everyone in Hana’s remote village on the mountain knows that straying too far into the woods is a death sentence. When Hana’s father goes missing, she is the only one who dares try to save him. Taking up her hunting gear, she goes in search of the beast, determined to kill it – or be killed herself.

But the forest contains more secrets, more magic and more darkness than Hana could ever have imagined. And the beast is not at all what she expects…

Dip into it for…  barefoot-on-the-wind

…a deeply atmospheric foray into family tragedy and having the strength to follow one’s own mind in the face of opposition.  As retellings of fairy tales go, setting one in a fantasy version of historical Japan is a stroke of genius.  I will admit that this was the element that drew me in to this book.   The first few chapters, in which we are introduced to Hana, her peculiar ability to talk to trees, and the shadowy curse plaguing her village, had me immediately hooked.  The writing is laden with imagery and Hana is shown to be kept on the outer by her peers, troubled by grief and family tragedy and yet steadfast in knowing her own mind.  The historical setting of the book felt so unlike any fairy tale I have read before that even though the book is a retelling (or re-imagining, I suppose), there is no deference to the usual tone and motifs typically seen in YA retellings of such familiar tales.

Don’t dip if…

…you are hoping for a Disney-esque retelling of a Beauty and the Beast, complete with twirly skirts and singing furniture.

Overall Dip Factor

As I mentioned earlier, the strongest parts of the novel for me were the beginning and end, as both of these took place in Hana’s village.  In the beginning, as the story moved on and we discover more about the curse of the Dark Wood, I was a little bit sad to let go of the down-to-earth aspects of the story to engage with the fantasy elements, which is unusual for me, but I’m sure those that love fairy tale retellings will adore the unique setting for the Beast and the other forces that manipulate the Dark Wood.  It was great to see a bit of influence of Japanese fantasy culture included here, with a truly frightening spirit throwing her weight around in the latter stages of the story.  If I’m honest, I could take or leave the “romance” bit, which read more like a developing relationship and building of trust than romance (thank goodness!) but the atmosphere and imagery generated by the writing were absolutely absorbing and so I can definitely recommend this to those who love retellings, or indeed those who love a good historical fiction with a fantasy twist.

If neither of these has prompted you to go in for a bite today (really?!), stay tuned, because tomorrow I have a round up of enticing middle grade titles (including some of the best indie reading I’ve done this year!), while on Thursday you can pick over some of my recent DNFs for potential new reading fodder.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Beautiful, Beastly Double Dip: Gift Books about Repitilia (and other unusual creatures)

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You may have noticed that it is getting to that time of year when it will be impossible to avoid the urging of others regarding choosing the right gift.  If you are looking to escape such urging, you have come to the wrong place, for today I have two beautifully presented books that would make the perfect gift for young readers of your acquaintance with a penchant for dinosaurs and other beastly creatures.  We received both of these tomes from Bloomsbury Australia for review and they have already been pored over by the mini-fleshlings, to the accompaniment of much “Ooohing” and “Ahhing”.

First up, we have Discovering Dinosaurs by Simon Chapman and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

This is the the most thrilling, adventure book, ever! Written by a real-life adventurer, Simon Chapman, be prepared to live your dream and imagine you discovered the dinosaurs. It’s your chance to battle blizzards with swarms of vipers in the Gobi Desert with Roy Chapman Andrews, join the race across the the Wild West of America with bone-hunters Cope and Marsh.

Along the trail of discovery you’ll unearth a time when monsters really did rule the world – DINOSAURS.

You will find them all in here: Triceratops, Pteradactyls, Iguanodon, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus and many more. It’s crammed full of stats, wild pictures, a brilliant pop-up (don’t get eaten!), realistic artworks, journals, flaps and even the insides of dinosaurs. You’ll discover what makes a dinosaur, when and where they lived, what they ate, why they fought and why they became extinct.

