Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Kindle Edition, 432 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Other Press (first published 2016)

“No one asked if I wanted to save Sebastian, but you all blame me for failing…”

I was truly excited to read and review this novel, Quicksand, by Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito. I first heard about it when it was just a deal to be translated—just another deal that happens every week in the publishing world. Yet, already I was intrigued by the premise and kept an eye out for it. So, you can imagine that when it happened across my path as an advance-read copy, wrapped in an unobtrusive (and probably at the time, incomplete) front cover, I leapt at it.

Maja Norberg is an eighteen-year-old last-year student at an expensive prep school in the center of a wealthy Swedish suburb. When she meets Sebastian, the son of billionaire Claes Fagerman, she’s immediately swept up in the ultra-cool image he’s always exuded, the weeks spent on his father’s luxurious boats and in all of the perks and toys, drugs and sex, emotional angst and obsession that their relationship evolves into. During this last year in school, the unthinkable happens, and Maja is left holding the smoking gun, literally, tearing her away from her comfy existence in the ‘burbs and placing her right in the middle of the media sensation court case of the century.

This novel started slowly, and in a tone that irritated me at first. Rather, Maja irritated me at first. But I pressed on, and I was very soon rewarded for it. For, all of the pieces of this narrative (this novel is told in interchanging sections) that seemed scattered at first, all moved together to complete the picture as a whole at a brilliant pace, pulling me in with it. This was a superb modern-day characterization of rich teens. Not a single character came off as a caricature or stereotype; they all filled the page, as if they were real people—flaws and all. Imagine Steig Larsson meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, and you’ve got a great idea of the sharp insight and cunningly skilled writing that you’re in for here, for this novel was everything that Dangerous Place was trying to be.

One of my favorite goodie takeaways from this novel was those thoughtful yet significant nuggets of truth and awareness here, which I so welcomed and respected. I love a sharp narrator, one who can pick apart the people around them. And that’s who Giolito gave her reader in Maja Norberg. Because, what you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find within these pages is that Quicksand features class tensions, the privilege of wealth and what happens when those taut lines cross one time too many.

“…you are wrong if you think a good story isn’t necessary. All you have to do is watch Idol or X Factor…to understand that the backstory is half the point. You all want to be surprised when the fatty sings like a star, you want to feel gratified when he made it ‘despite the odds,’ and you want to believe that it’s just bad luck that my parents don’t also live in Djursholm and work as doctors and lawyers, that it’s an injustice you are definitely not complicit in, but you can say it’s wrong and feel bad that we don’t take better care of our immigrants, if they would only be a little more Swedish, learn their new language faster, study a little harder, then the American dream would be just within reach. You love the American dream…”

In Quicksand, Malin Persson Giolito not only weaves an incredibly incisive and pulsating story, but she also manages to tackle serious social and economic issues with stunning clarity that made me sit up and re-read her passages. And, her socioeconomic commentary was presented in all of the best ways, so integrated into the actual story line that the latter would have seemed incomplete without the former, so dramatically illustrated by the sharp angles and trajectories at which these teenage lives crossed that it becomes a major undertone of the novel—a foundation of the plot rather than an accessory. Lines like, “Our problem isn’t immigrants, it’s this one percent with too much money,” cut deeply within the narrative and provoke thought all the more, because their brilliant placement within the narrative makes the reader feel that they’ve stumbled across a rare, half-hidden jewel, so that they long to find and pick up another.

I became so fully engrossed in Maja’s story, that I, too, gasped at turns of events in the courtroom and I, too, along with the judge and jury, weighed the evidence against her, trying to decide if I felt that she was guilty or not. Giolito was very skilled with the way that she handled this novel, because all parts of it—the courtroom, the jail/solitary confinement, and the backstory leading up to it—were all truly gripping, once the novel fully took off. Even the small annoyances at the beginning came together and re-presented themselves in a new light in the end, which I could only stand back and appreciate.

Giolito made me question my own instincts as to whether Maja was guilty or innocent, and I loved every minute of it. I was compelled to turn each and every page, to live these characters’ lives out with them until the very end, and for that I award the rarely given and always coveted 5 stars. *****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour!

