Friday, December 11, 2015

Bibliovile: Sonnets and Skins

            We’re back, folks. There was a pretty good response to our last post of this nature, mostly from Sue’s friends that exist in a state of pure support. You know the frame; we pick books for each other, and then review them. I picked Sonnet to a Dead Contessa, by Gilbert Morris, based on back jacket alone. Sue picked for me Skin of the Wolf (I had to look up the title), by Sam Cabot, a nom de plume for two authors. Let’s just hop in, shall we? Sue went second last time, so she’ll get to start now. Street rules.

Sonnet to a Dead Contessa, by Gilbert Morris
            The book Mick chose for round two of the Terrible Book Exchange is Sonnet to a Dead Contessa, by Gilbert Morris. It is, of course, the third book in a series, because Mick hates me and wants me to be unhappy. He chose this book based on the description on the back, which is too good not to share. Pay extra attention to the penultimate line:

            “In London, 1858, women of British nobility are being murdered with alarming frequency, so Scotland Yard calls on Lady Serafina Trent and her crime-solving partner, Dylan Tremayne, to help piece together the perplexing clues. With Dylan’s help, Serafina has garnered acclaim as a brilliant detective – solving mysteries by relying on her astute observation and scientific reasoning. But in the midst of solving these crimes, Serafina’s relationship with Dylan meets unexpected stress when his childhood sweetheart returns. Torn between desire and decorum, Serafina desperately wants Dylan to be happy – but in the arms of another woman? After a lifetime of viewing the world through a practical lens, Serafina begins to examine her own soul – and realizes her need for Jesus. Yet will her faith save her life when all clues point to Serafina as the murderer’s next victim?”

            Not only is this a mystery/romance set in London at the 1850s, which are all ingredients in the recipe for a terrible book, but it’s Christian Fiction. Mystery/romance/Christian fiction. As soon as I saw it, I determined that there was no possible way that this could be good, and the quality of the writing did not disappoint. Some of my favorite terrible lines included, “He found himself drawn to her then and did not know how it came, but something drew him.” I think there may be a subject and verb in there somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where. Oh, and here’s another winner, “Miss St. Clair gave Von Ritter a look that would have killed, if looks could kill.”
            Even worse than these throwaway lines is the dialogue. Take this excerpt, for example:
Meredith: How different this is from our little village, Dylan.
Dylan: I liked the village better.
Meredith: I don’t see how you could like it. You nearly worked yourself to death in that mine. And your father almost died in that cave in.
Dylan: No, I didn’t like the mine, but the village was nice. Look there’s Serafina and her father. Let’s see what’s going on.
Serafina: Oh, Dylan, how are you?
Dylan: Fine, Meredith is doing a little shopping. I carry the parcels. How are you sir?
Serafina’s father: Fine, Tremayne, I’m off to a meeting – boring scientists, you know. Good to see you again.
            What even is this? It’s disjointed, and awkward, and it juxtaposes serious conversation with meaningless small talk in a very strange way that just leaves the reader confused.
            It’s not just the dialogue that’s bad, either – it’s the structure of the book. Things seem out of order, and extraneous description is added in places where it makes no sense. For example, in the middle of a funeral scene, the author found it necessary to describe what several members of the British aristocracy look like, including speculation on whether or not a particular Baron and Baroness were of French descent. I’m sure the dead woman would be pleased to know that the heritage of characters that don’t have even the slightest impact on the plot is more important than her funeral.  
            Another element of poor writing is way-too-obvious foreshadowing. In chapter six, Serafina spends an afternoon with Lady Margaret Acton, who is her best friend. Before getting in the carriage to go home, Serafina feels moved by some force outside of herself to tell Margaret at length how much she loves her and appreciates her friendship. Margaret reciprocates those feelings, and then mentions to Serafina that she has been inspired by the faith of two other characters, and that she feels like going to church that afternoon. After reading this conversation, I was entirely unsurprised when Lady Margaret Acton was discovered with a slashed throat in the next chapter.
            Speaking of slashed throats, the whole mystery aspect of this book is laughably predictable. Among the clues left at each murder scene are pictures of powerful women who are willing to kill for what they believe is right. The first is a warrior queen, the second is a figure from the Bible who killed a king, and the third is Joan of Arc. How interesting that there are two female characters who repeatedly show up throughout the book who are working to advance women’s rights… I wonder if they would stop at anything for what they believe is right? And wouldn’t you know, they happened to be in contact with each victim directly before her death! What a coinky-dink.
            I have to admit, despite the terrible writing, the bumbling plotline, and the uncomfortable insertion of Christianity, there was one part of the storyline that I became legitimately interested in. Remember the childhood sweetheart who was mentioned in the book description? Her name is Meredith, and throughout the first half of the book, you can’t help but feel like there’s something off about Meredith. She shows up out of the blue with her baby in tow, looking for her long-lost sister, with no money, no plan, and no way of finding said sister. Within about two minutes of finding Dylan, she has him convinced to pay for her lodging, clothing, groceries, everything. He starts spending all of his time with her, he helps her get a job as an actress, and she becomes remarkably possessive of Dylan’s time and presence.
            She tells Dylan that she had married his childhood best friend, Lewis, and that when Lewis had died of an illness, his dying wish was that Meredith find Dylan and marry him so that he could care for Meredith and their child. She tells Dylan this, making him feel obligated (like any non-monster would) to marry her. Sounds a little manipulative, right? It gets better. One night, she drugs Dylan at dinner, he sleeps in her bed that night, and when he wakes up the next morning with no memory of the previous night, she tells her that they slept together, making him feel even more obligated to stay with her forever.
            But Gilbert Morris, you’re killing me with this dialogue, because in the scene where Dylan wakes up after being drugged – in what should have been one of the most dramatic parts of the whole novel – this dialogue happens:
Meredith: Where are you going, Dylan?
Dylan: I’ve got to go.
Meredith: Why are you leaving?
Dylan: I’ve got to get away from here. This – this shouldn’t have happened.
Meredith: You’re not going to leave me now, are you, Dylan? Not after last night?
Dylan: Yes, I’ve got to get away.
Meredith: You’re just like all other men. You used to me to get what you wanted.
Dylan: I don’t remember!
This? This is the best you can do? This awkward, stilted dialogue? This scene is crazy! This woman is crazy! I want to see the crazy, I don’t just want to read eight lines of awkward morning after and then move on to the next chapter! You’ve let me down, Gilbert.
            So in summary – this is just not a well-written book. The characters are okay, the plotline is decent – with pieces of it bordering on legitimately interesting – and it’s a quick and not entirely unenjoyable read… Except for the writing. This book was written so badly that it kills all the momentum that it has. I could go on for three more blog posts on the finer points, but then it’d be longer than the novel. It’s really too bad, I mean, Jesus helped Serafina catch a murderer and solve the mystery of Meredith… I really wish he would have inspired Gilbert Morris come up with some better dialogue.

