Tuesday 30 December 2014

The Book Zone Books of the Year 2014

As I mentioned the other day in my Bookish Reflections of 2014 post, there are very few YA books tat have rocked my world this year, and every one of them was a 'next in series' book. Apologies for the repetition but in the interest of keeping this list in one place they were:

  • Department 19: Zero Hour by Will Hill 
  • Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock 
  • Zom-B by Darren Shan 
  • The Shadow's Curse by Amy McCulloch 

As I mentioned in the last post, for me and my reading 2014 has been all about Middle Grade and in this respect it has been a truly glorious year. So much so that for the first time since I started blogging I'm not going to be able to name a specific Book of the Year. Last year I twisted the rules to have a YA and a Middle Grade Book of the Year, but with four or five titles vying for that MG spot this year I just cannot make up my mind, and even when I do I find I have changed it an hour later. I will leave my absolute favourites of the year until the end of this post, so if you are impatient please feel free to scroll down to the fanfare! And so, in no particular order:

The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery

I loved Ross's debut, Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door, and The Tornado Chasers was just as fabulous. Both books are unlike anything else I've read for this age group in recent years (or ever?), in the best way imaginable. I can't wait to read his third book, Perijee and Me, due out in July.

The Tin Snail by Cameron McAllister

A heartwarming story of the little people being victorious against the Nazi war machine in France during World War II. It is charming and funny and would make a fabulous family TV drama for a Christmas Day evening.

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

As I mentioned in my review earlier this year, this is "like Holmes and Watson, but set in a girls' boarding school in the 1930s, and with a soup├žon of Jeeves and Wooster thrown in for good measure". Although not a modern setting, it goes a long way towards making mystery stories for kids cool again. I can't wait to read Arsenic and Tea, the next Wells & Wong story due out in January.

Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen

At times frightening and claustrophobic but ultimately heartwarming, Boy in the Tower is a modern take on the Day of the Triffids/nature fights back scenario. Narrated by Ade, a young boy who has to care for his agoraphobic mother, it is a wonderful story about friendship and hope, when all the odds are satcked against you. 

Compton Valance by Matt Brown

In 2014 we have been treated to two books by Matt Brown featuring his wonderfully named time-travelling hero, Compton Valance. The Most Powerful Boy in the Universe was laugh out loud funny from beginning to end, and then 
The Time-Travelling Sandwich Bites Back raised the bar even higher. I even delayed reading David Walliams' Awful Auntie as both books arrived at the same time (and then only realised last week that I still hadn't read said Walliams book). Matt Borown is more than ably abetted by Lizzie Finlay and her fabulous illustrations, but it looks as if we have to wait until July for the next Compton valance outing, Super F.A.R.T.s versus the Master of Time.

The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan

An action story with a great reluctant hero and a kick-ass (literally) female character in the form of Kiyomi, this fast-paced and exciting book is full of spirits and monster from Japanese mythology. What more could you ask for?

Magisterium: The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black and Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret by D.D. Everest 

Although by different authors, published by different publishers and not in any way at all related I have put these two together for good reason. For a while I have been craving for a new Harry Potter-style story, set in a magical world that the protagonist did not realise existed, and in 2014 two came along at pretty much the same time. Publishers and writers have obviously decided that enough time has passed since the Harry Potter series came to a conclusion, and I am in complete agreement. Both of these books were fabulous starts to their respective series and I'm really looking forward to following their characters' further adventures.

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

This one very nearly made it into my Top 5 of the year. It is a brilliant fantasy adventure story with a set of characters that are so well developed that they make the story so believable, even though it is set in a bizarre fantastical world. This is not a book to be hurried, nut is one for confident MG readers to luxuriate in reading.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

The Luck Uglies is another must-read from 2014. It is another fab debut fantasy story, with an original setting and some fabulous characters. It is a fast-paced adventure story with some great humour, but also some really dark moments. I loved it!

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

Beautifully written and beautifully illustrated, this is a book that will stay with you long after you have turned the final page, and may also haunt your dreams. It's a funny and moving story of an unusual friendship, and is also pretty damn scary at times.

It's almost time for me to reveal my Top 5 MG books of 2014, but before I do there are a handful of others that deserve honorable mentions. A couple of these are aimed at a slightly lower age group, but certainly deserve to be mentioned in this post. 2014 has not only been a great year for Middle Grade in the UK, but also for funny books, and a handful are shown below (and yes, I know that SF Said's Phoenix was published in 2013, but I only read it recently and felt it deserved a belated mention as I loved it so much):



My Top 5 Books of 2014

And so, in no particular order, because that order seems to change by the hour, these are my very favourite books of 2014:

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson

When I read this towards the tale end of 2013 I genuinely thought I had already found my 2014 Book of the Year. I truly loved Lara Williamson's debut, that I described at the time as being a "captivating and inspirational story that pulls mercilessly at the heart strings, whilst also having the reader crying with laughter". 

