Escape! Three Cracking Titles for Younger Readers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Broken Branch Falls: A GSQ Review and Author Interview….

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Howdy pardners and welcome to another GSQ Review! Today’s book is also going to be my submission in category eight of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with wordplay in the title.  So I invite you to put your claw hand in mine as we take a stroll into the leafy suburban utopia that is…Broken Branch Falls by Tara Tyler.  Stay tuned after my review for an interview with Tara about the book and her other, equally intriguing, work.

broken branch falls
At Gingko High in Broken Branch Falls, every beast sticks to their stereotype – goblins are smart, ogres are sporty and stupid, and pixies play pranks.  Gabe Thorntry, is your average goblin boy (except for his ears – large, even for a goblin) and while he dreams of breaking out of his socially-approved role, he knows that this is unlikely ever to happen.  Until, that is, Gabe’s friends convince him to help pull a prank on an opposing football team.  When the prank goes slightly wrong, Gabe finds himself forced to PLAY on the Gingko High team and against all odds, he discovers that he quite enjoys taking on an ogrish activity for once.  But when it becomes obvious that Gabe’s punishment has backfired and interspecies mingling spreads like never before, the High Council make a decision that will ultimately ensure that no species strays outside its own kind – ever again.  Gabe and his friends now have to take on a seemingly insurmountable quest to retrieve the Book of Ages and prove once and for all that with a bit of cooperation, the Beasts will not fall prey to the wars that plagued humanity, and that a mixed society can be more than just a dream.
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Broken Branch Falls is a fun and original take on the dramas of fitting in and finding oneself in the social jungle of high school.  Likeable characters and plenty of incidental humour make the story very easy to fall into and a steady forward progression in the action encourages readers to keep turning the pages. The friendship story and quest saga also cleverly disguise a plot that raises plenty of questions about freedom, social responsibility, the right to choose and the origins of authority.  For a book pitched at middle graders, there’s a lot going on here, so I think Broken Branch Falls will best appeal to those who enjoy a read that balances the lighter moments with some real-life issues….even if the real-life issues are being dealt with by non-humans.
 
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Honestly, there isn’t much I could find to criticise about this book.  For a debut title in the middle grade age bracket, Tyler has got this mostly right.
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Tyler has done a great job of using familiar creatures and building an original world around them.  The alternate history in the plot, in which the humans have wiped themselves out, gives a fantastic depth to the predicament in which Gabe finds himself.  I LOVED the cheeky little touches that made the Beast World come alive, like the fun “goblin ears” hand sign – those are the touches that I feel really bring a book to life and give the characters and the world a genuine, authentic feel.  Just for interest’s sake, I am now in the process of developing a similar hand sign for gargoyles.  I’ll get back to you when it’s ready with details of the launch party.

My overall take on the book?

Broken Branch Falls is a strange mix of action, humour and brain-food, for the thinking lover of MG fantasy!

And now you can meet the brains behind the book!

Tara Tyler has had a hand at everything from waitressing to rocket engineering. After living up and down the Eastern US, she now writes and teaches math in Ohio with her three active boys and Coach Husband. Currently, she has two series, The Cooper Chronicles (techno-thriller detective capers) and Beast World (MG fantasy) She’s an adventure writer who believes every good story should have action, a moral, and a few laughs!

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Firstly, congratulations on a beast-packed romp! Did you ever consider including gargoyles in BBF?
THANK YOU!! No. There aren’t even any castles in this one, but there are in the third one – maybe a gargoyle can show up there! (my favorite gargoyles are from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame!)
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If you could have been a member of one of the beast species in BBF, which would you choose?
My first choice would be a dragon, then I could fly! I had an awesome dragon collection growing up.
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Who do you picture as the ideal reader of BBF, and what would you like them to take from it?
Middle graders or anyone who likes fantasy – I think it’s an entertaining story with a solid message behind it that you can do anything you set your mind to, and you should be able to stand up for your rights.
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Was it hard to come up with an original world for your story in such a crowded genre? And how did you think up all the little quirks, like the goblin-ears hand sign?
I feel like I live in a fantasy world… It wasn’t too hard to create this world – I started with how things are, like kids in high school and living in our world, and adapted them to the characters and setting. I tweaked our society to keep it simple and relate-able, yet unique, how they communicate, jobs, slang, etc, plus their magical specialties, and I didn’t go too far so it seemed more natural. I think epic fantasy (like the Hobbit) is much harder. That’s like starting from scratch!
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You’ve also published a novel for adults – is there a different process that you go through when writing for a younger audience?
Well, I feel a lot younger than I am, so writing younger was easy. The adult story, POP TRAVEL is definitely for a more mature audience. It’s a futuristic techno-thriller, but it’s not dark and dismally serious. I love action and adventure and humor, so those elements are in all my stories. POP TRAVEL has more mature vocabulary and situations, but I think it still appeals to a younger audience, as well. My 13 & 14 yo boys enjoyed it and they don’t like to read… I say it’s PG-13.
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Have you got any projects in the works right now that we should look out for? And will there be gargoyles appearing?
I’m hoping to have SIMULATION ready to submit in September (next book after POP TRAVEL). And I’m writing the rough draft of CRADLE ROCK (sequel to BBF in the Beast World series). Plus, in my spare time (ha!) I’m working on an anti-princess story that I’m hoping to put on youtube with storyboard animations (via my awesome illustrator) and songs! Just wish I had more time for it all! (I will have to animate a gargoyle just for you in WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, book three in Beast World)
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I really enjoyed the book as well – really original world and story.
I’m so glad you did! This is all so exciting! Thanks for your fun questions! You ROCK! (get it? gargoyle? hee hee)
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AhAAA! I see what you did there! BBF was released on June 24, so it’s hot off the press and ready for your grubby little paws to grab.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – if you’d like to find out more about this challenge, and jump on the safari bus, simply click here!

Until next time,
Bruce

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