Hello everyone, and welcome back!
Okay, so you know the very ethical dilemma I talked about in my last post? Where I said that I struggle to review books with rare, positive representation because I want it to exist out there but I also don’t want to be misleading about the overall quality of a book? That is a very relevant thing I would like to point to right now.
…okay, that sounds awful, but actually both of these books are good and worth reading for different reasons, but also flawed. One of the most obvious issues with both of them is that they’re too short. No, not because I need a book to be an epic, but because in both books, some aspect of the story felt underdeveloped or cut off and more time, more pages spent on that content might have helped with those issues.
I’m struggling with that a lot over the past months. I am at the point where I pick up a book of 300 pages or less and think, “You are going to disappoint me somehow.” See, for example: Queens of Geek; Everything, Everything; 10 Things I Can See From Here; Shadowshaper—all of which have lovely representation of various marginalized protagonists and had various neat stuff to offer but also felt too short/underdeveloped in ways that bothered me and I am so sad, book friends.
Of course this is not the rule—off the top of my head, there’s Two Boys Kissing, or History is All You Left Me, which I recently enjoyed. These were also both short and had lovely representation—but it seems like it takes a particular type of writer (and story) to call it quits in that short a time and still have everything feeling complex and complete.
Anyway. My madcap theories about book length aside, let’s get on to the actual reviewing, shall we?
Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall
Under Rose-Tainted Skies is the story of Norah, a seventeen-year-old who is smart, witty, and confined to her own home by extreme agoraphobia, OCD, and what seems to be general anxiety. Just like in Everything, Everything, Norah’s life alone with her mother and another care provider (in this case, her psychologist) is forever changed when a cute, sweet boy moves in next door and notices her looking at him. However, Norah’s struggle to take a risk, make a change, and break away (sorry for the song reference) is much more internal, dark, and raw.
When you read a book like this, it almost seems mean to try to talk about it objectively in any fashion. Which is to say that it really is raw. This is probably why this book is, no matter what else I have to say about it, important. It unflinchingly portrays a difficult set of mental health struggles and does so through the mindset of a likeable protagonist. I can see there being a need for this book among others who face these issues, although there may be some triggering moments.
However, there were some of the same problems I found in Everything, Everything. It has the same weird climax problem where there are two climactic moments near the end of the book, in between which a strange amount of time passes with almost nothing happening, and then there’s a fairly abrupt ending. I can’t really talk about said ending(s) without spoilers, but there’s definitely a common aspect to both of them that frustrates me.
I was also frustrated by some of the telling, not showing moments throughout the book; often, it seemed like the novel wanted to skim over Norah’s conversations with her love interest and her mother, which made it more difficult to genuinely get to know those characters outside of Norah’s internal monologue. In fact, it often felt the book avoided specificity in general, for the most part; Norah’s mom is vaguely “quirky,” but we don’t really know why or in what way. Norah wants to study in France, but we don’t get to know the places she’d really want to see, and why she’d want to go there of all places, and so on. Sometimes the novel will allude to an intriguing character trait (Norah making sculptures out of food), but not really get into it or describe it.
All of that basically added up to the characters feeling underdeveloped, so that the main focus really was Norah’s illness. That’s tricky to handle in a book without making it seem as if the character isn’t just their illness, but I think this book squeaked it out. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know Norah a bit better, but I still feel as if she had personality traits beyond what she was struggling with.
(I also just have to say before I wrap up that this is one of those situations where I have no idea what the title is doing and I think there probably could’ve been a better title for this one.)
I’m conflicted about rating this book, because I do feel it was just too short and not invested in taking the time to fill out its characters (or not rush through the last act), but I was there with Norah, feeling her feelings and enjoying her self-deprecating sense of humour. And I do think that is the more important thing in the case of a book like this.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Every Heart a Doorway has a lovely premise: it’s about the girls and boys who return to the real world after being away in other ones, and a school where they can be together to work through their experiences. The Narnia support group as Hogwarts, if you like. It’s honestly an amazing premise, and it’s very cool to read about.
I’m going to digress for a moment, so bear with me. Obviously given that I am a book reviewer, I read other book reviews in my community. But I pick up books, read them, and review them because I think there’s something I can offer to an audience as a take on what I’ve read. (In my case, it’s probably a combo of my education in writing and my intersectional feminist lens, but probably also that I’m just a harsh critic, even of stuff I love.)
I picked up this book thinking I might have a fresh take for you, but I’m not actually sure I do! Most people who read and reviewed this said it was too short. It really is!
It’s chock full of amazing worlds to hear about, the logic of world-travelling that I want to know more about, characters who could be really interesting, and it takes place in a setting I could really enjoy getting to know. It also has a mystery plot that could’ve been really intriguing. But none of those things are developed to the point that they become the hook of the book, and since there is so much going on and all of it sort of skimmed over, the brief length of this book really feels obvious and jarring.
…so what I can give you that maybe not everyone is provided is a few ventures as to why basically everyone finds this book to be too short.
For plot reasons: The mystery of this book hardly gets any time to be a mystery, leave us clues, or give us any reason to care about who did what it is they’re doing and why. (Also, since we meet so few characters because of the short length, it really doesn’t give us very many compelling suspects. And because we get to know so few characters to such a small degree, it’s hard to get invested in whether or not people get hurt along the way.) All this plot really does is force a few characters into being friends, which would be more interesting if…
For character reasons: …if we really got to know any of these people or what any of their relationships with one another were like.
One of my pet peeves with this one is that all of the children (teenagers, actually, in terms of who we spend time with) went to a world that was meant to suit who they were, but we never really got to understand the connection between the characters’ personalities and where they went in most cases.
Also, there were some uncomfortable bumps in the road in terms of the protagonist having an eating disorder that wasn’t (?) an eating disorder, which was either an attempt to portray all of these characters as actually mentally ill (which could have been an intriguing story, but the book doesn’t seem to do this otherwise), or just a situation where more context and explanation would’ve made that make more sense and seem less…like an ED-apologetic moment.
For worldbuilding reasons: So when you have this book where a bunch of teenagers went to amazing, fantastical worlds and they don’t all get to tell their stories to one another, it feels a lot like a missed opportunity. And also when you have this book where characters learn about the different types of worlds they are and how they map in different directions from ours, well. I want to know what they’ve learned about how that works! And I want to know how this school works, too.
But still: This short book had a lot of heart, though. There was diverse representation among the characters, which I appreciated even if I didn’t get to know them too well. And the characters all felt like outsiders of some kind wanting to go home (to their other worlds) where they were understood, and they all struggled to reach out to one another because of their fear of misunderstanding and rejection, and that was also poignant.
I kind of wish this one hadn’t thrown quite as many things at the wall; if it had removed its plot completely and just worked as a character piece with a bit of worldbuilding as the students opened up to one another, that would’ve been lovely. I still think it would’ve needed to be longer, but it would’ve been lovely. (And hey, that plot would’ve worked in a sequel.)
How can you rate something based on having a lot of lovely seeds, but not a lot of trees? Ouch.
So it was a week of short reads, but in the end, a pretty decent one. Here’s hoping I find more short books where the content really suits that form, though. Thanks for coming by for my long rambles about short books, and I’ll speak to you again soon!