Tuesday 26 June 2012

Review: Tarzan - The Jungle Warrior by Andy Briggs

When a baby gorilla is snatched from its family by the world's most infamous hunter, Tarzan will stop at nothing to track him down - crossing the wild jungle and hostile African savannah to bring him to justice.

Meanwhile, Jane is trying to learn more about Tarzan's past, and must decide whether reuniting him with his lost Greystoke family is the right thing to do. But Robbie has ideas of his own. He has formed a plan that will get rid of Tarzan for good, and keep the secrets of his own past safe.

Last year I wrote a glowing review for Tarzan: The Greystoke Legacy, Andy Briggs' superb reboot featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic character. Since then I have been eagerly awaiting the next book in the series, and pretty much dropped everything when a copy arrived through my letterbox. I am happy to report that not only has Andy Briggs produced another thrilling adventure story that young readers will adore, it is also possibly even better than its predecessor.

The book opens with Nikolas Rokoff, the greatest hunter in the world, receiving a commission to venture into the Congo to bring back a gorilla. So begins a white knuckle ride of an adventure that sees Tarzan, Jane and Robbie risking life and limb as they travel across Africa in pursuit of Rokoff. This is action/adventure writing at its very best, with scene after scene after scene that are just begging to be put on the big screen.

Whilst the first book was a great introduction to the main character for a 21st Century audience, it also introduced us to Jane and Robbie, both of whom are not particularly happy with the hand they have been dealt in life. In this book we see their characters developed even further, with Jane becoming tougher and more independent (in a good way), and Robbie struggling with his conscience, especially with regards to Tarzan and the avaricious plans he and Clark are making as they aim to prove to the Greystokes that the legitimate heir to the estate is alive and kicking.

Andy Briggs pulls no punches with his legendary king of the jungle, and the story certainly hasn't been sanitised for the modern audience. When he needs to be, Tarzan is a brutal and unmerciful killer, but in his mind every one of his actions is justified if it involves the protection of his home, and more importantly its animals, the only family Tarzan has ever known. Whilst we saw a few moments of Tarzan's explosive fury at civilised man's wilful destruction of his jungle habitat and its fauna in the first book, in this sequel they happen far more frequently as he battles against poachers who think nothing of slaughtering elephants for ivory, or capturing animals for wealthy collectors. Young readers are left to decide for themselves whether the end justifies his means, and the book is a thought-provoking story that could make a great starting point for discussions about poaching and other environmental issues.

As I said in my review of The Greystoke Legacy, I am no expert on the original Tarzan books, although I know a number of people who are big fans of both ERB's series and that first book by Andy Briggs. They tell me that although they had their doubts about the character being updated for a modern story, they also felt that Briggs and got the king of the jungle nailed perfectly in their minds. As I was discussing this book with one of them I mentioned Rokoff's character and I was told that Andy Briggs certainly knew he stuff. A quick google later and I found out that Rokoff, and his assistant Alexis Paulvitch who also appears in The Jungle Warrior, are characters who both feature in the original stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as does D'Arnot, the man who taught Tarzan to speak English.

I flew through this book and I think young readers will do exactly the same, as the plot races along at a fantastic pace as the trio pursue Rokoff across a handful of African countries. It is the kind of book that will also have readers vocally cheering on the jungle hero, especially during the many superbly written fight sequences. Although the main plot line of the story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, Andy Briggs pulls something of a fast one and the final paragraph will have readers clamouring for the next title in the series.

Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior is due to be published on 12th July and my thanks go to the good people at Faber for sending me a copy to review. Come back here on 13th July for a guest post from Andy Briggs, as part of the Tarzan: The Jungle Warrior blog tour.

News: The Sun Comes Out On Moon Lane Book Festival

Tales On Moon Lane is one of London's best bookshops. In fact, it so so good it has won a handful of awards, and next week it is hosting a week of brilliant events, featuring a plethora of fab authors. Here are a few more details:

School's almost out - and the crew at Tales on Moon Lane bookshop are expecting some very special guests for their biggest ever children’s book festival, which will run from 2nd – 7th July 2012! The packed schedule of events promises hi-jinks and hullabaloo aplenty with some of the biggest names in books for kids of all ages. There’s something to suit everyone in this exciting line-up so head on down to Moon Lane and hear some spooky stories from Marcus Sedgwick and Will Hill – or take afternoon tea with the Queen of Teen Cathy Cassidy – or help some of the very best children’s illustrators turn the shop into a giant picture book – or parade around in fancy dress – or laugh yourself silly with Philip Ardagh and Guy Bass – or train your dragon with Cressida Cowell! The possibilities are endless, and it's the perfect chance to stock up on some fantastic summer reads too. The experts at Tales on Moon Lane are always ready to help you choose the perfect books to keep you reading all summer long! Festival tickets are available online now at Book early to avoid disappointment.

