BLOOD MATTERS by Aviva Bel’Harold

I wrote this review for the LibraryThing Early Review program.

I have had a hard time with this review. I enjoyed so much of my time of reading this book and wanted to rate it even higher than I do now. However, there was one particular aspect that was so completely horrifying to me, so disappointing, that I cannot rate higher, in good conscience. As is my tradition, I will address both those things I enjoyed and those things I disliked. After I do that, I will go into detail about this one terrible part of the experience and – against my tradition – include quite a few spoilers so I can discuss the problem accurately. Basically, in order to fully explain why I had such a knee-jerk reaction, I will have to spoil the entire ending. I will warn again when that particular section starts, but be aware there are spoilers ahead. Ultimately, I believe this is a good book that failed itself in becoming great.

It took me some time to determine whether or not this book was fantasy or science fiction. After all, it is a vampire novel. What really sealed the deal for me was the clear work the author put into the process of the parasitic relationship that created the vampires of the novel. While no vampire novel can entirely avoid the supernatural, the parasite and the logic of the world in which it lives definitely had the tone of science fiction to me. A basic run down is this: the parasite starts in every host as a single-celled organism that travels through the blood stream and, as it settles in the heart, it begins to multiply and use up the blood supply of the host in order to do so. At the point that it runs out of blood, it then requires blood from other humans to complete and sustain the transformation. If the host dies, the parasite transfers, through touch, to a new host and starts the process once again.

One of the things this scientific bent to the vampire tale provides is a delightful lack of angst. Not that there is no angst in the novel, but that it does not over power or even equal the sense of curiosity and exploration that comes with the new abilities. This is a novel about discovery as much as it is about its major themes of heroism and humanity. The human host continues in her life for as long as she can and tries her best to function normally and the parasite does not attempt to interfere with that. The change of circumstances happens in stages and feels very organic.

The characters are well humanised and made approachable by a diversity of perspective. It’s amazing how, depending on who is the lens the narration is written through, the parasite, called E.V., and the host, known as Brit, can be two separate beings or a third, singular character. It took a little while to get used to the different narrative lenses, but allowing the story to be told through several sets of eyes made for a good deal of sympathetic perspective. I think the story was served well by the fact that though it was mostly (and understandably) told from the perspectives of Brit and E.V., others were allowed in to really fill out the edges of the picture.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed the shorter chapters. All seventy-seven (!!) of them. I am generally not at all a fan of the short chapter, I feel like it fragments the narrative. However, in this case, it served as a beautiful echo of the perspectives of E.V and Brit. E.V.’s memories barely stay with her from host to host, but Brit helps in discovering and preserving them in her human mind as a full, complete narrative. The narrative device of short chapters verses a long arc mirroring the two main characters was one of my favorite bits.

The thematic discussion of heroism (which is main theme of the book, as I perceive it) was quite good. E.V. seems to feel she is a bit of a hero. As a parasite, she improves the health, function, and visage of the host body. They are faster, stronger, more beautiful, less needy. But in order to do this, she must take. Brit, as she discovers her new powers, chooses to use them to cull the bad people from her town. But, in doing so, she takes away the lives and opportunities of so many people. Both of them are play-acting at being a hero and convincing themselves that they are heroes, while neither of them really are. While I found the resolution of the discussion contained some deeply problematic things (this is the big spoiler I talk about later), I did enjoy the eventual conclusion the manuscript came to.

The secondary discussions of ‘what is it that makes one human’ (a vampire novel must) and ‘the many ways love can be felt’ were nuanced and extensive. I enjoyed the multi-thematic nature of the novel and I am truly glad to say that the discussions weren’t heavy-handed or didactic.

As for my dislikes, the first I need to mention is the simply weird pacing problems. I would be convinced that several days had passed and then read a reference to an action five chapters past as earlier in the day. This isn’t particularly unreasonable with seventy-seven short chapters, but it is disconcerting when the perception is so different from the narrative. Similarly, I would thing a short time had passed – a few days, a week at most – and discover that months had gone by. I wonder if this is a vampire novel problem, as both Stoker’s Dracula and Meyer’s Twilight also had these issues of pacing, though to wildly different degrees.

