Fi50 Reminder and Double Dip Review

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fi50

It’s that time of the month again – Fiction in 50 kicks off on Monday!  To participate, just create  a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and then add your link to the comments of my post on Monday.  For more information, just click on that snazzy typewriter at the top of this post.  Our prompt for this month is…

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Good luck!


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I don’t know about you but I’m all chocolated out after Easter, so I’ll be opting for a savoury snack to accompany my musings about one middle grade sci-fi comedy novel and one YA coming of age tale.  Grab your snack and let’s nosh on!

First up we have The Broken Bridge by Phillip Pullman which we received from PanMacmillan Australia for review.  This is a re-release of the novel which was first published in 1994 and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At 16, Ginny finds that her love of painting connects her to the artistic Haitian mother she never knew and eases the isolation she feels as the only mixed-race teen in her Welsh village. When she learns she has a half-brother by her father’s first marriage, her world is shattered. Ginny embarks on a quest for the truth that will allow her to claim her artistic heritage–and face her father.

the broken bridge

Dip into it for…

…a solid family drama with authentic characters and believable problems.  Ginny is a resilient young woman with a strong desire to be an artist like her mother was, but is plagued by the usual stressors and angst that most teens fall victim to at sometime or other during adolescence.  She has the added problem of trying to catch hold of a solid identity as a girl with a Welsh father and Haitian mother while living in an almost all-white village.  The secrets hinted at in the blurb are revealed slowly and by about a third of the way through the book I began to share Ginny’s bewilderment about what on major hidden aspect she might find out about her past next.  The pacing is well done, allowing the reader to get a grasp on Ginny, her friends and the general feel of her hometown before throwing in the confusion of multiple family secrets.  Kudos to Pullman also for creating a social worker character who is actually human, rather than overbearing, cold-hearted and disconnected or patronising.

Don’t dip if…

…you want simple resolutions to easily-solved problems.  Every story has two sides here, even that of the villainous Joe Chicago.

Overall Dip Factor

This is an engaging coming of age story that paints family breakdown, death and abuse in a believable light without resorting to gratuitous teen melodrama.  By the end of the book the reader can appreciate how Ginny has matured in her outlook despite not having all the answers about how she will present herself in the world.  I enjoyed this book for its authentic portrayal of a young person carving out a place for herself in her family and in the world.

Next we have How to Outsmart a Billion Robot Bees, the second in the Genius Factor books featuring Nate and Delphine, by Paul Tobin.  We received our copy from Bloomsbury Australia for review and we will be submitting this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in the category of a book with a red spine and the Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2017 AND my Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge in the category of something you’d take on a hunt.  I reckon a billion robot bees would be pretty handy.  You can check on my progress for all the challenges I’m undertaking this year here.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s Friday the 13th again, and for sixth grade genius Nate Bannister, that means doing three more not-so-smart things to keep life interesting. But he has bigger problems than his own experiments. His nemesis, the Red Death Tea Society, is threatening to unleash a swarm of angry bees on the city of Polt if Nate doesn’t join their ranks. But then a new group of people with murky intentions shows up — the League of Ostracized Fellows — and they want Nate as their own, too. To top it off, he’s convinced there’s a spy in his very own school.

Nate must once again team up with his new, resourceful, friend Delphine to save the day. They’ll need the help of Nate’s crazy gadgets, such as his talking car Betsy and super-powered pets Bosper the Scottish terrier and Sir William the gull, if they hope to see another Friday the 13th. Because they might be battling more than just sting-happy bees and villains with a penchant for tea this time around.

Dip into it for… billion robot bees

…silliness, wild inventions and bee stings in sensitive places.  I do enjoy the quirky tone and dry yet silly humour that Tobin has created in these books.  There is a certain imagery conjured up by his writing that is truly giggleworthy.  Nate and Delphine are also a fun pair and the introduction of Melville – a friendly robot bee adopted by Delphine – adds to the action in this installment.  Bosper, Nate’s genetically modified talking dog stole the show for me in this book however – something about his manner of speaking just cracked me up every time.  The plot of this one seemed a lot more straightforward than in the first book despite the inclusion of the socially awkward League of Ostracised Fellows and everybody, including the jealous Betsy the car, had a role to play in saving Polt from bee-mageddon: The Sting-en-ing.

