Book Review: The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear: a novel

by Walter Moers

On the cover of the English language version of Walter Moers bright yellow fantasy debut, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, there is a quote describing the German fantasist’s imagination as being ‘…like J.K Rowling on ecstacy.”

Sometimes quotes sell books, and possibly this one did. After all, Moers debut novel (let’s henceforth refer to it as ‘Captain Bluebear’), though markedly different to the Harry Potter series, was released in his native Germany, the very same year the term ‘Pottermania’ first became widespread.

No doubt that in 1999, the wind from Rowling’s wizarding world helped fill the sails of the ship that brought Moers into the international fantasy zeitgeist, as readers caught up in Pottermania were, between Rowling’s books and Lord of the Rings movies, looking for something else to tide them over.

It should be noted early on, that although Captain Bluebear appears in some ways, a book pitched at young readers, it isn’t quite. Perhaps in the same way that much of the subtext of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels might fall flat on younger readers, so too might Moer’s tongue-in-cheek philosophical gags. This might be made further confusing as after the success of the book in Moer’s native Germany, Captain Bluebear himself, became a character in an animated children’s television movie.

Moer’s prose is clear with flourishes both pragmatic and erudite, though the magnitude of concepts therein render it quite exposition heavy at times. Imagine Tolkien’s obsessive detail applied to a narrative in an imaginary world that is for the most part downright bonkers, and you might get an idea. The narrative payoffs are a slow burn as you absorb Moer’s inexhaustible imaginative ideas, but when they do finally land, his wildly zany storytelling genius becomes apparent. There are laugh out loud moments here that rival Douglas Adams, Jack Handey, and Woody Allen’s Without Feathers.

So what are these 13½ lives all about? Well, the 13½ lives are in fact chapters in Captain Bluebear’s life. In the opening chapter, he is rescued at sea from the spiralling clutches of an enormous whirlpool by minipirates, who as it were, are precisely what they seem like: miniature pirates. Fortunately for all involved, Bluebear in his infancy, is also very small, so he can actually board their ship. They raise him, feed him, and give him a crash course in all things maritime yet he soon outgrows them and begins to sink their boat as a result, and thus he moves on to his next life.

Moers takes a basic, if offbeat premise, for each of the chapters and goes into a sort of frenzy in teasing out the oddest details, resulting in laugh out loud humour. A chapter in which Bluebear attempts to enter a mirage of a city by having four friends approach it from different sides at the same time was a standout chapter for myself.

Credit goes to John Brownjohn for his excellent work in translating Moer’s droll humour from the original German.

BookForest Verdict

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is in part, the literary equivalent to hot chocolate with marshmallows, and in part a testament to the generosity and scope of the imagination. The reading experience alone is like having your brain tickled and the deeper into the great yellow tome you get, the more intense it becomes. Moer’s orchestrates a blend of ideas that are at once, both eccentric and profound.  Embellished with the authors own quirky illustrations, this book is a treasure chest of fun and a genuine fantasy adventure.


The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

Ideas 5

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 3

Intrigue 5

Magic 5
Total 27/30

A for Alpine Imps————————————————–



Book Review : Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan

Image result for mr penumbra's 24 hour bookstore

Clay Jannon is slowly establishing himself as a savvy web designer in San Francisco, designing the website for a chain of cafes specialising in New York style bagels and good coffee on the West Coast. But then the recession kicks in. In the economic downturn, the Bagel Chain owners sell out, figuratively and literally, which leaves Clay out of work. In his search for economic stability, Clay serendipitously chances upon an odd book store run by an unusual man where strange happenings are a daily occurrence.

Every paragraph in this book is constructed with exhaustingly clever and witty prose. Sloan’s writing is accessible and intelligent but not in an elite literary way. it draws the reader in and plugs them directly into the narratives conduit. Does it electrify you? no, not really, but it has a light tone that contrasts with the presumably deep conspiratorial plot.

BookForest Verdict

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore is a funny, thought provoking, enjoyable, and utterly clever page turner The missing one star in my rating is due to the ending feeling a little too anti-climactic. Too pedestrian in its landing of the narrative and didn’t leave me wondering past the last page. Nonetheless, Robin Sloan is a ridiculously talented writer. His prose is fresh, modern, and original. I look forward to his future work and would love to see a film adaptation by the likes of Wes Anderson.


Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Ideas 4

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 4

Intrigue 5

Magic 4
Total 26/30

T for Typography————————————————–

Book Review: The Fog Diver

By Joel Ross

Age Range 11-14

Image result for the fog diver











A character-driven adventure novel that despite some highly original and thought provoking science fiction / steampunk concepts, prefers to lean more heavily on its relationship-drama beats.

