The Messenger Bird Giveaway

The publishers of ‘The Messenger Bird’, Scholastic have kindly given us 5 copies of the book to giveaway. Details of how you can win a copy of the book are below.

The Messenger Bird Blog Tour

Ruth Eastham was born near Preston, Lancashire but has lived and worked in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Italy, teaching creative writing to children and adults of all ages. Her debut novel, ‘The Memory Cage’ was nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 2012. Her second book ‘The Messenger Bird’ (Literature for Lads review here) is a tale of modern day treachery set in Bletchley Park.

Today we are delighted to welcome Ruth to Literature for Lads to officially launch ‘The Messenger Bird’ Blog tour!  Ruth has kindly answered some of the questions we had after reading the book so read on to find out about Bletchley Park and one of it’s most famous employees, Alan Turing, why Ruth loves writing historical fiction and whether or not she can keep a secret…

Make sure you also check out the fantastic competition that Ruth is running across each of the Blogs on the Blog tour.  Details at the end of the interview.  

We also have 5 copies of the book to give away (thank you to Scholastic for supplying the books!) so click here to enter our competition.

How would you describe your new novel, The Messenger Bird?

Thanks so much for inviting me on your Literature for Lads website, Duncan.

I’d say The Messenger Bird is an adventure mystery thriller, with bits based on true events from the Second World War! Our hero, Nathan, has to crack the secret clues to follow a mysterious trail laid during the War to try and stop his dad being convicted of something pretty majorly serious.

Both ‘The Messenger Bird’ and your first novel ‘The Memory Cage’ draw heavily on aspects of the Second World War. What is it about this period of history which interests you so much?

At secondary school, when I was 14, I can remember having the option of taking either history or geography as a subject – you couldn’t do both! I went for geography, and I actually really liked it but I always regretted having to drop history. I love looking back on past events and using them in stories. The past shaped the way we are today. And everything we do now becomes history. How important is that?!

Loads of books have been written, and films made, about World War Two. The conflict was so widespread and devastating and affected so many millions of lives, I think it will always be a rich source of storytelling.

My books focus on one War year in particular – 1940. This was the year of the Dunkirk evacuation from The Memory Cage, and the year of the Coventry Blitz that underpins The Messenger Bird plot. It was also the year that the Turing ‘Bombe’ at Bletchley Park started cracking enemy Enigma codes (see below!). In 1940 the Second World War was at its height. There was still so much at stake, and the outcome was anybody’s guess.

Bletchley Park is the scene for some of the most exciting scenes in The Messenger Bird. What was Bletchley Park used for during the Second World War and how important was it to the War effort?

Bletchley Park is near Milton Keynes, and during the Second World War it was the top-secret headquarters where enemy codes were broken, including Enigma code. Enigma machines (like a kind of typewriter, but with two keyboards) were used by the Nazis to send messages to each other in, yes – Enigma code! With millions and millions of different possible settings, the Nazis thought their scrambled communications were totally uncrackable. But they didn’t reckon on Bletchley Park, who were breaking the vast majority of the messages they’d intercepted.

The decoded messages gave vital information to the Allies. For example, the position of enemy submarines. Military commanders then used the info to make critical decisions about tactics – like the movement of soldiers, war ships or planes. Bletchley Park even decoded messages from Hitler himself!

The work done at Bletchley Park probably knocked two whole years off the war. That’s thousands and thousands of lives saved. It’s known that Hitler was developing an atom bomb, and if the War hadn’t ended when it did… well, that doesn’t bear thinking about.

One of the employees at Bletchley Park was a gentleman named Alan Turing who was responsible for devising a number of techniques for breaking German codes. Do you feel he is one of the UK’s unsung heroes?

Yes, I think Alan Turing’s achievements were unsung for a long time. He did amazing work at Bletchley Park. He was a genius mathematician and, when still in his twenties, already a chief code breaker. Building on work done by Polish academics, he was the driving force for the invention of a machine called a ‘Bombe’ that, alongside other methods, was able to quickly and automatically try out many different possible Enigma machine settings to find the correct one. Once that was done, all the messages for that day could be decoded. Alan Turing was also a key player in the invention of the computer.

