Saturday, 31 July 2010

My Book of the Month - July

I can't believe it is the end of the month already, and with this in mind it must also be time for me to announce what for me was my favourite of the books whose official publication date fell in July. This was a really difficult choice to make this month as my shortlist consisted of three very strong contenders, and funnily enough all of them could be classified as horror. The books that made the cut to the final shortlist were Witch Breed by Alan Gibbons, the fourth book in his Devil's Underground series; Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda, the sequel to his debut novel Devil's Kiss; and last but by no means least, David Gatward's excellent debut horror book The Dead. On any other month every one of these would have destroyed the competition, so it is unfortunate that they were all released within days of each other. However, a decision has to be made as I promised myself earlier in the year that I would never cheat and name more than one, and so after much agonising I have decided that my Book of the Month for July is Sarwat Chadda's Dark Goddess.

There is little more I can say about this book that hasn't already been written. Since is was released it has garnered a number of outstanding reviews from professional critics and book bloggers alike. For me, I think Sarwat's greatest strengths lie in the development of his main character Billi SanGreal, but also in the quality (and use) of his research material. Sarwat Chadda has a great imagination and is able to take snippets of folk tales and give them a twist to create his own mythology. I really liked Devil's Kiss but it did have its weaknesses; it is astounding how Mr Chadda's writing has matured in short a short space of time so that none of these weaknesses are present in Dark Goddess. If you're a boy who despairs at the way your sister or female school friends wax lyrical about Twilight then give Dark Goddess a chance - it is the perfect remedy!

Friday, 30 July 2010

Book Cover Quiz

Another summer activity to keep you occupied. I have created a short book cover quiz for you - can you identify the books from their covers? No prizes for this one, it's purely for fun, and so you can't cheat I won't be posting the answers for a week or so. You can download the quiz as a pdf from HERE.

The Alex Rider Gadget Academy competition


By the end of today I will be one whole week into my school summer holiday, and am I bored yet? Of course I'm not. I have far too many books to read, friends to see, jobs to do around the house, films to catch up on, wii to play on... there simply isn't the time to get bored. However, I do know that some of my friends' kids are already moaning about having little to do (even after a full day of activities) so I thought that over the next week I would highlight a few book releated activities that may appeal to bored children.

First up is this great Alex Rider themed contest that is being run by Walker Books in association with the Young Times. The Alex Rider Gadget Academy was launched earlier this month and offers Alex Rider fans the opportunity to design a new gadget for Alex’s next and last mission. The winner of this great Gadget Academy competition will have their gadget featured in the 9th and last Alex Rider mission, Scorpia Rising, and their name will be credited in the book as the designer. How cool is that? The winner will also receive a copy of the book and a print of their gadget design. There will be runners up prizes too of an e-reader loaded with the first three Alex Rider books and Stormbreaker ebooks as well.

There are a few key rules you have to follow though:

Your gadget must be an everyday item — something that Alex would be likely to carry in the field.

It has to be non-lethal. Mr Blunt forbids Alex to use any covert weapon that can harm or kill. Useful, fun and not too bloody, please.

Don’t worry about your drawing skills; it’s the idea that counts. You can draw or produce your gadget on a computer but it must be your original idea and it must be in colour. Give it a name and tell us how it works.

All entries must be received by midnight on September 3.

You must be aged 16 or under to enter.
 
 
Oh well, that last rule means I can't enter! You can find out more about this great competition at the Gadget Academy website including details about where to send your entries. Have fun and good luck!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Review: TimeRiders - Day of the Predator by Alex Scarrow


Liam O’Connor should have died at sea in 1912. Maddy Carter should have died on a plane in 2010. Sal Vikram should have died in a fire in 2029. But all three have been given a second chance – to work for an agency that no-one knows exists. Its purpose - to prevent time travel destroying history . . . When Maddy mistakenly opens a time window where and when she shouldn’t have, Liam is marooned sixty-five million years ago in the hunting ground of a deadly - and until now - undiscovered species of predator. Can Liam make contact with Maddy and Sal before he's torn to pieces by dinosaurs – and without endangering history so much that the world is overtaken by a terrifying new reality?

I read a great quote from Alex Scarrow the other day in which he stated that "I've worked really hard to make [TimeRiders] absolute cocaine for my son – something he couldn't put down." Now whilst the boring, moralistic teacher in me has to disapprove a little at the author comparing his book to a Class A drug, the story-loving boy inside of me agrees completely and as this is the school summer holidays and I have a lot more time to read then this is the part of my personality that is in the ascendancy at the moment. With this in mind I would happily stand up at a meeting of Readers Anonymous and announce that "I am addicited to TimeRiders".

I reviewed the first book in the series back in February and I loved it. However, now that I have read Day of the Predator, the second book in the series, I can honestly say that I have not been this excited about a series for a long time. As fas as anticipation for 'the next book' goes, I can compare it to how I feel about MG Harris' Joshua Files series and how I felt about the Percy Jackson books. And with Alex Scarrow having signed a nine book deal with Puffin I am looking forward to reliving this feeling a good number of times over the next few years. If he can maintain the quality over the whole series then Alex Scarrow will become as widely read as Riordan, Horowitz and Higson. 

