Friday, 31 December 2010

Reflections of 2010

2010 has been a funny old year. There have been many highs but also a number of lows. On a personal front it was a huge relief in March to be told that my temporary Assistant Headteacher post was to be made permanent. This helped lift my spirits from the misery that had set in due to me having to pull out of making my debut run in the London Marathon due to shin splints. However, I have deferred so, legs permitting, I hope to be running it in 2011.

On the blog front 2010 was a truly amazing year. I started writing the blog towards the end of October 2009, never really believing that I would have the staying power to continue for more than a couple of months. However, it seems to have gone from strength to strength, thanks to the nice comments and emails I receive about it from readers, fellow bloggers, publishers and authors, and it has now become a big part of my life. There have been so many high points this year that I am sure I will forget some, but in no particular order:

  • Being invited to several book launches;
  • Meeting authors whose work I have enjoyed immensely at said book launches - in particular Sam Enthoven, Jon Mayhew and Bill Hussey;
  • Meeting Liz de Jager and her husband Mark - Liz has been a huge source of encouragement as I have found my blogging feet;
  • The Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival - having a meal afterwards and discussing all things bookish and horror with the likes of Sam Enthoven, Sarwat Chadda and Alexander Gordon Smith, as well as Twitter friends Liz and Lara;
  • Seeing Darren Shan and Rick Riordan in Windsor and Winchester respectively;
  • Being quoted on the back cover of Hattori Hachi: Stalking The Enemy by Jane Prowse.
  • And the following quote about The Book Zone from TimeRiders author Alex Scarrow: "[The Book Zone] is quite possibly the best blog for young male readers out there!".
In 2011 I would like to be able to find the time to read a bit more, and also the time to review more of the books that I do read. I also have a couple of ideas of new things I want to bring to The Book Zone, including semi-regular posts about the books I enjoyed as I was a child/teenager and have contributed to making me the reader that I am today. If you have any ideas of what you would like to see on The Book Zone in 2011 please do leave a comment and I will see what I can do.

Finally I feel I must express my thanks to everyone who has helped keep The Book Zone running this year: my long-suffering wife; the publishers who have been patient with me and have very generously kept me supplied with books to review; the authors who have always been so generous with their time when answering my interview questions; and very importantly, everyone who has read this blog over the past twelve months and especially the faithful few who follow it regularly or have to put up with my occasional mutterings on Twitter. I hope you all have a fantastic 2011!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Book Zone Book of the Year 2010

Back in April I started a Book of the Month feature on The Book Zone whereby at the end of each month I would name a book released in that month that I had enjoyed over all the others. I managed to stick to this, without ever cheating and naming more than one book, the idea being that it would make choosing a book of the year much easier. However, as I started doing this in April for some reason I never went back and named my top books for January to March, and so here, some of them for the first time, are all of my top books of 2010:


January - When I Was Joe by Keren David




February - Zero Moment by M.G. Harris




March - Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide by William Hussey




April - Mortlock by Jon Mayhew




May - Wintercraft by Jenna Burtenshaw




June - Hattori Hachi: Stalking The Enemy by Jane Prowse




July - Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda



August - Raggy Maggie by Barry Hutchison




September - Trash by Andy Mulligan




October - The Dark by David Gatward




November - The Mourning Emporium by Michell Lovric




And the Book Zone Book of the Month for December is Mythical 9th Division: Terror of the Deep by Alex Milway. I love his two yeti books so much and I have given copies to a number of appropriately aged boys as Christmas presents this year. Early reports suggest that they are going down a storm with the 7/8 year olds. Mission accomplished yetis!




As I mentioned at the start of this post, the original idea behind choosing a monthly favourite book was to make my decision about my Book of the Year a little easier. Looking back at these great titles (and some of the others I have read throughout the year and now a few months later seem worthy of the title - The Double-Edged Sword by Sarah Silverwood and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld certainly now feel like they should have been in there) I wonder whether I have just made life even more difficult as choosing from those twelve feels like a mighty task. However, I promised myself back in April that I would name a Book of the Year and it is.........................


Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda.


I really, really love Sarwat's writing: in Billi SanGreal he has created a character that should she ever appear on the big screen could, in my opinion, become a truly worthy successor to Buffy's crown as Queen of the Monster Fighters. I am fascinated by the amount of detail Sarwat puts into his stories, and the time he spends on researching his material is very evident. But he doesn't just take old folk tales and rehash them, he puts his own mark on them completely (I believe I called it the Chadda Twist back June when I reviewed the book). When can we expect to see the big screen version? Or action figures? Or at the very least a graphic novel of the series? Please?!

I have had the pleasure of meeting Sarwat a couple of times and I am sure there are few authors of Young Adult books out there who are as tireless as he is at promoting the reading of good horror writing. 2010 saw the creation of The Chainsaw Gang (masterminded by Mr Chadda), bringing together some of the best talent in YA horror in the UK, and I am sure there is much more to come in 2011. Perhaps world domination?! I do not know whether Sarwat has plans to release a third book in the series in 2011 but if he does I will be elbowing my way to the front of the queue for a copy.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

My Favourite Book Covers of 2010

I have mentioned before on The Book Zone that I teach Design Technology, and most of my teaching timetable focuses on teaching Graphic Products at GCSE and A-Level. In fact some of my A Level students are currently designing book covers and promotional materials for several unpublished writers that I have made contact with through Twitter, and later in the year I hope to be able to reveal to you the fruits of their labours. It worries me that as ebooks become more and more popular the need for a good book cover to grab the attention of the reader will begin to wane, which I think will be a terrible shame. A good book cover should make a potential reader WANT to read the book before they have even read the blurb, but it should not be misleading and should be a good reflection of the book's content.


