**spoiler alert** Wow. This was bad. It's a book about the alien apocalypse and it's boring. That takes some effort. What's sad is, the 5th Wave was s...more**spoiler alert** Wow. This was bad. It's a book about the alien apocalypse and it's boring. That takes some effort. What's sad is, the 5th Wave was so entertaining! It's not without problems, but it was an enjoyable read. This one? I had to do some hardcore skimming just to make it to the end. Where nothing happens, by the way. I kept waiting for answers or action or something, but it's pretty much 350 pages of place setting. Middle book syndrome strikes again.
I didn't mind the focus on Ringer so much, but the problem is, she's barely a supporting character in the first book and now with no warning she's become the protagonist. Hell, we barely see Cassie and Ben! (I like Ben, I can take or leave Cassie, especially once Evan shows up) You can't make me care about a character I barely remember just by suddenly putting her in danger and expecting me to root for her to live. Plus she's a Katniss clone at best -- Teacup is Prim, Vosch is President Snow, and Razor is Gale.
The "big twist" at the end that the aliens themselves were never actually there? Too little, too late. (Apparently they downloaded a virus into a select number of people to make them *think* they were really aliens. Those are the people who were supposed to wipe out humanity) By the time we got to that revelation, the overwrought language and flowery metaphors and boring romances had worn me down to the point where I no longer gave a shit. Nothing happens in this book! It's worse than Insurgent, in terms of wheel spinning. I'm glad I didn't waste any money on this, and I'm pretty sure I won't be picking up the sequel. (less)
**spoiler alert** So...this is Gone Girl. I suppose it's a bit like Gone Girl and We Were Liars had a baby, given that Mia's memory loss is nothing bu...more**spoiler alert** So...this is Gone Girl. I suppose it's a bit like Gone Girl and We Were Liars had a baby, given that Mia's memory loss is nothing but a plot device to keep readers in the dark (note I did not say build suspense. For all its flaws, I do think Liars is a pretty well-crafted story). But at best it is a sad imitation of a far superior novel -- just pretend Amy staged a kidnapping instead of a murder scene, and you're there.
Mia Dennett is the daughter of a wealthy Chicago judge, and her disappearance is big news...especially when after she's recovered, she seems like a different person, with little recollection of both her real life and the time she spent as the prisoner of Colin Thatcher, living in a tiny freezing cabin in the backwoods of Minnesota. Since Mia is apparently unable to speak for herself, we follow the action through her mother, Eve, the detective in charge of her case, Gabe, and the kidnapper himself, Colin. Ok, fine. Multiple narrators work well for mysteries. However, we have not only multiple narrators, but multiple timelines...both Eve and Gabe's chapters alternate between "before" and "after" Mia's rescue (and just like the cover, the R is reversed for both. Edgy!). But Colin's chapters are all "before." This was when I started to suspect something was up.
In short, Kubica is trying to do too much. Multiple narrators? Fine. Diverging timelines? Go for it! But when you have multiple narrators, two of whom traverse different timelines, it starts to feel less like creative storytelling and more like a lazy way of keeping the audience in the dark. I'm not convinced we needed to hear from Eve at ALL. I get that she's sort of the proxy for Mia, since she can't remember anything (and having Mia narrate herself a la We Were Liars, would have given away the "big twist"). None of her chapters interested me, before or after, and the romance with the detective is just completely unnecessary.
I didn't mind Gabe's chapters moving back and forth so much, but I think it would have been a much better story if we heard from just Gabe and Colin as the events unfolded. None of this before and after crap (which, again, is a device ripped straight from Gone Girl, only Flynn does it better: notice that in part one, Amy's the before and Nick's the after). It would have been far more suspenseful to watch as Gabe gets closer and closer to Colin, just as Colin is planning their escape. And given that the kidnapping he was hired to do was actually facilitated by Mia in the first place...maybe that could have been worked in, or at least hinted at, sometime before the damn epilogue? Maybe even if we'd known that from the beginning...she knows she wouldn't have been in danger once Dalmar got her, but now that Colin has changed the plan, what of her grand scheme? Since Mia is little more than a stick figure for 99% of the novel, it's hard to buy that the whole set up was all her idea. We don't know enough about her to be shocked.
