So, I probably shouldn’t have started this book when my husband was out of town. My comfy hundred and something-year-old house seems especially creaky and scary when I am alone in my room late at night reading a gruesome book about shape shifters, secret societies, and murder. Add to that the astonishing idea that the murderer can transform into the body of your loved one, and you pretty much have me pacing the floors and checking more than once or twice to make sure the kiddies are ok. But, in my defense, (again) I did not go back and remind myself what the book was about, so I honestly wasn’t prepared. I try to read the books I get from NetGalley in their publishing order, as close as I can to the date, so when I added this one to my “currently reading” tab in goodreads, I thought, ah, what a nice looking cover, must be about knitting.
So no, not really. This book is a perfect example of a writer who got rid of the boring exposition and jumped directly into the action. For the first couple of pages, I had to remind myself to breath. And, after I got over the initial shock about the “not a book about knitting” thing, I started to enjoy it. It was another one of those stories that switches back and forth chronology-wise, and I thought this worked very well in some places, but not so much in others. After a while we can tell what year it is based on the characters, but sometimes the switch can be jarring, especially the first time it happens — when we go straight from a life or death car ride to a sleepy college campus. I mean, I was kind of relieved, because I could breath again, but still.
For the most part, I loved the characters in this book, so if it is the first in a series, I would definitely want to read the next one. There were a few things I didn’t feel were as well developed as the rest of the story; including the Eleni, a secret society whose origins were a little vague to me. There were also, I thought, some inconsistencies toward the end that I found distracting, but I will not detail them here since for the most part this is very suspenseful. I was hoping for a less neatly tied up ending, and for some reason, after the wild ride I had been through, the last scenes seemed to drag.
While I understand that the author has imagined a unique people, society, etc., I am really picky about words that are invented (or in Hungarian and not translated) that I cannot pronounce in my head while I am reading. I find these umlaut-filled words distracting, especially if they have no accessible meaning to me. I feel like I am playing foreign language mad-libs, and I have to guess the meaning of the unpronounceable word based on its context. These italicized words mock me, seemingly saying, you will never find me in your cheesy kindle dictionary. Yes, I’m a baby, I know, but there are people who might stop reading when this happens, I persevere.
Despite this, it was a thrill to read, even if I spent a lot of time double-checking the locks on the doors and the windows, and wanting to wake up my children to teach them how to validate me… just read it, you’ll understand later.
[This book was provided to me in all its white, shining POD glory by the publisher, Headline, in return for nothing more than the warm fuzzy feeling that act of generosity gave them. They were able to do this thanks to Bookbridgr, not because they've been stalking me. That I know of.]
I've been keen to read The String Diaries ever since I read about the publishing deal being struck. A book about family relentlessly pursued down the generations by a man who can change his appearance at will? With their only tool for survival the knowledge of the family members gone before, written in a pile of tattered diaries held together with string? Ooooh, yes please!
From the off, TSD has itself set to the highest gear possible, alternating chapters between the present, in which Hannah Wilde is trying to find her way to a safe-house in Snowdonia before her husband bleeds to death in the passenger seat, and late 70's Oxford where Professor Charles Meredith meets a mysterious French scholar who nicks his seat in the library. It's dramatic if you're British. She's also deathly afraid of some bloke who's been pursuing her all her life, and her mother before that, but that's really no excuse.
Such divisions naturally mean it takes a few chapters to get into it, especially as there's also a third timeline, but despite the rather - in my view - over dramatic cliffhanger chapter endings, it works very well, skilfully passing the necessary exposition to the quieter chapters to allow Hannah's timeline to maintain its pace. I was drawn in fairly quickly and interested in all three stories.
I also *loved* the idea behind this, and its mythology - I have no idea if the Hosszu Eletek are a real folk story, Google only brings back this book. There's such potential but its squandered, weakened by two-dimensional characters and a by-the-numbers plot for the set-up. In a fair or unfair point depending on if you, as I, are attracted by that particular aspect of the blurb - the string diaries of the title have little to do beyond existing, and that was a great disappointment.
The main story is Hannah's, the dramatic escape, but I found her to be a deeply boring character who did little more than scream, weep, worry, and think to herself that she must protect her daughter and husband. There is a fine line between legitimate emotion and having a heroine who succumbs to inertia - consider The Hunger Games: the fear and PTSD was one of the bits it got really right, but Katniss still went out and got things done. Here, Hannah's actual actions - what there are of them - happen before the book has started; throughout, things are done by the (male) characters around her. When she does finally act, it is not in the way of somebody who has had the chance to spend their life preparing for the possibility she'll have to.
Then there is Gabriel, a character straight out of any romantic comedy starring an Irishman: over friendly? Check. Turns rebuffs into jokes and ignores them? Check. Uses a small child to trap the object of his affection into spending time with him? Check. We'll grant some bonus points for Hannah's epically stupid reactions to him: What's that? You are on the run from a man who can change his appearance at will, there's a mysterious Irishman who is determined to be your friend, he makes your spidey sense tingle with mistrust, your husband almost died the day before and is lying prone on the sofa vulnerable to the aforementioned man who's hunting you and you ARE going to go for a ride with the mysterious and hunky stranger?
The final nail in the coffin is Jakab himself - the man who's spent over a century tracking down Hannah's family. In the beginning he's done excellently, but his obsession is ludicrous, its explanation overly simplistic, and as he doesn't appear to exist off-screen let alone develop as a character over his lifetime. We have a faceless Big Bad who deserves his endlessly screaming target. It's even more annoying because what he *does* is so utterly horrific but the book is not; Jakab's victims only emotionally respond to the fear of violence but Jones has - possibly inadvertently - created a creature whose MO taps into a very female fear. I would be less annoyed with this book if that aspect had been borne in mind more throughout.
Books like this are a dancing centipede - if I hadn't looked down three-quarters of the way through this would probably have been 3.5 stars. However, I did, and if I hadn't then I really ought to have done. It has a strong start but progress is unoriginal, checking in with Things Which Will Be Important Later, passing Things Which We're Told Can't Happen Manage To For *Reasons* and giving a jaunty wave to Holding Out For A Sequel on the way past. Mentally comparing this to my other scores, I'm going to settle on 2.5 stars: until it all fell apart it was very good, but once it did it was a brainless Hollywood summer blockbuster and I'd really, really hoped for more.
With the paperback edition of this one imminent (17th July in the UK) I've got my grabby hands on an ARC. And it's not merely an ARC, it's a POD ARC which makes me feel tremendously grown-up and professional. And slightly blind due to the extremely white pages.
It's a supernatural thriller, one I've wanted to read since it was first sold. It's the story of a family who have been pursued across centuries but for whom it's time to stop running.
The first couple of chapters in I was unsure, but a couple of chapters further along than that and I am sure. I'm quite liking so far.
Thanks be to the good people at Headline for providing me with this book, facilitated in this act of munificent generosity by Bookbridgr.