Sunday 31 October 2010

My Book of the Month - October

So many great books have been released over the past month that making my decision for the Book Zone Book of the Month for October was possibly one of the hardest so far. Just look at this list of very worthy contenders:
  • The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley
  • The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
  • Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
  • The Dark by David Gatward
  • The Curse of the Wendigo by Rick Yancey (review to come soon)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading every single one of these books as you will know if you have read any of the reviews I wrote for them. However, in the end I have decided to proclaim that the Book Zone Book of the Month for October is The Dark by David Gatward, and it seems pretty fitting to be announcing this on the night of Halloween.

I thought that David Gatward's first book in this series, The Dead, was a superb debut, but I also stated at the time that I felt that it was too short by some fifty pages or so. Thus I was overjoyed, on receiving a copy of the sequel, to find that it was significantly longer, as this would show whether the author could produce a continuation of equally high quality, and maintain this over a greater number of chapters. The verdict was resoundingly positive, and in my review I wrote the following:

If you are a fan of the work of Darren Shan and have not yet discovered this series then it is well worth reading. Dave Gatward certainly knows his horror, and at times this series comes across as his personal homage to the horror films he has loved for most of his life. As an adult reader there were several times when I felt a knowing grin creep onto my face as I spotted a subtle reference here and there. Many of these will be lost on David's younger target audience, but this is the kind of book that will inspire them to become lifelong lovers of the horror genre, both written and cinematic, and they will be able to look forward to spotting these fanboy references, but in reverse.

Review: Bartimaeus - The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Bartimaeus, the djinni with attitude, is back. The inimitably insolent Bartimaeus has returned - as a slave to King Solomon, wielder of the all-powerful Ring. Until a girl assassin shows up with more than just murder on her mind and things start to get.... interesting.

Shocking although this may sound coming from someone who writes a blog about books for children and Young Adults, but I only read the original Bartimaeus trilogy for the first time at the beginning of this year. For this reason they never featured in my personal Top 20 books of the last decade, something I would rectify if only I could travel back in time. However, to look on the bright side, I therefore only had a few months to wait between finishing Ptolemy's Gate, and receiving a proof of a new book featuring Jonathan Stroud's awe-inspiring creation, the djinni Bartimaeus.

If you're currently in the position I was in back in January then have no fear, you do not have to read through the original trilogy before diving into this book as it is not a continuation of the series. I guess it could best be described as a prequel, although not in the sense that it is creating back-story to lead into The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book in the trilogy. In the books in that original series we were treated to many, many footnotes, some of which alluded to events from Bartimaeus's past, and the vast array of magicians he had served throughout his very long life. So in this outing we find ourselves in Jerusalem and its surrounding area in the year 950 BC, a period when Solomon was on the throne, a ruler seen by many to be a ruthless magician of exceptional power, thanks to the all-powerful ring that he wears at all times.

The beginning of the story sees Bartimaeus being summoned by Khaba, a cruel and very ambitious magician. Khaba is one of a select group of magicians who serve the mighty Solomon, each of which has a djinn, or some other sort of spirit, bound to them in a form of magical slavery. These magicians do not actually hold any magical abilities themselves, all their powers come from the spirits that they control. Mastery of spirits is not an easy task, and these men have spent years learning and mastering the incantations that will summon and bind a spirit to them. Most spirits resent this enforced servitude, and Bartimaeus is no exception; he is constantly seeking ways to break the control his master has over him (something that would prove rather bad for Khaba's health).

As well as Bartimaeus and Khaba, in The Ring of Solomon we are introduced to a huge array of colourful characters, both human and otherworldly. There is Asmira, a young assassin sent by the Queen of Sheba to deal with Solomon and steal the fabled ring, before the king invades their lands. Asmira is devoted to her queen, she has grown up in a society where the females are the warriors and royal guards and she has been waiting all of her relatively short life for the opportunity to serve her queen in this way. Asmira's quest brings a heavy does of action and adventure to the story, in a plot that is almost as fast paced as it is funny. Much of the humour comes from the interaction between Bartimaeus and the many other spirits, although there are also many deliciously funny scenes shared by Bartimaeus and Asmira as she binds him to her in order to aid her reach her goal.

If you haven't 'met' Bartimaeus yet then you are in for one hell of a treat - in my opinion he is one of the greatest character creations in modern children's literature, and he is certainly in my top ten favourite characters from any book, adult or child. He is every naughty schoolboy you ever knew, but with an an adult sense of humour based on sarcasm developed over centuries. He is arrogant, witty, irascible, mischievous, intelligent, lazy.... I could go on and on! He is the kind of character that most children's authors might dream of creating, but Jonathan Stroud got there first and not only that, but he has the writing skills to make us come back for more and more. However, one small word of warning - I know several people who have tried reading a Bartimaeus book and have nearly given up after a few chapters; if you find yourself not 'getting' him then please persevere - he really will grow on you.

Another element of these stories that some readers have not warmed to is Jonathan Stroud's extensive use of footnotes. The author uses these for many reasons: at times they add detail; they provide back history; they can add humour to the story. Personally I love these and feel that they make the stories even more uniquely special, but others have found that they interrupt the flow of the story and their reading pleasure is thereby diminished slightly. At the end of the day, this is all down to personal preference; I guess the story could be read without them, but as I have never tried to do this then it is something I couldn't state for definite.

