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.

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Book Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

30319086Title: IF WE WERE VILLAINS
Author: M.L. Rio
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 368
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m not quite sure how to start this, because this book was an unexpected emotional roller coaster for me. It’s incredible to me that I started this book struggling to tell the characters apart and by the end I found myself loving each and every one of them. Inevitably, my review is not going to properly express the admiration I have for this book, which was all at once captivating, humorous, and tragic. I will do my best to express how much I loved it without spoiling anything, as I think this book is best read knowing as little about it as possible.

At Dellecher Classical Conservatory, an exclusive school for the arts, only Shakespeare is performed. Seven fourth-year theater students have played the same archetypes, both on and off the stage, throughout their years at Dellecher. In their fourth year, however, a reshuffling of the cast roles unsettles the carefully constructed dynamic in this group, and soon one of their number is dead. The narrator, Oliver Marks, has spent ten years in prison for this crime, and as the book opens he begins to tell his story.

Rio has crafted seven individual characters and breathed life into each and every one. Yes, some characters were weaker than others, but ultimately it is the clash of these personalities, as well as their affections for and resentments towards one another that propel this narrative forward. One of my favorite tropes is that of “found families” and that is what you will find here – a slightly dysfunctional family, perhaps, but a family nonetheless. It is this utter familiarity with one another that makes it so easy to get to know these characters and love them. True to its artistic inspiration, this book is an investigation of monumental themes like guilt and villainy, love and loyalty, and the boundary between art and life. The tangled relationships between this group of characters is the driving force of the narrative; the complexity and ambiguity between the seven of them is unabashedly human, delightfully endearing, and, of course, occasionally uncomfortable. It makes for intense, rich reading.

This book is also an examination of the havoc wreaked by toxic masculinity and a subversion of normative expectations, neither of which is immediately obvious, but both of which are as integral to the plot as Shakespeare. The critique of toxic masculinity is remains somewhat obscure, unfortunately, and I do wish that it had been more clearly interrogated, though I also understand why the author chose to leave things more ambiguous. Wonderfully, however, the subversion of normative expectations (and that’s as specific as I’ll get) is unequivocal.

Speaking of richness: the prose is incredible. More than once I found myself pausing to re-read paragraphs for the sheer joy of the language. Rio uses words to paint vivid mental images of Dellecher, deftly crafting a dramatic and atmospheric setting. It’s rare that I feel so utterly transported to a place I’m reading about, but in this book, I could feel the beauty and the claustrophobia inherent in a small, enclosed campus like Dellecher. I can still picture the cold, still lake, the stars reflecting on its surface, with a tower rising out of the trees in the background. The author’s uses of analogy and metaphor are also absolutely superb, lending elegance to a narrative that could have easily devolved into melodrama given its lofty inspiration.

There’s a lot of Shakespeare in here, both literally and intertextually. Not only are there huge chunks of Shakespearean quotes as part of extended, lovingly described performances, and not only do the characters often speak in Shakespearean quotes to one another, the entire narrative is framed as a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean themes lurk in every corner, discussed by the characters and hinted at by the author. That is not to say this book is only for Bardolators, however: personally, I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, and yet I was able to enjoy this book immensely. It certainly won’t hinder your reading experience, in my opinion, only enhance it. If you’re worried it makes things melodramatic and pretentious, don’t be – yes, there is an inherent pretentiousness to characters speaking in Shakespearean sonnets, but it is something the characters and the author are all too aware of. It is this intense self-awareness that makes the book – and the characters – much more likable than their counterparts in The Secret History, a book with similar events but radically different themes.

By the end I was surprisingly emotional. As a person, the ending made me want to curl up into a ball and sob, but as a reader and a writer, I thought it was very fitting, artistically and thematically. This is a thrilling, engaging read, with gorgeous prose, likable characters, and plenty of literary allusions. What more could one want? I highly, highly recommend this book, even if literary fiction isn’t normally your jam (it certainly isn’t mine). M.L. Rio is definitely an author whose career I will be keeping a close eye on.

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

31434883Title: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE
Author: Gail Honeyman
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 327
Publisher: Viking Pamela Dorman Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. She’s had the same job for nine years yet has no friends, drinks vodka everyday to help her sleep, is convinced a musician she’s never met is her soul mate, and is repressing some horrific unnamed trauma from her past.

In case you haven’t guessed: Eleanor Oliphant is not fine.

Socially clueless and out of touch, thirty-year-old Eleanor’s narrative voice is incredibly engaging; it’s what makes the story so unique. She takes things literally to a bizarre degree, which places her in some hilarious situations while doing ordinary things like waxes and manicures. At first the crux of the novel seems to be Eleanor’s obsession with an obnoxious local musician, and then it seems like it’s going to be about an office romance, but, thankfully, it is neither of those things.

To me it felt like a kind of coming-of-age story of an emotionally stunted young woman. The focus of the novel is Eleanor’s voice, her development, her struggles, and her past. As the novel progresses, Eleanor develops a friendship with a coworker named Raymond, and it seems this is just the push she needed to bring things to a head, to make her realize that her monotonous existence could do with some human companionship. Raymond, the antithesis of the Handsome Male Lead, is a very ordinary person but an absolute sweetheart; I loved how patient and understanding he was with Eleanor.

