Monday 26 March 2012

Review: Apocalypse Moon by M.G. Harris (Joshua Files Book 5)

Something is very wrong with the 2012 Plan. Is it really on course to save the planet from the gigantic Electro-Magnetic Pulse that's due to shatter civilisation at the end of the year? After a narrow escape from US government agents Josh decides to risk his own life on a daring mission - a leap forward in time to discover the truth about 2012. He's jumped ahead far enough to glimpse a post-apocalyptic world in collapse. And to realise - it could be his destiny to stay.

I'm going to start this review with a long overdue apology to M.G. Harris. Just over a year ago M.G. very kindly sent me a signed proof of the fourth Joshua Files Book, Dark Parallel. I read it, loved it, but never posted a review of it on The Book Zone. Believe me, I wanted to, and I lost count of the number of times I started to write something and then gave up. Dark Parallel really messed with my head - if you haven't read it then it sees Josh and Ixchel travelling through time, finding themselves in various parallel timelines. Not only did it mess with my head, but it also answers a number of the questions created in the earlier three Joshua Files books, and leaves many more for the final instalment, and I just could not come up with a review that did not contain a long list of spoilers.

I did however make a promise to myself that I would review Apocalypse Moon, come what may. However, having finished it yesterday afternoon I am still in something of a quandry. This is the final book in the series. It is the book that ties off all the loose ends and answers all the questions readers have been pondering for the past four years. So yet again I am left with the unenviable task of writing a spoiler-free review. With this in mind I have decided to make this brief, and bullet point the key aspects, as they come to me, in no particular order:
  • I loved it. It is the perfect ending to a series that I was enjoying long before I started The Book Zone.
  • The black gel sleeve is gorgeous. I have to admit, I initially had my doubts, but I take them all back. It is perfect!
  • Every question is answered (at least every question I had was answered).
  • We finally find out the identity of Arcadio.
  • Josh travels into the future and we find out what happens to the world after the Electro-Magnetic Pulse hits. And it's scary!
  • We finally find out the mystery surrounding the disapperance of Blanco Vigores.
  • We discover the secret behind the Bakab gene and what that means for Josh, his friends, and the future of the planet Earth.
  • We are treated to even more twists and turns, and shock revelations about secondary characters and the part they may have to play in the 2012 plan.
I would be absolutely amazed if there is a single Joshua Files fan out there who ends up feeling disappointed on finishing this book. I am a little sad that we have come to the end of Josh's story, but also elated that it ends with such a great final instalment.

Having started with an apology, I'm going to end this review with a note of thanks to M.G. for mentioning me in her acknowledgements at the end of Apocalypse Moon. I started reading the series long before I started The Book Zone, and when I first picked up that stunning orange day-go gel covered book in Bracknell Waterstones I never dreamed that four years later my name would be printed inside the last book in the series. I am very flattered, and rather humbled by this kind gesture by M.G.

Apocalypse Moon is due to be published on 5th April (in its lovely black gel sleeve). My thanks go the good people at Scholastic who sent me a copy to review.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Review: Road To London by Barbara Mitchelhill

Thomas is desperate to join 'the players', he'll do anything to watch them perform, even skip school and risk a caning. But when Thomas's rule breaking gets him in trouble with more than just his school master, he has to flee his home and make his way to London. Here he meets his hero, Shakespeare, and his players. But behind the excitement of the theatres is a grimy world of deception, poison and treason. Will Thomas manage to uncover the plot in time? And will he manage to save Shakespeare from a fate worse than death?

I love reading thrillers set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It was a time that was ripe with plots, conspiracies and political intrigue as a result of the English Reformation, a time when people were sometimes executed at the merest hint of a treasonous word spoken. It is a period in time that most young people are taught about in British schools, and whilst there are many adult thrillers set in this era, the same cannot be said for children's and YA literature. I was therefore very excited to receive an email from author Barbara Mitchelhill back at the beginning of 2012, giving me more information about her forthcoming book, Road To London, as part of my Coming Up In 2012 feature. Barbara promised action, adventure and intrigue, and her book certainly delivers on all counts.

Road To London tells the story of Thomas Munmore, a boy who lives in Stratford-Upon-Avon, idolises the town's most famous son, William Shakespeare, and dreams of becoming an actor in Shakespeare's company. As a result of a badly failed attempt at poaching to raise some money to run away to London, Thomas finds himself on the run from the local law and his hangman's noose, heading for London but without a penny to his name. Eventually he makes it to London, despite meeting some pretty nasty people along the way, and manages to blag his way into working for the Chamberlain's Men. It is at this point where the plot begins to thicken and Thomas finds himself slap bang in the middle of a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth herself.

