spy

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Marco Guadalupi

secret of the night trainI’m often asked, how do I pick a book to be my book of the week? With non-fiction it’s easy to tick off criteria, and then spot the something special about the book. With fiction, it’s almost easier. The books pick me. Within about ten pages I usually suspect if it’s got that hint of magic that makes me want to keep reading, that quality which makes me feel for the characters, the emotion that gives me that tinge of sadness or spark of happiness. Very rarely, with great hope and shining eyes, I pencil in a book that hasn’t even arrived yet. I feel the tingle from afar, based on past novels, or something in the publisher’s email that pulled.

The Secret of the Night Train was pencilled in, but within ten pages I knew it was a dead cert. Sylvia Bishop previously won my heart with The Bookshop Girl, and she has twiddled her pen and made magic again.

Max is on a thrilling train journey across Europe. Her Great Aunt Elodie in Instanbul summons a member of her Parisian family to be her temporary companion, and Max, being the youngest and the least busy, takes the challenging adventure. Except it becomes so much more than she imagines, because the Heartbreak Diamond is missing, and the police think it’s on her train. With her travelling chaperone, a nun, will Max find the will and the way to seek the diamond herself and capture the thief before the train reaches Istanbul?

The book takes the format of the train journey, setting the chapters in different sections of the journey from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul. And while Max whittles down the passengers to a final list of suspects, she may be closer to the thief than she had imagined.

This is the tale of an ordinary life interrupted, told beautifully and with childlike wonder. Bishop completely nails Max’s feeling of trepidation for her journey – a homesickness before she’s even left, and plays on this subtle combination of wistfulness for home and longing for adventure. Bishop also has impeccable comic timing, and a deliciously wicked insight into being the smallest of a larger family.

Tucked in are a few jokes for adults too, in case this is an adventure the reader is sharing with their child, and I particularly chuckled at Max’s mother’s mannerisms and question avoidance. Bishop has a delightful turn of phrase, which makes an everyday story feel fresh and lively with every sentence:

“Then one day, when December had arrived and iced Paris all over with a slippery frosting, Max skidded-slid-stumbled home from school to find her mother on the phone. She was saying ‘Mm-hmm, of course’ with her voice, and YOU ARE AN UNBEARABLE STRAIN ON MY SAINTLY PATIENCE with her eyes.”

And also tenderly wise:

“That is the trouble with ideas that you have before dawn: they are extra sticky.”

Bishop also plays with expectations: not only in Max’s gender – full name Maximilienne, but also with the suspects and their intentions and motivations – keeping the reader guessing. The narrative feels slightly retro or timeless with parents who don’t helicopter or track their child’s movements, but also a child who has the time to be bored, and thus to seek adventure. But there are still moments of modern sensibility throughout:

“it turned out that even in this strange new country, miles away from her own, all the statues were still of a man-on-a-horse,”

But I think one of the most stellar qualities about this piece of writing is that despite having a gentle rhythm that mimicks the chugging of a train, it also feels tense and exciting, mirroring Max’s emotions.

This is a fabulous story with suitably elegant European illustrations, a terrifically authentic heroine (who often takes the naughtier option), and a cast of eccentrics who are beautifully imagined. Don’t miss your own trip on the Night Train, it’s a winning adventure. (I’ve even pencilled in Sylvia Bishop’s next….you probably should too). You can buy The Secret of the Night Train here. Or click here to see how to win a copy.

Spyder: A Guest Post from Matt Carr

There’s been a spate of picture books recently that play on words or names, and I’m loving this one: Spyder by Matt Carr. Readers may think it’s easy being a spy when you’re small and have many legs to scuttle about on, but Spyder has problems with her size. Sometimes it means she ends up in the bath – a tricky place from which to escape. But by the end, Spyder saves the birthday cake from the evil fly and all is well.

