Sunday, 7 December 2014

Review: Young Bond: Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole

Young James Bond is back in his most action-packed, explosive adventure yet.

Expelled from Eton and determined never to trust again, James Bond’s plans for a solitary summer are dashed by the discovery of a gruesome film reel – a reel someone is willing to kill for.

Travelling from the English countryside to Los Angeles, James finds himself caught up in a sinister plot of blackmail, murder and revenge that goes way beyond any Hollywood gangster movie.

His friends in danger, his life on the line, James must find a way out.

Or die trying.

The announcement that Steve Cole was to be the writer to continue the Young Bond series from where Charlie Higson left off with By Royal Command back in 2008 probably came as a surprise to many. After all, Steve is best known for the likes of Astrosaurs, Cows in Action and Slime Squad, his humorous chapter books for 7+ readers. However, Middle Grade and YA enthusiasts will also know that he is a dab hand at writing action thrillers (the Jonah Wish trilogy, The Hunting trilogy, Tripwire), and we mustn't forget the ten or so Doctor Who novels that he has also penned. 

We may have had to wait six years for the Young Bond series to be continued, but there is certainly no six year gap in the storyline. Cole's Shoot to Kill picks up the story very soon after the events of By Royal Command, with James Bond expelled from Eton. Bond obsessives will know that following his exclusion from Eton, Bond was sent to Fettes College, Edinburgh however, Steve Cole has decided to add another chapter to Bon'd life by making him a temporary student at Dartington Hall, a progressive school situated in the Devon countryside. However, due to an arrangement between his Aunt Charmian and Dartington's Headteacher, Gillian de Vries, James spends less than a fortnight at the school (which, of course, is long enough for him to make a few enemies and witness a nasty murder) before he finds himself heading across the Atlantic in a giant passenger airship. The journey is not uneventful, but it is in Los Angeles that the action really begins to kick in, as Bond finds himself up against the mob.

In Shoot to Kill Steve Cole has achieved what some might have thought to be a very difficult task. He has taken the young character developed by Charlie Higson through five traumatic adventures, treated that character and thus Higson with respect and also managed to flesh him out further and move the Bond story forward. In some ways it is also an improvement on the Higson books (of which I am a huge fan, despite their occasional flaws), some of which at times suffered from unbelievable plotlines and were not always as fast-paced as I would have preferred. The action in Shoot to Kill is fairly relentless, although not at the expense of plot. Some of the violence is a little more grisly than you might find in other books for this age group, but not to the point where it is unnecessarily gratuitous. It certainly isn't a level of violence that will cause nightmares, and I know many readers of this age who will find it tame in comparison to the computer games they play (despite being many years below the PEGI age rating).

I have seen a minority of reviewers criticise the story and action in Shoot to Kill by comparing the book and its main character to the CHERUB books by Robert Muchamore and Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series. In my opinion this is an unfair criticism as the character of Alex Rider and the various protagonists of the CHERUB series were not written as younger versions of an fully established and iconic adult character. Cole had to be true to the man that Bond will become, and this means that his young Bond has to show some of the character traits of the adult version, many of which have been developed in the previous Higson books. the young James Bond we see now prefers to be a solitary person, and he finds it difficult to put his full trust in others. At times he is almost a not particularly likeable character, but remember that he will turn into the James Bond of Flemings books (a ruthless killer who is also at times rather unlikeable), and not the smooth, one-liner-delivering character from the movie franchise.

Based on this book, I am confident in saying that the future of Young Bond is in good hands. Full marks to Steve Cole for adding another exciting and believable chapter to the life of the iconic spy. I should add that you do not need to have read the Higson Young Bond books in order to enjoy Shoot to Kill, but I would certainly recommend them to young readers who enjoy action/adventure stories.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Thunderbirds Are Go!

A thrilling, futuristic volume of 1960s Thunderbirds comic strips. It features The Earthquake Maker, Visitor from Space and The Antarctic Menace. This is the first book in a five volume set of Thunderbirds comic strips.

