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.

 

Review: Kings of the Castle by Victoria Turnbull

Fantastically atmospheric book about friendship through imagination.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Templar Publishing

Kings of the Castle  is an absolutely stunning book. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it, and the story reflects the marine setting as it flows and then is reined in. The characters are creative and the result is a balanced, beautiful book.

George, Boris and Nepo’s story unfolds (including literally!) as George tries to use the night to create the best sandcastle. Despite little to no ability to communicate, he sets to work with the stranger from beneath the waves to create a night-time kingdom. The book demonstrates that friendship and common ground, can go beyond what can only be put across with words.

The illustrations make the book by far. There is something so peaceful yet intriguing about the moonlit seaside. Much like Turnbull’s Sea Tiger, the creatures are beautifully rendered and seem to embody the silent life of the seabed. All this is not to say the the story is any less then great. Turnbull is a master of the picture book form, as the illustrations and words slip into each other perfectly.

I recommend Kings of the Castle to any fan of good picture books. Children are captivated by it and adults are awed by it. Turnbull is swiftly becoming one of my favourite author-illustrators.

Review: Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

Role reversal in a High Fantasy world.

Publication date: 7th June 2016
Publisher: First Second Books

In a world of fantastical creatures, elves and adventurers, it seems like there’s no place for Goblin. When his best friend Skeleton is cruelly taken as loot, he has to leave his cave and enter this hostile world, but it turns out that more people like goblins than you might think.

Nobody Likes a Goblin ticked all the boxes for me. It’s funny, fantastically illustrated and has a well-executed plot. The humour appeals to young readers as well as adults, especially those with knowledge of high fantasy tropes, along the lines of Dungeons and Dragons. There are even multiple threads which come together at the end, something which is not easily done in the confines of a picture book. This is a great achievement on Hatke’s part.

The illustrations are wonderful, with consistent attention to detail. Hatke obviously also has a tendency towards ‘easter eggs’, as the book is peppered with entertaining elements hidden in the background. The characters are remarkably expressive and the landscapes are portrayed with a depth which contributes to the fantastical atmosphere.

I recommend this picture book to readers of all ages – it has all the qualities of a great book. In terms of illustration, let’s just say that there are pages in there that I’d like to have as prints on my wall. Nobody Likes a Goblin is a fantastic read, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Hatke.

 

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Historical fantasy with a feisty heroine.

Publication date: 5th May 2016
Publisher: Egmont

I really enjoyed Serafina and the Black Cloak – a strong middle grade mystery which keeps you on your toes throughout. Serafina is a great protagonist to follow, and the plot blends personal self-discovery with social commentary and magical threats. Set on the Biltmore Estate, Serafina is hiding in the Vanderbilt house as the secret daughter of their live-in engineer. When the children in the house start to disappear, she is forced to emerge from her isolated life in order to get to the bottom of the puzzle.

The glitz and glamour of the Vanderbilt family’s manor comes into stark contrast with our heroine, who has never received a present in her life and whose only clothes are her father’s old shirts. As Serafina allows herself to access the world that surrounds her but that she’s never been a part of, the reader is also introduced to the Vanderbilts and the Gilded Age. The historical elements transition smoothly into the fantastical, as the Man in the Black Cloak takes centre stage.

Beatty’s writing style is simple – perhaps a little too simple at times – and conversational. I especially liked the use of dialect and slang, which Serafina’s father uses regularly, and which she herself slips into. Not only does it serve to accentuate the social differences between the ‘upstairs’ and the ‘downstairs,’ it also creates a more complete picture of the life and experiences of Serafina and her “pa.”

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a magical mystery, with a wild atmosphere and a truly terrifying villain. The novel stops short of ‘gritty’ due to its strong message of friendship and love, but considering the two major climaxes occur in a graveyard, and Beatty does not hesitate to write blood and gore, I’d prepare for a gripping read.