Thursday 31 December 2009

My Top 20 Books Of The Decade - Number 1

Finally..... my personal favourite book (ok....this is a trilogy) of the Noughties. Drum roll please...... At Number 1 is:

1. The Stoneheart Trilogy by Charlie Fletcher

I have a feeling that some people may find this a surpising choice for my Number 1 book of the last decade, but please believe me when I say that whilst I found deciding on the order of the rest of the books to be an almost agonising task, there was never any doubt in my mind what I would be awarding the top spot to. I loved every moment of this trilogy from the first chapter of Stoneheart right the way through to the last page of Silver Tongue. In this trilogy Charlie Fletcher has written about London in such an imaginative way that you will never be able to walk the city's streets and see them in the same way again once you have read these books. I challenge you to walk past the dragons that guard the main routes into the City and not glance at them nervously out of the corner of your eye! Or stand and admire the statue of The Gunner on Hyde Park Corner and not feel anything but admiration for this very great literary hero!  

These books have everything: believable, endearing characters that the reader can very quickly empathise with; a particularly creepy villain; thorough research leading to a fresh re-imagining of London and its statues; realistic dialogue that adds to the story rather than detracts from it; layers within the story that allow it to be enjoyed by both children and adults (and everyone inbetween)..... I could go on and on - in my mind this is the most original fantasy series I have read since first picking up Philip Pullman's Northern Lights.

Charlie Fletcher demonstrates in Stoneheart that he has a great talent for descriptive writing - he really does make the city come alive in the mind of the reader. However, this is not at the cost of narrative pace, which is faster than Usain Bolt but with the stamina of Paula Radcliffe; Silver Tongue has more than 500 pages, the other two books approaching this number, yet most readers will not notice the passage of this many of pages as they become totally engrossed in the fast moving story. And this is the case for all three books - no slow moving mid-trilogy disappointment from this author!

As well as being able to write fast-moving chase scenes (of which there are many), Mr Fletcher is also just as skilled when it come to writing the lengthy, climactic battle scenes in the trilogy's final instalment, scenes that do justice to the rest of the preceding story. And there are so many of them - it takes great skill and imagination to be able to write so many battle and chase scenes and yet make them all very different - no lazy, repetitive writing from this author. The plotting is also very tight indeed - Mr Fletcher creates a slow-building wave of suspense, that eventually breaks in the final pages of the trilogy; a wave that keeps the reader's heart pounding due to the unrelenting tension, plot twists and never really knowing which of the many secondary characters are fighting on which side.

This is also a pretty dark story. Unlike the Percy Jackson trilogy and Skulduggery Pleasant which are in many ways akin to the earlier books in the Harry Potter series with their light tone and humour designed to appease the parents of their target audience, this story is more like the later books in Rowling's series - you are never sure through these books if George or Edie will make it through to the final page, or will Charlie Fletcher sacrifice one of his main characters in order to maintain the dark and forbidding nature of the story? This dark tone is supported by Mr Fletcher's tackling of subjects such as poor self-esteem, loneliness and abandonment, both issues that the two main characters have had to deal with in their lives. However, in doing this the author also makes the reader become more attached to the characters; you genuinely become concerned for their welfare which ups the tension levels even further.

Recent Twitter conversations have made me realise that I have missed several very worthy authors and books off my list. I have personal reasons for some of these but the omission of Robert Muchamore's CHERUB series and the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer are genuine errors - I changed my mind so many times that in the end they got fotgotten. Where they would have featured in the Top 20 I could not now say, but Charlie Fletcher would not have lost his Number 1 position to either of them. I am also not a huge fan of the more traditional fantasy stories so I don't buy many at all (e.g. Edge Chronicles, Wardstone Chronicles, etc) which may explain their non-appearance, and it also shames me to say that I have not yet read Jonathan Stroud's allegedly outstanding Bartimaeus Trilogy (something I plan to remedy in 2010, but there is no way I am going to recommend a book I haven't read just for the sake of keeping a few people happy). If you disagree with me (and I know there will be many of you who do) then so be it..... but please do go back and read the first paragraph I wrote to introduce this Top 20 before shouting at me.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

My Top 20 Books Of The Decade - Part 3

Continuing on from Part 1 and Part 2 of the countdown of my Top 20 boy-friendly books of this last decade, here are numbers 5 down to 2...... to keep you in suspense for just a little longer I am not going to tell you my Number 1 choice until New Year's Eve.

5. The Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy

Listen up boys! Books can have female main characters and still be boy-friendly and totally brilliant (watch this space in 2010 for more recommendations for books like this). Valkyrie Cain (for it is she, not Skulduggery, who is the true main character in this story) is smart, confident, sharp-tongued, and best of all she really kicks ass! As we progress through the books we see these character traits, as well as her magical and combat abilities, develop under the tutelage and friendship of the wise-cracking, dead detective Skulduggery Pleasant. These books cross a number of genres, delivering enough horror, mystery, fantasy, action and humour too keep even the most reluctant of readers engrossed. With the fourth book in the series, entitled Dark Days, due to be published on 1st April 2010, there is still plenty of time to read the first three books if you haven't already done so.

4. The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan

A consistently brilliant series of five books that will only soar in popularity with the release of the big-budget movie Percy Jackson and the Olympians in 2010. Rick Riordan very cleverly weaves the classic tales of ancient Greek mythology into a modern day action/adventure story good enough to rival the Harry Potter series. The whole series is incredibly fast paced, with exceptionally tight plotting, and enough twists to keep the reader guessing to the very last page. Like the Harry Potter series these books are all about friendship and triumph against seemingly impossible odds. Mr Riordan's The Red Pyramid, the first book in the Kane Chronicles, is due for release in 2010. This time focusing on the mythology of ancient Egypt, I already have this high up on my list of must-reads for next year.

3. The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz

I found it so difficult to decide between this and the series of books at Number 2 that I very nearly cheated and put them both as equal second. However, I have bitten the bullet and made my decision, which no doubt will be unpopular with some of my blog readers. There is very little I can say about this series that hasn't already been said. Mr Horowitz is the man who set the ball rolling for the multitude of great boy-friendly action stories that have been written and published over the last ten years, and I do not mean to do any other author a disservice by saying that without the Alex Rider series we might not ever have seen the Young Bond series, Jimmy Coates, Cherub and many more. Not all the books have shone with the same brilliance, but on balance the series is still head and shoulders above most of the competition, with the recent Crocodile Tears being one of the best so far in my opinion.

