Showing posts with label hot key books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hot key books. Show all posts

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Review: Harvey Drew and the Bin Men from Outer Space by Cas Lester

Harvey Drew is an ordinary eleven-year-old who dreams of great adventures in outer space. The Toxic Spew is an intergalactic waste disposal ship. The two are on a collision course for chaos! After Harvey unwittingly responds to an alien signal, he is transported to the flight deck of the Toxic Spew by the ship's bad-tempered computer, who promptly loses his return address. Even though none of the crew have even heard of Earth, let alone met an Earthling, Harvey becomes Captain of the stroppy, pizza-obsessed, brave (but grubby) crew, and almost immediately has to save them from poisonous pink maggots, dangerous exploding space-rubbish and a multiple spaceship pile-up on Hyperspaceway B16. Luckily, leading his rabble crew out of danger isn't so different from captaining his football team, and it turns out Harvey is just the boy to save the day!

Harvey Drew is a fairly typical 11-year-old boy - he loves football (in fact, he's the captain of the school team) and he has a thirst for adventure. In Harvey's case, it is adventure in outer space that he craves: his bedroom is full of models of spaceships and his computer has an Alien Alert App that constantly scans for signals from outer space. Despite the App so far picking up little more than random noises, Harvey's belief in life on other planets stands firm.

Meanwhile, millions of light years away, the crew of the Toxic Spew, an intergalactic waste disposal ship, are in dire straits. They have been captainless for several months and the crew spend most of their time bickering. They are in desperate need of a new captain, if only to keep them safe on the space lanes, but unfortunately everyone in their known galaxy knows the Toxic Spew, and the fact that it is not exactly the most pleasant smelling of places to work. In their desperation they send out a whole universe email, advertising for a captain, and guess whose Alien Alert App picks the message... yep, Harvey's! Not that he can understand a word of it, but it doesn't stop him from replying, and before he knows it he is teleported to the Toxic Spew, trillions of miles away from home, and in charge of its crew as their new captain. So begins an adventure that sees Harvey and his new crew having to deal with all kinds of weird and wonderful outer space problems.

Harvey Drew and the Bin Men from Outer Space is published by Hot Key Books, and therefore comes with one of their brilliant descriptive pictograms:

This pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the book, and I'm left feeling pretty redundant, but if you don't mind me waffling on anyway then I though I might as well tell you a little more whilst I am here. Aimed at the 7+ age group, the book is a laugh-a-minute outer space adventure story with great characters, funny dialogue (especially when they are bickering), and loads of ridiculously silly silliness.

Of course, the observant among you may be questioning how a quality like 'Leadership' fits into such a madcap, bonkers story. And therein lies a little bit of magic as cast by writer Cas Lester. As I mentioned earlier, Harvey is the captain of his local football team, and when he is thrown in at the deep end on the Toxic Spew as a very different type of captain, he starts to realise that he can utilise the qualities he has a football team captain to help gel his new team together. It's a challenging task, especially when your team are the bickering bunch of aliens that make up the crew and you are faced with previously unheard of problems like a cargo hold full of poisonous pink maggots and enough highly explosive and volatile Explo-Foam to blow you to kingdom come and back. Explo-Foam, I might add, that illegal across the whole universe, and could find Harvey and his crew either blown to bits or in deep, deep trouble with the law. However, Harvey rises to the occasion, leading by example, putting himself forward for any dangerous tasks, and generally doing the kind of things that bring a team together.

The story is accompanied by illustrations drawn by Sam Hearn. My proof copy has very few illustrations in it, but a quick scan of the first chapter on the Hot Key Books website (here) is enough to show that they complement the story very well indeed, and really being the characters to life for readers. I don't think it is creating too much of a spoiler to tell you that by the end of the book Harvey still hasn't found a way to get himself teleported back home, and for us readers this is very much a good thing as it means that there are plenty more adventures to come from Harvey Drew and his bumbling band of bin men. 

My thanks go to the fab people at Hot Key for sending me a copy of the book to read.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Review: The Rig by Joe Ducie

Fifteen-year-old Will Drake has made a career of breaking out from high-security prisons. His talents have landed him at the Rig, a specialist juvenile holding facility in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. No one can escape from the Rig. No one except for Drake...After making some escape plans and meeting the first real friends of his life, Drake quickly realises that all is not as it seems on the Rig. The Warden is obsessed with the mysterious Crystal-X - a blue, glowing substance that appears to give superpowers to the teens exposed to it. Drake, Tristan and Irene are banking on a bid for freedom - but can they survive long enough to make it?