And do no get me started on the Stockholm Syndrome nonsense. I love that the doctor neatly lays out the textbook definition for the slower members of the audience. I understand the concept, but I call BS on the execution. As their relationship plays out, it's less Stockholm Syndrome and more teenybopper insta-love; or two bored people who want to bang. And they just conveniently forget that each of them would easily have killed the other, given the chance. I saw no bond growing between them until suddenly bam! Now they're fucking. It bugged me too that this was an entirely manufactured situation: Colin didn't have to take her to the middle of nowhere, and he certainly didn't have to keep her there indefinitely (he has no true grand plan...passports? Like they would get past ANY security checkpoint by then). And there's not much of a satisfying explanation for why he went rogue. Because Mia is just so beautiful? Barf. And again, we don't know enough about Dalmar to feel anxious about the possibility that he's looking for them both now. Kubica does a great deal of telling with very little showing, I guess is what I'm getting at!
I think, with some tweaking of the story, and more focus on the detective and the political angles, this could make a great Fargo-esque miniseries (I am obsessed with that show!). The seeds of a good, suspenseful story are there, but buried under not-so-clever storytelling gimmicks and attempts to be the Next Big Thing (and at the moment, that Thing is Gone Girl). Stop trying so hard to manufacture suspense through sloppy storytelling and let it unfold naturally from the story itself. (less)
Wow. This was fantastic. I wish I'd bought a copy so I could lend it to people! ------------------------- On a snowy night in Toronto, aging film star A...moreWow. This was fantastic. I wish I'd bought a copy so I could lend it to people! ------------------------- On a snowy night in Toronto, aging film star Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack and dies on stage during a performance of King Lear. Shortly thereafter, the world as we know it came to an end. Station Eleven traces the lives of three different characters in both the pre- and post-apocalyptic world: Kirsten, an actress with the Traveling Symphony, Jeevan, a paparazzo turned EMT (and eventual doctor), and Clark, who runs the Museum of Civilization in the former Severn airport. We also see bits and pieces of Arthur's ex-wife Miranda, along with Arthur himself. Though he doesn't survive the apocalypse, Arthur is the glue that holds these characters together: Kirsten was a child actor in the production of Lear, and she and Arthur were close; Clark is one of Arthur's oldest friends and was on his way to the funeral when his plane was diverted to Severn; and Jeevan is the "unnamed audience member" (mentioned in Arthur's obituary) who tried to save the actor's life. (view spoiler)[ Even the mysterious prophet, the novel's only real protagonist, is revealed to be Arthur's only son, Tyler, grown up and fully crazy. I wish we'd gotten more backstory on the prophet. If figured out it was Tyler once we saw Clark and Elizabeth and he were on the same flight, so I didn't feel the need for a big reveal. However, it's all so anticlimactic. The idea of the prophet imbues so much of the book with this sense of horror and then he's suddenly dead and we don't see his rise or power. Randal Flagg he ain't. (hide spoiler)]
I said this initially reminded me of Girlfriend in a Coma, which is still one of my very favorite books. The panic at the beginning, when the flu is spreading, is reminiscent of the midpoint of that novel. And like Karen's awakening, Arthur's death also marks the line between Before and After. What I like, though, is that Mandel keeps everything firmly rooted in the realm of possibility. A character mentions that "most apocalypses include zombies," (thus, it could be worse) and another references The Passage, but the cause of the apocalypse in this novel is a particularly deadly strain of the flu. With an apparent 99% fatality rate and an accelerated incubation period, it doesn't take long for the world to fall apart completely (It's unclear if the survivors had immunity to the flu, or were simply lucky enough not to be exposed). Because more than anything else, the world needs people. As Jeevan notes during the collapse (it's through his eyes that we see how it happened), we rarely give much thought to just how many people there are, and all of the work that people do every day to keep civilization functioning. The lights go out not because of some electromagnetic pulse (Revolution) or other sci fi twist, but because there's simply no one alive to man the power plants. Travel has ceased because roads are clogged with stalled cars where drivers died or ran out of gas, and with no one to mine for fossil fuels... It's a quiet, almost mundane way for the world to end, but all the more horrifying, because everything Mandel writes about could actually happen, pretty much at any time. It's made me think a lot more about the Ebola epidemic, that's for damn sure.
