Book Review: They Threw Us Away

Although I am posting this review well into November, They Threw Us Away, by Daniel Kraus (illustrated by Rovina Cai), was my Halloween read. A story about teddies waking up in the middle of a massive and putrid rubbish dump instead of in the warm bed of a loving child looked to be the perfect horror story for an arctophile such as myself. The tale turned out to be not quite what I had expected.

In the same way that Watership Down features rabbits but is not exactly about rabbits, so They Threw Us Away features a small group of intrepid teddy bears but is not exactly about teddies. Rather, it is an allegory about what is granted value by contemporary humans and the way we too often ignore, discard and put in danger that which should be cherished.

There are certainly horror elements in the story. A scene in the back room of a store is particularly disturbing, evoking as it does images of survivors in the mass graves of genocide victims. The innocence and cute factor of teddy bears soon gives way to recognition of how people can come to be treated when viewed as an unwanted mass, and thereby dehumanised.

They Threw Us Away opens with Buddy, a blue bear made by the prestigious Furrington Company, waking up in a rubbish dump with no memory of how he got there. Finding himself able to move, freed for the first time from the confines of his packaging, he investigates the unpleasant surroundings. Close by he finds four other bears and sets about releasing them too. Together they try to survive the dump’s many predators before deciding they need to escape.

A teddy bear exists to be chosen by a child whose loving hug will send them into Forever Sleep – the teddy equivalent of Happy Ever After. This is the dream that every bear sitting on a shelf in a shop harbours – that they will be chosen and thereby find fulfilment. They may long for a child rather than a Prince Charming but do not give due consideration to life beyond that moment of bonding.

One of the bears, Reginald, is older and has therefore acquired more knowledge. He tells stories of: the Mother; her personal teddy, Proto; and the eight Originals. Reginald remains calm, willing to join the others but morbidly fatalistic. Buddy and his sidekick, Sunny, remain more hopeful that they can somehow return to the world from which they were so inexplicably cast away. All take care of Sugar, who is the most damaged but retains her sweetness. Perhaps in a hat tip to Watership Down, she has a scary vision that her friends cannot yet interpret.

The bears in this story have innate skills such as an ability to read. Bravery and loyalty feature along with an appreciation of hugs and being there when needed. The longer their quest to find children takes, the more their personalities anthropomorphise. Naturally, this leads to damage and distress.

The voices given to some of the bears did not always sit well with the usual image of a teddy as a gentle and loving creature. Proto in particular is portrayed as rather coarse and self-centred. The rest of the sleuth enabled an exploration of the value to be found in differing characteristics.

The images of the city were particularly well rendered – viewed through the lens of small, now rather grubby beings, who understand the danger of being treated as garbage. People emerge as more threatening than the rodents or vehicles (although headlights in the dark are recognised as a warning to flee). The teddies encounter many dangers and do not survive unscathed.

This is the first story in a proposed trilogy. It stands well alone, with a denouement that offers scope for further developments and adventures. Not every thread is tied up neatly, although from hints given much can be inferred. It is not a difficult read, excepting certain distressing scenes. The numerous illustrations are welcome additions, especially when the story appears bleak. Unlike Robyn (this blog’s intern), who reviewed the book here, I would be wary of recommending this to young readers. It is marketed as a children’s book but has a darkness they would need to be capable of dealing with.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, although it took a while to catch the writing’s cadence. I will be interested in finding out what happens to the teddies next.

They Threw Us Away is published by Henry Holt (Macmillan).  

Book Review: Captain Pug

Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas, by Laura James (illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans) is the first in a series of humorous action adventure stories for children. Pug the dog is loyal friend and companion to Lady Miranda, a young girl who lives with her friendly attendants at No. 10, The Crescent. In this story she is invited to a birthday party at a boating lake. Excited by the prospect of a seafaring adventure she declares that she will make Pug a captain. Pug is unsure of his suitability for this role but determines to try his best.

Once at the lake things do not go to plan. Pug is distracted by a picnic basket while Miranda sends her footmen to fetch her a stranded pedalo. Before anyone realises what is happening Pug is being taken away!

With Miranda in hot pursuit the little dog makes some new friends. They take him to a river where he seeks opportunities to learn how to be a captain. Quite unexpectedly he discovers that he can be a useful coxswain, at least until he is distracted by ice cream. From here he travels by canal, sinking along the way, before ending up in the sea.

All ends well after a dramatic rescue. Pug is pleased to be safely home, but Miranda is already thinking of their next adventure.

  

The story is packed full of fun and frolics, the font and illustrations adding much detail and enjoyment.

A delightful story with its intrepid young girl and her ever hungry companion. The agency and horizons enjoyed by Lady Miranda are sure to ignite any modern young child’s wistful imagination.

