Ninja Kid #8: Ninja Dogs! – Anh Do

Illustrations – Anton Emdin

Grandma has another new invention, a dog transformation bracelet. Good timing, too, because everyone’s pets are now missing.

‘Do you think Dr Kane’s involved?’

Considering any time anything out of the ordinary happens in Duck Creek it’s because Dr Kane has some new dastardly plan, I would have said it’s a given that he’s now in the pet-napping business. I would have been wrong.

It turns out that the pets aren’t the only ones MIA in this book. While Dr Kane is using his annual leave, the baddie void in Duck Creek is filled by the Collector from the Rise of the Mythix series. Also making a cameo is the front cover of the first book in the Pow Pow Pig series.

When I find subtle nods to author’s other books in the one I’m reading, I generally find it adorable and usually feel super smart for having found them. The crossovers in Anh Do books aren’t nods anymore; they’re beginning to feel more and more like advertisements.

They don’t even make sense most of the time. The Rise of the Mythix series have an older target audience than Ninja Kid so most readers won’t even know who the Collector is.

I accidentally read the ninth Ninja Kid book before this one so had been wondering how Noodles made their way into the family. I’m glad I know now but the constant crossovers are making me question how much longer I’m going to continue reading Anh Do’s books.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Something strange is going on… all the animals in town have DISAPPEARED! But with Grandma’s latest invention, Nelson and Kenny can sniff out trouble by TURNING INTO DOGS! How will they find the pets when they can’t stop PLAYING FETCH?!

Asian Ghost Short Stories – Lee Murray (editor)

I love ghost stories so I was really looking forward to reading this anthology. Including a blend of old and new stories from East, South and Southwest Asia, this should have been right up my alley. 

The introduction had me hooked but the stories themselves didn’t give me the scares I was looking for. For me, part of the problem was the order the stories were told in. 

While it seems logical to order an anthology alphabetically by author, it meant I was sometimes reading multiple stories by one author, one after another; some began to feel repetitive. I think I would have gotten much more out of the stories if they’d been grouped by country, with introductions exploring the cultural and religious significance of the particular types of ghosts I’d be meeting in each section.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Flame Tree Press for the opportunity to read this anthology.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Another deluxe edition of new writing and neglected perspectives. Asian ghosts – from India to Sri Lanka, China to Korea, Japan to the Philippines – can be both terrifying and comforting. Underpinned by strong cultural beliefs in the cycles of life and ancestor worship, the nature of Asian spirits differs from that of their counterparts in other areas of the world. The possibility is more instinctually accepted that ghosts remain with us, as part of the world, whether we can see them or not. Featured here are all kinds of stories from across East, South and Southeast Asia: classic weird tales by the likes of Pu Songling, Rabindranath Tagore, S Mukerji, Im Bang and Yi Ruk, Lafcadio Hearn and Yei Theodora Ozaki, are complemented by stories by Asian writers of today. An egui (the Chinese version of a ‘hungry ghost’) is exorcised, a vicious jiangshi (Chinese zombie-like revenant) is encountered in the night, a Bengali shakchunni (the ghost of an unsatisfied bride) poignantly seeks love with devastating effect, a family is haunted by vengeful Korean gwishin, and the iconic Japanese tragedies of Oiwa and O-Kiku are revisited. 

Matariki – Kitty Brown

Illustrations – Kirsten Parkinson

I love learning about different cultures. I’d never heard of Matariki before so I was especially keen to get my hands on this book.

The blurb tells you that it “explores the nine stars of Matariki” but assumes you already know what Matariki is. I didn’t, so I asked Google.

I learned that “Matariki is a special occasion in the New Zealand calendar which marks the start of the Māori New Year.

Signified by the Matariki cluster of stars reappearing in our night sky, this is a time to reflect on the past year, celebrate the present, and plan for the year ahead.”

I found this quote, along with an easy to understand introduction to Matariki.

Armed with this new knowledge, I delved back in. If you already know about Matariki, this book provides readers with specific ways they can honour and celebrate this time. 

The cover image, which represents Pōhutukawa, was my favourite illustration.

