Friday, June 28, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I have been meaning to write about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life since I picked up and read the book in April. In the few months before the book came out, a few early reviews compared the book to Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head, not in terms of content or feel, but because of the way both books completely immerse a reader into their stories. I loved Forrest’s book (and can’t wait for the movie adaptation), and so Life After Life was on my radar for a few months before it came out, even though I actually haven’t read any of Atkinson’s books before.

Life After Life is about Ursula Todd, a woman with infinite lives and life choices, all of which play out in the nearly 500-page book. Ursula is born in 1910 in England, and then she is born again and again and again, always returned back to that same snowy night of her birth. I’m not sure exactly how many different threads of her life do eventually play out, but they are alternately long, sprawling stories and short, terse ones, all of them encapsulating a version of her life that stems from the different choices that she makes again and again. It took me a handful of stories to get the rhythm and routine of how life works for Ursula Todd: once she dies, she is returned right back to the night of her birth in 1910, and lives through it again. Her death comes at birth, in childhood, in adolescence, and in adulthood. Each time she gets just a little bit further, and the reader is give a longer glimpse of another version of her life. For example, when Ursula is an adolescent she relives the same event over and over again: the Spanish flu picks off various members of her family until her subconscious makes her find a way to life through it.

It is this idea of Ursula’s “subconscious” that I loved. As she lives through her lives, over and over again (yet separately), she does not acknowledge any remembrance for what has happened before. For example, she does not learn from a past event in order to make it happen differently the next time it comes around. However, there is a sense of déjà vu that pervades her several lives, a sense of something deep inside herself that causes her to make decisions that alter her course of life from how it was before. There is a great version of her life that places her in an insane asylum, as all of her many lives lived finally overwhelm her and lead to an incredibly exhaustion from living them all.

As well, her 1910 birth date places Ursula in a position to live through two world wars, which provides Atkinson with much material for writing while also examining just what it means to live life over and over again, if living it means a constant experience of WWI and WII. It is interesting to watch Ursula experience the wars, and to see how one small decision can lead to either her death, or to her life progressing further. At one point she is even transported to Germany because of one childhood decision, and rather than experiencing WWII on British soil, she lives through it in Germany.

Life After Life examines the way a life is lived, and the way choices can change that life completely. Atkinson’s secondary characters are also present in every iteration of Ursula’s life, and they change or don’t change in just as interesting ways (Ursula’s brother Maurice is always horrible, no matter what the situation). Atkinson builds a world for Ursula, and then sees her exploring every inch of that world, and every choice provided for her there, and any future available. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater was one of my favorite authors to see at a panel at NCTE last year, where she was talking with Shannon Hale about world building and fantasy (I think!). I really love Stiefvater’s books, but I haven’t put one up here yet. I recently re-read The Scorpio Races, one of my favorite of her books, and thought it was a good opportunity to write a review.

The Scorpio Races is set on the fictional island of Thisbe, and it is the island’s mythology that is central to the story. Every fall, mythical water horses (capall uisce) come out of the ocean, large, fast, and dangerous. Brave islanders (or those with something to prove) choose a water horse of their own, and begin the nearly month-long process of “training” it for the annual race on the first day of November. But the water horses can’t ever really be trained. They are always drawn back to the ocean, and many riders are either drowned or killed as the horses try to get back to where they are meant to be.

Sean Kendrick has participated in the races for years, and he has a tendency to win. He is as bound to the water horses as they are to the yearly ritual of coming ashore each fall, and he rides the red water horse that killed his father in the races nine years before the book begins. It is on this horse, Corr, that he wins.

Puck is a teenage girl who ends up in the races almost by accident, entering only as a way to keep her brother Gabe on the island for a few more weeks. Without the grace time of the races, his plans to head to the mainland for work would have gone into effect faster than Puck would have liked. Puck lives with her older brother Gabe and her younger brother Finn in an old house that they care for on their own. Their parents were killed in an accident with a water horse years before. Sean and Puck alternate perspectives throughout The Scorpio Races, and are drawn together as the races get closer.

The use of the water horse mythology is incredible, and reminded me a lot of Margo Lanagan’s recent The Brides of Rollrock Island, which examines selkie mythology on an isolated island. The island in The Scopio Races, Thisbe, is a magnificent character on its own, one that Stiefvater describes from end to end. The book also has a very timeless quality about it. I remember the first time that I read it, I thought it had an almost medieval-setting. There is something about the way the clothing is described, the hard way of life, and the hierarchal structure of the island that made it feel much older than it was. But out of this timelessness are references to very contemporary inventions, and the two (usually separate) portrayals of time came together in one book. It had the effect of making me believe so much in this story, and believing in particular that it could happen anywhere.

