The Light of the World – Ellen Simpson

Light of the World CoverFirst Published: December, 2015
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eva is coping with the loss of her grandmother, Mary. When she finds Mary’s teenaged diaries, she has a mystery to unravel about a girl called Wren and the light of the world.

This wasn’t quite the novel I expected. It sounded like it’d be more epistolary, but the diary entries and other documents are scattered through occasionally. It’s mainly a standard narrative in structure. What I did expect were the two contrasting love stories. One is in the past, as Wren and Mary fall in love at a time when such things weren’t very public. The other is Eva meeting Liv, who works at a local bookstore. Along with Liv, the other bookstore workers are Theo (the owner) and Al (his son), who help Eva uncover more information about her grandmother.

Eva is depressed and has previously attempted suicide. The early part of the book is the hardest to read from this perspective, as her family did not react well. They fell into labelling her as selfish and cowardly. As it begins at Mary’s funeral, and then sorting Mary’s apartment with Eva’s parents, there’s no rest from this atmosphere. It makes Eva think about her suicide attempt, and also means Eva isn’t exactly the best version of herself. She’s very judgemental and quick to anger at the people who attend the funeral. Once her parents disappear off, things do calm down. Eva has her own space and isn’t constantly being forced to push back against her family’s reactions.

There are things I liked about the handling of depression. Medication is shown as something positive, rather than something to be avoided. Eva isn’t a different person when she takes it. She’s just a person who is better able to cope with daily tasks. There’s also discussion of generational differences in handling depression. Her older relatives don’t like to talk about such things and certainly wouldn’t want to admit they needed help.

There are some relationship hierarchy terms used with Mary and Wren, such as debating whether they are more than friends. Overall though, the narrative doesn’t devalue friendship. It’s not all about Eva falling in love with Liv. It’s important that Liv and Al are Eva’s friends. Eva’s time at the bookstore is about finding a support network, and overcoming her past issues making friends, rather than being a story about romantic love conquering all. This is a refreshing change from books that jettison all other relationships once the romance starts. Also, none of the relationships mean she suddenly doesn’t have depression anymore.

The identity of people in relationships is left open in some cases. Eva is bi (stated directly) and Liv appears to be a lesbian. But Eva is hesitant to assume an identity for Mary or Wren. At first, I wondered if this was going to be about not liking labels, but it was more that Eva acknowledged it was hard to know how people in the past would identify, and easy to erase by assuming. An example would be bi erasure by assuming Mary must be a lesbian based on one relationship.

There are a couple of Jewish supporting characters. The first, Elsie, is from Mary’s diaries. There’s very little about her, other than she seems something of a social rebel who doesn’t feel like she fits in the Jewish community. The other is Al from the bookstore.

Al has a grandmother from Ethiopia, who moved to Israel, then to the USA. She married an Ashkenazi Jewish man. The other side of the family are white. He’s described as someone who is clearly non-white, though in an ambiguous way. He’s Jewish in a casual does-the-major-holidays way. A more complex mixed race identity is a realistic thing that doesn’t get touched on much in fiction. However, it does come with a few microaggressions, like Eva assuming his family aren’t from the US (the “where are you from” discussion gets old really fast), and making special note of how his skin looks in the dark whenever the lights go out.

Religion and belief are mentioned, though the narrative doesn’t confirm or deny any particular religion. It’s more that the light of the world has been mentioned in many cultures, sometimes with religious connections. Eva’s family is agnostic from a Catholic background. She’s generally open to believing stuff and not hostile to people from other religious backgrounds.

The pacing didn’t entirely work. The beginning moves slowly, only really getting going once Eva’s parents leave her alone. The end moves very quickly, skipping over scenes that would have explained a lot. An example is Eva is apparently told something of the origin of the light of the world in a conversation, but this conversation is not shown. Instead, she offers the reader a few words to sum it up. I’d have liked to read that conservation, as it sounded important.

A few things didn’t work for me. The light of the world is repeated a lot, to the point of it being distracting. Using gross to describe women in relationships wasn’t something I liked, though I acknowledge there may be cultural differences in this being used as a cute saying between friends. Gross really only ever means bad things to me. The pressure to drink alcohol from Liv also stood out. She doesn’t consider reasons why Eva wouldn’t, other than age, and presses Eva about why she hasn’t been to such places. In Eva’s case, the main reason was social isolation, but there are a lot of reasons why someone might not drink or want to be in places where alcohol is served. There wasn’t much pushback about this in the narrative.

I enjoyed this more by the end than I thought I would. I didn’t like Eva’s early interactions with her parents, but there are fewer of those as it gets going. I did like her finding support with the bookstore crew. It’s a quieter take on urban fantasy, with a focus on personal stories and how the supernatural elements impact them. Note that it does describe suicide and that the historical love story is tragic. However, the book’s present is a lot more hopeful.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Gauntlet – Karuna Riazi

Gauntlet CoverFirst Published: 28th March, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Farah and her friends get caught in a magical game. They’ll have to win challenges if they want to escape.

