Monthly Archives: October 2016

Review: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

anna-dressed-in-blood

What it’s about: Teenage ghost hunters, magical bloodlines that give the protagonists both special powers and terrible burdens, and a love interest who also happens to be a deadly monster. You know, the usual stuff you find on the YA shelves.

Praise: This story opens with an inner monologue from a teenage ghost hunter on the prowl, and could easily have come across as a formulaic Supernatural copy. Instead, Cas quickly came to feel like a real person to me. The same thing happened with all the characters. It wasn’t really unique in any way that I can quantify, at least not without spoilers, but it felt like it’s own thing.

The pacing was also stellar. I worried at the beginning of this that there wasn’t enough story to flesh out a whole novel, and that I had pages of filler ahead of me. But man, the story wasn’t going the direction I expected at all. It was exciting.

The supporting cast was fantastic, especially Anna herself. It’s hard to make the same person genuinely terrifying and deeply sympathetic. With Anna, Kendare Blake completely succeeded. She also makes her cast click together perfectly naturally. I’ve read so many books where the author says, “this character and that character will become best friends, take my word for it,” but it never really feels organic. I just know the characters wouldn’t have become friends if the author hadn’t decided to make it so.

Plus, there’s a mother/son relationship that actually feels like, well, a mother/son relationship. Why is that so hard? Why are most parents of protagonists either absent, evil, stereotypes or dead? All you need for realism is love and intimate understanding that doesn’t preclude mistakes and miscommunication, plus a tension between their mutual desire for the son’s independence and mutual desire for anything but.

Okay, I can see why not everybody goes for that. Anyway, in this book there is all of that and it works so well.

Criticism: Narratively, I can’t think of a single thing to complain about. This book was completely engaging. On a social justice note, though, it did bother me that a scary ghost is literally the only POC in the entire book. Any of the protagonists could have been POC with no significant changes, or the ghost could simply have been white as well. Again, still enjoyed the book, and it’s the only problem I can think of, but it would have been so easy to avoid.

Recommended? Oh good lord yes

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic-Atheist: Bad Company

Yesterday, I wrote my first positive review of an AIO episode. The story was decent, and the moral was on the importance of being kind and loving to everyone. Unfortunately, when I was listening to it, the happy feels did not last long, because right on the other side of the tape was this shitshow.

Yes, I’m listening to tapes. I didn’t want to give Focus on the Family any of my money, so instead I got my Mom to give me all our old cassettes and invested in one of the planet’s last walkmans.

This is how Chris opens the episode.

“Choosing our friends is one of the most important choices we’ll ever make, because our friends often affect the way we act and how we think.”

As far as she goes, I agree. The people who are close to us affect our behavior, and it’s worthwhile to choose your influences wisely. I also don’t think this necessarily contradicts the message of the previous episode. You can show basic human decency to someone who isn’t your close friend; in fact as a general rule you should. But there are definitely ways to put those two ideas together that aren’t good.

There are two plots in this story. In the first, Donna Barclay is going to hang out with her friend Rachel. As she tells her Mom where she’s going, Mrs. Barclay expresses some concerns. She thinks Rachel is rude and a bad influence. Donna insists that Rachel doesn’t influence her behavior, that all the pair of them do is wander, chat and window shop. Mrs. Barclay wants to trust Donna around her, but it’s clear that’s a struggle. Ultimately, she doesn’t stop Donna from going, despite her misgivings.

Meanwhile, Connie tells Whit about a new Bible study that’s got her excited. He immediately starts probing about where it is, who leads it and what they will be teaching. And, with only the information that A. a friend invited her and B. it’s not affiliated with a specific church he knows of, he starts warning her off of it.

“Just because it’s a Bible study doesn’t mean that they’ll teach the right things about the Bible.”

Connie has to promise to give a full report to get him off her back.

