Dragon’s Green: World-building, Magic and Bookishness…

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dragon's green

Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $19.99

When you churn through as many books as I do during a year (and even I have to admit that my reading is a tad excessive) it’s rarer and rarer to come across a story that feels truly different.  Particularly in the middle grade fantasy bracket, it’s safe to say that many stories follow similar themes, tropes and imaginings.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we all love a story with familiar themes and fantastical worlds whose workings are easy to understand – but whenever I come across a book that feels a little different, there’s always a spark of excitement that flares to life in my stony chest.  So it was with Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas, which we received from Allen & Unwin for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

‘Some people think opening a book is a simple thing. It’s not. Most people don’t realise that you can get truly lost in a book. You can. Especially you. Do not open any of these books without my permission, Euphemia.’

Effie is a pupil at the Tusitala School for the Gifted and Strange. When her grandfather becomes ill she discovers she is set to inherit the family library. The more she learns about it the more unusual it is. Before she knows it, her life is at risk from dark forces from this world and beyond, intent on using the books and the power they contain.

With her grandfather gone and the adult world ignoring her, can her unreliable classmates help save her life?

Packed with puzzles, curses, evil nemeses and a troupe of beguiling heroes, Dragon’s Green is an adventure novel for children about the nature of magic.

This blurb is a little misleading, because it makes Effie’s story sound just like every other hero of every other middle grade fantasy ever written.  There are multiple ways in which Dragon’s Green sticks out from the pack and I will detail them now for you (you’re welcome!).  First up, the blurb makes no mention of the world in which Effie lives.  The story is set firmly in a world very like our own…however it is a speculative world (of the future?) in which a Worldquake – like an earthquake but affecting the entire globe at once – has knocked out the internet and general access to electricity and everyone is now reliant on archaic technologies to communicate (hello walkie talkies!), conduct research and generally get along.  This worldquake and its effects are mentioned a number of times, but we are never privy to its causes or its place in the scheme of this world.  I expect this will be expanded upon in further books.

Then there’s the Otherworld.  There’s the Realworld (our world, Effie’s world, for want of a better term) and the Otherworld.  The Otherworld runs on magic and renewed access to it has some connection to the Worldquake, but this connection is not entirely clear.  Again, I expect this will become more apparent in later books.

The Realworld and the Otherworld exist independently to each other for the most part, unless an individual has the ability to perform magic.  In this aspect, the book takes a bit of a Potter-esque approach, in that magic is known about (on some level) by non-magical people, but not talked about.  The world of those possessing magic is complex.  There are multiple roles or talents that the magically endowed could be born with – mage, witch, hero, warrior, healer, scholar – as well as magical objects (called boons) that can enhance the abilities of the magical.

Finally, the link between the Realworld and the Otherworld has a strong dependence on BOOKS!  (Hooray!)  Books (certain books, not every book) provide a portal to the Otherworld for certain readers and as such are sought after by the Diberi, a sect of magical individuals who wish to harness the power of being the Last Reader of certain books.

Have I convinced you yet, that this isn’t your average “kid-discovers-they-have-magic-powers-and-embarks-on-an-action-packed-and-mildly-humorous-quest-to-save-the-world” story?

Dragon’s Green felt refreshingly grown-up in its approach to the narrative.  Effie is not hapless and bumbling, stumbling upon the answers as she develops her power and a belief in her own abilities.  She is confident, innovative and knows when to delegate.  The four supporting characters, who throughout the story grow to become friends, have backstories that are explored in enough depth to make the characters seem authentic and their motivations believable.  There are multiple plot-threads that interact with and affect each other and far too many puzzles have been raised in this initial book to be resolved by the end of the story.  Essentially, the story feels like it comes with a history that we don’t necessarily know yet…but it will be revealed by the end of the trilogy.

This book was a bit of a sleeper for me.  I was interested from the beginning, but I didn’t really appreciate the originality and complexity of the story until I was deep into the final third.  Dragon’s Green is a book that celebrates thinkers of all persuasions, not those who rush into situations with reckless abandon.  Even the warrior character is clearly a lad with the brains for strategy and a backstory to hint at more depth than one would expect of a rugby-playing troublemaker.  I also absolutely loved the way that another supporting character, Maximillian’s, talents have been revealed here and the hint that good and evil are not necessarily clear cut.

As an aside, the dustjacket of the hardback edition that I received had a little sticker proclaiming “This Book Glows in the Dark!” so I checked and it does.  When left in a dark room, the cover turns into a delightfully atmospheric green overlay featuring the moon and the book title.  Unusually, this edition has gorgeous illustrated endpapers inside a misleadingly plain purple cover.  Nice touches, I thought, and ones to make this book a keeper.

It took me a while to come to this decision, but I have to nominate Dragon’s Green as a Top Book of 2017 – it’s got too much going on to be left languishing with your common-or-garden middle grade fantasy.

