Thursday, 31 July 2014

Review: Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie by Jeff Norton


'My name is Adam Meltzer and the last thing I remember was being stung by a bee while swinging at a robot-shaped piñata on my twelfth birthday. I was dead before the candy hit the ground.'

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is narrated by the hilarious Adam Meltzer - pre-teen, worrywart, and now zombie. Adam's family gets the fright of their lives when he turns up at their door . . . three months after his funeral.

Soon Adam's back at school trying to fit in and not draw extra attention to himself, but when he sees his neighbour Ernesto transform into a chupacubra, and the beautiful Corina (Adam's number one mega-crush) turns out to be a (vegan) vampire, undead life is never going to be the same again.

A hilarious adventure caper - if Ferris Bueller met Shaun of the Dead - all about friendship and being yourself . . . even if you're undead.






I love Jeff Norton's MetaWars series. The story is the perfect blade of action, adventure and science fiction, all set in a brilliantly imagined dystopian future. I was therefore really excited to see Jeff at a blogger event held by Faber as this could only mean that he had a new book coming out. And then, I was even more than a little surprised when we were told about his new book, Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie, as on the face of it it could not have been more different from his previous work (of which I would happily have read more and more). My slight disappointment evaporated as soon as Jeff started reading the prologue to Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie. He had the room in tears of laughter, a feat that he repeated a couple of months later when he appeared at the Wonder of Words festival that I organised.

In his main character and narrator, Adam Meltzer, Jeff Norton has created a protagonist that will have readers in stitches. And if you thought zombies had been done to death (pun intended) then think again: a teen zombie with OCD? It is such a great concept as Adam's neurosis open things up for all kinds of puerile jokes (in the very best kind of way), and in particular to loads of great references to poo, germs and other toilet humour that kids will find hilarious.

Adam isn't the only great character in this book, as fortunately for him he is aided and abetted by two other kids who can only be described as unsual (ok, maybe weird is a better word, however unkind it may seem). First there is Ernesto, Adam's diminutive neighbour who just happens to turn into a Chupacabra during a full moon (it's a sort of mythological lizard ape hybrid thing) and then there is Corina, the object of Adam's (secret) affections who also happens to be a vegan vampire. Together they make a great team, and take it upon themselves to find out just how on earth a mere bee sting could kill Adam and then have him come back as a zombie.

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is one hell of a funny read, and with this new book Jeff Norton proves to the world that he is certainly no one trick pony. I hope this is just the first in a long series as I think there are so many more adventures this oddball trio could have in the future. It is also the kind of book that I think will benefit from word-of-mouth 'promotion'. Like the Wimpy Kid books, once one child as read it they are bound to tell all of their friends who will then also want to read it. If you're looking for something to make your 9+ child laugh out loud this summer then this should certainly be on your radar.

Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie is published on 7th August and my thanks go to the lovely people at Faber for sending me a copy.


Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens


When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency at Deepdean School for Girls, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia's missing tie. Which they don't, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident - but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there's more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.






The first books I can remember really falling in love with as a child were Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Five Find-Outers books, and so began a love of mystery stories. I progressed across the Atlantic to The Three Investigators series, but as I hit the age of 11 or 12 I returned to good old Blighty and Agatha Christie (you have to remember that in those days there was no such thing as YA). I never really gelled with Miss Marple, but I read every single Poirot story, most of them multiple times, and I still have favourites to this day. As far as I was aware at the time with my limited experience, nobody wrote mystery stories quite as well as the English.

Not long ago I was asked at school by a colleague if I knew of any great mystery stories for kids that had been published recently. My colleague's daughter had read all of the aforementioned Blyton stories and wanted to move onto something more contemporary, but still set in Britain. Only three sprang immediately to mind: Clementine Beauvais' Sesame Seade books, Lauren St John's Laura Marlin Mysteries and the Adventure Island series by Helen Moss. Not exactly a huge list given the vast number of children's books published these days. I am happy to say that there is now another to add to that list.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is like Holmes and Watson, but set in a girls' boarding school in the 1930s, and with a soupçon of Jeeves and Wooster thrown in for good measure. Ok, it may not be a modern day setting like those others I have mentioned, but the writing is most definitely 21st Century. Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are both students at Deepdean School for Girls. Daisy in pretty much good at everything - she is the attractive, confident leader-type who breezes through life as one of the most popular girls in school. She forms an unlikely friendship with the timid and introspective Hazel Wong, and together they form the Wells & Wong Detective Society. Soon they find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery within the walls of their school, complete with a disappearing body and multiple suspects.

Robin Stevens has perfectly captured the feel of all of those classic mystery stories that I loved as a child, and wrapped it up in a story that will have great appeal to 9+ kids today. Her story is funny and clever, and her two heroines come across as a very realistic pairing. Although Daisy tends to domineer the less-confident Hazel, often ignoring her wise words of caution which occasionally puts both of the girls in danger, Hazel is certainly more than just a foil to Daisy, and their society could just as rightly be called Wong & Wells. Never having been a student in a girl's boarding school (either now or in the 1930s), I can't really attest to the realness of the setting, but somehow it just feels right. Naturally, being a 1930s boarding school the dialogue is littered with all kinds of boarding school slang (reminding me of the brilliant Molesworth books), but the author very helpfully includes a glossary at the end of the book to help out us mere modern day working class readers.

