Saturday, 3 October 2015

The A to Z of Railhead - C is for Cleave (by Philip Reeve)

It was only a year or so ago that I was bemoaning the general lack of space set science fiction for young adult and younger readers (although if you're a long time reader of The Book Zone you will know that I have been moaning about this for a good few years). However, in the last 18 months publishers have obviously decided that space is cool and marketable again (anything to do withh the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens?). In my opinion, Philip Reeve's Railhead is the best book so far (and by far) in this long overdue new wave of YA space opera (it's TRAINS IN SPACE. Need I say more? It was published two days ago and it is flippin' brilliant!)) and today I am honoured to be welcoming the great Mr Reeve himself to The Book Zone as part of the A to Z of Railhead tour. 

C is for Cleave

When I started to write Railhead, I wanted to write about a future that was worth living in - a positive vision to set against all the dystopias and apocalypses of recent fiction. So how did I end up starting in a dump like Cleave?

Zen's hometown was a sheer-sided ditch of a place. Cleave’s houses and factories were packed like shelved crates up each wall of a mile-deep canyon on a one-gate world called Angkat whose surface was scoured by constant storms. Space was scarce, so the buildings huddled into every available scrap of terracing, and clung to cliff faces, and crowded on the bridges which stretched across the gulf between the canyon walls - a gulf which was filled with sagging cables, dangling neon signage, smog, dirty rain, and the fluttering rotors of air taxis, ferries and corporate transports.

Well, maybe a hero needs to start out in some place where he’s not content. Otherwise, why would he go looking for adventure?

Between the steep-stacked buildings a thousand waterfalls went foaming down to join the river far below, adding their own roar to the various dins from the industrial zone. The local name for Cleave was Thunder City.

A few years ago, on my wife’s birthday, we went to Lydford Gorge, on the far side of Dartmoor. It’s a place about as unlike a futuristic industrial city as you could imagine. The river Lyd flows through the deep gorge. There is a famous waterfall called The White Lady, and a beautiful, mossy path leading up through the oak woods, beside the rapids. There’s also a spot called where the river plunges down into a deep chasm. Some previous landowner bolted metal walkways to the rock-faces so that sightseers could venture closer. The walkways are rusted now and maybe unsafe; they were certainly closed off the day that we were there. But looking at them from the higher path made me think about a whole city built in that way, jutting from vertical cliff faces, half drowned in waterfall spray. Ideas lie in wait for us in the landscape, and they’re not always the ideas that we expect.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz's crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.

Let's start with a confession: of the books in the original Grisha trilogy I have still only read the first book, Shadow and Bone. It was a book that I didn't quite love, but really enjoyed nonetheless, and I honestly meant to find the time to read the remaining books in the trilogy. However, with my main focus being middle grade these days that time has still to be found. Damn it! There are just far too many great sounding books being published these days! It may seem odd to some then that when a surprise proof of Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo's new Grisha novel, arrived in the post I actually felt a frisson of excitement and it didn't sit on my TBR pile for long at all before I decided to read it.

It's easy for me to explain this excitement. First up, I attended an event that Leigh Bardugo did in London last year, and it was one of the most enjoyable single author events that I have been to in the past few years. At that event Leigh talked briefly about her next project, the book that is now called Six of Crows, and my interest was well and truly piqued. You see, I LOVE heist stories and despite their popularity on the big and small screens, there just don't seem to be enough of them around in book form. Apart from Jack Heath's fab Money Run and Hit List, and Peter Jay Black's brilliant Urban Outlaws series I can't think of any others. Unless that it just my poor, tired brain being uber forgetful.

And not only is Six of Crows a fantastic heist story, it is also a darn good fantasy novel as well. In fact, it is one of the best books I have read this year which is testament to Bardugo's skill as a writer as there are so many elements that could have made this all go wrong, and perhaps this is why there are so few heist stories out there. A great heist needs a strong team to carry it out (think Ocean's 11, Leverage), and novels with too many lead characters can often become confusing or plodding. Not in this case. Not only are there six main characters, but the chapters also jump between POVs. This is not a technique that I am particularly fond of but in this case it works perfectly. Each chapter is headed with the name of its focus character, and after the first couple of chapters following this becomes second nature.

