“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“Man V. Nature” by Diane Cook (2015)

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manvnature“They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs, which means that for a few days I get to stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and sell his clothes.”

The world is a weird place. The news is full of things that seem like they’ve been yanked from the pages of fiction, so when you stumble on a book now that seems weird, you know you’ve hit something good. Diane Cook’s collection of short stories, Man V. Nature, are smart and well-written, but above all are weird and unsettling in ways you can’t quite describe.

There are twelve stories here, and each of them is a weird mixture of superbly realistic, and insanely fantastic. More often than not, the backgrounds or specifics of what is happening in each world is never clearly explained. In “Marrying Up”, we are told only the world “got bad”. In “The Way the End of Days Should Be”, there are just two houses left and the rest of the world has flooded, but we don’t know how or why. The first story, “Moving On”, takes place in a world where widowed spouses are put into institutions until they’re wanted again by someone else, though they seem to have little say in who they get to marry. It’s reminiscent of works like The Handmaid’s Tale or Only Ever Yours, where women are still treated as chattel, although some men appear to be in the same position. In “Flotsam”, the oddness is more magical, as a woman begins to find baby clothes in among her washing, despite having no children.

“Flotsam” also seems to be about women’s sexuality, perhaps an acknowledgement of women’s body clocks. Similarly, “A Wanted Man” is about female sexuality too, although seems at first perhaps to be about male sexuality. It features a man who is irresistible to all women and will guarantee them a pregnancy with one fuck. All he wants is someone to love, and to love him back, and he seems to fall in love with every new woman he meets, though they are all uninterested in settling down.

“The Mast Year” is an interesting look at the world. In it, the main character finds herself promoted and engaged in quick succession, and people begin to gather around her home, setting up tents and caravans, burrowing into her lawn, and climbing her trees. Her mother says that she’s experiencing a mast year. This references when a tree produces more fruit than usual, so people gather around it. Jane’s recent luck works as a magnet and the people are gathered around her in the hope that some of that luck rubs off on them. It feels like an extreme version of how we advertise ourselves on social media when things are going well – if you go by Instagram, everyone is currently living their best life – and then what happens when things go wrong and we have to start revealing the truth behind the smiles.

The titular story, “Man V. Nature” is about three men stuck in a rubber dinghy on an endless lake, with barely any food left and no protection from the scorching sun. Pretending that their predicament is a TV show, their bodies, brains and sanity wither away and they turn on one another and begin to reveal harsh secrets, and one of them learns that he’s not considered “one of the gang”, despite his desperate attempts to fit in.

Children are also common to several of the stories. “Somebody’s Baby” brings to life the fear new parents have that their child is in danger by making that danger a man who stands in your garden and, if you lose concentration for just one second, will enter your house and snatch your baby. The main question you’re left with at the end of that story is, “If you could suddenly get back everything you’d already said goodbye to, would you want it?” In another story, “The Not-Needed Forest”, several boys who society has deemed unneeded are sent to be killed but survive in a forest together instead, until the food supply runs low and they begin to compete with one another for survival.

Diane Cook has conjured up a shockingly brilliant collection of tales, each of them slightly unnerving and leaving you slightly unsure as to what just happened. There aren’t many answers, but to provide them would be to ruin the magic. Her stories contain something familiar, but are also like nothing you’ve ever read before. Haunting.

“Let’s Kill Uncle” by Rohan O’Grady (1964)

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uncle“Liar! Liar! Liar!”

There seems to be a fashion at the moment for publishing houses to be rooting around in forgotten books of the last century, dusting them off and republishing them. I don’t have any complaints with this. The British Library is focusing on crime novels, but Bloomsbury seem to have cast the net a little wider. I knew nothing of Rohan O’Grady (real name: June O’Grady Skinner) but I was intrigued by the title and blurb, so dived into this novel from the sixties.

Barnaby Gaunt has been sent to a remote island of Canada for his summer holidays, but his Uncle hasn’t arrived yet, so he’ll have to stay with Mr and Mrs Brooks in the meantime. Also spending her summer holidays on the island is young Christie McNab and, being the only two children on the island, they are forced to become friends and play together. While things start off a little rocky, the eventual harmony is shattered when Barnaby learns that his Uncle will soon be there. Everyone thinks he should be happy about this, but no one knows the truth – Barnaby is the heir to a ten million dollar fortune, and his Uncle is trying to kill him.

