Tuesday 31 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #13: The Demon's Watch by Conrad Mason

At the end of the Random House bloggers' brunch that I attended recently I felt both excited and a little concerned. Excited because of the plethora of great sounding titles they have coming out this year, but concerned because I'm not sure where the time is going to come from to read them all. If only I could win the lottery, quit the job and spend the rest of my days reading? The Demon's Watch by Conrad Mason is another one of the books we were told about that I can't wait to read. Here's Conrad to tell us a little more about his book:

My first novel, The Demon's Watch, is out in March from David Fickling Books. It's a piratical fantasy adventure in which magicians sport tricornes, ogres wield flintlocks and elves carry cutlasses.

The story is set in Port Fayt, where humans live in peace alongside trolls, goblins and fairies alike. Captain Newton and his men are the Demon's Watch, and they keep the town safe from pirates and smugglers. But now Fayt is under threat from a much more powerful enemy - the League of the Light, who want to destroy anyone who isn't human. And to make matters worse, a dangerous witch has just arrived in town.

Half-goblin boy Joseph Grubb works in his uncle's tavern, the Legless Mermaid, and has only ever heard stories of the Demon's Watch. But when he runs away from his uncle and finds himself deep in a criminal underworld, Grubb might be the one person who could help the watchmen save Port Fayt.

I've tried to write a book which is full of action, humour and mystery, and most importantly of all, heroes you can root for. A book in which a person doesn't have to be evil just because they're a goblin. A book which I hope you'll love. Because if you don't, I'll be sending the ogres round...

Monday 30 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #12: Itch by Simon Mayo

Back before Christmas I received an email from the lovely people at Doubleday asking if I would be interested in reading a book that Simon Mayo had written for the 10+ age group. Yes, that Simon Mayo. He of BBC Radio 1 and now Radio 2 fame. The man whose Radio 2 Book Club I listen to every Monday evening on may way home from work. Naturally I said yes please, and I really, really enjoyed it. The book is called Itch, and it is being billed as 'Alex Rider with Geek-Power'. Watch this space for my review, which will appear on The Book Zone a little closer to its March publication date. In the meantime, here is Simon to tell you a little about Itch:

Hi to all readers of this top blog. My name is Simon Mayo and I am the author of Itch which is out on March 1st. This is my first novel and I hope you enjoy it because I absolutely loved writing it. Itch is 14 and lives with his family in Cornwall. He is a bit of an outsider really. He struggles with his family and finds it difficult to make friends. At school everyone else is obsessed with sport and computer games, Itch is just interested in science. He considers himself an element hunter, a collector of the elements in the periodic table. From the boring ones like iron and lead, to the more interesting ones like helium and mercury, and the downright dangerous ones like arsenic and polonium.

In this adventure, Itch and his sister Chloe (11) and his cousin Jack (short for Jacqueline and also 14) get their hands on a very mysterious rock. They quickly discover that it is both fantastically valuable and extraordinarily dangerous - nothing less than nuclear power in a bag. And the bag is in Itch's rucksack! Itch quickly becomes the most hunted boy in the world; police, terrorists, criminals and particularly his evil science teacher Nathaniel Flowerdew all want to find him. Very, very badly. Itch doesn't have long to decide what to with the rocks. But if he doesn't do the right thing, it could cost him his life.

Let the hunt begin!

Sunday 29 January 2012

News: WIN $250 AUD By Making A Trailer For Money Run by Jack Heath

I saw a link to this competition tweeted by author Jack Heath yesterday, and I thought it was just the kind of thing that some of you might be interested in. I reviewed the book back in July 2011 and thought it was one of the best action thrillers for the 10+ age group that I had read in ages.

Now Jack is offering up a prize of 250 Australian Dollars for the winner of his 'Make A Money Run Trailer' competition. As long as you live in Australia, UK, USA, Canada or New Zealand you are eligible to enter, and the deadline for entries is Tuesday 21st February. Jack isn't necessarily after anything long or expensive, and gives his own home-made trailer for the sequel, Hit List, as an example (see youtube video at the end of this post).

Full details cane be found here. Happy film making!

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #11: Black Arts by Andrew Prentice & Jonathan Weil

Back before Christmas I was sent a proof of Black Arts, a debut novel from Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil. I loved the premise so much that I dropped everything to read it, and I can tell you that it is superb. This Saturday just gone I was fortunate to be one of a number of bloggers invited to a brunch held by Random House Children's Books, and when one of the team was waxing lyrical about how good this book was I was the one sat at the back vigorously nodding my head in agreement. My review will follow nearer its April release date, so for now you will have to have you appetites whetted by the authors who very kindly agreed to take part in my Coming Up In 2012 feature:

Welcome to London.

Jack knows that London is dangerous. This is a place where government spies can make you disappear into the torture chamber, and where most crimes are punishable with death. As a child thief, he knows he’ll be lucky to live to the age of twenty.

He doesn’t know that London is crawling with invisible devils. He doesn’t know about the gruesome murder spree that is about to be unleashed. He doesn’t know that soon the most powerful man in the city will be hunting him to death.

He’ll find out, though, soon enough.

We set our story in London because it’s the city where we grew up, the city we love above all others; and because it’s an evil, twisted, magical place where anything can happen.

The original idea for the book came from a true London story:

Four men walk into a London pub and have lunch together. When the bill arrives, two of them disagree over who should pay, and one stabs the other through the eye, penetrating the brain and killing him instantly. The victim is London’s most successful and celebrated playwright – who happens to be a spy on the sly. He has also been accused of inciting riots and fomenting treason . . . not to mention the rumours of black magic and lewd sexual practices . . . The murderer is a petty conman, and one of the witnesses is the Queen’s own spymaster.

This happened in 1593 (the victim is Christopher Marlowe). We thought a place where that story could be true must be a good place for the sort of story we wanted to write – i.e. the sort of story we’ve always enjoyed reading ourselves.
Black Arts is a story about death, vengeance, gold and devils. Anything can happen.

Tuesday 24 January 2012


These days I get quite a few book and reading related press releases through. Some of them I share with you, many of them slip by the wayside as I only have so many free minutes in a day. Today I received an email that I felt I had to share with you, regarding a free online event that is taking place on Thursday. Here are the details:

Scotland’s National Poet Liz Lochhead is to give a live broadcast to children around the world during a special Robert Burns celebration on Thursday 26 January at 11am. The Scottish Friendly Meet Our Authors Special Event, run by Scottish Book Trust, will be streamed live from BBC Scotland in Glasgow and available after to watch again for free from the Scottish Book Trust website. The broadcast will be most suited to children from P6 – S4 (9-16 year olds) and any fan of Scottish poetry.

You too can join over 10,000 pupils across the UK and beyond watching the event live by following this link: Alternatively, in case you don't read this until after the event, or you are already busy on Thursday at 11am, the event can be downloaded or streamed from next Thursday following the same link.

