Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Book Zone Book of the Year 2015

Every year since 2010 I have posted a list of my favourite books of the year. This year, that list appeared first over on Middle Grade Strikes Back an hour or so ago, albeit missing a small number of YA books that I loved in 2015. In 2015 I seem to have read less YA books than ever before, but with my appetite for exciting action adventure stories being fully satisfied with books for this younger age group I have rarely felt the need to dip into the world of young adult fiction this year.

This originally started out as a Top 10 middle grade books of 2015 post, although I had a nagging feeling that this might not be as easy as I originally thought as 2015 has been a tremendous year for mg books in the UK. A quick look back through my goodreads account showed a huge list of MG books that I have given 5 stars to in 2015, so I've had to engage my brain even more to decide which among all those A Grade books should be elevated to the equivalent of the GCSE A*. The three YA books I have included were complete no-brainers.

And so, in no particular order, other than to leave my personal favourite middle grade book of 2015 to the end, these are the books I truly loved in 2015:

Bloodstone by Allan Boroughs

The sequel to the author's 2014 debut, the fabulous Ironheart. It's a hugely enjoyable action/adventure story in a post-apocalyptic setting filled with wonderful characters.

Fire Girl by Matt Ralphs

In Fire Girl, author Matt Ralphs has created a thoroughly entertaining blend of alternative English history and thrilling magical fantasy. Everything about this book is great: the plot, the pace and above all the characters. Special mention should also be given to Bramley the dormouse and one of my favourite lines of the year: "That's it, witch-child, burn it all down!"

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

A thrilling middle grade historical mystery story set in Restoration London. The Blackthorn Key is perfect for lovers of mystery thrillers, and young readers will find the London of 1665 brought completely alive for them as they race through its back streets and alleyways with the young protagonist, Christopher. 

Demolition Dad by Phil Earle

A cracking middle grade British comedy stories, in a similar vein to Walliams and Dahl. It is laugh-out-loud funny and chock full of wonderfully engaging and endearing characters, elements that should make this a guaranteed  hit with young readers.

Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Hall by Gabrielle Kent

The last 18 months has seen a number of children's books featuring magic and adventure. Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Hall is, in my opinion, easily the best so far. It has shapeshifters, mythical creatures, time travel, ancient druidic magic, a rather splendid and mysterious butler, and the wonderful Hexbridge Castle itself - almost a character in its own right.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell did not disappoint with her first book to be published since the multi-award winning Rooftoppers. A future classic is a phrase too often used these days, but rarely has it been more deserved than when applied to this thrilling, humorous and heart-warming story. 

Urban Outlaws by Peter Jay Black

This year has seen the release of two books in Peter Jay Black's thrilling Urban Outlaws series, Blackout and Lockdown. With its blend of heists, action and hi-tech adventure, this exciting, hi-octane series has now become one of my favourite series of the last year or so.

Murder Most Unladylike mysteries by Robin Stevens

This is another current favourite series that has seen the release of two books this year, both of them even better than last year's fabulous Murder Most Unladylike. Arsenic for Tea introduced us to Daisy Well's wonderfully dysfunctional family, and then First Class Murder took the two girls on murder-filled journey on the Orient Express. Jolly Foul Play is one of my most anticipated reads of 2016.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

Middle grade mystery stories are enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, led of course by Robin Stevens. With her debut, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, Katherine Woodfine has leapt into the fray. The setting of a new department store in Edwardian London is wonderfully realised and the perfect location for this thrilling mystery adventure sotry.

Hamish and the Worldstoppers by Danny Wallace (illustrated by Jamie Littler)

The past 18 months have seen a much greater number of middle grade books published with accompanying illustrations. Danny Wallace's debut for kids, Hamish and the Worldstoppers, is my favourite of those published in 2015, both in story and artwork. It is the kind of book that has something for everyone: action, adventure, humour, fantasy and brave kids fighting battles against nasty monsters from another dimension.

The Imagination Box by Martyn Ford

This modern, exciting and very funny take on the classic genie-in-the-lamp tale still has me chuckling now when I think about it, many months later. You see, it has a talking finger monkey called Phillip, and it's worth reading purely for this. However, if you expect more from your books than a talking finger monkey called Phillip, then it is also a thoroughly entertaining, funny mystery adventure story.