The island’s Mountie, Sergeant Coulter, tries to be fair to the children and forgive their misdeeds, but he doesn’t believe Barnaby for a minute when the young boy confides in him his fears. Barnaby and Christie, therefore, decide to take matters into their own hands. They must kill Uncle before it’s too late.

Despite the premise’s promise of being about two children plotting to kill a relative, this only forms half the tale. The rest is taken up by the thoughts and feelings of the Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. He is a native of the island and the only one from there who went to war and didn’t do the decent, brave thing of dying in battle. He is kind and fair, and has a complex relationship with the children, of whom he is very fond, but also can’t wait to see them leave. Despite the kindness he shows to humans, he is far less patient with the island’s lone cougar, One-Ear, and ruthlessly plots to kill the beast.

As I often find with children in novels, Barnaby and Christie are fairly irritating, but you can see that they mean well. Barnaby has many issues to deal with regarding his Uncle, and these become clearer as the book goes on. At first they seem irredeemable, but like Coulter I came to have a certain grudging like of them by the end. The oddest character of all, though, is Uncle himself. He doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the narrative, and while we know he’s out to kill Barnaby – and there’s no question that it isn’t the imaginary ramblings of a small child – he is almost cartoonishly villainous, a sociopath of the highest order. He seems to have stepped into this book from one that was somewhat lighter. Because don’t be fooled by the childishness suggestion given by the title – this is rather a dark novel.

A review on the cover says that the book is ahead of its time, and I can see that in a couple of ways. It reads a little like something Lemony Snicket would produce, with the same set-up of children in a small community of adults, none of whom believe the danger they are in. Uncle reminded me throughout of Count Olaf. It also makes an oblique reference to sexual abuse towards children, as Uncle is noted a few times to have a fondness for little girls, and there’s a mention that he’s made many of them disappear in the past. When he muses on the fact that Christie is too wise to be fooled into following him in exchange for candy, it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine. The mix of the naivety of the children and the horrors like this jar occasionally, but it’s rather a good book nonetheless.

What strikes me most about the book is the sense of loneliness and stagnation hanging over everything. With no young men or children left on the island, the place is slowly dying, and everyone is hurting and has lost someone. It’s always quite a moment when you find a line in fiction that reveals such a truth about you that you have to stop reading for a moment and contemplate things. I leave you with a quotation from the book that particularly struck me.

He couldn’t stand it and walked down to the beach, feeling as though the main stream of humanity had passed him by and that he would stand on beaches, forsaken and forgotten, for the rest of eternity.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (2008)

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Let the Games begin...

Let the Games begin…

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

For years I’ve been saying I’ll get around to this series. It’s not that I’ve not wanted to read it, I’ve just never been so desperate to get my hands on it. Most people I know have already read it and have their opinions, and perhaps I’ve been shaped by some of these. The first in the trilogy is already seven years old, and with the films having been released, many plot points had already been revealed to me, although not necessarily with the right context.

Nonetheless, I have finally read the first book. As usual, I’ll start with a summary of the plot (for those of you who are even later to the party than me) and then I’ll get on with the gritty analysis.

So, The Hunger Games takes place in an undisclosed year of the future in a country called Panem that was once the USA. After a war, the country was divided into thirteen districts and the capital city, The Capitol, each district having a responsibility for a certain product or aspect of the country, be it fishing, mining, agriculture, power, etc. Every year, two teenagers are chosen at random from each District and forced into an arena together where there are no rules and the last one left alive is rewarded with great prizes of food and comfort for the starving population of their District.

This year, Katniss Everdeen, a keen archer and natural hunter, and Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker, are the tributes for District 12. Katniss wasn’t selected, it was her younger sister Prim, but unable to see Prim go though with the trial, she volunteers to take her place. Her world is thrown into turmoil as she and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, dolled up to look beautiful and make the public love them, before being thrown into an arena from which only one victor will emerge, the other twenty-three contestants having died. And everyone in the country will be watching.

OK, so, I’ll get my complaints out of the way first. Naturally, through the fact that the novel is narrated in the first person, we know from the outset that Katniss will survive. (That’s not a spoiler, right?) The tension is also diminished by the fact that the series is over and we know that it’s a trilogy. By rights, Katniss has to survive. I’ve also come to note that people really play up the love triangle aspect of the book and say that the film took it to extremes, but if you ask me it’s not exactly an undercurrent here. I’m aware that the Katniss and Peeta relationship is being played up (by Katniss at least) for the cameras, but it’s definitely not a minor plot point that she has feelings for her friend back home, Gale, too.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

An expert archer at 16, because of course.

