Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Dreamsnatcher Blog Tour: The Tribe’s Guide to Not Dying in the Forest by Abi Elphinstone

The Tribe’s Guide to Not Dying in the Forest

I thought about having a go at writing this blog post but then Moll told me to shut up because I’m not technically in The Tribe so there’s no way I could know anything of real importance about forest survival. I tried to point out to Moll that in a way I created The Tribe but she was having none of it, and so before she had a chance to set Gryff on me, I decided to hand over to her…

Introducing Moll – outside her wagon

MOLL: If you haven’t already formed a gang or a club or a secret society, you probably should – especially if you’re planning on Not Dying in the forest. We invented The Tribe a few years ago. At first it was just me, Sid and Gryff – then when we let another member in coz he proved good at picking locks and riding cobs. Most of the time we break rules, avoid chores, tell lies on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do brave things like rescuing trapped otters and mending owl wings. But the first thing we did was to learn how to get by in the forest – how to build shelter and hunt for food – so if you’re keen on staying alive when you’re out in the woods, it’s probably worth listening to us.

First thing: the den. This is VERY important – for meetings, sleeping and generally keeping out of the way of camp chores and witchdoctor chants. The Tribe has a tree house (we call it a tree fort coz Sid says it sounds better) and it’s perched half way up a yew tree – coz every gypsy knows the spirit of the yew grants protection against evil spirits.

Abi’s brother in their childhood den (not as good as The Tribe’s Tree Fort)

Oak, the head of our camp, helped us make the tree fort, and this is how we did it:
  1. Gathered up as many planks and slats of wood as we could find 
  2. Found a big old yew tree that had a space large enough for a tree house in the middle of its branches. I also checked there was a good swooping branch for Gryff so that he could hang out near us but keep a bit of distance to be all wild and free  
  3. Hauled the planks up into the tree (this was the hardest part, mostly coz Sid kept giggling half way up about Porridge The Second, his earthworm, tickling him inside his pocket)
  4. Hammered nails into the biggest planks to fix the base to the tree first. Then we made the sides and the roof with the smaller slats. We left a hole for a window (so we can spy on stuff down in the glade), and Mooshie, that’s Oak’s wife, leant us some fancy lace to hang over it as a curtain
  5. Collected old jam jars to go in the fort and filled them with funny-looking mushrooms, weird ferns, giant nettles (we tried to pick ALL of these so Mooshie won’t use them to make her disgusting nettle soup) and smooth pebbles for catapulting annoying people
  6. Hung wind chimes from the branch under the fort to ward off evil spirits (then I added a dreamcatcher coz I figured the bright feathers might put the evil spirit in a better mood if it did chance on passing our way). We also hung some other good luck charms to help protect our fort from witchdoctor badness: nails dangling from string, bits of mirror stuck into branches, lemon peel tucked into the hollows and a fox tooth in a jam jar by the trunk of the tree

