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REVIEW:  The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

REVIEW: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

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Dear Ms. Chupeco,

Maybe because fall is fast approaching (where did the year go?), I find myself in the mood for a horror novel. Something like Anna Dressed in Blood or The Waking Dark. When I saw your debut, The Girl from the Well, I was excited. Horror influenced by J-horror movies? Sign me up! Alas, I think being such a huge J-horror fan ended me working against me here.

Okiku is the titular girl from the well. She’s a vengeful ghost who travels the world, bringing justice to slain children by killing their murderers. But one day she finds herself drawn to a half-Japanese (living) boy named Tarquin who has mysterious tattoos on his body.

The tattoos are actually seals binding a very dangerous spirit, and they’ve started to break. But because Tark is still a child, his well-being actually falls under Okiku’s purview. (She brings justice to wronged children, remember?) So now she, along with his cousin Callie, must find a way to save him before the other spirit destroys him.

The book opens with a fantastically creepy and violent scene in which we see Okiku delivering justice. It was very reminiscent of a horror movie, and I loved that. But maybe this raised my expectations to an unrealistic degree. Instead of focusing on Okiku and her afterlife of vengeance-seeking, the book detours into revolving around Tark. And while he’s nice and all, the book is called The Girl from the Well, not The Tattooed Boy with a Masked Demon Bound to His Soul.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the writing style. I didn’t mind it, but it is a bit more experimental than you normally find in YA. It’s kind of like a House of Leaves-lite. Nothing as remotely rigorious as that novel, but there are stylistic tricks that some readers will find annoying.

While I don’t often consider characterization as important in a horror novel as I would in other genres (like contemporary, for example), it was lacking here to a distracting degree. Tark is the weird boy with the weird tattoos whose mother is crazy (more on that later). Callie is the Concerned Cousin who drops everything and travels halfway around the world to help him even though I didn’t believe their relationship was so close that she’d do this in the first place. Okiku was the most interesting character, in my opinion, and the novel wasn’t actually her story! (To my regret.)

So back to Tark’s mother. Yes, she’s the crazy mother archetype, because YA needs more of these figures, I guess. But it doesn’t last long because you’ve watched enough horror movies, or read enough fiction in general, we know what happens to mothers of angsty boys, don’t we? I just wasn’t thrilled by any aspect of this subplot: the execution, the portrayal of mental illness (even if it was supernaturally induced), what ultimately happened to her, etc.

My main difficulty with this book, however, stems from the fact that I am such a big Japanese horror fan. By this I mean that I can tell where all the influences come from. The girl from the well — it’s hard not to think of Ringu (aka The Ring). A lot of Okiku’s portrayal reminded me of Ju-On (aka The Grudge). Yes, both of these movies tap into the onryo figure but it goes beyond that. Female ghosts in white with long black hair who hang upside from the ceiling? That’s a visual straight out of Ju-On. The rituals surrounding Tark? Reminded me of Noroi. I can’t believe this worked against me here because that’s never happened to me with horror, but it did.

Despite a promising beginning, The Girl From the Well didn’t live up to its stunning first scene. It’s a fast read but I think ultimately readers will be left unsatisfied. C-

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine

REVIEW: Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine

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Dear Ms. Fine,

When it comes to YA speculative fiction, I’ve been looking for something different. I’m meh about urban fantasy and paranormals. I’m just about done with dystopians. And many a science fiction title has earned my side eye, because they were dystopians in disguise! But when I read about your novel, Of Metal and Wishes, I was intrigued. Interesting titles go a long way with me! Also, there’s an Asian girl on the cover and she has a face!

(I know five years seems like forever in internet time, but I remember the Liar cover controversy. This is progress.)

After the death of her mother, Wen leaves her family’s picturesque cottage to live above her father’s medical clinic located adjacent to a slaughterhouse. Instead of embroidering fabric, she now sutures wounds while assisting her father. It’s obviously a huge change in circumstance.

The slaughterhouse is in turmoil. Hungry to increase profits, the factory bosses have brought in foreign workers as cheap labor. As you can imagine, this only stirs up the latent class and race issues. Further complicating things is that a ghost supposedly haunts the factory, granting wishes to those it deems worthy. A skeptic, Wen demands the ghost prove its existence — which it does, in dramatic fashion.

I would say Of Metal and Wishes is a cross between Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Phantom of the Opera. Wen is torn between Melik, a charismatic foreign worker, and Bo, the factory’s ghost. It is presented as a love triangle, although it is very obvious where Wen’s true affection lie (not-really-a-spoiler: with Melik). The relationship between Wen and Melik is borderline instalove — Wen comes to Melik’s notice when his friend trips her and lifts up her skirt. Yeah, classy.

This actually leads me to my main complaint about the book. There is a whole lot of rape culture. Wen is harassed and molested by one of the factory bosses. At one point, she is almost sexually assaulted. But it’s not just major incidents — Wen herself spouts some of the more insiduous beliefs. When she’s alone with Melik early in their relationship, she thinks that if something happens to her, it’ll be her own fault because she was alone with a boy. There is a parlor near the factory that is actually a brothel, and Wen slut-shames them.

In fact, I really wanted to like Wen. She likes stitching people up! She has medical training! This is cool. But when she’d shame another woman, I’d cringe. Why is this necessary? This also isn’t helped by the fact that she’s presented as the One Good Non-Racist person. Is it so much to ask to have a character who is not the Ultra-Exceptional One? To have a female character who isn’t put forth as awesome because She’s Not Like Those Other Girls? At this point, it’s tedious. I want to think we’re better than this in our fiction. That a novel can protray a teenaged girl having positive, supportive friendships with other girls. That a novel can feature a teenaged girl being awesome and being the star of her own story without having to put down other female characters too. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

The worldbuilding is a little handwavy. Wen’s culture is clearly a Chinese-analog. I actually don’t think Melik’s people are meant to be white but with much being made of their paler skin, pale eyes, and red hair, I couldn’t help reading them as such. Based on the factories, the world’s technology is definitely industrial although there are elements of steampunk. In theory, this should all fit together nicely but overall I was left feeling disatisfied for reasons I can’t articulate.

The novel has an open-ended conclusion, which led to the discovery that this is the first book of a duology. I guess that’s better than a series, but I’m not convinced it was necessary. Perhaps more of the race and class tensions will be explored in the second novel, because I went in expecting more of that in Of Metal and Wishes. It’s not a cliffhanger, though, and in all honesty, I think the book stands alone well.

Of Metal and Wishes might appeal to people who love Phantom of the Opera for the similarities. I was more interested in the similarities to The Jungle, but I will warn that for a book written in a dream-like style, there is a surprising amount of blood and gore. Not surprising, given the subpar factory conditions, but for readers who’ve never been exposed to The Jungle, the contrast may be jarring. Overall, I don’t think this was a bad book but I do have many reservations. C

My regards,
Jia

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