Murder Most Unladylike is the first in a series (I've no idea how many books are planned) and I've definitely been left wanting more. Although the book is set in a girls' boarding school, with nary a young male character in sight, I still think this book has great appeal to boys who like traditional, British-set mystery stories. 


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review: Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall


A world of gods and monsters. An elemental power, rising. This is Robin Hood, reborn, as he has never been seen before…

Robin Loxley is seven years old when his parents disappear without trace. Years later the great love of his life, Marian, is also taken from him. Driven by these mysteries, and this anguish, Robin follows a darkening path into the ancient heart of Sherwood Forest. What he encounters there will leave him transformed, and will alter forever the legend of Robin Hood.









I look back at the 1980s and there were so many TV shows that at the time I thought were brilliant. Some of them are still nostalgia-fuelled favourites, whilst others I now see as pretty dire. One of the former is Robin of Sherwood, which between 1984 and 1986 was essential viewing in our household (although not so much once Michael Praed's Robin died, and was resurrected as Jason Connery). Robin of Sherwood was everything the Middle Ages was (and everything Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves wasn't) - dirty, gritty, and laced with the pagan superstition and folklore that would have been a huge part of English culture in those days. It brought us the legend of Robin Hood in a way that no one had before, and as far as I am aware no one has since. Until now that is.

When I first read the publisher's blurb for Tim Hall's Shadow of the Wolf my interested was immediately piqued. It promised a completely new and original take on the Robin Hood legend and I couldn't wait to read it. However, for the first 200 pages or so I found myself feeling a little short changed. Other than the first chapter, which hints at an element of the supernatural, there was little that made it stand out from all that had come before it. Admittedly, it starts off at a much earlier point in Robin's life than most previous stories have, and Marian is a very different character to the way she has been portrayed by most in the past, but other than that there was little that could justify this so called different take. 

And then boom! About halfway in the unspeakable happens - Robin is completely and utterly defeated, his body brutalised in an horrendous manner, and he ends up broken and near dead in Sherwood Forest, a place that is as far as you can get from the cheerful, leafy glades of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But just as it looks as if a premature end has come for our hero, nature and mythology intervene and all of a sudden we find ourselves in the middle of a revenge story that has more in common with Swamp Thing than it does with Kevin Costner's outing. All of a sudden the time spent reading those initial two hundred pages of character building and scene setting become worth every single minute spent on them, and as a reader I was gripped until the very final page, and even then I wanted more.

This is a challenging read that you need time to luxuriate in if you want to get the most out of it. It's not a book that is a light read for the beach as it craves for your full attention; it is atmospheric and rich in detail and if you give it the time and attention it deserves it will draw you in completely. It's not perfect: the first 200 pages could have been edited down a bit in my opinion, and after a while Marian's unpredictable and at times brattish temperament can become a little grating, but as far as epic YA fantasy goes it is certainly an excellent and welcome addition to the fold.

I believe Shadow of the Wolf is the first book in a trilogy, and I'm certainly keen to re-enter the dark and brutal world that Tim Hall has created for the legendary Robin and Marian. Shadow of the Wolf was published by the brilliant David Fickling Books at the beginning of July, in a hardcover edition with a stunning cover (one of my favourites of the year so far). My thanks go to the fab people at Riot Communications for my copy of the book.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review: Haunt: Dead Scared by Curtis Jobling


When Will finds himself in hospital, but unable to make anyone see or hear him, he realises that he never made it home from his first kiss with the school hottie. Knocked off his bike in a road traffic accident, Will is now officially dead - and a ghost. But somehow his best mate, Dougie, can still see him, and, what is more, increasingly Will seems bound to Dougie, going only where Dougie goes. Once they've exhausted all the comic possibilities of being invisible, they set about unravelling the mystery of Will's predicament. Is it something to do with that kiss, or the driver of the car that killed him and didn't stop? Maybe they will find an answer by investigating the rumour that there is an unhappy spirit haunting the ruins in the school grounds, and if so, why? What they discover is a long-buried mystery, which stretches its fingers right into the present...








Long time readers of The Book Zone will already know that I am a huge fan of Curtis Jobling's Wereworld books. That series was epic fantasy for teens at its very best, and ever since it finished I have been waiting with baited breath to see what Curtis produced next. Given that this is the guy who brought us both Bob the Builder and RAA RAA the Noisy Lion I was not at all surprised when I discovered that his new book, Haunt: Dead Scared, was totally different: a creepy comedy story aimed at a slightly younger audience than Wereworld.

