Whatcha Reading: August 2016

It occurs to me that when I’m reading ARCs, I typically don’t read anything else. August was a swamp of insane Day Job hours, 20 chapters edited on one WIP, 12k written in another (it’s currently at 15k), DragonCon prep (which will be over when you read this), and not quite being able to recharge my introvert batteries.

And as I head to DragonCon, and four days of being “on,” I’m hoping I can draw in that energy from seeing my friends. I finally get to meet the inimitable Kira Butler, which I am very much looking forward to.

Anyway, I read only one book (I’m pretty sure) and that was Jessica Estevao’s Whispers Beyond the Veil. I received this book to review for Criminal Element, and though I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean in that review, I wanted to say more, especially as I’m going through the process of strengthening my own writing.

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Overall, it was an okay book. I’m not mad at it. Fine, I’m a little mad, but it’s mostly my own fault for not reading the synopsis entirely. I was excited to see a book set in Canada (books are never set in Canada) and though it does start “in Canada” (in the nebulous way things are set “in” places but not really), the narrative takes places in Maine.

The premise is fair enough: Ruby grew up in a medical show selling cure-alls and tonics to desperate men and women, occasionally reading tarot cards to earn some extra cash. Every now and then throughout her life, Ruby hears a voice offering guidance. Trusting it to instinct, Ruby usually listens, but the one time she doesn’t heed the voice leads to disasterous consequences.

The thing is, I don’t really buy it. Ruby’s father buys a slew of “invigorators” from a medical sales man, which are basically electroshock machines. He believes these devices will be the next big thing and demands Ruby help him test them out. When Ruby oversleeps, she arrives in the tent to find Johnny, an Indian man who also performs in the medical show, strapped to the device. The voice tells her not to flip the switch, she does it anyway, and boom, zap–Johnny’s a corpse.

Which, to be honest, would be more impactful if there had been any sort of character development for Johnny. I just told you everything I know about him in the three pages leading up to his untimely death. He is, in essence, a murder of convenience. His sole purpose is to give Ruby a reason to run, and this is, in many ways, problematic.

  1. Johnny has no characterization other than he’s a Maliseet Indian man, he’s got a crush on Ruby, and he’s nice enough. I don’t know why I should feel bad other than being electrocuted sucks. Did Ruby love him? Were they friends? Why should I care?
  2. He’s not just a murder of convenience; he’s a person of color murdered for convenience. This one gets a little sticky because of the historic context. In the Victorian Era, PoCs were generally servants, slaves, or sideshow workers. Yes, there were free men and women, but it took a very long time for PoC find work other than labor. They were considered less than citizens, if they were considered people at all. I don’t know what feelings toward native people were/are like in Canada, modern or otherwise, but 1) Ruby accidentally killed him, and 2)… I don’t think anyone would care. This issue pops up again on American soil, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
  3. It’s all very rushed. All of this happens in Chapter One, and two chapters would have been fine. More than fine. It would have left room for developing interiority and character depth.

In any case, Ruby flees. I’m drawn away from the narrative by a random POV switch as Ruby steps off the train. I don’t see any of this, but allegedly, Ruby is accosted by a pickpocket, she beats him down with her parasol, and manages to slip and bump her head into the docks. She wakes in the police station, understandably freaking out, but I watch all of this from Officer Yancey’s head. I’m not sure why the author chose to do this, but I’m more than a little bummed that she pulled away from what would have been an awesome scene. Ruby still could have woken in the station, but that was a perfect opportunity for interiority.

Sadly, every time the action mounts, I’m pulled away from Ruby and stick with Yancey. The pacing becomes an issue, and Yancey doesn’t help. Maybe I’m just murder happy, but it takes 25 chapters for someone to die. It took me 26 chapters to realize the officer’s first name is Warren, not Yancey Yancey as I’d assumed since even his own mother and sister refer to him by his last name.

Least you think I’m a negative Nancy, I did have good things to say, which I did over on Criminal Element. Like I said, as I’ve been editing and trying to strengthen my own writing, things like this become more evident when I read. It’s a bit like learning how graphic design works to entice the consumer: once you know the secrets, life is a little ruined.

The second issue dealing with the race comes after Ruby changes her story about the pickpocket. She describes her attacker as having a “savage, murderous rage,” which is then misconstrued by the police chief in front of Officer Yancey immediately after Ruby departs (Ruby and the chief even exchange pleasantries.) He tells Yancey it’s obviously someone from the Indian village, and Yancey blames the racism on Ruby. This I don’t buy either. Again, it’s just done for convenience, and this is problem.

This is one of those cases were pointing out bad representation is important. It’s hard in historical context to maintain reality while balancing a “progressive” view. Erasure is real, and so is perpetuating damaging tropes. In this case, the misplaced racism skips the racist white man in power and falls on Ruby. Yancey, of course, suffers no repercussion for his mistake, even after he realizes he was wrong.

I won’t even start on his sexism masked as progression.

As in the last ARC I read, there’s also a disconnect between the crime and clues. The murderer shows up once, and doesn’t show up again until the end of the book. Another character is caught planting evidence, but is never questioned about why she was breaking into Ruby’s room, how she got the evidence, or how she may have been involved. There’s another, unrelated murder that’s mention and then completely forgotten.

I know this is the first in a series, while it reads well as a stand alone (and I do like when they stand alone) there are so many loose threads left at the end that I wonder why they were mentioned at all. There’s no lead to the next book or next clue. They don’t feel intentional. They’re forgotten.

No book is perfect. A book doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable, but seeing so many problematic and troubling things makes me look at my work that much harder. Am I doing unintentional harm? Am I being mindful?

~~~~

I started Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft, and though I’m not a Lovecraftian Horror kinda gal, I do love me some Lizzie Borden. I’m about 1/4 of the way through and I’m loving it. Cherie is one of the people I’m excited to see this weekend, and I’m excited to finish her book. I also have an ARC of A Study in Scarlet Women, which I’m also pretty jazzed about.

What are you reading this month?

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