Exit, Pursued by Smugglers: The Spectacular Spencer Gray…

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spectacular spencer gray

If you are looking for a bit of adventure to spice up your life, delivered with a side order of cute furry marsupial then The Spectacular Spencer Gray by Deb Fitzpatrick is clearly what you have been missing in your life.  We received a copy from Fremantle Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Spencer Gray is just an ordinary kid, but he manages to get into some pretty extraordinary situations.

When Spencer stumbles on a sinister operation in the bush, his life goes into overdrive – midnight rescue missions, super-endangered animals, hair-raising adventures.

To survive, Spencer will need to pull off something spectacular.

It’s refreshing to come across a book which is fun but touches on serious subjects, is laconic but allows the reader to learn something (surreptitiously!) and is action-packed, but also feels creepily authentic.   It’s safe to say then, that I felt refreshed after having read of Spencer’s escapades.

Before we get started, let me point out that this is the second adventure of the titular Spencer Gray, the first of such adventures having been chronicled in The Amazing Spencer Gray which was published in 2013.  Also allow me to point out that I was not aware that this wasn’t Spencer’s first dangerous outing and it made not one jot of difference to my enjoyment of the book.  This tale can certainly be read as an exciting standalone novel with no need for prior knowledge of Spencer’s situation.

The book opens on Spencer’s unwitting discovery of a bizarre, homemade setup in the bush just outside his school oval containing a collection of native Australian animals.  Spencer makes the split second decision to bring one of the animals – that he later learns is a Potoroo (google it) – back to his home, because it looks on the brink of death.  When Spencer and his mates Charlie and Leon decide they should return the Potoroo to the bush, things start to go pear-shaped because it immediately becomes clear that someone…or multiple someones…are not happy that Spencer has discovered their criminal activities.

The pacing of the story is truly Australian, in that it takes its time to warm up and the boys are remarkably laid back about (a) finding a bunch of native animals in a slapdash shelter in an unlikely place and (b) keeping an endangered animal in box under a bed.  The second half of the book however, in which Spencer’s marsupial-saving activities come home to roost in the worst outcome possible, is all go, go, go and I whipped through these chapters like a Potoroo with its pants on fire.   Although the events of the second half of the book are, when viewed objectively from an adult’s point of view, pretty far-fetched, the suspense in the writing somehow made them feel decidedly authentic and I really felt for Spencer’s parents as they waited with mounting terror for news of their son’s whereabouts.

Overall, Fitzpatrick has done a great job with balancing the adventurous and more down-to-earth elements of the story, as well as providing information to the reader in a readily digestible form about one of Australia’s most endangered animals.  And in case you’re wondering, no, I had no idea what a Potoroo looked like before reading this book.  Or that it was endangered.  In fact, after reading the book, I visited Google to run a comparison on Potoroos and Quokkas and while typing in Potoroo vs… the option for Quokka immediately came up, so clearly I’m not the only one still learning here.

I would recommend The Spectacular Spencer Gray to young readers looking for a quick yet involving read featuring an unlikely hero and the adventure that awaits in the great outdoors.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Domestics, Servants and Robotic Appliances” Edition…

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We’re rounding out our Children’s Book Week Chaser with some longer reads for the middle grade age bracket.  I’ve got three books here featuring everything from cats to robotic siblings, so surely there’ll be something in the mix to entice you.  Got your spats sorted?  Then let’s crack on!

Brobot (James Foley)

*We received a copy of Brobot from Fremantle Press for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  30120603

Sally Tinker is an inventor extraordinaire, so when her baby brother doesn’t measure up to her expectations, she creates her own.  But is a robotic sibling really all it’s cracked up to be?

Muster up the motivation because…

…this fun graphic novel is chock-full of humour, chaos and unexpected bugs in the program.  Sally is a girl who knows what she wants and even has the skills to create it, while her baby brother is….well, a bit of a messy, stinky, noisy baby.  Sally, with the best of intentions, takes it upon herself to invent an improved version of a little brother, but doesn’t count on her invention learning from the real thing.  Of course disaster strikes and Sally comes to learn that perhaps the good things about having a living, breathing sibling outweigh some of the bad – although maybe not the stinky bits.  The narrative parts of the book are broken up here and there with some text-heavy diagrams but for the most part, this is exactly the kind of book that will draw in the more reluctant base of young readers due to the saturation of illustrations, the interesting fonts and the easy-to-digest chunks of text.  Add to that the humour of stinky nappies, exploding machines and general mayhem and you’d have to agree that this book has everything that young readers love, all wrapped up in a visually appealing package.  I’d definitely recommend this one for readers aged from about seven or eight on up, who enjoy funny, fast-paced stories.