In the first book in the series we saw the recruitment of the TimeRiders team, three young people plucked from the jaws of death by the mysterious Foster. The story then saw our young heroes battling to reset time after a group of men travel back in time in order to change it, as they feel their 2066 world has become ruined by over-population, pollution and religious conflict. Their solution? Help Adolf Hitler to win the Second World War. This book encouraged the reader to question the morality of the actions of these men - if making a change in history will make the future world a better place then should this be seen as ethically acceptable? For me this was a stand out element of the first book, although in some ways it did overshadow some of the character development.

Day of the Predators is a very different set up. This time our heroes are tasked with going forward in time to prevent the assassination of a boy who will eventually develop the mathematical theories that will become the cornerstone of time travel development. However, as the result of an accident Liam O'Connor, the team's field agent, his genetically engineered 'bodyguard', and a school party of teenagers find themselves stranded sixty-five million years in the past, at a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and Liam has to be constantly reminded that every single action, however small, could have a disastrous effect on the future time line.

This is not a new concept in literature; I first read something similar in a comic strip many years ago (I think it was an epidode of Tharg's Future Shocks in 2000AD), and then later in Ray Bradbury's short story "A Sound of Thunder", but Alex Scarrow is delivering it to a totally new audience and in such a way that he will have these young adults hanging on his every word. In Day of the Predator Liam has to make some very difficult choices - if they stay and try to survive the consequences could damage the future, but then again so could their attempts to in some way send a message that the rest of the team will be able to retrieve in 2001, 65 million years later! All these questions and more will have readers constantly asking themselves "What if...?" and "but if they do that...?".

The nature of Liam's role in the team as field agent means that yet again his character is developed more than those of others. After all, it is Liam who is facing deadly predators in a world that is totally alien to that which he is used to. However, in the absence of Foster the role of team leader and chief strategist now falls on the relatively young shoulders of Maddy Carter. This is not a role that she takes on willingly, especially as she blames herself for the accident that has sent Liam hurtling back in time, and she is plagued with self-doubt. However, as the plot develops we also see Maddy gradually settling into this key role, making decisions that could impact not only on Liam's life but also on the lives of generations to come. We also see her agonising over the secrets she holds from the others, information that was imparted to her by Foster before he walked out of their lives at the end of the first book. Sal Vikram, the third member of the team, is still relegated to third place, with her role being largely a supporting one, with occasional flashes of briliance. Hopefully we will see more from Sal in the future.

The fourth character in the book is Bob, or Becks as he/she/it becomes in Day of the Predator. Bob's AI chip, rescued from its organic 'meat robot' form, is now inserted into the brain of a freshly 'grown' body, in order that Liam has a companion in his travels through time. The relationship between Liam and the newly formed Becks is a confusing one for the young Irish lad, and this confusion in his mind grows as together they face the dangers of Cretaceous USA. Becks also has to deal with the competing issues of her programmed Mission Priorities and her realisation that she is slowly developing traits that could almost be described as human. Should she proceed with the mission recommendations that her central processor is computing, or should she make allowances for the fact that she has cpmputed that she 'likes' Liam?

In reviews for books like this there are many cliched phrases uses, phrases such as "high octane", "nail-biting" and "a real page-turner". Howeer, I guarantee that every single one of these phrases, cliched though they may be, is entirely justified in any review about this book. If you have boys who are 12+ and are reluctant readers then buy them these two books before you go on holiday this summer, 'accidentally' leave the charger for their PSP/Nintendo DS/etc at home and maybe, just maybe, these could be the books to convert them to reading for enjoyment. If these books don't manage to get boys reading then there is little else that will.

My huge thanks go to Puffin for sending me a copy of TimeRiders: Day of the Predator to review. The book is officially published on 5th August.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Review: Dark Life by Kate Falls


Ty has lived under the ocean for his entire life. Following global warming and the rise of the seas, his family joined an underwater community in hopes of living in the new frontier of the ocean floor. But When Ty meets Gemma, a girl from "topside", who is searching the seas for her brother, she quickly makes his life very complicated. Together Ty and Gemma face dangerous sea creatures and venture into the frontier town's rough underworld as they search for her missing brother. But the deeper they dig, the more attention they attract, and soon Ty and Gemma find themselves being hunted by a gang of outlaws who roam the underwater territories causing havoc, and who seem to have eerie abilities. But Ty has a secret of his own, living underwater for his entire life has meant he has also developed a "special" power. Can he keep it a secret from Gemma and his family or is it time for him to finally tell everyone the truth?

I was sent this book months ago as it was originally scheduled for a May release. However, the publication date was pushed back to 5th August, and as I had so many other books to review at the time I decided to put my review for Dark Life on hold. Now we are less than two weeks away from its official release date, and copies are already available on Amazon I feel it is time to tell the world how much I enjoyed this book - it should definitely be on your holiday reading list this summer.

It often amazes me how an author can pull in a reader with just a handful of words in an opening paragraph, making that reader want to continue reading more than anything else at that moment in time. Kat Falls pulls this off with remarkable ease, especially considering this is her debut novel:

"I peered into the deep-sea canyon, hoping to spot a toppled skyscraper. Maybe even the Statue of Liberty. But there was no sign of the old East Coast, just a sheer drop into darkness."

