Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Review: Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty


Legends (also known as terrifying, human-eating monsters) have invaded the town of Darkmouth and aim to conquer the world.

But don’t panic! The last remaining Legend Hunter - Finn - will protect us.

Finn: twelve-years-old, loves animals, not a natural fighter, but tries really, really hard, and we all know good intentions are the best weapons against a hungry Minotaur, right?

On second thoughts, panic.


Derek Landy's brilliant Skulduggery Pleasant series finally came to an end last year, but it looks as if HarperCollins may have already struck kidlit gold again, this time in the form of Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty. The first book in a new series, Darkmouth is a hugely enjoyable and exciting read that is perfect for 9+ readers, and like his fellow countrymen Derek Landy and Eoin Colfer did before him, I fully expect Hegarty to take the world of children's books by storm based on his debut.

What is it about these Irish writers? What are they feeding them over there? I've mentioned two such luminaries already, but when you add the likes of John Boyne, Darren Shan and Michael Scott to the list then I would not be surprised if UK publishers had agents scouring the Emerald Isle in search of the next big talent. All of them have produced books that have been popular with critics and readers of all ages, and I think the Darkmouth series will be included in this list in years to come. Hegarty's book has the wit and sparkling dialogue of Landy and the cleverness of Colfer's Artemis Fowl series. Throw in the ordinary kid in an extraordinary situation set-up seen in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books, and you will have a good idea of what to expect (yes, I know that RR is not Irish, but the parallels are there).

The town of Darkmouth is the last of the 'Blighted Villages', places where the veil between our world and the world of myths and legends is particularly thin. Over the centuries monsters and men shared the earth, and then fought battles for it before the monsters, or Legends as they are known herein, were banished to their own dimension. The barrier between worlds is still rather flimsy in Darkmouth, and as such the village retains its Legend Hunter, a man tasked with capturing any of the beasties who manage to cross into our world. 

The hero of this book, Finn, is the son of this last remaining Legend Hunter, and as such it is destiny to one day take on this mantle and himself become the last remaining Legend Hunter. The only problem is Finn is pretty crap when it comes to monster hunting. He's very much like I was at school (and still to this day) when it comes to sports - tries hard but is destined to be forever languishing in the bottom league. However, his pushy father expects the best of him, and struggles to hide his disappointment when Finn's efforts invariably fall short of perfection. Add to the the danger of having to hunt the likes of the Minotaur shown below and it's easy to see that Finn's lot is not a happy one.

Illustration by James de la Rue

Unfortunately for Finn there is a plot afoot, and the leader of the Legends is planning to invade Darkmouth and then the rest of our world with his monstrous horde. So begins an exciting and fast-paced story that twists and turns, as Finn meets other characters who may not be exactly who they seem, with crosses and doublecrosses, and deep, dark family secrets itching to be discovered.

Hegarty's writing is complemented wonderfully by the amazing illustrations of James de la Rue, who also illustrated the book's cover. Seriously, just how good is that Minotaur drawing? I know that some people feel that kids should be allowed to use their imaginations, but I really do wish that more books for the 9+ age group had illustrations, especially those in the fantasy and horror genres. I can't believe that any readers of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's Edge Chronicles books have complained that their imaginations are being stifled by Riddell's fantastic illustrations and I would love to see more publishers splash out on illustrators for their authors' books.

Illustration by James de la Rue

Darkmouth is a cracking coming-of-age story with a wonderful fantasy concept as its foundation and I for one cannot wait until the sequel, Worlds Explode, is published in July. My thanks go to the wonderful people at HarperCollins for sending me a copy to read and review.

P.S. It's well worth heading on over to the Darkmouth YouTube channel for videos like the ones below:

Friday, 10 April 2015

Review: Gemini Force 1: Black Horizon by M.G. Harris

After the tragic death of his father, Ben Carrington's mother teams up with a wealthy entrepreneur to form an elite, top-secret rescue organisation - Gemini Force.

Ben is determined to become part of the team, but can he prove he has what it takes to face dangerous situations and save lives?

Impossible rescues. Maximum risk. This is Gemini Force 1.

I've already mentioned in a previous post just how much Thunderbirds and the other Gerry Anderson TV series meant to me as a child, and this love for all things Anderson has not diminished all these years on. I have box sets of DVDs of many of those series, and love to dip in to an episode of one series or another every now and again. I was therefore overjoyed when I discovered that M.G. Harris, the author of one of my favourite recent series of YA books, had been given the task of bringing one of Gerry Anderson's own planned projects to fruition.

