Tuesday 28 February 2012

Review: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Varanasi: holy city of the Ganges.
In this land of ancient temples, incense and snake charmers…

Where the monsters and heroes of the past come to life…

One slightly geeky boy from our time…


Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage's masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…

One of my faults as a reviewer is that I can occasionally be prone to exaggeration. I can't help myself - if I have loved a book so much I want to shout about it and try to get everyone else just as excited about reading it. However, in my long list of reviews there are some statements that some may feel are exaggerations, but I still stand by them. These include:
  • Department 19 by Will Hill is the best action horror book I have ever read (well it was until I read its sequel).
  • Any new release by Sarwat Chadda is cause for celebratory street parties and church bells to be rung across the land.
And now I am about to add another one to this list:
  • Sarwat's new book, Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, could possibly be one of the most important children's books published in 2012.
How's that for a sweeping statement? Let me explain why I believe this to be so. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is a fantasy story in the tradition of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson stories, but set in India and focusing on Indian mythology. So far so good, but the really important bit is that Ash Mistry, the hero of the story, is a British Asian. What, I hear you cry in disbelief? And no wonder you are surprised - I have been trying to think of an action hero in a popular modern children's book that isn't white and it is difficult. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Valkyrie Cain, Jamie Carpenter, Alex Rider - all white. Where is the literary role model for the significant number of South Asian children that live in Britain? I feel that the world of children's books has been crying out for a non-white hero and now Sarwat Chadda has delivered him in the form of Ash Mistry.

Let me tell you a little more about Ash. He's 13, mad about history, pretty geeky and a little chubby (and certainly not athletic). He is also totally fed up with holidaying in Varanasi, India - the heat, the flies, the cobras... despite his initial excitement about visiting his archaeologist uncle, now all he wants to do is go home to cool, fly-and-cobra-free West Dulwich where he can eat MacDonalds with his mates and spend hours playing Assassin's Creed.

As the story opens Ash, along with his 10 year old sister Lucky, is being dragged along to what he feels will be a boring party organised by his uncle's patron, the wealthy English aristocrat, Lord Savage. With boredom turning to despair Ash asks himself how he is going to survive another four weeks in India? The events of the next few hours have us wondering just how Ash and Lucky might expect to survive the next four days, let alone four weeks, as an overheard conversation and a near-fatal accident lead to Ash's aunt and uncle being murdered and he and his sister on the run from the demonic forces controlled by Lord Savage.

This is mythology, but not as the majority of children in the Western world know it. British kids are brought up with a fairly good knowledge of the Ancient Greek myths, and perhaps a smattering of the legends of Ancient Egypt. But Hindu mythology? These truly fascinating Indian legends go back much further than the Greek, Roman or Egyptian mythology and are littered with all of the things that kids love in books - great heroes, nasty villains, more demons than a whole series of Buffy, death, destruction, war, action, adventure. Sarwat Chadda has now taken these as his building blocks and created a fantastic story to rival any of Rick Riordan's.

I am a huge fan of Sarwat's Billi SanGreal books, and I guess I had expected something similar to them, but set in India. I couldn't have been more wrong. There is the same sublime quality of prose and the perfectly paced plotting, and the same array of great characters and extreme action scenes, but also a previously unrevealed talent for writing comedy. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is aimed at a younger audience (9+) than Sarwat's previous stories, and has given him the chance to inject his sparkling (and wonderfully geeky) sense of humour into his writing. I have met Sarwat on a number of occasions and he has always come across as a (occasionally mischievously) funny guy, and this is now reflected in his written work.

Despite this being written for a younger audience than Devil's Kiss and Dark Goddess were, this book is still chock full of nasty moments that will have children wanting to hide behind cushions. Lord Savage and his demons are very nasty, and there are some moments (spiders!!!) that made my skin crawl. Again, kids will love it!

I remember talking with Sarwat over a beer and food following the Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival back in 2010. Sarwat told me about his labour of love, a story based on Indian mythology that many of his friends claimed he was mad for writing. Who is going to buy that? they asked him. That labour of love is now called Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress and full credit goes to Sarwat for persevering with it and HarperCollins for publishing it. This could finally be the book that puts Sarwat on the hot list of children's authors, where he so deserves to be. I have done a little research in writing this review and come up with the following (some of it is from wikipedia and therefore obviously accurate):

"According to the 2001 UK Census, there were approximately 2,331,423 South Asians, constituting 4.0% of the population of the UK. Those who of Indian origin numbered 1,053,411."That's a lot of British kids who have been waiting patiently for a British Asian hero.

And there's more. There was also a recent article on The Bookseller daily newsletter about the Indian book market that stated:

"The Children's, Young Adult and Educational sector has also shown growth, up 27% in volume and 38% in value over the first half of 2011. The number one slot for the bestselling title was taken by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney (Puffin) which sold more than 17,000 copies, followed in second position by Inheritance: Book Four: Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini (Doubleday Children's) which sold more than 16,000 copies. The third, fourth and fifth positions in the chart were also taken by Wimpy Kid titles."

I do not know if Sarwat has an Indian publishing deal yet but it can surely only be a matter of time?

I predict big things for Sarwat Chadda over the next few years. in the UK Puffin Books christened Rick Riordan The Myth Master. Rick had better watch out as there is a new master of myth in town and he fully deserves that crown. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is published in the UK by HarperCollins on 1st March. My thanks go to the publisher for sending me a copy to review. Keep watching this space as Sarwat will be joining us in a few weeks for a special guest post.

Monday 27 February 2012

Review: Hollow Earth by John and Carole E. Barrowman

Lots of twins have a special connection - being able to finish each other's sentences; sensing what the other is thinking; perhaps even knowing when the other is in trouble or in pain - but for 12-year-old twins, Matt and Emily Calder, the connection is beyond special. Together, the twins have extraordinary powers. They are able to bring art to life, or enter paintings at will. Their abilities are sought by villains trying to access the terrors of Hollow Earth - a place where all the demons, devils and creatures ever imagined lie trapped for eternity. The twins flee with their mother to the security of an island, off the west coast of Scotland, where their grandfather has certain protective powers of his own. But too much is at stake, and the twins aren't safe there either. The villains will stop at nothing to find Hollow Earth and harness the powers within...

Usually when a celeb writes a book there is something of a fanfare but if there was a lot of hype running up to the release of this book then I missed it all. I only heard about it through my mother-in-law who mentioned that she has see John Barrowman talking about it in a TV interview. On the very next day we had several pupils ask if we were going to be buying it for the library. Feeling something of a failure I did a little online digging and contacted its publisher, Buster Books, who very kindly sent me a copy to review.

I like John Barrowman. He always comes across as a really nice (if somewhat manic) guy when I watch him interviewed on TV, and I loved his Captain Jack character in Doctor Who and Torchwood (although like many others I was disappointed with Miracle Day). I had high hopes for this book being more than just another celebrity-cashes-in-on-the-children's-book-market as my research showed me that a) it was a product of John's crazy imagination and b) Carole E. Barrowman, the book's co-author has been teaching English and Creative Writing for more than twenty years and is also a journalist. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed - in fact, I read it in a single sitting.

