Book Review: Shimmer and Burn by Mary Taranta

32333246Title: SHIMMER AND BURN
Author: Mary Taranta
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 352
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

I should have liked this book…in fact, from the very first chapter it felt different than most YA fantasy. Faris, a motherless young woman, already has a love interest. They are both trapped in the country of Brindaigel (which gave me serious Brigadoon vibes) by their king, who claims to be protecting them from a magical plague in the neighboring kingdom. Tragedy strikes fairly quickly for Faris and her beloved, and she ends up being blackmailed into taking a dangerous journey into the plague-ridden kingdom.

Faris is also not the only major female character; in fact, her companion on her dangerous journey, Bryn, features in equal amount. This too is unusual in YA and should have been spectacular, particularly as Bryn and Faris do not get along at all. But Bryn is…a weak attempt at crafting a villain. Everything about her is too bombastic and over the top; I get that she’s ambitious and wants to be queen, but I never really understood why.

I think my dislike of this book comes down to one thing: it’s hella confusing. I don’t know if this was just me, or if I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I frequently found myself having to go back and read paragraphs three or four times just to understand what was happening. The plot was ridiculously convoluted (honestly…I couldn’t even explain it to you if I tried) and the magic system made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. It kept getting harder and harder for me to keep track of characters’ motivations. Not only that, but big reveals are staged poorly and cryptically, so that I was never really sure if we had actually figured out something significant or not. By the end I found I did not care one whit what happened to anyone because I had no idea what was going on or why anyone was doing anything.

The basic idea here is…fine, I guess? It’s your standard “magic corrupts” and “kingdom poisoned by magic” only this magic apparently turns people into zombie-like creatures or…addicts? Or were they the same thing? I’m not sure; to be honest I stopped paying much attention halfway through the book and began to skim huge chunks. Like, it’s not a bad idea, but I’ve seen it around before and its execution here was pretty cut-and-dry. Also, magic is…transferred via skin to skin contact? Or something? And there’s four different types of magicians? But their powers aren’t always distinct? Or something? Again, major confusion, and I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, so I’m used to having to take on complex world and magic systems. This was just messy.

The other thing is that the bulk of Faris’ motivation is that she wants to save her sister Cadence, who is being used as collateral to guarantee her loyalty to Bryn. Unfortunately, we don’t get a chance to see them interacting. The single chapter/scene where they interact shows Cadence being kind of bratty and Faris somewhat annoyed. I mean, in conjunction with some other scenes this would have been fine, but on its own it doesn’t really showcase a beloved bond that Faris would risk her life for. I felt little for either of these characters, even though on paper I should have liked Faris. The only character I was interested in was the king’s executioner, Alistair, but he features for only a couple of chapters.

Overall I really did not connect with this book at all. I found it to be a run-of-the-mill YA fantasy complete with instalove, and I really struggled to get through it, The only things I appreciated were the writing, which was often beautiful if somewhat inscrutable, and that Taranta is not shy about blood and gore, which gave this a more mature feel than it would have otherwise had.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Book Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

33656191Title: THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE
Author: Zoe Whittall
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 356
Publisher: Anansi Press Inc.
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Books like this are why I generally stay far away from “literary” novels, even award-winning ones like this one. The dialogue is awful, the overall tone is incredibly pretentious, and the novel is shooting for some kind of meaningful human experience type theme but fails spectacularly.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: a well-respected white man in a tight-knit wealthy community is accused of rape. The novel deals with the fallout of this accusation along with its effects on the accused George’s wife Joan, his children Sadie and Andrew, and the community. I love stories like this, which is why I was drawn to the novel. While it was a compelling read (in the sense that it was a page-turner), it wasn’t very good.

First and main issue: the dialogue. How is it that I’ve literally read obscure high fantasy works with dialogue more realistic than the one in this book? The dialogue is awful. Unrealistic is too weak a word. It’s stilted and robotic and like nothing any actual human person would ever say. Worse, at times I felt like I was being preached at, like the author was using her characters to have highfalutin intellectual debates on morality and the law. It felt like I was reading the rough draft of someone’s undergraduate thesis. I cannot count the number of times I rolled my eyes at the words coming out of these characters’ mouths. It was wildly banal and unsophisticated, like the author just wanted to cram every timely and controversial issue into the novel. Unfortunately, none of the thorny topics she brings up are ever really discussed properly or given the depth and breadth they deserve. And this is all in the dialogue, which means nearly every time a character spoke I was jarred out of reality. This was seriously a huge problem, and I don’t understand how an editor let slip this horrifically wooden dialogue.

