Utopirama: A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home…

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Welcome once again to the semi-regular Utopirama feature, wherein I aim to heighten awareness about certain books that promote that feeling of happiness and that sense of all being right with the world.  Books featured in Utopirama posts are cosy reads, in which nothing occurs to disturb your equilibrium.  Today’s offering is one for the dog-lovers. And also for the nursing home lovers (in case any exist).  And finally for lovers of old age.  It is, of course, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern.

dog nursing

Quick Overview:

The book follows the story of Sue, and her loveable dog Pransky, who decide that the time is ripe for some volunteering in order to make their corner of the world a better place.  In the face of reasonably large odds (Pransky’s lack of desire to participate in the process, for one) Sue researches the requirements needing to be satisfied for herself and Pransky to become a therapy team and then tries to whip (metaphorically, obviously) Pransky into shape.  After passing the rigorous test for therapy dog teams, Pransky and Sue begin to volunteer at their local nursing home.  From the cranky to the welcoming to the downright not-quite-sure-what’s-going-on, Pransky and Sue encounter and engage with every possible attitude, state of mind and personality in their weekly visits to the elderly residents, proving in the process that sometimes the most effective form of healing and connection can be packaged in the shape of a big furry pillow. With dog breath.

Utopian Themes:

Comfort for the Afflicted

Going Gently into that Good Night

Furry Friends

Communicating beyond Words

Cultivating Virtue

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

5 out of 5 bubbles for the gentle whuffling of a hound all a-snooze

This is the perfect read for those who like a dog book in which you can be sure that the dog doesn’t die at the end.  Although, a lot of the old people do.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Rump and Stiltskin: Fairy Tale Retellings for Young and Old(ish)…

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imageWelcome to another exciting episode of my Fairy Tale Makeovers review series!  Today I have two retellings of the same fairy tale – Rumpelstiltskin –  he with the penchant baby thievery and silly name-guessing games.

One of the retellings is a middle grade read full of adventure, laughs and a fresh, complex new take on the traditional Rumpelstiltskin tale, and the other is an adult fiction novel full of adventure, laughs and….well, you get the idea.  Let’s begin with the middle grade offering, shall we?

rumpRump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin

Liesl Shurtliff

The Tome:

In Rump’s world, your name is your destiny.  Unfortunately, Rump’s mother died before she could get his full name out and so he has been stuck as the butt of many jokes ever since.  After accidentally finding out he possesses the ability to spin straw into gold, and then accidentally dooming the (greedy, selfish) miller’s (vacuous, unreasonable) daughter Opal to a life spent spinning gold for the king, Rump knows that he must step in to make things right.  But things take a turn for the (much, much) worse when Opal accidentally promises Rump her first-born son in return for his spinning.

Now, stuck with a magical ability he doesn’t want, a pre-emptive baby that he certainly doesn’t need, and a donkey that’s good for Nothing, Rump must use all his wits to overcome his expected destiny at the bottom rung of the social ladder.  With the help of his friend Red, some very unusual trolls and the power within himself, Rump might just be able to untangle this knotty dilemma…but he may have to fly by the seat of his pants to do it.

Why You Should Read It:

Shurtliff has done a great job here in creating complex, neatly interwoven plot threads that slowly build into a well thought out and satisfying narrative.  There’s a lot of humour in both the characters and the situation, and some fun new twists on the traditional tale.  I expecially enjoyed the trolls and their cheeky ploy to remain out of the way of humans.  All the elements of the original tale are here (except, possibly, the more violent bits) but they’ve been used in clever, creative ways to put the focus back onto Rump and how he will fulfill his destiny.

Makeover Point of Difference:

The main point of view here is Rump’s, and he’s a really likeable character.  With Rump leading the narration, this book will certainly be a hit with middle grade-aged kids looking for a familiar(ish) tale of magic with lots of humour to lighten things up.

And now for the grown ups….

StiltskinStiltskin

Andrew Buckley

The Tome:

Don’t let the rubber duck on his head fool you, Rumpelstiltskin is one cranky, murderous, rabbit-stabbing dwarf.  After escaping from The Tower in Thiside (the place where all the fairy tale mob live) with the help of the (clearly mad) Mad Hatter, Rumpelstiltskin immediately sets off to pass on a message to the unsuspecting Robert Darkly in Othaside (the place where us mob live).  On unexpectedly discovering said murderous dwarf in his bathtub, Robert is clearly somewhat distressed to discover that his world is about to get a damn sight weirder (and more dangerous).  And all this on the day that his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job.

