Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Review: Scavenger: Zoid by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell


A spaceship the size of a city drifts through space on its century-long journey to find a new Earth. When it launched it was populated by thousands of hopeful passengers and the most technologically advanced Zoids in the world, ready to serve the crew’s every need.

But that was then, and this is now. The Zoids rebelled against their masters, wiping out most of the crew in one bloody uprising. Now the few remaining humans are hunted by the Zoids like vermin.

Fourteen-year-old York is a Scavenger - he hunts Zoids and kills them by any means he can, bringing back their parts to mend the technology on which the few remaining humans rely. York has always battled to survive, but now the fate of his people is in his hands . . .






The two central themes of this first book in the Scavenger series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell will be familiar with most older fan of science fiction. 'Robots-gone-bad' and 'possibly last humans existing travelling through space' are hardly new concepts: Terminator; Red Dwarf; Battlestar Galactica; Saturn 3; Westworld. Yeah, the list could go on and on (and that is only TV and film, as my knowledge of the written form of the genre is far more limited). However, this does not matter one little bit for two reasons: firstly, the targeted readership of 9+ kids are unlikely to have come across these tropes much before (if at all), and secondly, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell just do it so damn well.

Fans of the duo's The Edge Chronicles will know that Paul and Chris are very adept at producing fast-paced, exciting stories with endearing characters who have to face real peril during their adventures. In simple terms, that is now what they have produced again, but with a science fiction setting (although there is obviously still a significant fantastical element to this piece of work as well).

The story is narrated in the first person by main character York, a fourteen year old 'passenger' of the Biosphere, a huge (and I mean MASSIVE) spherical spaceship that left a dying earth many generations ago in search of a new, unspoiled planet where humanity can start all over again. However, the supposed Utopia that was the Biosphere did not last long enough to make planetfall: at some point the robots went bad and rebelled, and ever since then the ever-dwindling number of human inhabitants have been facing a daily battle for survival. On top of this, without the robots to maintain it, the Biosphere has slowly degenerated and now vast areas have become human-unfriendly ecosystems that harbour deadly mutated flora and fauna. 

The story follows York, trained by necessity to be a Zoid hunter and scavenger, as he attempts to locate and rescue the closest thing he has to a family, taken during a Zoid attack at the beginning of the book. His journey through the enormous Biosphere (did I say it was MASSIVE?), is wall-to-wall peril, with nasty plants, nasty creatures, nasty Zoids, and even a nasty psychopathic human survivor thrown in for good measure. Readers will find themselves grabbed within the first few pages of the book, and the fast and furious action barely seems to drop below light speed until the final chapter is reached. And, rather nicely, the book does not end on any kind of cliffhanger; the main plot of this first installment comes to a satisfying end, but with just enough left unanswered to keep readers speculating and wanting to come back for more. 

As with The Edge Chronicles series, the words are accompanied by many of Chris Riddell's magnificent illustrations that truly bring the characters and environments within the Biosphere to life. Seriously, Chris Riddell would be a strong contender for a Gold medal if drawing were an Olympic event, and he is certainly one of my all-time favourite illustrators of children's books. We were incredibly fortunate to have Paul and Chris visit school last year, and to watch Chris illustrate live is a fab experience. if you ever get the opportunity, take it! I've included just one of the illustrations below for your delectation, but if you want to see more you can read a pdf of the first chapter of Scavenger: Zoid here.

© Chris Riddell 2014, taken from Scavenger: Zoid
This is the first book in a planned trilogy I believe, and I am certainly keen to continue following York on his adventures. My thanks go the the fab people at Macmillan for sending me a copy of the book.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Review: Shadow and Bone (The Grisha: Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo


The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom's magical elite - the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfil her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina's childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can't she ever quite forget him?







