As I said in my review of A Density of Souls, Christopher Rice’s novels are a guilty pleasure for me. They’re loopier than all hell on a Tilt-a-Whi3.5
As I said in my review of A Density of Souls, Christopher Rice’s novels are a guilty pleasure for me. They’re loopier than all hell on a Tilt-a-Whirl, and The Vines is no exception. (You know how one chilling sentence, “Sometimes, dead is better,” perfectly sums up Pet Sematary? Yeah, well, dare you to try that with a Chris Rice novel.)
Imagine a precocious little kid constructing an ice cream sundae. He begins well. Two scoops of vanilla, a drizzle of chocolate sauce, another of caramel. Although a can of whipped cream stands waiting, the kid isn’t ready to use it yet; his creation looks too . . . plain. So he pours a bit of root beer around the ice cream, thrusts a pretzel stick into the bowl. Hm, not bad. The unique combo has promise. Then the kid’s enthusiasm gets the better of him. Pretty soon those twin domes of ice cream have ramen noodles and sauerkraut for hair, olives for eyes, boiled shrimp for ears, and a dollop of ketchup for color (and because the kid just likes ketchup).
I get the feeling this is how Chris Rice composes a novel. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)
The Vines gets off to a great start, a focused start. Rice is an adept prose stylist with a vivid imagination. The setting and characters immediately come alive, and the premise, as it develops, is intriguing.
Thick vines that have lain dormant within the soil of an antebellum plantation become homicidally enlivened by the current owner’s blood-borne rage. (Blood-borne, I guess, because urine and/or cuss words aren’t creepy enough.) The vines’ origin has something to do with a long-dead, vengeful female slave whose magic allowed her to control nature.
Now granted, the vengeful-slave backstory is about as trite as a haunted house built on an Indian burial ground. In this case, it’s also short on detail and nuance, and involves an unlikely bargain struck between said slave and her master. But I was hooked by that point, so I eagerly pressed on -- even as the author kept heaping more and more ingredients onto his promising little sundae.
But I should’ve anticipated this after having read A Density of Souls. You see, Mr. Rice and Mr. Restraint have never been properly introduced. And he isn’t much of a plotter, like, say, Dennis Lehane. (Oh, I love me some Dennis Lehane! The man is brilliant.)
Anyway, a flower soon erupts from the eponymous vine(s). Mysterious “obsidian” bugs of varying sizes are drawn to the flower. White and multicolored lights periodically blaze. As more people die, more and bigger flowers appear, and the otherworldly insects congregate in huge, deafening swarms with choreographed movements (by Bug Fosse, no doubt). Their primary purpose is to consume the people who enliven the vines and then pollinate the flowers with their rage (I assume, ‘cause this whole process isn’t explained very clearly). As a result, the rage-pollinated flowers produce more potentially murderous vines (I assume, ‘cause no fruit is ever produced). Growing more vines seems rather pointless, though, considering how few people are likely to wake up these buried botanical curiosities by bleeding on them.
But wait! It appears the bugs, too, can kill people, and not just the ones who feed vitriol-infused blood to the vines. Why? Because the author changes the rules, that’s why. Now it’s “ghosts” moving throughout the entire fabric of creation that can take on any eldritch form they choose and wreak havoc with the living.
With that startling revelation, the vines and blood and bugs become more or less irrelevant. And at least one reader ends up hopelessly confused.
The motives of the remaining characters become ever murkier; their actions, ever more puzzling. Since the characters aren’t particularly well-developed, I don’t much give a crap. Then a ghost that hadn’t received any previous mention, except as a living person in the backstory, suddenly and inexplicably appears (via those multitasking bugs, of course) and somehow confers magical powers on one of the main players. As usual, I’m not sure how or why. My stock of crap-to-give has nearly run out anyway.
And so the story goes, devolving over a mere two-day period into a jumble of seemingly impromptu plot elements that make less and less sense until they take on a hallucinogenic quality. The climactic scene, which centers on some kind of crazy shape-shifting, is virtually incomprehensible. I didn’t get the epilogue at all.
