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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NEW DYSTOPIAN NOVEL: Jesús Carrasco's "Out in the Open"

Author: Jesús Carrasco  
Translator (from Spanish): Margaret Jull Costa
Plot Type: Dark Dystopian Fantasy 
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House LLC)
Publication Dates: Original Spanish text: 2013; English translation: 2017

     Jesus Carrasco was born in Badajoz, Spain, and now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016. Out in the Open is his debut novel. It was a bestseller in Spain, has been published in twenty-five languages, and is the winner of many international awards, including an English PEN award.

     Margaret Jull Costa has been translating Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American fiction—including authors like Javier Marias—for more than twenty years.

     A searing dystopian vision of a young boy's flight through an unnamed, savaged country, searching for sanctuary and redemption—a debut novel from one of Europe's bestselling literary stars.

     A young boy has fled his home. He’s pursued by dangerous forces. What lies before him is an infinite, arid plain, one he must cross in order to escape those from whom he’s fleeing. One night on the road, he meets an old goatherd, a man who lives simply but righteously, and from that moment on, their paths intertwine.

     Out in the Open
 tells the story of this journey through a drought-stricken country ruled by violence. A world where names and dates don’t matter, where morals have drained away with the water. In this landscape the boy—not yet a lost cause—has the chance to choose hope and bravery, or to live forever mired in the cycle of violence in which he was raised. Carrasco has masterfully created a high stakes world, a dystopian tale of life and death, right and wrong, terror and salvation.

    Contrary to the title, the opening scene centers on a young boy who is hiding in a place that is anything but open: "From inside his hole in the ground, he heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets, he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove. The desolate howling of fire-scorched scrub. He was lying on one side, knees drawn up to his chest, with barely enough room to move in that cramped apace. His arms either around his knees or serving as a pillow, and only a tiny niche for his knapsack of food. ... He sensed that the men were getting very close now and so he lay utterly still. He heard his name proliferating among the trees like drops of rain falling onto a sheet of water." As he lies in his hole, he thinks about his father and "the black flower of his family's betrayal [that] still gnawed at his stomach." So...what do we know about this young boy, who is perhaps eight or ten years of age? All of the men in the village, including the sheriff, are searching for him, because he has "caused an incident," an incident that somehow involves duplicity by his family. All this nameless boy can think about is escaping to a safe place—turning his back on the village and the olive grove and heading north into the unknown plain, certain that his carefully collected horde of food and water will be enough to propel him into a new life.

     What could this little boy possibly have done to cause this massive search? The boy assures us that he "hadn't killed anyone, he hadn't stolen, he hadn't taken the name of God in vain," so what did he do? Carrasco doesn't tell us exactly what happened until much later in the story, leaving only sickening hints—forcing the reader to make his or her own dark guesses as to who or what the boy has escaped from and what will happen to him if/when he is caught by his primary pursuer. 
In an interview, Carrasco says, "When I wrote the novel I tried to create an incomplete psychological profile of the boy. Not just because he was a 'personality in progress' but because I wanted to attract the reader to the characters by giving them a sort of mystery. When I read I'm always tempted to fill in with my own experience of life what is suggested but not said, I think we all do. When the blank says 'fear,' it is more suggestive when the reader fills the blank with their own fear instead of a neat description of what the writer thinks that the character feels."

This is how the old man
looks as he rides his
donkey, which is loaded
with panniers (saddle

bags) filled with his 
     Once the boy escapes from his hole and makes his way into the desolate, tinder-dry, drought-ridden countryside, Carrasco draws the reader into the boy's mind as he trudges for miles with the sun beating relentlessly down on his unprotected body. That night, after his meager provisions have been eaten and drunk, he comes upon an aged goatherd who catches him when he tries to steal some food. Instead of punishing the boy, the goatherd shares his food and water, and after some initial distrust, the boy, the goatherd, and his animals continue to make their way north. "The old man and the donkey were at the front, the dog chasing madly after them, and last of all came the goats, leaving behind a slipstream of dung like the tail of a comet." The boy is still somewhat distrustful of the goatherd because he is sure that a reward for his capture has been posted, and the goatherd is desperately poor, but he truly has no choice but to team up with this monosyllabic old man if he is to survive. 

