Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi
Shatter Me #3
YA Speculative Fiction; Romance
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it’s a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she’s been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can’t say I’m at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I’d like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March – over three months ago – and it’s not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance – like, really really love – and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn’t a soldier in the regime – and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette’s limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she’s not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes – which I won’t spell out because it’s a spoiler.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, though with less heat than before: There’s no reason why a Young Adult title can’t be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There’s smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that’s a huge shame. I’m not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
“You think you’ve had it hard,” [Adam's] saying to me. “Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail – you think that was difficult. But what you don’t realise is that you’ve always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis.” His hands are clenching, unclenching. “And that’s more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it’s really like to live out here – no idea what it’s like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea,” he says to me, “what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism – but it doesn’t work that way out here. In this world you’re either alive, about to die, or dead. There’s no romance in it. No illusion. So don’t try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don’t.”
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they’re raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters’ very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that’s because I’m an adult reader and not the intended audience. I’m slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints – because I didn’t have them when I was younger, that’s for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi’s determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that’s all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner’s room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I’m still recovering from. I can’t deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He’s like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he’s been given all the tools to kill a person, he’s too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father – the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it’s not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody – in general, Juliette isn’t the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the “grey” in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she’s still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It’s a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn’t mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief – they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit … truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place – the goal of such stories as this – is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don’t know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don’t feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn’t need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey.
“Unfortunately all of that magic has been effectively stolen away from me in the wake of the overwhelmingly disappointing series conclusion that was Ignite Me. For me, I think the worst thing about Ignite Me is how much it tries to cheapen and invalidate my experience reading Shatter Me. Everything I once thought was wrong, far beyond what we already discovered in Destroy Me. All my reactions to the characters were incorrect. It sanitizes and simplifies, destroying the complexity of the characters and story in general. I felt like this was an attempt to erase or rewrite the past in a way that felt forced and overdone. To me, Ignite Me was so much less than Shatter Me and its strong sequel Unravel Me – even in the quality and poetry of the writing, and I truly cannot figure out what happened.” Love is Not a Triangle
“Thank you, Tahereh Mafi. Thank you for writing a fantastic end to a fantastic series. Thank you for this this book, this series. Thank you for your beautiful writing. Thank you for this story and these characters and for everything. Just – thank you.” Beauty and the Bookshelf
“Tahereh Mafi is an excellent writer, and I’m so thankful she and I were brought together via the Shatter Me series. Her writing style is refreshing and her characters are squeezeably loveable and amazing. I was so happy that Ignite Me offered a strong finish to this overall stunning series. If you haven’t all these books, I strongly recommend them, including the novellas! Ignite Me will not disappoint longtime Shatter Me fans.” Read. Breathe. Relax
“I think Tahereh Mafi is a brilliant writer — her writing style is incredibly fresh and gorgeous. And, beyond that, I think she’s a lovely person. I was lucky enough to go to lunch with her once when Shatter Me first came out, and she was a delight. So it’s from a place of love that I say this: HOLY COW, TAHEREH, YOUR CHARACTERS INFURIATE ME.” Anna Reads
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Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett
Text Publishing 2014
Large Format Paperback
Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists – writers, painters, comedians, actors – mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he’s mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.
One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills – and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.
Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year – which Ralph’s wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for – something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier’s summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith’s two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?
I haven’t yet read Koch’s previous book, The Dinner – it’s on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I’m just as enthusiastic about – so I can’t compare this or say, “If you liked that, you’ll like this.” But I’m thinking that’s probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we’ve risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy – at once funny and disturbing – featuring a protagonist whom you’re never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you’d like this one or not.
From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can’t read other people’s minds: you just don’t want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you’ll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things – often contradictory, complex and insightful – makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.
When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we’re meant to read something – genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go “ewwww” at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what’s normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we’re still drawn to it all.
We’re inside Marc’s head, but it’s easy to see that on the outside, he’s very normal. That’s perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He’s so frank, to us readers, and there’s no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don’t act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in “real time”, we don’t know what he’s going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there’s something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you’re not sure just what kind of man he is or what he’ll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he’s capable. As is everyone, really.
