A Middle Grade Double-Dip Review: Magical Realism vs Legendary Monsters

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Sit back, relax, grab your favourite two opposing snacks and get ready to dip into some intriguing upper middle grade reads.  Before we get started, I’m just going to let you know that all of today’s books are going to contribute toward my Colour Coded Reading Challenge for 2017.  You can see my progress toward that challenge here.

I should also point out that I received all today’s books from HarperCollins Australia for review – thanks!

First up I have the companion novel to Time Travelling With A Hamster by Ross Welford, which I reviewed last week: What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible.  Also by Ross Welford, obviously.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Turning invisible at will: it’s one way of curing your acne. But far more drastic than 13 year-old Ethel Leatherhead intended when she tried a combination of untested medicines and a sunbed.

It’s fun at first, being invisible. And aided by her friend Boydy, she manages to keep her extraordinary ability secret. Or does she…?

When one day the invisibility fails to wear off, Ethel is thrown into a nightmare of lies and deception as she struggles to keep herself safe, to find the remedy that will make her seen again – and solve the mystery of her own birth…

what-not-to-do-if-you-turn-invisible

Dip into it for…

…charming characters, a solid friendship and some shenanigans involving a sunbed and seriously dodgy alternative medicine.  On immediately finishing the book I felt that I didn’t feel this one as much as Time Travelling with a Hamster, but with a bit of distance since the time I finished it, I’ve decided that I’m actually more fond of the main characters of this novel than the previous.  Ethel lives with her grandma and is bullied for having terrible acne.  Elliot is a recent blow-in from London and seems unaware of his status as social pariah.  An unlikely but heartwarming friendship is formed over the course of the book (and I mean that in the least vomit-inducing way possible) and by the end one can really believe the bond between Ethel and Elliot is authentic.  Did I mention that Ethel also suffers from spells of invisibility now and then?  Well, she does, and that’s where most of the humour comes in, but really, this is a story about family past and present and the family you build for yourself.

Don’t dip if…

…you have a pathological aversion to sunbed use.  I, hailing from the country with the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, have a natural and pathological aversion for sunbeds given the fact that they are proven to increase rates of deadly skin cancers, and have rightly been banned here.  It did grate on me that Ethel happily gets into one multiple times throughout the story and I feel there should be some author’s note at the end (or the beginning, or throughout) that plainly points to the dangers of placing your naked skin under intense UV radiation for any period of time for the sake of a bit of a tan.  It will kill you people.

Admittedly, this is not a good enough reason not to read the book though.

Overall Dip Factor

This was a thoroughly enjoyable story that skilfully incorporates elements of magical realism to lift the plot out of the expected boundaries for contemporary middle grade and YA “issues” books.  Yes, Ethel is dealing with some difficult issues about identity, bullying, loyalty and honesty, but the inclusion of the invisibility works both as a humorous side plot, and a metaphor for escaping one’s problems and taking decisive action.  Elliot is a fantastic character who, it seems, can only be himself and this provides a nice foil for Ethel’s desire to become someone different.  All in all this is a strong contemporary story about growing up, with the added bonus of fun and fantasy woven in.

Next up, I have a two for one deal, with the first two books in the Darkmouth series by Shane Hegarty – Darkmouth: The Legends Begin and Darkmouth: Worlds Explode.  These have been out for a while now, but I received them to review as part of a jacket  re-design release.  Here are the blurbs from Goodreads:

Darkmouth: The Legends Begin

A monstrously funny debut from the new star of middle-grade adventure. Ages: 9+

There are towns where the border between our world and the world of monsters – properly called Legends – is thin. One of those towns is Darkmouth.

There, our hero Finn is the son of the last remaining Legend Hunter – which means that one day soon he will be the last remaining Legend Hunter.

Except… he’s a bit rubbish at it. And in a spectacularly unfortunate coincidence, the terrifying leader of the monsters is in the midst of planning an all out attack on earth… in Darkmouth.

Darkmouth: Worlds Explode

The second book in the monstrously funny and action-packed new series: Darkmouth. It’s going to be legendary.

The adventures of the most unfortunate Legend Hunter ever to don fighting armour and pick up a Dessicator continue…

On a list of things Finn never thought he’d wish for, a gateway bursting open in Darkmouth was right up there. But that’s about his only hope for finding his missing father. He’s searched for a map, he’s followed Steve into dead ends, but found nothing. And he’s still got homework to do.

But soon Finn and Emmie must face bizarre Legends, a ravenous world and a face from the past as they go where no Legend Hunter has gone before. Or, at least, where no legend Hunter has gone before and returned with their limbs in the correct order.

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Dip into it for…

…a pedestrian series opener that improves by the end of book two.  I found the second book of a much higher quality than the first mostly due to the fact that in the first book Finn, the protagonist, is sulky, his father Hugo is pushy and I could pick the inevitable betrayal from a certain character from the second they stepped on to the scene.  There is something seriously slow about the first book in the series that made me hesitant to pick up the second, but thankfully the second book featured much more of what I was expecting.  There was far more humour, a more interesting setting and problem to solve and the new character, Estravon, was far more interesting than any of the characters in the first book.  The action in the second book seemed more natural – in that there seemed to be obvious reasons as to why conflicts were occurring and the ending was both surprising and fast-paced.

An unexpected bonus in the books is the full page illustrations scattered here and there, as well as various other smaller images placed in between bits of text.  Regular followers of this blog will know that I think pictures make every book better and it was a nice touch to see the artist’s renderings of the Legend characters particularly.

Don’t dip if…darkmouth-2

…you’re expecting, as the blurb promised, that the stories will be “monstrously funny”.  There are a few smile-inducing moments here and there as well as a few dry asides, but unless you find sadsack teenagers and overbearing parents particularly amusing, you aren’t going to be slapping your thighs throughout.

Overall Dip Factor

I wish that I had just completely skipped The Legends Begin and started with Worlds Explode because it is far the better written of the two.  The pacing is more balanced, the reveals are more surprising (and therefore engaging) and generally the story flows a lot better than in the first book, which is marred by Finn’s constant musings about how he will never be as good as his father and woe is him etc, etc.  The second story also allows for more character development, as Emmie, Steve and Finn are thrown into situations that they haven’t prepared for and therefore have to draw on their own wiles to solve problems rather than have Hugo, Finn’s father, step in to solve everything.  I’m still a little hand-shy about the series to tell you the truth, but the ending of Worlds Explode in particular has me interested in what might happen next.  If only Hegarty could have brought the quality of writing at the end of the second book to bear in The Legends Begin, I’d be giving this series an unreserved thumbs up.

I hope your snacks lasted the distance and didn’t pita off toward the end (see what I did there?!)

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

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