Review: SP4RX

sp4rxHaving read How to Survive in the North, I’ve got a 100% success rate with graphic novels – read one, loved one. Wren McDonald’s SP4RX, a cyber punk novel set in a dystopian future, maintains my winning streak – read two, loved two. It’s a riveting, thriller of a read – and one to make you think.

SP4RX, a not-to-be-messed-with computer hacker, becomes involved in a do-or-die struggle with Structus Industries who are using technology to control the impoverished people on the ‘lower levels’, while the ‘upper levels’ flourish and live a life of indulgence. Desperate and alone, his only hope is a mysterious band of insurgents who plan to bring the system crashing down around them – but can they be trusted?

This is a worthy companion (or more likely a worthy introduction) to 1984 or Brave New World, classic stories of a class system gone horribly wrong (it also reminded me of a recent film – High Rise – based on a novel by JG Ballard). It serves as a warning against inequality and the relentless corporate mantra which means ‘efficiency’ is used as a justification for any number of evils. SP4RX also serves as a warning about technology and how, in the wrong hands, it brings control rather than freedom.

The drawings are extraordinary powerful. McDonald confines himself to the colour purple and uses different shades of the single colour to great effect. As a graphic novel novice, it’s fascinating to look how facial expressions are conveyed – a mere tilt of an eyebrow can convey great emotion and the most powerful scenes are perhaps the wordless ones. Interestingly, SP4RX sometimes loses his facial features entirely, particularly in the busier scenes – he becomes more anonymous, uniform.

Not one for younger children – there’s swearing and a fair dose of violence – but definitely for teenagers who want a page-turner and some food for thought.  Give it as a gift, sandwiched between those novels by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

Review: Animal Babies

animalbabiesAs any parent of young children will know, there comes a moment when it’s time for a clear out. It’s when the floor is no longer visible beneath a carpet of plastic cars, colouring books and various devices which bleep, glow or flash at unpredictable moments. It’s when you no longer tidy the mess but simply bend the knees, stoop low, drive the shoulders into the mass of tat, and shove it piled-high into a corner.

It’s also well-known that clear outs have to be clandestine affairs, carried out stealthily when the kids are in bed. Do this with said children and you’re doomed. Untouched board games suddenly become precious treasures. Fluff-covered superhero figures, left alone for months in some dark recess, are suddenly clutched lovingly to chests. Despite lacking critical parts and despite generating next to no prior interest, jigsaws become vital, as essential as oxygen.

In a recent after hours clear out, and with that unique, stomach-flipping feeling of discovering your children have moved imperceptibly from one stage of life to the next, we filled a bag of board books. My children are babies no more. So many favourites, like Millie Moo, Rainbow Rob, I Like it When – reminders of those special days when books weren’t just read, they were licked and chewed and salivated upon. Books that established a bond between adult and child, before words are understood – when the neurons in the brain are firing in a way that is almost perceptible.

It’s highly unlikely I will buy another board book, unless as a gift for someone else. If I were to part with my cash, Animal Babies by Julia Groves would be a wise investment. There’s a series of four, each one showing bold images of animal parent and child across a double-page spread.

animalbabies2The pictures are intriguing – the best way I can describe them is that they are pictures that appear almost like photographs, such is their accuracy and nuance.  They have a warm, engaging quality which infuses each animal with character and depth.

Animals often feature in children’s books, but the author has cleverly moved beyond the predictable. All the animals you expect are in the books, plus ones you wouldn’t. These are built to last, both in design and content – an older child would be interested to look at a raccoon and their baby kits or an alpaca and baby cria.

These books will be finding their way to a good home, now my children are too old for them. And, one thing’s for sure, when it comes to clear out time, Animal Babies will be firmly in somebody’s ‘keep’ pile.

A copy of Animal Babies was provided by the author. 

Review: Alfie Bloom and the Talisman Thief

talismanAlfie Bloom is the sort of book that gets children hooked on reading. The narrative zips along – it’s chock-full of magic, mystery, time travel and more evil elves than you can shake a stick at.

The main character, Alfie, and his buddies are easy-going and likeable, and the baddies are of the pantomime kind, inviting a boo-hiss and a wild cheer when they get their comeuppance.