Hollow Earth tells the story of twins Matt and Emily Calder, a pair of children who have an incredible power - they can make art come to life. Through the power of their imaginations, anything they draw will come into being, and they can also enter paintings or make/allow others to enter paintings. They are not the first to possess these abilities - they are the latest in a long history of equally gifted people known as Animare - but they could potentially be the most powerful Animare of all time. The reason for this is that their mother is an Animare, and their long-missing father a Guardian (people tasked with protecting Animare and creating a psychic bond that helps them keep their powers under control). Ancient laws forbid the two from ever having children together, but sometimes ancient laws are broken (i.e. the twins' parents were a little but naughty). Now that the twins are approaching their teens their powers seem to be growing, and of course someone notices, tells someone else, and before we know it the twins and their mother, Sandie, are having to escape from London for the sanctuary of their grandfather's Abbey stronghold, on a small Scottish island.

I gather that some reviewers have started to suggest that this could be the new Harry Potter. It isn't - when will people realise that there will never be another Harry Potter? However, when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was first published (before all the hype and success) reviewers praised it for being a magical story about good versus evil. And that is exactly what Hollow Earth is. To compare any book using Rowling's series as the yardstick is unfair, and it makes my blood boil when reviewers do this. If Harry Potter had never existed we would be comparing Hollow Earth to the likes of Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books, or the many books of the late, great Diana Wynne Jones, and I believe it would stand up pretty well in this respect.

One thing that really jumped out at me from the pages of Hollow Earth is just how passionate the Barrowman's are about art. From when we first meet the twins, sitting in the National Gallery in front of Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asnières waiting impatiently for their mother, to quotes by William Blake and a cheeky revelation about Vincent Van Gogh, art is more than just a bystander in this story. The authors' love of art resonates throughout the story, and I would imagine that it will have huge appeal to any young person who shares this fascination with painting and drawing. I also feel that it will encourage many more children to explore the arts for themselves.

This book is not perfect though. I understand that the Barrowman's spent the early parts of their lives living in Scotland (hence the story's setting, I am guessing), but the bulk of their lives have been spent in the USA. Unfortunately this has led to more than a handful of Americanisms appearing in their writing. I'm sorry, but when a story is set in Britain with British characters I personally become something of a snob and prefer 'proper' English. Others may totally disagree with me, including perhaps many of this book's target audience. Secondly, the whole Hollow Earth thing. The title refers to "a place where all the devils, demons and monsters ever imagined lie trapped for eternity". And yet, this 'place' is not as integral a part of the story as I had expected/hoped for. I have managed to track down the interview that John Barrowman did on This Morning, and he explains that this is the first in (hopefully) a trilogy. If this is so then he and his sister have done a perfectly good job of establishing the characters, their back-stories and the concept of the Animare and their Guardians, but in the second instalment I am fully expecting there to be much more about this mythical Hollow Earth 'place'. Please.

As the first in a series, the ending of Hollow Earth leaves us with a number of loose ends. However, it does not leave us dangling with a nasty cliffhanger (thank you Barrowmans), and the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion. I don't think it will be to everyone's taste, but what book is? After all, I know a number of kids and adults who really cannot stand Harry Potter. However, if your 10+ child loves stories full of ancient magic and mystery then it is well worth adding Hollow Earth to their collection. The book has its own website at and it is well worth heading on over there to find out more about the many characters from the book and the paintings and locations that appear in the book or acted as inspiration for the authors. 

Saturday 25 February 2012

Review: The 13th Horseman by Barry Hutchison

Drake is surprised to find three horsemen of the apocalypse playing snakes and ladders in his garden shed. He’s even more surprised when they insist that he is one of them. They’re missing a Horseman, having gone through several Deaths and they think that Drake is the boy for the job. At first he’s reluctant to usher in Armageddon but does being in charge of Armageddon have to spell the end of the world?

Whenever I start to write a review I am determined that it will be succinct and straight to the point. Invariably they end up over-long and somewhat waffly, but no matter how hard I try I can't seem to write less, even when a book is so good all that really needs to be said is "It's brilliant, get your hands on a copy now!". The 13th Horseman, the first book in a new series by Invisible Fiends author Barry Hutchison, is one such book. 

And now for the waffle (I just can't help myself). I love Barry's Invisible Fiends series - it has become one of my favourite series of the past few years - and so I couldn't help but be excited when an early proof copy of The 13th Horseman arrived through my door. I had been following the progress of this book through Barry's blog and his tweets, and at the time it was fast becoming one of my top five most anticipated books of 2012. I was not disappointed.

The 13th Horseman is something of a departure for Barry, away from the realms of horror and into those of fantasy, and it certainly shows that he is no one-trick pony. Other reviewers have already likened it to the stories of Terry Pratchett, but I don't think that this is an entirely accurate parallel to draw. I haven't read the entire Pratchett series, but in my opinion it would be more accurate to liken The 13th Horseman to Pratchett's early Discworld novels, such as The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. Like these, The 13th Horseman is a fantasy story that just happens to be very, very funny, as opposed to being a comedy story set in a fantasy world. The Invisible Fiends series do have their comedic moments, especially the most recent in the series, The Beast, but in this new book Barry is able to let his talent for writing comedy shine.

Barry showed in his previous books that he has immense skill in creating great fantasy characters (think Caddie and Doc Mortis) and he continues to demonstrate this flair in The 13th Horseman. Barry's take on three of the horsemen of the apocalypse - War, Famine and Pestilence - will have kids giggling all the way through this book. Barry is coming to talk to the Year 7s at school in ten days and so I read the first two chapters to a group of them yesterday morning, and they were still chuckling and talking about it as they left the lesson.

This is the first book in Barry's Afterworlds series. This is not planned to be a series that tells one linear story, but in stead, like Pratchett's Discworld books, a series that tells a variety of different stories that are set in the same fantasy universe, with characters crossing over and making cameo appearances. The Invisible Fiends books are fabulous, but horror is not to every child's taste and so Barry's books are possibly not as widely read as they deserve. However, with this new book Barry is very much staking a claim as one of the top authors writing for the 10+ age group today and I hope that The 13th Horseman will garner him the wider readership and great acclaim that he richly deserves.

The 13th Horseman is published by HarperCollins on 1st March, and my thanks go to the publishers for sending me a copy to review.

Monday 20 February 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #16: Doom Rider by David Gatward

On Friday I revealed to you the cover for Doom Rider, the new book coming from author David Gatward in July. I also quickly rattled off an email to David, firstly to express my excitement over the new book and its fantastic cover, but also to ask him if he would be interested in writing a piece for my 'Coming Up In 2012' feature. Despite having a huge amount of writing to get finished over the weekend David very kindly said he would get something to me, and lo and behold, this arrived in my email inbox this morning:

The first mention of Doom Rider was in an email I sent through to my editor, Naomi, last January. I was in the process of knocking together a completely different proposal about aliens and sent the following idea through as little more than an aside:

'I've also been dreaming up something about a boy who discovers he's one of the four riders of the apocalypse... Now what's not to love about that?! And he's lived a 1000 lifetimes and been killed before reaching his 13th birthday in each one. But now...'