Also, I have to note that Katniss is one of those protagonists that I simply don’t like very much. She joins the ranks with Lyra (His Dark Materials), Alice (of Wonderland fame), and, yes, Harry Potter (let’s face it, no one’s favourite Harry Potter character is Harry) of protagonists that I find irritating. I know she’s playing up to the cameras for a lot of it, but, come on, how right is she about what’s going on out there? She has plot armour on up to her eyeballs, and I find her something of an insufferable know-it-all. I know you’re supposed to take all this with a pinch of salt, and I ran with it for as long as I could, but disbelief can only be stretched so far.

HOWEVER.

As young adult books go, this isn’t badly written. It’s smart and pacey, has a lot of very interesting ideas and builds a world that is horribly foreign and yet, at the same time, worryingly realistic. While I’m fundamentally bored by Katniss (Peeta exhibits traits that might make him a little more interesting), I do want to know so much more about this world. Who’s idea were the Hunger Games? How did the country get divided up? What’s going on in the rest of the world? Have they ever tried to stop Panem?

The supporting characters are more interesting, too. Effie Trinket is obviously a cog in the evil machine of the Capitol, but one that occasionally reveals glimpses of her true personality behind the mask, possibly suggesting that she doesn’t necessarily like everything that goes on. Haymitch is great, and while his alcoholism feels slightly tacked on at first, it quickly becomes obvious as to why he’s like that. Caesar Flickerman is also an interesting one, as I really can’t tell if he’s meant to actually be on the tributes side, or if he’s as bad as the rest of them and it’s all a front. My favourite of the supporting cast, though, is Cinna, who seems to be the only genuinely good person there. The other tributes feel pretty one-dimensional. Obviously many are killed quickly to bring down the number of characters we have to contend with, but even those that survive longer don’t excite me that much. That’s the nature of the story, I suppose; we have to know and see what Katniss knows and sees.

I’ll carry on with the series, sure, but not without trepidation. Most of what I knew about the series has happened here (although obviously my knowledge had enormous gaps; I had no clue that the Games were literally about hunger and the supply of food) so I’m going into murkier waters, although I can make a good guess at some of what’s coming. If you haven’t read the books yet, and aren’t put off by any spoilers I’ve revealed above (although I don’t think I’ve done too badly), then be prepared for the first few chapters to be a bit of a slog, but stick with it. The payout is very good.

“The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket” by John Boyne (2012)

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brocket“This is the story of Barnaby Brocket, and to understand Barnaby, first you have to understand his parents; two people who were so afraid of anyone who was different that they did a terrible thing that would have the most appalling consequences for everyone they loved.”

Recent readings seem to have all been a bit dark. Sure, they’ve been good books but after a while a long chain of horrible characters, vile settings and appalling situations makes a man snap. A book with “terrible” in the title might seem like an odd choice to go with next, but a friend of mine mentioned it a while ago and said it was really good. I trust her judgement, so I went for it, only being a little bit daunted by the fact that the author, John Boyne, also wrote The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which I haven’t read or seen but know to be immensely upsetting. So with only my friend’s word that this wasn’t going to be a horrible book, I pressed on.

The Brocket family are all perfectly normal. Alistair and Eleanor have no desire to stand out from the crowd or do anything that’s seen as unusual, an attitude they try to force into their first children, Henry and Melanie. But then Barnaby is born and their life is thrown into turmoil as Barnaby has a condition – he floats. Unable to obey the law of gravity, Barnaby is therefore constantly in danger of floating away. Alistair and Eleanor are horrified by what they see as a blantant act of attention seeking.

They do their best to hide Barnaby from the world, but eventually he has to go to school. After he accidentally gets his face into the newspapers, Alistair and Eleanor decide they have had enough and hatch a plan to rid themselves of their son and return to a normal life. Once free, Barnaby is confused by what has happened, but embarks on a series of adventures around the globe where he learns a thing or two about being normal.

