A Middle-Grade Mystery Double Dip Review: Best Mistakes and Girl Detectives…

1

image

I hope you won’t have to search out your snack to accompany today’s double dip review, because that’s exactly what is happening in today’s two middle grade mysteries…although, technically, it’s not snacks that are being hunted down, it’s secrets and trickery.  Let’s jump straight in with a girl detective, shall we?

We received The Great Shelby Holmes: Girl Detective by Elizabeth Eulberg from Bloomsbury Australia for review and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Meet spunky sleuth Shelby and her sports-loving sidekick Watson as they take on a dog-napper in this fresh twist on Sherlock Holmes.
Shelby Holmes is not your average sixth grader. She’s nine years old, barely four feet tall, and the best detective her Harlem neighborhood has ever seen—always using logic and a bit of pluck (which yes, some might call “bossiness”) to solve the toughest crimes.

When eleven-year-old John Watson moves downstairs, Shelby finds something that’s eluded her up till now: a friend. Easy-going John isn’t sure of what to make of Shelby, but he soon finds himself her most-trusted (read: only) partner in a dog-napping case that’ll take both their talents to crack.

Sherlock Holmes gets a fun, sweet twist with two irresistible young heroes and black & white illustrations throughout in this middle grade debut from internationally bestselling YA author Elizabeth Eulberg.

Dip into it for… shelby holmes

…a fun and tongue-in-cheek mystery featuring a strong yet quirky female protagonist and an honest and down-to-earth narrator.  I will absolutely admit that when this landed on my shelf I immediately rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh sweet baby cheeses, not ANOTHER Sherlock Holmes spin off”, but I genuinely enjoyed this tale and quickly warmed to the characters mostly, I think, due to the endearing and self-deprecating voice of John Watson, the narrator.  John felt like a pretty authentic young lad who has just moved to a new city (again) and is faced with the task of making friends (any friends) to avoid having to think about his dad’s disappearing act.  Shelby is supremely annoying in some parts, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, but the author does a good job of pointing out (through John’s observations) her vulnerabilities and desire for camaraderie.  The story deals with a mystery involving a wealthy family and a disappearing dog which is solved eloquently in the end, leaving everyone something to think about.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t like Sherlock Holmes rebooted for youngsters?  This story certainly wouldn’t have made it onto my TBR had it not been sent to me for review, but I will happily admit that this would have been my mistake.  Even if you are a bit over re-hashed detective concepts for middle grade readers, this one is genuinely warm and worth a look.

Overall Dip Factor

I would certainly recommend this to young readers who enjoy mystery mixed with humour in a setting that allows real-life issues – like making friends, dealing with parental separation and moving to a new city – to come to the fore.  The characters are well-developed enough to give the story a bit of depth and the mystery is interesting enough to have youngsters guessing along until the big reveal.  This is definitely one of the more accomplished Sherlock Holmes homages I’ve seen about.

I will be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge 2017Popsugar Challenge 2017 under category #27: a book featuring someone’s name in the title.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Next up we have a tale of vintage cars, dog-walking and another set of quirky friends in The Best Mistake Mystery by Sylvia McNicoll.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Dogwalker extraordinaire Stephen Nobel can get a little anxious, but his habit of counting the mistakes he and everyone else makes calms him. His need to analyze gets kicked into hyperdrive after two crazy events happen in one day at school: the bomb squad blows up a backpack and someone smashes a car into the building.

To make things worse, that someone thinks Stephen can identify them. Stephen receives a threatening text. If he goes to the police, his favourite dogs, Ping and Pong, will get hurt. The pressure mounts when his new best friend, Renée, begs for Stephen’s help. Her brother has been charged with the crimes and she wants to clear his name.

Is it a mistake to give in to dognappers? How can he possibly save everybody? To find out, Stephen will have to count on all of his new friends.

Dip into it for… best mistake mystery

…a multi-layered mystery that can only be pieced together by someone who spends their time scanning the neighbourhood under the cover of dogwalking.  Stephen is a conscientious sort of a boy and Renee is a loyal friend with a rebellious streak.  Both kids need a friend and it turns out that hanging out with the “weird” kid needn’t be a bad thing.  The mystery in this one unfolds slowly, with different elements added as the days go on and it is not clear to Stephen and Renee – or indeed, the reader – how, or even if, certain pieces of the puzzle fit together. Every character has a backstory here, as one often finds in a small neighbourhood, and there are plenty of people who had the opportunity, if not the motive, to drive a car into the front of the school.  The same is true of the threatening texts that Stephen begins to receive – plenty of people could have had the opportunity – but why would anyone want to hurt Ping and Pong?

