When Phil Rossi first asked me to review his novella, Soldier Hill, I have to admit, I was a little skeptical. First off, it’s YA, and you people know how I feel about YA. Secondly, it’s a novella, and to me, novellas often smack of author ambiguity and indecision—as if they started to write a novel and didn’t know what to do with it after a while, so they just cut it off and called it a novella (for this presupposition, just or unjust as it may be, I blame Stephen King). And three, it’s an indie title. Any one—or even two—of those caveats, and I probably wouldn’t have had the same reaction. But all three? No way, Jose. I was all set to run for the hills, but Phil managed to convince me to give it a shot. He was in need, he said, of some honest feedback, and he thought he could get it from my corner of the blogosphere. And as I always say, flattery will get you everywhere.
Now that I’ve read it, I’m really glad I caved.
Soldier Hill is the story of two teenage boys living in the 1980s in… well, I don’t think it ever really says. Maybe the Northeat somewhere? It doesn’t really matter. It could be anywhere in the
, and it
wouldn't change the substance of the story one iota. That’s the point, I think—an “every man”
generic setting to better draw the reader into the story. Anyway, through the various trials and
tribulations of growing up as a social misfit (i.e., not one of the cool kids),
the boys take it upon themselves to save the memorial of a local soldier who
fell in the Vietnam War. The memorial, a
tree with a simple plaque, will soon be torn down to make room for an expansion
to their school. U.S.
A simple enough story, right? Heart-warming, nostalgic, and a bunch of other words you’d use for a made-for-TV movie on the Hallmark channel. In other words, something I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. And truly, I probably would have dropped it like a bad habit had it not been for Rossi’s style and diction. Look-ee here and you’ll see what I mean.
“I left worried for him. The early night, already so black and blue. Old Crow his cut man, patching and gauzing. Joe was my friend, and I was his. Like that night over
, so long
ago. He’d crash the dark drop, not
knowing where he’d land. I knew he’d land. I knew he’d be in for a tough one. I prayed he could bob and weave these demons,
round by round.” Normandy
To quote a Guiness commercial, “Brilliant!” The entire book was like that—short, dense sentences chock full of metaphors and slang. It reminded me a lot of James Ellroy, which probably part of why I liked it so much. That being said, it’s also the reason why I say the Soldier Hill really doesn’t qualify as Young Adult fiction. Sure, it features teenagers as protagonists (and that seems to be the most stringent criteria for something being YA these days), but the writing level is a good bit higher than that of most teens. Would the book’s themes—civic responsibility, compassion toward one’s neighbors, and judging not by looks alone—sit well with a lot of young readers? Of course, but I worry they wouldn’t be able to grasp everything they were reading (such as what a “cut man” is), or worse, be turned off by the difficult to comprehend style.
With that being said, Soldier Hill is a story that just about anyone can read and find something to identify with. That’s part of its charm, I think. Rossi has a great grasp of character and dialogue, and while the narrative had a flinty, hardboiled edge at times, it worked well with the plot. Anyway, I happen to like a flinty, hardboiled edge to my fiction (it adds a touch of Noir to any literary dish!), so I didn’t mind. As for how such a style fits in with a YA coming of age-type story, well, it helped to reinforce the “legend in my own mind” vibe given off by the young protagonist. I mean, the narrator calls his bike a “chopper,” refers to authority figures by unflattering epithets, and uses vast amounts of slang. But who didn’t, when growing up, view the events of their lives with a whole helluva lot more importance than they warranted? So in the end, the technique worked—for me, at least. Like I said, I was familiar with the style going into it. And while I’m not a veteran myself, I have multiple family and friends who are, so the aspects of the story about military service, sacrifice, and the honoring of that sacrifice sat well with me. But then again, I doubt there are many readers who would ever say that it didn’t. After all, this is
. If you don’t at least give lip service to
supporting the troops, you look like an a-hole. America
What didn’t work for me? Well, the narrative structure was a little messy for my tastes. Oh, it came together at the end all right (saving the memorial tree and all that), it just spent the first half of the book kind of meandering. And the meandering bit would have been fine if the main narrative thread had been there from the beginning, but it wasn’t. It took a while to work up to it, and because of that, the first half felt a bit aimless. Then again, life as a teenager is kind of aimless to begin with, so what do I know? There were a few typos and grammatical errors that I noticed, as well as a couple of word choice selections that confused me for a minute or two, but nothing major to report overall.
At one point during our email conversations, Phil did mention to me that other reviewers had suggested fleshing out the characters a little bit with some added wordage, but I disagree. I appreciate a lean narrative style. It is more efficient (most of the time), requires more artistic chops to pull off, and more actively engages the reader. During the reading of Soldier Hill I got an accurate sense of the characters—who they were, how they thought, why they did what they did. Rossi did it with fewer words and more style than a lot of writers out there, and to dilute it with unneeded fluff would only weaken the strong style and narrative form he’s got going. If you want my advice (and I assume Mr. Rossi does, considering he sent his book to me for review), I say change the plot structure if you’re going to change anything. Or tweak it a little. Maybe give it the stinkeye for a while. Whatever. Most of it’s great the way it is. I give it four stars.
And if Soldier Hill sounds like something you might like, then hang around. In the next few weeks I’ll be having Phil Rossi by for a chat and giveaway of his work. We’ll do our best not to disappoint.