Again, he doesn’t tell her she can’t go… but this feels very different from the case with Mrs. Barclay and Donna. In one case you have a parent/child relationship. Mrs. Barclay sounded like the typical mother adjusting to the fact that her daughter is now a teenager. Expressing some misgivings but trusting Donna’s judgment was a completely reasonable reaction. Whit, on the other hand, has a nebulous friend/employer/mentor relationship with Connie. There is a power imbalance, but not a clear sense of where his influence in her life begins and ends. Sometimes he actively interferes with her life, and other times he lets her make her own decisions. In this episode, he doesn’t stop her from going, but he doesn’t stop her in a way that seems very magnanimous, like he’s showing such generosity by letting her go to this Bible study which he has not personally vetted. Mrs. Barclay’s ambivalence is acknowledging Donna’s independence. Whit’s ambivalence suggests that he feels entitled to dictate Connie’s religious development.

Donna and Rachel meet up at the mall. In the space of about a minute, Rachel complains about Donna’s parents, complains about all parents, says she hates church, says she not only stopped going but made her parents stop… They are working so hard to establish her as a BAD INFLUENCE I’m honestly shocked that she doesn’t invite Donna to a strip club. Although, for all that, the one thing she doesn’t do is mock Donna about going to church. In fact, she specifically says, “no offense, it’s all right if you like that kind of thing. I just don’t.”

Next, we see Connie at the Bible study. Turns out, this isn’t a conventional Bible study. The leader, Mr. Grayson, doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, and has a Quaker-like philosophy about the divine speaker in all of us. They aren’t even going to be reading the Bible tonight. They’re drawing from another book by a modern historian. We cut away before we find out the details of what that book says, what it’s qualifications are, whether this book is one of several they study or whether it’s their surrogate Bible, or anything else specific about their religious philosophy. The point is that this man’s version of Christianity isn’t the same as Whit’s. As far as the episode is concerned, he is established as BAD INFLUENCE and we can move on, back to Donna and Rachel, who are being tailed by a mall cop.

Apparently Rachel’s a shoplifter. Yeah, we jumped straight from “doesn’t go to church” to “actual thief.” Donna only finds out when the mall cop catches up to them. Rachel takes off, leaving Donna to deal with the fallout. Donna chooses to pay for the earrings herself to stop them from pressing charges against Rachel. When they meet up later, not only does she not get reimbursed, but Rachel actually mocks Donna for being such a… nice and responsible person?

Next Connie returns to give Whit her report. She’s confused, because she thinks some of what Mr. Grayson said made sense. At the time she had a lot of questions, but when she asked them, Mr. Grayson did this thing where he offered counterarguments? Like, instead of just insisting he was right, he had evidence and sources and shit? She’s not used to logic, so it was very disorienting. Luckily for her, Whit has an answer to all of his arguments.

“Mr. Grayson is wrong. Absolutely without question or doubt wrong.”

Well, that’s that settled. This episode doesn’t even give us Mr. Grayson’s arguments in full. It’s just Whit repeating that he’s right because he’s right because he’s right because he’s right. Then he admonishes Connie for not being careful about what information she puts into her head.

“Keep an open mind? Open to what? To teachings that go against the Bible?… You need time to grow in the Lord, mature in the word. Then maybe you’ll be able to defend yourself against ridiculous ideas… This is why I was so concerned about you going to that Bible study. You have to be careful about who’s teaching you and what they’re trying to teach.”

Remember kids, if you go to hell for having the wrong ideas, it’s your own fault. Better to cocoon yourself in one perspective so you never risk having a wrong thought.

But what if you’re cocooned in the wrong perspective from the-

NO WRONG THOUGHTS!

In all seriousness, Whit claims to be nurturing Connie’s faith, but is it really faith if you just refuse to listen to somebody else’s side? Who died and made Whit the one true prophet of the Lord? He’s pressuring her to conform all of her beliefs to his; what he calls faith, I call control.

But what I call control they call faith, so her story ends with Whit agreeing to lead his own Bible study for Connie and her friends. We are all expected to be happy about that. Anyway……

After the events of the day, Mrs. Barclay comforts Donna. Needless to say, she and Rachel are no longer friends. I’m pretty happy about that. Rachel is a spiteful little brat who doesn’t deserve a friend like Donna. Her refusal to reimburse Donna for the earrings is proof that she’s the kind of person who will take advantage of someone else’s kindness. She’s toxic and Donna should stay far away from her. That’s not what bothers me about this storyline.

