Sunday, 17 May 2015

MORE GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2015

The High Divide, by Lin Enger

In 1886 Ulysses Pope, a carpenter in a small Minnesota settlement leaves his wife and two sons to do a job for a farmer up the road, saying he will return by nightfall.  When he doesn’t come home, his disappearance unleashes a shocking train of events upon his unfortunate family, starting with the pursuit by his two boys of their father, and the foreclosure of their property by an odious boarding-house owner who lusts after Gretta, the carpenter’s wife – who can only outwit him for a time while she mounts her own search for her husband and sons.
            To Gretta’s consternation she finds that Ulysses has been a man of great secrets, none of which he revealed to her even though he needed to unburden himself of them;  she now realises with shame that she never encouraged him to do so, believing as her mother did that men should be responsible for their own actions – whatever bothered them should stay with them.  Tragically, Ulysses bears a secret so huge and terrible that he has to leave his wife and family so that ‘he can come back a better man’.  Or die trying.
            As Ulysses journeys north to meet his fate, his wife and boys follow behind on separate paths, paths that reveal Ulysses to be a complete stranger to them:  they never knew he fought with the Seventh Cavalry, the infamous regiment commanded by George Custer and wiped out at Little Big Horn;  they never knew that he took part in the shameful massacre of the Indian settlement at Washita on Custer’s orders – and received a commendation for bravery for the slaughter;  there is so much of his life that was closed to them:  now they are finding out more than they can stomach.
            There are Homeric undertones to Mr Inger’s fine story;  his 19th century Ulysses is a worthy substitute for his ancient counterpart – imperfect, riven by his ideals and the choices he must make in the face of what life throws in his path; and finding, once the choice is made that it was wrong and atonement must follow. 
Mr Inger is a writer of great power;  his fine language describes superbly the plains and Badlands of a great, empty country, but one whose first peoples have already been subdued and corralled into reservations, their food sources exhausted – the herds of buffalo rolling like a great black sea from horizon to horizon all gone, victims as much as they of ‘civilisation’.  Homer’s Odyssey is brought to life again, his great cast of characters reborn but still familiar in a new setting.  Highly recommended. 
           
The Bridge, and Havoc by Jane Higgins Teen fiction 

Now that vampire stories have lost their novelty with teens and what they are reading and viewing, dystopian fiction is filling the gap – as it has for years, reliable as ever and just as successful, particularly as one thinks of ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Divergent’ et al.  Aspiring Young Adult writers can’t go wrong if they can think up a plot involving feisty adolescents, a crumbling, downtrodden society ruled by cruel, sadistic overlords, and the means for said adolescents to help good triumph over evil.  It’s impossible to go wrong, especially if the author can actually write, and tells a credible tale.
Just such a novelist is Jane Higgins, a New Zealand academic who has decided to try her hand at dystopian fantasy writing – and has done so well that everyone (including me!) will be hanging out for her third novel.
‘The Bridge,’ called the Mol, is one of many that span the river dividing an unnamed city in the future.  Cityside is prosperous and powerful and the victor and aggressor in many conflicts against Southside across the river, the poor part of the city who are traditionally viewed as the servant class – except when they have had enough and rise up in outrage.  Cityside folk call them Hostiles and regard all on the other side of the river as the enemy.
When the story opens the senior students of Cityside’s elite Tornmoor Academy are waiting to see who will be chosen to go on for further training with the ISIS security organisation, protectors of Cityside against all its foes.  A group of four top students are on tenterhooks:  today is the day when their hard work will pay off;  they feel supremely confident – they KNOW they’ve got what it takes and are proud of their abilities and their place in society.
Until three of their number are called out, but not the fourth, a huge shock because Nik Tais is the most talented of the quartet.  He has what ISIS requires and more, but to add insult to injury, no-one will tell him why he hasn’t been selected;  in fact, ISIS seems to regard him with deep suspicion.  Even his name seems to count against him and the fact that he was brought to Tornmoor when he was four years old as an orphan seems to make little difference.  He is not to be trusted – so much so that Nik is forced to flee Tornmoor after he is placed under arrest by ISIS, but the only place he can successfully hide is Southside, home of all those he has been conditioned to regard as The Enemy.
Predictably, he finds that the Hostiles he has been taught to despise have their own stories of abuse by Cityside and he eventually comes to believe that he and his schoolmates have been the victims of propaganda from a higher source;  a mysterious group who refuse to negotiate with Southsiders but seek their annihilation instead.
Ms Higgins provides the reader with mile-a-minute action and pace for the whole of Book One, and continues the breakneck tempo into Book Two, ‘Havoc’, where Nik, now a committed fighter for the Hostiles discovers that there is a mysterious new weapon under development in Pitkerrin Marsh, Cityside’s most feared prison hospital.  Those who are ‘lucky’ enough to come out of the Marsh alive are mere shells, shadows of themselves:  now a truly evil weapon of subjugation will be loosed on Southside – unless Nik and his allies can find out what it is and disable it in time.
Cynics may say that Ms Higgins follows all the formulaic rules of dystopian fiction;  well, naturally,  but I have to say that she couches all the usual requirements in great plotting, great characters and a story that, for all its ‘end-is-nigh’ subtext, ends on a very credible note of hope.  And hope, after all, is what sustains us all, in every situation.  And to prove that Nik is a little less than the perfect hero, he is involved in several nasty fist fights – none of which he wins;  in fact, he can’t fight his way out of a paper bag!  Nope:  hand-to-hand combat is not one of his strengths, which makes him more human – and endearing.  Highly recommended.
  


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