Monday, 31 March 2014

Review: Zom-B Mission by Darren Shan

What has happened to the world since the dead took over? Where have the humans gone to hide? Who do the living most have to fear? B Smith is heading for unknown territory...Leading a group of humans through London and out into zombie-infested suburbs sounds like suicide - but not for the undead! Even so, the horrors of the journey will be beyond anything B has yet seen ...

As this series progresses, it is getting harder and harder to write reviews of Darren Shan's Zom-B books without creating spoilers for previous episodes. So please be warned - if you have not yet read the previous books in the series then I urge you to stop reading this review and go and do something more interesting... such as reading the previous books in this fantastic series!

I never got around to writing a review of the sixth book in the series, Zom-B Gladiator, as things were pretty hectic at work at the time. However, I'll take this opportunity here to say that I loved it as much as I loved its predecessors. I can't remember where I read this, but at the time I was surprised to read one reviewer criticise Zom-B Gladiator for being very short on plot. For me, that is the magic of this series - in one episode we might see a significant plot development, but then in the next book we are treated to wall-to-wall action, or another atrocity so horrific that it puts into the shade all that came before it. For me, Zom-B Gladiator had both of these: B fighting for survival on board HMS Belfast, and the truly evil Dan-Dan demonstrating that however horrific the zombies are, humans can still out-evil them.

As it is my birthday week I treated myself to a copy of Zom-B Mission, and it arrived today. Every Monday I have a meeting at school that lasts from 3 pm until 6pm, and this week I was watching the minutes tick over slowly as I was dying to get home to read Darren Shan's latest instalment. As with all of the previous books it is a relatively quick read and I finished it in a single sitting, and it is almost my favourite of the series so far. Only almost though, and I will come to the reason for this in a bit. In Zom-B Mission, B and her team of Angels are tasked with taking Emma and Declan, the mother and child they took in to their care in Gladiator, to a sanctuary out in the countryside. On their way, they are also to stop off in Hammersmith to pick up another group of human survivors. B and the team are excited that they have finally been given a mission, but calamity strikes before they depart which dampens their excitement considerably (you'll have to read the book to find out what).

Escorting the zombie version of fast food through infested territory is not without its risks, and the journey is not without incident (hell, this is a Darren Shan book so of course it isn't!). However, I don't think it is spoiling things to say that the group eventually reaches the 'safe' compound of New Kirkham (is that an almost nod to another master of the genre?). This journey and their eventual destination gives us a much greater insight into what is going on outside of London, as until now the books have very much focused on the revitalised, and the occasional human or monster that has come their way, and Shan smoothly reveals a little more of the post-apocalyptic world he has created, and some of the many hazards that face the small groups of survivors, many of which I would never have even considered. In addition to this, B's past also starts to catch up with her and we see how far she has developed as a character, and how even in her semi-zombified state she is more human than many of the humans out there.

So why is it only almost my favourite so far? Long time readers will know that I am not averse to cliffhanger endings. I loved the way Shan finished the first book in this series - it really was one of those jaw hitting the ground moments. However, in this one I felt that the cliffhanger was just a little too extreme, and almost left me feeling like the book hadn't been finished properly, and that i had been cheated. I can't tell you how this episode ends (obviously), but all I will say is that yet again Shan reveals an evil in his horrific world that is sadly all too human in nature. Oh yes... and the Owl Man is back! Hurrah! Which kind of makes up for the cliffhanger in my mind :-)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Review: Circus of Thieves and the Raffle of Doom by William Sutcliffe

Hannah's life is boring, boring, boring! Then Armitage Shank's Impossible Circus comes to town and Hannah's world is turned on its head when she meets Billy Shank, his astonishing camel, Narcissus, and a host of other bizarrely brilliant members of the circus. But all is not as it seems; Armitage Shank, evil ringmaster and Billy's surrogate father, has a dastardly plan that could end in catastrophe for Hannah's dull little village and it's up to Hannah and Billy to stop his stinking scheme before it's too late…

I am sure that many of the adult readers of this blog will remember a time when the circus coming to town was a cause of great excitement for children in the area. Circuses were also a staple scenario for writers like Enid Blyton, in stories like The Circus of Adventure, Five Go Off in a Caravan, Five Are Together Again and  Secret Seven Adventure. In addition to these mystery stories (circuses made great locations for mysteries back in the day), Blyton also wrote a her Circus Series trilogy, starting with Mr Galliano's Circus, about a boy and his life as part of a circus. Blyton wasn't the only writer who used circuses to great story-telling effect, so why are they so absent from modern children's literature? Is is just the way society has changed, with the arrival of a traditional circus being far less an exciting event for kids these days? Are there just far less circuses around these days due to vastly improved animal welfare laws? Whatever the reason, I have been thinking for some time that we need to see a resurgence in the circus as the background for a story, especially as so many people find clowns to be so damn creepy.

