Book Review: Skulduggery Pleasant - Resurrection by Derek Landy

Thanks to the Reading Zone and HarperCollins for the review copy.

A secret order of dissident sorcerers is attempting to resurrect an ancient being to launch a war against the mortals. Skulduggery Pleasant, skeleton detective and sorcerer, is going to need all the help he can get to stop them. Luckily for him, his protégé Valkyrie Cain is back in Ireland. He just needs to convince her to join the fight once more, but Valkyrie has her own demons to battle. Three years after the we thought we’d seen that last of them, Skulduggery Pleasant and Valkyrie Cain have returned for a new series of adventures!

I am relatively new to the world of Skulduggery Pleasant - I was actually reading the first book of the series when I was offered the new one to review. It was really interesting to see the differences and similarities in the tones of the books going straight from the first to the tenth. Skulduggery is immediately recognisable - a centuries-old, powerful and intelligent detective-sorcerer-skeleton with a penchant for puns and a big (not-literal) heart. The most obvious difference is Valkyrie Cain. She’d started the series as an excited 12 year old girl, discovering a world full of magic and adventure. In Resurrection, she is almost unrecognisable - a 24 year old woman who has seen (and caused) too much pain and destruction. She is struggling to cope, and suffers from PTSD and depression.

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Valkyrie Cain - Aged 12
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Valkyrie Cain - aged 24

These differences in character and tone don’t come across as odd or out of place. Rather, they help make the world of Skulduggery Pleasant feel more real (despite the magic and walking talking skeleton!). Consequences of decisions and actions that are all too often ignored in many popular books and films of this kind, instead help to shape the world of these books. You’d also expect a book about a 12 year old to feel different to one about a 24 year old.1

Resurrection is also populated by a diverse and varied cast of characters - there are people from many ethnic and national backgrounds, displaying a range of sexualities and gender identities (one of my favourites is a teenage gender fluid teleporter called Never). It feels inclusive without succumbing to tokenism. There are a number of new characters to the series introduced in Resurrection, most notably schoolboy Omen Darkly - twin brother to the Chosen One - who is employed by Skulduggery and Valkyrie to spy on his teachers and fellow students. What could possibly go wrong? I guess you’d have to read the book to find out (spoiler: a lot could possibly go wrong).

I did really enjoy this book, but would probably have got a lot more out of it if I’d read all the intervening stories (which I definitely plan on doing, by the way). The Skulduggery Pleasant titles are among the most broadly popular in my library. I can’t think of many other books that are regularly devoured by both Year 7 boys and Year 10 girls. I don't see that changing as this books launches the new series of adventures of Skulduggery, Valkyrie and Omen.

A shorter version of this review originally appeared on the Reading Zone website.

Book Review: The Small Change Trilogy - Jo Walton

There has been a resurgence of interest in alternative history fiction recently - particularly of "the Nazi's won the war" variety (for example, YA books The Big Lie and Wolf by Wolf, and the recent TV versions of the books The Man In The High Castle and SS-GB). Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy - made up of Farthing (2006), Ha’Penny (2007) and Half a Crown (2008) - fits into this sub-genre, although with a subtle but powerful - and arguably scarier - difference. In Walton's universe, Britain did not lose the war - it made peace with Hitler.

So how best to describe the Small Change books? Maybe as an alt.history cosy-whodunnit political thriller? All three books in the series share the same format - chapters alternating between a first-person female narrator (a different young woman in each book, but always an upper class outsider) and a third-person narrator following the series’ detective: Inspector Carmichael.

The first two books are set in Britain in 1949, with Half A Crown taking place about ten years later. In the Small Change universe, a small group of right-wing Tories known as The Farthing Set staged a coup against Churchill and signed a peace treaty with Hitler in 1941, ending WW2 and leaving the Nazis in control of mainland Europe. Britain remains independent but on good terms with Hitler, and is slowly descending into fascism.

