Picture Book Perusal: The Secret of Black Rock

1

picture book perusal button

Today’s book is full of adventure and secrets, danger and hope and as such is the perfect winter read to snuggle up with.  We received The Secret of Black Rock by Joe Todd-Stanton for review from Walker Books Australia and here’s the blurb form Goodreads:

TheSecretOfBlackRock_RGB.jpg

Erin loves to lie on the jetty, looking for the weirdest fish in the sea—the weirder, the better! And she knows the best ones must be further out, where her mum won’t let her go . . .

Out there in the deepest sea lies the Black Rock: a huge, dark and spiky mass that is said to destroy any boats that come near it! Can Erin uncover the truth behind this mysterious legend?

The Secret of Black Rock is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, from its glowing golden endpapers to the layered blues and greens of the deep sea.  It reminded us strongly of another 2017 picture book release, Grandad’s Secret Giant by David Litchfield, due to similar themes of not judging a book by its cover and the need to preserve, protect and learn about the things we don’t understand.

The story opens with various characters recounting the horrors of Black Rock, a rock formation close to a coastal fishing village that has a reputation for destruction and danger.  Erin, however, is not afraid and will employ all her cunning and sneakiness to stow away on her mother’s fishing boat to catch sight of the Rock, despite its fearsome personification in the eyes of the villagers.  When Erin is accidentally thrown overboard, she discovers the Rock’s secret and attempts to reveal this to the villagers – but they misinterpret her message and set out to destroy the Rock once and for all.

The illustrations here are so atmospheric, with the contrast between the warmth of home and the cold, roiling mass of the sea reinforcing the dangers of venturing too far from the safety of the shore.  When readers finally catch a glimpse of Black Rock they won’t be able to avoid feeling that the poor old rock has been a bit hard done by the fisherfolk, and will be hoping for a positive resolution to the story.  The mini-fleshlings in this dwelling also had a great time spotting all the different sea life that is depicted making their homes around the rock.

This story would be a great conversation starter in the classroom around issues of gossip and the negative effects that can come from judging without full knowledge of the situation.  Similarly, it would be the perfect choice for a bedtime read aloud on a cold and windy night, when the nature’s perilous side can feel all too real.  We Shelf-dwellers think it’s a winner.

Until next time,

Bruce

Advertisements

New Release Aussie Award Winner “The Better Son”: Siblings, Secrets and Spelunking:

0

the-better-son

Today I’ve got an award winning Tasmanian tale for you that runs the gamut of historical fiction, contemporary family drama and literary fiction in an absorbing and darkly unfolding narrative.  We received a copy of The Better Son by Katherine Johnson from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

1952. Tasmania. The beautiful green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, the younger and more vulnerable Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him his whole life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to have a second chance. To go back and set things right. To be the father you never had.

Although this is a bit heavier going than my usual fare, I couldn’t help but be drawn into The Better Son by the imagery of epic landscapes and the gritty, hands-on experiences of Kip and his brother Tommy.  The book begins with a glimpse into Kip’s life now, the reader following along as he sets out to right a wrong about which we currently know nothing.  From here, we are plunged back into the turbulent world of Tasmania in post-war 1952, where returned servicemen try to pick up normal life where they left it to go to war and kids are workers, risk-takers and the repository of their parents’ shortcomings.

The section describing the boys’ childhood I found to be quite harrowing at times.  Tommy is the titular better son and enjoys his father’s constant favour, while Kip is left in the cold and the unfortunate recipient of his father’s ever-present wrath.  This family drama is played out against the boys’ discovery of an untouched cave system in the mountains near their home, and the juxtaposition of the freedom offered by the cave exploration and the oppressive, walking-on-eggshells atmosphere of home is striking.  After the accident, Kip’s home life becomes much worse, but it is at this point that the layers of secrets that have been kept through the years start to come to light, throwing new context onto information we have previously received.

The book flicks between perspectives and time periods – mainly those of Kip’s past and present, as well as the past and present of Squid, the farmhand who lives with the family and has a key role in the boys’ life.  This relieved the heaviness of the content somewhat, but I did feel at times like I just wanted to find out what actually happened to Tommy.  The pacing of the Tommy-mystery part was quite slow, and being the eager beaver that I am when there is a mystery involved, I was ever-hopeful that the answer was around the next page-turn.

