Sunday 29 November 2009

Review: Meteorite Strike by A.G. Taylor

Sarah and Robert are sure their number is up when their aeroplane crashes over the Australian desert. But this is no ordinary air disaster. A meteorite strike has impacted Earth, bringing with it a deadly alien disease. Thousands fall victim to the virus, falling into a deep coma. Luckily, Robert and Sarah appear to be unaffected - until they begin to exhibit some extraordinary psychic side-effects. This quickly makes them a target for HIDRA, a rogue international agency determined to experiment on them like lab rats in an attempt to control their superpowers. Before long, the children are captured in HIDRA's secret desert HQ, a prison for superhuman kids who can control fire, create storms and tear steel with their minds. This new generation of superheroes must join forces if they are to escape HIDRA. But what kind of world awaits them outside?

Watch out Walden, Craig and Muchamore.... there's a new kid on the block and he's good. Thanks to the generous folks at Usborne I managed to Twitter win/blag a copy of the first book in Mr Taylor's Superhumans series, and I enjoyed it immensely. have it scheduled for a 29th January 2010 publication date so not too long to wait for this.

The premise is not eaxctly original - groups of young people developing superpowers and learning how to use them has been seen a lot in the last decade, with the X-Men movies and then the Heroes TV series. Joe Craig has covered some similar ground with his Jimmy Coates series, as has Sophie McKenzie with her Meduda Project. So, having seen it all before, what made this book so enjoyable? Firstly the pace - Mr Taylor really does deliver a white-knuckle ride full of tense action scenes. Without giving too much away, the climatic battle scene is a real page-turner; I was late picking my wife up from the station because I really wanted to see how things were brought to a conclusion for our heroes. Ooops!

His characters are also very believable and, for a debut novel, I was impressed with how quickly I became involved in their story. The relationship between brother and sister Sarah and Robert is well observed - their mother has recently died and long-absent father is suddenly on the scene to look after them, creating tension and confusion, with a healthy dose of mistrust on Sarah's part. Mr Taylor uses the events in the story well to help bring these characters together. I also liked the fact that unlike Sarah and Robert, the majority of people in the story have no immunity to this virus from outer space - an original concept that adds another element to the traditional kids with super powers premise.

The Bookseller has described Meteorite Strike as a "...heart-racing, breath-stopping thriller. There’s a cinematic quality to this adrenaline-fuelled adventure." and I can agree with this whole-heartedly. This is most definitely a book that will appeal to action-loving boys of all ages. It is also the first in a new series, with the second book, Alien Storm, scheduled for release later in 2010. 

Review: Pastworld by Ian Beck

Pastworld. A city within a city. A city for excursions and outings. Pastworld is a theme park with a difference, where travellers can travel back in time for a brush with an authentic Victorian past. But what if the Jack the Ripper figure stopped play-acting and really started killing people? For Caleb, a tourist from the present day, his visit goes terribly wrong when his father is kidnapped and he finds himself accused of murder. Then Caleb meets Eva Rose, a Pastworld inhabitant who has no idea the modern world exists. Both Caleb and Eva have roles to play in the murderer's diabolical plans - roles that reveal disturbing truths about their origins.

I liken this book to an 80s Arnold Swarzenneger action movie - I liked it, but felt guilty for liking it because of its faults. However, like any good teacher I always prefer to start with the positives, the biggest of which is the premise for this book - turning London into a glorified Victorian theme park is a stroke of genius. Not only that, but the descriptive writing about the city is very good as well. Ian Beck is obviously a fan of Dickens, Holmes and general Victoriana; either that or he has researched his subject very well as his writing about the Victorian London environment and its inhabitants seems pretty accurate, and the detail he goes into means you are easily able to visualise being there yourself. 

And so....onto the book's faults. Firstly, I am still not sure who is supposed to be the main character in the story - is it Eve or is it Caleb? Eve is introduced first, but all of her main scenes are written in the first person in the form of her journal, and even then these scenes are pretty thin on the ground. So is it then Caleb, who doesn't even appear in the story until Chapter 8? Certainly his scenes are written in much greater detail, and most of the action set-pieces centre around him. Mr Beck also changes the character point of view regularly throughout the story..... at one point we're with Caleb, then the Artful Dodger-esque Bible J, then Inspector Lestrade, then the merciless villain known as the Fantom. Sometimes these changes between characters occur at the end of chapters, or with spaced breaks within chapters, but this wasn't always so fluid in the build up to the story's climax - something that may confuse younger readers.

I am also not entirely sure of the age group this book is aimed at. The twist in the plot is fairly obvious for older readers, but some parents may not be happy with the level of violence within the story where younger readers are concerned.

Faults aside, as i have already said, I enjoyed reading this,in fact I struggled to put it down in the last 100 pages, and Mr Beck has left it open for a sequel; hopefully we will see further development of the main characters when this is written.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Review: A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford - Samuel Johnson In fact, Dr Johnson was only half right. There is in London much more than life - there is power. It ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the city, makes runes from the alignments of ancient streets and hums with the rattle of trains and buses; it waxes and wanes with the patterns of the business day. It is a new kind of magic: urban magic. Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of The Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of The Bag Lady. Enter a London where beings of power soar with the pigeons and scrabble with the rats, and seek insight in the half-whispered madness of the blue electric angels. Enter the London of Matthew Swift, where rival sorcerers, hidden in plain sight, do battle for the very soul of the city ...

