Book Review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

girls burn brighterTitle: GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER
Author: Shobha Rao
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Pages: 304
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m struggling to decide just how I feel about this book. So, first off, if you’re going in completely clueless like me (why do I not read book summaries properly), massive content warning for rape. This book deals with human trafficking, so you can imagine the content here. This is kind of why I was so unsure of what I thought when I finished it, but that’s no fault of the book itself – I just don’t really like reading books about things like rape and human trafficking. Which isn’t to say that the scenes in this book were overly graphic or exploitative, but there were still some instances where I felt like it was a bit too much, like all this trauma was just being piled on and on with no real purpose (there were definitely some scenes I, and the narrative, could have done without). I expected something totally different of this book, but I don’t like to give a book a low rating just because it didn’t meet my own expectations, especially when the book is objectively well-written.

That’s the second thing I want to talk about: the prose. I thought this was a really beautifully-written, thoughtful book. The narration is kind of omniscient, which I don’t always like, but here it meshed well with the lush, lyrical prose. The prose and some of the narrative choices give this book a kind of mythic quality; indeed, there are so many coincidences occurring it seems one would have to suspend disbelief to be able to enjoy this book.

At its heart, it is a story of friendship between two women, Savitha and Poornima. Though they spend much of the book apart after being separated, Poornima spends literal years structuring her life in ways that will lead her to find Savitha. This is also a book about misogyny’s ugly depths. Most of us know men are demons, but this book elucidates that truth unflinchingly. Is there a single male character in this book who isn’t absolute trash? Perhaps Savitha’s father had redeeming qualities in his youth, but otherwise all the men are pretty horrific, and even some of the women have become warped by internalized misogyny.

But I liked how the misogyny was presented through a distinct cultural lens. Though we all live in a patriarchal world, misogyny takes different forms depending on where it is manifesting. American misogyny is going to look very different from Indian misogyny. For example, dowry is a big issue in this book. Dowry is the payment a bride’s family is expected to provide to the bridegroom and his family upon marriage, seemingly for the upkeep the new bride will require. As you can imagine, the great financial strain this puts on bride’s family’s means that the impoverished will begin resenting their daughters. In one harrowing incident in this book, Poornima’s father recounts a anecdote when he almost let Poornima drown as a child because he sees daughters as expendable and expensive.

My main issue with this book, narratively speaking? That goddamn ending. There’s no payoff. Literally the entire book has been building to a very particular climax and then, right when you’re expecting the payoff, that moment of climax and resolution, the book simply ends abruptly. I literally double-checked the ARC I had to make sure I wasn’t skipping pages or missing an epilogue, because the ending was so abrupt! Perhaps this is just a pet peeve of mine as a reader, but I like closure, which this book desperately needed. Otherwise, with the way it is, it just feels incomplete.

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Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

children of blood and boneTitle: CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE
Author: Tomi Adeyemi
Release Date: March 6th, 2018
Pages: 448
Publisher: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I have some seriously mixed feelings about this book. It’s difficult to read a book that has been as hyped as this one without being affected by your own high expectations, despite trying very hard not to be. I liked parts of it, but overall I found it to be a regurgitation of cliched YA fantasy tropes, pasted onto a fresh setting. The Goodreads summary is pretty accurate: this is basically the classic Hero’s Journey tale of Ye Olde Fantasy, complete with chosen one, sacred artifacts, gods and goddesses, and a magical destination. Which could have been fine, given that the setting is so original – in fact, the West African inspired setting was probably my favorite thing about the book. But despite this, everything else just fell flat for me.

However, just because I personally wasn’t wowed, doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have appeal. To be honest, you’ve got thousands of YA fantasy books out there that regurgitate the same plot over and over onto the same vaguely Anglo-French medieval setting and they do fine, so it’s nice to see something like this that features black and brown characters. It’s kind of like when people say, oh, paranormal/urban fantasy is over and done with, when POC haven’t gotten their chance at it yet. Just because white people have gotten all their shots at something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been played out. I’m glad this book exists for POC teens to see themselves in the types of fantasies they have been reading about for years.

With that being said, I had a lot of problems with this book. I think the main reason I struggled with it was the writing style. It just felt very young; though the subject matter is mature, at times I felt like I was reading a middle grade book instead of a young adult book. The writing is incredibly melodramatic, littered with phrases like “something inside me broke” and “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” and “I should have known you were the monster all along.” More than once I found myself cringing and rolling my eyes at just how Extra the writing was. Furthermore, even the expressed themes are presented in such a simplistic way, and the reader is beaten over the head with every little thing. I would recommend this to teens on the younger side of the spectrum, but I think more mature readers might not enjoy it as much.

