Top Book of 2017 Pick: The Ethan I Was Before…

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Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is one for the middle grade readers who like something authentic and realistic, steeped in humour and depth.  We received The Ethan I Was Before from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from the city he loves to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. 

Ethan’s new home feels like the place for second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk. 

The Ethan I Was Before is a story of love and loss, wonder and adventure, and ultimately of hope.

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It took a little while for this book to hit me the way it did but having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, The Ethan I Was Before is definitely one of those special books for middle grade readers that will stay in the reader’s mind long after they’ve put it down. With a slight Bridge to Terabithia feel, Ethan moves to a new, insular town after a tragedy involving his best friend Kacey. When Ethan starts to form a strong bond with Coralee in his new school, his parents are understandably worried that his unresolved issues from the “Kacey incident” will resurface in this new friendship to the detriment of both kids involved. Little do his parents know, but Coralee seems to be just what Ethan needs to trust himself again and learn to trust others.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book that will have young readers questioning the motives of various characters – is Coralee really to be trusted with her “colourful” stories? Will Ethan’s brother ever want to talk to him since Ethan ruined his potential baseball career with the move? Is the big house haunted or is something more secretive going on amongst the residents of the town? I found these questions made the reading experience richer and was impressed to see that the author manages to flesh out each of these storylines by the end of the book and provide at least some answers to each. Part of the beauty of the story for me lies in the fact that no character is two-dimensional. Every significant character in Ethan’s sphere – both child and adult – is made more authentic by the issues that they are struggling with, all of which are revealed by the end of the book.

The book includes flashbacks of sorts and thereby slowly reveals the details of the Kacey incident. What happened during this tragedy may not be exactly what the reader expects – deliberately so, it seems – and this also allowed for a change of perspective on what exactly it is that Ethan is trying to process.

Overall, I found this to be a mature and quite sophisticated story for a middle grade audience that didn’t patronise readers by tying everything up in expected and obvious ways.

Until next time,
Bruce
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Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Guggenheim Mystery…

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What an interesting offering I have for you today!  I first encountered The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd back in 2008, a year or so after its release.  The story features Ted, a lad on the Autistic Spectrum, whose cousin Salim goes missing from one of the pods on the London Eye.  It is a brilliant locked room mystery story for middle grade and YA readers with an interesting narrator and compelling mystery.  Sadly, Siobhan Dowd, who was also the author with the original idea for David Almond’s excellent, now-turned-into-a-film book A Monster Calls, passed away from cancer in 2007 and it seemed that Ted and his mystery-solving prowess would be forever confined to a single tale.

Enter Robin Stevens, the author of brilliant historical schoolgirl detective series Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, and Ted has been given a new lease on life.  Stevens was brought in to continue Siobhan’s story and with only a title to work from – The Guggenheim Mystery – she was thrust into the breach.  We received our copy from Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Ted Spark. I am 12 years and 281 days old. I have seven friends.

Three months ago, I solved the mystery of how my cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

This is the story of my second mystery.

This summer, I went on holiday to New York, to visit Aunt Gloria and Salim. While I was there, a painting was stolen from the Guggenheim Museum, where Aunt Gloria works.

Everyone was very worried and upset. I did not see what the problem was. I do not see the point of paintings, even if they are worth £9.8 million. Perhaps that’s because of my very unusual brain, which works on a different operating system to everyone else’s.

But then Aunt Gloria was blamed for the theft – and Aunt Gloria is family. And I realised just how important it was to find the painting, and discover who really had taken it. 

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It has to be said that Stevens was a great choice for carrying on Ted’s story, because she can work a mystery like nobody’s business.  Even though it had been years since I had read Ted’s story (and I think I read it twice in quick succession at the time), Ted’s style of narration was immediately recognisable and I quickly remembered the atmosphere of The London Eye Mystery.  Stevens has done a wonderful job of recreating Dowd’s characterisation of Ted, but there is a definite Stevens stamp on the construction of the mystery.

Being out of his everyday context, Ted at first struggles with the mysteries of human relationships, as his cousin Salim and sister Kat seem to be shutting him out for reasons that aren’t clear to Ted.  The early chapters of the book are coloured in part by Ted’s feeling of loneliness as he sees his two closest companions moving on without him.  Once the mystery of the stolen painting kicks off however, and it is clear that Aunt Gloria is being framed (pun intended?), the relationship rifts are quickly healed and Ted even attempts to look at his family’s behaviour from a different viewpoint.

