Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Review - Dreamfall

Dreamfall (Dreamfall #1)
by Amy Plum
Date: 2017
Publisher: HarperTeen
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 293
Format: e-book
Source: Amazon.ca

Cata Cordova suffers from such debilitating insomnia that she agreed to take part in an experimental new procedure. She thought things couldn’t get any worse...but she was terribly wrong.

Soon after the experiment begins, there’s a malfunction with the lab equipment, and Cata and six other teen patients are plunged into a shared dreamworld with no memory of how they got there. Even worse, they come to the chilling realization that they are trapped in a place where their worst nightmares have come to life. Hunted by creatures from their darkest imaginations and tormented by secrets they’d rather keep buried, Cata and the others will be forced to band together to face their biggest fears. And if they can’t find a way to defeat their dreams, they will never wake up.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: Major Spoilers! You've been warned.

This is, without a doubt, the worst book I've read so far this year. It may also be one of the worst books I've ever read, but surprisingly, it's not for the reasons that usually make me hate books. This is going to be a long review, so buckle up, grab your marshmallow on a stick, and get ready for a roast.

While the premise of Dreamfall appears to be okay on the surface, it runs into problems almost right away, starting with the study/experiment. I understand that this is fiction, but when you're writing about medical matters, you need to somewhat stick to reality. And in the real world, you wouldn't do a study on one particular therapy for insomnia (in this case, a variation of electroconvulsive therapy) on a group of minors whose insomnia results from different causes. There's no way to account for variability in such a group. The kids in the study have conditions ranging from PTSD and narcolepsy with cataplexy to FFI (Fatal Familial Insomnia); so, before we even get going, the study is already comparing the outcome of a treatment on patients whose condition is caused by psychological factors to patients whose condition is caused by genetic ones.

So, with that shaky foundation, we're launched into one of the dumbest stories I've ever read. The problem with writing about nightmares is that they're totally subjective. What's scary for one person might not be scary for another, and since this is supposed to be horror, you need something that's fairly universal. Walking statues are not. Lakes of mucus are not. Clowns are definitely not. Heck, I've had nightmares about kittens. But if I tried to write that into a book, most people wouldn't be able to relate to my fear.

I think the best way to work through some of the problematic elements of this book is to discuss the characters. There will be major spoilers here, so you've been warned.


She's one of our point-of-view characters, a bland and generic heroine with such an indistinct voice that I kept forgetting when I was in her head. (She and Fergus, one of the other point-of-view characters, sounded exactly alike.) The only thing that reminded me that she was narrating were the unpleasant little comments that she'd make from time to time.

I’m disgusted with Remi’s defeatism when we’ve barely even tried.

She's got some sort of barely disguised racism going on, because the way she talks to Remi is pretty rude. And there's really no reason for it that I can see. What she calls defeatism, I call common sense. She makes up her mind early on that he's a bad person, and then speaks to him accordingly.

“For God’s sake, Remi, just shut up and push.” I place my hands back on the lid. “And really try this time instead of giving up before you’ve even given it any effort.”

Cata's backstory is stereotypical (complete with her father beating her with a strop; who even owns a strop these days?), and we never do find out what happened to her mother. Did her father kill her? You'd think that, if a woman mysteriously died and one of the kids came forward to say their father was horribly abusive, there'd be an investigation, whether the other kids denied the abuse or not. Anyway, Cata has insomnia because of PTSD, and she also dissociates from time to time (sometimes conveniently for the sake of plot complications).


He's our second point of view character, and is also one of the insomnia sufferers participating in the study. If I can point to a favourite character in the book, it's probably him, but only because he didn't annoy me all to hell. He's probably the smartest one in the group (IQ notwithstanding... I'll get to that in a moment).

With a Scottish-Indian background, he almost feels like part of a diversity quota. His ethnicity isn't really relevant, especially since he doesn't know much about his background. (He made some comment about how destroying a Christian cross in a dream would cause karma or something. I'm pretty sure that's not how it works, and if he really did have a Hindu mother, he would've had a better understanding of the belief.)