Brand it with:

Artificial intelligence; super siblings; experimental relationships

The Twins of Tintarfell (James O’Loghlin)

*We received a copy of The Twins of Tintarfell from PanMacmillan Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  30173433

Dani and Bart are twins, orphans and servants in the castle of the King of Tintarfell.  When Bart is unexpectedly kidnapped, Dani tries to rescue him – but has no idea of the sacrifices she may need to make along the way.

Muster up the motivation because…

…as fantasy adventure stories go, this one has its fair share of twists, turns, humour and warthogs.  This was a really unexpected read for me and I’m still not sure quite what to make of it.  The story has elements of adventure, betrayal, murder and secrecy, yet at the same time has a light tone and a strong dose of tongue-in-cheek humour.  It reminded me of a strange blend of The Princess Bride, The Chronicles of Narnia and a Monty Python film to be honest.  There was something a little off about the pacing, I felt; I kept expecting the bit I was reading to be the precursor to a BIG event, but each time the book just slid quietly into the next twist or reveal.  At the same time though, there were bits of the story that felt really original and intriguing, like the Soarers, the curse upon Dani and Bart’s special talent.   The three main characters, Dani, Bart and Edmund, are all well-developed and we are privy to each of their strengths and flaws as the story unfolds.  The final few chapters neatly work the protagonists through a number of key choices that will ultimately define the people they will become, and so the ending is feels satisfyingly meaningful after all the derring-do and (in the case of Edmund) some derring-don’t (or should that be derring-didn’t?).  I definitely enjoyed this book and the author seems to hit his stride about a third of the way in, but at times I felt like he couldn’t quite decide whether the book was supposed to be primarily a comedy or an adventure, and so we are treated to each in turn.  If you are fan of light fantasy and adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously, then I would encourage you to give this a read.

Brand it with:

Sisters doin’ it for themselves (and everyone else); Good vs Evil; Animal magnetism

Malkin Moonlight (Emma Cox)

*We received a copy of Malkin Moonlight from Bloomsbury Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  31139009

Malkin Moonlight is a cat blessed by the moon, who loves a domestic cat named Roux.  Together they will do great things and heal a rift in their new home.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is a gentle tale about using one’s life (lives!) well in the pursuit of peace and happiness.  While not being the biggest fan of books featuring animal societies, I still found this to be an enjoyable read due to the episodic chapters and old-fashioned narrative style.  As the story progresses the reader finds out more about Malkin and Roux as they discover new things about themselves through various challenges and sticky situations.  After the relationship between Malkin and Roux is thoroughly established, the story moves on to a different setting – a world of cats, if you will – which is in sore need of a peacemaker.  Malkin comes to fill that role in the nick of time before a man made disaster looks set to threaten the existence of the cats’ new home.  I think this book will hit the mark for middle grade readers who love a good animal story and the illustrations here and there throughout will give an added context to their imagining of the story. There was a subtle sense of schmaltz underlying the story that put me off slightly – something to do with the cats’ (and particularly Roux’s) turns of phrase, I suspect – but that is possibly to be expected from a tale that promises a hero finding his destiny in the blurb.  This is one to watch out for if you have a crazy cat person in training in your dwelling.

Brand it with:

Wild at heart; warring factions; moonlight shenanigans

Well, with that round-up our Children’s Book Week Chaser comes to a close.  I hope you have found at least one book that will suit a mini-fleshling of your acquaintance!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Waking the Panda? Well that would be PANDAMONIA! (+an AUS giveaway!)

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pandamonia

Did you hear the one about the writer and illustrator who walked into a zoo?  No, neither had I until a copy of Pandamonia by Chris Owen and Chris Nixon landed on our shelf, kindly provided by Fremantle Press!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When visiting the zoo, whatever you do, DON’T WAKE THE PANDA! Join
in the fantastic fun as one grumpy panda sets off a frenzy of wild partying.