Young Adult

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

It's a brilliant heist story. That's usually enough to grab my attention on its own. But it's also a heist carried out by a team of misfits, each with their own special abilities, assembled to carry out a seemingly impossible mission. All set in Leigh Bardugo's wonderfully imagined fantasy world. Even if I had read nothing by YA this year, I can't believe that there would have been many books I enjoyed reading more than this one.

Railhead by Philip Reeve

I was sold on this book when I heard Philip talk about it and read a passage from it at an event some time before its publication. It's trains in space! What more could you possibly need to know? OK, so it is also a fantastic space opera style science fiction story for older middle grade/young adults, the kind of which has been sorely missing for this age group in recent years. 

And my two favourite books of 2015 are (and this will come as little surprise to some as I have been singing the merits of the MG book all year, and the YA book is the final instalment in my all-time favourite YA series ):












Middle Grade Book of the Year: The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone

I have heaped so much praise on this book over the past year that I am finding it difficult to find any superlatives that I have not already utilised. Simply put, in a year when there have been so many fabulous middle grade books published in the UK, Abi Elphinstone's debut, The Dreamsnatcher, still manages to stand head and shoulders above the rest. The sequel, The Shadow Keeper, would be the book I am most looking forward to reading in 2016 if I hadn't already been incredibly fortunate to be sent an early proof. Needless to say, when it arrived I dropped everything to read it, and hand on heart, I can honestly say it is even more wonderful and magical than The Dreamsnatcher.

Young Adult Book of the Year: Darkest Night by Will Hill

I have reviewed all five books in Will Hill's brilliant Department 19 series, and now, with the publication of this final instalment, I can say with all confidence that this is my favourite series of books for this age group... ever! As I said in my review, I had "never looked forward to and simultaneously dreaded reading a book so much since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and Will Hill did not disappoint in the slightest. This finale was everything I had hoped for, and brought the whole story to an incredibly satisfying end. In the summer my wife and I borrowed her parents' motor home and rove down through France. Carcassonne was high up on my list of must-visit towns, but it was only as we walked into the old town that I remembered it as the setting for the final battle between the forces of good and Dracula, with his legions of vampires. Never could a real-world location be more fitting for such a finale!

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Review: Urban Outlaws: Lockdown by Peter Jay Black

The Urban Outlaws have been betrayed - and defeated. Or so Hector thought when he stole the world's most advanced computer virus. But Hector will need to try much harder than just crossing the Atlantic if he wants to outsmart Jack and his team ...

With the help of a shadowy figure known as The Shepherd, the Urban Outlaws risk everything and head to the States. They plan to take Hector down and stop him from using the virus as the ultimate hacking tool - the world's secrets, and their own, are in his fingertips and if they don't act fast, our lives will be changed forever.

The stakes are higher than ever in the third book of this high-octane adventure series for fans of Robert Muchamore, Anthony Horowitz and Alex Scarrow.

Warning: may contain spoilers for previous Urban Outlaw books.

Peter Jay Black's Urban Outlaws series is fast becoming a future contender for my Book Zone Box Set feature (Reminder: to qualify a series needs to have at least four books). Lockdown is the third book in this exciting, hi-octane series that has now become one of my favourite series of the last year or so, and it more than lives up to the promise established by its predecessors.

The Outlaws are still reeling from Hector's betrayal in Blackout, and revenge will be no easy feat as he has now taken himself off to the other side of the Atlantic. However, with the super virus now in his hands they feel they have no option but to try, even if it means getting into bed with another potential devil (aka The Shepherd) to do so. However, once they land stateside it is business as usual, which for the Urban Outlaws means stunts, tech, hacking and action aplenty. The team also have the assistance a few new friends: Serene, sister of their mentor Noble, Lux, a streetwise NYC expert, and her friend Drake, the local transport expert (i.e. he can get his hands on any transport they need). These extra pairs of hands, and the local knowledge they bring, may just be the extra factor they need to track down and defeat Hector.

Like any good heist story, be it written or on the big or small screen, it's no use trying to guess if or how the team will be successful in their various not-quite-legal activities. Just as you think you've worked out how they might pull off their latest caper, another obstacle throws itself in their way and their plans have to change on the fly. However, resourcefulness seems to be their collective middle name, so strap in and get ready for twist after twist and turn after turn.

The first Urban Outlaws book was published back in March 2014, and this third volume was released in September. We had to wait nearly a year between books one and two, but the mere seven months between episodes two and three is exactly what this series needed to maintain the excitement and momentum already established, and it's great to see that book four, Counterstrike, will be published in April 2016. I can't wait!