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Do yourself a favour and grab a copy today! Or, you know, once pay day rolls around.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Collection of DNFs…

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It’s time for another round up of books I have recently lain aside.  Given that I now have a default policy of not finishing books that I lose interest in, I unsurprisingly find that I DNF a lot more books than I did previously.  I certainly don’t feel guilty about this, but I do like to make you aware of some of these books because even though they didn’t hold my attention, it doesn’t mean they won’t hold yours.

First up, we have Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott which we received for review from Hachette Australia.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The town of Rotherweird stands alone – there are no guidebooks, despite the rotherweirdfascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird’s independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused.

But secrets have a way of leaking out.

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothingbefore 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow got permission to renovate the town’s long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time – and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

Welcome to Rotherweird!

I started off very much enjoying this one but made the decision to lay it aside at chapter seven, after 133 pages.  The narrative style was engaging, the characters quirky and there was a twist quite early on that I didn’t expect that opened up a completely new direction for what I thought this book was going to be.  By chapter seven though, I was having trouble keeping the characters straight and remembering exactly who was who and who was allied to whom and things were moving just a little too slowly to encourage me to keep on plodding away.

I do think this book has a lot of potential for presenting an original story, but I didn’t have the concentration required at this point to make a framework for what was happening as I read.  This one will definitely appeal to those who enjoy small-town intrigue, historical mystery and other worlds rolled into one.

Next, we have nonfiction zombie explanatory tome, Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse by Greg Garrett, which we received for review from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When humankind faces what it perceives as a threat to its very existence, a macabre living with the living dead thing happens in art, literature, and culture: corpses begin to stand up and walk around. The dead walked in the fourteenth century, when the Black Death and other catastrophes roiled Europe. They walked in images from World War I, when a generation died horribly in the trenches. They walked in art inspired by the Holocaust and by the atomic attacks on Japan. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the dead walk in stories of the zombie apocalypse, some of the most ubiquitous narratives of post-9/11 Western culture. Zombies appear in popular movies and television shows, comics and graphic novels, fiction, games, art, and in material culture including pinball machines, zombie runs, and lottery tickets.
The zombie apocalypse, Greg Garrett shows us, has become an archetypal narrative for the contemporary world, in part because zombies can stand in for any of a variety of global threats, from terrorism to Ebola, from economic uncertainty to ecological destruction. But this zombie narrative also brings us emotional and spiritual comfort. These apocalyptic stories, in which the world has been turned upside down and protagonists face the prospect of an imminent and grisly death, can also offer us wisdom about living in a community, present us with real-world ethical solutions, and invite us into conversation about the value and costs of survival. We may indeed be living with the living dead these days, but through the stories we consume and the games we play, we are paradoxically learning what it means to be fully alive.

I put this one down after 40% simply because I felt the author had done his job too well, and I had heard enough on the topic that I agreed with.  The book highlights the ways in which the imagery of the undead often accompanies moments in history that trigger instability and a sense of doom.   The book focuses on different aspects of the human experience that are highlighted by the zombie apocalypse narrative – the strength of community, for instance – and does this by examining the themes and events common to various iconic zombie-related pop cultural phenomenon of recent history.  These include The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and the satirical Shaun of the Dead.  I imagine hardcore fans of these stories will get a new perspective as they watch after reading this book.  Even though, of the shows featured, I had only seen Shaun of the Dead (and that a long while ago), it didn’t hinder my engagement with the points the author was trying to make.

The author himself notes that he makes some of his points from a Christian perspective and while this didn’t bother me particularly, it may not be to everyone’s taste.   The biggest problem I had with the book was that the author made his point so well during the introductory first chapter that I didn’t really feel the need to read to the end of the book!  If you have a burning interest in pop culture phenomena and how these influence and in turn, are influenced by wider world events, you should find something to keep you amused here.

Next is The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr, a historical YA fantasy novel that we received from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Tuscany, 1096 AD. Luca, young heir to the title of Conte de Falconi, sees demons. the book of whispersSince no one else can see them, Luca must keep quiet about what he sees.

Luca also has dreams—dreams that sometimes predict the future. Luca sees his father murdered in one such dream and vows to stop it coming true. Even if he has to go against his father’s wishes and follow him on the great pilgrimage to capture the Holy Lands.

When Luca is given an ancient book that holds some inscrutable power, he knows he’s been thrown into an adventure that will lead to places beyond his understanding. But with the help of Suzan, the beautiful girl he rescues from the desert, he will realise his true quest: to defeat the forces of man and demon that wish to destroy the world.

When I requested this I remember thinking, “Should I?” and it turns out I probably shouldn’t.  I put this down at 11% simply because I felt there was too much telling, with a first person narrator, and not enough showing, and the narrative style was quite staid, as it often is with historical novels of this era.   I was quite interested in the demon element, but after 10% of the story the demons haven’t done anything except hang around and so my interest wasn’t piqued in the way that it might have been.  If you enjoy historical fiction set in the medieval era this may be more to your tastes than mine.

