Tag Archives: Oppel

Half Brother

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I approach a Kenneth Oppel book with something akin to hero worship. With good reason. EVERY story he writes is different, his voice changes, and each is better than the last. I am an unapologetic fan, and cannot wait to read everything that flows from his pen. My reviews could all be “he wrote it, you read it.”

Half Brother follows this pattern of excellence.  13 year old Ben is moved across the country from Toronto to Victoria, where his research scientist parents adopt Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee they plan to raise as a human.  He becomes Ben’s baby brother, and is dressed in clothes, fed human food, given books and toys, and observed 24 hours a day. Can he be taught language?  Can he live as a human?  Every milestone and action is recorded by a team of research assistants from the University.

What could go wrong?

At first, Ben resists the chimp, and refuses to participate in the experiment.  His parents have turned his world upside down, he misses his friends, he goes to a school he doesn’t like, and it just isn’t going to happen.  In other words, he’s a 13 year old boy.  But over time, he falls in love with Zan, protects and cares for him.  Right around the time his father starts to believe that the whole plan is not such a good idea.

Set in the early 1970s, the story explores the controversy and ethics of chimpanzee research and animal testing. But it is not an animal rights platform. Or, at least, not only. It is, at heart, a story about what makes a family. Is it blood? Language? Species? Or maybe it is just love.

As with every Oppel novel, the characters are authentic. Central to the theme of language, there is constant dialogue throughout the story, rather than description, which allows the characters to develop naturally, and adds to their realism. Ben’s relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father, and the one he develops with his “brother”, Zan, are all carefully crafted through their everyday conversations and recording of Zan’s progress.

Ben’s father and he clash constantly over the raising of Zan.  Ben treats him as one of the family, while his scientist father uses harsher methods, demands obedience, and has a very disconnected, clinical view of the chimp.

Zan learns dozens of sign language words, but does he understand the language, or just mimic what he sees?  The very topic of chimp/human understanding was at the centre of the research at the time.

As Zan gets older and stronger, the humans around him see both the best and the worst of chimpanzee behaviour.  His maturation introduces new complexities into the relationships, and Ben’s own maturity must also keep pace as new ethical concerns arise.  What is best for Zan, and at what expense?

Fast-paced and well-researched, the attention to detail brings back memories for those of a certain age. As a kid in the seventies, I did spend my days on my bike, my friends and I played in the woods and fields behind our house, did the dishes in the sink (while dancing to ABBA and the Bay City Rollers), and dreamed of owning a colour tv (didn’t happen).

This book is appropriate for all teens, animal lovers, and anyone who needs a good cry. Can it have a happy ending?

Half Brother was published January 2010 by HarperTrophy.

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The Boundless

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If you can picture a Titanic inspired steampunk railway train, then you will love The Boundless.  Kenneth Oppel magically weaves history (Canadian!) and myth together to achieve this spellbinding book.

The Boundless is Cornelius Van Horne’s monumental ode to train travel on the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway, for those who aren’t from here, or for those who slept through grade 9 history…).  To set the stage, Oppel takes the reader through the final days of building the cross-Canada railway, including in his story the good, the bad and the ugly.  He covers it all: the beautiful scenery, great mechanical accomplishment, poor or no wages, bad food and terrible conditions, the horrible treatment of the Chinese immigrants workers, as well as the celebrated last spike ceremony, with a few poetic liberties taken.

The book is in two stages.  Will is 13 years old, traveling from Winnipeg to the Rockies to see his father for the first time in three years.  His father, James, worked on the railway, helping to build the grand CPR.  Through sheer luck, Will gets the opportunity to witness and participate in the Last Spike.  In his travels, he meets a disappearing circus girl and the great Mr Van Horne himself, along with other mysterious strangers who will feature prominently in his future.  Danger ensues, and James saves Mr. Van Horne’s life, earning his everlasting gratitude and a hefty promotion.

Three years later, Will is back on the railway, in different circumstances.  The family lives a wealthy life in Halifax, and is preparing for a move back out west.  Mr. Van Horne has passed away, and his body will travel across the country on a final journey, on the inaugurall trip of the greatest train ever built – the Boundless.  Nearly 1000 cars long, with first, second, third and colonist class cars, the titanic train is a travelling city.  Excitement and adventure and danger abound, along with meeting old acquaintances, both welcomed and not. Will is growing up, and trying to find his own place in the world.

Included in this story are the Canadian myths of the Sasquatch (Big Foot) and the Wendigo (the demonic canabalistic half human wild beast that lives in the mountains and prairies of the west).  I always suspected they were real…

As with every book Kenneth Oppel writes, this one is fantastic.  The characters are believable, the story is detailed, and Oppel draws the reader right in.  It was hard to put down.  He writes The Boundless in the first person, which I found a little hard to get used to in the beginning, but once the story was underway, it worked really well.  Seeing the whole adventure through Will’s eyes was perfect.

This is a GREAT story for boys of all ages.  It has it all: adventure, trains, monsters, myth and mystery, and a little bit of gore.  Who hasn’t wanted to run away and join the circus?

The Boundless is published by Harper Trophy Canada.

The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (series)

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Best. Titles. EVER. Kenneth Oppel’s gothic two book series starts with This Dark Endeavour and ends with Such Wicked Intent.  How can you not want to read them?  Never have I wanted a series to go on and on so badly!   (I will probably say that often, but it is true. Every. Single. Time.)

Victor Frankenstein lives a charmed life in the family chateau with his  twin brother Konrad and cousin Elizabeth.  Along with their close friend Henry, they study their lessons and explore the mountains surrounding their home.  They also spend time exploring their ancient chateau, endless corridors and half forgotten rooms, no place off limits to them.  Except the Dark Library, home to books full of mystery and magic.  Which of course, makes it a very enticing place to Victor.

When Konrad falls deathly ill, Victor broaches the Dark Library,  searching for answers to his sickness. His intense all consuming desire to save his brother’s life leads him down a path that will eventually end in Mary Shelley’s gothic classic.  This series explores alchemy and the supernatural, obsession and love, a romance that grips the reader and does not let go.

Victor is a wonderful character, a normal yet troubled teen, one with all the trappings of noble bloodlines and inherited wealth.  He is stubborn, arrogant and rash, yet you still root for him.  There were times I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him.  Konrad is gentle and kind and intelligent, immensely likeable, but you know from page one about whom the story revolves.  His parents have high expectations for their offspring and niece, showing the examples hard work and courtly behaviour in all instances.  In his upbringing and deportment, and then his increasingly erratic and obsessive behaviour, you can see in Victor the man who will be Frankenstein.

Both books are beautifully written, with absolutely incredible character development.  No words are wasted on unnecessary description. The last 30-ish pages of  Such Wicked Intent were impossible to put down; I was a wee bit late picking my kids up from school that day. (Thank goodness the admin are easily bribed with good book recommendations!)

Oppel leaves the reader wanting more, and deliberately so.  His prequel homage to Shelley is beautiful in its imagery and language, and readers of the original will not be disappointed.  (I LOVE Shelley’s Frankenstein). The ending has promise of yet another installment, an epic cliff-hanger.  Will there be one?  I have been haunting Oppel’s website for ages now, waiting!

Great for teens who like classic horror novels.

This Dark Endeavour and Such Wicked Intent are published by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.