Abi’s Dad cutting down hazel in a Scottish wood for Moll’s catapult

After we built the tree fort, Oak taught us how to hunt. And it’s a good job he did – coz recently Mooshie and me worked out that most of my bad decisions happen when I’m hungry. So to avoid bad decisions, here are The Tribe’s key tips to finding food in the forest:
  1. Know how to make a fire. Find a flat area in the forest, dig a circle a few centimetres deep and round enough for your fire (about 75cm). Surround the area with dry rocks to box in the fire. Gather dry twigs, leaves and kindling from fallen branches – birch bark is a good fire starter. Build a small, loose pile of kindling inside the stones and make sure there’s space for the air to feed the fire. Make an inwards tepee of dry twigs and small sticks around and above the kindling pile. Then add to your fire with bigger logs to keep it burning. Remember to put the fire out after you’re finished with it as that can lead to all sorts of annoying problems 
  2. Make a catapult. Find a Y-shaped piece of wood (hazel or ash is usually the best as it’s strong), carve it down to shape so that the central base fits into the palm of your hand, use a penknife to make a grove round each of the Y prongs, bake it in an oven for 15 minutes to make the wood stronger, coat it in varnish then fit a strip of strong, thick elastic with a leather pouch in the middle of it over the prongs. Then just find a stone and you’re good to go. I reckon I’m probably the best in The Tribe at catapulting, but Sid’s not bad, and I suppose Gryff is pretty good at hunting and he doesn’t even need a catapult. We get pigeons and rabbits mostly – then we cook them on the fire
  3. Tickle a trout. Wade up the river feeling underneath the banks for resting trout. Using one hand, work your fingers from the trout’s tail upwards, gently rubbing its belly with the tips of your fingers so that it goes all still and trance-like. Once you reach the head, grip hard, lift fish out of the water, cook it on the fire. YUM
  4. Munch some berries and nuts. Look out for blackberries late summer/early autumn as well as plums, damsons, wild strawberries and raspberries which you’ll find growing in hedgerows. And you can’t go wrong with chestnuts – gather a handful from the ground in Autumn, use a penknife to cut away the shell then roast them over the fire. They taste good dipped in salt
Moll’s catapult (carved by Abi – not that Moll said thank you…)

You should be all right in the wild. I mean, sheltering from the rain and finding food is a walk in the park compared to what I got landed with. Annoyingly there aren’t that many rules on how to avoid witchdoctors and their deadly Dream Snatch. But still, I’ve got my catapult – and that’s a start…


Big, big thanks to Moll (and Abi) for guesting on The Book Zone today. The Dreamsnatcher is published on 26th February and you can follow Abi on Twitter where she goes by the name of @moontrug.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Review: Vowed by Liz de Jager

A Blackhart can see the supernatural behind everyday crimes. But some crimes hide even greater evils . . .

Kit Blackhart must investigate why children are disappearing from a London estate. Their parents, the police and Kit's fae allies claim to know nothing. And as more children disappear, the pressure mounts. Luckily, or unluckily, government trainee Dante Alexander is helping Kit with the case. Yet just as her feelings towards him begin to thaw, his life falls apart. As Kit struggles to unravel Dante's problems and solve their case, she meets fae Prince Thorn in her dreams - but their relationship is utterly forbidden.

Then Kit digs too deep, uncovering a mystery that's been hidden for one thousand years. It's a secret that could just tear down our world.

Time is tight at the moment due to my involvement in getting the Middle Grade Strikes Back project up and running, so please forgive me for copying/pasting the following disclosure from my review of Banished, the first book in Liz de Jager's Blackhart Legacy trilogy: "as long time readers will know, Liz de Jager is a good friend of mine, and Liz acted as a kind of mentor for me when I was first started blogging. All of this means that this is a very difficult review to write as I need to make sure I retain objectivity, and please believe me when I say I am not a sycophant, for the main reason that Liz was string me up and subject me to every kind of pain possible if she thought I was writing a positive review just because I am a friend."

Over the past few months I have mainly been reading middle grade fiction, but Vowed has been sitting on my TBR pile glaring at me, demanding to be read. Truth be told, I finally picked it up because of my friendship with Liz as although I enjoyed Banished, all these months on I did not feel invested enough in the story to promote Vowed straight to the top of my TBR pile. This is no reflection on the quality of Banished or its story, but more my general feelings towards YA at this moment in time. And now I'm regretting my lateness to the Vowed party - I bloody loved it and I just couldn't put it down.

One of my issues with Banished was the character of Prince Thorn, and in my review I mentioned that I didn't find him particularly believable. Thorn takes very much of a back seat in Vowed, and I do wonder whether this contributed to my enjoying this installment more than the first. In his place, as the potential 'will they?/won't they?' love interest for Kit is new boy Dante Alexander, a young member of the government's 'spook squad'. Even though he starts off as a bit of an arrogant shit at the beginning of the book, as the story progresses Dante becomes gradually more likeable, and there is more than a hint of mystery surrounding Dante's background and character. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Vowed is as much Dante's story as it is Kit's. Fortunately, Aiden is still on the scene, and Kit's continued platonic friendship (a rare thing in a YA urban fantasy story) with the werewolf, a high point of the first book, is developed even further.

