Meandering Through Middle Grade: The Guggenheim Mystery…

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What an interesting offering I have for you today!  I first encountered The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd back in 2008, a year or so after its release.  The story features Ted, a lad on the Autistic Spectrum, whose cousin Salim goes missing from one of the pods on the London Eye.  It is a brilliant locked room mystery story for middle grade and YA readers with an interesting narrator and compelling mystery.  Sadly, Siobhan Dowd, who was also the author with the original idea for David Almond’s excellent, now-turned-into-a-film book A Monster Calls, passed away from cancer in 2007 and it seemed that Ted and his mystery-solving prowess would be forever confined to a single tale.

Enter Robin Stevens, the author of brilliant historical schoolgirl detective series Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, and Ted has been given a new lease on life.  Stevens was brought in to continue Siobhan’s story and with only a title to work from – The Guggenheim Mystery – she was thrust into the breach.  We received our copy from Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Ted Spark. I am 12 years and 281 days old. I have seven friends.

Three months ago, I solved the mystery of how my cousin Salim disappeared from a pod on the London Eye.

This is the story of my second mystery.

This summer, I went on holiday to New York, to visit Aunt Gloria and Salim. While I was there, a painting was stolen from the Guggenheim Museum, where Aunt Gloria works.

Everyone was very worried and upset. I did not see what the problem was. I do not see the point of paintings, even if they are worth £9.8 million. Perhaps that’s because of my very unusual brain, which works on a different operating system to everyone else’s.

But then Aunt Gloria was blamed for the theft – and Aunt Gloria is family. And I realised just how important it was to find the painting, and discover who really had taken it. 

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It has to be said that Stevens was a great choice for carrying on Ted’s story, because she can work a mystery like nobody’s business.  Even though it had been years since I had read Ted’s story (and I think I read it twice in quick succession at the time), Ted’s style of narration was immediately recognisable and I quickly remembered the atmosphere of The London Eye Mystery.  Stevens has done a wonderful job of recreating Dowd’s characterisation of Ted, but there is a definite Stevens stamp on the construction of the mystery.

Being out of his everyday context, Ted at first struggles with the mysteries of human relationships, as his cousin Salim and sister Kat seem to be shutting him out for reasons that aren’t clear to Ted.  The early chapters of the book are coloured in part by Ted’s feeling of loneliness as he sees his two closest companions moving on without him.  Once the mystery of the stolen painting kicks off however, and it is clear that Aunt Gloria is being framed (pun intended?), the relationship rifts are quickly healed and Ted even attempts to look at his family’s behaviour from a different viewpoint.

The mystery part of the story felt very much like Steven’s Murder Most Unladylike setups, and it was clear that the theft and its various elements – the timing, the smoke bombs, the suspects – had been tightly plotted.  I did find that this story lacked the emotional connection that was so heightened in The London Eye Mystery – and is present in most of Dowd’s work – but I suspect that was only because this particular mystery dealt with a stolen painting rather than a missing child.  Given that the stakes were not quite as high in this particular story – the loss of the painting not being as emotionally charged as the potential loss or death of an actual person – I enjoyed the story but wasn’t blown away by it.

I think it must be said that Stevens has done a worthy job here of recreating a memorable character in a new setting with nothing more than a title to go on.  It would be interesting to see if this series will be developed further and whether that emotional element from the first story can be reinvented down the line.

If you haven’t read The London Eye Mystery, you should really seek it out.  If you have, you really ought to check out this next offering and see how you think it stands up.

Until next time,

Bruce

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Fi50 Reminder and TBR Friday!

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It’s that time of the month again – Fiction in 50 kicks off on Monday!  To participate, just create  a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and then add your link to the comments of my post on Monday.  For more information, just click on that snazzy typewriter at the top of this post.  Our prompt for this month is…

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Good luck!


TBR Friday

And now it’s time for TBR Friday!  Today’s book is Time Travelling with a Hamster, a middle grade contemporary sci fi by Ross Welford.  This one was not on my original list, but I’ve just received Welford’s second book, What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible, for review, so I thought it was high time I knocked this one over. Let’s kick off with the blurb from Goodreads:

 

“My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty nine and again four years later when he was twelve.