A rope lighter
   Note: The goatherd habitually uses a rope lighter  (encendedor de mecha) to light his cigarettes as well as the campfire. Click HERE to see a video of how a rope lighter works. It's pretty neat.

     The next chapters follow the group of animals and the two humans as they move slowly across an arid, dusty, rocky plain pocked with bone-dry stream beds. Although some have criticized this section of the book for being too slow, I found it fascinating to watch the primitive but principled goatherd begin to mentor the boy, almost as if the old man is readying the boy to take his place when the time comes. This part of the book is truly a coming-of-age process for a youngster who has never been beyond the boundaries of his own village and who has always relied on his family for sustenance and shelter. Now, he has only himself—and the goatherd—to keep him alive. Carrasco's writing is filled with the meticulous details of surviving in this unforgiving landscape (which is based on Carrasco's childhood in a drought-ridden area of Spain).

     Comparisons can be made between the boy's search for safety and Don Quixote's quest for chivalry. In an on-line interview, Carrasco makes the following statement on this subject: "There are many parallels between the books. Both are, in some way, travel books, unfolding in the same landscape, and danger is a substantial part of the plot. The difference is that while Don Quixote seeks danger, the boy in this novel, flees from it. In my opinion the need for safety that the boy feels is actually finally fulfilled by the encounter with the goatherd. It is, anyway, a psychological safety, which has been sourced from a newly acquired feeling of autonomy. For the first time in his early life, he feels that it is himself who is in charge of is own life. It is good to be aware that life is not cocooned in safety and that it finally ends." The book has also been compared to Cormac MacCarthy's The Road.

     Eventually, of course, the boy's pursuers catch up with him in a horrific scene set in the ruins of an ancient castle. From that point on, suspense builds at a compelling rate as we root for the boy and his savior to emerge from this virtual nightmare alive. "The elements had pushed him far beyond what he knew and didn't know about life. It had taken him to the very edge of death...." The boy struggles to understand the goatherd's motivations for helping him. He wonders why the old man has put himself at high risk and has suffered extreme pain and hardship just to help him escape from his pursuers.

     After many trials and tribulations, the boy "had been guilty of meting out violence, exactly as he had seen those around him do, and now he was demanding his share of impunity." But when the boy wants to leave an enemy for dead, the goatherd reminds him, "He, too, is a child of God."  From this old man the boy eventually learns the importance of compassion to the human soul. 

     Although there are a number of extremely violent scenes in the second half of the book, Carrasco takes a Hitchcockian approach to them, never giving us the full graphic details, but instead relying on shadows, sounds, and smells to communicate the horrors. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Carrasco uses his storytelling as a means of forcing his audience to project their worst fears and anxieties—to place the reader just outside the scene as a silent, powerless observer. 

     In one brief scene the boy's most feared pursuer meticulously collects a variety of food, leisurely eats his meal, and then uses his knife to open a handful of walnuts, carefully scooping out the whole nutmeats. As the terrified boy watches, the man holds "one half of a nutshell in each hand. Then holding each half between two fingers, he put them together so that they fitted perfectly like a brain with four hemispheres." He looks at the boy and says, "It's important to do things properly. ... And you haven't." When read in full context, this little vignette will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from novel on its page. You can click on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

Saturday, October 7, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Diana Rowland's WHITE TRASH ZOMBIE SERIES by adding a review of White Trash Zombie Unchained, the sixth (and probably the FINAL) novel in the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Monday, October 2, 2017

UPDATE! Charlaine Harris--renewal for "MIdnight Texas" TV show

Charlaine Harris just posted on Facebook that the renewal of the television version of Midnight, Texas, is hanging in the balance. She asks supporters to make their opinions known at @MidnightTexas on Facebook.

Click HERE to go directly to Harris's Facebook page. 

Click HERE to go to NBC's Midnight Texas page where you can watch the full season, including the big finale.

Although I wasn't overjoyed with all aspects of the show, by the end I had made peace with most of my complaints, particularly about the lousy casting of a few of the characters (particularly, Joe the fallen angel). 

