Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Title: The Diviners

Author: Libba Bray

Series: The Diviners

Rating: 5 stars

Review:

It was only meant to be a harmless brag, a little showing off at a party after she had a few drinks too many. But when Evie O’Neill proves to everyone that she has a psychic power – the ability to see a person’s memories by holding an object of theirs – she lands in one hell of a mess. Accidentally accusing the son of a wealthy and powerful family of knocking up a maid means Evie better skip town for a while, until the heat dies down. She is thrilled when her parents suggests that she stay with her uncle Will in fabulous New York City, and just knows that this will be her chance to find her way to stardom. Even if it does mean working at Will’s freaky museum, dedicated to the Supernatural and the Occult.

But a string of ritualistic murders leaves the city in terror, the police ask Will to help and Evie is determined to tag along. With her and Jericho – Will’s quiet but strong assistant – to help, Evie knows that not only will they stop the killer, but that she is sure to end up on the front page. That’s if she can stay alive first…

I will confess that I haven’t read many fantasy or Young Adult books set in the 1920’s (in fact, none others come to mind), but after finishing The Diviners this is something I strive to change, in the hopes that they are as good as Libba Bray’s wonderful book. The Diviners is a somewhat deceptive book, in that it starts in a fairly mild manner: the focus is on Evie and her hopes and dreams as she moves to New York. We are shown the paranormal talent that Evie possesses in being able to read a person’s history from a beloved item as way of explanation as to what trouble she caused that ended up with her having to hide out in New York until things calmed down at home, but this is almost forgotten about in nearly the first half of the book. Never fear though, for instead we are treaded to the gilts and glamour of the Big Apple. The level of descriptions and detail in this book is amazing – clearly there has been a lot of research put into it – and I believe it all pays off big time. As the story progresses tension grows as a serial killer attacks taking pieces of his victims and leaving behind pieces of scriptures about ‘offerings’, the whole book becoming decidedly creepier and brilliantly scary. We also get glimpses of other people with talents similar to Evie’s, teasing hints of bigger things out there in the world of this story, which sadly won’t be further explored until the rest of the series.

The other great thing about The Diviners is the number of varied and complex character there are. No-one is 2D in this story, and some you might at first dismiss as ‘shallow’ or ‘ignorant’ but when you learn about their past, you see them in a whole new life, and can’t help but love them. One of the most moving back stories for me was that of Thata, who may seem a stereotypical flapper at first but who has a past so dark it’s like a punch to the gut to read (but then again, some of the best writing is like that). I also loved the budding romance between her and Memphis, which was just plain sweet. It is also a great example of a romance that has instant attraction and chemistry but is definitely not the dreaded intsa-love. Instead, it’s a slow but powerful burn that just makes you happy for both characters. Evie herself is testament to Libba Bray’s excellent writing. She starts off as a bit of a brat: she got into a lot of trouble by getting very drunk and showing of her special talent, but clearly hasn’t learnt her lesson as she continues to drink, and is always dying to be the centre of attention. But as we read, Evie grows, slowly but surely. We see her naivety as she is pick-pocketed virtually the moment she steps of the train into New York. We she her brave spirit as she confronts the thief a few days later. We see her kindness and love for her friends and her uncle as she adjusts to life in the city, helping to get her uncle’s museum more business (albeit in her own misguided way), tries to break her best friend Mabel out of her shell and out of her mother’s shadow, and adopts Thata into their friendship straight away. Evie reviles herself to be a much more complex character, and although we don’t get a full backstory from her, the pieces we see are just as heart-wrentching as all the others, and her need to be in the spotlight (her need to be loved) becomes clear. She is definitely a character that grows on you, without changing who she is.

My only (very minor) criticism of this book is that the narration has a tendency to jump from character to character within the same scene, sometimes even within the same paragraph. This can make it hard to keep track of who’s POV we are following. In particular it made Thata and Memphis’ first meeting a little confusing as the text refers to Thata by name but it’s only at the end of the scene Memphis actually learns her name.

Bottom line, I loved this book. And so begins the long arduous wait for the sequel.

5 stars.

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Book Review: Insomnia by J.R. Johansson

Title: Insomnia

Author: J. R. Johansson

Series: The Night Walkers

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review:

(Mild spoilers)

If you thought high school was tiring, trying being Parker Chipp. For the last four years he has not slept. Instead every time he closes his eyes at night he gets pulled into the dreams of the last person he made eye contact with. He’s seen it all:  the chilling nightmares, the boring snippets of everyday life, the random craziness that make no sense. He’s done all he can to search for an answer, but how can he ask for help without people thinking he has lost his mind? He asks his family doctor what happens to someone without sleep, and gets the answer he was expecting. If Parker can’t find a cure soon, he will die.

Then Parker meets Mia, new girl at school and foster sister of Parker’s football coach. In her dreams Parker feels a peace he can barely remember and he can finally, finally, sleep. He starts making excuses to see her, waiting for her after class, ‘accidentally’ bumping into after school, needing to make eye contact with her, knowing that she is the only one who will save his life. But Mia doesn’t understand, she thinks Parker has a crush on her and tries to let him down gently. But she doesn’t understand, Parker needs her. When someone starts sending threatening emails, Mia thinks that Parker is stalking her and begins to have nightmares about him hunting her down. How can Parker stop these threats, and prove that it isn’t him, all whilst still making eye contact with her at the end of every night? And how can he be sure that he isn’t the one making the threats?