There! That was it! Not much, is it? And I didn't do anything with it until a month later. But it just kept on nagging at me so I worked it up and before I knew what was happening, my original proposal was ditched and the Doom Rider one took over!

Where the idea originally came from I'm just not sure. I've always been fascinated by the imagery associated with the four riders of the apocalypse, but what I didn't want to do was play on it to the point of making it amusing. From the start I wanted it to be a serious book. I was also fascinated by the whole notion of destiny and how freedom and free choice would clash with that. After all, a teenager is the very essence of wanting to be free. And I figured that, if my character discovered his future had already been chosen, he might be a little miffed.

In the end, what I came up with was this:

Seth Crow has lived a thousand lives, and in each one he's been murdered before he turns thirteen.

And now he's being hunted again. But this time it's different ... Seth is CONQUEST. The first of the four riders of the Apocalypse. And people want him dead, before he can fulfil his destiny.

Seth's only hope lies in finding the other riders - Strife, Famine and Death. Together the fate of the world will be in their hands.

The Apocalypse is coming. And the only ones who can save the world, hold the power to destroy it.

Sounds fun, doesn't it? And trust me on this: it really is...

Sunday 19 February 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #15: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Do you like dragons? If so, then I am reliably informed by the lovely people at Random House that this book is perfect for you. When I attended their Bloggers' Brunch last month I was initially a little sceptical that it would be suitable for The Book Zone (For Boys), but I have been assured otherwise, and then I was pretty much sold by the premise, as detailed in the piece that author Rachel Hartman has written for us. Seraphina is due to be published in July, and here is Rachel to tell us a little about it:

What if dragons could take human shape? Would it be creepy to think of them walking among us? And what would it be like to be one, finding yourself in an alien body with unaccustomed senses and abilities, trying to navigate the human world?

After centuries of war, the humans of Goredd have made an uneasy peace with these dragons. As an anniversary of the treaty approaches, however, tensions are mounting. A prince of the realm has been murdered, and evidence points to dragon involvement. Anti-dragon zealots riot in the streets; the dragons, for their part, begin to wonder whether peace with irrational, emotional humans is worth it.

Seraphina Dombegh, a court musician, is caught in the middle. She hides a terrible secret which could cost her life, but which also gives her unique insight into the murder. Circumstances partner her with the clever, perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs, who’s more than capable of uncovering her secret if she’s not careful. Together they must solve the case before the killer strikes again – this time against the peace itself.

Saturday 18 February 2012

News: Book Cover - Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer

The final Artermis Fowl? It's the end of an era!

This cover was officially unveiled yesterday on Eoin's website. I'm glad Puffin have stuck with a design that is more in keeping with the other hardback books, rather than go for something that matched the rebranded white paperback editions. No blurb for the book as yet, as soon as I see something I will add it on to this post.

Friday 17 February 2012

Review: Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves by Matthew Reilly (adult book)

Please click on the link below and head on over to my new adult book blog - The Book Zone (For Boys) Big Brother - to read my review of Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves, Matthew Reilly's brilliant new book featuring his seemingly invincible protagonist Shane Schofield.

News: Book Cover - Doom Rider by David Gatward

I've just this minute received an email from author David Gatward that I just had to share with you. Long time readers of The Book Zone will already know that I am a huge fan of Dave's writing, so how can I be anything but mega-excited about his new book, Doom Rider, scheduled for a July release? David has very kindly sent through the book cover for Doom Rider, and it's a beauty! Many reluctant reader boys tend to judge a book by its cover - based on this cover I can foresee this being a very popular title in the school library (and make sure you click on the image to see it in all of its full size glory).

Seth Crow has lived a thousand lives, and in each one he's been murdered before he reaches the age of 13.

And now he's being hunted again. But this time it's different ...

The Apocalypse is coming. And the only ones who can save the world, hold the power to destroy it.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman

It was like a nightmare, but there was no waking up. When the night began, Nora had two best friends and an embarrassingly storybook one true love. When it ended, she had nothing but blood on her hands and an echoing scream that stopped only when the tranquilizers pierced her veins and left her in the merciful dark.

But the next morning, it was all still true: Chris was dead. His girlfriend Adriane, Nora's best friend, was catatonic. And Max, Nora's sweet, smart, soft-spoken Prince Charming, was gone. He was also—according to the police, according to her parents, according to everyone—a murderer.

Desperate to prove his innocence, Nora follows the trail of blood, no matter where it leads. It ultimately brings her to the ancient streets of Prague, where she is drawn into a dark web of secret societies and shadowy conspirators, all driven by a mad desire to possess something that might not even exist. For buried in a centuries-old manuscript is the secret to ultimate knowledge and communion with the divine; it is said that he who controls the Lumen Dei controls the world. Unbeknownst to her, Nora now holds the crucial key to unlocking its secrets. Her night of blood is just one piece in a puzzle that spans continents and centuries. Solving it may be the only way she can save her own life.

Since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code took the world by storm there have been hundreds of what I like to call 'quest novels' published. Of course, they were around long before The DVC, and 'quest' is one of my favourite genres of adult novels, which is why I first picked up Angels and Demons not long after it was first published in the UK. You cannot go into any major book store (or supermarket) these days without seeing a plethora of these books begging to be bought. A state of affairs that has long had me asking the question - why on earth are there not more (any?) quest novels being written for young adults?? Author Robin Wasserman has now delivered her reply, and it's a cracker.

I probably would not have picked up The Book of Blood and Shadows if I had seen it in a book shop. The cover almost shouts "YA paranormal romance" to my blinkered mind, and with nary enough hours in the day to read all of the books I already have I am pretty sure this one would have slipped by the wayside. Fortunately I picked up on a few comments made on Twitter by some of my fellow bloggers, and the generous people at Atom sent me a copy to try out. Thank you Atom - I loved it!

The book tells the story of Nora Kane, a high school student who has joined a college project to decipher a centuries old mystery known as the Voynich manuscript (google it - it exists). Nora's father is an expert on classical languages, and Nora has been brought up to be something of a whizz at translating Latin texts, so she is more than a little put out when the bad tempered head of the project assigns her the task of translating a bundle of seemingly pointless letters written by a young lady centuries earlier. This young lady, Elizabeth Weston, just happens to have been the daughter of Edward Kelley, the alchemist who may have been the author of the ancient Book, but this fact is still not enough to stop Nora from sulking. However, once she starts working her way through the letters she becomes more and more interested in Elizabeth's life, and slowly begins to realise that the letters may be much more important than anyone had previously thought.

Of course, a quest novel isn't a quest novel without someone getting brutally murdered along the way, and The Book of Blood and Shadow is no exception to this rule. The victim in this case is Nora's closest friend Chris, and before she knows it she finds herself under suspicion of complicity in the crime, and her own boyfriend the police's main suspect. Nora's quest to prove his innocence and to solve both the ancient and modern mysteries sees her jetting off to Europe, and then running away to Prague with Chris's girlfriend Adriane, and this is when the thriller part of the story really kicks in.