Another weird aspect was the inclusion of a biblical phrase as a large part of the mythology quite suddenly at the end. After having spent so much of the book writing a detailed individual mythology and science, it was more than a bit odd to see an established mythology (one that didn’t feel like it really fit all that well) play such a large role in the raison d’être of the vampires. I was largely confused by the inclusion and I still think it was a poor choice, though it certainly wasn’t a book breaker by any means.

Many of the “bad people” Brit targets are pimps and the prostitutes often seem to end up being collateral damage. I dislike them being lumped in as bad people (with little remorse for killing them), as a vast majority of illegal sex workers are victims themselves. At best it seems insensitive and at worst it looks like sex-shaming and has shades of victim-blaming. Either way, it felt like a very negative and dismissive treatment of sex workers and I would have liked that to be more nuanced. I also find it ludicrous that in a town that supports over 200 pimps and sex workers that Brit couldn’t find a goodly portion of muggers or robbers (or, if she could, that they didn’t show up in the narrative).

There is a scene (really, Brit’s first taste of the false heroism she takes on) in which a girl is threatened with rape. Brit steps in and saves her and the next day the girl is at school, bright, bubbly, cheery, and entirely unaffected. This sat very poorly with me. It seemed to brush off rape, or the threat of it, as a casual thing, and that disturbs me. I think it would have served the narrative, one proved to be so good at nuanced discussions, to have added a little, or even a lot more nuance to this scene.

Okay, so that’s the base of my review. As you can see, compared to what I enjoy, most of my complaints are minor. I hope you understand that while this next part addresses a major complaint at length and, though it does taint my over-all experience of the book, I did enjoy the vast majority of my time in this world.


We good? Fantastic.

There was an entirely gratuitous rape in the book. Entirely. There’s no excuse or purpose that I can suss out. In my explanation, I first have to credit Maggie Stiefvater, an author of YA literature herself, for helping me create my criteria for what makes a gratuitous rape in literature. She wrote a beautiful article about rape in fiction two years ago and it perfectly captures the feeling of being faced with an unnecessary rape: “I-Am-Only-The-Sum-Of-The-Places-On-My-Body-You-Can-Violate-Me.” You can find it on her tumblr and twitter. The criteria are:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?
2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?
3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?
4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?
5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?
6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

So, I will be answering each of the questions about Blood Matters. First, I need to set up the context of the rape: A male parasite (in a male host) feels that he needs to repopulate the world with parasites to cull the human herd. Since E.V. is the only remaining female parasite, she is the one he chooses. The process by which he does this first includes the male parasite leaving his host body (therefore killing it) to join E.V. in Brit’s body and fundamentally changing E.V’s DNA to replicate in such a way as to create little parasite babies and also to jump into a new (male) host and have the host bodies have sex, so the parasite babies can attach to each sperm deposited and then go infect the world. Oh, and he fully intends to do both acts whether E.V. and/or Brit intend to go along with it. And, sure enough, he does. Got it? Now to the questions:

1. Would this have happened if it were a male character?

Quite simply: never. He already has the sperm, so there could have been all sorts of ways to accomplish that aspect, if it must needs have sperm. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of several ways that, if the female parasite had been in a male body, this could have been pulled off just fine without rape (which means that totally could have happened in a female). These ways are: asexual reproduction; only the parasites needed to have sex and since it is established that they can remove blood through skin contact, skin contact would be the full extent of the necessity, rather than invading a body in any way, shape, or form; changing of the DNA to be compatible with flaking skin cells; combining the sperm with the baby parasite hoards OUTSIDE the body. So, in this aspect, the rape was gratuitous.