Second issue: the characters. The author kept telling us things about them and their personalities but didn’t really show us anything. For example, we were told multiple times that Joan, the wife of the accused, is a strong, controlling leader, but I don’t think I saw a single example of this in the entire book. I couldn’t get a handle on any of them, which is a problem when you have a novel built on the notion of an accusation shattering a tight-knit community. I saw no evidence of any sort of community here. I mean, for God’s sake, one of the girls bringing forth accusations is the sister of Sadie’s best friend! Where is the confrontation between this girl’s parents and Joan? Where is the outrage? In fact, where are the family’s friends in this supposedly small, tight-knit community?

We’re constantly told things happening but are never shown these things, which means a lot of the payoff you would expect with a plotline like this is gone. Case in point: when Joan finds out about something from her husband’s past that all but proves he is guilty, I kept waiting for the explosive confrontation between her and George, but instead…nothing. The scene where Joan tells him she knows, George is literally unable to speak due to an injury, which leads to the whole thing being wildly anti-climactic.

Another issue I had is regarding Andrew, George’s son, who is gay. Apparently, when Andrew was seventeen he was involved in a sexual relationship with his twenty-something coach. I’m not quite sure what the author was getting at here. I think the intention was to show that Andrew is in fact more damaged by this relationship than he or anyone realizes, but in this particular case a little telling may have helped. Or perhaps it’s meant to be intentionally ambiguous? Whatever the case, the way this relationship is implied to be somehow less morally repugnant because it’s between two gay men rubbed me the wrong way and made me think of how queer relationships are always inherently sexualized. Something else that got under my skin was the frequent discussions of how many teens have highly sexual lives and in fact pursue adults and not the other way around – what didn’t get nearly enough emphasis was that adults are supposed to have impulse control and turn children away. Like, Andrews’s coach talks about how Andrew pursued him and that’s why he gave in, but like…as an adult you’re supposed to be the responsible one in this situation. That’s kind of the whole point, you know, that children aren’t good at making decisions.

One thing the book has going for it is its realistic ending. It is reflective of how actual sexual assault cases normally work out in real life.

I wanted more from this book. There was so much potential, with such a powerful topic, but ultimately it was a let down. This book is truly an example of “great concept, terrible execution.” There is so much missing from what really should have been a hard-hitting novel. Instead it’s bland and lukewarm and left me cold and uninterested.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Book Review: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

30363359Title: THE THIEF
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Release Date: 1996
Pages: 279
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Yikes, that was terrible. Really, truly, terrible.

It’s very disappointing to read a book so beloved by everyone only to end up hating it. Or, no, not hating it – the only emotions this book roused within me were boredom and apathy.  As a fan of high fantasy, I know that the Hero’s Journey is a popular trope, and ordinarily I enjoy it, because that journey is full of twists and turns and interesting events. In this book, the journey is literally just that. I mean, we are treated to hundreds of pages of characters just traipsing through the land and having discussions about the lore and history of their country. It’s the exact type of exposition we as writers are taught to stay away from. The way the story unfolded was so uninteresting that even moments that should have been fraught with tension were incredibly dull.

I have so little to say about this book, because so little happened. I had to force myself to make it to the end, because I kept expecting it to get better, but it was just a lot of repetition. A lot of walking around, and talking, and worrying about where to find food. Not much else. The big reveal at the end was rather obvious, so I was completely expecting it when it happened. I suppose the characters were all right, but they were also all men, which, if you know me, you know that means that 50% of my attention span is already gone.

Otherwise…I don’t know, what can I say? The writing is fine, I guess, solid but not astounding. The worldbuilding is derivative and unoriginal. By the very end I was skimming lengthy passages just to get to the end. This was one of the blandest high fantasy books I’ve ever read.

I’ve heard that the sequels to this are better, but I care so little about the characters and this world that I don’t know if I can bring myself to give it a try.

Book Review: Witchtown by Cory Putman Oakes

30971734Title: WITCHTOWN
Author: Cory Putman Oakes
Release Date: July 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is one of those books that appears to have a spectacular premise, only for the execution to be a huge letdown. It’s also one of those books whose blurbs is misleading – from the description, I thought Macie and her mother would be a well-oiled machine, a team. Instead, the mother is a cartoonish villain with hilariously unbelievable motivations and actions, and her daughter pretty much hates her, though it’s difficult to tell, since Macie is so bland.

