Monday, August 26, 2019

#CBR11 Review #30: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

CBR11 Bingo Square: Listicle

As found on the Book Riot list of “100 Must-Read Bisexual Books”

I saw a lot of good reviews for this novel, and was excited to read it, given how it appeared to center on meaningful relationships (my favourite!), as well as the career of a filmmaker (something of great interest to me!). And yet, this is one of those cases where despite seeming like it has a lot of people who love it, I myself just don’t get it, even though I really want to.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark follows the life and filmmaking career of the eponymous Sophie Stark, but through the eyes of five different people she has had some sort of relationship with in her life: her brother, the boy she was obsessed with in college and first person she made a movie about, a girlfriend she coaxed into acting for her, her musician husband, and a film producer who offers her new opportunity. We Sophie as a somewhat mysterious character who doesn’t fit in and tries to explore people through her films, yet inevitably ends up changing her relationships through her work. What is clear from person to person, however, is that despite not always behaving like others and often hurting them, Sophie blows into people’s lives like a gale force and never quite leaves them completely.

On the one hand, I like the idea of telling a story through relationships, and it does leave a bit of mystery and intrigue to the character, yet in this case, it’s maybe a little too much. I just couldn’t crack Sophie or understand what it was about her that everyone was drawn to (I mean, I guess some people just have that energy? But I didn’t get it). She doesn’t quite connect to people and I wonder if the intent was to depict her with some kind of personality disorder, or perhaps on the autism spectrum, which makes me feel awkward saying that I just found Sophie to be cold, selfish, and impenetrable in a lot of ways. It also made the way the narrators talked about her (at times, but not always) make her sound almost like some kind of muse, some kind of mysterious thing that isn’t quite human: not quite an object, but almost, and they themselves really vary in likeability and even seeming importance (one, in fact, doesn’t really come up after one section he narrates and honestly just feels like a stepping-stone to fill in the story). And then along with this inability to crack into Sophie as a character, I also couldn’t get into her work. It’s a hard task to translate film which is inherently a visual medium into words and make it have the same effect, and so I found a disconnect there; I couldn’t understand her career or the draw of people to her work because I just didn’t understand it.

And then of course there is the topic of creatives and artists as shown in this novel. There’s the idea that creating in the truest form needs to cost something: that either the creator will suffer, or the people around them will in order to be authentic and make the best thing they can. And while it’s true that sometimes pain can lead to cathartic or beautiful creations, I hate the hate the idea of the “suffering artist” so often pushed. You don’t need to be in pain in order to do something great! In fact many people are all the more able to do so when they are healthy and well. And for sure, it’s not pretty at the end of this novel as Sophie’s way seems to see her go into a decline, but her decisions as the end are almost romanticized in a way as she dictates the depiction of her “legacy” to be left behind, her last work that is predicated on her death.

So as much as I thought I would enjoy this novel based on the premise, I just couldn’t get into it. While there were glimpses of moments that I liked with the narrator characters (mostly in regards to their own lives and pasts before Sophie), the main arc of the story and protagonist did not hold me.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, August 19, 2019

#CBR11 Review #29: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

CBR11 Bingo Square: Youths!

This book was on the featured wall of the Young Adult section of our library, and the cover art immediately drew me in. Although written as a YA novel with a teenage protagonist, this novel specifically includes an author’s note at the beginning warning for content including racism, graphic violence, death, OCD and anxiety triggers. Suffice to say, this is a heavy book based on the real events of the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, albeit about a fictional character.

The of The Weight of Our Sky follows a teenage girl named Melati, who is just trying to get through life like a normal kid her age, all while dealing with a Djinn inside her head. This Djinn is what today we would diagnose as OCD, and it takes the form of images of a gruesome death befalling Melati’s mother playing over and over in her head, unless she acts out elaborate schemes of counting and tapping in threes: if she doesn’t do what the Djinn wants, she is afraid that her mother will die. This in itself is bad enough, but then one day while out with a friend, racial tensions in Kuala Lumpur boil over, resulting in a race war between the Malays and the Chinese. All Melati want to do is find her mother, but separated by a city tearing itself apart, she needs to look for help in people she never expected, and find a strength in herself to push through.

I knew very little about the race riots in Malaysia going into this novel, and now I am certainly more interested in learning about these events. It was certainly an enthralling book to read, if perhaps a little repetitive in it’s themes (and certainly the messaging inside Melati’s head, at times, which indeed is kind of the point). As mention above, there are some serious topics dealt with in this novel, and for the most part I feel this is done so with tact, but not without shying away from the realities of the situation.

The biggest issue I had with the novel is that the end rushes up very quickly in comparison with some of the pacing of the rest: it’s like the cogs suddenly started turning much faster in order to deliver a resolution, both in terms of actual action and also with Melati and her mental state. However, overall, The Weight of Our Sky was a worthwhile read about a subject/event in history that I have rarely seen touched on in fiction, and a YA novel at that. I always appreciate when such histories are made accessible to younger audiences, as I don’t believe that certain realities of life should be so closed off (or considered “adult”) when they may still have a profound effect on what endures today. And despite all the heaviness, there are many moments in this novel that highlight the good that can found in humanity: those people who despite all the terrible things being thrown at them, still look to help and be a force of good. 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]