My thanks go to those fabulous people at Bloomsbury for sending me a copy to read.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Review: DC Super Heroes Origami by John Montroll

What happens when you combine Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League with the art of origami? You get the most incredible collection of paper-folding projects ever assembled. These 46 models, meticulously designed by internationally renowned origami master John Montroll, are guaranteed to amaze. With clear, step-by-step diagrams and instructions, simple squares of paper transform into Batarangs, S-Shields, Invisible Jets, Green Lanterns, and so much more. Also included in the back of the book are 96 sheets of specially illustrated folding papers to make your DC creations truly come to life.

In the six years I have been writing this blog (yep, just realised that The Book Zone was six years old last week), this is the first craft book that I have reviewed. Considering my main teaching subject is Design Technology, and much of my time is spent delivering GCSE and A-Level Graphics courses that is pretty poor, although when I'm not buried in school work I really do prefer to break away from it all by burying myself in fiction. However, when those fabulous people at Curious Fox asked me if I would be interested in a copy of DC Super Heroes Origami I could not resist.

Now I have next to no experience of origami (it's not in the Edexcel Graphics syllabus!), so I'll start off my focusing on this book's DC super hero 
angle. There are a total of 46 origami projects in the book, split into four collections: Batman; Superman; Wonder Woman; and The Justice League. This gives for a wide variety of projects, many that will be recognised by those with a basic knowledge of the DC universe (Bat-symbol; Robin; Clark Kent's glasses; Wonder Woman's tiara), and some that are a little more obscure (Krypto; Clayface; Jumpa the Kanga; Hawkgirl's made; Green Lantern B'dg). So as far as the DC universe is concerned there is pretty much something for everyone.

And now for the origami. I have discovered that I suck at origami! The book comes with 96 printed sheets, all ready for folding (once you have carefully removed them from the book), and the projects are graded simple (one star) through intermediate (two stars) to complex (three stars). At the front of the book, there are several pages of instructional diagrams that outline the basic (and not-so-basic) folds used in the proceeding projects. It is suggested that newbies practise these before embarking on the DC projects (Pah! Practice is for wimps).

Naturally I decided I was good enough to skip the one star projects and I kicked off my origami career (short-lived) with the two star Bat-symbol. It didn't turn out too badly and for a handful of minutes I felt quite proud of myself.

As they say, pride come before a fall! I then decided I must be good enough to move straight up to a three star project. How wrong I was. Wonder Woman has never looked so bad!

Seriously, talk about epic fail! And yet I have absolutely no idea where I went wrong. I didn't assume that I knew better than the instructions, and I followed them to a tee, but she just does not look like the photo example in the book. I've since gone back and tried a few more one- and two-star projects with a little more success, but I am still trying to build up to trying another three star project.

As an origami layman I would suggest that on balance this book is best suited to those with a little more experience than I possess. It is certainly not for younger children, but patient teens and adults with a good degree of manual dexterity could have a great deal of fun with this book. A work colleague who has far more experience in this field had a flick through and she felt that the papers were certainly suitable, and with a bit more general origami practice I should find even the three-star projects within my capabilities.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review: Lockwood & Co: The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood & Co. might be the smallest (some might say shambolic) Psychic Detection Agency in London. But its three agents - Lockwood, Lucy and George - are exceptional Talents. And they get results. When an outbreak of ghostly phenomena grows to terrifying levels in Chelsea, Scotland Yard is left baffled.

Even more baffling is that Lockwood & Co appear to have been excluded from the huge team of Agents investigating the Chelsea Outbreak. Surely this is the perfect chance for them to show once and for all that they're actually the best in town? Well, that's if they can put aside their personal differences for long enough to march into action with their rapiers, salt and iron . . .

To my great shame, I have just realised that I have not featured reviews of either of the first two Lockwood & Co. books on this blog. This discovery has caused no small amount of confusion as well, as I was pretty sure I had posted a review of at least one of the books, but all I can find is a brief mention of The Screaming Staircase in my Books of 2013 post. Maybe I just wrote the reviews in my head? Hey, whatever, they are both flippin' brilliant so if you haven't done so and you like horror stories with a dash of comedy (or comedy stories with a massive dollop of the spooky) then make it a priority, and definitely before you read this third outing, The Hollow Boy.