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hardcover, 276 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Crown

 

Amy Engel’s adult fiction debut, The Roanoke Girls, turned out to be more than I’d hoped for in theme, in characters, in setting and narration. Despite all of the deep, dark and twisty subject matter that a lot of readers are commenting on—followers of my reviews know that I LOVE the dark and twisty stuff; keep it coming!—this novel really struck me as a breath of fresh air, because the characters were all so real in their flaws. They all struck me as real people, people who you might meet on the street and nod to with a passing wave, never knowing the secrets they’ve got stored in their closets at home…

Lane and Allegra Roanoke spent one unforgettable summer together that neither of them will ever forget, a summer that neither of them ever really recover from. The Roanoke Girls all share the same distinguishing features: long dark hair, piercing blue eyes and bodies that few men can ignore or deny. But it is something much deeper that binds them all together: they’re all branches of the same tainted tree. Those who have survived have fled, and those who have died aren’t done telling their secrets. When Lane Roanoke’s mother commits suicide (no spoiler), she ends up right back at the beautifully sprawling home that her mother had fled from, only to one day flee herself. And when Lane’s cousin goes missing, Lane is drawn back to that same ranch in Kansas, the one that those Roanoke girls can’t seem to get out of their blood, the one that they’re all bound to, even in death.

Admittedly, the big secret was alluded to early on, but, honestly, that really helped this novel, because it allowed Amy Engel to take the time to peel back the layers of the family and each of the Roanoke girls, to answer the more important question of why rather than what. With that said, the reveal was less in the subject matter at heart than it was in the history behind it and how it came to shape this family and those around them. The reveal was in the sharp realizations, in the dagger-wielding dialogue and in how the other sisters’ stories wove it all together. In short, the reveal was in how Engel finessed the story rather than beating her reader over the head with it, and for that, readers who love this one will rejoice.

Engel was smart with the way that she executed The Roanoke Girls, because she did away with the unnecessarily large and pompous word count in favor of telling a resonating story with no fat or fillers. That’s something that I always admire, an author’s ability to streamline, to edit, to give the reader what they need, unsubmerged in minutiae. Brava.

This novel was a truly exceptional glimpse into the inner workings of a family with too many secrets, hidden behind a façade that too much money has a way of affording. It was bitter at the edges and dark at its core, while being written in a tone that was both clear and sharp. Aware. And often, those are my favorite kinds of characters—the ones who aren’t fooled easily, who shake off the wool over their eyes without feeling the need to wallow in or latch onto innocence and sheltering. I loved Roanoke for that, for allowing the characters to unfold and to be themselves without shame, without cowardice, without the masking of politesse.

Engel’s poignancy can be found littered throughout the narration. Each and every chapter ending will leave you with a flutter in your chest, maybe a sharp intake of breath. I was hooked from the first chapter of this novel, a rare feat that I’m glad to have experienced with Engel. This novel pulls you into the Roanoke world completely, utterly. You surrender to the soft turns in plot and the biting cuts of dialogue that scrape away secrets and cut you to your core. I will say, however, that I wish I knew more about Allegra and Lane’s mothers. A certain diary probably would have helped—and I’ll leave that note at that.

Roanoke teems throughout with the theme of abuse, neglect, heart-wrenching love, and the effects of too much of all it. It forces the question, “What does a monster really look like? Is it some heinous thing you can spot from miles away, or is it something more subtle—something you can’t identify until you’ve already gotten too close?”
Can you tell one from the other?
Well, can you?
A strong and deserved 4 stars. ****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Crown, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: January 24th 2017 by Thomas Nelson

A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison proved to be the quintessential “crossover” novel. By that I mean that in reading this novel, it is clear that Addison has a background in law, among other things, and that writing was not his first profession. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and we see it all the time nowadays: novels about painters, journalists, lawyers, etc., written by authors with firsthand experience in the field who caught a fancy for writing somewhere along the line. Thus, as to be expected from its predecessors in like fiction, here you’ll find thorough and intellectual narration, complete with high-brow vocabulary and a thorough presentation of law and journalistic inside knowledge.

All in all, there was something standing in the way of me feeling anything for this book and its characters. Don’t get me wrong: it was pretty well-executed, the plot flowed (though there did seem to be a dividing point about midway through where the novel could’ve just stopped, been done, concluded—but it continued on with the lawsuit portion). I trusted the narrative voice, because it was so well-informed, so in the “know,” and so fluid in its interpretation of the cultural mores, political and economic lines in the sand and of the subject matter as a whole. Yet, it fell into the same trap that many other novels of this kind do: it was a shade too clinical, too fully immersed in cerebral, to pull me in completely. In short, though the story was well told, it lacked a soul.