Essentially, the premise of the book is this: Macie and her mother Aubra settle into a witch haven called “Witchtown” (oh, the creativity) intending to rob it for all it is worth. Once they dig deep into the town’s finances, they discover the town is broke. And then…basically there’s a lot of drama between Macie and her mother, a lackluster romance, some nonsensical and pointless twists, and very little excitement.

I’m going to break down some of the issues I had with this book one by one.

First, the setting. This is a town of witches! And yet the town is one of the blandest settings I’ve ever read. The author simply did not have the talent to show us how magical such a town could be. And yet, the town is never really described, never fully fleshed out. In Sweep, Cate Tiernan did a much better job crafting the wonder of magic, and her characters weren’t even living in a town of witches!

Second, this novel is blindingly white while usurping a narrative of oppression that belongs to people of color. At the start of this novel, we are told that witches have been persecuted and forced to the fringes of society, an event described in a way that made me seriously side-eye the entire book. The main characters are white, but then, so is literally everyone else! In fact, the only person of color in the entire novel is Macie’s old boyfriend Rafe, whom she describes as “dark and dangerous” and had apparently mistaken for a drug dealer when she first encountered him. We discover that Macie has lost Rafe – the love of her life, apparently – only five days before arriving in Witchtown, and yet she already begins to fall for milquetoast white boy Kellen.

Third, the characterization. All of the characters here were completely bland. I could barely tell anyone apart. The only somewhat interesting character, Aubra, is revealed to be cartoonishly evil, to the point of trying to seriously hurt her own daughter. After this, Macie appears to be perfectly fine, when one would think she would be utterly distraught after losing her mother, the only person she has in the world. Even if the author had wanted to have this relationship be complex and grey rather than supportive, she could have done it in a much more subtle way. The dialogue is really cringey at times, especially when Aubra uses words like “defy” like she’s Mother Gothel and we’ve been transported into a Disney movie.

Fourth, the plot. Or the lack of a coherent one. Initially we are made to think this is going to be a heist novel, but that falls apart. Then, we’re made to think that, because the town is being sabotaged, there’s going to be some kind of mystery to solve. That is also tossed aside. Instead the story jumps from one subplot to another without really laying out a coherent narrative. Also, this is a very boring book. It took me nearly a month to finish it because the first half is so dull. It’s a lot of introductions and expositions that should have been interesting – because hey, witches! – but is instead really boring. Finally, the “twist” was one I could see coming a mile away.

This was a disappointment. I was already predisposed to like this – mother/daughter stuff, witches (witches! I love witches!), strange towns, a heist – so I went in with high expectations, but I’m sad to say I was let down on every single point. The only good thing I can say about this book is that it’s a relatively light, easy read, but overall I would say it’s a waste of time and energy.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Book Review: Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie

26088379Title: SKEIN AND BONE
Author: V.H. Leslie
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 290
Publisher: Undertow Publications
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

I didn’t like a single story in this collection.

Perhaps it was my mistake going in, thinking I was picking up a horror book, when instead I was actually reading weird fiction. There are few things in the world I hate more than weird fiction. And the stories in this collection were certainly weird.

Many of them feature flat characters who become completely obsessed with bizarre phenomenon or who are approaching the edges of madness in some way. The utter flatness of the characters would have been passable had the plots been intriguing, but most of the stories just seemed to meander from scene to scene, with little to connect them all together. Also, most of the male characters were completely detestable – I understand that this served to establish realism, but it also got quite tiring being in these characters’ heads.

Some stories seemed to have potential, appearing to build up to a satisfying conclusion, but instead culminate in frustrating ambiguity. I kept searching for some kind of conclusive answer but found nothing. This works sometimes, if the perhaps features compelling characters, but given that the characters here almost seemed to be stand-ins, it only served to further detract from the overall narrative. In the end, most of the stories felt choppy, uneven, and incomplete.

The only reason I didn’t give this one star is because the writing is decent, and I actually managed to get through the entire thing, even though it took me over a month. But again, maybe if weird fiction is your thing, you’ll like this collection. I understand the author is pretty prolific and this has been a generally well-received book, so it’s probably not objectively bad or anything, just really, really not my thing.