Monday 29 February 2016

Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

Dustwalk is Amani's home. The desert sand is in her bones. But she wants to escape. More than a want. A need.

Then a foreigner with no name turns up to save her life, and with him the chance to run. But to where? The desert plains are full of danger. Sand and blood are swirling, and the Sultan's enemies are on the rise.

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 why I loved Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton:

1. The story

Many will know that these days I do not read a great deal of YA, and when I receive emails from publishers I very rarely request copies of YA books. However, many months ago I was tempted by this, and at that point I'm not sure I even knew the title or blurb, just that those lovely people at Faber were getting very excited about it. When the proof arrived (complete with personalised book cover!) it remained unread on my TBR pile whilst I continued to delight in all the middle grade books that were coming my way. However, I eventually succumbed to its pleas and decided to read Rebel of the Sands, the debut novel from Alwyn Hamilton. And I was hooked from beginning to end. I loved everything about this magical fantasy story, set in a wonderfully imagined desert location. I very rarely say this as I am not a fan of movie adaptations of books I have loved, but I really, really hope that someone great as acquired the film rights to this as I really think that it could be a huge summer family film hit, as per Pirates of the Caribbean. As someone who grew up loving the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad films, I was rather disappointed at the barely average Prince of Persia film, but Rebel of the Sands has something that film did not have - a cracking plot without any silliness.

2. The world building

I don't often dip my toes into the waters of adult science fiction and fantasy as I just don't have the patience to wade through page after page of detailed world building. In just the first few chapters Alwyn Hamilton managed to impart everything I needed to know about the society in which main character Amani Al'Hiza lives and the world's mythology, but never at the cost of slowing down the pace. More details of the part wild west, part Arabian Nights world are drip fed as the story progresses, and we are never left in a position of questioning the specific whys and wherefores of the culture and its people for very long. This is a credit to both Alwyn Hamilton's story-telling abilities as well as the quality of the editing.

3. The main character

It's hard not to draw parallels with some modern day middle eastern and African societies, where women are oppressed and do not, in our western eyes, have the same rights or opportunities as men. Women in Amani's society are treated as little more then property, owned by their husbands, or in Amani's case, her uncle, to eventually be sold off into a loveless marriage. To speak out against this treatment or act in  a way that is not deemed acceptable to the town's or country's patriarchs can very quickly lead to severe punishment and even death. Amani will do anything to get away from her family and the town of Deadshot, even if it means putting herself at the greatest of risks. She is courageous, independent and fiercely loyal to anyone she feels deserves her loyalty. There are few who can equal her skills with a sixshooter, which might come in useful as she has the dangerous habit of opening her mouth and delivering a snappy wisecrack when it would be far better for Amani, and those allied with her if she occasionally took the time to think before she speaks. However, we can forgive her this weakness as it makes the story that much more thrilling for us as readers.


Rebel of the Sands was published in the UK on 4th February and is currently one of my favourite books of the year so far. In fact, I have not enjoyed a YA magical fantasy book this much since Amy McCulloch's The Oathbreaker's Shadow, which became my Book of the Year back in 2013.

Sunday 28 February 2016

Review: Spy Quest: Polybius - The Urban Legend by Andy Briggs

In the dark amusement arcades of the 1980s, a new game is discreetly appearing - Polybius. It's addictive fun... but the machine mysteriously disappears as swiftly as it arrived. So too does the one kid who claimed the highest ever score... never to be heard from again... Over thirty years later, computer games have moved on - but the players are as keen as ever. SAM RAYNER is one such boy. His dreams of being a professional gamer, a virtual athlete on a million dollar contract -- dreams that are scoffed at by his twin sister, REBECCA. She secretly enjoys playing games, but would never openly admit that to her "geeky" brother -- that is until Sam wins an online competition, giving the entire family a free holiday at a luxury hotel. But it's not just a chance for his family to take a pampered break, it's a special games tournament and a chance for Sam to chase his dream. Or that's what he thinks - until he discovers a game has been mysteriously downloaded to his mobile phone. A game called Polybius - a name from the darkest reaches of urban legends.