2. The Jimmy Coates series by Joe Craig

There are six episodes so far in this action-packed and very imaginative series of boy-friendly books. Throughout the series Joe Craig has never disappointed with his combination of a troubled and reluctant hero, breathless action scenes, and immoral government-sponsored genetic engineering, all set in a dystopian Britian of the future. The stories are tightly plotted with many memorable characters and Mr Craig writes his action scenes with a fluency that should be the envy of many other writers, whether they write for the young or the adult markets. However, I think it is the author's imagination and vision that really make his stories stand out from the rest of the crowd and I am sure that they will continue to grow in popularity. Look out for the next instalment in the series - due to a dispute with his publisher we do not yet know when this will be but I am sure it will be well worth the wait.         

Sunday 27 December 2009

Review: Thomas Riley by Nick Valentino

For more than twenty years West Canvia and Lemuria have battled one another in a constant war. 

From the safety of his laboratory, weapons designer Thomas Riley has cleverly and proudly empowered the West Canvian forces with his brilliant designs. But when a risky alchemy experiment goes horribly wrong, Thomas and his wily assistant, Cynthia Bassett, are thrust onto the front lines of battle.

Forced into shaky alliances with murderous sky pirates in a deadly race to kidnap the only man who can undo the damage—the mad genius behind Lemuria’s cunning armaments—Thomas’ own genius is put to the ultimate test.

I have slightly mixed feelings about this book, caused to a large degree by the fact that I had only recently finished reading Boneshaker, Cherie Priest’s brilliant steampunk adventure. Thomas Riley has all the ingredients in a book that would normally have me raving about it but if I am perfectly honest I have been left feeling a little disappointed. It is chock full of fast-paced swashbuckling action, with memorable characters and a cracking storyline reminiscent of the classic pirate or period adventure movies, but in a steampunk setting. It has sky pirates and mid-air battles in all manner of airships and dirigibles, many amazing steampunk gadgets and weapons and a dashing, reluctant hero in the form of the titular Thomas Riley. The characters wear corsets, goggles, high collared shirts and neckerchiefs tied with fancy knots. There are also fictional countries, engaged in a 20 year war, called West Canvia and Lemuria, and even a spot of alchemical science thrown in for good measure. What more could a steampunk loving boy ask for? So why didn’t I totally love this book?

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it as a really good introduction to steampunk fiction, but there are elements of the story that I felt could have been better. My first gripe is that the characterisation could be more solid. Thomas and Cynthia, his assistant, are weapons designers who are reluctantly thrust into front-line battles and adventures deep inside enemy territory as part of their quest. During these adventures they see for the first time the pain and bodily destruction that their weapons are capable of, at which they show remorse and question the morality of their work...... but this never seems to last long, as mere pages later they are yet again firing acid-filled bullets at their enemies. We never get the chance to really see inside their heads and empathise with them. This book, although supposedly originally written for the adult market, is being marketed at the 13+ age range (even though unlike most YA books both main characters are in their mid to late twenties), and I feel that these days Young Adults expect a little more from their characters than this book offers.

I was also a little confused by the location of the story. I presumed at first that West Canvia and Lemuria were purely fictional places, although Lemuria was very obviously heavily influenced by the culture of Germany/Prussia, and the places, characters and attitudes have a distinctly European flavour. However, in one passage more than half way through the book we are informed that a character says something in a British accent, and Thomas and Cynthia also end up landing with their pirate captors in the Seychelles. So are we in an alternative mainland Europe? Somewhere else? Who knows, as the flight to the Seychelles seemed significantly shorter than it would have been in a real-world setting. I have since read a number of articles and interviews written by Nick Valentino where he says that he “left it up to the reader to determine the time frame and where these countries actually are. I like letting the reader use their imagination and therefore making the story more personal.” This is as it should be when writing science fiction /steampunk fantasy but I was just left feeling a little confused at times (he has also said that he based West Canvia on the culture of the Netherlands and Lemuria on that of Germany). I have also since found this map (absent from the book) on another website which may or may not add to the confusion, but would have made a great addition to the final printed version of the book:

My final moan – after many white knuckle escapades, with Thomas and Cynthia escaping the clutches of death on several occasions, the final climactic fight scenes seem a little rushed. At one point, as I got close to the last 40 or 50 pages, I began to wonder whether the story would be brought to a satisfying conclusion, or was it the first in a series where I would be met with the dreaded “to be continued” at the end. But no, the story does come to a proper end, but in doing so some plot aspects are a little rushed through. For example, at one point Thomas has a strange artefact in his pocket (although why he chose to purloin this specific one from the many others that were in the room we are not informed); said artefact gets broken in two during a fight scene, causing the temperature of the room to plummet, and our hero becomes surrounded by ghost-like people. When later asked about the reasons for this Thomas answers “I have a vague idea. I truly wish I could tell you, but we don’t have time to find out for sure”, and then when asked by another character, he replies “We opened something, a door perhaps, something beyond my comprehension”..... and that is pretty much that. Is Mr Valentino leaving things open for a sequel? I do not know, but it is certainly a plot hole that could have been filled a lot better.

So should you go out and buy this book? Although I have written quite a lot about the things I was disappointed with, I would suggest that much of this is the fault of the editor and not the writer, and so I would still say a resounding “yes”! It is a very boy-friendly action, adventure romp in a well-imagined steampunk world, and the gadgets and weapons are fantastic and great fun to read about. The story is very fast paced and has a lot of appeal for reluctant boy readers. I hope Mr Valentino adds more books to the series, as I feel that Thomas and Cynthia, and some of the secondary characters, still have stories to tell. I believe that he is also writing a series of Young Adult short steampunk stories called The Young Alchemists and I look forward to reading these in the future. Mr Valentino is also trying to widen the Thomas Riley steampunk experience for his readers by offering an exciting website where you can even sign up to be a sky pirate.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born. But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history. His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

There have been a number of really good steampunk novels for both adults and younger readers released during 2009, and with so many on the cards for next year I am already christening 2010 as Book Zone’s official “Year of Steampunk”. The genre has been around for years, but it seems that it is only in the last twelve months that it has hit the Young Adult and middle-grade market with a vengeance. In my opinion Boneshaker by Cherie Priest ranks amongst the very best books in this genre; it is certainly the best adult steampunk book I have read this year.

One of the reasons I like this book so much is that it delivers a fresh take on the steampunk genre. Traditionally, steampunk stories have been set in Victorian England, or at the very least have been heavily rooted in some form of alternate British Empire. Not Boneshaker - this book is set in a thoroughly depressing, late 19th Century alternate Seattle, not yet part of a United States where the civil war is still being waged. All the other favourite steampunk elements are present though: airships (not sleek passenger or military craft – these are cobbled together from the scrap of other ships and piloted by smugglers and sky-pirates); steam powered air pumps; mad inventors; goggles; brass and wooden gadgets and weapons a plenty; the list goes on and on. Add flesh-eating zombies (are there any other kind?), a walled-off city, and a zombie-fying gas leaking from the depths of the earth and you have one hell of a premise for a novel.