The mystery part of the story felt very much like Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike setups, and it was clear that the theft and its various elements – the timing, the smoke bombs, the suspects – had been tightly plotted.  I did find that this story lacked the emotional connection that was so heightened in The London Eye Mystery – and is present in most of Dowd’s work – but I suspect that was only because this particular mystery dealt with a stolen painting rather than a missing child.  Given that the stakes were not quite as high in this particular story – the loss of the painting not being as emotionally charged as the potential loss or death of an actual person – I enjoyed the story but wasn’t blown away by it.

I think it must be said that Stevens has done a worthy job here of recreating a memorable character in a new setting with nothing more than a title to go on.  It would be interesting to see if this series will be developed further and whether that emotional element from the first story can be reinvented down the line.

If you haven’t read The London Eye Mystery, you should really seek it out.  If you have, you really ought to check out this next offering and see how you think it stands up.

Until next time,

Bruce

Fi50 Reminder and TBR Friday: The Luck Uglies…

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It’s that time of the month again – Fiction in 50 kicks off on Monday!  To participate, just create  a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and then add your link to the comments of my post on Monday.  For more information, just click on that snazzy typewriter at the top of this post.  Our prompt for this month is…

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Hope to see you there!


TBR Friday

Today I’ve got a book that’s been on my TBR list for a while and was also one of the books I nominated at the start of the year as a title that I would particularly like to tick off in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2017.  Allow me to present to you my thoughts on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham.

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Ten Second Synopsis:

Rye lives in Drowning, a town that has been free of rampaging Bog Noblins for many a long year, thanks to the historical intervention of the Luck Uglies, a band of masked Bog Noblin slayers.  The Luck Uglies have now disbanded thanks to the pompous and arrogant Earl Longchance and the village of Drowning is feeling the rumblings of the Bog Noblins once again.  Why has Rye’s mother set so many house rules? What is the blue glow that eminates from the necklace that Rye has been told never to take off?  And who will protect Drowning now that the Luck Uglies have gone?

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Two years?  I’m not 100% certain, but roughly that long.

Acquired:

I picked this one up on layby a couple of years ago because it was a good price.  I really wanted the edition with the cover pictured above, but decided to cut my losses and just grab it while it was on special even though the cover wasn’t the one I wanted.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

I have a couple of books on the TBR shelf that seem similar in content and length, so could never make a decision on which one to start with.

Best Bits:

  • The world building here is as solid as all get out.  Durham has created a perfectly believable world with its own monsters and guild of criminal saviours and much of it felt quite original.  I liked the house rules that Rye had been given and these played a large role later on in the story, so it was good to see that all the bits of the world that Durham had set up were being intertwined more deeply as the plot developed.  On reflection, this had a similar vibe to Garth Nix’s Sabriel.  Although the plots and target audiences are quite different, both stories feel like the beginning of an epic, with a focus on setting things up for more complex interactions further down the track.
  • The story had a cerebral feel about it and managed to avoid the usual tropes of series-opener middle grade fantasy offerings.  The story itself is quite meaty and it was obvious that this book is the start of something much bigger.
  • There are a few characters who turn out to be more than they seem, or are much more integral to the story than they appear early on, and it was interesting to discover that the characters that I thought would be important weren’t so much.
  • Shady, Rye’s house cat, was one of my favourite bit part players, and it looks like I was right to place my loyalties there, because Shady has a larger role later on in the story.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • The pace of the book was quite slow, with much of the action taking place in the last few chapters.  At times I didn’t mind this at all and at other times I was wishing that something would happen to give the story a bit of a kick along.  The majority of Rye’s discoveries take place covertly, on sneaky missions, and while this does allow a slow reveal of information, I did find myself wondering, “Where is this going?” more than once.
  • I didn’t feel like Rye’s friends, Quinn and Folly, and some of the minor characters, were explored deeply enough.  This may be rectified in later books, but it seemed like Folly and Quinn were just narrative devices to smooth Rye’s plot arc sometimes rather than characters in their own right.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

I enjoyed it, but could probably have just borrowed it from the library.

Where to now for this tome?

Not sure.  I’m not entirely convinced that I’ll continue on to the next book in the series, so I may end up passing this one on to a mini-fleshling of the right age and interest set.

So that’s book number 13 in my climb up Mount Blanc.  You can check out my progress toward the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017 here.

