The Monster on the Road is Me: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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I have PanMacmillan Australia to thank for today’s awesome read of awesomosity.  The Monster on the Road is Me by J. P. Romney is by turns a funny, strange and creepy exploration of Japanese folklore in a YA contemporary setting and we absolutely loved it from start to finish. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we have branded it a “Top Book of 2016” pick!

Bruce's Pick

But more of that in a minute.

Let’s start with the blurb from Goodreads:

 It starts with the crows. When you see them, you know he s found you.

Koda Okita is a high school student in modern-day Japan who isn’t very popular. He suffers from narcolepsy and has to wear a watermelon-sized helmet to protect his head in case he falls. But Koda couldn’t care less about his low social standing. He is content with taking long bike rides and hanging out in the convenience store parking lot with his school-dropout friend, Haru.

But when a rash of puzzling deaths sweeps his school, Koda discovers that his narcoleptic naps allow him to steal the thoughts of nearby supernatural beings. He learns that his small town is under threat from a ruthless mountain demon that is hell-bent on vengeance. With the help of a mysterious – and not to mention very cute classmate – Koda must find a way to take down this demon. But his unstable and overwhelming new abilities seem to have a mind of their own.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Monster on the Road is Me by J. P. Romney:

1. It is highly unlikely that attacks of narcolepsy could ever be considered a superpower.  But then again…

2. When chatting with a mysterious new girl in order to size up whether she would be good girlfriend material, always be sure to check whether or not said mysterious girl is in fact human.

3.  Shiitake farming is a perfectly honorable occupation.

4. When the weight of the world gets too much, there is always cosplay.

5. If you ever lay eyes on a three-legged crow, it’s already too late.

Given that this is a Japanese story written by an American author, it would be reasonable to think that there may be some cultural aspects to the characterisation or plot that don’t quite sit right.  Happily, Romney has managed to avoid any major pitfalls of blending a Western brain with an Eastern narrative and has combined the best of both worlds.  While the story is narrated by Koda, a Japanese boy, it’s clear that Romney has slipped in some of his own curiosities about Japanese life and culture into Koda’s narration.  The brand tag line of a popular form of lolly, for example, or the events included in the school’s athletics day are two things that are highlighted as being more than a little …unexpected, perhaps…and I think this is a nod from the author to his not-Japanese readers and an affectionate tip of the hat to the idiosyncrasies of contemporary Japanese culture. I found them suitably amusing, I must say.

In fact, the humour throughout the story is one of the book’s most appealing features. Koda, as a narrator is hilariously self-deprecating and he is supported by a cast of similarly amusing, and bizarre, characters.  My two favourites of this supporting cast were Yori, the cosplaying ex-school-bus-driver-turned-accountant who fights crime by night on Youtube and Ikeda-sensei, the ex-sumo wrestling high school gym teacher with an ill-concealed dislike of high schools, gym and teaching.  I will admit to getting the giggles (yes, giggles, not guffaws, chuckles or belly laughs) during a scene in which a kappa (a Japanese river spirit) possesses some of Koda’s friends.  All in all, Romney’s style of comedy matched mine perfectly, which no doubt contributed to my enjoyment of the story.  If you aren’t a fan of dry banter mixed with ridiculous antics, you may not find it as funny, but at least now you’ve been warned.

Amidst the humour are some decidedly creepy elements.  The swarm of crows and the multiple suicides certainly bring the mood down a little and it’s obvious that there is some higher power that has set its will against the good folk of Kusaka town.  I can’t say much more here because it relates to the major mystery elements of the story, but I loved the way things moved between ordinary, teen problems and major supernatural sh*tstorm problems without missing a beat.

I’m not sure if this book is going to be part of a series or not – the ending here is a definite ending, yet there is scope, given what has been revealed about the characters, to expand on the story – but either way, I would highly recommend getting lost in the world that Romney has created here.  As some of the characters in the book can no doubt attest (Shimizu-sensei, I’m looking at you here), The Monster on the Road is Me is the very essence of escapist storytelling.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

The Lost Boy: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Today’s book is a graphic novel for those who love a bit of creepy, atmospheric, magic-infused adventure, which, I am assuming, is all of you.  The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth is one that has been on my TBR list for quite some time, so when I spotted it at a great price in the Scholastic Book Club catalogue recently, I knew I had to grab it.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Some mysteries are too dangerous to leave alone . . .

