Tuesday 30 July 2013

Review: Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Oliver grew up in a family of explorers - but his biggest adventure is about to begin!

Along with his new friends, a grumpy old albatross, a short-sighted mermaid and a friendly island called Cliff, Oliver goes off in search of his missing parents. But before he can put his rescue plan into action there's the evil Stacey de Lacey and an army of greasy, green sea monkeys to contend with . . . 

Oliver Crisp's life differs from that of the majority of kids of his age in that instead of living in a house and attending school, he has accompanied his explorer parents on their adventures around the world. However, Mr and Mrs Crisp have come to the conclusion that they have been everywhere and seen everything and there simply isn't anywhere left to explore and so with heavy hearts they set off back to their house in Deepwater Bay, a house that they have hardly ever lived in. Oliver, on the other hand, is more excited than he has been for a long time - he longs to live a normal life, in a proper family house, and attend a proper school.

However, as their ramshackle house comes into view the trio are surprised to find that Deepwater Bay has gained a number of islands during their absence, and naturally the Crisp parents just have to head out in their little dinghy to explore them. When some time goes past and they haven't returned Oliver ventures out to discover that all but one of the islands have disappeared, along with his parents, and so begins a thrilling and hilarious search and rescue mission that sees Oliver meeting islands that travel, a mermaid in desperate need of an optician, a talking albatross, sea monkeys and a particularly mean villain called Stacey de Lacey.

This is one of the most enjoyable and charming books that I have read so far this year, and it shows just how talented and versatile a writer Philip Reeve is. Reading Oliver and the Seawigs it is hard to believe that this is the product of the same imagination that brought us the brilliant Mortal Engines series with its roaming, cannibalistic cities, although on reflection I guess the concept of islands that travel isn't a million miles away from this. It really is a shame that YA books tend to hog so much of the book review spotlight, as Oliver and the Seawigs is the perfect book for 7+ aged readers deserves to be acclaimed about by newspaper critics and book bloggers alike. 

Reeve's storytelling is intelligent and witty, with clever word play, crazy happenings and a sense that you can never really guess what is going to happen next. However, his contribution is only 50% of what makes this book as magical as it is, with the other half of magic being provided by the super talented illustrator, Sarah McIntyre. Sarah's quirky and zany illustrations complement Reeve's words so perfectly. They are like cream to Reeve's strawberries. The Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. The Cannon to his Ball... I think you get my drift :-)

I was very fortunate to be able to attend the launch of Oliver and the Seawigs last week (on the Golden Hinde, I kid you not), and it was wonderful to finally get to meet Philip as I have been a fan of his ever since I first read Mortal Engines. I have known for some time thanks to the magic of the interweb that Philip and Sarah have developed a close friendship, and at the Seawigs launch party it was very evident that their personalities are as perfectly matched as Sarah’s illustrations are to Philip’s words. Given that there is at least one more Seawigs style book planned (and hopefully many more after that) I would not be surprised if in years to come people will talk about the McIntyre/Reeve partnership in the same way that they talk about the Dahl/Blake pairing, and the two will become inextricably linked.

This book is perfect for young readers, and just as perfect for parents to read to even younger children as a bedtime story. It is the kind of book that I will be buying as presents for as many children as I can, especially as OUP have produced such a gorgeous looking hardcover edition. It is also the kind of book that I expect to become many future adult's fondly remembered childhood read, with well-read and much-loved copies sitting on bookshelves in homes for many years to come.

My thanks go to Liz Scott and the lovely people at OUP for sending me a copy of Oliver and the Seawigs, and for inviting me to the fab launch party last week. Oliver and the Seawigs will be available to buy in September.

Philip and Sarah at the launch party, Sarah wearing her truly amazing seawig

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Review: Sorrowline by Niel Bushnell

Twelve-year-old Jack Morrow is used to life being complicated. His mother died five years ago, and his father is now headed for prison. But then Jack discovers he's a Yard Boy - someone with the ability to travel through Sorrowlines, the channels that connect every gravestone with the date of the person's death - and he is quickly pulled into an adventure beyond anything he could have possibly imagined.

