Monday, 8 April 2013

Pretty Dark Nothing by Heather L. Reid

*Made Possible by! Thank you very much!
Published: April 23 2013 (I have an EARC)
Publisher: Month9Books
Website: Author’s Website

Quinn’s life is not as perfect as it used to be. Her love of her life, Jeff, suddenly dumped her. Her dad left for a life with another woman. Her mom works non-stop and is never home. It has been twenty-three days since Quinn has slept for more than ten minutes at a time. This is because demons have been haunting her dreams. She survives on energy drinks and caffeine pills. Her grades have crashed and she has been benched as cheerleading captain. One day, her demons begin to bleed into reality, terrorizing her to her limit. 
Aaron, an amnesiac, is drawn to her, and constantly saves her just in time from the demons, albeit he cannot see them. As he is drawn to her, he becomes entangled in Quinn’s demon-infested life.  

                Pretty Dark Nothing. Sounds intriguing. What is the pretty dark nothing that the title refers to? Don’t expect to be blown away with an explanation. The book misses the ah-ha! moment that usually happens when you figure out the full meaning of the title. When these three words are used, it is used just as it in the title-as pretty words that mean nothing, aside from being dark and dramatic.  It is also used twice. The dramatic effect of purple prose is weakened if you keep throwing it at the reader, unless you want it to be a whole concept and explain it.   

A cover done right. It conveys the helplessness and vulnerability that Quinn faces. Essentially, she is all alone in her torment, falling into a bleak world. It is a monumental improvement over the trend of covers I have been seeing lately, namely, a lone female in a flowing dress and hair whipping in the wind.    

Paranormal/Horror Elements
                The beginning of the book is fantastic for the horror elements. Quinn falls asleep and the demons invade her dreams and try to kill her. The horror in these dreams is eerie, as shapes are made up mostly of binding whips of fog, twisted trees, and moonlight. Later on the demons take on more definite shapes with wings and sharp talons, hissing and whispering hair-raising sentiments. A horror element that stood out the most to me is how psychologically damaging the demons are to her. She cannot sleep. She might see them during the day if she looks too hard. She begins to believe the hurtful things they say, such as that no one likes her. It makes a terribly bleak setting for the protagonist to overcome. It had me hooked.
Aaron’s psychic ability should have been utilized better. Maybe he should have used his ability to actually connect with Quinn and see her demons. The story would have been much richer. Instead the reader is fed bits from Aaron’s past. It is interesting to read, but it doesn’t move the plot further, nor does it contribute to the end reveal. If you’re going to give your characters a special power, they better use it to move the plot.

The Terrible Person Award (Slight Spoilers)
Quinn wins a ribbon for being a terrible person. A protagonist that the reader is supposed to connect with shouldn’t have one of these pinned on them. It is baffling to me. Did the author realize how awful she made Quinn to be? She pines for Jeff, but oh hey, Aaron is totally into her so she sucks face with him. Then she runs off to weep for Jeff, and then she goes on a date with Aaron, but then she is caught kissing with Jeff, and then she has nothing, except that everyone is secretly/not so secretly still in love with Quinn. She thinks everyone hates her (and they do/or they should be if they were real people) but everyone is actually obsessed with her because she’s the protagonist.
In her defence, everyone has difficult moments in their lives. Her boyfriend of four years broke up with her via text-message and began a relationship with her arch nemesis. Her father left, started a new family, and hasn’t contacted her since. She’s entitled to some crying time in the fetal position. I feel for her plight with the demons and the shadows that are tormenting and influencing her. But everything else about her makes me hate her. She leads Aaron on and treats him like dirt. Twice. She is constantly the victim. What happened to fighting back? Or even trying to fight back? What happened to going all Nancy Drew on this and figuring out what is going on with her? Nope, doesn’t happen. This is an example of a weak female protagonist. She’s there for the audience to sympathise with, but she isn’t active in her own salvation. Of course, she needs a man for that. Two, apparently, one who likes to be treated like dirt and the other is a pretty terrible person too.    
The good thing about Quinn? Her name is Quinn. That’s pretty cool.  

Writing A Story (Spoilers!)
                This novel claims that it is about Quinn and Aaron fighting her literal demons. Except it isn’t. And it ends on a totally different note. Saving the world. Really? Where did this come from? Angels and heaven and guardians and light and dark souls? If this is going to be your ending, these concepts need to be included somehow in your beginning. I do recall Aaron remembering that he saw a figure by his hospital bed. This simply isn’t enough. It is like writing a love story and then BAM! aliens land and take over, the end. Sure, Reid can write a sequel (a very obvious sequel), and it will probably be much more interesting than this installment, now that something has actually happened to Quinn (other than her being a terrible human being). Do I care at this point? Not really.
                This book does not stand out to me for having any particularly moving characters. If a teen reader is interested in the paranormal and horror genres, it is a suitable read if there isn't much else on the shelves. The beginning is fantastic for bringing out the sympathy for Quinn, as her life spirals downward at the hands of the demons. The demons are frightening and have real-life influences. In the end, the protagonist is a terrible person. It would make great fodder for discussion for weak female protagonists if it were used in a YA book club. You could also encourage book reports comparing a weak female protagonist to a strong female protagonist.     