Don’t dip if…

…you are after fast-paced action.  The one quarrel I have with these stories is that the quirky humour, when added to the action sequences, slows down the pace of the story interminably.  My edition clocked in at 340ish pages and by about halfway I was ready for the resolution to start coming into play.  While the humour is a massively important part of these books, the constant banter does really slow things down when it feels like things should be speeding up.

Overall Dip Factor

I can’t remember why I didn’t finish the first book in this series, but I think it was something to do with the pacing and a lag in the middle.  This book does suffer from the same ailment in my opinion, but I got a lot further along in this story before I really felt the lag, compared to the first book.  Nate and Delphine are so likable and the style of humour so enjoyable that I would still pick up a third in the series, but I would be hoping that the story overall would move a bit quicker.

Right, I’m ready for chocolate again after that.  Have you read either of these books?  Do you like a bit of silly, quirky comedy?  Let me know in the comments!

Until next time,

Bruce

Forgetting Foster: A Child’s-Eye View of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease…

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Today’s offering – Forgetting Foster by Aussie author Dianne Touchell – is a moving look at Alzheimer’s disease and its devastating effects on the family, told from the point of view of Foster, a seven-year-old only child.  Having read Touchell’s debut novel, Creepy and Maud, a number of years back, we knew that we would be in for something special here.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Foster suddenly recognised the feeling that rolled over him and made him feel sick. It was this: Dad was going away somewhere all on his own. And Foster was already missing him.

Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad’s stories.

But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten.

Forgetting Foster | REVISED FINAL COVER x 2 (18 April 2016)

Forgetting Foster (Dianne Touchell) Published by Allen & Unwin, 22 June 2016. RRP: 19.99

Given that I have a special interest in books featuring characters suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, I can confidently say that this is an excellent addition to the fictional literature on the topic.  Forgetting Foster is made more memorable (pardon the pun!) due to the fact that this is a title aimed at a YA target audience (although I’m not convinced this is a necessary label) and told from the point of view of a child.  It reminded me most strongly of What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor, although far less gimmicky in tone and much the better for it.

I loved Touchell’s narrative style; she has a certain ability to evoke crystal clear imagery through writing that is almost poetic at times.  It felt very similar to Glenda Millard’s style of prose, and that is high praise, given that regular readers of this blog will know that we think Glenda Millard is a genius.  If you are familiar with Millard’s Kingdom of Silk series, simply extrapolate that kind of deft and unshrinking confrontation of difficult issues onto a story written for a more mature audience and you’ll have a good idea of the approach Touchell  has taken in addressing the confusion, grief and overwhelming worry of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

The use of a child character to address an adult issue is usually a sure-fire way to show a well-worn issue in a new light and that is certainly the case here.  Foster is sharp as a tack when it comes to the realisation that life as he knew it is slipping away, but the social nuances of the adults’ behaviour go over his head.  Many of the self-defeating actions of Foster’s mother are brought into sharp focus when viewed through Foster’s lens and I found it harder to sympathise with her as the book went on, despite the fact that she is obviously under enormous stress and dealing with her own issues of grief and the emotional and mental, if not phsycial, loss of a husband at such an early stage in life.  I found Foster’s aunty to be a breath of fresh air through the whole story, maintaining, as she does, an unflinching sense of optimism.  This optimism is clearly feigned at times, and even though Foster’s mother doesn’t appreciate it, it worked neatly to stop the reader from being sucked into the pit of despair along with Foster’s mother.

