Saturday 31 December 2011

Reflections of 2011

It feels like 2011 has whizzed by as far as blogging is concerned. I look back now over twelve months of posts and part of me feels a little disappointed. There are several months where I did not post as regularly as I would have wanted, and some months where  the number of reviews posted is so small it is embarrassing. Just as shameful is the pile of books I have read and enjoyed greatly, but are yet to have a review posted on The Book Zone. Friends say that they are amazed that I have time to blog at all, considering the demands of my job, but that doesn't stop me from wanting to set the bar high for myself. My mantra for 2012 will be: MUST TRY HARDER!

Aside from the disappointments there have been some massive highs for me during 2011. One of the biggest of these was having the opportunity to listen to Anthony Horowitz deliver a lecture for the National Literacy Trust, and the great man signing my copy of Scorpia Rising before it was even available in the shops. Other high points have been (in no particular order):
  • my review of Department 19 being quoted on the spine of the paperback edition;
  • Rick Riordan doing a Q&A for The Book Zone about helping kids with ADHD and dyslexia to read;
  • the various blogger events I have been so fortunate to be invited to by overly generous publishers
  • meeting more and more authors whose work I have loved (Robin Jarvis, Andy Mulligan & Will Hill in particular);
  • the Orion summer party where I met Michelle Lovric, an author whose work I completely adore.
Finally I must express my thanks to everyone who has helped keep The Book Zone running this year: first of all the publishers who have so generously sent me books throughout the year - I am living the dream of my 13 year old self; authors who have yet again been so happy to give up their time to write pieces for The Book Zone, or come to events to meet us bloggers; the handful of bloggers who I now call close friends - you know who you are; and last, but by no means least, all you readers who visit The Book Zone - more than 110,000 hits for my ramblings still leaves me feeling more than a little humbled. I hope you all have a Happy New Year and a truly fantastic 2012!

Friday 30 December 2011

The Book Zone Book of the Year 2011

This time last year I announced the Book Zone Book of the Year 2010. To help me I had been naming a Book of the Month throughout the year. For various reasons I did not do that during 2011 and so I have left myself in a little bit of a hole. I have decided to do it in a similar way to last year, and decide which was my favourite book released in each month (notice I say released, not necessarily read in that month). And so here are my favourite books of 2011:

January - Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

With honourable mentions for Long Reach by Peter Cocks and Witchfinder: Gallows At Twilight by William Hussey.

February - Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis

March - Department 19 by Will Hill

April - The Damned by David Gatward

With an honourable mention for Casper Candlewacks in Death By Pigeon by Ivan Brett

May - Changeling: Zombie Dawn by Steve Feasey

June - Mirabilis: Year of Wonders Winter Vol 1 by Dave Morris and Leo Hartas (not sure exactly when this was released officially but this is close enough)

July - Wereworld: Rage of Lions by Curtis Jobling

With an honourable mention for Money Run by Jack Heath and TimeRiders: The Eternal War by Alex Scarrow

August - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

With an honourable mention for Doc Mortis by Barry Hutchison and S.T.I.N.K.B.O.M.B. by Rob Stevens (Confession time - Doc Mortis was the winner when I wrote and scheduled this post last week. However, since then I have read Ready Player One and it completely blew my mind. Sorry Barry.)

September - Kill All Enemies by Melvin Burgess

With an honourable mention for Witchfinder: The Last Nightfall by William Hussey

October - Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley

November - The Haunting of Charity Delafield by Ian Beck

December - I'll be honest, I don't have one for December. Due to the fact that I had to put my blog on hold for most of November I am still playing catch up.

And so, time to announce my Book Zone Book of the Year 2011 and it is:

Department 19 by Will Hill

Part of me feels a little bad in naming this book my Book of the Year 2011 as I first read it back in October 2010. Somehow me and Department 19 just clicked, and I knew once I had finished it that it might be a very strong contender for 2011's Book of the Year, and that any book that came along to challenge Department 19 for the top spot would have to be totally amazing. To hell with feeling bad though, no book came close in my opinion (edit: although, Ready Player One, read only a few days ago, has now come very close indeed). Department 19 has everything I, and many 13+ boys (and girls) want in a book: great characters; an imaginative and compelling premise set in a world that is close enough to ours to be real; awesome action scenes; loads of blood splatter; vampires that aren't sparkly and would rip your throat at faster than you could blink; the list goes on and on and on. When I reviewed it back in February I stated that it was 'possibly the best action horror I had ever read'; with hindsight (and several more readings) I think I could have lost the 'possibly' from that statement. In addition to this, the sequel, Department 19: The Rising is also my most anticipated book of 2012 - I really cannot wait to sink my teeth into it.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Get Any Good Books For Christmas?

I hope you all had a fantastic Christmas, and were showered with wonderful book presents. I would love to hear waht you got.

