Monday 31 December 2012

Reflections on 2012

2012 has been an 'interesting' year as far as blogging and reading are concerned. I think i may have read more than ever this year (I know I have read more than 180 books as I started adding them to Goodreads as I finished them, and this does not include all the comics I have read that have since been released in book format), but I have probably reviewed less than in previous years. This was mainly due to work pressures which ratcheted up a notch this year - I was able to make time for reading but then found less time for blogging. I started to get really stressed about this so made the conscious decision back in October that I would stop putting so much pressure on myself and simply write less posts per month, and that is how I hope to continue in 2013.

2012 seemed to be the year that a number of the wonderful publishers who so kindly send us bloggers books realised that they might be overloading us, and therefore (thankfully for this blogger at least) stopped sending out unsolicited books and instead emailed us with monthly newsletters whereby we could request the books we knew we would read and review. This has really helped relieve some of the pressure, although I can't believe I am sat here saying that there were too many books arriving, especially as I am forever talling my wife that one can never have too many books.

Whilst on the subject of blogs, today is a very sad day as it marks for closing of the wonderful My Favourite Books blog. Liz and Mark have become great friends since I started blogging, with Liz especially being the Obi Wan Kenobi to my Luke Skywalker. I think The Book Zone would have folded in its first year if it hadn't have been for the advice she so readily gave me. You can read their farewell post here. They are quitting blogging in order to focus on their own writing, and I would be very surprised if you don't read reviews of their books here or elsewhere in the future. Liz has also said she would like to write the occasional review for The Book Zone, so watch this space.

2012 has been a fantastic year for books, as my favourites of 2012 list will attest. It has also been the year where I have really got into reading comics, and there have been some amazing titles this year. It was also the year that I 'discovered' the books of David Walliams. I had previously dismissed him as someone jumping on the celebrity author bandwagon, but one read of Gangsta Granny showed me how wrong I was - he really is the rightful successor to Roald Dahl's crown. Since then I have read and loved all of this books, and have just this minute realised that Ratburger should have been on my list of Books of 2012. Sorry David!

I have also just realised that I never wrote my annual Christmas book loot blog post. I had delayed writing it immediately as we hosted Christmas at our place this year, and never got up to see my mother until a few days after Christmas. I knew I had a couple of awesome books waiting for me there and I wanted to include them in my blog post. I'm not going to say anything about these books, so just feast your eyes on their loveliness.

My lovely wife also sated my geek appetite by buying me a Lego X-Wing fighter! In return I sneakily bought her book-related presents, even though she is not a huge reader. She loves stage musicals and so we are off to see the stage productions of Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

And so, to conclude I would like to wish you all a wonderful 2013!

Sunday 30 December 2012

Comic Zone - My Favourite Comics of 2012

2012 was the year that I really got into comics. I guess this can mainly be attributed to the DC New 52 launch that took place towards the end of 2011 - I decided to try a handful of these titles, and whenever I was in London at the brilliant Gosh Comics picking up my standing order I couldn't help but pick up other books that grabbed my fancy. I have stuck with only a few of those DC titles, but in the process have discovered some fantastic other titles, which have become firm favourites throughout the year. Many of these have been, or soon will be, released in collected TPB format and are well worth picking up. I should add that most of these are not suitable for kids but most of them would not be a problem for young adults.

Batman (DC Comics)

This title featuring my all-time favourite 'superhero' was right at the top of my wants list when DC relaunched back in 2011. Having already read and loved Batman: The Black Mirror and American Vampire I was already a huge fan of Scott Snyder's writing, but with the relaunched title he has taken Batman to a completely different level. The Court of Owls story is one of the best Batman stories I have read in a long, long time and must surely rank amongst the best ever (aided by the great artwork of Greg Capullo). And if that wasn't good enough, Snyder has continued to show amazing form with the latest Death of the Family story arc. In addition, I have also enjoyed his run on Swamp Thing, a character I had not read much of prior to the New 52 - in fact, although I am not a Superman fan I may even be tempted to buy his Superman comics that are due to start in 2013.

