Apart from a small number of outstanding graphic novels (e.g. Bryan Talbot's Grandville, Blacksad by Guarnido and Canales) I don't do books featuring anthropomorphic animals. They just don't interest me - I'd rather be reading about humans with human characteristics than animals with human characteristics. This is the only reason why this first Julius Zebra book by Gary Northfield has sat unread on my TBR pile for some time, as I have really enjoyed some of his work in the Beano and The Phoenix comic. However, last week I finally got around to picking it up to read and I loved it.
Imagine Gladiator, Ben Hur or Spartacus, where the hero is replaced by a rather nervous, slightly daft and totally naive zebra, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Rumble with the Romans. Add in a healthy dollop of toilet humour and a host of other equally bonkers animal characters and you have a book that will cause many a giggle and guffaw amongst the 7 pluses (and most likely their parents as well).
Julius Zebra (don't call him Debra! Or Barbara! And definitely DO NOT refer to him as a stripy horse!) is a fabulous main character, with just the right level of daftness. Having been separated from his family (he's a nervous sort, and tries to sneak home from the stinky crocodile-infested waterhole) he is captured and finds himself transported to Rome, in the company of an equally daft warthog and a grumpy lion. Hearing the word circus, he naively believes he is on his way to see some juggling monkeys, and even when he reaches Rome it takes some time for the light bulb to come on. By then it is too late, and he finds himself as arrow/spear fodder for the gladiators at the Colosseum. However, more by luck than judgement, he ends up fighting back (something an animal has never done) and he quickly becomes the people's champion. However, this is only the beginning of his woes.
Gary's illustrations are even funnier than the text that accompanies them, and they aren't just there as pretty pictures for show either - they are mostly used to continue and add to the story, in much the same way as a comic works. Natutally, being from the pen and brain of Gary Northfield they are invariably laugh-out-loud funny, and make this a perfect book for kids who love a mixture of crazy drawings and bonkers written prose (not quite as silly as Mr Gum or Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face, but pretty damn close in places).
The book isn't just an in your face laugh-fest either. Northfield has worked on the Horrible Histories books and has obviously taken note of their success at delivering historical fact in an amusing way that appeals to kids, as in Rumble with the Romans he very cleverly weaves in all kind of historical elements about gladiators and Roman life in general, both in the writing and in his fantastic illustrations. He even includes a glossary at the end of the book, listing many of the historical terms that he has used within his story....more
Back in 2005 a certain US author released a book that transformed the merciless, blood thirsty vampires that I had grown up watching on TV, DVD, etc.Back in 2005 a certain US author released a book that transformed the merciless, blood thirsty vampires that I had grown up watching on TV, DVD, etc. (Hammer's Christopher Lee Dracula movies, Fright Night, 'Salem's Lot, Blade, Buffy) into pouting, lovesick 'teens', almost like a Mills & Boon with vampires. And of course, due to its success, many other writers followed suit. As far as I was concerned, vampire fiction was dead in the water as far as Young Adults were concerned. And then, towards the end of 2010 I was incredibly fortunate to read a copy of a book by debut YA author Will Hill, and from that moment I was absolutely, completely hooked on a book (and subsequently a series) in a way that hadn't happened since the Harry Potter series ended.
That book was, of course, Department 19, and with it Will Hill had well and truly reclaimed the vampire from the mushy bollocks of the sparkly brigade and made them scary again. And vicious. And blood thirsty. And ruthless. And just plain bloody brilliant.
Yesterday saw the release of Darkest Night, the fifth and final book in a series that in my opinion has just got better and better with every book released. With that first instalment, Hill set the bar pretty damn high for YA action and for YA horror, and ever since he has raised that bar higher and higher, leading to me naming him the Sergey Bubka of YA fiction, when I wrote my review of Zero Hour. With Darkest Night Hill tears up all the records and leaves the competition standing.
I've lost count of the number of times I have heard bloggers and reviewers moaning about dreadfully poor 'third books in trilogies', or series that have gone on one or two books too long. That can never be said about the Department 19 series, and Darkest Night is the most fitting and perfect end to that series that I have love so much. Hill continues to shock his readers, and let's face it, after the last few books we pretty much know that no one is safe, and there is no guarantee that any of our favourite characters will make it through to the final page. Jamie, Larissa, Frankenstein, Matt, Kate... will they all be alive and well come the final page or...?