There were so many moments where it was obvious that the reader should feel, should commiserate with the characters, but rarely could I do so, because A Harvest of Thorns was not executed in a tone that would allow me cross that line with them. It allowed me to appreciate the sophistication and intellectualism of this read, while forcing me out into the fringes of emotive, not quite there. The backstories seemed almost like an afterthought. They weren’t woven intricately into the fabric of the story, rather they were the fringe details allotted to make it pretty, to dress it up and give it some extra color. Because of the subject matter of this novel, that, again, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was just sort of there, neutral.

And, I absolutely must note two things: The first is that part of the plot seemed a little unrealistic, as though Addison felt it would create tension in the plot but didn’t really think that thought out to the end. Case in point, if our protagonist, Cameron, is so intelligent, sharp at his job, educated at Harvard, yadayada, why would he be so shocked to have “discovered” the reality of slave labor and other avenues of corruption within the realm of outsourcing apparel making to Southeast Asian countries? I mean, that seems like common sense to me—the very act of sending the jobs abroad in the first place reeks of corporate corruption and unethical motives, so why the staggering shock, Cameron? Come on. If you’re going to base half your plot off of an investigation, at least make the motives of the investigation plausible. Cameron, thankfully, was portrayed as a seasoned, incisive lawyer, but this plot angle undercut that for me just a tad. Not enough to take away stars, but enough to annoy slightly. (Though, I must also note that Corban Addison gets major props for writing such an otherwise strong, African-American leading man! We need more of those out there!)

Secondly, the intersection and presentation of the timelines was confusing, because they were not chronological, and, moreover, weren’t centered around just one storyline but many. I had to flip back to the beginning of the previous chapter many times to figure out where I was in the timeline. Was I going forward or backward in time with this next chapter? How’s that for pulling you out of a good read?

By far, the strength of this novel is found in its vivid detail of setting. As a reader, I felt that I was really in Bangladesh, in the corporate war room at the corporation under siege, that I was really in the courtroom during the legal mêlée. Corban Addison wrote on subject matter that he is very fluid and well-versed in, and that showed, much to his credit. If you’re a reader who’s in it for a good political thriller, who wants to be inside of the legal decisions and right on the flapping coattails of the protagonist going undercover and unearthing ugly truths, then this is the read for you! If you’re not here for the Kleenex reads, and you roll your eyes at melodrama, you’ve found your match! This is a Dan Brown meets Stephen L. Carter sort of read—you’ll get a little thrill of the chase and a little high-brow intellectualism all in one shot. This was a great read, but the lack of emotive skill lost it a star or so. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4, PURELY on the basis of the execution of everything not involving emotion :). ****

The Dumb House by John Burnside

Paperback, 198 pages
Published June 4th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)

“…the very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation…Such people would be the victims of an exquisite curiosity…”

To accurately assess this novel, I would first have to say that I have honestly never before encountered such an exquisitely void soul in fiction before. It was almost like staring into nothingness, a sensation I have not felt in reading in a long while, if ever.

John Burnside’s The Dumb House is a disturbing and unsettling narrative that crawls inside of the reader’s psyche and pushes the boundaries of what is socially, morally and, dare I say it, scientifically, acceptable. This work of short literary fiction burrows in and takes hold; before you know it, you’re on a deliberate and methodical exodus from the everyday, headed toward a climax that is as gripping as it is literarily brilliant and macabre.

This novel essentially starts with a bedtime story: Of all of the cold elaborate tales that Luke’s mother spun for him as a child growing up, the experiment of the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House, left its mark the deepest. This experiment, set in the ancient world of India, centered around one simple question that would haunt and motivate Luke for the rest of the novel: “whether a child is born with the innate, God-given ability to speak” or if it is a learned behavior. The Gang Mahalwas erected to find the answer to this question, tasking a court of mutes to care for newborn babies who were never to be exposed to human speech. Inside its walls there was only silence; the children never learned to speak. But the experiment, to Luke, feels incomplete. The nature of communication and its possible correspondence to the soul obsesses him. Did it correspond to the soul, and, if so, how could one see it? Could you touch it, see it, cut into it…

It is the tone of this novel that does a lot of the work. The tone of the protagonist, the tone of setting. Together, they build an intense fusion of the former’s analytical voyeurism and the latter’s airy and wraith-like qualities. It is like watching a madman inside a dream, complete with a Sleepy Hollow-like sort of haze that covers everything and turns the everyday interaction—a chance meeting at a library, an innocent letter sent through the post—into catalysts for sexual deviance and callous violence. The characters felt almost ethereal and had a dream-like quality, as if they, and likewise, their entire world, were constantly shrouded in a sepia haze. That almost-surreal quality reminded me of The Vegetarian, House of Leaves and even 1Q84.

