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Waiting For Gonzo, Dave Cousins

Title: Waiting For Gonzo

Author: Dave Cousins

Publisher: OUP Oxford

Paperback/Kindle, £6.99

4/5


When it comes to writing for kids, Dave Cousins is pretty good. His debut novel 15 Days Without a Head was a Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week, was nominated for the 2013 Carnegie Medal and has been longlisted for the 2013 Branford Boase Award. With any justice, Waiting For Gonzo will gain him even more accolades.

Oz moves with his sister Meg and his mother and father to the small town of Slowleigh. Resigned to his fate, Oz decides to try and make friends through his greatest strength – joking around. He chooses a seemingly random portrait of a girl in the hallway to draw a moustache and glasses on. Unfortunately, the girl turns out to be infamous bully Isobel ‘Psycho’ Skinner. Vendetta ahoy.

As if that’s not bad enough, Oz then has to deal with the discovery that Meg is pregnant. After some initial jokes (which, for some reason, Meg finds less hilarious than intended), Oz takes it in his stride, nicknaming the unborn baby ‘Gonzo’ after the character in the Muppets. The book itself is a chatty, breezy epistolary story, written from Oz to Gonzo as he imparts earnest wisdom to the newest member of the family.

Teenage readers are notoriously difficult to please: they vary as much in terms of relationship knowledge as they do in genre preferences. Writing a book with a universal appeal across that age group is no mean feat. Cousins, however, manages it with an enviable, unique style.

He hits all the right notes. Oz has Ryan, who is THAT friend – you know, the nerdy LARPer who is sometimes a little difficult to admit to knowing. There are crushes, and the well-meaning, if cringeworthy, parental encouragement that comes with them. The cheeky humour made me laugh aloud several times (not least when Oz charmingly nicknames Ryan’s bearded grandfather ‘Grandalf’).

It is so refreshing to read a plotline on teenage pregnancy that circumnavigates the judgmental nastiness. Cousins certainly doesn’t ignore it – Meg mentions how sick she is of being stared at on the bus. But he shows a different side: in this case, there is our hero Oz, who accepts the situation with love and enthusiasm.

The book’s highlight is the excellent midnight heart-to-heart between Meg and Oz. This scene touches on humorous points such as Meg’s cravings (pickled gherkins), but also tackles the fear that Meg feels about giving birth, and about coping afterwards. It’s brave, and a total joy to read. Oz reads like an easy-going, mischievous boy would. I could have been spying on my younger brother’s thoughts. Perhaps more importantly, Meg sounds exactly as you would expect: she’s in emotional turmoil, pretty terrified of the whole birth business, but still makes time to be sarcastic and argumentative. That level of characterisation doesn’t come easy. Cousins is to be commended.

The book also benefits from one of the most dedicated publicity tie-ins yet. Oz loves music. His playlists help him through the misery of being stranded in Slowleigh; he gifts Ryan with a custom playlist to make him “cool”. Brilliantly, Cousins has used his musical knowledge to bring Oz’s playlist to life, and you can listen here.

Canny, punchy and laugh-out-loud, Waiting For Gonzo is a riot.

 

vN, Madeline Ashby

Title: VN

Author: Madeline Ashby

Publisher: Angry Robot Books

Publication date: 2nd August 2012

Paperback, £6.00

4/5

 

From angryrobotbooks.com – click to go there

What if we could build humanoid companions? Would we vanquish loneliness? Or would people treat human-humanoid relationships the way mixed race and same sex relationships have been and are viewed?

What if superintelligence turned on us?

For someone who is not especially clued up on sci-fi past the odd Doctor Who episode, I never thought I’d end up being engrossed by a novel that asks these questions. Yet Madeline Ashby has created a debut novel that deals wisely and warmly with our fears of a technological future.

Amy and her mother Charlotte are von Neumann humanoids; they can multiply (known as “iterating”) and heal themselves. Each set or “clade” of vNs has certain abilities (such as photosynthesis, or climbing). Amy and Charlotte live with Amy’s human father in an uneasy futuristic America. Charlotte’s malfunctioning vN mother, Portia, breaks into Amy’s school and attacks Charlotte, killing a small boy in the process. Amy devours Portia in order to stop her doing more harm – in doing this, she stores Portia’s data on her own memory drive.

However, Portia’s error is that her “failsafe” has broken – and that means the command not to harm humans is not a part of her make-up any longer. Amy goes on the run and finds that different organisations want to use her as a weapon, want her unique flaw, or simply want her dead.