Luckily for Robert, he is immediately taken under the (metaphorical) wing of Lily (of the Agency) and introduced to the White Rabbit.  Along with a number of other (hitherto mythical) creatures, Lily and Robert must set out after Rumpelstiltskin and foil his dastardly plan before any more fluffy bunnies succumb to the unforgiving steel of his blade.  But what Lily and Robert are about to find out is that the Dwarf’s plan may go deeper than any of them had ever expected…

Why You Should Read It:

We love a bit of silliness around the shelf and this book has silliness in bucketloads.  Not just silliness though, oh no.  There’s a fair bit of violence towards sweet defenceless fairy tale creatures.  There’s warrior gnomes and random facts about the mechanics of sex between fairies.  There’s a smidgeon of old-ladies being subjected to hallucinatory shifts in reality. Really, there’s something for everyone over the age of eighteen to be found here, and a lot of it is pretty funny.  Buckley maintains a light, humorous tone throughout and there are many little asides that are designed to throw out your train of thought and give you an unsought-after giggle.  Rumpelstiltskin is suitably evil and the Mad Hatter is appropriately devious and conniving.  Robert is adorably clueless and the White Rabbit imposing in his managerial capacity.  Overall, it’s just a good, fun romp and you should probably give it a go if you’re into retellings. Or even if you’re not.

Makeover Point of Difference:

Once again, it feels like the familiar fairy tale character that we know and love (to hate), but there’s a strange and beguiling Urban Fantasy twist going on that reminded me of books like Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Un Lun Dun by China Mieville but with a lighter tone.  It’s got an atmosphere all its own though and I’d like to see what other delights Buckley has/will come up with.

So there you have it.  Two takes on the famous Rumpelstiltskin, Esq.  I’d love to know about any other Rumpelstiltskin retellings out there because I’ve grown quite fond of the repugnant/redeemable little guy.

Until next time,
Bruce

*I received a digital copy of Stiltskin from the publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for an honest review.

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A Quartet of Awesomosity: The Best Books I’ve Ever Read….

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Good evening friends, followers and hangers-on.  Tonight I present to you a post smeared with the brush strokes of excellence, in the unfading, weather-resistant shade of sparkly brilliance.  Tonight, I will reveal to you a quartet of tomes that have changed the way I look at children’s literature.  Tonight, I present, THE BEST BOOKS I’VE EVER READ…..on a variety of obscure topics….since the beginning of the year.

Oh, sorry, did you think I meant the best books I’ve ever read? Like, ever? Well I’d love to tell you about those but that would take an extreme amount of thinking on my part and the cobbling together of some form objective criteria on which to base my decision and that would take far too much of my valuable time.  So you’ll just have to settle for the four best books I’ve read on topics that you probably wouldn’t have considered perusing.  Set your eyeballs to stun – you have been warned.

First up, we have….

The Best Book I’ve Ever Read about the Pitfalls of Befriending a Coyote Pup

okay andyThe Book:  Okay, Andy by Maxwell Eaton III

Acquired: From the publisher via Edelweiss – thanks!

Synopsis: Andy the (long-suffering, one would suspect) alligator enjoys endures a close, personal acquaintance with coyote pup Preston, to the mutual benefit of both.

Why you should read it:

This is a fantastic little graphic novel with super-appealing illustrations.  While it’s only a very short read, as most graphic novels tend to be, the three adventures involving the pair (and a cast of other characters including an escape-artist rabbit, a daredevil turtle and a scaredy-bear) contain lots of humour.  One can feel the frustration of poor old Andy, as he spends quality time with enthusiastic young Preston.

Recommended for: at only 96 pages, this little tome would be perfect as a read-together for those aged 5 and above, or as an independent read for the 8+ set.  The small amount of text coupled with the fun illustrations should also make this a great choice for the reluctant reader or big kids who just want a quick giggle.

Next we have…

Ooh Odd ZooThe Book:  Ooh Odd Zoo: 25 Unusual Animals and 1 Ordinary Larva by JefF Williams, John Rios, Sonny Han and Geoff Elliott

Acquired: Purchased while attempting to find out when the sequel to Scar and the Wolf (by the same authors) was due out. Found this instead.

