An Unexpected Top Book of 2017 Pick: It’s All A Game

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I can honestly say that today’s book came out of left field as a Top Book of 2017 pick, andI never expected to be so absorbed and engaged by a book about the history of board games.  We received It’s All A Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to  Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Board games have been with us longer than even the written word. But what is it about this pastime that continues to captivate us well into the age of smartphones and instant gratification?

In It’s All a Game, British journalist and renowned games expert Tristan Donovan opens the box on the incredible and often surprising history and psychology of board games. He traces the evolution of the game across cultures, time periods, and continents, from the paranoid Chicago toy genius behind classics like Operation and Mouse Trap, to the role of Monopoly in helping prisoners of war escape the Nazis, and even the scientific use of board games today to teach artificial intelligence how to reason and how to win. With these compelling stories and characters, Donovan ultimately reveals why board games have captured hearts and minds all over the world for generations.

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Upon reading the blurb for this one you may, as I initially did, think, “Hmm.  That sounds mildly interesting”.  On picking up the book and reading the introduction, which discusses the decline and rise of board game shops and cafes in various major cities around the world you might say to yourself, “How quaint! I wasn’t aware of those!”  And by the end of the second chapter, having read about the ancient game of Senet and the history of Chess, you would be forgiven for ignoring friends, family and important duties in your pursuit of further knowledge about the history of board games.

This book was bizarrely absorbing.

I struggled to put it down.

Since I finished it I have been pondering and planning how to (a) acquire more board games and (b) seamlessly integrate board game playing time into the lives of the fleshlings of the dwelling.

Honestly, this book is bizarrely, weirdly, totally absorbing.

I could not have predicted any of the fascinating and useful (for trivia nights, if nothing else) information about the creation of various board games.  Did you know Chess originated in India?  That Monopoly began its life as a game promoting the evils of capitalism?  Were you aware that the Japanese used table top board games to plan and role play the bombing of Pearl Harbour?  That rigged board game sets were sent to Allied prisoners of war in World War II in order to provide prisoners with tools they would need for escape?  That Cluedo originally had a bunch more characters?  That one of the most famed board game makers in America suffered from crippling paranoia that workers might leak developments in the factory?

I bet you didn’t.

I certainly didn’t, which is why I found this in-depth examination of board game playing and its social history endlessly fascinating.  The book is divided into chapters dealing with either specific board games (Chess, Backgammon, Monopoly, The Game of Life, Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit are all included, amongst others) or some aspect of society that has been influenced by the use of board games (the use of table top military manouvring games, the development of electronics and new forms of playing surface in board games, the rise of games for adults and “adult” **wink, wink** games, how characters or elements of games were switched to appeal to their cultural context).  The chapters have sections that are almost written in a narrative nonfiction style as the stories of the game inventors (and frequently their loss of expected fortune) are recounted.  Surprisingly, the stories often involve backstabbing, theft of intellectual property and not quite the number of rags to riches tales as you might expect.

What was most surprising, and inspiring, was the observation that board games and their variations are seemingly in high demand again as more people begin to look for non-screen-based ways to connect with family and friends.  If you have any interest at all in popular culture and the playing of board games, I highly recommend giving this book a read – mostly because I want to see whether it really is as endlessly fascinating as I experienced it – but also because by reading it, we might all kick-start a revolution toward face to face experiences again.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

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

 

Get Well Soon: A Five Things I’ve Learned Review…

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.aaaaand a Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Today’s book is all about death and disease and as such, you wouldn’t necessarily think it would be all that enjoyable to read.  You would, however, be wrong.  Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a massively accessible nonfiction book with a conversational tone and enough humour to keep the (in some places) quite terrifying content, readable.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous book about history’s worst plagues—from the Antonine Plague, to leprosy, to polio—and the heroes who fought them

In 1518, in a small town in France, Frau Troffea began dancing and didn’t stop. She danced herself to her death six days later, and soon thirty-four more villagers joined her. Then more. In a month more than 400 people had died from the mysterious dancing plague. In late-nineteenth-century England an eccentric gentleman founded the No Nose Club in his gracious townhome—a social club for those who had lost their noses, and other body parts, to the plague of syphilis for which there was then no cure. And in turn-of-the-century New York, an Irish cook caused two lethal outbreaks of typhoid fever, a case that transformed her into the notorious Typhoid Mary and led to historic medical breakthroughs.