The Ring of Solomon is definitely a book for the more confident of young readers, but it is also a book that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages, from 11 upwards. And yes, I am including adults in this. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if there are more adult fans of Bartimaeus than there are younger fans. I am sure that there will be many readers who will pick this book up, discover the irascible djinn for the first time and then want to read more, thus adding to the already huge group of Bartimaeus fans out there. Whatsmore, with five thousand years of Bartimaeus history to cover, Mr Stroud could be writing these for many years to come. Bartimaeus: the Ring of Solomon was released on 14th October, and my thanks go to Rosi at Random House for sending me a copy to review.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Review: Mo-Bot High by Neill Cameron

Asha’s new school is insane. Everyone has giant robots that launch out of their mobile phones! She’s only been there five minutes when the school bully challenges her to a fight. So now it’s not just about figuring out who’s cool and who isn’t. She has to learn to pilot her Mo-bot. And fast. But while Asha gets to grips with her Mo-bot’s moves and customises her DMC, she’s being watched… Her piloting skills are about to be put to the ultimate test, and there’s nothing her new friends can do to help.

This is a pretty rare thing on The Book Zone - a review for a book where the main character and all the key secondary characters are female, and there is hardly a boy in sight. And yet it is still nothing short of brilliant and a must-read for any graphic novel-loving boys of aged 9+, especially if they love manga and have grown up watching any of a variety of made-for-kids anime on TV. Add to that the fact that this is another release from the brilliant DFC Library and you know you have a quality publication in your hands.

Asha is the new girl at school, having moved with her father from London to small-town-Britain Middleford. She has the same worries that any new student at a school has - will she fit in? Will she make friends? Will she be bullied? But many of these concerns get pushed to the back of her mind within minutes of her first walking through the school gates when she witnesses her first Digital Mobile Combat (DMC) bout, i.e. two big digital robots beating the crud out of each other in the school playground. And these robots come out of any regular mobile phone. A little weird, yes? But not to all the other students at Midford High who just take it all as the norm. Asha, with jaw still almost touching the ground, is then rudely reminded of her earlier concerns as she comes face to face with the school bullies, a group of girls determined to assert their authority over the newbie, but obviously they do this Midford way - by challenging her to a Mo-Bot duel. Asha has to very quickly learn how to control the digital mechanoid that leaps out of her phone, but it very quickly becomes apparent that Asha is something of a natural.

Behind the day-to-day scenes at the school there is something else more sinister seeming going on. The dinner ladies and cleaners are very obviously linked to the software that is sent to the students' phones, and they very quickly have their eye on the new girl, proclaiming her to be "the anomaly they've been preparing for, all this time" .... "the Harbinger". The use of the school's domestic staff as insiders to an as yet unknown plot, whilst the Headteacher runs around trying to sort out the everyday goings on of a typical high school (whilst totally unaware of all the Mo-Bot stuff) is both very clever and also adds a delightful touch of humour to the proceedings (I shall certainly be keeping an closer eye on our school dining room staff in the future).

In this book we find out little more regarding the so-called Harbinger as this is only the first instalment in the Mo-Bot series, and is very much about setting the scene for what is still to come. This worries me a little, as The DFC Library is still in its infancy and there is no guarantee that it will continue so will we see more from Neill Cameron's Mo-Bots in the future? I really do hope so as this is hi-octane stuff and I would love to see where Neil takes the story in the future. That said, even if we never see a continuation of the series this is still a book that sits nicely on my shelf along with my other DFC Library favourites and is well worth buying for the set-up story and the artwork alone.

Yes, the artwork - I haven't mentioned this yet. Heavily influenced by manga and anime Mr Cameron's work is incredibly dynamic and bursting with colour during the superb robot fight action sequences, and then suitably toned down for the day-to-day school scenes. He also brings a great sense of menace to his pages whenever the story shifts its focus to the machinations of the sinister dinner ladies. As the books has very few male main characters the palette is occasionally a little more feminine than some graphic novels, but that is so much the case with a lot of the Japanese output where incredibly popular and long-running series often feature female main characters. The focus on girls also means that between the robo-battle scenes they occasionally discuss the 'fashion' of their Mob-Bots, and what makes a good colour scheme, etc. This should not put off many boy readers as it somehow just makes those quieter moments more true-to-life.

In Mo-Bot High Neill Cameron has delivered a modern comic book that has strong appeal to both boys and girls and he should be commended for this - I hope we see much more from this series in the future, but that will only happen if fans of this method of storytelling go out and buy copies of the various DFC Library releases. Believe me, they are well worth it. The book was released on the 28th October and should therefore be in many good book stores by now. My thanks go to the kind people at David Fickling Books for sending me a copy of this to review.

Review: Blood Ties & Blood Ransom by Sophie McKenzie

Blood Ties:

When Theo discovers the father he thought died when he was a baby is still alive, he's determined to find him. The clues lead him to the lonely Rachel, who has problems of her own, including parents who compare her unfavourably to her long-dead sister. But when Rachel and Theo are attacked by men from RAGE - the Righteous Army against Genetic Engineering - at Rachel's school disco, they are rescued by strangers and taken to meet a mysterious figure. There, they both make some startling discoveries about their identities, which will affect their past, present, and future in dramatic and life-altering ways...

Blood Ransom:

Clones Rachel and Theo now live thousands of miles apart. They keep in touch, but things just aren't the same. When Rachel discovers that evil scientist Elijah is still working in secret for a section of the government and about to murder Daniel, she sets out to rescue the little boy, but her plans backfire with disastrous consequences. Across the Atlantic, Theo becomes suspicious when Rachel misses their weekly internet chat. He discovers a report online saying she's killed herself and travels to Scotland to find her, certain that she has been kidnapped. A clue leads him to Elijah's mysterious clinic, where the sinister Aphrodite Experiment is underway. But what is Elijah really planning? Why does he need to track Rachel down so badly? And will Rachel and Theo be able to pay the ultimate ransom that he demands?

