Hello everyone, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, if you celebrate! (I’m still not sure what that should really mean, authentically.) I was not very lucky in my reads this week, but to be fair, I am only a very little bit Irish.
(In the sense that Canadians speak about their makeup. I am completely Canadian. But my family on one side at one point came from Ireland. More directly, my mom’s whole family came from Italy, so that’s how I identify among other Canadians, but you know. Also just plain white English-speaking Canadian.)
Anyway. Don’t mind me as I struggle to figure out a happy medium in my review style between “giant personal essay” and “almost point form compartmentalization by topic” because, well, I don’t even know.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Premise: Two sisters steal away from under their abusive father’s thumb to attend a mysterious, magical game where the prize is one wish.
Y’all, let me just tl;dr this one for you: this book does not live up to the hype.
The book is fundamentally built on the idea that the protagonist (Scarlett, one of the two sisters) enters into a magical, dangerous world full of secrets and mysteries. But the only mysteries she solves or secrets she uncovers, the solutions are basically handed to her? And there’s a reason for that, I suppose, which is also handed to us at the end. Only everyone also deliberately misleads Scarlett along the way more frequently than they tell her the truth, to the point where it’s hard to care what anyone tells her because it might be overridden within a few pages. Oh well.
I mean, the book warns us that no one can be trusted, but I feel like in situations where there’s a lot of intrigue, you need to spend time letting the perspective character sort out a few things they know to be true, and if those few things are shattered, then we need time to feel that betrayal with them. That’s what makes a plot twist a twist, you know? You have to feel like something is actually the status quo in order for the tables to be turned on you. Otherwise, it’s hard to feel as if there are stakes to what’s true or false, especially if the sudden changes don’t come with much by way of consequences. (Sometimes they make Scarlett sad, but she gets over it?)
This book makes me feel mostly like “huh” whenever someone has lied or someone has actually helped Scarlett. (It probably doesn’t help that the motivations of most people are completely a question mark until the end, or even past that. Scarlett also seems weirdly ignorant of things it seems like she should know, given that her younger sister does, which sticks out like a sore thumb plot hole.)
(Also I feel like this book forgets a few minutes in that it’s even supposed to be a competition? Like Scarlett just walks around being handed steps forward towards the ending without any impediment from other players? Which could be explained away by the ending but also isn’t, to be honest. Even the prize of the game seems unimportant for most of the book, which is wild considering how huge it is in a low-magic world?)
Okay. So she doesn’t spend a lot of time working on the mystery or dealing with other players in the game. Whatever. We’re here for the carnival-esque magical world, right? But also nah. I swear, the descriptions of dresses and Scarlett’s (colourful?) feelings are 1000% more vivid than the descriptions of anything in this world. The setting and character descriptions feel very skimmed over (there are some canals! moving on) and often come in super metaphorical flavours. Which okay, sure, but none of the metaphors are particularly novel (dangerous attractive men are like black silk, yeah, fine) and sometimes feel like a strain to pull together as an image.
So what are we here for, even? The answer to that is pretty much romance in the form of instalove. Which I guess isn’t totally instalove, but close enough: Scarlett falls for someone who she barely gets to know in this book. I mean, she’s lived for years in a horrible situation with her father and he’s a man who is helpful to her, so sure. It’s not even that weird. It’s just not that interesting. He helps her and he’s pretty, so…that’s about it.
What about the characters? Well, Scarlett wants to protect her sister and she’s had a crappy life. She realizes through the course of the book she wants more than to protect her sister and continue having a crappy life. That’s her entire character. Scarlett’s love interest is pretty and he likes Scarlett. That ends up covering him. It’s…yeah. There’s really not a lot of development.
The pacing is fine, I guess. But I mean, a moody mystery mired in setting probably shouldn’t progress at such a breakneck pace, so maybe the pacing would be good anywhere else, and just did not suit what the author was trying to do here at all.
Overall: I don’t know, friends. I don’t get it. I wanted to like this so much. I still want to like this! But what even happened? Even the open ending of this book feels kind of cheap.
