Saturday, February 6, 2016

Troubled Waters - Sharon Shin [Elemental Blessings]

Troubled Waters - Sharon Shin [Elemental Blessings]
Source: Library
Original Review: February 6, 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

Thanks to one of the myriad of reading challenges I'm participating in, I grabbed a copy of this from the library as well. And it had me hooked from within the first few pages. The societal customs and beliefs underscoring them have the power to make me think. For a novel to do that so early on is fairly impressive from my standpoint - even if those elements have nothing to do with the overall story arc.

Lucky for me, they did.

For the story itself, there was obviously quite a bit of thought put into how to capture the reader. When we meet Zoe, she is watching her father burn on a funeral pyre. That particular event foreshadows more than anyone could guess, though it wreaks havoc on how Zoe approaches what's coming. She is numb with grief - and behaves as such, surprising her own self in her actions and decisions. Grief makes people do strange things.

That may be why the first "twist" quickly fades from the mind and only comes back with time and some thinking. It occurs mere days after Zoe's father's funeral, while she is still wrapped in the shroud of grief - and we are wrapped in it with her to such an extent it barely registers as passing strange. The next one, which comes when she is well out of that haze, is much more significant, and has a much broader impact.

The main counter to our heroine - Darien - is likeable enough from my perspective. He doesn't let Zoe run him over, for all her personality is water based, she is very passionate. He is, if not stable, then at least steady. He also does not condemn her for not easily going along with his plan for her in her grief, and in fact seems pleased to have her fully present in the role she has to play. Even if she does not trust him - or like him much.

Shinn's approach to her characters is definitely more idealistic than realistic, I would have to say. While Zoe, Darien, and other's behavior and deeds aren't particularly exceptional, they are what I could call "appropriate" - Zoe mourned for an appropriate amount of time and in an appropriate manner. Darien's approach after finding her was appropriate. Zoe's reactions to discovering the extent of her fate was acceptable - and her response to her dead father's trespasses was most certainly ideal. Everything extremely calculated and every word written with specific intent.

It's that, and something else I can't quite identify, that helps the story move as one of the most organic ones I have ever read. There really isn't a while lot of drama - at least, nothing major. There are feuds between people, families, enemies and friends, but the flow of interaction, of cause and effect, makes it easy to be absorbed into the story - to find my own place in it as an observer.

Troubled Waters is very much like people watching. Watching the tension build between Zoe & Darien has me held rapt, my pulse fluttering as if I was Zoe - and wondering at her placid response - before realizing it is simply the way she was written to play it. Which makes sense. It's the way I would - and have - played it. It's a pleasure to, again, see something grow so naturally in a story that it seems like an integrated part of it instead of some random addition. There's no "intense, sudden connection" or "mysterious draw" between them - just a natural evolution from dislike to distrust, from distrust to social dependence, and from dependence to affection to love.

When I reached the final scenes, I found myself holding my breath as often as not, as secrets were unraveled and their potentially disastrous consequences revealed. Though I don't know yet if we've seen the full extent of Zoe's power just yet, we certainly see a few impressive displays - both as acts of heroism (calmly controlled) and wildly reactive. We see the results - both good and bad - of Zoe being raised away from her inheritance.

Ultimately, Zoe's preferred behavior is explained by her culture. Every person, from my understanding, "chooses" an elemental association. Certain blessings and behaviors are expected - and while Zoe is often referred to as being all water, she has a heart of fire, inherited from her father's family. Without having that to take into consideration, Zoe would likely come across as too perfect, too contrived. As I mentioned, the characters are all set up to be idealistic representatives of human nature, where any deviation is clearly explained with some sort of dire circumstance.

It is hard or me to find fault with this book, as it really was an enjoyable, well-paced read. I simply did not want to put it down, was sad when it was finished, and looking forward to the next!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ashley Bell - Dean Koontz

Ashley Bell - Dean Koontz
Source: Barnes & Noble
Original Review: February 4, 2016
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

There is something about Koontz's writing that never fails to drag me in. Granted, this is only the second book of his I have read, but his writing is so distinct that you could never mistake his for any one else's.

I was terrified to pick up another book after reading Innocence, afraid that I would be disappointed. That Innocence was a fluke of Koontz's writing that struck me so deeply. Early on, I was happy to say I was wrong. That a writer like Koontz is lucky to come around once a generation - if that!

So, imagine my surprise when - every third paragraph or so - our lead's mother starts spouting surfer lingo. Which is then promptly identified as surfer lingo, and a definition of what she said given.

Um... am I really reading the same Dean Koontz that wrote Innocence? The master of "show, not tell"? His ability to walk the subtle line between too much and not enough seems horribly compromised. I am used to seeing things that don't make sense early on in a book, but when these nonsensical things are completely disparate from the situation they are put in, they go from "confusing" to "pointless."

At only page 60 out of a 500+ page book, I was sorely tempted to return it and add it to my small (but growing) DNF list. Even that aside, I have never returned a book so early on before and, in fact, I have only ever returned a book to the store once before in my life. At that point, however, my desire to know the outcome was enough to keep me going.

Now, perhaps I read this too soon after finishing American Sniper. But reading a book in which the heroine's love interest is a Texas-born former cowboy Navy SEAL overseas on a blackout mission to take out a terrorist, while the heroine sits at home dealing with cancer with no one but her parents at her side... uh-huh.

The dialogue discourages me even more. Issues with the mom's dialogue aside, Koontz does a fair job of capturing how a person in various situations might actually speak. Hell, beyond the dialogue, he does a good job capturing how they might act as well. There just isn't enough of it!

"I need you to help me understand... You think the golden retriever cured you?"
"No. Maybe. Hell, I don't know. The dog had something to do with what's happened. It must have. Listen, I'm not saying it's a miracle dog. What would that mean, anyway, 'miracle dog'? Sounds ridiculous. But the dog and the man who brought him - they must know something. Don't you think so? I think so. Well, the man might know something. The dog wouldn't necessarily know. Who knows what dogs know? And even if the dog knew something it wouldn't be able to tell us what it knew, because dogs can't talk. So, we need to talk to the man." (p.88)
Perfect dialogue for someone inexplicably cured from a supposedly incurable disease. Absolutely brilliant.

So where's that brilliance in the rest of this incoherent mish mash?

And oh, my fucking god. She's in a coma. She's been in a coma this whole time, ever since all of the crazy shit started. We've been reading nothing more than a god-damned coma dream.


Even if it's not that... has Koontz started to rely only on his name to get people to keep reading? Using something so cliche... even if it's not really that - I'm having a hard time convincing myself to keep reading. In fact, I'm only still reading because I have nothing else to do except watch re-runs of Numb3rs, and listen to my eight year old ramble about her upcoming vacation. Both of which sound 100% more preferable to finishing this book.

But I'm more stubborn - and apparently more masochistic - than that. So, I press on.

Sort of.

Koontz still displays an impressive level of skill in portraying human behavior. However, his almost lyrical method of writing I became accustomed to previously is conspicuously absent from Ashley Bell. In fact, the style and method varied greatly throughout the book - almost as if Koontz wasn't the only one writing, and the voices just didn't blend.

I wish I could say the ending made the last week of reading worth it. It didn't. If anything, it just made my disappointment all the more absolute. There is no taking those hours back, and no redemption to be found for this book.