I have been a fan of Jonathan Stroud's writing ever since I first read The Amulet of Samarkand, and he continues to impress all these years later (twelve years since the first Bartimaeus book! Can you believe it?). In fact, great as the first two Lockwood & Co. books were, this one is even better and certainly confirms Stroud as one of the best MG/YA writers around (and so begins the discussion - is Lockwood & Co. YA or MG? I'd have to ignore those often overlapping categories and go for a more specific 11+ in this case I think).

At the end of The Whispering Skull we were left with something of a cliffhanger - whilst the main story had been brought to a satisfying conclusion, Lockwood was finally about to reveal something of the mystery of his past to his two fellow agents, Lucy and George. The Hollow Boy doesn't exactly pick up where things were left - we have to wait a handful of chapters of ghost hunting for that - and when we do finally find out, the reveal leaves us with almost as many questions as answers. And we are not the only ones left wanting more - the ever-inquisitive Lucy Carlyle is also left wondering, something which obviously continues to cause friction throughout the story. And that's not the only cause of tension between Lucy and Lockwood - due to the increase in their cases since their successes in The Whispering Skull, Lockwood deems it necessary to take on an assistant in the form of the seemingly perfect Holly Munro. Cue that ole' green eyed monster that is jealousy taking a firm root in Lucy's mind.

Not only does Stroud use The Hollow Boy to really develop Lucy's character, he also gives us a much greater understanding of the alternative London/world that he has created, especially with regards to the scale of the 'Problem' and how it affects whole populations and not just individuals who are unlucky enough to live in a haunted house. It's also a much darker instalment for Lockwood and his friends, to the point where as readers we are not entirely sure whether all of them will make it to the final page alive. As narrator, Lucy also drops the occasional hint that things do not turn out perfectly for the team, and this just ramps up the tension even more.

There are reveals and developments aplenty in The Hollow Boy, but I feel the book also needs to come with an advisory notice as by the end we are most definitely left with even more questions than we had at its beginning, and even worse - the cliffhanger at the end is even bigger and more jaw dropping than that at the end of The Whispering Skull. And unlike that previous episode, even the main plot line of this book does not have a neat and tidy ending and we are cruelly left with all kinds of (most likely hideously incorrect) suppositions and conjectures floating around in our minds.

And now we have to wait for another year for book four, but resat assured I will be putting in my preorder as soon as it is listed in a certain online store, just as I did with The Hollow Boy.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

The A to Z of Railhead - C is for Cleave (by Philip Reeve)

It was only a year or so ago that I was bemoaning the general lack of space set science fiction for young adult and younger readers (although if you're a long time reader of The Book Zone you will know that I have been moaning about this for a good few years). However, in the last 18 months publishers have obviously decided that space is cool and marketable again (anything to do withh the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens?). In my opinion, Philip Reeve's Railhead is the best book so far (and by far) in this long overdue new wave of YA space opera (it's TRAINS IN SPACE. Need I say more? It was published two days ago and it is flippin' brilliant!)) and today I am honoured to be welcoming the great Mr Reeve himself to The Book Zone as part of the A to Z of Railhead tour. 

C is for Cleave

When I started to write Railhead, I wanted to write about a future that was worth living in - a positive vision to set against all the dystopias and apocalypses of recent fiction. So how did I end up starting in a dump like Cleave?

Zen's hometown was a sheer-sided ditch of a place. Cleave’s houses and factories were packed like shelved crates up each wall of a mile-deep canyon on a one-gate world called Angkat whose surface was scoured by constant storms. Space was scarce, so the buildings huddled into every available scrap of terracing, and clung to cliff faces, and crowded on the bridges which stretched across the gulf between the canyon walls - a gulf which was filled with sagging cables, dangling neon signage, smog, dirty rain, and the fluttering rotors of air taxis, ferries and corporate transports.

Well, maybe a hero needs to start out in some place where he’s not content. Otherwise, why would he go looking for adventure?

Between the steep-stacked buildings a thousand waterfalls went foaming down to join the river far below, adding their own roar to the various dins from the industrial zone. The local name for Cleave was Thunder City.

A few years ago, on my wife’s birthday, we went to Lydford Gorge, on the far side of Dartmoor. It’s a place about as unlike a futuristic industrial city as you could imagine. The river Lyd flows through the deep gorge. There is a famous waterfall called The White Lady, and a beautiful, mossy path leading up through the oak woods, beside the rapids. There’s also a spot called where the river plunges down into a deep chasm. Some previous landowner bolted metal walkways to the rock-faces so that sightseers could venture closer. The walkways are rusted now and maybe unsafe; they were certainly closed off the day that we were there. But looking at them from the higher path made me think about a whole city built in that way, jutting from vertical cliff faces, half drowned in waterfall spray. Ideas lie in wait for us in the landscape, and they’re not always the ideas that we expect.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz's crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.

