Saturday 30 January 2016

Book Zone Box Set #3 - The Monster Odyssey Series by Jon Mayhew

In my Book Zone Box Set feature I put the spotlight on a series of books that I have read and enjoyed, and would highly recommend to any parent asking about suitable books for their child. The recent release of The Venom of the Scorpion made Jon Mayhew's Monster Odyssey series a deserving addition to the 'box set' shelf.

If you're a long time reader of The Book Zone the you probably already know that I am a big fan of Jon Mayhew's writing, from Mortlock, his super creepy, Victorian-set mystery/horror story, right through to his Monster Odyssey series. If you're a new visitor then welcome and you need look no further than my reviews of the first two books in this series, The Eye of Neptune and The Wrath of the Lizard Lord, to a) find out what they're all about and b) see why I enjoyed them so much.

The Venom of the Scorpion is the fourth, and I believe final book in this fab series, although I'm am still no wiser as to why Bloomsbury didn't give a 'Young Nemo' title to this series. Even though Prince Dakkar does not take this title at any point in these four adventures, we know pretty much from the start that he is destined to become the Captain Nemo of Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Who else would be travelling around the world in a submarine called the Nautilus? We've had Young Sherlock and Young Bond, so why not Young Nemo? I would not be surprised if there are many fans of Verne's classic who do not know these are, to some degree, prequels.

Like Andrew Lane's Young Sherlock series, great delight can be gained from these stories in spotting the development of the character traits that the well-known adult character possess. All the important elements of the adult Captain Nemo's personality evolve as the story progresses: arrogance; bravery; resourcefulness; a natural leader who inspires loyalty in those who follow him; his love of the ocean; and now, in The Venom of the Scorpion, his hatred of oppression and imperialism. For a middle grade reader, these four books are the perfect introduction to the more challenging Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (although you may also want to drop the odd hint that it is okay to skim read some parts, specifically the numerous, lengthy descriptions of marine life that Verne includes in his story).

Like Verne's original, these books are cracking adventure stories and they are perfect for any young lover of thrilling action/adventure stories.

My thanks go to the fab people at Bloomsbury for keeping me provided with the Monster Odyssey books as they were published, most recently The Venom of the Scorpion which brings this series to a more than satisfactory end (although, and it may be a little too much to hope for, still leaving things open for more adventures in the future).

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Review: River of Ink: Genesis by Helen Dennis

When a mystery teenage boy emerges from the River Thames drenched, distressed and unable to remember anything about himself, he becomes the focus of worldwide media speculation. Unable to communicate, the River Boy is given paper and a pencil and begins to scribble. Soon a symbol emerges, but the boy has no idea why he has drawn it even thought it's the only clue to the mystery of his identity...

As the boy begins to build a new life under a new name, the hunt for his real identity begins.

A hunt which will lead him on a dangerous QUEST that he has only one year to complete ...

Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for these new style Book Zone reviews, as part of my seemingly endless quest for brevity when reviewing. So, here are three reasons to read Genesis, the first book in Helen Dennis's new River of Ink series.

1. The quest

I love what I call quest stories, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I really loved Dan Brown's Angels and Demons and its sequel The Da Vinci Code. Books like this are my guilty pleasure, and since then I have been spoiled for choice in this area, with great series from the likes of Andy McDermott, Chris Kuzneski and Scott Mariani, but as I have often asked in the past - with so many books in this genre published for adults, where are these mystery-adventure-conspiracy-thrillers for younger readers? Thus, for this reader at least, Genesis by Helen Dennis is a very welcome addition to my bookshelf. 

2. The mystery

Helen Dennis is no stranger to writing mystery quest books. I am quite a fan of her middle grade Secret Breakers series, and Genesis is even better. Written, I believe, for a slightly older audience (although certainly suitable for readers from age 10+), the much loved tropes that can be found in adult examples of the genre are all present and correct: a protagonist who has lost his memory, another character drawn into the mystery almost by accident, strange symbols that suggest more than a hint of alchemy, a secret and ruthless organisation bent on gaining sole possession of whatever lies at the heart of the mystery. Put all these together and there was no way I wasn't going to love this book.

