Meandering through (Aussie) Middle Grade: The Turnkey…

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Today I’ve got the final book in my recent run of World War II related reads, with The Turnkey by Aussie author Allison Rushby.  We excitedly received this one from Walker Books Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

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The Turnkey is a solid, original and intriguing tale that has the perfect blend of mystery, history and paranormal activity.  Flossie is the Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery in London, a job which involves ensuring that the dead interred in the cemetery remain – for the most part – peacefully at rest.  With the Blitz causing chaos every night, Flossie seeks solace in visiting some of the other Turnkeys in London’s major cemeteries.  On a midnight sojourn to St Paul’s Cathedral – a favourite thinking spot – Flossie encounters a ghost who shouldn’t, by the laws of the afterlife, be there (never mind that he’s dressed in the uniform of a Nazi SS Officer) and is drawn into a mystery that could tip the scales of the war in favour of the Nazis.

Flossie is an immediately likable character and throughout the story demonstrates her resilience, courage in adversity and compassion for those in difficult situations.  The Nazi officer, who we discover has an unexpected link to Flossie herself, is suitably evil and frightening, and each of the Turnkeys that we meet has his or her own personality, quirks and in some cases, secrets.

I always love books for young readers that aren’t set in schools.  Apart from the fact that being school-less allows the author to neatly avoid all those boring, repetitive, school-bully-based tropes, the non-school setting also makes books for young readers more accessible and interesting for grown up readers.  Such was the case with The Turnkey.  In fact, I kept forgetting that Flossie was meant to be twelve years old – albeit a reasonably long-dead twelve years old – such was the adult appeal of the novel. I love a good set-in-the-Blitz story also and the mix of bombed out London with the atmospheric cemeteries really worked to give a sense of the never-ending clean up and rescue operations that coloured that particular time in London’s history.

The pacing of this story was spot-on, with no filler material included to slow things down.  Reveals came at regular intervals with just enough new information to spur the reader on to discover the next twist in the ghostly Nazi’s plans.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to maintain all the threads of the story without losing the quality of each along the way.  By the end of the book the reader gets to experience the paranormal aspect of the Turnkeys working together (plus some patriotic and enthusiastic ghostly members of the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital), a journey into Churchill’s war rooms and the war rooms of the Nazis, a glimpse into the reality of those living and dying in the rubble and shelters and hospital wards of London during the Blitz, and a fantasy element featuring ancient artifacts.  None of these separate plot threads felt forced or tacked on and taken together they added greatly to the originality and atmosphere of the novel.

The only thing that could have made this book better – as I say with pretty much every book, everywhere – would be pictures.  I remember seeing a documentary or something on the Chelsea Pensioners and their red jackets and it would be awesome (and instructive for younger readers) to see some images of these iconic characters, as well as some images of the actual cemeteries or London during the Blitz for example.  There is a little author’s note at the back with some historical information and it was nice to see that the author had also consulted that seminal of cemetery-related tomes, Katherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead.  **I read this ages ago and thought I was amongst a select few, but it keeps popping up as a reference authors have used for lots of fiction books that I’ve come across.  Give it a read if you feel inclined.**

 

I’m fairly sure that this is intended as a standalone novel but I would be interested in seeing what happens next for Flossie.  Given that she’s dead and doesn’t have to age or experience the changes of growing up, it would be cool to see a progression of historical/fantasy/mystery novels featuring the Turnkeys of London’s major cemeteries in different time periods up to the present.  I’d read them, anyway!

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly World War II fiction and you can’t go past a paranormal twist I would definitely recommend hunting down The Turnkey.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Escaping to the Country Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: Abigale Hall….

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abigale hall

It seems to be the week for World War II stories, as we had one yesterday, we’ve got one today and there’ll be another tomorrow – at least no one can say I don’t do my bit for fans of historical fiction!  We received a copy of Abigale Hall by Lauren A. Forry for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Amid the terror the Blitz in the Second World War, seventeen-year-old Eliza and her troubled little sister Rebecca have had their share of tragedy, losing their mother to German bombs and their father to suicide. But when they are forced to leave London to work for the mysterious Mr. Brownawell at Abigale Hall, they find the worst is yet to come.