But the rest of the Alan Turing story is a very sad one. In those days it was illegal to be gay, and you had the choice that you could either take experimental hormones, or go to prison. In 1954, at just 41 years old, after being prosecuted and persecuted, Alan Turing committed suicide.

Decades later, in 2009, after a massive petition to Downing Street, the Government finally publicly apologised for Alan Turing’s awful treatment, and to properly recognise him as one of our true wartime heroes.

Did you visit Bletchley Park as part of your research for the book?

Oh yes – it’s an amazing place! I went with a friend and his two teenage kids, and we were turned away the first time because of thick snow making everything slippery and dangerous (I used that idea in the book though, so it wasn’t a wasted trip!). There was something really awesome about being in the very same rooms where the Enigma codes were cracked and being able to soak up the atmosphere of the place.

In The Messenger Bird the main character Nathan is required to ‘crack a code’. Did you enjoy code breaking, treasure hunts, etc. as a youngster?
I loved codes and puzzles and treasure hunts, and so did my two brothers – I think that bit of Nathan is definitely based on the three of us! I’ve always loved stories where the main character has to solve puzzles to reach their goal, and where you can try and work out the clues before the characters themselves manage to!

I’m friends with MG Harris, author of the fabulous Joshua Files series, and I’m doing a blog on her website a bit later in this tour. She’s set me a code to crack that Anthony Horowitz sent her. But I’m really worried I won’t be able to solve it and I’ll show myself up big time!

I actually couldn’t resist putting a bit of a puzzle into this Blog Tour itself. Each of my ten posts has a secret letter to collect, and if you unscramble them to discover the secret message, you’ve a chance to win a personally signed Messenger Bird (book, that is – not the feathery kind, obviously). (more details at the end of the interview – Ed.)


Each of the employees at Bletchley Park was required to sign the Official Secrets Act. If required, can you keep a secret?!
I hope so! But then there are secrets and there are SECRETS! I think you kind of know which are the things you definitely shouldn’t talk about, right? It depends what the secret is and who you’re talking to. One thing that really amazed me when I was researching Bletchley Park was that during the War who you told didn’t depend on anything – you just didn’t tell, not anyone, not even your best mates!
There was an incredible level of secrecy that existed, even between families and best friends. It was hard for me to get my head round because nowadays we expect to know everything about everything straightaway, at the click of a mouse! I was lucky enough to be able to chat to someone who worked at Bletchley Park when they were 18, and I realised that you really wouldn’t tell anyone what you were working on. Everyone knew that lives really did depend on the work at BP staying totally secret. They would have had dads or brothers or uncles who were out fighting and knew what was at stake. It was no game.
And the secrecy paid off, because the Nazis didn’t have the faintest clue the place existed, and they still went on thinking their Enigma Code was uncrackable! The secrecy continued too, even after the War was over. One of the first things Winston Churchill did was to give the order for all the machines at Bletchley Park, all trace of the work there, to be totally and utterly destroyed.

What are you currently reading?

I’m just finishing ‘When I was Joe’ by Kerin David, and I’m also part-way through ‘iBoy’ by Kevin Brooks, ‘Being Billy’ by Phil Earle, and a re-read of ‘Revolver’ by Marcus Sedgewick. I like having several books on the go at once!
Other than your own books, do you have any recommendations of books that would appeal to teenage boys?
See above!  There are loads of cool books out there. I loved the Patrick Ness trilogy starting with ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’, and the brilliant ‘Amulet of Samarkand’ magical fantasy by Jonathan Stroud… Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ is one of my favourite futuristic dystopia reads…
Quick Questions?
Facebook or Twitter?
Reading or Writing books?
Depends on my mood!
Print book or e-book?
Print book (but a Kindle is on my birthday present list!)
Australia or New Zealand?
I lived in both places and still have friends there, so it’s far too dangerous to comment!
And for those of you collecting letters for Ruth’s mystery message competition…(full details on Ruth’s website)


Many thanks to Ruth for taking the time to answer our extensive list of questions.  It’s really great to have some background on this great book. Make sure you visit the Overflowing Library for the 2nd leg of The Messenger Bird Blog tour.