I mean, I got to the end of this, so I must have been hoping it was going somewhere? But it also did that thing I hate where it throws in the threat of sexual assault in a scene and then moves past without really dealing with it, because that’s just how YA keeps it real for young women, I guess? We all know that’s at least a half-star deduction from me because that’s how we roll here, so.
10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac
Premise: A queer, anxious girl who normally lives in small-town Washington with a mother who “gets” her has to spend six months with her father and stepmom in big-city Vancouver.
Okay, so part of why this book doesn’t really work: that premise is enough to write a book on. (I mean, also she meets a girl, because of course she does; this is contemporary YA lit and it always has a romance.) But there are about a million things happening in this book and it’s only 300 pages long. Mom gone with a guy our protagonist Maeve doesn’t like? Check. Father with serious issues? Check. Stepmom insisting on things that grate on Maeve’s anxiety? Check. Two little brothers with contrasting personalities? Check. A girl Maeve falls for? Of course. An ex-girlfriend and a former best friend we don’t have the whole stories about? Also yes. Neighbours who are significantly part of the story? They’re a thing as well.
Are you overwhelmed? I am.
On one hand, I think it makes good narrative sense to have an audience overwhelmed with everything that’s going on when we’re with an anxious character who is also, well, overwhelmed with everything going on. But I also feel like there was too much for the pages we get. There’s not enough time spent on these relationships (between Maeve and any of these characters) for the moments to land as they should, and the resolutions at the end sometimes feel far too simple, possibly as a result of that.
I barely felt like I got to know Maeve outside of the anxious way her brain works, so the book felt more about anxiety than it was about her, if that makes sense. And to me, it’s important to emphasize that people are not their mental illnesses (it’s just another part of the whole that we are), so that troubled me.
I also wish I’d gotten to know literally every single character more, so. I think I could’ve done with another 100 pages and maybe less plot. (The Jessica-Ruthie plotlines felt so rushed and inconsequential to how the protagonist was acting—other than that she was friendless. And it became weird and uncomfortable and skimmed-over feeling by the end; I definitely had a moment where I felt like, “Why did this book feel the need to include this if it didn’t want to spend time on it?”)
But I’m going to rate this book more highly than those paragraphs imply, and here’s why: it’s a really easy read despite all of that.
The images the author writes are vivid: of setting, the things Maeve draws, the coping mechanisms she uses or the way she interacts with her environment. The chapters are short and focused and extremely readable. Maeve’s anxiousness is familiar and relatable; medication isn’t vilified, and although Maeve doesn’t love talking to her counsellor about her problems (honestly, it’s not like it’s easy to do), she obviously derives some help from the advice. (Books that avoid or vilify help for mental illnesses/romanticize them really trouble me, so it’s nice to see that not happen.)
Steps forward like this, treating mental illnesses as a thing sympathetic, likeable protagonists have as they go through their daily lives, are important, regardless of this book’s imperfections. Unconventional family structures where people love each other and everyone is on board 100% with Maeve’s queerness are also important.
Overall: This book really needed more to be a good book, but the foundation of a good book was there. It also did the thing where it threw in a bit about sexual assault and hardly dealt with it, but it at least…treated it with some weight? Called a spade a spade? Equally hardly dealt with a lot of things in the plot? I don’t know. I’d love to rate this more highly, but I feel like that would be bias on my part.
Y’all, this is why being consistent with star ratings is hard: because some weeks you’re going to read a book that throws you on your face. After all the hype and you buying it all shiny and new in hardcover, it will betray you. It will almost break your nose and leave you feeling burning orange anger and confusion. (That dumpster of a sentence is on you, Caraval.) And then, in comparison, it will be hard to evaluate anything else.
(Or I’ll read something really fantastic and the rest will pale in comparison, but let’s be real, with my level of cynicism, how often does that happen?)
Anyway, that’s all the ruining of dreams I’m going to do this week. I’ll see you again on Tuesday!