Finding himself in 1940s war-torn London, with his then-teenage grandfather, Davey, Jack soon realises that his arrival in the past has not gone unnoticed. The evil forces of a secret world are determined to find him - and to find out all he knows.

As Jack struggles to survive, he comes ever closer to unlocking the dark secret at the heart of his family, and to - just maybe - changing his own destiny . . .

Like many main characters in books written for this age, 13-year-old Jack’s lot in life is not a happy one. His mother was killed when he was younger, and now his father is heading for a lengthy spell behind bars. Just before his father ‘goes away’, on a visit to his mother’s grave, Jack places his hand longingly on his mother’s headstone and is pretty much pulled into it. The next thing he knows, he is still in the graveyard but the headstone, and his father who was only seconds ago sitting on a nearby bench, have disappeared. Strange? You bet, but things get even stranger as Jack’s grandfather appears and informs him:

a) He is a Yard Boy, able to travel through time using the Sorrowlines;

b) Jack’s life is in danger;

c) Jack must travel back to 1940 and track down the younger version of his grandfather, where all will be explained.

Like most 13-year-olds would, Jack has more than a little trouble believing what he perceives to be a smelly old homeless guy, but then the Dustmen appear, and before he knows it Jack is fleeing for his life through the graveyard, hunting for a headstone marked 1940 that will take him back in time. So begins a wonderful and exciting time travel adventure featuring people from an alternate world, knights that simply will not die, Boagymen who can travel between the smallest rooms/cupboards in houses and transport you pretty much anywhere you want to go (at a cost), vicious creatures called Weavers. And of course, a story like this would not be complete without a particularly nasty  villain, in this case the power hungry and ruthless Rouland.

I love time travel stories, and in recent years we have been treated to the brilliant TimeRiders series by Alex Scarrow, and Damien Dibben’s exciting action adventure series, The History Keepers. Some might therefore question the need for another time travel series for readers of this age but author Niel Bushnell proves that an original concept can inject freshness into the genre, and with books like Sorrowline there continues to be room for even more time travel stories for young readers.

Niel Bushnell never patronises his readers by dumbing down the plot - as with some of the best time travel stories this book has a fairly complicated plot that keeps readers on their toes, looking for clues to events in the future as the past part of the story continues to develop. The question of whether changing events in the past can alter the present/future naturally raises its head and Niel Bushnell deals with this in a way that should keep all of his readers happy. 

Jack is just one of a handful of great (and believable) characters in Sorrowlines, as he makes various allies and enemies as he travels back in time. However, unlike many books of this ilk it was very refreshing to see that Jack simply does not know who he can and can't trust. Usually we see a main character make close friends very quickly with someone of a similar age, and they become the close companion in the main character's adventure. In Sorrowlines it seems that just about every character has their own agenda, and could possibly betray Jack at the drop of a hat, whether it be for financial or some other gain, or simply through sheer cowardice. Thus, it isn't only Jack who is plagued with confusion and uncertainty, as the reader also gets to share these emotions as the plot twists and turns.

Sorrowlines is an exciting adventure story that will have 10+ aged readers gripped from the beginning. It is also somewhat poignant in places as Jack's adventures give him a greater insight into the events from his own childhood, and he searches desperately for a way to change his past.

My thanks go to Niel Bushnell for sending me a copy to read.

Monday 22 July 2013

Review: Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff

Boy Nobody is the perennial new kid in school, the one few notice and nobody thinks much about. He shows up in a new high school, in a new town, under a new name, makes few friends and doesn't stay long. Just long enough for someone in his new friend's family to die -- of "natural causes." Mission accomplished, Boy Nobody disappears, and moves on to the next target.

When Boy Nobody was just eleven, he discovered his own parents had died of not-so-natural causes. He soon found himself under the control of The Program, a shadowy government organization that uses brainwashed kids as counter-espionage operatives. But somewhere, deep inside Boy Nobody, is somebody: the boy he once was, the boy who wants normal things (like a real home, his parents back), a boy who wants out. And he just might want those things badly enough to sabotage The Program's next mission.


