Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Mad Apprentice Blog Tour: My Life That Books Built by Django Wexler

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler was one of my favourite books of 2015. I was therefore thrilled when I received an email from Penguin Young Readers over in the US, asking if I would be interested in hosting Django as part of a blog tour to celebrate the release of the sequel, The Mad Apprentice. If you've not yet read The Forbidden Library then you really must as it is middle grade fantasy at its very best, and I'm about to dive headlong into the sequel.

My Life That Books Built by Django Wexler

I'm old enough to remember a world of kid's books very different then what we have today.  Frankly, at least in my memory, it wasn't great.  I like to joke that all we had were numbered series by hack writers (think The Boxcar Children) and Newbery Award-winning books about dead dogsThat's not completely true, of course, but the genres we now think of as MG and YA were a lot less vibrant and fun than they are now.  Fortunately, my first job was as a page at my local library, and I started blazing a trail through their science fiction and fantasy shelf early on.

While I ended up as a fantasy author, in my youth I was far more of a science fiction reader.  The library shelf provided a lot of the classics: I loved Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, and David Brin's Earthclan series. I was a big fan of short stories -- while Asimov's Foundation books mostly leave me cold, his short fiction is amazing, packed with character, humor, and great ideas.

One book that particularly stands out is Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. One of the wonderful things about reading at that age was that I had no idea what was considered "great" science fiction and what wasn't -- I was picking things off the shelf essentially at random, and it's always interesting to me what lines up with the accepted canon.  A Fire Upon the Deep was one of my favorites, which I relentlessly pushed all of my friends to read, and it's really nice to see how it's been enshrined in the SF canon.  On the other hand, I loved some books, like Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg, that have now been mostly forgotten by modern SF readers.

On the fantasy side, my tastes were a little pulpier.  I devoured the Dragonlance series, at least those portions of it that Weiss and Hickman wrote, and followed them to their excellent Death Gate Cycle and lamentably unfinished Starshield series.  I read a lot of Piers Anthony, perhaps too much -- I remember one vacation where I'd equipped myself with a backpack full of Xanth books, reading maybe a dozen in two weeks, and I think I reached critical pun overload.  Terry Brooks and David Eddings also made regular appearances on my list, although our library's collections of both were frustratingly incomplete.

I can remember a few books that came as revelations to me; the kind of thing that makes you think, "Wait, you can do that?"  In addition to Vinge, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was like this, as was Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.  I devoured Neil Gaiman's Sandman over the course of about a week, on the train to my summer internship in the city sometime during high school.  Good Omens, too, was an eye-opener, and from there I got hooked on Terry Pratchett, who takes up several shelves in my personal library.

Basically, I read whatever I could get my hands on.  By modern standards, it was kind of a strange mix of juvenile and adult fiction, but it was what was available in the genres I loved, and the distinction never bothered me much.  As long as it was fun, I was on board!  (And no dead dogs.)


Huge thanks to Django for taking the time to write this for us. The Mad Apprentice has already been released in the US, and it is due to be published in the UK next month.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Countdown To 7th May: What I Learned Writing for Comics by Jason Rohan

I am really excited to be taking part in this year's Countdown to 7th May blog tour, doing my bit to celebrate all the fab YA and middle grade books that are scheduled to be published on 7th May. Today it is an absolute pleasure to welcome Jason Rohan, the author of the totally brilliant The Sword of Kuromori, and its sequel The Shield of Kuromori (due out on 7th May).

What I learned writing for comics by Jason Rohan

When I first tried out for a career in publishing, after finishing university with an English degree, the fact that I had prior experience working at Marvel Comics went against me. This is 25 years ago when comics were still seen as a juvenile art form unworthy of serious consideration - in the English-speaking world, at least. Nowadays, however, with the massive success of super-heroes on the big screen, the opposite has occurred and comics writers are suddenly a hot property. My timing has never been great!

For almost all of us, our first experiences of reading - and of being read to - came via picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Gruffalo or The Tiger Who Came To Tea, so the idea of marrying words with pictures is deeply held. Later, readers move on to full text novels but still turn to film and television to get their fix of entertainment in the form of words and pictures.

If you've never seen a comic book script before, here's an example:

And here's a screenplay extract:

Could you spot the difference? Exactly. Words and pictures: one script for an artist and one script for a film crew but essentially the same. Both are visual storytelling media, only in one the pictures move and in the other they don't.

When I worked at Marvel, back in the 80's, I was lucky enough to be assigned to legendary editor Mark Gruenwald who taught me so much about writing in general and comics in particular. The parallels with film writing were driven home to me when he recommended a book called Screenplay by Syd Field. At first, I didn't understand why a comic writer would need to know about screenwriting but I did as I was told, read it, and it all fell into place. To this day, even as a novelist, I still write with a visual, comic-book style and film remains an important reference. 

