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John K. Fulton

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The Nowhere Emporium (Kelpies)
The Nowhere Emporium (Kelpies)
by Ross MacKenzie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.37

5.0 out of 5 stars A magical adventure, 20 July 2015
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Magic is hard. There's so much magic in fantasy that sometimes it's used to define fantasy (although that's an oversimplification) but the fact remains - Magic is hard. There are many books where the magic just doesn't hang together, or where the reader is bogged down in the minutiae of the cleverly-worked-out magic system that the author is so proud of, or where the magic is a copy'n'paste wands and spells afterthought that doesn't add much to the story at all.

So when you come across a book like The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie that does magic right, it's a real pleasure.

Daniel Holmes is on the run in present-day Glasgow from the bullies in his children's home. Desperate for a place to hide, he ducks into a mysterious shop. The owner allows him to wait out the bullies, and offers him a tantalising glimpse of magical silver magpies... Intrigued, Daniel makes his way back to the shop the very next day, and the owner is amazed. You see, no-one is supposed to remember visiting the shop...

This launches Daniel on an adventure in the magical world of The Nowhere Emporium, a shop that travels in time and space to offer wonders to people across the globe and across the centuries. The owner, Mr Silver, offers Daniel the chance to learn the magical ways of the Book of Wonders that guides the magic of the shop. How could he resist?

But not everything is as rosy as it appears. Why can't Mr Silver's daughter Ellie leave the shop? And who is the strange Mr Vindictus Sharpe, and what does he want with Mr Silver?

Intertwined with Daniel's story are flashbacks to the early days of Mr Silver and Mr Sharpe in 1800s Edinburgh, and these provide a real sense of depth to the magical world.

The magic is at the heart of the story. It's magic that drives Daniel, and Mr Silver, and Mr Sharpe, although they all have different ideas about its use. There's a definite hint of Diana Wynne Jones about the magic - the Nowhere Emporium itself seems to owe a debt to Howl's Moving Castle, and there's an air of Chrestomanci about Mr Silver. Given that no-one has ever written about magic better than Diana Wynne Jones, this is a very good thing.

The story has a terrific pace, and the climax is suitably thrilling and life-changing while still leaving the story open for a sequel.

All in all, The Nowhere Emporium is a truly magical book.

Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans!
Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans!
by Gary Northfield
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars Crazy classical adventure, 20 July 2015
Julius Zebra: Rumble with the Romans is the latest book by Gary Northfield, the multi-talented cartoonist best known for Derek the Sheep, Gary's Garden, and my personal favourite, The Terrible Tales of the Teenytinysaurs! which was one of my favourite books of 2013.

It's the story of Julius, who's definitely not a horse, and is definitely not called Debra, who is separated from his mother and brother at the stinky watering hole and captured by a strange man with a bird on his head. It turns out this strange man is a Roman centurion, and initially Julius and the other captured animals think they're being taken to a circus (juggling monkeys!) but it turns out it's some other kind of entertainment - and I think the cover provides enough clues that to say that Julius and pals end up as gladiators isn't much of a spoiler.

The format works brilliantly - the book is heavily, heavily illustrated, with some sections containing what amounts to mini comic strips. The training scroll that Julius uses to record his journey to becoming a gladiator is an excellent insert, complete with Julius' own illustrations.

The humour is exactly what you would expect from Gary Northfield. There's a joke about poo on page 14. (Sorry, I meant page XIV - all the pages are numbered with Roman numerals, and there's a handy guide at the back if your Roman arithmetic is a bit rusty.) There's a lot of frenetic shouting and panic, some examples of blatant stupidity that cracked me up, but the book never forgets that it's an adventure story, and the humour keeps the plot whizzing along. I read it in one session - I just couldn't put it down.

One thing that struck me is how historically accurate the book is (talking zebras and vegetarian crocodiles aside). The author has obviously done a significant amount of research on the period, and that makes the setting all the richer. Some of the pictures of sweeping Roman cityscapes are jaw-dropping in their detail.

Now, I'm not claiming to be an expert in the period. My degree in Classics was a very long time ago now, but there was nothing that struck me as inaccurate in the book. It's educational!

My Head Teacher is a Vampire Rat
My Head Teacher is a Vampire Rat
Price: £4.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Fun, exciting, and silly, 20 July 2015
My Headteacher is a Vampire Rat! by Pamela Butchart is the hilarious story of Izzy and her friends Jodi, Maisie and Zach, whose overactive imaginations get them into all sorts of trouble.