To say any more would be to create spoilers. I started reading this book with few preconceptions as to what it would be like, and I think it was all the better for this. What I will say is that the characters are spot on, especially Nora who is far from being a perfect heroine in that she can by self-centred and moody at times, but she will also stop at nothing to find out who killed her friend. However, the people around her do not always share these same goals, and Nora quickly develops trust issues bordering on paranoia at times, although in this case Joseph Heller's famous quote from Catch-22 "just because your paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you" is perfectly apt in this case. 

This is a story of crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses and perhaps even quadruple-crosses that will have you guessing up until the very end. In fact, just as you have decided for sure that you know who the murderer might be, something happens that has you changing your mind. And then a couple of chapters on and you change your mind back again. And so on and so forth. If you like mystery stories, this one is for you. Similarly if you like action thrillers. And absolutely for you if like me you like quest novels.

One of my great loves as far as quest novels is concerned is the way authors (yes, even Dan Brown) take historical facts and twist them around to suit their story. Of course, they risk facing the wrath of the historical society dullards  who don't like this sort of thing, but that doesn't mean that they do not put in hours and hours and hours researching the background for their story. Robin Wasserman has certainly earned her 'top researcher' badge in writing this book, as we discover in the afterword that many of the historical figures she weaves into her story were real people.

Robin Wasserman can hold her head high in the company of the likes of Dan Brown, Andy McDermott, Scott Mariani and other writers of adult quest novels. The Book of Blood and Shadow is a fascinating and thrilling read and I would recommend it to teen boys and girls who want a little more mystery in their reading material.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

News: Book Cover - Unrest by Michelle Harrison

To date author Michelle Harrison is best known for her Thirteen Treasures books, a trilogy that focuses on the activities of some particularly nasty and twisted fairies. In April Michelle's new book Unrest is scheduled for release,and  this one is very much a story for young adults. I have been looking forward to reading this one for some time - to see why just scroll down to the bottom of this post to read the blurb. I have just received an email from publisher Simon and Schuster revealing the cover of Unrest and I think it will look great on the YA shelves of book shops and libraries across the land. I love its minimalist design, and especially the way the smoke effect rises from the text to create the ghostly figure. I will definitely be using this one with my GCSE and A-Level classes as an example of good cover design.

And here is the book's blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Elliott hasn’t slept properly for months. Not since the accident that nearly killed him. Sometimes he half-wakes, paralysed, while shadowy figures move around him. Other times he is the one moving around, while his body lies asleep on the bed. His doctors say sleep paralysis and out of body experiences are harmless - but to Elliott they’re terrifying.

Convinced that his brush with death has attracted the spirit world, Elliott secures a job at a reputedly haunted museum, determined to discover the truth. There, he meets the enigmatic Ophelia. But, as she and Elliott grow closer, Elliott draws new attention from the dead. One night, during an out of body experience, Elliott returns to bed to find his body gone. Something is occupying it, something dead that wants to live again . . . and it wants Ophelia, too . .

Review: TimeRiders: Gates of Rome by Alex Scarrow (TimeRiders Book 5)

Project Exodus - a mission to transport 300 Americans from 2070 to 54AD to overthrow the Roman Empire - has gone catastrophically wrong. Half have arrived seventeen years earlier, during the reign of Caligula.

Liam goes to investigate, but when Maddy and Sal attempt to flee a kill-squad sent to hunt down their field office, all of the TimeRiders become trapped in the Roman past.

Armed with knowledge of the future, Caligula is now more powerful than ever. But with the office unmanned - and under threat - how will the TimeRiders make it back to 2001 and put history right?

We are half way into Alex Scarrow's brilliant TimeRiders series and I am finding it increasingly difficult to review these books for fear of giving away massive spoilers. I tried to write a review for TimeRiders: The Eternal War when I had read it but found it so difficult I eventually gave in, and simply writing "It's brilliant, read it immediately" was, I felt, a little too brief for a blog post. Now that I have finished this fifth book, Gates of Rome, I am still a little hesitant (it could be a very short review), but feel that I owe it to Alex Scarrow and the good people at Puffin who very kindly sent me a copy to review.

Every time I finish a TimeRiders book I sit back and marvel at the quality of Alex Scarrow's storytelling. He is slowly weaving an incredibly complex nine volume story, and I feel I should be prostrating myself before him, doubting my worthiness. Steven Moffat really should get in touch with him as I would love to see a Doctor Who episode written by Alex Scarrow.

At the end of The Eternal War we were left with more questions that an episode of Mastermind. The first three books in the series introduced us to the characters, and the emphasis was on how they would react to the various eras in which they found themselves, whilst also giving us morsels of the growing mystery surrounding the purpose of their agency. And then BAM!, the end of book three and then the fourth book added layer upon layer to the overall story arc. I think The Eternal War is still my favourite book in the series so far - much as I love the fast-paced action of the first three, this one slowed things down a little and really made my brain fizz with excitement as it tried to process the mystery aspects of the story arc.

The opening chapters of Gates of Rome alternate between Cheyenne Mountain, 2070 and the now familiar setting of New York, 2001. In 2001 Sal and Maddy are continuing to try to fathom out some of the questions that began to form in their minds in previous books, and Maddy finally shares with Sal some of the secrets that are burning a huge hole in her brain. Sixty-nine years into the future and we watch as the Exodus Project begins to reach zero hour. In 2070 the environment has been pretty much killed off, with billions living in squalor, and a team of scientists, soldiers and politicians are readying themselves to travel back to AD54 to take over the Roman Empire and establish a new society based on American values. Unfortunately, a catastrophic event means the project is accelerated, calculations are rushed and the group end up being sent back at AD 37, the survivors finding that they have arrived during the reign of Caligula, an emperor who was renowned for being more than a little mad. Unfortunately for our band of TimeRiding heroes the ensuing time waves hit 2001 NYC at the same time as a group of lab-grown assassins arrive, their mission to destroy Maddy and her friends. In the process of trying to evade their pursuers, Maddy and Sal find themselves escaping back to AD54, joining Bob and Liam and leaving no-one behind to get them back to the 21st Century. Not good!

Thanks to the arrival of the Exodus team Caligula has become even more insane, thinks he is a god, and has managed to avoid being assassinated as he would have been if the time stream had not been contaminated. Somehow the team must survive the dangers of a brutal Ancient Rome, discover what event changed to accepted version of history, find a way back to 2001, survive the assassins that may still be waiting there for them, and finally mend history (again). If that seems like an impossible task for three teenagers and a support unit then you may be right this time.

This book comes with everything the previous books had - great action scenes, brilliant characters, answered questions and then more questions created, and a vivid depiction of the historical era that the tram find themselves in. I must confess I have never been a fan of books set in Ancient Rome (in fact, I rarely read any historical  fiction set before Tudor times), but I found that Alex Scarrow's descriptions of the horrors of Rome under Caligula completely absorbing, and written so well that I found it very easy to picture the sights, smells and sounds in my mind. In this book Caligula is even nastier than history portrayed him, and so we are treated to descriptions of torture and violence that will have teen boys gagging for more.