N.B. Before you read on please be aware that this review may contain spoilers of Blood Ties.

We have had Sophie McKenzie's Blood Ties in the school library for some time, but I just hadn't ever got around to reading it. Then a while ago I received a copy through the post along with a copy of the newly released sequel, Blood Ransom, giving me the rare opportunity to read a book and its sequel back-to-back.

Blood Ties is the story of two 'almost' ordinary teenagers, Theo and Rachel. I say 'almost' because right from the start we are encouraged to ask questions: Why is Theo going to an expensive private school when his mother is a single parent? Why does he have a bodyguard? Why do Rachel's parents constantly compare her with her long-dead sister? These questions, and the way the opening chapters bring them to the forefront of our minds, are the perfect set-up for what is a very fast-paced and well plotted modern thriller for Young Adults, a thriller that will also prompt its readers to think about the issues of genetic experimentation and cloning.

Theo and Rachel are both very well written characters: Rachel has very low self-esteem, few friends, and is a constant target for the bullies at her school; Theo is pretty much the opposite in nearly every way. Very early on in the story Theo discovers that his mother has been lying to him all of his life and his father is actually alive and in hiding, and we see another part of Theo's personality: he is very stubborn and single-minded, personality traits that soon sees him embroiled in a fight/flight for his life, dragging his new 'friend' Rachel with him. The pace of the story then ratchets up a few gears as the story sees the pair pursued by enemies on all sides, not knowing who they should trust. On the one side are the fanatical members of the Righteous Army against Genetic Engineering (RAGE), who for some reason are trying to kill Theo, and on the other side the forces of Elijah, a scientist whose forces rescue the pair from certain death..... but is it a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire?

The story is narrated in the first person by both Theo and Rachel; this is a storytelling device that I do not always like but in this case it works very well, with the pair narrating alternate chapters, without variation. This means that we really get to see how both of these very different personalities a feeling and developing as the story progresses; this is especially important as far as Rachel is concerned as we see her change from an insecure, self-loathing girl into a far more confident character. This is very much a story about the self-discovery of the two main characters as they slowly discover their roots and the connection they have between them and the narrative shows their internal struggles to come to terms with the information they both discover. Their thoughts of these revelations will also encourage readers to raise similar questions about their own lives, and exactly what it is that makes someone human and an individual. The alternating narrative also allows us to follow the stories of both characters as they are separated and their paths diverge meaning that super-fast pace of the story is maintained throughout.

I loved Blood Ties and had trouble putting it down, and so on finishing it it was with a great deal of anticipation that I immediately picked up the sequel, Blood Ransom. And then a few chapters in I very nearly put it back down again as the first few chapters seemed to be lacking many of the elements of the previous book that I had loved so much. However, I put that down to the fact that many sequels require a small degree of recap (this book is after all released two years after its predecessors) and fortunately I persevered. I say fortunately as they soon we are thrown back into the fray as they discover that the evil Elijah is alive, well and still working on his immoral genetic experiments.

I am not going to go into much detail about the sequel for fear of creating too many spoilers for Blood Ties. What I will say is that in Blood Ransom we see Rachel's character develop even further; despite the alternating narrative in Blood Ties, and the vastly improved improvement in Rachel's self-esteem, that first book was still very much Theo's story, and his search to discover the secrets of his birth and the identity of his father. Yet again we are treated to the exciting alternating of the narrative between the two main characters, and yet again this is used to keep the tension levels at an almost unbearable level, especially as we often know what danger is heading towards a particular character before they do.

In this pair of books Ms McKenzie had skilfully married thought-provoking contemporary moral themes with the kind of exciting, fast-paced plot that is needed to keep reluctant readers turning the pages. The issue of genetic engineering, and the devotion and extremist actions it can engender in the various concerned parties is well worked into the story, and never feels overtly moralistic, enabling readers to make their own decisions about these issues without ever feeling they have been preached to.         

Thursday 28 October 2010

Spooky Reads for Halloween

It's that time of year again and so to celebrate I thought I would bring you my picks of the books you really should be reading at this spooky time of year if you want to feel a shiver run down your spine. Books that will make you jump with fright every time a trick or treater knocks on your door, or have you quaking under the bed covers at every creak, bump or thump in the night. I have split them into loose categories to help you make the perfect choice; nearly all have been reviewed on The Book Zone at some point during the past year.

For young readers:

The Scream Street series by Tommy Donbavand

In Scream Street, Luke and his parents discover a nightmarish world of the undead. Luke soon makes friends with vampire Resus Negative and mummy Cleo Farr, but he remains determined to take his terrified parents home. After liberating the powerful book Tales of Scream Street from his new landlord, Otto Sneer, Luke learns that the founding fathers of the community each left behind a powerful relic. Collecting together all six is his only hope of opening a doorway out of the street, so with the help of Resus and Cleo he sets out to find the first one, the vampire’s fang. But with Otto Sneer determined to thwart him at every turn, will Luke even get past the first hurdle alive?

These books are great spooky fun for younger readers, with a host of colourful characters. One read and your kids will be hooked.

Monsters galore:

Devil's Kiss/ Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda

Fifteen-year-old Billi SanGreal never meant to make history. Dragged at the age of ten into the modern-day Knights Templar by her father, the Grandmaster, Billi's the first girl ever to be a Templar warrior. Her life is a rigorous and brutal round of weapons' practice, demon killing and occult lore – and a lot of bruises. But then temptation is placed in Billi's path – an alternative to her isolated life. But temptation brings consequences. In this case – the tenth plague – the death of all first borns and so Billi must choose her destiny. And as she soon discovers, death isn't even the worst . . .