Ultimately, it’s a novel for a younger audience, but that’s a rubbish way to judge any book, and there’s definitely plenty in here that narrow minded adults could learn from. On Barnaby’s journeys, everyone he meets tend to be people who are not considered “normal”, particularly by their families, and who have been cast out of their homes for whatever reason. Some of these are not normal because of appearance, or their dreams, but there is also a couple who are clearly lesbians (although not noted by Barnaby as explicitly being such), both cast out of their homes. The book does wonders for showing children (and, again, older people too) that normality is not strictly something you can define, as someone’s normal is abnormal to someone else.

Boyne has definitely taken from Roald Dahl with this novel, and it’s certainly got the feel of something that Dahl could have written. It’s in the way that Barnaby is a good child, if not slightly unusual, and he lives in a world where the “ordinary” grown-ups are of no use whatsoever. After a certain age, people’s imaginations dry up if not used properly, and this shows the damage that that can do to a family, as well as individuals themselves. It’s also very dark – Lemony Snicket came to mind repeatedly – given that Alistair and Eleanor are able to get rid of their son in the manner that they do.

The book is peppered with adorable little illustrations too, showing Barnaby both before and during his adventures, which add to the sweetness of the text. Barnaby is a wonderful boy who would be loved by any other family, but not by one who treats anything they aren’t used to as dangerous and bad. Barnaby actually notes at one point that in the books he reads, he identifies with orphans most of all. Sometimes it rings bells of Harry Potter living at the Dursleys. There is also a brilliant little nod to Harry Potter (is it just me, or has every book since 2005 made some mention or oblique reference to the series?) when Barnaby is stood on Platform 9 of a train station and his eyes glance over briefly to the gap between that one and Platform 10.

It’s a lovely book with a wonderful message that more people need to pay attention to. After all, if we can’t even define what normal is, why would anyone want to be it?

“To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960)

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mocking

Not a how-to book

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

“But have you any idea of the societal, literary and intellectual pressure there is riding on me reading this book?” I whined, clutching the small novel in my hands and staring at it, wondering if it only got to 30,000,000 sold because it’s forced on every American schoolchild. Yes, I had made it twenty-five years without reading what is often said to be the most read book in history and now, finally, egged on by numerous people around me and a general sense of duty, I have read To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s not that we didn’t do classics at school, but we didn’t do this one. At school I was subjected to the usual Shakespeare (in my case, Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth), Of Mice and Men and Far From The Madding Crowd. I despair at some of the books that are chosen for schools, I really do, and I think that it really affects how many children grow up to be adults with a love of reading. If you’re forced to read Thomas Hardy, whom has, in my opinion, absolutely no literary merit whatsoever and absolutely no place in modern society, then you’re going to be put off. I think Mockingbird is a more popular choice across the pond, given that it is about their history, but that’s not to say no one here does it.

The plot is simple enough although, I confess, that given the popularity and ubiquity of this book, I wasn’t really aware of it. In fact, I knew startlingly little about it, aside from a vague shape of the plot, a few character names and a location. For those of you who still don’t know what it’s about, let me explain.

The protagonist is Scout Finch, a young girl living in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, narrating about events of her childhood from an adult point of view. She is a very intelligent child with an interest in everything around her. She lives with her brother Jem and father Atticus and enjoys reading and playing games in equal measure. Atticus is a lawyer who is probably more accurately defined as the main character as opposed to Scout herself. He becomes tasked with defending a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman, a case that to the prejudiced eyes of the townsfolk should be sorted out within a matter of seconds. Fortunately, Atticus is very shrewd and he isn’t going to let it slide.

Scout, Jem and their friend Dill, meanwhile, have become interested in the Radley House next door, where a man called Arthur “Boo” Radley supposedly still lives but is never seen. They try to get him to come out, with little success, but they soon find evidence that he is there and isn’t the monster that some of the townsfolk seem to believe he is.

I was far from impressed with the start of the book, honestly, regretting my choice to read it. But I pressed on, if only to get it out of the way, and found that, actually, I sort of understand why and how it has lasted. My trepidation comes from the fact that this book combines all of the things I find boring – child narrators, classic novels, arguments about race and whatnot – so I was sure that Harper Lee and I were never going to be able to get along. The scenes in the courtroom with Atticus defending his client Tom Robinson, however, were sheer masterpieces. The characters burst to life and I found myself rushing along with the trial, enjoying every twist and turn of the way.

Once the trial was over, the book began to lose it again, and I coasted through to the end with little enthusiasm once more. The very end, however, left me with that warm glow that you get after you know you’ve read something special. Because, whether I wanted to or not, I actually did enjoy the book. Atticus Finch in particular is a marvellous creation and a wonderful man. Struggling to bring up his children alone, I think he’s done a masterful job. I don’t care so much for Scout, Jem or Dill, but then again I never imagined I would.