Of course, readers want to know as much about their lead character(s) as possible, and this includes back story: the experiences, trials and tribulations that have made them as they are when they first appear in the story. With six characters to focus on any one or more of them could have easily faded into the background as little more than a bit player with no history, and yet this never happens. I found it very easy to become attached to each and every one of them, and if we are honest, in a good heist story we are always rooting for every member of the team to make it through to the successful conclusion of the caper. This attachment came partly through the way Leigh Bardugo drip-feeds us with their back histories, and as the story progresses their various motivations become more and more apparent and important.

And then there is the world-building. With a great plot and fantastic characters, would this be the element that suffered? Not at all. As I have said, I have only read Shadow and Bone with its Tsarist Russian inspired Ravka, and I have no idea if more of the world outside of Ravka is shown in the sequels. However, Six of Crows is initially set in a wonderfully Ketterdam, a city that to me seemed to have a hint of the Netherlands, before the action moves to the snow covered Scandinavian-ish Fjerda (apologies if I'm sounding ridiculously uninformed to all those huge Grisha fans out there). I'm no fantasy aficionado but I very quickly got sucked into the sights, sounds and smells of Bardugo's world and it stayed with me for some time after I had finished the book (which, by the way, ends with more than a few strands left untied, setting us up for what I hope will be an equally brilliant sequel).

I guess I've made it pretty obvious that you don't have to have read the Grisha trilogy to enjoy this book. Having read Shadow and Bone I was already aware of the Grisha 'magic' and I guess this did slightly enhance my understanding of some of the plot strands, but it certainly isn't essential. I've already said I enjoyed Shadow and Bone, but with it's mix of The Dirty Dozen, Leverage and The Lies of Locke Lamora I really, truly loved Six of Crows. Definitely one of my books of 2015.

Six of Crows was published in the UK today and my thanks go to those wonderful people at Indigo for sending me a copy.

Friday, 25 September 2015

My New Role (and Why I've Been Absent Recently)

It would probably be a tad egotistical of me to assume that anyone has noticed that things have gone quiet again on The Book Zone recently or that I have been very quiet on Twitter, to the point where all but a couple of my tweets have been auto-tweets by Goodreads. However, there is a very good reason for this, should anyone out there be interested - along with my teaching and my Assistant Headteacher responsibilities, I am also my school's acting librarian.

The school's librarian of 16ish years retired in the summer, and as a result of the significant challenges the school faces in the next few years relating to reduced funding levels (yep, good old DfE policy again!) cuts were/are needed in many areas. The school's Senior Team (of which I am a member) had to make the very difficult decision not to appoint a new full-time librarian, and not wanting all of the hard work of the last eight or so years to go to waste I stepped up and said I would be happy to take over the day-to-day management of the school library, with a slight reduction in my teaching load. By this I mean that I am now responsible for ordering new books, cataloguing them when they come in, making sure the library is kept tidy, etc. It has been a steep learning curve, and over the past month or so I have:

  • started to get to grips with Softlink's Oliver, our library management software (I say 'started', but I'm barely scratching the surface at the moment - the manual is 1000+ pages long!)
  • bought a wireless bar-code scanner so I can take new books home and get them on the system from the comfort of a sofa whilst watching TV of an evening
  • started to get my head around the Dewey Decimal System. It's easy to use on the other side of the desk as a punter, but I'm finding it a challenge (and time consuming) to work out exactly which Dewey number a non-fiction title should be given
  • had 'fun' with Tattle Tape
  • added cover after cover to books that we ordered right at the end of last term, and others that have come in since (I've lost count already). We had also run out of the correct sized covers for manga books, and as we bought a couple of box sets of One Piece and Naruto just before the break I have had a queue of students waiting for them to be put on the shelves. The covers arrived yesterday evening so that was this morning's job!
And I am enjoying every minute of it, even if the blog and my social media 'profile' are taking a massive hit. I'm doing what I enjoy most - getting books into the hands of young readers. I have also just trained up a group of incredibly enthusiastic sixth formers who are now running the library for me at break times, issuing books and supervising the younger students, and the DBS checks have started top come through for the parent volunteers who are going to supervise the library after school, so I may have some free time again relatively soon.