There are not a lot of redeeming features to many of the characters in the book, although for the most part, we are privy to the circumstances under which certain decisions and behaviours originated.  One of the interesting things about the tale is that the motivations of almost all of the main characters are kept hidden until close to the end of the story, when secrets are revealed thick and fast and many events start to make more sense.

Again, this is not my usual fare, but I can definitely see why The Better Son has won no less than three awards to date.  It’s a tightly woven exploration of relationships, secrets and regrets with an undercurrent of self-sacrifice and the tiniest slivers of hope, set against the dramatic and deadly landscape of Tasmania’s mountain regions.  If you are looking for something to draw you in and make you feel like an interloper in the rocky lives of an ordinary Australian family of the 1950s, you should definitely give this one a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: Beloved Poison..

4

image

I honestly didn’t think we’d get a Murderous Monday in this month.  Things were looking a bit shaky – time was running out, I’d had a crack at two separate candidates and found them lacking – but then along comes Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson, kindly provided by Hachette Australia for review, and all of a sudden we have a dark, stench-laden, historical, medical, gender-bending murder mystery on our claws.  Brilliant!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour’s Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.

Six tiny coffins are uncovered, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary’s old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgottenpast – with fatal consequences.

In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate and the gallows, Jem’s adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour’s destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. Murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

beloved poison

Plot Summary:

Jem Flockhart is a young woman pretending to be a young man, working in the apothecary of (architecturally) condemned hospital St Saviour’s, under the guidance of her father and a host of unsavoury medical men.  When Will Quartermain rolls up as the man in charge of overseeing the relocation of interred residents of St Saviour’s graveyard, prior to the hospitals’ demolition, Jem is annoyed at having to share her sleeping quarters and worried that personal secrets may come to light.  While showing Will around the hospital chapel, Jem unknowingly unearths some strange, disturbing relics that will set off a chain of events that threaten nearly everyone Jem holds dear.  One murder follows another and unless Jem and Will can make some links between the past and the present, Jem may well end up accused of the crimes and facing the gallows.

The Usual Suspects:

Pretty much everyone who works at St Saviour’s hospital is a suspect in this unusual murder mystery.  The main doctors, Magorian, Catchpole and Graves, all have motives and shady pasts; the wives and daughter of two of the doctors may well have their own reasons to commit murder; and there are servants, prostitutes and street urchins who could all have played a part.  Given that this is a historical fiction with certain darkish overtones, nobody is entirely blameless of wrong-doing of one sort or another and most of the characters are hiding some sort of secret they’d prefer was kept from the public.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is a bit of an unusual pursuit, given that the first murder doesn’t happen until quite a way into the book.  Before that, the focus is more on figuring out the meaning behind the strange relics that Will and Jem discover.  Once the first murder occurs though, people start dropping like flies and the hunt is on in earnest.  It’s tricky to pinpoint the killer/s ahead of time though, because salient information is drip-fed throughout and relationships between characters are all important in unravelling the mystery.

Overall Rating:

poison clip artpoison clip artpoison clip artpoison clip art

Four poison bottles for the steady drip, drip, drip of an alchemist’s retort

If you love a good murder mystery format but are looking for something with a sinister twist and more secrets than you could poke a rag-covered stick at, then I definitely recommend picking up Beloved Poison.  There is so much more going on here than in your typical murder mystery that it actually took me a while to figure out that this was actually going to involve hunting for a murderer.  There’s cross-dressing, graveyard excavation, limb amputations, lady almoners, poisons and potions, degenerative diseases, executions, bizarre rituals, mental asylums, prostitutes, ghostly presences and surgery practiced without regard for cleanliness and hygiene.

If I had to boil this one down though, I’d say that it was about secrets and masks.  We find out early on that Jem is playing a gender-swapping role for reasons that are fleshed out (although not, in my opinion, entirely believable) as the story unfolds, and is assisted in this by a large facial birthmark.  Jem’s father has some secrets of his own, not least of which relating to the death of Jem’s mother in childbirth.  The doctors of the hospital are all playing their own agendas, and each have habits, mannerisms and methods of working that are decidedly unpalatable, and their wives and lovers are just as bad.

The best thing about this book is the pervading atmosphere of bleakness and unrelenting gloom that Thomson has set up.  The historical aspects are faithfully recreated and some of the medical details described in stomach-churning detail.  While the atmosphere is thick with a pervasive miasma of sinister goings-on, the book itself isn’t a depressing read.  Jem and Will, and even apprentice apothecary Gabriel and servant Mrs Speedicut, inject a certain sense of fervour and hope that provides a neat counterpoint to their unsavoury surroundings.  Even if you don’t pick this one up for the murder mystery aspect there is plenty to uncover as you peel back the mud-encrusted layers of the lives of St Saviour’s residents.

I was also happy to see that this appears to be a standalone novel.  After all the shocks and “blergh” moments in this one, I don’t think I could stomach a second foray into London’s stinky historical underbelly any time soon!

I am also submitting this one for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Graphic Novels Featuring Family Secrets” Edition…

3

image

Saddle up suckers (and I mean that in the politest sense), it’s time for another Reading Round-Up! Today I have three graphic novels for you that are about as different as it’s possible for three graphic novels to be, yet they are all linked by a theme of family secrets. Or secret family. Or secretive family members. You get the idea.

We’ll roll through these in descending order of age-appropriateness, so let’s begin with one for the grown-ups.

October Faction, Volume 1 (Steve Niles & Damien Worm)october faction

Two Sentence Synopsis:

A family with an ancestral job of monster-hunting comes under attack from some seriously supernatural forces. In order to survive though, they’ll also have to deal with backstabbing, betrayal and secrets that are all too human.

Muster up the motivation because:

Along with the blood-splatting, monster-killing, robot-deflecting, zombie-evading action story, you will also get quite a delightful and charming tale of family bonding. So it’s the best of both worlds, really. I was surprised at how well developed the characters were, for the graphic novel format and I particularly enjoyed the twist at the end of this volume that, while satisfying, set the scene for increased monster-destruction in the next volume. I’d be very interested to see where this series goes, but as an opener, this was a fun, action-packed, engaging tale.

Brand it with:

Sibling rivalry, History coming back to bite you, family diversity

*I received a copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley*

Now one for the YA set:

The Clockwork Sky, Volume 1 (Madeleine Rosca)clockwork sky

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Teenaged Sally Peppers is sent to stay with her Uncle, London’s foremost provider of steampowered automatons, after some anti-social behaviour at her school. After managing to escape from the clutches of her odious governess, Sally reluctantly teams up with steampowered police-bot Sky and uncovers some sinister facts about her Uncle’s business empire.

Muster up the motivation because:

If you enjoy steampunk, you’ll enjoy the rich world that Rosca has created here. Steambots aside, the story itself is fast-paced with Sally’s headstrong thoughtlessness balanced by the overly cautious, right-thinking Sky. The story ends on a cliff-hanger, leaving us hanging just as the meat of the story is revealed but there is at least one clue to how things might turn out partway through. The art style is manga and the story is easily short enough to be read in one sitting. I’m hanging out to see how the series develops.   Oh, and did I mention that Rosca is Australian? Bonus points!

Brand it with:

Steamy conflict, sewer-racing, behavioural problems in teens

And finally, one for the MG kids:

Punky Brewster, Volume 1 (Joelle Selner & Lesley Vamos)punky brewster

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Loveable homeless rogue Punky Brewster is found aiding and abetting a hustler in a store robbery, and sent to a group home. On discovering a long-lost cousin, the grouchy old Henry, Punky sees her chance at a great home – but can she and her dog Brandon convince the authorities (and Henry) that this is where she belongs?

Muster up the motivation because:

It’s Punky Brewster for a whole new generation. I’m sorry, I would have thought that was the obvious reason to read it. And fans of the original (and I definitely include myself among that number) will be happy to know that this is true to the original story, right down to the annoyingly quirky word mix-ups that Punky indulges in every so often. For purists, Henry does seem significantly younger as a cartoon than he was in the original, but apart from that, the tale contains all the cheekiness and hair-brained schemes that one could hope for. I did find it a bit strange that modern references to mobile phones and computers and texting and things were plonked right in the middle of a classic 80s environment, but it surely won’t phase young readers discovering Punky for the first time. Long live the random-bandana-tied-around-the-leg fashion statement.

Brand it with:

Young Punks, lonely old widowers, petty crime, 80s pop culture

*I received a copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley*

I hope you can find something to rope you in amongst this lot. And just for old times’ (old-timers?) sake, here’s the Punky Brewster theme song.

 

Until next time,

Bruce