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

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

That got you interested, didn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays (and in this case, Thursdays) are for Murder: Date with Death…

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Well, last time I was complaining that Monday had come around too fast.  This time, it’s come so quickly that it’s got to Thursday before I can put up Monday’s post.  Sorry about the delay this week, but the week was busy, then when I sat down to blog I realised the keyboard had decided to retire without telling me, so I had to track down a new, more enthusiastic keyboard that was willing to work with no pay and under the constant threat of tea spillage and here we are, it’s Thursday.

Today’s book is the opener of a new cosy mystery series set in the Yorkshire Dales and although it has a punny title, I really enjoyed it.  We received our copy of Date With Death (Book 1 in the Dales Detective Series) by Julia Chapman from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Samson O’Brien has been dismissed from the police force, and returns to his home town of Bruncliffe in the Yorkshire Dales to set up a detective agency while he fights to clear his name. The people of Bruncliffe, however, aren’t that welcoming to a man they perceive as trouble – and he is greeted by his old friend, Delilah Metcalfe, not with an hug but a right hook that sends him sprawling.

Delilah, meanwhile, is besieged by financial concerns and struggling to keep her business, the Dales Detective Agency, afloat – all while trying to control her wayward Weimaraner dog Tolpuddle. Then when Samson gets his first case, investigating the supposed suicide of a local man, things take an unexpected turn, and soon he is discovering a trail of deaths that lead back to the door of Delilah’s agency. With suspicion hanging over someone they both care for, the two feuding neighbours soon realise that they need to work together to solve the mystery of the dating deaths – and working together is easier said than done.

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Plot Summary:

Delilah is in deep debt and struggling to hang on financially until her dating agency business gets off the ground. When Samson O’Brien returns to the Dales in disgrace, Delilah’s only financial option is to let him rent out her ground floor office for his new detective agency…a timely move indeed because it seems someone in their community is picking off members of Delilah’s agency one by one.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of a tricky one because there isn’t anyone in the village (or beyond) who particularly stands out as someone who would happily be serial killing members of a dating agency.  As the story moves along, instead of actual people as suspects our protagonists try to build up a mental picture of who such a person might be.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is quite a refreshing aspect of the book because in your usual murder mystery you at least have a few suspects to work with.  It takes a little while to prove that the deaths are indeed murder, and then the hunt involves some rather tricky and dangerous tactics.  As well as attending the odd speed dating night out.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the amount of dutch courage needed to get through a blind date with a farmer whose personal hygiene habits receive only passing attention

Despite the fact that this is definitely a cosy and there is a lot of time spent on developing the characters, both main and secondary, I thoroughly enjoyed this one and would certainly be interested in following the series.  Delilah is the only girl in a family of manly men and is determined to make her business successful after a recent divorce.  Samson is the black sheep of the village, having left his alcoholic father in dire circumstances (in the opinion of the town) to swan off to London and bag a high paying and dangerous job with the Met.  When Samson returns home, his welcome is not particularly warm and he discovers that many things have changed drastically since he’s been away.  Samson’s return coincides with a little problem at work which he wants to keep hidden from the villagers at all cost.

I quite enjoyed the premise of the murdered folk all being from the same dating agency (although I’m sure this has been done before in some way, shape or form in other cosies) as well as the way in which Delilah and Samson (eventually) go about sorting it out.  It seems rather far-fetched that no one would bother to inform the police about their suspicions, but it works for the story and makes the eventual hunt far more suspenseful, knowing that Delilah and Samson are on their own.

As one who likes my mysteries twisty and my murders happening in quick succession, I did find the long sections developing characters, backstory and village life a little distracting, but I accept that this is obviously one of those series where the relationships between the characters and their relationship with their environment is of utmost importance.  The book also sets a bit of groundwork for other books in the series.  There are definitely some shady characters getting around Bruncliffe that will no doubt play a part in nefarious doings further down the track.