Skin of the Wolf, Sam Cabot
            I am a big fan of the show Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s really hard to explain why it’s amazing, but I don’t need to, because Space Mutiny exists. There was a constant thin line in MST3k, and that was the line between fun-bad and bad-bad. The writers of MST3k were some of the sharpest, wittiest comedic minds to be found in 90’s-era Minnesota at the time, but there are some movies that they can just not make funny. These movies are terrible and bad, but in a way that blankets humor of all kinds instead of inviting it. It’s just… boring. Not necessarily bad dialogue or cheesy special effects, but wooden actors, uninteresting plots, and overlong static closeups of weird people’s faces.
            This book I read, whatever it was, I’m not looking up the title again was The Unearthly of books. Sure, its premise is pretty hilarious and full of promise; it’s about vampires, werewolves, and the Catholic Church’s relationship to Native Americans post-contact. The major story beats are just if Dan Brown wrote Twilight, which is a glorious idea. I want to see Dan Brown try to write everything. “Ma! Pa! Old Yeller has rabies and I think it’s because he found evidence Moses engaged in bank fraud and now the secret Zionist Cabal is trying to cover it up!”
            I mean, I don’t want to actually spell out the plot, because the dust-jacket version I’ve presented sounds more fun, but here it goes; It’s the second book in a series, so we’re off to a bad start. (Sue’s learned a thing or two.)
            I didn’t read the first one, Blood of the Lamb, but judging from numerous mentions of past events, the first book finds our main character, a priest (Thomas Kelly, aka every priest ever), meeting and befriending a vampire lady because the Catholic Church supplies vampires blood so they don’t actually kill people. Some sort of shenanigans ensue, there’s a whole culture of vampires but of course they’re not ‘vampires’ as we know them. They’re not supernatural at all, just incredibly good senses, a thirst for blood, heightened athletic ability, and, oh, eternal life. But yeah, not supernatural. They can go in the sun with no ill effects and mainly their superpowers amount to being that guy from the Mentalist and also everyone wants to bang them including this priest or whatever.
            Our book goes from Rome to New York in winter, because Only In New York! The vampire lady whose name I also don’t remember-

