I’ve recently started receiving requests from authors to review their books. I think this is awesome. A lot of these are new, lesser known authors who are trying to get word out about their book(s). So, I jump into each book with both feet and hope for the best. Unfortunately, sometimes their best doesn’t fit with my reading preferences.
Before I start reading a new author (new to me, not necessarily new to writing) I do a little research. What else have they published? I read a couple reviews- good, bad, middling? Who’s publishing them? What does their author summary say? Sometimes, this means nothing to my reading. Sometimes, it gives me insight into their novel. Sometimes, it influences me to keep reading beyond where I would normally stop. With requested reviews, I often end up with books I may not have otherwise picked. This is the case with Beneath the Blossom Tree.
Bailey’s author profile and the novel’s blurb both indicate that this story is deeply linked to her personal experience. Knowing that, I gave it a little extra time. Unfortunately, that didn’t help me finish the book. I only got through about the first 10%. Is it fair to judge a book from reading just this little bit? I normally try to get through at least a third of the book, but it has taken me weeks to get this far. I gave it my time, so it gets a review. I am just not a fan of the writing.
BtBT is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who has lost both of her parents in just a few years. We begin with the mandatory therapist visits she and her sister are required to attend. And here’s where my problem with the book begins. It’s too wordy but misses the important information. It took me pages to figure out that Laylla was the younger sister. One sentence – One word – could have resolved this, but instead, I kept flipping between pages. The events don’t feel realistic. I think this is a result of the author being too close to the story. She knows every little detail about these characters, and has forgotten that her readers don’t. That details are more important in the long run than metaphors.
Laylla has extremely crappy grades but a school that rejected her academically gifted friend accepts Laylla because they feel bad for her? More time needed to be spent developing this. I have to assume that because the story is based on true events, this actually happened, but I’m having such a hard time believing it. Did she have really good grades before? Does she have some connection to the school? Did her teacher pull some strings? And she got into a law program straight out of high school? Maybe it’s a British thing, but here you need to have an undergraduate degree before you can even enter the law program. And Laylla alludes to this when she talks about being nervous about the first day of classes. She says most of the other students have come from other programs. Why is she getting special treatment? It’s hard to say that someone’s personal experience doesn’t ring true, but that is a fault of the writing, not of the story.
There’s just too much telling happening in the story. And at a breakneck pace. In ten pages, Laylla arrives at university, goes from being so depressed she can’t even speak to laughing uproariously with her roommate, and we learn that her best friend hasn’t contacted her for three semesters. Maybe the story pulls back, but it’s bouncing around so much I can’t find my footing with my characters. The scene that broke my reader’s back is the scene where Laylla meets her roommate Genaya and we get pages of the author telling us about their first meeting without actually showing it to us. There’s almost no dialogue and what’s there is spotty and shallow – not shallow like the characters are flighty, but shallow like lacking information.
And the scene where Laylla shows up for her first lecture… She hides in the bathroom to find her composure and ends up late for class. She walks in late to a squeaky door and a girl yelling her name and everyone looking at here. The professor pointing this out? Making her nightmare come true? Promising, right? Nope. Laylla takes her seat and goes into a conversation with her dormmates – in which one of them is said to yell quite a bit – about boys. And still the prof says nothing. And then, after we’ve already been told that she walking in during the lecture, the prof introduces them to the law program… What was he saying for the first few minutes before Laylla walked in?
When I read something written in a different country, I always give a little leeway for strange little differences. Especially when it comes to slang and colloquialisms. Does homely mean something different in England than it does in Canada? I think the word she was looking for is homey -someone/thing that gives you that feeling of comfort and peace. Homely means someone who is so unfortunate looking that you have to point it out. It’s a polite way of saying ugly. It’s used more than once, so maybe the meanings are different across the pond.
There are some great reviews of this novel, and for some people, it might be great. I’m sure it’s a very touching coming of age story, but for me, it feels unfinished. It feels like a manuscript. It needed someone who doesn’t know the author to come in and point out the flaws. To explain that there needs to be more character development. To help polish the passive voice. It needs to be edited by someone who isn’t connected to the story at all. Tightening up the story would have helped dramatically.
I really want to like it. I want to support new, young authors, but this book just wasn’t for me.