Friday 28 February 2014

Half Bad Chapter Reveal Blog Tour: Part One - The Trick Doesn't Work

I have to admit that I tend to take hype with a pinch of salt, be it for a film, an album or, in this case, a book. However, this didn't stop me from being more than a little intrigued when news of Half Bad selling for silly money all around the world began to hit the press towards the end of last year. 

I can still hear myself crying: "Witches? Has enough time really passed since Harry Potter for the publishing world to be going crazy about another YA witch story?". And despite the hype, there was a part of me feeling that for this to be the case this had to be something pretty special indeed. And it is, and I loved it.

I've just finished it this evening and I'm still trying to collect my thoughts for my review which will come next week, however in the meantime I am delighted to be taking part in the Half Bad blog tour, with an new extract from the opening chapters of the book being released each day over the past four days. This is the fifth extract and they are best read in order, so why not head on over to Wondrous Reads for the first part.

part one

the trick doesn’t work
She’s talking but you can’t make sense of it.

You’re back sitting at the kitchen table, sweating and shuddering a bit, and blood from your left ear is running down your neck. That ear won’t heal. You can’t hear at all on that side. And your nose is a mess. You must have landed on it when you fell. It’s broken, blocked up and bloodied, and it won’t heal either.

Your hand is resting on the table and it’s so swollen now that the fingers can’t move at all.

She’s sitting on the chair next to you and is spraying your wrist with the lotion again. It’s cooling. Numbing.

And it would be so good to be numb like that all over, numb to it all. But that won’t happen. What will happen is that she’ll lock you back up in the cage, chain you up, and it’ll go on and on and on . . .

And so the trick doesn’t work. It doesn’t work and you do mind; you mind about it all. You don’t want to be back in that cage and you don’t want the trick any more. You don’t want any of it any more.

The cut on her scalp is healed but there’s the wide ridge of a black-red scab underneath her blonde hair and there’s blood on her shoulder. She’s still talking about something, her fat slobbering lips working away.

You look around the room. The kitchen sink, the window that overlooks the vegetable garden and the cage, the range, the ironing board, the door to the pantry and back to the ugly woman with nicely pressed trousers. And clean boots. And in her boot is her little knife. She sometimes keeps it there. You saw it when you were on the floor.

You’re dizzy so it’s easy to swoon, sinking to your knees. She grabs you by your armpits but your left hand isn’t injured and it finds the handle and slides the knife out of her boot while she grapples with your dead weight and as you let your body sink further you bring the blade to your jugular. Fast and hard.

But she’s so bloody quick, and you kick and fight and fight and kick but she gets the knife off you and you’ve no kick and no fight left at all.

Back in the cage. Shackled. Kept waking up last night . . . sweating . . . ear still doesn’t work . . . you’re breathing through your mouth cos your nose is blocked. She’s even chained your bad wrist and your whole arm is so swollen that the shackle is tight.

It’s late morning but she still hasn’t come for you. She’s doing something in the cottage. Tapping. Smoke’s coming out of the chimney.

It’s warm today, a breeze from the south-west, clouds moving silently across the sky so the sun is managing a series of appearances, touching your cheek and casting shadows from the bars across your legs. But you’ve seen it all before, so you close your eyes and remember stuff. It’s OK to do that sometimes.

Want to read an interview with Sally Green? Go to: 
(from 1st March)

Text copyright © Sally Green, 2014 published by Penguin Books

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Review: Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much by Laura Dockrill

Ten-year-old Darcy sees the extraordinary in the everyday and the wonder in the world around her. This second book sees Darcy move-up to Big School - and all of a sudden EVERYTHING changes. Her best friend Will isn't sure he should talk to girls anymore, her new teacher may in actual fact be a cauldron-bubbling witch and, horror of horrors, her precious pet Lamb-Beth goes missing. Can Darcy face these challenges head-on, armed only with her curious, whip-smart mind and eye for a story?

Warning: this review is likely to include huge amounts of gushing and could possibly cause you to overdose on superlatives! Yes, Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much is flippin' brilliant. In fact, impossible it may seem to all who have read the first Darcy Burdock book, this follow-up is even brillianter.

Laura Dockrill's debut book for children, Darcy Burdock, was my Book of the Year for 2013 and I have been waiting impatiently for this sequel ever since and so the moment I saw it appear on Netgalley I immediately clicked on the request button. This was a Saturday so I had to endure more suffering until my request was approved on Monday, but then I downloaded it and read it from cover to cover. It was exactly what the doctor ordered (I've been suffering from man flu since last Wednesday) and it was the perfect pick-me-up. It is better than the first book is pretty much every way - funnier, (even) more imaginative, more touching... the list goes on and on.