Let's start with a confession: of the books in the original Grisha trilogy I have still only read the first book, Shadow and Bone. It was a book that I didn't quite love, but really enjoyed nonetheless, and I honestly meant to find the time to read the remaining books in the trilogy. However, with my main focus being middle grade these days that time has still to be found. Damn it! There are just far too many great sounding books being published these days! It may seem odd to some then that when a surprise proof of Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo's new Grisha novel, arrived in the post I actually felt a frisson of excitement and it didn't sit on my TBR pile for long at all before I decided to read it.

It's easy for me to explain this excitement. First up, I attended an event that Leigh Bardugo did in London last year, and it was one of the most enjoyable single author events that I have been to in the past few years. At that event Leigh talked briefly about her next project, the book that is now called Six of Crows, and my interest was well and truly piqued. You see, I LOVE heist stories and despite their popularity on the big and small screens, there just don't seem to be enough of them around in book form. Apart from Jack Heath's fab Money Run and Hit List, and Peter Jay Black's brilliant Urban Outlaws series I can't think of any others. Unless that it just my poor, tired brain being uber forgetful.

And not only is Six of Crows a fantastic heist story, it is also a darn good fantasy novel as well. In fact, it is one of the best books I have read this year which is testament to Bardugo's skill as a writer as there are so many elements that could have made this all go wrong, and perhaps this is why there are so few heist stories out there. A great heist needs a strong team to carry it out (think Ocean's 11, Leverage), and novels with too many lead characters can often become confusing or plodding. Not in this case. Not only are there six main characters, but the chapters also jump between POVs. This is not a technique that I am particularly fond of but in this case it works perfectly. Each chapter is headed with the name of its focus character, and after the first couple of chapters following this becomes second nature.

Of course, readers want to know as much about their lead character(s) as possible, and this includes back story: the experiences, trials and tribulations that have made them as they are when they first appear in the story. With six characters to focus on any one or more of them could have easily faded into the background as little more than a bit player with no history, and yet this never happens. I found it very easy to become attached to each and every one of them, and if we are honest, in a good heist story we are always rooting for every member of the team to make it through to the successful conclusion of the caper. This attachment came partly through the way Leigh Bardugo drip-feeds us with their back histories, and as the story progresses their various motivations become more and more apparent and important.

And then there is the world-building. With a great plot and fantastic characters, would this be the element that suffered? Not at all. As I have said, I have only read Shadow and Bone with its Tsarist Russian inspired Ravka, and I have no idea if more of the world outside of Ravka is shown in the sequels. However, Six of Crows is initially set in a wonderfully Ketterdam, a city that to me seemed to have a hint of the Netherlands, before the action moves to the snow covered Scandinavian-ish Fjerda (apologies if I'm sounding ridiculously uninformed to all those huge Grisha fans out there). I'm no fantasy aficionado but I very quickly got sucked into the sights, sounds and smells of Bardugo's world and it stayed with me for some time after I had finished the book (which, by the way, ends with more than a few strands left untied, setting us up for what I hope will be an equally brilliant sequel).

I guess I've made it pretty obvious that you don't have to have read the Grisha trilogy to enjoy this book. Having read Shadow and Bone I was already aware of the Grisha 'magic' and I guess this did slightly enhance my understanding of some of the plot strands, but it certainly isn't essential. I've already said I enjoyed Shadow and Bone, but with it's mix of The Dirty Dozen, Leverage and The Lies of Locke Lamora I really, truly loved Six of Crows. Definitely one of my books of 2015.

Six of Crows was published in the UK today and my thanks go to those wonderful people at Indigo for sending me a copy.

Friday, 25 September 2015

My New Role (and Why I've Been Absent Recently)

It would probably be a tad egotistical of me to assume that anyone has noticed that things have gone quiet again on The Book Zone recently or that I have been very quiet on Twitter, to the point where all but a couple of my tweets have been auto-tweets by Goodreads. However, there is a very good reason for this, should anyone out there be interested - along with my teaching and my Assistant Headteacher responsibilities, I am also my school's acting librarian.

