Sunday, March 12, 2017

Book Reviews: 'The Couple Next Door' by Shari Lapena and 'Still Life with Tornado' by A.S. King

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena:
God, this was such a big dull dud. I'm so done with thriller novels whose premises seem to promise deep, psychological explorations into the characters and their lives only to actually open the book and find weak and unoriginal plots. The Couple Next Door follows your typical suburban couple as their baby daughter, left without a babysitter, goes missing one night while her parents are at a neighbor's house for a barbecue. This seems pretty standard and seen before, but the author could have had a fun time making the plot her own with different twists the reader might not have seen coming. Instead, The Couple Next Door reads like a 13-year-old's creative assignment for her English class. The prose is just so bland and lacks any kind of pizazz to draw me into these characters and their lives, not to mention the characters themselves and the ending/resolution are just SO unoriginal that the book is lucky I didn't throw it across the room (that, however, would ultimately be against my religion). If you're looking for an interesting, original, riveting psychological thriller that will draw you in and keep you guessing, keep on looking. 2/5 stars.

2. Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King:
This one started off really strong for me. Like, 5-star book kind of strong. My problem started to come around as the story progressed. Still Life with Tornado is about Sarah, only it's not about Sarah. It's about ten-year-old Sarah, current sixteen-year-old Sarah, twenty-three-year-old Sarah and forty-year-old Sarah, all of whom haunt the current Sarah (I know this sounds weird, but know that there's some magical realism involved here, and I'm not doing it justice). It's also about her brother, her parents, their problematic marriage and a family trip to Mexico six years ago that left a mark on everybody. Still Life with Tornado manages to do what a lot of other contemporary YA books lack: portray in a painfully realistic way that people, including the people who are supposed to hold it all together, are not perfect. This book is so realistic that it could have afforded to throw it some unrealistic elements at times, just for fun. Current sixteen-year-old Sarah is damaged, and the reader starts to find out why over the course of the book, but at the same time, a lot that could have been more readily defined is left up to the imagination. She drops out of school because "nothing happens", a decision her mother seems to support, but her father firmly rejects. Sarah's parents are flawed, very much so, and I like how Still Life with Tornado portrays that sometimes parents make mistakes early on that they don't recognize, and they just continue making it until it's long since too late to make anything right.

My main problem with this book is that it leaves the reader in the dark about too many things that we have a right to know: sure, we get an idea of what's wrong with Sarah, but her home life can't be the only thing that defines her. Yes, her home life is less than perfect and quite dark at times, but I can think of a thousand situations that are truly much worse, despite the realistic elements in her family's storyline. Around the 150-page mark, I started to give up faith in Sarah's character because I could no longer understand why she chooses to mope around town, talking to her older and younger selves, instead of going to school. Okay, your home life sucks. Your school life sucks. Your "friends" suck. But guess what? Sometimes we gotta suck it up. There was also supposed to be a subplot involving Sarah's art teacher (Sarah is an artist), but it seemed to be a train on a track going nowhere because it had nothing to do with the ultimate outcome of Sarah's situation. Overall, Still Life with Tornado is an ambitious entry into the YA genre, and I can definitely commend it for its obvious and often painful realistic elements. It just leaves too much unanswered to be perfect for me. 3.5/5 stars.

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