Captain Pug is published by Bloomsbury. 

Book Review: Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices, by Philip Reeve, is the third book in the author’s Predator Cities Quartet. This is a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at young adults but enjoyable for all competent readers. I reviewed the first two books here and here.

In this instalment, Tom and Hester have settled in the now static city of Anchorage where it came to rest on the Dead Continent, presumed sunk by all who knew of its existence. Their daughter, Wren, was born here and has known nothing but a peaceful if rather lonely existence in her fifteen years. Having grown up listening to the tales of her parents’ adventures she dreams of experiencing some excitement for herself.

Caul, the former Lost Boy, inadvertently presents her with opportunity when she stumbles across a secret meeting he attends in the dead of night. She turns thief in exchange for passage away, but when events turn deadly, ends up being sold as a slave.

Appalled by this unexpected reminder of their past, Tom and Hester set out to rescue their child. Assuming that she will have been taken to the Lost Boys’ hidden headquarters at Grimsby, Caul goes with them. He wishes to be reunited with Uncle, the closest he has ever had to a parent. This desire the young burglars feel to belong to a mum or dad has been their undoing. Wren is not the only freshly captured slave.

The action moves to the pleasure city of Brighton where the wily Pennyroyal continues to spin his web of deceit. Unbeknownst to all, just as Tom and Hester launch their rescue attempt, powerful forces are about to be unleashed. The Green Storm has set its sights on Brighton, although its stalker leader is not telling her minions why.

As with the previous two books, there is plenty of action and many imaginative contraptions that playfully mock the terms and technology we enjoy today. Beneath this humour lies an unavoidable dark truth, that man’s greed, selfishness and lust for power overrides any semblance of sense.

An entertaining romp that plays fast and loose with coincidence, bravery and luck, not that this detracts from the enjoyment of the tale. Amidst the carnage there lies much for the reader to consider. A fun but also poignant read.

Book Review: The Smoke Hunter

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The Smoke Hunter, by Jacquelyn Benson, is an Indiana Jones style action adventure story with a fiesty, female protagonist. It begins in late nineteenth century Britain, when women were still denied the vote and expected to stay at home or work at menial tasks. Those who demanded intellectual respect, who suggested they were as capable as men, were accused of hysteria. Wives were chattels and the unmarried considered wives in waiting. Men enjoyed their privileges and were determined to retain their position.

Eleanora Mallory refused to conform to the supposed female ideal. Since childhood she had dreamed of becoming a field archaeologist. Despite graduating at the top of her university class the only job she could then attain was as an archivist in a civil service records office. Now she is about to lose even this. While waiting in her bosses office to be sacked she spots a book that looks out of place. Curious about why it should be there she steals it.

This action earns her the ire of a dangerous stranger. When Ellie opens the book and discovers a map to a legendary city alongside a mysterious artefact she decides to follow its trail and travels to Central America. She is unaware that her enemy is hot on her heels. To escape him she lies to a local map maker, Adam Bates, and together they embark on a quest through the jungle. What they find there has the potential to change the course of history.

The plot may be fantastical but it is also a lot of fun. The pace is fast moving throughout and there is plenty of humour, especially in the sparring between Ellie and Adam. Despite being a well brought up young lady, Ellie at no point loses her determination to be treated as an equal. She may not have a man’s strength, but her slightness and intuition can be used to her advantage.

Of course, the men struggle to accept that she is to be taken seriously.

“It was too dangerous for a lady. He couldn’t be at peace knowing he was putting a woman’s life at risk. Ellie wanted to retort that he did that every time he impregnated his wife”

This is not a story for those looking for realism but it is highly entertaining. The writing is fluid and accomplished; it is hard not to rush each page to find out what happens next. Ellie’s ruminations as she realises with horror that she is attracted to a man are amusing. It is unusual and pleasing that, despite having fallen in love, she retains her wits and resolve.

I do not normally go for stories that are close to something told before, but this book is such a rollicking read I am happy to recommend it. It is engaging, fun, and provides intrepid role models for both genders.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Fleabag and the Fire Cat

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Fleabag and the Fire Cat, by Beth Webb, is the second book in a fantasy adventure trilogy aimed at 7-11 year olds. It opens two years after the close of the first book in the series (reviewed here), with Gemma installed in the royal palace at Harflorum but not enjoying her new life. Unbeknownst to her there are forces of evil gathering, infecting her mind with doubts. It soon becomes clear that the safety of the realm is once more in her hands.

In this adventure our heroes must take to the high seas and we are introduced to a new ally, Marcus, captain of Prince Thomas of Beulothin’s flagship. Along with Rowanne, now Princess of Erbwenneth, they set out to rescue their beleaguered Fire Wielder.

