Friday, November 25, 2011

Artemis Fowl

Title: Artemis Fowl
Author: Eoin Colfer
List: #59 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? For an adult, not really.

The BBC Top 100 list is notable for the variety of books it includes. There are classics, recent novels, fiction written for adults, and juvenile fiction. When the BBC solicited nominations for its list, Artemis Fowl had only been out for two years. Since then, it has grown into a series of seven books, with the eighth and final book coming in 2012. The series is a children’s fantasy series, and each book ranges from about 250-400 smallish pages, with pretty large type. Based on that, the series really seems geared towards children not yet used to reading very much. However, the author describes Artemis Fowl as “Die Hard with fairies,” and indeed the action scenes and Gnommish* swearing seem to make the novel more appropriate for older children. The simplicity of the writing thus does not seem geared to the potentially somewhat older audience.

These characteristics are in stark contrast to other children’s fantasy novels that made it on the BBC list, including the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Both of those series are also clearly for children, but are easily read and enjoyed by adults without feeling like a children’s book. Not that there is anything wrong with a children’s book feeling like a children’s book. That seems perfectly natural, but I don’t think that such an obvious children’s book really belongs on the BBC Top 100 list next to classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. To be fair, there are other children’s books on the list, like the books by Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson, that may be more appropriate companions to Artemis Fowl. It has been many years since I read Roald Dahl’s children’s books, so I can’t remember how childish they are. However, I do remember loving them and that my parents really enjoyed them, I still think they are wonderful and praise them whenever I get the chance, and I hope they will be read to or by my own future children. As for Jacqueline Wilson’s books, I have yet to read any of those so I will reserve judgment.

Even if I set aside the overt childishness of the Artemis Fowl books, I still think they are not that fantastic. The basic premise of the first book is that Artemis Fowl II, a twelve-year-old genius and criminal mastermind, wants to replenish his family’s wealth by cheating the fairies out of some of their gold. (Mind you, the Fowls are still wealthy—the “problem” is that they went from being billionaires to being millionaires.) With the help of his bodyguard, Artemis kidnaps a fairy who happens to be an officer in the fairy police force and demands a ransom payment. Mayhem in the form of rescue attempts and double crossing ensues.

So, yes, Artemis Fowl is an adventure story. And yes, it holds your attention. But… besides the use of fairies and fairy technology, it isn’t very creative. Every predictable moment from every action movie you’ve ever seen is in the first book (and the second for that matter). I don’t think the book made me think or taught me anything new, and I’m not sure that would be any different for a child. That said, it isn’t horrible. And there would be absolutely nothing wrong with a child reading this book because, after all, the most important thing, to me anyway, would be to instill the love of reading in a child. And if this book helps, then any future child of mine will be more than welcome to read it. As for me, I won’t be recommending this to any Harry Potter fans or other adult readers, and now that I’ve read the first two because I borrowed them at the same time from library, I won’t be reading the other six unless (and until) some future child of mine decides to read them.

*Gnommish is the language spoken by the fairies.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Zuleika Dobson

Title: Zuleika Dobson
Author: Max Beerbohm
List: #59 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Not really.

The full title of this novel is Zuleika Dobson, or, an Oxford love story. Except that it’s not. Or rather, it is one of the oddest and most demented love stories I have ever come across. The premise, which becomes rapidly evident so that I do not feel bad about revealing it, is that Zuleika Dobson is a woman with whom men fall in love on sight, to the point of killing themselves for her. And Zuleika is vain and egocentric enough to want people to die for her and to encourage them to die for her.

In this weird twist on reality, a proud and emotionally detached young Duke concludes that the only way to make Zuleika love him, or perhaps more accurately, to make her appreciate his love for her, is to commit suicide. He comes to this conclusion after Zuleika, who briefly loved him because he appeared to be immune to her charms, rejects him after realizing that he has fallen in love with her just like everyone else. Unfortunately, this all takes place in Oxford, a town full of young men—young men who are easily influenced by both Zuleika’s magnetism and the Duke’s resolve. And from that brief description, I am sure you can guess the inevitable conclusion to which this novel steadily progresses.

Now, an awful story is not necessarily enough to make me condemn a book. And, to be honest, when I finished reading this novel, I felt speechless, not knowing whether to encourage or discourage future readers. The writing is excellent. The author has a humorous tone throughout and a calm defeatist attitude towards the inevitable end. He switches perspective effectively, at times revealing the thoughts and actions of the Duke and Zuleika, at times describing the behavior of ghosts and the thoughts of statues, and at other times almost engaging in a conversation with the reader. However, for all that, I don’t think I can recommend it. As I’ve said before, there are so many other books out there that are better able to challenge, move, and inspire me that when I come across a book like this one, I can pretty comfortably recommend that you give it a pass.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Power of One

Title: The Power of One
Author: Bryce Courtenay
List: #183 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Definitely.

This novel is magnificent. There really is no other way to say it. Anything I write will not come close to describing how absolutely beautiful, fantastic, and uplifting this novel is.

My heart melted from the very first chapters where the author painstakingly described the plight of poor little 5-year-old Peekay trying to blend in as the only English boy at a Boer boarding school in late 1930s South Africa. Peekay starts at the school the year war is declared in Europe, and he bears the brunt of the older boys’ approval of Hitler and hate of the English. Peekay’s anguish is tangible and I wanted nothing more than to wrap this little boy in my arms to make him feel better.

Fortunately for little Peekay, he does not have to return to another year of boarding school. Instead, his grandfather has sold the family farm and moved across country, and Peekay will rejoin his mother and grandfather after a two-day solo train trip. This train trip changes Peekay’s life, and the author touchingly describes how a kind-hearted train guard and boxer takes Peekay under his wing, feeds him, makes sure he gets new shoes that fit, and introduces him to boxing and the dream of becoming Welterweight Champion of the World.

The lesson the train guard teaches Peekay, “First with your head, then with your heart,” as well as the introduction to boxing, shape Peekay’s future and the rest of the novel. However, this is not a novel about boxing. Instead, it is a novel about finding an individual place in the world, developing self-awareness and self-confidence, and standing up for one’s beliefs.

It is also a novel about valuing everyone, regardless of background or skin color. After his rough introduction to Boer culture and language at his first boarding school, Peekay develops a fluency in Afrikaans, thereby forging bonds across South Africa’s two white cultures. His later command of the language of boxing serves a similar purpose. Peekay also has a deep appreciation for black culture and language. He learned Zulu at the breast of his Zulu wet nurse and nanny, and picked up two other native languages from other household servants. He never hesitates to communicate with each individual in his or her own language, and, most importantly, he never looks down on anyone for his or her ethnicity. Instead, Peekay treats everyone with kindness and respect and seeks to help those he feels deserve more. In this way, his reputation among “The People” as a spiritual chief is born and he feels their support and presence throughout his life.

Through a powerful command of tone and language, the author conveys a love of South Africa and its people, and creates a strong bond between the reader and Peekay. Peekay meets a wide variety of interesting and rich characters that influence him, teach him, and help him rise to his full potential. Most notable among these is Doc, a professor of music and cactus enthusiast and expert, who really challenges Peekay to excel, and who, despite a wide disparity in age, becomes Peekay’s best friend and mentor.

Reading this novel was like diving into Peekay’s world, seeing what he was seeing, and feeling what he was feeling. It was one of those novels where I wanted there to be a sequel because I didn’t want it to end, but where a sequel might have ruined the majesty of the work. In my opinion, this novel should be much higher on the BBC’s list and is a must read for everyone. I cannot wait until I have time to immerse myself in another Bryce Courtenay novel.