Saturday, May 30, 2009

SLOB, by Ellen Potter

Author Ellen Potter, creator of the delightful Olivia Kidney series, brings us yet another memorable hero in her new book, SLOB. In the short time since its release earlier this month, the book has already received rave reviews, as well as a Junior Library Guild Award.

'I'm sure you've noticed that a lot of books start out with some kid's first day in a new school. The thing is, when you are fatter and smarter than the national average, practically every day is like the first day at a new school'. With these words, we are introduced to Owen Birnbaum, an overweight 12 year old with an IQ just one point short of genius, for whom school is a daily nightmare of taunting classmates and tyrannical gym teachers. Worse, someone has begun stealing his precious daily ration of three Oreo cookies- the one bright spot in his school day - and the most likely suspect just happens to be the scary new boy who may carry a knife in his socks. Yet, despite being a self confessed coward, Owen sets out to trap the thief. Meanwhile, he scavenges demolition sites for machine parts and scrap to build a mysterious invention called Nemesis.

Clearly there is more to Owen than he lets on."Everyone thinks they know the fat kid. We're so obvious', says Owen, just as we settle back for what seems like yet another light hearted story about growing up and whacky inventions. And the truth, when it arrives, well into the middle of this book, is as disturbing as it is unexpected.

SLOB is at one level a story about learning to deal with being different, and standing up for friends and for who you are. At a deeper level it is about a child's struggle to come to terms with an extremely traumatic experience and get past it. Along the way, Owen discovers his own courage , resilience and capacity to forgive. His one conviction has always been that he is the smartest person around – indeed, he is faintly arrogant about this in his dismissal of the intelligence of the people around him . This also leaves him feeling isolated, as he struggles with issues he thinks his friends and family can neither comprehend nor solve the way he can. Yet, by the end, he realizes he hasn't been very smart at all, especially in his assessment of his little sister ("very so-so in the cerebral cortex region") and the new boy, Mason Ragg ("evil comic book character, bogeyman").

The lessons this well crafted book offers are subtle yet powerful, and conveyed with gentle humour. Owen’s voice - he narrates this story - is utterly convincing , and his self deprecating wit and sly asides about teachers and family kept me hooked to this story from page one. (He reminded me a great deal of another Owen that I hold dear, since I first met him in a school library). SLOB has several surprises in store for the reader, none of which I ever saw coming. The book has some other delightful and complex child characters that gradually reveal their strengths through the course of the story– Owen’s sister Caitlin who insists on being considered a boy; Arthur and Mason, even sports jock Andre who, behind his bluster and back slapping, does seem to care about Owen. In contrast, the largely peripheral adult characters are more stereotypical – the caring mom, the supportive neighbor, the cruel teacher – yet very believable.

Watch out for one final surprise at the very end – a small yet wonderfully life affirming gesture that had me awestruck, humbled and teary eyed all at once. This is a book I shall keep returning to for a long time.

Thanks to Ellen Potter for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Stranger, by Max Frei

The Labyrinths of Echo, a successful Russian series, makes its English debut with this book. Written under the pseudonym Max Frei, the series chronicles the adventures of a young man of the same name in a mysterious world of magic that he visits in his dreams.

Max the twenty-something character is, by his own admission, a loser . He is also an insomniac with surprisingly vivid dreams that he can recollect quite accurately. Before long, he meets Sir Juffin Hully in his dreams and is recruited to the nightwatch of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the Unified Kingdom. Max, it turns out, has magical powers he himself is unaware of, which he now uses as a policeman of sorts, hunting down perpetrators of crimes involving magic and other supernatural forces.

What follows is a hilarious romp through Echo, capital city of the Unified Kingdom as Max quickly earns a reputation as a formidable investigator. He finds a motley crew of friends in his new role – the hilarious Melifaro, the upright Lonli-Lokli, and the beautiful Melamori. Echo is far removed from anything Max has ever known – clothing is strange, one night stands are formalized; he finds he can communicate with his colleagues and even dogs through Silent Speech. The language of Echo is formal, almost archaic, with everyone being addressed as 'Sir' or 'Lady'. Technology is nowhere near the levels Max has been used to. Yet, magic and telepathy more than make up for all this, as does the cuisine, that finds frequent mention in the book. Max readily leaves his old world for Echo, yet it is never far from him, slipping out in references to Rutger Hauer and Diana Rigg, and in the ‘awesomes’ that sometimes pepper his Silent Speech. Max is a success in Echo like he never was back in his old world, with one exception - his losing streak with romance seems to have followed him to Echo too, as seen in his unsuccessful flirtation with Melamori.

Now the basic premise of this story is not in itself new; travel between worlds and the transformation of a character from zero to hero have been perhaps the most enduring literary fantasies of our times, explored in tales as diverse as 'Gulliver’s Travels', and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and more recently, such blockbusters as the Dark Materials trilogy and the Harry Potter series. The book jacket itself makes a reference to the Boy who Lived, likening Max to an adult, cigarette-smoking, less than successful Potter. In that respect, 'The Stranger' does tread rather familiar ground – magical occurrences, strange powers and stranger characters with tongue twisting names. It also seems to doff its cap at its literary peers; Max discovers Echo much like Alice does Wonderland . And he crosses between worlds in a manner reminiscent of Harry Potter and his magic bus.