Sarwat Chadda has created a Buffy for the new millennium in his kick-ass herione Billi SanGreal. Devil's Kiss is a superb debut, but the sequel, Dark Goddess, is one of my stand-out favourites from this past year.

The Changeling series by Steve Feasey

Trey thought he was an ordinary teenager. Then he meets a mysterious stranger, Lucien Charron – luminously pale, oddly powerful, with eyes that seem flecked with fire and skin that blisters in sunlight. Somehow Trey finds himself in a luxury London penthouse, like a Bond villain’s lair. It’s the heart of a sinister empire, built on the powers of the netherworld – werewolves, vampires, sorcerers, djinns. And Trey himself has a power that’s roaring to break free. Is he a boy or is he a beast?

Werewolf vs Demons (and a particularly nasty vampire). 'Nuff said!

The Dead/The Dark by David Gatward

Lazarus Stone is about to turn sixteen when, one night, his normal life is ripped to shreds by a skinless figure drenched in blood. He has a message: The Dead are coming. Now Lazarus is all that stands in their way. To fulfil his destiny, he must confront not only the dark past of his family, but horrors more gruesome than even Hell could invent. And it all begins with the reek of rotting flesh ...

David Gatward is a relative newcomer to the YA book scene, but his first two books filled with demons and the walking dead are fantastic. This man really knows his horror.

The Enemy/The Dead by Charlie Higson

They’ll chase you. They’ll rip you open. They’ll feed on you . . . When the sickness came, every parent, police officer, 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?

Zombies. Lots of them, and all of them adults. The children? Fighting to survive!


Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide by William Hussey

When a violent storm rages around the little village of Hobarron's Hollow, a young boy is sacrificed 'for the greater good'. His blood is used to seal a mystical doorway and prevent an apocalyptic disaster known only as the Demontide. Twenty-five years later, another boy, Jake Harker, is about to be drawn into the nightmare of the Demontide. Witches and their demon familiars stalk his every move, and his dreams are plagued by visions of a 17th Century figure known only as the Witchfinder. When his father is abducted, Jake must face the terrible secrets kept by those closest to him and a shocking truth that will change his life forever . . .

Quality YA debut from William Hussey featuring one of my favourite gory moments of the past year. All I will say is..... Jake's mum! And watch out for Gallows at twilight - the next in the series due out early 2011 - I have heard William read a gloriously nasty scene from the book.

Mortlock by Jon Mayhew

The sister is a knife-thrower in a magician's stage act, the brother an undertaker's assistant. Neither orphan knows of the other's existence. Until, that is, three terrible Aunts descend on the girl's house and imprison her guardian, the Great Cardamom. His dying act is to pass the girl a note with clues to the secret he has carried to his grave. Cardamom was one of three explorers on an expedition to locate the legendary Amarant, a plant with power over life and death. Now, pursued by flesh-eating crow-like ghuls, brother and sister must decode the message and save themselves from its sinister legacy.

Superb Victorian chills from another 2010 debut author. Evil birds, a creepy clown, and a gruesome circus all combine to make a fantastically chilling story.

Crawlers by Sam Enthoven

Ben is on a school trip. So is Jasmine. What they don't know is that not everybody in the theatre is there to watch the play and, in fact, they'll never get to see it . . . There is panic at the Barbican when the fire alarms start wailing, but the strangely silent theatre staff, trap them inside the building rather than letting them out to safety. Ben, Jasmine and their classmates soon discover that there's no fire - what's happening is much weirder, and much scarier. Strange spider-like creatures swarm through the building attacking people and turning them into vicious killers, and the kids have to run for their lives. But barricaded in an office, with these creatures waiting outsde for them, the children realise they're stuck. Will they ever get out? And, more importantly can they trust each other . . . ?

Mind controlling life forms at The Barbican. Great setting, great creatures, great writing.

The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley

Michael Vyner recalls a terrible story, one that happened to him. One that would be unbelievable if it weren't true! Michael's parents are dead and he imagines that he will stay with the kindly lawyer, executor of his parents' will ...Until he is invited to spend Christmas with his guardian in a large and desolate country house. His arrival on the first night suggests something is not quite right when he sees a woman out in the frozen mists, standing alone in the marshes. But little can prepare him for the solitude of the house itself as he is kept from his guardian and finds himself spending the Christmas holiday wandering the silent corridors of the house seeking distraction. But lonely doesn't mean alone, as Michael soon realises that the house and its grounds harbour many secrets, dead and alive, and Michael is set the task of unravelling some of the darkest secrets of all.

The first full-length YA novel from the master of the terrifying short story. A brilliant Victorian set ghost story that will chill you to the bone.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

It's summer. Rebecca is an unwilling visitor to Winterfold - taken from the buzz of London and her friends and what she thinks is the start of a promising romance. Ferelith already lives in Winterfold - it's a place that doesn't like to let you go, and she knows it inside out - the beach, the crumbling cliff paths, the village streets, the woods, the deserted churches and ruined graveyards, year by year being swallowed by the sea. Against her better judgement, Rebecca and Ferelith become friends, and during that long, hot, claustrophobic summer they discover more about each other and about Winterfold than either of them really want to, uncovering frightening secrets that would be best left long forgotten. Interwoven with Rebecca and Ferelith's stories is that of the seventeenth century Rector and Dr Barrieux, master of Winterfold Hall, whose bizarre and bloody experiments into the after-life might make angels weep, and the devil crow.

No review for this one yet as I have only just finished reading it. Not at all what I expected, but that's what Marcus Sedgwick does best. Really spine-chilling.

