Thursday, 2 July 2015

Review: Stonebird by Mike Revell

When ten-year-old Liam moves house to be closer to his dementia-suffering grandma, he's thrown into an unfamiliar place, with a family that seems to be falling apart. Liam doesn't remember what his grandma was like before she became ill. He only knows the witch-like old woman who snaps and snarls and eats her birthday cards. He wants to fix it, but he can't.

Walking his dog one day, Liam discovers an old stone gargoyle in a rundown church, and his life changes in impossible ways. The gargoyle is alive. It moves unseen in the night, acting out Liam's stories. And stories can be dangerous things...

Seeking revenge against the bullies at his new school, Liam tells a story about the gargoyle attacking them. When one of them ends up in hospital, a regretful Liam vows never to go near the gargoyle again.

But his grandma's illness is getting worse, his mum isn't coping, and his sister is skipping school... What if the gargoyle is the only thing that can save Liam's family?

I've said this before, but one of the best things about being a book blogger is the way you quite often end up reading truly amazing books that may otherwise have slipped by the wayside. I'm not sure whether Stonebird by Mike Revell would have suffered this fate as the cover artwork by Frances Castle is stunning and grabs your attention immediately, but I am still really grateful to those fab people at Quercus for sending me a copy as my reading life is all the better for it.

Stonebird is one of those magical books that has true crossover potential, with something special to offer for children, teens and adults. In my mind it falls into the same category as books like Wonder by RJ Palacio, Smart by Kim Slater, A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson and Brilliant by Roddy Doyle. These are all books that deal with real world issues that often get overlooked in children's literature, including disability, family break-up, depression and mental health. Stonebird joins this stellar list with its gentle and touching exploration of dementia and how a family copes, or doesn't, when a loved one is slipping away from them.

Liam struggles to cope with understanding his gran's illness, his mother's inability to cope and her use of alcohol to dull the anguish she feels, and his sister's seemingly selfish indifference to everything that is going on around her. As the new boy at school he is also an instant target for the resident bullies, so all in all life seems pretty grim for him right now. Add all this together and Stonebird really was not at all what I expected when I picked it up. From the cover I expected it to have a much greater fantasy element, a story about a boy striking up a friendship with a magical gargoyle, with a shared love of stories. Sort of a modern day Neverending Story type book. However, the gargoyle makes very few appearances, and the 'relationship' Liam has with it is not at all fluffy and friendly. Ultimately, Stonebird is actually a contemporary story with a fantasy thread woven through it. It was also a lot darker than I expected, but it is a darkness that is needed given the themes it covers, and the story is all for better for it.

Stonebird would be a great read for any 10+ child, but especially one who is experiencing similar issues at home. It is the kind of book that would make a great class reader, enabling children to be involved in discussion about dementia, bereavement, and depression leading to alcoholism. I know I'm not alone in loving this book and many of my fellow bloggers have mentioned to me their love for it too, and I really hope that it is finding its way into the hands of young readers as well.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review: Crystal Force by Joe Ducie

On the run after escaping from what was supposed to be the world's most secure juvenile facility (and blowing it up in the process), Will Drake knows it's only a matter of time before the sinister Alliance catches up with him. But Drake is in need of an alliance of his own - knowing who to trust is becoming increasingly difficult, and after having been exposed to the highly unstable (and potentially deadly) Crystal-X whilst fleeing from the Rig, it looks like time might be running out for him all together. His arm has started to mutate into an impenetrable black crystal, and although it gives him a superhuman-like ability to fight, it might also be causing him to lose his mind. Surrounded by enemies and desperate for help, Drake and his escapee comrades are forced to form an uneasy partnership with a mysterious group who also claim to have been exposed to Crystal-X. They say they know how to use its powers for good - but can Drake really keep running forever? And who should he trust more - his supposed friends, or the voices in his head...?

Joe Ducie's The Rig was one of my favourite books of 2013, and it seems like the sequel has been a little too long coming, especially given the speed with which sequels seem to be published these days. I know through my conversations with the students at school that they hate to wait too long between books in a series, even to the point of losing interest in the series completely if they have to wait too long. With so many books being published for children and adults these days, having to remember a storyline for more than a year can be quite a big ask (it certainly is for this reader, at least). However, that moan aside, I can happily state that it was well worth the wait.

