A YA Haiku Review: The Potion Diaries…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today for a rare and mystical haiku review. Bruce unexpectedly received a copy of  YA new release The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward, from Simon & Schuster Australia and immediately passed it on to me as he suspected it might be altogether too girly for his tastes. He was probably right to do so, given that this is definitely a book aimed at a teenaged female audience. While I am not the greatest fan of romance in books either, there was plenty of fun and adventure in The Potion Diaries and it turned out to be a perfect antidote to the quagmire of illness that is plaguing the fleshlings in the household. In fact, I was quite happy to be able to wedge a heavy tome  against the shelfdom door, block out the sounds of hacking, coughing and nose-blowing, and curl up for a bit of good old-fashioned, magical girl power.  This book has a delightful charm about it such that I couldn’t help but feel fondly toward it, and so I allowed myself to move past its literary shortcomings and just be entertained by the spectacle.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When the Princess of Nova accidentally poisons herself with a love potion meant for her crush, she falls crown-over-heels in love with her own reflection. Oops. A nationwide hunt is called to find the cure, with competitors travelling the world for the rarest ingredients, deep in magical forests and frozen tundras, facing death at every turn.

Enter Samantha Kemi – an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. Sam’s family were once the most respected alchemists in the kingdom, but they’ve fallen on hard times, and winning the hunt would save their reputation. But can Sam really compete with the dazzling powers of the ZoroAster megapharma company? Just how close is Sam willing to get to Zain Aster, her dashing former classmate and enemy, in the meantime?

And just to add to the pressure, this quest is ALL OVER social media. And the world news.

No big deal, then.

potion diaries

Royal mercy dash

Complete with murd’rous aunt, reads

Like wacky races

Despite the fact that The Potion Diaries has plot holes the size of the Nullarbor, a stereotyped, teen-angsty romance and underdeveloped characters swanning all over the place, I actually really enjoyed it. If the preceding sentence sounds a little harsh, I mean those criticisms in the fondest possible way.

Is this book going to win any awards for originality or writing? No.

Have we seen this all before in a myriad other fantasy type books for younger teens? Yes.

Does that mean this book has no value?

Absolutely not!

Because sometimes you just need something light and fluffy, where you know nothing too shocking or unpredictable is going to happen, that you can just pick up and put down and delve into when you need a bit of indulgent escapism.  For that reason, The Potion Diaries is practically the quintessential holiday/beach/summer read; the book you turn to when you want to switch off from anything stressful or troubling and just tumble into adventure with a thoroughly likeable main character.

Samantha Kemi is a sort of everygirl character: overtly skilled in what seems to be a dying profession, ordinary in a world of Talenteds and for all intents and purposes, thwarted from following her dream of researching new potions by money and position. As the story progresses, we find out more about Sam’s family history and the strong traditions of alchemy that are keeping her from striking out on her own. I suspect that young teen girls will really relate to Sam and revel in the excitement of danger and adventure as they race along with her in the Wilde Hunt.

While the world-building is relatively sparse in this tome, Alward has done a good job of creating a setting in which magic and technology sit side by side, without the need for long and distracting explanations.  Similarly, the lack of any deep development in the majority of the characters provides a quick entry to the story and allows the reader to just dive right on in as the action ramps up. As I said before, the story is riddled with plot holes and events that seem to occur a bit too conveniently to be plausible, but unless you’re approaching this as a serious and deeply thought out fantasy offering, the tone is light enough and the pace quick enough for these issues to be overlooked in favour of just enjoying the fun.

Overall, this is not the kind of book that we shelf-dwellers normally go for (and admittedly, the romance narrative was so clichéd and annoyingly contrived that I wanted to just skip those pages entirely) but I honestly enjoyed the story and would happily pick up the sequel the next time I’m in desperate need of a story that won’t make me work too hard and will reward with unadulterated frivolous adventure.

Cheerio my dears,

Mad Martha

 

 

 

Utopirama: A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home…

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Welcome once again to the semi-regular Utopirama feature, wherein I aim to heighten awareness about certain books that promote that feeling of happiness and that sense of all being right with the world.  Books featured in Utopirama posts are cosy reads, in which nothing occurs to disturb your equilibrium.  Today’s offering is one for the dog-lovers. And also for the nursing home lovers (in case any exist).  And finally for lovers of old age.  It is, of course, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern.

dog nursing

Quick Overview:

The book follows the story of Sue, and her loveable dog Pransky, who decide that the time is ripe for some volunteering in order to make their corner of the world a better place.  In the face of reasonably large odds (Pransky’s lack of desire to participate in the process, for one) Sue researches the requirements needing to be satisfied for herself and Pransky to become a therapy team and then tries to whip (metaphorically, obviously) Pransky into shape.  After passing the rigorous test for therapy dog teams, Pransky and Sue begin to volunteer at their local nursing home.  From the cranky to the welcoming to the downright not-quite-sure-what’s-going-on, Pransky and Sue encounter and engage with every possible attitude, state of mind and personality in their weekly visits to the elderly residents, proving in the process that sometimes the most effective form of healing and connection can be packaged in the shape of a big furry pillow. With dog breath.