The Squad: Black Op – Tom Palmer

The Squad: Black Op; Tom Palmer; Puffin; May 2012
Book summary (taken from Amazon UK): The Squad – kickass teenage spies with the perfect cover. They are also part of an England youth football team. Wherever trouble is kicking off, the Squad are sent in. They’re more than a match for any kind of enemy. In the first book in this exciting new series from Foul Play author Tom Palmer, the Squad are sent to Krakow, Poland just before the Euro 2012 tournament there.

In addition to our review of Tom’s new book, Tom also took the time to answer some questions that we posed to him about ‘Black Op’.  It’s a great interview where he also gives his opinion on the appointment of Roy Hodgson as England manager. Read it here.

Literature for Lads Review:
It would be easy to pigeonhole this book as another teenage spy novel that treads a path similar to Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series or Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider.  However it’s the Squad’s back story as members of an England youth football team that makes this book different. This added dimension makes the book as much about football as espionage.

Palmer has written a cracking opening to this novel. The 1st chapter is an adrenalin filled 10 pages that leaves you breathless and left in no doubt the risks the members of the Squad will have to take as they serve their country.  By the end of chapter two the Squad’s forthcoming mission is clear.  They must journey to Poland where the 2012 European Championships are about to begin and the safety of the England team is under threat.

As the book progresses Palmer continues to feed us information quickly in short, sharp chapters, each one filled full of action and enough suspense that when reaching the end of the chapter we already know that we are going to read ‘just one more’. As the book progresses the football element of the book is introduced.  It would have been easy for Palmer to let the pace of the book slow at these points but he cleverly maintains the tension and action both on and off the field.

The squad themselves are an interesting cast of characters. Three boys and two girls each of them has own their strengths and weaknesses. Kids will relate to them and will most likely identify themselves as being not to dissimilar to one of the characters. It would have been nice to have some more back story on the Squad and how they have ended up in the position of Government spies however it does appear this will be developed in future books.

Tom Palmer has cleverly combined espionage and football to create a high octane story that is full of action, adventure and mystery, not to mention a clever twist in the tale at the end of the book. With Euro 2012 in full swing what better way to fill the gap between matches then delving into the murky waters of eastern European terrorism!
Marks out of 10: 7
Here is the trailer for ‘The Squad: Black Op’…
Tom Palmer has an excellent website which can be accessed here. There is lots for readers, parents, librarians and teachers.

Tom Palmer – Q & A on The Squad: Black Op

Tom Palmer hated reading and had not read a book by himself until he was 17.  Reading about football changed his life and now, Tom writes his own novels about football.  His latest book is ‘The Squad: Black Op’ (Literature for Lads review here) which features a team of spies tasked with saving the England team from an imminent terror attack.  We caught up with Tom and asked him some questions about ‘Black Op’ and also how he thinks England will do at Euro 2012…

Your new book ‘The Squad: Black Op’ is the first in a new series of books. Who are the Squad?
They are six (well, five now) thirteen year old spies. All the UK’s adult spies have been exposed, so they are being used to deal with threats to UK interests. Their cover story is that they are international youth footballers. Two girls. Three boys.


The book is set in Poland just before the start of the Euro 2012 championships. Did you visit Poland before writing the book as part of your research?

I did. I like to visit places to give me ideas for stories. I visited Krakow and the countryside south of the city. I needed sites for helicopter landings, white water rafting and a tall church tower. I found them all, but much more. Krakow is a great city to set a thriller.

The book features boys and girls playing football together. Do you think that football is currently as popular with girls, as it is with boys?
Football is the biggest growing sport for girls and women in the UK. I am finding more and more girls that I talk to at schools are into the game – both as players and fans. But it is still more popular with boys: for now.

The Squad: Black Op’ is full of gadgets! What is your own favourite gadget?

My GPS watch. I use it when I go running on the hills where I live. If I run certain routes on the moors, I can spell out words that I can then see on my computer when I get back. (I’m easily amused.)