The vicious housekeeper, Mrs. Pollard, seems hell-bent on keeping the ghostly secrets of the house away from the sisters and forbids them from entering the surrounding town—and from the rumors that circulate about Abigale Hall. When Eliza uncovers some blood-splattered books, ominous photographs, and portraits of a mysterious woman, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the house, but with Rebecca falling under Mrs. Pollard’s spell, she must act quickly to save her sister, and herself, from certain doom.

Perfect for readers who hunger for the strange, Abigale Hall is an atmospheric debut novel where the threat of death looms just beyond the edge of every page. Lauren A. Forry has created a historical ghost story where the setting is as alive as the characters who inhabit it and a resonant family drama of trust, loyalty, and salvation.

First up, this book felt like a much longer read than its 256 pages.  I felt like I was reading for ever and ever and getting sucked deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters and the mire in which they find themselves.  In terms of bang for your reading buck, Forry has packed an incredible amount of plot into a standard amount of pages.

We first meet Eliza and her younger sister Rebecca while they are in the custody of their Aunt Bess, after the death of their mother in the Blitz and the suicide of their father.  Aunt Bess isn’t the warmest of mother-figures and life for the girls is unpleasant in London, despite the fact that their immediate needs are more or less met.  Eliza enjoys her work at a theatre and is hoping that her beau, Peter, will cement their relationship by popping the question without too much delay.

All this changes when Aunt Bess announces that the girls are to be shipped off to work as housemaids at Abigale Hall, a country house in Wales.  Without so much as a by-your-leave, the girls are manhandled out of their Aunt’s flat and away to the middle of nowhere to be left at the mercy of the unrelenting Mrs Pollard and the nightmarish spectre of Mr Brownawell.  The girls’ tenure at the house is filled with secrets, rumours from the villagers about curses and missing girls, and the marked absence of the Lord of the manor.   Things are not as they appear at Abigale Hall – and they appear pretty grim indeed – and it is clear to Eliza that the longer they stay, the worse the impact will be on Rebecca’s tenuous mental health.

The story is told from the perspective of Eliza and later on, Peter, as he tries to track down Eliza herself as well as another missing girl from their workplace.  The narrative flicks between the paranormal, skin-crawling atmosphere of Abigale Hall and the far  more banal dangers of post-blitz London and its seedy underbelly.  Throughout the story Eliza is never quite sure who she can trust and is torn between securing her own safety and remaining a dutiful and loyal sister.

I must warn the sensitive reader that there is a bit of animal cruelty in the story as well as a collection of incidents that will make you say, “Ick!” mentally, if not aloud.  I quite enjoyed the looming unease of the parts of the story set in the house.  These were neatly balanced by Peter’s sections of the story and this stopped the story becoming too paranormal or too mundane at any given point.  The plot, taken in its entirety, is full of twists, turns and unexpected revelations that spin the reader’s train of thought and switch the trajectory of the characters at every turn.

The ending was remarkably satisfying to me as well…but then I’ve always been one to enjoy the downfall of characters who feel like they should get a swift clip around the ear.

This would be a great choice for a holiday read if you’re looking for something a bit creepy and complicated with a historical setting.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Wonderful Feels Like This…

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Now if you’re one of those people who roll their eyes when they hear YA slapped in front of a contemporary novel, you can happily give your eyes a rest today because Wonderful Feels Like This by Swedish author Sara Lovestam could quite easily be classed as adult fiction given the fact that one of the main characters is an octogenarian.  Also, it’s about historical jazz music.  And World War II.

We received a copy of Wonderful Feels Like This from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A celebration of being a little bit odd, finding your people and the power of music to connect us.

For Steffi, going to school everyday is an exercise in survival. She’s never fit in with any of the groups at school, and she’s viciously teased by the other girls in her class. The only way she escapes is through her music–especially jazz music.

When Steffi hears her favourite jazz song playing through an open window of a retirement home on her walk home from school, she decides to go in and introduce herself. The old man playing her favorite song is Alvar. When Alvar was a teenager in World War II Sweden, he dreamed of being in a real jazz band. Then and now, Alvar’s escape is music–especially jazz music.

