Sunday 31 January 2016

Imogen’s Books of the Week: Death or Ice Cream? by Gareth P Jones (Hot Key Books), The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Katherine Woodfine (Egmont)

Hello! A double dose of Sunday middle-grade goodness today, as I’ve missed a couple of weeks. So here are two brilliant, but very different books, perfect for lightening up the last month of winter – and reflecting the humour, range and verve of British children’s literature at its very best.

Gareth P Jones, award-winning author of The Considine Curse, The Thornthwaite InheritanceConstable and Toop, and No True Echo, returns this January with Death or Ice Cream?, a splendidly bizarre and perturbing series of interlinked stories, set in the sinister town of Larkin Mills. Here, hotelier Harold Milkwell has a flourishing sideline in the undertaking business; Mr Morricone sells criminally delicious ice creams in perturbing flavours (Chocolate Casualties, Drive By Double Cones, Lead Boot Lemon Lushes); musical instruments are repaired by an enigmatic craftsman, at unexpectedly exorbitant cost to their owners; and an egg that bestows both life and death is uncovered by an absent-minded archaeologist. Waxworks, zombies, cement hearts and chocolate-dipped strawberries; it’s all to be found in Larkin Mills, where figures of mysterious supernatural stature shape the lives of the townspeople at whim, either for good or evil. And does one of them appear to have – horns…?

Jones’ mordant, unsettlingly funny writing and boundless imagination ensures that reading his newest book is like navigating a funhouse while eating an ice cream sundae – intensely enjoyable, but compelling the reader’s full and careful attention throughout.

The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth (Paperback)
The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, meanwhile, Katherine Woodfine’s second book, which publishes on the 25th February, is the eagerly anticipated sequel to last year’s TheMystery of the Clockwork Sparrow – and one of the finest novels I’ve ever read, marrying the danger, swift pace and Strand Magazine strangeness of the best Holmes adventures with the crisp detail and delicate sensibility of Georgette Heyer’s romances.

Sophie and Lil are busy. It is the height of the London season, and ladies young and old are flocking to Sinclair’s Department Store for gowns, hats, gloves and gossip. But when they receive a mysterious note, requiring their aid in another piece of detective work, shop girl and mannequin must team up once again with Joe the stable-hand and office boy Bill Parker. Where is the Jewelled Moth, set with a cursed Chinese stone, the Moonbeam Diamond? Whose is the body drawn from the river one balmy summer afternoon? And what could one young lady’s modish coming-out party possibly have to do with Sophie’s old enemy, the criminal mastermind known as the Baron?

This isn’t an escapist romp, for all its pulse-quickening excitement. In her second novel, Woodfine delicately lays bare the nuances of stratified, often stifling Edwardian society; from the debutantes who suppress their appetites and curiosity to achieve creditable matches, to the poor Limehouse shopkeepers who must pay extorted protection money or risk their lives by refusing. Young Chinese-English girl Mei Ling is a fascinating addition to the original cast, with her grandfather's heaped-up, treasured stories providing a strong, transporting sense of her history and context.

But my favourite element remains heroic, quick-witted Sophie, never repining over her circumstances or waiting for a fairy godmother (or a comfortably-off gent) to bestow a life of leisure upon her. As a Sinclair’s shop-girl, she works hard, and takes pride in doing so. And she heartily enjoys the pleasures she's earned: iced buns for a birthday tea, strong-forged friendships, and the joy of using her brains, courage and determination to overcome adversity. Her world might be the mannered, patterned, silk-and-homespun world of Edwardian London; but it’s hard to imagine a better contemporary heroine.

Friday 15 January 2016

An Interview with Helen Moss

Helen Moss is the author of the Adventure Island series and the new Secrets of the Tombs series. And later this year her first short story will be published, in an exciting new anthology of mystery writing for 8-12 year-olds called Mystery and Mayhem. (Which I will be talking to her about in May to celebrate its release - along with Robin Stevens and some of the other contributors)

I first met Helen in her role as coordinator for the SCBWI Central East Network. She organises a whole host of wonderful talks and meetings throughout the year, as well as spending time in schools and at events like the Cambridge Literary Festival.

