Meandering through (Aussie) Middle Grade: The Turnkey…

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meandering-through-middle-grade

Today I’ve got the final book in my recent run of World War II related reads, with The Turnkey by Aussie author Allison Rushby.  We excitedly received this one from Walker Books Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

turnkey

The Turnkey is a solid, original and intriguing tale that has the perfect blend of mystery, history and paranormal activity.  Flossie is the Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery in London, a job which involves ensuring that the dead interred in the cemetery remain – for the most part – peacefully at rest.  With the Blitz causing chaos every night, Flossie seeks solace in visiting some of the other Turnkeys in London’s major cemeteries.  On a midnight sojourn to St Paul’s Cathedral – a favourite thinking spot – Flossie encounters a ghost who shouldn’t, by the laws of the afterlife, be there (never mind that he’s dressed in the uniform of a Nazi SS Officer) and is drawn into a mystery that could tip the scales of the war in favour of the Nazis.

Flossie is an immediately likable character and throughout the story demonstrates her resilience, courage in adversity and compassion for those in difficult situations.  The Nazi officer, who we discover has an unexpected link to Flossie herself, is suitably evil and frightening, and each of the Turnkeys that we meet has his or her own personality, quirks and in some cases, secrets.

I always love books for young readers that aren’t set in schools.  Apart from the fact that being school-less allows the author to neatly avoid all those boring, repetitive, school-bully-based tropes, the non-school setting also makes books for young readers more accessible and interesting for grown up readers.  Such was the case with The Turnkey.  In fact, I kept forgetting that Flossie was meant to be twelve years old – albeit a reasonably long-dead twelve years old – such was the adult appeal of the novel. I love a good set-in-the-Blitz story also and the mix of bombed out London with the atmospheric cemeteries really worked to give a sense of the never-ending clean up and rescue operations that coloured that particular time in London’s history.

The pacing of this story was spot-on, with no filler material included to slow things down.  Reveals came at regular intervals with just enough new information to spur the reader on to discover the next twist in the ghostly Nazi’s plans.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to maintain all the threads of the story without losing the quality of each along the way.  By the end of the book the reader gets to experience the paranormal aspect of the Turnkeys working together (plus some patriotic and enthusiastic ghostly members of the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital), a journey into Churchill’s war rooms and the war rooms of the Nazis, a glimpse into the reality of those living and dying in the rubble and shelters and hospital wards of London during the Blitz, and a fantasy element featuring ancient artifacts.  None of these separate plot threads felt forced or tacked on and taken together they added greatly to the originality and atmosphere of the novel.

The only thing that could have made this book better – as I say with pretty much every book, everywhere – would be pictures.  I remember seeing a documentary or something on the Chelsea Pensioners and their red jackets and it would be awesome (and instructive for younger readers) to see some images of these iconic characters, as well as some images of the actual cemeteries or London during the Blitz for example.  There is a little author’s note at the back with some historical information and it was nice to see that the author had also consulted that seminal of cemetery-related tomes, Katherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead.  **I read this ages ago and thought I was amongst a select few, but it keeps popping up as a reference authors have used for lots of fiction books that I’ve come across.  Give it a read if you feel inclined.**

 

I’m fairly sure that this is intended as a standalone novel but I would be interested in seeing what happens next for Flossie.  Given that she’s dead and doesn’t have to age or experience the changes of growing up, it would be cool to see a progression of historical/fantasy/mystery novels featuring the Turnkeys of London’s major cemeteries in different time periods up to the present.  I’d read them, anyway!

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly World War II fiction and you can’t go past a paranormal twist I would definitely recommend hunting down The Turnkey.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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A Middle-Grade Round-Up of Epic Proportions…

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imageI hope you’ve picked your most comfortable saddle and spats for today’s Round-Up, because I have no less than SIX middle grade reads to hunt down with you.  We received all but one from their respective publishers via Netgalley.  These titles run the gamut from silly to super realistic so hopefully there’s something here for every middle grade fan.  Let’s ride out!

The Thickety: A Path Begins (J.A. White)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  the thickety

Twelve-year-old Kara has been shunned by the villagers ever since her mother was executed as a witch when Kara was five years old. Now it seems that her mother’s powers are developing in Kara and the whole foundation on which the Village is built could crumble if Kara isn’t careful in mastering her new skills.

Muster up the motivation because…

…This is an impressively-written, complex read for advanced middle grade readers and even those at the lower end of the YA bracket.  The content gets quite sinister at times, not least of those times being the execution of Kara’s mother in the first chapter.  The characters, while somewhat clichéd in some cases – the beautiful, powerful mean girl for instance – are well drawn to fit into the suspicious, insular world of the Village.  I was stunned at reading, towards the end of the book, that Kara is only twelve years old.  I’m sure this was mentioned earlier in the book, but because of the complexity of the language and plot, I had imagined Kara as closer to sixteen or seventeen years old.  It seemed unbelievable to me that the maturity of the protagonist here could be attached to such a young character, but that may just be my old fuddy-duddy ways.  I would definitely be interested in reading the next in this series, but this first instalment was so full of action and twists that I feel I need a bit of a rest before I seek it out.  I highly recommend this to those looking for an absorbing adventure and I’m happy to knock this one off my TBR list! Hooray!

Brand it with:

Beyond the perimeter; nature magic; dangerous books

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**Bruce just knocked another book from Mount TBR!**

Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings (Edward McLachlan)

Two Sentence Synopsis: simon in the land of chalk drawings

A fully illustrated collection of four short stories featuring Simon and his chalk drawings and all the mischief that befalls them.  Simon’s penchant for becoming distracted while drawing leads to a whole range of disasters that need to be mitigated with the clever use of chalk and creativity.