*** Warning: spoilers for The Rig ahead ***

The Rig was, in my opinion, very much an action story with some science fiction elements that became more apparent as the story progressed. Its sequel, Crystal Force, is much more of a science fiction story with a huge amount of action. Having escaped from the supposedly inescapable Rig, Will Drake and his friends find their troubles are only just beginning. Having come ashore in the wilds of Newfoundland, the friends are struggling to stay ahead of their hunters, whilst also struggling to keep warm, find food and just generally survive. Will is also having to come to terms with his strange new powers, gained when he was exposed to Crystal-X during his escape. Concerned that he may not be able to control his powers, its a worry that he keeps bottled away, afraid that his friends might desert him for being a dangerous freak. At the same time, he also understands that if he can control these new powers he might be their only chance for survival, as they flee the forces of the Alliance.

Trust is a key theme running through Crystal Force. Can Will trust his friends with his worries about his mutating body? Can the friends trust each other implicitly, or will one of them receive an offer from an enemy that is too good to refuse? Can they trust the Japanese contingent that appears on the scene, claiming they know all about Crystal-X and can train Will to control his powers? And what about Whitmore and the Alliance? Should the trio trust him and the promises he makes instead? And of course, in any story where trust is a major theme, there is bound to be an unhealthy dose of betrayal along the way, as characters cross and double-cross in order to reach their own selfish objectives.

Joe Ducie proved with The Rig that he could write a tense, action story and in Crystal Force he adds writing great science fiction to his resumé. It is easy to assume from the blurb that this is an X-Men style story, but whilst the emerging superpowers theme is an important aspect of the book, the story is more akin to one of alien possession. Of that I will say no more, for fear of creating spoilers, but it was certainly a direction I had not expected the story to take.

Crystal Force has more of a cliffhanger ending that its predecessor, which is not surprising given that I believe it to be the middle book in a trilogy. This isn't a problem for me (The Empire Strikes Back did, after all, have something of a cliffhanger ending and is almost universally recognised as being a bloody amazing film). However, it will become a problem for me if we have to wait another two years for the next book. Are you listening Joe Ducie and Hot Key Books? Don't keep your fans waiting this time please!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans by Gary Northfield

From a smelly watering hole deep in the heart of the Serengeti to the ferocious clamour of the Colosseum, join Julius Zebra and his motley menagerie of friends as they gear up to be ... gladiators! Only if they win the love of the Roman crowds will they win back their freedom. But do Julius and his pals have what it takes to succeed in a world where only the meanest and toughest survive?

Apart from a small number of outstanding graphic novels (e.g. Bryan Talbot's Grandville, Blacksad by Guarnido and Canales) I don't do books featuring anthropomorphic animals. They just don't interest me - I'd rather be reading about humans with human characteristics than animals with human characteristics. This is the only reason why this first Julius Zebra book by Gary Northfield has sat unread on my TBR pile for some time, as I have really enjoyed some of his work in the Beano and The Phoenix comic. However, last week I finally got around to picking it up to read and I loved it.

Imagine Gladiator, Ben Hur or Spartacus, where the hero is replaced by a rather nervous, slightly daft and totally naive zebra, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Rumble with the Romans. Add in a healthy dollop of toilet humour and a host of other equally bonkers animal characters and you have a book that will cause many a giggle and  guffaw amongst the 7 pluses (and most likely their parents as well).

Julius Zebra (don't call him Debra! Or Barbara! And definitely DO NOT refer to him as a stripy horse!) is a fabulous main character, with just the right level of daftness. Having been separated from his family (he's a nervous sort, and tries to sneak home from the stinky crocodile-infested waterhole) he is captured and finds himself transported to Rome, in the company of an equally daft warthog and a grumpy lion. Hearing the word circus, he naively believes he is on his way to see some juggling monkeys, and even when he reaches Rome it takes some time for the light bulb to come on. By then it is too late, and he finds himself as arrow/spear fodder for the gladiators at the Colosseum. However, more by luck than judgement, he ends up fighting back (something an animal has never done) and he quickly becomes the people's champion. However, this is only the beginning of his woes.