So Helen, can you tell us about how you became a writer?

I was something of a late starter. About ten years ago my husband’s work took the family to Oregon for a year. It was a chance to have a get-off-the-hamster-wheel-and-think-about-life moment. I really loved my job – I was a research scientist in psycholinguistics, the study of how our brains understand and produce language - but it was very full-on; there were so many other things I wanted to do – like writing a book.

When we came home I signed up for a Creative Writing evening course at a local sixth-form college. I was hooked from the first moment. I had enjoyed writing papers for journals in my previous job. Describing theories and experiments is basically all about telling story. But scientists are terribly fussy about sticking to the truth. There’s no room for saying you’ve discovered a new brain area solely responsible for processing the names of chocolate biscuit brands if you haven’t, even if it would liven the paper up no end. But suddenly, I was writing fiction. I was allowed to make things up.  It was heaven.

Was your first published book the first thing you wrote?

No. The first book I wrote was a MG detective novel called The Sea Cucumber’s Revenge.

Great title!

I hadn’t specifically planned to write for children. I had the idea for a crime novel in which a mobile phone falls in to the wrong hands and sets off a chain of consequences. It just seemed to make sense that the ‘detective’ would be a teenage girl with a practical, scientific mind. She uncovers a web of crime which links carbon capture technology in the South Atlantic and a pair of small-time crooks closer to home in Cambridge.

It took me almost a year to get the MS in shape to send out to agents (at least, I thought it was in shape! It was, in fact, miles too long and all over the place) but I was lucky enough to be taken on by a fantastic agent, Jenny Savill at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. After helping me wrestle the MS down to size Jenny sent it out to publishers. It had a couple of near misses but sadly didn’t quite make the grade.

But, by another stroke of good fortune, it was seen by Amber Caraveo, who was then an editor at Random House. A little while later Amber was looking for someone to write an in-house series and asked if I’d like to ‘audition.’ To my total amazement I got the job. The series was called Superstar High and followed three girls as they pursued their dreams at an international stage school. It was great fun and a massive learning experience – not only the writing, but also the subject matter. I know nothing about stage school. I can’t sing or act (I did briefly join a dance group in 1987 but that’s a whole different story!)

Is there something that particularly draws you to the mystery genre?

I love mystery/crime/detective novels – although I’m not a fan of the torture-and-gore variety. I was raised on Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, and then moved on to Sara Peretsky, Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman. I still love to discover new crime writers, especially if they write about a place I know (we’re really spoiled in Cambridge; it’s crime-fiction-topia!).

I didn’t really set out to specialise in mysteries. The first book I wrote just turned out that way, and with the Adventure Island series, I suddenly realised that I’d wandered into my natural habitat. I love the problem solving– and also the teamwork and friendship between the detectives. Even in real life, I can’t help looking for clues, working things out, aiming for a solution.

There’s also the fact that the mystery genre gives you a framework to work with. You don’t start with a totally open ‘some stuff happens to some people’ remit to plot around. In a mystery, something bad has happened. Someone wants to keep it a secret. Someone else tries to find it out. There’s always a story in that!

Can you tell us something about what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m finishing off the last drafts of the third and final book in the Secrets of the Tombs series. I’ve also been working on some short mystery/adventure stories for a reading scheme.  Then I have a couple of other projects simmering in the background that I hope to get ready to send out this year. One is a majorly revamped version of The Sea Cucumber’s Revenge. I can’t quite give up on it yet! The other is . . . well, it has animals and adventures in it. I’ll maintain an air of mystery and say no more for now.

I know you have traveled to some pretty amazing places researching your books. What do you believe this brings to your books? Where is your latest book set?

I have indeed! My holidays for the last three years have been based on the locations for the Secrets of the Tombs books – which have each been set at a different amazing archaeological site. The Phoenix Code was the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The Dragon Path was the Tomb of the First Emperor near Xi’an in China. The third in the series - The Serpent King - takes place among the ancient Maya cities of Calakmul and Chichen Itza in Mexico.

