Friday, March 30, 2012

Itch by Simon Mayo

Meet Itch - an accidental, accident-prone hero. Science is his weapon. Elements are his gadgets.

Itchingham Lofte - known as Itch - is fourteen, and loves science - especially chemistry. He's also an element-hunter: he's decided to collect all the elements in the periodic table. Which has some interesting and rather destructive results in his bedroom . . .

Then, Itch makes a discovery. A new element, never seen before. At first no one believes him - but soon, someone hears about the strange new rock and wants it for himself. And Itch is in serious danger . . .

Itch is an unexpected novel in many ways.  When we attended the most recent blogger event at Random House and the editorial department and publicity girls spoke enthusiastically about this title, I was intrigued.  My geeky brain did cartwheels of joy.  I loved the idea of this kid being such a geek that he had a ROCK DEALER.  There was a bit of a vibration in the room as the bloggers realised who the author was: Simon Mayo.  I had no idea who that was, I'm sorry to admit.  They told me he was a famous DJ.  I couldn't care less, all I wanted was the story. Sarah, Darren from Bookzone and I made big exclamation marks on our sheets that we had to find out more about Itch when it came out.  As much as there was a vibration in the room about Simon Mayo having written the book, I could tell there was doubt and I felt it too. 

We've become used to being given books to review "written" by celebrities, only to discover that they did not live up to the hype or the merest tenets of storytelling.  However, something told me that I was not going to be disappointed.  Sometimes you just get that feeling.

When it came to reading Itch, I fell for the characters and writing.  The story is mad and fantastical and I loved it.  Itch as a character is superb.  He is so desperate to be this cool surfer guy, but he fails at catching waves.  Instead, he's more than happy to tinker in his bedroom (or the shed his mum banished him to, after he blew his eyebrows off) doing experiments and cataloguing his collection of rocks.  Yes, rocks.  Because Itch collects the various elements from the periodic table.  And of course, there's more to it than just collecting these elements.  Far more than we would have anticipated.

Simon Mayo, who has genuinely written this all by himself (with the imput from various well known scientists and professors and doctors to get all the sciencey bits right), makes Itch's story as he comes into possession of a mysterious rock and the subsequent chaos it creates in his small world, so believable that you literally ache for the poor guy.  Already on edge because of an awful accident at school (he took some arsenic into school and it mixed with the gasses in the greenhouse they were visiting, creating arsine gas which poisoned his entire class, teachers and himself) Itch can't believe it when he realises there is something hinky about this rock his dealer, Cake, handed him.  It stays warm, even when not in the sun.  And when the rock is checked for radiation (not a good thing) it registers practically off the scale.

Things go very wrong from this point forward for Itch, his cousin and best friend Jack (Jacqueline) and his younger sister, Chloe. As the three of them try and figure out what to do with the rock, they discover that Cake is dying from radiation poisoning and that he has several more pieces of rock.  The story takes on a nightmarish hue as Itch's one teacher steals the rock for his own nefarious purposes and honestly, I felt really shocked by some of the stuff that followed - but not in a bad way, but in a "wow, stuff like this is so awful but they can happen" kind of way. 

I have to applaud Mr. Mayo for including two very strong female characters in his cast of people to populate Itch.  Jack and Chloe are superb creations and they keep Itch level-headed and help him make informed choices.  They aren't without blame in all these shenanigans, I hasten to add.  The girls aren't goody goody at all, but they do feel very real and I think paired up Itch, they form a fantastic team. 

I've probably already said to much about the plot, so I won't go into that further.  What I will say though is that the book is incredibly well written and charming.  It is quite long too, longer than usual fiction for readers of this age, but to be honest, it didn't feel like it.  The story has substance and because you're going through all of this adventure you never stop to think how far you've come reading, only "how the hell do they get out of trouble this time around"?

There is quite a bit of science in the book.  Now, I like my science easy and explainable.  I love Brian Cox and do think Michio Kaku is a god, so I was worried about what I would encounter in Itch.  But we are in safe hands.  Everything science-bitty encountered by Itch and the girls is explained and even when it's not explained, it's inferred. I was thinking how to describe Itch to you guys and to reluctant readers and I came up with something like this: Itch is for kids and adults who like the idea of science and enjoy science fiction movies and books, but who find some of it dull in real life, when we have to sit through classes or lectures.  Itch makes science cool.  He made me go out and read up about the things he's collected and I've decided to actually buy more books on science and chemistry, because my interest was piqued by the discussions in the book. 

First and foremost though, Itch is about family and friendship and responsibility.  The science does play a big part in it, but it isn't really the story.

It has literally everything I love in a good book - mystery, action, adventure, genuinely engaging characters and without knowing it, I've learned stuff.  Also, the writing is genuinely good.  How do I explain this without sounding like an idiot?   Sometimes I read books for younger readers and I can tell the author has pitched it for that audience.  Reading Itch felt like I was reading a super-intelligent book that happened to be for younger readers.  The author doesn't talk down to the audience and fully expects the reader to be on board with all the mad things that happen without over explaining things. If Simon Mayo and Itch can make me, at age 39, go buy books about string theory and chaos theory, teachers will have a field day getting kids to read this.  We'll have a new generation of mad scientists on our hands.  Wait, maybe I shouldn't say that?

