A whole new genre has opened up in fiction recently - and no, I'm not talking about dystopian lit - dyslit? I want to call it gimmick lit. (Although dystopias are in themselves a gimmick.) It will contain books that are solely successful because they have a good gimmick. Room, which I review below, has a good gimmick. From the sounds of it, The Knife of Never Letting Go has a good gimmick. Before I Fall has a good gimmick. Please note that 'good' in this setting does not denote quality - merely the ability to cull readership from the gullible masses. The thing with gimmick books is that they are fun to read. Of course they are! They have a good gimmick! However, the writing never transcends the gimmick; indeed, it seems to exist to hide behind it, as if daring to show some virtuosity in the talent would show up the gimmick for the hollow thing it really is.
The gimmick in Before I Fall goes behind a spoiler; mainly because, after finding out what it is, there's very little to be gained by actually reading the book.
A spoiled girl - whose name I had to look up, because of course it's written in the first person. OF COURSE - called Sam dies. Like the film Groundhog Day, which the book is careful to lampshade within the text, she wakes up the next morning perfectly alive and reliving the same day. She does this maybe six times, Learning Big Lessons along the way. The Biggest of these is that 'mine was not the life I was meant to save'. Instead, she stops a girl, Juliet, from committing suicide by jumping in front of the car whose crash also killed Sam. Sam does this by ... jumping in front of a car herself. The suicide element is quite weak, mainly because Juliet seems to have genuine suicidal ideation as opposed to a passive death wish, and people who successfully commit suicide always do so somewhere private and alone - obviously, otherwise they wouldn't succeed. Oliver spends a lot of time yanking the plot around to account for Juliet's decision to die by truck (unlikely) and Sam's ability to save her from same.
Sam herself is a genuinely awful character. I'm not entirely sure how much of this was intentional; perhaps all it if was, and if so kudos to Oliver. All the same, she's a pretty tiresome head to live inside for 350 pages. Her saving grace is continually touted as her fidelity to her dreadful friends, but really? In fiction at least, if not real life, Lindsay should have got her just deserts. While Sam's decision to allow Lindsay to befriend her after being bullied by her for years does have a ring of truth to it, I'd still rather have seen her telling Lindsay to get stuffed. The fact that Sam then allows Lindsay to lead her into stereotypical wildchild behaviour - drinking, drugs and unenjoyable sex - is an even worse testament to her personality.
The scene that stuck with me, however, is when Sam describes painting a black line with nail polish at her bedroom door and forbidding her mother to cross it - and she never does. Instead of ever considering how that made her mother feel, in those six days or whatever of Learning Big Lessons, Sam just notes that she misses having her laundry done. Maybe it's just my experience with illness, dying and death, but I feel Sam's family were the ones who deserved to profit from her redemption, not her friends.
Probably worse is the fact that she does kiss poor Kent, just before she goes and throws herself under a truck. If we are to believe that this version of reality is the one that sticks (of which more later), how can that be read as anything except the cruellest and most selfish of acts? Initially, he harbours a crush on an unknowing and certainly undeserving recipient, who happens to die. He'd probably get over that with minimal trauma. But to harbour a crush, which is then realised just before she dies a horrible death - how do you get over that?! How could Sam not anticipate how much more grief she occasioned Kent by doing that? Well, the answer is, obviously: she's an insufferable git.
She dies, properly dies, in the end, and the gimmick immediately shows its feet of clay. If Sam died at the start of the book for real, then so did Juliet; if we take the six days as having happened, which we can't, because it's impossible, then Juliet still dies and it was for nothing. Otherwise we have to believe in some supernatural slash parallel universe explanation, which is highly unsatisfactory.
The Perilous Gard, Elizabeth Marie Pope
I genuinely adored this book, yet I didn't think I was going to. The setting played against it - the reign of Henry the Eighth, not my favourite historical period! For some reason I also have a hearty dislike of the legacy of the Ballad of Tam Lin, maybe because it's got the word 'ballad' in it. Regardless, I did adore it. It was whimsical, elegant and extremely well-written. It lagged in parts, such as when Kate did her Tam Lin thing and, like, learned to walk properly (idek), but the ending. OH THE ENDING. It was crystallised perfection.
And hence I do not have very much to say about it.
Room, Emma Donoghue
I decided that this was obviously a gimmicky novel, but I also decided Emma Donoghue is smarter than that. (This is based entirely on her older book Kissing the Witch, which is a well-written and deceptively simple subversion of fairytales.)
At one point in this novel about the hot-button topic of men who lock away kidnapped women for their own sadistic pleasure, the woman in question, Jack's Ma, is being questioned by the press. They recoil from the idea that the son she raised in captivity has, at five, got long hair like a girl and still breastfeeds. Ma notes sardonically that 'this is what you find shocking'.