This year we are visiting friends in Canada and so I have not been able to open many of my presents - before we left just seemed too soon! Christmas has therefore so far been much more of a time for giving this year, and I have spoiled my godson and his brothers rotten with books - my hand luggage for the flight was a small case filled with books. I gave Max, my godson, the first six CHERUB books my Robert Muchamore, as well as the first TimeRiders book, Justin Thyme by Panama Oxridge, and Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld. Frank, his ten year old brother who is more into fantasy stories, was the recipient of the first five books in Michael Scott's Secrets of Nicholas Flamel series and The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. Spike is the next one down and he is only seven, and only just getting into reading, so I gave him a selection of some of the best books for his age group that have been released in the UK over the past year or so.

Me? Like I said, I have not had the chance to open many presents yet, but I was allowed to open two before we came away. The first was recommended to me by Mark de Jager over at My Favourite Books, and is The Walking Dead Compendium Vol 1. I love the TV show and Mark said I HAD to read the graphic novel, and so this shot straight to the top of my Christmas wish list. 1000+ pages of glorious black and white zombie saga.

The other pesent I opened turned out to be a book that I thought I would never own (as it is rather expensive), but I put it on my wish list and nearly fell over when my wife gave it to me. It is called 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking and is published by Taschen. This one had to be opened before we came away as it was far too big to bring with us - it is huge (that's me holding it in the photo below)! It measures 11.4 inches wide by 15.6 inches high, and is filled with more than 700 pages, printed on thick high quality stock. I on;y had a short amount of time to flick through it before we came away but it is stunningly beautiful - my only dilemma is that it is so heavy that I'm not sure on the best way to read it :-) I have included some images from its contents below, courtesy of the Taschen website.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

News: Book Cover - Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

This one has been around for a while as I showed it to my good friends Liz and Mark from My Favourite Books when I saw them a couple of weeks ago. It is the cover for the new edition of Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, which is being re-released as part of Orion's YA imprint, Indigo. Whilst I really liked the cover of the original Gollancz edition, with its image of a lone person watching a fantastic airship, the new cover screams "Buy me!". Perhaps it is because I am a huge Indiana Jones fan, and there is slight hint of that. However, when reading the Ketty Jay books I am always left with a western-in-another-world feel, and this new cover portrays that brilliantly. Darian Frey is fast becoming an iconic character and it seems fitting that he gets the limelight for this new target market. Sadly no airship in sight, but with at least two more books in the series to (hopefully) be reissued by Indigo then perhaps we will see the Ketty Jay on a future cover. I may just go out and buy this for the cover alone!

Sunday 18 December 2011

News: Book Cover - Brothers To The Death by Darren Shan (Saga of Larten Crepsley Book 4)

Unfortunately the fourth book in the so far brilliant Saga of Larten Crepsley will not be on sale until May, but in the meantime feast your eyes on this image, the artwork for the front cover of that book, to be titled Brothers To The Death. Illustrator David Wyatt has outdone himself yet again with this incredible image which I found on his blog, along with an earlier version of the cover. It looks like Larten is going to be heading to New York in the finale to the series, and the blood splattered evidence on the cover suggests that this one could be quite a gore-fest! 2012 is going to be another massive year for Darren Shan, with this final Larten Crepsley book and then in the autumn the first in his twelve book Zom-B series. I can't wait!

Edit: 15th January 2012

I've just been trawling though the HarperCollins website looking at their future releases and I spotted that the final cover of Brothers To The Death is now there for all to see. It has changed a little from David's original image (above) with the red tones being far more dominant - it really does look like hell is about to descend on the cityscape.

I am also loving the blurb about the book, sounds  like it could be a great end to the quadrilogy:

Just as Larten is finding a new place for himself in vampire society, trying to help vampires escape the Nazi menace, horrifying tragedy falls on his own family, thanks to the nefarious Vampaneze.

With his old friend Wester calling for war against the ancient enemies of vampires, Larten finds himself a figurehead of the campaign.

But there are more evil things than just the Vampaneze stirring. And soon, Larten might find himself grieving again – as he faces the worst and final betrayal…

Friday 16 December 2011

Attention Grabber #8: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Attention Grabber is my 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 Grabber is from one of my favourite author's of the moment. I love Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay stories, but I first discovered his work through The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, one of my favourite books of the last decade. It is a glorious Gothic fantasy horror story set in an alternate London, with airships, demons and corruption at the highest level. The opening paragraphs mentioning an airship, London fog and hansom cabs give a really good feel for what is to come and had my interest piqued right from the start. I also love Chris Wooding's descriptive writing in these opening paragraphs - he has the ability to tap straight into my imagination so that I can really picture the scene he had created.

The airship lumbered low overhead, its long, lined belly a dull smear of silvery light in the fog as it reflected the gas lamps of the city beneath. The heavy, ponderous thrum of its engines reverberated through the streets of the Old Quarter, making the grimy windows of the tall, close-packed terraces murmur in complaint. Like some vast, half-seen beast, it passed over the maze of alleys and cobbled walks, too huge to consider the insignificant beings that travelled them - and finally it moved on, its engines fading to a dull hum, and then gradually to silence.