You openly admit to being a reluctant reader when younger but that ‘reading about football changed your life.’ Is there a specific book about football that you read which had a major impact on you?

It was more reading newspapers and magazines that gave me the confidence and stamina to take on books. Once I realised that newspapers and magazines counted as reading and that I was a reader, it was a revelation to me.

How do you rate England’s chances at Euro 2012? Do you think Roy Hodgson is the right choice as England manager?

Yes, I think Roy Hodgson is the right choice. I like him. But I don’t think we will do so well. We have some good players, but if you look at Holland, France, Germany and Spain, they have more world class players and are far more settled as sides too. If we get out of the groups stages I think that would be a worthwhile performance. But I’d like to see us win it, of course.

Your support for Leeds United is well documented. Do you feel they are one of English footballs sleeping giants?

No. I know that some fans of some football clubs think their team deserve to be in the Premier League. But Leeds are in the Championship because of results, management and finances. I would like us to be in the Premier League and I think we have the fan base to excel there, but I never think we deserve it because we are a so-called big club.

And finally some questions from Rory Fletcher (aged 7) and a massive fan of your books! Are you going to write anymore Football Academy books?

There are no plans, yet. I would like it. I am making some suggestions to Puffin at the moment, so we will see how that goes. You can read a couple of free stories about the characters from the series if you go to the FREE READS bit on my website.

If you liked them try the Angels FC books by Michael Coleman, the Girls FC books by Helena Pielichaty and the Bali Rai young football series.
Who is your favourite character in the Football Academy books?

Ryan. He grows through the series from a boy who makes a lot of stupid mistakes into a mature captain. I like the way he changes in the series.

Who is your favourite player of all time?

Ian Baird. He played for Leeds in the 80s. He was a no-nonsense striker. After him Lucas Radebe. Of the current players in the Premier League, I like Norwich City’s Johnny Howson.

Many thanks to Tom for this great interview.  If you would like more information about Tom visit his website here.

It’s been a long time…

Hello dear readers, are you still with me?  I hope that I have managed to catch you before you completely give up on me! I need to explain why it’s been so long since I posted a review…

The plan had always been to have a Summer break from the blog and to spend some valuable time reading without any added pressure of thinking about reviewing what I was reading.  This part of the plan went as expected. However in early September, when I had planned to start reviewing again, I became involved in the School Library Lobby Scotland.  And this has taken up much more time than I had expected!  Add to this the start of the new school term, a 22 month old little boy and a pregnant wife and things begin to become a little clearer.

However enough of the woe is me!  The good news is that I’ve managed to sort myself out and I’m now raring to go again.  The 1st new review is already planned, ‘Spy for the Queen of the Scots’ by Theresa Breslin and it will be on the blog by the end of the week.

So are you still with me? Can we start again?

Miffy in the Snow – iPad App

Miffy in the Snow; iPad App; Sanoma Media Netherlands b.v. (in collaboration with Mercis b.v.)

Compatible with iPad. Requires iOS 4.3 or later

Description:(Taken from itunes store): Hooray, it has been snowing! With her hat and boots on, Miffy can’t wait. Dress up warm and ride a sleigh with Miffy over the hills. Listen to the story and it will tell you what to do. Miffy in the snow is the 4th Miffy app for iPad, developed specifically for toddlers and pre-schoolers. Very young children can enjoy listening and watching while older children can participate more actively in the story and the games.

Literature for Little Lads Review:
This is our first App review on the site so be gentle with us as we get used to writing about Apps…

G and I have been playing on my iPad together for the last 3 months or so and I have been amazed at how quickly he has learned to use both the general iPad controls and how to navigate his way through specific Apps. As a child myself I loved the Miffy books written by Dick Bruna so I was delighted to be given the opportunity to introduce my 2 year old son (G) to Miffy via this App.