And then of course there is Fleabag, as incorrigible as ever. In the two years since we last met he has been busy eating, napping and siring kittens. Although he has kept their wondrousness to himself we soon learn that he is no longer the only talking cat in the kingdom.

One of his offspring, Cleo, joins her father illicitly when he leaves the palace with Gemma for a well earned, but ill conceived, holiday. When things go wrong Cleo befriends Captain Marcus and is taken on board his vessel as the ship’s cat. She helps to smuggle Fleabag when the humans threaten to leave him behind.

As the crew battle the elements to reach Gemma, she is struggling with her own problems. A powerful wizard has invaded her mind, intent on taking the power of the ring fire for himself.

The plot moves along at a cracking pace with non stop action and ever present danger. Fleabag worries about his lack of sufficient breakfasts and naps, determined to help Gemma that she may return to important tasks such as scratching his tummy and offering relief from his fleas.

The dramatic denouement is marvelously written, with home made armour, dragons and a hoard of angry islanders under the wizard’s evil spell. There are lessons to be learned about keeping secrets; poignancy in the dark wizard’s dungeon; but it is the courage and humour that shine through this tale.

If your children enjoy reading of magic, adventure, action and cats then do introduce them to Fleabag. This reworked edition has new illustrations throughout which add to the visual appeal. Young readers are in for a treat.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Fleabag and the Ring Fire

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Fleabag and the Ring Fire, by Beth Webb, is the first book in a fantasy adventure trilogy aimed at 7-11 year olds. It introduces the reader to Gemma the kitchen maid, Rowanne the lady knight, Phelan the thief, and the incorrigible Fleabag, a three legged talking cat. Together this unlikely trio set out on a quest to find the Fire Ring, a symbol of power which has been hidden after the old queen died without naming a successor. Only one who is worthy will be able to find the jewel, and Gemma has been tasked with authenticating it when returned.

Gemma is only ten years old and has never before left the city of Harflorum where she was plucked from the streets as a young child and given a job in the palace kitchens. Her life has not been easy, mainly due to the cruel cook under whom she must work. The responsibilities she has now been given come close to overwhelming her. She does not understand how someone so ordinary can be of importance to the realm.

The mysterious Fire Wielder, who even the queen venerated, tasks Rowanne, a pompous Knight of the Queen’s Guard, with protecting the child. This proves to be a challenge for them both. Gemma’s only friend in the palace was Fleabag, the queen’s disreputable cat. He is a useful ally and advisor to the girl but is hated by Rowanne. The feeling is mutual.

The group set out on a long and difficult journey. They travel through cities where the populace are mistreated by a cruel prince, ignored by pontificating academics, and terrorised by a fearsome beast. Even when their party is joined by Phelan, a boy who chose a life of crime after he was orphaned, they seem little match for the forces they must face. They have a year and a day to find the ring before its magical fire goes out and chaos descends.

In Harflorum, the Fire Wielder placed a little of the ring fire in Gemma’s care. Phelan has some knowledge of this strange force and helps Gemma to use the power she has been given. Gemma recoils from the responsibility, yet steadfastly pursues the task she promised her beloved queen she would complete. The denouement is satisfying with the story being wound up but questions remaining for the next two books in the series to answer.

The writing is straightforward but not simplistic. There is plenty of action to keep this age group engaged. The fabulous illustrations of key characters scattered throughout the text add to the visual appeal. Fleabag is wonderful, a cat of the highest calibre despite appearances.

This is a reworked edition of a story first published in 1995 when it gained many young fans. The text has been tightened and new illustrations added to create a gorgeous book wrapped around a world where magic and dragons are more than just myths.

I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this tale. A treasure trove for young people, highly recommended.

 

 

Book Review: Devil

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Devil, by David Churchill, is the first book in a planned historical trilogy. The series of books, The Leopards of Normandy, will tell in imagined detail the story of William the Conqueror. This first installment concentrates on William’s parents and the circumstances of his birth. Drawing from known historical facts the author weaves a compelling tale of power, sex and violence. He brings the characters to life.

The Duchy of Normandy was created to bring peace between the King of France and the Viking invaders who had slaughtered, raped and pillaged their way across the lowlands of Flanders, the seashores of Brittany and the vineyards of Burgundy for more than twenty years. Their leader, Rollo, was now in his sixty-fifth year and felt ready to settle down. In exchange for fealty the King offered him land and a title. He became the first Duke of Normandy.