Itch is out now from Random House / Doubleday and comes highly recommended from Team MFB.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Black Arts by Prentice & Weil

I'm reading this at the moment and I'm loving it. It's out today so I thought I'd share the book trailer with you:

And this is the write-up:

Black Arts
Book I of the Books of Pandemonium
by Prentice and Weil
published by David Fickling Books

Music by Nicholas Singer
Original Art by Adam Brockbank

Elizabethan London: a teeming city of traders and thieves, courtiers and preachers, riff-raff and quality, cut-throats - and demons. When scrunty Jack the 'Judicious Nipper' picks the wrong pocket at the Globe Theatre, he finds himself mixed up in an altogether more dangerous London than he could have imagined - a city in which magic is real and deadly.

An outbreak of devil-worship has led to a wave of anti-witch fervor whipped up by the Elect, a mysterious group of Puritans recognizable from their red-stained right hands, led by the charismatic Nicholas Webb, a growing power at Court. Rumour has it that he wants to purge the city entirely and build a New Jerusalem. Jack has his own reason for hating him: he saw him kill his mother.

Helped by Beth Sharkwell the Thief Princess of Lambeth, Kit Morely the Intelligencer and Dr Dee the Queen's Wizard, Jack pits himself against Webb's Puritans. But this is no straightforward struggle. Things are not as they seem. In fact, ever since his encounter with Webb, there has been something wrong with Jack's vision. He keeps seeing things. Demons.

Black Arts is the first in a series of thrilling time-travel adventures, each bringing the past to glorious life, as Jack and his companions hurtle from one epic struggle to the next.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Velvet by Mary Hooper


Velvet is an orphan. She struggles to make ends meet by working in a steam, laundry, where the work is back-breaking and exhausting. So when she attracts the attention of the glamorous clairvoyant Madame Savoya, she cannot believe her good fortune.

Raised to the status of lady's maid, Velvet is given elegant clothes to wear and is brought to live in a grand house in London. But the longer she works for Madame Savoya, the more she discovers about the mysterious world of a spiritual medium. Velvet soon realises that her employer is not quite what she seems and that this knowledge could put her very life in danger.

When I think of period books for young adults, Mary Hooper is the author who comes to mind. I love her House of the Magician series and am also a bit of a Victoriana fan so this book has massive appeal for me. Velvet has a tragic background. Her mother was ground into desperation then death by her father who then attempted to do the same to poor Velvet. So when, drunk one night, he tumbles into the canal whilst chasing her she doesn't turn back to help him. Instead she flees her family home with a handful of possessions and attempts to start again. She's lucky enough to find a job at a laundry although it's so hot and steamy that girls regularly fall ill or die. But things start to improve for Velvet and she's promoted to doing laundry for the more upmarket clientele.

One of her clients, medium Madame Savoya, recruits Velvet, immersing her into a very shadowy world. I adored all the historical detail involved with Victorian mediumship that the author included. I was aware that there were all sorts of tricks used but I was still amazed at the scope of them. One of my particular favourites was the ectoplasm scam - you must read the book to get the full story but the whole thing is fascinating. Velvet is such an innocent at the start of the book; drowning in guilt and grief she clings to the new life that the medium offers her. She's so grateful that at first she doesn't notice - and then tries to rationalise - the oddities that take place at Darkling Villa. Stunning George, the assistant to Madame, dazzles her with his good looks and she soon fancies herself in love with him.

But Velvet's past keeps on intruding on the present. There's Charlie who has always held her in high regard, also the mystery of her father just won't go away. I really felt for Velvet throughout. If she decides to turn her back on her new life she isn't just giving up a job but safety and security too. The Victorian age wasn't very forgiving for young, orphaned girls and starving was a real possibility for her. However, as the plot unfolds and Velvet makes more disturbing discoveries she's forced to make difficult decisions and is thrown into terrible danger. I highly recommend this book. It's full of historical oddities with a fast paced plot. I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read Fallen Grace yet but I'll be putting that right straight away.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Dead Sea Deception by Adam Blake

Hidden in the Dead Sea scrolls - the secret of how Christ really died.

As ex-mercenary Leo Tillman and ambitious cop Heather Kennedy investigate a series of baffling deaths, the trail leads them to the Dead Sea Scrolls - and the deadly gospel hidden within them. But soon Tillman and Kennedy are running for their lives from a band of sinister assassins who weep tears of blood and believe themselves descended from Judas. These 'fallen angels' will stop at nothing to expose the world-changing secret of the Scrolls . . . the secret of how Christ really died. Rocketing from a spectacular plane crash in the American desert to a brutal murder at a London university to a phantom city in Mexico, The Dead Sea Deception is the most gripping, revelatory thriller since The Da Vinci Code.

Although the conceit in The Dead Sea Deception is a clever one and hugely entertaining and it drives the story forward in a fun and audacious way, what lifts TDSD head and shoulders above its peers and leaves them far behind, is its ace characterisations.

In Tillman we have a damaged hero.  He's deeply flawed and rather than being a paladin of virtue who stands in the light, we realise he's muddy and shady and splattered.  His story is the story that drives TDSD so I won't explain to you about that, but I will say that Tillman's a deeply layered character, who knows full well that this quest of his to uncover the truth is setting the entire world against him.  He is so single-minded that it is frightening but, interestingly, he's not blinkered.  He knows exactly what he's doing, that he's burning his bridges, and yet he doesn't care, because he has this driving force to find the things that were taken from him all those years ago.

On the other hand we have Heather Kennedy.  Not quite the sweet-smelling cop we'd like, or so we initially think.  Kennedy is tough, independent, highly intelligent and she is very much the paladin.  White is white, black is black.  She sees her world this way - her world is strictly regimented in order for her to keep control.  She faces down her entire section and chief for her strong belief in doing the right thing and it ostracises her from her colleagues, yet she does not let up.  She holds her head high and she does what needs to be done.  It's not for some time that we find out why she is the way she is, what makes her tick, what makes her hold the moral high-ground, and once that's revealed, your opinion of her doesn't really shift.  You sit back in your chair and you think bloody hell, this girl is incredible.  And you love her to bits for it.

