Dragon’s Green: World-building, Magic and Bookishness…

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Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $19.99

When you churn through as many books as I do during a year (and even I have to admit that my reading is a tad excessive) it’s rarer and rarer to come across a story that feels truly different.  Particularly in the middle grade fantasy bracket, it’s safe to say that many stories follow similar themes, tropes and imaginings.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we all love a story with familiar themes and fantastical worlds whose workings are easy to understand – but whenever I come across a book that feels a little different, there’s always a spark of excitement that flares to life in my stony chest.  So it was with Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas, which we received from Allen & Unwin for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

‘Some people think opening a book is a simple thing. It’s not. Most people don’t realise that you can get truly lost in a book. You can. Especially you. Do not open any of these books without my permission, Euphemia.’

Effie is a pupil at the Tusitala School for the Gifted and Strange. When her grandfather becomes ill she discovers she is set to inherit the family library. The more she learns about it the more unusual it is. Before she knows it, her life is at risk from dark forces from this world and beyond, intent on using the books and the power they contain.

With her grandfather gone and the adult world ignoring her, can her unreliable classmates help save her life?

Packed with puzzles, curses, evil nemeses and a troupe of beguiling heroes, Dragon’s Green is an adventure novel for children about the nature of magic.

This blurb is a little misleading, because it makes Effie’s story sound just like every other hero of every other middle grade fantasy ever written.  There are multiple ways in which Dragon’s Green sticks out from the pack and I will detail them now for you (you’re welcome!).  First up, the blurb makes no mention of the world in which Effie lives.  The story is set firmly in a world very like our own…however it is a speculative world (of the future?) in which a Worldquake – like an earthquake but affecting the entire globe at once – has knocked out the internet and general access to electricity and everyone is now reliant on archaic technologies to communicate (hello walkie talkies!), conduct research and generally get along.  This worldquake and its effects are mentioned a number of times, but we are never privy to its causes or its place in the scheme of this world.  I expect this will be expanded upon in further books.

Then there’s the Otherworld.  There’s the Realworld (our world, Effie’s world, for want of a better term) and the Otherworld.  The Otherworld runs on magic and renewed access to it has some connection to the Worldquake, but this connection is not entirely clear.  Again, I expect this will become more apparent in later books.

The Realworld and the Otherworld exist independently to each other for the most part, unless an individual has the ability to perform magic.  In this aspect, the book takes a bit of a Potter-esque approach, in that magic is known about (on some level) by non-magical people, but not talked about.  The world of those possessing magic is complex.  There are multiple roles or talents that the magically endowed could be born with – mage, witch, hero, warrior, healer, scholar – as well as magical objects (called boons) that can enhance the abilities of the magical.

Finally, the link between the Realworld and the Otherworld has a strong dependence on BOOKS!  (Hooray!)  Books (certain books, not every book) provide a portal to the Otherworld for certain readers and as such are sought after by the Diberi, a sect of magical individuals who wish to harness the power of being the Last Reader of certain books.

Have I convinced you yet, that this isn’t your average “kid-discovers-they-have-magic-powers-and-embarks-on-an-action-packed-and-mildly-humorous-quest-to-save-the-world” story?

Dragon’s Green felt refreshingly grown-up in its approach to the narrative.  Effie is not hapless and bumbling, stumbling upon the answers as she develops her power and a belief in her own abilities.  She is confident, innovative and knows when to delegate.  The four supporting characters, who throughout the story grow to become friends, have backstories that are explored in enough depth to make the characters seem authentic and their motivations believable.  There are multiple plot-threads that interact with and affect each other and far too many puzzles have been raised in this initial book to be resolved by the end of the story.  Essentially, the story feels like it comes with a history that we don’t necessarily know yet…but it will be revealed by the end of the trilogy.

