Escape! Three Cracking Titles for Younger Readers…

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September school holidays are kicking off tomorrow here in Queensland and with the hotter weather back (after a shocking two labyrinth-lost freedom-swimmer omnia
minute absence), many people might be starting to think about escaping on a relaxing getaway.  To ensure that your reading needs are covered, here are three quite excellent titles involving escape, for middle grade and YA readers.

First up, we have Omnia by Laura Gallego Garcia, translated from the original Spanish by Jordi Castells.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

All you have to do is imagine—the Omnia superstore has anything you could ever dream of.

Where else but Omnia would a boy go looking to replace a one-of-a-kind stuffed bunny that happens to be his baby sister’s favorite toy? Scrolling through the online retailer’s extensive inventory, Nico finds what looks like a perfect match, but the item is lost somewhere in the vast Omnia warehouse. He doesn’t believe it, so he stows away in a shipment being returned to the warehouse to search for the bunny himself.

Nico quickly gets stranded on the island of Omnia, a fantastical place that does much more than sell everyday items. It is a hub for a business with intergalactic reach, and while stray visitors to Omnia are welcomed warmly, they are not permitted to leave, ever.

The adventure of a lifetime awaits Nico as he searches for the beloved toy and tries to find a way to return home.

omnia

We absolutely adored this unusual middle grade sci-fi adventure story that was a delightful mix of Charlie and the CBruce's Pickhocolate Factory and and the inside of a TARDIS.  In fact, it felt like such an original story that we have labelled it a Top Book of 2016 pick.  Nico is a supremely sympathetic protagonist and an unfailing optimist and his firm commitment to finding a replacement for his sister’s favourite toy (also a family heirloom!) is commendable.  I loved the imaginative features of the Omnia warehouse – I won’t spell these out here because it would spoil the fun for first time readers – and the inclusion of some very unexpected individuals that gave the world an expansive feel, despite the fact that most of the story takes place entirely within the warehouse of the Omnia online store.

Omnia as a whole felt like an energizing story, with twists a-plenty, but twists that I didn’t expect and didn’t necessarily predict.  The story never becomes too sinister, yet Nico clearly has some troubling problems to overcome before he can achieve his goal  It was fantastic to see that instead of taking the easy, well-trodden “evil villain running a secret empire” route, the root causes of Nico’s problems were recognisably more human in origin.  The ending comes along quicker than one might expect, but I appreciated the fact that Gallego doesn’t faff about and draw out the final scenes simply to lengthen the wordcount.  If you are a jaded reader of middle grade fiction who is sick of the same old fantasy and magic tropes being played out time and again, Omnia will be a refreshing change, without compromising on a sense of adventure and new discoveries.

Next up we have a historical fiction for upper middle grade and YA readers by Wai Chim, Freedom Swimmer.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields…When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams…But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.

freedom-swimmer

Freedom Swimmer (Wai Chim) Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th August, 2016. RRP: $16.99

I will admit to knowing very little about the history (either ancient or modern) of China and this book was a perfect introduction to the historical period of the Cultural Revolution under the rule of Mao Tse-tung and the ways in which the Chinese people responded to massive social change.  Ming is a shy village boy who lived through years of famine which brought about the death of his family.  Alone and in a precarious social position, Ming tries to uphold his part in the work of the village while under the wing of his closest friend, Tiann.  Li is a good looking, educated city boy who arrives in Ming’s village as part of an exercise by the Red Guard to learn about the working life of the “peasants”.  While Li is familiar with and supportive of Mao’s teachings, he is open-minded and friendly, something some of his comrades in the Guard see as a precursor to possible reactionary thinking.

Freedom Swimmer is pitched at just the right level for young readers to get a glimpse of the oppressive nature of life for Ming and the people of China generally, without having to go into the more confronting details of how “reactionaries” were treated.  These details are hinted at, and there are some violent scenes, but rather than focusing on the horror of an oppressive military regime, the author has done a great job at highlighting the personal responses of Ming and Li to changes in their communities and families.  Before reading this book, I had no idea that Freedom Swims were a “thing” and this would be a fantastic novel to use in lower secondary classrooms to introduce the idea of asylum seeking, the ways in which people are forced to leave their home countries, and what might happen to them if they successfully manage the escape or if they don’t.  Given that this is a topical issue in Australia at the moment, historical instances of asylum seeking are a valuable contribution to the discourse on what exactly a refugee is and how different countries respond to those seeking asylum.

Putting the “issues” of the book aside for a moment however, Freedom Swimmer is a tight, engaging historical novel with relatable characters and writing that makes this recent historical period immediately accessible for young readers.

