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There is a theory that one reason that boys reading ability lags behind that of girls is that there are less books available of the types that boys want to read. At one time, not so very long ago, I actually bought into this theory myself. Girls tend to be more willing to read stories form a wide variety of genres, where boys tend to be much more specific, and for the most part, they want, action, adventure, gadgets, fast cars, and a fight or two. Looking in local bookshops, I do find it hard to find quality reading material that will interest my son, and the local library is absolutely dismal. But with Amazon, there are countless titles available, all you have to do is look. Alex Rider is one of a great many series intended to motivate boys to read, but even among a vast choice of quality books, these do stand out as some of the best books for boys.
Most of the Alex Rider stories are published only as traditional paperbacks. However, the first three ( and soon to be four) have been released as graphic novels as well. At age 7, my son feels he is too grown up for picture books ( I disagree - but it isn't my decision). His reading ability is coming along nicely, but he still struggles a bit with longer young adult paperbacks, and he still very much enjoys the visual nature of an illustrated book. Like most comics or graphic novels, you can get a fairly good idea of the storyline just by following the pictures. This means if he gets stuck on a word, he can use the illustrations as another clue to decode it. But most importantly, these books allow him to enjoy reading, without feeling at all childish. I believe they are forming a bridge between picture books and the more advanced paperbacks. I feel this would also be very helpful for boys whose reading skills are delayed a bit as well. They could enjoy this, without feeling it was too babyish as they might with picture books. I would note though, that while the pictures make reading a bit easier and more fun, the vocabulary is pretty advanced. This book has a large number of words a very young reader might find difficult, like: "catastrophe", "uninhabitable" and " Boris Kiriyenko".
If you have read any of my other Alex Rider graphic novel reviews, you'll know I rate the entire series quite highly. These stories have just the right mix of action and adventure, and seem impossible for my son to put down. In fact, I hardly see the child when he has a new book like this, and when I pass him in the hallway, it is with a book in front of him and a rather incoherent reply to any questions I might have. My son is currently counting the months until the next book in this series is released, and I think it is great to see so interested in reading.
This book has 173 pages and is printed on a thick glossy paper, which is securely bound in a paperback format. It has survived quite a lot of being dragged about and is none the worse for wear. The illustrations are comic book style, but the overall quality is very good. I wouldn't go so far as to describe them as works of art - as I would some graphic novels, but they are quite good for this type of book. They are printed in full colour, with some leaning towards shades of blue, grey and brown. There are some very comic book traits, such as a really evil looking henchman, and the fact that general Sarov is a military man is obvious whether he is in uniform or not. I suppose one could look at this as being overly predictable, but I think it is just this predictable nature of the illustrations that makes this easy reading for young children, and easier for them to visualise the action.
This story begins when Alex bumps into Mr Crawford from MI6 who persuades him to accept an unofficial assignment. It ends up with Alex in trouble as usual, and this time he has the Chinese triads annoyed at him as well. Alan Blunt ( Alex's boss at MI6) is not at all happy to have Alex freelancing, but it just so happens they want Alex to take another assignment. They will get the triads off his back, but of course these things take time, and the meantime - Alex can do a favour for them. I'm afraid MI6 comes off as a bit underhanded in these books.
This time Alex is being sent out on loan to the CIA, and is only meant to pose as the son of two American agents. The fact that he speaks with an English accent rather than an American one makes this sound a bit far fetched, but it is quickly glossed over. This assignment involves a holiday in Cuba, which to my knowledge is still not high on American holiday makers destination choices, so it is felt a family will attract less attention. Alex is really not meant to do anything but go along for the ride, but of course that wouldn't make for a very interesting story.
As usual with Alex Rider stories, he will very soon find himself in serious danger, with smugglers, spies, sharks ( a great white no less), a Russian terrorist with the materials for nuclear bomb, and a very twisted mutant looking henchman, Conrad. Although my son enjoyed all of these books, he did agree this one was the best. He liked the scene with the shark, the terrible little Conrad, and the many fight scenes, but this book also has a few sad sections, and he was able to feel sorry for the villain as well. He also had a laugh at a small trick the villain played on another enemy.
What made this book stand out in my opinion, was the villain, the Russian terrorist General Sarov. In the previous two Alex Rider books the villains have been typical comic book style, one dimensional madmen without any redeeming features. Horowitz has drawn real depth into the character of General Sarov though. He is cruel, ruthless, and certainly insane in my book ( I would consider any terrorist willing to use nuclear weapons as insane). But he is also human, very human, and he has redeeming virtues as well. He makes an offer to Alex, that even Alex must find hard to refuse. Sarov is every inch the general, willing to sacrifice thousands , if not millions in pursuit of his goals - but does he does have a heart as well, strange though that may seem, and a certain nobility - if one can call a terrorist noble. If he were a real person - it would be very hard not to feel any empathy for the man, no matter how horrid his actions.
I think this makes the book much more readable to an adult, but I like the fact that this book encouraged my son to think as well. I was brought up not to see things in black and white - just because someone is an enemy - doesn't make them evil, and people who do evil things can sometimes have good in them as well. The flip side of this is that otherwise good people, can at times do evil things. In real life, it is rare to find people who are pure good or pure evil, most people are a mix, it's just a matter of which aspect is dominant. I was happy that this book allowed my son to explore these ideas, and perhaps learn something about human nature as well as working on his reading ability.
My son has read this several times on his own, and asked me to read it to him once, as I do still read to him at night as well. This book sells for £5.93 new, and only slightly used. I do feel that based on the number of times this has been read, the overall quality of the story, the quality of the book , and the enjoyment my son has had from it , that it is more than worth the price. Although this is not a book I would buy for myself, I did enjoy it. In fact, I could see buying the paperback version to read on my own, if I got this at a fair price. The fights, explosions and daring escapes are a bit over the top in my opinion, but no more so than any action movie, and my son does enjoy all of these features. Ideally, I would say this book would best suit ages 6- 12. I would expect older readers would usually unillustrated version, but as many adults do still enjoy graphic novels , I'm sure there are plenty who would enjoy this as well.