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Book Reviews

Book Review: Slumber (Beauty Never Dies Chronicles, #`1) by J.L. Weil

July 28, 2017

J.L. Weil’s Slumber is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Sleeping Beauty in which the elements of romance and dystopia are often indistinguishable.

I received a free ebook copy of Slumber from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The gorgeous cover immediately drew me in, and I can never resist a fairytale retelling.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me on any level: writing style, plot, characterization, or worldbuilding.

But before I get to that, I want to make one thing clear:

It didn’t fail for lack of a big publishing house behind it.

It has a gorgeous, professional cover, and the purple prose has clearly been copyedited. I’m sure the award-winning J.L. Weil deserves whatever awards she’s won.

But Slumber disappointed me in the same ways as a hundred thousand traditionally-published romance novels have before it.

That is, massively but not unexpectedly.

When I agree to read a romance, I’m prepared for a plot that exists mainly to delay the happily ever after (and doesn’t always make much logical sense).

I was disappointed Weil didn’t tie any overarching literary theme into her worldbuilding.

In her fantasy world, everything beautiful is deadly. That could have been cool social commentary, especially in a Sleeping Beauty retelling.

But romance and social commentary don’t always mix well, I guess.

Because it is a romance, I anticipated flowery language and meaningless metaphors:

She stood out against the boring room like flame to a fire. Dark red hair outlined her delicate face in soft waves. Such vibrant color was unusual in a place stuffed with nothing but dirty white walls and dreary gray floors. Her hair glinted in the waning light and immediately caught my eye. It was the kind of color that was hard to miss in a room colder than the arctic. Bold and silky against her pure and porcelain skin, untouched by any damages of the sun, she was like a beacon of light on a foggy night—the brightest star.

“… like flame to a fire”? What?

(Yeah, I know she means, “Like a fire stands out against a fire,” but that isn’t what she said.)

And the white = pure metaphor is:

  • Cliche
  • Creepy (Your first thought after finding a sleeping stranger should not be, “How virginal!” Ew.)
  • Kinda racist

But cliche, creepy, kinda racist heroes are nothing new. (Although most of them probably have better names than Dash Darhk.)

Neither are bizarre, unsexy “sex” scenes.

Neither is authors romanticizing relationships that, were they happening in real life, would be toxic at best.

That particular trope is so old and so widespread I don’t even want to talk about it on my blog.

It’s been talked about. It’s boring. I don’t have anything new to add except some illustrative quotes:

He shrugged, taking a step toward the door. “Suit yourself. Stay here. The Night’s Guard will love you. Either way, I don’t care.”

Asshole.

“Who are the Night’s Guard?” I whispered, pressing him for answers. It was true I didn’t want to stay in this room, but could I trust him?

“Your worst nightmare,” he muttered.

He kisses a sleeping stranger, tells her the world has ended, and then threatens to leave her for the Bad Guys to find. What a prince.

I tilted my head to the side, finding Dash looking at me. My skin flushed, and it wasn’t from the heat. The look he gave was downright menacing …

He took a step forward, eyes flashing like a silver bullet. “How does it feel, knowing you’ve kissed a killer?” The texture in his voice had gone low and ruthless.

*swoon*

“I’m hazardous, Charlotte.” Our eyes locked, and if I didn’t know better, there was regret. “If you don’t get as far away from me as possible, you’re going to get hurt. I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you. I told myself I wouldn’t touch you. It can’t happen again. I can never give you what you deserve.”

Life advice: When someone tells you they’re bad news, believe them.

There are several instances in which he kisses and/or grabs her either without her consent or against her wishes (which is portrayed as totally romantic), but I’m not going to quote them because I found them really upsetting.

But it wasn’t actually Dash that made this such a difficult read. It was Charlotte.

And it wasn’t because I found her annoying (although I did):

I didn’t know a guy who could resist a weeping, helpless girl. Yep. I had resorted to the oldest trick in the female book.

It was because she reacted to the hero threatening and insulting her the way a real-life abuse victim would: with fear, radical mood swings, a growing distrust of herself and the world around her, and denial.

It was heartbreaking:

Dash had done nothing but make me feel safe.
Every fiber in my being was saturated with raw emotions. He couldn’t keep doing this to me, kissing me and then giving me the cold shoulder. He wanted me. He didn’t.

Look, write what you want. I firmly believe fiction both reflects and creates the “real world”; I also believe in artistic freedom.

I don’t always agree with what artists use their freedom to do. And I know my early relationships would have been a lot healthier if my idea of romance hadn’t come straight from novels like this one.