Ooops.... I bought this book by mistake! Hey, at least I am honest! I read the synopsis on Amazon and assumed that it was a YA novel. It was only as I started reading the first chapter that I realised that it was definitely written for the adult urban fantasy market. A little research revealed that Kate Griffin is the name that the brilliant Carnegie Medal-nominated author, Catherine Webb, uses when writing fantasy novels for adults. Being a big fan of Ms Webb's Horatio Lyle series, and already being intrigued by the style of her prose in the opening chapters of the book, I decided to read on.... and I definitely wasn't disappointed.

So what is a review of this book doing on a blog about books suitable for boys? Well, firstly I wouldn't want someone to make the same mistake as I did by buying the book thinking it was aimed at the YA market, and secondly it is a very good read for any older boys who have grown up on a diet of Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman and want to progress onto something a little more challenging. And it is challenging - it took me a while to get into it, but once I did I couldn't put it down. Ms Griffin's prose slowly draws you in and before you know it another hour has passed.

So what attracted me to this book in the first place? Simply put.... I love historical and urban fantasy books set in London. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is one of my all time favourites, and I thought the Stoneheart trilogy by Charlie Fletcher was amazing, so the synopsis for A Madness of Angels was a a big pull. 

Apart from her beautiful prose there are two other things that really stood out from this story for me. The first is the characters, which are all finely crafted. The author puts the same amount of love and care goes into the creation of the secondary characters as she does into Matthew Swift, her main character. But for me the characterisation is overshadowed by one thing - Ms Griffin's descriptions of London and the magic she has imagined there. Since reading Neverwhere and Charlie Fletcher's trilogy, visits to London have never seemed the same, and A Madness of Angels has now added to that sense of magic that I feel whilst walking around the capital.

Review: Doctor Grordbort's Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory

By jingo, by crikey, and by all that's good in this world, he's done it! Dr. Grordbort has released his directory of scientific splendor. A catalogue of wondrous contraptions and wave weapons of unprecedented power, this book makes available a myriad of destructive and beneficial devices to any intergalactic explorer: Rayguns, Metal Men, Ironclads, and Rocketships are all presented.

This book is very different from the books I have reviewed so far in that it is not a story book, but it is still very much a book that will appeal to older boys (and may of their dads). This is a beautifully presented catalogue of some of the model steampunk-ish weapons that have been created by Weta, the people who produced the amazing special effects for the Lord of the Rings film. On almost every page you will find several stunning rendered drawings of these models, complete with funny, tongue-in-cheek descriptions of their uses and powers.

If you are someone who reads books and then discards them then this isn't for you. However, if you like books to keep; books to go back to from time-to-time; books with wonderful images that inspire you; then this is for you. It is only 32 pages long, so look at it as a hardbound addition to your collection of sci-fi comics.


Wednesday 25 November 2009

Review: The Talent Thief by Alex Williams

Wealthy orphans Adam and Cressida Bloom couldn't be less alike. Adam can't seem to help being exceedingly ordinary whereas Cressida, his glamorous sister, has a magnificent talent – when she sings, even the birds stop to listen. Then Cressida is invited to perform at Fortescue's festival of young talents and Adam tags along. But once the children arrive at the festival, in a mountain-top hotel, their terrific talents begin to mysteriously disappear. A piano virtuoso suddenly forgets how to play, a maths genius finds she can no longer multiply. There's a sinister shadow that only Adam ever sees, a strange glow emanating from behind closed doors.

With the help of erratic ex-racing driver, dashing Amy Swift, Adam and Cressida rip-roar off through the mountains in Amy's shiny racing car, the Silver Swift. They are in perilous pursuit of the dastardly talent thief! But from a hair-raisingly close shave with an avalanche to crash landing a plane on a runway the size of a table, Adam never gives up. Perhaps he isn't as ordinary as he first thought!

Writing about Chasing Vermeer reminded me of The Talent Thief, a book I read a couple of years ago that perfectly combines mystery with fantasy. I absolutely loved this book - I thought I may as well shout that out now as you will deduce that for yourselves from this review anyway. Unlike Chasing Vermeer, however, I feel that this book has very few faults, if any at all (actually, just the one..... more of  David Roberts' quirky black and white illustrations would have been wonderful).

This is a boy-friendly book that has everything a young reader could ask for.... adventure, laughs (of which there are many), a sinister villain, edge-of-your-seat thrills and a very ordinary hero with whom he can identify. This is Mr Williams' first book and he has managed to produce a thoroughly exciting story with a very original plot - I don't think I am giving too much away when I say that his creation of a thief who steals children's talents is highly ingenious, yet also so simple that it is amazing that no-one thought of it earlier.

The pace of the story is spot on, and perfectly suited to reluctant readers as well as the more accomplished, yet this is not at the cost of characterisation and descriptive writing, as we sometimes see in books like this. The relationship between brother and sister, Adam and Cressida, is very well observed and all of the characters, and their various mannerisms, are very believeable.

This is one of those books that, despite its brilliance and also it being released more than two years ago, I feel still does not have a huge number of admirers. This is a travesty - if you buy one 'hidden gem' book for an 9+ year old child this year then make it this one... neither of you will be disappointed. And if you know a child (or are/were one yourself) who has an older brother or sister who seems so much better than them then this book really should be in your collection.

Review: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and Brett Helquist

A stolen painting. A series of unexpected events. Two smart children. Petra and Calder live in a neighbourhood where strange things have started to happen. Seemingly unrelated events connect, a sharp old woman seeks their company - and a priceless Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two children are drawn into an international art sensation where no one is above suspicion. They must rely on their intelligence and a newly acquired knowledge of the artist.