My only problem with the TimeRiders books is that there are so many layers and mysteries to the stories that by the time I read each new book I have forgotten some of what went before. There are four more books scheduled in the series, with the next one, City of Shadows, scheduled for an August 2012 release (less than six months away - whoop! whoop!). I have a feeling that come the publication of the ninth book I may have to take myself away to a cabin on a remote island somewhere with nothing to do but read the entire series back-to-back, if I am to get my head completely around all of the many plot strands that Alex Scarrow is so carefully weaving together.

Saturday 11 February 2012

News: Book Cover - TimeRiders: City of Shadows (TimeRiders Book 6)

I've just been doing my occasional trawl of the internet looking for new about forthcoming books, and I stumbled across this little beauty. I'm not sure  how long this has been in the public domain, but I know a lot of you are fans of Alex Scarrow's brilliant TimeRiders series and may not yet have seen the title and/or cover of book 6. I'm even more excited about this one than I normally am when it comes to TimeRiders books as it looks as if the team are heading to Victorian London, at the time when Jack the Ripper was on the prowl:

Hunted by cyborg assassins from the future, the TimeRiders must abandon New York and go on the run. They escape to Victorian London and the streets where Jack the Ripper roams. But, before they can establish their new base, they make their most shattering discovery yet - and it will change everything . . .

Friday 10 February 2012

Review: Temple Of The Gods by Andy McDermott (Nina Wilde/Eddie Chase Book 8)

If you want to read my review of Temple of the Gods by Andy McDermott then you will have to head on over to my brand new books-for-adults blog, The Book Zone's Big Brother. If you click here it will take you directly to the review.

Since I started The Book Zone (For Boys) back in 2009 I have reviewed a number of adult books, but at times have felt that they didn't quite fit with the main focus of this blog. I have often had to emphasise the adult nature of the story, especially if it contained excessive violence, bad language or "sexy scenes". I would hate for a parent to see a review on here for such a book and mistakenly assume that it might be appropriate for younger readers, so from now on all of my reviews of adult books will appear over at The Book Zone's Big Brother, although I will always include a short post on here with the link as I know that these books are often enjoyed by older teen boys.

And in case you missed that link, here it is again:

Thursday 9 February 2012

Oliver Twisted Blog Tour - Interview with Cover Illustrator Craig Phillips

Book cover illustrators and designers are sometimes the unsung heroes of YA and children's books. Even though you should never judge a book by its cover, and stunning cover design can make the difference between a kid picking it from a library or book shop shelf or not. The striking cover of Oliver Twisted by J.D. Sharpe was created by Australian illustrator Craig Phillips. Craig's work to date has included covers for a number of bokos, as well as rock poster art for the likes of Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and DJ Shadow. Craig very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for The Book Zone as part of the Oliver Twisted blog tour.

Hi Craig, please could you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a lover of art, books and comics. I love to draw and paint and also dabble in writing my own stuff. I have been drawing all my life and drawing as a job for the last twelve years or so. I am a dad with two young children and have a lovely wife who is also a professional creative. We live in Australia between the beach and some mountains.

What do you do in your spare time when you’re not illustrating?

I swim laps every single morning or surf if the surf is working, between 6 and 8, to stay sane. When I am not illustrating I am mostly parenting and when the kids are all asleep, planning illustrations and creating comics!

How does representing a live show for a band differ from creating a visual motif for a novel? Is it more difficult to draw out a thematic image or aesthetic from music than it is out of a story?

It is not too different really. The process is all much the same. I try hard to pick the strongest possible approach to the job and execute it. With both I am trying to capture some quality of the artists work in a single picture.

Please could you describe the novel in 3 words?

Macabre. Tense. Gripping.

What do you like about the novel? Who was your favorite character?

The novel is a great adventure. The characters are oh so colourful and some of them truly horrible. I think my favourite character is Fagin. And of course Oliver himself.

You’ve spoken about researching the original artwork for ‘Oliver Twist’. How do you think the man himself would react to your interpretation of one of his best-loved protagonists?

Well, visually I kept Oliver quite similar to original descriptions of the character. I didn't want to go too crazy with character design and costume so I think Dickens would be quite happy with how he looks. It is the world Oliver is wrapped in and the things that happen to him that are a bit of a shock!

If Oliver Twisted was turned into a musical, which musician or band would compose the score?

Oh my, it would have to be Mussorgsky, the man behind Night On Bald Mountain. Gives me the sweats. I love it.

The image is a great representation of the macabre and gore found within the novel – did the image come easily for you?

I did do a few redraws. I think we went through about three different concepts. Then I drew Oliver over and over again until I felt I had hit it. It was actually quite difficult to get this one to a point where I was completely happy with it. I tried loads of different angles and the hard thing with this was not putting too much emphasis on the bowl. It was a little tricky finding a balance in the composition even though it is fairly simple. Once we got it though we were all very happy with it. Sometimes I get a cover in one or two sketches. Sometimes it takes half a dozen sketches!

The skulls took a lot of trawling through macabre piles of skulls on Google. Those searches took me from Vlad the Impaler to Cambodia and to the catacombs. That was a bit depressing! I definitely have to keep this jacket high on my bookshelf away from my kids.

A lot of the work on your website is a lot more mellow and serene, was it a nice change to get to grips with the bloody world of Oliver Twisted?

I tend to try to make my work charming and light, even if I am drawing villains and scary story points. Oliver Twisted is definitely the darkest story I have worked on. So it was a change!

I think there is always a place for the macabre and I do like to work with it, so long as it serves a purpose in the story and it balanced with some light.

Did you have much communication with Oliver Twisted writer J D Sharpe whist you were devising the image?

Actually, none. I did not communicate with the author until after the job was done. I never talk to authors while doing a job. That is the job of the editors and art directors. If there is going to be any feedback from the author it needs to always go through the editor. It keeps the process neat.

Do you take advice or inspiration from your children in the development of your work?

I often wondered why I am not inspired by my kids. It seemed as if all the other artists and writers out there were inspired by their kids to some extent. I never have been. Until now. Now I am starting to find inspiration from them. It must be be an age thing. Now that they are a bit older and reading and becoming excited about stories I am finding inspiration from them. I have this urge now to make stories just for them.

What’s the best bit of advice you have for a budding illustrator, particularly those wanting to break into book illustration?

Draw as often as you can! Draw EVERYTHING around you. Buy a cheap sketchbook and fill every page corner to corner with quick sketches from life. Don't spend too much time on each one, keep it moving. Fill that book and buy another one and fill that. Study people and clothing folds especially. Go to life drawing class if you are old enough. Look at art history. Look at different ways artists have represented what is around them. Find what art you like and ask yourself why you are drawn to it.

Young students often think that they need to make everything up out of their own heads. I can tell you now, and any professional illustrator will tell you, this is utter NONSENSE. It is not a memory test. Refer to the real world to make your art real and tangible.

If you feel like your work is ready to present to the world, get online and into art forums. Learn to accept honest critique. Putting your art out there can be scary but it helps you grow.