Finally, we have early chapter book Clementine Loves Red by Krystyna Bolgar which we received from the publisher via Netgalley for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s the end of the holidays for Mark, Annie and Pudding (real name: Derek). clementine loves redThey’ve
spent the summer in a cottage on the edge of a forest in the countryside, but they haven’t had any really exciting adventures to tell their classmates back at school…

Until, on their final visit to see the Frog King of a nearby pond, they find a frightened young girl crying in the woods. The curiously named Macadamia tells them she has lost Clementine, and so the three children set out on a quest to find her.

But they are not the only ones looking for Clementine, and a storm is approaching, bringing with it a night full of surprises…

I’ve only just now noted that this story is actually a translation from the original Polish and that knowledge beforehand would have gone a long way to atoning for some of the oddness of the story.  I put this one down after 37% simply because I was a bit bored and couldn’t really be bothered ploughing on to the end.  The story is straightforward enough, though the translation has rendered the narrative style a bit too offhandedly, in that the characters don’t seem particularly invested in finding the mysterious “Clementine” or even having discovered a kid named Macadamia in the woods.

The illustrations are simple line drawings and didn’t add much to my reading experience.  I think this was just a case of reader and story not matching up and I’m sure others will enjoy this lighthearted adventure.

So there you are: four books that I decided not to finish.  Have you read any of these?  Do they sound like they might be your cup of tea?  Let me know!

Until next time,

Bruce

Getting in Sync with Pratchett: The Wee Free Men…

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Well, it has finally happened; that which I was despairing of ever occurring has come to pass: I have read a Terry Pratchett book all the way through and enjoyed it!  Hurrah!  I know I’ve said it before on this blog, but even though Terry Pratchett is the kind of author that I should automatically adore, given that I enjoy funny, subversive, slightly silly fantasy tales, I haven’t ever gelled with any of his books for some reason.  Finally though, it has happened.

We received this new release edition of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, being the thirtieth in the Discworld series and the first book in the Tiffany Aching five-book series, from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Tiffany wants to be a witch when she grows up.

A proper one, with a pointy hat. And flying, she’s always dreamed of flying (though it’s cold up there, you have to wear really thick pants, two layers).

But she’s worried Tiffany isn’t a very ‘witchy’ name. And a witch has always protected Tiffany’s land, to stop the nightmares getting through.

Now the nightmares have taken her brother, and it’s up to her to get him back.

With a horde of unruly fairies at her disposal, Tiffany is not alone. And she is the twentieth granddaughter of her Granny Aching: shepherdess extraordinaire, and protector of the land.

Tiffany Aching. Now there’s a rather good name for a witch.

This particular edition of The Wee Free Men is being marketed as a middle grade story, hence the middle-grade-ish cover design, but I can’t imagine many a middle grader will take to Pratchett’s style of humour much and would prefer to stick to thinking of this book as an adult fantasy fiction tale.  I have found when reading Pratchett before that I really enjoy the first few chapters and then my interest tapers off, but with this story I maintained my interest throughout…mostly.

Tiffany is an independent sort of a nine-year-old, having grown up under the influence of Granny Aching, the previous witch of the Chalk and owner of two fantastic dogs.  Tiffany feels the pressure to be as savvy and wise as old Granny Aching was, but senses that she doesn’t quite have the stuff to be the next Chalk witch…well, not yet anyway.  Once the Nac Mac Feegle – little blue crazy fighting men with thick accents – become involved however, Tiffany discovers that she’s going to have to get her witch on whether she likes it or not.  Add to that the fact that a fairy queen has scarpered with her younger brother and you’ve got the makings of an adventure to remember.

I can’t say exactly what it was about this story that made it different from others of Pratchett’s that I haven’t been able to get through, but I did enjoy Tiffany’s independence mixed with her completely understandable anxieties about becoming a witch while having absolutely no witchy skills to speak of.  I did lose interest a little during the parts set in the fairy world – I find hearing about dreams tedious at the best of times and this section was set entirely in a selection of dreams – but overall I found the story engaging enough that I looked forward to getting back to it.

I can now safely put the others of the Tiffany Aching sequence on my to-read list, although I’ll take things slowly.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

The Lotterys Plus One: A Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Yes, I know my last Top Book of 2017 pick was only last week, but today’s book completely earns the badge by being utterly original and beguiling and packed with such diversity it would make a conservative Christian’s head explode.

That got you interested, didn’t it?

We received The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (author of adult novels Room and The Wonder amongst others) from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Meet the Lotterys: a unique and diverse family featuring four parents, seven kids and five pets – all living happily together in their big old house, Camelottery. Nine-year-old Sumac is the organizer of the family and is looking forward to a long summer of fun.

But when their grumpy and intolerant grandad comes to stay, everything is turned upside down.How will Sumac and her family manage with another person to add to their hectic lives?