... and the thing is, she's right. I think most people - myself included - would find that more shocking than 'man kidnaps girl for own sadistic pleasure, locks in garden shed for years'. There's an element of MENZ, WHAT CAN YOU DO to all these stories; they tap into the idea that at heart men are beasts who are only one masturbation away from raping anything that comes their way. The fear of the beast within is well-recognised and documented. The fear of the breastfeeding boob is way more taboo. The general knowledge about baby-led weaning (if that is the correct term) is poor and what there is generally serves to turn people off even more. I'll admit to holding the opinion that if a kid can ask for it, it's too old - but, unlike rape, it's possible to hold that opinion and not be a disgusting excuse for a human being. Weaning invites debate; rape does not. And that's where this story is subversive, because it wants you to ask about what sort of person Ma is, outside of being a victim for whom we should genuinely sympathise. She had an abortion at nineteen. She kept Jack with her instead of insisting Old Nick abandon him at a hospital because he's 'the best thing that ever happened to her'. Her father, who perhaps represents the eyes of the general audience - again, myself included - can't bear to look at Jack, the product of rape. Ma loses her shit over that, because she loves Jack and never, ever sees him in those terms. She never blames him for the sins of the father, and that in itself is both astonishing and admirable.
Perhaps the most subversive thing about this book is finishing it only to realise that this tragedy, like other tragedies of its kind, happened to a real person, not just the broad strokes and hushed voices that permeate tabloid newspaper coverage of same. I didn't actually enjoy it. But I'm not sure I was supposed to.
The Brightest Star in the Sky, Marian Keyes
If you'd never read fantasy or fanfic, the concept behind this book might be kind of cute. However it strikes me as a little strained, and perhaps inappropriate for its intended audience. It's not Keyes writing at her best, because the book itself is a bit of an incoherent mess - not to mention that her determination to make each book contain a theme of the week is showing through far too strongly. These days she's starting with the theme and writing the book around it. This is not in itself a terrible aim, but it does warp the book miserably.
Rape. I'm not denying that rape needs to be treated better in fiction, though now that it is not 1950 it's strange to see it crop up in romantic fiction. This is not 'no means yes' rape either, of the sort skeevy and ignorant writers often propagate; it deals with the rape of one of the main characters by an ex-boyfriend. Later, her husband reels off the facts about the poor conviction rate of rape. When she goes to the police, her story is not believed and the case never goes to court. It did, unfortunately, feel like Keyes got a checklist for 'how to portray a real rape' and checked them off, to be sure of educating her reader. She tries to do this a lot; I would contend that it's not her job. YMMV.
I did like this line:
"Just because I think I deserve better doesn't mean I'm going to get it. Like, I'm sure I won't get it."
Which provided a fine antidote to that common failing of modern humanity: thinking everyone, regardless of ability and effort, just deserves happiness, like it's a fancier kind of oxygen.
It's been a while since I actually read this and all I can really remember is that it's narrated by a character who turns out to be one couple's - BUT WHICH ONE? - unborn baby. Like I said, kind of cute, but also difficult to fit with the overall theme. (Incidentally, the cure for rape is apparently: have babies!)
Romancing Mr Bridgerton, Julia Quinn
Penelope Featherington - you can't be posh in England unless your names have three syllables each - is twenty-eight, a spinster in 1820s terms, and hopelessly in love with Colin Bridgerton. She's also fat - for about five minutes - and a wallflower, but she has a Big Sekrit TM. Colin also has a Big Sekrit TM, which turns out to basically be the same as Penelope's. (I thought it would be about S&M, which would briefly have elevated this misery from relentless medicrity, but alas; no.) They both fall in love with each other within the first 50 pages, but we still have to trudge through 300 more as they acknowledge this to themselves and then to each other.
There is not very much to say about this except to wonder why Quinn continually insists on setting her novels in Regency England when she doesn't know or care about the period at all. From basic forms of etiquette that anyone could pick up off a Beeb adaptation - you call the first daughter of a family Miss Lastname, and any others Miss Firstname - to blatant use of modern, American slang like 'blocks', to heedless ignorance of how people two hundred years ago differed from today, Quinn tramples through regardless. I think her lowest point was referring to 'a thing that lit candles'. Nothing demonstrated her laziness and disrespect more than the fact that she couldn't even be bothered to google how pre-electricity society made light. I would have thought at least a slight interest in the history of the time was necessary to provoke someone to write about it. I'd be wrong. Apparently it's just that people like Kate Winslet look cute in a long dress on TV.
The romance itself was painful to read, because for every line of dialogue there were three or four sentences referring to it in the most inane, repetitious way: "She scowled at him. At least she hoped it was a scowl. It was difficult to scowl at Colin Bridgerton." WE GET IT. And, oh, the temerity of a mediocre writer trying to pass off her main characters as brilliant writers by writing an excerpt of their work. O saints preserve us. Quinn should go back to school and learn to use the English language properly - starting with her bio: you wouldn't get very far as a writer by 'tapping' on your keyboard. A long string of kkkkkkkkkkk would be the best you could hope for - and even that would be preferable to this excrable excuse for a novel.