This delightful picture book follows Matt Carr’s debut, Superbat, which also features a bold and bright animal behaving like a human, with some factual animal information at the back, a story packed full with humorous adventure and huge bold illustrations in comic book style. This time, our protagonist is female, and although immured in a retro colour palette, she is daring and brave with a very modern outlook and set of gadgets. 

I’m happy to host Matt on the blog today, telling us where he works, and how sometimes a work space isn’t necessarily the best place to sit and wait for ideas…

The word studio doesn’t really suit my workspace, and I say ’work’ and  ‘space’ in the loosest terms. I ‘work’ (I don’t really work, not in the proper sense, I just make pictures. It’s a bit odd way to earn a living really!) in a 6 ft x 3 ft lean-to at the back of my tiny galley kitchen.

It’s a bit of a tip because I’ve got so much stuff crammed into a small space. We call the kitchen ‘The Trash Compactor’ like on STAR WARS! and we reconstruct that famous scene on a daily basis, especially just before the School Run!

There’s not even a partition to separate it from the chaos of the house three daughters (disdainful of me), one cat (not sure what she thinks of me, you never can tell with cats), one kitten and 23 stick insects (although to be fair they don’t cause much trouble). Anyway, as you can imagine it’s not the greatest creative space but it does for me. In addition to this, I utilise other areas of my tiny house, as well as the town and surrounding areas.

I do most of my thinking while early morning running up on the downs. (Although, it’s barely running, more of a plod really). But up there I get peace and quiet and go through all the stuff I’ve got to do, as well as think about stories / characters / jokes etc. It gets me out of the house, which is an absolute joy.

I also go to the cafe down the road when I’ve got to formulate an idea and get it down on paper. I don’t know why, it just feels like the sort of thing proper ‘writer people’ would do, and indeed at the local Cafe Nero you see quite a few of them sat at their laptops typing away. It makes me feel as if I’ve got a proper job. I like the sketching / storyboard part best as it’s where an idea is really pure and you can shoehorn in as many jokes as possible.

If I’ve got drawing to do I go up to my eldest daughter’s room. It’s quite sunny and my cat sits up there all day, bird watching, so I’ve got a bit of company. I draw on the floor, like I used to do for hours when i was a kid. The only trouble is now I’m not a kid anymore, after half an hour I’ve seized up and it takes about an hour to get up! Due to this sad fact I’ve also started to draw a bit standing up in the kitchen which seems to work quite well! Then it’s on the computer doing my books and my day job (graphic design). We’ve got a new kitten, Doris, who now comes and squeezes in next to me and slowly edges me out of my seat. I almost sat on her last Wednesday!

The good news is that we’re hopefully getting an extension soon, so my workspace will get marginally bigger! I might even get a drawing desk!

With thanks to Matt Carr. You can buy Spyder here.

Matt Carr is an incredibly talented graphic designer and author-illustrator whose debut picture book, SUPERBAT, was published to international acclaim in the UK, US, Spain, Korea and Israel, and is currently shortlisted for a number of upcoming awards. Matt loves tea and lives in East Sussex. @mattcarrdesigns www.mattcarrdesign.co.uk

 

Iron Fist The Inventory: A Guest Blog from Andy Briggs

Iron Fist

Since the arrival of Alex Rider in 2000 I have seen a proliferation of books about smart, quick-thinking pre-teen boys launched into amazing action adventures. From the books of Robert Muchamore to Simon Mayo, Charlie Higson and Chris Bradford, there is no shortage of pre- and early-teen heroes combating an evil enemy. Recently arrived on my shelves are Theodore Boone, the boy lawyer from John Grisham, the Urban Outlaws, and most recently The Inventory: Iron Fist by Andy Briggs, the last of which stands apart with its fascinating array of technological and scientific gadgetry, and the number of twists, turns and surprises within.

The Inventory is a collection of the most amazing technology and gadgetry (James Bond wouldn’t believe his eyes).  It includes such wonders as Hoverboots, invisible camouflage and of course the Iron Fist. Dev’s uncle is the curator, backed up by artificial intelligence security. But when thieves try to breach the system and steal the Iron First, Dev is in more trouble than he realises. 

