Sunday, 31 July 2011

Best of the Bunch #July 2011

I've just had my first full month of blogalicious YA fiction and it's now time to post my very first Best of the Bunch.

And the winner of the Best of the Bunch Award July 2011 is...

*dramatic pause*

The Hello Arithmetic by Mylo Reyes

Social-derelict Sprig Audley has graduated junior high school at St. Eustachius, and will be moving into his freshmen year of high school, sans the junior, at Glen West High. Sprung onto a social cartel that had no idea he ever existed, Sprig will have to deal with the caustic chore of attending high school, be it in the paradoxes of the female gender, finding the best piece of real-estate in the lunch room, or even accidentally beating the hell out of the schools toughest bullies and unleashing the worlds greatest senior prank. Follow Sprig's story in the funny, adventurous, and painfully awkward novel, The Hello Arithmetic.

This book landed in my inbox while I was on holiday earlier this month and I just loved it from start to finish. It's bursting with ceaseless quick-fire wit and took me straight back to my awkward and socially inept teen years. Just brilliant and well-deserving of my bananas.

You can read my full review here.

The Hello Arithmetic is a self published book but be assured I didn't pick it because I'm some indie fruit loop, I'm pretty mainstream really, but I do believe that all books, whether published by flashy publishers or one man in his shed are all equal when they enter the ring. It just so happens that The Hello Arithmetic beat all the other published books I read this month hands down.

Congratulations Mylo!

Please share your Best of the Bunch award by adding your link below.

The Wishlist Diet #4

*The Wishlist Diet is part of the In My Mailbox feature hosted by The Story Siren*

Well, I've just re-organised my wishlist (is there anything more satisfying than alphabetising your books?) but in doing so seem to have doubled its length... So, I'm quite relieved to be doing this week's Wishlist Diet, although I know it's an activity in vain - even if I knock of three titles this week I'll be adding five to the list next week. I have an odd sense of losing the battle and loving it!

To read:

Young Samurai: The Ring of Fire by Chris Bradford
Hunger by Michael Grant
A Tangle of Magicks by Stephanie Burgis

To review:

The Ring of Earth by Chris Bradford
The Ring of Water by Chris Bradford
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott
The Raven Girl by Kathy Cecala

Quite a stack this week! I'm hoping to get up to date with Young Samurai so I can sit and sweat in anticipation of the next one. What is that odd sensation of wanting the next book but also enjoying the excruciating wait between releases? I guess it's just one of the paradoxes of being a book nerd.

I'm especially looking forward to tomorrow when I will be posting my first ever Self Publishing Spotlight feature with the lovely Kathy Cecala who has given me a belter of a guest post. So if you have ever wondered what it's like to be your own publisher make sure you stop by tomorrow and maybe I can persuade you to try a self published book with my review of The Raven Girl.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

New YA Releases - August 2011

Here's a look ahead at what's got me excited in the world of YA fiction for August 2011. Let me know if you'll be reading any of these!

*please note I don't read hardbacks so although some of these have been out in hardback for a while they will be on this list as they are now coming out in paperback*

Extent: 352 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pub Date: 9th August 2011

When Alton's ageing, blind uncle asks him to attend bridge games with him, he agrees. After all, it's better than a crappy summer job in the local shopping mall, and Alton's mother thinks it might secure their way to a good inheritance sometime in the future. But, like all apparently casual choices in any of Louis Sachar's wonderful books, this choice soon turns out to be a lot more complex than Alton could ever have imagined. As his relationship with his uncle develops, and he meets the very attractive Toni, deeply buried secrets are uncovered and a romance that spans decades is finally brought to conclusion. Alton's mother is in for a surprise!

Extent: 288 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pub Date: 1st August 2011

When a Pincent Pharma lorry is ambushed by the Underground, its contents come as a huge surprise - not drugs but corpses in a horrible state. It appears Longevity isn't working and the drugs that are supposed to guarantee eternal youth are failing to live up to their promise. A virus is sweeping the country, killing many in its wake, and Longevity is powerless to fight it. When Richard Pincent of Pincent Pharma suggests that the Underground has released the virus, something has to be done to alert everyone to the truth and put the story straight once and for all.