When you feel like you are ready to approach publishers and agents, limit your folio to ten solid (finished) pieces. Don't make excuses for anything. If you have to make an excuse for anything in your folio it should not be in there. You can try approaching agents. Agents are always on the lookout for more talent. Look at the type of artists already represented by them and see how you compare and where you might fit. Agents will be very realistic and honest in their appraisals of your work too. If they can sell you they will. If they can't they will also tell you and hopefully with a bit of polite prompting they will tell you why they think you are not ready yet. I got rejected by about five agents and spent a year chipping away at Shannon Associates before they thought I was ready and gave me a job.

Approaching publishers is a little trickier. I am lucky that I now have my agent, who is very well connected, to do talk to publishers on my behalf.

If you do not have an agent, go to the publishers website and look at the submission guidelines and stick to them or your work might end up in the trash unopened. They are very busy people so have little time to go through mountains of unsolicited submissions.

If you really love art and are honest with yourself and work very hard (and smart) I believe you will find work.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I read a lot of books when I was a kid. I loved The Lord of the Rings and adventure books in general. And I loved Asterix and Tintin!

Who is your favorite children’s book illustrator?

My favourite illustrators of books for children are mostly from the turn of the century. I love Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielson and Arthur Rakham. I also love Lizbeth Zwerger and Sheilah Beckett. I really love comics. And some of my favourite creators that are also great for children are Hergé (Tintin) and Jeff Smith (Bone).


Huge thanks to Craig for taking the time to answer these questions. If you want to see more of Craig's stunning illustrations then you really should head on over to 

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Review: Hollow Pike by James Dawson

When Lis London moves to Hollow Pike, she's looking forward to starting afresh in a new town, but when she sees the local forest she realizes that not everything here is new to her. She's seen the wood before - in a recurring nightmare where someone is trying to kill her! Lis tells herself there's nothing to her bad dreams, or to the legends of witchcraft and sinister rituals linked with Hollow Pike. She's settling in, making friends, and even falling in love - but then a girl is found murdered in the forest. Suddenly, Lis doesn't know who to trust anymore...

I first heard about Hollow Pike at a bloggers' event held by Indigo last year. At that event we were treated to an exclusive reveal of the cover to this book, and as someone who teaches design my attention was well and truly grabbed. Yes, I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but there were invisible waves of excitement about this title emanating from the members of the Indigo team who had read it, and pretty much every blogger who attended that event has been whittering on about it ever since. I tried to keep a lid on my excitement for fear of being disappointed when I finally got the chance to read it, but somehow I still ended up dropping everything the moment it fell through my letterbox.

The first couple of chapters certainly hit the spot, establishing a spooky undercurrent to the story right from the beginning. And then my heart sank as I started to read chapter three. Suddenly I felt I was entering Mean Girls territory, and my interest began to wane. Now I can't say I am an expert on the film Mean Girls as I have never seen it all the way through. However, I did once have the misfortune of being in the school library when it was being shown as part of an English lesson and that thirty minutes was pretty damn painful. It has been added to my 'films that I have never seen and never will see in their entirety' list. It is testament to the quality of James Dawson's writing that I decided to stick with it for a few more chapters, as if I hadn't already been captivated by his stunning prose it would have ended up on my 'not suitable for The Book Zone (For Boys)' pile. And then very quickly he had me completely, totally, 100% hooked.

I normally try to read the books I get sent to review without my teacher hat on. These books are after all written for readers who are significantly younger than I am, and so I try to put myself in their place. However, James Dawson has nailed his teen characters so perfectly that the teacher part of me was associating them with students I have taught (and currently teach in some cases). Everything about the way he has written them is perfect - their voices, the slang they use, their attitudes to each other, the disdain the 'beautiful people' show towards those who are seen as being 'different'. Man, does James Dawson know the minds of British teenagers.

Hollow Pike tells the story of Lis London, a teen girl who has been forced to move from Bangor to go to live with her sister's family in a small town in the Yorkshire Dales, in order to escape the bullying she was experiencing at school. Recent months have been a strain on her emotionally, and Lis has started to have a recurring nightmare where she is chased through a mysterious forest, until she falls into a stream and her head is forced under water by some unknown person. However, come the move Lis has got used to them - after all, they are only dreams...... until on the way to her sister's place she gets out of the car to shoo a magpie out of the road and finds herself in a place that looks very much like the location in her dreams. And so the strangeness begins!

As she starts school Lis somehow finds herself accepted into a clique, a group of students whose lives revolve around keeping their 'leader' happy - Laura Rigg, the 'It girl' of Fulton High School. However, Lis also feels herself drawn towards three other students; three young people who couldn't be more different from Laura and her gang of sycophantic bitches. As Laura's bullying behaviour begins to make Lis more and more uncomfortable, especially given her own experiences, the company of this alternative trio - Kitty Monroe, Delilah Bloom and Jack Denton - becomes even more of an attractive option for Lis. And then the nastiness really begins, both natural (from Laura and her crew) and supernatural.

A significant part of the story revolves around the social interaction of teens, and more specifically bullying, including cyber bullying. Again with my teacher hat on, another big plus about Hollow Pike was how James Dawson did not allow his story to become an anti-bullying morality tale. I really hate it when that happens in stories, and some authors seem to go out of their way to patronise their readers by trying to hide the life-lesson within the story and failing dismally. James Dawson is certainly not one of these authors, and in fact Hollow Pike is less about bullies getting their comeuppance, and more about it being ok, or even great, to be different. And the way he writes it is, despite the seriousness of the subject and the pants-wettingly spooky nature of the story, at times laugh out loud funny. 

This is not a fast paced action horror story. James Dawson deliberately keeps the pace relatively slow in the first half of the book as he introduces us to his characters, and draws us hypnotically into their lives. He also uses this part of the story to start scratching away at the part of the reader's consciousness that keeps fear and nervous tension safely locked away. The more the story slowly progresses, the more that barrier gets worn thinner and thinner, so that by the time the horror really begins to kick in our defences are low and we too get pulled into the nastiness. At this point the pace picks up and we are carried kicking and screaming on a frantic ride to the end of the story. And this leads me to my only criticism of the book - it all seems to be brought to a conclusion far too quickly for my liking. It really did feel like a book of two halves - both of them brilliant individually, but together in my opinion they just didn't gel completely perfectly. I can't really expand on this, as it would certainly create a spoiler or two.

Just the one small gripe, and perhaps I am being overly picky as a reaction to the hype this book has had. I have no doubt in my mind at all that James Dawson will become a best-selling author if his future works are as good as Hollow Pike, and in the future his name will be mentioned in the same breath as current masters of YA contemporary and dark fiction such as Marcus Sedgwick, Melvin Burgess and Robin Jarvis, and also that great master from the past, Christopher Pike. I wish this book had been around when I was younger - despite my early 'Mean Girls' misgivings Hollow Pike is the perfect book for teens who love spooky stories or just great literature, and especially those who, like I did at that age, feel like they don't quite fit in with the majority of their peers.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Review: Itch by Simon Mayo

Meet Itch - an accidental, accident-prone hero. Science is his weapon. Elements are his gadgets. This is Alex Rider with Geek-Power!