It’s very important to me to visit the settings of the books. Although the Secrets of the Tombs mysteries all have their roots in the ancient past, the action is entirely contemporary. I wanted the adventures to feel realistic – to give readers the feeling that the events could actually happen to ‘ordinary kids’ like themselves. There are no magical devices or super powers. For that reason, I felt it important that the settings were detailed and convincing. I also do a lot of research using books and the internet, of course, but there are some things you can only discover by being in a place. I wish I’d had longer, but even a week or so is enough to find out what the air smells like, what people are wearing and eating. What do the birds sound like? What kinds of trees grow in the town squares? What snacks are on sale in the shops? I walk around with a notebook making lists of brands of ice lollies, types of ants, names of cafes, the colour of the buses . . . everything!

Now that series is finished I’ll have to think of new ideas for holiday destinations. The first will be a trip to Thailand to visit my brother and his family. Watch out for Thailand cropping up as a setting for a mystery in a year or two!

I can’t wait – and neither can my son! Your current books are for a slightly older audience. Would you consider writing in other genres too?

I would certainly consider having a go at writing other genres and for other age groups, although I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off. I have a suspicion that a bit of shady crime would sneak in even if I were trying to write a romance or a comedy. MG mystery will always be my first love!

I’ve attended a few of your talks now and am always impressed by the way you get everyone buzzing – what would your top tips be for authors just starting out doing schools visits and literary events?

Thank you – it’s very kind of you to say so.

One of the great advantages of writing for MG readers is that they are a joy as an audience. They are always generous with their attention and enthusiasm and generally delighted to meet a real author.

I’ll try to think of some top tips to pass on  . . .

I’m hopeless at remembering advice that I’ve been given. Only one or two gems have ever stuck. One was that if you are not very tall you should always apply mascara to the upper side of your top eyelashes as well as the underside, as this is the part most (taller) people will see. I remember reading this in Just 17 magazine, at the back of O Level Chemistry class (I believed at the time that impressing boys with my devil-may-care attitude to authority and my mastery of eye make-up was more important than molecular structure).

The second piece of advice I remember came much more recently and, you’ll be pleased to know, is a lot more relevant to school talks. I heard it from an author who wrote for teenagers (I wish I could remember who it was). She remarked that the audience really want to learn something about themselves, not just about you.

That struck me as true – perhaps to a lesser extent for younger children than for teens, but still true – and so I always make doubly sure that my talks have plenty of opportunity for the children to get involved. For example, encouraging them to think about what they would do in a certain situation, or to find out which character they most identify with, or to explore what kind of writer they’d like to be, and of course, to come up with their own story ideas.

My other top tip for school visits is to be adaptable! However well planned, something can always go wrong – a projector bulb blows up, a fire alarm goes off, someone has been sick in the hall . . . I usually take large print-outs of my main slides so that I can hold them up to show, even when the projector/screen/computer fails (this happens so often than I have turned disaster into a game with The Patented Human Powerpoint System:  children come up to play the parts of the screen and hold up the pictures, and another child to play the part of the remote control.

Another routine which was born out of near-disaster is the Ponder Wander. I found myself doing a workshop with a large group of children, all sitting on the floor in a stuffy hall for a longer than expected session on a very hot day. I’ll share it with you as my “Top Tip” because it turned out to be so much fun that I now often do it even when it’s not strictly needed. It also demonstrates how amazing KS2 children are; they’ll happily go along with your craziness.

I call this the Ponder Wander. If I see that the children are getting uncomfortable and squirmy I stop what we’re doing and explain that an important part of a writer’s day is to go out for a walk to think over a tricky plot twist or bit of dialogue or whatever. It helps, I explain, if you happen to have some dogs to take for a walk with you (I show them a picture of my two collies asleep under my desk – I keep a picture of my dogs with me at all times; if all else fails, children are almost always happy to talk about animals for hours on end!).

Then we all take our imaginary dogs for a walk around the hall.  Many of the kids in the audience have a dog at home so they take their imaginary real dogs. For the children who don’t own a real dog, they can now invent their fantasy dog and give it a name – and they take their imaginary imaginary dog for a walk. Some of the kids will, of course, ask if they can have an imaginary hippo or polar bear or unicorn or ferret instead. I tell them that’s fine, as long as it’s a well-behaved hippo/polar bear/unicorn/ferret that walks to heel, and doesn’t get in fights with the other pets.

