Monday 27 June 2016

Review: Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

Denizen Hardwick doesn't believe in magic - until he's ambushed by a monster created from shadows and sees it destroyed by a word made of sunlight.

That kind of thing can really change your perspective.

Now Denizen is about to discover that there's a world beyond the one he knows. A world of living darkness where an unseen enemy awaits.

Fortunately for humanity, between us and the shadows stand the Knights of the Borrowed Dark.

Unfortunately for Denizen, he's one of them . . .

Reading the above blurb you might think that you have seen all of this before. And in some ways you'd be right. Knights of the Borrowed Dark is chock full of the tropes that we have come to know so well in middle grade fiction since Harry Potter burst onto the scene:
  • orphaned protagonist? Check
  • said orphan has a pretty miserable life? Check
  • sudden appearance of a previously unknown relative? Check
  • relative is part of a secret society that protects the world from dark magic? Check
The list goes on and on, but the incredible thing is that debut writer Dave Rudden weaves them into his story with such mastery that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was breaking completely new ground. This is a seriously good debut novel, from the first line of its ├╝ber-creepy prologue, right the way through to its kick-ass ending.

Aside from his obvious ability to write a damn enjoyable story, the quality of Dave Rudden's descriptive writing is the best I have read from a debut writer for years. Knights of the Borrowed Dark is a masterclass in writing for a middle grade audience, or any audience for that matter. Open up the book at pretty much any page and a quick scan will reward you with one of the many vivid descriptions that add detail to his world-building, and further richness and atmosphere to the exciting narrative. And these descriptions are invariably brief and impactful, and never at the cost of pace. I'd love to include a few of these in my review, but my copy is an uncorrected proof so I'm not permitted to do so.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark is written for the 9+ audience, but there is a darkness to the story that may be a little too much for some. The violence within is of the fantasy kind, but may put off some parents. The nature of the villains and the way that monsters come out of the dark, may affect children of a delicate disposition or who are prone to nightmares. The villains of the piece, known as The Clockwork Three, could have come straight out of the world of the Cenobites of the Hellraiser movies, especially the lightbulb-eating woman in white. However, the story also shows that through courage and friendship, light can and will overcome the darkness.

I've not written may reviews this year, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I have been experiencing something of a reading slump as far as children's books are concerned so I have not read as many this year as I might have in the past. However, of the ones that I have read, this is most definitely one of the best and already a strong contender for my book of the year. It has everything that I personally want in a fantasy action adventure story, and it is the kind of book that, had it been published when I was a child, I would have read over and over and over again. My thanks go to the wonderful people at Penguin Random House for sending me a copy.

Thursday 23 June 2016

Review: The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell

When their grandmother Sylvie is rushed to hospital, Ivy Sparrow and her annoying big brother Seb cannot imagine what adventure lies in store. Returning to Sylvie’s house, they find it has been ransacked by unknown intruders – before a mysterious feather scratches an ominous message onto the kitchen wall. A very strange policeman turns up on the scene, determined to apprehend them . . . with a toilet brush. Ivy and Seb make their escape – only to find themselves in a completely uncommon world, where ordinary objects have amazing powers. The forces of evil are closing in fast, and Ivy and Seb must get to the bottom of a family secret . . . before it’s too late.

I mentioned in the review that I posted yesterday that recently I have been experiencing a reading slump. I have so many children's books in my TBR pile that look wonderful, but every time I have come to select one to read I have just felt meh! and picked up an adult or non-fiction book instead. The last time this happened (a good few years ago) it took the brilliant Small Change For Stuart by Lissa Evans to pull me out of my malaise, and this time it was this wonderful debut novel by Jennifer Bell, followed in quick succession by Gabrielle Kent's second Alfie Bloom book.

Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that  I am a sucker for any children's or Young Adult story that reimagines London in some way or other. Sarah Silverwood's The Nowhere Chronicles, China Mieville's Un Lun Dun and Tom Becker's Darkside series are all books in this vein that I have loved, but I loved The Crooked Sixpence even more. It's as if Jennifer Bell has been able to scoop up all the most magical ingredients of these other books, blend them together and then bake them into a cake that is even better.