And she has not been let down by the designer of the book's cover. If any book was going to shout "Buy me!" from a book store shelf this summer it is going to be this one.

Dark Life is set in the future, when the oceans have risen due to global warming. Land is now at a premium with the majority of the world's population living in tightly packed high rise towers, and people only venture out smothered in super-high factor sunblock in order to stop their skin from being stripped away by the extremely high levels of UV radiation that now bombard the planet. In an attempt to forge a better life a small number of brave individuals and fmailies have set up homesteads on the sea beds, staking claims to land just as the pioneers of the Old West did one hundred and fifty years ago. In fact, the parallels with the Old West do not stop there. Imagine all those classic Westerns that are repeated on TV ad infinitum, but in a future setting, where the farms are underwater, the crops farmed include plankton and kelp, and outlaws travel in submarines instead of on horseback. Ms Falls has taken a period in american history that we all know so well from decades of Hollywood movies, and has used this as the basis for her creation of a fully realised and fascinating future world.

The story is told through the voice of Ty, a teenage boy whose mother and father own 200 acres of ocean floor. Right from the start we discover how different Ty's life is from your average modern day teenager when he has to evade a green lantern shark - only twelve inches long but able to "rip apart something twenty times their size". On balance I generally prefer third person narration, but the telling of this story in the first person really worked for me - Ty's life is so alien to anything that a young reader has ever experienced the first person narration really helps us get inside his head and understand his hopes and dreams, and his fears and frustrations. Ty can come across as a little too goody-goody at times, and yet he is also a rule breaker as he bravely takes risks and ignores the boundaries set by his parents as he seeks to explore his fascinating world. With so few teenagers to socialise with who can blame him for wanting a little excitement?

Excitement suddenly comes along by the truckload when he meets Gemma, a Topsider who has run away from her boarding house and is searching the subsea area for her long lost brother. From the moment the two meet Ty's life seems to go into overdrive as he races from one near-death experience straight into another, facing deadly creatures and bloodthirsty outlaws, whilst also trying to hide a dark secret about himself and his sister. Rumours abound amongst Topiders that children born beneath the waves have special mutant powers resulting from the 'unnatural environment' in which they live. Ty, his sister and his friend Hewitt have spent their lives hiding their powers from everyone, including their parents, as they worry that their parents will worry about any potential long-term damage and move the families back to dry land. Gemma has her suspicions right from the start, although some of this is prompted by Ty's physical appearance - his skin shimmers, a product of eating bioluminescent fish.

I think boys will love this book. The action is non-stop throughout - there is certainly no chance to get bored. The subsea world is truly fascinating, and although the concept of people dwelling beneath the waves has been around for centuries, in Dark Life it is explored in a fresh and original way. Most of all I think boys will love the villains of the story - the ruthless Shade and his Seablite Gang, the most feared outlaws beneath the waves. These guys are nasty, seemingly happy to kill anyone if it suits their cause.

Unlike many books being released these days this book doesn't end on a cliffhanger, and all the loose ends and various little mysteries created by the author are brought to a satisfying conclusion. I would be very disappointed however if this isn't the first in a series as I very much want to see what happens next in the lives of Ty and Gemma in their underwater world. Thanks go to the generous people at Simon and Schuster who sent me a copy of Dark Life to review. 

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

*** Interview with Alan Gibbons (author of the Hell's Underground series)

Regular visitors to the Book Zone will know that I am a huge fan of the Hell's Underground series by Alan Gibbons. If you have not yet read my reviews of these books you can find them here and here - in my opinion it is the best YA horror series around at the moment. I recently approached Nina Douglas at Orion Books to see if Alan would be interested in taking part in an interview for this blog and he very kindly consented. Thank you Alan for taking the time to answer my questions.

How would you describe the Hell’s Underground series to a potential reader?

Hell’s Underground is a time travel adventure into the dark side of London’s past- its fantastical demon horrors and its true life human ones.

What inspired you to write the series?

I have always loved horror stories, especially the great British Gothic tradition. The immediate trigger was a documentary on the enduring fascination with the Jack the Ripper story.

With Paul Rector having travelled back through three different time periods so far how do you go about carrying out what must be an enormous amount of research?

To be honest the research usually comes first. I have always loved history so all I have to do is freshen up a little bit.

Of the time periods Paul Rector has visited so far which is your favourite?

It has got to be the misty backstreets of late Victorian London.

London features very heavily in the series. What is the appeal of this city and its history to you?

It is the concentration of the City and the East End. Much of the history I describe is accessible to the modern reader by just walking a couple of square miles.

Which of Paul’s Rector ancestors is your favourite?

I think it was Harry Rector, the British traitor-fascist. A thoroughly bad egg!

Why do you think young people find the horror genre so appealing?

It is a way of challenging our deepest, most primal fears. Everybody loves a good monster.

There are some pretty brutal scenes in the Hell’s Underground books. How do you gauge the right level of violence in your writing?

This is really hard. The first thing is that I want to scare my readers not make them uncomfortable. I find violence in fiction repugnant when it doesn’t have consequences. With the special exception of Israel Lazarus, when my characters die they stay dead. I also try to set it in a framework where the reader would find it hard to empathise with the bad guys. I depict violence to abhor it.

Are you a fan of horror literature? Do you have any favourites?