Another issue I had with the writing style is that it is written in first person present, which is probably my least favorite tense. It takes a really subtle hand to make first person present work, and this book’s writing is not in the least bit subtle. I also found it confusing at times, since there are three different POVs, all in first person present, and their voices are not all that different, so I often found myself forgetting whose perspective I was supposed to be in.

As for the plot, well, as I said, this is classic Hero’s Journey, played almost completely straight. So, Zelie is chosen by the gods to bring magic back to Orisha, and she goes on a journey that takes her to various places in the country to collect the sacred artifacts she needs to conduct the ritual that will return magic. Alongside her are Princess Amari, who has defected from her father, and Tzain, Zelie’s older brother. They are being pursued by Inan, the Prince and Amari’s elder brother who is determined to stop Zelie’s ritual. The plot is essentially a series of strung-together YA fantasy tropes maximized for commercial appeal, but the result is a narrative that lacks much depth. (One of those tropes is Enemies to Lovers, which features the Inexplicable Heterosexual Romance, in one of the weirdest character flip-flops I’ve ever seen. It was just…very abrupt and unbelievable.)

While the book started off quick and engaging, the plot quickly slowed down. I found that the book was much longer than it needed to be. In fact, there was a huge chunk in the middle where the gang has to compete in these arena games that felt completely tacked on just to be able to say the book included it. I think this particular plot point, along with a lot of other instances, is where the story could really have used a firm editorial hand. A lot of things seemed random, chucked into the book to just to make it seem more exciting, but it was all way too much, especially when combined with the juvenile writing style. Probably about a hundred pages could have been cut from this book to make a better, tighter final product.

At the center of the narrative is the oppression of the maji, which in a lot of instances seems to be written to directly mirror real-world racism. I’m not sure how well that worked given the portrayal of magic users here; that is, their powers are portrayed as world destroying, and it almost seems understandable that those without powers would want to wipe magic out to level the playing field. On the other hand, certain people’s potential for magic is used to exploit them for economic gain even though they have no magic to hurt anyone, and that certainly speaks of baseless, irrational racism. The book certainly tries to have this complicated conversation, but it just falls short, and by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what exactly the book was trying to get across. Perhaps later books will address this, but…the ending makes me suspect that later books are going to circumvent this problem entirely.

I know this has been very negative so far, but there were some things I liked about this book! The worldbuilding is fantastic: all the characters are black or brown, and much attention is paid to the various hues of their skin and the textures of their hair. That was super refreshing to see, especially since POC in other books are often cut from the same cloth, appearance wise, so it was great to see so much diversity while still having a cast made up entirely of POC. The West African setting is fresh and wonderfully detailed, as is this world’s creation myth and the legends of their gods and goddesses. Something else I liked is that there’s two leading ladies here, and by the end they become excellent friends (now this is an Enemies to Friends situation I can actually stand by). There’s still not a lot of positive female friendships in YA, unfortunately, so it was great to see that. Zelie, the main character, is written to be fierce and fiery, and I liked her a lot, though I wish her internal (and external) monologues weren’t so melodramatic.

Generally, I just wanted some more nuance and maturity, with regards to thematic points and writing. Also, and I’ve said this several times before, but I’ve started to really, really hate “journey” stories, and that’s certainly a strong personal preference that affected my enjoyment of this book. However, I can certainly see how this would appeal to people, particularly the younger YA generation. Also, I can definitely see this book’s blockbuster quality, and I’m super excited for the film! I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the second book in this series, however. I might just wait for the movie.

Book Review: The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

33230889Title: THE GOOD DAUGHTER
Author: Karin Slaughter
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 528
Publisher: William Morrow
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I started this book because I wanted a quick, light read, a fast-paced thriller that would get me over a book hangover. I got the fast-paced part, since this book was for the most part very engaging, but it was meatier than I was expecting, and it was just too damn long, especially given that much of the book is not really about the central mysteries, but rather about the two sisters at the heart of this book. Essentially, this is more of a character-driven literary novel than it is a thriller, which is not what I was looking for, and it is not generally something I go for.

The book opens with the violent assault on the Quinn household, a home invasion that leaves Sam and Charlie Quinn’s mother dead. Fast-forward to the present day, Charlie finds herself witness to a school shooting. The novel then proceeds to slowly – very, very slowly – unravel the secrets involved in both of these crimes. We very gradually discover exactly what happened to each sister during the home invasion, as well as the reasons behind it. In the last few pages of the book, the truth of the school shooting is unveiled.

The rest of the book is just a lot of things that I generally don’t look for in fiction. White people whose marriage is struggling. Folks dealing with their trauma. Family drama. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, of course, but it’s just not my cup of tea, particularly not in adult fiction. It also takes up so much of the book; I couldn’t help but feel that the school shooting was an addendum to the story of two sisters getting their lives back on track. To Slaughter’s credit, however, she writes characters rather well, and every member of the Quinn family is unforgettable.

There’s a lot of violence in this book, much of it extremely graphic. If things like that bother you, I would recommend staying away. It made me cringe a lot of the time, especially since I felt like a lot of it was wholly unnecessary, but meh, that’s just a personal thing; I am, generally speaking, not a huge fan of graphic violence in my books.

I totally get why this is so popular and it was definitely a very quick and enjoyable read, but by the end I found it dragging on for much longer than it needed to. I probably sound much harsher than I mean to – I did like this book, and especially the character of Charlie Quinn, but I just didn’t love it. I’d recommend it if you’re a fan of well-written, character-driven thrillers.

Book Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee

34606064Title: JADE CITY
Author: Fonda Lee
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 512
Publisher: Orbit
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

Obviously I should have paid greater attention to the descriptions calling this book a “gangster drama” and “kung-fu saga” and “Asian Godfather.” I have little to no interest in mafias, gangs, drugs, or martial arts of any kind. There are also way too many male protagonists in this book for my liking. I concede that this book would probably make an excellent movie, and as a book it wasn’t bad, but I just wasn’t into it.

Fonda Lee has created an original, inventive fantasy. One of the most intriguing things about it, which I was not expecting, is that it is not, like most high fantasies, set in an ambiguously medieval time period. If I had to assign the book a decade I’d say late 80s or early 90s, which was really strange but very intriguing! In Lee’s world, the geological substance of jade grants wearers heightened physical abilities, but only those native to the island of Kekon can utilize it properly. On Kekon, two clans rule the island and its jade, and tension is growing between them as a result of foreign influences.

It’s a truly fascinating premise, but I personally thought that Lee focused on everything and everyone uninteresting. The main POV characters are the head of the No Peak clan, Lan, his strongman and younger brother Hilo, their younger sister Shae, and their adopted brother Anden. Of all these POVs I found Shae’s to be the most compelling, but the narrative continually relegated her to secondary character. The head of the opposing clan, Ayt Mada, is a truly intriguing woman who murdered her way to the top position, yet she only features two or three scenes, every one of which she commands completely. Hilo’s love interest, Wen, was also intriguing, even though her introductory scene features her having sex with Hilo, which I majorly side-eyed. Wen is a “stone-eye” born with a genetic mutation that makes her immune to jade and is considered bad luck by many.

In short, I found the three women in this story more fascinating than any of the male characters, and yet the bulk of the book is focused on the men. This is not a gender-neutral world; I would say the gender dynamics pretty much resemble our own in the 80s and 90s. That’s fine; examinations of gender imbalances in non-Western settings are lacking in fantasy literature. But in my opinion, if Lee were going to craft her world in such a way, the women should have been given more screen-time. I would have loved to have Ayt Mada as a POV character, to learn more about her struggle to lead the clan in a world that only begrudgingly respects women.

This was my main issue with this book and likely the main reason I couldn’t get into it as much as I wanted. But also, plot-wise, I found it kind of dull, though that may be because I personally am not interested by gangster plots. Halfway into the book the pace picked up when Lee gave us an astonishing twist, but after that the pace slowed to a crawl again. There’s also a lot of telling in this book, a lot of exposition, which I’m not always opposed to, but here it just served to slow down the narrative even more. On the bright side, it did make it very easy to understand this brand new world and all of its factions. The learning curve for this fantasy world is not too steep.

I commend Lee for the skill it took to plan and write this lengthy novel, but I just wish she had given more attention to her female characters and picked up the pace of the plot a bit more. Overall, if you’re the type of person who enjoys mafia movies and gangster exploits this might be the book for you, because I do think it’s an objectively admirable book. Unfortunately, I feel only lukewarm about it at best.

Book Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

24790901Title: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 273
Publisher: Flux
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

Unfortunately this book did not turn out to be as mind-blowingly awesome as I’d been led to believe, but I did still enjoy it. There were a lot of aspects to it that I absolutely loved, but there was also plenty I did not like. I can’t help thinking this book would make an incredible film or TV series, but as a book it just didn’t click with me. Which I know is a weird thing for a book blogger to say, but I it’s so rare that I feel this way about a book that I’m gonna say it anyway.