The app is based on the book ‘Miffy in the Snow’ and the story itself is included within the App.  It’s a great little story centring around Miffy enjoying playing in the snow.  Each page displays on the screen with text down the left and animations on the right.  The page is turned by pressing the small arrow on the bottom right although it would have been good to turn pages with a swipe as G’s little fingers did sometimes struggle with the small arrow.

Their are various options for the story including having it read out by the App or recording your own voice and then playing it back.  This is really simple to use and allows you to record 3 different voices for playback. Great if Mum or Dad can’t make it back for story time that night! There is also the option to turn playback off completely which importantly allows reading aloud of the book to take place ‘live’.

Within the story itself 4 minigames are included, Dress Miffy warmly; Sledging with Miffy, Find the bird and Build a birdhouse. G was easily able to understand how to play these and found them enjoyable. They linked to the story well and helped G to feel like he was part of Miffy’s adventure. In addition to the minigames included in the story there are a further two games included in the App, Throwing Snowballs and Find a Matching Pair.

When we opened the App G went for these first as they are accessed by a image of a ball on the home screen.  He was a little disappointed that there was no game involving a ball, but did he enjoy the Matching Pairs game. This was set at an appropriate level and the progression was gentle enough that he continued to feel challenged. G (and I) found the Throwing Snowballs game less enjoyable. G found it really difficult to knock the snowman’s hat off and got bored very quickly.  Even when I attempted the game I struggled to get beyond the 2nd level!

There is also an option to create your own Miffy card and send via email. This is done via simple dragging and dropping of images onto the centre of the screen.  G did get a little frustrated that some of the images were restricted on where they could be placed, however he did perserve and make a card.

G and I both enjoyed this App. I was delighted to see that the charm of Miffy was still prevalent in the App and G enjoyed the ability to have a story read to him whilst also being able to interact, via the minigames, with the story. The story, minigames and additional games that are included will ensure that we will definitely be going back to this App to have more fun with ‘Miffy in the Snow’!.

Marks out of 10:7

The ‘Miffy in the Snow’ app for iPad is available on iTunes priced £2.99

Spy for the Queen of Scots – Theresa Breslin

Spy for the Queen of Scots; Theresa Breslin; Doubleday Children’s; 2012

Book summary (taken from Amazon UK): As lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, the beautiful Ginette – known as Jenny – is the young queen’s closest childhood friend. Growing up in the elegant but ruthless French court, surrounded by enemies and traitors – not least the jealous, manipulative Catherine de Medici, and Mary’s own scheming half-brother, James – Jenny has always been fiercely loyal to her mistress. But when she overhears a mysterious whispered plot, closely followed by several unexplained deaths at court, she puts her own life in danger and turns spy for Mary.

Literature for Lads Review:
There is no doubt that Mary Queen of Scots is one of the most colourful,and oft misunderstood, characters in Scottish history. Regarded by many as a woman of great beauty, yet by others as vain and selfish, there is no doubt she was certainly an intriguing character. Over the years a number of books have been written about her but few tackle the Queen’s formative years growing up in the French royal court.

This is where Breslin’s story starts, catapulting us back to the 16th century and introducing us to many of the characters which played such an important part in Mary’s life. Catherine de Medici, John Knox, Lord Darnley and the Earl Of Bothwell are just some of the historical figures who feature in a book that not only entertains but also educates.

We meet Mary for the first time in the books prologue as she awaits her execution near the end of the 16th century. Little is given away in this short introduction to how Mary ended up in in this predicament before we are quickly transported back 29 years earlier to 1558 where Mary Stuart is living in the royal court in France.

In this opening sequence we are introduced to Jenny, close friend and companion to Mary who has grown up with her at the French royal court. Breslin soon makes it apparent that the royal court is a place of ruthless ambition, full of secrets and danger and it is whilst at court that Jenny, in light of several mysterious deaths, decides to turn spy for Mary.

What follows is an intriguing, historical thriller which takes in 3 countries, 30 years of history and an interesting cast of characters. As we follow Mary’s journey from the royal court in France back to Scotland to claim her throne Mary, Jenny and the royal entourage encounter various dangerous plots, suspicious characters, not to mention attempts on Mary’s life itself.