Extent: 384 pages
Publisher: Michael Joseph
Pub Date: 23rd August 2011

We are the last defence.

I've seen him on the news. Followed the stories about what happened to John Smith. To the world he's a mystery, but to me ... he's one of us. Nine of us came here, but sometimes I wonder if time has changed us, if we all still believe in our mission.

There are six of us left. We're hiding, blending in, avoiding contact with one another, but our Legacies are developing and soon we'll be ready to fight. Is John Number Four - and is his appearance the sign I've been waiting for? And what about Number Five and Six? Could one of them be the raven-haired girl with the stormy eyes from my dreams? The girl with powers that are beyond anything I could ever imagine? The girl who might be strong enough to bring the six of us together?

They caught Number One in Malaysia. Number Two in England. And Number Three in Kenya. They tried to catch Number Four in Ohio ... and failed. I am Number Seven. And I'm ready to fight.

Extent: 384 pages
Publisher: Chicken House
Pub Date: 4th August 2011

Thomas was sure that escape from the maze meant he and the Gladers would get their lives back. But no one knew what sort of life they were going back to.

The earth is a wasteland. Government and order have disintegrated and now Cranks, people driven to murderous insanity by the infectious disease known as the Flare, roam the crumbling cities hunting for their next victim…and meal.

Thomas can only wonder - does he hold the secret of freedom somewhere in his mind? Or will he forever be at the mercy of WICKED?

The pulse-pounding sequel to The Maze Runner.

Extent: 304 pages
Publisher: Templar
Pub Date: 1st August 2011

Regency England's feistiest twelve year old is back! When Kat Stephenson's family arrive in Bath in search of a suitor for her sister, it's not long before Kat discovers that the town of Bath is fizzing with wild magic. Stumbling upon a plot to harness the magic in the Roman Baths, Kat finds that her brother is unwittingly involved. To foil the plot and save her brother she must defy the Order of the Guardians and risk losing her magical powers, forever...

Extent: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pub Date: 30th August 2011

The president’s son, luke, and his friends Theo and Callie are constantly being watched by Secret Service agents at Camp David. But when things spiral out of control, Luke and his friends are suddenly on their own, racing to escape a raging wildfire threatening their lives. They urgently need a plan: to override the security systems, to save those who were supposed to save them, to get through an impassable gate, and to escape Camp David.

Debut author Dee Garretson delivers a heart-pounding survival thriller—an action-packed adventure with undeniable suspense.

Extent: 352 pages
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 4th August 2011

After a snowstorm forces him to take shelter, Jack comes across a village in need of protection from raiding mountain bandits. Torn between moving on or helping, Jack is persuaded to stay and fight their cause.

But Jack is the first and only samurai to do so. Now he must enlist other warriors to the village's aid before the bandits return to steal their harvest. No easy task when the reward is so little and he is a foreigner. If only he had his friends to call on…

Using the Ring of Fire, can Jack overpower the bandits and win?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Review: Young Samurai: The Way Of The Dragon - Chris Bradford

Extent: 448
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 4th march 2010

June 1613. Japan is threatened with war and Jack is facing his greatest battle yet.

Samurai are taking sides and, as the blood begins to flow, Jack's warrior training is put to the ultimate test. His survival - and that of his friends - depends upon him mastering the Two Heavens, the secret sword technique of the legendary samurai Masamoto Takeshi. But first Jack must recover his father's prize possession from the deadly ninja Dragon Eye.

Can Jack defeat his ruthless enemy? Or will the ninja complete his mission to kill the young samurai...

The first trio of Young Samurai books reaches its climax in The Way Of The Dragon and this is actually a pretty harrowing climax. Gone is the safety of the training dojo, gone are the wooden training swords and gone is Jack’s most prized possession. The samurai face a war on a massive scale and Jack must do everything in his power to find his father’s rutter if he has any chance of saving his little sister. This time, it’s serious.