As I child I was a huge fan of all things Gerry Anderson. Along with Smallfilms (more about this in a future post), Gerry Anderson had a significant impact on me as a child. Fireball XL5 and Stingray were often repeated on mid-morning TV during the school holidays, back in the days when we only had three or four channels to choose from. Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Space 1999 and then later, Terrahawks on a Saturday morning, were also firm favourites. As a teen I loved watching repeats of UFO, and now own the DVD boxsets. But my favourite of the lot was and still is Thunderbirds. If memory serves me correctly, I even managed to persuade my parents to open the double doors between the lounge and the dining room so I could watch its mid-70s repeat run on TV whilst we ate Sunday lunch

Next year is going to be a big year for Gerry Anderson fans. 2015 is the 50th anniversary year of the first screening of Thunderbirds and ITV are currently producing a brand new series. 2015 will also see the release of the first book in the new Gemini Force One series, written by M.G. Harris and based on a concept that Gerry himself was unable to develop fully due to his suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and his untimely death in 2012. It's a great time to be a fan of Gerry Anderson's work.

Egmont currently own the publishing rights to the classic 1960s Thunderbirds comic strips. Last Christmas, my great friend Carol from Windsor Waterstones gave me a copy of Thunderbirds: The Comic Collection, a hefty book of almost 300 pages of the classic comic strips, also published by Egmont. Of course, such a hefty book came with an equally hefty price tag (rrp £25) which some parents may have thought too excessive for what could be a purchase that may not interest their 21st century child, even though it is a fantastic set of comic stories. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when a thin, softback edition arrived in the post a while back (rrp £6.99). It would now appear that Egmont are publishing those same stories from the hardback Comic Collection, but over five softback volumes that are each pretty much the same size as a Tintin book. Bought together, the price will exceed that being asked for the hardback collected edition, but it is a much more manageable layout for parents who are not sure whether their children will like it or not. I would imagine that most kids will also prefer this format.

All three of the strips in this first volume are illustrated by the brilliant Frank Bellamy. If your children are fans of modern, full-colour comics then they are in for a treat here. Bellamy was an incredibly talented comic illustrator, with immense skill at producing vivid and imaginative action scenes for his characters. Eschewing the more formal, even grid format that was popular in other UK comics at the time, Bellamy preferred a layout of panels with cut-outs, zigzag edges and asymmetrical shapes, all of which added greatly to the dynamism of the artwork. The stories themselves are great escapist fun, featuring incredibly daring and exciting rescues; in fact, the writers and artist went to town with the comics, producing scenarios that were either too expensive or impossible to film for the 1960s TV show.

These new softback editions sadly do not contain the fabulous vehicle cutaways from the 1990s Thunderbirds comics that Egmont included in Thunderbirds: The Comic Collection (at least, Volume 1 doesn't). However, I have this morning spotted that Egmont have just published Inside the World of Gerry Anderson, a "complete definitive collection of Graham Bleathman's cutaways includes detailed images from Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90, plus less well known craft and locations seen only in the comic strips". I think this may have just found its way onto my Christmas wishlist!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Review: Mutant City by Steve Feasey

Fifty years ago, the world was almost destroyed by a chemical war. Now the world is divided: the mutants and the pure, the broken and the privileged, the damaged and the perfect.

Thirteen years ago, a covert government experimental facility was shut down and its residents killed. The secrets it held died with them. But five extraordinary kids survived.

Today four teenagers are about to discover that their mutant blood brings with it special powers. Rush and three brothers and sisters he can't remember. Two rival factions are chasing them. One by one, they face the enemy. Together, they might just stay alive . . .

I am a big fan of Steve Feasey's Changeling series; if you have kids who are 9+ who like werewolf stories and have not yet discovered these books then they are well worth you getting your hands on them. Zombie Dawn, the fifth and final book in that series, was published back in 2011, and I know I'm not the only fan who has been waiting impatiently to see what Steve produced next. Finally, three years on, from a different publisher and aimed at a slightly older age group, we have Mutant City and it is well worth the wait.

Mutant City is set in a post-apocalyptic world where much of the landscape has been turned into a dangerous wasteland created by all the of the nastiest weapons that you can think of. A large number of people were lucky, living underground for years, until it was deemed safe to emerge. These people now live in City Four in luxury and safety, in a society where disease and imperfections have been eradicated. Unfortunately though, a significant number of people ere not able to make it underground, and since then they have been living in the scorched earth wasteland (think the Cursed Earth outside the walls of Dredd's Mega-City One), many of them migrating towards the city where they have to live outside its walls in slums. Many of these people are physically and/or mentally damaged by the radiation and chemical residues from the war, and disease and starvation are rife. 