Itchingham Lofte - known as Itch - is fourteen, and loves science - especially chemistry. He's also an element-hunter: he's decided to collect all the elements in the periodic table. Which has some interesting and rather destructive results in his bedroom . . .

Then, Itch makes a discovery. A new element, never seen before. At first no one believes him - but soon, someone hears about the strange new rock and wants it for himself. And Itch is in serious danger . . .

I don’t mind admitting that when I was contacted by the lovely people at Doubleday, asking whether I would be interested in reading an early copy of a book called Itch that I practically shouted “Yes please!” at my computer before rattling off a quick reply email. The reason is that Itch, due out in March, is written by Simon Mayo, the radio DJ. As a teenager I was a huge fan of his Radio 1 Breakfast Show, and I still listen to him these many years on as his Radio 2 show coincides with my drive home from work (and it is far, far better than the other rubbish on at that time). One of the highlights of my radio-listening week is Simon’s Radio 2 Book Club – every Monday I have a meeting at work that finishes at 6pm and I pretty much run to my car so that I don’t miss any of it.

Of course, after my initial excitement came the doubts – how disappointed would I be if this was just another celebrity jumping on the ‘let’s write a children’s book’ bandwagon by churning out a below-average story that could have been written by a well-trained monkey? I had little to fear – the proof copy of Itch that I read was about 400 pages long, but I got hooked and only put it down in the end because I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer (it was the last week of term after all).

Itch tells the story of Itchingham Lofte (surely one of the best names in children’s literature for ages, although Itchingham wouldn’t agree with me), known as Itch for short. Itch and his family live in Cornwall, having moved there from London when Itch was eleven, but even though that was three years ago he still finds it difficult to fit in at school. I guess you could say that Itch is a little different from most children of his age as he has no interest in sport, computer games or any of the other things that his classmates love doing. Instead, he likes to collect elements from the Periodic Table. Yes, you read that correctly – not exactly a common hobby amongst young people, but I guess if he were a collector of stamps, coins or porcelain thimbles then this would make for a pretty dull story.

Of course, the collecting of these items would also have been much safer than Itch’s quest to obtain all of the elements. “Surely there’s no harm in possessing a slither of aluminium and a test tube of iron filings?” I hear you ask. And you would be correct in that statement, but you would also be forgetting much of your school chemistry lessons. That Periodic Table also includes highly reactive and potentially explosive elements such as sodium, potassium and phosphorus, the last of which costs Itch his eyebrows at the beginning of the book in an experiment-gone-wrong. And there’s not forgetting the radioactive ones either. Whereas the worst a stamp collector might experience is the occasional paper-cut, Itch’s hobby could potentially cause his house to blow up/burn down/become filled with poisonous gas (delete as applicable), taking all of its inhabitants with it.

Itch gets his elements from a number of sources. Some of them were very easy to acquire (chlorine in household bleach, his brother’s titanium tongue stud), but others not so. For these harder to acquire, and potentially more dangerous elements, Itch turns to a guy called Cake, a mineral seller he first met at the Surfers Against Sewage fair in St Austell. Through Cake (for a price, naturally) Itch has managed to add radium (luminous clock hands), sulphur (gunpowder) and arsenic (some nineteenth century wallpaper). However, it is the latest acquisition, following a chance meeting with Cake on the beach, that changes Itch’s life for good, and eventually puts him, his sister Chloe and his cousin Jack (short for Jacqueline) in great danger as they are hunted by a chemistry-teacher-gone-mad, and a huge multinational corporation that will do anything to get their hands on this latest addition to the element collection.

What could be so special about some old rock? I hear you ask. Well it just so happens that this rock is a brand new element, a substance never before seen by man. A substance that also happens to be highly radioactive (i.e. dangerous) and as such a potential ultra-clean power source that could change the world. Of course, the aforementioned multinational, which makes a huge amount of money from oil, are desperate to get their hands on this element, as would any wannabe terrorist with thoughts of building a homemade nuclear bomb if news of its existence got out.

Simply put, Itch is a hugely enjoyable read, and has everything the 10+ reader could want. Itch is a great character, and I know there will be many young people out there who will easily identify with his feelings of not fitting in with the crowd. The other characters too are all very believable. One of my favourite is Flowerdew, previously a high-flying scientist who has now found himself teaching chemistry in a backwater Cornwall school. This new element could be his ticket out of there and back into industry, and as his obsession grows we begin to see that he will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

The story itself flows well, and is generally well plotted, although there were a few passages where I did feel that the pace needed to be upped a little. However, when the action really kicks in it is pretty relentless, and readers will find themselves racing through the story to find out whether Itch and his friends will make it to the end of the story. There are a number of great set pieces, especially towards the end of the story, which really had my heart in my mouth, as Itch goes through incredible dangers, and no small amount of pain, to keep the rocks from the bad guys and, in his eyes, save the world.

In a world that has been saturated with books about young spies in recent years, it is truly refreshing to read an original adventure story featuring a likeable and believable character who has to rely on his wits and friends alone, rather than some fantastic gadget or the government agency he works for. Although its feet are set firmly in the 21st Century, with its heavy doses of exciting action and intrigue Itch is, at heart, a good old fashioned boys’ own adventure story.

One of the stand out elements (no pun intended) of this book is its science theme. As far as I am aware this is a topic that is rarely covered in literature for young people, and I am sure there are many young science fans out there who will find this a fascinating read. I’m no expert myself, so am unable to attest to the accuracy of the science covered within the book, although I do get the feeling that Simon Mayo has done his research. Obviously, given the central plot point of the previously unseen element, there is a degree of science fiction to the story as well. I felt that Mr Mayo blended the fact and the science fiction very well, to the point where as a layman I got lost in the story and stopped noticing the line between what was real science and what was a product of his imagination. I have now passed a copy of the book on to a chemistry teacher colleague and I look forward to his views on this aspect of the story.

Simon Mayo does bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, but there are one or two rather large questions left unanswered. I hope that this means there will be more books in the future featuring Itch, as he is such an endearing protagonist and I would love to see where he is taken next. The book is not perfect, but as a debut it is certainly well worth buying for your child. I am sure that 10+ boys (and girls), and especially those who love science, will enjoy this just as much as I did.

I have to say I am cringing a little at some of the content of this review, for fear that an army of Daily Mail readers might pick up on it and establish a ‘Ban This Book For Encouraging My Child To Collect Dangerous Items’ campaign. To these severely deluded people I would say that they should first of all get a life, and secondly stop worrying. Give your kids some credit, as they aren’t stupid – we haven’t seen any stories about kids getting severely injured through trying to copy Alex Rider-style stunts. Yes, Itch has a dangerous hobby, but Simon Mayo makes these dangers very clear throughout the story and makes it very clear that this is not a hobby that young people should be taking up. Yes, there is an element of humour included (Itch losing his eyebrows in the phosphorus experiment, and Itch accidentally poisoning his class with arsenic and the literal ocean of vomit that ensued being prime examples), but the underlying safety message is always there. On reading the blurb I had thought that element hunting sounded like a pretty cool hobby; having now finished the book there is no way I will be taking it up – I value my fingers/eyebrows/eyes/skin/life far too much.