The first time had nothing to do with me. The second time definitely did, but I would never even have been there if it hadn’t been for his ‘time machine’…”

When Al Chaudhury discovers his late dad’s time machine, he finds that going back to the 1980s requires daring and imagination. It also requires lies, theft, burglary, and setting his school on fire. All without losing his pet hamster, Alan Shearer…

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Ten Second Synopsis:

On his twelfth birthday, Al Chaudhury receives a letter from his late father that offers him the secret of time travel and the chance to change the event that caused his father’s death. Life is never that simple and Al soon finds himself up to his hairline in twisted timelines.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Just short of a year.

Acquired:

I bought this one from an online shop -either Book Depository or Booktopia – shortly after it was released because I HAD to have it and wasn’t lucky enough to score a review copy.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

Not sure really.  Like I said, I HAD to have it so it’s a mystery as to why I haven’t read it yet.  Possibly it was the thrill of the chase that I was really after.

Best Bits:

  • For those who don’t enjoy a lot of technical sciency information, this story focuses more on the relationships in Al’s life rather than the whys and wherefores of how time travel works.  There is a bit of technical info in order to shut down any loopholes, but the story isn’t overwhelmed by it.
  • This felt like a bit of a mix between Christopher Edge’s The Many Worlds of Albie Bright and Mike Revell’s Stonebird, with the nerdy, science-y originality of the former and the serious issues-based subplot of the latter.  Considering I enjoyed both of those books, it stands to reason that I enjoyed TTWAH as well – especially since it seems to combine the best of both of those books into one memorable package.
  • Al and his dad’s side of the family are Indian (from Punjab), while Al inherits his webbed digits (syndactyly) from his mother’s side, so there is a bit of diversity all round here.
  • Al, his father and grandfather all seem quite authentic as characters in all the timestreams in which they appear, which makes for some genuinely engaging reading throughout and a plot that isn’t dumbed down in any way simply because the book is aimed at younger readers.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • There’s a bit of threatened animal cruelty in two parts.  It never eventuates, but for some people I know this is a deal breaker.
  • The first half of the book wasn’t as fast-paced as the second half.  Before Al has really figured out the time machine, parts of the plot drag a little, but the ending (and especially Alan Shearer’s role in it) is worth the wait.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Yep.  It’s a solid middle grade growing up story with a fascinating time travel twist.

Where to now for this tome?

To the permanent shelf.

Obviously, I’m submitting this one for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017, as well as for the Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2017.  You can  check out my progress toward all my reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Case of the Deepdean Vampire: A Mini Mystery…

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It’s time to check back in with everyone’s favourite girlish detectives, Daisy and Hazel, in this second novella (but fourth-and-a-half offering in the series), The Case of the Deepdean Vampire by Robin Stevens.  I’m very glad that these novellas exist because they at least keep me in touch with the series given that I’m now three books behind since the announcement of an April 6th release date for Cream Buns and Crime, an anthology of Daisy and Hazel short stories.  Anyhow, “just keep plodding along” is my motto for these books, so here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Of all the mysteries that Hazel and I have investigated, the Case of the Deepdean Vampire was one of the strangest. It was not a murder, which was a pity – but I did solve it very cleverly, and so I decided it ought to be written down, so that other people could read it and be impressed.

Camilla Badescu is in the fifth form, and has pale skin, dark hair and red lips. She comes from Romania (which is practically Transylvania). She doesn’t eat at meals. And she seemed to have an unhealthy influence over another pupil, Amy Jessop. Now, I do not believe in vampires – I am the Honourable Daisy Wells, after all. But when I heard the rumour that Camilla was seen climbing head-first down a wall, I knew it was time to investigate…

Much like The Case of the Blue Violet, the other novella in this series, The Case of the Deepdean Vampire is a bite-sized snack of a mystery, narrated by Daisy, rather than Hazel, who is the narrator of the full length novels.  In this particular novella, Daisy recounts her triumphant solving of a case that has the Deepdean girls all of a dither: is Camilla really a vampire? And if not, how can one explain the, frankly, supernatural behaviour that she has been exhibiting of late?  Of course Daisy, being a natural skeptic, manages to confound any latent whisperings of vampirism by performing some quite spectacular physical feats and making the links that others have failed to notice.

I have to say that I didn’t find this one quite as engaging as a short story as the Blue Violet, simply because the premise was hinged on a supernatural phenomenon and readers of this series will know that supernatural happenings are not an accepted part of the deal.  From that standpoint then, the mystery could only have a perfectly ordinary explanation and when it came it wasn’t quite as exciting or tricky as I was hoping it might be.  I felt a little as if there hadn’t been enough clues left out for canny readers to solve this one themselves, so wasn’t quite as invested in the reveal as I may have otherwise been.