From the outset the gadgetry and action zing from the page. A villain who turns a police car and humans into a two-dimensional object before disintegrating them into bare molecules starts the ball rolling on page five, and is a swift example of the scintillating imagery within. This is a treat – an unputdownable action adventure that’s not dissimilar from playing a video game – except the action is in your head. I’m delighted to welcome author Andy Briggs onto the blog, so that he can relate his favourite moments in The Inventory.

What a challenge! To write about my favourite moments in my new book. Well, it was a complete thrill to type the words: chapter one. Of course, that was later changed when my editor suggested I have chapter titles instead. Still, I thought it was a nice beginning and much better than prologue which I had previously considered. So, since that technically isn’t in the book… writing the end was a huge relief! You can’t imagine the stress that flows from an author’s shoulders when those words are written. Again, my editor removed the end pointing out that very few books actually have that written down as the subsequent lack of pages is usually a give away. So, my two favourite moments from the book aren’t actually in it any more, so I suppose I better find something that wasn’t cut…

There is not too much I can give away as I am hoping that each layer of The Inventory is as much of a surprise to the reader as it was for me. Let me explain. Normally I feverishly plan my books chapter-by-chapter, so I know exactly where I am heading, this comes from my day-job as a screenwriter in which planning is critical. Not all authors do this and I envy those who can just simply write and a story unfolds – so for this book I dabbled in to the art of not knowing where I was going. I knew the beginning and end of course, and had a few plot points I wanted to anchor in, but I wanted the Inventory itself to feel fresh and unexplored.

We’re in the town of Edderton. On the edge of town a boy called Dev lives with his uncle on a farm. Except the farm is not all it appears to be, hidden underground is a sprawling labyrinth of warehouses, hangars and passageways that make up the top secret Inventory. A place where the world’s greatest inventions are kept out of our grubby hands.

Each warehouse is split into zones – the Green Zone, Blue Zone, etc – all with increasing security and radical forms of protection, that eventually lead to the Red Zone at the heart of the complex. This is where the most dangerous gadgets are stored. I wanted the zones themselves to have distinctive characteristics so the gadgets our heroes find did not simply lead the action. When I wrote my TARZAN series I was able to jump from river to jungle to savannahs – when you’re in an underground warehouse a shelf looks pretty much like any other shelf, as I am sure anybody who has been to Ikea has discovered. So, unlike popular home furnishing stores, I was able to split the areas up in unique ways… again, nothing I can specifically talk about without giving anything away, but I had huge fun in creating these environments into which I could shove my characters and make them run for their lives…

Another favourite moment for me was working with the main hero of the book, Dev. Like all heroes he is forced to dig deep inside himself to figure out exactly what makes him so special. In doing so I was able to make him… give him… let him have… um, not sure how to phrase this… a unique quality that I don’t recall reading in any other book. That is a marvellous feeling, when you think you’ve got something different, a twist on the familiar that hopefully adds a little more to the story.

Villains. Villains are always fun… but I can’t give too much away… but if you know your inventors then you may get some of the in-jokes…

So, to end, what can I say about The Inventory. Very little apparently. And my favourite moment? Well, ultimately perhaps it was when I wrote the words Chapter One, in the second book that follows on, and is out later this year. The only problem is I already know which two words my editor is going to change…

www.andybriggs.co.uk

@abriggswriter

With huge thanks to Andy. Suitable for children aged 9+ years. You can buy the book here.

 

The Unreliable Narrator

Some of my favourite literature has unreliable narrators, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the latter of which clearly reaches into the children’s literature genre. For children, it can be fun to spot an unreliable narrator and makes for great discussion.

Some narrators are unreliable simply by being young – the story is told from their first person perspective and they are too immature to appreciate everything that’s happening around them. In many ways the reader can see through this and may appreciate that they themselves have a greater understanding of the narrative than the person telling them the story. Diary form novels fit easily into this genre – Wimpy Kid, Emily Sparkes, Dork Diaries. We can see the author’s intent where the first person narrator of the story is playing catch up with the reader.

Then there are more subtle unreliable narrators, perhaps those who are lying to us, to themselves, deliberately or not. I wanted to review two books with unreliable narrators, both of which are for the middle grade readership (9+yrs.) but the two books couldn’t be more different. These are both highly recommended by me.

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Anyone But Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp, illustrations by John Kelly
Twelve year old Ivy Pocket is a maid, sacked by her employer at the beginning of the novel, and left destitute in Paris. She is summoned to the bedside of the Duchess of Trinity and asked to deliver a very precious jewel, the Clock Diamond, to Matilda Butterfield in England on the occasion of her birthday for the reward of £500. Ivy agrees, and starts her adventure of gothic charm, ghosts, catastrophe and murder.
The brilliance of the novel though, is not so much the somewhat violent action scenes, twists and turns, and great characterisation, as the way in which the story is told. Ivy Pocket is swamped with the most extravagant case of delusional self-belief, believing herself to be above her station, and brilliant at everything. She is hilariously quirky; ebullient, tongue-in-cheek, absurd and captivating.
She reminded me at times of that long-ago American heroine Amelia Badelia, who does everything she is told completely literally from making sponge cakes with sponges to stamping on letters, but with the best intentions. Ivy too believes she is constantly in the right, and all those around her are ridiculously wrong. She insults, misconstrues and acts dumb in turns, but in the most winning and humorous way, that you love her despite everyone else in the book finding her deeply irritating. The language is deeply satisfying – Kaleb Crisp employs delightfully tongue-in-cheek vocabulary throughout from ‘carbunkle’ and ‘stupendously’ to ‘claptrap’ and ‘bunkum’. Her insults are luscious:
“Lady Elizabeth, there is no great crime in being a dried-up bag of wrinkles. In fact, I’m not even sure it would be kinder to drag you outside and shoot you.”
and
“A great big slug of a woman – part goddess, part hippopotamus…her enormous body spread out on every side like an avalanche”
I wanted to read aloud parts to everyone I met whilst I was mid-read. Ivy Pocket also has stock phrases that she repeats throughout the book, giving her great characterisation, added to the fact that almost everyone else in the book is highly satirical, and you have one of the most fun books I have read in a long time. I’m imagining that a child will have to be quite sophisticated in order to appreciate all the nuances within, but once hooked, they’ll devour this and every sequel that follows. It’s reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s books, and yet highly distinctive.
You can buy a copy here, the book is published on 9th April 2015

Liar and Spy

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Where Ivy Pocket is playful and verbose, Liar and Spy is realistic, modern and minimalist. Set in New York, the story is mainly told through dialogue. Liar and Spy is narrated by Georges, a young boy whose family is suffering from financial difficulties. Georges tells us about himself, the difficult time he is having in school, and the family he befriends when his family downsizes into a new apartment block. Georges’ Dad pushes him into joining a ‘spy club’ that they stumble upon in the building, and before long Georges is playing at being a spy on his neighbours in the building.
The humour within this novel is observational. Rebecca Stead has managed to capture the dialogue, worries, and thoughts of young boys particularly well, and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that everything is not as it seems. The cleverness lies in working out, from the small clues that Stead drops throughout the narrative, whom is lying to whom and whether our narrator can be trusted. In the end, it’s for the reader to understand that if our narrator is living under a delusion, then by default, so are we, the readers. It’s a small, clever book that betrays some youngsters’ fears and anxieties in a subtle, non-threatening and understanding way.
Liar and Spy also brings into play how other people live – not just a view of American life for those of us reading it in the UK, but also how different families operate in different ways. It also opens our eyes to some deeper thoughts – what matters in life – how our small actions every day build up to create a bigger picture. It’s a great book, a terrific story, but also makes for interesting talking points as children grow towards the teenage years. Buy your copy here.