Synopsis: A collection of short verses introducing the budding zoo-oddigest to some interesting animals that are generally not household names.  Highlights include the Zyzzyva, the Hax and the Passenger Pigeon (who “used to exist”, but “now they’re just missed”)

Why you should read it:

Once again, the illustrations – simple black and white line drawings – are just superb.  On top of that, this book contains hands-down the funniest poem about a maggot that I have ever read.  And if those two factors don’t convince you to get onto this book now, then I don’t know what will.  I just wish I’d bought it in paperback instead of e.

Recommended for: poetry lovers, connoisseurs of fine humour and fanciers of obscure animal life.

Third to the party is…

The Best Book I’ve Ever Read about Hermit Crab Psychology and Behaviour

never underestimate a hermit crabThe Book: Never Underestimate a Hermit Crab by Daniel Sean Kaye

Acquired: from the publisher via NetGalley – thanks!

Synopsis: An in-depth and totally serious examination of hermit crabs and their habits. Non fiction.

Why you should read it:

Firstly, I suspect someone was having a laugh when they filed this under the “children’s non-fiction” category in the Netgalley catalogue.  This little book takes a hilarious look at all the less well-known talents and hobbies in which hermit crabs like to indulge.  My favourites are karate, comic book criticism and DIY.  Once again, the illustrations absolutely make the book.  The range of facial expressions possible on a crustacean that essentially lacks a face really shows up the talent of the illustrator. Kudos.

Recommended for: Hermit crab owners and owners-to-be, and all those who like their non-fiction to contain a good dose of fictional content.

And finally…

The Best Book I’ve Ever Read about Militant Socks

lost socksThe Book: Conspirators of the Lost Sock Army and the Loose Change Collection Agency by Dan O’Brien and Steve Ferchaud (illustrator)

Acquired: from the author in exchange for review – thanks!

Synopsis: Unsuspecting bloke Robert is press-ganged into assisting a Leprachaun representative of the Loose Change Collection Agency to vanquish the “Scourge” and his army of sock gremlins.  Clearly, Robert didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Why you should read it:

This is an odd little book.  It’s only 41 pages long and illustrated, but within those pages a well-developed story unfolds quickly and without any flabby plot lines or dialogue to get in the way.  As with the other books here, the illustrations are top notch – unfortunately I can’t get the cover for you, but I’ve included one of the interior illustrations here for your viewing pleasure.  The illustrations add immensely to the story and really give it a bit of extra zazz.  The story itself though is well worth a look, if only for the pike-wielding sock soldiers.  I always wondered where those missing left ones had got to.

Recommended for: anyone who likes a rollicking adventure that can be read during a tea-break.  Admittedly, it would probably have to be a two-cup tea break, but still.  The author has recommended this for ages 8 plus, and while this will appeal to kids who like a fun fantasy story, this also has a lot to interest older readers who like something a bit off-beat to break the monotony.  I’ve also just picked up another of O’Brien’s works – for adults this time – a short story about a psychologist for monsters that I can’t wait to get into as it sounds right up my alley.

So there you have it.  Four of the best books I’ve ever read.  Perhaps you’d like to try them too! Allow me to point out that a number of these books would fit perfectly into categories for the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge: Okay, Andy would fit category four (someone’s name), Ooh Odd Zoo would fit category one (safari), Never Underestimate a Hermit Crab would fit category seven (something unsightly – oh come on now, they aren’t the cutest animal getting around…), and Conspirators of the Lost Sock Army would fit category five (something that comes in pairs).  All the more reason to get your hands on these books really, isn’t it? If you don’t know what the Small Fry Safari challenge is, simply click on the attractive button below and be whisked away to a portal of useful information.

small fry

So until next time…do you have any best books ever on an obscure topic?  I’d love to hear about them!

Bruce

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Atlantis Re-imagined: What’s in a Name Challenge

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It’s okay people, you can stop the phone calls to the Missing Persons (Creatures?) Department – I’m back! My recent absence (that you all noticed and pined over) was due to some difficulties with our interwebs connection. The fleshfolk who dwell here have finally sorted it out and I’m ready for a posting frenzy, beginning with Obstacle Number … something or other … in the What’s In a Name Reading Challenge: Surface Tension by Meg McKinlay!

surface tension

Taken from the: Non-Christie Listie (as a last-minute ring in )

Category: One – A book with Up or Down or its equivalent in the title.

“But Bruce!” I hear you interject, “That title doesn’t bear any relation to up or down or its equivalent!”