There are so many heartbreaking moments in The Scorpio Races, but they are all tied up by mythology and adventure, all of it rolling off the coast of one very small island. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

I am so late to getting around to Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series, even though my sister has been trying to get me to read them for over a year. I started reading City of Bones yesterday morning, and now I’m halfway through the third book, City of Glass (there are five written so far, with the sixth and final book due out in early 2014). Now that I’ve started to read Clare’s books, I sort of can’t stop, and catching up on them now is in perfect timing for the movie release in August.

Fifteen-year-old Clarissa “Clary” Fray lives in New York City with her mother, and she has plenty of freedom to explore the city with her best friend Simon when they’re not at school. On the night that they venture to the club Pandemonium, Clary witnesses an attempted murder that only she can see, as three individuals carrying otherworldly weapons go after a blue-haired boy. Clary leaves the club completely unsettled, especially since Simon didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

From there, Clary begins to see a world she didn’t know existed, one populated by demons and vampires, werewolves and faeries, and the Shadowhunters who keep the order between them all. Clary is herself a Shadowhunter, however, she has been raised without knowledge of her abilities, or of her own mother’s participation in the Shadowhunter society that she eventually left behind.

When her mother disappears, Clary is brought into the fold by three unlikely individuals: teenage Jace and his foster siblings, Alec and Isabelle. And Simon, her hilarious best friend, is dragged into this world right along with her.

Like all great YA fantasy series, the world expands as the series progresses, slowly introducing new characters and new places, while also expanding on those characters and places that have been integral to the story since the beginning. I love how two relationships in particular grow and develop – that between Clary and Simon and then between Clary and Jace – and go to some pretty unexpected places. But Clary’s relationships work so well (and seem so believable) because she is herself an incredibly strong character who knows herself, even when she is uncertain about the new world she’s been thrown into. In the same way that Katniss is so sure of her decisions in The Hunger Games (even if they don’t always seem like the best decisions), Clary knows her own mind and who she is in a changing environment.

I can’t believe I’m just getting to this series now, but I’m definitely making up for lost time!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Winger by Andrew Smith

When I saw Andrew Smith’s Winger at Chapters a few weeks ago – just for the cover alone – I really wanted to read it. Winger is about Ryan Dean West (Ryan Dean is his first name; he is more hesitant to share his middle name) and follows him over the fall of his junior year at Pine Mountain, a boarding school for rich kids. Before I read the book, it seemed very similar to Jon van de Ruit’s Spud books, about a boarding school in South Africa that focuses on the character of Spud in particular. But I didn’t pick up the book right away, mostly because Andrew Smith is also the author of The Marbury Lens, a book I absolutely loved for its story and writing, but didn’t like for its portrayal of female characters. But I picked up the book a week later, and read it in two sittings, which was more than enough time to completely forget about the comparison to Spud.

Ryan Dean West starts his junior year with the goal of reinventing himself from the “bitch-ass” 14-year-old he is, two years younger than anyone else in his year. He is at the top of his class and admits to always making sure he gets a few questions wrong on a test in order to keep the bell curve from being set too high for his classmates. When the book starts, Ryan Dean is submerged face first into the toilet of his dormitory bathrooms, already watching his goal of reinvention slide out of sight. This is the first year that he’ll be living in O-Hall (Opportunity Hall), the dormitory that students are sent to when they break the rules (Ryan Dean notes that almost everyone is in there for fighting). Instead of rooming with his best friends Seanie and JP in the normal dorms, he’s stuck with Chas Becker, big, mean, and an asshole.

Ryan Dean also plays rugby for his school, and I really appreciated Smith’s inclusion of the sport in this book, because it’s not often that it’s at the heart of a YA novel (football and basketball are the two that usually take precedence!). The games and practices provide a nice break in pace from Ryan Dean’s narration, and also provide much of the conflict between Ryan Dean and his friends. As one of the only openly gay students at Pine Mountain, their captain, Joey, routinely gets in fights with the football team, and Ryan Dean is one of the few who stand up for him.

Sam Bosma provides illustrations for the book, as Ryan Dean describes his own experience with a mix of text and comic images. The story is routinely funny and serious, and bounces back and forth between the two of them in a way that is incredibly realistic for a high school experience.

But the problem of Smith’s female characters really took away from the story, almost more than it did in The Marbury Lens. Ryan Dean is himself a sexist character, and while this isn’t usually a problem in YA literature (because characters have some awareness of their behavior and end up making a change by the end of the novel), it is with Ryan Dean. For the first few hundred pages of the book, he does not describe any female character without noting how hot or not hot she is. But Smith’s female characters don’t ever get more than that “hot” adjective; he doesn’t spend any more time on making them into dynamic characters. This is completely opposite to how he describes male characters; even Chas Becker has more depth than any female character.