This is another one of those “YA” books that will easily cross age borders and be appreciated as clever and touching adult fiction.  I certainly never got any sense that this was specifically written for a young audience and Foster as a character only confirmed this for me.  He is seven, for a start – far too young a narrator for a typical YA tale – and only a tiny part of the story is given over to his life.  He doesn’t seem to have any close friends or engage in any hobbies that might be expected of a seven year old.  For this reason, I suspect that Foster is best described as a gentle conduit into a world of cataclysmic change – a way to allow the reader to experience the emotions that go along with losing a family member while being shielded from the worst of it.

I did feel that I wanted something more from the book once it was finished.  I’m not sure if this was because I was expecting more to be made of the comparative youth of the character suffering from Alzheimer’s disease – Foster’s father – or simply because I have read a number of books already – both fiction and nonfiction – on the topic, but I wanted a bit of a kick in the tale that I didn’t quite receive.  It’s possible that because it was Foster’s dad, not his grandfather, that was quickly moving downhill, I wanted the experience of that loss to feel more significant and raw and I didn’t quite get that from Foster’s narration.  This may be where the book feels closest to the YA category, as those deeper and more troubling experiences related to grieving the total loss of someone who is still alive, are left alone.

Forgetting Foster is certainly worth a read if you are looking for a contemporary novel that deals with grief, loss and confusion in an extremely accessible way – not to mention if you are looking for a cracking OZ YA title.  Again, I wouldn’t be put off by the fact that this is a “YA” novel, because it reads magnificently as adult fiction.  For grown-up readers looking for nonfiction reads on the same topic, allow me to suggest Green Vanilla Tea by Marie Williams (another brilliant Aussie tale).

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Memoir as Fiction: Black British…

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We’re having a bit of a change of pace today on the shelf with some historical adult fiction that reads like a memoir, written by an Australian author and set in 1960s India during a time of social upheaval.  With India being one of the countries in whose history we are particularly interested (the other, of course, at the moment, being Japan), it would have been remiss of us not to get our collective paws on Black British by Hebe De Souza.  We were lucky enough to snag a copy from Ventura Press for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.

Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

Black British is, for the most part, a thinly-disguised memoir dressed up as fiction.  The story revolves around a woman who has returned to her ancestral home and ends up telling her life story to a stranger who asks a simple enough question: “Where do you come from, lady?”  The majority of the tale occurs in 1960s India, with extremely brief flashes back to the original chatting pair at the end of each chapter to link the sections together.

While I enjoyed the book, narrated by thinker and independent spirit Lucy, the youngest of three sisters living a comparatively wealthy upbringing as English-speaking, private school-attending young ladies surrounded by great swathes of people living in poverty, it was not the suspenseful and tumultuous ride suggested by the blurb.  I was expecting a lot more insight into the social upheaval of the time, but most of the story takes place within the walls of Lucy’s family’s compound and the girls are largely shielded from their family’s precarious social position and its implications by the adults in their lives.  Basically, I wanted the danger to feature more largely in the telling of a story that sees Lucy go from her early years of schooling to the cusp of adulthood with nary a scary experience to report – except for an overzealous monkey intruder and a very hairy cab ride after she ventures as a young adult into the community with her father.

Even though the book didn’t end up being quite as exciting as I expected, it remains an absorbing snapshot of a time and place undergoing rapid and permanent social change.  As English-speaking Catholics, Lucy’s family are well outside what was considered typical in her community and the struggles of being the outsider, even in one’s own home, are thoroughly explored. The prominent motif throughout the book is the security provided by a loving family unit and the ways in which adults nurture the enquiring minds of young people, even in situations that will cause the young person to move up a rung on the ladder of social maturity.

The book deals with a number of social issues including domestic abuse and the place of people identifying as homosexual in an unforgiving culture and time, and as the reader experiences these issues through Lucy’s eyes, it is clear that situations that one might consider black and white, move through every shade of grey when considered in a larger social context.  The implications for individuals of their life choices – whether to remain in an unhappy marriage or relegate oneself to a life of hardship, for instance – are offered as fodder to fuel Lucy’s own looming crisis: to remain in the only home she knows, despite her outsider status and the ever-present threat of violence and hardship, or leave her roots behind for the sake of building a comfortable future.