The historical aspects of this story are wonderful. Barbara Mitchelhill has a skill for bringing Elizabethan England alive for her readers, and confident young readers will take delight in picturing the setting and inhabitants of a London very different to the one we know today. It is a filthy, cesspit of a city full of overwhelming, nausea-inducing smell and dangerous criminals who would cut your throat in broad daylight just for a few coins.

The story itself moves at a cracking pace, the short chapters and many moments where Thomas and his friend Alice find themselves in great peril, as well as the handful of comedic moments provided my members of the troupe and Alice's common-as-muck mother, will have readers turning the pages rapidly. However, the book is not perfect, as it sadly lacks the twisting, turning, more complex plotting that is apparent in the very best children's books being published these days.

Road To London is a good, entertaining read for history loving 10+ children, and perhaps even younger ones if they are confident readers. It is due to be released on 5th April, and my thanks go to the good people at Andersen Press for sending me a copy.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Review: Space Lizards Stole My Brain by Mark Griffiths

When Admiral Skink, an alien-lizard warlord from the planet Swerdlix, is attacked by The Hideous and Unimaginably Vast Comet Creature of Poppledock he faces a certain death...but luckily his underlings have installed the BrainTwizzler 360 Mind Migration SystemTM. This nifty invention safely transfers Skink's mind on to a memory wafer and jettisons it through space to find a suitable temporary "home" until he can be rescued by his fellow Swerdlixians. Unluckily for eleven-year-old Lance Spratley it just so happens that the temporary home for Admiral Skink's mind is his body! And while Skink deals with being trapped in Lance's useless body - it can't even breathe fire! -- Lance is transferred to a virtual waiting room surrounded by the lizard race who seem intent on destroying Earth when they have successfully retrieved Skink. Will Lance ever get his body back? And even if he does will he be able to thwart Admiral Skink and the Swerdlixians plans to invade Earth...

I first heard about this book through my sister who, knowing the author through her work as a voiceover artist, asked me if I had heard about it. A quick google and one email later and a copy soon arrived courtesy of the ever lovely Kat at Simon and Schuster. I am trying very hard to read more books for the 7-10 age group this year, and I am succeeding in this mission. I just need to find the time to write the reviews now, as there are so many fantastic books being released for kids at the moment, but it seems to be the YA books that get all of the press.

Space Lizards Stole My Brain is a zany, off-the-wall addition to this ever growing list of great children's books that deserve more attention from the media than they are getting. I am currently re-reading Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's books* and slipped reading Space Lizards in between The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and The Restaurant At The End of the Universe, just to see how it compared against two of the very best science fiction comedy books ever written, and I was pleasantly surprised. To say that Mark Griffiths is a new Douglas Adams (albeit for a younger audience) would be incredibly premature based upon this one book, but the early indications are very promising indeed.

Space Lizards tells the story of two very different people enitities organisms characters. One is Admiral Skink, intergalactic warmonger extraordinaire, and the other is Lance Spratley, 11, from Cottleton. Admiral Skink is the bloodthirsty, merciless Grand Ruler of the Swerdlixian Lizard Swarm, hellbent on nothing sort of galaxial domination. Lance is your normal, intelligent, geeky science nerd, who has a passion for maths, computers and "the occasional game of Zork Bullfree - Slayer of Astromoops.", passions he shares with his friend Tori. 

At the beginning of the story Skink, his battle cruiser, and all its occupants are destroyed by the Hideous and Unimaginably Vast Comet Creature of Poppledock. Fortunately for the evil Admiral, one of his now-dead underlings fitted him with A Braintwizzler 360 Mind Migration System, and on death so his complete consciousness and memories are fixed into a memory wafer that is then jettisoned into space, eventually to crashland on the nearest habitable planet, and transfer said memories into the brain of the nearest suitable living organism. Unfortunately for Lance.... yes, you guessed it. After falling into the crater caused by the falling wafer, Lance awakes to find himself inside a virtual world within the wafer, whilst his body is up and about containing the mind of a lizard alien.

Al kinds of madcap antics follow, as Skink comes to terms with inhabiting an vastly inferior body frame, and having to suffer the shame of being bullied, and spoken down to by Lance's rather nasty mother. If only he can get his hands on the wafer then he can activate a homing beacon that will bring his vast fleets of Swardlixians to the rescue, at which point he can get a new lizard body and proceed to destroy the Planet Earth. Lance, meanwhile, has to survive the virtual Fear, Pain and Misery Specialists who want to torture him into revealing all the weaknesses of his species, and then somehow get back into his own body and save the planet. It's a good job that he is smarter than your average 11 year old!