At the beginning of the book Cherie Priest very cleverly sets the scene for her alternative history by providing the reader with a prologue in the form of an excerpt from a book written by a journalist who makes a brief (and easily forgotten) cameo appearance at the beginning and end of the story. In this prologue we are informed that some years prior to our story a machine (the Boneshaker of the book’s title) designed to mine gold from the frozen lands of the North ran amok through downtown Seattle, wrecking this part of the city. In the trail of destruction left by the Boneshaker a gas is released from the bowels of the earth that turned people to zombies (‘rotters’ as they are known in the story). The ruined portion of the city and its ‘rotters’ have since been walled-up, with most of Seattle’s remaining population living a pretty grim existence in the bleak and depressing "Outskirts."

Briar Wilkes is the wife of the Boneshaker’s creator, the man blamed for all the destruction suffered by Seattle. In the fifteen or so years since the devastation she has shielded her son Zeke from the truth behind his father’s actions, as well as those of his grandfather, another person deeply entrenched in the grim folklore of post-disaster Seattle. Like any teenager thrown into this sort of situation, Zeke has become an angry and inquisitive young man and so sets out on a quest into the walled-off city in an attempt to clear the names of both his father and grandfather. Of course, once Briar discovers this she sets out on her own adventure – a rescue mission! With two main characters the story then alternates between Zeke’s and Briars different adventures through the polluted, zombie infested city.

It is once Briar and Zeke are within the walled-off city that the story really comes alive. Ms Priest has an obvious talent for descriptive writing, and her detailed and vivid portrait of the post-apocalypse city may stay with you for a long time after you have finished this book (and if you are very unlucky, it may even seep into your darkest dreams). This would be a very bleak story indeed if it wasn’t for the author’s other massive talent – creating warm and believable secondary characters that the reader can identify and empathise with. And there are so many of them: Lucy, the barmaid who has lost both of her arms and had one of them replaced with a mechanical marvel; Cly, the towering owner of the airship that literally drops Briar off inside the city walls; Jeremiah Swakhammer, the steampunk version of a knight in (not so) shining armour; and the evil Minnericht, a truly creepy and twisted human being who is hell-bent on controlling Briar, Zeke and the rest of the walled city. It is all of these characters that make this book such a great read.

Boneshaker was written for the adult market, but there is little in it that makes it unsuitable for more advanced Young Adult readers. Yes, there is quite a high level of violence and horror, but no worse than you would find in a Darren Shan novel or the recently published The Monstrumologist. Once you get past the relatively slow opening chapters, the fast pace of the narrative with its memorable battle scenes and snappy, clever dialogue will keep you hooked and not wanting to put the book down, and once you have finished it you will certainly be left wanting more – it is a good job that Ms Priest has a second novel in the series entitled Dreadnought coming in 2010 (pulished by Tor) and, I believe, another story entitled Clementine at some point in the not-too-distant future as well. For more information about Cherie Priest's re-imagined 19th Century United states visit her blog here.

Sunday 20 December 2009

** Interview with Stephen Davies (author of Hacking Timbuktu)

A the beginning of December I wrote a review of Stephen Davies' Hacking Timbuktu, an exciting modern adventure story for boys, set in London and Africa. Shortly after I published the review I was really flattered to receive an email from Stephen praising my blog, and offering to do an interview by email. Needless  to say, I jumped at the chance!

How did you get the idea for Hacking Timbuktu?
Back in 2003 I watched a Channel 4 documentary called Jump London and I was instantly hooked by parkour: the cinematic and anarchic 'art of escape'! Throughout the decade, parkour featured a lot in films and advertising, and provided the inspiration for Hacking Timbuktu – I wanted to try and capture the dynamism and poetry of parkour within the action sequences of a thriller.

Your writing of the parkour scenes in Hacking Timbuktu must have involved a lot of time researching the sport. How did you go about this?

Most of my research was online. I watched hundreds of parkour clips on YouTube (my favourite was Extreme Tag), browsed dozens of parkour blogs (my favourite was Blane's Blog) and eavesdropped on the technical forums at Urban Freeflow.

And the hacking scenes?

A computer expert called Kybernetikos helped me with the hacking scenes. First I asked him how someone would go about hacking an airline computer system. He wrote back the following day with six possible methods! I chose the most exciting one, which involved our hero going to an airport, climbing into the ceiling beams and splicing an intranet cable to launch a devastating 'Man in the Middle' hack attack.

How have you used your own experiences and adventures in Africa in your writing?

'Write what you know' is reliable advice. I have lived in West Africa for the last eight years, and Hacking Timbuktu relies heavily on first-hand experience. The sheep on the roof of the bus, the mosquito-ridden youth hostel, the rasta tourist guide singing Premiership terrace chants, the women pounding onions on the Dogon cliffs – these settings and characters feel authentic because they are.

In my spy thriller The Yellowcake Conspiracy, the main character is a Fulani cattle herder called Haroun. He adores cows and his conversation is peppered with genuine Fulani proverbs. Nevertheless, I found it hard to get inside Haroun's head in a totally believable way. That is why I chose Westerners as the main characters of Hacking Timbuktu.

What do you see as being the other main influences on your writing?

When I write for boys I always bear in mind the best action films I have seen. I ruminate on the tension and trickery of heist films (Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job), the urgency of chase films (The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity) and the gadgetry of spy films (Mission Impossible, Casino Royale).

Poetry is another big influence. In Hacking Timbuktu, the chase through the British Museum was inspired by Robert Minhinnick's wonderful poem The Fox in the National Museum of Wales. I believe the sound and rhythm of words plays an important part in action scenes.

Your Sophie and the Albino Camel books, whilst being full of action and adventure, are obviously written for a younger audience than Hacking Timbuktu. Which did you enjoy writing more?

The Sophie books are like cartoons – bold, joyful, fast-flowing and inane. Hacking Timbuktu and The Yellowcake Conspiracy have more depth and complexity. I honestly cannot say which I prefer. Whether the target audience is younger or older, the ingredients of a Good Writing Day are the same: dialogue that makes me laugh and action 'set pieces' that make my heart beat a little bit faster. I always write the most enjoyable bits first and then go back and fill in the gaps as briefly as possible. Sections that are fun to write are generally fun to read.

You have described Hacking Timbuktu as "a King Solomon's Mines for the twenty-first century". Is this a book that has influenced your storytelling?

King Solomon's Mines was a great African adventure story with intrepid explorers and lost gold. It was written in 1885 by Rider Haggard, as the result of a bet. His brother had bet him five shillings that he couldn't write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island! Pre-launch publicity declared King Solomon's Mines 'The Most Amazing Book Ever Written', but if you read it today you might disagree. The story seems slow if you compare it to modern adventures by the likes of Anthony Horowitz or Charlie Higson, and the way Haggard writes about African people does reflect the colonial attitudes of his time. So when I wrote Hacking Timbuktu I wanted to preserve the adventure quality of King Solomon's Mines but ramp up the pace and add a sprinkling of modern gadgets.

Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?
If you like African thrillers, try The Door of No Return and Last of the Warrior Kings by Sarah Mussi. They are intelligently written and hugely exciting. The Devil's Breath by David Gilman is another rollicking read set in Africa. If you want the same genre in a different continent, read The Joshua Files by MG Harris.

What were your favourite books when you were younger?

When I was young I would read books over and over again. From the humour and cunning of Brer Rabbit, I progressed to Just William (by Richmal Crompton) and Molesworth (by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle – just look at these rave reviews on Amazon!). After that I started enjoying books by Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilbur Smith and John Buchan.

Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?

The Bible. In my teens, this book gripped me like nothing else and completely transformed my life. This is Story with a capital S, endlessly inspiring and thought-provoking. It's got poetry, adventure, heroic self-sacrifice, the lot. If in doubt, don't start with Genesis, start with Mark.

Do you have any more plans for Danny and Omar in the future or any other writing projects in the pipeline?

Danny and Omar are fun characters to write, so I would love to do a sequel to Hacking Timbuktu. Before I do that, I must finish my current book: another thriller set in the Sahara Desert. It is about an outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – a sort of African Robin Hood.

Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?

Now is a really good time to be a reader. Never before has there been such a wide choice of books for every age and taste. Read everything and anything. If you don't like a book, abandon it and try another. When you find an author you like, read everything they have ever written. Keep an eye on Book Zone 4 Boys and Achuka. If you are on Facebook, add the 'Visual Bookshelf' app to your profile, so that you can review the books you read and get recommendations from others. Use your local library. Read on buses and on park benches and in bed. And if all that reading inspires you to write something yourself, go for it!

Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Stephen, especially at this busy time of year. I want to reiterate what Stephen said about the Jump London parkour documentary (and its Jump Britain companion DVD) - if you are even remotely interested in parkour then these are incredible, must-see films. If you want to find out more about Stephen Davies, his books and his life in Africa then you should visit his Voice In The Desert website. Thanks again Stephen, and on behalf of all of my blog readers I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.   

Saturday 19 December 2009

Review: Auslander by Paul Dowswell

A chilling and thought-provoking thriller about a Polish orphan's subversion of Nazi ideals

When Peter’s parents are killed, he is sent to an orphanage in Warsaw. Then German soldiers take him away to be measured and assessed. They decide that Peter is racially valuable. He is Volksdeutscher: of German blood. With his blond hair, blue eyes, and acceptably proportioned head, he looks just like the boy on the Hitler-Jugend poster. Someone important will want to adopt Peter. They do.

Professor Kaltenbach is very pleased to welcome such a fine Aryan specimen to his household. People will be envious. But Peter is not quite the specimen they think. He is forming his own ideas about what he is seeing, what he is told. Peter doesn’t want to be a Nazi, and so he is going to take a very dangerous risk. The most dangerous risk he could possibly choose to take in Berlin in 1943. (from

Auslander is a very different book compared to the books I have reviewed so far on this blog. I have the nice people at Bloomsbury for sending this to me as it is not the sort of book that I would normally have gone out and bought as it is set in 1940s Germany which isn't a period of history that I am particularly interested in when it comes to fiction (my favourite periods in history are the Tudor Period during the reign of King Henry VIII and the post-English Civil War Restoration period. The recent explosion of Steampunk novels has awakened in me an interest in the Victorian era as well.). I was 'turned off' the Second World War period due to the incredibly boring Key Stage 4 history lessons I had at school, which sadly just goes to show you the power a poor teacher has over the future interests of their pupils.

So how is this book so different from the other books I have mentioned so far? Simple..... it is far more 'real'. Readers of this blog will have worked out by now that I really like adrenalin-fuelled books with lots of action scenes - sort of like action movies on paper - but even though I can associate with characters in these books and often feel I'm living the story with them, it is still all just fantasy. Auslander is different in that whilst it has more than enough action and tension to shake a stick at, it reads like a true story. Based on the horrifying events that took place in Germany and Eastern Europe during this time, everything that happens in the story really could have happened. I just wish Mr Dowswell had been my history teacher whilst I was at school as in this book he really made these events come alive for me, and this is a must-read for any boy (or girl) studying this period in history at school.

It is a sad fact that some authors have assumed that because they are writing for younger readers then they don't have to carry out the same degree of rigorous research as they would do when writing for adults. I have lost count of the books I have read over the years that have disappointed me in this area. However, Paul Dowswell is most definitely NOT one of these authors - his research is meticulous and his descriptive writing about war-time Berlin and its people is outstanding. His development of his characters as we progress through the book, and especially that of Peter, is detailed and thorough; even his secondary characters are well-drawn, with no-one being relegated to sit all alone on the substitute bench of character development.

This book is definitely for older readers (12+) as less mature readers will, understandably, find some of the content a little disturbing. However, for young adults this will make a thought provoking introduction to the chilling atrocities carried out under Adolf Hitler's regime, and the different reactions to these of the people who lived through the period.

Auslander is published in paperback by Bloomsbury on 4th January 2010. Mr Dowswell was interviewed at the 2009 Booktrust Teenage Prize ceremony, and in thr second half of this video excerpt from youtube he discusses Auslander and the issues it explores:     

Thursday 17 December 2009

**Trailer: Hunger by Michael Grant

If you haven't yet read Gone by Michael Grant then why not? It is an amazing book that will have you gripped from beginning to end. The sequel, entitled Hunger, is due for release at the beginning of January so you still have time to read Gone.

I will definitely be reading Hunger when it is released, and I will post a review on here. In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is the recently released trailer video for Hunger..... enjoy!

Sunday 13 December 2009

My Top 20 Books Of The Decade - Part 2

On November 21st I posted the first part of my Top 20 books of this decade. I have now finally found the time to sit down and continue with the countdown. So..... counting down from number 10 to number 6:

10. The Talent Thief by Alex Williams

I don't think I need to write any more about this fantastic book that I haven't already written in my earlier review. Buy it now!

9. The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson

Some readers my argue that this series should at least be in my Top 5, and believe me when I say I have thought long and hard over this. The task of writing the early years story of the most famous spy in the world cannot have been an easy one, and Charlie Higson rose to the occasion admirably. If all five books had been of a consistently high quality then they would definitely have ranked higher on my list, but I wasn't particularly impressed with Blood Fever, and Hurricane Gold could have been better. In case you are wondering, Double Or Die is by far my favourite of the five books, closely followed by Silverfin and By Royal Command.