I also explain that when writers go for walks they are so busy pondering that they don’t talk to anyone (apart from themselves). Even if they see their friends while out on a walk, writers pretend they haven’t seen them and walk right past. So off we all go on a mass Ponder Wander, purposefully parading around the hall, with our imaginary pets on imaginary leads, (stopping to scoop up imaginary dog poo), in total silence, avoiding our friends, occasionally talking to ourselves. It’s a magnificent sight!

After a few minutes of this, we all put our imaginary pets into their imaginary baskets, place the imaginary poo bags in the imaginary poo bin and sit down and get back to work. Now, I inform the children, they have truly sampled the weird and wonderful life of a writer.

I’ve never known a KS2 child refuse to join in (note: any children who can’t walk around for any reason take on the vitally important job of sitting looking after the imaginary dogs that have been scared by the imaginary hippos. Oh, and with younger children you might also want to check at the start that they know what ponder means. While doing this with a Y3 group, I was asked very seriously when were we going to get to the pond and would the dogs be allowed to jump in).

It’s definitely worth a whirl if you see your audience getting restless. Only do this in a long workshop though, as it’s surprising how much time a discussion of the toilet habits of an imaginary unicorn can taken up.

I love this and will definitely be giving that a go! I remember you saying that there was a time when you were writing a series and the pressure was really on to meet the deadlines. What are your tactics for getting yourself to the computer – and staying there till you hit 'The End'?

Oh yes, series deadlines can be scary things! The first six Adventure Island books were written in little over six months. There were tears and tantrums. I’m generally pretty self-disciplined. I sit down at my desk and write as soon as my sons are off to school (although one is now away at Uni and the other at sixth-form college so this is starting to change) and the dogs have been walked. I just keep going until it’s time to make dinner (although there are always other things that need doing, course, so it’s variable). I often work in the evenings too – depending on what stage I’m at. I usually start a book at a fairly even pace, smugly congratulating myself on my mature approach to work-life balance. That lasts for a week or two. Towards the end of a draft, the book totally takes over and everything else goes by the board. I’m hopeless at multi-tasking. But I like to think that my sons have benefitted from a degree of healthy neglect. They have a high tolerance to muddle and grime and have both been able to cook themselves a meal and navigate their way round a bus timetable from an early age.

I have my own little office at home, but I always work on a laptop, so I roam around the house with it when I’m fed up of my desk. I often work lying on my bed, standing at the kitchen counter or perching at the kitchen table. Due to a combination of a slightly dodgy back and general fidgetiness, one of the biggest problems I have with writing to deadlines is sitting in one place for a long time. I go for lots of Ponder Wanders, of course. Or I take myself off to a café or library for a change of scene. I find it hard to work at home if there’s any noise or distraction (and there is nothing more distracting than the sound of a teenager rummaging through an airing cupboard for a pair of socks) but I can happily work in a crowded café - as long as nobody asks me if I’ve seen their socks.

Helen, as ever it’s been a pleasure talking to you – Thank you!

To find out more about Helen’s books or the work she does in schools, visit her site. And keep a look out for the third book in the Secrets of the Tombs series – The Serpent King – which is coming this summer!

Andy Shepherd

Monday 11 January 2016

Death or Ice Cream?: A Dark and Delicious Q&A with Gareth P. Jones

By Miriam Craig

Gareth P. Jones has now written enough books that he can’t remember if he’s on his 26th or 27th. Last week he even had not one, but TWO new books come out: the fourth in the Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates series, and Death or Ice Cream. The latter is a series of thirteen interwoven stories set in the surreal town of Larkin Mill, where the ice cream comes in flavours such as Summer Fruits Suicide, Banoffee Burial and Vanilla Vengeance, and life expectancy is mysteriously low. Each story is part puzzle and part morality tale, with something for adults as well as children, aged (roughly!) ten and up. With each tale – and each death – the broader story of what lies behind the town of Larkin Mill starts to take shape. The book has wonderful chapter header illustrations and cover art by Adam Stower. Though of course, all I needed was to hear the words ‘ice’ and ‘cream’ to be lulled me into a suggestive state and immediately ask Gareth to tell me more.

