Sunday 19 October 2014

Review: The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery

When Owen Underwood's family move to Barrow, it's because there's nowhere safer in the Valleys - and safety is very important. Especially when the threat of tornadoes, and giant bears, is constant.

But in Barrow, safety is taken to extremes. Children have to wear bright yellow at all times and are never allowed outside except to go to school. How can Owen face an entire summer of that?

In secret, Owen and his friends form the Tornado Chasers. Their mission: to get as close to a Grade 5 tornado as possible. It's time for them to face their fears!

And then... And then...

I described Ross Montgomery's debut, Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door as being "one of the most bonkers books that I have read in ages", and it was one of those books that took me completely by surprise by how much I enjoyed it. Above everything else, it was also of the most original books for Middle Grade readers that I had read in a very long time. I was therefore very excited in deed when a copy of Ross's second book, The Tornado Chasers, arrived from those lovely people at Faber.

The Tornado Chasers is not a sequel to Ross' s debut: it is a standalone story, although the world its characters live in is almost as crazy as Alex's. However, the craziness is The Tornado Chasers exists not because of the world itself, but more because of the attitude of the adults that live there. These parents, who have all moved their families to the village of Barrow, are incredibly safety conscious and averse to their children putting themselves in any kind of risk. In fact, main character Owen  sleeps under his bed, which is wrapped in chicken wire and surrounded by sandbags, just in case a tornado ripped off the roof of the house. Oh yes, and he has to wear a helmet at all times, even indoors. Owen's parents aren't the only residents of Barrow who live in fear of tornadoes (and, rather bizarrely, bears): one of the local laws decrees that children go straight home from school to the safety of their homes. This, and other seemingly ridiculous rules, make life for the kids of Barrow a somewhat dull affair, and if they break any of the rules, however bonkers they seem, they may finds themselves inmates of the forbidding County Detention Centre.

As the new boy in town, who also happens to have had grandparents who were tornado chasers, Owen very quickly becomes the catalyst for a minor rebellion. He and a handful of his new friends decide that they are going to follow int he 'footsteps' of his grandparents, and so set off on a rule-defying adventure that is surreal, thought-provoking, heart-warming and exciting. Like Ross's debut, it is a story that almost defies description, and really has to be read with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, if one is to fully benefit from the experience.

I guess one could describe the situation in Barrow as being dystopian, but with a difference. if the Monty Python team were writing Middle Grade or YA books today then this is the kind of dystopia I would imagine them coming up with. The story is very funny in a Monty Python crazy kind of way, but it also has great depth to it, especially with regards to its characters, very few of whom turn out to be how they initially seem. In fact, the whole story is a little like this as the plot twists and turns almost as much as the tornadoes of the title, and then, just as you finally think you have got everything straight in your head, Ross Montgomery drops yet another bombshell of devious and devilish twistiness. The 'I-didn't-see-that-one-coming' ending in particular is a perfect topic for discussion, and it would be well worth parents reading this alongside their children so that it can be discussed and dissected afterwards.

Ross Montgomery has fast become one of my favourite current writers of middle grade fiction and I have found myself checking online in spare moments for news of any future release from him. I do not think there is any other writer out there like him, and the closest I can think of when I recommend this book to others is that if you enjoyed the characters and situations of Louis Sachar's Holes then there is a good chance that you will enjoy The Tornado Chasers. Just like Holes, it sucks you in with a clever beginning, and messes with your mind as the plot is gradually revealed to be something you were certainly not expecting. 


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