Friday, January 20, 2012

A feel-good book review

The last book review I wrote was scathing. So was the one before that. Since then, I haven’t been asked by The Dunedin Times to write any more book reviews. Because, let’s face it, people don’t like to waste their time reading an off-putting review about a novel they’re now never going to buy because it’s “clichéd”, “one-dimensional” and about as uplifting as a “dreary winge”.

But for wannabe writers like me, scathing book reviews are far from a waste of time. They are actually beneficial. Because they remind us that if so much crap is published out there, deftly concealed behind fancy covers and catchy titles, then ours certainly deserves to be published too.

Prepare to feel good.

The Crimson Portrait, a historical novel by Jody Shields (Doubleday, 2007), is 361 pages long. Actually, oops, it’s 382 pages but I haven’t finished it yet. I don’t need to read the ending anyway: I already know all the characters are going to end up either abandoned by a lover or dead from an overdose of ether. I might have too, if I hadn’t stopped on page 361.

I won’t bore you with too many plot details and character names. Suffice it to say that a manor in the English countryside has been turned into a hospital for World War I soldiers with facial disfigurations, one of whom the freshly widowed lady of the house falls for. Other important figures are the sensitive lead surgeon attempting to rebuild the mutilated faces, a foreign dentist with self-taught techniques in facial reconstruction, and a female artist with the task of making lifelike masks to hide the soldiers’ monstrous faces from society.

You might think of this plot, “Sounds interesting,” or even, “I wish I’d thought of that!” But it’s a bit like the Belly Belt for pregnant women’s expanding waistlines: after spending $19.99, plus shipping and handling, you realise that behind the fancy and original concept is nothing but a tiny strip of elastic and that you would have been better off just wearing a longer shirt.

In fact, despite a few satisfying and literary-sounding lines to describe feelings – such as “fear snapped like a cloth in wind” – the reader soon realizes the plot is merely a pretext for an indulgence in visual descriptions of virtually everything under the sun (and even under the moonlight). Flower petals in the grass. Car lights in the night. Spatters of paint on a worktable. Chipped fountains. Mirror reflections. Reflections in vases. In spectacles. Dinner plates. Tablecloths. Curtains. Dresses. Floorboards. I particularly enjoyed the page and a half description of a mahogany headboard. Not to mention all the nuances of colors: crimson, maroon, khaki grey, silvery pink, viridian green, sulphurous yellow. As riveting as a Dulux catalogue.

On the other hand, the characters are painted in only a few rough brushstrokes. It took me to page 353 to learn that the doctor himself, a plastic surgeon, has a deep scar across his face. (Or was I just skimming too much?) And by page 361, I’m still not sure if the lady of the house – probably the protagonist – is a spoiled girl fallen prey to her hormones or a condescending and deceitful landowner capable of calling someone that she’s only just met a “stupid woman”. Whatever the case, I don’t like her. The same goes for the artist, who is either a meek and observant artiste secretly in love with the foreign dentist, or a coarse and bitterly married woman who relishes in ordering around the lady of the house so she won’t think of herself as “the Queen”.

But these discrepancies are nothing compared to the plot inconsistencies that plague the novel.

For example, the artist follows the dentist to a military hospital halfway across the country solely in order to be close to him. Then she pushes him away. Even though it’s over with her husband anyway.

In order to save his young disciple from the draft and certain death in the trenches, the doctor plots with the anaesthetist to maim the boy by shooting him in the hand. Even though the doctor had been training him to become a surgeon. Oops, wrong limb.

In these times of war, sugar is hard to come by, but apparently not art supplies like turpentine, colored chalk, clay, paper pulp, copper, silver and gold leaf. The last of which is best used for the time-consuming process of developing a paper-thin and exquisitely painted metal mask as a temporary fix for each maimed soldier. Because plain bandages are so expensive and hard to come by.

The lady of the house schemes for her lover’s mask to be crafted in her dead husband’s likeness, based on a photograph. Even though only half her lover’s face is disfigured and so an authentic mask could have easily been made by simply replicating the undamaged half of his face.

No one realises that the finished mask doesn’t resemble the soldier at all. Not the artist who had previously studied his face for days while sketching him. And not the soldier himself, who puts on the mask without even at looking at it. Thank goodness or the entire plotline would have instantly unravelled.