Which, ultimately, made it impossible for me to enjoy reading Slumber.

Book Reviews

Déjà Revu January 22nd, 2017

January 23, 2017

Hello, friends! My review of Shira Glassman’s The Second Mango was featured in Déjà Revu, a weekly review round-up on Celebrity Readers.

Here is the Revu in its entirety. I strongly encourage everyone to check out the other blogs that were included this week!


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Original

Meme

Reading Challenge

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Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic

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Contemporary

Fantasy

Steampunk

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Romance

Woman’s Fiction

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Contemporary

Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic

General Fiction

Non-Fiction

Paranormal

Romance

Woman’s Fiction

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Horror

Woman’s Fiction

Book Reviews

Review: The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

January 20, 2017
Book Stats
The Second Mango cover: Queen Shulamit and Rivka on Dragon Title: The Second Mango
Author: Shira Glassman
Series: The Mangoverse
Genre: YA fantasy, adventure, romance
My rating: ★★★
Buy it: Amazon

Content warnings: Queerphobia, sexism, child abuse, threats of sexual violence (brief)

Blurb: Queen Shulamit and the warrior Rivka set out on the back of a pony that transforms into a dragon to find the queen a lover. Instead, they find a temple full of women who have been turned to stone by an evil wizard.

Ahh, my first review! This is exciting! You may want to take a peek at this new page on how I write reviews. And be warned: There’s a bundle of spoilers here.

I planned to love this book.

It was on my TBR list for over a year before I bought it. Since it’s so highly reviewed on Goodreads, I assumed it was a trade publication. I kept looking for it in libraries.

When I asked Twitter for indie fantasy recommendations, Shira Glassman herself responded. She listed a few of her favorites and noted (jokingly) that the Mangoverse is indie fantasy.

I squeaked. An author I’d heard of Tweeted at me! I had to review her book first.

The Second Mango has a dragon, a lesbian protagonist of color, a lady warrior, and a fantasy culture based in Judaism. I knew I was going to love it.

And I did, except … Well, we’ll get to that.

But first, what I loved about it.

The Second Mango is a deeply personal #ownverses fantasy.

Glassman is a bi Jewish woman who, as she told me on Twitter, based her protagonist, Shulamit, on herself at 20. Both women lost their beloved fathers, struggle with food intolerance, and “like boobs.” (Those are Glassman’s words, not mine.)

The ties between author and character make Shulamit all the more remarkable as a protagonist. Shula is intelligent but immature and “girl-crazy.” Yet Glassman doesn’t play her flaws for laughs the way other authors might.

Take this interaction between Shulamit and her warrior companion, Rivka:

“Besides, I like you.” An eager expression, half-sheepish, half-seductive, slipped across her face for a moment.

“As I told you, little Queenling, Malkeleh, nothing happens to me when we’re close. I don’t feel that way about women, and I’m not the one you seek.” … “Are none of your ladies-in-waiting interested in other women?” Rivka asked, wondering if they’d had to fight off the queen’s advances too.

It isn’t funny. It’s cringey. But it still made me smile because I’ve known girls like that. I’ve been a girl like that. It takes a lot of guts to put your adolescent flaws and insecurities on paper.

There’s a similar honesty tangible in Shulamit’s friendship with Rivka. As you can see in the quote above, Rivka occasionally gets frustrated with the young queen. Shulamit is sheltered; Rivka has seen too much of the world.

“Besides, I like you.” An eager expression, half-sheepish, half-seductive, slipped across her face for a moment.But they’re both aware they aren’t conventional women. Shulamit is a lesbian; Rivka disguises herself as a man to fight. There’s a sort of “us against the world” mentality that binds them from the beginning. I remember feeling the same way about my high school best friend.

The title, The Second Mango, is a reference to their friendship. It’s a good choice. Of all the relationships in the book, the women’s friendship feels the most important. It sustains them. It makes them braver. It makes them into better versions of themselves.

Which is why I was so disappointed by Glassman’s decision to focus on romance in the later half of the novel. There is more chemistry between Shulamit and Rivka as friends than between either woman and her partner.

But the story’s Happily Ever After demands romance.

Elementary plot elements are both a bug and a feature.

Cover of an older edition of The Second Mango: Two mangoes with a dragon on the mango in the frontI had other issues with the too-easy resolution as well.

At times, it was difficult to tell whether The Second Mango was a middle-grade book or a new adult novel.

During the climax, the heroes face a series of obstacles reminiscent of the enchantments that guard The Philosopher’s Stone. They arrive to find the villain is already dead. All they need to do is rescue the fair maiden from a magical rock slide.

