Book Reviews, YA Book Club for Writers

Book Club Review: My Long List of Impossible Things by Michelle Barker

The arrival of the Soviet Army in Germany at the end of World War II sends sixteen-year-old Katja and her family into turmoil. The fighting has stopped, but German society is in collapse, resulting in tremendous hardship. With their father gone and few resources available to them, Katja and her sister are forced to flee their home, reassured by their mother that if they can just reach a distant friend in a town far away, things will get better. But their harrowing journey brings danger and violence, and Katja needs to summon all her strength to build a new life, just as she’s questioning everything she thought she knew about her country.

Katja’s bravery and defiance help her deal with the emotional and societal upheaval.  But how can she stay true to herself and protect the people she loves when each decision has such far-reaching consequences?

Our thoughts about this book:

As we slowly emerge from our life in isolation, we were all so happy to meet face-to-face this month, albeit socially distanced, but it was so nice to all be in the same room together to discuss My Long List of Impossible Things.

For the most part we liked the book. In particular, we all noted the poetic prose Barker used throughout the novel and many of us had specific quotes ready to use as examples. Notably, we each had different examples which goes to show how many there were to choose from and also what stood out to each of us as individual readers.

Less than a week ago, death had been a word received in an envelope bordered in black. Now it had a smell, and a color.” pg 21

“Around me was the sound of a language I didn’t understand, and the crack of bootsteps I did.” pg 151

My Long List of Impossible Things by Michelle Barker

The post-war world building stood out considering the author made up the town where most of the story took place. The way the characters moved about in that town, as readers we could almost draw a map in our imaginations. Some of our very historically-inclined members wished there had been a map of the long journey the girls went on to reach the area where that town would have been.

Where we did have a lengthy discussion was around the characters, particularly the main character Katja. The majority of the characters were well developed, and believable, and we felt we were to lead to like/trust or not like/trust them appropriately. However, the somewhat exception to that was main character Katja. Not so much that she wasn’t well developed, but more that we didn’t buy-in to her choices, which is a bit disappointing when it’s the main character. There was no growth in her character arc throughout the story, which is a major story flaw. Many of us had a difficult time liking her or feeling a lot of empathy for her, another writing flaw. In the end notes of the book, there was mention that Katja had originally been written much younger and then aged-up for the story that got published. As one of our comments was that she seemed so immature, that made sense if she’d originally been written to be about 12 but not the 16 years she was in the story we read.

We also had major confusion around the climax of the story. Many members had to re-read the section over more than once to understand the turn of events and really it was only clarified in the author’s notes at the end of the story what must have happened in the climax. Readers should not be confused by the climax.

And then the ending was too neatly wrapped up. If felt a bit fairy tale-ish – and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after… This felt too easy.

A couple of take away’s that we look at as writers that we thought the author did well was certainly her world building as mentioned already. The other was don’t take too long to get into the action of the story and spread the backstory throughout the book. Barker did this well. By page 21 the story was into full action and the reader glued to find out what happens next. Her plotting was excellent. And the backstory was set in at just the right moments, getting glimpses into the family’s life prior to the events of the beginning of the book.

One thing I personally started to bring up was discussion points around themes of the story. I didn’t think I knew how to identify themes, based on my experience in English class in high school – either I misunderstood or whatever, but I always thought a story had one theme. This is wrong. Through so many novels now I have come to realize that stories can have many themes. And some of the key ones we identified in My Long List of Impossible Things were:

  • When is it OK to lie?
  • What is family?
  • Survival, choices, forgiveness, loyalty
  • When a choice affects someone else’s life or death
  • And this quote — “This is where cowards were born, surely–in that moment of hesitation.” pg 175.

Overall, despite some of the short-comings identified, we would recommend this book and some of us thought we would read The House of One Thousand Eyes also by Michelle Barker. One member had read it already and recommended it.

__________________________

This is an unsolicited review. I purchased my copy from Amazon.ca.

  • Paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Annick Press (March 10 2020)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1773213644

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