The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

Poor Barnaby! Not just because he’s born with the tendency1 to float up and away, free of Earth’s gravity. Not because this means he must struggle to stay down on the planet’s surface as the normally weighted people do, but rather because his parents find it deeply humiliating to have a child who cannot keep his feet on the ground. (His siblings don’t have a problem with it.) As his parents are relentlessly normal, Barnaby spends his infancy and toddlerhood kept strictly at home; it is not until he reaches Australia’s mandatory minimum school age that his parents reluctantly allow him to mingle with non-immediate family members, and even then, they’re careful to select a school which none of their acquaintances’ children attend, one which can control the children attending…a reform school in short.

One day his mother can take no more embarrassment over the “public censure” she’s sure her son’s “disability” is causing the family; she takes poor Barnaby out for a walk and when he isn’t looking, slits open the backpack full of sand he’s wearing in order to keep him grounded. Inevitably, poor Barnaby drifts away as the sand drains out of his pack…and here we begin the more than slightly “Perils of Pauline” portion of Barnaby’s life.

As he rises this first time, he fortuitously bumps his head on the basket of a pair of adventuresses who ran off together to a Brazilian coffee plantation after their families declared them to be ‘abnormal’; they loved coffee and they loved each other, but periodically they set off in their hot air balloon for a bit of a vacation, and it is during one of these jaunts that they meet Barnaby. They take him to their plantation for a week, then put him on the train to Rio de Janeiro, where he is to fly back to Sydney and his family.

Unfortunately, he forgets to set his alarm, oversleeps, and wakes up in New York, at the end of the line. Here, someone steals his weights and he floats off into the sky…only to bump (literally) into the cage of someone washing the windows of the Chrysler Building. This kind young man dresses Barnaby’s bruised forehead in his own apartment then sends him off to the airport…but forgets to give him cab fare in addition to arranging the flight. Pushed out of the cab by the irate driver upon discovering that his “fare” hasn’t the necessary fare, Barnaby drifts upward and away, only to be rescued at the tip of a whip of a ringmaster looking to expand his freak show.

And so on. Eventually he does make it home, to his family in Sydney, only to realize that he would much prefer to be floating away into the sky to take his chances with the people he meets there.

It’s an interesting tale of accepting yourself and the difference between us all, of finding your “family” in the sense of the people who will love and support you rather than your biological family. As for the writing style, at various points the text reminded me of Roald Dahl, in the horridness of the adults, and at others, of Lemony Snicket, in the more than slightly purple prose and improbable situations. (Floating off into space, only to bump your head on the cage of a window washer?) As I suspect with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, many readers will have issues with this book, for a variety of reasons. For starters, Barnaby sounds both younger and older than his eight years, though in this case, his isolation from the outside world would plausibly result in his naivete. The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket may be a little easier to accept because it’s so clearly a fantasy parable while The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a real setting.

1I hesitate to say “ability” as he has no control over it

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By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman

Our story begins in Boston in 1849, where our protagonist, Jack Flagg, and his two younger sisters, Constance and Sarah, have been raised by their maiden aunt, Arabella, since their parents’ death. Unfortunately, Arabella has used up the last of her own family fortune and is on the verge of needing to sell their family mansion. Jack, a bold boy of twelve, determines to save the family finances by running off to the gold fields of California, of which news has recently reached our fair city1.

The family butler, Praiseworthy2, accompanies Jack to the gold fields, though they are forced to stow away on the Lady Wilma after their passage fare is stolen. Upon revealing themselves to the captain, they’re promptly set to shoveling coal into the ship’s boilers…but since they’re sailing through the frigid North Atlantic, this is hardly the punishment it appears to be. Praiseworthy proves himself equally resourceful during that voyage and in the gold fields. Becalmed in the tropical doldrums, and the ship’s running low on water? How to water the grapevine cuttings one passenger’s staked his hopes on…buy the potatoes on which another passenger has staked his fortune! Stuck with a barrel full of neck ties in a community where grubby denim and worn flannel is the norm? Sell it to lovelorn miners when the first lady in deity knows how long shows up…and so on.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, they make their way to the gold mining region and start working on amassing the fortune necessary to Save The Family Domicile. They do, earning both nicknames and a reputation for clever athletic prowess along with their rather heavy fortune in gold nuggets and dust…which is lost when they go overboard after their ship explodes. All proves well in the end, as Arabella, Constance and Sarah have themselves come to San Francisco, after realizing that they too would just as soon be having adventures in the woolly gold fields, and Praiseworthy and Arabella realize that true love has bridged the divide between mistress and butler.