A very short, recent Twitter conversation reminded of this book that I read about four years ago, brought back from the US for me by my brother. Another user had Tweeted, asking for recommendations for YA mystery stories and this was one of the first that popped into my head, even though it is more suited to a slightly younger audience. It also got me wondering whether there are any more out there that I should know about. I grew up surrounded by mystery books - Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Five Find-outers led to The Three Investigators and then on to the Hardy Boys and finally Agatha Christie, but these days there don't seem to be as many new books published in this genre for the YA market.

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett is certainly an old-school mystery story for kids whilst also being firmly rooted in the 20th Century both in the style of language used and in its main characters, Calder and Petra. These two 11 year-olds are drawn into a quest to locate Vermeer's "A Lady Writing A Letter", stolen en route to a Chicago art gallery. The story is peppered with clues, enticing the reader to attempt to solve the crime for themselves, aided by the wonderful illustrations of Brett Helquist, whose style will be recognised fondly by readers of the Lemony Snickett books. The use of clues and the discussions Calder and Petra have with each other are the elements of this story that brought back memories of the mystery books I mantioned above.

Ms Balliett is obviously a big art fan, and this passion comes across in her writing. This is another big plus as far as this book is concerned - it will make many young readers want to look further into the work of Vermeer and encouraging young people to appreciate art can only be a good thing. There are also several codes that require solving at various stages of the story and again, this extra stimulation is a welcome addition to a book for children.

However, I have to admit that despite enjoying this book due to its quirky style and very likeable characters, I was left feeling more than a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong - if you like mystery books then it is worth reading, but you may be disappointed as this book is not without faults, and for mystery lovers they may be critical faults. Principally, the mystery isn't solved by the children on their own as in the mystery books I loved as a child. In Chasing Vermeer they require dreams and coincidence to aid them on their way to the story's conclusion instead of relying on traditional clues and evidence. Disappointingly this was just far too obvious, and I just coudn't help but feel let down, maybe even betrayed, and this is something surely no mystery writers wants their readers to feel.

For boys of between 9 and 11 years old this book is worth reading as an introduction to the mystery genre, but more accomplished readers may feel the same disappointment as I did. It would, however, make quite a nice book to be read by a parent to boys of this age as there are many chances here for interesting parent-child discussions about art, family, friendship, and so on.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

"These are the secrets I have kept.
This is the trust I never betrayed.
But he is dead now and has been for more than forty years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets.
The one who saved me...and the one who cursed me."

So begins the journal of Will Henry, orphaned assistant to Dr. Pellinore War throp, a man with a most unusual specialty: monstrumology, the study of monsters. In his time with the doctor, Will has met many a mysterious late-night visitor, and seen things he never imagined were real. But when a grave robber comes calling in the middle of the night with a grueso me find, he brings with him their most deadly case yet.  

Critically acclaimed author Rick Yancey has written a gothic tour de force that explores the darkest heart of man and monster and asks the question: When does a man become the very thing he hunts? (from book cover)

I started reading this some time ago, and then rather stupidly left it at a friend's house when we were visiting, so only managed to get it back and finish it over the last week. If you have read my earlier posts you will remember that I was moaning about the differences in cover design between the US and UK versions of this book. I wrote at the time that the UK design "is 'cartoon-ish' in nature and may attract younger readers who could find some of the content a little too dark." Having finished the book I stand by this statement completely - it is a very dark and pretty terrifying book in places. Rick Yancey is an exceptional writer whose descriptive writing is outstanding, and for this reason many passages of the book contain some extremely graphic details regarding the monsters' attacks, parasitic infestation, fatal injuries, and so on. If this were a movie, it would definitely have an 18 certificate.

The vocabulary used in the book is also more suited to older readers. The book is written as if it is the journal of the main character written as an old man about his experiences as a boy. For this reason the language is not that used by a 12 year old boy, but by someone with a much more accomplished use of language and a much wider vocabulary. For this reason it took me a little longer to 'settle into' the book than normal, as I was initially finding it difficult to get into the mind of Will Henry, the main character. However, a little perseverance brought its rewards, as I was soon in that wonderful position of not being able to put the book down. The story pulls you in, page by page, and like a good psychological horror film you are left with a growing sense of unease as you progress through the book. In fact, there are some scenes that made me distinctly uncomfortable because I was enjoying reading them, yet part of me was feeling guilty for that enjoyment.

If you are a big fan of Mr Yancey's Alfred Kropp trilogy then beware - this book is very different, principally due to the lack of humour. In fact, it is only in the last third of the book, when a distinctly nasty character is introduced, that i finally found myself chuckling occasionally, but even then the humour is very dark indeed. The chapters are also very long in places and this may cause younger readers some frustration or boredom.

Overall, I can highly recommend this to older readers who have grown up on a diet of Darren Shan - this will take you to new levels of horror reading and could be your springboard into reading horror novels written for adults. If you do enjoy it then it is certainly worth your while to investigate the writings of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe in the future.

Saturday 21 November 2009

My Top 20 Books Of The Decade - Part 1

Let me start by saying this list is my own personal favourite 20 boy-friendly books of this last decade. Unlike Krissi Murison, editor of the NME, who states in the Guardian that the NME's list of Top 50 Albums of the Noughties "is the definitive word on the greatest albums of the noughties", I make no such claim. It isn't a definitive list; it doesn't involve votes by anyone else; it is purely a chance for me to highlight my favourite reads from the last decade in the hope that it might encourage a few more boys to pick up one of the books and get enjoyment from reading it. You may disagree with my choices. You may feel that I have not mentioned a book that really should be on the list (and that probably will happen - I am sure that as soon as this blog entry is published I will think of another one for the list). That is what the comments section is for.... whether you agree, disagree or couldn't care less I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Oh yes..... and one more thing. There have been so many brilliant series books released for boys over the last decade that instead of spending painful hours choosing just one book from the series I am just going to count the series as one choice. Cheating? It's my blog.... I make the rules and it has taken me long enough to rank these in some kind of order anyway (oh.... and I have also decided not to include any of the Harry Potter books, mainly due to the fact that the Philosopher's Stone was published way back in the last millennium).