What bothers me is the pervasive attitude that, because Rachel is a non-believer and doesn’t go to church, Donna should have expected this. Mrs. Barclay’s concern at the beginning is that Rachel is a bad influence. Rachel has clearly not influenced Donna in the least; the behavior of the two girls could not be more different. Yet, Donna isn’t treated, by her mother or the episode, like a smart, kind girl who should have been trusted all along. She’s treated like a girl who was doing something wrong simply by associating with Rachel, and has now learned the error of her ways.

Final ratings

Best bit: I dunno. The ten seconds Mr. Grayson got to talk? Not because I agreed with him either, but at least he sounded like someone you could have an interesting, nonjudgmental conversation with.

Worst bit: Literally everything else.

Story: There’s barely a story to review here, outside of the moral. Just a mess of straw men and designated moral authorities. F

Moral: “Don’t hang out with people I disagree with, they’re all evil.” That’s not even an F. That’s like a Z-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic-Atheist: The Greatest of These

This episode opens with a classroom spelling bee, and a kid named Oscar has the final word. He alone will determine whether his team ties with their opponents, or loses. The teacher has said that the losing team will do the winning teams homework, but if they tie, there’s no homework for anyone. And the teacher seems to have a soft spot, because he gives Oscar the shortest word yet, “laugh.”

Oscar steps up and carefully sounds it out.

“L. A. P. H?”

Thankfully the poor kid makes it out of the school alive.

In the very next scene, his team captain from the bee, Robyn Jacobs, finds out she is also partnered with him for the upcoming science fair. This would upset anyone, and Robyn is a smart perfectionist who lacks patience with those less gifted than her. And here I’ve got to give AIO credit. They are not the best at the whole “show don’t tell” thing, but this opening was great. It established the characters and their conflict perfectly. I know where this story is going, but I don’t feel like I’ve been talked down to.

And then in the next scene Connie shows up to ask Whit what agape means. So much for subtlety. Now, if you didn’t grow up with Bible camp, you’re probably pronouncing that uh-gayp and wondering how bad Connie’s high school must be if she doesn’t know it means “hanging open.” That’s what’s confusing her. She found it in the Bible Study she leads. It’s in a passage about love, and they’re trying to figure out how “hanging open” applies to love in any kind of Biblical sense.

Er. That came out wrong.

Anyway, Whit explains that it’s a Greek word, pronounced more like uh-gah-pay, and if he tells her now it will spoil the end of the episode deprive her of valuable experience. Valuable looking-up-Greek-words experience.

Connie leaves and Robyn shows up, steeling herself for her meeting with Oscar to discuss their science project. Her preferred method of venting is a long rant over ice cream, which, you know, valid. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that the whole point of venting is to get your bad feelings OUT, so you can act like a decent human being when the time comes. When Oscar shows up, she’s a fucking brat to him.

Which is a shame, because Oscar actually has a pretty good idea for a model volcano. With a little encouragement from Whit, he gets the idea out there, and Robyn starts actually treating him like a partner.

While the kids work on their project, Connie continues her research, and Whit engages in a little research of his own. Connie discovers that agape means unconditional love. Whit figures out that Oscar has dyslexia.

Before they can do anything with this information, Robyn and Oscar are ready to test their volcano. They call Whit and Connie in to observe, and initially it works, but then, when it’s time to shut it off, the thing doesn’t stop. It keeps going and going and overloads. Fake lava is splattered all around the room and their project is a smoking mess.

Robyn, distraught, tries to figure out what went wrong. The answer is discovered almost as soon as she looks at the on/off switch. Oscar never shut it off.

She calls him dumb and useless and storms out. Oscar agrees with her, and follows her out in tears.

A few days later, Robyn is talking to Whit about trying to change partners. Whit tries to get her to give him another chance, and when she won’t listen, he explains that Oscar’s dyslexia is to blame for the error, because it makes him read things backwards.