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 Polybius - The Urban Legend by Andy Briggs:

1. The concept

I am always keen to promote anything new that may encourage a child to pick up a book and read it. Whilst working very well as a standalone book, Polybius - The Urban Legend is linked to a spy training game created by Polybius Games that started life being offered though hotels around the world (including Center Parcs and Walt Disney World, Florida). The game was next provided to schools across Scotland, and is endorsed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority as a learning platform and a White Paper has since been written on the benefits of the game by one of the worlds leading experts in game based technology. The book itself, is a spin-off from this game, but readers can also download an app to their smartphones which allows them to experience and augmented reality feature. You can find out more about the game at

2. The action

Anyone who has read one of Andy Briggs's previous books will know how good he is at writing fast-paced action stories. The plot of Polybius - The Urban Legend is fast and furious, and and from the moment main character Sam Rayner is drawn into the mystery it doesn't let up until the very last chapter.

3. The theme

The story's link to gaming is not just though the Spy Quest game. Sam Rayner is a gamer and dreams of making money out of his passion by turning professional. Sam wins an online competition which just may make this dream become reality, although there is a lot more to this prize than he initially realises. In a similar vein to stories like The Last Starfighter and Ernest Cline's Armada, the game is being used to find young people with certain skills and gifts so that they can be trained, in this case, as spies. Linking stories to gaming could be a great way of dragging gamer kids away from their consoles and in to the pages of a book. Older gamers may already be aware of the real life Polybius story - an urban legend that, again like Ernest Cline, Andy Briggs uses to establish his plot.


Polybius - The Urban Legend was originally only available online, but I believe that it has now been released throughout book stores in the Uk as well. My thanks go to the author for sending me a copy of the book.

Friday 26 February 2016

The Shadow Keeper Blog Tour: Guest Post by Abi Elphinstone

Today I am delighted to be welcoming the fabulous Abi Elphinstone to The Book Zone, as part of The Shadow Keeper blog tour. Abi's debut book, The Dreamsnatcher, was my favourite middle grade book of 2015, and its sequel, The Shadow Keeper, is even better! Abi is here today to tell us about some of the weird and wonderful items she has in her writing shed, but the wonderment doesn't stop there, as on Monday we will be giving you a chance to win a copy of The Shadow Keeper!

Top 10 Strangest Objects In My Writing Shed


One of my favourite things about school visits is showing children the weird and wonderful objects I’ve picked up on my travels. And with recent book research adventures involving living with Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia (you can read about that here) and chasing the northern lights in the Arctic, my writing shed is fast becoming a treasure trove of extraordinary items. So, here you go for a run down on the Top 10 Strangest Objects In My Writing Shed:

1. An arrow fletched with buzzard feathers. Catapults are my weapon of choice but when the witch doctors stepped things up a gear in The Shadow Keeper I threw in some bows and arrows as well. In the run up to writing the book, I learnt to fire a long bow at Barbury Shooting School and afterwards I bought a flint-tipped arrow from an antique shop in Portobello Road, London.

2. A human finger bone. There is a particularly evil band of smugglers in The Shadow Keeper. Barbarous Grudge is the thug at the top and he is often seen chewing the finger bone of a government official who tried to stop him smuggling years ago.

3. A gold tooth. Barbarous Grudge again for this one, I’m afraid. The legend goes that he fended off eight tax officials in a smuggling raid then stole their money to melt down the coins to cap eight of his teeth in gold.

4. A wolf fang decorated with silver. I bought this in Mongolia when I was living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters. There are wolves in The Shadow Keeper but perhaps not the sort you’d expect…

5. A sheep’s ankle bone. This was given to me by a family living in one of the most remote settlements I have come across, at the foot of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Mongolian children play games with the bones and when I come to writing my Eagle Huntress book, I’m going to include the ankle bone and the girl who gave it to me, a five-year-old cat wrestler called Angela.

6. A shaman’s dagger. My little brother bought this back for me after his time living with the Reindeer People in northern Mongolia. The handle is made from reindeer antler and it is one of the most magical and fierce things I’ve ever seen. It’ll be a part of my next series – an Arctic adventure – because I already know there will be an evil shaman wreaking havoc out on the ice.

7. A plastic moth encased in glass. As odd as it sounds – and inspiration for the book I’m currently writing: a wild adventure amidst mountains, moors and lochs.

8. Animal Spirit cards. In The Shadow Keeper, Moll has a very special bond with a wildcat called Gryff. Sometimes I take these spirit cards to school visits and readers can find out what their spirit animal might be. Mine is a fox, apparently: ‘has many allies in the woodland, a sure-footedness in the physical world, is always concerned about family members & travels far afield.’

9. A catapult carved by one of the last ‘true’ Romany gypsies, Pete Ingram. He painted Roald Dahl’s wagon for the film premiere of Danny, The Champion of the World, and the catapult he gave me is made from ash with a beautiful horse head carved into the handle. It’s magnificent and I’m lucky my main character, Moll, hasn’t pinched it yet – because catapults are kind of her THING.