Yet, for so many of us readers, it is the protagonist that we most care about. We want to feel what it is like to slip into their shoes; we want to crawl into their minds and understand the mechanisms of it. But, readers, beware. For in The Dumb House, Burnside managed to create a character who is as cold in his natural eloquence as he is almost detached in emotion in narration. The narrator is like a slick block of ice, rounded at the edges so as not to be overtly or obviously menacing and dangerous to the outside word, to the everyday onlooker. For some, the inner workings of his mind will utterly intrigue. Others will find him utterly deplorable. For there were two things about Luke that I slowly began to grasp as the narrative went on: he suffers from “Rich and Entitled Syndrome” as much as he does from severe ego maniacal delusions. He believes himself to be always laboring under the guise of curiosity and exploration of what it means to be human, even as he slowly destroys the humanity around him in search of this purpose. And this delusional quality is what made the narration so piercing, because it was consistently eloquent and disturbingly calculating in the coldest of manners simultaneously.

“…how easy it would be to find a young runaway on her first or second night: someone inexperienced, someone vulnerable. I’d read about men who wandered around the stations and backstreets at night, hunting down such girls. If they could do it, I could…Even if she wasn’t a willing partner, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, or what her true purpose was, she would be comfortable and well looked after, for a time at least. Most importantly, she would be engaged in something worthwhile…”

This would likely be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish, intolerant of the sexually perverse and/or uncomfortable reading about harm inflicted on women, children and animals, you should go ahead and turn back now. This one is full of that.

There is no mistaking that the prose is both elegant and intellectual throughout, no matter your feelings about the protagonist. This novel was unmistakably Gothic, with all of the subtle touches and fine-hair-raising moments requisite to earn such a title. From crop circles to human dissections, you can find an alternate world within these pages, one that will stretch the breadth of what you’re comfortable with and is altogether unlike anything else you’ve ever read. The Dumb House earned itself a solid 4 stars ****

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

It’s funny how novels are often published in waves—we’ll see a flood of multi-cultural books, an influx of war novels or a deluge of high-school-centric reads at once, proving for those who don’t believe it already that books come in trends much like shoes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth instantly reminded me Everything I Never Told You (which I loved and rated highly) and of another new-release competitor and recent review, Everything You Want Me to Be see my review of it here, which will be published around the same time by a different publisher. But I’ll resist squaring them off in a boxing-like match and stick to Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel.

If The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had anything going for it, it was bite. Set outside of San Francisco, it was a setting that was like every chicly suburban town we’ve ever heard of—a town that reeks of wealth and privilege, kale smoothies and European SUVs. It is a place where teenagers wreck their BMWs and are utterly confused at the idea of poverty in Rwanda. In that way, Lindsey Lee Johnson used this setting as a springboard to explore the culture of privileged teens today, but also as the occasional trigger for insightful nuggets.

The format is a unique crossroad between short story collection and full-length novel, where Johnson takes turns telling the kids’ stories in 3rd person vignettes meant to give us glimpses inside their minds. Each vignette-type chapter tells part of one larger story, of which they are all a part of, and is then tempered by a chapter from the POV of Molly Nicholls, the 23-year-old 1st-year teacher who has the self-altering experience of teaching them all in English. This device can, of course, be great for offering us depth and insight, but here proved to be bad for readers who want to intimately know each character.

Why, you may ask?

Because you only get each student’s perspective for one chapter, never to hear from their voice or see their outlook again (hence the earlier comparison to a short story collection). At first I thought the novel would follow just the teacher into this dangerous habitat, or perhaps even the first student spotlighted in this book. That we’d follow them and settle into seeing and learning the world around them through their eyes. But the multi-vignette approach turned the tables on my expectations—not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet, I ended up torn on my opinion to this narrative tool: I loved being inside of all of their heads, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt (some more so than others), but the page count would’ve been better expanded so that the reader could really get to know each of the students better, because without that, it just read as a tease.

Likewise, the page count of this novel also proved to me something else: that too much of a good thing can, indeed, be bad. In that regard, I’m talking about Johnson’s narrative prose.

Don’t get me wrong: the descriptive prose of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel is lovely. But there is so much of it within this relatively small page count of 260 pages that the novel feels consumed by it, and the action feels slow-coming after the first few chapters, so much so that I found myself skimming past long descriptions of bus rides and in-home décor to get to the good stuff. Truly, the endless pages of descriptive prose would’ve been better placed in a longer book, in a book that had the room for such descriptions. But with only this many pages in which to get this story across—more than enough room to do it well; we’ve all seen it done before—it was allowed to take over and edge out insight and layer peeling, leaving me feeling that something was missing.