Batgirl (DC Comics)

It takes a lot of talent to be able to successfully give a well-loved character a new breath of life, but writer Gail Simone has talent by the bucket load. Barbara Gordon has spent the last twenty plus years in a wheelchair as a result of the Joker's attack in The Killing Joke. This did not prevent her from continuing to help in the war against crime in Gotham City, in her role as Oracle, with Stephanie Brown eventually donning the Batgirl costume. However, come the New 52 and Gail Simone's Batgirl is now a physically rehabilitated Barbara Gordon, and we follow her first attempts as the reborn Batgirl. This was a move that had many fans (of both Oracle and Stephanie Brown) up in arms and the title could quite easily have bombed. However, Gail Simone brought such depth to her character, and the dialogue was so well written, that she very quickly won over the detractors, making Batgirl one of the most eagerly awaited DC titles each month. I was gutted when I read that Gail had been replaced as writer, and even more elated when it was announced recently that she was back on.

Wonder Woman (DC Comics)

As a child I loved the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman TV series, and own the DVD boxset, but I have occasionally struggled with the comics. However, writer Brian Azzarello brought something very special to the New 52 Wonder Woman and I have loved reading the series so far. Aided by the stunning artwork of Cliff Chiang, Azzarello delivered something very different for the Amazonian princess - a horror story steeped in Greek mythology.

Peter Panzerfaust (Image Comics)

Peter Pan, but not as you know it, with the only magic in sight being Kurtis J Wiebe's writing and Tyler Jenkins' artwork. This book is perfect for fans of reimagined classics and fans of wartime stories alike. It manages to be cool and exciting, without glossing over the nastiness of war, and has moments that will bring an emotional lump to your throat. If you're not a fan of superheroes but love the comic medium then get your hands on the first collected volume of Peter Panzerfaust - it's brilliant!

The New Deadwardians (Vertigo)

Whilst all the titles I have mentioned so far are ongoing series with collected editions already available to buy, The New Deadwardians by Dan Abnett and I.N.G. Culbard was published as a limited series and the TPB is not due to be released until February 2013. With so many great comics coming from Image, I looked at the list of new Vertigo titles earlier in the year and though meh! Except that is for this title - I have friends love Abnett's writing and I have loved Culbard's work on the Sherlock Holmes GNs and the more recent adaptation of At The Mountains of Madness. I was not to be disappointed - The New Deadwardians is nothing short of superb in all ways - superb art, superb dialogue (and lots of it) and a superb story, bringing a freshness to the vampire and zombie mythos. Limited series often only get recommissioned if the collected edition sells well so this has to go down as a must-buy for February as I, and many others, want to see a lot more from this team.

Saga (Image Comics)

This is the book that will probably appear on the majority of Top 10 of 2012 lists, and rightly so. Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that I do not read a great deal of space opera science fiction, but there was a great deal of early buzz about this comic and I was lucky to get my hands on a copy of the first issue when it was released. I have loved every single issue, and if I had to recommend one 2012 comic to someone it would have to be this one. And this from someone who is often reluctant to 'believe the hype' - in this case the hype is fully deserved. In Saga, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples deliver a comic that has everything a science fiction fan could ask for. Don't believe me? You could do a lot worse than head on over to Comixology where you can read issue #1 for free. I think like me you will be hooked. (I should add that of all these titles this is the one that should come with an age advisory warning from me. It includes sexual scenes, nudity, bad language and bloody violence and may therefore only be suitable for older readers).

There have been many more comics that I have enjoyed during 2012, including Thief of Thieves, Supercrooks, Nightwing, The Manhattan Projects, Mind the Gap, Dancer, and Epic Kill but the ones mentioned above ranked above all of these as my favourites of 2012. 

Friday 28 December 2012

Review: Zom-B Underground by Darren Shan

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers for Zom-B, the first book in Darren Shan's new series. Seriously, if you have not yet read that book then you should click away from this review right now.

Waking up in a military complex, months after zombies attacked school, B has no memory of the last few months. Life in the UK has turned tough since the outbreak, and B is woven into life- and battle- in the new military regime quickly. But as B learns more about the zombies held in the complex and the scientists keeping them captive, unease settles in. Why exactly was B saved? And is there anyone left in the world to trust?