2. Does this reduce the female character to the parts violated?

Yes. And how you can take a phoenix-like, parasitic, practically eternal being and reduce her to her girly bits is BEYOND me. Holy reproductive terrorism, Batman. Not to mention, E.V. is considered an It – a non-gendered entity – for the vast majority of the book. About two-thirds of the way through, her female-ness is impressed upon her by the man!parasite who would eventually perpetuate the rape. Her female status literally exists to serve the rapist. So, in this manner, the rape is gratuitous.

3. Is this starting a constructive discussion about rape?

Not in the least. At no point after the rape were the implications discussed. Though shock might be considered a factor, both Brit and E.V. were a little two engaged with reality afterwards for me to feel as if that was a valid interpretation of the after-effects of the rape. Basically, much like the threat of rape from earlier in the novel, it is not discussed much at all. This is especially confusing considering the elegant discussions about heroism, love, and humanity in the script. In this way, the rape is gratuitous.

4. Does this confirm cultural stereotypes about rape?

Hell. Yes. Several. And while I am almost positive that these were unintentional, it is still a fact that this rape both confirms the cultural expectation of the inevitability of rape as well as the cultural perception that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. The manuscript does this by having the female character(s) commit suicide shortly after she/they are raped. The suicide served the discussion about heroism and how the nature of the hero is to give, not to take, but it could have been accomplished (SO SO EASILY) in a non-problematic way by simply not including rape. Also, since the male parasite has to transfer hosts to a new male host – and it chooses Brit’s human boyfriend – there is a bit of playing into the ‘men can’t help themselves, they’re animals’ when the boyfriend tries to fight off the control of the parasite and fails. Also, the responsibility of getting away is left with the girls. This plays into the cultural perception that women don’t do enough to avoid being raped. In this way, the rape was gratuitous.

5. Does this feel like a default rather than an intentional choice?

Yes. This choice – and it was a choice, not an inevitability – feels lazy, especially since E.V. was considered a sexless being until two-thirds of the way through the manuscript (she inhabited both men and women!). This choice didn’t feel like intent, rather it felt unexamined. In that way, it is absolutely gratuitous.

6. Does this turn a complex character into a Victim or a Sidekick or Someone to Be Rescued?

Yes. After spending an entire manuscript being the acting party (parties), suddenly these women – during the climax of the story no less – become the party acted upon. They are turned into Victims or Sidekicks in their own story. It is especially frustrating, then, that their return to action is to commit suicide to prevent the little parasite babies from entering the world – an act completely about the rape, making them victims to the end. Again, this scene qualified the rape in Blood Matters as a gratuitous rape.

As you can see, this rape was entirely gratuitous by these guidelines. And yes, I realize these are guidelines of my own making (though adapted from another’s), but I hope I’ve demonstrated how truly unnecessary this was. This was an extremely disappointing way to end an experience I had so enjoyed. I don’t know what to think. The fact that all of the problematic aspects, unintentional though they might have been, in this circumstance were missed by both the author and the editor BAFFLES me. I rate the story highly because the writing was so good and the story showed a true understanding of craft. But the lack of understanding of this vital component really made the experience forever tainted.

I will continue to watch the author’s work. I will even continue to read it. She is talented and I believe she can (and hope she will) do better. To her credit, and I do hope I’ve made it clear that I give her plenty, she did not depict the rape in graphic terms. The reader knows how and when it happened, but she did not deem it necessary to show it. I *very much so* appreciate that and know that I would not be able to rate this work so highly if it were not true. I hope that, in future works, this author will prove me right and earn my trust again^. I certainly want her to be able to.

B- (excellent world building, interesting characters, successful narrative device, nuanced thematic discussions; casual attitude about the threat of rape, lightly treated rape, romanticized suicide, odd insertion of biblical mythology, weird pacing at times)

[><] & [::]


^I am not so arrogant as to believe the author hopes to gain my trust in particular, certainly not on a personal level. If I trust an author, I enjoy their books more and I hope I can get there with Bel’Harold’s books one day.

Lucky’s Girl by William Holloway

I reviewed this book for LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s Program.