Writer William Sutcliffe has thankfully arrived on the kidlit scene to start bringing circuses back into the world of children's literature with his delightfully funny debut for children, Circus of Thieves and the Raffle of Doom. This first book in what I hope will be a long series introduces us to Hannah, a young girl whose life 'boring, boring, boring!' However, in a classic case of be careful what you wish for, things suddenly become a whole lot less boring for hannah when Shank's Impossible Circus arrives in town. Hannah very quickly makes friends with Billy Shank, camel trainer extraordinaire, and heir to the Shank Entertainment Empire. However, not all members of the circus are as friendly as Billy circus owner Armitage Shanks being a particularly nasty piece of work, and Hannah soon finds herself on a mission to foil a scheme so dastardly that it would make you swoon.

There were so many aspects of Circus of Thieves that I loved. I'm sure I'm not the only reviewer who will find it impossible to start talking about this book without first mentioning the fantastic cast of characters. William Sutcliffe obviously had a great deal of fun creating the many different characters that populate his story. Naturally, a circus setting gives a writer a great opportunity to let their imagination run wild, and so we have Armitage Shanks, the vicious and despicable ringmaster, Maurice (pronounced 'Murrggghhhheeece') the trapeze artiste and his assistant Irrrrrrena his assistant, Jesse the Human Cannonball and Hank and Frank, the clowns who simply do not get on with one another. And the great list of supporting characters doesn't stop there: there's also Fizzer the dog, Fluffypants McBain the cat, and a stick-wielding granny.

Despite sharing an illustrator with Andy Stanton's Mr Gum books (the increasingly prolific and totally wonderful David Tazzyman), the similarities with Stanton's anarchically bonkers books ends there (apart from the occasional made-up word, that is). The humour is at time brilliantly off the wall, but it is not as in-your-face wacky as the Mr Gum books. The publishers, Simon and Schuster, are pitching this books as being great for fans of Andy Stanton and David Walliams, and the humour is somewhere between the two. The writing is also of the highest quality, and 7+ readers will love the story of good versus circus evilness. It is also another to add to the ever growing list of books that are great to be shared between parent  and child as a bedtime story (or any time story - reading together is not just for bedtime!).

Another technique that William Sutcliffe employs to add a further level of wackiness to his story is the use of footnotes. I've seen this used in books before, and it doesn't always work as sometimes they do little but distract the reader from the flow of the story, but in this case I totally loved them. In Circus of Thieves they are invariably funny, and the reader is drawn to them, not by reference numbers, but by little pictograms.

There are some stunningly good and very funny books being published for this age group at the moment and Circus of Thieves is definitely up there as one of the best. I'm really looking forward to reading the sequel, as and when it is published, and I'm sure I won't be the only one. My thanks go to the lovely people at Simon and Schuster, not just for sending me a copy of the book, but also for the wonderful set of promotional Circus postcards, illustrated by David Tazzyman.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Competition: Win A Pair of Tickets to the Divergent European Movie Premiere

Thanks to those wonderful people at HarperCollins UK, I have an pretty damn amazing prize on offer for the winner of this competition: 

a pair of tickets to the European movie premiere of Divergent!

The Premiere is taking place in London next Sunday (30th march) and will will be attended by stars Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet and director Neil Burger. And you could be joining them on the red carpet. Sadly I can't go myself, but having been fortunate to attend a couple of movie premieres in the past (XXX and Bad Boys II), I can say it is a fantastic experience.

Competition details and information about the Divergent Fan Experience:

Experience the world of the hotly anticipated DIVERGENT movie in Leicester Square and attend the EUROPEAN PREMIERE!

On Saturday March 29th and Sunday March 30th Leicester Square will be transformed into the dystopian world of DIVERGENT, where fans will be invited to undergo initiation tests and, like Tris Prior, choose where they belong. Would you survive in Dauntless? Fans will be put through their paces with Dauntless training to see if you are brave enough to join their faction!

But that’s not all – we have a pair of tickets for the European premiere of DIVERGENT at Odeon Leicester Square on the Sunday at 1.30pm, attended by stars of the film Shailene Woodley, Theo James and Kate Winslet! So not only can you discover the world for yourself, you can walk the red carpet, mingle with the stars and watch the film before it’s released in the UK!

Enter here for your chance to win this once in a lifetime experience! If you aren’t lucky this time, you are still in with a chance - get down to Leicester Square early as we will also be giving out a limited number of premiere tickets to fans on both days!

