Thursday, August 30, 2012

Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

Alison Wonderland
by Helen Smith

I do not pick up books I think I will dislike. Unlike some more traditional reviewing positions, I am not "assigned" books, and there are more out there that I want to read than I ever will be able, so every book I decide to read has promise. Something about it struck me as interesting, and in the case of Alison Wonderland, it was probably the London location mixed with a bit of mystery that made me open the cover. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be a hot mess. If it had been any longer than its 189 pages, I don't think I would have finished. And while of course no author wants to hear that — and there are readers out there who think that unfavorable reviews of small press books are bad form — I think that Helen Smith is capable of a better book. I know she has others (I have not read them) and that this is an early book of hers, but Alison Wonderland suffers from a lack of focus both in character and plot. The writing itself is not bad, nothing extraordinary, but not overly cringe-worthy and cliché-filled either. Still, somewhere along the line, someone needed to say, "What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish here?"

The basic premise is this: Alison Temple works for the same all-female private investigative firm that busted her cheating (now ex-)husband. She is assigned to pay attention to a company that might be involved in some shady genetic engineering. Mostly though, she spends time talking to her nutter best friend Taron and her love poem-writing, inventor neighbor, Jeff. Taron's mother, who thinks she is a witch, is sick and she tells Taron that she thinks she needs a baby in order to be cured. Taron, as though it is perfectly natural, pays Alison to research where babies are frequently abandoned. Also, nefarious military types have stolen Taron's address book, believing it is Alison's, and they are busy roughing up the people listed trying to find out what she knows.

Each of these "plot" points run out of steam quickly. Characters who are so committed to something on one page suddenly seem to go, "Oh, never mind" on the next, and it's on to the next loopy scene. For some reason, Smith felt the need to tell the story from multiple points of view. Alison's story is told from the first person, but everyone else is in the close third. There is nothing gained by this other than superfluous information about minor characters. Anything that we find out in those third person chapters could have easily been rewritten as discoveries made by someone who is supposed to be an investigator.

Alison herself is one of the most inconsistent characters, and part of me wondered if the whole book was just some sort of fevered cokehead dream. She and Taron are snorting up by page 14, and no big deal of it is made, so one assumes that it is a regular occurrence. On one page, she can seem quite clever — for instance, telling people at bars that she's a TV researcher so that she can talk about the people she investigates like documentary subjects — and then later, I was rereading paragraphs, thinking, This woman is beyond barmy.

When I first learned to drive and I bought petrol, I went to great lengths to trickle the final drops into the petrol tank so it cost a round amount of money like ten pounds. Now I try and spend ₤19.87 or ₤20.04 or some other amount that I hope will disturb the cashier's sense of neatness and uniformity. I'm bluffing him, hoping he'll think I cannot control the petrol trigger properly because I'm not a man.

Honey, that cashier is not even fully paying attention to you or anyone else filling up their tank. I've worked that job. We do not care about petrol charge uniformity; we care about getting a paycheck, hopefully without crazy people such as yourself coming through the door.

She is equally erratic when it comes to her friends. With Taron, she thinks, "I'd quite like to drive around with her forever and never have to do another day's work again," (no kidding, since you hardly seem to work now), yet she is always thinking about how she finds Taron's habits irritating. Also, she seems to have no qualms about assisting her in the abandoned baby mission. Then, she rambles on to Jeff the Neighbor about Taron in a block of dialogue that's... problematic.

"I like her. I know she can be a bit weird sometimes. I can never believe anything she says, she makes it up as she goes along. It doesn't matter. I find it quite difficult to trust anyone anyway after I caught my husband cheating on me, so I might as well be friends with someone with a fairly relaxed grip on the trust. She's a lot of fun though. She's always up for it."

Jeff is quiet, still working. [ed. That's because he has long since tuned out your BLATHER.]

"I didn't realize how much time I spent on my own until I started seeing her. I wasn't lonely, exactly. I spent a lot of time on my own, though. I've got you, of course. I like spending time with you, too. Thanks for telling me about the yabbie [crayfish] thing. That's funny. I'll call you while we're away. I'll miss you."

No one talks like this. This is not Shakespeare soliloquy time. Also, she's quite mean to Jeff in the way she soaks up his attention but never returns it, though at least she has the decency to realize that later.

The investigation and the baby-finding plots are only barely linked, almost by accident, and the more fantastical elements — psychic postmen, magical thinking, etc. — are not played up enough if that's the direction Smith wanted to go. And if this really is some sort of drugged up nonsense, then that should be more clear. As far as the "Wonderland" usage goes, it's a one-note joke used maybe twice, and the Lewis Carrol references stop there. Either the joke needs to be lost — and either way, the book needs a better title since it's not only from Alison's point of view — or it needed to be a modern retelling. Bizarre characters and investigation elements certainly could have accomplished this, but as the book stands, it's nothing but Alison's out of control car going round the bend and straight off the cliff.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author. I thank her for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews. 


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

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