Through their unconventional friendship, Steffi comes to realise that she won’t always feel alone. She can go to music school in Stockholm. She can be a real musician. She can be a jitterbug, just like Alvar.

But how can Steffi convince her parents to let her go to Stockholm to audition? And how is it that Steffi’s school, the retirement home, the music and even Steffi’s worst bully are somehow all connected to Alvar? Can it be that the people least like us are the ones we need to help us tell our own stories?

wonderful feels like this

Wonderful Feels Like This is a delightful blend of historical fiction and contemporary coming of age story.  Steffi, in grade nine at the local school, is bullied relentlessly by her peers and has no friends to speak of.  Alvar, an octogenarian in an old folk’s home located on the route of Steffi’s walk home, is a musician whose body may be frail but whose heart and mind have never lost their passion for jazz.  When Steffi stops to chat to Alvar after hearing 1940s jazz music wafting out his window, it is the beginning of a friendship that will change both their lives and cement the bond that began with a few bars of swing.

What an intriguing read this book is!  Firstly, it’s set in Sweden – a country that I know very little about, barring IKEA and…IKEA. Oh, and ABBA.  Secondly, it’s told from alternating historical perspectives – Steffi and Alvar in the present and Alvar as a young man in 1940s Stockholm, overshadowed by the war.  I loved the information that was woven in about the political situation of Sweden and its neighbours during World War II because (a) I’m a big nerd and (b) I’ve never encountered a WWII story told from this perspective before so it was great to add to my general knowledge here.  Finally, the characters are beautifully authentic and the author hasn’t resorted to YA tropes in Steffi’s sections of the story, as could so easily have been the case given the theme of bullying.  Steffi is given equal footing with Alvar as a rounded, developed person, rather than reduced to a teen girl with certain musical hobbies and a low social standing.

Steffi’s biggest tormentors, Karro and Sanja, are merciless in their harassment, never shying away from an opportunity – be it in person or online – to denigrate Steffi and spit vitriol and humiliation in her general direction. Steffi’s lack of friends her own age lends a certain sadness to the atmosphere of her parts of the story, although it is obvious that she is determined to remain faithful to her passions and dreams for her future, in spite of the unprovoked persecution that is constantly heaped upon her.

Alvar, appearing to the reader simultaneously as a bright light of the rest home and a nervous, uncertain young man making his way in a big city in a time of social upheaval, provides the anchor for Steffi’s unsettled school experiences.  Through Alvar’s narration of his youth, Steffi begins to draw strength and confidence and understands that the path to success rarely runs smooth.

I loved that the author left the bullying element of Steffi’s story fairly unresolved.  This felt particularly authentic to me because in many people’s experience, there is no intervention or specific incident that causes the bullying to stop, rather circumstances, or physical distance mean that access to the victim by the bully is somehow cut off. This seems to be the case at the end of the book and although it’s possible – likely even – that Steffi’s tormentors may have continued their harassment after the end of the story that we see here, there is hope for Steffi and the promise of new and true friends.

In fact, one of my favourite parts of the book comes in the last paragraph of the author’s acknowledgements, where Lovestam writes:

Thank you, children and teenagers, sitting in schools all over the world, thinking about chords, shading, pi, medieval aesthetics, adverbs, metaphysics, Neanderthals, lace-making, chromatics,  and making flambes, instead of letting schoolyard pecking orders get to you.  Your time will come.

That is essentially what this story is about: having one’s time and following one’s passion – the precursor to it, the attainment of it, the living through it and the satisfied reflection on it after a life well-lived.

I’ll be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge under category #26: a book by an author from a country you’ve never visited.  Sweden (and Scandinavia generally, you’re on the bucket list).  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for 2017 here.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Fi50 reminder and a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Fiction in 50 NEW BUTTON

It’s nearly Fiction in 50 time for March and this month our prompt is…

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If you’d like to join in (and we would love to have you!) just create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words, post it and then link your post in the comments of Monday’s Fi50 post.  If you would like more information, just click here.


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Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is a wartime beauty that is also a celebration of the strength of womankind in adversity.  We received a copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Summer, 1940. In the Kentish village of Chilbury some are unimpressed at the vicar’s decision to close the church choir, since all the men have gone off to fight. But a new arrival prompts the creation of an all-female singing group and, as the women come together in song, they find the strength and initiative to confront their own dramatic affairs.