            Time out. This should be proof alone. I remember Sue’s last book, Choosers of the Slain, had a character who went by the title KILDAR. You know why I remember that? It’s dumb-fun-bad. It’s so absolutely stupid and bad that you can’t help but kinda love it a little bit, like a sexist puppy who fell off of a bed or a jingoistic toddler who tries to wipe the sun out of their eyes in a glare. I just literally put this book down half an hour ago and I can’t remember anyone’s names. One’s name is Michael, but that’s my name. His brother is Edward, but I remember that because- get this- instead of being a vampire, this time he’s a werewolf!

            -anyway, vampire lady (Livia Pietro, I looked it up) is an art collector slash professional art person, so she’s invited to Sotheby’s to look at this Native American mask. It’s super rare and wow guys. It’s beautiful but something is missing! Oh, it’s not foreshadowing, the book is just straight up “yeah this mask is fake” from the outset, because another superpower vampires have is being able to tell which art is real, I guess. Well, too bad it’s fake, because it’s gonna be attempted-heisted by that Edward dude because he’s a werewolf which, straight copped from Twilight, is a Native American thing. It’s supposed to help other Native Americans find this well of shape-shifting inside them because they’re, ya know, noble savages and what not (we’ll get to weird race stuff later). Since it’s a fake, the guy decides not to heist it, and instead just kill the lady that walks in the room. And then, from there, it’s just a murder mystery where we know who did it, why, how, and what they’re trying to accomplish. So, not a murder mystery at all. They shoot off a starting pistol but forget to have the race marked out after the runners clear the first turn, and we get to watch the athletes just keep jogging until someone tells them to stop. The plot starts off with a major McGuffin and then just kinda decides it doesn’t matter for a third of the book, before revealing it kind of does, rendering the chapters in between totally unnecessary.
            That Michael guy I mentioned is Edward’s brother, also a werewolf, and is dating a vampire guy that knows our other main characters. Such coincidences! The hallmark of a true master storyteller. Oh and the detective investigating the case is also Native American, and meets and bangs the murderer the very night of the killing. Oh and the murderer’s academic help was our priest’s professor in priest college. This is George Lucas levels of unnecessary connections.
            So now we’ve got a murder that we’ve already solved. We’re supposed to be in it to see the strings come unraveled and follow our protagonists (which grow to an absolutely stupid number- at one point you are reading 8 different people’s perspectives) deal with the consequences. There’s a conspiracy behind the scenes, we’re lead to believe, but that’s just as flatly told instead. The end result, instead of breathless gumshoe action, is just us waiting at the exit, tapping our foot until the characters catch up. Everything is solved and explained to us immediately, so we just hang out and watch uninteresting people interact in uninteresting ways. A lot happens, admittedly, and the events begin to have weight in the third act, but why I’m supposed to be hooked on each twist and turn is the greatest mystery in the book.
            The book really tries to live up to its Young Adult roots, and does so by Randomly Capitalizing important Words to give them Power. I wrote down each instance of capitalization that I found in my perusal, and I present the list in its entirety: Change, Blessing, Unchanged, Shifted, Shift, Conclave, Cloaking, Cloak, Concordant, Power, Awakening, Ceremony, Academy, Job, Unveil, Awaken, Eldest, and Unveiling.
            You don’t become a werewolf, you Shift. You don’t get vampireised, you Change. It’s not vampires and not-vampires, it’s Changed and Unchanged. Blah bluh blee. Hum bluh blah. This capitalization should be fun, but it’s not, because the book is boring. The priest’s name is Thomas Kelley because everyone loves textbook priest names, and he might as well be Patty O’Hoolahan for all I care because the book is boring. It’s bad, it’s boring, and it’s no fun.
            Sometimes, a book can be saved from what it’s about by what it’s ABOUT. This book may have a laughably bad plot, but it’s ABOUT identity. Finding who you are, and the longing to find others like you. A worthwhile goal, and it includes both ethnic minority tensions as well as a homosexual relationship to drive home the allusions. But, unfortunately, it’s not enough to salvage the rest of the story.
            There are only two things from this book that really stand out to me. Number one is its cruel use of the English language. So many sentences go on to totally and completely lose the subject and predicate they began with. Or at least seem to, on first, second, and third read through. When I have to read a line five times to realize what in the hell the woman actually did, and find out it was drink coffee and not like it very much, that’s a shitty use of time. Just look at this;
