Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review: Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Full disclosure:  I burned my thumb on a stupid plate that gets ridiculously hot when microwaved, so I'm a little grumpy at the moment.  That being said, with full apologies to Cherie Priest for reviewing her book in such a state, I will continue to self-medicate with whiskey and attempt to write this review.

Let me begin by saying that I dig books that are:  (1) about chicks; (2) about chicks that kick ass; (3) creepy; (4) about people doing sick and twisted things; and (5) about supernatural goings-on that affect all of the above.  This book pretty much satisfies all of the above.

Here's the setup:  Eden Moore is an orphan who lives with her aunt, Lulu, and her aunt's cool husband, Dave, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  She doesn't know a heck of a lot about her family history, other than that it's twisted, multiracial, and has resulted in her seeing three female ghosts on a regular basis.

Here's the conflict:  Eden's cousin, Malachi, wants to kill her because he keeps telling her she's "him," she's "Avery."  But who is Avery?  Why can't Malachi understand that she isn't that person?  What do the rest of her family members know about her history that she doesn't?

Here's where it gets creepy:  The three ghost women Eden sees on a regular basis were murdered.  To try and trace back her family history, she visits the abandoned sanitarium her mother died--and gave birth to her--in.  (Please ignore the grammatical incorrectness of that sentence.  My thumb is throbbing and red and feels like it's being stabbed by a hundred white-hot sewing pins.)  As she learns more about her family history, she makes contact with a (very) long-lost cousin (I think?) and finds out that some members of her family have some really sinister motives for reaching out towards her.

Okay, so that's not giving too much away.  If that interested you, read the book.  Don't let my review spoil it for you--because from here on out, I'm assuming you've read the book or don't mind having some of its secrets spoken aloud.  (SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD)

What I liked:  The lean prose.  This is no-frills writing, but writing that moves smoothly and swiftly through the plot.  The heroine is no-nonsense, and so is the style--and that's as it should be.  The creepy-crawlies come from Eden's acceptance of crazy shit happening right in front of her as if it's an everyday occurrence.  If you want paragraph-long descriptions of Spanish moss dripping off of ancient trees, this isn't what you'll find here.  But you will find ghosts, villains, and violence treated no differently than cars, traffic, and poetry slams.  Off-kilter?  Yes.  Appealingly so?  Yes.

What else I liked:  The creepy elements.  Crocodiles, swamps, antebellum mansions, an African sorcerer, Tennessee're there.  You're really there.  The ghosts Eden sees feel real.  The descriptions of violence (sawing off of certain body parts) make you feel like you're watching these horrible acts happen. Eden's fear for her aunt's safety is real.  Dave, her stand-in father, is real.  There is a lot here to ground her, which is necessary because the plot goes some really weird places toward the end.  

What I didn't like:  The questions I had remaining at the end of the book.  There were lots of them.
(A few non-related questions:  why the HELL do those plates heat up so much with just a minute in the microwave?  Aren't there FDA safety regulations for stuff like this?)

(1) First of all, I could never quite grasp how all the characters fit together in Eden's genealogy.  Avery, the novel's long-lived villain, is referred to as her grandfather during the climactic fight scene at the end, but the jacket copy on the back refers to him as her great-grandfather.  He can't be her grandfather, as the text says, for various reasons--Avery's child is clearly referred to as Mirabella, but Mirabella is not Eden's mother's name (that's Leslie).  Eden's grandmother is referred to a few times, but I have no idea who that is in relation to Avery.  Either I totally missed something (entirely possible), or there's a slight glitch in the way this family tree is conveyed to the reader.  

(2)  The book of spells...who has it?  What happens to it?  Harry and Eden tear Tatie Eliza's house apart looking for an old book of spells, but don't find it.  It's never mentioned in the end of the book.  Does everyone just forget about it?

(3)  Speaking of Harry, I'm confused.  He's been undercover working for Tatie Eliza for years, trying to parse together the Avery/John Gray connection, but he doesn't bother venturing out to the Florida swamp where John Gray's followers retreated following his death until Eden suggests it, since she thinks something important happened there.  Really, Harry?  Even if you need Eden to see the ghosts and tell you what Avery's up to, you've never gone out there to check out the area for yourself?  Really?

What else I didn't like:  The rushed feel toward the end of the book.  I feel like a lot more could have been done with St. Augustine, with Gray, with Juanita, with explaining how these things all fit together.  The brisk place of the style and the plot keep us moving, true, but they also keep us rushing at times when it might benefit us to slow down for a moment.  The plot is layered and dense, and I confess that it I was scratching my head at multiple points in the book, just wondering *why* characters were doing the things they were.  They seem to accept some really weird shit without questioning it sufficiently, especially Eden.  Granted, the girl has seen ghosts for most of her existence, but still.  A screaming fit or two might not be out of place when her African sorcerer (great?) grandfather speaks to her from what she thinks is beyond the grave.  Her hallucinations in St. Augustine feels like a crucial spot in the book--it's here Eden starts seeing way more ghosts, and it's here that she and Harry piece together the Avery/John Gray storyline.  Give us a minute to catch up.  We're confused.  Maybe go over that stuff one more time for the cheap seats.

The verdict:  Definitely worth reading.  The elements are all there, they just need a little more stirring to reach that perfect blend of creepitude and explication.

The verdict about my thumb:  It's glowing red, which can't be good, but the whiskey seems to be working, which means I've stopped swearing out loud.  Cheers.