Although Haunt treads very similar ground to Tamsyn Murray's brilliant My So-Called Afterlife, and there are elements of the plot's central mystery that are not a million miles away from that of James Dawson's Say Her Name, the quality of Curtis Jobling's writing makes this an original and thoroughly enjoyable read for young teens. The real strengths of the book are the humour, and the tight relationship between Will (who dies in the first chapter but comes back as a ghost) and his best mate Dougie (the only person who can see Will's ghost). These are two somewhat geeky boys having to come to terms with a tragic accident, and the bizarre aftermath that sees Will stranded as a spook. Together they have to work out why on earth Will didn't move on, and in the process of their investigations they come across another stranded spirit, and take it upon themselves to help her too.

I've not read any interviews Curtis Jobling may have given about this new series but I would not be surprised if he has cited Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) as one of his inspirations when it came to writing the book. I loved the original series (watched as repeats - I'm honestly not old enough to have seen it when first broadcast) and even enjoyed the Vic and Bob reboot. The humour in Haunt, as the two boys try to get to grips with their rather unique situation, is certainly reminiscent of that TV show, with a heavy dose of Scooby Doo style shenanigans thrown in for good measure.


If you're looking for a creepy and funny book that is also a fairly quick read this summer then look no further than Haunt: Dead Scared. My thanks go to the fab people at Simon & Schuster for sending me a copy.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: Say Her Name by James Dawson


Roberta 'Bobbie' Rowe is not the kind of person who believes in ghosts. A Halloween dare at her ridiculously spooky boarding school is no big deal, especially when her best friend Naya and cute local boy Caine agree to join in too. They are ordered to summon the legendary ghost of 'Bloody Mary': say her name five times in front of a candlelit mirror, and she shall appear...But, surprise surprise, nothing happens. Or does it? 

Next morning, Bobbie finds a message on her bathroom mirror...five days...but what does it mean? And who left it there? Things get increasingly weird and more terrifying for Bobbie and Naya, until it becomes all too clear that Bloody Mary was indeed called from the afterlife that night, and she is definitely not a friendly ghost. Bobbie, Naya and Caine are now in a race against time before their five days are up and Mary comes for them, as she has come for countless others before...







James Dawson is single-handedly bringing the traditions and aesthetic of the teen horror and slasher films of the 80s/90s, coupled with influences from his much loved Point Horror books, into contemporary YA fiction. I really enjoyed Hollow Pike, his first book, and I am yet to read Cruel Summer (soon to be rectified), but with Say Her Name Dawson seems to have really found his groove. 

As far as the story is concerned, Say Her Name does not have the most original of plots. The Bloody Mary folklore legend (and similar concepts) has been used in a number of films and TV shows in recent years (Supernatural, Bloody Mary, Candyman, Ringu), but James Dawson imbues his story with a charm and undercurrent of humour that is more reminiscent of the Scream films, and it is these elements that make it stand out from the rest. I say 'the rest' but as far as I am aware. there are very few other writers producing YA stories like this at the moment - the majority of other horror stories for teens around at the moment lack the aforementioned charm and humour that make Say Her Name such an enjoyable read.

Lifelong fans of US slasher films and Point Horror may find some of the plot twists a little easy to guess, but that does not make the book any less enjoyable, and teens who have not yet had the joy of watching the panoply of great (and less great) teen horror movies will find there are plenty of surprises in store for them in Say Her Name. I know that James is currently juggling his fiction writing with his non-fiction writing, but I hope that there is much more of the same to come from him in the future.

My thanks go to Hot Key Books for giving me a copy of Say Her Name to read/review.




The End of the Book Zone (For Boys)... or Just A New Beginning?


As far as blogging is concerned, this year has been very difficult so far. Work seems to be taking up even more of my time than it did in the past (and if you had told me that would happen twelve months ago I would not have thought it possible). My involvement as a member of the Bookbuzz selection panel also took up a huge amount of my time, and whilst I would not change that for anything as it was something that I enjoyed immensely, again it meant there was even less time for blogging. And then there was WoW - the young people's literary festival I organised. I've also gone through lengthier periods than before where I've struggled to get into a number of YA and MG books, and have had to read adult books to retain my sanity. And on top of this, I'm also trying to progress with my own writing - my head is almost exploding with ideas but the time to get them onto 'paper' in a coherent form is difficult to find.

Of course, this has all led to prolonged periods of guilt. My TBR pile is as high as ever, and my RBNR (read-but-need-reviewing) pile is pretty high too. I feel like I am letting down the wonderful publishers that continue to send me some pretty damn amazing books. I also feel like I am letting down the authors who are struggling in a relatively poor market and need as much exposure as possible. Every book I read gets a Goodreads star rating, but as far as my own personal expectations of myself are concerned, this just isn't enough. Over the years I have prided myself on the length and detail of my reviews, but sadly this is no longer sustainable.

This has left me with two options: stop blogging altogether or accept that I will have to write much shorter reviews. Because I love blogging, and I love the people that I have come to know so well since I started blogging, at this moment in time the first is still not really an option for me, and so I am going to try the latter. Hopefully this will mean that there will be more reviews on The Book Zone, but they will just be shorter and less verbose. I hope this won't disappoint anyone too much and you'll continue to visit my blog in the future.