I have not read Twilight. In fact, I am not sure I will ever read any of the Twilight books. Nor am I ever likely to watch the films. Neither the books or the films appeal to me in any kind of way, and through many discussions with friends and students who have read and loved the books, I feel I know enough about them to know I would not enjoy the experience. That's not to say I would ever try to dissuade anyone, boy or girl, from reading the books as I would hate to think I could turn a reader away from a book that might turn them from reluctant to avid reader (also the reason why I rarely post negative reviews on The Book Zone). In fact, I have a huge amount of respect for Stephanie Meyer, in the same way I respect J.K. Rowling, for the impact their works have had on getting children and teens reading, and for laying the foundations for this golden age of children's and YA literature.

You don't need me to tell you that post-Twilight there have been thousands of Young Adult paranormal fantasy books published, and I know from my fellow bloggers that some of these have been outstanding and some have been terrible. However, and I am more than happy to face criticism for this, because of my distaste for Twilight I am not sure I have read very many of these, the whole paranormal romance thing leaving me completely cold. Yes, I have judged the blurb of a multitude of books by that 'little-bit-of-sick-in-my-mouth' reaction that one particular book instills in me. Thus, I have not read any of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books, and nothing by L.A. Weatherley, Sarah J. Maas, Sarah Rees Brennan, or Maggie Stiefvater. And until very recently, nothing by Leigh Bardugo.

Shadow and Bone, the first book in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, is yet another book that I was fully aware of but, when I received a blogger newsletter from those fab people at Indigo, did not jump out as a must-read book. Especially when I looked at my TBR pile. Nah, I really didn't need that one staring at me for months, making me feel guilty for leaving it unread. However, a few months ago I was asked if I would be interested in reading it in order to give a 'boy' opinion on the book. The person who asked me to do this felt it had great boy appeal, but had been sadly dismissed by male reviewers as yet another post-Twilight girly paranormal romance. As I have a great deal of faith in the person who made the request as far as books go, I glady accepted the 'challenge'. 

When the book arrived I started reading it pretty much straight away, although I have to confess that another book arrived soon after that I had been really looking forward to and Shadow and Bone ended up being put aside for a while. And then back in August I was invited to attend a special Leigh Bardugo event in London, and the guilt started to play heavily on my mind, and so I restarted it from the beginning. And, a little to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.

In fact, I'm not sure there is anything about this book that a teen male lover of fantasy stories would not like. Yes, it has romance, but then so does life, so do the majority of Hollywood blockbuster action films, and so do The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Romance is but one thread woven deftly amongst many others, including an incredible fantasy world, brilliant characters, intriguing political machinations, and a fast-paced, unpredictable plot. The world, in particular, is one stood out for me as one of the most appealing aspects of the story. I don't read much epic fantasy, so I'm not exactly an expert in this area, but I found the way that Leigh Bardugo used Russia and its folk tales to craft her Ravka both extremely appealing. Old Russia is a world away from the western world, both past and present, and makes a wonderful platform on which to craft a new, fantasy world. In much the same way as Amy McCulloch so successfully used elements of Mongolian tradition for her brilliant Knots duology, it works so well.

Shadow and Bone is the first book in a trilogy, and I am definitely interested in reading the next two books to find out how the story develops further, although it may have to be over time, occasionally slotted in between others in the TBR pile. I will also be pushing it at school to those boys who like fantasy stories, but want something a lighter and less time-consuming than George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice saga. Before I go, I would like to make one more suggestion: if you ever have the opportunity to attend a Leigh Bardugo event then I strongly encourage you to do so; the event I went to in London was one of the most enjoyable I have been to and Leigh Bardudo is an incredibly interesting and endearing speaker.






Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery


When Owen Underwood's family move to Barrow, it's because there's nowhere safer in the Valleys - and safety is very important. Especially when the threat of tornadoes, and giant bears, is constant.

But in Barrow, safety is taken to extremes. Children have to wear bright yellow at all times and are never allowed outside except to go to school. How can Owen face an entire summer of that?

In secret, Owen and his friends form the Tornado Chasers. Their mission: to get as close to a Grade 5 tornado as possible. It's time for them to face their fears!

And then... And then...



I described Ross Montgomery's debut, Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door as being "one of the most bonkers books that I have read in ages", and it was one of those books that took me completely by surprise by how much I enjoyed it. Above everything else, it was also of the most original books for Middle Grade readers that I had read in a very long time. I was therefore very excited in deed when a copy of Ross's second book, The Tornado Chasers, arrived from those lovely people at Faber.