So.... counting down from number 20 to number 11, I start with:

20. The Montmorency series by Eleanor Updale

A fresh twist on the Jekyll and Hide story. Former convict turned aristocratic gentleman-spy, set in the Victorian era. Exciting, humourous, graphic, never patronising. A rarity in YA literature in that all the characters are adults.

19. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

As funny and clever as Roald Dahl, but more sophisticated. Fast paced, with tension and humour in all the right places. A magical story.

18. The Death Collector/Parliament of Blood by Justin Richards

A pair of books chronicling the work of the top secret Department of Unclassified Artefacts at the British Museum. Grave-robbing, assassins, dinosaurs, zombies and vampires.... what more could a boy ask for?

17. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray

Set in an alternate Victorian London and almost steampunk in nature. Dark and mysterious with action and fantasy in equal measures. As haunting a story as the title suggests. 

16. Airborn / Skybreaker / Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

This one is definitely steampunk. Set in the early Edwardian era (but not the one we know) this series has action, adventure, airships, sky pirates, strange creatures and even attempts at space travel. I dare you to put this one down once you start reading it!

15. The Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke

A "magical adventure that oozes a passion for books and the awesome power of words on a page, written by an author who clearly adores stories" (that's from the Amazon review - I really could not think of a better way of summarising the appeal of this series). Female main characters often don't appeal to boys, but the story is more than enough to have you turning the pages.

14. The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

A fantastic tale of good versus evil (with martial arts and vomiting bats thown in for good measure). Mr Enthoven delivers an epic story full of action and terror, and a healthy dose of humour. If you are a teenage boy and haven't read this book yet you really should be asking yourself why?

13. The Darkside series by Tom Becker

A great concept - there is an alternate London called Darkside, a place populated by the children of Jack the Ripper, vampires and a plethora of nasty and unsavoury characters. Four books in the series so far, with the fifth and final one due in 2010. The descriptions of Darkside and its inhabitants are very well written..... despite the nastiness of the place I really want to go there!

12. The Tunnels series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

Having this sitting just outside the Top 10 will no doubt cause some controversy with the many die-hard Tunnels fans out there, but this list has been agonising. Thinking of only twenty books was difficult enough in itself without having to put them in order. It is a wonderful story, with great charcters, but for me the series has lacked pace at times leaving me a little frustrated.

11. The Power of Five series by Anthony Horowitz

Very different from Mr Horowitz's Alex Rider books, which have overshadowed this series to some degree, but certainly no less enjoyable. Action, magical fantasy and ancient mythology combine to create a fast paced and thoroughly enjoyable series. Again, this is another that really deserves to be in the Top 10, and maybe on release of the final book in the series I might change my mind. However, as it may be more than a year before this is published the series will have to stay at number 11 for now.

That's all for now folks..... watch this space for the final countdown from 10 down to 1.

Friday 20 November 2009

Review: The Rainbow Orchid: Adventures of Julius Chancer by Garen Ewing

I have never been a huge reader of graphic novels and comics. As a child I loved the Beano, and then I religiously bought the Eagle comic when it was relaunched in the 80s. I was also a huge Tintin fan, and to a lesser degree an Asterix fan. These days I prefer to devote my dwindling spare time to reading non-graphic novels, although I still own that same complete collection of Tintin books which I continue to enjoy reading immensely from time to time - they are books that I will never tire of reading (remind me to write a Tintin article for my blog sometime). But now that has all changed.....

"The Rainbow Orchid" is an ambitious blend of classic storytelling and cinematic artwork in which adventure, historical drama and legend are seamlessly intertwined. In Volume One, follow the story's hero, Julius Chancer, as he embarks on a hazardous quest for the rainbow orchid - a mythical flower last mentioned by the ancient Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, and steeped in legend. His epic journey takes him from 1920s Britain to the Indian subcontinent and its mysterious lost valleys.

I stumbled across The Rainbow Orchid on Amazon whilst buying a couple of Tintin books for my godson Max's birthday, and the cover immediately grabbed my attention - it was obvious to me that the artist had been heavily influenced by the work of Herge, and the reviews on Amazon suggested that Tintin fans would not be disappointed by the story either. Thank you Amazon reviewers - thanks to you I added it to my shopping basket and now that I have read it I have no regrets at all.

This book is very different in style to many of the more popular graphics novels around today by the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. The artwork is beautifully drawn and rendered and I experienced a wave of nostalgia surround me as I started to read it. The story is just as wonderful - to me it is a seamless hybrid of Tintin, young Indiana Jones, Republic Serials and old-school Boy's Own adventure. The story is exciting and fast paced and the dialogue is realistic and sparkling with good humour. 

Personally, I think this book would have greater appeal amongst slightly older boys as, unlike the Tintin stories, there is a lot more dialogue text with the images. The other obvious difference between this and the Tintin books is that Garen Ewing's characters are far more believable and 'real'. Much as I love the Tintin books sometimes the slapstick humour does become a little too much and whilst there is a character in this book (Nathaniel Crumpole) who has obviously been used to create a few Thompson and Thomson laughs, these moments never detract from the story itself.