This is certainly a book that focuses on familial relationships as a means for exploring the wider social conflicts that influence the decisions we make as individuals.  As a fictional memoir, it is engaging and the characters are fleshed out and authentic.  I would have liked to have seen more made of the Lucy of “twenty-one years later”.  The tiny flashes we get of the Lucy who has returned to her homeland in search of belonging felt a bit contrived, as so much of the focus was on the period set in the 1960s, and I would have liked to have been privy to what Lucy did with, at least, some of her life since her family’s decision to move away.  Nevertheless, this is a strong debut from De Souza and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next – particularly something that is wholly fictional.

If you are looking for historical fiction that reads like a memoir and places an emphasis on growing up as an outsider in one’s own land, you should certainly give Black British a look.

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Hester and Harriet

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TBR Friday

I’m slowly edging my way up that mountain and this month I’ve knocked over another one of those books that I just had to have the second it was published, only to leave it languishing on the shelf for months.  Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers was touted as a feel-good hit at the end of 2015 and I did everything in my power to obtain a copy for free on or before the release date – through competitions, requesting from the publisher, you name it! – before I gave in and just bought it.  Let’s check it out.

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Ten Second Synopsis:

Hester and Harriet, geriatric sisters, offer refuge to a young woman and her baby in an attempt to get out of having Christmas lunch with odious relatives. When their young nephew Ben turns up also requesting sanctuary, the term “silly season” comes into play, as the ladies and their charges grapple with international migration laws, ridiculously named private detectives and cleaning up after oneself in the kitchen.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

I can’t trace this exactly because I can’t remember where I bought it, but I suspect since late December 2015.

Acquired:

Purchased, either from the BD or possibly Booktopia or maybe Boomerang Books

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

  1. Laziness
  2. Fear that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations

Best Bits:

  • The young nephew character, Ben.  He is comic relief, a breath of fresh air and his growth through the novel is enjoyable to witness
  • The plot is perfect for an extended holiday or beach read.  Nothing too untoward happens and there are lots of quirky characters to get behind.
  • Finbar, the homeless classics master.  He was quite refreshing in his scenes and a handy source of new information.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • It’s slow.  There are lots of discussions between the two sisters that really slow down the action, and this, coupled with the fact that Daria is unnecessarily furtive about her past, means that new information must be wrung from the pages by clawing hands
  • I couldn’t tell the difference between Hester and Harriet.  One is good at cooking and one gets quite shirty about Ben using the kitchen (this is possibly the same sister), but given the two “H” names and not much of a difference in personality or manner between them, I just thought of them as a conglomerate old person spread over two bodies.
  • Finbar, the homeless classics master.  As well as being refreshing, he was also excessively verbose and a great candidate to have “GET ON WITH IT!” shouted at him.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

The more prudent part of my brain says that we would have enjoyed this just as well had we borrowed it from the library.  The generous part of my brain says that at least we can now make someone else happy by passing this impressively large and attractive paperback on.

Where to now for this tome?

It has already been passed along to someone who should enjoy it.

This is another chink off the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block.

Mount TBR 2016

 

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

An Fi50 Reminder and a Time Travel Murder Mystery…

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imageIt’s almost time for everyone’s favourite micro-flash-fiction challenge once again – Fiction in 50!  July’s challenge will open on Monday and the prompt for this month is…

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If you’d like to play along – and we sincerely hope you do – just create a piece of fiction comprising fewer than 51 words and pop back on Monday to add your link to the comments on my post.  For more detailed information and prompts for the next six months, just click on the attractive button at the top of this post.

Now on to the bookery!