What’s exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He’s the image in the mirror we’d rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he’d rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us – and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc’s own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I’m sure, to female readers. What it boils down to – what he never, ever, lets himself think – is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.
It’s the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there’s little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc’s eyes and thoughts we get Marc’s ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc’s penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body – its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin – as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people’s characters and personalities.
That’s how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. ‘Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?’ he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn’t seem offended at all. [...] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier’s naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]
That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won’t say more than that.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting – in the best possible way. And being inside Marc’s head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We’re all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can’t really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it’s the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn’t normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there’s a part of you – the part that stops feeling so superior – that respects him for knowing the difference.
“As a study of human nature, it does not get much better than Summer House with Swimming Pool. His characters cross the spectrum of human behaviors and attitudes, with every thought and action a direct consequence of their reactions to each other. It spectacularly shows the intricate culpability an entire group can have on a series of events as well as the degrees of subtlety involved in manipulating others, something readers experience firsthand as their opinions of the happenings and of the characters change page by page. It is quite simply a brilliant piece of literary fiction.” That’s What She Read
“Unfortunately it seems that Koch has followed the formula he used in his best-seller, The Dinner: horrid characters, a terrible incident, moral judgements, an unreliable narrator and parents having to make decisions on behalf of their children. It worked so well in The Dinner, a book that I genuinely could not put down, however, in Summer House, the key plot point provides less room for nuance or moral debate.” Books Are My Favourite and Best
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I started plenty of books in June, but didn’t get much actual reading of my own done (read plenty, just not things I can put here!). June was an abysmal month for finishing books and reviewing/blogging; I made no dent in my list of books I still have to review (which dates back to February, ouch). And my total tally for the year so far is the lowest it’s been in the last ten years. On the upside, I regularly remind myself (and pinch myself) that I do currently have my dream job!
Books Read This Year (by End of Month): 38
Books Read in June: 3 including:
Adult Novels: 1
Children’s/YA Novels: 1
Picture Books (new, owned): 1
Total Books Added to My Library in June: 25 including:
Review Copies Received (print): 3
Books Won: 0
Kindle E-books: 0
E-books From Netgalley: 1
Favourite Book Read in June: N/A
Most Disappointing Book: N/A
# Books by Female Authors: 3
# Books by Male Authors: 0
Currently Reading: five different books that I’ll post about tomorrow!
Books Read for TLC Book Tours: 1
Books Read for Challenges:
Around the World in 12 Books Challenge – 0
Canadian Book Challenge – 1
Australian Women Writers Challenge – 0
Read-alongs – 0
Books Read in June
36. Bee Summers by Melanie Dugan
37. Happy Birthday Peppa! by Rebecca Gerlings
38. The Undead Next Door by Kerrelyn Sparks
I hope June was a more productive month for your reading than it was for me!
Bee Summers by Melanie Dugan
Upstart Press 2014
Fiction; Historical Fiction
It is 1966 and Melissa Singer is only eleven years old when her mother leaves and never comes back. For Melissa, there was no warning, no clue that there was anything wrong. Her father, a bee keeper and general handyman, is non-committal – first he tells his daughter that her mother has gone to another war rally and won’t be back for a few days, but after a while he simply says nothing. Instead he takes Lissy out of school for the last couple of weeks of the school year so he can take her with him on his annual rounds, distributing his bees at three different privately-owned orchards.
There is Earl Caulkins and his apple trees; an aloof and mildly eccentric author, Chance Curtis; and irascible farmer Les van den Hoven whose busy, loud and cheerful wife, Opal, is everything Lissy’s mother is not. Opal takes Lissy under her wing for the week they stay at the farm, introducing her to painted nails and gossip. It doesn’t quite make up for her mother’s absence, but it helps. Later, over the summer holidays, she goes again with her dad and the bees, this time to wild blueberry crops and other out-of-the-way places.
It isn’t until she starts a new school year at her small town’s middle school that she realises something is definitely off. The mothers of girls she goes to school with are avoiding her as if she has something contagious. Her best friend Katie doesn’t want to walk with her to school anymore, and arranges for her brother to switch lockers so hers isn’t beside Melissa’s anymore. Kids whisper around her and then suddenly stop, ostracise her or treat her meanly in the hallway. And she has no idea why, because no one will tell her. Nothing touches on her idolatry view of her absent mother, whom, she thinks, went away because she’s sick – cancer, Lissy thinks, after reading about it in the library.