Throughout time, humans have been terrified and fascinated by the plagues they’ve suffered from. Get Well Soon delivers the gruesome, morbid details of some of the worst plagues in human history, as well as stories of the heroic figures who fought to ease their suffering. With her signature mix of in-depth research and upbeat storytelling, and not a little dark humor, Jennifer Wright explores history’s most gripping and deadly outbreaks.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright:

1. The incredibly deadly Spanish Flu didn’t actually originate in Spain.

2. No matter what the disease, it never does anyone any good when a stigma is attached to those who carry it.

3.  Having a plague that makes you dance non-stop for hours (or days) at a time may sound like fun, until your bones start protruding through your skin just as “Blame it on the Boogie” comes on.

4. Indulging in an illicit romp with a lady of the night is all fun and games until  your nose (and probably hers also) falls off.

5. People actually queued up at one time in history to allow a madman to drill holes in their skulls, in the hope that it would provide a cure for their assorted maladies.

I can’t remember when I last giggled so much while reading about infectious disease as I did while reading this book.  In terms of making nonfiction books accessible, Wright has done a bang-up job here with a narrative style that is light – but never makes light – despite content that can result in some pretty sobering reading.  The humour in this book is almost a necessary vent for the anger and sadness and bafflement some readers may experience while finding out about the ways in which some very sick people – as well as the people who tried to help them – were treated at various points throughout history.

The book covers various plagues in separate sections and includes famous plagues, such as the Black Death, Spanish Influenza, and Polio, alongside lesser known ailments such as the dancing plague mentioned in the blurb, the “plague” of lobotomies orchestrated by William Jackson Freeman III and the plague of Encephalitis Lethargia, which results in the loss of any kind of emotion or motivation and leaves sufferers, in some cases, like living corpses.  Part of the focus of the book is on how authorities and others dealt with these diseases when they first appeared and how this action or inaction affected the disease’s spread.  It’s fascinating to see how the work of some individuals and groups to gain evidence for the causes of certain diseases – cholera being a case in point – was pooh-poohed (pardon the pun) by the authorities and scientific community even in the face of growing numbers of people contracting the disease.

I suspect this book won’t necessarily cut it for those hoping for a scientific look at plagues and their causes, but for the casual reader and those interested in social responses to medical disasters, the book will provide enough information to be going on with.  The style of writing feels like narrative nonfiction, in part because of the way in which the author has highlighted the individuals involved in the outbreaks of each specific disease.  While the use of the term “heroes” to describe these people feels a bit twee to me, I appreciate the fact that these people should be acknowledged and possibly lauded as household names more than they usually are.

My favourite part of the book was the section dealing with Spanish influenza, simply because of the dastardly bad timing that meant this disease came to prominence at the same time as World War 1, leading to catastrophic breakdowns in communication between authorities and the general public that, had this been different, could have saved many lives.  Looking back on the content, I was mildly disappointed that the Ebola virus was not included in the list of diseases, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

If you, like me, enjoy reading about major global disasters in a style that won’t freak you out too badly or exacerbate general feelings of anxiety about the state of the world, this would definitely be one to add to your TBR.

Oh, and I’m adding this to my  Colour Coded Challenge as well.  Check out my progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Brick History: A Read-it-if Review

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Today’s Read-it-if Review is for a nonfiction title that will be an absolute winner with anyone who has ever been a fan of Lego and its uses.  We were excited and more than a little grateful to receive a copy of Brick History: Amazing Historical Scenes to Build From Lego by Warren Elsmore from the good folk at Allen & Unwin.  Rather than keep you waiting any longer (which is as painful as stepping on a Lego brick), we’ll get stuck in with the blurb from Allen & Unwin’s website:

From the dawn of time to the first civilizations, we look at the events which took place over the course of the first millennium; events which shook the world and changed the course of history.

Using LEGO bricks, artist Warren Elsmore and his team recreate stunning historic scenes, from the beginning of life in the pre-historic era right through to the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Brick History is a celebration of humanity and its achievements, and of moments in time that changed the course of history. To faithfully recreate each scene or image, Warren uses only standard LEGO bricks-and a lot of imagination! Choosing the right piece, color or orientation is crucial to this process, enabling the models to reflect the spirit of the time through these iconic plastic bricks.

As the book walks through history, the LEGO recreations draw from a 60-year history of the toy itself and tie into many of the company’s most popular themes. In this way, Brick History reveals the adaptability of LEGO to its full extent.

