The Turning is a failed, poorly-executed attempt at retelling Henry James’ The Turn of thThis was SO bad. Original review posted on The Book Smugglers
The Turning is a failed, poorly-executed attempt at retelling Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
Jack is a high school senior who needs to save money for college and as such, has accepted a summer position as a babysitter. He is to take care of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at the only house on an isolated island where the two children live with a housekeeper. Jack has been hired by the children’s uncle who does not want to not be bothered by any news about them. The uncle also doesn’t allow internet, TV or phone, in order to protect the children from the “corrupting influences of modern society and culture.” So Jack’s only means of communications with the outside world are his letters to his girlfriend Sophie and his father. Those letters are the narrative mode of this epistolary novel.
The problem I had with the novel is twofold: the complications that stem from the contemporary setting; and the narrative itself.
The problem with the former is how much suspension of disbelief is needed in order to buy into the premise. I understand that for this story to work there is got to be a sense of isolation in regards to the house and the children. This is already really hard to pull off in a contemporary setting but the choices made here on how to approach this were completely implausible.
Basically, even though this is straightforward contemporary novel set in the modern USA, I am expected to accept and believe that in 2012, two children are brought up without any sort of modern amenities without any questioning whatsoever by those around them including the housekeeper, their teachers and gardeners? I am supposed to believe that in 2012, Jack’s loving and concerned father will just let him take this really weird job without ever questioning it? Not to mention that the premise does not hold in terms of internal logic either: the uncle does not want the children to be corrupted by modern society and culture (without any explanation as to WHY) and yet the boy still goes to school off-island where inevitably, he comes into contact with all those things . How does that make internal sense? Not to mention: how is a telephone a corrupting influence of modern society and culture? Of course, all of those choices are needed here so that Jack can write those letters.
That brings me to the biggest flaw of The Turning: its narrative. First of all, Jack does not sound at all like a teenager. Bear in mind that this is a contemporary boy used to the Internet and text-speak and yet he writes these long, formal, polite letters to his teenage girlfriend. Am I supposed to believe that he would be writing those long letters, describing conversations word by word without swearing or using any slang whatsoever?
The main problem with the narrative though is how clumsy and lazy it is. Jack’s letters to his girlfriend and his father just rehash entire conversations that he had with them or mention things they surely already know. Really awkward things like:
“Jim Crackstone said he’d heard good things about me from his friend Caleb. Also known as Caleb Treadwell, also known as your father, Sophie.”
Doesn’t Sophie know the name of her own father?
But I could tell he already knew that my mom had died of a stroke when I was six, and I lived with my dad, who never remarried.”
This info-dump can only be for the benefit of the reader since it is information Sophie already knows as his girlfriend. The entirety of the first letter by the way, is Jack telling us Sophie again how he got the job.
”I wish that you were here with me, Sophie. You’d know how to talk to them; you’re the oldest in your family. You had all that practice with your two sisters, your little brother, and then the twins.”
Seriously? Doesn’t Sophie know her own siblings? And it goes on and on.
Needless to say, this drove me to distraction and I simply had to put the book down after about 150 pages (out of 243).
I was supposed to have written a review of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker for Kirkus last week but I just couldn’t finish the book.
In principle, I shouldI was supposed to have written a review of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker for Kirkus last week but I just couldn’t finish the book.
In principle, I should have loved this – heck, I had hoped Angelmaker would be so good it would even feature on my top 10 this year. It’s an outlandish Literary Fantasy novel featuring automata, London-based gangsters, World War II shenanigans and espionage with a plot to destroy the world using clockwork bees.
But an extremely bloated plot with obnoxiously verbose descriptions (of pretty much everything the main characters come across as they wander around) plus a recently discovered aversion for third person first tense narratives unfortunately kept me from finishing the book.
It was the toe you see, that eventually did me in.
At one point in the narrative, main character Joe Spork is about to leave a room when he is stopped in his tracks by a toe. What follows is an unbearably long description of said toe which is, if you care to know: pale and round and the perfect size to be sucked. Also, and I quote: “a toe which knows the world, which has done the wicked, secret things other toes only fantasise about”.
It is uncanny the amount of information one can gather from a simple toe. Said toe is of course, linked to other four toes which are in turn attached to a calf (slender) connected to a leg belonging to a woman called Polly (referred to as “Bold Receptionist” for far too long in the narrative after she is introduced) who has the dubious and eye-rolling ability to transform utterly innocent words like “sandwich” into erotic pronunciations (according to the hero’s point of view, of course).
It was exactly at that point that I had to leave to attend a talk at Anglia Ruskin University by Philip Pullman on his new book Tales From the Brothers Grimm (the talk has been recapped brilliantly by The Other Ana over at Things Mean a Lot).
