Earth Swarm by Tim Hall, reviewed by Dawn Finch

When I was contacted by David Fickling Books and asked to take part in the blog tour for Earth Swarm, I must confess I was a little cautious. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of advance blog marketing as it often feels as if you have to agree before you’ve read the book, and it doesn’t give you much room if you don’t like the book.

That said, I offered to read Earth Swarm and give an honest review and I’m relieved to say that I did enjoy it. It’s being described as sci-fi, but it does have a more tech-based dystopian feel as the setting is a London of the very near future. It has all the classic elements of a good adventure yarn (a missing father, mysterious militaristic organisations, a brave kid and his sister…) all wrapped around a novel depicting cutting-edge tech.

Earth Swarm carries us into a semi-futuristic environment that is ultimately scarily believable. There are undeniable elements of Terminator and AI and those highly visual movies that explore the danger of giving over too much power to technology, but Hall manages to pull it off and the reader feels in the know. It’s like an open nod to the tech-fear and conspiracy theory genre, and it works.

There are mentions of specific brands (and bands) that may jar with some adult readers, but they do give the book an immediate currency that a lot of teens may identify with, and the teens in this are very believable. Their dialogue is sharp and edgy and at times I felt that I was alienated by that. I don’t say that as a bad thing – I’m in my fifties and to be honest its rather refreshing to find a book that isn’t written for me, but for a much younger audience. I should be feeling a little alienated from this world, and I think the author nails that.

Earth Swarm is a novel that rockets along from a fast-paced start to a gripping cliffhanger. The first in what will clearly be a very popular series.

Earth Swarm is written by Tim Hall and published by DFB (4/7/19)
#EarthSwarm
@dfb_storyhouse

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A perfect library book.

Librarians are not difficult to buy for, let’s face it, we can never have too many books, but this book will make any librarian or library lover extra happy.
You’d expect a lavish book from Thames and Hudson and The Library – A World History by British academic James W P Campbell is certainly that. It took over five years for Campbell to research the book, visiting over eighty of the world’s most beautiful in the process. The book details his findings and explores some truly stunning libraries.
The book is not cheap at £48, but it is an absolute joy to sit and lose yourself in remarkable places. A review won’t do it justice, you really have to see it for yourselves so just put it on your Christmas list and enjoy.

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Thomas Taylor Interview – Getting to the Hart of the matter.

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It was hard to know where to start with this interview as there is so much I want to ask! I think I’ll start at the beginning with a question that is one of my favourites.

What (or who) did you want to be when you were seven? What sort of kid were you, what entertained you as a small person?

 Hi, Dawn, and thanks for interviewing me. This is a fun question to start with.

Do you remember Joe90? I looked a bit like that, only scrawnier and with NHS specs. I was a loner, who secretly wanted to be either Doctor Who or Luke Skywalker, or – if possible – both. Lego and small metal figurines were everything to me. Girls were a long way off.

 ·I always find that question fun, but I can’t quite picture you as Joe90! So you were very imaginative as a child, good start! You illustrate your own books and covers, and your background is in illustration, but your books are wonderfully written – which discipline do you prefer; illustrating or writing?

Thanks for the compliment. As for which I prefer, it has to be the one that’s going the best at any given moment. That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but they are so different that it’s hard to compare. In general, I think I find writing comes slightly more easily, but only once the ideas are flowing. These days I think of myself as a writer who also draws.

 ·I am glad to see that you are still creating picture books (my daughter loved George and Sophie’s Museum Adventures when she was little!) A lot of your books you have written and illustrated yourself, but when you are working with an author on a picture book, how does that process work?

 It’s nice to hear someone remembers George and Sophie!

There isn’t much to the process, beyond being sent roughs and invited to comment at various stages. It’s rare to meet the illustrator these days. Choosing the right illustrator is a vital part of an editors’ job, and I’ve learnt to trust them, however long it takes. My next picture book, Too Many Tickles (out in Feb next year with Macmillan), was written over four years ago – it took that long to match up an illustrator with the text. Penny Dann was definitely worth waiting for though.

 ·I suppose that there will always be people connected to books that the creators don’t get to meet, but it must have been a strange (and wonderful) experience having David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff reading yours and John Kelly’s picture book, Jack’s Tractor, aloud on CBeebies. How on earth did that come about?