Nate’s not happy about his family moving to a new house in a new town. After all, nobody asked him if he wanted to move in the first place. But when he discovers a tape recorder and note addressed to him under the floorboards of his bedroom, Nate is thrust into a dark mystery about a boy who went missing many, many years ago. Now, as strange happenings and weird creatures begin to track Nate, he must partner with Tabitha, a local girl, to find out what they want with him. But time is running out, for a powerful force is gathering strength in the woods at the edge of town, and before long Nate and Tabitha will be forced to confront a terrifying foe, and uncover the truth about the Lost Boy.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth:

1. It is a fact of life that moving to a new house will always lead to an exciting (and possibly slightly sinister) discovery, usually concealed under a loose floorboard or other enticing, secret space.

2. The probability of exciting (and possibly slightly sinister) discoveries are exponentially increased if said new house is adjacent to a wood.

3. If, upon moving to a new town, you notice something out of place (such as a grasshopper riding a dog, for instance) that others don’t seem to be able to see, you can assume that an exciting (and possibly slightly sinister) discovery is imminent.

4. When moving to a new town, always make friends immediately with the strangest and most oddball of your neighbours.

5. On moving to a new house in which exciting (and possibly slightly sinister) discoveries are likely, ensure you have access to a range of historical recording devices in order to be prepared in case your predecessor has left some audiological clues as to their sudden disappearance.

I am so glad I actually made time to (a) purchase this book and (b) read it, because it is such an absorbing and atmospheric read featuring a well-developed world and enticing mystery.  The book follows two parallel stories – those of Nate, and Will, the boy who lived in the house Nate has just moved to, but who disappeared years before.  Without giving too much of the story away, Nate discovers a recording left by Will that details some strange sightings and happenings that Will has experienced, and opens up the mystery of the circumstances surrounding Will’s disappearance.  After Nate meets his new neighbour Tabitha, who also knows something about the mystery of Will, it is obvious that the pair need to investigate.  When some extremely strange visitors come calling however (including a talking doll and a deadly tree), it is obvious that Nate and Tabitha are going to have to risk much – and possibly even their lives – if they want to solve any mysteries anytime soon.

The illustrative style is quite realistic, which lends a sense of authenticity, and more than a little creepiness, to the events.  I was sucked in almost immediately by the allure of a historical mystery and the author does a great job of drip-feeding information about the non-human characters in the story so that the reader has to keep going if they want to find out the truth about these diverse and strange beings.

I had thought I had seen somewhere that there was a sequel to this one, but I can’t seem to find anything about it now so perhaps I was mistaken.  It’s a shame though – such a world could do with a follow-up story.  You can see some preview pages of The Lost Boy at Greg Ruth’s website, though, to see for yourself how exciting the book looks.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Radium Girls: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review….

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If you are into historical nonfiction stories that will leave you gobsmacked at the levels to which people will stoop to avoid paying compensation to someone they’ve hurt, then today’s book will be right up your street.  We received The Radium Girls from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and by gum is it a cracker of a read!  Check out the blurb from Goodreads and then tell me that you’re not interested in finding out more…go on, I dare you!

Ordinary women in 1920s America.

All they wanted was the chance to shine.

Be careful what you wish for.
 
‘The first thing we asked was, “Does this stuff hurt you?” And they said, “No.” The company said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.’

1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls.
  As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering – in the face of death – these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.
Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives  – The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:

1. Exhibiting a “glow” is not always an indicator of good health.  

2. When addressing someone who has recently lost an arm due to industrial poisoning, it is inadvisable to assert that they “look like they have nothing wrong with them”.

3. If the company for which you work takes out full page ads in all the major papers proclaiming how safe their working environment is, it’s probably a good time to consider getting the WH&S people in.