When Rollo’s great-grandson died the Dukedom passed to his eldest son, Richard. However, there was enmity between Richard and his younger brother Robert, William’s father. Both were young men who were all too willing to fight for what they believed were their rights. Overseeing this bloody feud and attempting to broker peace was their father’s brother, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Although he sided with his namesake in many areas of contention he refused to condone his choice of partner, a lowly tanner’s daughter named Herleva who became William’s mother.

The detailed history is fascinating but it is the imagined personalities and the causes of each intrigue which make this book so hard to put down. This story is not just about battles won and lost but is a tale of individual courage, risk, a lust for wealth, power and vengeance which spanned a continent. The distances between places matters when the fastest means of transport is a horse which will tire or a boat which may be sunk or becalmed. Hunger, thirst and cold are as deadly as spears, arrows and boiling tar.

The ruling classes in France and its neighbouring countries were closely related through blood ties and political marriages. The elder Robert’s sister, Emma, had married two Kings of England, Ethelred and Canute, bearing each of them sons. Canute had a second wife who also had a son. These children were sent away young to be raised in the countries they were destined to rule. When questions of succession arose in any of these lands it was common to have titles taken by force leaving those with blood rights bearing grudges which they would raise their children to avenge.

The history covered in this book is known so there are few major surprises in the plot. The way in which it is told though makes it a worthwhile read. What is gained is an understanding of why things happened as they did, even those acts which seem brutal and shocking by today’s standards. If history could always be told in such colourful detail it would be far more enjoyable for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

 

 

Book Review: The Abrupt Physics of Dying

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The Abrupt Physics of Dying, by Paul E. Hardisty, is an action packed contemporary thriller set in the Yemen. It explores the hubris of the wealthy and powerful who believe that they are above the law. It lays bare the secretive and incestuous relationships between politicians and big business.

The protagonist, Clay Straker, is a contract engineer working for an oil company. His job involves getting environmental reports written and passed, often by nefarious means, in order that his clients may be seen to be complying with international regulations as regards local water supplies and air quality, regulations intended to provide safeguards for the indigenous population.

When Clay is forced at gunpoint to confront the reality of his client’s operations he finds himself a pawn in a dangerous game. With civil war breaking out around him he uncovers lies and secrets that are costing lives. The more layers he penetrates in the various organisations with which he is forced to become involved the harder it becomes to trust anyone.

Clay is a typical all action hero with a murky past. He is ex-military and his training enables him to survive violent encounters with those sent to stop him. He has the inevitable sexual liaison with an attractive woman who he probably shouldn’t trust but talks openly with anyway. So far, so predictable.

Where this book stands out is the fantastic writing, the stunning imagery. The author evokes the heat, the fear, the colour, smells, and tension of each scene. I may not have warmed to the characters but I felt that I was there with them, feeling what they were feeling and thereby gaining a better understanding of why they acted as they did.

Despite the shouting and gun waving I felt sympathy for the so called terrorists and extremists whose land was being plundered, something that the western media does what it can to suppress. Within the plot the reader is shown how populations are manipulated into supporting damaging causes for economic benefit. Distant races are dehumanised and presented as a threat. Those who do nothing become passively complicit in allowing the rape of lands to sustain the power and influence of the few.

These messages, whilst uncomfortable to consider, are a part of the plot but do not overshadow what is a fast moving and compelling story. The intrigue is gripping, the characters complex, the denouement satisfying.

This is the first book released by Orenda Books. It is an impressive debut for both author and publisher.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: Dance With The Enemy

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Dance With The Enemy, by Rob Sinclair, is an action adventure story with all the elements required to keep the reader engaged and entertained.

The protagonist, Carl Logan, is an experienced and capable government secret agent who has recently been physically and psychologically damaged in the line of duty. His rehabilitation has met with mixed success but his boss feels obliged to offer him the opportunity to resurrect his career. Against advice Carl is called back into the field to investigate the high profile kidnapping of America’s Attorney General by suspected terrorists.

The bare bones of the story are familiar. The agent is a loner, skilled in combat, not afraid to cause mayhem. He works with the knowledge that he will not be held accountable for his actions so long as he gets the job done. There are fight scenes, car chases, personal vendettas and the inevitable girl. This is a story that could appeal to fans of James Bond and the plethora of maverick, save the world heroes who have followed in his wake.

Carl is not, however, a slick, smooth mover and shaker. He is damaged goods, harbouring his resentments and sometimes making mistakes. As the story twists and turns his weaknesses dilute the cold efficiency required for the assigned mission. I may have felt more sympathy had benevolence been shown when the resultant outcome did not directly benefit him.

This is a well enough written tale with plenty of pace, tension and a neatly worked denouement. I felt sympathy for the innocents who got in his way but for readers looking for the escapism that this type of story offers, who consider bad guys to be fair game and collateral damage a necessary cost, Carl Logan is an apposite player.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.