Fergus has insomnia as well as narcolepsy and cataplexy. The narcolepsy isn't really touched on much, although the cataplexy is brought up. For whatever reason, he lies about it at the beginning and blames his passing out on blood sugar (as if cataplexy is somehow a worse thing to admit to than hypoglycemia). As far as I can recall, though, he only did this once. Mostly, when strong emotions seemed to be about to trigger an attack, he'd rub his tattoo and magically stave it off. (From what I know about this condition, I don't think he'd have it so easy. Even laughing can cause sufferers to keel over. Just imagine that. If you've ever tried to not laugh at something hilarious, you'll know it's next to impossible.)


We don't really get to know much about poor BethAnn before she's taken out in a hail of dream bullets. Because she's got anorexia, her heart supposedly couldn't take the stress of dying in the dream.

BethAnn's backstory highlights another problem in this book, which I'll talk more about later. Basically, she feels guilty because her younger sister drowned while she was babysitting her. Her arc is short, and ends when she steps in front of a bunch of bullets to try to save the others (the scene is so badly written, however, that it doesn't appear that they really needed saving--or that taking those bullets would've helped... so her sacrifice comes off as completely pointless).


Here's another stereotype: the rich, handsome bad-boy. Except Sinclair is, apparently, very bad. A psychopath, in fact. There are very few clues, other than when he kills a tiger that was trying to eat them and Cata makes a big deal about how it wasn't necessary. (It wasn't necessary because their escape was too easy and convenient, but I digress). Aside from flirting and making jokes, Sinclair doesn't really exhibit any inappropriate behaviour. One thing that the author could have done, if she indeed wanted to cast him as a realistic psychopath, was to have his heart rate different from all the other kids. Psychopaths have a lower resting heart rate, and often don't have their hearts speed up in stressful situations the way other people's do. In the study, though, the heart rate acceleration was consistent across all the subjects, which was a missed opportunity to give this character a little more realism.

His backstory is that he probably killed some kids, but his parents covered it up. I don't know why he has insomnia. A psychopath wouldn't lose sleep over killing people.


Oh, Remi. Poor Remi, the token black kid from "Africa" who speaks with an "African" accent... but with perfect English syntax (even though, as we find out later, he's from a former French colony). I was kind of offended by this character. He's written as if we're supposed to dislike him. He's intolerant of Ant, to the point where it isn't even realistic (yelling at the top of his lungs--in all caps--at the latter's counting rituals and taking it completely personally for some reason).

His backstory is that he's a genocide survivor. Why the author didn't just pick one of many real genocides is beyond me. Instead, she makes up a place called Matangwe, which we find out at the 65% mark is supposedly a former colony. I assumed it was a village, since, when I Googled it, I came up with a village in Kenya. So when he says he's from Matangwe in Africa, it just sounds like the author doesn't realize that Africa is a continent. Still, by making up a fictional place, it looks lazy, as if the author didn't want to do any research. When I looked it up, I found an article about five genocides that were still going on at the time this book was written. Three were in Africa. There was no need to make anything up, especially since the extent of Remi's "African-ness" was the colour of his skin (there are very few details given, and even the nightmare based on his experiences is so generic that it could've taken place almost anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa).


Yes, that's a spoiler. George doesn't even exist. I figured it out long before the characters did. George is basically just a figment of Ant's imagination, somehow manifesting as a real person that the other study subjects can see. This may be because Ant is a Mary Sue. Yes, a Mary Sue, not a Gary Stu. We find out almost at the end that Ant is actually a girl, not a boy as everyone had assumed. And she's not just a Mary Sue: she's an autistic savant Mary Sue.

We don't really know her backstory, other than the fact that she's got an IQ of 160, is autistic and has OCD, but eschews any sort of labels. (This character is probably going to be offensive to multiple groups, but I'll discuss that more later.) She's like a Swiss army knife, always there providing answers (or even weapons conjured out of thin air) whenever they're needed. I'm still not sure why she has insomnia. Maybe it's just due to anxiety.

In any case, her character is kind of inconsistent. At times, she's written as autistic... but only so that people can comment on it. Many of those traits sort of fall by the wayside later, and instead of coming across as autistic, she just seems... young. (She is, at thirteen, the youngest in the group.)


He's the third point-of-view character, but he's on the outside. Jaime is a pre-med student, in the room where the experiment is taking place and watching everything that goes on. I do not like Jaime. He keeps doubting himself, deferring to the doctors who are running the study, viewing them like gods.