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of dogs.  I’m serious.  There is a lot of dog-walking, dog-feeding and general dog-tending going on here, and that’s before Ping and Pong come under the threat of dognapping.  I will admit that this became tedious after a while.  I understand that Stephen, as a character, is totally committed to his doggy clients, but I didn’t feel like I needed quite that much detail as to how he went about looking after them.

Overall Dip Factor

This is certainly an original story with a mystery that will have even the most committed mystery-readers puzzling along with the characters.  There are plenty of red-herrings thrown in and lots of possible motives for all sorts of characters, and in the end things aren’t exactly as our two protagonists imagined them to be.  I enjoyed watching the friendship between Renee and Stephen grow.  The author has done a good job of letting the trust build slowly, while the bonds between the two are forged through trial.  This wasn’t an outstanding read, in my opinion, but definitely worth a look if you can handle lots of doggy description and enjoy a complex, neighbourhood-driven mystery.

I hope if you have a canine in the house that you provided them with a nice treat while you read the preceding review, but I suppose if you didn’t there’s still time to do it now.

We’ll wait.

So, do either of these take you fancy?  Are you sick of rehashes of famous detective stories too?  Have you ever read a dog-walking mystery before?  Let me know!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Zita the Spacegirl…

4

gabbing-about-graphic-novels

Well it’s only been a few days since I borrowed a stack of graphic novels from the library, but I’ve already chewed through a couple of them and it’s time to focus in on Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Zita’s life took a cosmic left turn in the blink of an eye.

When her best friend is abducted by an alien doomsday cult, Zita leaps to the rescue and finds herself a stranger on a strange planet. Humanoid chickens and neurotic robots are shocking enough as new experiences go, but Zita is even more surprised to find herself taking on the role of intergalactic hero. Before long, aliens in all shapes and sizes don’t even phase her. Neither do ancient prophecies, doomed planets, or even a friendly con man who takes a mysterious interest in Zita’s quest.

Zita the Spacegirl is a fun, captivating tale of friendship and redemption from Flight veteran Ben Hatke. It also has more whimsical, eye-catching, Miyazaki-esque monsters than you can shake a stick at.

zita-the-spacegirl

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Sci fi

Art Style:

Cartoonish and chock full of heart

Reading time:

I knocked this one over in about twenty minutes.

Let’s get gabbing:

Before I get into this book too much, I should point out that we Shelf-dwellers just love Ben Hatke.  It started with Nobody Likes A Goblin and now we are on a mission to acquire and read all of his work.  We already had Return of Zita the Spacegirl on our TBR shelf, but it was suggested that we read the first in the series before trying that one, so we were lucky enough to find this at our local library.

Plot wise, Zita and her friend Joseph are transported to another world after giving in to temptation and pushing a big red button that fell out of the sky.  The two are immediately separated and it is up to Zita to find Joseph and see them safely home, before the planet they are on is destroyed by a fiery meteor – nothing like a bit of time pressure to spice things up!.  Along the way, Zita meets some friendly and not-so-friendly folk and eventually has to make a decision about whether or not she is ready to return home.

The strength of this tale is in the characters.  From Zita herself to each and every character of whom we are given just a glimpse in the background frames, Hatke brings this story to life with all manner of weird and wonderful folk.  There’s Strong-Strong, a big, brown Domo-kun-like character with a heart of gold, Pizzicato, a mouse with some gnarly armour, and a vengeful and righteous killer robot named One, to name just a few.  Hatke has an incredible knack for drawing characters to which the reader can be sympathetic, even if they’re reasonably villainous.  They’ve inspired Mad Martha to create them in crochet before and as we were paging through Zita’s story, it was obvious that Mad Martha was ticking off on her fabric fingers which characters she would like to make next.