Utopian Themes:

Comfort for the Afflicted

Going Gently into that Good Night

Furry Friends

Communicating beyond Words

Cultivating Virtue

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

5 out of 5 bubbles for the gentle whuffling of a hound all a-snooze

This is the perfect read for those who like a dog book in which you can be sure that the dog doesn’t die at the end.  Although, a lot of the old people do.

Until next time,

Bruce

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From Poignant to Peppy: A Double Haiku Review…

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Good morning to you, loyal friend of the shelf! Or alternately, if this is your first visit, welcome soon-to-be loyal friend of the shelf! It is Mad Martha with you today and I am delighted to be sharing with you two very different illustrated books for young readers.  One is poignant, grave and yet abundant with signs of hope, while the other is peppy, cheerful and abundant with moments of unexpected quirkiness.  I was lucky enough to receive print copies of today’s books from Book Guild Publishing for review – many thanks!

Let us begin with poignancy, shall we?

West of the West Wind is the third in a series of short story collections by Norwegian author Nils-Johan Jorgensen that feature folk tales for children aged nine plus.  This collection is comprised of three stories that all revolve around hope and endurance in the face of hardship.  The Library, the first story in this edition, follows a young boy who tries to rescue some books that are to be burned by the Nazi occupying forces.  In his mission, the boy discovers that allies can be found amongst supposed enemies, and that as long as there are those prepared to demonstrate courage, the written word will endure.  The Wolves is also set during World War II and in it three young siblings and their (acquired) canine friends are confronted with the consequences of showing love and kindness during a time of distrust and violence.  Finally, The Silence of the Sail, introduces the young sailor Thomas as he attempts to forge a new path in the new world and leave his small island home in Norway behind.

west of the west wind

Books in a satchel,

Unlikely friends; dreams pursued.

Out of darkness, light.

West of the West Wind was my first encounter with Jorgensen’s work for children (or indeed, adults!) and after reading this tome I am very interested to seek out the prior two in the series, North of the North Wind (based on Nordic fairy tales) and East of the East Wind (modern-day fables featuring oriental themes).  The book is only short, at 64 pages, but it certainly packs in some highly emotional content.  From an adult reader’s point of view, the stories revolve around heartbreak, loss and the pervasive fear that looms when something or someone that we hold dear is threatened with destruction.  But alongside these emotions are the sparks of hope and rebellion that are woven through the story, from the boy in The Library, desperate to save just one more book from the pyre, to the little family that is forged in the mountain hut in The Wolves, and the decision to break out of one’s ancestral mould in The Silence of the Sail.  I suspect that young readers may not appreciate the nuances of emotion in the same depth as adult readers would, but in reading, or being read to from these stories, they would certainly understand the sense of integrity, and the choice to act against opposition and fear that is common to the characters in all three stories.

The line drawings that appear throughout the book are just beautiful and perfectly compliment the subdued atmosphere of the stories.  My favourite of the three stories was The Wolves, because of the lighter tone that coloured most of the story.  The Library however, has the most favourable ending of the three.  The Silence of the Sail left me a bit melancholy, and the ending was rather abrupt (in a few senses!) which jarred a little.  Overall though, this was a thought-provoking and memorable read, dealing with a period in history that we often think young children may not be able to handle.  Of course, the ability to process the negative experiences of death, separation and war that are featured here will vary from child to child, so it may be useful for parents or teachers planning on sharing this book to consider ways in which the stories might lead to deeper discussions about the content.

West of the West Wind was released in March.

Now on to the peppy!

The double delight that is One Red Heart & Mindy’s Birthday by Nao A. Weaver is certainly something different from your average picture book for kids.  The book contains two little stories accented with quirky illustrations that make you look twice.  One Red Heart is about a little mouse who is given a little red heart as a gift.  The story proceeds as a counting adventure, with the mouse gathering friends around him until all they all come together to make music with their ten colourful hearts.  In Mindy’s Birthday, a surprise party is afoot and a host of odd little munchkins spend their day making decorations, baking cakes and generally preparing a birthday of epic proportions.  The effort turns out to be worth it as the guests party on into the wee small hours before curling up together in a “sweet-scented flower”. As you do.

 one red heart

The word “whimsy” is

often overused these days,

but accurate here.