There are strange goings-on at the school. Classrooms are shut with mysterious notices, rumours of rat infestations abound, the headteacher has disappeared, and in his place is the mysterious Mr Graves, whose office is kept in darkness. The new headteacher is tall and scary with dark eyes and thin wormy lips, and in his office is a picture of him wearing a long black cape. The other teachers are behaving as if they are mind-controlled.

There's only one explanation - he's a vampire! And not just any old vampire, but a vampire rat (which is a lot like a vampire bat, only without the wings).

Izzy and the gang are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. They research vampires thoroughly (fortunately discarding all they hear from Jodi's mum about the sparkly kind) so when they discover that the headteacher has banned garlic bread from Italian Day in the school cafeteria, two things happen - one, they've got confirmation the head is a vampire, and two, they've got the inklings of a plan... a plan that involves garlic muffins...

Izzy and friends are daft as a sack of badgers, and they all have their moments in the story. Maisie is clearly the best, although she's isn't much actual help due to her timidity and habit of fainting at the least alarming sight. You can imagine she spends a lot of this book unconscious, given that there's a vampire in charge of the school.

The pace is frantic. The jokes come thick and fast, including some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. And the illustrations, by Thomas Flintham, are perfect - there are scampering mice and rats cavorting on pages throughout the book, scenes of chaos and panic, and some dramatic pages so dark that they've had to use white text on a black background. Flintham can get a lot of expression in to a few lines - usually terror, in this book.

Fun, exciting, silly - you can't ask for much more than that. Recommended.

The D'Evil Diaries: 1
The D'Evil Diaries: 1
by Tatum Flynn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Wickedly funny, 20 July 2015
This review is from: The D'Evil Diaries: 1 (Paperback)
The D'Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn does exactly what it says on the tin - these are the diaries of Jinx D'Evil, the 666th son of Lucifer the fallen angel, ruler of Hell. In many respects, he's a normal 12-year-old boy - he struggles with his lessons, misses his absent mum, idolises his big brother, and worries about disappointing his dad. Jinx's main problem is that he isn't very good at being evil - whenever he tries to be bad, he ends up doing good.

He's so bad at being bad that when he's sent to Earth for remedial lessons from some of the greatest monsters of all time (Edward Teach - better known as Blackbeard the pirate, and a certain Transylvanian nobleman called Count Dracula) not only does he fail to learn from the masters, he ends up turning them good.

Dad is not happy. He plans to send Jinx off to military school. So Jinx does the first bad thing he's ever done - he runs away...

So begins a hilarious romp through the underworld, where Jinx meets up with the dead girl Tommy (who shouldn't be in Hell at all) and uncovers a nefarious plot to overthrow his father.

The characters are brilliant. Jinx is a loser and failure, but funny and engaging. Tommy is a feisty ninja circus girl with a pocket full of shuriken. Loiter is a laid-back sloth demon, and Bruce... is a bat. (Named after Bruce Wayne, obviously.) Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, Enemy of Righteousness, Lord of the Flies, is convincingly portrayed as very human.

The pace is frantic, and the jokes come as fast as the thrills. There's peril, adventure, scares, tension, and enough light-hearted humour to turn what could be a very grim subject (it's about a revolution in Hell, after all, and the two protagonists are a demon and a dead girl) into a fun adventure. The balance between humour and action is just about perfect.

Nice artwork by Dave Shephard too, who provides interior illustrations as well as the cover art. The picture of Loiter the sloth demon riding in on the hell horses makes me laugh with his funny smiling sloth face juxtaposed with the snorting and snarling horned and spiked horses. So sue me. I like sloths.

Best new of all? The sequel, Hell's Belles, is coming early 2016, and brings Tommy front and centre in her own adventure. Can't wait!

My Brother is a Superhero
My Brother is a Superhero
by David Solomons
Edition: Paperback
Price: £2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geeky, exciting and funny, 20 July 2015
This is what would happen to me. Guaranteed. If an alien visited Earth and granted superpowers to one person, I'd just have stepped outside, or gone to make a sandwich, or (like Luke in My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons) needed to go for a wee.

