Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on 10th September 2013 (first published 23rd October 2012)
Genre: YA, Contemporary
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Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions... like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl.
Oh man, I really wanted to like this book.
Well, first things first: this is my first post on this blog! I've just resurfaced after spending a term at university frantically revising for some dreaded exams (33 hours of exams in 10 consecutive weekdays, whoo!), and while I was revising for these exams, I decided I really needed to have something to look forward to doing after they finished. So I thought, why not get back into reading? Ever since I started uni a year and a half ago, I've been reading for pleasure significantly less than I used to; instead, as a Classicist, I just got buried under mountains and mountains of translating from dead languages. I spent months and months reading the Iliad in Ancient Greek.
While I still have two years and a bit of my uni degree left to go and I will no doubt soon return to being as busy as ever after this brief month-long break from uni ends, I thought I'd challenge myself and start a book blog. So here I am.
When I was trying to choose which book to kick off this blog with, I thought I'd hunt around for the best LGBTQ YA fiction that's been published in the past couple of years. That's really kind of my favourite thing to read, after all, so I thought it'd be best place to start. I came across Ask the Passengers and I was dying to read it immediately, so I bought a copy off Amazon within seconds, even though my exams were just about to begin at that point and I was slightly worried that I would get too distracted by the book and forget about revision. In the end, I managed to withstand temptation until my exams finally finished, and I could curl up in bed for half a day straight and just read the book in one sitting. Which is what I did yesterday.
And I was honestly quite disappointed.
While I did wait until the end of my exams to actually read the book, I couldn't resist taking a peek the moment my parcel arrived from Amazon. When I opened the book and saw the quotations, all from Ancient Greece, I thought, "Well, this could either go badly, or really well." I did mention I was a Classicist, didn't I? I was about to face 33 hours of exams, half of which would be about Ancient Greece (the other half about Ancient Rome, of course). I wondered how important Ancient Greece would be to this book. I hoped it would be well done, if it was important.
And it wasn't particularly. Bear with me while I have my little Classicist rant. People in Ancient Greece didn't wear togas. Socrates didn't wear a toga! Romans wear togas. Romans, not Greeks. I kind of forgive the author on this point because I can see why Astrid wouldn't know that. I'm disappointed in Ms. Steck, her Humanities teacher, for not teaching her that though. Ms. Steck seems like an awesome person. She should know better than to allow her students to think that Greeks wore togas. Also I'm fairly certain Socratic paradoxes aren't quite what this book makes them out to be, but as I'm not much of a philosopher I won't try and pick that apart.
Onto more important things that more people would care about apart from me: the characters. I simply wasn't invested in any of them. I found that the relationship between Astrid and Dee was written with little depth, so I was never actually convinced that Astrid loved Dee. I spent most of the book thinking they were going to break up and believing that it would be a good thing if they did. I think that King just spent so much of the book showing how Astrid was annoyed with Dee for being too impatient with her about sex that I couldn't see why Astrid would want to stay with Dee. Towards the beginning, Astrid complains that she and Dee don't talk enough and that she knows very little about Dee. By the end of the book I feel like that complaint still rings true for me. I feel like I still know barely anything about Dee. More than I did at the beginning of the book, but certainly not enough for me to root for her relationship with Astrid.
[Spoiler: highlight to read] At some point near the middle Astrid makes out with another girl called Kim while she's supposedly in a relationship with Dee. While it is never made clear that Astrid and Dee have agreed to be exclusive, I still thought it was really strange that this whole episode of Astrid making out with someone who wasn't Dee was pretty much never brought up again apart from briefly and not very relevantly towards the end. Astrid doesn't tell Dee, nor does she feel any guilt about it. She goes straight back to making out with Dee and suddenly wants to have sex with Dee after she spent the first half of the book not wanting to at all. I just. What!? It was so difficult for me to understand the motivation behind any of this.
As for the other characters, I couldn't understand what it was that made them redeemable by the end of the book either. Astrid's family and her friends just didn't seem like real people to me. When a book lands you in the middle of a character's life, I want it to still be able to imply the wealth of history behind her relationships with other people. I didn't feel a sense of that history at all. Kristina is her best friend. Why is Kristina her best friend? I don't know. I just felt like I was missing something the entire time. Her family plays such an important part in the book and they are just so dislikable. Because so much of the narrative is about Astrid learning to give love to the people in her life rather than to the passengers in the planes soaring above, I felt like it was just crucial to the book that the reader began to understand too why the people in her life deserved her love. And I just couldn't ever understand it.
The snippets of insight into the lives of the passengers on the planes felt disruptive to me. I didn't care about these passengers. I don't know if they really added that much to the story. I felt like I really just wanted to focus on Astrid and her life.
Although saying that, even Astrid was pretty annoying to me at times. Who stands up in class to do the same terribly awkward thing every time a certain topic is brought up? How can you expect me to love an MC who does that? Astrid did this at the beginning and I was almost prepared to hate her for the rest of the book. Whenever they talked about Zeno and his "motion is impossible" theory in her Humanities class, Astrid would stand up and swing her arms around and say, "Motion is possible. Check it out!" Every time, apparently. Really? How on earth did anyone else in the class put up with her? She did get better after that though.
There were certainly moments of the book I enjoyed. All the moments when Astrid felt free: her first night in a gay bar; when she kisses a girl and loses herself in that feeling. I honestly feel like if this book had been about Astrid in college, free from all these terrible people in her life and trying to make new friends who would actually be real friends to her, it would be a billion times more interesting.
Overall, the book tried to seem very quirky, I think, especially with all the Greek philosophy and Frank Socrates popping up all the time in his (historically inaccurate) toga, but it just failed to work for me. When I first finished the book, I thought, "Well, it wasn't great, but it wasn't awful." And that's true. I wish it was so much better though. It felt like an important story that needed to be told, but it needed to be told better than that. I couldn't forgive any of the characters; I felt like Astrid shouldn't, either. And that's where I think everything went wrong with this book. Either create characters that are forgivable, and allow the MC to forgive them, or create characters that are unforgivable, and don't let the MC forgive them, you know?
And now I'm off to hunt for a better queer YA book.