There was a chill in the air tonight, a cold nip that had crept in from the Thames and settled into the bones of London. And of course there was the fog, which laid itself over everything like a gossamer blanket and softened the glow of the black lamp-post to a haze. The fog came almost every night in autumn, as much a part of London as the hansom cabs that rattled around Piccadilly Circus or the stout Peelers that walked their beats north of the great river. Not to the south, though; not in the Old Quarter. That was the domain of the mad and the crooked and the things best left unthought of. The good people of the capital knew better than to remain there after the sun had dipped beneath the skyline; not if they valued their necks, anyway.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Review: Darth Paper Strikes Back by Tom Angleberger (an Origami Yoda books)

It is a dark time at Ralph McQuarrie Middle School. After suffering several Origami Yoda–related humiliations, Harvey manages to get Dwight suspended from school for being a “troublemaker.” Origami Yoda pleads with Tommy and Kellen to save Dwight by making a new case file—one that will show how Dwight’s presence benefits McQuarrie. With the help of their friends, Tommy and Kellen record cases such as “Origami Yoda and the Pre-eaten Wiener,” “Origami Yoda and the Exploding Pizza Bagels,” and “Origami Yoda and the Body Odor in Wonderland.” But Harvey and his Darth Paper puppet have a secret plan that could make Dwight’s suspension permanent . . .

Star Wars is in my top five all time favourite films (more specifically, Star Wars: A New Hope, but when I first watched in back in 1978 it was only known as Star Wars). When I was a kid I had quite a few Star Wars figures, I read the books, and I watched the original trilogy on VHS over and over again. So when a book called Darth Paper Strikes Back popped through my letter box I could not help but be intrigued. A quick read of the press release informed me that it was the sequel to a book called The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, a book that I was not even aware existed. However, I started to skim read the first few pages to get a feel for the book, and I was instantly hooked.

To set the scene, here is the blurb from the first book, Origami Yoda: "Tommy and his classmates narrate this middle grade mystery, each recounting an episode in which they received wise advice from a finger puppet of Yoda, perpetually worn on the finger of their classmate, Dwight, a loser who can't get anything right. Is this puppet really Yoda? Or is Dwight a bit more together than he seems?"

From what I can work out, Dwight turned from zero to hero in the eyes of his classmates thanks to his amazing finger puppet. However, Dwight's nemesis, Harvey, has decided that he wants all of the attention and kicks off the new school year by introducing Darth Paper to his peers. Darth Paper is the complete opposite to Origami Yoda - mean, nasty, and on a mission to discredit Dwight and possibly even get him kicked out of school. If this sounds a little bizarre to you then I would ahve to agree with you on the face of it, but the story is not as strange as it sounds. It is laugh out loud funny and very, very clever.

This is the perfect book for boys (or girls) who love Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid books, but have read them so many times that they are beginning to fall apart. By all means go out and buy your kids new copies, but why not slip this one in as well - I am pretty sure they will love it. Especially if they are a Star Wars fan. Until recently I hadn't realised just how popular the Star Wars franchise was with today's 7-10 year olds, but friends have assured me that their sons can't get enough of it, thanks in part to the recent animated series, as well as games like Lego Star Wars. If they are big fans then can't lose with this book - like Wimpy Kid it is full of small doodle-like illustrations, it is narrated in the first person by a host of great kid voices, and if you're still not convinced - it also has instructions on how to make your own origami Darth Paper!

I guess I should just add one small word of warning - this story is set in an American school and as such all the terminology, etc is very American. This did not affect my enjoyment of the story, and I am not sure how many young readers will find it a distraction either, but I thought you had better be aware.

My thanks go to the nice people at Amulet for sending me a copy to review. Much as I hate to part with my books this one is too good not to give away and will be heading in the direction of my godson's 7 year old brother as an extra Christmas present.

Monday 12 December 2011

Review: The Dead Ways by Christopher Edge

Ghostly apparitions on abandoned motorways... Corpses escaping from hospital morgues... Skeletons clawing their way out of their graves... THE DEAD WAYS ARE OPENING.

The Government has a plan to clean up the environment - closing down motorways and returning the roads to nature. When Scott Williams' father is found dead in his government office, Scott resolves to find out the truth behind his death. What he uncovers is a far-reaching and sinister conspiracy to open ancient lines of power sealing this world from the next. As the roads close, the dead will wake. Soon Scott is thrust headlong into a deadly race against time. It'll be the end of the world if he loses.

My mother always used to tell me that the best things came in small packages. If that is true then The Dead Ways by Christopher Edge is a perfect example of this maxim. At a mere 208 pages it weighs in way below most horror stories for the 11+ age group, but even so it still packs quite a punch.

Main character Scott is the son of a civil servant who is very much involved in a project known as the Greening of the Roads, whereby the government plans to close down a number of the country’s motorways and replace them with environmentally railways. However, there is much more to this new initiative than meets the eye and Scott soon finds his life changing in ways he never would have predicted, first through a failed kidnap attempt and then when his father is discovered dead, apparently having committed suicide.

Alongside Scott’s story is that of Jason, a Detective Inspector in the police force. Whilst travelling home one night Jason encounters what can only be described as a ghostly apparition; a dark hooded figure that passes through the metal walls of his car and attacks him so that "the breath was crushed from his body as a soul-searing agony rushed through his veins". Unfortunately he calls for back-up and from that moment on his career would appear to be on something of a decline.