Farah is a quiet and analytical sort of person, who comes from a family that play a lot of games. I liked that she is Bangladeshi and a practising Muslim, who wears a hijab. This is treated in a positive way. Her friends have known her for a long time, so there’s no hostility or questioning from them (there’s some from the children from Farah’s new school, but this isn’t shown in detail).

Some of the side characters are fun, such as the giant lizard, but I wasn’t really feeling Farah’s two friends. Part of the issue was the time limit on everything they did, so there wasn’t the sort of downtime where they could talk to each other. There’s an added distance because Farah hasn’t seen them for some time and doesn’t know what to say.

When it comes to the gameplay aspect of the story, the book delivers on its promise. The game world is an elaborate clockwork construction with multiple layers. The children have to play games, solve puzzles, and all the while keep an eye on the bigger stakes. Due to them looking for Farah’s younger brother, Ahmad, there’s time for exploration of some of the world’s secrets. It’s very imaginative with a steampunk vibe. Though again, there were points where things rushed by rather quickly, as the characters weren’t in some areas long enough to really get a feel for them.

My biggest issue was with Ahmad. He’s a seven-year-old with ADHD. Before ADHD is mentioned, I thought he must be dying, because the family avoids upsetting him and doesn’t set any boundaries for him. Farah is expected to go along with anything Ahmad wants. She has to play with him instead of her friends and she has to let him win every game. Ahmad has to have presents on anyone’s birthday, though still demands to open and own Farah’s presents. When she stands up to him, she knows she’ll get in trouble if he throws a tantrum, as though it’s unreasonable for Farah to want things for herself. This is blamed on ADHD, when it’s really about how the family react to Ahmad. Added to this, Ahmad’s mind is described as maze-like, as though he’s an unfathomable puzzle to be solved. I wondered if all this might be addressed later in the book, but it isn’t.

I was down with the steampunk game, the people that lived inside it, and the overall puzzle-solving plot. I liked Farah as a main character. However, Ahmad’s treatment made me uncomfortable. It also felt like the pace moved a bit too quickly in places.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Dreadnought – April Daniels

Dreadnought CoverSeries: Nemesis, #1
First Published: 24th January, 2017
Genre: Young Adult Superhero / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Danny is transgender, but she’s scared about telling anyone. When the superhero Dreadnought dies and transfers his powers to Danny, suddenly she gains her ideal body. Now everyone can see she’s a girl, so keeping it secret isn’t going to work anymore.

There are some pacing issues at the start. Dreadnought’s history is included as one long chunk of explanation, rather than sprinkling it in. Fortunately, this isn’t a common thing in the book and the pacing does improve.

Danny has social issues to face, such as the reaction from her parents and going back to school. She catches the attention of the local superhero team, which Dreadnought had been part of before his death. She also meets another young hero, Calamity, who has a very different perspective. Calamity is Latina and her family haven’t been treated well by the authorities, so she doesn’t trust the local team. Danny and Calamity’s relationship was the best part for me. They’re marginalised in different ways, which impacts their approaches to being heroes. Right from the start, Calamity is worried about the police and other authorities. This is something that Danny hasn’t really had to think about, as being white shields her from a lot of it.

The new supervillain is introduced right at the start, when Dreadnought is killed. It takes longer for anyone to figure out what she’s up to, as it isn’t the sort of plot the heroes are expecting. This opens up a larger mystery that will undoubtedly be the rest of the series.

I found this book very heavy, as there’s a lot of bigotry. Danny is called a variety of slurs, from ones aimed at trans people to ableist ones. She’s frequently misgendered. Her parents are abusive, and were before she transitioned, so that only gets worse. The result is Danny believes she’s a terrible person and constantly berates herself about being stupid and worthless. Then there’s the hero who thinks Danny is trying to infiltrate womankind and likens being trans to being a rapist. Some readers going through similar issues might find comfort in seeing someone else facing this, but some might find it too much.

Disability is touched on, though not in depth. Prior to getting superpowers, Danny has some hearing loss. This isn’t really explored outside of mentioning it was the case, which struck me as odd. Crowded places sound very different to me if I have something boosting the sound. An amputee appears later, but those scenes are too brief for me to have much to say. I expect that to be more relevant in the next book.

Though I thought it was a reasonable story, the binary way it approached gender didn’t work for me. Danny has internalised the idea that girls and boys have to act in set ways. Girls do this, boys do that. Girls have emotions like this, boys have emotions like that. There are a few quick references to maybe not everyone fitting this division, but it’s worded as though they’re rare exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, the narrative did challenge things like the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, the pressure to starve to stay thin, and other things like that. In those cases, Danny comes around to realising she’s internalised bad things. The gender stuff doesn’t get that realisation. A particular moment of discomfort is when a girl says she was forced to learn about makeup as the only girl in the family, which Danny thinks sounds wonderful without any reservations. This is no different from Danny being forced into playing football by her dad, as it’s all about enforcing expected gender roles, but it isn’t framed as a problem.