With Zom-B Darren Shan left himself a seriously difficult act to follow. Those two twists towards then end have had everybody talking (and if you say you guessed both of them then I'm sorry, I simply do not believe you). That twist regarding B made me feel guilty for making assumptions about the character, something I am sure Darren was trying to achieve with his readers. And then he followed it up with B being savaged by the zombies that were rampaging through the school. Way to kill off what we were led to assume was a main character! Or did he?

OK, it isn't creating a spoiler to say that no he did not kill off B. She is alive (sort of) and well (ok, maybe not glowing with health), and wakes to find herself in some kind of large room, surrounded by zombies who are facing up to a team of figures dressed in black leather and motorcycle helmets, wielding spears and flamethrowers. She soon discovers that she is a prisoner in an underground military complex, and no longer human. In fact, she is a zombie herself, although not one of the mindless brain munchers (known as reviveds). Instead she is one of the revitaliseds, having retained her intelligence, memories and the morals/conscience that we saw developing in the first book.  Unfortunately for B she also has zombie fangs, sharp bones sticking out from her fingers, hair that won't grow and the inability to sleep. 

The powers that be have no idea why some people become revitaliseds, so for the time being B is a glorified lab rat. AT the same time, they keep B and the other revitaliseds completely in the dark as to the state of play above ground, so they have no idea if the county and/or rest of the world has been taken over by zombies, or whether it was a small outbreak of a mysterious disease that the authorities now have under control (considering there are another ten books to come in this series, I'll leave you to guess which is the more likely scenario). Before the end of this second instalment we begin to work out that B and her new 'friends', despite being signed up members of the undead, and far from the villains of the piece. And we also discover that there are far more nasty things than zombies emerging from the pen of Darren Shan. Have a close look at the cover of the third book, Zom-B City, although if clowns creep you out then perhaps you shouldn't (yes, that is an eyeball on its nose).

Like many Shan-fans I expected Zom-B to be full of gore, and apart from the opening and closing chapters, I was wrong. However, the blood splatter is back with a vengeance in Zom-B Underground, with possibly some of Darren's most gory and violent scenes to date. It should be remembered though that this is a YA series, and Darren is writing for a slightly older audience than he did with his vampire and Demonata series. As with the first book in the series the author continues to make his readers think, with the continued themes of racism and bigotry. This was introduced in the first book, with B agonising over the attitudes of her father, and how much of her own personality was due to his nurturing. In this book Shan cleverly continues the 'debate', but this time it is the zombies, and more specifically B and the revitaliseds on the receiving end of abuse, bigotry and intolerance from their human captors.

Two books in and this series is shaping up to be an absolute cracker, with Darren Shan at the very top of his writing game. Zom-B City is scheduled to be published in May, and two more instalments later in 2013. If you know a teen boy who loves horror films and games, but is a reluctant reader, then these are a sure fire way of getting him turning those pages. I for one can't wait to read the next instalment as I have far too many clown and Owl Man related questions I need answering.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The Book Zone Book of the Year 2012

It is that time of year again where I decide upon my favourite books of 2012 and announce The Book Zone Book of the Year 2012. And what a fantastic year it has been for books! In the past I have helped myself with this post by having a book of the month, or by looking back through my reviews of the year and using these to decide which was my favourite book for each of the months. However, I knew by March that this was not going to be the way forward for this year, as there were simply so many amazing reads being published. However, I have been keeping a list throughout the year of the books that have I have really, really enjoyed, or have blown my mind by being totally amazing. So in no particular order, apart from the final Book of the Year, these are my top reads of 2012:

The Fury by Alexander Gordon Smith

Another truly brilliant book from one of my favourite YA horror authors of recent years. Smith’s Escape From Furnace series should be required reading for any horror loving young adults, and with The Fury he showed that he was no one trick pony, and nor was the brilliance of Furnace a fluke. The Fury. Pace, characters, fear-factor – The Fury ticks the boxes in every aspect.

Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill

I suggested in my review of The Rising that it was a forerunner for my Book of the Year 2012, and that Will Hill had set the bar very high indeed. And I read this back in December 2011! It is still probably my favourite book of the year, but I have decided to set a small rule for The Book Zone Book of the Year: it cannot be ‘won’ by the same author in two consecutive years, with books from the same series. So sorry Will, maybe next year? That aside, I don’t think I need to say any more about this book that has not already been said, and not just by me. My reviews of the books, and my posts about the book covers, continue to be amongst the most viewed posts on my blog.