Liz will be celebrating the poetry of Burn’s as well as reading her own work. We’re sure this event is going to be really inspirational as no-one can make Burns come to life like Liz can.

Scottish Book Trust do loads of events like this every year: our previous events have featured authors such as Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo, Julia Donaldson, Eoin Colfer, Jacqueline Wilson, David Almond and many more. You can stream or download any of these events for free here:

Monday 23 January 2012

News: New trailers for Apocalypse Moon & The Joshua Files series by MG Harris

In my first post of 2012 I mentioned how I was both excited and a little sad about the publication of Apocalypse Moon, the final book in MG Harris's brilliant Joshua Files series. Back in 2008 when I was still reading children's and YA books based upon their covers attracting my attention, rather than on press releases from publishers, I could not help but buy Invisible City, in its unique orange day-glow gel sleeve. I loved that story and the publication of each book that followed became an annual event in my diary. Now, with the publication of Apocalypse Moon just over two months away, there have been two new trailers released, one of the series as a whole and one for Apocalypse Moon. They are both brilliant - enjoy!

Sunday 22 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #10: Freaks by Kieran Larwood

I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to reading this book by debut writer Kieran Larwood. Members of a travelling Victorian sideshow by night, crime fighters by day? How good does that sound? Add in the fact that Freaks is the book that won The Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition and it has six-pack of win written all over it. Freaks is due to be published by Chicken House in April, but in the meantime here is Kieran to tell us a little more about it in his own words: 

Victorian London in 1850 is full of diseased slums, foul stenches, seedy villains and sinister sideshows. 'Freaks' follows the members of one such sideshow as they are drawn into the underworld in an attempt to solve the mystery of pauper children being snatched from the stinking river banks. There is Sheba the wolf-girl, Sister Moon- ex-assassin, Gigantus the Man Mountain and Monkeyboy- the most disgusting creature in the British Empire. The book is a mixture of mystery, action, atmosphere and humour. It basically contains everything the ten-year old me would have loved to read, all squished together into one fast-paced, suspense-filled, freakish blob. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Friday 20 January 2012

Review: The Court Painter's Apprentice by Richard Knight

'Paint what you see, Johann; not what you think you see.' This is the advice that Hugo, master portrait painter, gives to his protege, Johann. But Johann's talent for painting the truth runs deeper than anyone can ever imagine. Johann soon discovers how changing the portraits he paints, can change the lives of his subjects. But with the power to bring good fortune to those around him, Johann is soon tempted to change his own...

I quite often find that small independent publishers publish some great stories that fall short because of the quality of the editing. This is most often simply down to manpower issues – less staff means less time to edit as thoroughly as might happen with one of the majors. This is MOST DEFINITELY NOT the case with Catnip Publishing – every one of their books that I have read so far has been a little gem in one way or another, both as a story and in the quality of its editing. Catnip really know their stuff, and most importantly of all they know what makes a good story that will engage a young reader. Great books from Catnip that you may have heard mentioned on The Book Zone or elsewhere include Edwin Spencer: Mission Improbable by JD Irwin, Clash by Colin Mulhern, and The Dead Ways by Christopher Edge. Now you can add The Court Painter’s Apprentice by Richard Knight to that list.

The Court Painter’s Apprentice is a great example of quality rather than quantity. My proof copy weighed in at only 175 pages, and yet the story it contains is not missing any of the key elements one would expect in a book for the 9+ age group: a gripping plot; an intriguing and original premise (the concept of being able to change a person’s destiny and character by making subtle changes to a painting of them); an element of horror that will send chills down the reader’s spine; a handful of great characters who are written in such a way that the story, however fantastic, is completely believable; and a cracking, mysterious twist towards the end.

This is the perfect book for all young readers who like a good mystery story, but especially for those who enjoy historical fiction or who are developing an interest in art and paintings. However, its appeal is not, I believe, solely restricted to middle grade readers as I think it holds something for everyone. Sometimes when I am reading a book written for children or Young Adults, and I spot things that do not appeal to me as an adult, I have to remind myself that I need to look at the story as if I were a member of the target market. With this book I never had to make this mental shift, and I feel it has great cross-generational appeal.

My thanks go to the wonderful people at Catnip for sending a copy of this book to review.

Thursday 19 January 2012

*** Tarzan Competition Result

The lucky winners of the copy of the signed copies of Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy by Andy Briggs are:

Taryn Hay

Ron Goodwin
Millie Harvey
Helen Farrar

Well done and thank you to all of you who entered. I will now endeavour to contact the winner through by email. Please reply within 48 hours or I will draw another name out of the hat. Many thanks to Andy for providing the prize.

Coming Up In 2012 #9: The Bonehill Curse by Jon Mayhew (and exclusive cover reveal)

My Coming Up In 2012 feature focuses on new first in series or standalone books due out this year. Some may question my inclusion of Jon Mayhew's new book, The Bonehill Curse, as it is set in the same world as his previous two stories, Mortlock and The Demon Collector. Well I make the rules, and I love those two books and their dark Victorian setting, so I have decided that The Bonehill Curse fully deserves to be a part of this feature. Of course, Jon being the great guy that he is, very kindly agreed to write something especially for us. He also sent along the image of the cover, which is very different from the one that has been doing the rounds on the internet. He tells me that this is a recent change, and that this is an exclusive reveal for The Book Zone - it is well woth clicking on the image to see it in all its hi-res glory, and I have to say that I like it much more than the one that had previously been touted as the cover for the book. The Bonehill Curse is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in May.

Coming up in May 2012, the final book set in the world of Mortlock. Necessity Bonehill is arrogant, a bully and trapped in Rookery Heights Academy for Young Ladies. Bored and aimless, she spends her time training with the retired, and slightly insane, Sergeant Major Morris or fighting with the local peasant boys. So when her Uncle Carlos sends her a seemingly empty bottle with the instructions, “Never open it,” she can’t resist the temptation and pulls the cork.

But Necessity unleashes an evil genie, a demon of pestilence and a creature that bears her parents a terrible grudge. With only seven days to rescue them, Ness has to find out how to kill the genie. She begins a desperate quest that takes her through the dark streets of London and to the Oasis of the Amarant in uncharted Africa. If she fails, her parents die and the world will fall prey to the genie’s hideous plague. Her nightmare magic-carpet ride brings her face to face with the Pestilents, the genie’s living dead servants, a vampire army and worst of all…herself.

The Arabian Nights viewed through a murky gothic lens with a fist-fighting girl for company! What would you wish for?

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #8: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Any new release by Sarwat Chadda is cause for celebratory street parties and church bells to be rung across the land. His Dark Goddess was a truly worthy winner of The Book Zone Book of the Year 2010, and I have been waiting very excitedly ever since to read whatever Sarwat wrote next. In March that next book will hit the book shops and libraries of Britain (start ringing them bells!), and it is a corker. I consider myself very privileged to have read it already, and Rick Riordan had better watch out - there is a new 'myth master' in town and he means business. Here's Sarwat to tell us a little more about Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress:

Holidays in Hell by Sarwat Chadda

My new book, ‘Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress’ is your average tale about a boy during his summer holidays. You know, the type of holiday where the boy meet an evil sorcerer planning to raise an ancient demon king and his army of demons and it’s totally down to the boy to save the day and kick everyone in the arse, pretty damn hard.