How goes your TBR pile?

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: The Tale of Angelino Brown…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Superheroes, Secrets and Tiny Horses: Kid Normal…

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It’s time for a bit of good old fashioned, super powered fun and I have just the book to fit the bill.  We received Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The first book in a laugh-out-loud funny adventure series for 8+ readers from popular radio personalities Greg James and Chris Smith.

When Murph Cooper rocks up to his new school several weeks into the beginning of term, he can’t help but feel a bit out of his depth.

And it’s not because he’s worried about where to sit, and making friends, and fitting in, or not knowing where the loos are. It’s because his mum has enrolled him at a school for superheroes by mistake. And unlike his fellow students, who can all control the weather or fly or conjure tiny horses from thin air, Murph has no special abilities whatsoever.

But just because you don’t have superpowers, it doesn’t mean you can’t save the day. Let’s hope Murph realises that, and quick – because not far away is a great big bad guy who is half man and half wasp, and his mind is abuzz with evil plans …

It’s time for Kid Normal to become a hero!

What a fun read this was!  It felt like a cross between X-Men and Little Britain and was a refreshing change of pace from the books I’ve been reading lately.   Kid Normal is not the most original story in the world – untalented kid makes good being the order of the day in many middle grade reads – but it is certainly funny, pacey and tongue in cheek, with a likable protagonist, a band of lovable misfits and some truly ridiculous(ly evil) villains.

Murph is a boy who has moved around a lot and when his mother finally discovers a school in which to enrol him in their new town, it is to Murph’s chagrin that the school turns out to be a secret school for the super-powered.  Having said that, not all of the “powers” evident in the attendees could really be classed as “super”, unless you count making a screeching noise with your teeth particularly super, so Murph, while the only one not endowed with a superpower, is not the only one struggling to fit in.

If you discount the superpower element, Kid Normal is a tried and true story of a young man who is lost and alone developing some solid, if unusual, friends and working together to overcome their difficulties.  In this case, the difficulty happens to be a giant wasp-human hybrid villain with a plan to take over the picnic world through the means of enslavement-inducing helmets, but apart from that, the story is one with which middle grade readers will be generally familiar.

The humour really is the driving force behind the story, with the book using a narrative style that invites the reader in and addresses them here and there.  The narrative style is fun and fast-paced and there were many moments that had me giggling along at the imagery produced.  Many of the adult characters are larger than life and readers won’t be able to help having a laugh at their over the top antics.  We absolutely fell in love with Hilda, the girl whose power is to produce two tiny horses at will.  I mean, what a brilliant power! Who wouldn’t want such an adorable skill at their disposal?

While my copy didn’t have any illustrations, the final edition of the book will be illustrated throughout, which will no doubt enhance the reading experience even more.

Kid Normal was a wonderful brain-break that celebrates the outsider, the kid who doesn’t fit the mould, in a supremely humorous way.  There is enough action and mystery to keep young readers happy and I highly recommend this to readers who love a rollicking tale that uses super-charged laughs to drive the action-packed outcome.

Until next time,

Bruce

Meandering through Middle Grade: Running On the Roof of the World…

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Today’s book is one that was an unexpected winner for me and highlights once again the plight of those forced from their homes due to political unrest.  We received Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Join 12-year-old Tash and her best friend Sam in a story of adventure, survival and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India. Filled with friendship, love and courage, this young girl’s thrilling journey to save her parents is an ideal read for children aged 9-12.

There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them. ‘Dalai Lama.’

Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.

And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins.

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I was somewhat hesitant going in to this book, simply because stories about child refugees having to flee their homes are by their nature, sad and distressing, and given what’s going on in the world at the moment, I can get a bit hand-shy of books that are too real in that regard.  Thankfully, Butterworth manages the story of Tash and Sam with great control so that while the dangers and sadness are apparent at every step, they aren’t so prominent as to overwhelm the reader.  In fact, Running on the Roof of the World is a remarkably accessible book for young readers who are interested in real life events and what’s going on outside their own bubble, written in a tone that is both moving and dignified.

Tashi’s parents are part of the secret resistance against the Chinese occupation of their village in Tibet.  After seeing a man set himself on fire in protest of the occupation, Tashi is shocked and awakened to the danger that is coming toward her own family.  After a surprise visit from the Chinese police, Tashi and her best friend Sam find themselves in a desperate dash away from the village, carrying a coded message from Tashi’s father and the resistance…a message they don’t know how to read or to whom it should be delivered.