The 13th Horseman by Barry Hutchison

In 2013 we not saw the publication of the final two instalments in Barry’s brilliant Invisible Fiends series, but also the release of the first book in his Afterworlds series. And it was fantastic. Great characters and page after page of laugh-out-loud moments make The 13th Horseman the closest thing we have seen to Terry Pratchett for kids (apart from the small handful of children’s books that the great man himself has written). Watch out for The Book of Doom, coming from Barry in 2013.

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

A previous winner of The Book Zone Book of the Year (way back in 2010) with his awesome Dark Goddess, this time around we saw Sarwat writing for a slightly younger audience, whilst also proving that Rick Riordan no longer holds the monopoly on writing exciting, brilliant myth based stories. I stated in my review back in February that this was possibly one of the most important books to be released in 1012, and I stand by that statement. Finally, we have a British Asian action hero! And the story is pretty damn fine as well!

Oblivion (The Power of Five) by Anthony Horowitz

We had to wait a long time for this one, but when it arrived it was certainly worth the wait. A jaw-droppingly good ending to one of my all-time favourite series of books. When does Mr Horowitz get his knighthood?

The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne

This book was another leading contender for my Book of the Year, and if you haven’t read it yet then make it a priority over the holiday period. If you’re a kid it is a brilliant and funny adventure story. If you’re an adult, it is an uplifting tale of a boy who is different, and how he overcomes the prejudices he faces because he does not meet society’s ideals of what constitutes being normal. It will definitely make you laugh; it will probably make you cry.

Zom-B by Darren Shan

In a world that has gone zombie crazy over the past couple of years, Darren Shan completely re-writes the rule book with this book. Not only is this brilliant horror writing, it is brilliant writing period. And then there is that jaw-dropping twist towards the end of the story that has had reviewers cursing, and Shan fans around the world applauding Darren for his audaciousness and trickery.

Unrest by Michelle Harrison

Proving that she has far more in her repertoire than fairies, Michelle Harrison delivered this terrifying ghost story that shows that there is far more to horror than blood splatter. Michelle wrote the story in the first person voice of a male teenager, and she absolutely nailed it. I said in my review at the time that this would be the ghost story to beat in 2012, and I haven’t read another one that has (beaten it, I mean).

Bzrk by Michael Grant

No other book messed with my mind as much as Bzrk did, and at the time I suggested that it was almost un-reviewable. It is the kind of book that has to be read to be believed, and I loved the way it made me feel uncomfortable with its blurring of the lines between good and evil. And that speech by Bug Man……. !

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch

I have read more adult books this year than in the previous years since I started this blog, and two stand out from the crowd. The first is this brilliant third book in Ben Aaronovitch’s superb London-set urban fantasy series. Mr A continues to raise his game with each new book that he writes, I loved this one even more than its predecessors.

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

I don’t read a great deal of space-based science fiction, and even less written for the adult market, but given that I work with Adam’s wife and had never read one of his books I thought I would give this a try. It is part science fiction, part mystery story, and I loved it from beginning to end. I have not yet posted my review of Jack Glass, as every time I come to write it I don’t seem to be able to get the words onto the screen in a way that does the book justice, but I aim to have the review up before the end of the year.

And so we come to The Book Zone Book of the Year:

In the words of Connor MacLeod (of the Clan MacLeod, no less) there can be only one, and so it is with The Book Zone Book of the Year. This year’s winner completely blew my mind. It is an urban fantasy story written with a lyricism that is so rarely seen in YA books. I have the greatest pleasure in announcing that my Book of the Year for 2012 is……. (cue cliched drum roll)
(drum still rolling).


The City’s Son by Tom Pollock

Tom Pollock’s imagination knows few equals, and it made me look at London, and ever city I have found myself in since reading it, in a very different way. I have been thrusting this into teen hands all year, and have also bought it as a present for a number of adult friends. Few books have moved me to tears this year, but there were a couple of scenes in this one that did just that. The sequel, The Glass Republic, is due out in August in 2013, and I have very high expectations. No pressure Tom!

