Chuck Wendig – Blackbirds

I am such a sucker for beautiful covers. So I really wanted to like this book, because it looks soooo pretty. But – and this is a painful experience every time – a beautiful cover does not make a good book. Neither, it seems, does one good idea if it is badly executed… or not at all.

by Chuck Wendig

published: 24 April 2012 by Angry Robot
ePub ISBN: 9780857662316
pages: 264
cover: Joey Hi-Fi
copy: epub via NetGalley
series: Miriam Black #1

my rating: 2/10

first sentence: Car lights strobe through busted motel blinds.

The blurb:
Miriam Black knows when you will die.
Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

A premise such as this may not be entirely new but it is a good idea with lots of potential. It all depends on what the author makes of it. In this case, Chuck Wendig may have given his protagonist a special gift (or curse) but other than her having this gift, it has no relevance to anything in the story. This is your basic, and sadly quite cliché-ridden, crime thriller. Except I wasn’t very thrilled. Miriam knows how people are going to die and makes a living out of picking ones that will bite it soon and stealing whatever they have in their wallet. One day, she meets Ashley, a self-proclaimed con-artist who would like to team up. Meanwhile, evil people hunt for them.

As exaggerated as that summary might sound, that’s really all there is to it. And again: I desperately wanted to like this book. Here’s why I didn’t:

The characters
Miriam is a badass tough girl with a filthy mouth and neither conflict nor motivation. Her constant swearing and cussing (something I generally like in books) feels so extremely forced but neither serves the purpose of shocking the audience nor does it help make the scenes stronger. It gets annoying pretty fast, especially when Miriam makes up expressions that contain as many “fucks”, “shits” and “cunts” as humanly possible. Using bad language does not make a character strong – actions do. And Miriam is painfully direction-less.

Ashley calls himself a con-artist with his biggest “scam” being the theft of an object whose owner didn’t look for a moment. And some petty thievery. Wow! Big con-artistry going on there. He is as unlikable as Miriam, even though he at least has one goal that drives him somewhere.

The bad guys are such tropes it hurts to talk about them. So I just won’t.

The language
This being my first book by Chuck Wendig (and I’m sure you’ve guessed by now it’s going to be the last) I thought it might be his debut. But a quick check over at his website shows me that not only has he published a couple of books already but also some  non-fiction about helping people to become better writers. Sure, style is a matter of taste, but to me this was just pure irony.

Because there are flaws in the writing that even I (as a non-English native speaker) learned in school to avoid. There are many examples all over this book but I’ll just give you a taste from a “sex scene”.

Her mouth on his mouth, her tongue is a snake in the grass, a worm in the apple.

The short, cut-off sentences are probably meant to drive the pace, to make it more thrilling. It is readable and it won’t take you long to get through the book. If you manage to keep up some interest in what happens. Because most of the time, nothing does. And even if something does – stuff happeneing is still not plot! This book reads very much like the author is trying so very hard to be gritty and dark. For me that led to overanalysing what I think he might have been trying to achieve, instead of doing what I should – enjoying the read.
Oh, and the third person present tense didn’t help either. Just didn’t work for me. I felt like I was supposed to be inside Miriam’s head, but I wasn’t. The handful of first person chapters made a real difference and got to me way more than the rest.

And then, almost every scene is set up in exactly the same way. A description of the surroundings in jerky sentences:

Motel room. Floral print bedspread. Gold-rimmed mirror with the old showbiz-style lights marking its perimeter. A painting of a magnolia tree on the wall.

Which leads us to my last point – the plot
What little there is of it is inconsistent and plain boring. I don’t care about the characters so why should I care what happens to them. None of them have any real conflict to deal with nor any real goals to pursue (Ashley wants to be rich, and that’s not enough to keep me reading). And the worst thing is – why would this story need a paranormal element when it has no meaning whatsoever to the plot, the characters and their behaviour or, in fact, the story-line.

As horrible as this sounds, it wasn’t all bad. What’s really interesting are the Interludes, the chapters that jump in time to a place where Miriam is interviewed by a man named Paul. She talks about her ability (or curse), how she got it, how she tried to fight it and how it changed who she is – that’s what I was hoping for when I first read the blurb. These chapters are also better written. Miriam still curses like a sailor but it feels less exaggerated, she seems more like a person.

The same goes for chapters told out of other characters’ point of view. I caught glimpses of good writing there and found those passages eternally more readable than the rest of the book. I nerver truly warmed to the style but I do believe Chuck Wendig can write and simply chooses this partiular way of telling his story. It’s just really not my cup of tea – but read a sample chapter and see if you like it. I guess you either love it or hate it.

A story like this is always a great opportunity to explore certain themes. Fate vs. free will, accepting the future (or the past for that matter), how a person’s character changes when hit with an ability like this, a morbid look into other people’s futures, at how theirs lives end. Unfortunately, Chuck Wendig leaves pretty much all of these unexplored. Yes, Miriam turns into a fucked-up mess of a creature because of this gift and yes, she did try once to prevent a death she pre-witnessed. But that’s it. No other relevance to the story, no deep thoughts – or even shallow ones – just a big fat void.

I feel guilty for writing such a negative review on a book the publisher was nice enough to give to me (though, thankfully, I am not completely alone). And I do think that people who read more thrillers and spy stories than me and like their protagonists dark and negative may find something in it. For me, this simply wasn’t it.

THE GOOD: Interesting idea, Wendig doesn’t hold back on the cuss-words, easy and quick read.
THE BAD: Characters without personality, unoriginal gangster-hunting-other-gangster story, writing style you’ll either hate or love.
THE VERDICT: A good idea wasted on inconsistent characters, wrapped in a predictable story, ridden with clichés…

RATING: 2/10

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