Thursday, 17 June 2010
Review: Edwin Spencer - Mission Improbable by J.D. Irwin
Edwin Spencer is the odd one out in his family. While his sisters and brother are high achievers (if decidedly uncool) he struggles at school and is happiest playing football with his mate Nat. Then the general boredom and misery of school is interrupted by a series of bizarre events Edwin starts to hear strange voices, and his science teacher of all people tells him that King Janus of Hysteria needs his help. As Edwin doubts his sanity, a whirling vortex appears in his bathroom! Before he knows it, he's been swept into a parallel world a world where they really need his help. If only Perpetua Allbright the school swot wasn't there with him...
I started this blog back in October 2009 as a way of relieving the frustrations I was feeling at work where trying to encourage the children to read and use the school library was beginning to feel like a near impossible task. Nearly eight months on I am am still amazed at the response I have had from children, parents, teachers, librarians and in particular authors and their publishers. At no point did I think that I would be sent books for free, and I know I am incredibly lucky in this respect. One of the nicest things that comes from being sent books is that occasionally I will receive one from a debut author who is being published by a smaller publishing company as through this I have discovered some really good books that I otherwise may have ignored or not stumbled across in my local Waterstones or on Amazon. Edwin Spencer - Mission Improbable is one such book, and I loved it.
In the last couple of years the market has been flooded with Young Adult books and publishers can't seem to get enough of them. This therefore means that many aspiring authors are pitching their work at this level, and there is a relative shortage of good adventure stories for what the americans would called Middle Grade. J.D. Irwin has helped reduce this drought by one as Edwin Spencer is perfect for the 9-12 age group. It has everything a boy (and girl) in this age group could ask for in a book - action, adventure, comedy (it is very funny), fantasy and plenty of scary moments.
For me, the key to this book's appeal is its main character, the eponymous Edwin Spencer. Edwin reminds me of many boys I have taught over the years. He is seriously disaffected as far as school is concerned, compounded by the fact that his three siblings are all high achievers, and therefore nothing he does ever going to be good enough for his parents. Where his brother and sisters are excelling at their hoework and completeing it with days to spare, Edwin instead devotes his spare time to playing football with his best mate. I couldn't help but feel really sorry for poor Edwin - his mother has even given him an encyclopedia to read... "one page a day - as we agreed" she says. Whilst on ths subject of Edwin's parents I will mention my only real criticism of this book - we simply do not see enough of them beyond their initial description, and it is a description that makes us simply beg for more:
"Mrs Spencer was a horsy-looking woman with a generous moustache and enormous teeth; but she knew what suited her and had worn the same sugar-pink lipstick for twenty-five years. She was married to Mr Spencer. Unusually short and entirely bald, he was the 'Head of Hair' at Templeton Grove Wigs and Toupees'".
Before long Edwin's concerns about the unrealistic expectations of his parents, and the normal day-to-day misery of going to school soon pale into insignificance as he finds himself transported through a magical vortex to a very different parallel universe populated by wizards, knights, dragons and a king who is grieving for his dead son..... who just happens to be the spitting image of Edwin. So begins a Prisoner of Zenda-esque adventure story, with Edwin being asked to impersonate the dead prince in order keep the kingdom from falling into the hands of enemies that have been waiting for the dynastic line to be broken. What a choice.... just hours before Edwin had been worrying about school work and bullies and now he is being asked to fool a population into believing he is their beloved prince.
As I already mentioned, it is Edwin's character that is the highlight for me in this book. All the decisions he makes are realistic, and children will have no problem relating to him and his actions. Many children feel that they live in the shadow of a more academic or more talented brother or sister, and most will also recognice the problems Edwin faces at school. He is very much a reluctant hero, and children love a main character who has to dig deep within themselves to find the qualities needed to save the day. It makes it all the more easy for them to be able to imagine themselves in that situation, even if it is in a different world where magic is very real.
Edwin is not the only wonderful character in this story; he is supported by a host of colourful secondary characters, the most notable being the strangely named Perpetua Allbright - yup, with a name like that she could only be one of the cleverest girls in his school. Initially I was concerned that Perpetua may become a little irritating, but the author develops her character very well, and the banter between Edwin and her provides many of the funniest moments throughout the story. Boys will be glad to hear that their relationship has no element of romance at all, instead they develop a supportive and close friendship that helps them both to deal with the strange and increasingly dangerous situations they find themselves in. As well as Perpetua there are also the inhabitants of the magical kingdon of Hysteria, all of whom bring something to this delightful story.
As well as great characters this book also has a good storyline delivered with a fresh and interesting voice; at no point does the author talk down to her audience and the plot is at times challenging as it twists and turns and keeps the reader guessing until the very end. There are some pretty scary moments, but the darkness is cleverly lightened with the comic comments made by the various characters. Readers (and those being read to as this is the perfect bedtime story book) will find themselves exerperiencing a full range of emotions as Edwin strives to help the mourning king and his subjects in their quest to save the kingdom from the evil Umbrians. Will they be successful? You will have to read the book to find out. All I will say is that the book doesn't end on a cliffhanger and there is a very satisfying conclusion to the story. I'm now keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel.
Edwin Spencer - Mission Improbable by J.D. Irwin is published by Catnip and is available to buy right now.