Whether you are a fan of LEGO, interested in world history, or just fascinated by the use of LEGO as a modeling medium, this book promises to take you on a fascinating journey into the past and around the globe.

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Read-it-if:
* you are a teacher looking for the kind of book for your classroom library that will have your students tearing each other’s eyes out in an attempt to be the first to lay hands on it during silent reading time
* you have always wanted to know how to make round shapes from square bricks 
* you find learning historical facts and dates interminably boring and would prefer that such events were jazzed up with hilarious Lego head facial expressions
* you’ve ever considered creating a tiny working model of an orrery, depicting the process by which the Sun, moon and earth orbit one another, but were stymied due to a lack of easy to follow pictorial instructions
* you really freakin’ love Lego
What an awesome concept for a book!  We were palpably excited on seeing this title come up in the catalogue and couldn’t wait to flick through its attractive, easy-to-hold, fully illustrated format when it arrived.  This is going to be a no-brainer success for anyone, young or old, who enjoys Lego.  Obviously, the focus of this book is on historical events, but we were surprised (and delighted) to note that in between the historical depictions are instructions on how to make various related items, including but not limited to, a tiny model of the RMS Titanic, the aforementioned orrery, an Egyptian shadow clock and a brickish representation of Mahatma Gandhi.
The choice of these DIY models is inspired, because many feature building techniques that the run-of-the-mill Lego enthusiast may not have previously encountered, including how to create curves using straight bricks, and methods of building that allow for multiple changes in colour in a limited space, for instance.  I can imagine young builders really getting stuck into this title and developing their building skills quite quickly, before going and showing off to their friends.  The beginning of the book also features some handy notes on how to take photos of your completed models to show them off in their best light.
The only problem I had while reading is that the historical events selected here are very America and Euro-centric. Obviously, in covering everything from the Big Bang onward in a finite amount of pages, there has to be some subjective selection regarding what gets put in and what gets left out.  I was disappointed though at the lack of events from outside Europe and the US.  For Asia, India and Oceania as a whole, we are only treated to six events out of seventy-six and of these, only the construction of the Terracotta Army and the handover of Hong Kong back to China (itself a Euro-dominated event) are depicted as a double page spread; the rest are given in instructional format.  Africa is only represented in the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa and again, only in an instructional format, rather than as a historical scene.  Other readers may not even notice this, but I would have liked to have seen a broader scope of human history represented here.
Despite that small disappointment, this is still a ripping tome that will have adventurous builders busting out their obscure brick pieces and getting to work.  I’d definitely recommend grabbing this one for your permanent shelf while I seek out the already-published titles in Elsmore’s series: Brick City, Brick Wonders, Brick Vehicles and Brick Flicks.
Until next time,
Bruce

A Non-Fiction Double-Dip Review: Those Cursed and Forgotten…

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Today you’ll have to reach right to the back of the pantry to find the dusty old snacks that have sat unnoticed for months untold, because today’s double-dip review is looking at non-fiction books that deal with the accursed and forgotten. Forgotten Bones: Uncovering a Slave Cemetery by Lois Miner Huey is a beautifully presented children’s non-fiction title, dealing with the accidental unearthing of the remains of slaves in New York in the 19th century, while The Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations by Olivier Le Carrer is the perfect book to place strategically on your coffee table to avoid having to listen to well-travelled friends who insist on sharing their exciting adventures with you.

I received both of these books from their respective publishers via Netgalley. Let’s start with the children’s fare. Here’s the blurb for Forgotten Bones from Goodreads:

Imagine you’re watching a backhoe dig up the ground for a construction project when a round object rolls down a pile of dirt and stops at your feet. You pick it up, brush off some dirt, and realize you’re holding a skull!

This is exactly what happened in Albany, New York, in 2005. Workers were putting in new sewer line when a backhoe driver dug up a skull. After police declared the skull wasn’t connected to any recent crimes, a team of archaeologists took a closer look. They determined the skull was from an African American who had died more than one hundred years earlier. Suddenly the construction site turned into an archaeological dig.

Scientists excavated more bones and realized that they had located a long-lost slave cemetery. Slavery had been legal in the northern United States, including in New York State, in colonial times, but the stories of these slaves are largely unknown. This site became just the third slave cemetery ever to be excavated in the North. See how archaeologists pieced together the truth about these once forgotten bones.