If this famous scientist hasn’t yet seen a pattern, who am I to point it out to him?

The thing is, the two doctors running the study are a couple of the dumbest doctors I've ever seen. If Jaime thinks he's not as smart as they are, then he's got a problem.

Anyway, Jaime's just there to observe, and yet the "genius" doctors do things like leave him in a room full of medically unstable teenagers while they go off to do a Skype call (I still don't understand why they had to leave a room full of computers to do that) and then yell at him when he has to defibrillate one of the kids to keep them from dying.

Which is why I am able to follow through, even when my peripheral vision catches Zhu rushing through the door, and I hear her scream, “Jaime! What the hell are you doing? Stop right now!”

Of course, he succeeds.

“Jaime,” Zhu says, her face drawn in wonder, “you just saved that boy’s life.”

She seems awfully surprised, doesn't she?

Jaime may be studying to be a doctor, but I sure wouldn't want him treating me. Before the previously mentioned incident, here's a little sample of his thought process:

What am I doing? I’m a premed student, not a doctor.

This boy is dying, a voice says from inside me.

If this doesn’t work and he dies, it could be blamed on me. If I do nothing, I’m blameless.

A life is in the balance.

This could cost me my degree . . . my entry to med school . . . my career.

If you stand by and let him die, you will never forgive yourself.

This could mean ending up back in Detroit.

Better to be safe than sorry.

And then the voice inside me becomes that of my dad’s. My dad, who was always proud of me, no matter what. I hear pride and amusement blend in his low baritone voice. When have you ever taken the safe way?

That is the push I need.

So, in other words, he'd been about to let the kid die to save his potential career. That's not exactly the sort of person I'd trust with my life.

There's also something that happens near the end of the book that just made me roll my eyes. Through a hacker friend of his, he finds out what's really in Sinclair's sealed files, and realizes he's a psychopath. When Fergus emerges briefly from the dream state, Jaime tells him about how the experiment went wrong and that the doctors are trying to find a way to bring them all out safely. And then he figures Fergus should know that they might all be in danger. Does he tell him Sinclair's a psychopath? Oh, no. That would make far too much sense. Instead:

I pray with all my heart he heard my last words: One of you is a psychopath.

Seriously, Jaime?! I almost suspect that he's a psychopath himself, after a stunt like that. It's like he wants to see what they'll do with that information, if they'll tear each other apart. Don't psychopaths love to create chaos?

Dr. Zhu and Dr. Vesper

These two... What do I say about these bumbling fools? They're like the medical equivalent of the Keystone Cops. Aside from the fact that their initial study premise is riddled with holes, they don't seem to know much about medicine in general. And they're so over-the-top dramatic that it made me roll my eyes (see quote above about Zhu's "wonder").

Vesper is staring at her like he’s challenging her to do something impossible. “Call it,” he urges.

She sighs and says, “As of seven fifty-five a.m., I declare all seven subjects comatose.”

When BethAnn goes into cardiac arrest, they do call the EMTs, but like every other medical personnel in the building, they're not much better.

The EMTs are there within seconds. I stand to the side, watching in horror as they take Vesper’s place, charge the paddles, and begin delivering shocks to the girl’s chest. After three attempts, they stop.

“No response,” one says.

“Try again,” Vesper urges.

They shake their heads. “It’s no good. She’s gone. She was past saving by the time we got here.”

You want to talk about defeatism? Those EMTs were called almost immediately when BethAnn went into cardiac arrest. They were there within seconds. But she was "past saving" by the time they got there? Remind me never to go to this hospital for anything; they sure don't try very hard.

There are so many medical things in this book that just don't ring true. Like people under general anesthesia being in REM sleep. Or Zhu having ventilators brought in just in case "care becomes extended". Ventilators are used when people have trouble breathing... not just because they're unconscious for a long time.

Okay... and now we get to the problematic aspects of this book. Aside from the Africa thing and the subtle racism, there's the undercurrent of judgment that runs through the text. One thing I found pretty offensive was equating the homeless with being dirty, shabby, and crazy.

His eyes look as mad as the homeless guy that sits outside the art supply store Mom goes to in Manhattan.