As I've already mentioned, Gemini Force 1 was a Gerry Anderson project, and he had hoped to write a series of books featuring his new characters and their rescue agency. Unfortunately, due to the worsening of the Alzheimer's Disease he was suffering from, and then his untimely death in 2012, he was never able to complete the project. Fortunately, his son Jamie recognised the potential of the project and through Kickstarter he and MG managed to raise the necessary funds for the project to go ahead. However, it is still very much Gerry Anderson's concept and early story ideas that M.G. Harris has used as the foundations for Dark Horizon, and this is very evident throughout. In fact, if this had come from anyone other than Gerry Anderson then there may have been cries of foul and plagiarism for obvious reasons: a rescue agency that operates outside of government control; a secret mid-ocean base; a series of rescue craft, each with its own number and piloted by relatively young operators. And the similarities don't end there - like Thunderbirds, this first Gemini Force 1 book is also full of fast-paced action and adventure, and even more importantly it is a really exciting and hugely enjoyable read.

Dark Horizon follows the adventures of main character Ben Carrington, a 16 year old from what many would call a privileged background. His mother is an Austrian countess and his father, until his recent passing in a mountaineering accident, was a multi-millionaire businessman. However, it isn't long before we start to discover that Carrington senior's relationship with his son was not exactly one of loving nurture, with more attention devoted to his business empire than on Ben. His background also makes it quite difficult for readers to empathise with Ben - he comes across as an arrogant and self-centred public boarding school brat, quick to make rash and selfish decisions that could affect the safety of others. However, he is also brave and loyal and eventually readers will see that he is more than a product of the environment in which he has grown up.

As Gemini Force is a team endeavour there are naturally many more characters is this story. However, one has to remember that this is the first book in a planned series, and there has to be a lot of scene setting, and therefore many of these other characters are not as developed as some of the more demanding readers might (unfairly) wish. The only other character who is given a fair amount of wordage is young American pilot Addison Dyer, although nowhere near as much as Ben. However, there are enough teasing hints as to secrets from her past to leave us eager to find out more about her in future installments.

One of the things that I loved about MG's Joshua Files series was the realism and believability that came with her story, and this is very much the case in Dark Horizon. Although some of the technology initially seems a little fanciful and futuristic, a short time spent in the company of Google shows that pretty much everything that the Gemini Force team use is currently in development somewhere in the world, even the amazing 'invisibility' stealth technology used on Aquarius, Addison's amazing 'plane'.

Since reading Dark Horizon I have been struggling to decide exactly what age group the book is aimed out. Ben is 16 and for many that would suggest that it is definitely in YA territory. However, it read to me like a book that is perfect for upper Middle Grade kids, and I would be very comfortable putting this book into the hands of an 11 year old, although with a degree of parental advisory warning as it does deal with issues related to bereavement and dealing with the loss of a parent. I loved Dark Horizon and I know I would have loved it as a child. I feel that it is the kind of book that could get young people enthused about reading, and I am sure that there will be many adult Gerry Anderson fans who will be pushing this into the hands of their children.

Although the book initially came into being through Kickstarter, Jamie Anderson and M.G. Harris eventually managed to find a publisher who was interested in their story, without wanting to make too many changes, and there is now an initial three book deal with Orion, who published Dark Horizon in the UK last week. We also don't have to wait too long for the sequel, Ghost Mine, which is due for publication in September of this year.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Review: The Deadly 7 by Garth Jennings

Who needs friends when you've got MONSTERS?

Everything was happening so fast and it was all so . . . mad. It was as if someone had taken reality, made it into a jigsaw, thrown the jigsaw on to the floor and then said, "Now, hurry up and put it all together!" as they danced all over the jigsaw pieces in a clown suit, blowing a trumpet.

When Nelson's beloved big sister goes missing on a school trip, Nelson is devastated - he's not that good at making friends and his sister is the only person he can talk to. His parents join the search party and leave Nelson in the care of his mad uncle Pogo. Uncle Pogo is the caretaker of St Paul's Cathedral and it is here that Nelson stumbles across a machine, invented by Christopher Wren and buried for hundreds of years. Designed to extract the 7 deadly sins, the machine had a fault - once extracted, the sins became living, breathing monsters who would then follow the sinner around for eternity (unless they ate him first, in the case of the particularly sinful). Nelson accidentally extracts 7 deadly monsters from his own little soul. Ugly, cantankerous, smelly and often the cause of much embarrassment, Nelson's monsters are the last thing he needed in his life, but at least they're fairly harmless (he's a pretty good kid, on the whole). When he learns of their individual powers he realises the monsters can be put to good use, and together Nelson and the Deadly 7 set out on a quest across the globe to find and rescue his big sister. Somewhere along the way, Nelson realises that he finally has friends, even if they are smelly, lazy friends who like smashing stuff up.

The Deadly 7 is a monster adventure by successful director Garth Jennings and is packed full of hilariously appealing illustrations.

