Saturday, July 30, 2011

Barrington Stoke - My Heroes

**warning: long blog post, may require two cups of tea at least**

I am a fan of the Barrington Stoke books.  Barrington Stoke, for those readers who don't know, is a specialised publisher who focusses publishing some fantastic fiction for reluctant readers.

I only came to know of them a little while ago when James Lovegrove emailed me to tell me about this series of books he's been writing for them.  It was called The 5 Lords of Pain and each book, though shorter than the usual published books we get to review, was to be for that elusive demographic, the reluctant reader.  And because I know James, having met him several times, and because I am a fan of his adult military science fiction novels, I said yes, let's give this new thing a try.

And I fell in love. Not just with James' story, that was a given, but also with the whole concept of what Barrington Stoke were doing.

I took some titles with me when I went to visit one of my local primary schools on World Book Day.  I spoke to the kids there about the books and had a lot of interest shown.  Not just by the keen readers, but also from one of the boys who was dyslexic and who hated reading.  In fact, this boy was so charmed by the books I showed them, that when I asked them to write descriptions and stories from the covers they'd seen, and from looking at the story cards from Templar, he came up to read out what he had written.

His teacher was staring at him with open-mouthed amazement and only later told me what a strop he threw earlier that morning when I came in, when he saw that the whole day would be dedicated to writing, storytelling and reading.  These were the things he hated the most and she expected him and his table of friends to give me a lot of hassle.  And strangely, these were the boys who were the most engaged, who fought to read out their stories.  I would like to think it had nothing to do with me, but everything with the fact that they realised that stories and reading was not just the provenance of the clever kids, that there were books and stories out there for them too.  And that there was an entire publisher who focussed on books only for them.

So, back to the books themselves.  I love the look and feel of these books.  I love how tight and vivid the writing has to be and how strong the story lines are. The covers are superbly vibrant and it draws you in.  The stories themselves run the gamut from action adventure in contemporary settings with a twist of fantasy, to gritty realistic stories with very real troubled teens and recognisable moral dilemmas.  Looking at their list of titles online, they have a bit of everything for everyone, with some superb authors writing for them:

Anthony McGowan
Jim Eldridge
James Lovegrove
Bali Rai
EE Richardson
Theresa Breslin
Kevin Brooks name but a few.  The overall list is long and extensive and honestly, I want them all. But the best part is, although I am concentrating on books for kids in this blogpost, Barrington Stoke also does books for adults.  And that is something I think that sets them apart from other publishers.  I will definitely be looking in on these adult titles too and report back, for sure!

In the meantime I'm focussing on the handful of titles Barrington Stoke sent me for review for Under 14s Only month.

Here they are:

Aren't they just gorgeous looking?

As I am a new fan of Bali Rai's (I know, I am behind the times) I read The Gun first.

When Jonas finds a gun on the estate, something makes him keep it.  Worse still, he shows his friends. Big mistake. 

Binny's OK, but Kamal's a bit crazy.  Once he starts flashing the gun around the estate, it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.  And it's Jonas who'll have to pay. 

The Gun is a short, sharp stab in your heart.  Taking no shortcuts, not dollying it up, it tells the story over a handful of days, of how Jonas' life goes from relatively okay to something awful  It opens up in a police station, with the policeman asking Jonas to tell them everything that happened.  And Jonas does, right through from how they were standing outside the local kebab shop when they heard gunshots, to him picking up the backpack with the gun in it, that the shooters tried to hide away, to how he stupidly tells his friends Binny and Kamal and the trouble they have with the kids from the other estate and how things go completely wild.

Super short chapters set the scene with spare prose and strong dialogue.  Jonas is a boy we all recognise, and so is his family life, with a mum always working and a sweet but mouthy sister who is far too clever for her own good.

The story doesn't pull any punches, showing the brutality of life on an estate run by gangs and how one choice can completely mess up your life.  A great, sharp vivid story, accompanied by a note from the author, telling us how he came up with the story and why he chose the characters he chose and why it panned out the way it did.

The book itself, as an object, feels good in the hands - matte cream paper with a larger than average font, shorter than usual chapters, I sped through the story with easy, liking the spacing of the words on the page. The story made me feel like I watched a rather excellent tv-show that wasn't preachy, but stark in its reality.  A great read.