I would have appreciated a small section at the back of the book that told me how to pronounce the names of the stars so I didn’t need to rely on Google.

Thank you so much to Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read this picture book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

How can we celebrate Matariki? Let’s look to the stars!

Maumaharatia: Remembering our past 
Tiakina te taiao: Caring for our environment 
Te whakawhanaungatanga: Connecting with our people 

Me pēhea tātou e whakanui i a Matariki? Tirohia ngā whetū!

Maumaharatia te onamata 
Tiakina te taiao 
Te whakawhanaungatanga ki ō tātou iwi 

Explore the nine stars of Matariki in rich, detailed imagery and bilingual text. Dive into the meanings of the stars and Matariki itself. Encourage whānau to remember, celebrate and reflect at this important time of year.

Witch 13 – Patrick Delaney

Tonight is Sterling Marsh’s final shift as sheriff. She really should have called in sick and left Drybell for the evening, preferably before the truck crashed into the bridge. Sterling and her colleagues being cut off from the outside world in the middle of one of the worst storms in Drybell’s history isn’t their biggest problem. They now also have a troublesome witch to deal with. 

There’s no such thing as witches. 

The bulk of the evening takes place inside the sheriff’s station with the witch in custody so you wouldn’t think she’d have much opportunity to create a ruckus. You’d be wrong. Sterling, Chase, her deputy, Georgia, the receptionist, Rosa, the dispatcher and Max, Chase’s seven year old son, are about to have one of the longest nights of their life. 

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this night” 

This witch looks like something out of a fairytale, donning a black dress and pointy hat. She smells sweet, but she’s anything but. 

Although it was clear based on results that she was actually doing quite a bit, she spent most of the book impersonating a statue. Part of me was fascinated by this, wondering what she’d be capable of once she started moving, but frustration took over more often than not. When I’m enjoying horror that includes people’s insides becoming their outsides, my preference is for it to be as over the top as possible. 

The witch’s backstory didn’t work for me and the ending felt rushed.

If I’d visited Drybell before the shemozzle started, I definitely would have spent some time at Hallowed Grounds Coffee.

The cover image is absolutely incredible. There are illustrations scattered throughout the book, which I loved. Although there were some wonderfully dark ones featuring the witch, my favourite was the creepy snowman.

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Content warnings include death by suicide and domestic abuse. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Oblivion Publishing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

On the eve of her resignation, Sheriff Sterling Marsh prepares for a bleak winter in Drybell, Connecticut, after a string of bad decisions leaves her life in shambles. Two weeks before Christmas and expecting a long night of paperwork and quiet celebration with the friends she’s grown to know and love, she’s surprised when an unnerving stranger appears in the form of a witch. 

A silent, menacing figure, the witch appears to be ripped straight out of a fairy tale, complete with a tall, pointed hat, and black clothing. But when strange things begin happening all over town, Sterling begins to suspect that there may be more to the witch than meets the eye.

As she works to maintain order as the world crumbles around her, the witch’s mysterious presence throws her world into a frenzy, threatening to send the sleepy town spiralling face first into the darkest night it’s ever seen.

The Splendid City – Karen Heuler

Eleanor was in the process of learning witchcraft when she turned her coworker into a cat. It doesn’t matter that her reasons were valid; she behaved in a manner most uncovenly and now she’s living with the consequences. This means she’s stuck living with said cat, whose metamorphosis didn’t magically improve his personality.

Eleanor and Stan are now in Liberty, which once upon a time was Texas. Before it seceded, that is. Now it has animatronic presidential heads and people are whisked off in vans, presumably never to be seen again. There’s nougat, which is nice, but there’s also a water shortage, which isn’t.

Eleanor has been tasked with finding a missing witch. Stan, when he’s not scrounging up fish tacos and beer, is on a treasure hunt.

I was keen to find out how a story with a witch who turns a detestable coworker into a cat would play out. I’m now wondering if I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this read.

I appreciated the political commentary and satire. I was interested in learning how witchcraft worked in this dystopia, but didn’t connect with any of the witches.