Liz de Jager's considerable knowledge of British and European mythology and folk tales is even more evident in Vowed than it was in Banished, as is her love for her adopted city of London. These elements of folklore are so well woven into the story that it is nigh on impossible to determine which are from legend and which are the fruits of the writer's considerable imagination. At times I found myself having to resist from picking up my phone to access Wikipedia to look up a particular reference, and instead had to make a note to check things later. The author also teases her readers with her characters making off hand remarks about previous undocumented events, and also other aspects of the world she has created' leaving us with a feeling that she has so much more to offer beyond this planned trilogy.

Like its predecessor, Vowed has some cracking adrenaline-fuelled action sequences, although they take something of a backseat in this episode. In fact that where I felt that Banished was very much an action urban fantasy story, Vowed is more of a detective/crime story rooted in the author's urban fantasy world.

I gave Banished four stars on Goodreads, and as I enjoyed this book even more I just ahd to give it five. However, it is not without fault and so the rating is actually a rounded up 4.5 stars. There were a handful of plot threads that were left dangling, which is understandable given that this is the second book in a trilogy, but for me a few of them felt that their lack of resolution felt unnatural and not in keeping with Kit's character. My other issue comes about more because of my friendship with Liz de Jager: at times Kit's voice (and occasionally that of some of the other characters) just seemed far too much like that of the real life author (both spoken and her 'twitter voice'). Liz is a self-confessed and proud geek, and in my opinion there were a few too many references to geek culture inserted into the dialogue of Kit and some of the other characters, and at times these jarred with me as I didn't feel that they were necessary or added to the humour in the dialogue in any great way.

Vowed has a little something for everyone - fantasy, action, mystery and plenty of thrills. I just hope that when Judged, the concluding part of the trilogy, is released in November someone will point me back at this review so that I don't leave it unread for quite as long. Looking at my middle grade heavy TBR pile it might be one of the few YA books I read in 2015.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Guest Post: My Magnificent Seven Animals in Children’s Books by Abi Elphinstone (author of The Dreamsnatcher)

It is with great pleasure that today I am welcoming Abi Elphinstone to The Book Zone. Abi is the writer of the brilliant The Dreamsnatcher, which I reviewed last month, and also a fellow lover of middle grade books which she blogs about as Moontrug. Abi has joined us today to tell us about her favourite animals in children's books.

My Magnificent Seven Animals in Children’s Books

1. The Whereabouts Wolf in The Black North by Nigel McDowell. One of my favourite heroines, Oona, is given a Whereabouts Wolf to carry her away from danger: ‘a creature flecked with filth and reeking of the wild’. A Whereabouts Wolf has no eyes – Oona must simply whisper where she wants to go and the wolf will take her there. So when Oona says ‘take us to the middle of nowhere,’ that’s exactly what the Whereabouts Wolf does. I want one…

2. Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. One of my favourite childhood memories is watching the BBC adaption of this brilliant book around the fire with my siblings at Christmas. The opening theme tune conjures all the magic of my childhood and I fell asleep every night after listening to it imagining I was riding through Narnia on Aslan’s back. I liked the way Aslan was kind and loyal – that he never let the Pevensie children down – but that he was unpredictable and wild as well, as Mr Beaver said: ‘He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion’. And that’s kind of how I imagine magic to be. 

3. Iorek Brynison in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This was a tricky one. Whilst Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, remains one of my all-time favourite characters, there is something about this ‘outcast bear’ who rises up to be a mighty ice warrior, willing to protect Lyra against the slightest harm. And nothing beats the wonder of imagining Lyra riding Iorek across the Arctic ice plains.