The school's librarian of 16ish years retired in the summer, and as a result of the significant challenges the school faces in the next few years relating to reduced funding levels (yep, good old DfE policy again!) cuts were/are needed in many areas. The school's Senior Team (of which I am a member) had to make the very difficult decision not to appoint a new full-time librarian, and not wanting all of the hard work of the last eight or so years to go to waste I stepped up and said I would be happy to take over the day-to-day management of the school library, with a slight reduction in my teaching load. By this I mean that I am now responsible for ordering new books, cataloguing them when they come in, making sure the library is kept tidy, etc. It has been a steep learning curve, and over the past month or so I have:

  • started to get to grips with Softlink's Oliver, our library management software (I say 'started', but I'm barely scratching the surface at the moment - the manual is 1000+ pages long!)
  • bought a wireless bar-code scanner so I can take new books home and get them on the system from the comfort of a sofa whilst watching TV of an evening
  • started to get my head around the Dewey Decimal System. It's easy to use on the other side of the desk as a punter, but I'm finding it a challenge (and time consuming) to work out exactly which Dewey number a non-fiction title should be given
  • had 'fun' with Tattle Tape
  • added cover after cover to books that we ordered right at the end of last term, and others that have come in since (I've lost count already). We had also run out of the correct sized covers for manga books, and as we bought a couple of box sets of One Piece and Naruto just before the break I have had a queue of students waiting for them to be put on the shelves. The covers arrived yesterday evening so that was this morning's job!
And I am enjoying every minute of it, even if the blog and my social media 'profile' are taking a massive hit. I'm doing what I enjoy most - getting books into the hands of young readers. I have also just trained up a group of incredibly enthusiastic sixth formers who are now running the library for me at break times, issuing books and supervising the younger students, and the DBS checks have started top come through for the parent volunteers who are going to supervise the library after school, so I may have some free time again relatively soon.

So, in case you happened to be wondering where I've been hiding, now you know. Sorry if you have emailed me and not received a timely reply. Apologies to publishers and authors who may be patiently waiting for me to post reviews of books I have been sent, and thank you for your understanding. It's not an ideal situation for the school, and it may last a while given current government policy related to the funding of schools. I have always been in awe of school librarians, but just based on my efforts of the last few weeks they have now reached godlike status in my eyes.
Illustration by Sarah McIntyre

Thursday, 24 September 2015

UKMG Extravaganza Blog Tour: My Magnificent Seven Pirates by Huw Powell (author of Spacejackers)

Ahoy there, space shipmates!

I’m so excited to be taking part in the UKMG Extravaganza in Nottingham Central Library on 17th October with over 30 top MG (Middle Grade) authors.

In the build up to this event, I was asked to write a guest post for the brilliant Book Zone. I’m a huge fan of MG novels and have previously blogged about how this category has produced some of the best books ever written, which is why I think MG should stand for ‘Magic Gateway’ (as there is nothing ‘middle’ about these books).

As it was International Talk Like a Pirate Day last week, I’ve decided to do something a bit different for this blog and share my ‘Magnificent Seven’ pirates from children’s literature. There are plenty of great characters to choose from, but here are some of my favourites:

·      Dread Pirate Roberts – this pirate captain from The Princess Bride is feared across the seven seas for his ruthless nature and sword fighting skills. His reputation precedes him and everyone fears him, but how much of it is true and how much is just clever PR?

·      Nancy Kington – in the novel Pirates! the character of Nancy has her comfortable English life turned upside when she’s shipped out to the West Indies. Nancy and her slave friend, Minerva Sharp, become fugitives and they are forced into a swashbuckling life of piracy.

·      Cheng Li – the Vampirates novels are packed with wonderfully dark characters, however one of my favourites is Cheng Li, who serves aboard the pirate ship, The Diablo. Cheng Li is the daughter of a famous pirate captain and she has to work hard to build her own reputation.

·      Jack Havock – this plucky pirate is only fifteen years old and the captain of a non-human pirate crew in the enchanting Victorian space adventure Larklight. Jack rescues Arthur (Art) Mumby and his sister Myrtle, before they embark on an adventure to save the universe.

·      James Turner – not strictly a pirate, but this unfriendly uncle is known as ‘Captain Flint’ in the novel Swallows and Amazons. At first, James Turner is moody and withdrawn, but is reminded how to have fun by two families of children and he ends up walking the plank.  

