Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

881655Blurb:

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge”

More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…

Review:

If a book’s quality can be judged by my desire to write an alternative ending for it, thenThe Blind Assassin is a book of sterling quality. Because I want to write pages and pages where certain things that happen in this book simply don’t happen. I want so badly for it to end differently, yet I love it so much because of how it does end.

In The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood is exploring an epic subject that’s also a little bit dangerous: sisterhood. Is there a darker, more confounding type of relationship in the world? For all the complicated tragedies they’ve inspired, love stories are simple: they’re based on giving and taking—you give love, I take it; I give love, you take it; and we cross our fingers that the exchange is equal. But a sister story is based on sharing. Sisters share parents and friends, a home and often a room, arms, legs, and faces—though cruelly one will always be prettier than the other, and of course, desires and secrets.

One day the sharing must stop, however, and what will happen then? In The Blind Assassin tragedy happens, tragedy of the tricky, unassuming type that isn’t obviously tragic until it is. The narrator Iris presents her and her sister Laura’s tragedy in four windows. Frame One is a sci-fi story about a blind assassin, a mute priestess, and a destroyed kingdom; Frame Two is a published novel including Frame One’s sci-fi story recounted by two clandestine lovers; Frame Three features the memoirs of Iris in which she mostly recounts how she and Laura grew up and how The Blind Assassin (the novel in Frame Two) came to be published after Laura’s suicide; Frame Four discusses Iris’s present life as an old, regretful woman. It sounds like a complex hodgepodge, which it is, but each frame references the others to complete the whole wonderful tragic thing. Frame Four is tedious and occasionally weighs down the narrative, but it remains necessary regardless.

If sisterhood is about sharing, it is obvious from the beginning that something went very wrong in the sisterhood of Iris and Laura Chase. Where they once shared life, they no longer do, Laura having left Iris in the land of the living after her suicide at age 25. The entire book, four frames and all, explains, slowly and subtly, how the relationship between these two sisters splintered until it broke, utterly and completely.

Men are involved, of course. How could they not be, in the gilded but sequestered halls of the early 20th Century where a woman lacked any skills other than her ability to be married? Atwood is brilliant at showing how constrained and choiceless poor Laura and Iris are. Their only salvation from this constraint lies with each other, but jealousy and misunderstanding run deep and destructive between the sisters.

The title The Blind Assassin is interesting and multifunctional. There’s a character who is blind and assassin in the sci-fi tale, which eponymously endows Laura’s novel The Blind Assassin, and then there’s the actual novel, written by Margaret Atwood, which she has titled The Blind Assassin. Evidently it’s important. I think it means that we become assassins if we’re blind. If we choose or even simply fail to see what is happening around us, we become unintentional killers, maiming blindly yet temporarily. Our victims disappear but we will remain, alive and unfortunately restored to sight. The living, like Iris, are left, eyes wide open, forever gazing at the broken path behind them.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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Review: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

1309412Blurb:

At twenty-nine Valancy had never been in love, and it seemed romance had passed her by. Living with her overbearing mother and meddlesome aunt, she found her only consolations in the ” forbidden” books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle. Then a letter arrived from Dr. Trent, and Valancy decided to throw caution to the winds. For the first time in her life Valancy did and said exactly what she wanted. Soon she discovered a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.

Review:

It is remarkable that this book perfectly follows so many long-established Hollywood romantic comedy conventions, and yet it avoids cliché, surprising and delighting the reader despite its tired plot.

The Blue Castle is built on several overused tropes. Valancy, the homely protagonist who has been living as an old maid since girlhood, discovers that she will die within a year. And so the book begins with one of those well-known carpe diem sequences where a dying character gives her finger to the world and learns, too late, how to live life to the fullest, normally by swimming with dolphins or going skydiving, and of course, by falling in true real deep love for the first time ever. Yet here, Montgomery’s use of this trope does not irritate, mostly because despite Valancy’s profound change in attitude, she remains the same person. Valancy accepts her morbid news and uses it as a way to discover what she has wanted and forbidden herself from having for 29 years. She doesn’t create a massive bucket list and cross off items daily—she simply learns to say yes to what she wants and no to what she doesn’t want.

