Meandering Through Middle Grade: Life on a Bee-less Planet…

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It’s a question that’s been asked by everyone from your common-or-garden human to Doctor Who himself (tenth incarnation): Where are all the bees?  What is happening to our little black-and-gold buzzing pollination stations?  What will happen if the bees disappear for good?

All these questions and more are probed in the original and engaging mildly post-apocalyptic novel for middle grade readers, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble. I feel the need to point out before we go any further that the story contained within this book is far more down-to-earth and substantial than either its cover or title give it credit for.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Allen & Unwin:

A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too-possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live.

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony’s mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony’s grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

How To Bee is a beautiful and fierce novel for younger readers, and the voice of Peony will stay with you long after you read the last page.

how to bee

Although this book is set in a post-bee world, the setting is far enough after the bee-pocalypse (or the time when the bees went extinct) that the world, or at least Peony’s part of it, has found a workable solution to the problem.  Children with poles now climb fruit trees to pollinate them and life in the cities depends entirely on the good work of the farms where fresh food is grown.  Peony dreams of being a bee and completing the important, prestigious work but her dream is ripped away when her mother returns from her city job and demands that Peony return with her to earn cash.  Peony is bewildered by this, because on the farm, they have everything they need – money is anathema when there’s no shops to buy things from.  In the city however, money is everything and the gap between haves and have-nots is illustrated by the hordes of raggy people who beg in the streets, with no jobs, homes or hope.

Along with an original slang, this story has unmistakable undertones of a Dickensian novel, with an urban environment characterised by the dichotomy of the rich and poor, in direct contrast to the happily barefoot children of the countryside.  Sure, life is hard on Peony’s farm, but at least the people there are a strong community and understand the importance of their work to the necessities of life.  The story moves through phases, with the early chapters introducing the reader to the farm and its processes, as well as Peony’s home life.  The central chapters of the story, set in a big house in the city, show a different side to this alternative future, and demonstrate the hostility of the “real” world, in which violence, struggle and want colour the lives of the majority of “urbs” – city residents.

These central chapters give rise to an unexpected friendship between Peony and Esmeralda, the young girl for whose family Peony works.  Although this section provided variety and interest, as well as a chance for both levels of the social strata to see each others’ good points, it seemed a bit out of place with the beginnings of the story.  This is a moot point however, because the tale twists again toward the end and although Peony will encounter despair, hardship and grief before the end of the novel, an unexpected jolt of hope is injected from two directions in the final chapter.

Overall, this is a family drama, an environmental warning and a portrait of the kind of society that we are sliding towards held together by an engaging and determined narrator.  I’d recommend this for middle-grade aged readers who enjoy books set in alternate worlds, as well as to older readers looking for a middle grade read that sits outside the expected.

Until next time,

Bruce

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YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Fir…

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It’s time for a little YA and today’s book is a dark, shadowy tale of the power of nature and the puniness of humans.  We received Fir by Sharon Gosling from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We are the trees. We are the snow.

We are the winter.

We are the peace. We are the rage.

Cut off from civilization by the harsh winter of northern Sweden, the Stromberg family shelter in their old plantation house. There are figures lurking in the ancient pine forests and they’re closing in. With nothing but four walls between the Strombergs and the evil that’s outside, they watch and wait for the snows to melt.

But in the face of signs that there’s an even greater danger waiting to strike, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from illusion. All they’ve got to do is stay sane and survive the winter…

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I had high hopes for this one, given that it featured creepy trees – a collective character that, it must be admitted, surely doesn’t get enough coverage in YA – and a cold, dark setting that I hoped would be a mental escape from the unrelenting heat of Australian summer.  Unfortunately I ended up DNFing at just over halfway, having given the book plenty of time to grab my attention and hold it.

The two biggest problems I had with this one were the slow pace and the stilted dialogue mixed with tedious monologue. I just couldn’t be bothered to stick around and find out what the trees were planning, or indeed, if they were planning anything at all and not just a figment of the narrator’s imagination.  The suspense aspect takes its time in building up, which is perfectly forgivable, provided the characters around which the suspense is building are interesting enough to inspire a sense of protectiveness from the reader.  I found most of the characters to be reasonably unlikable – the teen narrator is angsty and moody, the father is arrogant and stubborn and the mother is overly conciliatory – and so would have happily seen them eaten by trees …or whatever…and for this reason, somewhere along the line the suspense morphed into a sense of impatience and a desire for the trees to get on with eating the characters…or whatever.

The one character who was written to be off-putting, the housemaid Dorothea, actually turned out to be my favourite, simply because at least she had a bit of nouse about her.  By the time I put the book down however, my feelings toward Dorothea had merged with my feelings for the hapless others and I would have been quite happy to have seen her eaten first…or whatever.