8. The Hungry City Chronicles by Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve has an incredible imagination and his talent for world building is brilliant. I was hooked from the very first line of Mortal Engines, and who wouldn't be: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." Even friends who turn their noses up at my love for books written for "kids" (in their words) have loved reading this series. Mr Reeve should definitely be considered one of Fantasy's greats, along with Pratchett and Pullman.

7. The H.I.V.E. series by Mark Walden

Four books in this series so far, with the fifth (Rogue) due to be on the shelves in May 2010, and the quality so far is consistently high; in fact, these books just keep on getting better and better. Mark Walden is another author with a great imagination, and he uses it to create daring plot-twists and amazing hi-tech gadgets for the young 'villains' who feature in his stories. Action and adventure, with plenty of humour, fill every page of these books; the stories move at a fantastic pace, and these are perfect for reluctant boy readers.    

 6. The Joshua Files series by M.G. Harris 

With Zero Moment, the third book in the Joshua Files series, due for release in February I recently re-read Invisible City and Ice Shock to refresh myself of the story so far. Both books were just as good second time around (actually, third time for Invisible City). M.G. Harris has the ability to draw the reader right into the story from the very first chapter, and keep you there right up to the final line. Action, adventure, emotion and plot-twists galore will keep you reading well into the night!

Saturday 12 December 2009

Review: Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale. Illustrated by Nathan Hale

Jack thinks of himself as a criminal mastermind − with an unfortunate amount of bad luck. A schemer, a trickster . . . maybe even a thief? But, of course, he’s not out for himself − he’s trying to take the burden off his hardworking mum’s shoulders. She’d understand, right? He hopes she might even be proud.
Then, one day, Jack chooses a target a little more . . . ‘giant’ than the usual, and as one little bean turns into a great big building-destroying beanstalk, his troubles really begin. But with help from Rapunzel and other eccentric friends, Jack just might out-swindle the evil giants and put his beloved city back in the hands of the people who live there . . . whilst catapulting them and the reader into another fantastical adventure.
Bestselling, award-winning author Shannon Hale teams up with husband Dean Hale and Nathan Hale (no relation) to create a second stunning graphic novel. Action and thrills define this gangster-filled and hugely entertaining retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk.(from Bloomsbury website)

Note to self..... in 2010 I really must read more graphic novels, and especially if Calamity Jack is typical of the quality of this genre being published these days. Calamity Jack is the follow-up to the authors' Rapunzel's Revenge, which I have not yet read. Coincidentally, I had put Rapunzel's Revenge on the latest order list for the school's library on Wednesday (spotted it on Amazon during a random browse) and then on Thursday I received a package from the lovely people at Bloomsbury containing, amongst other books, the brilliant Calamity Jack. I now can't wait for the library order to come through so that I can read Rapunzel's Revenge as well!

Calamity Jack, and the skilfully crafted world it is set in, is what you would get if you crossed traditional fairytales with elements of steampunk and then set the story in late 1800s America. But don't be put off by the fairytale label boys..... this is definitely not a book aimed solely at girls. There is nothing twee and girly about the fairytale style characters in this story. The giants are maneaters, the Bandersnatch spits acid, the Jabberwocky tears apart anything that flies into its airspace and the Screaming Brownies can make a person's ears bleed. Jack is no longer just the impoverished son of a single mother; in this story he is a Native American conman and thief and Rapunzel is as action-loving and talented as Lara Croft.

Action fans will not be disappointed with this book as these scenes come think and fast. Yet inbetween these action scenes the authors make a wonderful job of fleshing out the detail of the city of Shyport, Jack's character and his relationship with Rapunzel. We are also treated to a very skilfull use of dialogue throughout the story, with our hero and heroine regularly staring death and danger in the face whilst firing off witty one-liners, just like all the classic action heroes.

Add the fantastic artwork of Nathan Hale to the storytelling expertise of Shannon and Dean Hale and you have one hell of a graphic novel. Nathan Hale's illustrations are stunning and should appeal to graphic novel lovers of all ages. I will be very surprised (and disappointed) if we don't see further adventures from Jack and Rapunzel in the future. I am going to buy a copy of this book and Rapunzel's Revenge (which other reviewers suggest should be read first) for my godson as a late Christmas present (it is released in the UK on 4th January 2010), and I just know that his comic-collecting dad will be fighting to get his hands on these books as well. 

Thursday 10 December 2009

Review: Hacking Timbuktu by Stephen Davies

Long ago in the ancient city of Timbuktu a student pulled off the most daring heist in African history, the theft of 100 million pounds worth of gold. The stolen treasure has remained hidden until now, when teenage hacker Danny Temple discovers a cryptic Arabic manuscript. It's a good job that Danny is a keen traceur (free runner) because he has to run across rooftops and leap from buildings to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. His nightmarish and adrenalin-charged quest leads him all the way to sub-Saharan Africa, and the mysterious cliffs of Bandiagara.

Wow! I have just finished this book and it has left me feeling a little out-of-breath. This story really is non-stop action from beginning to end. Writing good action scenes is not easy, yet Mr Davies does it incredibly well. Danny, the main character of the book, and his close friend Omar are traceurs - they are experts at the sport of parkour (or freerunning). If you have ever seen freerunners you will know how fast and energetic their sport is; how Stephen Davies manages to translate this sport so fluently onto paper is amazing - I really felt that I was running through the streets with Danny and Omar. The author has also put a lot of time into researching parkour and the technical language for the boys' moves is used throughout the story.

There are a lot of scenes featuring parkour throughout the story, yet at no point did I feel it was being overused as part of the plot. In fact, I spent each non-parkour scene page reading as quickly as possible so I could get to the next adrenalin fuelled freerunning scene. Interspersed between these scenes are detailed descriptions of Danny's computer hacking; yet again, this all sounds authentic and well-researched, although not being a hacker myself (honest!) this is only my own feeling about these scenes.

The attention Stephen Davies pays to detail and his thorough research continues as the two boys reach Africa, although this comes as no surprise as Mr Davies has first-hand experience of this place, its people and their culture as he is a missionary in West Africa and lives in a small town on the edge of the Sahara desert. Again, the quality of his descriptive writing made me feel like I was travelling the dusty African roads with the boys. There are obviously less parkour scenes once the boys reach Africa as the narrative focuses more on their journey, but Mr Davies uses these quieter moments to show us more about his characters and the details of friendship. 

And there's more..... as well as a fast paced story, with thrilling action scenes and moments of nailbiting tension, there is also a lot of humour running through the story. In fact, many of the scenes featuring Danny and Omar had me chuckling out loud. The banter and bickering that they display when with each other is reminiscent of a good Hollywood buddy movie like Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys.