I really enjoyed these books - but the first two especially. I found them more interesting, subtle, unnerving and compelling than the third. They were much more real and believable, and all the more affecting for it. Half A Crown, having had a decade for its timeline to drift away from ours, felt much more like an Orwellian dystopian novel than the others. It felt less immediate and realistic, and therefore less directly threatening. Having said that, it is still an excellent dystopian novel. With the recent rise in popularity for far right politics (UKIP, Trump, Le Pen, etc) these books are more worryingly relevant now than when they were published (2006-2008).

I’ve given a brief overview of the three books below. Be warned, it is hard to talk about the sequels without giving spoilers to the earlier plots. I think I've avoided any major ones, but you have been warned.


FARTHING

Farthing cover
Farthing cover

The first person narrator of Book 1 is Lucy Kahn, daughter of one of the Farthing Set, but something of a pariah in her family’s circles due to her marriage to a Jewish man. A murder is committed at a family gathering and it looks as though her husband will be blamed. In steps Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard to attempt to uncover the truth. But how far will the truth go to remain covered, and will Carmichael be able to maintain his integrity - and protect his own secrets - in the face of it all?

Farthing was originally written as a stand-alone novel and is the most Christie-esque cosy whodunnit of the series. Walton has said of Carmichael that "all Carmichael wants is to be a series detective in a normal detective series. It’s his tragedy that he wound up in mine instead."

Farthing is also quite a queer book. In addition to Carmichael (and 'his man' Jack) , a number of other characters are expressly either gay or bisexual. Lucy Kahn and her friend have a special code for talking about people’s sexuality: Greek means gay, Macedonian is bi, Roman is straight (Lucy tells her husband that she had always known that he was Macedonian).

 


HA’PENNY

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Ha’Penny Cover

Ha’Penny takes place about two weeks after the events described in Farthing. In it, we see the world through the eyes of Viola Lark, an apolitical actress from a privileged background, but who has tried to distance herself from her upper class family - a thinly disguised version of the Mitfords (one sister is married to Himmler, one is a communist...etc). It is more of a political thriller than a whodunnit - more le Carre than Christie - and sees Carmichael investigating an explosion and uncovering a plot centring around a radical new production of Hamlet, starring Viola Lark in the title role. It is a totally different case to the Farthing murder, but there are recurring characters and situations, so it doesn’t quite stand alone. I read this immediately after finishing Farthing and was delighted to be able to plunge straight back into Walton's world.

 

 

 


HALF A CROWN

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Half A Crown cover

The final book in the sequence has a slightly different feel to it. Set in 1960, fascism is well and truly entrenched in Britain. Our narrator here is Elvira Royston, whose father was Carmichael’s sergeant in the first two books. Carmichael adopts Elvira as his ward after her father’s death, and sends her off to a Swiss finishing school. At the time of the story, she is about to make her society debut and is preparing to to go to Oxford University. She has grown up with fascism and thinks it rather fun. She attends a fascist rally - featuring a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it John Lennon cameo1 - and when the rally turns nasty, all her plans and hopes crumble away.

Carmichael’s role in this book is different, too - he has been promoted/blackmailed into heading The Watch - a British version of the Gestapo. As Watch Commander, Carmichael does his best to assuage his guilty conscience by setting up a secret counter group - The Inner Watch - with a few of his most trusted colleagues, to smuggle the state’s victims (Jews, foreigners, queer people, people in the wrong place at the wrong time) to Ireland (who are willing to take them primarily to annoy the British).

The series ends full of both hope and despair, with a denouement that reminded me a little of The BFG, of all things.


 

Here’s a bonus Small Change short story set in the US at the same time as Half A Crown.

 

Post-Post-Truth?

Do we live in a "post-truth" society? One where facts and knowledge aren't valued, where "experts" are dismissed for being killjoys? I hope not, but there has been a marked increase in this anti-intellectual, anti-fact rhetoric from certain (highly successful) political circles recently. Alongside this post-truth menace come deceit and lies, which have recently been rebranded as "fake news". Fibbing is certainly not a new phenomenon in politics (anyone remember being economical with the truth?) but, fortunately for us, it is not too difficult for us to defend ourselves against these bringers of falsehoods.

