Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review: Itch by Simon Mayo

Meet Itch - an accidental, accident-prone hero. Science is his weapon. Elements are his gadgets. This is Alex Rider with Geek-Power!

Itchingham Lofte - known as Itch - is fourteen, and loves science - especially chemistry. He's also an element-hunter: he's decided to collect all the elements in the periodic table. Which has some interesting and rather destructive results in his bedroom . . .

Then, Itch makes a discovery. A new element, never seen before. At first no one believes him - but soon, someone hears about the strange new rock and wants it for himself. And Itch is in serious danger . . .

I don’t mind admitting that when I was contacted by the lovely people at Doubleday, asking whether I would be interested in reading an early copy of a book called Itch that I practically shouted “Yes please!” at my computer before rattling off a quick reply email. The reason is that Itch, due out in March, is written by Simon Mayo, the radio DJ. As a teenager I was a huge fan of his Radio 1 Breakfast Show, and I still listen to him these many years on as his Radio 2 show coincides with my drive home from work (and it is far, far better than the other rubbish on at that time). One of the highlights of my radio-listening week is Simon’s Radio 2 Book Club – every Monday I have a meeting at work that finishes at 6pm and I pretty much run to my car so that I don’t miss any of it.

Of course, after my initial excitement came the doubts – how disappointed would I be if this was just another celebrity jumping on the ‘let’s write a children’s book’ bandwagon by churning out a below-average story that could have been written by a well-trained monkey? I had little to fear – the proof copy of Itch that I read was about 400 pages long, but I got hooked and only put it down in the end because I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer (it was the last week of term after all).

Itch tells the story of Itchingham Lofte (surely one of the best names in children’s literature for ages, although Itchingham wouldn’t agree with me), known as Itch for short. Itch and his family live in Cornwall, having moved there from London when Itch was eleven, but even though that was three years ago he still finds it difficult to fit in at school. I guess you could say that Itch is a little different from most children of his age as he has no interest in sport, computer games or any of the other things that his classmates love doing. Instead, he likes to collect elements from the Periodic Table. Yes, you read that correctly – not exactly a common hobby amongst young people, but I guess if he were a collector of stamps, coins or porcelain thimbles then this would make for a pretty dull story.

Of course, the collecting of these items would also have been much safer than Itch’s quest to obtain all of the elements. “Surely there’s no harm in possessing a slither of aluminium and a test tube of iron filings?” I hear you ask. And you would be correct in that statement, but you would also be forgetting much of your school chemistry lessons. That Periodic Table also includes highly reactive and potentially explosive elements such as sodium, potassium and phosphorus, the last of which costs Itch his eyebrows at the beginning of the book in an experiment-gone-wrong. And there’s not forgetting the radioactive ones either. Whereas the worst a stamp collector might experience is the occasional paper-cut, Itch’s hobby could potentially cause his house to blow up/burn down/become filled with poisonous gas (delete as applicable), taking all of its inhabitants with it.

Itch gets his elements from a number of sources. Some of them were very easy to acquire (chlorine in household bleach, his brother’s titanium tongue stud), but others not so. For these harder to acquire, and potentially more dangerous elements, Itch turns to a guy called Cake, a mineral seller he first met at the Surfers Against Sewage fair in St Austell. Through Cake (for a price, naturally) Itch has managed to add radium (luminous clock hands), sulphur (gunpowder) and arsenic (some nineteenth century wallpaper). However, it is the latest acquisition, following a chance meeting with Cake on the beach, that changes Itch’s life for good, and eventually puts him, his sister Chloe and his cousin Jack (short for Jacqueline) in great danger as they are hunted by a chemistry-teacher-gone-mad, and a huge multinational corporation that will do anything to get their hands on this latest addition to the element collection.

What could be so special about some old rock? I hear you ask. Well it just so happens that this rock is a brand new element, a substance never before seen by man. A substance that also happens to be highly radioactive (i.e. dangerous) and as such a potential ultra-clean power source that could change the world. Of course, the aforementioned multinational, which makes a huge amount of money from oil, are desperate to get their hands on this element, as would any wannabe terrorist with thoughts of building a homemade nuclear bomb if news of its existence got out.

