Meandering through Middle Grade: The Hounds of Penhallow Hall

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We’re back with what is arguably my favourite reading age-group today – middle grade, with its boldly imagined worlds and indomitable characters.  Today I have a story we received from the publisher via Netgalley.  The Hounds of Penhallow Hall: The Moonlight Statue by Holly Webb and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft is a classic tale of a new home, loneliness and finding friends in unexpected places.  Here’s the blurb from Netgalley:

For Poppy, moving to Penhallow Hall is the fresh start she’s been longing for since the death of her father. Her mum has got a job managing the stately home and once the last of the visitors leave for the day the place is all theirs! One night, Poppy sleepwalks into the garden and wakes to find her hand on the head of one of the stone dogs that guard the steps down to the lawn. Then she feels him lick her cheek! The dog introduces himself as Rex, an Irish Wolfhound who lived at Penhallow many hundreds of years earlier. And he is not the only resident ghost – Poppy has also glimpsed a strange boy around the place. With Rex’s help she finds herself unravelling the story of his beloved master, William Penhallow, who was killed in the First World War aged only 17.

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Having a quick browse on Goodreads, it became apparent that Holly Webb has written quite a significant back catalogue of cutesy books about puppies, kittens, fairies and princesses for the younger end of the middle grade age bracket.  While there is a definite whiff of the cutesy about The Hounds of Penhallow Hall, the story overall fits nicely into the typical tropes about moving to a new, unexpectedly magical home with which the middle grade fantasy genre is replete.

There is really nothing new or particularly original about this story – a girl moves to a Big House with her mother, gets very lonely, discovers a fluffy magical companion and solves the mystery (such as it is) of a boy haunting the house.  There are no major problems to  overcome, no sense of particular danger or suspense and everything gets wrapped up quickly and easily with little struggle or fuss.  For that reason, this is one of those middle grade books that will appeal much more to younger readers than it will older readers of middle grade.

The story itself had a bit of an old-timey feel, probably due to the oft-used content, but Polly is instantly likable, Rex is the kind of companion anyone would love to have, and the ghost boy, William, caves quickly enough from his stroppy mood to make us like him too.  I will admit that reading this book did strengthen my already quite strong desire to make a wolfhound part of the Shelf family, however impractical that may be.

I would have liked to see a bit more conflict in this book; conflict in the sense of a problem that Polly has to solve or overcome to give the narrative a bit of oomph or suspense.  As it is, the story arc is basic and there didn’t seem to me to be enough of a hook to keep independent readers engaged, unless they particularly love dogs.

Overall, this is one that fell short of my expectations, but should appeal to the younger end of the middle grade audience and those who would love the idea of a magical doggy companion.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

#LoveOzYA : Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact

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I’ve been waiting excitedly for a year for this, the second book in Alison Goodman’s historical, fantasy, ass-kicking, demon-slaying Dark Days Club series to drop and thanks to HarperCollins Australia, I finally got my grabby paws on a copy of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact.  In case you haven’t come across this series before, we boldly claimed it as a Top Book of 2016 on January 1st last year, for its extraordinary blend of meticulously researched historical content and original and creepy paranormal elements.

If you haven’t read the first book, you really need to do that now.  Go on, we’ll wait.

The second book serves up more of the same delightful Deceiver destruction and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The second novel in the thrilling LADY HELEN series sees Helen following orders that could bring about betrayal and annihilation. 

Summer, 1812

After the scandalous events at her presentation ball in London, Lady Helen has taken refuge at the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where she is training to be a Reclaimer with the covert Dark Days Club.

As she struggles to put aside her genteel upbringing and take up the weapons of a warrior, Helen realizes that her mentor, Lord Carlston, is fighting his own inner battle. Has the foul Deceiver energy poisoned his soul, or is something else driving him towards violent bouts of madness? Either way, Helen is desperate to help the man with whom she shares a deep but forbidden connection.

When Mr Pike, the hard bureaucratic heart of the Dark Days Club, arrives in Brighton, no one is prepared for the ordinary evil he brings in his wake. He has a secret task for Helen and Mr Hammond, and the authority of the Prince Regent. They have no choice but to do as he orders, knowing that the mission will betray everyone around them and possibly bring about Lord Carlston’s annihilation.

