Monday, August 11, 2008

Nuclear winter?

It's rare that I read a book without knowing anything about it; I am a compulsive reader of reviews, but I came to The Compound review-free. Which made it all the more enjoyable I think (when it works out like that I think perhaps I should eschew the reviews altogether, but I can't!). This thriller by S.A. Bodeen, had just the right touch of it-could-happen, and while the ending wasn't in doubt the ride getting there was full of perilous fun.

Eli and his two sisters, his mother and father escaped nuclear devastation six years ago through his wealthy father's foresight in preparing an underground shelter for them to live in for 15 years. Unfortunately, in their race to the compound they left behind Eli's nine-year-old twin brother Eddy, his mother's mother, and his chocolate lab Cocoa. Eli considers himself the "evil" twin, and is convinced that it was his selfishness that left Eddy behind. As a result, he has cut himself off literally from human contact, and just fills his endless days in the compound with schoolwork, fitness, reading and his chores in the hydroponic garden. He refuses to have anything to do with the Supplements, the three children his mother has borne since coming to the compound: Eli's father has stated that -- if necessary -- these children will be used to supplement the family's food supplies. Eli's mother is pregnant again.

One day, Eli happens upon the computer that Eddy would have been using in their early days in the compound. Eli had an identical computer, but his father replaced it shortly after their arrival, saying it needed upgrading. On Eddy's computer, though, the icon for accessing the Internet is still there. And when Eli clicks on this, he finds that he is online. He soon discovers that the wireless cloud only exists in and near his father's locked office. In secret, Eli accesses the Internet and finds himself im-ing Eddy ... and learning that there was no nuclear war. Eddy and his grandmother believed the family had died in a fiery crash.

It turns out that everyone but Dad wants to get out of the compound; unfortunately, only Dad has the key to the door. I think I've already given away too much.

This relatively short novel takes a little time to set the stage, and then powers its way to an almost breathless finish. I ended up listening to nearly all of it yesterday (on Saturday I lost myself to the Olympics), mostly because I didn't want to stop. Narrator Christopher Lane, portraying Eli, reads with clipped lack of emotion at the beginning of the story, then warms with passion and action as the plot progresses. His portrayal of Eli's father, megalomaniac extraordinaire, was positively terrifying -- powerful and threatening. And therein lies my main concern: Lane was much more effective as a middle-aged man than he was as a teenaged boy. And when he was called upon to portray even younger children -- Eli's sister Therese who spends much of the novel affecting an English accent and the five-year-old Supplement, Lucas -- he veered into the almost cringeworthy. Both these characters just sounded unnatural.

Still, I can't deny the excitement of the plot. I'm very much on the fence with this one.

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