Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: Cosmic

One can identify the intended audience for a movie or book by the gas jokes: hamster gas jokes are written for children, and a "dart" gun that emits a noxious gas (but never uses the rhyming word) was intended for a general audience.

Cosmic follows the same logic.  Rather than play to the lowest common denominator, Frank Cottrell Boyce takes the game up a notch with a boy on the cusp of adulthood who tries to understand the baffling world of dads.

Liam is tall for his age and has started to sprout wisps on his chin, so he often is mistaken for an adult.  Worse yet, he can pass as the father of his contemporary, Florida.  This is a nice problem for a 12-year-old to have when he wants to ride the Cosmic rollercoaster or sit in a Porche — but not as good when the car salesman tosses the conscientious pre-teen a set of keys to said luxury car.  Liam doesn't quite understand how the adult world works, but so far it has proven to work to his advantage from time to time.

Teens are as much a mystery to themselves and they are to their parents.  Liam usually can detect the line he shouldn't cross, but as his world changes, so does the line.  Liam's father wants to allow him to grow up, but he knows the trouble a boy can get into without even trying (see Porche reference, above).  The cellphone they share allows Liam's taxi-driving father to keep an eye on him and step in when needed.  However, fathers are not infallible, and that fact allows Liam to test his wings.  In space.

Cosmic is as much a fable as a novel, with characters exhibiting specific personality traits to illustrate points. However, Boyce throws in some amazing surprises, and readers soon realize not everyone is what they appear to be — especially a pre-teen too tall for his age.

Boyce toes a fine line with his narrator.  Liam tells the story from his own, young perspective.  As a boy on the cusp of manhood, though, he is not tethered to immaturity and the limited perspective and language of a young speaker.  Time and again, Liam's language and observations teeter precariously close to "hamster gas" maturity level — but become more clever and multi-dimensional at just the right instant.  This will engage the younger reader while allowing "older" readers to enjoy it on what I'm sure we all would like to describe as a "higher" level.

This enchanting and clever book deserves to be read, and I heartily recommend it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review: The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

Imagine living in the Tower of London as a Beefeater, a member of the military who has overseen the Tower for centuries.  You'd think it would be exotic and exciting, wouldn't you?

So, I imagine, did Balthazar and Hebe.  

However, what they got was much different than they expected.  (It always is.)

In The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, author Julia Stuart creates a unique world in which these two people live, with their hurt and anguish, their hopes and dreams — and a tortoise that saw the reign of Queen Victoria.

First of all, do not read the book jacket.  Don't remove it because the illustration is just fun and lovely to see every time you pick up the book.  However, resist the urge to see what the publisher wants you to see on the inside flaps: it will spoil some of the fun.

The best part of the novel isn't the story, which is absolutely incredible, intense, surprising and entertaining.  For me, it was spending time with Balthazar and Hebe — not to mention Amanda and Arthur, Septimus, Rudy and the bearded pig.  Oh, and the albatross.  Mrs. Cook was nice enough, and she certainly rounds out the story.  So much happens in this book, one doesn't know where to start.  

Balthazar collects rain.  Septimus wants rats dead.  Ruby is the reason Monopoly was banned in the pub.  Spaniards can't all be trusted.  Pomegranate wood is rarely used, but quite beautiful.  Round walls are impossible to hang pictures on.  Moats keep things in, as well as out.  And tourists all secretly hope for blood and guts, no matter how pious they try to be.

In Stuart's world, that all makes sense.  She has the way of weaving a story that doesn't tell it all at once.  Readers must finish the book to discover what happened that fateful day, and it is not really what you expect.  Fact is woven into the fiction, so you're not really sure if the Dutch would — well, we might not have learned it had Amanda not by chance thought of herself while walking past the safe.

In the end, Mrs. Cook surprises you and you weep with the Joneses, while you secretly think the Ravenmaster is ravin' something.  You'll look up the history of Queen Anne's owl just as quickly as you would research Queen Anne.  You realize the story will unfold in tantalizing ways and you'll want to read it again just to relive the good parts — and you will realize it's all good.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Veterans Day, Looking at War in Fiction

Fiction is ripe with conflict and war, and I've read a few volumes that can attest to that on this Veterans Day.

Ian McEwan's controversial, excellent novel Atonement captures the before and after of war, of tragedy, of irrevocable words.  Briony is a blossoming writer on the cusp of womanhood in the years before England joined World War II.  One stifling summer day, she witnesses private scenes misinterpreted through her youthful filter and comes to a disastrous conclusion.  We see the war through the eyes of a foot soldier on the way to Dunkirk through the French countryside and through the eyes of a student nurse in a London hospital.  It's been named "the book most likely to be thrown across the room," so be prepared.

In Blackout and All Clear, Connie Willis shows the heroes of WWII were not just the ones on the front.  In this two-part novel, Professor Dunworthy sends his Oxford historians to Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Dunkirk and London to confirm the information recorded about the war.  Michael is sent back specifically to witness and record heroism on the battlefront.  Polly lives in London and works as a shopgirl.  Charles is a Navy officer practicing golf and etiquette in the months before the invasion by Japan. Eileen is the caretaker of children sent to the English countryside during the early years of England's involvement in the war.

However, when three of them are thrown together by chance and necessity, they discover the very act of leaving the Tube station after a bombing required a heroism one does not consider under normal circumstances.

To top it all off, there's something going on with time travel that has Mr. Dunworthy rescheduling drops and consulting with a time travel scientist who sees a pattern in the escalating slippage.