Internationally bestselling author Emma Donoghue’s first novel for children, with black-and-white illustrations throughout, is funny, charming and full of heart.

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Although I have bestowed a TBo2017 title upon this tome, I will admit that it took me a chapter or two to get my bearings within this unconventional family.  Sumac is the middle child (ish) of seven.  She has two fathers – PopCorn and PapaDum – who are a committed couple.  She also has two mothers – MaxiMum and CardaMum – who are similarly in a committed relationship.  All four adults co-parent the brood of children who comprise biological children (of various of the parents) and adopted children, of which Sumac is one.  The cultural backgrounds of the family members include Indigenous Canadian, African, Indian, Caucasian and Filippina. The family live in a century-old house and are home schooled because the parents had the good fortune of winning the lottery – hence the family’s surname (The Lotterys) and the name of their dwelling (Camelottery).

You may be getting a bit of an idea by now as to why this book may not appeal to readers of a more conservative political bent.

The first thing you will have to get used to in this unusual book is that everything has a nickname.  As well as the parents’ nicknames, the children are all named after trees (and then their names are often shortened), and every room in their house has a punny name of its own.  Even the unsuspecting grandfather who is drawn into the organised chaos is given a fitting nickname – Grumps.  Because we are dumped straight into the fray from the first chapter, it was a little disorienting trying to sort everyone out into their proper place in the family, although this did turn out to be a good narrative device to demonstrate the busy nature of the family’s life.

Essentially, this is a book about a family dealing with an unexpected new arrival and having to work together to restore equilibrium to all their lives.  When PopCorn’s father, who is estranged from his son, develops dementia and is deemed unable to live on his own, he is taken in by the Lotterys, despite his obvious dislike of pretty much everything to do with the place – his son’s decision to partner with a man,  the multicultural mix of residents, the fact that one of the children prefers to be addressed as a boy even though she’s a girl, the pet rat, the “exotic” food, ad infinitum.  The story develops through Sumac’s eyes as she tries her hardest to be the helpful and logical child that she thinks her parents expect her to be.

Sumac is a delightful narrator.  Through her experience the reader really feels what it must be like for a child who loves her family and its quirks yet is consumed by annoyance and, at times, downright anger that this interloper, her grandfather, has the power to unravel the wall of familial protection that Sumac has built around herself.  The siblings of the dwelling are well written, each with his or her own personality and a healthy dose of sibling rivalry and antagonism which stops the story from descending into an unrealistic depiction of siblings of various ages living together.  After a few eye-rolls related to (a) my jealousy of the luck of the parents in winning the lottery and living the dream and (b) some of the hipster antics that they get up to, I appreciated the difficulties experienced by the adults as they try to negotiate their responsibilities toward a family member who is making life difficult for everyone in the dwelling.

The original setting and the unique family unit in The Lotterys Plus One slowly drew me in and won me over and I found myself eager to get back to the story every evening before sleep.  I expected this book to be a stand alone, so complicated was the set-up of the family situation, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that a sequel is already planned and titled (The Lotterys More or Less).

If you want to be surprised, challenged, confused, bemused and amused by a children’s book, I can’t do better than recommend The Lotterys Plus One to you.

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

 

Return to Augie Hobble: Theme Parks, Creative Arts and Life in a Wolf Suit…

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If you are tired of the typical tropes, lackadaisical layouts and predictable plotting of standard middle grade reads, Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith will be a breath of fresh air.  We received a copy from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Augie Hobble lives in a fairy tale—or at least Fairy Tale Place, the down-on-its-luck amusement park managed by his father. Yet his life is turning into a nightmare: he’s failed creative arts and has to take summer school, the girl he has a crush on won’t acknowledge him, and Hogg Wills and the school bullies won’t leave him alone. Worse, a succession of mysterious, possibly paranormal, events have him convinced that he’s turning into a werewolf. At least Augie has his notebook and his best friend Britt to confide in—until the unthinkable happens and Augie’s life is turned upside down, and those mysterious, possibly paranormal, events take on a different meaning.

Return to Augie Hobble was a package of unpredictability from start to finish.  Augie lives in a reasonably crappy amusement park based on a fairy tale theme and spends his summer sweeping up after guests and being picked on by bored teenage pranksters.  In his downtime, he and his best friend Britt escape to their fort in the woods and attempt to create a Creative Arts project that will get Augie a passing grade.  When Britt leaves on holiday and Augie has a strange encounter with someone in a wolf suit (or is it?), Augie’s life takes a turn for the weird…er.

This book is a bit of a cross between a graphic novel and an ordinary novel, as it is heavily illustrated throughout.  Along with the actual story the reader is privy to Augie’s multiple attempts to create a passable project for his summer school Creative Arts class and these range from cartoons to illustrated stories to photographs.  We also get to see some particularly …. unexpected …scribblings that appear in the notebook.  I use the word “appear” because Augie can’t explain how they got there…although he has a rather shrewd idea.