To create a Top Ten list would have been quite easy for me, but instead I wanted to highlight the book covers that are, in my opinion at least, the best of the best, and so I wanted to limit myself to a very difficult Top Five. However, this proved to be so difficult that I cheated and so here are my Top Six book covers of 2010:


And so, kicking us off at Number 6 we have Crawlers by Sam Enthoven




Credit for this gloriously creepy cover goes to Rhys Willson, the in-house designer at RHCB. Supposedly he used a slightly mashed squid that he bought from the fish-market to create his vision of what a Crawler would look like.


At Number 5: Raggy Maggie by Barry Hutchison




This is my favourite cover of the Invisible Fiends series so far (including the soon to be released The Crowmaster), although I have seen a close-up of the fourth book in the series, Doc Mortis, and illustrator Jonny Duddle has come pretty close to beating his Raggy Maggie cover. I am still hoping and praying that one day HarperCollins will commission a set of action figures based on the series - if they do I will be first in the queue for a Raggy Maggie and Caddie toy (maybe I will try to make my own in 2011).


At Number 4: Trash by Andy Mulligan




You really need to see the cover of this book in real life to truly appreciate the beauty of Richard Collingbridge's artwork. However, if you do not have a copy to hand then click the above image to see it in super-large size. Trash is a heartwarming story about a group of children who have grown up living on one of the huge trash heaps such as are found in cities like Rio de Janeiro and the cover perfectly captures the tone of the story.


Number 3: Lockdown: Escape From Furnace by Alexander Gordon Smith (US version)




Lockdown, the first book in the Furnace series by Alexander Gordon Smith, has been out for some time in the UK. However, 2010 saw its debut in the US, with a cover that is, in my opinion, far superior to the UK covers, and also far more indicative of the menacing theme of the story. Credit for this awesome design goes to Christian Fuenfhausen. Christian is the designer for all of the covers of the US editions, my complete favourite being the cover he did for Death Sentence which you can see here, although I understand that this has now been changed to a different design.


Number 2: Mortlock by Jon Mayhew




The cover illustration by Christian Lorenz Scheurer for Jon Mayhew's victorian horror masterpiece is a perfect representation of the dark horror themes within the story. If you are a teen horror fan I would imagine you would find it very difficult not to pick this book up off a shelf based on the cover alone. 


And at Number 1: Blood Ninja by Nick Lake




I first saw this cover in the Corvus Books online catalogue and I fell in love with it immediately. Months later I still love the striking red on black image that Orlando based designer Hydro74 (aka Joshua M Smith) has created for the book, which is set in 16th Century Japan. Everything about this book cover is right - the embossed image, the colours, the typefaces used, all complemented by the black edged pages to create the perfect package for a great vampire/ninja story. Sometimes I have to box books up to create room for new favourites - this is one that will never be hidden away and will always sit on my bookshelf. 

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Review: Hero.com and Villain.net Series by Andy Briggs

Hero.com: Rise of the Heroes

Surfing the net during a lightning storm has amazing consequences for a group of teenage friends. Superhero powers are theirs at the click of a mouse! Trouble is, they don't know what the powers will be until they try them out... But super powers carry super responsibilities. When a weather-altering, world-conquering supervillain kidnaps their mum, they have to decide: save her... or save the world!

Villain.net: Council of Evil

School bully Jake Hunter receives a mysterious email inviting him to join a scheme for world domination. With unlimited power and wealth at his fingertips, how can he resist? But to get it he has to become an arch-criminal, entangled in a plan that threatens the planet. And that could just be a step too far...

With so many new books coming out each month I often find it difficult to find the time to read older books that for one reason or another have slipped me by. One such series is the Hero.com/Villain.net series by Andy Briggs, even though I had seen them in shops and bought them for the school library. Looking back I can't explain this, as the premise itself should have been enough to grab my undivided attention. If you also have not yet discovered these then you are in for a treat. The basic concept is that young people discover a way to download various superpowers through the internet, the websites in question being hero.com and villain.net, and as the names imply one is geared towards doing good and the other towards acts of evil and world domination. An original idea on its own, but there is a much more interesting facet to these stories in that the Hero.com books follow the stories of the good characters, and the Villain.net books follow the story of a bully who has gained his powers through the 'other' website. And elements of their stories intertwine.

Looking at what I have written I have to admit that my description just does not do these books and their concept justice. These stories have to be read to be believed and that is exactly what you should do. I share the opinion of many writers that it is the villains that they get the most fun out of creating, and so I started with the first book in the Villain.net series - Council of Evil. there was so much in this book that will appeal to 10+ boy readers - explosive action scenes, superpowers, a fast-paced plot and many moments of dark humour. 

As soon as I had finished it I moved straight on to its herioc companion piece - Hero.com: Rise of the Heroes, and it was only then that I was able to truly appreciate the cleverness behind Andy Briggs's storytelling. As I have mentioned already, the two stories intertwine, but at no point had my reading of the first book revealed any of the eventual plot developments in the second book. As I read Rise of the Heroes small pieces of the puzzle fell into place, and young readers will enjoy spotting where the two plots cross over. For example, in one book we have a brief introduction to a particular character but as he is good his back story would not be an appropriate addition to the story; in the companion book we find out more about him, at a time and place when it fits the story perfectly.

There are four books in each series and to get the most out of the books each 'pair' really should be read one straight after the other. I am yet to read these others in the series but I hope to squeeze them in as soon as possible as I can't wait to find out how the stories of the various heroes and villains develops. My thanks go to Andy Briggs for sending me copies of the books.

Get Any Good Books For Christmas?

I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas. Did you get any good book presents? My family often seem reluctant to buy me books as I have so many already, however this year they came up trumps. I only got two books but they are both fantastic. 