Wait, what? Like, that’s not only not how dyslexia works at all, but how would that apply to the switches even if it were true? The switches would just say, “no” and “ffo.” Still pretty easy to see which one is off, on account of it’s got an F in it. And again, NOT HOW DYSLEXIA WORKS. 

Anyway…

Robyn now feels bad for how she’s been treating him, but Whit isn’t done. He talks to her about agape; unconditional love. The kind of love Christians are supposed to have for everyone. Robyn tries to point out all the times she has helped Oscar, but Whit doesn’t let that slide either. If her treatment of him elsewhere in this episode is anything to go by, she might have done him favors, but that’s not the same thing as love. She treats him in a way that makes him feel pathetic for needing her help in the first place. Oscar didn’t deserve that. He deserved loving treatment from Robyn, right from the start. Not when it was easy, or convenient, or when he was doing what she wanted him to do. He deserved to be loved all along.

Oscar shows up, and Robyn apologizes to him. She says she wants to keep working with him, and finish their project together. Oscar, being a nice guy, accepts her apology and they get back to work.

Unconditional love is a topic that many Bible school teachers don’t handle well, in my experience.

In my own upbringing, unconditional love was a concept used in many ways. Sometimes it was used to mean “have compassion even when it’s inconvenient.” Other times it was used to mean “don’t set reasonable boundaries with abusers, that could hurt their feelings.” What I like about this episode is that it is made abundantly clear that Oscar’s behavior might be frustrating to Robyn, but it’s not harmful. Robyn is smart. She has a lifetime of As ahead of her, and one project won’t spoil that. That might be why her teacher put them together in the first place. Robyn doesn’t need yet another perfect grade. She has the privilege of being naturally intelligent and non-disabled. What she needs is to learn patience for other people who aren’t as quick as she is.

Oscar, meanwhile, isn’t trying to take advantage of her. He’s genuinely trying his best, and you can see that even before you learn about his learning disability. For once, I think Whit is completely right. There could have been any number of reasons why he was struggling; dyslexia, problems at home or just not being bright as she was. Robyn could see that his heart was in the right place. She could see that he needs help. Her compassion and kindness shouldn’t be dependent on knowing exactly why.

Final ratings

Best bit: Oscar. Everything about Oscar.

Worst bit: Seriously, though, that’s not how dyslexia works.

Story: B+

Moral: A

Review: What Waits in the Woods, by Kieran Scott

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

what-waits-in-the-woods

What it’s about: Callie Velasquez goes on a camping trip with her boyfriend and two best friends. Things go terribly wrong.

Praise: This book is fairly predictable, but for about the first two-thirds, that was part of its charm. It was like a campfire story. There’s a weird comfort to the mundane familiarity of its chill. It knew what kind of a story it was, and it embraced it.

Criticism: Yeah, we got here fast. There was almost a lot more in the praise section. I nearly said it had great characters, a good build of suspense, and above all that it valued the friendships of the three female characters over teen boyfriend drama. This was just going to be a bit about how the prose isn’t anything special and it’s highly formulaic, but if you like that kind of thing it’s still worthwhile.

Then the last few chapters ruined everything.

With one reveal, it ruined the best character, punctured the suspense and loudly announced, “nevermind, boyfriends are the most important things EV-AR!” Plus it served up a steaming pile of ableism; the sort that goes, “mental health problems, evil, basically the same thing amirite?” It’s not subtle about that either. Several pages in a row just hammer home that this character would be fine and nice but they went off their meds so insta-evil. Then there’s this awkward sentence where the main character informs us that she’s had friends who have anxiety and depression, but clearly this isn’t that sort of mental illness. It’s the other mental illness. The one where you randomly turn evil.

Also, the shocking reveal wasn’t that shocking. See, there was only one character I wasn’t given reason to suspect. Never do that, guys. Seriously, never do that. You want three suspicion-free characters, minimum. If you just have one, every genre savvy reader is going to go, “huh, I wonder when that totally innocent character will crack and reveal they were behind it all.”