This book, the Talisman Thief, leads on nicely from the first in the series and points enticingly towards the third. It’s a fun, moreish read – you can well imagine this book being devoured, feasted on by fans of Charlie Bone and Harry Potter.

Review: Archie Snufflekins

ArchieSnufflekins_cover_webOver the years I’ve placed many things on a pedestal – footballers, musicians, artists and authors. Norman Whiteside, for anyone with a recollection of football in the early eighties, was the first – his posters adorned my bedroom walls, and everything he did was majestic, a colossus in the midfield of an otherwise mediocre team.

While Norman always had a blu-tacked space in my room – he’d still be up there if I had my way – others soon joined him. Almost every heavy metal band of note was pinned up at some point, poodle hair and all. Then, as I moved through those deeply serious teenage years, black and whites of Dylan appeared, as well as whatever French impressionist was in the bargain bucket in Athena (whatever happened to Athena!). Later, it was prints of Hemingway front covers and probably a Sartre too, just to show how damn clever I was.

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Review: How to Survive in the North

HowToSurviveInTheNorth_coverLet me start with a confession.  Despite my claims to bookishness, before How to Survive in the North, I had never read a graphic novel.  It’s a whole world I know little or nothing about. So I have no real barometer to measure the book against. I know not whether it is better or worse than other books of its kind, whether it breaks new ground or churns over familiar turf.

I feel out of my depth – it’s like discovering new music, like listening to jazz for the first time. All I do know is that I read it, mesmerised, in one sitting.

The book weaves together three stories, two of them historical and based on truth, the third is contemporary and entirely fictional. The true stories are each about expeditions. They tell us much about survival, and about that strange human spirit that make us go to places that may kill us. Continue reading

Interview: Andy Briggs (Iron Fist)

Iron Fist is a thrill-a-minute adventure story from Andy Briggs.  It’s premise is a cracker – a secret inventory, as large as a city and packed to the brim with gizmos and gadgets, hidden from the world and kept safe by Dev and his uncle.  No surprise that some serious baddies want to get their hands on the goodies inside, not least the mysterious Iron Fist. The Inventory is impregnable.  Well, it’s supposed to be…

I’m delighted to welcome Andy Briggs to the blog, he’s been good enough to answer a few questions about the book.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAI really enjoyed Iron Fist – was it fun to write?  Where did the idea for it come from?

It was terrific fun to write because I tried something new. It’s my twenty-first book (gasp! Even I had to check) and I normally plan each chapter and character beat before I start, which is something I do for screenplays. This time I wanted the Inventory to surprise me, so I knew where to start and where I was headed and, aside from a few character beats, I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Iron FistI love inventions and often read about new and exciting things that never see the light of day, such as water powered cars (yes, they have built them) and personal rocket packs (another yes for those). In the back of old comic books you used to see adverts of glasses that hypnotise your friends or gizmos that allow you to breathe underwater. So why keep them a secret? Obviously somebody is judging that the world is not ready to use them, so they’re being hidden away from us by some sinister anti-Santa Claus.

There’s more to come in the series – have you got them all mapped out?   Can you give us a hint where the story will go next?

Oh, there is a lot more to come! I think the beauty about inventions, and the world of gadgets, is that you can always add things to existing situations in a more organic way – by its very nature, I can just keep inventing! I have a series of stories within-in stories I would love to tell, and I have finished book two already, so my mind is already on book three… I can tell you that the story goes beyond the walls of the Inventory, but the Inventory itself has far from revealed its secrets…

Technology is a big theme in the book.  Do you think we are slaves to it or will technology save the planet?  

Wow! Such a wonderfully deep question! I think (and in some ways hope) we are slaves to the planet and we will save the damage we’ve done through technology and science. It’s the only way forward. Humanity has acted like a virus, gnawing away nature and the world around us. The way we have treated the planet reminds me of those old Wild E Coyote cartoons in which he is sawing through the very tree branch he’s sitting on! The planet will snap if we don’t do something. Enter science, invention and the wonderful concept of the human spirit. That’s how we’ll save ourselves.

You’ve written books, comics and films – what do you like writing best?  