My only moan -  this is only Volume one and I am going to have to wait some time for the conclusion of this great story - Volume two is scheduled for May 2010. According to Garen Ewing's website Volume three will follow in late 2010 or early 2011. In the meantime though, Mr Ewing's website is well worth a look if you want to discover more about the world of Julius Chancer and also contains an informative entertaining blog by the author.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Review: Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz

Targeted by a hitman and under threat of his past being exposed by the media, Alex reluctantly turns to MI6. But their help doesn't come cheap: they need Alex to spy on the activities at a GM crop plant. There he spots Desmond McCain, a high profile charity organiser, who realises that Alex is on to him and the real plans for the money he's raising. Kidnapped and whisked off to Africa, Alex learns the full horror of McCain's plot: to create an epic disaster that will kill millions. Forced to ask MI6 for protection, Alex finds himself being manipulated in a deadly game that could lead to the destruction of an entire East African country. 

Reading this book tired me out! In the past week I have read Crocodile Tears and seen 2012 at the cinema and both left me with the same sensation of breathlessness at times – some of the scenes are so tense and action packed that I am unconsciously holding my breath as I read. Reading Crocodile Tears is very much like watching a well-made action movie – Mr Horowitz manages to balance perfectly the highs and lows of the story so that during the quieter moments you are tense with wondering what happens next, and then you get fantastic full-on, white-knuckle action scenes that have you turning the pages as fast as possible to find out just how Alex is going to survive the latest test on his abilities. In this respect this book was very similar to the adult action thrillers written by Matthew Reilly, who readily admits he to writing action movies in novel form. There is no chance to get bored reading this book – the pacing is perfect throughout.

Personally I feel Crocodile Tears ranks up there with Mr Horowitz’s very best work. ‘Snakehead’ was good, but a little less believable and less well written than his previous Alex Rider books (although I should add that stories being ‘less believable’ is something I can cope with easily – one of the reasons I have always loved reading so much is the escapism it offers me, and suspending disbelief has always come easy to me as far as books and films are concerned). As always Mr Horowitz’s imagination is beyond compare – as I was reading each near-death action sequence I was constantly wondering just how Alex would manage to escape, and invariably I required the author to take me by the hand and lead me through the sequence to its nail-biting but ultimately satisfying conclusion (despite the small clues he had already left leading up to the scene).

Crocodile Tears is also a very topical story, dealing as it does with the issues surrounding the growing of GM crops, and Mr Horowitz very cleverly uses his craft to encourage his young readers to become more curious about issues such as this. The majority of the young people I teach/have taught show little interest in many of the issues that appear daily in various media, until that is they are prompted. Hopefully stories like Crocodile Tears will also encourage them to sit up and pay a little more attention to the world around them. The fact that the author has created a villain intent on making a great deal of money immorally may also strike a chord with his readers; there is no Dr Evil or Ernst Stavro Blofeld character hungering for world domination in this story.

I have read a rumour that this may be the last of the Alex Rider books, and also a rumour that there is one more in the series. I feel the ending of this book subtly implies that there may be one more to come, but whichever is true when Mr Horowitz does finally bring the series to a conclusion Alex Rider will be sorely missed (although I am very sure that Mr Horowitz will very quickly manage to fill any such vacuum with another brilliant page-turning creation).

Saturday 14 November 2009

Looking forward to 2010

Inspired by Joe Craig's contribution to a list of the hottest books for this winter in today's Independent I decided to publish my own list of the books I am really looking forward to reading in 2010. The list of books is in no particular order except for the first one, coincidentally written by Mr Craig himself. Joe is the author of the brilliant Jimmy Coates series; six books have been published in this series to date but as a result of a disagreement with his  publishers we have been kept waiting for books 7 and 8. I stumbled across the first in the series, Jimmy Coates: Killer in Waterstones when it was first published and I have been hooked ever since. Rider got his own movie..... when will it be Coates' turn? So, my most eagerly awaited book for 2010 is:

1. Jimmy Coates: Blackout by Joe Craig

Seventh action-packed adventure for Jimmy Coates - part boy, part weapon, totally deadly...Jimmy Coates seems like an ordinary boy, but he's not. He's genetically engineered to grow into the perfect government assassin. Speed, strength and deadly instinct - it's all in the blood. He has to fight not to kill, while his government fights to kill him. Jimmy Coates can only trust one man to bring the country back from the brink of chaos. When that man disappears, Jimmy must battle the shadow of corruption. But the shadows are darker than they seem, and the darkness reaches further than Jimmy could ever imagine. (from

Let's hope the publishers gets their act together and we finally see this in the shops in 2010!

Due to the pressures of being an Ass Head (as my wife delights in calling me whenever she has the chance) there is no way I am going to have the time to read enough new releases to keep this blog going so I also intend to write reviews for books for boys that have been round for a while, so watch this space for a review of the Jimmy Coates series to date coming very soon.

2. Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days by Derek Landy

OK.... so i lied about the 'in no particular order' part of this list. How could I not prioritise the fourth book in the Skulduggery Pleasant series above all the rest of the books listed below?

It's the fourth Skulduggery Pleasant adventure! only Skulduggery Pleasant himself is lost on the other side of a portal, with only some evil gods for company. Can he possible survive? (Yes, all right, he's already dead. But still.) What can we say, without giving too much away? Not much, is the answer. But what we CAN say is that this book is hilarious, it's tense, and it's packed with all the eye-popping action, crackling one liners and imaginative set pieces you've come to expect. There's a new threat to our plucky heroine, of course. But that's not all. There's also the little fact of the Big Bad, the uber-baddy who's going to come along and really, really destroy the world. (Really.) And what we learn about that villain in this book will literally make your jaw fall off and your hair go white with shock. (Not really.) Will Skulduggery make it out of the Faceless Ones' dimension? Who knows. The problem is, he may not have much to come back to!  (from

The Kane Chronicles: The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

2010 is (unofficially) the Year of Rick Riordan. Not only is the first movie in the Percy Jackson franchise soon to be in cinemas, but also the first book in his new Kane Chronicles is to be released in May. Mr Riordan is moving away from Ancient Greek and on to Egyptian mythology in this series and with his mastery of the craft of writing fast-paced, exciting adventure stories the series is sure to be a massive hit. There is a cracking article about this forthcoming series on the Publishers Weekly website.