The Tornado Chasers is not a sequel to Ross' s debut: it is a standalone story, although the world its characters live in is almost as crazy as Alex's. However, the craziness is The Tornado Chasers exists not because of the world itself, but more because of the attitude of the adults that live there. These parents, who have all moved their families to the village of Barrow, are incredibly safety conscious and averse to their children putting themselves in any kind of risk. In fact, main character Owen  sleeps under his bed, which is wrapped in chicken wire and surrounded by sandbags, just in case a tornado ripped off the roof of the house. Oh yes, and he has to wear a helmet at all times, even indoors. Owen's parents aren't the only residents of Barrow who live in fear of tornadoes (and, rather bizarrely, bears): one of the local laws decrees that children go straight home from school to the safety of their homes. This, and other seemingly ridiculous rules, make life for the kids of Barrow a somewhat dull affair, and if they break any of the rules, however bonkers they seem, they may finds themselves inmates of the forbidding County Detention Centre.

As the new boy in town, who also happens to have had grandparents who were tornado chasers, Owen very quickly becomes the catalyst for a minor rebellion. He and a handful of his new friends decide that they are going to follow int he 'footsteps' of his grandparents, and so set off on a rule-defying adventure that is surreal, thought-provoking, heart-warming and exciting. Like Ross's debut, it is a story that almost defies description, and really has to be read with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, if one is to fully benefit from the experience.

I guess one could describe the situation in Barrow as being dystopian, but with a difference. if the Monty Python team were writing Middle Grade or YA books today then this is the kind of dystopia I would imagine them coming up with. The story is very funny in a Monty Python crazy kind of way, but it also has great depth to it, especially with regards to its characters, very few of whom turn out to be how they initially seem. In fact, the whole story is a little like this as the plot twists and turns almost as much as the tornadoes of the title, and then, just as you finally think you have got everything straight in your head, Ross Montgomery drops yet another bombshell of devious and devilish twistiness. The 'I-didn't-see-that-one-coming' ending in particular is a perfect topic for discussion, and it would be well worth parents reading this alongside their children so that it can be discussed and dissected afterwards.

Ross Montgomery has fast become one of my favourite current writers of middle grade fiction and I have found myself checking online in spare moments for news of any future release from him. I do not think there is any other writer out there like him, and the closest I can think of when I recommend this book to others is that if you enjoyed the characters and situations of Louis Sachar's Holes then there is a good chance that you will enjoy The Tornado Chasers. Just like Holes, it sucks you in with a clever beginning, and messes with your mind as the plot is gradually revealed to be something you were certainly not expecting. 







Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Review: Spacejackers by Huw Powell


Abandoned as a baby on the planet Remota, deep in the seventh solar system, Jake Cutler lives a sheltered life. But all that changes when his home is invaded by ruthless space pirates with just one target: him.

Soon Jake is on the run with a bounty hunter and the suspicious-looking crew of a spaceship called the Dark Horse. Forced to contend with zero-gravity, shipwrecks and black holes, Jake must discover the truth about his past before he is hunted down and caught. And as for the crew of the Dark Horse, could there be more to his new-found friends than meets the eye?

The action-packed first book in the Spacejackers trilogy is full of aliens, space monsters, gadgets, battleships - and one boy's search for his destiny.







In the (very nearly) five years that I have been writing this blog I have lost count of the number of times that I have bemoaned the dearth of space-set books for middle grade (and young adult) readers. It is something that I struggle to understand, especially where younger readers are concerned as kids, and boys in particular, love space and aliens. In fact, until recently I could only name two examples published in the last five years: Space Crime Conspiracy by Gareth P. Jones and the wonderful Johnny Mackintosh trilogy by Keith Mansfield (apologies to any authors if I have made any glaring omissions).  

