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REVIEW: Moonburn by Alisa Sheckley

Dear Ms. Sheckley,

Earlier this year I read and reviewed (with Janine) your first urban fantasy book, The Better to Hold You. (Wait, can a book be termed “urban fantasy” when it’s set in the boonies? Maybe it should be called semi-rural fantasy? Though that’s kind of unwieldy as a name…) Janine and I agreed that The Better to Hold You deserved a high B grade – missing a B+, but not by much. I was eagerly anticipating this next book in the series, though as it turned out the glut of good books coming out lately means that I didn’t get around to reading Moonburn until several months after it had been released.

Moonburn opens some months after The Better to Hold You ended; Abra Barrow, lycanthrope (or werewolf, in layperson’s terms) is living the rustic life in a cabin in the woods of upstate New York with her lover, Red. Red is a shapeshifter, different from Abra in that he was born with an animal nature he can transform into, whereas Abra was infected with a virus (by her jerk of an ex-husband, Hunter) that causes her to turn wolf around the full moon every month. Abra is working for her old boss, Malachy, as a veterinarian, and trying to adjust to life without the culture and convenience that Manhattan offers.

Strange things happen in the Northside as a matter of course, but in the course of Moonburn, the strange gets considerably stranger. Developers building up nearby hillsides seem to be disturbing some ancient spirits who don’t appreciate being disturbed (the whole thing put me a bit in mind of Poltergeist). Weird stuff starts happening in town – the animals are behaving oddly and there have been mysterious attacks on humans.

I found the central paranormal plot rather confusing. While I appreciate an author who doesn’t feel the need to over-explain or infodump, there were aspects of the story that seemed like they could have used at least a little more background than was given. I ended up Googling “liminal” and “manitou” to try to understand how these concepts fit into the story. The former, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Liminality (from the Latin word lÄ«men, meaning “a threshold”[1]) is a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual by such writers as Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner[2], and others.”

Well, alrighty, then.

Okay, to be fair, it wasn’t that hard to understand, but the way it was related (or not related) in the book didn’t help my understanding. A manitou, by the way, is a sort of Native American spirit that, as far as I can understand, manifests as an animal. (But can take other forms. I think.) Manitous come into the plot when Abra encounters one after a car crash on a deserted road.

I have always found your plots (in your chick lit books written as Alisa Kwitney) a bit chaotic. But there’s something about the combination of chaotic plots and paranormal elements that for me as a reader leads to a clusterfuck of confusion and headscratching. There’s also a quality to the plot that’s…not exactly episodic, but doesn’t feel cohesive. It’s like, “this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens”, but even if these things are related they don’t feel that way to me as a reader. Each little vignette feels random.

I will say about the above criticism that it doesn’t have a huge effect on my grade or my enjoyment of this book (or any of your books). It’s something I accept as your style; I do consider it a flaw to a degree but not one that really keeps me from reading or enjoying your works. I do think I’d like it if the plots were more coherent, because I’m the type of reader that likes and admires neat plots. But in terms of grading it’s probably only a third of a letter grade (the difference between a B and a B+, for instance).

The other problem I had with Moonburn was somewhat similar, and it was more of an actual problem for me. Abra is all over the place in regards to her love life in this book, and it makes the relationship between Abra and Red very frustrating to read about. I had to check myself to see if my frustration stemmed from being a romance reader, and having certain expectations of a hero/heroine relationship. I really don’t think that’s it. Abra is almost continually ambivalent about her relationship with Red. While that’s not exactly romantic, as a reader it didn’t really bother me (perhaps partly because I really like Red but I’m not hugely invested in the Red/Abra pairing). The real problem was that her ambivalence (and thus their relationship) keeps seeming like it’s been resolved once and for all, and then it turns out that it’s not. This happened at least three separate times, and as a reader, it left me feeling off-balance. That’s not a feeling I generally enjoy while reading. Abra’s ambivalence extends to an attraction to two other men – Hunter, her aforementioned jerk of an ex-husband (did I mention that Hunter’s a jerk?) and her mysterious boss, Malachy. I found myself annoyed when the plot required Abra to make out with each of them (not out of lust but feelings of attraction did come up) in the course of the story. This felt contrived and rather silly the first time; by the second instance I was definitely rolling my eyes. Abra is also going into heat and that leads to some instances of attracting unwanted male attention. While these vignettes were amusing at times, they also felt a little silly – perhaps a too-literal play on the Mary-Suish heroine who every man wants.

Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy Moonburn very much. Your writing style is always engaging, and I like Abra as a heroine in spite of, or perhaps because of, her tendency towards wishy-washiness. She’s an interesting mix of insecure woman and kick-ass werewolf (though even in wolf form Abra is sometimes submissive). I find the secondary characters interesting and the town of Northside is a great setting – it’s sort of developing into a Northern version of Charlaine Harris’ Bon Temps (from the Sookie Stackhouse series). I will definitely keep reading your books as long as you continue to write them. My grade for Moonburn is a solid B.

Regards,

Jennie

This book can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

9 Comments

  1. Moth
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 08:20:20

    In case you want a bit more explanation about liminal periods:

    In anthropology it is the state of “being betwixt and between”. For example, a pregnant woman is in a liminal period. She is betwixt and between being a woman and being a mother. Sunset is another example, betwixt and between day and night.

    Now I’m curious how liminality comes up in this book…

  2. MB
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 09:54:38

    Thanks for the explanation, Moth!

  3. Janine
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 10:12:02

    Another book in which liminality is mentioned is A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance.

  4. Popin
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 10:36:25

    After everything Hunter put her through, she still decides to make out with him in this book? I hope it’s explained why she would even do this.

  5. LauraJ
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 10:38:35

    Thanks for your review. I had been on the fence about buying The Better to Hold You until I read the DA review. And while I felt that book was well-written, I simply couldn’t get past Abra’s relationship with Hunter and how frustrating her character was.

    When I read that things with Red weren’t resolved in Moonburn, I decided to pass. Not because I wanted/needed Abra and Red to be together – like you, I’m not hugely invested in them as a couple – but because I found the first book so exhausting, and Hunter so unappealing, that I just couldn’t imagine where the conflict would come from.

    What bothers you in Moonburn really does seem like it’s more than enough to make me stay away. Which is too bad because Sheckley writes so well.

  6. Janine
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 11:51:18

    @LauraJ:

    If you like Sheckley’s writing, you might want to try her chick lit books written under the name Alisa Kwitney. My favorite is probably The Dominant Blonde which is a great deal more romantic than The Better to Hold You.

  7. Jennie
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 18:20:45

    Thanks for the more concise explanation, Moth. I’m still not sure exactly what the point of it was in the story, I guess. I mean, I kind of get it but I think I needed it spelled out a little more.

    Janine, what was the context in Possession? I don’t remember it from that book, though it’s the sort of esoteric concept I can imagine Byatt would like.

    Popin, it was explained, but it still felt contrived to me. And the fact was that Abra still did have an attraction for Hunter, which was hard for me to understand, considering what an ass he was. I could barely stand the way he treated her in the first book, so any interaction that didn’t involve Abra kicking him where it hurt wasn’t really welcomed by me.

    LauraJ, I still found Moonburn an enjoyable read. It wasn’t a frustrating book so much as it was an enjoyable book with frustrating elements. I can understand you not wanting to read it, though. I hate to give up on series anyway, so even if it hadn’t been a decent read I would have wanted to read it in preparation for the next book.

  8. Janine
    Jul 30, 2009 @ 21:13:31

    @Jennie:

    Janine, what was the context in Possession? I don't remember it from that book, though it's the sort of esoteric concept I can imagine Byatt would like.

    Liminality fascinated both of the heroines in the book, who, not coincidentally, were independent-minded and very defensive of their emotional and physical space. Christabel LaMotte, the 19th century poet, wrote poems and fairy tales that featured thresholds and boundaries, and Maud Bailey, the 1980s scholar who studied Christabel’s poetry, was very much aware of liminality as a theme in Christabel’s work. It is actually a point that Maud raises at the end of the book, when she declares her love to Roland. I can’t lay my hands on the book right now, or I would quote that line, since it’s one of my favorites in the book.

  9. Shiloh Walker
    Aug 02, 2009 @ 09:35:28

    I grabbed this at nationals, after Alisa pelted me with a furry glove during the Literacy signing. It’s going to be one of my next reads, I think.

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