Filled with intrigue, humour and touching warmth, and set against the devastating backdrop of WWII, this is a wonderfully spirited and big-hearted novel told through the voices of four marvellous and marvellously different females, who will win you over as much with their mischief as with their charm.

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For the first few chapters of this epistolary, diary-entry novel I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but by the time I’d finished I felt that this book seemed to me for all the world to be a grown-up version of Goodnight Mr Tom.  Since that story is one of my favourites, it stands to reason that I would jolly well enjoy The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir too.

The book switches between the perspectives of a number of the ladies, young and old, of Chilbury.  There’s Kitty Winthrop, thirteen (nearly fourteen) year old sister of the wild beauty Venetia, and dead war hero Edmund, daughter of the brutish Brigadier and rising songbird, whose perspective we are privy to through entries in her journal.  There’s Venetia herself, older sister of Kitty and focused entirely (for the most part) on snagging a handsome, mysterious lover while leading on all the other lads in the village.  We see her side of the story through letters to her friend Angela.  Then there’s the shady Edwina Paltry, midwife of the village and not one to shy away from morally dubious dealings provided there’s something in it for her.  Finally, we have Mrs Tilling, a widow, whose son David is about to leave for the front lines in France and through whose diary we witness the major changes of Chilbury throughout the year of 1940.  We also get to see a few glimpses from Sylvie, a young child evacuee from Czechoslovakia who is living with the Winthrops until her parents can escape or it is safe for her to return, as well as Edith, the Winthrop’s maid.

At its heart, this is a book about personal growth, set against a backdrop of the ever-encroaching threat of invasion and loss, that highlights the strength of women under adversity.  Although each follows a different path throughout the story, the four main ladies whose stories we engage with all become very different people by the end.  It is this growth that reminded me so strongly of Goodnight Mr Tom: while the war and its effects play a large role in the book and in some instances create a shocking and frightening atmosphere, the plot is chiefly about decisions and their ripple effects and ways in which the women of the story choose to stand up in defiance of their situation or roll with the punches.

Funnily enough, the Choir plays a significantly smaller part in the overall story than I expected, but the sections that deal with the ladies coming together – be it for a local competition or to provide respite for a weary community – were always uplifting and provided a lightening of the atmosphere and enough humour to take the edge off some of the darker happenings going on in the plot.  My favourite character, apart from the enthusiastic, indefatigably positive Prim, the choir mistress, had to be Mrs Tilling.  As the only trustworthy adult narrator, I came to trust her judgement (except, of course, in regards to her opinion of the Colonel, her billet) and adored the way in which she grows into herself again as a confident, strong woman and a leader for the village.

This isn’t a light-hearted romp from beginning to end; nor is it a slow examination of the effects of war.  Rather, it is a snapshot of a village at the beginning of World War II, struggling to cope with change already happening and the inevitable change that is just over the horizon.  Hefty as it is at four hundred plus pages, this is one that you would do best to savour over time.  Get to know the ladies of Chilbury at your leisure and you certainly won’t regret that you took the time to visit.

As well as a Top Book of 2017 pick, I am also submitting The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for the Epistolary Reading Challenge, the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge and the Popsugar Reading Challenge.  You can check out my progress toward all those challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Remembering the Great East Japan Tsunami and Earthquake of 2011: Hotaka (Through My Eyes)

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Hotaka: Through My Eyes Natural Disaster Zones by John Heffernan and Lyn White.  Published by Allen & Unwin, March 2017.  RRP: $16.99

It would be remiss of me not to review this particular book on this particular date: At 2.46pm on March 11th, 2011 a massive earthquake triggered a deadly tsunami that inundated 560 square kilometres of Japan’s eastern coastline.  The wave also caused major damage at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.  By the time the final effects of the multiple disasters were tallied, more than 24 000 people are confirmed dead or missing and six years on, hundreds of thousands are still displaced.

