Pumpkin – Ines Johnson

Pumpkin CoverSeries: Cindermama, #1
First Published: 10th March, 2015
Genre: Romance
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Pumpkin is a single mother, who has given up on fairytale happy endings. Manny is from a rich family and running for mayor. When they meet, Manny knows Pumpkin isn’t the one, because all his family have a gift where they see a golden aura around their true love. But whatever the magic may be saying about it, both of them have other ideas.

This is a contemporary romance retelling of Cinderella, with light magical elements. Basically the ability to see auras taken to a more magical level. I liked the idea of subverting destined magical soulmates, and that is the general direction of the book. Love is something that takes work and there are no guarantees because the golden aura said (or didn’t say) so.

The writing was generally conversational and easy to breeze through. There are some things that worked well, like Pumpkin having to realise she couldn’t force people to be like a movie script. Some of her people predictions are very wrong, because she’s more caught up in stories than reality. The mayoral campaign worked well enough as a plot to tie things together.

My main issue is it wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. As it starred a single mother, I wasn’t expecting so much hate to be piled on single mothers. Pumpkin is only okay because she’s the idealised single mother, who has a day job, and hasn’t dated since her husband walked out. Her cousins (the ugly step-sisters of the tale) are horrible welfare queens who take food stamps when they don’t need them, and purposefully try to have children by lots of men to get child support. It’s frequently laid on how terrible they are. Empathy is for Pumpkin, not single mothers as a whole.

In Pumpkin’s own words about welfare: “I think the flaw with social programs is that the poor start to believe they can’t do for themselves without it and the rich believe the poor can’t act without their help.” This doesn’t match my experiences at all, where it’s more that poor people wish they didn’t have to rely on it, and rich people wish they could stop paying out because they’d have more money if they let people starve. But the narrative proves Pumpkin right. After all, people collecting food stamps are like her horrible cousins.

It turns out the golden aura is because Manny and his family are gypsies. There are certainly times when Roma people might reclaim that word, but a book where it’s the source of fairytale magic, because Roma are like magical fairytale people, is not one of those times. There wasn’t any other cultural connection, outside of golden auras and fortune telling.

I can see this romance might appeal to some readers, given its fairytale themes. For me, I couldn’t really get past the policing of what makes someone a respectable poor person.

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

The Missing – Melanie Florence

The Missing CoverFirst Published: 12th February, 2016
Genre: Young Adult Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Lorimer

Girls are going missing at Feather’s school, but the police aren’t taking it seriously because they’re Aboriginal. Feather has to deal with the aftermath of the disappearances, as well as try to figure out who might be taking them.

There are a lot of serious subjects tackled in the book, such as the disappearance of Native girls being ignored by the police, anti-gay sentiments, child abuse, and victim blaming. It ties into many real cases where such disappearances are ignored or mishandled. Though it has some mystery aspects, investigating the disappearances is not the primary focus. It centres much more on how Feather and her friends cope with what’s going on.

I liked the interaction between the characters as they come to terms with what’s happened. Everyone reacts differently. Sometimes in ways that show they’re not such nice people after all. Feather has to work out her feelings about this, as well as understanding that her friends come from very different family environments. Not everyone has their family’s support.

The killer’s perspective was also interesting. He uses a lot of exotifying terms, like describing the girls he watches in comparison with food. It’s pretty creepy to be constantly compared to food products, whilst never getting to be a person, and these sections highlight that perfectly. The girls aren’t people to him. They’re sugar-sweet playthings. It’d be nice if this was required reading for authors who think it’s a compliment to liken non-white people to chocolate.

I did wonder at one point why Feather didn’t take a weapon with her. She seems to have thought everything else though, except for that. I was also hoping for a bit more mystery solving towards the end.

Despite being good at handling some issues, it did fall down somewhat when it comes to mental health. The killer is described as crazy and insane. It’d be nice to find a story where the killer isn’t depicted as a crazy person, especially when it’s in this sort of context. Using privilege as a weapon against marginalised people isn’t a sign of insanity. A non-neurotypical person is much more likely to be the victim in this scenario.

The book is written for reluctant readers, and achieves the aim of mature subjects written in easier language. It has short chapters and clear writing. Some of the dialogue is a little stilted. However, a reader who is absorbed in the story is likely to overlook this.

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

Sugar Scars – Travis Norwood

Sugar Scars CoverFirst Published: 28th July, 2015
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Sugar is a type 1 diabetic. When a virus kills most of the world’s population, she hoards all the insulin she can find. But insulin can’t be stored forever. To survive, she’s going to have to make her own.

There will be some discussion of sexual assault in this review, though no graphic descriptions.

The basic premise is something that appealed to me. It’s a different kind of post-apocalyptic survival, as it deals with how to get something that requires a society to produce. This part is handled well enough. Sugar’s diabetes is something she constantly has to remember, by monitoring her blood sugar and food intake. Producing insulin also isn’t something she can do alone. It requires a community. Though there are people who use society’s collapse to do bad things, most of the survivors are simply trying to live their lives and help each other out. This is realistic, as most people don’t actually turn into serial killers the moment a disaster happens.

The issues I had weren’t with the main plotline of trying to set up insulin production. Communities that band together and help their sick and disabled members is something I’m down with, and I wish happened more in post-apocalyptic work. The problem was everything else.

Sugar does not act like an older teenager. She acts like a child. Though her voice does mature somewhat over time, the start was a mismatch between what the text says she is (a nineteen-year-old who has been in and out of various foster homes, and living on her own since she was eighteen) and her behaviour (maybe nine or ten years old at most). At first, I thought this might be purposeful. She might be non-neurotypical. But as it went on, I changed my mind, because of the gender binary stuff.

And there’s a lot of gender binary stuff going on. Women all want babies, even the ones who say they don’t. Men are all lust machines. Sugar thinks her first relationship was as an equal and she never relied on her boyfriend, yet what is shown is her struggling with basic tasks when he isn’t there to do them. He did manly man stuff, because he was the provider. She cooked and looked after the house. There’s a constant repeating of how small and tiny Sugar is (she’s a woman of average size) that I’ve come to associate with this sort of attitude. It’s a way to portray women as being like children. Which with Sugar’s immaturity, combined together in a package that says women really need menfolk around to look after them.

Non-white people are mostly there as background decoration, or for Sugar to sweep in and rescue. It’d be nice to say no gay people appeared, but one of the characters has a backstory of being raped by his father as a child, and by other boys of a similar age. Gay people are rapists and paedophiles. There are no counterexamples to this.

That’s touching on just a few of the bigger issues. There’s basically a layer of bigotry over every aspect of the book. The author’s worldview shines through clearly, and it’s a worldview that hates people like me. I was not particularly surprised that the author’s note says he aspires to be like Orson Scott Card. For anyone who loves Card and his politics, this might be a great book. For anyone else, it’s one to avoid.

[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]