2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Ghost Bride

Li Lan is the studious daughter of a noble but bankrupt Chinese family, and as such has few prospects for a successful marriage in 1890s Malaysia. When a marriage offer from the powerful Lim family comes, it is to wed Li Lan to their recently deceased son, Tian Ching. This ‘ghost marriage’ is meant to appease Tian Ching’s spirits after a mysterious death, and offers Li Lan her best chance at a secure life.  Li Lan refuses, but finds her dreams haunted by the jealous and powerful Tian Ching. Li Lan is drawn into the haunting parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, populated with ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, spirits both petty and monstrous, and a remarkable amount of bureaucracy. The only thing that protects Li Lan is an enigmatic guardian spirit, Er Lang, and her own determination.

This supernatural fantasy by Yangsze Choo provides a beautiful dive into a fascinating setting. The early chapters of the book take place in colonial Malaysia (Malaya, in the 1890s), which springs off the page. But it is once Li Lan enters the Chinese spirit world that Choo really shines. This is a belief system I know almost nothing about, and Choo managed to keep my enthralled and surprised without ever leaving me confused or needing more.

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Choo’s characters and plot are the many vehicles into the world that Choo creates for us, and as such are a little shallow. Li Lan serves her character purpose well; she is not dripping with detail, but neither is she a total cookie cutter. She serves to highlight the setting, mythology, and culture of the story.  While Choos characters do not have much depth, they do have nuance. Perhaps because the spirit world of Chinese belief is so similar to the real world (with class problems, servants, bureaucracy, bribes, and petty feuds and trickery)- the heroes and villains of Choo’s story are nuanced: humorous, pitiful, annoying, charming, and loathsome all together, even when they are ghoulish monsters or her very own father.

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I chewed through The Ghost Bride in two days, delighted all the while. This story does not follow the typical adventure arc a reader might expect- the love triangle barely exists, Li Lan never has to do battle with her tormentor Tian Ching, important characters come and go very quickly, the palace intrigue is not revealed in a ‘gotcha!’ moment. We never even make it to the Courts of Hell! Instead, this is a patient exploration of a cultural belief system, both the spooky and mundane, and the question of what it means to be free in a world where duty, family, and culture are more powerful a force than death itself.  The Ghost Bride is a delicate and fascinating ghost story, with just enough court intrigue, romance, and adventure to keep things recognizable for the general YA reader.

The Ghost Bride

2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

Shadows Cast by Stars

A plague has ravaged much of the world, and the only ones immune are those with American aboriginal blood. Sixteen-year-old Cassandra, along with her depressed father and angsty twin brother flee to the Island, a community that offers safety for native peoples. The Island is protected by a spiritual barrier that keeps outsiders away and spirits within. In her new home, Cassandra struggles to find her place, and learns to control her dangerous and powerful connection with the spirit world.

 

While SCbS could be described as sci fi or fantasy, it really reads more like a traditional maturation novel. Cassandra spends most of this first book worrying about her friends and family, realizing and rebelling against power dynamics within her tribe, and growing into her own as a powerful and skilled healer.

While the unique cultural elements make Shadows Cast by Stars an interesting and engaging read, there were some major problems, especially as the book progressed.

  1. The balance between the interesting and mundane felt off the entire book- Cassandra spends just too much time with introspection and teen angst. I lost count of how many scenes involved walking somewhere, and then turning around and walking back.
  2. Knutsson wrote about native culture in a way that came off as an outsider perspective, which is not what I was expecting going into this book. There are flags starting at the beginning- totems, dreamcatchers, the term “half-blood” used casually. As the book progressed, stereotypes of the native community were very roughly handled- there’s drinking and sexual assault and sexism- and Knutsson wasn’t giving me anything nuanced with any of these issues.
  3. The most interesting and unique aspects of this story were rushed and muddled. Cassandra can walk in the spirit world, where she heals and binds spirits, battles evil, and converses with both antagonistic and helpful guides. But most of these interactions felt unteathered, leaving me with no real visual understanding of the scene, interactions, or significance. I routinely felt ambivalent – Cassandra’s reactions to her various trials left me shrugging.

