Thursday, 29 October 2015

Review: Urban Outlaws: Lockdown by Peter Jay Black

The Urban Outlaws have been betrayed - and defeated. Or so Hector thought when he stole the world's most advanced computer virus. But Hector will need to try much harder than just crossing the Atlantic if he wants to outsmart Jack and his team ...

With the help of a shadowy figure known as The Shepherd, the Urban Outlaws risk everything and head to the States. They plan to take Hector down and stop him from using the virus as the ultimate hacking tool - the world's secrets, and their own, are in his fingertips and if they don't act fast, our lives will be changed forever.

The stakes are higher than ever in the third book of this high-octane adventure series for fans of Robert Muchamore, Anthony Horowitz and Alex Scarrow.

Warning: may contain spoilers for previous Urban Outlaw books.

Peter Jay Black's Urban Outlaws series is fast becoming a future contender for my Book Zone Box Set feature (Reminder: to qualify a series needs to have at least four books). Lockdown is the third book in this exciting, hi-octane series that has now become one of my favourite series of the last year or so, and it more than lives up to the promise established by its predecessors.

The Outlaws are still reeling from Hector's betrayal in Blackout, and revenge will be no easy feat as he has now taken himself off to the other side of the Atlantic. However, with the super virus now in his hands they feel they have no option but to try, even if it means getting into bed with another potential devil (aka The Shepherd) to do so. However, once they land stateside it is business as usual, which for the Urban Outlaws means stunts, tech, hacking and action aplenty. The team also have the assistance a few new friends: Serene, sister of their mentor Noble, Lux, a streetwise NYC expert, and her friend Drake, the local transport expert (i.e. he can get his hands on any transport they need). These extra pairs of hands, and the local knowledge they bring, may just be the extra factor they need to track down and defeat Hector.

Like any good heist story, be it written or on the big or small screen, it's no use trying to guess if or how the team will be successful in their various not-quite-legal activities. Just as you think you've worked out how they might pull off their latest caper, another obstacle throws itself in their way and their plans have to change on the fly. However, resourcefulness seems to be their collective middle name, so strap in and get ready for twist after twist and turn after turn.

The first Urban Outlaws book was published back in March 2014, and this third volume was released in September. We had to wait nearly a year between books one and two, but the mere seven months between episodes two and three is exactly what this series needed to maintain the excitement and momentum already established, and it's great to see that book four, Counterstrike, will be published in April 2016. I can't wait!

My thanks go to those fabulous people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to read.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Review: DC Super Heroes Origami by John Montroll

What happens when you combine Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League with the art of origami? You get the most incredible collection of paper-folding projects ever assembled. These 46 models, meticulously designed by internationally renowned origami master John Montroll, are guaranteed to amaze. With clear, step-by-step diagrams and instructions, simple squares of paper transform into Batarangs, S-Shields, Invisible Jets, Green Lanterns, and so much more. Also included in the back of the book are 96 sheets of specially illustrated folding papers to make your DC creations truly come to life.

In the six years I have been writing this blog (yep, just realised that The Book Zone was six years old last week), this is the first craft book that I have reviewed. Considering my main teaching subject is Design Technology, and much of my time is spent delivering GCSE and A-Level Graphics courses that is pretty poor, although when I'm not buried in school work I really do prefer to break away from it all by burying myself in fiction. However, when those fabulous people at Curious Fox asked me if I would be interested in a copy of DC Super Heroes Origami I could not resist.

Now I have next to no experience of origami (it's not in the Edexcel Graphics syllabus!), so I'll start off my focusing on this book's DC super hero 
angle. There are a total of 46 origami projects in the book, split into four collections: Batman; Superman; Wonder Woman; and The Justice League. This gives for a wide variety of projects, many that will be recognised by those with a basic knowledge of the DC universe (Bat-symbol; Robin; Clark Kent's glasses; Wonder Woman's tiara), and some that are a little more obscure (Krypto; Clayface; Jumpa the Kanga; Hawkgirl's made; Green Lantern B'dg). So as far as the DC universe is concerned there is pretty much something for everyone.

And now for the origami. I have discovered that I suck at origami! The book comes with 96 printed sheets, all ready for folding (once you have carefully removed them from the book), and the projects are graded simple (one star) through intermediate (two stars) to complex (three stars). At the front of the book, there are several pages of instructional diagrams that outline the basic (and not-so-basic) folds used in the proceeding projects. It is suggested that newbies practise these before embarking on the DC projects (Pah! Practice is for wimps).