Whether her mother was present in the house or far away and silent, she manages to deeply affect Lissy’s life. As Melissa grows up, spending summers with her dad and the bees and her school days writing stories and poems, her mother takes on a larger-than-life, demigod-like aspect. Such is how she copes with her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Nothing and no one can replace her, so it’s a shock when her father moves on with his life – and expects her to move with him.
Bee Summers is a fairly short coming-of-age novel told with childlike confusion and puzzlement by its protagonist, Melissa. Set somewhere in east United States (there are references to Boston), the late 60s and early 70s provide a vague backdrop of upheaval and public protest, while the fashions, decorating styles and cars give nice period details. In the early parts of the story, there is plenty of evidence that Lissy’s mother isn’t someone you or I would like all that much, but Melissa is a strongly sympathetic character who misses her mother deeply. It’s clear to us that her mother has walked out for her own reasons, and that Melissa is too young to understand without being explicitly told. It’s hard to agree with her father not to tell her the truth, and the idea that he’s both protecting Lissy and preserving her idea of her mother falls apart later when it becomes clear he just didn’t want to talk about it (he was, like many men of his time, a war veteran from the Korean war, and also like many men of his time, found it hard to open up about anything). Because no one tells her otherwise, naturally Melissa creates an image of her mother as this loving, wonderful woman.
Yet Melissa also grows up increasingly lonely and closed-off, and perhaps because she does come from what is essentially a “broken home” with no motherly support or guidance, she matures slowly. I found it hard to empathise with her over her father’s decisions to remarry and move. Certainly, if nothing else, Bee Summers shows how much damage can ensue when people don’t talk to each other openly and honestly. Misunderstandings and a lack of communication result in what was, to me, a truly tragic ending. What’s interesting about Melissa as a carefully-constructed character is how realistically flawed she is, and how clearly you can detect her mother and father’s genetic inheritance in her. Her personality is her own but she has inherited characteristics from her parents; if both parents are uncommunicative, and at least one is inherently selfish, it’s not surprisingly that you see it in Melissa as well. She doesn’t make great choices all the time. She does live in fear, later, that because she didn’t have a mother for so long, she doesn’t know how to be one herself. Dugan has achieved a careful and honest balance between Melissa’s vulnerable flaws and tender fragility. It’s hard to dislike Lissy because so much of her character is a result of her circumstances. That said, had her mother stayed around, she probably would have grown up much like her – since she listened to her so much – and might have ended up even less likeable. It’s an interesting aspect to the novel, and makes this a story that you can’t read aimlessly or passively.
Where the novel disappointed me somewhat was in the development of Lissy’s voice – she narrates in first-person past tense, which is a strong choice (you all know by now how much I’m coming to detest the latest fad for using present tense). However, her voice is a child’s voice, rather than an adult’s voice reliving a child’s perspective, and I found this a bit weird and confusing. Almost as if you’re reading about someone who’s development has stunted. It bleeds into the later parts of the story, too, so that Melissa always sounds desperately immature.
Secrets abound in this story about silence and selfishness. (How’s that for a bit of alliteration?) For me, the stars of the story were the bees themselves – I have a deep love for these precious little creatures who are so instrumental to the survival of life on earth. I can’t resist any story with “bees” in the title or on the cover, whether they figure as part of the story or not. While the bee summers of Melissa’s youth fade into her childhood with the blush of nostalgia – as these things do – I was left bereft and saddened that the bees had left the story. I liked hearing about them, and wanted more. But they had served their purpose, plot-device-wise, and everything must change and move on. That’s always a strong theme of coming-of-age novels, that things end and we must grow up and lose our innocence. The sense of that is strong in Bee Summers, and perhaps it’s that quality of honest realism that makes it hard to tease out my response. The past of our childhood always has an element of pain, humiliation, gaucheness to it, that makes us shy away from it while at the same time missing it. I’m always impressed by writers who can capture something that ephemeral, that ambiguous, and Dugan has captured it so well I’m left feeling off-footed and mildly uncomfortable. Not an easy book to review but I do recommend it for those readers who like coming-of-age stories.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. Visit the tour page for more stops on this tour.