Ah yes. On the surface (pun intended), it would appear that this book has no up or down connection….but delve a little deeper (pun intended) and you will note that this tome has been recently re-released under the title….BELOW! Take that, category one!

below

Surface Tension (or Below) follows the story of Cassie – a young lass who was born on the day her family’s town was drowned.  Since Lower Grange was flooded after the creation of a dam in the area, Cassie, her friend Liam, and all the other residents have resumed their lives in the higher and drier New Lower Grange.  During summer holidays, Cassie and Liam take to swimming in the not-commonly-frequented side of the lake above Lower Grange and stumble upon a secret hidden away with the fish and lake-weed in the old town.

This Book’s Point of Difference:

McKinlay has created a refreshing take on the sense of mystery and adventure evoked by the image of a city hidden beneath the water – it’s a great premise and a nice change from the usual middle grade/YA fare around at the moment.

Pros:

– It’s a reasonably quick read but there is enough for middle readers and younger teens to get their teeth into

– The secret discovered by the kids is kept nicely hidden through the use of a few well placed red-herrings. It was a surprise for me – which was great, because two-thirds of the way through I thought (rather disappointedly) I’d figured it out. I hadn’t.

– It’s got that classic summer holidays feeling.

Cons:

– I can’t really think of any. It was certainly the book I’ve most enjoyed out of the last ten or so I’ve picked up.

This is a really well constructed little read and delivers just what you’re looking for if you’re after something light but a little bit different from the standard fantasy or friendship fare.

Ahhhh. It’s good to be back. Stay tuned for more Reader’s Challenge fare shortly, as well as a frustration-related Haiku and dates and themes for subsequent Fiction in 50s.

Until next time,

Bruce

Post Number 100!: A Double Read It If Review….

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Yes, that’s right – 100 posts! How the time has flown….

Well, after Tales of the Nunexpected in post number 99, I bring you read-it-if reviews of two books that turned out to be entirely different to what I anticipated.  The first of these is Moose Baby, by Queen of the Quirky, Meg Rosoff.

I found this one during a random browse, and while I wouldn’t consider myself a real fan of Meg Rosoff, I have read and enjoyed a few of her books.  Moose Baby seemed to promise a similar level of thought-provoking oddity that I had experienced in my previous Rosoff encounters.  I was wrong. Moose Baby broke the pointer on my homemade weird-o-meter.  Let me explain.

moose baby

Moose Baby is the story of a 17 year old girl who gives birth to a moose. Now on reading the blurb, I assumed that either (a) “moose” was a metaphor for something I would discover during reading or (b) the girl did not actually give birth to a moose, but had to look after a young moose in some kind of “Preparing for Motherhood” type school project.

Nope. She actually gives birth to a moose. The book follows the trials and tribulations of a young couple attempting to raise a moose baby in a world designed for humanoid bipeds.


Read it if:

* you’re looking for a cheerful, quick, light read – I finished this one in 40 minutes

* you’re a teenager who thinks it would be so awesome to have a baby right now

* you’ve ever experienced that awkward moment when deciding how to compliment the new parents of an unattractive baby

* you are a parent and you suspect that your sweet, intelligent, genial and well-behaved infant was accidentally swapped at the hospital and that’s how you ended up with this loud, energetic, misbehaving, dirt-magnet for your offspring 

While I personally found this book a bit too left-of-centre for my usual tastes, I think it would appeal greatly to its teenage target audience as it is a funny, engaging and not-at-all-demanding take on the young parent theme.

My second not-quite-what-I-anticipated read this week was Doll Bones, by Holly Black, of Spiderwick Chronicles fame.  I had been looking forward to this one for a loooong time as the blurb seemed to indicate an appropriately atmospheric and promisingly creepy story centred around a spooky haunted doll. Somewhat disappointingly for me, given the level of my anticipation, the blurb was….well, not exactly inaccurate, but emphasised minor parts of the story.

Doll Bones tells the story of middle-schoolers Zach, Alice and Poppy, who enjoy playing an elaborate role-play type game of their own creation after school.  When Zach’s dad throws out the action figures that are an integral part of the game in an attempt to make Zach “grow up”, the friendship between the three is tested. Faced with the disintegration of their game and a new prickliness in their friendship, the three set out on a quest to lay to rest the ghost of a young murdered girl that is trapped in the form of a china doll.  Cue adventure!

doll bones

If that explanation seems a bit disjointed, it reflects the narrative in Doll Bones – while the story itself is engaging and action packed, the horror and paranormal elements championed by the title, blurb and cover actually play a very small role in the story. The meat of it revolves around the relationship between Zach, Poppy and Alice and the challenges they face in maintaining their friendship as they experience the changes of growing up.