But you know what? I finished the book. And that means Rice’s storytelling has a certain dynamism that can’t be discounted, as loopy as it is.
Kudas to Ms. Hall for tackling such an ambitious project. She’s a good writer, for the most part, and she seems to ha**spoiler alert** 2.5, rounded up
Kudas to Ms. Hall for tackling such an ambitious project. She’s a good writer, for the most part, and she seems to have done a considerable amount of research for this historical novel. However, it would’ve benefited greatly from rigorous content editing.
The plot is off-balance and poorly paced. Fully the first half of the novel crawls through character introductions and backgrounds -- often a messy process because of the carelessly omniscient POV. The first section is also dense with repetitive descriptive passages and interior monologues that make for tedious reading. Much of this fat should’ve been trimmed. All it does is weigh down the storyline and keep it from going anywhere. I nearly lost interest.
We also see the main characters devolve into stereotypes: an increasingly weak and passive heroine; her uncaring mother; an iron-willed Cruella De Ville aunt and the oily son who panders to his wicked mama’s every wish; a white knight of a suitor; a doting grandfather too enfeebled by age to do much of anything but die (rather conveniently, just as the suitor rather conveniently lives far, far away); a loving governess-cum-BFF whom the conniving aunt recognizes as a threat and therefore sends packing.
Just past the halfway point, the author spikes us from Nothing’s Happening to Gothic Melodrama. Crushed by her nonstop misfortune, which gets downright grotesque, the heroine becomes more of a dishrag until she can’t even stand herself anymore. By then we've already been treated to every manner of human misery. Trust me on this (and don't go near Miramont's Ghost if child sexual abuse and/or rape are triggers for you).
The worst part of the novel, though, is the meandering epilogue. It’s embarrassingly awkward, even silly, especially when resolution comes (very abruptly) in the form of lyrics from a Disney song. I was also left wondering if the “ghost’s” bones were ever discovered, and why this fairly obvious question was never answered.
Throw in occasional anachronistic dialogue, and I’m afraid I was more disappointed than satisfied with Miramont’s Ghost. (By the way, it's more gloomy than spooky; the ghost isn't introduced until the very end.) But, hey, I kept reading, and that attests to the author's talent. She just needs more editorial guidance.
I pretty much loved everything about this book, and were it not for some conceptual contradictions, or at least confusion, I would enth4.45
I pretty much loved everything about this book, and were it not for some conceptual contradictions, or at least confusion, I would enthusiastically have given it a 5. I confess it drives me nuts when a fabulous piece of fiction leaves me with nagging questions that should've been addressed in the course of the story.
One, which is integral to the world-building, bugged me nonstop. What exactly is the nature of corporeality in this portrayal of Hell (or what the residents call Brimstone)? At one point the narrator says, "I'm fairly certain you need a body made of flesh and not just your soul's twisted imaginings to get cancer." Dead folks' immunity to disease is why Brimstonians don't fear smoking, or drinking rotgut liquor and tainted water, or having sex with truly skanky prostitutes. Makes sense, right? EXCEPT...they carry and use weapons. Um, why? Why are they intimidated by sharp objects and big rocks and homemade guns, and quail at the thought of being injured by same? How can the dead be physically invulnerable in some ways but not others? Later on a character says, "You may not have a body, but your brain knows how to die." How can one have a brain without a body? Is this, too, one of the "soul's twisted imaginings?" Problem is, these souls' imaginings are conveniently inconsistent (to serve the needs of the plot, I assume), and, as a result, the whole spirit-vs.-flesh issue had me befuddled throughout the book.
Then there's the vile drug, Switch. Is it the brief blast of euphoria or the more prolonged oblivion that makes it so enticing? And why do people not dread the effects of this drug yet go in mortal terror of being "waved"? Don't the two experiences produce essentially the same result? If the answer is, Well, users expect to wake up from a hit of Switch, that leads to another question. If oblivion is so intensely appealing to them, why do they care about waking up at all? Moreover, why are the good guys (relatively speaking) in such a self-righteous lather about Switch? Oh, it's icky-caca BAD and we must eliminate it and the dastardly villains who make and peddle it! Come on. Surely they understand their fellow Hell-dwellers' need for escape, regardless of what form it takes.
