Melanie McDonagh

Adventures with robots

Melanie McDonagh reviews, among others, Jinxed by Amy McCulloch, Tin by Padraig Kenny, Moonlocket by Peter Bunzl and The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

Adventures with robots
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Imagine a world where we’re all hooked to our individual electronic devices, which feed us our music, communicate with our friends and know our needs; imagine a tech company that dominates an entire city, where your social pecking order is reflected in the devices you possess. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. It’s all there already… Apple, Google, Facebook. So Jinxed, by the young Canadian Amy McCulloch (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), is very much of the moment.

It’s set in a city in Canada dominated by a tech corporation: ‘The final goal of Moncha Corp is to make life better... And to make people happier.’ Its academy is where every bright teenager wants to go. And its genius invention is the baku, like a smartphone, but animal-shaped and mobile, with whom owners bond, and which becomes more or less a projection of themselves. Our heroine acquires a cat baku, Jinx, with oddly feline characteristics.

It’s a dystopian vision, but utterly plausible. It’s quite possible that our electronic devices will before long take the form of pets that don’t do poos or shed hair — they just need charging. The interesting thing is that the author loves electronic devices, used to do coding and absolutely embraces the realities of life lived through tech. This is a story — there’ll be a sequel — with the same form as Harry Potter: essentially a school story, with nice teenagers pitted against unscrupulous ones, complete with a school tournament, and the same genius device as Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights — a companion animal that’s more or less an extension of ourselves, just electronic. It’s creepily close to reality — and a gripping read.

Tin by Padraig Kenny (Chicken House, £6.99) goes off on a different tack: about living in a world where robots are so real, so much part of the world, they are almost indistinguishable from people, and in some cases nicer. It’s about a boy who lives with mechanical children and grows up with an engineer who makes them, only to find the categories more porous than he imagines. Think Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz with the Tin Man, pretty well the template for this pleasing adventure.

Something similar is going on in Peter Bunzl’s Moonlocket (Usborne, £6.99), another story about machines who have personalities and virtues — featuring a feisty mechanical fox called Malkin. It’s the quest of a boy for his lost parents and a missing locket; it’s set in the reign of Queen Victoria (she makes an improbable appearance) and includes an enormous mechanical elephant and a chase through London’s sewers.

There is nothing so captivating as a good adventure story on a train — think Graham Greene’s Stamboul Express — so really, you can’t go wrong for younger children with The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated with cheerful aplomb by Marco Guadalupi (Scholastic, £6.99). It involves a girl and a nun (who seems never to say any prayers) in pursuit of a missing diamond on a train between Paris and Istanbul (the best route for adventures) with a couple of dim coppers in pursuit. A rattling little read.

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi (Pushkin, £8.99, translated by Cathy Hirano) is a remarkable Japanese fantasy set in some undisclosed time in a land far away, where wolves can fly and monstrous sea serpents exist, and a girl can tame wolves in a beast sanctuary through music. It’s a compelling read even though the author has the wince-making style and sensibility of an American self-help guru.

One of the rules of good fiction is to eschew identical twins and alternative universes. But The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day (Nosy Crow, £6.99) goes by its own rules; it’s an unsettling story about a clever little girl who finds herself eerily alone on her birthday, involving sibling envy, death, computers and alternative realities. Quite extraordinary.

Computing also features in Lauren St John’s action-packed adventure story, Kat Wolfe Investigates (Macmillan, £6.99), about a horse-mad girl, her vet mother and their adventures in their new home in Bluebell Bay in Dorset where Kat solves the fearsomely complicated mystery of a disappearing bird artist. Really, it’s about friendship, animals and, er, veganism. If there’s one thing Kat likes, it’s scones with coconut cream. It was bound to happen.

Older readers might like Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic (Head of Zeus, £8.99), a series of more-or-less related stories about a Portuguese grand hotel in the war, and the misadventures of its guests, chiefly a young Jewish boy, Gaby, who takes refuge there, and featuring espionage and walk-on appearances by Ian Fleming and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. An oddly captivating book, loosely based on reality.

The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva (Puffin, £6.99) is also grounded in reality — Stalin’s Russia, a world in which people simply disappear and other people ignore the fact. It’s the adventures of two children whose parents are taken away and who find they become invisible in turn. It’s an intriguing, magic-realist take on a brutal reality. Yakovleva’s great grandfather was executed by the regime and her grandparents were raised in an orphanage for children of enemies of the state.

For younger readers, what could be better than the new edition of Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly Molly Mandy (Macmillan, £8.99)? It celebrates the 90th birthday of this interested, inquisitive and engaging girl — a spirited little thing with a gift for friendship. Enchanting pictures.