Before I began Insomnia I read a couple of reviews comparing this book to Wake by Lisa McMann, which also has the ‘people watching the dreams of other’s’ plot line. From what I can tell, most people who read Wake first feel that the set up for Insomnia was too similar. However, I have yet to read Wake so I was able to enjoy this book without any unconscious comparisons. I was intrigued by the idea of someone being caught in the dreams of another, and felt these scenes were some of the strongest parts of the book. The nightmares of Mia being hunted and beaten by Parker and a woman who is being abused by her husband are both excellently written and pretty terrifying. J. R. Johansson knows how to write horror: the best bit of Insomnia is when Parker discovers he’s been doing things he can’t remember, beginning to feel he can’t trust himself and you realise he has actually been an unreliable narrator. From the start of the book, we are told that Parker’s condition will lead to him losing his mind then dying, and seeing those cracks in his psyche is quite creepy and very gripping.

On the other hand, it’s such a shame that a book pitched as a paranormal thriller becomes just a regular thriller. Despite Parker’s dream watching is such a huge part of the story, it doesn’t really affect the plot – you could take it out and still have the core story (Mia’s stalker and Parker being framed) almost completely unaffected. Also, the first chapter features the dream/memory of the school caretaker killing a woman. It’s a great beginning, captivating and creepy but it’s never mentioned again. Was it just a dream? Did the caretaker actually kill his wife? And if he did, why didn’t Parker try to do anything about it? In fact, the biggest problem about this book is the unanswered questions. Why can Parker watch other people’s dreams? Did his father also have this curse? Is that why he left? Is there a cure to the curse? It’s implied that all these questions will be answered in the next book, as though the main plot is finished, it ends on quite a big cliffhanger about Parker and his curse. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the next book will focus more on the paranormal elements.

3.5 stars.

Book Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

17855844Title: The Shining Girls

Author: Lauren Beukes

Rating: 2 stars

Cover Comments: Fairly standard, though I do like the graphics on the word “shining”.

Review:
Discovering a key that allows him into a house that travels through time could be the escape from a bleak life during the Great Depression that Harper Curtis needs. But Harper finds himself drawn to darker, more twisted desires. As he journeys between the 1920s and the 1990s, Harper searches for his shining girls; brilliant girls who practically burn with potential. He hunts these girls out, gives them a gift and a promise they will meet again.

It’ll be the last meeting they ever have.

Harper crosses through the years, taking these shining girls spark away from them, one after another, until one girl somehow manages to survive. Kirby will never be the same again after the gruesome attack that nearly killed her. Scarred both physically and mentally, she is determined to hunt down her unknown assailant and bring him to justice. After hunting through news articles and chasing down possible leads, Kirby begins to suspect that these murders seem to be spanning over seventy years. But how can that be possible? And can she stop him before he kills again?

This novel sounds like a fascinating mix of sci-fi and thriller, full of tension, death, and the twisted psychological workings of a serial killer. Sadly though, The Shining Girls fails to live up to this great premise. Ultimately, the house that allows Harper to time travel is little more than a gimmick that is never fully explained. It just is. In fact, “it just is” seems to be the explanation for most of the novel. Why is Harper a killer? He just is. Why does he choose these “shining” girls? He just does. How does the House work? It just does. I could go on. Once the time travel theme is used, all that is left is a standard thriller, with nothing particularly amazing to make the novel worth much interest. This includes very poor “investigative” skills on part of the mine character Kirby, who seems to get lucky with her search more than anything else which proves to be very annoying.

There are several major questions left unanswered about the serial killer. Harper is not a character: he is a plot device. He has no history, no depth, and nothing interesting other than his narrated action, which only serve to tell the story. This novel could have been a fascinating study of motives and the inner workings of a serial killer. Instead we simply get a blow by blow account of his actions, which reads as dryly during a murder scene as it does during his daily routine. We are told what he does, but not why he does it. There is no real explanation as to how or why Harper chooses his victims. What exactly is it that makes them shine? This leads to another problem: the unquestioned sexism that rises from the stereotypical portray of a male serial killer who only ever attacks women (who are frequently referred to as “girls” in a very patronising tone). Issues have been raised by other reviews about the gendered violence against women (The Book Smugglers have a great review which looks at this), which is used in a graphic and often sexualised way. As well as this, there is also the issue of the serial killer being a man. Though there have been many male serial killers who target women, the problem The Shining Girls has is that it is treated as the norm, never challenged and only ever mentioned once in the text: “Always a ‘him’, these perpetrators of terrible violence upon women. As if women were incapable of evil.” This idea is is then dropped completely from the novel. Even a brief description at what drove Harper to murder would have helped these issues, but sadly there wasn’t one to be found.

With these problems, and others (unnecessary gore and sex, the use of the murder victims as devices to show how disturbed Harper is, and a slightly creepy romantic angle between Kirby and a journalist who acts more like a father figure) I’m afraid this book simply didn’t shine for me. For more of these issues in greater detail see Wendy Darling’s brilliant review.

2 stars