The messages in the book are brutal and not so subtle, but very well done. There’s a discussion at one point of how can someone think that Hitler rounding up the Jews is disgusting, but that very same person can think that black people are beneath them and not see the hypocrisy in their statements. The first glimmers of equality are showing but people are still aware that they have a long way to go, allowing for a great moment with a character called Dolphus Raymond, who explains to the children something about humans that they hadn’t yet understood.

I’m pleased I’ve read it, and I think you should give it a go if you haven’t already because sometimes the masses are right.

“Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” by Matthew Green (2012)

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memoirs

Imaginary friend: not pictured

“Here is what I know: My name is Budo. I have been alive for five years.”

Despite the seemingly unique premise, this is not the first book I’ve ever read from the point of view of an imaginary friend. However, in the other one, the narrator’s identity as such was a twist (hence not giving the name here). This book offers that up on a plate.

This is the story of Budo, an imaginary friend who was brought into being five years ago by Max, an 8-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (as I understand it – it is never explicitly addressed). Five years is a long time for an imaginary friend to stick around, so Budo is respected and revered by other imaginary friends he meets. Max has done a good job of imagining him, however, and he looks almost exactly like a teenage boy. Max is the only human who can see him and communicate with him, and Budo can have no contact with the outside world.

Budo is intelligent, but has limits. When born, he only knows what Max knows, but since he has been imagined older, he is able to learn things quicker. He understands people and the fact that they don’t always mean what they say, or can’t always be trusted. He has learned these things from watching Max’s parents and teachers when he wanders off. He can then pass this information onto Max.

It’s very hard to describe much of the plot without giving too much away, but the story all seems to be going in one direction before veering off wildly into another in a manner that works, but has you caught off-guard by a red herring. It’s a bit like how episodes of The Simpsons begin with one story only to drop it after five minutes and move onto another one.

Memoirs is much darker than I expected it to be, although it is very cleverly written. Because Budo effectively has the mental capacity of a small boy, he tells the story much as you imagine a child would. As someone who has never had much affection for child narrators (Alice and Lyra come immediately to mind), I found that this worked really well. You could only know what Budo knew, and he didn’t understand some of the things the adults were saying. There is a point, for example, when one of the teachers complains about the “damunion“, a term that Budo cannot understand. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that she is referring to the teacher’s union: the “damn union“.

spoon

Would you like to play a game?

Budo is not the only imaginary friend in the story. Most children have one, but very rarely do they last anything like as long as Budo has. They are also all entirely unique, capable of doing only what their children have imagined they can do. For example, Budo has the ability to pass through doors and windows, but does not and cannot sleep. Others may be able to fly, or teleport. Some are less lucky and have been imagined without arms, or without the ability to speak. Most imaginary friends are fuzzy air from the waist down, and almost none of them have ears or eyebrows. There’s even one Budo meets who is just a large spoon with arms and legs. He’s called Spoon.

The book delves deep and explores one of the greatest fears of the modern world, and Budo too deals with something that has plagued humankind for generations – the thought of being ignored, left behind and forgotten. Having seen hundreds of imaginary friends come and go over the years, he seems consistently terrified that he will be next.

There is a beautiful observation in the novel about teachers, saying that some of them “teach school” and some of the “play school”, the latter being ones who just show up and do the job, but don’t really care about the children and are just doing it for the paypacket. We certainly need more of the former in schools today. I was lucky enough to have several of those during my education, and I’m forever grateful to them for making me who I am today.

The mythology of the imaginary friends is particularly brilliant. It is not a very well explored subject, so Green can take it wherever he likes. I love the idea that they are all unique and can communicate with one another. The idea that they cannot make contact with the human world is nice, makes sense and adds a level of complexity to the whole thing, as when Max gets in trouble, Budo can do nothing to help him out of it. There is a question mark over how the imaginary friends can pass on information to their imaginers that they could have absolutely no idea about, potentially giving the children almost psychic powers. I suppose though that when they said, “My imaginary friend told me” then it would simply be ignored.

If you loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this book is definitely for you. If you simply want to discover something unique and meet a cast of quirky, delightful characters, then it’s also worth looking into. It might just change the way that you look at a few things.