·      Captain Hook – few pirates are as bitter or flamboyant as the notorious Captain James Hook from Peter Pan. In addition to his elaborate clothes and wide-brimmed hat, he wears an iron hook to replace the hand that was severed by Peter Pan and eaten by a crocodile.

·      Long John Silver – no list of fictional pirates would be complete without mentioning this colourful quartermaster from Treasure Island. Long John Silver is a complex character, whose courage and cunning help him to overcome his physical disadvantages, while his moral ambiguity and sense of survival make him difficult to predict. Arrr, Jim lad!


Huge thanks to Huw for this wonderful list of fabulous literary pirates. If you've not yet discovered Spacejackers and its sequel The Lost Sword then you are in for a treat - it's pirates in space. What more could you ask for?

As for the UKMG Extravaganza, you can find out more about this awesome sounding event (and it's sister event, the UKYA Extravaganza) over at its Facebook page: 

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Matt Ralphs' YouTube channel and then on through the rest of September and well into October. Full details below:


Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Black Lotus Blog Tour: My Life That Books Built by Kieran Fanning

Last month I posted my review of Kiean Fanning's brilliant new ninja time travel adventure story, The Black Lotus. Today I am overjoyed to be welcoming Kieran to The Book Zone to tell us about the books he enjoyed reading when he was younger:

One of the first books I remember being genuinely moved by was The Children at Green Meadows by Enid Blyton. I was a huge Enid Blyton fan and read all The Secret Seven series. The Famous Five series was also a firm favourite, especially as the show was on TV.

We also had some abridged illustrated classics at home, like Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, and The Last of the Mohicans. I think I enjoyed the illustrations more than the stories but they did prompt me to revisit these titles when I got older and Treasure Island is still one of my all-time favourites.

We loved comics in our house too, though we weren’t allowed to buy them often. Our neighbour however, got comics every week so when he was finished with them we received bundles of the Beano, the Dandy, Roy of the Rovers and Thundercats.

Our mother also encouraged us to read Irish books and I loved Tom McCaughren’s fox series beginning with Run with the Wind. I also vividly remember Carolyn Swift’s Robbers series and Island of the Great Yellow Ox by Walter Macken.

Roald Dahl has to be on this list too, my favourites from him being Danny the Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach.

I also have great memories of books in school. Every day we used to look forward to the teacher reading us Charlotte’s Web or The Iron Man. In the older classes I discovered abridged classics like Dracula, Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The first books that totally transported me to another world were Mary Norton’s Borrowers books. I guess it was my first taste of fantasy. Watership Down was my second, and I was truly blown away by it. It remains in my top ten books of all time.

As kids, we loved getting gifts that came free with a box of cereal, but when the Weetabix came home from the shop with a book attached we were overjoyed. Not just because it was a free book, but because it was a book we’d never seen the likes of before. It was a Choose Your Own Adventure book, in which the reader makes decisions at the end of each page to choose the direction of the story. This interactive fiction coincided with the arrival of an Atari 800xl computer in our house and for the first time I realised that the reader no longer had to play a passive role, and that a story can have many endings. I remember reading War With the Evil Power Master, The Case of the Silk King, The Horror of High Ridge, Survival at Sea, and Mountain Survival over and over again until I reached a satisfying ending.

From there, my brother and I evolved to reading gamebooks. These were like Choose Your Own Adventures, but with the added complexities of fighting monsters, rolling dice, collecting objects and earning/losing health and skill points etc. I loved The Way of the Tiger series by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson, and the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever.

These types of books led me to write my own books, which I still have. They’re my most precious possessions! At around the age of ten I wrote The Magic Sword, and The Samurai was written some years later.

Fast forward twenty years and it was no big surprise that my first publications would be interactive puzzle adventures – Trapdoor to Treachery, Voyage to Victory, Tempest of Trouble and Curse of the Cockroach.

Fast forward another 10 years and it is no surprise that my first novel, The Black Lotus includes swords, ninjas, samurai, time travel and talking animals. It may have taken forty years, but the books I read as a kid were the making of my novel, and also, the making of me.