7+ boys and girls will love this book, especially if they are into programmes like Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It is fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny and just great Fun (with a capital F!). What's more, there is a sequel scheduled for August, delightfully titled Space Lizards Ate My Sister (and let's face it, every boy with an annoying younger sister has wished for this, or something similar, at least once).

*Thanks to author Barry Hutchison who pointed out on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that the complete set of Hitchhiker's books for Kindle was being sold for a ridiculously low price - more about these books in a future post.

Pile of HarperCollins Books Competition Result

The lucky winner of the copy of the fantastic pile of books published this month by HarperCollins is:

Jan Moyle 

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 HarperCollins for providing the prize.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Review: BZRK by Michael Grant

These are no ordinary soldiers. This is no ordinary war. Welcome to the nano, where the only battle is for sanity. Losing is not an option when a world of madness is at stake. Time is running out for the good guys. But what happens when you don't know who the good guys really are?

Noah and Sadie: newly initiated to an underground cell so covert that they don't even know each other's names. Here they will learn what it means to fight on a nano level. Soon they will become the deadliest warriors the world has ever seen. Vincent: feels nothing, cares for no one; fighting his own personal battle with Bug Man, the greatest nano warrior alive. The Armstrong Twins: wealthy, privileged, and fanatical. Are they the saviours of mankind or authors of the darkest conspiracy the world has ever seen? The nano is uncharted territory. A terrifying world of discovery. And everything is to play for...

Confession time: I have not yet read any of Michael Grant's Gone books. I have them all, sitting there glaring at me, begging to be picked up and read. And I will read them, at some point, but with so many new books arriving each week it is sometimes difficult to prioritise reading a books that have been out for some time. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Grant at an event held to launch Egmont's teen imprint, Electric Monkey, and I squirmed as I made this similar confession to him, but I think I got away with it by telling him just how great I thought BZRK was.

If you are anything like me then BZRK will blow your mind. That's pretty much all I want to say about this book, as it is almost un-reviewable, in that to give even the slightest amount of information away would definitely spoil your reading experience. I said as much to Michael and he seemed to take this as a great compliment. BZRK is very different from pretty much any YA book out there at the moment, and the closest I can come to expressing how it is continuing to play on my mind almost two weeks later, is to liken it to William Gibson's Neuromancer which had a similar effect on me many years ago. BZRK is a gamechanger for YA literature.

I am going to be very careful with my words from this point in, as I want to give you a feel for the book without spoiling it. A Michael Grant book wouldn't be a Michael grant book if it didn't make the reader feel very uncomfortable at times, and BZRK is no exception to this. The man seems to take great delight from scaring the pants off his teen readers, by drilling deep into their psyches and toying with the things that they fear the most. And we're not talking ghosts and goblins here, were talking about the things that make them wake up terrified in the night, and refuse to go to sleep again until dawn's early light brings some relief from the dark.

BZRK deals with issues such as: identity; control; what it is that makes us independent humans with independent thoughts; and - scariest of all in this book - madness. It is a book where you question the actions of everyone, both good and bad, and find yourself asking whether the good guys are actually just slightly less bad than the villains. For both sides, it is very much a case of the end justifies the means, and in BZRK the means are pretty damn deplorable sometimes. And what makes things even worse is that to many of the bad guys, what they are up to is just a game, albeit infinitely bigger and more extreme than anything produced for your average games console. There is one speech, by a character called Bug Man, that really does leave a bad taste in your mouth.... just as Michael Grant intended, I do suspect. 

If you have a son who is a reluctant reader, but loves computers, gaming, science fiction films and/or The Gadget Show then I strongly recommend that you go out and get them this book. Michael Grant will hook them from the very first chapter, and won't let them go until the last page, at which point they will be begging for the sequel.


Wednesday 14 March 2012

Review: Special Ops - Dead Or Alive by Craig Simpson (Special Ops Book 4)

A rogue British agent has vanished with a suitcase full of cash and a head full of secrets. Have Britain's defences been exposed? Special Operations must act fast. Finn Gunnersen and fellow agents head for the dark and sinister streets of Nazi-occupied Paris. Their orders are simple: Bring the agent back - Dead or Alive.

Fact: Many boys love books about war. If my own experiences as a teacher are not evidence enough of this then I have a little more for you. First up, my good friend Liz from the My Favourite Books blog has made several school visits in recent years, talking to kids about books, and she told me that one of the boys' favourite subjects is war. Add to this the continuing popularity of Commando Comic. Following a recent visit to the National Army Museum, where I discovered an exhibition of art from the comic, I became intrigued as to how many people still read Commando. The information from the publisher's website shows that 34% of the readers of Commando Comic are under 25, and the comic has a readership of approximately 40,000, with 8 issues being published each month. Ergo, boys love war stories - and yet there are still only a small handful of books being published each year that fall into this genre, my favourite of which are the Special Ops books by Craig Simpson.