We are completely surrounded by a seemingly infinite influx of information. TV, newspapers and, of course, the internet. The tidbits we get from this deluge of data can be confusing, misleading, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. So how can we know what to believe, who to trust? The truth(!) is that you can never be 100% sure, but a little critical thinking can help you decide how probable a story is. The infographic below has been put together by the International Federation of Library Associations and institutions (IFLA) and features 8 ways to check the reliability of what you are reading.

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In the run up to this week's general election, CILIP have been running a Facts Matter campaign, and have put together there own infographic on how to find the needles of truth in the haystack of misinformation

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Check Your Facts

A number of organisations, media outlets and charities have responded to this proliferation of fake news by setting up independent, researched and referenced fact checking websites. I've listed a few below. I hope you find them useful, or at least interesting. Comment below if you know of any other good fact checking sources I've missed.

Some useful fact-checking websites:

  • InFact from The Independent newspaper
  • Snopes - an American-based fact checking service that has been around since 1994
  • Full Fact - An independent UK charity dedicated to checking facts
  • Channel 4's FactCheck page.
  • Peer-reviewed fact-checking articles from The Conversation.

And finally...

Did Stewart Lee's cab driver inspire post-truth Britain?

World Book Day 2017

A few days late, but Happy World Book Day! I hope you had fun! This year's events at school were similar to last year's: student picnic and staff readings in the library (Wodehouse, Dahl, Walliams and me); prizes (Bookbuzz design-a-cover competition); and what is fast becoming the highlight of our celebrations, the Book Jacket Potato competition!

Potato - portrait
Potato Poster, created with Canva

Here are this year's spuds:

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What's taters, precious?

Happy reading!

Book Review: Faith Vol 1 - Hollywood and Vine

Faith Herbert, also known as Zephyr (sometimes also known as Summer Smith) is a superhero in the Valiant universe. She's not a new character - she's been around since the early 1990s - but has just (well, about a year ago) gone solo in her own series, written by Jody Hauser and drawn by Francis Portela. Here's the blurb from the first issue of Faith:

When a car accident left her orphaned, Faith Herbert was raised by her loving grandmother and found comfort in comic books, science fiction movies, and other fantastic tales of superheroes. In her teens she would discover her fantasies were reality when it was revealed she was a psiot – a human being born with incredible abilities. Imbued with a telekinetic ability to fly and a companion field that allows her to physically move objects, Faith joined a group of fellow psiots called the Renegades to stand against the forces of evil. She’s since left her Renegade family behind to take on the world’s challenges on her own. She may have a lot to learn about the superhero game, but if there’s one thing she’s always had, it’s... Faith.

So Faith has moved to Los Angeles to start anew. She creates an alter-ego for herself (Summer Smith) and gets a job creating listicles and quizzes for Zipline (the Valiant Universe's version of Buzzfeed). Some evil force is kidnapping potential psiots, and it's up to Faith and her sidekicks (Archer - an archer, and @x - a hacker) to find out who and stop them. That's pretty much it, as far as the plot goes - enjoyable enough, but nothing to stretch the imagination too much.

However, where this title really shines is with Faith herself. She is a great character - a likeable, engaging, capable, optimistic, nerdy badass fangirl (her Summer Smith pseudonym comes from her love for Buffy and Dr Who). And did I mention that Faith is a fat person? Neither does the book. It is really refreshing to see a fat female superhero not apologising or worrying over her weight. There are no rude jokes, no teasing. Faith is fat, but is not defined by this.

Weight and body type are not Faith’s story.

  • Being young and dealing with the unexpected
  • Dealing with loss
  • Finding a guy who seems like the perfect dream, but then isn’t willing to compromise for fame
  • Loving comics and science fiction
  • Wanting to help others and save the people who can be saved, as the hero Zephyr

These are the elements that make-up Faith’s story.

