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Life of Riley: Beginner’s Luck by Simon James Green, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

Cover art by Aleksei Bitskoff

Last weekend, as part of my ongoing mission to single-handedly support my local bookshop, I visited two days after ‘Super Thursday’ – the day on which approximately 600 children’s books were published. Having pre-ordered a couple of reads that came out that day, and with my local bookshop only being quite a small affair, I passed over this middle grade read on the ‘new this week table’ in favour of MacBeth United by Michael Rosen as my class have been studying his poem Chocolate Cake and I thought it might appeal to them.

Less than 24 hours later, I received an email from Book PenPals which led me to phone the shop on Monday to ask them to put this read aside for me because my class had had the good fortune to be paired with its author for the year. I would not necessarily have felt obliged to buy any books by our assigned writer but, as I said here recently, with all the furore regarding the suspect behaviour and distasteful writing of a ‘certain writer’ being splashed all over Twitter during the summer, I have been trying to find alternative humorous reads and this laugh-out-loud funny story very much fits into that category. So, did I enjoy it? Well, I only spend my precious time reviewing books I have enjoyed and as MacBeth United turned out to very much not be my metaphorical cup of tea, I have not reviewed it here but am instead presenting you with my thoughts on this.

Ten-year-old Riley is taken by his mother to a travelling funfair for a treat. Not being terribly keen on attractions such as the waltzers, he decides to visit the fortune teller Madame Olga to see what fate has in store for him. After accidentally causing a snot-based incident in her tent he then follows this up by breaking the clairvoyant’s crystal ball and is placed under a curse by her – something which he takes extremely seriously despite his mother’s reassurances that such things do not exist.

Attending school as usual on Monday, Riley is inadvertently involved in a mishap in class involving several of his peers and some extra-strong glue. Attributing this to the curse, he borrows a book from the library to carry out some research on curses in order to take restorative action. Despite his family’s assurances that you make your own luck, Riley’s life takes one bad turn after another until a new boy starts in school – Brad Chicago – who not only wants to be Riley’s friend but wants to work with him on the school’s swimming pool project to design the ultimate swimming pool. Desperate for something good to happen in his life, Riley does all he can to keep super-cool Brad’s friendship until he realises that in Brad’s company, nothing bad ever happens.

As Riley’s behaviour becomes increasingly outlandish, he breaks school rules and lies in his increasingly desperate attempts to turn his luck around. Will he manage to rid himself of the curse as his schemes threaten to lose him Brad’s friendship and get him into deeper and deeper trouble in school or will he be doomed to a life of bad luck forever more?

In common with The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates which I read and reviewed a few months ago, there is a great deal of slapstick and farcical comedy in this book which will appeal greatly to its intended audience. In addition to laughing at his misfortune, many readers will empathise greatly with Riley as they will be able to relate to some of the challenges that he faces from personal experience – even as an adult I still remember the humiliation of wetting myself at primary school which is just one of the misfortunes that befalls him. Unlike Freddie Yates however, the book does not have the same moments of deep sadness. This is not a criticism in any way – many of us who teach have children in our classes for whom a book that touches on a child losing a loved one is too raw to be shared in class, especially under current circumstances.

In common with many, I try not to assume gender stereotypes and it is really lovely to have a male protagonist who is not obsessed with football and stereotypically ‘male’ pursuits. Riley’s love of musical theatre is mentioned throughout the book, with references to both Wicked and Phantom of the Opera and why not? He is also a bit of a hypochondriac with a tendency to over-exaggerate and his close bond with Brad is drawn with a great deal of skill to make him both entirely credible and a role model to those boys whose interests lie away from the sports field.

This book will appeal to all children of Year 5 age and above, not just boys, and also a great many adults because it is genuinely funny. I laughed out loud in several places and sniggered in several more as the plot became more and more outlandish. Many books aimed at upper Key Stage 2 do not contain any illustrations but those included here by Aleksei Bitskoff add hugely to the fun – particularly one which covers almost an entire double-page spread a little past the halfway point when the boys visit the beach.

This is the debut middle grade read by Simon James Green, with whom I am enormously looking forward to working this year and whose book I will be delighted to take into school to share with my class – I know it will be popular with them. A most fortunate 5 out of 5 stars.

2 thoughts on “Life of Riley: Beginner’s Luck by Simon James Green, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

  1. Ooooo! I loved reading this post! Book reviews are the best and this book sounds amazing! It’s funny because I also just posted three reviews today and right after, I found your post! 😛


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