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YA Review: Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean by Justin Somper

Before he died, the lighthouse keeper taught his children, Grace and Connor Tempest, a strange sea-shanty, telling the story of the terrifying Vampirates.  Only to them, the song is a comfort and a tantalising taste of the unknown.  Now he’s passed away suddenly and, without a mother – is she dead too?  They never knew her – the twins are all alone in the world.  They can’t stay in the lighthouse and their only other options seem to be the orphanage or allow themselves to be adopted by the local mayor.

These, for the twins, are both fates worse than death so they cast off in their father’s small boat and head out to sea, towards…who knows where.  A storm rolls in, capsizes and destroys the little craft and the pair are separated in the wreck.  Connor is dragged aboard The Diablo, a pirate ship full of the most affable and polite pirates I’ve ever read about, especially Connor’s bunk-mate Bart, the deputy Cheng-Li, who does everything ‘by the book’ (she’s fresh out of Pirate School) and of course, the charismatic Captain Wrathe, complete with a living snake hair accessory.  Grace washes up somewhere rather different, aboard another ship, rescued by a handsome young man called Lorcan, with piercing eyes, very shiny teeth and a dislike for sunlight.

I found Demons of the Ocean a fun, light, unchallenging first installment of a series; some readers have commented that the story seems unfinished and, sadly, I think that’s a common factor with YA books planned to be parts of a series from the outset.  In this case, there’s at least a measure of resolution, unlike some YA first-books I could mention *cough cough* Zom-B *cough cough* so I didn’t find it too off-putting.

I enjoyed the characterisation of the pirates; they were positive, sympathetic, comic characters, in the mode of Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean, or The Pirate Captain, from the series by Gideon Defoe.  Again, some readers have found this a poor choice, but I quite liked the idea of the pirate code taken to the extreme of having a training academy, organised distribution of piracy ‘sea lanes’ and so on.  The Vampirates are also relatively sympathetic, although generally misunderstood by normal humans. There is of course a vampire baddy, and indeed all the Vampirates have an air of danger about them, but many are also charming and just doing their best to survive, in the mode of modern vampire tales.

I did feel more effort could have gone into the twins, Grace and Connor Tempest.  There’s obviously something strange and unusual about them, which I’m sure will be explored further in later books, but I felt more could have been done to establish them as three-dimensional characters, rather than just to mention that Grace is the clever one and Connor is the sporty one.  Also, the death of their father is never explained and nor is anything about their missing mother, only that their father reappeared with them one day, no mum in sight.  I think a little more foreshadowing would have increased the tension, complimenting the gentle comedy and brief action sequences.

If I’m honest, it’s hard to write a review of this book, because it hasn’t evoked a very strong response in me, either way – I think this sits squarely ‘in the middle’.  It’s probably best suited to younger YA readers, maybe as young as 10, but will probably not pack enough punch for mid-teens onwards.  That being said, I enjoyed it as the first part in a longer work, and may well pick up the next installment if it happens to cross my path.

Kate Neilan

@Magic_kitten

YA Review: Crusher, by Niall Leonard

The day Finn Maguire discovers his father bludgeoned to death in a pool of blood, his dreary life is turned upside down.  Prime suspect in the murder, Finn must race against time to clear his name and find out who hated his dad enough to kill him.

Trawling the sordid, brutal London underworld for answers, Finn exposes dark family secrets and faces danger at every turn.  But he’s about to learn that it’s the people who trust who can hit you the hardest…

I’m not sure where to start with this colander of a young adult ‘crime’ novel.  The back of the review copy yells “The most talked-about debut thriller of 2012” but that might not be for the reason you think.  Niall Leonard is in fact the husband of E L James, of Fifty Shades fame/infamy; he wrote Crusher in response to a challenge from his wife to write a book, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an American initiative to encourage people to write creatively).  The clue’s in the name there, I think – if you write a whole novel in a month, there has to be a reason it takes such a short time.  Crusher illustrates this in abundance.