Society takes a back seat in this second offering as Helen’s Reclaimer training begins in earnest.  Almost immediately though, spanners are thrown in the works as the Duke of Selburn appears in Brighton on a not-very-subtle reconnaissance mission on behalf of Helen’s older brother, while the man in charge of the Reclaimers, Mr Pike, turns up unexpectedly and changes the course of Helen’s loyalties irrevocably.  We also see a return of Delia, Helen’s much-maligned friend, and Pug, who provides equal parts wingwoman and comic relief.

The tone of this book is one of underlying disquiet as events seem to conspire against Helen and her band of Reclaimer friends at every turn.  Helen is forced to make decisions on the fly, the consequences of which could end up endangering people she loves, no matter which course she chooses.  Essentially, this book is Helen’s coming-of-age in the Reclaimer world. No longer is she a young lady to be protected and promenaded; Helen must now take her place as an active Reclaimer or risk her own life and the lives of those she loves.  The events of the story do a great deal to advance the world-building and “rules” surrounding the bond between Deceivers and Reclaimers and as such, there is a lot of new information for readers to absorb and join the dots around.

Action is portioned out throughout the story, with subterfuge, underhanded deals and espionage more the order of the day, although the final few chapters certainly make up for any lack of chase, escape and derring-do that might be lacking in the earlier parts of the story.  There are some important reveals in this story that will absolutely change Helen’s role in the Dark Days Club as well as her role in life generally.  Other parts of the story will make your skin crawl and the “ick” factor is certainly in play where particular characters of ill-repute are concerned.  For the romance fans, you can cut the sexual tension between Carlston and Lady Helen with a knife (and between another pairing that you might not expect!)  but for readers shipping that particular couple, it should be noted that the course of true love never runs smooth, particularly where demon-slaying is involved.

Once again, this is a hugely entertaining story with meticulous attention to detail for the time period and innovative fantasy elements from a strong voice in Australian YA fiction.  If you are a fan of either historical fiction or fantasy, you really are missing out if you haven’t added Lady Helen’s adventures to your nightstand reading pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

For the Love of Books Giveaway Hop!

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Book love is in the air and so we’re happy to be participating in the For the Love of Books Giveaway Hop hosted by Val at StuckinBooks.  The hop runs from February 4th to 14th.

The theme of this hop is sharing books that we love so I’m offering one winner a copy of the first book in one of my favourite YA Paranormal series, Lockwood and Co by Jonathan Stroud.

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From Goodreads:

When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . .

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions.

Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.

Set in a city stalked by spectres, The Screaming Staircase is the first in a chilling new series full of suspense, humour and truly terrifying ghosts. Your nights will never be the same again . . .

If you’ve already started the series, I’m happy to instead offer the winner their choice of any book from this series.  My giveaway is open internationally provided the Book Depository ships to your country for free.  Other Ts&Cs are in the Rafflecopter link.

To enter, just click on the Rafflecopter link below:

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

Now hop along and see what else you can win!  Click on the linky below to see the other participating blogs:

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

Gabbing about Graphic Novels: Past and Future War

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I’ve been diving into the graphic novels with gusto so far this year and today I have two eye-pleasing tomes that deal with the spectre of past and future conflict.  One is realistic in tone, while the other pits three young mages against a world in which futuristic machines have resulted in the downfall of humanity.  We received both titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley for review.

The Lighthouse by Paco Roca

From Goodreads:

Francisco, a wounded, despairing sixteen-year-old Republican guard in the Spanish Civil War, is trying to flee to freedom by crossing the French border. In his escape, he encounters an old remote lighthouse, far from the warring factions. He is granted shelter by Telmo, the aging operator of the lighthouse. As Francisco recuperates, Telmo’s tales of epic adventurers who sailed the lost seas and discovered worlds unknown reignite the spark of life in the young soldier.

the-lighthouse

The underlying dark themes of war and violence are reflected in the monochromatic art in The Lighthouse.  The story opens on the escape attempt of Francisco, a young soldier who is offered sanctuary by elderly but cheerful Telmo, the keeper of a lighthouse.  As Francisco learns more about the lighthouse and its workings, and assists Telmo in building a boat from the flotsam that washes up on the beach, he begins to heal from his experiences and question his commitment to his cause.  When events take an unexpected turn for Francisco later in the story, he is forced to take his fate into his own hands and decide what kind of life he wants to lead.

