Wednesday 30 June 2010

My Book of the Month - June

I have found it very difficult to choose a Book Zone Book of the Month for June. Not because there was a huge number of books released this month, but more because there were two that I enjoyed so much it seemed unfair to choose one over the other. These two books are Death Cloud by Andrew Lane (the first in his new Young Sherlock Holmes series) and the second Hattori Hachi book by Jane Prowse. I came very close to biting the bullet and picking both of them, however I am not going to be a rule-breaker - in the words of Connor McLeod (of the Clan McLeod) "There can be only one!" and that one is Hattori Hachi: Stalking The Enemy.

This has been a very busy month at work so despite finishing this book some time ago I just haven't had the time to write a review for it yet. Stalking The Enemy is the second book from Jane Prowse featuring her teenage ninja heroine Hattie Jackson. I read the first in the series, The Revenge of Praying Mantis, earlier this year and if you read my review you will very quickly find out why I loved it so much. This sequel has since been very high up on my 'can't wait for it to be published' list and I was really happy to receive a copy from Piccadilly Press, and incredibly flattered when I saw that a quote from my review of the first book had made it to the back cover. However, as I opened it I couldn't help but worry.... what if I didn't like the sequel?

Obviously, the fact that I have made it my Book of the Month is evidence already that I really enjoyed it. Is it as good as the first book though? Definitely not...... in my opinion it is even better! There are more ninja villains, more ninja fights and more super-cool ninja gadgets and weapons. The characters of Hattori and her friends are developed further, including her father, of whom we saw fairly little in the first book in this series. There are also more revelations about Hattori's Japanese heritage, and what part she has to play in her role as the Hattori Golden Child and her family's ongoing war against the evil Kataki. I was right to be excited about reading this book.

The Revenge of Praying Mantis has a fairly linear plot - Hattie's mum goes missing, Hattie discovers she is descended from a long line of ruling-class ninjas, Hattie gets trained by the little old lady who runs the launderette downstairs from where she lives, and so on. There are also a number of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, the tension building and the story from being far from predictable. However, Stalking The Enemy really ups the ante as far as twists and turns are concerned, and neither Hattie nor the reader really have much of a clue as to just what is going to happen next. Is Toby on the side of good or evil? Where are Hattie's mother and Yazuki? Why is the Kielder area so important to the evil Raven and his Kataki warriors? And just who is the mysterious jonin who is issuing the instructions to the various players on the side of good?

As with Praying Mantis we are introduced to a number of Japanese words throughout the book and although the words jonin, chunin and genin are unfamiliar to the majority of children who will read this book, the concepts behind them are not so strange. A jonin is the head of a ninja mission; he (or she) passes instructions to the field-operatives (or genin) via middle-men (known as a chunin). This way many operatives can be working towards a shared final objective without knowing the full plan, or even whether there are any other ninjas involved, and therefore if they are captured and tortured there is no chance of them being able to compromise their fellow operatives. This use of cells is pretty much identical to how modern day terrorists operate, and Jane Prowse's use of this in her plot is the key to making the story as tense and exciting as it is. Hattie is constantly questioning her actions, wondering whether they are correct as far as the 'big plan' is concerned, or will her next move actually jeopardise everything? The fact that Hattie doesn't know means that we as readers are also very much in the dark - make sure you hold on tight as the edge of your seat may just give way!

If there was ever a list of books that could be used to persuade boys that female main characters can be worth reading about then this would not only be on that list, it would be up there battling away for the top spot. If I asked a group of boys what they want in a book they would answer action, adventure, fights, great characters (I know this... I have asked them, and one of even replied ninjas!). I criticised Praying Mantis for having a girly cover which may prevent boys from even picking it off a shelf - hopefully the blue cover of Stalking The Enemy may help remedy this. The quote from my review of Praying Mantis that Piccadilly Press so kindly used on the back of this book read "As thrilling an action story as anything written by Anthony Horowitz, Robert Muchamore or Joe Craig" and I stand by this completely. The only problem is that now I probably have to wait another year for the third instalment, and next time Hattie and her friends and family are heading to the heart of ninja-land - Japan. How exciting!

Hattori Hachi: Stalking The Enemy by Jane Prowse is published by Piccadilly Press and is available in stores now. Go on..... it is well worth your time.

*** Contest: WIN a signed copy of Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda

A few days ago I posted a review of Dark Goddess, the brilliant second book from author Sarwat Chadda featuring Billi SanGreal. Yesterday morning I received an email from Sarwat offering a signed copy of Dark Goddess as a prize. So, in order to win a copy of this book all you have to do is fill in the form below with the answer to a simple question and your details.

The first name drawn at random after the closing date will win a signed copy of the book. Deadline for your entry is 8pm Tuesday 6th July. This contest is open to UK entrants only.

Terms and conditions

Contest open to UK entrants only.
I will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.
I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Review: Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda

Billi SanGreal is a Knight Templar and has thrown herself utterly into their brutal regime, shutting herself off from everyone and everything. But when Billi finds herself at the heart of a savage werewolf attack, she knows their target – a young girl – must be rescued at all costs. For this is no ordinary girl. Vasalisa is an avatar with an uncontrollable force within – and it’s not just the werewolves who want her.The Dark Goddess wants to sacrifice Vasalisa and use her powers to unleash unimaginable catastrophes and devastation. Can Billi protect Vasalisa from the ancient goddess – and at the same time stop her from destroying the world?

Back in April I posted a review of Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda, the first book in his series about Billi SanGreal, a teenager living in modern day London but part of an ancient war between good and evil as a Templar Knight in training. I loved Devil's Kiss and its kick-ass heroine and I have been looking forward to reading the sequel ever since; but would Mr Chadda be able to produce a second book worthy of the first? The answer is a resounding yes - I enjoyed every moment of this, and if I hadn't have been fighting a cold over the last few days I am sure I would have read it in one sitting.

As with Devil's Kiss Mr Chadda does not waste time easing us into his story; he kicks it off with Billi slap bang in the middle of another terrifying scene, this time up against a couple of werewolves. How we love werewolves at The Book Zone - none of your glamorous vampires with smouldering eyes and rakish good looks for us boys, thank you! We much prefer the animal ferocity of the wolfman. But it is here that Mr Chadda delivers his first knock-out surprise - his werewolves belong to an all-female pack known as the Polenitsy, who roam the forests of Russia and worship the dark goddess of the book's title, the terrifying Baba Yaga. But don't go thinking that because they are female they are any less deadly than your sterotypical male werewolf - these creatures are every bit as ruthless and violent, and it is not just their bite that can turn someone into one of their kind either, their claws are just as deadly.

One of the things I love the most about Mr Chadda's stories is the effort he obviously puts into research, and then the personal spin he twists into this to create his own plot elements. The Polenitsy appear in Russian legends as formidable warrior women - the Chadda twist makes them werewolves. The Bogatyr appear in Russain folk epics as protectors of the realm - twisted around Chadda-style and they become the Russian equivalent of Billi's Templar Knights, Christian warriors fighting against evil for even longer than the Knights themselves. And then there is Tunguska - site of a devastating meteor strike more than a century ago, and now....... no, that would be giving too much away. It takes an inventive mind to pick these elements out of hours and hours of research and then mould them into a story like Dark Goddess, and yet Sarwat Chadda manages to do this seamlessly.