Honestly, I was hoping this story would let the mysterious stranger be the scary one. It should always be the one you don’t suspect, and the last person I would have suspected was the guy who was suspicious all along.

Recommended? Sigh. Not really.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic Atheist: Emotional Baggage

This story opens with Connie’s Mom talking to someone on the phone. Apparently there’s a surprise visitor coming. When Mrs. Kendall hangs up there’s some light-hearted banter. Connie will be giving up her room, and banished to the sofa. She and her Mom are joking about cricks in the neck and the resulting Quasimodo posture.

Then Connie learns the mystery guest is her Aunt Helen, and completely loses it.

As previously mentioned, Connie’s parents are divorced, but apparently her Mom is still on friendly terms with many people from her ex-husband’s side of the family, including Helen. Connie, on the other hand, has nothing but bad memories of Helen. The two of them are actually quite close in age, and Connie remembers being bullied by her. Mrs. Kendall doesn’t remember things the same way. She just recalls two kids being a bit bratty together, sometimes getting along and sometimes not. This dissonance only makes Connie more angry, and she storms out of the house.

The story cuts to Whit. We first find him talking to a girl, Tracy, while he organizes some leftover materials. He’s got lumber, bricks, and random sacks of feathers. He has no idea what to do with all of it, other than keep it neat for now.

Tracy has sought him out for the scoop on which of her friends are going to a party. Turns out, she’s trying to avoid a whole crowd of girls from the cheerleading squad. There’s been middle school drama.

Specifically, Harriet Paulson picked Bobbi McCormack instead of Donna Barclay for the cheerleading squad, but Donna didn’t really want to join, so she was going to step down, giving Gailene Harding, an alternate, a chance to step up, and Gailene had promised to make Tracy her flag bearer. So by picking Bobbi over Donna, Harriet cheated Tracy out of the flag bearing squad. Tracy believes the whole gang had it in for her, and was trying to get her hopes up and then crush them.

Whit feels the urge to give her some kind of advice, but he’s still dazed from simply processing all of that. His train of thought is interrupted by a call from Mrs. Kendall, which is how he finds out about their fight. He finds Connie in the back room of Whit’s End, where she’s setting up an old cot, determined to avoid Helen for the duration of the visit.

With a little prying, he gets at the real reason Connie is so angry. Helen introduced Connie’s father to the woman he left her mother for.

Connie doesn’t even know if her mother knows, and isn’t sure how to tell her. The divorce is still fairly fresh. Whit doesn’t know the story beyond those broad strokes, but he does think Connie is probably overreacting. Which… I think he might be right, but he might also be wrong. He doesn’t know Helen, Connie’s father or his new girlfriend. All he knows is that Connie is hurting, which he acknowledges, and he does allow her to stay at Whit’s End until Helen leaves. But he clearly isn’t happy about it.

When he goes back to the front, he finds Tracy’s situation has already been resolved. Turns out, Harriet Paulson wanted Tracy to be her flag bearer all along anyway, so clearly there was no conspiracy. Whit talks to Tracy about how she narrowly avoided carrying around a grudge for her entire life. He compares grudges to infections that take over your soul, and also to carrying a heavy load through your life. Tracy, high on her new revelation, wants to take on the world. She wants to tell everyone in the world how wonderful people can be if you give them a chance. She wants draw cartoons of people carrying around heavy boulders labeled “grudge” and show everyone on the planet, so they’ll know how silly they are being.

This gives Whit an idea.

He sets up a relay race with the leftover bricks and feathers. He ropes Connie in, under the pretense that Tracy needs a partner. The rules are as follows:

  1. The first person in each team runs to the end of the field, picks up an object, and brings the sack back to their partner, who must repeat the process.
  2. The next round is the same, only you pick up two objects. This goes on for four rounds.
  3. At any point, the runner can choose bricks or feathers. There are no extra points for choosing a brick.

Connie is surprised by that last rule. It seems like there’s no point to having bricks as an option at all. Clearly, she hasn’t yet realized she’s being preached at.

