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: And All The Stars by Andrea K. Höst

16054889Blurb:

Come for the apocalypse.
Stay for cupcakes.
Die for love.

Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings.

None of her plans factored in the Spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.

Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare? They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney Spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending.

Review:

For me, the twists and plot reveals in And All the Stars are among the novel’s strongest points, so this review will be vague and short in order to prevent spoilage.

This is a marvelous scifi/post-apocalyptic YA novel (there are tinges of romance and lots of action as well, so basically every genre ever is represented here). Here are the top reasons why you should read it:

1. a hilarious and original cast of characters: why is it that fictional characters are so much better than most of the people I interact with in real life? I always lament this fact, and in And All the Stars I met a bunch of new characters that struck me down with this sadness again. From Madeleine, the artsy protagonist, to Noi, the no-nonsense best friend, to all the boys from a local boarding school, there are too many possible favorites. Bonus factor: the characters are diverse! Go away completely heterosexual, white casts! And All the Stars features multiple races and sexual orientations.
2. an ode to friendship: if required to provide a main theme from this book, I’d say friendship and the importance of having people to rely on. This theme is well explored, especially through the inclusion of the aforementioned outstanding characters and their constant allusions to Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. All for one, one for all!
3. awesome plot twists: no elaboration here, because I want readers to experience them personally, but oh my god, they are worth it. Even minor plot reveals were stunning and really upped the stakes (not that they weren’t sufficiently upped, you know, with the apocalypse and all)

Some things I didn’t like (but shouldn’t discourage you from reading it!):

1. action scenes could be confusing:  In scenes with a lot of movement and fighting, I can get a little lost in who is doing what to whom.
2. mushy, overly feel-good epilogue: Another weakness I’ve noticed with Höst; she is a bit prone to overly perfect endings. This one especially stung since the final line of the actual book was so wonderfully ambiguous, which was then marred by the epilogue. It was somewhat ameliorated by a pretty good but not quite as good final epilogue line.

This is simply a fun read. I was particularly impressed because having read some of Höst’s earlier work, I can see that her craft has greatly improved, though it wasn’t too shabby to begin with! She is a promising author that I will be watching closely.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

10644930Blurb:

If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?

Jake Epping 35 teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and cries reading the brain-damaged janitor’s story of childhood Halloween massacre by their drunken father. On his deathbed, pal Al divulges a secret portal to 1958 in his diner back pantry, and enlists Jake to prevent the 11/22/1963 Dallas assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Under the alias George Amberson, our hero joins the cigarette-hazed full-flavored world of Elvis rock n roll, Negro discrimination, and freeway gas guzzlers without seat belts. Will Jake lurk in impoverished immigrant slums beside troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald, or share small-town friendliness with beautiful high school librarian Sadie Dunhill, the love of his life?

 

Review:

I am a person who struggles to accept when she is wrong, yet I am so happy to be wrong about Stephen King. After toiling through King’s The Stand, I was prepared to dismiss him. In The Stand King never stretched his storytelling skills. Everything escalated to the climax as one would expect and everything fell from the climax as one would expect. Ho-hum.

But in 11/22/63, I had moments of pity for Stephen King, since he wrote himself into character dilemmas and plot conundrums that defied conventional resolution. Nothing unrolled as expected in this book. So I pitied him. I pitied King because I knew he must have passed days and weeks struggling to extract himself from these self-created authorial quagmires. At the same time I admired him because he had actually done it: he had taken chances; he had pushed the story to uncomfortable places, places where a 10¢ resolution and a bit of deus ex machina wouldn’t suffice.

The novel is a true behemoth with over 800 pages dedicated to multiple genres. And although every genre element adds to the book, its greatest weakness is how it is simultaneously so many things. Sometimes King didn’t seem to know what the book wanted to be. Was it a simple time travel tale? a straight thriller? a revisionist piece of historical fiction? a small town love story? It is all of these things, but occasionally he lingers too long on one element, leading to some duller parts, especially around the middle. Yet it comes together splendidly in the end in the spectacular final 200 pages. By that point, the intrigue is staged, the characters are fully endeared to the reader and to each other, and King’s daringly bold plot strands have knotted into an unsolvable mess.

In the final chapters, every other page or so punches you in the heart. While the time travel bits keep you turning the pages—from the outset, you know that changing the past can only go poorly; the question is how it will go poorly—it is the character relationships that endure. For all of the bluster surrounding Stephen King as contemporary literature’s most famous horror writer, 11/22/63 is achingly romantic. It is gentle tale, which means it is King at his harshest.

5 out of 5 stars