Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Mighty Jack…

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gabbing-about-graphic-novels

Today I’m bringing you another Ben Hatke graphic gem because Ben Hatke is awesome.  I picked up Mighty Jack from the library a week or two ago and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it even more than the Zita the Spacegirl books.  It’s a big call I know, but bear with me.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jack might be the only kid in the world who’s dreading summer. But he’s got a good reason: summer is when his single mom takes a second job and leaves him at home to watch his autistic kid sister, Maddy. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s boring, too, because Maddy doesn’t talk. Ever. But then, one day at the flea market, Maddy does talk—to tell Jack to trade their mom’s car for a box of mysterious seeds. It’s the best mistake Jack has ever made.

What starts as a normal little garden out back behind the house quickly grows up into a wild, magical jungle with tiny onion babies running amok, huge, pink pumpkins that bite, and, on one moonlit night that changes everything…a dragon.

mighty jack

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Fantasy, fractured fairy tales

Art Style:

Ben Hatke style!

Reading time:

Took me about half an hour total spread over two sittings

Let’s get gabbing:

I’m going to dispense with reiterating how much I love Ben Hatke’s illustrative style and adorable original creatures and just get on with talking about the story.  Although, if you’ll indulge me, this series has a ridiculously cute little onion headed species that Mad Martha is dying to recreate in yarn, but as she doesn’t have the time just now, we’ll have to wait for that particular treat.

This is the good old fashioned kids-stumbling-upon-hidden-magic-right-in-their-own-backyard combined with meeting-a-friend-with-a-bizarrely-cool-skill style of fantasy that anyone who has loved fantasy and magic stories since childhood will definitely appreciate.  Since Jack’s mum has to work two jobs just to make ends meet, Jack is often left to look after his little sister Maddy, who is nonverbal.  When Maddy wanders off at a local market, Jack manages to find her talking to some strange people (who you will certainly recognise if you have read the Zita the Spacegirl series!!) and ends up trading his mum’s car for a box of seed packets when Maddy unexpectedly starts talking.

When the kids plant the seeds in the yard they’re in for a massive shock – because the garden that sprouts is full of sentient plants, adorable onion-headed creatures and some vines that are a bit too grabby for comfort.  When Jack’s swordplay-mastering, home-schooled neighbour Lilly (oh, I’ve only just realised that she has a botanical name…coincidence?) turns up to help out, Jack has to decide whether to trust her and let her into the family’s troubles or take the easy route and keep shutting everyone out.

I love, love, love, love this story.  Apart from the fantasy elements (enormous snails, anyone?) there is a strong subplot about acceptance, trust and the perils of relying on oneself when others are willing to contribute.  Mighty Jack doesn’t have the humorous undertones of the Zita series, relying instead on a sense of adventure and risk to drive a suspenseful, but exhilarating plot.  Once again Hatke has created female characters that are full of depth, with unexpected skills and for this reason, the book will appeal to both boys and girls.  There’s a certain echo of the Spiderwick Chronicles in this story, but Hatke has done it better.  I really can’t wait now to get my paws on the second book in the series – Mighty Jack and the Goblin King – by hook or crook.

 

Overall snapshot:

This is another brilliant addition to Hatke’s growing catalogue of work.  If you haven’t yet introduced his graphic novels or picture books to your younglings, you must really correct that oversight because these are modern classics that deserve to be re-read again and again.

Until next time,

Bruce

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A Rebellious Read-It-If Review: Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club (and my first Top Book of 2016!)

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read it if NEW BUTTONI’m starting off the year in truly rebellious fashion by bringing you a TOP BOOK OF 2016 on the first day of the new year!  Yes, it is probably a bit early to be calling a Top Book of 2016, but this one really, truly is and I recommend that Bruce's Pickyou go out and acquire it immediately.  Today’s book, by an AUSTRALIAN author, features meticulously researched historical fiction combined with paranormal beast-slaying in a mash-up that works on every single level.  I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of today’s book from HarperCollins Australia during my attendance at the BTCYA event in November 2015.

Without further faffing about, may I present to you…Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman! Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

London, April 1812. Lady Helen Wrexhall is set to make her debut at the court of Queen Charlotte and officially step into polite Regency society and the marriage mart. Little does Helen know that step will take her from the opulent drawing rooms of Mayfair and the bright lights of Vauxhall Gardens into a shadowy world of missing housemaids and demonic conspiracies.

Standing between those two worlds is Lord Carlston, a man of ruined reputation and brusque manners. He believes Helen has a destiny beyond the ballroom; a sacred and secret duty. Helen is not so sure, especially when she discovers that nothing around her is quite as it seems, including the enigmatic Lord Carlston.

Against a backdrop of whispered secrets in St James’s Palace, soirees with Lord Byron and morning calls from Beau Brummell, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club is a delightfully dangerous adventure of self-discovery and dark choices that must be made … whatever the consequences.

dark days club 2

Read it if:

*the thought of demonic creatures invading polite society is so grievous it has you reaching for the smelling salts in case you have a fit of the vapours

*you think the best hiding place for anything that must be kept away from the prying eyes of one’s relatives is down the front of one’s ballgown. 