Tracy, under Whit’s instructions, runs first and chooses bricks every time. At the end Connie is staggering around under a bag of ten bricks, long after everyone else has left, and Whit takes the opportunity to lecture her on grudges. He tells her she’s choosing to hold onto her grudge against Helen, and it’s destroying her from the inside. He tells her she needs to let God take away her anger.

Then Mrs. Kendall shows up. Before When even began his game, he called Connie’s Mom and told her to come over, stating that Connie was ready to talk. He says he was taking a chance, which I think is putting it rather mildly. Connie concedes and goes back to her house to get ready for Helen’s arrival.

You know, I nearly liked this one. I do think grudges can be destructive. I do think it’s important to learn how to forgive. But the way Whit goes about teaching this lesson to Connie is terrible.

First of all, he draws a simple equivalency between a little middle school drama and a turbulent, broken family. Kids Tracy’s age are collectively going through an asshole phase and need to learn to give each other second chances and not jump to conclusions. They have an equal opportunity to learn and grow. Family is complicated. There are power imbalances and subtle dynamics. Nobody can assume, from a ten second summary, to understand exactly what’s going on in someone else’s family. Connie might be simplifying Helen in her mind. She might be remembering a distorted version of her childhood, and falsely attributing bad intent to what happened later. Or maybe Helen truly is manipulative and cruel. Maybe she did intentionally set Connie’s father and his new girlfriend up. I don’t know, and neither does Whit. The second possibility matters, because if Helen is that bad, maybe Connie’s anger is a necessary defense mechanism.

Second, even if Connie is holding onto a grudge, Whit is applying far too much pressure to make her give it up NOW. It’s like his pride as a community fixer is at stake, and he will make Connie give in whether or not she’s ready. He sets up a humiliating game, lectures her when she’s exhausted and then puts her on the spot with her mother. Is Connie genuinely forgiving at the end of this episode? Because I think a normal human being would just be too beaten down to keep arguing.

Third, once again, instead of understanding the real underlying cause of a problem, Whit is just deciding that certain emotions she’s feeling are WRONG and she needs to stop feeling them today. That will make him feel good in the short term, but as to whether or not it will make her life better, well, that’s pretty much a crapshoot. Genuine healing takes time and it’s not Whit’s job to set that schedule.

Listening to this episode, what stood out to me was that Connie is clearly still adjusting to life after her parent’s divorce. Superficially, she’s doing pretty well, but there are deep wounds under the surface and she hasn’t really processed everything yet. Her Mom also seems to have already processed things, but isn’t in a good place to empathize with where Connie is. If I were in Whit’s shoes, my priority would be to give Connie a space where she can feel safe to talk. That means no assumptions and no judgment. Just listen to her talk about what happened, from her perspective, and how that made her feel.

One thing I’d want to say to her is that when something like this happens, we often feel the need to blame someone. That can be tricky, because sometimes one or two people of the people responsible are also people we don’t want to blame. Connie’s father cheated. She loves her father. It’s very likely that, on some level, Helen is being used to wall off a whole flood of bad feelings about him. This is completely normal. I think it would be good to point out that possibility, but gently, and not with any demands that she agree with me today.

Connie is a person, flawed but ultimately sociable and warm. She doesn’t want to be this walled-off, angry person. The problem, as I see it, is that she doesn’t have the resources to deal with this shitty situation. Her mother is overwhelmed by her own issues, she’s been cut off from all her former friends, and her closest confidante is a man who views everyone around him as a project. Give her a space to sort through her feelings properly, and she will come to the right conclusion.

Final ratings

Best bit: The thirty seconds of mother/daughter banter before everything goes to shit.

Worst bit: The goddamn manipulative bullshit relay race.

Story: Completely trampled by the moral. D

Moral: Went for something good but completely missed the mark on execution. Also D

Review: Fiendish, by Brenna Yovanoff

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

fiendish

 

What it’s about: Clementine DeVore wakes from a magical sleep, tangled in roots in the cellar of her burned out house. She emerges to find a town where normal folk live alongside a minority with strange powers. Sometimes the “crooked folk” are tolerated, sometimes not. Clementine vanished at a time of trouble. Her return may be a harbinger of dangerous days ahead.

