Sunday, July 13, 2008

Escaping Reality

I just finished Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (Viking, 2007), a slim grown-up novel about the very last day at a Red Lobster that is being closed for good. It's an aging restaurant, standing across a parking lot from an aging mall, but Manny, the diligent manager, has put his heart and soul into the place for more than 10 years. After today, he'll be one of several assistant managers at an Olive Garden, but for this last lunch and dinner shift, he's trying to keep his disintegrating staff, not to mention his less-than-satisfactory personal life, together while he gives the best service possible to the few customers who wander through the front doors one last time.

Anyone who has worked in food service, been a supervisor, or simply tried to deal with too many frustrating tasks at once will read this novel with an almost suffocating sense of recognition. There's a big world out there, but for Manny, stuck in his restaurant in the middle of a snowstorm, he can only do the best he can. It's pointless - the restaurant is history, there is no further way to shine here - but he continues to struggle and strive, a very ordinary but noble Sisyphus.

After an uber-realistic novel like this, I need a book that takes the familiar and gives it a twist - not straight fantasy or science fiction, necessarily, but perhaps something like Tunnels by Gordon Roderick and Brian Williams (Scholastic, 2008). 14-year-old Will Burrows, like his father, has a mania for conducting surreptitous archaeological digs underneath the city of London. After his father disappears, Will and his new friend Chester discover a long-lost underground colony, run by a group of odd and menacing creatures called the Styx. The action moved quickly and the details (the clothing, food, and architecture of the folks down below, for intance) were fascinating enough to keep me reading. Two flaws, however, kept this novel from being a completely satisfying experience. First, there were many logical flaws - for instance, how has no one found out about this place, considering all the modern-day development in London? The puny explanation - that those who accidentally found out are "disappeared" down below - simply doesn't work. Many similar questions kept floating into my brain as I read, but I was able to suspend my disbelief most of the time, if only so I wouldn't get fed up and simply stop reading. The more damaging flaw was the flatness of many of the characters. We are told that Will loves his extremely dysfunctional family, but we are given no evidence of this. We are told that Will feels great loyalty toward his father and his friend Chester, and indeed this is a wonderful thing - but when he escapes after suffering terrible dangers, only to immediately go back underground to rescue his father and friend, it feels a bit unreal. We are told about the emotions and attachments of the characters, not shown them, and it makes it hard for the reader to care. Still, readers in grades 6 to 8 will savor the unusual, action-packed plot.

China Mieville is a fantastic writer in the so-called Steampunk genre, having produced such grown-up masterpieces as Perdido Street Station and The Scar. His first young adult novel, Un Lun Dun (Random House, 2008), portrays a sort of alternate London, a dreamlike, surreal world that occasionally interacts with and is affected by "our" London, and vice-versa. A young teen of our world, Zanna, is pulled over to UnLondon because she has been picked out by a book of prophesy as being the Schwazzy, or Chosen One, who will save UnLondon from The Smog (yes, this hideous specter comes from our London, but is controled by evil UnLonders). Zanna and her sassy friend Deeba orient themselves with difficulty to the very different UnLondon, where junk from London becomes sentient (an empty milk carton becomes Deeba's pet) and strange denizens have come up with a whole different sort of economy. Mieville's imagination runs full force, although I felt he reined back a bit on his prose style, keeping his sentences and paragraphs less complex and baroque than in his adult books. Still, this is a gorgeously intricate novel that should appeal to adults as well as kids in grades 6 and above, and especially to fans of Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series.

Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish (Penguin, 2008) is a book I can't wait to read (it's on hold for me in the circulation department as I write - oh joy!). It's the 2nd in the Monster Blood Tattoo series, the first of which was Foundling (Penguin, 2007), which I actually read twice within a few months - a very rare occurrence for me, as there are just TOO many books to read even once, let alone twice. This is the series for readers looking for a complex, ambitious, fully-realized, well-developed world in which to immerse themselves. Rossamund Bookchild is a boy with a girl's name who was abandoned as a baby at a home for foundlings. In his world, the Half-Continent, children (and especially foundlings) dream of becoming brave sailors in the Navy or even heroic monster-killers - but Rossamund is hired to become a Lamplighter for the Empire. On his journey to his new headquarters, however, he has a series of misadventures that lead him to the company of the dashing and mysterious Europe, a monster-slayer of great repute. The humans in Rossamund's world are engaged in a general eradication of monsters, many of whom are indeed quite nasty; however, it doesn't take long for Rossamund to wonder if perhaps not ALL monsters are terrible. This, along with his job as Lamplighter, will certainly be addressed further in the second volume. The detailed drawings and insanely complete addendum (maps, calendars, dictionaries - I'm telling you, this author is totally obsessed) add huge appeal to fantasy-addled readers like me. For readers in grades 6 and up who thrive on challenging fare.

And don't forget the "Hungry Cities Chronicles" by Philip Reeve, which began with Mortal Engines (HarperCollins, 2004). Cities trundling about on giant treads, mashing all beneath them and gobbling up smaller cities ("municipal Darwinism"), while airships rocket above - and young Tom and Hester try to find their place in a mad world. Gripping from the beginning of the series to the end. For grades 6 and up - and for adult fans of China Mieville as well.

I've just finished Waiting for Normal (see my review below) and am starting the second Rex Zero book - good stuff, but I can't wait to escape to other worlds and realities. See you there...


  1. Tell me more about the steampunk genre. I am intrigued.

  2. How do you do… escaping


    To escape is what we humans do throughout our lives. In countries, relationships, friends, jobs, lifestyles and dear old braino with all its pseudo logic, afflictive desires and tempting idiosyncrasies. But will we, could we, do we, want to escape?


    ...more at