Once a book falls into the hands of TV executives, it is always going to become a very different product than the one we read on the printed page. That happened with True Blood, just as it happened with Midnight. Thankfully, the producers of True Blood did a much better job and stayed relatively true to Harris's character development and story lines.

I'm just grateful that the Midnight series was better cast and plotted than the dreadful Aurora Teagarden series on the Hallmark channel, which is filled with sappy, air-headed characters and drips with saccharine-sweet drivel that is far removed from Harris's wry, dry wit.

Saturday, September 30, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Kelley Armstrong's CAINSVILLE SERIES by adding a review of Rituals, the fifth and FINAL novel. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

NEW NOVEL! Christina Henry's "Lost Boy"

Author:  Christina Henry 
Title:  Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook 
Genre:  Fantasy 
Publisher:  Penguin Random House (7/2017)

     From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a familiar story with a dark hook—a tale about Peter Pan and the friend who became his nemesis, a nemesis who may not be the black-hearted villain Peter says he is…

     There is one version of my story that everyone knows. And then there is the truth. This is how it happened. How I went from being Peter Pan’s first—and favorite—lost boy to his greatest enemy.

     Peter brought me to his island because there were no rules and no grownups to make us mind. He brought boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter's idea of fun is sharper than a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Our neighbors are pirates and monsters. Our toys are knife and stick and rock—the kinds of playthings that bite.

     Peter promised we would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies. 

    In a video interview about this novel for Fangirl Nation, Christina Henry explains that she frequently finds "imaginative space" within literary works—places where the author has left something out, something that she wants to know more about. After reading J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan to her eleven-year-old son, Henry wondered why Captain Hook hates Peter Pan so much? What would make a grown man despise a child so much that he wants to kill him? In Lost Boy, Henry has created a prequel to Peter Pan that answers that very question.

     You may have seen the Disney animated movie or Hook, with Robin Williams as Peter Pan, but if you go back to the original story and read between the lines, you'll see that Peter isn't as happy and carefree as he appears on the surface. Henry searched carefully for those hints and spun them into a dark and violent tale that explains exactly what happened between Peter and Captain Hook that made them mortal enemies. 

     Long before Captain Hook was a vengeance-obsessed, one-handed pirate, he was Peter's very first boy and his name was Jamie. Jamie tells his story in his eloquent first-person voice (which Henry handles masterfully). Jamie ends the Prologue with these words: "Peter will say I'm a villain, that I wronged him, that I never was his friend. But...Peter lies. This is what really happened." 

     As the story begins, Jamie has been on Peter's island for 150 seasons (approximately 38 years), but he still looks as if he is about 12 years old. "It was the island that kept us all young, though some of us wouldn't stay that way. Some of the boys, for reasons none of us could comprehend, grew up like normal. It didn't happen too often, for Peter was pretty good at choosing the right sort of character for the island and I think that had something to do with it, the desire to stay a boy and do boy things for always."

     Early in the book Jamie muses about the good old days when, "I was the only one who was special, truly special, for I was the first, and would be the last if it came to that. It would always be Peter and me, like we were in the beginning." But gradually, the relationship between Peter and Jamie has changed. Over the years, Jamie has become a caretaker for the lost boysa big brother, or perhaps even a mother figure. He makes sure that they get enough food and rest, that they don't fight too much among themselves, that they can take care of themselves in the woods, and that they help with the work around the camp. "Peter was for fun, for play, for adventures. Me, I kept his playmates alive—even when he didn't want them anymore." Now the boys turn to Jamie rather than to Peter for support, which makes Peter grow more and more jealous of Jamie. 

     Peter likes to have 15 boys in his group, so if he loses one or two in battles or to illness, he goes through the magic rabbit hole back to the Other Place to seduce replacements from the crowds of homeless street boys who are desperate for a happy life. "To Peter all children were replaceable (except himself). When he lost one...he would...get a new one, preferably an unwanted one, because then the boy didn't miss the Other Place so much and he was happy to be here and to do what Peter wanted. Those who didn't listen so well or weren't happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed [vicious monsters] without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn't want his adventures." 

