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Paranormal

REVIEW:  The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

REVIEW: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Dear Ms. Choo,

I’m very much a genre reader. It’s not that I have anything against the more literary-minded novels. It’s just that they’re not my thing, the way westerns and soulbonded lifemates aren’t my thing. But the premise of your debut intrigued me. A paranormal novel set in late 19th century Malaysia about a girl who has to marry a ghost? That is right up my alley.

the-ghost-bride-chooLi Lan’s family has seen better days. Not only has her father succumbed to his opium addiction, he has racked up numerous debts that will be their financial ruin. Then a rich family friend — who just happens to hold all the debts her father owes — makes a startling proposal: that Li Lan marry his only son. The catch? The son, Lim Tian Ching, is dead.

While such ghost marriages aren’t unheard of, the circumstances are unusual to say the least. The son isn’t a vengeful ghost whose spirit needs placating. Since Li Lan is very much alive, this isn’t a case of two recently deceased people being joined in matrimony posthumously. Li Lan would, in effect, have to live as a widow for the rest of her life.

I admit I initially was unsure about this book. I loved the depiction of Malacca in 1893. The culture felt alive and authentic to me. The set-up may seem familiar. A once-affluent family that’s fallen on hard times. A father who’s fallen prey to opium. A loyal servant who’s no-nonsense and acts like another mother. A heroine who’s over-educated and doesn’t know how to use her good looks to their full effect. An unwanted marriage to save the family. But the details make all the difference, and I thought this was a great example of how culture affects situations and relationships. Malaysia in the late 19th century is not the same as England during that time period, and characters living in one setting should not act like those living in the other.

Despite my love of the setting’s portrayal, I found the first half of the novel slow. In theory, it should have been right up my alley. Because Li Lan’s household is justifably hesitant to accept the offer to become a ghost bride, the Lim family exerts more pressure upon them to agree. As a result, the connection between Li Lan and Lim Tian Ching strengthens and his ghost begins to haunt her. This should be stressful and scary but I didn’t find it to be so. To be honest, I found it tedious at times.

Even Li Lan’s introduction to the spirit world was a slog for me. Again, I thought the portrayal of the spirit world was amazing. The descriptions of the ox-demons were vivid, and the hungry ghosts were creepy. But I felt no pull to keep reading and had to push on because I wanted to see where Li Lan’s journey would lead.

That turned out to be a good choice because while the first half proved to be an average read, the second half of the novel was anything but. This is that rare case where I felt like my effort to keep reading was rewarded in full. I’d actually say the structure reminds me vaguely of Code Name Verity, in which the second half is the payoff to the first but you need to read the first half in order to care about what happens in the second.

Maybe my ambivalence towards the first half can be partly explained by the romantic subplot from that section. Li Lan is trying to find a way out of the ghost marriage and her dead suitor who has taken to courting her from the afterlife. During her attempts to break the connection, she meets Lim Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, and is immediately attracted to him. In a sad twist of fate, Li Lan was originally betrothed to Tian Bai but with Tian Ching’s death, the cousin became heir, thus nullifying their engagement since a penniless bride would hardly make an appropriate wife.

Normally, I’d eat this up with a spoon. Circumstances conspired against them! He has to marry an appropriate woman. She’s haunted by a ghost.  More to the point, Tian Bai is a good man. Not only is he more attractive than his cousin, the disagreeable Lim Tian Ching, he’s smarter and more industrious. Yet their relationship left me cold. It seemed rote and followed all the expected tropes and pitfalls.

Then later in the novel, we’re introduced to Er Lang. People who know their Chinese folklore will recognize that name, but I won’t elaborate here since I think that spoils some plot developments. I adored the relationship between Li Lan and Er Lang. It was challenging yet dynamic. I thought it was more interesting than that of the relationship with Tian Bai, which I can only describe as instalovelust.

Despite my initial impressions, I’m glad I stuck with this book. It was absolutely worth the effort. The depiction of turn of the century Malaysia was wonderful and while I certainly wouldn’t consider the romantic subplot a strong point, I personally found the resolution immensely satisfying. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  The Thing About Weres by Leigh Evans

REVIEW: The Thing About Weres by Leigh Evans

Dear Ms. Evans:

I love a good pack book and when The Thing About Weres focused on that, I was thrilled but all too often I became overburdened by complicated magical descriptions and strange writing tics. But the focus on the pack, the dance of dominance and submission, the fragile separation between man and beast is compelling.

thing about weresTo some degree my confusion may stem from the fact I haven’t read the first book in the series, although I’m a little glad that I skipped it since the first book clearly ended in a dramatic cliffhanger. The Thing About Weres starts off with Rowan Trowbridge aka Bridge, the Alpha of the Creemore werewolf pack being shoved through a Fae portal by the narrator of the story, Hedi Peacock-Stronghold.