Muster up the motivation because…

…This is a fun collection of stories pitched at the lower end of the middle grade bracket and would work well as pre-bedtime read-alouds.  The stories aren’t particularly complicated and all follow the same format: Simon draws (or forgets to draw) something that then causes havoc in the land of chalk drawings, which is accessed by climbing a ladder over a fence.  The illustrations are appropriately naïve and chalky and the stories should inspire creativity in eager young readers.  I haven’t seen the TV series, so had no prior knowledge of Simon and his chalky world, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the stories.  I’d recommend these stories for some simple, charming fun.

Brand it with:

Losing control of one’s creation; fostering creativity; boredom busters

The Girl in the Well is Me (Karen Rivers)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  the girl in the well is me

Kammie has fallen down a well and may never get out. Come along with Kammie as her feverish mind wanders while she waits for rescue.

Muster up the motivation because…

…It’s not often you get to be privy to the ever more desperate rantings of a young person stuck down a well through only slight fault of her own.  I had massive hopes for this one but there was just a bit too much monologue for me by the end.  Obviously, when your protagonist is down a well, there isn’t much character interaction that can be expected, but I was hoping for either more humour or more oddness from Kammie’s narration.  I wasn’t entirely convinced of the reasons why she ended up down the well in the first place, given that Kammie doesn’t seem like the kind of kid that would crave the attention of the popular/mean girls’ clique, but this is addressed somewhat in the tale.  The Girl in the Well is Me is certainly a quirky, unusual read for middle graders – albeit with some familiar and ten-a-penny elements – but didn’t quite deliver in the way I was expecting.  Younger readers may have more luck, however.

Brand it with:

Caution: Well!; Mean girls; Family Dramas

The Dog, Ray (Linda Coggins)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  The Dog ray

Daisy takes a wrong turn in the afterlife and accidentally ends up in the body of a dog. While she is desperate to find her parents and assuage their grief, life as a dog isn’t quite as free and easy as Daisy expected and she has to lean on her friends and strangers to attain her goal.

Muster up the motivation because…

…This is an interesting new take on “afterlife” themed books, managed deftly and with lightness and humour.  I was absolutely certain that the title of the book would end up being a quote from Daisy’s mother – “The Dog, Ray! Look at the Dog! It’s our daughter!” – but Ray is the name that is given to the dog that Daisy becomes.  There’s a lot going on in this book as it touches on homelessness, loyalty, family connections and the treatment of animals, but there is a solid friendship story at the core that drives the action.  Daisy/Ray is an upbeat narrator whose cheery optimism was reasonably irritating to this curmudgeonly old reader at times, but I particularly appreciated the unexpected ending of the book.  The author takes the story up a notch in the maturity stakes here and trusted her readers to make their own conclusions, which is always welcome in books for this age group.  I’d recommend this one to animal-loving readers of middle grade who are ready to move on from the seemingly endless “cute puppy” themed series and step up to a story with a bit of heart and realism – apart from the “girl becoming a dog” bit, obviously.

Brand it with:

“Here girl!”; boys’ best friend; homeward bound

These Dark Wings (John Owen Theobold)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  these dark wings

After the death of her mother in wartime, Anna finds herself apprenticed to the Ravenmaster – her uncle – at the Tower of London. As the horror of the blitz unfolds and the ravens come to harm, Anna must make difficult choices and find the courage to face secrets and lies.

Muster up the motivation because…

…This is an unusual and welcome interpretation of a period in history on which almost everything that can be said, has been said.  The story has a maturity about it which lends itself toward the upper end of the middle grade bracket, and the lack of many characters of Anna’s age adds to a pervading atmosphere of grim reality and responsibility.  The setting is interesting and lends its own character to the proceedings.  The book sneakily provides fascinating social history lessons around ways in which rationing and the Blitz affected all the residents of London during the early 1940s.  The plot is complex and it is obvious that Anna is not being given the whole story about many things, including her parents and some of the goings-on at the tower.  I was quite disappointed when I reached the end of the book and discovered it was, in fact, a series-opener.  There is so much going on in the story that is only hinted at, that I felt like I wanted it all on the table by the end of the book.  Sadly, this was not to be and the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger reveal.  I’m not sure whether I will pursue the second book in the series.  The writing is certainly of high quality, but the looming sinister atmosphere throughout means that I would have to be in the right sort of mood to enjoy it.  I’d recommend this one to readers who enjoy works by an author who isn’t prepared to talk down to a young audience.

Brand it with:

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?; Blitzed Brits; Birds as Pets

Diary of Anna The Girl Witch # 1: Foundling Witch (Max Candee)

Two Sentence Synopsis:  diary of anna

A baby found amongst a family of bears, Anna was rescued by an uncle and brought up in a convent orphanage.  On her thirteenth birthday, Anna discovers that there is a lot she doesn’t know about her past – including the strange powers she seems to be developing – and that these powers may have a key role in stopping a horror being perpetrated on her friends.

Muster up the motivation because…

…While this isn’t the most sophisticated middle grade magic story getting around, it has a certain charm and a method of magic that is different enough to pique the interest of youngsters.  Anna is a delightful and optimistic narrator with a mysterious past that isn’t ever fully explained.  As her powers develop, Anna realises she may have to use them to save her friends from some adults who know more than they are saying about Anna’s magic, and who will stop at nothing – even kidnap – to ensure their plans come to fruition.  At times it felt like the author couldn’t decide whether this would be a bit of a girls’ own, Famous Five sort of adventure or a more deeply imagined fantasy tale but overall the plot blends enough action and magic to keep younger readers turning the pages.

Brand it with:

Raised by bears; magical orphans, Kidnap!

Saddle sore yet?  I hope you’ll muster up the motivation to round up at least one of these diverse middle grade titles!

Until next time,

Bruce