Whales On Stilts
("What, Captain? Reviewing juvenile fiction? Is something wrong with you?"
Shut UP! So I have eclectic tastes. So sue me.)
I respectfully submit to you that the fairly recent children's book Whales on Stilts has one of the best opening lines in the past 18.5 years of fiction:
On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation.
This bit of bombast is followed by a tongue-in-cheek description of Lily's small town, and then gets down to describing Lily herself:
... She watched things a lot, and thought about them a lot, but she didn't say much, except to her closest friends. She hid behind her bangs. When she needed to see something important, she blew on her bangs diagonally upward, either from the left or the right side of her mouth. Her bangs parted like a curtain showing a nose-and-chin matinee.
The first thing that comes to mind is that Lily seems to be a classic introvert. The second is that here the tone has subtly changed--this is real character description, relying on an eye for distinguishing features, rather than broad humor relying on preconcieved knowledge of mad-scientist-cliches.
To be honest, the first thing that attracted me to this book was its cover. It looked old-fashioned and pulpy, in the best possible way. The lines, I thought, had some twenties art-deco to them, but the images of the whales on stilts gunning down things with their laser eyes were very fifties-ish, while the kids looked like Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, and a Boxcar Child, putting them somehwere in the thirties-forties. I showed it to my mom, who is supposed to be good with this kind of stuff, and she conclued, "Twenties-thirties-forties-fifties, somewhere in there." So much for inquiry.
As for the book itself: Lily uncovers her dad's boss's maniacal plot to take over the world with his secret weapon, whales on stilts with laser eyes. She enlists the help of her two best friends to thwart this evil plot: Jasper Dash, the boy technonaut, who spends his time inventing things that are really advanced for about 1912; and Katie Mulligan, who lives just off Route 666 and spends her time fighting off zombies, were-goats, and so forth. Both have childrens' book series written about them. Together, the three have to save the world.
I found this book hilarious, though not everyone would. But for someone like me, who's read at least a third of the 150 Boxcar children books, dozens of Hardy Boys, a few Nancy Drew (because girls made him, ahem,), and even a few Tom Swift--well, it's perfect.
In closing, I would also like to note that this book contains one of my favorite chase scenes ever:
... The guards ran after them.
Oh, I don't know about you, but I really hate chase scenes. It's all just chase, chase, chase, up the staircase, down the staircase, bang, bang, bang,"Over this way," "No--that way," under the desk, over the chair, and you know that either they're going to get caught, or they're not. So why prolong the agony?
I'll just flat out tell you.
They made it to an old laundry chute.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
The subtitle of this book is A Novel in Words and Pictures. After a short introductory couple of paragraphs, you open to "Part 1." The first page contains a picture of the sun starting to rise. The second contains one of the sun higher, the thir page of the sun higher still, etc. There's a shot overlooking Paris, then we zoom in to a train station, then on the face of a boy. We follow the boy into the hidden passages of the train station, and watch as he spies out through a clock on an old man and a little girl in a toy booth.
Turn the page then, and there are several paragraphs of prose, narrated as though the previous series of pictures were also prose. After several pages, there are pictures again, then prose, and so forth.
The story itself is set in Paris in the Thirties, and is kind of hard to describe. Hugo lives alone in the train station, tending the clocks. He is an orphan, and his past and his father's are strangely linked with that of the little girl and the old man. The first third or so is somber and a bit dull, but the novelty of the book's format carries you through. It ends up being an interesting little story, obviously influenced by early (even pre-Hollywood) movies. Parts of it reminded me of Truffaut's 400 Blows, and the Charlie Chaplin silent The Kid.
And the series of pictures used to tell the story are somewhat like watching a silent film-they're a visual medium, and you can even get a sense of movement, but you have to interpret the story by watching it, not reading or hearing it.
A final note on the style. Less is required of the prose in this than in most books; we already have physical descriptions, a sense of setting and an atmospheric feel. The prose is firstly concerned with the interior lives of the characters, mainly Hugo (though it's told omnisciently, switching from character to character). It also has much to do with the telling-Hugo's past, for example, things that need something of a summary, or scenes that need to move fast.
The book is five hundred pages long, and because of the thickness of the pages, looks much longer. However, the prose amounts to 26,000 words or so, less than half the length of a short novel, so this is a fairly quick read.