I thought I’d be amused by insufferable, newly feline Stan as he tried to make his way in the world but I hated him. It wasn’t the fun type of hate, though, where you love to hate someone. I love villains when they’re complex and especially when they’re accidentally good some of the time, but if Stan had any redeeming qualities, I didn’t find them. In the end, I didn’t want to spend any time with him.

The story is told in three parts. The second, which addresses how Eleanor became a witch and Stan became a cat, felt like one big info dump.

I’d encourage you to read the five star reviews because there are people that absolutely love this book. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the book for me.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Angry Robot for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A genre-blending story of modern witchcraft, a police state and unique characters, for fans of Alice Hoffman and Madeline Miller.

In the state of Liberty, water is rationed, free speech comes at a price, and paranoia runs deep. Eleanor, a rebellious young witch, has been put under house arrest with her lecherous co-worker Stan, who loves craft beer, fish tacos, and… shooting people.

Eleanor has little time for Stan. That’s why she turned him into a talking cat. Besides, she’s got a job to do: locate a missing witch who seems to be mysteriously linked to the water shortages. But she might want to keep an eye on Stan – he’s caught the scent of a treasure hunt, and won’t hesitate to give up Eleanor to get his paws on the prize. 

WeirDo #18: Weird History! – Anh Do

Illustrations – Jules Faber

Miss Franklin is excited about a writing competition. The best entry in the class will be entered in the regional competition. The school that wins gets a voucher to spend at Buster’s Bookshop. Miss Franklin wants her students to incorporate what they’ve been learning about history in their stories.

By chapter two, what was promising to be a fun and creative story devolved into advertising for the one of the author’s new series, Pow Pow Pig. Even weirder, these series have different publishers.

When Weir, Henry, Bella and Sue decide to hang out after school, they find Weir’s father’s old costume box. This results in them dressing up as a chicken, Barry the goat, a duck and a pig. Uh huh. Then there are the not so subtle sound effects…

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The illustrations were fun. The one where the kids slide down the neck of a brontosaurus to get to the playground reminded me of how Fred Flintstone’s workday finished. 

But I just can’t get excited about a book whose sole purpose is to plug another series.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Weir and his friends have been busy working on stories for an awesome writing competition! Will mixing heroes with history help them win the prize?! Only time will tell! It won’t be easy … but it will be funny!

The Cat Who Saved Books – Sosuke Natsukawa

Translator – Louise Heal Kawai

‘You know, I’ve been thinking about books.’ 

I absolutely love books about books! This one was all the more interesting to me because, not only does it feature a used bookstore and bookish missions, the missions are led by a talking cat!

Tiger, a ginger tabby, casually shows up at Natsuki Books in the week after Rintaro’s grandfather dies. It turns out this feline, who’s not backward in coming forward, needs the bookish assistance of hikikomori Rintaro. 

‘We’ve come to free your books.’ 

Together, this unlikely team enter a series of labyrinths to save books from those that don’t treat them with the reverence they deserve. 

‘Helping people may not be my forte, but when I hear that books need my help then I’m ready.’ 

I was so ready to tag along for these magical quests in aid of the written word. I was anticipating the fun of confronting readers who perpetrate bookish crimes like failing to return them to their owners and the owners whose books are sad because they’ve been patiently waiting in the TBR line for years already, yet their owner refuses to stop buying more.

The actual confrontations were less exciting than I’d anticipated and the talking cat wasn’t as much of a novelty as I’d hoped. 

I found some bookish quotes I loved. 

‘A cherished book will always have a soul. It will come to its reader’s aid in times of crisis.’ 

I really enjoyed thinking about what it is about books that makes them so extraordinary and how they impact on the lives of readers. 

Unfortunately, though, there was a disconnect that I was unable to resolve. I’d hoped this would be a book I’d be raving about to anyone who’d listen, but it fell flat for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Grandpa used to say it all the time: books have tremendous power. But what is that power really?

Natsuki Books was a tiny second-hand bookshop on the edge of town. Inside, towering shelves reached the ceiling, every one crammed full of wonderful books. Rintaro Natsuki loved this space that his grandfather had created. He spent many happy hours there, reading whatever he liked. It was the perfect refuge for a boy who tended to be something of a recluse.