There is little more I can say about the story that isn't mentioned in the blurb I've included above. Teen criminal Will Drake has so far managed to escape from every prison in which he has been incarcerated, although one particular escape did not go particularly smoothly for a fellow prisoner and as a result Drake is reluctant to get close to anyone again. However, he is now an inmate of the infamous Rig, a prison that pretty much takes maximum security to a new level. No one has ever escaped before, and even Drake could find himself up against the impossible this time.

On the face of it this might seem like a teen in prison story, but there is much more to this book than that. Yes, there are the obligatory nasty wardens and guards, and of course there is the group of hard nut prisoners who delight in asserting their strength and authority over anyone who gets in their way, and new inmates in particular. However, there is also a strong science fiction element to the story - what is the glowing blue substance that is being mined below the Rig? Why do some inmates seem to possess unnatural strength or other superhuman abilities? And why is there so much activity in the waters below whenever a supply vessel arrives? We follow Drake as he seeks to find answers to these mysteries and more as he desperately tries to find a  way off The Rig.

Joe Ducie, author of The Rig, was one of the two winners of the inaugural Guardian Hot Key Books Young Writers prize. On the day the winners were announced I received a tweet from Will Hill, Department 19 and one of the competition judges, telling me that I would totally love The Rig and so I waited impatiently for it to become available. As soon as it arrived from those wonderful people at Hot Key Books I pretty much dropped everything, eager to discover exactly why Will Hill and enjoyed it so much. Mr Hill either knows his books, or he knows me well (or both) as yes, I really did love it.

There is very little not to like about The Rig. It is a non-stop thrill ride from beginning to end, and as the first book in a series it left me wanting more come the final page. Even better, it did this without finishing on a massive cliffhanger - the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, but the door is wide open for the next instalment.

Drake is a great character. Ducie gives him an air of mystery - for much of the book we don't know exactly why he is in prison or how he has managed to escape from other allegedly maximum security prisons. This information (or some of it) is drip fed throughout the story, but even then we do not find out all of the answers, and I would imagine that these will continue to be revealed as the series progresses. Similarly, the backgrounds of the secondary characters that Drake encounters, both as allies or enemies, are not fully revealed, and whilst some readers may find this a little frustrating, I like to be kept guessing.

In this book Ducie very much focuses on building his main character, and the world that is the Rig itself. As with the character, we are only given the occasional hint as to the nature of the society these people now live in, and just why the powers that be feel the need to lock teens away on a rig on the middle of the Arctic Ocean. As with most dystopian societies, there are hints at corruption, corporate greed, mass poverty and again, I am sure we will continue to find out more as the story develops in the future.

All the elements are there to make this a great book for boys (and many girls too). The action is unrelenting, there are countless mysteries encountered by Drake, friendships and formed and tested, and of course there is the overriding question of just how on earth Drake could possibly find a way off The Rig. I will be tossing this book in the direction of as many boys as possible as it is the kind of book that could quickly win over reluctant readers.

I do not give graded reviews on this blog (I do enough grading in my work life), but I do give starred reviews on Goodreads for every book that I read and I enjoyed The Rig so much that I gave it five stars. However (takes a deep breath) I almost gave it a lot less for one reason only - this has kind of been done before. Long time readers of The Book Zone will know just how much I love Alexander Gordon Smith's Escape From Furnace series, and there were far too many elements of The Rig that in some way mirror those of Furnace. The Rig has a teen boy who is incarcerated for a minor crime, in Furnace the protagonist is framed for a crime he didn't commit. Both Furnace and the Rig are maximum security prisons that are seemingly inescapable. In both books inmates are experimented on, giving them superhuman strength. However, because The Rig gripped me so much I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and despite the similarities there are also some key differences, the most obvious being that Furnace very much falls within the horror genre, whereas The Rig is an action thriller with sci fi elements. 

As I said earlier, I really, really enjoyed The Rig and I can't wait to read the sequel. The Rig was released on 5th September so you should be able to find it in stores now, and my thanks go to Hot Key Books for sending me a copy to read.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Review: Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones

Sam Toop lives in a funeral parlour, blessed (or cursed) with an unusual gift. While his father buries the dead, Sam is haunted by their constant demands for attention. Trouble is afoot on the 'other side' - there is a horrible disease that is mysteriously imprisoning ghosts into empty houses in the world of the living. And Sam is caught in the middle - will he be able to bring himself to help?