Beautiful cover art by Adam Stower.

What’s Death or Ice Cream about?
It’s a series of connected stories, set in a place called Larkin Mill. Death is very prevalent there – at the end of each story, somebody dies. Larkin Mill is a surreal place, with a League of Gentleman feel to it – there are sharks in the sewers. As you read the book, you learn why it’s like that.

What gave you the idea?
I often read short stories aloud at schools; I use them as performance pieces. I was doing a school visit in Romania, and I said, ‘I’m going to read this story and at least one person is going to die, and you have to guess who’s going to die, and how.’ We had such a good time doing that. They don’t see any darkness. So I thought I could write twelve stories where somebody dies at the end of each story. I sat down and wrote the first story and at the end, there was a question left hanging, so I wrote the next story, and the same thing happened again. I wrote all the stories, subtly connected, in about two and a half weeks. It splurged out like that. Then I had to go through the redrafting process. I worked hard with the editorial team to thread it all together.

It sounds almost like a series of puzzles.
Yes, it is like that. But also, what I’m often trying to do when I write is create mysteries where you don’t know what the mystery is – mysteries where you didn’t know you wanted to know that answer until you got to that point. By the end you feel, hopefully, that your questions have been answered, but they’re not the questions you had at the start.

Were there things you thought of putting in, and then decided not to because they were too dark?
I always just go with my instincts. My Mum thinks some of it’s too dark for children, and my wife thought two deaths were too horrendous – one was sharks, the other was burning in a house. So I changed them to make them less awful! But as I was writing the stories, they became like morality tales – the characters who suffer terrible deaths do so because they did something really, really bad.

What are you doing today?
TV work – as well as writing, I’m an edit producer for a TV show called Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, an antiques show on BBC1.

Is there any overlap between that and writing?
When you’re editing it’s the same process as editing a book. You have a certain about of material and you have to hack away until you’re happy with it. But there are lots of other people involved in TV – you have to deal with other people’s concepts of how it should be. When you’re writing a book, everything is in your control.
There was also a moment when my writing and my TV job became disturbingly intertwined. I was writing a story for this book that’s based in an edit suite, which is where I am right now, because I was doing this job when I was writing the book. The story is about a hardworking man who is therefore neglecting his child. His child wants to go trick or treating, but his father has to stay late at work. I was so engrossed in writing it at one point that I almost forgot to pick up my son from school. Luckily I realised and ran to school and did pick him up just in time.

How do you decide what to write next?
I think you know when you’ve got a good idea because, on school visits, the kids go for the one-sentence summary. For example, The Thornthwaite Inheritance is a pair of twins trying to kill each other. With Death or Ice Cream, whenever kids hear the title and I ask them that question, every single time everyone shouts 'ice cream', except for four kids at the back who shout ‘DEATH!’. That’s my sales pitch.

What do you find are your biggest challenges when writing?
Everything. Just all the words, I’d say. I’m fine with dialogue and would quite happily write entirely in dialogue. But what I struggle with is describing the stuff, like people coming into rooms. Or, how do I show that this character’s female? Sometimes, ‘I’m a girl’ is all you need to say.
You have to respect the process, which is that you write it badly first, then try and make it better, then try and make it better some more, etc. Like right now, I’m trying to create sequences of people buying antiques. They film them walking in, they film them saying what they’re doing, they film them chatting outside the shop. Gradually you cut all those bits and keep only the content. That’s what makes editing TV like writing a book. It’s all storytelling. You just have to not worry about the fact that you don’t know how to describe somebody entering a room. Sometimes I go back to a book I’ve written and look at it in wonderment, thinking, ‘How did I do that?’

How do you get over a plot problem?
Do something else and come back to it. If I’m plotting, a long rambling walk is useful. Interviewing the characters is quite useful sometimes. Often I struggle with finding the emotional truth of the scene – otherwise they’re just doing things I want them to do for the plot, so asking them how they feel is good. Think hard. Don’t think too hard. Ask my son the answer. In the new Steampunk Pirates book, I was trying to come up with a way of using Captain Kidd as a character. I told my son and he said, ‘Is he a little boy?’ Now he is.