The book is full of depth and Breslin expertly creates the 16th century that Mary is living in. At times it feels like we are not merely the reader but rather a spectator watching from the sidelines as Mary’s amazing story unfolds. The sights, smells and and sounds of 16th century Scotland are brought to life throughout the book, adding to the reading experience.

This is a great historical thriller from Breslin which cements her place as one of the best contemporary writers for young adults. The book deals with one of the most interesting periods of Scottish history and tells the story of the often misunderstood Mary Queen of Scots in a fresh light. The book’s cast of characters are full of ambition, intrigue and yet are equally deceitful, and would think nothing of stabbing their best friend, or future Queen, in the back.

Marks out of 10: 7

For more information on the author vist her webpage

Here is short video of some images of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Getting Boys Reading – Alan Gibbons

I am absolutely delighted to welcome author and library campaigner Alan Gibbons to Literature for Lads today. Alan is one of the UK’s most respected writers of teenage literature and is also well known for his high profile Campaign for the Book He is a passionate supporter of libraries and a regular visiting speaker at schools, colleges and literary events.

In 2011 his novel ‘An Act of Love’ was long listed for the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Alan’s newly published novel ‘Raining Fire’ is a powerful, fast paced real life thriller about gun crime in a inner city gangland and you can read the Literature for Lads review here. However today on the blog we have given Alan the opportunity to offer some advice on how to get boys reading…

Targeting the three in four

According to National Literacy Trust research only one in four boys read out of class every day. So how do we turn the three in four into regular, eager readers? I don’t think there is anything complex or mysterious about this question. Boys read when they feel there is something in it for them. When there isn’t, they don’t.

Can’t read, won’t read? Rubbish! There are huge differences between the number of boys who read in a school with a strong reading culture and a school with a weak one. It is not inevitable and it has nothing to do with biology.

Let’s start with the overall school environment. Does reading seep from the walls? Is there a purposeful, targeted and sustained effort to get the students in general and boys in particular reading? A limp poster of Rio Ferdinand reading is a token if it isn’t integrated into a range of visible and exciting ways into reading. So let’s see photographs of respected members of the school and broader community reading. Let’s have the firefighter, the soldier, the footballer, rugby player and boxer, the doctor and paramedic, yes, and especially the dad. Let’s have dads and lads sessions.

Many boys love screens so let’s see TV screens with rolling displays of book covers on football and boxing, horror and graphic novels, adventure and sci-fi. Let’s have films, interviews and podcasts. Let’s see reviews of the latest computer games, football magazines and fanzines, Marvel comics and Manga. Why not have a Chinese Whispers text or tweet community where you send recommendations by smart phone? And where do you get these recommendations? You know what, a school with a thriving, well-run school library has all of these and more.

Why not establish reading buddies? These can be older boys, guys who are respected in the community, members of staff, anybody so long as they have an interest in life and they don’t have the personality of a blancmange!

Boys tend to like series, collectibles, so have a scheme called something like Serial Thriller where groups of lads meet up to discuss the series they are working through. There can be sessions where they design book covers, bookmarks, movie posters and board games based on the book. Generate a team ethic, a sense of tribe and belonging.

If the lads are disengaged to start with engage them by holding browsing sessions with a respected adult, a role model if you will, in which they choose a book at their interest level and reading level. If you are not given any book to read, that’s bad. If you are given the wrong one, it’s worse. When I was fourteen, I had to read Emma by Jane Austen. To be honest, the rustle of crinoline didn’t do much for me at the time. Luckily, our teacher introduced us to Animal Farm and 1984. They are bleak and dark, but getting teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel. Most go through the nihilistic phase.

Get authors and poets in. Combine performance and discussion. I have lost track of the number of times when I am introduced to a group of allegedly disengaged boys who don’t read. They turn out to be receptive and keen and start to own up to the stuff they do read. If the school let’s an atmosphere of philistinism rule then any attempt to encourage reading will wither in the blast of cynicism. Our job is to get the prevailing wind blowing in the opposite direction.

