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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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REVIEW:  You Make Me (Blurred Lines, Book 1) by Erin McCarthy

REVIEW: You Make Me (Blurred Lines, Book 1) by Erin...

youmakeme_300Dear Ms. McCarthy,

Let me say right off the bat that I had a hard time grading this book; its ultimate grade was not a reflection on the writing, plot (well, mostly not) or characterization, but rather my dissatisfaction with the ending. I am not sure I can say a lot without getting into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say that this is a romance, and it has an HEA, and that’s what I was not happy about. Based on the story and the actions of the characters, I didn’t think the HEA was appropriate.

Caitlyn Michaud is a starting her junior year at the University of Maine as a Business major. She’s well-liked, a member of a sorority, has a best friend (Aubrey) and a steady boyfriend (Ethan; he happens to be Aubrey’s brother). Her life is well-nigh perfect, and the night of the Homecoming Dance she reflects on how far she’s come from where she grew up.

Cat (as she was known before coming to UoM) was raised on a small and remote island of Maine; her family was poor and somewhat notoriously dysfunctional. Cat’s mother was mentally ill and permanently disabled due to electroshock treatments she’d received for her illness when Cat was a baby; her father was a fisherman who lost a hand on a lobster boat and afterwards went on disability. Cat’s only sibling, her brother Brian, is a ne’er-do-well and alcoholic. Growing up, Cat’s family took in a succession of foster children; the income helped support the family and hold the dilapidated family home together. Cat was a lonely little heathen for much of her childhood, unkempt and friendless. Her life changes at 15, when the family welcomes a new foster, 17-year-old Heath. Heath and Cat become friends and then more, but right after they make love for the first time, Heath disappears. The only explanation Cat is given is that Heath is now 18, and has aged out of the foster care system, but she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t hear a word from him, after all they had shared.

Cat goes to college, becomes Caitlyn, and puts the past behind her. Her father dies; her mother is confined to a nursing home, and Cat no longer speaks to Brian after his disgraceful, drunken behavior at their father’s funeral. The night of the Homecoming Dance, Ethan proposes to Caitlyn in front of all of their friends and assembled sorority and fraternity members. It’s as she accepts that Cat sees a familiar face in the crowd. Yes, Heath has returned.

It turns out that Heath has been in Afghanistan, among other places, and has only just gotten back to Maine. And oh, he wants Cat back. His explanation for leaving without a word is not very strong (later revelations don’t make it much more defensible, IMO). He’s not happy to find Cat engaged to another guy, but really, what did he expect? She didn’t know where he was, and didn’t know if she’d ever hear from him again. Still, he declares his intentions to fight for her, and Cat doesn’t entirely discourage him.

Not a lot really happens in this book; most of the focus is on Cat’s internal struggle. Ethan is a mostly good guy who seems to really love her; I kept expecting him to lapse into predictable villainy, but he never does. He does let Cat down, which in some ways makes her decision a lot easier (and thus less dramatic, and less of a choice at all).

The central problem with You Make Me is that it doesn’t work as a romance. Cat’s conflict is set up as very black or white: Ethan and upper-middle-class respectability and a finance job OR Heath and a return to an island she really doesn’t seem to care for (Heath wants live there and be a fisherman). The central Ethan v. Heath conflict is pretty much a no-brainer, from a romance perspective, anyway. Ethan is safe and boring and Heath is Cat’s “other half” – exciting and a little dangerous. But the reality of Heath is that he:

  • Left Cat without a word for four years
  • Tells Cat he wants her back but still flirts with and hooks up with other girls while he’s waiting for her to come around
  • Does something very morally questionable late in the book, but justifies it because it was done to an unsympathetic character (Cat’s brother) and that he did it partly for Cat’s benefit (though he doesn’t tell her about it, of course; she finds out from Brian)
  • Expects Cat to live the life that *he* envisions for her – the Cat that’s interested in living in a city and working in finance isn’t the “real” Cat (i.e. the Cat he knew when she was 16)

It’s not that Heath is a villain – he’s really not. He’s someone who has had a hard life, even moreso than Cat, and is after all still very young (about 22 or 23, I think). I definitely think he acts like a jerk sometimes – the same could be said for Cat herself and for Ethan. It’s realistic in a way, but it points up the problem with trying to tack an HEA on a NA story, especially one about young people who are already kind of screwed up. None of these people are stable or mature enough to marry, and why do they have to be? If they were real 20- and 22-year-olds, I’d tell them to date around, have some flings, spend some time alone. But the strictures of romance and the conventions of “one true love” stories dictate that Cat has to make a choice, and that choice has to be made within the confines of the story and has to be for all time (the “ever after” part of “happily ever after”).

I don’t know; maybe this is a problem I’d have with all romances if I thought about it too much. But in historicals, where characters are expected to marry younger, and presumably not to divorce, it’s just not something I question. In contemporaries where the characters are 10 years older – hell, even five years older – the shakiness of the HEAs just don’t feel as glaring. In a story with characters this young, and with as many signals that both the hero and heroine have issues that need to be worked out before they can be in a healthy relationship – the HEA feels both unlikely and just plain inadvisable. For that reason, I’m giving You Make Me what feels like a harsh grade – a D. It’s not badly written and it held my interest, but as a romance it just doesn’t work.

Best regards,

Jennie

P.S. Proving that I’m a hypocrite and/or a glutton for punishment, I have already bought the sequel, which deals with Tiffany, a foster child who lived with Cat’s family for a time and is a friend of Cat’s (she appears briefly in You Make Me). I was drawn in by the excerpt at the end of the first book, in spite of the fact that it sounds like this one could be even more problematic. It pairs 20-year-old Tiffany (who in You Make Me is 17 and apparently looks much younger) with a 30-year-old playboy millionaire who is apparently still married (I think?) to his evil estranged wife. This sounds more like a Harlequin Presents than a New Adult novel, and I have no idea why I want to read it, but I do.

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