Hell's Underground series by Alan Gibbons

Late one night after a strange tube journey to Whitechapel in East London, Paul makes a new friend, John Redman - daring and enigmatic, just as Paul longs to be, away from his cloying mother (his only family - so he thinks). Redman charms Paul at once, but also a girl called Jude they meet on a night about town. A few days later, Paul learns that Jude has mysteriously died, and Redman has disappeared. Shortly after that, one of Paul's teacher dies suddenly - frightened to death - near where Jude's body was found. A link for sure. And Paul feels implicated, because both victims were known to him. He senses Redman, who comes and goes as it suits him, is involved as well. His new friend is dangerous. But so, we learn, is Paul. In uncovering the truth about Redman he learns shocking facts about himself. There's an evil curse loose in his family and Paul is the latest inheritor. The spree of death - camouflagued as copycat Jack the Ripper-style murders - will continue until Paul confronts the demon in himself head on.

One of my all time favourite horror series. A must read for any horror loving teenager.

Monster chillers (these three deserve a separate category of their own, as they are both full of monsters but the setting and/or storyline is particularly chilling):

Invisible Fiends series by Barry Hutchison

Kyle's imaginary friend from childhood is back! with a vengeance. Kyle hasn't seen Mr Mumbles in years. And there's a good reason for that: Mr Mumbles doesn't exist. But now Kyle's imaginary friend is back, and Kyle doesn't have time to worry about why. Only one thing matters: staying alive!

Mr Mumbles was brilliant. Raggy Maggie even better. In my opinion Caddie is one of the greatest ever creations in children's horror literature.

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

Will Henry is an assistant to a doctor with a most unusual speciality: monster hunting! In the short time he has lived with the doctor, Will has grown used to late night callers and dangerous business. But when one visitor comes with the body of a young girl and the monster that was feeding on her, Will's world changes forever. The doctor has discovered a baby Anthropophagi - a headless monster that feeds through the mouthfuls of teeth in its chest - and it signals a growing number of Anthropophagi. Now, Will and the doctor must face the horror threatening to consume our world and find the rest of the monsters before it is too late...

The perfect setting, great characters and written in a prose that will make your skin crawl.

The Furnace series by Alexander Gordon Smith

Beneath heaven is hell. Beneath hell is Furnace. Furnace Penitentiary. The world’s most secure prison for young offenders, buried a mile beneath the earth’s surface. One way in, no way out. Once you’re here, you’re here until you die, and for most of the inmates that doesn’t take long - not with the sadistic guards and the bloodthirsty gangs. Convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, sentenced to life without parole, 'new fish' Alex Sawyer knows he has two choices: find a way out, or resign himself to a death behind bars, in the darkness at the bottom of the world. Only in Furnace, death is the least of his worries. Soon Alex discovers that the prison is a place of pure evil, where creatures in gas masks stalk the corridors at night, where giants in black suits drag screaming inmates into the shadows, where deformed beasts can be heard howling from the blood drenched tunnels below. And behind everything is the mysterious, all-powerful warden, a man as cruel and as dangerous as the devil himself, whose unthinkable acts have consequences that stretch far beyond the walls of the prison. Together with a bunch of inmates - some innocent kids who have been framed, others cold-blooded killers - Alex plans the prison break to end all prison breaks. But as he starts to uncover the truth about Furnace’s deeper, darker purpose, Alex’s actions grow ever more dangerous, and he must risk everything to expose this nightmare that's hidden from the eyes of the world.

I only recently discovered the Furnace books but I now love this series. Nothing short of brilliant, and totally terrifying.

And finally, for older readers who are ready for something more adult:

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return - when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark.

I finished this at the weekend and it is still playing on my mind. One of the best ghost stories I have read in years.


So there you have it. I hope one of those takes your fancy and if so have a terrifying time reading it. Happy Halloween!

Sunday 24 October 2010

Review: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to be the wireless operator on an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return - when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark.

Confession time: I have not read any of Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books, and I'm not sure I ever will. Yes, I know they are critically acclaimed and have won many awards, including the recent Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, but the era in which they are set just does nothing for me. I prefer my historical fiction to be set in Tudor, Restoration or Victorian times, and with so many books to read and so little time I have to draw a line somewhere. Feel free to heap criticism after criticism on me for this but I very much doubt you will change my feelings on this.

Despite never having read any of her previous work I was easily tempted into reading her latest offering, her first adult ghost story, Dark Matter. There has been quite a buzz on Twitter for this book over the past couple of months, and with Halloween fast approaching I thought I would give it a try. Fortunately, the wonderful team at Orion took pity on my begging and I very soon had a copy in my hands, and with my wife away this weekend what better time to start reading a ghost story? I began to read it on the train into London, on my way to the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival, and throughout the day it was constantly niggling at the back of my mind as I couldn't wait to get back to it. The train journey home saw me again immersed deep within the story, and when I got home I was determined to finish it before going to sleep. With hindsight this wasn't such a great idea - I really did not sleep well last night, my mind questioning every creak, bump and thud the house made.

The story is written in the form of a journal, written by Jack Miller. The year is 1937, and through a series of unfortunate  events Jack has found himself wishing his days away whilst earning a pittance working six days a week as an export clerk at Marshall Gifford, stationers. The beginning of Jack's journal details his first meeting with a group of upper-class, wealthy young men who are thirsty for adventure and wish to mount an expedition to the High Arctic to study the botany and geology of the area, as well as to transmit meteorological data back to the British Government. However, they require a trained radio operator.... enter Jack. After this first meeting Jack almost decides to forget the whole idea - he feels very much like a fish out of water when surrounded by the snobberies of the group, but a chance viewing of a body being pulled out of the Thames on his way home puts things into perspective for him and he soon finds himself travelling North.