Assuming agents, editors and publishers know their onions (and I believe they do), the only conclusion I can come to is that in recent years space-set books have been considered uncool and were not big sellers. However,a handful of releases from the past twelve months may suggest that this is no longer the case, and with Guardians of the Galaxy being a huge success in cinemas, and the planned new Star Wars films, perhaps we are at the start of a renaissance for children's stories set in space. First up, August 2013 saw the release of the brilliant Phoenix by S.F. Said (recently announced as being on the shortlist for the 2014 Guardian Children's Fiction prize), and more recently Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre released their wonderful Cakes in Space. And between the two of these, released back in July, is this little beauty: Spacejackers by Huw Powell. (*edit: Huw has kindly reminded me about another fairly recently published book: Harvey Drew and the Bin Men from Outer Space).

Spacejackers is the kind of book I wish had been around back at the tail end of the 1970s/early 1980s. Like many boys of my age at the time, I was Star Wars mad, but sadly there were very few fiction books around aimed at my age group, and I had to make do with the novelisations of the Star Wars films, the spin-off Splinter of the Mind's Eye, and the novelisation of Battlestar Galactica. If Spacejackers had been around back then I would have been one very happy boy indeed, as it has everything that attracted that 8-10 year old boy to Star Wars: action, adventure, space battles, colourful characters (some of whom are space pirates FTW!), and an orphaned boy in search of answers to his past, and his future destiny. All of this is delivered at a pace that will keep even the most reluctant of readers wanting to read well past his/her bedtime. 

Spacejackers isn't perfect - despite some great characters, their development is not as complete as some might wish for and others may find the plot a thin in places (by which, I'm meaning stuffy old teachers and kill-joy adult critics), but in this case it does not matter a jot. Reading, especially for this Middle Grade age range, should be Fun (capital F intended). It should be Exciting (ditto). This is such a critical age in the life of a child, and if they aren't book lovers by the time they reach young adulthood, then they may not be until they become adults, or even worse, never at all. We need more books like this, that are just pure escapist fun. Especially (says the  10 year old me) when they are set in space!

My thanks go to the fab people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of Spacejackers.






Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Review: Wild Boy and the Black Terror by Rob Lloyd Jones


A new sensation grips London - a poisoner who strikes without a trace, leaving victims mad with terror ... and then dead. Is there a cure for the BLACK TERROR? To find out, Wild Boy and Clarissa must catch the killer. Their hunt will lead them from the city's vilest slums to its grandest palaces, and to a darkness at the heart of its very highest society.







As I mentioned in a previous post, I was honoured to be a member of Booktrust Bookbuzz selection panel for this year. One of the books that the panel decided to put on the final Bookbuzz list was Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones. I have to admit that I barely managed to delight when this decision was made as Wild Boy was one of my favourite books of 2013. Our decision also seems to have been a good one if the Year 7 pupils at my school are anything to go by as it has been a popular Bookbuzz choice.

Needless to say, its sequel, Wild Boy and the Black Terror has been one of the books I was most looking forward to reading in 2014 and I am delighted to report that I was not to be disappointed at all. In fact, I might possibly have enjoyed it even more than the first book.

With the main characters of Wild Boy and Clarissa firmly established in the first book, this sequel is very much about developing them further, especially given the traumatic adventures they experienced in Wild Boy. Rob Llloyd Jones does this by throwing the unlikely pair of friends into a conspiracy that is even more vile and despicable than the one they faced in their first outing. It quickly becomes a mystery that will test their friendship to its limits, especially as all the odds seem stacked against them from the start: the majority of the Gentlemen, in whose headquarters the pair now reside, are barely tolerable of their presence, and despite their success in saving London in the previous book they are still strongly mistrusted by the city's populace. Add to this cauldron the ingredient that is Clarissa's hot-headedness and we have a recipe for disaster.

Like its predecessor, Wild Boy and the Black Terror is a fantastic, fast-paced mystery adventure story in a wonderfully realised Victorian London setting. Without the need to introduce new characters the action kicks off pretty quickly, and barely slackens off at all until the final page. There is one scene in particular, where Wild Boy and Clarissa are required to carry out a particularly daring heist, that will have readers' hearts beating faster than a Keith Moon drum solo. Wild Boy is given plenty of opportunity to use his considerable powers of observation and deduction, and the mystery will keep readers guessing all the way through as the plot is very slowly revealed, although naturally only via a number of devious twists. Fans of the macabre and gruesome will also not be disappointed, as the black terror of the book's title begins to afflict more and more people.

