Meandering through Middle Grade: The Tale of Angelino Brown…

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David Almond is one of those authors that many people categorise as an “auto-read”; that is, such is the strength of his previous work, any new work that is published will be snapped up immediately by his fans.  It’s a bit that way for we shelf-dwellers.  We loved Skelling, A Monster Calls and Heaven Eyes, for instance, but found some of his other books like Clay and The Savage a bit too dark and depressing.  The Tale of Angelino Brown which we received from Walker Books Australia for review, felt like something new from Almond.  The magical realism and quirkiness were all still there, but oozing out of the pages was a sense of hope and a lightness in tone that we hadn’t encountered in Almond’s work before.  Before I say too much more, here’s the blurb from Walker UK:

A warm and witty tale from a master storyteller, author of Carnegie Medal-winning Skellig and internationally bestseller The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas

Bert and Betty Brown have got themselves a little angel. Bert found him in his top pocket when he was driving his bus. Bert and Betty’s friends think he’s lovely. So do Nancy and Jack and Alice from Class 5K. What a wonder! But Acting Head Teacher Mrs Mole is not so sure. Nor is Professor Smellie. Or the mysterious bloke in black who claims to be a School Inspector. Then there’s Basher Malone – big, lumbering Basher Malone. He REALLY doesn’t like Angelino. And it looks like he’s out to get him…

tale of angelino brown

There’s a real sense of joy that comes flitting through the text and images of this tome, from the opening lines of “Here we go. All aboard”, to the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired, flatulent angel of the cover.  This book felt quite uplifting to read throughout, which is not always the case with Almond’s work, and I couldn’t help but feel that this book would be a hit with both its intended young audience, and older readers who dared to venture into books for young readers.  The tone is generally light and humorous, without ever losing Almond’s signature sense of pathos directed toward certain of the more pitiable characters in the story.

The book opens on Bert Brown’s pondering about the deficiencies of the bus driving trade, when all of a sudden, Bert’s life is turned on its head by the discovery of an angel – a living, breathing, if somewhat flatulent and undersized angel!  The grumpy Bert brings the angel home to his wife Betty and the pair immediately become enamoured of the little creature and name him Angelino.  As the story moves on, Angelino becomes a treasured being among the children at the school at which Betty works as a lunch lady and with each passing connection, Angelino grows larger.  All is not well however, as unscrupulous and just plain unwise forces find out about Angelino and set into motion a plan to kidnap him for reasons nefarious.

This really is a delightful read, with lots of giggles to be had and a real sense of warmth about the quirky characters.  Almond has a way of making even the most odious of personalities at least pitiable, if not likeable, and there is much of that going on here with everyone from Kevin the Master of Disguise, to Mrs Mole the acting Headteacher and the truly monstrous Basher Malone.  Bert and Betty are the epitome of lovable however and felt like the true heart and soul of the book to me.

Themes of friendship, forgiveness and the forging of community can be found at various junctures of the story and Angelino, while never the most loquacious of characters, serves as a central focus around which unconnected characters come together.  The illustrations enhance the reading experience and wrap neatly around sections of text, giving extra life to the imagery generated by the writing.

I thoroughly recommend The Tale of Angelino Brown to current fans of Almond’s work as well as those who have never come across his work before.  I could see this being the perfect read aloud for a lower middle grade classroom, both for its humour and its gentle message of rallying around the vulnerable.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, under category #47: a book with an eccentric character, because eccentricities abound in this one.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Bloomsbury Middle Grade Double-Dip: Dogs, Doctors and Doings for the School Holidays…

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Seeing it’s the school holidays here in sunny (always, always sunny) Queensland, you should probably let your hair down and grab a tantalising treat to accompany your perusal of today’s double dip.  Both of today’s titles have been provided to us from Bloomsbury Australia for review.