I'm hoping to get along to the Derek Landy and Alexander Gordon Smith event on Saturday 7th July. Maybe see you there?

Watch out too for a very special guest post from Will Hill, coming soon as part of the build up to the festival.

Tales on Moon Lane Children's Bookshop,
25 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill, London SE24 9JU
TEL: 020 7274 5759

Monday 25 June 2012

*** Competition: WIN a pair of Sam Silver: Undercover Pirate Books

Last Thursday I posted a review for Sam Silver: Undercover Pirate, the fun new series for 6+ kids from Orion Children's Books.

Now, thanks to the generous people at Orion you have the chance to win a set of the two books, simply by filling in your details in the form below. What's more, I have three sets to give away. 
The first name drawn at random after the closing date will win a set of three books. This is a one day competition - the deadline for entries is 7pm BST Friday 29th June. This competition is open to UK residents only.

Contest open to UK residents only.
Neither the publisher or I will 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 24 June 2012

News: Book Cover for The Book of Doom by Barry Hutchison

I saw Barry Hutchison tweet this image yesterday and I really wanted to share it with you. It is The Book of Doom, the follow-up story to his brilliant The 13th Horseman. Notice I didn't say sequel - it is part of his Afterworlds series, and there may be the occasional cameo appearance by characters we have already met, or references to events or items mentioned in The 13th Horseman, but it is not a continuation of that story. I love this cover - what is there not to love about a devil in gold hotpants, purple legwarmers and rollerskates? And naturally, it is by David Wyatt, illustrator of a growing number of HarperCollins book covers. Sadly, the book isn't due out until February 2013, but if it is anywhere as good as The 13th Horseman it will be well worth the wait.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Review: Sam Silver - Undercover Pirate by Jan Burchett and Sara Vogler

Book 1: Skeleton Island

Sam Silver finds a gold doubloon which whisks him back in time to 1706. Suddenly he's on board a pirate ship - the Sea Wolf - with her fearsome captain and crew and sailing the Caribbean Sea. If Sam can't think of a very good reason why they should keep him alive, he'll be forced to walk the plank!

Book 2: The Ghost Ship

When Sam Silver and the crew of the Sea Wolf board a galleon looking for Spanish gold, they find it's already been stolen - by a ghost ship! Can our pirate heroes outwit a ghostly crew or is the treasure gone for ever?

Kids love pirates. Fact! Although I teach at secondary level many of my friends have kids in the 6-10 age range and nearly every one of them, boys and girls, is fascinated by pirates. Their parents tell me they are often getting non-fiction books about pirates out from the library, and they are always on the look out for pirate fiction. It is not an area I am expert on, although for the younger kids I have lost count how many time I have  recommended Jonny Duddle's The Pirate Cruncher and The Pirates Next Door to friends. Recently I received an email from the lovely people at Orion, asking if I would be interested in reading and reviewing the first books in their new pirate series, Sam Silver: Undercover Pirate, and I felt that it would be letting down my friends and their kids if I said no.

Sam Silver is like any typical boy. He lives in Backwater Bay, where his parents own a chip shop, and like many kids of his age he has a collection of found items. When he finds a bottle on the beach with a note rolled inside he assumes it to be a cry for help, and imagines the fame he would achieve if his discovery led to the rescue of a stranded person. However, on opening the bottle he finds a note written in 1705, and signed by Joseph Silver, Captain of the Sea Wolf. Excited at the thought he might be descended from a pirate, his elation is raised even further by the letters mention of  buried treasure. Also in the bottle is a gold doubloon, but when Sam shakes this out of the bottle it looks like just an old dull brown coin. On rubbing it though Sam  is given the surprise of his life as his world begins to spin, and when he lands again he finds himself back in 1706, on a genuine pirate ship, surrounded by genuine pirates.

Being a suspicious bunch the pirates are about to make Sam walk the plank because of his strange clothes and way of speaking, but his is saved by this fate as he stutters out his name, and the pirate captain proclaims him to the the grandson of Joseph Silver, a highly respected pirate who went missing a year earlier. So begin the piratical adventures of Sam Silver as he starts to win over the mistrusting pirates and they set of in search of the treasure mentioned in the letter.