Hedi is a half Fae, half were mix whose never been able to shift and has uncertain control over her Fae magic. Her mate, Trowbridge, is stuck on the other side of the portal where Hedi sent him because it was necessary to save his life (although why, I’m not sure because I didn’t read the first book and it wasn’t well explained in the second). Hedi has been acting as the alpha by proxy but her rule is being challenged internally within the Creemore pack and externally by the North American Were council.

Hedi dreams of Trowbridge every night and every night she watches him get killed by the Fae. Initially the tension is quite clear. How will Trowbridge escape from Fae land when Hedi can’t open the portal to bring him back. Unfortunately, this situation is resolved by what I’d term a deux ex machina but at this point in the story I don’t really care. I just want Bridge back and I want the story to propel forward because it’s no fun for a romance reader to read about a couple that is constantly separated.

Once Bridge is back, however, there is a new set of issues to face including the possibility that Bridge has moved on to a new mate. There is an interesting mythology to explore in this book. Hedi is a Mystwalker and there is some suggestion that she is a defender against a power hungry Mage whose destruction of one realm might spill into the eartlhy one.

Beyond the plot, however, I got stuck in the writing more than once. The prose is heavy on the atmospheric descriptions which is actually quite good at times and others I felt it was slightly overblown:

A stream of blue-gray smoke slipped past my sightline, undulated over the verdant, textured surface with a harem girl’s teasing touch, then slid under the scraggly undercarriage of the overgrown hawthorn hedge. There it played for a moment or two, ever the teasing will-o’-the-wisp, flitting between twisted branches, until it grew bored, and melted into the playground of the wild woods beyond the hedge.

Juxtaposed against this heavier, more descriptive tone is Hedi’s tendency toward the irreverent which can be funny but in this case often came off jarring, I think because of how uneven the tone was between the “verdant, textured surface” described by Hedi in one moment and the “epic stare-down” she has with her “favorite star … before I threw in the towel and tried to get some sleep.” Or when she says that she lifted her cheek instead of her head. “His little golden feet bit into my scalp as I cautiously lifted my cheek.” or “A great man is dying, I thought. Even I recognized the awesome weird buried in that comment.” The turn of phrase seems just so odd at times that I had to double back to re-read it.

I also struggled with the tense changes, from present to past, more than once in the story:

Cold liquid floods my mouth.

Tasteless, and yet somehow potent. My tongue, which had felt so thick, now tingles.

“Swallow it.” Hard command in his voice. The water tastes like spring water, but purer and sweeter than any that came in a plastic bottle. I feel panic as it clogs my throat. I’m choking on it. I spluttered it up, and then gasped air, precious air. Water leaked from the corners of my mouth.

“No!” Another squeeze of my jaw, another mouthful poured between my chattering teeth. “You’ve got to drink it all. You have to. I promise that you’ll feel better.”

A hand massaged my neck. My throat flexed, struggling to get the hurtful ball of wet past the knot in the throat.

“Please.” His tone softened. “Do it for me.”

I forced it down.

But I didn’t feel any better.

“On the next mouthful, I’ll slowly pull the blade out of her,” said the other man.

Don’t let the Fae touch it.

“More, Hedi,” said Trowbridge harshly again, pressing the cup back to my lips. Another cool flood into my mouth. Something tugs at me, pulls at me. I swallow, chest hurting. The liquid cools my throat, then my gullet. As it swims down into my core, I struggle to focus on his eyes. To see past the ropes of hair, the black whiskers.

Was this an editing error or intentional tense change for emphasis? The final version appears to have kept the tense changes so it appears deliberate but for me, the tense change was confusing and just one more thing that interrupted the flow of the story. Sometimes as I read this I wondered if it was meant for a lit fic crowd and that the writing was just too highbrow for me to get it. Maybe it is. I wanted to like this more because of the political pack issues, something I’m a huge fan of and don’t get to read enough about. I’m giving this book a C but its a subjective grade.

Best regards,

Jane

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