First up, here’s book five in the Marsh Road Mysteries series by Elen Caldecott, Dogs and Doctors, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The final title in the brilliant Marsh Road Mysteries adventure series by hugely popular children’s author Elen Caldecott. For fans of the Laura Marlin Mysteries by Lauren St John.

Meet Piotr, Minnie, Andrew, Flora and Sylvie – the Marsh Road Mystery solvers.

Sylvie Hampshire is in hospital. She knows she’s responsible enough to take control of her diabetes medication, but now she has to prove it on the hospital ward. She’s only been there a couple of hours when Barry, a therapy dog, goes missing in suspicious circumstances. It’s time to bring in the gang! With their detective senses on high alert, the five friends set out to find Barry, but the stakes soon become much higher than they thought. Have they finally met their match? Not if Sylvie Hampshire has anything to do with it!

Dip into it for…  dogs and doctors

…a fun and funny mystery featuring dogs, doctors, a mysterious entity known as The Whiter and five good mates untangling the mystery of a stolen therapy dog.  Honestly, who’d steal a therapy dog? Well, that’s what Sylvie and her friends have to work out!  I hadn’t read the first four books in this series but I had no trouble at all getting into this one.  The relationships between the characters are explained neatly as they arise and the author doesn’t waste time lumping backstory into the action to slow things down.  The hospital setting makes this mystery stand out from the pack because it’s different and has its own set of tricks and traps to foil well-meaning child detectives as they go about their detective business.  The main characters all have their own strengths and character flaws that affect the investigation in various ways and the book even has some data sheets at the end showing each of the five kids’ stats for those who may not be familiar with them.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not a fan of meddling kids!  The only thing that annoyed me slightly about this was Sylvie’s initial attitude toward having to stay in the hospital for two nights for monitoring…but that’s just the grown up in me being sensible and boring.  Her reactions are perfectly age-appropriate and understandable if you’re a kid.

Overall Dip Factor

While not the most riveting mystery there has ever been, Dogs and Doctors is a fun light read with two mysteries left out for the kids to solve.  The ending is action packed enough to be a good payoff for the preceding detective work and Sylvie, as the main character, learns a thing or two along the way about being responsible and allowing others to come to the fore when needed.  There was nothing in particular in the story that indicated to me that this was a “final” book of the series, which may leave long time readers of the series unfulfilled, but as a standalone read this ticked all the boxes for kids meddling in dangerous situations and coming out on top.

Next up we have Andy Seed’s The Anti-Boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to Do, illustrated by Scott Garrett and just in time to combat the holiday chorus of “Muuuuuumm! I’m boooooooored!”  Here’s the blurb from Bloomsbury:

Say goodbye to boredom with this fantastic outdoor boredom buster book! From the hilarious Andy Seed, Winner of the Blue Peter Book Award 2015 for Best Books with Facts comes the fantastically busy Anti-boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to do.

The outdoors are boring right? Wrong! Not when you’ve got Andy Seed’s Anti-boredom Book of Brilliant Outdoor Things to do! Suitable for all seasons, find out how to set bug traps, create a rainbow, construct an amazing summer slide and much, much more!

But what about those rainy summer days we hear you cry? Not a problem! This book also includes awesome indoor activities about the outdoors for rainy days. Design your own mini parachute, create the worlds most amazing frisbee, or create a bird feeder to keep your feathered friends well fed!

A brilliant book bursting with amazing outdoor activities that will have you running for the door! Packed full of hilarious illustrations from the wonderful Scott Garrett, this book will keep you entertained for hours on end!

Dip into it for…  outdoor things to do

…a comprehensive collection of ideas to keep the kids busy in the great outdoors.  The book has ideas for all sorts of places, from the city to the beach, to the countryside to plain old indoors, so even if you’re headed off on holiday somewhere, it would be a handy tome to bring along.  The book is divided into the sections mentioned above, and lists a selection of activities for each environment as well as the things you’ll need to complete them and tips or instructions for how to get the best out of whatever the activity is.  As this is the book of outdoor things to do, activities range from kayaking around a lake to ball games to messy things to make and build.  For those who love their devices, there are also some photo challenges to do as well as maps to look up if your mini-fleshlings can’t go a day without looking at some sort of screen.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t immediately want to be cajoled into hiking up the nearest hill or building a canoe out of twigs and shoelaces, I suppose.  While many of the activities listed here will definitely keep the kids busy, a lot of them do require certain materials that may have the kids constantly asking, “Mum, where’s the sticky tape? Where can I find coconuts? Why don’t we have a limbo stick?” and so forth for the next two weeks.

