Saturday, 29 August 2015

Book Zone Box Set #2 - The Barry Loser Series by Jim Smith

For the second post in my new Book Zone Box Set, where I put the spotlight on a series of books that I have read an enjoyed, and would highly recommend to any parent asking about suitable books for their child, I have selected the pants-wettingly funny Barry Loser series by Jim Smith.

If you have a 7+ aged child who has not yet discovered the Barry Loser books then what are you doing? These are the kind of books that can get kids excited about reading, and as we know, once that happens at a young age it can become a lifelong passion. Not that there can be many children of that age in the UK have not already heard of these books. It's only three years since I Am Not A Loser was published in the UK, and we already have six full-length Barry Loser books in print, as well as the World Book Day title I Am Nit A Loser, and three e-books (two of which are currently free by following the links at the Barry Loser books webpage). Sales in the UK now exceed 400,000 copies, and along withh Liz Pichon's Tom Gates books, has become a genuine rival for Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid books here in the UK.

And there's more... last month saw the release of the first book in a brand new series from Jim Smith - Future Ratboy. Fans of the Barry Loser series will already know that this is a spin-off from the man series, as Future Ratboy is Barry's favourite TV show. Well now Future Ratboy has his very own book, titled Future Ratboy and the Attach of the Killer Robot Grannies, and it is even more hilarious (and keel) than the Barry Loser books themselves. 

Move over Spidey, get back in your cave Batman, and keep your glasses on Clark Kent, there's a new superhero in town. FUTURE RATBOY.

When a bolt of lightning hits Colin Lampost (and his toy bird, Bird), he is zapped millions of years into the future! Life will never be the same again. Bird has been brought to life as Not Bird and Brian's DNA is fused with a rat giving him superkeel powers. Future Ratboy is born!

But the future is not a safe place to be and there are killer robot grannies on the rampage! Will the dynamic duo survive the attack and save the world?

Join Future Ratboy and Not Bird on their first adventure to find out! 

And, Loser fans, there is still more. "Surely not!" I hear you cry, but yes. Not only is there all those Barry Loser books, and the new Future Ratboy book, but, released just this past week, is Barry Loser's Ultimate Book of Keelness. 

The ultimate book for fans of Barry Loser!

Packed full of brilliant content, including the World Book Day book I am nit a Loser, the short stories  ‘Bunky is a Loser’ and ‘My Dad is a Loser’, editions of the Daily Poo, a Q&A with Jim from his fans and pages of brand-new superkeel drawing guides and activities, Barry fans old and new will love Barry Loser’s Ultimate Book of Keelness.

This is another must-buy for all Barry Loser fans. It is full of fun activities, such as drawing tasks (noses, dog poos, fronkle cans) and a loserfan quiz, as well as brand new Barry Loser short stories and also the World Book Day I Am Nit A Loser story (just in cased you missed your chance to get a copy at the time).

I can't recommend these books enough for getting kids into reading for enjoyment. Is there a more heart-warming sound than that of a young child giggling away to themselves as they read a book? 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Review: The Black Lotus by Kieran Fanning

Ghost, Cormac and Kate are not like other kids.

Ghost can turn invisible, Cormac can run up walls and Kate can talk to animals - all abilities which make them perfect recruits for the Black Lotus, a training school for ninjas. But when the Moon Sword - a source of unimaginable power - is stolen by samurai, the three are forced to put their new skills to the test in sixteenth-century Japan ...

Add too many ingredients to a bread or cake on the Great British Bake Off and you'll have to suffer the wrath of Paul Hollywood. Do the same when writing a book and you may not face wrath, but it will make your story appear disjointed and confused. Kieran Fanning's debut middle grade novel, The Black Lotus, has young people with super powers, martial arts, fantasy swords with magical powers, ninjas and samurai - that's a hell of a lot of ingredients for a literary cake yet somehow Fanning pulls it off to produce a mouthwatering adventure story that will satisfy the appetites of action-hungry young readers.

