Thoughts: This is Our Story by Ashley Elston

233412524 out of 5

Five teenage boys go on one of their usual weekend hunting outings, but only four return. The remaining four are all suspects, and they’re all from wealthy families. None of boys will admit to shooting their friend whether deliberately or accidentally, and the stories of all the people present are clouded in mystery, confusion, and sometimes lies.

While reading this I was of course focused on who pulled the trigger, but I was also deeply invested in the protagonists, and was rooting for them the whole time.

This is Our Story is indeed a YA novel (not a frequent choice for me), but it really stood out to me because it didn’t fall into the common trap of having characters that are boring high school archetypes or just an assortment of cliches.

Kate Marino (the main character) is a smart and resourceful, teenager and a talented photographer, but she’s not just some nerdy loner who hates all of the popular kids. She interacts with students from different social groups, and is pretty social herself. She sounds like an ambitious student who works hard and gets good grades, but she has a good amount of friends and goes to parties too. The cliche, smart, nerdy loner who’s clueless about dating is just lazy and overdone.

Instead Ashley Elston characterizes Kate pretty well, and I like that she talks about her relationship with her mom (as parents seem to be strangely absent or passive in a lot of YA and even TV teen dramas). Elston also captures the newness, confusion, and intensity of the beginnings of a romantic relationship very well.

I also liked Elston’s pacing (a key component to any well-written mystery). She reveals different clues, and uncovers pieces of the story in a way that keeps you theorizing and engaged. She also included different formats like interview transcripts and text messages, which usually make me cringe, but in this case they served a purpose and made me feel more involved in the story.

Advertisements

Thoughts: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

faber

3.5 out of 5 

The first word that comes to mind when I think about this book is unsettling. It reminded me of JG Ballard’s Crash and, as many others have suggested, has touches of the Orwellian.

In order to avoid spoilers, all I can say is that this book is about a young woman named Isserley who drives around northern Scotland and picks up only (seemingly healthy and in shape) male hitchhikers for a single purpose.

Michel Faber reveals things at just the right pace, and just the right amount. The story was fascinating, and Faber’s writing effectively created a grim, gritty, gloomy, grey, and damp world.

It was very atmospheric, and Faber’s writing is powerful. There were a lot of perverted descriptions from the perspectives of the different hitchhikers, and a few of them thought and even expressed problematic to straight up sexist opinions. Even this helped to create an unsettling atmosphere by highlighting hostility.

However, there was one description that irked me. I appreciate nice cleavage as much as the next person, but there was a bit too much talk about breasts for my tastes. A good amount of it was actually important or at least relevant to the story, the situation at hand involving a hitchhiker, and even to Isserley and her back story, but a lot of it was just overkill.

I don’t like (and this is no fault of Faber’s) that this book has been touted for having “erotic” qualities. Isserley is strange to some, and strangely beautiful to others, but I think the whole “exotic and erotic” tagline misrepresents the depth of her as a character and the book as a whole.

Whatever passages are being construed as erotic, were actually there to help to convey the grit of Isserley’s world more vividly. In contrast to these moments, there were also lots of beautiful and unique descriptions of the setting, and Isserley’s back story.

Because of this I found myself feeling both repulsed by and sympathetic (sometimes even empathetic) towards Isserley. There were even times when I felt a combination of these emotions simultaneously.

Although I found it easy to become immersed in the setting of the story due to Faber’s incredible descriptions, I found it hard to visualize some of the characters (again, I can’t say much more without spoiling it), but there was something about the physical descriptions (even of the most important characters) that just didn’t stick. Perhaps that was intentional and another aspect that Faber wanted to leave open to some imagination, but for me it caused a disconnect.

There were definite sci-fi elements, but even if you’re not into sci-fi as a genre you’ll still be able to get into this story. There are so many human moments in the midst of very inhumane happenings. At its core, Under the Skin is about humanity, morality, and how we view and relate to each other when we stop focusing on appearances and start thinking about what’s under the skin.

 

Thoughts: Emma by Jane Austen

emma

“Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly (207).”

I’m going to be completely honest. I struggled through this one, and had to use the audiobook to make sure that I finally finished it. It was one of those reads where I felt that I couldn’t truly move on to other books until I’d finished.

I like Jane Austen as much as the next book worm, but after reading Emma, Pride and Prejudice forever remains my top Austen pick.

