My Sunday Best this week is M.G. Leonard’s Beetle Boy, a joyfully imaginative fantasy full of coleoptera, lost fathers, furniture mazes and a truly nightmarish villain – a striking debut novel, as appealing and fascinating as an iridescent scarab.
Darkus has been close to his father, Dr Bartholomew Cuttle, a director of science at the Natural History Museum, since his mother died. When Bartholomew goes missing, though, Darkus is sent to stay with his benevolent but eccentric Uncle Max, next door to revolting cousins Humphrey and Pickering, who appear to be suffering some kind of insect infestation.
These are no ordinary insects, though, as Darkus discovers when Baxter, an unusually large and preternaturally intelligent rhinoceros beetle, adopts him. But what’s the connection between Baxter and the other beetle giants, and Bartholomew’s disappearance? Darkus, Max, Baxter and Darkus’s brave new friends Virginia and Bertolt are soon hot on the trail – but they’re up against Lucretia Cutter, the mad scientist of fashion, with her sleek black sticks and gem-studded, live-beetle jewellery, who’ll stop at nothing to capture the beetles and squash Darkus’s quest. Who will triumph? And what grim secret is Lucretia hiding beneath her white coat?
This delightful novel boasts the playful, darkly surreal feel of the best Dahl or Lemony Snicket books, along with splendidly odd, underdog characters, assured linguistic quirks and jokes, and a sizeable dollop of entomological fact interwoven with camp-building, friendship and fast-paced adventure. If its beautiful beetle-sprayed edges prompt you to pick it up, its original, welcoming writing will keep you absorbed until the final page.