I’m sure you’ve had summer breaks just like it.

The book’s set in India and is all about Indian mythology and history. We all know and love the Greek myths, our days are named after the Norse gods so I though it about time we brought in some eastern deities, they’re quite unlike anything you’d have come across before.

Take Kali, the goddess of death and destruction. The hero, Ash, finds something very valuable of hers, a divine superweapon that was lost on a battlefield thousands of years ago. This weapon is the only thing that can stop the demon king but Ash is not your usual hero. He’s not a hero at all. He’s 13 but the kind of boy who still might sleep with the light on. Fortunately he teams up with Parvati, a half-human half-demon girl who’s the world’s greatest assassin. Ash must learn the ways of Kali if he’s going to stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving the rebirth of the demon king and beating Lord Savage, the sorcerer behind the resurrection.

It’s not a story for those with tender hearts. It’s a story about blood, sacrifice and death. You see how far Ash is willing to go to do what’s right, even if he’s terrified almost every step of the way. A true hero is not the one who’s unafraid. He’s the one who, though filled with fear, conquers it and acts in spite of it. Ash Mistry takes the darkest path, the path of Kali, and I hope you’ll come along for the journey. It’ll be like no other.



Tuesday 17 January 2012

Review: Casper Candlewacks in the Claws of Crime by Ivan Brett

Most villages have an idiot but Casper's village is full of them. So being bright makes poor Casper something of an outsider.

An infamous cat burglar has struck in the village of Corne-on-the-Kobb, stealing a precious jewelled sword and kidnapping Casper’s baby sister. To make matters worse a gaggle of amateur detectives are on the case, questioning the villagers and getting in the way. Armed only with his wits, an egg-boiling lie-detecting machine and his best friend Lamp, can Casper rescue his sister and save the day?

Casper Candlewacks in Death By Pigeon was one of my favourite books of 2011. At the time of reading I had been going through a case of the much dreaded blogger burnout, struggling to get into many of the books I was being sent by publishers, and it was Ivan Brett's hilarious début that cured me. At the time I suggested that it should come with a health warning: if read at bedtime make sure plastic bed sheets are fitted as your child will laugh so much a little bit of wee may come out. Now the sequel, Casper Candlewacks in the Claws of Crime, has finally hit the books stores and please believe me when I say that you had better get those plastic sheets back out of storage and back on to those beds.

In this second episode in the life of the only non-stupid person in the superbly named village of Corne-on-the-Kobb, Casper and his inventor friend Lamp have to play detective. Infamous cat burglar, Le Chat, is in town and he has stolen the village's prize ancient artefact - the priceless bejewelled sword of Sir Gossamer D'Glaze. The mayor of C-o-t-K has offered a £20,000 reward for whoever captures the burglar and retrieves said sword, and with Julius Candlewacks needing exactly that amount of money to re-establish his restaurant, his son sees it as his duty to solve the crime. Of course, every one of the idiotic villagers also want to get their hands on the reward money, as do a horde of amateur detectives who descend on the village (although fortunately for Casper they are almost as stupid as his fellow villagers).

In the process of trying to catch the criminal, Casper's baby sister Cuddles is kidnapped by Le Chat, who leaves a note for the villagers to say that he will only release her if they guarantee safe passage out of the village. Of course, most of the villagers have at some point been on the receiving end of a bite from the somewhat vicious baby, and they are less than sympathetic, leaving it to Casper and Lamp to retrieve the sword, rescue the baby, capture the thief and save the world day. Added to the mix is the new girl in the village, Daisy Blossom, who has a big effect on both Casper and Lamp. With the aid of Lamp's latest invention, a bizarre lie-detecting machine christened The Bluff Boiler, the duo turned trio begin their sleuthing - what is the identity of the mysterious Le Chat?

There are a number of authors who seem to be vying for the title of "The New Roald Dahl" and based on the evidence so far I would suggest that Ivan Brett is in with a great shout. His characters are a delight to read, both main and secondary and his word-play is sublime. The closest contender for the crown would probably be Andy Stanton, although on reflection I think I prefer the silliness of Brett's Casper Candlewacks books to the over-the-top anarchy of the Mr Gum books. As far as laughs go, I think there is only one other book I have read in the past six months that made me laugh as much as the Casper Candlewacks books, and that was an unpublished book written by a friend of mine.

Casper Candlewacks in the Claws of Crime is a must-read book for any 7+ child who loves a good laugh, and it is perfect for bedtime reading by a parent as well. Although the second in a series it is fine to be read as a stand-alone book, but you are definitely missing out if you don't at some point get your hands on a copy of Death By Pigeon as well. What's more, it llooks as if we only have to wait until April for the next silly adventure, Casper Candlewacks in the Attack of the Brainiacs! My thanks go to the good people at HarperCollins for sending me a copy to review.

Friday 13 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #7: Shadow Runners by Daniel Blythe

Back in the autumn I received a nice pile of press releases from Chicken House, detailing some of the books they were publishing in 2012. These were all printed in glorious, glossy high quality - a great way of showcasing the books. One of the books that jumped out and shouted "Read me!" was Shadow Runners by Daniel Blythe, and so I contacted Chicken House and asked if Daniel would like to take part in my "Coming Up In 2012" feature. He very kindly agreed to participate, and so now I hand you over to Daniel who will tell us a little more about his new book:

Firecroft Bay. The town's name comes from the Old English meaning 'wickedness', and when 12-year-old Miranda May moves there with her mum and her little brother, she thinks at first that it is just a quiet, windswept little end-of-the-world harbour. But forces are stirring in Firecroft Bay, and Miranda's new teacher, Miss Bellini, may have something to do with it all... For the Bay is a place where ancient stories come to life, where supernatural curses are very real, and where the dark shadows Miranda sees at the edge of her vision also creep into her dreams. What is the mysterious Shape? Who is the girl in the burning forest who haunts her nightmares? And what does it all have to do with her strange new friends - a bunch of children and teenagers calling themselves the Shadows? They could be Miranda's allies in a terrifying fight against the darkness - but can she really be sure who she can trust?...

I hope readers will be frightened, entertained and enthralled by "Shadow Runners", which is my first book for younger readers outside the "Doctor Who"  series which I've also written for. It's my first book for Chicken House, who have been great to work with at every stage. I wanted to write a book which both boys and girls will enjoy - Miranda is a feisty, witty, skateboarding heroine who tells the story in a sardonic first-person voice, taking you with her on every step of her new journey. I hope it will be the first in a series of "Shadow Runners" adventures. Excitingly, I hear it's already going worldwide, with Brazil the latest country to snap it up!... And there will be an audio-book from AudioGo too.