The Black Lotus is set in an alternate 21st Century planet Earth, where much of the world is part of President Goda's samurai empire. London, Paris, Rio... all are part of Goda's empire and it seems that the USA is one of the few nations that lies outside of his influence. For the time being at least.

We are initially introduced to this world through the lives of three teenagers from very diverse backgrounds, although all three have at least two things in common - they all believe themselves to be orphans and all three of them have a special power. Ghost lives in a Rio de Janeiro favela, and can turn himself invisible if he concentrates hard enough; Cormac lives in a Hinin House, or orphanage, in Ballyhook, Ireland and can run so fast that he is able to run up vertical walls; and Kate lives on the streets of NYC having run away from a children's home. Kate's special gift is that of communicating with animals, literally speaking with them. All three think they have managed to keep their special abilities, however all three have come to the attention of the Black Lotus, a group of ninja freedom fighters who have spent centuries fighting against the totalitarian rule of Goda (yes, you read me correctly - NINJA FREEDOM FIGHTERS). Soon the three find themselves teaming up to join this fight, and on an adventure that sees them travelling back to 16th Century Japan to retrieve a magical sword that goad could use to subjugate the rest of the world.

To describe The Black Lotus as cinematic would be a disservice to Kieran, as to me it can imply that a story relies far too much on action set-pieces, and yet this book would make a damn fine action/adventure film. The Black Lotus certainly isn't just a chain of action scenes with little in between them. In fact, although the action scenes are fast-paced and exciting to read (and are full of NINJA martial arts wonderfulness), it is the relationship between the three young heroes that makes this story work so well. Each one has different back histories and thus different motivations, and although, for plot reasons, we find out more about one of the three than the others, it is still very easy for the reader to empathise with all three.

The Black Lotus is yet another fab addition to the plethora of great middle grade books that have been published in the UK in 2015. It is certainly a book that will have young readers clamouring for a sequel, although I would guess that we have quite a wait for that ahead of us as The Black Lotus was only released two weeks ago. 

And did I say that it has lots of ninjas?

My thanks go to the fab people at Chicken House for sending me a copy to read.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Review: Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent

Alfie Bloom is just an ordinary boy. Until he receives a letter summoning him to raven-like solicitor Caspian Bone's office. Here, Alfie learns that he has inherited a castle. And through mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth, he has also been entrusted as the caretaker of a centuries-old magic. Unfortunately for Alfie, dangerous forces are after this powerful magic. With the help of his cousins Maddie and Robin, Artan the flying bearskin rug, and Ashford (a rather special butler), Alfie must keep the magic safe from terrifying adversaries and make sure the secrets of Hexbridge Castle stay secret for ever...

I first read Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle back in January. I had just come out of an event that Scholastic had held about their middle grade and picture book list for 2015, and there was one book that had my interest well and truly piqued above all the others. Everything I had been told about Gabrielle Kent's debut screamed "Read me" and so I started it on the train home. I was gripped by the magical adventure story, but I couldn't say that I truly loved it. 

I give all of the books I read a star rating on Goodreads, as much as a personal record of my reading than for anything else, and I gave Alfie Bloom 4 stars. It just did not feel as good as other books I had rated 5 stars at that point, such as Abi Elphinstone's The Dreamsnatcher. When this 'starring' appeared on Twitter, I received a couple of tweets from the author, first for the 4 stars but also to say that the final version had undergone a fair few revisions since the proofs had been printed, including "Revelations moved around and I changed bits that didn't work". As you will no doubt of spotted, I have not been particularly active on this blog this year, and I never got around to posting a review before the book was published in June. However, as we broke up for the summer holidays and I was tidying away some books, I spotted that proof and decided that I would buy the final version for my kindle to take away on holiday with me. And this time I LOVED it! Definitely worthy of 5 Goodreads stars!