As Kennedy and Tillman meet and a reluctant partnership forms, their contrasting characters are highlighted by personality clashes but it is obvious that they compliment each other so well.  The one walks within the law and the other one skips on either side of it.  Both of them are stubborn, determined, and a bit pig-headed.

As they follow up a variety of murders that are initially thought to be standard deaths, a pattern emerges and at the heart of this pattern lies an ancient manuscript from the original horde discovered in 1947.  Initially it makes no sense.  The manuscript's been translated a hundred times, examined by experts, prodded, analysed and discarded as not all that important.  Yet there is something about this manuscript that is worth killing for.

As they start putting the puzzle together other things and clues start slotting together, revealing the bigger picture and as they realise what the impact of their discovery could mean, things fall apart completely.

I have to say, it is rare for me to be surprised when it comes to thrillers.  Or to really identify with the characters as much as this.  In the case of The Dead Sea Deception, each reveal left me grinning and nodding and going "yes, yes" as I could utterly believe the conceits I was being told and shown.

The depth of research is staggering.  You have the idea that the pseudonymous author Adam Blake spent a long time poring over very old manuscripts and doing a lot of research and talking to a variety of scholars and military experts.   But even so, because he has to show us a lot of things and explain to us a lot of things, it works within the context of the novel because neither of our main characters knows anything about this world they find themselves in, and we utterly have to rely on what they are being told.  We basically become Kennedy and Tillman - albeit a bit more passive and rubbish with weapons - as they are witness to a nightmare world unfolding around them.

I also liked that we are shown, quite adequately, this hidden society that is pulling the strings behind the scenes.  We don't know everything about them, but we learn a few things which help the story move forward, and naturally Tillman's discoveries of answers to some of his questions leave you gaping like a fish.  Adam Blake is an audacious writer. He pulls no punches and dumps us into a mad world of secrets, crazy action and devious assassins and expects us to keep up.  And if we do, the payback is a story very well told indeed.

I highly recommend The Dead Sea Deception.  It's been out for a while now from Sphere but it only recently came to my attention, hence my immediate purchase and subsequent devouring of it.  I've also pre-ordered the follow-up novel called The Demon Code out in August.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Advent by James Treadwell


For centuries it has been locked away Lost beneath the sea Warded from earth, air, water, fire, spirits, thought and sight. But now magic is rising to the world once more. And a boy called Gavin, who thinks only that he is a city kid with parents who hate him, and knows only that he sees things no one else will believe, is boarding a train, alone, to Cornwall. When he arrives, there is no one there to meet him.

I was drawn to this book in my local Waterstone's by its beautiful cover and the blurb which reminded me of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series. Gavin is an immensely likeable character although I doubt he'd see himself that way. He's so used to being alone and misunderstood that he turns to a trusted teacher to explain that he's seeing someone that no one else can. Miss Grey has been with him for as long as he can remember but as soon as he talks about it at school his life implodes. Once he gets too old for his, "imaginary friend," even his parents turn against him. So, while they go abroad on holiday, Gavin is on a train to Cornwall to be met by his aunt - although once he arrives she's nowhere to be seen.

I loved the beginning of Advent and the structure of the book. While Gavin's story is obviously in the here-and-now there's another story from the 1500's which starts at a point of crisis and works backwards so that we can see how that character came to be running through the night with a box under his arm. Gavin's journey from confused and isolated teen to a boy who gradually begins to realise that he may not be mad after all is wonderful reading. He meets a whole swathe of interesting characters who neither tell him to grown up or question his sanity. Instead he's accepted instantly as family without question. But there's still the problem of the missing aunt and I have to admit that there's a point, mid-book, that I suddenly got completely lost. I feel now, having finished, that I should have twigged what was going on but if you do read Advent don't lose heart! It does all come together around the time of the snow storm and makes perfect sense.

I think that the mid-book confusion is intentional. In a way the reader becomes Gavin and we get to feel an ounce of his bewilderment - both us and the character have a moment of discovery at the same time. At least, that's what I'm telling myself! From this point onwards the book flies and I was just happy to know what was going on and to watch Gavin grow in confidence and find his true self. This isn't to say that the climax of the book is in any way run of the mill. There are many supernatural side characters that play a great part through the book and I became as attached to Holly and Corbo as I did to Marina and Gavin.

Throughout the book I was touched by how caring Gavin was despite his isolating childhood. Once he gets to Cornwall his true self is unlocked and he's finally able to think and feel for himself. What makes him gain confidence is watching regular members of the public experience the same things that he does which makes him realise that everything his parents told him is wrong; that he needs to grow up, get real, get a life. I think this is one of the messages from the book that I cherished most. I'm looking forward to more from the Advent Trilogy.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Legend by Marie Lu

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths – until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

Full of nonstop action, suspense, and romance, this novel is sure to move readers as much as it thrills.

Legend has been on my radar since last year and it is one of the few books I pre-ordered, the other being Katana by Cole Gibsen.

I loved the idea of a retelling of the Robin Hood myth. I loved the elements of Romeo & Juliet too, and how both June and Day learn some vital truths about who they are and how they've been lied to by everyone.