As you can imagine, my time at Marvel was a fantastic apprenticeship and I came away with many valuable lessons and insights into the writing process, both for comics and for novels, some of which I would like to share here.

The first thing I learned was the importance of the splash page. The first script I turned in had an establishing shot of London as the opening scene and Mark said to me, "Why do you think it's called a splash page?" Duh. I knew enough to know that the splash page is page one of the comic, traditionally a full page, single panel spread, which holds the title and credit box. As Mark explained, it's also supposed to sell the story. A kid picks a comic off the rack, intrigued by the cover. She turns to page one and expects to be wowed. No wow, no sale. Hence, the splash page has to sell the comic.

When it comes to writing novels, the lesson is still valid in that a reader will look at a cover, read the blurb and maybe turn to the first page. That's the bait. You now have one line to dangle the hook, one paragraph to set that hook and, if you're lucky, one page to start reeling in. I also recall the words of famed movie producer Samuel Goldwyn who said, "We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax." Since I write action-adventure stories, my approach is to start with the literary equivalent of a pre-credit sequence to set the stage and introduce the characters, before settling in to the main plot.

The second thing I learned is to always know your ending and where you're going next. Comic books were typically 23 pages of story, with soap opera style series continuity. A writer would usually write four series simultaneously so that's 48 issues a year, or one script per week. In that environment, multi-episode story arcs had to be mapped out well in advance and different editors would co-ordinate different titles months ahead to ensure that crossover stories and tie-ins happened at the right time and that the repercussions were felt across the title range. You see this happening with the current slate of Marvel movies and this concept of a shared universe was one of the ideas that historically set Marvel apart. 

Another key lesson for me was dealing with the flabby middle. I tend to think in terms of three act structures and I always know my ending and my beginning. In comic book terms, this is the equivalent of a five page set up, a twelve page middle, and a six page finish. Film-wise, it's 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes, for a two hour film. However, when writing a book, I find it a lot easier to come up with a strong hook and a climactic ending than to sustain the mid-section that bridges the two and I used to really struggle with this, getting bogged down and giving up. I finally cracked this particular nut by falling back on my comics and script training and I started to brainstorm dialogue, scribbling down the key character interactions which drive the story from inciting incident to pivot point two. By charting the journey via discourse alone, I was able to hack a path through the jungle and it was much easier to then go back and add in the narrative, a bit like listening to a TV show from another room - you can follow the story well enough even though you can't see the action.

The final thing I learned was the importance of delivering to deadlines and the need for discipline, organisation and professionalism. There is no allowance for Writer's Block when you're scripting four titles a month. While I understand the romantic appeal of waiting for the Muse to visit and sprinkle magical inspiration upon the writer's brow, the reality is that writers write. You plan ahead and hone your creative muscles. Yes, it isn't glamorous but journalists have to write to order daily, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, then I figure it's the least I can do.

As a closing thought, a novelist has to paint pictures with words, to bring images to life in the mind’s eye of the reader. However, a comic book writer can do the opposite and direct the artist to tell a story solely with illustrations - the literary equivalent of a silent movie - which isn’t that far removed from our ancestors daubing paint on walls. 

Words and pictures: the oldest storytelling technique in the world.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Review: Young Houdini: The Magician's Fire by Simon Nicholson

The world's most famous magician. But before his name became legend, who was young Harry Houdini?

New York City, 1886. Harry Houdini is just a penniless street urchin dabbling with a few escape tricks. But when a well-known magician goes missing in mysterious circumstances, Harry and his friends, Arthur and Billie, are sucked into a deadly adventure.

Now Harry must put all his extraordinary skills into action - not just to solve the mystery - but to stay alive. Because when he falls into the clutches of some of Manhattan's most dangerous villains, his spectacular escapes won't be for show - they'll be a matter of life and death!

In recent years we have seen a number of famous characters' origin stories written for the middle grade age group. Young Sherlock Holmes and Young Bond are the most obvious examples, but there is also Andy Briggs' excellent Tarzan reboot, featuring a young Lord of the Jungle. Now we have The Magician's Fire, the first in Simon Nicholson's new series featuring a Young Houdini.

Obviously this book differs from those others I have mentioned in that the main character is a real life historical figure, and whilst the real Houdini did lead a very exciting life through his theatrical escapades, an accurate biography of his younger years would not make for a hugely exciting series of 9+ readers. Thus, the author has had to take more than a few liberties, and this is very much a work of fiction. I can't think of too many other examples of this off the top of my head, other than the brilliant The Secret Journeys of Jack London by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon and the recently published The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, but I am sure there are many more examples out there. 