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Today I have an unexpected delight for you that involves murder, mystery, magic doors, time travel and pen pals. Not necessarily in that order. We received a copy of The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks from the publisher via Netgalley.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Annabelle Aster doesn’t bow to convention—not even that of space and time—which makes the 1890s Kansas wheat field that has appeared in her modern-day San Francisco garden easy to accept. Even more peculiar is Elsbeth, the truculent schoolmarm who sends Annie letters through the mysterious brass mailbox perched on the picket fence that now divides their two worlds.

Annie and Elsbeth’s search for an explanation to the hiccup in the universe linking their homes leads to an unsettling discovery—and potential disaster for both of them. Together they must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and yet somehow already did.

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The Good

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As far as time travel mysteries go, this is very well put together with a lovely blend of action between the present and the past. The tale starts off slowly (and innocently) enough, with two ladies becoming trans-temporal pen pals after each suddenly discovers the other’s house in their back garden. As  Annie and Elsbeth try and figure out why they are suddenly connected in this manner, more pressing issues come to light and the ladies are drawn into trying to stop a murder that may (or may not) already have happened.

As the story unfolds, the author deftly reveals subsequent layers of the connection between the two women and the events surrounding Annie’s current circumstances in the present. The characters of Christian (Annie’s long-time, stuttering friend), Edmond (befriended by Christian due to an inexplicable familiarity of face) and Nathaniel (old-fashioned romantic interest for Annie) all add to the depth of the story and kept me guessing about who was who and how they were all linked. Or not linked.

The villains, Culler and Danyer, are violent and unpredictable and cast a deliciously creepy shadow over proceedings that is necessary to dispel Annie’s unfailing belief that meddling in time will result in things turning out perfectly alright. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the ordinary issues of Annie’s life melded with the time-travelly, magical aspects of the tale and I think this book will have a wide audience that encompasses those who enjoy plain literary fiction as well as those who like an unreal twist to their novels.

The Sad

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The only thing that mildly soured the experience of this book for me was the fact that I felt the pace slowed unnecessarily in some places, making the book feel a bit overly long. This is one of those books that, like the final film in The Lord of the Rings franchise, has an action-packed climax and then continues on for another half hour or so as all the loose ends are tied up. While the post-climax information is interesting and enlightening, and a satisfactory conclusion to the tale, it falls into the category that I like to call the “pre-empted bladder annoyance”. This may be familiar to you (or not), being the situation in which you think something (usually a film) is about to end and therefore you give your bladder permission to relax, knowing that within minutes you will be free to attend to its needs. When the film (or book, or play or whatever) then continues for longer than expected, you are forced to fidget uncomfortably while the author takes the time to neatly tie off the ends of the narrative.

Again, this certainly wasn’t a big enough complaint to sour the experience for me, but I do like a bit of warning where bladder pre-empting is concerned.

The Quirky

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The thing that stands out for me about this book as opposed to other time-travel jaunts I’ve read is that it really does read like a family drama/comedy with time travel thrown in, rather than focusing on the mechanics of the time-travel and paradoxes and so forth. As a veteran reader of time-travel novels, this felt like a lovely, gentle yet exciting entry into the genre.

If you’re a fan of contemporary fiction that doesn’t feature any unbelievable or magical elements, I would definitely recommend you give this book a try because it has all the best features of contemporary and women’s fiction (the friendships, the focus on relationships – both romantic and otherwise, the growth of the characters) as well as the added interest of the problems posed by finding a magic door at the back of your house and being unwittingly drawn into a century-old murder investigation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the buoyant tone of this book and the way in which the author has intertwined time-travel with the general excitement and intrigue of a murder mystery. Annie and Elsbeth are both strong characters with a great sense of humour and wills of iron. The male characters run the gamut from shrinking violet to homicidal maniac and flesh out the narrative so that you can never quite be sure where each fits in (or will fit in in the future).

Give it a go, I reckon. If nothing else, you will find out the meaning of the word “lemoncholy” which you can then use in general conversation to annoy those who don’t know what it means, while simultaneously feeling superior in your ever-expanding vocabulary.

Until next time,

Bruce