And then, of course, there’s that resonating feeling that all readers long to be left with. For some of us, it’s “feels,” for others “insight.” In reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, it always seemed that Johnson was on the verge of something great, brushing up against really thoughtful writing set against a sharp and intuitive peep into this teenage realm. She was almost there, but it never quite made it. Long chapters stretch out before you only to end with no kick, no umph or truly thoughtful nugget to hold on to. In the end, each chapter was just that, viewing the world through a high-schooler’s eyes (albeit, entertaining ones) with enough of a changed personality to be detectable, just the smallest dab of irony as to be discernible, but not a lot more than that.

Lindsey Lee Johnson offered up a sharp glimpse at this lifestyle, this culture, but then failed to really do much with it after that. With the short page count coupled with the fact that there was no zeroing in on any particular character—instead, a kaleidoscope of vignettes with brief connections and overlays with one another like criss-crossing tree branches in a breeze—I never really felt for any of these characters the way that I’d hoped. Maybe, with the better chapters, I felt that I understood them, if not knew them, because I’d just read a 30-40 page spread about them. But because I’d never see them again this intimately for the rest of the novel, I found that I didn’t really care about them or feel invested in their outcomes as I could have. The plot this author offered was a 10, yet the execution fell short of expectations, leaving The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an above-average read, that didn’t quite push far enough to gain 4 stars. 3.5 stars. ***

Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review contains spoilers, which are noted within.

There’s a lot to be said for being a teenager today. Of course, every era has its modern innovations and social expectations to contend with, but it’s rare that we get to see this from the inside looking out, through the eyes of a teenager living in the center of it all. What do they see and how do they feel about it? Does that societal pressure produce a diamond, as the saying goes, or does it crush us under the weight of its expectations?

Everything You Want Me to Be aimed to be that mirror for us, to shine a light in the dark recesses of the life of a teen-aged girl who was struggling to have and be it all, to exude perfection while finding what it was in life that mattered to her most. At any age, that’s a tall order, but Mindy Mejia’sEverything You Want Me to Be strives to take us there, to put us front in center in that girl’s shoes. However, I didn’t find it to be all that it was cracked up to be, and it wasn’t nearly all that I’d hoped.

The entire novel was about playing a part, pretending for onlookers and living a secret life that no one knows about, yet it didn’t delve deep enough to evoke any real feelings about it for me. Honestly, Miss Hattie Hoffman didn’t seem to be going through much more than the average city teenager, and the small-town aspect wasn’t brought to life nearly enough to truly juxtapose this in some startling way. And even that would have been completely fine if Hattie’s layers had been more defined, more fine-tuned, peeling deeper down. But I always felt that I was just skimming the surface of this girl behind the smile. She started out a Mona Lisa, and while we learn what she was thinking behind that sly smirk, true enough, I didn’t feel affected by the truths and realizations once Mona Lisa had been unwrapped. I didn’t feel the tension that the author was going for. The countdown to 18 seemed uneventful and rushed so that, when it came, I was underwhelmed and unimpressed for most of the read. The last fifth of the novel picked up, but it didn’t make the previous eighty percent feel especially worth it for me.

I recently said to someone, “It’s so true that we rate books based on how they make us feel, and how they make us feel is based off of our own life experiences,” and this is a novel that makes that statement truer than ever. Some will love following Hattie. They’ll find her particular brand of drama to be shocking and stimulating, but Everything You Want Me to Be didn’t go deep enough. It didn’t set Hattie apart from every other girl yearning to leave the small town and hit the big city. **SPOILER ALERT** Oh, and if you were planning on leaning on her love affair as that crutch that made her stand out, that it thing that made her different, try that somewhere else: that story’s too played to take us anywhere shocking now on its own. It wasn’t enough to make this a five-star read. **

What I will say is that Mejia did a good job of affecting a high schooler’s voice. Hattie came off as genuine; her voice was completely plausible. Her needs and desires totally matched that of a seventeen-year-old girl. But the other characters didn’t live up to their own potential. They were less well-rounded, affecting and impactful than they could’ve been by a long shot. Everything You Want Me to Besomehow managed to read both melodramatically and underwhelmingly simultaneously. Yet, in the background was a story that was decent. A story with an interesting premise that could’ve been richer, that could’ve been…more. The highs and lows melded together to end up being a bit blah with just a hint of salt to season it here and there.