Dip into it for…forgotten bones

…a well-researched and highly engaging exploration of archaeology, anthropology and history all wrapped up in a visually enticing package. The easy-to-read text is accompanied by plenty of photographs and diagrams that bring the information to life (so to speak). The book follows the process of discovery from the initial acknowledgement that human remains have been found during routine maintenance, through to the identification and dating of the bones, to the recreation of the faces of some of the people whose bones had been unearthed. This is the kind of book that will draw young readers in from all over the place, simply for the excitement of the skull on the cover, and will keep them engaged with the accessible and fascinating information on the process and the people involved.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a fan of bones?? There’s not much to complain about with this book – it’s a quality production. The only thing that irked me as an adult reader was the slightly clunky writing style that provided a narrative at the beginning of each chapter. While I understand that this was probably intended to liven up the facts and give them a bit of context, it felt a bit contrived to me.

Overall Dip Factor:

If you’ve got upper middle-grade readers in your social circle who love a bit of history and getting their hands dirty (metaphorically), they will eat this book up (also metaphorically). As an adult I found it engaging and fascinating and there was so much visual information in the form of photos and drawings and diagrams that even the most reluctant reader will find something to grab their interest. Even though the book features specifically American history, it still should provide high appeal to readers in other countries, as the process itself and the lives of the people uncovered should promote much discussion and comparison with local contexts. I’d highly recommend this as an addition to classroom libraries – put it out on the shelf and watch the kiddies fight over it for silent reading time!

Now for the grown-ups, here’s the blurb for The Atlas of Cursed Places from Goodreads:

Oliver Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world’s most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in a handsome volume. 

This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world’s second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Dip into it for…atlas of cursed places

…bite-sized chunks of eyebrow-raising information focusing on a collection of locations that are plagued by natural, human-instigated or thoroughly mysterious misfortunes. Each location has one to two pages dedicated to its particular woes, which was too much for the places I wasn’t interested in, and not enough for those that I was. Many of the situations described prove the old adage that fact is stranger than fiction, such as the village in India where the ground could explode at any moment due to fiery mining pits beneath the earth, the mountain village where birds seem to go with the express purpose of dying and the ill-thought-out, surely-this-is-someone-else’s-problem nuclear submarine graveyard in the frozen north. This would be a great starting point for those looking to write a horror or fantasy story and needing an interesting setting. Or indeed, a great conversation starter for someone wishing to look worldly and mysterious at a dinner party.

Don’t dip if…

…you’ve booked a holiday to any of these places. Or perhaps if you are familiar with any of these places. The information given about each place is cursory for the most part and I found myself becoming annoyed with the slightly stereotypical depiction of Far North Queensland , where deadly creatures take shifts throughout the year to strike fear into the hearts of tourists (although this section was particularly amusing). Similarly, I was irritated to note that while the island of Nauru is mentioned, including a passing mention of Australia’s offshore detention facility for the “processing” of asylum seekers, the author neglected to mention the accursed experiences related by asylum seekers while detained there – experiences which include rape, self-harm, suicide and abuse – which surely qualify as the fodder for nightmares noted for other localities in the book.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is one of those books that you keep around for the “Oh, that’s interesting!” moments that you’ll experience while reading it. It would make a great gift for the travel enthusiast in your life, or for those teenaged readers who are looking for more grown-up books that focus on the real world in an accessible way. I quite enjoyed dipping into this one and discovering the mind-boggling situations attached to certain localities.

I am submitting both of these to the Non-fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader. Even though I’ve technically already completed the level that I was aiming for, I’m going to keep pushing and see how many non-fiction books I can get through this year.

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Progress toward Nonfiction Reading Challenge Goal: 16/10

Until next time,

Bruce

A Middle-Grade Historical Double Dip: Cave Boys and Gods of the Greeks…

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Salty snacks at the ready for another Double-Dip review!  Today I’ve got a pair of titles suitable for the middle-grade bracket that will appeal particularly to lovers of history and ancient myth and legend.  I suspect that, while both books will be enjoyed by girls and boys, these two titles are skewed a little toward the boyish end of the market.  But let’s plunge in!

Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age by David Zeltser is an illustrated prehistoric romp centering around a caveboy who just wants to Lug paint caves while the other caveboys bash small furry animals on the head with rocks.  When Lug and village weirdie Stony are banished from the tribe for failing to catch a jungle llama in the tribe’s Biggest Beast catching tournament, Lug thinks that he is doomed to wander the wilderness being a bit odd, like Crazy Crag.  After stumbling upon a rival tribe, Lug and Stony befriend Echo, a girl who has her own troubles fitting in with her people, her little brother Hamhock, and a friendly Mammoth, Woolly.  Together the group sets off to win their way back into Lug’s tribe – but little do they know that very soon, they will soon be facing a much greater challenge: trying to save their people from a rapidly changing climate (and its associated migrating sabre-toothed tigers).  Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age is a story about making friends, standing up for yourself, and the triumph of the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Dip into it for…

…plenty of humour, quirky illustrations and some cheeky takes on modern life reflected in a stone-aged context.  Despite appearances, this is a book that has a lot of heart and is trying to convey some complex messages about societal and environmental change in a way that’s accessible for younger readers.  There’s a nice spread of characters here too, so both boys and girls should find someone that they can relate to within its pages.

Don’t dip if…

…you want a quick read.  While this looks like it might be a book that you could knock over in one or two short sittings, there’s actually a lot going on.  There’s the initial storyline featuring Lug and his tribe and the Biggest Beast catching competition which results in Lug’s banishment.  Then there’s a section in which Lug and Echo meet and devise a plan to get Lug reinstated into his tribe, and finally there’s a whole new storyline about the encroaching environmental dangers to the humans in the story.  This last storyline pops up rather late in the piece, so at the point where I was expecting the story to wind down, a new major plot point was just beginning.  This may be off-putting for some if they are hoping for a reasonably short read.

Overall Dip Factor:

Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age is packed with the sort of quirky humour that many kids in the target audience enjoy.  The illustrations are done in a cave-painting style and are a nice addition to the book.  As an adult reader I didn’t enjoy this as much as the target audience should, but having said that, there are plenty of issues raised in the book that could start some robust discussion between young people and their adults – issues such as the concept of climate change and peoples’ responses to it, and how to balance competing ideas about what to do in the face of impending danger.  There’s also a nice theme about leadership running through the story that would provide a nice launching point in the classroom for teaching about leadership styles.

Next up we have Hades Speaks!: A Guide to the Underworld by the Greek God of the Dead by Vicky Alvear Shecter and J. E. Larson.

In the vein of the Horrible Histories series, this fictional non-fiction tome is narrated by Hades, the Greek god of the dead as he takes the reader on a little tour of his Underworld kingdom.  Beginning with a quick overview of who he is and how he fits into the Ancient Greek pantheon, Hades quickly turns to more pressing matters, such as the importance of funerary rites and what to bring with you if you want to get across the river Styx and enter the fields of Elysium.  Along the way the reader will be introduced to the happy-to-let-you-in-but-unwilling-to-let-you-out guard beast, Cerberus, Hade’s part-time wife Persephone, and become privy to a whole range of stories about others who dwell in the Underworld, or who have attempted to breach its walls.  Stick close to Hades, pay close attention to his counsel, and you may just make it out of the Underworld alive!

Dip into it for… hades speaks

…a particularly thorough and cerebral take on Ancient Greek mythology for an upper-middle-grade audience.  I was surprised at the level at which this book was pitched – I was expecting something more along the lines of the Horrible Histories series, with cartoonish illustrations and a highly visual format, but the book follows a fairly standard format with page or double-page spread illustrations appearing between chapters.  The book actually goes into a fair bit of detail, recounting relevant myths about each part of the Underworld, and giving a very detailed overview of how Hades and the Underworld fit into the lives of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re a struggling reader.  In my opinion, this book would be best tackled by confident readers who have an interest in myths and legends, because even as an adult reader I felt that there was a lot of information to take in.  The book does have a glossary at the end, but I imagine it could be quite tricky for the uninitiated to take in all the detail, even given the modern references and Hades’ sarky style of narration.

Overall Dip Factor:

This would be a great addition or companion book for those interested in Ancient Greek mythology, or for those who are looking for a way to get historical information into the hands of middle-graders in a palatable way.  The whole vibe of the book suggests to me that it would best suit the upper end of the middle grade bracket, or even those in the younger YA set who are looking for an alternative to straight fiction.  The illustrations are stark (but stunning!) detailed black and white line drawings that really add to the impression that these are “serious” myths – ones that have shaped Western culture and literature.  As an adult reader, I found it to be a succinct but detailed introduction to Hades and the Underworld, with a narrative style that really leant authenticity to the concept of touring the Underworld.  I’d certainly recommend this book to confident young readers who like to indulge their intellectual appetites through myth and legend.

