Wednesday, 29 January 2014

My Magnificent Seven: Comfort Reads

I have been wanting to start a new feature on The Book Zone for some time, which I am calling My Magnificent Seven (#mymag7). As an occasional mobile DJ (much less these days than I would like due to time constraints) I was for many years an avid follower of the Top 40. Like many people of my age, every Sunday evening I would pop a Do Not Disturb sign on my bedroom door and sit there, TDK D90 cassette (or AD90 when I could afford them) loaded into my tape recorder, finger poised on the pause button ready to record my favourite tunes from the separate radio. How happy I was when I got my first combined radio/tape player and no longer had to worry about ambient noise (of which there was rather a lot as I had three younger sisters and a younger brother). I also love lists (have you seen the Music Listography and Film Listography journals? If you are a fellow 'lists' fan then you will love them).

With this in mind I wanted to create a new feature that is made up of lists. I want to use this feature to reveal a little more about myself and my reading interests, and also remind you of some of the great books out there, that have been around for a while and are at risk of being forgotten. I appreciate that there is a Top Ten Tuesday meme that take place on a variety of blogs, but I am not a fan of memes and I don't want to be restricted to just posting these on Tuesdays. It's also unlikely that this will be a weekly feature - I will be posting it as and when time permits. I would also love to hear about your favourites so please do comment.

And so, My Magnificent Seven launches with:

My Magnificent Seven Comfort Reads

We all have comfort reads: books we turn to when we are feeling down, or in a reading slump. Books that we love returning to time and time again, no matter how many times we have read them in the past. In no particular order (except for the first two), here are mine:

Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell

I have mentioned my love for Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise series a number of times since I started The Book Zone. I love the series as a whole - I feel it is far more accessible and enjoyable than Fleming's James Bond books, and the character of Modesty Blaise is far more enjoyable to read. The books are not child friendly as they contain the occasional 'sexy scene', but for older readers they are great, quick reads. Despite the first book, Modesty Blaise, being written back in 1965, the books have aged pretty well (again, far better than the Bond books have in my opinion). Don't be put off by the pink cover of the first edition - these books are certainly not girly. Modesty is a great character for boys to read, and a great role model for girl readers. There is also none of the misogyny that permeates through the Bond books. Oh yes, and Peter O'Donnell write particularly great villains.

For many years these books were out of print and only available in charity shops (some of my old paperback copies are looking very battered and well read now) but a while back the wonderful people at Souvenir Press reprinted most of the series and I believe most of them are readily available these days. The character first appeared in a daily newspaper comic strip and it's also worth noting that the good people at Titan Books publish a large number of collected editions of these. I have a few of them and if you like graphic novels they are well worth getting your hands on. 

As I have said, the whole series could count as a comfort read for me, but the book I have read the most (out of every book I have ever read, I might add), is the first, Modesty Blaise, and although the books don't necessarily have to be read in order, I would strongly recommend it.

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

I wrote a tribute post about the Stainless Steel Rat books back in August 2012 following the sad passing of Harry Harrison. There's little more I can say here that I didn't say then, other than that I have read these books almost as many times as I have read the Modesty Blaise series. To save you having to jump over to that post, this is what I said at the time:
If you have boys who love science fiction and/or comedy then I simply cannot recommend them enough. As my own personal tribute to Mr Harrison I have re-read The Stainless Steel Rat today and yet again I was left with the feeling that it, and his other stories, are timeless and can have just as much appeal with 12+ boys today as they did with me back in the 1980s. Aside from Jim DiGriz himself they are full of great characters - Angelina, the ex-psychopath who still harbours minor homicidal tendencies, especially where Jim's safety (or fidelity) is concerned; Inskipp, the forever grumpy and long-suffering director of the Special Corps; the diGriz twins, just as devious and charming as their father. And on top of this, like Peter O'Donnell, Harry Harrison also writes damn good villains - the Grey Men are a particular favourite, appearing in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, and also in a later book in the series (which I'm not going to name as it might contain spoilers).
The great thing is that back in 2012 the good people at SF Gateway released all of the series in ebook format.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators

I'm going to include the whole series as a comfort read here and not single out any particular book. I have loved these ever since I was a child, and although they have dated a little as the three young detectives manage to solve all of their mysteries with no use of mobile phones or the internet, I still find them just as enjoyable today. They can be read in any order, and so I often pick a random title from the series if I feel I need a hit nostalgic reading.

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my favourite Roald Dahl story when I was a child, but as an adult that has been usurped in my affections by The BFG. I love it and never tire of reading it.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

I love these books and although some might say that The Lord of the Rings might be a little chunky to be a comfort read, there have been many times in the past when I have taken great delight in getting completely lost in Middle Earth. Back in 1994 when I was working on a kibbutz in Israel I took my much read copy of TLotR with me, expecting it to last me some time. The free time we had meant I finished it quicker than anticipated, and I ended up reading it three times in the six months I was travelling. As for The Hobbit? I have a battered old paperback, and also a lovely hardcover edition from way back, but I am now setting my sights on buying this lovely new edition, illustrated by Jemima Catlin.