My mother gave me Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History, a gloriously large hardback book in a stunning slipcase. As I have mentioned before in this blog, my knowledge of Marvel comics and the characters and storylines is woefully lacking in quantity and quality, and I have not read a Marvel comic for years as due to the magnitude of the Marvel universe I always feel like I am joining a story mid-way through. I am really exited about this book as I hope it will help develop my knowledge of this fascinating fictional universe.
The other book I got will again fill in a huge gap in my reading experience. As a child and teenager I never read a great deal of horror, and it is only in recent years that I have grown to love this exciting genre. I have started to fill in the gaps already by reading the likes of M.R. James but there is one author that I have been very keen to read for some time - H.P. Lovecraft. I recently bought Ian Culbard's brilliant graphic novelisation of Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness, and thanks to my parents-in-law I can now enjoy the original story, and may other of Lovecraft's classics in this lovely leather-bound commemorative edition.

I would love to hear about the books you may have got for Christmas if you feel inclined to share in a comment below. 

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Chronicles of Narnia Contest Result

The lucky entrants who each win a copy of The Chronicles of Narnia are:

Caroline Gossage
Joy Whitelock
Adrian Watts
Sarah Sutherland
Paula Hepburn

Well done and thank you to all of you who entered. I will now endeavour to contact the winners by email. Please reply within 96 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to HarperCollins for providing the prizes.

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

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Review: I Am Spartapuss by Robin Prince


Rome AD 36. The mighty Feline Empire rules the world. Spartapuss, a ginger cat is comfortable managing Rome’s finest Bath and Spa. But Fortune has other plans for him. He’s arrested and imprisoned by Catligula, the Emperor’s heir. Released into a school for gladiators, he must fight and win his freedom in the Arena - before his opponents make dog food of him.

If I had to name one story element that is most likely to persuade me not to read a children's book it is anthropomorphic animal characters. I don't why it is, but they just leave me cold. It was then with some disappointment that a while ago I opened a package from Mogzilla Books to find these two books - I Am Spartapuss and one of its sequels, Cleocatra's Kushion. In fact, I think I even shuddered at the though of reading them, and if it hadn't have been for my godson's younger brother they may have stayed in a pile gathering dust before eventually being donated to a local primary school. However, I was trying to think of books suitable for this 9 year old boy as a Christmas present and so thought I would give them a go.

And I was pleasantly surprised as they are actually very enjoyable and rather cleverly written. I Am Spartapuss is written in the form of Spartapuss' diary, and the story it tells is fast paced, full of action and also very funny. Robin Price has a knack at using puns, and everything from Roman emperors to Roman Gods to ancient Roman locations have been given the cat-treatment. And so we have Augustpuss and Catligula instead of Augustus and Caligula, Mewpita and Purrcury instead of Jupiter and Mercury. Just the sort of thing that 8-11 year old boys find very amusing, although I have to admit nowhere near as special as the clever wordplay I grew up loving in the names of the characters in Asterix books.

The wordplay does at times make these books quite challenging and less confident readers may struggle at times with the puns that fly thick and fast throughout almost every page. However, if children are studying the Ancient Roman period at school then they may find the books a little easier, and also very enjoyable as there is a large degree of historical 'fact' in the books, albeit with feline characters. Despite the name changes and the fact that these characters eat food suitable for cats, the parallels with the real history of this time period and its people are very easy to draw. However, in order to retain an element of realism this also means that some of the scenes in the story that focus on the violence and suffering that the gladiators in these times faced may be a little too intense for more immature readers, even though the blood and gore levels are kept to a bare minimum.

As I have already mentioned, these books really did surprise me, and I would guess that they are pretty unique; I certainly haven't come across anything quite like them before. I am pretty sure that my godson's brother will love them, as will many other readers of his age group.

How important are books to you?

Yesterday it was revealed that from 1st April 2011 the government will cut, by 100%, all Department for Education funding for the Booktrust's bookgifting programmes. This is sad news indeed as the three schemes run by the Booktrust are designed with one sole purpose - to get books into the hands of kids and thereby encourage them to read. Bookstart is a national programme that gives a free pack of books to every baby born in the UK, as well as invaluable guidance to their parents/carers. Booktime promotes reading for pleasure by giving the gift of a book pack to children across the UK shortly after they first start school. Booked Up (admittedly, the only one of the three schemes that I have first hand experience of) is a national programme that aims to give a free book to every child starting secondary school in England. All of these could become a thing of the past if the government sticks to these plans, and this makes me want to cry.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have grown up in a household where reading for enjoyment was encouraged from a very young age. We had books in the house, although as there were five of us money was often tight and therefore many of our books came from charity shops or jumble sales. This didn't make them any less precious to us though, probably more so. These days there are many families who can't even afford charity shop books as their parents have to prioritise spending money on food, clothing, heating. This means that in many areas schemes such as Booked Up means a child gets to own a book for the first time in their life. Even teaching in a relatively affluent area I have seen how much the gift of a book means to some children. And the government want to take this away.

What makes this even more depressing and tragic is that this announcement is on the back of the past month when we have heard about so many local councils wanting to close down library services. If it hadn't have been for Lillington and Leamington Spa libraries I probably wouldn't be the person I am today. Although money was tight in the family, if I ever wanted to read a new book I would go to these libraries, and often spend hours there choosing my next reads. Before our annual family holiday I would go into Lillington Library equipped with my library card and my mother's library card, and I would later emerge with a pile of twenty books - Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, Doctor Who, Agatha Christie - and I feel nothing but sadness that a generation of young people in certain areas of the county may soon not be able to do this.

Many people will be thinking that there is nothing they can do about this, but there is. You can write to your MP. You can bombard your local and national press with letters in protest. You can add your voice to the thousands who have already expressed their disdain at the cut in Bookstart by following them and tweeting your thoughts using the #bookgifting hash tag.

