A few months ago, I stumbled upon a sign-up by a publishing company, asking for people willing to review their books. Though this blog was still freshly pressed, I decided to sign up and chance it anyway. The worst they could say was no. When they emailed me and offered to send two PDFs of their previously published clients, I was stoked. Here was a publishing company willing to let ME review their work, sending me free books, even though I didn’t have a platform. How amazing was that?
I, um, rewarded that trust by forgetting I had those two PDFs for weeks.
Yet the company still had faith in me by sending me an ARC of C.J. Malarsky’s Ashwood, coming out September 7th from Fantasy Works Publishing. I apologized profusely and made it a goal to read Ashwood first, since a review for an upcoming book is more helpful than a review of already established books (though, in the end, all reviews help and you should be doing them, if you’re reading). I’m sure you can guess what happened.
A few more weeks pass and not until this Sunday did I finally start Ashwood.
I know what you’re thinking. Well, not really, but I have an inkling of some options: a) you’re a terrible book reviewer if you can’t keep up with the one publishing company sending you books. b) you’re an idiot for announcing that failing publicly. c) no one is ever going to want to work with you again.
All of those options might be valid, I admit. And I know that I have to do better, in the future, and vow to do so. But sometimes, life gets in the way and you aren’t able to meet the deadlines you planned to. But I do plan to be more diligent in putting books sent by publishers or agents at the top of my To-Read list after getting them, especially ARC copies.
Regardless of my shortcomings, that’s how Ashwood came into my hands. After finishing it this afternoon, I have mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed it, mostly, but mainly, I wanted to edit the shit out of it. And I think that second reading is inspired by the fact that I abhor reading Ebooks. I am a supporter of the printed word 110%. I refuse to buy a Kindle or a Nook. I don’t purchase Ebooks and never read books online. How can a book be properly experienced if you don’t hold it? How can you truly appreciate it without getting a paper-cut when you can’t turn the pages fast enough; when your arm is sore from carrying that massive tome around with you, in hopes that you’ll have a five minute break to find out what happens next after that cliffhanger? How can you truly enjoy a book without being able to smell it?
But, as I said, my publishing company sent me PDFs of their books. And I am not complaining about that, in the slightest. However, after finally reading one of them, I’ve realized that the medium provided–a PDF–paired with the usual association I have with said medium–editing unpublished manuscripts–made reading Ashwood feel like an unpublished book I should be editing instead of a completed novel I could get lost into.
What is Ashwood about, you ask? Well, let me use Goodreads to tell you:
When sixteen-year-old Willow goes urban exploring in an abandoned asylum she expects the dark halls, creepy echoes and ominous atmosphere. But she doesn’t expect it to follow her home. After the trip, Willow becomes haunted by nightmares in which she never left Ashwood Asylum. Nightmares where she is pursued by grotesque, mind-infesting horrors called the Mora who feed off the fear of mortals. Unfortunately for squeamish Willow, they are hungry. And she is their perfect meal.
Upon waking, Willow recalls only fleeting memories of dead butterflies, hollow eyes and discordant whispers. But slowly these phantasms begin to bleed into her daily life, making Willow question her own sanity. She soon realizes that the solution lies solely within the decrepit walls of Ashwood. As the boundary between dreams and reality disintegrates, Willow must find the courage to defeat the leader of the Mora before he traps her soul in the nightmare forever.
I thought the premise terribly interesting, so I was excited to read it (despite taking so long to get started). Yet quickly, my editing hat was on and secured. At first, I was just being picky, wanting to edit dialogue here and there to make it more believable or switching around a phrase or two to make it more concise. But eventually, I started wanting grander changes. Willow, our unfortunate sixteen-year-old protagonist, didn’t feel sixteen years old. At times, by the way her parents treated her and the fact that she was still attached to a stuffed rabbit, she felt seven. Yet she was also part of a college friend group.
Another aspect about Willow was that I felt she wasn’t entirely clear as a character. Early on, she is described as being terrified of horror films. Yet when her life becomes one–particularly during a scene with creepy nurses and needles–she is totally calm, which felt contradictory from what I already knew about her. Or, her over-protected parents would walk in on her screaming during a nightmare and after a single word of confirmation that she was okay, they would leave, making me question how over-protective they actually were, if it were that easy to calm them down. And I didn’t ever buy into the romance aspect of the book at all.
As I read, I just wanted to make comments in the margins, pointing out these things as an editor would. And despite the really awesome aspects of this book, I couldn’t shake that editorial mindset all the way to the end. Would I have had these same reservations if I had been reading a printed copy? I’m not sure. But like Willow’s itchy arm she shouldn’t have touched, the entire time I read, I just wanted to be using a red pen, even though I knew I shouldn’t be.
But even with my inner-editor staying my constant companion as I read, there were some really awesome elements that makes this book work just as it is. No editing necessary.
Like Willow, I’m not into horror. At all. With an overactive imagination, once an idea takes hold, I’m not able to stop my thoughts from coming up with scenarios that cause me to turn the light back on at night. And considering this book dealt with fears captured in dreams that seep out to haunt your reality, I will admit I got quite freaked out at some moments. One night, for the briefest instant before trying to sleep, I wondered what it would be like to travel to Ashwood–the burnt down hospital that ensnares Willow and forces her to live through nightmares both while sleeping and awake–after I lost consciousness. Needless to say, I had to turn on the Thomas Newman Pandora station before I found any sleep that night.
I really loved how the plot interwove multiple folklores, including Russian, Slavic and the Caribbean. Personally, I would have liked those folklores to have been heightened even more. There were paragraphs of detail that were really fantastic and a few one-liners that I had to write down, I loved them so much. Also, my favorite creepy element–aside from the butterflies–was the fact that the nurses sang nursery rhymes. Yeah, that was wicked.
AND THAT ENDING.
Yeah, the ending was absolutely wicked.
Reading Ashwood, I learned a couple things: one, I really need to work on balancing my commitments so I don’t make a publishing company wait over a month for me to review one of their books that they kindly sent me. Two, if I read a book that isn’t printed, but instead online–regardless if it is as a PDF, a Word Document, a Ebook, whathaveyou, I’m going to judge it more harshly, simply because I connect those platforms with editing. Three, even if I find things I want to change about a book doesn’t necessarily mean the book itself is entirely bad; in fact, the same book can be really enjoyable, despite my own frustrations. Four?
I may have to listen to that Thomas Newman station for a few more nights, just to be “safe.”
Thanks to Fantasy Works Publishing for sending me an ARC copy of Ashwood and asking me to write an honest review. My readers, I think you should check this book out yourself and see what you think in comparison to my opinionated observations. I’d love to hear about it. 🙂