Overall, Shadows Cast by Stars was entertaining, but just too sloppy to entice me towards the remaining books in the series. It has a wonderful blurb and premise, and native culture is woefully underrepresented in mainstream YA science fiction and fantasy, but the delivery just isn’t there.

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Star Touched Queen

Maya is a teenager that has high aspirations but low expectations for her life; as the most unfavored daughter of the King, Maya hopes to be left alone to study and learn for her whole life. But when her kingdom is ravaged, Maya agrees to marry the mysterious king of Akaran, Amar. But the kingdom of Akaran and Amar’s castle both seems completely empty. Despite the passion Amar seems to have for her, she isn’t sure she is safe.   Maya must unravel the secrets that Amar and Akaran’s castle hide to save herself and those she loves. Read my first look at TSTQ here. 

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Chokshi’s story is grounded in Hindu myths and an Indian cultural setting, adding plenty of novelty and unique concepts to exercise her prose on– and she is capable of gorgeous prose. TSTQ’s cultural foundation gives the characters some unique settings, ghoulies, and obstacles. TSTQ has plenty of evocative imagery and imagination, which really made up for the fact that I couldn’t connect with Maya or Amar at all.

“You look like edges and thunderstorms. And I would not have you any other way.”

Maya held very little personality, and Amar, though a sexy, passionate, and all powerful God, didn’t compel me. Despite the insta-love that blooms between Maya and Amar, they rarely talk to each other about tangible things, which of course leads to misunderstandings and barriers that felt contrived.

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There was so much promise here. The first half of this book was an enjoyable enough read- I blew through the first half with a few happy eye-rolls and smirks at the sheer dreamyness of it all, and I adored the potential of the settings and characters even if they hadn’t really blossomed yet. But the second half, and the book as a whole, left me wanting and disappointed.  The second half of the book felt rushed and lacking in actual action at the same time, like it should have been it’s own story with more depth and conflict. This lead me to wonder why the first half of the book- a whole new world, the Night Bazaar, mystical powers, romance, trauma over her experiences, and numerous trust shifts, wasn’t given the time and care it deserved.

“I wanted a love thick with time, as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved it from night and as familiar as the marrow in my bones. I wanted the impossible, which made it that much easier to push out of my mind.”

Finally, as much as the writing can be gorgeous, the book is overstuffed with visuals and stars and metaphors. There’s very little of grounding sensual description- few smells, few colors, few sounds- I honestly felt like the characters were walking an empty stage. The most gorgeous of Chokshi’s imagery is lost in a pile of metaphors that confuse rather than clarify, pillow-talk that simply doesn’t make sense, descriptor paragraphs about feelings when I have no idea what anything actually looks like.  Chokshi has the talent, clearly, for evocative language. But for my taste, she needs to kill some of those darlings to let what works really shine.

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The Star-Touched Queen is just the first book in a series, and perhaps Chokshi will hit her stride later on in the series. She is active on this book’s Goodreads page, and her explanation of the Hindu myths at the foundation of this story show so much interesting material that I wished I’d seen more of in the actual book. Maybe this is partially my own ignorance of Hindu myths; I wonder if I’d been more aware of the retelling aspects I’d have found her work more compelling.

If Chokshi gives me a firmer grounding in her foundation myths, focuses more on plot and character development, and edits her purple prose down to just that which works, I think she could create something gorgeous and powerful.  The Star Touched Queen just isn’t there yet.

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Recommended if you love flowery prose and are looking for PG-13 passion.  There are many glowing reviews of this story, and some delicious fan art to boot. This one just isn’t for me.

Tongue-in-cheek Scent Notes: Night and smoke, edges, the perfume of souls.

3

(The art on this post is from Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński. The art is darker than TSTQ was, and of the wrong culture, but just so connected and cool I couldn’t resist.)