While it is fun to read on its own—that’s what I did, although in fairness, I was a child attending elementary school in San Francisco at the time I read it—I can see this being included as part of the curriculum for grade school kids studying the Gold Rush specifically, and nineteenth century history generally. It’s not detailed enough, much less accurate enough, to serve as primary material any more than Lawson’s Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I could for the American Revolution. All three would do a great deal to humanize the time period, however; I think they’re rattling good adventure stories that might well prompt kids to voluntarily read more on the subject. Robbers, vandals, brigands and highwaymen, adventurers, roisterers, gruff men but kind, this is definitely a Guy Book for kids who aren’t quite ready to move on to Gary Paulsen. Certainly, Fleischman has a couple of other kids’ books set at about the same time that might also be fun to read—Mr. Midnight and Company, Jingo Django and Humbug Mountain—though they don’t have quite the same historical flavor as this one. Not that that’s necessarily a problem.

1with a nod to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers
2isn’t that a grand foreshadowing name, now?

Dr. Siri Paiboun by Colin Cotterill

The initial disclaimer: ‘Dr. Siri Paiboun’ is actually the name of the mystery series’ protagonist, not the title of any of the mysteries.

Dr. Paiboun has been roped into serving as Laos’ only coroner after the wars ended in the mid-1970s, and he isn’t happy about it. He’s seventy-two, and he was looking forward to a quiet receding into a retirement of calm contemplation and very little action at all. No such luck.

Instead, he gets to deal with being the only coroner in a nation with little technology (even for the mid-seventies) much less things like a reliable constant power grid, and a non-corrupt political structure. The politicians who govern the coroner’s office have no medical training and very little in the way of intelligence or education. This is not forensics or autopsy technique that would be recognized by any European or North American coroner’s office of the time; no Kay Scarpetta, Paiboun hasn’t even a scale designed to weigh the bodies, or a bone saw. Given the local climate, they’re lucky to have refrigerated storage for the bodies. He has one nurse, Dtui, and one assistant, a Mr. Geung, who though he has Down’s Syndrome does serve the coroner’s office well, given that his prodigious memory retains all that Paiboun’s predecessor did prior to swimming the Mekhong with an inner tube some months before Paiboun’s appointment at the beginning of the series.

If there’s such a thing as a cozy police procedural series, this is it, although I’m sure there are many who’d niggle that definition! I’m using it in the sense of a series with a protagonist who is not a detective or affiliated with the established law enforcement government agency which investigates suspicious deaths—your choice of official here. (local police force, FBI, immigration, whatever) In fairness, a government coroner is far closer to ‘connected with established law enforcement’ than most of the cozies out there. Strictly speaking, the ‘Siri Paiboun’ series is closer to a police procedural than a cozy, as the protagonist is an official government agent affiliated with law enforcement, and the story lines themselves do involved criminal forensics.

On the plus side, for me, Cotterill’s picked someone who would quite plausibly encounter dead bodies which became that way under mysterious or suspicious circumstances: the national coroner. The minus? Cotterill isn’t actually a member of one of the groups indigenous to the region…in fairness, that may or may not be an issue, but I know some people get ruffled about cultural appropriation. In that case, I would make the polite request “Suggest a mystery author who does so belong AND who writes in a language I can read.”

Overall, I liked the series well enough to come back and voluntarily read a second—not the case for many mysteries I’ve read in the last couple of years. There are flaws, of course, but I’d chalk those up to The Coroner’s Lunch being the first in the series. I read two in the series, the first (The Coroner’s Lunch) and the eighth (Slash and Burn), and both revolved largely about life in a war-torn nation, piecing life together and trying to feel your way forward in a job that no one else has and a career that the protagonist expected would be over by now.

Arsenic and Old Puzzles by Parnell Hall

When an unidentified guest at one of the local bed-and-breakfasts is found dead one morning, it is not surprising that the police are called in to investigate…but when a crossword and a sudoku puzzle are found on the body, The Puzzle Lady is called in to assist the police. The investigation team has barely begun investigating Death #1, when subsequent bodies, also found inert under suspicious circumstances, start accumulating. A pattern begins to emerge here, that of the stage play/Cary Grant vehicle, Arsenic and Old Lace: Victim #1 has been killed by a mix of arsenic, strychnine and ‘just a pinch of cyanide’ in his glass of (yes, you guessed it) elderberry wine1, Victim #2 is in the window seat, there’s what appears to be a grave in the dirt cellar, and to cap things off, one nephew is engaged to the girl next door, and the other has a gauntly pallid cadaverous visage.

(of course it’s not really connected in any way to Arsenic and Old Lace, but I’ll stop there to as to attempt avoiding spoilers.)

