Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review: Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall

A world of gods and monsters. An elemental power, rising. This is Robin Hood, reborn, as he has never been seen before…

Robin Loxley is seven years old when his parents disappear without trace. Years later the great love of his life, Marian, is also taken from him. Driven by these mysteries, and this anguish, Robin follows a darkening path into the ancient heart of Sherwood Forest. What he encounters there will leave him transformed, and will alter forever the legend of Robin Hood.

I look back at the 1980s and there were so many TV shows that at the time I thought were brilliant. Some of them are still nostalgia-fuelled favourites, whilst others I now see as pretty dire. One of the former is Robin of Sherwood, which between 1984 and 1986 was essential viewing in our household (although not so much once Michael Praed's Robin died, and was resurrected as Jason Connery). Robin of Sherwood was everything the Middle Ages was (and everything Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves wasn't) - dirty, gritty, and laced with the pagan superstition and folklore that would have been a huge part of English culture in those days. It brought us the legend of Robin Hood in a way that no one had before, and as far as I am aware no one has since. Until now that is.

When I first read the publisher's blurb for Tim Hall's Shadow of the Wolf my interested was immediately piqued. It promised a completely new and original take on the Robin Hood legend and I couldn't wait to read it. However, for the first 200 pages or so I found myself feeling a little short changed. Other than the first chapter, which hints at an element of the supernatural, there was little that made it stand out from all that had come before it. Admittedly, it starts off at a much earlier point in Robin's life than most previous stories have, and Marian is a very different character to the way she has been portrayed by most in the past, but other than that there was little that could justify this so called different take. 

And then boom! About halfway in the unspeakable happens - Robin is completely and utterly defeated, his body brutalised in an horrendous manner, and he ends up broken and near dead in Sherwood Forest, a place that is as far as you can get from the cheerful, leafy glades of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But just as it looks as if a premature end has come for our hero, nature and mythology intervene and all of a sudden we find ourselves in the middle of a revenge story that has more in common with Swamp Thing than it does with Kevin Costner's outing. All of a sudden the time spent reading those initial two hundred pages of character building and scene setting become worth every single minute spent on them, and as a reader I was gripped until the very final page, and even then I wanted more.

This is a challenging read that you need time to luxuriate in if you want to get the most out of it. It's not a book that is a light read for the beach as it craves for your full attention; it is atmospheric and rich in detail and if you give it the time and attention it deserves it will draw you in completely. It's not perfect: the first 200 pages could have been edited down a bit in my opinion, and after a while Marian's unpredictable and at times brattish temperament can become a little grating, but as far as epic YA fantasy goes it is certainly an excellent and welcome addition to the fold.

I believe Shadow of the Wolf is the first book in a trilogy, and I'm certainly keen to re-enter the dark and brutal world that Tim Hall has created for the legendary Robin and Marian. Shadow of the Wolf was published by the brilliant David Fickling Books at the beginning of July, in a hardcover edition with a stunning cover (one of my favourites of the year so far). My thanks go to the fab people at Riot Communications for my copy of the book.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Review: Haunt: Dead Scared by Curtis Jobling

When Will finds himself in hospital, but unable to make anyone see or hear him, he realises that he never made it home from his first kiss with the school hottie. Knocked off his bike in a road traffic accident, Will is now officially dead - and a ghost. But somehow his best mate, Dougie, can still see him, and, what is more, increasingly Will seems bound to Dougie, going only where Dougie goes. Once they've exhausted all the comic possibilities of being invisible, they set about unravelling the mystery of Will's predicament. Is it something to do with that kiss, or the driver of the car that killed him and didn't stop? Maybe they will find an answer by investigating the rumour that there is an unhappy spirit haunting the ruins in the school grounds, and if so, why? What they discover is a long-buried mystery, which stretches its fingers right into the present...

Long time readers of The Book Zone will already know that I am a huge fan of Curtis Jobling's Wereworld books. That series was epic fantasy for teens at its very best, and ever since it finished I have been waiting with baited breath to see what Curtis produced next. Given that this is the guy who brought us both Bob the Builder and RAA RAA the Noisy Lion I was not at all surprised when I discovered that his new book, Haunt: Dead Scared, was totally different: a creepy comedy story aimed at a slightly younger audience than Wereworld.