 It was strange and amusing all at once. I remember as a child watching David Hasselhoff as Nightrider (in my breaks from being a timelord or a Jedi knight). As for how it happened, I didn’t even know it was happening at all until someone on twitter said they’d just watched it. At least, I knew the BBC had bought the broadcast rights for Jack’s Tractor, because I’d signed a contract six months earlier, but I’d since forgotten all about it.

 ·Let’s get out and about, I know that you do brilliant school visits, and most authors have a hell story and a heaven story about their school visits – can you share any of yours with us?

 My worst school visit was one of my first. I turned up at the school having verbally agreed to ‘visit a few classes’ over the course of the day, only to be given a schedule that had me spend half an hour with each of EIGHT classes of all key stages, with no time allowed to dash between them. When I finally reached the end of the day, a complete wreck, I was handed paintbrushes and some pots of unsuitable emulsion and asked to paint part of the school mural! I was young and stupid enough to say yes. I didn’t get home till after dark, having been kicked out by the school caretaker. Moral of the story: agree in advance, in detail, what you will and will NOT be prepared to do.

 ·Oh my word! Wise advice for all of us doing school visits! In the last few years you have been concentrating more on books for older children, kicking off with Dan and the Dead in 2012. Dan can see ghosts and speak to them, and in this very witty and entertaining story he helps ghosts sort out their problems. I am greatly drawn to your work because we share a fascination for ghosts. So what fascinates you about ghosts?

 I’ve never been attracted to the scary side of ghosts, partly because as a small child I got a bit freaked out by the idea of them. It was only later that I realised the link between ghosts and time travel – that ghosts were a possible point of contact between the present and the past. I’ve come to find that idea deeply fascinating. After all, if Hampton Court Palace really is haunted by Catherine Howard, being freaked out by her seems a terrible waste of a perfectly good spook to me. I’d rather hear what she has to say. Or scream… 

 ·I love that, and share that thought, imagine what you could ask her! I’d be too busy taking notes to be scared (unless it was particularly gory, or was trying to kill me – I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes down to it)
Your book for older readers – Haunters – is a thrilling adventure with wonderfully original concepts like dream-terrorism and the ability to time travel through dreams, more ghost-like episodes…. How different was it writing something so much darker? Is there another Haunters in the pipeline?

 Dan and the Dead was written using conventional ghost story material left over from writing early drafts of Haunters, which is in many ways an inverted ghost story. I found Haunters very difficult to write, not least because I wrote the first draft without doing any plotting at all! You don’t panster your way through a story that involves two changing interconnected time-lines, you just don’t. It took me years to straighten that tangle out and turn Haunters into the fast-paced thriller it is today. I’m very proud of the book now, but it nearly blew a fuse somewhere in my brain. I learnt a hell of a lot in the process though. As for a sequel, I have plotted out a second book called ‘Dreamers’, but I had another unrelated story by then, one that was calling much more loudly. I’ve written that now, but I don’t want to talk about it until I hear back from my editor. All I’ll say is, it has drawings in it. Oh, and only one timeline. 

 ·Speaking of drawings, I’m very excited to see that you are collaborating on a graphic novel project with Marcus Sedgwick. Scarlett Hart looks brilliant, and I’m really enjoying your blog where you share sneak peeks at the work in progress, the sketches so far are fantastic! Are you enjoying the process, and how different is it working on a graphic novel?

 This project is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. In many ways I’m coming home, since graphic story-telling is where I started as a teenager, and the world of comic books has always beckoned. I often think I should have gone into comics after art school instead of illustrating picture books. Either way, it’s taken me along time to find my way back there.

 As for the process, it feels like the classic ‘you write it, I’ll draw it’ relationship on one level, but Marcus and I are very much co-creators of Scarlett Hart. We just have our own domains, that’s all. He often suggests changes to the look of the book, and I feed through to him any narrative ideas I may have. Actually, it’s an especially fruitful relationship because I know about writing process myself, whilst Marcus draws very well, and understands the project visually. Anyway, we haven’t killed each other yet!