Let’s start with the narrator, 17-year-old Finn.  We learn, later in the book, that Crusher is his nickname, due to his boxing abilities.  Well, I’m pleased he’s good at boxing, because he seems to have a talent for precious little else.  Leonard paints a picture of a hopeless drop-out to the point where it’s a little hard to sympathise with this young man.  A lot of Finn’s problems seem to have come from the fact that he’s dyslexic – he is portrayed, at times, as almost illiterate and it’s implied this is why he’s stuck working in a burger bar, with zero in the way of qualifications.  What lazy stereotyping here.  It’s really anachronistic to write about dyslexia as such a crippling problem in 2012; a quick chat with any teacher would have told Leonard that young people can now use computers, have readers and scribes to enable them to get the grades they deserve at school.  Finn seems like an intelligent boy so why he wouldn’t have taken advantage of these things is inexplicable.

As well as this problematic backstory, Finn’s a very cold fish.  Early in the book, he discovers his (step)father, murdered, in the living room of the house they share.  His response is basically to shrug.  As the story progresses, he decides to find out who murdered his dad but his motivation isn’t fury or revenge but apparently a sort of lazy curiosity.  Surely this would be a highly traumatic event but Finn just carries on, emotionally unaffected.  He stays living in the house where his dad died, gets romantically involved with a girl without any qualms, bluffs it out with gangsters… It just doesn’t ring true.

This isn’t helped by the impression that most of the other characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes: the Lahndan East End hard-man gangster, the bent copper, a smarmy jobsworth boss, a slutty school girl.  At one point, his ‘real mum’ pops up from nowhere with a cartoon Latino-American criminal in tow, and hovering in the background is a psychotic ex-social worker; we know she’s crazy because she’s a redhead.  I don’t think Mr Leonard likes women very much.  Plus there’s even a celebrity chef thrown into the mix.  Did Leonard have a Character-Pick app when he started writing this book?

My final big problem was the language Leonard uses; the prose is leaden, to say the least.  Occasionally, there are flights of metaphorical fancy so bizarre as to be laughable.  Finn’s boss at the burger bar coming out of his office is likened to a hermit crab emerging from its shell, and later he is described as waving his “little crab antennae”.  Hmm.  Some of the slang Finn uses is really incongruous for a 17-year-old – he calls someone a “wag” for giving him the nickname Crusher, and describes being hit as getting “clobbered”.  I can’t think of any teenagers who use words like that.  Finally, he swears.  All the time.  For no apparent reason.  A lot of teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are capable of speaking without swearing all the time.  Finn’s constant profanities mark this book out from a lot of other YA fiction, and not, I think, in a good way.  It’s another example of lazy stereotyping, and a lot of teen readers, and their parents, may not appreciate it.

“At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement”

Having read quite a bit of young adult male-protagonist thriller fiction, this falls well short of my expectations. At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement.  There was a big action ‘set-piece’ involving a car-crusher, but I’ve read a vastly superior version of that scene in an Alex Rider novel.  Equally, in YA, I tend to look for a subtle moral steer by the writer; here, the lesson seems to be, if you are the hardest hitter, and the faster runner, that’s all there is.  The character who seems to be the big villain at the outset never gets his comeuppance, and the twists at the end are frankly ridiculous.  If Leonard wants Finn Maguire to make another appearance, he really needs to think about how he’s going to engage his readers more effectively.

Crusher is published in hardback and ebook by Doubleday, from 13th September 2012

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

YA Review: The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan

Anais Hendricks, 15, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.  She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform.

Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad-hoc family there.  Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leaver her job but is determined to for Anais to confront the circumstances of her mother’s death before she goes.

Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a fact.  And the experiment is closing in

In dazzling energetic language, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredible assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.

So says the blurb, but I’m not sure I was quite as bowled over as I could have been by this undoubtedly astonishing novel, published earlier this year with great fanfare.  I was interested to see that the book is recommended as “Perfect for readers of Pigeon English”; having just read that for my book club, I can understand the link but, if I were Heinemann, I’d be trying to distance this from Kelman’s Booker-nominated offering.  It may have been up for a prize but, in my view, it failed to do anything of merit in terms of lifting the lid on the social issues faced by young people in deprived areas of the UK.  In contrast, I thought Fagan did a much better job here; the picture she paints of the youth offenders system, and the experiences these young people face, is genuinely chilling.