Very little of Max's past is revealed; in fact, the reader is thrown almost from page one into his new world. The book is not very plot driven either, but is presented as a series of cases that Max and his friends solve, that can quite easily be read out of sequence. The cases all seem very speedily solved; Max’s own hitherto hidden powers conveniently emerge in times of danger to help him escape and be hailed yet again as hero. This is an extremely long book (544 pages) and a certain monotony does set in after a while, with its case-driven structure. There is quite a lot of slapstick humour that I did not always find amusing. I was also annoyed by the central female character, Lady Melamori. Here is a seasoned investigator at ease when booking criminals, yet dissolving into tears or nervous skulking in the presence of Max, whom she is clearly attracted to. Their flirtation and frequent tiffs would have been more fitting in a high school romance, not this otherwise engrossing book.

For all the issues I had with the book, it is nevertheless very readable, equal parts whimsy and mystery. It is also quite clearly meant as an introduction to Max and this enormous cast of characters, paving the way for the other nine books already out in the original Russian. I have a strong feeling that successive books in the series will be more plot-driven, perhaps even darker than this humorous volume.

The one mystery greater than Max’s future in Echo is perhaps the real identity of the author. While a little Google search suggests that the author might be a young Russian woman, I’m quite content to believe in the illusion of the writer Frei, and wait for the next instalment of what promises to be a terrific literary ride.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand from Overlook Press for sending us a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia, by Daniel Kalder

Strange Telescopes chronicles Daniel Kalder's journeys through post-perestroika Russia, Siberia and the Ukraine in search of four people who view the world 'through strange telescopes' - individuals that have created alternate realities for themselves. His quests take him to remote places far from any conventional tourist route, seeking a peek into these unique worlds that exist not so much on the ground as in people's heads. Are they visionaries, con artists or just deluded eccentrics? Either way, suggests Kalder, they represent a phenomenon rather uniquely Russian, triggered by individual struggles to survive the economic and social upheaval caused by the fall of the USSR.

An article in a Russian magazine he cheekily dubs 'Residential Property Shit' leads Kalder to the first of these four parallel worlds, the 'Underground Planet' in the sewer network under Moscow, and its self crowned monarch, the Digger.

Next stop the Ukraine, where Father Grigory aka the Teacher briskly conducts exorcisms in a remote rural outpost, while also managing a large farm and delivering each of his fifteen children himself.

Next, a remote commune in Siberia where an ex-traffic cop renamed Vissarion, apparently Christ's Second Coming, leads his faithful flock towards salvation and an ecofriendly future.

And finally, a meeting with Nikolai Sutyagin, architect of Russia's tallest wooden building and, by his own admission, perestroika as well.

The four stories are interesting case studies in the power of belief. Each of these characters has an unshakeable conviction in their own mission, in the 'rightness' of their actions. And this is a conviction that is infectious - three of these men have attracted a following for their ideas, some of whom we meet through the course of the book. By contrast, Kalder comes away from each contrast bewildered by this steadfast faith that spurs people to renounce their lives and embrace the hardship and deprivation that come with it.

The narrative is sprinkled with postcards and historical vignettes, chronicling a quest that is sometimes bizarre, sometimes surreal and always entertaining. Kalder writes with wry humour and vigour,focusing his scathing wit both on the people he meets as well as himself. This is not, however, the avuncular humour of say, Bill Bryson's travel writing. Kalder never really develops a fondness for the people or country he is writing about; at one point he dismisses an entire generation as 'pasty faced wankers' and elsewhere,he refers to them as "..people who turned out to be saps, fools, thieves, baby-rapists and mass murderers."

Still, this is compelling prose that kept me hooked. And as much as this is a book about the power of faith, it is also about disillusionment - mostly the author's own. He approaches each encounter with enthusiasm and the excitement of the seeker looking to believe, if he would only be shown a sign; by the end, however, he comes away let down by the wide variance between what each world has promised, and the realities it presents him with. The book ends almost abruptly, with Kalder rushing through his meeting with Sutyagin before leaving Russia altogether. By then , he has run out of questions; his disillusionment with these worlds and with his own need to seek them out seems complete. He has no great thesis to deliver either or conclusions to draw ; all he can say is that he has been merely "..a combination of vibrating air particles in their ears and light reflected on the back of their eyeballs' a fleeting distraction, an interruption in the midst of their important work... And now they continued to gaze through their strange telescopes at marvellous stars so distant that no one else could see them."

For me, this book was as much about the author himself - our own strange telescope into the fantastic worlds he seeks out and examines- and the compulsions that draw him onward on each of these journeys.

A unique travelogue - bizarre yet beautiful, much like the region it portrays.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand from Overlook Press for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Lottery, by Patricia Wood

I picked up this book with some apprehension as its story, of a young man with Downs' syndrome who wins 12 million dollars in the lottery, seemed to suggest too much of 'Forrest Gump' and the rather over rated 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time'. Indeed one could draw several parallels with both, especially the former - a simple hero with a tough talking maternal figure , the war-shattered best friend, the beautiful girl with her own secrets who appears way out of the hero's league.

