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: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

freshwaterTitle: FRESHWATER
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Release Date: February 13, 2018
Pages: 240
Publisher: Grove Press
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

How does one talk about a book that is essentially a very personal memoir? Freshwater is a semi-autobiographical tale about a young Nigerian-Tamil woman named Ada who lives with multiple selves. That is, her consciousness appears to be made up of a group of ogbanje, spirits from Igbo folklore. They are one and they are many; the book’s narration is delivered from three perspectives, that of all the ogbanje, one particular manifestation named Asughura, and Ada.

To say that this book was mind-blowing is an understatement. I had seen a lot of hype surrounding Freshwater on Twitter, and I had sort of come to the conclusion that this was going to be a straightforward metaphor for multiple personality disorder. It’s not, and not just because the author has straight-up said that it’s not. You’ll find yourself doubting as you read. It’s actually quite a spiritual tome, which I was not expecting, so I found myself constantly having to adjust my expectations and my perceptions.

That’s the thing about Freshwater: it completely challenged all of my perceptions of reality, particularly the traditional Western understanding of psychology. It’s easy to forget that the field of psychology is artificially constructed, that mental illnesses are not ontological realities but very human and very Western categories created mostly by men who came with their own biases and particular worldviews. To my understanding, this is what Freshwater is challenging. Ada is considered mentally ill by some of the people in her life, but she – and her ogbanje – do not believe it to be so. Are we meant to take the ogbanje literally, then? Are we meant to believe they are real? Perhaps. I have to say I’m not entirely certain. I would love to sit down with the author and just have a lengthy, in-depth conversation about this book.

The prose is absolutely stunning. I found myself re-reading entire paragraphs multiple times to savor the lyrical and sensual prose. It maintains a certain elegance throughout, even as the events occurring in the narrative veer from ugly to mundane. There’s something about it that almost makes you want to believe this <>is a story told from the perspective of ageless spiritual beings. For my fantasy readers, this has elements of age-old epic fantasy that made me shiver in delight. I’d recommend this book to absolutely everyone, for it is an unprecedented foray into unfamiliar realities.

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Cover Buys

top-5-tuesday

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm. This week’s topic:

FEBRUARY 6TH – Top 5 Cover Buys

Now, I don’t actually buy a ton of books, so I just talked about the books that I added to my TBR because of their cover. Not just because of their cover, though – their summaries enticed me to, but the major draw was the cover.  I…kind of overdid this a bit, since I have nine and not five books, but oh well. Pretty covers and all.

Does anyone see the pattern? Because I sure do! It seems I love really detailed, busy covers with a ton of color and pattern-work.  I think the exception is The Crimson Ribbon? I especially love it if covers are bordered in the corners (I’m sure there’s a word for this), like Under the Pendulum Sun (the only book here I actually own, purchased without reading the summary, because THAT COVER), Jane Steele, A Curious Beginning, and Beast.

Don’t get me wrong; I sometimes like simple, minimalist designs as well, but there’s just something about this style that makes me feel like the artist is taking full advantage of the fact that they’re, well, an artists.  You know? Pretty much anyone can make a decent minimalist cover design, but these covers here take some serious skill.

P.S. I have to give a shout-out to The City of Brass and the two books in the Dreamblood Duology.  They don’t really match the style I discussed above, but they’re absolutely gorgeous and take some serious artistic skill too.


P.P.S.
If I ever get a book published and I get to have some say over the cover, I’m showing them this post.

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?

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: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon vs the homo sapiens agendaTitle: SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA
Author: Becky Albertalli
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 303
Publisher: Balzer and Bray
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I knew virtually nothing about this book except that was it about a gay teen. That’s it. But I’d heard so much about it I didn’t even read the summary before diving straight in. The book gets straight to the point at once:

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t notice I’m being blackmailed.”

With that, the reader is privy not only to the overarching plot, but also to Simon’s humor. Being in his head is hilarious; he’s got this kind of approach to life where he takes everything in stride and mostly with humor, and it leads to a character who is impossible not to like. He’s utterly charming. Unfortunately, he’s being blackmailed.

Simon is gay, but nobody knows this except for “Blue,” a fellow gay boy he has been anonymously emailing. When Simon forgets to log out of his email one day, a fellow classmate named Martin takes screenshots of his emails and blackmails Simon into setting up Martin with Abby, a new girl Simon is good friends with. But Martin isn’t as douchey as you would think. However, Simon tries his best to comply with Martin’s demands, and as the story moves along, Simon’s life changes irrevocably, and subtle hints are dropped about Blue’s identity.