I started reading The Panopticonwith the idea that it was a young adult novel.  I definitely revised this view over the course of the book.  As someone who works with young people, I’d hesitate to recommend this to anyone under the age of 15 due to the extremely strong language, and very frank discussion of drugs and sexual abuse, which run throughout the story.  That being said, I thought the way in which Fagan approached these contentious issues was unequivocally responsible; at no point were we allowed to think that Anais’ use of illegal substances was without potentially dangerous consequences.  Equally, promiscuous sex or sex for money is almost always linked to danger, unhappiness or even death in the most extreme example.

I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading The Panopticon; the whole thing was far too uncomfortable from start to finish.  The tone was occasionally lightened by a little humour as the ‘inmates’ of the home engage in some high jinx but these moments were brief at best, before the threat and menace descended once more.  Perhaps it’s just me but I could have done without constant swearing – I’ve never read a book with so many ‘see-you-next-Tuesday’s, and that includes Trainspotting.  However, I defer to Fagan’s firsthand experience of the Scottish justice system.  She may well just be adding authenticity to her novel.

Over all, I would recommend The Panopticon with caveats on the language and content, and a warning not to expect a ‘fun’ read.  It does expose the seedy nature of the life that may lead young people to end up in institutions like this, and it makes a point about how it’s especially easy for young people with mental health issues to become sucked into criminality.  Get ready to be unsettled.

The Panopticon is published by Heinemann.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

YA Review: Hollow Pike by James Dawson

She thought she’d be safe in the country, but you can’t escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams repeatedly that someone is trying to kill her.

Lis thinks she’s being paranoid – after all who would want to murder her?  She doesn’t believe the local legends of witchcraft.  She doesn’t believe that anything bad will really happen to her.

You never do, do you?

Not until you’re alone, in the woods, after dark – and a twig snaps…

Hollow pike – where witchcraft never sleeps

Hollow Pike tells the story of Lis London – victimised and bullied at her old school in Wales, she’s moved hundreds of miles to live with her grown-up sister in Yorkshire, Hollow Pike to be precise.  But when she arrives, to her horror, she recognises the place she’s seen in her dreams, or rather her nightmares.
And things only go from bad to worse once she arrives at her new school, to find the cliques and outcasts even more pronounced, and a girl called Laura Rigg ruling the school.
On top of all this, Lis is sure there’s something strange going on.  Could some of the local tales of witchcraft be true?

I really enjoyed this debut novel from former teacher (and ‘Queen of Teen’ nominee) James Dawson.  It was immediately obviously that Dawson has worked with young people, and that he’s got a really good understanding of teenage relationships – much more so than some YA authors – as the dialogue and school situations were realistic, within the context of the supernatural/paranormal genre that Hollow Pike inhabits.  

I would say that I think this book is aimed at mid-to-older teens, given the age of the main characters (Year 11, 16 years old) and some of the topics covered (relationships, drinking, a bit of light swearing), but I really think the level of that content has been well-judged and shouldn’t put off any parents thinking of buying this for their daughter.  I say daughter because it’s very rare for boys to read books with a female protagonist.  I think that’s a bit of a shame, but I also think Dawson was aware of that when he chose his main character.  Many teenage boys would drop the book in horror at the mention of a tampon on page 316!

Dawson has also made good use of his own background in Yorkshire to create a really believable setting in Hollow Pike and Fulton.  Many people may know of the Pendle witch trials, which also, in part, inspired Raven’s Gate, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s The Power of Five series.  These real historical events, along with references to the Salem witch trials via The Crucible, add to the ‘is it real, is it teenage hysteria’ mystery of the book, helping the reader to empathise with Lis and her feeling of confusion and disorientation.