I don’t like to describe things as whimsical, because I think the word is getting a bit trite and cliched, but really, there’s no other word to describe Weaver’s work.  Well, actually I could probably use odd, or unusual or cheerful or playful or fanciful….okay, so I probably should have thought a bit harder before I went with whimsical, but it’s done now.  In any case, this book has a very original look about it.  The colourful line drawings really add to the overall feel of the stories, as the text is sparse, but I would have liked the illustrations to be bigger so I could better appreciate the detail in them.  In some cases the text, though sparse, was quite helpful, as it helped me to figure out what was going on.

While examining the pictures and the text together, the book reminded me of nothing so much as a child’s unexpected response to an artistic instruction.  For example, I know that in response to the line “Don’t be late!” I would probably draw something mundane. Like a watch. Or an admonishing finger.  Not Weaver. Check this out:

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A bunch of jaunty creatures riding a luck dragon (or related genus).  And might I just add, commuting by public transport would no doubt become a lot more popular if people got to travel by luck dragon (or related genus).  Take note, Brisbane City Council!

Weaver is a Japanese author (as well as artist and illustrator) and like many things that come out of Japan, pop culture wise, this book may have you thinking, “Well, that was a bit strange, but I liked it”.  I was certainly thinking that as I turned the pages.  With that in mind, I suspect that this book will find its niche with those who like their stories to be a springboard into hitherto unexplored mindscapes of the imagination, rather than a linear story with a familiar characters and a reasonably predictable beginning, middle and end.

One Red Heart & Mindy’s Birthday was released in February.

I also feel compelled to mention that it would fit perfectly into category four of the Small Fry Safari Kid Lit Readers Challenge – a book with someone’s name in the title, or indeed, category six – a book with something precious in the title.  Similarly, West of the West Wind could fit into category one – a book with something relating to Safari in the title.  To find out more about the challenge, click on the button below, then sign up so we can welcome you aboard the Safari bus!

small fryUntil we meet again friends and newcomers,

Mad Martha

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Haiku Review: White Hart…

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Good morning readers – are we all sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.  Today I have for you a very atmospheric little number from Sarah Dalton – the new release young adult fantasy novel, White Hart.  I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from the publisher via Netgalley – thanks!

White Hart follows social outcast Mae, as she and her father scavenge wood for trade in the Waerg Woods, on the outskirts of the village of Halts-Walden.  Tacitly shunned by the villagers for living in the creepy and dangerous woods and riding a wild white stag, nobody but Mae and her father are aware that she is the craft-born – the only person in the kingdom able to control and manipulate the magic in the natural world.  Mae hides her gift because the King has decreed that the craft-born must marry the young prince Casimir and return magic to the workings of the Red Palace.  But another girl in Mae’s village claims to be craft-born and the prince arrives in Halts-Walden, ready to claim his bride.  When events take a major turn for the worse unexpectedly, Mae and Casimir must set out to right some wrongs – but will Mae be able to keep her secret from the prince?

white hart

Beware the Waerg Woods

They’re deadly, tricksy and wild

even for craft-born

The cover of this book really sums up the atmosphere in the story.  It perfectly conveys the lingering sense of danger once Mae and the prince enter the woods to finish their respective personal quests.

There was a lot I liked about White Hart.  One of the things I most appreciated in the writing was the way Dalton approached the world-building almost on a “need-to-know” basis.  Important details about the different cultures, the way magic works in the world, and the lie of the land were revealed naturally throughout the book as the reader required them.  This was a great relief to me, as I often find when reading fantasy that authors will get bogged down trying to explain different aspects of the world they’ve created to the detriment of the narrative flow.  Thankfully, Dalton was too clever to fall into this trap and by the end of the book I felt I had a good working knowledge of what Mae’s world was about without having to endure lots of action-stopping explanations.

The plot is fairly episodic, with Mae and Casimir and their loyal steeds falling afoul of a number of the dangers of the Waerg Woods while in pursuit of their quarry.  There were a few moments during the early part of their adventure that had me wishing things would speed up a bit, and I think this was a result of having a big chunk of the book reliant on just the two main characters.  Fortunately, another character eventually pops up to join the party and then a whole host of interlopers inject various helpful and hinderous action and things begin to move along at a reasonable pace again.

White Hart is the beginning of a series, and while this book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, it wasn’t so perilous that I felt let down by having the story stop where it did.  There’s plenty going on in this novel to keep the reader busy, and the cliffhanger ending is just right to pique the interest for the next book.

I’d definitely recommend this book for lovers of YA fantasy, but there’s a bit of everything here – action, adventure, death, romance, friendship, tough ladies, beautiful ladies, carnivorous plants….you get the idea.

Until next time,

Bruce

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