Skeleton Island, and its equally enjoyable sequel The Ghost Ship, are perfect stories for pirate-fixated kids aged 6 and above. At about 140 pages each they are just the right length for children of this age, and they are littered with images that help fire young imaginations even further. Naturally, they wouldn't be proper pirate books if they didn't have maps printed in the front, and we all know how much kids love maps.

The stories are full of action and adventure, with Sam being thrown in at the deep end and having to evade rival bloodthirsty pirates, or navigate his way safely through Tortuga (anyone who knows anything about pirates has heard of Tortuga), whilst in between the action having to carry out his pirate duties like swabbing the deck and manning the crow's nest. With Sam being a 21st century boy sent back in time, this adds another layer of discussion for younger readers who will be able to relate to him very easily, and will probably daydream about what they would do if they were ever lucky enough to find a magic gold doubloon that sent them back in time.

Orion tell me there are more adventures planned for Sam Silver in the future, and there are currently a total of seven books listed over at Amazon, so if you have kids of this age I suggest you buckle your swashes, shiver your timbers and go out and get your hands on these first two adventures. Or you could come back here later this week and have the chance of winning one of three pairs of books that I will be giving away.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Book Zone Visits Random House Children's Publishers

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spend the morning in the company of the team from Random House Children's Publishers at their Bloggers' Brunch. I have been to several similar events at RHCP in the past, and then spend months looking forward to the next one as they have such a fantastic team there. Once we had been greeted and plied with tea, coffee and cakes we were sat down and the team gave us a presentation of some of the books they have coming out later this year and early 2013. As usual RHCP have a broad mix of titles on their lists, and there are some great sounding boy-friendly books that I want to share with you. So here are a handful of them, in no particular order (and obviously, all dates and cover images could be subject to change):

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick (published August 2012)

Eleven-year-old Arn is walking through the countryside in Cambodia. His whole town is walking with him. They're walking into one of the most tragic moments of history: the Killing Fields.

Music will save him. Hope, luck and kindness will save him. This is his story.

Based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, this is an achingly raw and powerful novel about a child of war who becomes a man of peace.

The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket (published August 2012)

This latest book from the award-winning author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Noah Barleywater Runs Away sounds fab. It was described at the brunch as being very Dahl-esque, and I can't wait to read it.

There's nothing unusual about the Brockets. Normal, respectable, and proud of it, they turn up their noses at anyone strange or different. But from the moment Barnaby Brocket comes into the world, it's clear he's anything but ordinary. To his parents' horror, Barnaby defies the laws of gravity - and floats.

Desperate to please his parents, Barnaby does his best to keep both feet on the ground - but he just can't do it. One fateful day, the Brockets decide enough is enough. They never asked for a weird, abnormal, floating child. Barnaby has to go . . .

Betrayed, frightened and alone, Barnaby floats into the path of a very special hot air balloon - and so begins a magical journey around the world, with a cast of extraordinary new friends.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett (published September 2012)

I have already mentioned how much I am looking forward to reading this one. Terry Pratchett + Artful Dodger = WIN!

Dodger is a tosher - a sewer scavenger living in the squalor of Dickensian London.

Everyone who is nobody knows Dodger. Anyone who is anybody doesn't.

But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, suddenly everybody wants to know him.

And Dodger's tale of skulduggery, dark plans and even darker deeds begins . . .

The Paladin Prophecy by Mark Frost (published September 2012)

I think the blurb alone is enough to explain just how much I am looking forward to reading this one. Add to this that Mark Frost worked with David Lynch to create Twin Peaks and I was practically wiping drool off my chin.

Will West is careful to live life under the radar. At his parents' insistence, he's made sure to get mediocre grades and to stay in the middle of the pack on his cross-country team. Then Will slips up, accidentally scoring off the charts on a nationwide exam.

Now Will is being courted by an exclusive prep school . . . and followed by men driving black sedans. When Will suddenly loses his parents, he must flee to the school. There he begins to explore all that he's capable of--physical and mental feats that should be impossible--and learns that his abilities are connected to a struggle between titanic forces that has lasted for millennia.

Red Rain by R.L. Stine (published October 2012)

Yes, that R.L. Stine. The legendary writer of some many children's books, and now he has a new horror story due out in October. Unusually, RHCP are marketing this at adults as it is supposedly pants-wettingly scary, although I imagine there will be a huge number of horror-loving older teens who will be just as keen to read it. Words cannot describe how much I want to read this book.