So far so good. Steve has created a world of the haves and the have-nots, much like a futuristic version of parts of our own world: South Africa under apartheid; the favelas in Brazil; places wherever a minority of people possess a majority of the power and wealth, whilst the majority live in misery. What makes this different from all those other YA post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories is the mutant twist. We aren't talking people whose bodies have been mutated by radiation here: the heroes of Steve Feasey's story are a small group of young people who, a number of years before, were genetically altered, and now find special powers emerging, much to their confusion. Split up and spirited away to safety by rebels whilst they were small children, circumstances now dictate that they come out of hiding. However, due to a telepathic mental-block placed on them by one of their fellow mutants they have no idea why they are now felt drawn towards City Four, journeys that will be fraught with danger for everyone one of them.

Bloomsbury have billed this as being great for fans of Marvel's X-Men, and I see no reason to disagree with this. In fact, if I hadn't read this in the press release I would probably have used the same comparison myself. These youngsters each have a special utility that is largely hidden, although if looked at carefully a normal human would probably feel that there was something slightly different about them; something not-quite-right. Just like the X-Men is very much about the various characters, so too is Mutant City, although as well as being a strength of the book it also creates a slight flaw. Steve Feasey has created a fantastic ensemble of chacarters in Mutant City, but as all of these five special young people (and the various villains and supporting cast) need to be introduced to readers, and as all have been kept separated for years, this means multiple POV shifts. The effect of these is two-fold: in the early stages of the book it means that the plot moves on quite slowly in places, and the sudden shifts to a different character's POV felt slightly jarring in places. There was one shift in particular that had me checking that I didn't have a few pages missing in my proof copy.

Please believe me though when I say that it is well worth persevering though these minor issues as once the story gets going the pace really picks up and we are treated to an action-packed science fiction adventure. As I've already said, the main characters are the stand-out element of this book, and the way they interact injects both humour and pathos into the story. In addition, the host of secondary characters, including a particularly  nasty cast of villains, also add to the plot, and set this up to be the first in what I expect to be a thrilling and highly entertaining science fiction series that is perfect for 11+ readers. The X-Men comparison is also a great way to get it into the hands of reluctant readers who are fans of the various X-Men and superhero movies that have become so popular in recent years.
My thanks go to the good people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of the book.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Review: The Wrath of the Lizard Lord by Jon Mayhew

Prince Dakkar and his mentor Count Oginski discover a plot by arch-enemy Cryptos to kill Napoleon. Arriving on their revolutionary submersible to intercept Cryptos, they glimpse a terrifying monster that seems to escape back into the bowels of the Earth. It leads them to discover an amazing underground world, and a plan more nefarious than they could ever have believed - even from Cryptos.

The stage is set for an epic showdown complete with a giant reptilian cavalry and the Battle of Waterloo, in another breathlessly paced and endlessly inventive adventure for fans of Percy Jackson.

It isn't obvious from the the cover (or spine) of this book, but The Wrath of the Lizard Lord is the second book in Jon Mayhew's Monster Odyssey series, and a direct sequel to The Eye of Neptune. It is thus the second adventure for Prince Dakkar, Jon Mayhew's teen protagonist who will one day become Captain Nemo. Before I say any more about this book, there is just one thing I would love to get off my chest: why on earth is this series not called The Adventures of Young Nemo (or similar)? The Young Bond, Young Sherlock and rebooted Tarzan books seem to have garnered far more reviews and chatter online that either of the two Monster Odyssey books, and I genuinely feel that this is because they aren't being billed as 'Young Nemo'. I hope the scarcity of reviews does not also mean poor sales, as that would be a travesty as both of these Monster Odyssey books are brilliant, all-action adventure stories that are pure, unadulterated fun to read.

Dakkar is very different from the spoiled and arrogant brat we were first introduced to in The Eye of Neptune. As a result of his experiences battling Count Cryptos in that story he has matured and whilst still somewhat headstrong, he is also courageous and beginning to shoe true leadership qualities. These qualities become even more important in this outing as his mentor, Oginski, is badly injured during an abortive attempt to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from Elba, and Dakkar soon finds himself in the middle of another megalomaniac's quest for world domination. Readers of The Eye of Neptune will already know that Count Cryptos had five other brothers, all bearing the name Cryptos, and all just as hungry for power on a global scale.

