An unsettling setting

If you could plop a plot anywhere, where would it be?

I’m partial to extremes. The chaotic, bustling anonymity  of New York City is of course a very popular backdrop for novels. But it doesn’t have to have skyscrapers to be chaotic. Death in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer won me over with Dyer’s portrayal of the Indian city on the Ganges River, tumbling with human taxis, funeral processions, beggars and tourists.

The other irresistible setting is the small town, the quiet valley that exists only to the people who live there. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout was set in a coastal town in Maine, where every plot line was discussed by, or hidden from the entire town. A character who could walk by a protagonist in NYC unknown and unnoticed would be of glaring significance in Olive’s Crosby.

A remote location especially enhances a murder mystery. The characters naturally know each other, so the shock of any crime and the long-standing belief that something like that couldn’t have happened here makes the mystery that much more intriguing.  Alan Bradley sets his brilliant Flavia de Luce novels in an unknown quiet country town in England. Flavia, the brilliant 11-year-old detective that she is, is quick to suspect anyone of the murders and other unsavory occurrences in the village…which is perhaps why her father would prefer that she keep to her attic laboratory. Another mystery author, Louise Penny, writes from the Quebec homicide department’s perspective, but many of the murders are actually quite far from the city, a few in Three Pines, a town that isn’t even on the map, and her latest (forthcoming in August 2012) at a monastery deep in the woods that no one has entered except the two dozen monks who live there.

That chilling idea that the little lady who runs the library or the monk sleeping down the hall could be a killer is all part of the draw. And of course, a story can find itself in a spaceship in the future or in NYC when forests full of running deer dominated the island. But you can probably guess where I’d plop my plot. In a valley somewhere in nowhere land. Where houses are wooden shacks and the mountains and waterfalls behold more beauty than the finest homes in LA. Where everyone has a purpose, so that when something goes wrong, for something always must, it means that the little valley was not running according to plan.


Of boys and pirates

I recently picked up the newly released Chronicles of Egg: Deadweather and Sunrise, the first book in the trilogy. And I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but honestly, it was the cover that pulled me in. How could any adventure-book lover resist? A precariously placed castle, a PIRATE SHIP!, and two kids, heading into the thick of it all.

And unlike some wine labels that have led me astray, this cover does not disappoint. Book-loving Egbert, with two dim-witted siblings who seem to have fallen straight from a Roald Dahl story, is just the curious underdog to take on the whirlwind of activity about to befall him.

Egg’s friendly manner toward pirates and his interest in adventure reminded me of another boy character, Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island. It’s true, the book was published more than a century ago, but some things, like pirates and curious young boys, never change. Jim is the kind confidante to Billy Bones, an old pirate always carrying on about who’s out to get him and what he plans to do when they find him at Jim’s family’s lodging house. Jim isn’t sure he believes him, but much like Egg, he loves a good story. And when the buccaneers show up firing pistols and plotting attacks, Billy Bones dies and Jim is left with a treasure map and an adventure.

I only got around to reading this pirate classic by Robert Louis Stevenson a few months ago. My subway commute is a bit lengthy and I was in between novels, but that little treasure (pun intended) was on my e-reader — one of many free books I had downloaded when I first starting browsing Ebook stores. Consider it your primer in all things about boys and pirates. It debuted Long John Silver’s appearance in our culture and even popularized the treasure map.

Although Chronicles of Egg may allude to its pirate story predecessor, it has many things that Treasure Island does not. A feisty female comrade, for one. In my book, that alone makes it worth reading.