You Can Do Anything by Akala and Sav Akyuz Book Review – 2.5 Stars

Hip Hop

If you think about rapping, what comes to mind?  The hard streets of the East Coast and West Coast of America as they brag about what cars they own and women they date?  Rap is like any musical form; it varies greatly.  There is loads of Gangster Rap, but what about the pop of Will Smith, or the Grime of the UK?  Just have a look at the 80s for loads of unqualified people having a dabble in the format (Wham! Rap).  Rap in of itself is nothing but a way to project a message and if this message is about trying hard and succeeding, it could just be suitable for a kid’s book.

Hip and Hop are two friends that like nothing better than spitting rhymes and hanging out together.  Whilst Hip is a confident Hippo, his pal Hop is a less self-assured bird.  With a big bike race coming up Hop is hoping to enter, but he keeps crashing.  Can Hip and all his pals convince Hop that if you keep on trying, you will get to the race on time?

‘‘You Can Do Anything’’ is the first in a series of ‘‘Hip and Hop’’ books that are written by singer/artist Akala.  With this in mind you would think that the rhyming style couplets of the children’s book format would be perfect for him.  However, out of all the elements of the book, the way it scans is probably the worst.  The story feels a little disjointed; a series of mishaps for Hop and then him getting back on his feet. These work ok, but it is the mini rap in between that feels off.  Hip tries to raise his pal’s confidence by laying down some rhymes.  For the life of me I could not get the tempo right for this – perhaps I am just a bad rapper.

On a positive note, the entire book has a bright and upbeat feel.  The message is all about striving for what you want and you will achieve your goals.  This is reflected in Sav Akyuz illustrations.  The pictures have a street art style to them that has the vibrancy of the streets, but are also suitable for a children’s book.  Akyuz is particularly good and mimicking action, be it the bike rides or the sweet, sweet moves of the rappers.

It is strange that the unique selling point of Hip and Hop’s adventure, that of being written by real-life rap artist Akala, is the weakest element.  The book’s heart is in the right place, but it is executed a little clumsily.  If you are interested in a positive rapping message of believing in yourself for kids, then try the classic ‘‘Parappa the Rapper’’ computer game – you gotta do what?  You gotta believe!  It manages to do the same thing as ‘‘Anything’’, but also have some rhymes that work.

2.5 Stars

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My First Wild Activity Book’’ by Isabel Otter and Maxime Lebrun Book Review – 4.5 Stars @max_lebrun

Wild

You sit down together as a family and ask your child what they would like to read from your bulging bookcase.  Will they choose the timeless classic that you yourself read as a child?  Perhaps they will pluck for a modern tale with its dayglo colouring and storyline based around pants?  Nope.  Neither of these.  All you will hear is “Stickers!”  Your child would rather play with a sticker activity book than read with you, so best make it a worthwhile sticker activity book.

‘‘My First Wild Activity Book’’ by Isabel Otter and Maxime Lebrun is a top grade activity book that covers various wild biomes by not only allowing you to add stickers, but also quiz you on different types of animals, play spot the difference, or simply colour in.  Each section has a spread that folds out so you can add your stickers, but no inch is wasted.  Rather than leaving the back of these images plain, there are more fun activities to partake in on the reverse.

The use of every iota of space is the type of thing that lifts ‘‘Wild’’ from just being another sticker book.  As a genre it is normally one that I buy from the bargain shelves.  You know that within a week or so all the stickers will be stuck and images coloured; there is no re-reading value here, therefore why pay more?  Thankfully, ‘‘Wild’’ shows that if you do pay a little more, you will get a better book.

The entire book is perfectly aimed at the 5-7 age group, it is informative, yet still fun.  There are facts to read, but you never have long to go to find a fun puzzle.  The entire things is also full colour and wonderfully illustrated by Lebrun, it must have taken a lot of effort to get so many images into 72 pages.  The A4 format and full use of space does make this feel like a premium activity book.  The fact that it is split into environments means that it is also perfect to use as a pick up and play title.  On a car journey the format is great for taking up a proportion of the ride.

