Word Nerd: A Middle Grade Read-It-If Review…

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read it if NEW BUTTON

You know that wonderful feeling when you get a run of books that you’ve just really enjoyed reading?  Well I’ve had that feeling all this week.  Apart from yesterday’s Top Book of 2016 pick, I’ve got some other great reads coming up this week that gave me a cheery glow in the very pit of my stony heart.  Today’s book is one of those glow-makers.  We received our copy of Word Nerd by Susan Nielsen from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ambrose Bukowski is a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. And when bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich to set off his allergy, it’s his mother who has the extreme reaction. From now on, Ambrose has to be home-schooled.

Then Ambrose strikes up an unlikely friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, an ex-con who’s been in prison. They have nothing in common except for Scrabble. But a small deception grows out of control when Ambrose convinces a reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club. Could this spell disaster for Ambrose?

word-nerd

Read it if:

*you are a kitchen scrabble player looking for ways to step into the big leagues

*you can’t go past a good “dark horse” story

*you enjoy reading about (peanut free) baklava as much as you enjoy eating it

*you’ve ever made a friend that your parents considered to be a bad influence

*you tend to judge books (read: people) by their rotund, malodorous or otherwise unflattering covers

I’ve had Word Nerd on my Book Depository wishlist – you know, that list of 1000+ books that I will buy when I win the lotto – for quite a while so when I saw it come up on Netgalley I jumped at the chance to review it.  After all, how could I, a bona fide, dyed in the stone, word nerd pass up a book about word-nerdery, especially one aimed at a middle grade audience?

Clearly, I could not.

This is one of those middle grade reads that can be enjoyed by older readers mostly due to the fact that it takes place, for the most part, outside the trope-laden school setting.  Ambrose is home-schooled (by the time a few chapters have passed) due mostly to his mother’s overblown anxiety about his well-being and therefore the book is free from the stereotypical child characters one might usually find in books for this age group.  Instead, Word Nerd feels like a book for a grown up (or growing up) audience, as Ambrose is forced by necessity and circumstance to take a look at himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be.

The thing about this book that pleased me the most was the authenticity of the characterisation.  Ambrose is a genuine rendering of a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy, with all the misplaced confidence, anxiety, awkwardness, and interest in pubescent issues that being a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy entails.  The author doesn’t gloss over the grown-up issues that Ambrose is confronted with through his interactions with his upstairs neighbour, Cosmo – including, but not limited to, jail time and drug use – but neither are these gratuitously exploited.  Essentially, Ambrose reads like an unfeigned interpretation of a young boy attempting to make his own choices and emerge, flaws and all, from his mother’s protective shadow.

I knocked this one over in only a few sittings because the narrative was both absorbing and undemanding, and peppered with quirky but real-seeming characters.  I’d definitely recommend this for young readers of middle grade who can handle some grown-up issues, or for older readers looking for a charming and memorable pre-coming of age tale that is wordy in all the right places.

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

 

 

Tripping Back Blue: A Great Expectations Review..

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I should probably start by saying that this is more of a “Hopeful Expectations” review because I didn’t have great expectations upon discovering today’s book, but rather hopes that it would be an unusual piece of writing in the YA genre.  Happily, I can say that my expectations were mostly met – hooray!

So what is today’s book?   Tripping Back Blue by Kara Storti, which we gratefully received from Walker Books Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Finn is a 17-year-old full of paradoxes. He’s a drug dealer, but he’s scoring money to send his twin sister to Harvard. He’s desperate to shoot up even though he’s the most popular kid in Dammertown. He’s a philosopher and orator who’s failing all his classes. The only time he finds peace is when he’s bird-watching. Finn’s life begins to spiral out of control, until he discovers a miracle drug called indigo. Finn is convinced that the drug is the way out of everything broken in his life. But is it really as magical as it seems?

tripping back blue

What I Expected:

Initially, before reading some reviews of this one, I expected a typical “teenager-struggling-with-drugs-story” that happened to have an extremely pretty cover.  On reading a few reviews and finding out that the drug causes users to relive their happiest memories, AND that one of the major characters is an old lady who eventually befriends Finn, I began to get interested.  With these two tidbits of information in hand, I began to hope that this book would blend a bit of fantasy or magical realism with the drudgery of drug use and lift an average story to something unusual and enticing.

What I Got:

Overall, I’m happy to say, I got exactly what I expected.  Perhaps not to the extent that I would have liked, but certainly the base elements of my expectations were all present.  There is an interesting and somewhat volatile relationship between Finn and the old lady, Orah, that drives the indigo plotline.  There is plenty of soul-searching (under-the-influence soul-searching, but still…) from Finn as to whether what he is doing is right, wrong or outside the bounds of morality all together.  The ending is unexpectedly action packed and violent and carries a real atmosphere of danger and confusion.  There were also some interesting twists on the “reliving your happiest memory” device, as the drug doesn’t always work as it is expected to, for Finn at least, as well as an in-depth exploration of human nature, as every character here is flawed in some way and no one is purely evil or pristine.