The Through My Eyes young adult novel series began with the stories of fictional children living in conflict zones throughout the world and has moved on to include the stories of fictional children affected by natural disasters. We received a copy of Hotaka by John Heffernan from Allen & Unwin for review and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A powerful and moving story about one boy caught up in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

When the tsunami strikes the Japanese seaside town of Omori-wan, the effects are utterly devastating. Three years later, much of what happened on that day is still a mystery. As Hotaka sets about convincing local performers to appear at the town’s upcoming Memorial Concert, he finds himself increasingly haunted by memories of best friend, Takeshi, who perished without trace in the tsunami. Then his friend Sakura becomes involved in an anti-seawall movement, and all too quickly the protest gets serious. As the town and its people struggle to rebuild their lives, can Hotaka piece together what happened that day – and let go of the past?

The book begins the morning of March 11th, 2011 with Hotaka and his friend Takeshi on a school trip to the local puppet show.  As the day unfolds and the earthquake hits, the reader is given an idea of how it might have felt to have experienced first the shock of the extraordinarily strong earthquake, the scramble to higher ground and then the chaos and confusion following in the wake of the giant wave.  Rather than dwell on the actual disaster itself, the story soon moves on to three years later, as the residents of Omori-wan try to continue with their lives despite a lack of housing, the mental affects of trauma and an underlying sense of resentment from those who lost much toward those who lost little.

Hotaka and his friends Osamu and Sakura are charged with preparing a memorial concert for the fifth anniversary of the wave that will involve aspects of local culture, with the aim of helping the residents of Omori-wan to let go and move on.  Hotaka discovers that he, of all people, has something that he must let go of if he is to move forward in life, while Sakura – who generally keeps her cards (and her past) close to her chest – is infuriated by government plans to build an enormous sea wall around the town to protect it from future tsunamis.

Events come to a head when Sakura takes matters into her own hands and begins a protest that snowballs to national attention.  As threats from developers and local government start to hit close to home for the three friends, they must decide whether it is worth continuing to speak out for the sake of their town, or instead fall in line with the wishes of the government, as is the usual course of action.

Heffernan has done a good job here of highlighting the difficulties of the townspeople whose lives were irrevocably altered after the wave.  The stress of inadequate temporary housing, the trauma of lost loved ones and the feeling of abandonment are made obvious through Hotaka’s interactions with some of his less fortunate classmates.  The story never veers from the perspective of a young person however, and the kernel of hope that Hotaka and others continue to show lifts the book from becoming depressing at any stage.  The three young protagonists have diverse personalities and characteristics and while their differences do lead to conflict at times, the strength of their friendship pulls them through.

The book includes a timeline of the actual disaster at the end, as well as a glossary of Japanese terms, and overall I think this book would be a great starting point for any young person wanting to read more about this particular disaster in a fictional format.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Picture Books for the Open Minded…

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Saddle up my friends, because I have four picture books for you today that will open your mind, test your heart and generally stretch your imagination!  Let’s ride on in!

A Perfect Day (Lane Smith)

*We received a copy of A Perfect Day from PanMacmillan Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  a perfect day.jpg

As a collection of animals and one young boy go about an ordinary day, they all seem to find the one thing that makes them most happy.  Until, that is, a big hairy bear comes along to spoil the perfection.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is one picture book that proves that perfection depends entirely on perspective.  The beautiful pastel palette of the illustrations reinforces the gentle unfolding of an ordinary day, made special by the simple things.  Of course, in the second half of the book, things become a lot less perfect – unless you’re a big burly bear looking for somewhere to snack, play and nap of course – and there’s a certain delight in seeing the bear making dirt angels in the flowerbed, splashing in the wading pool, flashing a corn-cob smile and generally enjoying himself in a bearish fashion.  The emphasis provided by the font as bear spends his leisure time inadvertently ruining everyone else’s also contributes to the humour and would be perfect for teaching younger independent readers how to take cues from the text when reading aloud.  The final illustration depicting the animals and little boy inside the house looking out, accompanied by the text, “It was a perfect day for bear,” opens up the text for conversation with little ones about how the other characters might feel.  The edition I have received shows a similar image to that of the last page as its cover and I think this image gives a better sense of the book’s content than the one above.  All up, this is a delightful reading experience that is visually appealing and the perfect choice for sharing a gentle giggle before bed.

