Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking jack the ripperTitle: STALKING JACK THE RIPPER
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 326 (on Kindle it’s 276?)
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Despite being such a short book (my Kindle says 276 pages!), Stalking Jack the Ripper took me a remarkably long time to read, which tell you a lot about its pacing. For a murder mystery set in Victorian London, this book sure is a predictable snooze-fest. That’s essentially my main issue with it; I could have overlooked all the other flaws if the book had been as fast-paced as it promised. Instead, it dragged and dragged, with a lot of totally pointless scenes, which is some kind of accomplishment for a book this short.

It’s a shame, because I did like the atmosphere here; it was compelling enough to keep me reading. Unfortunately, a genre thriller set in 19th century London inevitably had me drawing a comparison so the infinitely more compelling Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, which was the best book I read last year. Perhaps if I hadn’t had Goodman’s book to compare this to, I would have been less disappointed.

I’m likely also thinking too critically here. The heroine, Audrey Rose (what is with that name! seriously, I know Audrey is a historically accurate name and all but I cringed every time I read it), reads like a 21st century teenager transplanted to 19th century London, and she keeps talking all about how she can be smart and pretty at once. I know, I know, this isn’t a treatise on feminism, who cares about anachronism in a genre thriller, this is probably really empowering for teen girls, etc. I know. I just wish the author had been a bit more subtle about it rather than banging us over the head with it constantly. Again, I can’t help but think of The Dark Days Club – the heroine in that novel is strong and eschews certain aspects of traditional femininity, but she does it realistically, within the bounds of how a 19th century woman would think.

As for the killer’s identity, it was pretty obvious by the mid-point of the book, especially when the writing started laying it on really, really thick with a red herring. Red herrings are not supposed to be that obvious! You may as well have said “this is exactly the opposite of what the truth is.” It made very little sense to me, character-wise, and it seemed like it was just done for shock value. The character seemed to do a complete 180.

The romance is actually the least terrible thing in this book? Usually I detest the Inexplicable Heterosexual Romance, but in this novel it was neither inexplicable nor detestable. The love interest, Thomas Cresswell, is kind of unique when it comes to male YA love interests, and I found him oddly charming. So he was fine. There were basically no other characters, though? The only other female character was Audrey Rose’s cousin Liza who was…fine, I guess, but I really thought that Audrey Rose would use her gender to talk to the prostitutes and other disreputable ladies of the East End. That’s my own fault for having that expectation (this actually happens in the sequel to The Dark Days Club, and goddamn I really need to stop comparing these two books!).

After all this I’m still kind of tempted by the next book in this series though? There was definitely something compelling about this book despite all its flaws. Perhaps it’s just the setting. This one was Victorian London, the next book is a boarding school in Romania, the third book is a cruise ship…it’s like the author is pulling ideal settings out of my brain. But can setting and atmosphere really be enough for me to keep going? Who knows. Tune in soon to find out.

What do you guys think? Does the sequel get better? Should I invest my time and energy or nah?

Advertisements

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

3047636Title: NORTHANGER ABBEY
Author: Jane Austen
Release Date: 1817
Pages: 241
Publisher: Vintage Classics
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Before Northanger Abbey, the only Jane Austen I had read was Pride & Prejudice. This was way back in high school, but I distinctly remember not hating the book! This might have been because I am obsessively in love with the 2005 movie (I’ve seen it over ten times), but I didn’t find the book boring or the prose unbearable. I had the exact opposite situation with Northanger Abbey, unfortunately.

First of all, despite being so named, the characters don’t even arrive at the abbey until like 60% into the book! Ostensibly about a young girl named Catherine whose love of Gothic novels leads her into awkward situations at said Abbey, it is actually just the tale of Catherine hanging out in Bath, making some friends, hanging out at the Abbey for like half a minute, then getting married. I was bored out of my goddamn mind. I mean before she gets to the Abbey it’s literally just a bunch of people taking walks and going to parties and dancing and getting to know each other. When she does get to the Abbey, her imagination runs wild for like a chapter, and then everything is fine again. There’s some drama with her brother being engaged to a friend of hers which was probably the most interesting thing to happen in the book.

I will grant that the story had some well-developed characters and clever tongue-in-cheek humor (at times). Isabella in particular has to be the most Extra character I’ve ever seen, kind of like Vampire Diaries’ Caroline Forbes on Adderall. She and her brother are both insufferable in a very entertaining way, especially when Catherine is totally ignorant of their faults. There’s a lot of funny commentary on the way women are perceived and various mocking of Gothic novel tropes which I enjoyed.

Unfortunately his could not save it for me, especially given the state of the prose. The prose twisted and turned and was never-ending – finish a goddamned sentence for God’s sake! The long, overbearing sentences made it very difficult to focus. I also really hated the narration, which often referred to “our heroine” and talked directly to the reader in such a way that was jarring and consistently forced me out of the narrative. Add to that was boring and uneventful the story was, the book ended up being one hell of a slog that I had to force myself to finish.