The Tintin books by Hergé

I don't think I need to say much about these. I love them and always will! If I had to name a favourite, I think it would have to be The Black Island. it is the first Tintin book I can remember reading, and it introduced me to a lifelong love of the series (thank you to whichever teacher purchased it for Telford First School back in the day).

The Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo

My love for these is almost as great as my love for the Tintin books, and again, if I had to name a favourite, I would probably go for Asterix in Britain or Asterix and Cleopatra.


So there you have My Magnificent Seven Comfort Reads. I'd love to hear about yours so please leave a comment.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Review: Knightley & Son by Rohan Gavin

Meet Knightley and Son - two great detectives for the price of one . . .

Darkus Knightley is not your average thirteen-year-old: ferociously logical, super-smart and with a fondness for tweed, detective work is in his blood. His dad Alan Knightley was London's top private investigator and an expert in crimes too strange for Scotland Yard to handle, but four years ago the unexplained finally caught up with him - and he fell into a mysterious coma. Darkus is determined to follow in his father's footsteps and find out what really happened. But when Alan suddenly wakes up, his memory is wonky and he needs help. The game is afoot for Knightley & Son - with a mystery that gets weirder by the minute, a bestselling book that makes its readers commit terrible crimes, and a sinister organisation known as the Combination . . .

Darkus Knightley's life has been almost as unfortunate as his first name in recent years. His father, Alan Knightley, a detective with a penchant for unusual cases, has been deep in a mysterious coma for four years. Darkus' mother is now married to the presenter of a bargain-basement version of Top Gear, and his relationship with his step-sister Tilly is more than a little complicated. Darkus is very much his father's son - he talks like him, dresses like him, and has spent the previous four years honing his own investigative skills by examining his father's case files.

As if life wasn't complicated enough, Darkus is accosted in the street by a mysterious man who claims to be his Uncle Bill, not strictly a blood relative but a very close friend of his father nonetheless. He also comes with incredible news - just the evening before Alan Knightley awoke from his coma and did a runner from his hospital ward and when he finally reappears he has only one thing on his mind - to track down an oganisation he refers to as The Combination, one which he is convinced is behind a vast number of crimes. Elsewhere, a new self-help book is having a terrible effect on many who read it, causing them to commit crimes that are completely out of character. Could the book, the crimes and Alan Knightley's investigations be connected? It's up to Darkus and Tilly to find out.

This is a really fun mystery adventure story that is perfect for 10+ readers. Darkus is pretty much a young Sherlock Holmes, sharing many of the great detective's incredible mental abilities, as well as a number of his many quirks. I know from talking to kids at school that the BBC's Sherlock has been incredibly popular with many of them, of all ages, and although it is broadcast later on the evening there are a lot of our Year 7s who are huge fans of Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Holmes. Along with Andrew Lane's brilliant Young Sherlock series, Knightley and Son is the perfect book to put into the hands of these young people, and could also lead to them dipping into Arthur Conan Doyle's stories as they progress with their reading.

In Darkus Knightley, author Rohan Gavin has created a protagonist that readers will grow to love, and I hope there will be many more Knightley and Son books from the author and his publisher Bloomsbury in the future. He will have great appeal to young readers who feel they aren't part of the in-crowd - Darkus doesn't do most of the things that his supposedly 'cool' peers do, but he doesn't care as he is happy with his own interests (or should that be obsessions?). Although I have likened Darkus to a young Holmes, this story is most definitely not a Sherlock wannabe. Yes, Darkus has incredible intellectual acuity and a fondness for wearing tweed, but it is his relationship with his father that adds that much needed element of uniqueness. Darkus is desperate to be accepted by his father for the talent that he is, his biggest fear that now that his father is out of the coma he will insist on Darkus taking a back seat, well out of harm's way.

The book finishes with the promise that "Knightley and Son will return" and I'm definitely ready for more of these clever, action-packed and humorous adventures featuring the father and son duo. My thanks go to the fab people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to read.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Review: The Black Crow Conspiracy by Christopher Edge

It’s 1902. London is looking forward to the new King’s coronation and ignoring the threat of war from across the sea…

Penelope Tredwell, the pen behind bestselling author, Montgomery Flinch, is cursed with writer’s block. She needs a sensational new story or her magazine, The Penny Dreadful, will go under. So when a mysterious letter arrives, confessing to an impossible crime, Penny thinks she has found a plot to enthrall her readers: the theft of the Crown Jewels by the diabolical Black Crow.