It's very rare that I find the time to re-read books these days, especially so soon after a first reading, but I am so glad that I gave Alfie Bloom another chance, as I was completely captivated this time around (and it also made a rather choppy Channel crossing a lot more pleasurable). I've not done a page by page comparison so I can't tell you exactly what had changed between the proof and final versions, but in my mind the final version had a plot that possessed perfect pace and flow.

Apart from being a damn fine storyteller, Gabrielle Kent is obviously a fellow lover of children's literature as Alfie Bloom contains elements that in some ways almost make it read as a homage to the great children's writers and books of the past, in the best possible way. The two headmistresses of the local Hexbridge school, the nemeses of every child who has had to be educated there, are incredibly Dahlesque in their nastiness and the punishments they dole out to their students might even have Dahl's Miss Trunchbull reporting them to Ofsted for cruelty to children. And this is just a starter - there are elements of Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones in this story, particularly in the way Alfie interacts with his cousins, and their shared sense of adventure.

Following the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books, there were a lot of similarly themed but far lesser books released as publishers looked to cash in. We then went through a period of (too many) years where it seemed that publishers felt that magic was no longer cool or marketable. Obviously enough time has now passed since Potter, and new adventure stories featuring magic are now appearing on book store shelves again. Recent notable and thoroughly enjoyable examples include Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret by D.D. Everest and Magisterium: The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Hall is another, and in my opinion it is easily the best so far. It has shapeshifters, mythical creatures, time travel, ancient druidic magic, a rather splendid and mysterious butler, and the wonderful Hexbridge Castle itself - almost a character in its own right.

This is the first book in a series (I have no idea how many books are planned, but I really hope there are LOTS of them), and Gabrielle Kent very kindly does not leave us with a kind of cliffhanger ending. There are a small number of threads left untied which I am sure will be further explored in the sequel. There is one in particular that I am very keen to see how it is developed as there is a teacher at the school in Hexbridge who possesses a certain air of mystery. If my knowledge of traditional French & English fables is anything to go by (gained more on a 1970s Fairport Convention song than any in depth study of the subject) then I have a feeling that she has already played a bigger part in the story than some readers may have realised (and there's also that Wayne's World line: "In French, she would be called "la renarde" and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her".

I seem to be saying this a lot this year, but this is yet another book that richly deserves a place in my Top 10 books of 2015. I am starting to worry that I may have said this more than ten times though! It is middle grade fantasy adventure at its very best, and I can't wait to read the sequel.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Review: First Class Murder (A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery) by Robin Stevens

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday on the world-famous Orient Express - and it's clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: there is rumour of a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer has vanished - as if into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery - and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case.

Historical mystery stories suddenly seem to be in vogue as far as middle grade children's books are concerned. In the past twelve months we have seen the publication of, amongst others, Jordan Stratford's The Case of the Missing Moonstone, Katherine Woodfine's The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Kevin Sands' The Blackthorn Key, and English translations of Irene Adler's Sherlock, Lupin and Me books. However, in my opinion, there is one person who is well ahead of the pack in the race to be crowned queen/king of kidlit mystery writing, and that is Robin Stevens.

Robin's Murder Most Unladylike, the first book in her Wells & Wong Mystery series, was one of my favourite books of 2014. The second book, Arsenic For Tea, made a very early bid for a 2015 top spot, and that has now been usurped by the third, and best in the series so far, First Class Murder. Robin Stevens doesn't just write outstanding mystery stories, her writing is among the very best for middle grade readers in the UK this year.

For this third book, Stevens has taken on her greatest challenge to date by setting her mystery on the Orient Express in 1935, only a year after the original release date of the great Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. However, the author has met this challenge with seemingly consummate ease, and has produced a mystery story that will keep young readers guessing until the dramatic denouement.