Who or what are you influenced by?
I often quote Douglas Adams. These days it tends to be more or less anything I see or hear. A book, film, play. It just drips in. In Death or Ice Cream there’s a lot of taking the mickey out of the terrible formats of TV shows. And I included a lot of antiques that were actually featured on the show. If it’s good enough, it’ll stay, and if it’s not, it’ll fall away and you’ll put something better in its place. In this book there’s also a character called Mr Morricone because I was listening to a Morricone soundtrack when I was writing.

How do you want people to feel when they read Death or Ice Cream?
I really would like people to play the guessing game as they read it – try to guess who’s going to die, and hopefully be surprised each time. And when they reach the end, I’d like them to feel satisfied. As you would after eating a large ice cream with no death in it at all.

Thank you, Gareth, for talking to me about the book. And making me irritatingly hungry.

Hearing about Death or Ice Cream got me thinking about what other ghoulish and deathly ice cream flavours there could be. And as with any question of this importance, crowdsourcing is key. Here’s what Twitter came up with. Please do add your thoughts in the comments below – and extra points for contributing your own DEATHLY ice cream flavour. Personally I’m going for two scoops of Clotted Spleen.
YUMMY! Illustration by Adam Stower.

~~Deathly Menu~~

Va-killer (Michelle Toy)
Sleeping With The Phishes Food (Michelle Toy)
Masc-of-the-Killer-Pony (Michelle Toy)
Strawberry Strangler (Elli Woollard)
Raspberry Ripper (Polly Faber)
PistachiOW (Polly Faber)
Cookies and Scream (Polly Faber)
Rocky Roadkill (Emma Finlayson-Palmer)
Meringue Mangler (Emma Finlayson-Palmer)
Coffins and Cream (Library Girl & Book Boy)
Clotted Spleen (Library Girl & Book Boy)
Knickerbocker Gory (Library Girl & Book Boy)
Blood Drip Cookie Dough (Tamsin Cooke)
Mint Choc Chip Pan Fire (Sarah Baker)
Peppermint Pulveriser (Natalie Smillie)
Banana Bludgeon (Natalie Smillie)
Eviscerated Vanilla (Elli Woollard)
Pistabio (Elen Caldecott)
Strawbloody Cheesecake (Elen Caldecott)
Beaten Black and Blueberry (Jason Rohan)
Dead and Berried (Jason Rohan)
Assaulted Caramel (Jason Rohan)
Mint Choc Woodchipper (Miriam Craig)
Strangliettella (Miriam Craig)
Chocolate Mousseleum (Miriam Craig)
Combine Harvester Crunch (Miriam Craig)

Or take your pick from these delights in the book itself:
Banoffee Burial
Trigger Finger of Fudge
Vanilla Vengeance
Chocolate Knuckle Duster
Summer Fruits Suicide

For more info about Gareth visit his site

Otherwise…bon appetit!

Miriam Craig
Twitter: @miriamhcraig
Instagram: @miriamhcraig


Sunday 10 January 2016

Imogen's Book of the Week: The Mad Apprentice by Django Wexler, illustrated by Alexander Jansson, published by Random House

The Mad Apprentice Cover

I loved Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library when it came out in 2014. The sequel, The Mad Apprentice, however, appeared to much less fanfare in the middle of last year, and I missed it. But now I’ve hunted it down, and can heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first book in the series. Didn’t read The Forbidden Library? Do so at once!

Forbidden Library UK Cover

A quick recap of the FL premise: when law-abiding Alice loses her father in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with mysterious Uncle Geryon, and, breaking the rules for the first time in her life, secretly sneaks into his labyrinthine library. Here she discovers that she is a Reader – someone with the gift of entering books of magic, and subjugating the extraordinary creatures she finds there.  As her mind fills up with threads – links to the creatures she’s vanquished, granting her access to their attributes and powers – Alice accepts the role of Geryon’s apprentice. But she never loses sight of the mystery of her father’s death…

In book two of the series, Geryon sends Alice out to capture another apprentice; one who has done the unthinkable, and killed his Master. With a group of unknown apprentices, Alice must navigate the hostile domain of the murdered Master’s library, held together by a terrifying entity known as Torment. Torment is mad, and he wants the invaders out of his realm, or dead. But he may also have a clue about Alice’s missing father.