Another Revamp Hits the Shelves: Alex Rider

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Yeah yeah, I thought. I know why the kids like it: boys’ toys and gadgets, action scenes, mystery, slick dialogue, bam bam. Dismissing them out of hand in the same way I dismiss grown men’s love for 007, gladiator movies, Bourne identities, etc. Then my son went to hear Anthony Horowitz talk at the Southbank centre and came back inspired, and Walker Books contacted me about their relaunch for the brand, and I thought okay it’s time I read Alex Rider myself.
Wow! Tightly plotted, niftily written, the first book in the series, Stormbreaker, zooms along like a rocket to its target. I felt compelled from the first sentence. It’s as exciting and unrealistic as you could ask for in this genre. I loved our hero, and how clever and skilful and cool he is. I loved the machinations of the ‘MI6’ set up and the elusive villains. It made me smile, and admire Horowitz’s skilful storytelling. For someone usually disdainful of such spy thrillers, this one was more than a pleasure from start to finish. In this first adventure, Alex Rider is employed by MI6 precisely because he is a schoolboy, and can infiltrate the headquarters of Sayle Enterprises as the winner of a computer magazine competition to discover if there’s anything suspect about the line of computers, the Stormbreakers, which Sayle Enterprises are rolling out free to every school in the country. Of course, there is something highly suspect about Mr Sayle, not least his penchant for keeping a Portuguese Man ‘o War as his pet, and Alex Rider has to stop his deathly plan before it’s too late.

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What’s so pleasing is that the Alex Rider books are exactly what they say on the tin! From the corny filmic staplines on the back cover…”His first assignment may well be his last” to the spy gadgets bestowed upon Alex (the zit cream that melts metal), to the chapter headings, “Double O Nothing” and the exhilarating non-stop action – these are all the right ingredients for this genre of pacey thriller. But it’s the flawless perfection that Anthony Horowitz brings to the genre with his taut writing style and seemingly effortless imagination that make this a powerful and exemplary series. I fully intend to now read the rest.

One keen fan has helped me out this week with my blog – here are his comments. His name is Samuel and he’s 10 years old:

Alex Rider is a good series, which I really like because it is fun and exciting. It follows an orphaned teenage spy, recruited by MI6. Alex was brought up by his Uncle Ian and his housekeeper, Jack Starbright. Jack kept on living with him after Uncle Ian’s death. Alex later discovers that his parents and his uncle were all secretly spies and were all assassinated.
One of my favourite books in the series is “Eagle Strike”. Alex is certain that Damian Cray, pop singer has got an evil plan after finding his phone number on an assassin’s mobile. MI6 don’t believe him and Alex sets out on his own to investigate. He travels to Holland to find Cray’s game console factory and finds out what ‘Eagle Strike’; Cray’s plot; is all about. I like it because it is exciting and there are lots of unexpected turns in the story. My favourite part is when Alex finds himself inside a deadly video game… in real life!
What I like most in this series are the gadgets. They are fun and exciting to have. The gadget maker Smithers is a bald, fat, friendly man who is my favourite character. My favourite gadget is a calculator which can be used to contact MI6 and can also jam CCTV cameras. Gadgets play a big part in the books because they add excitement and help make them interesting and full of suspense.
I love the Alex Rider series and hope to finish reading them all.

 

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For those of you who are yet to discover Alex Rider, luckily for you the whole series has been rebranded with covers designed by a video game designer, Two Dots, the studio who designed the packaging for Ubisoft’s video games Assassins Creed and Far Cry, and they suit the stories well. Clever spines highlight the number in the series, as well as spelling out Alex Rider when they are lined up on the shelf. To buy Stormbreaker, click here.

There is also a new Alex Rider website, www.alexrider.com and you can even go on ‘spy training’ camp with the Youth Hostels Association.

Thank you to Walker books for a review copy of Eagle Strike

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