Infinity Drake: The Sons of Scarlatti by John McNally

For me, this book ticked every single box (see my review if you don't believe me), but I am more than a little confused as to why I have not heard this book mentioned far and wide. It is probably the best action book I have read all year and should be pushed into the hands of any action-loving reader. Perhaps it was the fact that publisher HarperCollins put a 9+ age rating on the back cover that has put off older readers. Seriously, this book is bloody brilliant for anyone aged 11 and above.

Ironheart by Allan Boroughs

This is a perfect old school action/adventure story. Need I say more? Oh, alright then. It has a great post-apocalyptic world with none of that gloomy, yawn-inducing dystopian rubbish, and a superb female protagonist. And also the female protagonist's ass-kicking mentor just also happens to be female. How refreshing! And here's a little something to whet your appetite: the sequel, Bloodstone, is even better and it's due out in just a couple of days!

Urban Outlaws by Peter Jay Black

Back in March I described this high tech actioner as "Leverage for kids" and I stand by that statement. I loved its brilliant action set-pieces and its team of fearless young characters, and just like with Ironheart I found myself longing to read a sequel. Thanks to the fabulous Peter Jay Black I have been able to do this and Blackout is even better than its predecessor.

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler

This truly is a brilliant fantasy story that is perfect for book lovers of all ages. Imagine being able to enter books, and use them as portals to other worlds. Surely that is every book lover's dream? Every bibliophile feels that books are magical items, but in Django Wexler's world they literally are. Another book whose sequel I simply cannot wait to read, although it looks as if we might have to wait until May in the UK.


As I have already said, 2014 has been an amazing year for Middle Grade fiction in the UK and it looks as if this trend will continue at least for another year. Not only have we got the aforementioned brilliant sequels that I have already read (Bloodstone and Urban Outlaws: Blackout) and many other sequels to the stunning debuts mentioned above, but there are also a plethora of other debuts currently on my radar. one of these I have already had the good fortune to read, and that is the brilliant The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone (review coming soon). Simply put, if all of the new MG books in 2015 are even half as good as The Dreamsnatcher then 2015 will eclipse 2014 for quality of Middle Grade books. 

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Bookish Reflections on 2014

This is not my annual Books of the Year post; that is still to come, but I wanted to express a few thoughts about 2014. It has been a funny old year as far as my reading and blogging is concerned. 2014 started with me wading almost waist deep in the books I had to read as a member of Booktrust's Bookbuzz panel, so whilst there was plenty of reading going on I just did not have the time to do a great deal of blogging. Of course, I fully intended to throw myself back into blogging once my work with Bookbuzz was complete, but more than ever before work has completely taken over this year, and this hasn't left a huge amount of time for much else and something had to go, and sadly that something was the time I had previously spent on this blog. I have come perilously close to quitting on a number of occasions, but it all honesty this blog simply means too much to me.

That isn't to say that I haven't found the time to read though, and I've read as much if not more than ever over the past twelve months. However, ironic as it may seem in a year when UK YA really exploded, I have read less YA books than in any of the previous years that I have been blogging. In fact, the number of YA books I've read this year probably barely creeps into double figures, and of those only a very small minority of these linger in my memory as being outstanding, all of which are sequels or books in ongoing series, and three of which are by writers who have previously been Book Zone Book of the Year. 

Department 19: Zero Hour by Will Hill (now my favorite YA series of all time and the final book in the series, Darkest Night, is my most anticipated read of 2015. In fact, I have not been so excited about a book's release since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007); 

Our Lady of the Streets by Tom Pollock (the final instalment of a truly mind blowing urban fantasy trilogy); 

Zom-B by Darren Shan (the continuing series, now up to nine books and still going very strong);

The Shadow's Curse by Amy McCulloch (the second book in Amy's outstanding fantasy duology)

This doesn't mean that there haven't been a huge number of brilliant British YA books released in 2014, it just means that I haven't read them. When I look at other bloggers' lists of their favourite books of 2014 I see a huge number of contemporary YA, by which I mean teen 'issues' stories. And I just have no interest in reading these kind of stories. I spend a large part of my job dealing with, or hearing about, teen 'issues' and I don't need to go home and continue reading about them in novels. For me, reading is about escapism. And this is why I really love Middle Grade.

