Friday 18 November 2011

Attention Grabber #5: Dark Life by Kat Falls

Attention Grabber is my new weekly feature where I post what I think is a great opening paragraph to a book, the sort of opening that pulls young readers in and hooks them from the start.

Another short one for you this week, this time from Dark Life by Kat Falls (reviewed here). What I love about the first two sentences of this book is that the reader can immediately tell that something pretty disastrous has happened to the planet. It grasped my attention immediately and made me want to read on and find out more. I wonder how many rewrites this one went through before Ms Falls came up with this perfect opening?

I peered into the deep-sea canyon, hoping to spot a toppled skyscraper. Maybe even the Statue of Liberty. But there was no sign of the old East Coast, just a sheer drop into darkness.


Thursday 10 November 2011

The Haunting of Charity Delafield Blog Tour: Guest Post by Ian Beck

I am joined today by author Ian Beck, author of The Haunting of Charity Delafield, a brilliant new books from publisher Bodley Head. I was really chuffed when I was asked if I wanted to take part on his blog tour as he is an author whose work I have been following for some time. I asked Ian if he would like to write a little piece for us about darkness in books for children.


My recently published book, The Haunting of Charity Delafield (The Bodley Head RHCB 2011) uses troubled dreams, darkness and an eerie old house as engines of the story. However it is not a conventional Ghost or Horror story, Charity’s is a haunting of a different kind. Like most faerie stories it has at its heart the fundamentals; love and loss, fear and courage, goodness and empowerment. I am not a great expert on the current darker horror fiction for young adults. I would find it hard to pass comment on it as a genre. I have read and greatly admire Marcus Sedgwick and Sally Gardner‘s work. My own impulse is toward the lyric rather than the frightening. I find the gothic genre often to be beautiful, something I first realised when visiting the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. The architecture of the house was so well done, with an astonishing attention to detail in the stained glass and so on and the spectres and their costumes only added to the effect, which in the end was exhilaratingly romantic rather than frightening.

Having raised two sons and a daughter I know well the all powerful draw of darkness in stories, or at least the idea of darkness both literal and metaphorical. From an early age and as my children grew I shared my many Edward Gorey books, and my Charles Addams collections with them. Both artists were masters of the macabre and of a kind of understated very dark humour and my children loved them. While reading stories such as The Three Little Pigs, when my children were very young, I would act it out and actually go to answer the front door after the Wolf knocked and then I came back in to the room draped in an old overcoat as The Wolf. This was both alarmingly scary and funny, and they loved it, I had to repeat it over and over.

My sons seemed almost magnetically attracted to both the militaristic and to the dark and the horrific. This was not exclusively in book form but in the computer games they played and the films they watched. I was not over anxious about their tastes for dressing up as soldiers in camouflage fatigues etc as I remembered only too well my own 1950s childhood.

Then we had an almost endless supply of toy weaponry; Dan Dare ray guns, cowboy belts and holsters etc Westerns and WW2 were everywhere, on the nascent television service and in the cinema of both the normal grown up variety and the Saturday morning children’s matinees. Here we watched in a state bordering on hysteria exciting weekly chapter serials from the 1930s and 40s such as Batman and Flash Gordon which had their moments of real darkness and terror, such as the clay men emerging from the walls in, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. After the screenings we would run home with our gabardine school raincoats fastened around our necks in imitation of cloaks The most wonderfully dark things that I remember from my own childhood were not books or comics at all but the 1950s Quatermass serials on television written by the wonderful Nigel Kneale.

I borrowed books from my local library with a woeful but in the end I think healthy lack of discrimination. My choices often centred on books set on other worlds and the sense I took from the best of them, the sense that I still remember and cherish to this day is the sense of wonder.

I did not develop into a violent person or one overly concerned with violence because I played Flash Gordon or used toy guns or read scary comics as a child. That phase I now see partly as a kind of rehearsal of adult fears of death and power, and partly as a joyous recreation of the images and sounds which emanated from the huge cinema screen, a remaking of that special kinetic excitement.

The second of my Tom Trueheart books was called, Tom Trueheart and the Land of Dark Stories. It was set in a place where dark deeds, dark places and especially dark endings were de rigeur. The story featured immense gloomy castles, deep dungeons, hellish gold mines run by Trolls, skeleton armies, all of that and more. However given the age range of the book which is somewhere between seven and eleven, the violence and horror, although present is minimised. There is no blood and my hero Tom does not take undue pleasure in using weapons or in despatching foes although he does face them with determination and courage especially given that he is the size of a thumb throughout most of the book.