As a gaijin, a foreigner, Jack is actually part of the cause of the coming war; the western presence that showed up at the beginning of The Way Of The Warrior is back and takes a central role in this third book. The Portuguese Jesuits may believe they come from a far more advanced civilisation and their mission is to enlighten this backward race but they could not be more wrong. Each page that lingers on the character of Father Bobadillo feels like it is heavy with poison, the Jesuit’s presence is toxic to the beautiful and balanced way of life that already exists in Japan. It’s just so frustrating that many samurai cannot see the good foreigners through all the bad ones, Jack has left the western world behind and adopted Japan but still he is discriminated against. I guess that’s just old school racism for you but Chris Bradford plays this fraught situation out with great tension and moments of inspired hope.

I’m so glad Bradford spends so long on the build up to the great battle because he ekes out in great detail the kind of internal turmoil and terror that grips an inexperienced warrior as he stands and waits to join the fight. It’s the mixture of fast paced action and gradually applied dread that makes the Young Samurai books so exquisite and this moment before the battle is the most terrifying experience I have ever had in a book. I could actually feel my nerves tingling and my adrenaline rushing and my body prepared my cowardly self to run where those young kids had to fight. It’s just an incredible piece of writing that builds the tension and lifts the spirits with an unbending hope and suddenly your faith in humanity is catapulted into the stratosphere.

I’m not going to give anything away but the ending is a real testament to friendship and I think that’s what this book really examines. It’s about the sacrifices that people make for their friends and the enduring strength of the virtue of loyalty that is at the basis of bushido. A true warrior is not a lonely one. I honestly felt emotionally drained by the end of this book and just distraught at the way things played out but that is not a bad thing. Actually it shows just what a superb writer Chris Bradford is, the range of his ability is astonishing and I wouldn’t change anything because I wouldn’t not want to go through what I did as I read The Way Of The Dragon. In my opinion, it’s a masterpiece and I’m just so glad I picked these books up because there would genuinely be a Jack shaped hole in my life if I hadn’t. I am over the moon that there is a new series of Young Samurai and if I could I would lock Chris Bradford up in my cupboard (in a non-creepy way) and command him to write for all eternity because I do not want these books to end.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Review: Young Samurai: The Way Of The Sword - Chris Bradford

Extent: 400
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 2nd July 2009

One year of training in samurai school and Jack Fletcher is in real trouble…

Not only is he struggling to prepare for the Circle of Three, an ancient ritual that tests a samurai’s courage, skill and spirit to the limit, he’s caught in a running battle with fellow student Kazuki and his gang.

But these are the least of Jack’s problems. He knows his deadly rival – the ninja Dragon Eye - could strike at any moment. Jack possesses the very thing he will kill for.

Can Jack master the Way of the Sword in time to survive a fight to the death?

Jack has spent a year at the Niten Ichi Ryu training as a samurai, but having proven himself to his friends, now he has to prove himself against the ultimate samurai test: the Circle of Three.

The great thing about Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai books is that no matter how much he has told you in the last book or how much you think you have learnt, the next book is jam packed with new lessons and new experiences. Each subsequent book you pick up is like a brand new packet of crisps, bursting with new flavours you’ve never tasted before. OK, I did just compare a book to a packet of crisps… What I mean is, in The Way Of The Sword, Bradford brings the reader a whole new storyline (the flavour bit) nestled in the overall plot of the series whilst developing the story strings that are attached from The Way Of The Warrior (the potato bit). Jack must learn a new martial art, learn to fight blind, perfect the art of origami and interpret the lessons of virtue through the challenges he faces. That’s what I really love about the Young Samurai books: it feels like the author couldn’t possibly tell you everything there is to know about being a samurai and all the training and lessons involved but he’s going to give it a damn good try and he succeeds without making it seem forced into the storyline. The story takes precedence but each chapter is so neatly packed that all the training becomes part of the story and at the end you understand how all that training comes together.