Middle Grade is a term that some people in the UK turn their noses up at, but it works well for me as a category, and not only has 2014 been a great year for UK YA, but it also the year that Middle Grade in the UK reared its head and started to strike back. For too long YA has hogged the limelight as far as the media attention, both mainstream and social media, is concerned. However, in 2014 there seems to have been a shift in the balance of power and more and more UK publishers have been releasing outstanding Middle Grade titles. 

The totally brilliant, put-it-in-your-calendar-worthy #ukmgchat also started for the first time back in March, and now more and more people are chatting on Twitter about the Middle Grade books that they have read and loved. Seriously, if you have not yet discovered the #ukmgchat then you should check it out - the next one is 8pm GMT on 14th January with special guest Robin Stevens. The UK Middle Grade book boom looks set to continue next year, and I have already read three MG books to be published in 2015 that I've given five stars to on Goodreads, and I have a pile I can't wait to dive into over the holidays. It's a great time to be a lover of Middle Grade fiction, and I will be mentioning some of my favourites of 2014 in my Books of the Year post, so watch this space.

As well as a large amount of Middle Grade fiction, in 2014 I have also read a huge number of comics and graphic novels. Some of these have been long available titles that have been sitting unread on my shelves, others have been brand new in 2014. If I have time I might also write a separate post about these.

I hope you all have a fantastic Christmas. Thank you to those of you who have stuck with me through this difficult year, and I hope you have not found my lack of posts disappointing. I would love to promise that 2015 will be better, but I would hate to break a promise, so all I will say is that I will try to do my best.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Review: Young Bond: Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole

Young James Bond is back in his most action-packed, explosive adventure yet.

Expelled from Eton and determined never to trust again, James Bond’s plans for a solitary summer are dashed by the discovery of a gruesome film reel – a reel someone is willing to kill for.

Travelling from the English countryside to Los Angeles, James finds himself caught up in a sinister plot of blackmail, murder and revenge that goes way beyond any Hollywood gangster movie.

His friends in danger, his life on the line, James must find a way out.

Or die trying.

The announcement that Steve Cole was to be the writer to continue the Young Bond series from where Charlie Higson left off with By Royal Command back in 2008 probably came as a surprise to many. After all, Steve is best known for the likes of Astrosaurs, Cows in Action and Slime Squad, his humorous chapter books for 7+ readers. However, Middle Grade and YA enthusiasts will also know that he is a dab hand at writing action thrillers (the Jonah Wish trilogy, The Hunting trilogy, Tripwire), and we mustn't forget the ten or so Doctor Who novels that he has also penned. 

We may have had to wait six years for the Young Bond series to be continued, but there is certainly no six year gap in the storyline. Cole's Shoot to Kill picks up the story very soon after the events of By Royal Command, with James Bond expelled from Eton. Bond obsessives will know that following his exclusion from Eton, Bond was sent to Fettes College, Edinburgh however, Steve Cole has decided to add another chapter to Bon'd life by making him a temporary student at Dartington Hall, a progressive school situated in the Devon countryside. However, due to an arrangement between his Aunt Charmian and Dartington's Headteacher, Gillian de Vries, James spends less than a fortnight at the school (which, of course, is long enough for him to make a few enemies and witness a nasty murder) before he finds himself heading across the Atlantic in a giant passenger airship. The journey is not uneventful, but it is in Los Angeles that the action really begins to kick in, as Bond finds himself up against the mob.

In Shoot to Kill Steve Cole has achieved what some might have thought to be a very difficult task. He has taken the young character developed by Charlie Higson through five traumatic adventures, treated that character and thus Higson with respect and also managed to flesh him out further and move the Bond story forward. In some ways it is also an improvement on the Higson books (of which I am a huge fan, despite their occasional flaws), some of which at times suffered from unbelievable plotlines and were not always as fast-paced as I would have preferred. The action in Shoot to Kill is fairly relentless, although not at the expense of plot. Some of the violence is a little more grisly than you might find in other books for this age group, but not to the point where it is unnecessarily gratuitous. It certainly isn't a level of violence that will cause nightmares, and I know many readers of this age who will find it tame in comparison to the computer games they play (despite being many years below the PEGI age rating).

