Review of “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters

cover86227-mediumThanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone for the ARC of this book.

I wanted to read this book because I’ve heard it recommended strongly several times on separate NPR and Slate Magazine podcasts.

The book has a really intriguing premise; what would USA be like if the civil war had never happened and slavery was still legal in 4 (very stubborn) states? This premise has so much potential. Plantations are no longer beautiful white antebellum mansions but shining glass skyscrapers with underground rail transport systems and international trading; the union of the states relies on continuing compromise between trying to counteract the ill effects of slavery and conciliatory behaviour towards the slave states to prevent secession/war. It’s really hard to imagine an US where slavery still exists as a premise which is legally endorsed, but it’s really interesting to do so.

The main character is an escaped slave living in the North and making his living and ensuring his own freedom by catching other escaped slaves and sending them back South. This means he is a really complex and interesting character with guilt and conscience fighting with self-preservation.

This is all set up for a really great book and if I had been asked to review it when I was half-way through I would have given a glowing review; but oh! the ending! It is so unsatisfying compared to the rest of the book. I can only assume that the people in this book got so excited by the idea that they threw away a perfectly written ending and cobbled together this one in order to make the book into a series instead of a stand-alone novel. It is such a disappointing last 10% of the book.

WARNING SPOILERS from this point.

The main character gets himself trapped in a seemingly impossible to escape situation on the be miraculously freed by an unlikely character with little explanation of how or why. Another character is kidnapped and then returned with no explanation. The plot revolves around getting an envelope with anti-slavery evidence when this is retrieved it what it reveals is a bit sci-fi compared to the est of the novel and there’s no analysis of how this revelation impacts on the country or slavery. In the last couple of pages a completely new plot about rescuing a slave from an oil-rig is introduced randomly and not concluded.

All this was so frustrating because the rest of the book is really interesting and perfectly well-written but the ending is such a let down.

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Review of “Truly Madly Guilty” by Liane Moriarty

cover90282-mediumThanks to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph and NetGalley for the ARC of this book.

I absolutely loved “Little Lies”, the first Liane Moriarty book which I read. I thought the gentle humour, astute observations of everyday life, and the ability to weave together several stories was genius. I had high hopes for this author. Sadly, I find myself more and more disappointed with each new book that I read by her. I think she may be suffering from the same problem I had with Jodi Picoult – the first book seems genius, the second book is still pretty good, by the fifth or sixth book you realise they’re all the same but with slightly different window-dressing and the mystique has fallen away.

I actually found this book actively infuriating. The story revolves around something bad which happened at a barbecue. However you don’t find out what happened until well over half-way through the book and the contrivances used to avoid revealing the event are so glaring and irritating. It’s obvious from early on that the event probably involves the death or serious injury of a small child. As the mother of a small child, I don’t find that a tantalising prospect, I just want to know that all the children are OK at the end.

The book outlines how the events at the barbecue have an ongoing effect on the lives of 3 couples and their families. Moriarty always does a good job of describing complicated personal relationships and creating well-rounded, realistically flawed characters. However I found all the characters in this book so flawed and unlikable that I couldn’t really pull for any of them.

While I usually admire Moriarty’s ability to weave together intricate plots and multiple characters’ stories, in this book I felt every loose end was tied up too neatly. It felt too contrived. For example, one of the character’s mothers is scared of rollercoasters because she once read a newspaper article about 8 people dying in a rollercoaster accident, later we find out that a very minor character’s wife and son died in that accident. This is a pointless reference, and doesn’t add anything to the overall story.

Such a shame, I really wanted to enjoy this book. If you’ve not read a Liane Moriarty book before I would recommend trying “Little Lies” (sometimes also called “Big Little Lies”) first rather than this one. Also, if you like audiobooks, Caroline Lee does a brilliant job of reading the audio versions of Moriarty’s books.