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. 

guggenheim mystery

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

The Deadly Perils of Social Media: Friend Request…

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friend request

Today’s book is a psychological thriller that deftly describes the perils of getting back in contact with people from your past.  We received Friend Request by Laura Marshall from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Louise first notices the new girl who has mysteriously transferred late into their senior year, Maria seems to be everything the girls Louise hangs out with aren’t. Authentic. Funny. Brash. Uncensored and unapologetic. Days into their acquaintance, Maria and Louise are quickly on their way to becoming fast friends.

Decades later, when Maria reaches out over social media, Louise’s heart nearly stops. Long-buried memories quickly rise to the surface–those first days of their budding connection, the awful judgment of the young women who felt at the time like her sole gateway to belonging. The fateful, tragic night that would change all their lives forever.

Her entire adult life, Louise has known if the truth ever came out, she could stand to lose everything. Her job. Her son. Her freedom. Maria’s sudden reemergence threatens it all, and forces Louise to reconnect with everyone she’d severed ties with to get away from the past. Trying to piece together exactly what happened that night, she soon discovers there’s much she didn’t know. The only certainty is that Maria Weston disappeared that night, never to be heard from again–until now.

I will be the first to admit to being reluctant to reconnect on social media with acquaintances from the distant past and this book did nothing to dissuade me from clinging to this anti-social stance with a vengeance.  Louise made some poor choices (as they would be described in today’s school disciplinary lingo) as a high school student and carries immense guilt due to the terrible outcome of a vindictive prank in which she was involved.  Years later, with a child, successful career and recent divorce under her belt, Louise is disconcerted to receive a friend request on Facebook from the victim of her high school stunt, a woman Louise – and all who knew the girl at the time – thought to be dead.  The request sends Louise plummeting back into the insecurities and confusion of her high school-aged self as she is forced to confront her past actions while trying to ensure that her son Henry is untouched by this new danger.

This was a book that I enjoyed while I was reading, but in the end, lacked a certain something.  There is certainly suspense throughout as we puzzle out with Louise who it might be who has sent the request and the associated questions – why Louise? Why now? – and a mounting sense of dread as Louise’s old school friends come in for a request as well.  The ending, although unexpected, just lacked that heightened sense of terror that I was hoping for, in which I’m flipping pages and trying to read faster and faster to find out if the worst will happen.  Rather, on discovering whodunnit, I had more of a feeling of “Well, that was unexpected!”  The story also has a bit of a double-header in terms of who did what to whom, so the mystery is extended beyond a single reveal.

The author did a good job of providing multiple red herrings with plenty of characters both from Louise’s past and new acquaintances, with something to hide.  The book flicks back and forth between the present and Louise’s final year of high school, during which the turbulent relationship between Louise, Maria and Louise’s girl-idol, Sophie is played out with tragic results. The actions of the fateful leaving party, during which Maria dies – or does she? – are revealed piecemeal throughout the book, so it is quite a long while before the reader has a good grasp of why Louise might be a target for Maria’s posthumous friend request.

Overall, this was an arresting read for the most part and one that I would recommend if you are a fan of contemporary mysteries that feature a bit of murder and suspense.  Reading this one might be a good reminder to check your privacy settings on your social media accounts too!

Until next time,

Bruce

Post-Natal Exhaustion and Creepy House-guests: The Hours Before Dawn…

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the hours before dawn

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin is a psychological thriller based upon those oft hideous first months of sleeplessness, exhaustion and physical and mental barrenness that can follow the birth of a child.   The book was first published in 1959 and won the Edgar Award in 1960 for best mystery novel.  We received a copy via Netgalley for review as Faber & Faber have reissued the book.  We are so glad we came across this novel because even as the attitudes and situations depicted in the book are clearly of their time, I have yet to come across a book that so flawlessly transcends social change to appear as relevant and likely today as ever.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Louise would give anything – anything – for a good night’s sleep. Forget the girls running errant in the garden and bothering the neighbours. Forget her husband who seems oblivious to it all. If the baby would just stop crying, everything would be fine.

Or would it? What if Louise’s growing fears about the family’s new lodger, who seems to share all of her husband’s interests, are real? What could she do, and would anyone even believe her? Maybe, if she could get just get some rest, she’d be able to think straight.

In a new edition of this lost classic, The Hours Before Dawn proves – scarily – as relevant to readers today as it was when Celia Fremlin first wrote it in the 1950s.