The novel jumps around in time, showing us Kirsten in Year Twenty, fleeing the followers of the prophet, in search of similarly fleeing friends. We see the collapse through Jeevan and Clark, and even Arthur's pre-flu past, which reveals how all of these characters come together. Kirsten carries a pair of comics, a series called Station Eleven, and she is always on the hunt for more issues. She remembers the comics being a gift from Arthur on the last night of the world, but we eventually find out that Miranda, Arthur's first wife, created the series and only ever made a few copies of those first two issues. (view spoiler)[The other copies are with the prophet, of course, since Arthur sent them to Tyler as a birthday present. I think we're meant to understand that Dr. Eleven's story somehow inspired Tyler to start spouting his prophety nonsense, but like I said, it's the one storyline that isn't explore deeply enough. Which is weird, given that Mandel chose Station Eleven as the title of the book. I also wish we'd found out what happened to Elizabeth. (hide spoiler)]
This is such a great novel. The characters are interesting, and though the actual plot moves rather slowly, the fluid timeline kept me from losing interest. At first I wasn't too interested in Arthur himself, but the story actually wouldn't exist without him, so I appreciated his backstory. The only flaw is that I wish it were about 100 pages longer. I'm fine with the ending itself; (view spoiler)[I love that the world is slowly coming back, and we get just the briefest example of that with the lights on the horizon. It wasn't necessary for me to follow the symphony on to discover the town itself. (hide spoiler)] I just wish a few of the plots themselves had been expanded: the prophet's story, the Station Eleven comics, Kirsten's year on the road, Jeevan's years of travel...I was left wanting more of the story, not in the sense of wanting it to continue so much as get bigger. If that makes sense. But it's great, and reminds me of so many other books I love, in a good way. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Haven't touched this in about 3 weeks, and really have zero desire to finish it (especially since I found a few reviews that give away the "shocking s...moreHaven't touched this in about 3 weeks, and really have zero desire to finish it (especially since I found a few reviews that give away the "shocking secret"). (less)
**spoiler alert** I had a hard time putting this down. Although the titular twist is revealed about halfway through (much sooner than Big Little Lies)...more**spoiler alert** I had a hard time putting this down. Although the titular twist is revealed about halfway through (much sooner than Big Little Lies), it was intriguing to watch everything unravel. Ultimately, though, I think I like Moriarty's follow-up better.
Like Big Little Lies, this novel also follows three women: Cecelia, a mother of 3 with a picture perfect marriage (she's sort of an amalgamation of Celeste and Madeline...or I suppose you could look at those characters as having been split from her), Rachel, a widow whose daughter's tragic murder still makes her a subject of pity and gossip, and Tess, whose husband has just revealed he's in love with her cousin. Tess is the outsider of the three; she moves from Melbourne to Sydney after her husband's revelation and stays with her mother, and sort of involves herself with Cecelia and Rachel's stories...but really in the most tertiary fashion. Rachel is the secretary at the school Cecelia's children attend, and Tess's mother manages to pull the right strings to quickly enroll Liam there too.
So Tess meets these other two women, but she barely interacts with Rachel, and has maybe two conversations with Cecelia. I'm not sure why she's here, quite honestly. In the end, she may as well have been part of another narrative entirely. I suppose her fling with Connor connects her to Rachel, since she's always suspected it was Connor who killed her daughter, but again, tertiary at best. In Big Little Lies, we needed the outsider's perspective from Jane, because part of the goal was to hold a mirror up to that particular community. Here, that's not so much the case. I suppose Moriarty *could* have used Tess's perspective to show how the community coped with grief (after Janie's murder, or Polly's accident), or the secret politics of school mums, but she doesn't. Thanks to her self-diagnosed social anxiety, Tess pretty much interacts with no one besides Connor. And once they have sex, she becomes that annoying sort of character who can only think about her relationship. Bleh.
Cecelia and Rachel's stories are much more interconnected, and though I gave Moriarty the benefit of the doubt until I was finished, I have to say that I would have enjoyed the story more without Tess being in it. We get a couple of brief chapters from Janie's perspective (on the day she died), and it might have been more interesting to make her the 3rd narrator instead. But here's the other problem with that: there simply isn't much to her death. It turns out to be no great mystery: John Paul (Cecelia's husband) accidentally strangled her because he was angry she broke up with him. He's been living with the guilt all of his life, attempting to pay his own form of penance (giving up things he enjoys, like rowing and sex). He confessed in a letter, written the night Cecelia gave birth to the first of their three daughters. He intended for her to open it after his death, but she found it one day while looking for spending else (a piece of the Berlin Wall, for the middle child who's obsessed with it for some reason...it's like this weird side plot that I think is supposed to be symbolic. But it feels like Moriarty didn't quite put enough thought into that idea and it loses steam).