‘‘Wild’’ is a cut way above the type of activity title you buy from the supermarket as its lush illustrations and solid factual knowledge means that it acts more as a fun, interactive encyclopaedia.  However, it does still suffer from the perennial activity book problem – use a pen once and you are done.  The stickers can only be done once and most of the puzzles are single use too.  There is a little more to read than in most activity books, but still not enough that you would go back once the fun has been filled.  Luckily, you will have a great time at least once with the book.

4.5 Stars

I’m a Celebrity… Where’s Kiosk Keith? by Mark Cowley Book Review – 2.5 Stars

Im a celeb

TV tie in books are rarely tombs that will be added to the Booker Prize Short List, but for a fan of the given show they can offer an amusing aside.  The ‘I’m a Celebrity… Where’s Kiosk Keith?’ by Mark Cowley should make for an amusing Secret Santa or stocking filler for a fan of the show.  First impressions is that the book is homage to ‘Where’s Wally’ and you have to find Keith and various other Celebrity inspired objects/people in the images, but this is only half of the book.  The rest is made up of a whistle-stop tour of each series so far.  A double spread highlights some of the most memorable antics of that year and fans will enjoy reminiscing.

It is here that the book falters as it would have probably just been better as a Find Keith book.  The sections on past seasons are long enough to be a little dull, but too brief so that they do not provide enough information.  Fans will feel a little uncatered for, whilst people just there for the finding game will be bored.  Proceedings are not aided by some of the photos chosen – stills taken from the TV that have not been formatted greatly for the book.

There is hope in the Find Keith sections, but these too are a little disappointing.  Firstly, they all have the same obvious setting – the jungle.  This was always going to happen, but try as he might Cowley is unable to make the scenes look that different.  The illustrations themselves are very colourful and look good.  There is certainly fun to be had finding all the hidden elements.  What I did find a little odd was the generic looking characters.  You are asked to find a certain celeb doing something, but the drawing is just a character and does not really look like them.

‘Where’s Kiosk Keith’ feels like a tie in book were a decent amount of thought and effort has gone into it, but a little more could have made it fun for both fans and non-fans of the show.  Simple things like varying the setting or adding lookalike celebrities would have helped.  Also the book is a large format, but not quite big enough.  A little more room would have allowed the fun drawings to pop even more.  As it is, the book caters for those that it should do – the fans.  They will get a fun diversion with the Find Keith illustrations, as well as a trip down memory lane.  However, none fans will be left with nothing much, but would they really want to pick up this book?  With great Find Keith images, they may just have done.

2.5 Stars

Dodger by Terry Pratchett Book Review – 2.5 Stars

Dodger

Some authors are lucky in that they have managed to forge a career by writing different types of books set in different places.  However, this is not the norm.  Most authors find themselves working on a series as it is the way to bring people back to your books.  This is prevalent in crime, but also fantasy.  Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld books and he managed to stretch his stories within the confines of this series.  Towards the end of his life he branched more into new universes.  The less said about his collaborations with Stephen Baxter the better, but perhaps ‘Dodger’ may prove to be better.  After all, it is set in Victorian England, or is it just the Discworld thinly disguised?

Dodger is named so as he is always on the dodge, doing a little bit or this and a little bit of that to get along.  He is not a baddun, but not really a goodun either.  However, when he sees a damsel in distress he has to help, working as a tosher in the sewers he leaps to her rescue.  Unbeknownst to Dodger this chance encounter will change his life forever.  He is no longer just a tosher, but a hero.  With a chance to move into higher circles, can Dodger work out who the kidnappers are and better himself?

With so few Pratchett books left for me to read I dearly hoped that this non-Discworld outing would be great.  However, like so many of his none Discworld books, it was a disappointment.  It was not aided in being so similar to his popular work.  Ankh Morpork is based on London, so to have this London feel like Ankh Morpork makes some sort of sense.  However, the outlandish and almost fantastical characters of the Discworld seemed to make it into ‘Dodger’.  There are no trolls or dwarves, but enough Dibblers that you feel in familiar territory, too familiar.  The book would have been best just set on the Discworld.

But it could not be as it blends the fictional character of Dodger with real people.  Most prominent is Dickens and Dodger is obviously meant to be the inspiration for the Artful Dodger.  There are probably loads of nods to Dickens throughout the story, but they were lost on me as I got about as far as ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’.  My lack of knowledge also covers the other Victorian dignities in the book.  Perhaps someone more versed in the history of the period will gain more from the book, I had to read it on face value.