I have explored darker subjects and themes as the basis of my YA stories. Pastworld (Bloomsbury 2009) centred on some Grand Guignol aspects of Victorian London and the violence and horrors rose naturally out of the subject and the setting. Samurai (Barrington Stoke 2009) and The Hidden Kingdom (Oxford University Press 2011) both have their basis in Japanese mythologies and do contain some dark and horrific scenes, although the Prince in The Hidden Kingdom uses his lyric gift and images of beauty as a weapon rather than a sword. 

Huge thanks to Ian for taking the time to do this for The Book Zone. Watch this space as my review of the book will be coming soon.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Review: The Baker Street Irregulars in The Adventure of the Missing Detective by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood

With Sherlock Holmes missing, and the fair city of London ravaged by crime, the Baker Street Irregulars move into 221B Baker Street. When the Lord Mayor's daughter goes missing and they agree to help Eliza Mayhew find her grandfather, the Irregulars embark on their first case - and quickly discover that they are up against a sinister villain...

Back at the beginning of October I had the pleasure of meeting someone I have followed on Twitter for some time, writer Tony Lee, at another author's book launch in London. If you don't recognise the name then shame on you: Tony is a new York Times best selling writer, and has written for most of the big name comic publishers in the US and UK. He is also something of an expert at adapting other author's work for the graphic novel format, examples that immediately spring to mind including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the first in Anthony Hororwitz's Power of Five books, Raven's Gate. More exciting than anything for me though, he is currently working on a comic version of one of my all time favourite 80s TV shows - MacGyver.

During our conversation, we briefly touched on what was at that point the forthcoming release of Anthony Horowitz's new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk. During that conversation we touched on Tony's own Sherlock Holmes related work, a series of four graphic novels for Franklin Watts' Edge, an imprint that specialises in books for reluctant readers. Tony's series does not focus on the activities of the great sleuth himself, but instead it follows  the adventures of the infamous Baker Street Irregulars. For those of you who are not au fait with some of the plot details of the original Holmes stories, the Irregulars were a bunch of street urchins who Holmes occasionally employed to help him out.

The books, with illustrations by long-time Tony Lee collaborator Dan Boultwood, had been idling on my Amazon wishlist ever since I had first read about them here on the Geek Syndicate website, so on the way home on the train after the launch I used an app on my phone to treat myself to the first in this series, The Adventure of the Missing Detective. The story kicks off shortly after the events of the Sherlock Holmes short story, The Final Problem. Holmes is presumed dead, following his fight with Professor Moriarty, both seeming to have fallen to their death's at the Reichenbach Falls. There seems like there is nobody to take his place, neither Doctor Watson or Inspector Lestrade capable of filling those huge shoes. Nobody, that is, until Wiggins and his team of Irregulars step forward as volunteers, convinced that the great man isn't dead, and determined to carry on with his work in his absence. However, before they get a chance to investigate Holmes' disappearance, they are thrown headfirst into a case of their own.

At 46 pages, the uninitiated might assume that there is little meat to Tony Lake's story. They would, however, be sorely wrong. Dan Boultwood's illustrations are beautifully rendered, and perfectly portray the grimy atmosphere of the period, but I found myself so engrossed in following the words of Lee's story that I had to go back through them again once I had finished the book, to savour each panel one by one. I agree, 46 pages does not seem a great deal when the thin volume is placed next to some of the thick hardcover graphic novels that are published these days, but look instead towards the Asterix books. These are stories rich with plot and detailed graphics, and yet most of these only weight in at 48 pages, just showing that a book should not be judged by its thickness.

We have had a handful of Edge graphic novel adaptations of classic horror books (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc) on the school library shelves for some time and they ahve always been popular with the reluctant reader boys. I hope that these will soon be joined by the four Baker Street Irregulars books, whilst I will be digging into my pockets to complete by own personal collection - if the rest are as good as this first book then they are too good to miss.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Review: Blood Ninja 2: Lord Oda's Revenge by Nick Lake

Taro was just a fisherman's son...but then his father was murdered and he was forced to become a Blood Ninja, fated to live by night, doomed to live on the blood of others. But he has had his revenge. He has killed Lord Oda, the warlord who had his father assassinated. But Lord Oda is not quiet in his grave. He has found a way to reach beyond death and Taro and his friends soon find themselves facing samurai armies, a deadly enemy from the past and strange ghostly creatures who suck life from the living. Dangerously weakened, Taro, must recover the one object that Lord Oda was desperate to find before he died: the Buddha Ball, the source of limitless power. But if Taro is to complete his perilous quest - to save himself, his friends, his mother, and the girl he loves - he must go to hell and back and face his arch enemy once again. For Lord Oda has returned - as a Blood Ninja.