So, in case you happened to be wondering where I've been hiding, now you know. Sorry if you have emailed me and not received a timely reply. Apologies to publishers and authors who may be patiently waiting for me to post reviews of books I have been sent, and thank you for your understanding. It's not an ideal situation for the school, and it may last a while given current government policy related to the funding of schools. I have always been in awe of school librarians, but just based on my efforts of the last few weeks they have now reached godlike status in my eyes.
Illustration by Sarah McIntyre

Thursday, 24 September 2015

UKMG Extravaganza Blog Tour: My Magnificent Seven Pirates by Huw Powell (author of Spacejackers)

Ahoy there, space shipmates!

I’m so excited to be taking part in the UKMG Extravaganza in Nottingham Central Library on 17th October with over 30 top MG (Middle Grade) authors.

In the build up to this event, I was asked to write a guest post for the brilliant Book Zone. I’m a huge fan of MG novels and have previously blogged about how this category has produced some of the best books ever written, which is why I think MG should stand for ‘Magic Gateway’ (as there is nothing ‘middle’ about these books).

As it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day last week, I’ve decided to do something a bit different for this blog and share my ‘Magnificent Seven’ pirates from children’s literature. There are plenty of great characters to choose from, but here are some of my favourites:

·      Dread Pirate Roberts – this pirate captain from The Princess Bride is feared across the seven seas for his ruthless nature and sword fighting skills. His reputation precedes him and everyone fears him, but how much of it is true and how much is just clever PR?

·      Nancy Kington – in the novel Pirates! the character of Nancy has her comfortable English life turned upside when she’s shipped out to the West Indies. Nancy and her slave friend, Minerva Sharp, become fugitives and they are forced into a swashbuckling life of piracy.

·      Cheng Li – the Vampirates novels are packed with wonderfully dark characters, however one of my favourites is Cheng Li, who serves aboard the pirate ship, The Diablo. Cheng Li is the daughter of a famous pirate captain and she has to work hard to build her own reputation.

·      Jack Havock – this plucky pirate is only fifteen years old and the captain of a non-human pirate crew in the enchanting Victorian space adventure Larklight. Jack rescues Arthur (Art) Mumby and his sister Myrtle, before they embark on an adventure to save the universe.

·      James Turner – not strictly a pirate, but this unfriendly uncle is known as ‘Captain Flint’ in the novel Swallows and Amazons. At first, James Turner is moody and withdrawn, but is reminded how to have fun by two families of children and he ends up walking the plank.  

·      Captain Hook – few pirates are as bitter or flamboyant as the notorious Captain James Hook from Peter Pan. In addition to his elaborate clothes and wide-brimmed hat, he wears an iron hook to replace the hand that was severed by Peter Pan and eaten by a crocodile.

·      Long John Silver – no list of fictional pirates would be complete without mentioning this colourful quartermaster from Treasure Island. Long John Silver is a complex character, whose courage and cunning help him to overcome his physical disadvantages, while his moral ambiguity and sense of survival make him difficult to predict. Arrr, Jim lad!


Huge thanks to Huw for this wonderful list of fabulous literary pirates. If you've not yet discovered Spacejackers and its sequel The Lost Sword then you are in for a treat - it's pirates in space. What more could you ask for?

