Book review: Call Me Drog and other spring sparklers from Usborne Children’s Books

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MOST books fall neatly into genres – fantasy, horror, mystery, history, romance – but there are others which defy such simple categorisation.

Take Sue Cowing’s highly original and fascinatingly creepy novel Call Me Drog (paperback, £5.99), a coming-of-age story about a boy at the mercy of his wilful, wayward... hand puppet!

Like its wide-ranging themes and unusual star, this is a book with a broad appeal, offering reason and resonance for anyone aged between nine and young adulthood who finds the teen years tough and complex.

Cowing’s clever and compelling tale packs a real emotional punch, mercilessly exposing the awkwardness of being caught between childhood and adulthood, the turmoil of parents divorcing, the pressure of expectation, learning to stick up for yourself and ultimately taking responsibility for your own life.

Parker Lockwood is a quiet, introverted eleven-year-old boy, coming to terms with his parents’ divorce. He considers himself a “pretty happy, pretty ordinary kid” until he finds a dirty, smelly old hand puppet in a rubbish bin.

The minute he puts it on his hand, the puppet reveals his name is Drog and that wherever Parker goes, he will go too. Not only does Drog refuse to leave Parker’s hand, he also delivers ill-tempered, obnoxious insults to the boy’s parents, teachers and schoolfriends.

Worst of all, no one believes that Drog – and not Parker – is saying all the outrageous things. When his best friend stops talking to him and his dad threatens to sign him up to the Bradley Military Academy, Parker finds that Drog is the only one he can talk to, and discovers that some of the things he says aren’t quite so ridiculous after all.

And as Parker takes up aikido and builds up the courage to stand up to his father, he finds himself letting go of his worries... but will Drog finally let go of his hand?

For a plot that seems at first to trade on a supernatural element, Call Me Drog turns out to be based more on reality than fiction or fantasy, and as sophisticated and subtle as any adult novel.

Maybe that’s because the real star of this book is not the bombastic, sarcastic Drog but the boy who appears to come under his control.

Perhaps Drog is just a figment of Parker’s imagination, a small corner of a hitherto hidden rebellious streak, or perhaps he gives voice to all those things that children really want to say to adults.

Either way, Parker and Drog provide a lesson in growing up...

Thrill-seekers, meanwhile, will enjoy meeting Ashley Arthur and her best friend, Benjamin, teenage thieves who steal for the rich, hide from the law... and are wanted by some of the deadliest men and women in the world.

Hit List (paperback, £6.99) is author Jack Heath’s second outing with the dynamic duo who first impressed us with their insanely reckless spirit of daring and dangerous appetite for adventure in the cracking book, Money Run.

Ash and Ben work for the billionaire Hammond Buckland, hunting down stolen artefacts and returning them to their rightful owners, all for a fee of course.

But when they stumble across an SOS from an imprisoned girl, they realise they are in over their heads this time because there are other, more powerful people also looking for the youngster.

With corrupt governments, ruthless corporations and rogue assassins lined up against them, suddenly it’s Ash and Ben who have moved to the top of everyone’s hit list.

And when you’re about to break into the largest intelligence agency in the world to rescue a mysterious stranger, that is a seriously perilous place to be...

Heath’s writing momentum propels us along at lightning pace. Coupled with a high-tech, explosive plot, two slick, smart starring characters, a frenzied finale full of surprises and a frisson of young romance, this is teen crime fiction as its most thrilling and compelling.

Boys’ fiction is in a safe and supercharged pair of hands.

Another action hero is Luke Challenger, a teenager who is constantly in mortal danger and does what every boy dreams of ... has ‘ripping’ adventures! Return to King Solomon’s Mines (paperback, £5.99) is Luke’s third ‘mission impossible’ and sees his creators, former teachers Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore, at the top of their game with a tale of ancient magic, hidden worlds and bloodthirsty tribes

With a plot that gives more than a nod to the popular book by 19th century writer Sir H. Rider Haggard, this superb cliff-hanging thriller has the added dimension of being set in the dark and shadowy 1930s when the world was teetering on the verge of war.