I really enjoyed this book and I doubt there are many action movie loving boys out there who would disagree with me.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

** Interview with A.G. Taylor (author of Meteorite Strike)

Last month I wrote a review of A.G. Taylor's brilliant debut novel, Meteorite Strike, the first book in his Superhumans series. Mr Taylor was kind enough to answer a few questions for this blog. This is the first author interview on my blog and I hope it is the first of many; if you are an author of boy-friendly books and would be happy to answer a few questions I would love to hear from you.

How did you get the idea for Meteorite Strike?

I moved from England to live in Australia about four years ago and the first time I flew over the country was a real experience – you have no concept of the size of Oz until you’ve been here. It’s a country into which you could fit most of Europe! I began thinking that it would be interesting to write a story about a virus outbreak set in the middle of all that emptiness. Once I started writing, however, the idea of the virus giving the main characters superpowers came along and the story took a different direction.

Meteorite Strike is the first book in your Superhumans series. Do you know how many books you hope to have in the series and have you plotted out the storylines for these already?

I’ve already written the sequel, Alien Storm, and have some clear ideas in my mind for the third book. Although the first three books are a kind of trilogy, I have no set number for the series. As long as people are interested in reading new Superhumans instalments, I’ll keep writing them because I love the characters!

What do you see as the main influences on your writing?

There’s a great tradition of stories about young people who develop superpowers and the issues they face - I’m thinking of Marvel comic books such as X-Men and Spiderman here, but also recent TV series such as Heroes and Smallville. I’m glad that the Superhumans series is part of that tradition and I hope it offers some new twists on the genre.

I also love computer games and am excited about the way they’ve become more sophisticated in terms of plot and characters over the past few years. The recent Uncharted 2, for example, had especially great dialogue and a gripping story, although my all-time favourite is the Half-Life series. (Half Life’s evil military organisation, The Combine, has a lot in common with my bad guys, HIDRA!) I think the way these games mix fast-paced action with plot and character development is really effective and I try to replicate that in my writing.

How did you carry out the research when writing Meteorite Strike? Did you discover any really interesting facts during your research that you would like to share with us?

Researching Meteorite Strike was a lot of fun. It involved getting to know Australia by visiting some of the locations that later featured in the book. The Twelve Apostles, which appears at the end of the story, was one of the first places I visited when I arrived in Oz. The “Apostles” are huge limestone stacks that stand off the coast of Victoria. It’s a very atmospheric place – here’s one of my photos of them (taken at about 6 in the morning):

Another great place I visited was the Pinnacles Desert in Western Australia. It’s about three hours north of the nearest city and is filled with hundreds of strange-shaped rocks jutting out of the sand. It gave me lots of ideas for the desert sequences in the book - again, there’s a great feeling of emptiness in these places. Here’s a pic (it was VERY hot that day):

“Research” for the book was an interesting activity!

Do you have a favourite author? What really appeals to you about their work?

I’ve been a big fan of Philip K. Dick since I was in my teens. He wrote incredibly imaginative sci-fi novels and has influenced lots of Hollywood films, such as The Matrix and The Terminator. The thing I love about his books is that you never know what is going to happen next. My favourite of his novels is called UBIK - halfway through, the main characters discover they were all killed a few chapters before, which is pretty typical in one of these books! Philip K. Dick’s short stories are great too and probably the best way to get into his writing.

Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read? 

If you like superhero books and films, you should try some graphic novels. I grew up reading 2000AD and Alan Moore, one of its regular contributors, went on to write some classics. The compilation Alan Moore’s DC Universe is a good introduction to some of his early work – there’s a great Superman/Swamp Thing story included. Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are also favourites of mine.

Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?

When I was 13, I read Lord of the Flies by William Golding and it had a big effect on me. It’s about a group of boys stranded on a desert island. Without any adults around, they’re free to create their own rules, but eventually they revert to a pretty savage state. This is a scary book, but it’s very well written and has a lot to say. It makes you wonder how you would behave if you were in the shoes of one of the boys on that island.

Meteorite Strike has been described as cinematic by one reviewer. Are you a big movie fan, and which films, if any, do you think have influenced your work?

I’m a film fanatic, but I especially love action and sci-fi movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of my favourite films as a kid. I loved it because the action didn’t let up from beginning to end - I used to watch it over and over again! In the last ten years superhero movies like Ironman, The Dark Knight and X-Men 2 have really raised the standard for comic book adaptations and these were a big influence on Meteorite Strike.

Colonel Moss and Major Bright are pretty nasty villains. Who would you like to play them if Meteorite Strike was made into a movie?

When I was writing the book I had the mental image of an older actor like Ed Harris or Jeff Bridges (who was the bad guy in Ironman) playing Colonel Moss. It would have to be someone who looks like he’s used to giving orders and having them followed. Major Bright is younger and even meaner, so it would be exciting to see an actor like Christian Bale (Batman) take a break from hero roles to play him.

Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from your next book in the series, Alien Storm?

The second book is about Sarah, Robert and their friends coming to terms with their powers and using them to combat a threat to the entire planet. Most of Alien Storm is set in a very desolate, hostile part of Russia and it introduces some new enemies for the team to face – however, one of the bad guys from the first book is back and still causing trouble!

Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?

I hope you enjoy reading Meteorite Strike as much as I enjoyed writing it! You can visit my website at or find me on twitter at for updates and news about the Superhumans series.

Thank you for your time Andrew, it is very much appreciated. Meteorite Strike is published by Usborne and is scheduled for release in the UK on 29th January 2010.

Monday 7 December 2009

Review: Steel Trapp by Ridley Pearson

14-year-old Steven ‘Steel’ Trapp sets off with his mum and their dog, Cairo, on a two-day journey to compete in the National Science Competition in Washington DC. Steel is both blessed and cursed with a remarkable photographic memory – just one look and whatever he sees is imprinted forever. On the train, he becomes embroiled in an ingenious, international plot of kidnapping and bribery that may have links to terrorists. Federal agents track Steel as he attempts to put together the pieces of a complex puzzle. Using Steel's science contest invention – and with the help of Cairo – Steel leads readers on an action-packed chase adventure as they attempt to prevent the unimaginable, before it's too late.

Steel Trapp has been out for some time but I only stumbled across it in my local library the other day. A quick google and a short visit to shows that it was published in the UK in May 2008, and also that there is a sequel due for release in the new year; this folow-up is certainly a book that I will be reading and reviewing in 2010. Although simply known as Steel Trapp in the UK, this book was published under the name Steel Trapp: The Challenge in the USA, with the follow-up entitled Steel Trapp: The Academy.