Luke knows everything there is to know about superheroes. His brother Zack is a bit boring, a bit of a swot, and spends most of his time with his nose in his schoolwork instead of in comics like any sane human being. So it's just completely not fair that Zack is granted the powers of Star Lad, saviour of humanity, and Luke is left standing idly by.

Zack doesn't even want a cape or a mask, for goodness' sake. He makes do with a hoodie to protect his identity when he's out on patrol, using his powers to save people. He just doesn't understand superheroes at all.

David Solomons does understand superheroes, and comics, comic book fans, and general geekiness. Barely a page goes by without a reference to Batman or the SHIELD helicarrier or Star Wars. (Luke and Zack's dad is a Star Wars fan – there's a reason Luke is called Luke. It must be purely a coincidence that David Solomons' own son is called Luke, too.)

He also understands action and humour, and My Brother is a Superhero has both in abundance. When Star Lad is kidnapped by a supervillain, Luke and his friends Serge and Lara have to track him down before the end of the world – doom is coming to Planet Earth in the form of Nemesis (although Luke's a bit shaky on who or what Nemesis is) and only Star Lad can save the world. It's a race against time, and the story uses this urgency to keep to plot racing along.

The frantic pace of the action is matched only by the quality of the jokes. The Internet acronym LOL is used far too often these days, but I did literally Laugh Out Loud several times reading this book. The geeky humour struck a real chord with me, from Luke's geek references to Lara's malapropisms and Serge's in-depth knowledge of hack attacks on snack vending machines.

There are simple chapter title illustrations by Laura Ellen Anderson that set the scene nicely for each chapter (and a neat flip-animation at the bottom right of the pages that might rightly be termed a spoiler). The red, yellow and blue cover with its sparkly starry background couldn't be more appropriate, either.

Geeky, exciting, and funny. Recommended.

A Devil Under the Skin (Kiszka & Kershaw, Book 3)
A Devil Under the Skin (Kiszka & Kershaw, Book 3)
by Anya Lipska
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best in the series so far, 25 Jun. 2015
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A Devil Under the Skin is the third thriller from Anya Lipska starring police officer Natalie Kershaw and Polish private eye Janusz Kiszka.

Once again Kiszka and Kershaw tackle the same case from two different angles, but this time the collaboration grows organically out of the relationship that developed in the first two books. Kiszka still doesn't trust the police, though, so once again the two protagonists are working on incomplete knowledge of the situation, and working the case with their own priorities and their own goals.

As the book begins, life is looking up for both Kiszka and Kershaw. Janusz is looking forward to settling down with his long-time girlfriend Kasia, who's finally decided to leave her no-good husband, and the pair of them are even sofa-shopping in IKEA. Natalie has got over her stabbing (see Death Can't Take a Joke) and has joined SCO19, the Met's armed response unit.

But before long, Janusz's plans are in tatters as Kasia goes missing, and Natalie's career has taken a nosedive after a fatal shooting leaves her on suspension and facing regular appointments with a therapist. At least Kershaw's suspension gives her the opportunity to help when Kiszka overcomes his reluctance to deal with the police and gets in touch with her.

Soon they're both embroiled in a series of nasty murders as they try to find what has happened to Kasia before it's too late.
As we've come to expect from this series, the plot races along, but it's the characters that really stand out. Kiszka and Kershaw are such different, but complementary, people, and their relationship through the three books is developing nicely from outright mistrust through grudging respect to… something more? (Hints are sprinkled liberally througout the book about what might be in store in book four.)

The secondary characters are great, too. Long-time favourites in the series DS “Streaky” Bacon, Kershaw's old boss, and Oskar, Janusz's larger-than-life best friend, return and are in fine form. Especially Oskar, whose trip to a spa with Janusz is the comic highlight of the book. A new character is Stefan, an old man in a nursing home, who stayed in Britain after the Second World War rather than return to a Poland under communist control – Stefan's a great character, and I liked the shout-out to the contribution Poles made to the war effort in WWII.

This series is going from strength to strength, and I eagerly await future instalments.

The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean (Kelpies)
The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean (Kelpies)
Price: £3.79

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Listen to the voices, Lily..., 14 April 2015
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Lily McLean is a normal schoolgirl with the usual family dramas - annoying little brothers, a moody teenage older sister, and a baby sister who leaks from both ends. Her mum is on her own, with Lily's dad dead and her step-dad out of the picture. Life in their little house is overcrowded and bad-tempered, so Lily finds refuge in a Harry Potter-like cupboard under the stairs. Only the prospect of getting away to Millport on the island of Cumbrae for a week, albeit in the company of her battleaxe Gran, keeps Lily sane.

