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