The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips

‘Ebenezer Tweezer was a terrible man with a wonderful life’

From this first line Jack Meggitt-Phillips had me hook, line and sinker. I knew straight away that I was going to love this book! I was pretty convinced I would love it just from the amazing cover. Those sharp, dripping teeth and the surly looking girl on the cover really draw you in and make you curious about what the book is about. This is one of my top middle grade books of 2020.

Ebenezer Tweezer is 511 years old but he doesn’t look a day over 20. His youthful good looks come courtesy of the beast that he keeps in the attic of his fifteen-storey home. As long as he feeds this grotesque beast he will continue to get a special formula that keeps him from ageing. Ebenezer feeds the beast all manner of things and the beast vomits out items in return. Birds and even Ebenezer’s favourite cat have been devoured by the beast. So when the beast requests to eat a child Ebenezer must find one for it. Ebenezer decides that the beast needs to eat a horrible child, one that really deserves to be eaten. Along comes Bethany. However Bethany is not quite what he expected, and soon Ebenezer starts to have second thoughts. The beast demands to be fed and he wants to eat Bethany, whether she likes it or not.

The Beast and the Bethany is a deliciously dark tale that made me chuckle with glee. It is a story that is a bucketload of fun but also has a whole lot of heart. I loved the gory details but I also loved seeing how Ebenezer and Bethany’s relationship developed throughout the story. I found myself smiling every time I read more and I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Everything about the story is brilliant, from the storytelling and dialogue to the characters.

I love both Bethany and Ebenezer. Bethany has a surly, confronting exterior but she’s an orphan who’s had a pretty rubbish life. She treats others as the world has treated her. Ebenezer has led a long, privileged life, with all of the money and things he could want, but he’s also trapped serving a horrible beast. Bethany is the horrible child that Ebenezer needs to keep the beast satisfied and Ebenezer is a way out of the orphanage for Bethany (but she’s still not happy about it). This is certainly not rich-man-adopts-adorable-orphan like Annie, but their relationship is kind of cute. The beast himself is quite entertaining and some of its lines made me laugh, especially when its describing the type of child it wants to eat.

Isabelle Follath’s illustrations are the perfect match for Jack’s story. She perfectly captures Ebenezer and Bethany’s personalities and the tone of the story. I love the way that she has captured Ebenezer ageing throughout the story. The cover, designed by Matt Jones, is my favourite cover of 2020. I love the way that the beast’s teeth shine, as well as the globs of drool that drip out of its mouth. You can tell from looking at Bethany on the front cover that she is not just going to sit back and get eaten.

The Beast and the Bethany would be an amazing read aloud for Years 5-8 and a great class set for the same level. I would love to have the chance to read it aloud as the language is so rich and the characters have such clear voices in my head. It would be a fantastic audiobook. I was very excited to see that there is a sequel coming next year and I can’t wait to read it.

Death or Ice Cream by Gareth P. Jones

I love finding authors who write a wide range of stories.  They don’t just write the same kinds of stories for the same age group, but really branch out and write all sorts of stuff.  Gareth P. Jones is one of those authors.  I first discovered Gareth when I picked up his first book, Constable and Toop.  I loved this book so much that I just wanted to read everything that he had written.  He stories can be hilariously funny, spooky and spine-tingling, or eerie and mysterious, and can feature ghosts, dinosaurs, and pirate robots.  In Gareth’s latest book, Death or Ice Cream? he takes us to the town of Larkin Mills and introduces us to the weird and wonderful characters that call this place home.

DeathLarkin Mills: The Birthplace of Death! Larkin Mills is no ordinary town. It’s a place of contradictions and enigma, of secrets and mysteries. A place with an exquisite ice cream parlour, and an awful lot of death. An extraordinary mystery in Larkin Mills is beginning to take shape. First we meet the apparently healthy Albert Dance, although he’s always been called a sickly child, and he’s been booked into Larkin Mills’ Hospital for Specially Ill Children. Then there’s his neighbour Ivor, who observes strange goings-on, and begins his own investigations into why his uncle disappeared all those years ago. Next we meet Young Olive, who is given a battered accordion by her father, and unwittingly strikes a dreadful deal with an instrument repair man. Make sure you keep an eye on Mr Morricone, the town ice-cream seller, who has queues snaking around the block for his legendary ice cream flavours Summer Fruits Suicide and The Christmas Massacre. And Mr Milkwell, the undertaker, who has some very dodgy secrets locked up in his hearse. Because if you can piece together what all these strange folks have to do with one another …well, you’ll have begun to unlock the dark secrets that keep the little world of Larkin Mills spinning.