So while not the most gripping of the girls’ adventures so far, this is still a fun interlude between books for fans of Daisy and Hazel and the Detective Society.

I’m submitting this book for the Colour Coded Challenge 2017, progress toward which you can see here.

Until next time,

Bruce

An MG Double-Dip Review: Alexander Baddenfield and Joe All Alone…

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I invite you to collect a portion of your favourite salty snack, pour out some delectable dip and jimageoin me for a tasty double-dip into some MG fiction.  Today I have a new release that I received from the publisher via Netgalley and a tome that has been sat on my shelf for at least six months (which in no way reflects the astronomical levels of excitement and desire that pushed me to buy it in the first place), so with this review I shall also be taking one step closer to the peak of Mt TBR.

But let’s push on. Our first tome is new release UKMG novel Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When thirteen-year-old Joe is left behind in Peckham while his mum flies to Spain on holiday, he decides to treat it as an adventure, and a welcome break from Dean, her latest boyfriend. Joe begins to explore his neighbourhood, making a tentative friendship with Asha, a fellow fugitive hiding out at her grandfather’s flat.

But when the food and money run out, his mum doesn’t come home, and the local thugs catch up with him, Joe realises time is running out too, and makes a decision that will change his life forever.

Dip into it for… joe all alone

…a sensitively rendered account of a young lad whose mother has chosen a man over her son.  Joe is a likeable, ordinary kid and I think a lot of young readers will relate to his matter-of-fact narration and the anxieties that sit in the back of his mind.  The book touches on themes of domestic violence, racism,  family breakdown, trust and identity and subtly balances the neglectful actions of Joe’s mother and father-figure with the cautiously caring actions of the adults in Joe’s block of flats. The friendship between Joe and Asha is believable and adds a bit of fun and banter to a story that has a pervasive atmosphere of loss and fear.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re wanting a fun, lawless romp featuring a cheery young lad who is happy that his parents have left (as indicated by the cover, and the tagline “No parents, no rules…no problem?”).  This really is a book that focuses on the deeper issues that Joe is facing and as the story progresses, Joe’s fears about what will happen next and who to trust are palpable.

Similarly, if you’ve read a lot of UK fiction in this kind of vein – kid with violent/absent/mentally-ill/drug-addicted parent struggles to find friendship and help to live a normal life – you might get the sense of having read this all before.

Overall Dip Factor

Joe All Alone is a solid addition to the MG literature featuring realistic, contemporary storytelling focusing on important social issues in an accessible way.  The diary format worked well in building up the suspense of what might happen if Joe’s mum didn’t return and also helped the reader focus in on Joe’s day-to-day struggles once it was apparent that his mum wasn’t coming back.  The ending was a surprise for me, given how realistic it actually was in terms of where a young person might find themselves once the adults in their life have abdicated responsibility for them.

While I did enjoy the book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this story was nothing new.  I suspect this is one of the problems of reading as a reviewer with a special interest in MG and YA – although I haven’t read a story featuring exactly this plot before, I’ve certainly read more than a handful that deal with the same themes and same sorts of characters and that does take some of the sparkle out of the story.  If you enjoy this genre though, or haven’t read a lot featuring these themes, Joe All Alone is definitely worth a look.

Now onto some real wickedness.  Here’s The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by John Bemelmans Marciano.  From Goodreads:

Alexander Baddenfield is a horrible boy—a really horrible boy—who is the last in a long line of lying, thieving scoundrels.  One day, Alexander has an astonishing idea.  Why not transplant the nine lives from his cat into himself?  Suddenly, Alexander has lives to spare, and goes about using them up, attempting the most outrageous feats he can imagine.  Only when his lives start running out, and he is left with only one just like everyone else, does he realize how reckless he has been.

