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Sunday, 18 September 2016

Review: Cogheart by Peter Bunzl


Lily's life is in mortal peril. Her father is missing and now silver-eyed men stalk her through the shadows. What could they want from her?

With her friends - Robert, the clockmaker's son, and Malkin, her mechanical fox - Lily is plunged into a murky and menacing world. Too soon Lily realizes that those she holds dear may be the very ones to break her heart...

Murder, mayhem and mystery meet in this gripping Victorian adventure.


Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for some of my reviews on The Book Zone. Here are three reasons why I loved Cogheart by Peter Bunzl:

1. It's steampunk

I have often questioned the lack of space-set science fiction published for kids, but here's another question for you: why are there not more steampunk books written for children? In my opinion, the genre is perfect for a middle grade audience, with the opportunities it gives for exciting, imaginative adventure stories full of derring do, set in either an almost real or wildly alternative Victorian era. Perhaps Peter Bunzl's debut, Cogheart, will be the book that changes this as it is easily one of the best I have read in the genre, for kids or adults and at times I was reminded of Joan Aiken's wonderful Wolves Chronicles books, but with the added fantastical steampunk elements.

2. The pace

This story takes a little while to get going but this gradual build up is worth it as sets the scene for a plot that is fast-paced and full of unrelenting action and adventure for the heroine and her friends. Steampunk books for younger readers, sometimes more that science fiction, require this kind of set-up at the beginning as the world is so similar to our own Victorian era, and the steampunk elements need to be introduced in a way that isn't jarring or confusing. Peter Bunzl manages this with ease.

