Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18498558Title: BIRD BOX
Author: Josh Malerman
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 262
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I both love and hate dystopic fiction. I love it because it’s a fascinating exploration of survival. I’m always intrigued by how humans manage to survive without technology, without society, without order. Does the social contract break down? Where do people get food? What becomes important in a new world? Is survival enough?

I hate dystopic fiction because it’s depressing as fuck, and Bird Box certainly delivered on that.

I loved this book’s concept, which had notes of Lovecraftian horror all over it. Basically, there is something – some creature, some unknown, just something – outside. When you see it, you go mad and start tearing yourself apart until you die. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from or what it wants. Or how to stop it. But it’s trapped the survivors indoors, and if they venture outdoors they must have their eyes shut at all times. There are certain passages which were absolutely seeped with Lovecraftian influence – characters talking about our minds having a ceiling and the unknown creatures being beyond that ceiling, beyond human capacity to understand…it’s juicy, creepy stuff.

The narrative is centered on Malorie as she and her two children row a boat down a river attempting to find better shelter. The story is told in alternating timelines, between Malorie in the present and Malorie in the past, with a ragtag group of survivors who have holed up inside a house together and are just trying to survive. Even ordinary scenes in this book drip with tension; I was completely sucked in. When reading this book the world around me ceased to exist. There were some scenes that had my heart racing with anticipation. There is plenty of gore, but there is also a ton of psychological horror, building on the fear of the unknown.

I have some criticisms. The dialogue I found was often stilted, a bit unnatural. Malorie’s ragtag group of survivors were difficult to tell apart. There was Tom, the leader, and Don, the combative one, and then…a bunch of other people who were just there. In horror novels like this it’s important for characters to be distinct and interesting, and they weren’t. We don’t know what these people look like, what they did in their old lives, how they think and feel now. And there is zero diversity – all the characters are white. I felt like they were all cardboard cutouts, not characters but plot devices, there as a means to an end. Even with Malorie, I felt like I had a hard time getting into her head and getting a sense of her as a person. I felt her fear and desperation, certainly, but everyone in this world is afraid and desperate – what more is there to know about her?

Otherwise, I loved this book. I could not put it down for a moment, and it made my 90 minute commute feel like 10 minutes. I missed my train stop when reading the ending, because it was just so damn intense! I had been in an utter reading funk lately, and this book wrenched me out of it. Highly, highly recommend this creepy, intense, and thrilling read!

Thanks to Rachel @ pace, amore, libri for the recommendation!

Advertisements

Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

33958230Title: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS
Author: Julie C. Dao
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I had almost forgotten that this is supposed to be an East Asia-inspired retelling of Snow White’s Evil Queen. In the beginning there are few allusions to the tale, but as the story progresses the narrative reflects the fairy tale in subtle, clever ways.

Xifeng is beautiful. Growing up in poverty with her abusive aunt Guma, she clings to her beauty, her only power as a woman in a world of men. But according to Guma, Xifeng has a great destiny: she is fated to become Empress of Feng Lu, if she plays her cards right. After some prodding from Wei, Xifeng’s childhood love, she finds the courage to flee Guma and head to the palace, planting herself in court and clawing her way to the top.

Some minor technical complaints first: the story takes a long time to get going. This is partly necessary, as it is the first in what I assume will be a trilogy, and Xifeng needs time to leave her old life behind and rise to become Empress. Still, it was a bit slow, and most of the action takes place in the last third of the book, with reveals and plot advancements occurring in nearly every chapter. It felt a bit unbalanced.

Otherwise, damn, I love my complex unlikable anti-heroine stories! Xifeng is selfish, vain, arrogant, and ruthless. Eventually, she becomes a murderess. In short, she’s not someone you want to have much to do with. But she revels in her power and ambition, she is unapologetic about what she has to do to claw her way to power, and I loved her. She’s such an unusual protagonist; we don’t see too many women like her in YA. Speaking of unusual, this book does away with a lot of YA tropes. It’s quite adult in a lot of ways. Xifeng chooses power over love and ends up with a man much older than her. The violence in this book is bloody and raw; it was spectacularly gory.