Definitely. I love Stephen King. In many of his novels women and children overcome brutal male power. I love Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson, which is incredibly modern in its psychological power. Finally there is Shirley L Jackson’s magnificent The Haunting of Hill House.

What books/authors did you read when you were younger?

My childhood favourites were Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis, Bows Against the Barons by Geoffrey Trease, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner and the Bobbsey Twins series.

What made you start writing for children and young adults? Do you read many books for this age group yourself?

I was a teacher and it just seemed to fit. I am a huge fan of other children’s authors such as Malorie Blackman, Robert Swindells, Robert Westall, Michael Rosen, Roald Dahl, Robert Cormier, Marcus Sedgwick, Bali Rai, Beverley Naidoo, Jamilia Gavin and oh so many more.

Do you have any ideas as to how we can get boys reading for enjoyment?

I think we just have to show them the fantastic range of books for boys. Few lads can resist Robert Muchamore, Darren Shan, Tom Palmer, Charlie Higson and Anthony Horowitz.

I know that Witch Breed has only just been released but can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from the next book in the series? What time period will it be set in?

It is set in Roman Britain and the reader will discover where King Lud comes from.

Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?

There will be a year’s wait for the next book. I wanted to do a book about the war on terror. It is topical so I am completing An Act of Love before I tie up all the loose ends in the Hell’s Underground series. Sorry?

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Review: The Prometheus Project by Douglas E. Richards


Since I started writing this blog I have received quite a few emails from authors asking me if I would like a copy of their book(s) to review on my blog. Due to the pressures on my time because of work I often have to decline, but when I received an email from author Douglas E. Richards six weeks ago I was intrigued. The main reason for this was that Doug is based in the USA and his books have not yet been picked up by a UK publisher, and I hadn't realsied until this moment that my blog was gaining more and more readers from across the Atlantic (I now have my little globe widget below which shows a really cool number of visitors from the US). A quick google showed me that Doug's books were receiving some rave reviews Stateside so I wrote back and within a week the three books in The Prometheus Project series were in my hands.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, traditional 'humans meet aliens' science fiction stories for children are in very short supply in the UK these days. As evidence of this just look no further than The Reading Agency's 2010 Summer Reading Challenge. This year the theme for the challenge is entitled Space Hop, and yet when I look down the list of books for older readers that they have recommended to libraries there are many titles that I would suggest aren't even science fiction, let alone have a connection with the space theme. If The Prometheus Project books were more widely available in the UK then they would certainly be on my list of Top Five Space Hop books. Just take a look at these synopses:

Book 1: Trapped

Ryan and Regan Resnick have just moved to the world's most boring place. But when they discover their parents are part of an ultra-secret project called Prometheus they are plunged into a nonstop adventure: one that will be the ultimate test of their wit, courage, and determination. Soon they are under attack and facing hostile alien worlds, alien technology, and unimaginable dangers at every turn. Now, with their mother facing certain death, they must race to solve a seemingly impossible mystery to have any hope of saving her. But if they save their mom, they will have no way to save themselves. . .

Book 2: Captured

Ryan and Regan Resnick are the youngest members of a top- secret team exploring the greatest discovery ever made: a vast alien city buried deep underground - as potentially deadly as it is astonishing. When the city is captured by highly trained soldiers led by a ruthless alien, the adult members of the team are taken hostage. Now, Ryan and Regan are the team's only hope of survival. With the future of the world at stake, the Resnick Kids must do the impossible: outwit the brilliant alien, free the prisoners, and thwart an unstoppable invasion. But not everything is as it seems. And time is quickly running out. . .

Book 3: Stranded

When Ryan and Regan Resnick journey through a portal to a primitive alien planet, what begins as an ordinary day will quickly become a nonstop fight for their lives. Soon they are stranded on the distant planet, surrounded by vicious predators, and in the path of a raging river of lava. But surviving on the deadly planet might be the easy part. Because if they can get back to Earth, they will have to face a ruthless adversary who controls a mysterious alien device. A device that is the most powerful, dangerous, and unstoppable weapon the world has ever known . . .

I loved these books and I think they are perfect for boys, whether they are reluctant readers or not. The author used to work in the field of biotechnology and his obvious passion for science shows throughout his work. Yes, these books are educational as well as really great fun to read. From my years in the teaching profession I could name many boys who we would label as reluctant readers of fiction, yet they love their science lessons and when they occasionally venture into the library are more likely to pick up a non-fiction book or something like the Guinness Book of Records. They often tell me that they don't see the point in reading 'make believe stuff', and I am certainly not going to criticise as I am just glad they are reading something. We need more books like the three in The Prometheus Project series; books that can help bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction by bringing elements of science into stories. As an adult reader these educational parts stand out and some may feel they are over-educational in places, but I am not sure boys of 9-13 will notice this. I certainly found them interesting and learned quite a lot myself.