Eventually the paths of these two main characters cross and they find themselves up to their necks in a conspiracy that stretches right to the roots of the government, with a super-creepy cult trying to open the Dead Ways of the book’s title – an event that would have disastrous consequences for everyone.

This is not your everyday zombie book (of which there are many on the market at the moment). In fact, although the dead do rise I did not associate them at all with the zombies that seem to be flavour of the month in kids’ and YA books at the moment. I think in my mind I had them down as more ghostly than zombie-like, but they are none the less scary for it. There is also not a great deal of gore within the story, and again I think this adds to the creep factor of the book. Unlike most zombie books though it is not the zombies themselves that are the most creepy – this honour must go to the cult members. And believe me, they are nasty.

This is the first book in a series and as such although the initial storyline is concluded to a degree there are a lot of questions left unanswered. I guess you could liken it to Darren Shan’s Cirque Du Freak in this respect – a short first book to set up the characters and story, with (hopefully) many more books to follow. I am definitely keen to see how Christopher Edge develops his story in the sequel, although I do not yet have any information on when this might be published.

My thanks go to the good people at Catnip Books for sending me a copy of The Dead Ways to read.

News: Book Cover - Wereworld: Nest of Serpents by Curtis Jobling

On of the books I am most looking forward to reading in 2012 is Curtis Jobling's Shadow of the Hawk, the third book in his Wereworld series. I loved the first book, and then was completely blown away by the second, Rage of Lions, and I have a feeling that book three will be just as good (no pressure Mr Jobling). I am also really chuffed to have been asked to take part in the Wereworld: Shadow of the Hawk blog tour - more details about that soon so please watch this space.

In the meantime, although the third book has not yet been released Curtis has already revealed on his blog the cover to the fourth book in the series, titled Wereworld: Nest of Serpents. It is yet another stunning cover from illustrator Andrew Farley - these books are going to look so good lined up on my book shelf come the completion of the series.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Review: The Wrong Pong by Steven Butler

One night, Neville Brisket wakes up from a strange dream - a dream that there is a horrible, stumpy finger stuck up his nose. Then he finds his room in a mess, and his dog in the laundry basket.

Neville's investigations end sposhily, when he is whooshed down the toilet to the land of Under! In a case of mistaken troll-dentity, he finds himself part of a disgusting new family. Will anybody help Neville get back to Over, or will he be stuck eating rat patties and left sock stew forever?

If there were more hours in the day, or my life wasn't as busy as it is, I would definitely read and review more books written for readers in the 7-10 age range. Sadly, it is far too easy for me to keep moving these books down the To Be Read pile so that I can read the next great 11+ book that has come through my letterbox. However, I have been trying harder, and this year discovered Andy Stanton's brilliant Mr Gum books (yes, months after everyone else had been raving about them), and of course Ivan Brett's fantastic Casper Candlewacks. There is something refreshing about reading books for this age group - they are often riotously funny, are littered with intelligent wordplay and harbour cleverly veiled morals within their plots.

The Wrong Pong by Steven Butler is one such story. Like Alice, Neville Brisket falls down a hole and finds himself in a strange land populated by fantastic creatures. Unfortunately for Neville, in his case the hole is the toilet on which he was sitting, and the creature that drags him through the pipes is a troll, a green one called Clod Bulch that "looked like a human had been crossed with a knobbly potato". Meanwhile Clod's troll son Pong is stranded in Neville's house, although with so many fun new distractions he seems more than happy in his new environment. 

The same cannot be said for Neville. The trolls of Under are everything you would expect from creatures who enjoy travelling through toilet pipes - Disgusting with a capital D. They eat rat patties fried in hair grease, battered badger lightly sprinkled with verruca shavings, and ear wax brownies. He also has to contend with Rubella - whilst Pong's parents bend over backwards to welcome their guest, his sister is less than impressed at the new arrival in her home and will do anything to get rid of him. Will Neville survive her devious schemes? Will he ever return to his normal life? Will he even want to, considering he gets more attention from the Clod's than he ever did from his own parents? And will his parents ever notice that their son has been replaced by a small green troll called Pong?

Having enjoyed this quick read for myself I tried it on my godson's younger brother and he loved it. In fact, on finishing it he demanded to know if there were any more Pong books available (there is - The Wrong Pong: Holiday Hullabloo, and hopefully more to follow). If you want to create within your son a lifelong love of reading then it is important to give them access to as many books as possible at this age, both fiction and non-fiction. Read the books yourself and then talk to them about their contents. The Wrong Pong is one of those books made for this kind of sharing - it is a story that you will find yourself giggling over with your child, as you both go "ewwwww" at all the disgusting bits.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Book Zone visits Walker Books

This morning I had the pleasure of attending a blogger event organised by the good people at Walker Books. At the beginning of 2011 Walker launched Undercover, a campaign designed to promote their YA fiction, through their online blog. The campaign proved to be very successful, so much so that Undercover is now going to continue into 2012 with a brand new website. The purpose of this morning's event was to give us bloggers a taste of the great Undercover books that are to be released by Walker throughout 2012.