Others have mentioned Xifeng’s disdain of all other women, so I have to mention it. This is a very prominent thread running through the book, but it makes sense: Xifeng is deliberately unlikable, deliberately arrogant, and the reader is left with the certainty that Xifeng is unreliable in her determinations of these other women. They are all humanized by the narrative despite Xifeng’s scorn. Even Xifeng’s foremost enemy is humanized in such a way that her cruelty is understood to be her shield; in fact, in this antagonist I saw a reflection of Xifeng.

The worldbuilding ties in directly with Xifeng’s plot (and the Snow White tale), and it was gloriously epic. Xifeng maintains her youth and beauty by eating hearts, a gift granted to her by a dark god who longs to rise again. I won’t say too much because spoilers, but it seems like this series is foretelling the reincarnation of an ancient feuds between gods in the form of a feud between two women, one of them Xifeng. I am so here for this.

In short, this book is gory and creepy and features a delightfully unlikable anti-heroine who chooses power and ruthlessness over love and goodness again and again, while becoming hopelessly mired in a dark god’s vengeance plot. While this first book was dragged down somewhat by the inauspicious beginning, I’m certain the second book will be even better, now that Xifeng has been established and we can do away with all that exposition. A promising beginning to a promising series!

Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

31817749Title: THE STONE SKY
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 396
Publisher: Orbit
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I will begin with my one complaint, which is not even completely a complaint. But I spent nearly the entire book feeling vaguely lost, unsure if I was lost because I didn’t remember enough of book two or because things were just getting confusing. For in the conclusion to The Broken Earth trilogy Jemisin does give you all the answers you want about the origin of the world and the Seasons and the stone eaters – I’m just not sure I understood all of it. That is a testament to the complexity of Jemisin’s worldbuilding. It is the type of book that, once you finish, you want to begin all over again just to absorb it properly. In fact I feel like I want to re-read the whole trilogy, making highlights and annotations and using post-its to connect things and truly understand. That is what I mean when I say my complaint isn’t really a complaint, but rather an appreciation for the richness of the story. But I do think there could have been a way to make things more clearer, more straightforward and blunt, to help hammer in understanding.

Like the first two books in the series, The Stone Sky deals in tragedy, in exploitation and cruelty, justice and injustice. There are so many themes and incidents and characters in this book that resonated so strongly with me; they so powerfully mirror the current state of the world that I was utterly mesmerized. Essun and Nassun are finally reunited, in the last chapters, and it is as heartbreaking as you might imagine. Mother and daughter have both been through unimaginable horrors, and come out the other side hardened. But underneath all the tragedy, there is a tide of furious, fierce hope, a hope that things can be better if you force them to be.

The worldbuilding is spectacular. I know this even if I didn’t completely understand it. Jemisin showcases a society rooted in biotechnology, that uses the Earth’s magic to create tech that will grants convenience, a strong metaphor for our world’s use of fossil fuels and the like. It is an impressively creative way to combine science and magic. Like all of Jemisin’s books, and the reason why she is heralded as one of today’s best fantasy writers, The Stone Sky’s worldbuilding borrows little from existing societies or histories. It is wholly original, fresh, truly fantastical, the sort of fantasy that isn’t just faux-(insert historical civilization here), but completely unique.

At the close of the trilogy, the story wraps up beautifully, in a way that explicates the series’ narrative style, which, as I have come to understand, is Hoa weaving a complex story. It’s absolutely brilliant. The entire series is a masterful achievement of epic, that quality in fantasy that makes chills run down your spine from the awe of it all. What a grand, epic adventure.

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

594139Title: REBECCA
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Release Date: 1938
Pages: 387
Publisher: HarperCollins
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’ve never read any classic Gothic literature before, but if they’re all like this, sign me up. Du Maurier absolutely excels at atmospheric writing; the setting of this novel is so palpable I could feel the oppressive heat in my own room, could smell the grotesquely huge rhododendrons, could hear the ebb and flow of the waves. From the very first page of the book I could feel myself sinking into its cozy depths. I read it slowly, savoring the rich prose, wanting to curl up with a blanket and a cup of warm tea. It’s that type of book.

But lest you think that it rests on its pretty prose and succumbs to its own Gothic atmosphere by dragging on dully, I have to tell you that Rebecca is truly a thriller. Part psychological, yes, but part straight-up noir thriller! You could sense there was some big reveal coming up, and by the middle of the novel I was turning pages so fast I had to pause and make sure I was truly reading every line carefully, savoring the prose. Du Maurier builds plot tension as well as she constructs atmospheric tension, and I’m sure many an English major has written about how her descriptions of the weather parallel the plot. It’s brilliant, with reveals I did not see coming.

I was very frustrated with our nameless narrator for much of the book, and even more so after the reveal, which I shall not divulge here. What I will say is that I can understand why she feels so small in Rebecca, who looms larger than life over the narrator’s relationship with her new husband Maxim. She looms over Manderly, over the servants, over the town, over the acquaintances…and so the narrator, already shy, shrinks and shrinks and shrinks until she barely exists.

All that’s there is her love for Maxim, despite the way he treats her almost as an afterthought, and I’m not entirely sure the reveal explains all that away. She is infuriatingly passive, very shy, and rather a daydreamer. All this makes for an fascinating, if not particularly engaging, heroine, but she was certainly a change from the usual female leads I usually read. That was refreshing. I haven’t read enough classic literature to say if this is because of the book’s era, though.

Overall, a rich, atmospheric, and utterly thrilling read!

Book Review: Now I Rise by Kiersten White

22817331Title: NOW I RISE
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 471
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

One of the weaknesses of book one was that, being the first in a series, it had a lot of introductions to make. That lent itself to a lot of expository narrative that wasn’t particularly gripping, and as a result the plot was somewhat slow. This second book suffers no such issues

Picking up right where book one left off, Lada is back in Europe, trying to win back Wallachia, while Radu is by Mehmed’s side at all things. Alternating between both Lada and Radu’s perspectives, the narrative serves us two climaxes in paralleling story lines that leave us with a pair of disillusioned siblings.

From the get-go the plot races. Radu is sent to Constantinople to be a spy for Mehmed, while Lada tries to win alliances to get her throne back. Radu does so many things that weigh on his conscious that he grows disenchanted. Lada’s cruelty and viciousness grows even stronger, but in the process she also becomes jaded. The two siblings constantly think of one another, of how the other might do things, of how they need one another, and by the end I was longing for their reunion. Both of them also develop more complex feelings for Mehmed, still love, but mingled with other, more negative feelings as well, feelings that result from Mehmed’s actions as he himself grows in ambition and viciousness.

I’m also very pleased that all our characters continue to grow in complexity. I didn’t think I could love Radu more, but as we continue to learn more about him I find he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite male characters in literature. I appreciate Lada just as much, as well as Nazira, Radu’s wife, and the new character of Cyprian. White does such a fantastic job capturing the nuances of various characters. I’ve read a lot of books with forgettable characters so I love that the characters here are all so memorable and unique.

This is going to be a rather short review, as I don’t have too much to say other than that this book is just as well-written as the first only with a faster, more engaging plot. I will, however, say that the book ends with a spectacularly badass scene on Lada’s end, a scene that showcases how much her viciousness has grown. It was bloody beautiful. I’m so excited for the third part in this trilogy.

Book Review: The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorani

32766747Title: THE LIBRARY OF FATES
Author: Aditi Khorani
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 315
Publisher: Razorbill
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is a strange little book. I had wildly different expectations going into it; the blurb makes it seem like more of a political thriller (of sorts) but in actuality it is more like an extended folktale. There have been comparisons with The Star-Touched Queen, and I suppose in theme the two are quite similar, but this book is actually rather fast-paced, more of an adventure/journey story.

It begins with Amrita, princess of Shalingar, waiting on the arrival of Sikander, her father’s old friend turned enemy who she is to be married off to in an attempt to secure an alliance. Things fall apart, however, when Sikander makes it clear he has little interest in peace. Amrita finds herself on the run with an oracle named Thala, on a journey to save her nation from Sikander.

It starts off as your typical adventure fantasy novel, but it veers wildly into folklore territory, which I was not expecting! The novel’s ending, which left me undecided as to whether it was happy or tragic, deals with themes of fate, loss, and sacrifice. I was really surprised by the direction this took, but I loved it too. This is not something often seen in YA fantasy lit, and I was pleasantly surprised at the large, overarching themes discussed here.

Central to the story is something else not frequently seen in YA, which is the friendship and partnership between Amrita and Thala. Though the two girls come together almost by coincidence, they end up relying heavily on each other. Romance features in this book, but only on the periphery; it is tangential to the main plot.

My one complaint is the characterization. Perhaps this is because the book is written as a folktale, but I thought that several of the characters were blank slates. I struggled to connect with Amrita; I just couldn’t get a read on her. With Thala it was a little easier, but I still found the pair somewhat forgettable. Even their bond, which I appreciated, felt superficial.

Other than that I really enjoyed this tale. Standalone fantasy novels are few and far between, so this felt like a quick little treat. I also have to mention the writing, which was lovely; the author does a superb job utilizing sensory writing. Her descriptions of various settings were lush and vivid, bringing this folktale to life.

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

33574211Title: EMMA IN THE NIGHT
Author: Wendy Walker
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 320
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

It’s difficult to find a thriller that doesn’t rest its laurels on the shocking twist at the end. Don’t get me wrong, shocking twists are great, and Emma in the Night certainly came through with that. However, I also found it to be quite an introspective book, detailing the harm inflicted on children by terrible, narcissistic, and incapable parents.

Emma and Cassandra Tanner’s lives are a medley of dysfunction and sexual impropriety, due not only to their narcissistic mother, but their gross stepfather and stepbrother, both of whom are sexually attracted to Emma. It is this dysfunction that seemingly leads a pregnant Emma to run away, with her younger sister Cass in tow. Three years later, Cass, and only Cass, returns, with a story about being held captive on an island with her sister Emma and Emma’s baby daughter. With the help of Dr. Abby Winters, a forensic psychologist with a narcissistic mother of her own, Cass’s story unravels and is put back together, and Emma is found in an unlikely place.

Like any good thriller, Emma in the Night is compelling, forcing you to ask questions and try to figure out what the heck is going on. But it is a sort of character study as well. Emma, the titular character, is a kind of vulnerable seductress, an insecure teenage girl utilizing the only power she thinks she holds. Her relationship with her narcissistic mother becomes is revealed to be more and more horrific by the second. Hunter and Jonathan Martin, the aforementioned stepbrother and stepfather, are both arrogant, privileged, and misogynistic men whose presence in the girls’ lives screws up their family even more. Their biological father, despite genuinely loving his daughters, is weak and cannot fight for them like they deserve. The girls’ mother, Judy, suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, and therefore is not a mother at all to her daughters, more like a rival.

And finally, Cassandra, the narrator, is a very quiet character, a young girl who has been fractured by the trauma in her past, but healed and became stronger because of it. I liked Cass way more than I thought I would. She is clever and manipulative, stoic and calculating, loving and loyal. Her relationship with her older sister Emma is frustrating and heart-breaking; it is at times sweet, at times utterly cruel, but the blame is to be laid at the feet of their mother, who does her best to break the girls apart so that they are not united against her.

Emma in the Night is a tragedy, the sad tale of two young girls’ whose lives are destroyed by their parents. It will keep you guessing until the end, and the final twist is maddening in its simplicity. There are certainly criticisms that can be levied at this book: the plot is somewhat convoluted, the actions of some of the characters at the very end are unbelievable and were moved only by plot, the story is conveyed through a lot of literal telling and very little showing, but ultimately those flaws work in the story’s favor, elevating it to wildly dramatic heights. With its colorful cast of characters, its dramatic twists and turns, and Cassandra’s soliloquy-like narration, and the allusion to the mythical Cassandra at the very beginning, this book nearly reaches Shakespearean levels of tragedy.