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.

06-29-peranakan-couple

 

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.

3116190._SX540_

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.

Shadows Cast by Stars.png

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. 

zdzis_2cf10b_5451442.jpg

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.

Artwork-by-Zdzislaw-Beksinski-10

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.

Zdzislaw-Beksinski-Paintings-64

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.

zdzislaw_beksinski_1978_4

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, 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. 

blood-rose-macro-hdr_61-1658

“…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.

6a0120a86f70d7970b017c324ca894970b

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

2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Under a Painted Sky

Samantha, a Chinese American, and Annamae, a runaway slave, flee West  towards California. Annamae is running from slavery and to find her brother, while Samantha is fleeing an accidental crime. Both girls are looking for a new start and freedom that they just can’t have in Missouri in 1845.

b052e9cd4014e17e426697fed22c534f.jpgThe girls disguise themselves as boys-Sammy and Andy- and join a band of three young cowboys for protection. The group romps through the Western genre: learning to ride horses and shoot guns, a stampede, a treacherous river crossing, animal attacks, dysentery, a fiddle/banjo battle. This book is seriously fun, and gives opportunity for the girls to use their own skills as well as learn new ones from the cowboys. Along the way they meet abolitionists and musicians, gold hunters and criminals, and many groups of people fleeing west for opportunity or freedom. Each character brings a cultural asset to the story- a refreshing reminder that the westward expansion wasn’t just a white Protestant story.

“After a thousand miles of trail, it seems to me that good luck is always just a few steps ahead of bad, and maybe the amount one receives of either simply depends on the distance traveled.”

untitled-design-2As the girls are pursued by the law, violent men in the wilderness, a supposedly murderous gang of escaped slaves, and their own grief, they become close friends. They also become close with the cowboys, but must always keep their real selves hidden. There are some laughs here, but also a decent look at gender norms as explained by young folk on the frontier. Sam and Andy’s experiences allow the reader to explore grief, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Though the book has moments of intense violence, including the underlying violence of bigotry, Under a Painted Sky is ultimately about was can happen when people are kind. What gets our two characters to their surprising but happy ending is goodness in unlikely circumstances and from unlikely people, the beauty of music and storytelling, and the determination and friendship of two brave young women.

3-a-southwest-sunset-saija-lehtonen

This is a fun adventure that has a diverse cast of characters, explores time period issues through a race and gender lens, and shows the power of female friendships! A great book for teen readers* and adults.

Scent Notes: warm leather, violin polish, and rain on hot dirt

*CW: Book has more than one attempt at sexual violence perpetrated by adult men against young women. Also death, slavery, and murder are a regular element.

4