The story is more complicated than the basic rescue-a-friend, save-the-world plot type, with difficult decisions being thrown up along the way.  Zita also has to think on her feet and go with her gut about who to trust and who to avoid if she is to find her way home safely.  There are some delightfully creative inclusions here and there, my favourite of which is Door Paste – like a tube of toothpaste, but it creates a a door if you smear it on a flat surface.  Perfect for quick escapes!

Overall snapshot:

Hatke has done it again with Zita’s adventures.  If you are (or know of) a fan of science fiction, delightful artwork, exciting adventures, themes of friendship and loyalty and strong female protagonists, you must get your claws on Zita the Spacegirl.

And now here’s Return of Zita the Spacegirl, which is book three in the series.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ben Hatke brings back our intrepid space heroine for another delightful sci-fi/fantasy adventure in this New York Times-Bestselling graphic novel trilogy for middle grade readers.

Zita the Spacegirl has saved planets, battled monsters, and wrestled with interplanetary fame. But she faces her biggest challenge yet in the third and final installment of the Zita adventures. Wrongfully imprisoned on a penitentiary planet, Zita has to plot the galaxy’s greatest jailbreak before the evil prison warden can execute his plan of interstellar domination!

return-of-zita

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Sci fi

Art Style:

Cartoonish and chock full of heart

Reading time:

As above, this was about twenty minutes uninterrupted reading

Let’s get gabbing:

You may have picked up that I skipped book two in the series, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, because the library didn’t have it (boo!).  This wasn’t too much of a drama because the opening scenes cleverly work some of the key points from books one and two into the dialogue between Zita and her captor.  Yes, this book begins with Zita imprisoned and seemingly helpless, although it is apparent that in book two she had been gadding about making a name for herself across the galaxy and fostering the reputation of someone not to be trifled with.

The plot focuses on Zita’s attempts to escape her prison by finding a jump crystal with which she can power up the red-button thingy and take herself back home.  Along the way she is helped out by a mysterious masked boy and her cellmates, a skeleton named Femur who possesses some very interestingly shaped digits, and Ragpile, an animated pile of rags.  I absolutely loved the little twist at the end concerning Ragpile and Femur and it encapsulates the ingenuity and humour that is woven into these stories.  Old friends also make an appearance, including Pizzicato, Strong-Strong and One, as well as some folk from the second book who I hadn’t met before, most interesting of which being a space-pirate type lady and her mysterious cat.

Zita’s adventures eventually find her back on Earth and even though it is claimed that this is the final story in the series, the ending holds a little hope that there might be more.

Overall snapshot:

This was an action packed way to finish the series, full of escapes, ingenious ideas and teamwork.  Themes of betrayal and forgiveness loom large and the ensemble cast of characters ensures that there’ll be something for everyone in Zita’s final adventure.

I’m submitting Return of Zita the Spacegirl for my Mount TBR Reading ChallengeMount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017! You can check out my progress here.

Also, I can’t find a space to fit them on the blog, but I have also read and reviewed Livingstone Volume 1 and Bloody Chester from my stack of borrowed graphic novels.  Click on the book titles to see my reviews on Goodreads.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: The Hounds of Penhallow Hall

1

meandering-through-middle-grade

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

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

hounds-of-penhallow-hall

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

The Eye of the Reindeer: Snow, Sanity and the Search for Self…

5

eye-of-the-reindeer

We readers know that it is super important to make sure you have the right book for the holiday season.  Something that won’t be over too quickly, that will take you on a journey (even if you have to stay at home) and will plunge you right into a new and unexpected world.  Today’s book does all of those things and more in an epic journey toward freedom of body and self, spanning more than 30 years.  We received The Eye of the Reindeer by Eva Weaver from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Shortly after her thirteenth birthday, Ritva is sent away to Seili, an island in the far north of Finland. A former leper colony, Seili is now home to ‘hopeless cases’ – to women the doctors call mad. But Ritva knows she doesn’t belong there. As biting winter follows biting winter, she longs to be near to her sister, and wonders why her father ever allowed her to be taken to this desolate place.

Hope arrives in the form of Martta, a headstrong girl who becomes Ritva’s only friend. Martta is a Sami, from the north. All through her childhood, Ritva’s mother told her wonderful Sami legends and tales – of Vaja the reindeer, the stolen sealskin, of a sacred drum hidden long ago. When Ritva and Martta decide to make their escape, this is where they will head.