When Lea Sutter visits the Caribbean island of Chat Noir and witnesses a devastating earthquake, she is moved to adopt two beautiful, blue-eyed orphan twins, Daniel and Samuel, and take them home to America. But Lea's own children sense something strange and wrong about the boys and their innocent, oddly old-fashioned ways - and soon after they arrive, a terrible accident takes place on their doorstep.

As more grisly and suspicious events take place, the boys' true origins - and their evil intentions - become terrifyingly clear.

Crusher by Niall Leonard (published September 2012)

To catch a killer, Finn Maguire may have to become one...

Everything changed the day Finn found his father in a pool of blood, bludgeoned to death. His dull, dreary life is turned upside down as he becomes the prime suspect - how can he clear his name and find out who hated his dad enough to kill him?

Facing danger at every turn, uncovering dark family secrets and braving the seedy London underworld, Finn is about to discover that only the people you trust can really hurt you...

The Oathbreaker's Shadow by Amy McCulloch (published spring 2013)

For fifteen years Raim has worn a single blue string tied with a small knot around his wrist. Raim barely thinks about it at all; not since becoming the most promising young archer ever to train for the elite Yun guard and not since his best friend (and the future Khan) Khareh asked him to become his sole Protector. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his life to Khareh’s, suddenly that string on his wrist is all he can think about – it bursts into flames and sears a blood-red mark into his skin. The knot contained a promise of its own – and now that promise is broken.

Scarred now as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.

Raim flees deep into the vast desert to live in Lazar: the colony of exiled oath-breakers. It is there he hopes to learn how to clear his name and return home to keep his promise to Khareh. Except in Lazar, he discovers that his scar from the burnt thread marks the first step on the path to becoming a sage, with the ability to perform feats of magic straight out of legend. The trade-off: he will remain tarnished as an oath-breaker for the rest of his life. Can he forgo his honour for immense power? And even if he did want to clear his name, how can he keep a promise he never even knew he made in the first place?


After the presentation on forthcoming titles we were introduced to two members of the Random House design team who gave us a fascinating insight into the process they go through when they are designing book covers, often producing scores of different designs for each book until the get one that everyone likes.

We were then introduced to two of the team from Vintage Classics, another imprint of Random House. Later this year Vintage are launching a range of children's classics to sit alongside their long list of adult classics. I will write more about this in another post as it is something I am very excited about.

At each of the previous Random House brunches I have attended we have been treated to an appearance from one of their authors, and yesterday was no exception as we were then introduced to Laura Dockrill.

Photograph: Katherine Rose
Laura has made a name for herself as a performance poet and author, and her first children's book, Darcy Burdock, is scheduled to be published by Random House in the spring of 2013. Laura proceeded to treat us to one of the best author readings that I have ever heard, and I predict huge things for Laura and Darcy in the future. If you get the chance to listen to Laura at a book festival next year then snap it up - you will not be disappointed.

Huge thanks must go to the Random House team and Laura for giving up their Saturday morning to talk to us. As ever, it was a thoroughly enjoyable morning and I am already looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Review: The Enchantress by Michael Scott (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel Book 6)

The two that are one must become the one that is all. One to save the world, one to destroy it.

San Francisco:

Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel have one day left to live, and one job left to do. They must defend San Francisco. The monsters gathered on Alcatraz Island have been released and are heading toward the city. If they are not stopped, they will destroy everyone and everything in their path.

But even with the help of two of the greatest warriors from history and myth, will the Sorceress and the legendary Alchemyst be able to defend the city? Or is it the beginning of the end of the human race?

Danu Talis:

Sophie and Josh Newman travelled ten thousand years into the past to Danu Talis when they followed Dr. John Dee and Virginia Dare. And it’s on this legendary island that the battle for the world begins and ends.

Scathach, Prometheus, Palamedes, Shakespeare, Saint-Germain, and Joan of Arc are also on the island. And no one is sure what – or who – the twins will be fighting for.

Today the battle for Danu Talis will be won or lost. But will the twins of legend stand together?

Or will they stand apart – one to save the world and one to destroy it?

They say that all good things must come to an end, and as I pointed out back at the beginning of the year 2012 is a year where many of my favourite series are being brought to a close. Already this year we have seen published the final instalments in M.H. Harris's Joshua Files series and the fourth and final book in Darren Shan's Saga of Larten Crepsley. Later in the year the bell will toll for Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends and Anthony Horowitz's Power of Five. And now it is time to say a fond farewell to yet another series that has kept me thoroughly entertained for the past few years: Michael Scott's The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel

The sixth book in this amazing series, The Enchantress, was published a few weeks ago and William Shakespeare's  classic line from Romeo and Juliet springs to mind: parting is such sweet sorrow. Sweet because Michael Scott has brought his epic tale to a brilliant end, and there is little point in a story if it just goes on and on and on without finishing. And sorrow simply because it is the end. That's it. No more.