As a comedy crime drama, it has its moments.  The mystery at the centre is fun and I like the idea that Dodger is able to adapt his footpad lifestyle to being somewhat of an ungentlemanly secret agent.  I enjoyed him trying to solve the crimes, but I was not sure about his integration with the upper echelons of society.  Pratchett tries to glean a lot of the humour in the book from how out of depth Dodger is.  It all felt very Discworld to me and I would have preferred more crime solving.

If you are a fan of the Discworld books you are likely to enjoy ‘Dodger’ as it may as well just be one.  The jokes are present and the description of a fantastical Victorian London is well done.  There are nuggets of enjoyment to be had in this book, but nowhere near the heights of the best books that The Guards or Granny Weatherwax has to offer.

2.5 Stars

The Secret Life of a Tiger by Emilia Dziubak and Przemyslaw Wechterowic Book Review – 3.5 Stars

Secret Tiger

If David Attenborough has taught us anything is that a lot goes on in the natural world that we are unaware of.  Animals will hunt in interesting ways, or find a mate using secret dances, but did you know that Tigers sometimes sneak up on apes and give them new haircuts?  You will be amazed with the revelations found in Emilia Dziubak and Przemyslaw Wechterowicz’s book, but I am not convinced that this kid’s book is based on facts.

Tigers are misunderstood.  They don’t want all the jungle creatures to cower from them.  On occasion they have been known to eat another living creature, but what about all the other things that they do in secret; the dancing, the art, the hairdressing.  Is Tiger’s plan to settle the minds of all his jungle pals so that they become friends with him, or is he just looking for an easy lunch?

‘‘The Secret Life of a Tiger’’ is a spectacular book to look at, especially if you are lucky enough to obtain the large hardback version.  Each double spread is full of luscious illustrations of a jungle landscape in which we find our tiger hero partaking of one of his secret pleasures.  The fact that most of the book is green foliage is not an issue as Wechterowicz has used touches of colour that stand out.  The jungle almost acts like a frame for tiger’s antics and you can view each one as a great piece of art.

When you highlight the illustrations of a children’s books first it is often because it is the best element of the book and that is certainly the case here.  Whilst Wechterowicz’s drawings are sublime, Dziubak’s story is less so.  The book’s narrative acts more as a means of allowing the images to be made, rather than being something of themselves.  They are a seemingly random selection of activities until the book ends.  This not a huge issue as children’s books are often very simple to appeal to the audience, but there is also a strange ambiguity in this book; is Tiger good or bad?  The book is written in a way that you cannot tell if Tiger is being sarcastic or not.  This makes a huge difference as to how you see the character – secret fun lover, or manipulative carnivore?  The individual reader can decide for themselves, but for a book aimed at 3-5 year olds, a clearer indication that he is nice would work better.

The story of ‘‘Tiger’’ is not great and the tone a little off, but the illustrations alone are enough to recommend the book.  Adults will appreciate the amount of work that went into each page and the children will be able to find many new surprises each time they read the book.  If you can get over the fact that Tiger many be a master manipulator, he does get up to some hilarious hijinks. Original review on thebookbag.co.uk

3.5 Stars

Empire State by Colin Bateman – 2.5 Stars

Empire

Colin Bateman has been writing for a good length of time now and his style has matured over the years.  He has always balanced darkness with light, often by having gruesome murders, but very funny main characters.  His earliest works were perhaps his darkest, but the setting of Northern Ireland seemed to give the books a reprieve.  Surely bad things happened during the troubles?  How would Bateman’s dark comedic crime thrillers work if the setting was moved?  Not quite as well as it turns out.

Nathan Jones is an illegal immigrant.  He and his equally illegal girlfriend have made their way to New York from Northern Ireland and have to work some of the less favoured jobs to get by.  Lisa has found herself dancing for money, but Nathan has managed to luck a job as a security guard in the Empire State Building.  This normally entails babysitting tourists, but when the President announces a visit, the security team are put on high alert.  After all, a known psychopath is out to get the President and the Empire State Building may just be the perfect place for an assassination.