Fighting Torment’s creations at every turn, trying to keep herself and her fellow apprentices alive, Alice finds that the darkest, thickest thread in her mind – the link to the creature called the Dragon – has at last become responsive. The Dragon is speaking to her, warning her, guiding her. But will his influence be enough to bring her safely through the Labyrinth?

What I particularly loved about The Forbidden Library was its pervasive sense of secrecy – of every member of the cast knowing more than they’ll let on – and its nuanced moral landscape, which compels Alice, and the reader, to remain alert throughout for potential pitfalls. These elements are still very much to the fore in the dangerous world of The Mad Apprentice: the Readers’ magic is still invasive, based on “cruelty and death”, and Uncle Geryon is by no means unquestionably benevolent, though he may represent Alice’s best chance of survival. The beetling towers and terrible traps of Book 2, and the increased insight we’re allowed into other Masters’ methods of training and recruitment, make for darker shadows and grimmer depths, too. But Alice’s cool competence and quick-witted responses, and the swift pace of the story as it hustles us deeper into the maze, make The Mad Apprentice a compulsive, single-sitting read; a worthy sequel to one of 2014’s best books.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Happy Book Birthday January Edition

 Really pleased to bring back the Happy Book Birthday feature for the new year! A huge thanks to Max Brallier, Tamsin Cooke, Tatum Flynn, Rohan Gavin, Jon Mayhew and Tamsyn Murray for taking part.

If your main character was going to a party to celebrate their book birthday, what would they wear?

Rohan: A three piece suit and hat made from finest Donegal tweed, and some crepe or gum soled shoes - which incidentally were the origin of the term “gumshoe”, meaning private detective.

Jon: Dakkar is the son of an Indian Rajah and he likes to dress snappily, so the finest jacket and breeches, shiny black boots, sword of course and a bright red waistcoat. If he’d just been wrestling a giant squid or sword fighting with pirates, he might look a bit scruffier and torn at the seams!

What three things would they most want to find in their party bag?

Tatum: Hell can be kinda dangerous - who knew? - and given the aforementioned knife skills, I think Tommy would like to find (a) weapons (b) chocolate cake (c) weapons

Rohan: A pair of gloves; a glass with a clear fingerprint; a hair sample.

Max: Jack Sullivan and his friends spend their days battling monsters, running from zombies, and documenting the world after the Monster Apocalypse. So Jack would definitely want a party bag packed full of stuff to help him in his daily heroic quests. For example…
- Grapefruit juice hand grenades. Jack loves these -- a blast to the eyes will blind most any monster. Never leave home without one!
- Instant film. Jack’s always whipping out his camera and snapping pics of giant monsters, his pals, and general post-apocalyptic weirdness.
- A Daisy Ridley, Rey action figure from The Force Awakens – Jack’s a big Star Wars nerd, and Rey would definitely be his new favorite hero.

Tamsin: My main character, Scar, doesn’t get invited to parties, as the kids at school hardly know she exists. This is just how she likes it. But if she did go to a party, I guess she’d want what every girl wants to find in a party bag. A brand new set of night vision goggles in case her old pair breaks, a skeleton key that unlocks any door – she has to fiddle with a lock pick, and a very large piece of birthday cake.

What party game would they be most confident in winning at?

Max: Oh, super easy question – piñata!
Jack is never without his ultimate monster slaying weapon: The Louisville Slicer. It’s a busted baseball that’s all splintered and sharp and slicey. Is that a word, “slicey”? If it isn’t, it should be. Slicey.
Anyway, the Louisville Slicer is sorta like Jack’s light saber – it never leaves his side. And it would absolutely destroy any piñata. First swing and that poor piñata would be split open like a monster noggin. Candy for all!

Tatum: Hell's Belles has two main characters, but I'll plump for Tommy since this book is really her story. She'd be a dab hand at pin the tail on the donkey, since when she was alive (yes, oops, the main character is dead) she was a knife-thrower in a circus.

