Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Review: Hamish and the Neverpeople by Danny Wallace, illustrated by Jamie Littler

Nobody knows it yet, but the people of Earth are in big, big trouble.

Like - HUGE trouble. Oh, come on, where's your imagination? Double what you're thinking!

And it's all got to do with a shadowy figure, an enormous tower, some sinister monsters, huge clanking and thundering metal oddballs, and people who are just like you… but not like you at all.

Luckily Hamish and the PDF are around to help save the day! Aren't they??

Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for these new style Book Zone reviews, as part of my seemingly endless quest for brevity when reviewing. So, here are three reasons why I totally love Hamish and the Neverpeople (and also the first outing for the titular main characters, Hamish and the Worldstoppers):

1. Brilliant characters

I've always felt that one of the main ingredients that has led to the huge success of David Walliams's books is his ability to create brilliant, memorable characters. Take it from me, Danny Wallace also possesses this ability in spades. Hamish is one of those characters that young readers will relate to with ease - he's not particularly special, he's just an ordinary boy who fate has decided has a part in saving the earth. Twice. He misses his father sorely, and knows deep down that there must be more to his disappearance than others might suggest. And he has the best group of friends in the world... ever! The various members of the PDF (Pause Defence Force) each comes with their own specific skill-set and distinct personality, which was funny and entertaining enough in the first book, but add their 'Otherhalves' to the mix and you can turn the entertainment level up to 11! (What's an Otherhalf? You'll have to read the book to find out).

2. It is pee-your-pants funny

Get those incontinence pants ready! The Hamish books are so funny that there are bound to be a few little accidents along the way. A shame really - these books would be perfect for primary school teachers to read to whole classes during story time, but just imagine the mess! Danny Wallace is labelled as a humorist on his wikipedia page, and that is exactly what you get in these books - joyous, uncontrived humour from beginning to end, with just the right level of silliness. He is also a master of the use of the so-called 'fourth wall' as a device for making his stories even funnier and he uses this to grab the reader from the off, and makes the reading a far more immersive experience for young readers.

3. Jamie Littler's illustrations

It is truly wonderful when an illustrator's artwork complements the written aspect of a story so perfectly. The most obvious recent example that springs to my mind is Sarah McIntyre's collaboration with Philip Reeve, and Jamie Littler's illustrations for the Hamish books firmly places him on this relatively exclusive list. 

The covers for the two books are among my very favourite for books of this type published in recent years, and publishers Simon and Schuster even included a large, glossy, full colour press release with the book they sent me - if I can just remember in which safe place I filed the Worldstoppers press release I intend to get the two framed together as they will look great on the wall. The illustrations throughout the story are almost as fabulous as the cover, and I only say almost because they are in black and white. Wouldn't it be great if publishers could afford to add colour illustrations throughout their middle grade books? Seriously though, if I won the lottery I would certainly be knocking on Mr Littler's door, begging to buy some of his Hamish illustrations, or prints of them at the very least. 

Hamish and the Neverpeople is due to be published in the UK on 11th February, but if you or your child haven't already read Hamish and the Worldstoppers I would suggest you get yourself down to your nearest book store and buy a copy immediately. It really is worth you going out of your way for!

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Book Zone Box Set #3 - The Monster Odyssey Series by Jon Mayhew

In my Book Zone Box Set feature I put the spotlight on a series of books that I have read and enjoyed, and would highly recommend to any parent asking about suitable books for their child. The recent release of The Venom of the Scorpion made Jon Mayhew's Monster Odyssey series a deserving addition to the 'box set' shelf.

If you're a long time reader of The Book Zone the you probably already know that I am a big fan of Jon Mayhew's writing, from Mortlock, his super creepy, Victorian-set mystery/horror story, right through to his Monster Odyssey series. If you're a new visitor then welcome and you need look no further than my reviews of the first two books in this series, The Eye of Neptune and The Wrath of the Lizard Lord, to a) find out what they're all about and b) see why I enjoyed them so much.