The setting was the definite standout of this story and set the appropriate tone of mild foreboding, and in some instances, blessed quiet.  Had the pace of the book been a bit quicker or had I given a hoot about any of the characters, I probably would have finished this, but I just wasn’t enjoying it enough to keep snow-ploughing on.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: My Valley

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I’ve got a picture book translated from the original French for you today.  My Valley by celebrated French children’s author Claude Ponti is due to be published in English, translated by Alyson Waters, in March 2017.  We received a copy for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In My Valley, Claude Ponti leads us on a journey through an enchanted world inhabited by “Touims” (tiny, adorable, monkey-like creatures), secret tree dwellings, flying buildings, and sad giants. Clever language and beautifully detailed maps of imaginary landscapes will delight children and adults alike. Ponti himself has said, “My stories are like fairytales, always situated in the marvelous, speaking to the interior life and emotions of children. That way each child can get what they want out of the images: the characters and dreams are their own.”

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Long-time readers of this blog will know that my relationship with French books translated into English is sketchy at best.  I’ve come across a few books in this category that I have thoroughly enjoyed, but for some reason, many others I haven’t.  Unfortunately, this was one of the latter.  It’s not a bad book by any means, just one in which I could not find a point of purchase from which to engage with the story.

The book is aimed at around about the 6 to 10 age group, with large pictures surrounded by short paragraphs of text.  There is no coherent overall story, per se, but rather a collection of related passages that take place within a magical, ethereal, woodlandish world.  The Valley is populated by Twims, little furry creatures that pass the time in various unlikely and whimsical ways, as well as giants and other fantastical creatures.  As there was no linear storyline in the book, I found it hard to stay interested in what was going on because it was episodic in nature, with new characters being introduced only to disappear when others arrive.

The illustrations didn’t do a lot for me, but they were undoubtedly the highlight of the book regardless.  The images take centre stage, covering page spreads or appearing beside blocks of text to give a bit of life to the story.

I’d have to say that this book just wasn’t my cup of tea – but that’s not to say it won’t be a hit with a mini-fleshling of your acquaintance, provided they have a good imagination and find joy in whimsical and original fantasy worlds.

Until next time,

Bruce

Children’s Book Week Chaser: Three Visually Stunning Australians…and a Giveaway (Int)!

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I know, I know, I’m a week late, but what I have for you this week is definitely worth the wait.  As you may or may not know, last week was Children’s Book Week in Australia and, never one to let the party end once the official celebrations are over, I am happy to announce that the rest of this week will be Children’s Book Week around the Shelf! Woo hoo!  You can expect new release (and a couple of older titles) perfect for the younglings in your life, right here, every day until Friday.

I am also pleased to announce that we’re kicking off with THREE (count ’em!) TOP BOOK OF 2016 PICKS!!

Bruce's Pick

As well as an International GIVEAWAY!!

Before you explode with excitement, let’s crack on!

Today I have three eyeball-burstingly attractive books for you from Australian authors.  One is a heartwarming book about numbers for the littlies, one is a steampunk cautionary tale for the tweens, and one is a jaw-droppingly incredible, atmospheric and significant piece of wordless storytelling for pretty much any age reader.  We should begin with heartwarming, don’t you think?

theres not one

There’s Not One (Jennifer Higgie) Published by Scribble, September 2016. RRP: $24.99

*We received a copy of this title from Scribble Publishing for review*

From Goodreads:

This joyous debut from well-known writer and editor Jennifer Higgie (Frieze Magazine) celebrates both the individual and the diversity of the world around us. In kaleidoscopic colour, Higgie takes young readers on a journey from some of life’s most important things (baked beans!) to some of life’s biggest wonders (stars!). The perfect early picture book for budding art lovers!

To give you an idea about how different There’s Not One by Jennifer Higgie is to your typical “counting” book for preschool aged children, here’s a glimpse of one of the double page spreads:

theres not one page spread

So much for the “One monkey, two bananas, three chunks of poo being flung” format you were expecting!  There’s Not One bypasses the smaller numbers and makes a beeline for those things which are, in many ways, quite difficult to quantify.  Raindrops, for instance.  Stars.  Colours.  Methods of transportation.  This book will attempt, in the most gentle way possible, to stymie your little one’s counting finger and open their mind to a broader perspective on number.  The eldest mini-fleshling in the dwelling seemed to take the phrase “too many to count” as a personal challenge and repeatedly attempted to count the individual stars on the star-counting page.  He happily gave up after a few attempts, and turned his attention to the page with “a zillion” baked beans instead, so in that regard, this is a great book for occupying the attention of the more stubborn younglings of  your acquaintance.

There is a completely unexpected twist at the end of this book that is the perfect way to round out the imagining of numbers of such large scale.  The aforementioned mini-fleshling, on hearing the last few pages of the book, stared off into the distance for a few silent moments, before slowly smiling in a way that indicated a revelation of incredible magnitude had just slithered into his consciousness.  It was quite the most heartwarming thing this stony old gargoyle had seen in quite a while and made the reading experience completely worthwhile.