Dip into it for… discovering-dinosaurs

…a vividly illustrated adventure into the prehistoric world, with flaps to lift, notebooks and letters to flick through and one whopping great pop up!  If you have a mini-fleshling interested in dinosaurs, this would certainly be a winning choice for gifting.  The book is large with a satisfyingly chunky cover and solid cardboard pages, all the better to provide a sturdy base for the artifacts inside.  Beginning with a double page fold-out map of the world as it was during different geological time periods, the book is divided into double page spreads that focus on particular geographical regions in which certain species of dinosaur have been found, alternating with double page spreads on a range of “favourite” dinosaurs.  The book finishes with some information on fossils as well as an intriguing little flip-up notebook piece which is enticingly titled, “How to Find Fossils”.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of dinosaurs, I suppose.  Age-wise, the text was a bit advanced for the eldest mini-fleshling in this dwelling, at nearly six years old, but but he spent plenty of time flicking through the various flaps, pull-outs and bits to see what was in, under and around.  I would have to say that this is best suited to the seven and above age group, if you are looking at them actually getting to grips with the information in the book, rather than just having fun with the pictures and pop-ups.

Overall Dip Factor

The best recommendation I can give for this book is that the mini-fleshling double-checked whether this book would be remaining in the dwelling after it had been reviewed, and if so, could he claim it as his.  There are plenty of books on various topics in this type of engaging format around, but they certainly do make for a fun and tactile reading experience.  If you don’t know any mini-fleshlings with a particular interest in dinosaurs, this would make an equally appealing gift for any primary school teachers or children’s librarians of your acquaintance.  It’s the kind of book that will be on high rotation during silent reading.

Next we have A Miscellany of Magical Beasts by Simon Holland.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Enter an incredible world of magical beasts, dare to draw near to their captivating powers, and discover the spellbinding stories of sixteen favorite mythical creatures from around the world. Venture into this world and you’ll discover why griffins collect a gem called agate, how to put out dragonfire, how mischievous elves can cause terrible nightmares, and much, much more.

A Miscellany of Magical Beasts is a beautiful, luxurious gift book showcasing a fascinating menagerie of creatures from the world’s timeless mythologies and legends. Presented in an incredible package with spectacular cover finishes, it is sure to be treasured by fantasy enthusiasts.

Dip into it for…  miscellany-of-magical-beasts

…a feast for the eyes and a scratch for the fantastical beast itch.  Apart from being nicely timed to coincide with the release of a certain movie about certain fantastic beasts and where to find the same, this is the kind of book that will spark the imagination of even the most literal and pragmatic of young readers.  The cover image gives a good indication of the high quality of illustration throughout the book and each page is awash with colour and fine detail.  The book has several illustrators contributing, so while all the illustrations are stunningly gorgeous, there is a bit of variety in style, which is an interesting touch. Tucked within the pages are a few fold-outs and cut-outs and because they are not included on every page, add a little extra to the reading experience for those who go the distance.  A wide range of beasties are covered, from the unicorn to the chimera and from elves to werewolves, with each creature receiving at least a double-page spread of information in a blocks of text that don’t overwhelm.  Some of the creatures also get a little extra attention, with sections such as “How to Outwit a Werewolf” and a “Guide to Dragons” filling out some of the informational gaps and providing variety.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for information on gargoyles.  They aren’t included.  Similarly, if you are looking for a whiz-bang reading experience with pop-ups and flaps to lift you will be disappointed because this book is more of an information text, albeit a beautifully presented one.

Overall Dip Factor

If you know a mini-fleshling with a vivid imagination, who is into fantasy fiction, or is simply ripe for pushing into tabletop fantasy RPG games, this book will certainly whet their appetite for the magical.  It has a lovely large format that is perfect for enjoying with others and the illustrations really are something else.  Once again, if you are, or know, a classroom teacher or children’s librarian, this would make a brilliant and coveted addition to any school or classroom library.

As they say, the first bite is with the eye (or something of that nature), and if you have a reluctant reader or a mini-fleshling who would rather eat glass than wake up to find a book in their Christmas stocking, either of these tomes might change their mind.  On the other hand, if you are related to a voracious reader, either of these books in their stocking will reinforce for them why getting a book for Christmas is the greatest thing ever.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Halloween’s Over, You Say? Then it Must Be Time for a Festive Christmas Double-Dip!