This is a brave book that does an admirable job of filling in the possible “What ifs” of a future where technology is built into everything. Madeline Ashby tackles issues such as family ties, the nature/nurture debate and the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence with enthusiasm. Her creative imagery fabricates a world that is very much her own: when reading, you believe the prejudice and the terror that some of the humans are feeling.

This notion of a time when robots can be either cherished or easily discarded is gripping. Amy’s stunted growth means that she sees things differently to other vNs – her naivety is tragic but winnng. Watching her forge relationships by herself is, at times, very tense. She is a protagonist readers can really root for.

Sometimes the technical jargon gets in the way, particularly at the beginning of the book. You do get past this, however, and the language soon becomes familiar. My main issue with the book is a section that deals with a flashback of Portia’s: this seemed disjointed and jars the flow of the book. It perhaps would have been better to form a separate novel out of that (I actually hope there will be – Portia’s a terrific character with a surprisingly complex background).

By the end, vN has worked a satisfying tale from an imaginative premise. Ashby does a good job of immersing the reader in her vision of the future, through strong images and well-written prose. Overall, it’s a gripping read – check it out, even if (and maybe especially) if you’re not a sci-fi reader.

Midnight Pirates, Ally Kennen

Title: Midnight Pirates

Author: Ally Kennen

Publisher: Scholastic Children’s Books: Marion Lloyd Books

Paperback, £6.99

4/5

 

Cover image from Ally Kennen’s blog; click to go there.

Miranda’s mother, Pinkie-Sue, and her father, Cormac, own The Dodo hotel in St. Austell’s, Cornwall. The family have good friends and family connections in the area, including a relation known as Aunty Mad (which, really, could be short for something or could just as easily be an epithet) and eccentric Kernow native Mrs. Garroway. Miranda’s has just been fired from her part-time job, and things get worse: her parents announce her father’s book publication will take them to America and that they are selling The Dodo.   Miranda, her older surfer brother Cal and her precocious younger brother Jackie are put on a bus towards St Anne’s boarding school but Jackie doubles back and goes back to The Dodo. What follows is an adventure book that adheres to a great formula: including all the best elements of children’s stories in one book.

Kennen goes from talking about mermaids to discussing pirates with ease, and includes exciting elements of double agents and hiding out. Classic twists (like benign characters turning out to be anything but) are well-worn in this genre, but are still treated with skill. Kennen is also adept at sketching out the background for her story. The Cornish landscape and wildlife is skilfully and sensitively evoked; Miranda’s caring attitude towards “her” seals is wonderful to read.

But topping the bill is Kennen’s portrayal of unusual concepts. This really comes through when writing about things such as teenage girls playing mermaids, and Miranda pondering the existence of the ghost of the man who built one of the hotel’s towers. The microcosm within The Dodo is rich, yet at the same time, the book maintains the illusion of a madcap, uncertain, semi-wild place where literally anything could happen. If it did, the three children would certainly be smart enough to handle it.

There are two relatively small reasons Midnight Pirates doesn’t get the full five stars. One is that, with much of the action bundled in towards the end of the book, the last quarter feels suddenly very cramped. Had Kennen spread the events over a few extra pages, the pacing would be more balanced. The other is a tiny niggle that I suspect most readers won’t pick up on – but it’s something that makes me grind my teeth again and again whenever I see it. Miranda’s rival, “chief mermaid” Morag, is described as being rather sizeable and having “chocolate-covered canines”: the fat/bad message is so present in many children’s books, and I think it’s something to watch out for.

My concerns aside, however, this book is largely a winner . This would be an ideal book for children to enjoy on their own, as there is a glossary of the more difficult phrases (particularly those in Cornish – I can ask for ‘some more bread please’ now!) at the end of the book.

Kennen is no stranger to writing great fiction.  Her debut, Beast was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2006 and won the 2007 Manchester Book Award. Her second book Beserk won 2008 North East Teenage Book Award and was again nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Just before Midnight Pirates came 2012’s Bullet Boys, which made the 2012 Guardian Prize longlist. And that’s only a handful of her accolades.

I get the feeling that with Midnight Pirates, Kennen has hit upon a solid formula that will grab the attention of readers aged nine and over – and, let’s face it, their parents too.

After all, when could you ever resist something with pirates, mermaids and kids in charge?

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