The Fall by Anthony McGowan 

Two's company.  Three's a crowd.  One has got to go. 

Mog might be a loser, but he's not as much of a loser as Duffy.  So when Duffy tries to get in with Mog's best mate, Mog decides to take action.  But when he lands Duffy in The Beck, the rancid stream behind the school, Mog has no idea how far the ripples will spread. 

The Fall is told retrospectively from Mog's point of view as an older man.  He introduces us to his best mate, Chris Rush, who was a cool kid, a bit dangerous to know, but one of those charismatic characters we all knew or know in school.  Mog enjoyed hanging around with Chris but when Chris started paying attention to the loser, Duffy, Mog decides the best way to take care of it is to embarrass Duffy so much that he'd not want to be their mate any more.  Mog gets away with it, treating Duffy really badly and that is the turning point in his and Chris' relationship.  Things become edgier, angrier and when they steal Chris's brother's crossbow things get out of hand and Mog acts in a truly reprehensible way.

I enjoyed the story, but I reacted negatively to it the most as I couldn't quite wrap my mind around what Mog does in the end.  I understand why it was written the way it was, but I felt that Mog's character does nothing to redeem himself and it left me feeling sad.

Like The Gun, The Fall has short, punchy chapters and is printed on creamy off-white paper.  There is lots of space on the page, which is great as it didn't feel like an intimidating read at all. I liked that there was a sticker on the cover to indicate "dyslexia friendly" and that the sticker could be pulled off with ease by the reader or giver.

Bomb by Jim Eldridge (I only read my first Jim Eldridge earlier this year, which was a Western for kids, and LOVED it.  I love his prose and think he does some great writing for younger readers)

The clock is ticking...

Rob's a top bomb disposal expert.  He has to defuse a bomb in a school before it's too late.  Can he do it? 

Holy smokes! This one was tense.  The story starts with a Top Secret memo telling us what's going on - who Rob is, what the situation is (where the bomb was placed within a local school and that the terrorist had demanded a ransom which, if not met, would cause the bomb to explode) and who Rob was.

At only 19, Rob was one of the youngest bomb disposal squad members but he has a great track record.  MI5 sent him as he was young enough to be a cleaner, a disguise in order to fool the bomber should he be watching the school.  Rob finds the bomb in the basement and quickly realises that this is the same style of bomb that had killed a good friend of his...but Rob couldn't for the life of him remember the sequence his friend had gone through, when cutting the wires.  Illustrated by Dylan Gibson, we are shown what Rob looks like, what the bomb looks like and how fast the time is running out.

I liked that Rob was an older boy, that he had advance so far in his young life and that he was this competent.  And although I am a big Jim Eldridge fan, I did find a few of the paragraphs to be a bit too short and choppy, but, having said that, it did serve to drive the tension higher.

The Mountain's Blood by Lari Don 

Inanna's bored of being the goddess of love - how dull! When a volcano begins to make her people's lives a misery she decides to take it on. None of her brothers will help her so she faces it single-handedly, and her victory inspires her to become the goddess of war. Thrilling re-telling of an ancient Sumerian myth.

I laughed so much when I opened this one to read.  Inanna is such a great character - deeply spoiled, stubborn and a born hero.  When she is landed with the title of Goddess of Love, she goes off in a huff, riding her chariot across the sky, pulled by her blue bulls.  She's in a huff because she thinks being the Goddess of Love means she can't use her mad weapon skills and especially her axe.  A girl after my own heart.  Yet, as she travels the skies she sees how the people love her, how they are prospering and her heart grows warm with love, until she spots the disagreeable mountain that's sprung up from nowhere.  She demands that it obey her and leave the area, but the mountain refuses to budge.

Angered by its insolence, she decides to plead with it in a suitably goddess-like way, but no joy.  She resorts to pleading with all the other gods but gets nowhere.  No one is keen to help her out.  Inanna dons her armour and all her weapons and decides to fight the mountain until it submits.  Perfect!

The story is a retailing of an age-old Summerian myth and at the back of the book there is a brief write-up from Inanna herself, about the story, giving some information about Summeria.

The Mountain's Blood is beautifully illustrated by Paul Duffield.