From "Comic Love: Having FAITH" by Jessica Boyd, Feb 2016. comicosity.com

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There have been several interesting articles in the mainstream media about Faith's fatness, including at  NPRThe Guardian, and The Atlantic. And while I'm dishing out links, here's an interview with Faith author Jody Houser.

I really like Faith, and I look forward to reading more of her adventures - a new series of Faith comics is currently underway (issue 9 will be coming in March).

I got a copy of Faith as an ARC (advanced reader copy). I mentioned ARCs last week too, so I thought it might be useful to talk about what they are and how you can get your hands on some of these pre-published pearls yourself.

ARCs

Publishers send ARCs to reviewers and librarians before a book is released to help publicise them. In times gone by these would be physical books, usually with a not-finalised cover design and bigger spaces between lines of text (for reviewers to write notes). While you can still get hold of physical ARCs (see below), digital is much more prevalent these days. Here are a few places you can go to apply for some eARCs:

  • NetGalley - offers ARCs in exchange for reviews. They have loads of publishers signed up with them. You can browse by category, publisher or recently added, or you can search for specific titles or authors. Not all books are available in all regions (publishers might restrict access to the USA, for example), and you are not guaranteed to get every title to request. But this is usually my first port of call when I'm looking for a book. This is where I got my review copy of Faith.
  • Edelweiss+ - offers ARCs in exchange for reviews. I've only recently come across this website. It seems to be much more than just a place to get ARCs, but I haven't used it for anything else yet so I can't really elaborate on what else does. I recommend signing up and taking the tour to get an idea of what's on offer, but if you're only in it for the ARCs, it's easy enough to dive in.
  • LibraryThing - primarily a site for cataloguing your books, they also offer review copies of books. A lot of the titles on offer appear to be self-published, but it could be worth having a look through to find the diamonds in the rough. They also sometimes offer physical books and audiobooks.

A couple of things to note about eARCs:

  • they are often time sensitive - like library ebooks, they can expire after a specified time.
  • occasionally, the eARCs you get are not complete. For example, the copy of Faith I got from NetGalley only had the first two parts of a four part story. Luckily for me, I was able to find the rest of the book at Comicsplus Library Edition. If your public library subscribes to Comicplus, you too have free access to a whole world of digital comics! They don't have the two biggest comics publishers (Marvel and DC), but there is still some great content. But I digress...

Here are a few places you can go to apply for physical ARCs:

  • SLA - if you are a member of the School Library Association make sure that you are signed up for their e-mail newletter. They always have opportunities for librarians to win copies of new children's and YA books from a range of publishers.
  • ReadingZone - offers review copies in exchange for reviews, usually in December. Go to the "New Titles" section of the website and look for the "Read & Review" link. They've sent me books to review over the winter holidays for the last two years.
  • Goodreads - the social network for readers (now owned by Amazon) has a Giveaways section of it's website. Scroll through and click "Enter Giveaway" on any title that catches your eye. It will tell you which countries the offer is available in, when the giveaway ends, how many copies are available and how many people have entered. I've only ever won one book from this, but that's better than nothing, right?! Also, if you put loads of reviews on your Goodreads profile, you are more likely to be approached by publishers and authors with freebies!
  • Blog - create a book blog and review books! As above, you are more likely to get stuff sent your way if you have a track record of reviewing.
  • Social Media - get on Twitter and follow authors and publishers that you're interested in. Keep your eyes peeled for giveaways and offers.
  • Publishers - ask the publishers directly! The worst that can happen is that they say no.

Let me know in the comments if you know of any other good sources of free books!

 

 

Book Review: The Keeper of Portals - VS Nelson

I've been sent advanced reading copies (ARCs) of books by publishers before, but this is the first time an author has contacted me directly to ask me to review their book! Exciting! So yes, the author sent me an advanced eARC in exchange for an honest review.

I am going to start with a bit of a rant about ebook formats, so if you want to jump straight to the review, click here.