I would recommend this heartily to those aged between three and maybe seven years; those children who are of an age to get a grasp on the fact that some things come in quantities to large to be counted with a child’s pointing finger.  Having said that, those younger than that will adore the bright colours and patterns, even if they don’t quite grasp the concepts being relayed.

Judging from the mini-fleshling’s reactions to There’s Not One, we have to note that Higgie is on a winner here.

mechanica

Mechanica (Lance Balchin) Published by Five Mile Press, 1st September 2016. RRP: $24.95

*We received a copy of this title from Five Mile Press for review*

From Goodreads:

In this field guide from the future, a dashing explorer—Miss Liberty Crisp—details amazing creatures known as Mechanica: human-created life forms designed to replace extinct species. 

Set in the twenty-third century, the book describes how Earth could no longer support wildlife. The warnings had been ignored. Corporations continued to expose the environment to chemical and radioactive waste, and many Earth species began to disappear. By 2200, vast areas of the world had become uninhabitable and wildlife extinct. In place of the lost wildlife species, the corporations began to create Mechanica. But the Mechanica escaped their confinement, and started to develop in the wild on their own. Filled with inventive and awe-inspiring images and details, this book is sure to spark readers’ imaginations! Kids will marvel at the steampunk-inspired renderings of mechanical bugs, birds, bats, snakes, and more!

Who doesn’t love awesomely inventive creatures repopulating a post-apocalyptic landscape?  No one, that’s who!  Mechanica, with its slightly larger than average hardback format is sure to pull in both reluctant and unstoppable readers alike.  The book begins with a few pages detailing the world in which the mechanica thrive and the circumstances in which they were brought about.  Each page spread features clear and detailed images of the mechanical creature under discussion, plus a brief description of how it came to be and where it is commonly found:

mechanica page spread

The effective use of white space means that younger readers shouldn’t become overwhelmed by the amount of text per creature, and the handy index at the back means that youngsters can look up their favourite mechanica in a snap.  As an adult reader, this is quite an absorbing picture book, given the history and background that has been created for each creature.  The brief descriptions bring to life the environmental chaos that has resulted from the actions of humans and the overall sense of the book had me bringing to mind the “life finds a way” mantra/warning from the original Jurassic Park film!

This book has so many applications for the upper primary classroom that teachers would be foolish not to pick it up.  Off the top of my head I can think of curriculum links for art, history, geography, science, drama and both creative and nonfiction text creation.  Curriculum links aside, though, this is quite simply a beautifully produced text with original and engaging subject matter that will draw the eye of discerning readers of any age.

small things

Small Things (Mel Tregonning) Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th August, 2016. RRP: $29.99

*We received a copy of Small Things from Allen & Unwin for review*

From Goodreads:

On the cusp of having everything slip from his grasp, a young boy has to find a way to rebuild his sense of self. An ordinary boy in an ordinary world. With no words, only illustrations, Small Things tells the story of a boy who feels alone with worries but who learns that help is always close by. An extraordinary story, told simply and with breath taking beauty.

Even before opening this book, it’s obvious that it’s going to be an eye-popping reading experience.  Perhaps it’s for the best then, that this is a wordless picture book and one from which readers will take their own diverse impressions.  Small Things follows a period in the life of a young boy who is obviously struggling emotionally at school and home.  Given that there are no words, it is not explicitly stated that he is suffering from depression or anxiety, but for those who have experienced these afflictions for themselves, the visual cues will be obvious.  As the book continues, the reader is given glimpses into why things might seem so bad for the protagonist – but there are also clues that hope and support are around the corner.

The page spreads range from single page illustrations to the more typical graphic novel format of multiple frames to a page:

small things page spread

I found that these multi-framed pages required a bit of time and energy to peruse, as I didn’t want to miss anything that might be tucked away in the corners of the images, or misinterpret the story because I was skimming.  The monochrome colour scheme is essential to convey the atmosphere of the boy’s headspace, but I found that it too required a more focused approach to “reading” the story.

Despite the end of the story offering some sense of hope and normalisation to the boy’s experience, I was left with a lingering sense of dread that may or may not be related to the personal mental health experiences of the she-fleshling in our dwelling.  Because I jumped straight into the book without first reading the press release that accompanied it, I was unaware that this book is published posthumously to the author’s suicide, and the final illustrations were completed by that giant of Australian story-telling, Shaun Tan.  I left the book with the feeling that the story was poised on a knife-edge, even though the boy’s demeanor indicates that things might be looking up for him.  This ambivalence is no bad thing I suspect, because the complexity of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety invite such contradictions and this is something that needs to be openly discussed and acknowledged.