The book begins with five chapters of pure, unadulterated, delightful Darcy-ness, as we are reintroduced to Darcy and her family. And it is a truly lovely family - not the kind you see in many children's books as their relationships with each other are warm, and fuzzy and very, very loving Darcy, and chez Burdock there isn't a villainous adult anywhere in sight. Not even a grumpy old grandparent (gran is just as much fun as the rest of the family). However, all is not fine and dandy in Darcy's world as she is totally dreading her imminent start at 'Big School'. She is worried about the big kids, the homework and the uniform (the shoes, in particular, are a major concern as they are so... 'dompy'). In fact, all the things that every 11-year-old worries about just before they start 'Big School'. Naturally, Darcy tries to come to terms with this massive change in her life by writing a story - about a friendless and insecure creature called 'the Dompy'.

Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much is a book that should be essential reading for every child about to start at secondary school. It covers so many different issues that cause stress and upset for children at this significant moment in their growing up: friendships (making new friends and also how to cope when long-time friendships start to falter, especially when this is a girl/boy friendship); being true to yourself and not trying to be someone you're not, just to impress new people; and prejudice. 

This latter one may seem like a meaty subject for a Darcy Burdock book, but it is obviously something that Laura Dockrill feels very strongly about. When Darcy is selected to work on the school's on the merit of the quality of her creative writing (a first for a Year 7), a rather odious boy does little but mock Darcy and pigeon-hole her as a useless girl who can surely have little to offer but useless opinions on hair and make-up. In a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to enter any supermarket these days without seeing aisles of toys labelled 'Toys for Boys' or 'Toys for Girls', and children therefore having the age old stereotypes enforced on them from such a young age, it is a delight to see this handled so cleverly in a book for 9+ kids.

Another stand-out message that is delivered to kids in this book, without ever being preachy, is that it is fine to follow your dream or your passion in life. in Darcy's case, this is writing, and she gets nothing but encouragement from every adult in her life. More than this, she is actively encouraged to deal with the various turmoils in her life by using her writing as the means to a solution to each problem that comes her way. For another child it might be dance, music, sport, reading, painting - whatever the interest is should be nurtured and encouraged (making this an ideal read for parents as well). So many more kids would be happier with their lives if their parents showed the same attitude and support that Darcy's show to her.

I re-read the first Darcy Burdock book several times last year - occasionally for medicinal purposes - and I have a feeling that this follow-up is going to share a similar fate over the next twelve months (unless we are fortunate enough to have a third book sooner than that - rumour has it there may be a book 3 out in July). If you have a 9+ child who is yet to discover Darcy Burdock then you MUST get these books into their hands asap - boy or girl it really doesn't matter - and make sure you have a read once they have finished. You really won't regret it!

Friday 7 February 2014

Review: Banished by Liz de Jager

Kit is proud to be a Blackhart, now she's living with her unorthodox cousins and sharing their strange lives. Especially since their home-schooling includes spells, fighting enemy fae and using ancient weapons.

But it's not until she rescues a rather handsome fae prince, fighting for his life on the edge of Blackhart Manor, that her training really kicks in. With her family away on various missions, Kit must protect Prince Thorn, rely on new friends and use her own unfamiliar magic to stay ahead of Thorn's enemies.

As things go from bad to apocalyptic, fae battle fae in a war that threatens to spill into the human world. Then Kit pits herself against the Elder Gods themselves - it's that or lose everyone she's learnt to love.

Kit is a Blackhart, a family of enforcers and monster hunters who protect the humans from the many supernatural creatures that somehow stumble through the barrier that exists between our world and the magical world of the Fae. In comparison with her extended family though, Kit is relatively new to the whole monster-slaying-is-this-family's-way-of-life kind of thing, and the book opens with her first solo mission. 

Until recently Kit has been living with her grandmother, who had taken away from the Blackharts at a young age and kept their existence and work secret from Kit. The learning curve Kit has faced since her grandmother passed away is a steep one. The Blackharts do not work in complete secrecy. The government is fully aware of their work, and as such they are treated almost as a department of the secret service, with special dispensation for all kinds of otherwise illicit activities (like carrying a sword, fighting goblin-dog-mutant-things and so on).