So begins an odyssey over frozen sea and land towards a place where healing and forgiveness can grow. This is a story about friendship, about seeing the world through a different perspective, and the stories and tales that can make up a life.

Wowsers, what an epic!  I had absolutely no idea when I started reading this book that it would span such a long time period and feature an unbelievable journey, both in foot miles and in growth of characters.  Ritva is a young woman in 1913 when she is shipped off to Seili, an asylum set on an island in the freezing north, and home to women that have been deemed (correctly or incorrectly) difficult cases.  The daughter of a pastor, Ritva has long experienced strange dreams and visions, and it is only when she meets Martta, a young Sami woman imprisoned with her, that she discovers that her dreams may be related to legends of the Northern Sami people.  After a daring escape, Ritva and Martta are caught up in a journey toward physical freedom from Seili, and the emotional journey of dealing with family history, sexuality and who they really want to be.

The book is broken into a number of parts that correspond with certain legs of the journeys that the girls – and then later on, women – take.  The story begins with Ritva’s time on Seili and we are given certain glimpses into her past and the reasons why her father may have had her committed in the first place.  This family mystery continues throughout much of the book until it is brought to a shocking, yet satisfying conclusion about two-thirds of the way through.    After this, Ritva tries to carve out a place for herself to belong and untangle the pressures of expectation and desire that have weighed her down.

I haven’t read a book like this in quite a long time, if ever.  The Eye of the Reindeer is totally focused on Ritva as she faces incredible challenges throughout her life.  The pace is quite slow, despite the fact that the story begins in Ritva’s adolescence and ends after her middle age, and yet I found each section totally absorbing while I was reading it.  I think my favourite part of the book was Ritva and Martta’s escape from Seili, their unconventional modes of transport and the suspense of potential recapture set against such a hostile environment.  The setting in Scandinavia and the lands at the top of the world was so well described as to almost be a character in itself and I was fascinated by the details relating to the indigenous people of this region – the Sami – and their way of life.  The author leaves some notes after the story is finished about the Sami and their current predicament for those who wish to find out more.

This book certainly won’t be for everyone, given the depth in which it explores difficult subjects like abuse, abandonment and betrayal, and the slow unfolding of the narrative, and certainly isn’t one that, had I known in advance how hefty the story would feel, I would probably have ever picked up.  The atmosphere is quite tense in some parts and particularly gloomy in others, but for the most part there is an undercurrent of hope and determination that spurred me on to find out how Ritva’s story might end.  Overall though, I am so happy to have read Ritva’s story and was completely absorbed in her life as it unfolded.

If you have a space in your schedule in the next few months which could be filled with a vast, sprawling landscape and a young woman slowly picking her way towards truth over the course of an incredible life, then I would definitely recommend you have a go at The Eye of the Reindeer.

Plus, the author has a rhyming first and surname.

That’s always a bonus.

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: I Am Princess X

3

TBR Friday

It’s TBR Friday once again and I’m also sneaking in another notch off the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas, by getting finished with I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Best friends, big fans, a mysterious webcomic, and a long-lost girl collide in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of both Cory Doctorow and Sarah Dessen; illustrated throughout with comics.

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.

Princess X?

When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon—her best friend, Libby, who lives.

i-am-princess-x

Ten Second Synopsis:
May and Libby were best friends – until Libby died in a horrible road accident, leaving May behind with nothing but memories and their shared work on a comic book series “Princess X”. When May starts noticing stickers of Princess X around her home town, she is baffled: who could be drawing Libby and May’s character if Libby died three years ago?

Time on the TBR Shelf:

I’m not really sure.  At least a year, but not more than a year and a half.

Acquired:

Purchased from the Scholastic warehouse sale for a cool $5.00, or thereabouts.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

Other books kept taking precedence.

Best Bits:

  • The format switches between novel and graphic novel, with actual parts of the Princess X comic included in the book.  They are printed in a gorgeous purple and grey colour palette too, which is a feast for the eyes.
  • The mystery was really absorbing, because in the beginning, May doesn’t realise that there are parts to Libby’s story of which she isn’t aware, for various reasons.  There are also clues left about for May to find which is always fun.
  • The pace is spot on, with not much dallying, and when the proverbial hits the fan, it’s a seat-of-your-pants ride to the end.
  • I really liked May as a character.  She’s authentic for her age, with flaws and all.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • In the beginning it seemed like the author was having a bit of trouble finding the right voice for her characters, but this cleared up by the middle.
  • There is a little red herring thrown out early on about what happens to the physical collection of Princess X comics and I wished that this had played a part in the mystery, but it didn’t.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Absolutely!  I got totally sucked in to this mystery and both the format and the content of the story are a change from the usual YA school-yard dynamics fare.

