Archive | May 2012

Hunted, or Hunter–

Chase, an intriguingly horse-based historical novel by Jessie Haas, is a perfectly crafted work in a theme seen in many guises. Someone is being hunted down by bad guys.

Hmmm–Harry Potter, of course, and the 3-part series by Rachel Hawkins that ends with Spell Bound, and Bacigalupi’s futuristic ShipBreaker, as well as the current-day story beset by time-traveling futuristic bad guys, Firestorm, by David Klass. The historical setting of Chase makes it especially potent. Readers know there’s that element of political reality buried here. And as a ruse to keep those pages turning, it certainly works. Russell’s Thread of Grace holds me with the same overhanging threat…someone’s going to kill you (or characters you love)–and provides the medium for carrying all kinds of socio-political messages.

Detective stories work the other way, of course, with our protagonist trying to hunt someone else down, someone elusive. The hunter’s quest is given irresistible impetus by making the quarry particularly evil, and in these days, plain old murder is seldom bad enough. What about the more subtle themes of living well, rather than staying alive? Our reptilian brains are still incredibly powerful forces, even in the arena of unlizardlike ‘literature’.

For my own projects, I’d prefer a plot that hangs on the quest to solve a mystery, but not necessarily a mystery powered by fear. Will a plot of curiosity, or hope, give that same frisson that compels readers who are deathly afraid? What makes hope desperate enough to drag a reader along but the fear of failure? Perhaps it’s the same two-sided coin. What makes one fearful, but having a cherished hope that could be stolen away?

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Polenta–poisoned and poignant

Among a blog reader’s recommendations for Mary Doria Russell books, Thread of Grace would not have been my first choice. I was not eager to revisit my extensive early research on Nazi Germany, nor the experiences of Jews during the end of WWII. But again I was caught up in Russell’s storytelling–a wryness that endows historical happenings with immediacy through telling details and multiple viewpoints. News of inhuman cruelties strikes with a raw and wrenching freshness. I cheered the Italian priest who refused absolution for the German confessor, and was humbled by the Italian rabbi who asked if the priest doubted his savior’s ability to forgive these sins.

After Italy surrendered to the Allies, she was immediately occupied by Germans–bringing chaos to the Jews who lived there and those who fled occupied France thinking Italy would now be safely protected by Allied forces. Italian soldiers, relieved to finally be home, were rounded up for German work teams. From farm mothers to veterans, nuns to bureaucrats, the Italian Resistance proved its creativity, its courage and stamina, its humanity. None of this did I know before reading Russell’s story. After reading it, I won’t forget.

Choosing favorites among the large cast of characters is difficult, but I throw my flowers at Renzo Leoni and his mother, Lidia.A grandmother partisan who is too busy helping refugees to clean her house–“Let Mussolini clean it!” surely won my heart. Vaclav Havel wrote that “defiance is not undertaken for its own sake but because people cannot exist in the absence of hope,” and Lidia embodies Havel’s perception. ‘Resistance is Fertile’ because it plants those seeds of hope. And what is more hopeful than a sense of humor? I can’t resist a character who proclaims that ten percent of any group–Jews, Germans, Catholics, Communists–is comprised of shitheads; one who asserts that Jews are simply members of the human race, and then adds, “I can think of no worse insult.”

Russell’s story is so real, in fact, that I was grateful for the extra distance provided by her frame–a prelude and postlude each a generation removed from the events of these two years. The Preludio set up one of the subtly-revealed messages of the story, explaining one man’s singularly false but optimistic answer to his own overwhelming fears. This man never directly participates in the story itself, but his answer reverberates later in a drunken philosophical discussion, as two veterans discuss why young men love war. “In peace, there a hundred questions with a thousand answers! In war, there is only one big question with one right answer.” A back cover blurb from author/editor Susan Cahill calls the novel’s ending ‘perhaps the most moving coda in fictional history’, but I leave that for readers to journey toward on their own.

Flexing your Hex

In the YA section of our library, shelves are dominated by supernatural stories, but mostly I’ve sought out ‘realistic’ fiction for my present study. With spring in full swing, however, and dark reading hours at a premium, I finally succombed to Rachel Hawkins’ second book in her Hex Hall series. The same phenomenon happened last year about this time–when book one wound up in my hands. The cover art bears some credit for both the first and second rounds. Tanya Ross-Hughes has pulled together a winning look; the black cat, as purely archetypical allure, is a good trick too.

Sophie’s voice sparks with authenticity, earnestly self-deprecating but unafraid to call out the crap around her either. She definitely carries readers into her dilemmas, with enough attitude to make up for her determinedly straight-laced character. Demonglass was nominated for a YALSA Teens’ Top Ten in 2011, so the lack of actual swearing, drinking or sex hasn’t hurt it any. The use of a voice that is ‘au courant’ might tug today’s reader right into the maelstrom, but will it wear well? The same question follows with descriptions of clothing–elucidating character today, but clouding it tomorrow?

Despite being a ‘light read’, Hawkins slips in some of the human questions we should all wrestle with as we make decisions or choose by proxy in the voting box. Hex Hall shone a spectral light on the spectacle of prejudice. Demonglass also calls into question the creation of ‘ultimate weapons’ as a deterrent for one’s enemies. Hawkins, a former teacher, refrains from any hints of lecturing, and lets the plot speak for the reality she sees.

Besides Sophie’s voice, the plot holds enough mystery to keep pages turning. Clues are dropped ever-so-gently, but they give an aware reader the chance to guess the truth of things just a half-step ahead of the protagonist. In YA, this might be considered reader training–it offers the reward of feeling just a little bit smarter than the smart chick. I wonder if the third book will go beyond the training level and hold its secrets all the way to a ‘surprising but inevitable’ conclusion.

Real World

No exotic travel locale, no intriguing professional microcosm, no particular historic moment–Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, nonetheless opened my eyes on life as lived by someone whose brain works differently than mine. Marcelo’s father is a man too much like many of us, who thinks that the ‘real world’ is obviously the one he has decided he inhabits. If that world has required of him that he compromise some of his idealism in order to achieve other laudable goals, well, that’s reality.

Because Marcelo functions on the high end of the autism spectrum, he has worked explicitly at understanding some of the odd ways we humans typically interact, rather than simply absorbing these habits and customs. This puts him at a particular advantage for helping readers see things that probably create dissonance in all our lives, even though he might at first think his inability to understand something is just a manifestation of his usual difference.

As a voice for a work of narrative fiction, this one avoids the madcap boisterousness of many teen narrators, even while Marcelo’s measured approach mesmerizes with its originality and its investigative sensibility. For any reader who has felt like his/her classmates or colleagues operate on a different planet, Marcelo offers an example of courage and useful dreaming.