"This isn't a tough love mission to turn the wayward back to the straight and narrow." A girl is missing, and her dad...

Book Review: Cold Quiet Country, Clayton Lindemuth

"This isn't a tough love mission to turn the wayward back to the straight and narrow."

A girl is missing, and her daddy's body is in a barn with a pitchfork stuck through it, bloated and bloody and stinking like a rotting skunk stuck in a U-bend. The only suspect, Gail G'Wain, the well-read and apparently rather intelligent orphaned farm hand, is gone too, run off into the worst storm that's hit this backward town for decades; and it's up to the seventy-odd-year-old sheriff, on his very last day on the job, to find that little bastard and bring him to justice.

Dramatic, isn't it. What a premise. But the writing tips all over the Internet tell us that it's not enough to have a dramatic story - they can take a hundred pages to really get going - so you have to grab the reader right at the start with something shocking. Well, don't worry; Cold Quiet Country has that covered. We open with the corrupt old sheriff blackmailing a young waitress into coming back to the police station with him and giving him oral sex in his office, because we really need to sledgehammer home that he's a corrupt old pervert, or how will the reader know?

I'm being unfair. I feel it too, the urge to strip Chapter One of its subtlety because the audience of today has ADHD and agents will throw your submissions away if they're not grabbed by the first sentence. It's just, in this case, it made me roll my eyes a bit. That's all.

So, for the next 320 pages, we find out how things got to this and where they're going from here, from the points of view of three characters: Sheriff Bittersmith, the old pervert who's been in charge of the town for umpteen years and is now being thrown out in favour of newer, more sensible blood; Gale G'Wain, who's holed up in a dead man's house a short walk away from the crime scene; and Gwen, the missing girl, who has the strange ability to sense when people are about to die. For some reason.

I didn't like this book. It wasn't a gripping story and it wasn’t particularly well written, in my opinion. And this is only my opinion, so if Clayton Lindemuth or one of his relatives ever stumbles across this review, they can disregard it as idiocy and they won't really be wrong. Sorry Clayton, sorry Clayton's family. I'll try not to be mean, but still, it's probably best if you just leave the review now. You win some, you lose some. I'm just bitter 'cause he's got a book deal and I haven't.

Anyway. One of the reasons I struggled to get into it is that the first half is peppered - enough to make you sneeze - with quirky similes. Unusual similes are better than clichéd, ten-a-penny ones, that is absolutely true. I'm sure Stephen King says it in On Writing, I just can't find the page… but if he does, then it must be true. But in this case, there are so many that it becomes something you notice, something that makes you think, Oh, this again. Which isn't good. And then they start coming two at a time, sentence after sentence: "He watched me and walked backward the first few yards, jumpy as a fart on a griddle. Like facing me would stop a bullet, midair."

…A fart on a griddle? I don’t think a fart would really interact with a griddle, just kind of, waft over it. And how does the second one even relate to the first? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think they really convey similar meanings. Ain't nobody got time for that. And it seems the author didn't either, or he ran out of them, because they dried up about halfway through the book, which was nice.

But then, there were the characters. There wasn't one I liked, to be honest; but I really disliked Liz Sunday, Gwen's best friend, who has almost exactly the same sob story as Gwen, which is about as imaginative as a kangaroo doing jumping jacks. Like a crap idea at a manager's meeting. She's weird and whiney and completely unconvincing because she pops up in situations that make you think, What? Why would she do that? Why would she be there? Who invented this girl?! I won't go too far into it because I don't want to include spoilers in this review, but trust me. She does things and turns up in places that completely break the fourth wall and make you remember you're definitely reading fiction, which is bad.

It did become readable, gripping even, for a little while in maybe the third quarter. Stuff started happening and it was interesting and dangerous and I forgot for a few pages that I was reading a story and just got lost in it for a bit, which says something nice about the skill of the writer, I suppose, when he gets it right. But then, boom, it fell apart again, and Aaron got his knickers in a twist once more.

Liz Sunday turns up again - in a ridiculous situation, obviously - and suddenly, we're thrown from the sort-of-almost-nearly-American-noir style that has been attempted so far (Publishers Weekly are quoted on the back cover comparing the writing to that of Donald Ray Pollock, and as a massive fan of Donald Ray Pollock and all his darkness, I'd say this is nowhere near it) into a dramatic Young Adult superhero showdown in which Gale G'Wain has the time between battles to explain - in a monologue that is so romantic, melodramatic and unbelievable that it made me physically cringe - just what happened for everything to end up here. Only he misses a vital point that was obvious to everyone else about five chapters ago, and the hardy, slightly unhinged Liz Sunday has to point it out to him so that he can spend the next 10 pages asking the reader if it's true. Did that happen? Am I crazy? Is Liz right? Did Gwen do that for this reason? Did that happen? Ugh.

Then we waste another who-knows-how-many pages wildly changing course to round off Liz's subplot in ridiculous fashion and for no good reason, dealing with her back story in much the same way as we deal with every back story in the book: with a bit of violence and very little realism. By this point, I was hoping the book would end, so I really didn't want to be dragged along to deal with Liz's problems, which were just clones of Gwen's.

And then, finally, we get the ending. Predictable, as deep as a puddle in a drought, and just as unbelievable as the rest of the book. And all I was left wondering was, why was it called Cold Quiet Country? What's that name got to do with anything that I just read?

Well, I suppose Cold is related, since they were in a snowstorm. So yeah, I suppose it's perfect.

I've been mean haven't I. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be. I just got all frustrated when I wasn't convinced by the book's darkness or its style, and definitely not by its characters or dialogue. There was nowhere near enough subtlety or variety, and both of those things are definitely vital to excellent writing, in my arrogant opinion.

An opinion which, it should be noted, is not popular among other people who've read the book - the people who have bothered to write reviews on Goodreads are mostly positive about it, and on Amazon UK, it only has one review lower than 4 stars. So if I have made you feel sad, Clayton, or anyone else for that matter, remember that I'm massively outvoted, and still just bitter that there are people out there whose novels are being published and read, while I'm just a nobody writing reviews no one really cares about on a site no one visits.

Still. 2/5 at the most.

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  1. Aaron,

    When I was unpublished, just about every novel I picked up frustrated me. I was so accustomed to editing my way that I couldn't read another style without wanting to slash and burn it into conformity with my ideal of what good writing looks like. I don't mind your criticism in the least. I read one of your stories, the one where people fight to get into the shitter, and its clear you know your way about the English language. I also suspect that your being published isn't very far away. I say this because you're a theoretician about your craft, with the balls to stake an opinion about how to do it. And your writing is evidence that you've adjusted your opinions, over time, to accommodate what works. You have a voice. Soon you'll have an audience. Keep writing.

    Clayton Lindemuth

    1. Hi Clayton,

      I'm glad I haven't offended you. I genuinely didn't want to. And you're right, a lot of the things I didn't like about the book were just things that I don't like to see in my own writing, because they don't fit the style I want. I was going to include a paragraph about how I find myself doing these things all the time too, but I didn't want the review to become a rambling mess, like so much of this blog.

      As you say, when you're writing, you have an idea of what good writing should look like, and things that don't fit that can frustrate you. They're not wrong, they're just not your thing.

      Thank you for your kind words. All the best.