Blood Ninja by Nick Lake was one of my favourite reads of 2010. For me, everything was right about it. For a start, how could I not like a book where ninjas were vampires, this fact immediately explaining the secret behind their legendary powers. Add to this a story rich with historical detail, fantastic action set pieces, great characters and the occasional gory death and I felt that Nick Lake had delivered the perfect package for boys and girls who are confident readers and want something a little more challenging in their reading diet. And let's not forget that amazing book cover by Hydro74.

Eighteen months on and I am now ready here with my review of the sequel, subtitled Lord Oda's Revenge. In my mind there was a lot riding on this book - would Nick Lake be able to sustain the magic over a second volume? The answer, happily, is a resounding yes. Lord Oda's Revenge has everything its predecessor had, and more and I am slightly surprised that neither of the two books have appeared on the major children's book prize lists so far. Perhaps, like Rick Yancey's brilliant Monstrumologist books, it is just too good for the intended audience who have possibly been dumbed down by the flood of average YA titles teenagers have had to endure over the past few years?

The book picks up the story not long after the close of Blood Ninja. Taro is pining for news about his mother, whilst also being confused about where is relationship with Hana is heading. After all, although he is the lost son of Lord Tokugawa, in his mind he is really the son of a lowly fisherman and his wife, and subsequently lacks the social skills and awareness of etiquette expected of a high born Lord. Together with Hana, and his best friend Hiro, Taro sets off on a quest to find his mother and retrieve the Buddha Ball, even if he has to go to hell and back. Standing in his way is evil personified, the vile Lord Oda, as well as Yukiko, who is hell-bent on a little revenge.

The stand out element of this book for me is the character development. The middle book in a trilogy is always going to feel as if something is lacking, as the story has already been established, and no reader is going to expect a completely satisfying ending that ties off all the loose ends. Nick Lake does what George Lucas did with The Empire Strikes Back, and that is direct the reader's attention to the characters, to make up for this ultimate lack of reward come the final page. I challenge anyone who reads this book not to develop feelings for the main characters - Nick Lake really made me care about them as they faced trial after trial.

In my review of the first book I likened it more to an adventure story than a horror. I am pleased to report that the blood splatter had increased slightly in this sequel, although never to a point where it overshadows the storyline. I would not be surprised if some enterprising artist over in Japan picked this story up to turn it into a manga series. It is not an area on which I am an expert, but the few manga books I have read suggest that this story would fit perfectly within their ranks.

For some reason these books have been released earlier in the US than over here in the UK, and I wonder whether Nick Lake secured a publishing deal over there first. It isn't something that bothers me as we got the best book covers by far - just go onto Amazon US and compare, I am sure you will agree with me. However, according to that very same internet store the third book in the series is not scheduled to be out in the US until August 2012, and considering we didn't get the UK edition of Lord Oda's Revenge until a good eight months after it was published in the State we are in for a pretty long wait to find out what happens next.

Blood Ninja 2: Lord Oda's Revenge was published in the UK at the beginning of August, complete with another stunning Hydro74 cover design. My thanks go to the good people at Corvus for sending me a copy to review.

Friday 4 November 2011

Attention Grabber #4: The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

Attention Grabber is my new weekly feature where I post what I think is a great opening paragraph to a book, the sort of opening that pulls young readers in and hooks them from the start.

This week's Attention Grabber is the opening couple of paragraphs from the brilliant The Black Tattoo by the immensely talented Sam Enthoven. It is another one that I have used with my group at school to show them how adjectives and similes can make a piece of writing so interesting that you just can't help but read on. Having just started my first ever attempt at NaNoWriMo I am all of a sudden feeling a small amount of hate for Sam, and many others - I wish I could write this well!

LONDON. The West End. A little after four in the morning. At the base of the skyscraper known as Centre Point Tower, in the darkness at the end of a dank concrete walkway, something stirred. The shadows there began to ripple and coalesce. The dark became a manlike shape of pure liquid black. Then the demon emerged, taking its first leisurely step towards the woman who stood there watching it.

‘Jessica,’ it said.