And there's more..... Alan Gibbons, author of the fantastic Hell's Underground series, is currently trying to arrange a coordinated protest about library closures on Saturday 5th February. This is what he is proposing:


*Library campaigners hold Read-ins at selected libraries around the country on Saturday, February 5th, say at noon, focusing on branches facing closure in key areas such as Doncaster, Leeds, Lewisham, Brent, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, etc.

*The Read-In would begin with speeches by readers, authors, trade unionists, librarians, councilors committed to libraries, etc and continue with protestors going into their libraries and taking turns to read excerpts from their favourite books.

*The Campaign for the Book is an umbrella body and respects the autonomy of local campaigns. The exact nature of each protest would be up to each area.

*We would try to attract the maximum media publicity in the build up to council meetings and the Conservative Local Government conference in Warwickshire on Friday, February 11th.

*The atmosphere should be celebratory, pointing to the positive impact libraries have in communities, raising literacy, giving access to ICT and information, providing meeting places and local events. We want to demonstrate what libraries are and argue what they could be with a proper strategy for their development.

If you are keen to support this please visit Alan's blog entry here or email him at mygibbo@gmail.com. 

I would love to hear your thoughts about these issues - please do leave a comment below this post. 

Please don't just sit by and watch the literacy of England's children suffer. 


*Edit: If you have any doubt as to the value of programmes such as Bookstart please visit this link. 

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Review: The Santa Trap by Jonathan Emmett, with illustrations by Poly Bernatene

Bradley Bartleby is bad - VERY BAD - and Santa Claus knows it . So when Bradley empties his stocking to find nothing but a pair of socks, he hatches a devious plan. If Santa won't give him the gifts he wants, Bradley will just have to steal them ...

With dynamite, trapdoors and a tiger or two, Santa doesn't stand a chance. Or does he?


Upon finishing this book the first thing I did was a quick internet search for the author's names, just to see whether he really existed or was in fact a pseudonym for Tim Burton for in my opinion The Santa Trap is up there with The Nightmare Before Christmas as a perfect alternative (and dark) Christmas story. It is certainly the perfect antidote to those saccharine sweet Christmas stories and fairy tales that get wheeled out every year, and it would be a crime if this does not one day find itself on the screen, whether big or small.

The Santa Trap is the story of Bradley Bartleby, a truly despicable child who, in the words of the story, was "born bad". Bradley is every spoiled and demanding child you have ever come across, all rolled into one nasty package that his parents are terrified of. As such he gets everything he wants (including an elephant as a house pet), when he wants it...... except for that one special time of the year. For Father Christmas knows about Bradley, and doesn't even bother to read the extensive list of presents Bradley demands every year. However, being a kindly old soul Santa does not want Bradley to go completely empty-handed and so each year he leaves him the same, simple gift..... a pair of socks.

Following another disappointing Christmas morning Bradley decides that enough is enough, and that he is going to set a trap for Santa, a trap that will take all year to create. And so, through Poly Bernatene's wonderfully dark illustrations we see him construct the ultimate scenario, including tigers, guillotines, explosives and trap doors. Come the following Christmas Eve Bradley then sits alone, waiting for his prey to arrive (his parents, by the way, have taken themselves off to a hotel, as their home is now far too dangerous to be living in). He sits and waits, and waits and sits, until......... 

What? You think I'm going to give away the rest of the story and ruin it for you? No way!

This book is a fantastic picture story, although some younger (more delicate and fragile) children may find the concept of blowing up Father Christmas and/or feeding him to ravenous tigers a little too upsetting. Jonathan Emmett's words are funny and well paced, but for me the real strong point of the book is the illustrations. Poly Bernatene has done an incredible job in creating the image of this truly nasty boy - imagine the young Damien from The Omen, but looking fifty times as evil and devious and you will be pretty close to having a good mental picture of this young devil.

The Santa Trap is published by Macmillan, to whom my thanks go for sending me a copy to review.

Monday, 20 December 2010

News: Book Cover - Witchfinder: The Last Nightfall by William Hussey


Long time readers of The Book Zone will already know that I am a huge fan of William Hussey's first Witchfinder book, Dawn of the Demontide. The second in the series, Gallows at Twilight, is scheduled to be released in the new year, although a certainly online store already has copies in stock. I was lucky to receive a pdf of Gallows some time ago (it was the first book I read on my Kindle), and I can tell you that it is possibly even better than the first. Watch this space for my review, coming very soon.

This morning I logged on to Twitter and saw mention of the cover for the third book in the series, The Last Nightfall, scheduled for a September 2011 release. And what a stunning cover it is - artist David Wyatt has impressed me hugely with his covers for the series so far but this final one outdoes all that came before it. I love the image of (presumably) Jake Harker standing on a mound of rubble with the remains of Tower bridge in the background, all in those chilling shades of blue - it suggests that the final instalment is going to be brutal and epic. I can't wait!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review: The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan


Sam knows that he and his friend Lloyd made a colossal mistake when they accepted the ride home. They have ended up in a dark mansion in the middle of nowhere with man who means to harm them. But Sam doesn't know how to get them out. They were trapped, then separated. Now they are alone. Will either of them get out alive?

If ever there was a book that should be required reading for every 11+ boy or girl then it is The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan. The content does not make for comfortable reading, and as a parent you may find yourself having to answer some awkward questions that you may not be entirely at ease with, but that is why this book is so important as it looks at what could happen to a young person if they happen to let their guard down for just one moment. In simple terms it looks at the abduction of two boys, but from their point of view as opposed to that of the parents, which we see on TV and in books all too often. We see how a simple misunderstanding leads the boys to find themselves at the mercy of a human predator whose motives are only too apparent to us as readers. We witness how the two boys react to this danger, with one becoming the hero and taking control whilst the other, previously more confident boy, retreats into his shell.

