Whether it’s through corny jokes or madcap antics, fathers are supposed to embarrass their children. It’s not only a right but a duty.
Few dads, though, are as embarrassing as Jake’s in Space Oddity (Chicken House, £6.99). He strides onstage dressed in a makeshift Darth Vader costume while Jake is performing at a school talent show. The enormous spaceship he builds out of Lego at a summer fete topples over and crushes several of the stalls. Drinking a wheatgrass shake turns his skin bright green.
There’s a reason for all this. Jake’s dad is in fact an alien who crash-landed on our planet 12 years earlier and, having married an Earthwoman and procreated, has been passing as human ever since, just about successfully. And when he’s retrieved against his will by agents of the Cosmic Authority, who have deemed our race too backward to form part of any intergalactic community, Jake finally realises that a cringeworthy father is better than no father at all and sets off to rescue him.
Christopher Edge’s spry, entertaining novel draws inspiration from the Bowie track that gives it its title, celebrating the ability of music — and that song in particular — both to express loneliness and promote a sense of connectedness.
Loneliness and the search for connection are what drive Sam in Stewart Foster’s The Perfect Parent Project (Simon & Schuster, £7.99). Sam is a foster child who has been shunted from house to house, never staying anywhere long enough for it to feel like home. With help from his best friend Leah he sets about leafleting one of the more affluent areas of town in the hope of finding a couple who will adopt him. He befriends Josh, whose uncle and aunt — childless, affectionate, welcoming — seem the ideal candidates, certainly better suited for the role than the family he is currently lodged with.
However, Sam’s efforts to wangle his way into their lives lead to a mire of lies and deceit that eventually proves his undoing. It also prompts him to reassess what family means and discover a true sense of self. Foster, drawing on his own experiences as a foster parent, writes with great authority, and while his novel meanders somewhat and takes a while to get where it’s going, its protagonist’s plight is never less than affecting. When a police officer displays compassion, all Sam can think is that “she didn’t know what it felt like not to belong anywhere. She didn’t know what it’s like to want something so much that you ache for ever inside.” His despair and hope are palpable.
These are themes that loom even larger in Liz Kessler’s When the World Was Ours (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), a Holocaust story that traces the lives of three Viennese school friends between 1936 and 1944. Elsa and Leo are Jewish; Max is not. With Nazism on the rise in Austria, Elsa emigrates with her family to Prague. When the Anschluss comes, Leo is subjected to anti-Semitic abuse and his father is sent to Dachau concentration camp. Luckily, he and his mother find refuge in England. As for Max, his bullying father becomes an SS officer and he joins the Hitler Youth. Max and Elsa end up at Auschwitz, in very different capacities, with awful consequences for them both.
Kessler’s novel is based in part on the life of her own father, who like Leo escaped from occupied Europe to the UK in the nick of time. Her narrative circles back repeatedly to a photograph of the three youngsters taken on their last truly happy day together, riding the Riesenrad, Vienna’s famous Ferris wheel. This touchstone image is one of the few flickering sparks of joy in a powerful, sombre and moving account of three innocents whose dreams and humanity are gradually stripped away by the dark power of an evil ideology.
The world still contains goodness, however, and here to remind us of that are two picture books: Slow Down (Magic Cat, £16.99) by Rachel Williams and Freya Hartas and The Invisible (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) by Tom Percival.
Slow Down invites us to stop and consider some of the processes of nature, such as a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, a thunderstorm forming, a spider weaving its web, a mole gathering a larder full of earthworms, or an ocean wave cresting and breaking, in a series of gorgeously illustrated vignettes designed to ignite the reader’s interest in simple, everyday wonders.
Meanwhile, The Invisible introduces us to Isabel, a girl who has always been able to see the beauty in things, until the day she and her parents move to a high-rise flat in a drab, deprived area of the city and she begins to feel she is fading away. Discovering a sense of community saves her, in this affecting and heartfelt cry against the miseries of child poverty.
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