Praise: Overall this book is very well written. I especially loved the tone and ambiance. Everything is perfectly creepy and witchy. The magic system is well designed; a creative twist on the familiar elemental magic concept. It has enough consistent rules to create limits and suspense, but enough mysteries to feel otherworldly and powerful. That’s not an easy balance to hit.

One of the most interesting parts of the whole book is that, after Clementine’s slumber, she no longer familiar with her own self. Her own reactions to events often surprise her. That was absolutely fascinating. The side characters were well written as well.

Criticism: I think it should have been longer. When I made that comment about Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, I meant that it was perfect and I could not make any complaints, beyond wishing it wasn’t read so quickly. I mean something a little different here.

There was a lot to discover about the world of this book. I didn’t just want to skim the basics and get on to the plot. I wanted to be immersed in it. I also wasn’t sure whether the setting was somewhere I should love or hate. There was so much that was toxic about the citizens and their culture, but also glimpses of happier, peaceful times. Was this a good place that needed to be saved from itself, or were the pleasant moments just the honey in the trap? A great climax fell short of its potential because I kept wondering whether I should be afraid the town would be destroyed, or afraid it wouldn’t.

Also, as I said, I liked the characters, some of whom had far too little time. This book sticks strictly to Clementine’s POV. Often fewer perspectives make for a cleaner story, but I think this story was an exception. There were interesting people who I wanted to know more about, and whose perspective on events would have been informative. And in general, there were characters who I liked and wanted to see more of. (Rae! Isola! Davenport!)

Recommended? Those caveats aside, I still think it’s a good sign when the worst thing you can say about a book is that you wanted more of it. So yes, definitely recommended.

Review: Slice of Cherry, by Dia Reeves

Note: This October (and probably November) I’m reviewing scary novels from Book Riot’s list of Horror YA from Women Authors. For more Halloween reading suggestions, click the link!

slice-of-cherry

What it’s about: Fancy and Kit Cordelle grew up in, Portero, a strange town of monsters and magic portals, with a serial killer for a father. It’s no surprise they turned out with a bloodthirsty streak. Together they experience first love, the pain of growing up, and the challenge of getting away with murder.

Praise: First of all, both Portero and the plot are delightfully original. The tone is I think best described as Gothic Lolita with a Southern twist. I loved that, because I’m a macabre little bastard.

I also enjoyed Dia Reeves’ prose style. It hits a perfect balance of vivid and descriptive, but not too flowery. She has a knack for metaphors and similes. It’s hard to find comparisons that are original, but conjure up an immediate picture. She manages it over and over again.

Criticism: For me, characters are key to my enjoyment of a book, and these protagonists weren’t… well, they weren’t any of the things I would have liked them to be. I love characters who struggle against their inner demons. I love dark and twisted characters who utterly lack the moral impulses we all take for granted. Kit and Fancy are heartless sociopaths about eighty percent of the time, but the other twenty don’t reveal a surprising soft side, or intriguing character arc. They feel more like the author forgot her characters are devoid of empathy.

Fancy, the narrator, is particularly inconsistent. Her lack of empathy isn’t the only trait the author forgets. In one scene, Fancy speaks to someone who is not her mother or sister. Every other character is shocked, because Fancy never speaks.

 

I didn’t know that. In no other scene did she come across as abnormally quiet. Rather, she seemed like a normal shy girl who likes letting her talkative sister dominate the conversation.

And in several more scenes, she breaks her habitual silence. And everyone comments, immediately reminding me that she has just violated a character trait for the second, third, fourth time. In most of these scenes, the events don’t feel like character development, because I wasn’t even clear on why Fancy doesn’t normally talk to people. Shyness? Selective mutism? Misanthropy?

An example that illustrates both inconsistencies; Fancy is rescued from a Portero monster by a Mortmaine, which I guess is a kind of police officer? But for monsters? They wear green, and that’s about the extent of my knowledge. Fancy thanks them. Why? Fancy doesn’t talk to people, Fancy doesn’t like people, and Fancy is not polite. Yet the explanation we are given is that saying nothing makes her feel rude Why does she care? It isn’t necessary to the plot. In fact, it never comes up again, and I only remember it because it struck me as a perfect example of the kind of inconsistent characterization that made Fancy feel lifeless to me.