If love stories that are rich in magic, with a background steeped in folklore and mythology, and you have not yet read any of the books in this series then stop reading this review now and go out and get your hands on a copy of The Alchemyst. I remember exactly where I bought my copy (back when they were being published in lovely hardback edition). It was on a day trip to London and my wife had to drag me off the train when we reached our home station as I was so totally engrossed in the story. And that feeling of being so totally immersed in the tale that I have almost felt I have been part of it myself is something I have experienced with every one of the subsequent five volumes.

I appreciate that I need to be a little wary with what I write here. For some unfathomable reason, in the UK at least, this series has not reached the level of popularity of the likes of Percy Jackson or Alex Rider, but with rumours circulating about a possible movie adaptation I feel it is only a matter of time before this changes, and I would hate to create spoilers for the rest of the series in this review. What I will say is that this final instalment was everything I wanted it to be and more. All the loose ends are tied up, and every question I had has been answered (and believe me when I say that there were many of these).

I'm currently trying to imagine how Michael Scott pitched this story to his agent and/or publisher. If someone came to you and said that they had an idea for a story that included elements of folklore from around the world, time travel, shadow realms, Atlantis, and a list of supporting characters (from history and mythology) that included (amongst others) Nicholas Flamel, John Dee, Billy the Kid, Machiavelli, Joan of Arc, Prometheus, Virginia Dare and William Shakespeare, and then that author said that the six volume story would take place over a time period of only eight days, then you would be forgiven for thinking they were more than a little crazy. And yet, Michael Scott has somehow managed to pull of this Herculean feat. Well done and thank you sir!

Despite the vast array of characters there has never been any point in this series where I have struggled to follow what is happening to one or other of them, and given the multiple plotlines, and the many twists that Scott builds into his tale, this is some achievement on his part. Full marks have to go to the author for the way he has plotted his story - this is a man at the height of his storytelling 'powers', who knows exactly when action is needed, and (sometimes more importantly) when it is not, and also the perfect place to insert a cliffhanger before cutting to a scene featuring other characters. His characters, every single one of them, have been fully developed over the course of the six volumes, so even when their actions may initially surprise us, with a little mulling over they quickly make complete sense. And on top of all of this, I totally love his writing of dialogue. Every single character has their own voice, and every single phrase they utter is realistic and believable.

If you have read this series and are still hungry for more from Michael Scott then I recommend you get hold of the two short ebooks he has written featuring characters from the Nicholas Flamel series: The Death of Joan of Arc and Billy the Kid and the Vampyres of Vegas. They are both available from amazon for the kindle and are worthy additions to the series. I read somewhere a while ago that although The Enchantress brings the story to a natural close, there will be more in the future (a trilogy I think) set in the same world, and no doubt featuring a few familiar names.

I sometimes wonder whether I have spent more time reading up on the historical and mythological figures that Michael Scott has included in his six volumes than I have reading the story itself. This is the effect this story will have on you and I challenge any new reader to the series not to reach for the encyclopaedia or wikipedia on multiple occasions, to find out more about the likes of Virginia Dare, John Dee, Aten, Scathach, or Niten. These are the kinds of books that will have kids desperate to know more about the many characters, and we all know that kids love mythology.

I gave the first five books to my godson's brother last Christmas, and I recently heard that not only has he read them but also my godson and their mother. They are going to be staying with us when they are over in the UK from Canada next week, and I think they will be fighting over who gets to read The Enchantress first. I know I dropped everything to read it!

Friday 8 June 2012

Review: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch (adult book)

Please click on the link below and head on over to my adult book blog - The Book Zone (For Boys) Big Brother - to read my review of Whispers Under Ground, the third book in Ben Aaronovitch's brilliant fantasy series set in London.

Thursday 7 June 2012

More Book Cover Designs By My A Level Students

This time last year I posted a piece about the design work my sixth form students had done as part of their A-Level coursework (I teach Design technology by the way). Now, a year on I have just said goodbye to another cohort of 18 year olds, and I have more designs to showcase. Of course, this means I am also looking for a couple of volunteers to help out over the coming eleven months. Forgive me for simply pasting the information from last year's blog post - it is just much easier this way and nothing has changed in the interim.

At GCSE Level and A Level I tend to specialise in delivering a course referred to as Graphic Products, which is possibly even harder to explain than Design Technology. The students I teach do a lot of work with Photoshop, and most of their practical work output is based around the design of things like perfume/aftershave bottles, gadgets, promotional material such as point of purchase displays and so on.