The Fog Diver presents readers with a fairly realized world that is bound to be expanded upon in subsequent books. Despite only being lightly explored in this, the first book in the series, it is undoubtedly an excellent premise that writer Joel Ross has imagined.

The Fog Diver is set in the world as we know it, after being engulfed by a thick and deadly fog of nanites. The Nanites were ironically designed to rid the world of pollution but upon recognizing humans as the key source of pollution, evolved into a fog encoded to eradicate the human race. Now, the survivors live on the highest mountain peaks of the world above the fog in the last habitable places and travel in pneumatic airships. It’s all very steampunk at times, and is certainly among the best examples of the genre available for tween readers.

The protagonist, a boy Chess, is immune to the fog, enabling him to be a tetherboy; someone who dives from an airship through the fog to explore the human-less surface below. There, Chess scavenges for all manner of valuable items in the hope of finding something that could afford him and his crew passage off the slum-like lower slopes of the mountainside.

Chess’s ability is rare, almost unheard of and thus he is wanted by the villainous Lord Kodoc who wishes to use Chess to locate the Compass, a device which can purportedly control the nanites and allow its operator control over the fog and therefore the world.

Ross characterises the books tone and characters through their discovery and bewilderment of the strange artefacts Chess collects. They are everyday items that the reader will immediately recognise though that the central characters can only guess of their intended function. Additionally, Ross weaves in all sorts of misremembered history. Not only do these kids mistake Star Wars for myth but they go further and combine pop culture icons in hilarious ways that really entertain between the drama and tense suspense.

BookForest Verdict

The Fog Diver has an excellent premise, lots of humour and suspense that leads to a story in which almost each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, propelling the reader through its lean narrative. And therein is perhaps the books limitation; its fast pace puts a limit on the sense of discovery in this world. There are really three lean acts in The Fog Diver and it certainly leaves you wanting to come back for more. It is a book very much for its age group and I do hope the series gains a following. Though in a post Harry Potter world, it has neither the depth nor detail to let it stand out as anything other than another really good series for young adults in an increasingly talent-crowded market.


The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

Ideas 5

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 4

Intrigue 3

Magic 3
Total 24/30

C for Clockwork Airships————————————————–

Book Review: The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily

by Dino Buzzati

Age Range 7 up

Written and illustrated by Dino Buzzati in 1945 and only translated to English as recently as 2003, The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily is a swiftly-told treasure box of a tale that should be more widely known. It tells the tale of a Bear-King Leander whose son is taken by men and the subsequent invasion he and the Bears orchestrate. While Leander’s motives throughout are a melancholic quest in finding his beloved son, the dramatic tension in the book arises as we learn of the motives other bears develop as they become accustomed to the luxuries of modern life.

Perhaps most surprising to many readers about the time and place of its publishing, 1945 and Italy respectively, is how contemporary most all of the moral views expressed are still now in 2016; this was after all a mere one year prior to the publishing of Tintin in the Congo, and almost a decade after Enid Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs, and three years after the final that particular long-running series (there were seven Blyton Golliwog books in total). Ultimately, this was a time where some writers for children were making near-disastrous moral choices in their stories, seemingly swept up in the pervading views of the time.

I came upon The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily in the same way perhaps many modern readers of the 2003 English translation did, and that is via Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket who went on the record stating it as his favourite book of all time. Though Daniel Handler is a writer who I enjoy seeing in talks with Neil Gaiman, and his A Series of Unfortunate Events series are on my to-read list, I am in no ways an avid reader of his. It was merely upon reading his inspired account of the book that I took an interest, and that interest was bolstered after reading the opening section of the book in which Buzzati presents a summary of the books characters including such colourful premonitory portraits as:

The Bear Dandelion. Gifted with rare powers of observation, he can discover things which people more learned than he fail to recognise. One fine day he will become a kind of amateur detective. He is a worthy beast, and one can have complete confidence in him.

Or then this:

The Werewolf. A third monster (Marmoset the Cat and the Sea Serpent having been the first and second respectively). It is possible that he may not appear in our story. In fact, as far as we know he has never appeared anywhere, but one never knows. He might suddenly appear from one moment to the next, and then how foolish we should look for not having mentioned him. 

