Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review of Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston

Black Helicopters A teenage girl. A survivalist childhood. And now a bomb strapped to her chest. See the world through her eyes in this harrowing and deeply affecting literary thriller.

I’m Valkyrie White. I’m fifteen. Your government killed my family.
Ever since Mabby died while picking beans in their garden — with the pock-a-pock of a helicopter overhead — four-year-old Valley knows what her job is: hide in the underground den with her brother, Bo, while Da is working, because Those People will kill them like coyotes. But now, with Da unexpectedly gone and no home to return to, a teenage Valley (now Valkyrie) and her big brother must bring their message to the outside world — a not-so-smart place where little boys wear their names on their backpacks and young men don’t pat down strangers before offering a lift. Blythe Woolston infuses her white-knuckle narrative, set in a day-after-tomorrow Montana, with a dark, trenchant humor and a keen psychological eye. Alternating past-present vignettes in prose as tightly wound as the springs of a clock and as masterfully plotted as a game of chess, she ratchets up the pacing right to the final, explosive end.

(Summary from GoodReads)


Black Helicopters is a messed up little story, and while it's imperfect, it's worth the read. 

It's reasonably obvious from the synopsis that Woolston’s novel is about a suicide bomber, but that only touches the surface of the story.  It's about conspiracy theorists.  To me, it was also about how strongly a person's upbringing shapes them and how deeply embedded values that are taught at a young age can become.  Since I don't think I've seen other reviews mention it, it's worth noting that Black Helicopters alternates between present day and flashbacks from Valley's childhood.

Woolston's prose isn't something I'll be waving my metaphorical pom-poms about anytime soon, but this story is incredibly well-crafted.  There are some metaphors here that are exceptionally well done, though I do think I'd get even more out of them if I reread the book.

The plot of this story is incredibly fast-paced.  It's the type of book that you'll finish in under two hours. I think reading Black Helicopters requires focus and an eye for detail, which is to say I wouldn't recommend it if you are looking for a light, fluffy story.

I had two minor problems that stop me from loving this book.  One is that I thought the agenda seemed excessively obvious.  Woolston is showing us what happens when you teach a child extremist beliefs, and she's also trying to give us a look at why people do awful things.  If you read the hardcover, there's a little blurb on the back jacket about why Woolston wrote the book. Had I not seen that it may have been less obvious.

I also thought that the book felt incomplete.  I think Woolston should have fleshed out one plot point and one character a little more--just making it a mere 5 or 10 pages longer--and it would have felt much more whole.  As it was, even though the story ended, it felt like it just wasn't enough.

If you want a book that is fast, dark, and packed with literary quality, I recommend picking up Black Helicopters.  Despite the two shortcomings I found, this book still has a lot of merit.  Woolston clearly knows how to write stories that are compelling, thoughtful, and rereadable.  Black Helicopters has made it onto a lot of award prediction lists, so I’ll be curious to see how it fares once the Printz rolls around.

Disclosure: Because this book is so short, I was able to sit and read the whole thing in a bookstore on a rainy Saturday. I do, however, hope to obtain a finished copy.

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