Although Haunt treads very similar ground to Tamsyn Murray's brilliant My So-Called Afterlife, and there are elements of the plot's central mystery that are not a million miles away from that of James Dawson's Say Her Name, the quality of Curtis Jobling's writing makes this an original and thoroughly enjoyable read for young teens. The real strengths of the book are the humour, and the tight relationship between Will (who dies in the first chapter but comes back as a ghost) and his best mate Dougie (the only person who can see Will's ghost). These are two somewhat geeky boys having to come to terms with a tragic accident, and the bizarre aftermath that sees Will stranded as a spook. Together they have to work out why on earth Will didn't move on, and in the process of their investigations they come across another stranded spirit, and take it upon themselves to help her too.

I've not read any interviews Curtis Jobling may have given about this new series but I would not be surprised if he has cited Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) as one of his inspirations when it came to writing the book. I loved the original series (watched as repeats - I'm honestly not old enough to have seen it when first broadcast) and even enjoyed the Vic and Bob reboot. The humour in Haunt, as the two boys try to get to grips with their rather unique situation, is certainly reminiscent of that TV show, with a heavy dose of Scooby Doo style shenanigans thrown in for good measure.

If you're looking for a creepy and funny book that is also a fairly quick read this summer then look no further than Haunt: Dead Scared. My thanks go to the fab people at Simon & Schuster for sending me a copy.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: Say Her Name by James Dawson

Roberta 'Bobbie' Rowe is not the kind of person who believes in ghosts. A Halloween dare at her ridiculously spooky boarding school is no big deal, especially when her best friend Naya and cute local boy Caine agree to join in too. They are ordered to summon the legendary ghost of 'Bloody Mary': say her name five times in front of a candlelit mirror, and she shall appear...But, surprise surprise, nothing happens. Or does it? 

Next morning, Bobbie finds a message on her bathroom mirror...five days...but what does it mean? And who left it there? Things get increasingly weird and more terrifying for Bobbie and Naya, until it becomes all too clear that Bloody Mary was indeed called from the afterlife that night, and she is definitely not a friendly ghost. Bobbie, Naya and Caine are now in a race against time before their five days are up and Mary comes for them, as she has come for countless others before...

James Dawson is single-handedly bringing the traditions and aesthetic of the teen horror and slasher films of the 80s/90s, coupled with influences from his much loved Point Horror books, into contemporary YA fiction. I really enjoyed Hollow Pike, his first book, and I am yet to read Cruel Summer (soon to be rectified), but with Say Her Name Dawson seems to have really found his groove. 

As far as the story is concerned, Say Her Name does not have the most original of plots. The Bloody Mary folklore legend (and similar concepts) has been used in a number of films and TV shows in recent years (Supernatural, Bloody Mary, Candyman, Ringu), but James Dawson imbues his story with a charm and undercurrent of humour that is more reminiscent of the Scream films, and it is these elements that make it stand out from the rest. I say 'the rest' but as far as I am aware. there are very few other writers producing YA stories like this at the moment - the majority of other horror stories for teens around at the moment lack the aforementioned charm and humour that make Say Her Name such an enjoyable read.

Lifelong fans of US slasher films and Point Horror may find some of the plot twists a little easy to guess, but that does not make the book any less enjoyable, and teens who have not yet had the joy of watching the panoply of great (and less great) teen horror movies will find there are plenty of surprises in store for them in Say Her Name. I know that James is currently juggling his fiction writing with his non-fiction writing, but I hope that there is much more of the same to come from him in the future.

My thanks go to Hot Key Books for giving me a copy of Say Her Name to read/review.

The End of the Book Zone (For Boys)... or Just A New Beginning?

As far as blogging is concerned, this year has been very difficult so far. Work seems to be taking up even more of my time than it did in the past (and if you had told me that would happen twelve months ago I would not have thought it possible). My involvement as a member of the Bookbuzz selection panel also took up a huge amount of my time, and whilst I would not change that for anything as it was something that I enjoyed immensely, again it meant there was even less time for blogging. And then there was WoW - the young people's literary festival I organised. I've also gone through lengthier periods than before where I've struggled to get into a number of YA and MG books, and have had to read adult books to retain my sanity. And on top of this, I'm also trying to progress with my own writing - my head is almost exploding with ideas but the time to get them onto 'paper' in a coherent form is difficult to find.