Home alone recovering from the exertions of her first solo mission, Kit wakes in the night to find the air full of a static and she is already experienced enough to equate this with potential trouble. Venturing out into the neighbouring forest, beyond the protective boundaries of Blackhart Manor, she discovers a highborn Sidhe Fae male being attacked by a group of redcap goblins. With sword swinging Kit leaps into the fray, and in doing so saves Prince Thorn of the House of Alba from death. Her actions have severe repercussions, as the Manor is soon assailed by magical forces, causing Kit and Thorn to flee for their lives. Their flight takes them to London and beyond, as they face various nasties, make new friends and enemies, and friends who turn out to be enemies. Yes, there's enough cross and double-cross to keep everyone guessing.

First a disclosure: as long time readers will know, Liz de Jager is a good friend of mine, and Liz acted as a kind of mentor for me when I was first started blogging. I've chatted with Liz on countless occasions as she wrote (and then completely rewrote) the book that has become Banished, and I am incredibly proud of her and delighted that Banished will be out in the wild at the end of February. However, all of this means that this is a very difficult review to write as I need to make sure I retain objectivity, and please believe me when I say I am not a sycophant, for the main reason that Liz was string me up and subject me to every kind of pain possible if she thought I was writing a positive review just because I am a friend. Seriously though, I am writing a positive review because I really enjoyed Banished.

Should I continue by saying that I was pleasantly surprised (and more than a little relieved) that I enjoyed this book? Banished is not the kind of thing I normally read, and the world of the Fae holds little interest for me. My relative inexperience with this kind of urban fantasy is easily demonstrated by the fact that I was more than half way through before I bothered to look up the actual pronunciation of the word Sidhe, even though it probably makes an appearance several times in each chapter. As I read, in my mind I had tried various possible ways of pronouncing it, and sad to say not one of them was correct (not that I'm going to tell you how to pronounce it - either share my pain or go and look it up for yourself). However, this did not affect my enjoyment of the story (too much) as I was pulled in right from the start by the action. And boy, is there action in this book!

Liz de Jager can really write action scenes, and there are a hell of a lot of them in Banished. Think Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow novels, but applied to a kick-ass girl fighting fantasy creatures, rather than a member of the US special forces battling human bad guys, and you'll have a good idea what to expect from this. I know that Liz watches a huge amount of over-the-top action films, full of car chases, explosions and ninja fight sequences and uses these for inspiration as she choreographs her own fight scenes, and somehow she manages to translate that hi-octane, big screen experience into words on pages. 

As far as characters are concerned, Kit is another great female lead, in the tradition of Buffy (of vampire slaying fame) and Max from Dark Angel. She is impulsive, has a minor rebellious streak at times, and kicks ass big time, but also lacks self-confidence, especially when she stops to think about the scale of the work her family has carried out through history. I'll mention Thorn later in this review, but another character that I am sure will become a reader favourite is Aidan. He is the youngest member of a clan of 'werewolves of London' (sorry - couldn't resist), and I found him a much more believable and likable character than that of Thorn. The extended Blackhart family are also great fun, although they do not appear as much as I would have liked, so I am hoping for more from them in the next two books in the trilogy.

Another aspect of the book that I really liked are the short pieces that appear at the beginning of some of the chapters. Some of these are taken from The Blackhart Bestiarum, and give short descriptions of the creatures that Kit encounters. Others are excerpts from official government reports, and tend to pertain more to the Blackhart Family, or various seemingly supernatural phenomena like time slips, magic and so on. The first of these appears at the beginning of the book and lets us no from the off that the Blackharts are rumoured to have descended from the original Hansel and Gretel of Brothers Grim fame.

The book is not perfect though, as there were a couple of aspects that grated with me. First up, the book is written in first person, present tense but there are several short passages which change to third person in order to show the reader events that are taking place in Otherwhere. I personally felt that these didn't quite work, and that a more experienced writer might have been able to work this into her story without the change to third person. I wonder whether this criticism would be more suitably leveled at the editor than the writer though?

Secondly, although the writer has created a host of wonderful supporting characters, I just didn't 'believe' the character of Prince Thorn, the son of the King of Alba and Kit's main lover interest. I think, more than anything, it was his dialogue I didn't find believable as he uses human vernacular  far too readily (and comfortably?) for someone who is high born Fae. I appreciate that mentions are made regarding the time he has spent in Canada and elsewhere as part of his education on the human world, but I would have expected him to be far more aloof instead of down-to-earth.