Where to now for this tome?

I loved it, but I can’t see myself reading it again, so I will put it out for sale at the next Suitcase Rummage I attend.

So that’s one more chink off Mount TBR and one more book to add to my Mount TBR Reading Challenge total!  I think I’m up to 13 or 14 now, but I’ll try and fit one more in before I do a wrap up post next month.

 

Mount TBR 2016

Until next time,

Bruce

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Enticing YA” Edition…

1

image

If you are fan of young adult literature, be it quirky-cute romance, gripping historical fiction, paranormal menace or angsty growing-up tale, you will no doubt want to saddle up and ride with us today.  I have four enticing YA titles for you, each with its own niche audience, so scroll on down and see what you can round up!

Hotel for the Lost (Suzanne Young)

*We received a copy of Hotel for the Lost from Simon & Schuster Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  hotel-for-the-lost

Audrey and her brother Daniel are being driven to their grandmother’s house, to take a break after their mother’s untimely death three months earlier. After stopping for the night at a hotel, the family dynamic seems more functional…but that’s only the first of a lot of strange things that are going on at the Hotel Ruby.

Muster up the motivation because…

…There’s a lot of ghosty goodness going on in this one that will have you guessing ahead to try and figure out the mystery before the big reveal.  I happened to be reading this one around Halloween time and it was charmingly atmospheric, what with its big gothic hotel in a lonely setting, odd nightly parties and collection of delightfully (and in some cases, creepily) bizarre guests.  Audrey is stuck down a well of grief and guilt since her mother’s death, while her brother Daniel is surly and their father seems to have mentally checked out.  On arrival  at the Ruby, things start looking up, but it isn’t long before Audrey starts to notice cracks in the hotel’s posh facade, not least of which being the overlord-like attitude of the concierge.  As Audrey meets more guests and her father becomes more and more plugged in to the family, Audrey decides that things might be looking up and it won’t be so hard to hang out for a few days until the family checks out, despite a few hard-to-explain incidents.  As ghostly, paranormal stories go, this one has plenty of threads to both entice and confuse the reader, with clues about the mystery dropped left, right and centre: there’s the mystery of the invitation-only nightly party, the tragic history of the building, the gossip about some of the guests and the strange flashes of vision that Audrey is experiencing.  I know I was hurriedly trying to piece together the tidbits of information in order to figure out what was going on before the reveal.  I suspect that experienced readers of paranormal stories will pick the obvious signs early on, but there were definitely a few aspects of the reveal that I did not see coming.  I was quite impressed with the ending that Young chose to go with here, because it is a bit more ambiguous and dark than I would have expected.  Overall, this was a fun read, albeit a tad predictable in places, that will satisfy those looking for an atmospheric story that will give a whole new meaning to the term “life of the party”.

Brand it with:

Complimentary late check-out; all in the family; what goes on below stairs

The Graces (Laure Eve)

*We received a copy of The Graces from Allen & Unwin for review*

the-graces

The Graces by Laure Eve. Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th October, 2016. RRP: $19.99

Two Sentence Synopsis: 

River is starting afresh at a new school and like everyone else, is drawn to the Grace siblings like a moth to a flame. When River manages to form a friendship with Summer Grace, her life becomes all that she wants it to be…but are the rumours of a Grace curse true?