There’s a lot going on here that will satisfy those looking for both an exciting mystery and a story about coming home and reinventing oneself.  I must give a shout-out to the collective folk of the retirement village, of which Samson’s father is part, for lifting the mood whenever they appeared.  I’m glad to see that they will feature heavily in the next book in the series.  I would certainly recommend giving this one a go as your next holiday read, or, if you happen to live in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the perfect book to snuggle up under a blanket with on a rainy, lazy weekend…for whenever the humidity decides to bugger off for good.

I will be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge under the category of “author using a pseudonym” because Julia Chapman is the pen name of Julia Stagg. You can check out my challenge progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: There is a Tribe of Kids…

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If you are as much a fan of wordplay and wordishness as we are here on the Shelf, you should definitely seek out a copy of Lane Smith’s There is a Tribe of Kids.  We were lucky enough to receive a review copy from PanMacmillan Australia, who are publishing the title here in April, and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Did you ever want to waddle with a colony of penguins? Wriggle with an army of caterpillars? Or march with a troop of monkeys?

Lane Smith takes us on a colourful adventure through the natural world, following a child as he weaves through the jungle, dives under the ocean and soars into the sky. Along the way he makes friends and causes mischief with a dazzling array of creatures both large and small – but can he find a tribe of his own?

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It was the stark white-blue tones of the cover that caught my eye with this book, quickly followed by the absolutely adorable hairy goats and finally, the cheeky little protagonist hiding amongst the huddle.  I couldn’t begin to guess what the story might be about from the cover and the title, so it was with a little spark of delight that I opened the book to find out that not only was it about a tour through the little (and large) parts of the natural world, but also an homage to creative collective nouns.

The book begins with a small boy and the titular tribe of young goats and quickly moves on as the boy finds himself dropped, flopped and generally jostled from one group of animals to another.  He goes floating with a smack of jellyfish, crosses swords with a crash of rhinos and even follows a trail of shells to a surprise ending that will have fans of wordplay and synonym grinning from ear to ear.  My favourite page involved the boy mucking in with a turn of turtles, before getting bored with waiting for them to catch up and then falling asleep.

In each scene, the boy takes on some of the characteristics of the animal or environment.  He uses twigs as horns while with the kids, practices inching along with no hands among the caterpillars and snuggles in for the night on a bed of clams.  The illustrative style reminded me strongly of Chris Judge’s Lonely Beast series of picture books, with double page spreads cordoned off into smaller panels to illustrate multiple scenes on a single page.  The textured images perfectly suit the natural terrains that the boy encounters and the greens and browns alternating with whites and blues throughout give a thoroughly outdoorsy feel to the goings-on.

The illustrations here definitely bring the minimalist, repetitively formed text to life and elevate this book to one that deserves to be pored over again and again.  I can certainly see some mini-fleshlings being inspired to crawl like a caterpillar, climb like a kid or balance like a rock tower after flicking through this one a couple of times.

It’s for these reasons that I’m going to have to appoint There is a Tribe of Kids a TOP BOOK OF 2017 pick!

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Until next time,

Bruce

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Picture Books for the Open Minded…

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Saddle up my friends, because I have four picture books for you today that will open your mind, test your heart and generally stretch your imagination!  Let’s ride on in!

A Perfect Day (Lane Smith)

*We received a copy of A Perfect Day from PanMacmillan Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  a perfect day.jpg

As a collection of animals and one young boy go about an ordinary day, they all seem to find the one thing that makes them most happy.  Until, that is, a big hairy bear comes along to spoil the perfection.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is one picture book that proves that perfection depends entirely on perspective.  The beautiful pastel palette of the illustrations reinforces the gentle unfolding of an ordinary day, made special by the simple things.  Of course, in the second half of the book, things become a lot less perfect – unless you’re a big burly bear looking for somewhere to snack, play and nap of course – and there’s a certain delight in seeing the bear making dirt angels in the flowerbed, splashing in the wading pool, flashing a corn-cob smile and generally enjoying himself in a bearish fashion.  The emphasis provided by the font as bear spends his leisure time inadvertently ruining everyone else’s also contributes to the humour and would be perfect for teaching younger independent readers how to take cues from the text when reading aloud.  The final illustration depicting the animals and little boy inside the house looking out, accompanied by the text, “It was a perfect day for bear,” opens up the text for conversation with little ones about how the other characters might feel.  The edition I have received shows a similar image to that of the last page as its cover and I think this image gives a better sense of the book’s content than the one above.  All up, this is a delightful reading experience that is visually appealing and the perfect choice for sharing a gentle giggle before bed.