Another romantic comedy trope: the ridiculous family. Valancy is part of the Stirling family, a bourgeois Canadian clan that reigns in small town Ontario but considers itself to be equal to the royal family at Versailles. There are around ten relatives that incessantly insult, pity, and, worst, simply ignore Valancy, and each is wonderfully sketched. One of the novel’s most fantastic scenes takes place at a family dinner soon after Valancy’s diagnosis. She finally tells each family member exactly what she thinks of them, and each relative melts into a babbling state, unable to recognize the newly liberated niece/daughter/granddaughter/cousin who sees through them and their antics.

The final romantic trope is also one of my most hated. In The Blue Castle we have a case of he-loves-her-but-shhh-only-she-doesn’t-know-it syndrome. Because of the relationship’s unique circumstances, I cannot reject this trope as I normally do. It seems believable that a girl who has been told for decades that she is ugly and unloveable would struggle to accept that she is indeed loved. And without this trope, we wouldn’t get to read a wonderful scene where the lovers finally acknowledge and confess the true depth of their love.

The Blue Castle is trite, to be sure, but it’s trite in such an utterly charming way that I can’t bring myself to fault it. It certainly helps that L.M. Montgomery is a wonderful writer with an incredible capacity to describe the beauty of the Canadian wilderness. Like all of Montgomery’s work, this is a book that reminds you how amazing it is to be alive, to be able to enjoy the world with friends by your side. There may be clichés and a serious case of deus ex machina, but no matter, you’ll be too grateful that you can lie in the grass, gaze at the stars, hear the songs of the birds, and fall in love at any moment to even care.

3.5 stars out of 5

Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

18002456Blurb:

Lord of the Flies meets The Ruins in this frightening novel written in the bestselling traditions of Stephen King and Scott Smith.

Boy Scouts live by the motto “Be Prepared.” However, nothing can prepare this group of young boys and their scoutmaster for what they encounter on a small, deserted island, as they settle down for a weekend of campfires, merit badges, and survival lessons.

Everything changes when a haggard stranger in tattered clothing appears out of nowhere and collapses on the campers’ doorstep. Before the night is through, this stranger will end up infecting one of the troop’s own with a bioengineered horror that’s straight out of their worst nightmares. Now stranded on the island with no communication to the outside world, the troop learns to battle much more than the elements, as they are pitted against something nature never intended…and eventually each other.

Review:

I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God, the queen, and to obey the laws of the Eagle Scout troop.

That is, unless a crazy tapeworm epidemic invades the Scout camping trip. Then all bets are off!

The Troop is a delicious horror novel combining my two biggest fears: genetically modified tapeworms and teenage boys. Five whippersnapper scouts head to a small island off the coast of Prince Edward Island for a camping trip but some evil tapeworms decide to ruin all the fun! For the scouts and their leader, that is. For us readers, the tapeworms are very very fun.

For a story whose main draw is its high gross-out factor, it’s really well-written. Nick Cutter incorporates external media like laboratory reports, military orders, and court records to show what happens off the island while the scouts are fighting for their lives on the island. The characters are interesting too thanks to well-chosen flashbacks. They are not merely walking bodies waiting to become corpses. Their personalities, though overly reliant on archetypes, i.e., the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, interact well, leading to wild clashes as their situation grows more dire.

Cutter’s prose is surprisingly elevated for this type of story. I like his writing better than Stephen King’s (whose Carrie inspired the external media approach), but it was perhaps overly poetic in places for a story about evil tapeworms. Cutter is great at maintaining the ick-factor throughout and continually pushing the plot forward. Most of the time I was thinking, “ewwwwwwwww!” but the good type of Ewww that glues your eyes to the page.

To recover from The Troop I treated myself to a big dose of this:

Prince Edward Island and environs, you are not dead to me. But if Mr. Nick Cutter ever wrote a sequel to this story, you might be.

3 out of 5 stars