Review: The Writing Retreat (Julia Barth)

Imagine knocking your first novel right out of the park and becoming an overnight success. Then you have a bit of a setback, with your sophomore effort suffering…well, the sophomore effect: not great reviews, fewer sales, and people wondering if you can even come near, much less match, the success of your first book. The next time out, though, you’re back in that rarefied air, and before you know it, you have a string of bestsellers under your belt. That’s Roza Vallo, who runs a writing retreat every year for five promising female authors under the age of 30.

One of those writers heading to the retreat is Alex, who started a novel but didn’t finish it, and has been blocked for over a year on what to write and how to write it. She doesn’t think she has a chance to get one of those five coveted spots with one of her favorite authors, but as luck would have it, she gets her chance. The only thing that threatens to sour her mood is that her ex-BFF Wren will also be there. She’s resolved to not let this hamper her in her quest to best the block and start making her own way in the literary world.

Off she goes to the retreat, meeting the other women and the mansion, which has its own story. I had already not been liking needy, whiny Alex all that much. When she reaches the mansion, she meets the other women, and all of them have some rather forced, awkward conversations. They head to their respective rooms to clean up for dinner, where they meet their odd host and mentor, Roza. Roza tells them they will all be writing an entire novel during their stay. Of those, she will select one, and the writer of that one will be given a seven figure deal for their book. They will all meet every day, and all of them will also meet one on one with Roza.

I don’t mind novels about novels – Misery by Stephen King is one of my favorite books. Alex, who still has no idea what to write, prowls the library in the mansion, and finds a spark in an account of a crime that happened right in this very mansion. This starts to gel for her, and she begins to write, as do the others, all of whom are under the same deadline to produce as Alex. The book she writes, the excepts of which are given to us, the reader, just was not interesting to me at all – I’m not a regular reader of paranormal stuff. Still, she’s writing, even if she is still fairly whiny.

The aspiring novelists could be rearranged, renamed, and reassigned with virtually no loss or confusion, as they’re not that deep. Roza as a character is not just eccentric but seriously odd, and in fact, a criminal. Spiking peoples’ drinks with LSD is not okay. She also seems to be weird just for the sake of being weird and also speaks like someone from the 18th century.

A giant storm has isolated the mansion from the rest of the world, making it a locked room mystery, effectively. Strange things begin happening throughout, Alex discovers Roza isn’t exactly on the level, and the book devolved for me into cliches and tropes – including the one thing we always shout at characters in movies about to descend into a dark basement: don’t go down those stairs. But, that’s exactly what happens.

The last 20% or so of the book has some decent action as well as actual murder, so all was not lost, although the ending was not entirely pleasing and left things open-ended and a bit vague. The rationale behind what’s going on was something I’d already guessed long before the writers even got to the mansion, thanks to a scene where the author might as well have drawn a giant red circle on the scene, in case it wasn’t obvious enough.

Overall, it isn’t a terrible book. The writing is fine, although I wish there had been something to differentiate the women in the group, as they all sounded a lot alike, and their personalities alone really were not enough. It isn’t a great book – too many cliches/tropes, and a lot of “female empowerment” gong on, which is fine, but something that slowed down the story. It is something you can read in an afternoon and not feel like you wasted any time, which is a major point in my scoring system.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Bullet Garden, Earl Swagger #3 (Stephen Hunter)

The D-Day landings have been a success. The Allies are now in France. But they’re not making a great deal of headway because of one dreaded word: snipers.

The areas between the hedges are being called the bullet garden, thanks to snipers working seemingly without any limitations, picking off soldiers at will. It’s clear that to get going inland, the Allies are going to have to solve this particular problem.

Enter Gunnery Sergeant Earl Swagger. He is not, at this time, working as a sniper. Injured in the Pacific campaign, he’s now instructing fresh new Marines at Parris Island, dealing out hard truths. He’s talked into going to Europe for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) to flush out the snipers gumming up the works. He agrees, is giving a commission as a Major in the US Army, and put on a plane.

He’s given a staff, some offices, and told to get to work, which he does – much to the chagrin and annoyance of another officer, who doesn’t like any other fiefdoms clogging up his own fiefdom. Swagger isn’t one much for office politics and tells his staff – primarily, his second in command, who in reality outranks him, and his aide de camp – to ignore the other officer, as he’ll handle it. He does this as well, in a subtle way, the amusing lesson worthy of being taught to office workers in modern times.

In the meantime, in a sequence I personally thought funny as hell thanks to the crazy reasoning he gives, Swagger puts together a profile of the snipers to his boss and a couple of other brass, which they accept as sound. I’ll leave it at that so as not to spoil it, but I urge you to think hard on it as the book continues, to see if you can spot the reason why before Swagger explains it.

Swagger is then given a field team to go sniper hunting, which includes two young soldiers who left Harvard to join, and whom we met in the opening chapters. While some readers may be able to figure out the how of the snipers striking as they do, it’s much more difficult to get to the who of the group – and I certainly didn’t guess their identities.

There’s a subplot about a romance and a spy in the office, but the latter was dead easy to spot. That aside, it’s a terrific read and well worth the time to invest.

Four and a half out of five stars, rounded up to five.

Thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.