Ilsa Bick: Ashes

For someone who professes not to like YA, I sure do seem to be reading a lot of it lately. I can’t help it. My daughter keeps handing me books and telling me that I “have” to read them. Well I am not normally a pushover, but when my daughter shoves books at me I am powerless, completely powerless, to resist.

In my last post I complained that the author created false suspense by withholding information from the reader that the characters knew. Well that sure wasn’t a problem in Ashes, because the main character was completely clueless, and every piece of the puzzle that she solved, we solved right along with her. In fact, if anything, it was the other way around, where I had my suspicions about certain things well before she did. (Now that’s a whole different thing, isn’t it. Suspense created when you know what’s going on but the character does not. That can be truly unbearable… in the best possible way!)

Anyway, Ashes is a zombie post-apocalypse dystopia kind of thing. If you don’t like that genre, I would definitely skip this book. It is very dark, very violent, and has an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. The worst, freakiest part of the book is not the zombies but the human settlement *shudder.* It reminded me of that movie The Village, which despite its flaws couldn’t be beat for sheer spooky atmosphere.

However, what was really weird about Ashes was that it ended extremely abruptly, leaving so many plot threads dangling that the story felt completely unbalanced. There was no real climax, nor any denouement. The reason why Becca wanted me to read it, in fact, was so that I could share her frustration and puzzlement. “I just hope she’s planning to write a sequel,” said Becca, annoyed.

So I did what I always do when I am frustrated and puzzled, which is to visit Google. I found out right away that Ashes is book one of a planned trilogy, with Shadows and Monsters forthcoming. Ok! Phew!

But that got me thinking. I realized it is relatively rare that I read a newly-published first of a series. I can think of a few other series that I read as they came out — No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games — but in all of those the individual volumes are just fine as stand-alone novels, even as they leaving you dying for more. That is not the case with Ashes. I think the publisher should have waited until she had written all three and then published them in a single volume.

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Hannah Roberts McKinnon: The Properties of Water

I don’t normally gravitate towards YA fiction, but when my 12yo daughter hands me a book and says “Mom, you have to read this” that is my cue to drop whatever else I am doing and read that thing.

The Properties of Water is a book about deep issues: family, siblings, tragedy, grief, denial, acceptance. It’s about a girl, Lace, whose older sister Marni is gravely injured in a diving accident. The whole family has to readjust their priorities, their worldview, their relationships, etc. The author doesn’t pull any punches. Lace’s attempts to come to terms with what happened feels very real. She spends most of the summer in denial — refusing to swim or even go near the lake where the accident happened, refusing to visit her sister in the hospital, distrusting the new housekeeper who assists them while the mother stays at the hospital, etc. But gradually she comes to accept the new order, and learns that the properties of water include healing as well as hurting.

There were two things I really loved about this book. One was the close relationship between the sisters. My own relationship with my sister was very very similar to theirs, and I could totally relate to both the love and the friction between them. They had me teary-eyed at times, and regretting (not for the first time) that my own sweet daughter only has brothers.

And the second thing I loved was the water. I myself am a water baby. I can’t get enough of the stuff, whether I’m in it, on it, or drinking it. Ocean, river, lake, pond, kiddie pool, bathtub — water is my element. Says Lace: “The lake is everywhere, soaking our beach blankets, sucking our toes, suffusing the air we breathe. Growing up on this lake, Marni used to say it was in our blood.” Yes, I have no problem believing that Lace’s relationship with the lake could be deep and complex and fraught.

I do have a gripe though. I really did not like the way the circumstances of Marni’s accident were only gradually revealed, even though the entire story takes place well after the fact. At the beginning of the book, all you know is that Marni and her mom are not there. You know there’s been a tragedy, but you don’t even know if they are alive or dead. Gradually you discover that the tragedy was a diving accident, that it was the cute boy that rescued Marni from the water, that she is in the hospital in another town, etc. It is only in the last 30 pages of the book that we actually get to meet Marni and learn that although she suffered a traumatic brain injury, she will be okay. Perhaps the reason the author parcelled out this information so gradually was to illustrate Lace’s gradual acceptance of the situation, i.e. we don’t learn “what happened” until Lace herself is able to think about it. However, this is a huge pet peeve of mine — withholding information from the reader that the character knows. I always feel like the author is manipulating me, getting me to keep reading by creating unnecessary suspense. Becca noticed this too, by the way — it was one of the reasons she wanted me to read the book in the first place. It was frustrating not knowing, especially since a book with these kinds of themes does not need to be suspenseful to keep you interested.