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It’s time to break out the fruit mince pies and sugar-crusted almonds and rustle up that Christmas feeling, for today’s double dip is all about everyone’s favourite most stressful time of year.  Luckily, today’s books for mini-fleshlings are not stressful in the least and should actually contribute to the heightening of joy and happiness in your dwelling.  Let’s crack on then, with an Aussie Christmas picture book, Christmas at Home by Claire Saxby and Janine Dawson, which we cheerfully received from Five Mile Press for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Let’s decorate your branches…

The tree is decorated, the presents are wrapped, and the neighbourhood Christmas lights blaze against a warm December sky.

It’s Christmas time at home — the very best time of the year.

An Australian Christmas tale.

Dip into it for…christmas-at-home

…a delightful romp through the lead up to Christmas and Christmas Day itself, that pulls no punches as to how festivities really unfold in a land in which the only snow to be seen is of the type that is sprayed out of cans to fancy up one’s window display.  The text is based on the classic carol, O Christmas Tree, and each page spread focuses on a typical Christmas activity – wrapping presents, visiting neighbourhood light displays, cooking on the barbie, and general family shenanigans.  The illustrations are absolutely fantastic here and I particularly love the way that aspects of contemporary life, such as two lads discussing something on the iPad with grandma, a lady taking a selfie at a light display and dad trying to fly his new remote control helicopter are all present, but peripheral to the main events.  The best bit about this book for me however was the fact that the illustrator has obviously paid close attention to inclusion and representation in creating the characters.  Although the protagonist family are fair, white (and slightly sweaty!) Australians, every scene that depicts other people includes characters who possess a range of skin tones.  Just at a quick glance it is possible to spot an Indian couple, a number of Asian families, a Maori family and a family that, judging by their outfits, may be from West Africa.  There’s even an Inuit family friend who for some reason has chosen to wear traditional cold-weather clothing for reasons that aren’t explained.  Representation aside, there’s plenty going on in each illustrative spread for keen eyed mini-fleshlings to spot.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a “traditional” Christmas story, for this one is a celebration of modern family life.  Other than that, if you aren’t a fan of changing the words to well-known Christmas carols, then this might not be for you.

Overall Dip Factor

This is a story that seems simple at first glance, but has more layers to uncover every time you look through it.  The illustrations, obviously, have much to do with this.  The most memorable page for me is one that notes that on Christmas day, “every place is bursting”.  The pages feature a number of different social groupings, mostly showing families, but also with a few touching asides.  I will admit to getting a little stab in the heart as I noted one of the pictures shows an old lady dressed in jaunty Christmas bonbon hat, putting food out on Christmas themed paper plates for about half a dozen cats.  While the lady herself looks perfectly happy (and there’s no indication that she hasn’t just popped out from family festivities for a moment), I felt like this was a little reminder that others may not be celebrating with a large, jolly social group.  Whatever the case, as well as providing a cheerful Christmas read-aloud for the mini-fleshlings, there are also other aspects of the book that will no doubt start conversations about diversity and how others do things.

Recommended. Especially for those in a cold climate, who no doubt won’t be thinking of us southerners at all as we sweat it out over our Christmassy summer.

Next up we have a fun little boredom-buster for primary school aged kids and beyond.  It’s My Lovely Christmas Book and we received a copy from Bloomsbury Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Bloomsbury:

Have a crafty Christmas this year: cut and glue, make beautiful pages, pockets, frames and other charming creations. Use your creativity to make lists, make notes, write poems, short stories, diary entries and add other things to make it yours. You can draw and colour, write and doodle. This is your book, made by you and for you.

Dip into it for…  my-lovely-christmas-book

…a sweet, creativity-inducing tome that really is as lovely as it claims to be.  The perfect gift for crafty pre-teens (or for yourself, if you rejoice in the anticipation of the days before December 25th), My Lovely Christmas Book is part diary, part photo and memory album, part activity book and part craft kit.  Apart from diary pages themed around each of the twelve days of Christmas, the book is structured so that the reader can flick through and pick the activities that take their fancy – and what a selection of activities there are!  On a quick flick from front to back I spotted mazes, cut-out-and-stick activities to make decorations, gift tags to cut out and use for gift giving, thank-you note templates, places to stick photos, doodling pages and search and find pages.  On a more studied examination, other features include beautiful papers that can be used to wrap small gifts, festive colouring pages, pages that can be cut and folded to make a pocket inside the book for holding special things, little journalling prompts, and a space to plan (or record!) a Christmas menu.  Honestly, it’s so chock-full of interesting things to list, make and do that any parent, upon hearing their offspring whine “I’m bored!” during the Christmas holiday period, could easily just growl, “Go to the book!” and everyone’s problems would be solved.