The first part of the presentation involved the nice Walker people raving about the books they have scheduled to be released over the next eight months. As with most YA 'imprints' a good proportion of these books were not typical of the kind of book I tend to read and review on The Book Zone (i.e. a bit girly). However, there were a few that I really wanted to bring to your attention:
Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones (published 5th January 2012)

The details of this book suggest that it is another corker that fits with Walker's commitment to publish gritty thrillers that don't pull any punches. Books that were it not for them having teen protagonists would more likely find themselves aimed primarily at the adult market.

Blink is on the run. He was just trying to steal some breakfast; now he's stumbled on a fake kidnapping and become a player in a bigger game.

Enter Caution. As in "Caution: Toxic". Also on the run, she sees Blink as an easy mark. But there's something about this naive, skinny street punk that tugs at her heart.

Together, they devise a blackmail scam which is at best foolhardy... at worst, disastrous.

Daylight Saving by Edward Hogan (published 2nd February 2012)

We were very fortunate to be introduced to author Edward Hogan at this morning's event. Daylight Saving is his first YA novel and it sounds original and haunting. Edward very  kindly gave us some of the details behind the writing of the book, and graciously answered all of our geeky blogger questions in great detail. I can't wait to read this one!

When Daniel Lever accompanies his dad to the Leisure World Holiday Complex, his expectations are low. But then he sees a mysterious girl by the fake lake and everything changes. Lexi is funny and smart, but why does she have wounds that get worse each time they meet? And is her watch really going backwards?

As the end of British Summer Time approaches, Daniel has to act quickly. Their souls depend on it.

Girl, Stolen by April Henry (published 2nd February 2012)

I had already heard about this book as it was released in the US back in September and I have read a number of favourable reviews on some of the US blogs that I visit occasionally. Walker billed it as an "edge of your seat thriller that will have you tempted to flick to the end". Another book added to my 'must read' list.

Sixteen-year-old Cheyenne Wilder is sleeping in the back of a car while her mother fills her prescription. Before Cheyenne realizes what has happened, the car is being stolen from the car park. Cheyenne is not only sick with pneumonia - she is also blind. Griffin, the teenage driver, hadn't meant to kidnap her - he was just stealing a car for the gang. But once Griffin's dad finds out that Cheyenne's father is the president of Nike, everything changes - now there's a reason to keep her. Will Cheyenne be able to survive this harrowing ordeal, and escape? And if so, at what price?

Body Blow by Peter Cocks (published 5th April 2012)

This is the sequel to Long Reach, the first book featuring teen undercover 'agent' Eddie Savage. Long Reach is a book that I bought on my Kindle some time ago, but despite recommendations from blogging friends I had never got around to reading it. The nice people at Walker very kindly let me leave with a copy of Long Reach this morning and I started reading it on the train home, and finished it off this morning. It is brilliant, and I have no doubt at all that the sequel will be just as good.

Eddie Savage is hiding out in the West Midlands after his near-fatal shooting during the Kelly affair. But while the physical wounds are fading, the emotional scars are taking longer to heal. And when Eddie finds himself heading for the south of Spain with an unlikely travelling companion, it is as if, by some magnetic force, he is being drawn back into the criminal underworld. Tommy Kelly may be safely locked up back at home, but on the Costa del Sol the Kelly organization is still alive. And kicking.

After the presentation we were then introduced to Jack, the guy behind many of Walker's YA book cover designs. Jack is the man responsible for the awesome cover of Daylight Saving, as well as the animated version (below) that has appeared on many blogs since it was unveiled to the public in October. As a teacher of Design I found Jack presentation totally fascinating (yes, I sat there quietly geeking out). It was great to see how he came up with his initial ideas based upon the story, and then developed them bit by bit to produce the final design that you can see below. Some of you will know from a previous post I made that some of my sixth form students are currently designing book covers and I'm looking forward to talking to them about Jack's presentation next lesson.

My huge thanks go to the good people from Walker Books who very kindly gave up their Saturday morning to talk to use bloggers - it is always a pleasure to listen to other people talk so passionately about books.



Friday 9 December 2011

Attention Grabber #7: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

Attention Grabber is my 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.

For this week's Attention Grabber I have chosen something a little different from the usual fare. This is a book that somehow fell into my hands during my early teens, and had me completely hooked from beginning to end. On finishing it I rushed out to my local library, and then on to the larger one in town, to get my hands on as many of the Stainless Steel Rat books as possible. I still turn to these anarchic science fiction stories as comfort books, when blogger burn out is threatening to rear its ugly head and I just want to chill. These are just as relevant to teen boys today as they were when I discovered them, and this opening paragraph gives a great feel for the narrating character's voice, and the humour than runs throughout all of the stories. I still turn to my battered, well read copies but at least three of the books are available in an omnibus edition from SFF publisher extraordinaire Gollancz.

When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up. It had been a money-maker - but it was all over. As the cop walked in I sat back in the chair and put on a happy grin. He had the same somber expression and heavy foot that they all have - and the same lack of humor. I almost knew to the word what he was going to say before he uttered a syllable.

