The Easy Way Out: An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review…

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Before I kick off, I should probably mention that WordPress kindly reminded me that it was my four-year blogiversary a few days ago, so have a celebratory snack on me, if you like.

Today’s book is one that will inspire conversation, get your little grey cells pumping and place you in an ethical conundrum from which there may be no return.  It’s also an enjoyable read.  I speak of The Easy Way Out by Stephen Amsterdam, which we received from Hachette Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

If you could help someone in pain, would you?

Evan is a nurse, a suicide assistant. His job is legal . . . just. He’s the one at the hospital who hands out the last drink to those who ask for it.

Evan’s friends don’t know what he does during the day. His mother, Viv, doesn’t know what he’s up to at night. And his supervisor suspects there may be trouble ahead.

As he helps one patient after another die, Evan pushes against legality, his own morality and the best intentions of those closest to him, discovering that his own path will be neither quick nor painless.

He knows what he has to do.

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Steven Amsterdam challenges readers to face the most taboo and heartbreaking of dilemmas. Would you help someone end their life?

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Read it if:

* you think George R. R. Martin got it right and prefer a book where nearly everyone dies by the end

*you suspect you’ve got the right sort of temperament, character and belief system to fill the role of a nurse in the assisted-dying unit

*you’re looking for a book that the people in your book club will actually read – instead of pretend to read

*you like books about big issues that don’t rely on preachiness or shock tactics to present their message

This isn’t the first novel featuring assisted dying (or euthanasia or suicide or whatever you want to call it) I’ve read, but Amsterdam impressed me here with the subtle way in which the topic has been approached.  That might seem like an odd statement to make – a book that plainly states that it’s about assisted dying might hardly be deemed to be “subtle” – but Amsterdam has done a brilliant job of laying out many of the complexities, be they legal, ethical or practical, that surround the idea of assisted dying and allowing the reader to absorb these without steering the discourse in a particular direction.

Without making it obvious, the author has included all types of end-of-life choices throughout the novel, including suicide of the conventional type (if we can call it that), the “pre-planned” type of assisted dying that features a clear end-of-life directive, the “look the other way” sort of medically assisted dying that goes on in hospitals all the time for those who are terminally ill and in pain, and the “legally sanctioned” assisted dying of which Evan’s job is a key part.  Simply by including a wide range of characters whose deaths impact on the story, Amsterdam has neatly thrown out the question to both advocates and those opposing an individual’s right to choose their death as to how this concept can be managed realistically.

If you’re the sort of person who has strong views on whether or not an individual should have the right to choose the manner and time of their death, this book is going to provide plenty of fodder for your thought-processes.  Should a mentally ill or socially isolated person have the same access to end-of-life processes as a terminally ill person, for instance?  Should a family’s objections to an end-of-life choice have a bearing on the access to assisted death of the person choosing to die?  What should happen if the person has made a clear choice but is physically unable to carry it out by the time the legal processes are finalised?  I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’m glad that this book has raised these questions (and more!) for pondering.

I should also point out the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous also, which is a clever touch.

Apart from being an “issues” book, The Easy Way Out is also an absorbing and highly readable novel.  Depending on how deeply you want to engage with the ethical content of the story, the book could certainly be read as a sort of grown-up “coming of age” novel that just happens to feature a main character in a highly unusual job.  Evan, the protagonist, does an awful lot of growing and soul-searching throughout the novel as things he thought were clear in his mind become muddied by one life experience or another.  His relationships, family history and work environment all force him to re-evaluate things he thought were obvious, and as his situation changes, so too does his ability to be sure of his decisions.  I particularly liked the authenticity of Evan as a character and the fact that he sits in that hazy position in which most of us have found ourselves at one time or another – that of being completely sure of something until we aren’t – and the absolute upheaval that this can cause on a personal level.

If you’re looking for a reasonably quick read that also provides some food for thought and a cast of fascinating characters, I’d definitely recommend taking The Easy Way Out…off the shelf and giving it a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: What Happened to Daddy’s Body?