Finally, we have Labyrinth Lost, the first in the Brooklyn Brujas series, by Zoraida Cordova.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

labyrinth-lost

Being the jaded, cranky old fusspot that I am, it is always exciting to come across a book that features a whole new experience of magic.  Having read more than a few YA books that feature magic in my time, I tend to get that samey feeling quite a bit.  I am pleased however, to note that Labyrinth Lost had me sucked right in to Alejandra’s world of witches and sorcery…for the first part, at least.  Cordova’s magic system here is a mix of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean myth, folklore and ritual and as such, the imagery fairly leapt off the page.  The initial part of the story, in which Alex is trying to figure out how to avoid her Deathday party, is urban fantasy at its best, with the magical, mythical elements expertly blended with the mundane world of school and relatives.

I was more than a little disappointed to see this part of the story end, but end it does when Alex and her reluctant accomplice, Nova, are drawn into the world of Los Lagos, in which magic reigns and the curse of a creature called the Devourer is laying waste to the land.  Now don’t get me wrong: this part of the book was still exciting and creative, but I haven’t read a really original-feeling urban fantasy YA novel for such a long time that I wanted that part to continue indefinitely.  Once the characters had arrived in Los Lagos, it felt like more familiar tropey territory, even though the world itself was quite original and unexpected.

The greatest thing about this book (apart from the kick-ass urban fantasy beginning) is the focus on identity and family relationships throughout.  Alex, despite being set apart as a witch, struggles with the common problem of feeling disconnected from her family; wanting something other than the path that is expected of her.  I’ll be interested to see where this series goes – I hope there’ll be more urban settings in the sequel.

So, be it by water, by magic portal or by pneumatic postal tube, I hope you find a way to escape these holidays!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

The Maniacal Book Club Reviews….Lilliput!

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manical book club buttonToday you, the Book Club and I will follow along with Gulliver on a little side-track from his famous Travels and muscle in on an adventure and daring escape with Lily, a feisty Lilliputian with a no-holds-barred attitude to getting away from her giant captor and making it safely to her diminutive home.  We gratefully received a digital copy of Lilliput by Sam Gayton from the publisher via Netgalley.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, Lilliput is an exhilarating adventure filled with cunning escape plans, evil clock makers, and very talkative parrots. Join Lily as she travels through 18th century London over rooftops, down chimneys, and into chocolate shops on a journey to find the one place in the world where she belongs…home.

lilliput

Now let’s turn it over to the Book Club!

Guru Dave

maniacal book club guru dave

When the world looks small, perhaps it is time to consider it from a new perspective. What Gulliver did, he did out of ignorance and wonder, never considering how his actions may affect young Lily. Can we really blame her for wanting to return to her home? We can learn a lot from Lily’s adventures but it is to Finn Safekeeping, Lily’s stalwart friend, that we must turn to find the real gentle hero of this tale. It is in him that we can claim the redemption of the big people. If we were all a little more like Finn Safekeeping, we might use our wasted minutes for the benefit of the little people in our world.

Toothless

maniacal book club toothless

No dragons in this book. There is a talking parrot but, who is pretty funny and says funny things in Spanish. There’s a scary clockmaker with a scary, nasty watch and it cuts up Finn’s arm. Finn was my favourite. He’s pretty brave. There’s a brave bird called Swift too. I would have carried Lily back to Lilliput but she didn’t ask. It would have been good to have a dragon in this book.

 

Mad Martha

maniacal book club marthaHome!

Not too big, not too small.

Just right for a feisty, angry girl,

Imprisoned by giants.

Nothing will stop her.

Not time. Not fear. Not pain.

Fly Swift, fly!

For home!

Bruce

maniacal book club bruce

Lilliput was an out-of-the-box, pleasant surprise for me to say the least. Not having a particularly in-depth prior knowledge of Jonathan Swift’s famous tale about Gulliver, or indeed any particular interest in finding out about the same, I requested Lilliput solely on the striking, atmospheric beauty of the cover art and the promise of a (slightly) familiar tale told from a new perspective. I found this book to be a deeply engaging and action-packed story about freedom, friendship and perseverance against all odds.

Lilliput is aimed at a middle-grade, or even slightly younger, audience but I think it will have a much wider appeal due to the strong, fairy-tale style of the narrative and the promise (for adult readers) of an adventure based on a familiar and much-loved story. The events of Lilliput occur after the events of Gulliver’s Travels and Gulliver has essentially kidnapped Lily and brought her back to London in an attempt to prove that his travels actually happened. The action moves apace throughout the book, beginning with Lily’s unsuccessful escape attempts from a birdcage in Gulliver’s study, to a dynamic and dangerous ending that requires the combined efforts of all of Lily’s new friends to pull off.