Brand it with:

Bears in them there hills; Bear necessities; simple pleasures

Old Pig (Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks)

*We received a copy of Old Pig from Allen & Unwin Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

A grandmother and granddaughter pig share their days and nights in a comforting rhythm of chores, food and relaxation.  When grandmother pig begins slowing down, the two confront together the spectre of a final goodbye.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this 20th anniversary edition classic children’s tale is almost achingly poignant in places and deftly broaches that hardest of topics, the death of a loved one.  As it becomes apparent that Grandmother Pig is facing her final days, the two pigs take solace in spending time together and appreciating the small, simple things in life and the rhythms of each day.  While death isn’t explicitly mentioned, it is obvious that the book is about leaving and leaving behind.  The final illustration, featuring granddaughter pig on her own is awash with hope, and allows the reader to leave the story on an uplifting note.  As much as this story would be a useful tool in gently opening up discussions with young readers about reality of death, it is also a celebration of a life well lived and the connections that we make with those dear to us.  If this book doesn’t tug at your heartstrings and make you appreciate the small moments of joy in the mundane, then you must have a colder, stonier heart than even I do.

Brand it with:

Grief, sensitively handled; quality of life; inter-generational connections

There’s a Tiger in the Garden (Lizzy Stewart)

*We received a copy of There’s a Tiger in the Garden from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  theres-a-tiger-in-the-garden

In an attempt to cure her granddaughter’s boredom, a grandmother casually mentions that there is a tiger in her garden.  The resulting, fruitful search is enough to dent the certainty of even the most sceptical of child explorers!

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is the kind of book that will have you doing exercises to expand your imagination.  While the concept of children “discovering” untapped worlds in the garden isn’t new to picture books, the ambiguous ending of this story provides a fun twist.  As Nora and Jeff (her toy giraffe) take a turn about the garden, the illustrations become more and more detailed and jungle-like, blending a sense of magical realism with the richly coloured sense of adventure inherent in nature in all its glory.  The deep greens that permeate most of the illustrations are so lush and inviting that I just couldn’t help plunging on in to this story. Within Nora’s imagination, her grandma’s small garden morphs into the home of butterflies the size of birds, a grumpy polar bear fishing in the pond and some extremely robust (and hungry) plants.  Young readers will love trying to spot the tiger in the earlier pages of the book and there is plenty of visual humour for older ones to notice and enjoy also.  If you have a young explorer in your midst, they will revel in this tale that celebrates things that are more than they seem on the surface.

Brand it with:

Wild green yonder; imagine that; grandma’s secret garden

My Friend Tertius (Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan)

*We received a copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:

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My Friend Tertius by Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 22 February 2016.  RRP: $24.99

A WWII code breaker working in Singapore for the British takes a gibbon for a pet.  When the war forces him to leave Singapore, he makes the decision not to abandon his friend, but smuggle him along on the journey.

