The General fiction category for the Whitney Awards has always been one that seems to spark a lot of controversy. Sometimes, the category seems dominated by inspirational, feel-good stories that might sell a lot of copies but night not be well-respected by fans of literary fiction. Some years, audiences and publishers raise the outcry– “But how could <<Insert book name here>> not be a finalist? It was far and away the best book of the year!” This year, the pendulum seems to have swung away from the inspirational novels, and toward, well, death. Protagonists in four of the five novels have recently been uncoupled, and in the fifth, an aunt’s death starts the action of the story in motion. And with that common thread running through the stories, I know you’re just dying to dive in, right? Continue reading
In every romantic relationship there are unspoken understandings and expectations. Who will do the dishes, who will choose Christmas gifts, who will kill the spiders, who will use all the hot water. Whose heart will be the heaviest at the end.
“Even though you’re not quite a full year younger than me, neither of us doubts for an instant that you will outlive me. Maybe it’s based on nothing more intuitive than the fact that I’m the male in this marriage. But somehow, we both know that eventually you will be left alone with the two-hundred-pound unanswered question of my corpse.” (p.11)
Jennifer Quist’s “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is (contrary to the Gothic-sounding title) a lyrical, rich love story between a husband and wife. The characters are full-blooded, incredibly vibrant and above all firmly, undeniably relatable. Nobody has piercing eyes, or heart-stopping features, this is real life. The wife is pregnant in several of the stories told, they argue, sneak kisses when the kids aren’t watching, they each have their pet peeves and morbid fascinations. What they have is each other, and an obviously deep, committed relationship which is their support and anchor through ordinary, difficult, crushingly difficult experiences.
“He can’t speak but I hear him struggling – all breath and tears – miles and miles away. And somehow, you know it all even though you can’t hear any of it. You’re leaning over me at the kitchen table while I’ve still got the phone held to my ear. Everyone knows angels lost their wings ages ago – back in the Renaissance, I’m pretty sure. We’ve outgrown the need for them ourselves and we’re each left with two arms in their place. You fold yours around my shoulders. They draw me against you. And you’re whispering my little brother’s name like a warm, wet prayer, your face pressed into the side of my neck.” (p. 55)
In our emailed interview , Quist wrote of the closeness of the relationship between the two main characters: “We talk about being “one” with our spouses but I sometimes wonder if many of us believe it’s something that can happen to us as we exist right now. I think it can happen and I was hoping to write about what that kind of unity looks and feels like using these characters. Oneness is among the deepest, most mystical aspects of our beliefs. It’s a miracle we call down on ourselves. And it eludes a mere intellectual explanation. Fiction and storytelling help say what can’t be said. Maybe that’s what ties them together — a miracle.”
Quist has a deft spin of phrase, humour and evocative imagery which lingers and chews on your imagination long after you have turned the page: Continue reading
Last month I read a book that told the story of a girl who was orphaned at a young age, sent to live with a cruel aunt and cousins, then passed off to a dismal boarding school, before graduating and finding a job as a live-in nanny for a mysterious older man on a remote estate. She helps tame her wild, young charge and falls in love with her much older employer, but their plans for marriage are thwarted by the revelation of a dark secret that sends her running away again. No, I didn’t read Jane Eyre, though I have read it a few times before. This book was The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, which retells the story of Jane Eyre and its themes of perseverance and self-reliance through the life of a young woman in Scotland during the 1950s and 1960s. I have read a number of books that pay homage to other books in various ways, some more successful than others. I enjoyed Gemma’s story and thought that it was mostly well-done—the writing was fluid and beautiful, the plot moved quickly and easily from incident to incident, and the relationship between the source material and this book were well-balanced. Continue reading
An unstoppable prankster as a child in California, an unbeatable runner in the Berlin Olympics, a bombardier in World War Two, Louie Zamperini was always a force to be reckoned with.
“All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean… Louie lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of this plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.
The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days.” (p. xvii)
Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ is a true life, non-fiction title which relates the childhood, teen years and Army Air Forces training of Louie with affection and clarity, with the strength of the story coming to the fore when Louie is captured by the Japanese as a prisoner of war (POW). Louie’s treatment as a POW is clearly detailed, focussing on his determination, friends, mental athletics and personal acts of rebellion through the war.
While that may be more than enough to fill a book, Hillenbrand continues to chronicle what happened in Louie’s life on his return from the war. Louie shared with Hillenbrand the coping mechanisms he used – alcohol, temper, marriage, family, revenge – to readjust and, when that failed to work, survive each day. What happens next in Louie’s tale is as astonishing and courageous as what happened on the other side of the Pacific from his home. It is about faith, hope, revenge, forgiveness and being absolutely, terribly, humanly breakable, yet still unbroken.