One of my favourite horror films is Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. In my opinion, it has the perfect blend of horror and comedy, and it so deserves to be more widely acclaimed than it is. Released in 1996, and therefore some years before Jackson achieved god-like status with his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it tells the story of Frank, a guy who develops psychic powers following a car accident. These psychic powers allow him to see and communicate with ghosts, and he uses this power to con people into thinking their houses are haunted, so that he can charge them for an exorcism. However, everything starts to go wrong when a Grim Reaper style ghost starts killing off the town's residents and it is down to Frank and his merry band of ghosts to save the day.

Why am I telling you this? Because Constable & Toop, the latest book from award winning writer Gareth P Jones, reminded me so much of that film, but in a Victorian setting. It is funny, scary, occasionally gruesome and has a great cast of characters, in both main and supporting roles. Oh yes, and it is beautifully written as well. I don't give starred reviews on this blog, but I gave this one five stars on Goodreads after I finished reading it.

The 'Frank' character is Constable & Toop is Sam Toop, a young boy who can see ghosts. And he sees a great deal of them - partly due to living and working in the funeral parlour where his father is a partner. Sometimes ghosts come looking for him, as they need closure in order to move on and he is a nice boy who will give up his time to help them. However, one fateful night his estranged uncle, a career criminal and murderer, comes crashing into his life. All of a sudden Sam finds his beliefs and his relationship with his father challenged, as dark secrets from the past gradually come to light.

In addition to Sam's story, there is also that of Lapsewood, a ghost who has for many years worked meekly as a ghostly civil servant. Finding himself suddenly transferred to another department and out of his comfort zone, Lapsewood stumbles across a dark and dangerous mystery - ghosts are going missing and houses that have previously been harmlesley haunted are becoming deadly for the ghostly entities that inhabit them. Lapsewood's and Sam's stories begin to intertwine and soon they find themselves racing to save both of their worlds, thwarted along the way by a pretty nasty piece of work in the form of an exorcist (and as villains go, this one is brilliant!).

Constable & Toop is brilliant from beginning to end, as Gareth P Jones skilfully weaves a fantastic and well plotted story of mystery, thrills and chills. Everything about the story is spot on - the characters, the descriptions of the Victorian setting and its inhabitants, the ghosts and their lives in their world, and the attention to detail. I would not be surprised if the author wins more awards with this book to add to those he has received for his previous works.

My thanks go to the lovely people at Hot Key Books for sending me a copy to review. This is a great book to give to horror loving kids as a stocking filler for Christmas - not too gory, not too scary, just the right amount of funny, and beautifully written.

Before you go please check out the following two videos. The first is Gareth singing his Constable & Toop song (I gather he writes a song to accompany each of his books and this one will totally get stuck in your head for weeks), and the second video is Gareth's fab trailer for the book.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Review: Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

What if playing computer games could save the world... And what if the Government’s secret weapon was you?

Tom Raines is suddenly recruited into the US Army to train as a virtual reality Combatant to see if he is good enough to help fight World War Three. Equipped with a new computer chip in his brain, it looks like Tom might actually become somebody. But what happens when you start to question the rules?

Fast-paced and futuristic, INSIGNIA introduces snarky Tom, brutal Elliot and alluring Heather. In this first of a trilogy, Kincaid asks significant questions concerning the use of technology and the value of human life.

When I was a teenager I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and I used to spend hours playing on it, though nowhere near the amount of time that a lot of my game-loving students seem to devote to their X-Boxes or PS3s. However, at some point I grew out of it, although sitting here now I cannot remember when that was, and it was only last year when I treated myself to a PS3 that I rediscovered my love of gaming. I’m not exactly what you would call an expert on the subject, and my skills are pretty poor in comparison with the majority of game-loving students I teach, but with the quality of games available these days, and the added online element that we did not have back in the 80s, I can understand why young people, and specifically boys, read a lot less these days. I certainly read a lot less in the week following the arrival of Batman: Arkham City!