Jack's journal gives us a very intimate account of his innermost thoughts as he makes the long journey to Gruhuken, a bleak and desolate bay in the Spitsbergen region, deep within the Arctic Circle and miles away from the nearest settlement. As such, we soon come to know Jack's character very well, including all of his flaws; this means that at times Jack is a difficult person to like, as despite the efforts shown by some of his fellow adventurers he can still be quick to rebuff them. However, whether we like him or not, as each event occurs that leads ultimately to Jack being left on his own at the group's outpost we feel for him every step of the way, and feel nothing but worry and fear for him as he is finally left in isolation.

At 240 pages Dark Matter is much slimmer than many adult horror stories published these days (compare it with the 750+ pages of Justin Cronin's The Passage), and I think it is so much better for this. Michelle Paver use words economically, managing to create an incredible sense of slow brooding menace that keeps the reader gripped. She also shows a great deal of skill when it comes to foreshadowing - the story is laced with tidbits of information that we soak in without realising it, yet these are all essential to the ever growing feeling of terror that we feel once the group reach Gruhuken. In the first half of the book much of this is done through the character of Eriksson, skipper of the boat that takes the group to Gruhuken. Eriksson is a seasoned voyager in these areas, and tells the group many tales of his life and the area, yet whenever the subject of Gruhuken arises he clams up and refuses to comment, even to the point of claiming that he was never contracted to take them so far. For a man of obvious honour, as a reader we are left with no doubt as to the potential horror that awaits the group in Gruhuken.

This is a book written for the adult market but will be enjoyed just as much by many readers who fall within the so-called Young Adult age range. There is no bad language, no sex, no blood or gore - this is pure ghost story that relies on a mastery of the craft of writing to create a sense of lingering terror in the reader that will not go away easily once the book is finished. 

Friday 22 October 2010

Review - Monkey Nuts: The Diamond Egg of Wonders by The Etherington Brothers

Welcome to the Isla de Monstera, home of the world's only tap-dancing, banana-loving, rust-fighting, coconut-talking, crime-busting organisation... MONKEY NUTS! In their very first adventure, Sid, Rivet and Chief Tuft are forced to do battle against a horde of random oddballs and weirdos. When a mysterious signal begins to drive the local loonies into a crazy rage, the Monkey Nuts team have no choice but to grab their masks and get heroic!

A few days ago I reviewed the quirky and totally fab Verne and Lettuce by Sarah McIntyre, and in that review I promised that I would soon be posting about another recent release from The DFC Library, Monkey Nuts by the Etherington Brothers. They say that variety is the spice of life and the people at The DFC sure know how to keep their fans' lives spiced to the limit. So far their releases have included the beautiful and atmospheric Mezolith, a stunning book that was very different to the funny noir-inspired Good Dog, Bad Dog, itself different from Sarah McIntyre's pastel-coloured, chilled (though equally funny) creation. And now in Monkey Nuts we have even more variety to add to the mix - a book that is totally crazy, fun, frantic and exciting - sort of like the 'Dick and Dom' of the comic book world.

The first thing that you notice about Monkey Nuts are the colours - you have no option but to notice them as they are so gloriously vibrant. Look closer though (once your eyes have got used to the rich kaleidoscope of colour) and you will then notice the exquisite detail that Lorenzo Etherington puts into his illustrations; detail that is always very clear despite the vibrancy of the colours and the business of his panels. For busy they are although on first reading the temptation to just bathe in the colours was so overwhelming that I missed a lot of the many less obvious elements in some of the panels, and especially on the occasional splash pages. This book is made to be read again and again: I have now been through it three times and I was still spotting new things.

The appeal of this book is far more than just aesthetic though: Robin Etherington is a skilled writer and his text is the perfect accompaniment to his brother's artwork. The story revolves around the mad-cap antics of Sid the monkey and his new crime-fighting partner Rivet (a robot). 'Thrown' together at the beginning of the story they soon find themselves up against monster after monster, aided by boss of the Serious Crime Squad, Chief Tuft (who just happens to be a coconut...... see, told you it was pretty crazy). The monsters have been drawn to the duo's island paradise home of Isla De Monstera by a Monster Magnet, which has been activated by the dastardly Lord Terra (somewhat un-villainously aka Eric). Lord Terra is after the Diamond Egg of Wonders, a valuable and mystical artefact, yet during a food-poisoning induced Vision he sees the two 'warriors of good' who could foil his plan, warriors who just happen to look like Sid and Rivet. His only hope is that the legion of monsters that feel drawn to the island will destroy the duo and leave the way open for him to get his hands on the Egg.

Young readers will love Monkey Nuts as it has everything they could ask for in a comic book. It is action packed, with great characters, and amazing illustrations. It is also very, very funny: how's this for an opening 'speech bubble': "Deep underground, directly below the strange area of Earth known as The Bermuda Triangle, stands a fortress so evil-looking that it sometimes scares itself! This monstrosity is called Tabitha, and within her stone nostril lives a being even more evil than she!". Brilliant!

Monkey Nuts - The Diamond Egg of Wonders was published at the beginning of September as part of The DFC Library. My thanks go to the generous people at David Fickling Books for sending me a copy to review.

*** Contest: WIN a Signed/Doodled First Edition of Justin Thyme by Panama Oxridge

I have given away some great book prizes over the past year but this is by far the best one to date. As many of you will know, Justin Thyme by Panama Oxridge has recently been published by Inside Pocket, however it was first self-published by Panama in 2006. The first print run was a mere 1200 copies, and these sold out pretty quickly. Thanks to the generosity of Panama Oxridge I have one of those 1200 sat on my desk next to me ready to go to one very lucky winner.