Overall Dip Factor

There’s definitely something for everyone in these pages and I particularly like that the end of the book has a list of “challenge” activities that require a bit more planning and, more often than not, the involvement of an adult or at least a small group of conspirators.  Overall, I think this book is a great inspiration for those looking to develop more “unplugged” time as a family.

So there you are – an involving mystery and a bunch of outdoorsy things to do.  You can thank me later for making sure your school holidays are busy and booked up.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Furthest Station: A DC Peter Grant Mini-Mystery…

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Long time readers of the blog will be aware of we Shelf Dwellers’ love of Ben Aaronovitch’s DC Peter Grant urban fantasy/police procedural series of novels.  Happily, instead of making fans wait ages for the next book in the series to come out, Aaronovitch has cleverly taken to including short stories, graphic novels and exclusive audiobooks to sate the appetites of his fans.   The Furthest Station is one of these stories and it is set between books five and six of the series (that’s Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree, for those interested).  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

There have been ghosts on the London Underground, sad, harmless spectres whose presence does little more than give a frisson to travelling and boost tourism. But now there’s a rash of sightings on the Metropolitan Line and these ghosts are frightening, aggressive and seem to be looking for something.

Enter PC Peter Grant junior member of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Assessment unit a.k.a. The Folly a.k.a. the only police officers whose official duties include ghost hunting. Together with Jaget Kumar, his counterpart at the British Transport Police, he must brave the terrifying the crush of London’s rush hour to find the source of the ghosts.

Joined by Peter’s wannabe wizard cousin, a preschool river god and Toby the ghost hunting dog their investigation takes a darker tone as they realise that a real person’s life might just be on the line.

And time is running out to save them.

More than just enjoying the story presented here, I absolutely adored the shorter format.  If you have been following my reviews of this series, you’ll know that my high expectations garnered from reading the first three books led to some disappointment with some of the later books in the series.  One of my main complaints in these reviews was directed at the filler material and slow pacing that seemed to plague the stories and the shorter format of The Furthest Station rectified that problem beautifully.

Even though the tale is short, it misses none of the humour, action and unexpected twists of the novels.  The story starts off as a ghost hunt; reports of apparitions on the Chesham train line are compounded in weirdness when the victims doing the reporting apparently forget all about their complaint within a few hours of making it.  Then a chance encounter with a roving spirit on a train leads to a tip off as to the whereabouts of a possible missing woman.

There is enough in the way of mystery here to keep readers guessing and while  the magical booms and bangs are kept to a minimum there are more cerebral problems for readers to engage with.  The inclusion of Abigail, Peter’s younger magically endowed cousin, adds variety to the story as well as raising the question about how to address Abigail’s magical abilities with her parents. A new river god also makes an appearance, which, given his tender age, could make things interesting in later stories.

Having enjoyed this reading experience, I will definitely be making a point to scout out the extra material that has been included in this series, hopefully beginning with the graphic novels.  If you’re a fan of the series already, you should definitely add these short stories to your TBR and if you haven’t got started with DC Grant yet – what are you waiting for?

Until next time,

Bruce

Mean Girls, Kidnap and the One Left Behind: The Fall of Lisa Bellow…

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Whoooot whooot whooot!

That’s the “intriguing read ahead” alarm, in case you didn’t recognise it.  Today’s book is adult fiction novel The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo.  We received a copy of this one from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and even though I didn’t know what to expect going into it, I know I wasn’t expecting such an absorbing, fascinating and subversive look at the inner workings of various minds….