4. People will lie blatantly, repeatedly and to one’s face if they fear having to pay compensation to a wounded party.

5. It’s okay to pretend to be a doctor and carry out medical tests for which you are woefully unqualified provided you (a) are a man and (b) are being well paid by a dodgy company boss.

What a fantastically absorbing read! I suspected that the story of the “Radium Girls” as they became known would be a pretty interesting one, but the pacing and informative style adopted by Moore really set this book apart. The book begins by introducing the reader to the young women who gained work at a factory painting luminous clock dials with radium paint in New Jersey in 1917. Some as young as fourteen, the workers fought hard to bag these painting jobs because the pay was above average for similar positions, and came with the added benefit of a “healthy” glow – the radium residue on the girls’ clothing, skin and hair literally made them glow when they left the factory. As we meet each of the girls in turn and soon become privy to the horrifying sicknesses that begin to plague them, Moore brings in a second set of dial-painters, this time from Ottawa, so we are able to see the whole shocking pattern played out simultaneously in two different cities.

Two scenes in the book stood out particularly for me, but for different reasons.  The first, quite early on in the piece, recounts how one of the women’s dentists, Dr Knef, was working inside his patient’s mouth and ended up lifting out her entire jawbone.  Let that sink in for a moment.  He pulled out HER ENTIRE JAWBONE.  Talk about developing a healthy fear of dentists.  Not satisfied that this was an extraordinary enough experience, he then decided to keep the jawbone in his desk drawer because he didn’t know what else to do with it.  I can’t help but feel he might have at least offered it back to the woman out of whom it came.

The second scene that stood out for me came toward the very end of the book, during which a foreman who was well known as a company man for many years in Ottawa and oversaw the dial painters, blatantly lies while under oath in one of the compensation hearings, stating (in front of the women he worked with, no less!) that he never even worked for the company. Ever.  This might be a good tactic to keep in the back pocket for the next time you find yourself in a sticky situation – just pretend that obvious, long-held facts that can be corroborated by any number of pieces of evidence is simply untrue.  After reading this bizarre attempt to avoid trouble, I myself felt like leaping through the pages and punching this bloke in the face, so I can’t imagine how the women at the hearing felt having to actually hear it themselves.
The descriptions of the suffering of these women can be quite harrowing at times – gazing over a photograph of one of the women, I assumed she had adopted a stylish, cross-legged pose for the camera, but the author reveals that her hip bones actually became fused that way, so that the woman was unable to uncross her legs at any time – but by the end of the epic journey to justice, one can’t help but feel admiration for these two separate groups of women who fought not only against blatant lies and injustice from the company that employed them, but from gender bias that placed mens’ health above women’s. More frustrating still is the fact that similar stories of corporations valuing profit over the safety and health of their workers are still ridiculously common today.  While I felt quite moved by the women’s stories and the courage and determination they showed under enormous misfortune, I couldn’t take away any lasting satisfaction because I could think of at least one major fight going on in the world against a company in South America for similar dastardly behaviour as well as the recent fight of victims of asbestos-related diseases against James Hardie here in Australia.
Moore has done a good job of dividing the story into sections so as to avoid information overload. Each section is deeply engaging in its own right and the stories have been structured so that just as the New Jersey women begin to pursue (and in some cases, achieve) some sort of recompense, the Ottawa women seem to begin the process anew, with all the same frustrations and rather more sinister misdirection from their employer.

The book contains some photographs of the women and other major players in a section in the middle. While this was an interesting addition, I would have also have liked to see a “cast of characters” as it were, at the beginning – this might have added a whole new dimension to the story if we could see who suffered what and in what timeframe.

I thoroughly recommend this book as an eye-opening jaunt into the lives of some incredibly inspirational women and their supporters.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Timestoppers: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Today’s offering is a middle grade, magical, wintry adventure: perfectly atmospheric if you live in the southern hemisphere, and one to help you cool down a bit if you happen to be sweating it out in a northern hemisphere summer.  We received our copy of Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones from Bloomsbury Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Annie Nobody thought she was, well, nobody; living in a nowhere town where nothing goes her way. Day one at her newest foster home proves to be dreadful, too …and things get even worse when she’s chased by something big and scary that definitely wants to eat her. Luckily for Annie, not everything is what it seems, and she gets swept up – literally – by a sassy dwarf on a hovercraft snowmobile and taken to Aurora: a hidden, magical town on the coast of Maine. There, she finds a new best friend in Jamie Hephastion Alexander – who thought he was a normal kid (but just might be a troll) – and Annie discovers that she’s not exactly who she thought she was, either. She’s a Time Stopper, meant to protect the enchanted.