The characters in Bateman’s novels are often flawed and not always that nice, but have some sort of redeeming feature – snide comments being the most common.  The characters in ‘Empire State’ do not.  The focus of the book is Nathan and he is the least likable character that Bateman has ever chosen to be the protagonist.  We are used to lazy drunks, but women beaters?  It is hard to side with Nathan.  The likes of Lucy are a little better, but her story is not painted in glory either.

The entire experience of ‘Empire’ is a little grim.  The killer on the loose seems to butcher people for little reason, but at least this gives the book some menace.  However, there are also other dark parts that have seemingly no other purpose than to depress the reader.  To be fair, this is in keeping with Bateman’s other early works, but the likes of ‘Cycle of Violence’ had Northern Ireland as a setting and it seemed to make more sense.  In America, the book is cartoonish, even out doing the likes of Carl Hiaasen.

Throughout the story there are glimpses of the author’s better work.  Some of the jokes are dark, but very funny.  The tension that builds is also good as the killer is someone to be very scared of.  A shame then that the ending becomes a little lampoonish.  I see ‘Empire’ as a book from a newer writer finding their feet.  There are several exceptional books in the Colin Bateman cannon, but this is not one of them.  A decent enough outing, but only for readers with a strong stomach.

2.5 Stars

The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly Book Review – 2.5 Stars

Great zoo china

With some books it is hard to avoid what inspired them.  The number of Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code rip offs that flooded the shelves showed that there was money in homage.  One author who inspired more than a few tech thrillers was Michael Crichton whose untimely death left a huge hole in the market.  Books like Jurassic Park, Sphere and Congo certainly had an effect on me growing up and also author Matthew Reilly.  Reilly is an author known for high stake thrills that borders on silly abandon, but with ‘The Great Zoo of China’ he released his obvious homage to Crichton.  The book even says Jurassic Park with Dragons on the cover.

Dr Cassandra Jane is one of the world’s leading experts on reptiles and when she is flown first class to China she thinks she is going to see some new developments in the research of this area.  Writing up her report for The National Geographic, she is in for more than she imagines when these reptiles turn out to be dragons.  Can the Chinese’s ambitious plan to open the world’s greatest zoo work?  What could possible go wrong containing hundreds of winged monsters?

Books by Reilly should have a clear sign on the front that says all readers should abandon their brains before entering.  From his Scarecrow books to his Jack West books, they have all been epic in scale and as daft as a bag full of brushes.  ‘Great Zoo’ does nothing to reverse this trend, but for a while it seemed to be a legitimate science fiction thriller.  Reilly’s slight obsession with the Chinese being a big threat is apparent in this book again as we are introduced to the politics that surrounds the zoo.  How can China really take over from the US?  They can be richer, but when all the media is from America, they will always be second.  Coke, Disney, the Chinese need their own killer brand.  This is the zoo.  This mix of technology and political wrangling is intriguing, making you think you are in for some geopolitics.  Not really the case, as Reilly sullies things slightly by having a dig at the Chinese appropriating everything and not creating anything of their own – European scientists and architecture in the zoo.  Race also links to the order of deaths – where are you from?  This could determine if you live or die.

With the political thrills being a little off, it is up to the action to deliver and here Reilly really hits the reader.  Over and over again like you are a 90lb dweeb taking on the heavy weight champion.  Once the action starts, it is relentless.  This is good as it is fun, but Reilly’s writing style takes some getting used to.  He uses lots of exclamation marks and has the habit of saying the same thing twice.  He also uses the word literally several times – he is literally writing the word literally in a piece of literature.  I find this annoying and naïve, but also a little endearing.  There is no one quite like him that I read.

There is no denying the links between this book and Jurassic Park, the execution is very similar; a group of characters trapped in a theme park like place, being chased by dinosaur like creatures.  Reilly’s characters even admit this is the case and mention the film/book a couple of times.  It is nice to see that Reilly states the link, but it does drag you out of the story each time it happens.  ‘The Great Zoo of China’ is a naively written book that steps a little too much on Jurassic Park’s toes, yet it remains good fun throughout.  If you can embrace the dodgy writing and dubious action, you are in for some brainless entertainment.

2.5 Stars