And there is more.... the book has been signed AND doodled WITH colour by Panama to make this an even more special and highly collectible prize:

And..... this contest is going to be open worldwide - it doesn't matter where you live you can enter.

In order to be in with a chance of winning this fantastic prize you have to do the following:
  • Fill in the contest form below, answering the (relatively) simple questions by the closing date of 8pm Saturday 30th October.

  • And that's it. However, if you also 'Like' the new Book Zone Facebook Page then that will get you a double entry into the contest.
Good luck to everyone!

Terms and conditions

Contest open to entrants worldwide.
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.

Birthday Time!

The Book Zone (For Boys) is one year old today. If you consider that when I was younger I rarely ever managed to keep a diary for more than a few days at a time then this is quite an achievement for me (well, I think so). It has not always been easy to keep up with the reading, reviewing, interview question writing, etc. as well as being an Assistant Headteacher (or ass head) as my wife so fondly calls me), but I have managed to stick to it as I am genuinely passionate about encouraging young people to read for pleasure.

My huge thanks go to the authors and publishers that have made this past year so enjoyable by keeping my supplied with books and taking the time to answer my interview questions, as well as to the other bloggers out there who have been a constant source of inspiration and guidance. However, my greatest thanks go to the readers of this blog, whether you are boys, girls, parents, teachers, librarians, book lovers, or a combination of the above - thanks you for reading and I hope you will stay around for another year at least.

As a special birthday celebration I have a fantastic prize up for grabs in a competition that I will post about later today.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

*** Interview with Panama Oxridge (author of Justin Thyme)

Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that I have long been a fan of a book called Justin Thyme: The Tartan of Thyme by Panama Oxridge. This books was first released a few years ago with a fairly small print run, meaning that it didn't get the chance of the wider readership that it so deserved. Recently the book has been republished by Inside Pocket, and is now widely available (and hopefully being widely bought). I was really flattered when Panama Oxridge contacted me out of the blue with some really nice comments about this blog, and then really chuffed when Panama consented to take part in an interview. Please also watch this space as on Friday, the first birthday of The Book Zone, I will be announcing a very very special Justin Thyme related competition, with an amazing prize donated by Panama.

How would you describe your book Justin Thyme to potential readers?

The first part of an interactive time-travel whodunit series aimed at readers aged nine and above.

What was the original inspiration for Justin Thyme?

Having gained a reputation for creating complex picture-puzzle books, I’d long toyed with the idea of doing something similar but with a novel, hiding clues in the text rather than the illustrations. However, the right “vehicle” for this idea hadn’t presented itself. Then, one day, a documentary about the 9/11 disaster, (which mentioned how a man returned an unwanted gift that morning and so escaped), led to a discussion about family history, in which I discovered ancestors whose lives had altered dramatically as a result of the most insignificant decisions.

Shortly afterwards, Justin stepped into in my mind and started explaining his own theory about the random influence of Chance, the orderly nature of Time, and how the two are inseparably linked – Tartan Theory. He later showed me around his ancestral home, as well as introducing me to his eccentric family – and I knew, at once, I’d found the project I’d been searching for.

Am I right in thinking you have planned this to be the first book of a four-part series? If so, did you plan the complete story arc when you wrote the first book?

Yes. Time travel plots tend to be non-linear. Therefore before writing a single word of the first book, not only did I plan a complete story-arc in meticulous detail, but I also wanted a thorough knowledge of events both before and afterwards. So, although the story I’m telling takes place during the summer Justin turns thirteen, I got to know five generations of the Thyme family (and friends) and plotted out their interlocking lives over more than 100 years. This means that while I can complete my initial story-arc in four books, I know what happens next should I wish to continue. Even if this in-depth material is never shared with readers, it’s still very valuable to me, as it enables me to write the characters from a thoroughly informed standpoint. I really know what makes each of them tick.

Can you tell us more about the hidden clues contained within the book?

Mmm ... part of me wants to say: Hidden clues? What hidden clues? Primarily, JT is a novel, and can be enjoyed on that level alone. Traditional clues are seeded throughout the narrative, so that all readers can solve the mystery in the usual way.

However, I also wanted to offer something different – something that would allow readers, to become detectives themselves, should they so choose. Therefore, I hid a variety of cryptic clues and secret messages, which, if found and solved, might enable them to identify the “whodunit” ahead of Justin. (Most people seem to read the story right through first, then re-read it, specifically looking for the hidden elements). Concealed clues vary from overtly obvious to deviously difficult, so they work on one level for younger readers, whilst remaining sufficiently challenging for adults. (Interestingly, with sharp eyes and open minds, kids are often better at spotting clues than many grown-ups!)

Not all the hidden clues are specific to book one; some hint at future plot developments in the series. Again, these vary in complexity; the easiest offering tantalizing possibilities, whilst the more complex might reveal surprising secrets. Of course, some readers will be content to let the story gradually unfold – but for others, these hidden elements are like secret bonus levels in a game; not essential, but well worth the extra effort!

How did you manage to keep track of the hidden clues and the time travel elements?

Exhaustive notes! I have a bulging ring-file, two box-files, several hand-written notebooks, charts, drawings, timelines, calendars, and hundreds of pages of typed characters notes. I also have an annotated copy of JT itemizing every hidden clue in book one, all colour-coded to remind me which book in the series they point to.

You have created some great characters in the book. Do you have a favourite?