I didn’t see the drama of the “fractured” pretender that Mejia was trying to paint. Instead, I saw a normal girl, written by the hand of an author who wants to assume that all kids are just kids, that they aren’t complex or individual in their own way, thus making Hattie some remarkable mystery (which, to me, she wasn’t). **Spoiler Alert** Except for the affair with her teacher, which has become almost less than a taboo with the shocking number of occurrences in the media these days, so that needed to be pushed further—made exceptional —to stand out as the shocker that it was intended to be.**

Maybe this novel should’ve been set in the 50s, so that the “innocent girl with a secret” plot would be more poignant.

The entire time that I read Mejia’s Everything, I could see where she was trying to take her reader; I just never quite got there. Often this novel was on the verge of being adrenaline-inducing, but it was always just shy of the mark for me, and for that I give 3 stars ***

The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Paperback, 282 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Diversion Publishing

The Empress of Tempera is the tale of Paire Anjou, a 20-year-old Maine native running from her past turned art student in New York City. Two years after fleeing her traumatic upbringing, she has successfully reinvented herself and bagged a famous artist boyfriend, has landed a job at an art gallery and become obsessed with the gallery’s main attraction, a vivid painting by a Chinese artist whose flash of fame was all too brief and mysterious. In finding herself and understanding her obsession with The Empress, Paire becomes entangled in dangerous artistic heists and embroiled in uncovering the story of an artist shrouded in as much shadowy family history as Paire herself.

All in all, The Empress reminded me of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos more than I’d hoped to admit (I’ve also reviewed that novel here), the first half of the read at least. While I’m sure that some will call this unfair, to be honest, there was the same young woman running from her past, a painting that captivated her, a link between two distinctly different time periods and cultures. There were art galleries and soliloquys on brush stroke techniques and how the painting in question, the novel’s namesake, stood apart from others of its time period. Add to that a dash of danger, a few scenes of violence and a 20th century Chinese artist (rather than 17th century Dutch) and you’ve got yourself an Empress of Tempera.

But, sigh sigh sigh, the main thread that definitively connected these two reads in my mind was that Alex Dolan’s Empress also offered the same vaguely clinical tone narrating it all, like a nasally, monotone fly buzzing in my ear throughout. The characters were borderline flat, though I could tell that they weren’t intended to be so. They had motivations, but I didn’t always buy them, and even when I did, they weren’t as affecting, dramatic or climactic as they were meant to be by a long shot. Even the effect that the painting, The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated, had on its viewers, the very foundation for this novel, seemed manufactured, inauthentic.

It didn’t seem feasible that someone would stab themselves over that painting (view spoiler). Fainting at the painting’s feet. Swooning at the sight of it. Why? Is it foretelling the coming of Christ? Is it depicting a cultural phenomenon; has it become a Mecca-like beacon for radical jihadists? SOMETHING? No, it was just a portrait of a beautiful woman, seated. That’s it; that’s all. Show’s over folks. Nothing to see here. Nothing. It was just there. And I, in turn, was just bored.

The passively omniscient narrator’s voice sounded unmistakably amateur, guessing as to why the characters’ motives were what they were. “Paire suspected Kasson had chosen this time because he knew Mayer wouldn’t be there.” Every other page it was, “She suspected this.” “She probably did it because of this.” As a reader, I felt cheated of learning what made the characters tick, a novice mistake in a writer’s hand, if you ask me. “At this point Kasson must have understood that she was not going to help him.” Smh and the soul of writing slowly dies.

Dolan’s Empress was slow and arduous for the most part. And not particularly in a poignant, character-peeling sort of way either. There were a few times that I skimmed and several times that I considered putting her down. But, like a true reader, I just had to press on, to see if a turn would re-ignite my fire. You know, I just had to go into the haunted house, even though my subconscious was telling me not to. But it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. (Does that ever?)

I won’t even delve into how the artistic heists were all borderline pointless, definitely juvenile and founded on motives shaky at best. I won’t harp on how you could run a freight train through the plausibility of them. Five days to plan and execute a heist, really? You want me to believe that? I mean, I guess. And, yawn, the damaging family history that was the thread of mystery holding the story together ended up not being worth the hype. That was all? That was nothing! I myself know people who have been through worse than that!

So, with that in mind, I started to give The Empress 3 stars, to say that it was average. But it’s only fair that I stick to my grading scale, isn’t it? And this one didn’t quite make it into the “Liked” pile. Instead, I’ll give it a “Meh” and a half. 2.5 stars. **