Although the book is a mystery with a psychological focus, Fremlin deals with the events with a remarkable sense of dry wit.  I initially thought that the book might be a bit dreary in tone, dealing as it does with an exhausted new mother, but Fremlin’s writing is incredibly enjoyable and droll and I couldn’t help having a bit of a giggle at certain wry observations.  This really helped carry the book and was part of the reason, I suspect, that I got through this one in a couple of chunky sittings.

The descriptions of the life of a stay-at-home mother with multiple children and a new addition are so absolutely spot on that it is obvious that Fremlin knows whereof she speaks.  Indeed, this edition features an introduction that describes how Fremlin based the story on her own experiences with one of her children.  The walking-dead exhaustion, the scrutiny of judging members of the public, the feeling that one must certainly be losing one’s mind when sleeping and nursing upright in a kitchen cupboard seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do to avoid waking the household during a night feed will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live with and care for an infant who is a difficult sleeper.

Similarly, contemporary readers will recognise people of their acquaintance in Mark, Louise’s “man of the house” husband, who seems to have little idea why Louise can’t keep it together on less than three hours of sleep a night, and the family’s neighbours who are by turns nosy, complaining and downright outrageous.  There are a few bits of the book that are “of the period” such as the moments when the mothers in the story are quite happy to leave their unattended infants for hours on end to attend to some other task or errand, but overall, the situations faced by Louise and new mothers of today are remarkably similar.

The psychological thriller aspect of the story relating to the family’s lodger, the mysterious Ms Vera Brandon, unfolds slowly and almost as an afterthought in Louise’s hectic, chaotic life.  This is somewhat made up for in the end however, with an action-packed and sinister denouement that features danger, death and daring escapes.

I thoroughly recommend this as the perfect pick for a fun and creepy holiday read, although it may not be wise to pick it up just now if you are a new mother.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Challenge under category #29: a book with an unreliable narrator.   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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spectacular spencer gray

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dip into it for…  dogs and doctors

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

Don’t dip if…

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

Overall Dip Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dip into it for…  outdoor things to do

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

Don’t dip if…

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

Overall Dip Factor

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Greenglass House

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TBR Friday

I’m struggling to keep the momentum up this last month for the Mount TBR Challenge 2017, but I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve finally knocked over Greenglass House by Kate Milford which has been on my TBR list since I pre-ordered it in 2014.  Never mind that it took two years to arrive, but that’s another story.  Let’s crack on.

greenglass house

Ten Second Synopsis:

Milo and his parents are settling in for Christmas at their historical inn when a collection of strangers arrive unannounced for a prolonged stay. At first it seems the travellers aren’t connected but after Milo and his friend Meddy begin investigating, it appears that all of these disparate people are at Greenglass House for the same reason.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Technically since mid-2014, physically since October 2016.  See below for details.

Acquired:

I first put this on pre-order at the Book Depository back in mid 2014, when it was originally released.  I put the pre-order on the paperback, which was releasing in the middle of 2015 because I’m cheap and  I figured I could wait that long.  Then the release date got pushed out to September of 2015.  I was tetchy, but accepted this.  THEN the release date got pushed out to September 2016!  It arrived in October 2016.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

Because it only arrived seven months ago.  Obvs.  Also, it’s quite hefty, so I had to find make time to fit it in.

Best Bits:

  • Greenglass House is a hefty, prolonged mystery.  The mystery is drawn out and is also quite cerebral, since the players in the mystery are confined to one house in bad weather.  The story does has some echoes of the golden age of crime fiction about it, but since no crime has been committed (at least at first), it also has the feel of a fun, imaginative adventure game.  I’ve heard it compared to The Westing Game and there is definitely a similarity in the plotting, but Greenglass House doesn’t have the urgency or high stakes of that book and so is a bit cosier overall.
  • Tabletop roleplay gaming is a big feature of the story, with Milo and Meddy taking on characters as they solve the mystery.  Milo’s blackjack/escaladeur character, Negret, allows Milo to think outside the box and take risks that Milo himself normally wouldn’t, while Meddy’s Sirin, a scholiast, or invisible angel type character has a great significance to the story that didn’t strike me until close to the end of the book.
  • Because there are only two child characters in a house of adults, the book avoids annoying middle grade tropes and gets down to brass tacks as the kids use all their cunning and game-smarts to uncover the adults’ secrets.
  • The adult characters tell stories throughout the book, so we are treated to stories within the greater story and you can be sure each of these stories drops some clues about the adults who tell them and secrets they might be hiding.
  • The story, house and myths about the area feel like they could really be true, which adds a sense of realism to the magical realism.
  • Milo’s parents are ordinary people – hooray!  It’s so rare to have parents in middle grade stories that are (a) present (b) completely normal (as opposed to being gods, magicians, spies or generally not what their children think they are) and (c) involved in their child’s life.  I also liked that Milo is adopted, which plays something of a role in the story, but isn’t the big clincher – just a part of who he is.
  • The book is set at Christmas, but has very little to do with Christmas, and so is a perfect choice for when you want that Christmas time feeling without having to actually read about Christmas.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • Greenglass House is a hefty, prolonged mystery.  That means that the pacing is quite slow and discoveries are rationed out over the course of the book.  While I enjoyed the read and was absorbed throughout, I won’t be picking up the sequel straight away.  I’ll need some time to decompress before I become sucked into the second mystery in the series.
  • There is a twist toward the end of the book that I didn’t see coming and although I came to terms with it reasonably quickly, I felt a little betrayed that the author had taken such a route when the rest of the book seemed so authentic and grounded (barring the smugglers, strangers, thieves, spies and customs officials).  I’ll have to wait and see how it pans out in the second book before I make too many judgments though.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Yes, because it is highly unlikely that I would have ever borrowed such a hefty book from the library.  To balance that out though, I’m not sorry I had to wait so long before getting to it.

Where to now for this tome?

The permanent shelf…for now.

I’m also submitting Greenglass House for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in category #35: a book set in a hotel.  You can check out my progess toward all my 2017 challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Escaping to the Country Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: Abigale Hall….

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It seems to be the week for World War II stories, as we had one yesterday, we’ve got one today and there’ll be another tomorrow – at least no one can say I don’t do my bit for fans of historical fiction!  We received a copy of Abigale Hall by Lauren A. Forry for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Amid the terror the Blitz in the Second World War, seventeen-year-old Eliza and her troubled little sister Rebecca have had their share of tragedy, losing their mother to German bombs and their father to suicide. But when they are forced to leave London to work for the mysterious Mr. Brownawell at Abigale Hall, they find the worst is yet to come.

The vicious housekeeper, Mrs. Pollard, seems hell-bent on keeping the ghostly secrets of the house away from the sisters and forbids them from entering the surrounding town—and from the rumors that circulate about Abigale Hall. When Eliza uncovers some blood-splattered books, ominous photographs, and portraits of a mysterious woman, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the house, but with Rebecca falling under Mrs. Pollard’s spell, she must act quickly to save her sister, and herself, from certain doom.

Perfect for readers who hunger for the strange, Abigale Hall is an atmospheric debut novel where the threat of death looms just beyond the edge of every page. Lauren A. Forry has created a historical ghost story where the setting is as alive as the characters who inhabit it and a resonant family drama of trust, loyalty, and salvation.

First up, this book felt like a much longer read than its 256 pages.  I felt like I was reading for ever and ever and getting sucked deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters and the mire in which they find themselves.  In terms of bang for your reading buck, Forry has packed an incredible amount of plot into a standard amount of pages.

We first meet Eliza and her younger sister Rebecca while they are in the custody of their Aunt Bess, after the death of their mother in the Blitz and the suicide of their father.  Aunt Bess isn’t the warmest of mother-figures and life for the girls is unpleasant in London, despite the fact that their immediate needs are more or less met.  Eliza enjoys her work at a theatre and is hoping that her beau, Peter, will cement their relationship by popping the question without too much delay.

All this changes when Aunt Bess announces that the girls are to be shipped off to work as housemaids at Abigale Hall, a country house in Wales.  Without so much as a by-your-leave, the girls are manhandled out of their Aunt’s flat and away to the middle of nowhere to be left at the mercy of the unrelenting Mrs Pollard and the nightmarish spectre of Mr Brownawell.  The girls’ tenure at the house is filled with secrets, rumours from the villagers about curses and missing girls, and the marked absence of the Lord of the manor.   Things are not as they appear at Abigale Hall – and they appear pretty grim indeed – and it is clear to Eliza that the longer they stay, the worse the impact will be on Rebecca’s tenuous mental health.

