Friday, March 2, 2018

Review - My Life as a Bench

My Life as a Bench
by Jaq Hazell
Date: 2017
Publisher: Nowness Books
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 234
Format: e-book

'There are so many benches lining the riverside, each and every one tragic in its own way.'

Ren Miller has died aged seventeen and yet her consciousness lives on, inhabiting her memorial bench by the River Thames in London.

Ren longs to be reunited with her boyfriend Gabe, but soon discovers why he has failed to visit. Devastated, she must learn to break through and talk to the living so she can reveal the truth about her tragic end.

Unique, haunting, and compelling, this is a story about love, friendship, a passion for music and what, if anything, remains after we've gone.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

WARNING: spoilers - To read this review with the spoilers hidden, check it out on Goodreads.

I really didn't like this one. Here's the thing: I made a sort of reading resolution this year that I was going to stick to books from big publishers in 2018. I've become exhausted from reading self-pubbed and indie crap. Picking this book up was my own fault... but, to be fair, I assumed an award-winning novel would be written and edited well. I didn't realize that the awards this book won were for self-published and independent-press books.

I don't really have a problem with the premise. In fact, it's kind of interesting. But the way it was executed was not. Ren's spirit is basically trapped in a memorial bench on the banks of the river. She has no one to talk to, other than another bench spirit named Lionel, who conveniently goes silent every night so we can listen to Ren narrate her life for us. There are a couple of problems with this setup. One is the repetition. For much of the book, Ren repeats herself, and we have to listen to variations on her first days in London over and over again. So much of that could've been skimmed over even more (but that would've decreased the page count on what is already a short book... even if it doesn't feel like it when you're reading it). By the time Ren finally tells us the whole story, we're into about the last quarter of the book. Almost all of the action happens after that point, making it really uneven. The second problem with Lionel may be something that's just a limitation of the Kindle edition, but I'm not sure. See, when Ren and Lionel talk to each other, Ren's dialogue is in italics. Lionel's isn't. There are no quotation marks. The problem comes in because Lionel's dialogue is formatted the exact same way as the regular narration, so sometimes I couldn't tell for a moment whether Lionel was speaking or if we'd reverted back to the narration. I have to wonder if perhaps the paperback edition uses different fonts for Lionel and Ren, but this issue, combined with a few others, makes me suspect that it was just the author being artsy.

There were other stylistic choices that I wasn't fond of. In fact, by the end of the book, I was getting really pissed off. And I'm going to assume they're stylistic choices, because someone with an MA in Creative Writing should know better than to pull all the crap this author did. Between the silent actions that passed for dialogue tags (probably my biggest pet peeve) to this weird dialogue thing she did where two sentences would be tacked together with a tag, but the second sentence always started with a lowercase letter, I was about ready to DNF the whole thing out of frustration.

The story takes place in London, for the most part, so there's a lot of British slang. I was wishing for a glossary as I was reading, and I discovered one at the end. But most of the words I'd had trouble with weren't even in it! (I have a feeling the glossary was written more for British folks who might not've understood teenage slang. As a Canadian, I encountered lots of other words I wasn't sure about... but that most Brits would probably know.)

The story itself is ham-fisted and looks like it was trying to take advantage of the current discussions about race and discrimination. The problem is that it was done so badly that I didn't buy it. On the one hand, we've got Gabe, a mixed-race kid (he's half black, which we don't even find out until way into the story, even though it's important to the plot), who's accused of murdering Ren. Despite the fact that he's pretty much squeaky clean, everybody assumes he killed her, even though it goes completely against his character. When we finally find out what really happened, it comes so far out of left field that I still have a hard time believing that that's how it unfolded. Besides the fact that the real killer's motives weren't foreshadowed enough, Gabe basically got out of jail because of a psychic. That's... would that really happen? If the police were so racist as to assume Gabe was guilty simply because he was black and in the vicinity, would he really get off because a psychic said he didn't do it?

The ending was left full of questions. Where did Lionel go? Why is Ren's spirit still there? Is she really going to stay there for decades, just so she can visit with Gabe? And does she expect Gabe to stay loyal to her and never move on with his own life?

Overall, this was an interesting premise that could've been worked into a really cool story, but the way it was handled was boring, repetitive, unrealistic, and kind of annoying. This isn't a book I'd recommend... even if it has won some awards.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 1/5
Characters: 1/5
Pace: 1/5
Writing: 2/5
Editing: 2/5
Originality: 2/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 1.63 out of 5 ladybugs

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