Don’t dip if…

…you are the kind of person who just cannot bear to write or draw in a book, let alone take to a book with a pair of scissors.  The only downfall I can see with this tome is that it is so aesthetically pleasing, that some readers may not want to spoil that beauty by actually using it as intended.

Overall Dip Factor

I can see this book being a fantastic companion for a young one who loves to create and record, and as a finished product, something that will be kept for years to come – who doesn’t love looking back on their own (often hilarious) jottings from childhood?  I would certainly recommend this as a book to accompany Christmas time travels, to keep that sense of Christmas close even though one is away from home.  Being one of the aforementioned readers who is often unable to deface beautiful books, even if that is their sole purpose, I am in two minds about whether to have a crack at some of the activities myself or leave this one in its pristine state.  You, however, should search this one out immediately – even the grouchiest Grinch will feel a flutter of Christmas cheer on flicking through these lovely pages.

There now.  Aren’t you feeling more festive already?  Well that’s great, because apparently there are only seven and a bit weeks til Christmas.  You’re welcome.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Deathly Dangerous Double Dip Review: Cell 7 and Circus Werewolves…

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If you are hankering after a book-sized snack with a dangerous flavour, then I’ve got just the thing for you today.  Two things in fact – one YA suspense tale and one MG horror comedy (horromedy?), so let’s jump straight in!

First up I have the fourth book in indie (yes, I know I said I wouldn’t, but I love this series too much), middle grade scary humour series, The Slug Pie Stories: How to Protect Your Neighbourhood from Circus Werewolves by Mick Bogerman.  We received this one for review from the author.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The circus is in town, and Mick Bogerman has a fail-proof plan to sneak inside the adults-only Macabre Pavilion. But there’s something weird about the A. Linville & Purnima Bros. Circus this year. Angry parents and crying kids exit early by the carload. Maybe it’s the clowns. Yes, they wear the standard stark-white faces and red bulbous noses, but underneath their painted smiles, there’s something not quite right. What’s more, after the full moon rises . . . they howl.

When Mick and his friends rescue a caged boy from the clown’s clutches they set off a series of disasters that threaten their entire neighborhood. Can Mick become the leader his neighbors need and protect them from the pack of hungry predators infiltrating their town?

Dip into it for… circus-werewolves

… fast-paced adventure, escaping death by the skin of one’s teeth and improvised werewolf deflecting weaponry.  It’s no secret that I love the originality of this series as well as the salt-of-the-earth narration from Mick Bogerman himself.  There are no frills to Mick – he’s a boyish boy with a strong sense of justice, a stronger sense of humour and a fierce protective streak for his younger brother Finley.  In this offering, Mick, Finley and their friends are excited to visit the circus, as they do every year, but are also wary of the reports they’ve been hearing about clowns that are far scarier than clowns have any right to be.  After the boys make a split-second decision to rescue a boy trapped in the “freak show” tent, they discover that they will now have the opportunity to see the clowns up close and personal.  

Don’t dip if…

…you’re a wussy wussbag.  Each of the books has a (possibly tongue-in-cheek!) warning to parents at the beginning, noting that the books are not for the faint-hearted and should only be read by kids of a strong constitution.  Otherwise, there’s nothing not to like.