3. Mental health issues

Jed, the main character, having suffered severe memory loss is central to to the plot of Genesis. However, it is not this that I am referring to in this case. In order to aid his healing and hide him away from the press, Jed is 'welcomed' in to the family of Kassia Devaux. Kassia's family life is less than conventional - her father died a numbers of years earlier in an accident and her mother's behaviour is symptomatic of someone suffering from a number of mental health conditions. She suffers from severe anxiety, OCD and possibly BPD, and much of this is manifested in her attitude towards Kassia and her deaf brother Dante. She is over-protective, obsessive about cleanliness around the house and has pretty much mapped out Kassia's future for her. It's important that young readers experience characters with such illnesses in the stories they read, and not just in contemporary 'real life' stories where mental illness of a character is central to the story. It's another example of what we mean when we cry for more diversity in books for children and young adults (as is Dante's disability).

River of Ink: Genesis was published in the UK last week, and my thanks go to those fab people at Hodder for sending me a copy. The sequel, Zenith, is due out in June so fortunately we only have six months to wait to find out what happens next.  

Monday 18 January 2016

Review: Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard

Darkus is miserable. His dad has disappeared, and now he is living next door to the most disgusting neighbours ever.

A giant beetle called Baxter comes to his rescue. But can the two solve the mystery of his dad’s disappearance, especially when links emerge to cruel Lucretia Cutter and her penchant for beetle jewellery? A coffee-mug mountain, home to a million insects, could provide the answer – if Darkus and Baxter are brave enough to find it …

Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for these new style Book Zone reviews, as part of my seemingly endless quest for brevity when reviewing. So, here are three reasons to love Beetle Boy, by M.G. Leonard.

1. The Beetles

Forget the Fab Four*, this is more the fab four hundred thousand, as M.G. Leonard's debut, Beetle Boy, is overflowing with brilliant, benevolent beetles. Not since the hugely entertaining Joe's Apartment have so many incredible insects been used as a force for good in a fight against dastardly villains. I think M.G. Leonard must have had great fun researching this book: there are all kinds of species of cool and crazy Coleoptera, each bringing their own talents to help Darkus Cuttle fight the evil Lucretia Cutter and her minions. It's great to see insects as the good guys in a story!

2. Friendship

One of the reasons I love middle grade stories is the strong themes of friendship that many of them contain. Whether it's classics like Swallows and Amazons and The Famous Five, or more contemporary stories like the Harry Potter series and Robon Stevens' Wells & Wong Mysteries, friendship in stories is important for young readers. It helps kids understand that working with others towards a common goal is important, even if it isn't always easy, and how fun, happiness and strength can come from sharing with others. The friendships in Beetle Boy are both conventional (starting at a new school, Darkus makes friends with Virginia and Bertolt) and unconventional (boy makes friends with beetle).

3. The villains

Everybody loves a 'good' villain, and Beetle Boy has no shortage of them. From the truly heinous and inhuman Lucretia Cuttle to Darkus's bizarre odd-couple neighbours, Pickering and Humphrey and their somewhat unsanitary living habits, the villains in this story have just the right level of over-the-top-ness to make them easy to dislike and entertaining, without ever entering pantomime territory.

Beetle Boy isn't released until the beginning of March, so make note of this now and either pre-order it or set a reminder on your smart phone, as this is already a hot contender for my 2016 Books of the Year list. My thanks go to the fab people at Chicken House for sending me a copy of this little beauty.

*(yes, yes, I know they spelt their name differently)

Sunday 17 January 2016

Review: The Scarlet Files: Cat Burglar by Tamsin Cooke

Schoolgirl by day, cat burglar by night.

Scarlet McCall thinks she has it all figured out. She and her dad are on a mission to return stolen treasures to their rightful owners. But when they take an ancient Aztec bracelet, her world turns upside down.

Dad goes missing, and mysterious powers erupt inside Scarlet. She's hunted by sinister people, who will stop at nothing to possess the bracelet. Searching for her dad, Scar must learn who to trust before it's all too late.

Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for these new style Book Zone reviews, as part of my seemingly endless quest for brevity when reviewing. So, here are three reasons to love Cat Burglar, the first book in Tamsin Cooke's The Scarlet Files series.

1. Main character Scarlet McCall

I have often written about the popular misconception that boys do not read books with female main characters, and how fallacies like this can become self-perpetuating the more it is stated ( much like that oft proclaimed 'fact' that boys don't like reading). Well I would challenge any read, boy or girl, to read this book and not be excited by the adventures of Scarlet (aka Scar) McCall. Scar is brave and resourceful, but also frustrated that her father doesn't allow her to have more than a basic support role in the heists that he plans and carries out. By necessity, Scar's life has been relatively solitary, so her resourcefulness becomes even more important when her father is taken hostage, and she is left to carry out a daring robbery all on her own.

2. The pace

Cat Burglar is great, galloping fun; it is chock full of breathless action and has a plot that moves faster than a rocket full of monkeys. Short chapters mean that readers are sucked in and held tight, until before they know it they are turning the page of the final chapter. Definitely one of those books that is best read in a single sitting, and at only 220ish pages this is achievable for most confident readers, and even many who are less-confident.

3. The fantasy element

This would probably have been a good, entertaining read if it had been a straight heist thriller for kids. However, Tamsin Cooke injects an exciting fantasy element into her story through the ancient Aztec bracelet that Scar steals in the first chapter, and as Scar quickly discovers, this bracelet certainly ain't no trinket. Said bracelet endows Scarlet with strange new abilities, but are they a gift or a curse for our plucky heroine? 

Cat Burglar was published in the UK on 7th January, and the sequel, Mission Gone Wild, is due out in July. My thanks go to those fab people at OUP for sending me a proof copy to read.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Review: The Marsh Road Mysteries by Elen Caldecott

Diamonds and Daggers

Hollywood sensation, Betty Massino, has come to star in the theatre down the road and Piotr and his friends Andrew and Minnie couldn't be more excited! But when the famous actress's hugely expensive diamond necklace goes missing, Piotr's dad, a security guard at the theatre, is a prime suspect. Soon, Piotr faces the very real threat of being sent 'home' to Poland. With the help of Sylvie and her twin sister Flora, can Piotr, Andrew and Minnie solve the crime or will they lose Piotr forever? The first in a fantastic new series filled with friendship, adventure and mystery!

Crowns and Codebreakers

When Minnie's gran comes to stay, all the way from Nigeria, Minnie KNOWS there will be trouble. And straight away Gran notices she's picked up the wrong suitcase at the airport. This one is full of boy's clothes, and she's not at all happy about it! But when their house is burgled and the only thing taken is the suitcase, Minnie realises there'll be much more trouble than she bargained for. Can the gang solve the crime or will the mystery of the little lost boy be forever unsolved?

Spooks and Scooters

Flora and Sylvie are going on the holiday of a lifetime with their dad. But - WHAT? - Dad cancels the trip only hours before the flight because - OH MY GOODNESS - someone has stolen precious blueprints of Dad's latest invention: an amazing new scooter. But who? And why? Time to call on the only five people who can possibly solve the crime!

Three was the magic number for Bob Dorough, Blind Melon and De La Soul, and it's also the magic number for these new style Book Zone reviews, as part of my seemingly endless quest for brevity when reviewing. So, here are three reasons to love Elen Caldecott's March Road Mysteries books, of which the third, Spooks and Scooters, is due to be published next month.

1. Diversity

It's fantastic to read a middle grade mystery story that follows the adventures of a group of friends of different races and backgrounds. Piotr Domek is a Polish immigrant and lives his parents, who moved to Britain in search of a better standard of living; Minnie Adesina is of Nigerian heritage; twins Flora and Sylvie Hampshire's parents are separated; and Andrew Jones is probably a young carer (I say probably, as each story puts the spotlight on a different member of the gang, and it hasn't been Andrew's turn yet). This diverse mix of backgrounds and ethnicities rings very true as a group of friends living in modern multi-cultural Britain, and it also lends itself to stories that, whilst being primarily mysteries, also touch on themes such as racism and prejudice.