I was pleased to see that Hollow Pike won’t have a sequel.  It feels like a really well-rounded narrative, and I felt happy to say goodbye to the characters at the end of the book.  However, Dawson has written a second, which, according to his website is with his editor now; it is a thriller for young adults, but won’t have a supernatural element this time.  I’m interested to see what it might be able and will definitely be keeping an eye out for a publication date.  In the mean time, I’m certainly adding Hollow Pike to my list of recommended YA fiction.

Hollow Pike is published by Indigo/Orion Children’s Books
James Dawson is on Twitter – @_jamesdawson

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

Review: Zom-B by Darren Shan

Can you love a bullying, racist thug if he’s your father?
Where do you hide when killer babies invade your dreams?
How do you react when confronted with your darkest inner demons?
What do you do when zombies attack?

B Smith is about to find out!

So says the blurb on the back of the advance copy of Zom-B, Darren Shan’s new YA Horror thriller.  I was interested to see how Shan, who normally deals more in the magical/fantasy type monsters, would deal with his first big foray into the world of teen zombies.  This is a subgenre that’s really expanding at the moment, on the back of a number of popular films – the rebooted Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, the ‘zomromcom’ Shaun of the Dead – and of course Charlie Higson’s bestselling The Enemy series.  However, Higson’s terrifying books have set the bar very high, so the question for me was, would this match up?

Sadly, I wasn’t a big fan of this book.  My main issue is with the structure of the plot.  The way in which the book is ‘sold’ is as a zombie-horror.  However, other than in the prologue, that’s exactly what the story is very light on!  In fact, the majority of the plot is taken up with the relation between B and dad Todd, a rightwing activist.  The story seemed to take a very long time to get going; I felt like the whole thing was really the exposition of something much longer.  This is the first book in a series – apparently planned to consist of twelve parts – but I feel it’s not really treating your readers well to leave so much to a second installment.  That being said, there are some fun twists which I really didn’t see coming at the end of the book, although they felt perhaps more like cliffhangers to set up the next book than revelations in their own right.

I do think this book suffered in comparison to Higson’s zombie trilogy (soon to be quartet).  I didn’t find the dialogue as naturalistic, there were inaccuracies in regard to the school settings and, while the time spent getting the reader to sympathise with the character of B was generally well-spent, there was little enough for us to admire and quite a lot that was still off-putting.  I’m also unsure as to whether it was necessary to spend so much time on B’s family here, even if Todd is a ‘interesting’ character.  It seemed that the book couldn’t decide whether it was a teen family drama or a horror/thriller; if Shan wants this to stand with his Cirque du Freak series, he may need to up his game and resolve this confusion in book 2.

Despite my reservations, I expect this will be a very successful book for Darren Shan; he already has a massive fan base of dedicated readers who I’m sure will enjoy Zom-B.  I’m not sure, however, if newcomers to Shan’s writing will enjoy this as much.  I don’t think it’s really fair to sell the beginning of a story as a book in itself, and I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to get the next installment when it’s published.  Especially because the fourth book in Higson’s The Enemy series is coming soon…

Zom-B by Darren Shan is due to be published on 27th September, by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten

YA Review: The Power of Five series so far, by Anthony Horowitz

As punishment for a crime he didn’t really commit, Matt was given a choice: go to jail or go live with an old woman named Mrs. Deverill in a remote town called Lesser Malling.
He should have chosen jail.
A strange and sinister plan is coming together made in Lesser Malling, with Matt at the center of it all. People who try to help him disappear … or die. It all ties to an evil place named Raven’s Gate – a place whose destiny is horrifyingly intertwined with Matt’s own.

The Power of Five series by Anthony Horowitz will be comprised of five books – Oblivion, the fifth installment, is due to be published in October 2012 – and I’ve been eagerly working my way through the first four, starting with Raven’s Gate, first published in 2005.

I’m already a fan of Horowitz’ work, having read the Alex Rider books, which I found really exciting and adventurous.  Alex Rider was a great, believable teenage character, who grew and developed over the course of the series as his adventurous became more and more thrilling and dangerous.  I was looking forward to more of the same fast, tough action from this series.

