Short Take: Book Nerd is sad. Conflicted. Loved the story. Didn’t love the style. Hard to review.
From Away was submitted to me by the author as a free book in exchange for an honest review. I honestly think that Deke Mackey Jr. has the potential to become a next-level horror author. Before I describe the plot, it should be noted that From Away is the first novel in, as I understand, a planned series of at least seven books. This book serves as more of an introduction than a stand-alone work. It’s also on the short-ish side, roughly 160 pages.
Therefore, the plot is pretty small in scope. Ren Lesguettes is returning to the island where he was born, accompanied by his teenage daughter Dawn. Ren is a federal agent in charge of a project to build a bridge connecting the island to the mainland. However, there’s a lot more to the island and its inhabitants than it would appear, and they have a very good reason to not want the bridge to be built.
The citizens of the island include a group of nuns who could almost double as Navy SEALS, an ancient couple who only answer questions if nobody is looking at them, a woman addicted to a bizarre drug, and a troubled boy trying to figure out his place in his family and in the island’s history.
I’ll start with the good. Mr. Mackey has a GREAT feel for setting. The isolation of the remote island is fantastic. He also has a deft hand with characters. There’s a large cast of them, but they are all well-rounded, different, and interesting enough to make it easy to keep them straight. Mackey manages to convey the awkwardness and obnoxiousness of teenagers/just barely adults without overdoing it, or sounding like someone’s dad trying to imitate cool phrases.
The dialogue is also pretty spot-on. A few lines felt clunky, maybe a little overdramatic, but overall, I could hear the conversations clearly, and they felt natural. It’s a hard thing to master, and I give the author full credit. The pacing was also fairly perfect, as the secrets trickle out, and connections between the characters become apparent.
From Away is an intriguing mix of the supernatural terrors that are pretty common in horror novels, and the more common but harder to write down struggles that happen within families. Sometimes, the wounds inflicted by words spoken by a relative can last longer than a bite from a mouth with a thousand teeth, and the author does a tremendous job of keeping the supernatural scares muted and in the background for most of the book, and really showcasing the family ties. But the scary things with teeth are always lingering there in the corners. It’s really great.
Now for the not-so-good…..
I’m well aware that style is a personal thing. I mean, I personally think I look hot in my favorite baggy sweater with the stain on the sleeve, but my spouse frequently (and loudly) disagrees. So I say this knowing that I am absolutely expressing an opinion that carries no more weight than anyone else’s on this particular subject.
For all the good things this book had going for it, the author’s writing style made it substantially less enjoyable. Brief, choppy, fragmented sentences can work well for a few paragraphs to create a sense of urgency in, say, an intense action scene, but as a constant narrative style, it is difficult to read. It felt like Clint Eastwood was in my head narrating this book. I don’t want Clint Eastwood in my head narrating anything. I don’t frequently quote from books, but here’s an example:
“The long breadknife saws. Separates three sandwiches into precise and unsquished quarters. Slides each off the cutting board into its own plastic container. Labeled long ago. Careful block letters in fading permanent marker.”
And that’s describing exactly what it sounds like – a man is making sandwiches to pack for a lunch.
All of the narration is like that, but the dialogue is not – it sounds like real, normal people speaking to each other, so I don’t think it’s a writer’s tic or habit so much as a stylistic choice that I just can’t get behind.
The best books are the ones that lull you into a state of complacency with some descriptive paragraphs, maybe a semi-meaningless conversation or other scene, and then BAM!! Hit you with some unexpected twist, or horrific happening out of nowhere. The short, choppy style of writing wouldn’t allow me to be lulled. It doesn’t flow, I didn’t feel like I could drift along with the story. If the goal is to have an edgy feeling throughout the book, it accomplishes that, but it also dilutes the scenes that are meant to have a genuine impact. And to be blunt… it’s kind of annoying.
And that’s where it gets to be hard to be a reviewer. I can see sooooooo much potential here. It has all the elements of a really fantastic series – characters you really care about, a setting that’s pitch perfect in its beauty and creepiness, and horrifying family secrets. But I kept finding myself putting this book down and not wanting to pick it back up.
The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a shipwreck in a bottle. Because that’s a cool thing to have.)