The Lighthouse deals with the sort of choices that, when made, define a life.  Telmo has made his choices in life and is content to keep the lighthouse in order in anticipation for the day when the government will send a new bulb to restore the lighthouse to full function.  Francisco, who was previously unwavering in his commitment to his ideals, begins to think for himself under Telmo’s fanciful guidance.

This is not an overly long read, but it certainly packs a punch and will generate discussion about loyalties to duty and to self, and the sacrifices that individuals make to attain their goals.  This would be an interesting inclusion in a secondary or university course focusing on ethics.

The Castoffs V.1: Mage Against the Machine by M.K. Reed, Brian Smith & Molly Ostertag

From Goodreads:

It’s Mage against the Machine! Magic vs technology in Roar’s newest graphic novel. When three apprentice mages are sent to help a neighboring guild, they reignite a decades-old war with a robot army that has destroyed the world.

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This opening volume of The Castoffs seems like it will be a welcome addition to the collection of graphic novels being released that feature strong female protagonists and characters from diverse backgrounds.  The story opens on a historical battle between mages and “surrogates” – machines that were created to assist humanity but have caused chaos and carnage.  Our three protagonists, Charris, Ursa and Thrinh, are from a later period in history, when the use of technology has been largely abandoned and mages are free – mostly – to use their skills.  The three young women are chosen to fulfill what seems to be a simple delivery job, but on arriving at their destination it becomes apparent that there is much more afoot than the trivial errand on which they were sent.

Cue the discovery of a resurgence of surrogate use and the difficult decisions that follow: do the girls attempt to put down the uprising alone or return to the Guild for help?  Can the three get along for long enough to obtain a result?  And what skills are some of the girls hiding and why?

After a start that didn’t exactly draw me in, I warmed to the characters and became absorbed in the intrigue unfolding before them.  The bickering between the girls was by turns amusing and irritating, but by the end of the book most of that had been put aside in favour of interesting reveals and kick-ass magic skills.  I think this will greatly appeal to readers of graphic novels aimed at the YA market, as well as those who just love a good story featuring magic versus technology.  The diverse female protagonists will also be a drawcard for those specifically seeking out wide representation in their reads.

Overall, this was a promising, action-packed start to the series and I am interested to see where some of the cliffhanger plot points go from here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Adult Fiction Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day…

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Today’s book is an original ghostly tale that delves into the question, “if your afterlife was spent stuck on Earth, how would you spend it?”  The characters in this story answer that question in a range of ways that you might not expect.  We received a copy of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire from the publisher via Netgalley, and I will be submitting it for the Colour-Coded Reading Challenge 2017 and the PopSugar Reading Challenge, under the category of a book from a non-human perspective.  You can check out my progress toward my challenges here.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Considering that, at its heart, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a ghost story, there is a significant amount of philosophising about the nature of life and the meaning of atonement in this book.

This is not a bad thing.

In fact, it gives what could have been a basic urban fantasy (or urban paranormal, possibly) story a deeper element on which to ponder.

I found Jenna to be an immediately likable narrator.  Having accidentally met her own death while grieving after the suicide of her older sister, Jenna spends her afterlife working on a volunteer suicide prevention hotline in order to avoid other families having to experience the death of a loved one by their own hand.  In doing so, Jenna is “earning” her way towards her final death – the day on which she was intended to die, had she not run out into a lightning storm and been prematurely frazzled.

The early parts of the book are heavy with world-building, because the author has set up specific rules regarding the type of person who can become a ghost, what ghosts can affect in the living world and why some ghosts have been around longer than others.  In fact, the bulk of the story involves Jenna finding out more about the laws that govern her afterlife, as ghosts start disappearing and her semi-comfortable existence begins to crumble.  For those who like a fantasy twist in their paranormal, McGuire’s world also includes witches (who can be male or female), whose powers link them to a particular object, be it organic or built, and shape how that power might be wielded.

The characters are the strong suit of this particular story, with Jenna ably accompanied by Delia, an elderly ghost who provides cheap housing for both living and dead tenants, Sophie, a homeless young woman with an affinity for rodents, and Brenda, a corn witch who has made Manhattan her home.  This is definitely as much a story of relationships and social connections as it is a ghost story.