4. Wolf in Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. Torak’s bond with Wolf is one of the most well-drawn, touching and believable child-animal bonds in children’s literature. Wolf begins as a reticent, playful cub but as he takes up his place as Torak’s best-friend and ally, he becomes a brave, loyal and fierce wolf. And the closing chapter of this book shows the wolf-boy bond in a heartbreakingly beautiful way.

5. The White Pigeon in The Last Wild by Piers Torday. This little bird is basically ME in pigeon form – a misdirected ball of enthusiasm, often saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. His malapropisms are laugh-out-loud funny and hopelessly confused lines like ‘Here is your gift – some old sheep’ and ‘Not a bad-looking fat bird yourself’ cement this little chap as a truly memorable character. And it’s comforting to find someone else (even if this someone is a fictional pigeon) whose words tumble out all wrong – because I stutter and mix up words quite a lot, especially when I’m nervous.

6. Saracen in Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. Without doubt the most amusing goose in children’s books. Owned by the feisty Mosca Mye (‘I want my chirfugging goose back!’), Saracen makes a star appearance at the beast fight disguised as King Prael’s Star-crested eagle. Brilliantly funny.

7. Snow Leopard in The Snow Leopard by Jackie Morris. In a world where we move at 100mph through almost everything we do (yesterday I was moving so fast I ran full pelt into a glass door), the Snow Leopard draws you away to a half-forgotten world of peace and silence. The illustrations of this big cat are mesmerisingly beautiful and snow leopards remain one of my all-time favourite animals.

It was so hard to pick just seven animals for this blog post. I mean, I could have gone on for ages about Joe (from The Diddakoi), Hazel (from Watership Down), Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Charles Scallybones (from A Boy Called Hope), Havoc (from The Burning Shadow) Tarka The Otter, The Ugly Duckling and, ummmmm, one more animal I’m very fond of: Gryff, the wildcat in my debut, The Dreamsnatcher. He is fearless, loyal and patient and although he is by nature a solitary animal full of secrets, he forms an extraordinary bond with Moll, a twelve-year-old gypsy girl. And that’s kind of cool.


Super huge thanks to Abi for writing this for The Book Zone. The Dreamsnatcher is due to be published on 26th February, and it's flippin' brilliant.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Guest Post: My Magnificent Seven Mystery Series by Robin Stevens (author of Arsenic for Tea)

I am absolutely overjoyed that today we have been joined by writer Robin Stevens, who has written a fab post for us about her favourite detective series for children. Murder Most Unladylike, Robin's first book in her Wells & Wong mystery series, was one of my favourite books of 2014, and the sequel, Arsenic for Tea, has a very good chance of making the 2015 list at the end of this year.


My Magnificent Seven Detective Series by Robin Stevens

I’m really excited to have been asked to do this – any excuse to talk about mystery stories! Here are the seven mystery series that most influenced me as a kid, and that I think will still fire children’s imaginations today.

The Famous Five

These books were my introduction to mysteries. Sure, Anne, Julian and Dick are basically dead weight (George and Timmy the dog solve everything), and sure, the mysteries pretty much involve smugglers, smugglers and smugglers, but Enid Blyton is marvellous at creating worlds and groups that you're desperate to be a part of. Kirrin Island is just possible enough to feel like an achievable fantasy – a place where it’s always the summer holidays, delicious, mysterious food like macaroons is piled up in front of you at every meal, and you get to wander around in castles and triumph over bearded, villainous men. I wanted desperately to be a child that things happened to, and the Famous Five’s was my very favourite fantasy life.

The Secret Seven

Like the Famous Five, but more densely populated. I remember, even as a child, being infuriated by how little the girls were allowed to do (especially as the boys made so many mistakes) but again, I was fascinated by the concept itself – kids, going up against adults and WINNING. I had my own secret society with my best friend (as I think most kids did) and we looked frantically for mysteries to solve. It made me really imagine that I could be a detective – if even the Secret Seven could uncover dastardly dealings, surely I could be able to as well.