Really that’s a bit like asking if someone has a favourite child. Judging from reader feedback, the most popular characters seem to be either Eliza, a gorilla who can communicate using a computer, or Mrs Kof, a cook of ambiguous gender with a knack for malapropisms. As much as I adore these two, and have a lot in common with Justin, it’s his father, Sir Willoughby, Laird of Thyme, who interests me the most.

It is no secret that Panama Oxridge is not your real name. Why did you choose to publish the book under a pseudonym?

Using a pseudonym was partly to distance myself from my previous picture-book persona – partly because (like Justin), I’ve never liked my name – but mostly because I think it helps the reader connect with the story. How? Well, whenever I read a book I always hear the author’s voice in my head; obviously not their real voice – but an impression based on their writing-style, vocabulary and humour. If that voice is vivid enough, I might even “see” the person telling me the story – and their name often helps contribute to that image. But if I find the author’s photo or learn too much about them, that image and voice may be affected – sometimes destroyed. My enjoyment of the book suffers because I’ve lost my personal storyteller.

With JT, I wanted to provide readers with an ambiguous name and a hidden face, allowing them to form their own imaginary narrator. It’s quite fascinating how many people make immediate assumptions about gender based on little verifiable evidence (something I demonstrate in JT).

You are also the illustrator of the book. How rewarding was this for you?

Normally, most publishers give an author no say in their book’s design. In some respects I envy writers who send their manuscripts off and wait to see how the cover art and illustrations turn out. That must make their first glimpse of the finished book very exciting. However, although there are no wonderful surprises when you do the artwork yourself, there are no unpleasant shocks either. There’s nothing worse than seeing your imaginary world reinvented by someone who sees it very differently. From then on, readers’ interpretations will, inevitably, be influenced by flawed visuals. But when a writer illustrates their own work, readers get an accurate representation of the author’s true internal vision. That being said, most of the illustrations in JT are of things: letters, scraps of newspaper, Justin’s watch etc – I wanted readers to imagine the characters for themselves.

Did you create the illustrations as you progressed or do them once you had finished the writing?

Nearly all the illustrations are roughed-out as I write each chapter. Once the first draft of the story is complete, I redo the pictures properly before redrafting, although I may also make further amendments when finalising the layout. Only once the final draft is complete, can I create the full wraparound design of the dust-jacket (implanting any clues).

The way you have illustrated the title of the book is pretty special. Can you tell us something about ambigrams?

I discovered ambigrams several years ago, and the concept instantly appealed to me as an illustrator. For those who don’t already know, an ambigram is a word or phrase that can be read from two different angles, (ambi = both, gram = word). While designing JT, I realised this would perfectly convey how the mystery can be solved in two different ways. I also wanted to custom design a watch that Justin, (who, like me, never wears one), would be unable to resist. However, turning his name into an ambigram was a major challenge, especially as one word has six letters, the other, five!

Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from your next book in the series and when it might be published?

Not long to wait! If all goes according to plan, book two in the series: “????? - ??????? - ???” will be published autumn 2011. The story begins two weeks after “Justin Thyme” ended, or three hundred and forty-one years before it started, depending on your point of view. All the original characters return – plus one or two new ones. It’s almost impossible to give any hints about book two without creating spoilers for book one … but I’ll reveal a few chapter titles, and let readers of JT draw their own conclusions: “Card Tricks” – “Kof Drops” – “Eliza Goes Bananas” – “Back in Thyme” – and “Memento Mori”.

Which books/authors did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today?

Generally, in terms of quality and variety, modern children’s novels are light-years ahead of almost anything from my childhood. However, I think picture-book art has become stylistically bland and samey. My earliest book memories are of Beatrix Potter. Her whimsical work certainly influenced my desire to illustrate – and our lives have had several parallels. “Winnie the Pooh” and “Paddington Bear” were a big part of my childhood; I loved their humour. The “Borrowers” books by Mary Norton were also firm favourites. I don’t recall any books for teens. At the age of eleven I began reading adult’s books: Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh started my fondness of whodunits, PG Wodehouse for humour, and Gerald Durrell, particularly “My Family and Other Animals” (which I’ve probably re-read every year since), for eccentric characters.

If you could time travel when/where would you go to and why?

Oddly enough, I’d rather stay at home. If there’s one thing Justin has taught me, it’s that time travel is not only risky, but can cause more problems than it solves. I’m not even a fan of travelling through the three standard dimensions of space, (I don’t have a car). I’m one of those stereotypical authors who prefer staying safely at home whilst sending their imaginary characters off on adventures. And who needs a time machine when you have books; reading can take me to every corner of the globe in the past, present or future ... and all without leaving my armchair!

If there is one question you would love an interviewer to ask you about your work, what is it? And what would the answer be?

Using interesting words is important to me, so, I guess I’d like to be asked about the mini-dictionary I’ve included in JT. Teachers often encourage their pupils to choose books that expand their vocabulary, but few young readers want to wade through a huge dictionary every time they happen upon an unfamiliar word. Therefore “Justin Thyme” briefly defines more than 450 of its most challenging words at the back of the book. This ensures no young reader need ever feel out of his or her depth. Feedback from teachers, librarians and home-schoolers has been very positive, and this is something I hope to continue throughout the series.

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

Thank you, Book Zone, for such interesting questions – and, if you’ve just read this interview, I thank you too; after all, that’s five minutes of your life you’re never getting back!


And a huge thanks to Panama for such detailed answers, especially when I know you have been feeling a little flu-ey recently. I am sure all of my readers will join me in wishing you a speedy recovery.

As mentioned previously.... come back on Friday for my first birthday competition announcement.