Simply put, Itch is a hugely enjoyable read, and has everything the 10+ reader could want. Itch is a great character, and I know there will be many young people out there who will easily identify with his feelings of not fitting in with the crowd. The other characters too are all very believable. One of my favourite is Flowerdew, previously a high-flying scientist who has now found himself teaching chemistry in a backwater Cornwall school. This new element could be his ticket out of there and back into industry, and as his obsession grows we begin to see that he will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

The story itself flows well, and is generally well plotted, although there were a few passages where I did feel that the pace needed to be upped a little. However, when the action really kicks in it is pretty relentless, and readers will find themselves racing through the story to find out whether Itch and his friends will make it to the end of the story. There are a number of great set pieces, especially towards the end of the story, which really had my heart in my mouth, as Itch goes through incredible dangers, and no small amount of pain, to keep the rocks from the bad guys and, in his eyes, save the world.

In a world that has been saturated with books about young spies in recent years, it is truly refreshing to read an original adventure story featuring a likeable and believable character who has to rely on his wits and friends alone, rather than some fantastic gadget or the government agency he works for. Although its feet are set firmly in the 21st Century, with its heavy doses of exciting action and intrigue Itch is, at heart, a good old fashioned boys’ own adventure story.

One of the stand out elements (no pun intended) of this book is its science theme. As far as I am aware this is a topic that is rarely covered in literature for young people, and I am sure there are many young science fans out there who will find this a fascinating read. I’m no expert myself, so am unable to attest to the accuracy of the science covered within the book, although I do get the feeling that Simon Mayo has done his research. Obviously, given the central plot point of the previously unseen element, there is a degree of science fiction to the story as well. I felt that Mr Mayo blended the fact and the science fiction very well, to the point where as a layman I got lost in the story and stopped noticing the line between what was real science and what was a product of his imagination. I have now passed a copy of the book on to a chemistry teacher colleague and I look forward to his views on this aspect of the story.

Simon Mayo does bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, but there are one or two rather large questions left unanswered. I hope that this means there will be more books in the future featuring Itch, as he is such an endearing protagonist and I would love to see where he is taken next. The book is not perfect, but as a debut it is certainly well worth buying for your child. I am sure that 10+ boys (and girls), and especially those who love science, will enjoy this just as much as I did.

I have to say I am cringing a little at some of the content of this review, for fear that an army of Daily Mail readers might pick up on it and establish a ‘Ban This Book For Encouraging My Child To Collect Dangerous Items’ campaign. To these severely deluded people I would say that they should first of all get a life, and secondly stop worrying. Give your kids some credit, as they aren’t stupid – we haven’t seen any stories about kids getting severely injured through trying to copy Alex Rider-style stunts. Yes, Itch has a dangerous hobby, but Simon Mayo makes these dangers very clear throughout the story and makes it very clear that this is not a hobby that young people should be taking up. Yes, there is an element of humour included (Itch losing his eyebrows in the phosphorus experiment, and Itch accidentally poisoning his class with arsenic and the literal ocean of vomit that ensued being prime examples), but the underlying safety message is always there. On reading the blurb I had thought that element hunting sounded like a pretty cool hobby; having now finished the book there is no way I will be taking it up – I value my fingers/eyebrows/eyes/skin/life far too much.

Itch is scheduled to be published as a hardcover edition by Doubleday on 1st March 2012. My thanks go to the good people at Doubleday for sending me a copy to review.


  1. I really can't wait to read this book! It sounds brilliant! Great review!

  2. I'm currently looking for a new book to engage my 11 year old son - this sounds ideal, as long as the pacing doesn't get too slow. He's currently reading Gates of Rome (Time Riders) and has The Prisoner lined up next so I must pre-order this one, thanks for a thoughtful review.

  3. Have already purchased this book for my 13 year old son. He loves it already!

  4. At last a book that can engage my 10 year old!! Can't wait for the sequel Simon!! Thanks.

  5. I have purchased one it does keep you locked reading.
    That is an example of a good book for 10+.
    I am also selling my book now on Ebay for £6.60 + postage
    since postage is £1.90.
    Click the link

  6. I enjoyed this book so much. I am a 12 year old girl. My favourite character is Jack.