Monday 10 December 2012

Review: Geek Inc: Technoslime Terror by Mark Griffiths

Somewhere in the small, dull town of Blue Hills, the impossible is happening. Inanimate objects are coming to life. Time travellers from the future are mingling unnoticed with the shoppers in the high street. School children are developing uncanny powers. Strange creatures are lurking within the grounds of a forgotten stately home. And with each of these mysteries comes a terrible threat that just might endanger the entire world...Fortunately, help with these extraordinary phenomena is at hand in the form of Gabby Grayling and Barney Watkins aka Geek Inc.! Gabby and Barney are set to investigate all the odd happenings in their town and find out the truth...

In the first book in the series, Barney and Gabby meet and form a friendship when they investigate a top secret Government technology that brings inanimate objects to life. They also have to contend with the evil machinations of Gloria Pickles, the terrifying eleven year old editor of the school newspaper and would-be dictator.

This is the third book I have read by Mark Griffiths this year, and he is fast proving himself to be a master of writing crazy, off-the-wall science fiction stories for the 9+ age group. You can read my review of the first of his books, Space Lizards Stole My Brain, here and although I have not yet written a review of the sequel, Space Lizards Ate My Sister, I can assure you that it is just as funny and wacky as its predecessor.

January 3rd 2013 sees the release of his third book, and with it the start of a brand new series. No longer focusing on aliens invading Earth, but still firmly rooted in the traditions of science fiction, Geek Inc: Technoslime Terror is another riotous and hilarious sci fi adventure story for middle grade kids. Mark Griffiths has obviously taken The X-Files as his inspiration for his new series, but instead of Mulder and Scully, agents for the FBI, we have Barney and Gabby, ordinary school kids.

Barney is the new kid at school, having to join in Year 8 due to his father having to relocate from Kent to the north-west of England. Two weeks in and he still hasn't made any friends, and in an effort to avoid the attentions of the school's resident thugs at lunchtime he decides to try joining a club. None of the activities on the official list grab his attention, but he is drawn to a handwritten addition that simply says: "Geek Inc. Investigating the impossible! Room U13". Deciding that this sounds marginally more appealing than netball, salsa or chess Barney ventures into U13, meets the eccentric Gabby, and very quickly finds himself elected to the role of Vice-president (he is the only other member).

It isn't long before he finds himself assisting Gabby in her investigations into how a grandfather clock can move on its own, and then the greater mystery that surrounds fellow pupil, Lewis Grome. Naturally there also needs to be a villain who does everything they can to impede the investigations of your geeky duo, and you don't get much nastier than Gloria, a pupil who terrifies everyone else at the school, from Y7 up to sixth form, teacher and the Head. Gloria is not your typical school bully; instead she runs the school's newspaper, and anyone who falls foul of her can expect to have their reputation completely destroyed by her scurrilous articles, with journalism that would make even the editors of British tabloids blush with shame.

Geek Inc: Technoslime Terror is a cracking start to a new series and is sure to be a hit with kids who demand a heavy dose of silliness in their books. The books is scheduled to be published on 3rd January, and my thanks go to the lovely people at Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy to review.

Sunday 9 December 2012

News: Book Cover for The Maleficent Seven by Derek Landy (from the world of Skulduggery Pleasant)

I spotted this on Derek Landy's blog on Friday but this is the first chance I have had to bring it to your attention. As most of you know, I am a huge fan of the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy, but one of my favourite characters has not had the page count that she deserves over the past couple of books. I know I am not alone in wanting more Tanith Low, and I and the multitude of Tanith fans around the world will be rewarded for our patience come the end of March 1013 when The Maleficent Seven, a one-off novella set in the Skulduggery Pleasant universe, is scheduled to be published. 

Amazon has the book listed as having 288 pages, so it will be significantly shorter than the recent Skulduggery books, but it is sure to be a real treat. As ever, illustrator Tom Percival has produced a cracking cover for the book, and Derek revealed this to the world yesterday. I have included the final cover with text for you below, but if you want to see the artwork as nature intended then head on over to Derek's blog here.