2. Friendship

Elen Caldecott gets kids. She understands how they tick and how their friendships can be strong one day and fragile the next. Young readers will find it very easy to identify with the relationships between the five protagonists. The characters themselves are engaging and very cleverly drawn, with each child's personality shining just as much as the next, and they bring a wonderful air of humour to the stories that has the reader finding themselves grinning from ear to ear without even realising.

3. Mystery

The mysteries in which the group of friends find themselves embroiled are exciting and cleverly plotted. These aren't Famous Five style adventures, where the protagonists just happen to stumble on to the solution; our team of young sleuths really have to use their brains and combine their various strengths to solve these mysteries. As an adult reader, I have to admit to guessing the outcome of the first two books, but it took me quite a lot longer to work out whodunnit. But I'm reading with a lifetime of read mystery stories locked away in my brain, and I'm sure younger readers will find the solutions a little harder to predict.

Elen Caldecott's Marsh Road Mysteries are a must-read for any mystery-hungry young reader. It's great to see so many new mystery stories being published for this age group at the moment, as they do not appear to have been in vogue for some time. My thanks go to those wonderful people at Bloomsbury for sending me copies of the books to read.

Monday 4 January 2016

Review: Doctor Who Time Lord Fairy Tales by Justin Richards

A stunning illustrated collection of fifteen dark and ancient fairy tales from the world of Doctor Who.

These captivating stories include mysterious myths and legends about heroes and monsters of all kinds, from every corner of the universe. Originally told to young Time Lords at bedtime, these twisted tales are an enchanting read for Doctor Who fans of all ages.

I am a lifelong fan of Doctor Who and as a child/young teen I spent may an hour reading as many of the Target novelisations as I could get my hands on (as ever, the local library did not let me down). However, somewhere along the way I stopped reading Doctor Who fiction - I wonder whether it was due to the sheer volume of books that were being published, especially after the show was cancelled by the BBC back in 1989 and writers/published filled the gap with New Adventures and Missing Adventures. I intend to remedy this in 2016 as a friend has recently recommended two books that I really like the sound of: Harvest of Time by Alastair Reynolds and The Wheel of Ice by Stephen Baxter.

But I am getting ahead of myself. A couple of months ago I had a lovely surprise package in the post, courtesy of those lovely people at Puffin. Said package included a copy of Doctor Who: The Dangerous Book of Monsters (devoured in a single sitting btw), and Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales. It was the latter of the two that really piqued my interest - it is an anthology of fairy tales, each of which has a Doctor Who twist. Most of the classic tales they are based on are instantly recognisable (including Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff and many more) but writer Justin Richards has very cleverly twisted them around to make them tales that just might be told to Gallifreyan kids.

I have to be honest, it took me a couple of stories to really get into the book, as it was aimed at a younger audience than I had originally presumed, and the tone of the stories is most definitely fairy-tale-ish in nature. However, once I had got my head around this I found myself really enjoying most of the tales. A number of the stories do not even feature the Doctor himself (and even when he appears it is usually little more than a cameo role to help save the day), but many of the classic Whovian monsters are there in one form or another, including Sontarans, Cybermen and Weeping Angels and some of the less well known to modern viewers, such as the Nimon and the Wirrn. 

Each story comes with its own wonderful illustration by David Wardle, all produced in a classic wood block printing style that perfectly matches the fairy tale theme of the book. Adult readers may recognise the style from the cover of Essie Fox's The Somnambulist, which Wardle also created.

For those of you who love audio books, a little googling has revealed that all of these tales are available to purchase as downloads from iTunes and Amazon, read by the likes of Paul McGann, Michelle Gomez, Sophie Aldred and even Tom Baker. I'm not a big fan of audio books (I have attention span problems), but these sound cracking so I might have to have a listen in the future. It also looks like there is a planned CD release for April, for those of you who prefer a physical copy.

Time Lord Fairy Tales is great fun and deserves a place on the shelves of any fan of Doctor Who, young or old. It has certainly whetted my appetite for more Doctor Who fiction, so if any of you have any recommendations they would be very gratefully received.