But I get ahead of myself. Dystopia is riding a massive wave at the moment. I've read some and by no means am I an expert on it, but one thing I can tell you about Legend is that I found the world building believable. A lot of dystopias start out with a ceremony our main character has to attend or it takes place in a dome of some sort. In Legend, you have a sprawling metropolis that reminds me of Megacity One in Judge Dredd or the visuals of Bladerunner. The place where people like June live is tidy, clean, immaculate, patrolled by police and the army. The place where people like Day have the misfortune to live is not as pleasant. It is not a nice place, patrols check for various strains of plague and areas are put in quarantine. Citizens disappear and do not reappear.

Each year those of age take the Trial.  June is a prodigy and scored 1500 points.  The fact that she's from a well-thought of family is definitely in her favour.  She's elevated and schooled at the best school and yet it does not stop her from rebelling. She's stubborn, charismatic, intelligent, dedicated and shows a lot of promise and is being groomed to become part of the Republic's military elite.

Initially we know little about Day.  He's touted as a rebel, a bad guy, someone the Republic reviles and a lot of crimes are reported and attributed to him.  What comes as a surprise though is that Day is young.  They are both under 16 and to be honest, I had my doubts about both Day and June being this young, to start off with.  I thought they would be at least sixteen or seventeen or maybe older, and my doubts are that anyone this young (Day) can a) act in such an adult capacity that they become a nuisance to a well equipped and intelligent Republic and b) in the case of June, be elevated to active statues from school student to a military rank, in a military scenario and then allowed to act independently of the rest of the army...There are no checks and measures here, for neither Day or June, and the book felt unbalanced because of this.

Of course, I realise why all these things were put in place, and I genuinely did enjoy Legend and am a big fan, but I could not quite suspend my disbelief overall.  Let me explain why I think they start them this young: because the series will follow them for a few years and starting them out too old will push the books into adult territory.  But also, more than a marketing thing, I think that Legend's two characters are shown to be this young,  allowing us to see how ruthless the Republic can be with her citizens, how age does not matter, how they are prepared to use any tool in their arsenal to scratch the itch that annoys them.

Legend reads fast, the font is different for June and Day so that you know whose chapters you're reading, which again is a good thing as actually June and Day's voices aren't that different when you read it and I think yet again, this is a purposeful ploy by the author.  As we get to know the characters we start seeing more and more similarities between them and of course, there's a reason for this too.  Which I won't spoil for you.

I realise I'm making it sound that I didn't enjoy Legend.  This is wrong.  I genuinely enjoyed it and I will definitely read the other books and I am keen to see what the author comes up with in her other works.  She's started off in a confident way, with strong writing, a great landscape to play with and a rich world to explore.  It's a very cinematic, I'll give you that - and I know a movie-deal is underway.  It has some great core scenes that will translate well into a movie and even into the gaming world.  There are scenes too of utter brutality that genuinely discomforted me and shocked me - and I'd like to think I don't shock easily.  But if they take Legend and cut some of the scenes to fit a 12A audience, it will be a tragedy.  Because those scenes are so integral to the book, I'm already arguing for them to be left in, unchanged.

If I gave this stars out of ten, I'd say it's a six.  Some things didn't work for me, but then I explained above why they didn't work for me.  But please, give Legend a try.  It has a lot going for it and I think Ms. Lu is going to knock our socks off with the rest of the series.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde


In the good old days, magic was powerful, unregulated by government, and even the largest spell could be woven without filling in the magic release form B1-7g. But somewhere, somehow, the magic started draining away.

Jennifer Strange runs Kazam!, an employment agency for state-registered magicians, soothsayers and sorceresses. But work is drying up. Drain cleaner is cheaper and quicker than a spell. Why trust a cold and drafty magic carpet when jetliners offer a comfy seat and an in-flight movie? And now potions are eligible for VAT...

But then the visions start. The Last Dragon is going to be killed by a Dragonslayer at 12.00 on Sunday. The death will unleash untold devastation on the UnUnited Kingdom, setting principality against dukedom and property developer against homesteader. And all the signs are pointing to Jennifer Strange, and saying"Big Magic is coming!"

The Last Dragonslayer is fizzing with all the creativity and genius Jasper Fforde's fans delight in, and will appeal as much to the young at heart as to the younger readers for whom it is written.

I've been a big fan of Jasper Fforde since my dad introduced me to The Big Over Easy a while back. I then got into the Thursday Next books which, if you've never tried then I urge you to give them a go. What I love about Jasper Fforde is that his books are clever, innovative and funny but he never lets this get in the way of a good story or a tight plot. I don't know why I haven't got around to reading and reviewing his first children's book. Just to get the negatives out of the way first I just want to talk about the cover. The hardback had the most gorgeous cover (which I've used for this review) but the paperback cover is a bit blingy and yuck. Okay, that small point over with let's get to the story.

Jennifer Strange is an orphan and has two years left to run of her servitude for Kazam which is an employment agency for magicians who all live in-house. She's joined by a new foundling to train - a boy of twelve called Tiger Prawns. Just as she's trying to show him the ropes and explain the Transient Moose which haunts the building , Jennifer finds herself involved in a state event of much importance - the fate of the last dragon in the land. Jennifer's under a massive amount of pressure as the fate of the magicians of Kazam is down to her, as is Tiger's future and now she's involved with the last dragon.