Back in 2010 I posted a review that covered all three of the Special Ops books that had been released up to that point. I discovered the series after the publication of the third book, Wolf Squadron, and had the luxury of being able to read the three almost back-to-back. I found them more enjoyable, and certainly more believable, than the likes of the CHERUB books as the stories are grounded in fact - young people did play a huge part in the resistance movements of the various occupied contries during WWII, and all Craig Simpson has done is take this a step further by having a trio of Norwegian teenagers drafted in to work for S.O.E., the very real intelligence organisation that was set up to fight back against the Nazis.

Now, after an 18 month wait, the fourth book in the series, Dead or Alive, is out and is yet another thrilling addition to the series. I would like to say that Dead or Alive is more of the same from Craig Simpson, but that sounds like I am being negative. Far from it - in this case, more of the same means it is just as brilliant has his previous three books in the series. It has all the ingredients that have made this such an exciting series to read - great characters putting their lives on the line for the greater good, tight plotting, great action scenes, realistic dialogue and as much tension as any best-selling adult thriller.

Importantly, in these books Craig Simpson never glorifies the role these young people play in the war. Yes, they find themselves having to carry guns, and occasionally having to kill others in order to survive, but they never seem wholly comfortable with these extreme actions, however necessary they were. This is possibly more apparent in Dead or Alive than in the previous ones, as this time they are sent over to France to locate a fellow agent oy may, or may not have turned traitor. Said agent has gone missing with a headful of secrets vital to the defense of England fortune in funds that were supposed to aid the Resistance. Finn, Loki and Freya are instructed to seek and if necessary destroy this agent, and this is something that does not sit well with them from the very start. Should they follow their orders to the letter? What if he turns out to be innocent and by shooting first and asking later they end up killing an innocent man? What are the consequences if they fail to carry out the orders that come from Churchill himself?

I hope that these books are selling well as I would love Craig Simpson to be able to continue writing about his trio of youg heroes. The events of Dead or Alive take place in November 1941, so there is plenty more wartime remaining for him to set his stories in. If you are/have a 10+ boy who loves action thrillers then these books come highly recommended. Not only will yuo/he be able to enjoy a fast-paced exciting story, but there is also a history lesson with it. At the end of each book the author includes a postscript, explaining which elements of the story are based on fact (in this case, an agent really did go missing with a suitvase full of bank notes).

My thanks go the the generous people at Corgi Books for sending me a copy of Dead or Alive to review. Please watch this space as I hope to feature a gust post by Craig Simpson sometime in the near future.

Monday 12 March 2012

*** Competition: WIN a pile of books from HarperCollins

I feel like I should be christening March 2012 as HarperCollins month as they have so many great titles being released, every one of them a potential contender for my book of the year. Thanks to their almost overwhelming generosity I have a copy of each of their big titles that are coming out this month to give away, and you could be the lucky winner of a copy of each of the following:

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill
Freax and Rejex by Robin Jarvis
The 13th Horseman by Barry Hutchison
To enter all you need to do is answer the simple question below and add your details to the form. The first name drawn at random after the closing date will win all four books. Deadline for entries is 8pm GMT Monday 19th March. This competition 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 11 March 2012

Talina In The Tower Competition Result

The lucky winner of the copy of Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovric is:

Michelle Williams 

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 Orion Children's Books for providing the prize.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Book Zone Meets Will Hill (again)

Last month I was very fortunate to be invited to a special event that HarperCollins were organising for fans of Department 19, to tell them more about the sequel, The Rising. I have held off writing anything about this as there was a camera crew at the event, and I knew that a video would be posted online at some point. That video is now available for all to see.

It was great to see so many young Department 19 fans at the event, some of whom had some really searching questions for Will, who was being extra careful not to give away any spoilers for The Rising. Everyone who attended the event was given a goodie bag containing a breand spanking new hardcover edition of The Rising and I did see some kids start to read it there and then. If I hadn't already read it then I would have probably joined them. My huge thanks go to the lovely people at HarperCollins for inviting me along, and for Will Hill, Nick Lake and the tram for being so welcoming, and for taking the time to have a drink with me and a handful of other bloggers after the crowds had departed. Zero hour is coming..... are you ready?

Tuesday 6 March 2012

*** Competition: WIN a copy of Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovris

This morning I posted my review of Talina in the Tower, the latest fantasy story set in Venice from author Michelle Lovric.
Now, thanks to the generous people at Orion Children's Books you have the chance to win a copy of the book, simply by filling in your details in the form below.
The first name drawn at random after the closing date will win a copy of the book. Deadline for entries is 8pm GMT Friday 9th March. This competition 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.