Emma thinks of herself as a great matchmaker. So you can imagine all the sorts of trouble and misunderstandings she gets herself into.

I understand that Austen’s novels may seem too long to us, but novels during her time were typically much longer than they are today. So I tried to keep that in mind as I read, especially at the times when I found the pace too slow.

Despite how long it took me to get through Emma, I always find it quite easy to immerse myself in Austen’s world/ society. It was also easy to imagine a film adaptation of the novel (as a sort of romantic comedy of errors) especially with all of the dialogue included. I did enjoy the abundance of dialogue, and found the characters pretty amusing. And I’ll always laugh at the huge fuss Austen’s characters make over drafts in hallways, catching colds, walking long distances, hitting your foot on staircases, and anything involving rain and potentially mud.

I admired Emma for her confidence, intelligence, and assertiveness even through her mistakes and blunders. Just take a look at this early passage where Emma expresses some thoughts on marriage:

“My being charming…is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming—one other person at least. And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all (116).”

In fact, there are a lot of outspoken in this novel (especially considering the time during which Austen wrote). I’m sure I’ll be reading another Austen novel this winter.

Thoughts: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

IMG-6906

And Then There Were None was first published in 1939 so I soldiered through this one even with its previous titles, which were in the vein of “Ten Little (insert racial slur here),” in my mind. I put that aside (as much as I could), ignored the male characters’ sexism (complete with talk of hysteria), and tried to focus on the story itself.

The plot is engaging enough, and I can see how it would really grip and shock readers with its plot twists, and some surprising characters especially when it was first released. Of course I also respect Christie as a widely influential writer who still remains relevant. I found the characters interesting, and the female characters in particular surprised me more than once, and even stood their ground, which I loved.

My main issue (aside from the obvious) was not with the plot or characters, but with her writing style. A close friend warned me about this, and she was right. I eventually found Christie’s dialogue style infuriating. She introduces the emotion attached to the dialogue and identifies the speaker before the dialogue instead of afterwards.

Blore said unbelievingly:
“Without our all seeing him, sir?
Lombard said dryly:
“We were all–rather concerned elsewhere.”
Armstrong said slowly:
“That’s true…”

So many passages go on like this line breaks and all. The way Christie structures these sections does make it easier to keep the characters straight, but I’d rather be slightly confused and do a bit more brain work than endure a novel that doesn’t read smoothly.

Once again, in terms of the plot I can see the appeal and why her work is so enduringly popular. The plot is well crafted, moves along quickly, there’s lots of action, and as a reader you get to be involved by playing your own game of literary Clue. I may pick up another one of her books (although the mere title of Murder on the Orient Express is pretty troubling too) but probably not any time soon.

Thoughts: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

 

Title page of the Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were” (53).

I read this in around two sittings, and it was the perfect book for getting into the fall/ Halloween spirit.

The story begins in Sussex, England where our main character revisits his childhood neighbourhood and recalls the strange events that occurred many years ago at the farm house at the end of the lane. It all started with his stolen family car, and the suicide of a stranger, which sets off a series of supernatural events.

The gender roles in this story are refreshing. Our male protagonist is surrounded by strong, powerful, wise female entities. I also appreciated how their being caring and nurturing was never at odds with their strength.

Although this story is steeped in fantasy it isn’t really good vs evil (which gives the story a lot more depth). Even the antagonist isn’t portrayed as wholly evil. She just has different motives, or as Lettie (our protagonist’s primary guide and protector) puts it, “I don’t hate her. She does what she does according to her nature” (110).

The fact that Neil Gaiman writes a lot for children really informs his writing for adults as well. I love the idea of a book for adults that’s written from the perspective of a child (although through a flashback). Gaiman’s experience in children’s literature definitely helped him to execute this perfectly.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a smooth and easy read with some very poignant lines about the gaps and connections between childhood and adulthood, “…the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty” (86). It is also about loss, grief, and memories.

The novel’s conciseness doesn’t at all take away from the strange and fantastical world it portrays. Even if you don’t like or read much fantasy or magical realism it’s easy to enjoy this book and feel invested in the story and its characters.

Weekly Wrap Up

 

Happy Friday the 13th! Fall weather has finally descended upon the city, and it’s making me feel pretty Halloween-y.

Reading

On my most recent visit to the library I picked up A Study in Charlotte (a pun on A Study in Scarlet of course). It’s a young adult take on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I’m ready to go on an adventure with Charlotte Holmes (the great great great granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes) and Jaime Watson.