Muster up the motivation because…

…for one thing, there certainly is a dearth of war related picture books featuring a gibbon on the market, so My Friend Tertius fills that niche nicely. The washed out colour palette is reminiscent of the tropical heat of the southern hemisphere, and there are many historical clues hidden in the pictures for keen-eyed young readers to inquire about – the radio set in Arthur’s room for instance, Arthur’s neatly initialed gladstone bag and the fact that most pictures of people show at least somebody smoking a cigarette.  This was a bit of a strange beast of a tale for me – on one hand, it is fascinating, unexpected and had me immediately questioning the hows and whys of the story. On the other, the picture book format meant that I didn’t get the answers I was looking for. The narrative begins abruptly with a question that presupposes a knowledge of the social context of war generally – that people might have to leave – and the War in the Pacific specifically – that people did have to leave Singapore, with or without their loved ones.  The book has no afterword giving more information about Arthur Cooper and the eventual fate of either man or gibbon, and the book finishes on the rather cryptic statement “He [Tertius] taught me how to love.”  This is cryptic because nowhere in the previous pages of the book is there any mention of Arthur having any particular difficulty with human emotions, so I found myself asking, “How? How did he teach you to love? And why didn’t you know how to love in the first place?!” These questions, as well as my inner pedant’s shock at Arthur’s laissez faire attitude toward animal quarantine issues, meant that this wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me as an adult reader, and I wonder how it might be received by the upper primary age range for which it is intended.  To be honest, I would have loved to have seen this story told in a chapter book format because I suspect there is so much more to the story than is being shown, and it is a pity not to be privy to it.

Brand it with:

Monkey business; BFFs in wartime; gibbons on the run

Bet you weren’t expecting any of those mind expanding picture books, were you?  I hope there is something here that tickles your synapses and causes you to add it to your TBR pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

Creepy Adult Fiction Review: The Ghosts of Sleath…

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Meet an old story in a new jacket!  We received this gorgeously covered copy of The Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert from PanMacmillan Australia not realising that the story was originally published in 1994.  All things considered though, this didn’t really matter to us because we’ve never read any of Herbert’s work anyway!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Can a ghost haunt a ghost?
Can the dead reach out and touch the living?
Can ancient evil be made manifest?

These are the questions that confront investigator David Ash when he is sent to the picturesque village of Sleath in the Chiltern Hills to look into mysterious reports of mass hauntings. What he discovers is a terrified community gripped by horrors and terrorized by ghosts from the ancient village’s long history. As each dark secret is unveiled and terrible, malign forces are unleashed, he will fear for his very sanity.

Sleath. Where the dead will walk the streets.

Sleath, it seems, is a picturesque village that is haunted by…well, pretty much everything that ever happened there.  When psychic investigator David Ash is called to Sleath at the behest of the local vicar amid whispers of hauntings, he is woefully unprepared to deal with the sheer backlog of instances of human misery that this town seems to be hiding.  Along with Grace, the vicar’s daughter, and later on, a mysterious Irish man who turns up out of the blue, David must try and get to the bottom of the diverse phenomena appearing all over the village and discover whether they have paranormal origins or are driven by something more mundane.

Before you pick this one up you should probably be made aware that it isn’t your average, run of the mill ghost story, but also features some quite graphic, stomach-churning violence that is sprung on the reader without warning in various places.  We Shelf-dwellers, being fans of ghostliness, but not necessarily goriness (unless we’re in the mood!), found this to be a bit of a stumbling block to getting into this book because after a while we became hand-shy that something icky would be around the next corner.  For those who appreciate trigger warnings, you should be made aware that this book features descriptions of child sexual abuse that are quite confronting.

This is the second book in a series featuring psychic investigator David Ash.  Not having read the first book wasn’t a major problem as the author provides enough information here and there to ensure that the reader gets an idea of his backstory. Ash is a bit of a tortured character by all accounts who is committed to his job but still coming to terms with some seriously nasty psychological trauma from a past case.

I couldn’t quite make up my mind as to whether I enjoyed this book or not.  On the one hand, it certainly satisfies the criteria of “totally creepy paranormal phenomena” and “reveals you didn’t see coming”, both of which I appreciate in a good ghosty story.  On the other hand, the aforementioned violence seemed shockingly out of place and was so graphic in places that it made me feel a bit sick.   I also had a few issues with the slow pacing of the investigation and constant interjections of flashbacks from various townsfolk.

While this one didn’t quite hang together in the most appealing way for me as a reader, I’m sure there will be plenty of folk who will appreciate the dark, brooding atmosphere of this book and the multiple narratives that have been woven together to contribute to the surprising reveal.