Review: Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovric

Magic is attracted to Talina, and Talina is attracted to magic, with startling results ...

Talina in the Tower is the tale of a girl who is more passionate than she is careful. Talina Molin, the daughter of an archivist, has earned herself the reputation of being the most impudent girl in Venice. When she's not campaigning for egrets' rights, or terrorizing the school librarian, Talina adores reading, cooking and magic. When she mixes all three together, she cooks up more than she had bargained for.

The story takes place in a sinister late nineteenth-century Venice, one inhabited not just by frightened people but also by ferocious foul-mouthed tomcats, argumentative rats and evil vultures.

Back in 2010 when I reviewed Michelle Lovric's The Undrowned Child I stated that "I'm not sure I have ever read another book where the elements of historical fact and the fantasy creations of the author were so finely blended together as they are in this one". Michelle then followed that up with the equally spellbinding sequel to that book, The Mourning Emporium. Now, in 2012, we have her third story for young readers set in Venice, Talina in the Tower, and I am happy to report that it is just as magical.

I want to call Michelle's books a guilty pleasure, but I think that would be doing them a gross disservice as it implies that I shouldn't really be loving them as much as I do. Perhaps I should replace the word 'guilty' for 'the ultimate story-lover's', for that is what they are to me. Each one of these three books has contained a story that I have luxuriated in reading, the kind of stories I never wanted to finish, but when they did they left me feeling complete.

Talina in the Tower is not a continuation of the story told in the other two books. The story is set thirty years before the start of The Undrowned Child, but I can assure you that the Venice setting is just as magical and just as sinister, in equal measure. It tells the story of Talina, an impudent girl whose parents have gone missing, meaning that she has to live with her guardian, a child-hater who writes stories where children meet the most terrible of ends. However, Talina is headstrong and courageous and despite her misfortune she is determined to find her mother and father. 

As well as all of these qualities, Talina also has a great love of books, and (much to my great envy) is capable of reading two books simultaneously. However, one evening this leads to an unfortunate mishap as she is reading a book of magic whilst following a cake recipe and ends up accidentally turning herself into a cat. So begins her magical adventure as she escapes from her guardian's tower and ends up working with an assortment of eccentric and loveable characters to save their beloved city from the Ravageurs. These savage creatures, invisible to adults but looking like a particularly nasty breed of hyaena, are slowly trying to destroy La Serenissima, for reasons that are gradually revealed as the story progresses. In Grignan, the leader of the Ravageurs, Michelle Lovric has created yet another incredibly nasty villain who is intent on bringing the people of Venice to their knees.

Michelle Lovric has a command of the English language that many authors can only dream of, which can make her stories a little hard going for less able readers. However, I would not be surprised if many confident young readers choose to read her books again and again. Michelle uses her rich prose to weave a luxurious tapestry of a fairytale, populated with colourful characters, the dialogue between whom is another stand out feature of the story. It is at times funny, poignant, or menacing, depending on who is doing the talking, and what the situation is, and I would dearly love to see these stories adapted for the screen, with a cast of our greatest living actors to do them the justice they deserve.

As with the other two Venice books by Michelle Lovric, Talina in the Tower has a somewhat girly cover that I feel will deter many boys from reading it. I have attempted to encourage boys at school to give The Undrowned Child a go, but they invariably turn their noses up, thinking it will be a story for girls. Despite being a female main character, Talina is a long way off being a girly girl; she  is a classic adventure story heroine full of bravery, cunning and derring do. Like the other two, Talina in the Tower is a book for boys and girls who love great stories and I am determined to get more boys reading them.

Talina in the Tower was published at the beginning of February, and my thanks go to the nice people at Orion for sending me a copy to review. I can't express how much I am hoping that Michelle will continue to write books set in her magical version of Venice. The ending of The Mourning Emporium left things open for a third book, so I am keeping my fingers tightly crossed.   

Monday 5 March 2012

The Making of a Monster Blog Tour (Day 1) - Guest post by Chris Priestley

Yesterday I posted my review of Mister Creecher, Chris Priestley's brilliant 'filling in' of an intriguing gap in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein story. I have been a fan of Chris's writing ever since I first discovered his Tom Marlowe adventures, but my love of his writing increased hugely back in 2007 when I read his first volume of horror short stories, Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. Today we are incredibly fortunate to be joined by Chris as he kicks off his Mister Creecher Blog Tour.

How Frankenstein changed my life 

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw James Whale’s famous 1932 adaptation of Frankenstein, but I would have been in my mid teens, living on a council estate on the western edges of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I do remember the thrill of it though.