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No, today’s book is not some kind of shock reflection on how Daddy has let himself go since his glory days.  Neither is it a jolly, “Weekend at Bernie’s” type romp.  It is, in fact, a pretty darn solid attempt at providing a bit of information, at an age-appropriate level, on what happens to you humans after you die.  In a biological, physiological sense, that is.  What Happened to Daddy’s Body? by Elke and Alex Barber is actually of surprisingly high quality given the fraught content.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley, drawn in, of course, by that appalling yet intriguing title.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My daddy died when I was (one…two…) three years old. Today we are out in the garden. It always makes me think about my daddy because he LOVED his garden. Sometimes, I wonder what happened to my daddy’s body…

This picture book aims to help children aged 3+ to understand what happens to the body after someone has died. Through telling the true story of what happened to his daddy’s body, we follow Alex as he learns about cremation, burial and spreading ashes. Full of questions written in Alex’s own words, and with the gentle, sensitive and honest answers of his mother, this story will reassure any young child who might be confused about death and what happens afterwards. It also reiterates the message that when you have experienced the loss of a loved one, it is okay to be sad, but it is okay to be happy, too.

what happened to daddys body

If you’ve ever come across (or birthed) a child who is inquisitive about topics around which there are a dearth of helpful information books, then today is your lucky day.  This is the first picture book I have ever come across that details the various (Western) burial practices in child-appropriate context, but I can safely say I reckon it’s probably the best.  Far from being a morbid, creepy investigation into decomposition, the book sensitively addresses the perfectly natural question of what happens to the body of that person that we loved and has now disappeared from sight through death.

The water-colour-style illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and really add a sense of warmth and growth to the proceedings, with a subtle subtext of nature appearing in many of the images.  The text itself is quite conversational, as mother and children chat back and forth about their memories of the father’s funeral and what went on.  As well as explicitly discussing things like cremation and burial, the book also touches on the grieving process and how each person involved can be made comfortable by having a share in discussions about creating memories and milestones.

I got the feeling while reading this that it might actually make a far more useful teaching tool if presented just as a general reading book, rather than a specifically grief-linked reader.  There is plenty of information in here that is interesting, thought-provoking and just pretty useful to know, whether or not a child has had a recent experience of grief.  It would certainly make a unique addition to any classroom unit focusing on natural processes, or diverse family contexts.

Overall, I am heartily impressed with this picture book, although a title change might be an idea, if only to stop people from silently asking “WTF?” on first coming across it.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Non-Fiction Read-it-if Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and other lessons from the Crematory)

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It’s time for another foray into the world of non-fiction and today I have an absolute cracker that will go on my (so far, very selective) “top books I read in 2015” list. Obviously, I will be submitting this title toward my total in the Non-fiction Reading Challenge being hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the armchair.

Without further ado then, let me introduce today’s contender: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Doughty learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Doughty soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures. Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like? Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Doughty’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Doughty argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

smoke gets in your eyes

 

Read it if:

*you’ve ever wondered what really goes on behind the curtain at the crematorium

*you enjoy a memoir that jumps from light-hearted, pithy, humorous comment on everyday topics to the “Oh my Glob!”-worthy, stomach-churning imagery of post-mortem mishap.

*you are looking for a no-holds-barred, unvarnished account of what might happen to your lonely corpse if you end up as an unclaimed body in San Francisco

*you wish to discover exactly which fashionable fabrics are impervious to leaking corpse fat

*you honestly think that your use of “anti-ageing” paraphernalia will keep you looking youthful and pristine against the ravages of time

Regular readers of this blog will know that, like the author of today’s book, I have more than a passing interest in death and its workings and again, like Ms Doughty, one of my fleshlings has seriously considered exploring a job in the funeral industry. Obviously, this book was always going to be my kind of memoir.

Right from the start I enjoyed Doughty’s self-deprecating humour and the way in which she understood that her death-fascination may well seem odd and more than a bit creepy to the great majority of the population who seem hell-bent on avoiding death and its implications at any cost. I would recommend not reading this book while you’re eating, as it does jump (sometimes within the space of a sentence) from a chuckleworthy observation about the peculiarities of taking possession of a box of heads, for instance, to an eye-wateringly detailed description of some disgusting incident usually related to the body’s unsightly decomposition processes. More than once I could be heard to utter, “Hahahaha..eurggh!” If the thought of such graphic corpse chat doesn’t turn you off, you will find that this book is replete with fascinating, concerning and just plain unexpected information about the sorts of things that could happen to you once you pop your proverbial clogs.

Doughty’s focus in writing the book is undoubtedly on the bizarre and absolute detachment that many Western societies are determined to achieve from death, both in actuality and concept. She raises some valid and thought-provoking points about how in a relatively short historical period, people have gone from washing, preparing and sitting with a loved one’s corpse at home, to getting the dead thing out of the house as quickly and with as little acknowledgement as possible. While I was supremely interested in the processes of the death industry itself, I also found a lot to ponder in the latter half of the book, in which Doughty points to alternative voices that are piping up to say “Hey! Death is actually a pretty natural thing! It doesn’t have to be all spiky mouth and eyeball retainers and lead-lined, diamond studded caskets!”