Together, Annie and Jamie discover a whole new world of magic, power, and an incredible cast of creatures and characters. But where there’s great power, there are also those who want to misuse it, and Aurora is under siege. It’s up to the kids to protect their new home, even if it means diving head first into magical danger. A thrilling adventure with heroes children will relate to – and more than a smattering of magic!

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From Time Stoppers by Carrie Jones:

  1. Never make the decision to dispose of a garden gnome lightly.  Apart from the fact that artistic integrity is everything in backyard design, it could be an important magical artifact whose removal could bring about the collapse of magical society.

  2. When you are burdened with the surname “Nobody” it is a given that the universe will ensure you end up being a “somebody”.

  3. Never underestimate the power of a fluffy dog to bring hope to the bleakest of circumstances.

  4. Librarians always know more than they are saying.

  5. If your angry, bullish relatives consistently look at you while drooling and making noises that indicate unsatisfied hunger, you should ensure that you are either an excellent cook or an excellent runner.

Time Stoppers is an adventurous middle grade offering with some highly original elements and a few problems with pacing.  To highlight the positives first, the book features two protagonists – Annie and Jamie -who are likeable, down-to-earth, and will appeal to most readers of the target age group.  The story is told in chapters that alternate between Annie and Jamie’s situations and this definitely boosts the engagement factor.  Annie is a foster child who is on her last placement…which turns out to be a horrid, trailer-based version of the Cinderella story.  Jamie lives with his father and grandmother, neither of whom show him any affection and demonstrate their opinion of him through hostility and bullying.  However, both of the children seem to be natural optimists, and try to find hope in what look like hopeless situations.    When strange happenings start to kick off, both Annie and Jamie take it in their stride and try to make the best of a bizarre situation.

Some of the magical elements are quite original for a middle grade fantasy tale – magical creatures who get around on hovering snowmobiles, for instance, and the important role of the garden gnome (I’ve always said there should be more books featuring garden gnomes!) – and there is plenty of humour in the banter between our heroes and their new friends from Aurora.  Eva Beryl-Axe, the battle-ready dwarf girl, is the main source of this humour and most of the wacky situations in which the children find themselves are related, in part, to Eva’s impulsive ideas.  The city of Aurora is peopled with a wide variety of magical beings, some dangerous, most benign.

The two major problems I had with the story were pacing and the way in which the magic is presented.  After an action-packed and magnetic set of opening chapters, which include a chase by trolls, a house fire and the appearance of a dwarf on a hovering snowmobile, the children are introduced to the city of Aurora and the pace slows to a crawl.  Obviously, some world-building is necessary to introduce the town, its purpose and its inhabitants, but I found that the time the children spend in Aurora – and it is a significant portion of the book – really damaged my engagement with the characters and their struggles.  Although there are some indications that the town is not safe for the children, for a considerable amount of time the kids sit and ponder the meaning of their new existence in this magical space, and things just get a bit tedious.  It was in this section that the dual-perspective narrative really didn’t help the story, as we had to experience the town from the point of view of Annie, then Jamie, in turn, when both had similar feelings about the place. The pace does pick up again in the final third of the book with the introduction of the villain, but by then the slow-paced middle section had done its work and I was not as invested as I could have been in the outcome of the action.

My second problem with the story was the scatty way in which the magic, its rules and limitations were introduced.  There is a lot of magical stuff going on within the story, but I didn’t feel like it was explained well enough to make it believable.  For example, Annie is a Time Stopper – but the concept of this and why it is important and even how it works, isn’t explained until toward the end of the book and even then it is glossed over as the action takes precedence.  Similarly, there seem to be many different types of magic going on within the town, through its inhabitants and even its buildings and books, but there is a bit of a sense that anything goes; that any type of magic one might think of could happen just because one would like it to be so.