Overall Dip Factor

The best thing about this series is that it is evolving with every book.  In this book a collection of Mick’s friends are integral to the action, and Mick and Finley’s globe-trotting Uncle George makes an important (and life-saving!) appearance.  The addition of so many extra characters gave the story a fresh energy, and as each of the characters is a bit quirky and unusual, the group of friends has quite a collection of unexpected skills and resources to hand, which is lucky when terrifying monsters seem to pop up around every corner. This book, like the others, is a reasonably quick read and the clever pacing means that there is no time to sit on one’s hands, as the action unfolds so quickly.   I’d highly recommend this one, especially to male readers of middle grade age.  Did I mention that you can also vote for the plot of the next Slug Pie Story by visiting their website?  I don’t want to get too excited, but the story featuring GARGOYLES is at the top of the rankings right now!! You can check it out and cast your vote here.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Now that that’s sorted, if you haven’t read the others in this series, you really should rectify that as soon as possible.

Next up we have Cell 7 by Kerry Drewery, a YA tale of suspense, privilege, choices and reality TV set in a speculative near-future.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Should she live or die? You decide

An adored celebrity has been killed. Sixteen-year-old Martha Honeydew was found holding a gun, standing over the body.

Now Justice must prevail.

The general public will decide whether Martha is innocent or guilty by viewing daily episodes of the hugely popular TV showDeath is Justice, the only TV show that gives the power of life and death decisions – all for the price of a phone call.

Martha has admitted to the crime. But is she guilty? Or is reality sometimes more complicated than the images we are shown on TV?

Dip into it for…cell-7

…an intriguing take on the mob mentality and the ways in which mass media, entertainment and critical thinking intertwine in today’s society.  In a near-future that doesn’t look too far different from our present, courts have been abolished and the fate of prisoners is decided over a seven-day public voting period.  The motto “an eye for an eye” is the driver behind the TV program Death is Justice, and the viewers feel that they have a personal stake in dealing out deadly justice to perceived wrong-doers.  This book is a bit unusual in that it flicks between a number of points of view – Martha, from the inside of her death row cell; and Eve, her counsellor, in particular – as well as employing flashback scenes and running scripts from the Death is Justice television show.  This variety of style actually kept me more interested in the story than I otherwise would have been because it allows the situation in which Martha finds herself to be explored from a number of angles, and exposes the motivations of various characters.

Don’t dip if…

…you are hoping for a pacey story.  This book takes its time in giving the reader the full picture, although the information that is held back at the start of the novel does provide for an interesting mystery.

Overall Dip Factor

There was something about this book that screamed “high school set text” to me because it is such an issues-focused book, with justice, fairness and power being the issues under examination.  It was obvious from the beginning that there was more to Martha’s case than initially meets the eye, and it seemed to take quite a while to get to the crux of the issue.  I did enjoy the final few chapters of the book, when the flaws of the public voting system become apparent for all to see.  This part of the book was faster-paced than the earlier sections, and the impending and inevitable sense of danger added a bit of excitement to proceedings.  Because this did feel a bit didactic to me as an adult reader, I was a little disappointed to find out that there is a second book in the works.  I was quite satisfied with the ambiguity of what might happen to the characters given the events of the ending and I think it would have been a stronger conversation-starter if the story was left there.  Whatever the case, you should probably give it a read and let me know what you think!

After all that danger and daring, you could probably do with a cup of tea and a good lie down, so I’ll let you go, but do let me know which of these books takes your fancy.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Finales and New Beginnings: A YA Double Dip Review…

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Today’s YA Double Dip Review will require a snack that won’t repeat on you easily because today’s books feature a fair bit of graphic gore.  We received both of today’s titles from HarperCollins Australia for review, so let’s get dipping!

First up is the conclusion to Derek Landy’s action-packed, monster-fuelled Demon Road series, American Monsters.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Bigger, meaner, stronger.

Amber closes in on her murderous parents as they make one last desperate play for power. Her own last hopes of salvation, however, rest beyond vengeance, beyond the abominable killers – living and dead – that she and Milo will have to face.

For Amber’s future lies in her family’s past, in the brother and sister she never knew, and the horrors beyond imagining that befell them.