Book Review: Roar by Cora Carmack

29939048Title: ROAR
Author: Cora Carmack
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Tor Teen
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Never in my life have I seen such a fantastic concept executed so, so terribly.

The first few chapters had me hooked. We are introduced to a world ruled by storms, forces of nature like hurricanes or tornadoes that attack randomly and can only be controlled by Stormlings, who are normally the ruling families (this reminded me a bit of the world in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it veered off in another direction at the end). The mythology behind storms and Stormlings is so utterly fascinating too, and there’s even a creepy cult that worships them! The book hits the ground running, with protagonist Aurora preparing for her arranged marriage to Cassius Locke, a Stormling prince. It is revealed that Aurora is powerless, with no ability to temper storms, and so she must be married off to Cassius so that her kingdom can have a Stormling’s protection.

It’s a fantastic premise. I even was fascinated by Cassius; it seemed like he was being built up to be a super problematic dude but possible ally and anti-love interest. From the get-go he was domineering and controlling and just plain gross, but it almost seemed like the author was gearing up to deconstruct the trope of this kind of YA love interest, since Cassius was built up as the villain. I was even more fascinated when it is revealed that Cassius may have an ulterior motive for wanting to marry Aurora. So, one night, Aurora follows him to try to learn something, and this is where everything went downhill, and a promising fantasy devolved into an eye-rolling, nauseating romance. (This makes so much sense now that I know this author has previously only written romance.)

Basically, Aurora learns that Stormlings are not the only people with storm abilities, that in fact you can gain abilities by acquiring the heart of a storm (at least I think – the explanation on this was a bit shaky). So she joins a band of “hunters” – people who hunt storms – in order to acquire magic for herself so she doesn’t have to marry Cassius. What follows is a bunch of pointless, boring chapters of Aurora “training” to fight storms and falling in love with Locke, one of the hunters.

The romance is sickeningly heteronormative and misogynistic. Locke is possessive and domineering, frequently making references to how much he wants to “own” Aurora and how he wants her to belong to him. There are also several instances where he talks about being unable to control himself around her and forcing decisions on her. He’s a moody asshole a lot, with changes in temper that remind me strongly of abusive behavior. When they’re training, there’s a scene where he becomes sexually aroused when he physically overpowers her (yeah, I’m serious). At so many points I literally stopped reading and said aloud, “That is so fucking gross.” One example that nearly had me retching was when Aurora tells Locke she’s a virgin, and he says, verbatim:

“I’m the first to touch this mouth? To taste it?…That means it’s mine. My territory. And I’m prepared to protect it, every hour of the day if I must.”

If I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle, I think I would have physically hurled the book away at that point.

Just as disturbing are the constant references to Aurora’s body by the men around her. I feel like I know more about what she looks like than anything else in this world, and what she looks like is the embodiment of a traditionally beautiful thin white woman. There is so much emphasis on her thinness, her slim fingers, the curve of her waist, her hips, her perfect white skin, her gorgeous blue eyes, her red lips…and this happens constantly, to the point of being fetishistic. It’s fucking creepy, almost like a horny teenage boy was writing this. It constantly took me out of the narrative to roll my eyes.

Aurora, the protagonist, is bland as hell. She could have been likeable! In fact I was intrigued by her at the start, a bookish and shy princess trying to put on a brave face for her husband-to-be. She’s naive and extremely sheltered and idealistic, but it makes sense given her upbringing, and it works well. I got Sansa Stark vibes, and Sansa Stark is one of my favorite characters of all time! But Aurora’s personality development falls victim to the romance, which completely overtakes the book. There are entire chapters (chapters! plural!) devoted only to Locke and Aurora flirting and talking about how much they want to get in each others’ pants. In between these chapters Aurora spends a lot of time doing absolutely nothing but traveling aimlessly (I’m really starting to hate ~quest~ novels).

There are some scenes that take us back to Aurora’s home, where Cassius and his family have taken advantage of Aurora’s absence. Aurora’s childhood friend Nova, who helped Aurora fake her kidnapping, is imprisoned by Cassius after being suspected of having helped kidnap her. These scenes of Nova and Cassius were ten times more interesting than anything happening with Locke and Aurora. Nova is a fascinating character with her own secrets and her own power. Her scenes with Cassius were some of the most engaging in the whole book.

And a technical issue: the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Besides being peppered with laughably dramatic declarations, it constantly lacks contractions. Perhaps this is a personal annoyance, but nobody speaks without contractions; it’s stiff and stilted and just plain weird. And why would common people in particular be speaking it? Not that I like it when authors do this to try to differentiate upper-class from lower-class, but at least then it would make some sense. Instead, in this book, dialogue switches between super casual and super formal, to the point of being disorienting.

Everything about this plot is bland and cliche, which is such a shame, because this concept is too good to waste like this! I’m literally sitting here grieving about how this book decides that two horny teenagers are more interesting than potentially sentient natural disasters! At least if the romance were well done it might have been bearable, but instead we have a boring caveman male love interest who falls head over heels for a mysterious beautiful girl at first sight and then constantly talks about how he wants to possess her. No thanks.

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!