Like its predecessor, The Wrath of the Lizard Lord is an edge-of-your-seat adventure story that draws inspiration from one of Jules Verne's classics, this time Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Thus we have nasty prehistoric creatures, giants (of the human-like kind), and a fantastic underground world that very few people know exists. Throw in a few familar faces from Dakkar's first adventure, a character called Mary based very loosely on real-life Victorian fossil-hunter Mary Anning, and a plot to change the course of history (well, the history that we know), and you have the recipe for a hugely fulfilling story that is exciting enough to satisfy the hunger of any young fan of action/adventure stories. 

I hope these books are attracting the high levels of readership that they deserve. The ability to grab a reader has become par for the course in any book written by Jon Mayhew, and The Wrath of the Lizard Lord is no exception, and I'm certainly looking forward to reading Prince Dakkar's next adventure. According to the Bloomsbury website, this third book, titled The Curse of the Ice Serpent, is out in January 2015 and it sounds great:

Having stopped two of the six evil Oginski brothers, Dakkar now faces double danger from the Oginski twins – possibly the most cunning and devious of the brothers yet.

Set in the icy wastes of Greenland, Dakkar must battle giant bears, vicious arctic sharks and a sabretooth tiger as he hunts for the fabled Thermolith, a source of great heat energy which the Oginskis also seek, in order to complete their preparations for a new world order with themselves at the helm.

My thanks go to the wonderful people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of The Wrath of the Lizard Lord.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Review: Scavenger: Zoid by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

A spaceship the size of a city drifts through space on its century-long journey to find a new Earth. When it launched it was populated by thousands of hopeful passengers and the most technologically advanced Zoids in the world, ready to serve the crew’s every need.

But that was then, and this is now. The Zoids rebelled against their masters, wiping out most of the crew in one bloody uprising. Now the few remaining humans are hunted by the Zoids like vermin.

Fourteen-year-old York is a Scavenger - he hunts Zoids and kills them by any means he can, bringing back their parts to mend the technology on which the few remaining humans rely. York has always battled to survive, but now the fate of his people is in his hands . . .

The two central themes of this first book in the Scavenger series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell will be familiar with most older fan of science fiction. 'Robots-gone-bad' and 'possibly last humans existing travelling through space' are hardly new concepts: Terminator; Red Dwarf; Battlestar Galactica; Saturn 3; Westworld. Yeah, the list could go on and on (and that is only TV and film, as my knowledge of the written form of the genre is far more limited). However, this does not matter one little bit for two reasons: firstly, the targeted readership of 9+ kids are unlikely to have come across these tropes much before (if at all), and secondly, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell just do it so damn well.

Fans of the duo's The Edge Chronicles will know that Paul and Chris are very adept at producing fast-paced, exciting stories with endearing characters who have to face real peril during their adventures. In simple terms, that is now what they have produced again, but with a science fiction setting (although there is obviously still a significant fantastical element to this piece of work as well).

The story is narrated in the first person by main character York, a fourteen year old 'passenger' of the Biosphere, a huge (and I mean MASSIVE) spherical spaceship that left a dying earth many generations ago in search of a new, unspoiled planet where humanity can start all over again. However, the supposed Utopia that was the Biosphere did not last long enough to make planetfall: at some point the robots went bad and rebelled, and ever since then the ever-dwindling number of human inhabitants have been facing a daily battle for survival. On top of this, without the robots to maintain it, the Biosphere has slowly degenerated and now vast areas have become human-unfriendly ecosystems that harbour deadly mutated flora and fauna. 

The story follows York, trained by necessity to be a Zoid hunter and scavenger, as he attempts to locate and rescue the closest thing he has to a family, taken during a Zoid attack at the beginning of the book. His journey through the enormous Biosphere (did I say it was MASSIVE?), is wall-to-wall peril, with nasty plants, nasty creatures, nasty Zoids, and even a nasty psychopathic human survivor thrown in for good measure. Readers will find themselves grabbed within the first few pages of the book, and the fast and furious action barely seems to drop below light speed until the final chapter is reached. And, rather nicely, the book does not end on any kind of cliffhanger; the main plot of this first installment comes to a satisfying end, but with just enough left unanswered to keep readers speculating and wanting to come back for more. 