And from

A brilliant, hilarious one-off novella in the Skulduggery Pleasant universe, from number-one-bestselling author Derek Landy

This time, the bad guys take the stage.

Tanith Low, now possessed by a remnant, recruits a gang of villains – many of whom will be familiar from previous Skulduggery adventures – in order to track down and steal the four God-Killer level weapons that could hurt Darquesse when she eventually emerges. Also on the trail of the weapons is a secret group of Sanctuary sorcerers, and doing his best to keep up and keep Tanith alive is one Mister Ghastly Bespoke.

When the villains around her are lying and scheming and plotting, Tanith needs to stay two steps ahead of her teammates and her enemies. After all, she's got her own double-crosses to plan – and she’s a villain herself…

Thursday 6 December 2012

Fact: Comics Are Brilliant!

Illustration by Sarah McIntyre
I'm a couple of days behind with this as it has been a busy few days at school, but this week saw a very sad occasion - -the final print edition of The Dandy. Now I have always been more of a Beano fan, but the loss of this great British comic is still something that crushed my heart a little. No longer will generations of kids be able to roll a copy of The Dandy up and read it at break time in the school playground. And bedroom mine fields of scattered copies will soon be a thing of the past.

However, the casual and uneducated observer may now be thinking that comics are dead in Britain, and they  couldn't be more wrong. Two days ago I read two outstanding online articles about British comics: one by the wonderful David Fickling, writing in The Telegraph, and the other by the uber-talented illustrator and comic artist, Sarah McIntyre. Both were writing passionately about The Phoenix, the awesome weekly comic that will be celebrating its first birthday in the New Year, and anyone who has had the fortune and pleasure to read an edition of The Phoenix will find themselves nodding and smiling in agreement as they read these two articles. Please take the time to click the following links, they are well worth your time:

David's article can be found here.

Sarah's article can be found on her blog here.

There is no guaranteed method of getting reluctant kids reading for enjoyment, but comics are as close as you are ever going to get to a sure fire way. On the day these articles were published I followed a brief Twitter conversation calling for The Phoenix subscriptions to be given to all UK primary schools. Such a fantastic idea, but I would guess it would need some serious financial backing from somewhere. Sadly, I'm not sure Mr Gove would agree as I very much doubt comics were approved reading material when he was at school.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Review: Fantastic Mr Dahl by Michael Rosen

Just how did Roald Dahl get into writing? Where did he get his ideas from? What ingredients in his life turned him into the kind of writer he was? Michael Rosen - poet, broadcaster and former Children's Laureate, comes up with some of the answers to these key questions in his lively biography of the world's No.1 storyteller. Full of stories and funny anecdotes from Roald Dahl's school days and family life, Michael Rosen's fascinating observations creates a vivid picture of one of the most famous writers of all time.

I have discovered over the past year or so that biographies are rather popular reads for a number of our teens at school. Sportsmen and sports women, comedians, TV presenters - I have seen all of these in the hands of student or another. Personally I'm not a big reader of biographies as they hold little interest for me, but one of my closest friends loves them as, by his own admission, he is nosey. The students who I have seen reading these books have told me that they love finding out about the lives of celebrities. However, apart from a handful of fab totals from the wonderful Barrington Stoke, biographies are in very short supply for younger readers. Therefore, I couldn't resist replying in the positive when the lovely people at Puffin emailed me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing Fantastic Mr Dahl.

Fantastic Mr Dahl is a relatively short book about one of this country's most beloved authors (Roald Dahl) written by another one of our most beloved authors (Michael Rosen). Rosen states proudly that he is Roald Dahl's biggest fan, and he opens this book with a short anecdote about how he first met the great man. What follows is a delightful peek at the life of arguably one of this country's most famous and most loved writers, starting with his life as a boy, and continuing through his work during the war and then on to his work as a writer.

This is only a brief introduction to the life of Roald Dahl, but Rosen does not waste a single word. He has very cleverly dissected the work of Dahl and focused on key moments or aspects of his life that hint at how he came to be the writer whose work we know so well: Dahl's love of word play and making up new words; his Norwegian background; his love of chocolate. Can you spot where he may have used these in his stories? Michael Rosen also gives young readers a glimpse into how Roald Dahl came up with his ideas, and the ensuing writing process, and in doing so he points out some of the elements that made Dahl's stories so appealing and so timeless.