Pullman’s new book is a collection of straightforward renderings (and not embellished retellings) of 50 Grimm tales and as Mr Pullman discussed the book one of the things he said struck me as quite interesting: the fact that in these tales the characters are not real people. The very nature of the tales, which are more preoccupied with what happens next rather than with the emotional background of said characters. These characters can be perceived as puppets, as creatures without any real depth because there is a shortness of description which leads to nonexistent characterisation. To be clear, this insight is not necessarily a shortcoming but rather, provided as a means to understanding this different type of narrative mode (and its motifs). The lack of internal characterisation is exactly what gives fairytales such a rich and lasting life because they are meant to be rearranged and retold according to each storyteller’s gifts. Because characterisation is not set in stone in those stories they can be elaborated on upon their telling.
It was then that I had a EUREKA moment about what exactly was bothering me about Angelmaker.
It was its over descriptive nature of the storytelling, that often veers into random territory and results in the complete lack of actual characterisation. Ultimately, this leads to the absence of any emotional resonance. Interestingly enough those are brought forth for the exact opposite narrative technique of that of a fairytale, one that is hurt by excess rather than dearth. There is an excess of description here and we end up being told rather than shown who the characters are and how they feel. It is not something that the author is completely unaware of, by the way, as his main character remarks about his extremely verbose friend: “sometimes the plumy, playful verbiage is obnoxious. It conceals emotion.”
I put the book down around that time when Joe met Polly’s toe (about half way through). There was nothing for me there to make me want to continue and I was quite frankly bored out of my mind at that point. Not even the awesome 90 year old lesbian self-proclaimed kick-ass supervillainess (and former spy) whose story was a thousand times more interesting than Joe’s was enough to keep my interest. ...more
Just couldn't finish this one. I can't quite explain why but I think I just didn't like Alif' narrative voice. 150 pages into it, I 1) was bored out oJust couldn't finish this one. I can't quite explain why but I think I just didn't like Alif' narrative voice. 150 pages into it, I 1) was bored out of my mind and 2) wanted to punch Alif so badly. I just learnt that he is 23 years old and up until now I thought he was 17-18. Basically a man-child - that said, I suppose the point of the book is to follow his growth, I just didn't care enough at this point to carry on.
All that said: I LOVE DINA. Awesome female character right there.
I am sad this didn't work for me as on paper, this should have been everything I love in my books. ...more
Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home andReview originally posted on The Book Smugglers
Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home and of her new husband by joining a convent where the God of Death is still worshipped and becoming a handmaiden to Death. Blessed with gifts by the God, she trains to become one of his assassins and her newest assignment is at the centre of a palatial intrigue to which she is woefully underprepared.
Grave Mercy is a book with not only a kick-ass premise (NINJA NUNS!) but also a fascinating setting: the pivotal moment in Brittany’s history when Anne of Brittany has become its ruler and must defend it against France oppression. Unfortunately, this book and I didn’t see eye to eye and I ended up putting it aside at around page 350 (of 549). It is a sad day when a book featuring Ninja Nuns doesn’t work for me, but alas.
My problems with Grave Mercy were twofold: first of all there was the writing and then there the small little things that annoyed me. With regards to the writing: I thought there was a lot more telling than showing and an extreme reliance on writing shortcuts.
We are told more than we actually see a lot of what happens in the story not only in terms of plot but also of character development. The most glaring of them are during Ismae stay at the convent where she is supposed to have become this kick-ass assassin. The thing is, we are just told that she has become one – the book lists her achievements rather than showing them and then we must accept it as fact. Similarly all the nuns at the convent are described simply by what they do rather than by who they are. One can argue that the story is not REALLY about Ninja Nuns (what a shame) and more about the political intrigue and Ismae’s internal conflict. And truth be told I completely appreciate the immense potential for conflict between someone who is trained to act on things by simply killing them versus having to act via diplomacy but unfortunately I don’t think that this is sufficiently well developed. In fact, I found myself becoming increasingly bored with this very storyline – it is just so…bland.
But then there are the writing shortcuts too. This is one of my biggest pet peeves: in which we are simply told what is happening to a character with familiar clichéd turns of phrase that are used in order to hastily convey emotions. Take these few examples from Grave Mercy:
"The thrill of success is still humming through my veins
humiliation courses through my veins
certainty flows in my veins
shock simmering in my veins
my blood is singing in my veins
relief sings so sharply in my veins"
Holy Mortain, her veins must be extremely congested with so many things running/humming/singing/simmering/ etc through them. I could continue but you get my drift.
And then there were those things that made me stop and question everything I was reading. It annoyed me that there is a complete lack of questioning on her part about being a killer – even though she has been brought up within a religious environment and joins a convent, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that killing might be a little bit against the usual precepts of her church? I get that this is supposed to be explained by the fact that the God they worship (now turned a saint) is a God of Old and they are following the “old ways” rather than the new church but still, it just doesn’t ring true. Similarly, the book starts with Ismae getting married to an abusive husband. Although they never get around to actually consummating the marriage and she flees soon after it, she had been married at a church by a priest who actually follows her own faith and yet there is nary a thought about these vows and she doesn’t think about that marriage anymore.