For many years, young fans of mystery stories had to make do with reading and re-reading the various mystery stories of Enid Blyton. However, the 'politically correct' brigade's claims of racism and sexism in Blyton's writing have sadly made these less appealing for parents to give to their children these days. Such claims can certainly not be levelled at the writing of Robin Stevens, who deals with the accepted, casual racism of that time with sensitivity, and whose female characters are intelligent, resilient and will never play second fiddle to any boy or man. In this third outing for the mystery solving pair, Stevens again does not shy away from touching on sensitive issues - in this case, the evil that was rising in Germany, and the plight of Jewish people in pre-WWII Europe with Hitler in power.

In Arsenic For Tea, we had the pleasure of meeting Daisy's family of eccentrics, and now the spotlight is on Hazel and her family, and more specifically her father. Vincent Wong, Director of Wong Banking, is a successful and driven man, yet this is 1930s Europe, and as such there are individuals who will look at him and assume he is a servant. However, whenever such incorrect assumptions are made he faces them with dignity and poise; it is easy to see where Hazel gets her inner strength from. He is also a man who wants the very best for his daughter, and in his mind the solving of mysteries is not a suitable pastime or occupation for any young lady, least alone his daughter. Thus Daisy's and Hazel's efforts to find the murderer are hampered even greater that usual by his vigilance and occasional interference. His presence leads to all kinds of subterfuge on the part of the girls, which in lesser hands could quite easily have descended into the world of slapstick. But hey, this is Robin Stevens we are talking about, so instead it not only adds humour to the story, but also adds to the tension we feel as readers.  

I desperately hope that Robin Stevens and her publisher have many more mysteries planned for Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong. If they do, then I predict that there will come a time when people no longer first think of Blyton when asked to name a children's mystery writer, instead it will be the name of Robin Stevens that is first on their lips. Move over Blyton, your long reign is over and there is a new queen of children's mystery stories!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Review: The Shark-Headed Bear-Thing by Barry Hutchison (illustrated by Chris Mould)

In an alternate 15th century, where dragons roam, sailing ships transform into submarines, and blacksmiths build steampunk robots, ten-year-old orphan Benjamin Blank battles monsters, rescues maidens and discovers fantastic new lands, but never quite manages to get his homework handed in on time.

Each adventure sees Ben and his friends, Paradise Little and Wesley Chant, face a new monstrous menace.

Benjamin Blank dreams of becoming a monster-vanquishing warrior. Unfortunately for Ben, his mechanical-armed blacksmith uncle feels that he just might be a little too young to be battling dangerous creatures such as ogres. However, when Paradise Little, a girl from a nearby village, begs Uncle Tavish for his help in destroying the monster that is terrorising them, mistaken in the belief that he is a warrior blacksmith, Ben steps up and offers his services. In desperation she reluctantly accepts his offer, and so begins an adventure involving a cowardly wizard called Wesley, a game of Burp or Death with a troll, and, of course, the climactic fight with the titular Shark-Headed Bear-Thing.

With his two fabulous Afterworlds books, author Barry Hutchison has already proved that he can write very funny stories for the older middle grade/lower YA audience. Now he has done just the same for 7+ kids. The Shark-Headed Bear-Thing is a pants-wettingly funny adventure story, with a misfit bunch of loveable and occasionally inept main characters. The story is complemented by the wonderfully comedic illustrations of Chris Mould that capture the hilarious tone of Hutchison's writing perfectly.

The Shark-Headed Bear-Thing is just the first in a series of adventures for Benjamin Blank and his new friends. The Swivel-Eyed Ogre-Thing was published in June, and the third book in the series, The Moon-Faced Ghoul-Thing, is due to be published in October. If the sequels are anything like the first book in the series then they will make perfect bedtime reading for young readers, either on their own or read by a parent. My thanks go to the wonderful people at Nosy Crow for sending me a copy to read.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Book Zone Box Set #1 - The Alex Rider Series

I love DVD box sets! I have piles and piles of them here at Book Zone HQ, and sometimes, when I'm in the mood I will watch a whole season of a TV show back-to-back over a week, often whilst I'm getting on with school work of an evening. Over the past year I've been rewatching, amongst others, the complete X-Files, Stargate SG-1 and CSI: Miami. As I was reaching for Season 7 of the X-Files this morning I realised that the box set concept would make a nice new occasional feature for this blog: Book Zone Box sets.