Fremantle Press seem determined to outdo themselves with picture books that might inspire a less scrupulous reader to find the nearest box cutter and carefully remove individual pages in order to frame and display said pages on the wall as works of art.  The artwork in Pandamonia is certainly worthy of such display, from the monochromatic endpapers, featuring the titular panda in a variety of somnolent poses, to the inner pages that become increasingly crowded with bold, cheeky prints of animals of all descriptions.  I can safely say that I have never seen a cuter tapir, nor indeed a more striking and noble yak as those contained within these pages.

The text takes the reader on a journey through a remarkably extensive zoo, all the while exhorting the reader not to wake the panda, under pain of wild rumpus from the zoo’s other inhabitants.  Beginning with the near-negligent threat of some jumpy hippos and tickly termites, the dangers become ever more complex as more animals and birds are added to the mix.  For teachers looking to introduce the concept of onomatopoeia to enquiring young minds, one could do a lot worse than to read them this tome as it is replete with yowling, screeching, yakking, humming and all manner of words that bring the sounds of the zoo to chaotic life.

The rhyming text begs to be read aloud and the changes in rhythm throughout allow the reader to speed up or slow down the pace as the need arises.  The amount of text was just slightly too much for the eldest mini-fleshling at 5 years old; he was desperate by the halfway point for the panda to awaken!  But as with all rewards worth having, good things come to those who wait and the reveal at the end was satisfying and funny.

The only thing that could have made this perfect for me would have been the inclusion of a few images of the sleeping panda throughout the book, as a counterpoint to the building cacophony of the other animals.  As it is though, Pandamonia is a marvellously visual picture book that neatly showcases the power of the read-aloud to incite controlled anarchy and joyous din for mini-fleshlings of an adventurous (and slightly subversive) countenance.

To ensure that the anarchy is spread around, I am offering one Australian reader the chance to win a copy of Pandamonia, thanks to Fremantle Press.  To enter, just click on the Rafflecopter link below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

Double-Dip Review Week #2: Picture Books for the Curious and Subversive…

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imageI’m assuming everyone has slept off Wednesday’s double serving of awesome middle grade fiction (and giveaway!) and you’re ready for the second course in this week-long bookish buffet.  Today we are focusing on picture books and the two I have for you today are sure to excite if you are the question-asking, rule-bending, interactive-book-loving type.

Let us begin! First up, I have an eye-popping beauty of a book from AUSSIE author and illustrator Kyle Hughes-Odgers.  Can A Skeleton Have an X-Ray? was provided to us for review from Fremantle Press.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

What spins the Earth? Do colors smell? Why is water wet? Where do dreams go? Renowned artist Kyle Hughes-Odgers brings his own unique vision to these and many other questions, from the practical to the philosophical.

Dip into it for…

skeleton xray…a head-scratching, smile-inducing jaunt through a jungle of curious questions, accompanied by stunning, quirky illustrations that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery (which makes sense, given that the author is also an accomplished visual artist).  I barely got past the cover before I got sucked into trying to answer some of the unexpected questions in the book. (Can a skeleton have an x-ray? Yes, I suspect, but it would probably be a fruitless exercise…maybe…unless you’re doing some kind of forensic testing…what? Oh, there’s more past the cover! *turns page eagerly*).  Some of the questions are quite funny – what do ghosts do all day, for instance – whereas some really did have me realising how little I know about how important things work…like “who gives the internet its powers?”  Seems like a pretty important question if you ask me!

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for a book with easy answers!  Each page in the book presents a new question, accompanied by an illustration that will prompt the imaginations of kids and adults alike.  If you’re looking for serious answers to these questions, I suggest you consult the non-fiction section.

Overall Dip Factor

I can see this being the perfect tool to generate discussion in the classroom right before a creative, problem-solving or investigative assignment is unleashed.  I loathe to use the word “whimsical” because I feel it is so overused as to be cliched, but there is a definite sense of whimsy in some of the illustrations, coupled with something more akin to the complexity found in Shaun Tan’s works – it’s that atmosphere generated by the effective coupling of simple text with illustrations that beg to be explored beyond a first glance.  My favourite illustration is from the “who builds the wings for birds to fly?” page:

birdhouse manIn fact, I liked it so much I was tempted to carefully remove it from the book and stick it in a frame on the wall…but luckily I don’t have to do that, because I’ve just learned that Kyle Hughes-Odgers is releasing a colouring book in December featuring some of the images from Can a Skeleton Have an X-Ray? !  It’s called Off the Wall and you can check it out at Fremantle Press.