Hearing that voice again, and the way the sound of it seemed to take shape inside her head like black flowers blossoming behind her eyelids, it was all Jessica could do to stop her legs from trembling. She’d been so close! Another few minutes and she’d’ve made it! She gritted her teeth and told herself to concentrate. The demon took another step. It was clear of the shadows now, and the rainy orange streetlight glinted off its inky wet skin. Its face was a blank, but she could feel it looking at her.

Thursday 3 November 2011

National Non-Fiction Day 2011

Today is the second National Non-Fiction Day, an annual celebration, initiated by the Federation of Children's Book Groups in partnership with Scholastic Children's Books. It aims to celebrate all that is brilliant about non fiction and show that it’s not just fiction that can be read and enjoyed for pleasure.

One year on and I still don't feature enough non-fiction on The Book Zone. I do read non-fiction, but it is pretty limited to adult fare that I dip in and out of between fiction books. There simply is not enough time in the day unfortunately. However, knowing that non-fiction day was looming I have been saving a couple of cool titles just for today.

The Worst Case Scenario Survive-O-Pedia (Junior Edition)

this one has been going down brilliantly in the school library since I donated my copy. It is stuffed full of great survival tips, such as how to survive a sandstorm or a shark attack, how to deal with being stranded on a desert island, how to cross piranha-infested water and all kinds of advice on what you should do if you are caught in a lightning storm. The boys at school love books like this: they gather around in huge crowds at lunchtime, just as they do with the Guinness Book of Records and the many back-volumes of Ripleys that we stock on our shelves. Every page is festooned with photos, illustrations or small cartoons, so even if they aren't close enough to be able to read the words they are still able to take part in any related conversation that is going on. The book is also littered throughout with interesting facts and my boys love their facts.

This book is possibly a little too gruesome in places for younger readers, but reluctant reader boys of 10 and above will adore it. It is published by Chronicle Books, who I must thank for generously providing me with a copy to review.

Feel The Force! Pop-Up Physics Fun

I love being a book blogger. OK, so that's a case of stating the obvious, as a book addict I don;t think I will ever get tired of receiving books in the post. Some of them are expected, but occasionally a surprise package comes through the door and Feel The Force! was one of them, courtesy of the good people at Templar, and for me it was an extra special treat. Many of you will know that my main teaching subject is Design technology, with a specific focus on Graphic Design. As such, I totally, completely, 100% adore pop-up books. And now I have another one to add to my collection.

Feel the Force! is a pop-up and life-the-flap book about science, and more specifically the physical side of the subject. Every single page has at least one pop-up, or a tab to pull, or flap to lift, and surrounded by Thomas Flintham's colourful and quirky illustrations. My favourite page by far is the one about pressure: a super-cool pop-up of a guy lying on a bed of nails on the left hand page of the spread, whilst on the facing page there is a pull-the-tab water pistol. Learning physics was never this much fun when I was a kid. As well as the interactive elements, each of the sections also contains an experiment or two, designed to complement the scientific theory that is being put across.

Where's Asterix

Love Asterix? A fan of the Where's Wally books? (are they daft questions - surely everyone is an Asterix and who doesn't like the Where's Wally books?). If you are one of the minority who is unable to answer yes to both of those questions then please turn away now. However if, like me, you love them both then read on.

A while back the ever-lovely Nina Douglas at Orion sent me their latest Asterix book - not a new edition of one of the famous Asterix stories, but a brand new book aimed at Asterix fans of all ages. Called Where's Asterix? it plops Asterix and his multitude of Gallic friends (and Roman enemies) into a number of incredibly detailed scenes, and then asks you to find them. When I tell you that it is of course  illustrated by Asterix co-creator Albert Uderzo you will already know the quality of the illustrations within. As soon as it arrived I found myself poring through the pages, looking to score laurel wreaths by finding the likes of Asterix, Obelix, Getafix the druid, Chief Vitalstatistix, and many others. I thought it would be easy - it isn't. These big A3 sized double-page spreads are rich in colour and detail, so even the huge tub of lard that is Obelisk is occasionally difficult to find. This is definitely a worthy addition to my collection of Asterix books.


A huge percentage of school library budgets is spent on non-fiction books, and yet when I browse through the multitude of blogs that I follow I rarely ever see these books reviewed. Shame on us! And shame on the bookshops who are forever creating amazing displays of the latest fiction releases for kids, leaving the new non-fiction books to sit out of the way on the shelves in the darker corners of the store (I'm not joking - I have seen this on a number of occasions). You boys who love your non-fiction I applaud you, at least you are reading, and don't ever let anyone tell you that non-fiction doesn't count!