Interest-level is part of the battle. Find out what each individual boy likes and present him with suitable material. Don’t make assumptions. Not all boys like football. I know, it’s crazy, but it’s true. Then make sure you are not foisting a book on a boy that will demoralise him because it is too difficult at that moment in time. There are great ‘quick-reads’ to set the boys off on their reading journey, Barrington Stoke and the Harper Collins ‘Read On’ scheme for which I am a consultant to name just two.

The quick read should be the first step, the launch pad of increasingly challenging reading.

Finally, everything we do has to be supported by the whole school community from senior management level through to the ancillary staff. Everyone should be seen as a reader. If they aren’t how are the boys supposed to get the message? Most of all, it has to be fun. Constant hectoring and exhortation has little effect. The systematic encouragement of reading for pleasure through well-planned and resourced activities that are varied and driven by enjoyment does.

The campaign to get boys reading should start immediately. We have nothing to lose but the callouses on our knuckles.

Do you have any other ideas for getting boys reading?  Do we worry too much about boys not reading and should we shift our focus to teenagers in general, boys and girls, not reading? We would love to hear you thoughts so do please comment on Alan’s great guest post.

Raining Fire – Alan Gibbons

Raining Fire; Alan Gibbons; Orion Indigo; 2013

Book summary (Taken from Amazon UK): Alex and Ethan are brothers, growing up on an estate where there are just two choices: sport or crime. Ethan is a promising footballer, and when he is selected to go on a training programme in the US, he feels sure that he has found his chance to escape the gangs that dominate his streets. But as life spirals out of control for his brother, Alex, and things unexpectedly take a turn for the worse for Ethan, he finds himself drawn into the midst of an explosive feud with the gun at its heart. The gun can make a weak man strong. The gun is the coward’s fist. The gun is power. 

Literature for Lads review:
As soon as we read the opening lines of Alan Gibbon’s latest novel, ‘The gun is power. The gun can make a weak man strong’, we are left with no option but to undertake an uncomfortable journey into a world where violent crime and gang rivalry is commonplace. Based in England’s Northwest (where Alan has lived all his life) this book gives a voice to the youths who are often hidden by hoods drawn tight around their heads and scarfs pulled across their faces.

The novels two main characters are brothers Alex and Ethan. They live on the Green, a bleak, inner city estate where unemployment and poverty is commonplace and where gangs, not the police make the rules. Alex, older of the two, is a member of ‘The Tribe’, one of the estates most notorious gangs. Ethan is a promising footballer, training with a Premiership club and sees this as his opportunity to escape the Green.

However the Green, and the gangs that roam this desolate wasteland won’t let Ethan go that easily. Drawn into a violent feud between the estates two rival gangs, and with his football career shattered by injury, Ethan must look to a darker and altogether more violent way to escape the clutches of the Green.

Gibbons portrayal of an estate where young men are imprisoned by poverty, joblessness and crime is harsh and powerful. Alex, not academically successful and with no prospect of unemployment sees the gang as giving purpose to his life. He can feel useful, respected and can earn some money, albeit illegally. Ethan dreams of a life beyond the Green. Initially he sees sport as his way out but after an injury setback a relationship with a girl opens his mind to escape via academic success.

It is when these two strands of the novel collide, Alex’s involvement in the world of ‘The Tribe’ and Ethan’s attempts to escape the Green that the pace of the novel really picks up. After successfully setting the scene Gibbon’s strikes the match and the novel explodes into life. The threat of violence begins to hang heavy on every page and at times comes graphically to the forefront. Gibbons has a distinctive short, sharp writing style and his style helps to increase the tension as the book hurtles towards its tense and gripping conclusion.

The presence of the gun, lurking in the background since that opening page, now releases its safety catch and ready’s itself for its part in the story. With Ethan embroiled in a gangland feud which shows no way out he is given the ultimate moral dilemma. Should he pull the trigger? It would be unfair to reveal Ethan’s decision but this is far from end of the novel as an unexpected twist in the final pages of the books ensures the reader is left feeling somewhat exhausted after the final few chapters of the book.