To begin, I must admit that this is NOT my genre. But, I have received many books through LibraryThing which are not my genre and still been able to give them honest, favorable reviews, if unenthusiastic. So, when I got a horror novel, I was prepared to maybe not appreciate the content, but still be able to appreciate the writing (if it proved appreciable).

But, this is not a horror novel, this is torture porn. I was sick at reading it. And, worst of all, the writing was NOT good, so there was really nothing that saved it for me. This only gets a half star because I do have to give some sort of number of stars for it to be counted in the review average.

First, the trigger warnings, for those who are considering reading the novel. You REALLY should know what you’re getting into. So, here goes: rape, gang rape, statutory rape, other coerced sexual acts, incest, child grooming, juvenile sexual activity, violent sex, emotional manipulation, cult behavior, mind control, racism (specifically toward Native Americans and Koreans), sexism, murder, bestiality, ‘devil’ worship, live evisceration of people, live evisceration of animals, torture of people and animals, cultural appropriation. These are the ones I remember. Honestly, I wish I didn’t. Every time I thought the author had written content as sick as it could get, he added on another layer. That did not contribute to the piece, though it seemed to be the goal. So, the goal was accomplished, but be aware that acknowledging that the author’s goal is accomplished is not the same as me complimenting the completion of it. I think it a dreadful SHAME that might have been the goal in the first place.

Now, as I said, the content was NOT my thing. If that’s what does if for you, now you know this is a book for you. BUT, when it comes to the writing, I was sadly disappointed as well. Repetitive descriptors become repetitive scenes. I literally could jump forward two pages and Lucky would be repeating the same things in practically the same wording and the scene would not have moved on at all. There were supposed to be several narrative voices – chapters came from many perspectives – but they weren’t distinct. I often had to double check context to figure out who was talking because the voices were all of the same vein. The characters were static, all the character arcs were small circles: if there was progression at all, there was always a retreat to the original status. There was racism and cultural appropriation, there were seriously harmful attitudes about women all over the manuscript (including that old gem, “she asked for it” TIME AND TIME again), and there was NO COUNTERPOINT. While I truly believe that this book is NOT indicative of the author’s predilections and inclinations (because, hello jail time if it were an indication), there was no narrative or character counterpoint. I’m not talking about moralizing or the perfect character – I understand this is intended to be a horror novel. But you can have people in a horror novel with a different flavor of horror than racist and sexist a**holes. And because there was no balance of character viewpoint, it made Lucky’s onanistic DRECK that much harder to read. And the plot suffered because of this static state of the characters’ arcs and attitudes: it literally had nowhere to go. Yes, there was a story, but it very one note and predictable. The most unpredictable part of the story was what new horrific act would the author come up with to add into an otherwise boring plot. This story relied on sensationalized violence to carry interest, not good story or character work.

As a side note: I question, seriously, the choice of title. The multitude of characters referred to as “Lucky’s girl” in the narrative are also the characters with the LEAST agency in the narrative and therefore are the least interesting characters. If this is the focus of the narrative, it only serves to make the book even MORE disappointing as all we do, when focused on these women, is look for something – ANYTHING – interesting.

I was prepared to try something new and give it a shot. I went in hoping to find a book to enjoy from a genre I don’t typically read. Instead, I found a poorly written book that had such terrible content that I cannot imagine picking up another horror novel at this point. “I know a slaughterhouse when I see one,” and I have NO DESIRE to step foot in one again.

F (sensationalized content in exchange for plot, lack of character arc, repetitive writing

The Maker, the Teacher, and the Monster by Leah Cutter

I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Review program.

I really want to like Leah Cutter’s books. All of the ones I’ve read have interesting premises and characters. But she always seems lost. Her talent absolutely lies in character establishment and description (the way she describes magic in the three books of hers I’ve read is beautiful and her ability to translate details into images is very good), but not plot.