Dip into it for… alexander baddenfield

…a delightfully droll tale in which a naughty boy gets his just desserts. Eventually.  This cheekily illustrated book is Edward Gorey for children (and their subversive parents) and I don’t feel too bad in telling you that Alexander dies in the end. Multiple times.  There’s also a shocking reveal about the real name of Alexander’s gentleman’s gentleman.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a tale in which the bad guy learns his lesson and turns over a new leaf – Ebenezer Scrooge this kid ain’t.  Also, if the thought of a young child dying in various horrible ways offends you, you should probably steer clear.  And there’s at least some surgical mistreatment of a cat.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is a completely quirky and unexpected trip into the philosophical origins of good and evil and whether or not a villain can ever really change his ways.  Also, it’s just a pretty funny romp through the death-fields with an arrogant little snot and his long-suffering babysitter. Keen-eyed readers will also appreciate the playful anagrammatic name of Alexander’s surgeon and the phonetically named cat.  This would be a great read-together for parents with left-of-centre offspring in the early middle-grade age range.

So there you are.  One seriously realistic read and one seriously ridiculous read.  Take your pick.  Or better yet, dip into both!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dreamsnatcher: A Maniacal Book Club Review…

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Welcome to another pick from the Maniacal Book Club! Today’s tome is a middle grade fantasy adventure featuring gypsies, curses, companion wildcats and all manner of escapades. I speak of The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, which was released earlier this year and a copy of which I was lucky enough to be sent by Simon & Schuster Australia.  Before we delve into the deep and insightful thoughts of the Club, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Molly Pecksniff wakes one night in the middle of the forest, lured there by a recurring nightmare – the one with the drums and the rattles and the masks. The Dreamsnatcher is waiting. He has already taken her dreams and now he wants her life. Because Moll is more important than she knows… The Oracle Bones foretold that she and Gryff, a wildcat that has always been by her side, are the only ones who can fight back against the Dreamsnatcher’s dark magic. Suddenly everything is at stake, and Moll is drawn into a world full of secrets, magic and adventure.

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Enticing, no? Now let’s hear what the Book Club made of it…

Guru Dave  maniacal book club guru dave

This tale, like a well-polished cubic zirconia, has many facets. There is adventure, certainly, but it is tinged with danger, bordered by loss and regret and dotted with broken trust. There is fear, undoubtedly, but it is cloaked in the colourful livery of bravado, bolstered by the strength of true friendship and lightly dusted with a sprinkling of cat hair.  From Molly’s exploits we can take many lessons, but the most important of these is that home is where the campfire burns the brightest.

Toothless

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No dragons in this book. There’s a creepy guy with a skull mask called Skull though. He’s got a weird power that makes Molly dream things and he tries to lure her away from the camp with his dreamsnatch power. There’s a cool wild cat called Gryff too who does some awesome fighting and protects Molly. This book gets pretty scary in some parts with magic and everyone trying to stop Skull but it’s good scary. I’ve never read a story like this before. Would’ve been better with a dragon.

 

Mad Martha

maniacal book club martha

Dream snatch, mind snatch, night time sounds,

Beat to bring the guardian down

With myths and secrets buried deep

The nasty magic starts to creep

Can guardian Moll defeat the foes

And put to rest the gypsies woes?

Or will Skull’s poisons overcome

And put to rest the plucky one?

Bruce

maniacal book club bruce

I have been amazed and gratified of late to see the incredible originality coming from authors of UK middle grade. There seems to have been a constant stream of books from this group that come across our radar and set off the “Insta-buy!” alarm. Of course it doesn’t help that they all have alluring covers to boot. Really, if I wasn’t lucky enough to receive a small portion of print books from publishers, I would be broke and/or bereft! The Dreamsnatcher is certainly part of this parade of quality storytelling.

Apart from the adventurous storyline and themes of belonging, identity and loyalty that pervade the book, there is also a palpable sense of newness about this tale. Elphinstone has created a really engaging and original world comprising magic, ancient prophesies, sacred roles and age-old rivalries within a setting that invites the imagination to take flight.

I must admit that I had a little difficulty getting into the story. Although the book starts off with some adventurous doings on the part of Molly, as she attempts to steal back her pony from the altogether-creepy Skull, I found the first section of the story slower than I would have liked. In this section Molly is attempting to discover some truths about herself and her place in the camp while the adults try to keep this information from her. Soon after this though, all is revealed and events become more dangerous as Skull increases his efforts to lure Molly to his clearing.  The book steadily picks up the pace from there and Molly, Sid, Gryff and the other members of Moll’s camp attempt to uncover the secrets of the Bone Oracle before it’s too late.

Kids in the target age bracket are really going to enjoy this story, as much for its suspense and pacing as for the magical elements and original world building. And of course for the alluring cover.
The Maniacal Book Club gives this book:

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Four thumbs up!

Until next time,

Bruce (and the gang)