Monday, August 27, 2018

Icebreaker by Lian Tanner

It's been a little while since my last blog post, but my absence here is due to an understandable reason. Not only did I finally made my big move to Connecticut, I managed to find myself a new teaching job too. This is my first review from New England, and I'm writing it in between figuring out how to pay my rent online and lesson planning for my new seventh graders. I was afraid to make this move, but it's worked out better than I could have hoped so far.

But anyway, I digress. I did manage to finish reading a book towards the beginning of this month and never got around to reviewing it here. It was a doozy too. Icebreaker by Lian Tanner is a fever dream of a novel, with a premise so improbable and a setting so bizarre that the whole thing should be a literary train wreck. However, this odd little story is surprisingly compelling and it made for some enjoyable guilty pleasure reading.

I will endeavor to explain the plot as I normally do, but it won't be an easy task. There's a lot you have to wrap your brain around to be able to slip into this world. The story is set on an old icebreaker ship that maintains a constant, circular course around the arctic. The ship has been traveling the same course for 300 years without stopping. Whatever the crew's original mission was has long since been forgotten, and the descendants of these people have organized themselves into three warring tribes comprised of the officers, the cooks, and the engineers. They spend all their time in a combination of maintaining the ship, fishing for sustenance, and fighting with each other. Their whole world is the icebreaker. They have never experienced life any other way.

The protagonist of the story, a young girl named Petrel, is unique in that she has no tribe. Her parents were executed for a crime when she was just a baby and ever since then, all of the groups shun her. Her life is lonely, but she's a tough kid and has managed to survive mostly on her own. Her only friends are two large gray rats that can talk and appear to be at least partly mechanical. You see what I meant by calling this novel a fever dream? I don't know how Tanner managed to think this stuff up.

Anyway, one day Petrel spies something unheard of--she seems a boy floating on a piece of ice in the sea. Hoping to have found a friend at last, she sneaks him aboard the ship and tries to form a bond with him. All is not what is seems, however, because the boy isn't just a stranded kid. He's been sent on a secret mission from the outside world to destroy something valuable hidden on the ship. What follows is an adventure that causes Petrel to go from being the forgotten girl to a young woman who stands up for herself and fights to protect what she holds most dear.

There's so much about Icebreaker that just doesn't make any sense or is completely impossible. You have to be willing to suspend your disbelief to enjoy it, but if you can do that, it's actually not too bad. Petrel is an interesting character that changes and grows throughout the novel, the story is intriguing enough to keep you turning the pages, and its pacing is just right. This is a quick read that's perfect for those times when you want to escape to a different world for a little while, but you don't want to have to think too much. It's a fairly well-written dystopian sci-fi novel for young readers.

I don't have much to say beyond that, so I fear this won't be a very detailed review. What I can say is that I'm glad to have given this novel a shot. It will make a great addition to my woefully inadequate new classroom library. Hopefully one of my wayward seventh graders will pick it up and see themselves in Petrel or fall in love with its improbable, crazy world.

Challenge Tally:

Clear the Shelves 2018: 18 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 32

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

The Memory of Light was a random purchase I made at my school's book fair ages ago. I was intrigued by the description on the back cover, which previewed a story about a teen that attempts suicide. It reminded me a bit of It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, another story about a teen struggling with depression which I read a few years ago and enjoyed immensely. Hoping that this would be another winner, I decided to give it a shot this month.

The plot of the novel concerns Vicky Cruz, a sixteen year old girl who wakes up in the hospital after a suicide attempt at the start of the story. Vicky had been dealing with feelings of depression since the death of her mother a few years prior, and the struggle finally became too much for her to handle. After she is stabilized, she meets her psychiatrist, Dr. Desai, who recommends that she stay in the hospital for a few weeks to let her mind recover and participate in therapy. Realizing that she is still having suicidal thoughts and needs help, Vicky agrees.

As she begins to participate in her therapy, Vicky meets a handful of other teens who are also staying at the hospital to treat mental illnesses. There is Mona, a quirky and bold young woman struggling with bipolar disorder, E.M., an angry young man that has trouble controlling his aggression, and Gabriel, a young man who doesn't like to talk much about what his issues are, but who espouses great wisdom and kindness in their group sessions. As the days go by and the group gets to know each other, Vicky starts to heal and begins to come out of her depressive haze. She is far from cured, but she begins to see hope for her future.

Unfortunately, an unexpected event sends Vicky home early, where all the problems that contributed to her mental illness are waiting for her. The memory of her late mother, a father whose overbearing demeanor does more harm than good, and a demanding private high school full of kids that know about the suicide attempt await her. It doesn't take long for her suicidal thoughts to return, and Vicky must use what she learned at the hospital to cope with her depressed feelings and advocate for her own mental health.

I really liked this novel, and what struck me the most while I was reading was how real everything seemed. The way Vicky described her feelings of depression felt absolutely authentic to me and made me root for her character to overcome her illness. She spoke about her thoughts of guilt, pain, and suicide with an unflinching frankness that rang very true and made the story come to life. This is a young adult novel, but nothing was softened for a teenage audience, and the result of this is that I got a very clear view of how clinical depression invades a person's mind and twists their thoughts and actions. It helped me to understand this illness more. I think it would do the same for anyone that reads it.