You’re a multi-millionaire businessman. Yes, you may have had to strike some less than ethical deals and upset a few important people along the way to fame and fortune, and who cares if you're selling wepaon parts to Iraq? But hey, that’s why you employ a bodyguard. So when your son/daughter brings home the new boy at school, of course you don’t think twice about it. He’s your perfect clean cut, polite, all-American boy after all. And that’s just what THEY want you to think. Before you know it, your guard is down, it’s just you and him chatting in the kitchen and suddenly he lunges at you with a hypo disguised as a pen. And that’s the last thing you will ever register as collapse to the floor, your life quickly slipping away. Death by natural causes, of course!

Boy Nobody tells the story of a teen assassin. He works for The Program, a shadowy government agency that makes the CIA look like a group of boy scouts. Jack aka Ben aka is tasked with working his way into the families of his designated targets by befriending the target’s son or daughter, his youth and clean looks being the perfect cover. It’s a kill or be killed situation for him – if he doesn’t carry out his orders then it won’t be long before he finds himself the target of another of The Program’s assassins. All of this goes pretty much unquestioned by our main character until he is given his latest mission, a rush job and a target that he can’t help but like, and whose daughter he can’t help but start falling for.

Earlier this year I was able to attend a conference organised by the National Literacy trust titled Improving boys’ literacy attainment across the curriculum. For the final presentation of the day we were treated to 30 minutes of Charlie Higson talking about boys and reading, using his experiences as a father and as a writer to highlight various points. During this talk he explained that when he submitted the first Young Bond book to Puffin they got nervous and asked him if he could tone down some of the violence. They were worried that they would receive nothing but complaints from librarians, teachers, journalists, etc. Charlie told us how he stuck to his guns (no pun intended), and when the book was finally released it received very few, if any, complaints. In fact, exactly the opposite. I would imagine that this probably reflects the experiences of both Darren Shan and Anthony Horowitz, both of whom are recognised as early trailblazers of boy-friendly action stories that contain more than a hint of violence. Charlie also said that now, eight years on from the release of Silverfin, something has happened that would have been unheard of at the time of its release, let alone back in 2000 when Stormbreaker was released: one of the new covers of the Young Bond series shows the 13-year-old James Bond holding a machine gun.

The fact that in Boy Nobody we now have a book that features a main teenage character who is an assassin, killing with no remorse, shows just how far books have come since those days, and also shows how publishers are willing to push the boundaries that little but further these days and take chances on slightly edgier material. And in my opinion this is a good thing. When I was in my early teens there simply were no books like this around so I graduated very early on to reading adult thrillers by the likes of Robert Ludlum, books which certainly didn’t hold back on the violence, or the sex in some cases. I have friends who started reading Stephen King when they were 13 as nobody was writing horror for teens in those days. Surely it is better that young people are given the chance to experience books that feature violence, suggestions of sex, etc. in books that are specifically written for them than in books that are specifically written for a far more mature audience? And let’s not patronise our young adults – if they aren’t comfortable with a book due to levels of violence and so on then odds are that they will stop reading it anyway.

I loved Boy Nobody. I loved the coldness of the main character, who in many ways reminded me of the cold killer that is James Bond in Fleming’s novels, a feature of his personality that is very much lost in the majority of the Bond films. For Ben (the name that he uses for much of Boy Nobody) killing is both a job and a means of survival. If he kills he is kept in the manner he has become accustomed to. If he doesn’t kill then he knows his life won’t last much longer. I loved the fact that I struggled to relate to Ben, as he was so cold and although he starts to question his life as events start to spiral out of control, it is not the killing he is questioning, more the loss of a traditional family life.

The action scenes in the book are fast and frantic, and are guaranteed to hook boys (and girls) who like stories like this. This is a great story for gamers who are fans of Hitman, Black Ops and so on (even though they are technically too young to be playing them) as the short chapters, action set pieces and the concept of the teen assassin combine perfectly to pull them away from their games consoles and keep them buried in the book, eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next.