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is a deep exploration of identity, loyalty, belonging and exerting one’s power in the fraught social world of the teenage years.  I didn’t think that I would be pulled in to The Graces as much as I was, but I was quickly won over by the focus on character development and the ways in which people will lie, keep secrets and remake themselves in order to fit in.  Everyone in River’s town believe that the Grace family are witches.  The three Grace siblings – twins, Fenrin and Tahlia, and younger sister Summer – float through school untouched by the problems of the common people, despite rumours of revenge and trouble that may have been dished out to those who defied the Graces in the past.  River, desperate to remake herself in this new environment, is somehow able to find her way into Summer’s good graces, and from there into the Grace family itself.  What she discovers is a tight-knit, exclusionary, possibly paranoid vision of their place in the world – a place she wants to share.  For the most part, this story is one firmly grounded in human relationships – parents exerting their will (and fears) on children, sibling loyalty, friendship defined by secrecy – but towards the end, a more obvious element of fantasy emerges.  I was slightly disappointed by this, because I thought that the character development and psychological twisting and turning between the Grace siblings and River was compelling enough that the story didn’t need any fantastical trappings.  Also, the fantasy element shows the story up as a series-opener, which heightened my disappointment.  I felt that this story had everything it needed to pack a memorable and thought-provoking punch contained within its pages, without having to add anything other-wordly to the story, and I don’t want to see that watered down by a focus in the next book on fantasy, rather than human nature.  Despite that little niggle at the end, I can heartily recommend this to readers of YA who are looking for an examination of human relationships and the price one might be willing to pay in order to be included.

Brand it with:

One of us; On the outer; Believing the rumours

The Lie Tree: Illustrated Edition (Frances Hardinge & Chris Riddell)

*We received a copy of The Lie Tree from PanMacmillan Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  the-lie-tree

Faith yearns to take a place alongside her famous scientist father, but is constrained by the social restrictions imposed on women of her time. When the family moves to an island to escape a scandal, Faith takes her chance to assume the mantle of natural scientist over a very strange plant indeed – and finds herself embroiled in a mystery that challenges all the assumptions that her father held dear.

Muster up the motivation because…

…Frances Hardinge is a class apart when it comes to writing for young people.  In fact, I will go so far as to say that her books aren’t really young people’s books at all, but adult-reader-worthy books that happen to feature young protagonists.  Having read plenty of Hardinge’s work before, I knew pretty well what I was in for with The Lie Tree, and that was exactly what I got: absorbing, evocative prose, strong female characters with obvious, yet useful flaws, plot twists, and an atmosphere that perfectly reflected the oppressive situation in which the protagonist finds herself.  Faith is the eldest daughter of an (until-recently) esteemed natural scientist, who finds herself and her family spirited away to a remote island to avoid a scandal related to her father’s work.  After uncovering some of her father’s secrets through slyness and stealth, Faith is presented with an opportunity to observe a mythical plant whose discovery could change the world.  The story, like much of Hardinge’s work, unfolds slowly, with important information drip-fed to the reader.  The historical setting of this particular tale added a great deal to the atmosphere, as did the focus on gender-based restrictions that require Faith to undertake much of her investigation covertly.  This book really is absorbing, playing on ideas about the power of suggestion to create fear and generate a social environment which, already enmeshed in class-based strata and strict observance of propriety, is ripe for the dissemination of falsehood as truth, and opinion as fact.  I received the illustrated edition of the book to review, with illustrations completed by (who other than) Chris Riddell, yet I found that the illustrations didn’t add a great deal to my experience of the book.  Obviously, the illustrations are gorgeous and I enjoyed flicking across a full page line drawing every now and then in such a long book, but the narrative carries itself here, with Hardinge’s narrative imagery working its own magic.  Riddell’s illustrative style is particularly suited to the dour, historical atmosphere of the story however and admittedly, it was fun to see the portrayals of characters whose physical features are as unflattering as their personalities. I would definitely recommend The Lie Tree to those who are already fans of Hardinge’s work, featuring as it does a similar dark and foreboding atmosphere as her recent publications, Cuckoo Song and A Face Like Glass. If you are a fan of historical fiction that carries a touch of the subversive, and are looking for a good mystery with a slightly magical twist, then you will find plenty to entice you with The Lie Tree.

Brand it with:

Keeping one’s enemies close; the stealth-inducing properties of crepe; born to be wild

The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily (Rachel Cohn & David Levithan)

* We received a copy of The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

The Twelve Days of Dash and Llily by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th October, 2016.  RRP: $19.99

The Twelve Days of Dash and Llily by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th October, 2016. RRP: $19.99

Dash is concerned about his relationship with Lily, while Lily is depressed about her grandfather, Christmas and her relationship with Dash. Dash decides to break with tradition and surprise Lily with twelve days of happiness before Christmas to try and get their mutual groove back.

