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Gender bender

Marmalade Atkins on the Ball. By Andrew Davies, Dutton Pounds 9.99 0 525 690352. Marmalade Atkins belongs to a long line of literary pint-sized terrorists from William Brown, through to Molesworth and St Trinians.

This is the fifth Marmalade novel from Andrew Davies, who scripted television's House of Cards, and it's the same joyous mix as before: a story that bowls along as effortlessly as a cartoon, with unashamedly crude caricatures, and a fine lacing of jokes for adults about the national curriculum and back to basics.

"Should headmasters like jokes?" wonders the head of Hard Tack Hall, discovering Marmalade in girls' clothing when he's been led to believe she's a boy. "Were jokes on the national curriculum?" Marmalade Atkins has been despatched to Hard Tack Hall by selfish, disgustingly rich parents ("we prefer to spend our money on jewellery and chocs and so forth rather than our little girl") in a last ditch attempt to keep her in order, but Marmalade quickly goes on a gender bender when she realises that back to basics means embroidery for girls and football for boys.

For Marmalade, teachers are like road humps tempting her to see how fast she can drive over them. "'It's my job to Muck About, see, and it's your job and the teachers' job to try and stop me."

Her mucking about soon takes her away from Hard Tack to play football for England, row for Goodness Gracious College Oxford, play cricket in a test match against Australia and skate in the winter Olympics.

The predictability of the sequence of farcical sporting achievements means the novel loses some of its capacity to surprise, but on the whole this is life enhancing stuff, particularly as Marmalade is helped in her mission to subvert by her old mate, the disreputable jazz singing donkey, Good-Time Rufus.

With a school called Snobbe Towers and characters such as Mr Suckling-Pygge, Trevor Thicke and Vinny Nutbutter - a footballer, of course - the satire is not going to lead us into a subtle analysis of the state of the nation, but it could lead us to question the nature of our conformity and seriousness.

There's not enough here for a class reader, but it's a good one for the reading box.

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