But maybe not sane enough. She hears voices. Well, one voice. A ghostly voice giving her cryptic warnings. "Don't go to Millport!" Is she being haunted? Why does the voice sound familiar? She wishes she could tell her friends (popular Rowan and geeky David) but how would you broach the subject?

She heads off to Millport with her Gran, meets up with the hyper-kinetic Aisha, and tries to have a good time, but the warnings become more specific, and the ghostly presence more solid. Who is the ghost? What's so dangerous about going near the water?

At heart, this is a book about family and friendship, all tied together with a clever supernatural plot that resolves itself beautifully. Lily is an engaging narrator, very fond of lists that adorn the start of each chapter, and her friends and family are a diverse and interesting group. I loved geeky David and Lily's ailment-obsessed Gran. Even baby Summer with her toy lion are packed with personality, despite their limited vocabulary.

This is an amazingly assured début novel. Lindsay Littleson is a terrific writer, and I for one can't wait to see what she writes next.

by Nicole Burstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fast-paced, engaging, and very satisfying, 12 April 2015
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This review is from: Othergirl (Paperback)
What do you do when your best friend is a superhero? Well, you help make her costume, you patch it up when she uses her flame powers to burn through her own elbows, you help her choose a superhero name, and you help train her to get used to her powers before she's called up to work with the rest of the Vigils. Oh, and you do her homework for her. Superheroes don't have time for homework.

Turns out you also do all the usual things that best friends do. Argue about boys. Help them deal with parental drama. And keep their secrets.

The relationship of Louise and Erica in Othergirl is the heart of the book, and the story lives or dies by the success of this depiction - fortunately, they're great, credible characters, and the juxtaposition of the mundane with the superpowered works perfectly. Of course Louise and Erica fall out over a boy! Best friends do that all the time. But it doesn't normally end up with a showdown with a group of supervillains in an underground superhero base.

Louise is the narrator of the book, and it also chronicles her growth from second fiddle to the hero of her own story. Because not everyone has superpowers, but that doesn't stop you being a hero.

Death Can't Take a Joke (Kiszka & Kershaw, Book 2)
Death Can't Take a Joke (Kiszka & Kershaw, Book 2)
Price: £2.49

5.0 out of 5 stars A sequel that improves on the original, 1 Jan. 2015
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This book, the sequel to "Where the Devil Can't Go", is the second in the series features Janusz Kiska, a PI and fixer for London's Polish community, and DC Natalie Kershaw of the Met. This is no simple mismatched detective buddy story - where Ms Lipska excels is in presenting each protagonist's distorted, mistrustful, but perfectly reasonable view of the other. In a less complex story, we'd have Kiska and Kershaw establishing a rapport and deciding to work together about a third of the way through the first book, but we're definitely in for the long haul with these characters - the closest they come to a team-up is when Kershaw hires Kiska as a police interpreter when her case leads her to Poland on a hunt for clues, but for the most part, they're working their own threads, with their own agendas. A complex, satisfying plot, great characters, and splendid comic relief from Oskar, Kiska's larger-than-life friend who provides several laugh-out-loud moments. Can't wait for the next book in the series.

Lock In
Lock In
Price: £9.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Formatting errors spoil the book, 25 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Lock In (Kindle Edition)
This refers only to the Kindle edition. I was unable to continue reading this book past the first few chapters, as the Kindle formatting was sloppy and unprofessional, with seemingly-random paragraph breaks. Example:

"Then Timmons zapped the man. He jerked and twisted
<paragraph break>
and fell off the bed."

It looks like this happens where there is a page break in the print version of the book. The above example is end of page 21, start of page 22.

This isn't the only occurrence. Every time it happened, it was jarring. Like watching TV where the sound keeps cutting out for a fraction of a second. Sure, you can still follow the story, but it breaks the immersion every time it happens, and soon you're looking out for the next random break instead of following the story. I had no choice but to return the book for a refund.

John Scalzi is a huge star of science fiction. Gollancz is a well-respected publisher. I expected better. This just smacks of laziness and complacency.

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