While Hitler declares himself the German Fuehrer, the focus of the world in 1934 shifts to Africa where another totalitarian leader, Benito Mussolini, has terrifying ambitions of his own.

This is the new Scientific Age when discoveries promise a bright future ... but also threaten global disaster. And there are powers in the world older than science, and just as deadly...

So begins the third, unforgettable adventure for Luke and Nick Malone, his hot-tempered cousin and partner in a series of madcap escapades.

Luke has been expelled from school and sent to Africa to keep him out of trouble, but trouble has a habit of following Luke and before long he discovers that his old enemy, the ruthless Sons of Destiny, are closing in on the location of the legendary Spear of Destiny.

The ancient weapon grants the power of invincibility, which would help the Sons succeed in their fearsome plans for world domination.

In a deadly race against time, cool-hand Luke and the newly arrived Nick must track down the fabled King Solomon’s Mines where the spear is believed to have been hidden...before their enemies can find it.

Luke’s thrills and spills in a fast-paced, all-action story based on the Victorian classic are guaranteed to grip a whole new generation of readers.

Return to King Solomon’s Mines is fiction for boys aged nine and over at its very best. Exotic locations, super heroes, brilliant baddies and daredevil adventure ... who could ask for anything more?

But what about the girls? With the London Olympics now only months away, what better time to take a hop, skip and a jump into a sparkling new series about the exciting, energetic and inspirational world of gymnastics!

Debut author Jane Lawes doesn’t put a step wrong in her first three Gym Stars books, Summertime & Somersaults, Friendships & Backflips and Handsprings & Homework (paperback, £4.99 each).

Eleven-year-old Tara loves doing cartwheels and handstands in her garden and spends every spare moment practising. But with so many other things to learn, like backflips and somersaults, Tara is desperate to join a gym club.

When her mum finally gives in to her pleas, Tara signs up for a summer course at Silverdale Gymnastics Club. With a real sprung floor, bars, beams and a big foam pit, the gym club is everything that Tara has ever dreamed of.

After a whirlwind week, Tara can’t believe her luck when she is asked to join the acrobatics squad and is partnered up with another girl, ready to learn all sorts of new balances and moves.

Gym really does fix it for Tara!

Girls aged eight and over will love this fantastic Gym Stars series which is filled with fun, friendship and dreams of fame.

And when it comes to fame, or should that be notoriety, Penny Dreadful can’t seem to stop herself getting into trouble!

Joanna Nadin’s lovable funny girl Penny Jones is back in a super three-books-in-one trilogy, Penny Dreadful Causes a Kerfuffle (paperback, £4.99).

The three wacky and wonderful stories are Penny Dreadful Does Her Best, Penny Dreadful and the Secret Ingredient and Penny Dreadful and the New Girl, with an added bonus section called Penny Dreadful’s Top 5 Tips for Survival.

Penny’s hilarious adventures, which have enormous appeal for both readers aged seven and over and their parents, were shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize last year and there is no end in sight for her amazing mishaps.

Here we find her trying to do her best but failing miserably... again! She is sort of ‘blueish’ all over and so is her sister Daisy’s swan outfit. She was actually trying to help Joshua Bottomley fall in love with Daisy by doing a science experiment on him, but she didn’t know that he would just go a bit pale and green and it would all turn into one BIG kerfuffle!

Jess Mikhail’s brilliant and bold illustrations bring to life Penny and her cast of zany family and friends ... Cosmo (Penny’s best friend), Georgina May (Penny’s clever cousin), Daisy (Penny’s annoying sister), Mum and Dad, prim and proper Aunt Deedee and Gran and Gran’s cat Barry.

With madness, misbehaviour and mayhem on every page, there won’t be a straight face in the house when Penny makes an appearance!

The perfect book to get youngsters reading with an adult, or entirely alone.