Once she reads the letter, obviously Cecelia is implicated too -- she's part of the secret, and by keeping the secret (and thus allowing Rachel to continue blaming Connor), she's indirectly responsible for what happens to her own daughter (Rachel hits her with her car, trying to run down Connor, whom Polly was chasing on her bike). It's an interesting ethical dilemma that, again, I wish had been given more depth. Cecelia has known John Paul as a loving husband and father and suddenly has to realign her image of him: he's capable of murder. Yet she can't simply turn off her feelings. But every time she sees Rachel, she's filled with crushing guilt. It reminds me of the story that broke last summer, about the professor from Millikin...here's this person you thought you knew, and suddenly it turns out he's capable of something awful. But does that magically erase everything good you know about him? Of course not, but there's always going to be that little voice in the back of your head, wondering. It's all sort of glossed over in favor of spending more time with Tess, which is disappointing.
I also wasn't crazy about the epilogue, because it basically absolves John Paul of any actual guilt. Apparently Janie had Marfan syndrome and died of an aortic aneurysm; John Paul didn't cut off oxygen long enough to suffocate her. It was just a freak accident. I suppose this is meant to be one final twist (the epilogue is all about the secrets the characters were keeping from one another, still), but it sort of negates the importance of everything we've just been through. The secret is the catalyst for the plot, but it turns out a more thorough autopsy could have solved everything. Meh. I'm much more interested in the fact that John Paul's mother apparently knew all along that he did it (he left her rosary beads with Janie), and covered up for him. Let's here about that, instead of Tess and Connor's vanilla sex scenes.
Overall, I did enjoy this! It's a quick read and a reasonably entertaining story. I have to say I'm glad I read Big Little Lies first, however. It's much better crafted (it's a tighter plot, if that makes sense), with more interesting characters. This is decent, if not quite worth the hype.(less)
It was nice to take my time with a book for a change -- granted, part of it was accidental (I left the book on my desk over Labor Day...god bless the...moreIt was nice to take my time with a book for a change -- granted, part of it was accidental (I left the book on my desk over Labor Day...god bless the online renewal system!), and part of it was because I’ve been too tired to read at night! Still -- this is the kind of book you almost have to read slowly. Anything involving time travel is tricky to talk about -- is ALL of this review considered a spoiler? Or is none of it a spoiler since, in the end, it’s all already happened? And also, I’ve read the next two books in this universe (I hesitate to call it a series, since it doesn’t involve most of the same people), so there’s some unintentional dramatic irony happening on my end too.
Our protagonist is Ned Henry, an Oxford historian who has spent an ungodly amount of time making “drops” all over time -- from the 1940s to Victorian Oxford -- in search of the bishop’s bird stump (the subtitle of the novel). It’s apparently a sort of heavy metal vase, which was part of Coventry Cathedral, as the 125th anniversary of the cathedral’s destruction approaches, the wealthy -- and nutty -- Lady Schrapnell has commissioned its reconstruction, and she has every historian in Oxford on the case, making drops to the original in order to ensure an accurate reconstruction. The only missing element is the famed bird stump, which Schrapnell herself has never actually seen, but she read about it in her great-great-great-etc grandmother’s diary and apparently it changed this woman’s life, so the cathedral won’t be complete without it. Hence, constant drops. When we meet Ned, he’s in London during the Blitz, with a guy named Carruthers and some new recruit we never learn the name of (I’m wondering if he’s the guy -- Mike? -- from Blackout/All Clear?). When Ned returns to 2057 Oxford, he’s suffering from severe time-lag, and sent to Victorian England on rest orders.