This is a great book to be read to/by any fan of Dahl's work, and especially to any child who shows even the slightest interest in writing their own stories. Reprints of some of the letters, complete with spelling and grammatical errors, that Dahl wrote as a boy and young man will show children that the man was far from a master of the English language, and could give them confidence to further explore their own ideas in writing.

My only criticism of this book? It finished too soon!

Monday 3 December 2012

Review: Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell

Arthur Bannister has been unexpectedly accepted into Shiverton Hall, which, as it turns out, is an incredibly spooky school, full of surprises. And it is just as well that Shiverton Hall has made its offer, because Arthur had a horrible time at his previous school, and was desperate to leave. Timely indeed . . .

But Arthur has no time to worry about the strange coincidence. He is too busy trying to make head or tail of Shiverton Hall, dogged as it is by tales of curses and bad fortune. At least there are a few friendly faces: George, who shows him around; also Penny and Jake. But not all the faces are friendly. There are the bullying Forge triplets for starters. And then there is the acid tongue of the headmistress, Professor Long-Pitt, who seems to go out of her way to make Arthur's life a misery.

Luckily Arthur has his new friends to cheer him up. Although there are some friends that you don't want to have at all, as Arthur is soon to find out.

Warning... for reasons I will explain in the next paragraph, this review may contain spoilers.

I am struggling to work out where to start with this review, so forgive me if it comes across as a little rambling (more so than usual, at least). The problem I am having is that Shiverton Hall, the debut children's book by Emerald Fennell, is actually rather good, but at the same time it has a plot that contains elements that are similar to one of my all time favourite children's horror series - Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends. And whilst Shiverton Hall is a chilling and atmospheric horror story, it just does not quite match up to Barry's brilliant series in my humble opinion.

The similarity between the two books is a fundamental one - both involve the return of the characters' childhood invisible friends, but with a demonic and bloodthirsty mentality. Some might call that a spoiler for Shiverton Hall, but having read it and then gone back to skim read parts of it for this review, I'm not so sure. Young readers who have not yet discovered Barry's series will be able to judge this book far more objectively than I can, and any of them who love creepy ghost stories that invade their dreams will find this story a real treat. Unfortunately though, those who have like me read Barry's books may see the twist in the story coming from a mile away. However, that's where the similarity ends, as the reason for their coming back differs between the two books. 

I'm glad I've got that off my chest, and I will now strive for objectivity as I tell you a little more about Shiverton Hall. Main character Arthur Bannister has 'won' a scholarship to the mysterious and isolated school that is Shiverton Hall. Not that he can remember applying for such a place - he just received a letter in the post one day. Very early in the story the author drops enough hints to suggest that Arthur had to leave his previous school under somewhat of a dark cloud, and so this letter heralds a new start for Arthur, even if he is quite nervous about going to a boarding school. Once there, he quickly makes a few friends, whilst also managing to upset his house's resident thugs, the Forge triplets. So far, so like any other start to a new school. However, Shiverton Hall has a particularly gruesome history, and this is gradually revealed throughout the book by a series of ghostly anecdotes, told by Arthur's new friend George, whose grandfather just happens to be an expert on the bloody history of Shiverton Hall. I found George's stories really added to the story, rather than distract from the main plot, and they helped keep the tension building.

Shiverton Hall is a well written debut novel, and the author particularly excels at creating an atmosphere of creeping dread. Shiverton Hall itself can be seen as an extra character in the plot, and as the first book in the series I feel that there will be a great deal more menace heading in the direction of Arthur and his friends in the future. I am very much looking forward to reading a further instalment, as the invisible friends strand is brought to a conclusion in this story, and I would like to see what the author does with her spooky school next. It is being marketed as a book for 9-11 year olds, and this is about right, although fragile readers who are new to horror may find it a little too scary. However, there isn't even a hint of gore, so if you like horror but gallons of blood tend to turn you away from books, then this is one for you.

Shiverton Hall is scheduled to be released as an ebook on Christmas Day, and then as a paperback on 3rd January. My thanks go to the lovely people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to read.