After all the build up and time spent developing the afterlife concept at the beginning of the book, the resolution came along quite quickly and was all tied up in record time, which surprised me a little.  Having said that, I was quite satisfied with the pace of the final chapters because there is nothing worse than having a book drag out the denouement when there is no need to do so.  There is plenty of action and some unexpected reveals regarding who is behind the ghostly disappearances that I certainly didn’t see coming and by the end of the book, Jenna comes to terms with her misplaced guilt regarding her role in her sister’s death.

While I didn’t find this to be an absolutely stellar read, it was certainly original and had a tone that will appeal to those who enjoy books about female and family relationships, as much as those who enjoy paranormal and fantasy stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Fi50 Reminder and Gabbing about Graphic Novels…

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Fiction in 50 NEW BUTTON

It’s nearly time for our first Fiction in 50 challenge for the year!  Fi50 for 2017 will kick off on Monday and out post for January is …

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To participate, just create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words, post it and add your link to the comments of Monday’s Fi50 post.  For more information and future prompts, click here.


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It’s time to get gabbing about graphic novel goodness and today I have two options for you, each weirder than the last.  First up, there’s Chickenhare by Chris Grine.  I’m submitting this one for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017 and for the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge under category two: a book with the name of a bird in the title.  You can check out my progress in all of my challenges for this year here.  Anyway, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Chickenhare: half chicken, half rabbit, 100% hero!

What’s a chickenhare? A cross between a chicken and a rabbit, of course. And that makes Chickenhare the rarest animal around! So when he and his turtle friend Abe are captured and sold to the evil taxidermist Klaus, they’ve got to find a way to escape before Klaus turns them into stuffed animals. With the help of two other strange creatures, Banjo and Meg, they might even get away. But with Klaus and his thugs hot on their trail, the adventure is only just beginning for this unlikely quartet of friends.

chickenhare

I’ve had this one on my TBR shelf for about four months or so after I impulse bought it because it sounded wacky.  Wacky it certainly is, and I didn’t quite expect how dark it would get in some places.  I’d have to say that while middle graders could certainly read and enjoy this, it’s probably more suited to slightly older readers who aren’t easily shocked (or grossed out).

So Chickenhare and Abe are sold to a taxidermist and in order to affect an escape, they must team up with a mad monkey (or is he?) and a strange girl creature with horns.  All is not so simple as it seems however, because Klaus, the taxidermist, has vowed never to let any of his “pets” escape since he lost his most beloved animal, a goat called Mr Buttons.  Whacking and falling out of windows ensues (on the part of the enemy) and while our heroic quartet manage to escape, it is out of the frying pan and into the fire as the team tries to navigate pitch dark tunnels that are plagued with Shromph, little trollish creatures with big pointy teeth.

And this is where the goat corpse comes in.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but just be warned that the half decomposed corpse of Mr Buttons plays a major role in the denouement of this adventure.  I will readily admit that it is easily the best characterisation of a deceased goat that I have yet seen in children’s literature.

The story ends on a mild cliffhanger and while there were certainly parts of  this that had me going “Eeergh”, “Blaaagh” and “Oooh, that’s not cricket!” respectively, I do actually want to know what happens to our four friends because there is a bit of a suggestion that at least two of them may not be exactly what they seem.

Again, even though the art style is quite colourful and cartoonish, the content and tone of the book is probably best suited to the YA aged reader and above.

Next up I have the first volume of stories from the popular Adventure Time TV series, Adventure Time, Volume 1 by Ryan North, Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s ADVENTURE TIME! Join Finn the Human, Jake the Dog, and Princess Bubblegum for all-new adventures through The Land of Ooo.

The totally algebraic adventures of Finn and Jake have come to the comic book page! The Lich, a super-lame, SUPER-SCARY skeleton dude, has returned to the the Land of Ooo, and he’s bent on total destruction! Luckily, Finn and Jake are on the case…but can they succeed against their most destructive foe yet? Featuring fan-favorite characters Marceline the Vampire Queen, Princess Bubblegum, Lumpy Space Princess and the Ice King!

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I picked this up from the library on a whim in the hope that it would allow me to find out the basic gist of the TV show without having to actually watch it.  Being a trendy sort of a gargoyle, I like to try and keep up with what the young folk are watching, if I can manage it.  While I do feel that having read this has given me a basic grasp of who’s who and what’s what, I can’t say for certain that I actually enjoyed the read.