I absolutely loved the reveal of who Blue was. I thought Albertalli did a fantastic job. I was totally surprised, but then I nodded my head because the reveal made perfect sense. Now I kind of want to go back and re-read this book just to watch for all the clues we were given. And I’d totally be down for re-reading this; it was so much damn fun. Like I said, Simon’s narration is engaging and hilarious, and the book is a super quick read. I think I finished it in a few hours? I mean, I also couldn’t put it down, so much so that I stayed up until 4AM until I finished it. It was just so readable and fun!

And it’s so sweet and happy! Like, it doesn’t completely ignore the realities of being a gay man in in the American South, but it still shows us gay people just being happy and carefree, which was amazing. There’s so much friendship and love and positivity here. I actually really love books with happy endings and happy characters, so this book just made me super happy and cozy.

The Writer’s Tag

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Nobody tagged me for this, but I saw it on Reading Every Night and thought it looked like fun! I’ve been writing a lot more recently.  Not only has the quality of my writing improved, but so have my habits. I’ve become more at ease with the kind of writer I am and what works for me.

What genres, styles, and topics do you write about?

I write mostly fantasy! I tend to flit between YA and Adult, or fall in that nebulous category right in between, but usually it’s fantasy. Although I do have one women’s fiction/romance work that’s hidden deep within the recesses of my laptop and shall not be seen by any human eyes for a long, long time, if ever.

A lot of the topics I write are things that I want to see in books, so, female friendships, lots and lots of female characters, f/f relationships, men and women being friends and just friends, diverse characters, non-western fantasy settings, women who are not defined by romance, trope subversion, and lots of magic.


How long have you been writing?

For a while! I wrote my first completed short story when I was…twelve, I think? It was a murder mystery called “Jealousy Can Be Murder.” It had a cover page with Microsoft Word images. It was really, really terrible. Right around the same time I started writing Inuyasha and Harry Potter fanfiction.


Why do you write?

I love creating different world and different characters. But I also need to write, because if I don’t, my head gets so cluttered with different thoughts and plots and people that I can hardly think straight. I daydream a lot, and a lot of those daydreams turn into my stories. If I don’t get them on paper, they drive me insane.


When is the best time to write?

There’s never one specific time; it really depends on my mood. Sometimes I’ll be all fancy and go to a nice coffee shop (rarely), but most of the time I’m just sneaking in time to write whenever I can. Usually it’s during my free time at work. Sometimes it’s weekend evenings when the house is quiet.  Sometimes it’s at night after I’ve come home from work. I’ve found that it’s good to write whenever and wherever and not tie it down to a certain aesthetic or anything.


What parts of writing do you love and hate?

The parts of writing I love are…

  • Creating new characters and giving them names and descriptions and personas
  • Creating maps of new worlds and world-building in general
  • The initial burst of energy and inspiration when I can’t stop writing
  • Making pretty sentences

The parts of writing I hate are…

  • Plotting.  I loathe plotting and I always worry that I’m terrible at it. There’s just so much thought that needs to go into plotting, you know? It’s like, is there enough conflict? Do the characters have realized arcs that mesh with the plot? Is there an inciting incident, climax, etc? Is it interesting enough? Is it fast-paced? Is there a twist? Where’s the twist? Is the twist shocking enough? Does everything make sense? It’s obviously the crux of the novel but I’m so insecure about it.

How do you overcome writer’s block?

Whenever I’m “blocked” it’s usually just because I’m stuck with something to do with the plot. This usually comes in the outline stage, since I’ve discovered I don’t like to start writing unless I have a completed outline. Anyway, whenever this happens, I either go read another book to get some inspiration or try to find inspiration from something else. Pinterest is great for that.


Are you working on something at the moment?

I’m working on many things! I have a fantasy WIP that I’m pretty serious about; it’s fully outlined and I’m halfway done writing it. Once I’ve edited it I want to start querying for agents with it, so fingers crossed. I have a bunch of other WIP novels in the works, and also a bunch of short stories.


What are your writing goals this year?

  1. Finish my current WIP, edit it, and start querying.
  2. Finish the two short stories I’ve been working on since forever.
  3. Outline another WIP.

I don’t quite know who to tag (I suck at tagging anyway), but if obviously if you feel like doing this, go forth, and pingback to me so I can read your answers!