Having just used that word, I fear that I have no choice but to use it again, but this time to describe Mr Chadda's plotting, for there is no better word to describe it than seamless. Devil's Kiss, whilst being a superb debut novel for the author, had a fairly linear plot with only a handful of twists throughout. Dark Goddess is a far more complicated work, and is even better for it. Few of the new characters are what they initially seem, what is perceived as evil at first may surpise you later in the book, and vile actions such as the slaughter of innocents are sometimes reasoned and believed to be for the greater good by their perpetrators. This book really will keep you guessing until the end, but this end is ultimately very satisfying in that the various twisting plot threads are neatly brought together and resolved with a skill usually seen in far more experienced authors than Mr Chadda.

At the end of my review of Devil's Kiss I stated that "Devil's Kiss finishes on a particularly harrowing note for Billi and I am intrigued to find out where the story will take her next as she "throws herself into the brutal regime of Templar duties with utter abandon"." Without giving too much away, that book finished with Billi being hurt both emotionally and physically, and we are reminded of these moments throughout Dark Goddess (you really must read these books in the correct sequence in order to get the most out of them). Mr Chadda uses this sequel to really develop Billi's character even further, partly through her slightly warmer relationship with her father, but more through her interaction with Vasilisa, a small girl that Baba Yaga wants to devour in order to gain her incredible powers, and then through Billi's growing relationship with Ivan Alexeivich Romanov, Bogatyr and descendent of the princess Anastasia Romanov (yet another Chadda twist-on-fact). Ivan is another troubled teenager who has had to confront and fight evil on an almost daily basis, and in many ways is a male version of our Billi, and Sarwat Chadda skilfully develops their inital mistrust of each other into a relationship where they will risk their lives for each other (ok... so they kiss as well, but boys, it really is only a very small element of the story.... there's none of this Twilight rubbish from Mr Chadda).

It is difficult to define exactly which genre this book belongs to as there are so many competing elements. It is a fantastic action story, with the fight scenes even better than those in Devil's Kiss. But there are also moments of extreme horror - some of the werewolf attacks are very ferocious, and there is one scene where Billi is shown a lorry container full of bodies which is particularly gruesome. Action? Adventure? Horror? One thing it isn't is a Romance!!!

On the evidence of first Devil's Kiss and now Dark Goddess I believe that Sarwat Chadda is here to stay and although I am sure it is some way off I can't wait to find out what he has in store for Billi in the future. Sarwat is embarking on a blog tour in this coming week and he has written a great article for The Book Zone which will go live on Friday 2nd July. As part of his tour he is being interviewed on at least one blog so maybe we will find out a few hints about the next instalment in Billi's saga in one of those - head on over to Sarwat's website or his blog to find out more details about this tour.

Dark Goddess is published by Puffin and is due to be released on 1st July, although I notice that Amazon already have copies in stock. My thanks go to the generous people at Puffin for sending me a copy of this book.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Review: Slime Squad by Steve Cole

Mad scientist Godfrey Gunk had a dream - a dream of creating a whole safari park of monsters on an old rubbish dump. It didn't work. Little did Godfrey know that after he left the rubbish dump, his dream came true ...Meet the inhabitants of Trashland, a whole world full of different types of slimy monsters who all live peacefully alongside each other - at least until now ...Plog keeps himself to himself on account of his very slimy, very stinky feet, so he is surprised one day when Trashland's superhero Slime Squad with their different slimy special powers turn up at his sewer door and bundle him back to their secret operations base. Things are changing in the rubbish dump, mean and nasty slime monsters have grown and are starting to shatter the peace with their evil crimes. The Slime Squad need some help, and they think Plog is the monster to offer it! It's time to fight crime with slime!

Random House describe Steve Cole as a one-man publishing team, and I would suggest that this is a pretty accurate description. This man (or is he a machine?) is possibly this country's most prolific children's author of the moment - this year alone he is scheduled to have more than 25 titles published by Random House. On hearing something like this I would imagine that the cynical grumpy-types out there might start to question the quality of these books (usually without having read a single word), but they would be so very long. This is the man who has so far brought us the Astrosaur series, the Cows In Action series, and now the Slime Squad series - every one of them a fun and hilarious read for the 7+ age group. I know boys younger than this who have these read to them at bedtime, usually in fits of giggles. Steve Cole really knows what makes kids laugh!

Whereas the Astrosaur series utilised the classic boy favourites of science fiction and dinosaurs to appeal to its readers, the Slime Squad series relies on a subject that also has great boy-appeal, namely all things dirty and slimy. The story is set in Trashland, an old rubbish dump that was established by a mad scientist who was so concerned about the increasing amounts of pollution building up in the world that he became determined to create "marvellous mutant mini-monsters out of chemical goo - monsters who would clean up the planet by eating, drinking and generally devouring all types of rubbish". Unfortunately all of his experiments failed, and once his funds and dwindled he gave up, smashing his computer and spreading some of it components across the site in his frustration.

Little did Godfrey Gunk realise that years before he bought his landfill site a consignment of radioactive waste had been buried there, and once he departed it wasn't long before the radiation from this waste began to react with the remains of his experiments and life began to form - hundreds of mini-monsters. This life evolved and soon Trashland became a thriving metropolis, including banks, shops, museums and so on, all situated in areas such as the Tin Can Mountains, Broken Furniture Valley and Spare Part Canyon.

At the same time as all this was happening the remains of the crazy prof's computer was also at work - it had been programmed to repair itself and its artificial intelligence evolved over time to become PIE, short for Perfect Intelligence Electronics. PIE is now the Trashland equivalent of Charlie, with the Slime Squad taking the place of Charlie's Angels - a team of super-powered mini-monsters who, thanks to PIE's all-seeing components, always seem to be in the right place at the right time to lend a hand to the needy inhabitants of Trashland. Unfortunately for the Slime Squad, and Trashland in general, some of the really nasty waste has now begun to leak out and evolve itself - in this case into particularly nasty monsters. These monsters are turning to crime, under the guidance of the mysterious and evil Lord Klukk, and so now the Slime Squad must become crime-fighters, a task they seem woefully unprepared for.

Young boys will love these stories. Steve Cole has a wonderful imagination and loves to play around with words - the inhabitants of Trashland watch Smellyvision, their currency is printed on used toilet paper (the smellier the note, the more valuable it is), and Plog, a reclusive mini-monster who unknowingly has a huge part to play in the Slime Squad, has meals such as rat hairs and flies' legs in seagull-poo sauce. Show me a 5-8 year old boy who doesn't find this sort of thing hilarious! The stories stick to his tried and tested (and so far very successful) formula - create funny, memorable characters...... have them working together as a team...... put them into dangerous situations that require them to use their various abilities...... the team overcomes the enemy/danger despite sometimes enormous odds...... and all this is done with a plot that is saturated with sparkling young boy humour throughout.