3. The characters

Be it Lily and her new friend Robert, or Malkin the mechanical fox, or even Roach and Mould, the particularly nasty and thuggish villains of the piece, Cogheart is chock full of cracking characters. Lily is brave but sometimes this comes with a degree of recklessness, whilst Robert's bravery is not quite so outwardly obvious as he is more cautious in his nature, but the courage is there when it needs to be. Malkin is irritable and proud, but also fiercely loyal and great to have around when everything's hitting the fan. And Roach and Mould have just the right level of pantomime about them to have young readers on the edge of their seats, and also wanting to boo their every appearance in the story.

~~~

Cogheart is a very well plotted action adventure story that is one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I believe there is a sequel out next year, and I for one cannot wait to read it. Cogheart has a satisfying conclusion but does leave the reader with enough questions to have them wanting more. My thanks go to the fab people at Usborne for sending me a copy to read.



Sunday, 11 September 2016

Review: The Da Vinci Code (abridged edition) by Dan Brown


History professor Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call while on business in France: the curator of the Louvre in Paris has been brutally murdered inside the museum. Alongside the body, police have found a series of baffling codes and need Langdon's help to decipher them.

When Langdon and a French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, begin to sort through the bizarre riddles, they find a trail that leads to the works of the famous artist and inventor Leonardo Da Vinci. As the clues unfold, Langdon and Neveu must decipher the code and quickly assemble the pieces of the puzzle before a stunning historical truth is lost forever . . .







I know it can be a controversial thing to say in some literary circles, but I am not ashamed to admit I am a fan of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books, especially Angles and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. I have loved stories about quests for lost historical and archaeological items ever since I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the cinema as a child, and if they have a dose of conspiracy thrown in then you've snagged my attention right away. 

Of course, I'm not blind to the fact that Brown is not a particularly great writer, but I do believe that at his best he is a damn fine storyteller. I was therefore intrigued and also a little confused when I read some time ago that there were plans to release an abridged version of The Da Vinci Code, specifically aimed at young adults: intrigued as to how an abridged version might compare with the original and confused as to why this was being done. Having now read a copy of the abridged version, I am sorry to say that I am still no less confused, although as it is a few years since I last read The Da Vinci Code I was still able to enjoy it without too much comparison with the original.

So, what have they edited out to make the book suitable for the young adult market? Basically, the expletives, some of the bloodier violence, the detailed description of the flashback scene where Sophie Neveu witnesses her grandfather in flagrante during a ritual, and some of Robert's lengthier explanations regarding ancient sex rites and similar. From this one might therefore deduce that swearing, violence and sex are taboo subjects for teen literature in the 21st Century, which makes me wonder if the editors of this abridged version have actually read any modern YA books themselves?!

Other than that, the characters and the story are still the same, which again raises the question as to why an abridged version is needed? OK, I completely understand the need to take out some of the sexual references and violence, but outside of this it's a little patronising to presume that an adult book needs simplifying for the teen market. My experience over the years has shown that boys who are confident readers will often make the leap from junior fiction or middle grade straight to adult fiction, with only the occasional foray into young adult books. I have lost count of the number of Year 8s that I have seen reading adult books by Andy McNab, Chris Ryan, Stephen King and yes, Dan Brown himself.

With this in mind, I also felt that I needed to judge whether this edition might be suitable for middle grade readers as I was reading it. Would it be suitable for them? The answer is yes, as I believe it has been 'sanitised' enough for confident readers of age 11+, but any adult who works with kids of this age knows that they much prefer books that feature characters of their own age, or a little older. It increases their enjoyment of a story if they can relate to the characters, or aspire to be like them. That is much harder with adult characters, and I am hard pushed to think of any other modern book for teen readers that has no teen characters at all.

Whether it is the original version, or this new abridged version, The Da Vinci Code is still a thoroughly entertaining and exciting mystery quest thriller and I can't help but recommend it. Librarians, teachers and parents may feel more comfortable putting this into the hands of teens readers, in the knowledge that it has had certain passages, etc. edited out. My copy is going to go into the school library, and I will be watching keenly as to its popularity with my young readers. My thanks go to the fab people at Penguin for sending me a copy to review.


Monday, 27 June 2016

Review: Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden



Denizen Hardwick doesn't believe in magic - until he's ambushed by a monster created from shadows and sees it destroyed by a word made of sunlight.

That kind of thing can really change your perspective.

Now Denizen is about to discover that there's a world beyond the one he knows. A world of living darkness where an unseen enemy awaits.

Fortunately for humanity, between us and the shadows stand the Knights of the Borrowed Dark.

Unfortunately for Denizen, he's one of them . . .







Reading the above blurb you might think that you have seen all of this before. And in some ways you'd be right. Knights of the Borrowed Dark is chock full of the tropes that we have come to know so well in middle grade fiction since Harry Potter burst onto the scene:
  • orphaned protagonist? Check
  • said orphan has a pretty miserable life? Check
  • sudden appearance of a previously unknown relative? Check
  • relative is part of a secret society that protects the world from dark magic? Check
The list goes on and on, but the incredible thing is that debut writer Dave Rudden weaves them into his story with such mastery that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was breaking completely new ground. This is a seriously good debut novel, from the first line of its ├╝ber-creepy prologue, right the way through to its kick-ass ending.

Aside from his obvious ability to write a damn enjoyable story, the quality of Dave Rudden's descriptive writing is the best I have read from a debut writer for years. Knights of the Borrowed Dark is a masterclass in writing for a middle grade audience, or any audience for that matter. Open up the book at pretty much any page and a quick scan will reward you with one of the many vivid descriptions that add detail to his world-building, and further richness and atmosphere to the exciting narrative. And these descriptions are invariably brief and impactful, and never at the cost of pace. I'd love to include a few of these in my review, but my copy is an uncorrected proof so I'm not permitted to do so.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark is written for the 9+ audience, but there is a darkness to the story that may be a little too much for some. The violence within is of the fantasy kind, but may put off some parents. The nature of the villains and the way that monsters come out of the dark, may affect children of a delicate disposition or who are prone to nightmares. The villains of the piece, known as The Clockwork Three, could have come straight out of the world of the Cenobites of the Hellraiser movies, especially the lightbulb-eating woman in white. However, the story also shows that through courage and friendship, light can and will overcome the darkness.

I've not written may reviews this year, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I have been experiencing something of a reading slump as far as children's books are concerned so I have not read as many this year as I might have in the past. However, of the ones that I have read, this is most definitely one of the best and already a strong contender for my book of the year. It has everything that I personally want in a fantasy action adventure story, and it is the kind of book that, had it been published when I was a child, I would have read over and over and over again. My thanks go to the wonderful people at Penguin Random House for sending me a copy.