Or, perhaps not lifeless. For those of you who write yourself, you know when you have a plan for a story but the character in your head comes to life and rebels? It feels like Dia Reeves wanted Fancy to be one thing, and Fancy herself wanted to be someone else. As a reader I didn’t know what to want for her because I couldn’t tell which version was the real one.

I also thought Portero, a fascinating concept, was a bit wasted in this story. It is rife with monsters, yet monsters never impact the plot in a serious way. Cultural differences between Portero and the rest of the world are mentioned, but the only one that ever comes up more than once is that Portero citizens, or Porterenes, always wear black. This is frustrating, because so many more interesting elements are raised then ignore. For example; every Porterene carries a silver key, given to them at birth by their immortal mayor. Are they used for anything? Nope. Are there other immortals? Apparently not. How does the outside world deal with the existence of an immortal? How does this affect elections, term limits, legislation? I dunno.

There’s something wonderful about a story with details that exist simply to flesh out the world, without being used in the plot. But that can be taken too far. My interest kept being piqued and then ignored, which left me with a nebulous grumpiness. Not only are Chekhov’s guns left unfired, but even superficial details are established and abandoned at random. In one scene, it’s mentioned that severed heads are so common children play with them in the street. But severed heads and the corpses they come from are never described again. Nor are street cleaners sweeping up stray fingers or juvenile delinquents cleaning up blood splatter as community service, or anything else that would make this feel like a society where gore is the norm.

In fact, many scenes would play better if this story took place in an ordinary town. They use magic to dispose of the evidence of their crimes. When someone witnesses that magic, Kit reassures Fancy that they won’t tell, because they know nobody would believe them. That would work in any town, except one with an immortal mayor, daily monster attacks and a police force that actually specializes in magic.

Also, a content warning; childhood sexual abuse is mentioned for a few side characters. It isn’t described in detail, but this is a story that otherwise doesn’t take other traumas very seriously. It isn’t exactly a comedy, but it is irreverently macabre and gets away with it by being over the top and surrealistic. To have that tone, and then bring up a painfully serious real-world trauma? It bothered me a bit.

Recommended? I thought this story had incredible potential, and if this sounds like a book you want to read even with the caveats I mentioned, go for it. Personally, though, the issues ruined it for me. It wasn’t a bad book at all. Just one where I was constantly distracted by the small changes that would have made it better. It was okay in a way that was almost great and was therefore awful, if that makes sense.

Review: Through the Woods, by Emily Carroll

Up until now, my reviews have mostly been focused less on making a recommendation, more on analyzing a story; making them into case studies for life or writing or my never ending search to understand how exactly themes work. But I’ve been wanting to change that and add in some quick fire reviews.

I also came across this awesome list of horror YA, all written by women, on Book Riot. I immediately wanted to read them all and also thought it would make a great October project. So through October and November, I’ll be challenging myself to read as many as I can, and reviewing them when I’m done. This should hopefully keep my posts up through NaNoWriMo as well.

Here I go!

through-the-woods

What it’s about: A graphic novel, featuring ghosts and monsters in six bite sized spooky fairy tales.

Praise: This is my favorite kind of scary. It relies on suspense and atmosphere, waiting for the tension to rise then following through with catastrophe fulfills on its promises. Embedded in the horror is a childlike curiosity and wonder. This book made me feel like a baby mouse in his nest, watching a panther stalk a doe in the moonlight.

The art is agonizingly beautiful. I love the way she uses color. Pages are soaked in shadows and etched with light, with blues, reds and greens added with strategic precision. She proves that comics are not a cheap storytelling form, where events are pictured instead of described. Her panels also show emotions, and foreshadowing, and subtle motifs that you can easily miss on the first read.

All the more reason to buy it and read it again.

Criticism: There are only six stories. That number should be larger.

Recommended? Indubitably