So it was with great interest that I picked up a copy of Insignia by SJ Kincaid, sent to me by the generous people at Hot Key Books, a brand new British publishing house. Hot Key’s press information included the blurb I have included at the top of this review, and although I thought it looked interesting, I certainly did not expect it to completely hook me the way that it did. Insignia is Harry Potter for gamers, with a six-pack of Top Gun thrown in for good measure, and reading it was like playing an incredibly addictive video game – once I started I just couldn’t put it down, and my wife had to literally tear it out of my hands in the end so that I could honour my promise to mow the lawn.

Insignia is set in the future, on a planet earth that is slap bang in the middle of World War III. However, this is not World War III in the way that we would imagine it to be, with governments launching nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction at each other. Instead, it is a war waged by multi-national corporations, and one in which there are no human casualties at all. This war is being fought far out in the solar system, with control over valuable mining rights and rare natural resources the ultimate prizes, and where the fleets of space fighters are controlled by the minds of teenagers, from the safety of the Pentagon (in the case of those fighting for corporations allied to the US at least).

Tom Raines is a nobody, the son of a down-on-his-luck gambler, who spends his life following his father from casino to casino. The only joy Tom gets out of life is in the VR parlors that are invariably found in the casinos and hotels that his father ends up in. In these palors Tom can lose himself in the games, and for a couple of hours at least he is no longer the loser son of a loser father - he is a master gamer. It is his instinctual skill at gaming, and his mastery of tactics that brings him to the attention of a General in the US Army who is looking for someone a little different to join the elite group of teens who are fighting the war out in the solar system. Through a little persuasion, Tom finds himself enrolling to train with the best of the best, and his life his changed forever.

At this point, just because I need to get it out of my system, I am going to draw a few parallels with the Harry Potter series. I’m not saying that this is ‘the new Harry Potter’, as long-time readers of The Book Zone will know just how much it annoys me when reviewers claim this about a book, but I think the similarities between the two stories will be what make this book a huge hit with young teen readers. First up there is Tom – a boy who finds himself in a military academy surrounded by people who are already ‘in the know’ and who he sees as being much better than him because of this. All the other trainees have been selected as a result of their fantastic achievements (Mathlete of the year, winners of awards for this or that, Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, etc), whilst Tom is there because he is good at playing games. Secondly there are the characters themselves. Tom soon finds himself making friends with Vikram, who sees himself as a bit of a joker, and Wyatt, the geeky girl who just happens to be an expert on all things computer/software related. The cadets are also sorted into Divisions (like houses), there are bullies (in another Division of course) and there is a member of staff who Tom feels is out to get him. Yes, it all sounds a little familiar, but if HP had never been around then all we would be saying is that the set-up was typical of any school anywhere in the world. Yes there are similarities, but Insignia is most definitely not another cheap rip-off of Harry Potter.

One of the aspects of the Harry Potter books that made them such a huge success was the development of the various characters and the interaction between them. I guess this is why we so often see in children’s literature a character who is put in a situation where he immediately feels out-of-his-depth but is surrounded by new friends who will help him/her fit conquer his/her insecurities. This is just like real life for young people, starting new schools, having to make new friends, and so on, and therefore readers find it very easy to connect with a new character. I loved the way SJ Kincaid wrote her characters and the they interacted in the story, with the banter, pranks, dares and so on that I witness day in day out as a teacher. There are moments in this story which will have you laughing out loud, and there are moments when you might also feel tears of a very different nature start to well in your eyes.

I worked out a long time ago that when I really love a book I tend to struggle to write a concise review and I end up rambling on and on. Looking back at what I have written so far (more than 1000 words!), I would suggest that this is evidence enough regarding my love of this story. There is so much more I want to say but I feel I should bring this to a close. It has everything I think an 11+ boy or girl could ask for in a book – action, adventure, and a plot that races along like a runaway train, all anchored in the world of computer games. It also deals with themes such a friendship, personal identity, corporate greed and corruption. Despite being the first book a trilogy it also has a ‘proper’ end to it, but Insignia doesn’t need a cliffhanger ending to encourage readers to ache longingly for the sequel, the characters and the quality of the storytelling are what will have young people coming back for more. You can keep your Hunger Games, your Divergents and your Blood Read Roads, this is the dystopic future society that I have enjoyed reading about more than any others in the past year, and it will be Insignia that I will be pushing to all the kids at school come September.

Insignia is due to be published in August and my thanks go to Hot Key Books for sending me a copy to review.