Overall, I found a lot to be surprised about and plenty to keep my little grey cells ticking over in this book. It probably won’t be the kind of book that everyone will take to….but it probably should be, in all honesty. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt by observing you fleshlings, it’s that death is coming for you, sooner or later – so why not make it a good one?

Progression toward Non-Fiction Reading Challenge goal: 6/10

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama!: Find the Good…

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imageNonfiction 2015It’s Utopirama time again – a time to take a brief time-out from the horrors, suffering and general discomfort of daily existence and look toward a higher goal.  Today’s book is all about making that glass at least half-full before you metaphorically kick the proverbial bucket.  It is Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Helen Lende.  As it is also a memoir of sorts, I will be submitting it for the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the comfy armchair.

find the good

Quick Overview:

 In brief, easy-to-digest chapters, Lende takes the reader through the wisdom she has garnered from time spent composing obituaries in the local paper for her fellow townsfolk, both well-known to her and otherwise. Each chapter is titled with a little nugget of truth and follows the salient life lessons that presented themselves to Lende on reflection, ranging from “stop and smell the fish”, to “put on a costume now and then”. The stories are gentle and often humorous, and packed with unspoken exhortations for the reader to dig beneath the thin veneer of daily life and appreciate the untidy, unexpected and unexplored bits of our existence and that of those around us.

Utopian Themes:

Let it shine

Everyday wisdom

Seize the day

Lemons to Lemonade

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

 

5 out of 5 bubbles for the wholesome goodness (and unexpected sting) of squeezing fresh citrus fruits

This is a quick and gentle read and one that would make perfect before-bed reading for those who like to wind down by slowly shedding the layers of negative emotion accumulated during the day. Lende’s voice chimes with welcome and life-affirming humour and the format of the book suits those who like to dip in and out and reflect on what they’ve read. This is a great choice for when you need a cosy, restful distraction, such as during the daily commute, or while waiting for an unpleasant appointment.

Progress in the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge: 5/10

Until next time,

Bruce

An MG Double-Dip Review: Alexander Baddenfield and Joe All Alone…

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I invite you to collect a portion of your favourite salty snack, pour out some delectable dip and jimageoin me for a tasty double-dip into some MG fiction.  Today I have a new release that I received from the publisher via Netgalley and a tome that has been sat on my shelf for at least six months (which in no way reflects the astronomical levels of excitement and desire that pushed me to buy it in the first place), so with this review I shall also be taking one step closer to the peak of Mt TBR.

But let’s push on. Our first tome is new release UKMG novel Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When thirteen-year-old Joe is left behind in Peckham while his mum flies to Spain on holiday, he decides to treat it as an adventure, and a welcome break from Dean, her latest boyfriend. Joe begins to explore his neighbourhood, making a tentative friendship with Asha, a fellow fugitive hiding out at her grandfather’s flat.

But when the food and money run out, his mum doesn’t come home, and the local thugs catch up with him, Joe realises time is running out too, and makes a decision that will change his life forever.

Dip into it for… joe all alone

…a sensitively rendered account of a young lad whose mother has chosen a man over her son.  Joe is a likeable, ordinary kid and I think a lot of young readers will relate to his matter-of-fact narration and the anxieties that sit in the back of his mind.  The book touches on themes of domestic violence, racism,  family breakdown, trust and identity and subtly balances the neglectful actions of Joe’s mother and father-figure with the cautiously caring actions of the adults in Joe’s block of flats. The friendship between Joe and Asha is believable and adds a bit of fun and banter to a story that has a pervasive atmosphere of loss and fear.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re wanting a fun, lawless romp featuring a cheery young lad who is happy that his parents have left (as indicated by the cover, and the tagline “No parents, no rules…no problem?”).  This really is a book that focuses on the deeper issues that Joe is facing and as the story progresses, Joe’s fears about what will happen next and who to trust are palpable.

Similarly, if you’ve read a lot of UK fiction in this kind of vein – kid with violent/absent/mentally-ill/drug-addicted parent struggles to find friendship and help to live a normal life – you might get the sense of having read this all before.

Overall Dip Factor

Joe All Alone is a solid addition to the MG literature featuring realistic, contemporary storytelling focusing on important social issues in an accessible way.  The diary format worked well in building up the suspense of what might happen if Joe’s mum didn’t return and also helped the reader focus in on Joe’s day-to-day struggles once it was apparent that his mum wasn’t coming back.  The ending was a surprise for me, given how realistic it actually was in terms of where a young person might find themselves once the adults in their life have abdicated responsibility for them.