Brand it with:

Bears in them there hills; Bear necessities; simple pleasures

Old Pig (Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks)

*We received a copy of Old Pig from Allen & Unwin Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

A grandmother and granddaughter pig share their days and nights in a comforting rhythm of chores, food and relaxation.  When grandmother pig begins slowing down, the two confront together the spectre of a final goodbye.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this 20th anniversary edition classic children’s tale is almost achingly poignant in places and deftly broaches that hardest of topics, the death of a loved one.  As it becomes apparent that Grandmother Pig is facing her final days, the two pigs take solace in spending time together and appreciating the small, simple things in life and the rhythms of each day.  While death isn’t explicitly mentioned, it is obvious that the book is about leaving and leaving behind.  The final illustration, featuring granddaughter pig on her own is awash with hope, and allows the reader to leave the story on an uplifting note.  As much as this story would be a useful tool in gently opening up discussions with young readers about reality of death, it is also a celebration of a life well lived and the connections that we make with those dear to us.  If this book doesn’t tug at your heartstrings and make you appreciate the small moments of joy in the mundane, then you must have a colder, stonier heart than even I do.

Brand it with:

Grief, sensitively handled; quality of life; inter-generational connections

There’s a Tiger in the Garden (Lizzy Stewart)

*We received a copy of There’s a Tiger in the Garden from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  theres-a-tiger-in-the-garden

In an attempt to cure her granddaughter’s boredom, a grandmother casually mentions that there is a tiger in her garden.  The resulting, fruitful search is enough to dent the certainty of even the most sceptical of child explorers!

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is the kind of book that will have you doing exercises to expand your imagination.  While the concept of children “discovering” untapped worlds in the garden isn’t new to picture books, the ambiguous ending of this story provides a fun twist.  As Nora and Jeff (her toy giraffe) take a turn about the garden, the illustrations become more and more detailed and jungle-like, blending a sense of magical realism with the richly coloured sense of adventure inherent in nature in all its glory.  The deep greens that permeate most of the illustrations are so lush and inviting that I just couldn’t help plunging on in to this story. Within Nora’s imagination, her grandma’s small garden morphs into the home of butterflies the size of birds, a grumpy polar bear fishing in the pond and some extremely robust (and hungry) plants.  Young readers will love trying to spot the tiger in the earlier pages of the book and there is plenty of visual humour for older ones to notice and enjoy also.  If you have a young explorer in your midst, they will revel in this tale that celebrates things that are more than they seem on the surface.

Brand it with:

Wild green yonder; imagine that; grandma’s secret garden

My Friend Tertius (Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan)

*We received a copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:

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My Friend Tertius by Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 22 February 2016.  RRP: $24.99

A WWII code breaker working in Singapore for the British takes a gibbon for a pet.  When the war forces him to leave Singapore, he makes the decision not to abandon his friend, but smuggle him along on the journey.

Muster up the motivation because…

…for one thing, there certainly is a dearth of war related picture books featuring a gibbon on the market, so My Friend Tertius fills that niche nicely. The washed out colour palette is reminiscent of the tropical heat of the southern hemisphere, and there are many historical clues hidden in the pictures for keen-eyed young readers to inquire about – the radio set in Arthur’s room for instance, Arthur’s neatly initialed gladstone bag and the fact that most pictures of people show at least somebody smoking a cigarette.  This was a bit of a strange beast of a tale for me – on one hand, it is fascinating, unexpected and had me immediately questioning the hows and whys of the story. On the other, the picture book format meant that I didn’t get the answers I was looking for. The narrative begins abruptly with a question that presupposes a knowledge of the social context of war generally – that people might have to leave – and the War in the Pacific specifically – that people did have to leave Singapore, with or without their loved ones.  The book has no afterword giving more information about Arthur Cooper and the eventual fate of either man or gibbon, and the book finishes on the rather cryptic statement “He [Tertius] taught me how to love.”  This is cryptic because nowhere in the previous pages of the book is there any mention of Arthur having any particular difficulty with human emotions, so I found myself asking, “How? How did he teach you to love? And why didn’t you know how to love in the first place?!” These questions, as well as my inner pedant’s shock at Arthur’s laissez faire attitude toward animal quarantine issues, meant that this wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me as an adult reader, and I wonder how it might be received by the upper primary age range for which it is intended.  To be honest, I would have loved to have seen this story told in a chapter book format because I suspect there is so much more to the story than is being shown, and it is a pity not to be privy to it.