The relationships between the characters continue to deepen and although Jack now has a strong group of friends around him, he is faced with the challenge of the possibility that his closest friend, Akiko, may be deceiving them all. Jack’s arch rival, Kazuki, also takes a turn for the worse when he creates his black scorpion gang in an attempt to rid Japan of foreigners. Kazuki is so cleverly written because, despite the fact that he’s on a level if not slightly better than Jack in terms of his fighting skills, he is actually far less of a samurai than Jack is. Jack has bushido coming out of his ears but Kazuki concentrates so much on perfecting his ability to defeat someone that he has completely neglected to nurture his bushido, and probably will never have the ability to gain bushido as he is too consumed by hatred.

In the end, that’s what The Way Of The Sword is all about. This second book is where Jack – and the reader – really come to understand what bushido is. Kazuki may get to his destination faster but what has he sacrificed on the way? It doesn’t come easily to Jack, however, he learns the meaning of the virtue of honesty the hard way and nearly loses everything because he didn’t have the guts to tell the truth. This is a fantastic sequel to The Way Of The Warrior, the story is faultless, I wouldn’t change one word of it, and once again I feel just a little bit wiser than I was before I read it.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Wishlist Diet #3

*The Wishlist Diet is part of the In My Mailbox feature hosted by The Story Siren*

I'm going through a very Japanese period at the moment having just taken a review trip with my favourite books ever: Young Samurai. I'll be posting my reviews of each book out so far over this week and next in anticipation of The Ring Of Fire which will be out on 4th August - I'm literally bouncing up and down in my chair with impatience! So I thought I'd carry on the theme while simultaneously hacking into my wishlist.

To read:

Young Samurai: The Ring Of Water by Chris Bradford
Shadows On The Moon by Zoe Marriott

To review:

Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword by Chris Bradford

So if you haven't come across Young Samurai yet, make sure you check back here this week to hear me blithering on about them. I've already posted my review of The Way Of The Warrior so read that if you want a glimpse at my obsession...

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Review: Young Samurai: The Way Of The Warrior - Chris Bradford

Extent: 352 pages
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 7th August 2008

August 1611. Jack Fletcher is shipwrecked off the coast of Japan - his beloved father and the crew lie slaughtered by ninja pirates.

Rescued by the legendary sword master Masamoto Takeshi, Jack's only hope is to become a samurai warrior. And so his training begins.

But life at the samurai school is a constant fight for survival. Even with his friend Akiko by his side, Jack is singled out by bullies and treated as an outcast.

With courage in his heart and his sword held high, can Jack prove himself and face his deadliest rival yet?

I'm going to come straight out and say I'm immensely excited to be reviewing the Young Samurai books, this is a massive undertaking for me because these books are the only books so far that have come close to stirring in me the same feelings that Harry Potter did so I want to do them justice. So, I'm getting the spurting on about how much I love the books over right now so you might actually get to read about why, to me, The Way Of The Warrior is such a great book. Here we go: I LOVE YOUNG SAMURAI! Ahem, OK, moving on...

I had a sneaky feeling I would like the Young Samurai books before I actually read The Way Of The Warrior. I'd done martial arts throughout my teenhood and had read Oriental Studies at uni so I have a pretty strong affinity with all things east and I'd been waiting for a very long time for a young adult title to come out in the UK that focused on the incredible cultures of the far east and particularly martial arts. And here it was as long last! Then there was the worry that the story would be disappointing so I began with some trepidation but I was only a few chapters in when I realised that this book was going to fit me perfectly, my very own tailored suit, or tailored story even.

The Way Of The Warrior essentially takes the age old, extremely engaging - and probably my favourite - plot type of success through perseverance and puts it in the fascinating and heavily under-used setting of early 17th century Japan. The hero, Jack, suddenly finds himself plunged into a completely alien situation where seemingly everyone is either suspicious of him or just plain despises him because he's a gaijin, a foreigner. Yet, despite all that, he pushes on to prove himself, to make friends and to show the doubters that he is worthy of being a samurai. Jack goes through an epic personal journey from being utterly defenseless, able only to look on as his father is brutally killed, to facing his father's murderer with true bushido.