As a child and a young teen I was much the same with books. If I found a series I liked I would read as many of them as I could get my hands on: Enid Blyton's various mystery series; The Three Investigators; the Hardy Boys; Agatha Christie's Poirot; the Conan books published by Sphere back in the 70s/80s; the Destroyer books by Sapir and Murphy... the list goes on and on. And I haven't changed - it's great to discover an author I've never read before who has a significant back catalogue of great books.

Many kids, and boys in particular, share this love for series books, so when people ask me to recommend books for their children I will often include a handful of first-in-series books, as if their child likes one of them it could be the catalyst to them becoming a keen reader. It worked on my godson (and his brother) when  gave him the first Percy Jackson book, and it has worked many times since. In this new feature I will put the spotlight on a series of books that I have read an enjoyed, and would highly recommend to any parent asking about suitable books for their child. For clarification, in my mind a series constitutes four or more books, i.e. trilogies do not count.

And what better place to start than with one of the very best series of books for 10+ aged reader from the last twenty years?

I love the Alex Rider books, almost as much as I love the Harry Potter books, both for their brilliant stories and the impact they have had on getting children, and boys in particular, reading for enjoyment. So well known are they, that it is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that all book-loving children have at the very least read Stormbreaker, or that parents trying to encourage their children to pick up a book have tried the first in this series, but that is not the case. As such, Stormbreaker is top of every list I give to parents who approach me for book recommendations.

And now is the perfect time to start reading this marvellous series. 2015 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the first publication of Stormbreaker and earlier this year Walker Books published brand new editions, with top-smart new cover designs, produced by the Walker design team and creative studio Two Dots (see their stunning artwork at the end of this post). And there's more... the Walker editorial team have also gone through every one of the books in the series and updated them slightly. The changes do not affect the story in any way, other than to make the pop-culture references more relevant for today's young readers. This, in Stormbreaker, the modified gadget that Smithers provides Alex becomes a Nintendo DS when previously it was a Gameboy. In Scorpia, Alex is now wearing a Superdry t-shirt, and in Ark Angel the TV on the table in Alex's hospital room becomes an "Ultra Slim HD TV mounted on the wall". Small changes that some may feel are unnecessary, but I am sure young readers will appreciate them, without even knowing they have been made.

I realised earlier this year that even though I had read Stormbreaker a number of times, I had only read the other books in the series once each. Thanks to the generosity of the fabulous Paul Black at Walker I came into possession of a set of the newly rejacketed Alex Rider books, and decided that now was the time for a re-read. And just like a watching a TV series box set, these books are even better when read back-to-back. I remember when I first read each book that I found it very difficuly to put down, and on a second reading nothing has changed and it being the school summer holidays meant I had the luxury of being able to read for several hours at a time without interruption.

With so much time between the publication of each book, it is very easy to lose touch with the fact that the nine Alex Rider adventures take part over a period of  just twelve months. Yes, incredibly there is only one year between Alex being drafted into an MI6 investigation against his will, to his final battle against Scorpia, via a crazy number of near-death experiences. Reading them in this way we see how his character develops from a fun-loving, average 14-year old schoolboy, albeit one who is grieving the loss of his only close relative, to a battle weary 15-year old who has seen and done things that no young person ever should. What also becomes clearly evident is how different each of the books is - Anthony Horowitz managed to create a nine book series where each new outing for the teen secret agent seems fresh and without repetition.

Although only one of these (Scorpia) ends on a cliffhanger, and technically each book could be read as a standalone, or out of series order, as each story contains a new, discrete mission for Alex, to be fully enjoyed these books should be read in order. It isn't just Alex's character that is developed over the series, but also that of Jack Starbright, Alan Blunt, Mrs Jones and, of course, Smithers (and he may only make a cameo appearance in each book, but it is almost worth getting to know him by reading the whole set just for that one special moment in Scorpia Rising, a twist that I am willing to bet that no one could possibly have seen coming).