I have seen a minority of reviewers criticise the story and action in Shoot to Kill by comparing the book and its main character to the CHERUB books by Robert Muchamore and Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series. In my opinion this is an unfair criticism as the character of Alex Rider and the various protagonists of the CHERUB series were not written as younger versions of an fully established and iconic adult character. Cole had to be true to the man that Bond will become, and this means that his young Bond has to show some of the character traits of the adult version, many of which have been developed in the previous Higson books. the young James Bond we see now prefers to be a solitary person, and he finds it difficult to put his full trust in others. At times he is almost a not particularly likeable character, but remember that he will turn into the James Bond of Flemings books (a ruthless killer who is also at times rather unlikeable), and not the smooth, one-liner-delivering character from the movie franchise.

Based on this book, I am confident in saying that the future of Young Bond is in good hands. Full marks to Steve Cole for adding another exciting and believable chapter to the life of the iconic spy. I should add that you do not need to have read the Higson Young Bond books in order to enjoy Shoot to Kill, but I would certainly recommend them to young readers who enjoy action/adventure stories.

Friday 7 November 2014

Thunderbirds Are Go!

A thrilling, futuristic volume of 1960s Thunderbirds comic strips. It features The Earthquake Maker, Visitor from Space and The Antarctic Menace. This is the first book in a five volume set of Thunderbirds comic strips.

As I child I was a huge fan of all things Gerry Anderson. Along with Smallfilms (more about this in a future post), Gerry Anderson had a significant impact on me as a child. Fireball XL5 and Stingray were often repeated on mid-morning TV during the school holidays, back in the days when we only had three or four channels to choose from. Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Space 1999 and then later, Terrahawks on a Saturday morning, were also firm favourites. As a teen I loved watching repeats of UFO, and now own the DVD boxsets. But my favourite of the lot was and still is Thunderbirds. If memory serves me correctly, I even managed to persuade my parents to open the double doors between the lounge and the dining room so I could watch its mid-70s repeat run on TV whilst we ate Sunday lunch

Next year is going to be a big year for Gerry Anderson fans. 2015 is the 50th anniversary year of the first screening of Thunderbirds and ITV are currently producing a brand new series. 2015 will also see the release of the first book in the new Gemini Force One series, written by M.G. Harris and based on a concept that Gerry himself was unable to develop fully due to his suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and his untimely death in 2012. It's a great time to be a fan of Gerry Anderson's work.

Egmont currently own the publishing rights to the classic 1960s Thunderbirds comic strips. Last Christmas, my great friend Carol from Windsor Waterstones gave me a copy of Thunderbirds: The Comic Collection, a hefty book of almost 300 pages of the classic comic strips, also published by Egmont. Of course, such a hefty book came with an equally hefty price tag (rrp £25) which some parents may have thought too excessive for what could be a purchase that may not interest their 21st century child, even though it is a fantastic set of comic stories. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when a thin, softback edition arrived in the post a while back (rrp £6.99). It would now appear that Egmont are publishing those same stories from the hardback Comic Collection, but over five softback volumes that are each pretty much the same size as a Tintin book. Bought together, the price will exceed that being asked for the hardback collected edition, but it is a much more manageable layout for parents who are not sure whether their children will like it or not. I would imagine that most kids will also prefer this format.

All three of the strips in this first volume are illustrated by the brilliant Frank Bellamy. If your children are fans of modern, full-colour comics then they are in for a treat here. Bellamy was an incredibly talented comic illustrator, with immense skill at producing vivid and imaginative action scenes for his characters. Eschewing the more formal, even grid format that was popular in other UK comics at the time, Bellamy preferred a layout of panels with cut-outs, zigzag edges and asymmetrical shapes, all of which added greatly to the dynamism of the artwork. The stories themselves are great escapist fun, featuring incredibly daring and exciting rescues; in fact, the writers and artist went to town with the comics, producing scenarios that were either too expensive or impossible to film for the 1960s TV show.

These new softback editions sadly do not contain the fabulous vehicle cutaways from the 1990s Thunderbirds comics that Egmont included in Thunderbirds: The Comic Collection (at least, Volume 1 doesn't). However, I have this morning spotted that Egmont have just published Inside the World of Gerry Anderson, a "complete definitive collection of Graham Bleathman's cutaways includes detailed images from Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90, plus less well known craft and locations seen only in the comic strips". I think this may have just found its way onto my Christmas wishlist!

Thursday 30 October 2014

Review: Mutant City by Steve Feasey

Fifty years ago, the world was almost destroyed by a chemical war. Now the world is divided: the mutants and the pure, the broken and the privileged, the damaged and the perfect.

Thirteen years ago, a covert government experimental facility was shut down and its residents killed. The secrets it held died with them. But five extraordinary kids survived.