The story is told from the perspective of Eliza and later on, Peter, as he tries to track down Eliza herself as well as another missing girl from their workplace.  The narrative flicks between the paranormal, skin-crawling atmosphere of Abigale Hall and the far  more banal dangers of post-blitz London and its seedy underbelly.  Throughout the story Eliza is never quite sure who she can trust and is torn between securing her own safety and remaining a dutiful and loyal sister.

I must warn the sensitive reader that there is a bit of animal cruelty in the story as well as a collection of incidents that will make you say, “Ick!” mentally, if not aloud.  I quite enjoyed the looming unease of the parts of the story set in the house.  These were neatly balanced by Peter’s sections of the story and this stopped the story becoming too paranormal or too mundane at any given point.  The plot, taken in its entirety, is full of twists, turns and unexpected revelations that spin the reader’s train of thought and switch the trajectory of the characters at every turn.

The ending was remarkably satisfying to me as well…but then I’ve always been one to enjoy the downfall of characters who feel like they should get a swift clip around the ear.

This would be a great choice for a holiday read if you’re looking for something a bit creepy and complicated with a historical setting.

Until next time,

Bruce

A MG Double Dip Review: Magic and Malodorous Mischief

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I hope you’ve got some stinky cheese accompanied by the sort of cracker that disappears quickly for today’s double dip review because we will be examining two middle grade titles rife with magic and malodour.

First up, it’s magic.  We received Goodly and Grave in a Bad Case of Kidnap by Justine Windsor from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Lucy Goodly is the new boot girl at Grave Hall, working for the cold, aloof Lord Grave. The other staff – Vonk the Butler, Mrs Crawley the cook and Violet the scullery maid – all seem friendly but Lucy soon notices that strange things are afoot in her new home – and not just Mrs Crawley’s experimental anchovy omelettes. There are moving statues, magical books and Lord Grave has a secret. Meanwhile, all over the country, children are vanishing. Could the mystery of the missing children be linked to the strange goings-on? Lucy is determined to find out…

goodly and grave

Dip into it for…

…an original framing of magic in middle grade and unexpected twists aplenty.  Lucy is in possession of a secret playing card that seems to be imbued with some kind of magical capacity, allowing her to win every game of poker she plays.  After being inexplicably beaten by Lord Grave and subsequently required to serve as his Bootgirl, Lucy has plenty of time in which to ponder how her magic card could have let her down so badly.  The author has plotted this story to ensure that the reader can never get too comfortable with the situation at hand before a strange new revelation crops up.  I was particularly impressed with the mechanical raven (which of course is hiding a secret) and young maid Violet’s stuffed frog toy (being, as I am, a fan of stuffed toys). The illustrations throughout the book also liven things up enormously, and these, as well as the little newspaper clippings here and there, will enhance the experience of young readers.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of young children playing games of chance inside houses of ill-repute well past their bedtime.

Overall Dip Factor

This story is a bit unusual in that instead of the usual single major plot twist three quarters of the way in, there are several revelations throughout that throw Lucy’s cleverly thought-out theories on their heads and force her to go back to square one and re-evaluate who she can trust.  The narrative style is light and slightly melodramatic and a tad silly in places, so is a perfect choice for young readers who like to mix mystery and magic with a giggle here or there.  I quite enjoyed the ending, as it provides a bit of a launching pad into the second book in the series – although I can’t imagine what might happen next!  I would recommend this one for fans of plucky young not-orphan stories set in a fictional past.

Next up, we have an Aussie offering from Alex Ratt (aka Frances Watts) & Jules Faber.  We received The Stinky Street Stories from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The first thing I noticed when I woke up on Sunday morning was a mysterious smell…

When Brian (‘call me Brain – everyone does’) awakes to a truly putrid pong, he knows it is up to him and his friend Nerf to neutralise it. But that putrid pong is just the beginning, because life on Stinky Street is a riot of rotten reeks, awful aromas and sickening scents. So grab a peg (for your nose) or risk being flattened by the fumes!

Dip into it for…  stinky street

…exactly what it says on the tin.  This is a collection of four short stories featuring Brian, his friend Nerf, and a variety of antics involving stink, pong, funk, stench, reek, miasma, whiff and malodour.  I am going to go out on a not-very-distant limb here and say that this book will definitely appeal more to your average eight-to-ten year old male lover of gross stories than any other cross-section of reading society.  The stories are completely silly and accompanied by suitably amusing cartoon style illustrations and emphatic font styles to enhance the reading experience.  The stories are all quite short and while the whole book could easily be read in one sitting by a confident young reader, unless you are a whopping great fan of stench-based narrative, it might be a good idea to take the stories one at a time.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of kid’s books that revel in being a bit majorly gross.

