Reviews: The Fan: Boys, Mechanics, and Love


by Carole McDonnell

fan-200A Plague of Unicorns, Jane Yolen, ISBN: 978-0-310-74648-5, Zonderkiz,

I think I’ve always liked stories about little boys. More so than stories about little girls. And that liking has grown over the years. Probably because I’m the mother of sons. I’ve also loved stories of children who annoy the adults around them. Thus I am the perfect reader for Jane Yolen’s A Plague of Unicorns.

The hero, James, asks questions. He asks weird questions. He asks many weird questions. But, before we meet him, we are introduced to the monks in a monastery which grows five different kinds of apples. For decades the monks have allowed the unicorns to eat from the golden apples, the fifth variety. After all, that variety was good for nothing and they were the only apples in their great orchard that the unicorns ate.

51njQMtaNILBut then Abbot Aelian arrives with his great-grandmother’s recipe for Golden Apples Cider and the war is on to stop the unicorns. But, as we all know, unicorns are not easily thwarted or routed unless one is a virgin girl. So when heroes are called in from all over the world, they fail miserably.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the county, James awaits news from his father who is away on the crusades. Curious James, Relentlessly questioning James who is driving all around him crazy, except for his wise and gentle sister. James who doesn’t show up until about fifty pages into the story. This book makes a strange choice for a book for children. We have the main character showing up late, and the “hero” of the story showing up even later. That choice might seem a bit twisty to some readers but I like the craftiness of it. This is a girl-empowerment story which has a boy protagonist. And this might be a problem for some readers. Some will want James to be heroic in a more heroic manner. And others might be confused or might wish that the hero of the latter half of the book had been given a greater role.  Whatever they might think, I loved this book.  For its sweet little hero and for the chances it takes with the structure of its narration. It’s also very funny.

Recommended for kids and middle readers, although parents might have to explain some of the more obscure words one finds in monasteries.

40276The Man Who Lived in Inner Space, Arnold Federbush, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN:0-395-14074-9, 180 Pages, 1973.

Sometimes one reads a book and finds one’s heart hoping that the book was the author’s “final culminating say,” that somehow the book is the epitome of everything the writer ever wanted to proclaim to the world. This is the effect I got from reading The Man Who Lived in Inner Space, a book which is evolutionary history, marine science, existential philosophy, and what all else rolled into the most rhapsodic well-written package ever. Heavens, is there no discipline this book did not touch upon!  First, as we all know (or anyone who has ever wanted to write rhapsodically knows), it is very difficult to do rhapsody well. Even more difficult to merge rhapsody with melancholy and environmental science. The Man Who Lived in Inner Space has a bit of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring with a mix of Moby Dick and a dollop of Captain Nemo.

The protagonist, Colin, is a new employee at a chemical factory. When the novel begins, he is a young, environmentalist-minded engineer scientist inventor. He’s dissatisfied with the pollution caused by the factory where he works but he has great ideas on how to change things and he bombards his co-workers with them. He’s also got the love of his life with whom he plans to live forever. Then a really bad explosion happens and he loses everything, including his health. He’s left maimed, hobbling, alone.

In fact, for most of this book he is so alone, that the novel feels almost apocalyptic. Then he saves a seal from a local zoo and brings it home to the factory where he lives and works. It’s quite easy to imagine that the entire world has ceased existing because — heck! — we see no one else. He feeds the seal and forces it to entire a tank of water he made for it. This awakens an ancient sea-call and the seal escapes and goes into the ocean. This is where this rhapsodic science fiction begins.

I once read a book on eels called Consider the Eel. Mind you, I had no great interest in eels before I read it but I’m a sucker for any kind of obsessively, educational, non-fiction. I totally loved it. Then there is Melville’s Moby Dick with that loooooong digression on whales. Not for everyone, I know. But I could deal. The thing is, though, that Federbush has totally integrated all that sea talk into a great little novel. So watching him living in his sea home is a little like reading about Captain Nemo, without all that pesky anger Nemo was oppressed with. If there is one thing about our solitary underwater adventurer it is that he’s way chill.

It’s not only how Federbush brings together spiritual, mystical, myths, history, mermaids, manatees, oceanography and the ramifications of being prey to a shark. It’s how it’s written. This book sweeps you along and so gently that you don’t mind being swung from the academic one moment to the hallucinatory the next. Lovers of the sea, science, and things spiritual should read this. As for whether or not this author has written any other book, I haven’t checked. I haven’t even attempted to discover much about him. I just don’t want to disappoint myself. I feel I have met greatness, so why tempt fate by possibly discovering something horrible about the writer. This novel is that good! Highly recommended.

imageJack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, February 2014, France. Distributed by EuropaCorp. Written by Matthias Malzieu. Directed by Stephane Berla and Matthias Malzieu. Produced by Virginie Silla and Luc Bresson. Voices by Jean Rochefort, Rossy De Palma, Olivia Ruiz.  On DVD and streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and GooglePlay. 89 minutes.

I’m not sure if you’ve caught on yet but I love wounded, sickly, or unhealthy protagonists. Here then, in this animated steampunk musical, is Jack. Born with an icy heart on the coldest day of the year, he is saved from death by Madeleine, a quick-thinking midwife who gives him a cuckoo’s heart. Because his mother died, he ends up living with Madeleine and a found family of misfits at her clinic.

Of course, if one has a mechanical heart, there are rules one must obey in order to live a happy healthy life. The first is obvious: Do not go fiddling around with the hands of one’s cuckoo clock heart. The second is logical: Don’t become too anxious or too stressed. But the third is more complicated: Don’t fall in love. Madeleine has issues about love, and like a gentler, less malicious version of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations, she wants her adopted child to avoid love. But those are her rules. To this end, she has kept Jack cooped up in the clinic lest he venture out into the world and suffer the slings, arrows, bruises, and hurts of love. Wouldn’t you know it? On the first visit to town, he falls in love with Miss Acacia. So Jack wishes to venture forth, go to school, discover the world.

Jack has two problems: his weak heart and his fear that his heart is weak. Of course a villain brings these two problems to a head. And since this occurs in the 19th century, this villain is reminiscent of Flashman in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Our Big Bad’s monologue is one of the coolest self-introductions I’ve seen in any fusion musical. And with the introduction of this rival for Miss Acacia’s affection, the movie gets dark.

This is one seriously cool movie. It’s dark, funny, and full of cameos and allusions to various art forms, media, and stories. For instance, not only does Jack the Ripper pop up but so does George Melies, the filmmaker. Then there is the soundtrack.  As I said, this is pretty much fusion, so there are musical elements from rock, pop, metal, and even opera. I’ll recommend this for ages 12 and older. It’s a bit too dark for younger kids who’ll be asking what that confusing ending means.

sinS.I.N. Theory, November 4, 2012. Canadian. Distributed by MCTV. Written and Directed by Richie Mitchell. Starring Jeremy Larter and Allison Dawn Doiron. Streaming online. 70 Minutes.

Michael, a professor of Applied Mathematics, has been doing illegal research. Illegal, you ask? How can research be illegal? Well, when it involves algorithms, and researching the lives, credit reports,and  medical databases of the public I would say it’s illegal. And that’s what the Dean of his department also says. But Michael is haunted by his dead wife, and by a very foolish desire to understand and predict people’s lives. Let’s face it: Michael is dabbling in areas he shouldn’t be and if he weren’t so darn chill, one might say he has it in him to become a mad scientist. But does he listen to the Dean? Of course not! When do scientists ever take warnings seriously?

At first Michael has fun with his algorithms prophesy destiny gizmo thingy. He can figure out where his favorite student — and crush — Evelyn is going to be. But let’s face it: this is a black and white indie flick about a geeky scientist dabbling with destiny and intruding on info from credit reporting companies. Plus, there’s this brooding melancholy score. You just know that something nasty is going to tweak his algorithms for the worst.

This was a grim movie to watch. It’s good, but I had wanted more. Database algorithm prophetic scifi-horror is hard to do. But for a movie that was about predicting, it felt a bit too predictable. I’d still recommend it for those who love indies.

Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.


  1. There’s nothing horrible about the writer Federbush. He has another novel about Ice that sounds wonderful. He had a third novel that he was writing before he passed away in the early ’90s.

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