Emerald City by Brian Birnbaum
Written by Ashley Kelmore, Posted in Reviews
I cannot recommend this to anyone.
In a nutshell:
I couldn’t really tell you. I could reproduce the description from the back of the book, but I think that’s unfair to other authors whose books can be described by their readers without resorting to that. Though according to the reviews that have already seeded Good Reads it is ‘shocking.’
Here is an example of the writing that fills each page:
“He’d sooner have gotten mad at time’s perceived acceleration over life’s void of fulfillment. An illegal fraction represented best how fucked this so-called sentience was — and yet here she was, brooding over an extemporized jest.”
Why I chose it:
This was a free advance reader copy available through the Cannonball Read. I jumped at it because it’s set in Seattle (a place I called home for 10 years as an adult) and sounded intriguing.
This is either my first or second DNF (did not finish) review for Cannonball Read. I struggled with even doing this but I think if a book is offered free for review I at least owe it to the author to be as honest as I can be without being an asshole. I don’t think the review will be getting back to the author directly, and I can’t imagine he’d agree with or enjoy my criticism, but I’m offering it anyway, because that’s what we do here.
Are you familiar with @GuyInYourMFA? I believe that this book may have been written by the people those tweets satirize. Not because of the subject matter necessarily (there seems to be a female lead who isn’t described in an absurd way, and the plot isn’t just about a white man finding himself), but because of the writing style.
When I titled this review “The Writing Got In the Way,” it’s because it is genuinely difficult to read. And not in a the capital-G Great American Novel type of way that I admittedly don’t find appealing but understand serves a purpose; but because it seems like the author is trying so hard to sound complex and intelligent that it comes across as the opposite.
Do you remember the episode of Friends where Chandler and Monica ask Joey to write a letter of recommendation to the adoption agency? And Joey is worried it doesn’t sound smart enough so he goes through and replaces nearly every word with a related (though not necessarily matching in context) word? And it ends up being completely unintelligible? This book feels like 400 pages of that letter.
Multiple adjectives are included where one (or none) would suffice. Simple concepts (such as ‘a year’) become needlessly multi-syllabic (”two solstices.”) Now I will grant that there is a type of book where “two solstices” would sound poetic and lovely as a description of the movement of time; this book isn’t that one. Also, and I’m being pedantic here, but two solstices isn’t actually a year. At its shortest, it could be six months and a day. Only from the next sentence do we learn it’s meant to signify a year. So it’s oddly flowery AND inaccurate.
I went down a bit of a rabbit hole when this book didn’t show up on Amazon and learned that Emerald City is one of three books set to be released by a new publishing house this year. A publishing house co-founded and owned by the author who claims the book represents “hyper-intelligent energy” that readers are “starved for.” Hmmm. The book is meant to be released in three weeks but still has no presence on Amazon (the above link is to the out-of-print version) or Indie Bound, so I’m not sure it’s going to make it.
However, if there is a chance that the author will publish it later, my strongest advice would be to get a brand-new, completely outside editor to cut through the unnecessary metaphors and similes. Someone who can pare this book down to the core plot to allow the characters to exist. Someone who understands that ‘intelligent’ is not synonymous with ‘uses ten words when five would work.’
I don’t write fiction so I can’t imagine how hard it must be, but it seems that the author has made it even harder for himself by writing it in this way. I just couldn’t get past the first 50 pages, and so cannot recommend this to anyone.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
I offered to return it, but it shall instead be finding new purpose in the recycling bin outside my apartment.