Book Reviews

Here's a selection of reviews from the archives.

Ministry of Pandemonium

What makes this story stand head and shoulders above most horror for kids is the sheer quality of the writing. I could not stop reading and I hold Westwood responsible for many hours of lost sleep.

The main characters – Ben, October, Lu and Ben's fellow-psychic schoolfriend Becky – are all originals, and London itself forms another main actor in the drama. This has to be the first book of a series, since although there is a stonking battle at the end, not all is resolved. And I, to my surprise, can't wait for the next instalment.

Mary Hoffman, The Guardian

The wraiths and demons are truly scary; cemeteries and mortuaries abound, and the Ministry of Pandemonium is beautifully realised (the constantly-printing List, the ever-expanding filing department). A deliciously spooky, supernatural thriller – with real heart.


Life in a poky flat after Dad left doesn’t feel special for 12-year-old Ben. But, hanging out in Highgate Cemetery with his sketch book one day, he meets the intriguing Mr October, who shows Ben he has some very special talents indeed. Ministry of Pandemonium (Frances Lincoln, £6.99) by Chris Westwood is pretty special itself: an engrossing modern gothic story with subtle nods to Poe.

Elena Seymenliyska, Telegraph

It would be easy to mistake this book for a simple blood and thunder story. It has some features that would fit well in a horror comic, such as flesh-eating monsters known as Mawbreeds. However, the book has a deeper and darker side. It explores quite profoundly issues of life and death and the significance of ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’. Quite alarmingly, it turns out that being virtuous is no guarantee of a pleasant afterlife. By sheer chance, you can end up in the mire. Equally, wicked people can get lucky.

The underlying theme of this unconventional and courageous book is the randomness of human existence and fate. We are creatures at the mercy of chance. Parents who want to bring up their children to believe that good and evil are rewarded and punished on some basis of justice might think carefully before they buy Westwood’s book.

Rebecca Butler, Books for Keeps

Brother of Mine

Robert Swindells wrote: "I'm a Stephen King fan and Chris Westwood comes as close to matching the Master as any writer I know." Now I had to read Stephen King when students of mine, usually those reluctant to read, chose to write their GCSE Open Studies on horror books - I didn't particularly enjoy the experience.

Chris Westwood I read willingly, but admit that his most recent novel, Brother of Mine, to do with the horror that can build up in a real relationship rather than with haunting, murder or possession, is for me by far his best book. Readers of 12+ won't all agree with me and will find the suspense and horror of Calling All MonstersA Light in the Black and Personal Effects chilling and compulsive. The writing is powerful and the plots original and well-sustained as the books rush to sometimes shocking endings - as in Calling All Monsters.

For me Brother of Mine really demonstrates how much Chris Westwood has developed as a writer as he explores the relationship of twin brothers, trapped by their similarity and by their differences into a hatred of each - other. When Tony meets Nick's girlfriend and allows her to believe he's his brother, the hatred grows and Nick looks for revenge. Alternate chapters tell the story from both points of view and at times, like Alex and Vicky, I found it hard not to confuse the two. This is a well-shaped novel, shockingly realistic and very disturbing; its high quality offers promise of even better to come.

Wendy Cooling, Books For Keeps

Nick and Tony are twins. It is not a situation they enjoy. Each thinks the other is against him. They share the same persistent dream of an antagonism in the shared womb of their mother where their rivalry for existence seems to have had its origin. They may be identical in appearance but not in disposition. Each gets lumbered with the misdemeanours of the other. When it comes to girls they are not averse to playing the part of the other twin in person or over the telephone.

Stories involving twins often stress the humour of such situations but with Nick and Tony they aggravate the mutual hatred. As Tony reads in a book "For years the two brothers waged war — and all because of a terrible misunderstanding." They are both in the fifth form at school when this antagonism reaches a desperate climax which brings them to the realisation that unless they face this mutual misunderstanding it will end in total disaster for both them and their girl-friends.

The author has chosen to present this story in alternate chapters in which each twin speaks in the first person narrating the events from his point of view. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they move into a new area. This seems to present the reader with four characters to cope with. There is Nick himself and Nick as seen by Tony and vice versa. The two girls, Nicki and Alexandra, address Tony as Nick and Nick as Tony in between talking to the right person. The reader has to concentrate hard to find out what is going on. This may mean re-reading parts of the text again and again and then perhaps from start to finish before grasping the true brilliance of the author's handling of so complex a literary technique.