I have to say, at first I was a little disappointed with Raven’s Gate.  It started really well, introducing Matt Freeman, our hero, in an interesting way, but then, as Matt is taken to Lesser Malling by Mrs Deverill, the action slows somewhat.  I felt that, for a long time, we didn’t get a clear idea of what the malevolent power was that Mrs Deverill was in league with.  This meant that some of the big action scenes weren’t as exciting as they could have been, as I wasn’t quite sure how scared I was supposed to be.  Possibly, this is because I’ve been reading some pretty violent/scary YA fiction lately (The Hunger Games trilogy, Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series) but I didn’t really get as drawn in as I was expected.  I wanted a bit more depth in terms of the mythology behind the story – who were the Old Ones exactly? – and in fact for the characters as well.  I did discover that Raven’s Gate was at least partly based on one of Horowitz’ short stories, so perhaps that’s why.  I decided to keep reading as I’d been given the first three books in the series as part of my Reddit Book Swap, so I thought I might as well.

The second book in the series is called Evil Star.  In this volume, we accompany Matt to Peru.  The Nexus, the shady organisation who are working with Matt to combat The Old Ones, have discovered that, although [SPOILER] Matt and his new guardian Richard were successful in Lesser Malling, a new threat is rising in South America, and The Old Ones may be released into the world again…  So, Matt and Richard set off to try to stop this disaster before it happens.  Before long, their plan falls apart – has someone betrayed them? – and Matt is rescued by a street urchin names Pedro, who helps him attempt to complete his quest and stop the Old Ones from returning to terrorise humanity.

I enjoyed Evil Star a lot more than Raven’s Gate – finally we get some insight into the Old Ones, who they might be, what they want, and why Matt (and the four other Gatekeepers) have been chosen to try to stop them.  Pedro was a great addition, Richard became more than just a begrudging babysitter and Matt really starts to show some backbone.  The confrontation at the end of the book is really thrilling and the whole thing has more than a whiff of Mysterious Cities of Gold about it, which can only be a good thing.  And the dramatic ending of Evil Star leads us to…

Nightrise.  Good name! In Nightrise, we meet two new character, twin brothers Jamie and Scott, who have a strange and uncanny power.  They’re performing in a two-bit theatre show in Reno, they’ve been passed from pillar to post and it’s only going to get worse from here.  The shady Nightrise Corporation is taking an interest in them and it’s clear that’s not going to be good for the boys.  Jamie must battle to save his brother, and we discover how they fit into the wider story and mythology.

I found Nightrise more gripping again than the previous book in the series – Jamie is so well drawn, and there’s so much depth to him, the brothers’ relationship and the people who help him on the way.  I particularly like the sinister members of the Nightrise Corporation, and the way that the evil of the Old Ones is being perpetrated by capitalism in the modern world.  I also enjoyed the way Horowitze uses Jamie’s story to delve back in time to the ancient Gatekeepers, to give us a much clearer perspective on what the Old Ones and the Gatekeepers could be capable of.  The tension is definitely building as we start to see just what a monumental task our heroes have on their hands.

The fourth book in the series is called Necropolis.  I read this book in a day – I found it by far the best and most exciting part of the series to date.  It deals primarily with the fifth Gatekeeper, Scarlett, or Scar, although we have already met her (in a way) in Nightrise.  Here, Horowitz creates a really nasty, creepy new reality as the Old Ones’ power grows and they begin to wreak havoc, in Hong Kong.  The Nightrise Corporation returns, helping them to carry out the slow and insidious destruction of the city.  I felt this book edged from fantasy towards horror, as the quite gruesome nature of what is happening to people in the city is revealed.  There were some fantastic action sequences as Scarlett and the boys fight off their supernatural attackers and encounter some very dangerous locals too.  Luckily, they’re on the right side!