The Divergent Fan Experience Timings

Saturday March 29th 
11.00am – 6.00pm

Sunday March 30th
11.00am – 12.00pm
3.00pm – 6.00pm

Premiere timings

Sunday March 30th 
Doors open – 1.30pm
Doors close – 2.30pm
Film starts 3.00pm

DIVERGENT is released April 4th 

FB handle: DivergentUK
Twitter: @Divergentmovie

How to enter:

Simply fill in your details in the form below. Competition closes at 9pm GMT on Tuesday 25th March. Please take careful note of the Terms and Conditions at the end of this post.

Terms and conditions

The prize is one pair of tickets to the premiere.
Only one entry allowed per person.
The winner must be 13 years old or over.
Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The winner must be available on Sunday 30th March, and be able to make their own way to London.
The winner will be responsible for their own travel expenses.
Contest open to UK residents only.
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 pass the contact details of the winner on to the publisher following the close of the competition. The winner will then be contacted by the publisher.
Closing date for entries is 9pm GMT on Tuesday 25th March.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Review: Urban Outlaws by Peter Jay Black

In a bunker hidden deep beneath London live five extraordinary kids: meet world-famous hacker Jack, gadget geek Charlie, free runner Slink, comms chief Obi and decoy diva Wren. They're not just friends; they're URBAN OUTLAWS. They outsmart London's crime gangs and hand out their dirty money through Random Acts of Kindness (R.A.K.s).

There is little I can add to the above publisher's blurb without spoiling the story (and I've cut the blurb short anyway as, having read the book, I feel that there is a spoiler within it). In simplest terms, this is a Robin Hood story for the high tech generation. Through a variety of different but similar circumstances, five kids have chosen to live outside the law, and use their various talents to rob the corrupt, ultra-rich criminal classes and share this new wealth among the needy and under privileged.

The book opens with the Outlaws about to start their latest heist, the plan being to steal huge amounts of money from Benito Del Sarto, one of the country's biggest dealers of illegal arms. As they escape from the scene of their crime they stumble onto something that surveillance and computer expert Obi believes is massive - the existence of an advanced quantum computer, and piece of equipment that many in the tech community believe is only an urban myth. Suddenly the team find themselves way out of their depth, as they fight to gain possession of an item that, if it exists and falls into the wrong hands, could have severe implications on a global scale.

Forget the Robin Hood allegory, this is Leverage for 9+ kids and I loved it! Leverage is one of my favourite TV shows - I love the chemistry that exists between the characters, with each one bringing a different skill to the party, and this is exactly what Urban Outlaws does. Yes, suspension of disbelief will be an essential requirement when reading this book, and the cynical among you should just p*** off right now and go hunt for your inner child before picking this book up. Seriously, if books like this had been around when I was a kid I may never have left my home except to go reluctantly to school.

This is one of those books that you will have to prise from kids' hands to stop them reading (although shame on you for even contemplating such a heinous act). I certainly refused to do anything until I had finished it, and read it from cover to cover in a single sitting. However, it is a fairly quick read as almost every chapter is full of great action sequences, peril for our team of heroes and great uses of high tech gadgets, so readers will find themselves flying through the story at a frenetic and almost heart-bursting pace.

This is a book for every kind of kid - the sporty ones will love Slink, the free-runner; the tech geeks will love Jack, Charlie and Obi; the couch potatoes will love Obi and the action junkies will love all of them; there are great male characters and great female characters, with even Wren, the youngest and newest member of the team, having her moment (although I really hope she will get more of a chance to shine in future books). Hell, I'm over 40 and I really, really wanted to be one of the team so I can only imagine how excited younger readers will get at the thought of having adventures like these.

My thanks go to the fab people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to read. You can find out a little more about Urban Outlaws and author Peter Jay Black at

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Review: Infinity Drake: The Sons of Scarlatti by John McNally

Infinity Drake – aka Finn – is off on holiday with his mad scientist uncle when they are summoned to a crisis meeting. Scarlatti, a lethal bio-weapon – an ϋber-wasp killing machine – has been released by a pitiless villain, with incalculable consequences for mankind.

UNLESS Uncle Al can shrink a military team to track down and kill the beast. But then disaster strikes – sabotage! Finn gets shrunk to 9mm and has to jump in a tiny Apache helicopter with three soldiers in a desperate race to destroy the beast that's out there, very angry and many times their size…

Infinity "Finn" Drake is just your average orphaned boy with an interest in entomology, living with his grandmother (so far, so heard it all before? Well read on as it gets much, much better). At the beginning of the story, said gran is about to embark a much needed break (a cruise around Scandinavia), reluctantly leaving Finn in the hands of his less-than-reliable atomic chemist Uncle Al. Al has promised that he will take care of Finn and make sure he gets to school in time every morning, but as soon as Gran's Oslo-bound plane has taken off Al's true intentions are revealed - he is taking Finn on an insect hunt in the Pyrenees. Sadly, their plans are interrupted before they can even start, and the pair are helicoptered to a top secret facility as Al is needed to help save the world.