Garth Jennings is not the first to use the seven deadly sins as the basis for a story. From memory I can think of David Fincher's brilliant Se7en, manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, an episode of the TV series Supernatural, and the Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix. All of these use the sins as a vehicle for serious drama, albeit sometimes set in a fantasy world, however a good writer could just as easily use them within a comedy context. Think about it: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride could be comedy gold in the right hands, and Garth Jennings has those hands and his The Deadly 7 is one of the cleverest and funniest middle grade books you will read this year.

I have vague recollections of watching the disappointing 1970s comedy film The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins when I was in my teens. The cast list of this movie reads like a Who's Who of British comedy actors of the late 1960s/early 70s, and the list of writers is equally stellar. However, somehow it just is not as funny as it should have been, and sadly until now it is this treatment of the seven deadly sins that has remained in my memory (although many may argue that this is a far more healthy a memory for me than Fincher's Se7en). However, the memory has now been usurped by this wonderful comedy adventure story from Garth Jennings.

The blurb taken from Amazon at the beginning of this post tells you as much as I am going to about the plot of The Deadly 7, and in some ways I think that blurb tells you a little too much, but I don't think it's really my place to edit it down. However, what that blurb doesn't tell you is just how crazy this book is. In the monsterfication (made up word) of the sins he has created a team of bonkers and seriously fun comic characters (see images at the end of this post) who deserve to be spoken about with the same high praise as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Sulley and Mike, and the Minions. Even though I love films, it's not often I feel the need to see a book adapted for the big screen (mainly because I have been disappointed too many times in the past), but if The Deadly 7 were in the hands of the best that Pixar has to offer then I would be queuing up to watch it.

The story itself is far more than a comedy story - it is a fast-paced adventure story  that will have young readers hooked from the very first chapter. It is also a book that deals with loss (Nelson's big sister going missing, feared dead), but in a way that is occasionally poignant, often lighthearted, but never overbearing or upsetting for young readers. The story is also complemented by many of the author's own illustrations, some of which help bring his quirky monster creations to life for readers.

Less than three months in and 2015 is already shaping up to be another golden year for middle grade readers. I would not be surprised if The Deadly 7 makes an appearance in my top books of 2015, even though there are many months to go. It will take some pretty damn special books to knock it out of my top five. My thanks go to the fab people at Macmillan for sending me a copy to read.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Review: Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey by Lorenzo Etherington

A super puzzle adventure comic starring Von Doogan...and YOU! The Curse of the Golden Monkey is BOTH a brilliant puzzle book AND a thrilling adventure story! It's jam-packed with challenges for you to solve, and every step of the way our hero's fate is in YOUR HANDS! Can Doogan uncover the MYSTERIOUS and TERRIFYING secrets at the heart of Javasu Island? It's up to YOU!

I appreciate that posting a review of Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey a mere two days after my review of Long Gone Don makes it look as if the Etherington Brothers have hijacked The Book Zone as part of some nefarious quest for world domination, but I could hardly review one and not the other, could I? As with Long Gone Don, if you're not a regular reader of The Phoenix then you will most likely not know that Von Doogan is a regular feature in said weekly comic, but whereas Long Gone Don is a traditional narrative story format, Von Doogan is something different entirely. Whilst the Indiana Jones style story element is still important (and also great fun), it is also possibly the most evil and dastardly children's puzzle book created in the history of the planet... ever!

Best known for his illustrating of his brother's writing, Lorenzo Etherington has cast off the shackles of brotherly love and gone solo with Von Doogan, although we are not looking at a Wham-style split over artistic differences here - the 'boys' are still very much a double act for their other work (and long may it be so). And Von Doogan may be enough suggest that Lorenzo is the evil brother of the two, as the puzzles in Von Doogan made my brain turn to mush and ooze out of my nostrils in protest. Lorenzo never, ever resorts to the mundane or simple for his puzzles. Wordsearches? Pah! They are for wimps. No, we are presented with codes and word 'games' that would have had the Bletchley crowd scratching their heads in frustration. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey should in future be used as part of the MI5 and MI6 selection process. Finish it in less than a day and you're in! Just look at this one for the first puzzle in the book:

And yet, despite its devilish difficulty this book is pretty damn fun as well. Each of the puzzles is given a difficulty rating (or 'impossibility level', depicted in skulls), and your heart does skip a beat when you turn a page to see five skulls glaring menacingly at you. Especially as you know that in order to be able to continue with the narrative part of the comic you MUST solve the problem on each page. But then there is that feeling of satisfaction when you do manage to finally complete a puzzle and move on to the next page, even if that status bar at the bottom of the page does seem to creep along slower than an M25 traffic jam on a hot and sunny Bank Holiday Monday.

And then there is Lorenzo Etherington's artwork. Every single puzzle is lavishly produced in Lorenzo's trademark detail and stunning vibrant colourwork, and it is this that really sets Von Doogan head and shoulders above any puzzle book I have come across for kids. Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey is almost guaranteed to keep kids (and their parents) occupied for hours (as long they can resist the temptation to cheat by looking up the answers at the rear of the book, which I did not do even once. Honest! (Gulp!)

Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey is yet another great publication from David Fickling Books as part of the ever-increasing The Phoenix Presents series and just like Long Gone Don, it deserves a place in every young comic lover's collection. My thanks go to the publisher for sending me a copy yo review (even if I have gained a few more grey hairs whilst working through it).

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Review: Long Gone Don by The Etherington Brothers

Ten-year-old DON SKELTON never imagined a school day could get any worse than drowning face down in a bowl of oxtail soup. BUT HE WAS WRONG! Transported to the spooky underworld of BROILERDOOM, Don is soon forced to fight for his life-after-death against a host of villainous monstrosities. Prepare to enter the hilarious and dangerous world of LONG GONE DON, where one boy's END is just he BEGINNING of the adventure...

Like many others who have a passion for encouraging young people to read for enjoyment the news of the launch of The Phoenix comic back in 2012 filled me with excitement. Doubly so because I am also a huge lover of comics and graphic novels. Trebly so because among the artists and writers lined up for The Phoenix were the totally completely utterly brilliant Etherington Brothers. I love the work of these guys! Seriously, I would change my breakfast cereal if another came along with a serialised (cerealised... hahaha) Etherington Brothers comic inside it (and I am so set in my ways that I've not touched a cereal other than Frosties since I was in my teens). Are you listening Kellogg's? Forget asking your consumers to collect codes in order to get a personalised spoon - start giving away comics in your cereal boxes and do something for literacy whilst you are at it!

Since the launch of The Phoenix my love for the Etherington Brothers' Long Gone Don has come second only to the superb The Pirates of Pangaea (it takes a hell of a lot to beat a pirates and dinosaur mash-up), and now Don is here in his first collected volume. I have been a fan of the work of Robin (writer) and Lorenzo (artist) ever since I was sent a copy of Monkey Nuts back in 2010 (another must-buy for comic-loving kids), and I fell instantly in love with the addictive mix of Robin's off-the-wall-bonkers story-telling combined with Lorenzo's insanely detailed, vibrantly coloured artwork, and I am so happy to be able to add the first volume of Long Gone Don to my collection.

If you have not yet discovered Long Gone Don through The Phoenix then you are in for one hell of a treat. The eponymous 'hero' of the story, schoolboy Don Skelton, dies on the very first page of the book. A strangely dark start to a comic for kids, you may think, but his death is funny (very, very funny and a tad unfortunate) rather than gruesome, and it is the kick start for the craziness that follows. Having drowned in his bowl of Oxtail soup, Don 'awakes' to find himself in the after-life, but it is an after-life that could only be born from the unique imaginations of the brothers Etherington. And he also finds that his hair has gone white, and it's not entirely clear which bother him more - death or white hair.

This review is going to be severely lacking in details regarding Broilerdoom, the underworld type place that Don finds himself in post-drowning, as one of the real joys of reading this (and any other Etherington brothers) book is in the detail that Lorenzo puts into interpreting his brother's story. I can just picture the two 'boys', giggling with tears of mirth pouring from their eyes, as they come up with zany idea after zany idea - I would love to see a video of their collaborative process (brothers - if you're reading this and are interested in filming one for Middle Grade Strikes Back, please get in touch). Suffice to say, that Don makes enemies almost as quickly as he makes friends following his arrival in Broilerdoom, and he soon finds himself a wanted boy, with the rather horrible and totally despotic General Spode rather keen to inflict all kinds of nastiness on Don for a supposedly treasonous act.

Back in 2010, not long after I had read Monkey Nuts, I had the good fortune to meet Robin and Lorenzo after an event they did as part of the Crystal Palace Book Festival. We briefly chatted about our shared love for the Asterix books of Goscinny and Uderzo, and the brothers' passion for these books has never been more evident than in Long Gone Don, which visually is an obvious homage to the classic and world famous illustration work of Albert Uderzo. The (many) fight scenes in particular took me back to the incalculable number of hours I spent as a child (ok, yes, and as a teen, and yes, as an adult too) reading and re-reading the Asterix books, and the parallels do not end with the artwork - the humour in Long Gone Don is also at times just as tongue-in-cheek, with puns aplenty, although given the post-death subject matter there is also a subtle darkness to it in places.

Like their previous books Long Gone Don is the kind of comic that merits many reads - the first for the story, and the second, immediately after finishing it, to go back through and spot any missed details in the images. I've now read it four times, and even on that fourth visit I was still spotting things I had missed before. What's more, there is a big fat 'Book 1' printed on the front cover which hopefully means, sales figures permitting, that those wonderful people at David Fickling books will continue to publish these just-as-wonderful collected editions. 

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.