Dip into it for…  american-monsters

…a finale that really does the series justice.  I am so glad that Landy didn’t fall into the trap of trying to draw the ending out as long as possible while attempting to eke every last ounce of readability out of the story because its an all too common tactic of authors finishing up a profitable series.  American Monsters is perfectly paced, switching between action and banter, with some excellent twists to keep the ending interesting.  The book is a reasonably quick read, which I was pleased about, and there is no faffing about introducing new characters or new plotlines that take up space. Rather, Amber and Milo get straight down to the business of hunting down her parents (with a few Astaroth-ordered stop offs along the way) while trying to figure out a way to backstab both her parents and Astaroth in one (or at the most two) easy manoeuvres.

Don’t dip if…

…you haven’t read the other books in the series.  You could probably still enjoy the action parts of the book, but as all of the characters and back story are well and truly established, you may find yourself a tad confused about what’s going on.  I myself had a bit of trouble remembering exactly who was who with a few of the bad guys and serial killers that made an appearance, and a character glossary at the beginning would have been helpful for old fogeys like me who suffer from a touch of the Old Timer’s disease.

Overall Dip Factor

I have to reiterate what a satisfying series finale this is.  It’s pacey, familiar faces turn up in unexpected places and while I did say there are no new characters to muddy the waters, there is a hitherto unmet mysterious trucker who certainly throws a few hellish spanners in the works for Amber and Milo.  There’s a lot more soul-searching going on for Amber here (although not so much that it slows the pace) as she attempts to reconcile being a demon’s servant with the more human and humane parts of herself.  The ending wraps things up nicely, while leaving the way open for a possible fourth story, but Derek Landy returning to a series after it’s obviously finished? Pfft, as if that’s likely to happen!

Next up is a story of new beginnings: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.

A deeply moving portrait of a teenage girl on the verge of losing herself and the journey she must take to survive in her own skin, Kathleen Glasgow’s debut is heartbreakingly real and unflinchingly honest. It’s a story you won’t be able to look away from.

Dip into it for… girl-in-pieces

…one part standard psychiatric hospital story, one part standard recovery story and one part interesting take on “homeless girl makes good” story.  What Glasgow has done particularly well here is the realistic depiction of the post-hospitalisation experience, in which Charlie is left on her own with no support and is expected to manage both her illness and the basic problems of life, like finding a job and somewhere to live. The short, choppy chapters, particularly at the start and towards the end of the book, reflect Charlie’s state of mind and her precarious situation. It’s obvious that Glasgow has insider knowledge about the internal conflict experienced by someone trying to recover from trauma or mental illness that swings between choosing life-affirming strategies and giving in to familiar impulses.  Charlie is a young woman who has experienced abandonment, the loss of family and friends, drug abuse, homelessness and sex trafficking before her sixteenth birthday and as a result, is left with a steep hill to climb towards a comfortable life.  Hope prevails though, surprising as that is, and Charlie keeps putting one foot in front of the other, despite being rocked by those around her.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for a story bathed in sunshine and rainbows.  Even though there are some hopeful aspects to the story, overall it can come across as a pretty depressing read.  The amount of struggling that Charlie has to do just to catch a break is a bit of a downer, but once again, that’s often the reality for people on the bottom rung of society trying to climb up.  There’s also a fair amount of violence (self-harm in particular), drug use and sexual assault, so if those are topics that you’d rather steer clear of, this is definitely not the book for you.

Overall Dip Factor

While I think this is an authentic and engaging story about a traumatised young woman trying to make a go of her life against all odds, I still feel like I’ve read this all before.  Call it an occupational hazard of blogging, or the consequence of having a special interest in fiction (and particularly YA fiction) relating to mental health, but I do feel like I’ve seen this story, or versions of it, umpteen times before, in Girl, Interrupted, The Mirror World of Melody Black, The Pause, Skin and Bone, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Cracked and pretty much all of Ellen Hopkin’s work, not to mention the memoirs of Kate Richards, Sandy Jeffs, Anne Deveson and Patrick Cockburn.  If you have not delved quite as deeply as I into the realms of fiction relating to mental illness and trauma, then Girl in Pieces would probably be a good place to start, provided you are prepared for some confronting content in places.  Glasgow has left out no detail of the travails and triumphs on the road to recovery from a place of deep suffering and readers will be wishing Charlie the best of luck and all good things by the time the novel reaches its conclusion.

Have either of these titles given you an appetite for more reading?

Until next time,

Bruce