Have either of these titles whetted your appetite? I hope so! I’m going to submit BOTH of these to the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge in category four: a book with someone’s name in the title.  If you’d like to know more about the challenge, or sign up (there’s still time!), simply click this delightful little button:

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Until next time history buffs,

Bruce

*I received a digital copy of Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review*

*I received a digital copy of Hades Speaks from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review*

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Time Square: The Shift…A Maniacal Book Club Review…

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manical book club buttonGood morning all! Today I have a duet of pleasures for you – a new release review and the inaugral review selection of the Maniacal Book Club (pictured!).  What is this book club and from whence has it sprung, I hear you question.  Well, since I am not the only being on the shelf and my opinion is but one of many, I decided that I should involve some of the other shelf-dwellers in having their say on our latest reads.  You will meet the others shortly.

Let us regain our focus however, and turn back to the topic of today’s book club discussion, which is the new release middle grade historical time slip adventure Time Square: The Shift, by S. W. Lothian.  This is the first in a new series by the Australian (double points!) author and I was lucky enough to receive an advance digital copy from the author for review.  Thanks!

Time Square: The Shift follows the fate of Dr Rex Hudson as he attempts to uncover the ancient secrets of a …well, secret…obelisk hidden in the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. The year is 1930 and Dr Hudson cannot resist the call of the mysterious, trekking into the mountains with his trusty guides and assistant in the hope of finding fame and fortune.  After bringing the mysterious obelisk home and storing it in his basement (for research purposes, you understand), he and his two children accidentally activate the obelisk’s time portal-inducing powers and are deposited in Time Square, the centre of all time.  As the family are introduced to the comings and goings and wheres and whyfors of Time Square, they are informed that they have unwittingly caused a breach that could mean the end of time itself.  Cue rollicking adventure as the Hudson family attempts to put things right, before time runs out. For good.

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So now I call to order this, the first meeting of the Maniacal Book Club, to share with you some thoughts on Time Square: The Shift. Introducing…..

maniacal book club guru dave

Guru Dave (Repository of most Gargoylish Wisdom)

Flesh brothers and sisters, I have spent long hours in meditation over this tome and I pronounce it most worthy for those who enjoy becoming lost in the swirling mists of time.  Without time we would all look a lot younger, but we would also be late for many pressing appointments..and for the Hudson family in this book, the importance of time weighed heavily on their minds in their decision to risk themselves to save time and its associated conveniences.

This book receives my blessing for readers who have passed eight or more years in the standard measurement of Earth time.

maniacal book club toothless

Toothless (Dragon, emerged from a middle grade storybook to sit on the shelf)

First of all, this book needed more dragons.  No dragons at all here. Shame really. Maybe there’ll be some in the next book.
Anyway, there’s lots of action in this book and some people end up being whooshed around in the air and there’s even some bad guys.  I think it’s a book that boys will like because of the action.  It’s pretty funny too. There are poo-throwing monkeys in the first chapter. No dragons though.

maniacal book club marthaMad Martha

I have composed a poem to convey my thoughts about Time Square: The Shift.  It runs thusly:

If  you’re a thrill seeker, take heed and take care,

should you pass by an ob’lisk, oh trekker, beware!

For some are well known to entrap and ensnare

and you could find yourself promptly dumped in Time Square.

But never you panic, young friend, don’t you fret,

There’s a chance you can make it safe out of this yet,

By working together, to aid and abet,

you can sort out that pesky old time statuette.

But in order to learn about time’s secret theories,

you’ll just have to read the rest of the series!

maniacal book club bruce

Bruce (The original and the best!)

I think this book will appeal greatly to kids who like the idea of time travel and  solving ancient mysteries.  The book is set in 1930, but the language use is definitely not accurate for the period.  While this took a bit of getting used to for me as an adult reader, I don’t think it will bother young readers unduly.  There’s a lot of funny one-liners and quirky characters to keep middle grade readers interested so I suspect that this will be a real hit with the age group, and the content is a refreshing chance from the currently popular crop of middle grade books set in contemporary times, and limited to the school/home setting.

Time Square: The Shift is due for release on the 9th of April.

If you’d like to find out more about the book or the author or the author’s other works, have a look at his blog here.  I should probably also mention that this would fit neatly into category eight of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with wordplay in the title (Time Square/Times Square – it’s marginal but it’ll do!).  Click on the pic below for more info about the challenge and to sign up!

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Until next time, intrepid explorers!

Bruce (and the rest of the club)

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