There is something about Boris Karloff’s creature that sears itself into your soul. I already knew that cadaverous face, of course. It is one of the most famous faces in the world, as well known as the Marilyn Monroe or the Mona Lisa.

It was only later that I read the novel and discovered a very different creature; one who could express his feelings and talk about his desires. I loved the arctic scenes that frame the novel and was amazed to discover that Frankenstein and his creature come to England and go to London, Oxford and the Lake District; places I knew well.

I learned of the story behind the novel - that the teenage Mary Shelley came up with the story in a Swiss villa rented by Lord Byron. Mary Godwin as she was then, was there with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s doctor John Polidori. A ghost story competition was initiated and Mary’s resulting nightmare spawned Frankenstein.

My fascination grew and grew. When I went to art college in 1976, I submitted a proposal to do a graphic novel of Frankenstein, but my tutor saw how much work was involved and talked me out of it, saying I should return to it later in my studies. I never did.

When I left college I tried making my way as an illustrator and a chance meeting in a pub on one of my visits home, led to me doing some work for a theatre company called The Dog Company. The man at the centre of this theatre company was Clive Barker and he had written a play called Frankenstein in Love for which he needed a poster.

Unbeknown to me, Clive was writing a collection of horror short stories - a collection that would be published as The Books of Blood and, thanks in part to to a famous Stephen King quote, would make his name and propel him from Crouch End to LA.

I nervously showed Clive a story I had written about my grandfather and I was thrilled to find that he immediately spoke to me as one writer to another. He made some suggestions, and even said that he knew of places who might publish it. Maybe I was a writer after all.

But I was also an illustrator and a painter and I was struggling to build my career as an artist. Wanting to be a writer as well seemed greedy. And frankly, it seemed more difficult, more unattainable.

I moved out of London to Norfolk and commuted in to work for The Economist and later The Independent, working as a cartoonist. On the long journeys home, I found myself writing again, filling notebooks with ideas and the occasional short story. And I kept reading about Mary Shelley and the Romantic poets, fascinated by their tragic, interweaving lives.

It was Chris Riddell with whom I worked at The Economist who first suggested that I write for children, and he who took the resulting story to his editor at Random House. Luckily they liked it, and though they didn’t publish that one, they published the next, and I have been a full-time writer ever since. That first book was for younger children, but my books have been getting darker ever since, my latest book follows on from a series of books exploring my fascination with Gothic horror and uncanny fction.

Mister Creecher imagines a meeting between Frankenstein’s creature and a teenage boy on New Year’s Day, 1818, the date of Frankenstein’s publication. It is the fruit of a forty year long obsession, and I fervently hope that readers of Mister Creecher will be drawn to reading Mary Shelley’s strange and thought-provoking novel.

And maybe they will begin a life-long obsession of their own. 


Huge thanks to Chris for taking the time to wrote this for The Book Zone. Tomorrow Chris will continue his blog tour by be stopping off at Bart's Bookshelf.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Review: Mister Creecher by Chris Priestley

Billy is a street urchin, pickpocket and petty thief. Mister Creecher is a monstrous giant of a man who terrifies all he meets. Their relationship begins as pure convenience. But a bond swiftly develops between these two misfits as their bloody journey takes them ever northwards on the trail of their target ...Victor Frankenstein.

In recent years a number of authors of books for children and young adults have written books that focus on the early years of famous, well-established characters. Notable examples of this are Charlie Higson's Young Bond, Andrew Lane's Young Sherlock Holmes and Andy Briggs's Tarzan reboot. In Mister Creecher YA horror supremo, Chris Priestly, has done things a little differently, by taking a famous character, in this case Frankenstein's monster, and added to Mary Shelley's original story. In that story there is a brief mention of Victor Frankenstein visiting London and other parts of England with his friend Henry Clerval, but no mention at all of the monster. And yet, later events suggest that the monster must have been tracking the pair through their journey up through England. Fascinated by this, Chris Priestley decided de would fill in the blanks, and you can read more about this decision over at his blog.

The book opens with Billy, an orphan and pickpocket, discovering what he thinks is a corpse, lying in the street. As he is about to check the body for any valuables he is interrupted by Fletcher, a fellow ne'er do well to whom Billy owes money. As Fletcher pulls a knife on Billy the supposedly dead body comes to life, and comes to Billy's rescue. This newly reanimated body is a huge monster of a man, who makes short shrift of Fletcher and his cronies. This man is none other than Frankenstein's monster, and so begins a rather unlikely partnership between the two.

Due to a mishearing of the creatures response to one of his questions, Billy comes to refer to his new associate as Mister Creecher. Creecher needs Billy to help him to follow Victor Frankenstein, who has promised his monster that eh will make him a bride. In return, the monster helps Billy with a variety of muggings that soon have him living a life a of luxury compared with the life he was living prior to their meeting. The story eventually takes the pair on a road trip like no other, as they follow Frankenstein and Clerval from London to Oxford and then on to the North.