Of course, this has all led to prolonged periods of guilt. My TBR pile is as high as ever, and my RBNR (read-but-need-reviewing) pile is pretty high too. I feel like I am letting down the wonderful publishers that continue to send me some pretty damn amazing books. I also feel like I am letting down the authors who are struggling in a relatively poor market and need as much exposure as possible. Every book I read gets a Goodreads star rating, but as far as my own personal expectations of myself are concerned, this just isn't enough. Over the years I have prided myself on the length and detail of my reviews, but sadly this is no longer sustainable.

This has left me with two options: stop blogging altogether or accept that I will have to write much shorter reviews. Because I love blogging, and I love the people that I have come to know so well since I started blogging, at this moment in time the first is still not really an option for me, and so I am going to try the latter. Hopefully this will mean that there will be more reviews on The Book Zone, but they will just be shorter and less verbose. I hope this won't disappoint anyone too much and you'll continue to visit my blog in the future.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Twenty Reasons I Loved YALC 2014

Unlike most of the bloggers who attended YALC (the first ever UK Young Adult Lit Con) on Saturday, I have decided to be fashionably late with my write up (aka exhausted on Sunday night, catching up with a weekend of missed work on Monday night, & at the O2 watching Monty Python on Tuesday night). Of course, my tardiness will mean that most of you will have already read countless write-ups and reviews of the weekend's event so rather than have you wade through my usual waffle I have decided to be uncharacteristically succinct, and thus give you (in no particular order apart from the first four), the twenty reasons I loved YALC:

1.Malorie Blackman 

Fantastic writer of brilliant books, Children's Laureate and sure candidate for a Dame-hood in the future. Malorie was the curator and one of the driving forces behind YALC and her passion and energy were infectious on Saturday. And she even opened the events by speaking in Klingon. Legend!

2.Katherine Woodfine 

Sadly somehow I missed meeting Katherine (of Booktrust fame) at the weekend (on the few occasions I saw her she was incredibly busy), but I am reliably informed by all involved that without her the event would most likely have never taken place. Legend number 2!

3. The sixty or so authors who turned up to take part in panels, talk to attendees and sign books. These writers were invariably welcoming, happy to spend huge amounts of time signing, chatting with every single fan who had carted piles of books across London for signing. That's another 60 legends for the list!

4. The small troop of publicists who made up the organising committee. It was two years ago that they started talking about organising a YA Lit Con and I hope they are incredibly proud of the fruits of their labours. They certainly deserve to be. I'm not going to name names, for fear of missing someone out, but we know who you are and we are hugely grateful. Despite being dead on their feet by the end of Saturday, they were back again on Sunday, smiling, helping, chatting and being all round friendly people. More legends for the list!

5. The panel events. 

Informative, interesting, funny, fab. I went to all six on the Saturday, and even though it meant missing a lot of the book signings there was no way I was going to drag myself away from the main stage area.

6. Lucy Saxon in Captain America cosplay splendor.

I've not yet read Lucy's debut, Take Back the Skies, but I am going to make it a priority to get my hands on a copy. Lucy is a seasoned cosplayer and took part in the Superfans Unite! panel event in a totally awesome Captain America costume that she made herself. Head on over to to find out more.

7. Geeking out

It was so good to bump into so many of the other bloggers, some of whom I haven't seen for ages, and be able to talk about books, books and more books (and the occasional comic as well).

8. The Heroes of Horror panel

Four of my all time favourite YA authors in the same place at the same time, talking about their work. Derek Landy, Will Hill, Darren Shan and Charlie Higson I salute you. 

9. The whirlwind of energy that is Steve Cole

Steve chaired the Regenerating the Doctor panel event with considerable gusto and I am so looking forward to reading his Young Bond book later this year, and I am also rather excited that he will be visiting school in November.

10. Patrick Ness

This was the first time I have been to an event featuring Patrick Ness, and he was brilliant. One of my favourite moments of the whole weekend was Patrick, on the Regenerating the Doctor panel, stating that "the reason Malorie is on this panel is I declined to do the panel if it was just going to be five white guys... because I thought the world's different now". Hear, hear! Just one comment that added to the overall desire for more diversity in YA and children's literature, that was voiced by writers and readers alike throughout the weekend. Malorie Blackman to write an episode of Doctor Who? If it ever happens, remember the campaign to make it so started at YALC.

11. James Dawson and This Book Is Gay

On Sunday a handful of bloggers were invited to a special brunch held by the YALC organising committee. James (complete with his recent Queen of Teen crown) was one of the attending authors, and he spoke briefly and passionately about his new non-fiction title, This Book Is Gay. We were very fortunate to all receive early copies of this important book, and I've already had a commitment from school to buy multiple copies.