These minor gripes aside, Banished is a thoroughly entertaining, well-paced, action-packed read that has a natural conclusion to the story within, but also leaves us with a cliffhanger that is part of the wider story arc. Although this one book will not convert me to being an avid reader of all things Fae, I will definitely be singing up to read the next book, Vowed, due out in November 2014. Banished, meanwhile, is scheduled to be published at the end of this month, and has possibly one of the most striking covers you are likely to see in a YA book this year. Come back at the beginning of March when Liz will be stopping off at The Book Zone has part of her blog tour, when she intends to tell us about her favourite action films (you really won't want to miss this one).

Sunday 2 February 2014

Review: Ironheart by Allan Boroughs

‘First comes the iron and then comes the snow, and then comes the winter when nothing will grow.’ 

Since her father went missing while prospecting for oil in Siberia, life has been tougher than ever for India Bentley. Little does she know that he was actually searching for Ironheart, a legendary fortress containing the secrets of the old world. A place some say could save humanity . . . or destroy the world. 

Along with tech-hunter Verity Brown and her android, Calculus, a killer from the old world turned protector in the new, India must make the journey to remote Siberia to try to find her father and finish his work. But there are others fighting to find Ironheart too – and they have very different goals in mind. 

If India fails, it won’t just be her father who pays the price. It will cost her the Earth.

The floods caused by the Great Rains have left London unrecognisable from its former glory as one of the greatest cities on the planet. Its inhabitants eke out a pretty miserable existence, scavenging through the mud for anything that might be of use or value. India Bentley lives in a walled village with her sister and step-mother, desperately hoping for the return of her long-missing father, an oil surveyor for one of the planets leading energy companies, the Trans-Siberian Mining Company.

On an evening when it looks as if India's already miserable life is about to get much, much worse, tech-hunter Verity brown and her android bodyguard (not a robot, definitely an android), appear on the scene, hunting for any clues that John Bentley may have left behind regarding his possible discovery of the legendary Ironheart -  a long hidden depository of great treasures and possibly more. India manages to persuade Verity to take her with her as they flee from untrusting villagers, and so begins an adventure that sees India travelling deep into the heart of frozen Siberia, on a quest to find her father and Ironheart. It is a quest that will test her to the limits of her physical and mental endurance, and little does she know that the safety of the whole planet is at stake if she fails.

There was so much I loved about this book, but ultimately it boils down to this being a perfect old-school action/adventure story, in the tradition of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines books, Indiana Jones and all of the adult quest thrillers that I read when I'm not reading YA and children's books. Writer Allan Burroughs does not spend several chapters building his post-apocalyptic world - instead, he draws the reader into the action in the very first chapter, and gradually lets the details of his world gradually develop as the plot progresses. This makes it a great read for reluctant readers as there is no chance at all for them to get bored.

Of course, even a rip-roaring plot can soon become somewhat tedious if the characters aren't interesting and appealing. To make an adventure story truly entertaining from first to last page you need characters who readers will grow to love and hate, and Ironheart has these by the truckload. India Bentley is an especially great main character and it is really refreshing to read an adventure story with a female protagonist. She is a gutsy, courageous young lady who is ready to risk life and limb in order to find her father. I have to say that it is also rather refreshing that the author does not feel the need to introduce a love interest or an element of romance for his female lead into the plot.

As well as India, there are a host of entertaining supporting characters, although some of these are not developed as much as others. Verity Brown, the tech-hunter, is one in particular that I was left wanting to know more about, although as this book is a sequel I am hoping that we will see more of Ms Brown in the next episode. Other great characters do get more wordage though, and android Calculus and pirate rigger Captain Aggrovius Bulldog were my personal favourites.

There is so much more that I want to mention but I risk creating spoilers by doing so. I will say that the book does come across as being very well researched. The Siberian setting of the story is a new one for me, and Allan Boroughs really brings the location alive. I also loved how the writer weaves real-world history like the Tunguska event into his story, adding a touch of Graham Hancock ancient advanced-civilisation theory to the story, something I've not encountered in a chidlren's book before, whilst also mixing in elements of shamanism. All of these aspects are great for enquiring minds, and I am sure there will be a number of kids who will be enthused into researching these areas once they have finished the book.

Ironheart is a great book for aged 9+ kids, and I think boys and girls will love it equally, and be left wanting more like I was. However, like me they will have to be patient as the sequel, The Sun Machine, is not due to be published until January 2015. My thanks go to Allan Boroughs for sending me a copy to read.