Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Recommended to Stacy by: Gail Carriger's Book Club - February 
Recommended for: Not sure - maybe you'll like it more than I did
Read from February 12 to March 08, 2015 — I own a copy

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is a difficult book for me to review. If I took a deconstructionist perspective, then it would get a higher rating because there were things about the book that I enjoyed; however, I did not enjoy reading the book as a whole: it was downright burdensome, which is never enjoyable.

Things I enjoyed:
  • I loved the theory of this book. The idea of reading about a brothel in a Seattle-like city fascinated me.
  • The feminist intention; I can't really say it had a feminist "message", per se, but the intention to empower women, including prostitutes, was really intriguing.
  • The diversity: Chinese, Indian, Native American, African American, transvestite, women, etc. It really had a well-rounded, diverse cast of characters, and I was grateful for that.

Things I disliked:
  • The dialect. Karen tells the story in first-person POV, and she has a very unique voice. But Elizabeth Bear wavered at times when it came to the voice. Sometimes it was ridiculously strong, southern twang blaring. Then she would switch to a more eloquent voice. The shift was so clear that even the voice in my head changed, which had never happened before with the same character.
  • The pacing. This book was a pacing nightmare! I struggled through it. I even considered DNFing it, but I just couldn't bring myself to do that. I know that authors work so hard on their craft; I can't bring myself to just quit on their effort half way through. Out of respect for authorship and writing, in general, I had to finish it. But I dreaded it ever time. The action would be rolling along (and it really does have some great action), but then Bear would stop mid-sequence to flashback to something, or give some sort of metacognitive insight. This was probably most apparent in the bar fight scene (this isn't really a spoiler, so no fear). In this scene a man is about to hit Karen with a bar stool. He has hoisted the stool above his head and is about to bring it down upon her, when out of the blue, Bear side-steps the action to flashback to Karen's dad and a horse, or some randomness. The movie in my mind was going bonkers: one minute I would be imagining one scene, and just as I would be anticipating the next action, wham-o, tangential side-story barges in and messes everything up. And this happened a number of times. And it was ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING!!! The pacing was such an out-of-control roller coaster ride: all I wanted to do was get off and run far, far away. But I had to at least finish it. Honestly, I really did not want to pick up the book anymore - I resented it after a while.
  • The convenient plot twists. I'm sorry: I know writing is hard work, and that making a plotline function is maddening, but one can't just make stuff conveniently appear for the character, or make the character endure totally impossible situations. And both of these things happened in this book many, MANY times!!! Sorry, but if your character gets burned, beaten, and bruised, she can't just run out there and fight another battle. Oh, and did I mention that she was a 16-year old, orphaned, prostitute! I had such a hard time imagining her as 16 years old. I kept seeing mid-20s, but nope; she is supposed to be 16! And yet, she can endure crazy abuse, come up with insane solutions, and almost single-handedly save Rapid City from complete decimation. And while she definitely struggled, things happened that seemed WAY too convenient: characters would magically appear or disappear just when she needed them. And, characters would break their normal personality so that she could survive and keep the story going. If the bad guy has Karen and knows that she is trying to get in his way, he'd dispose of her. Why would he want her to live? He is heartless and cruel; he has killed people before. Why would he all the sudden want to keep her alive? Totally not going to happen.
  • The would of, could of, should of...ARRRGGGGG - a grammarian's nightmare. Yes, I know this is a totally nit-picky qualm (1st world problem, for sure). I mean, most people don't even realize that "would of" is incorrect, but it is, and Bear uses it incessantly, and it DROVE ME INSANE!!! I don't even see the point of it, really. Using the -of form didn't even match Karen's voice. If anything, Karen should have sad "woulda, shoulda, coulda" instead of "would OF", etc. I get that she wouldn't have said "would have" because that is entirely too proper (even though she is actually an avid reader of dime novels, and a housemate of a uber-proper, grammar-correcting bar maid). But why "would of"? It doesn't even read correctly - "woulda" would have been so much better.

So I am torn with this book. The idea of it was brilliant, but the execution of it was off. And maybe it was just me: maybe other people will really love it, for it does have a few redeeming qualities. But for me it was torture. It took me almost a month to read this 350-page book. I can read more pages than that in less than a week, but this book took me forever! I never felt like reading it, and I even avoided it at times. That is not how I want to read a book. I want to love it, devour it, hug it close.

Read it if it sounds interesting to you, and let me know what you thought. Maybe I'm the weird one who just didn't get it. Maybe you will enjoy it more than I did.

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