Now, on to the subversive!  Our second offering is Please, Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt and Matthew Forsythe, provided for review by Simon & Schuster Australia, and the sequel to the highly acclaimed Warning! Do Not Open This Book! from 2013.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Books are made to be opened. Especially this one. But, guess what…

Someone closed this book! Who would do that?

Luckily, you can fix this. All you need to do is open it. You can do that. Can’t you?

We need your help!

Please, Open This Book!

They warned you, but you just couldn’t listen–now, the creators of Warning: Do Not Open This Book! are back with their zany monkey crew, and they need your help!

In Warning, Do Not Open This Book!, which School Library Journal called “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” turning pages meant increased chaos and delight. Now the tables have turned, and opening the book is the only way to save the desperate group of monkeys trapped between its pages. This irresistibly entertaining rescue effort puts power in the hands of the page-turner, and giggles into everyone!

Dip into it for… please open this book

…zany monkey shenanigans and a book that gives you the freedom to use your book-closing powers for good OR evil! The cheeky, distressed faces of the monkeys are a highlight of this one, as they exhort, beg and reason with the reader first to open the book and then subsequently,to stop turning the pages.  Similarly, the consequences given when pages keep being turned will generate a giggle – although I had to agree with the characters about the banana; I was as sad as they were to see a superfruit being treated in such an alarmingly cavalier manner.  It’s all about the interaction with this one and I suspect young readers will love arguing with the characters here before resolutely turning the page (which will bring only doom, as the monkey doomsayers predict!).

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a fan of monkeys.  I’m mildly distressed by monkeys generally and there are a number of species here with their bulging eyes and awkward limbs and lice (presumably).  In all honestly though, there’s not much to dislike here..except the fact that parents will no doubt be asked to read it ad nauseam at bedtimes, rest times and all other times.

Having said that, it does pay to be careful if you’re inexperienced at this sort of book-reading.  Even the best of us can get caught out with such dangerous content, as Mad Martha and I discovered:

trapped

Thankfully the family dog passed by not soon after and knocked the book to the ground with her waggy tail, inadvertently setting us free.  Not sure what we would have done otherwise, except maybe take up a “Help” sign and douse ourselves with lice-killing shampoo.

Overall Dip Factor

Please, Open This Book! is going to be an instant hit, I suspect, as much for the interactive nature of the story as for the cheeky, giggle-inducing antics of the characters.  The black pages and brightly coloured monkeys will catch the eye immediately and there’s a fun little twist on the last page and beyond that will delight mini-fleshlings, especially if they’re tackling this one on their own.  If you enjoyed such similarly interactive books as Viviane Schwarz’s There Are Cats in This Book and its sequels, or the adventures of Mo Willem’s Pigeon, then you’ll find much fun to be had when you open Please, Open This Book! after heeding the mute, banner-laden exhortations from the monkeys on the cover.

Well, that’s our second helping done and dusted!  Stay tuned on Monday for some easy-to-digest short story collections for fleshlings both mini and grown.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A Week of Double-Dip Reviews…starting with Middle Grade Fiction (and a Giveaway)!

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imageWell I hope you haven’t been filling up on lots of nutritional reading recently, because the shelf denizens and I have a whole WEEK’S worth of Double-Dip reviews to satiate your cravings.  Today we will be looking at two new release, middle grade, illustrated chapter books (and will have a giveaway to boot!), then on Friday we’ll move on to some delightfully subversive picture books, followed by short story collections on Monday, and rounding out the smorgasbord with adult fantasy fiction this time next week.

Excited? Hungry for good reading experiences? Then let’s get to it!

(You’re wondering about the giveaway, aren’t you?  Just read on and it will all become clear!)

First up we have Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye by Tania Del Rio and Will Staehle, which we received from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Meet Warren the 13th, a cursed 12-year-old Victorian bellhop who’s terribly unlucky . . . yet perpetually optimistic, hard-working, and curious. Orphan Warren’s pride and joy is his family’s hotel, but he’s been miserable ever since his evil Aunt Anaconda took over the management. Anaconda believes a mysterious treasure known as the All-Seeing Eye is hidden somewhere on the grounds, and she’ll do anything to find it. If Warren wants to preserve his family’s legacy, he’ll need to find the treasure first—if the hotel’s many strange and wacky guests don’t beat him to it! This middle-grade adventure features gorgeous two-color illustrations on every page and a lavish two-column Victorian design that will pull young readers into a spooky and delightful mystery.