Gary's illustrations are even funnier than the text that accompanies them, and they aren't just there as pretty pictures for show either - they are mostly used to continue and add to the story, in much the same way as a comic works. Natutally, being from the pen and brain of Gary Northfield they are invariably laugh-out-loud funny, and make this a perfect book for kids who love a mixture of crazy drawings and bonkers written prose (not quite as silly as Mr Gum or Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face, but pretty damn close in places).

The book isn't just an in your face laugh-fest either. Northfield has worked on the Horrible Histories books and has obviously taken note of their success at delivering historical fact in an amusing way that appeals to kids, as in Rumble with the Romans he very cleverly weaves in all kind of historical elements about gladiators and Roman life in general, both in the writing and in his fantastic illustrations. He even includes a glossary at the end of the book, listing many of the historical terms that he has used within his story.

All-in-all Rumble with the Romans is a wonderfully funny and anarchic take on the gladiators of Ancient Rome and I'm really looking forward to reading the next book in the series, whenever it is released. My thanks go to those fab people at Walker for sending me a copy.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Review: Department 19: Darkest Night by Will Hill

The epic conclusion in the blood-poundingly brilliant Department 19 series, from bestselling author, Will Hill.

The brave men and women of Department 19 have fought Dracula at every turn, but now Zero Hour has passed and the ancient vampire is at full strength.

Inside Department 19, the Operators are exhausted and fractured. Jamie, Larissa, Matt and Kate are each struggling with their own demons. When the friends need each other most, they are further apart than ever.

Outside the Department, the world reels from the revelation that vampires are real. Violence and paranoia spread around the globe and, when it finally comes, Dracula’s opening move is more vicious than anyone could have imagined.

A final battle looms between the forces of darkness and the last, massed ranks of those who stand against it. A battle that will define the future of humanity. A battle that simply cannot be lost…

Back in 2005 a certain US author released a book that transformed the merciless, blood thirsty vampires that I had grown up watching on TV, DVD, etc. (Hammer's Christopher Lee Dracula movies, Fright Night, 'Salem's Lot, Blade, Buffy) into pouting, lovesick 'teens', almost like a Mills & Boon with vampires. And of course, due to its success, many other writers followed suit. As far as I was concerned, vampire fiction was dead in the water as far as Young Adults were concerned. And then, towards the end of 2010 I was incredibly fortunate to read a copy of a book by debut YA author Will Hill, and from that moment I was absolutely, completely hooked on a book (and subsequently a series) in a way that hadn't happened since the Harry Potter series ended. 

That book was, of course, Department 19, and with it Will Hill had well and truly reclaimed the vampire from the mushy bollocks of the sparkly brigade and made them scary again. And vicious. And blood thirsty. And ruthless. And just plain bloody brilliant. 

Yesterday saw the release of Darkest Night, the fifth and final book in a series that in my opinion has just got better and better with every book released. With that first instalment, Hill set the bar pretty damn high for YA action and for YA horror, and ever since he has raised that bar higher and higher, leading to me naming him the Sergey Bubka of YA fiction, when I wrote my review of Zero Hour. With Darkest Night Hill tears up all the records and leaves the competition standing. 

I've lost count of the number of times I have heard bloggers and reviewers moaning about dreadfully poor 'third books in trilogies', or series that have gone on one or two books too long. That can never be said about the Department 19 series, and Darkest Night is the most fitting and perfect end to that series that I have love so much. Hill continues to shock his readers, and let's face it, after the last few books we pretty much know that no one is safe, and there is no guarantee that any of our favourite characters will make it through to the final page. Jamie, Larissa, Frankenstein, Matt, Kate... will they all be alive and well come the final page or...?