For all the latest news on Daniel Blythe and Shadow Runners, please go to

Thursday 12 January 2012

15 Days Without A Head Blog Tour - Guest Post by Dave Cousins

I first heard about Dave Cousins' debut YA novel, 15 Days Without A Head, at a bloggers' event heald by OUP back in 2011. Dave treated us to an reading of one of the many laugh-out-loud funny scenes from his book, which tells a story that is poignant, heart-warming and hilarious in equal measures. To celebrate the publication of the book on 5th January Dave has embarked on a ten-stop blog tour, and I am really chuffed to be hosting him today.


My Dream Holiday by Dave Cousins 

In 15 Days Without a Head, Laurence attempts to win an all-expenses-paid holiday of a lifetime courtesy of local travel company, Hardacre Holidaze. Readers sometimes ask what my dream holiday would be like …

The Hardacre Holidaze brochure arrived on a wet Wednesday morning. It slipped through the letterbox like a glossy paving slab and slammed onto the mat. Fortunately the cat wasn’t occupying the spot at the time, but the sound woke me up.

Not just a holiday, the best daze of your life, read the slogan above the photo of the beautifully bronzed family on a golden beach – so far removed from my icy attic, they might as well have been on the moon. I didn’t remember ordering the brochure; I wasn’t sure I had time for a holiday. But I opened it anyway – it couldn’t hurt to dream.

It might have been my imagination, but I was sure I could smell something wafting up from the pages; had the printer imbued the ink with the essence of holiday perhaps? The way fashion magazines offer tear-off perfume samples, or supermarkets pump out the smell of baked bread to make you hungry.

I flicked through the slick pages of silver sand and azure seas, and felt vaguely nauseas. I’m not a huge fan of the heat – my Celtic blood is better suited to cooler climates, I suspect. A beach holiday wasn’t what I wanted – somewhere in the mountains maybe, or a city. I’d always liked the idea of New York in Winter, when it snows … And then I saw it: a black and white half-page advert towards the back of the brochure. It looked out of place – squeezed in as an after-thought.

Your Dream Holiday! I read. Dream it and you’re there! No early check-in queues; no rough sea-crossing; no sweaty hours in the car – you won’t even need to leave your bed. Just take our special pill and close your eyes. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. If you can dream it – you can go!

Two days later the sunburst yellow tablet rested in my palm. I hadn’t really expected it to arrive; hadn’t thought I’d actually take it. But then it seemed a waste not to. New York in the snow – if you can dream it, you can go!

It should have occurred to me that I might just as easily end up in a nightmare. The dream holiday equivalent of arriving to find that your hotel is a building site, or that enjoying your sea view requires binoculars and an intricate arrangement of mirrors. The big difference was – I couldn’t just get the next plane home. My luggage, along with my RETURN pill, was on its way to New York. All I had were the pyjamas I was wearing, the Hardacre Holidaze brochure and the cat – who must have sneaked onto the bed as I fell asleep and found himself on holiday, by mistake.

In hindsight, the bedtime snack of cheese on toast probably hadn’t been a good idea. I remembered something in the instructions that arrived with the tablet, about foods best avoided. It must have been the cheese. What other explanation was there for the fact that I was now walking along a seafront made entirely of Camembert? The cat didn’t seem to mind, and was quite happily sniffing and licking his way along the promenade. But as the twin suns climbed higher in the purple polka dot sky, the cheese began to melt and I was soon up to my knees, the cat beside me, riding the Hardacre Holidaze brochure like a surfboard. We had to find a way home before we were both turned into fondue.

The cheese was up to my waist when I glimpsed salvation – a red post box, rising up out of the yellow sea like a lighthouse perched on a rocky outcrop of Wensleydale. By the time I hauled us from the cheesy slop, the cat was hallucinating from an overdose of lactose. I extracted the holiday brochure from his claws and wiped the cheese from its glossy laminated cover. It was a relief to see our address still legible on the label. A plan was forming in the back of my mind, a plan that unfortunately involved climbing all the way to the mail slot, high above our heads.

Luckily the post box was made from bricks, the gaps between providing hand and foot holds, but it was a slow and dangerous climb, particularly with a twitching cat tucked inside my pyjama top. It was the longest night of my life. With the darkness came a storm, an angry sea clawing at us from below while grated cheddar rained down from the sky. We finally reached our destination as dawn broke above the distant Edam mountains, and with my last gasp of strength, I dropped the brochure into the slot and fell … backwards into space.

The snap of the letterbox and the sound of something heavy landing on the mat woke me. I sat up, surprised to find the cat inside my pyjama top and grated cheese in my pocket. Then I remembered the cheese on toast I’d eaten late the previous evening. That might explain the strange dream I’d been having – though the moment I tried to recall any details, it vanished. I removed the cat from my nightwear and went downstairs to see what the post had brought.

I didn’t remember ordering the Hardacre Holidaze brochure; I wasn’t sure I had time for a holiday. But I opened it anyway – it couldn’t hurt to dream …


My huge thanks to Dave for taking the time to write this brilliant piece for The Book Zone. Watch this space for my review of 15 Days Without A Head coming soon.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Coming Up in 2012 #6: Road To London by Barbara Mitchelhill

I am loving the sound of Road To London, due from author Barbara Mitchellhill in April. As some of you will know I love historical fiction, especially that set in the Tudor period, and this one sounds like it is right up my street. Adventure? Check. Intrigue? Check. Blood and guts? Check! Put all of those together and you have a great sounding, boy-friendly story set in my favourite historical era. Result! I can't wait to read this one, and here's Barbara to tell us a little more about her book:

Thomas lives in Stratford upon Avon where everyone knows the madly successful local hero, William Shakespeare – a writer and actor with loads of money. Thomas wants fame and fortune, just like him. He plans to join Shakespeare’s acting troupe in London but he needs money to get there. When his attempts at poaching fail spectacularly, he has to flee the town and travel the road to London on foot. Exhausted by the journey, Thomas finds the city full of rogues and thieves and cutthroats and, although he manages to join Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men and soon enjoys strutting upon the stage, he discovers that the life of an actor is not as easy as it might seem. When he uncovers a plot to kill the Queen, things turn decidedly nasty.

A Tudor adventure with blood and guts and all that!

Review: Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson

Some will live. Many will die. All are connected.

'The Butterfly Effect ': the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever. When a butterfly startles a young rabbit, and the rabbit makes a horse rear, it starts a chain of events, over the course of one day, that will change people's lives . . . and end people's lives. From a climber on Everest to a boy in Malawi . . . from a commercial pilot to an American psycho . . . the chaos knows no bounds.

Some time ago I was fortunate to be invited to an event for bloggers held by the good people at OUP. The purpose of the event was to introduce us to two of their authors, Joss Stirling and Dave Cousins. During the event we were each given a copy of another of their 2012 releases, Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson. They spoke about this book with great excitement, assuring me it would be like no other book I had ever read. I finally got around to reading it two nights ago, and I have to admit that they weren't wrong.