I won’t try to describe the plot of this story to you because it is twistier than a spring caught in an automated twisting machine – just when you think you can guess where the story’s going – phwip! – something completely unexpected pops up to change things around.  By the end of the book you’ll have vicariously experienced lycanthropism, theft, ghost activity, a genuine cowboy horse chase, gypsy prophesying, time-lapse photography, poltergeisting for the win, agents working on a government conspiracy and festive decorating.  By about two thirds of the way through the book I did feel that I had lost the thread a little because the plot was changing so quickly, but the writing is full of humour (some of it quite dark) and Augie is so relatable that I was willing to forgive a bit of disjointedness in the plot itself.

Presentation wise, this book will definitely appeal to young readers.  The cover design is engaging and the sheer volume of illustrations throughout break up the text beautifully, giving readers of all abilities a chance to evade the monotony of black-on-white text.  I’m not sure that the story will appeal to everyone – it has a unique mix of silliness and seriousness that I don’t think I’ve come across before – but if you are a fan of quirky humour and unbelievable situations then you will definitely appreciate Smith’s style.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Blue Cat…

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It’s another book set in World War 2 today, this time set in Australia (and I’ve got ANOTHER World War 2 story for you next week – it must be something in the air), and this time aimed at a middle grade audience.  We received The Blue Cat by prolific Australian author Ursula Dubosarsky from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A boy stood in the playground under the big fig tree. ‘He can’t speak English,’ the children whispered.

Sydney, 1942. The war is coming to Australia – not only with the threat of bombardment, but also the arrival of refugees from Europe. Dreamy Columba’s world is growing larger. She is drawn to Ellery, the little boy from far away, and, together with her highly practical best friend Hilda, the three children embark on an adventure through the harbour-side streets – a journey of discovery and terror, in pursuit of the mysterious blue cat …

the blue cat

The Blue Cat is told from the point of view of Columba, a young girl whose world is slowly being encroached upon by the war.  Everything that her headmaster assures the children could never possibly happen, seems to be coming about.  Her friend’s brothers are stuck as prisoners of war.  Air raid sirens interrupt otherwise lazy afternoons.  The spectre of lost mothers and lost homes looms large in the figure of Ellery, a German boy who has come to attend Columba’s school.

There is certainly an atmosphere of anticipation seeping through this novel and I was constantly poised for some significant action to take place.  Rather, the story unfolds gently through Columba’s interactions with her brash, larger-than-life friend Hilda and the silent Ellery.

Atmospheric as Dubosarsky’s writing may be, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing from this book.  The first candidate for the MIA label is the titular cat – he makes the briefest of brief appearances and doesn’t seem, as the blurb suggests, to be keeping any secrets at all. Rather, he seems to be acting like an ordinary cat: flighty, unpredictable and completely indifferent as to whether humans pay attention to him or not.

The second thing I felt that was missing here was some significant event to provide a point around which Columba or one of the other characters could experience some growth or change or…something.  Columba, as a narrator, is more of a bystander than an agent in her own life and while there are plenty of us who live through certain historical events without having them touch us in a significant way, I’m not sure that this perspective is the most effective upon which to base a protagonist.

One thing I did love about the book was the inclusion of primary source materials.  Instead of illustrations, every few pages a newspaper article, photograph or advertisement from the time pops up and I found these far more interesting and engaging than the actual story.  I also adored the poem by Friedrich Ruckert that was included (with a translation from the original German) as an afterword.

As I mentioned before, I spent the whole book waiting for something to happen and then…it just finished.  There is a certain amount of pathos in Columba’s growing understanding of loss and change, but I’m not sure that young readers would necessarily pick up on the subtleties of this.  I finished the book not hating it, but wondering why I had bothered, because none of the characters seemed to have undergone any significant change in outlook or personality by the end of the story.  It just felt like a way of passing the time.

I’m going to submit this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge under category #10, a book with a cat on the cover.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

TBR Friday: The Filth Licker

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TBR Friday

Aaaaand next up in my climb up the Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017 is book two in Cristy Burne’s Takeshita Demons series, The Filth Licker.  I finished the first book of the series back in February and since I’m being crushed under the weight of my review pile at the moment, I really needed a quick read to keep up the momentum for this challenge.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Miku is going to School Camp in the forest, with her friend Cait and the rest of her class. It should be fun. But Miku has premonitions of danger, and when Oscar goes down with a festering rash, and a rushing wind blows out the bonfire she’s sure something bad is going on. Then Alex finds the frog-like Filth-Licker in the boys’ toilets, and all at once Miku, Cait and Alex are on a secret mission to overcome the vengeful Shape-Shifters or Super Demons before it’s too late…

Later that night, with Alex kidnapped by a pyromaniac fox, and Cait possessed by some angry sickle weasels, it’s up to Miku and the Filth-Licker to save them all from disaster.

filth licker

Ten Second Synopsis:
Miku, Clair and their class are going on school camp – but Clair seems absentminded, to say the least, and before the class even gets to the camp one of Miku’s classmates has been preyed upon by a Yokai. When the camp leader suggests telling ghost stories around the fire, Miku knows that they are risking the Hyaku Monogatari – an ancient ritual that creates a super-demon.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

A year, roughly

Acquired:

I picked up the first three in this series from the Library Cast-offs bookshop at Nundah, because they featured Yokai and I hadn’t heard of them before.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

A misguided belief that I would have to read all three in the series one after the other.

