Ah, fiction. It’s something I rarely get to read these days, as evidence by the fact that this has been sitting on my kindle for months and it wasn’t until yesterday that I actually got around to reading it — and even then it was more a case of, “Okay, I should really do this review soon,” than, “Wow, I have so much time on my hands!”
The author contact me in August offering me a free copy in return for an honest review on this blog but due to some incompetent email-checking on my part, there was a significant delay before it actually ended up happening, and now we’re here. Writing a review knowing that the author is almost certainly going to read it is difficult even when the review is nothing but gushing positivity, and I find myself dwelling on every word. So this particular post is probably going to take me some time to write. Which is bad, because I have to get to a lecture.
This book features around an estate agent, Siena, whose bitchy behaviour comes back to bite her in the form of karma — all the homes she’s missold are echoed in her own disaster of a new property, and all the claims for maintenance and help that she ignored have their ironic revenge in the problems she has in her own house. Meanwhile, the new development that she thought would make her a lot of money is proving to be a slightly more complicated issue because she’s completely in love with the person organising resistance against the project, her ex-boyfriend Aiden. Siena becomes increasingly conflicted about her role in the development, not least because of the karmic wake-up call she’s experiencing, and is forced to make a decision about whose side she’s really on.
So far, so good. That is to say, we have a fairly solid plot and concept which provides a firm foundation for the novel, while delivering a nice little moral: be nice or karma will get you; live every day so that you don’t have regrets; don’t cheat on your boyfriend of six years, etc.
I think I’m going to need to structure this review a bit differently to usual. So.
Things I liked.
Aiden. I have a soft spot for passionate idealists, and he’s one of those. If you’re not aware from my own blog, I’m very much a fan of Les Mis, and I get very enthused by anyone who even slightly resembles Enjolras. So I like the fair and faithful fighters like him. His passion and concern to do good were appealing. That said, I grew frustrated with him for even tolerating Siena.
An unlikable protagonist. This may seem contradictory in wake of what I’m going to say next, but I do like a good unpleasant protagonist. It takes guts to write something like that, because you risk the readers putting the book down in the first half before they see the character redeem themselves (or not). I’m currently writing a protagonist who is even more unlikable than Siena, in many ways, given that she kills people for a living and isn’t just a mean estate agent.
A plot twist. I like plot twists. I think they’re fun, and I like the ones that come out of nowhere and make you flip back the pages in amazement to see the perfect setup. This wasn’t exactly one of those because, in a completely ridiculous way, I guessed it. The plot twist in this book is not obvious, nor is it expected, but because my brain works in a certain way I managed to guess it perfectly about 30% of the way through the book. I was kind of hoping I’d be wrong, but apparently I’m just too good at leaping to accurate conclusions. Whoops.
Things I really wasn’t so keen on.
The prose itself. And this was the biggest problem for me, which is awkward, because that’s often the thing that seems most personal to authors and I don’t really like picking up on it. I’m picky when it comes to prose — I care about the writing as much as the plot — but I don’t think this was a matter of pickiness. I’m actually surprised that none of the Goodreads reviews I came across picked up on it. It was clunky, repetitive, and somewhat simplistic. In places, the use of basic punctuation was misguided, and honestly? “Smiled” is not a synonym for “said”, so it shouldn’t appear as a dialogue tag. This sounds really harsh, but there was something amateurish about it.
ETA: It turns out that the author accidentally sent me an old copy of the book. (I believe her on this — not least because she was originally planning to send me her other novel and sent this one by mistake.) Some of these aspects, such as “smiled” and “oh my goodness” (see below) have apparently been changed.
This in itself isn’t a tragedy because, given that the plot itself was mostly sound (a few moments of melodrama, but they could also be down to the prose), it gives the author one solid thing to work on. Her imagination is great: it’s just the actual prose that needs improvement. (Also ‘amateur’ comes from the root ‘to love’ and is about someone who’s passionate about something. So it’s not an insult.) But it bugged me, consistently pulling me out of the story, and often stated the obvious. I felt like it was talking down to me, as it constantly told me how the character was feeling even though I could see it right there.
You know the whole “Show, don’t tell” thing? In places, this book did both. It showed me Siena throwing her keys down or snapping at someone, but then also told me she was frustrated, and I didn’t need that. It was somewhat redundant, and it often threw the pacing off as there’d be too much focus on a particular moment and then drama would happen in a couple of sentences.
The prose also contributed to the one thing I strongly disliked about Siena that I didn’t think I was supposed to dislike. You know, you’re supposed to dislike her bitchiness or whatever, but I like me a good morally ambiguous character. No, what I didn’t like was the fact she didn’t sound twenty-seven. She sounded fourteen. She said “Oh my goodness” all the time, the way my characters did when I was fifteen and too Christian to let them say “oh my god”, even though no one I know ever says “Oh my goodness”. She talks about things like a teenage girl.
I also had issues with her emotions, but that may just be me: she was hung up on a break-up that happened eight years earlier, but barely seemed bothered that her parents died earlier that year? And given that it seemed to be summer, it can’t have been more than a couple of months ago, so that seemed really odd. At times there were hints that she was repressing her grief, which would make sense, but nevertheless, her emotions seemed out of kilter. I don’t really know how people deal with break-ups because me and relationships aren’t a thing, but come on, eight years. Seemed a long time still to be pining.
Minor quibble, but there was major internalised misogyny going on for Siena. All the things she berated herself about for being vacuous and shallow were traditionally feminine ideas, like shopping and fashion and that sort of thing. You are allowed to care about your clothes. It’s okay. You can do that. Okay, so her particular brand of caring was particularly vacuous, but she didn’t seem to recognise that distinction, and she was constantly putting other women down in her hand while idealising Aiden to no end, which is something I’m particularly picky about.
All in all, while the plot and concept were decent enough, the prose damaged the execution and prevented me from enjoying it as much as I would have done had it been thoroughly edited and the pacing adjusted. Moreover, some aspects of the main character were inconsistent. I’m sorry for guessing the plot twist, though. I was just coming up with random ideas, and accidentally hit on it. It wasn’t deliberate.
I’m going to give it two stars, which seems a bit mean (sorry), but if you look at my reviewing policy you’ll see that that’s accurate enough.
It wasn’t a terrible novel. Like I said, the underlying ideas were enough to keep me reading until the end despite the prose bothering me, and make me think the author has a long way to go and could probably produce some pretty high-quality stuff in future. But this particular novel isn’t one I would recommend to my friends who I know are picky about prose, because that was its major flaw.