Like all of Fforde's books The Last Dragonslayer is brilliantly funny; from the marzipan addicts, the child catcher or the fact that the Isle of Wight is now a floating isle powered by engines. I defy anyone to read this book and not want their own Quarkbeast (who only says, "quark," but is immensely clever and can eat metal). There's a lot going on in this book but Jennifer's story still manages to shine through. The world-building is interesting too - Troll Wars have left hundreds of orphans which is why Jennifer and Tiger are in servitude until they're eighteen. Troll War widows are everywhere and there's little support for people on the edge of society. When Jennifer suddenly becomes more important she doesn't forget her background or her passions and it's this aspect of the story that I found very touching.

I'll definitely be reading the next in the series - The Song of the Quarkbeast. If you've loved Fforde's adult books then definitely give this one a try as it has all the little touches that make his work special with the added attraction of a whole new world to discover.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Notes of a Russian Sniper by Vassili Zaitsev

When Vassili Zaitsev arrived in Stalingrad in October 1942 the average life expectancy of a Red Army soldier was only 24 hours. This figure improved gradually during the battle, partly due to the success of a determined group of snipers, the greatest of whom was Zaitsev. He was also one of the lucky ones : he fought at Stalingrad and lived to tell his tale.
I’ve always been mildly obsessed World War II. I was glued to the TV every Sunday as a kid to watch the World at War series; even now the first strains of the title music send a shiver of anticipation down my spine. I grew up reading about it in all forms and watching classic war movies, and if we’d had the History channel or youtube when I was a kid I probably would never have left the house.
The myth of the sniper is something that’s fascinated me for as long as I can remember (possibly because I’m a lousy shot with a rifle) and Zaitsev is right up there amidst sniper royalty, and for good reason. His exploits and writings are studied to this day and still shape the training and mindset of modern operators. I glimpsed the cover during a mid-winter visit to my local Daunt and knew I had to have it because this is Zaitsev’s own account of the battle that made him a legend, rather than some dry study. Told with an engaging honesty and in a way that makes it sound like he’s discussing it over a few friendly drinks, testament to a very good translation. It’s not a story that needs any embellishments- the reality of what they went through, and what they needed to do to survive is awe inspiring as it is horrific. Vibrant and gripping, I found it impossible to put down and finished it in a single session.
The opening chapter is Vassili's recollection of his childhood and is remarkable for how much he downplays the events larger than life characters that shaped him into the man he would become and set the stage for his exploits later in life.
It’s a sure-fire way of ridding yourself of Hollywood’s version of events, and a must read for anyone interested in the War (or even for writers researching urban combat). More than that though, it’s a window into a period that’s rapidly vanishing from living memory and a moving reminder of the price paid for the freedoms we enjoy today.

Vassili Zaitsev talks about one of the clashes he took part in here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Guest blog: Mistry Monday by Sarwat Chadda

As a friend of MFB and one of those cool guys who you can talk to about anything and everything, we were really pleased to agree to a have Sarwat chat to us about what went into making his new novel Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress.

A bit about the novel:

Varanasi: holy city of the Ganges.

In this land of ancient temples, incense and snake charmers…

Where the monsters and heroes of the past come to life…

One slightly geeky boy from our time…


Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage's masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…

Research and the truth about your writing

I love researching for a new story. I love reading history books and visiting places and talking with people as I’m growing an idea for a new book. In fact, the actual book is almost just an excuse to do the above.

A friend of mine will spend months and months absorbing the minutiae of a medieval farmer’s existence before writing a single word. But by the time he starts he came describe what the man had for breakfast and the date of a dozen saints’ days and how to build a reed boat. That works for him and the books are totally immersive.

As long as I’ve got the dates roughly right and the right people in the right place, that’s me good to go.

It takes about six months to get all the bits falling into place. With Ash Mistry it took a lot longer because I went way too far. Research is not story and you don’t win prizes for showing off how much you know. You win them for a great story and that, my friends, takes a huge chunk of making things up. Fiction, in other words.

I knew the story, a British-born Asian boy goes on holiday to India and fights a whole bunch of demons. The research was broken down into the following rough chunks:


Setting. Okay, we’ve got India, but where? It’s a big place. Fortunately I was able to rely on the ‘write what you know’ and I knew Varanasi, India’s holiest city. It was exotic, ancient. The old city was a labyrinth of narrow alleys and hidden temples. The river was lined by the burning ghats and, most importantly, there was this amazing maharajah’s palace down river. But setting is more than just geography and a few buildings. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the feel of the place. You want the reader to breathe the spices and dust and feel the heat and crowds. That meant a visit out there (no real hardship) and getting down feet first on the streets I wanted to write about. I found out who gets cremated and who doesn’t. I found out what crocodiles inhabit the reeds on the river bank. I re-visited the old, dilapidated maharajah’s palace with a writer’s eye, looking at where events in the book might happen and how far the river was from the battlements and what other buildings lay nearby. How far was it from the city? I was there a week, just walking and chatting and making notes. I took the train and watched the porters sleeping under their thin shawls on the platforms and the vendors delivering curry as the train rolled in at 4am. Not all of it went in (some I’m saving for book 2). Maybe 30%? But it gave me the confidence to write what I wanted to write and, if there were gaps (and there always is) how best to cover them with something that felt right.

History. I love history and I’ve accumulated a lot of odd bits of data over the years. I have a crap memory of faces and names but a good one for battles and generals. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is steeped in ancient history and it all needed to tie up. No shortcuts here because it’s easy to check. The book’s premise concerns the ancient civilization of Harappa, and I went out to the four-five thousand year old city to look for myself. It’s not a huge part of the book, but it’s in the foundations. You may not see it but the tale won’t stand without it. There was stuff about the East India Company and the Raj and the old dynasties of the subcontinent. It supports the setting but in a different way. You can go too far and forget when to stop and that was my problem. I wanted to add it all. Then, like an over-spiced curry, it became unpalatable. Maybe the paragraphs in Hindi were a tad too much.