In true cozy style, Hall has his protagonist collect all the suspects together in the parlor of the bed-and-breakfast, in order to Reveal Her Conclusions. Unlike Miss Marple, however, this protagonist is still in full possession of a decidedly youthful interest in men, having had five (plus) marriages, most of which were legal, and a few rewarding relationship with members of the opposite gender. Not to mention the fact that she’s a only mildly reformed smoker and drinker.

This is the most recent (so far as I can tell) in Parnell Hall’s “Puzzle Lady” series; I’ll reserve judgement on the series as a whole until I’ve read a couple more, but this first one I’ve read has already passed a couple of tests with flying colors. One, even coming into the middle of the series, I was able to follow the peripheral details of the relationships here; while I might have found all that repetitive had I followed the series from the beginning, it’s nice to find a series which one can pick up mid-way and yet not feel left out. Another plus for me is that the “hook”, here crossword puzzles, actually served as part of the mystery itself, rather than a mere publicity device; I couldn’t tell that Goldy Bear’s catering business had much to do with the crimes she encountered, for example. (Doesn’t hurt that I like crossword puzzles, nor that the person creating them is himself a reasonably well-respected puzzlemaker.)

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of “hook” cozies out there that might appeal to readers. Though I can’t offhand think of any others which involve crosswords as a central plot point, there are a few that do have as their central characters a lady of mature years with…an enthusiasm for life not usually included in the stereotype of that age group and gender, shall we say? While the protagonists of the series aren’t cookie cutters of each other, I’d suggest starting with Anne George, Rita Lakin, Jeanne Dams’ Shrewsbury series and Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books.

1having made elderberry cordial myself, yes, a liqueur made from straight elderberries is powerfully flavored enough to cover up just about anything.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

As with many picture books, the title gives away the basic point of the book: a bus driver goes on break, abjuring the unseen readers “Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus!”

Pigeon appears two ‘frames’ after the bus driver leaves, saying “I thought he’d never leave.” and proceeds to run through a gamut of pleas with the ‘audience’ to allow him to drive the bus: straightforward, promising to be careful, promising to just steer, then veering off into whines: My cousin Herb drives a bus almost every day, you never let me do anything, just once around the block and so on in a pattern familiar to most parents having to set down household rules about things like bike riding or skateboarding…

The book ends with a crestfallen pigeon left behind as the bus driver returns and drives away; does it end here? NO! the last page is of a rejuvenated pigeon calling out to what appears to be a fire truck. (We only see the front bumper and wheelwell.)

This was apparently Willems’ first picture book, though he’d had plenty of experience on Sesame Street previously; it’s good, though fans of his “Knuffle Bunny” trilogy would do well to keep in mind that those three books are very different, both in design and plotting, than the “Pigeon” series, much less the Elephant and Piggie series. Ideal for kids with squirminess, as it’s designed (I think) for the reader to pause every time the pigeon pleads to be allowed to drive the bus. More astute children will recognize the pattern of their own pleading, whether that be a later bed time, dessert, or some other activity as yet forbidden them.

For fans of this book, never fear: Willems has written a series of ‘Pigeon’ books. Formulaic? You betcha. Following the same basic format? Definitely. But then ask any toddler, and they’ll (usually) insist on “Again, again, again! More, more, more!” Multiple books just like the first in the series is a definite selling point to the target age range for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. If parents have grown weary of that repetitiveness, and the children demanding a “‘tory” can be convinced, there are other books which allow for audience participation, such as Jules Ffeiffer’s Bark, George and Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat books. Or just ask your friendly children’s library staff; they’ve probably got a selection for just this problem.

Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

Wearied parents everywhere will appreciate this tale of a chicken child Who. Will. Not. Stop. Interrupting. the bedtime story ritual. As you may have guessed from the title (and the cover art), this is indeed a book about a chicken who interrupts.

Papa Chicken is putting his daughter to bed, and as so many children do, Little Chicken insists on the proper bedtime ritual, omitting nothing: in this case, weary Papa Chicken must read a bedtime story…but does it end there? Of course not! He admonishes his daughter NOT to interrupt, as she’s supposed to be calming down for bedtime so she can go to sleep. Instead, rather she (surprise, surprise) INTERRUPTS not one but three stories. The first is Hansel and Gretel, when she inserts “OUT jumped a little red chicken, and she said ‘DON’T GO IN! SHE’S A WITCH!’ So Hansel and Gretel didn’t. THE END!” Little Red Riding Hood and Chicken Little evoke similar responses, and similar apologies from the little chicken. (In fairness, I can sympathize, and I expect a good many children can as well; how many times do parents tell their children “Don’t Talk To Strangers!” and isn’t that exactly the point of Little Red Riding Hood?) In the end, the exasperated and very sleepy Papa Chicken says “Why don’t you tell a story?” Startled, the little red chicken takes him up on it…but Papa doesn’t last three sentences. Little Red Chicken kisses her bespectacled papa goodnight and crawls into bed with him.