23272028

I’m not really one for straight up horror or thrillers so when it comes to Halloween reads I think gothic literature and mystery. With that in mind, I am finally actually reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. My soon tbr shelf and reading moods change rapidly and frequently. So forgive me. I’m one of those readers.

Watching

I love British television and films, and I’ve had an obsession with British panel shows for years now. Right now I’m watching 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. The comedian, actor, and celebrity filled take on Countdown. In the letters rounds the teams get nine random letters and have to make the longest word they possibly can with those letters. During the numbers rounds the teams get six random numbers (a combination of large (25, 50, and 75) and/ or small numbers (ranging from 1-10)). They have to use those numbers to reach a randomly generated target number. As the name suggests, they have a limited amount of time (30 seconds) to solve the problems and jumbles.

ce1981ff-2229-4c5c-891f-53b8cc486a83

You can play along of course, and given the team captains, host (Jimmy Carr), and a slew of smart and funny guests, hilarity always ensues.

Listening

avatars-000192905974-td9ufe-t500x500

Right now I’m listening to a lot of Jesse Baez. My introduction to his music all started with “Decile,” his Spanish cover of The Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends.” B.A.E.Z is chill, smooth, soulful, and atmospheric. I’ve had it on heavy rotation over the past week.

Thoughts: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

IMG-6745
The title of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights is a longer, more mysterious, and arguably more convoluted way of saying 1,001 nights (think The Arabian Nights). The deliberate choice to go with such a lengthy title gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get from this story. It’s quite a tale. Although only 286 pages, it spans many centuries, continents, generations, and realms.

The story is about Dunia, a jinnia (a powerful genie like being from Arabic mythology) who crosses over into the world of mortals, falls in love with a philosopher, and has many many children with him. Many centuries later there’s a storm in modern day New York City. There’s upheaval everywhere meanwhile the unknowing descendants of Dunia start discovering their supernatural abilities, and strange occurrences abound. There’s a war between light and dark and a blurring of the lines between the worlds of mortals and the jinn.

This is my first Salman Rushdie book, and I quickly fell in love with his writing style, elaborate and folkloric. Rushdie uses a lot of complex sentences. Therefore, the writing structure reflects the breadth of the story. It encompasses lives, eras, and worlds. The writing style really transported me into the world of the story and helped to keep me there for a while.

However, this style is definitely not for everyone, and even I found myself eventually disliking it about 60% of the way in, as I began to feel that there were a lot of unnecessary details, and that the major events and character connections in the story needed to fall into place sooner.

There were lots of clever moments, and Rushdie drew many parallels to our present global political climate. Rushdie also does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of New York, and the distinct general attitudes of New Yorkers. As a former New Yorker I can attest to the fact that residents of the city are not easily impressed or frightened. It takes a lot of throw the city and its people off balance.

There’s one moment where the clothing of all of the men standing in Times Square suddenly disappears and all their secrets are revealed via the contents of their now non existent pockets. Rushdie lists the contents of their pockets with great effect, “cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips…lies” (107). He has a knack for creating these lists that paint a vivid picture by including things that are minute and grand.

This wasn’t an easy or quick read by any means, in fact there were moments where it was so tedious that I contemplated abandoning it. Despite my annoyance I was in awe of Rushdie’s ability to handle mythology, magical realism, history, current events, and an all encompassing plot. So I’ll definitely be reading more of his work in the future.

I always enjoy mythology that portrays godlike creatures as human in many ways (mainly their pettiness). The world of the jinn is no different. I found Dunia fascinating and liked that her femininity and emotions weren’t at odds with her power. It was also interesting to read about this particular mythology that we aren’t often exposed to in Western literature.

I’ll leave you with this gorgeous passage that describes the storm in New York and the story’s entrance into modern times.

“Their childhoods slipped into the water and were lost, the piers built of memories on which they once ate candy and pizza, the boardwalks of desire under which they hid from the summer sun and kissed their first lips. The roofs of houses flew through the night sky like disoriented bats, and the attics where they stored their past stood exposed to the elements until it seemed that everything they once were had been devoured by the predatory sky. Their secrets drowned in flooded basements and they could no longer remember them. Their power failed them. Darkness fell” (19).

Have you ready anything by Salman Rushdie? Is this a good introduction to his work? What should I read next?