Monday, August 16, 2010

Through the Cupboards

N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy is reminiscent of a whole bunch of stuff I love. The protagonist, 12-year-old Henry, is an over-protected single child sent to stay with his aunt's family of precocious girls in small town Kansas. Henry is given an attic room, and he discovers a wall of mysterious cupboards leading to other worlds. That's all you need to know, as you'll want the exciting tale to be a surprise.

Henry is an interesting kid, and I told Ickie that even if this weren't a fantasy novel, I'd be interested in Henry's character--how he embraces eating meat and playing baseball (two activities forbidden by his parents), and how his relationships develop with his extended family, especially his understated and wise Uncle Frank. The fantasy worlds Henry enters are in turn appealing and horrible, and Wilson does a good job of balancing competing plot lines and a large cast.

Compared to other young adult fantasy novels, this series is superior to many. The allure of the mysterious cupboards can't help but remind one of Lewis's wonderful wardrobe, and the world-hopping provides a dizzying experience similar to Wynne-Jones's Chrestomanci books. One character reminded me strongly of Gollum, and there were several scenes with terror akin to that found in The Lord of the Rings. Henry's personal growth and sense of "lost and found-ness" resemble Harry Potter. Whereas the books are lacking any religious symbolism, they do have a positive focus on familial devotion and honor. Wilson's fantasy world is fairly complex and well-realized, but the main characteristic that sets this novel apart from others in its genre is Wilson's gift for descriptive prose. Here's a little sample:

"The soft applause of a thousand rustling trees surrounded him, and he ached to see them, to shake off his blindness and watch the silver-bellied leaves flick and twist on the wind's wake."

My only criticisms: I'm still mulling over how I feel about the epilogue. I'm not completely satisfied with it. Also, a map of the secondary world where Henry spends much of his time would help me visualize its vast geography. The sketchy map of the cupboards at the start of each book is excellent, though. I'm trying to imagine all those cupboards on my own bedroom wall.

Monday, August 2, 2010

School Chums

Sheesh, I know, it's been forever. I haven't had much to comment on or the time in which to do so. However, this week I read two very different books worth sharing.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoga
, by Tom Angleberger: This light-hearted "mystery" is recorded as a set of case files (with doodles) by multiple sixth graders regarding Dwight, the weirdest kid they know, and his origami Yoda, who is surprisingly adept at giving advice and/or predicting the future. I thought it perfectly captured the sensation of being a sixth grader--still innocent and imaginative as children, yet aware and befuddled by society and the opposite sex. Many of the kids are funny, but Dwight is one in a million. Ickie and I both read it in a day and laughed a great deal. The chapter about the Cheeto Hog completely slayed me.

A Clock without Hands, by Guy Burt: Jackamo insisted that I read this so that we could discuss our opinions about it, and it merits more detail than I'll go into here. Alex, an artist in his 50s, narrates episodes in his life out of chronological order. His flashbacks and his artwork help him to make sense of his poignant relationships with his two close childhood friends, Jamie and Anna. The story shifts among critical events from childhood summers together in Italy, teen years at a boarding school in England, and a reunion as young adults in Italy. You see the plot twists coming far in advance, so the tension really stems from the emotional heft of the relationships and Alex's mental struggle to piece things together in a significant way. Alex's naivete comes across never as annoying ignorance; his mental process is redolent of his childhood learning disability and of his role as a tormented artist, though I believe it is most influenced by his innocent, childlike, and unconditional love for Anna (who I don't like) and Jamie (who I really feel for). It's a unique and moving story that demonstrates how complicated relationships and unhappy endings can be stunningly beautiful.