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

*ARC from NetGalley-much thanks!

Published: March 26 2013 (I have an ARC-I reviewed this in December 2012 and was asked to hold off the blog post until April 2013)
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Website: Author Website

            Carey and Janessa live in the woods with their mother in a camper, removed from society. Their mother is a meth addict and leaves for several weeks at a time, forcing Carey to care for Janessa, who is a selective mute. One day, when their mother has been gone far too long, a social worker and their father come to retrieve them. They do not know this man aside from what their mother has told them-that she had to take them away from him because he was abusive. But unless Carey and Janessa want to be separated in different foster homes, they have to go with him.  
            These forest children move in with their father, their step-mother, and step-sister. It is a difficult adjustment for them. There is an abundance of food, shelter, and clothes, yet Carey is torn with her feelings towards her Mama. She thinks that their mother tried her best to take care of her children. Underneath her independent and strong exterior, Carey harbours dark secrets about their past that haunts her and keeps Ness mute.  

            I really enjoyed how this book has such an even flow. This book isn’t about making your heart race. It’s about making your heart break. There are no adrenaline-pumping moments. It’s real. They are retrieved, taken to their new house, they meet their new family, go to school, meet people, etc. No lulls in pace or rushed moments.
Admittedly, I tend to gravitate towards the paranormal, or at least the unusual. Girls who lived in the woods with a meth head mother come to the “civilized” world as we know it is unusual. But no one is tossing around magical powers, meeting supernatural beings, solving murders, saving the country, what have you. When I finished the book my mind constantly went back to the moments when you read the words on the page and you feel the words that are not on the page. What is implied as opposed to what is just given to us. It’s like the dark-the scariest part of it is what you cannot see. You feel it is there, and that ever so slight hint makes our stomachs fall to the floor.  
During reading, you’ll come across passages that are in italics. This signals that Carey is remembering something. This isn’t a new technique that Murdoch has invented. This happens a lot in literature. For years I have been hearing that this confuses people because it switches the scene. I suggest if this is a gripe for you, you actively seek titles that employ this and get the hang of it. It’s almost like multitasking, but easier.   

            Unlike Wake and Lullaby, the protagonist is unique. Her upbringing has given her what most people would call a backwater accent or manner of speaking. She says “ain’t” and drops her “g”s when she’s not careful. This might be annoying to some people, but I don’t mind tasteful dialect usage (i.e. even when it is unfamiliar to me, at the thickest I can still tell what’s going on).
            Carey is strong, independent, and an excellent caregiver to her little sister (given their circumstances). To foster her sister’s independence and acceptance of their new life, she tries not to baby her. I found it remarkable that she could let other people take care of Ness, but Ness isn’t really her sole responsibility. Carey is very mature, but she is also a teenager with her separate responsibilities. I love the quirks that we get to see inside of her POV, like how she thinks hamburgers are handburgers and how she prays to Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Beans.

            I thoroughly applaud the author for writing a child who acts like a child. I find too often that authors write children as short adults. Children have their own mannerisms and behaviours and are not adults. Ness has her own set of emotional problems, causing her to only speak to Carey when no one else is around. She eats “real” food too fast and becomes sick, throws a tiny fits when she’s scolded, is basically physically attached to Carey for most of their new experiences, and instantly claims the dog. I think a favourite “warm and fuzzy” moment for me was her pictures that she draws. Adorable.   

            I see that this book has received a little criticism for how smart the two girls are. I really do not see anything to complain about. People-children, teens, and adults-self-educate and teach each other all the time. It’s not like Carey did not know the basics when she went into the woods. Their books include works of Emily Dickinson, Tagore, Tennyson, and Wordsworth. They had biology books. Supplement this with a dictionary for words and concepts they don’t understand, and you’ll likely get someone who is smarter than others in their age group. In the woods, once done with the basic survival and chore duties, they would probably do activities that educate themselves. This book makes it clear that Carey might be misplaced in the “civilized world”, but she knows the woods in and out. She can name plants, trees, insects, and animals, and do other basic survival tasks like hunt (hey Katniss!).They weren’t watching television like we do now. They were reading and being read to. You don’t need a registered teacher to hover over your shoulder to be motivated to teach yourself. If I didn’t teach myself outside of the public school system I would probably have the IQ of a tulip.  

            This is an awesome book. I highly recommend it. It might be a little too dark for some people. The book treats the uncomfortable matter of child abuse in a way that it is not “in your face” or overly detailed or overly dramatized. Since it is written from Carey’s POV, you only get what she is willing to think about. It’s about girls with a difficult past trying to cope with an entirely new life. It is sad; if you have even a shred of emotional intelligence it will make you sad too. There are readers that don’t want to feel sad at all, and I respect that, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who hate books with depressing themes. Personally, I think it is an alright choice for a teen book club as long as you understand the emotional intelligence of the teens you are dealing with. Also best to have a feel for their parents too just in case there is a parent or two who want to believe that the world is all rainbows and unicorns. And be ready to talk about the book and the dark themes. If you’re not ready to talk about the details of this book, pick something that you’re comfortable with.