Books in Books

As young adults–searching for truths that may be different from our parents’–we often identify strongly with words we find on a page, in a book, presented by characters to whom we feel some affinity, or simply by an author whose philosophy we find intriguing or alluring. A couple of books I’ve read lately have used this attachment in an interesting way.

Jessie Haas opens her YA book Chase with Phin startled alert from a book he had been engrossed in reading through the early hours of a morning. Books were his remaining connection to his mother, and to her dream of a better life for him. In an early reminiscense, his mother explained a passage from Emerson to him, with ‘a man’ in this case meaning a ‘person grown large, deep, subtle and strong in character.’ Much later, another Emerson quote connects him suddenly with people he has just met in an unknown place. It provides a common thread to their existence that they were otherwise not sure they would find. Once found, trust is almost immediate–or at least, the relationship can begin with trust until proven untrustworthy, instead of distrust until proven honorable.

Similarly, Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel, Doc, shows how the young Georgia dentist–alone in the wild frontier town of Dodge City–connects with Kate, a working prostitute who was raised an aristocratic Hungarian with a strong classical education. She could make an apt remark at the card table by quoting Homer or Virgil in the Latin or Greek. In a day when even lawmen and entrepreneurs moved mainly by the seat of their pants, and physicians as likely as not worked pure charlatan theater, Kate and Doc Holliday found refuge in each other’s educational common ground, even as that same bookish background separated them from so many of their comrades.


The Flash that Lingered

L.K. Madigan’s book Flash Burnout carries the best front-cover blurb ever. Perhaps this was the actual query letter format that caught the eye of an agent and led to Madigan’s first publication. The blurb is styled as camera shots–capturing the characters that are caught in the teen triangle of the story and reflecting not only the thematic structure of the story but the turning point as well. Maybe all-too-tidy for some, but it appeals to my innate delight in roundness. Two of the characters are related through their love of photography, and yet the technology also betrays them to the third.

Like an unexpected camera-flash in the eyes, this story lingered in my mind from the days before I started this blog, maybe even from the days before I decided that YA was where I wanted to thrust my swordly pen. And finally I returned to Flash Burnout, with the happy rediscovery of that catchy cover flap. Too, the interesting way the author chose to illuminate the wreck that meth makes of a life and a family–through the safer eyes of a narrator from a fun and functional family–probably provided some inspiration for the choices I’ve made in my story. The deadly reality of people living in the midst of a revolution is revealed only as it unexpectedly connects to the dramas of people in the relatively stable world of the western U.S. It doesn’t submerge young people in the terror, but it reminds them of its existence and shows how caring for individuals can connect us across vastly disparate circumstances.

Because I seemed to have learned something helpful from that book, I looked up Madigan’s website, only to find that she had passed on after only one other published title. A loss for many, but all the more reason to urge readers to pick up what she has left us.

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?

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.

Spring break in Cairo

Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell, is a rocking ride on the historical fulcrum point of a spring 1921 meeting in Cairo—where the Middle East was divvied up according to the various theories and negotiating skills of a small group of primarily European strategists.

Agnes Shanklin provides a first-person context that ranges widely and thoroughly through the years before, with the dire impact of two waves of epidemic influenza sandwiching the raw meat of the world’s bloodiest war. Her teacherly persona perfectly expresses her ability to tackle this broad sweep of influences with such informed passion. If you are a curious reader but distinctly allergic to nonfiction, this novel is so believable, and its history so remarkably tuned to today’s current events, that it can serve as historical text.

The book jacket calls Agnes ‘charmingly diffident’, and hers is a voice that disguises the difficult work of historical explication in the simple self-deprecation of a well-brought-up young woman with a domineering mother. In a writing student’s efforts (mine) to explore the concept of voice, this one is remarkably understated. In a world of pseudo-rebellious snarkiness and pseudo-strong machismo or just plain cold violence, Russell’s success with this story gives relief from the hype.

World Travels and Travails

My colleagues are away for spring break trips to Cozumel and Hawaii, while I happily explore—after work–Bombay, the island of Guernsey, and Paris.

Thrity Umrigar’s book, The World We Found, reveals the lives of a group of formerly rebellious college friends from India. One of the friends had moved to the once-maligned U.S. and married; with a just-diagnosed brain cancer, she frames the narrative with her desire to see them again before she dies.The rest lived out unexpectedly different stories in a world unsettled by politically-contrived bigotries prone to violence. The story’s fullness is achingly sweet. Despite their various failings, the characters help a reader understand and forgive and experience both the joy and sadness expressed in their often difficult choices.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, caught me right up with the narrator’s engaging voice, a war-time humorist sick of comedy but comically so, as described through letters to her publisher. A random connection, made through a second-hand book with the narrator’s address in it, slowly opens the window onto the world of Guernsey, until recently isolated by Nazi occupation. Despite a story frame as simple as a writer looking for something worth writing about, the stories within the frame are compelling, drawn along as they are by a central tragic shero. The frame’s own narrative progresses in an opposite, but connected, arc of love and hopefulness, which provides the balance to bear a reader through the dark realities just past.

With Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, prose lovelier than anything I’d lately found kept me reading long past the point where I felt abandoned by any intriguing storyline. In a more expansive mood, I’d be happy to finish the whole book, just for that melodic lilt of Hadley Hemingway’s voice. But I’m not on vacation. I have a day job and a novel in heavy revision, as well as the next one in the wings already calling me to rise at 4 a.m. for research. And since my task right now is seeking inspiration for the craft of a story, my strongest recommendations stay with the first two books. I’ll take their lessons with me as I offer what skills I can conjure to the assorted stories carried by the people in Fracture.

Hungry for Xanadu

A.D. 1275 vs. Dystopian Future

While avoiding Hunger Games (the film) madness, I grabbed Dori Jones Yang’s Daughter of Xanadu for a Friday night read, and found myself comparing the two epics, separated by maybe 3000 generations, with their resourceful young women archers.

The stories both win high praises because of their layered complexities, and for me, the awakening to social and philosophical questions is a compelling piece of growing maturity (at whatever chronological age it happens). Beginning with clear loyalties and a singular understanding of one’s role, paradox creeps into a person’s consciousness and like water freezing on stone, can crack open the bedrock values we grew up with.

Intriguingly, Emmajin, despite her Golden Family of the Yuan dynasty (Ghengis and Kublai Khan) lineage, surprises us with the same ultimate lessons that Katniss discovers as a colonial revolutionary. Coupled with the evocative particularities of largely unfamiliar worlds, the evolving plot lines are what draw so many readers to both books. (Daughter of Xanadu only came out last year; nominated for ALA’s 2012 Best Books for Young Adults) The reward, the excitement of how both stories end, is the successful use of the characters’ creative facilities to see beyond what appeared to be their no-win dilemmas to a third option, improbable, but just slightly possible.

And now for the differences. This is where I look harder at some aspect that I didn’t like in order to improve my own craft efforts—not because I want to pretend I’m already a better writer than the authors I’m considering. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up Xanadu, so just remember this is about the art of story, not the story itself.

For example, this paragraph:

“During the long daily rides, I tried to remember Latin words. I reviewed each of the places in Xanadu where we had talked. Without considering the consequences, I tried to think of ways to talk to him, to overcome the barrier between us. If he had pursued me, I would have rebuffed him. By holding himself aloof, he challenged me to win back his esteem.”

I have to say YUK. The book is loaded with this kind of thing, and back in the day when editors could invest more time in working with writers, I imagine it would all have been cut. In my own writing, I see some of this in my first drafts—it helps me see what I’m imagining the characters to be thinking so I can track their emerging personalities. But if I want those personalities to unveil themselves for readers, I need to allow a reader to experience a character in telling moments, like we might startlingly get to know someone in real life. I don’t like to be told all this stuff; and I certainly don’t like to be told all this same stuff over and over.

What I loved from a gut level with Collins’ trilogy was that she trusted us to understand her story in the same way Katniss was, in those heart-stopping moments of sudden lucid insight. This is the Respect the Reader mantra I really hope to master by the time my final draft is ready. It requires a bolder certainty than some writers ever manage, and a courage that stirs excitement in my tapping fingers. Dare I cut this small explanatory phrase? Do it—the story will challenge readers, and we all love to unravel a puzzle.


Although I typically cringe at fiction that runs so parallel to an author’s biography, only the ending of this little novel frustrated me with that “decided to become a writer instead” bit of similarity. The beginning and middle of the story held my interest, despite my lack of ballet knowledge, with the sheer intensity of desire the characters shared. Sophie Flack captured that well–no doubt explicitly because she was writing what she knows.

Motivation is slim enough–hinging on the dancer’s drosophila-like lifespan, so get your 5 minutes of fame while you can. After struggling to depict strong motivations for the two primary competitors in my story about world-class equestrians, I’m rewarded to find how plausible these girls’ dedication seems with nothing more substantial than that. And the story doesn’t require much in the way of subplotting either. To stay focused on this intense goal or not to stay so focused, that is the question–and really the only question (other than a slight foray into a love triangle, and the complications of competing against your only friends). Yet the book swirls with dances and dressing rooms, Pilates and Chinese take-out, filling a reader’s head with the experience of a strange and heady world.