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!

‘Wild Boars Cook’ by Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall (Puffin 2008)

Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall team up again for the sequel to ‘Meet Wild Boars’ in which the boars, ever hungry, cook their own food.

Boris, Morris, Horace and Doris spy a recipe for a massive pudding after Doris begins to eat a cookbook. Utterly obsessed by food, the wild boars fantasize about ingredients and somehow manage to create an enormous pudding – which they subsequently eat in ‘ten seconds flat’ and in the rudest possible way. Still hungry they find a recipe for a massive cookie.

The appallingly badly behaved boars are good fun and the illustrations are very cleverly done (how would you illustrate a wild boar being selfish?) throughout. Some prefer the first book (‘Meet Wild Boars’) but I found this to be funnier and so did my kids. We still talk about pizzas ‘as big as the moon’!

I would recommend this book for parents with small children up to the age of six.

Book Review: ‘Meet Wild Boars’ (Meg Rosoff and Sophie Blackall 2005 Puffin)

Two experienced and award winning women collaborated on this 2005 picture book introducing naughty, dirty and disgusting wild boars. Meg Rosoff is a well-known writer, mainly of novels, and Sophie Blackall is equally as well known for her illustrations.

Children will enjoy the stinky wild boars especially when they fart and poo (always gets laughs with children – and me actually) and are generally badly behaved. They do all the things that children would love to do but aren’t allowed; they are anarchic and foul, mean, and downright nasty.

The book is about as long as is required for a picture book and works well for children up to 7 I would guess. My young children loved it although it wasn’t one of my favourites.

Memorable moments include Horace farting and soaking himself in the toilet; stinky Doris; and the pile of poo on the last page.

Worth getting hold of!

Book Review: ‘The Emperor Of Absurdia’

Macmillan Children’s Books published ‘The Emperor Of Absurdia’ back in 2006. The author and illustrator Chris Riddell is award-winning and wrote another favourite of mine, ‘Wendel’s Workshop’. See that review for more information about him.

The illustrations are consistent throughout and done very well. Children will love immersing themselves in them.

The theme of absurdity is down to the concept of the child having a dream that is influenced by all the things in his bedroom: his toys, pictures and books. At the beginning the concept is that this is a story about a real emperor in a real but very strange world. The twist at the end is that it is all a dream.

The words and pictures work well apart from some pictures not having enough words underneath them. I found myself wanting to dwell on the pictures but needing to move on because the words had run out.

Some small children may be a little scared by the sequence with the wild-looking dragon but it does add a little excitement to the story.

I found that the pictures at the front and back were good to stop and look at because of the amount of detail in them.

The ending works and my children haven’t tired of reading it.

It’s very nice in the hardback version.

Very good but not quite 5 stars.

Book Review: ‘Christopher Nibble’ by Charlotte Middleton

Charlotte Middleton wrote and illustrated this excellent little book about a guinea pig saving the dandelion from extinction and learning to love growing things.

I’m not going to analyse the book and wax lyrical about its eco-friendly theme or regurgitate the blurb. I’m just going to mention what works.

The illustrations have a sustained and original style, which is good because it helps children to immerse themselves into its unique world.

The choice of guinea-pig pants in the front and end of the book is always of interest: “which pants would you choose daddy?”

The words are easy to read and the decision not to rhyme everything (like most children’s authors feel the need to do) was a good one.

The amusing books in the library are fun for adults to find too: ‘War & Pizza’ anyone?

The double page spread of Christopher blowing the dandelion seeds works nicely.

The end is nice if not spectacular, amusing, or unexpected.

This is a book that is a pleasure to read and doesn’t try too hard. The author is wise to understand that at bedtime a gentle story can be just the ticket.

I, however, won’t be wearing pants and wellies in the garden any time soon.

Book Review: ‘I Know A Rhino’ (2002 Gullane Children’s Books)

‘I Know A Rhino’ (2002 Gullane Children’s Books) is written and illustrated by the award winning illustrator Charles Fuge.

The book benefits from Fuge’s gift for illustration. His pictures burst from the page in a cuddly loveliness that children must adore. The different animals are drawn brilliantly in his original style that lifts this book out of the ordinary.

It was a pity that his words didn’t get edited well. The book is written in rhyming couplets but they occasionally don’t fit – something that would have been obvious and easy to fix. For example:

‘I know an ape and we keep in good shape, miming pop songs and dancing along to a tape’.

Why didn’t his editor suggest cutting out ‘and dancing’ to make it scan better? ‘Miming pop songs along to a tape’ works much better. Strange. There are other examples as well that could have easily been sorted out.

However, as imperfect as the book is it still had worked well enough with my children to be used regularly. It’s more for very small children but the ending will have to be explained to them. Despite this, they love it.

Good – but not quite great.

Book Review: ‘Bedtime Hullabaloo’ by Charles Fuge and David Conway (2010, Hodder Children’s Books)

‘Bedtime Hullabaloo’ by Charles Fuge and David Conway was first published in 2010 by Hodder Children’s books. It was nominated for two prizes.

The Nosy Crow website has this biography of illustrator Charles Fuge:

‘Charles Fuge was born in 1966 and grew up in Bath. He made his picture book debut in 1988 with Bushvark’s First Day Out, which won both the Macmillan Prize and the Mother Goose Award. Since then Charles has illustrated over thirty books, a number of which he has also written. He is the illustrator for A Lullaby for Little One, written by Dawn Casey, and he lives in Dorset.’

David Conway has been involved in several children’s book projects and nominated for a number of awards.

I first came across Charles Fuge’s work when I bought books from the ‘Little Wombat’ series. His illustrations are the best I’ve seen in children’s books and the prime reason for buying ‘Bedtime Hullabaloo’. They are simply gorgeous, beautifully done, colourful and I’m sure they make children want to leap into the pictures and cuddle the animals.

This is a picture book and as such will be judged on its pictures. It is also a reading book and so must be judged, albeit to a lesser extent, on its words. The words (written by David Conway) are not up to the standard of the pictures. Do small children understand, or need to understand words like ‘hullabaloo’; ‘din’; ‘clamour’; ‘hubbub’; ‘rumpus’; ‘raucous’; or ‘cacophonous’? Try explaining the difference between those. Also, the words sound clumsy in this context with occasional rhyming being particularly awkward. The words feel like they should scan but they don’t. Either rhyme all the time or not at all. The alliteration (‘zany zebra’) works well throughout. I find it difficult to read the snoring sections but you may not.

The story itself is perfectly entertaining but the ending misses the mark and is a little anti-climactic; that all being said, my children have enjoyed it, and the hard-back version presents the wonderful illustrations nicely. Worth buying but not five stars.

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.