Review: ‘Magnolia City’

magnolia city

Magnolia City

By Duncan W. Alderson

  • Date finished: July 17, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2014
  • Project: n/a
  • List: Summer 2014
  • Grade: C-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

First of all, let me say that I really hate to pan a book. I put in a lot of effort picking out the books I read so that things don’t come to this – the dreaded C-. I don’t want to waste my time with terrible books, so I don’t. Plus, even though I know this isn’t an official “book review”-type blog, I still feel bad putting negative things out there on the Internets about an author’s work (especially if it’s a new book). What if they stumble over here? I’m not a terrible person, really! AH!

BUT, this is MY blog, and as the subtitle states, it is MY reading journal, and I just finished this stupid book, and goddamnit, I deserve a place to rant about it.

Why did I even pick up this book? This is not in line with your normal tastes, Laura – you might say. And you would be right. This was an advanced readers copy I picked up while I was still at 2nd & Charles. The story didn’t naturally appeal to me (not many of the ARCs we received at 2nd & Charles appealed to me while I was there, to be honest), but there’s a long story as to why I brought this one home, so let’s just leave it at that. Why did I read it now? Because this is a summer of BIG BOOKS – from The Fountainhead to A Storm of Swords – and I thought it might be “fun” to partake in an actual “light”, “beachy” read for once. Cleanse the brain, right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Why do I kid myself that these light, fluffy novels will do anything but annoy me? WHEN WILL I LEARN? At this point, I’ll just admit that I’m still a book snob (see: subtitle of blog), and even though I DO like all kinds of books, I feel like this is a handicap I just have to explain to people up front.

But I DO like all kinds of books – books that are written well, that is. And written well….Magnolia City by Duncan W. Alderson is not. I’m just going to call it The Bourne Identity problem: you’re reading a book that you know is not all that great, but damn it, you’re just trying to enjoy yourself…but you can’t. get. past. the. bad. writing. You just can’t. It’s this giant stumbling block that the entire book is made out of. It’s the words, sentences, dialogue…everything. I’ve been spoiled by some of the best authors of all time, and so when I find something sub-par, it’s hard not to notice.

Sometimes (SOMETIMES) the writing gets a pass if the story is really, really good, but that was not the case here. Magnolia City tells the story of a young Houston socialite who spurns her family and everything that’s expected of her to marry the dangerously sexy and mysterious Garret MacBride. In the interest of following along with what the book wants me to think, the story follows Hetty as she braves everything Texas in the early 1930’s had to offer – running alcohol from Mexico! drilling oil! multiculturalism! prejudice! – in an effort to discover who she is and what makes her strong.

OK, whatever. If that sounds interesting to you, you should probably stop listening to me and just read the book yourself. It does SOUND interesting. But let me tell you – it’s not. I was trying to think of everything that annoyed me about Magnolia City and I think it’s easiest if I just do what I do best, and make a list:

1. Did I mention how terrible the writing is? Long, looping, over-descriptive, redundant, flowery sentences all over the place. I mean, they’re just everywhere. It’s kinda gross. In the author Q&A at the end, Alderson says that this language was meant to evoke the rich, tropical world of Houston and the Texas Gulf coast, but I think that’s a cop out. Plain and simple, the writing sounds stupid. It sounds like someone who doesn’t know how to write is pretending they can write. Sorry.

2. I’m not saying that a man is unable to tell a story from a woman’s point of view – it can, and has, been done – but I had a very hard time trusting our protagonist, Hetty. She would sound OK for awhile, and then I would run across one of her thoughts, and be like, “Wait a minute, she said what? That’s not what a woman would say.” It never felt…natural. It felt like a man was trying to think like a woman, and just…not doing a good job.

3. Speaking of how people talked: I’m not an expert on Houston in the 1930’s, but I felt like the historical verisimilitude was a little sloppy at times. Occasionally, Hetty would say something random and off-the-wall…something that would sound more normal in 2014.

4. More along the lines of how people talked…but first, a side story. Joel and I went to see the first part of the Atlas Shrugged movie a few years ago, mainly so I could see HOW a filmmaker could begin putting that book on the big screen. To be short, it was terrible, but one of the funniest parts was this one character who’s only role in the film was to be EXPOSITION MAN. Every line he had provided all the explanation needed to get the movie-goers up to snuff, and then moved the plot along. Basically, not like a real person at all. That’s how every character was in Magnolia City. Alderson would put these lines into these characters’ mouths, and I just wanted to scream, “That’s not how people talk!” I felt like the e-surance lady – “That’s not how any of this works!” But oh, if the characters didn’t say THE THING, Alderson would just put it in Hetty’s head because OF COURSE. Ah! Note to Alderson: readers don’t need to know EVERYTHING HAPPENING ALL THE TIME.

5. I was never quite sure what this book was supposed to be about. Oh sure, there was that neat little summary I gave you awhile back, but this book jumped all over the place, I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to focus. First she’s a Houston society lady, and oh look, tea parties and pearls. Now, she’s having sex and maybe this is about love? But wait, now she’s running alcohol into Mexico, and suddenly she’s a Mexican? OK…wait! Now they’re TOTALLY over the whole illegal alcohol business and they’re going to STRIKE IT RICH in oil! Of course! But…wait, no…now they’re bankrupt..WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO BE READING?!

Phew. Sorry about all the caps back there. Bad books just bring out the worst in me, I swear. Eventually, I “got” what Alderson was driving at, and I appreciate the fact that he was able to tie everything up decently in the end. Though…the end…I just…oh, never mind.

But I feel better now! It’s like bleeding a poison. I’ve been telling everyone who’s asked this past week “What are you reading” that I was reading something terrible, but I was having the hardest time putting into words what I meant. Mainly, it comes down to bad writing. It also comes down to an attempt to be everything at once: a mother-daughter story, a self-empowerment story, a historical fiction, a romance. Some books can be all those things, but this one…no. OK, I will amend that statement: this has the potential to be those things – even all those things at once – if it had more time, if it wasn’t so rushed, if Alderson sat down for a long while and got to know his characters a bit more. Instead, he came up with some people that could be real, forced a haphazard story on them, and just left them looking ridiculous. If I have any advice to give: don’t do that.

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2 thoughts on “Review: ‘Magnolia City’

  1. Pingback: A belated mid-year reading update | Paperback Fool

  2. Pingback: 2014: A Year in Reading | Paperback Fool

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