Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places

The Fearless Travelers' Guide to Wicked Places
by Pete Begler
Recommended Ages:

My, what a weird book this is! It plunges you straight into the weirdness with no warm-ups, not even a warning to take a deep breath. Immediately, you are introduced to a girl named Nell Perkins, who is continually introducing herself as a girl named Nell Perkins, because only by saying, "I am Nell Perkins," can she make the bizarre hallucinations go away. Everyone thinks she's weird, except for one best friend, who happens to be in a coma, and two younger brothers - a mouthy 9-year-old brat named George and a lovable 11-year-old bear named Speedy - and, of course, their always-fearless mother Rose. Several times a day, Nell sees the people around her not as they appear to each other, but as the "animal inside" - like the policeman who, to her, seems to have the head of a frog, or her child psychologist, who appears to her as a friendly walrus.

Things get really freaky, however, when people in Nell's town start disappearing. Not just any people: mothers. No one believes Nell when she says they are being kidnapped by an evil purple cloud that has been hovering over the town. And then her own mother is snatched right in front of her. That's when things get really strange. We're talking, wolf-headed-octopuses-attacking-people-on-the-street strange. We're talking diner-full-of-bird-headed-women-plotting-the-end-of-the-world strange. And it's the kind of strange that comes, at times, with an atmosphere of suffocating dread - like that scene in the diner again, as three terrified children look on from under a cloak of invisibility, while trying to rescue their mother, who has been transformed into a songbird, from a tribe of chillingly evil, living nightmares.

Nell, Speedy, and George come to realize they must enter the realm of dreams and nightmares to have any chance to change that songbird back into their mother - even though the transformation may cause her to forget her own children. To do this, they must trust a mysterious shopkeeper who is really a member of a group called the Fearless Travelers: a man named Duke Badger, whose weapon of choice is an umbrella that shoots lightning bolts, and whose cat (once the three very awake children enter the dream world) proves to be a talking panther. Then they just have to figure out how to be Fearless Travelers themselves, learning to channel the power of Night as they meet awesome and gruesome creatures, experience bizarre modes of transportation, travel through swiftly changing landscapes, battle vicious clowns, confront sickening evil, suffer betrayal and separation and setback after setback, and... well, there's just no way my description can do justice to the imagery and originality of this book. You would have to read it to understand what I am trying to tell you.

So, going back to what I said at the beginning, this is a weird book. It is disturbing, gripping, atmospheric, surprising at every turn. It is crammed with the perils and wonders that might impress anyone finding him- or herself awake in a reality that works the way dreams do, with sleepers sharing in one big dream, taking different shapes, playing different roles, and mixing with elemental spirits both good and evil in a landscape made of miracles, mysteries, and monsters. It is a place whose conflicts and perils can sometimes creep across into the concrete world, and though a part of everyone goes there every night, they often awake remembering none of it. It is a story that so powerfully conjures its own coherent world out of the stuff of dreams that, at times, I had to pause and look around, to see whether the author wasn't refashioning reality around me.

I don't know if I could deal with a sequel to this book. It is simply too overwhelming, too perfect in its creation of an original world, too unrepeatable. A "Return to the Wicked Places" couldn't possibly be as fantastic as one's first visit. An attempt to top it would fail at the outset, because of this book's irreducible one-of-a-kind-ness. I'm thankful I don't have to carry Nell's responsibility on my shoulders every time I visit dreamland. But tonight, after sharing Nell's adventure, I expect to have interesting dreams of my own.

This review is based on a pre-publication proof made available through NetGalley dot com. The book is scheduled to be released March 1, 2017. I don't know anything about the author or his previous work, except that he is a Los Angeles-based film and TV writer.

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