Monday, June 27

Bubble in the Bathtub

by Jo Nesbo 
Aladdin 2011 

Nilly and Lisa are back, this time to help rescue Doctor Proctor who seems to have gotten himself trapped somewhere in time while trying to reunite with an old flame from long ago... 

When Lisa and Nilly receive a postcard from their friend Doctor Proctor (inventor of the infamous Fart Powder that was the subject of the previous book) the discover a secret message indicating that the doctor is in trouble and needs help. With the sale of a collectible postage stamp to an odd woman named Raspa who has a wooden leg with a roller skate at the end of it, the kids tell their parents they're spending the weekend at a friend's house and take off for Paris. From Oslo. With tiny Milly crammed into a carry-on bag because they only have enough money for one ticket.

Once there they find the doctor's hotel room but he is missing. Through luck, Nilly discovers that a powder he was instructed to bring along from the doctor's lab is actually a bubble bath that is the active ingredient for a time machine built out of a bathtub. The doctor's old flame Juliette shows up and explains how she and the doctor were parted many years before, and that he's gone back in time to try and change history. Suddenly everyone is traveling around through time trying to find the doctor and make sure that history doesn't get changed entirely. Napoleon, Joan of Arc, the French Revolution, the Tour de France, the Eiffel Tower, all of it may or may not be irreparably altered as Nilly, Lisa, Raspa, Juliette, and the doctor himself go zipping around in the bathtub hoping to correct, undo, and generally mess with historical events so that there can be a happy ending.

Head-spinning plot twists and preposterous time travel paradoxes?  Oh, heck yeah, but its so much fun that you either twist yourself into a pretzel trying to sort it all out or, better, you taken them for the goofy fun they are and roll with them. Nilly and Lisa understand they cannot change the past without having profound effects on the future, but some histories were just meant to be no matter what the shift in events.  When Nilly impersonates Napoleon he knows what is supposed to happen that day at Waterloo, but is all that bloodshed necessary? No, Nilly decides instead to convince the French troops to go home, pretend they suffered heavy losses, and return to their families and breakfasts. On the other side of the battle, finding the French troops gone, Wellington and company decide to pretend they won a great battle, and return home to their families with a similar story. Nilly has changed history, but the outcome is still recorded the same and no one is the wiser. And as far as the paradoxes are concerned, when Lisa helps a despondent Gustav Eiffel by sketching out an idea for a tower it's hard not to get up in the snake eating its own tail. It's the ultimate answer to the chicken-egg question: they both came first.

Nesbo has written one big, slobbery shaggy dog of a book that is hard to resist. Middle grade books that push 200 pages really need to prove themselves to me, but at 425 pages I never felt like I was being dragged along. The humor is irreverent and droll, wacky and sophisticated at the same time, it honors the spirit of adventure and the desire for nonsense in dealing with the adult world, and is one of the few books (if any?) where the central story was about kids helping two adults reunite for love.

Nesbo, Norway's (perhaps Europe's) leading adult crime novelist has taken another step toward establishing a reputation on par with Roald Dahl – the better parts at least. While his adult fiction is dark his middle grade books (there is a third not yet in translation) are the most Dahl-esque stories I have read. Evil and ugliness lurk in the adult characters, as they do in real life, but Nilly and Lisa treat them with the same aplomb any kid would in dealing with schoolyard bullies. Nilly's pluck in getting his friends out of the guillotine is as absurd as it is natural in the world Nesbo creates. If anything, Nesbo does one better than Dahl by empowering his characters with an indestructible passion and innocence.

I know people like to get excited by authors and series, and that generally isn't me. But after reading dozens and dozens of middle grade books it's genuinely exciting when someone truly "gets" what it means to be a kid and can make it funny while delivering the serious stuff amid a truly absurd adventure. I sincerely wish Nesbo a long career in both his adult and children's books, and that his books get the attention they deserve. I'm doing my part.

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