Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Boundless (Kenneth Oppel)

As a child, I loved trains. I had a toy train set and train-themed decorations for my bedroom. I couldn't explain why I liked them so much, and I certainly can't explain it now. I thought maybe I grew out of the phase, but years later, I realized that I love books and video games and movies that are set on trains. There's something thrilling about the tight, inescapable, high-speed quarters and the implications that these constraints have on the narrative that really delights me.

I found The Boundless while browsing through a list of middle-grade books coming out this year; I knew of Kenneth Oppel but had never read him, but was excited to see that he was writing a train mystery thriller. The titular locomotive is the longest in the world, and Will's father is one of its many workers. Will and his dad are going to be taking part in the vehicle's maiden run, though tensions between the two are high: Will wants to be an artist and go to art school, but his father wants him to pursue a "real" career.

And then Will discovers that the last train on the car, carrying the corpse of the financier of the Boundless, is loaded with riches and the target of a conspiracy from a disgruntled former employee of the railway company. Accidentally implicated in the plot, Will must flee from the man after the treasure. He takes up with the circus traveling in the train, disguising himself as an Indian man with an extrasensory ability to draw (a talent relying heavily on circus trickery).

If it sounds like there's a lot going on in this book, you're right. And it's not a very long novel, so it feels like a lot of things got squeezed into too small a space. That's perhaps my biggest issue with the story: there are a lot of fun events happening, but none of them are explored to the depth that they deserve. I loved reading the behind-the-scenes circus stuff, and I loved reading the descriptions of the train and hearing about the differences between coach classes. The Boundless is a portrait of a bygone time, and Oppel's explanations are his strength.

But it's clear that he suffered commitment issues when writing about all of these topics, but none of them really gets the full treatment it deserves. I hate to say that this book could have been longer, because too often do I suffer through books with long sections that could have been safely excised. Honestly, though, I would have enjoyed a longer focus on the atmosphere of the story, which for me was far more interesting than the "confrontation-flee, confrontation-flee" setup the narrative runs through several times before the story's conclusion.

The author even tries to throw in a romance between Will and one of the circus acts, an escape artist and tightrope walker named Maren, but it is severely underdeveloped. The first time Will sees her, he falls in love with her solely because she is so mysterious, and though I waited for the rest of the book to see any kind of expansion on or justification of his feelings, I didn't get one. I of course love a good relationship unfolding, but this one wasn't satisfying at all.

Nonetheless, it's a fun book. Compressed, sure, but still fun. I wanted more circus and train stuff because what I did get was a joy. If you have children that like these topics, full steam ahead (~~PUNS!!~!). The conclusion is satisfying, to be sure (if a bit strange--no spoilers, but shoutout to Dorian Gray), and it's overall a quick, enjoyable read. Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC.

My rating: 3.5/5
The Boundless on Goodreads
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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Black Swan Green (David Mitchell)

After I finished Cloud Atlas a year-and-a-half ago, I felt exhilarated. I had one of those rare moments where all of expectations for a book had been met and exceeded, when all the hype was really valid. I would have, without hesitation, told anyone listening that David Mitchell is a master, truly one of the greats. I bought all of his other books, anxious to read more of his stunning work.

Then I got scared. What if Cloud Atlas was just this one exuberant flash of brilliance, one that showed us how books can be different and amazing and incredible? So I watched all of my Mitchell books gather dust on my bookshelf, too worried about disappointment that I might face if I opened one. Finally, I decided to stop letting fear rule my book-reading and jumped into Black Swan Green.

The novel is about of Jason Taylor, who is thirteen and totally average. He grows up in the small English village of Black Swan Green in the mid-80s, the core of the Thatcher years. Jason's family consists of an older sister, Julia, who's getting ready to go off to university, his stay-at-home mother and his father, a high-ranking employee of a grocery chain. Jason goes to school, sucked into the world of how to stay cool and liked, despite his reputation-killing stammer.

There isn't much of a plot. That's not an accurate statement. That there is no driving incident is a better way of putting it. This isn't the kind of story that's focused on a conflict and action to resolve the conflict. It's like reading Jason's journal (which, if I'm not mistaken, is what we're doing) over the course of one year, just watching his life unfold at the complicated age he's facing. Rooting for him as he tries to navigate social life despite the utter cruelty of those around him, looking on sadly while he remains oblivious to the slow implosion of his parents' marriage.

Jason is a burdening poet, and his playfulness with language--and stammer-induced thoughts on it in general--are stunning. I am generally not a fan of stylized prose because authors are often too tempted by the chance to get flowery. The end result is often a lot of long sentences and weird metaphors with very little focus on anything else, which is frustrating. Mitchell is such a subtle stylist that his words feel effortless and read just as cleanly. I could spend days drowning in his words, and framing these around his sad narrator make their effect even more potent.

Black Swan Green for me was an unexpected delight. It's perfectly constructed, dazzlingly written, and emotionally loaded. Though I was ready to proclaim David Mitchell to the heights before, now I have a second piece of evidence. He is incredible.

My rating: 5/5
Black Swan Green on Goodreads
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