I’d recommend it for kids who’ve outgrown simpler books such as Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or Jules Pfeiffer’s Bark, George; books such as they are better for kids too young, too immature or too inexperienced to sit through a story with a plot, even so simple a one as Interrupting Chicken, not to mention the problem that Interrupting Chicken is a lot funnier if you have some clue how the disrupted fairy tales in the books are supposed to go…and have begun to grow weary of the same old same old over and over and over again. I think I’m right in remembering that there’s a developmental phase that many kids go through in which they find amusing stories that twist or alter the tired old chestnuts; call Interrupting Chicken an instructional manual for kids who, though they won’t be able to spell it for another couple of decades, already understand perfectly the concept of “subverting the dominant paradigm”.

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of picture books out there for kids in this phase (kids of all ages). Just ask any children’s librarian. I’d suggest starting with books like Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, The Three Little Pigs by David Wiesner, (or Jon Scieska’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) or Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett.

Just to name a few…I’d welcome suggestions for more.

The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

Once upon a time there was a three foot tall Lindworm, named Optimus Yarnspinner…and we’re back in the fantastical word…er….world of Zamonia.

As the book begins, our protagonist’s “authorial godfather”, Dancelot Wordwright, dies after a suitably melodramatic deathbed scene in which he drops a lifetime’s worth of cryptic clues, obscure hints, symbolic digressions, and more than a few literary suggestions. Optimus inherits all of Dancelot’s possessions, chiefly among them the ten-page manuscript for a short story of impossible beauty, and shortly thereafter heads out for Bookholm, city of books, to track down the author of same. Above ground, the city is a book lover’s heaven: Bookholm is dedicated solely to books, literature and the enjoyment and promulgation thereof. There is, however, a seed of destruction germinating here…well, obviously, or we wouldn’t have much of a book, now would we? Underneath the city lies a vast network of catacombs, in which are stored more books than a librarian can dream of…but the labyrinth is populated by a host of unpleasant creatures such as harpyrs and spinxxxxes1, not to mention the Bookhunters, the only people brave enough to descend in search of books.

Optimus first tries to show the manuscript to Inazia Anazazi, an Uggling, and Ahmed ben Kibitzer, Nocturnomath book shop owner, who panics upon reading it and hastily thrusts Optimus out into the street, giving him a properly cryptic “gypsy’s warning’. A chance encounter with one Claudio Harpstick in a greasy spoon diner sends Optimus off to seek out Pfistomel Smyke, a particularly knowledgeable antiquarian book dealer. The two are in cahoots, however, and Harpstick and Smyke trick our protagonist into reading a drugged book, and dispose of him in the Catacombs, an underground maze of near-impossible complexity. The creatures he meets in the catacombs are as varied, both in appearance and temperament, as the creatures aboveground, but chief among the residents are the Ferocious Booklings, each of which memorizes the works of a specific author, whose names they take.

Alas, the Bookhunters track down the Booklings’ library, and put it to the torch. Optimus flees, only to fall into the clutches of the Shadow King, a dread yet mysteriously undescribed creature whose presence in the catacombs prompts many tales. Inasmuch as there’s now one sequel with the probability of another, I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that the book ends with Optimius fleeing the burning Bookholm. I’m not, however, going to reveal anything more about the Shadow King.

What to read next? Ordinarily, I’d suggest other books about books, such as The Name of the Rose and Shadow of the Wind. Moers’ books are so playful where those two are serious, though; Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Rhymes books might be a better match, though even they aren’t quite so fantastical as The City of Dreaming Books. This is very much a book lover’s book—Moers scattered fictitious authors throughout this book whose names are anagrams of authors here in the real world: Aleisha Wimpersleake, Wamilli Swordthrow, Elo Slootty, Rasco Elwid, Melvin Hermalle, Gramerta Climelth, Asdrel Chickens, Daurdry Pilgink and so on.

It’s a fun book, probably intended for adults but perfectly appropriate for kids.

1“Spinxxxx” is Moer’s transliteration of the Zamonian name for a sixteen-legged spiderlike creature; the Zamonian language has a specific letter used in names for creatures that have more than eight legs. Unfortunately, neither English or German are so similarly endowed, so using four x’s is the best our author can do2
2I forgot to mention that one of the things I found so amusing about both this and “Captain Bluebear” is the plethora of discursive footnotes. If other readers also found this similarly amusing, they might want to try John Connolly’s The Gates and The Infernals