Since their mother’s death, Carter and Sadie have become near strangers. While Sadie has lived with her grandparents in London, her brother has traveled the world with their father, the brilliant Egyptologist, Dr. Julius Kane.

One night, Dr. Kane brings the siblings together for a "research experiment" at the British Museum, where he hopes to set things right for his family. Instead, he unleashes the Egyptian god Set, who banishes him to oblivion and forces the children to flee for their lives.

Soon, Sadie and Carter discover that the gods of Egypt are waking, and the worst of them--Set--has his sights on the Kanes. To stop him, the siblings embark on a dangerous journey across the globe--a quest that brings them ever closer to the truth about their family, and their links to a secret order that has existed since the time of the pharaohs. (from

Power of Five (Book Five) by Anthony Horowitz

As far as I can work out there is currently no title for this, the final book in the Power of Five series, and obviously no cover artwork either. I am hoping it will be published in 2010, but as Mr Horowitz has supposedly recently said that "Already, I can tell it's going to be a long one; somewhere between 800 and 1,000 pages" then we might just have to wait a little longer.

Zero Moment (The Joshua Files) by M.G. Harris

The third book in the Joshua Files series is scheduled for a February release. The first in the series (Invisible City) was a book that grabbed my attention in Waterstones because of its translucent orange slipcover, and the story turned out to be even better than the packaging. A lot of the current 'post-Da Vinci Code' novellists could learn a hell of a lot from the talented Ms Harris.

Josh thinks that he has discovered the key to time travel. Should he use it to save his father? Ixchel knows what he intends to do. Should she stop him? Before they can decide, Ixchel is kidnapped by the people who want to see an ancient prophecy predicting the end of the world in 2012 come true. It's up to Josh to save Ixchel and possibly save the world. Time is running out... (from 

Closer by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

I count myself to be the very lucky owner of a copy of The Highfield Mole, the self-published book that was later renamed Tunnels when it was published by Chicken House. Since then I have been an avid follower of Will Burrows and his underground adventures. Book four in the series is scheduled to be in the shops in May and you can now see the newly released cover art at TunnelsDeeper.

At the very centre of the Earth, in a world that no one knows exists, Will believes he's safe. But his enemy, the Styx, are close behind. They'll follow him to the ends of the world - any world. And after taking revenge, there's Dominion: their original plan to destroy all humans... Back on top-soil, unexpected allies prepare to fight back. But as they unearth the secrets of the Styx, are they closer to victory or death? (from

Medusa Project: The Hostage by Sophie McKenzie

I quite enjoyed reading The Set-Up, the first book in this series, although it wasn't without faults. However, I am very much looking forward to seeing how Ms McKenzie develops her characters further, and where she takes the story, especially as the story will be told from the point of view of a different character from the first book..... interesting concept!

Fourteen years ago, four babies were implanted with the Medusa gene - a gene for psychic abilities. Now teenagers, Nico, Ketty, Ed and Dylan have been brought together by government agents to create a secret crime-fighting force - The Medusa Project. But now Ketty's brother Lex has stumbled into a dangerous game involving his boss and a hidden bomb. It's up to Ketty to save him without letting on what she knows to the rest of the team. But can she control her psychic visions, and her feelings for Nico, without getting the team's cover - and herself - blown sky high? (from

The Necromancer (Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel) by Michael Scott

I remember noticing The Alchemyst, Michael Scott's first offering in this series, in London's Science Museum bookshop. Having asked my ever-loving wife for permission to buy yet another book I then ended up reading it all the way home on the train, and then on into the night (maybe that should be long-suffering wife as well?). The Necromancer is the fourth book in a series of six; if you like your fantasy to be fast-paced and action-packed then you are missing out if you have not yet discovered these books. I'm not going to paste a synopsis of The Necromancer as there are too many spoilers relating to the previous books in the series.

The Rise of Renegade X by Chelsea M. Campbell

I've been hearing a few good whispers about this book, due to be published in May. I find the synopsis to be an intriguing concept and this is why I am looking forward to reading it:

Damien Locke knows his destiny–attending the university for supervillains and becoming Golden City’s next professional evil genius. But when Damien discovers he’s the product of his supervillain mother’s one-night stand with–of all people–a superhero, his best-laid plans are ruined as he’s forced to live with his superhero family. Going to extreme lengths (and heights), The Rise of Renegade X chronicles one boy’s struggles with the villainous and heroic pitfalls of growing up.

However, and this is quite a big however, which may lead to me throwing the book across the room in frustration, a glance at the opening chapter shows that the book is written in the present tense! I am definitely not a fan of this writing technique, but watch this space for more feedback in the future.

Quicksilver by Samira Osman

Not long to wait for this one (in stores beginning of January 2010) but the incredibly fortunate Vincent at Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books has had a copy for some time and has posted his review here. I am very excited about reading this book and will definitely be spending my Christmas present money on a copy. The synopsis sounds a little similar to parts of Anthony Horowitz's Power of Five series but I have a lot of faith in Vincent's book reviews and this book certainly sounds like a winner.