Hillenbrand includes in the epilogue a summary which gives a great summary of Louie’s attitude towards life and how he lived it:
“When Louie was in his sixties, he was still climbing Cahuenga Peak every week and running a mile in under six minutes. In his seventies, he discovered skateboarding. At eighty-five, he returned to Kwajalein on a project. “When I get old,” he said as he tossed a football on the Kwajalein beach, “I’ll let you know.” When he was ninety, his neighbors look up to see him balancing high in a tree in his yard, chainsaw in hand… Well into his tenth decade of life, between the occasional broken bone, he could still be seen perched on skis, merrily cannon-balling down mountains.” (pp. 383-4)
‘Unbroken’ is slow-paced in areas, however it is possible to skip forward to specific parts and chapters (as detailed in the contents) and it is worth it for the POW and post-war sections alone.
Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ is the only picture book I cry reading, and I sob every single time I revisit it. Considering there are no words at all within its pages, it’s quite a feat. ‘The Arrival’ details a man’s escape/immigration from a war-torn country (leaving his wife and daughter behind) to an unknown land. The story charts his struggle to leave his family, then his country, the stress given by the immigration officials, then entry into a totally foreign landscape. As co-gazers on this strange and baffling country (curling architecture, what looks like a kettle is some sort of incendiary torch, bizarre and fanged creatures at your window, challenging customs), we are scared and worried and lonely with him, hoping for rescue, comfort, relief, a safe haven and friend, frame by tiny or double-paged frame.
Shaun Tan has created an intimate, whimsical and touching story using no words at all, just expressions, a tree through seasons, a child’s smile, a folded piece of paper, the flight of birds – just to name a few. ‘The Arrival’ is a literally wonderful book, suitable for readers and early-readers alike. The art is beautiful, and pulls on my heartstrings and empathy on every page.
‘The Arrival’ is about surviving in unexpected places, wherever you may find them, however you got there, placing the reader in the position of main character, into every other character encountered, and pushes what we learn about belonging into our own lives after we’ve closed the cover.
‘The Arrival’ is an essential addition to any bookcase.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
- Enjoyers of non-fiction
- Anyone with an interest in the Pacific WW2 events
- Anyone wanting to be uplifted
Not recommended for:
- Anyone afraid of the ocean, sharks, running, war or hope
- People who don’t like to read about sad or difficult situations
Rated: PG15 – Louie’s time as a POW is given in detail, he was not treated well. Themes of war brutality, survival mentality, alcohol abuse, revenge, hope, redemption.
The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (2006)
Recommended to: Anyone with a pulse
Not recommended for:
- Kids under the age of about 8 (symbolic drawing of war as long monster-type tails, or giants with flame-throwing machines may upset young children)
- Possibly people (adults or kids) with separation anxiety
Rated: PG for under 8’s. Gently handled themes of war, family upheaval and separation, differences, new beginnings, confusion and belonging.
Which books about survival do you love and recommend? Do you read non-fiction? Graphic novels or picture books? Is there a book which inspires you (or makes you cry) every time you read it?
‘These Broken Stars‘ is one of the best sci-fi YA books I’ve read in years. The story alternates between Tarver (a poor-planet-soldier-made-hero), who’s about 19, Lilac (the only child of the richest man in the universe socialite), nearly 17, and each chapter is ended with conversation snippets of Tarver’s interrogation after the events of the book have occurred.
Tarver meets Lilac on Icarus, a huge interstellar spaceship, and has no idea who she is. Lilac’s amazed that he (poor! A soldier! A military pin-up boy!) would dare talk and joke with her as if she’s an ordinary girl. At their next accidental meeting Lilac crushes him like a bug, admittedly for his own good, and the third time they meet is when the Icarus is plummeting out of hyperdrive, and crashing to its doom.
The majority of ‘These Broken Stars’ occurs on the planet Lilac’ and Tarver’s escape pod crashes to, and details their confusion at the terra-forming, the efforts they have to undertake to survive, and the inherent weirdness of the planet.
Unlike many YA books, ‘These Broken Stars’ gives both characters intelligence, without demeaning their history (i.e. decision to enlist, the rarefied life of the ultra-wealthy) or reactions. Both have a sense of altruism – again going against much YA selfish navel gazing – determination, selflessness and both characters change and mature throughout the tale.
The unexpected twists are well crafted, punching the story along on its already enthusiastic charge, and left me hungry for the next two books. In the case of ‘These Broken Stars’, the hype on the interwebs is definitely warranted, and even somewhat subdued for such an intelligent, believable and engrossing gem of a tale.
- Teens who use their brains for thinking;
- Those who like YA fiction to be significantly more intelligent than hyperbolic;
- Fans of star-travel and survival.
Not recommended for:
- Lovers of social drama, selfies or overwrought sensational sentiment;
- Hard-core physicists;
- Anyone who can’t remember being younger than 25.
Rated: PG16 (themes of class, power, slavery; inferred sex)
What do you like or dislike about YA books? Have you read ‘These Broken Stars’? Which YA book has surprised you recently?