Death or Ice Cream? is dark, devilish and fun and I loved every minute of it!  The book is a series of interconnected spine-tingling stories, with a large helping of black humour, that draws you into the strange town of Larkin Mills.  Gareth made me laugh out loud, shiver and cringe.

I love the way that each of the stories interconnect and interact with each other.  There are characters (Mr Morricone) and objects (a vial of purple liquid) that pop up in a few of the stories and you wonder about the significance of these.  A story that you have just read could relate to the story that you read next, and I often thought it was quite clever how they related to each other.  Each of the stories is a piece of the jigsaw that you add to with each new story, and by the end of the book we know all about Larkin Mills and its secrets.

There are so many characters to love in Death or Ice Cream?  We get brief glimpses of characters, only to realise that they are much more important than you thought, and they turn up in another story.  In the first story there is a man going door-t0-door selling anecdotes.  You don’t learn much about him but you just know that he will turn up later.  Like the town itself, many of the characters appear to be hiding something.  Why, for example, is Mr Morricone’s Ice Cream Parlour so popular?  Why does his ice cream have such wicked sounding names, like Mowed Down Madness or Trigger Finger of Fudge?  Then there is the undertaker, Mr Milkwell, who runs a hotel/funeral home where the guests are both living and dead.

The TV shows that Gareth has added into the book gave me a good chuckle too. My favourite is called Flog It Or Burn It, where competitors are trying to sell their family heirlooms against the clock.  The person with the most unsold items has their burnt in front of a live studio audience.  It sounds much more exciting than Antiques Roadshow or Cash in the Attic.  One of the characters loves watching competitive basket weaving, which I’m sure would be thrilling.

Pick up a copy of the devilishly funny Death or Ice Cream? now and discover what’s going on in Larkin Mills.  This is one town you don’t ever want to visit!

The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Carlos Ruiz Zafon is one of those authors whose books I will always read, no matter what they’re about.  I’ve read everything that he’s written (that has been translated into English) and have loved every single one.  I’m indebted to Text Publishing who introduced me to Carlos Ruiz Zafon when they published the first of his books translated into English, The Shadow of the Wind.  It’s my absolute favourite book and I still remember how I felt when I first read it.  Whenever I read one of his books I find I get completely wrapped up in the story and can think about little else.  Carlos’ latest book from Text is his third book for younger readers, The Watcher in the Shadows.

A mysterious toymaker, Lazarus, lives as a recluse in a crumbling mansion by the sea, surrounded by the mechanical beings he has created. Strange lights seem to shine through the mists that envelop the small island where the old lighthouse stands, and somewhere in the woods nearby lurks a shadowy creature.

When her mother takes a job as a housekeeper for the toymaker, fourteen-year-old Irene meets Hannah and her alluring sailor cousin Ismael, and what seems like a dream summer begins. But Lazarus’s house contains dark secrets and before long Irene and Ismael find themselves entwined in the mystery of the September lights.

The Watcher in the Shadows is my favourite of Carlos’ novels for younger readers.  It’s a Young Adult book but adults will love it too, especially if you’re a fan of Carlos’ writing.  As soon as I started reading I found myself wrapped up in this magical, mysterious and dark story.  Carlos’ wonderful descriptive language transports you to the mysterious setting of the story, with the dilapidated mansion and the light house at its center.

Like the characters in the book, you slowly put together the pieces of the puzzle as the story progresses.  The more you find out the faster you want to gobble up the story.  It’s the sort of book you want to read all in one go because it’s so difficult to stop.  Carlos is a master of mystery and suspense and I just love the way he pulls everything together.  He certainly leaves me in awe at his amazing storytelling.

One of the things I love the most about his books, and this one especially, is the way that he layers the story.  There are stories within the main story.  Characters in his books often tell stories to other characters to give you pieces of the puzzle.  In The Watcher in the Shadows the toymaker, Lazarus, tells stories to Simone and her son Dorian about his childhood, and Irene uncovers the story of Alma Matisse through reading her diary.

The Watcher in the Shadows is deliciously dark and spooky.  There were several parts that made a shiver go down my spine.  The story is all about this shadowy creature, the ‘watcher in the shadows,’ but there are plenty of other creepy things in the story, including a crumbling mansion filled with strange mechanical beings, that has many dark corridors and secret passages.

Like his other stories, I’m sure The Watcher in the Shadows will stick with me and I won’t be able to stop thinking about it for a long time.

I’m incredibly excited to be meeting Carlos Ruiz Zafon at the Auckland Writer’s Festival this weekend.  I hope that I’ll be able to say more than ‘I love your books’ to him and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about his writing and his wonderful books.  I never thought I’d get the chance to meet him (as he’s a Spanish author) so this is a dream come true for me.

