November 01, 2012

(+++) LOOKING BACK AND AHEAD


Precious Bones. By Mika Ashley-Hollinger. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Jump into the Sky. By Shelley Pearsall. Knopf. $16.99.

Recon Team Angel Book #1: The Assault. By Brian Falkner. Random House. $17.99.

      Looking back to the 1940s and ahead to a highly improbable 2030, these three books approach time-worn subjects in largely familiar ways, albeit with a few twists and turns here and there. Precious Bones, set in a small Florida town in 1949, has 10-year-old Bones trying to prove her father, Nolan, who is part Miccosukee Indian, not guilty of murder. Bones and her friend Little Man investigate as Nolan and Bones’ mother, Lori, hover rather fecklessly in the background in a story in which the two men murdered are far less interesting than the swamp critters that Bones and Little Man encounter as they search for clues. A debut novel, Precious Bones is Mika Ashley-Hollinger’s tribute to the small Florida town where she grew up and to a largely vanished way of life.  The dialogue tends to be stilted and pretty much as expected: “Grandma probably sees more than most people do with two good eyes. She sees from the inside, from the heart.” And: “Bones, there’s a lot of things in the world that ain’t quite right. Maybe it will take you young’uns to change things.”  There are sightings of real and mysterious creatures, hints of ghosts and witchery, trouble between the rural folk and city “po-lease” and between Southerners and Yankees, and pretty much everything else that might be expected in a book about this place and this time. There is a lot of “mighty fine” and “if it ain’t no bother,” and there is some unsurprising self-examination and even somewhat-overstated-for-its-time ecological awareness: “Lots of greedy people came down here and slaughtered animals for their fur and feathers. Didn’t even eat ’em. Just left their bodies to rot. They’re killin’ the swamps, stealin’ the water, buying up the land. It just ain’t right.”  Needless to say, Nolan is not guilty of murder, Bones helps find evidence that gets the guilty party arrested, and there is a touching conclusion that turns on what happens to an enormous black bear. A period piece that proceeds in few unexpected directions, Precious Bones is pleasantly nostalgic, if scarcely compelling reading.

      Jump into the Sky is set in the same decade but what feels like a very different time: 1945, when World War II continues to rage (although it is nearly over) and the life-changing lessons are learned not by rural Southerners but by urban African Americans. Actually, the South figures here, too, since 13-year-old Levi Battle takes a train journey from Chicago to North Carolina to try to find where his father is stationed, learning in the process what it means to be black in the South as opposed to black in the urban North. Precious Bones is an in-depth look at a single small town; Jump into the Sky is in many ways the opposite, the story of a meandering trip around and across the United States. Shelley Pearsall uses the usual ingredients of a quest for self-discovery, having Levi’s search for his father also being a search for who he is himself and for where he belongs.  All the standard elements of a youth’s journey toward self-awareness are here: happiness and disappointment, kind strangers and unkind ones, even an aunt who makes delicious fried chicken and a father who is assigned to a secret mission and does not know Levi is coming. By the time Levi does find his father, Charles “Boots” Battle, of course the reunion is not what Levi expects: “Now, you’d think we could have let down our guard after that and picked up the pieces where we’d left off as father and son. But, after three years of being apart, what do you talk about first?”  The reunion is not the book’s climax – the story continues into what Levi’s father is doing, and there is a tragic parachute drop, and then the war ends, and Levi learns about his father’s attempts to find Levi’s mother, who had deserted the family, and Boots gets a chance to philosophize a bit: “There are things in this world even the smartest encyclopedias can’t help you with. Love. Death. War. Why some people treat other people the cruel way they do. You need to look somewhere else for answers to the tough questions like that.” By the end, Levi and his father are heading back South to a life that they know will be difficult but is sure to be better because they are together – a suitable ending for a book of this type, and an entirely predictable one.

      The predictable elements of The Assault, the first book of a series called Recon Team Angel, are those of a book about alien invasion and teenage heroism in that environment. This is fantasy masquerading as science fiction – the days in which the use of alien invaders made a story automatically science fiction are long gone, or should be – and Brian Falkner’s book in fact fits the mold of military stories set in any age, at any time. Unlike Jump into the Sky, which strives for sensitivity and a realistic portrayal of one element of real history (African American contributions to the war effort during World War II, specifically those of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion), The Assault involves the anyone/anytime/anyplace setting of infiltrators trying to pass themselves off as members of the enemy forces so as to destroy the bad guys from within. This is the stuff of uncounted numbers of war movies as well as books – The Guns of Navarone is one that comes to mind, for those who know it, because there too a small heroic band attempts to penetrate a supposedly impregnable enemy headquarters and discovers, after a series of mishaps and near-death experiences, that there is a traitor among them. That is in fact exactly the plot of The Assault.  The Americas are the only remaining free countries in a world overrun by evil aliens called the Bzadians. The aliens’ headquarters is actually in Australia, in the desiccated outback around Uluru (Ayers Rock), and six teenagers are humanity’s last hope to penetrate alien HQ and strike a blow that will oust the invaders. Or something like that. The teens have been physically modified to look like the aliens and have been trained to talk and act like them – even to think as they think. But the teens run into mission problems almost from the start; they find ways around the difficulties; they press on; and just as they are about to make a major discovery, they have to confront the reality of there being a traitor in their midst. Take out the aliens, and this could be any one of a great number of military novels. Even the sort-of-military-style chapter headings are conventional: “[Mission Day 5] [0530 hours] [Benda Hill, New Bzadia].” And of course the dialogue could have been written by anyone who has ever read other military books or seen war movies: “As for you and me, we were always expendable.”  There is nothing surprising or particularly creative about this exercise in predictability, but teens unfamiliar with genre conventions or just seeking a read-it-and-forget-it thrill will enjoy the book and look forward to further entries in the series.

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