As a teacher who comes into contact with young people on a daily basis this book did not make for pleasant reading at times as I could picture this sort of thing happening so easily to children I know well. I would say that at school every six weeks or so we have a call from a parent to inform us that their child was approached by a man in a van on their way to or from school. Fortunately, every time the young person or people concerned have acted with common sense and a maturity sometimes beyond their years, and no bad has come of this. However, I know this is not the case for many families and schools up and down the country, and this makes the plot of The Long Weekend even more hard hitting. I know so many kids who think they are streetwise, and yet could so easily end up in a situation similar to the one that Sam and Lloyd find themselves in. Savita Kalhan should be commended for tackling the rarely covered subject of child abduction and abuse (in YA books at least) in a way that is both gritty and sensitive.

This is a dark, dark story and may not be suitable for less mature readers. Although it isn't mentioned explicitly in the story, a simple case of reading between the lines suggests that something very bad happens to Lloyd whilst Sam is locked in another room. There are no graphic details of this assault, the author very cleverly leaves it to the imagination of the reader to fill in the blanks, and it is this that makes the book so frightening, perhaps even more so if you are a parent. In Sam and Lloyd, Ms Kalhan has created a pair of very believable 'boy next door' characters and as a reader I very quickly felt an affinity towards them, something else I believe contributed to the queasy feeling I had in my stomach as soon as it became apparent that they had been abducted.

The Long Weekend is probably best read in a single sitting, although at only 180 pages this won't take a huge chunk out of your day. I would also suggest reading it during daylight hours - there are no supernatural demons, vampires, zombies or werewolves, but it is just as scary as any of the recent YA horror stories that have been released, if not more so. And one final suggestion - perhaps parents should read it before their kids as only they will know whether their child will be mature enough to cope with the issues covered.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Review: Father Christmas Needs A Wee by Nicholas Allan



"Father Christmas needs a wee.
He's been drinking drinks since half past three . . ."

At each different house that he visits Father Christmas drinks and eats all the goodies left out for him. Before long he really, really, really needs a wee.

I started off December intending to focus on books targeted at younger boys than many of the books that I tend to review are. Things haven't quite worked out as planned due to work and other blogging commitments, but now that school is nearly done I hope to review a few more picture books over the coming week.

Father Christmas Needs A Wee will have three and four year olds giggling away. Let's face it, most boys love toilet humour, whatever their age, and this book really hits the spot for the youngest end of the spectrum. Many children have wondered just how Santa manages to visit so many homes in one night, but how many have asked how he copes with all the fizzy drinks, tea, brandy, and other sundry beverages that are left out for him? Well now we have the answer.

Not only is it funny but it also has an educational element to it in the form of the counting rhymes that makes up the story. First of all we count up with an increasing number of drinks in each house that Santa visits, and then later we count back down again from ten as he goes back to the houses where he forgot to leave presents due to his concentration being distracted by the uncomfortable strain upon his bladder.

I was lucky to receive a special edition of the book which also includes an audio CD, with which we can listen to the story being read by the legend that is Bernard Cribbins. Hearing BC reading a story brought back many fond memories of watching Jackanory when I was a child - this man really knows how to read a story.

I have one small moan from a design point of view - although the illustrations are generally fun and brightly coloured, there are a couple of pages where black text has been used on a dark blue background, making it a little difficult to read easily. This may not be a problem in the home but if this was being bought to read out loud to a class of children, whilst pointing to the words, then they would not be able to make the words out from a distance.

However, I am positive that boys in the 3-4 age group will want to hear this read to them over and over again, and will probably want to join in as they become able to follow words more confidently. Is it very wrong of me to be hoping that there will one day be a sequel called Father Christmas Needs A Poo? :-)

Father Christmas Needs A Wee is published by Red Fox, to whom I am very grateful for the copy of the book that I was sent to review. 

The scariest, goriest YA horror book cover yet?

Yesterday I happened to log on to Twitter just as my good friend Liz from My Favourite Books was telling @Egmontbooks about the book cover for a new book they have scheduled for May 2011. The conversation went something like this:

Liz: Dear @Egmontbooks - are you trying to scare the living daylights out of your readers with the new horror series you're doing??

Egmontbooks: Do you mean The Shadowing? It made two of our editors cry.

Liz: Really!? OMG! I saw the cover this morning and just couldn't believe it! Scary beyond belief. In other words: good job!

How could I possibly resist the temptation to ask if I could have a peek at said cover, which, by the way, is for a book called The Shadowing: Hunted by Adam Slater? I am happy to say my wish was granted, and I agree with Liz 100% - it is possibly the most gruesome YA horror cover I have ever seen (
in my opinion an accolade previously possessed by Simon Holt's Devouring). And I love it! And I could name a long list of teenage boys at school who will also love it and pick it up to red based solely on the cover graphic.

I am not going to post a picture of the book cover here for the moment, for fear of giving the squeamish amongst you too many nightmares. However, if you want to see the cover all you have to do is CLICK HERE. If you have any thoughts about this cover I would love you to leave a comment about it below. Is it a step too far or is it the kind of thing teenage boys love?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

*** Contest: WIN the complete Chronicles of Narnia

Yesterday I posted an interview with Doug Greasham, stepson of C.S. Lewis and executive producer of the Narnia films. Now, thanks to the generous people at HarperCollins I have FIVE copies of The Chronicles of Narnia to give away to readers of The Book Zone. This is the film tie-in edition with all seven Narnia novels in a single volume. In order to be in with a chance of winning a copy of this book all you have to do is fill in your details on the form below.

The first five names drawn at random after the closing date will win a copy of the book. Deadline for entries is 8am GMT Monday 20th December. This contest is open to UK residents only.