Historical literature purists will no doubt turn their noses up at the liberties that Simon Nicholson has taken in the interest of producing an entertaining piece of fiction, and I am sure there will be a few less than favourable reviews produced by these killjoys. However, I very much enjoyed the fast-paced and exciting story that Nicholson has created for his young Houdini. The young Houdini is teamed with Arthur and Billie, two other very likable characters who join him in investigating the mysterious disappearance of a magician who Harry sees as his mentor in the magician's craft. 

Each of the three young friends brings different skills to the investigation - Harry has a keen Sherlock-style eye for detail, although he has a tendency towards recklessness and acting before thinking through the consequences of his actions; Billie, like Harry, is from a poor background but she has grown up on the streets to become a practical, resourceful and streetwise young lade; and Arthur brings the brains to the mix - he is the only one of the three from a privileged background, has grown up surrounded by books, which he has used for company in the absence of any kind of attention or paternal love from his busy father.

This first book is a cracking start to a new series and I'm really looking forward to reading its sequel, The Demon Curse, which is due to be published next month. Although the mystery in The Magician's Fire is fully resolved, the author does leave us hanging at the end of its final chapter, with promises of what seems to be a secret society showing a great deal of interest in our young heroes. I have a feeling this is only going to create more exciting and dangerous adventures for Harry and his friends.

My thanks go to the fab people at OUP for sending me a copy of The Magician's Fire to read and review.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Review: Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty


Legends (also known as terrifying, human-eating monsters) have invaded the town of Darkmouth and aim to conquer the world.

But don’t panic! The last remaining Legend Hunter - Finn - will protect us.

Finn: twelve-years-old, loves animals, not a natural fighter, but tries really, really hard, and we all know good intentions are the best weapons against a hungry Minotaur, right?

On second thoughts, panic.


Derek Landy's brilliant Skulduggery Pleasant series finally came to an end last year, but it looks as if HarperCollins may have already struck kidlit gold again, this time in the form of Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty. The first book in a new series, Darkmouth is a hugely enjoyable and exciting read that is perfect for 9+ readers, and like his fellow countrymen Derek Landy and Eoin Colfer did before him, I fully expect Hegarty to take the world of children's books by storm based on his debut.

What is it about these Irish writers? What are they feeding them over there? I've mentioned two such luminaries already, but when you add the likes of John Boyne, Darren Shan and Michael Scott to the list then I would not be surprised if UK publishers had agents scouring the Emerald Isle in search of the next big talent. All of them have produced books that have been popular with critics and readers of all ages, and I think the Darkmouth series will be included in this list in years to come. Hegarty's book has the wit and sparkling dialogue of Landy and the cleverness of Colfer's Artemis Fowl series. Throw in the ordinary kid in an extraordinary situation set-up seen in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books, and you will have a good idea of what to expect (yes, I know that RR is not Irish, but the parallels are there).

The town of Darkmouth is the last of the 'Blighted Villages', places where the veil between our world and the world of myths and legends is particularly thin. Over the centuries monsters and men shared the earth, and then fought battles for it before the monsters, or Legends as they are known herein, were banished to their own dimension. The barrier between worlds is still rather flimsy in Darkmouth, and as such the village retains its Legend Hunter, a man tasked with capturing any of the beasties who manage to cross into our world. 

The hero of this book, Finn, is the son of this last remaining Legend Hunter, and as such it is destiny to one day take on this mantle and himself become the last remaining Legend Hunter. The only problem is Finn is pretty crap when it comes to monster hunting. He's very much like I was at school (and still to this day) when it comes to sports - tries hard but is destined to be forever languishing in the bottom league. However, his pushy father expects the best of him, and struggles to hide his disappointment when Finn's efforts invariably fall short of perfection. Add to the the danger of having to hunt the likes of the Minotaur shown below and it's easy to see that Finn's lot is not a happy one.

Illustration by James de la Rue

Unfortunately for Finn there is a plot afoot, and the leader of the Legends is planning to invade Darkmouth and then the rest of our world with his monstrous horde. So begins an exciting and fast-paced story that twists and turns, as Finn meets other characters who may not be exactly who they seem, with crosses and doublecrosses, and deep, dark family secrets itching to be discovered.

Hegarty's writing is complemented wonderfully by the amazing illustrations of James de la Rue, who also illustrated the book's cover. Seriously, just how good is that Minotaur drawing? I know that some people feel that kids should be allowed to use their imaginations, but I really do wish that more books for the 9+ age group had illustrations, especially those in the fantasy and horror genres. I can't believe that any readers of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's Edge Chronicles books have complained that their imaginations are being stifled by Riddell's fantastic illustrations and I would love to see more publishers splash out on illustrators for their authors' books.

