by S. M. Beiko
Publisher: ECW Press
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Wishing for something more than her adventureless life, 16-year-old Ash eagerly awaits the move she and her mother are taking from their dull, drab life in the prairie town of Treade. But as Ash counts the days, she finds her way into a mysterious, condemned building on the outskirts of town—one that has haunted her entire childhood with secrets and questions. What she finds inside is an untouched library, inhabited by an enchanting mute named Li. Brightened by Li’s charm and his indulgence in her dreams, Ash becomes locked in a world of dusty books and dying memories, with Li becoming the attachment to Treade she never wanted. This haunting and romantic debut novel explores the blurry boundary between the real and imagined with a narrative that illustrates the power and potency of literacy.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
This is kind of a weird review for me. I'm not quite sure how to rate a book that's so uneven. Some parts of it were great. Other parts... not so much.
In the acknowledgements, the author says that she was sixteen when she wrote the book. On the one hand, I can scarcely believe it because the plot was so good. On the other hand, I can totally believe it because of the writing. And it wasn't that the writing was uniformly bad; that's what made it so frustrating. There were passages that were beautiful and evocative and the author did do a lot of things right:
Finally, something existed just for me in this sterile town where everything was everyone's until it smothered.But there were also those passages that bordered on purple prose, or that were just plain weird and unnecessary:
Her index and thumb to her temple, stretching her eye upwards, she nodded.On more than one occasion, I came across words that made no sense in context; it was as if the author liked the sound of the word, though didn't quite know what it meant... but used it anyway, meaning be damned:
Something went off, and everything slowed to a mercurial pace.This book also featured many, many instances of one of my biggest pet peeves: the "said bookism". And these "said bookisms" didn't even make sense. Throughout the novel, characters smiled, grimaced, shrugged, evaded, and stiffened their words (no, I know that makes no sense, and that's why it bothers me):
"Well, okay," he shuffled his feet again.Aargh. Sometimes, I think authors are allergic to the word "said". And what was weirdest of all was that, half the time, this author did use "said"... which only made the other incorrect dialogue tags all the more jarring and annoying. One other thing I noticed was that there were a few odd shifts in tense. Most of the novel is written in first person, past tense (with some sections in third person, present tense). There were a few instances where the past tense was replaced with present tense, but only momentarily... which leads me to believe it was an editing issue more than anything else. In any case, it was still a bit irksome.
The characters, on the whole, were pretty good, though Ash is arguably a bit bland (probably so the reader can live vicariously through her). Li (pronounced "Lie", not "Lee"... he's not Chinese, as I first assumed) was everything the synopsis promised, and then some. We even got two parent characters who actually played a role in the story (fancy that, in YA fiction)! I did find Tabitha and Paul, Ash's friends, a bit on the weak side at times, but they were necessary.
Okay, then there's the plot. I really, really liked this story. The synopsis makes it sound like a contemporary romance novel, but it's not. It's fantasy. Li's "indulgence in [Ash's] dreams" is a big hint at where this story goes, but it's more than that, too (and I don't want to say much more and give anything away, because that would spoil the fun of readers discovering things for themselves). I thought the secondary plot thread -- the bits told in third person -- was a nice addition, and it tied in seamlessly with Ash's story. And the ending... Well, I'll just say that books rarely make me emotional enough to shed any tears, but this one came close. I haven't been that invested in fictional characters and their stories in a while.
So, on the whole, this was a good book with a great plot that had a few moments of great writing, but also quite a bit of bad writing. With another round of editing, this probably could have been a five-star book. It's still pretty good, though, and if you don't mind some of the technical issues I mentioned above, you might like this one even more than I did. I'd recommend it to fans of romantic fantasy fiction.
Overall: 3.86 out of 5