Best Bits:

  • The Filth Licker featured far more yokai than the first book in the series, with everything from the titular Licker, to weasels with sickles for hands, an invisible set of footsteps that just wants you to get out of his road and a devious, tofu-wielding monk. This one was so packed with yokai that it was a little hard to keep track of who was working with or for whom, and who had or hadn’t taken over which character’s body/thoughts/memory.
  • There is a lot of action in the second half of the book as the three protagonists head into the forest and are chased, kidnapped, set on fire, frozen and generally given the run around by various nefarious spirits.
  • I really like the idea of a Filth Licker demon (I’ve come across it before in other books – particularly Kathryn Tanquary’s The Night Parade – and the one in this story is just adorable.
  • I’m still enjoying coming across inexplicable spirits, like the tofu monk.  These little insights into yokai culture make me want to bust out my Yokai encyclopedia and dive on in.  It’s sitting on my TBR shelf waiting, in case you’re wondering.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • This story was lacking the creepy atmosphere of the first book, and seemed to focus on the action scenes rather than developing any sense of suspense.
  • Much was made early on of Cait’s loss of memory and mood swings and I thought this was going to be more of a focus than it actually became.
  • We still don’t really know much about Miku’s inheritance of her powers.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

I’m still glad I bought all three at once, because otherwise I would be umming and ahhing about whether to get the third one since I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first.

Where to now for this tome?

To the permanent shelf.  One more to go in the series!

I feel like I’ve lost a bit of momentum this month with my TBR challenge.  I have a massive stack of books that I have to get through for April and the stack seems to be getting higher rather than lower unfortunately.  I’m going to aim to knock over Greenglass House next month.  Even though it’s quite a thick book I’ve been waiting literally years to read it, so I’ve made the decision that it is time to get to it.

Check out my progress toward the Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017 here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Gabbing about Graphic Novels: Superhero Sikhs, Robot Soldiers, Creative Crabs and an Oddbod Afterlife…

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gabbing-about-graphic-novels

I’ve got four graphic novels for you today mostly for the grownups, but with one helping of YA/upper middle grade fare.  I received all of these titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley for review.  Let’s get gabbing!

Super Sikh (Vol 1) by Eileen Kaur Alden, Supreet Singh Manchanda, Amit Tayal & Pradeep Sherawat

super sikh

From Goodreads:

Deep Singh aka “Super Sikh” is the world’s first modern Sikh superhero comic book. Geared toward both young adults and the young at heart, Super Sikh Comics is a not-for-profit venture supporting global literacy programs and diversity in media.

In “Super Sikh”, secret agent Deep Singh is overworked and exhausted from destroying the Taliban at night and maintaining a cover job by day. He’s a big Elvis fan, and he decides to take his dream vacation to visit Graceland (Elvis’s home). Unfortunately, a crazy Taliban group decides to follow him to America and get rid of him once and for all. But Deep Singh and his team are not going down without a fight!

Target Age Range: 

YA and adult

Genre:

Superhero, secret agents, action

Art Style:

Classic superhero realism

Reading time:

This was a short, volume 1 sampler so it only took me about five minutes to get through

Let’s get gabbing:

It took me a page or two to figure out what the go was with this story, but I’m happy to report that it got funnier the further into the story I got.  There is plenty of tongue in cheek humour here and all the secret agent tropes that you would expect, with a Sikh twist.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes in which Deep is given his new gadgets for his mission (a holiday), which included a kara (the silver bracelet that Sikhs wear) that deflects bullets!  Towards the end of this sampler, poor old Deep is unfortunate enough to be on a plane to the US when it is hijacked by Mexican terrorists and of course, nobody believes that he’s trying to save the day – he’s wearing a turban after all – and he ends up incarcerated.

Overall snapshot:

I would love to see future installments in this adventure as this sample has bucketloads of potential, truckloads of subtle, subversive humour and is doing a great service to diversity in literature.

Rust: The Boy Soldier by Royden Lepp

rust

From Goodreads:

Made to look like a boy but built for battle, Jet Jones is a robot caught in the middle of an ongoing war. While trying to save as many people as he can, Jet discovers there is more to who he is and what he was made for than he could have ever imagined. His experiences in the war set him off on a journey to learn what it means to both hero and human. It is the first adventure of many for the rocket boy.

