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]

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]

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]

Wildwitch: Wildfire – Lene Kaaberbøl (author), Charlotte Barslund (translator), Rohan Eason (illustrator)

Wildfire CoverSeries: Wildwitch, #1
First Published: 7th January, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Clara is attacked by a large black cat on the way to school. When she gets sick from the wounds, her mother takes her to visit Aunt Isa for the first time. Isa is a wildwitch, and it looks like Clara might be too. The cat is only the start though. There’s something else going on, and it’s soon apparent that Clara needs training in order to defend herself.

The book looked as though it was inspired by traditional European witches. This is of particular interest to me, given my family connections. I wasn’t disappointed. The wildwitches are clearly based on that, down to having familiars (wildfriends), the nature focus of the magic, and a matriarchal system.

Much of the story is about Clara adjusting to what’s going on. She has to settle into staying with Aunt Isa, learn to get along with fellow apprentice Kahla, and figure out how to be a wildwitch. At the same time, all this means missing her mother and school friends. I liked that other concerns don’t magically disappear for the witches. Clara’s school has to be told she’s sick, to cover for her absence. Isa creates art to make money. The rest of the world doesn’t just fade away because there’s magic in it.

It also touches on systematic issues. The wildwitches aren’t right in every way. Their laws and traditions are subject to change, such as no longer making the ruling council blind themselves, and allowing some men in. Being close to nature doesn’t make an organisation infallible.

The way Clara’s training is handled is realistic. Clara has the raw ability and power, but she doesn’t have precision or control. A few weeks of training doesn’t suddenly make her a master. She’s a sledgehammer compared to Kahla. Wildwitches have to train for a long time. Clara doesn’t get around this because she’s the protagonist.

There were a few things that caught my attention in less positive ways. Kahla is non-white, and her skin is described as cinnamon. I’ll give the book its due that it doesn’t linger on that or keep repeating it, but food descriptions for skin are exotifying. I’m also a little undecided on the statement that blind people tend to be drawn to the council. It’s somewhat implied that it’s because they gain sight through their animals. I can see it might be true for some individuals (especially someone who wasn’t blind from birth), and it’s not stated that blind people are more magical or all drawn this way. But there’s still that implication that not having sight is something that needs patching up. I’d feel more comfortable if there had been blind people in other roles as well, who’d made other choices.

I enjoyed the story. There was a good balance of the more domestic scenes, where Clara is learning and figuring out where she stands, and the action scenes leading to the finale. I look forward to seeing how Clara’s abilities develop, and finding out more about the world of wildwitches.

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

The Oddfits – Tiffany Tsao

Oddfits CoverSeries: The Oddfits Series, #1
First Published: 1st February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Murgatroyd Floyd doesn’t fit in. He’s the only white child at school, has one friend, and nothing ever seems to work out for him. He’s also an Oddfit, able to visit another land called the More Known World. Once he reaches adulthood, a group who explore that world seek him out.

This is a portal story set in a person’s life before the portal. Murgatroyd sees a few glimpses of the More Known World, but it’s mainly not about that. It’s about his life growing up and living in Singapore. It’s also a story with mature themes written in a children’s book style. Both of these things made me interested in reading it. I did like the early part where Murgatroyd is befriending the ice cream seller. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

Murgatroyd is abused right from the start. It’s not simply that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, but that the people around him actively try to harm him. This starts with his parents, who make sure his first day at school goes badly, then tell him it’s his fault. The abuse continues into adulthood, where they keep all his earnings, to be sure he doesn’t gain any independence.

The other people in his life are only marginally better. His employer sees him more as a novelty possession to make her restaurant look good, and his best friend is selfish. It only counts as better because they don’t spend as much time with Murgatroyd, so the damage they do is limited compared to his parents.

As the abuse continued, I was increasingly uncomfortable with how it was handled. At first, the tone feels as though the reader is supposed to laugh at the things happening to Murgatroyd. I wasn’t laughing. Later on, this abuse is blamed on the Known World reacting to Murgatroyd being an Oddfit. In other words, blame for the abuse is shifted away from the abusers. They couldn’t help it. Murgatroyd was just different and they had to treat him like that. Which is disturbingly close to how people try to minimise abuse against non-neurotypical children.

There are interesting elements to the story. The idea of the More Known World, and the parts shown of it, was potentially fascinating. It looks set for the series to make some different choice in terms of plot, compared to the usual portal story. Where it falls down is the challenge of making someone’s pre-portal life as exciting as the world on the other side. I don’t feel this book managed it. There wasn’t a whole lot of plot, so it was stretched very thin. There’s a lot of padding, such as the multiple paragraphs taken up listing out food items.

There are some things that may be an issue for readers. There are a few casual bigoted comments made, generally by characters (though some are in the narration). Examples are bystanders fat shaming people, Murgatroyd’s parents using binary gender assumptions as a weapon, and calling an unhealthy home environment schizophrenic. There are also some detailed descriptions of killing animals, as the restaurant where Murgatroyd works slaughters animals as a public entertainment. Basically, the book isn’t as fluffy as it might appear on a quick read of the opening, so go into it knowing that.

I liked some parts of the book enough that I might read the next one. This acted as a prologue more than anything, and it might be the aspect of abusers not being able to help abusing will be subverted later. It’s difficult to tell at this point, as a lot of the nature of the More Known World wasn’t explained. I’d also hope the next book picks up the pace, now that the world and the main players are introduced. This is a book that had potential, but never quite reached it.

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