Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

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SF/Fantasy Review: Bitten by Kelly Armstrong

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4/5 Stars

I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.

Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.

And holy shit.

I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.

Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.

I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.

But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.

Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?

I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.

Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.

YA Book Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Okay.

I’m writing another YA book review. I don’t know why I read this one, except that another reviewer that I really respect gave it 4/5 stars. But it’s still YA, so I still expect it to suck. So sue me.

Worse, it’s YA Paranormal Romance. Ugh.

But I read it. And I finished it. Which means it didn’t suck as badly as I thought it would.

Actually Shiver didn’t suck at all. It was a decent, if simple, book. The plot wasn’t so derivative that I knew what Stiefvater was after from page one. Actually, the ending was a bit of a surprise. Pleasant, even. Weird, right?

For the most part, Stiefvater’s language was complicated enough to be interesting without being so purple that I couldn’t get through it. I know there are some reviews that focus on particularly bad lines. But I’m willing to overlook these in the greater scheme of things. “I am a leaking womb” is not the greatest imagery to pass through my ocular filter and make it into my brain. However, surprisingly, it is not the worst either. And that shit doesn’t happen often enough for me to write off the whole novel for the sake of it.

I’m a forgiving person.

Can I just say, now, that I’m not into werewolves. Or vampires, or any other kind of monster you can think of that might make a good love interest for a female teenage protagonist. But Shiver, although it does follow the paranormal romance formula, did not strike me as “just-another-teeneage-werewolf-romance” kind of book. Granted, I haven’t read enough of them to know the difference.

What I do know is that I didn’t hate Grace, the protagonist. And although he was a bit of an emo wimp, I didn’t hate Sam either. In fact, I felt that both of these characters transcended their stereoptypes and became “real.” That’s a big statement coming from a YA hater, such as myself. Both characters grow more than thier Hunger Games contemproraries, and although this world is more similar to ours, I felt like Shiver was saying more that HG was in the first novel of the trilogy.

To be fair, I am partly in love with the fact that the text is colour coordinated with the cover. I.e. it’s blue for Shiver. Green for Linger. Etc.

But I swear, the story was decent too…

…If you can get past the awkward teeneage romance aspect, that is.

Was it really this painful when we were going through it? I don’t remember teenage love being like this at all. Maybe I’m a freak. I’m willing to accept that. But seriously. Who is considering marriage at 17 years old?

These gripes aside, Shiver is actually an interesting novel about two young people attempt to find a place in the world. Stiefvater’s take on family and society is interesting and unforgiving, which I like. I like that she doesn’t pretent the world is a wonderful place and she makes room for weirdness even in the most “normal” of relationships. Grace is a likeable character, even if she’s a little emotionally removed. Stiefvater gives us enough background to explain why this is. Conversely, Sam is an interesting counter-type to Grace and his own backgrouned adds to this rather than complicating things unnecessarily. I liked them both.

I actually liked all fo the characters, and felt that they remained true to their types throughout the novel.

Okay, Sam’s lyrics kind of suck. But he’s an 18 year old guy. I’d be a little suspicious if they didn’t suck, really. And they do get better as the novel progresses. And you’ll like Sam. So you’ll be able to forgive him for being that shaggy haired douche in your English Lit class, I swear.

Just read it, okay?