The plot itself is only okay. I thought that some pieces of it, including her father's incredibly tone-deaf actions, the trip the whole group takes to Dr. Desai's ranch, and Vicky's heroic actions at the end of the novel, were unrealistic. However, I was invested enough in Vicky as a character to overlook the unlikely situations and enjoy the story anyway. This is one of those rare novels where character development is enough to carry you through the rough patches.

It came as no surprise to me that at the end of the novel, the author included a note about their own struggles with depression, including their own suicide attempt. it was very obvious throughout reading that Francisco Stork must have been very familiar with depression and the damaging thoughts it unleashes in a person's mind. He wrote that his hope was that Vicky's story might help another teenager out there struggling with suicidal thoughts, and he includes several resources for people to turn to to get help. After reading this, I feel that Stork must have saved more than one life with his words. His approach to this difficult topic resonated deeply with me, and I'm sure others have felt the same way.

Ultimately, I did end up enjoying The Memory of Light a great deal, but in a completely different way than I enjoyed It's Kind of a Funny Story. The latter deals with depression using dark humor and more absurd-style storytelling. The former deals with it in a way that feels very realistic and serious. Both are worthy of a read. I am going to put The Memory of Light onto my donate pile, and my hope is that it makes its way into the hands of someone who can learn from it, whether it becomes a push to someone to reach out for help, or a tool to help someone relate to a family member struggling with mental illness.


Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 17 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 31

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire

I picked up Egg & Spoon because of its author. I've been a fan of Gregory Maguire's ever since I discovered Wicked back in my college days. I loved his dark take on the world of Oz, and went on to (mostly) enjoy his other novels over the years. Each of his works are different versions of well-known stories, with his source material ranging from fairy tales like Cinderella to classic literature like Alice in Wonderland. Egg & Spoon is based on Russian folklore and stars Baba Yaga, a famous and enigmatic witch from children's stories. Unlike the other works I've read from Maguire, Egg & Spoon is a young adult novel. So, I started my reading curious about how his often-inappropriate writing style would work in a more restrictive genre.

The plot follows two young protagonists. The first, Elena Rudina, is a peasant living in a small village called Miersk. At the start of the novel, she is living on the brink of starvation and struggling to take care of her ill mother. Her two brothers have both been taken away, one to be a servant to a wealthy family far away, and the other to be in the Tsar's army. She does what she can for her mother, but her situation is growing increasingly bleak. Unusual weather conditions have ruined the crops, and all the livestock in the town has either run away or been eaten already.

Elena's story takes a turn when she meets the second protagonist via a fortunate train delay. Ekaterina Ivanova is the opposite of Elena in almost every way; she is rich, highly educated, and doesn't want for anything. She is traveling with an elderly aunt to a party at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to try and catch the eye of a young prince. When a section of the train tracks she is traveling on is damaged, she is forced to stop in Miersk to wait for repairs. Bored and lonely for someone her own age to talk to, she begins spending time with Elena, reading from storybooks and chatting. They don't exactly become friends, but they pass the time together.

Once the train is ready to move on and leave Miersk, a series of events occur that lead to the girls accidentally switching places. The penniless Elena is left on the train headed for Saint Petersburg and the wealthy Kat is left stranded in a destitute village. As the two attempt to right the situation, a wondrous and nigh-unexplainable series of events takes place that lead to both of the girls teaming up to save Russia alongside a trio of legendary folktale characters.

I realize that the last paragraph of my summary is laughably thin, but to attempt to detail the adventures of Elena and Kat any further would necessitate way too much explaining on my part, so it's the best I can do. This is one of those books that doesn't summarize easily. It's a long and winding tale based on absurdities and magic. Anyone interested in the finer points of the plot will have to read it themselves.

I struggled a lot with this one. At nearly 500 pages, Egg and Spoon is a long novel, and it felt like it. Most of the middle was a slog, and I wasn't inspired to read. I went days without picking it up and then had trouble reconnecting with the rambling and weird storyline. As a result, this book that should have taken me inside of a week to finish took almost a month. Maguire's trademark wit was halfway present, especially in the Baba Yaga character, but it was definitely missing something. It lacked the playful edge and compelling characters present in his other works. I didn't particularly like Elena or Kat and my attention was constantly drifting. There were beautiful passages here and there and a handful of memorable quotes, but overall, this was a weak offering.

It's a shame too, because Maguire is undoubtedly capable of delivering amazing and clever stories. This just wasn't one of them. I do admit that the ending of the novel was great, and its ultimate message of sharing what you have to ease the suffering of those around you was inspiring. Those factors bumped the novel up to two stars for me. It just wasn't enough to make the long trek to get to that point worth it. Egg and Spoon falls into that weird territory of being over most young readers' heads and beneath most adults' notice. It wasn't terrible, but I can't think of anyone I'd recommend it to. This is most definitely one for my donations pile.

Challenge Tally:
Clear the Shelves 2018: 16 books donated

Total Books Read in 2018: 30