These really are the sort of books that will get boys of this age interested in books, and as many parents and professionals know, if you hook them at this age quite often they are hooked for life and I have seen this for myself with both of my godsons and their brothers. There aren't a huge number of good books being produced for this age group (aside from Steve Cole's output there are the Horrid Henry books, the Captain Underpants series and Tommy Donbavand's Scream Street series are the only ones that spring immediately to mind), so I can only hope that Mr Cole doesn't burn out from his massive efforts. I certainly feel that he has a big part to play in creating the older boy readers of the future.

So far two Slime Squad books have been published and are available to buy right now - The Slime Squad vs The Fearsome Fists and The Slime Squad vs The Toxic Teeth, and there are two more scheduled for August 2010.

Monday 21 June 2010

*** The Dead Contest Result

The lucky winners of a copy of The Dead by David Gatward are:






Well done and thank you to everyone who entered. I will now endeavour to contact the winners through twitter. Please reply within 48 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to Hodder for providing this fabulous prize.

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


Sunday 20 June 2010

Book Zone Downloads

I received an email last week from a mother of two boys who told me that the librarian at her local library had directed her towards The Book Zone. Thank you to that unnamed librarian! Another mother has said she has recommended this blog to her friends. Again, thank you.

As a result of this I had a bit of a creative dabble with Photoshop to produce a couple of items to help spread the word about The Book Zone so if you are a librarian, teacher, parent or young reader please feel free to download these and hopefully together we can get more and more boys interested in books.

*** Edit: Just realised download links may not have been working - should all be sorted now ***

Click here to download this A4 poster in pdf format.

Click here to download a sheet of bookmarks in pdf format.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Review: Edwin Spencer - Mission Improbable by J.D. Irwin

Edwin Spencer is the odd one out in his family. While his sisters and brother are high achievers (if decidedly uncool) he struggles at school and is happiest playing football with his mate Nat. Then the general boredom and misery of school is interrupted by a series of bizarre events Edwin starts to hear strange voices, and his science teacher of all people tells him that King Janus of Hysteria needs his help. As Edwin doubts his sanity, a whirling vortex appears in his bathroom! Before he knows it, he's been swept into a parallel world a world where they really need his help. If only Perpetua Allbright the school swot wasn't there with him...

I started this blog back in October 2009 as a way of relieving the frustrations I was feeling at work where trying to encourage the children to read and use the school library was beginning to feel like a near impossible task. Nearly eight months on I am am still amazed at the response I have had from children, parents, teachers, librarians and in  particular authors and their publishers. At no point did I think that I would be sent books for free, and I know I am incredibly lucky in this respect. One of the nicest things that comes from being sent books is that occasionally I will receive one from a debut author who is being published by a smaller publishing company as through this I have discovered some really good books that I otherwise may have ignored or not stumbled across in my local Waterstones or on Amazon. Edwin Spencer - Mission Improbable is one such book, and I loved it.

In the last couple of years the market has been flooded with Young Adult books and publishers can't seem to get enough of them. This therefore means that many aspiring authors are pitching their work at this level, and there is a relative shortage of good adventure stories for what the americans would called Middle Grade. J.D. Irwin has helped reduce this drought by one as Edwin Spencer is perfect for the 9-12 age group. It has everything a boy (and girl) in this age group could ask for in a book - action, adventure, comedy (it is very funny), fantasy and plenty of scary moments.

For me, the key to this book's appeal is its main character, the eponymous Edwin Spencer. Edwin reminds me of many boys I have taught over the years. He is seriously disaffected as far as school is concerned, compounded by the fact that his three siblings are all high achievers, and therefore nothing he does ever going to be good enough for his parents. Where his brother and sisters are excelling at their hoework and completeing it with days to spare, Edwin instead devotes his spare time to playing football with his best mate. I couldn't help but feel really sorry for poor Edwin - his mother has even given him an encyclopedia to read... "one page a day - as we agreed" she says. Whilst on ths subject of Edwin's parents I will mention my only real criticism of this book - we simply do not see enough of them beyond their initial description, and it is a description that makes us simply beg for more:

 "Mrs Spencer was a horsy-looking woman with a generous moustache and enormous teeth; but she knew what suited her and had worn the same sugar-pink lipstick for twenty-five years. She was married to Mr Spencer. Unusually short and entirely bald, he was the 'Head of Hair' at Templeton Grove Wigs and Toupees'".

Before long Edwin's concerns about the unrealistic expectations of his parents, and the normal day-to-day misery of going to school soon pale into insignificance as he finds himself transported through a magical vortex to a very different parallel universe populated by wizards, knights, dragons and a king who is grieving for his dead son..... who just happens to be the spitting image of Edwin. So begins a Prisoner of Zenda-esque adventure story, with Edwin being asked to impersonate the dead prince in order keep the kingdom from falling into the hands of enemies that have been waiting for the dynastic line to be broken. What a choice.... just hours before Edwin had been worrying about school work and bullies and now he is being asked to fool a population into believing he is their beloved prince.

As I already mentioned, it is Edwin's character that is the highlight for me in this book. All the decisions he makes are realistic, and children will have no problem relating to him and his actions. Many children feel that they live in the shadow of a more academic or more talented brother or sister, and most will also recognice the problems Edwin faces at school. He is very much a reluctant hero, and children love a main character who has to dig deep within themselves to find the qualities needed to save the day. It makes it all the more easy for them to be able to imagine themselves in that situation, even if it is in a different world where magic is very real.

Edwin is not the only wonderful character in this story; he is supported by a host of colourful secondary characters, the most notable being the strangely named Perpetua Allbright - yup, with a name like that she could only be one of the cleverest girls in his school. Initially I was concerned that Perpetua may become a little irritating, but the author develops her character very well, and the banter between Edwin and her provides many of the funniest moments throughout the story. Boys will be glad to hear that their relationship has no element of romance at all, instead they develop a supportive and close friendship that helps them both to deal with the strange and increasingly dangerous situations they find themselves in. As well as Perpetua there are also the inhabitants of the magical  kingdon of Hysteria, all of whom bring something to this delightful story.

As well as great characters this book also has a good storyline delivered with a fresh and interesting voice; at no point does the author talk down to her audience and the plot is at times challenging as it twists and turns and keeps the reader guessing until the very end. There are some pretty scary moments, but the darkness is cleverly lightened with the comic comments made by the various characters. Readers (and those being read to as this is the perfect bedtime story book) will find themselves exerperiencing a full range of emotions as Edwin strives to help the mourning king and his subjects in their quest to save the kingdom from the evil Umbrians. Will they be successful? You will have to read the book to find out. All I will say is that the book doesn't end on a cliffhanger and there is a very satisfying conclusion to the story. I'm now keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel.