Darkest Night is also far much more than the final battle between the members of Department 19 (and their various international compatriots) and Dracula and his legions of the undead. In fact, if you're expecting 700+ pages of the battle to end all battles then you've obviously not been paying attention in the last few books. Will Hill weaves all kinds of themes into his D19 story: loyalty, trust, betrayal, love, loss, survival and humanity, and it is the latter of these that jumps into the front seat in Darkest Night. With Jamie now a vampire, will he manage to retain his humanity following the climatic battle at the end of Zero Hour? What lengths will the leaders of D19 and the other international organisations go to in order to defeat Dracula? And just how low will humankind stoop in the name of war?
With these themes central to the first half of the book Hill adds so much realism to what is essentially a fantasy horror tale (or is it?). We all know the atrocities that man is capable of committing in the name of war: Syria; Kosovo; Iraq; Northern Ireland... the list goes on and on, and it isn't always the perceived main villain(s) committing these diabolical acts. Sometimes it is the supposed good guy, always claiming that they may be doing the wrong thing, but it is for the right reasons. It is exactly this that Hill weaves as significant strand through the first half of Darkest Night. He isn't content with merely entertaining or scaring his readers - he really wants to make them feel uncomfortable, and have them asking what they would do in a similar situation.
And then, of course, comes the final battle. I urge you not to start reading past halfway unless you devote another few hours to the book there and then, as you really will.not.want.to.put.it.down! As battle scenes go it is up there with Helm's Deep, the Attack on New York, the Battle of Rourke's Drift, and the The Bride vs the Crazy 88s in Kill Bill vol 1. It is bloody, brutal and completely unforgiving (for the characters and the reader), and when the dust finally settles the world will never be the same again.
Thank you Will Hill for creating this series and its world and characters. I have never looked forward to and simultaneously dreaded reading a book so much since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and you have not disappointed. I look forward to reading whatever journey you decide to take us on next....more
This book carries an incredibly important message that all readers, young or old, should heed orThis review first appeared on The Book Zone (For Boys)
This book carries an incredibly important message that all readers, young or old, should heed or face the appalling consequences: if you are in the habit of picking your nose, it would be wise to pick and flick or pick and wipe, but never, ever pick and eat. Unfortunately for young Mabel Jones, she elected to eat the fruits of her nose-picking labours, and as such commits "The Deed". And if you are observed doing "The Deed" by the piratical crew of the Feroshus Maggot then like Mabel, you will find yourself press-ganged, and spirited away to a strange world by the super-silent-stealthy (and we're talking ninja assassin style super-silent-stealthy here) and wonderfully appropriately named loris, Omynus Hussh.
So begins a laugh-out-loud, swashbuckling fantasy adventure, with boisterous and irascible animal pirates, and a gutsy, fiery heroine, albeit a pyjama clad one (but it's ok, as she gets to wear a belt and carry a cutlass, rather than have a leg amputated in order to look more pirate-like). It's also really rather silly, not quite in a Mr Gum way silly, but certainly not far off at times. In fact, if Spike Milligan was alive and well and writing for 21st Century children then there's a damn good chance that this is the kind of brilliant, pants-wettingly funny story he would be producing.
The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones is writer Will Mabbitt's debut book for children, and if it is anything to go by then Mabbitt is certainly one to watch. His writing voice is as infectious as it is off-the-wall bonkers, making the book perfect read-out-loud-to-children material (especially if you can 'do the voices'). There is also just the right level of yuk and gross-out for 8-11 year olds, so have the masking tape and staple gun ready for when their sides start splitting with laughter.
You only need half a brain to realise these days that books like this for this age group are made even better with high quality illustrations to add to the comedy, and those good people at Penguin Children's Books obviously have the requisite 50%+. As well as the brilliant writing of Will Mabbitt, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones features the wonderfully awesome illustrations of Ross Collins, which bring Mabbitt's colourful characters to life in a style that is somewhere between Tazzyman's crazy energy and Riddell's rich detail. Mention should also go to Mandy Norman for her dynamic, attention-grabbing text design.
The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones is due to be released on 4th June. I believe there is a second adventure planned for Mabel, although I do not know when this will be published, I really hope that we will see more adventures beyond this sequel. I believe there is also an audio book version of The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones in the offing, narrated by the hugely talented Toby Jones (the voice of Dobby in the Harry Potter films, but also an incredibly talented British comedic actor). I've included a trailer below as a taster - this could be one book that needs to be bought in paper-form and in audio form....more