And then there’s Ryan Dean’s love interest, Annie, who still sees him as a young 14-year-old boy (and truthfully, that’s what he is, at two years younger than her, and what 16-year-old girl would actually date a 14-year-old boy?). Yet when the unlikely romance does play out between them (even though Annie says “I can’t be in love with you” constantly), and Ryan Dean goes home to Seattle with Annie for the weekend, it becomes even more pained. Annie, for instance, makes sure Ryan Dean brings a couple of pairs of his too-short pants back to her house with him so that she and her mom can fix the hem. Smith writes, “That afternoon, Annie kept her promise to fix my school pants, but her mom helped. So I stood there in the ‘sewing room’ in my socks and underwear doing the on-off routine with my pants while hot Annie pinned and her hot mother worked the sewing machine.”

I usually love YA books with male protagonists. They usually provide authentic, refreshing, and interesting points of view. And they can be as crude as they need to be because there is still something genuine about their male protagonists, something important and validating. Ryan Dean didn’t ever change from being a 14-year-old junior who thought he deserved perfection in every area of his life, who objectified the girls at his school while still expecting them to fall in love with him and make all his sexual fantasies come true. He doesn’t reinvent himself. He doesn’t change even a little bit.

I wanted to really, really love this book, but I just couldn’t ever invest enough in the story, because when I did, all I ended up with was another sexist, objectifying comment that took me right out of it again. For Joey and Seanie and Chas, the boarding school setting, and ending, Winger is a really good book. But without a single well-rounded female character, it was a miss for me. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay has been on my radar since 2012, when it was published as an e-book. My aunt recommended the book to me, and it sounded like an amazing read, but I don’t read e-books very often. I have absolutely no memory retention for a story when I read on an e-reader, and I also have a tendency to flip back and forth throughout a physical book a lot, which isn’t as easy on an e-reader. But I wish-listed Millay’s novel on Amazon (probably sometime around last Christmas), and didn’t think it’s early June deadline was too long to wait. Now that I’ve read the book, I’m sort of torn on the entire waiting-for-the-published-book thing. The Sea of Tranquility is one of the best YA books I’ve read so far this year, and I almost wish I hadn’t waited as long as I had for it to come out in its printed form. But I did flip back and forth so often while I was reading, and I’m really happy to have it in printed form to pass on (my sister is reading it now!).

Nastya (“NAH-stee-ya”) Kashnikov hasn’t spoken to anyone in over a year. She has just moved in with her aunt Margot in a Florida suburb, and is happy for Margot’s shift work as a nurse, as it means they aren’t often in the same place for long. When she has to, Nastya communicates with a pen and notepad, but for the most part, she doesn’t have any desire to talk to anyone, not even to answer her mom’s brief, but worried text messages. She begins her last year of high school at Mill Creek Community High School, and she has a plan for making sure everyone avoids her and no one talks to her. Dressing in tight, skimpy clothes and stilettos, and with makeup caked on, Nastya tries to make herself unapproachable, and for the most part, it works.

As for why Nastya has decided to leave her family behind in Brighton and move two hours away to the town that Margot lives in, it remains a mystery throughout most of the book. However, the clues that Nastya gives about her past are cryptic enough to keep the reader engaged right through to the end. For instance, the first few lines that we hear from Nastya at the beginning of the book are:

I hate my left hand. I hate to look at it. I hate it when it stutters and trembles and reminds me that my identity is gone. But I look at it anyway, because it also reminds me that I’m going to find the boy who took everything from me. I’m going to kill the boy who killed me, and when I kill him, I’m going to do it with my left hand.

Nastya doesn’t provide any easy answers for the reader; the truth about her past – although hinted at throughout the book – does not come in full until near the end. One of my favorite parts of the book comes early on, when Nastya is suffering through the icebreakers in her seven high school classes on the first day back. In her Intro to Music class, the teacher has the students play two truths and a lie, where “Everyone has to say three things about themselves and one of those things has to be a lie. Then the class tries to figure out which one is the lie.” Nastya admits that it’s too bad she’s not going to participate in the game, because she has the best combination of facts about herself, and the lie isn’t exactly straightforward:

My name is Nastya Kashnikov.
I was a piano-playing prodigy who doesn’t belong anywhere near an Intro to Music class.
I was murdered two and a half years ago.

But as much as she tries to stick to herself, Nastya is slowly pulled into the new community by more than a few unlikely candidates. One of these is Josh, and he alternates his point of view with Nastya’s to tell the story. He has a past that is similarly as haunted as Nastya’s, and his classmates treat him to the same arms-length that they give to her.

I loved The Sea of Tranquility. Nastya and Josh’s narration actually sounds the way teenagers speak and incorporates shorthand phrases like SOL and WTF in the most effective way that I think I’ve seen in a YA book. The characters are so real, and what they have to reveal about themselves speaks a lot to teenage experience. Millay handles the large issues that Nastya and Josh have faced in the most authentic way possible, and they never become sensationalized in the telling of the story. I was so invested in every single thing that happened to these characters, and it was a hard book to end. I will look so forward to see what Millay takes on next, knowing that her respect and affection for her own characters will make anything she works on worth reading.