On that tantalising little nugget, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When a middle school girl is abducted in broad daylight, a fellow student and witness to the crime copes with the tragedy in an unforgettable way.

What happens to the girl left behind?

A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind.

After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not.

So, what’s the social protocol if a tragedy befalls someone you don’t particularly like?  Is there an acceptable level of schadenfreude that can be bandied about or do you have to pretend that you really care deeply about the other person (who would never have given one single toss about you)?

What if you are the mother of the girl who isn’t kidnapped?  Surely there must be some concession to such a mother, an allowance of a certain amount of public joy that her child was spared, despite the unnamed terrors that may (or may not…but probably are) being committed upon the kidnapped child.

These are some of the questions that are explored in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, as viewpoints switch between Meredith (the un-kidnapped child) and her mother, Claire, in the aftermath of the Deli Barn robbery in which Meredith’s classmate (and locker neighbour) is kidnapped.  Lisa Bellow is one of the cool kids, a mean girl. Meredith is not.  Meredith is simultaneously unsurprised by the fact that the kidnapper would choose Lisa to abduct – skinny, blond-haired, beautifully shod Lisa – instead of plain, awkward Meredith, and drawn to the gap that Lisa has left in the hierarchy of middle school social totems.

Claire, Meredith’s mother, is unashamedly glorying in the fact that her daughter was spared the horrors of kidnap (and no doubt rape and murder) that has been visited upon the Bellow girl, but only on the inside.  She learnt long ago that sharing her more vengeful thoughts relating to those who would harm her children, even with the man she married, is not necessarily a path to peaceful relationships.  Since her son and Meredith’s older brother Evan was visited with a tragedy of his own, Claire has sensed the bonds between her and her children weakening, and her place in the family unit becoming more vague and nebulous.

This is not a book in which the focus is on the hunt for the kidnapper and a swift and action-packed resolution for Lisa.  This book is about ramifications.  The ripple effect that occurs when one person is removed from a social context slowly spreads to encompass all those to whom they were once connected, even in the smallest of ways.  The voice that the author has used here, both for Meredith and Claire, perfectly suited the complex emotional state that the two are working through.  There is plenty of dark humour, with a spotlight on those socially inappropriate thoughts we all have about revenge and people we deem nasty or lauded for absolutely nothing getting their comeuppance.  The jerky and somewhat detached narrative style perfectly suits the level of weirdness that one might expect to experience on having to slot back in to normal life immediately after a majorly traumatic event – especially one that is ongoing and unresolved.

Lest you think that this is a dreary, serious book, allow me to say that I thoroughly appreciated the characters of Evan and Mark (Meredith’s brother and father respectively).  Evan is so utterly likable that his presence is like a stabiliser for the craziness of the outside world….until it’s not.  Mark is a concrete helper, in that he will provide any kind of help necessary, as long as it involves a concrete object – picking up some tater tots from the store, providing new shoes on request – but is less helpful when it comes to spotting and managing emotional states on the verge of collapse.  These two characters provided a neat foil for the darker thoughts of Meredith and Claire and overall the author has done a stellar job of creating an authentic-feeling family in semi-crisis.

**On a side note, can I just say that I was ridiculously overjoyed when reading about the battling animals that Evan and Meredith played with as children (and sometimes still use) because…..I OWN THE EXACT SAME BATTLING ANIMALS!!!!! The ones in the book are surely based on the Papo range of mythical creatures.  I checked, and the Lion does indeed carry a sword in one hand and an axe in the other (although where Meredith and Evan’s Lion is missing a tail, ours is missing part of the axe – not due to biting though).  My favourite is the Rhino.  He guards Mad Martha’s yarn stash.  Just saying.**

I don’t normally enjoy “character relationship” books as much as I did this one, but there were so many aspects of the story that resonated with me on some level that I can do naught but tag this as a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Until next time,

Bruce