Each has its own merits, and with each you meet wonderful creators who just add to my own knowledge of story telling. In my own little head I have a pyramid of writing. Book are at the bottom, the strong, wide stable story monoliths that can be as large and elaborate as you want them to be. The next layer consists of films and TV, writing stories in a finite box, which is dictated by the running time of the show. Then there are comics – fewer pages and only a handful of panels per page to tell a story through static pictures and a little text. That’s incredibly difficult and I have learnt a lot from great comic writers out there, such as Tony Lee. Then, top of the pyramid – poems and songs. In my humble view, they’re incredibly difficult to write, very technical, and wwwaaayyy beyond my talents!

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Review: Rebel Science

Science. The very word on my school timetable would induce a shudder. I can still remember her name. I shall call her Mrs H, the biology teacher from hell.  Such was her genius, she managed – for each 45 minute lesson – to remove from the study of life itself, anything and everything even vaguely resembling fascination, awe or wonder.  It was replaced with stodge.  Dog-eared text books.  Eye-fluttering irritation whenever a question was asked or a concept not immediately grasped.  I hated it and, as a result, hated science. rebelscience

Only as an adult have I begun to discover what science should be about – curiosity, speculation, boldness. As a teacher, I have gained some insight into the dismal limits of my knowledge – learning alongside the children I’ve taught (I hope, in desperation, that my lessons have led to a mild smattering of awe and wonder – at least more than those taught by the dreaded Mrs H).

If only, all those years ago, I’d had a teacher who’d shoved Rebel Science into my hands – a fabulous book written by Dan Green and illustrated by David Lyttleton (why oh why aren’t the names of non-fiction authors and illustrators placed on the cover?). Continue reading

Review: The Wolves of Currumpaw

wolvesIf it’s fair to say that Shackleton’s Journey – William Grill’s extraordinary award-winning debut – raised the bar, then you can only conclude that his follow-up has taken the bar, twisted it unrecognisably, flung it repeatedly round in circles and hurled it far into the stratosphere.  The bar has been obliterated.  It is no more.

The Wolves of Currumpaw re-tells a story from nineteenth century New Mexico where man, or more specifically white man, is pitched first against Native American and then against wolf.  Hunters pursue Lobo, the fierce and evasive leader of his pack, using poison, traps and every deceptive ounce they can muster to track and destroy him.

It is a eulogy to the wildest and most misunderstood parts of nature.  And it is also a story of redemption, as it is Ernest Seton’s story being told – the hunter who, after his deadly encounter with the wolf, is transformed, re-born; he kills no more and dedicates his life to conservation. Continue reading

Review: Questions and Answers

questionsandanswersAfter reading so much amazing fiction in the last few months, it makes a nice break to review some non-fiction.  It’s almost like a literary bank holiday – a time to refresh and wonder at the extraordinary world we are in, before returning invigorated to the made up worlds of others.

Questions and Answers by Catherine Chambers and Chris Oxlade (why do the writers of non-fiction not have their names on the cover?) fits the bill nicely.   At nearly 400 pages long, there’s a chunkiness to the book and the range of content guarantees longevity. The subjects have been chosen wisely with sections on Space, Weather, Pirates, Inventions and lots of history, including Ancient Egypt, Rome and the Vikings.

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Review: Dave Pigeon

davepigeonThere are few sounds more life-enhancing than the uncontrollable chuckle of a small child; the one that emerges from deep in the belly, the one that lacks any self-conciousness, as if their whole being has been consumed by a giggle.

These days, I’m sad to say, I rarely induce such an effect on my daughter.  In fact it’s quite the reverse.  Already, aged six – six! – she has adopted the teenage eye-roll.  My finest joke, my most carefully constructed witticism is met not with laughter, but with a look. A look and a drawn-out ‘Daaaad, you’re not funny’ (once she added ‘anymore’ to the end of this sentence. Oh, the agonies of parenthood).

Thankfully, our house is not completely bereft of laughter.  Not since Dave Pigeon landed on our doorstep.  This is a charmingly daft tale, guaranteed – even in early onset teenage six-year-olds – to induce those uncontrollable, carefree giggles.  It follows the eponymous Dave who, alongside his friend Skipper, seeks to oust a nasty cat so they can have unfettered access to the house and, more importantly, the biscuits.

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