There are fourteen such portraits before the book commences, and it is but one of a number of conventions in this book that are entirely unconventional. Another being the incredible illustrations done by Buzzati himself; each with a caption that tells you what is about to happen, something, that in any other novel might have entirely frustrated me, yet here carries a whimsical storytelling charm. The book, in its very structure, reads as though listening to a storyteller.Praise should certainly go to Frances Lobb who did a stunning job on the translation, and I say this as a preface to the books most striking unconventional convention, namely the poems.

The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily alternates between narrative verse and poetry, and the results are stunning to behold.

The poetry does perhaps the opposite of what I might have predicted it would which would be to slow the story down. Instead whenever the poems kick in, the narrative changes gears and picks up pace. One such place where this technique, I thought had a terrific effect, was when the Bears invade the citadel of Sicily.

They light the long fuse and the great cannon roars
And swift as an arrow a gallant bear soars
And riding astride on the cannonballs back
Look as as much at his ease as if riding a hack
Now see the dreaded catapult, 
Another bear within the spoon. 
Will the brave creature get a jolt?
Will they not send him off too soon?
Like a great bird he cleaves the sky,
Then down the vaulted heaven he drops,
To land as cool as you or I
Among the fortress’ chimney tops.

BookForest Verdict

The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily is an antique delight with real heart and moments of genuine magic and adventure. There are universal politics in the subtext as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1945. Materialism, war, racism, colonialism are all discussed here with no holds barred. In its slim 143 page count, Buzzati delights his readers with an astonishing fantasy yarn with themes that resonate. This should be a classic and as a bedtime story, it would intrigue children.


The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati

Ideas 5

Storytelling 5

Writing 5

Suspense 3

Intrigue 4

Magic 5
Total 27/30

A for Anthropomorphic Bears


Book Review: Time Cat

by Lloyd Alexander

Age Range 9 – 11 years old

Time Cat

From the outside looking in, Time Cat seems like it should be a classic of children’s literature. Right up there with The Wind in the Willows, Charlottes Web, and Catwings. With an intriguing premise, a notable writer, and a stunningly memorable idea at its centre: that a boy, Jason, could and does travel through time by gazing into the eyes of his pet cat, Gareth. Together they pass through the pages of history with no real purpose just curiosity and wanderlust.

Author, Lloyd Alexander gets full credit for the central idea here, and though the narrative lacks suspense, the material could be adapted for cinema or animation with a dash of some desperately needed urgency to give it an edge and sense of purpose. As it stands, this 1996 novel plods along rather pedestrian-like with each chapter encompassing a singular adventure in a specific chapter of world history: we begin in Egypt, and soon travel to ancient Rome and Britain, while later chapters feature stopovers in Italy, 10th Century Japan, Peru, Germany and America.

It does seem to promise a bringing-to-life of these most famous chapters of world history, though rather than retelling history in a adventurous and fresh way, the adventures themselves are very much character-driven pieces with the surrounding details serving to give a wink and nod to those already in-the-know of the actual history.

The end result is a story that while filled with fairly interesting detail tends to become a little dull and lacking in suspense. The reader never feels that either Gareth, Jason, or their relationship are in any real danger. Though arguably, this one dimensionality might suit developing readers who are transitioning from shorter texts to novels.

In fairness, for its audience age, it does a reasonable if run-of-the-mill, job of immersing the reader in a time and place. The chapters do feel distinct from one another through remarkably minimal description:

‘A white sun, a green-blue sky. In a grove of palm trees, a temple rose at the end of a long avenue. Jason, with Gareth at his side, walked through a courtyard that seemed to stretch for miles.

“Why… we’re in Egypt,” Jason said in a hushed voice.’

Time Cat reads like a collection of short stories with no real connection at all other than the protagonists and a villain who resurfaces later on after first appearing in Britain , the latter of which could have been so much more promising had he been utilised more effectively.

BookForest Verdict

Time Cat has an outstanding central idea and a well designed plot as Jason and Gareth have exactly nine adventures across nine lives throughout history, however the narrative lacks any real suspense and the magic in the storytelling falters, leaving Time Cat as a novel that you want to love but cannot quite.

Time Cat

Ideas 5
Storytelling 3
Writing 4
Suspense 2
Intrigue 2
Magic 3

Total 19/30

C for Cat





Welcome to BookForest, a place to read about and explore books.

Who am I? I’m a teacher, writer and reader of books and with all three of those in mind, I write this blog. I am interested in random and retro books as well as new releases so expect the eclectic. And I will be doing some in depth investigations into specific writers, genres, publishing trends and series as I wander deeper into the forest. I will also be sharing some original writing of my own through some ongoing web series and some of people I know and students I teach.

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