Quill and Quire

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Kenneth Oppel’s train dreams

(photo: Ben Freedman)

It’s pleasant enough for a writer to hear that one of his books has landed on someone’s Christmas shopping list. But there are shopping lists, and then there’s the shopping list of the most powerful man in the world.

Back in late November, kidlit author Kenneth Oppel’s name popped up in stories about President Obama’s pre-holiday book-buying spree. Among the nearly two dozen titles nabbed by the president last year were novels by Willa Cather, Jhumpa Lahiri, and E.L. Doctorow, an Oprah-approved memoir, some sports books, and a crateful of children’s books ““ including Oppel’s 2010 novel, Half Brother, about a family’s failed attempt to raise a chimp as human.

A few months later, in a small café near his Roncesvalles Village home in Toronto, Oppel tells me he half-jokingly suggested the book’s U.S. publisher market it as “Obama’s Christmas Pick.” Half Brother, with its realistic storyline, heartbreaking ending, and humane critique of scientific hubris, is in many ways a perfect book to interest a liberal and relatively earnest American president.

It’s also something of an anomaly among the best-selling author’s books. Since publishing his first novel, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, right after graduating high school in 1985, Oppel has written nearly 30 works of fiction ““ most of them packed with freewheeling adventure and borrowing heavily from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. He writes books that are made to be gobbled up in a couple of marathon reading sessions then passed on to friends, not the kind destined to end up looking all respectable on a White House bookshelf.

Oppel’s newest novel, The Boundless (to be published in April by HarperCollins Canada), is a perfect example of the sort of story he tells best (it received a starred review in the March issue of Q&Q). It is a literally propulsive tale: most of the action takes place on an immense, moving super-train called the Boundless, which is more than 11 kilometres long, with multi-story luxury cars, a cinema, a swimming pool, and whole communities of people inhabiting its 987 carriages.

Read the full story.