Read it if:

* you are certain that the creepy china doll in your mother’s/grandmother’s/aunt’s/neighbour’s cabinet is watching you…

* No, seriously. It just moved. Didn’t you see it move?

* you still like to indulge in certain childish activities…even though by all accounts you are way too old for them

* you’ve ever indulged in quite significant levels of theft to overcome minor problems with the full expectation that the rightful owners of the stolen goods would be perfectly happy for you to be using (and damaging) their stuff

* you are quite happy to pick up a book with the expectation that it will be a spooky ghost-ish story…only to find it is actually a road trip/coming-of-age tale instead

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this book – very much in fact, and I think it would be greatly enjoyed by middle readers.  I do feel though that the blurb is significantly misleading – this is by no means a ghost story. My only other problem with the book was the theft mentioned above….

***SPOILER ALERT****

The characters willingly steal and capsize a sailing boat, then abandon it when it runs aground, and make up for this by saying that they’ll phone the marina when they get the chance to let the owners know where it is. As if this will excuse the possible charges of grand theft and wilful damage to property that could be coming their way.  Then they steal some bikes too.   I’m all for the adventure element in kid’s books, but as there was no consequence mentioned in the narrative for what is unquestionably a pretty significant crime, I felt that this was a bit of a stretch.  But maybe that’s because I’m a cranky old curmudgeon who can’t remember what it’s like to be young.

****SPOILER OVER!!****

Thanks to all who’ve joined in at some point over these last 100 posts – let’s hope I’ve got at least another 100 in me somewhere!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read it if: The Ministry of Pandemonium….

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ImageI have decided to take a leaf out of Mad Martha’s book and post today about another favourite lining the shelf: Chris Westwood’s Ministry of Pandemonium and its sequel, The Great and Dangerous.  Not wanting Martha to have all the fun, I too have proved that I can arrange an attractive photo of myself for your viewing pleasure with the tomes to which I will be referring.

So! The first of this series, The Ministry of Pandemonium was one which came to the shelf after my fleshling owner decided to take a punt on an interestingly titled tome at a large chain book store which has since gone out of business.  It was a punt which has returned plentiful gains in the satisfaction department for me, as I devoured the tale, pillaged the second book for its engaging content and am now eagerly awaiting the third book in the series.

The Ministry of Pandemonium deals with young Ben Harvester, a talented artist with a hard working single mum, who is surprised to discover that death, much like life, is shrouded in bureaucracy.  Ben also finds out he has certain talents that the Ministry of Pandemonium could put to good use, and agrees to work with the ministry under the tutelage of the enigmatic Mister October.  Thus begins a sometimes harrowing journey as Ben helps to get the deceased on their way to wherever it is they’re going, while attempting to uncover some family secrets on the way.

ministry of pandemonium

Read it if:

* you’ve ever suspected that the time immediately following your death may well be spent filling out life-relinquishment forms in triplicate

* you find cemeteries atmospheric, peaceful and relaxing as opposed to overgrown, creepy and downright depressing

* you’ve ever found it tricky to fit in with your peers

* your difficulties in fitting in are related to your ability to see people who have shuffled off their mortal coils and really should be doing whatever it is the dead do, rather than disrupting your ability to fit in with your peers

great and dangerous

I found these books refreshing and perhaps more importantly, re-readable, as they seem to hit a deeper level than one ordinarily sees for books for this age group (say, 12 to 16 years).  They deal with death openly and the characters are sensitively drawn, without any gimmicky stereotyping or character-flaws-for-the-sake-of-it that often crop up in tales for middle readers and young adults.  Ben is an ordinary boy with ordinary problems, placed in an extraordinary circumstance.

As an extra piece of trickery, the two books reviewed here have been released under different titles, with different cover art, in the US.  The Ministry of Pandemonium has been titled Graveyard Shift (rather underwhelmingly, I thought), with the following cover art:

graveyard shift

I personally think that the original art (and title!) more accurately reflect the tone of the book – from the US cover art, one might be expecting a no-holds-barred, boys-own, rollicking adventure from cover to cover, and that’s just not what you get with this book. While there is adventure and action there’s intellect and emotion too, which I find much more satisfying, particularly in a book for young fleshlings.

Right. I’ve blabbed on too much. The self-portrait phenomenon must have gone to my head.

Until next time,

Bruce