Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, 311 pp, RL 5
After reading The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce last year I knew I had to read all of his books. Boyce's gift for creating a believable narrative voice in his young characters as well as the thoughtful, funny, often profound plot threads that he weaves through his books amazes me. Cosmic, with it's wild plot and eccentric characters, is ultimately a very moving, meaningful story about friendship and fatherhood. And how does the main character, Liam, come to truly understand and appreciate his father? By posing as him, of course. Cosmic is a bit like an episode of Seinfeld, if that's a reference point for you. Or 30 Rock. There are so many story lines, quirks and elements to the plot of this book (or an episode of one of these shows) that it takes much longer to describe to someone than you think it would. Multiple aspects of Liam's personality and life that come together to, surprisingly but logically, lead to his being lost in outer space. So many aspects that I can't fit them all in this review, but I'll try. With that in mind, I'm going to start with the crazier aspects of this book and work my way into the heart of the story.
Cosmic begins with a news item regarding a rocket launched from a private site in Northern China that has gone missing. Both NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency confirm this event but deny ownership of the vessel. No manned rocket has left Earth's orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972. Although a fantastical story, Boyce does pepper it with factual information about space programs and everything concerning space travel, as well as making astronaut Alan Bean an actual character in his book. An informational page with links can be found at the end of the book. Boyce also includes a very intelligent character who believes the conspiracy theory that a man never walked on the moon. But I;m getting ahead of myself. With chapter one, main character Liam takes over narrative duties, immediately revealing a crucial plot point. Talking into the audio diary on his phone, Liam tells his parents that he lied about his age and is now on a rocket named Infinite Possibility that, after a failed routine maneuver, has rolled out of orbit and lost all communications with, and sight of, Earth. As Liam peers out the window of the Infinite Possibility, concerned that he can no longer see home, he reflects on the chain of events that led to this moment and everything that he loves about his home. And, while we know where he ends up, how he got there and what he does once he's there prove to be amazing and compelling. Liam, although not quite thirteen, looks like an adult. Not only is he is remarkably tall for his age, he has facial hair. One thing that I love about Boyce is that he is a hilarious writer who skillfully includes contemporary references (mostly British products like Ribena, Panda Pop, Haribo, crisps, etc.) in a way that they don't stand out or feel dated. Boyce's sense of humor comes through in the chapter names, such as "I Nearly Shave Myself to Death," "Fathers Have Children," and "Competitive Dadliness." Liam also plays World of Warcraft online and spends a lot of time on his phone surfing the internet on DraxWorld and learning about all the other cities in the world named Waterloo, which is next to Liam's hometown of Bootle, outside of Liverpool. Apparently Waterloo is a bit of a "Springfield" when it comes to cities around the world. In "I Nearly Shave Myself to Death" Liam, who, once he has his "Premature Facial Hair" pointed out to him cannot stop thinking about it, decides to shave off the "brown cotton candy" with his Dad's razor. Doing so, Liam says, "Sheets of blood just sort of fell out of my face." My teenaged son just started shaving and, while no one would mistake him for a dad, having a child on the cusp of adulthood definitely added to my enjoyment of and appreciation of Cosmic. Besides looking like an adult, Liam, when acting his age, is constantly being told he "should know better" by adults who assume he is older. His first day at his new school finds him being taken for the new media studies teacher and ushered, by the mistaken principal, to the front of an assembly and introduced to the school. In what proves to be the first of many well meaning but ultimately self-servingly, understandably immature decisions on Liam's part throughout Cosmic, he addresses the school, urging the students to get up and go out and see all the Waterloos of the world because they're "not in Narnia. You don't have to find a magic wardrobe to get to them." By the time he leads the student body to the school gate, the read media studies teacher is there waiting to be let in and the gig is up.
Through a chain of misguided events, Liam is enrolled in a local children's theater (and naturally cast as the BFG in the theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl's book of that name) where he strikes up an odd friendship with his classmate, the celebrity obsessed Florida Kirby. The two spend time in the local shop, News & Booze, where Liam pretends to be Florida's father while she is able to peruse the tabloids unaccosted because she is with an "adult." Using his computer game analogy, Liam decides to "level up" and take the bus into Liverpool where he and Florida continue their ruse at a Porsche dealership. Just as he is about the do something catastrophic, Liam's dad shows up, guided by the secret GPS he has put into Liam's phone. However, it is this link between their phones that leads Liam to his biggest ruse ever. Because of his frequent use of DraxWorld to research various places around the world as well as amusement park rides (Liam loves the "Crispy New World" feeling that he got on the Cosmic bungee ride that generates 4gs of gravity on the way up) he/his father is contacted to enter a contest for "World's Best Dad." At this point Cosmic takes a bit of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory turn when Liam, with a heavily coerced Florida posing as his daughter, join three other father/child pairs as they head off to China to collect their prize - a pre-opening visit to a brand new amusement park created by Dinah Drax, of Draxphone fame. It seems that Drax has created a space camp that is set up and run like an amusement park. The four winning children will be the first riders on Infinite Possibility, because Drax believes that children are the future and should be well prepared for what lies ahead. What follows is a hilarious few chapters where the parent/child teams (their names and backstories are funny and fascinating) go through a series of intellectual and physical challenges as they prepare for their journey. There is also a very poignant but understated growth in the character of Florida, who, as Liam says, "is very good at storing and retrieving information. It's just that it's not very useful information." Her interest in space suits, gravity and space travel leads her to do research on Wikipedia and invent what Liam terms "Astrogossip." This also leads to the revelation that her real father left her family three years ago, when her little brother Orlando was born. Boyce doesn't get too deep into her story, though. When, early on in the visit, Liam learns that only the kids will be going on the rocket, he negotiates with Dr Drax for a fatherly chaperone to accompany the them on their trip, thinking that there is no way he traveled all the way to China to sit back and watch Florida head into space without him. Some really fantastic writing occurs in this part of the book as Liam works hard to act like a dad (he even brought along and often quotes from his Dad's book How to Talk to Teens) while also trying to win the votes of the kids that will allow him to be the space chaperone. Ultimately, the kids, especially the three boys once they are away from their over-the-top fathers, end up acting just like kids no matter how outstanding and intelligent they seemed beforehand. And, in these childish acts, they end up causing the Infinite Possibility to spiral off course. How Liam gets the Infinite Possibility back on course and the level of thoughtfulness and empathy that goes into it are the truly amazing aspects of this absolutely, to use Liam's favorite superlative, cosmic book.
I can't recommend Cosmic enough. While kids of all ages can enjoy it, I gave it a fifth grade reading level because I think that there are so many emotionally nuanced aspects to the story that will resonate with readers between the ages of 11 - 14 (or older...) and I hate to think of them being missed amidst the fantastic, sometimes silly story. Stay tuned for reviews of more books by Frank Cottrell Boyce!
And, for those of you interested, Walden Media has purchased the rights to Cosmic and Boyce is adapting his book into a screenplay. I hope they make this a live-action movie and not animated. No release date yet - in fact, I don't even think it's in production as I write.
Source: Swapped and listened to as audio book. Read by Kirby Heybourne, who does a phenomenal job.