Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

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still-life-with-tornadoStill Life with Tornado by A. S. King
Dutton, 2016.

As I’m reading a bit less at the moment due to work commitments, I’m having a real struggle choosing between reading new authors, and ones I already know and love. Much as I want to expand my repertoire, there are certain authors that I just can’t pass up. Next week’s review is by one, the always edgy Marcus Sedgwick, and today’s is about a book by another author who just keeps coming up with extraordinary novels, A. S. King.

White 16 year-old Sarah is having an “existential crisis” after an incident in art class and stops going to school. But it is only when she meets up with her 10 year-old and 23 year-old selves that she can begin to understand that there is a much deeper root to her troubles.

The author has a great knack of taking what is a fairly prosaic and unoriginal story – in this case, a highly creative and smart teen girl dealing with the fallout of her dysfunctional family – and adding in a wildly original fantasy element that spectacularly illuminates the main plot.

Sarah has all the self-absorption of her age, and the main thread of the story follows her on her wanderings around Philadelphia. Woven into that is the detailed recollection of a family holiday in Mexico when she was 10, which was a pivotal point for them all,  particularly for her older brother Bruce. The third element is the backstory to the family’s dysfunction, told from her mother’s perspective.

Sarah frequently and thought-provokingly threshes through the question of what art is, and what originality is. Whether she’s following a local homeless man, going to school in her head, or eating out of trash cans, Sarah is an engaging and intelligent narrator. The tornado of the title is a metaphor for all that is contained inside the emotions whirling around inside of Sarah (and the cover rather clunkily explicates that).

Though smaller and more intimate than Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014), King beautifully blends Sarah’s rooted-in-reality breakdown with the freshness and creativity of the doppelgangers.

A. S. King is something of an acquired taste, and her straight-faced mix of reality and fantasy is certainly not for everyone; I’ve heard her books described as “weird” in not always a complimentary way. However, sophisticated teens with an eye out for a new angle on an old story may well enjoy this.

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Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

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glory-obriens-history-of-the-futureGraduating high school senior, Glory O’Brien, drinks the remains of a bat and she starts getting transmissions from people she sees of their past and future generations.

Glory and her Dad have been essentially dormant since her mother, Darla, committed suicide when Glory was four. Now that she has graduated high school, her life no longer has a set path. Glory wakes up to the idea of setting her own direction: “Free yourself. Have the courage” is the message from the bat. King brilliantly shows her gradual movement from being a passenger on a metaphorical train, to being the driver, to, ultimately, getting off the train altogether.

Glory has had very few relationships of any sort. Ellie is her only friend, and Glory doesn’t seem to like her very much – both resenting her having a boyfriend and experimenting with sex, and despising her for  it. As she develops like an exposed photograph (Darla was a photographer, and Glory follows in her footsteps – the book is full of delicious photographic references and metaphors), she reaches out to other people and realizes that nothing is holding her back except herself.

Though Glory’s History of the Future is snappy and quippy, the actual content gathered from her visions is dire and frightening: women in certain states are reduced to the status of breeding machines and a second civil war ensues. Is this a fixed future, or one that can be changed or just a hallucination? There are no clear answers though there is a hint at the end.

This is an extraordinary, disquieting book that settled on me like a gray miasma which I had trouble shaking off. I’d recommend it for older teenagers who would be comfortable with King’s odd, yet winning, combination of big picture scifi and a slice of life of a blooming Everygirl.

 

My favorites of 2017

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Here are my favorite books for 2017. These are ones that I gave 5 stars to in Goodreads but don’t include the adult books I read (or, more often, listened to) as they are outside the purview of this blog. My shift towards YA and away from middle grade is virtually complete – I have read some middle grade this year but not very much and only one book makes it onto my list. While some of these YA novels read a little younger than others, they are all definitely intended for a teen, rather than tween, reader.

Realistic Fiction
Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Little Monsters by Kara Thomas

Speculative Fiction
The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. book 5) by Jonathan Stroud
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner

Nonfiction
Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

There is also one late addition that I have read but not yet posted a review for, but will do at the beginning of the year:
A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

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Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

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blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
Roaring Brook, 2016.

Week 2 of new books by authors that I never pass up – last week was A. S. King, this week is a new to the US book by Marcus Sedgwick.

Before beloved British author Arthur Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons, he published a book of Russian fairytales and was a news correspondent and possible spy in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick’s thrillingly eclectic new novel, first published in Britain in 2007, is not a traditional biography and looks at Ransome’s time in Russia in three (a number that has fairytale significance) sections.

The first casts the Bolshevik Revolution as a fairytale of a great starved Russian bear being awoken from its slumbers and goaded into action by Vladimir (Lenin) and Lev (Trotsky). But it also gives a clear, if simplified account of the Tsar’s actions leading up to the downfall of the Romanov dynasty (for more on this, a reader can’t do better than Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov), as well as placing Ransome in Russia after his marriage failed.

The story transitions to the second section, set over the course of one pivotal night, as Ransome readies himself for a secret meeting. He looks back over his time in Petrograd and later Moscow, which became increasingly byzantine: The British want him to pass on Bolshevik secrets and vice versa and tangled into this is a love affair with Trotsky’s private secretary Evgenia.

Finally, and once again cast as a fairytale quest, Ransome, now the narrator, goes back to Russia to rescue Evgenia and bring her to the West.

The big question for me is who is going to read this? Arthur Ransome is not the icon here that he is in the U.K. (and probably is not so much an icon there as he was 50 plus years ago). The style of writing, particularly in the first section, feels somewhat detached, and the complexities of Arthur’s travels and visa machinations become a bit of a blur. But as with his other novels and stories, Sedgwick weaves a jeweled net and will pull a willing reader in with an esoteric and sophisticated mix of romance, spy adventure, and fairytale.

Notes, a timeline, and documents at the end offer the reader the opportunity to tease out fact, fairytale, and speculation.

(Interesting to note that both UK covers are explicit about this being about the Russian revolution, whereas the US cover is much more of a fantasy cover).

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My Favorite Books of the Year

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NightGardenerWith all the publications putting out their best lists, and with the Newbery and Printz awards just around the corner, I thought I’d put together my top reads for 2014 too. A few years back, I had something of an epiphany, when I realized that my favorite books were never going to win the Newbery because I evaluate books on different criteria to the judges – sure, I like good writing, but what really works for me (and many kids) is the voice and the plot of a book. And I think this explains why I find so many Newbery winners to be such snoozers – because kid appeal just isn’t a consideration. Unlike the Cybils – where we look at books for both good writing and kid appeal!

Anyway, of the 77 books that I’ve read this year, here are the nine that I gave 5 stars to:

Middle grade

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

YA

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (I read this before I started blogging, so no review I’m afraid)

What I notice is that these are all, bar one, speculative fiction. It’s not that I don’t read other genres, it just seems to me to be the one that speaks to me more.

Happy Reading in 2015!