Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce
My rating: 5 of 5
Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.
So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.
Author: Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5
As an excuse to leave the dullness and responsibility of country life, Jack Worthing has invented a troublesome brother named Ernest who lives in the city–naturally when his “brother” is in trouble, he has to go to town to take care of him. While in the city, he leaves his true identity behind, going instead by the name of Ernest himself. And it is by this name that he becomes betrothed to the lovely Gwendolyn; imagine his horror when he finds that she has sworn to only ever love someone named Ernest! Later when Jack has returned to his country house and his ward, the young Cecily, he finds that his friend Algernon is onto him and has the tables on him quite dramatically by coming to visit–as Jack’s wayward brother Ernest. Worse still, Algernon and Cecily proclaim their love for each other, or rather Cecily proclaims her love for someone named “Ernest” just as Gwendolyn did. As Gwendolyn arrives at Jack’s country house, the four are in a right proper stew of lies and confusions–but perhaps the most surprising thing is how much truth has been unwittingly told as lies.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of college literature classes (because I’d rather read stories than butcher them), but I’m ever grateful to my school for introducing me to this jewel of a Victorian play. It’s this satirical, hilariously funny representation of the excesses and the absurdities of the upper classes of Victorian England, and it’s a wonderful read. (Actually, it might be even better seen on stage, but it’s fantastic to read as well.) The wordplay in the drama is brilliantly executed–the sort of stuff that will be quoted probably hundreds of years from now. (River Song even quotes it in the most recent Doctor Who Christmas special!) Some of the ideas presented are quite cutting, but they’re also absurdly funny, perhaps even more so because of how awful they are at times. It’s a lot like Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in the crazy confusion that the plot becomes. And the surprise ending is ironically perfect–just what the characters deserve. I think even if you’re not much into historical plays, The Importance of Being Earnest might be worth at least trying; it’s a lot of fun.
Note: This play is old enough to be public domain and can be found for free on Google Books and on Project Gutenberg.
Author: Lloyd Alexander
The Prydain Chronicles, vol. 1
Taran dreams of a life of heroism, convinced his real life in tiny Caer Dallben is anything but. While daring swordfights spark his imagination, he finds himself Assistant Pigkeeper to an oracular pig who, while quite nice in her own way, has never done anything exciting. Or at least, not until one fateful day when all the creatures in Caer Dallben started acting terrified and ran away . . . a day when the Horned King rode. Chasing after the pig, Hen Wen, into the forest, Taran soon finds himself dragged into an adventure as big as he could have ever hoped . . . only, heroics in truth seem a lot more like hard work, sacrifice, exhaustion, hunger, and conviction than like anything he ever expected. On the course of his journey, Taran meets numerous people who show him what true valor looks like: Prince Gwydion, the lovely Eilonwy, the creature Gurgi, travelling bard (and notorious liar) Fflewddur Fflam, to name a few. In the end, Taran’s whole view of life will change . . . and you never know, he might develop a touch of heroism himself.
I love Lloyd Alexander’s writing, and his Prydain books in particular. There’s just something about his matter-of-fact, pragmatic, yet somehow satirical voice that’s both captivating and extremely funny. His plot is exciting, but I must say, it’s the people that stand out, and the things they learn (which are almost always things we need to learn ourselves as well). Gwydion is a true hero–by which I mean he’s a servant who puts others before himself. Gurgi, with all of his crunchings and munchings is quite the enigma, someone you could easily feel sorry for but who’s actually braver and more loyal than most anyone when it comes down to it. And the princess Eilonwy . . . Alexander’s female leads are always impressive and a treat to read, and Eilonwy’s no exception. I admire her strength of character, and I think her metaphorical way of speaking adds both humor and depth to the story. Poor Fflewddur . . . you’d think he’s mostly there for comic effect, but then there are moments when he truly surprises you. It’s a delight to see the characters growing throughout their journey. I LOVE The Book of Three and would highly recommend it to anyone upper elementary to adult.
Author: Jasper Fforde
The Chronicles of Kazam, vol. 3
As usual, Jennifer Strange has her work cut out for her. As though being the under-age leader of a successful guild of magic-workers (all older than herself) weren’t enough, now she’s got a flesh-eating monster that they accidentally set loose on the town to catch. And one of her best workers managed to get herself held for ransom in the neighboring kingdom–a kingdom known for being intentionally dangerous. Oh, and she’s got a bratty princess to babysit, AND the most powerful wizard of the past few centuries (he’s lived that long) is threatening war against Kazam unless she finds a mystic jewel that may or may not exist! Time to declare a quest, for sure. Why is life never simple?
Ever since I first discovered Fforde’s Chronicles of Kazam, I have consistently been delighted beyond all possible expectations, and I must say that in The Eye of Zoltar he outdid himself. The combination of humor, quirk, and thrilling adventure is balanced perfectly, making this a quest tale with something for everyone. Added to that, you have all the fun and amusing details and satire that so characterize Fforde’s writing, and the Chronicles in particular. The characters as well make this a tale to remember, and even the ones who start out being annoying rather grow on you. (And then you’ve got the characters who start out annoying, grow ever more annoying, and eventually get their just desserts to universal cheers.) Because (spoilers) a large portion of this volume takes place out of country, a number of the characters from the previous volumes don’t show up much–I really missed Tiger’s constant presence, for instance. And I will warn that this volume is kind of dark–not that the previous volumes were all sunshine and rainbows, but you know. . . . In spite of that, I think The Eye of Zoltar is an excellent fantasy, and I would highly recommend it. And hey, it comes with a promise of a follow-up volume which is bound to be more cheerful, right?