Darkest Night is also far much more than the final battle between the members of Department 19 (and their various international compatriots) and Dracula and his legions of the undead. In fact, if you're expecting 700+ pages of the battle to end all battles then you've obviously not been paying attention in the last few books. Will Hill weaves all kinds of themes into his D19 story: loyalty, trust, betrayal, love, loss, survival and humanity, and it is the latter of these that jumps into the front seat in Darkest Night. With Jamie now a vampire, will he manage to retain his humanity following the climatic battle at the end of Zero Hour? What lengths will the leaders of D19 and the other international organisations go to in order to defeat Dracula? And just how low will humankind stoop in the name of war? 

With these themes central to the first half of the book Hill adds so much realism to what is essentially a fantasy horror tale (or is it?). We all know the atrocities that man is capable of committing in the name of war: Syria; Kosovo; Iraq; Northern Ireland... the list goes on and on, and it isn't always the perceived main villain(s) committing these diabolical acts. Sometimes it is the supposed good guy, always claiming that they may be doing the wrong thing, but it is for the right reasons. It is exactly this that Hill weaves as significant strand through the first half of Darkest Night. He isn't content with merely entertaining or scaring his readers - he really wants to make them feel uncomfortable, and have them asking what they would do in a similar situation.

And then, of course, comes the final battle. I urge you not to start reading past halfway unless you devote another few hours to the book there and then, as you really! As battle scenes go it is up there with Helm's Deep, the Attack on New York, the Battle of Rourke's Drift, and the The Bride vs the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill vol 1. It is bloody, brutal and completely unforgiving (for the characters and the reader), and when the dust finally settles the world will never be the same again.

Thank you Will Hill for creating this series and its world and characters. I have never looked forward to and simultaneously dreaded reading a book so much since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and you have not disappointed. I look forward to reading whatever journey you decide to take us on next.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Review: The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones by Will Mabbitt

When Mabel Jones unknowingly commits “The Deed” she finds herself swiftly bundled into a sack by one Omynus Hussh – a dastardly silent loris and the chief child-bagger on board the pirate ship the Feroshus Maggot.

Crewed by the strangest bunch of pirates you would ever want to meet and captained by the dreaded Idryss Ebeneezer Split (a wolf with a false leg carved from a human thighbone, a rusty cutlass sheathed in his belt and a loaded pistol tucked in his pants with no fear of the consequences), the Feroshus Maggot whisks Mabel Jones off on the adventure of a lifetime.

This book carries an incredibly important message that all readers, young or old, should heed or face the appalling consequences: if you are in the habit of picking your nose, it would be wise to pick and flick or pick and wipe, but never, ever pick and eat. Unfortunately for young Mabel Jones, she elected to eat the fruits of her nose-picking labours, and as such commits "The Deed". And if you are observed doing "The Deed" by the piratical crew of the Feroshus Maggot then like Mabel, you will find yourself press-ganged, and spirited away to a strange world by the super-silent-stealthy (and we're talking ninja assassin style super-silent-stealthy here) and wonderfully appropriately named loris, Omynus Hussh.

So begins a laugh-out-loud, swashbuckling fantasy adventure, with boisterous and irascible animal pirates, and a gutsy, fiery heroine, albeit a pyjama clad one (but it's ok, as she gets to wear a belt and carry a cutlass, rather than have a leg amputated in order to look more pirate-like). It's also really rather silly, not quite in a Mr Gum way silly, but certainly not far off at times. In fact, if Spike Milligan was alive and well and writing for 21st Century children then there's a damn good chance that this is the kind of brilliant, pants-wettingly funny story he would be producing.

The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones is writer Will Mabbitt's debut book for children, and if it is anything to go by then Mabbitt is certainly one to watch. His writing voice is as infectious as it is off-the-wall bonkers, making the book perfect read-out-loud-to-children material (especially if you can 'do the voices'). There is also just the right level of yuk and gross-out for 8-11 year olds, so have the masking tape and staple gun ready for when their sides start splitting with laughter.

