Review: Spud

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The Spud Series

Once in a good, long while comes a book that appeals to adults and young ’uns alike, John van de Ruit’s Spud series falls firmly within that rare category. Beginning with the first novel Spud in 2005, van de Ruit went on to write three more books, Spud - The Madness Continues, Spud - Learning to Fly and Spud - Exit, Pursued by a Bear, all of them bestsellers.

Durban-born John van de Ruit wears many creative hats as professional actor, producer and playwright. His boarding school years at Michaelhouse, KwaZulu-Natal, SA, undoubtedly influenced the theme and setting for Spud, his first foray into writing. The enormous popularity of the Spud series led to a film adaptation, Spud – the Movie, released in 2010, in which van de Ruit appeared in a cameo.

Essentially, the Spud series is built around an adolescent’s coming-of-age experiences. Written like a diary, the books are set in an all-boys’ boarding school and detail the experiences of young John ‘Spud’ Milton, so nicknamed because he is a late bloomer. With a narrative that swings delightfully between comedy, angst and sadness, there’s never a dull moment as the reader is drawn into the lives of Spud, his family and schoolmates. The Spud series is not all fun and games, for van de Ruit captures the ethos of South Africa in the nineties, the struggle against apartheid and political upheavals that created deep schisms within the country.

While Spud, with his awkward frame, adolescent angst and shaky love life warms the cockles of one’s heart, the host of characters who populate his universe are equally engaging. The Crazy Eight are a gang of boys with evocative nicknames like Rambo, Mad Dog, Gecko, Rain Man and Fatty. Spud must contend with a peculiar family too: alcoholic parents, a senile, though encouraging grandmother, and Blacky, their pet dog who’s trained to bark at black visitors. A large cast of teachers contribute to Spud’s joys and woes. Debbie (“the Mermaid”), Spud’s first crush, and the five other girls who constitute his rocky love life round off the list of colourful characters encountered through the series.

Despite the seemingly male-centric nature of the Spud series, the situations are appealing enough to keep readers of both sexes turning the pages. From prohibited night swims to ghosthunting capers and cricket matches to a disastrous family holiday, the books are a roller-coaster ride, with an engaging emotional quotient. Van de Ruit’s diary-style narrative is especially effective in portraying the subtle difference between Spud’s perceptions and the reality of events around him.

If you’ve been waiting for a good read, go ahead, buy the Spud series. Even better, gift Spud to a book loving friend.

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