Add to this an incredible writing style and characters that pop fully formed into your imagination and you have a recipe for one of my favourite books ever written. Probably one of Chris Bradford's sneakiest writing tricks is to end many chapters on a beginning which means that you end up reading long after you meant to stop. Who needs sleep when there are ninja attacking?! And that's the great thing about ninja, shrouded in mystery with almost mythical stealth and deadly fighting skills they make for pretty terrifying bad guys and none are more menacing than Bradford's top bad guy: Dragon Eye. He casts a shadow over every page like an irrepressible threatening presence so that when he does eventually make his appearance I can feel my heart pounding in fear. Dragon Eye, however, is only one of many interesting characters in The Way Of The Warrior and the relationships between the young samurai at the school have their ups and downs just like real friendships, giving them a great dynamic in the plot. The fraught relationship between Jack and his adopted brother, Yamato, is particularly captivating, one of the golden threads in the plot and a triumph for virtue and friendship.

As you read The Way Of The Warrior, you're looking through Jack's eyes and learning all about 17th century Japan, Japanese words and customs and begin to get an insight into the way of the samurai. You soon come to learn what I learnt as a teen doing karate and kung fu: being able to hit, kick or slash at someone does not make you a good warrior. Martial art is so much more than that. It's about bushido, it's about the seven virtues, it's about what the fighting skills do to you internally. It's about nurturing a good soul and becoming a wiser person and by the end of this book you feel positively sage-like, although you know your lessons have only just begun. The Way Of The Warrior does all this yet couches your training in a heart-pounding adventure and an exciting exploration of a land not taught about in UK schools. Jack's bushido is his greatest weapon against Dragon Eye, not his young fighting skills, but his greatest enemy has yet to be defeated...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Review: Pegasus - Robin McKinley

Extent: 416 pages
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 7th July 2011

On her twelfth birthday, Princess Sylviianel is ceremonially bound to her own Pegasus, Ebon. For a thousand years humans and pegasi have lived peacefully in the beautiful green country beyond the wild lands. They rely on human magicians and pegasi shamans as their only means of real communication - but not Sylvi and Ebon. Their friendship is like no other. . .

They can understand each other.

But as their bond grows more powerful, it becomes dangerous - could their friendship threaten to destroy the peace and safety of their two worlds?

I love a good high fantasy - the feeling of immersing yourself in a completely different world with a new set of rules where anything could happen. There is, however, a big reason why I steer clear of adult high fantasy: authors tend to get bogged down in world-setting (like scene-setting only bigger) and you have to wade through pages and pages of extraneous rambling that they have made up to make their world comprehensive and real to actually get to anything that resembles plot. I'm not generalising, some adult fantasy writers strike an excellent balance and find clever and subtle ways to combine world-setting and plot and this is what I find for the vast majority of YA high fantasy writers like Tamora Pierce or Garth Nix or Angie Sage. With Pegasus, however, I really struggled to find any real plot. The book starts off with chapter after chapter of background history which at first I didn't mind because I had high hopes that this incredibly detailed history was going to lead to an incredible story full of adventure and mystery. But I was seriously disappointed.

I got nearly halfway through this book and did not find anything that could be conceived as a plot. Most of the pages are filled with Princess Sylvi and her pegasus flying at night with the only hint of a thrill being the fact that this is a social faux pas in Sylvi's world or with the pair going to endless village fetes where nothing happens. I'm afraid I didn't get any further than that as I found my own dull life had more interesting plot in it. If anyone else has got further than this and actually found a story then do let me know and I might force myself to finish it.

One redeeming factor is that the writing is pretty good and that's why I gave this book two stars instead of one but the style of story-telling seems completely random. One minute you're in the present and then suddenly they are in the past or the future or slightly earlier that day or three years hence and there is no natural break from one period to the other so I got completely confused as to when I was reading. I had to keep going back a few pages to try to suss out at what point the narrative had changed timeline and throughout there seems to be an endless supply of long-winded side stories that I'm sure would add to the plot if there actually was one.