While I did enjoy the book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this story was nothing new.  I suspect this is one of the problems of reading as a reviewer with a special interest in MG and YA – although I haven’t read a story featuring exactly this plot before, I’ve certainly read more than a handful that deal with the same themes and same sorts of characters and that does take some of the sparkle out of the story.  If you enjoy this genre though, or haven’t read a lot featuring these themes, Joe All Alone is definitely worth a look.

Now onto some real wickedness.  Here’s The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by John Bemelmans Marciano.  From Goodreads:

Alexander Baddenfield is a horrible boy—a really horrible boy—who is the last in a long line of lying, thieving scoundrels.  One day, Alexander has an astonishing idea.  Why not transplant the nine lives from his cat into himself?  Suddenly, Alexander has lives to spare, and goes about using them up, attempting the most outrageous feats he can imagine.  Only when his lives start running out, and he is left with only one just like everyone else, does he realize how reckless he has been.

Dip into it for… alexander baddenfield

…a delightfully droll tale in which a naughty boy gets his just desserts. Eventually.  This cheekily illustrated book is Edward Gorey for children (and their subversive parents) and I don’t feel too bad in telling you that Alexander dies in the end. Multiple times.  There’s also a shocking reveal about the real name of Alexander’s gentleman’s gentleman.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a tale in which the bad guy learns his lesson and turns over a new leaf – Ebenezer Scrooge this kid ain’t.  Also, if the thought of a young child dying in various horrible ways offends you, you should probably steer clear.  And there’s at least some surgical mistreatment of a cat.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is a completely quirky and unexpected trip into the philosophical origins of good and evil and whether or not a villain can ever really change his ways.  Also, it’s just a pretty funny romp through the death-fields with an arrogant little snot and his long-suffering babysitter. Keen-eyed readers will also appreciate the playful anagrammatic name of Alexander’s surgeon and the phonetically named cat.  This would be a great read-together for parents with left-of-centre offspring in the early middle-grade age range.

So there you are.  One seriously realistic read and one seriously ridiculous read.  Take your pick.  Or better yet, dip into both!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adult Fiction Read-It-If Review: Mr Wicker…

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Cheerio my pretties! Today I have an indie fantasy-paranormal-horror story for the grown-ups that features all manner of creepy goings-on.  I was initially drawn to it because of the raven on the cover (cool!) and the fact that it was set partly in a ghostly library (super-cool!) and partly in a psychiatric inpatient facility (count me in!).  I received a digital copy of today’s book, Mr Wicker by Maria Alexander from the publisher, Raw Screaming Dog Press (now there’s a name that gives you a good idea what sort of books they publish) in exchange for review – thanks!

Alicia Baum is experiencing a run of failures – her husband left her, her last book bombed in sales, and the bank is foreclosing on her house – and decides to end it all.  As she loses consciousness during her suicide attempt, Alicia finds herself inside a mysterious library with the sinister librarian, Mr Wicker, who informs her that his library holds a book containing Alicia’s lost memory – the one that is the cause of all her suffering to date.  Before she can take possession of the book, or move on into the (proper) hereafter, Alicia wakes to find herself in Bayford Psychiatric Hospital, under the control of the odious Dr Sark. 

Dr James Farron is a paediatric psychiatrist with a special interest in Alicia’s case.  Using funding for a research grant, Dr Farron is attempting to find out more about the mysterious Mr Wicker, a name that continually arises in the sleep-talk of children suffering trauma who are brought to the hospital.  Alicia is the first adult Dr Farron has ever encountered who has mentioned Mr Wicker, and he intends to find out why.

As the two cross paths in the hospital, danger is closing in from all sides, threatening to end Dr Farron’s career and Alicia’s life.  Unless Alicia can untangle the mystery of her missing memory, Mr Wicker may just open the door to some very old secrets indeed, that have the potential to change Alicia and Dr Farron forever.

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I’m going to do things a bit differently this time, as I tend to do when I feature books with some particularly sensitive or disturbing themes (and this book has a bit of both), so here is a “Don’t Read it if…” disclaimer for those who are faint of heart.

