SEAL and Scholarship students: Personal Response

I’ve stated in another blog that after reading a good book the practice of my business in tuition is to create and write a personal response. A personal response to
John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids is presented, for it is an appropriate text to challenge readers and students in secondary schools, and has worked to great effect to challenge students that I’ve worked with.
Yet not all novels are good novels, and last year I came across a novel that was not quite indescribable (in the fashion of H.P.Lovecraft), but certainly horrible and insufferable. The personal response to that novel is presented below.

For a word document version of much better presentation and formatting than what is shown here email me at angus@gbdeducation.com.au.

MAXIMUM SECURITY by Robert Muchamore – Personal Response

    Right, I hated it.

No really, I hated this book.

    There are very few novels that raise my ire. I hate how everyone misinterprets Girl with a Pearl Earring, and takes the position of the narrator when she’s clearly a vicious lying manipulative self-obsessed snake. I hate the dark and destructive Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and I hate how Katherine (and every other woman I’ve talked to about the book) loves him to death (literally). Charles Dicken’s books bore me so badly I can’t even read a chapter without falling asleep unless I bang my head against the wall after every page, which is bad for the walls. Topping the list of novels that I hate is the morally bankrupt pseudo-religious The Celestine Prophecy. Now I can add all of Robert Muchamore’s “Cherub” series to the black list. Thanks a lot Felicity for ruining my July 2010!

For me, the genre of spy adventure thriller fiction began with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. These were considered pretty terrible literature even in the 50’s, and they have dated even more now such that they seem blunt and misogynistic, a quality well-enacted by the film actor Sean Connery who is widely considered the best Bond of all. John le Carre proved a better writer of fiction, and his thriller The Spy who Came in from the Cold is well-thumbed on my beloved bookshelf. Ten years ago Anthony Horowitz successfully delivered the genre to a new audience of young readers and teenagers with the Alex Rider series. Publishers at the time were eager to find similar texts to fill the niche market – in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the same publishing house produces both the Cherub and Rider series.

    Yet there are some important differences between Cherub and the other novels of the genre. You see, nobody in the fictional world, as opposed the real world which is populated by men who forever engage in far-fetched fantasy, actually liked the super-man of 007. It was far too dangerous to do so. The foolish women in the novels all fell in love with him, sure, then they all got murdered in short order. Bond would often observe that he was a loner with few friends, and it proved that every time he made an unfortunate friend in the series the poor guy would get killed. Bond’s enemies fared little better, but the message was always clear that liking Jimbo was a sure-fire way to get shot, stabbed, poisoned or bludgeoned. James Bond often regretted his lonely and murderous career.

Alex Rider suffers similar regrets. Alex is a pretty likeable teenager, and he has a few friends still kicking in his secret service, but he always laments that he can’t lead a normal life because the bad guys are constantly popping up to kidnap his girlfriend and/or kill his friends and family members. It is with heavy feet that Alex accepts any mission to save the world, and he is often between a rock and a hard place to do so. The super-man in this series would quite happily hang up his flame-proof sneakers with magnetic toe-caps and plastique laces if the super-criminals of the world would just stop trying to murder everyone else.

    The children in Cherub, by contrast, are just a bunch of testosterone fuelled hooligans. The very idea of establishing a college of trained killers under the age of 15 is terrible enough (although those Girl Guides groups seem to do the job quite effectively), but there’s something very, very wrong with the whole system of values depicted in Cherub.

Why? Because the sides of “good” and “bad” aren’t determined by who or what you work for as much as by what you do. Alex Rider knows this. Bond, who does terrible things for his country, also knows the difference. Cherub simply doesn’t.

    Heroes should protect the innocent and weak, but Cherub is populated by bullies. The instructor of a group of twelve-year olds “absolutely loved it when he made a trainee cry (p.40)”, and has “saved up his revenge [on the trainee Lauren] for the very end (p.39)”. This final task for Lauren is described as a test of “courage”, but forcing her to swim a 60 metre river in a frozen wasteland is punitive exercise that only challenges her strength. Her success is in beating him in this contest is rewarded with promotion – realistically the little girl should have died! Similarly, our “hero” and his friends, who are all second-dan Karate black belts, all enjoy “a little rush from being on the winning side (p.17)” in a brawl with local normal kids at the bowling rink. The chairman of Cherub uses “connections at the local police station” to prevent them from being locked up on assault charges, and their punishment is then to recruit other talented individuals to their cause. This reinforces the message that it’s OK to use power and influence over others as long as the result can be measured as a win. Such contests for physical supremacy are presented throughout the novel, and no second thought is ever given to the loser.

Cherubs agents fail to limit themselves in their actions and their acts are always accepted as long as they remain effective weapons. In the Alex Rider series our hero is regularly denied the lethal equipment older agents use with destructive force. Cherub’s children don’t respect any limits. I stopped reading at page 102; at this point in the novel our thirteen year old “hero” James has pretty much overcome the misgivings he had of almost killing himself, his little sister, and his idol Dave in a typically foolish act of hoon driving fuelled with “a shot of adrenaline (p.91)”. His instructor spends a paragraph where he “dished out a twenty-minute lecture (p.93)”, but the moral lesson is immediately forgotten as we then enjoy 6 pages detailing the dangerous mission ahead. James enjoys a last laugh when he discusses the accident with the sixteen year old legend Dave, who reveals his own dumbest mistake as getting his co-worker pregnant. Muchamore writes: “The idea of Dave having a kid was funny, but James mostly laughed out of relief that Dave didn’t seem to be holding a grudge over the car wreck (p.102).” Never mind that the agency employs an army of child soldiers; never mind that the mission in this novel involves infiltrating a prison with child agents who will then complete a break-out of the desired criminal; never mind that such characters are incapable of making mature decisions yet adopt dangerous roles as pseudo-adults. This is a children’s novel, and it presents children with a totally corrupt view of adulthood, society and power.

    Look, I’ve seen enough. Like the Celestine Prophecy this writer clearly has no regard for the consequences of their literature. Indeed, it is apparent that their interest lies in profiting from the excitement of a morally misguided concept. Cherub book covers state “Not Suitable for Younger Readers” but the disclaimer is intended to elicit interest from such an audience and his school visits are specifically tailored for “10 to 13 year olds”. Younger readers are encouraged to visit the web-site, to “Join Cherub Today: Text AGENT to 60777”. I’m too old and too wise to be fooled by this false idol, and no, I do not “completely wish it was true.”

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