We’ve all read novels by authors who have a way with words, know how to shape a sentence, generate tension…all the good stuff, right? But what about when that good stuff keeps going and going until what felt like a perfect balance turns into words and plot piling on unchecked? I’m left either annoyed or crushed under the weight of too much verbiage. It’s at that point that I start asking myself: Where’s the editor for this book?
Today’s reviews discuss two prime examples of what happens when an editor goes missing. Both have the right components—a well-thought out premise, nice writing, and the ability to keep things moving, but each one feels, at one point or another, like the story has had too much to drink. The end result is show-off behavior and TMI (too much information), neither of which is pleasant in real life or in a great novel.
A Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow
Published by Blue Rider Press
Publication date: March 20th 2018
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Childhood, Fantasy
The title is ghoulish—likely to either turn people away or lure them in. I fell into the latter category, at least enough to read the synopsis for A Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow. From Goodreads:
We all say there is no justice in this world. But what if there really was? What if the souls of murdered children were able to return briefly to this world, inhabit adult bodies and wreak ultimate revenge on the monsters who had killed them, stolen their lives?
Still, macabre, but interesting, to me. I’m a huge proponent of justice, and not the karmic kind that can take centuries. I feel as if a decade, at most, is enough for the universe to get its act together. Anyway, I digress. There are few things sadder than a child’s violent death so the thought of a novel that promised quick vengeance was intriguing, as was the question of how would the author handle this?
The answer to that question comes quickly enough as we meet Troy and Maya, who go missing after a family barbecue; Daniel who seems to suffer a heart attack but does not die, and Sara who is out running alone when she falls alongside a trail, hits her head on a sharp stone, and comes to moments later, feeling different. Daniel and Sara are adults and at the moment of their natural death the spirits of Troy and Mara, who have been murdered, reanimate their bodies. In between these events there is a train upon which all murdered children find themselves. They meet a kindly older woman named Annie and are given an address to go to, with no other explanation. After taking over the adult, they go to this place which is a meeting, held every week to help the children adjust, let them share with others just like them, and learn how to complete their mission.
For a week or so, both children and hosts were severely disoriented and depressed, not only clobbered by the bizarreness of whatever it was that had happened to them but also struggling to adapt to two sets of memories; they’d become little ones and grown-ups all at once. Ultimately it was the child who would dominate, while drawing on the energy, intellect and experience of the landlord in whom they resided.
A lot to absorb, right? Thankfully, Sparrow moves carefully in the early chapters, which is critical when dealing with characters who are basically turning into other characters, but also narrating as themselves. She provides an explanation for everything and neatly links together a cast that covers a span of ages and places.
The problem is that even once the plot is established and the novel’s rhythm is in full swing, Sparrow introduces a plot twist that feels gratuitous. From that point on, it becomes easier to notice the novel’s speed outpacing its stability. Instead of letting the characters, their stories, and the premise play out, Sparrow pushes A Guide for Murdered Children past the edge of quirky credibility and lets it spin out of control. The result is an almost-good novel and a writer who could be great. But maybe with a tougher editor.
The Italian Party by Christina Lynch
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: March 20th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Debut, Historical
It’s 1956, Tuscany, and young newlyweds Michael and Scottie are in love. Well, two of those things are accurate. The truth is Michael and Scottie don’t even know each other that well, which is the first oddity in Christina Lynch’s The Italian Party. Michael is certain, because she went to Vassar, that Scottie is rich. She’s not. Scottie thinks Michael is in Italy to open a Ford tractor dealership to help bring the American dream of agricultural prosperity to war-torn Italy. He’s not. He works for the CIA. Not inconsequential lapses, but while Michael merely assumed Scottie’s wealth, he deliberately lied to her. With a foundation like this is it any surprise that their marriage and their time in Italy (where neither of them has ever been before) is going to be less than idyllic?
Not the best beginning to a marriage, but could be a great start for a novel. Except Lynch keeps going with the deception and twists. That, plus Michael’s attempts to be a good CIA agent, get to be foolish and silly. There is never a sense that he wants to be an intelligence agent and as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Scottie has, not only the better mind for the job, but the better personality. Through a young Italian man, she learns the language and makes a friend, but he disappears and she becomes obsessed with finding him. Michael bumbles on, trying to swing a local election in favor of the non-Communist candidate, all while making trips to Rome to visit an old college friend—another one of his secrets.
There are facets of The Italian Party that are intriguing and well-done, mostly those about Italy in the decade after WWII. I had no idea the threat of Communism was great enough to warrant the attention of the U.S. But that’s a weighty subject and doesn’t mesh well with Scottie and Michael’s stories—his obsession with his dead brother and hers with horses. Lynch also chooses to name drop, in detail, every cosmetic Scottie applies to her face and every item she puts on her body. Is this a serious novel or a screwball comedy about naïve newlyweds in a foreign country? Ultimately, I was left feeling as if the novel was trying to incorporate too many disparate themes and ended up careening all over the road. The Italian Party would have been better served with a strong editor helping Lynch pick a lane and stay in it.