"James Bolivar diGriz I arrest you on the charge - "

I was waiting for the word charge, I thought it made a nice touch that way. As he said it I pressed the button that set off the charge of black powder in the ceiling, the crossbeam buckled and the three-ton safe dropped through right on the top of the cop's head. He squashed very nicely, thank you. The cloud of plaster dust settled and all I could see of him was one hand, slightly crumpled. It twitched a bit and the index finger pointed at me accusingly. His voice
was a little muffled by the safe and sounded a bit annoyed. In fact he repeated himself a bit.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Review: Thyme Running Out by Panama Oxridge

As the threat of the Thyme Curse closes in on Justin's family, his life is once again thrown into complete turmoil. Will he finally unmask Agent X and his spy? Has Evelyn Garnet stolen his wristwatch? What's making Eliza the gorilla act so aggressively? Why is Sir Willoughby planning a secret trip in the time machine? And where has Justin's sister, Robyn, mysteriously vanished to? Only Nanny Verity knows the truth - but can she be found before it's too late?

One of the first books I reviewed on The Book Zone back in October 2009 was Justin Thyme: The Tartan of Thyme by Panama Oxridge. At that point the book was out of print, and difficult to get your hands as it had been self-published by the author a few years earlier. Why did I review it? For two reasons: most importantly, because I loved it. Secondly, because I had spotted that its website had been taken offline with a promise of revamp, and I hoped that this could mean a sequel was due. In actual fact, new-to-the-scene publisher Inside Pocket had signed a deal with the author to publish that first book, which was released in October 2010. Now, five years on from the original release of Justin Thyme: The Tartan of Thyme, the sequel has been published.

Five years is a long time to wait for a sequel in the frantic world of modern children's publishing where most authors are expected to turn out at least one book a year, possibly even more. For example, when Darren Shan's new Zom-B series hits the book shops in 2012 the intention is to release one book every three months. Some of this is a financial thing - hook a child with a book, especially if it is written by a big name author, and they will come back for more. Make the time between releases too long and that child will have grown up another year or two and have moved on to the next big name author, the original story long forgotten. Panama Oxridge is not a big name author (although I believe he deserves to be), and so I hope that momentum can now be built and the two remaining books in the series will be released within a shorter period, giving these books the attention that they surely merit.

As you can probably tell already, my five year wait to read the sequel to The Tartan of Thyme was worth it. Admittedly it did take me a short while to get back into the story - I have read the original book several times, but time constraints these days mean that I was not able to refresh my memory prior to reading Thyme Running Out. By the end of the third chapter though, the characters of the family Thyme were like old friends, and as I progressed through the story there were enough references to the first book to have me feeling like I had only read it a couple of weeks ago.

Thyme Running Out picks up the story at a point soon after the close of its predecessor. The family are on a Mauritian island, ostensibly so that Lady Henny Thyme can make another of her world famous wildlife shows and establish a wildlife sanctuary. However, there is an ulterior motive to the trip: Justin is using his time machine to travel back in time to recover dodo egges with a view to bringing the species out of extinction and into the modern world. Not all is rosy though - friction is building between the increasingly rebellious Robyn Thyme and her mother, and Eliza, the tame, hyper-intelligent gorilla is becoming increasingly moody. Nanny Verity Kiss is still missing, presumed in hiding as she is still suspected of complicity in the kidnapping of Lady Henny.

Leaving Henny behind, the family return to Thyme Castle, and the mysteries that were set up in the first book begin to unfold again. Who is Agent X? Where is Nanny Verity Kiss? Is there a traitor living within Thyme Castle itself? So begins another richly layered mystery story laced with time travel adventure and humour, and yet again the stand out element of the story is its array of eccentric characters. Every one of them has a part to play in this story, even the minor ones who might only appear for a paragraph here and there in the story, and rarely is anyone exactly how they first appear.

Panama Oxridge never patronises his audience, nor does he relax his own obviously high standards of language and grammar in order to make the story an easier read. The vocabulary he uses throughout the book is occasionally complicated and the book is all the better for this. As Panama explained in an interview he did for The Book Zone last year: "Using interesting words is important to me.... 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." Thyme Running Out contains a similar mini-dictionary in the appendix, containing a few words that even this reader had to look up.

One of the unique points of this book are the clues that Panama hides throughout the story. If you have a 9+ mystery loving son (or daughter) who is a confident reader but has read all the books by the big name authors and is looking for something fresh and different then I cannot recommend this series highly enough - my godson will be receiving a copy for Christmas this year. Both books are available in beautiful hardcover editions, with the first now also available in a paperback edition. All editions include Panama's own illustrations littered throughout the book, some of them also acting as clues to the denouement.

My thanks go to Inside Pocket for generously providing me with a copy of Thyme Running Out, and also to Panama who very kindly sent me a copy of the paperback edition of Justin Thyme as my original review was quoted on the back cover.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Review: Mirabilis - Year of Wonders: Winter Volume One by Dave Morris and Leo Hartas

There is a green comet in the sky and things are getting strange. Every day, fantasy and reality are getting harder to tell apart. Witches in bottles, warmongering cabbages from the planet Pluto, and a pterandon roosting on the Eiffel Tower. Or is it a pterodactyl? Jack Ember is caught between two very unreliable mentors. Talisin is a two-thousand year old wizard or an escaped madman - or possibly both. The Kind Gentleman is the sort of fairy godfather who will grant you three wishes you can't refuse. Both of them have plans for Jack, who's spent his life dreaming of adventure and now is about to get rather more of it than he bargained for.