What I Liked:

→ There’s a f/f romance! This is the main reason I picked up this book. The main character, Cassandra, is gay, and this isn’t harped on about, it’s just something that is what it is. Same with her love interest, Swift.

→ The worldbuilding. The book is set in the near-future, in world ruined by climate change, a world where floodwaters have eaten up most coastal cities. The United States has split into smaller governments to better take care of their people (in theory). Also, there’s freaking sea monsters! They are genetically engineered and bred specifically to defend ships and I though this was super cool and creative.

→The book is certainly engaging! It’s a light, quick, easily digestible read, and so I was able to get through it quickly and I certainly thought it was fun!

→The protagonist. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Cassandra Leung at first, but now I think she’s the best thing about this book. She starts out pretty quiet and unassuming, mostly reacting to things around her, but she quickly goes from an ordinary morally upstanding character to the fringes of moral complexity. I really enjoyed watching her go through the stages of that moral development. Her ruthlessness just seemed to increase and increase, and I think she has it in her to be a pirate queen of her own.

→The villain. I use the word villain loosely, but Santa Elena, the pirate queen, is pretty damn cool. She took over a ship with her baby son strapped to her back and now everyone is terrified of her. She rules with an iron fist, she’s vicious and ruthless, she’s selfish and cunning, and I absolutely loved her. In fact, I would have liked this book a lot more if Cas had been aged up and Santa Elena had been her love interest, because I found her a hell of a lot more intriguing than Cas’s actual love interest. I also thought they had way more chemistry. I realize things would have been even more dubious in terms of consent and healthy relationships, but this book already veers towards the dark, and I think this would have made it more interesting.

What I Didn’t Like:

→ The romance. Ugh, I hate that I didn’t ship these two, but I hated Swift. She’s a fine character, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like her. She’s a jerk most of the time, and she’s volatile and just…I don’t know. I didn’t like her at all and so I had trouble shipping her. And I just couldn’t feel any chemistry between Cas and Swift that wasn’t contrived.

→The worldbuilding could have used a little bit more meat. This is the start of a series so I won’t harp on about this too much, but I would have liked to know a little bit more about the international world and more about the damage climate change as wrought. Just some more context would have helped.

→The writing. This book is written in first-person present tense, which is one of my least favorites, so I found it kind of jarring. Plus the writing is YA, and by that I mean there’s a lot of “something dark rose inside me” or “I felt a storm rising inside me”, that kind of thing, and it got annoying after a while. The writing is also quite bare, very straightforward, yet somehow often melodramatic.

→The action scenes and jargon. This is probably just a personal thing, but I get really put off by intense action scenes that feature a lot of jargon. In this book, there’s a lot of futuristic ship jargon and techy stuff that I found myself glazing over, which led to me being confused later on. Again, more of a personal hangup than anything.

→ Minor characters. First off, there’s really only four minor characters who even get names, and these are the ones vying with Swift for the chance to inherit the ship. The rest of the pirate crew is faceless and nameless; they’re just there. Even those four characters were barely developed. And in the case of one character in particular, he does something that gets him in trouble but it’s never really explained why he does it? What his motivations were? It just seemed like something thrown in to add more excitement to the plot.

→The ending. I won’t spoil it, but I just could not understand Cas’s decision in the end. She had the chance to take charge of her own fate but she didn’t. At all. And if we’re meant to believe she did this for ~love~ then I’m gonna need the relationship to be a little more convincing.

Overall I did have a fun time reading this book, but I didn’t enjoy the romance as much as I had hoped to, and I doubt I will be picking up the sequel. However, I will definitely be checking out other things this author writes!

Book Review: Court of Fives by Kate Elliot

18068907Title: COURT OF FIVES
Author: Kate Elliott
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 438 (but my Kindle says 307???)
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

(First of all, my ancestors are surely rolling over in their graves in shame at my failure to recognize this as a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt. In my defense I’ve never studied Ancient Egyptian history, though I suppose that is not much of a defense. In any case, this book makes my people look damn good, which makes me happy! Apparently this book is also inspired by Little Women, which I’ve never read, and American Ninja Warrior, which definitely came through.)

I have to say, I am utterly baffled by the multitude of passionate one-star reviews on Goodreads. I can see nothing in this book that would inspire such vehement dislike! I didn’t love this book in its entirety, but I didn’t hate it, and there were certainly many parts of it that I loved.

