Monday 16 March 2015

Review: The Deadly 7 by Garth Jennings

Who needs friends when you've got MONSTERS?

Everything was happening so fast and it was all so . . . mad. It was as if someone had taken reality, made it into a jigsaw, thrown the jigsaw on to the floor and then said, "Now, hurry up and put it all together!" as they danced all over the jigsaw pieces in a clown suit, blowing a trumpet.

When Nelson's beloved big sister goes missing on a school trip, Nelson is devastated - he's not that good at making friends and his sister is the only person he can talk to. His parents join the search party and leave Nelson in the care of his mad uncle Pogo. Uncle Pogo is the caretaker of St Paul's Cathedral and it is here that Nelson stumbles across a machine, invented by Christopher Wren and buried for hundreds of years. Designed to extract the 7 deadly sins, the machine had a fault - once extracted, the sins became living, breathing monsters who would then follow the sinner around for eternity (unless they ate him first, in the case of the particularly sinful). Nelson accidentally extracts 7 deadly monsters from his own little soul. Ugly, cantankerous, smelly and often the cause of much embarrassment, Nelson's monsters are the last thing he needed in his life, but at least they're fairly harmless (he's a pretty good kid, on the whole). When he learns of their individual powers he realises the monsters can be put to good use, and together Nelson and the Deadly 7 set out on a quest across the globe to find and rescue his big sister. Somewhere along the way, Nelson realises that he finally has friends, even if they are smelly, lazy friends who like smashing stuff up.

The Deadly 7 is a monster adventure by successful director Garth Jennings and is packed full of hilariously appealing illustrations.

Garth Jennings is not the first to use the seven deadly sins as the basis for a story. From memory I can think of David Fincher's brilliant Se7en, manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, an episode of the TV series Supernatural, and the Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix. All of these use the sins as a vehicle for serious drama, albeit sometimes set in a fantasy world, however a good writer could just as easily use them within a comedy context. Think about it: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride could be comedy gold in the right hands, and Garth Jennings has those hands and his The Deadly 7 is one of the cleverest and funniest middle grade books you will read this year.

I have vague recollections of watching the disappointing 1970s comedy film The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins when I was in my teens. The cast list of this movie reads like a Who's Who of British comedy actors of the late 1960s/early 70s, and the list of writers is equally stellar. However, somehow it just is not as funny as it should have been, and sadly until now it is this treatment of the seven deadly sins that has remained in my memory (although many may argue that this is a far more healthy a memory for me than Fincher's Se7en). However, the memory has now been usurped by this wonderful comedy adventure story from Garth Jennings.

The blurb taken from Amazon at the beginning of this post tells you as much as I am going to about the plot of The Deadly 7, and in some ways I think that blurb tells you a little too much, but I don't think it's really my place to edit it down. However, what that blurb doesn't tell you is just how crazy this book is. In the monsterfication (made up word) of the sins he has created a team of bonkers and seriously fun comic characters (see images at the end of this post) who deserve to be spoken about with the same high praise as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Sulley and Mike, and the Minions. Even though I love films, it's not often I feel the need to see a book adapted for the big screen (mainly because I have been disappointed too many times in the past), but if The Deadly 7 were in the hands of the best that Pixar has to offer then I would be queuing up to watch it.

The story itself is far more than a comedy story - it is a fast-paced adventure story  that will have young readers hooked from the very first chapter. It is also a book that deals with loss (Nelson's big sister going missing, feared dead), but in a way that is occasionally poignant, often lighthearted, but never overbearing or upsetting for young readers. The story is also complemented by many of the author's own illustrations, some of which help bring his quirky monster creations to life for readers.

Less than three months in and 2015 is already shaping up to be another golden year for middle grade readers. I would not be surprised if The Deadly 7 makes an appearance in my top books of 2015, even though there are many months to go. It will take some pretty damn special books to knock it out of my top five. My thanks go to the fab people at Macmillan for sending me a copy to read.

Friday 6 March 2015

Review: Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey by Lorenzo Etherington

A super puzzle adventure comic starring Von Doogan...and YOU! The Curse of the Golden Monkey is BOTH a brilliant puzzle book AND a thrilling adventure story! It's jam-packed with challenges for you to solve, and every step of the way our hero's fate is in YOUR HANDS! Can Doogan uncover the MYSTERIOUS and TERRIFYING secrets at the heart of Javasu Island? It's up to YOU!

I appreciate that posting a review of Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey a mere two days after my review of Long Gone Don makes it look as if the Etherington Brothers have hijacked The Book Zone as part of some nefarious quest for world domination, but I could hardly review one and not the other, could I? As with Long Gone Don, if you're not a regular reader of The Phoenix then you will most likely not know that Von Doogan is a regular feature in said weekly comic, but whereas Long Gone Don is a traditional narrative story format, Von Doogan is something different entirely. Whilst the Indiana Jones style story element is still important (and also great fun), it is also possibly the most evil and dastardly children's puzzle book created in the history of the planet... ever!

Best known for his illustrating of his brother's writing, Lorenzo Etherington has cast off the shackles of brotherly love and gone solo with Von Doogan, although we are not looking at a Wham-style split over artistic differences here - the 'boys' are still very much a double act for their other work (and long may it be so). And Von Doogan may be enough suggest that Lorenzo is the evil brother of the two, as the puzzles in Von Doogan made my brain turn to mush and ooze out of my nostrils in protest. Lorenzo never, ever resorts to the mundane or simple for his puzzles. Wordsearches? Pah! They are for wimps. No, we are presented with codes and word 'games' that would have had the Bletchley crowd scratching their heads in frustration. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey should in future be used as part of the MI5 and MI6 selection process. Finish it in less than a day and you're in! Just look at this one for the first puzzle in the book:

And yet, despite its devilish difficulty this book is pretty damn fun as well. Each of the puzzles is given a difficulty rating (or 'impossibility level', depicted in skulls), and your heart does skip a beat when you turn a page to see five skulls glaring menacingly at you. Especially as you know that in order to be able to continue with the narrative part of the comic you MUST solve the problem on each page. But then there is that feeling of satisfaction when you do manage to finally complete a puzzle and move on to the next page, even if that status bar at the bottom of the page does seem to creep along slower than an M25 traffic jam on a hot and sunny Bank Holiday Monday.