It transpires that during the Cold War in 1980s, a British geneticist accidentally created a new breed of wasp, christened the Scarlatti, that was considered so dangerous that thr project was immediately cancelled. However, two specimens were not destroyed and were instead frozen "just in case", and now one of them has been deliberately released in the British countryside. The implications are horrendous - this one Scarlatti is capable of reproducing and thus could lead to the deaths of six billion people across the world within six months. 

A special forces team is charged with tracking and destroying the Scarlatti, but to do so they must be shrunk to a size of little more than 10mm using a technology to which only Al has the key. Unfortunately Finn accidentally ends up being shrunk as well, and as things go from bad to worse to even worse he has to keep up with the trained soldiers and, cut off from the full-sized world, they have to find the Scarlatti, destroy it and any of its progeny, before it multiplies too much, and before the other global leaders decide that the only solution is to nuke Britain.

HarperCollins have published some of my all-time favourite series books for kids. I'm talking The Saga of Darren Shan and Demonata, both by Darren Shan, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, and my own personal favourite - Will Hill's Department 19. With Shan now writing his Zom-B books for Simon & Schuster, and both Skulduggery Pleasant and Department 19 reaching their conclusions, I have been keeping my fingers tightly crossed, hoping that Harper will find something as good to fill this looming gap, and I should never have doubted them as head honcho Nick Lake and the team have pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat again: Infinity Drake: The Sons of Scarlatti by John McNally is everything I hoped for and more.

If I had a checklist of everything I would be looking for in a first-in-series book, then Infinity Drake would have a tick in every single box:

  • Non-stop action and adventure from beginning to end üüüüü
  • An intelligent, brave and, most importantly, genuinely likeable lead character that kids will love rooting for üüü
  • Multiple instances of near-death, life on the line peril for our hero ü
  • A just-as-interesting cast of supporting characters üü
  • A superbly nasty villain with a truly diabolical plan for world domination (and one that we haven't seen before) üüü
  • Great dialogue ü
  • A thread of humour woven though the book, to take the dark edge off the nastiness of the villains plans üü
  • An original concept that we haven't seen in a book for the 9+ age group in recent years ü
  • Smart prose with vocabulary hasn't been dumbed down and therefore challenges readers ü
I think you can probably tell from this that I am a fan, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Infinity Drake isn't quite Skulduggery Pleasant or Department 19, but it certainly isn't far off. In addition to the above it also comes with the nastiest insects in the world ever - wasps! And not just ordinary wasps either (as far as I am concerned that would be bad enough). These are wasps that have been genetically engineered to have but one goal - kill, kill kill! Life as we know it could be completely eradicated if these things are left to procreate and multiply and kill. And the only thing that has any chance of stopping them is a team of teeny, tiny special force operatives and an equally tiny 12-year-old boy. And at that size these "ϋber-wasp killing machines" are as big as jet planes in comparison.

Please believe me when i say that this is most definitely not Honey, I Shrunk The Kids! (I hate that film & its sequels). Whilst it contains humour, it is never farcical and the peril that is experienced by Finn Drake and his new friends is genuine and written in a way that had my heart pounding and my eyes reading the text as quickly as possible, just to find out what happened next, at which point the author would cunningly cut to a different scene and leave out heroes' fates hanging in the balance for a few pages.

It's very rare that I will read a book and wish for it to become a film, as I have been disappointed far too many times in the past (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief anyone?. In the case of Department 19 I wished (and am still wishing) for a video game; in the case of Barry Hutchison's Invisible Fiends series, I would have been happy with a set of action figures. However, I think Infinity Drake would make a freakin' awesome movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if the rights have already been snapped up by one of the big Hollywood movie companies.

If you have a 9+ year old boy or girl who loves action and adventure, with a little science fiction thrown in, then put this straight to the top of your 'must-get-my-hands-on-a-copy' list. I was sent a proof copy by the good people at HarperCollins, but I have seen the hardback edition in my local book shops and I am sorely tempted to buy a copy as it looks fab, and this is on top of the multiple copies I will be buying for the kids of friends and family.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Review: Harvey Drew and the Bin Men from Outer Space by Cas Lester

Harvey Drew is an ordinary eleven-year-old who dreams of great adventures in outer space. The Toxic Spew is an intergalactic waste disposal ship. The two are on a collision course for chaos! After Harvey unwittingly responds to an alien signal, he is transported to the flight deck of the Toxic Spew by the ship's bad-tempered computer, who promptly loses his return address. Even though none of the crew have even heard of Earth, let alone met an Earthling, Harvey becomes Captain of the stroppy, pizza-obsessed, brave (but grubby) crew, and almost immediately has to save them from poisonous pink maggots, dangerous exploding space-rubbish and a multiple spaceship pile-up on Hyperspaceway B16. Luckily, leading his rabble crew out of danger isn't so different from captaining his football team, and it turns out Harvey is just the boy to save the day!