After the death of his grandfather, Rintaro is devastated and alone. It seems he will have to close the shop. Then, a talking tabby cat called Tiger appears and asks Rintaro for help. The cat needs a book lover to join him on a mission. This odd couple will go on three magical adventures to save books from people have imprisoned, mistreated and betrayed them. Finally, there is one last rescue that Rintaro must attempt alone…

The Cat Who Saved Books is a heartwarming story about finding courage, caring for others – and the tremendous power of books. Sosuke Natsukawa’s international best seller, translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai, is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.

Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic – Paul Conti

In this book, Dr Conti explores what trauma is and how it works, the sociology of trauma, and how trauma impacts people physically and mentally.

I found the stories of people impacted by trauma interesting. They helped to illustrate points the author was making, although I often wished they were longer.

There were times I came across a topic I wanted to learn more about (like inflammation, the limbic system and epigenetics) but, because this book provides more of an overview than a deep dive, there’d only be a few paragraphs dedicated to it.

There were too many analogies for my liking and by the end of the book I wished I had counted the amount of times I’d read “compassion, community and humanity”.

If you’re looking for a book that offers an introduction to trauma, this may be the book for you. However, if you’re already well versed in trauma and its impacts, you may have already encountered much of the information covered here.

Content warnings include alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide (including the method used), domestic abuse, drug addiction, mental health, racism, sexual assault and war.

Thank you to NetGalley and Vermilion, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Trauma is everywhere and so many of us are silently affected by it. Stressful, challenging and frightening events can happen to anyone, at any age, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, anxious and exhausted. Left unchecked, difficult experiences can have a lasting psychological effect on our wellbeing.

In Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic, leading psychiatrist Dr Paul Conti sets out a unique set of tools anyone can access to help recognise the signs of trauma, heal from past hurt and find the road to recovery.

Drawing on the most recent scientific research, Dr Conti breaks down the topic into clear sections, looking at why trauma happens, how it manifests in the body and what we can do to move past it. In the book, you’ll discover the three different types of trauma you might face, as well as practical exercises and solutions for getting to the root of the problem.

This is an important, life-affirming book, one that invites you to empower yourself against trauma, own your life experiences and learn to thrive, not just survive, in the wake of life’s difficulties.

A Little Bit of Respect – Claire Alexander

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

The Ploofers are back! And I’m so conflicted.

The Ploofers take their rainbow cloud on an adventure and meet some new beings, whose names I don’t currently know. While they’re visiting, one of their new acquaintances doesn’t respect Little One’s boundaries, doing things like squishing their cheeks and constantly saying how cute they are. 

This makes Little One uncomfortable and angry. I loved how expressive Little One was, their usual rainbow ploof transforming into red squiggly lines.

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I was disappointed that Toasty, who was the first to recognise the beauty of the SHOOF! and was by Little One’s side as they overcame their fear of doing a new thing, was nowhere to be seen when Little One’s boundaries were being violated. I would have gotten over this because even Toasty can’t be everywhere and given what I know of them, they would have been there supporting Little One if they’d known what was happening and the impact it was having on them.

I was so excited when I started this book. I was entirely on board for the Ploofers to tackle consent. I loved that Little One had the confidence to set boundaries for themselves and the courage to speak up when they were crossed. They had every right to expect their boundaries to be respected and it looked as though all would be well.

The one who had made Little One uncomfortable listened when Little One explained how their behaviour made them feel. They validated Little One and apologised to them. 

Then everything that was good about this book and its message was undone in the final three pages and now I have red squiggly lines above my head too. 

I’m sure this is not the message that was intended but one of my takeaways, after all of the good that preceded it, was that even if you’re brave enough to stand up for yourself and set clear boundaries with someone, your voice ultimately means nothing. They’re just as likely to give you lip service and go do it to someone else. This is not okay!

If this book had finished just a little bit sooner, when the air had been cleared and everyone was sitting down for a nice picnic, this review would have been entirely different. I wish it was.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Happy Yak, an imprint of Quarto Publishing Group – Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, for the opportunity to read this picture book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In this follow-up to the A Little Bit Different and A Little Bit of Courage, the Ploofers are back for a heartwarming exploration of self-awareness and respect.