I have also mentioned several times in the past that Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is one of my all-time favourite books, and The Crooked Sixpence is most definitely Gaiman-esque. In a similar way to what Gaiman did in Neverwhere, Bell takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary, and in the process has created a truly imaginative (and more than a little bonkers) alternative London society, hidden away from us mere mortals but also living in tandem with our own. And I can't believe that the Lundinor of The Crooked Sixpence is not in some small way inspired by Neverwhere's Floating Market.

The Crooked Sixpence is the first book in The Uncommoners series, with this particular term referring people who keep the secrets of uncommon objects for all off us commoners. Uncommon objects are everyday objects (toilet brushes, lemons squeezers, paperclips... the list is endless) that hold magical properties as a result of containing parts of the souls of the human dead. Thus we have lemon squeezers that give out light, colanders that filter air and paperclips that work as habdcuffs. Jennifer Bell's imagination is up there with the very best of current children's writers, and she must have had enormous fun coming up with all the different alternative properties of these everyday household items.

Ivy and Seb, the brother and sister protagonists have a very typical relationship, whereby sometimes they get on and sometimes they bicker and disagree, but ultimately will do anything to protect each other from harm. Ivy is most definitely the star of this first book, with Seb being much more of a secondary character; she is brave and resourceful, and has joined Abi Elphinstone's Moll as one of my favourite female characters of recent years.

The Crooked Sixpence has something for everyone: action, adventure, magic, a villainous secret society, a crazy alternative world full of weird and wonderful items, and an ages old mystery that is just begging to be solved by Ivy, Seb and their new uncommoner friends. This is a book that I preordered months ago, as there is been a lot of buzz and excitement about it among middle grade bloggers and book sellers in the run up to its release. It is certainly one of my favourite books of 2016 so far, and should have appeal to readers of all ages. Definitely a must-buy to keep your 9+ kids occupied this summer! 

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Review: Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief by Gabrielle Kent

When Alfie Bloom inherited a castle and a centuries-old magic, his dull and lonely life was changed forever. But Alfie's new life has come with dangers he never could have expected. When Ashford the butler is kidnapped in the middle of the night, the castle comes under threat from a terrifying enemy. Trapped inside with only his twin cousins and best friend Amy, it's up to Alfie to defend his inheritance and prevent a terrible fate from befalling the whole of England!

*** Reader beware - this review is likely to contain spoilers for the first Alfie Bllom book.

Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle was one of my favourite books of 2015, and its sequel, Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief has been right up there on my list of most anticipated books of 2016. I described Gabrielle's first Alfie Bloom book as having 'perfect pace and and flow' and the author as a 'damn fine storyteller'. No pressure then, as far as the sequel is concerned!

Said sequel got preordered for my Kindle months ago, but due to the craziness of work I completely missed its release, and it was only as I was about to start reading another book that I just purchased that I saw it sitting there quietly, desperate to be read. All thoughts of reading that other book disappeared, as I dived back into the magical world of exciting adventure that Gabrielle Kent has created. 

Despite now being settled at Hexbridge Castle, Alfie and his friends have still not managed to explore the whole of this mysterious building, which still holds many secrets from them. As does Ashford, the enigmatic butler that came with the Castle when the Bloom's moved it. Readers of the first book will know that there is an air of mystery surrounding this character, and we were left wanting to know much more about him. In this second book, our wants in this particular area are met fully - Ashford's past and present actions are central to the plot of The Talisman Thief, and we see his character developed much more fully.

Last time it was dragons that Alfie found himself up against, and this time it is elves. And these are certainly not elves of the cute and friendly variety - they are far more akin to Tolkien's arrogant and warrior-like elves that we see in The Hobbit. They have been wronged and they want retribution, and their targets are set firmly on Ashford, Alfie and anyone else who gets in their way.

When I wrote my review of Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle I took some pride in that fact that I had spotted one particular plot twist that had not yet been resolved. Gabrielle Kent sent me a message (of which I will say no more, for fear of creating spoilers), but I have felt more than a little smug since. Well they say that pride comes before a fall, and I feel that I have fallen big time. The plot of The Talisman Thief has some MASSIVE twists that hit me right between the eyes and had my jaw dropping to the ground. 

Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief is a superb sequel, and I am sure it will be making an appearance in my favourite books of 2016. I have been in something of a reading slump recently as far as children's books are concerned, and have found myself reading far more adult and non-fiction books that I would have in recent years. However, like a phoenix from the ashes, I have been lifted out of this by two books: this wonderful magical adventure story, and Jennifer Bell's wonderful debut, The Crooked Sixpence. Hopefully I can now stay in this mood and catch up on my ultra-wobbly middle grade TBR pile.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Guest Post: Beaky Malone Blog Tour

Barry Hutchison has to be one of my favourite middle grade authors - I've loved everything that I have read of his, starting of course with the fabulous Invisible Fiends series. His new book, Beaky Malone World's Greatest Liar, was published a couple of days ago and is no exception to this - it is laugh out loud funny from beginning to end. I am really chuffed that Barry wanted to stop off at The Book Zone on his Beaky Malone blog tour, to tell us how he got into writing funny stories:


I wasn’t a funny kid. I was the quiet one in class, reasonably studious without being brilliant, and usually found quietly reading a comic in the corner when all my work was done for the day. There was nothing notable about me whatsoever, other than my height. I was abnormally tall for my age, and by the time I’d hit 8 years old, I towered several inches above the rest of my class.

This didn’t go unnoticed by the kids in the years above, and soon I was the target for bullies three or four years older than I was. One kid in particular – I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Bashy McBashface – spent weeks tormenting me, before finally catching me alone one day as I walked home from school.

I can remember his sneering spotty face, his bunched fists, his home-cut crop of ginger hair and his very obvious intent to pummel my head and torso into the pavement. He had another kid with him – his cousin, if I remember rightly, who had two silvery snot-trails as a permanent fixture on his top lip – who alternated between egging Bashy on, and keeping an eye out for trouble.

I was terrified. Too terrified to even raise my fists. Bashy McBashface was HUGE, and had a reputation for being the best fighter in school. I, on the other hand, was a tall, skinny kid who had a reputation for reading The Beano, and for once coming first in the school sports skipping race. It was less Rumble in the Jungle and more Certain Death in That Bit Behind the Shops.

Bashy’s fist drew back. My mouth opened. Words tumbled out all on their own.

Bashy stopped. He cocked his head to the side like a dog. He frowned.

Then, to my amazement, he threw back his head and laughed.

My mouth started moving again, and this time I listened to the words. They were jokes. No, not jokes, observational comedy about our school, the teachers, the other pupils. I even started to crack wise about the current situation, telling Bashy to pass on to my parents that I’d gone to a better place, and leaving instructions as to who to will my ZX Spectrum and Star Wars figures to.

I had no idea where it was coming from, but I was glad it was coming from somewhere. I made Bashy laugh so much that he completely forgot about pounding my face into a two-dimensional oval (much to his cousin’s disappointment). It turned out I had a latent superpower: I could make people laugh.

The next few years passed in a blur of jokes, impressions, pratfalls and other routines. I became “the funny guy” because, as it turns out, the funny guy is far less likely to get his head kicked in than all those other, non-funny guys.

It was only right, then, that when I’d embark on a professional writing career two decades later, the obvious choice of genre would be… um… horror. My Invisible Fiends series (which was first reviewed right here on this very blog) was a violent and occasionally downright disturbing scare-fest designed to have kids and adults alike too scared to turn the light off at bedtime.

It wasn’t until I started reading the reviews, though (and we all read the reviews, even if we pretend we don’t) that I discovered it was funny, too. Most of the reviews commented on the humour, even though I hadn’t really been aware I’d put any in there.

From there, it made sense to try writing funny books, and I’ve never looked back. I now get to spend my days making myself laugh (always an attractive quality) as I write everything from books to TV animation – and even The Beano.

I’d love to say the reason I write funny stuff is because I want to keep the national smiling, but if I was forced through a Beaky Malone-style Truth Telling Machine, I’d have to own up to the fact that the real reason I write comedy is because I’m worried that, if I don’t, everyone’s going to catch me on my own behind the shops one day, and give me a long-overdue kicking.

So, er, read Beaky Malone: World’s Greatest Liar! It’s hilarious, has brilliant illustrations by the amazing Katie Abey and might – just might – stop you punching me in the head.

Huge thanks to Barry for writing that for us. Beaky Malone, World's Greatest Liar was released in the UK on 2nd June.