There are positive things about the book. It shows a trans lesbian teen coming out on top despite abuse and intolerance from the people around her. The larger mystery being set up for the series looks interesting. I only wish it’d not been quite so rigid when it came to gender.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

Love, Lattes and Angel – Sandra Cox

Love, Lattes and Angel CoverSeries: Mutants, #3
First Published: 12th April, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Piper is a dolphin-human hybrid, called a dolph. She and her friends are on the run from the scientist who created the dolphs. Her friends include her human boyfriend Tyler, her baby daughter Angel, dolph siblings Joel and Amy, and her human grandfather. Angel was recently created in a lab, from Piper and Joel’s DNA, and seems to have many new abilities. They’ll have to deal with strange storms, voodoo, and love triangles. Note that though it’s generally a light book, there are some scenes of medical torture.

I like stories centred around oceans and mermaids, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Dolphin-human hybrids sounded as though they could be interesting, even with a mention of a love triangle (which isn’t my thing) and voodoo (often handled very badly) in the description. Sometimes I regret my choices.

It’s told from the alternating perspectives of Piper and Joel. The book is not well-written right from the start. It has confusing and awkward lines, dialogue that doesn’t sound real, and paper-thin characters. The opening makes little sense, as it has Joel waking up from having his tracking chip removed. But no one considered that taking off the suppressor he was wearing would lead the bad guys right to them. There’s no obvious reason why the suppressor couldn’t be kept near the chip at all times during surgery, except that the plot couldn’t happen if they were sensible.

So Piper, Joel and Angel need to get back to the others immediately, as the bad guys might be on the way. That means time to stop for a swim, which mainly seems to happen so Joel can admire Piper’s long legs, flat belly and perky breasts. That’s obviously more important than getting to safety.

Piper doesn’t get to make her own decisions about the love triangle (with Tyler and Joel). It’s all about what the men decide to do, not about what she decides. They decide if it’d be wrong for her to have a relationship with them. They decide when it’s over. Piper is often likened in the narrative to her daughter. They do the same things, get the same gifts from Joel, and he thinks of them together as his girls… but Piper is an adult and Angel is a child. Everyone seems to forget that Piper is not a child, and should be able to make her own decisions.

At one point, Piper does complain that a decision was made for her. But the narrative is quick to confirm she’s just being silly, as Joel knows best and is doing what’s right. Later, Piper thinks of herself as being female and irrational. Thank goodness she has some rational men around to guide her and save her from danger.

Angel is the perfect child. She doesn’t smell like vomit, never needs her nappies changed, and is always cooperative. She is the best dolph of them all, as she can speak as a baby, swim faster, is telepathic, and knows the languages of all living creatures. I was waiting for some crack, but she remains perfect in every way. I suppose she had to be, because it’s not like her parents were about to come up with a plan before rushing into certain death.

This is science fiction that doesn’t realise it’s not hard science, so keeps trying to explain things in ways that break the suspension of disbelief. More handwaving the details would have gone a long way, because the science is magic.

For example, having DNA from a certain species wouldn’t magically give someone the abilities of that species. Only having the traits the DNA codes for would do that. But in this book, dolphin DNA means they can swim faster, without any fins, flippers, webbed hands/feet or anything of that nature. When Angel can swim even faster, they think she must have some fish DNA that causes that. But still no outward physical swimming adaptations.

What dolphin DNA does give them is a blowhole and the ability to hold their breath for a long time. It also gives them eyes the colour of the ocean, hot model bodies, wonderful body scent, and beautiful voices. Because dolphins are known for all those things.

There’s also the discussion about dolphin telepathy. Saying that dolphins are telepathic, and therefore that’s why Angel is telepathic, is the sort of handwaving that goes on in science fiction. However, it actually says, “Dolphins can encode information with their echolocation and whistles. Some folks consider that telepathic.” I encode information in sounds from my vocal chords all the time, which I like to call having a language.

On to the part I was concerned about from the initial description: the voodoo. Molita is a vodou high priestess, who does various rituals for them. Angel, of course, is wiser than anyone who practises vodou and teaches Moilta better ways to do things. Later, there’s a conversation between the characters to explain to the reader about vodou. The whole thing is awkward, and full of the white characters thinking of it as dangerous dark magic and the like. There is at least some pushback that it’s a religion, but I wouldn’t call this a good example of vodou. It’s about on a level with the rest of the book.

Amy is barely there as a character, until she needs rescuing. One of the bad guys is described as albino, which reinforces the trope of albinistic people being inherently evil. Everyone falls in instalove. There are just so many points where I regretted thinking dolphin-human hybrids sounded fun.

Bad writing, worldbuilding and characterisation mean there’s not a lot going for this. I can see people reading it to boggle at the badness, but there’s not a lot else to recommend it. I did like the pet chicken.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]