Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: Death Coming Up the Hill

Last week I decided to write professionally. I don't mean I took a job where I get paid as a writer; I mean that I started writing every day as if someone was paying me. This new goal came courtesy of one of my writing professors, who sent me this quote in an email:

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well.” 
Agatha ChristieAn Autobiography

Hence the late blog post and the headache. I spent this week polishing a novel I've been scared to show anyone, and then showing it to people. We'll see how they like it. It's darker, heavier, than most of my other stuff. On the complete other end of the spectrum from Under Locker and Key.

But enough about that. Today I want to finally post my review of Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe.

I feel the need for full disclosure: I know Chris Crowe. He's the professor who sent me the above quote and possibly the mentor who has had the biggest influence on how I think as a writer. That said, I'm going to give an honest review.

Death Coming Up the Hill takes place in 1968 and follows a boy named Ashe. His father is, as described by the back of the book, "dogmatic" and "racist," while his mother is an activist against the Vietnam War. The battle between Ashe's parents echoes the Vietnam War, in a way. Before long, Ashe can't sit on the sidelines of the turmoil around him any more. You can look up more about it here.

This is a quick but heavy read. Why? It's a YA book about the Vietnam War and it's written in haiku. There is one syllable in the book for every U.S. soldier killed in Vietnam. Sounds like a gimmick, but it really works. Crowe is a master of haiku; the language feels natural and not constricted by the constraint. Haiku is a small form, so the book is spare. Personally, I like a little more information in a novel, a few more details. It sometimes feels like a short story spread over a novel length. But I never felt like I'd lost something important. It's compact, but complete.

I enjoyed the characters. Ashe came across as a realistic teenage boy of the time, trying to figure out his own life while confronted with what his family wishes for him. I'm very fond of stories that force characters into no-win situations, and this does it. It does it well. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, so I'm not saying much about plot, but let's just say there's a development in Ashe's mother's life that puts a lot of strain (a LOT) on his whole family. This kind of development is sometimes used just to add drama to teen books and make things "edgy." I really appreciated that it served the story: it revealed character all over the place and impacted Ashe's decisions.

Do I recommend it? Yes. Because I know the writer? Well, yes, but that's never enough . It would mean nothing to me if my friends recommended my book not because they liked it but just because they knew me, so I won't do that to anyone I know. Read this book because the language is clear and tight, read it because the story is impressive and the characters interesting. Read it because it's written in haiku but you stop seeing the constraint the deeper you get into the story. I think you'd enjoy it.