It may be possible to skate lightly over the narration of the events with all their plausibility but the book will only yield its true worth to the reader who has acquired or been taught the real art and skill of reading. There is the danger that less mature readers will be too daunted by the book's structure to give it the close reading it so richly deserves. The theme may be adolescent but its presentation invites comparison with novels that have made their way into the accepted canons of distinction.

Junior Bookshelf

Becoming Julia

A wonderfully eerie atmosphere.

Scotland On Sunday

Becoming Julia confirms Chris Westwood's reputation as a superior thriller writer who puts teenage concerns centre stage. After parental opposition, Maggie leaves home to share a flat with two other girls — a familiar situation. Just parted from her two-timing boyfriend — another familiar situation — she is settling into her new life when Julia, the girl whose room she has taken, is found dead in the city river. Not a familiar situation at all, especially as Maggie resembles Julia to an uncanny extent.

To try to discover what happened, Maggie becomes over-involved in the dead girl's past, despite menacing phone calls. 

Westwood is good at tense dialogue in which sentences end in "as if" or "if only." And the shopping scenes in which the girls enjoy a T-shirt printed with "I used to be conceited but now I'm perfect" have atmosphere. Suspense is not lacking, but no wonder her parents keep saying "You can't be too careful."

Maureen OwenThe Times

Calling All Monsters

I'm a Stephen King fan and Chris Westwood comes as close to matching the Master as any writer I know.

Robert Swindells

Chris Westwood writes a scary book about scary books in Calling All Monsters. Young Joanne finds that the horror creations of her favourite writer are crashing terrifyingly into her real life. And when she and the writer join forces to oppose them, she learns, like Dr Frankenstein, that it's deadly difficult to unmake your own monsters. You will never read another horror story again. 

Douglas Hill, The Guardian

The Great and Dangerous

The Great and Dangerous is the second in the Ministry of Pandemonium series and picks up shortly after the events of the first book, with Ben Harvester working with his team Becky and Lu to continue their mission to guide the souls of the dead to the hereafter. However, the Lords of Sundown - the demon enemy of the ministry - have upped the stakes and made things personal. Something strange is happening at Ben and Becky's school, the ministry has a traitor in their midsts and more souls are being lost to the enemy through increasingly strange and violent events.

While I enjoyed the first book in the series, the second makes for an exciting and improved sequel! With a relentless pace and a number of exciting battles and twists, The Great and Dangerous is a real page turner. Favourite characters from the first book such as Lu, Sukie and Becky take much more prominent roles while Ben continues to be an engaging, well developed protagonist... In sum, a thoroughly exciting second book in this supernatural horror series. If you liked the first book, you'll love the second!

LM Cowan, Amazon Vine reviewer

There are enough rousing battles and car chases, not to mention regular flashes of humour to distract us from the memento mori! The book is a true thriller, with spies and double agents to unmask. Interestingly, Ben gets this dramatically wrong, despite his special insight – his enemy knows him all too well it seems. It all builds to a thrilling climax with a truly shocking final twist. Book three can’t come soon enough!

Andrea Reece, Books for Keeps

Sight Unseen

Only the very luckiest of writers can profess to have no experience of the dreaded Rejection Slip, that most hated of missives, whose brief Thanks, but no thanks message can sound the death knell on literally months of work. But, in most cases, the writer proves to be a pragmatic and fatalistic beast who, while secretly voicing the old standby Yeah, but what does he/she know!, will usually 'humour' the publisher and make the changes they suggest or request before returning the increasingly dog-eared manuscript to the mailing treadmill. But that's most writers. It isn't Harry Levine, the very determined antagonist in Chris Westwood's Sight Unseen

Levine's Persistence Of Vision, a singularly turgid and virtually impenetrable novel, is his life's work. His baby. The fact that it really may not be very good has never occurred to him. And so, when New York publishing agent Edgar Chasen returns the weighty tome with the inevitable 'not quite what publishers are looking for right now' message, Levine thinks there must surely be some mistake. Particularly as the letter is signed by one Sophie Hunt. When he calls Chasen to clear up the error, he discovers that the agent has not actually read the work himself but has rather had a freelance reader do the chore on his behalf. Levine suggests that Chasen reads the manuscript himself. "I respect your taste. An honest opinion is all I'm looking for," he tells Chasen, not unreasonably. Sadly, however, there is nothing at all reasonable about Harry Levine. 

Nevertheless, Chasen capitulates and, against his better judgement, he takes the manuscript with him on a long weekend in the Catskills with his wife Hilary and young daughter Emma. Not too far into the book, Chasen comes to the conclusion that not only is Levine's 'masterpiece' not publishable but also its creator may well be mentally ill. He abandons the read and returns the manuscript again, this time pulling no punches. Surely, this time, Levine will accept rejection? No chance! 