Overall Dip Factor

While this was not a book that I particularly got much out of as an adult reader, I will admit to perking up a bit upon the introduction of the Sweet Street Girls in the final two stories of the book.  This gang of girls (who live on Sweet Street – as opposed to Brian and Nerf, who live on Stinky Street) are witty, intrepid and unafraid of toil if it means turning the tables on the Stinky Boys.  These last two stories gave me a bit of hope that there might be a not-entirely-stink-based direction for these stories should there be a second book in this series.  I’d say this is strictly one for young fans of books in the style of Captain Underpants and Andy Griffith’s Bum books.

Until next time,

Bruce

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

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lisa bellow

Whoooot whooot whooot!

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

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

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

What happens to the girl left behind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

top-book-of-2017-pick-button

Until next time,

Bruce

Night Shift: After Dark in a Department Store…

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night shift ya

We received YA novel Night Shift by B. R. Meyers from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At Willard’s department store, none of the night security guards survive for long, and eighteen-year-old Daniel Gale is about to discover why.

Tired of living out of his backpack, he ignores the clerk’s gossip about the old building being haunted and accepts the latest vacated position of night guard. On his first shift Daniel narrowly escapes a fatal fall down an elevator shaft and is rescued by Mary—a bossy and intriguing girl far too beautiful for after hours inventory.

Anticipating every night shift as a chance to be with her, Daniel thinks his traveling days are over hoping that Manhattan is the place to call home. But as his life becomes more entwined with Willard’s, Daniel senses unnatural changes and bizarre coincidences both with Mary and the store itself. Soon he begins to suspect Willard’s is hiding something more sinister than gossip about ghosts—something that could make him the next casualty of the NIGHT SHIFT.

I was really in the mood for some creepy, atmospheric horror – or at least paranormal – when I requested Night Shift and while there are some aspects of the story that I praise for being original and unexpected, this wasn’t atmospheric or paranormal in the slightest.  Daniel is a solid protagonist around which to build a narrative – he has a fascinating past, he seems like a reliable narrator and generally I wanted him to succeed against whatever foes were lurking in the dark of Willard’s.  In the interests of an exciting story, I also wanted him to have the absolute willies scared out of him at least once…and preferably multiple times…during the story so that I could live vicariously through him.

This isn’t that kind of book.  It’s not a ghost story in the typical sense of the word (or even at all) and while it does have a fantastic twist that I didn’t see coming – but admittedly, probably should have, if I’d used my puzzling-things-out brain (more about this later)- there is far too much in-between filler that sucks the suspense out of the story quicker than a recently serviced Dyson cyclonic.  I felt like this book was at least a third longer than it needed to be and this is chiefly due to whacking great chunks of dialogue that doesn’t progress the story, but exists, it seems, to develop character relationships that I felt were already quite solid.

The stringing out of the mystery went for so long that I very nearly put the book down before the twist had even happened.  As I stumbled across the twist in the mystery, I wsa surprised enough to emit a little “Oh!” and quickly flick on in the hopes that the suspense and excitement would ramp up.  Unfortunately, the author took the route of stretching things out to the extent that by the end I didn’t really care about the whys of the plot and just wanted it all to be over.

Admittedly, there is a full and developed story toward the end of the book that links Daniel’s past to his present situation and provides some feel-good moments and action scenes, but by then it was too late to salvage my interest.  There are plenty of interesting and original things going on in Night Shift but because the first part of the book is so focused on ghosts, I had certain expectations of what the story was going to be about.  The twist provided a momentary respite from those dashed expectations, and the thought that maybe there was going to be a more original take on the ghost gossip, but I just couldn’t seem to get past my pre-conceived ideas of what the book was going to be in order to fully enjoy what it is.  Night Shift turned out to be more focused on relationship building and romance than the paranormal/magical realism elements, and as regular readers of this blog know, I’m a sucker for the latter.

If you are looking for a story that is high on romance and budding relationships featuring an unexpected couple, you will probably find something to enjoy in Night Shift.

Until next time,

Bruce