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.