I will be submitting this one for the Colour Coded Challenge 2017   You can check out my progress toward all my challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: Skinny Brown Dog

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It’s high time I featured a book with hat-wearing animals and in the absence of a Jon Klassen classic, today I am bringing you new release picture book Skinny Brown Dog by Kimberly Willis Holt and Donald Saaf.   I have not read a picture book that has had such a brain-twisting effect on me for quite a while and I’m still giving my head a good scratch over the underlying themes and issues in this one as we speak.  We received a copy of Skinny Brown Dog from PanMacmillan Australia and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Benny the baker leads a simple life. He makes delicious cakes, cookies, and muffins, and keeps his customers well fed and happy. When a skinny brown dog shows up on Benny’s doorstep, nothing Benny says can convince him to go away. While Benny insists that the dog isn’t his, customers soon grow as fond of the skinny brown dog as they are of Benny’s yummy treats. The children even name him Brownie—the perfect name for a baker’s dog.

Benny starts to wonder what it might be like to have a dog of his own. But it’s not until Brownie comes to his rescue that Benny realizes a dog can make for a very good friend. Full of winning characters (and delicious treats!) from the award-winning Kimberly Willis Holt, this book celebrates a very special friendship.

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On first reading this story, I was immediately reminded of John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, because there seems to be a similar underlying metaphorical suggestion going on here..but I’m not 100% sure what it is.

That appearances are reflective of our attitudes?

The life-changing magic of giving someone a chance?

The importance of following Workplace Health and Safety Guidelines for small business?

I just don’t know!

Happily, while there are obviously layers to peel back within this story, I suspect that the more nuanced of these will go over the heads of younger readers, who will instead end up focusing on the charming and delightful story of friendship and acceptance.

Benny the baker (a bear) is a kind and gentle soul and his bakery is a hub for the community.  When a skinny brown dog turns up outside his bakery, Benny tries, unsuccessfully, to gently move it on.  Of course, no one can resist the lure of puppy dog eyes – especially when said eyes look like chocolate chips – and the dog, who is eventually named Brownie, is taken to heart by the community.  Benny, however, remains unmoved on the point that a bakery is no place for a dog…until an accident happens and Benny does some re-evaluation of what and who is important.

The illustrations bear an endearingly old-fashioned tilt, and evoke the community feel of times gone by, when people visited individual shops to buy their necessary goods and shopkeepers and patrons knew each other by name.  The repeated refrains from Benny – “He’s not my dog!”- and Miss Patterson (an elephant) – “Yes, I can see that” – are suggestive of the knowledge that young readers will have already picked up; that the skinny brown dog is slowly but surely becoming part of Benny’s life.  The ending is no less heartwarming for its predictability and the author has done a wonderful job of allowing Benny (and the reader) ample time to commit to the course of action that he has been trying to put off.

And yet….underneath the simple story of friendship and acceptance is a whole subtext that begs for careful deconstruction by older readers.

The world of Skinny Brown Dog is populated by animals (most of which wear some kind of jaunty hat), and while the majority of these animals talk and take on human roles, the skinny brown dog, who is eventually named Brownie, does not.  Despite the fact that he wears a suit and bowler hat throughout, just like everyone else.

See what I mean about underlying metaphorical suggestion?  There are animals who are obviously meant to be people, but Brownie, who is also dressed as a person, like the other people-animals, is clearly meant to be an animal.

Except when he’s not.

Like when he hands a dropped purse back to Miss Patterson, using his paw, with a tip of his hat.  Or in the final few pages of the story when Brownie is pictured on his hind legs, whereas previously he has got around on all fours.  Is Benny’s acceptance of Brownie as a friend and companion the catalyst for Brownie’s self-confidence and self-worth, represented by his new, upright stance?  Perhaps now that Benny is really “seeing” Brownie, the carefully constructed facade of Brownie being something “other”, and “not like us” has fallen away.

This is certainly a “more than meets the eye” sort of picture book that can be enjoyed on more than one level.  Much like its unassuming cover, the story itself beckons the reader on into the subtext of the story, to discover and create meanings beyond outward appearances.

The shelf brands Skinny Brown Dog highly recommended reading!

Until next time,

Bruce