Jessamy is a mixed-race girl in a world where such unions are uncommon and scorned, given that her mother’s race are a denigrated and oppressed group called “Commoners”. The book begins with Jessamy determined to run the “Fives” a gymnastic competition modeled after American Ninja Warrior that probably would have been way cooler to someone interested in that kind of stuff (I don’t mind watching it, but reading about athletic feats is kind of dull). She’s a fascinating protagonist if not entirely likable; she is certainly selfish, putting her family at risk just to run in this competition she’s not supposed to be in, but I’m really annoyed that reviewers seem to hate her for this. This streak of selfishness and self-determination is what makes her incredibly interesting. Again, I wasn’t sure I found her entirely likable, though not because of this – there was just something in her narrative voice that lacked consistency.

Major characters include Jes’s mother and three sisters, all of whom were fully-fleshed characters in their own right. Familial interactions between them, and their father, were given the spotlight, an unusual move in YA books where parents are usually absent and siblings only exists as props. I loved the messy dynamics portrayed in this family, as though clearly conveyed the stress they all live under, being a mixed-race family amongst people that hate them for it. The crux of the plot involves Jes rescuing her family, putting them and herself first. Also, this is random, but there’s one hell of a badass childbirth scene in this book that I loved. A woman actually gives birth in a crouching position and then eats raw placenta! The reason I mention this is not just because I’m a freak who loves childbirth scenes where women support women, but also because it’s where I can see Kate Elliott shining through. I’ve heard her speak at conferences and she is an unabashed feminist who talks often about writing women as they are, rather than what people want them to be. In this scene, and in much of the book, I could see this philosophy.

That said, the inevitable romance did drag the book down, in my opinion. I can certainly see why it was there but I didn’t find the love interest that interesting, though Elliott certainly tried to make him well-developed. He was a kind boy, but still retained the privilege of his race and class, which was reflected in his occasional ignorance. I definitely appreciated this depth, and yes, he was helpful to the plot, but it seems like he exists just to create drama for the next book. I totally get it – I just don’t like it.

Unlike many other readers I did not mind the dialogue, which is very formal and at times even archaic. I actually kind of liked it! It gave the story a fanciful flair! What I did think dragged the book down was the odd, unbalanced pacing, and the overly detailed descriptions of the “Fives” and everything to do with it. Again, I understand why this happened – this book needs to introduce an entire series and the “Fives” has to do with the mythology of the world – but I just didn’t like it. Speaking of mythology, the worldbuilding here is pretty damn fascinating and original!

Overall, while I myself did not love this book, I do think it is an objectively good book. It is well-written and engaging, with distinguishable characters, rich worldbuilding, and intelligent commentary on race and class and oppression. I would have to say the plot is its weakest point, again because of the strange pacing, but it’s not terrible, and otherwise I saw nothing that would help me understand the one-star reviews. It’s a solid 3.5 from me.

Book Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

15994537Title: WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Author: Emily Bronte
Release Date: 1847
Pages: 360
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Upon finishing this book, my first words were: “Well, that was pointless.”

And it really was. You hear so much about Wuthering Heights being all about this great and toxic love between Cathy and Heathcliff, and yet we only see glimpses of it! It’s just a long miserable book about miserable people. In order to complain properly, I have to include SPOILERS, so you have been warned!

I’ll start off with the one thing I did kind of like: the setting. Bronte was deftly able to convey Wuthering Heights as a dark, depressing abode. From the get-go the tone is moody and atmospheric, with the isolated Yorkshire moors seeming to reflect the characters’ lives. More than once I wondered where the hell everyone was – where are all the other people? Civilization? The characters in this book never interact with anyone but each other, almost as though they are living their lives entirely removed from their surroundings.

My primary annoyance was with the narration. The story is told through Nelly, a housekeeper, who tells the tale to a Mr. Lockwood, a character whose utter pointlessness completely blew my mind. Nelly’s narration completely removes any immediacy and intimacy the narrative may have contained. I wanted to see more of Cathy and Heathcliff’s feelings for each other, and yet I only got tastes, though Nelly’s eyes.

My second issue is with the prose. I got used to it after a while, but I did not like it. I don’t even know how to describe it. Clunky? Overly complex? Superfluous? I don’t know, but it made the book a damn slog. I enjoy dense prose, but only if it’s pretty, and as a general rule I don’t like to read my novels with the same amount of concentration as an academic text.

I have no doubt that this is a book with great literary and historical merits, but I am more interested in literary criticisms of this book than the book itself. I’m fascinated by what Emily Bronte was trying to do with her characters and what she meant to convey, and I can appreciate its brilliance from that angle, but this was not a particularly enjoyable reading experience overall.