Dark powers from the past are searching for three extraordinary chilren... Wolfie, Tala and Zi'ib were born on the same day on opposite sides of the world. They are brought together by astonishing coincidence - or so it seems. But only they can fulfil an ancient prophecy - and find a treasure of incalculable power. Can the mysterious energies that flow through the Earth's prehistoric leylines be controlling their lives? And will they discover the chilling truth of who they really are? (from

And the best of the rest......

This list could probably go on and on, however, there are a few more books that I am eagerly awaiting to read in 2010 but most of them are sequels to books I have already reviewed elsewhere in my blog. The first of these is Behemoth, Scott Westerfeld's follow-up to Leviathan (do we really have to wait until October for this?). Add to this The Society of Dread, being the next book in Glenn Dakin's Candle Man series, Jake Ransom and the Howling Sphinx by James Rollins and Alex Scarrow's TimeRiders and 2010 looks to be an incredilby exciting year for boys' fiction.

And then there's Mortlock, Triskellion 3: The Gathering and does anyone know if L. Brittney has a third Nathan Fox book in the pipeline? And so on, and so on........

Thursday 12 November 2009

Lightning shopping trip

Walking into my friendly, neighbourhood Tesco this morning at 7.15am I was very disappointed to find that they had not yet unpacked their supply of 'Crocodile Tears', Anthony Horowitz's latest Alex Rider book. Shame on you Tesco!!!!! However, I managed to shoot into Waterstones during breaktime to pick up a copy (or three.... one for Danny my godson and two for the school library). I'm already well into the story and will write more when I have finished it. There's a nice little video here of Mr Horowitz introducing the book and his super-cool studio complete with secret entrance.

Review: Candle Man: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance by Glenn Dakin

Murder, mystery, and adventure aren’t your typical birthday presents . . .But for Theo, anything that breaks up his ordinary routine is the perfect gift. A mysterious “illness” and Theo’s guardians force him into a life indoors, where gloves must be worn and daily medical treatments are the norm. When Theo discovers a suspicious package on his birthday, one person from the past will unlock the secret behind Theo’s “illness” and change his life forever. Molded into an exhilarating steampunk adventure that gives birth to the next great fantasy hero, Theo Wickland, Candle Man: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance is the first book in a trilogy by debut author Glenn Dakin.

After finishing Leviathan I was very much in a steampunk mood and this book had just arrived from Amazon so without any hesitation I completely ignored the rest of the books on my ‘still to read’ list and dived straight into Candle Man: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance. Beautifully presented book cover aside, the title alone was enough to grab my attention, conjuring up mental images of Edgar Wallace’s ‘Four Just Men’ books and 1930s pulps such as ‘The Shadow’ and ‘Doc Savage’. However, I have to say I was a little disappointed though only because despite this being marketed as a steampunk story there are few, if any, steampunk elements to this story, or at least what I personally would consider to be essentials of the steampunk genre. As I have previously explained, steampunk is generally set in the past (usually, but not exclusively, in the Victorian era) with anachronistic technology, whereas this book has a modern setting, with modern technology such as laptops. At least I think it is a modern setting – the author makes subtle references throughout to that effect, but there are also some passages that make you wonder whether it is actually a Victorian setting. Confused? So was I at times. But..... and this is a big but, don’t let this put you off reading this book because the story is wonderful.

The hero of the story is Theo, a boy who has spent his whole life in secluded from other people, except for his guardian, a butler/bodyguard and the maid. His reading and viewing material is very carefully chosen and so he has grown up to be a naive and neurotic young man whose annual visits to a graveyard on his birthday are his only contact with the outside world. Until, that is, a couple of burglars enter his world one night when his guardian is away from home. During this burglary Theo discovers a) a secret room in the house and b) that he has a ‘super power’. I won’t go into any more detail about this power as I would hate to give away any spoilers, but the story from this moment on becomes a voyage of discovery for Theo. Who is he? Why does he have this power? Why has he been secluded from the rest of society all of his life?

As Theo sets out on this journey we are introduced to new characters and new creatures, including the wonderfully feisty Chloe - she's no damsel in distress; it's Chloe who gets the feeble Theo out of trouble! However, despite the thoroughness put into creating Theo’s character, not all of these secondary characters are fully developed, but this is Glenn Dakin’s first book, and also the first in a series of Candle Man books, so I expect we will see further development of these characters in the future. The story has a great pace to it, and this may also contribute towards this lack of character development in places, and also the confused feeling I had regarding the setting – in places descriptive writing may have been sacrificed in order to keep the story moving at such a fast pace. This will really appeal to some readers and, if I am perfectly honest, it caught me in just the right frame of mind. After Leviathan I was still in the mood for a fast paced, enjoyable story with lots of humour and this suited that mood perfectly.

The humour in this book is perfectly suited to middle grade readers. It varies from quirky, to dark, to gruesome - `Sorry, sir, but I thought you might like to know. Your face is melting' is a one-liner worthy of a classic Bond film or Carry on Screaming! Mr Dakin uses this humour very well – he knows when and, more importantly, when not to use it; some authors try to put too much humour in to their stories, but this is not evident in this book. The author even manages to use humour in some of the darker scenes, through the almost comical actions of his Smoglodytes. Think ‘Gremlins’ – even when they are at their most menacing in the movie Joe Dante and Chris Columbus still keep the laughter flowing.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable read. I was so hooked by the story that I finished it in one sitting (sadly an increasingly rare feat these days due to work pressures) and I am really looking forward to the next instalment in the series. Just one thing Mr Dakin….. please ask your publishers to be more careful with their use of the term ‘steampunk’.

Monday 9 November 2009

Chuffed to bits!

