Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze, by Clayton Zane Comber, is written for young adults, but even if readers are decades older, they will enjoy being immersed into the world of Xander Maze and his friends.
Xander is clearly ‘on the spectrum’, his father died when he was a toddler so he has not had an easy early life. And, of course, he is bullied at school. Yes, I know, the borderline Asperger’s Syndrome character has become a borderline cliché trope, but this is different. There is so very much packed into this seemingly simple storyline.
Xander’s Nanna is dying. Nanna has been a vital help to Xander and his mother since his father died. Xander is devastated and close to one of his ‘shut downs’. He has always organised his experience of life using lists. Nanna tells him that, if he wants to help her, he must write a list of 100 Remarkable Feats he wants to achieve before the end of the school year and bring it to the palliative ward. His amazing list ends up on the Internet thanks to Nanna showing it to a fellow patient, who shows it to her daughter, who shows it to … and now all the school knows about it. He is teased relentlessly, and it’s his first day in Year Ten! But, on the up side, Lily and Lachlan want to be friends and help him with his list of Remarkable Feats. So, that took care of two items – 2. Make a friend, and, 3. Make a best friend. Lily is a great character, she has an eating disorder so knows all about suffering, and is great best friend material. Lachlan, who has alopecia, so hat but no hair, is in love with Lily, follows her lead and kind of helps Xander. Readers learn about other leading dynamic actors (Ally, Johnny and Chase) through Xander’s lists: ‘Five Things I Learned About …”.
Comber also uses Xander’s way of storing information about the world as a teaching tool, weaving in historical, literary and scientific facts into the storyline. Burke and Wills feature quite a bit, as do Neil Armstrong’s exploits on the moon including what he left behind (perhaps too much information about waste products).
But the lists are incidental to other storylines. A boy runs away to live rough in a National Park; everyone, including Xander and his friends, search for him. Lily rescues Xander’s lonely neighbour who hasn’t been outside his house for years because his wife left. The pace moves swiftly.
100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze is funny, charming, sad, and informative! So, after laughing, learning, being enchanted and shedding tears, I wondered how did Comber conjure up so much magic.
Young Adult fiction tends to avoid the information dump, has fast forward action, and so must build character ‘on the run’. Comber is a master at all of the above. Readers are following the action, while, almost by osmosis, getting into the heads of leading actors.
Xander does feel younger than fifteen, more like ten, or twelve perhaps, but that makes sense because he is not as savvy as his peers and struggles with processing his social and physical environment. So much so that he has had professional help from Dr. Way.
Readers subtly learn about Xander via various visual devices woven through the text. Lists, headed up in a jaunty typeface with numbered points such as: the one hundred remarkable feats he wants to achieve; facts about the environment he has to navigate; people compartmentalised into various groups – ‘the people I most trust’; and interesting facts. Comber uses intertexuality (films, books and music) to illustrate what Xander values and how he is connected to the modern world. Boxes headed, Memory List, for a fact that Xander will process at a later date. To freshen readers’ perspective, Comber changes modes of writing, moving from Xander’s first person point of view to script form. The insertion of ‘beat’ on a separate line indicates a pause of reflection, which allows readers to further understand that Xander is processing slowly. Perhaps this mixed text presentation is intended to emulate the chop and change of surfing the Internet.
Apart from all the fun young action, interesting fun young characters, Comber ‘keeps it real’. Lily is hospitalised because of her eating disorder. Nanna does die. Xander does ‘close down’. Blank, grey pages follow, some with stars.
Comber delivers the denouement using the literary device of a Memory Capsule. The main characters place two items in a box to be dug up in ten years. Xander adds to the box his List of Remarkable Feats, and a three-page letter to himself, ending with a message to the reader:
It’s like Nanna said, every giant leap is only a matter of a few small steps.
So let’s take the first step together.
- Write a list of 100 Remarkable Feats and try to achieve them.
Highly Recommended for all ages!
by Clayton Zane Comber