Don’t Read it if:

* you are in a fragile state of mind and the graphic description of a suicide attempt and violence against the female lead character is not something you want in your current reading experience

Now, onto the Read it if:

*you like your fantasy/horror stories to be raw, graphic and featuring more than a little violence, creepiness and smouldering sensuality

* you’ve ever been minding your own business and enjoying a quiet stroll in the park when out of the blue a large angry bird descends seemingly out of nowhere to chase, swoop and peck you … this point applies doubly if this has happened to you indoors

* when reading stories set in a psychiatric hospital, you prefer said hospital to employ practices more suited to a medieval torture chamber

*you believe fantasy/horror just isn’t fantasy/horror unless it takes a completely unexpected turn right in the middle of the story, preferably involving a little known ancient myth that features eternally repeating betrayal and murder

Mr Wicker was a lot more graphic in its horror and violence than the books that I usually read, but I suspect it will greatly appeal to those who regularly enjoy this genre.  Graphic descriptions aside though, the author manages to deliver a pretty complex storyline without losing control of any of the multiple plot threads.  Throughout the book, there’s a palpable sense of danger to Alicia, and the feeling that things aren’t what they seem.  A number of the hospital staff are less than professional, to say the least, and as the story unfolds the reader gets the idea that not only may Alicia be in danger from supernatural forces, but from some very human forces also.

Dr Farron is an instantly likeable, if somewhat stereotypical character, fulfilling the role of Alicia’s protector and champion when all around her seem to discount her experiences as the ravings of a madwoman.  The author manages to throw any stereotypes out the window with the introduction of a new and entirely unexpected (for me, anyway) plotline right in the middle of the book, that sheds light on the character of Mr Wicker and the reasons why he is so interested in Alicia herself.

Underlying all of this is Alicia’s missing memory and how this has contributed to her unraveling life.  This mystery is played out slowly, as Alicia dips into her family history in sessions with Dr Farron, but can’t quite grasp the memory that Mr Wicker guards so closely.  The inclusion of this personal psychological mystery as one of the major plotlines gives a nice break from all the other strangeness going on in the book and allows for a change of pace that I appreciated when it popped up every now and then.

Overall, I’d say that this book has a satisfying blend of fantasy themes, anticipated romance, family secrets, horror and mystery  and will appeal to those who are looking for a complex story with a lot of twists and turns.  And large, flapping birds appearing in odd places.  Mr Wicker is due for release on September 16th.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Read it if: The Ministry of Pandemonium….

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ImageI have decided to take a leaf out of Mad Martha’s book and post today about another favourite lining the shelf: Chris Westwood’s Ministry of Pandemonium and its sequel, The Great and Dangerous.  Not wanting Martha to have all the fun, I too have proved that I can arrange an attractive photo of myself for your viewing pleasure with the tomes to which I will be referring.

So! The first of this series, The Ministry of Pandemonium was one which came to the shelf after my fleshling owner decided to take a punt on an interestingly titled tome at a large chain book store which has since gone out of business.  It was a punt which has returned plentiful gains in the satisfaction department for me, as I devoured the tale, pillaged the second book for its engaging content and am now eagerly awaiting the third book in the series.

The Ministry of Pandemonium deals with young Ben Harvester, a talented artist with a hard working single mum, who is surprised to discover that death, much like life, is shrouded in bureaucracy.  Ben also finds out he has certain talents that the Ministry of Pandemonium could put to good use, and agrees to work with the ministry under the tutelage of the enigmatic Mister October.  Thus begins a sometimes harrowing journey as Ben helps to get the deceased on their way to wherever it is they’re going, while attempting to uncover some family secrets on the way.

ministry of pandemonium

Read it if:

* you’ve ever suspected that the time immediately following your death may well be spent filling out life-relinquishment forms in triplicate

* you find cemeteries atmospheric, peaceful and relaxing as opposed to overgrown, creepy and downright depressing

* you’ve ever found it tricky to fit in with your peers

* your difficulties in fitting in are related to your ability to see people who have shuffled off their mortal coils and really should be doing whatever it is the dead do, rather than disrupting your ability to fit in with your peers

great and dangerous

I found these books refreshing and perhaps more importantly, re-readable, as they seem to hit a deeper level than one ordinarily sees for books for this age group (say, 12 to 16 years).  They deal with death openly and the characters are sensitively drawn, without any gimmicky stereotyping or character-flaws-for-the-sake-of-it that often crop up in tales for middle readers and young adults.  Ben is an ordinary boy with ordinary problems, placed in an extraordinary circumstance.

As an extra piece of trickery, the two books reviewed here have been released under different titles, with different cover art, in the US.  The Ministry of Pandemonium has been titled Graveyard Shift (rather underwhelmingly, I thought), with the following cover art:

graveyard shift

I personally think that the original art (and title!) more accurately reflect the tone of the book – from the US cover art, one might be expecting a no-holds-barred, boys-own, rollicking adventure from cover to cover, and that’s just not what you get with this book. While there is adventure and action there’s intellect and emotion too, which I find much more satisfying, particularly in a book for young fleshlings.

Right. I’ve blabbed on too much. The self-portrait phenomenon must have gone to my head.

Until next time,

Bruce