Warning: bad review.
Not that the review is bad itself, but that I did not enjoy this book.
Now, think what you will – and you might have a lot of different thoughts, such as:
“You didn’t even finish the book!”
“It’s only her debut novel!”
“But the cover art is so pretty!”
“Everything is bad/good from a certain point of view!”
Alright, Yodas, I’m going to stop you there. You’re all correct. Well done you! But that doesn’t make it so that I enjoy this book anymore than I already don’t.
Now, let’s start with positives (of the few I can find). Natasha Pulley obviously uses the old adage, “write what you know”. Because she’s got some stuff set in London, some stuff with Japanese elements, and a whole bunch of other stuff drawn from her own life. Which is great. I love when art imitates life. Great. Stellar. Good stuff.
And, yes, you’re right, opinion number three – the cover art is great. Too great, in fact. This is what made me pick up the book. Maybe the cover isn’t so great after all. Not great for my wallet, in this instance. Not great for my time.
I really didn’t choose to waste my time reading this book, for several reasons. Let’s dive into the negatives. As much as I wanted to like this book because it features a cephalopod on the front, and the colour scheme is great (green/black/gold is always a winner), I just couldn’t get into it.
I don’t know whether I’ve become a bit of a book snob, or I just value my time more. Either way, several things have happened in the last few years which have changed my approach to reading books.
One: I gained advice from reading Stephen King’s On Writing – to read both bad and good books. That isn’t to say, necessarily, that this book is bad. I just didn’t enjoy it.
Two: I used to read everything. Then I changed to having this rule that I’d not read past the first three chapters. That didn’t suffice in a lot of cases, so now if I’m not enjoying a book, I don’t read past the first five chapters. Sometimes books don’t kick in until then. Sometimes you have to get past a lot of stuff which is just confusing the hell out of you initially. Sometimes the book is just crap.
Three: I’ve developed as a writer, and an editor. Which means I’m more critical of what I’ll spend my time reading, and how I’ll read it. This bleeds into films I watch and games I play, too, so books aren’t the only victim here. If a book is good from the offset, I turn off my inner editor, make a cup of tea, sit down, and read for the afternoon. Sometimes I can forgive the odd terrible line here and there. The odd underdeveloped character. Watchmaker had terrible lines left, right, center, and ceiling.
I’ll give you some examples. So, the first damn page of this book opens like so:
“The home office telegraphy department always smelled of tea. The source was one packet of Lipton’s at the back of Nathaniel Steepleton’s desk drawer.”
So. Many. Problems. Where to start? This is the first page, no – worse, even – the first line. I’m so outraged by this book. The first line isn’t gripping. Why do I care that it always smelled of tea? Is that really how you want to open your novel? Is it? Also, I’d like to point out that the author hasn’t done her research here – from Wikipedia –
“Sir Thomas Lipton began travelling the world for new items to stock in this store. One such item was tea, since sales had doubled from £40 million from the late 1870s to £80 million by the mid-1880s. However, he believed the price was far too high, so in 1890 he purchased his own tea gardens in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and packaged and sold the first Lipton tea.”
Okay. Okay. So this book opens and is set in “London, November 1883”. Sorry, Natasha Pulley. I’m unwilling to suspend my disbelief here and believe that your character – whose name you strangely shorten to ‘Thaniel’ throughout the novel – has managed to get his hands on some Lipton tea. And suspend disbelief that a packet of tea at the back of a desk drawer makes the whole room smell of tea.
Okay, so that was my first gripe.
I read on. Scanning the pages, admittedly. Up until page four. Where she writes the ‘character defining quirk’ of Thaniel hearing noises as ‘colours’.
“… made his way to the iron staircase. As he went down, it clanged in a bright yellow D sharp. He couldn’t say why D sharp was yellow. Other notes had their own colours. It had been useful when he still played the piano because whenever he went wrong, the sound turned brown. This sound-seeing was something he had always kept to himself.”
I didn’t (couldn’t) read far enough to see whether this character defining feature plays any part of significance in this novel.
I’m told that it compares to Sherlock Holmes. I’m told it compares to a historical time-travelling Doctor-Who-Meets-Sherlock-Meets-Something-Else-Popular.
I read reviews on Goodreads. Almost every other (or other other) review was one or two stars. I scrutinised the book all round. I noticed the blurb wasn’t on the back cover, but on the inside of the front cover (hidden away?). I read the “acclaims” of newspapers (paid for by the publisher? Taken out of context from lengthier, unfavourable reviews articles?). They claim:
“Historical fiction, magic realism and elements of gothic fiction combine in this ambitious debut”.
This last quote, supposedly from the Irish Times, held my attention. Whilst the other newspaper one-word quotes could be taken out of context entirely and snipped out of the middle of sentences, Irish Times made me laugh. Ambitious debut. Not good, great, or actually achieving what it sets out to do. Just ambitious. Trying. It tried.
I’m sure Natasha Pulley is a great writer, after all – you would have to be to study creative writing at the level she does, and commit to writing a novel (and more, as my research throws up that she’s written and published more books since Watchmaker). I’m sure she tries. I’m sure that historical fiction, magic realism, and elements of gothic fiction combine in other novels too. Other novels which I’d enjoy more.
For me this novel is not great, and it’s not clever.
One out of five stars. Sorry, Pulley.