As for the UKMG Extravaganza, you can find out more about this awesome sounding event (and it's sister event, the UKYA Extravaganza) over at its Facebook page: 

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Matt Ralphs' YouTube channel and then on through the rest of September and well into October. Full details below:


Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Black Lotus Blog Tour: My Life That Books Built by Kieran Fanning

Last month I posted my review of Kiean Fanning's brilliant new ninja time travel adventure story, The Black Lotus. Today I am overjoyed to be welcoming Kieran to The Book Zone to tell us about the books he enjoyed reading when he was younger:

One of the first books I remember being genuinely moved by was The Children at Green Meadows by Enid Blyton. I was a huge Enid Blyton fan and read all The Secret Seven series. The Famous Five series was also a firm favourite, especially as the show was on TV.

We also had some abridged illustrated classics at home, like Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, and The Last of the Mohicans. I think I enjoyed the illustrations more than the stories but they did prompt me to revisit these titles when I got older and Treasure Island is still one of my all-time favourites.

We loved comics in our house too, though we weren’t allowed to buy them often. Our neighbour however, got comics every week so when he was finished with them we received bundles of the Beano, the Dandy, Roy of the Rovers and Thundercats.

Our mother also encouraged us to read Irish books and I loved Tom McCaughren’s fox series beginning with Run with the Wind. I also vividly remember Carolyn Swift’s Robbers series and Island of the Great Yellow Ox by Walter Macken.

Roald Dahl has to be on this list too, my favourites from him being Danny the Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach.

I also have great memories of books in school. Every day we used to look forward to the teacher reading us Charlotte’s Web or The Iron Man. In the older classes I discovered abridged classics like Dracula, Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The first books that totally transported me to another world were Mary Norton’s Borrowers books. I guess it was my first taste of fantasy. Watership Down was my second, and I was truly blown away by it. It remains in my top ten books of all time.

As kids, we loved getting gifts that came free with a box of cereal, but when the Weetabix came home from the shop with a book attached we were overjoyed. Not just because it was a free book, but because it was a book we’d never seen the likes of before. It was a Choose Your Own Adventure book, in which the reader makes decisions at the end of each page to choose the direction of the story. This interactive fiction coincided with the arrival of an Atari 800xl computer in our house and for the first time I realised that the reader no longer had to play a passive role, and that a story can have many endings. I remember reading War With the Evil Power Master, The Case of the Silk King, The Horror of High Ridge, Survival at Sea, and Mountain Survival over and over again until I reached a satisfying ending.

From there, my brother and I evolved to reading gamebooks. These were like Choose Your Own Adventures, but with the added complexities of fighting monsters, rolling dice, collecting objects and earning/losing health and skill points etc. I loved The Way of the Tiger series by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson, and the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever.

These types of books led me to write my own books, which I still have. They’re my most precious possessions! At around the age of ten I wrote The Magic Sword, and The Samurai was written some years later.

Fast forward twenty years and it was no big surprise that my first publications would be interactive puzzle adventures – Trapdoor to Treachery, Voyage to Victory, Tempest of Trouble and Curse of the Cockroach.

Fast forward another 10 years and it is no surprise that my first novel, The Black Lotus includes swords, ninjas, samurai, time travel and talking animals. It may have taken forty years, but the books I read as a kid were the making of my novel, and also, the making of me.

The Black Lotus by Kieran Fanning 
is the first book in the Samurai Wars series and is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at and 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

YA Shot Blog Tour: Guest Post by Ben Davis

Today we are joined on The Book Zone by author Ben Davis who will be appearing at YA Shot in October. YA Shot is a one-day Young Adult and Middle Grade ‘festival’ taking place in the centre of Uxbridge on Wednesday 28 October 2015 in partnership with Hillingdon Borough Libraries and Waterstone’s Uxbridge. 71 authors will be involved in a programme of workshop, panel and ‘in conversation’ events (plus book-signing sessions) in the Uxbridge Civic Centre, Waterstone’s Uxbridge and Uxbridge Library.

The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” 
Roald Dahl – Matilda.

