Thursday, September 22, 2011

Books We Love: “Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes” by Jonathan Auxier



Book review by Jack Silbert
We book critics take the platitude “Don’t judge a book by its cover” extremely literally. And literarily. So this book can thank me (in some alternate reality where books have sentience), for splashed across its cover are the words, “Boy’s First Name, Boy’s Last Name and …” as the title construction. Below that, an illustration of a tousle-haired lad sneaking across dark, mysterious rooftops of what I’d hazard a guess is London. For the cover-judgers out there, and perhaps in the dark hearts of publishers’ marketing wings, it all might conjure a certain popular children’s book series, you know the one, with the wizards and owls and what-have-you. But despite appearances, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes is not remotely a Hogwartian knockoff. It’s a fresh and fun adventure with some familiar elements refashioned into something new. Perhaps too many F’s in that last sentence, but I’m sticking with it.

Before I continue, two admissions in the interest of full disclosure:

1) I read very few children’s books. Case in point: the aforementioned teenage wizard collection. Didn’t read ’em. What? You didn’t read the best-selling series of books in the history of mankind? No, I didn’t. Why? I’m an adult. Relax, okay? I saw the movies.

2) Perhaps I should recuse myself from writing this review, as I know the author, Jonathan Auxier. Now, we’ve only hung out twice: darts on the west coast and a slice of pizza on the east coast. (Thank goodness it wasn’t the reverse, as California pizza is utter crap.) I am confident that I can proceed in an unbiased fashion. Also, I bought the book with my own money, unlike those so-called “professional” reviewers who get free copies. So now who’s biased, huh?

Still with me? Good. Let’s continue.

Has any Ph.D. candidate explored the early stages of consuming a work of fiction, in which at first your brain pleasantly flounders around—who are these characters? what’s the plot?—until, often imperceptibly, things snap into place? (An exception to this is the Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain, which in 96 minutes did not make a lick of sense, and five years later I’m still angry about it. But I digress.) Likewise, I enjoyed that it took me a little while to settle into Peter Nimble. At the start, I thought each chapter might be a self-contained adventure. They end with fun little cliffhangers, like those Dickens serials we all heard about in school. (Actually, with modern attention spans, I’m surprised the Dickens book-sales business model hasn’t made a huge comeback as an e-reader subscription service.) Suffice to say, the various threads all meld together, with Auxier expertly plotting things out.

Oh yeah, plot. I’m supposed to give a little summary, right? Peter Nimble is a blind orphan boy thief in an unnamed city that is probably London. (I kept thinking the city would be revealed at some point, or at the very least a reason would be provided why it wasn’t being revealed, but no sir. We’re left with a few clumsy references to Peter’s “port-city hometown.”) Likewise, the events transpire in the vague unnamed era that is prior to technological innovations that would reduce most epic adventures to one page or less. He’s taken under the wing of the evil Fagin, no, wait, it’s Mr. Seamus, whose name is undoubtedly being mispronounced by kids across the country as we speak. Seamus, though cruel, schools the lad in many tricks of the thieving trade that, you never know, may come in handy later in the book. And then a Gandalf/Dumbledore-type shows up who knows that Peter is special … different … you know, chosen. And so young Peter sets off on a magical quest, possibly with eyes of a fantastical nature in his carry-on bag.

As I indicated, there are some, shall we say, “homages” to pre-existing characters, storylines, and such. So, yes, there’s also a little Invention of Hugo Cabret (orphan, thief, clocks), Peter Pan (Lost Boys), Star Wars, Planet of the Apes. And Auxier’s own terrific chapter-opening illustrations somewhat recall E. H. Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh work with a hint of Jules Feiffer. But aren’t we all products of our influences? (Note my own Letterman-esque snark! And while I’m in parentheses, let me fess up to Googling the name of the Winnie the Pooh illustrator. You can’t know everything.) In Peter Nimble, the familiar touches come across as comfortable footholds in the larger, original world Auxier has dreamed up.

Admirably, he avoids the Scooby-Doo-esque kid-mystery elements (zany heists and the like) that I felt marred that series of wizard movies based on the series of wizard books that I didn’t read. Auxier doesn’t talk down to his readers; things are happening on a slightly more mature plane. That being said, there is some violence, there is some killing. It didn’t feel overly graphic—more often the violence is referred to rather than seen. But for sensitive or younger children, you might want to read the book first or, better yet, read it together.

The book’s narrator is a bit of a wiseass, bringing a lot of humor to the proceedings. This is via somewhat dubious “facts” and also fourth-wall observations such as “If ever you have had the chance to spend quality time with a villainous mastermind, you will know that these people are extraordinarily fond of discussing their evil schemes out loud.” But the clever narration never overwhelms the prose, or gets in the way of the action. It simply raises the writing level up a notch; there’s artfulness here. Indeed, Auxier has an excellent handle on stoking the story’s forward momentum, A leading to B leading to C, while the action gets more frenzied. (Though never muddled: The writing is sharp and clear. And if a key event happened earlier in the book, the narrator gently reminds us.) All the while, he weaves in some positive, tried-and-true children’s-fiction tropes: It’s okay to be different, your shortcomings can work to your advantage, friends are important, never give up—but Auxier never hits us over the head with them.

Ooh, and this is important: when you’re least expecting it, the author reveals himself as a—are you sitting down?—Canadian. A napkin is referred to as a “serviette.” And I didn’t even Google that one; I know it from listening to the Nardwuar the Human Serviette radio program based in Vancouver.

Still, I think Canucks and non-Canucks alike can appreciate this book. I’d say it’s primarily for 8- to 12-year-olds, smart boys first (who will know when Auxier is teasing), then adventure-loving boys, then smart and/or adventure-loving girls. There is a strong female character but she only emerges about halfway into the book. Otherwise, it’s fairly boy-heavy.

Are you someone who just skips to the last paragraph of reviews? If so, let me state for the record: I enjoyed Jonathan Auxier’s debut novel Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes quite a lot, and I think kids will too. Could there be a movie? There are a couple of battles and a combo man-cat-horse creature that I think might work better on the screen versus what I could summon in my (admittedly no-longer-a-kid) imagination. Sequels? The conclusion doesn’t demand them, but with robust sales, who knows? Peter may discover a fantastic elbow, spleen, pinky toe ….

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

Link to author Jonathan Auxier’s blog or Tweet him at @JonathanAuxier.

For a chance to win a personally autographed copy of "Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes," leave a comment. Make sure you include a way to reach you—email is preferred. Giveaway rules apply.

8 comments:

  1. Consider me for the book; liaskos_supermom@me.com

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  2. I had not heard of this book - thanks for sharing

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    1. hey dude i know that i just signed up and every thing as u can see im Beagle Lover!!!! and ur probably done with Peter Nimble right now my dad is reading it to me(not that i cant read it) and im only half way through and its AWESOME!!!! so pleeze reply!

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  3. Great review. One of my favorite lines from the book, one which I dogeared when I came across it, is: "As you can imagine, monstrous sea creatures from the deep are far too large to fit through conventional plumbing." (chapter 28.)

    Thank you, Mr. Auxier, and you, Mr. Silbert. You are national treasures.

    --J D'Agnese

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  4. Interesting review. I am the father of two boys with vivid imaginations. This sounds like something right up their alley.

    - the Pete

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  5. PETER NIMBLE IS AWESOME!!!!!! ( but Sir Tode Is SO FUNNY!!!!)

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  6. I only read half of Peter Nimble and he is Awesome with Adventures and Proffesor Cake is cool!!!!

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