The implausibility of The Crimson Portrait reminds me of why I don’t read much fiction. Perhaps I should try the author’s two non-fiction books instead. I’m just not sure if I should start with the one about costume jewellery or the one about hats.

Boy, do I feel better now. You’re probably wondering if I feel at all bad about trashing someone’s work of art. Actually, I do a bit. But I’m also somewhat humbled by this long and bitter dissection. Because I know my own manuscript deserves it next.


  1. OY! I think I'll give that one a miss! Thanks for the heads up. At least your review was fun to read!

    I have been asked to write a review for a friend's book that is coming out. I'm a little nervous! I hope I can do it justice...and also be honest.

    1. Ah ha! I see that some of my blogging friends checked you out becuase I mentioned you in a post recently! Yay. It's always fun to find people via other people in the blogosphere. (I like saying "blogosphere" makes me sound like I know what I'm doing...)

    2. Yes, I had noticed that and have privately thanked you profusely! It's wonderful making these connections; they have opened up my world.

  2. Dear Gretchen, that's a tough one! But I'm sure while writing the review you'll find a way to do be true to yourself and do good in the world, whatever that means!

    As for my book review, yes I was tough but I'm a very picky reader. Reading it annoyed me and amused me (with its silliness) at the same time. Other people raved about it - "Compelling...exquisitely written...without a false line"!! (Washington Post). It's so subjective but I still can't help but think I'm right :)

  3. Hi there.. wonderful to have found you, i am a NZer living in America, writing out here in the midwest! wild! now that i have introduced myself i shall go back and read your not so scathing review! c

  4. Hi, I found your blog through Gretchen's tag. Nice to meet another Kiwi (although I live in Sydney now!) I think if you're going to do a review you have to be honest.

  5. Dear Cecilia, thanks for stopping by from the Widwest! I like to think that people like us who 'swap' countries help balance out the brain drain effect. My 'scathing' review is forthcoming: I hope you like it, without taking me too seriously ;).

  6. Dear Hotly Spiced, thanks for finding me across the Tasman. Your advice for writing my own book review is sound, and it definitely will be a challenge. Because, of course, I want to be honest and find the weak points in my own manuscript, but I also want to make people laugh when they read it. Watch this space!

  7. Oh Heddi, how hard I laughed! I mean, the storyline you depict sounds like something my mother would have loved to read, when she was still very much in her romance- and pre-detective-novel-period. I remember stealing some of those novels back when I was a teenager, novels by a German writer named Konsalik (he's a huge seller, btw, must've earned himseld "palle d'oro", as we say in French). He was very smitten with WW2 and the Soviet Union, and you had to be a tough reader to go past all those complicated triple names (eg. "And then, Elena Koromaskojova Chorshovna turned around to face the doctor Grigor Grigorovicth Shpchtniskorovishov, who was standing silently by Anastasja Alejevitchnova Sergejevna's side…" and so on and so on) and especially past that oily plot so outside reality (because of course, committed communist Elena falls in love with Emil Schnultzke, even if he's been in the goulag for two years and hasn't properly washed nor shaved for the whole time, and even if she knows he has single-handedly killed her whole village including her beloved mom, dad, younger brother, uncle, aunt and the man she so dearly loved). But, girl, that crap SELLS! Try to be literary, try to invent something other than vampires who meet witches who kill monsters aplenty, and you'll be the only reader of your work.

    Do I sound bitter? Well, I'm not. But I'm glad you wrote such a detailed and honest review here. Loved it! Kisses 'n' hugs D.

  8. Oh, Dieter, thank you so much for this great big belly laugh as I read your comment late at night. Absolutely hilarious! I dare say that bitterness becomes you. Or rather, satire :) You really have a lot of strings to your bow, you renaissance man! I hope you might post a book review of some trash novel on your own blog so that we can all have a good laugh.

    What's hard to understand is why this stuff sells?! In the case of The Crimson Portrait, it was touted as being literary too, a novel "without a line out of place" (The Washington Post). Oh please! I guess there's no accounting for taste, but I believe that in the end people with good taste like us do enjoy themselves a a bit more ;)