The book is not without its faults, but I don’t want to dwell on them for too long as they were only minor niggles for me. The claim that boys do not like romance in their books is very much a myth in my experience. Boys don’t mind a little romance, if it is done well, but like me many do not like it when it seems forced. The romantic element in Boy Nobody is an important part of the plot, and at no point does it overshadow the main theme of the story, but for me it didn’t ring true. I’m not sure what it says about me when I find the concept of a teen assassin far more believable than said assassin letting his guard down for a girl he has known for only a couple of days?

I read somewhere once, a long time ago, about a book that someone (either an individual or a group) banned somewhere as it had a young main character who killed someone and didn’t seem to feel any remorse. I love the way that Allen Zadoff never makes excuses for his main character, and he doesn’t leave us with the moral that killing is evil. Zadoff leaves it entirely up to his readers to decide whether they are comfortable with the actions of the main character, and there will be some who will side with him and sympathise with him, there will be others who will be horrified at his actions, and there will a large number siting firmly on the fence. This is a great book for encouraging discussion about what is right and wrong, the life of one versus the lives of many and whether the end justifies the means, especially as in the eyes of The Program the people that Ben is sent to dispatch are all considered threats to national security in one way or another.

My thanks go to the lovely people at Orchard Books for sending me a copy of Boy Nobody to read.

Friday 19 July 2013

Review: Monster Odyssey: The Eye of Neptune by Jon Mayhew

Prince Dakkar, son of an Indian rajah, has issues with authority. Expelled from the world's finest schools, he is sent to an unconventional educator, Count Oginski. Dakkar plans his escape immediately. But something about the Count intrigues him, including a top-secret project which he shares with Dakkar - a submarine. But others are interested in the Count's invention and what it might achieve and, when masked men kidnap the Count, leaving Dakkar for dead, he doesn't know who was responsible. It could have been British Intelligence, or perhaps a sinister figure known only as Cryptos. Either way, Dakkar is determined to rescue the Count. Taking the prototype submarine, he sets off for adventure.

Cue shark attack, giant sea creatures, spies and an evil megalomaniac. From his undersea refuge, Dakkar plans to take them all on . . . with a bit of help from a girl.

In the past few years we have seen a number of children’s authors producing stories featuring characters created by other authors. For me the two that stand out above the rest have been Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock books and Charlie Higson’s Young Bond. Now there is another player at the table, his name is Jon Mayhew, and with The Eye of Neptune, the first book in his Monster Odyssey series, the cards suddenly seem stacked in his favour. Jon has taken Prince Dakkar, one of the most famous characters from science fiction/speculative fiction and produced a rip-roaring origins adventure for him.

Prince Dakkar, who is he?” I hear some of you cry. And I guess you could be slightly forgiven for not recognising the given name of one of Jules Verne’s most famous and enduring creations – the one and only Captain Nemo. Yes, that Captain Nemo . He of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame, one of my all-time favourite books (even if Verne does get a little too tied up with lengthy descriptions of the plethora of underwater flora and fauna that are observed during the adventures of the Nautilus and its crew).

I’m finding it quite difficult to add any more of a synopsis of the story other than that which is outlined in the above blurb that was taken from the book’s Amazon listing. Those blurbs on Amazon are often not particularly helpful, but in this case the publishers have nailed it, and the book is exactly what is says on the tin. However, to put it into my own words, the rebellious teenager, Prince Dakkar, finds himself suddenly thrown into a huge conspiracy involving a suitably evil megalomaniac with old-school plans for world domination. Thus begins a submarine adventure that sees the arrogant and authority-challenging Prince’s character changed almost beyond recognition as he makes new friends, fights pirates and battles to escape the jaws of more sea monsters than you would find in a box set of Harryhausen films.