And then there is Lorenzo Etherington's artwork. Every single puzzle is lavishly produced in Lorenzo's trademark detail and stunning vibrant colourwork, and it is this that really sets Von Doogan head and shoulders above any puzzle book I have come across for kids. Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey is almost guaranteed to keep kids (and their parents) occupied for hours (as long they can resist the temptation to cheat by looking up the answers at the rear of the book, which I did not do even once. Honest! (Gulp!)

Von Doogan and the Curse of the Golden Monkey is yet another great publication from David Fickling Books as part of the ever-increasing The Phoenix Presents series and just like Long Gone Don, it deserves a place in every young comic lover's collection. My thanks go to the publisher for sending me a copy yo review (even if I have gained a few more grey hairs whilst working through it).

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Review: Long Gone Don by The Etherington Brothers

Ten-year-old DON SKELTON never imagined a school day could get any worse than drowning face down in a bowl of oxtail soup. BUT HE WAS WRONG! Transported to the spooky underworld of BROILERDOOM, Don is soon forced to fight for his life-after-death against a host of villainous monstrosities. Prepare to enter the hilarious and dangerous world of LONG GONE DON, where one boy's END is just he BEGINNING of the adventure...

Like many others who have a passion for encouraging young people to read for enjoyment the news of the launch of The Phoenix comic back in 2012 filled me with excitement. Doubly so because I am also a huge lover of comics and graphic novels. Trebly so because among the artists and writers lined up for The Phoenix were the totally completely utterly brilliant Etherington Brothers. I love the work of these guys! Seriously, I would change my breakfast cereal if another came along with a serialised (cerealised... hahaha) Etherington Brothers comic inside it (and I am so set in my ways that I've not touched a cereal other than Frosties since I was in my teens). Are you listening Kellogg's? Forget asking your consumers to collect codes in order to get a personalised spoon - start giving away comics in your cereal boxes and do something for literacy whilst you are at it!

Since the launch of The Phoenix my love for the Etherington Brothers' Long Gone Don has come second only to the superb The Pirates of Pangaea (it takes a hell of a lot to beat a pirates and dinosaur mash-up), and now Don is here in his first collected volume. I have been a fan of the work of Robin (writer) and Lorenzo (artist) ever since I was sent a copy of Monkey Nuts back in 2010 (another must-buy for comic-loving kids), and I fell instantly in love with the addictive mix of Robin's off-the-wall-bonkers story-telling combined with Lorenzo's insanely detailed, vibrantly coloured artwork, and I am so happy to be able to add the first volume of Long Gone Don to my collection.

If you have not yet discovered Long Gone Don through The Phoenix then you are in for one hell of a treat. The eponymous 'hero' of the story, schoolboy Don Skelton, dies on the very first page of the book. A strangely dark start to a comic for kids, you may think, but his death is funny (very, very funny and a tad unfortunate) rather than gruesome, and it is the kick start for the craziness that follows. Having drowned in his bowl of Oxtail soup, Don 'awakes' to find himself in the after-life, but it is an after-life that could only be born from the unique imaginations of the brothers Etherington. And he also finds that his hair has gone white, and it's not entirely clear which bother him more - death or white hair.

This review is going to be severely lacking in details regarding Broilerdoom, the underworld type place that Don finds himself in post-drowning, as one of the real joys of reading this (and any other Etherington brothers) book is in the detail that Lorenzo puts into interpreting his brother's story. I can just picture the two 'boys', giggling with tears of mirth pouring from their eyes, as they come up with zany idea after zany idea - I would love to see a video of their collaborative process (brothers - if you're reading this and are interested in filming one for Middle Grade Strikes Back, please get in touch). Suffice to say, that Don makes enemies almost as quickly as he makes friends following his arrival in Broilerdoom, and he soon finds himself a wanted boy, with the rather horrible and totally despotic General Spode rather keen to inflict all kinds of nastiness on Don for a supposedly treasonous act.

Back in 2010, not long after I had read Monkey Nuts, I had the good fortune to meet Robin and Lorenzo after an event they did as part of the Crystal Palace Book Festival. We briefly chatted about our shared love for the Asterix books of Goscinny and Uderzo, and the brothers' passion for these books has never been more evident than in Long Gone Don, which visually is an obvious homage to the classic and world famous illustration work of Albert Uderzo. The (many) fight scenes in particular took me back to the incalculable number of hours I spent as a child (ok, yes, and as a teen, and yes, as an adult too) reading and re-reading the Asterix books, and the parallels do not end with the artwork - the humour in Long Gone Don is also at times just as tongue-in-cheek, with puns aplenty, although given the post-death subject matter there is also a subtle darkness to it in places.

Like their previous books Long Gone Don is the kind of comic that merits many reads - the first for the story, and the second, immediately after finishing it, to go back through and spot any missed details in the images. I've now read it four times, and even on that fourth visit I was still spotting things I had missed before. What's more, there is a big fat 'Book 1' printed on the front cover which hopefully means, sales figures permitting, that those wonderful people at David Fickling books will continue to publish these just-as-wonderful collected editions.