Friday, 28 April 2017

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

Publication date: 11th October 2016
Published by: Dutton books for YAs
Genre: YA Contemporary

Publisher's synopsis

“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”

Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.

But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

“I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough.”

My Review

Warning - may contain spoilers

The idea of this book - a sixteen year old being visited by past and future versions of herself - intrigued me.  The reader discovers quite early in the story that Sarah keeps skipping school, and after a short time stops going altogether.  When asked why, she says it is because nothing original happens at school.   As her art teacher has pointed out 'there is no such thing as an original idea'.  A response like that raises eyebrows and it soon became clear that something happened at school that caused her to stop going, but she is not ready to share what it is.  It seems as though Sarah is going through an emotional crisis that is affecting her mental well-being.  The event that occurred at school is only a catalyst to something that has been brewing for some time. Something traumatic occurred in her past that she is not fully aware of. Sarah's crisis is that, until now, she has not had the chance to fully face up to her trauma.

This book covers some serious issues about a troubled family.  It is a thought-provoking story and I found myself contemplating the issues as I read.  In this book King has explored how people deal with emotional trauma: the malevolent approach, as demonstrated by Sarah's father, the benevolent approach, as demonstrated by her brother and the 'bury one's head in the sand' approach, as demonstrated by her mother.

The visits from Sarah's younger and older selves are a sort of therapy for her.  It is interesting that they are not imaginary since everyone else can see and speak to these versions as well (therapy for the whole family?).  

The book also has her mother narrate to us about how she met her husband and the choices/mistakes she made along the way.  We see how powerless and guilty she feels.  She concludes by giving the readers advice - don't do what I did, learn from my mistakes. 

What lets the book down for me is the writing style. The author had Sarah spend too much time psychoanalysing herself for the purpose of helping the readers understand what is going on. This is also the point of her mother's story.  It is as if the author is not confident that readers are able to work this stuff out by themselves - which is a pity.  I would contemplate Sarah's situation and draw my own conclusions (some of which I have described in the first paragraph of this review) and would then have my thoughts confirmed by Sarah informing me she is 'going through an existential crisis', that her mental health is at risk, that she has experienced trauma, etc. I felt as though I was being spoon fed ideas (when, as far as those ideas were concerned, I was way ahead of her and she was playing catch up).  Some may say this could be because I am not the target audience and therefore am too mature for this book.  I disagree.  Teenagers don't need to be spoon fed, either.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's The Point of Rescue (Culver Valley series book 3)

Publication date: 1st January 2008
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

The US publication has a different title: The Wrong Mother.

Publisher's summary
Bestselling author Sophie Hannah explores the various sides of motherhood in her third psychological suspense novel.

My synopsis
Sally Thorning, a wife and mother of two small children, has a hectic life running her home and managing her career.  One evening, after dinner and the children have been put to bed, she and husband Nick, are watching a news report about a woman who is reported to have killed herself and her daughter.  To her shock, Sally realises she knows these people.  Sally knows that something is not quite right: the man on the TV screen, Mark Bretherick, reported to be the husband of the dead woman is not him, but an imposter claiming to be him.  Her reason for knowing this is because she knows Mark Bretherick - intimately.  Revealing what she knows could destroy her marriage.  However, this is vital information that the police need to know and Sally has to make a decision, should she contact the police, or should she withhold the information?

My Review
This is the third in the Culver Valley series.  I have also reviewed Little Face and Hurting Distance, books 1 & 2, respectively.

It is probably clear from my previous reviews of the series that I have not been hugely impressed by them, and yet I have succumbed to their addictive qualities.  I am glad that I have (succumbed) because The Point of Rescue is a marked improvement on the other two.  This one reads more like a crime mystery and less like a soap opera.  Hannah has ditched the story lines that focus heavily on the personal lives of the police officers of Spilling CID and has focused on the crime.  At the same time, she offers up snippets of what is going on in the officers' personal lives - just enough to keep the characters well developed and the reader interested.  As a result, the Spilling CID come across more like professionals than in previous books. 

As usual, the plot is intricate and complex.  As alluded to in the publisher's summary (and the title of the US publication), Hannah is exploring motherhood in this book and she does so in a multifaceted way.  Gender inequality is a common theme in this series of books, but sexism towards women and misogyny are particularly prominent in this book

Where crime fiction is concerned, I think there is a danger of ruining a plot when too much is being thrown at it because it becomes less feasible*.  This is a problem I come across with all of her books (read to date). I think they would be improved with a 'less is more' approach.  She could probably get two crime mysteries out of one of her novels and double the length of the series! 

Caution: potential spoiler alert! I think it is fair to say Sophie Hannah's target audience is women, and she has skillfully managed to reel many of us in. I think one of the secrets of the series' success is the extended sub-plot running through all of them, which is about the relationship between Charlie and Simon.  In this book the story takes an unexpected turn.  Simon is a complex (and fascinating) character. I particularly like that the dynamic of his relationship with Charlie is one that is not typically portrayed in fiction; one that is quite realistic.  These books score zero on the fluff-o-metre. There is mutual attraction that is being hampered by a battle between the genders, caused because Charlie is highly educated, in a more senior position and therefore better paid than Simon, and he feels emasculated because of it.  Charlie may be completely besotted but she has no intention of stroking his ego. In books 1 & 2 Simon keeps her at arms length and the result is many awkward moments and on-going UST** - for Charlie, not Simon.  However,  in this novel things change because Charlie has become weakened and vulnerable, causing Simon to see her, and their relationship, in an entirely different light. The sub-plot has been dialed down significantly in this book, and it is a better read because of it (it does not compromise the central plot).  Also, it keeps us wanting to know what will happen next.

It was worth reading the first two books in order to get to this point [of rescue] and, of course, I am now reading the next one....

*Despite being compelling viewing, the UK TV Drama Line of Duty is a good example
**Unresolved sexual tension

More Reviews of Culver Valley Series

Coming Soon
The Other Half Lives (Book 4)
A Room Swept White (Book 5)