Illustration by James de la Rue

Darkmouth is a cracking coming-of-age story with a wonderful fantasy concept as its foundation and I for one cannot wait until the sequel, Worlds Explode, is published in July. My thanks go to the wonderful people at HarperCollins for sending me a copy to read and review.

P.S. It's well worth heading on over to the Darkmouth YouTube channel for videos like the ones below:

Friday, 10 April 2015

Review: Gemini Force 1: Black Horizon by M.G. Harris

After the tragic death of his father, Ben Carrington's mother teams up with a wealthy entrepreneur to form an elite, top-secret rescue organisation - Gemini Force.

Ben is determined to become part of the team, but can he prove he has what it takes to face dangerous situations and save lives?

Impossible rescues. Maximum risk. This is Gemini Force 1.

I've already mentioned in a previous post just how much Thunderbirds and the other Gerry Anderson TV series meant to me as a child, and this love for all things Anderson has not diminished all these years on. I have box sets of DVDs of many of those series, and love to dip in to an episode of one series or another every now and again. I was therefore overjoyed when I discovered that M.G. Harris, the author of one of my favourite recent series of YA books, had been given the task of bringing one of Gerry Anderson's own planned projects to fruition.

As I've already mentioned, Gemini Force 1 was a Gerry Anderson project, and he had hoped to write a series of books featuring his new characters and their rescue agency. Unfortunately, due to the worsening of the Alzheimer's Disease he was suffering from, and then his untimely death in 2012, he was never able to complete the project. Fortunately, his son Jamie recognised the potential of the project and through Kickstarter he and MG managed to raise the necessary funds for the project to go ahead. However, it is still very much Gerry Anderson's concept and early story ideas that M.G. Harris has used as the foundations for Dark Horizon, and this is very evident throughout. In fact, if this had come from anyone other than Gerry Anderson then there may have been cries of foul and plagiarism for obvious reasons: a rescue agency that operates outside of government control; a secret mid-ocean base; a series of rescue craft, each with its own number and piloted by relatively young operators. And the similarities don't end there - like Thunderbirds, this first Gemini Force 1 book is also full of fast-paced action and adventure, and even more importantly it is a really exciting and hugely enjoyable read.

Dark Horizon follows the adventures of main character Ben Carrington, a 16 year old from what many would call a privileged background. His mother is an Austrian countess and his father, until his recent passing in a mountaineering accident, was a multi-millionaire businessman. However, it isn't long before we start to discover that Carrington senior's relationship with his son was not exactly one of loving nurture, with more attention devoted to his business empire than on Ben. His background also makes it quite difficult for readers to empathise with Ben - he comes across as an arrogant and self-centred public boarding school brat, quick to make rash and selfish decisions that could affect the safety of others. However, he is also brave and loyal and eventually readers will see that he is more than a product of the environment in which he has grown up.

As Gemini Force is a team endeavour there are naturally many more characters is this story. However, one has to remember that this is the first book in a planned series, and there has to be a lot of scene setting, and therefore many of these other characters are not as developed as some of the more demanding readers might (unfairly) wish. The only other character who is given a fair amount of wordage is young American pilot Addison Dyer, although nowhere near as much as Ben. However, there are enough teasing hints as to secrets from her past to leave us eager to find out more about her in future installments.

One of the things that I loved about MG's Joshua Files series was the realism and believability that came with her story, and this is very much the case in Dark Horizon. Although some of the technology initially seems a little fanciful and futuristic, a short time spent in the company of Google shows that pretty much everything that the Gemini Force team use is currently in development somewhere in the world, even the amazing 'invisibility' stealth technology used on Aquarius, Addison's amazing 'plane'.

Since reading Dark Horizon I have been struggling to decide exactly what age group the book is aimed out. Ben is 16 and for many that would suggest that it is definitely in YA territory. However, it read to me like a book that is perfect for upper Middle Grade kids, and I would be very comfortable putting this book into the hands of an 11 year old, although with a degree of parental advisory warning as it does deal with issues related to bereavement and dealing with the loss of a parent. I loved Dark Horizon and I know I would have loved it as a child. I feel that it is the kind of book that could get young people enthused about reading, and I am sure that there will be many adult Gerry Anderson fans who will be pushing this into the hands of their children.

Although the book initially came into being through Kickstarter, Jamie Anderson and M.G. Harris eventually managed to find a publisher who was interested in their story, without wanting to make too many changes, and there is now an initial three book deal with Orion, who published Dark Horizon in the UK last week. We also don't have to wait too long for the sequel, Ghost Mine, which is due for publication in September of this year.