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. 


  1. You might be interested in my interview with the crazy Barrowman siblings. I feel it deals more with the book and the writing of it than the television interviews did. In fact, John and Carole started off assuming I'd not read the book, and things changed when that was made clear.

  2. I bought this book because John & Carole Barrowman were the authors, but it was a really good story. I can't wait to read the sequels. It may be aimed at young readers, but it's a fun read for any age in my opinion.