Essentially, in this volume, a big, nasty skeleton warrior called the Lich turns up with a nefarious sack which has the power to suck all matter into its depths.  Unsurprisingly enough, Jake, Finn and all the inhabitants of the Land of Ooo (and then some), get sucked into the bag and end up in a desert landscape, from which there is no escape, let alone any sandwiches not actually made of sand.

As more of Finn’s friends (and enemies) get sucked into the Lich’s sack, it becomes apparent that they will all have to work together to save Ooo and the planet.  And that is exactly what they do.  Having not seen the show before, this graphic novel does give a good overview of who the important characters are and what their general roles and characteristics and catchphrases happen to be in the series.  There were a number of pretty funny scenes and bits of dialogue throughout, but I found a lot of the “catchphrase” type bits rather tedious.  I don’t think they translated as well to paper as they might in the actual TV series.

While I feel that I now do have a bit of an idea what the show is about, I would still like to know more…but I think I’ll just have to bite the bullet and actually watch the damn thing and save myself the bother of having to read pages and pages of high fives and such.

Don’t forget to join in with Fi50 on Monday!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Mondays are for Murder: Beastly Bones…

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Welcome to our first murderous Monday for the year!  I have taken the liberty of choosing a murder mystery out of left field for today because it also allows me to knock another book off my Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017 and my Colour-coded Reading Challenge, both of which are hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block.  Beastly Bones is the second book in the Jackaby series by William Ritter, a historical mystery series with a paranormal twist. You can see our review of the first book here – I’m surprised that it’s actually been two and a quarter years between drinks for me and this series!  Anyway, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

I’ve found very little about private detective R. F. Jackaby to be standard in the time I’ve known him. Working as his assistant tends to call for a somewhat flexible relationship with reality . . .

In 1892, New Fiddleham, New England, things are never quite what they seem, especially when Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer, R. F. Jackaby, are called upon to investigate the supernatural. First, members of a particularly vicious species of shape-shifters disguise themselves as a litter of kittens. A day later, their owner is found murdered, with a single mysterious puncture wound to her neck. Then, in nearby Gad’s Valley, dinosaur bones from a recent dig go missing, and an unidentifiable beast attacks animals and people, leaving their mangled bodies behind. Policeman Charlie Cane, exiled from New Fiddleham to the valley, calls on Abigail for help, and soon Abigail and Jackaby are on the hunt for a thief, a monster, and a murderer.

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Plot Summary:

Abigail and Jackaby are called in to consult when a lady’s cats seem to be morphing into another species entirely. When said lady is found dead within days of the visit, the pair are drawn into a mystery that may have explosive consequences.

The Usual Suspects:

Not being your typical murder mystery, there is really only one suspect in the murders here and that suspect can be described as having at least two long, piercing fangs.  Or a particularly deadly set of cocktail forks.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is what annoyed me most about this book.  The hunt for the murderer/s, and indeed the murders themselves, took a backseat to the matter of the “beastly bones”, an archaeological dig that quickly turns mythological.  By the end of the book we are none the wiser as to who the murderer is, and the murders of this book look like they will end up being solved in the next book in the series.

Overall Rating:

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Two poison bottles for the fleeting sensation of discovery before it evaporates in the face of distraction from shiny things

I was disappointed with this book.  It lacked the charm and novelty of the first book in the series, and, most dispiriting of all, the most interesting parts of the book – the inexplicable murder and Jenny the ghost’s complete freakout – are completely ignored in favour of mythical beast hunting.  I found the middle section of the book, which dealt with the discovery of gigantic, mystery fossils to be interminably boring and it seemed particularly odd that the author spent so much time developing the characters and backstory of the two archaeologists in the story at the expense of developing suspense or highlighting the murders connected with the archaeological dig.

The final few chapters do bring things back into line and the protagonists finally see their way to making strides on the murders and who might be behind them.  This was the best part of the book for me because even though it was only a chapter or two, the suspense was suddenly back.  While this offering was a big thumbs down generally from me, I am excited to see what happens in the third book because there are hints that Jackaby and Rook will be back on the trail of deadly, secretive murderers, or at least finding out more about Jenny the ghost, rather than gadding about in the dirt with bones.

The third book in the series, Ghostly Echoes, is already out.

To make up for bringing you a book I’m not overly enthusiastic about this month, next month I will have TWO murderous Mondays for you.

You can check out my progress toward my various reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce