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Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone
Pierre the Maze Detective: The Search for the Stolen Maze Stone
by Hiro Kamigaki
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.71

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get Lost in a Good Book, 16 Nov. 2015
Lots of children’s books come into our house. Many of which are very good. Some though are exceptional and make me almost uncontrollably excited. My childhood is well past me now, but the very best of of children’s books reignite that essence of child inside me, leading me to caper about in a way that embarrasses the children. Pierre the Maze Detective is one such book.

I loved puzzle books as a child and still do, but don’t often find the time to explore them. This one demands to be pored over, every page has a multitude of things to see; jokes, quirks and above all, mazes. I forgot to mention, I love mazes even more than I enjoy puzzle books.

I’ll be honest. Where’s Wally has never really done it for me. It’s diverting for a while, but at the end of the day it’s just starting a pictures. Pierre and his creators, Hiro Kamigaki and the gang at IC4Design take things one step further.

This is like the Ultimate Alphabet for maze-freaks. There is just so much stuff to see. Each maze pulls you in as you find more and more little details. This is the sort of book you sit down to look at for five minutes and find yourself still there half and hour later.

There are sixteen mazes in all. Each double-page spread has a theme and a main maze. There are many smaller mazes within and numerous hidden objects to discover too. Some of the hidden things are generic, such as gold stars and red trophies, whilst others are tailored to the page’s theme, such as the must-see exhibits at the museum. This gives the book an extra dimension and, combined with breathtaking attention to detail, makes it captivating.

The book’s highlights include:

A sky maze between colourful hot air balloons.

A maze made of railway tracks.

A haunted house, complete with resident vampire.

A chase across a crowded city.

Pierre the Maze Detective is one of the finest children’s books I have seen in some time. It’s engaging and entertaining, with so much going on for children to discover. I think it would suit a child over 7. My 10 year old loved it.Children younger than that will enjoy looking at the pictures, but their attention spans might not be up to the concentration levels required.

With Christmas coming this book makes for an excellent present. I’ve already brought two more copies and will be looking for excuses to buy extras. A brilliantly executed children’s book and a book you can literally get lost in…

Many thanks to the team at Laurence King Publishing (producers of some of the most beautiful children’s books around) for sending me a copy of this book

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.14

5.0 out of 5 stars We're all Aliens Now, 16 Oct. 2015
Every now and then a novel comes along that changes what you think stories can do. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is just such a book. On one level its very ho-hum ordinary. It's about a group of spacefarers travelling in a spaceship to their destination. Stuff happens, perhaps people die, perhaps they don't. There's aliens, technology and new planets. It's a small scale Star Trek with less clunky scenery. But that's just one level. Not since reading Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, have I read a book that made me think so deeply about humanity, prejudice and the nature of acceptance.

...Small Angry Planet is about a 'tunnelling' vessel and its crew. Tunnelling, in Becky Chambers' universe, is punching through the fabric of reality in order to build wormholes that facilitate travel across vast distances of Space. The crew of the Wayfarer are damn good at what they do, but as a small outfit, they're restricted to minor jobs. The authorities who hand out the boring contracts (actually very exciting, ripping through time and space, and all that), have let it be known that if Captain Ashby Santoso had a more professional outlook, larger, more lucrative jobs could be sent in the Wayfarer's direction.

This is how Rosemary Harper comes on board. She has been hired as a clerk. Somebody to ensure that all the paperwork is up to date and filed on time. So...the basis of the story is, a young woman takes a job in the back office of a small company that has ambitions to expand. Exciting hey? Well not so much, but the story Chambers delivers is mind-blowingly excellent.

From the off Rosemary has a secret, but what is it? The Wayfarer's new mission is to a far flung sector of the known universe where an up-until-now hostile race of aliens have sued for peace and been invited to join the Galactic Commons. The GC is a federation of aliens and races that all pull in roughly the same direction to ensure harmony across space. The UN writ large. Humans, we learn a fairly new members of the GC; primitive and rather stupid ones at that. Our propensity to settle problems using violence has not gone unnoticed. Humans themselves are spilt into broad categories, including Martian's, those who escaped the Apocalypse on earth by going to Mars, and Exodan's, those who travelled into space hoping to find salvation amongst the stars.

The rest of the universe is made up with just about every other type of life form Becky Chambers was able to imagine. Which she does brilliantly. The races felt real, not just their physical appearance but their social structures, their habits, their interactions, their desires. They are wonderfully rendered sentient creatures, alien yet touchingly, for want a better word, human. There are several different species on board the Wayfarer, as well as three humans and a sentient (also incredibly important) AI.

The relationships between the crew are what makes this novel so special. To be honest, they could have just been taking a camper van trip somewhere remote, before spending a few days on the beach and coming home again. I could read Chambers' dialogue and character relationships all day long. It's impossible to pick a favourite character, they are all so good; so real.

Chambers uses her wide and varied cast of characters to poke at what exactly it is that constitutes humanity. How does compassion work? What is prejudice? I think I'm a pretty accepting guy, but reading Chambers novel, I realised I had prejudices that were so deeply hidden, I wasn't really aware they existed. ...Small Angry Planet explores the idea that we're all different in any number of ways, but there is nearly always some common ground on which to build.

The novel builds slowly to a gripping finale, about which I shall say little, lest I ruin its emotional impact. Whilst the book is beautiful and complete, I finished it desperate for more. Closing the covers felt like I was shutting the door on old friends. With its ensemble cast and lens-on-life motif The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet would make a wonderful television series. I light-heartedly compared it to Star Trek, but a series based on this wonderful novel would be a more than worthy successor. This is storytelling of the highest order and without a shadow of doubt my best read of 2015 so far.

Ok, I'll stop gushing now.

Except to say the cover is absolutely beautiful too.

The Hive Construct
The Hive Construct
by Alexander Maskill
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Call tech support..., 5 Oct. 2015
This review is from: The Hive Construct (Paperback)
My 2015 is starting to simmer nicely now. After a lucklustre first half, I’ve started to find some books that I am really enjoying. Alexander Maskill’s debut novel, The Hive Construct, continued the trend, by keeping me entertained throughout.

The Hive Construct dropped through my letterbox unannounced but I knew immediately it was a book I wanted to make time for. The premise looked interesting and it won the Terry Pratchett Prize for a first novel. Maskill is a graduate of Leicester University, as am I, and despite a twenty year difference in our graduating years, this lent me an extra affinity for the novel and its author. Maskill wrote The Hive Construct whilst studying for a computer science degree, which tells us he’s both dedicated and talented. The central spine of the novel owes much to his academic pursuits. Its integral components stem from speculation about the evolution of computers.

The Hive Construct is set in the nearish future, though the world is a very different place. Set into a crater in the middle of the Sahara desert is the city of New Cairo. It’s a technological melting pot, filled with just about every cultural reference you can imagine. Something resembling a future Constantinople. Like all cities New Cairo has its haves and have-nots, with the former ruling over the latter. Political unrest is an everyday feature of life in the city, but things have taken an ugly turn. The people of New Cairo have been struck by plague. The mysterious “Soucouyant” virus is causing deaths all across the city, but as usual it is the poor who are worst affected. With tensions bubbling, the city is closed to prevent the escape of the virus into the wider world. Now a sealed system, New Cairo is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

Enter Zala Ulora. activist, hacker and wanted for multiple murder. She steals into the city to investigate the virus after it killed her friend. In Maskill’s world, people have hardware implanted inside them, to aid biological processes. Nearly everybody is enhanced in some way. The virus is attacking these enhancements, but is it a biological pathogen or something more synthetic, like rogue code? Zala’s investigations put her in the crossfire between government forces and the anti-government activists, vying for equality.

The novel is neatly split into techno-thriller and political-thriller. Maskill’s New Cairo is well-drawn and highly evocative. It felt very real, and not too far-fetched an extrapolation of what the future might hold. Perhaps not surprising considering his background but Maskill’s vision of how technology might advance feels entirely credible giving the novel great weight. The politics of the novel are simple but no less powerful for being so. The unwashed masses vs the ivory towered elite is a centuries old tale, and one that has rarely tired in the telling. The pace of the novel is good, and whilst the denouement won’t take your breath away, the journey there will certainly have you gasping. The cast of characters is strong, with likeable and less-likeable people on both sides of the argument. There are some great set-pieces, and with exciting but realistic action; Maskill has thought out his technology well.

The Hive Construct is a very accomplished debut from author apparently with ideas to burn. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for a review.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great title, Great read, 21 Sept. 2015
This review is from: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Paperback)
I love to be taken completely by surprise by a book. I'd never heard of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, when its arresting cover caught my eye as I browsed in my local library. It's a book that, in the UK at least, seems to have been criminally overlooked. I loved every page of it, from first to last. It's pure geek manna.

At its heart, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a less irritating riff on Dave Eggers one-dimensional polemic `The Circle`. I've read a few "Pitfalls of Social Media" novels, and I think WTF sits at the top of the pile.

The story draws three disparate characters together, as they become entangled in a web of international corporate espionage. There is a plot to gain a stranglehold on the entire globe's digital information, and the three are recruited by a shadowy counter-culture group to try to thwart the might of big business.

The foe they are up against is an unholy marriage of an Internet Goliath with a private military company and the book contains the inevitable ruminations about the power of mercenary outfits and the perils of allowing social media companies unfettered access to your data. Many of the traps outlined are but small extrapolations of existing, much touted features offered by Facebook and Google. Much of the novel's humour is derived from the arch depiction of Sine, a company that is the conglomeration of just about every huge technology outfit you can name. With their "node" they hope to revolutionise the way we control our lives, and in the process they aim to gain complete control of the way we control our lives.

The book derives its richness from its central characters, three flawed individuals given over to introspection. They pretty much fumble their way through the plot analysing the way the world works as they go along. David Shafer's distilling of the absurdities of modern life is entertaining and he has a keen eye for detail and a dry turn of phrase that kept me hooked throughout.

There is some carping on the internet that the book is far-fetched (true) and that the ending is ambiguous (also true). Neither of these things mattered for me. The story is in essence a vehicle for carrying ideas and suggesting caution in the way we handle our digital lives. The ending is abrupt, and might have you exclaiming and searching for extra pages, but you could say there's a clue is in the novel's title. I liked the ending, and found it in keeping with the rest of the novel. You should be pretty sure how things are going to play out after the novel's end, but you're left with a nagging doubt that perhaps it didn't. That feeling I found refreshing.

With its immersive look at the culture of technology and spy-craft Whiskey Foxtrot Tango should appeal to the geek in us all. There are lots of little hooks of information that require further investigation. I spend an invigorating half hour, trying to understand what a Markov number is on the back of a throwaway observation by a minor character. It's that sort of book. I thoroughly enjoyed WTF. It's testament to the power of good storytelling and the importance of the existence of libraries, without which I may never have discovered this entertaining gem of a novel.

The Supernatural Enhancements
The Supernatural Enhancements
by Edgar Cantero
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meddling Kids Appreciation Society, 28 Aug. 2015
I knew absolutely nothing about The Supernatural Enhancements before it dropped through my letterbox but I was immediately taken with its premise. Unsolicited books rarely work their way to the top of my embarrassingly large to-be-read pile, but Edgar Cantero's novel was intriguing enough warrant a climb to the summit. I'm so glad I did. This genuinely scary, offbeat mystery is a contender for my book of 2015.

The novel opens with 'A' (that's a much as we ever find out of his name) arriving in small town America to accept his inheritance; a mansion and almost unlimited funds. Axton House is a large country pile recently vacated by a distant cousin. The sting in the tail? Cousin Ambrose died "jumping out of his bedroom window" ("forgetting to open it first") as did Ambrose's father before him. Accompanying 'A' is Niamh, a young mysterious teenager from Ireland with whom 'A' has a complicated and somewhat dubious relationship.

The set up is a classic Scooby Doo haunted mansion. Mysterious noises, strange bumps, shorting light bulbs. There's a botched break-in with nothing apparently stolen. And where did the butler go?

The story is told through a variety of different media - Letters, diaries and transcripts of audio and video recordings. There are excerpts from textbooks and newspaper clippings, also pages of old code books. The Supernatural Enhancements is a classic horror-noir investigation, all done with a knowing smile. Some might find the arch tone irritating but I enjoyed it.

"An untimely thunder comes rumbling along - one that might have fit better at some other key point in the dialogue."

The setting and incidental characters reminded me of Twin Peaks. The book style and subject matter is reminiscent of House of Leaves. At the risk of obviating all my reviewing credentials, I didn't really like House of Leaves. I think possibly I didn't get it. The Supernatural Enhancements was what I hoped Danielewski's much fêted brick of a novel would be. It mixes differing media to construct a beguiling and exciting tale. I also found it scary. I don't very often become nervous when reading, but Cantero genuinely had me holding my breath as I read on, tiptoeing quietly down Axton House's darkened halls.

The plot is a fascinating construction that led me to unexpected places. The tone and the ideas in the book are fresh and interesting. I'm not sure it will suit everybody's tastes, but in a year where I have struggled to enjoy many books, The Supernatural Enhancements stands out as unlooked for and unexpected gem.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey UK for sending me a copy of the book.

The Hunter's Kind: Book II of The Hollow Gods
The Hunter's Kind: Book II of The Hollow Gods
by Rebecca Levene
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Book of Slaves, 7 Aug. 2015
Rebecca Levene's The Hunter's Kind was my most hotly anticipated book of 2015. It's the direct sequel to 2014's excellent Smiler's Fair and the second book in The Hollow Gods series. If you haven't read Smiler's Fair you should stop reading this review now.

The problem with hotly anticipated titles is that sometimes there is tendency to over-inflate in your mind just how good they are going to be. It doesn't help that my memory is not what it used to be. I remembered that the end of Smiler's Fair is brilliant, and that it has an amazing cliff-hanger leaving me desperate to read more, but one year on, could I remember what that cliff-hanger was? I could not.

The start of The Hunter's Kind gave no clues either. There appears to be nothing cliff-hanger resolving in the opening hundred pages, and I must confess, I struggled a little to remember what I'd got so excited about. The summer of 2015 has been tumultuous for me and my reading has been fragmented and distracted. I've found it very hard to force my way into anything. And so it was with The Hunter's Kind.

I felt like I was going through the motions. I couldn't get on with the characters like I had in Smiler's Fair, yet they were the same characters. What was going on? It was only on finishing I was able to work it out. Levene has pulled the street-artist trick of drawing a picture that is apparently formless right up until the final few touches are made, at which point all is revealed. The audience can only stand back and say, "Woah! That's awesome." Because it is.

The Hollow Gods, so far, is a genesis story; that of Krish as he wrestles with taking on the mantle of the Moon God, Yron. In truth it's a rebirth rather than a genesis. Yron was killed a thousand years earlier, by Sun God Mizhara, who, horrified by the destruction she wrought in defeating her brother, subsequently ceased to exist. She left behind her followers, and he his. We now watch as the two sides react to Yron's return. It's the same with the novel's other characters. Unlike most fantasy novels, where the central characters are the agents of change, In The Hunter's Kind we have a rapidly changing world with the characters reacting to those changes.

The book contains a sizeable ensemble cast and the narrative jumps between characters. No one thread picks up a head of steam until towards the novel's end when all sorts of interesting things start happening. There are a number of political plotlines, which didn't engage me quite so much. I had started to question whether they could have been cut from the book entirely, until the very end, when it becomes apparent that all that has gone before has bearing on the characters' actions as they react to the novel's epic final scenes.

Once again Levene has created a story that takes place in a fully credible world, a feat rare for fantasy novels. Apart from the obvious differences in technology and magic, Levene's world is one in which real humans might live. There are no absolutes, merely points of view. Krish has most of the world trying to kill him, but he is not evil. He's just a young man trying to understand why most of the world wants to kill him. He's told that he is a god, but what does that mean?

Krish tries to do good, but nothing works out the way he expects it to. Levene captures brilliantly the downfall of many leaders and statesmen - The law of unintended consequences. That's how the real world works; try to make one thing better, you often make something else worse. Usually, with hindsight, a something that ought to have been obvious. These sorts of consequences are rare in fantasy fiction though. Most novels are simple cause and effect; destroy the ring, save the world. Levene has created something more subtle, complex and, above all, human.

I didn't quite enjoy The Hunter's Kind as much as Smiler's Fair, but I read the closing chapters of both with the same sense of awe. Levene is creating something I've not really encountered in fantasy fiction before, a story that is unfolding to create a credible history. The novel works on both the personal level of the characters but also as the unfolding of myth. This volume hasn't left me hanging quite like the end of book 1, but there are revelations aplenty before the end. Answers are given, but just as many questions are posed. I'm fascinated to find out how the ages-old battle between Yron and Mizhara will unfold, and more, how it's going to affect the series' central players. The Hollow Gods is settling down into something very special, and once again I am left hankering for more.

by Ali Sparkes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hi-Octane Genius, 3 Aug. 2015
This review is from: Car-Jacked (Paperback)
For one paragraph, I hand over to my son, aged 9, who wanted me to help him tell everybody how good Car-Jacked is.

Jack Mattingly is 12. He is a genius. He has an IQ of 170. He speaks fluent Mandarin and Latin. When the car is hi-jacked he is as clueless as the rest of of us. But the car-jacker does not know he is inside and it can’t be long before he finds out and then anything could happen. As Jack travels to London he is scared and thrilled and this is surely the most exiting thing in his life. While he is away he has sugar, the thing his mum despises him having. His parents miss him so much that when they see him they will be ecstatic. The book was good because it was exiting all the way through. Each page has something exciting on it.

This book is so good, I made my dad read it.

He’s right he did. And he’s right this is a great book. Particularly, one imagines, if you’re aged 9-14. I suspect my son is a little young to have picked up everything in the book, but he certainly devoured it in record time. Car-Jacked is a fast-paced children’s thriller, that entertains from start to finish. The book’s two central characters, genius Jack and his unwitting carjacker are brilliantly drawn. They take centre stage as an intriguing mystery unfolds. Grown-ups might be forced to swallow their disbelief a few too many times, but I think the twists and turns are pitched perfectly for the target audience.

Car-Jacked poses some interesting questions about right and wrong, whilst also questioning whether parents are always right. From first page until last there is something interesting. I love that my son decided to report that Jack has sugar during his escapade, and important part of the book, but perhaps not the most dramatic! Jack’s genius status allows him the good fortune to be in possession of some fascinating information of interest to kids of all ages. This book came highly recommend by children’s book reviewer Amanda Craig. She rarely puts a foot wrong, and Car-Jacked is another excellent novel to add to an ever-growing list of wonderful children’s fiction.

The Versions of Us
The Versions of Us
by Laura Barnett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Tracks of Our Lives, 21 July 2015
This review is from: The Versions of Us (Hardcover)
Parallel universes are a mainstay of science fiction, but increasingly they seems to be creeping into the mainstream. Jo Walton, Claire North and Kate Atkinson have all produced phenomenal Sliding Doors novels that have (to a greater or lesser degree) wormed their way into the nation's consciousnesses. The latest arrival in the literary parallel universe corner is The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. This has been pushed heavily, being a Waterstones book of the month and has been riding high in the charts.

The Versions of Us is a reality three-way that has very little science and large amounts of human interaction. At first I struggled. I was expecting cleverly dovetailed realities or a little science fictional trickery a la Walton or Atkinson, but there is nothing at all. The book is pretty much three separate stories with chapters that interleave. The action branches out from a single incident, and we watch as three differing realities unfold.

As this is a story about 'true-love', and in two of the realities this love is thwarted, once by chance and the other by painful decision, I found myself settling on one particular narrative as the one I was rooting for. Barnett however is cleverer than that. Borrowing the idea that the "course of true love never did run smooth", she demonstrates how things might go wrong even when you've found the person of your dreams, and how adversity might bring out the best in some, whilst overwhelming others.

Whilst there is little interaction between the narrative strands, as the novel progresses, we build up a deeper picture of its characters. In a conventional novel we tend to only see the players from one angle. We follow them through one story. Here Barnett builds a three dimensional picture by showing how her creations might react to similar situations in differing circumstances. As the novel builds to its conclusion it becomes increasingly satisfying. Upon finishing I was bereft that there as no more to read.

This book is perhaps not good fare for worriers or those not satisfied with their lot. It's hard not to read The Versions of Us and wonder if it may have been possible to end up somewhere else. You may find yourself pondering missed opportunities and unexpected forks in the road. The flip side to this is that the book can be seen as empowering. You may not be where you want to be, you may have a talent that is being wasted, but it's still with you. It's never too late to apply yourself and change things around.

Whilst this is essentially a romantic novel, Barnett has a pragmatic view towards romance. This is not a tale of lovers destined to be together at all costs. It shows that there are many paths to happiness and that human beings desire companionship above all else. Wherever you are, there's almost certainly somebody nearby waiting for you.

Whilst there was little of the literary trickery I was expecting, The Versions of Us is no less an accomplishment than the other novels I've mentioned here. It's layering and juxtaposition of real-lives builds into a solid rendering of love, loss, happiness and the ability of the human spirit to keep moving forward. It's a novel that contrives to be more than the sum of its parts. Each of the three stories is interesting enough, but in weaving them together Barnett has created something special and well worth reading.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Way Down Dark: Australia Book 1
Way Down Dark: Australia Book 1
by James P. Smythe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.78

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark Matters, 15 July 2015
This review appeared as part of a larger piece published on Geekdad on 12.7.2015 - I received a free review copy of the book

“There’s One Truth on Australia. You Fight or You Die”

If Katniss Everdeen somehow wandered into Hugh Howey’s Wool, the result might be something like Way Down Dark. The Australia is a ship, meandering through space in search of a home. On the brink of destruction, Earth sent out huge survival spaceships. The last hope of mankind, searching for new homes. The Australia is still looking. Like most sealed systems that contain humans, things have gone badly wrong. Life support is barely functioning, food is scarce, and Australia‘s inhabitants have started cannibalizing their own ship. Stairwells have been ripped out and their precious metal used for defenses or weapons.

Two things the Australia has in abundance are anger and fear. The ship has divided into factions. Some with agendas, some simply trying to eke out an existence until they can finally find a planet to call home. All fear the “Lows,” the gang that holds the bottom sections of the ship, an ever-expanding gang that threatens to plunge the Australia into anarchy.

Way Down Dark is a brutal book. It opens with lead character Chan having to kill her mother. If there is a line where Young Adult fiction becomes merely fiction, this book sits directly on it. It is simply an excellent story with a teenage protagonist.

The Australia is two steps away from anarchy. In this kill-or-be-killed world, superstition and reputation are everything. In order to build hers, Chan must build her own legend–be prepared to carry out the unthinkable. On her own, with few friends, she must do whatever she can to survive. But what good is living if you do nothing with your life? In a riff on the “with great power comes great responsibility” motif, Chan feels obliged to use her relative freedom to try to emancipate other denizens of Australia. She has no real power, but, on Australia, the ability to self-govern is power enough. Almost single-handedly she tries to hold back the tide of Lows. It leads her all over the ship, hunting the missing and rescuing the stolen. She’s a white cowboy wandering the confines of a tin can steeped in darkness.

This being a James Smythe novel, all is not what it seems. The story has unexpected depths. The reader anticipates there’s something more, but the characters have no idea. With each new piece of information she acquires, Chan has to assimilate it into her world view. Chan’s is a dark transition from adolescent to adult, but it mirrors the real world as she gradually learns things she took for granted aren’t quite as simple as she had imagined. Chan’s nemesis throughout the novel is her dark inversion, Rex. Rex too has earned the right to self-govern, but her grip on life is brutal and sadistic. With it she drags the Lows to her bidding. It’s not difficult to imagine that Chan could easily be Rex.

Like most Smythe novels, the book is heavily steeped in faith. Not in a supreme being, although religious faith does feature, but the simple human faith that things will get better. The ship will arrive. The Lows will be stopped. There will be a reprieve from the horror of life on board Australia. Once again, Smythe probes the limits and questions the wisdom of such faith.

Way Down Dark is the opening book in a trilogy and it is left wide open after several twisting turns. This is not for the faint of heart. The squalor and brutality of life on the Australia makes for breathless reading. Characterization is excellent, with several strong females taking center stage. Smythe has created an intriguing sealed dystopia, which will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Like many of these novels, the reader is left wondering why humans can’t just get along and work together to survive. You’d hope the anarchy of the Australia could only be fiction, but it doesn’t take much convincing to see that Smythe has probably called it right.

Smythe has a strong loyal fanbase, of which I am one. I was predisposed to liking this novel, but I think Way Down Dark will bring him to the attention of more readers. Short, punchy, and gripping from first page until last, Way Down Dark makes an excellent entry point into the splendid works of James Smythe.

Dan and the Shard of Ice (Quicksilver)
Dan and the Shard of Ice (Quicksilver)
by Thomas Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars He sees dead people, 4 July 2015
I originally posted this review of all three 'Dan and the Dead' books on GeekDad on 30/6/2015.

Thomas Taylor is possibly one of the most famous author/illustrators you've never heard of. In illustrator mode, Taylor gave the world the original cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. A book that quite a few people have read. Those of you who follow Mike Carey's superlative Unwritten series will know that its central character is `Tommy Taylor.' I don't know whether this is a coincidence but considering how Carey's Potter-channelling graphic novel series drips with literary allusion and reference, I very much doubt it.

But enough of the fan-boy trivia.

I first encountered Taylor's work in the form of his Young Adult thriller, Haunters. This is a well-executed novel about teenagers who use their dreams to travel through time and space. I very much enjoyed Haunters; it's a book which showed potential for further instalments and I am rather vexed that a follow-up has yet to appear. At that time, the first of Taylor's Dan and the Dead series was available but, as it is aimed at the bottom end of my preferred reading age (pre to early teens), I never quite got around to picking it up.

Several years later and having become fond of Taylor's creativity celebrating Facebook page, I noticed that Dan is now having his third outing. My oldest son is now at the bottom end of the books' reading age (9), so I dropped Thomas a line and asked nicely whether he'd be prepared to send me a book in exchange for a review. His UK publisher, Bloomsbury was kind enough to send me all three, and so here I am.

"I see dead people."

As Dan concedes in the opening line of the book, he's "... like that kid. You know, the one in the film..."

That is the series' central premise; Dan can see the dead. Restless spirits who have unfinished business. For a small fee Dan acts as a closer, giving peace and rest to troubled ghosts. It's not a new premise, but it's an interesting one. With hindsight, it's easy to say that Dan of the Dead is obviously a first novel. It's well crafted, readable but it doesn't particularly stand out from the pack.

Dan is a fairly typical young teen character; a talented outcast. His most common companion, Simon, has been dead for hundreds of years. Together they form a team. A young Sherlock Holmes and late Dr. Watson. The partnership works well, and delivers plenty of light-hearted supernatural sleuthing. The first book focuses around a morally bankrupt gangster and his ring of blackmailed children. It's set in and around Dan's school life in London.

The first book may not glow as brightly as later instalments but it forms a solid base on which the series is built. The rules and precepts for Dan's power are established, as is what being a ghost in Dan's world means. To reveal the finest aspect of the book would be too big a spoiler, but it centres around Dan's payment for his services. Taylor has set himself up with a powerful device with which he can build a range of stories and character angles.

In the second book of the series, Dan and the Caverns of Bone , Taylor moves up a gear or two. Set in Paris, with much of the action taking below the ground in the city's catacombs, the book has a more macabre feel to it. Nevertheless the same light tone of the first book pervades, and, if anything, this book would appeal to slightly younger readers. In Caverns of Bone a strong sense of theme starts to develop: standing up for the downtrodden.

To all intents and purposes Dan is a geek. A geek who can see the dead but essentially a boy with his own style and a worldview that differs from the norm. Inevitably he comes under the scrutiny of the school bully. Dan stands up to him, and a less-than-fair teacher, not always successfully, but doggedly. He takes another child under his wing; a paper plane-making maths genius.

I like this geeks-together aspect of the books. Since the ghosts in the stories are victims of something, the novels convey a strong sense of the importance of righting injustice. In a world where community seems to be corroding, Dan's sense of fair play and looking out for the underdog is an important idea. Doubly so, as Dan hardly comes from a position of power himself. There is a strong sense that the individual can make a difference.

The latest instalment, Dan and the Shard of Ice, is set almost entirely within in London's iconic new skyscraper, The Shard. The Shard seems to have captured authors' and creators' imaginations; I've read some great books set there and then there was the Doctor Who episode 'The Bells of Saint John'.

In Shard of Ice, the building is being terrorized by a malevolent poltergeist. In an attempt to find out what is going on, Dan sneaks into the entourage of a famous TV psychic. Again Dan tries to come to the aid of the disadvantaged. The fraudulent "Venn Specter" preys upon the gullible and recently bereaved. In a sub-plot to the novel Dan tries to uncover the TV star's duplicity and in doing so learns an important lesson about the bulletproof nature of being rich and powerful. The plot here again brings home a message of standing up for what is right, though this time there are less predictable consequences.

Shard of Ice sees a stronger overreaching story arc begin to develop. The first two novels are interesting, but largely stand alone. Shard of Ice suggests there is a bigger picture and a wider supernatural world. This gives the series a greater coherence, making the the third book the most satisfying read of all.

With his Dan and the Dead books, Thomas Taylor has developed a gentle entertaining series, with a strong message. The books are slim, fairly quick reads for 10- to 14-year-olds and are well-presented with lots of illustrations drawn by the author, a few of which are shown here with Taylor's permission. All three are satisfying reads, each better than the last. With the final instalment ending with a number of unanswered questions, I am thoroughly looking forward to reading book 4. And Thomas, whilst you're there, how about a sequel to Haunters too?!

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