Last year David Fickling Books started to release a number of books featuring work that had originally appeared in The DFC, a weekly comic that ran back in 2008/2009. Whilst researching The DFC I stumbled across this website, and instantly fell in love with the gorgeous artwork and the intriguing story concept. From that moment Mirabilis - Year of Wonders became a graphic novel that I had to lay my hands on. When I spotted that it had been published in a softcover edition over in the US I was sorely tempted to splash out, but decided instead to wait for the hardcover edition that was scheduled for release by Print Media. The wait was a little longer than had been originally suggested as the books were printed abroad, but it was worth every single impatient minute and every penny. This is a stunning book, published in a large format hardback, and printed on a good quality glossy paper that lets the artwork really shine.

Mirabilis: Winter starts on 1st January of an undisclosed year that is very soon to be christened the Year of Wonders. The first panels introduce us to Lieutenant Jack Ember, a young man who has had the misfortune to be challenged to a duel over a girl he had barely met, by an arrogant young officer called Dougie McNab. As the duel is about to start a green comet streaks across the night sky, heralding the start of the Year of wonders, a time when magic and other strange happenings start to become commonplace. Jack survives the duel but is stung on the face by a wasp, sending him into a deep fever. Whilst he is incapacitated his regiment ships out for India, and jack awakes to find he is to "run fool's errands for a bunch of old fogeys". Little does he realise that these "fool's errands" will see Jack embarking on a quest that is loaded with action, adventure and many, many more fantastical mysteries.

To say any more about the story would be to spoil it for you. There is a new surprise on almost every page, and one of the best elements of this story for me was not knowing at all what was going to happen next. What I will say is that Jack finds himself travelling across Europe on the Orient Express in the company of Estelle Meadowvane (the girl he fought the duel over) and his fellow duellist, McNab (if I describe him as a prig, you will know exactly what I mean if you are of a certain age). As their quest progresses they encounter vampires, a demon known as The Kind Gentleman, a pteranodon roosting on the Eiffel Tower (or it could be a pterodactyl), and even a Doctor Jeckyll (this one is called Gertrude, but she still comes with that certain potion).

Dave Morris's story is at times a little strange (butin a very good way), and it is also truly enchanting. This is in no small part due to Leo Hartas's incredible artwork. Every new page brings another series of beautifully drawn panels, with every one of the characters and strange creatures realised in stunning detail. Added to the mix is the colour work of Nikos Koutsis, who renders Hartas's images with a palette that perfectly matches the tone of the story.

This is one of my favourite books of the year, and I believe it is a graphic novel that will have cross-generational appeal. Adults who love the graphic form of storytelling will, like me, want to linger on every page, soaking up the detail and smorgasbord of colour. Younger readers will delight at following the fantastic story, and then want to come back to the book again and again. I am certainly looking forward to the next volume, and the other volumes that I believe will eventually follow.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Review: 20 Years Later by E.J. Newman

LONDON, 2012: It arrives and with that the world is changed into an unending graveyard littered with the bones, wreckage, and memories of a dead past, gone forever.

LONDON, 2032: Twenty years later, out of the ashes, a new world begins to rise, a place ruled by both loyalty and fear, and where the quest to be the first to regain lost knowledge is an ongoing battle for power. A place where laws are made and enforced by roving gangs—the Bloomsbury Boys, the Gardners, the Red Lady’s Gang—who rule the streets and will do anything to protect their own.

THE FOUR: Zane, Titus, Erin, Eve. Living in this new world, they discover that they have abilities never before seen. And little do they know that as they search post-apocalyptic London for Titus’ kidnapped sister that they’ll uncover the secret of It, and bring about a reckoning with the forces that almost destroyed all of humanity.

20 Years Later is a book that I was aware of long before it was picked up by fledgling US publisher Dystopia Press. The publishers very kindly sent me a copy to review many months ago, but even before then I already knew a great deal about the story as Emma Newman, the author of 20 Years Later, had been podcasting the story through her website for some time. Three quarters of the way through doing this she got that publishing deal for the book, but Dystopia Press allowed her to continue hosting the podcasts on her website here. I wrote this review some time ago, as 20 Years Later was originally scheduled for a July release here in the UK, but this was then postponed, and then postponed again, and so I held off publishing my review. However, on Sunday I was informed by the author that the book is now officially published in the UK today. Hurrah!

I have mentioned on The Book Zone previously that post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories seem to be all the rage in YA literature at the moment, although the genre is one that I only tend to dip in and out of. Focusing more on the post-apocalyptic rather than dystopian side of things, examples that spring to mind are Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin (great zombie story) and Moira Young's Blood Red Road (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome for the new millennium). Whilst I would suggest that 20 Years Later is not as polished as either of these two, it is still a hugely enjoyable read. This story refreshingly does not include any zombies, neither is it like Mad Max, and best of all, in comparison to the majority of post-apocalyptic stories published this year, it is not set in the USA, but in London.