This is Matt Dickinson's first book for the YA market, although I gather that he is the author of several action/adventure book for adults. I'm not sure what I expected from Mortal Chaos, perhaps some kind of hi-octane action story, but what I got was something very different indeed. In fact, I am struggling to think of how I can describe it.

The premise of Mortal Chaos centres around an aspect of chaos theory known as the butterfly effect. This concept suggests that a small, seemingly minor incident can result in a major incident elsewhere. The usual example given is that of how the fluttering of a butterfly's wings could create ripples that eventually lead to a hurricane forming somewhere in the world. Matt Dickinson's story starts off with this infamous butterfly, but the consequences in this case have little to do with a hurricane, but are potentially as destructive as far as the lives of a number of disparate characters are concerned.

The characters in question range from a pair of boys bunking off school to go hunting in the local woods, to a female airline pilot, to a six year old African boy, to a teenage climbing prodigy on an ascent of Everest, to an american guy with his heart set on mass-murder. On the face of things their lives have absolutely nothing in common, and on any normal day their destinies would be completely unconnected. However, that darn butterfly changes this state of affairs with extreme consequences for some of them.

This book is only 286 pages long, and the sometimes only half-a-page chapters jump between the multitude of different characters as the day-in-their-life unfolds. It hooked me from the first few pages; so much so that before I knew it I was more than half way through and then just couldn't go to sleep before I had finished it. With so many characters gradually being introduced I initially thought that I would struggle to develop empathy for any of them, but the author manages to make you care about their various fates without you even realising he is doing it. The publisher's blurb states that "Some will live. Many will die. All are connected" and part of the appeal, and the moments of extreme tension I felt whilst reading it, was in trying to work out just who would or would not survive by the end of the book.

I will definitely be ordering this one for the school library as I think many boys will find its short chapters and fast paced stories as addictive as I did. I assumed that this book was a one-off, but in searching for the blurb to include at the beginning of this post I have discovered that Matt Dickinson has another book scheduled for publication in July. It does not appear to be a sequel as such, more a brand new series of stories based on the same butterfly effect theory. The details of Mortal Chaos: Deep Oblivion read as follows:

Hannah, homeless and on the run. Gwen and Tehpoe, kidnapped by violent rebels. Todd and Isabella, threatened by piranha attack. Wai Yan, hunted by a cruel dictator. Stian Olberg, fighting to save his vessel from imminent destruction. For them, and many others, things will never be the same again. Some will live. Many will die. All are connected.

Something worth waiting for I feel, if its predecessor is anything to go by.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Coming Up in 2012 #5: The Fury by Alexander Gordon Smith

I am a huge fan of Alexander Gordon Smith's Escape From Furnace series, although this won't be news to anyone who had been following this blog for a while. That series came to a dramatic and brilliant conclusion in 2011, but Smith is not one to rest on his laurels - he already has The Fury, the first book in a new two-part series scheduled for release in April. I can't tell you how excited I am about this - it is one of the books that I am most looking forward to reading in 2012. Now I hand you over to Alexander Gordon Smith to tell us more about it (and even though my wife is a PE teacher I have to sympathise with his memories - I too had a totally sadistic PE teacher and to this day I am still feeling the trauma created by some of his lessons):

The Fury is my most recent book, but I think the seed of the idea was planted in my head many years ago. Back at high school, when I was about twelve, we used to play a game in PE called Murderball. It was, just as it sounds, extremely unpleasant. I hated PE anyway (what overweight, geeky, asthmatic boy doesn't?), and what made it infinitely worse is that my PE teacher was a total sadist (what PE teacher isn't?). He obviously thought that making us run around on the field in the snow playing rugby for two hours wasn't quite punishing enough, so he devised a brand new version of the game.

Murderball, at its heart, had one rule. Try not to die. This wasn't as easy as it sounds. Basically, the PE teacher would select a victim, usually one of the fat kids (me), one of the nerdy kids (me), or one of the wheezy kids (me), hand him a rugby ball, and tell him to start running. He'd give the victim a five second head start, then he would send the rest of the group after him.

The objective for the chasers was to get the rugby ball back from the victim, but this is where Murderball really earned its name. The victim would usually abandon the ball after a few metres, but the rest of the group ignored it, and set upon the unfortunate child like a pack of dogs on a fox. It was absolutely terrifying. One minute you'd be running, the next you'd be on the floor, twenty other boys piling on top of you, plunged into darkness. Some would be jumping on your chest or elbow dropping you in the stomach, others bending back your fingers to breaking point; some would stuff grass and mud and snow in your mouth so you couldn't breathe, others took great delight in kicking you repeatedly in places you never want to be kicked. When you were the victim, drowning in flesh, you believed with absolute certainty that you were going to die.

Thankfully, nobody actually perished. But it always fascinated me how in the space of a few seconds your best friends (yes, all my friends at school were in the bottom set PE with me) could go from being lovely, gentle people who would never dream of hurting you, to a mob of savage, howling animals intent on tearing you to shreds. And the weird thing was that everybody in the group had a go at being the victim, at being at the bottom of the pile, and yet as soon as it was somebody else's turn they would become as wild and mindless as the kids who had been attacking them.

It was twenty years later that the story for The Fury came to me, but I think the idea was born when I was lying beneath a mound of people asking – with what I thought was my dying breath – why all of my friends were trying to slaughter me. This is exactly what happens to the heroes of the book (including one scene on a school playing field). For no reason whatsoever, the world turns against them – friends, family, teachers, strangers, everyone becomes a mindless, bloodthirsty savage hell-bent on killing them, and only them. And as soon as they have killed you, they go back to their lives as if nothing has happened. In the book, of course, the reason for the Fury is much more exciting than a sadistic PE teacher. But that sense of utter fear, of panic and confusion, of trying to survive while everyone you know attempts to murder you, is hopefully just as potent and as terrifying when you read the book as it was twenty years ago for me playing Murderball.

Monday 9 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #4: Hollow Pike by James Dawson

Back in 2011 I was fortunate to be invited to a special event that Orion held for bloggers in order to showcase their new YA imprint, Indigo. For me, one of the books that really stood out from their presentation was Hollow Pike, by debut author James Dawson. Firstly, I love the sound of the story, centred around witchcraft, and secondly the book cover struck me at the time as being incredible, and it is still one of my favourites these few months later. I didn't do a Top Ten Book Covers of 2011 at the end of last year, but if I do a 2012 list then this surely will be in there.

The 2nd February release date for Hollow Pike is now less than a month away, and James has very kindly written a short piece about his book for The Book Zone. Over to you James:

Hollow Pike is a YA thriller aimed at anyone who loves a darkly comic scare. It tells the tale of fifteen year old Lis London, the new girl in the village of Hollow Pike. Lis quickly befriends the local misfits, and learns of the town's sinister history of witchcraft. But then a local girl is found dead, and Lis begins to wonder if the rumours really are a thing of the past. A shadowy figure stalks the forest on the edge of town, and Lis starts to think she and her new friends might be in grave danger...