Edwin Spencer - Mission Improbable by J.D. Irwin is published by Catnip and is available to buy right now.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

*** Contest: WIN a proof copy of The Dead by David Gatward

I recently posted a review of The Dead, the first book in a brand new horror series from author David Gatward, and earlier this week I published an interview that David kindly took part in for The Book Zone. Now, thanks to the generous people at Hodder I have FIVE proof copies of The Dead to give away (yes, that isn't a typo - FIVE copies). In order to win a copy of this book all you have to do is follow me on Twitter and add a comment below this post.

Please include your Twitter name or an email address with your comment. The first five names drawn at random after the closing date will win a signed copy of the book. Deadline for your comments is 8pm Sunday 20th June. This contest is open to UK entrants only.

Terms and conditions

Contest open to UK entrants only.
I will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.

I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Review: Theodore Boone by John Grisham

In the small city of Strattenburg, there are many lawyers, and though he's only thirteen years old, Theo Boone thinks he's one of them. Theo knows every judge, policeman, court clerk - and a lot about the law. He dreams of being a great trial lawyer, of a life in the courtroom.

But Theo finds himself in court much sooner than he expected. Because he knows so much - maybe too much - he is suddenly dragged into the middle of a sensational murder trial. A cold-blooded killer is about to go free, and only Theo knows the truth.

The stakes are high, but Theo won't stop until justice is served.

John Grisham has allegedly sold somewhere in the region of 250 million books  worldwide, but it would appear that this is not enough for him and he now wants to break into the children's market as well. It is a long time since I read a John Grisham adult novel as I am not a huge fan of legal thrillers, although I do recall enjoying The Pelican Brief and The Firm. If I remember correctly, they were both tightly plotted thrillers with a great deal of suspense, and considering his reputation as an author I was expecting something pretty similar in Theodore Boone. How wrong could I be?

On the Amazon page for this book there is a quote from the Daily Express that reads "Nobody does legal fiction better"; unfortunately, based on this book the same cannot be said about children's fiction. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that Mr Grisham has not read any of the competition in preparation for entering this market - a quick read of the likes of Robert Muchamore, M.G. Harris or Anthony Horowitz would have shown him exactly how to approach writing for this very demanding audience. Instead we have a book that in many ways seems very old fashioned, almost as if the author has followed the style of books he may have enjoyed as a kid.

First up in the evidence for the prosecution is the author's main character, the titular Theodore Boone. This boy is just far too nice, so much so that most children reading this will struggle to relate to his character. In fact I think you would have to search hard to find many kids who would actually want to be like him as in most children's minds being such a goody-goody just isn't cool. It is a sad fact but in the schools where I have taught a boy such as Theodore would have been bullied and teased about his passion for all things legal, not revered for his knowledge and understanding of the law as he is by his peers once the town's big murder trial kicks off. I appreciate that in many stories for this age group the main character tends to be a little on the plain side, especially in comparison with the villains whose characters tend to be more dramatic and meaty. However, Theo's character is just a little plain, it is boringly bland, and unfortunately we do not have an over-the-top villain in this book to offset this. Yes, there is the mysterious Omar Cheepe, freelance "trouble shooter" for the prosecution team, but all we get from him is sinister looks and very little action at all; so much more could have been done with this character.

Onto Exhibit Number 2 - the pace. I appreciate that the author has to introduce a new main character, a host of secondary characters, set the scene, etc. but the opening third of this book is just far too slow. OK, so it isn't an action thriller as written by the authors I mentioned earlier, but any good author for children or young adults will tell you that if you don't grab their attention and keep it in the opening chapters of a book then you may as well wave goodbye to a sizeable pencentage of those readers.  To be fair, once e have persevered through the first 90 or so pages the pace and tension does increase, and I started to think that maybe I had been a little impatient with Mr Grisham. However, this just set me up for even greater disappointment as the ending of the book is possibly one of the worst I have read in years; so poor in that I actually checked whether the book was missing some pages. Either this was the author trying to make the reader decide how the court case eventually panned out or it is a blatant attempt to set the story up for a sequel. Now I'm not one of these readers who detests cliffhanger book endings, and I'm happy to wait for the next instalment, but the way this book ends just left me feeling flat and disappointed.

And finally, Exhibit Number 3 - where is the peril? Where are the scenes that test Theodore in ways he has never been tested before? Where are the moments that have the reader sitting on the edge of their seat, nervous for the safety of the book's hero? For a man who has built a career and reputation on the writing of books with great plot Mr Grisham seems to have assumed that all the essential elements of a good book for adults do not apply to the younger market, and in a world where horror fiction is very popular with this age group Mr Grisham appears to have gone out of his way not to scare his readers even a little.

In the book's defence however, there are a couple of positive points. Firstly, Theo has to make a number of moral decisions through the book, and he does this without coming across all moralistic. Many children don't warm to "in your face" moralising in their stories and I feel that Mr Grisham just about manages to avoid this. Secondly, this being a legal 'thriller', he was always going to have to explain some fairly complexed legal concepts and procedures to his young audience. Although in my opinion it is a little contrived, the use of Theo explaining the ins-and-outs of the murder trial to his classmates worked very well for me, and I feel that readers of 11+ would find some of these explanations very interesting. Mr Grisham obviously hs a passion for the american legal system, and wants to share this with a new generation of readers, and I am sure there will be a number of children who will be inspired to find out a little more about this subject; it is just a shame that they have to endure a weak story in the process.

All in all then a great disappointment from such a popular author for adults. This book may appeal to confident readers in the 9+ age group, but older readers will get bored quite quickly, unless they are legal obsessives like Theodore Boone himself. The book is published in hardback by Hodder and is available to by now.

Monday 14 June 2010

*** Interview with David Gatward (author of The Dead)

David Gatward is going to be the next big thing in YA Horror! That's my opinion at least, based upon my reading of The Dead, his debut horror novel due to be published at the beginning of July. I count myself really fortunate to have been sent an early proof of this book, and you can read my review here. David has kindly spent a great deal of time answering a set of interview questions I sent him. Don't say I never treat you Book Zone readers!!

How would you describe The Dead to a potential reader?

A splatter movie in book form for kids! Hmmm… that sounds a bit nuts, doesn’t it? I really wanted to get as close to a movie-like feel to it as I could. Probably a crazy aim, but it’s what I went for. It’s fairly visual throughout, with some crazy monsters and lots of destruction and a fair splattering of gore. I wanted the set pieces to be really vivid, like you were watching them on the big screen. I also wanted it to (hopefully) feel like the kind of book you’d want to hide from your parents. The closest analogy I came up with is that feeling of creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to watch a horror movie, while your parents sleep upstairs utterly oblivious to what you’re doing. You know, when you’ve got the volume so low because you don’t want them to wake up, and you’re sitting real close to the screen to hear it, and you’re super aware of all the creaks and groans the house makes at night and the thrill of the film you’re watching is a mix of excitement, daring and fear…

What inspired you to write The Dead?

