Thursday, January 15, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Tim Wynne-Jones is a middle-grade novel set in 1962 Ottawa. One month after the Cuban missile crisis, Rex Norton-Norton (whose last name is a subtraction problem, his friends note) is due to attend an Armistice Day ceremony -- which Rex had misunderstood as "Our Mistress Day" -- with his father, a WWII vet who "always gets crabby this time of year." So unenthusiastic about this occasion is Rex that he honestly forgets, standing his father up and creating distance between the two of them that he regrets but doesn't know how to bridge. With five siblings; a fascinatingly horrible substitute teacher; a collection of funny, loyal friends; the discovery of a little black book of phone numbers in a phone booth; a mixture of crush and worry over a young woman married to an angry husband; and increasing secrecy on the part of his father; eleven-year-old Rex has plenty to sort out in this active, funny and heartwarming novel about the many different expressions of love.

I found both the family and the friends funny, thoughtful, and engaging, but I was really caught up in the teacher, Miss Garr. I had Miss Garr in elementary school. She's the kind of teacher who, when you calculate that a week after November 26th is November 33rd, as Rex does, and the students roar and the class clown literally rolls in the aisle, says to the clown, "Do you think it polite to show such disrespect because of the stupidity of a fellow classmate? Have you no concern for his feelings?" She's the kind of teacher who, when a student reveals that he knows the song she mentions as her favorite, as Rex does, decides that a fitting punishment for some infraction would be to make him sing that song in front of the class. ("I didn't used to hate the song. Now I do," Rex says later.) She's the kind of teacher who, when someone needs help with his math, as Rex does, says to the kid in the next seat, "Help your mathematically inept friend, will you?" If the fact that I'm reading about "kids my own age" here weren't reason enough to ID with these characters, I SO had Miss Garr in elementary school. Yet she has her sympathetic point: Miss Garr's turns at playground duty show her special affinity with younger children. Miss Garr's problem (though I don't think this would have been the answer for my Miss Garr) is that she's teaching at the wrong grade level.

Another thing I love about this book is the number of subplots. I'm sure somebody somewhere would say that theoretically this book has too many for a mid-grade novel. About a third of the way through the novel, Rex does something that helps not only himself but readers get a handle on all of the plot threads. He lists several of them: 1) Why has my father been acting so strange? 2) What is the story my mother thought he was going to tell me on Armistice Day? 3) Why was Annie [his sister] snooping in Dad's study? 4) Who is the beautiful Natasha Lavender and why is she so sad? 5) Why is she called "Nate" in some guy's address book? 6) What is Kathy going to do about Dr. Arnold Schwartz? 7) What is my class going to do about Miss Garr? From this point on, the author tightly weaves all of these -- and more -- together until all are resolved at the end. Rex's string of mysteries creates an active, concrete plot structure for a novel whose overall aim is more psychological -- to explore what it means to love, to become a man, to be loyal, to take responsibility. It all works very well.

Rex has some great lines. Waking up one morning he says, "I feel smart, just like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard gives him a diploma. Morning is like a diploma." He describes a wobby smile as "a smile with training wheels." Though some might object to the present-tense narration, I barely noticed it. I think we've reached the point where objecting to present tense just because it's present tense makes no more sense than objecting to past tense because it's past. Just throwing it out there. :)


PJ Hoover said...

Did the subplots weave together in a satisfactory way? Would you have cut some and if so, would the story have suffered?
Great review!

Anne Spollen said...

I am pretty ok with subplots for MG because the kids really keep up with them. As long as they're connected in some way, I find MG kids can keep track of a whole lot more than I originally thought (and I hope it's not because of their exposure to video games)

Your reviews always make me want to read the books -- my TBR pile is getting scary long!

Also, ? if you get a chance. Do you find some of the phrases or styles of the books you are reading creeping into your work? I've found that I can't read any novels when I'm creating the story (revising doesn't matter) or I get these weird patches that sound faintly like the novel I was reading at the time, and I have to edit them out. Just wondering if that happens to you as you read and write fiction.

Marcia said...

PJ -- I don't think I'd cut any of them. Nothing felt superfluous, and all of them shed some kind of light on an aspect of love or connecting with people. I really enjoyed the interweaving and would love to just sit with the book and analyze how he kept all the plots going without letting readers forget or feel reluctant to follow any of them.

Anne, I too think MG readers can keep up with more subplots than we give them credit for. Can anyone say Harry Potter? I think subplots play a main role in layering, which is a topic kind of like voice in that it's hard to pin down.

To the best of my knowledge, I really don't have a problem with other voices creeping into my work. I'd be in a really tough spot if I did, because I take so long writing a first draft. I could NEVER stop reading for months and months.

Write2ignite said...

Hi Marcia! Just wanted to stop in and say thanks for stopping by my blog the other day. I've not been on blogger as much lately, but I need to get back to it! I enjoy your posts and look forward to seeing more! :)

Kimbra Kasch said...

And who wouldn't love the Scarecrow? One of my favorite characters from all time.

Marcia said...

WW -- Thanks!

Kim -- The scarecrow is my favorite Oz character too.

Rena Jones said...

Sounds like a great book.

Marcia said...

It is, Rena. There's a lot there to enjoy and think about, as a reader and a writer.

C.R. Evers said...

luv the nov 33rd! LOL

I need to check this one out!


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