            Really, thought Spencer, Thomas Kelly, who’d been all but initiated as a Noantri- would have been, if he’d requested it- should have known better.
            Not that anyone who didn’t know him as well as Spencer had come to, and didn’t have, in addition, Spencer’s Noantri ability to sense changes in body temperature, adrenaline level, and heartbeat, would have been able to read Michael’s reaction.
            They’re going for an immortal vampire who talks weird but what they get is a man who spends too much time diagramming sentences. By the by, that Noantri thing up there is what the vampires are called. Because heaven forbid we don’t have some sort of secret, Latin based society. We wouldn’t want to leave anything out of Twilight, after all.
I never thought Twilight would BETTER examine the ways
people who live forever seem stuck out of time
            Number two is the weird race stuff. The second biggest piece of subtext in this book is the strained relationship between Native Americans and whites that exist to this day, and how sometimes people can feel torn between accepting assimilation and staying true to their cultural roots. That’s cool, and I don’t hate on them for that. I think the whole “Only [race x] authors can write about [race x] experiences and anything else is racist” is inherently dangerous. We already know the system for being published is heavily tipped towards white authors, which is a bad thing. To say you want an honest and true voice for experiences is 100% the right answer, but at this point in time, we might have to settle with 75% the right answer, which is white people trying their best to give other cultures their due with respectful inclusion. However, there’s also this book.
            I like the inclusion of Native Art as a major plot point, because it’s saying “Hey, Europeans aren’t the only artists in the world, guys” which is always a good point to hear. However, all the Native American characters have this really weird obsession with getting white people to call them Indians. Like, I’d understand it if the gruff police detective lady wanted it, because she tries to put ethnicity under the rug and do her job. That would make sense as a character. But every single Native American in this book urges- politely, or more forcefully- white characters to call them Indians. Even the ancient vampire who was alive in at least 1548 is uncomfortable calling them Indians despite their odd insistence, so I guess he must have been WAY ahead of his time, PC wise.
            Then, there’s the fact that Native Americans can, ugh, “Shift” and this is restricted to their race because, um, they’re closer to animals I guess? It’s kind of an implicit statement that Native Americans are still, at heart, primitive savages. At best, they’re all typecast as the crying Indian from those commercials, and at worst, backwards but noble. The Native American doctor character, our protagonist, has a harder time blech Shifting than his traditional-living, antagonist, brother. Is this because the doctor doesn’t want to hurt people, and he might not be able to control himself in his wolf form? Nah, it’s mainly because he lives in the city and has lost touch with the land and nature. The detective uses her Native intuition, and might as well put her ear on the ground in NYC to find which way the perps are headed. The whole Native side of the book says, in essence, we should treat Native culture with the same respect we have for European culture and also Native Americans are magic animal-people with special powers.
            The detective, by the way, is our lens to the worst parts of the book. The perspectives grow and grow in number until, eventually, we’re dealing with a bad case of Return of the Jedi syndrome. Each character is in their own setting doing their own thing, and we’re thrown about in turbulence trying to juggle them all. Heck, a perspective is added in the third act for exactly one chapter, for a phone conversation that could just as easily been shown from the original viewpoint.
            That new character is an ancient vampire who was alive for the existence of Uruk, commonly known as the second-oldest city we’ve archeologically proven existed. She lived through the fall of Mesopotamia, the rise and fall of Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, cell phones, Baby Jessica falling down that well… Her perspective on current events, human nature, and an examination of everything about life would prove amazing and incredibly fun to read. We get one chapter while she sits at a café, eats a pastry, and talks on the phone. Why aren’t we watching her just examine the world?!
            If you took away every single ounce of supernatural phenomenon, the book would be twice as good. Native tensions boiling over due to an auction of a rare and priceless pre-contact artifact, tearing a traditional man and his assimilated brother apart, a priest teaming up with an art collector and facing grey morality between stealing culture and murdering to get it back… instead Native Americans turn into werewolves and vampires have the superhuman ability to read body language.

            Anyway this book is boring and I didn’t like it bye

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