Tournament of Books Round 1: The Leaving vs. Still Life with Tornado

02 Feb

tournamentofbooks2017The Leaving by Tara Altebrando is a seriously creepy thriller. On the first day of kindergarten, six little kids disappear without a trace. Eleven years later, five of the six return, with no idea who took them or why. In the years since they disappeared, they’ve become household names, the subject of conspiracy theories and made-for-TV movies. Lucas comes home to a family crisis and a brother who seems ambivalent about his presence. Scarlett returns to a mother she can hardly believe she’s related to, and a house scattered with books and articles on alien abduction. Avery has been home all along – she is the younger sister of Max, the only one of the group who has not come back.

Who took the children? Where had they been for all those years? Where is Max?

There are FBI interrogations, murder charges, memory tests, and MRIs. There’s a mysterious tattoo, unexplainable force-of-habit tendencies, an uncannily prescient out-of-print sci-fi paperback, and cryptic calls to the tip line. It’s a page-turner.

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King is a very different book.

Sarah is sixteen and she’s stuck. Her home life is peppered with tense family dinners and vicious overheard parental arguments. She’s a talented artist, but her creativity is hopelessly stifled. For weeks she’s been ditching school and riding the bus around Philadelphia, wandering in an abandoned building, observing students and professionals and a homeless artist – and, oh yeah, running into herself at various ages. Sarah is sixteen. And ten. And twenty-three. And forty. The other Sarahs want sixteen-year-old Sarah to go back to school, to ask for help, to come to terms with repressed memories. She worries about being unoriginal, about being a fraud. She wonders if she’s losing her mind.

Sarah is ashamed at becoming undone because she sees her problems as small, and she’s acutely aware of the generalizations thrust onto teenage girls – that they’re dramatic, that they can’t “just get over” things. Something happened at school, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. Something caused her brother, Bruce, to become estranged from the family six years ago, but she can’t quite understand it. With the help of her other selves, Sarah begins to confront her family’s secrets and pain, past and present.

So, the verdict?

The Leaving kept me guessing, and while I enjoyed the ride, the book has some issues that I can’t overlook. The ending is rushed, confusing, and ultimately a let-down. Without getting spoilery, there are a couple of plot holes that left me irritated. For a book dealing with kidnapping, identity, and loss, The Leaving sure doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch, and it didn’t stick with me after I turned the last page.

Still Life, on the other hand, has been on my mind since I finished it. I was skeptical about the multiple Sarahs, but the element of magical realism feels appropriate in a novel about a girl struggling with her reality. The book beautifully examines self-doubt, shame, isolation, and the implications of domestic violence, and it’s sprinkled with enough humor that it really isn’t as dark as I’m probably making it out to be.

Winner: Still Life with Tornado.

Laurel Johnson is a Young Adult Librarian at Skokie Public Library, where her patrons cannot decide if she’s 20 or 55. Her librarian superheroes are Pura Belpré and Dr. E.J. Josey, and she is determined to honor their equity and social justice work in her own career.

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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in Tournament of Books


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