Book Review: ‘Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder’ by Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo is no ordinary writer. For a start he is Norwegian and writes in Norwegian (how many successful children’s books here in the UK are translated from Norwegian?), and he has a degree in Economics and Business Administration; but that’s not all: he was a journalist and also a stockbroker; he is the lead singer in a rock band called Di Derre; he played football to a high level until a bad injury forced him to quit, and he is an accomplished rock climber.

His writings include seven novels featuring a detective called ‘Harry Hole’; five novels in the ‘Doctor Proctor’ series; two ‘Olav Johansen’ novels; short stories and stand-alone novels plus one work of non-fiction. What’s even more impressive is that his works have been turned into television series and films worked on (and possibly worked on in the future) by luminaries such as Martin Scorcese; Michael Fassbender; Rebbecca Ferguson; Charlotte Gainsbourg; Leonardo DiCaprio; Denis Villeneuve; Jake Gyllenhaal; Chaninng Tatum; Tobey Maguire and Baltasar Kormakur. He has numerous awards and nominations.

I picked up ‘Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder’ knowing none of that (there is no biography in the book) and simply because I thought it would be similar to my own stories ‘Evan And The Bottom Rockets’ and ‘Evan and The Bottom Rockets On Holiday’ (to be published soon I hope; see a synopsis on this site). I noticed it some while back on a shelf in my local Tesco’s, and although I didn’t buy it until recently, I knew that I would have to change the name of the doctor in my book from Doctor Proctor in its wake. The doctor in my book is now called ‘Doctor Bottom’.

Simon And Schuster publish the book and advertise it on its cover as being by a ‘number one bestselling author’ (always bound to drive up sales) and by quoting ‘The Guardian’ as saying that it is ‘hilariously funny’; and the Big Issue: ‘wickedly entertaining’.

Having just finished the book I have to say that my son didn’t laugh once, even when farting was mentioned. It makes me feel a lot better about my books because he was laughing hard throughout those. This is not just to boast or plug my books (well just a little bit) but to make the point that whoever reviewed it in The Guardian must have read a different version than mine, or perhaps his children have a totally different sense of humour to mine.

With these reviews I often wonder just how much of the books the reviewer has actually read and just how independent they are. Sometimes I imagine a bit of you-review-me-I’ll-publish-you or other hidden links behind the scenes: perhaps I am getting a bit cynical in my middle-age. I have noticed that once a writer/book/film has become relatively successful everything else that they do seems to be given gushing praise. Once you are a best-selling author they want to like you. Once a winning formula is found that makes money a bandwagon has been created and the bottom line is in sight. I digress.

As I began to explain, I don’t think this book is particularly funny. It doesn’t actually feature much farting or other bodily functions and little boy humour, and where there is some it isn’t particularly played for laughs in the way that it should have been.

My first impression of the book from the opening chapters was that for my son’s age group (he is eight) it is quite confusing. There is a breathless quality to it because of very long sentences that need careful attention. They take the reader on a visual journey that doesn’t seem to make much sense. From the perspective of the rest of the book it is easier to understand the beginning but any parent will testify to the fact that in order to get a child to commit to being interested in a book an author must capture them straight away, because it is hard to persuade a child to listen once they have made up their minds that they don’t like a story, and they make their minds up very quickly. My son, however, is as bright as a button (again I boast but it is true) and just about kept up.

Norway, Oslo, Akerhus Fortress, Sharpsborg, the Commandant, the white teeth in the sewer: its an unusual beginning. There is, however, a familiarity about the characters (a Roald Dahl familiarity), the sad lonely girl; the short boy always being picked on; the school thugs; the fat villain; and the nutty Professor, all these characters are stereo-types to some extent. That being said, Nilly in particular is very engaging when you get used to him, especially his clever exchanges with other characters either in authority over him or bullying children.