Harvey Drew is a fairly typical 11-year-old boy - he loves football (in fact, he's the captain of the school team) and he has a thirst for adventure. In Harvey's case, it is adventure in outer space that he craves: his bedroom is full of models of spaceships and his computer has an Alien Alert App that constantly scans for signals from outer space. Despite the App so far picking up little more than random noises, Harvey's belief in life on other planets stands firm.

Meanwhile, millions of light years away, the crew of the Toxic Spew, an intergalactic waste disposal ship, are in dire straits. They have been captainless for several months and the crew spend most of their time bickering. They are in desperate need of a new captain, if only to keep them safe on the space lanes, but unfortunately everyone in their known galaxy knows the Toxic Spew, and the fact that it is not exactly the most pleasant smelling of places to work. In their desperation they send out a whole universe email, advertising for a captain, and guess whose Alien Alert App picks the message... yep, Harvey's! Not that he can understand a word of it, but it doesn't stop him from replying, and before he knows it he is teleported to the Toxic Spew, trillions of miles away from home, and in charge of its crew as their new captain. So begins an adventure that sees Harvey and his new crew having to deal with all kinds of weird and wonderful outer space problems.

Harvey Drew and the Bin Men from Outer Space is published by Hot Key Books, and therefore comes with one of their brilliant descriptive pictograms:

This pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the book, and I'm left feeling pretty redundant, but if you don't mind me waffling on anyway then I though I might as well tell you a little more whilst I am here. Aimed at the 7+ age group, the book is a laugh-a-minute outer space adventure story with great characters, funny dialogue (especially when they are bickering), and loads of ridiculously silly silliness.

Of course, the observant among you may be questioning how a quality like 'Leadership' fits into such a madcap, bonkers story. And therein lies a little bit of magic as cast by writer Cas Lester. As I mentioned earlier, Harvey is the captain of his local football team, and when he is thrown in at the deep end on the Toxic Spew as a very different type of captain, he starts to realise that he can utilise the qualities he has a football team captain to help gel his new team together. It's a challenging task, especially when your team are the bickering bunch of aliens that make up the crew and you are faced with previously unheard of problems like a cargo hold full of poisonous pink maggots and enough highly explosive and volatile Explo-Foam to blow you to kingdom come and back. Explo-Foam, I might add, that illegal across the whole universe, and could find Harvey and his crew either blown to bits or in deep, deep trouble with the law. However, Harvey rises to the occasion, leading by example, putting himself forward for any dangerous tasks, and generally doing the kind of things that bring a team together.

The story is accompanied by illustrations drawn by Sam Hearn. My proof copy has very few illustrations in it, but a quick scan of the first chapter on the Hot Key Books website (here) is enough to show that they complement the story very well indeed, and really being the characters to life for readers. I don't think it is creating too much of a spoiler to tell you that by the end of the book Harvey still hasn't found a way to get himself teleported back home, and for us readers this is very much a good thing as it means that there are plenty more adventures to come from Harvey Drew and his bumbling band of bin men. 

My thanks go to the fab people at Hot Key for sending me a copy of the book to read.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Review: A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson

I'm Dan Hope and deep inside my head I keep a list of things I want to come true. For example, I want my sister, Ninja Grace, to go to university at the North Pole and only come back once a year. I want to help Sherlock Holmes solve his most daring mystery yet. And if it could be a zombie mystery, all the more exciting. I want to be the first eleven-year-old to land on the moon. I want my dog to stop eating the planets and throwing them up on the carpet. And finally, the biggest dream of all, I want my dad to love me. A Boy Called Hope is a brave, bold and funny debut about family in all its shapes and sizes.

Dan Hope keeps a list inside his head of things he wants to come true. He wants to help Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery; he wants to be the first eleven-year-old to set foot on the moon; and most importantly, more than anything else, he wants his dad to love him. You see, four years ago Dan's father walked out his him, his mum and his older sister (who Dan unaffectionately refers to as Ninja Grace, as a result of her propensity for using "words as a weapon"). In the four years since he left, Dan has not heard from his father at all, until the day that he appears on the TV screen, reading the news, whilst Dan is eating his lunch. All of a sudden Dan's world is turned upside down and he starts to believe that a) he can get his father back and b) in doing so he will super popular at school as the son of a local celebrity.