Then, there is the fact that when she is about to leave the convent she is given a special knife which can kill a person if only so much it touches skin. So tell me again what is the point of all the kick ass training these women went through if all they need is a Special Magical Knife that kills effortlessly?
Finally, my last nit-picky comment. Something that made me think: I have seen this book lauded as a feminist read because of the powerful female characters and the ninja nuns. But is this really a true feminist read just because of that? I mean, ALL OF THEIR ENEMIES are men. Whenever they are talking about their skills at the convent or speak about their enemies, these are all men. So, in truth, even though these characters are all ninja female assassins, their entire world STILL evolve around MEN. Even their god is a male god. Just some food for thought.
I do appreciate the intentions and think they are laudable especially when it comes to giving power to these powerless girls after they have suffered abuse. I just wish this thread had been better developed beyond “let’s give them weapons and make them kill men”. In fairness, I stopped reading before the ending, so this might have been addressed after all. I just couldn’t care enough to carry on and find out for myself.
Grave Mercy really didn’t float my boat. A shame.
I’m of two minds when it comes to Grave Mercy. On the one hand, there are clearly some significant drawbacks to the writing and pacing of the novel, and I agree with some of Ana’s criticisms wholeheartedly. On the other, I personally LOVE this type of fantasy/spy/assassin/political intrigue with a dash of romance type of story. And despite the book’s missteps (particularly with regard to writing style), I found myself really enjoying – heck, loving! – the book, especially once it hits its stride after the first few chapters.
So, first the bad. As Ana details in her take on the book, the writing for Grave Mercy leaves much to be desired. Personally, I am not a fan of the first person present tense as a narrative choice – especially not in a historical fantasy novel – as it tends to lend a strange robotic quality to the protagonist. Such is the case with Ismae in her narrative. Compounding the problem is the very tell-y nature of the writing. Not only are Ismae’s veins chock full of all sorts of craziness, but she also oscillates between incredibly HOT or freezing COLD throughout the novel. Example:
"A fierce heat rises inside of me and Heat rushes into my cheeks
He pulls me closer, so that I feel the heat rising off his body, warm and smelling faintly of some spice. (THEA’S NOTE: I really, really hate this sentence. The only worse offender: “He smelled warm and musky and undeniably MALE.” Gag.)
His grip is firm,and it is as if the heat from his hand burns through all the layers between us"
And so on and so forth. This is annoying. ALSO annoying is the fact that Ismae’s emotions are plainly TOLD instead of experienced. Not to mention the entire glossing over of Ismae’s training to become a killer assassin badass ninja nun! In the span of 3 pages, Ismae learns ALL THE THINGS and is a badass ready to go on her first assignment. I abhor shortcuts. I want to read about her missteps and training, I want to experience her triumphs and failures! Unfortunately, we are deprived of this early in the novel. Add this to the other issues that are prevalent early in the book – Ana’s notes about the Old Ways/Gods, the dubious message that ALL MEN MUST DIE, the snicker-inducing appearance of a Magic!Knife! – and I can easily understand why some are inspired to put the book down and write it off as a DNF.
All these things said, the book takes off once Ismae is assigned to become a spy in the Britton court, working with (and against, in a nice double twist) the mysterious Gavriel Duval – under the guise of being his “cousin” (which everyone in the palace immediately takes to mean his mistress). HERE is where Ismae comes into her own, where she begins to question the teachings of her God, of her devout sisterhood, and of the “justice” of unyielding death. Here she learns that not all men are evil, and that some – even those marked by her God Mortain – deserve a chance at redemption. Here is where we learn that while Ismae has skill as an assassin, she is not infallible, and lacks grace, finesse and diplomacy. By these latter two thirds of the novel, all the complexity that is missing from the earlier chapters comes into play full force. And I LOVED IT ALL.
I love the idea of this sisterhood of assassins and the fantastic elements with those “marked” to die apparent to the handmaidens of Mortain.
I love the drama that is tearing apart the court, and the devotion that Duval and Ismae have to their young, strong Duchess – the same proud ruler that so many are trying to overthrow, enslave through marriage, or kill.
And yes, I love the love story between Ismae and Duval, as predictable as it might seem, because there is something about these two characters that feels utterly sincere.
So there you have it. A Smugglerific disagreement. I truly enjoyed the book, absolutely recommend it, and cannot wait for more. Bring it on, Dark Triumph....more
Couldn't get into this. Writing was annoying me with all the telling. "My sense of direction deserted me". And then the insta-love took the cake thisCouldn't get into this. Writing was annoying me with all the telling. "My sense of direction deserted me". And then the insta-love took the cake this time. The girl "met" the guy when they were on solitary confinement and spoke through the walls and at the end of a few paragraphs she was already thinking she would "lose him" when she was released. sigh. (Ana)...more