It’s frustrating to see the plot get lost so frequently. She’s ending her books stronger, but I still desire something a little more solid from her beginnings. It’s hard to stick with a book when the beginning is so slow (a problem all her books have shared). Inconsistent pacing also contributes to this “lost plot” problem.

I like her writing. I like her characters. But her plot and pacing are killing the reading buzz for me. That being said, Cutter has improved with each book, and so long as she does that, I’m willing to give her more chances.

The only thing I HAVE to note about the book is a SERIOUS issue that I see in SciFi ALL the time and I’m getting sick of it: mind-controlled sex is rape. Period. It doesn’t matter if the partners were having regular and consensual sex before the mind-control, there is no universe in which this is not rape. And I am so damn tired of seeing rape used as a plot device or fast, lazy character development without it being acknowledge for what it is. I will give that Cutter does a damn sight better than most authors, in that she has the character state she would need therapy, but NEVER ONCE is it called a rape. If we’re going to use rape as a literary device, we sure as hell should acknowledge it. So, trigger warning on that.

Definitely read this book after reading the first one, though.

B- (improved writing, interesting development; plot and pacing inconsistent, mystical rape, rape via mind-control)

[><] & [::]

The Obelisk Trap by Margaret Pearce

I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Review program. It is truly the first book I read from there that I wholly and completely could not enjoy. It was very disappointing. So, be warned, this exceptionally long review is about addressing the issues in the text.

Warning: here there be spoilers. I try very hard not to spoil books in my reviews, but in order to thoroughly address the pervasive racism and sexism in this manuscript, I need to back it up with examples from the text. These examples do give away important plot points. If you do not wish to be spoiled, this paragraph is sufficient. I rated the book so poorly because of persistent sexism and racism. I truly believe that to read a book to a child with those issues is to pour poison into their minds. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.

A note regarding intentions: I actually believe this author did not try to be sexist or racist. Many of the problems in this manuscript are the background sexist and racist tropes that I myself have had to train out of my brain after a lifetime of society feeding me and teaching me to believe this crap. Regardless of intention, it is still wrong and should NOT be allowed to survive uncontested, or survive period.

Should you still be hanging around, I would like to say that I wanted to like this book. It was the first middle grade book I had seen in the Early Review batches that sounded interesting to me. I think part of my visceral anger while reading was the fact that these expectations were so greatly disappointed. I’ve waited to review until I could speak calmly, or as calmly as I am able.

Basic plot: Charlie is trapped in a magical place called The Place of No Name with his sister, Billie, and Uncle William. They must escape before Billie is discovered to be a girl, as all young girls are killed immediately upon arrival.

Now that that’s out of the way, the text was appalling. Racism and sexism abounded and it was completely unacceptable.

The sexism was especially hurtful because the author dedicated the book to her daughter, “the daughter who could do anything better than most of the boys in the district and still can.” From the dedication, I got the feeling her daughter had been teased about being a tomboy, so I appreciate that the author tried to write an inspiring narrative wherein the female was a hero.

She failed.

Billie, the sister of the narrator, is first described as bossy; ugly for a girl, but alright for a boy; and embarrassingly sporty. All of these are common insults thrown at girls to shut them up and shut them down. Had they come from her brother and he later said he was wrong, they would have been barely acceptable, but instead, the narrative continues to say that Billie – who is is outspoken, but never bossy – is too smart for her own good. I think my least favorite descriptor was, “She has an intellect so sharp she’s going to cut herself one day.” Not one other character is told being intelligent is dangerous.

Billie is forced to pass as male to survive. I don’t appreciate the implication that sporty, tomboy-ish girls would be better served to be boys. I would much rather imply, or outright state, that a diversity in what is socially acceptably masculine and feminine would be the far better solution.