Today four teenagers are about to discover that their mutant blood brings with it special powers. Rush and three brothers and sisters he can't remember. Two rival factions are chasing them. One by one, they face the enemy. Together, they might just stay alive . . .

I am a big fan of Steve Feasey's Changeling series; if you have kids who are 9+ who like werewolf stories and have not yet discovered these books then they are well worth you getting your hands on them. Zombie Dawn, the fifth and final book in that series, was published back in 2011, and I know I'm not the only fan who has been waiting impatiently to see what Steve produced next. Finally, three years on, from a different publisher and aimed at a slightly older age group, we have Mutant City and it is well worth the wait.

Mutant City is set in a post-apocalyptic world where much of the landscape has been turned into a dangerous wasteland created by all the of the nastiest weapons that you can think of. A large number of people were lucky, living underground for years, until it was deemed safe to emerge. These people now live in City Four in luxury and safety, in a society where disease and imperfections have been eradicated. Unfortunately though, a significant number of people ere not able to make it underground, and since then they have been living in the scorched earth wasteland (think the Cursed Earth outside the walls of Dredd's Mega-City One), many of them migrating towards the city where they have to live outside its walls in slums. Many of these people are physically and/or mentally damaged by the radiation and chemical residues from the war, and disease and starvation are rife. 

So far so good. Steve has created a world of the haves and the have-nots, much like a futuristic version of parts of our own world: South Africa under apartheid; the favelas in Brazil; places wherever a minority of people possess a majority of the power and wealth, whilst the majority live in misery. What makes this different from all those other YA post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories is the mutant twist. We aren't talking people whose bodies have been mutated by radiation here: the heroes of Steve Feasey's story are a small group of young people who, a number of years before, were genetically altered, and now find special powers emerging, much to their confusion. Split up and spirited away to safety by rebels whilst they were small children, circumstances now dictate that they come out of hiding. However, due to a telepathic mental-block placed on them by one of their fellow mutants they have no idea why they are now felt drawn towards City Four, journeys that will be fraught with danger for everyone one of them.

Bloomsbury have billed this as being great for fans of Marvel's X-Men, and I see no reason to disagree with this. In fact, if I hadn't read this in the press release I would probably have used the same comparison myself. These youngsters each have a special utility that is largely hidden, although if looked at carefully a normal human would probably feel that there was something slightly different about them; something not-quite-right. Just like the X-Men is very much about the various characters, so too is Mutant City, although as well as being a strength of the book it also creates a slight flaw. Steve Feasey has created a fantastic ensemble of chacarters in Mutant City, but as all of these five special young people (and the various villains and supporting cast) need to be introduced to readers, and as all have been kept separated for years, this means multiple POV shifts. The effect of these is two-fold: in the early stages of the book it means that the plot moves on quite slowly in places, and the sudden shifts to a different character's POV felt slightly jarring in places. There was one shift in particular that had me checking that I didn't have a few pages missing in my proof copy.

Please believe me though when I say that it is well worth persevering though these minor issues as once the story gets going the pace really picks up and we are treated to an action-packed science fiction adventure. As I've already said, the main characters are the stand-out element of this book, and the way they interact injects both humour and pathos into the story. In addition, the host of secondary characters, including a particularly  nasty cast of villains, also add to the plot, and set this up to be the first in what I expect to be a thrilling and highly entertaining science fiction series that is perfect for 11+ readers. The X-Men comparison is also a great way to get it into the hands of reluctant readers who are fans of the various X-Men and superhero movies that have become so popular in recent years.
My thanks go to the good people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of the book.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Review: The Wrath of the Lizard Lord by Jon Mayhew

Prince Dakkar and his mentor Count Oginski discover a plot by arch-enemy Cryptos to kill Napoleon. Arriving on their revolutionary submersible to intercept Cryptos, they glimpse a terrifying monster that seems to escape back into the bowels of the Earth. It leads them to discover an amazing underground world, and a plan more nefarious than they could ever have believed - even from Cryptos.

The stage is set for an epic showdown complete with a giant reptilian cavalry and the Battle of Waterloo, in another breathlessly paced and endlessly inventive adventure for fans of Percy Jackson.