A couple of years ago, in their infinite wisdom, the exam boards changed their expectations for the A2 coursework, an extended project worth 60% of a Graphics student’s final year of studying the course. Whereas previously they had been ‘happy’ to accept projects that looked at all kinds of hypothetical design situations, they had become fed up with thousands of A Level students claiming they knew the head of design at Apple UK (or similar) and had been tasked by this person to redesign the ipod (or some other gadget). Instead, the exam board wanted students to work on more realistic projects with a real ‘client’. The first word that sprang to mind for my colleagues and me was “HELP!”, shortly followed by “Where on earth are our students going to find these clients?”.

And then I came up with my bright idea. I approached several aspiring authors that I had met through Twitter and asked if they would be interested in having a book cover and promotional material designed for their work-in-progress. To my greatest relief every one of them replied with a resounding “Yes please”. All they had to commit to was sending back feedback on the various stages of the project as it progressed, their thoughts on: research material; initial design ideas; developments and so on. Nothing particularly onerous, but their input was invaluable to helping these students complete their projects. You can go back and see the work here.

In year two I was incredibly fortunate to have more people offer to help out, including some of my favourite authors, Barry Hutchison and Will Hill, and the final products are shown below (back covers of books have been cropped to protect the details of the authors’ works). If, once you have feasted your eyes on the work my students produced, you are interested in helping us this year please scroll down for more information and my contact details.

Anthony for Will Hill

This project was a little different from the others that my students worked on. Anthony is a self-confessed geek (I hate to think how much time we wasted talking about comics over the past two years), and he wanted to do something a little bit different. I approached Will and asked if he would be interested in having Anthony design and build a replica model of the T-Bone gun from the Department 19 books. I was overjoyed when Will jumped at the chance, and sounded almost as excited as I was with the idea. Anthony went on to produce the replica model and also a carry case for it.

Omid for Gavin Gray

Omid made a book cover and promotional point of purchase display for Gavin Gray's Blackout.

Fraser for Barry Hutchison

Fraser made a book cover and promotional point of purchase display for Barry's The Spectre Collector (and I believe Barry wants all of his books to be displayed in coffins from now on).

Luke for Adam Roberts

Luke made a book cover and promotional point of purchase display for Adam Roberts's Adam Robots.

My huge thanks go to Will, Gavin, Barry and Adam for the time they put in to writing this invaluable feedback for my students, all of whom have achieved good marks for their coursework.

In a week's time we will have another cohort of students starting their A2 coursework, and following the success of this year I would be really keen to hear from any other authors, aspiring or published, who might be interested in helping us out. The project runs from June 2012 through to April 2013. All we would need from you is a commitment to giving feedback by email, and providing some details about your book such as themes, imagery and characters (it is not a heavy time commitment - Will and Barry both had books published and were on tour during the year and still managed to provide feedback). 

I cannot guarantee that the students will produce work of this quality every time. Neither can I make any promises as to the quality of communication that they will engage in with you. They are after all teenagers, and much as I enjoy teaching them teenagers are not always the most reliable of young people. However, I am sure Lara will not mind me quoting her from an email she wrote to me about working with Claudia at the end of last year's project: “…. it has been a complete and utter pleasure. She was totally professional, hard working and carried out everything to a high standard. She is a credit to both herself and your school. I loved what she did and it was impressive considering she hasn't read the book.”

If you are interested in helping us out then please contact me at bookzone4boys (at) gmail (dot) com. Unfortunately if I have a lot of replies we will not be able to use everyone as we only have sixteen students in the group, some of whom will have their own ‘clients’ and ideas as to the project they choose to do.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Review: Secret Breakers - The Power of Three by H.L. Dennis

Imagine the chance to solve the Voynich Manuscript - a puzzle that has truly defeated adults for centuries.

It's an ancient manuscript no one has ever been able to decipher. And there are Rules that say it is forbidden to even try to solve it.

A secret hidden for centuries.

But Brodie Bray likes a challenge, and when she receives a coded message through the post her life changes for ever. She's chosen for a secret team working to crack this most complicated code in the world to uncover the secret it hides.

But it's a code that has driven people mad trying to solve it.

Together with her new friends, Brodie must break the rules to break the code, at every turn facing terrible danger. For someone is watching them - and will even kill to stop them.