The stories focus on the adventures of brother and sister Ryan and Regan Resnick. Due to work their parents have recently (and very suddenly) relocated the family from a big city to a small town in the middle of nowhere and the two siblings are very resentful of this. However, as a result of an overheard conversation they discover that there may be more to their parents' work than they had realised and very soon they are breaking into the grounds of their parents work place. More through luck than judgement they manage to get through the complicated and extensive security measures and discover that underground beneath the company buildings scientists are working on mankind's greatest discovery - a huge alien city. Readers will have to suspend disbelief in places as the plot at this stage relies very much on coincidence rather than any mystery solving abilities the children possess, but younger readers will not find this an issue as their interest will be held by the fast pace of the narrative, aided by short chapters, each ending with a cliffhanger moment. Thus begin the adventures of the Resnick children as they set about discovering what the alien city has to offer.    

The first book in the series is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three. Much of what happens is there to set the scene for the later books in the series, both of which have far more action and would definitely fit into the category of science fiction thrillers. Trapped definitely has its fair share of tense moments and nail-biting peril but in my opinion Captured and Stranded are vastly superior in these areas. I also feel that the quality of the author's writing develops and matures throughout the three books as he becomes more practised at plotting, writing dialogue and developing his characters. The opening chapters of both sequels include a short review of what has happened previously, and could be read as stand-alone books, but I would strongly recommend starting with book one in order to get the most out of them.

There is something distinctly old school about the characters of The Prometheus Project; they are Blyton-esqe in places but with a 21st century feel to them. Sometimes as a reviewer I have been critical of an author's ability to develop realistic characters and situations, sometimes forgetting that many reluctant readers just want an exciting story that will keep them wanting to turn the pages over. Dialogue and characterisation are not Mr Richards' strong points, but I am happy to overlook that in this case as he has delivered a trio of books that could help get young readers excited about science fiction. The plots are fast paced, with enough twists to keep readers guessing, and the alien worlds and technology are well created and utilised. I have many adult friends who love science fiction, and this is exactly the sort of series that they would have loved to be reading when they were kids, before graduating onto Heinlein and Asimov.

As I said ealier, these books are not yet published in the UK. However, if you look hard enough you can get copies of Amazon and they are worth the effort. Of course, being US publications they are written in American english and therefore some of the spellings will be different and the kids refer to their 'Mom' rather than their mum. I hope Mr Richards is not going to stop on three books and that we will see more from the Resnick siblings in the future. 

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

*** WIN a set of Hell's Underground books by Alan Gibbons


Readers of this blog will already know that I am a huge fan of the Hell's Underground series by Alan Gibbons. Now, thanks to the generosity of Orion Books, you have the chance to win a set of the series so far. Yes... that's four books in total. And that's not all - I have two sets to give away.

In order to win all you have to do is fill in the form below with the answers to three simple questions and your details (hint: some of the answers can be found in my review of Witch Breed).

The first two names drawn at random after the closing date will win a set of four books. Deadline for your entry is 8pm Sunday 18th July. This contest is open to UK entrants only.


Terms and conditions

Contest open to UK entrants only.
I will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.
I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.


Wednesday, 7 July 2010

News: TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow

Back in February I reviewed TimeRiders, the first book in the new series from author Alex Scarrow. Ever since I have been patiently waiting for the next book in the series, now only a month away from publication. This book is entitled TimeRiders: Day of the Predator and you can find out more about it and read an extract at the official TimeRiders website

Over the last few months my anticipation for this book has been heightened by the occasional TimeRiders e-newsletters I have received. Today's email brought great news for me and every other fan of the first book - Puffin have now signed up Alex Scarrow to write a grand total of NINE books in the TimeRiders series. Brilliant! A quick visit to the website shows that this news was released a couple of weeks ago but I thought I would share it with you all anyway, just in case you hadn't heard yet. Whatsmore, Alex Scarrow has also just finished writing book three in the series, currently titled The Doomsday Code. Good times!   

And if that wasn't enough - there is also this great new trailer for the new book:

*** Dark Goddess Contest Result

The lucky winner of a copy of Dark Goddess by David Sarwat Chadda is:

Abbie Poole

Well done and thank you to everyone who entered (there were almost 200 of you). I will now endeavour to contact the winner through by email. Please reply within 48 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to Mr Chadda for providing this fabulous prize.

(Note: all names were drawn randomly using a nifty little freeware programme called The Hat)

Review: The Dream Thief (Horatio Lyle Mystery) by Catherine Webb


London 1865: Horatio Lyle receives a nasty surprise late at night. A young girl on his doorstep, passed out, dying - apparently poisoned - and she's not the first. Something very, very bad is happening to the children in the East End.


Which means there's a mystery to be solved, sending Lyle, Thomas, Tate and - naturally - Tess out into the wilds of east London. What they find is terrifying: Tess's old crowd of artful dodgers and ace pickpockets are now wandering the streets like zombies, drooling in the workhouses or plain mad in the asylums. And the only clue is a name, half whispered in fear: Old Greybags.

Are you a fan of Doctor Who? Do you like mystery stories? Love a healthy dollop of the supernatural? If so then the Horatio Lyle series may be just the thing for you. This is the fourth book featuring Horatio Lyle and his merry band of helpers, and every book in the series so far is well worth your attention.

I first discovered this series shortly after the release of the first book, The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that, especially as it is set in Victorian times and part of the blurb on Amazon read '....when Her Majesty's Government calls, Horatio swaps his microscope for a magnifying glass, fills his pockets with things that explode and sallies forth to unravel a mystery of a singularly extraordinary nature. Thrown together with a reformed (i.e. 'caught') pickpocket called Tess, and a rebellious (within reason) young gentleman called Thomas, Lyle and his faithful hound, Tate, find themselves pursuing an ancient Chinese plate, a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of polite society and a dangerous enemy who may not even be human'.

