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William Morrow

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,

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REVIEW:  The Registry by Shannon Stoker

REVIEW: The Registry by Shannon Stoker

Dear Ms. Stoker,

I can’t decide if all these dystopian YAs featuring young women as chattel are a reflection of current social anxiety about the state of womens’ rights or simply lazy writing. Not to say that oppressed young women finding freedom isn’t a story worth telling. It obviously is. I just think that a lot of what I assume to be intended feminist novels end up supporting established sexist narratives in the process, thereby negating the liberating narrative they’re meant to tell.

In the stark future of The Registry, the United States has instituted a system segregating the sexes. Boys are raised to be soldiers, trained to protect their country at the cost of their lives. Girls are raised to be brides, auctioned off to the highest bidder — typically one of the former soldiers who survived their service to their country. As a result, girls are the desired progeny for the money they bring in. The boys? Often tossed out on the street.

The novel’s heroine, Mia, grew up wanting nothing more than to be a bride. It was her greatest wish. Then one day her older sister comes home broken and abused, and Mia’s illusions about the system she grew up buying into are shattered.

The Registry strongly reminds me of a younger, updated The Handmaid’s Tale. I think that’s to its detriment because how can you compare to what has since become a modern classic? It’s a lot of expectation.

I appreciated what the novel was trying to do, making a protagonist out of a sheltered, naive girl who was raised to be nothing more than a pretty showpiece on a man’s arm. But as I’ve said in the past, I prefer my characters smart. Not necessarily book smart; I appreciate a well-developed sense of street smarts and people smarts in my fictional characters.

Mia has none of these things. She is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and I wish I could say that was just because she was intentionally kept ignorant. In the world of The Registry, a girl’s worth is determined by her price tag so buyers fight over the expensive girls. The cheaper girls often never get bought and instead go into government service — they “marry” the government. As readers can probably surmise, the smart girls are given low price tags to make them look unattractive to buyers while the not-so-bright girls are given high price tags. Given that Mia is the protagonist, not only is she the most beautiful girl ever — apparently only tall, skinny, blue-eyed blondes are the epitome of hotness — she also has the dubious honor of having an extremely high bride price, which unfortunately correlates to her intelligence. Or lack thereof, as the case may be.

Now it would be one thing if she started off from a place of ignorance and worked towards a position of knowledge. But after the life-changing revelation that marriages can be abusive and the Registry’s system of marriage is little more than slavery, Mia doesn’t do much with that information. It drives her to run away, true, but does she prepare for it?

You have to understand. I come from a fantasy reading background. There’s this common storyline where a pretty young thing is forced to marry a horrible man. Now this “horrible” quality varies: he’s old, he’s violent, he’s abusive. Whatever the trait, the girl refuses to marry this man and runs away. And in almost all those cases, she doesn’t prepare adequately and bad things befall her. The thing that always bothered me in these storylines was that the girl never prepared. In the best case scenarios, she brought a change of clothes and maybe some bread but more often than not, she overlooks some basics — like a map.

Mia suffers from that same lack of foresight. Coupled with a lack of effort to learn more, I was quite dubious about this heroine. Now I guess you could say she did have people smarts. She intended to use her best friend — a smart girl who’s been on the marriage market for so long that her fate to become a government bride was all but guaranteed — to help her survive out on the road and a farmhand to guide them both to Mexico and freedom.

But see, that’s the thing. She intended to use them without giving anything back. That’s just crappy. There’s a point where Mia is called out for this behavior but because it comes from the slightly unstable farmhand, it loses its impact. The narrative needed to do a better job of criticizing this.

And that’s another thing. In a stunning turn of events, the farmhand, Andrew, becomes Mia’s love interest. I know readers are shocked. But unfortunately, he belongs to that all-too-common breed of YA love interest: unstable and violent. I know his character was meant to portray how the country’s system breaks its boys and turns them into unfeeling killing machines, but Andrew was a sociopath and one prone to terrifying flights of rage. Even I wouldn’t wish this fate on the dim, selfish Mia.

In some ways, I think most of my complaints could have been mitigated by better writing. The romantic subplot, such that it is, is executed in a clumsy, immature fashion. It’s a case of instalove for Mia, and I can only assume that’s because Andrew is the first young man she’s ever spent any amount of time with. When a second love interest was introduced later in the novel, along with the resulting love triangle, I almost groaned out loud. I dislike love triangles under the best of conditions. But these characters in their late teens were acting like kids who were much younger, and that made it so much worse.

The villain, Mia’s buyer and husband, is the classic mustache-twirling bad guy. How do you know he’s evil? He randomly shoots government agents. He randomly throws people out of helicopters. Why? Because they were annoying him and that’s what evil people do when they’re annoyed. If I were to be generous, I could say this was yet another example of how the country’s system destroys its boys. It makes them grow up orphans and if they survive their duty, they grow up to be homicidal maniacs. But given the novel’s other flaws, I’m not feeling too generous.

I think this is a sign that I need to take a break from dystopians. At the very least, I need a break from books featuring depressing futures in which girls are reduced to little more than property. Even if this trend is meant to be a reflection of present-day social anxiety, that doesn’t mean I need to read about it in my fiction. D

My regards,

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