You only need half a brain to realise these days that books like this for this age group are made even better with high quality illustrations to add to the comedy, and those good people at Penguin Children's Books obviously have the requisite 50%+. As well as the brilliant writing of Will Mabbitt, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones features the wonderfully awesome illustrations of Ross Collins, which bring Mabbitt's colourful characters to life in a style that is somewhere between Tazzyman's crazy energy and Riddell's rich detail. Mention should also go to Mandy Norman for her dynamic, attention-grabbing text design.

The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones is due to be released on 4th June. I believe there is a second adventure planned for Mabel, although I do not know when this will be published, I really hope that we will see more adventures beyond this sequel. I believe there is also an audio book version of The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones in the offing, narrated by the hugely talented Toby Jones (the voice of Dobby in the Harry Potter films, but also an incredibly talented British comedic actor). I've included a trailer below as a taster - this could be one book that needs to be bought in paper-form and in audio form.

My thanks go to the fab people at Penguin Children's Books for sending me a copy.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Review: Demolition Dad by Phil Earle

This is the story of Jake Biggs and his dad, George. George spends all week knocking down buildings ... and all weekend knocking down wrestlers. He's the Demolition Man, and Jake couldn't be prouder. But when Jake hears about a pro-wrestling competition in the USA, and persuades his beloved dad to apply, things don't quite turn out the way he expected...

If you were a child (especially one of the male variety) in the 1970s or early 1980s then I can pretty much guarantee that you spent a number of wet Saturday afternoons sat in front of the television watching wrestling on ITV's World of Sport. In these times where the US version of the 'sport' has become a multi-billion dollar industry with fans in every corner of the globe, it is hard to believe that the wrestling heroes of we Brits came from towns such as Halifax, Prestwich and Stoke-on-Trent. And yet, Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki et al were all household names in those days, before the WWF came laong and took the world by storm.

Phil Earle was obviously one of those World of Sport loving kids, if his debut book for younger readers is anything to go by. Set in the modern day, it is both an homage to those spandex leotard-wearing legends of UK wrestling and a tongue-in-cheek poke at the shallowness of the big money US version of the sport. I pre-ordered Demolition Dad months ago, as soon as I heard about it, in the hope that it would be another example of the cracking middle grade British comedy stories that I love so much, in a similar vein to Walliams and Dahl, and I certainly wasn't to be disappointed. It is laugh-out-loud funny and chock full of wonderfully engaging and endearing characters, elements that should make this a guaranteed  hit with young readers (aged 8+). 

On top of this it is also a fantastic father-and-son read, mainly due to the fabulous relationship between main character Jake, and his dad, the Demolition Man. Jake idolises his father - it is a relationship that is very reminiscent of Danny the Champion of the World, and it is great to read a book where the parents are caring and spend quality time with their children, instead of being the child-neglecting, self-centred villains of the piece. Jake has his father on a pedestal, and manages to persuade him to take up wrestling, as long as nobody outside of the family finds out. However, Jake is such a fan of his father's performances in the ring that he wants more for him - he wants millions of others to see him the way he does. Of course, this is the first ingredient in the recipe for the disaster that ensues.

And yet there is even more to this than just being a touching father and son comedy story. I don't think it is spoiling things to say that things don't quite work out for Jake's dad when he gets his chance to fight for the big money US World of Wrestling. On his return to his small hometown of Seacross, he struggles to deal with the overwhelming sense of failure he feels, and sinks into a deep depression. Phil Earle deals with this aspect of the story with great sensitivity, and it is this that raises this book from being a great read to being a Powerslam-DaddySplash-Piledriver of a read.

It would be criminal of me not to mention Sara Ogilvie's brilliant cover and interior illustrations before I sign off. They are the perfect accompaniment to Phil Earle's comedic writing voice: they add, in turn, to the humour, action and poignancy of the story as it progresses, and despite the brilliance of Earle's writing, it would be a far lesser book without them.

Illustration by Sara Ogilvie

I hope this is just the first of many books that Phil Earle will write for this age group. I have a strong suspicion that there will be more to come, and perhaps we will even see more of Jake and George Biggs in the future, as the book does finish with the tantalising "(Not) The End...". Demolition Dad is defintely one of my favourite books of the year so far.