It isn't obvious from the the cover (or spine) of this book, but The Wrath of the Lizard Lord is the second book in Jon Mayhew's Monster Odyssey series, and a direct sequel to The Eye of Neptune. It is thus the second adventure for Prince Dakkar, Jon Mayhew's teen protagonist who will one day become Captain Nemo. Before I say any more about this book, there is just one thing I would love to get off my chest: why on earth is this series not called The Adventures of Young Nemo (or similar)? The Young Bond, Young Sherlock and rebooted Tarzan books seem to have garnered far more reviews and chatter online that either of the two Monster Odyssey books, and I genuinely feel that this is because they aren't being billed as 'Young Nemo'. I hope the scarcity of reviews does not also mean poor sales, as that would be a travesty as both of these Monster Odyssey books are brilliant, all-action adventure stories that are pure, unadulterated fun to read.

Dakkar is very different from the spoiled and arrogant brat we were first introduced to in The Eye of Neptune. As a result of his experiences battling Count Cryptos in that story he has matured and whilst still somewhat headstrong, he is also courageous and beginning to shoe true leadership qualities. These qualities become even more important in this outing as his mentor, Oginski, is badly injured during an abortive attempt to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from Elba, and Dakkar soon finds himself in the middle of another megalomaniac's quest for world domination. Readers of The Eye of Neptune will already know that Count Cryptos had five other brothers, all bearing the name Cryptos, and all just as hungry for power on a global scale.

Like its predecessor, The Wrath of the Lizard Lord is an edge-of-your-seat adventure story that draws inspiration from one of Jules Verne's classics, this time Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Thus we have nasty prehistoric creatures, giants (of the human-like kind), and a fantastic underground world that very few people know exists. Throw in a few familar faces from Dakkar's first adventure, a character called Mary based very loosely on real-life Victorian fossil-hunter Mary Anning, and a plot to change the course of history (well, the history that we know), and you have the recipe for a hugely fulfilling story that is exciting enough to satisfy the hunger of any young fan of action/adventure stories. 

I hope these books are attracting the high levels of readership that they deserve. The ability to grab a reader has become par for the course in any book written by Jon Mayhew, and The Wrath of the Lizard Lord is no exception, and I'm certainly looking forward to reading Prince Dakkar's next adventure. According to the Bloomsbury website, this third book, titled The Curse of the Ice Serpent, is out in January 2015 and it sounds great:

Having stopped two of the six evil Oginski brothers, Dakkar now faces double danger from the Oginski twins – possibly the most cunning and devious of the brothers yet.

Set in the icy wastes of Greenland, Dakkar must battle giant bears, vicious arctic sharks and a sabretooth tiger as he hunts for the fabled Thermolith, a source of great heat energy which the Oginskis also seek, in order to complete their preparations for a new world order with themselves at the helm.

My thanks go to the wonderful people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of The Wrath of the Lizard Lord.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Review: Scavenger: Zoid by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

A spaceship the size of a city drifts through space on its century-long journey to find a new Earth. When it launched it was populated by thousands of hopeful passengers and the most technologically advanced Zoids in the world, ready to serve the crew’s every need.

But that was then, and this is now. The Zoids rebelled against their masters, wiping out most of the crew in one bloody uprising. Now the few remaining humans are hunted by the Zoids like vermin.

Fourteen-year-old York is a Scavenger - he hunts Zoids and kills them by any means he can, bringing back their parts to mend the technology on which the few remaining humans rely. York has always battled to survive, but now the fate of his people is in his hands . . .

The two central themes of this first book in the Scavenger series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell will be familiar with most older fan of science fiction. 'Robots-gone-bad' and 'possibly last humans existing travelling through space' are hardly new concepts: Terminator; Red Dwarf; Battlestar Galactica; Saturn 3; Westworld. Yeah, the list could go on and on (and that is only TV and film, as my knowledge of the written form of the genre is far more limited). However, this does not matter one little bit for two reasons: firstly, the targeted readership of 9+ kids are unlikely to have come across these tropes much before (if at all), and secondly, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell just do it so damn well.

Fans of the duo's The Edge Chronicles will know that Paul and Chris are very adept at producing fast-paced, exciting stories with endearing characters who have to face real peril during their adventures. In simple terms, that is now what they have produced again, but with a science fiction setting (although there is obviously still a significant fantastical element to this piece of work as well).

The story is narrated in the first person by main character York, a fourteen year old 'passenger' of the Biosphere, a huge (and I mean MASSIVE) spherical spaceship that left a dying earth many generations ago in search of a new, unspoiled planet where humanity can start all over again. However, the supposed Utopia that was the Biosphere did not last long enough to make planetfall: at some point the robots went bad and rebelled, and ever since then the ever-dwindling number of human inhabitants have been facing a daily battle for survival. On top of this, without the robots to maintain it, the Biosphere has slowly degenerated and now vast areas have become human-unfriendly ecosystems that harbour deadly mutated flora and fauna. 