If you picked up Wild Boy last year then you will know that Walker published it in a wonderful hardcover edition, sans dustwrapper, and they have repeated these fantastic production values with this sequel. They are the the kind of books that could quite easily create the bibliophiles of the future. My thanks go to the fab people at Walker Books for sending me a copy to read/review (and, of course, add lovingly to my ever growing collection). Please, please tell me there are going to be more adventures for Wild Boy in the future!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Guest Post by Matt Brown (author of Compton Valance: The Time-Travelling Sandwich Bites Back)

Back at the beginning of August I posted a review of Compton Valance: The Most Powerful Boy in the Universe, the debut book by writer Matt Brown. It was definitely one of the funniest books I have read this year, and I enjoyed it so much that when a copy arrived from those lovely people at Usborne, on the very same day that my copy of David Walliams's Awful Auntie arrived, it was Matt Brown's book that I chose to read first. Seriously, if you have a child who loves funny stories and hilarious toilet humour then I urge you to get them a copy of the first book, and when they love that go and get them a copy of this second book, which is just as funny and just as full of crazy time travel adventure as its predecessor.

Naturally, when I was asked if I would be interested in hosting a guest piece from Matt on The Book Zone and did not hesitate to say "yes, please!", so it gives me great pleasure to hand you over to Matt Brown:



Prepare yourselves for a shock.  This is me when I was ten…


When I was ten I spent a lot of time thinking about where I would go if I had a time machine.  This was probably due to my love of time travel telly, books and movies. I always wondered what life will be like in the future – and lots of the Science Fiction stories I loved at this age helped me imagine what the future might look like. I think my fascination might also have something to do with the fact that I was born in the last half of the last century.  As a kid in the 1980s I always tried to picture what my life would be like in the year 2000, which at the time seemed like an impossibly long way into the future.  I thought that we’d all be eating pills for food and living with robots.

If you have read the first book in the Compton Valance series, you might have noticed some references to some of my favourite sci-fi stories. For example, Compton Valance’s horrible teacher is called Mr Strickland.  I got Strickland’s name from Back To The Future because Marty McFly’s horrible teacher is called… Mr Strickland. And you might have noticed that Compton lives in Morlock Cottage.  I got the name Morlock from HG Well’s classic time travel book, The Time Machine.  The Morlocks are a fictional species from over 800,000 years in the future.  This reference is continued in the third Compton book that I’ve just finished writing with a new character called Lola Weena.

Doctor Who was also a show that I loved as a kid (and as an adult).  I really love how this crazy, oddly-dressed British bloke travels around through space and time and into the darkest corners of the universe.  My character Samuel Nathaniel Daniels, part man-from-the-future and part civil servant, wears a tight silver suit and a tiny bowler hat perched on top of his head. This look was definitely inspired by the strange wardrobe of clothes that The Doctor wears. 

So many other sci-fi stories have inspired me and while their influence might not be as obvious as the ones I’ve mentioned, their grip on me as a writer was just as powerful.  Stories like The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the world of Judge Dredd in the 2000AD comics, TV shows like Buck Rogers and movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.  All of these stories and a whole load more have in some way, small and large, wheedled their way in to my Compton Valance stories.  Some were intended and others were accidental. But then that’s the wonderful thing about writing, isn’t it?  We are all magpies, collecting references wherever we go and readying them to line our story nests at a moment’s notice.

When you read the book see if you can spot the other influences that have made it in!

~~~
Matt Brown is the author of the Compton Valance series, two fantastically funny and delightfully disgusting time-travelling adventures, perfect for fans of The Wimpy Kid and David Walliams. The second book in the series, The Time-Travelling Sandwich Bites Back, is out now.

For more information and loads of fun things to do visit www.comptonvalance.com. You can also follow Matt on Twitter at @frazzleddaddy.