 ·OK, I’m afraid we can’t have an interview without asking you about THAT cover (in case you have been living in a cave, Thomas was the illustrator of the iconic first cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) That must have been an exciting time for you, but what are your feelings on it all now the dust has settled?

 Harry Potter has cast a long and sometimes chilly shadow over my career. I try to keep my distance from it now. You can read more about my uneasy relationship with HP on my blog.

 ·Good response, and the post about it on your blog offers up a lot to think about for young illustrators. What advice would you give to young writers/illustrators starting out now? What should they look out for when starting out on this long creative road?

 Both writers and Illustrators need to practice their art all time. Writers should also be reading insatiably, while illustrators should be constantly looking at what’s new in their field. Neither should worry about style (as I did, endlessly). Your own personal style will develop out of practice and will be as unavoidable as growing up.

 ·So true, I think that finding your voice only happens when you stop straining to hear it.
So what next? When can we expect to see Scarlett, and is there more Dan in the pipeline?

 I’ll need most of 2014 to produce the art for Scarlett (gulp!). The publication date is some time off yet (and I’ve been told to keep it secret).

I’m writing the third Dan adventure right now, and will blog about it soon. I’m a bit coy about works in progress, I’m afraid, but I can tell you that in contrast to his subterranean brush with death in the catacombs of Paris (Dan and the Caverns of Bone), Dan will need a good head for heights in Dan and the Shard of Ice.   

 That sounds thrilling, and I’m trying not to speculate (spoilers!) Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, I’m massively looking forward to Scarlett Hart and will be keeping an eye on your blog for more sneak peeks.

 Thank you, Dawn! And good luck with your own excellent writing and projects.

 Stop press….The new website for Scarlett Hart is under construction and you can follow the whole process for yourself here. It is up and running and added to all the time, so bookmark it for news along the way.

If you are looking for the definitive answer to the question of who is the mysterious wizard on the back cover of Philosopher’s Stone – easy, it’s here! Mystery solved.

 

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Apps for little ones? Get Nosy!

Now, before you go getting all twitchy about people suggesting you pop your tinies in front of iPads and use them as some kind of robotic babysitter…. That’s not what I’m doing. This is not me telling you to give iPads to your children, this is me making the assumption that a lot of you already have, and would now like some advice on what they should be doing on them. I’ve worked with well over a thousand children and (trust me) I know what I’m doing when it comes to children and their reading.

This Christmas the iPad will undoubtedly be the desirable gift for most people, both adults and children. But what do you do with it? I have a tablet and I’m still finding that I’m largely using it to watch movies and tv shows, and in my travels I see that children are doing this too. The market is flooded with apps that claim to be “beneficial” to your child, or that offer “educational” content. A quick perusal of these and it doesn’t take an IT expert to work out that most of these are garbage with a heavy sales agenda and a heap of expensive “pester- power” add ons.

What parents need is a company that offers quality material produced by talented writers and illustrators. Apps that are created by people who know children, and who want to give children book related material that they will enjoy. Apps that are entertaining, good value and that you can trust to not send your child begging to you for expensive extras.

Ok, well the good news is – it’s out there!! What you have been looking for is Nosy Crow! This wonderful independent publisher started up in 2011 publishing child-focused and parent-friendly apps and books. Since then they have won numerous awards and published outstanding books and apps from brilliant authors and designers. They are constantly adding to their apps and book list, and have some of the very best writers and illustrators in their stable.
If you are concerned about the apps that you are putting in front of your children (and I know I am!) then have a look at Nosy Crow and take the pressure off yourself! Relax, it’s all good here.