Yet there’s too much talk of bosoms, “flowers,” and petting for even my heathen ass to feel comfortable recommending The Second Mango to a fifth grader.

Upon reflection, I’ve decided that’s not necessarily a flaw. There’s no law that says young adult/new adult fantasy novels need to be grimdark. Coloring books currently top The New York Times bestseller list. Maybe The Second Mango is the novel we need in these uncertain times.

But the cotton-candy sweetness isn’t all encompassing. There are still real-world issues, like sexism, child abuse, and homophobia. And to keep the book light and cheerful, Glassman sacrifices the opportunity to confront these issues head-on.

Rivka is neglected and abused by her family because she is “too masculine” to be a proper lady. Yet her family is never forced to face what they’ve done. Nor does Rivka herself seem able to acknowledge the trauma she survived. Instead, she rides off on a mare that turns into a dragon, never to return

Near the end of the novel, a vendor in the marketplace scolds Shulamit for kissing her lover in front of his stall:

“You two. You’re disgusting. If everyone was like you, the human race would go extinct.”

A poisonous sea began to boil in Shulamit’s stomach, and she felt tears of anger spring forth from her eyes. But then she heard familiar voices behind her … and she knew she was not alone. Still afraid but ignoring it, she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and said haughtily, “Nobody’s like me, and you can bet nobody’s ever been like her–we’re pretty amazing!”

It’s meant to be a sign of Shulamit’s growth. She’s no longer ashamed of who she is. With her friends behind her, she can stand up for herself.

Yet the queen’s answer is incomplete. The vendor isn’t upset because of who Shulamit and her lover are as individuals. It’s who they are together that upsets him. Shulamit need not have said, “Tough shit. I’m the queen. If you don’t like my consort, you can whine to the executioner.”

But she might have said, “We love each other. We are not ashamed.”

The Second Mango is a celebration of diversity to which some types of difference are not invited.

Even at the end of the novel, Shulamit is ashamed of loving women.The Second Mango's Current Cover

She is the only lesbian she knows. (Her lover is bi.) She suffers from internalized homophobia throughout the text. Near the end, she and her lover agree:

For an ordinary [read: straight] man to commit willingly to spending the rest of his life being mistaken for one of them [read: not straight] was to win their admiration.

Despite her growth, Shulamit still considers herself abnormal, sub-ordinary.

But at least there is onscreen lesbian representation.

There are no characters openly identified as trans to counterbalance lines like this:

“… There are women who dress as men because they prefer to live as men …”

And:

“They could be men wearing dresses just to sneak into the competition …”

And Shulamit discovering that Rivka is a woman who dresses as a man because she has breasts.

To be fair to Glassman, I don’t think she intended any of those examples to be transphobic. The last example is more trans erasure than open hostility. The first two almost certainly refer to cis people cross dressing rather than to trans people.

But good intentions don’t make something harmless. I can’t tell if “women who dress as men because they prefer to live that way” is meant to be a reference to trans men or not. I hope not.
Anyone who’s paying attention to the “bathroom debates” knows that conservatives are currently terrified “men wearing dresses” are going to sneak into women’s bathrooms if we allow trans women to pee in peace. The language is problematic in and of itself. It doesn’t matter whether it’s referring to cis men or trans women.

I kept waiting for a trans character to show up.

Recounting a memory, Rivka says:

“Of course, a few of them [sex workers] found it necessary to insist that I understand their rule against the guard making free with their services … I simply opened my shirt, and said that I had a pair of my own and wasn’t interested, so they didn’t have to worry.”

Shulamit wilted.

“I’m sorry, Queenling,” Rivka added. “I wasn’t really thinking about women like you two …”

Forcing a trans character to educate cis characters isn’t ideal, but it would have been better than letting transphobia and trans erasure stand unchallenged.

No openly trans character arrived.

I will give the Mangoverse a second chance.

Ultimately, it is wonderful to have a disabled, lesbian protagonist of color. I liked the lighthearted adventure. If it weren’t for the shortcomings I mentioned above, The Second Mango might have become one of my favorite books.

I am disappointed, but I’m not giving up on Glassman. From what I’ve seen of her, she’s a lovely person. She’s committed to diverse books.

I’ll return to the Mangoverse soon. Hopefully, the other novels will keep the fun and lose the jarring queerphobia.

Same Book, Different Views

Brendon gave The Second Mango four out of five stars at Reading and Gaming for Justice.

Sean gave it 4.5 out of five stars at World of Diverse Books.

A.M. gave it 10 out of 10 fountain pens on their site.