Review: Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes: Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse by Stella Tarakson

The first in what promises to be an epic series.

Publication date: 6th April 2017
Publisher: Sweet Cherry Publishing

Funny, compelling and oddly educational, Gormless Gods and Hapless Heroes: Tim Baker and the Ancient Curse blends realism and fantasy seamlessly. When Tim Baker accidentally broke his mother’s priceless, ancient vase, he expected to get a telling off not his own resident hero! As Hercules bursts through the life of the 21st century school boy like a bull in a china shop, Tim learns a little something about how to navigate his own life himself.

Tim and Hercules are a dynamic duo of entertainment. They are well-constructed characters, that Stella Tarakson truly brings to life. Tim is multi-faceted, and his reaction to Hercules’ takeover of his life is constructed in a sensitive and realistic way. Likewise, Hercules and Tim’s mum – who may have run the risk of fitting into stereotypes of the ‘meathead’ hero and ‘no-fun’ mum – demonstrate an unexpected breadth of character. Tarakson’s characterisation alone is a joy to experience, and the book just gets better and better.

Mythologically, it brings in more than I expected it to. The story juxtaposes the original labours of Hercules with the trials of being an awkward young boy trying to support both himself and his mother. Lesser known labours, such as the Augean stables, make a welcome appearance. Perhaps I was ready to be confronted by another portrayal of Hercules as per Disney or Kevin Sorbo, but what I got instead is a genuine adaptation of the original hero.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a school-and-friendship-based novel, and are open to the fantastical, mythological world the flows through it. It is the first in a series, and it ends with a cliffhanger, so I am excited to see how it develops! This is solid middle grade at its best.

 

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Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Story about a boy and his fox, with a serious look at war and its costs.

Publication date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins

Pax is a truly inspiring book, focusing on loss both personal and universal. It is especially topical at the moment when victims of war are in the news, presented through so many different lenses. The novel carefully avoids commenting on the positives and negatives of war, but highlights its implications.

Although arguably not much ‘happens’ in the book, I’m having a hard time reviewing it without feeling like I would be spoiling it for future readers with everything I reveal. Everything about this book was so well-written and intriguing, that I can only urge you to pick it up for yourselves.

I really enjoyed Pennypacker’s writing. Looking through the eyes of the fox was written eloquently; as far from a gimmick as possible. Her interest in the animal – as noted in the epilogue – is evident. The characters are beautifully constructed, and Pax’s is a fascinating portrayal, which avoids anthropomorphism whilst simultaneously exploring his personality.

I recommend Pax unconditionally. It’s wonderfully written and a captivating story for all ages. This is a masterful novel from Pennypacker, which touches on identity, regret and family. I look forward to reading her next book.

Review: The Search for the Homestead Treasure by Ann Treacy

Excellent historical fiction about a little-known Minnesota community.

Publication date: 19th May 2016
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

The Search for the Homestead Treasure spans two generations of Swedish immigrants to the US. Combining the carefully researched history of this community with that of the Romani Gypsies in the area – all under the auspices of a mystery story, the novel is ambitious and it pays off.

Treacy is evidently psychologically astute, tuned in to the actions and fears of a young girl from centuries ago. The extensive explanatory epilogue is a perfect conclusion to the book, as the reader is able to delve deeper into the reality of the characters. Treacy admits to autobiographical elements – which arguably give the work its distinct air of authenticity – as well as the extent of her poetic licence.

The Gunnarsson family are also sensitively presented, as they deal with the grief of losing a son and brother. The theme which underpins the reader’s growing relationship with the protagonist, Martin, is subtly expounded and fascinating to follow. It blends beautifully with the discoveries he makes about the family’s past, and its intertwined destiny with the eponymous Homestead.

I recommend this novel as a first foray into historical fiction. Especially interesting as a glimpse into rural life in the early 20th century, as well as as a mystery. The social issues raised by the depiction of family are also worth taking into consideration.

Review: Mystery and Mayhem – a short story collection

What it says on the tin – fantastic murder mysteries by contemporary children’s authors.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Egmont

I am partial to a good short story collection, and Mystery and Mayhem really delivers that bite-sized intrigue every short story should have. There is not a dull moment, and every story is on point.

Each writer has a unique voice, with a fascinating way of murdering their literary creations. Some play with your head, some play with your emotion – some do both in wonderful combination. Peppered with that special brand of British humour, with elements which range Gorey-esque to Blackadder and everything in between, the stories are separated into Impossible Mysteries, Canine Capers, Poison Plots or Closed-system Crimes.

It’s also interesting to note that the majority of these stories are set in the past – anything from Sherlock Holmes’ time to Hercule Poirot’s. This allows for a glamorous feel to the collection, with exotic fruit hidden in hoop skirts and horse-drawn carriages alongside online research and dog-walking services.

I recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys fun, well-written literature (so… anyone). The stories are fantastic and, as I realised after I’d read it, they are all written by women. As it should be, no attention is drawn to this fact, they are simply described as “twelve of the best children’s crime writers writing today.” Yet it is hardly surprising, in retrospect, as the female characters are well-rounded and interesting, and there is a strong portrayal of male-female friendships with no need for romance, which is refreshing to read.