Hollow Pike both is and isn't a supernatural romance thriller! It's something a little bit new. I think it's a rollercoaster thrill ride, and a must for anyone, who, like me, loves horror movies! I especially wrote this book for anyone who has ever felt like an oddball, an outsider or a freak...boys, girls and all that's in-between!

Competition: WIN a signed copy of Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy by Andy Briggs

2012 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Last year, to help commemorate the occasion, Faber published Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy, the first book in Andy Briggs's new series featuring the legendary character (I loved it - you can read my review here). The second book, Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior, is scheduled to be published in July. 

Thanks to Andy Briggs you now have the chance to win one of four signed copies of The Greystoke Legacy, simply by answering the question below and filling in your details.
The first four names drawn at random after the closing date will each win a signed copy of the book. Deadline for entries is 8pm GMT Monday 16th January. This contest is open to UK residents only.

Contest open to UK residents only.
Neither the author or I will not be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.

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

Sunday 8 January 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #3: The Book of Wonders by Jasmine Richards

I first made contact with Jasmine Richards through Twitter, when I somehow managed to persuade her to send me an early copy of William Hussey's brilliant Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide. Jasmine is a senior editor at Oxford University Press, and I have since had the pleasure of meeting her at several of her events. These meetings have always been extremely pleasurable as, like me, she loves to talk for hours about books.

Now Jasmine has a couple of books of her own scheduled to be published in 2012, the first of which is The Book of Wonders. Unfortunately for UK readers this book has not yet been bought by a UK publisher and so for the time being  it will only available in the US (once it is released on 17th January). However, if you are canny like me, you will probably order a copy from the brilliant Book Depository. Now let me hand you over to Jasmine so that she can tell us a little more about her book:

The Book of Wonders, my debut novel that publishes Jan 17th 2012 is loosely based on tales from Arabian Nights and on the seed of an idea which has been with me since I was 9 years old!

You see, even back then, it bothered me that the sultan in Arabian Nights [who has been busy executing young women left, right and centre] should end up finding love. I understand that over 1001 nights the sultan is healed through Scheherazade’s stories of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, that his cold heart is melted. But still, it all seems rather unfair to me - after all who speaks for those poor girls that were killed?

And so, I have a written a novel in reaction to the traditional tale. In my version of events, Scheherazade does not tell stories of monsters, sea journeys and sorcery she lives these adventures. She and her best friend Rhidan experience many horrors and triumphs on their quest to defeat the sultan, giant snakes, a giant made of brass and angry djinnis. The action does not let up for a minute.

I think this is a breathless, headlong adventure but I’m going to say that because I wrote it! I would love to hear your thoughts. Do come over and say hello on!

News: HarperCollins Publishers Signs Director Chris Columbus For New Book Series

Every now again I receive press releases from publishers about their new big signing. I don't always choose to share these with you, but this one I thought was worth a mention. On the face of it some of you may just go "Chris Columbus, isn't he the guy who directed a couple of Harry Potter movies? Is this a case of another celeb cashing in on his fame by jumping on the chidlren's book badwagon?" And in reply I will have to remind you of a couple of thing. Long before Harry Potter was even a seed of an idea in J K Rowling's brain, Chris Columbus wrote Gremlins. Yes, the totally brilliant 80s comedy horror film. And then he went on to write the screenplay of one of my all time favourite films - The Goonies - based on the story written by Steven Spielberg. Chris Columbus knows a good story when he sees one and so this leaves me with a lot of hope that his book will be just as good as his films.

Press Release

New York, NY/ London (January 5, 2012)—HarperCollins Publishers announced today that it has preempted rights to a three-book middle-grade series, House of Secrets by iconic Hollywood director and producer Chris Columbus, co-authored by acclaimed young adult novelist Ned Vizzini. This is Columbus’s debut series for young readers with the first book slated for global publication in Spring 2013.

The three-book North American deal was negotiated by Alessandra Balzer, Co-Publisher of the Balzer + Bray imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, with Dorian Karchmar at William Morris Endeavor. UK & Commonwealth rights were acquired by Rachel Denwood, Publishing Director from Cathryn Summerhayes at William Morris Endeavour. Rights have been sold in twelve foreign territories so far.

“Master storytellers Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini have created a high-stakes fantasy,” said Balzer. “From the very first page I knew we had to publish this series. It’s an incredibly imaginative adventure with clever plot twists and nonstop action—not to mention a family that readers will immediately fall in love with. House of Secrets has all the hallmarks of a new classic."

Denwood added, “Combining classic adventure with sublime offbeat humor, and with three brilliant siblings at its heart, this has the potential to be the next big series. It's going to be epic.”

“The opportunity to write this novel is a dream come true," said Columbus. "I have lived with the characters of this novel and their world for many years, and was saving them for something very special. Working on House of Secrets with Ned has been a thrill.”

The Pagett kids had it all: loving parents, a big house in San Francisco, all the latest video games . . . But everything changed when their father lost his job as a result of an inexplicable transgression. Now the family is moving into Kristoff House, a mysterious place built nearly a century earlier by a troubled fantasy writer with a penchant for the occult. Suddenly the siblings find themselves launched on an epic journey into a mash-up world born of Kristoff's dangerous imagination, to retrieve a dark book of untold power, uncover the Pagett family's secret history and save their parents . . . and maybe even the world.

Friday 6 January 2012

Wereworld “7 Realms, 7 Beasts” Blog Tour and Review of Shadow of the Hawk by Curtis Jobling

I am really excited to be involved in the Wereworld "7 Realms, 7 Beasts" blog tour, taking place over the next week or so to celebrate the release of Shadow of the Hawk, the third book in Curtis Jobling's fab Wereworld series. My review of the book will follow a few words from Curtis, but by way of introduction to the great man, a short explanation about format of the tour is called for. In Shadow of the Hawk we get to see more of the amazing world Curtis has created, and even more importantly we get to meet more Werelords. Each day on the blog tour Curtis is going to introduce you to one of his new creations. He started off yesterday at I Want To Read That, so pop on over there once you have finished reading to find out more. For now, it's over to Curtis:


One of the most experienced fighters of the Scorian arena, Krieg is the Furnace’s oldest surviving performing gladiator. The Rhino hails from the Blue Veldt Plains, one of Bast’s most ancient, settled lands. When the Catlords of the jungle marched south from their home, enslaving all who stood in their way, the Rhinos of Stroheim provided the greatest resistance. Krieg was the eldest son of King Otker, but his regal heritage counted for nothing when the Catlords exacted their vengeance upon the Rhinos. Taking away in chains of silver, Krieg was sold to the Lizardlords, a gift to Ignus’ arena for the amusement of the people of Scoria.

