Riley is cursed. No, really! After a fairground incident - TOTALLY not his fault - bad luck follows Riley everywhere, causing disaster after disaster. It's got so bad that no one wants to go near Riley, including his teachers! But when new student Brad Chicago shows up, Riley quickly realises that Brad is the human equivalent of a good luck charm. Can Brad's good luck cancel out Riley's bad luck? Or is this yet another recipe for disaster?
Almost a year ago to this day I launched my book blog with a review of Simon James Green's Alex in Wonderland - one of the funniest, smooshiest gay teen romances I've ever read. And like a rash I can't get rid of (and I mean that affectionately, truly I do) Simon is back on the blog... though this time it's his middle grade debut, Life of Riley: Beginner's Luck I'm gushing over!
Before I dive into my review I just want to take a second to thank Simon, Harriet Dunlea, and the team at Scholastic for being absolute superstars and sending me an early review copy of Life of Riley ahead of publication. You guys ROCK. 🙏
Okay, let's go!
What's it about?
When 10-year-old Riley Quinn takes a trip to the funfair he's excited to visit a fortune teller to discover what his future holds. What he doesn't see coming is a poorly-timed sneeze that results in a shattered crystal ball, the wrath of a (rather dubious looking) fortune teller and lots of snot. 🤧 🔮 Poor Riley has been cursed - a thousand times over no less! - and all of a sudden he has the most rotten luck. Even his teachers are afraid to get too close! And when new kid Brad Chicago starts school and becomes friends with Riley, he's over the moon... until he remembers he's a walking disaster and it's only a matter of time before he wrecks Brad's life! Can he undo his curse and keep Brad as his new best friend?
When I first found out Simon James Green was writing a book for younger readers I was thrilled. Simon is the master of awkward comedy so a middle grade book aimed at kids who love nothing more than fart jokes and slapstick was always going to be a recipe for success. And boy, was this a success. Life of Riley lived up to my expectations and then some. Riley is quite possibly the most dramatic character I've ever come across in a children's book and I. Am. Here. For. It. There's a scene where he tries to concoct a potion he can use to wash the curse away (as suggested by MysticBrenda.com - sadly not a real website. I checked 😂 ). Now Brenda suggests sage, thyme, and the fermented urine of a newt but as Riley doesn't have access to such ingredients he improvises, running a bath filled with jerk seasoning and Chinese Five Spice and any other ingredients he can find in the kitchen cupboard that look "curse-breaky". And of course because this is Riley, the whole thing ends in a flooded bathroom and a lot of mess. I am not ashamed to say that I had such a laugh reading this book, even if I am far older than its intended readership! I do, however, take some shame in admitting that I might have peed a little, but hey - that's just the sign of a good book, right? In all seriousness, the humour in this book is really clever and while it's full of light-hearted laughs, you can see there's a great deal of attention that's gone into structuring these jokes and sketches. Riley's slip-ups are never isolated incidents - they always seem to create a chain of events and the chaos just snowballs.
This is a book that I just know kids are going to love (not to mention the parents!) and I'm so excited to introduce it to young readers. It's perfect for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Charlie Changes into a Chicken and Who Let The Gods Out and it's always good to have another middle grade comedy in my arsenal to divert parents to instead of just handing them the latest D***d W******s book they've come to auto-buy. The illustrations by Aleksei Bitskoff are brilliant too, adding an extra layer of comedy to an already hilarious book and making Life of Riley an ideal choice for reluctant readers who are intimidated by pages and pages of text.
Male Role Model
The other thing I loved about Life of Riley is that it is completely devoid of toxic masculinity. Riley is not the cookie-cutter boy character you typically find in children's fiction and it's so refreshing to see a main character that's not afraid to defy gender stereotypes. I think boys feel a tremendous pressure to fit in and act "manly" all the time so I'm glad that characters like Riley and Brad are available for children to see so they can understand that you don't have to act a certain way to prove your boyhood. As a 13-year-old who related hard to Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid when it was first released I know how validating it can be to see a character who isn't conventionally masculine and I think there's going to be a lot of young readers who see themselves in Riley and take away that same positive message. It's so important that all boys get to see themselves represented in the literature they read - especially given how disengaged so many boys are when it comes to reading - so I welcome books like Life of Riley and I hope that more follow suit.
Simon James Green's middle grade debut was everything I hoped for and more. Hot dogs dipped in custard, killer seagulls, runaway rabbits - this book has it all! The perfect book for reluctant readers who have devoured Captain Underpants and Wimpy Kid and are looking for a new book to move on to. I'm no Mystic Brenda but I see a bright future for this book. Now I just need to surround myself in lucky charms and pray there's going to be a sequel because I need more Briley mayhem in my life!
If you enjoyed this review and want to know more about Life of Riley be sure to check out my interview with Simon James Green here.