My feelings on finishing this book were a little mixed - whilst I had enjoyed most of the plot, the fantastically written characters and the beautiful quality of the prose, I was a little unsure about the supernatural element as the synopsis hadn't really made this clear. However, there were more than enough plus points for me to pick up the sequel when it was released, with another catchy title - The Obsidian Dagger: Being The Further Extraordinary Adventures of Horatio Lyle. This book upped the creepy factor, expanded on the supernatural element, and developed the relationship between the main characters perfectly - and this time the supernatural element was not only expected, I was looking forward to it.

Now we are on book four (book three, by the way, is probably my favourite of the series so far, but that is probably the testosterone speaking as it features a massive underground super-machine, and being set in Victorian times it is all steam, cogs, pistons and so on). In case you have not yet heard about this series then first off we have Horatio Lyle - a Victorian scientist/inventor/detective/self-styled protector of all that is good in his beloved city. In the first book the sleuthing was carried out somewhat reluctantly, at the request of HM Government, but as the books have progressed Horatio has witnessed the evil that man will stoop to (especially those in power) more and more and now the investigating becomes almost second nature, although perhaps this time it is mainly because it is children who are being harmed. I mentioned these books as possibly appealing to fans of Doctor Who, and that is perhaps because Horatio Lyle's personality reminds me very much of the David Tennant and Matt Smith incarnations of this iconic character. Like Doctor Who, Horatio Lyle has a very strong sentimental side to his personality - he hates to see people hurt, whether it be his fellow humans, all the mysterious Tseiqin (don's ask me to explain - far too much risk of spoilers). Even when faced with extreme, life threatening danger at the hands of the most evil of foes, he would still rather incapacitate this foe rather then kill them. He is also somewhat eccentric - his passion for science and invention is what really makes him feel alive. Yes... the more I think about it, the more I can see him being played by Matt Smith, not that that would ever happen - far too similar to his current role.

Like Doctor Who, Lyle also has a couple of 'assistants' in his adventures - Cockney orphan Teresa 'Tess' Hatch and uper-class son of a Lord, Thomas Edward Elwick. Without these two characters this series of books would be sorely lacking in many areas. Unusually for a book aimed at young people, the main character Horatio Lyle is an adult but calling Tess and Thomas secondary characters almost feels like I am doing them a disservice. It is these two that bring life and humour to the story, through their banter with each other and with Lyle. In fact, the dialogue in these books is amongst the best you will find in a YA novel by any author. They also give Horatio's character far more depth than we would have seen in their absence, and in this book we find him questioning his role in their lives (and Tess's in particular) even more. Is he now a father figure for Tess? Should he be risking her life so readily? Does he actually have a choice when it comes to involving the two children in his adventures, or will they just involve themselves against his wishes?

This book is probably the creepiest of the series so far. There is no master criminal type trying to take over London or seeking destroy a whole race of people. Instead we have Old Greybags, and what he is doing to children is despicable. There can be little worse than putting children into a permanently comatose state so he can steal their dreams. And yet, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him at times. More I cannot say without spoiling the plot for you.

As ever the quality of Catherine Webb's writing is exquisite. This is, after all, the lady who writes adult fantasy novels under the name Kate Griffin, and brought us the stunningly written A Madness of Angels and The Midnight Mayor. She certainly doesn't dumb down her writing for this younger audience, and I would guess that this book is most suitable for the 13+ age group, or very confident readers who are a little younger than this. This is not just because of the complexity of vocabulary, but also the style of writing in general. When the author is setting a scene, or describing the London she so obviously loves with a passion, she often switches to the present tense, a device that many young readers may find a little unusual, and maybe even confusing. These really are books for teens who love reading, those who will re-read a paragraph more slowly if they haven't quite followed it the first time and then savour the quality of the descriptions of people, places and events.

Oh yes.... and the action scenes are also as good as pretty much anything else out there, and there are lots of them. Enough said!

At a push, this book could be read as a stand-alone, but you would be ruining your enjoyment of the other three books. I would therefore recommend you read them in order and enjoy the way the characters develop as each adventure unfolds. All four books are available in stores, with The Dream Thief having just been released on 1st July. My thanks go to Atom Books for sending me a copy.          

Monday, 5 July 2010

Review: Witch Breed (Hell's Underground 4) by Alan Gibbons


When Paul arrives in 17th century London, he expects to be thrown into a life or death struggle for the three gates that imprison the ancient King Lud. But the battle doesn't come. Instead, Paul roams alone, learning how to survive in a city where all the talk is of the savage civil war that rages beyond its ramparts. Somewhere underground, Lud is waiting in his crypt, preparing to rise again. War, fear and want are his tools. But Paul too has his own weapons and is gaining strength and losing inhibitions about using it. Meanwhile, beyond the city, innocent women are being killed for it is so easy to claim that they are witches. One woman - whether innocent or guilty - possesses the only power available that can help Paul in his quest.