I have occasionally moaned about the relative lack of quest style thrillers for younger readers, when there are so many being published for adults. Back in February I posted a review of the hugely enjoyable The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, a quest thriller for young adults that focused on the infamous Voynich Manuscript. Now, courtesy of writer H.L. Dennis, the 9+ age group have their very own Voynich Manuscript story, a book the publishers are touting as 'The Da Vinci Code for kids'.

The Power of Three is the first book in the new Secret Breakers series published by Hodder. The solution to the secrets behind the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, aka MS 408, has evaded experts for decades, to the point where many were sent over the edge in their obsession to crack it. As such, it was locked away with a government ban on anyone working on it again. Now Mr Smithies, a member of the British Black Chamber, a secret organisation formed to find out secrets and crack codes, has got his hands on a new piece of information, and he goes behind the backs of his superiors to create a brand new team of code breakers, and this time they are kids, all of them descendants of previous members of the Black Chamber.

Brodie Bray is the first of these young people that we are introduced to, as she receives a cryptic invitation that she finds more than a little sinister. The invitation leads to her solving another clue that leads to her journeying to Bletchley Park, home of the WWII code breakers. Here she meets Hunter and Tusia, two other gifted young people, and a small group of Black Chamber has-beens who are to become their tutors in the arts of code breaking. Soon the trio are making head way with the first clue to the Voynich Manuscript, work that could lead to them risking their lives to solve the mystery.

Despite the popularity of books by the likes of Darren Shan and Geoff Kinney, kids still love mystery stories. The popularity of the Adventure Island and Laura Marlin Mysteries books are testament to this, and I think the 9+ age group will also love the Secret Breakers. The three children have been chosen for their intellectual gifts, but they are certainly not your stereotypical geeks. Throughout the story they are tested physically as well as mentally, and they also have to demonstrate courage and resilience. These kids are great role models for mystery loving readers, who I am sure will take great delight in following their adventures as they attempt to solve each clue/code that comes their way.

I think my only criticism of the book was the amount of unnecessary foreshadowing that is included in the plot. It is something I have started to notice occurring more often in children's and YA books over the past couple of years, and I think that editors are as much to blame as authors. There were a number of instances where Ms Dennis included a short scene, outside of the flow of the main plot, seemingly only to add more tension to the overall story. To me this seemed a little to obvious, and a little irritating. However, this is one of the moments where I have to remind myself that I am reviewing a book written for 9+ children, who really will not care at all about this. It is only a minor gripe on my part, but I had to get it off my chest.

I do not know how many books are planned in this series, but the sequel, Orphan of the Flames, is scheduled to be released in October 2012. H.L. Dennis has won herself a new fan here and I am very much looking forward to seeing where she takes her young heroes next, as the ending of The Power of Three, although not being a cliff hanger, has left me very much intrigued. My thanks go to the lovely people at Hodder for sending me a copy to review.

be just as eager as I am to read the next instalment once they get to the end of this first book  

Monday 4 June 2012

Review: Geekhood by Andy Robb

What do you do if you're a fourteen-year-old Geek, and a Beautiful Girl has appeared in the midst of your geeky world? And she seems to like you... 

For Archie, the natural reaction would be to duck and cover ... run for the hills ... buy a new model elf... Anything but risk stepping into the Real World. 

But even Geeks have to put their heads above the parapet at some point. 

With his mum barely able to contain her excitement that her son is about to join the human race, and his step-father, Tony the Tosser, offering crass advice, it's time for Archie to embark on a daring Quest to win the Beautiful Girl's heart and shake off his Geekhood for good...

There has been quite a lot of buzz about Geekhood on Twitter recently, and as someone who has always had some geeky tendencies I thought it would be right up my street. Unfortunately I was to be disappointed. I can't tell you how much I wanted to like this book - in some ways Archie, the main character, reminded me a lot of my teenage self.

Geekhood tells the story of Archie, a fourteen-year-old boy whose passion in life is playing Role Playing Games with his small group of mates: Matt, Beggsy and Ravi. He buys the miniature figures from The Hovel (a place much like Games Workshop), spends hours painting them perfectly, and then takes the role of Dungeon Master whenever the group convene for the Game. However, away from his geeky hobbies Archie's lot is not a particularly happy one. His parents are divorced and he lives with his mother and her partner, Tony, who Archie refers to (privately of course) as 'the tosser'.

After the brief introduction to Archie's family situation and love of RPGs, the story proper begins with Archie meeting beautiful goth girl Sarah at The Hovel, and instantly falling in love with her. What follows is a funny, often cringe-inducing, but also occasionally heartwarming account of Archie's attempts to woo said girl. Sadly, it was the way that they met that was one of the things that infuriated me the most in the book (see 'not so good' section below).

