02 September 2010

Virtual Book Tour: Hothouse Flower & the Nine Plants of Desire


A few weeks back, I was contacted by a publicist who wondered if I was interested in participating in what is called a Virtual Book Tour, in which a number of us would read and review a particular novel. Based on the blurb about the novel, I agreed to do so, and read Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire.

In my real life as a freelance journalist, I write for a variety of publications and clients, and about a number of different subjects. Despite the fact that it’s time-consuming and doesn’t pay well, I regularly review books for the provincial newspaper, occasionally for other publications, and occasionally put up a review here on bloomingwriter. Normally, I review books of nonfiction in my areas of interest: gardening, nature, science/environment, occasionally history; occasionally I review a work of fiction. I have interviewed numerous authors, including Canadian icons Margaret Atwood and David Adams Richards, (two of my favourite authors) and have long taken my philosophy of book reviewing from something Ms. Atwood wrote some years ago.

“I still won’t review a book I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms. Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader,” Ms. Atwood wrote in the introduction to her essay collection, Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982-2004. She goes on to say that if a book is really bad, it ought not be reviewed at all, or if it’s good but not to her taste, someone else should review it.

This isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a particularly good one. I will stress that it’s mostly not to my taste, which runs the gamut from science fiction to thrillers to hardcore literature, so maybe I'm just being a grump. However though not entranced by it, I see some flashes of delightful ability in the author, enough that I will be quite willing to read a future work by Berwin even though I won’t re-read this particular one.

If you’ve been following the virtual book tour set up for Hothouse Flower, you may have already read the book, or at least know its premise: Lila, the narrator/lead character is newly divorced, lives in New York City, works a sort of dull job in an ad agency, has a bright but dull apartment. She has no commitments—no relationship, no pets, no plants, no real life outside of her McJob—until she buys a tropical plant from a smooth-talking street vendor. She then meets an odd but somewhat intriguing man who has a Laundromat filled with exotic and wonderful plants, and through her own errors in judgment, she causes this man to lose his plants. Her ensuing quest to replace his plant collection leads her to the rainforests of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

The premise is intriguing, and the book blurb sounded promising. And while Berwin writes quite well at times and has a quirkily fun sense of humour, her characters simply don’t work for me. My amusement at some of the dialogue, events and descriptions in the book was completely overshadowed by the characters, none of whom make me care about them even a little bit, and several of whom are reprehensible for no apparent reason related to the storyline. When the little bits profiling each of the plants at the beginning of chapters are the most entertaining parts of the novel, there’s a problem with the work.

At times, there’s a bit of a magic realism feel to events in Hothouse Flower. But unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his One Hundred Years of Solitude or Jack Hodgins’ brilliant romp The Invention of the World, there’s not enough mystery between the covers of Berwin’s novel to make me really wonder about the odd things that do take place here and there. Rather than be fetchingly mysterious and ineffable, they come across as jarringly annoying and contrived, as if the author was trying overly hard to be clever.

Normally, when reviewing a book I avoid any reviews done by others, lest my opinion be in some way coloured by the comments of more learned heads than mine. Because I was completely unfamiliar with Berwin prior to reading Hothouse Flower, I did seek out more information about her. She has said that while this is her first published novel, it’s her third work, and does draw on some aspects of her own experience. Although it spans mere months as opposed to years, Hothouse Flower could be considered a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel of self-development, by an author still fledging her wings. With this in mind, I do genuinely look forward to reading future work by Berwin when she has had a few more years of honing her skills.

13 comments:

  1. Dear Jodi, What you say here seems to me to be perfectly fair. Whilst I do subscribe to the view that if one cannot say something pleasant, then it is better to reman silent, I also believe in the maxim that if one sets oneself up, then one must be prepared to be knocked down!! One often is!

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  2. Jodi girl .. I very much appreciate your honesty in saying there are just some books you will not read or review ! .. my reading has fallen by the wayside .. when I worked at the library in Holland my Dutch manager introduced me to many amazing books .. she is an intriguing person so her "read list" reflected that a great deal. It really depends on your mood as to what we will read doesn't it ?
    Joy : )
    PS .. we are still locked in the heat humidity wave and I am so hating it !! aarrggh ! the garden needs work done and I can't do it in this horrible weather !

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  3. The first thing I learned about writing was that if your skin isn't thick, you should work in a shop!

    My first ever published work of fiction was an autobiographical look at child abuse, recognising that the abuse can go both ways. Apparently, "funny" child abuse does earn you enemies, as I learned.

    Ho hum!

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  4. Edith, it is so good to see you posting again! You have been missed.

    I should note that I was offered a complimentary copy of the book to give away, but as per my blog outlines at http://bloomingwriter.blogspot.com/p/about-bloomingwriter.html, I don't do giveaways. If anyone is desperate to read this book, you can enter the giveaway at one of the other bloggers' sites on the virtual book tour, or you can wait a few days and borrow a copy from the Canning library, as I'm donating the one I read to them. :-)

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  5. Thanks for the honest review, Jodi. The book's premise does sound intriguing, but to me, if I can't relate to the characters, I just don't enjoy a book. I'm a mystery fan, and my favorites are series where I've come to know the characters so much they're like old friends, like those of Martha Grimes. I do book reviews occasionally on my blog, too, but I agree with Margaret Atwood: I won't review a book I don't like.

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  6. Dear Jodi,
    As the author of Hothouse Flower, I also enjoyed your honest review of my work.
    It was my first book, and I'm always interested in what people have to say, for good,bad or indifferent.
    As one commenter above pointed out, writers have to have a thick skin!
    I am finishing my next book right now, and I hope you will give it a read!

    Thank you for the review,
    Margot Berwin
    Author,
    Hothouse Flower

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  7. Hi, Jodi;
    Haven't read the book, though I have always enjoyed the band of the same name. I think reviewers need to have a thick skin, too ~ I jumped a bit when I saw that the author had commented! But, your review was very kind. And, I love the idea of the virtual book tour...

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  8. Margot, thanks for your comment, and as I said in my post, I am quite willing to read your next book. I wholeheartedly hated Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, but have pretty much loved everything by her that I've read other than that.

    One thing I neglected to say is that it's a huge, HUGE undertaking to even write a book, let alone get an agent (or not), find a publisher, go through revisions, etc etc and finally see publication. So all who do get a book published deserve respect for that effort and dedication.

    Kate, I have never been perturbed by having an author contact me or comment about something I've written: I always try to be very fair with people even when I'm not a total fan of a work. If I were nasty for the sake of nastiness like some 'critics' seem to enjoy doing, I'd figure that Karma would get me for it. :-)

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  9. Hi, Jodi!

    This is a great review -- I'm glad to see a review by another pro, and it's nice to see that I'm not alone in the criticism.

    I agree with you about the characters. I did not become invested in any of them because there was nothing in which to invest!

    I did enjoy the plant descriptions at the beginning of each chapter. It's nice that you enjoyed them, too, considering how vast your plant knowledge is!

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  10. Bit concerned about you, hurricane Earl heading for the Bay of Fundy? Stay safe!

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  11. Good review. It's nice when people can give good constructive criticism without it being taken the wrong way. We all learn as we go, and occasionally fumble at the beginning. I'll keep my eye out for other books by this author

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  12. Thanks for your honest review and for being a part of the tour. I'm glad that you're willing to give Margot's next book a try - that's definitely a good thing. :)

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  13. I read that book last year. It was an odd little book. Off the wall characters and I wondered where it was going sometimes. I finished it though.

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