For example, in one scene, a note and pen appear out of thin air and disappear when their function has been served, a series of words and arrows appear to guide a character along within a house, and dishes wash themselves.  Who is making this happen? Is the house itself magical? If not, is it the inhabitants casting a spell?  If so, how does that work?  I really felt that more needed to be done in developing the hows and whys of the magical world, in order to make it more believable.  Admittedly, this may not particularly bother readers in the target age group, but I prefer a narrative in which the limitations and workings of the fantasy elements are clear, so that I can better engage with the characters and their struggles.

Overall, as a series opener, I think this book was more focused on introducing the characters, the setting of Aurora and the beginnings of Annie and Jamie’s powers than providing a particularly terrifying or worrying villain to vanquish.  The ending opens the way for the villain to be developed in the second book, so perhaps I will find more of what I hoped for in the next offering.  As it stands, Time Stoppers is an ambitious and original example of the genre and should be well received by readers in the target age range.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Don’t Get Caught: A YA, Five Things I’ve Learned Review

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You wouldn’t necessarily think that one could learn much from a book about professional-level pranking, but today’s book puts that misconception to rest.  Don’t Get Caught by Kurt Dinan is a contemporary YA that dispenses with “all the feels” (hooray!) and gets straight down to the nitty-gritty…the nitty-gritty being pulling epic pranks on friends, neighbours, colleagues and schoolmates.  We received a copy of Don’t Get Caught from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

10:00 tonight at the water tower. Tell no one. -Chaos Club

When Max receives a mysterious invite from the untraceable, epic prank-pulling Chaos Club, he has to ask: why him? After all, he’s Mr. 2.5 GPA, Mr. No Social Life. He’s Just Max. And his favorite heist movies have taught him this situation calls for Rule #4: Be suspicious. But it’s also his one shot to leave Just Max in the dust…

Yeah, not so much. Max and four fellow students-who also received invites-are standing on the newly defaced water tower when campus security “catches” them. Definitely a setup. And this time, Max has had enough. It’s time for Rule #7: Always get payback.

Let the prank war begin.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned from Don’t Get Caught by Kurt Dinan:

  1. When committing a prank, always wear some kind of protective hand covering.  Not only does this ensure your fingerprints remain anonymous, but it also guards against picking up residual mess from pranksters trying to out-prank you.
  2. Always have a Plan B.  Preferably one that involves undergarments of some description.
  3. The decision to use livestock in pranking should not be undertaking lightly.  Nor should it be undertaken without recourse to the appropriate livestock-lifting safety harnesses.
  4. The leader of the pranksters is always the one you least suspect.  Or the one you most suspect.  Or someone you hadn’t suspected at all. Take your pick.
  5. Even the most public bout of humiliation can provide inspiration for new and original pranks.

Sometimes you just need a book that doesn’t take itself, or the business of being a teenager, too seriously.  Don’t Get Caught is the perfect book to fill such a need.  It’s light, it’s a lot of fun, it has a great mix of characters (albeit mildly stereotyped to begin with) and it never pretends that its dealing with anything other than a snapshot of time in the lives of a group of teens.  While the basis of the book is an in-house prank competition set up by the “Watertower Five” – the five kids invited to an ill-fated meeting with the infamous Chaos Club – the plot has a secondary focus on identity and revenge.  Without ever getting bogged down in too much seriousness, it is obvious that Max is questioning who he is and who he wants to be, and whether the end justifies the means, where revenge-based pranks are concerned.

Dinan has done a great job of dropping in some excellent adult characters, including artistic drop-out type Uncle Boyd, deputy principal and commanding officer of the fun police Mr Stranko, the long-suffering but really quite accommodating principal Mrs B, and the never-give-you-a-straight-answer philosophy teacher Mr Watson.  Even Max’s parents make a believable couple, and it’s not often you get to say that about adult characters in YA books.

