Monday 28 January 2013

Review: Granny Samurai, the Monkey King and I by John Chambers

Eccentric young wordsmith Samuel Johnson finds himself home alone while his diplomat uncle is off diverting a crisis in Azerbajan. As Samuel sits penning his memoirs and wondering how to divert the crisis in his own life – namely the big, hairy brute that is Boris Hissocks – he spots the little old lady next door acting very strangely. Is she actually chopping wood with her bare hands? Then the Monkey King comes knocking, and suddenly Samuel's whole world is turned on its head…

Question: What do you get if you cross the crazier moments of classic kung fu films by the likes of the Shaw Brothers with the modern day zaniness of Andy Stanton's Mr Gum?

Answer: Granny Samurai!

Last time I was in London I was perusing the length shelves of children's books in Foyles and this little beauty caught my eye and shouted "Buy me!". It was the title that initially called out to me, but one glance at the inside and its plethora of black and white illustrations had me walking to the checkout ready to part with my hard earned cash. It then sat on my TBR pile for a couple of weeks whilst I read a handful of books that I had been sent by publishers, and then finally I couldn't resist any longer. And I finished it in a single sitting.

This is a great book for 8+ kids, and like the Mr Gum books it is destined to be a book that is at its best when read out loud to a room full of children. Main character Samuel Johnson is, like his famous 18th Century namesake, something of a wordsmith, and the book is narrated in the first person in Samuel's voice, almost like a personal journal might be. Samuel's love of words is evident very early on, as he announces himself to be the scribe of the story, and some of the words he uses will challenge younger readers to investigate their meaning, either by looking them up in a dictionary, or more likely by asking a parent or teacher.

Samuel lives with his Uncle Vesuvio, who is absent at the start of the story, supposedly over in Azerbaijan in his role as a diplomat. Samuel has been left to fend for himself, a task made infinitely harder as he catches the attentions of Boris Hizzocks, the brutish school bully. Boris takes something of a fancy to Samuel, but not in any platonic sense, and his Neanderthal-like brain decides that Samuel is the perfect victim. Fortunately the old lady next door, who Samuel first sees chopping wood with her bare hands, comes to his rescue, but unfortunately Boris and his mother Maddy swiftly turn the tables on poor Samuel and finds himself expelled from his new school before he has had the chance to settle in. And then the minions of the Monkey King come knocking and all hell breaks loose.

Granny Samurai is a fantastic character, and I hope there are more stories to come from John Chambers that feature her. She is a women of few words, and even some of those she does utter do not make a huge amount of sense, but boy does she kick ass. Poor old Samuel does not seem to understand what she is up to, or where he fits in to the grand scheme of things, for most of the story, and so he just gets pulled along by the tsunami that is Granny Samurai's personality. 

I mentioned the films of the Shaw Brothers at the beginning of this review; when I was in my twenties I went through a phase of watching loads of old kung fu films on VHS, and I was reminded of these many times throughout this book, and a lot of them were just plain silly in places. Granny Samurai's 'Silent Shriek of Animalistic Annihilation' and the Monkey King's 'Non-Silent Howl of Ultimate Destruction', complete with one hand shaped like a cobra and one foot folded behind his head like a scorpion's pincer, would have fit quite neatly into some of those films.

To say any more about this book is a little difficult. If you have read any of Andy Stanton's Mr Gum books then you will know that they have to be read to be fully appreciated, and no review can really do them justice with giving away all the best bits. So it is also for Granny Samurai, the Money King and I. It was definitely money well spent, and I know that 8+ kids are going to love it, probably even more than I did.

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