It’s at this point that all hell breaks loose on all threads of the space-time continuum. Ned’s actually on a mission to correct an incongruity caused by fellow historian Verity Kindle -- and said incongruity involves not only the damn bird stump, but the outcome of World War II, and possibly the fate of the free world itself. Of course. See, Verity was on assignment in Victorian England, tailing Lady Schrapnell’s great-great-etc grandmother, Tocelyn (Tossie for short) to determine when she saw the bird stump, and where it possibly could have gone. Tossie kept a pretty thorough diary, but it’s badly water damaged, so the historians have only minimal clues to go on (that she married someone whose last name started with C, for instance). Tossie has a cat named Princess Arjumand, who has a penchant for eating her father’s prized goldfish. Verity comes upon the family butler, Baine, throwing Princess Arjumand in the river and rescues her just as she’s stepping into the net back into Oxford. But this is supposed to be impossible -- you shouldn’t be able to bring anything back from the past; the net shouldn’t have opened. Since there were no apparent references to Princess in the diary, it’s assumed that Verity altered history by saving her from drowning. Ned was actually sent to Victorian times not just to rest, but also to return the cat to her own timeline (cats are also extinct in 2057).
So there are all kinds of ripples that fan out from this event, naturally, this being a time travel story and all. Meanwhile, Carruthers is stuck in 1940, and there seems to be all manner of slippage on drops (people ending up miles or hours or even days from where/when they were supposed to be). And while it’s difficult to explain concisely, to someone who hasn’t read the book, I love Willis’s time travel logic. We actually learned the “true” reason for slippage in All Clear, but here it’s explained that all of the various slippage (which gets worse as the novel progresses and Tossie’s life seemingly moves farther and farther from its prescribed path) was a way of the timeline trying to repair itself. The ripples extend into both the past AND the future (view spoiler)[actually even farther than our “present” 2057 timeline -- at the end there is the implication that all this nonsense with the cat (to say nothing of the dog!) was possibly a way of the timeline from 2678 trying to correct itself. It’s interesting that the time travel here is all to the past. There’s never any mention made of if/how you might travel to the future. Given that the technology is used by historians, it makes sense that they would only go in one direction, but given that they clearly have the technology to go “back to the future,” as it were, it made me wonder what would happen if someone tried to go to 2678 (hide spoiler)]. But in All Clear, there’s a slightly different explanation (view spoiler)[, according to Mr. Dunworthy, the slippage in question there (when the nets didn’t open and everyone was stuck in the 40s) actually was the timeline putting them where they were meant to be. They weren’t an incongruity, they were meant to be there -- Polly joins the theatre troupe, Eileen mothers Binny and her brother, Mike...is boring and dies tragically. (hide spoiler)] It’s kind of a cheesy explanation, and I have to admit I sort of like what we have here a little better.
I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this -- suffice to say, it is delightful and funny and an enjoyable read. In spite of the fact that I’ve done a piss poor job of explaining everything, it really does all come together in a way that makes perfect sense. I love that Willis doesn’t waste a bunch of time with exposition and explanation of how all of the laws of time travel work. We’re dropped into the story already in progress and we have to figure it out as we go. Granted, I still haven’t read The Doomsday Book (my library’s copy is lost, and I’m leery of getting an e-book version of anything published in the 90s...the conversion is usually terrible and full of typos), so maybe it starts with an info-dump. It’s a very organic way of letting the reader figure out the story. I almost thought it could make an interesting read aloud for a higher level group of students. I might keep it in my back pocket for 8th grade, assuming these kids grow up a LOT, but I actually think it could be perfect for freshmen, if anyone who teaches freshmen still does read aloud!
Finally finished this in all 3 classes today. They loved it. I think I may have liked it better if I hadn't already read (the FAR inferior) sequel las...moreFinally finished this in all 3 classes today. They loved it. I think I may have liked it better if I hadn't already read (the FAR inferior) sequel last year. It's kind of the perfect read aloud though: short chapters, lots of cliffhangers, compelling plot. The characters are a little cardboardy and underdeveloped, but honestly for a read aloud that's not such a terrible thing! Now I just need to find something to follow this up. They're already asking me to read the sequel, and I am standing my ground on refusing. That book is subpar at best, and reading it aloud three damn times only drove that point home further. (less)
Lauren Oliver is another one of those writers I have a curious relationship with. I’ve only truly liked ONE of her books (Before I Fall). I eventually...moreLauren Oliver is another one of those writers I have a curious relationship with. I’ve only truly liked ONE of her books (Before I Fall). I eventually finished the Delirium trilogy, after the first book made me stabby with rage; the other two were...fine, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. And while I really wanted to like Panic, I had so many issues with how it was paced and plotted (let us not forget the damn tiger). And again, I really wanted to like Rooms, and I did enjoy some aspects of it, but it still fell short of my expectations.