The Venom of the Scorpion is the fourth, and I believe final book in this fab series, although I'm am still no wiser as to why Bloomsbury didn't give a 'Young Nemo' title to this series. Even though Prince Dakkar does not take this title at any point in these four adventures, we know pretty much from the start that he is destined to become the Captain Nemo of Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Who else would be travelling around the world in a submarine called the Nautilus? We've had Young Sherlock and Young Bond, so why not Young Nemo? I would not be surprised if there are many fans of Verne's classic who do not know these are, to some degree, prequels.

Like Andrew Lane's Young Sherlock series, great delight can be gained from these stories in spotting the development of the character traits that the well-known adult character possess. All the important elements of the adult Captain Nemo's personality evolve as the story progresses: arrogance; bravery; resourcefulness; a natural leader who inspires loyalty in those who follow him; his love of the ocean; and now, in The Venom of the Scorpion, his hatred of oppression and imperialism. For a middle grade reader, these four books are the perfect introduction to the more challenging Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (although you may also want to drop the odd hint that it is okay to skim read some parts, specifically the numerous, lengthy descriptions of marine life that Verne includes in his story).

Like Verne's original, these books are cracking adventure stories and they are perfect for any young lover of thrilling action/adventure stories.

My thanks go to the fab people at Bloomsbury for keeping me provided with the Monster Odyssey books as they were published, most recently The Venom of the Scorpion which brings this series to a more than satisfactory end (although, and it may be a little too much to hope for, still leaving things open for more adventures in the future).

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Review: River of Ink: Genesis by Helen Dennis

When a mystery teenage boy emerges from the River Thames drenched, distressed and unable to remember anything about himself, he becomes the focus of worldwide media speculation. Unable to communicate, the River Boy is given paper and a pencil and begins to scribble. Soon a symbol emerges, but the boy has no idea why he has drawn it even thought it's the only clue to the mystery of his identity...

As the boy begins to build a new life under a new name, the hunt for his real identity begins.

A hunt which will lead him on a dangerous QUEST that he has only one year to complete ...

Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for these new style Book Zone reviews, as part of my seemingly endless quest for brevity when reviewing. So, here are three reasons to read Genesis, the first book in Helen Dennis's new River of Ink series.

1. The quest

I love what I call quest stories, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I really loved Dan Brown's Angels and Demons and its sequel The Da Vinci Code. Books like this are my guilty pleasure, and since then I have been spoiled for choice in this area, with great series from the likes of Andy McDermott, Chris Kuzneski and Scott Mariani, but as I have often asked in the past - with so many books in this genre published for adults, where are these mystery-adventure-conspiracy-thrillers for younger readers? Thus, for this reader at least, Genesis by Helen Dennis is a very welcome addition to my bookshelf. 

2. The mystery

Helen Dennis is no stranger to writing mystery quest books. I am quite a fan of her middle grade Secret Breakers series, and Genesis is even better. Written, I believe, for a slightly older audience (although certainly suitable for readers from age 10+), the much loved tropes that can be found in adult examples of the genre are all present and correct: a protagonist who has lost his memory, another character drawn into the mystery almost by accident, strange symbols that suggest more than a hint of alchemy, a secret and ruthless organisation bent on gaining sole possession of whatever lies at the heart of the mystery. Put all these together and there was no way I wasn't going to love this book.

3. Mental health issues

Jed, the main character, having suffered severe memory loss is central to to the plot of Genesis. However, it is not this that I am referring to in this case. In order to aid his healing and hide him away from the press, Jed is 'welcomed' in to the family of Kassia Devaux. Kassia's family life is less than conventional - her father died a numbers of years earlier in an accident and her mother's behaviour is symptomatic of someone suffering from a number of mental health conditions. She suffers from severe anxiety, OCD and possibly BPD, and much of this is manifested in her attitude towards Kassia and her deaf brother Dante. She is over-protective, obsessive about cleanliness around the house and has pretty much mapped out Kassia's future for her. It's important that young readers experience characters with such illnesses in the stories they read, and not just in contemporary 'real life' stories where mental illness of a character is central to the story. It's another example of what we mean when we cry for more diversity in books for children and young adults (as is Dante's disability).

River of Ink: Genesis was published in the UK last week, and my thanks go to those fab people at Hodder for sending me a copy. The sequel, Zenith, is due out in June so fortunately we only have six months to wait to find out what happens next.