A note on ebooks and PDFs

It has taken me longer than planned to read and review this book, partly because I've had a huge backlog of books to read, but also partly due to the format in which the book was sent. I am not anti-ebooks - they are super convenient and...well, that's the main selling point to be honest (this website lists 20 advantages, most of which can be condensed to "convenient"). I have been reading ebooks on my iPhone for a few years, and recently got my first dedicated eReader (as a leaving present when I left my public library job). They are great - you can read in the dark and can carry thousands of books around with you. You can also change the font and text size to make them easier to read - unless, that is, you're reading a PDF file. PDFs take longer to load than standard ebook files and they are harder to read on small devices (the print was tiny on my eReader and while I could zoom in, this was imperfect, slow and inconsistent). All this is to say that reading this book as a PDF file on my eReader was a frustrating experience - not ideal for getting lost in a story. Reading The Keeper of Portals as a PDF on my eReader probably added at least a couple of weeks to my reading time. Anyway, enough of my whining.

On to the review.

The Review

This is a difficult book to summarise, but I'll give it a go while trying to avoid being a spoilery spoiler who spoils.

Overview

15-year-old Martin and his mother have just moved into a once-grand house, which is now teetering dangerously on the edge of a crumbling cliff. As he's settling in to his new home, Martin meets a bizarre figure who can make doors lead to any other doorways in the world. He introduces himself as The Keeper of Portals ('Portals' for short), one of a series of Keepers tasked with making sure the world works as it should. There is a door in Martin's bedroom that has been there for 400 years - the only door that Portals has never been able to open. Martin wakes one morning to find the door open and Portals missing. With Portals gone, doorways start misbehaving themselves and leading to places they shouldn't. So, naturally, Martin goes through the door in his room in order to find the missing Keeper (it would have been a very short book if he hadn't). The door, it turns out, leads to the same room 400 years in the past, where Martin meets Isabel, the past-house's maid. Portal hopping and time dilating adventures ensue, featuring friendship, betrayal, romance, cliffs, caves, a sports car in post-Tudor London, a rogue Keeper, blue feathers and an army of mind-controlled villagers.

There are two main science-fiction/fantasy elements that drive the plot of The Keeper of Portals: portals and time travel.

Portals

The portals were one of my favourite things in this book - it's such a great device! If you're familiar with the Portal computer games, you'll get the basic premise. In the games, you have a gun that creates two portal holes, and you can jump into one and out the other. It works very similarly in the book1 except that instead of a gun, The Keeper of Portals does it with doorways. You know that feeling when you're reading a book or watching a show and you think "I wish I could do that"? Let's just say I had portal envy.

Time Travel

I'm quite picky about time-travel narratives. My personal preference is for a "closed loop" story, rather than one where the past gets changed by time travellers (Prisoner of Azkaban as opposed to The Cursed Child, for example). I find them really satisfying when they are done well2The Keeper of Portals does a pretty good job with its time travel - it even has a Keeper whose job it is to prevent paradoxes. There were maybe a couple of moments where I felt the explanations for what was happening in the plot were a bit hand-wavy3, but on the whole I really enjoyed the time-travel elements of this book.

The Characters

The stories two main protagonists are Martin and Isabel, both about 15 years old. Isabel, a 17th Century maid, is a fantastic character (although I'm not sure how authentic her 17th Century lingo was) - I really liked how unflappable she was when confronted with both the magic of the Keepers (time travel, portals) and the magic of the 21st Century (laptops, women in trousers). Martin, a 21st Century school boy whose dad had recently died, is... OK. I didn't dislike him, I liked him well enough - but I didn't love him. And considering that we experience the story from his point of view, this is probably the book's biggest flaw for me. To be fair, he is written as a character that makes mistakes, gets pulled up and learns from them - you don't want your characters to be perfect, one-dimensional bores. But I guess that some people you just connect with, others you don't. I was much more interested in Isabel - her situation, world view, character development - and whenever the narrative left her behind, I became impatient to get back to her (I guess this could also be because we are seeing her from Martin's perspective, and he pretty much feels the same way).