Here’s the thing -- in spite of the fact that I didn’t like the Delirium trilogy, I still truly enjoy Oliver’s writing style. Her plots are not my favorite, clearly, but there’s something about her narrative voice, and the characters she creates that keeps me coming back over and over again. It’s the same issue here.
It took about half of the book for me to put my finger on the problem -- there are too many narrators. We have the two ghosts (Alice and Sandra, who are first-person narrators), and then ALL four members of the Walker family (in limited 3rd person). The perspective shifts from chapter to chapter, and while it’s neither jarring nor hard to follow -- everyone is in the same physical space and time at least -- it left me feeling like I never truly got to know any of these people. And characters are one of Oliver’s strengths! None of them have much depth, because the book isn’t long enough to provide any.
The book begins with a death -- one Richard Walker, who dies in the hospital, much to the delight of the two ghosts who share his house. Sandra and Alice have...not haunted the Walker residence so much as become the house itself. Oliver has an elegant way of describing how the two women feel, being part of the house. When the Walker family arrives for the funeral, it upsets the quiet life Alice and Sandra had grown used to, with Richard being so ill for so long. Yet when his estranged wife arrives with their two children (and one grandchild) in tow, life becomes more interesting for Sandra and Alice than it has in a long time. Particularly once another ghost shows up. (view spoiler)[At first it seems like the ghost has to be Vivian, a girl whose disappearance the local police are investigating. Trenton can somehow hear the ghosts (because he was in a terrible car accident? Or because he smokes so much pot?), and he's convinced it's Vivian too. What I'm mad I didn't pick up on is the fact that his mysterious new friend Katie who won't tell him anything about herself is obviously Vivian. The ghost? Turns out to be Trenton's half-sister Eva, who was killed when her drunk mother crashed into another car, nearly crippling its teenaged driver... Yes, that's right, this woman who once slept with Richard Walker (and had his baby, which is why he left her a million in the will), just happened to be the one responsible for Trenton's accident. This all comes to light at Richard's funeral, by the way. And also Alice had a stillborn baby that she buried under the willow tree in the yard. And also her lover's son was the one who found Sandra's body, so there's the connection there. I liked the way everything connected in the end, I just wish some of it had been at least hinted at before the 85% mark. (hide spoiler)]
The Walker family have their own problems -- mother Caroline is a heavy drinker (I kept picturing her like Jessica Lange in the last season of American Horror Story), daughter Minna is a bit of a sex addict and her poor daughter Amy would really just like someone to pay attention to her, and son Trenton is suicidal and sort of in love with the idea of killing himself in his childhood home. There’s quite an age gap between Trenton and Minna -- he’s in high school and she’s in her mid-twenties at least. In fact, I kept forgetting they were brother and sister; Minna reads much older than she’s supposed to be, so I kept thinking Trenton was her son, not her brother. I didn’t find any of them particularly compelling -- Minna’s like someone out of a Gillian Flynn novel, only boring, and I was almost immediately sick of Trenton’s emo bullshit. Amy’s too young to be particularly interesting, and Caroline is a weepy, drunk mess. I would much rather have followed the ghosts, particularly Alice. We know both women died in the house, but it takes a long time for Oliver to reveal the circumstances. Their lives were far more interesting to me than anything happening in the house. I get that we need the house, and the Walkers, otherwise there’s no story, but I wish this had been framed differently. Like I said, the Walkers are boring and I felt more connection to Alice than anyone else, so I just wanted to hear her story, and everyone else’s chapters were just taking time away from that (more interesting) narrative. Her secret and Sandra's both come out at the end, along with everything else.
As I always find myself saying about Oliver's books, the potential is there, I just wasn't crazy about the execution. Sigh. Someday she will write something as wonderful as Before I Fall, I'm sure of it!
As Dr. Mihm was fond of saying, I think I need to ruminate on this a bit more before attempting a review. I enjoyed it, but it's not without its issue...moreAs Dr. Mihm was fond of saying, I think I need to ruminate on this a bit more before attempting a review. I enjoyed it, but it's not without its issues. ---------- Damn! Two weeks later I realize I never actually sat down and reviewed this. And of course I've since had to return it to the library (late, because school started and ate up my free time), so I can't fact-check! Bother.
