Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Watch Out! The Poetry of Murder Is A Trainwreck

(Book Image from Amazon.com)

In my long and distinguished (you can stop laughing now) career as a book reviewer, I don't think I've ever used the term "trainwreck" to describe a book. Well, if any volume deserves my first-time use of the label, it is The Poetry of Murder by Bernadette Steele. This murder mystery shows what results when flat characters; a weak, meandering plot; terrible editing; and generally poor writing collide. Let me tell ya folks, it ain't pretty.

The story involves Geneva Anderson, a 35-year-old poet, who finds her aunt dead on the floor of her office. It soon comes to light that Geneva's Aunt Victoria, director of the University of Chicago's International House, harbored more secrets than anyone ever guessed. For starters, she somehow accrued $10 million, much more money than she could have made at I-House. The money passes into Geneva's possession following Victoria's death, making Geneva a suspect in the murder. In an effort to clear her name, Geneva decides to solve the crime herself. She begans interviewing suspects, starting with a man who wept openly at Victoria's funeral despite the fact that he supposedly didn't know her well. The more digging Geneva does, the more secrets she uncovers. A disturbing portrait of Aunt Victoria emerges, forcing Geneva to ask herself if she knew her aunt at all. Victoria's secret doings earned her many enemies; Geneva must find out which one murdered her aunt before she, herself, is imprisoned for the crime.

I know, it doesn't sound so bad, right? The setting, especially, captured my interest. I had never heard of I-House, and was anxious to get a feel for life in the multicultural dorm (which Steele has experienced first-hand). Unfortunately, Steele's utilitarian description of I-House did nothing to make it come alive. That's my biggest complaint about the book, but I have many, many more. For one thing, Steele seems never to have heard the most popular writing advice ever - show, don't tell - because all she does is tell. I'm not kidding. The whole book features paragraphs like this:

Geneva returned from dinner to find Zain stitting outside of her door. They went into Geneva's room. Geneva stood with her hands on her waist as she opened her eyes and exhaled all of the air that she just inhaled. She knew that she was not really angry at Zain, but rather she was upset that Xavier was involved. (164)

Not only do the paragraphs read like an itinerary (first, we'll go to the post office, then the grocery store, then the library), but they are also flat, boring and awkwardly constructed. Dialogue often adds interest to dull text - not in this case, I'm afraid. The players speak in stilted, unnatural sentences that do nothing to advance plot or character development. And, speaking of characters ... flat as the proverbial pancake (although my pancakes are fluffy, so I don't get this particular comparison). Again, the telling versus showing drags down the story producing dull, lifeless characters who have no identity whatsoever. I couldn't remember who was who from one chapter to the next, and furthermore, I really didn't care. This book is the first in a series, and I really cannot imagine why anyone would want to read more about the dreary Geneva. A nice, suspenful plot can sometimes save a novel, but this one meanders all over the place, sprouting plotlines that never blossom. Furthermore, these dead ends have nothing whatsoever to do with the main plotline. Suspense never heightens properly, making the book's ending unsatisfactory, except in the fact that the torturous story is over. To all of these irritants, we must add the horrid editing. Typos litter the book, as well as numerous misuses of words (like "refuse" for "refuge," "pass" for "past," and "attenuate" for "accentuate"). Any interest I originally had in the book's setting disappeared under all of these other torments.

If I had picked this book up at the library, I would have abandoned it after the first couple of paragraphs. Because I reviewed it for an online publicist, I had to force myself to finish. After a couple of pages, I began looking at The Poetry of Murder as a rough draft, because really, that is what it most resembles. If only an editor or a good friend had advised Steele to flesh out her characters, smooth out her plotlines, and liven up her wording, this book wouldn't have been so bad. As is, it's a trainwreck.

Grade: D (and that's only because I thought the setting was unique and interesting)

7 comments:

  1. You're a brave woman (to keep reading!)
    Gaye

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  2. Ouch - don't you just hate it to feel like you must finish a book. I once got a book from my girlfriend, who adored it. I finished it, but almost didn't make it through without retching! :)

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  3. Just out of curiosity--who is the publisher. That does sound like a painful read. If nothing else the typos really should have been fixed--that grates on me when I'm reading. Well, the cover photo looked intriguing anyway.

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  4. At least this book is short, so it didn't take too long to finish. That might be the best thing I can say about it.

    Danielle - the publisher is www.oaktreebooks.com.

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  5. Oh no, I am waiting for a copy of this book. I was looking forward to it too. I'll let you know my thoughts as soon as I have read it.

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  6. I saw this somewhere and thought it sounded pretty good. Thanks for the heads-up.

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  7. If you guys do read the book, I'd love to hear your comments. There's always a (slight) chance that I'm being too harsh.

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