For the most part, then, I enjoyed this read.  I am not a fan of drug use, talk about drug use, deep explorations of the user’s mind etc (either in real life or fiction) and there was a lot more of this in the story than I initially expected.  Admittedly, all the reviews I read mentioned this and it’s hinted at in the blurb, so I shouldn’t complain.  I was hoping for a little more of the magical realism element around the creation and distribution of indigo, but the story doesn’t suffer particularly for the lack of it.  The segues into talk about birds and random animal facts were a diverting inclusion and fleshed Finn’s character out a bit.

Would I read this book again? Probably not.  Am I glad I ran across it? Definitely.  Is it a standout of the genre? Not really, but it certainly has some original touches that make it worth a look if you enjoy contemporary YA that doesn’t shy away from difficult social issues such as drug use, poverty and family violence.  Plus, you might learn something interesting about birds.

Until next time,

Bruce

Shouty Doris Interjects during…Fellside!

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Shouty Doris interjects

Shouty Doris and I are pleased to welcome you today to our review of a book that has certainly had us talking –

Shouty Doris interjects

-arguing-

-…yes, whatever…more than any other tome so far this year!  I speak of Fellside by M.R. Carey, a paranormal, magical realist, hard-bitten jaunt inside a women’s prison.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

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Before we get into it, I should point out that the above blurb gives almost no indication of the depth of story that is explored in this book.  This is one hefty tome, make no mistake, so one shouldn’t go into it thinking it’s all about one young woman and her hopes for redemption.

Shouty Doris interjects

That’s right.  You should go into it thinking it’s about drugs and sex.

Well.  Yes.  There is a considerable amount of drug-smuggling, drug-taking (both in accordance with, and against, medical advice) and general druggery going on within these pages (as indeed one might expect from a book set within a prison), and to a lesser extent, a reasonable amount of sex (extra marital and otherwise).  Also, perhaps, as one might expect from a book set in a prison.

I did not consider this before reading, and therefore I was a little bit shocked by the grittiness of the plot.

Shouty Doris interjects

You old prude.

Indeed!  The main character of the tale is Jess Moulson, a young heroin addict who is convicted of murder after setting a fire that inadvertently caused the death of a ten-year-old boy living in the apartment above her.  The story overall is Jess’s story, as she attempts redemption and tries to remodel herself in the dark, dingy underbelly of the maximum security wing of Fellside.

Apart from Jess’s story, we are also treated to chapters from the point of view of a whole host of other characters – the cowardly, get-along-to-go-along Dr Salazar, the spiteful Nurse Stock, a warder on the up in the drug trade of the prison known as The Devil and a whole host of other inmates, medical staff, lawyers and hangers-on whose stories are interlinked throughout the book.

Shouty Doris interjects

And every one of them a crazed, violent loon!  I needed a picture dictionary to keep up with them all.  Especially the inmates.  One crazy, loud, violent woman became much like another by the end.  

Yes, after a while there were almost too many characters to keep a hold of, but I think Carey did a good job overall of keeping a handle on the multiple threads, and keeping the story from being impossible to follow.

Shouty Doris interjects

You’ve got to be joking! There were more twists than Chubby Checker’s corkscrew!  

Admittedly, by the final few chapters, the twists and unexpected outcomes really had been stretched to their limit.  I couldn’t decide by the end whether I thought the execution was masterful or over the top.

Shouty Doris interjects

Over the top.  By the end, the main character had even changed!  

Mmmm. I stilll think the author managed to err on the side of keeping control of his creation. One thing I can say for certain is that you will definitely get your money’s worth if you buy this book.  There is so much storyline to unpack that you could –

Shouty Doris interjects

-club baby seals to death with it.

Possibly try a less violent metaphor next time, eh Doris?

Shouty Doris interjects

I though it suited the violent prison atmosphere.  

Speaking of atmosphere, one thing I puzzled over was the fact that this book is set in England, written by an Englishman, yet there was nothing remotely British about the feel of the writing or characters.  In fact, I was certain throughout that this was an American book about American characters.  Certainly this isn’t necessarily something to complain about –

Shouty Doris interjects

I’d like to complain about it.

but I just found it a bit strange and disorienting.  This is probably quite appropriate because I found much of the book quite disorienting.

Shouty Doris interjects

Probably due to all the drug use.

Quiet you.

But definitely absorbing.  This was an absorbing, gripping, unexpected read that I can’t say that I enjoyed, exactly, but certainly felt compelled to finish.  I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with Carey’s work here and will now have to hunt down The Girl With All The Gifts, which has been on my TBR for ages.

Shouty Doris interjects

Give me a good ol’ Mills & Boon any day, I say.

**passes tattered book to Shouty Doris**

Shouty Doris interjects

Oooh, this is a good one!

I still can’t decide whether or not to put Fellside up as a Top Book of 2016 pick, simply because, while it was so memorable and different to anything I’ve read so far this year, I didn’t actually enjoy it all that much.  I suspect this one will make its way on to some bestseller lists, so I’m interested to see what others think of it.

If you are looking for a book that isn’t afraid to plumb the depths of human misery and provide you with plenty of distraction from your humdrum, not-being-in-prison existence, with a bit of a paranormal twist, then I would definitely recommend taking a look at Fellside.

But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Until next time,

Bruce (and Doris)