I enjoyed pieces of this (kind of like The Magician's Land, which I read right after). I am a total sucker for Victorian settings, although reading quite a bit of steampunk lately, I kept waiting for those elements to make an appearance. It's a good thing they didn't, however, because this novel had plenty of metaphorical balls in the air without trying to dabble in steampunk too. When the novel opens, James and Charlotte are young, barely pre-teens, and their life in an isolated country house has a decidedly Turn of the Screw vibe about it (especially given their predilection for locking one another in a closet behind the library shelves!). Then their father dies, and we're catapulted several years into the future, when James is a student living in London. He's trying to become a playwright (are they rich? He doesn't seem to do any work, and he's not selling any scripts, so where is the money coming from?), and making friends and finding himself and all of that stuff you do in your 20s. He falls in with a charismatic young man, who introduces him to high society, (view spoiler)[ and also falls in love, which, is that supposed to be a twist? Because it was pretty strongly telegraphed. (hide spoiler)] Then James suddenly disappears and Charlotte comes to London to try to find out what happened to him. The actual action of the novel, once we get to London, takes place over a comparatively short period of time.
We also jump around and follow a whole crazy cast of characters, who are varying degrees of interesting. I found Mould's journals interesting, but I was less invested in Liza and that whole crew. (view spoiler)[ Apparently the BIG twist is that this novel is about vampires. But one of the first articles I read about it referred to it as a historical twist on the vampire novel, so...I guess we need to have a discussion about what constitutes a true "twist"? I mean, the vampire reveal is made around 100 pages into a 500-page book. Can you really call it a twist when it occurs so early in the narrative? It's a swerve, certainly, but I feel like you can't call it a plot twist when it happens so comparatively early, and when the bulk of the novel is about that event. I agree with some of the reviews lamenting the "hush hush" hype surrounding the book -- if you aren't interested in the supernatural, you're going to be pretty disappointed pretty early on. The set-up does feel very much like a "traditional," as it were, historical fiction story, so the unexpected (for some) swerve into the supernatural, is probably an unwelcome surprise for a few readers. But at the same time, calling it a vampire novel brings up an unfortunate array of expectations, so I kind of can't blame the marketing department or whoever decided not to brand it as such. (hide spoiler)] There are some great characters here, and some less compelling ones -- I'd have gladly read much more about Mould's work. Although Charlotte ends up being the protagonist, we're set up in the beginning to assume the story will be about James, and sadly he's kind of a drip. I also wasn't terribly interested in the backstory of...their names escape me (view spoiler)[the woman whose fiance became a vampire, and she tried to keep him calm and then helped him die? And then she and his father live together and hunt vampires? WTF were all of their names? I want to say her name was Adeline? (hide spoiler)] Sure, it was tragic and all, but it had fuck-all to do with Charlotte's search for James (view spoiler)[and then they both die kind of anticlimactically and that's when you realize that this has all taken place over the course of like 3 days (hide spoiler)].
All of the historical aspects of this story fascinated me, but there are definite issues with characterization and pacing. We follow James's adventures in high society with Christopher at a fairly leisurely pace, but once he disappears and Charlotte shows up, suddenly it's like a frenzy of new characters and new information and it makes your head spin. Everything comes to a head in more than one climactic fight scene, then the last few chapters (chapter?) cover decades in the span of about 20 pages. It's this weird stop-start feeling (there are also several chapters that delve into the epistolary vein, with pages from characters' journals, with varying degrees of success). (view spoiler)[ I had the same problem here that I did in The Twelve -- are there different species of vampire? Or are the Aegolius vampires just snobby and consider Agnes's crew to be "low class"? And Liza makes it seem like there are maybe other other vampires running around besides their group and the Aegolius dudes... are they all the same fundamental creature, just of different classes? In some ways, the vampire mythology is extremely well-developed, thanks to Mould's journals about his experiments. But there are also so many holes, because the characters themselves don't fully understand how vampires work. (hide spoiler)]
In spite of not enjoying the pacing of the conclusion, (view spoiler)[ I did enjoy the final line -- "The vampire was gone." It's one of the few times the word vampire is used in the book, and it works. I hate that the current mentality is that everything must be a series, or at least a trilogy, so I am hoping that this is simply an ambiguous ending, rather than set-up for a franchise. There really isn't much story left to tell. Although I wish we'd spent more time on Charlotte and...what's-his-name's search for vampire lore. They traveled all over the world! Doing research! That's my dream! And it's dealt with in what amounts to a montage. To be honest I don't give a damn about what James was doing after he escaped, or when he escaped. Like I said, drip (hide spoiler)]. I'd say overall, 3 stars for plot, but a solid 4.5 for setting.