Contest open to UK residents 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.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

*** Interview with Douglas Gresham, Executive Producer of the Narnia films & Stepson of C.S. Lewis

Some of my earliest (and fondest) memories of independent reading are the Narnia books. This may fly in the face of popular public opinion but my favourite in the series was Prince Caspian, with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in equal second place with The Magician's Nephew. These are stories that have stayed with me for my whole life, and are still loved by thousands of children today. With the fantastic films that have been made over the past few years I am sure that there are even more children finding the motivation to read the books, when previously they may not have even thought about picking them up and giving them a go. The latest of these films (which I have not yet seen but am very much looking forward to) is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

One of the driving forces behind the films is Doug Gresham, executive producer of the franchise and also the stepson of C.S. Lewis himself. As you can no doubt imagine, when I was offered the chance to ask Doug some questions I nearly fell over. My huge thanks go to Doug for taking the time to provide answers to my questions:

Why do you think that the Narnia stories have such timeless appeal?

There is built in to the human species, whether we are aware of it or not, a deep-seated automatic ability to recognise truth on a sub-conscious emotional level and to be attracted and drawn to it. The Narnian Chronicles contain truth and thus, as long as people read books (in any form at all), people will love The Chronicles of Narnia.

Do you have a favourite Narnia book? If so, why is it your favourite?

Yes, it is whichever one I am reading at the time that somebody asks me that question. Right now, it’s The Silver Chair. :-)

Do you have a favourite character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader film?

I am presuming that you mean apart from Aslan Himself, and in that case, it's Reepicheep.

How close to the original story is the plot of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie?

That is a very big question. It's always difficult to transform words written down on paper into a visual medium. To put the story on to a cinema screen changes do have to be made, but I think you will find that the essence of the book – the messages underlying the wild and beautiful adventure – are all there. Go and see it, take your friends and your friend's friends and take your enemies too (you are supposed to love your enemies too don't forget) and then tell me what you think.

How much involvement did you have in the scripting of the film?

As the active Executive Producer I am heavily involved in all facets of making the film. Making a film is always a collaborative affair with many voices discussing all the different tasks and challenges that go into the process. I am one (probably rather loud) voice on the team. I suspect that some of the team think I'm a bit of a nuisance. :-D



How was the filming of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in comparison with the previous two films?

This one was difficult, but not because of the people on the team. To begin with, it's a difficult story to work with because there is really just too much of it, but we had a change of Distributor and all sorts of other challenges that came up while we were making this film. We had howling winds while filming in a sand location, we had a dust storm at once stage and had to retreat to an indoor set, we had gales while filming, and all sorts of things. But I am proud to say that the reaction of the team was always to work harder and with more determination to get the job done and done well.

Did you spend a lot of time on set during the filming?

More than anybody else I suppose, I lived on set in my motor-home for the duration of shooting, so I was there day and night.

Each of the Narnia books conveys some form of message or lesson - what in your opinion do you think that C.S. Lewis was hoping to convey in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Do you think that this comes across in the film?

The Voyage of The Dawn Treader is all about temptation. Everybody on earth soon becomes familiar with the experience of being tempted to do bad stuff instead of good stuff, and this book shows us pretty graphically how it happens and what to do about it. But it's not in anyway "preachy" and it all happens in the throes of amazing adventures as the ship sails from island to island in parts of Narnia, which we have never seen before, meeting Narnian characters that we have never met before. I think this message and more comes through very strongly in the film. After all there wouldn't really be much point in making it if it didn't.

Why is it that The Magician's Nephew is always left out when screen adaptations of the stories are produced?

We haven't left it out; we simply haven't filmed it yet. We are all longing to do so, but we started with the best know Narnian story of all, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and for that film we found four wonderful young people to play our leading roles. Now, because The Chronicles are each individual stand-alone adventures and not sequels of each other (indeed there is more than a Millennium in Narnian time between LWW and Prince Caspian), it made very good sense to us to link the movies by utilising a continuity of casting with Will M., Anna, Skandar and Georgie and to try to get the movies that feature Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy as children all done before they grew up too much. Now we have done that I would like to use Will P. as Eustace again for The Silver Chair before he grows up too much (he's already shot up to about 6 feet tall!). But, if you and the rest of the public all support our movies really well, so that I can keep on asking for budgets from our financial supporters, we will bring you The Magician's Nephew in due course.

How did you feel when you saw the final edit of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the first time?

It could have been quite embarrassing. The final work wasn't finished on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe until about 0300 on the day that we had to show the movie at The Director's Guild Theatre in Los Angeles, and that was scary! I went to the theatre with the CEO of Wordsmith Media, hoping desperately that we would have a print to exhibit and sure enough the movie began to roll. I lasted until Lucy first made her wandering way into Narnia before the emotion of all the years of working and hoping and praying finally caught up with me and I started to shed tears. I glanced quickly at Jim sitting beside me and was relieved to see that his eyes were glued to the screen and tears were running down his cheeks too!

Do you intend to transfer any more of the Narnia stories to the big screen? If so, which one do you hope to do next?

As I said that all depends on how many people go and how often they go to watch The Voyage of The Dawn Treader and thus what our box office figures show. If we can show our investors a return on their investment we can make the next movie. I would like that to be The Silver Chair so that we can cast Will P as Eustace again before he gets so tall that we have to cast him as a giant or something.

What books/authors did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager?

Wow, that is a big question. I read voraciously from the age of about ten. I used to read encyclopaedias for fun. I read Mark Twain (all of his not too serious works), same for John Buchan, H. Rider-Haggard, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E. Nesbit, George MacDonald, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Rudyard Kipling, John Steinbeck, R.M. Ballantyne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and many others on and on ad nauseam. And what is even worse, I am still doing it! I read at a pace that most folks find astonishingly fast and devour books all the time whenever it’s not my duty to be doing something else. The wisdom of the universe is only to be found in the pages of books, so why waste good reading time on anything else?

