Patrick O'Leary, The Impossible Bird (Tor Books, 2002)
The cover of this book sets the tone for what lies within: ruby-throated hummingbirds against a backdrop of tilted buildings and arches. The artist (Gregory Manchess) has achieved a spooky image, a mixture of watercolor blur, fine-art clarity, and abstract arrangement. It's one of the better covers I've seen lately; the overall effect is that you're about to read a very unusual book.
It's an accurate impression. Within the first two pages of this novel, I came across the pleasant surprise of a word I didn't know: "theremin." I marked it for later lookup and went on, not wanting to lose the thread of the story.
The book opens with two boys discussing a movie they have just watched. It may have helped set me off-balance that I've never seen that movie; I didn't understand the references at all. It's a mark of Mr. O'Leary's skill that I didn't need to. (I did ask my husband after I finished the book; he identified the movie as "The Day the Earth Stood Still.").
By page three, I was laughing out loud. His depiction of the boys is fearlessly accurate; Mike and Danny were alive and moving in front of my inner eye in record time. He balances the opposing personalities with a deft touch, not allowing sympathy for one to overset the other in the reader's mind.
When the stage is completely set as a normal and known universe, the story takes a sharp turn into the surreal and never comes back out. Aliens. Hummingbirds. People that are dead and don't know it. Lots and lots of secrets and lies.
I didn't get around to looking up "theremin" until I'd finished the book. When I did, I came to a second surprise: it wasn't in my Webster's. It also wasn't in my Unusual Words dictionary. It *also* wasn't in the online dictionary I normally use. So I finally plugged the word into Google and came up with a great list of Web sites that told me all about it. Theremin turned out to be "an electronic instrument played by moving the hands near its two antennas, often used for high tremolo effects" (from dictionary.com). It's named after Leo Theremin, a Russian engineer and inventor. There are actually theremin player Web rings out there. Go figure.
The reason I didn't look it up until I was done reading the whole book? I was too fascinated. It's not often that a book keeps me continually off-balance and at the same time retains my interest. Patrick O'Leary weaves and dodges and darts like a mad hummingbird. He has a keen understanding of what makes humans real, from adult to child and all stages inbetween, which makes the transitions from normal reality to surreality utterly compelling and believable. Just when you think you understand what's going on, something else bizarre comes along, and soon you give up trying to predict what's coming next because you're always wrong.
I was impressed that throughout the entire story, characters are true to their stated personalities. They are never "forced" by the author into actions that are out of character. The result is a truly powerful, memorable book. Telling you more would spoil the unexpected twirls this tale takes through the human psyche. One line from the book sums my thoughts up nicely: "The logic of dreams is impeccable. Do not attempt to correct it." This book is an extended dream. Don't argue with where it goes, just follow it for a delightful ride.
You can learn more about Patrick O'Leary at his Web site. You can find out more about the theremin at www.thereminworld.com. For more information on hummingbirds, check out www.hummingbirds.net/