Although I would recommend this for older children, say upper primary and above, as well as adults, I think readers will engage with this book on their own level.  The more disturbing nuances of the imagery will probably go over the heads of readers at the younger end of the age bracket, but they should still appreciate the need for a sense of belonging and support that the book conveys.  Similarly, older readers will be able to uncover much more complex themes in the visual journey.  Whatever the age and maturity level of the reader however, this is a story that deserves a conversation – so be sure to share your opinion once you have drunk it all in.

Giveaway Time!!

One winner will be able to choose one of the above books as their prize!

This contest is open internationally – hooray!

To enter, answer this question in the comments below: 

Which of these books would you most like to win and why?

Giveaway will run from the moment this post goes live (now!) until midnight, Sunday September 4th, 2016, Brisbane time.

I will select one winner from the pool of eligible comments using a random number generator.  The winner will have 48 hours to respond to a congratulatory email before a new winner is chosen.  I will not be responsible for prizes lost or damaged in transit.

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge: Trashed…

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Today’s offering in my quest to scale the dizzying heights of oddity is a graphic novel narrative non-fiction tale about that most indispensable yet oft-maligned occupation – rubbish collection.  Trashed by Derf Backderf follows the exploits of a couple of ordinary guys thrust into the extraordinary world of civic garbage disposal through a lack of other opportunities.  Peppered throughout this unexpectedly engaging read is a plethora of information and statistics about the garbage-generating habits of Americans (for the most part) and the not-so-ingenious ways that humans have come up with in order to keep their detritus out of sight and out of mind.

I received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley, and I will be submitting it in the category of books with odd subject matter.  To find out more about the challenge (and join in!) click here.  But let’s not sit around like a stinky old bag waiting for collection day! Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Every week we pile our garbage on the curb and it disappears—like magic!

The reality is anything but, of course. Trashed, Derf Backderf’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed, award-winning international bestseller My Friend Dahmer, is an ode to the crap job of all crap jobs—garbage collector. Anyone who has ever been trapped in a soul-sucking gig will relate to this tale.

Trashed follows the raucous escapades of three 20-something friends as they clean the streets of pile after pile of stinking garbage, while battling annoying small-town bureaucrats, bizarre townfolk, sweltering summer heat, and frigid winter storms.

Trashed is fiction, but is inspired by Derf’s own experiences as a garbage­man. Interspersed are nonfiction pages that detail what our garbage is and where it goes. The answers will stun you. Hop on the garbage truck named Betty and ride along with Derf on a journey into the vast, secret world of garbage. Trashed is a hilarious, stomach-churning tale that will leave you laughing and wincing in disbelief.

trashed

Apart from numerous “ew”-inducing scenes and the unrivalled hilarity that is a piano being crunched in a rubbish compactor (oh, the symphony!), there are some incredibly thought-provoking instances in this unexpectedly fascinating read.  At first it felt a bit weird to be presented with nonfiction sections slap in the middle of your typical graphic novel, but these informative little snippets actually raise the book above the common graphic novel herd.  The facts presented about the ways and means of rubbish generation and disposal are both stupefying and scandalous. Reading about the enormity of humanity’s collective garbagey woes gave me pause for thought about the  unimaginable scale of any effort that would have to be undertaken in order to reverse the environmental harms already inflicted and enact positive change for the future.

These sobering facts are deftly balanced by the down-to-earth problems of the main character and his co-workers as they battle exploding maggots, back-breaking hard rubbish items, despotic managers and the problems that come with extremes of weather (ie: garbage bags freezing to the footpath).  Seriously, being splashed with a bit of bin water is the least of their worries.  The characters seem to be vying for the title of “least personable individual”, as along with the aforementioned despotic manager, we meet a collection of garbage workers each with their own idiosyncratic irritating habits (and nickname), a delightfully bizarre cemetery worker, the scariest dog-catcher ever created and a host of citizens who just don’t appreciate the finer points of putting out the correct type of rubbish on the correct day.  By about the end of the first quarter of the book, I can guarantee you will have developed a whole new level of sympathy for those who collect your refuse.

Or at least, those who used to collect your refuse, if you are an Aussie.  Our trucks are all fitted with automatic robot arms to empty the bins – gone are the days of the loveable “garbo” running your rubbish bin to the truck, with the unwritten promise of a six-pack left out at Christmas time as a reward for their essential services.  Honestly, kids of today wouldn’t believe you if you told them – “You left beer out for the garbage man? WTF? That’s so random!”

I would highly recommend having a look at Trashed if you are in the mood for something that will satisfy both your escapist and cerebral urges.  There’s a lot to laugh at in the storyline – in a schadenfreude,
“Gee, I’m glad that’s not me” sort of a way – as well as a lot to ponder.  Just remember to pop it in the recycling bin when you’re finished.

Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge Goal: 14/16

Until next time,

Bruce