Eventually, Billie does manage to be the hero, but it’s not because of her intelligence or athletic skills or anything that she has any control over. She is established as smart, but isn’t allowed to use them to save the day. It is the two “scientist” males who figure out the solution and then choose to mind rape her (at best) and potentially sacrifice her life WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT. And all of this would be SLIGHTLY okay if what made Billie special had anything to do with a special talent or skill she had required. But no. Billie manages to be the hero because she’s – wait for it – a girl. Something in her specifically female biology doesn’t allow the alien parasite to live. She literally saves the day because of girl cooties. And can I note: scientifically, any parasite that can survive in the human biosex male body can survive in the biosex female body. Perhaps they can BETTER survive in one sex or the other (if testosterone or estrogen are significant factors in the survival of the parasite), perhaps, but this is laughably bad science AND plot. Making her “girlness” the saving factor is sexist. Women are not innately magic – they are human beings with skills and abilities. To WASTE an intelligent, problem-solving female character like this is practically criminal.

Also, out of a predominately male cast, the secondary villain is the only other named female character. And she’s the villain because she’s trying to protect a man, not for personal reasons. There is a primary villain, but his villainy is framed as a instinctual desire for survival, as something understandable, if not acceptable.

Now, for the racism. As another reviewer noted, the native inhabitants of the village are referred to collectively as “the blacks.” This is not okay. There are plenty of other descriptors for the villagers that aren’t race-based. Also, black is used as an unnecessary descriptor. There is only one doctor in the whole of The Place of No Name, but rather than being referred to as “the doctor,” he is referred to as “the black doctor.” Him being black makes literally NO DIFFERENCE to his skills as a doctor, it had already been established that he was black, and there was no other doctor from which to differentiate him. It was ridiculous and unnecessary.

The native population is described as having “fine features” that are so atypical for black people that a TRAINED SCIENTIST says “They look almost Caucasian except for their colour.” This is RIDICULOUS. And to have it come out of the mouth a scientist is especially offensive. The diversity of the human species, both in feature and in color, not only allows for fine-featured black people, but demands that they MUST exist. There are naturally blonde black people, and naturally broad-featured white people. It seems this author has never really looked at a black person, but rather dismissed them all as a group fitting into a narrow visual and cultural stereotype.

Speaking of cultural stereotypes, the native population is distinctly less advanced than the city built by the white people who have been trapped in The Place of No Name (I bet you anything it has a name in the native language, more on that in a moment) for a significantly lesser time period. The natives bring coal they have mined to the white people in exchange for food that should be freely available and goods that are utterly impractical in a place where survival is key. It smacks of slavery and white dominance.

The native peoples have learned English, but the English speaking white population has never – in hundreds of years – bothered to learn the natives’ language because “it’s just too hard.” This is a common tactic used to force non-English speaking peoples to learn English in American society today, I can’t speak for Australian society. And yet society still characterizes people who don’t speak English as stupid or lazy, as if society is not guilty of those crimes ten times over.

The Traveler, the ruler of The Place of No Name, is white. Remember, The Traveler is an alien parasite that chooses a host body, wears it out, and then travels into a new one. He sits as king over the villagers – he’s apparently been terrorizing them for centuries. And yet, he himself is not black. It seems that as soon as white people began stumbling into The Place of No Name, The Traveler deemed them more fit hosts and has slowly been picking off the best and healthiest of the white population, despite the fact that the native populations have shown themselves to be more resourceful and adaptable.

Billie is a white savior. That trope should be banned for all time.

A little note: the doctor who lives among the natives is the ONE black person I can find in the manuscript who traveled from our world to the The Place of No Name. It is heavily implied that he is the one who taught the natives everything they know (I call BS). This is Western Supremacy/Colonialism in action. The fact that the doctor is not white does not change that colonialism is based in racism and this counts as a racist stereotype.

There was more. This is a sampling of things I found deeply disturbing. More disturbing is that so many harmful stereotypes and actively poisonous attitudes made it past an editor and beta readers. I would hope that someone along the line might have noticed and said something, but if they did, they were not heeded. The writing is grammatically passable and not entirely uninteresting, but that cannot save a manuscript steeped in thoroughly toxic attitudes.

F (rampant sexism, racism, and poor plot devices)

[><] & [::]