Back in April, as part of my horror themed month, I reviewed the whole series (so far) of Alan Gibbons' Hell's Underground books. At the time I was somewhat effusive with my praise for the series. Now Witch Breed, the fourth book in the series, has been published and I feel very confident in proclaiming that in my opinion this is the best YA horror series around today. Yes, Darren Shan is the name that will spring to the minds of most young people when asked to name a writer of YA horror, but his Demonata stories can appear amateurish in comparison with the output of Alan Gibbons. And I am not the only person who feels this way about these books - there are two wonderful comments attached to the review that I wrote in April, one from an adult horror fiction fan and another from a 15 year old girl, and both of them are as enthusiastic about these books as I am (and rather more eloquent in their enthusiasm too).

Witch Breed is different from the previous three books. In these we saw Paul Rector very much in the middle of things from the moment he arrives in each new time period, and following the dramatic climax of Renegade you would be forgiven for expecting something pretty much the same from this book. However, there are moments throughout Witch Breed where you may find yourself wondering exactly who the main character is. Is it Paul? Or is it Grace Fletcher, soon to be trialled for witchcraft? Or perhaps it is Netty, Paul's 21st Century girlfriend who has been brought back in time by the evil Nathanael Rector as bait to lure and destroy Paul? The reason for this doubt is that for a large part of the book the story's viewpoint jumps around between characters, each having an important story requiring our attentio, and yet at no point does this become confusing - Mr Gibbons accomplishes it with seemingly effortless ease, and in doing so ratchets up the tension to even greater highs.

For a horror writer this is such a great period in British history to focus on. It is 1645, slap bang in the middle of the English Civil War, but more importantly it is the time when Matthew Hopkins, the so-called Witchfinder General, was travelling around Eastern England with his assistant John Stearne persecuting scores of innocent women and having them executed as witches. Sometimes when requiring a diabolically evil villain an author need look no further than the history books and Mr Gibbons' use of Hopkins and Stearne in the plot of Witch Breed is perfect. 

Coming off the back of the failure he experienced in Renegade, we begin to see another side of Paul's character in Witch Breed. Whereas in previous books we saw him slowly gain in confidence, especially as he realised that he could acquire the powers of the demons he killed, we now see him have many moments of self-doubt and confusion. Can a boy really defeat the ancient evil of King Lud, given the demonic resources this creature has under his control? Is he just a pawn of Cormac and the Priests of Beltane? And then when Netty suddenly appears in the 17th Century all previous plans are out of the window as Paul's priorites shift, with potentially disastrous consequences. In the other books Paul has often had to rely on the assistance of others in order to reach his goals, but this help becomes even more essential in Witch Breed as we discover that despite everything he has been through, and the powers he has developed, Paul is still at heart a normal teenager, and still has many of the flaws, worries and doubts that any young person would have.

Of course, despite the nastiness of Hopkins and Stearne, there is still a Rector ancestor for Paul to contend with, and this time it is Nathanael. This Rector, though, is not given quite the page count that family members in the previous books have enjoyed, but we are still left in no doubt as to the shear evil and ruthlessness of this man. After the entourage of evil that surrounded Samuel Rector in the previous books I didn't think Alan Gibbons would be able to follow it up with a similarly memorable band of demonic followers for Nathanael. Oh me of little faith! Yet again, the author has created a terrifying bunch of monsters for Paul to pit his wits against, and these demon riders come with names such as Lamedog, Ratshade, Claypin, and my absolute favourite, Suckvenom.

If you love horror and haven't yet discovered this series then you must make it a priority - you will not be disappointed. If the trials of Paul Rector are already known to you then this fourth book in the series was published by Orion on 1st July so what are you waiting for? I am very thankful to the ever-generous Nina Douglas at Orion for sending me a copy, but as ever with this series I am left waiting greedily for the next in the series, whenever that may be. 

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Review: Street Heroes by Joe Layburn


Georgie's dad, George Smith is a highly controversial politician whose message is to get rid of non-white people from London's East End. Everyone assumes Georgie shares his father's views, even his father. But while he loves his dad, he's really not sure what he thinks. And then he begins to hear a voice in his head, the voice of a Muslim girl called Fatima ... Meanwhile Fatima is also contacting other children in difficult situations. When an attempt is made to kill George Smith he responds by planning a repeat of the historical Battle of Cable Street when Fascists demonstrating against Jewish immigrants confronted local people. How can the mysterious Fatima and her gang stop Smith, and which side will Georgie be on?

If you believe the media then young people today are either hoodie-wearing thugs who hang around on street corners causing mischief and accumulating ASBOs, or they are computer game obsessives who rarely interact with others except at school or via MSN. If you believe the media then young people today have little interest in current affairs or politics. However, as any primary or secondary school teacher and they will tell you that children who fit these labels are very much in the minority and instead, they are very much concerned about the issues affecting modern Britain. Issues such as knife crime, racism and religious fundamentalism are very much on their minds as they try to make sense of their world and that is why books like Joe Layburn's Street Heroes are so important.

The publishers bill this book as "a Heroes for children". I'm not sure this is an accurate comparison as there is no team of characters with super-powers tasked with saving the world. Instead we have the mysterious Fatima, a young muslim girl who is able to link telepathically with any number of other children, and it is a handful of these children who narrate the story for us. The first chapter introduces us to Georgie, son of George Smith, the leader of the British Fascists. Georgie is still trying to find his own identity in the world, but his is not an easy lot, with a fiercely nationalist father as his primary male influence, and the taunts he receives from his peers at school as a result of this. Of course, the last thing he expects is to hear the voice of a young muslim girl in his head. 