A Boy Called Hope is the story of Dan's quest to meet his father and find that paternal love that he so desperately craves. It is a quest that is littered with Dan making mistake after mistake, as he seems blind to obvious, blinkered as he is by that overriding desire. However, it is also a quest that will totally change his life, and that of his friends and the rest of his family.

I can't think of a better way to celebrate World Book Day than by posting this review of a book  by a debut writer that is already the leading contender for my Middle Grade book of the year. I also know I'm not alone in feeling this way as I have seen so many positive tweets about A Boy Called Hope, with readers likening Lara's writing voice to that of such luminaries as Frank Cottrell Boyce, David Almond and Annabel Pitcher. Every one of these fantastic writers has won many awards, and I am pretty damn sure that Lara Williamson will follow suit over the next twelve months.

Written in the first person, A Boy Called Hope is a captivating and inspirational story that pulls mercilessly at the heart strings, whilst also having the reader crying with laughter. The author strikes the perfect balance between sentimentality and humour, ensuring that the story never feels schmaltzy or twee. This is achieved predominantly through the outstanding voice that Lara Williamson has created for her main character. I've read books where female authors have struggled to get the voice of a male boy character feeling 'right' but Lara Williamson absolutely nails it - as a reader I really believed in Dan Hope, and empathised with his hopes and fears, and his trials and tribulations. And this is all the more stunning in that this is Lara's first book.

Lara Williamson's writing is also very clever, with word play, twists, turns and great plotting. I especially loved the humour that permeates through what is essentially a rather heartbreaking premise, with my personal favourite being the description of Grace being a "word ninja" because of her sue of "words as a weapon". Yes, I know I have already mentioned that above, but it is just too good not to repeat. And then there's the name of Dan's dog - Charles Scallybones the First. Brilliant!

This is a perfect read for the 9+ audience, but there will be many older reader, both young adult and older, who will totally love Dan's story. It is also a book that could have great impact on children who are in a similar situation as Dan, where one parent has walked out on the family. Without creating too many spoilers, it is a story that shows that hope is a wonderful thing, and although things don't always turn out the way you want them to and will rarely be perfect, sometimes things happen for a reason and a little bit of hope can go a long way to making things better.

I guess before I sign off I really should mention that I have been in contact with Lara over Twitter for some years, in fact probably for most of the time I have been blogging. In that time I have read several of Lara's early attempts as a favour to her, including a thrilling supernatural story and a laugh-out-loud comedy for the 8+ age group. I enjoyed both of them, but A Boy Called Hope beats them hands down and is a perfect example to aspiring writer of the importance of practising the craft and never giving up. Sometimes the practice will improve your plotting or your character building; in other cases, as in Lara's, it will help you find the writing voice that everyone will love.

Yes, I loved this book, but don't just take my word for it. Usborne came up with a great way of promoting the book, whereby they sent reviewers two copies. They asked that the second copy be left somewhere public or passed on to someone. Back in January I went on a school trip to the British Museum and left my spare copy there (no photo unfortunately - sorry Usborne, it was a bit of a hectic day). I also included my blog's details, and several weeks later received an email from a family from Toronto who had been at the museum on that day and had picked up the book. They told me that all three kids, and mum and dad, and all read the book and totally loved it.

A Boy Called Hope was published by Usborne on 1st March and I can't recommend it enough, so please get your hands on a copy as soon as possible as I really don't think you'll regret it. Lara Williamson is already working on her second book, wonderfully titled The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean on an Armchair, which is due out in 2015 I believe.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Banished Blog Tour - Guest Post by Liz de Jager - My Favourite Action Movies

Last month I posted my review of Banished by Liz de Jager. I have known Liz for a few years, after she took me under her wing when I first started blogging, and pretty much became my Yoda/Mr Miyagi/Splinter/Patches O’Houlihan/Gandalf/etc. 

Having sat in many a London eatery listening to Liz's trials and tribulations on the road to publication I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy, and now I'm really honoured to be hosting Liz for the final stop on the Banished blog tour. Liz and I are both huge fans of action films and we also share similar tastes (we'll watch, and usually enjoy, pretty much anything as long as the action is turned up to 11), and so it was a no brainer when we were talking about a topic for this guest post. So it is over to Liz to tell us about her favourite action movies, and how they influenced her writing (warning: some of the clips contain violent scenes, but hey - it's a blog post about action movies!):

My Favourite Action Movies by Liz de Jager

I am a big fan of action movies. I blame my dad and my brother, basically. I was inducted into the cult of martial arts movie at a very young age. I remember crying endlessly when I heard Bruce Lee had died.  My brother mourned him for months. 

