Saturday, June 3, 2017

Backstrap by Johnnie Dun

Rating: WARTY!

This review is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This novel started out quite interestingly, but by the fifty percent mark I was bored, and it never showed any sign of improving. The problem was that the novel had hit the doldrums and for fully the middle fifty percent of it, it moved not an inch forwards nor looked like it was interested in doing so. I had to quit it at about 72% because I was getting nothing from it, and life is far too short to 'stick it out' with a novel that simply isn't thrilling you.

The plot here is that Callie Byrne, a US Army veteran, having served in the military police in Iraq, is moved to visit Guatemala, in search of an army buddy named Rachel, who has gone down there on behalf of a drug dealer named Tony. Tony is Callie's old drug dealer, before she started trying hard to go straight for the sake of her son Dillon, who is currently in custody of her strait-laced and well-to-do sister.

So far, so good, but once Callie gets into Guatemala, the story becomes gelled in aspic and quite literally nothing moves. The Iraq vet is also a trope that's being way overdone these days - along with the endless ex-special forces thrillers, and ex-marine thrillers we're seeing far, far too much of these days. Normally I won't read a story like this, but the blurb made this one sound like it might offer something more, when it fact if offered a lot less than even those stories do.

It's truly sad that authors in the count so much on US foreign aggression to help them create interesting characters for their novels. I mean thank the gods for the Middle East wars, because Vietnam was becoming far too long in the tooth. Now we have the same problem, but instead of everyone being a Vietnam vet, everyone has to be an Iraq vet (evidently no one fought in Afghanistan). But even Iraq is too far back in the past now o have young characters being Iraq vets.

We left Iraq in 2011, so even if there had been some eighteen-year-old serving on 2010, they'd be in their mid-twenties now at the very least. That doesn't leave them much time to have a child, garner an addiction, and then a recovery. Let's hope for a new war soon because god knows what we will do if can't call on a recent one! Seriously - why can a person not be simply an armed forces vet without having to have been in a war somewhere? Isn't that enough any more? It's just a little tiresome reading the same background for every character in a story like this.

The biggest problem with this story, though, is that there wasn't a character in it that I liked or felt moved to root for. There was no action at all, and certainly no point when I felt like Callie or her buddy Angus might be in danger or at risk. Frankly, and apart from the opening couple of chapters, Callie never actually felt real to me. It started out well enough, but then she became as bland as the plot, and the more the story went on the less she seemed like a recovering drug addict, and the less she seemed like an army veteran, and the less she seems like a mom concerned about or evne missing her son.

One reason it made for a sad and tedious read was that instead of being the actor, she became the actee - things were being done to Callie. She was not the one doing the things: she was being controlled and moved around; she wasn't acting on her own volition and making things happen, and it made for a very mundane character and a story which didn't particularly make me want to turn the pages.

On a technical note, the novel needs another read-through before it's ready for prime time, because I found several errors in it, none of which were the kind that a spell-checker would find (although a grammar-check might pick up one or two of them. I read, for example, "Was Tony set Rachel up?" which presumably should have read "Was it Tony who set Rachel up?" or "Did Tony set Rachel up?" I also read, "They put up with me because they have too" (too many 'o's in the 'to'. And finally, "Had he really helped cared for Ixchel" (One of those verbs is too tense!).

Then there was this one small section where I think the middle speaker (starting at 'excuse me') should have been someone other than Slinger, because the reading makes no sense if it's all Slinger:

Slinger scowled at Angus. Callie thought Slinger might just shoot Angus right there.
“Excuse me.” Slinger took a soft plantain out of his mouth and crushed it into the floor. Then he sat back and took a drink of coffee. “Bad fruit,” he said.
Slinger didn’t look up, scribbling again in his journal

But aside from those, the writing wasn't technically bad, it just wasn't appealing to me and I can't recommend this novel, although I wish the author all the best with his career.