I know I'm being harsh but I'm a real fan of stories, that's why I read books and that's why I love YA because they are all about the story and cut out unnecessary waffle that turns teens off. I really do love high fantasy and I know a certain amount of contextualisation and world-setting has to take place and that's all part of the fun of reading high fantasy but when you get halfway through a book and a plot has failed to materialise I'm afraid I just can't carry on when there are thousands of stories out there waiting for me to read them. If I wanted to read all about the history of a world I would pick up a book on world history but I'm afraid when I pick up a work of fiction, I expect a good story.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Review: The Hello Arithmetic - Mylo Reyes

Extent: 196 pages
Publisher: Self Published
Pub Date: 15 July 2011
Available in print or download from Lulu

Social-derelict Sprig Audley has graduated junior high school at St. Eustachius, and will be moving into his freshmen year of high school, sans the junior, at Glen West High. Sprung onto a social cartel that had no idea he ever existed, Sprig will have to deal with the caustic chore of attending high school, be it in the paradoxes of the female gender, finding the best piece of real-estate in the lunch room, or even accidentally beating the hell out of the schools toughest bullies and unleashing the worlds greatest senior prank. Follow Sprig's story in the funny, adventurous, and painfully awkward novel, The Hello Arithmetic

As I read The Hello Arithmetic, I was actually – worryingly – reminded of myself when I hit the UK equivalent of high school. Just like Sprig, I was awkward, socially unpractised, unpopular, didn’t know where to put myself at lunch because I had next to no friends… Unlike Sprig, however, I didn’t have a survival kit that included a quick wit and a wonderfully ironic outlook on life. And this is what I just couldn’t get enough of in this book. Mylo Reyes has created exactly the kind of voice in Sprig that I long to find in a young adult read; he has balanced perfectly the kind of self-conscious and paranoid inner monologue of a teen that hears people silently making fun of him at the bus stop with an outrageously original wit that relentlessly hits back at the torments of teen life. It really wasn’t long before I started giggling along to this book and not because it’s silly but because it is genuinely clever, displaying the kind of dry wit we all wish we could conjure up in moments of despair.

The writing is just superb, Mylo shows off a real creative intelligence not only in his humour but in his ability to crack out new words which, by the way, is my all time favourite writing trick. When I see words like “Shakespearince” and “leaf-bundent” my intellect flutters. I think, however, the pinnacle of Mylo’s writing prowess shines through in occasional paragraphs where a game of table tennis wit was played out. The world hits Sprig with something dull or frustrating but in the same breath he strikes back with a play on words or a clever sarcastic comment that seems so unforced you wonder if Mylo really meant it to happen. Of course he did, these paragraphs demonstrate an unparalleled skill in humorous symmetry. It got to the point where I panicked if I thought I hadn’t paid attention to a paragraph as I could have missed something!

Right after that I checked in to English just in time for Ms. Mabson to provide us an in-class free form writing assignment. She told us that we could write about anything we wanted but had to fill up a paragraph or two and it had to make sense. Sounded simple enough, so I thought it would be a good idea to take an in-class sabbatical and reflect for a bit.  [p.65]

The Hello Arithmetic has the feel of a fictional auto-biography as there is such a high level of detail that just has to come from memory. It’s almost like a candid documentary with a camera following Sprig through his first days of high school and a microphone wired into his brain. It’s not just a made up story, it’s a genuine insight wrapped up in splendid irony and dry wit. It’s a couple of weeks in the life of a nerdy teen who on the one hand rants at the injustices and trivialities of high school life but on the other is desperately trying to find a way to fit in somewhere and make friends. A hopeless task, it would seem, when his best chat-up line is “the DOW/JONES is rising”.

Check out Mylo's website here.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Wishlist Diet #2

*The Wishlist Diet is part of the In My Mailbox feature hosted by The Story Siren*

Well, I'm back from my holiday and although I had planned to read at least 50 books while away I actually spent more time hiking up the Cornish hills - of which there are many... So, mission failed, here's what I'm reading this week.

To read:

Young Samurai: The Ring of Earth by Chris Bradford
The Raven Girl by Kathy Cecala

Chris Bradford is a real favourite of mine and I recently finished the first three Young Samurai books and with The Ring of Fire coming out next month I've got some catching up to do! Kathy Cecala is my first author for my Self Publishing Spotlight with her book The Raven Girl so I'll be on the review path and Kathy will be dropping off an exciting guest post all about her work. Most exciting!