No one thing inspired it really. It came out of a lot of stuff. I had a few ideas knocking around. One was about a lad whose rubbish parents are murdered and come back as ghosts to make up for their bad ways and to help him find the bad guys who killed them. Another was about a lad who notices something’s wrong with his dad, but doesn’t know what, and eventually discovers he’s been possessed by one of The Dead. Then there was this other idea about a remote village where the nightmares of the residents stalk the roads and moors at night. I still like all of those, but they kind of came together in various ways in The Dead. Then, just randomly, I wrote this crazy scene about a lad who’s home alone and finds a skinned stranger in his lounge telling him The Dead are coming and he has to stop them. This scene ended up in the book and the skinned bloke is Red! So Red started it all! And he’s just such a great character… Is he good, bad… which way will he go… Fab! I also wanted to do something that was about the dead, but not in the mindless, zombies-eating-my-brains-and-face kind of way. I wanted The Dead to be a real force to be reckoned with. Dangerous, filled with such a drive and lust to live again that they’ll do anything to experience life again. Reading this now I’m thinking, ‘Dave… are you nuts?!’ Then I found this quote by Mark Twain: ‘Pity is for the living, envy is for The Dead…’ And it was like ‘BLAM! THAT’S IT!’

Where do you even begin to start researching a book like The Dead?

First, you go to a graveyard, late at night. Then you run around trying to raise your very own zombie, while spraying everywhere in goat blood. Er… no! I don’t really know. No where and everywhere. I’m a horror fan anyway, so my brain is kind of tuned in to spewing out monsters and darkness. The relationships, the characters, that all comes from everyday life; people watching, taking note of what people are like with each other, my own relationships. Anything factual I always try to get spot on, though that’s not so important with this as it’s very fantastical. The layout of Laz’s house is based on a house I lived in as a teenager, which gives me a geography to work with. The same goes for a location I’ve used for book 2. Gives a better sense of place I think.

Lazarus Stone – great name for a main character. Along with the Fallen and Legion am I correct in guessing that the Bible has been a source of inspiration for you when coming up with ideas for the series?

Not so much inspiration as something that I simply can’t avoid. I was brought up in the church as my dad’s a Methodist Minister! I love the supernatural element of horror, and the Bible gives that backdrop in many ways. I’m not really dealing with a god issue as such with The Dead, but a definite after life, consequences and so on. As for names, the Bible is tremendous as a source! It’s great to have an interesting first name and a simple, strong second name. With Laz, though, there is a rather obvious link between his name and what he does. Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, and he was in a stone tomb when it happened. But here I’ve got Lazarus doing the raising. Small things…

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

The things I read and the things I watch. It’s taken years of trying and trying and trying to finally be where I am. In that time I’ve read all over the place rather than sticking to one genre. I’ve tried different styles, even blatantly copied writers at times to feel what their style was like. Eventually I think (hope!) I’ve developed my own way of putting stuff on the page. And I love the big screen. When I write, I do a lot of visualisation, imagining what it would look like in real life and as a film. I try different camera angles, try to work out what would look and sound best in the reader’s mind. And yes, I do imagine walking in to a cinema to watch The Dead on the big screen!

What is it about the horror genre that interests you so much?

I love the way a book or movie can scare you; I find that extraordinary. I went to see the theatre production of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, and that was even more amazing; hundreds of people all gasping in shock at once! I’m not one for stories that make me weep. I’m in to movies and books for entertainment; feeling sad isn’t something I enjoy that much! Fear, though, is something you can almost feel in your fingertips. Horror also explores the darker side of who we are, allows us to look at stuff so far beyond our own experience. And some horror is much like an extreme rollercoaster; you look at it, can’t believe you’re going to experience it, then you do, and you come out the other side, hair standing on end, adrenaline burning your veins… What’s not to love?

I recently saw on Twitter that there had been an item about YA books on BBC Breakfast. They asked a group of kids what they will write when they grow up. "Horror" they shouted in almost unison! What do you think it is it about horror that is so appealing to young people?

I think perhaps that it has more of a sense of danger and the forbidden than other genres. That’s what it was for me, anyway. It’s like that thing of always wanting to watch a movie that’s actually classified as too old for you. I have vivid memories of everyone talking about ‘X-rated’ movies back in the early 80s, like The Exterminator and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Goodness knows how these kids had seen these movies, but because of the playground, everyone had either seen them, or wanted to. Or that’s what we all believed! I’ve seen many of those old ‘banned’ movies, and compared to what we can see on the screen now, it’s pretty tame. In many ways, the violence is actually in your mind, and only really suggested on the screen. Horror novels have just that same sense of danger. It’s a statement to the world to be seen carrying a King or a Herbert or a Ketchum novel, isn’t it? A badge of being daring, of actively exploring and being in touch with your darker side.

The description of Red when Lazarus first meets him is pretty gruesome. How did you gauge the right level of gore in your writing?

I didn’t have a list of do’s and don’ts. With gore, I think it might have more to do with the context and tone, rather than just a simple equation of how much blood and guts you can show. Take Tom and Jerry; pretty darned violent, eyeballs bursting out, guts being pulled, bodies being crushed and frazzled and mashed… But it’s funny! I needed the gore to give that shudder and gross-out factor, to make The Dead over-the-top hideous, so that they jumped out of the page, as if you were watching it in 3D. It wasn’t page after page of people being tortured, focusing on individual pain and terror. Watch Evil Dead; despite the certificate, it’s pretty hysterical! That’s the kind of what I was aiming to do. Hope it worked…

Who are your greatest literary influences?

Every writer I’ve ever read, I guess. I can’t pin any particular name down. My aim has always been to write how I write, rather than how another writer writes. You can’t help but pick up ideas, approaches, that kind of thing, but in the end, what any writer wants is to sound a little unique. Most inspirational book is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.

Are you a fan of horror literature? Do you have any favourites?

I didn’t really get in to horror literature until later on. As a genre, I was in to the movies really. However, over the past few years, I’ve become a bit obsessed. I’ve read everything from King to Simon Clark (Blood Crazy), Barker to Ketcham. I’ve delved back in to weirder, older stuff, like Lovecraft, his Tchthullu mythos stuff, and Ron Howard’s stuff that he based on this (Howard is more famous for Conan). I’m currently reading Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts. He’s astonishingly good.

Do you remember the first horror movie you ever saw?

Well, the movie that got me in to horror in the first place is, I think, not a horror movie at all! It’s an 80s fantasy movie called The Sword and the Sorcerer! It’s cheesy, silly, bloody… but I still totally love it. I was eleven or twelve when I saw it (late night, parents didn’t know…) and it blew me away. I’d never seen anything like it in my life! Suddenly, from a world of family movies of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I was thrust in to a world where hearts burst from the chests of witches, coffins had screaming faces, swords not only had three blades, but could cut a man’s head clean in half! OK, so perhaps I was a little young to watch it, but I wasn’t completely grossed out by it or affected in a bad, evil way. It made me realise how vivid a movie can be, and thus it begun. Then, when I was a little older, I trawled the 80s horror movies, from Poltergeist to Nightmare on Elm Street, through The Thing and on to Evil Dead, Aliens, Hellraiser… Now, I generally don’t go a week without watching at least one horror movie. This week I watched a rather amusing flick called Evil Aliens! Favourites over the past while include: City of The Dead; May; Devil’s Rejects; Psycho II

The early (and bloody) scene featuring Red reminded me a little of the Hellraiser movies. Are these particular favourites of yours?