Next up we meet Omar, a young Muslim boy who just happens to be Fatima's brother. Fatima's telepathic communication is nothing new to Omar as she has always been able to get inside his head. However, his principle worry is his brother Sadiq, an angry young teenager who Omah feels is on the verge of Fundamentalism and when he finds a scrapbook about George Smith and his family under Sadiq's mattress Omah's concerns multiply exponentially.

Finally we are introduced to Melissa, and ten-year old girl with behavioural issues. She is also signiifcantly larger than most of the other chidlren in her class at school, and as a result of this combination she has no friends and delights in being nasty to others. Along come the voice of Fatima, and we very soon see a marked change in Melissa's self-estemm and her attitude towards the people around her.

In a mere 132 pages Joe Layburn delivers a group of characters that children of 9+ will find find easy to associate with. He also manages to deliver a very important message about racial and religious tolerance without coming across as 'preachy'. One of the tools he uses to achieve this is by bringing factuak anecdote into the plot - in this case the very real Battle of Cable Street, when Oswald Mosley attempted to lead his Blackshirts through this predominantly Jewish area back in 1936. The shameful event in the history of Britain is used well to highlight the dangers of fascism both then and today, and how normal people can successfully group together to fight these exremist attitiudes.

This is definitely a book for younger readers, and I feel that teenagers will find it below them despite its important message. The 9+ age group will find some of the vocabulary challenging, but this is a good thing as this is how young people develop their own confidence in the use of language. The story is certainly set at the right level for children of this age. Street Heroes is published by Frances Lincoln, who kindly sent me a copy of this book, and is available to buy right now.

Friday, 2 July 2010

** Guest Post: Sarwat Chadda (Author of Dark Goddess)

On Sunday I posted a review of the brilliant Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda. Dark Goddess was officially published yesterday and Sarwat is currently on a blog tour in celebration of this. I was very flattered when Sarwat approached me asking if he could visit The Book Zone on this tour, and I think his choice of topic for this blog post is perfect.

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I’ve written a book that the Guardian called “mythic, funny, violent and fast-moving”. It’s part of an action series about a teen who’s been trained as a Knight Templar. It’s about facing down devils, vampires, ghouls with swords and axes and it’s about as bloody as it can get.

The protagonist’s father is ruthless, single-minded and the Templar Master. He’s brought up his child to be his replacement. The child, if anything, is harder, tougher, more deadly that he could dream of being. It’s all in the classic ‘child inherits the mantle of the father’ tradition. You’ve had it in Star Wars. You’ve got it in Harry Potter. Percy Jackson. Alex Rider. You’ve got it in Conan the Barbarian.

It’s perhaps the biggest tradition in boys’ action series.

That’s what I’ve got for you. Interested?

Except...

Except my hero’s a heroine.

What? You’ve stopped reading?

That’s what they say. Boys won’t read girl leads. No matter what.

So, you guys who’ve read Phillip Pullman, please put your copies in the bin. The same with those of you who’ve read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. And Skulduggery Pleasant (book has his name on the front but the lead’s Stephanie, sorry). The list goes on and on. No-one with X and Y chromosomes should be watching Buffy. Heaven forbid they should play Tomb Raider!

I know, I know. You don’t want to read about girls whining in their bedrooms because their boyfriend doesn’t call and why can’t they be more skinny and beautiful and all that. Neither do I. I want to read stories where the lead goes out and makes a difference. A story where the hero’s pushed beyond their limits and somehow, through guts, blood and tears they beat the odds. That’s what I read and that’s what I write.

Who came up with this crap anyway? Some librarian in the 1930’s who had one shelf of Jane Austen and one shelf of Tarzan and noticed the boys went to the Tarzan shelf? Well, who wouldn’t? Tarzan is insane! The books are brutal, primitive and beautiful. What happens in Pride and Prejudice? They sit around moaning for 400 pages and get married and live happily ever after. Not a single elephant stampede anywhere!

I know boys read girl heroes. My biggest events are at boys’ schools. Blimey, my biggest sales are at boys’ schools. They can’t all be buying them for their mother.

What do you want in a book? I know what I want. Action. High stakes. Intense drama. Violence and the ‘all or nothing’ victory. Bad guys. Conflicted anti-heroes (no white-hats please). You might be surprised a lot of them are of the female persuasion. Isn’t it a shame to miss out?

Here’s five of the best that fulfil the above criteria and I guarantee you adventure that’ll boil your blood and freeze your heart.

1. Lyra out of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy.

2. Hester from Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines saga.

3. Josie, knife-thrower extra-ordinaire from John Mayhew’s Mortlock.

4. Scout from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Hey, I needed to put one classic in the list, didn’t I?

5. Katniss in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Get them. Read them. Lend them to your mother. You’ll thank me later.

~~~

A big thank you to Sarwat for taking the time to write that article for us. If you want to find out more about the man and his books please do visit his website and his blog and don't forget to enter my contest to win a signed copy of Dark Goddess.