The story follows York, trained by necessity to be a Zoid hunter and scavenger, as he attempts to locate and rescue the closest thing he has to a family, taken during a Zoid attack at the beginning of the book. His journey through the enormous Biosphere (did I say it was MASSIVE?), is wall-to-wall peril, with nasty plants, nasty creatures, nasty Zoids, and even a nasty psychopathic human survivor thrown in for good measure. Readers will find themselves grabbed within the first few pages of the book, and the fast and furious action barely seems to drop below light speed until the final chapter is reached. And, rather nicely, the book does not end on any kind of cliffhanger; the main plot of this first installment comes to a satisfying end, but with just enough left unanswered to keep readers speculating and wanting to come back for more. 

As with The Edge Chronicles series, the words are accompanied by many of Chris Riddell's magnificent illustrations that truly bring the characters and environments within the Biosphere to life. Seriously, Chris Riddell would be a strong contender for a Gold medal if drawing were an Olympic event, and he is certainly one of my all-time favourite illustrators of children's books. We were incredibly fortunate to have Paul and Chris visit school last year, and to watch Chris illustrate live is a fab experience. if you ever get the opportunity, take it! I've included just one of the illustrations below for your delectation, but if you want to see more you can read a pdf of the first chapter of Scavenger: Zoid here.

© Chris Riddell 2014, taken from Scavenger: Zoid
This is the first book in a planned trilogy I believe, and I am certainly keen to continue following York on his adventures. My thanks go the the fab people at Macmillan for sending me a copy of the book.

Monday 20 October 2014

Review: Shadow and Bone (The Grisha: Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo

The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.

Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom's magical elite - the Grisha. Could she be the key to unravelling the dark fabric of the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free?

The Darkling, a creature of seductive charm and terrifying power, leader of the Grisha. If Alina is to fulfil her destiny, she must discover how to unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.

But what of Mal, Alina's childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can't she ever quite forget him?

I have not read Twilight. In fact, I am not sure I will ever read any of the Twilight books. Nor am I ever likely to watch the films. Neither the books or the films appeal to me in any kind of way, and through many discussions with friends and students who have read and loved the books, I feel I know enough about them to know I would not enjoy the experience. That's not to say I would ever try to dissuade anyone, boy or girl, from reading the books as I would hate to think I could turn a reader away from a book that might turn them from reluctant to avid reader (also the reason why I rarely post negative reviews on The Book Zone). In fact, I have a huge amount of respect for Stephanie Meyer, in the same way I respect J.K. Rowling, for the impact their works have had on getting children and teens reading, and for laying the foundations for this golden age of children's and YA literature.

You don't need me to tell you that post-Twilight there have been thousands of Young Adult paranormal fantasy books published, and I know from my fellow bloggers that some of these have been outstanding and some have been terrible. However, and I am more than happy to face criticism for this, because of my distaste for Twilight I am not sure I have read very many of these, the whole paranormal romance thing leaving me completely cold. Yes, I have judged the blurb of a multitude of books by that 'little-bit-of-sick-in-my-mouth' reaction that one particular book instills in me. Thus, I have not read any of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books, and nothing by L.A. Weatherley, Sarah J. Maas, Sarah Rees Brennan, or Maggie Stiefvater. And until very recently, nothing by Leigh Bardugo.

Shadow and Bone, the first book in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy, is yet another book that I was fully aware of but, when I received a blogger newsletter from those fab people at Indigo, did not jump out as a must-read book. Especially when I looked at my TBR pile. Nah, I really didn't need that one staring at me for months, making me feel guilty for leaving it unread. However, a few months ago I was asked if I would be interested in reading it in order to give a 'boy' opinion on the book. The person who asked me to do this felt it had great boy appeal, but had been sadly dismissed by male reviewers as yet another post-Twilight girly paranormal romance. As I have a great deal of faith in the person who made the request as far as books go, I glady accepted the 'challenge'. 

When the book arrived I started reading it pretty much straight away, although I have to confess that another book arrived soon after that I had been really looking forward to and Shadow and Bone ended up being put aside for a while. And then back in August I was invited to attend a special Leigh Bardugo event in London, and the guilt started to play heavily on my mind, and so I restarted it from the beginning. And, a little to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.