The beauty of the book is in the simplicity and authenticity of the children’s journey.  After leaving their home in abrupt and unprepared circumstances, Tashi and Sam have one goal – cross the mountain pass into India and reach the Dalai Lama.  The simple acts of avoiding patrolling soldiers, moving from one spot to another and deciding who they can trust, all against the background fear of what might have befallen Tashi’s parents, feel very immediate throughout the book and heighten the suspense of the story.  The chapters are quite short, which made it easy to take the “just one more” approach and dig deeper into the story.  I also loved the mandala-style illustrations that adorn each chapter heading.

While the story eventually has a happy ending, it’s not without loss and trial and Butterworth does well to capture the uncertainty of the life of those seeking refuge in a way that young readers can appreciate.  I feel like this is a story that will stay with me for quite a while and not least because it deals with an occupied territory that is somewhat forgotten or just accepted in the West.

I would highly recommend this book as a classroom read aloud or simply as an engaging and moving story of two children alone in a hostile environment.  Having passed some time between reading the book and writing this review, I think Running on the Roof of the World deserves to be a Top Book of 2017 pick, because of its authentic tone and relevance to world events.

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I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #45: a book about an immigrant or refugee.  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for the year here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Exit, Pursued by Smugglers: The Spectacular Spencer Gray…

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If you are looking for a bit of adventure to spice up your life, delivered with a side order of cute furry marsupial then The Spectacular Spencer Gray by Deb Fitzpatrick is clearly what you have been missing in your life.  We received a copy from Fremantle Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Spencer Gray is just an ordinary kid, but he manages to get into some pretty extraordinary situations.

When Spencer stumbles on a sinister operation in the bush, his life goes into overdrive – midnight rescue missions, super-endangered animals, hair-raising adventures.

To survive, Spencer will need to pull off something spectacular.

It’s refreshing to come across a book which is fun but touches on serious subjects, is laconic but allows the reader to learn something (surreptitiously!) and is action-packed, but also feels creepily authentic.   It’s safe to say then, that I felt refreshed after having read of Spencer’s escapades.

Before we get started, let me point out that this is the second adventure of the titular Spencer Gray, the first of such adventures having been chronicled in The Amazing Spencer Gray which was published in 2013.  Also allow me to point out that I was not aware that this wasn’t Spencer’s first dangerous outing and it made not one jot of difference to my enjoyment of the book.  This tale can certainly be read as an exciting standalone novel with no need for prior knowledge of Spencer’s situation.

The book opens on Spencer’s unwitting discovery of a bizarre, homemade setup in the bush just outside his school oval containing a collection of native Australian animals.  Spencer makes the split second decision to bring one of the animals – that he later learns is a Potoroo (google it) – back to his home, because it looks on the brink of death.  When Spencer and his mates Charlie and Leon decide they should return the Potoroo to the bush, things start to go pear-shaped because it immediately becomes clear that someone…or multiple someones…are not happy that Spencer has discovered their criminal activities.

The pacing of the story is truly Australian, in that it takes its time to warm up and the boys are remarkably laid back about (a) finding a bunch of native animals in a slapdash shelter in an unlikely place and (b) keeping an endangered animal in box under a bed.  The second half of the book however, in which Spencer’s marsupial-saving activities come home to roost in the worst outcome possible, is all go, go, go and I whipped through these chapters like a Potoroo with its pants on fire.   Although the events of the second half of the book are, when viewed objectively from an adult’s point of view, pretty far-fetched, the suspense in the writing somehow made them feel decidedly authentic and I really felt for Spencer’s parents as they waited with mounting terror for news of their son’s whereabouts.

Overall, Fitzpatrick has done a great job with balancing the adventurous and more down-to-earth elements of the story, as well as providing information to the reader in a readily digestible form about one of Australia’s most endangered animals.  And in case you’re wondering, no, I had no idea what a Potoroo looked like before reading this book.  Or that it was endangered.  In fact, after reading the book, I visited Google to run a comparison on Potoroos and Quokkas and while typing in Potoroo vs… the option for Quokka immediately came up, so clearly I’m not the only one still learning here.

I would recommend The Spectacular Spencer Gray to young readers looking for a quick yet involving read featuring an unlikely hero and the adventure that awaits in the great outdoors.

Until next time,

Bruce