Sherlock Holmes

I first read these books aged 8, so for me they're very much for children. I loved how no-holds-barred they were: people really died. The stakes were high, and the peril was real, but Sherlock was such a dashing superhero that I knew he’d always be OK. I loved how unashamedly smart he was, too – the cases rested on real information, logically assessed. And even though the stories all take place in the real world, there’s something just a bit magical about them: Sherlock goes up against vampires, ghosts and pantomime-evil villains. Basically, there’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes is the most beloved detective the world has ever seen.

Harry Potter

I'm convinced that this is really a series of mystery novels (starring Hermione Grainger) that just happens to be set in a wizard boarding school. The mystery to be solved is always quite similar, along the lines of 'and where is Voldemort hiding this time?', but although it seems simple, the answer is always wholly unexpected. Rowling is a brilliant plotter and a very clever misdirector – I remember feeling genuinely astonished the first time I read each book, and delighted that I'd found a book specifically for children that could trick me like that.

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew may not be enormously handy in a crisis (she screams and runs away a lot), but I loved her investigative style and her taste in coats (my favourite villain, incidentally, was Carmen Sandiago, for the same reasons). I liked the idea of a detective who was clever and also glamorous (why couldn't someone be both?) and I was so jealous about how free Nancy was. She had access to cars and boats and airplanes – she had all the benefits of being grown up with none of the boring bits.

The Sally Lockhart Mysteries

For me, this series has everything. A bold, clever, sharp-shooting heroine, a Victorian setting to rival Sherlock's, magic, mystery and exactly the right sort of romance. Just like the Holmes stories, too, there’s just a hint of magical otherness – you feel that anything could happen, and it usually does. Murders, fires, thefts, curses and terrifying mechanical contraptions capable of taking over the world, it’s glorious, swashbuckling stuff.

Encyclopedia Brown

My final pick is probably much lesser known over here than it is in its native country, America. All the same, I can’t mention my favourite mystery series without including it. As a kid I was absolutely hooked (and slightly in love with Encyclopedia himself), and I read Encyclopedia’s adventures again and again and again. The joy of them is that they’re such achievable mysteries – each story is only a few pages long, and hinges on a single logic problem which the reader must work out the key to. Basically, they ask you to spot what’s wrong with a scene: perfect puzzles for aspiring detectives to cut their teeth on.


Huge thanks to Robin for taking the time to write this for The Book Zone. Murder Most Unladylike is available to buy right now and Arsenic for Tea is due to be released on 29th January.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Review: The Pirates of Pangaea by Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron

The year is 1717. The newly discovered island of Pangaea is the most dangerous place on Earth, where dinosaurs still walk the land - Sophie Delacourt has been sent to Pangaea to stay with her uncle. But little does she know its perils - for Pangaea is a lawless wilderness, teeming with cut-throat pirates! Kidnapped and imprisoned, Sophie must escape from the ruthless Captain Brookes and embark upon an epic journey, to find her way home.

It's nothing more than simple maths where this book is concerned:

Yes, Daniel Hartwell (no relation) and Neill Cameron's brilliant The Pirates of Pangaea, first seen in The Phoenix comic has finally been given its first collected edition, courtesy of those wonderful people at David Fickling books. Seriously, if you have kids who love comics (or kids who you would love it if they loved comics) then The Pirates of Pangaea is a must-buy book. I was a weekly purchaser of The Phoenix in its early days (and I still would be if I had kids), and although I adored the zany and madcap work of the Etherington Brothers, my favourite part of the comic by far was Hartwell and Cameron's dinosaurs and pirates mash-up.