The mystery of Eleanor’s past is dangled like a carrot; I found myself racing through the pages because I was desperate to find out what happened. The author reveals little clues bit by bit, and this is organically reflective of how much Eleanor has repressed her painful past. It is artfully done, and by the end, Eleanor starts to heal. Her strangeness and quirkiness does not magically disappear into thin air, either; she retains her personality but develops into it, if that makes sense. She grows. It’s very subtle and very well done.

If I had to sum up this book in one sentence, it would be with one of my favorite quotes from The Office: “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” For though this book is at times deeply depressing, even bringing me to the verge of tears several times, it makes a point to emphasize the beauty of the small, ordinary things that make life worth living. Lunch with a friend, a beloved pet, an oversized sweater. Little things, without which life would have little meaning.

Suffice it to say, this book was a hopeful, bright story of friendship and survival that I enjoyed very much!

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 Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

34017058Title: THE BLOODPRINT
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 425
Publisher: Harper Voyager
My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Ugh. That was painful. Actually, physically painful, and I am so disappointed. This book was one of my most anticipated releases of the entire year. I actually pre-ordered this book! I purchased it! Paid money for it because I was sure I would want to have it on my shelf forever to read and reread! Instead, from the very first chapter I found myself struggling to get through it. This is a novel with great potential that was executed terribly. Let’s go through the problems one by one:

→ It is undeniable that Khan has created an intriguing world, though much of it is based on ours. The parallels between the antagonists, The Talisman and ISIS/Taliban, are painfully obvious and heavy-handed. The Claim, ancient religious words inscribed with power, is clearly meant to be the Quran. Now, there is nothing wrong with any of this – in any other book I might have relished it – but here everything is so confusing and mashed up together that I had a difficult time following along. The main character, Arian, is a First Oralist trained in the power of The Claim – and yet it is never exactly clear what precisely the Claim is or how its magic works or how Arian uses it against her enemies. Given that Arian’s powers make up the crux of the plot, leaving it unexplained greatly hindered my understanding of the overall plot. This is not the only bit of worldbuilding that was left unexplained, or touched on only vaguely. Khan throws a lot into this book and very little of it makes sense until the very end.

→ Despite the aforementioned, this book also somehow constantly delivers plodding exposition to explain worldbuilding rather than revealing it organically. The narrative comes to a shuddering halt to explain something (and not very well, either). It’s very jarring and is the mark of an inexperienced writer. There is just so, so much telling rather than showing, and it’s not even a little bit subtle.

→ I suspect it is the lack of skill in writing that makes the whole book so very, very bland. From the first chapter, which should have been a harrowing, nail-biting scene as our protagonists endeavor to save a group of women from slavery, is dull. From the get-go I just Did Not Care. And I tried, oh did I try. I wanted to care, I wanted to like this book. But there were no characters I cared about (Arian, the lead, is painfully, painfully bland) and the stakes were established properly to get me to give a damn about anything that was happening. The writing isn’t technically bad, but there’s just no spark to it. This book is lifeless.

→ The author uses omniscient narration, but she does it very, very badly. First of all, it took me a while to figure out it was omniscient narration, because the book at first gives the impression that it’s in third person limited, with most of the POV given to the protagonist, Arian. But there are throwaway chunks and sentences that are in other characters’ perspectives, even very minor characters, that just shove their way into Arian’s thoughts. And then the narrative will flit back to Arian’s POV. It’s clumsy, messy, and confusing.

→ The overall plot was terrible. First off, I’m beginning to think that ~journey~ stories take a supremely talented author to pull off, and the ~journey~ in this book was very badly paced. It’s taken me over a month to finish this book because it was just so damn boring. I literally had to force myself to finish it. And not only was the overall plot uninteresting, but even the few scenes that should have been exciting felt empty because they were written so badly! Big, action moments that should have been exciting were barely given a sentence (sometimes I barely even noticed that something huge had happened). What should have been big reveals were not revealed properly, and so they didn’t deliver any punches.

→ This is clearly being marketed as a ~feminist~ story, but unfortunately even that falls flat. Our two heroines spend the whole book ogling handsome men and having their fates controlled by them. Daniyar is introduced as Arian’s love interest and an extremely handsome man, and the author won’t let you forget it. His beauty is constantly referenced, Arian’s companion Sinnia is constantly talking about how desirable he is, and Arian herself is in love with him for reasons that baffle me, since he’s very much an asshole. This obsession with handsome men and the women in love with them doesn’t just feature with our protagonists, but with various minor characters as well, making the book not only borderline misogynistic but also shockingly heteronormative (there are NO queer characters here).

→ Arian’s companion, Sinnia, is black. The author doesn’t let you forget this either. References are constantly being made about the strangeness of her dark skin, how ~exotic~ she is, how pale Arian is in comparison, how jealous Sinnia is of Arian, etc, etc. And she is the only black character. It was extremely fetishistic and made me very uncomfortable, especially given that Sinnia’s entire existence seemed to be rooted in being Arian’s loyal companion. We are given little to nothing of her backstory, her wants or desires, despite the omniscient narration.

→ I want to touch again on how utterly boring and lifeless this book was. The author just couldn’t make me care about anything in this book. The plot was a fairly straightforward journey, with little to no intrigue or suspense. For me, this book only got mildly interesting in the very last ten pages, when there were two big reveals and twists, one of which I’d been expecting since the last third of the book. And then the book ended on a cliffhanger that I don’t particularly care about because I don’t care about anything in this book.

I don’t have much else to say. I really disliked this book, I nearly DNF’ed it multiple times, I had to drag myself back into reading it, and I’m just so relieved to be done with it.  What a damn shame.

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: 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.