If there is one question that you would love an interviewer to ask you about C.S. Lewis, what is it? And what would your answer be?

Hmm sneaky one. Do you know, I think I have been asked just about all the questions that the human mind is capable of coming up with in the 30 or so years that I have been speaking about Jack and doing Q & A sessions – and then somebody comes up with a new one like that one. Honestly I haven't a clue. :-D

Thank you so much for your time - the Narnia books are amongst my earliest memories of independent reading. Is there anything else you would like to say to readers of this blog?

Yes, please do go along and see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I think you won't be disappointed. I am naturally a bit biased being the Executive Producer, but I reckon it’s a really amazing movie.

~~~

Thanks again to Doug for providing such great answers to my questions. Please come back tomorrow when I will be running a competition where you could win a book set of the complete Chronicles of Narnia.


*** Contest: WIN a set of signed Chainsaw Gang books


As promised, here is your chance to win a signed book from each member of The Chainsaw Gang, the group of horror authors who have so kindly been answering some of my questions recently. All you have to do is answer the asy question and fill in the form below with your details.

The first name drawn at random after the closing date will be passed to Sarwat Chadda who will then add that name to those drawn from other blogs on The Chainsaw Gang blog tour. The name drawn at random from these will be the winner of the signed books. Deadline for entries is 1am GMT on the 1st January 2011. This contest is open to UK residents only.


Contest open to UK residents only.
Neither I or any of The Chainsaw Gang authors 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.

Winner(s) will be contacted 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.

Monday, 13 December 2010

News: Book Cover - Scorpia Rising by Anthony Horowitz (Alex Rider)


I almost feel as if I shouldn't distract your attention away from this stunning book cover with my ramblings, but then again I need to express how excited I am about this. Just a few minutes ago I received an email from Walker Books PR asking if Scorpia Rising, the ninth and sadly final book in Anthony Horowitz's phenomenally successful Alex Rider series, was on the Book Zone's radar. Hell yes it is! I have been a fan of these books ever since I first read Stormbreaker, both from a personal viewpoint in that I love the hi-octane stories, but also from a professional viewpoint in that they have got so many boys reading for enjoyment. I am not embarrassed to admit that Anthony Horowitz is a literary hero of mine.

I guess all good things eventually come to an end, and on 31st March 2011 the final bell will toll for this fantastic series, and I bet that Mr Horowitz has one hell of a story lined up for this grand finale. The scant details I have been sent read as follows:

"With its striking new cover-look, SCORPIA RISING, Alex Rider's gripping final mission, is going to be massive in every sense. The story reunites Alex's old foes in an attempt to frame the teen superspy. The action powers from Europe to North Africa and Cairo's City of the Dead. Smithers' ultimate gadget is revealed and there is the shocking death of one major character. This is adrenaline-fuelled writing with no limits."

How good does that sound?! I am sure there are thousands of fans who like me will be making regular visits to http://www.alexrider.com/ and http://www.anthonyhorowitz.com/ between now and the books publication, hoping for more hints as to what will be in store for Alex Rider.

Edit: Scorpia Rising review now on The Book Zone at http://bookzone4boys.blogspot.com/2011/03/review-scorpia-rising-by-anthony.html

The Twelve Deaths of Christmas: The Chainsaw Gang Blog Tour (Verse 8)


On the first day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me 
A corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the second day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Two werewolves howling
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the third day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Three zombies snarling
Two werewolves howling
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the fourth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Four Wheezers wheezing
Three zombies snarling
Two werewolves howling 
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the fifth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Five buzzing saws
Four Wheezers wheezing
Three zombies snarling
Two werewolves howling 
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the six day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Six yetis freezing
Five buzzing saws
Four Wheezers wheezing
Three zombies snarling
Two werewolves howling 
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the seventh day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Seven Templars fighting
Six yetis freezing
Five buzzing saws
Four Wheezers wheezing
Three zombies snarling
Two werewolves howling 
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree. 

On the eighth day of Christmas, 
my true love sent to me
Eight crawlers creeping
Seven Templars fighting
Six yetis freezing
Five buzzing saws
Four Wheezers wheezing
Three zombies snarling
Two werewolves howling 
And a corpse hanging from a pear tree.

As promised on Friday, The Chainsaw Gang are back at The Book Zone for another stop on their blog tour, and this time they have a couple more questions to answer. So without further ado:

If you were to have a Halloween meal with any three people from the glorious history of horror literature and cinema, who would those three people be?

Sam Enthoven: Most of the horror creators I really admire would probably make fairly lousy dinner guests (I can't see H. P. Lovecraft lighting up the room with his great jokes and ribald repartee, can you?) However, I would be honoured to be the Halloween meal of the Alien, the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth or even The Tar Man from Return of the Living Dead: "Brains! MORE BRAINS!"

Alexander Gordon Smith: Crikey, there are so many to choose from! Well I’d absolutely love to meet Stephen King, as he’s my hero and he would be a fantastic guy to talk to about writing. M. R. James would probably be in there too as I can’t imagine a better person to have at your dinner party when you’re telling ghost stories over brandy (or in a tent in the back garden, although I’m not sure if they’d be game for that). And maybe Mary Shelley for my final guest, as she’d have some fantastic tales to tell and she was a bit of a party animal!

Stephen Deas: Mary Shelley (author of the original Frankenstein), Mark someone-or-other who wrote House of Leaves and Elvira, Mistress if the Dark.

Alex Bell: Definitely Vincent Price because the man was a legend, with the creepiest voice, and I adore any shlock-horror film that had him in it. Edgar Allan Poe because he seems such a man of contrasts, and it would be great to know what he was really like. And Jack the Ripper so that I could find out the secret of his identity, and sell it to the world for a lot of money.