This was actually the first scene I wrote for the book and hasn’t changed all that much from what I initially wrote. It’s something I often do when trying to work out an idea; just bash out a scene with a couple of characters to see what happens. As for Hellraiser, yes, a big favourite! It completely turned my view of horror on its head. These weren’t just monsters; something was driving them, the whole pleasure/pain thing. I loved that motivation (which was why that quote from Twin really hit me). They weren’t just in it for the killing, or to be ‘evil’, as such, there was much more too it. Neither were they simply monsters to run away from. That fact that it is essentially us who calls them… Love it! And Pin Head! WOW! Considering it’s an 80s movie, the whole thing is astonishing. And it’s littered with great dialogue. Has anyone yet to better, ‘Tears are such a waste of good suffering…’ and ‘We’ll tear your soul apart!’

Who/what in your opinion is the ultimate horror movie monster?

One film really creeped me out. It’s neither gory nor modern. It’s the black and white classic, The Innocents, staring Deborah Kerr. It’s based on The Turning of The Screw. The creature in aliens is a tremendous monster. Pin Head is just wonderful. Jason is relentless and Freddy is (for me anyway) just too much of the clown to be taken seriously. But in the Innocents, the horror comes from a woman’s gradual discovery that the children in her care are possessed by the ghosts of a man and a woman who were in love when they were alive, and are now using the bodies of the children. Much of the terror is down to Deborah Kerr’s reaction to what is generally happening off screen, what she is seeing, rather than we the viewer. The movie also has possibly the bleakest ending I’ve ever experienced. It took my breath away and, as the credits rolled, I sat there feeling totally cold. It’s a work of complete brilliance. I would recommend it to everyone.

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

George Romero (his zombie movies changed everything), Stephen King (I’ve read his ‘On Writing’ book, and it was just so inspirational, so it’d be great to meet the man and hear first hand about his life, his approach to writing, where his ideas come from), and Sean Pertwee (a great British actor, who’s had roles in some of my faves, notably Event Horizon, and more importantly, his blistering performance in Dog Soldiers). If I could have someone turn up uninvited, I’d want Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead, Maniac Cop, Bubba HoTep) – the man is a legend and has had some of the greatest lines ever in cinematic history…

Have you ever come up with anything so wild that you scared yourself?

Not yet, but I hope to some day…

Do you listen to music whilst you write? What songs would appear on your ideal The Dead soundtrack?

I’ve actually put a list on my website of the stuff I was listening to while writing book 1, and I’m doing the same for all the books I write! I love music. Sometimes I listen to it when writing, sometimes I don’t. It helps me come up with ideas, get a mood right for a particular scene. I visualise everything I’m writing, even down to thinking what music would be playing for a particular bit of the story if it was made in to a movie! Is that crazy? Dunno. But it helps. I listen to a really fab radio station on the internet: Doomed on Soma FM! It’s dark, dark, dark music, and is the perfect soundtrack for writing horror, trust me! As for book 1’s soundtrack, you can see the full list on my website at

What books/authors did you read when you were younger?

Oddly, for one so in to horror now, I didn’t read it as a kid! But then it was my interest in movies that got me in to the genre. So my reading was taken up with: Alan Garner (Weirdstone of Brisingamen); Willard Price (his Adventure series); Tolkein (Lord of the Rings); The Dragonlance Chronicles; Asterix; Oor Wullie; Clive Cussler…

I love the cover artwork for The Dead, The Dark and The Damned. How did you feel when you first saw them?

I was utterly astonished. I was sitting at work, doing my civil service work, and I got sent them to have a look at by the fab people at Hodder. I was gobsmacked. There, in front of me, was the first tangible proof that I wasn’t actually making it up! What I was writing was going to be published, to end up in an absolutely stunning cover. It also made me realise just how much Hodder were in to what I was doing. I did and I do feel very, very lucky. Mel Grant, the artist, is an amazing talent and to have him do the covers is a real scoop. He’s done album covers for Iron Maiden (seriously!) and for another very well known indeed horror writer! I still look at them and feel rather shocked, have to pinch myself…

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

Well, it’s got two shocking revelations in it, both of which threaten to send Lazarus over the edge. And you get to meet a new character who, if I’m not careful, could steal the show! And yes, we do go to the Land of The Dead… but not Hell though… not yet, anyway…

As you know, I personally felt that The Dead could have been a little longer. Will The Dark be a longer book?

Yes! And I agree, it is too short. The Dark is about 10,000 words longer, and I think that’ll be the same for book 3. So it’s a fair criticism and I’ve already rectified it!

I noticed on your blog that you are currently thinking about books 4-6 in the series. Do you know how many books you hope to have in the series?

I have this crazy idea of doing 18, comprising three sets of six… giving me the very silly 666! I’ve a feeling that might be a bit nuts. I would like to do nine. Books 4-6 are already pretty much there in the planning so a further three would be great. I just love writing this stuff, so if people love it and want more, it’d be fab to be able to do it for a while anyway.

Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of this blog?

I really hope you enjoy The Dead… If you don’t, they’ll be round your house ready to steal your body and drain it dry… Just thought you should know.


Thank you to David for taking the time to answer my questions. The Dead is scheduled to be released on 1st July and it is well worth you pre-ordering it. You can find out even more about David and his books on his website.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Review: Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess

When Nick's mother dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the 14 year old is sent straight into a boys' home, where he finds institutional intimidation and violence keep order. After countless fights and punishments, Nick thinks life can't get any worse - but the professionally respected deputy head, Mr. Creal, who has been grooming him with sweets and solace, has something much more sinister in mind. Nick has no choice but to escape. Living on the run, he falls in with a modern Fagin, a cheerful Rasta who fences stolen credit cards and car stereos. The scarring, shaming experience he suffered at the hands of Mr. Creal can never quite be suppressed, and when the old hatred surfaces, bloody murder and revenge lead to an unforgettable climax.

In Junk he tackled teenage drug abuse.

In Doing It he took us into the mind and sex life of a teenage boy.

Now, in Nicholas Dane, Melvin Burgess delivers a book that looks at child abuse and the way in which children were treated in some of the UK's worst care homes during the 1980s. Yes, you would be right in thinking that this is a very difficult subject to tackle in a book aimed at a Young Adult audience, and as with Junk and Doing It there will be many adults out there who feel that young people should be shielded from issues such as this. However, I personally would disagree, and even go as far as to say that due to the masterful way in which Mr Burgess tackles this issue, this book should be on the shelf in every secondary school library in the country. I think we often underestimate the desire many young people in this country have to understand issues such as sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, and so on.

Nicholas Dane is not the kind of book I normally feature on The Book Zone, but when Puffin offered me a copy I read a few reviews and decided that I should give it a try (it has been out in hardback for some time and has just been released in paperback last week). Believe me, for someone who spends a lot of time reading escapist action and adventure stories this book did not make a particularly comfortable read - it is extremely violent in places and the issues of grooming and paedophilia are pretty harrowing. Maybe as someone who works with young people on a daily basis I felt this more deeply than others might, I don't know.