The Ploofers are visiting a new island and are excited to meet the residents. But when one islander singles out Little One as an adorable cutie pie, Little One isn’t happy and becomes frustrated with the way he is being treated. Will Little One learn to be assertive and stand up for himself? 

With simple, striking illustrations and a cutaway cover design that adds tactile interest, A Little Bit of Respect picks up right where A Little Bit of Courage left off. With a subtle yet powerful message about the importance of self-respect and respecting others, this book will resonate with children and adults alike.

The Packing House – G. Donald Cribbs

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

I can’t ignore these dreams. They come from somewhere. Maybe they’re trying to tell me something, but what exactly? 

Joel’s nightmares have been getting worse recently. It doesn’t help that his mother is emotionally unavailable and his father has been MIA for over half of his life. When one of Joel’s nightmares is recorded and posted online, it makes it even harder for him to cope.

Childhood sexual assault is always going to be difficult to read about. While there are more books being published where characters have experienced this, not enough are written from the point of view of male survivors. That’s what drew me to this book.

It’s hard to be objective when sexual assault and its impacts are addressed so I’ll focus here on what did and didn’t work for me personally as I read this book.

One of the strengths of this book was that it dealt with trauma that the main character didn’t always have clear memories of. Trauma encodes itself in the brain differently than non-traumatic memories and sometimes this means the memories aren’t accessible until the survivor is safe. Joel’s memories begin to resurface in the themes of his nightmares and in flashbacks. His understanding of what he’s experiencing doesn’t come all at once.

Some aspects of the story didn’t ring true to me. Once Joel talked about what happened to him, his nightmares seemed to disappear. While I hope this is the case for some survivors, this didn’t seem very realistic.

I couldn’t imagine the police, when they showed up to interview Joel at his home, finding it necessary to use their lights and siren to announce themselves. Surely a simple knock on the door would have done the trick. 

I’d also hate to think of a survivor being confronted by the police about such a sensitive topic in front of random family members or having to go with them straight away to the station in a police car to give a statement.

And why do the police say the perpetrator is “charged with” when they haven’t actually charged them yet? They hadn’t even interviewed the victim or conducted an investigation into the allegations.

With such an extended lead up to Joel remembering what happened to him, the events afterwards felt like a whirlwind. I was left with some pretty big question marks and some of those are because the book finishes so abruptly. I don’t know if a sequel is planned or not but here’s the short list of what I need to know…

Was Joel’s perpetrator responsible for what happened to the other boy we learn about from Joel’s childhood? Is there a way around the statute of limitations problem in Joel’s case as he’s only just remembered what happened to him? Does Joel get anything approximating justice from the legal system? Did the perpetrator also offend against Joel’s brother? What is Joel’s brother’s response to what happened to Joel? What possessed Joel to immediately set up candles when he learned what they meant for Amber?

There’s no indication in the blurb that religion is discussed in relation to the events in this book. Given that some readers will want to read it and others will avoid it for that reason alone, heads up: Christianity, including Bible quotes, are a part of this book.

Books in a book: Reading is one of Joel’s escapes. Throughout the book, he reads Fahrenheit 451The OutsidersThe Chocolate War and Catcher in the Rye

Content warnings include addiction (drug and gambling), bullying, domestic abuse, homelessness, homophobia, mental health (PTSD), physical abuse and sexual assault. Please be aware that the scenes describing childhood sexual assault are reasonably graphic.

Thank you to NetGalley and Cherish Editions, an imprint of Trigger Publishing, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

When 16-year-old Joel Scrivener has a raging nightmare in study hall and someone records it on their phone, he awakens to a living nightmare where everyone knows his secret, one that he’s suppressed for ten years. Reeling as the whole school finds out the truth, Joel takes to the woods, leaving the bullies and his broken home behind.

However, life as a runaway isn’t easy, as Joel’s hallucinations and nightmares follow him into the wilderness. To stop them once and for all, he pieces clues together with flashes of the images that play endlessly inside his head – will he figure out the identity of the person who caused his nightmare before it’s too late?