Reading – it’s the best thing you can do with your eyeballs. From the comfort of your chair, you can explore other worlds, meets strange new people and go on wild adventures. Of course, some might argue that the same thing applies to iPads, but do you know what I say to those people? Shut up. That’s what I say.

The best kind of email I get is from young people who tell me that my books got them into reading. It literally makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It also makes me think about the books that did the same thing for me.

I was a voracious reader from an early age and would devour anything I could get my hands on – Meg and Mog, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, the backs of shampoo bottles when I was in the bath. 

Woah! Butylphenyl Methylpropional?! I did NOT see that coming.
Then, when I was a bit older, like so many people, I discovered Roald Dahl. I know, I know, everyone loves Roald Dahl, but there’s a reason for that – he was a bloody genius. I was thrilled by James and the Giant Peach, delighted by The BFG and scared out of my tiny mind by The Witches. In fact, I still have nightmares about it.

I had the film adaptation on VHS. Immediately after watching, I took it outside and buried it.
I think the book that had the biggest impact on me was Matilda. It tells the familiar Dahl-ian tale of a clever kid outsmarting nasty adults, but it stuck with me more than the others, as I think it did all slightly bookish kids. Also, let’s not discount the telekinesis – I mean, how cool would that be? After reading Matilda, I spent hours staring at things and trying to move them with my mind. I think I finally accepted that I didn’t have the gift when a kid went past me on a bike with his arms folded and didn’t fall off.

I rediscovered Dahl as an adult when I picked up his collection of short stories in a charity shop. All the sweet darkness of this children’s books is there, but dialled up to eleven. It remains one of my favourite books to dip into for quick hits of excitement.

In fact, I am such a fan of his that I have already bought my son the Roald Dahl paperback collection, and he hasn’t even been born yet!

After I had read and re-read all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, I moved on to other authors, most of whom are lost in the mists of time, but a few stand out. I remember enjoying the books of Dick King-Smith, firstly because his brilliant animal tales like the Sheep-Pig and Harry’s Mad gripped me and kept me turning the pages and secondly because, come on, his name is Dick King. To a ten year old boy, that is HILARIOUS. Ah, who am I kidding? It still is.
I would take new books out of the library every weekend, read them during the week, then swap them for new ones. I read a series called Buccaneers by Sheila K. McCullagh, which I loved (it was about pirates, what more do you want?) and would regularly blast through football books – usually about a band of plucky outsiders who overcome the odds against slick baddies to save their team from closure, and you know the rest.

I remember just starting high school and being secretly petrified by Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster - both the book and the TV series which was on at the time. Every time my head teacher removed his glasses during assembly, I would silently freak out.

As a teen, I kind of missed out on YA and seemed to go straight from children’s books to adult with no bridge. The first GCSE book I remember really getting into was Lord of the Flies by William Golding. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, it is the story of a group of school boys, stranded on a desert island. Rather than getting into all kinds of jolly tropical adventures, they quickly become savages and their ‘civilisation’ descends into anarchy. The basic message behind the book is that boys, and by extension, humanity, is only a flicker away from going full-on insane like a bunch of crazed chimpanzees. Looking back, it probably had something of an influence on my writing, particularly the ‘high school is a jungle’ bit in The Private Blog of Joe Cowley.

I couldn’t have enjoyed all these books if it weren’t for my local library, which is why it is so sad that so many of them are closing or can’t afford to buy new books. It makes me worry about the kids of the future. Where are they going to find the books that make them readers? This is why we as writers must do everything we can to help promote child literacy. YA Shot is doing this and I’m really thrilled to be part of it and I hope it inspires others as much as it has me.

If you haven’t already, get your tickets NOW!


Ben Davis is an award-nominated writer of funny children's fiction. His Private Blog of Joe Cowley books have been hailed as Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets the Inbetweeners. He also writes for younger children, with the super-villain adventure, Danny Dread hitting the shops in August 2015. 

He lives in the Midlands with his wife and his big, wimpy dog.