February 17, 2020

A.S. King: "Still Life with Tornado"

Title: Still Life with Tornado  [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: A.S. King [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Contemporary with a Twist
Year: 2016
Age: 14+
Stars: 4/5
Pros: Original, bold premise. Honest, profound exploration of pain and trauma (albeit initially blocked/disregarded by the characters). Validation of teens' feelings and issues.
Cons: The main character's dry, sometimes self-deprecating quips may not sit well with everyone.
WARNING! Domestic abuse. An inappropriate relationship (barely on page).
Will appeal to: Those who want to look at all-too-real teen problems through a surreal, but exactly because of this, sharper-than-average lens.

Blurb: Sixteen-year-old Sarah can't draw. This is a problem, because as long as she can remember, she has "done the art." She thinks she's having an existential crisis. And she might be right; she does keep running into past and future versions of herself as she wanders the urban ruins of Philadelphia. Or maybe she's finally waking up to the tornado that is her family, the tornado that six years ago sent her once-beloved older brother flying across the country for a reason she can't quite recall. After decades of staying together "for the kids" and building a family on a foundation of lies and domestic violence, Sarah's parents have reached the end. Now Sarah must come to grips with years spent sleepwalking in the ruins of their toxic marriage. As Sarah herself often observes, nothing about her pain is remotely original - and yet it still hurts. (Amazon)

Review: If you're familiar with A.S. King's books, you know what you're getting into 😉. If not, but the blurb didn't scare you all the same, you're probably well-equipped to enjoy this one, especially since it's definitely more accessible than I Crawl Through It - if you can suspend disbelief.


Honest confession: I usually don't fare well with straight-up contemporaries, even when they don't involve romance. I need a unique premise, or better, a unique angle, when I read a story that deals with everyday's problems, or coming-of-age, or family, or all the things you can find in a contemporary book beside romance. That's why I love A.S. King's YA novels - she's able to keep me engrossed in what, without her peculiar brand of magical realism/surrealism, would be "average" stories about "average" issues (of course they're not average, but common enough that you feel like you don't need one more specimen sometimes). She's able to add a fourth dimension to teen (and sometimes adult) pain, and to filter it through a lens that, instead of making it look blurry, actually sharpens every little detail and ensures that it matters. How many books about self-questioning teens with a toxic family and an equally toxic school environment are there? And yet, Sarah - despite coming in a few different versions from different times, or because of that - is unique. Maybe even more than in her other books (though I have only read three of them so far, but still), King makes sure that she is...and that she matters. That, even when Sarah reflects on her problem at school that started it all, and tries to see it in perspective on the backdrop of her family's implosion, the same problem matters. The author makes an excellent point about teens (and especially teen girls) being dismissed as "whiny" when something eats at them that adults deem as not important enough - or at all. That's why we need a King in our life - and all her Sarahs. [...]


Just to be clear - this isn't a book about mental health, or lack thereof. I mean, I guess you could say that the protagonist is depressed, but despite the premise, she's not hallucinating. The multiple Sarahs are, if not explained, accounted for. And they're not a gimmick, but a way to gain a wider perspective about the main character and her whole family. (Of course one can't help wondering where they do come from/live, because it's not like SLWT is a time-travel story...but it doesn't really matter, or at all, since that's what magical realism is about). So, this isn't a book about mental issues (or not the kind of issue you might think of) - it's a book about family, art, pain, and learning to love yourself. Sarah's mother gets her own chapters, too, and Sarah's brother tells his side of the story, and in the end you get far more than you've bargained for when you gave this one a chance because the premise sounded cool, but you gotta love it.


If there's a small quibble I have with SLWT - but I could say the same thing about all King's books - it's that the protagonist's voice has this slightly caustic (or more like self-deprecating) edge that kept me at some distance sometimes. As far as teenage voices go, though, it's spot on (for the kind of teen Sarah would be, because of course, teens come in all sizes and shapes). And I did end up highlighting tons of quotes, so there's that 🙂.
In a nutshell - and on point: SLWT is a must-read love letter to all the troubled teens who can't find their voice, or ultimately realise that, if they do, someone's out to silence it...or worse, to let it fall on deaf ears. That's why adults, too, should read this book - all of King's books, really - and who knows? they might learn to listen some...

[Note: I'm not qualified to talk about mental illness, but there's a paragraph in the book that gave me pause, where Sarah states that her mother (a nurse) "sees real mental illness all the time and she knows it's no different than a broken arm". It sounds simplistic at best, but again, I'm not the best judge - I just thought I'd mention it].

For quotes from this book click here.
For more Contemporary/Contemporary with a Twist books click here.
Like this book? You might also be interested in Lauren Karcz: "The Gallery of Unfinished Girls".


  1. King is my touch of magic queen. She always incorporates her magical elements in her books quite deliberately. They are mechanism for getting us to understand something about her tale in a specific way, and I thought her use was rather ingenious and successful in this book. Fact: This was my first King book, and it made seek out al her books

    1. "She always incorporates her magical elements in her books quite deliberately. They are mechanism for getting us to understand something about her tale in a specific way".
      I couldn't have said it better!

  2. Learning to listen, especially to teens, is so important so it sounds like this is a great book in that it encourages that. I think it's so hard for teens to express themselves in a way that adults "get", sometimes- I know it was for me sometimes, so yeah. I do sometimes like a little magical realism or whatnot with my contemps too, it just adds a little something sometimes. Great review!

    1. All Kings' book (the ones I've read at least) try to reverse teens' invisibility and to put their pain and angst in the right perspective (the one where it does have a meaning and a reason). More often than not, her teens don't even try to address their problems, because they know/feel like adults will dismiss them. She's fairly unique in this, and the magical realism only enhances the whole thing.

      Thank you!

  3. Wow, what a wonderful review of this book and you have totally made me want to read it. I love that it shows the reality of teen life - that we have problems and they can be felt and are real. It's sad that so many adults say teens are whiny or ignore them and forget what it was like to be a teenager themselves. And it sounds like a very important one for self love. Great review!

    1. Thank you! A.S. King is the champion of unheard teens, and everybody (parents included of course) should read at least one of her books!


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