I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Shameless Review

I believe it is so true what they say about how the title of a book is extremely important in terms of whether it goes on to become a commercial success. Serious thought must go into the decision about "the name over the door of the shop" and everyone involved in the process must be aware of what's at stake. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney is one of those novels that probably found a place on my bookshelf simply on the strength of the title. Is it just me who finds it intriguing and embracing? Before buying the book I hadn't actually heard about the story or the writing. I don't even think I paid attention to the reviews I came across. The title alone - the catchiness and the warmth of it - echoed in my upper-floors and then obviously hung around. And that was enough for me to buy it. I even looked past the fact that this book is 450 pages long and is set in 1867 in Canada, a time and place that I don't consciously chase - and that's not to say there is any reason not to. The title alone drew me in.

It is funny then how the title became a bit of an issue as I made my way through this book. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually had expected to read a little bit more about wolves. I had expected to at least come across something of substance that linked wolves to the main story. An analogy? Symbolism? Something between the lines? Something at all? Was I wrong to have these expectations? Yes, there are a few scenes - like the opening scene - where wolves are talked about. But the tenderness of wolves? It almost felt as though wolves were written in as bit parts after the novel had been written, to justify the title. Did I miss something? Did something not get published in my version? Maybe this is what happens when a reader buys a book because he likes the title. He's invested in it; he wants some kind of reward.

That's not to say that I was only focused on discovering how the tenderness of wolves comes into things. The story in itself was reasonably gripping. A mother tries to prove that her son is not guilty of a terrible crime. There are many possible suspects. There is harsh, unforgiving terrain. There are mysterious twists and turns. It's actually a whodunnit when you boil it all down. The writing starts out as something quite complex and "literary" but is then snipped down to something I found to be quite ordinary once the plot took over.

But it's not just the plot that made this ordinary for me. There are so many points of view in this book that you really have to keep your wits about you. I counted at least 12 characters who are each given their own points of view in separate passages. It was very hard to keep up with everyone and to get close to them. Thank goodness there were separate sections to give each person their own space to express their point of view, otherwise the head-hopping would have left me quite exhausted. I actually started to doubt that I was following the right protagonist. Was I supposed to be considering one person as the main character? The author did try to make this clear by putting the passages of the crusading mother into the first person and the other sections into the third person. Again, there was obviously an attempt to keep things digestible, but in the end I did feel overwhelmed and dizzy. At the end of the day I spent so much time in more than 12 different heads that I didn't get close enough to anyone to care about the ending. The actual discovery of "whodunnit" turned out to be a damp squib. It was someone introduced late, who had no real role to play in the story and there was no great surprise or clever stitching of the plot.

This was a readable enough escape into the snow, for those who like trying to work out who the bad guy or bad gal is - never mind that you aren't rewarded after the search. There are certainly no fireworks and you don't want to howl at the moon afterwards. The title was great but I don't think the novel matched it. It goes without saying that I am still none the wiser about the tenderness of wolves, but then maybe that wasn't supposed to be the point; it was merely the title, after all.


Unknown said...

With such an evocative title it seems a pity the novel proved to be so ordinary - you must feel a little cheated.

By the way - when last did you check your profile. I see you are now an accountant in Afghanistan! ;-)

S. Kearney said...

Hi AV,
Eh? Accountant in Afghanistan? I will check asap. Does that mean people are able to get in and change stuff like that? I hope it also means they've deposited large amounts of cash! :-) I'm perplexed. I am on the case. :)

S. Kearney said...

Thanks for that tip, AV. I've changed it now. I wonder if it was me doing a false manip with the keys, or whether some kind of hacker got in. Oh well, all fixed now. Although, there's something quite intriguing about being described as an acountant in Afghanistan. I quite like it. I've also just finished writing a short story based in Afghanistan, so that makes it even more weird! :-)

Anonymous said...

I've been disappointed by a title on more than one occasion myself, so I don't let them lure me into purchase any more.

L.M.Noonan said...

yes, there was lot to think about in your post. Titles not withstanding. The mutiple points of view thing especially. But I won't go there...here. I love so much of your language Seamus and in this instance: echoed in my upper-floors.
It put a shiver in me timbers, darling.

S. Kearney said...

Hi Kat,
I'm always a sucker for titles though. That'll teach me.

I'm glad I've got some thinking going on ... and now I really want to hear your views on point of view! :-) And talk about language ... shiver in me timbers ... love it. :-)

Anonymous said...

The title sounds intriguing. It would have drawn me in too. Like you, I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. I'm not very knowledgeable about the book publishing industry, but I would think that the publisher and/or agent would have pointed out the incongruity of the title. That's scary for someone like me, who hopes to be a published writer one day. I'd hate to know that someone in that position couldn't point out flaws in my work before the done deal. Makes me wonder what really happened in Penney's case.

Anonymous said...

Oh, but it won an award. Now I'm even more confused, given your review.

Unknown said...

Nah, Shameless, I don't think an accountant in Afghanistan fits the profile at all - perhaps an artist in Afghanistan...? :-) I think blogger changed something to do with profiles so anyone who hadn't listed their country was immediately defaulted to Afghanistan - it being the first country alphabetically - I suppose the same applied to profession. I found I was also listed as being from Afghanistan if it's any consolation, fellow countryman! ;-)

S. Kearney said...

Of course, it could be that someone else read the book and thought: "oh, the tenderness of wolves was perfect because ..." There definitely are scenes where wolves are talked about and where their natures are discussed, but it seems very forced and, as I say, it comes across as a marketing afterthought. I just think the wolves being linked to the entire story - ie, make it the title for the whole book - was rather tenuous. There was more about snow in this book ... with battles to get through it to get to the truth, love, hope ... I might've called it "The Tenderness of Snow". Now, there's a nice title. And it has something more to do with the book. Of course, those Costa judges probably don't agree with me! :-)

Whew! That's cleared that up. So there wasn't a hacker. That's good news. And yes, Afghanistan artist does sound better! :-)

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I think... because of your review, I probably will not read the book.

I do, however agree about titles and I really like the title offered... wonder what a book that defined it would read like?

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Saaleha said...

actually shameless, that happened to me just this week. But not because of a title. IT was because I had read one book by an author and enjoyed it so much that I bought a second one. I was horribly disappointed by all the irrelevant gunk. And the sheer number of heads I had to get 'into'. Ah well, all writers have bad days. But they must be really croddy if they stretch into over 500 pages

Kay Cooke said...

... and you don't want to howl at the moon afterwards - I like that! A helpful, honest, clear review , thanks Seamus.

S. Kearney said...

I hope I made the right call, now that you've opted against it! Eeks. Oh the responsibility!

I know some people who like getting inside lots of different heads, but I, like you, really don't enjoy it.

Thanks. And I really did want to howl. I will have to find another outlet! :-)

Vesper said...

Good review, Seamus, quite interesting. Too bad it didn't live up to the title. I once started reading a book, whose title I don't even remember and which I abandoned soon after. The main problem with it was the mind-hopping: every small chapter was written in the first person, from a different character's viewpoint. Try reading something like that! :-)

S. Kearney said...

Oh Vesper, first person for each chapter, in a different head each time? No thanks. Unless the writing is startlingly good! :-)