I have been a huge fan of Jon’s writing ever since I was sent a copy of Mortlock, back in the very early days of The Book Zone. All three of the books set in that gruesomely dark and delightfully twisted Victorian world were superb reads, with jon showing that he is a master storyteller. Despite some pretty horrific moments (usually involving sea monsters), The Eye of Neptune is not as dark as the Mortlock ‘series’ but this is a good thing as that level of darkness would not have suited this kind of old-school Boys’ Own style adventure. Instead of creeping dread, we are filled with a longing for action and adventure as the story races along at a suitably exciting pace, with lashings of humour thrown in for good measure. This is the kind of story where readers will find themselves desperate to be in the shoes of the main characters of Prince Dakkar, and his new friend Georgia Fulton, despite the many dangers they face.

I believe there is at least one more book due to be released featuring Prince Dakkar, and as a fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea I can’t wait to find out how Mayhew continues to develop his young character, giving him the experiences that mould him into the enigmatic anti-hero of Verne’s classic stories.

My thanks go to the good people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of Monster Odyssey: The Eye of Neptune to read.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Review: Jimmy Coates: Blackout by Joe Craig

Seventh action-packed adventure for Jimmy Coates – part boy, part weapon, totally deadly…

Jimmy Coates seems like an ordinary boy, but he’s not. He’s genetically engineered to grow into the perfect government assassin. Speed, strength and deadly instinct - it’s all in the blood. He has to fight not to kill, while his government fights to kill him.

Jimmy Coates can only trust one man to bring the country back from the brink of chaos. When that man disappears, Jimmy must battle the shadow of corruption. But the shadows are darker than they seem, and the darkness reaches further than Jimmy could ever imagine.

It has been a long time coming but June finally saw the release of the seventh volume in Joe Craig's totally brilliant Jimmy Coates series. The story picks up a while after the closing events of the sixth book in the series, Jimmy Coates: Power. The British Government, still merely a puppet of the corrupt and oppressive NJ7, has finally agreed to allow a 'democratic' election to take place, and finally Jimmy and his friends start to allow the tiniest hint of optimism to creep into their lives. With a UN observer on the scene to ensure a fair election, surely the British public will grab this opportunity to throw off the yoke of authoritarian rule and elect Chris Viggo as their new leader?

If only things were that easy? Not only does Jimmy find himself up against an NJ7 that refuses to reliquish power, but the Capita are also back on the scene and it would appear that in his quest to rid Britain of NJ7 Christopher Viggo has signed a pact with the devil and now they want the H Code... whatever that is? And Jimmy is also struggling with the effects of the radiation poisoning he suffered in the Western Sahara.  just who are the mysterious pair who are parachuted into Scotland during a cunningly contrived blackout of British satellite surveillance?

I named the Jimmy Coates books as one of my favourite series of the last decade in my end-of-decade posts back in 2009, so with Jimmy Coates: Power being released in October 2008 I have had to wait a frustratingly long time for this next instalment to be published bu HarperCollins. No pressure then Joe Craig! It was then with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I started reading Jimmy Coates: Blackout when it arrived from the lovely people at HC. Would it Joe's writing and story-telling ability be as good as I remembered, bearing in mind I have read a huge amount of books for this age group in the intervening years? 

The answer is a resounding yes - I've waited nearly five years to read this and it certainly did not disappoint! This book is just as good as I remember its predecessors being, and I raced through it in a single sitting. As with previous books in the series, Blackout is a tightly plotted and fast-paced thrill ride of a story that twists and turns and keeps the reader guessing until the very last page. However, if all you are expecting is a full on action story then you are in for a treat - Jimmy Coates is a brilliant, fully formed character who has to cope with the constant internal battle between his assassin programming and his own morals, conscience and love for his family and friends. 

Although not entirely essential, I would strongly recommend that if you are new to the Jimmy Coates series you start from the beginning with Jimmy Coates: Killer and work your way through the series. Joe Craig was writing dystopian fiction long before it became cool and I know quite a few boys that have loved this books and like me have been waiting impatiently for this one. Like I said, not essential as Joe Craig has written this one in a way that means it can be picked up and read on its own, but you would be doing yourself a serious disservice by doing so in my opinion. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 4+ years for Jimmy Coates: Genesis, the final book in this brilliant series.