Perry Crandall, the protagonist, lives a simple life with his grandmother and a small group of friends in smalltown USA. He has to put up with a lot of cruelty and ignorance from the people around him, including his own family, despite being independent and employed. When his grandmother dies, Perry at first finds himself cheated and abandoned by his family members and struggles to start afresh. Then he wins the lottery, becomes an overnight celebrity and everything is different. In a world where everyone is suddenly his friend and the people who once scorned or ignored him are now taking notice, Perry has to decide what his priorities are.

Much like "The Curious Incident..", this story is told in the first person in deliberately simple prose, to reflect the world through Perry's eyes. 'I am an auditor", he says. An auditor is a listener.." And that is indeed what Perry does best, as he lets the voice of his Gram guide him through the minefield that his victory threatens to become. He is smart but not shrewd, aware that his family is desperately trying to take the money from him, even as he writes them an endless series of cheques.

The plot follows a very conventional trajectory, with strong hints of Gump throughout (though Perry, thankfully, does not become an unwitting part of various landmark events in American history). He falls in love, suffers heartbreak, and finds it again. Some scenes felt contrived - the slapstick routine where Perry finds himself alone with Keith and a snarly dog in his cousin's house, for instance, or the impulsive trip to Hawaii where nothing really happens. At some point, though, I was won over. Much like its slow but sensible protagonist, the plot steadily works towards its predictable but still uplifting end.

It's a moral tale, of good and bad, the power of love over the lure of money, the value of friends and family. Nothing very novel, but told well through its simple, almost monotonous narrative.It's slow at the onset, but rewarding for readers who stay the distance with it. You can't help but cheer for this sweet courageous hero, and his real victories - finding love, friendship and purpose.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

This debut novel by a young English author skilfully recreates the bleak and harsh days of Stalinist Russia. It also introduces an interesting new hero in crime fiction, Officer Leo Demidov, a committed cog in the communist machinery whose life is upturned by an epiphany.

It is Moscow, 1953. Leo Demidov is a fast rising star in the MGB (State Security Committee, later replaced by the KGB) and a man who passionately believes in the State and the oppressive measures it uses, to establish the ideals it stands for. He himself is a willing participant in these measures, arresting and torturing suspected spies and dissidents,often on flimsy evidence. And since crime is considered a capitalist failing caused by poverty, the Communist state must necessarily be projected as crime-free - another illusion he happily supports.Until the bodies of mutilated children begin appearing, he witnesses the murder of innocent citizens by his subordinate and starts to question his beliefs.

Then, even as he invites the wrath of his superiors, he begins investigating what he suspects is the work of a serial killer. Faced with opportunistic subordinates and a government eager to squash what it considers his anti-State activities, he quickly finds himself arrested, tortured and demoted. Yet he soldiers on, escaping murder attempts and deportation to a gulag until he finds his answers in a shocking finale, in a place far from Moscow yet closer to him than he realizes.

At one level, this book is about a hunt for a vicious killer. At another, it plots the slow unraveling of a man's faith in everything he has believed in - his employer, the society he has helped build, his wife's loyalties. As he is reduced to the state of the common man he once terrorized as a MGB officer, Demidov realizes the suffering he has helped cause. He also finds the most unlikely allies in his quest - fellow prisoners, his boss in the militia he is bumped down into, his own estranged wife.

It is also a chilling story of a villain far more vicious than the killer - the State itself. This is a terrifying world of paranoia, violated civil liberties and the repression of a whole nation by a regime focused on ideals it cannot really afford to realize. It is a society far from equal -even as the marginalized are left deprived and victimized, corruption and nepotism thrive in the creamy layer of government employees and aye-sayers. It is a society that, for all its talk of equal opportunities and the greater common good, is finally responsible for creating the killer, and all the other criminals it is so desperate to ignore.

I enjoyed the break neck speed at which the plot proceeds, and the minimal yet effective prose. This is a classic thriller - it opens with a bang, pops up dead bodies and red herrings with clockwork regularity, and moves ahead at a swift, action packed pace before ending with yet another bang. The murder of children is always a troubling subject - it unearths our own primeval fears about the evil and perversion that lies dormant in people. It is also always symbolic (atleast in fiction) of the perpetrator's own childhood, of some suffering he or she might have endured. So it's a given that, at some point, the reader is overwhelmed not by the atrocities committed by the villain, but an image of him/ her as a traumatized child. For all that, I was still unprepared for how things turned out here, for a climax that was at once sad and shocking.

The book ends with more than one hint of a sequel, so here's looking forward to more Demidov mysteries soon. And, quite probably, a movie version too.

I'm on a sort of Russia trip these days, if only as an armchair traveller - after Child 44, the two books I'm currently reading are connected to that fascinating region too. One is the terrific Strange Telescopes, that can only be described as anti-travel writing. The other is the English translation of the Russian scifi best seller, The Stranger. Both explore parallel realities, entire worlds existing out of the ordinary - much like the communist state of Child 44. And much like this novel, very, very unputdownable.

Watch this space!