I appreciated the way that Gayton did not shy away from portraying the less attractive features of his characters. Gulliver is portrayed as a cruel kidnapper, Lily can be truculent, vituperous and hot-blooded, the clockmaker is violent and conniving and even a group of three little girls, to whom Lily falls victim, are by turns grubby, sly and unfeeling. Finn Safekeeping really is the hero of the story in my opinion and provided a foil for the baser aspects of humanity portrayed in the other characters. With Mr Ovinda and his jive-talking parrot providing the comic relief, this story really does have everything you could want in a neat little package.

The story has the feel of a traditional fairy-tale in some parts due to the realism with which Lily’s plight is portrayed. She is not simply a funny little fairy person in an uncomfortable new home – Gayton has deftly drawn out the real emotions behind Lily’s imprisonment and her desperation to return to her loved ones before time catches up with her. This aspect of the book would be a great conversation starter for young readers about perspectives and needs in our own world, particularly with regard to displaced peoples and indigenous populations.

The short chapters and eye-catching illustrations also add to the appeal of the book and overall I think this would be a wonderful choice for adult fans of Gulliver’s Travels to read with their offspring.

The Book Club gives this book:

image image image image

Four thumbs up!

Until next time,

Bruce (and the gang)

 

 

Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: What Milo Saw….and a Fi50 Reminder…

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imageAhoy and avast, ye shelf-lubbers! Today I have a book for grown ups, told from the perspective of two of my favourite fleshling-types: children and old people.  Actually, it’s told from multiple points of view, but we’ll get to that later.  And before I go any further, allow me to remind you that Fiction in 50 for July will be going live on Mondayand this month’s prompt will be…

path to enlightenment

To find out more, just click on that attractive button over there.  We’d love to have you play along!

Now, back to business – today’s offering is What Milo Saw by Virginia MacGregor.

Nine-year-old Milo suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which causes him to see the world as if looking through a pinhole.  But Milo often spots things that others miss.  When Milo’s beloved Gran moves out of their home and into Forget-Me-Not nursing home, it seems that Milo is the only one that can see how Nurse Thornhill mistreats the patients.  With his mother reeling from the recent, girlfriend-and-new-baby laden departure of his father, the only one Milo can rely on is his pet pig, Hamlet.  Then Milo meets Tripi, a Syrian refugee and the cook at Forget-Me-Not, and things start looking up.  As Milo digs deeper into the scandal at the nursing home, he will need all the help he can get to expose Nurse Thornhill and her brutal ways and save the day – as well as saving his Gran.

what milo sawRead it if:

* you believe pigs (and elderly Grans) are for life, not just for Christmas

* you’ve ever wondered why nursing home patrons never look like they’re having any fun

* you’ve ever found a new friend in a very unlikely place

* you thoroughly enjoy stories in which old people get to break free from the shackles of advanced age and live a little

I seem to be bringing you a lot of books with elderly protagonists lately – and why not, I say! I love them, generally (the books that is, not necessarily the old people.  That’s on a case by case basis).  What Milo Saw is a one part mystery, one part humour, and one part relationship novel with beguiling characters who are all handicapped by their situation in one way or another.  Milo has a problem with his eyesight, Gran’s mind is fading, Sandy (Milo’s mum) is having a hard time after her relationship break-up and Tripi is a refugee with no papers who has left his twelve-year-old sister behind in Syria.  As individuals, they have great difficulties overcoming their various problems, but when they start working together, problems seem to be quickly resolved.

I really enjoyed reading this book mostly because of the genuinely likeable characters,  but I never got to the point of really loving it.  While the plot was reasonably complicated, with the lives of various characters overlapping in interesting ways, the overall telling of the story was somewhat formulaic.  I felt that a few of the elements, such as Milo’s eyesight problems and the inclusion of the pig, were a bit contrived and didn’t necessarily add anything to the story overall, apart from a quirky hook in the blurb.  Similarly, while the characters were likeable, they were mostly quite two-dimensional.

Nevertheless, despite these niggling issues, the book was a fun, engaging read and had plenty of humour to spark things up.  The use of multiple points of view to tell the story also helped my enjoyment of the book, as it allowed for a few twists in the story that would otherwise have been missing.