Every bit the image of a Rhino, even when in human form, Krieg’s neck is all but invisible, his head set deep within the thick folds of tough skin that cover his broad shoulders. His wide nose appears broken, flattened against his hard face, a trait particular to all of the Wererhinos, heavy horns ready to emerge at the moment’s notice. Renowned for having a fierce temper, Krieg long ago gave up all hope of returning to his homeland. Having been imprisoned for nearly twenty years, it seems unlikely Stroheim bears any resemblance to the city he was spirited away from in his youth.

Author’s note: Krieg steps into a familiar role for Drew, that of the ‘uncle’ he can confide in, turn to in times of need. While Duke Bergan and Duke Manfred were able to provide counsel in the earlier books of the series, taking a liking to him instantly, it’s more of an uphill struggle in the case of the Rhino. They’re from different worlds, with very different stories to tell, but their common ground – prisoners of Lord Ignus, enemies of the Catlords – ensure there’s room for their relationship to grow. In Drew, Krieg can see a lot of himself, albeit from many years ago, and with a remarkably different outlook. Being a grumpy old Rhino, he sees Drew as idealistic, a dreamer, little realising that the young Wolf’s determination runs deeper than that of anyone he’s ever met. Having a hot-headed ally who is as stubborn as a mule isn’t going to make life easy for Drew: he’s going to have to earn the Rhino’s respect. If that means he has to fight him, then so be it...


Huge thanks to Curtis for taking the time to write this for us. On Monday the tour will be continuing with an introduction to another Werelord, over at A Dream of Books. You should also head on over to Spinebreakers where you could win a signed set of the three Wereworld books that have been released so far.



Enslaved by the Goatlord Kesslar, young werewolf Drew finds himself on the volcanic isle of Scoria, forced to fight in the arena for the Lizardlords. With the help of an unlikely ally, he must find a way to break free - but who has ever managed to escape?

Meanwhile, Hector the Wereboar flees the forces of the Catlords. Now on board the pirate ship Maelstrom, the enemy's net is closing in. Haunted by the spirits of the dead, Hector is soon left wondering who the true enemy is . . .

Be warned, reader. I will try my hardest not to include any spoilers about Shadow of the Hawk in this review, but I cannot promise the same about the previous two books in the series. If you have not yet read them then you may want to look away now.

It is no secret that I love the first two Wereworld books. The first was brilliant, and the second, Rage of Lions, even better. So much so that it made it into my list of top picks of 2012. I know that many others share my admiration for these books - so no pressure then Mr Jobling. 

Did I say pressure? The man must thrive on it as Shadow of the Hawk is yet another outstanding addition to the series, the only downside being that having finished I am now thoroughly annoyed that I won't be able to find out what happens next until the fourth book, Nest of Serpents, is published in June.

There is very little time in the story between the close of the last book, and where this one kicks off. Drew is held captive by the evil Kessler, a Weregoat who has made a name for himself as a slaver. He has only one plan for Drew - to deliver him to the Isle of Scoria and sell him as a slave. Meanwhile, his close friend Hector has managed to escape the armies of the Catlords, and is safely on board the Maelstrom, in the company of Manfred, Vega and Queen Amelie. I say safely, but that isn't strictly true - his dabbling in the dark arts is beginning to have quite an effect on the young Wereboar, but more about that later.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we are granted the opportunity to 'meet' a whole host of new Werecreatures in this book, and Curtis Jobling maximises this treat for his readers by taking his characters off to different places, just as Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings. In The Fellowship of the Ring we are introduced to the lead characters, and then in The Two Towers Frodo and Sam head off for Mordor, whilst Pip and Merry are taken in a dfifferent direction by the Orcs. These diverging story strands enabled Tolkien to show us more of the incredible world he created, and Curtis uses a smiliar device in this book. Therefore, we get to meet a plethora of new characters on Scoria, where the enslaved Drew is forced to become a gladiator; and we also get to see other parts of Lyssia and its seven realms, and its inhabitants, as Drew and his party head out across the ocean. Mr Jobling seems to manage all of these new additions to his story with consummate ease.

Now that he is away from the friends he made in the first two books, we really get a chance to see how Drew grows as both a character, and as the rightful heir to the kingdom of Lyssia. His life has changed in a way that few young people can identify with - from farm boy, to prospective king, to slave/gladiator, all in a matter of months. Most young people would find this impossible to cope with, but the honest and loving upbringing that Drew experienced seems to have given him the foundations he needs to take all of this in his stride. In the first two books there were many moments where he suffered extreme (and totally understandable) self-doubt, but there were a few key scenes where his natural gift for good and kind leadership shone through. In this third book these moments begin to occur a little more often and we are now really beginning to see the potential king that lies within the boy. Drew also seems to be becoming more confident at leading, even to the point where he will lecture one of the realm's other kings about the evils of slavery. A king, it must be said, who could quite easily have Drew slapped in silver chains and executed for his disrespectful words.

Whilst all this is going on, there is of course the other plot strand running - that of Hector and his companions. I am sorry to say that the future is looking fairly bleak for Hector - he is now firmly attached to the vile of his dead brother Vincent, a spectre that is invisible to all except Hector, and who never misses a chance to goad his brother, gradually eating away at his self-esteem. It was a horribly fascinating experience to read as Hector slowly seems to descend into a kind of madness, the flames of his growing paranoia constantly fanned by Vincent's cruel taunts. Who knows where Curtis Jobling will take Hector next? Perhaps even betrayal of the people he called close friends? We will just have to wait and see.

There are two popular characters from the first two books in the series that are conspicuous by their absence in Shadow of the Hawk. Gretchen and Whitley also managed to escape the grasping claws of the Catlords at the end of the last book, but for the story of their adventures since we will have to wait until June. If you have seen the cover of Nest of Serpents you will probably have already guessed that they will feature quite heavily in that story. I guess Mr Jobling could quite easily have used their story as a third plot strand in Shadow of the Hawk, but instead he chose to focus on Trent Ferran, the son of the couple who brought up Drew as their son, and as good as being Drew's brother. As we discovered at the end of Rage of Lions, Trent is hungry for revenge on the creature he believes murdered his mother, and so we see him now riding with the armies of the Catlords, hunting and killing enemies of the new state. Will he find out the truth before it is too late, or will it all end in tears for the angry young man?

If there was a book award going for best series then Curtis Jobling would surely be on the shortlist, and if he won I for one would applaud the decision of the judges. If he manages to sustain the quality of storytelling across the remaining books in the series then the Wereworld books may one day become recognised as one of the best fantasy series for young people of all time.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Coming Up in 2012 #2: The 13th horseman by Barry Hutchison

Read Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends books?

No? Where have you been for the past two years. Shame on you - go out and get them immediately.

Yes? Then you will no doubt be just as excited about his new book, The 13th Horseman, coming from HarperCollins on 1st March. Harper are touting it as Pratchett meets Python, and having read it myself I find I can't disagree with that statement. It is a hugely entertaining, very funny, comedy fantasy story, and as Barry is infinitely more talented than I am when it comes to writing, here is a little more about it in his own words:

Things are not easy for Drake Finn. His dad isn't on the scene. His mum works three jobs. Oh and he's just been expelled for blowing the roof off his school and inadvertently setting a teacher on fire. Forced to moved to a new house and a new school, Drake believes things can't possibly get any worse.