The other characters don't really have enough page-time for us to get to know them in any depth, but the population of Keepers - from Minor Keepers like Buttons to Fundamental ones like Time - is a many, varied and colourful cast.

The End

I think I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect than I did while I was reading it. Part of this is to do with my issues with the formatting (see above), and part of it is my ambivalence towards Martin. But overall, this is a fun read which zips along after a bit of a slow start. It has some great ideas, some enjoyable set pieces and a satisfying end with some real poignancy.

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands - Alwyn Hamilton

I have recently started a book club at work for students in years 9 and 10 (13-15). Thanks to a generous donation from Reading Hack, out club's first read was Rebel of the Sands - the first in a planned trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton (book 2 coincidentally came out on the day of our group meeting).

Here's the blurb from the book's official website:

Dustwalk is an unforgiving, dead-end town.
It’s not the place to be poor or orphaned or female.
And yet Amani Al’Hiza must call it ‘home’.

Amani wants to escape and see the world she’s heard about in campfire stories. Then a foreigner with no name turns up, and with him she has the chance to run.

But the desert plains are full of dangerous magic.
The Sultan’s army is on the rise and Amani is soon caught at the heart of a fearless rebellion . . .

An epic story of swirling desert sands, love, magic and revolution.

In Rebel of the Sands, Amani (our poor, orphaned and female teenage protagonist) disguises herself as a boy to enter a shooting contest, hoping to win enough money to allow her to escape her oppressive uncle and aunt, and the whole stagnating desert town she grew up in. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan as Amani finds herself mixed up in events and places far bigger than she imagined - great expanses of desert, armies, Djinni, bandits, wild sand-horses, desert trains, sharp-shooting, political rebellions...

Books are such personal, subjective things - this book's Goodreads page has a stream of alternating 1 and 5 star reviews. I found the book as a whole a little uneven - this Middle-Eastern-mythology-meets-American-Wild-West fantasy story starts with a (almost literal) bang, there is a bit of a lull in the middle, but the pace really picks up again at the end. It was really interesting to see that opinions in our group were markedly split between the Year 9s (none of whom managed to finish the book, none of whom liked it) and the Year 10s (all of whom managed to finish the book, all of whom liked it). I think we all agreed that the book's main strength was its setting - the magic, the frontier towns and desert world - while the plot felt a bit standard YA-fantasy-adventure-romance (not bad, but nothing that you haven't read before, with maybe one or two exceptions). One of the Year 10 students is re-reading it and said that the book was overflowing with foreshadowing that she'd missed the first time which helped it stand up to a second reading.

There are two members of staff in the book group too (myself and an English teacher) who were split along the same lines as the students - the English teacher sided with the Year 9s (didn't finish, didn't like), while I was with the Year 10s (finished, liked). The book had elements that I loved, bits that I eyerolled at, page-turning action and plodding trudgery. I'd be interested to read the other books in the series, but they are not at the top of my to-read list.

Here's the book's official trailer:

Up next, we'll be reading the Amazing Book Awards shortlist!

Oh, and after we'd finished our discussion we voted on what to call our book group. We are Fully Booked (if the 2nd placed name had won, we'd be Cucumbers).

The Booklender and the Teetering TBR Pile of Doom

My last two blog posts have been book reviews. This one was meant to be as well, but I haven't finished reading the book for review yet. The problem I have, and I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing this issue, is that there are just too many books. I'm currently reading three things at once and have an ever-expanding Teetering TBR1 Pile of Doom.

Books I currently have on the go (see also the Goodreads widget on this page):

Up next, I have

  • one book out from the public library which I need to read and return
  • three graphic novelstwo novels and a short story collection out from my school library,
  • my birthday presents
  • a massive backlog of Net Galley ARCs3 that I requested with the best of intentions
  • a book written by a friend
  • a school library full of bookish temptation (that I get to buy the books for!)
  • a bookshelf at home overflowing with books that I'll get around to "eventually"
  • a storage unit in Melbourne with literally hundreds of books waiting for us to move back to Australia
  • all the books.
  • Did I mention books?