2017 Reviews, Fiction

The Reader

After a brutal murder orphaned Sefia as a child, she has lived her life running from authorities and anyone who may get too close. But when her mentor  is taken, Sefia is left to fend for herself using the only clue she has, a rectangular object full of paper. In Sefia’s world, reading and writing don’t exist, and Sefia does not know how important the book in her hands is to the people who killed her parents.  Along her way, Sefia saves and befriends the loyal Archer, a traumatized young gladiator whose past has rendered him mute, but not unable to communicate. These two friends face magical and violent foes, battles on the high seas, and slavery- all while Sefia teaches herself to read. Read my First Look here. 

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This is a book about stories, and The Reader is really, really clever about it.  Sefia does not know the story that lead her parents to build a secluded home with a secret escape, just to hide the book. Archer cannot tell the story of how he came to be a lethal fighter unable to speak, hunted by a strange cult. As the characters explore their pasts and how they might survive the future, we find that these two unknown stories are actually woven tightly together. There is literal magic in this story, tied closely to the ‘magic of stories’ in a way that is just pretty darn cute.static1.squarespace

Chee does an amazing job of rendering a world that does not have written history, where all stories and memories must be passed down verbally. The world of The Reader is full and complex, as are the characters of Sefia and Archer. Their traumas are well-realized and respected by Chee, not used for cheap thrills or to put them into ridiculous scenarios. Even the tropey characters- the assassins and pirates and even the secret society- end up feeling unique, human, and special to this world. The friendship that blossoms between Sefia and Archer is surprisingly well done, as is the comradery of the pirates featured in the book Sefia reads.

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This book doesn’t hold the reader’s hand through some narrative structure tricks, and it may be a bit complex for younger YA readers. There are long stretches where the action takes a backseat to introspection and relationship building, which may come off as ‘slow’ to some readers who are looking for higher energy storytelling. That’s all I can come up with as potential criticisms. I thought this was really just wonderful all around.

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I hate catching excellent debuts of trilogies; waiting years for the end of this one will be rough. I highly recommend this book to anyone* looking for something fresh in the YA fantasy genre, especially if you’re looking for gorgeous style and diverse characters (Sefia is described as asian, Archer has a disability, and there are women and people of color in power positions throughout the story).

Scent Notes: gun oil, freshly carved bark, and a well tended library

*Content Warning: There is rare but very intense violence in these books. Torture, brutalization, slavery, and murder are described in detail, and the two main characters suffer extensive trauma from what they’ve endured.

4

First Looks, Long Fiction

First Look: Ink

ink-cover-1000 “What happens when rhetoric about immigrants escalates to an institutionalized population control system? The near-future, dark speculative novel INK opens as a biometric tattoo is approved for use to mark temporary workers, permanent residents and citizens with recent immigration history – collectively known as inks.”

Ink made it onto my reading list prior to election day, and was then taken off, and was then put back on again after election day. I haven’t found much about Vourvoulias or this book, but the description- xenophobia coupled with magical realism and science fiction elements- seems just so potentially meaningful in 2017.

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate tells the strange and luscious story of the De la Garza family in Mexico at the turn of the century. Tita, forbidden to marry by the family matriarch and all but relegated to the kitchen, finds she is able to express her true self through cooking. When family and guests eat Tita’s food, they are overcome with overwhelming disgust, lust, anger, and sadness. Each chapter features a specific dish, and relates both Tita’s personal journey into a modern Mexican woman, but also the story of Mexico as it undergoes a revolution on the outskirts of Tita’s life. (Read my First Look here)

I’ll admit that the first four times I tried to find this book at my library, I thought they didn’t carry it. I thought they only carried a sort of study guide for book clubs, with monthly recipes. Turns out, that’s the book. Don’t be fooled like I was.

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help…Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul…If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.

