FIRST GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2016
Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin, Book One. Young Adult fiction
Blood for Blood, by Ryan Graudin, Book Two.
Ryan Graudin writes in her Author’s note at the end of Book One that she based her spine-chilling and utterly compelling story for teens on the premise ‘What if’? What if Hitler and his gang of thugs and murderers had been victorious in the Second World War, resulting in slavery of all the conquered nations of Europe. What if Japan had also emerged victorious, consequently controlling all of Asia. Such a concept is unthinkable, especially when the true horror of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ was revealed in all its evil when allied troops opened his concentration camps.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, our world, whilst not ideal, celebrates a freedom that is taken very much for granted with each passing year. Ms Graudin, by asking ‘What if’, forces us to revisit Hitler’s Germany of 1956, eleven years after his stunning victory and subsequent subjugation of Europe.
Aryan supremacy reigns: a nation of handsome blond children, born to handsome blond parents is under way, pursued with the same thoroughness and fervour that Hitler devoted to the Jewish Question. Women are ‘encouraged’ to devote their lives to breeding perfect children – as many as possible; glorious motherhood in service to the Reich is the only career they need have. Their Aryan menfolk will take care of them in all the traditional ways.
And what better way to promote national pride than (in the manner of Bread and Circuses, a successful distraction since Roman times) an international motorcycle race, the Axis Tour, starting in Germania (renamed from old capital Berlin), to cross continents till the first contestant roars across the finish line in Tokyo. Apart from the money, accolades and favours the winner would reap, he/she would also meet the Fuehrer personally. To be presented to the Leader of the entire world is an undreamed-of honour, not least because the Fuehrer no longer makes public appearances – due to a small matter of forty-nine assassination attempts. To be presented to this Demigod is every young contestant’s dream. And they are young; it is a race for those under eighteen, their chance to become heroes of the Third Reich, and if they win to call themselves Victor before their surname. Bread and Circuses.
Into this Aryan dream steps Yael, a member of the Resistance (yes, there is resistance and sabotage, personified in the forty-nine assassination attempts!). Yael has a singular ability to change her appearance completely, thanks to her childhood in a concentration camp, the victim of a Dr Mengele type physician who enjoyed experimenting with Jewish children. Those few who survived his torture found that in a matter of seconds they could disguise themselves as anyone they laid eyes on, a tremendous advantage when Yael escapes the camp, disguised as the Kommandant’s daughter: she is destined for great things, and when she makes contact with the resistance her extraordinary gift is recognised for the mighty weapon it is.
She will ride in the Axis Tour, win, be presented to Hitler – then shoot him dead.
Ah, if only. After much training and study of the other contestants, the girl Yael will be impersonating, Adele Wolfe, is kidnapped according to plan and hidden in the Resistance basement; Yael presents herself as Adele, only to discover that Adele’s twin, Felix, is not going to let her out of his sight: he’s coming too! And the Axis Tour’s previous winner, Luka Loewe, is determined to win the race, by fair means or foul. Yael is not just in a race so that she can kill Hitler, she is also in a race to keep from being killed.
Ms Graudin grabs the reader by the throat from the very first chapter; I have not turned pages so feverishly for years. She has written two books that function on many levels; a frightening and entirely plausible account of a dystopian world ruled by the Third Reich; thrillers so fast-paced I had to lie down with a damp teatowel on my head after I’d finished them – and she wasn’t afraid to sacrifice a major character in Book Two in the interests of keeping her marvellous plot REAL. I have our great librarians to thank for recommending these books to me; now I am doing the same to you. Start reading! SIX STARS
The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante
Book Two of the Neopolitan Novels.
Elena Ferrante’s wonderful story of a lifelong friendship (see review below) is continued in Book Two. Once again, Elena Greco narrates the next stage of her friendship throughout the sixties with her brilliant, driven and headstrong friend Rafaella Cerullo, called Lina, or Lila. Lila has married Stefano Carracci the local grocer at the age of sixteen, in an effort to provide security for her parents, and a business opportunity for her brother Rino who is a shoemaker who, with his father, has made a start at manufacturing shoes designed by Lila and financed by Stefano.
Everything should be fine – except that Lila discovers that Stefano has sought financial help from the Solara brothers, the local loan sharks and criminals; once people get involved with them, they are seldom released from their ‘obligations’. Lila is outraged at this dangerous and stupid alliance, and the newlyweds’ cosy, prosperous domestic bubble is soon popped in an atmosphere of screaming defiance from her, and physical violence from him. After all, this is what men do in Neopolitan households to keep their wives in an appropriate state of respect and submission – especially if, like Stefano, they allow their gorgeous spouse free rein with money. The fact that she finds objectionable any contact with the Solara Brothers (who both desire her) is trivial and a small price to pay for continued ‘investment’ opportunities with them.
Ms Ferrante recounts with consummate skill the story of a marriage doomed to fail, especially when Elena, Lila’s devoted friend (who always feels overshadowed by Lila on every level) is roped into taking a vacation on Ischia with her – because she (Lila) is not pregnant! And she should be! The Doctor has prescribed sun, sand and sea, so the two friends are ferried away to Ischia, Lila to become by some mysterious osmosis fertile, and Elena to hope that she will meet up with her secret love, Nino Sarratore, a university student of such brilliance that she can’t believe he knows she’s alive, let alone have a conversation with her!
As always, nothing goes according to plan: a love affair does develop, but with the wrong protagonists, and by the time Book Two ends, everyone’s fate has been scattered to the four winds. And the only winners so far are the Solara brothers.
Ms Ferrante covers a period of about seven years in this book; international events of the time serve as a background to the action as Elena struggles to continue her education so that she will have something about herself of which to feel proud, but as always it is her mercurial, brilliant friend who dominates her life. Whether she wants her to or not. FIVE STARS
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
Ms Ferrante has caused a furore in the literary world: apart from the superb quality of her writing, she is also very strict about anonymity, Elena Ferrante being a pseudonym. She believes that novels should be born, then stand alone without the weight of an author’s name behind them propping them up. Fair enough, but it is obvious that the search for Ms Ferrante’s true identity is ongoing, if only for the fact that someone so much the master of her craft should never remain secret, for Ms Ferrante has produced a remarkable feat, a quartet of novels that are unforgettable.
The first, ‘My Brilliant Friend’, opens in 1950’s Naples, that teeming, corrupt city overshadowed by Vesuvius and plagued by crime and poverty, particularly in the area that eight-year-old Elena Greco lives. A porter’s daughter, she longs to be friends with the local shoemaker’s daughter, Rafaella, called Lila, for Lila is wild, different, a disturbance in the classroom, but of superior intelligence: if only there were some way to impress Lila, to make her see that she, Elena, is smart too, worthy of her friendship though more of a follower than the instigator of mischief that Lila unleashes so effortlessly: Elena feels that if she can persist in her attempts at friendship, it will be a win-win situation for them both. For Lila has a natural brilliance, a propensity to soak up knowledge (and languages) like a sponge, that Elena must benefit from just by association. She wants to be a scholar too, but doesn’t learn as easily as Lila, who is generous with advice on how to retain knowledge that eludes so many of their classmates.
Their friendship grows over the years, overshadowed by the stark poverty and casual, everyday violence that is a normal feature in the lives of their families and neighbours. Money and the lack of it colours all decisions, and it is considered a triumph for Lila and Elena to go from elementary to middle school, much against parental objections, especially from Elena’s mother who says she should be earning a wage somewhere (at barely thirteen) to help the family. Lila’s family is no different and at the same age she is seconded to her father’s shoe repair shop to ‘learn proper work’ with her brother Rino, who is already seething with discontent, for he has been ‘learning proper work’ for years and has not been paid a penny for his efforts because it is ‘for the good of the family’.
The only families doing well in the neighbourhood are those whom everyone is afraid of: the family of Don Achille Carracci, grocer and black marketeer, eventually murdered by a carpenter he ruined, and the Solara family, local gangsters and loan sharks operating within a pastry shop. The sons of these two families are the local lords of all they survey, and as Elena and Lila develop it becomes plain that Lila, the free spirit who laughs in their faces, is the prize. The one who must be brought to heel, to show respect.
Ms Ferrante ends Book One with the explosive finale of Lila’s wedding at the age of sixteen to the grocer Stefano Carracci; he has set up her father and brother in the business of crafting shoes designed by her; he has showered clothes, furniture and a brand-new apartment on her, and Lila feels she has made a fine marriage, saving her family from continued penury – until the wedding reception, when it becomes abundantly clear that Stefano has made a deal with the Devil. Book Two is ‘The Story of a New Name.’ Can’t wait! FIVE STARS.