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!

Ten Writing Tips

 

Here are some writing tips that you might not have found elsewhere.

 

1 Make sure you are comfortable

 

Writing can wreck your back unless you have a decent chair and a good posture. Writing whilst you are uncomfortable can be an unwanted distraction.

 

2 Make sure you are not hungry or thirsty

 

Being dehydrated or very hungry will affect your ability to write and concentrate so don’t push time just because you have found some inspiration.  If you manage to eat and drink a little you will probably be able to pick it up again afterwards, only this time, with better concentration.

 

3 Make sure you have the right conditions to write in

 

I always write with music in the background.  If you write with music blocking out background noises you will be able to keep your concentration.  I find music that I know really well doesn’t distract me but does keep other distractions out. Any random piece of conversation that I hear immediately stops me in my tracks.  Everyday noises are a real sentence breaker. Create a little cocoon of creativity

 

4 Make sure you are prepared

 

Being prepared before you write is a must.  You will save time if you plan properly.  If you set off on a book and half-way through you still aren’t sure what age group you are writing for or get stuck not knowing where you are headed or who your main character is you will end up having to re-write most of it. You need to know what your audience is and what kind of book you are writing.

 

5 Use random words

 

Random words can really create ideas.  There are different ways to get random words.  There are tools on the internet or you could just randomly open a dictionary.  Do people have dictionaries anymore?

 

6 Make sure you can avoid writer’s block

 

If your planning is held up by being stuck for ideas for flash fiction or a short story, an internet article or something else, and you are sitting at your desk with your head in your hands, have the courage to write the first sentence that comes into your head. I did this with one of my favourite short stories.  Out of the blue I came up with:

 

‘“You’re all slaves!” The Prophet raised his arms and violently shook his hands that were held together by the super-electronic shackles, his defiant voice pouring scorn upon their android posturing.’

 

I had no idea that I was going to write science fiction.  Where it came from I have no idea.

 

7 Write more than one story at a time

 

I’m sure that there is advice out there that will tell you to concentrate on one thing at a time.  You will never get anything done if you have more than one project on the go at the same time they will say. I disagree.  I find that having three or four books going at the same time helps me.  I don’t spend time at my desk with writer’s block.  If I’m stuck I’ll go to another one of my books and write for a while.  Some days I’m only in the mood for one or two of them.  I find that I can actually get a lot done this way.

 

8 Don’t let other people’s opinions destroy your originality

 

Time and time again I read about the importance of asking for feedback from other people and the absolute necessity of using editors and attending writing courses or joining local writer’s groups. There are occasions where feedback is good.  I read my children’s stories to my son and learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. However, I think originality is the x-factor that makes great authors great and I would hate to change my style because of someone else’s opinion (including agents or publishers).  Where is the satisfaction in writing exactly what you think will get published even if you hate it? It’s much better to be published for writing like yourself and no-one else.  It’s your project and it’s your right to do it exactly as you please. Break the rules! All the best art breaks the rules!

 

9 If you are not enjoying it it’s probably no good

 

When you have that buzz about what you have just written it’s probably good.  If you are bored the chances are that your audience will be also.

 

10 Don’t work too hard

 

One of the good things about being a writer is that it is a pleasure and a thrill to feel your creativity flowing.  Making it too much like hard work is going to turn you off writing. Give yourself a break and finish at a reasonable time. Give yourself enough time off and don’t be afraid to admit that it just isn’t working at any particular time. So go and do something else. Sir Elton John gives himself a very short amount of time to write a song in.  If it isn’t flowing after that he just gives up and does something else.