Ghostly apparitions, kidnap and treason – this is the stuff of great stories. But what if it’s all true?

If you have not yet discovered the fantastic Penny Dreadful series by Christopher Edge then you are in for one hell of a treat. The Black Crow Conspiracy is the third book featuring main character Penelope Treadwell, a teen girl who inherited and now runs one of London's bestselling magazines, The Penny Dreadful. The magazine became so popular because of the grisly horror stories it prints, stories supposedly written by one Montgomery Flinch, but are in reality all penned by Penelope herself. However, this being the Victorian era, it would not be seemly for a young lady to be writing, let alone publishing, such macabre tales of horror. Penelope therefore employs an actor to be the public face of Montgomery Flinch, allowing her to write in secrecy. 

This is not straight historical fiction -the  first two books, Twelve Minutes to Midnight and Shadows of the Silver Screen, could quite easily be stories within the pages of The Penny Dreadful, with their mix of action, adventure and elements of the supernatural, and this third adventure for Penelope and her friends is no exception to this.

Several years have passed since the events of Shadows of the Silver Screen, and it appears that then good people of London have moved on. Sales of The Penny Dreadful have dropped as people begin to turn to stories of crime and detection, and naturally a certain Arthur Conan Doyle gets a mention. To make matters even worse, Penelope is suffering from severe writer's block, and is struggling to get even a handful of worthy words written, let alone a whole story. 

In an attempt to get over this Penelope comes with the idea of running a competition, whereby members of the public can submit story ideas, in the hope that some of them will be suitable for publication. Naturally, most of them are a load of guff, but one in particular gets Penelope's creative juices flowing, and it is soon in print. Unfortunately for Penny, and even more so for Monty, the story happens to perfectly reflect a dastardly crime that took place weeks before the story was published, and he is carted off my the police under suspicion of stealing the Crown Jewels. So begins an adventure that see Penelope and her friends chasing down a villain who has his eyes on one thing only - the throne of Britain itself.

I loved the first two books in this series, so when I received a copy of The Black Crow Conspiracy from the fab people at Nosy Crow I was both excited, and also a little concerned as to whether writer Christopher Edge would be able to maintain the quality in a third book. My concerns were completely unfounded, and in fact this turned out to be my favourite of the three. Rather cleverly, in my opinion, Christopher Edge has moved his characters and their story on by jumping ahead two years. Victoria has passed away and with Edward on the throne a new era is blooming in Britain. Europe too is changing rapidly, and politics across the continent are becoming increasingly complex, with various nations jostling for superiority. Christopher Edge uses all of these historical events to construct a fast-paced mystery story, with his trademark elements of the supernatural, and a very believable alternate history plot.

This book and its predecessors are perfect for 9+ readers, and they have equal appeal to boys and girls. Penelope is a great protagonist, and anyone who claims that boys do not enjoy stories with a female main character should be shown this book as an example that debunks that myth. In Penelope, Christopher Edge has created a female lead who is both a superb role model for girls, and also a kick-ass heroine who does not need to reply on a male character to save the day for her, despite living in an era when young women were expected to be demure and 'proper', with only a life of being a wife and mother to look forward to.

If you have a child who loves action and adventure stories then this series is well worth putting into their hands. Although there are supernatural elements, there is little in these books that is really scary, but enough to keep them excitedly turning the pages to find out what perils will befall our heroine next. Additionally, the historical aspects of the story may also engender an increased interest in the history of this era.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Review: The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis

The House on the Hill has been abandoned for as long as James can remember. So when he discovers Webster, a drifter, hiding there, he's instantly curious about the story behind the homeless man. What is he running from? Afflicted by a dark curse, Webster is no longer who he used to be. But there is said to be a cure and it might just be that by helping Webster, James will find some solace of his own. Together they embark on a journey, not knowing that what they discover will impact them both in ways they never imagined...A gripping and haunting story about loss and hope, perfect for fans of Patrick Ness and David Almond.

This is one of those books best read with as little prior knowledge of the story as possible, so I'm going to be brief with my details here. Teenager James is an unhappy and troubled young man. He is still struggling to deal with the loss of his mother, a situation not helped by the fact that he has to live with his violent, alcohol loving (and seemingly unloving and resentful) step-father. James' only place of retreat from the day-to-day troubles at home is a run-down, abandoned old house, where he daily marks up the number of days until he is old enough to leave home for good. One day James discovers Webster, an seriously injured man in the house, a man who believes he is cursed and who is on the run from a family of gypsies who believe in the curse and want to cage and exploit him. As James and Webster join forces to escape from their respective troubles, they embark on a dangerous journey of hope and discovery that will change both of them forever.