Naturally I decided I was good enough to skip the one star projects and I kicked off my origami career (short-lived) with the two star Bat-symbol. It didn't turn out too badly and for a handful of minutes I felt quite proud of myself.

As they say, pride come before a fall! I then decided I must be good enough to move straight up to a three star project. How wrong I was. Wonder Woman has never looked so bad!

Seriously, talk about epic fail! And yet I have absolutely no idea where I went wrong. I didn't assume that I knew better than the instructions, and I followed them to a tee, but she just does not look like the photo example in the book. I've since gone back and tried a few more one- and two-star projects with a little more success, but I am still trying to build up to trying another three star project.

As an origami layman I would suggest that on balance this book is best suited to those with a little more experience than I possess. It is certainly not for younger children, but patient teens and adults with a good degree of manual dexterity could have a great deal of fun with this book. A work colleague who has far more experience in this field had a flick through and she felt that the papers were certainly suitable, and with a bit more general origami practice I should find even the three-star projects within my capabilities.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review: Lockwood & Co: The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood & Co. might be the smallest (some might say shambolic) Psychic Detection Agency in London. But its three agents - Lockwood, Lucy and George - are exceptional Talents. And they get results. When an outbreak of ghostly phenomena grows to terrifying levels in Chelsea, Scotland Yard is left baffled.

Even more baffling is that Lockwood & Co appear to have been excluded from the huge team of Agents investigating the Chelsea Outbreak. Surely this is the perfect chance for them to show once and for all that they're actually the best in town? Well, that's if they can put aside their personal differences for long enough to march into action with their rapiers, salt and iron . . .

To my great shame, I have just realised that I have not featured reviews of either of the first two Lockwood & Co. books on this blog. This discovery has caused no small amount of confusion as well, as I was pretty sure I had posted a review of at least one of the books, but all I can find is a brief mention of The Screaming Staircase in my Books of 2013 post. Maybe I just wrote the reviews in my head? Hey, whatever, they are both flippin' brilliant so if you haven't done so and you like horror stories with a dash of comedy (or comedy stories with a massive dollop of the spooky) then make it a priority, and definitely before you read this third outing, The Hollow Boy.

I have been a fan of Jonathan Stroud's writing ever since I first read The Amulet of Samarkand, and he continues to impress all these years later (twelve years since the first Bartimaeus book! Can you believe it?). In fact, great as the first two Lockwood & Co. books were, this one is even better and certainly confirms Stroud as one of the best MG/YA writers around (and so begins the discussion - is Lockwood & Co. YA or MG? I'd have to ignore those often overlapping categories and go for a more specific 11+ in this case I think).

At the end of The Whispering Skull we were left with something of a cliffhanger - whilst the main story had been brought to a satisfying conclusion, Lockwood was finally about to reveal something of the mystery of his past to his two fellow agents, Lucy and George. The Hollow Boy doesn't exactly pick up where things were left - we have to wait a handful of chapters of ghost hunting for that - and when we do finally find out, the reveal leaves us with almost as many questions as answers. And we are not the only ones left wanting more - the ever-inquisitive Lucy Carlyle is also left wondering, something which obviously continues to cause friction throughout the story. And that's not the only cause of tension between Lucy and Lockwood - due to the increase in their cases since their successes in The Whispering Skull, Lockwood deems it necessary to take on an assistant in the form of the seemingly perfect Holly Munro. Cue that ole' green eyed monster that is jealousy taking a firm root in Lucy's mind.

Not only does Stroud use The Hollow Boy to really develop Lucy's character, he also gives us a much greater understanding of the alternative London/world that he has created, especially with regards to the scale of the 'Problem' and how it affects whole populations and not just individuals who are unlucky enough to live in a haunted house. It's also a much darker instalment for Lockwood and his friends, to the point where as readers we are not entirely sure whether all of them will make it to the final page alive. As narrator, Lucy also drops the occasional hint that things do not turn out perfectly for the team, and this just ramps up the tension even more.

There are reveals and developments aplenty in The Hollow Boy, but I feel the book also needs to come with an advisory notice as by the end we are most definitely left with even more questions than we had at its beginning, and even worse - the cliffhanger at the end is even bigger and more jaw dropping than that at the end of The Whispering Skull. And unlike that previous episode, even the main plot line of this book does not have a neat and tidy ending and we are cruelly left with all kinds of (most likely hideously incorrect) suppositions and conjectures floating around in our minds.

And now we have to wait for another year for book four, but resat assured I will be putting in my preorder as soon as it is listed in a certain online store, just as I did with The Hollow Boy.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

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

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

C is for Cleave

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

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

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

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

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 September 2015

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

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

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

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

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