Written and illustrated by Royden Lepp, Rust: The Boy Soldier collects the previously released prologues from the first three volumes of the critically acclaimed series Rust along with the yet to be released prologue from the upcoming fourth and final installment. Together for the first time and in an all new reading order, Rust: The Boy Soldier is the complete story of Jet Jones’s time in war and the beginning of this high octane, all ages adventure.

Target Age Range: 

YA and adult

Genre:

Sci fi, war

Art Style:

Cartoon realism – dark colour palette

Reading time:

At 128 pages, but with little text, this was quite quick to get through – about ten minutes

Let’s get gabbing:

The ending of this prologue was probably the best part of it for me – in that the last few pages really piqued my interest in Jet’s future amongst humans.  The prologue itself is mostly scenes of war, in which we are introduced to Jet, a robot soldier who has incredible powers to kill and destroy but is also capable of choosing his own path.  The prologue is mostly artwork with little text, and so it was a bit tricky to get a rounded idea of what’s going on in Jet’s early world.  It’s obvious that there is a war going on, fought by both robot and human soldiers, and at some point Jet becomes unhappy with his killing capabilities, deciding instead to pursue a different way of life.  The sepia colour palette reflects the dreary, dangerous frontlines of the war and gives the overall feel of a steampunk atmosphere.

Overall snapshot:

I would like to see the second volume of Jet’s story before making a decision on whether this graphic novel is my type of read.  Having only seen the first part of Jet’s life, which centred around war, I don’t feel like I’ve got a full appreciation for what this series is going to be about.

The March of the Crabs by Arthur de Pins

march of the crabs

From Goodreads:

All species in the world evolve…except one. Cancer Simplicimus Vulgaris, or the square crab, has suffered with the same evolutionary defect for millennia: it cannot change direction. Condemned to walk in one straight line forever, these crabs living along the Gironde estuary have largely resigned themselves to their fate. However, one seemingly ordinary summer, three crabs decide to take matters into their own claws and rebel against the straight and narrow path they have been sentenced to, upending the entire ecosystem in the process. From critically-acclaimed French illustrator and animator Arthur de Pins comes the first volume in his hilarious and touching trilogy about scuttling towards your own destiny.

Target Age Range: 

Adult

Genre:

Natural world, humour

Art Style:

Cartoony

Reading time:

Took me about twenty minutes to half an hour with a few short interruptions.

Let’s get gabbing:

Considering this is a one-track story (see what I did there?!) it’s remarkably engaging.  There are two plot lines unrolling simultaneously.  The first involves the crabs of the title – Cancer Simplicimus Vulgaris – who have ignored any attempts at evolution and are mostly (except for a few renegades) perfectly happy to be restricted to following a straight line of travel their whole lives.  The second storyline features two documentary makers who are certain that Cancer Simplicimus Vulgaris are at least as exciting as anything David Attenborough could cook up, and are intent on filming this threatened species in its natural habitat.

This is quite a funny story.  Aside from the inanity arising from the trials of a species that can only walk in a straight line, the crabby characters each have their own personalities, if not their own names.  You see, the likelihood of one crab’s path crossing another’s is so scant that the crabs don’t even bother to name themselves – what’s the point if your trajectory won’t ever bring you into hailing distance of another of your species?  I particularly enjoyed the scenes featuring a nihilistic crab who had the misfortune to be born between two large rocks.

Once the plot twist happens (**spoiler: an unlucky situation prompts a serendipitous discovery by two of the crabs) the story is suddenly plunged into action scenes which have a humour all their own.  A bombshell is dropped right at the end of this volume and I can’t imagine how life is going to change for our crusty protagonists with their new-found knowledge.  I’d like to find out though.

Overall snapshot:

I want to know what happens next for Boater, Sunny and Guitar – the three protagonist crabs – given the exciting note on which the story ends here.  If you are a fan of quirky stories and unexpectedly lovable characters, you should definitely check this graphic novel out.

Stitched #1 by Mariah McCourt & Aaron Alexovich

stitched

From Netgalley:

Crimson Volania Mulch has a problem; she just woke up in a crypt and, besides her name, has no idea of who, where, or what she is. Welcome to the Cemetery of Assumptions, a vast landscape of stones, mausoleums, and secrets. Home to monsters and mayhem, it may also hold the answers to her unknown parentage. 

Crimson is a resourceful patchwork girl and determined to find them. Along the way, she meets the mysterious Wisteria, who has a tendency to change and a witch named Parameter whose spells tend to go awry. And two boys, Simon and Quinton, who make her feel something besides lost and confused. She must battle ghosts, zombies, and monsters in order to learn where she came from and who her real “mother” is. But will she do it alone, or will she have help from her new friends and unexpected crushes?