Sarah Silverwood: Vincent Price (the granddaddy of horror films), Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe.

Jon Mayhew: MR James because he could smoke a pipe by the fireplace after lunch and tell us a ghost story. Edgar Allen Poe though I suspect it could be rather a quiet. I’d love to meet Christopher Lee or maybe Michael Ripper who was always a supporting actor in many a Hammer film and always ended up getting squished.

William Hussey: Again, only three?! Hmm, I’d be tempted by Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, but I’m not sure they’d be very cheery company! Plus, Poe would hog all the wine. I’ve heard many stories about how Vincent Price was a great raconteur, so he’d get an invitation – we could compare notes on Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General! An obvious choice, but Stephen King would have to be there – just so I could sit at the feet of the only god whose existence I acknowledge. And MR James so that, after the meal, we could all retire to his rooms at King’s College and he could read my favourite ghost story to us – Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad.

Sarwat Chadda: Bram Stoker because whether you like them or not, he gave us the modern vampire. I’d like to ask him if he ever could have imagined that Dracula would define a entire form of literature.
Edgar Alan Poe. Pretty much for the same reason as Stoker. His stories define what gothic horror is and basically all our work descends from their books, whether we’re aware of it or not. It would be handy to ask him for some writing tips, while we were there.
The German film director Friedrich Murnau would be the third. He gave us Nosferatu and Faust. Nuff said.

David Gatward: Vincent Price (what a voice!), Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead), and Clive Barker (The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser).

Sam Feasey: Hmmmm. They say that you should never meet your heroes, don’t they? But I’d love to resurrect HP Lovecraft and have a chinwag with him. Stephen King would be a great guest, and I think Anne Rice would be too.

And don't say I never treat you blog readers - I somehow managed to con The Gang out of another set of answers to this third question:

What scares you? Do you ever look to your own fears, phobias or nightmares for subject matter?

Alexander Gordon Smith: Everything scares me. Literally everything. I hate flying, I hate going on the Tube, I get scared at night when I’m on my own, I get nervous when I’m in a crowd, I’m terrified of porcelain dolls and slugs and the witch from the recurring dream I had as a kid who now lives at the bottom of my attic stairs in one of those trolleys legless people sometimes pull themselves around in… 
It’s not as bad as it sounds, but I do have lots of minor phobias. And yes, your own nightmares are the best place to look for inspiration when you’re writing horror. When I do workshops I get the kids to write stories based on their own worst fears, because if you’re writing about something that scares you then readers will pick up on that fear, it will feel real to them, and so much more powerful. With Furnace I set out to do exactly that, writing about the things that scare me most: being accused of a crime I didn’t commit, being buried alive, being hunted, being powerless, being operated on by a mad surgeon, even dogs (ever since I saw a friend of mine get their ear chewed off by an Alsatian). Real fears grow into terrifying stories very easily.

Sarah Silverwood: Everything scares me! Heights, flying, small spaces, bugs etc. The list is endless. I think all horror writers are scared of stuff because we spend so much time coming up with 'worst case scenarios' for our poor characters. For example - I was on a tube in London the other day and it stopped in a tunnel and all the lights went out for a moment. Everyone else just looked bored and fed up when they came back up...I was looking for some crazy red-eyed tube tunnel cannibal who I was sure must have slipped on in that moment and was going to start a bloody massacre on my carriage. Thankfully, he wasn't there.

Jon Mayhew: As a child, the idea of transformation scared me. Werewolf films, The Fly, Jekyll and Hyde even the Nutty Professor (original with Gerry Lewis) scared me. I’ve included a bit in my third book in which a character changes and it made me squirm! The Demon Collector out in March, has some delightful creatures that just steal your face.

Stephen Deas: I worry about existential stuff. And yes, it very much does.

Sam Enthoven: Lots of things scare me, I'm happy to say: when I'm writing stories that are intended to frighten I have a large stock of personal terrors to choose from!

William Hussey: I don’t really have any phobias as such and, since I started writing horror, I rarely have nightmares. I think I channel all my fears into my writing – hey, it’s cheaper than a shrink! Honestly, I think that’s why, contrary to popular belief, horror writers are among the most well-balanced of genre scribes. We get out all our fears onto the page! But what scares me… everything! Disease, bodily mutation, nuclear holocaust, religious fanaticism, intolerance, clowns, herds of little old ladies at the post office… you name it!

Sarwat Chadda: Oh yes, absolutely. Devil’s Kiss was based on the horror of losing one’s children, it’s all about the death of the firstborn child and as a parent, there is no greater terror.
Dark Goddess is slightly different, but still grounded in my own fear. It’s about the damage we’re doing to the planet and our blind refusal to acknowledge how late in the day it already is. It makes me wonder for all the amazing things we’ve done, we’ve grown no wiser. We can understand the make up of the stars but we can’t look after our own garden.

David Gatward: Finding myself in a situation I’m woefully unprepared for. Going to the fridge and discovering someone else ate all the cheese. Never waking up. Losing my family. Rabbits.

Steve Feasey: The dark. That moment when you’re in the house alone and you turn out the light for the last time. You know what I mean. The moment when the inner voice that’s been hiding all day decides to speak up; whispering in your ear about what might be on the other side of the door, or under the bed, or lurking in the wardrobe.
Alone in the darkness. That’s why we invented fire.

Alex Bell: Alzheimer’s scares me, and I used that in Lex Trent, but that’s more real life than horror. I had a nightmare about one of my own characters once (from The Ninth Circle), which was weird.

~~~

My huge thanks to The Chainsaw Gang for the time they spent answering these questions. For their next stop they are visiting Wondrous Reads tomorrow - please click on the link and pop on over and read more answers and also the ninth verse to The Twelve Deaths of Christmas. I will also be posting details tomorrow of how you can win a signed book from each member of The Gang.