Over all, despite my initial mixed feelings, I’m very glad I kept reading.  There’s a great storyline unfolding here, which will grip young people and imaginative adults, drawing on a rich mix of cultures and mythologies, as well as some classic fantasy tropes.  Although Raven’s Gate is perhaps a little ‘light’, the later books certainly make up for this, with full on action scenes, creepy and intriguing villains and brilliantly described locations around the world.  The final book in the series, Oblivion, is due to be published in October 2012, and I for one will be queuing up for a copy.

Kate Neilan @Magic_Kitten

Review: Artemis Fowl and The Last Guardian

IS THIS THE END FOR ARTEMIS FOWL?

Opal Koboi, power-crazed pixie, is plotting to exterminate mankind and become fairy queen.

If she succeeds, the spirits of long-dead fairy warriors will rise from the earth, inhabit the nearest available bodies and wreak mass destruction. But what happens if those nearest bodies include crows, or deer, or badgers – or two curious little boys by the names of Myles and Beckett Fowl?

Yes, it’s true. Criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl’s four-year-old brothers could be involved in destroying the human race. Can Artemis and Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police stop Opal and prevent the end of the world?

Artemis Fowl and The Last Guardian is the final instalment in the phenomenally successful YA fantasy/action series by Eoin Colfer. Eoin first introduced Artemis to the world in 2001, already a criminal genius at the age of 12. Living in a mansion near Dublin, his (criminal mastermind) father disappeared and his mother mad with grief, he is convinced of the existence of fairies and is determined to get his hands on ‘The Book’, which could unlock untold riches and also a way to cure his mother.

Described by Colfer as ‘Die Hard with fairies’, the story romps through a brilliant, witty adventure peopled with a varied cast to say the least – LEPRecon officer Holly Short, a fairy, Foaly the tech-wizard centaur, Mulch Diggums the kleptomaniac dwarf and Artemis’ faithful bodyguard, the formidable Butler.

Artemis does succeed in unlocking the secrets of the Lower Elements (he is a genius, after all) but by the end of the book, he and the fairies are beginning to forge a shaky alliance. By the end of book 7 – Artemis Fowl and The Atlantis Complex – the boy genius has assisted the Fairy Folk in saving the world at least five times over.  The Last Guardian sees our heroes reuniting one last time to make a stand against arch-enemy Opal Koboi, who has one final plan to achieve world domination.

I have to say, I felt extremely privileged to be able to read this book before it goes on sale on Tuesday 10th July. At this stage, there’s no need for Puffin to send out proof copies to generate interest, but they did allow a very small number of ring-bound copies to be released to a few lucky bloggers and reviewers. I’m under strict instructions not to reveal any spoilers, but I’ll say what I can…

Any fans of Colfer will immediately recognise his snappy, quick writing style, with plenty of witty humour, up-to-date cultural references and names that play on words; young adult readers will particularly enjoy this, and it’s a refreshing change for a grown-up reader too. Then, of course, there’s the cast of characters who regular readers will know and love. It’s good to note, though, that all our key cast have grown and developed over the series, especially Artemis, and they now show a more mature, sophisticated approach to the disastrous situations facing them. They are not one-dimensional constructs but well-realised and interesting personalities, with histories that readers will treasure.

I found the book a very quick read, as the plot crashes along at break-neck speed. The whole book is set up right from the start with a very quick deadline to thwart Opal Koboi or face the extinction of the human race, so this really helped to keep the pace up. My interest was expertly held, as Colfer revealed each new aspect of Koboi’s plan and the heroes’ counterplanning, piece by little piece. It’s a masterclass in thriller plotting. I also really enjoyed, as always, the interweaving of technology and mythology that is typical of this series and Colfer’s work in general.

The final act is particularly tense, as we understand Artemis may be willing to do something very drastic in order to preserve his family, friends and the human race. Obviously, I can’t tell you what, or if he succeeds, or survives, but it’s a brilliantly emotional piece, and I was genuinely moved as I finished reading. I think Colfer has come up with a perfect way to conclude the series, and fans will feel he has done justice to the characters and story line.

Artemis Fowl and The Last Guardian is available to preorder, and is on sale from Tuesday 10th July, published by Puffin.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten