Review: The Returning

The Returning by Christine Hinwood. Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher from ALA conference.

The Plot: A young man comes home from war, returning to the small village he left as a boy. At first it seems that only Cam Attling, missing an arm, has been changed by the war, but it touches all in both large and small ways. People are freed from doing what they had always done, being who everyone expected them to be. Some changes are internal: the realization that one can leave, whether it’s leaving an abusive husband or just wanting a different life than one’s parents. Others are more obvious: a young woman, alone and abused, determinedly creating her own future; a second son suddenly becomes the heir; an arranged marriage upsets all a girl thought she knew about life, love and family.

The Good: How to explain this book? How to get you to read it, because, yes, I want you to. How to convey how much I love this book, and this writing, even though it was not easy. In truth, when I began I felt a bit cold towards it. I wasn’t sure when or where I was, just a place that was vaguely pre-Industrial and with some names vaguely familiar (Cam, Graceful) and others not at all (Pin, Edord, Vivrain.) Just close enough to something known (Edward, Vivian), yet not, to be discomforting. So, too, the geography — there is a Downlander Village and the talk of war, the war between the Uplanders and the Downlanders, with the Uplanders triumphant. (Note I read the ARC, which had neither the maps, table of contents, nor character list of the final version.)

The story is about Cam, about Cam’s return, and how war impacted him and others, but The Returning dances around this, first telling us a story from the point of view of his young sister who sees Cam as a stranger, then from Graceful, the young girl he’d been betrothed to before he left for war, from others of the Village, with Cam figuring in their stories at least a little. Karyn at Someday My Printz Will Come was enthusiastic and I respect her opinion about books and the language and craft of the book was lovely, so I kept reading.

And then, it all just — clicked. Part of it had to do with realizing that I had to stop putting expectations on this book, about what it would or would not be, and just let it enfold me. Just let myself sink into Cam’s world without worrying about who was a main character and who wasn’t, and whether this world was European or Asian or something else. And I realized that what The Returning was about, was not Cam, or Pin, or Graceful, but was about war, and the impact of war on regular people and regular lives. The people who stay in the same village, well, as Cam’s mother wisely says, “there’ve always been taxes, new Lord or old.” Their losses are in the generation of men that did not come home; Cam alone returned. For others, those displaced, like young Diido, the loss is of home and comfort and security. There are families like Graceful’s that now have opportunities they would not have had before.

The reader learns more about Cam about a third of the way through, when his story takes center stage. Why did he go to fight, what he feels when he returns, and, most importantly, the ties he has with the “enemy” Uplanders are explored in rich detail as Cam tries to find his place in this new world. It’s not just the loss of his arm that prevents him from being the farmboy he was.

The Returning is a fantasy only in the sense that it is not our world; there is a medieval feel to this time and place, but no single thing ties it to our world enough to call it an alternate history. It is the villages changed by the War of the Roses, the aftermath of the Norman Invasion, the new Tudor rulers, World War I battle devastation. By removing the Lancasters, the Yorks, and any other familiar touchstone or name or place, Hinwood creates a place where the reader does not associate any one person or side with the “winner” or “loser,” the “good” or the “bad.” It answers the questions that I, as a history reader, wonder about – what happens to the people after the battles are fought? How do they live that next day, next month, next year?

The Returning was first published in 2009, in Australia, under the title Bloodflower. This is a situation where I like both covers, and each coveys a truth about the book, just different truths.

Because it managed to make me fall in love with it after I had already made up my mind not to like it. Because when I fell, I fell hard. Because Diido’s journey renewed my faith in people. Because there are is no good or evil, just people and power. Because it illustrated the power of choice, even when it seems there are no choices to be had. Because this world is fully realized and unique. For all these reasons, The Returning is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Review: The Things a Brother Knows

The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher. 2011 Sydney Taylor Award for Teen Readers.

The Plot: Three years ago, Levi Katznelson’s older brother Boaz surprised his family and friends by announcing that rather than going to college, he was joining the Marines. Boaz has returned from his tour of duty, back from the fighting, back from the war. But is he really back? Boaz spends all his time in his room, communicating more with people online than he does with his family or friends. Levi, seventeen, doesn’t know what to think or do especially because no one wants to say it out loud: that the Boaz who came back is not the same person who left. When Boaz announces his intention to go on a lengthy hiking trip, Levi, concerned about what Boaz isn’t saying, forces himself along on a trip that becomes one of discovery for both brothers.

The Good: The relationship between Levi and Boaz is heartbreaking: before Boaz left, the two brothers were not in an idealized relationship but were typical siblings. It was older brother with his own life, younger brother catching up. As Levi explains at the beginning, “I used to worship him too. All little brothers worship their big brothers, I guess.  . . . Your brother’s  face is one of the first you ever see. His hands are among the first to touch you. You crawl only to catch him.” Boaz leaving, leaving for the military, shifts the family and family dynamics and Levi has been at home with the altered family ever since.

The Katznelsons are part Israeli. Boaz and Levi’s father, Reuben, is an Israeli who was raised in a kibbutz; his father, Dov, moved to Boston to be near his son’s family after his wife died. This adds both depth to the family – Abba’s interactions with his family are impacted by his own upbringing – and layers to how the family reacts to Boaz’s enlistment. Abba moved with his American wife to a Boston suburb before either boy was born. That the Katznelsons come from a family of military service (father, grandfather, and grandmother all served in the Israeli military) doesn’t change that the parents do not embrace Boaz’s choice. Rather, “Abba and Dov said little that night. It was pretty clear where they both stood. Joining up for a war without a clear mission, when it wasn’t part of the price of citizenship in the country we all called home, wasn’t a choice either of them would have made themselves. And they said this later, each in his own way.” Boaz’s girlfriend Christine says bluntly, “that’s not what people like us do. . . . People who have other opportunities. Who get into Ivy League schools.” Levi’s own discomfort over his brother’s choice is both more personal and prescient about what will come: “It wasn’t so much that I had an opinion about the war, or even any understanding of what Boaz was signing up for. It was more that I couldn’t comprehend a distance so far, a change so big, and I was already feeling the change start to happen right there, right then. That night.”

Boaz is now home, locking himself in his room, as his family tiptoes around him, happy he is back yet afraid to ask any questions, reassuring themselves that he got a clean bill of health (including mental health) before he was discharged. One of Boaz’s secrets turns out to be that he refuses to get in a car. When he announces a plan to hike the Appalachian Trail, his mother especially is overjoyed and throws herself into planning and purchasing mode. Levi, who has been keeping an eye on what Boaz does on the computer, knows that the only maps and plans Boaz has is to walk to Washington, D.C. Levi keeps Boaz’s secret but joins him on the walking trip.

Brothers: the brothers of blood. Levi and Boaz. Brothers: the brotherhood of Marines, Boaz and Loren and Jack. Also the brothers of friends (Levi, Zim, Pearl); the brothers of those who have had similar experiences (Boaz and his grandfather Dov), the brothers of family — the Katznelsons. All these links, all these relationships, and also — what do we know about our brothers and ourselves?

I love the Katznelsons. I want to go to Friday dinner at their house. It’s such a layered family. For example, Levi recalls a card game his grandfather Dov taught him and assumes that Dov also played with Boaz, but Boaz says no. It could be that Boaz doesn’t remember, but I think it shows how grandchildren can have unique relationships with a grandparent and they don’t realize it. Levi doesn’t realize that this card game may have been something Dov shared just with him.

While Boaz walks to D.C., he stays with fellow soldiers and the families of soldiers. On the one hand, it is a practical solution, cheap. On the other, it is also a gift. Boaz, whatever his struggles are, came home. His presence in the homes of his brothers is a silent message to those families, a message of prayer and hope: your son will come home.

The Things a Brother Knows also has humor, some of it supplied by Levi’s two best friends, Zim and Pearl. Pearl breaks up with someone for using the word penultimate wrong. Pearl puts on a two-year-old mix CD she made and quickly stops it, saying “Jesus, I had bad taste at fourteen.”. When Levi prepares for his trip, his best friend Pearl asks him to tell her what he packed. “It’s kind of like porn for girls.” Funny but true, at least for me!

Review: Invisible Things

Invisible Things by Jenny Davidson. HarperCollins. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to The Explosionist.

The Plot: 1938. Sophie Hunter, sixteen, has fled Scotland for Denmark. Had she stayed in Scotland, she would have been forcibly brainwashed to become a perfect secretary for the “good of the country.” Denmark appears to be a safe harbor. She lives with her friend Mikael and his mother, assistant to Neils Bohr. Sophie waits to hear from the mysterious Alfred Nobel, who says he knows things about Sophie’s long dead parents. War is on the horizon, but the world Sophie finds herself in is not one of politics but that of science and the weapons that scientists make.

The Good: In case the “Alfred Nobel is alive in 1938” doesn’t give it away, (well, that and Scotland using brainwashed secretaries) this is an alternate world. Briefly, in this world, at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Napoleon defeated Wellington and consequences include a European Foundation that invades England while Scotland joins the New Hanseatic League, which is made up of Scandinavian countries. Some history remains similar – a war is threatened. Germany has instituted racial laws. Science is similar, and with Bohr and other scientists around it is treated very seriously. Spiritualism is real, or at least, real for some. The “invisible things” are the stuff of both science (atoms and radiation) and spiritualism.

From dynamite to nitroglycerin to nuclear physicists – it’s real, with slightly altered timeframes. Real enough for those who are into science to get a thrill by the names that are dropped (Lise Meitner). Sophie, in conversations and internal musings, thinks about science, weapons, war, peace.

Sophie’s parents died in an explosion when she was a child, an event she barely survived and hardly remembers. She is about to find out secrets about them, about their past, about their work, about their connections to people Sophie is meeting for the first time. Meanwhile, her friendship with Mikael is slowly turning into something more.

Sophie’s new home and her safety is changed dramatically when war comes to Denmark. An attack leaves Mikael injured and his personality changed; the European Foundation invades Denmark; and a new character is introduced, Elsa Blix. For a second time, Sophie flees her home.

At this point, Invisible Things turns from a story of science, war, and peace to a retelling of The Snow Queen. Mikael is Kai, his injuries turning him cold and enthralling him to the Snow Queen/Elsa Blix; Sophie is Gerda, out to save her best friend.

Every time Sophie turns around, it seems, the world and her place in it is not what it seems. It’s not just being a refugee, first from Scotland, then from Denmark. It is realizing that everything she believed, about herself and her family, is not what it seems. Her world is full of invisible things, slowly being made visible.

Do you have to read The Explosionist to read Invisible Things? No. The Explosionist features the spiritualism that is (sometime) real in this world, so that part is mainly in Sophie’s past, when she refers to experiences in Scotland. But you know what I’m going to say — you’re going to WANT to read The Explosionist. You’re going to want to find out more about this alternate history. You’re going to enjoy Sophie and her adventures and want more.