To review:

Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior by Chris Bradford
Young Samurai: The Way of the Sword by Chris Bradford
Young Samurai: The Way of the Dragon by Chris Bradford

Turns out I'm having a bit of a Chris Bradford week!

Pegasus by Robin McKinley

I'm halfway through Pegasus so hopefully I'll get a review up this week!

Review: Gamerunner - B. R. Collins

Extent: 288 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pub Date: 4th July 2011

Rick is a Gamerunner. His job is to test there are no glitches or bugs in The Maze - the computer game that is much more than just a computer game. In the Maze you physically become your avatar. You fight, run and loot, all the time avoiding the deadly slicing traps - whirling blades that appear from nowhere. Rick has known nothing outside The Maze and his life at the headquarters of Crater, the company that created The Maze. When Rick's father falls out of favour and Rick is faced with being thrown out of Crater HQ into the outside world - a world of flesh-dissolving acid rain and ferocious, feral roving gangs - Rick has some life-changing decisions to make...

As soon as you open the pages of Gamerunner you are immediately plunged into a very strange but horrifyingly realistic future where computer games are more of an alternate reality than a hobby. Gamers can live out most of their days in a game tank where their bodies and minds are hooked up to The Maze and through their avatars they can explore an unending world. When you think about it, this isn't actually that far from a couple of games that are around today - The Sims, World of Warcraft and perhaps most alarmingly Second Life where you can create yourself virtually and live a virtual life. I say alarmingly because with developments in gaming like these, coupled with increasingly immersive experiences - like the Xbox Kinect - it's not actually that hard to imagine the future that B. R. Collins has created. It doesn't need too much mental exercise to envision a company like Google or Apple or Nintendo could create something that would make them the most powerful entity on the planet and in order to escape the horrors of a ruined world, people become enslaved to them, addicted to the virtual world because the real one is so unbearable. This future gives Gamerunner actually quite a frightening premise and you can feel the threat of this reality looming as you read, like a drum-laden soundtrack thrumming in your ears.

The hero, Rick, is one of those heros whom you don't know whether to cry over or slap around the face. The reader is plunged into this world with him and not told anything so you have to suck up every scrap of information the author feeds you in order to understand what's happening and understand Rick's situation. This is actually a really clever piece of writing as it makes the reader feel the kind of dark chaos and confusion that Rick feels as his world suddenly changes and no one will tell him why it has changed. He then makes some really stupid decisions (which is when I wanted to slap him!) but he's making those decisions based on his life and the reactions he would have in The Maze - and that's the point at which I want to cry over him because actually, his life is The Maze and he has so little experience of real life that he doesn't know what to do or how to behave in reality. You go through his first real world experiences with him that he should have had as a child but is only just getting round to them as a teenager, like crying, pain and death. It's like his realities have switched but unlike The Maze where he can just start again when he dies, he can't escape the horrors of real life and he doesn't know how to cope with them. And no one will help him.

I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness as I read this book and funnily enough it was actually the kind of heart-hollowing loneliness I often felt when I used to play computer games for too long. B. R. Collins really knows how to tap into that part of your psyche that is attached to playing games and if you don't play computer games, you'll know exactly how it feels.

Gamerunner is not a happy read but it is a very important read, a brilliantly written insight into a dangerously possible future where care for the real world has been replaced by care for a virtual world. As the real world becomes less habitable for humans, the virtual world becomes the only place where a person can really live but it is just as cut throat and unforgiving and gradually enslaves the entire population who are addicted to escaping the world they've ruined. Despite being in a privileged position, Rick is no exception to this, he is the greatest slave of all: a slave to his father, a slave to The Maze, a slave to Crater, a slave to the outside world, Undone, and because he's never learnt how to live in the real world he is first and foremost a slave to himself.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Review: TimeRiders - Alex Scarrow

Extent: 432 pages
Publisher: Puffin
Pub Date: 4th February 2010

Liam O'Connor should have died at sea in 1912.