This book was a bit of a sleeper for me.  I was interested from the beginning, but I didn’t really appreciate the originality and complexity of the story until I was deep into the final third.  Dragon’s Green is a book that celebrates thinkers of all persuasions, not those who rush into situations with reckless abandon.  Even the warrior character is clearly a lad with the brains for strategy and a backstory to hint at more depth than one would expect of a rugby-playing troublemaker.  I also absolutely loved the way that another supporting character, Maximillian’s, talents have been revealed here and the hint that good and evil are not necessarily clear cut.

As an aside, the dustjacket of the hardback edition that I received had a little sticker proclaiming “This Book Glows in the Dark!” so I checked and it does.  When left in a dark room, the cover turns into a delightfully atmospheric green overlay featuring the moon and the book title.  Unusually, this edition has gorgeous illustrated endpapers inside a misleadingly plain purple cover.  Nice touches, I thought, and ones to make this book a keeper.

It took me a while to come to this decision, but I have to nominate Dragon’s Green as a Top Book of 2017 – it’s got too much going on to be left languishing with your common-or-garden middle grade fantasy.

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Do yourself a favour and grab a copy today! Or, you know, once pay day rolls around.

Until next time,

Bruce

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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

Picture Book Perusal: Grandad’s Secret Giant

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Today I have a sumptuous feast for the eye with David Litchfield’s richly coloured Grandad’s Secret Giant, which we received from Murdoch Books via Allen & Unwin for review.  Here’s the blurb from Murdoch Books:

A GIANT story of belonging and friendship from David Litchfield, author of the prize winning The Bear and the Piano.

He has hands the size of tables, Grandad said, legs as long as drainpipes and feet as big as rowing boats. Do you know who I mean?

Yes, sighed Billy. The Secret Giant. But he’s not real!

Billy doesn’t believe his Grandad when he tells him there’s a giant living in his town, doing good deeds for everyone. He knows that a giant is too big to keep himself hidden. And why would he WANT to keep himself a secret? But as time goes on, Billy learns that some secrets are too BIG to stay secret for long…

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Grandad’s Secret Giant by David Litchfield.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 29th March 2017.  RRP:$21.99

Being a thrifty sort of gargoyle, I wouldn’t normally suggest that you run out and buy the hardback version of a book the moment it’s released, but I will make an exception in this case.  The reason you will want to get the hardback edition of Grandad’s Secret Giant is that that way, you will not miss out on the absolutely joyous experience of peeling back the marvelous dust jacket to uncover the luxurious, colourful, mesmerising image spread across the entire cover of this book.

The next thing you’ll want to do is get a load of the incredibly beautiful endpapers – the beginning one shrouded in blue and white shadows and a giant hiding, the final one infused with the warmth of early morning and the excitement and cosiness of making a new friend.

If  you haven’t been convinced by the preceding two paragraphs of high praise, do remember that we haven’t even got to the story yet.

Billy has grown tired of his Grandad’s tales of a giant who lives in their town and helps people out, even though they can’t see him – or scream and run away if they do.  He has made up his mind that he will not believe unless he sees the proof with his own eyes.  But will seeing the Giant bring out the best in Billy?

This is a delightful story of making mistakes and making things better, all wrapped up in a cosy grandparent-grandchild relationship.  The solution to Billy’s problem is heartwarming and creative and the story has an upbeat vibe about it that will give you a spring in your step for the rest of the day.

But those illustrations.

Oh, those illustrations!

I’m not sure whether its the medium or the particular colour palette, but the illustrations here are so vibrant and inviting that I couldn’t help poring over them for ages and wishing, just a little bit, that I could be sucked in to Billy’s world.  I was already familiar with Litchfield’s illustrative style from The Building Boy, but the page spreads in Grandad’s Secret Giant lend themselves even more perfectly to the story than in that previous book.

Little ones will love trying to spot the giant, who seems to blend in with his surroundings despite his inherent ability to stand out.  There is so much to see in the pictures the longer you look that this book will no doubt be brought out time and again before bedtime.

I realise I’m being a bit indulgent here, with three in the space of a fortnight, but because of the incredibly beguiling illustrations and the warmth of the story, I can’t help but name this a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Until next time,

Bruce