Esquivel does a lovely job of throwing the reader directly into the kitchen to hear these tales. The narration for each chapter truly feels like a person relaying a recipe for you, and getting sidetracked on family tall-tales. Each chapter is about food, but also love, and also womanhood, and also revolution. The writing is sensual in every meaning of the word. There are scenes that are embarrassing and gross, and others erotic and heartbreaking. There is magical realism here, and unlike another MR behemoth (100 Years of Solitude) this magic feels much more human and maybe feminine. There is magic in Tita’s cooking, but also in all food, in sex, in stories, and in relationships.

I always want more magic in my magical realism. However, it wouldn’t make sense for the narrator of this tale to fawn over the magical details. Everything here comes through a sort of distanced retelling of old family stories; questioning the details is not only rude, but detrimental to the point of the retelling. The food and emotions are an exception, but overall this story is not as richly textured as others in the genre; settings and characters were both slightly shallow and one-dimensional. In these ways, LWfC feels more like a tall-tale than magical realism, but either way I enjoyed it.

This is a quick and fun read, with a little bit of heartbreak, lots of good food, and some sexy and funny stuff thrown in. Great book for all those aspiring kitchen witches out there. If you want to try out Magical Realism but don’t quite have the gumption to try 100 Years of Solitude right away, this is a great introduction to the genre.

Scent Notes: wet masa, sweat, crushed rose petals

3.5

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

When the Moon was Ours

Rumors swirl about odd best friends, Miel and Sam. Sam paints moons to hang in the trees around town and mostly keeps to himself. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrists, and no one knows where she came from before she tumbled out of the town’s water-tower. But as odd as Miel and Sam are, even stranger are the Bonner girls, four beautiful, redheaded sisters who enchant the town and always get what they want. One of the Bonner sisters decides she wants the roses from Miel’s wrists, and the sisters are willing to do anything, and betray everyone, to get them. Read my First Look here. 

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“…both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it.”

When the Moon was Ours is a tender exploration of teenage identity and love, with sensual prose and stunning heart. This is the most evocative young adult novel I’ve ever read, and McLemore exhibits precise control over ethereal elements of magical realism,  sensitive portrayal of latinx, Pakistani, and trans characters*, and a very grounded-to-life plot that will remind any reader of being a teenager with secrets to hide. This character-driven romance is simply gorgeous.

“She had left the stars on her skin the whole day, while they let the sun heat their backs. When they ran, her perspiration made the foil shine damp, and it wore the edges of the adhesive, but the little stars stayed. And that night he had lifted each one off her, slowly, so they didn’t pull at her skin… He had mapped her body like a new sky.”

redhead-women-portrait-photography-maja-topcagic-1_zpsbj8kctvfMany things reveal slowly in this story – the backstories of many of the main characters, the secrets held dearly by Sam and Miel, the reason for the Bonner sister’s hostility- each unfurling in their own time, much like the flowers that Miel grows from a wound in her wrist. This book is rich with legends, cultural folklore, family dynamics, and small-town magics.

Unlike many teen romances, this book is not about the tension of ‘will they won’t they’, and there is no flimsy misunderstanding designed to give our characters something to overcome. This book uses love in the best way possible, to explore the strength and resilience of human relationships and the willingness to sacrifice for the people we love.

The two main characters’s love moves from friendship to something more in a slow burn, and this book handles the complexity and earnestness of teen love and sexuality with the respect that teens rarely get but truly deserve. That one character is trans is important, but not treated as a barrier to their relationship or a curiosity to exploit. It was very important to see erotic and meaningful sex on the page for these two characters, and not an ounce of  shaming of teens exploring their sexuality in a consenting and loving way.

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You should read this book. It is threaded with magic and heart, in plot and character and prose. McLemore gives a truly inspiring romance that I’d happily see more relationships modeled after. It reaffirmed my belief that YA can be literary and groundbreaking, and it made my heart ache in the best way.

Scent Notes: Paint thinner in the night air, blood-damp roses, and brown sugar.

*McLemore’s partner is trans, and McLemore is Latina. Her author’s note at the back of this book is, like everything else, beautiful.

5