The main character of the book is Steven Trapp, known as Steel to his family and friends due to his photographic memory ("one of his teachers..... said that he had 'a mind like a steel trap'"). The book starts with Steel on a stage in Washington, D.C, waiting for his turn to  present his invention at the National Science Challenge. Mr Ridley then uses a series of flash-backs to  bring the story up to the present, flashbacks that include Steel's father attempting to make an emergency landing in a single-engine plane followed by 27 chapters detailing Steel's journey to Washington and how he becomes involved in a mystery plot that could involve international terrorism. This use of the flashback lacked finesse - I'm not sure we really needed the five page prologue of Steel at the Science Challenge.

The premise behind this thriller is set up well from Chapter 1 onwards. We find out that Steel has a photographic memory, and it is through this that Steel is drawn into the world of international crime. From this moment on we are treated to a fast-paced thriller of a story that never falters from beginning to end. Mr Pearson has written a number of thrillers for the adult market and he uses his experience well in developing the plot and characters in this book. However, whilst there is no shortage of action scenes in this story, there is a shortage of tension at times. Unlike Anthony Horowitz's Crocodile Tears, there are very few end-of-chapter cliff-hanger moments that make you turn quickly to the next page. This is mainly due to most of the chapters being very short (a prologue and 78 chapters over 325 pages) thereby meaning that the ultra-fast pace is maintained but at a small cost.

Overall, as a thriller for boys of 10-14 then this does very well, although some degree of belief suspension is required; as the story progress some of the scenes become a little less believable. The sequel is scheduled for a 19th January 2010 release according to amazon so watch this space for more details.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Review: Escape From Shadow Island by Paul Adam

Max is an ordinary north London schoolboy by day, but at night he performs sell-out public shows as an escapologist - nicknamed The Half-Pint Houdini by the tabloid press. His father, Alexander, was also a world-renowned escapologist, who disappeared two years earlier in the Central American state of Santo Domingo. His body was never found, but Max's mother, Helen, was convicted of murdering her husband by a Santo Domingan court. One evening, after his show, Max receives a visit from a mysterious man from Santo Domingo - Lopez-Vega tells Max that his mother's trial was rigged and, if Max comes to his hotel room the following night, he has something to give him.When Max goes to the hotel, he finds Lopez-Vega dead, shot through the head. The room has clearly been searched by the killer, but what was he looking for? By chance, Max finds a piece of paper hidden under Lopez-Vega's wig. Written on the paper is a sequence of eight numbers - 83521113. What do the numbers mean? Are they a code, or maybe the combination for a lock or a safe? Could they be the key to unlocking the mystery of his father's disappearance and getting his mother out of prison?

Before you read this book, a word of warning - don't read it expecting an action-packed climax to end the story as you won't get one. This is the first in a series of books featuring Max Cassidy's hunt for his supposedly dead father, thereby also clearing his other of his father's murder; as such this is the first episode in that quest and you will have to wait until book two (and possibly even book three?) are published to find out whether Max is ever successful in this. When I read it I hadn't realised this, and it was only as I reached the final chapters that I worked out that there was no way the story would be finished in the remaining few pages. I love serial books, I just wish that the publishers had made it more clear that this was the first in a series.

That one small gripe aside, this was a hugely enjoyable book that the majority of boys will love. Refreshingly, unlike Alex Rider, the CHERUB series, etc., Max is a hero without the backing of a government agency; in fact, it seems he may even have a British spy agency working against him in his quest. Max's part-time profession as an escapologist is also a nice new idea; Mr Adam cleverly uses one of Max's stage performances, as well as Max's reminiscences about his childhood with his father to fill us in on Max's abilities in the field of escapology. I was initially concerned that his skills in this area would be over-used by the author to help get Max out of all kinds of completely unrealistic situations. Fortunately, these fears were totally unfounded; in fact, I was almost disappointed that Max didn't use these abilities more throughout the story. However, this made the story all the more realistic, and also leaves many more opportunities for Max to demonstrate his talents in the next books in the series.

Escape From Shadow Island is a fast paced story, full of great action scenes. However, it is not non-stop thrills as the author also manages to intersperse these full-on action scenes with moments of great tension. The characterisation is good and the dialogue is spot-on.

Overall, an enjoyable read marred only by the poor ending. I appreciate that this is the first in the series but other authors such as Joe Craig, Derek Landy and Mark Walden managed to bring their first-in-series books to much better and more satisfying conclusions; Paul Adam has written a number of novels for the adult market and therefore should have been able to manage this.  

Friday 4 December 2009

News: Zero Moment by M.G. Harris

Zero Moment continues the story a few months after Ice Shock. Josh Garcia and Ixchel have been keeping in touch via the Internet and now she's got some pretty intriguing news to share with him.What Ixchel has learned could enable Josh to realize his most fervent dream – to travel in time and change what happened to his father.But the world has become a much more dangerous place for Josh and his friends. Maybe he should have listened to Montoyo when he warned Josh and his mother to move to the “invisible city” of Ek Naab. So when Josh leaves Oxford to travel to the World Capoeira championships in Brazil, the risk is higher than he can possibly know... (from the Joshua Files website)

No review of this yet.... just a quick post to say that there is new content on the Joshua Files website with a great sample chapter download, as well as the promo video below. 2010 is going to be a great year for boy friendly books!

Thursday 3 December 2009

Review: The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade

The mysterious Mr. Socrates rescues Modo, a child in a traveling freak show. Modo is a hunchback with an amazing ability to transform his appearance, and Mr. Socrates raises him in isolation as an agent for the Permanent Association, a spy agency behind Brittania's efforts to rule the empire. At 14, Modo is left on the streets of London to fend for himself. When he encounters Octavia Milkweed, another Association agent, the two uncover a plot by the Clockword Guild behind the murders of important men. Furthermore, a mad scientist is turning orphan children into automatons to further the goals of the Guild. Modo and Octavia journey deep into the tunnels under London and discover a terrifying plot against the British government. It's up to them to save their country. (from book cover)

If you have read all of my earlier posts you will know by now that over the last year I have become a huge fan of the steampunk genre. I teach Design Technology and I have always loved designing and making things, and the steampunk ideal of creating things with cogs, brass and other recycled items really appeals to me. Add the nostalgic romanticism of steam power and this genre is right up my street. There really is so much in steampunk for boys to love!

There are many debates going on about whether some books billed as steampunk are actually steampunk. Surely there can be no doubting this book - it is set in Victorian times and there is much clockwork and steam driven technology throughout. Hell... the villainous society that plan to topple the British government in the story are even called the Clockwork Guild!! And how's this for the very first paragraph on the very first page to grab your attention and pull you in head first:

Six hunting hounds had perished in previous experiments. Dr. Cornelius Hyde crouched in the cellar of his manor staring over his spectacles at Magnus, the last surviving hound. The iron cage was sturdy, its door locked tight, and the dog looked healthy except for his drooping head. He had survived the operation that replaced his skull, jaws and teeth with metal, but the weight of it all was too much for him to bear for long periods of time. He needed strength and ferocity. Soon, Hyde hoped, these needs would be dealt with. 