Seriously, for getting 10+ kids into reading, and boys in particular, they don't come much better than Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series. And the icing on the cake? When you've finished the nine books you can read the mighty fine Russian Roulette, the Yassen Gregorovich origin story.

Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd
Cover Illustration by Two Dots © 2015 Walker Books Ltd

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Review: The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

There is a box. Anything you imagine will appear inside. You have one go, one chance to create anything you want. What would you pick?"

That's exactly the question ten-year-old Timothy Hart gets to answer after discovering The Imagination Box. The greatest toy on earth.

The top-secret contraption transforms his life but when the box's inventor, Professor Eisenstone, goes missing, Tim knows he has to investigate.

With the help of a talking finger monkey called Phil, he sets out to find the professor. In order to rescue his friend, he must face his darkest fears and discover the true potential of his own mind.

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford is a modern, exciting and very funny take on the classic genie-in-the-lamp tale. Orphan Tim lives in the hotel owned by his adopted parents, and it is a pretty lonely life he leads. He seems to have no friends and his adopted mother and father are focused on running the hotel, and so he escapes from boredom by drawing. Tim loves to draw and has an incredibly vivid imagination; in fact, most of his drawings have very little to do with the real world. Except for finger monkeys that is. Tim loves drawing finger monkeys and they are his all-time favourite animal.

Into the hotel and Tim's life comes Professor Eisenstone, the inventor of the Thought Directed Atomic Construction Device, which Tim feels is too much of a mouthful and decides to christen it the Imagination Box. The Prof recognises that Tim's powerful imagination is the very thing that is needed to make his invention work, and it isn't long before Tim is conjuring up all kinds of things from the box, using only the power of his mind, including the one thing that he has always wanted: a real, live finger monkey! And not just any finger monkey - this one can talk.

Obviously, the Imagination Box is a potentially world changing invention, and equally as obviously that means that there is going to be some kind of dastardly and nefarious villain who wants to get their hands on it. When the Prof disappears it is down to Tim, Phillip and Dee, the professor's granddaughter, to find the professor, defeat the villains and save the world. 

The Imagination Box is a thoroughly entertaining, funny mystery adventure story that will delight 9+ readers, and most likely their parents too. There is something for everyone in this story - action, adventure, fantasy, science (albeit it a little fantastical in nature) and humour. And, of course, a finger monkey called Phillip.

Ok, so yesterday in my review of Fire Girl by Matt Ralphs I stated that I'm not a fan of talking animals, and yet here is another book where a talking animal is a stand-out character, and probably the star of the show. Honest, I really am not a fan of talking animals, but Phillip the finger monkey, with his highly educated and slightly upper class voice, is such a great creation. 

If I had one small negative thing to say about this book, it is the lack of illustrations within. Over the last twelve months there have been some fabulously written books published in the UK for the middle grade audience that have been enhanced even further by the work of an illustrator (just a few notable examples are Jamie Littler's work for Hamish and the Worldstoppers, Ross Collins' illustrations in The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones, and the fab drawings of Sara Ogilvie in Demolition Dad), and it is a shame that Matt Hunt's awesome work on the cover for The Imagination Box is not seen on the pages within, especially given the main character's passion for drawing. (I guess I should add that I only have a copy of the proof, so if illustrations were included in the finished edition then all I can say is brilliant!!!).

The Imagination Box is one of those books that will have children who have read it keen to discuss it with their friends. After all, the story's central theme - that of using your imagination for wish fulfillment - is one that will engage most active young minds. As such, it would make a great class reader for a group of Year 5/Year 6 children, although it's 270+ page length may worry some teachers and thus reduce the likelihood of this happening. However, the pace and fabulous fun factor of the story do ensure that children will race through these pages, most likely giggling all the way to the final chapter.