The story examines a number of themes, most notably what it means to be human. Creecher is wants to be seen as a human being, and is desperate to fit in with society instead of being feared as a monster due to his ghastly appearance. To this end he spends hours reading books, studying the way the characters in the stories interact and trying to understand the nature of human emotions. Billy on the other hand is human (obviously) but has few morals and little interest in any form of traditional education. This leaves us asking ourselves who is the most human of the two?

Issues surrounding friendship are also a key element of the story. Initially Creecher uses fear and intimidation to get Billy to help him, but over time their relationship develops into something much greater than master and servant as they become firm friends, despite their differences. However, as a reader we can only view this friendship as it grows with a deep sadness, as we know that as Priestley's story is part of a story where the ending has already been told, we know that the friendship simply cannot last and somehow things will fall apart for the duo before the end of the story.

Whilst I am on the subject of the end of the story, if you have read anything about this book you will already know that Chris Priestley injects a surprise twist at the story's close. I did not see it coming at all, and I had a face palm moment before a huge smile broke out on my face as a number of dropped clues fell into place all at once.

I loved this book and I am sure that any horror-loving 11+ child who picks it up will share these feelings. It is a while since I read Mary Shelley's original, but from memory I felt that Chris Priestley's story matched the tone very well. His descriptions of the historical settings in the story, from the sordid streets of regency London to the other, more rural, locations the pair travel to are so well written that I was drawn completely into the time and place. I would expect that many young people who read this will be intrigued and/or excited enough to go out and get their hands on a copy of Mary Shelley's book.

Mister Creecher was published by Bloomsbury in a hardcover edition last year, but the paperback edition has only just been released. My thanks go to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to review. Please come back tomorrow when Chris Priestley will be visiting us to tell readers of The Book Zone about how Frankenstein changed his life.

Saturday 3 March 2012

News: US Book Cover - Escape From Furnace: Execution by Alexander Gordon Smith

Many of you will already know that some of my favourite book covers of recent years have been those for the US editions of Alexander Gordon Smith's totally brilliant Escape From Furnace series. Over here in Britain we are fortunate to have had all five books in the series published, but across the Atlantic US fans of the series are still some way behind us. The fourth book, Fugitives, was published in the USA a few days ago, and I believe that Alexander has departed from the UK this very day to embark on a tour of the US (more details on his website here). 

Meanwhile, I have just finished reading his latest book, The Fury, due out in April, and it is fan-bloody-tastic! Possibly even better than Escape From Furnace. My review will follow soon, but this morning I discovered that there is already a cover image online for the US edition of the final Escape From Furnace book, Execution (see my review here). It is yet another awesome cover by Christian Fuenfhausen. Sadly for US fans (and I know there are a lot of you) the book isn't out over there until November, but believe me when I tell you that it is well worth the wait.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Review: Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill





After the terrifying attack on Lindisfarne at the end of the first book, Jamie, Larissa and Kate are recovering at Department 19 headquarters, waiting for news of Dracula’s stolen ashes.

They won’t be waiting for long.

Vampire forces are gathering. Old enemies are getting too close. And Dracula… is rising.

If there was one 2012 release that I was looking forward to reading more than any other this year it was Will Hill’s Department 19: The Rising. I do not think I have stopped shouting about how wonderful I thought the first book was – I have bought multiple copies over the past year for various godsons, relatives, etc and I have recommended it to all of my friends and work colleagues who have teenage sons. It goes without saying that it was also my Book Zone Book of the Year 2011. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that an early proof copy was heading my way just before Christmas – it would make the perfect in-flight reading material for my journey to Canada. Imagine also my utter despair when it had not arrived in time – everyone else seemed to have received theirs, but Bracknell must be in some kind of different time zone as far as post is concerned as this was yet another slow arriving parcel. However, my tweeted despair quickly turned to elation when the wonderful, generous, thoughtful Will Hill emailed me a pdf of The Rising so that I could read it on my Kindle. I joyfully proclaimed that I would read it in a single sitting during my many houred flight, and Will replied that he would be very surprised if I did, as it was 700+ pages long. Was that a gauntlet I heard being thrown down?

