The Alex Rider series, by Anthony Horowitz

Alex Rider is an ‘ordinary’ fourteen-year-old pressured into a dangerous world of espionage by MI6. Throughout the course of nine books he has faced death hundreds of times, has made miraculous escapes, thwarted several evil plans of mass destruction, and has missed a great deal of school.

The series of nine books starring Alex Rider is a stalwart of the teenage fiction market, and unsurprisingly so. Its first instalment, Stormbreaker, was published in 2000, and the final book in the series reached bookshops in 2011. Throughout these years Alex Rider’s fan-base has grown as children and young adults continue to select it from the shelves of other teenage titles in a healthy yet flooded market. Its success is due to its rock-solid premise and the skilful writing of Horowitz, the man responsible for several murder mystery programmes on television and therefore a writer with an impeccable grasp of plot and pacing.

When Alex’s uncle Ian Rider is killed in a road accident, Alex’s suspicions are aroused, and his investigation soon leads him into the den of MI6 – because much to Alex’s surprise, his uncle was a British secret agent. MI6 are quick to notice Alex’s remarkable skills and send him to pick up where Ian Rider left off, because as a teenager, Alex will not be treated with suspicion by those he investigates. This is the reason why Alex is continuously bribed, tricked and blackmailed into performing missions for various Intelligence services across the world: because he is the only person who could do it.

All this sounds very improbable, but Horowitz ensures that Alex is very convincing as a character. While it is of course unlikely that a fourteen-year-old would have all the skills that he does, such as fluency in French, expertise in karate, and experience in a vast number of extreme sports, this problem is explained away by the fact that he was brought up by a spy, who was keen to ensure that Alex gained as many skills as possible. However, the overarching emotion of Alex’s journey is definitely resentment. Resentment that he was lied to throughout his childhood, resentment that MI5 refuse to leave him alone, and resentment turning to anger as his life increasingly spins out of his control. Alex’s personality changes over the course of nine books – as the missions he performs begin to affect him, and gradual revelations fill out his patchy knowledge of his family and his own past.

These books are essential reading for everyone of Alex Rider’s age – and they still hold their audiences when they’ve ‘grown out of them’ too! Alex is described in blurbs as ‘the young James Bond’, but he is much more believable, much more likeable, and much more entertaining. Action-packed, funny, and often incredibly serious, it’s impossible to find something to criticise about this series.

The Alex Rider series:
1. Stormbreaker
2. Point Blanc
3. Skeleton Key
4. Eagle Strike
5. Scorpia
6. Ark Angel
7. Snakehead
8. Crocodile Tears
9. Scorpia Rising

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

This story follows the journey of a man and his son across the burned wastelands of North America, after some unmentioned disaster has befallen the world. The reader discovers little about the principal characters, but despite this the personality of each is impossible to miss. The Road is a classic tale of hardship and the bond between individuals, especially when faced with a struggle. It is a story of good and evil, as the nightmarish journey is frequently beset by having to hide from ‘the bad guys’, and moral dilemmas such as whether to help fellow travellers, or to save their paltry supplies to keep themselves alive.

McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic vision of the world is at once chilling and beautiful; and therein lies the success of this novel. He is able to conjure up vivid descriptions of bleak landscapes, and to describe in detail every aspect of the road and the locations the travellers come across, without dragging the novel into dreariness. While the novel is far from uplifting, McCarthy also manages to convey hope through disaster, especially through the interchanges between man and boy; the boy being essentially more optimistic than the man, but having to rely upon the man’s strength to keep him going, just as the man relies upon the boy’s mental attitude.

The atmosphere of the writing runs parallel to the atmosphere it describes. McCarthy does not employ speech-marks and does not provide his characters or locations with names. The effect is that the use of names is irrelevant, and the laws of notation hardly need to be obeyed. In fact, if the novel were written in a more conventional way, and the characters named, a great deal of its power would be lost. The road is a desolate place, the characters walking upon it have been left with desolate lives, and The Road tells their story with poignancy and sophistication.