**spoiler alert** I'm unsure how to rate this. Like I said in an update, these people are all pretty terrible. On the plus side, they are at least not...more**spoiler alert** I'm unsure how to rate this. Like I said in an update, these people are all pretty terrible. On the plus side, they are at least not rage-inducingly terrible, a la Nora in The Woman Upstairs or Kate in The Engagements. But they're also not fascinatingly, trainwreckishly terrible a la anyone in a Gillian Flynn novel. Which means they just aren't that interesting. And also not much happens -- I had first pegged it as a cross between Maine and We Were Liars (what with all of the secrets), but it's not quite like that. I do appreciate that it isn't trying to be some sweeping epic saga or some nonsense, like Maine, but without the intrigue of a true mystery (We Were Liars), there's simply not much there there.
This is a book about a semi-dysfunctional family who go on vacation together. The Posts really aren't as dysfunctional as they perhaps want you to think: dad Jim had an affair with a young intern, which got him fired when she went to the board. Mom Franny is still seething from his betrayal, and in spite of the fact that the affair seems long over and done with, she spends an excruciating amount of time "deciding" if she wants to forgive him. It's all terribly dull, because the actual conflict has already happened before the novel began. Either forgive or don't. Decide you want to make things work or don't. It's not a terribly difficult decision, especially since it's hinted that the two haven't had a picture-perfect marriage to begin with. Franny's not quite enough of a bitch for me to find her interesting. To be fair, she's not a doormat either, she's just a fundamentally boring person, and this is probably the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her, so she's damn well going to milk the drama for all it's worth. For the record, Jim has about as much personality as a box of hair.
Daughter Sylvia, who I kept aging 10 years in my head because her name sounds like a 75 year old, has just graduated from high school and can't wait to go off to Brown, where she won't have to deal with people from high school. Also she wants to have sex in Mallorca. Just cause. Spoiler alert: she has sex with her Spanish tutor and then he won't speak to her and it's awkward. Yawn.
Son Bobby, an ostensible grown up, is a realtor in Miami with a decade-older girlfriend that no one seems to like. He's in debt because he got talked into some kind of protein-powder pyramid scheme and is hoping to use the vacation as an opportunity to ask for a loan. And Carmen feels awkward and does lots of burpees. Spoiler alert: Bobby is a manchild and they break up (but he says it's because he wants kids but she doesn't? Which, whatever). Again: meh. Jim and Franny discuss lending him the money, and he goes back to New York with the family, but nothing is ever resolved. It's also not that interesting because again, the major conflict--quitting real estate, getting involved in a pyramid scheme -- happened off page.
The most interesting characters here are Charles and Lawrence, Franny's best friend and his husband. The dynamics between the 3 of them are probably the most interesting part. Charles and Franny have been friends since college, and Lawrence, even as Charles's husband, feels like he can't compete with that level of history. They're also trying to adopt a child, and Lawrence works in the movie industry...the little hints we get about their lives make me wish the book were solely about them instead. Maybe with a cameo appearance from their bitchy friend Gemma, who owns the house in Mallorca where this band of idiots is staying for the duration. She makes an 11th hour appearance and I would have gladly followed her around instead of listening to Franny and Sylvia and everyone else whine for 290 pages. But again, I had a hard time caring about them too, since they're minor supporting characters at best, and yes it's wonderful that they get a baby, but by that point I was jealous that they got to leave early!
On the plus side, it's a short book, and it does make me want to visit Mallorca, or really anywhere tropical. There's some decent foodporn and scene setting, at least. And there are hints at better stories, but what's here is just not that impressive. It's a book about people on vacation...I'm not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be. It's a decent way to kill and afternoon, since it's not a story that requires much brainpower. But it strikes me as one of those books that, as I said last summer about These Girls, you forget you've read, because there's really nothing memorable about it.(less)