Come the following morning the plane took off, and as soon as I was allowed the Kindle was turned on. The next nine hours flew by, the inflight entertainment system (and my long suffering wife) completely ignored/forgotten about, as I was drawn back into the author’s world where nasty, blood gulping vampires exist, as does a government agency, the eponymous Department 19, established decades ago to counter the threat of these unread. And I ‘won’ the challenge – I clicked over onto the final page just five minutes before the light came on to tell us to turn off all electrical gadgets in preparation for the plane’s descent, at the end of what was possibly one of the most enjoyable flights I have ever made. If you thought Department 19 was amazing then fasten your seatbelts tight as the sequel is one truly fantastic ride.
 Will Hill has taken everything that was so great about the first book, and turned them up to 11!

Now first the bad news – I really cannot tell you very much about the plot except for the very basics. At the end of the first book we were left with a number of questions (and one massively huge jaw-dropping epilogue), and many of these questions are answered in one way or another in The Rising. There are also a number of key developments/revelations that, should I spoil them in any way in this review, HarperCollins and Will Hill might just string me up by my unmentionables and leave me to rot. One or two of these really key developments I had guessed before they were revealed (honest guv!), and one in particular had been niggling away at me ever since I read the first book. This is not to say that they are obvious though, Will Hill keeps his readers guessing all the w ay through this one.

If you haven’t read the first book then you might want to turn away now as I am about to mention THAT epilogue (in fact, if you haven’t read it then leave this review now, and go and buy it or get it from your local library this very minute). As I was saying, THAT epilogue. The Dracula thing that had all those jaws thudding across the land. Yes, in The Rising Dracula has returned, but before you get your hopes up, this story is less about Dracula and more about loads of other things, and it is all the better for this. It is about how Jamie is struggling to cope with the loss of his close friend Frankenstein and his mother being turned into a vampire. It is about Jamie and his growing relationship with fellow Department 19 operative (and vampire) Larissa. It is about Larissa, hating her fangs and vampire abilities and desperate to be seen as a normal person. It is about Kate Randall, the girl they rescued from Lindisfarne. It is about Matt Browning, now recovered physically from the severe injuries he suffered in the first book, but mentally feeling that there is a huge hole in his life. It is about the history behind Dracula becoming a vampire, and the subsequent turning of his faithful followers Valeri, Valentin and the since destroyed Alexandru, and how not even vampire brothers necessarily share the same goals.

Despite it having more action, more gore, and more horror than its predecessor, The Rising is very much about the characters, good and bad, and in my mind this makes it even better than the first book. I became so immersed in their various stories that my emotions during that flight were all over the place. At times my heart was racing, desperate to get to the outcome of an action scene, and then several chapters later I would feel tears almost pricking at my eyes. I went from excited to saddened to fearful to elated and then back again, running the whole gamut over and over again. There was one scene in particular, at the beginning of which I was genuinely afraid for the characters involved, and come the end of that climactic scene I challenge anyone not to be genuinely upset. Will Hill – you are a genius!

This book is a rare thing indeed - a sequel that is better than its brilliant predecessor. It almost wants me to go back to my reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and drop them down to four stars. But Department 19 was my favourite book of 2011 so I can't justify that, so I will just have to imagine there being a sixth star. There is so much more I want to say about it but can’t (I value my unmentionables to much). Yet again I already have a frontrunner for my book of the year – author’s please note, Will Hill has set the bar and in 2012 it may take an effort of Olympian proportions to beat it.

Happy World Book Day

Happy World Book day one and all!

I remember the very first World Book Day, way, way back in 1998. I was teaching in a school in Birmingham and had started working very closely with the school's librarian to promote a new reading scheme. Looking back, they were probably the first steps I took on a journey that eventually led to me creating The Book Zone (For Boys). Said librarian was a huge fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel, and we decided that we would celebrate the inaugural World Book Day by having a fancy dress day for students, and also by encouraging as many of the staff as possible to dress up as a character from a Discworld novel. Those staff who volunteered were each given a character (and description). 

I remember dressing up all in black as an assassin, but for the life of me I can't remember the character's name. That doesn't matter though, the important thing was that loads of staff and students took part in the name of reading, and we even featured on the local news that evening.

Since 1998 World Book Day has gone from strength to strength and is now a major day in the calendar for many schools across the country, and this year it seems like it will be bigger than ever. There are events going on all over Britain today, in schools, libraries, book shops. There is also a brand new FREE World Book Day app featuring short stories from such writing gods and goddesses as Neil Gaiman, Charlie Higson, Malorie Blackman and Anthony Horowitz. I have already downloaded it to my iphone - you can find out more by heading on over to this page on the World Book Day website. There are also a number of special World Book Day books (including a special Skulduggery Pleasant story) available from book shops today for the paltry sum of £1 (or your world book day voucher). And if you have not yet read the totally brilliant Department 19 by Will Hill then look out for the specially priced £1 copies available in Waterstones. Only 3! for the best action horror book I have ever read??!! Bargain!

I hope you all have a great World Book Day!