My thanks go to the fab people at Faber for sending me a copy of The Imagination Box to read.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Review: Fire Girl by Matt Ralphs

Twelve-year-old Hazel Hooper has spent her whole life trapped in a magical Glade created by her mother, Hecate. She's desperate to meet new people and find out about the world. And, more than anything, she wants to be a witch. But when her mother is kidnapped by a demon - everything changes . . .

Suddenly Hazel is alone in the world. Well . . . not quite alone. For it turns out that Hazel does have magic - she's just not very good at controlling it. And she may have accidentally created a grumpy familiar in the form of a dormouse called Bramley.

Determined to rescue her mother, the young witch and her mouse set out to track down the demon and find Hecate. However, it turns out that life outside the Glade is far more dangerous than Hazel ever could have imagined. Witch Hunters are everywhere - and the witches are using demons to fight back!

Luckily for Hazel she manages to enlist the help of a handsome boy called David, and his drunken master, Titus White, who are expert demon hunters.

And witch finders . . .

At first glance, long time readers of The Book Zone may think that Fire Girl by Matt Ralphs might not be the kind of book that I would jump to read, especially given the size of my TBR pile. Seriously, most people who know me and my blog know that I am not a fan of talking animals! However, when said book arrives with a hand written note from a publicity manager who I trust to make excellent recommendations, describing the book as "so fantastic", then there was no way I was going to leave it unread. And I'm damn glad I didn't as Fire Girl has rocketed its way into my Top 10 books of the year, and Bramley the (talking) dormouse is now one of my all time favourite fictional animals. In fact, I can even identify the exact moment Bramley endeared himself to me: as fledgling witch Hazel endeavours to escape from the magical hedge that has kept her safe from the outside world he urges her "That's it, witch-child, burn it all down". The best one line of dialogue in any book of 2015!

Most writers will tell you that the question they ask themselves the most when starting to craft a story is "What if?". In the case of Fire Girl I can imagine the questions may have been something along the lines of:

What if there really had been witches in England back in the 17th Century?
What if the whole English Civil War had taken place because Charles I believed that "I know the dangers Wielders could pose if driven underground. I deem it wise to grant them protection - that way I can control them", whilst Oliver Cromwell proclaimed that "For a pure England, I'll burn every witch".
What if a vengeful witch who has seen his kind hunted and burned, were willing to do deals with Baal himself in order to destroy Cromwell and his forces?

In Fire Girl writer Matt Ralphs has used the answers to these questions as the starting point in the creation of a story that is a masterful blend of alternative English history and thrilling magical fantasy. It is a world of where witches have familiars, some of them animal and some of them nasty demons that belong in the depths of hell. A world where the majority of witches just want a peaceful life, but are hunted or denounced for being different. A world inhabited by a young girl who so wants to have magic like her mother, but when her powers emerge there is no longer anyone around to nurture and advise, except for a grump dormouse who would rather he hadn't been 'chosen' as a witch's familiar.

Everything about this book is great: the plot, the pace and above all the characters. Hazel is courageous yet lacks self-confidence, reckless yet trusting, even if those she has to trust may be the ones who end up calling for her to be burnt as a witch. Bramley the dormouse is grumpy and argumentative, but deep down feels a tight bond to Hazel and will go to great lengths to help her, even if she does occasionally drive him nuts with her impetuousness. Bramley also plays another important part as a character - this story gets very dark at times, and Bramley has the role of the jester, bringing comic relief to lighten the mood when required. As well as Hazel and Bramley there are a host of supporting characters, who aren't all exactly as they first appear, and the author uses these in ensuring that the plot has enough twists and turns to keep every reader clinging to the edge of their seat.

Fire Girl will be released on 13th August in the UK and my thanks go to the fabulous Catherine Alport at Macmillan for bringing this wonderful book to my attention and for sending me a copy to read.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Review: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

Potions, puzzles and the occasional explosion are all in a day's work for young apothecary Christopher Rowe. Murder is another matter.

