Half Bad is a very accurate title…

Half Bad (Half Life, #1)Half Bad by Sally Green

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was the book hyped up at the last Penguin Teachers’ Academy meeting I went to back in March, so I made it my business to get my hands on it asap. What a disappointment it was. Half Bad is exactly the right title for this book. I found the writing derivative and lacking in figurative language, which meant many of the scenes just died on the page. When I was supposed to be shocked and moved by Nathan’s treatment in captivity I really just shrugged my shoulders. Also, the second person narrative style at the beginning was very off-putting. I nearly bailed right there. However, since I was the librarian who recommended this to Matt (a colleague) I thought I should at least finish it so we could compare notes. Central character Nathan is completely unlikable. I know he is a black (bad) witch, but I felt no sympathy for him at all. The more interesting characters were the people around him. Gabriel is the character I most want to find out about, and Rose, despite being duplicitous and manipulative, is a character I wanted more of – but Nathan? Nope.

And worst of all….where the hell was the magic? For a book about witches (and some of them supposedly badass Black Witches) there was very little magic taking place.
I will read the sequel to see where Sally Green is going to take this, but at the moment I feel like it’s not somewhere I want to go.

My verdict? It’s harmless enough but I wouldn’t break any records getting your hands on it. I just hope Matt still respects my recommendations!

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War Zone : Vanguard Prime #3

Firstly I must thank Steven Lochran for organising a review copy of this book for me – I was very excited to see the next instalment of this series arrive in my PO box.
War Zone is the third in the series that began by introducing us to Sam, aka Goldrush, the newest and youngest member of Vanguard Prime, a league of superheroes. In this story we find Goldrush preparing to be introduced to the world media as as the rookie member of the elite unit. Agent Alpha, the elder statesman of the crew, suddenly takes off in the midst of this preparation, leaving Goldrush and his new bestie, Machina, to wonder what is going on. Of course, in true impetuous fashion, the two young friends take off in pursuit to find out what Alpha is up to.
When they reach him, Alpha is catching up with an old friend, Robert Ross, otherwise known as Dr Ouroboros and some of the Dr’s associates : Brainchild, Lilith and Tsar Bomba. It turns out this group is trying to find a boy named Jeremy who has powers not before seen in the superhero community. The Dr says he is trying to save Jeremy from a life as an experimental subject and manages to convince Alpha, Goldrush and Machina to help him. What he neglects to tell them is that his little group is also being pursued by an elite military group known as Vanguard Ultra.
What ensues is a series of exciting and suspenseful battles across and around the city of Tokyo, Japan. Along the way we meet the Japanese version of VP (Vanguard Prime), Battle Force Zero, commanded by the imposing Mighty Senshi.
I don’t want to give away too much in terms of plot, but Goldrush certainly holds his own against the many adversaries he faces, and we see his powers starting to develop and become even greater that he dreamed they could be. I like the science fiction sensibility of these books – Lochran really creates a world where these guys could exist quite convincingly. He also throws in the odd “in joke” for those of us who are nerds from way back. I particularly loved the reference to unobtanium in this story!
It is clear at the end of War Zone that book four in is in the wind. I hope Steven Lochran is writing fast – I know there will be lots of loyal readers hanging out for the next instalment!

For ages 12 and up.

The Ask and the Answer – Men vs Women

The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking, #2)The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go promised much and totally fulfilled that promise. At the end of Book 1, Todd and Viola fell into the clutches of Mayor Prentiss – one of the most evil villains I have ever read in fiction. Viola is sent away, to become a healer, and after a beating and interrogation by Mayor Prentiss, Todd is placed in a prison cell with Ledger, the former mayor of Haven (now New Prentisstown).
The crux of the novel is the struggles of Todd and Viola as they exist without each other, and their desire to be reunited. They are inexorably connected and the plot hinges on whether or not they will ever see each other again.
I don’t want to talk about the events of the book, as so much happens I could write pages. What I do want to talk about is the character development of the main players.
Mayor (President) Prentiss is fully revealed as a vile, manipulative man who will stop at nothing to control all the inhabitants of New World. I can’t give spoilers, but just when you think he can’t stoop any lower – he reaches down and finds a new bottom in the barrel. He is intelligent and charismatic, but he just oozes evil.
Todd, ever the pragmatist, makes the best of his life as Prentiss’s prisoner. He tends the “herds” of Spackle used as forced labour, and is repulsed by them. It is interesting to observe this device in the novel – he can’t see (yet) that the treatment of the Spackle and the treatment of the women is the same. He constantly thinks about Viola and how he can see her again. Ben once told Todd “war makes monsters of men” and through Todd we see how this happens. He does start to become what Prentiss wants him to be. Of course, Prentiss is that quote coming to full fruition. However, through Todd we also see that it might be possible to come back from it – with the right help.
Viola really comes into her own in this novel. She finds a voice (Ness switches the narrative between Todd and Viola)and as the story goes on, a purpose in life. She is not a great healer (as she tells it) and she is overwhelmed with a desire to see Todd again. This takes her into dire situations, but it also makes her a leader. Viola is more questioning than Todd (less of a pack animal than Todd?) and rises up against injustice or pain at every turn. She feels sorry for the Spackle, where Todd, even though he tries to save one, feels only revulsion and disgust. It is clear that Viola and Todd need to find each other again, so she can save him.
Davy Prentiss – this guy is such a tool, I thought I could not feel for him at all, but by the end of this book, I felt pity for him. Everything he believed in is turned back on him and he is abandoned by everyone – except Todd. No spoliers, but from me at least, there were tears.
This is a novel of growing tensions, of revelations, of war and all it’s sorrow. It ends with a match being thrown onto a tinder box. Now I have to read book three Monsters of Men to find out who survives.
A rich and rewarding novel which gripped me from beginning to end. Book three here I come!
Ages 14 and up.

The Hunters Captured My Imagination

The Hunters (Brotherband Chronicles, #3)The Hunters by John Flanagan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The third instalment in the Brotherband Chronicles is, I think, the best. Fast-paced, great plot movement and battle scenes (particularly the epic battle between the Heron and Zavac’s pirate ship, Raven near the end) are brilliant. I could really picture the action in my head and at one point it got so exciting I could not turn the pages fast enough!
Hal and his crew, including Thorn and the newest member, Lydia, are in hot pursuit of the Raven and Zavac’s, whose band of pirates stole the Andomal (an important Skandian relic) form their village. Lydia is out for Zavac’s blood because of the death and destruction he brought to her village, Limmat. This story really sees us getting to know the characters and their quirks better. There is suspense, drama, comedy and emotion throughout, and all done with aplomb. Many reviewers seem to thinks this is the last in the series, but I am pretty sure there will be more and the final pages certainly leave room for it. I will be very surprised if it stops at number 3!
In any case, this is a great read and I recommend it for anyone from 8 to 80. Flanagan’s humour and eye for detail is evident in spades and will win over the most reluctant reader. I look forward to many more adventures with the Heron and her crew – and if it is not to be, I will just re-read the three I have!

For ages 10 to 100!

Holding on like grim death

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I should state up front that this was my second attempt at reading this book. The first time (about 2 years ago) I grew impatient with the voice of Todd and gave up. I am so glad I tried again.
Todd Hewitt lives in a world of Noise. Even when the men (and there are only men) in Prentisstown aren’t speaking, you can hear what they are saying. Not just the men either- the animals too. About a month before Todd turns 13 (and becomes a Man), his life is thrown into chaos when the two men who have cared for him all his life tell him he must leave his home and never return. Confused, but trusting their judgement, Todd and his dog, Manchee, flee Prentisstown as an armed conflict erupts. Men from the settlement come after Todd and Manchee and they realise they are on their own and fighting to survive. As they run, they discover, Viola, a girl of unknown origin who does not emit Noise. At first Todd is wary of her, but it soon becomes apparent that Viola is in as much danger as Todd, if not more.
The pursuit is relentless, with gory encounters along the way that are not for the faint-hearted. Both Todd and Viola are tested to the limits of their mental and physical endurance as they try to escape the encroaching army from Prentisstown. There is heartache, tragedy and immense sadness in this book. I became so invested in the characters that I found myself crying in anguish on more than one occasion. But, this is by far one of the best science fiction/dystopian novels I have read, in fact it may be THE best. Patrick Ness has written an accomplished cautionary tale about technology, fear of difference and self-acceptance that left me begging for more. I will not reveal more plot he, but it is safe to say that the end left me hanging and now I must read The Ask and the Answer to find out what happens next. I commend this book to you in the strongest terms. A modern YA classic.
I would recommend this for ages 14 and up but a mature 12 year old will probably get a lot out of it too.

A Resounding Hallelujah from Me!

The Reluctant HallelujahThe Reluctant Hallelujah by Gabrielle Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my top reads for 2013. I just loved this book. Gabrielle Willams has created the ultimate road trip novel here. I am not sure this can be topped!
Dodie Farnshaw and her younger sister Coco live an average life, in an average Melbourne suburb, with their average parents. Things change quickly when Mr and Mrs Farnshaw disappear without a trace. When Dodie is approached by Enron, a boy at school she barely knows, and he says her mum and dad were watching over something for the Church and that is why they are missing, Dodie thinks he has a screw loose. However, Enron convinces her to look to for the key he says is in her house and find the basement he claims is there. Dodie does these things not expecting to find anything, but is shocked to actually locate the key and the entrance to the basement. What they find there is, quite simply, life-changing. (No spoilers). Now Dodie, Coco, Enron and two guys she has only just met are setting off for Sydney on a road trip of mind-blowing importance. Driving unlicenced, Dodie and her entourage are chased by the police, nameless bad guys and even manages some romance on the way. One big secret, one big adventure.
This entertaining novel is a delight full of humour, gravity, excitement and heart-break. I heartily recommend this to everyone from 13 to 93. I might just read it a second time because it was THAT MUCH FUN!

Taking Ross to Ross

Ostrich BoysOstrich Boys by Keith Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blake, Kenny and Sim have just lost their best mate, Ross, to a car accident. Having attended the funeral and coming out dissatisfied with the way Ross’s life was celebrated, the three teenagers decide to make a pilgrimage to the town of Ross, in Scotland, a place Ross once tried to runaway to. Only one problem, they have to steal his ashes first.
With that mission accomplished – messily – they embark on a 2 day train journey to Ross and thus begins an adventure and a journey of self-discovery for them all. After Kenny leaves his backpack (containing most of their money for the trip and Kenny’s ticket) on a train during a frantic interchange things take a wild turn.
Relying on each other, the boys talk about Ross and share recent memories of him that start to paint a picture they don’t recognise as their friend who would “stand up to anyone”. It is clear that Ross is still having a marked effect on their lives – even from his urn in Blake’s backpack.
Keith Gray writes young men very well – he speaks their language and I found these boys believable, sad, hilarious and likeable. I look forward to reading more books by Keith Gray very soon.
Did they get Ross to Ross? That would be telling…..

A Steampunk Engn?

EngnEngn by Simon Kewin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Received this as an Early Reviewers book for LibraryThing and was pleasantly surprised.
Engn is a fantasy novel set in a world that has 36 hour days. It felt like a steampunk novel, but I think to qualify it would have to be set on Earth, so let’s just call it fantasy/sci fi to make it simple. Written for a YA audience, this is a story of Finn and Connor, who live a mostly idyllic life playing and fighting in the woods near their homes. We learn that Finn’s sister, Shireen, was taken to the leviathan-like Engn by the Ironclads (this novel’s version of Dementors)and has never returned. Periodically teenage villagers are spirited away by the forces of Engn without explantaion.
We learn about Connor and Finn’s friendship, and their relationship with the fugitive Diane, through a series of flashbacks as Finn is himself transported to Engn by the Ironclads. Before they were taken the three vowed to destroy Engn from within or die trying.
The big mystery of the book of course is “what is Engn’s purpose?” Finn works his way through various parts of Engn trying to find the answer and the books biggest flaw is that we don’t really find out.
However, the story flies along at a good pace and the characters are likeable. Finn struck me as a bit of a dolt at times, but I put that down to the fact that he had lived such a charmed life until the day he was taken by the Ironclads. The world Simon Kewin creates is vividly realised, but I got pretty sick of reading the word “fizz” or “fizzed” as descriptors. No less than 11 times through the text – I am sure there were other words that could have been used.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this novel and I will look at Kewin’s other work as a result.

The Runaway King hits his stride

The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy #2)The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Runaway King picks up a few weeks after Jaron, thought to be dead for a number of years, came back to Carthya to take his rightful place on the throne. Vargan, the king of neighbouring Avenia, is a clear threat and makes no secret of his desire to wrest the throne from Jaron’s grasp. Too emotional to attend his parents’ funeral, Jaron takes refuge in a favourte part of the castle grounds, only to become the victim of an attack by none other than Roden, one of his former fellow “trainees” from the last book. During their encounter Roden reveals he has joined the pirates – the very people who had been commissioned to kill Jaron and the king and queen. Roden gives Jaron an ultimatum – give himself up to the pirates so they can finish the job, or they will attack Carthya and destroy it to get to him. Of course, Jaron refuses and stands his ground. After a brief tussle, Jaron is knocked out an when he comes to, Roden is gone.
Jaron is surrounded by people doing things in secret: his betrothed, Amarida, seems to be in cahoots with Conner, his enemy and former captor who is now himself in jail; Gregor, a regent, wants to become Jaron’s Chief Steward, which would give him more power than Jaron would be confortable with. He doesn’t know who to trust, execpt Imogen – the servant girl who helped to save him, and Mott – the servant who trained him at Conner’s estate.
Not sure who is an ally or an enemy, Jaron resolves to go the pirates himself, as Sage, and defeat them from within before Roden returns in 9 days. This sets the scene for lots of action and intrigue. As in The False Prince the rest of the story is fast-paced and engaging. There are anxious moments, and moments of revelation as the conspirators and their allys are revealed and defeated. And just when we think everything is smooth sailing, Avenia starts an invasion – setting the scene for the third and final instalment. I really hope Jaron grows up a bit more in the next book – he needs to stop being so hot-headed all the time, but I can’t wait to find out what happens. Bring on Book 3!

The Wild Card in Vanguard Prime

Wild Card (Vanguard Prime, #2)Wild Card by Steven Lochran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, let me say I was all set to be disappointed by this sequel. Second books and movies in a series can be notoriously bad (except if they are Star Trek movies or The Empire Strikes Back). I am pleased to report that I thought this was better than Goldrush (Vanguard Prime #1). Our hero, Sam, (aka Goldrush) is still settling in to his superhero life and in this adventure is thrown in the deep end with the mysterious and awesome Knight of Wands. After Goldrush and the Knight take a trip to Chicago to hear the Knight’s mentor speak, there is an attempt on the Knight of Wand’s life. Goldrush discovers he can run up walls (cool!) as he races to save the Knight. Into the picture comes Solitaire – a shadowy figure of unknown loyaties who assists and then informs them that the Major Arcana (the bad guys) have put a kill order out on the Knight of Wands. What follows is a roller coaster ride through the history of the Knight and an education for Goldrush on just how manipulative Major Arcana agents can be. No spoilers here (as is my policy), but I will say that the dreams Sam was having in Book 1 are still with him in Book 2, and I suspect we are approaching a point in Book 3 where they start to come true. “He will wake in darkness. And into darkness he will cast you all…” Sounds like book 3 to me! I can’t wait to read it.
Ages 10 and up.