I have to stress that I have no connection with this company, and no involvement with them apart from my desire to have quality book-related material in front of children. My interest is purely related to my evangelical zeal for improving the literacy of our children.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Firstly, I must confess that any review of Ray Bradbury’s work by me is going to be heavily biased as I have been hopelessly in love with his writing since I was twelve. I first discovered him through his short stories. All Summer In A Day is as perfect as a short story gets in my opinion.
When I heard of his passing I was as bereft as if I had lost a distant but beloved uncle. I wanted to write something, anything, but it all felt too sudden and I genuinely couldn’t think of anything to say. Very unlike me.
I decided instead to read his books again.
Now, there are those who say you shouldn’t go back, shouldn’t retrace the faded steps of the things you loved in your youth in case you find less than you remembered… In case all the wonder and beauty was just a product of the moment, fragments of who you once were, a person you no longer recognise and suddenly grieve a little for.
With this in mind I picked up Something Wicked This Way Comes with no little trepidation.
Oh how very beautiful his work is.
Something Wicked tells the story of two boys, friends, more than brothers, who discover that the Carnival is coming to their small town. It is out of season, late October and the seasons change as the Dark carnival steams into town under violent and stormy skies….
I won’t tell you any more of the story, you should just read it for yourself and drown in the carousel ride of the book. The elegant blade of Bradbury’s pen is deftly wielded and, behind the fearful adventure, the story cuts to the heart of what it is to be a boy. The transient whirl of youth that coils around the boys as they become caught up in the macabre carnival is at times dizzying, but always rewarding.
Bradbury is never an easy read, and I’ve read many times accusations that linguistic tangles are the master in his work over character, but sometimes beautiful things are worth the extra patience just for the glorious pleasure of it all.
Happy Halloween – treat yourself to a stroll in the maze of mirrors, but don’t be surprised if it changes you.

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Fever…..and here’s the pitch…

Fever

I have long since lost the excitement of the brown package containing a brand new proof copy.  A good number of these find their way to my desk and my procedure for dealing with them is this – squeeze it. If it is a thin book then I tend to open it straight away as I guess it will be a book for younger readers and may well offer me something I have not read before.  If it is a thick book, I pile it up to one side and will get round to it….eventually.  This is because these once exciting jiffy bags all too often contain yet another YA title banging out the same old tired formulaic content.  Tragic romance, vampires, wistful looks, agony filled embrace, more vampires, sobbing in dark corners, tragic and failed lives, more vampires…. yadda yadda yadda….oh yes, and more vampires….

A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of Dee Shulman’s Fever (Razorbill, pub April 2012) Interesting tag lines (“The Fever Is Coming”  – “Two worlds.  Two millennia.  One love”) made me give it a skim and take it home.  The accompanying letter and blurb promise many things – “Time travel with a romantic twist” – and assure me that the book is “whipping up a rights frenzy”

Well, that’s the spiel – what about the book?

Fever is the story of two young lives crossed at a moment in parallel time.  Eva is a dazzlingly smart girl from the modern day, and Seth is a gladiator from Roman London, AD152.  Their lives are tragically both linked and held apart by time, and each is desperate to find what has become of them, and the other.

I feel that I am not really doing the book justice with such a basic explanation, but I genuinely don’t want to give too much away for the reader.  The story is very vivid and the character building is both strong and natural – you really get to like Eva and Seth and quickly bond with them. 

In Eva we have a rare thing; an academically gifted female character who is instantly likeable.  Her intellect means that the text is never dumbed down; in fact I feel that it is bravely academic in places.  Frankly this is a blessing in this market place – my own teenager is bored rigid with being treated like a snog-fest addict with a brain the size of a Minto – and she is not alone. For all of those teenagers who have been patronised by other YA fiction and feel like this, hurrah, a book for you!

Seth is….well…. he’s beautiful.  A gladiator honed for combat and trained to kill and stay alive, he is at his peak physical fitness when disaster befalls him because he falls in love. He is instantly likeable and we all, umm, love him.

Eva and Seth are inexorably linked through time and, though they can feel this, they can’t explain it or make sense of it and both of them do everything they can to attempt to discover what has happened to them.  The medical scenes are superbly researched (I had to look some things up as I was curious about the virology talked about the book) as are the scenes set in Roman Londinium. This gives the book a depth and sense of gravitas that many YA books are sadly lacking.

Fever is an undeniably passionate book, and pretty sexy too without ever being cloying or drifting into that ghastly genre of tragic and depressed teens sucking face and crying all over the place. Fever is, quite simply, a captivating and passionate time-slip love story with a ghostly twist (and no vampires!)

I found myself dreading the end as I drew close to it because I knew that it couldn’t possibly end the way I wanted it to in the few pages left. But it did, and I’m very glad that it will be a trilogy.

Fever by Dee Shulman is out 5th April 2012 with Razorbill (Puffin)

416 pages

Isbn 9780141340265

e-book 9780141972183