Since moving to the UK in 2000 my husband and I have been dedicated film goers and dvd / bluray buyers and we like taking chances on the movies that get 2 star or 3 star reviews because we’ve learned not to trust the ‘sophisticated’ palates of those folks who do review movies as invariably these people want things we might not be so keen in i.e. movies without explosions. 

I looked through our massive dvd collection and started pulling dvds out.  I thought: I’d write a blogpost of about five favourite movies. No. I pulled out over fifty DVDs.  (And will have to restack them later again, my poor back).

Martial arts movies and Westerns were my staple diet growing up. Jackie Chan, Steven Segal and Bruce Lee and the gods forgive me, Jean Claude Van Damme too.  All the Ninja movies? I’ve watched them.  And loved them, utterly.

Most folks, when they visit my tiny house, assume that the martial arts movies belong to my husband. They’d be wrong.  Thanks to the relatively inexpensive dvds available here in the UK my collection has sprouted.  These are some of my favourite martial arts movies:


Jade Warrior
Red Cliff
14 Blades
Mulan (not the decrepit Disney version)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The Legend of the Shadowless Sword
The Duel
The House of Flying Daggers
Shogun Assassin
Seven Samurai
Curse of the Golden Flower
The Banquet
Seven Swords

I’m not including any of my Bruce Lee movies in this, because basically, take it as a given: these have to be part of your life because they are cinematically engaging and they star Bruce Lee. Netflix also has a great selection of martial arts movies which they rotate, some of them very hard to come by.

The other action movies I adore and watch on a regular basis either on dvd / when they’re on TV for any reason at all:

The Raid & Dredd

Basically both The Raid and Dredd have peripherally the same premise: it’s attack the block with guns.  But it’s two very different movies.  The Raid is slower, with a lot more hand to hand combat.  There’s a fight sequence in The Raid that just blew my mind.  It’s four on one against our hero, Rama. 

It’s just superb.  In Dredd, the sequences are tough and fun and the one-liners are great.  I especially love Dredd as it was partly shot in South Africa and the opening taxi chase scene…I know exactly where it takes places.

Die Hard – all of them, yes even the fifth one, mostly for Jai Courtney who we will be seeing in the new Divergent movie out this year.  Jai I think is an action hero in the making.  But basically, the first Die Hard is our go-to movie to watch at Christmas, right Hans?

Jack Reacher – I am a big fan of Lee Child’s books and was VERY unhappy when Jack Reacher got cast and Tom Cruise got the leading role.  He’s not a big guy.  Jack Reacher is a big guy.  However, Cruise fills the screen really well and there are some epically bone-crunching fight scenes in Jack Reacher, specifically showing how difficult it is to swing a weapon in an enclosed space in the bathroom / house fight sequence.

Taken – Liam Neeson’s outstanding and utterly over the top movie that has one of the best fight sequences I’ve ever seen…set on a boat cruising the Seine in Paris.  Just great stuff.

District 13 and the sequel District 13 Ultimatum

These two movies – urgh, love it so much. Created by Luc Besson (one of my favourite and craziest writers / directors / movie producers) are so much fun and very socially aware. The free-running (parkour) scenes are INCREDIBLE.  It’s because of this that I made the one character in Book 2 – Vowed – be a free runner of sorts.

Here’s a scene from the first one -

Pacific Rim

Huge ridiculous fangirl of Guillermo del Toro and a huge ridiculous fangirl of mecha and kaiju thanks to a steady diet of Robotech and Godzilla movies growing up.  PR has some insane fight scenes between monsters and robots but, it also has a great sequence between Beckett and Mako Mori where they have a bout to see how drift compatible they are.  There’s also a punch up between Beckett and Jack and ouch, it looked like fun.

From Dusk till Dawn

It has to be on this list – huge influence of my misspent youth.  George Clooney is superb in this and basically the fight sequence when they get to the bar against the vampires for the first time is utterly splendidly gory and perfect.


Chronicle is just brilliant – a slow burning movie about what would happen if you suddenly woke up one morning and you had superpowers, you and some of your mates.  What would you do? It’s superb because it feels real, yes there is shaky-cam, but that’s just how the story develops and it allows the director some interesting leeway towards the end.  Dane de Haan is superb in this and the fight sequence at the end between him and his erstwhile best friend…is cringeworthy and incredibly sad and poignant.