Up against the Clockwork Guild are the mysterious Permanent Society, headed up by the equally mysterious, and seemingly very cold, Mr Socrates (what a great name for such a character). At the beginning of the book Mr Socrates buys the hideously deformed Modo from a travelling sideshow; and it is Modo who really makes this book. If our hero had been another 'normal' boy or girl then the book just would not have been anywhere near as good; Modo makes it special. If you want a comparison then think Hellboy - he also is anything but conventional in his looks, but he has more than enough in his abilities to make him a hero. Modo is very similar: he is highly intelligent, he starts reading Shakespeare and learning the fighting arts from a very young age, and he has great strength and agility. And it is at this very young age that he starts his training as a future secret agent!

Mr Slade deals with Modo's deformities and his feelings about them in a way that really touches the heart of the reader; this book has an underlying moral that beauty is only skin deep, as Modo shows that his inner qualities are much more appealing traits than those shown by many of the adults we come across during the story. However, this isn't an 'in your face' moralistic story at all. The author somehow manages to make this book incredibly fast paced as well..... there is never a dull moment in this story and I very nearly read it in one sitting as I didn't want to put it down. Sometimes this fast paced action means that some settings lack the quality of descriptive writing that we have seen in recent books such as The Monstrumologist and Leviathan, but believe me, the action more than makes up for this in this opener to the series. Personally I feel that the book could have been made longer by about 100 pages, which would have allowed a greater degree of descriptive writing without detracting from the story or making it seem too long.

The author admits to being greatly influenced by Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as many other of the classics. In fact, Mr Slade has even written a letter of introduction to his readers, which I have cheekily copied from his website for you:

Dear Reader,
A few years ago I re-read Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and was consumed by the world of Quasimodo. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking novel and, like all good books should do, it got me thinking: what is it about the other that we fear? Why do we sometimes look away from those with a handicap or disfigurement? Can we truly love someone for what we find inside them despite their appearance? What are the qualities of a hero? I couldn't get the Hunchback from my mind and toyed with the idea of a modern retelling of the story, but then decided that was not the right route--Hugo had already written a novel for the ages. But how about a novel influenced by his story? And then I imagined a hunchback child, born with the ugliness of Quasimodo, but with an interesting evolutionary trait--he is able to change his shape and look beautiful, look like other people, and fit in, but after a few hours his body returns to its previous ugliness. The character quickly took shape from there. I have a resolute fondness for the Victorian era. It seemed a time of vibrant imagination and endless possibility and the authors of that age created such wonderful literature: Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells. Much of our modern day science fiction and fantasy draws its roots from those works. So it seemed the perfect era in which to place my re-imagined hunchback. He would need a father figure, of course, so I pictured a British lord finding the young child and raising him to be a spy for a secret organization. And so, Modo, the hunchback came to life. He is gentle, intelligent, trained for battle, yet a bookworm; ugly and beautiful, tough and idealistic. I've become quite attached to the young fellow. I hope you enjoy your acquaintance with him.
Arthur Slade

I think that sums up his thoughts and the tone of the story pretty well. Rumour has it that this is the first of a series of seven books. Brilliant! I can't wait to see how Mr Slade develops Modo, his fellow characters and their world further. I am sure his adventures against the Clockwork Guild will keep me, and many readers around the world, entertained over the next few years.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Review: Tales From The Wyrd Museum Trilogy by Robin Jarvis

The Woven Path: In a grimy alley in the East End of London stands the Wyrd Museum, cared for by the stranger Webster sisters -- and scene of even stranger events. Wandering through the museum, Neil Chapman, son of the new caretaker, discovers it is a sinister place crammed with secrets both dark and deadly. Forced to journey back to the past, he finds himself pitted against an ancient and terrifying evil, something which is growing stronger as it feeds on the destruction around it. Dare to enter the chilling and fantastical world of the Wyrd Museum in this first book of a compelling trilogy.

The Raven's Knot: Brought out of the past, elfin-like Edie Dorkins must now help the Websters to protect their age-old secret. For outside the museum's enchanted walls, a nightmarish army is gathering in the mystical town of Glastonbury, bent on destroying the sisters and their ancient power once and for all...

The Fatal Strand: Something has come to disturb the slumbering shadows and watchful walls of the forbidding museum and Miss Ursula Webster prepares to fight to the death with the strange new threat. Neil Chapman, caught in the unforgiving Web of Fate, is drawn into the battle, but is there really anyway he can stop the tide of time and Doom? 

Robin Jarvis is best known for his Deptford Mice books but personally I feel that the Wyrd Museum Trilogy is by far his best work to date. To be perfectly honest, his other books have never really appealed to me that much - I'm just not a huge fan of stories that feature talking animals as the main characters. If you have read any of these other books by Mr Jarvis and feel the same as I do then don't let that put you off reading this trilogy...... they couldn't be more different. These are fantasy books that have been written to scare the pants off you!

The first book in the trilogy, The Woven Path, sets the scene perfectly. The premise is not a new one - boy and his younger brother move into a strange and exciting place (in this case a very unusual museum) as their single-parent father has a new job there. However, the story soon takes a very different direction from normal, with Neil, the main character, making a scary journey back in time to WWII London during the Blitz; a journey involving a toy possessed by the spirit of a dead airman and a battle against a fearsome ancient demon.

Whilst The Woven Path is pretty creepy, the second book in the series, The Raven's Knot, takes this to a new level. It takes quite a lot in a book to scare me, but this one left me feeling very uneasy throughout and has some genuinely terrifying scenes, featuring the spine-chilling crow dolls and the menacing Valkyrie. For me this is the best book of the trilogy - it develops the characters further, and we also begin to find out what part the Wyrd Museum and its strange owners, the Webster sisters, have to play in protecting the world from a demonic end. It also leaves us with a nail-biting cliffhanger, and I challenge you to not reach straight for the third book to find out what happens next!

The final book in the trilogy is a great end to the series, with yet another horrifying villain called Jack 'Tick-Tock' Timms. In this book we get even further character development, including the chilling descent into complete insanity of one of the Webster sisters. On top of all of this, Neil and his friends have to try to prevent the end of the world despite even the museum itself seeming to turn against them.

The pace of the narrative in all three books is excellent, and you really will not want to put them down. Neil, our hero, is very realistic, and his dialogue, actions and emotions throughout the stories are all very believable. There are also many elements of Norse mythology 'woven' throughout the story which may encourage readers to carry out further investigation into the ancient tales which these books use as a foundation. 

Just one final warning...... if you are easily scared then it is probably best not to read these books just before you go to sleep; elements of books 2 and 3 in the trilogy especially have a habit of creeping into your dreams and turning them into nightmares.