I'm not a hugely fast reader and I'm often too tired to read a lot when I get home after work - although I am making a concerted effort to read a bit every day (practicing what I preach!). And it is obviously a myth that librarians get to sit around all day reading books (organising books, yes). I don't get through nearly as many books as I would like - or feel that I should. This is not helped by the fact that all three of the books I'm reading at the moment are digital copies - I think I read physical books faster. I'm sure one day I will be crushed by a collapsing TBR pile - either literally or metaphorically (hopefully it will be a radioactive TBR pile and I will become imbued with the power of thousands of unread books!). Anyway, I've got some actual proper dealines to finish two of my current reads, so hopefully there will be a review here next week.

In the mean time, this is a blog post about why I didn't write a blog post this week.

Book Review: AniMalcolm - David Baddiel

Malcolm’s family are quite fond of animals - you could say they are obsessed. They have two cats, a dog, a hamster and an iguana. They go to the zoo every week. It’s the primary topic of conversation.

Malcolm, however, is not a big fan (especially since the infamous “Monkey Incident”). So when Malcolm is given a chinchilla as an 11th birthday present (instead of the “fastest and coolest and baddest laptop on the planet” like he wanted) he’s had about enough of his family. So he is relieved to be allowed to go on the three day Year 6 school trip, until he discovers that this year the destination is an organic farm where they get to help look after the animals. Just when he thinks that things can’t get any worse, Malcolm gets hypnotised by a cranky old goat and wakes up to find himself in a very troubling situation indeed.

This was a light, silly, funny, enjoyable book with lively illustrations, likeable characters and imaginative world building - the inter-species communication was particularly fun (do you speak Goat?). The plot was not exactly original or groundbreaking, but it was ridiculous, incorporating elements of A Christmas Carol (Malcolm’s anti-animal agenda challenged by supernatural intervention) and The Sword in The Stone (valuable life lessons learnt while spending time as a variety of animals).

AniMalcolm is sure to appeal to fans of David Walliams, Roald Dahl, Rachel Renee Russell and Jeff Kinney. David Baddiel was a comedy superstar in the early 90s (“that’s your mum, that is” - he and Rob Newman pretty much invented Stadium Comedy in the UK), and with this, his third book for children*, he’ll be cementing his reputation as a comedy legend for a whole new generation.

*Not counting his World Book Day title last year.

Book cover for The Jamie Drake Equation, by Christopher Edge

Book Review: The Jamie Drake Equation

Jamie Drake’s dad is famous. He’s an astronaut, and he’s currently orbiting the earth on the International Space Station, about 400kms above the planet’s surface. Soon he will launch a series of tiny interstellar probes, which will search the galaxy for signs of alien life. What could possibly go wrong?

Back on earth, Jamie misses his dad. Not only is he not around to help Jamie prepare for his algebra test, but he’ll also be missing Jamie’s 11th birthday. While his dad is in space, Jamie, his younger sister and his artist mother are living with his ex-rocker grandfather. To get away from the noise and chaos of his home life, Jamie goes for a walk and finds himself at a seemingly abandoned observatory. That’s when things start to get weird.

Despite having a very contemporary setting (smartphones, laptops and Skype are all key plot elements) I had a strong sense of nostalgia while reading The Jamie Drake Equation. This family drama/sci-fi-from-a-child’s-eye-view story reminded me of classics from my own childhood - especially Chocky by John Wyndham and the film E.T. There is some real science and maths in here, too (Fibonacci sequence, golden ratio, how astronauts go to the toilet) as well as some big sci-fi ideas. It also addresses themes of responsibility, parental fallibility, family cohesion and growing up.

The Jamie Drake Equation could be enjoyed by readers who like tales of science fiction, space travel, aliens, maths, defunct heavy metal bands called Death Panda, science and family drama, probably in the 9-12 age range.

The Jamie Drake Equation will be published in March 2017. An uncorrected proof copy of the book was given to me by the publisher for review purposes.