Do I even have to mention Leon? It is the granddaddy of action movies.  Filmed in 1994, it’s another Luc Besson movie.  It stars Jean Reno as the titular Leon and a very young and tiny Natalie Portman as Mathilda.  This movie had a great influence on me writing Banished.  Mathilda’s hair is basically Kit’s hair at the start of Banished and Kit’s Uncle Jamie is a bit Leon, only more talkative and possibly a lot more unpleasant if given half a chance to show it.

Starship Troopers

Just…watch the trailer, it is insane.

It is also one of the most progressive movies of its time because it shows unisex showers in the cadets’ training sequence – something you would never get away with these days and the thing is, the camera never lingers and it is never gratuitous.  The movie is also quite the commentary on how governments mess with your brain and perception of what happens in places where you have to rely on reports filtered through third parties.

Reservoir Dogs

Gory, brilliant dialogue.  The ear scene.  All of it.

Ronin & From Paris With Love

We’ve had this conversation on Twitter in the past about which car chase / car race scene is better.  The one in Ronin or the one in From Paris With Love?

You decide:


From Paris With Love

The Bourne Movies

All four of them – but my favourite scene has to be in the first Bourne movie (Bourne Identity) when Jason is sleeping rough in the park near the bank and some cops come over to move him on and they get a bit handy.  It’s the first time we see Jason actively react to something and thus far we’re not entirely sure who he is or what his training is. And then, bam, in 5 seconds flat he’s taken out two armed cops!


Stylistically Drive has to be one of the most beautifully shot movies.  The soundtrack is also perfect.  It’s a slow burner and you’re never quite sure what to expect of the driver but when it comes to the fight sequence in the lift, you have NO doubt who this guy is.  And you definitely want to cross the street when you see him. 

13th Warrior

This movie always just makes me want to write.  The music is evocative and beautiful. Antonio Banderas is great and the Norsemen are all supremely grouchy and perfect.  The fight scene towards the end, between the village, the Norsemen against the Venn? Muddy and awful and perfect. 

Brotherhood of the Wolf

I am a big fan of Mark Dacascos.  I love his movie Only The Strong as well as his turn as The Crow in the TV show.  In Brotherhood he plays Mani, a Native American who travels to France alongside his friend Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac.  Fronsac has been tasked by the King of France to hunt down the mysterious Beast of Gevaudan.  And obviously, shenanigans happen.  One fantastic fight scene is between Mani and these wild insane French hunters and it is epic.  Sadly, I can’t link to the trailer as there’s quite a bit of nudity!!

Dog Soldiers

A bunch of Brit soldier go on manoeuvres in the forest.  They stumble across a weird killing site…and then they’re attacked…by werewolves.  I love this movie so much for so many reasons.  It’s the group of soldiers who are superb to watch, the action is non-stop and when there’s no action it is so tense! Also, I really like Spoon. 


This movie.  Grim and dark and shot in some of the coldest places in Britain.  A bunch of Romans fight behind enemy lines in an attempt to stay alive.  It also stars Michael Fassbender who underwent an incredible ordeal filming this, along with his fellow cast.  The action is fast and furious and it’s very physical and a bit unpleasant too.

Night Watch

A Russian actioner written and directed by Timur Bekmambetov.  The action is crazy as can only be done by Timur Bekmambetov.  The forces of dark and light fight for control over our world.  It has vampires and shape changers and it’s utterly crazy and I adore it.  It’s action movies on meth, basically.

Crying Freeman

Oh, Yo the Potter – another Mark Dacascos starring movie.  I obsessed about this movie for years.  Basically Mark’s character becomes this lethal assassin who is seen to kill a bunch of Yakuza gangsters by an artist.  Shenanigans ensue.  And epic fight sequences. Swords, katanas, slow motion explosions.  Loads of love for this movie and one I’m about to rewatch as I’ve not seen it in an age. This based on the Crying Freeman manga and anime.

The Losers

I love the graphic novels by Andy Diggle and Jock so when they announced they were doing a movie of The Losers…well, I was dubious.  But, if you take each thing as a standalone, then it works.  The movie stars Zoe Saldana amongst others and her fight sequence with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a hotel room is bonecrunchingly excellent.  The whole movie is fun – thank heavens it came out before The Expendables – with the added sass delivered by Chris Evans as Jensen.  This is one of my favourite scenes. EVER.



I have so many more movies to share but maybe I hold that over till another day.  I’ve gone on long enough and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selection I’ve presented.

Banished is packed full of action – and a lot of the fighting was tried out (I have the bruises) to see if it would work in real life and what it would be like to throw or kick things in a certain way.   I didn’t want to have my characters do things and not personally know how it felt. 

Obviously I do not condone punching people in the head or pulling a knife or a sword on anyone ever, and I ask you to bear in mind that Banished, like all the movies I’ve mentioned above is merely fiction.  Except for the part where monsters are real.  That part is true.