Maddy Carter should have died on a plane in 2010.

Sal Vikram should have died in a fire in 2029.

Yet moments before death, someone mysteriously appeared and said, "Take my hand..."

But Liam, Maddy and Sal aren't rescued. They are recruited by an agency that no one knows exists, with only one purpose - to fix broken history. Because time travel is here, and there are those who would go back in time and change the past.

That's why the TimeRiders exist: to protect us. To stop time travel from destroying the world...

When I think about a time travel story, my first instinct is to go straight to the story, pick one of the many points in history that excite me and imagine all the hilarious, awkward and hair-raising situations modern kids would get themselves into. Oh, and then I'd shove in some lame time travelling apparatus and crowbar in a reason for the kids to accidentally fall through a wormhole. And that's probably why I don't have an empire of time travelling novels and Alex Scarrow does. The time travelling element isn't just crowbarred in after the story has been written, it forms the incredibly - and sometimes alarmingly - robust basis of the book. It's scientific, it's clever, it's comprehensive and it's the nearest I have ever been to believing that time travel is actually happening, we neanderthals just aren't aware of it yet.

A good example is the way that the TimeRiders have to be suspended almost naked in a vat of water when they travel in order to prevent contamination but on the other side this leaves them inconveniently wet and, well, almost naked when they arrive. Why would you force this on your characters? Wouldn't you rather gear them up and give them some awesome gadgets? Not if you've actually thought about the mechanics and the risks of time travel and the water vat scheme turns out to be the most practical for non-fiction time travel.

This level of detail and the consequent extreme realism is the foundation of elite science fiction; it's what makes the world of Star Trek so popular and what creates some of the world's most passionate fans and Alex Scarrow has done his utmost to produce the most realistic time travel world I have ever encountered.

And then there's the story itself which I really struggled to find fault with. It trots along at a great pace with an infuriating lack of explanations that keep you turning (or in my case clicking) over to the next page as the narrative snakes from one point of view to another. What I find really impressive is the distinctiveness of each character's voice, it's one of those skills in authors I really admire: to be able to switch seamlessly the tone of the narrative voice to suit the character the story is following.

It is quite a while into the book before any time alteration occurs but the beginning is far from long-winded as it takes you through the mechanics of the time travel and the training of the TimeRiders which helps the reader realise that time travel and timeline alteration is not something to make light of. In fact, as the story builds you'll find that the most threatening bad guy is not the deluded time alterer, it's actually time travel itself. It is very much shown to have a similar effect and threat level on the world as the splitting of the atom. As Dr Oppenheimer aptly quoted, "Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds", the same can be applied to the fictional creator of time travel in TimeRiders, Roald Waldstein. The invention of time travel causes nothing but destruction yet cannot be uninvented and even the good guys, the time cops, are sucked into the devastation, facing the choice of either dying horribly in their own times or sacrificing and risking everything in order to prevent time alteration. The costs of keeping their lives are immense, the responsibility of the world rests on their shoulders yet they are only kids - kids without the choices we take for granted.

So, the observant amongst you may have noticed that I quite liked this book, it has put in place the strong foundations of a fantastic sci-fi series and unfolds a thrilling adventure with quite a serious edge. My only gripe is that the story can drag in a few places, a bit like an adult novel (which is exactly why I don't read grown up books: waffle, waffle, waffle...), but this really is a minor niggle; it certainly won't stop me from reading the rest of the TimeRiders books and I'm really looking forward to many more exciting and intriguing time alterations.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Wishlist Diet #1

Here is my first attempt at The Story Siren's In My Mailbox feature but since I'm not inundated with books from publishers (yet!) my post will be all about putting my wishlist on a diet and making a pledge to read some of the books that are on it. So here are the books I'm going to read and hopefully review this week.

To read:

Game Runner by B.R. Collins
Pegasus by Robin McKinley

I'm very excited about reading these two books, I have a feeling they will be very different to each other...

To review:

Time Riders - Alex Scarrow

This will be my big review this week as I'm on the last few pages but I will be raiding my bookshelf to write some surprise reviews - well I can't tell you everything!