The goddess Kali
Mythology. The big one. The book is set in India, so the usual vampires and werewolves and ghost just wouldn’t hack it. The myths, the magic, the bad guys had to have that Indian angle too otherwise I might as well not have bothered. The most popular legend in India is the Ramayana, the tale of Prince Rama and his battle against Ravana, the demon king. I read loads of versions of the tale, looking for themes and the bits that appealed most. It has everything. Quests, epic wars, armies of monkeys! Again, moderation is the key. Not all of it at once (the monkeys will be in book 2). The central philosophy of the country includes the concept of reincarnation and that struck deep and hard. What if Ash was Rama, reincarnated? Suddenly the book had so much more depth and connection. Ravana, the greatest evil the world had ever known was about to be freed from his thousands’ of years of imprisonment and fate had decreed his nemesis, Rama, was needed. But instead of a noble prince he’s a plump, cowardly 13 yo boy, Ash Mistry. Sorted.

Ash Mistry
The personal. No matter how much of the above, if the reader doesn’t connect with the protagonist then they’ll not read it. All research must be balanced by what you feel about it. What emotions and thoughts does it generate. A holiday brochure can show you more about a country, and quicker, that four hundred pages of text. This is about a boy, discovering he’s a hero. Finding his place in the world. Realising that what he does has, and will, echo through history. He’s been here before and he will be back. How would he react? How would you react? That’s what I mean about personal. We’re in on Ash’s adventure and for all the scenery and history its about how he gets your heart pumping and the sweat rising as he faces demons and horror and fear under the most intense pressure imaginable. What would you be willing to do for the ones you love? That’s research within yourself and the truer you are, the better. But it’s hard. But that’s because it matters most.


Gaah! Now I'm watching over my shoulder for Ravana and Kali - thanks, Sarwat.  Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is out now from all good bookshops and online.  But also, Sarwat has worked hard with his publisher and they've put together such a fab new website for Ash.  Do check it out - the artwork I have linked in the blog is from there.  The photos for Varnassi and Harappa I've sourced from tourist sites online.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Summer of Living Dangerously by Julie Cohen

Alice Woodstock has her life under control. She's successful and she's happy - as long as she continues to ignore the hurt from her past. But when said past walks back into her life in the shape of Leo - the man she married too young, ran away to Paris with and who ultimately broke her heart - Alice is desperate for an escape route. She finds the perfect thing - a new job as a tour guide in a Regency stately home. But as she immerses herself in acting out the stories of the house, Alice begins to see parallels with her own life, forcing her to confront her feelings about what she wants and, finally, live in the real world.

As readers of MFB should know by now, I'm not good with reading contemporary female fiction, but I am a huge fan of Julie Cohen's because her stories manages to not alienate me. Within a few pages, I'm utterly immersed in her main character's life and you use every inch of your being to will her to come out on the other side, with a smile and a gorgeous man on her arm.

It's no different in TSOLD. Alice is a bit of a recluse, working on her articles for technical magazines at all hours of the day. She's not good with people, and a good night for her is crawling onto the couch with a good book. Her mum is lovely, but talks and talks and talks, literally non-stop. Her dad is quiet, builds his puzzles and susses the world out from behind quiet eyes. Her sister, Pippi is constantly in a strop and full of raging teenage hormones and is as foreign to Alice as dressing up and going out. Her best friend Liv is getting married and moving away to New Zealand start a new life with her husband and Alice is feeling dejected and miserable, more so than usual.

But it is when a leaflet is delivered promoting the opening of the local stately home to the public that things go both right and awry in Alice's life. She comes up with a mad idea to write an article for a London glossy mag about Eversley Hall, the stately home and much to her surprise, the glossy magazine's editor loves the idea.

Alice heads off to meet the owner of the stately home and within a short space of time, she's offered a role at the house. The home has been restored to its glory from 1814 and the owner, James, had hired skilled actors to work at the house, taking roles as his ancestors but also as the servants who had lived there at that time. Alice jumps at the mad chance to work there, envisioning herself as a grand lady, swanning about in beautiful clothes. However, the role she is offered is that of a lowly kitchen maid but she's so intrigued by it all, she decides to take on the role as research for her article.

Things evolve from there, with her role changing at the stately home from maid to long-lost cousin when James realises Alice is an intriguing and fun person to have around. She follows the script he's set out for everyone but she's quite good at thinking on her feet. Tied in with her new role at the house, she has to cope with her ex-husband, Leo, turning up for Liv's wedding. Alice was sort-of prepared for this eventuality; Liv and Leo are brother and sister after-all but what she's not prepared for is Leo moving into the house she used to share with Liv. And he shows no inclination of moving out either.

Things are complicated by the fact that Alice would far rather live in 1814 as it is far easier to deal with the realities of back then, rather than face her own life. The one good thing that comes from working at the stately home is that she makes friends with the local actors who are working at the house too. She realises just exactly how isolated her life had become, living and writing in the attic till all hours of the night and day. She finds that she enjoys being out with these people, that she is good at talking and laughing. I think that the author shows us through Alice how easy it is to shut out the real world, how easy it is to revel in being solitary and miserable. As Alice finds her feet again, she starts growing more confident and her writing on the magazine's blog shows this. She's deeply funny and soon droves of young women decide to visit Eversley Hall to see who all the characters are that she's writing about, but also about the mysterious owner, James Fitzwilliam whom Alice is slightly in love with.

I have to say, no one writes relationships the way Julie Cohen does. She's not heavy-handed and obvious when she introduces characters. With a few deft turns of phrase she brings secondary characters to life and they stay that way, you know they have lives off the page and aren't there to make the main character look good. And Alice is complex and flawed and charming and funny and one of my favourite characters I've read this year, I'll freely admit. With Leo we have a great flawed hero, full of hang-ups and moods and yet you feel it in your bones that Alice and Leo are meant to be together. Even if Alice refuses to give him the time of day. Their relationship is a difficult one, full of layers that encompass a world of hurt and love. I loved finding out how their story fit together and I tell you, I was reading this when I wasn't feeling remotely well, so I blame my consumption of three pots of tea and working my way through a box of tissues on my illness, rather than sobbing into the pages of my now rather tatty book.

It is a big book, chunky in size, but it didn't feel like it because the writing really does just lift you and carry you off. Take it from someone who spent the entire day on the bed / couch whilst sick with a truly horrific cold: if I can forget about my exploding face and be immersed in Alice's world and fall in love with both James and Leo, the chances are you will easily fall for the whole package too.

Do check out Julie's website and her blog - especially if you are an aspiring writer. Her blogposts are very interesting and full of great advice on plotting, planning, revising, character creation etc. And here is a taster fromThe Summer of Living Dangerously.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovric


Magic is attracted to Talina, and Talina is attracted to magic, with startling results ...
Talina in the Tower is the tale of a girl who is more passionate than she is careful. Talina Molin, the daughter of an archivist, has earned herself the reputation of being the most impudent girl in Venice. When she's not campaigning for egrets' rights, or terrorizing the school librarian, Talina adores reading, cooking and magic. When she mixes all three together, she cooks up more than she had bargained for.

The story takes place in a sinister late nineteenth-century Venice, one inhabited not just by frightened people but also by ferocious foul-mouthed tomcats, argumentative rats and evil vultures.

I'm a bit embarrassed that this is my first Michelle Lovric book despite the fact that I have loved the look of them and thought that each one sounds fascinating. I've finally put this right and have to say that I had an idea in my head of how Talina would read and I was both right - and wrong. I mean, I expected it to be a Venetian fairy story full of magic, and it is but there's a lot more to Talina than this. I wasn't expecting the book to be so funny, so full of horror and to be so innovative. The heroine was a surprise to me too. I thought she'd be resourceful and fearless and she was but she was also foolish and at times infuriating. But she also has a huge heart and is charming, a true flawed heroine.

Talina's parents are kidnapped by unknown creatures which are haunting the streets of Venice. As a result Talina has to stay with her benefactor (a writer of books which are full of children who meet unfortunate ends) in a tower with vicious dogs. However, Talina's life takes a very unexpected turn and she finds herself transformed into a cat. Fortunately, help is at hand and there's a whole host of wonderful secondary characters to help her. I loved the eccentric Professor who comes to her rescue and Talina's friend and admirer, Ambrogio. Talina and her friends are very resourceful which is just as well as the antagonists in the book are totally blood thirsty and disgusting. There were some passages that really made me cringe. I felt as worried for the people of Venice as I did for Talina and I was willing her to find a way to succeed.

There's brilliant magic throughout this book that made me constantly wonder what was going to happen next. I was very fond of the idea of Thaumaturgic Tea Towels that can be ridden like magic carpets but if damaged can be torn into four and reform themselves and can also be a great handkerchief if needed. I also loved the island of grandmothers and their cats who all adore Talina and watch out for her when they can. Magic is interwoven through the pages in such a way that it's entirely natural but also wonderfully surprising too. Later in the book there's a court case and everything about it made me smile. The jury and onlookers are all manner of people, creatures and the paranormal. You really couldn't ask for more from a book.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I think it would appeal as much to boys as well as girls as it has plenty of gore alongside the magical to keep everyone happy. I'm definitely going to read Michelle's other books based in Venice too.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Exclusive Cover Reveal - Geekhood: Close Encounters of the Girl Kind, by Andy Robb

We are so proud, as ladygeeks and boygeek deluxe, to bring you Andy Robb's cover for his novel: Geekhood, published by Stripes Publishing later this year.

About Geekhood:

If you haven't worked it out yet, girls don't do this. They don't come to the Hovel. They don't like goblins and dragons. They don't paint miniatures. They don't play role playing games or re-enact fictional battles. And they don't talk to Geeks like me especially if they're pretty. And this girl is pretty. What do you do if you're a fourteen-year-old Geek, and a Beautiful Girl has appeared in the midst of your geeky world? And she seems to like you... For Archie, the natural reaction would be to duck and cover ... run for the hills ... buy a new model elf... Anything but risk stepping into the Real World. But even Geeks have to put their heads above the parapet at some point. With his mum barely able to contain her excitement that her son is about to join the human race, and his step-father, Tony the Tosser, offering crass advice, it's time for Archie to embark on a daring Quest to win the Beautiful Girl's heart and shake off his Geekhood for good...

We will also nearer the release date be talking to Andy about how his real life geek experiences influenced his writing of Geekhood and other stories he'll no doubt deny in public to people he work with.

And to prove how much love there is for Geekhood, I managed to get a quote from MFB pall, Sarwat Chadda about Geekhood: "If you have ever rolled a d20 or tried to use the Force then this book's for you."

Find out more about Geekhood over at Stripes and Andy's website.

And because I love this cover so much, here are two more pack-shots of it.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Black Library Live 2012

This Saturday past saw Liz and I hurtling northwards to Nottingham, a journey where the greatest danger came not from bandits in trees but mile after mile of traffic cones on the M1 (apparently putting cones on the hard-shoulder constitutes roadworks these days, and is considered traumatic enough to warrant a 50 mph speed limit). Despite the best attempts of the Highways Agency, we arrived at Warhammer World with about 15 minutes to spare before the doors opened.
We met up with fellow BL fan Amanda Rutter and joined the queue of chilly but enthusiastic attendees and were soon shuffling through the doors under the baleful gaze of Lurtz. We collected our programmes and Chapbooks from Andy Smillie, who was on door duty (what the hell do they feed them up there?) and headed upstairs to the castle themed main hall, which had been split into the usual gaming hall and a space for the heavily laden tables of Black Library goodies on sale and the signing tables. I left Liz to collect (free) tickets for the panels we wanted to attend while I ducked into the sale area to rifle through the stacks of cool stuff that were on sale. Limited edition art prints vied for space with pre-release titles, limited edition novellas and several titles that were normally restricted to the Print-on-Demand section of the BL website. I picked up a very modest three items, but I was certainly the exception to the rule- most of the people around me were walking around with armfuls of stuff, their eyes glazed in satisfaction.
I quickly stashed the books in the boot of the car and topped up my caffeine levels with a surprisingly good coffee in Bugman’s before we headed to the first panel. Liz and Amanda headed off to the “Writing for Black Library” while I took a seat for “Space Marines”, which was headed by Gav Thorpe (who had quite a full day: he was everywhere) It was a bit of a broad description but, as it turned out, it was a discussion about understanding what made Space Marines tick, and the issues of who, and what, they were, elements which are key in writing them well and ensuring readers could connect with them without diluting the same.
We all met up for the next panel, this one on the Warhammer fantasy setting, this one again helmed by Gav Thorpe, the focus turning to what sets it apart as a fantasy world and why those traits work so well. The discussion ranged from the decline of the Dwarven empire, the classical origins of the elves and the level of despair felt by your average Imperial commoner. It was a good one, and left me wanting to do do nothing more than go grab a pint and settle down with the newly released Gotrek and Felix anthology.
We decided it was a good time for lunch, and after some crafty hovering-with-intent, we managed to snag a table in Bugman’s, which was proving as popular as ever thanks to the reasonably priced plate bending portion sizes and the sheer geektastic pleasure of sitting and having a drink in a place with a dwarven anvil over the fireplace and a mounted Ork’s head sharing the wall-space with enormous canvas maps and banners. Then it was off to a talk about Xenos in 40K, covering such things as the difficulties in writing from an alien’s perspective (and how to get around it), whether Tau were naive or manipulative gits with a darker agenda and pointers about their upcoming submissions window.
A quick break followed before we filed into the very popular panel about the Horus Heresy series, helmed by Christian Dunn and populated by HH stalwart Graham McNeill, Nick Kyme, Rob Sanders and Gav Thorpe. This was largely a Q&A session, and for me the most thrilling moment was Dunn’s reply to the question of whether there were plans afoot to expand the HH into media beyond books and audio dramas – there will be an announcement on this at the Black Library Weekender. For the rest, I was pleased to hear that there were loads of new projects in the offing, including books for the White Scars and the Salamanders. It was interesting to hear how carefully the series is being orchestrated behind the scenes and while it’s frustrating knowing that the final confrontation is years away, it’s simultaneously comforting to know that there are dozens more of these cracking novels ahead.
I left the others in Bugman’s afterwards to spend more time poring over the goodies for sale and admiring the display cases of armies and mock-up models. I also bought some tickets for the raffle to win some of their amazing posters but sadly my luck wasn’t in. Mind you, I’m not really sure what I would have done with a 12 x 6 foot poster at home, but hey, it would’ve been a nice problem to have though!
We said our farewells soon after and began the long drive home, with most of the time spent in rambling conversations about Space Marine psychology and the perils of Warp travel, an awesome side effect of being immersed in such a vibrant, friendly and shamelessly enthusiastic atmosphere. Top marks to the Black Library & Warhammer World crews!
And yes, I’ve already bought tickets for next year.

You can find out more about the Black Library and the Weekender here.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

World Book Day - 1st March 2012

Reading is important and fun.  It's why I established MFB and why I've dragged poor Mark and Sarah along in doing reviews.  We have to tell the world about the adventures we find between pages.

As such, we are very proud to help "promote" World Book Day.  Last year I attended a local school and spoke the whole day to bunches of kids about reading and writing and creating characters.  I was told by several of them in person, and afterwards by teachers, that they all enjoyed my mad antics.  I gave away notebooks and books as prizes to encourage them to both read and write.

Today, Sarah and I are doing a pilgrimage to visit bookshops in London - to support them and buy books and crucially, To Touch All The Books we can't buy.  Because it's important to tell those books that we love them too.

If you pop over here - - it will tell you how to download the app that is packed full of fabulous stories created especially for today by authors like Malorie Blackman, Neil Gaiman, Charlie Higson, Anthony Horowitz, Sophie McKenzie and Rachel Vincent, Julie Cross, Lauren Laverne and others. There literally seems to be something for everyone.

And Waterstones lists the £1 titles they are promoting, along with the QuickReads titles.  It's basically the perfect opportunity to dip your nose into a book by an author whom you may not usually read!

And here's a link to events taking place all over the UK to celebrate WBD.  Mark and I will be at Dulwich Books tonight, listening to Sarwat Chadda and Steve Feasey chat about writing. I hope to report back what was said!