12. 300ish seats at the Main Stage, every single one of them full for pretty much every single event.

13. Rainbow Rowell

I have never read a book written by Rainbow Rowell, as her books are not the kind of thing I generally read (especially given the size of my TBR pile). However, she was bloody brilliant and very funny as part of the Superfans Unite! panel, and I may just have to read Fangirls or Eleanor & park this summer.

14. Non Pratt

If you haven't met Non Pratt, author of Trouble, then you have missed out. I met Non some time ago, when she was pretty much single-handedly getting Catnip Books up and running, and I love chatting with her. Even when she is berating me for never having watched Battlestar Galactica (the recent version, not the totally awesome 80s version, of which I have seen every episode, and also saw the first feature length version in the cinema. Yes, i am that old). Non also very graciously took the time to sign and draw sperm in my copy of Trouble. And seriously, you need to check out her short but wonderful blog piece about her thoughts on YALC.

15. Workshops

I didn't manage to attend any of the writing workshops that took place over the weekend, and I gather from other YALC visitors that I may have really missed out there. Possibly my only regret of the whole weekend.

16. Cosplayers everywhere. 

OK, so this wasn't strictly YALC related, but I think it was a genius idea of the organisers to approach Showmasters and have YALC be a part of the London Film and Comic Con. It had its drawbacks (hot, very crowded, very noisy), but I'm not sure it would have been anywhere near as well attended if it had been held as a standalone event. It was my first Comic Con and now I totally get cosplay. I loved admiring some of the amazing costumes that were being worn throughout the weekend, even in bonkers temperatures! Back in the day we used to call it fancy dress (and a few fond memories of costumes worn in my uni days were brought flooding back - I did a Thunderbird, Zorro (on several occasions), and Danger Mouse (complete with huge papier mache head) and even won prizes for my efforts. I may even show you the photos one day).

17. Frances Hardinge

It seems a little mean on Ruth Warburton, Amy McCulloch and Jonathan Stroud for me to single out Frances Hardinge from the writing Fantasy panel, but she was brilliant. Frances is such an intelligent and humorous person, and if you ever get the opportunity to listen to her at an event I urge you to take it. And she signed and drew a goose in my copy of Fly By Night too. Result!

18. Andy Robb

I still haven't met Andy Robb (even though I think he lives less than ten miles away from me) as I stayed seated for a panel event and missed his book signing. however, his chairing of the Superfans United event was, in my opinion, a highlight of the weekend. Well done, sir!

19. Book signings

I've already mentioned the host of authors that were at YALC, but I did not mention that they did all of their book signing for free. Unlike the host of z-list celebs from the world of film & TV who charged for the pleasure as part of LFCC. Seriously, I've often been called a geek but even I can't see the appeal of paying to queue to get the autograph of some random guy who wore a full body suit/mask to play an obscure creature character in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And many of these authors sat there signing for hours, always happy to chat at length with each and every fan who came their way, even if the queue was snaking around the whole Book Zone.

20. Which leads me on to the YA fans

The hoards of people, young and old, who came to YALC to listen to and meet their literary heroes. They filled the seats, listened attentively, asked brilliant questions and bought huge piles of books. They then waited patiently in line whilst their chosen author took time to chat at length with every fan in front of them, with rarely a single moan about how slow the queue in front of them might be moving. YALC-attending YA fans, I salute you! Without you, it would have been doubtful that this event would happen again. Your being there, and your enthusiasm and passion for the authors and their books, may mean we see a repeat in the future. Thank you.


That's my twenty. I can't comment too well on Sunday's events as I was pretty much wiped out by midday, and I really wanted to get my Batgirl, Tomb Raider and Red Sonja comics signed by Gail Simone, one of my favourite writers of comics at this moment in time. So before heading home I made a quick visit to the Comic Zone at LFCC, where I also had the good fortune to meet and chat with an artist called John Royle (he currently draws Danger Girl - one of my massive guilty pleasures when it comes to comics). However, I have heard amazing things about the I'm too Sexy For This Book panel event at YALC, so that goes down as another regret from the weekend.