I am already conscious of this sounding like a negative review and on the whole it shouldn't be as I did enjoy reading Geekhood, however I just don't think it is nearly as good as the buzz around Twitter and the blogosphere would suggest. With this in mind I am going to structure my review slightly differently from usual as I want to make sure I get the positives across first, as I would hate to turn people away from reading this book.

The good

This book is very, very funny. There were many points where I was laughing out loud, and considering I was reading it on the train to and then later from London I was getting a few funny looks from my fellow passengers. Andy Robb utilises a great device in his writing that is referred to as Archie's Interior Monologue or IM. This is the little voice that constantly whispers in his mind, whetehr it be delivering a string of insults to Tony, or telling him he has next to no chance with Sarah. Meanwhile on the exteriors, where Tony is concerned at least, he has perfected the art of seeming to be happy and laid back. Unfortunately he is not so skilled at this when it comes to Sarah, when like most teenage geeky boys he becomes more of a gibbering wreck. There were so many moments like this that I could easily relate to based on my own teenage years, and this had me laughing even more.

I also loved Archie's character in general. I am guessing that there is a lot of Andy Robb's teenage experiences in his protagonist, and this makes him an all the more believable character that many teens, both boys and girls, will be able to relate to. The situations he faces, and the troubles he makes for himself through his own naivety and romantic ineptitude will strike a chord with less-confident teens across the nation, and in doing so may even work as a kind of self-help 'how not to do it' manual.

And now the not so good

I mentioned that Archie's initial meeting with Sarah irritated me, and even now, writing this review, it is still winding me up. Basically, Archie goes along to The Hovel, where they are holding one of their occasional Battle-Fests. This is the day when all the gamers in the area descend on the store with their prize models, for awards, painting workshops, and war games. It's described as being overflowing with Geeks (not sure why Andy Robb insists on capitalising that word). As the event kicks off, Archie and his mates spilt up and head for different sections, with Archie heading for the painting workshop and then on to study some of the new model releases. As he is doing so, the noise level in the store drops and he feels a tap on his shoulder. He turns to meet Sarah for the first time. And this is where it got annoying for me. Sarah asks what the place is, as she seems to have no idea that it is a games shop. Now I read a hell of a lot of escapist fiction, and so I am a master at suspending disbelief, but in this case I simply could not. Firstly, with the shop so full why has Sarah ventured in to ask this question when there would have been more than enough people to ask at the entrance, and secondly why did she ask Archie, whose attention she had to pull away from the models by tapping him on the shoulder. The whole boy meeting girl thing which sets up the rest of the story was just far too contrived for my liking, and it was something I couldn't let go of (and still can't).

I mentioned above about how much I loved Archie's character, and how well developed he was by Andy Robb. Sadly, the same cannot be said for his small group of friends, who to me seemed like nothing more than bit parts in the story. I would have loved to find out more about them, but too much time is devoted to Sarah (who I just could not being myself to like at all). I appreciate that this is Archie's story, told though his eyes and as such we focus on the object of his obsession, but I felt that his friends were done a great disservice.

My final moan about the book is not one that bothered me, but may bother teen readers. The book is full of references to geek culture, many of which drew a knowing smile from my lips. However, I think too many of them were based on Andy Robb's interests as a teen, such as references to Star Trek: The Next Generation and the original Star Wars trilogy. Things have moved on since then, and I think references to things like scenes where Worf has to register surprise will be lost on the majority of today's teens. It says something to me that most of the buzz I have picked up online has been from adult readers, who use the book as a geeky nostalgia trip. Interestingly, I have also noticed that much of the buzz comes from female bloggers, and now having read the book myself I would question whether this is the kind of book that would hold the attention of geeky boys enough to drag them away from their science fiction or epic fantasy books, or their gaming tables. Perhaps the many references to the world of RPGs may do just that. Not having ever played an RPG it is not an area I feel qualified to comment on. However, what I can say with some degree of experience is that the geeky boys at school, who I obviously spend a lot of time talking to, would probably not enjoy this book - they are simply too geeky for coming of age stories (which I might add, are far more popular with the girls, even if they are aimed at boys).

Looking back at this review I see that the negatives seem to outweigh the positives, but I think that is mainly down to my poor way of explaining my thoughts. If you are a teen boy I would love to hear your comments on it. I do however feel that its fans will be mainly girls and adult geeks who fancy a laugh out loud trip down memory lane.

Geekhood is published by Stripes and my thanks go to them for sending me a copy to review.