A frenzied confrontation with the irate Levine in Chasen's office — during which the would-be author holds the agent and his secretary prisoner while Chasen reads the full script — is just the first step on an horrific ride into the depths of a desperately sick mind. For while the confrontation is cut short — by means of a bill-spike sticking in Levine's side — it only amounts to a lost battle in Levine's eyes. "End of round one," he tells Chasen with a menacing smile before leaving the office via the window. "The best is yet to come." How true... 

Writing about America like a native, Westwood skilfully piles pressure on top of pressure, moving the two main players around the board speedily and completely believably, and painting each new situation with fresh insights into a singularly tortured mind. 

Chris Westwood's earlier novel, Calling All Monsters, was optioned by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment company. A graduate of television and film production and a former music journalist, he has written several novels for younger readers including A Light In The Black, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Award. Sight Unseen, his third novel for adults, should firmly establish him in the front ranks of suspense fiction. 

Forget scorned women: through Westwood, Harold Levine demonstrates the levels of fury that Hell is really capable of. 

Pete Crowther, Interzone

Virtual World

In a slightly futuristic England, where rurality has all but vanished and reality is increasingly sought on the other side of the monitor screen, a group of friends explore the dazzling mysteries of Silicon Sphere, a computer game which draws them so deeply into the virtual world that some of them never return.

At the heart of the literally absorbing game is the predictable mad inventor, but one of the many entertaining aspects of the story is that the reader cannot really decide whether or not he is evil. 

This is a great adventure yarn for nerds and novices alike; the cyberspeak gets a little dense at times, but this is more than compensated for by the visual spectaculars that erupt from almost every chapter.

George Hunt, Books For Keeps 

Chris Westwood’s Virtual World is just what the doctor ordered for teenage computer games junkies. In it, Jack, Kyle, and Kate lose their way in Silicon Sphere, a scary virtual reality game so lifelike that it is all but impossible to draw the line between fact and fiction. The brainchild (literally) of evil genius Eddie Matrix, Silicon Sphere, available illegally via the Internet, so intoxicates those who play it that they become unwilling or unable to stop. 

Virtual World is set at an unspecified time somewhere between ten and fifty years into the future. Its real world is one where, because of overpopulation, crime, and squandering of resources, the settings of computer simulations are, to some, better than life itself. Though Westwood doesn’t do much with this theme, the fact that his characters are caught in a less liveable time and place provokes thought and discussion. 

If one makes the logical leap called for by Virtual World, it is a good read. Westwood’s descriptions of the simulated places of Silicon Sphere are vivid. Though his teen characters are pale by comparison, few young readers will notice. Recommended for ages thirteen and up. 

Jim BrewbakerThe ALAN Review, Columbus State University

A powerful cyberspace novel that chillingly explores the manner in which players of computer games can become so absorbed by their digital adventures that it seems as if they are actually living in and interacting with the VDU landscape. This is a gripping and important book, written in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Westwood, who once worked as a rock critic, is one of the UK's leading Young Adult novelists, and his thriller Becoming Julia, now in paperback, is also worth checking out. 

Times Educational Supplement

A Light in the Black

A wonderful debut — James Herbert

In Chris Westwood's A Light In The Black (Kestrel) a hypnotic stranger drops into town and the locals begin to drop out. Is Mr Stands a zombie, an alien, or just extremely odd? The plot may be as old as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but the writer is extraordinarily — no, paranormally — compelling, and gives off a very sinister glitter.

Michael Baldwin, The Guardian

Ragged, grinning Mr. Stands knows your deepest wishes and — horribly — wants to grant them. Jules Dwyer, 15, has been as gloomy as everyone else in Eastfield since the colliery closed. Now Mr. Stands arrives and turns things around: dingy houses look brighter, new bikes, cars, and appliances appear as if by magic, and Jules meets beautiful, mysterious new classmate Rachel. Stands, saying he's just beginning, promises a Big Day soon.

Haunted by terrifying dreams, Jules and Rachel rightly suspect that a malign force lies behind the town's sudden good fortune. When Jules's sister Laurie disappears, his search for her takes him into an old mine that Stands — feeding in some eldritch way on the little girl's hyperactive imagination — plans to reopen with the resurrected bodies of miners who have died there. Westwood uses every tool in the horror novelist's kit: atmospheric language, forebodings, sinister toys, marching zombies, and a Bad Guy who explodes at the climax into a cloud of loathsome, batlike creatures. A macabre story (this British author's first YA book) with a memorable title character and a riveting first chapter. 

Kirkus Reviews