Muster up the motivation because…

…if you were a fan of the first book in this series (which I have not read), you will no doubt go ga-ga for this charming, festive offering.  I really wanted to like this one, not least because of the delightful, quirky cover design, but I ended up DNFing at 68 pages.  Romance and romantic relationships are just not my thing in fiction, but I can see why there was so much buzz about the first book in the series.  The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Dash and Lily.  Dash opened this book, and I quickly found his self-deprecating dry humour quite disarming.  I thought that I might actually find myself falling for a romance book!  Then Lily took the helm and I just found her a bit too sheltered for my liking.  When you are nearly 18 and can’t get over the fact that you don’t feel all that Christmassy at Christmas, I think you need to step out of your #firstworldproblems for a moment and appreciate what you’ve got.  I did make the decision to put the book down during one of Lily’s sections, mostly because I didn’t think I could handle reading about such a young-seeming character as an adult reader.  I can certainly see the appeal of the book and the series however and should warn you not to let my curmudgeonly attitude toward unspoiled, innocent souls put you off reading it if you are in the mood for a Christmassy, feelgood story.

Brand it with:

Christmas knits; holiday romance; Dash-ing through the not-snow

Surely there is something amongst these offerings to ignite the YA gleam in your eye and have you rushing out to muster up one of these titles!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Word Nerd: A Middle Grade Read-It-If Review…

0

read it if NEW BUTTON

You know that wonderful feeling when you get a run of books that you’ve just really enjoyed reading?  Well I’ve had that feeling all this week.  Apart from yesterday’s Top Book of 2016 pick, I’ve got some other great reads coming up this week that gave me a cheery glow in the very pit of my stony heart.  Today’s book is one of those glow-makers.  We received our copy of Word Nerd by Susan Nielsen from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ambrose Bukowski is a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. And when bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich to set off his allergy, it’s his mother who has the extreme reaction. From now on, Ambrose has to be home-schooled.

Then Ambrose strikes up an unlikely friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, an ex-con who’s been in prison. They have nothing in common except for Scrabble. But a small deception grows out of control when Ambrose convinces a reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club. Could this spell disaster for Ambrose?

word-nerd

Read it if:

*you are a kitchen scrabble player looking for ways to step into the big leagues

*you can’t go past a good “dark horse” story

*you enjoy reading about (peanut free) baklava as much as you enjoy eating it

*you’ve ever made a friend that your parents considered to be a bad influence

*you tend to judge books (read: people) by their rotund, malodorous or otherwise unflattering covers

I’ve had Word Nerd on my Book Depository wishlist – you know, that list of 1000+ books that I will buy when I win the lotto – for quite a while so when I saw it come up on Netgalley I jumped at the chance to review it.  After all, how could I, a bona fide, dyed in the stone, word nerd pass up a book about word-nerdery, especially one aimed at a middle grade audience?

Clearly, I could not.

This is one of those middle grade reads that can be enjoyed by older readers mostly due to the fact that it takes place, for the most part, outside the trope-laden school setting.  Ambrose is home-schooled (by the time a few chapters have passed) due mostly to his mother’s overblown anxiety about his well-being and therefore the book is free from the stereotypical child characters one might usually find in books for this age group.  Instead, Word Nerd feels like a book for a grown up (or growing up) audience, as Ambrose is forced by necessity and circumstance to take a look at himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be.

The thing about this book that pleased me the most was the authenticity of the characterisation.  Ambrose is a genuine rendering of a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy, with all the misplaced confidence, anxiety, awkwardness, and interest in pubescent issues that being a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy entails.  The author doesn’t gloss over the grown-up issues that Ambrose is confronted with through his interactions with his upstairs neighbour, Cosmo – including, but not limited to, jail time and drug use – but neither are these gratuitously exploited.  Essentially, Ambrose reads like an unfeigned interpretation of a young boy attempting to make his own choices and emerge, flaws and all, from his mother’s protective shadow.

I knocked this one over in only a few sittings because the narrative was both absorbing and undemanding, and peppered with quirky but real-seeming characters.  I’d definitely recommend this for young readers of middle grade who can handle some grown-up issues, or for older readers looking for a charming and memorable pre-coming of age tale that is wordy in all the right places.

Until next time,

Bruce