Itch is scheduled to be published as a hardcover edition by Doubleday on 1st March 2012. My thanks go to the good people at Doubleday for sending me a copy to review.

Monday 6 February 2012

Review: Oliver Twisted by JD Sharpe (and Charles Dickens)

"Flesh," the woe-begotten moaned at Oliver, baring teeth which were ragged and black. "Flesh" came another moan, and he turned to see two more behind. They began to shuffle towards him, barefoot.

The world according to Oliver Twisted is simple. Vampyres feed on the defenceless, orphans are sacrificed to hungry gods and if a woe-begotten catches your scent it will hunt you forever. On the advice of a corpse, Oliver flees his ghastly orphan life to seek his destiny in the dark streets of old London Town, despite the perils of the woe-begotten zombie-infested journey. There he meets the shadowy Dodger, the evil old soul-stealer Fagin, and the menacing Bill Sikes, who is more beast than man. But will Oliver Twisted be the world's salvation, or its downfall?!

Confession #1: I am not a particularly big fan of Charles Dickens books. I know that by admitting that I run the risk of being burned as a heretic, but I have to be true to myself and my readers.

Confession #2: The only Dickens book I have read is Oliver Twist. I have read this one and a half times. The half was the abridged version when I was at school (Year 8 or Year 9 I believe); the other time was as an adult. I think I much preferred the abridged version.

Despite it being a great story, with many fantastic characters that have become an integral part of our national culture, I simply did not enjoy the reading experience. It was simply far too wordy for my liking, and having slogged through it I didn’t have the motivation to try another of his many books. I’m sure it is to my loss, but c’est la vie.

If you are still reading this and haven’t closed your browser in disgust then please now let me tell you about Oliver Twisted, a book I found hugely enjoyable. I first heard about the book last year when I was at a bloggers’ event held by OUP. Jasmine Richards (aka JD Sharpe), one of their senior editors, told me about one of her own books due out in 2012, and I was sold on the idea immediately. Oliver Twist with vampires and zombies? Of course it appealed to me.

If you are a Dickens fan, and you are still reading this, perhaps now feeling more than a little horrified that someone has ‘messed’ with yet another classic by doing a “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” on Dickens’ much loved story then have no fear. I gave up on P&P&Z after only a couple of chapters – Oliver Twisted is infinitely better. First of all JD Sharpe is herself a huge, huge fan of the works of Charles Dickens and this is evident from the way she treats the well known characters that given a new lease of life (or in some cases death) in her version of the story.

Secondly, unlike P&P&Z where Jane Austen’s original words are used with various changes and additions, this is a rewrite of the Oliver Twist story. By this I mean that Ms Sharpe has taken the basic plot of the original Dickens story and turned it into an action horror story to rival the likes of Darren Shan and David Gatward. In this story Oliver’s mother dies shortly after giving birth to him, but her death is far from natural – she takes her own life rather than give into the change that she faces having been bitten by a woe-begotten (Victorian for zombie). We then see Oliver progress through orphanage, onto workhouse, and then into the employ of Mr Sowerberry before finally running away to London, with each of these episodes in his life twisted to make the storyline far more horrific than the original. Once Oliver arrives in London he goes on to meet all the familiarly named characters, although some of them are as you have never seen them before.

I’m not going to go into any more detail as I don’t want to spoil the reading experience for anyone. Part of the enjoyment of this richly imagined story is each discovery of what the author has done to tweak a well known character to make them fit her new vampire and werewolf populated Victorian world. To call the story a mash-up would be doing a great disservice to the author; I feel that she has managed to fuse the original story with her own twisted take on Victorian England in a way that Seth Grahame-Smith never even came close to, and in doing so has created a story that will have appeal to adult lovers of the original, and young readers who are yet to pick up a Charles Dickens novel for the first time. I am looking forward to passing this on to the English staff at school to see their reactions to it.

Oliver Twisted is published today and my thanks go to the good people at Electric Monkey for sending me a copy of the book to review. You can also head on over to and read an extract of the book.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Coming Up In 2012 #14: Atomic! by Guy Bass

My original intention had been to run the Coming Up In 2012 throughout January only, but the response from publishers and authors has been so fantastic that I still have a few more for you. Today's is from Guy Bass, the hugely talented author of Stitch Head, Dinkin Dings and Secret Santa. February 2nd saw the release of the first book in his new series - it's about superheroes so I'm sold on it already. Here's Guy to tell us some more about the books:

My name is Guy and I’m addicted to superheroes. I’m a superheroholic.

I’ve been wanting to write about superheroes for years – professionally, that is. I spent most of my childhood (and a fair chunk of my adulthood) reading superhero comics. In my younger days I made up scores of my own heroes and villains and sent them on adventures or pitched them against each other. My brother and I came up with hundreds of characters – men, women, children, robots, monsters, robot-monster-children... We mapped out worlds and histories spanning hundreds of years, ending up with an entire universe (and the odd parallel universe) to play with. We’d write stories, draw comics, or, more often than not, act out epic, noisy, house-and-garden-spanning battles that would almost always result in Mum shouting at us. We’re in our mid-thirties now, so the battles are slightly less epic. But we still fight... and we still get shouted at.

All of which sort of led me to write Atomic! It’s a comic adventure (and an adventure comic – I’ll explain later) about Jonny and Tommy Atomic, the twin sons of the world’s greatest superhero. They’re also the world’s best kept secret – no one even knows they exist. Their father, Captain Atomic, is always busy saving the world, so he keeps Jonny and Tommy hidden away on a giant, invisible island in the sky, under the watchful eye of their uncle, Dogday (who happens to be super-intelligent talking dog) and Aunt Sandwich (who’s a hamster. Just ‘cause.)

Jonny and Tommy’s adventures kick off with Issue #1: The Vengeance of Vinister Vile. Jonny and Tommy are sent to school and have to pretend that they’re ordinary nine year-old boys. Jonny takes his secret identity very seriously but Tommy just wants to show the world what he can do, which (among other things) involves putting a crocodile in a swimming pool. Then in Issue #2: The Madness of Madame Malice, the boy’s mother – who is also the world’s most famous super-villain, Madame Malice – escapes from prison and tries to convince the boys that villainy is a lot more fun than heroism.

So, what can you expect from Atomic! – apart from heroes and villains, prison breaks, epic battles, rampaging monsters and a hamster with a ray gun? Here’s what: comics. The best thing about Atomic, without a doubt is that it’s part comic. Whenever anything really exciting happens, especially when things explode or fights break out, the book turns into a comic. I’m beside myself about this. It’s panel upon panel, page upon page of ridiculously awesome artwork by Jamie Littler. It’s some of the best, most dynamic, book illustrating I’ve ever seen. I could (and probably will) wax lyrical about the look of these books for weeks on end.

As they say in comics - see you in the funny papers!