Melvin Burgess claims that the idea for this book came to him when he was thinking about Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and how Bill Sykes is a particularly violent and abusive character. He started to think about how Sykes may have developed that kind of personality, and came to the conclusion that if a psychologist were analysing Sykes' behaviour today then there would definitely be a suggestion that Sykes has been seriously abused as a child. Dickens was not afraid to tackle the issues of the day, but the idea of Oliver Twist being sexually abused? Let's face it, if it was happening in these institutions in the 1980s, it was almost certainly happening in the Victorian era. So what we have here is kind of a modern take on the Oliver Twist story, but pulling no punches. I am no English teacher but I would imagine that this would make a great text for an A level group to read alongside Dickens' classic.

I loved Junk, and found it near faultless. Unfortunately I cannot make the same claim about this book. Whilst some of the characters, and that of Nicholas in particular, are developed incredibly well and with real sensitivity and empathy for the situation they find themselves in (the result, I think, of much discussion with adults who have gone through the care system), however other characters are very much relegated to the side-lines. It is the motivations, and especially the actions (or lack of them) by some of these secondary characters that left me with a number of unanswered questions.

This book is aimed at the 14+ age group, but teachers, parents and librarians should think carefully about this generalised age bracketing; there will be many 14 year olds who will not be emotionally mature enough to deal with the issues tackled in this book, and especially the pretty graphic scenes involving violence and sexual abuse. I am reminded of a student I was Head of Year to many years ago whose parent rang to complain about an English lesson where he and his peers had been shown the film The Others starring Nicole Kidman. This pupil was 12 and therefore according to the film's certification he was old enough to watch the film. However, he then spent the whole of his school summer holiday having severe nightmares - he simply hadn't been emotionally mature enough to cope with that film, which is fairly scary in places.

Nicholas Dane is published by Puffin and is available to buy right now.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Review: The Lord of the Void by James Lovegrove

Tom Yamada must fight the demon Lords of Pain in a series of duels called the Contest - with the whole world at stake. Tom's survived his duel with the Lord of the Mountain. Now he must face the Lord of the Void - the king of darkness, with a heart as black as his armour. Will Tom manage to defeat this Lord?

Back in February I reviewed The Lord of the Mountain, the first book in James Lovegrove's The 5 Lords of Pain series for Barrington Stoke. I really enjoyed this easy reader for children with a Reading Age of 8+ and an Interest Age of 10+. It has a great main character in Tom Yamada, to his few friends a seemingly ordinary boy, yet little do they know that he carries a dark secret - he is the latest in a long line of warriors whose task it is to battle against a group of demon lords every thirty years, in order to prevent them taking over the planet and enslaving any humans who survive their initial onslaught.

In the first book in the series Tom faced and defeated the Lord of the Mountain, but there is no time for celebration and no chance for him to rest of his laurels as it is only a matter of time before The Lord of the Void will lay down the gauntlet. So it is straight back to training for Tom, and yet again we are treated to Karate Kid style banter between him and his sensei, the mysterious (and often grumpy) Dragon. James Lovegrove also uses the first part of the book to start teasing us with a potential future mystery as Tom's mother is frightened by what she claims was a ghostly face at the window, spotted out of the corner of her eye as she was in the bathroom one evening. In addition to this Tom also has friendship problems. His friend Sharif feels that Tom is avoiding him and has dropped him as a friend without having the guts to say anything. Tom of course cannot divulge the truth behind his absence from school and his poor record of returning the calls and text messages that Sharif has been sending. As if having the fate of the planet resting on his shoulders is not enough already, he now has the added worry of losing his only close friend.

This time Tom has to travel to Australia to fight his duel, and more specifically to Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is known by the Aborigines for whom it is a sacred place. The description of his duel against the Lord of the Void is even better than that in the first book, and I found myself hanging on every move that Tom made; James Lovegrove really is a very good writer of martial arts action scenes. However, this was not my favourite part of this book; this honour belongs to Chapter 4, where we are treated to the details of the legend behind the Yamada family's centuries-long battle against the demon lords. These pages of back history really help the reader to understand why Tom is doing this, and why he can't just walk away and enjoy the life of a normal teenager.

This is a great second book to this series, and is even better than the first book in my opinion. If Mr Lovegrove manages to make each book better than the last then book 5, The Lord of Fire, is going to be a fantastic conclusion to the series. The Lord of the Void is published by Barrington Stoke and is available to buy right now.

New paperback releases - June 2010

Whilst I was waiting in line for Charlie Higson's session at the Hay Festival I had a brief conversation with the mother of three boys who had with them an impressive pile of books. Somehow we got onto the subject of hardbacks versus paperbacks, with her saying that she rarely buys hardbacks as they are often quite expensive and therefore her boys either have to borrow the books from the library or wait until the paperback edition is released. Her one small moan was that whilst the hardback editions of popular books generally arrive with quite a fanfare of publicity, the paperbacks are often released without a lot of fuss and it would be nice if blogs such as The Book Zone could occasionally highlight when these books are getting their paperback release. So, with this in mind, here are a few of the big paperback releases of boy-friendly books for this month:

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.

In my review back then I described this book as "one of the finest examples of steampunk fiction for boys that I have come across". Since then I have read Cherie Priest's amazing Boneshaker, but Leviathan is still a good second place. Is it steam punk? Or is it diesel punk? Whatever it is I really enjoyed this imaginative story with its original premise when I first read it at the tail end of last year. 

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.

Mission 8 for the seemingly indestructible Alex Rider, and in my opinion one of the best books in the series. In my review I stated that: "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."

It doesn't really seem like ten years since the first Alex Rider book was published. In order to celebrate this Walker Books is publishing the entire series in new cover designs. In addition, each of the books also contains a new Afterword by Mr Horowitz, in which he takes us behind the scenes of the series with information about the gadgets, locations, characters and many more insider secrets. 

And if you like reading all this extra background information then as an extra little treat, today I saw this great article in The Telegraph about the trip Anthony Horowitz took to Egypt in order to research the next Alex Rider book, to be called Scorpia Rising. Follow this link to read the full article.

The Enemy by Charlie Higson

They'll chase you. They'll rip you open. They'll feed on you...When the sickness came, every parent, policeman, politician - every adult - fell ill. The lucky ones died. The others are crazed, confused and hungry. Only children under fourteen remain, and they're fighting to survive. Now there are rumours of a safe place to hide. And so a gang of children begin their quest across London, where all through the city - down alleyways, in deserted houses, underground - the grown-ups lie in wait. But can they make it there - alive?
This book was published in hardback before I started this blog so no review has appeared on here so far. However, I did mention it only yesterday in my write up about Mr Higson's highly informative session. If that isn't enough for you then you could do a lot worse than go over to My Favourite Books and read Mark De Jager's great review of it. As an added bonus for the paperback edition you also get a chance to read the first chapter of the sequel to The Enemy, enitled The Dead, as well as a short interview with the author.