The plot doesn’t really have a great tension and resolve mechanism for me but at least children will appreciate the happy ending even if they don’t care quite as much as they could have done. The Professor (here comes a spoiler) riding away on his motorcycle to Paris to find his lost love will not be of much interest to a little boy who thinks those sort of things are just ‘yucky’.

Overall, the book has a unique quality about it but also stereo-typical elements. It isn’t particularly funny, and might be confusing for young readers. However, from an adult point of view, it is more interesting to read than some other books for this age group. The authorial presence is strong and whether you like that or not is an entirely personal decision. It has a cleverness about it and an energy, and that, I think, is why publishers and critics went for it.

Did it do enough to entice me into buying the rest of the series? No.

Have a read and feel free to totally disagree!

Children’s Book Review: ‘Wendel’s Workshop’

First Published in 2007 by Macmillan Children’s Books, ‘Wendel’s Workshop’, is both written and illustrated by Children’s Laureate (2015-17) Chris Riddell, making the Booktrust Early Years Award shortlist.

Riddell is a talented illustrator and writer winning numerous awards throughout his career. He was born in 1962 in Cape Town, South Africa, but his family moved to England when he was only one. Apparently, he was encouraged to draw by his mother to keep him quiet during his father’s sermons (his father was an Anglican Vicar).The book is dedicated ‘For my father’. His work includes political cartoons for the Observer newspaper.

Riddell is well known for the ‘Ottoline’ and ‘Edge Chronicles’ series.
I have been reading ‘Wendel’s Workshop’ to my son since he was three years old (he is now 8 as I write in January 2018). The target age group for the book is probably the same.

As with so many children’s picture books, the star is a talking animal, in this case, a mouse named Wendel. Wendel is a prolific, workaholic, inventor and his feverish creativity is like that of a manic depressive. Wendel is pictured creating a toaster that burns toast and a self-pouring tea-pot. The toaster is sent down a chute that leads to a rubbish dump. At the end of the book Wendel changes his ways and mends and adjusts things rather than throwing them away. Is this a process that the author himself can relate to?

Wendel’s workshop becomes very untidy due to his round-the-clock inventing and he decides to create a robot (the Wendelbot) to clear up for him. The robot malfunctions and begins to destroy everything, reducing teacups to a tidy pile of powder and shredding umbrellas in his dedication to the cause of tidiness. The theme of intelligent technology becoming threatening to its creators comes to mind but that may be taking the analysis of a children’s book too far. However, it is quite obvious that the author references the clichéd image of ‘Hamlet’ picking up the skull of Yorick at one point. I’m not sure how many children would get that one.

Wendel’s first robot was named Clunk and rejected for getting everything wrong. When Wendel is thrown down the chute by the Wendelbot Clunk encourages him to create an army of robots from pieces of scrap. The army then challenges the Wendelbot which has become more and more unhinged and intent on tidying the world.

When the robots are too quick for the Wendelbot its head explodes with an enormous bang. Wendel is pictured in his garden in his dressing gown being poured a cup of tea by Clunk into a boot beside him, having made use of the Wendelbot’s body to grow plants and flowers in.

My son memorised the entire book because he loved it so much. In fact, I memorised most of it because of having to read it so many times. He particularly enjoyed the moment the Wendelbot’s head explodes and insisted on taking over from me, shouting the word ‘bang’ at the top of his voice. He also enjoyed discussing the robots in the pictures and picking his favourite one, insisting that I do the same.

The moment the Wendelbot opens the door and Wendel and his army confront him is described using just the words ‘”Good morning,” said Wendel’. The words are written on a picture of the new robots spread over two pages which we copied it and hung in a frame in my son’s bedroom. I became quite sentimental about this image and the book because of the times that I shared with him reading it as he grew from being a toddler to a small boy. Hanging on the wall the picture is a piece of nostalgia. I would have loved a signed print!

Chris Riddell did a magnificent job with both the words and the illustrations and I heartily recommend the book if you can get hold of a copy. We will be keeping ours.