Overall, I think this would be a great holiday read, or a book for those times when you don’t want to have to work too hard and are looking for something with a bit of heart and humour.  What Milo Saw is due to be released on July 29th.

Until next time (get those Fi50 ideas churning!),

Bruce

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Adult Fiction ARC Read-it-if Review: Lost and Found…

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Morning all! I am so, so pleased to be bringing this book to you today.  I have adopted this state of heightened excitement because in this book I have found an Australian equivalent to one of my all time favourites, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  That book had all the things I love in a novel – old people, an obscure quest and dry humour.  The book I present to you today has all that and more – not just old people, but shouty, rude old people.  Not a simple obscure quest but an obscure quest involving a one-legged shop mannequin.  And not just dry humour, but…well, lots of dry humour.  I give you Lost and Found by Brooke Davis.  Double points for Australian authorage.

I was lucky enough to receive a digital copy of this title from Hachette Australia for review, but I have to go and buy it in hardback anyway now, and put it on the “special” shelf to be watched over by my book-guarding minions.

Lost and Found follows the (slightly tragicomical) story of Millie Bird, a seven-year-old with a preoccupation for dead things, a father who has recently become a dead thing, and a mother who has abandoned her in the underwear section of a department store.  We first meet Millie in said underwear department as she waits for her mother’s return under the watchful eye of Manny the hawaiian-shirt-wearing mannequin across the aisle. Partway into Millie’s eventful waiting, she meets Karl the touch typist, an octogenarian widower who spends his days sitting in the department store cafe, silently grieving his dear departed Evie.  Shortly after Millie escapes from the department store (and, simultaneously, from the social services) with the help of Karl, we are introduced to Agatha Pantha, a widow who has not left her house since her husband died seven years ago, and who fills her time with such productive measures as the keeping of a daily record of her physical signs of ageing, and the shouting of remarkably personal insults at passers-by from her lounge-room window.  As the social services close in, Agatha and Millie make an attempt to follow Millie’s mum, using an itinerary left behind in the house.  Along the way they join forces with Karl and together the three (well, technically four – Manny ends up along for the ride too) evade the law and try to find Millie a home. 

lost and found

Read it if:

* you’ve ever felt a real and personal connection to a shop mannequin (in any sort of attire)

* you hope to grow old disgracefully and take up a life of geriatric delinquency

* you like to ponder the big questions, such as “Where do parking inspectors go when they die?” and “Has my arm flab increased by more than a millimetre since yesterday?”

* you believe (as I do) that if we were all allowed to shout insulting things at other people when we are having a bad day (month/year/life) then navigating a path through everyday social situations would suddenly become a lot more interesting

Aaaaaahhhhhh.  That is the sound of contented sighing when, after reading only 2% of the Kindle version of this book, I knew that it and I were resonating on the same frequency.  This book is by turns delightful, sad, poignant, hilarious and a bit off-putting.  The off-putting bit relates to a reasonably graphic description of old-people sex, in case you’re wondering.  It is the book that I was hoping The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin was going to be, but whereas the characters and situations in that book annoyed me and seemed trite and contrived, the characters in Lost and Found just jumped off the page in a comfortable mix of idiosyncracies.

I could imagine that some readers might find Karl and Agatha (and especially Millie, in her precocious innocence) a bit contrived and annoying, but for me they were perfectly constructed and I just fell in love.  I loved Karl’s rebellious spirit and commitment to tagging public (and private!) property in popular 1980’s parlance.  I laughed my guts out at Agatha’s compulsion to shout the awkwardly anti-social obvious (“Assymetrical face!” “Stupid shoes!”) and I cheered inwardly at Millie’s determination to play the Angel of Existentialism by adopting the persona of Captain Funeral for her captive fellow train passengers.

While the characters embark on what feels like an epic journey, I knocked the book over in a couple of decent sittings because it was one of those stories that had me continually thinking, “I’ll just read one more chapter/to the next page break/until Agatha shouts something next”.  Inevitably, I was drawn ever-deeper into the increasingly complex (and somewhat ridiculous) web of deception and evasion of public officials that Karl, Agatha and Millie spin.  Like the book itself, the ending is at once poignant and light, inevitable and satisfying and one designed to keep the three main characters in the reader’s mind, while accepting that this too shall pass.

All in all, Lost and Found is a five star read has earned a place on my list of favourites.  As soon as someone takes the hint and buys me a hardback copy of Harold Fry, I will place these two side by side on my shelf as a tribute to humour in the midst of a finite existence.

Until next time (Reads too slow! Dried out eyeballs! Yawning at inappropriate moments!),

Bruce

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