And then he finds the shed at the bottom of his garden and his world is turned upside down.

Living in the shed are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse - or three of them, at least. There's War, an angry bearded Scotsman with an exquisitely sharp sword; Pestilence, a flaky-skinned hypochondriac with OCD and a deep rooted love of musical theatre; and then there's Famine, a bulging, bulbous behemoth of a man who will - quite literally - eat anything.

The Horsemen were created at the beginning of time and given the task of riding across the sky at the end of time. The problem is, they've got naff all to do in between, and after a thousand odd years of sitting around playing board games, Death has gone mad and jacked it all in. He's taken human form and gone off to start his own Apocalypse, but that leaves the other three a Horseman short, and they believe Drake is just the lad for the job.

After reluctantly assuming the role of Death, Drake has only a few days to learn the ropes before his predecessor pushes the button on Judgement Day. The only problem is that Drake doesn't want the Apocalypse now. Can he convince the other Horsemen to go against everything they were created for and help him stop Armageddonm, or will he have to accept that the end of the world really is nigh?

The 13th Horseman is a fast-paced comedy fantasy crammed with evil doubles, barking cats, flying horses and more Buckaroo than you can shake a stick at. Who knew the end of the world could be this much fun?

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

Department 19 by Will Hill was The Book Zone Book of the year 2011. It was the book that I wanted to give to every teen boy that I know. As I said in my Book of the Year blog post, I had decided very early on that it would take a damn fine book to beat Department 19 to that top spot, it really is that good, and it wasn't until more than twelve months later when I read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline that I found a book to match it.

Before I say any more I would like to ask you a handful of questions:

Do you enjoy games, either of the video or role playing variety?
Do you enjoy richly imagined dystopian stories?
Were you a teen in the 1980s?
Do you love 80s films?
Do you love 80s music?
Do you love 80s TV?
Do you consider yourself to be a geek, either wholly or partly?

If your answer to any or all of these questions is yes then you have to get your hands on a copy of this book. Ready Player One is now the book that I want to give to every guy who like me had their teenage years in the 1980s, every guy, whatever their age, who loves gaming, be it computer or RPG, and every guy who considers themselves even just a little bit of a geek. It was written for the adult market, but is perfectly suitable for boys of 15+, especially those who are into gaming, comics, and general geekiness.

I read this book during the recent Christmas break when we visited friends in Canada. On the flight across the Atlantic I was very privileged to be able to read The Rising, Will Hill’s sequel to last year’s Department 19. I read it cover to cover during the flight from London to Chicago (it was brilliant btw), and I was then left with the dilemma of what to read next. Surely anything else would seem dull and boring in comparison? For some reason I turned to Ready Player One, a book I had downloaded to my kindle on impulse – I can’t remember how I heard about it, but the blurb (and the 100s of five star reviews) made it sound a little different from my usual fare.

I was hooked from the first chapter – it felt as if this was the book I had been waiting for all my adult life! OK, that is a little melodramatic, but Cline’s story gelled with me in a way that few books have. In fact, I am struggling to find the words to explain just how great I think this book is, and for this reason I apologise in advance if this review comes across as a little less coherent that normal. It didn’t pip Department 19 to the Book of the Year title as I have read D19 several times and it is just as good each time. I can’t say this about Ready Player One, although I have a strong feeling that its appeal is more likely to increase on further readings. Only time and multiple readings will tell. It could well squeeze its way into my list of all time favourite books.

I am proud to be a geek, even though I probably sit much further down the scale than many other guys. It shames me to admit that I have never played an RPG like D&D, I didn’t spend my teenage years playing on arcade machines (although I do still have my ZX Spectrum on which I must have logged thousands of hours throughout the 80s), and my knowledge of the early home computers is fairly limited. But I do love the music and films of that decade, I love gaming on my PS3, and I still have many of the action figures I collected back then. Ready Player One tapped into every single nostalgic cell in my brain and had me grinning from ear to ear as I read it.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future in a society where the environment has pretty much collapsed and there is wide-spread poverty, disease and famine. Yes dystopia fans, this book is for you as well! To escape the day-to-day bleakness that surrounds them people jack into the OASIS in their millions. OASIS is a huge online world where, if you can afford it and/or have the skills to 'level up' you can be or do just about anything. Hero of the story, Wade Watts, is a typical geek - overweight, low self-esteem, self-deprecating - who has grown up loving and living the OASIS. He doesn't even need to attend his regular school as he was academically able enough to ditch that and be educated at one of the OASIS schools.

The story starts five years after techno genius and creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, passed away, leaving a huge surprise in his last will and testament: his complete  fortune and control of the OASIS would go to the first person who could solve his puzzle. It is the ultimate contest, where winner takes all, and as such Wade and everyone of his generation became totally obsessed with solving the puzzles and finding Halliday's Easter egg. And five years on nobody has come even close.... until Wade Watts has a flash of brilliance whilst daydreaming during his online Latin class. From this moment the race for the prize is on, with Wade competing against some of the most famous egg hunters (or 'gunter's' as they become known) in the world.

Of course, no dystopian novel would be complete without a particularly nasty villain and in Ready Player One this takes the form of IOI, a huge corporation that seeks to control the OASIS and start charging users, thereby shattering the lives of the many poor and needy that rely on it to escape from their terrible real lives. With this in mind, IOI employ huge teams of players, known as sixers, who work full time to try to solve the various puzzles that emerge as the story unfolds. For IOI the end completely justifies the means, and they will stop at nothing if it means they win control of the OASIS. Even mass murder.

For me, this book has everything. I love quest novels - it has a grand quest. I love action and adventure - it has these in abundance. I love ordinary heroes who are flawed, and can easily be identified with - Wade Watts is one such guy. And I so, so love the 80s: the TV (just got the complete MacGyver DVD box set for Christmas); the movies (Ferris, Breakfast Club, Goonies, Wargames to name but a tiny few); the cartoons (He-Man, Transformers); the list goes on and one and this book bundles all of these elements together in the perfect story.

Whatever your level of geekness, and whatever your age, from teen upwards there will be something for you in Ready Player One. Yes, it is full of 80s references and terminology, and therefore those alive during this time will get the most out of it. But there were many references that were totally new to me, and far from causing problems, this just made the book even more fascinating. It made me want to read it all again, with a PC close at hand so that I could look up many of the games, machines, films and music mentioned in the story. After all, films such as Wargames and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and TV shows such as Ultraman, are readily available on DVD, Rush’s 2112 can be listened to on youtube, and also thanks to the internet you too can play early 80s arcade games such as Joust and Black Tiger. This book is written for every geek out there, and I am sure will go down a storm with some of the 15+ boys at school.