*you like your Darcy-types brooding, dismissive and generally obnoxious – until they get their kit off in an unexpected situation that breaches all bounds of propriety

* you love period dramas and you also love paranormal ass-kicking adventures, and have been waiting, hoping and yearning for someone to put the two together in one thrilling, agitative adventure

I loved this book.

Plain and simple.

When I first read the blurb, I definitely thought that the content sounded like something I would enjoy, but I never expected to be thrust into such an exceptionally well-written work.  I truly can’t remember having such enjoyment in discovering a new fantasy series since I first stumbled upon Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy back in the early 2000s.  Happily, Alison Goodman is also an Australian author and so I can rest easy knowing that the future of Australian fantasy fiction for young adults will be just as worthy as its past.

The research that has gone into re-creating the Regency period here is just astounding.  From the details of clothing to the social interactions to the real-life celebrities of the time that have been slipped in here and there, my mind was thoroughly boggled at how the author managed to translate all that accurate information into a historical novel that also featured major fantasy elements.  Impressive, to say the least.  The accuracy of the period detail meant that I was immediately immersed in the historical setting and from there the fantasy bits, when they came, seemed a perfectly natural addition to the tale.

Lady Helen is a fully three-dimensional character of (reasonably) steady nerves and an abiding need to remain true to herself in a context in which social roles are ignored at one’s peril.  I adored Darby, Lady Helen’s stalwart lady’s maid and appreciated the depth of characterisation of the two main male protagonists, Lord Carlston and the Duke of Selborn.  Although it seems that these characters are foils for each other, they both possess personality traits that are largely hidden from public knowledge. While there is some romance in the book (which normally annoys me) it is not the simple love-triangle that we are so often subjected to and it is tempered by the historical setting.

I would have expected that given this is a mash-up of two usually separate genres, that one would be stronger than the other in the finished story, but the fantasy world that has been injected into the existing historical one is well-developed and it seems that there will be plenty more to discover about it in future instalments of the series.

It seems that I will have to now add Goodman’s back catalogue to my TBR list and I encourage you – whether you are a fan of historical fiction or fantasy (or just a bloody good read) – to get your hands on this one ASAP.  For your convenience, here are the alternative covers so you can keep a good eye out:

dark days club 1 dark days club 3

Until next time,

Bruce

A Ripping, YA Read-it-if Review: Boo…

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Today’s Read-it-if Review book, I am pleased to announce, has made it onto both my “Top Books of 2015 (so far)” list (which currently only has two other listings) as well as….drum roll please….my Goodreads Favourites list!

*spontaneous applause*

I should probably warn you then that this review WILL include gushing praise.

Today’s book is Boo by Neil Smith. I received a copy of this YA book – which I think is actually adult fiction cleverly disguised as YA – from the publishers via Netgalley. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a ‘gommer’, a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from the volatile Johnny, a classmate killed at the same school, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives. In a heartrending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.

boo cover one

Read it if:

*you like books that feature diverse characters. Even if they’re dead.

*you are either (a) energised or (b) repulsed by the thought of being stuck as a 13-year-old in the afterlife

*you’ve ever been part of a chanting mob

*you like nothing more than discovering something curious turning up in an unexpected place

Now on to the gushing praise!

I have not experienced the kind of satisfaction that I felt on finishing Boo in a long, long time. Here, thought I, is a perfectly constructed tale that is expertly paced, filled with authentic characters, and can be appreciated by those well beyond the YA age-range at which it is marketed. I picked up Boo thinking it would be a reasonably quirky take on the paranormal, life-after-death plot that I generally enjoy, but Smith has created much more than just a fun, creative read here.

For a start, the afterlife that he has created is both expansive and perfectly contained, as well as being pretty original. For in the afterlife in which Boo finds himself, all the residents are 13 years old – the age at which they died. Some died years ago and some are “newborns” like Boo, but all can expect (barring a few exceptional cases) to hang around “Town” as they call it for approximately 50 years, before disappearing into Zig-knows-where. The concept of “Town” reminded me strongly of Neal Shusterman’s afterlife in the Skinjacker series that begins with Everlost. While the similarities are there, Smith’s afterlife doesn’t have the menacing, mysterious undertones of Shusterman’s post-death experience, and feels like a place in which all things have the potential to be made right.

The characters here are diverse (in ethnicity, ability and personality) and felt particularly authentic to me as an adult reader. All of the four main characters have their flaws but come across as complex and layered. I admit to having a soft spot for Esther, the young lass with dwarfism who is applying to be a do-gooder but can sling a stinging one-liner with the best of them. Boo is also a delightful narrator and it didn’t take long for me to relax into his easy narration.

The highlight of the story for me was the depth to which Smith is prepared to take young readers as the narrative unfolds and the events surrounding their untimely deaths are brought to light in Boo and Johnny’s memories. There are twists in this tale, but it didn’t feel like they were thrown in to shock, but to provoke thought from the reader. As these plot twists are revealed I was more and more impressed with the way the author constructed the story. This could have so easily been a two-dimensional, didactic tale in which certain characters were labelled goodies and baddies, but Smith has taken his characters far more seriously than that. The sensitivity with which the boys’ story is rendered was simply a joy to behold.

If you’re looking for a YA read that is, in my opinion, above the common herd, then you should make a point to search out Boo. I will certainly be making it my mission to collect it in print for my shelf.

Until next time,

Bruce

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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