Thursday, 20 February 2014

Itch, by Simon Mayo

I'm quite annoyed with Simon Mayo. Not only is he a successful and much loved broadcaster, has pretty good taste in music and keeps Mark Kermode from ranting himself to death...he's also an excellent writer and storyteller. How annoying is that?

Simon's debut novel, Itch is the story of 14 year old Itchingham Lofte, periodic table enthusiast and element hunter. Meaning he collects all the elements and stores them in a shoebox in his room. Yep, even the slightly radioactive and/or explosive ones. Cursed with a daft name and an overactive thirst for understanding, he inadvertently explodes himself unconscious, burns off his eyebrows and poisons his entire class within the first few chapters. He's absolutely marvellous.

When Itch is given a mysterious, colour-changing rock by his element dealer friend Cake, Itch's child-hating Chemistry teacher, the mysterious (and apparently psychotic) Dr Flowerdew is suddenly very interested in geology. Is it something completely new that no scientist has ever seen? If so, it could prove to be a new power source, changing life as we know it...every government, scientist and Energy Company is desperate for the rock's secrets. Naturally, there are some less than savoury characters too that will stop at nothing to get their hands on this power also, potentially endangering the whole world. Itch and his cousin Jack (no strong feelings for elements in any way) must use all of their knowledge, their strength and all of Itch's bag of chemistry tricks to keep themselves, their family and the world safe from the destructive power of Itch's little rock.

I honestly cannot recommend this book enough, it's fast paced, entertaining, has some really lovable characters and is actually quite educational. I'm not into chemistry. Not even slightly. Any progress down the "Elemental" thought track inevitably ends up with "WE'RE ALL JUST INSIGNIFICANT SPACE DUST ON AN IMPOSSIBLE LUMP OF ROCK THAT SHOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED!!". But I found myself genuinely nodding along (almost understanding) the passion and the awe that Itch feels for his unusual hobby. It is pretty incredible when you think about it- it's the ingredients of the Universe in that backpack.

Itch is such a brilliant character. He's believable, endearingly accident prone, smart, understands his own flaws, loyal. He's a joy to read about and by the end he feels like an actual real-life friend. His sister Chloe and cousin Jack are well written too- their dialogue is realistic, they're funny, intelligent, resourceful and in it to the end no matter what. It doesn't matter that they're girls either, which is refreshing. The three have a nice dynamic and complement each other well as characters. The use of modern technology throughout- Facebook chat, email and texting, for example, gave it extra appeal and authenticity but it is not over done, and the plot didn't depend on these technologies to save the day and to get out of sticky situations, as can often happen.

It's an ideal book for crime fans, mystery fans, kids that like funny books- but it could also prove to be a gateway read for those who struggle to get into fiction. Itch isn't a big reader either- he understands, that's why he hates English and History, too much writing. But the science, the geekery and the sheer fun in this novel might just tempt them to try it. It's a perfect opportunity to send a love of science in a new direction. The book has a genuinely broad appeal and it's bound to be a modern Young Adult classic- I can't think of anybody who could ever dislike it.

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