The Brain Sucker
Walker Books, $19.00,
The Queen and the Nobody Boy
Gecko Press, $25.00,
How to Sell Toothpaste
Glenn Wood’s The Brain Sucker is the kind of rollicking, ingenious-kids-save-the-world action story that thrives on humour, slapstick and wild improbability. Callum McCullock, the 13-year-old protagonist, must save his grandmother Rose – and, by extension, the world – from Lester Smythe, a villain of Roald-Dahlesque proportions, who is bent on leeching people’s goodness directly out of their heads with his evil brain-sucking device. Callum is joined in this enterprise by his friends Sophie (inventor, whizz with a welder, able to produce James-Bond levels of high-tech gadgetry in her dad’s workshop) and Jinx (so-called for his alarming ability to attract biblical levels of bad luck, including fire, flood and classroom explosion). Together, they are drawn into a plot as far-fetched as the idea of a 13-year-old putting together a ballistic missile in a backyard. They sneak into an underground lair. They fight evil henchmen. They use an ejector seat with a built-in parachute to evade an oncoming train. They are washed down a drain into shark-infested waters.
In this context, it is fitting that Lester’s plans to rid the world of goodness are mostly played for humour: goodness in this book is equated with good manners, so that people who have had their brain sucked are rude, noisy and smelly in a way that lends itself to jokes about onions and gas of various kinds, instead of becoming the kind of evil that causes nightmares. The humour is as over-the-top and improbable as the plot – see, for example, Jinx’s Wile-E-Coyote powers of regeneration after his mishaps (“It was just a small tree,” he shrugs, after being crushed by a tree) ‒ but the melodrama suits the larger-than-life nature of the piece.
There are a few quieter, more serious notes strewn throughout the narrative, sometimes to moving effect: Callum, as a paraplegic, makes it clear that he is all too aware of the limitations of reality when he praises his new all-terrain wheelchair for looking as if “it could conquer mountains, or at the very least the steps outside the corner shop”. Other times, shifts in tone aren’t handled quite so well: it can be hard to hit realistic emotional notes, especially considering that the characters are mostly tropes, albeit charmingly attractive, in a plot as hyperbolic as this one. But hyperbole is what this book is about: this is the kind of super-spy wish-fulfilment fantasy in which restraint would be, and I quote, “as welcome as a zit on the night of the school ball”.
Melodrama also plays a part in Barbara Else’s The Queen and the Nobody Boy. It is the story of Hodie, the odd-job boy at the royal castle in the magical kingdom of Fontania, unpaid and underfed, who decides to run away and “become somebody”. He is joined, against his will, by Sibilla, Fontania’s 12-year-old queen, who is running away from her own future. Despite Hodie’s desire to go his own way, he is swept up with Sibilla in matters of magical destiny and political corruption: their attempts to save Fontania from the imperial greed of its larger, bullying neighbour Um’Binnia involve disguise, intrigue and large heapings of mortal peril. The overall effect, however, is quite different – the zaniness of the plot (as well as the literal outlandishness of the fantasy otherworld of Fontania) is underpinned and counterbalanced by a strong grounding in the ordinary and unsung. In a narrative made up of momentous choices, Else makes sure to include lunch, which is “a small choice, but a good one to make right now”. For all its fantastic portent, the narrative never loses sight of everyday reality: of being hungry or full, of the pleasures of good boots or the pain of blisters.
This is the second tale of Fontania, and, despite standing alone very well, it shares many of the characteristics that made the first book in the series, The Travelling Restaurant, such a delight. One is the pleasure in the ordinary described above; another is the dry humour (“the darkest moments always came before it started getting better,” we are told, but “getting better never actually meant becoming good”). Another again is the wonderful use of detail, particularly the way emotional states are described in quirky, physical, oddly touching ways. The thought of Hodie’s vanished father, for example, causes his throat to feel “as if it had a furball”; he learns that “fright squashes your voice high and thin”. While the plot is perhaps not quite as engaging as that of the first book – one also wonders why Sibilla, a toddler riding along on her brother Jasper’s adventure in the first book, can’t be a point-of-view character in her own coming-of-age story – this is a pleasure to read. The details of physical and emotional truth add a convincing level of reality to the story of Hodie’s journey; a journey that successfully combines quest with rite-of-passage, transforming him from a “nobody boy” to a boy who runs away to become somebody, and succeeds.
Leonie Thorpe’s How to Sell Toothpaste is by no means a fantasy, and more firmly aimed at young adult readers than children. Nevertheless, detailing the events of the summer after 17-year-old Dom Clayton’s finishes high school, it is, like Hodie’s, the story of a boy setting out to become somebody, a boy trying to decide who he wants to be, and what he wants his future to look like.
The path ahead for Dom isn’t clear: he is increasingly uncertain about what seemed like a long-settled plan to study science. More personally, he feels thwarted by a young, trendy father, a creative in an ad agency, who is almost too sympathetic for Dom’s peace of mind: they share tastes in music, clothes, and most mortifyingly, women. “How could a person hope to carve out a distinct and unique path for themselves,” Dom wonders, “when they had no one to push against?” Dom is a boy with a major case of teenage disaffectedness: there is both humour and sympathy in the book’s depiction of his casual disdain for his father’s job “selling crap to losers”, especially when combined with his equally strong need for validation. When, in a highly improbable scenario, Dom gate-crashes a client meeting and is offered the chance to compete with his father in a pitch for an advertising campaign selling toothpaste, he jumps at the chance to prove himself. Dom puts the offer down to long-overdue recognition of his “youthful brilliance” – the client terms it “charming naiveté”, Dom’s father, more bluntly, “infantile prattishness”. Taken together, these phrases sum up Dom’s character in a nutshell. The toothpaste showdown comes around all too quickly, and the resolution feels rushed and somewhat glib. A completely new character appears to reinforce the universality of the father-versus-son dilemma and grant Dom a compromised win; Dom and his father reach an unspoken and vaguely unsatisfying détente. Further, Dom decides, slightly arbitrarily, to study psychology – perhaps following the example of Dr Prouting, the next-door-neighbour who presents himself to Dom as a psychologist offering therapy. Given that Dr Prouting turns out to be a clerk serving six months’ home detention for stalking his ex, this is strange to say the least.
Boggling attacks of randomness aside, this is a fun read – witty, engaging, fast-paced. The advertisements sprinkled throughout are particularly clever, attractive and cringe-worthy in equal measure, and they speak to the particularly adolescent dissonance caused by attempting to assert your individuality by being part of the right crowd. In the end, the path Dom forges is neither distinct nor unique, but it’s his, and that’s enough.
Angelina Sbroma is doing an MA on children’s literature in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.