Gibbons novel explores the complex issue of gun crime and the far reaching consequences it can have. In addition it also highlights the despair felt by young people in some areas of inner city Britain at this moment in time. It never seeks to glamorous the role of gangs or of gun crime but does, importantly, raise a number of issues for discussion.

Marks out of 10: 7

Is gang warfare a major problem in the UK? Why are young people attracted to gangs? Feel free to dicuss this and any other issues raised below. Equally if you have read the book we would love to hear your thoughts.

Alan has also written a guest post for Literature for Lads on ‘Getiing Boys Reading’. You can read it here and for more information on Alan you can visit his website.

Finally here is are some thoughts from Alan himself on ‘Raining Fire’.

Itch – Simon Mayo

Itch; Simon Mayo; Corgi Children’s; 2012

Book summary (Taken from Amazon UK): Meet Itch – an accidental, accident-prone hero. Science is his weapon. Elements are his gadgets. Itch – is fourteen, and loves science, especially chemistry. He’s collecting all the elements in the periodic table. Then, Itch makes a discovery, a new element, never seen before. At first no one believes him – but soon someone hears about the strange new rock and wants it for himself and Itch and his family are catapulted into a breathless adventure with terrifyingly high stakes . . .

Literature for Lads review:
Cornwall…an earthquake deep underground…a chemical reaction, the catalyst which begins an amazing and dangerous journey for one ordinary 14 year old boy. Something that is hardly noticed, a small tremor but with a massive impact on so many lives and the future stability of the world…

The opening of this fast paced story is, quite literally, an explosive one! Itch, or Itchingham Lofte to give the main character his full name, has been indulging in his passion for science and in the process not only lost his eyebrows but also blown his bedroom to smithereens…what makes this even worse is that his mum is due home at any moment and it’s not the first time one of his “experiments” have gone wrong!

Itch’s mum works long hours and his dad works away. Itch copes with the time spent alone by studying his favourite book on the periodic table, with which he is obsessed and inspires him to carry out mostly unsuccessful experiments with his hoard of “stuff”, usually to the detriment of friends or rooms around the house!

You see the “stuff” Itch collects in his eyes is treasure, his aim is to possess every element from the Periodic Table making him officially an element hunter and yes they do actually exist! Innocent enough I hear you cry, but alas, this passion is about to kick off all sorts of dangers, not just for Itch, but for his friends, Chloe and Jack, his family, and in fact most of his classmates who find themselves on the end of an elemental faux pas at one point when Itch inadvertently gives most of them arsenic poisoning.

His quest to collect every element from the periodic table is endless and having been given a mysterious rock by an acquaintance and fellow hunter who appears to be suffering from some kind of sickness, Itch enlists the help of a teacher to investigate the rock further. However, the teacher he entrusts the rock to has a secret dark past and suddenly there are a lot of interested parties keen to relieve Itch of his find!

As the story develops we move from Cornwall, to London and beyond with lots of dangerous people in pursuit of Itch and his friends. Through frighteningly agonising sickness and potentially holding the welfare and health of everyone he meets in his hands, Itch not only has to figure out whom to trust but how to avoid a global catastrophe. The plot is a great concept and not only is it absorbing, it’s exciting, informative and a real non-stop rollercoaster ride.

I must confess I was never the greatest chemist at school, so having been fortunate in meeting Simon Mayo last year and hearing him speak about writingItch, I was amazed at the depth of research he undertook in pursuit of accurately writing about this subject and the possibility of elements as yet undiscovered. Well done Simon Mayo on a thoroughly enjoyable debut novel!

Marks out of 10: 9

(Many thanks to Lesley Hurworth (@pertwee4)for this review. She is the newest member of the Literature for Lads team and we hope she will become a regular reviewer. I’m sure she would love to hear what you think about the book so do leave us a comment below)

In addition to the book there is also a free Itch book app which allows you to bring to life elements of the book jacket through Augmented Reality (very cool!). Search the app store for ‘Itch book’.

Itch Rocks, the second book in this series is available now (Guess what is next on my reading list)

You can follow Simon Mayo on Twitter at @simonmayo

Here is the trailer for Itch