Next up is The Jaws of Death by Malachy Doyle

Kwang-su must embark on a perilous journey so that he can marry Ling-Ling. He must cross monster-infested rivers and outwit the powerful genii that live on the mountain-top. With a little help from some magic gifts, he manages to return home in time to save Ling-Ling from marrying an old mandarin. Action packed re-telling of an ancient Chinese myth.

This is the first time I've read this myth and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Beautifully illustrated by Nana Li, The Jaws of Death gives us a strong and intelligent young hero, Kwang-su, who is given a series of tasks to perform by an old woman, the mother of the young girl he's fallen in love with.  As with all these myths of strength, intelligence and riddles, the hero overcomes the obstacles in his way to cleverly win the day.  It is very well written with some great descriptions and the hero uses not only his martial arts skills, but also his intelligence to succeed in completing his tasks, showing us how he matures from boy with some martial skills, to that of a young man who thinks and plans to overcome his enemies and obstacles.

I've left the larger The Lord of Fire by James Lovegrove for last.  This is the last book in The 5 Lords of Pain sequence and it is a humdinger.

Tom Yamada must fight the demon Lords of Pain in a series of duels called the Contest - with the whole world at stake. Tom's defeated four powerful demons. Now he must face the ultimate test. The Lord of Fire - the most powerful demon of them all. If Tom loses, the world will burn...

Fifth and final book in a brand new Barrington Stoke series.

Cleverly, because this is the fifth book in the series, when you open TLoF, the first thing you find is the link to the official Five Lords of Pain website, but also a "The Story so Far" catch-up which is a mere 2 pages long.

Written in a concise way, we are shown how much Tom's grown through the progress of the five books.  He is no longer the very young innocent and inexperienced boy.  He is older, sturdier, tougher and an a far more experienced fighter.  We know he has to face up to fighting the final Lord of Pain and the summons to the combat comes far sooner than anticipated.  It also turns out that the final battle will be against someone whom he thought he could trust, who taught him his martial skills and who acted as a father towards him.

The battle lines are drawn when the place of battle is revealed: Canterbury Cathedral.  As the story progresses and Tom realises he needs help, we are treated to some great introspective moments.  He's come such a long way and takes great care in preparing himself for the battle to come.  He turns to his family for support and he comes to realise that the battle is not to be a battle of revenge, but by finishing this contest, and winning, he will literally save the world.

The 5 Lords of Pain books are so much fun.  They are written with great skill by a fantastic storyteller who loves these yarns.  Sometimes you can just tell when you read something that the author is having an absolute blast writing the story.  I'd say that out of the six books reviewed here, The Lord of Fire would be aimed at the slightly more advanced reader and it may be for someone who likes to be challenged, especially as the pay-off at the end of the book is so great.  There are Japanese words and terms dotted throughout the novel, but at the end of the book, there is a section where these are explained.  I found that they didn't hinder my understand of the story, but enhanced it, making me feel very much part of the story.


These titles are all a mixture of old and new titles from Barrington Stoke.  I honestly cannot recommend them enough.  Fun, entertaining and well written reads that are told for entertainment sake, is rare enough.  But books aimed at getting reluctant readers reading is even more valuable, especially when they are reading for fun.  And let's not forget that yes, we have to read for work and school, but reading for fun is even more important. 

A massive thanks to Barrington Stoke for allowing me to gab on about a handful of their titles only.  These books are very special to me as reader and reviewer as I feel a kinship with those reluctant readers these books are aimed at.  I had a nephew who was a reluctant reader, due to dyslexia, and I think that had these books been around at school at the time he was growing up, they could have changed his world.  I now have a very sweet but reluctant reader grand-nephew who is a bit hyperactive, yet will sit down and listen to books read to him and his baby sister Michaela, who will be getting a stack of these for Christmas back in South Africa. Who knows, I may make readers and writers out them both! 


serendipity_viv said...

I can definitely see why they would appeal to the reluctant readers. The covers draw you in and being quite slim volumes makes it less of a mountain to climb for these kids.

Zoe said...

These all sound really good! I am a new follower, and your blog is amazing!

When you get the chance, please check out my blog. Thanks! :]

Jenni @ Juniper's Jungle said...

I love the sound of what Barrington Stoke are doing, it's so important that these reluctant readers aren't simply forgotten. Based on these reviews it sounds like they're getting it absolutely spot on, what reader wouldn't enjoy these books?!