Sunday, August 19, 2007

Review of a bargain bin book

I first saw The Seven Professors of the Far North mentioned in a letter the books' author, John Fardell, wrote to Viz magazine. It went something like this:

This is just a letter to get some free publicity for my book, The Seven Professors of the Far North, due to be published on ____ by Faber. Thanks.

That letter reflects rather well on both John Fardell and Viz magazine, I think.

A lot of readers of Viz will have been familiar with John Fardell's work anyway. He's one of that magazine's best aritsts. Most issues will contain a cartoon by Fardell, probably either The Modern Parents, or The Critics, or Desert Island Teacher. The Modern Parents is his best, and probably most relevant, cartoon: the parents in question - Cressida and Malcolm - are suckers for any and every postmodern trend, a fact of which their kids are all too well aware. They won't let their kids watch football because of the symbolic violence, when they go to find lunch, they abhor fast-food outlets as representative of capitalist imperialism - and so on, and so on. And they also talk about it all the time, boring their poor kids to death. (Fardell's comics are very wordy.)

So about a month before Christmas, when I saw The Seven Professors of the Far North in the bargain bin at Borders, I leapt upon it. Fardell sort of takes up where The Modern Parents left off - this is a book for kids, after all, with a cartoon cover and a ludicrous plot that's about Nazis, or something. Actually, Fardell's aim seems to have pretty much been to write the sort of book he wanted to read when he was a kid. (And you can hardly criticise him for that.) So there's a pulp-style one-page prologue:

A lanky scarecrow of a man tore across the frozen ground...

There's a first chapter in which 'Eleven-year-old Sam Carnabie' is gloomily preparing for a visit to his Great-Aunt Roberta, who 'liked cats and china pictures of cats but she didn't much like children', but which ends with Sam going off on a futuristic motorbike with his uncle, Professor Ampersand, instead (but Ampersand Duck got there first!) Other neat touches include a journey through Europe by a secret underground train network (shades of Eva Ibbotson!) and Professor Ampersand's gadget-filled household, and his loving homage to Fray Bentos canned pies:

'Now, are you partial to the steak-and-kidney pies of Mr Fray and Mr Bentos?' he asked Sam, taking two tins out of a food cupboard.
'Yeah!' said Sam. 'They're my favourite!'

Just starting to re-read it now, I can confirm that the writing lacks a certain something. The prose is workmanlike rather than poetically incisive. But there's no doubt that Fardell's heart is in the right place, and there's barely a passage in the book that could be taken out.

Best bargain bin book I've read for a long time!

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