I am really chuffed that Jon Mayhew, author of the forthcoming Mortlock, has taken the time to add a comment to my review of I Spy. Jon's first book is due to be published by Bloomsbury on 5th April 2010 according to Amazon (just in time for my birthday) and judging by the artwork for the cover and the synopsis I have already put it on the list of books to buy for the school library next year.

I love this cover, and I have already registered my vote and left a comment at the brilliant Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books blog. I wrote:

"Mortlock definitely wins it for me. Firstly, the colour - not enough green is used to give a feeling of horror on book covers thse days - but look at some of the genuinely scary film posters from the last few decades - Alien! The Fog! Rosemary's Baby! All green! And then there's those terrifying bird images. They immediately brought to mind the genuinely creepy book The Raven's Knot by Robin Jarvis! I think the whole concept of being chased by a giant, flesh-eating bird is pretty damn scary and the image on this cover portrays that feeling perfectly."

And having just made a quick visit to one of Jon's blogs I have now seen the brilliantly creepy promotional video for Mortlock which has made me want to get my hands on this book even more. Roll on April!

Sunday 8 November 2009

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. The Leviathan is a living airship, the most formidable airbeast in the skies of Europe.

Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way, taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

OK..... a whole week since I last posted but a sudden Ofsted inspection reduced my reading time significantly this week. Having started this book last Sunday night (I always read before turning the light off at night, and have done for as long as I can remember) I then put it aside for a few days as I  wanted to give it quality reading time - it really is the sort of book you just don't want to put down. When I did finally have the time to read it I managed to have enough spare time to finish it in one sitting and I honestly didn't want it to end - in the words of Kate Bush...... Wow! And I will say that again..... Wow!! What a story!

In my opinion this book is one of the finest examples of steampunk fiction for boys that I have come across. Steampunk is a genre that is becoming increasingly popular in the fiction world and throughout other areas of popular culture, but many of the best examples have so far been written for the adult market. I won't go into detail about what steampunk is - a simple google of the word will give you more than 2 million hits - but for a great introduction to the steampunk genre in fiction look no further than this great blog post by the very talented Alexandra Shostak.

Most steampunk stories are set in Victorian times, but despite this story being set during the the early days of the First World War all the elements of a typical steampunk story are there: alternate history; technology and machines that are very much out of their time; societies with opposing views on the ethics of their different technologies; airships; and action and adventure in abundance.

My favourite element of this story is Scott Westerfeld's creation of Darwinist technology; in this story Charles Darwin has not only developed his Theory of Evolution, he is also credited with the discovery of DNA and genetic science and this breakthrough has been used by British scientists to create the most fantastic, fabricated biological machines. This is biotechnology, but certainly not as we know it! These fabricated machines are not just new animals creations - many of them are made of the genes of multiple creatures to become more like ecosystems that individual organisms. The Leviathan is the prime example of this in the story. Most steampunk stories include the use of airships but to my knowledge no-one has ever written about an airship that is a combination of "umpteen different beasties". Westerfeld's descriptive writing about these fabulous creations is incredibly vivid, yet never affects the pace of the story which is almost breathless throughout. And should your imagination begin to tire at any point, there are always Keith Thompson's 50 sumptuous illustrations throughout the book (I'll pop a couple of them at the bottom of this review). Many books for Young Adults would benefit considerably from illustrations, in much the way many adult books had illustrations back in the Victorian era.

In contrast to the biotechnology used by Britain, the Austrian/German nations in the book rely on 'Clankers' - petrol/diesel mechanical technology, but again very different from the machines that were used by these countries in our world's Great War. These aren't tanks with caterpillar tracks; instead they are huge walking machines resembling giant robots (in fact Alek, the principle Austrian character in the story will not even entertain the idea that a war machine could move around on anything other than legs: "How else would a war machine get around? On treads, like an old-fashioned farm tractor?" These continental powers also believe that the Darwinian creations are godless, and Westerfeld uses this fundamental difference in beliefs between the two powers well, implying throughout that it is the underlying reason for the tension between the two Powers, much like religion is in many parts of the world and wars today.

The characters too are wholly believable. On the one hand we are first presented with Prince Aleksander, son of the Archduke Ferdinand and potential heir to an empire. As in our world's history the Archduke is murdered in Sarajevo, but this is where the story diverges from our own world's. Alek, with the help of a few faithful family 'staff', manages to escape on a clanker on the night of his parents' murders and sets off on an adventure across Austria, evading the enemy powers that would have him join his dead parents.

The otehr principle character is Deryn Sharp, a girl who desperately wants to join the Air Service. Unfortunately females are prohibted from doing this and so she 'joins up' in the guise of a boy. A slight mishap during a training exercise leaves Deryn (or Dylan as she is now known) stationed aboard the Leviathan, her lifelong dreams rapidly becoming reality. Through skill, hardwork and some good fortune she manages to retain her place on the ship as it embarks on a special mission to ferry the enigmatic Dr. Barlow to Constantinople..... just as the hostilities break out on the continent.

Of course, Alek's and Deryn's paths eventually cross through the skillful story-telling abilities of Mr Westerfeld, and a close friendship begins to blossom despite their different beliefs and backgrounds. I loved the way that the author manages to keep you fully interested in both characters, even in the early stages of the book when they are still hundreds of miles part, by changing the character viewpoint every two chapters.

I'm not going to say any more, for fear of getting carried away and spoiling the book for readers. Suffice to say, I was left hungry for a lot more by the time I finished the book, with Westerfeld leaving us with a cliff-hanger ending in the tradition of the old Republic movie serials - no Harry Potter-esque end of term return to home for these two young people. Sadly, the sequel is not due to be published until October 2010, but I am sure that by then Westerfeld will have a huge following.