The pace is generally quick throughout and although there is space given over to the more issues-based aspects of the plot – including social labeling, personal accountability for mistakes made, leaving a personal legacy – rather than slow the plot, these interludes save the whole book from spiralling down into one big crazy prank-fest.  There are a couple of fantastic twists at the end of the story – one or two I suspected might be coming and others that appeared out of the blue – and while I wouldn’t recommend reading it as an instructional guide to public mischief, overall it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read for those who enjoy a bit of subversive jollity.

Highly recommended.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

MARTians: A Five Things I’ve Learned Review…(and a Top Book of 2016 Pick!)

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Today I’m delving back into YA dystopian, a genre I have avoided in recent times due to its tendency to bring on feelings of despondency and gloom.  It was an overproliferation of YA dystopian that led to my creation of the Utopirama! feature way back when.  But times change and the use of a dystopian, consumer-driven setting in MARTians by Blythe Woolston is so subtle and original that I couldn’t help but give it the thumbs up.  We received a copy of MARTians from Walker Books Australia for review – thanks! – and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Last girl Zoë Zindleman, numerical ID 009-99-9999, has just been graduated. Early. Her options: wait for her home to be foreclosed and stripped of anything valuable now that AnnaMom has moved away, or move to the Warren, an abandoned strip-mall-turned-refuge for other left-behinds—a safe place, and close to AllMART, Zoë’s new employer, where “your smile is AllMART’s welcome mat.” Zoë may be the last girl, but her name means “life,” and Zoë isn’t ready to disappear into the AllMART abyss. Zoë wants to live.

MARTians is set in a world of exurban decay studded with big-box stores, where its inhabitants are numbed by shopping and the six o’clock “news.” MARTians may be the future, but it is frighteningly familiar.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned from MARTians by Blythe Woolcroft:

  1. Your smile is the ALLMart Welcome Mat.
  2. Your employment, promotion prospects, level of debt, ability to afford housing and general well-being all depend on your ability to keep customers shopping, so keep on smiling, ALLMart employee! *clapclapclap*
  3. Customer confusion results in a lack of consumer confidence. Know. Your. Product (and keep smiling!).
  4. Make sure you direct the customer through at least two different departments on their way to the checkout.
  5. Don’t quibble about your name-badge.  Everyone’s an individual at ALLMart

First up, I should point out that although I really enjoyed this book, I’m afraid it will be overlooked or seen as lacking by other YA readers due to a few key issues.  For a start, it was both short and a standalone.  These were both enormous positives from my point of view, but I know how YA readers love their series.

Secondly, there was no romance at all, despite featuring two protagonists of the same age and opposite sex stuck in an inescapable and rather bleak situation.  “HOORAY!” I cried, when I got to the end without being alternately bored and irritated by pace-slowing, bland, repetitive teen romance.  Again, I thought this was an enormous plus and offer kudos to the author for not getting sucked into the black-hole-like gravitational pull of peer pressure to put romance in every single YA book.

Finally, there were plenty of aspects of the story that COULD have been fleshed out far more deeply – the character of “Belly” and her mysterious fate, the whereabouts of Zoe’s mother, what happened to Dolly Lamb and 5er’s family – but to do so would have made this a super-long book and resulted, I think, in a shifting of the subtly disturbing and pervasive atmosphere of dystopia.

You see, I think the great strength of this book is that the dystopian aspect isn’t all in your face.  There isn’t a zompocalypse or some major environmental disaster that throws people together in a minute-t0-minute battle for survival.  Instead, the society described here is so close to our current consumerist society to be deeply disturbing on a psychological level, but just different enough to assure the reader that this is all fiction.   In Zoe’s world, you are either a consumer or a worker and there really isn’t much scope to be both successfully.  Individuals are taken straight from school graduation to prison, if deemed not capable enough to succeed as a worker.  Major retailers control the pay packets and lives of their workers.  And ordinary families disband, leaving whole suburbs of houses empty, in order to chase work and security, while the dwellings left behind are stripped of useful materials by those struggling to survive.

There is quite a bit of dark humour throughout the book – I only noticed the cheeky nod to literary classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the end! – and Zoe is a relatable, if naive, narrator. Timmer provides the lightness that is needed to avoid the whole thing descending into a depressive state and overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the way the author handled the story within such a restrained word count.