Dip into it for…

warren…an unexpectedly charming main character, a hotel full of adventure and some serious double-crossing.  The book is also illustrated which adds atmosphere to the kookiness of Warren’s hotel.  This is a book for the sleuths and problem-solvers, who will delight in uncovering Warren’s family secrets along with the protagonists and peeling back the layers of a very mysterious quest.  Those who resonate with a downtrodden main character will alternately shake fists at the machinations and rejoice at the foiling of nasty Aunt Anaconda, who is hiding more than just a severe dislike for Warren.  My favourite character was Sketchy – I won’t spoil it for you, but Sketchy is a character that you would certainly not expect to find in the basement of a reputable establishment.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a straightforward mystery.  This book is replete with twists, turns, characters hiding their true colours and a plethora of family secrets that will keep the reader guessing throughout.

Overall Dip Factor

Warren the 13th proves the idea that you don’t have to be pretty to be a hero.  While the concept of the story is one we’ve seen many times before, the execution is original and kids who enjoy quirky characters and unexpected plot twists will want to jump in right alongside Warren as he hunts down the All-Seeing Eye – whatever it happens to be.

Now onto a new release AUSSIE early chapter book, Bella and the Wandering House by Meg McKinlay, a copy of which was kindly provided to us by Fremantle Press.  The self-same copy will be available for you to WIN, provided you keep reading to find out how to enter the giveaway.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Bella is very surprised one morning to discover her house has moved in the night – not a lot, just a little. Her parents are too busy to notice, but even they can’t pretend it’s not happening when they wake up to find their house on the banks of a lake. Night after night the house moves and the family wakes to a new location. Unless Bella can solve the mystery, who knows where they’ll end up?

Dip into it for…bella and the wandering house

…a charming and memorable little tale that holds at its heart themes of grief, loss and the bonds between generations.  Unmentioned in the blurb, strangely, is the relationship between Bella and her grandfather, which features largely throughout the whole story and ultimately feeds into the satisfying resolution of the wandering house problem.  McKinlay has a delightful way with words and I couldn’t help but giggle at the description of the house’s long, skinny legs – helped along by the gangly, awkward image in one of the illustrations.  For some reason, I expected a walking house to have either a stout pair of clomping feet or chicken legs, but I enjoyed the choice of lower limb here.  I also loved how determined Bella’s parents were to get to work every day, despite where the house ended up – surely most true-blue Aussies would take a wandering house as an excuse to bludge off work, but not these two!

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after an action-packed adventure story or something to do with magic and mystery.  This is a gentle story, simply told and while the house’s movements are quite amusing, it is also obvious that there is an underlying restlessness driving the plot that is reflected in the worries of the characters.

Overall Dip Factor

Bella and the Wandering House is a heartwarming story that is more complex than it appears.  While young readers will enjoy the fun of having a walking house, adult readers will appreciate the subtle themes about the importance of choice when recovering from difficult circumstances.  Reminiscent of the work of that other Aussie kidlit genius, Glenda Millard, and the mix of adventure and focus on relationships found in Eva Ibbotson’s books, Bella and the Wandering House would make a great pre-bedtime serial read for grown-ups and their mini-fleshlings, or a quick, satisfying read for independent readers who like contemporary stories with a twist of magical realism.  It would also be the perfect stocking stuffer for adult readers dreaming of a seachange!

Giveaway Time!

One of you lucky readers will receive my copy of Bella and the Wandering House – thanks to Fremantle Press for providing the copy!  The giveaway is open internationally and will be open from the moment this post goes live (NOW!) until midnight on Friday the 4th of December, 2015 (Brisbane time!).

To enter, simply comment on this post and answer this question: “What important thing of yours has gone wandering at an inopportune moment?”

One winner from the applicable comments will be chosen by a random number generator, and will have 48 hours to respond to a congratulatory email before a new winner is selected.

Good luck!

I hope this bite-sized snack of middle grade fiction has whet your appetite for more Double-Dip reviews! Stay tuned for double the literary goodness this week.

Until next time,

Bruce