Before I sign off I want to reiterate my huge thanks to Malorie Blackman and everyone else who worked hard to make YALC such a huge success. It is an event that we have needed in the UK for a hell of a long time, and I hope it is the first of many more.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Review: The Sword of Kuromori by Jason Rohan

Kenny Blackwood arrives in Tokyo to spend the summer with his father and is stunned to discover a destiny he had never dreamed of when he finds himself in the middle of a hidden war that is about to explode. Racing against an impossible deadline, Kenny must find the fabled Sword of Heaven and use it to prevent the disaster. But a host of terrifying monsters is out to destroy him, and success will come at a price. With clever, fearless, sarcastic Kiyomi at his side, Kenny must negotiate the worlds of modern and mythic Japan to find the lost sword, before it's too late.

The story opens with Kenny Blackwood on a flight across the Pacific, on his way to spend the summer with his father in Japan. It is a prospect that he is less than happy about, as his relationship with his father is strained to say the least, but Kenny's grandfather has arranged the trip and paid for the flight so he has little choice in the matter. As the plane is nearing Japan a flight attendant delivers an envelope to Kenny, containing a letter written by his grandfather and a small wooden whistle. As if this wasn't odd enough, there is also a separate piece of paper that instructs Kenny to make a copy of the letter, eat the piece of paper, and top only blow the whistle in an emergency. Of course, Kenny being a young teen, he can't help but give a whistle a quick blow, but it makes no noise at all. However, for Kenny it is the moment when the strangeness starts and his life will never be the same again.

Kenny soon discovers that he has magical gifts, inherited from his grandfather who received them in thanks for a noble deed he did following the Second World War. One of these gifts is the ability to see the many monsters and spirits that still exist in modern day Japan. He also finds out, from kick-ass, motorbike-riding Kiyomi and her father, that he is destined to continue the good deed of his grandfather and save the West Coast of the USA from a supernatural act of vengeance that will cause millions to suffer and die. To do this all he will have to do is survive attacks from numerous creatures from Japanese mythology, beat Hachiman, the God of War and destroy a monstrous, earthquake-causing dragon. 

Rick Riordan has done Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology, and is currently writing the first book in a series that will feature the gods of Norse mythology. Francesca Simon has also covered Norse mythology in The Sleeping Army and The Lost Gods. Sarwat Chadda brought the gods and creatures of Indian mythology to us in his brilliant Ash Mistry series. And now writer Jason Rohan enters the fray with The Sword of Kuromori, the first in a series set in Japan, with a heavy focus on the various monsters, spirits and Gods of Japanese mythology.

Other than in Manga, Japan is a country that has so far featured little in books for young people. Of course, there is Chris Bradford's brilliant Young Samurai series and Nick Lake's Blood Ninja trilogy, but neither of these are set in modern day Japan, nor do they focus on Japanese mythology. Most stories for children and teens published in the UK that use a culture's mythology as their foundation focus on western mythologies. Sarwat Chadda started to address this imbalance with Ash Mistry and it is great to see Jason Rohan following on with this.

I am guessing that young Manga/anime aficionados may recognise some of the creatures and Gods in this book, but the mythology of Japan, like India, is a subject I know very little about. However, this did not affect my enjoyment of The Sword of Kuromori at all. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. I was entranced by the various creatures and spirits that Kenny encounters in the course of his quest, and spent a fair amount of time looking them up online to see if they were actual creatures from Japanese mythology or constructs of the author's imagination. And every single one of them exists as a part of Japanese culture. Oni (demons), Kappa (truly bizarre creature), Kitsune (fox spirits), Tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog), the filth-licking Akaname... every single one of them will be as well known in Japan as the likes of Medusa and Pegasus are to British kids. Jason Rohan certainly knows his Japanese culture (hardly surprising as he lived there for five years) and he really makes these ancient creatures come alive for his readers.

If you're looking for a new book that will grab a 9+ reader and not let them go until the the final page this summer then The Sword of Kuromori should be high up on your list. It is a very fast-paced adventure story, with plenty of humour, especially in the interaction and dialogue between the confused and out-of-his-depth Kenny, and his new Japanese friend (and potential love interest), Kiyomi  who is proficient with a host of weapons normally found in then possession of ninjas, and with an extensive knowledge of the monsters that are hidden from all but the handful of people with the gift. I believe this is the first book in a trilogy and I'm definitely signing on for the ride. I do not have a release date for it, but I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens to Kenny next in the sequel, The Shield of Kuromori. In the meantime, it's well worth your time making a visit to The Sword of Kuromori Facebook page over at where Jason Rohan gives readers more details about some of the weird and wonderful creatures from Japanese mythology.