So there you have it -- a generally satisfied reader (kind of thrilled, in fact, because this superbly-written book thoroughly engaged me) whose OCD kicks in when chinks appear in an otherwise solid story. I do hope the author resolves these bothersome contradictions in the remaining John Arsenal Mysteries. 'Cause, man, I'm hooked!...more
Prefatory to my review, which follows -- how not to hunt vampires (a learning-by-negative-example list for TSTL characters):
1.) Don't piss away precioPrefatory to my review, which follows -- how not to hunt vampires (a learning-by-negative-example list for TSTL characters):
1.) Don't piss away precious daylight hours gathering and making your supplies. Do this shit in advance of the hunt -- and give it some thought! 2.) Don't piss away precious daylight hours visiting with a half-dozen people and having pointless conversations. It's okay to be rude when you're an aspiring assassin. 3.) Don't intentionally put yourself in the vicinity of even a potential vampire without being prepared. Last-minute improvisations aren't likely to go your way. 4.) Don't go out hunting at all if you can't get your lazy ass out of bed by the crack of dawn. This is not a job for procrastinators. Lackadaisically dicking around until mid- or late-afternoon only invites calamity. 5.) Should you be lucky enough to come upon a sleeping vamp within feet of the open sky (say, under a porch or trailer), drag the mofo outside AND LEAVE HIM THERE! Putting him back in his hidey-hole makes no sense. If you're not hip to the fact that sunlight kills these critters, you're in the wrong line of work. 6.) Don't look into a vampire's eyes when you're specifically told not to. Trust your advisers. 7.) And for crying out loud, don't forget flashlights! Remember, you'll be working at night. Duh.
As a reader, the most important thing I’ve learned from Stephen King is the value of either forbearance or adroit skimming.
‘Salem’s Lot is one of three classic King tales (in addition to The Shining and Pet Sematary) I’ve recently revisited. All reminded me why I became hooked on his fiction in the first place—and why I eventually became unhooked. (Yes, this does mean that in spite of my kvetching, ‘Salem’s Lot still captivates me!) Mind you, I’m well aware that a revered author who’s made hundreds of millions of dollars is not going to give a royal rip what any armchair critic thinks. Nor should he. Nevertheless, I need to vent, so away I go!
Although this classic vampire tale, like the other two novels I mentioned, is one hell of a riveting read, it suffers from the author’s love of his own voice and a zealous overuse, and occasional misuse, of gold-plated words. (Does any writer other than, say, Lovecraft need to employ the adjective tenebrous six times in the course of a medium-length novel?) But that’s the least of what I see as trademark KIs or King Irritants.
In addition to atmosphere, pacing is everything in a horror story. The author must gradually ratchet up the tension, thereby heightening the reader’s sense of unease in deft but unrelenting steps. King, however, keeps taking his hand off the come-along’s lever to unleash pages of unnecessary blabbity-blab-blab. It’s a self-indulgent practice that ultimately strained my patience to the point of abandoning his work. (I don’t like paying good money either to slog through or to skip over big chunks of tedious text. I’m funny that way.)
In ‘Salem’s Lot, as in every Stephen King novel I’ve read, he regularly breaks from the storyline to take rambling detours through secondary and tertiary characters’ backstories. Far too often, the detail is excruciating; it’s insignificant, and there’s too much of it (e.g., does he really need to lead us through Henry Petrie’s past at a critical point in the plot?) Before that, he eats up a chapter with a priest’s philosophizing. It comes across as pretentious—and, yes, self-indulgent. Throughout the book, he unleashes still more verbiage in prolonged sections of repetitive and clunky dialogue, often devoted to theorizing about the unfolding events.