The Black Lotus by Kieran Fanning 
is the first book in the Samurai Wars series and is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Find out more at and 

Thursday, 3 September 2015

YA Shot Blog Tour: Guest Post by Ben Davis

Today we are joined on The Book Zone by author Ben Davis who will be appearing at YA Shot in October. YA Shot is a one-day Young Adult and Middle Grade ‘festival’ taking place in the centre of Uxbridge on Wednesday 28 October 2015 in partnership with Hillingdon Borough Libraries and Waterstone’s Uxbridge. 71 authors will be involved in a programme of workshop, panel and ‘in conversation’ events (plus book-signing sessions) in the Uxbridge Civic Centre, Waterstone’s Uxbridge and Uxbridge Library.

The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” 
Roald Dahl – Matilda.

Reading – it’s the best thing you can do with your eyeballs. From the comfort of your chair, you can explore other worlds, meets strange new people and go on wild adventures. Of course, some might argue that the same thing applies to iPads, but do you know what I say to those people? Shut up. That’s what I say.

The best kind of email I get is from young people who tell me that my books got them into reading. It literally makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It also makes me think about the books that did the same thing for me.

I was a voracious reader from an early age and would devour anything I could get my hands on – Meg and Mog, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, the backs of shampoo bottles when I was in the bath. 

Woah! Butylphenyl Methylpropional?! I did NOT see that coming.
Then, when I was a bit older, like so many people, I discovered Roald Dahl. I know, I know, everyone loves Roald Dahl, but there’s a reason for that – he was a bloody genius. I was thrilled by James and the Giant Peach, delighted by The BFG and scared out of my tiny mind by The Witches. In fact, I still have nightmares about it.

I had the film adaptation on VHS. Immediately after watching, I took it outside and buried it.
I think the book that had the biggest impact on me was Matilda. It tells the familiar Dahl-ian tale of a clever kid outsmarting nasty adults, but it stuck with me more than the others, as I think it did all slightly bookish kids. Also, let’s not discount the telekinesis – I mean, how cool would that be? After reading Matilda, I spent hours staring at things and trying to move them with my mind. I think I finally accepted that I didn’t have the gift when a kid went past me on a bike with his arms folded and didn’t fall off.

I rediscovered Dahl as an adult when I picked up his collection of short stories in a charity shop. All the sweet darkness of this children’s books is there, but dialled up to eleven. It remains one of my favourite books to dip into for quick hits of excitement.

In fact, I am such a fan of his that I have already bought my son the Roald Dahl paperback collection, and he hasn’t even been born yet!

After I had read and re-read all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, I moved on to other authors, most of whom are lost in the mists of time, but a few stand out. I remember enjoying the books of Dick King-Smith, firstly because his brilliant animal tales like the Sheep-Pig and Harry’s Mad gripped me and kept me turning the pages and secondly because, come on, his name is Dick King. To a ten year old boy, that is HILARIOUS. Ah, who am I kidding? It still is.
I would take new books out of the library every weekend, read them during the week, then swap them for new ones. I read a series called Buccaneers by Sheila K. McCullagh, which I loved (it was about pirates, what more do you want?) and would regularly blast through football books – usually about a band of plucky outsiders who overcome the odds against slick baddies to save their team from closure, and you know the rest.

I remember just starting high school and being secretly petrified by Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster - both the book and the TV series which was on at the time. Every time my head teacher removed his glasses during assembly, I would silently freak out.

As a teen, I kind of missed out on YA and seemed to go straight from children’s books to adult with no bridge. The first GCSE book I remember really getting into was Lord of the Flies by William Golding. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, it is the story of a group of school boys, stranded on a desert island. Rather than getting into all kinds of jolly tropical adventures, they quickly become savages and their ‘civilisation’ descends into anarchy. The basic message behind the book is that boys, and by extension, humanity, is only a flicker away from going full-on insane like a bunch of crazed chimpanzees. Looking back, it probably had something of an influence on my writing, particularly the ‘high school is a jungle’ bit in The Private Blog of Joe Cowley.

I couldn’t have enjoyed all these books if it weren’t for my local library, which is why it is so sad that so many of them are closing or can’t afford to buy new books. It makes me worry about the kids of the future. Where are they going to find the books that make them readers? This is why we as writers must do everything we can to help promote child literacy. YA Shot is doing this and I’m really thrilled to be part of it and I hope it inspires others as much as it has me.

If you haven’t already, get your tickets NOW!


Ben Davis is an award-nominated writer of funny children's fiction. His Private Blog of Joe Cowley books have been hailed as Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets the Inbetweeners. He also writes for younger children, with the super-villain adventure, Danny Dread hitting the shops in August 2015. 

He lives in the Midlands with his wife and his big, wimpy dog.