     Usually, Peter takes Jamie along on his "recruitment" journeys, but not the last one, which resulted in two new boys who definitely do not fit the usual mold. Charlie is the youngest boy ever to live on Peter's island. He is about five years old, and Jamie is pretty sure that Peter did not find Charlie on the streets because Charlie speaks fondly of his mother—the hugs she gave him and the songs she sang to him. The other boy is Nip, an older, tougher boy whose primary demeanor is sullen and mean. Nip constantly challenges Jamie's orders, and Jamie soon realizes that Nip plans to step up and take his place as second-in-command. 

     As Jamie tells his story, he reminisces about how he felt about Peter in the old days when life really was all fun and frolic. "I was smaller then, and Peter was big and brave and wonderful. He said, 'Come away and we'll have adventures and be friends always,' and I put my hand in his and he smiled and that smile went into my heart and stayed there." But even back then, Jamie hated the violent interludes that Peter insisted on—the periodic bloody raids on the pirates (who never came inland to bother them, so why attack them?); the occasional attack by one of the Many-Eyed (huge spidery monsters who live in the north meadow); and the intermittent battles between boys (which are always fought on the Battle Rock). Peter insists on battles whenever two boys argue over something or get into fights—or whenever Peter just wants to enjoy watching some violence. In these battles the boys fight with sharp rocks and sticks and hard fists and kicks so they are always very bloody, but the Battle Rock magically absorbs all of the blood. 

     Recently, Jamie has been getting less and less happy about living on Peter's island, and less and less friendly toward Peter, who senses Jamie's changing attitude. And one more thing...Jamie is beginning to grow—just an inch every once in awhile, but he is definitely growing taller, another fact that Peter notices. It takes Jamie awhile to figure out why he's growing, but it's obvious that Peter knows exactly what's going on with his first boy.

     As the story plays out, Peter gets more and more vicious, and Jamie gets more and more defensive and protective of Charlie and of another new member of Peter's tribe. Eventually, just as in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the lost boys' society falls violently apart and everyone's life either ends abruptly or changes completely. I won't tell you any more of the plot because the enjoyment of the book lies in watching the events play out to their horrific conclusion. (Warning! If you are a reader who likes to peek at the last few pages before starting a book, don't do that with Lost Boy or you will absolutely ruin the story for yourself.)

     By the end, Henry has used Barrie's "imaginative space" to answer her question about Captain Hook, and it's a wonderfully satisfying answer. In fact, I prefer Henry's version to Barrie's.

     Henry gives her primary characters many layers, so we feel their joyous emotions about doing boy things on the island for the rest of their lives, but also, their uneasiness over Peter's penchant for violence and his annoyance when they are injured or sick. Jamie, of course, bares his soul to us as he tells his sad story—from his nightmares of his dead mother to his fears about who or what Peter truly is and what is going to happen to him and to Charlie. I always found Peter's character to be difficult to interpret in the original story. He always made me feel uneasy, particularly because of his unrepentant hatred for grown-ups. In this book, though, there is no doubt about Peter's intentions because here he is a vicious sociopath who masks his true emotions. You need to remember Jamie's warning in the Prologue: "Peter lies." You may be thinking, What about Tinkerbell? Yes, she does make an appearance, but in such a subtle, secretive manner that you almost don't notice her at first. By the time you understand her role in Lost Boy, you are hardly surprised that it bears no resemblance at all to the original story. Trust me, no one is going to be clapping for Tinkerbell in this book.

     For me, this was a can't-put-it-down novel that pulled me along with its compelling plot, rising suspense, and sympathetic characters. I worried about Charlie from the moment I met him in the first chapter. Although Barrie wrote his book for children, Henry wrote this one for adults, so beware—it gets very violent and bloody in places because Peter does some truly horrible things to people. Nevertheless, Henry is such a fantastic storyteller that I think you'll enjoy it tremendously, particularly if you got a kick out of Henry's CHRONICLES OF ALICE duology. Click HERE to read my reviews of the two ALICE novels.