For those who like classic literature, consider The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  The Pevensie children are sent to the countryside to live with a stranger, the practice at the time, when they encounter the wardrobe that sends them to Narnia.  There, also, is a war, and good has been dormant until the heroes come along.  Who would think four young children could make such a difference?  Aslan, that's who — one of my favorite characters of literature.  I gobbled up the entire series, holed up in my bedroom one glorious week.

David wasn't as lucky as the Pevensie children in the modern tale, The Book of Lost Things.  He wound up in the country during WWII, but it was with his father, his new sibling and his new stepmother.  He heard books "talking" to him, and through them he discovered a breach between his world and a fantastical world.  He took the leap and discovered that tales must originate from somewhere — and sometimes, that "somewhere" is as much nightmare as dream.

John Connolly mixes tragedy and humor, fairy tales and reality, a child's worst nightmares and his greatest dreams in this book that is not for the faint of heart.  In the end, we discover that things don't change all that much: children always want to be loved, and the gray area between adulthood and childhood should be trod with care.

What books have you read regarding war that have made an impression on you, and why?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, left me feeling very disconcerted, betrayed, sad and hopeful.

As the story opens, Elspeth dies, leaving behind Edie, a twin she hasn't seen in two decades, and Edie's children: Julia and Valentina, identical twins who actually are mirror images of each other.  Julia and Valentina are the main beneficiaries in Elspeth's will and can receive their inheritance when they turn 21 (which is months after the aunt's death).  However, for them to receive their inheritance, they must move to London and live in their aunt's flat for one year — and never let their parents step into the home.  After a year, they may do what they want with the flat, and the rest of the inheritance is theirs.

Elspeth also leaves behind a bereaved boyfriend, who was about a decade younger than his lover.  Robert is writing his dissertation about Highgate Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery with a rich history.  He purchased the flat below Elspeth when they first met, and they both lived in the building next to the cemetery (Robert on the ground floor, Elspeth on the second floor).

Martin lives on the third floor of the building.  As the book opens, the crossword puzzle setter and linguist is shocked as his wife Marjike leaves him to returns to Amsterdam, having spent many years living in the narrowing world of her obsessive-compulsive husband.  (Their son, Theo, is away at university.)  Technology permits him to lead a surprisingly secluded life, and he always has his friend Robert.

As the young women move into Elspeth's flat, they are haunted.  Elspeth is everywhere: in the furnishings, books, even the very dust of the home.  Having Robert one floor below adds to the all-Elspeth spirit of the flat.

Valentina is haunted by more than the memory of her aunt.  Her sister is the driving force in her life.  They are a "we" whose life is determined by Julia's actions and interests.  Valentina is starting to want more than just her sister.  She has interests Julia doesn't share, which is hard for this mirror-image woman to understand.  Readers get to see beyond that tether: the women are close, but they manage to go their separate ways from time to time — and each manages to create a world in which the other doesn't exist. Valentina's desire for a life creates a chasm into which she throws a bizarre solution — one she couldn't have considered in any other part of the world, in any other home, surrounded by any other cast of characters.

I liked the characters in this book, and the author helped me see their lives through their own eyes.  Wait, let me clarify: I didn't like the characters in a "Boy, I wish I was a mirror twin" and "I'm so glad I dust my furniture from time to time" kind of way.  Rather, the characters were fair to themselves, and it simultaneously broke my heart and pleased me.

The story was wholly unique and intriguing, making me wonder just how much of us is left behind when our lives end.  The resolution was understated, which left me feeling lost and abandoned — or maybe it was the story itself.

This is the time of year to pick up a book in which life and death are so closely intertwined.  Let me know if it was a satisfactory book, and maybe if you would have done the same had you been that character.

(By the way, after you have read the novel, check out the different covers on the different hardback editions.  Which cover did you have, and do you think it was the best?)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: One Day

A day in the life is not a new concept, and I was skeptical that David Nicholls could create anything more than the one-trick pony the concept had become.  However, Nicholls gave it dimension and a sweetness, then loaded it with a few surprises and make it wholly original.

Emma and Dexter meet on graduation day in college.  Despite the setting, they are not lovers, but possibly can develop into friends.  However, it won't be easy: he's planning to take a year or two to travel, she's going to do something with her English studies (though exactly what has yet to be determined).  It's 1988 in the UK, and these two are about to launch their lives in totally different directions.

Nicholls doesn't take the safe route, even if he uses tools familiar to most readers.  Em and Dex weave through each other's lives in a myriad of ways and surrounded by a wide array of people.  Nicholls does not pass judgement on these two: they simply find themselves in situations that are of their own doing, and the readers are free to condemn or pity, ridicule and pass judgement as they see fit.

Only readers will be too fascinated and engaged with Dex and Em, Em and Dex.  A few scenes stand out for me, including communication that is overlooked and captured.  One of the biggest changes in modern times is in the field of communication — where would we be without our cellphones? — and from time to time, those of an age to remember answering machines and home phone lines, will hearken back to the "good ol' days" of connection.

My only real issue is with a particular plot complication (which I know you will recognize when you encounter it).  Nicholls and his brilliant novel nearly was launched across the room (though gently, because Kathy was kind enough to loan it to me).  With most writers, it's the "get me out of this corner" or "Good heavens, what did I do here?" device I've encountered way too many times lately. Thankfully, I was invested enough with Dex and Em to keep reading, and I am so glad I did.  When you get there, don't stop — keep reading and be rewarded.

Now go live with Dex and Em for a while.  You will be glad you did.