Tamsyn: Well, Cassidy is a champion hula-hooper so she'd be pretty confident about winning at that but I'm not sure it's technically a party game. She can also lick her own elbow (admit it, you just tried to do it too) but while that's an awesome talent to have (I can do it too) it's not a standard party game either. She'd be pretty amazing at charades, because in Drama Queen she goes to stage school, and she'd rock at Pin The Wig On The Elvis. That's a thing, right?

What would be their ideal birthday cake?

Tamsyn: Cassidy would most definitely want an enormous cake - one big enough for Ziggy from The Droids to leap out of and serenade her with their latest hit. The kind of cake she'd least like to have is a cheesecake, because her dog, Rolo, is a total cheesehead and he would totally try to cake-bomb. Does anyone ever have a cheesecake for their birthday cake?

If money was no object, what kind of party would you throw to celebrate publication?

Jon: I would hire a huge sailing ship and invite all my bookish friends on a cruise around the Caribbean. I’d have pirates attacking us (we’d win of course) and an exploding volcanic island… and cake.

Tamsin: If money was no object, then I’d have my book launch in an Aztec temple hidden amongst the rainforest in Mexico. People could dress up as Aztec gods and warriors.  There would be holograms of shape shifters and everyone could eat their body weight in cake and jellybeans. All the jungle animals would be invited and of course they’d love to come…

Max Brallier is the author of more than twenty books and games, including the middle-grade series The Last Kids on Earth, illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Find out more about him on his website.

Tamsin Cooke loves to travel, have adventures and see wild animals. She likes to think her Nahualli (spirit animal) would be a lioness or a jaguar but her friends tell her it’s a Labradoodle! Her debut book is The Scarlet Files: Cat Burglar.
Find out more about Tamsin on her website.

Tatum Flynn has a cat called Friday, a soft spot for the word ‘ramshackle’, and a vagabond past which involves piloting lifeboats in Venezuela, playing poker in Las Vegas, shooting rapids in the Grand Canyon and almost falling out of a plane over Scotland.
Likes: being excited. Dislikes: being a grown-up. Hence: writes funny, scary books for kids, including her newest one, Hell's Belles.
Find her on Twitter, Goodreads, and her website.

Rohan Gavin is the author of the Knightley & Son series, featuring a father-and-son detective duo, including latest book 3 Of A Kind.

Jon Mayhew is the author of the Mortlock trilogy and the Monster Odyssey series, including newest book The Venom of the Scorpion. Find out more about him on his website.

Tamsyn Murray thinks she's funny. Her books include the furtastic Stunt Bunny series, the Afterlife series and her latest book is the cringe-along Completely Cassidy: Drama Queen. She owns many pets and two children.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Imogen’s Book of the Week: Boy X by Dan Smith, published by Chicken House (Feb 2016)

Happy New Year – and how exciting it’s looking already for debuts and new releases! My first Sunday Best of 2016 is Boy X, a compulsive adventure story from Dan Smith, writer of survival stories for younger readers and nerve-wracking thrillers for adults.

Ash McCarthy wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, with bare walls and white light all around him. He has been drugged; there is still a needle in his arm. And he is apparently alone.

As he explores his strange new environment, he discovers a succession of identical rooms, a sinister logo, and a wild, hostile jungle outside the building. He is no longer in England.  He is on a remote, tropical island, where the wildlife is not the only threat he faces. To save himself, his mother, and perhaps the whole world from the forces at play here, he must fight for survival – and accept the changes that seem to be awakening within him…

This is a ferociously fast-paced story, with classic sci-fi and techno-thriller influences, like John Wyndham and Michael Crichton, worn lightly. The swiftness of the action doesn’t come at the expense of characterisation, though; Ash faces a series of forks in the road, each of which force him to ask who he is, what he values, and how much he can endure. It’s the wealth of scary creatures on the island, however, along with pulse-pounding, high-stakes pursuit and the nerve-wracking consciousness of time running out, that will ensure that any young (or older!) reader stays glued to the page throughout. A must for James Dashner fans – or anyone who likes nail-biting tales of action and courage.