While this certainly isn’t going to be a blockbusting, seat-of-your-pants, thrillride of a read for many people, I am giving it my Top Book of 2016 tick of approval because it really is a standout in a YA market that has a tendency towards churning out books that aren’t prepared to take a risk in generating original characters or plots.

You can see my other Top Book of 2016 (so far!) picks by clicking this attractive button:

Bruce's Pick

Until next time,

Bruce

 

The Land of the Green Man: A Nonfiction “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Today’s book is one of those that most people wouldn’t pick up for light reading, but it is a thumping good choice for anyone planning to write a fantasy book set in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales.  The Land of the Green Man – A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles by Carolyne Larrington does exactly what it says on the metaphorical tin – and it does so in a super-accessible fashion.  I requested, somewhat warily, this book from the publisher via Netgalley and was pleased and surprised to discover a comprehensive yet not overwhelming overview of the context behind the legends that feature in many a modern fantasy novel.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The folklore of Britain abounds with local tales about the activities of one sort of supernatural being or another giants, elves, hobs, boggarts, dragons or shape-changing witches. The stories are vivid, dramatic and often humorous. Carolyne Larrington has made a representative selection, which she re-tells in a simple, direct way which is completely faithful to the style and spirit of her sources.

Most collectors of local legends have been content merely to note how they may serve to explain some feature of the landscape or to warn of some supernatural danger, but Carolyne Larrington probes more deeply. By perceptive and delicate analysis, she explores their inner meanings. She shows how, through lightly coded metaphors, they deal with the relations of man and woman, master and servant, the living and the dead, the outer semblance and the inner self, mankind and the natural environment. Her fascinating book gives us a fuller insight into the value of our traditional tales.

the land of the green man

I could actually feel my neurons connecting and reinforcing pathways as I read, so here are Five Things I’ve Learned From…

The Land of the Green Man – A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles

1. If you are walking along the moors/near a church/down a back alley/across a marsh and you see a black dog, the outlook is not likely to be good. Unless of course, you are in one of the few localities in which black dogs are portents of luck and protection, rather than death.

2. If you are walking along the moors/near a church/down a back alley/across a marsh and you see a PACK of black dogs, I have no advice for you, except to say that I hope your will is in order.

3. While a shady tree may look like a promising place under which to have a noontime nap, under no circumstances should you succumb to this incredibly poor idea. 

4. If you happen to be propositioned by a beautiful suitor who you suspect is out of your league, you should probably decline the offer on the grounds that said suitor could well be a hag in disguise, hoping to ensnare you for nefarious purposes.  If, on the other hand, you are propositioned by  someone who would be lucky to make the cover of “Hag Fancier’s Monthly”, you should probably accept on the grounds that your suitor is likely to be a member of fairy royalty under some kind of curse, waiting to reward you with magical bounty aplenty.

5. Never, under any circumstances, piss off a mythical creature.

As I mentioned earlier, this book should be essential reading for anyone planning to draw on British myth and legend in their writing.  Larrington manages to deeply explore the origins of a whole range of myths and legends within the context of various localities.  She notes how certain landscapes and the people who dwell in these have put different spins on similar myths – black dogs, for instance, could be lucky or dangerous, depending on where you hang out; and the part of the country in which you live could see you with giant neighbours who are violent, or cheerfully disinterested in the lives on puny humans.

The content is divided into categories that link legends of a similar vein.  The author also notes how modern authors such as JK Rowling, Susan Cooper and Tolkien have used certain legends in their works.  Sirius Black (or Padfoot, to his friends) has obvious connections to the Black Dog stories of various regions, while The Dark is Rising sequence (among other works) makes use of a reworking of the Sleepers under the Hill legends.

Even if you’re not planning to write the next fantasy bestseller, this is a very involving read for lovers of fantasy who would like to know more about the popular legends and mythical beings that call the British Isles home.  I’m sure other readers will have a few “A-ha!” moments, as I did, upon discovering some snippet of information that showed aspects of some recent reads in a new light.

Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 17/10

Nonfiction 2015Until next time,

Bruce