Monday 7 June 2010

Book Zone Visits The Hay Festival

On Saturday I made a flying one day visit to the Guardian Hay Festival. For those of you who don't know, this is an annual literature festival held in the small town of Hay-On-Wye, and is a wonderful place to visit if you are a book lover of any age. This was my first ever visit to the Festival, and I certainly hope to go again in the future, and hopefully for more than just the one day.

The Festival site is a short walk out of town, and consists of a small village of marquee style tents, including book shops, cafes, and of course the 'theatres' in which the author sessions take place. I was very excited as I had tickets to hear Andrew Lane (Young Sherlock Holmes), Garen Ewing (The Rainbow Orchid), Charlie Higson (Young Bond and The Enemy) and Steve Cole and Chris Hunter (Tripwire collaboratively, although Steve Cole has written many more books).

First up was Andrew Lane. I was fortunate to receive an early copy of Death Cloud, the first in his new Young Sherlock Holmes series, and then Andrew took part in an incredibly detailed interview for me which I posted last week. The problem with by-email interviews is that you can't delve deeper, so for me this session couldn't have been better timed. Andrew's answers covered a lot of what he had already revealed in his interview for The Book Zone, but in even more depth and so many of the questions I had were soon answered in the interview and the Question and Answer session that followed. It was wonderful to see such excitement for the series amongst the many young readers who were present at this session, and their questions proved to be rather probing at times. The other great treat of the session was Mr Lane reading a couple of passages from Death Cloud (coincidentally one of my favourite scenes from the book), the first time he has done this in public, and the young audience hung on his every word.

As this was my first time at Hay I was not ready for the speed with which authors are rushed away to sign books at the end of the sessions, so I only had a few seconds to thank Mr Lane for the interview he did for The Book Zone, and I couldn't wait in line to get my book signed as I has to rush off to my next one - this time a talk by Garen Ewing, the genius creator of The Rainbow Orchid, a fantastic graphic novel that I reviewed some time ago. The second book in the series is due to be released in July, and I was very much looking forward to this session. Whereas Andrew Lane had been interviewed, this was Garen very much on his own, delivering a well-prepared talk about his work and the creative process he goes through when creating his comic strip, with slides projected to illustrate the stages. As a total non-expert in the world of graphic novels I found this totally fascinating, and again it added to the information that Garen had divulged when he did an interview for me earlier in the year. Garen's passion for his work and for the ligne claire style in general shone through his whole presentation, and if you have not yet got your hands on a copy of The Rainbow Orchid then you really should go out and buy it straight away.

Again, only a brief moment to say hello to Garen before he was whisked off to sign books, and I raced over to queue up for the event I had been most excited about - the great Charlie Higson. I am sure the man needs no introduction, but just in case you have been living a hermit-like existence in a small Himalayan hut for the last decade, Mr Higson is the author of the five books in the Young Bond series, and last year delivered the superb zombie thriller The Dead. Mr Higson was interviewed in a packed-out theatre by film critic legend Mark Kermode, himself a horror fanatic, and Mr Kermode had obviously read The Dead from cover to cover as his interview questions were both relevant and probing.

Charlie started off my explaining about how he has always loved horror, and especially when he was a teenager, but when starting to write The Enemy he didn't really know how far he could push the horror and gore factors. He experimented by writing passages and then trying them out on his youngest son, who each time seemed totally unphased by the content. Until that is one night when there was a knock on the bedroom door, and there was his distressed son having woken from a terrible nightmare - "Yes! I've finally got him" was Mr Higson's ecstatic response!

If you have not yet read The Enemy, the basic premise is that a disaster has struck whereby everyone over the age of fourteen contracted a horrendous illness that either killed them or turned them into flesh-craving zombies. Mr Higson went on to explain that he feels that teenagers get a very bad press in this country these days and he wanted to write a story that highlights the fact that actually the majority of teenagers are nice, normal kids and "in the end teenagers and kids are probably more at danger from us adults than we are from them, so the enemy of the book is adults". He also had an answer to commentators who have said his book is similar in ways to William Goulding's Lord of the Flies, in that rather than degenerate into "wild beats and savages" they will actually become stronger, help each other and try to rebuild society whilst the "pesky zombie adults try to eat them".

In The Enemy one group of surviving kids has set themselves up at Buckingham Palace and appear to be trying to re-establish a monarchy, with a few remaining zombie-fied members of roylaty as figureheads. Charlie went on to say that in future books we will see other kids setting up a more militaristic society in The Tower of London, and another group trying to set up a new democracy in the Houses of Parliament. All whilst trying to battle against loads of zombies of course!

A key element of The Enemy that I found made it particularly suspenseful and scary was that you just never know who is going to get killed next. Mr Higson said this was a great departure from his Young Bond books, in that however dangerous the situation Bond finds himself in the reader always knows that he is going to survive as he obviously grows up to be this iconic fictional hero, and therefore many readers never found these scenes scary. He therefore set out right from the start of the book to create and develop a set of characters whereby he could "constantly surprise the reader in how it was going to develop in terms of 'I never expected them to get killed' or 'I didn't think they were going to be an important character by now they've come into their own'". He was also very conscious of trying to build a "believable gang of kids with a  range of personalities" in order to ensure there was something there for everyone.

As with the two previous sessions I had sat through, once the Question and Answer session started the young audience responded brilliantly, asking questions about Young Bond as well as The Enemy. Mr Higson finished off his interview by announcing that he would shortly be signing books in the book store, and before he had even finished his sentence a handful of young fans were already sprinting out of the theatre to queue up for his signature.

My final session of the day was with Steve Cole and Chris Hunter. Mr Cole is the author of a huge number of books for kids and young adults, and he has recently teamed up with Major Chris Hunter, a bomb disposal expert, to write Tripwire, the first book in a new series about a teenage bomb disposal/anti-terrorism operative. This session was again different from those that I had already been to in that each author took it in turns to talk about their respective backgrounds and the part they played in the collaboration. Mr Hunter wowed the young audience with brief anecdotes about his time in the armed forces, and it is this that makes Tripwire stand apart from the many other books in this genre that have been published in recent years, as everything that happens to the main character Felix Smith is based on Chris Hunter's extensive knowledge of this incredibly dangerous profession. The authors even gave an example of a car chase scene where Steve Cole had Felix shooting at the escaping enemy and missing. In steps Chris Hunter with his first-hand experiences to explain that if Felix was making the shot then he would not miss, resulting in a rewrite of that small scene.

We were then treated to a couple of short demonstrations using a few willing volunteers from the audience, who then assisted him in defusing a mock-up explosive vest (as worn by a very nervous looking Steve Cole). These two made a great double-act and I am confident that their series of books featuring Felix Smith will be a huge success.

So, a pretty busy day for me and thoroughly enjoyable it was too. I hope to make the pilgrimage to Hay an annual event from now on, and maybe get to stay for more than the one day. I recommend this event to all book lovers - there is so much going on and it was wonderful to see so many families there, with the kids so enthusiastic about the authors they were going to see.