It's a dangerous time to be the apprentice of Benedict Blackthorn. A wave of mysterious murders has sent shockwaves through London, and soon Christopher finds himself on the run. His only allies are his best friend, Tom, courageous Molly, and a loyal feathered friend, Bridget. His only clues are a coded message about his master's most dangerous project, and a cryptic warning - 'Tell no one!'

The race is on for Christopher: crack the code and uncover its secret, or become the next victim . . .

Back before, and in the early days of, this blog I enjoyed reading a fair amount of adult historical mystery/thriller fiction. With the Tudor, Civil War and Restoration periods being of particular interest to me I loved CJ Sansom's Shardlake series, S.J. Parris' Giordano Bruno books, James Forrester's Clarenceaux trilogy and Susanna Gregory's Thomas Cahloner series. Sadly, these days I have a lot less time for adult books, but that does mean that when a historical mystery thriller for younger readers arrives in the post it can suddenly find itself promoted straight to the top of my TBR pile. The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands is one such book.

It is thoroughly refreshing to read a straight-up historical mystery story for middle grade readers, that does not have any kind of fantasy element to it. There is no magic, no dragons (or other fantasy creatures), no element of the supernatural, and the book is all the better for it. Although a fan of the period in which it is set, I am certainly no expert so would be unlikely to spot any historical inaccuracies. However, whether accurate or not (and I have a feeling that author Kevin Sands has been very thorough with his research), the setting of Restoration London, and its sights, sounds and smells, rang very true in my mind as I raced through the brilliant story. 

The Blackthorn Key is set in 1665, five years after the restoration of the monarchy in England, and in a period where there is still a great deal of mistrust. People have to be careful what they say for fear that a neighbour or even a family member might report them for treason. It is an era rife with political machinations and intrigue that lends itself perfectly as the setting for a historical mystery story. It is also an era when the role of the apothecary enjoyed a higher status in the eyes of the people, and they were very much the medical practitioners of choice for many. Some of these were probably little more than quacks and conmen, but many considered themselves serious scientists and healers, striving to make leaps forward in medical science.

Christopher Rowe, the hero of The Blackthorn Key, is apprenticed to one such apothecary. His master, Benedict Blackthorn, is kind and generous, traits that were rarely shown by a master to his apprentice in those times. This is all the more fortunate for Christopher, who is an overly inquisitive and adventurous boy - two personality traits that do necessarily mix well when surrounded by chemicals that can be mixed together to create gunpowder and other destructive materials. However, when it appears that some kind of mysterious cult is killing off local apothecaries it is exactly these kind of traits that come in useful, and as the violence comes even closer to home Christopher finds himself tasked with solving a mystery that involves cracking codes, and hunting down the secret to a destructive material that could completely change the balance of power, not just in England but potentially across the whole of Europe.

Christopher is a fabulous character that all readers, young or old, will warm to immediately. The opening chapter, in which we are introduced to Christopher, is one of the best I have read for some time - it tells us everything we need to know about his personality, his relationship with his master and the work they do, and his best friend Tom, in a manner that is exciting and very funny. Its lightness of tone makes the moments darkness and sorrow that follow later in the story all the more heart wrenching, and the story all the more thrilling.

2015 is proving to be yet another golden year for outstanding middle grade fiction, and The Blackthorn Key is another of my favourite books of the year so far. The Blackthorn Key is perfect for lovers of mystery thrillers, and young readers will find the London of 1665 brought completely alive for them as they race through its back streets and alleyways with Christopher. This book was easily as thrilling, fascinating and well written as Sansom's Matthew Shardlake books, and I am overjoyed to discover that it is the first in a planned trilogy. Please can we have more mystery thrillers like this for middle grade and YA readers!

The Blackthorn Key is due to be published at the beginning of September by Puffin in the UK and by Simon and Schuster in the USA. My thanks go to those lovely people at Puffin/Penguin Random House for sending me a copy to review.