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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Book review - Johnny Nothing

A highly amusing and original moral tale about ten-year-old Johnny. ‘He’s not over-clever. He’s not under-stupid.’ He's called Johnny Nothing because he has nothing, whether that's decent clothes, toys, books, or love. Author Ian Probert can certainly give Roald Dahl a run for his money with this novel.

Johnny MacKenzie has two feckless parents who seem to have emerged from all of the worst nightmares of children’s fiction: his mother, Felicity, in truth, is a marvellous invention, unsavoury and selfish, among other things, while his father, Billy is a drinker and gambler and under the thumb, correction – ‘Billy lived in mortal fear of his wife.’ She is definitely the kind of person children of all ages will love to Boo and Hiss at: ‘SILENCE commanded his mother in capital letters.’

Uncle Jake Marley (deceased brother of Felicity) died a millionaire, and bequeathed £1m to Johnny, with the added proviso that if after a year Johnny increased that million rather than spend it he will be in line for a further £10m. Unfortunately, the cash card Johnny inherits is stolen by Johnny’s mother.

Marley’s solicitor is Ebenezer Dark, whose image graces the cover of the book. (Maybe Johnny should be on the cover as well as Ebenezer – or even Marley as well?) Might as well mention the illustrations, by the author’s daughter: they’re excellent, conveying that ‘otherness’ that surrounds the characters and the story itself.

Probert is a wordsmith, and loves playing with them, viz: ‘Uncle Marley didn’t mince his words (if he did, they’d probably come out in little gnarled up chunks and you could make wordburgers and chips or spaghetti with wordballs from them).’

Virtually every page gives us more of the same: ‘There was a stunned silence in the church. The only noise that could be heard was the sound of John McVicar dropping a small pin on the floor that he had just found in one of his jacket pockets.’

I’ve read somewhere that publishers and agents don’t like puns in books. Well, all I can say is, they’re sad people. Puns enliven a grey day, bring light into a monotonous life, and even the groans are uttered in pleasure – well, for most, anyway.

Besides indulging in puns, Probert has an eye for detail, popping the balloon of pomposity, and cocking a snook at political correctness.  ‘He had not used this type of mobile phone before but it was fairly easy for him to work out because he was under thirty.’
Johnny’s mother squanders his inheritance on expensive restaurant meals, gadgets, and foreign travel, and here’s a taster: ‘So they had turkey in Turkey. And then chicken in Kiev. And crackers in Caracas. And visited a deli in Delhi.’ Groan, but enjoy; there’s a lot more of that!
The book is ostensibly aimed at early teens but will be enjoyed by adults, since the story can be construed as a parable of our times, with a nod to Dickens; it shows that Johnny’s heart is in the right place. And the right place for the book is in the hands of any reader who appreciates humour of all complexions.

[A shorter version of this review will appear on Amazon and other sites.]

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