Fracture by Megan Miranda

Twitter has been a great tool for me to find out about hot new books and great new authors to try.  Every now and again a book comes along and it seems that everyone is raving about it, reviewing it and spreading the word.  Megan Miranda’s Fracture was one of those books recently and I wanted to know what all the buzz was about.  I just read the blurb (because I can’t bring myself to read a review of a book before I actually read it) and was intrigued by the idea.  I got my hands on a copy and surfaced a couple of days later with this eerie, captivating story in my head.

After falling into the icy waters of a frozen lake, Delaney Maxwell is officially dead for eleven minutes.  Rescued by her friends, she is taken to hospital and falls into a coma, from which she is not expected to wake.  Then, miraculously, she regains consciousness with few signs of damage to her brain.  According to the doctors she should be a cabbage, but she seems to be fully functioning.  But Delaney knows that something is very wrong.  She is pulled by forces outside of her control and starts to have a series of seizures.  Delaney finds herself drawn to the dying, but she doesn’t know if she is predicting death or causing it.  As she struggles to come to terms with these strange feelings, she is drawn to the mysterious Troy Varga who seems to know what she is going through.  Troy knows the truth about her ‘gift’ but will Delaney use it as Troy suggests or take a different path?

Fracture is a dark, eerie story that will keep you turning the pages to discover the truth.  Megan had me guessing right up until the very end and I wasn’t even sure it was going to end on a positive note for a while.  I love it when an author holds onto the mystery or the secret right up until the end of the story, because it makes you want to keep reading (and reading furiously) to discover how it all ends.  The story reminded me, both in the setting and the dark tone, of something written by Dean Koontz or John Connolly.  Megan really put you in Delaney’s shoes and I kept asking myself if I would have done the same in her situation.  Delaney has to come to terms with her ‘gift,’ as well as figuring out how she feels about Carson, Decker, Troy, and her parents, so Megan made us feel Delaney’s pain, jealousy, grief, anger, and love.  Troy was one of the hardest character to try and figure out.  I wasn’t really sure of what his motives were, and even when I did, I wasn’t sure that they were right.  He almost seemed like Delaney’s shadow as he always seemed to be there, even when she was sleeping.  I have to applaud Megan for writing one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve read in a while.  I won’t say much, because I hate spoilers, but it involves Carson and Delaney.  Let’s just say I had to put the book down for a few minutes afterwards.

I’m sure Fracture will haunt me for days to come and will have me wondering what I would do if I only had a day left to live.

4 out of 5 stars

Brother/Sister by Sean Olin

Some books you can only read when you feel in the right mood, and other books have the power to affect your mood.  Sean Olin’s latest book, Brother/Sister got so inside my head that it started to affect my mood.  It has to be one of the darkest, most disturbing Young Adult books that I’ve read in a long time

The brother and sister of the title are Will and Ashley and each chapter alternates between their points of view.  Sean Olin grabs you from the first paragraph,

“How many times do I have to say it?  Yes, I see the picture.  You’ve been shoving it in my face for, like, the past forty-five minutes.  And, yes, I understand what it is.  It’s a body, obviously.  It’s a dead body.  I’m not blind, okay?”

Both Will and Asheley are being interviewed by the police and it’s clear that they have something to do with the dead body.  Through their interviews we hear about their lives and their decisions that have lead them to this point.  Their parents have never been good role models.  Their mum has mental health problems which have lead to drink and drugs so she’s always in and out of rehab centres.  Their dad decided he couldn’t handle their mum and just up and left one day.  For a while now they’ve only had each other to look out for them and Will is the protective older brother.  He loves his sister and he’ll do anything to protect her.  When Asheley’s boyfriend forces himself on her, Will lashes out and does the unthinkable.   Asheley struggles to keep it together and Will really starts to spiral out of control, believing that people will find out what he’s done and try to take Asheley from him.  But at what stage does Will’s love for his sister cross the line?

Brother/Sister is a dark and disturbing story about the relationship between a brother and sister and the lengths they will go to to look out for each other.  Sean Olin takes the reader to some dark places and just when you think the character’s situation couldn’t get worse, it does.  Sean does an amazing job of getting inside his character’s heads and showing the reader the different sides of these characters.  Both Will and Asheley have authentic voices and, even when Will was at his most unstable, I still empathised with him.  Although I found the story disturbing in parts, Sean’s writing style made me want to keep reading to see how it would end.  If you enjoyed Jenny Downham’s You Against Me, try Sean Olin’s different take on the brother/sister relationship.