The publishers are pushing this book by likening it to the works of David Almond and Patrick Ness, and I can't argue with them for doing this. In particular, this book took me back to when I first read Skellig, which I've just worked out was more than fourteen years ago. Like Skellig, this is an story about a young person who strikes up a deep and rewarding friendship with an older person, although the books differ in that almost from the start of Skellig we are left in little doubt as to the otherworldliness of the mysterious person discovered in the garage, whilst in The Dark Inside we are kept guessing about this all the way through to the end. Is Webster actually cursed or has he just been 'changed' by his experiences in the war and is suffering from some kind of PTSD illness? For me it was this key piece of information that kept me so enthralled with his story from beginning to end.

I have to admit that one of the YA genres that I rarely ever read is contemporary. As an Assistant Headteacher, and an ex-Head of Year with considerable pastoral experience, I have spent a lot of my career working with young people with a huge variety of issues, and so when I get home from work the last thing I want to do is pick up a book and read about young people with similar issues. I was therefore suckered into reading The Dark Inside by those wonderful people at Simon and Schuster by the paranormal spin they put on the story in their press release. And I am truly grateful for this and otherwise I would have missed out on an exciting, compelling, though-provoking story. It covers themes of loss, hope, friendship and forgiveness in a way that I feel is far more accessible and interesting for young adults than many of the (admittedly few) contemporary YA books I have read. I know there are legions of YA contemp fans out there, so please remember that this is my own opinion, and do seek out reviews on other sites written by people who read this genre far more regularly than I do.

Rupert Wallis' prose is an absolute joy to read, and this is one of those books that is cross-generational, in that it will be enjoyed equally by teens and adults, although possibly on different levels. I would be very surprised if this book does not find itself on the shortlist of a host of different book awards over the next year or so, as the story and writing has that rarely seen power to affect the reader deeply and leave them thinking about the book for some time after the final page has been turned.

The Dark Inside is due to be published in a lovely hardback edition on 30 January, and I believe that there will also be a number of signed special limited edition copies that will only be available in independent book shops. Look out for them as this book is a keeper - one of those you will read, proudly display on your bookshelf, and then probably pick up again a year or two's time, to read all over again. My thanks go to the lovely people at Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy to read.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Happy New Year (a day late)

Happy New Year to you all, and only a day late this year! I hope you have all had a great Christmas and New Year, and that 2014 will be a particularly happy year for you and your families. Despite my best intentions, 2013 proved to be more than a little disappointing for me as far as blogging is concerned. Simply put - work! Teaching is incredibly rewarding, but all the changes that Michael Gove deems important only add to the workload of everyone in the profession. This quite often means that, even though I have read more than ever this past year, after a day at work I have struggled to find the motivation to sit down and write reviews. I'm not going to promise that 2014 will be much better either. In fact, it may even be even quieter on The Book Zone as I am going to be involved in a secret project that is likely to take up a lot of my spare time, but that is all I can tell you for now.

As far as looking forward is concerned, most of my most anticipated books are sequels or next-in-series books. However, there are two in particular that you really should look out for, both debut novels by people I like to call friends. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have read both, and they come highly recommended by me. 

The first to be published, due out at the end of February, is Banished by Liz de Jager. Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that I have been friends with Liz ever since I started blogging, with Liz and her My Favourite Books blog being an invaluable source of advice and inspiration for me. Banished, the first book in her Blackhart Legacy trilogy, is Buffy meets Grimm, and although not the kind of book I would usually read, I thought it was great. If you like action then this is a book you will love! Also, this has to be said, Banished already has to be a contender for the best book cover of 2014.

The second book I want to shout about at the moment is due out only a few days after Liz's and is by Lara Williamson. A Boy Called Hope is Lara's debut, and I firmly believe that it is destined to be an award winner. If you like John Boyne and David Almond then you will love A Boy Called Hope.

The are a great number of sequels and next-in-series books that I can't wait to read in 2014. The first, and the one I am most looking forward to reading, is Zero Hour, the fourth book in Will Hill's brilliant Department 19 series. This is by far by all-time favourite series of books for young adults, and I reckon things are really going to kick off in this next book. Zero Hour is closely followed in the anticipation stakes by Our Lady of the Streets, the third book in Tom Pollock's awe-inspiring Skyscraper Throne trilogy, and just behind that, the ninth and final book in Alex Scarrow's fab Timeriders series.

And the others I am most looking forward to reading? The list is rather long but here goes: Darcy Burdock: Hi So Much by Laura Dockrill; Wild Boy and the Black Terror by Rob Lloyd Jones; The Fearless by Emma Pass (not a sequel, but Emma's debut ACID was one of my favourite books of 2013); several more Zom-B books by Darren Shan (loving this series so much); the third Ben Kingdom book by Andrew Beasley; and with any luck we might also finally see Fighting Pax by the brilliant Robon Jarvis.