The story follows the adventures of Sophie Delacourt, who, following the death of her parents, has been sent to live with her uncle, the governor of the remote tropical island continent of Pangaea. What Sophie doesn't realise until the voyage is almost at its end, is that Pangaea is not like the other islands she has heard of as it is still home to many species of dinosaur. 

The interior of Pangaea consists of vast areas of long grass that hide deadly predators, much the same as a quite and serene ocean may hide a school (or is it a shiver?) of vicious killer sharks. In order to travel throughout the interior, ships arriving at the port are craned onto the backs of huge sauropods, which then proceed to transport said vessels across the land. However, as this is set in the early 18th Century, there have to be pirates a plenty as well (of course), and they lie in wait for passing vessels, ready to attack with their own sauropod-mounted ships. Poor Sophie has barely made landfall when her own ship is attacked by a bloodthirsty band of cutthroats, and she is the only survivor.

Sophie is not your typical demure and retiring 18th Century young lady - she is quick to leap into the fray and the incredible creatures that inhabit Pangaea do not faze her at all. In fact, she quickly discovers that she might have a gift similar to that of a horse whisperer, something that will come in very handy as she attempts to escape captivity.

Daniel Hartwell's exciting, dinosaur-laden, swash-buckling adventure story is perfectly complemented by Neill Cameron's stunning graphic work. Neill was the talent behind the brilliant and visually stunning Mo-Bot High, but in Pirates of the Pangaea he has taken his artwork to a new level. Everything about his art in this comic is right: the sprawling Pangaea landscapes; the details of the dinosaurs and their ships; the depictions of the characters (especially the evil pirates); and the great colour palette used throughout (just feast your eyes on the image below, a promo poster that Neill Cameron produced for the launch of the comic). 

The Pirates of Pangaea is due to be published by David Fickling books on 5th February and it is well worth every penny of the £8.99 cover price. My thanks got to the wonderful people at David Fickling Books for sending me a copy to read and review.

(Pirates of Pangaea, all images and concepts ©2011 Daniel Hartwell & Neill Cameron)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Red Eye Blog Tour: My Magnificent Seven Scariest Books by Alex Bell (author of Frozen Charlotte)

And so the nightmares continue....

Yes, the Red Eye blog tour is back at The Book Zone, this time with author Alex Bell telling us about her Magnificent Seven Scariest Books. Alex is the author of Frozen Charlotte, one of the two books released this month by Red Eye, Stripes Publishing's new YA horror imprint. I've just finished Frozen Charlotte and it is very creepy and pretty terrifying on a psychological level. And if you have a phobia about porcelain dolls (which are creepy as hell at the best of times) the you certainly won't want to be reading this one at night time.

And so, over to Alex and her seven scariest books:

1. The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley - The first half of this book contains some of the best understated, unnerving horror I've ever read. You definitely feel the terror and helplessness of the main character in this one.

2. The Shining by Stephen King - I read this classic horror tale whilst staying in a very old hotel in New Orleans. As haunted hotel stories go, this has got to be one of the best. It’s a shame the topiary animals were replaced by a hedge maze in the film.

3. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James  - One of my favourite classic ghost stories – this creepy tale has an unreliable narrator and an ambiguous open ending as well as some pretty terrifying encounters in the house and the grounds.

4. This House is Haunted by John Boyne – John Boyne can write anything and excel at it. His ghost story is very much in the Dickensian tradition and contains some of the most bone-chilling scenes I’ve ever come across. A total masterpiece.

5. Florence and Giles by John Harding – I love this re-imagining of The Turn of the Screw. The language is a real treat and like nothing else you’ve ever come across before.

6. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane – Not a horror book as such but Shutter Island definitely creeped me out with its themes of paranoia, madness and self-destruction.

7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Another classic ghost tale, this one definitely delivers its fair share of scares.


Huge thanks to Alex for taking the time to write this for us. The Red Eye Blog Tour is about to come to an end, so please head on over to http://reading-in-between-the-lines.blogspot.co.uk for its final stop.