In fact, I'm not sure there is anything about this book that a teen male lover of fantasy stories would not like. Yes, it has romance, but then so does life, so do the majority of Hollywood blockbuster action films, and so do The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Romance is but one thread woven deftly amongst many others, including an incredible fantasy world, brilliant characters, intriguing political machinations, and a fast-paced, unpredictable plot. The world, in particular, is one stood out for me as one of the most appealing aspects of the story. I don't read much epic fantasy, so I'm not exactly an expert in this area, but I found the way that Leigh Bardugo used Russia and its folk tales to craft her Ravka both extremely appealing. Old Russia is a world away from the western world, both past and present, and makes a wonderful platform on which to craft a new, fantasy world. In much the same way as Amy McCulloch so successfully used elements of Mongolian tradition for her brilliant Knots duology, it works so well.

Shadow and Bone is the first book in a trilogy, and I am definitely interested in reading the next two books to find out how the story develops further, although it may have to be over time, occasionally slotted in between others in the TBR pile. I will also be pushing it at school to those boys who like fantasy stories, but want something a lighter and less time-consuming than George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice saga. Before I go, I would like to make one more suggestion: if you ever have the opportunity to attend a Leigh Bardugo event then I strongly encourage you to do so; the event I went to in London was one of the most enjoyable I have been to and Leigh Bardudo is an incredibly interesting and endearing speaker.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Review: The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery

When Owen Underwood's family move to Barrow, it's because there's nowhere safer in the Valleys - and safety is very important. Especially when the threat of tornadoes, and giant bears, is constant.

But in Barrow, safety is taken to extremes. Children have to wear bright yellow at all times and are never allowed outside except to go to school. How can Owen face an entire summer of that?

In secret, Owen and his friends form the Tornado Chasers. Their mission: to get as close to a Grade 5 tornado as possible. It's time for them to face their fears!

And then... And then...

I described Ross Montgomery's debut, Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door as being "one of the most bonkers books that I have read in ages", and it was one of those books that took me completely by surprise by how much I enjoyed it. Above everything else, it was also of the most original books for Middle Grade readers that I had read in a very long time. I was therefore very excited in deed when a copy of Ross's second book, The Tornado Chasers, arrived from those lovely people at Faber.

The Tornado Chasers is not a sequel to Ross' s debut: it is a standalone story, although the world its characters live in is almost as crazy as Alex's. However, the craziness is The Tornado Chasers exists not because of the world itself, but more because of the attitude of the adults that live there. These parents, who have all moved their families to the village of Barrow, are incredibly safety conscious and averse to their children putting themselves in any kind of risk. In fact, main character Owen  sleeps under his bed, which is wrapped in chicken wire and surrounded by sandbags, just in case a tornado ripped off the roof of the house. Oh yes, and he has to wear a helmet at all times, even indoors. Owen's parents aren't the only residents of Barrow who live in fear of tornadoes (and, rather bizarrely, bears): one of the local laws decrees that children go straight home from school to the safety of their homes. This, and other seemingly ridiculous rules, make life for the kids of Barrow a somewhat dull affair, and if they break any of the rules, however bonkers they seem, they may finds themselves inmates of the forbidding County Detention Centre.

As the new boy in town, who also happens to have had grandparents who were tornado chasers, Owen very quickly becomes the catalyst for a minor rebellion. He and a handful of his new friends decide that they are going to follow int he 'footsteps' of his grandparents, and so set off on a rule-defying adventure that is surreal, thought-provoking, heart-warming and exciting. Like Ross's debut, it is a story that almost defies description, and really has to be read with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, if one is to fully benefit from the experience.

I guess one could describe the situation in Barrow as being dystopian, but with a difference. if the Monty Python team were writing Middle Grade or YA books today then this is the kind of dystopia I would imagine them coming up with. The story is very funny in a Monty Python crazy kind of way, but it also has great depth to it, especially with regards to its characters, very few of whom turn out to be how they initially seem. In fact, the whole story is a little like this as the plot twists and turns almost as much as the tornadoes of the title, and then, just as you finally think you have got everything straight in your head, Ross Montgomery drops yet another bombshell of devious and devilish twistiness. The 'I-didn't-see-that-one-coming' ending in particular is a perfect topic for discussion, and it would be well worth parents reading this alongside their children so that it can be discussed and dissected afterwards.

Ross Montgomery has fast become one of my favourite current writers of middle grade fiction and I have found myself checking online in spare moments for news of any future release from him. I do not think there is any other writer out there like him, and the closest I can think of when I recommend this book to others is that if you enjoyed the characters and situations of Louis Sachar's Holes then there is a good chance that you will enjoy The Tornado Chasers. Just like Holes, it sucks you in with a clever beginning, and messes with your mind as the plot is gradually revealed to be something you were certainly not expecting.