Far from out of this world
By Mark Haddon
David Fickling Books
I have mixed feelings about Boom! The cynic in me says this is another sad example of a publisher milking a dodgy backlist for all it is worth while the teacher in me knows there are classes of 10 and 11-year-olds who will lap up every madcap word of its rather zany plot. But from the author of a book as provocative as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, that doesn't seem quite enough.
Boom! was first published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch. "No one knew how to pronounce it," says Haddon in the introduction. "And no one knew what it meant until they'd read the story. As a result only 23 people bought the book. Actually, that's an exaggeration, but not much. It rapidly went out of print."
And there, one suspects, it would have stayed had The Curious Incident ... not suddenly made Haddon hot property. The way he tells it, a string of people got in touch to tell him how much they loved the book and his publishers kept asking him to update it for a new edition. So now we have Gridzbi Spudvetch recycled as Boom! with a bestselling author's name behind it, and no doubt better marketing. But it's time to stop being cynical ...
This is the tale of Jim and Charlie and what happens when they discover that their teachers are talking in an unintelligible language. They realise this when they bug a staff meeting using walkie-talkies to try to discover whether Jim is about to be expelled. He has done nothing to merit expulsion; it is just that his big sister has been winding him up and Jim has a guilty conscience about his lack of focus in class. It doesn't help when one of his teachers says he sometimes wonders why Jim bothers coming to school. Jim puts two and two together, makes six and asks Charlie to help him.
Bugging the staffroom is their first attempt to gather intelligence and it produces a startling result. "There was an adventure on its way, a nuclear powered, one-hundred ton adventure with reclining seats and a snack trolley."
If you are 10 or 11, my guess is that for the most part Boom! fulfils that promise. It is no time at all before Jim and Charlie find themselves breaking into a teacher's house in search of further evidence that something very strange is going on. And no sooner do they find it than they are threatened by a sinister figure with a fluorescent blue flicker in his eyes and fingertips that can burn holes in table tops. After that, it's a helter-skelter motorbike ride to the north of Scotland and a sci-fi finale that left me cold, but kids will probably love.
Boom! is fast-moving, entertaining and funny. From the moment Jim drops his red Leicester and gooseberry jam sandwich from his balcony on to the face of his sister's biker boyfriend, to the silly conversations Jim shares with Charlie, Haddon hits a vein of humour that will go down well with young readers.
They will also appreciate its slightly anarchic view of family life, tempered as it is with considerable warmth. Jim may be at loggerheads with his sister for most of the book, but she proves his best ally and he turns his unemployed father's life around with the gift of a cookbook that just might save his parents' marriage.
Charlie's dad, though dotty, is the most intelligent man they know and his mother is ridiculously bossy, but they are still distraught when he goes missing. The element of caricature at home nicely counterpoints the breathless adventure that is at the heart of the book.
That said, Boom! is a slight volume in size and scope, and stands or falls as entertainment alone. It fulfils almost none of the criteria I would employ to select a book to read with a whole class - it just doesn't have enough substance. There are neither significant issues to discuss nor subtle characters to explore. True, there are opportunities for creative writing, but I cannot see Boom! having greater classroom prominence than a place on the bookshelves or as a wet Friday afternoon read-aloud treat.
That's fair enough and has value in its own right, but given the calibre of its author it is also a disappointment.
About the author Mark Haddon
Mark Haddon won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 2003 for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. His other work includes the adult novel A Spot of Bother and the Agent Z series for children. He is a vegetarian and has called himself a 'hard-line atheist'. He lives in Oxford with his wife and two sons.
The verdict 610.