The story starts off with a prologue, narrated by an as yet unnamed person. I'm not a big fan of prologues in post-apocalyptic stories, as they are sometimes used to give the reader a history of whichever apocalypse has occurred, be it mass-zombification of a population, nuclear war, climate change, etc. The prologue is written as if it were the introduction to a book, long lost and finally discovered many years later, with the narrator begging the reader to read on, rather than burn the book for a few more minutes of heat. Whilst it is used to divulge a little information, to set the scene, it does not give us any information regarding the nature of the apocalypse (referred to as It), but a description of London being a 'dusty, ghost-filled monument to the dead' with bone-littered streets, leaves us with no doubt at all that 'It' was pretty nasty indeed.

The London of 2032 is a pretty nasty place indeed. Areas have been taken over by various gangs, and these gangs are happy to fight to the death in order to prevent other encroaching on their territory. We have the Bloomsbury Boys, the Gardeners and the most organised and strongest group, The Red Lady's Gang. Main character Zane lives with his mother Miri in Bloomsbury. The pair are tolerated by the gang of boys that control that part of London as his Zane's mum has often been their first port of call when injured as a result of a fight with another gang. Miri has a small house, with a tidy garden, different to most of the overgrown areas in the city. Living so close to the Bloomsbury Boys is not easy for Zane; he wants to fit in with the crowd, but also feels obliged to follow the rules that his mother has laid down for him.

Zane's world is shaken to the core by several events near the beginning of the story. First off, he and his friend Dev observe a mysterious giant stalking the corridors of a long-abandoned hospital, an event that stirs up a good deal of speculation amongst the rest of the gang. Soon afterwards a small boy, dressed only in pyjamas, is discovered on the fringe of Russell Square, central in the Boys' territory. As soon as the boy sees Zane's face he becomes completely terrifed, yet Zane has never seen him before in his life. So begins a tale that sees Zane having to grow very quickly, as he comes under the influence of the Red Lady, discovers he has a strange power, and meets Erin and Titus, two other very special young people, who join him in his quest to discover what the giant is doing, and where Titus' kidnapped sister has been taken.

One of the things I really liked about 20 Years Later was main character Zane. In may post-apocalyptic stories we are given characters who are wise beyond their years, their personalities hardened by the difficult lives they have had to lead in order to survive. Zane is very different to these characters - he is one of life's innocents, and has a naivety rarely seen in books of this genre. If he had been a fully paid up member of a gang this would not have been at all believable, but unlike the other children in the book he has been brought up within the protective sphere of his mother's influence, having to work the garden and follow sensible rules. She has shielded him from the realities that have faced everyone else, and as such he is not as well equipped as others when it comes to survival. He therefore has to grow a great deal as the story progresses. 

One of the things I find quite hard to believe in many post-apocalyptic stories with young characters is how every one of them so quickly acclimatise to their new situation, fast becoming great survivalists. As someone who works with children I know that this simply would not be the case - a small number might, but many would give up as soon as things got too tricky for them. Having a character who is not worldy-wise and a ready killer is, for me, a breath of fresh air in this genre. Zane has also had the finer details of the nature of 'It' kept from him; in fact, none of the Boys seem aware of the nature of the apocalypse that affected their world, and as readers we are kept guessing until very near the end of the story. Again, I quite liked this as it kept the story feeling fresh and different to many others that deal with similar themes.

As I said before, 20 Years Later does not seem as polished as other big name books in this genre. This is not the fault of the author, who I feel has created a well-paced, exciting story. The blame needs to be laid on the head of the publisher, but not too heavily. Like all small press publishers, Dystopia Press will have limited resources and less time to put into the editing process, and I think this book would have benefited from the more rigorous editing process it would have received in the hands of one of the major publishers.

20 Years Later is the first book in a planned trilogy, and as such there are many loose ends left untied come the final page. E.J Newman does end the story in a satisfactory manner, without leaving us dangling on a nasty cliffhanger, but leaves us with plenty to look forward to in future instalments. Flaws aside, this is a hugely enjoyable read and I will definitely be wanting to follow the rest of the story.

My thanks go to the good people at Dystopia Press for sending me a copy to review.

Monday 5 December 2011

News: Book Covers - Young Bond rebranding

I am a huge fan of the Young Bond books by Charlie Higson and have all of the slipcased special editions and also the Silverfin acrylic-cased special edition that was published earlier this year in my collection (as well as the paperback versions). However, I always felt that the cover designs did not always do the stories justice (Double or Die and By Royal Command being the exceptions to this), and that they were not really designed with the books' main target audience in mind. I was therefore really excited when I spotted spotted these on Amazon some time ago but with everything going on here completely forgot to bring them to your attention.

The books are all going to be re-released in April with brand new cover designs, and I think the rebranding is much more in keeping with the 10+ target market. I really like the way that elements of each story are framed within the James Bond silhouette, and also how the designer has very cleverly incorporated symbols from the original cover designs. I have to admit that if these were released as a boxed set I would be sorely tempted to add them to my collection as well.