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade/YA

Genre:

Humour, Fantasy

Art Style:

Colourful, blue-hued, busy

Reading time:

About twenty minutes

Let’s get gabbing:

This turned out to be far more cutesy in content than I would have expected given the cover, in the sense that while the characters are undead/paranormal/magical the story includes typical tropes for the upper middle grade age group, such as crushes on undead boys and squabbling amongst the girl gang.  Crimson is a bit of a mystery protagonist here in that she awakes in Assumption Cemetery with no memory of how she got there.  Luckily, she maintains quite a positive attitude despite her seeming adversity and immediately pops off to explore her surroundings, meeting some new friends along the way.

I loved the pet that turns up out of the blue as a gift for Crimson – so cute!  I also enjoyed that one of the characters is reminiscent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, because Mad Martha is currently designing an amigurumi of a similar character – that was quite topical for we shelf-dwellers. Overall though, I was a little disappointed that while the trappings of an original, intriguing paranormal world were present, the story didn’t really use these to best effect and my final impression of the story was that the characters could have been lifted out of any old pre-teen saga.

I found the formatting a bit busy for my tastes also.  There were smaller frames within middle sized frames within large frames throughout, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to miss something on each page because there was so much going on.

Overall snapshot

I’m quite happy to leave Crimson and her friends at the end of this volume.  Even though there is some mystery remaining as to who Crimson actually is and where she came from, I don’t feel like the characters and the mystery are engaging or original enough to keep my interest.  If you know of any upper middle grade readers who like fantasy, mystery and graphic novels however, they might like to give this a try.

Well, this was definitely an interesting mix to get my teeth into and generally the quality is quite high.  Have you come across any new graphic novels lately?

Until next time,

Bruce

Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Mighty Jack…

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gabbing-about-graphic-novels

Today I’m bringing you another Ben Hatke graphic gem because Ben Hatke is awesome.  I picked up Mighty Jack from the library a week or two ago and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it even more than the Zita the Spacegirl books.  It’s a big call I know, but bear with me.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jack might be the only kid in the world who’s dreading summer. But he’s got a good reason: summer is when his single mom takes a second job and leaves him at home to watch his autistic kid sister, Maddy. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s boring, too, because Maddy doesn’t talk. Ever. But then, one day at the flea market, Maddy does talk—to tell Jack to trade their mom’s car for a box of mysterious seeds. It’s the best mistake Jack has ever made.

What starts as a normal little garden out back behind the house quickly grows up into a wild, magical jungle with tiny onion babies running amok, huge, pink pumpkins that bite, and, on one moonlit night that changes everything…a dragon.

mighty jack

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Fantasy, fractured fairy tales

Art Style:

Ben Hatke style!

Reading time:

Took me about half an hour total spread over two sittings

Let’s get gabbing:

I’m going to dispense with reiterating how much I love Ben Hatke’s illustrative style and adorable original creatures and just get on with talking about the story.  Although, if you’ll indulge me, this series has a ridiculously cute little onion headed species that Mad Martha is dying to recreate in yarn, but as she doesn’t have the time just now, we’ll have to wait for that particular treat.

This is the good old fashioned kids-stumbling-upon-hidden-magic-right-in-their-own-backyard combined with meeting-a-friend-with-a-bizarrely-cool-skill style of fantasy that anyone who has loved fantasy and magic stories since childhood will definitely appreciate.  Since Jack’s mum has to work two jobs just to make ends meet, Jack is often left to look after his little sister Maddy, who is nonverbal.  When Maddy wanders off at a local market, Jack manages to find her talking to some strange people (who you will certainly recognise if you have read the Zita the Spacegirl series!!) and ends up trading his mum’s car for a box of seed packets when Maddy unexpectedly starts talking.

When the kids plant the seeds in the yard they’re in for a massive shock – because the garden that sprouts is full of sentient plants, adorable onion-headed creatures and some vines that are a bit too grabby for comfort.  When Jack’s swordplay-mastering, home-schooled neighbour Lilly (oh, I’ve only just realised that she has a botanical name…coincidence?) turns up to help out, Jack has to decide whether to trust her and let her into the family’s troubles or take the easy route and keep shutting everyone out.

I love, love, love, love this story.  Apart from the fantasy elements (enormous snails, anyone?) there is a strong subplot about acceptance, trust and the perils of relying on oneself when others are willing to contribute.  Mighty Jack doesn’t have the humorous undertones of the Zita series, relying instead on a sense of adventure and risk to drive a suspenseful, but exhilarating plot.  Once again Hatke has created female characters that are full of depth, with unexpected skills and for this reason, the book will appeal to both boys and girls.  There’s a certain echo of the Spiderwick Chronicles in this story, but Hatke has done it better.  I really can’t wait now to get my paws on the second book in the series – Mighty Jack and the Goblin King – by hook or crook.

 

Overall snapshot:

This is another brilliant addition to Hatke’s growing catalogue of work.  If you haven’t yet introduced his graphic novels or picture books to your younglings, you must really correct that oversight because these are modern classics that deserve to be re-read again and again.

Until next time,

Bruce