The story’s climax, on the other hand, is fractured and chaotic. Scenes jump around. Characters continue to do inexplicably stupid things. (Why bother dragging a sleeping vamp into the open air, only to waste time and energy stuffing him back into his hiding place? Ferdachrissakes, leave him outside and let daylight do its work. And while you’re at it, haul his wife and kid outside too!)
I do wish this fundamentally fine writer hadn’t been allowed by his various editors to fall prey to The Big Bloat. I know countless readers hungrily absorb every word King writes, no matter how discursive he gets, but I don’t want irrelevant side-trips getting between me and a good fright. Although King clearly admires Shirley Jackson’s superb novella The Haunting of Hill House, which exemplifies the tenet “less is more,” he doesn’t seem to have learned from her. And that bums me out.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! A fully realized world with a fully realized main character, and together they pack one hell of an emotional wallop.Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! A fully realized world with a fully realized main character, and together they pack one hell of an emotional wallop. If you love the holiday season and admire the art of writing "short," you'll be cheating yourself if you don't read Matches. It's the best contemporary Christmas story I've ever read -- bar none. ...more
A surprisingly lovely story, moody and magical, with a surprisingly endearing, even unforgettable character -- and I mean Farfarello. I was enchantedA surprisingly lovely story, moody and magical, with a surprisingly endearing, even unforgettable character -- and I mean Farfarello. I was enchanted by him.
There are few nits for me to pick. The central sex scene was, I think, disproportionately long, given the brevity of the tale. "Further" was once mistakenly used instead of "farther." And sometimes the similes flew a little too fast and thick.
But I'm straining here, primarily because I don't believe there's any such thing as the perfect work of fiction. I felt the story's length was just right, as was its tone; the settings, richly atmospheric; the ending, poignant but hopeful. And I'm so, so glad the various plot points weren't over-explained.
Excellent, riveting read -- damn, the plot kept me on my toes! -- and a very courageous character study. I'll definitely rePinging between a 4 and a 5
Excellent, riveting read -- damn, the plot kept me on my toes! -- and a very courageous character study. I'll definitely return to this book. There's a lot to mine here.
A few aspects of the novel did fall a bit short for me. But please understand that when I'm critical of books I admire, it's because I admire them. I'm more frustrated by shortcomings in superb fiction than in crappy fiction.
I couldn't muster any sympathy whatsoever for Vivian and, therefore, found Archer diminished by his obsessive attachment to her. (In fact, it grated on my nerves rather severely at certain points.) We're told she was once a delightful girl, a joy to be around, but I was never convinced. If a character is distasteful when s/he enters a story and only becomes more odious as the story goes on, it's going to be difficult to convince readers s/he was lovely once upon a time.
The sections devoted to Marissa, and the nonstop emphasis on how perfect a surrogate mother she was, seemed heavy-handed verging on mawkish. These were the only portions of the book I occasionally skimmed through.
Toward the end, there was a TSTL moment that had me thinking, Uh, you'd better call the cops instead of just barging in there. Come on now, you know you should. Come on . . . oh, shit, you dumbass!
Finally, the conclusion was more a stringy denouement than a proper climax. I would've found the ending more powerful and satisfying had it been more succinct. True, many issues required resolution (this is a complex tale with complex characters). But endings that go from one shocking closure to another to another become ever more diluted and end up feeling weak. Adding more settings and characters just to wrap things up only exacerbates the problem.
Okay . . . all that said, Kelley York still has a new fan. I'm thrilled I discovered her work.
I'm afraid I couldn't finish this. It's a promising story but one that's seriously in need of polishing. The lack of editing (just one small examplDNF
I'm afraid I couldn't finish this. It's a promising story but one that's seriously in need of polishing. The lack of editing (just one small example: the continual use of "your" for "you're") kept grating on me, as did character inconsistencies and kind of herky-jerk pacing. What finally did me in, though, was the fact that nobody had enough freaking sense to kill that zombie baby -- a huge TSTL moment that made me realize I didn't care if all these characters ended up under a zombie pile-on.