A highland cow teddy. Because why not (and because Siddy takes a fancy to one in Book 3).


Huge thanks to Abi for taking the time to tall us about all these amazing things she has in her writing shed. The Shadow Keeper was published yesterday so make sure you go out and get your copy now. Although if you have not yet read The Dreamsnatcher, you really must do this first!


Tuesday 23 February 2016

Competition: WIN a copy of Superhero Street by Phil Earle

This competition is now closed and the winners have been notified. Thank you to who all entered.

Phil Earle's Demolition Dad was one of my favourite books of 2015. This week sees the release of Superhero Street, the next book in his Storey Street series, and it's another corker.

Now you have the chance to win a copy of the book, simply by filling in your details in the form below. Thanks to the generosity of Hachette Children's Books I have three copies of Superhero Street to give away.
The first three names drawn at random after the closing date will each win a copy of the book. The deadline for entries is 7pm GMT Monday 29th February. This competition is open to UK residents only.

Contest open to UK residents only.
Neither the publisher or I will be held responsible for items lost in the mail.
I hold the right to end a contest before its original deadline without any prior notice.
I hold the right to disqualify any entry as I see fit.

I will contact winning entrants for their postal address following the close of the competition. Winners have 48 hours to reply. Failure to do so in this time will result in another winner being randomly selected.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Review: Hamish and the Neverpeople by Danny Wallace, illustrated by Jamie Littler

Nobody knows it yet, but the people of Earth are in big, big trouble.

Like - HUGE trouble. Oh, come on, where's your imagination? Double what you're thinking!

And it's all got to do with a shadowy figure, an enormous tower, some sinister monsters, huge clanking and thundering metal oddballs, and people who are just like you… but not like you at all.

Luckily Hamish and the PDF are around to help save the day! Aren't they??

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 why I totally love Hamish and the Neverpeople (and also the first outing for the titular main characters, Hamish and the Worldstoppers):

1. Brilliant characters

I've always felt that one of the main ingredients that has led to the huge success of David Walliams's books is his ability to create brilliant, memorable characters. Take it from me, Danny Wallace also possesses this ability in spades. Hamish is one of those characters that young readers will relate to with ease - he's not particularly special, he's just an ordinary boy who fate has decided has a part in saving the earth. Twice. He misses his father sorely, and knows deep down that there must be more to his disappearance than others might suggest. And he has the best group of friends in the world... ever! The various members of the PDF (Pause Defence Force) each comes with their own specific skill-set and distinct personality, which was funny and entertaining enough in the first book, but add their 'Otherhalves' to the mix and you can turn the entertainment level up to 11! (What's an Otherhalf? You'll have to read the book to find out).

2. It is pee-your-pants funny

Get those incontinence pants ready! The Hamish books are so funny that there are bound to be a few little accidents along the way. A shame really - these books would be perfect for primary school teachers to read to whole classes during story time, but just imagine the mess! Danny Wallace is labelled as a humorist on his wikipedia page, and that is exactly what you get in these books - joyous, uncontrived humour from beginning to end, with just the right level of silliness. He is also a master of the use of the so-called 'fourth wall' as a device for making his stories even funnier and he uses this to grab the reader from the off, and makes the reading a far more immersive experience for young readers.

3. Jamie Littler's illustrations

It is truly wonderful when an illustrator's artwork complements the written aspect of a story so perfectly. The most obvious recent example that springs to my mind is Sarah McIntyre's collaboration with Philip Reeve, and Jamie Littler's illustrations for the Hamish books firmly places him on this relatively exclusive list. 

The covers for the two books are among my very favourite for books of this type published in recent years, and publishers Simon and Schuster even included a large, glossy, full colour press release with the book they sent me - if I can just remember in which safe place I filed the Worldstoppers press release I intend to get the two framed together as they will look great on the wall. The illustrations throughout the story are almost as fabulous as the cover, and I only say almost because they are in black and white. Wouldn't it be great if publishers could afford to add colour illustrations throughout their middle grade books? Seriously though, if I won the lottery I would certainly be knocking on Mr Littler's door, begging to buy some of his Hamish illustrations, or prints of them at the very least. 

Hamish and the Neverpeople is due to be published in the UK on 11th February, but if you or your child haven't already read Hamish and the Worldstoppers I would suggest you get yourself down to your nearest book store and buy a copy immediately. It really is worth you going out of your way for!