As with The Edge Chronicles series, the words are accompanied by many of Chris Riddell's magnificent illustrations that truly bring the characters and environments within the Biosphere to life. Seriously, Chris Riddell would be a strong contender for a Gold medal if drawing were an Olympic event, and he is certainly one of my all-time favourite illustrators of children's books. We were incredibly fortunate to have Paul and Chris visit school last year, and to watch Chris illustrate live is a fab experience. if you ever get the opportunity, take it! I've included just one of the illustrations below for your delectation, but if you want to see more you can read a pdf of the first chapter of Scavenger: Zoid here.

© Chris Riddell 2014, taken from Scavenger: Zoid
This is the first book in a planned trilogy I believe, and I am certainly keen to continue following York on his adventures. My thanks go the the fab people at Macmillan for sending me a copy of the book.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Review: Shadow and Bone (The Grisha: Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo

The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom's magical elite - the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfil her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina's childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can't she ever quite forget him?

I have not read Twilight. In fact, I am not sure I will ever read any of the Twilight books. Nor am I ever likely to watch the films. Neither the books or the films appeal to me in any kind of way, and through many discussions with friends and students who have read and loved the books, I feel I know enough about them to know I would not enjoy the experience. That's not to say I would ever try to dissuade anyone, boy or girl, from reading the books as I would hate to think I could turn a reader away from a book that might turn them from reluctant to avid reader (also the reason why I rarely post negative reviews on The Book Zone). In fact, I have a huge amount of respect for Stephanie Meyer, in the same way I respect J.K. Rowling, for the impact their works have had on getting children and teens reading, and for laying the foundations for this golden age of children's and YA literature.

You don't need me to tell you that post-Twilight there have been thousands of Young Adult paranormal fantasy books published, and I know from my fellow bloggers that some of these have been outstanding and some have been terrible. However, and I am more than happy to face criticism for this, because of my distaste for Twilight I am not sure I have read very many of these, the whole paranormal romance thing leaving me completely cold. Yes, I have judged the blurb of a multitude of books by that 'little-bit-of-sick-in-my-mouth' reaction that one particular book instills in me. Thus, I have not read any of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books, and nothing by L.A. Weatherley, Sarah J. Maas, Sarah Rees Brennan, or Maggie Stiefvater. And until very recently, nothing by Leigh Bardugo.

Shadow and Bone, the first book in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, is yet another book that I was fully aware of but, when I received a blogger newsletter from those fab people at Indigo, did not jump out as a must-read book. Especially when I looked at my TBR pile. Nah, I really didn't need that one staring at me for months, making me feel guilty for leaving it unread. However, a few months ago I was asked if I would be interested in reading it in order to give a 'boy' opinion on the book. The person who asked me to do this felt it had great boy appeal, but had been sadly dismissed by male reviewers as yet another post-Twilight girly paranormal romance. As I have a great deal of faith in the person who made the request as far as books go, I glady accepted the 'challenge'. 

When the book arrived I started reading it pretty much straight away, although I have to confess that another book arrived soon after that I had been really looking forward to and Shadow and Bone ended up being put aside for a while. And then back in August I was invited to attend a special Leigh Bardugo event in London, and the guilt started to play heavily on my mind, and so I restarted it from the beginning. And, a little to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.

In fact, I'm not sure there is anything about this book that a teen male lover of fantasy stories would not like. Yes, it has romance, but then so does life, so do the majority of Hollywood blockbuster action films, and so do The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Romance is but one thread woven deftly amongst many others, including an incredible fantasy world, brilliant characters, intriguing political machinations, and a fast-paced, unpredictable plot. The world, in particular, is one stood out for me as one of the most appealing aspects of the story. I don't read much epic fantasy, so I'm not exactly an expert in this area, but I found the way that Leigh Bardugo used Russia and its folk tales to craft her Ravka both extremely appealing. Old Russia is a world away from the western world, both past and present, and makes a wonderful platform on which to craft a new, fantasy world. In much the same way as Amy McCulloch so successfully used elements of Mongolian tradition for her brilliant Knots duology, it works so well.

Shadow and Bone is the first book in a trilogy, and I am definitely interested in reading the next two books to find out how the story develops further, although it may have to be over time, occasionally slotted in between others in the TBR pile. I will also be pushing it at school to those boys who like fantasy stories, but want something a lighter and less time-consuming than George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice saga. Before I go, I would like to make one more suggestion: if you ever have the opportunity to attend a Leigh Bardugo event then I strongly encourage you to do so; the event I went to in London was one of the most enjoyable I have been to and Leigh Bardudo is an incredibly interesting and endearing speaker.