Brand it with:

Monkey business; BFFs in wartime; gibbons on the run

Bet you weren’t expecting any of those mind expanding picture books, were you?  I hope there is something here that tickles your synapses and causes you to add it to your TBR pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

#LoveOzYA : Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact

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I’ve been waiting excitedly for a year for this, the second book in Alison Goodman’s historical, fantasy, ass-kicking, demon-slaying Dark Days Club series to drop and thanks to HarperCollins Australia, I finally got my grabby paws on a copy of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact.  In case you haven’t come across this series before, we boldly claimed it as a Top Book of 2016 on January 1st last year, for its extraordinary blend of meticulously researched historical content and original and creepy paranormal elements.

If you haven’t read the first book, you really need to do that now.  Go on, we’ll wait.

The second book serves up more of the same delightful Deceiver destruction and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The second novel in the thrilling LADY HELEN series sees Helen following orders that could bring about betrayal and annihilation. 

Summer, 1812

After the scandalous events at her presentation ball in London, Lady Helen has taken refuge at the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton, where she is training to be a Reclaimer with the covert Dark Days Club.

As she struggles to put aside her genteel upbringing and take up the weapons of a warrior, Helen realizes that her mentor, Lord Carlston, is fighting his own inner battle. Has the foul Deceiver energy poisoned his soul, or is something else driving him towards violent bouts of madness? Either way, Helen is desperate to help the man with whom she shares a deep but forbidden connection.

When Mr Pike, the hard bureaucratic heart of the Dark Days Club, arrives in Brighton, no one is prepared for the ordinary evil he brings in his wake. He has a secret task for Helen and Mr Hammond, and the authority of the Prince Regent. They have no choice but to do as he orders, knowing that the mission will betray everyone around them and possibly bring about Lord Carlston’s annihilation.

Society takes a back seat in this second offering as Helen’s Reclaimer training begins in earnest.  Almost immediately though, spanners are thrown in the works as the Duke of Selburn appears in Brighton on a not-very-subtle reconnaissance mission on behalf of Helen’s older brother, while the man in charge of the Reclaimers, Mr Pike, turns up unexpectedly and changes the course of Helen’s loyalties irrevocably.  We also see a return of Delia, Helen’s much-maligned friend, and Pug, who provides equal parts wingwoman and comic relief.

The tone of this book is one of underlying disquiet as events seem to conspire against Helen and her band of Reclaimer friends at every turn.  Helen is forced to make decisions on the fly, the consequences of which could end up endangering people she loves, no matter which course she chooses.  Essentially, this book is Helen’s coming-of-age in the Reclaimer world. No longer is she a young lady to be protected and promenaded; Helen must now take her place as an active Reclaimer or risk her own life and the lives of those she loves.  The events of the story do a great deal to advance the world-building and “rules” surrounding the bond between Deceivers and Reclaimers and as such, there is a lot of new information for readers to absorb and join the dots around.

Action is portioned out throughout the story, with subterfuge, underhanded deals and espionage more the order of the day, although the final few chapters certainly make up for any lack of chase, escape and derring-do that might be lacking in the earlier parts of the story.  There are some important reveals in this story that will absolutely change Helen’s role in the Dark Days Club as well as her role in life generally.  Other parts of the story will make your skin crawl and the “ick” factor is certainly in play where particular characters of ill-repute are concerned.  For the romance fans, you can cut the sexual tension between Carlston and Lady Helen with a knife (and between another pairing that you might not expect!)  but for readers shipping that particular couple, it should be noted that the course of true love never runs smooth, particularly where demon-slaying is involved.

Once again, this is a hugely entertaining story with meticulous attention to detail for the time period and innovative fantasy elements from a strong voice in Australian YA fiction.  If you are a fan of either historical fiction or fantasy, you really are missing out if you haven’t added Lady Helen’s adventures to your nightstand reading pile.

Until next time,

Bruce