Considering that most of these kids have conditions that are described in the DSM... well, glass houses and all. And that brings me to my next point. This is a book that's probably going to offend those in the neurodiversity movement, as well as those who are often antagonized by those in the neurodiversity movement (the parents of kids on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum).

“Like I said before, I’m not autistic,” Ant says, straightening his back and speaking forcefully for the first time. He looks Remi straight in the eyes. “I’m not autistic. I don’t have Asperger’s. I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m just . . . me.”

Remi looks at his feet, taken aback by Ant’s defense.

“Haven’t you ever heard of spectrums?” George continues, visibly controlling her rage. “Anyone with half a brain nowadays knows that everything falls on a spectrum. Sexual preference. Neurological normality. Who doesn’t have a bit of ADD or dyslexia or addictive personality? And if you don’t, I’ll bet you’ve got something else going on.”

When you do this, you basically deny the experience of anyone who doesn't share yours (which is something that a lot of people with high-functioning autism tend to do, which makes Ant/George's defense even more insufferable). Despite what Ant/George says, there is such a thing as neurological normality. But if you put everyone on a spectrum, you start to normalize whatever the problem is. Where do you draw the line for who needs help? You can't. As a result, some people won't get it.

This theme is continued with BethAnn, as well. Her sister was thirteen, "developmentally disabled", and drowned in the family's pool... which points to severe autism (drowning is one of the leading causes of death for people with autism). And yet, that diagnosis wasn't mentioned. Again, the lower end of the spectrum gets glossed over in favour of a glowing example of the extreme upper end (Ant/George, in this case), which is far rarer and wasn't even consistently written in this book.

Which brings me to the writing. Oh, my god. I have no idea how this got past any editors. The writing was stilted, juvenile, and downright annoying. If we're not being told what's supposed to be funny--

“My Little Pony . . . the stuff of nightmares,” Sinclair says, with more gallows humor.

--we're being treated to endless "said bookisms":

“I’m scared of heights,” Remi admits.

“Then don’t look down,” George instructs.

“Famous last words,” Sinclair mutters and continues shuffling forward at a snail’s pace.

“You have to go faster,” Fergus urges, peering nervously behind us as the humming nears.

(That's not a compilation, either. That's verbatim how it was written, with one said bookism after another.) It's almost as if this was an elementary-school writing assignment where the teacher asked the students to come up with as many synonyms for "said" as possible. This continually pulled me out of the flow, and made reading this book take way longer than it should have. Added to that was the author's insistence on preceding the dialog tag "yell" with a comma rather than an exclamation point. It made it really hard to get a sense of tone or urgency:

“Hold him still,” I yell...

Plum also has this weird relationship with contractions. They're just not there where they would seem natural, leading to a rather robotic feel in the narration at times:

This definitely isn’t the Void—it is too cold here.

The editing was crap. Sorry, but there's no other way to say it. When you have characters quoting conversations they weren't present for, actions that aren't consistent (like when the "slow-moving" zombie monks suddenly "raced" forward), and glaring repetition, it makes me wonder if anyone besides the author even read the book before publication.

“I know everyone wants to relax,” I say finally. “But we’ve lost two people. We really need to figure out what we’re doing here,” I say finally.

The tone is also really cheesy in spots. Cata's narration comes to a close with the following:

How long will our dwindling group survive? Can we hold out long enough for those outside the Dreamfall to rescue us? Or by the time they figure it out, will we all be dead?

In my head, this was followed by: Tune in next week to find out in--dun, dun, dun!--the Dumbest Series I've Ever Read! Yeah... that's not going to happen.

For a horror novel, this was not scary at all. In fact, the only thing that's probably going to give me nightmares is the acknowledgments page, where the author thanks her editors, beta readers, and even medical experts for helping her write this. I don't even know what to make of that. After reading this book, I'm tempted to think that all of those people must exist only in her own dreams. If not, I feel very sorry for the embarrassment they must be feeling to be connected to such a terrible example of YA literature.

Premise: 1/5
Plot: 1/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 0/5
Writing: 0/5
Editing: 0/5
Originality: 0/5
Enjoyment: 0/5

Overall Rating: 0.38 out of 5 ladybugs

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