So today’s review is going to be a little difficult. I am reviewing the first 6 chapters of Daniel Swearingen’s Valley Springs Trilogy: ‘Bellephonte.’ The premise of the book is stated as ‘what if the greatest story ever told was the truth except for one ominous error, it was the antithesis of the greatest story ever told?’ Antithesis is defined as the ‘opposite,’ or in the ‘other direction,’ which I found was an extremely odd way to describe the book; is it therefore the opposite of the greatest story ever? (That doesn’t seem like the most encouraging line in which to gain readers!) I am always honest in my reviews and I did struggle with these chapters and therefore this will be a seemingly very critical but also hopefully constructive review; the author did email me asking for an honest review ‘good, bad, or in-different’ (as quoted by the author himself.) So here it is!
Before reviewing this I asked the author to send me a blurb of the chapters, to make sure I had gained the right idea of what the book was narrating. The chapters appeared to narrate three different stories, the life and events of Samuel Fullerton, Caleb Wallace, and two delightfully naïve and young girls, Thelma Watson and Mary Lou Cochran, and the setting of the book, a small Ozark village in Northwest Arkansas. The narrative describes the seemingly harrowing lives of the three different characters. Samuel is leaving a life ruled by his cruel father, whilst Caleb is trying to come to terms with the withering of the one he loves due to the death of their child and finally the two girls, the best of friends discovering the pains of life together. The one thing that I found with the chapters so far is that the author has a real understanding of how to create and sustain a sense of style. The book definitely had a gothic and harrowing edge to it, which was sustained throughout and definitely brought a sense of despair. Also the combinations of different words were incredibly beautiful at times and they were used to really give the reader an understanding of the location that the author was narrating. The image below is posted on the same post as the chapters and I assume that this is where the narrator is describing; the chapters definitely do this, which is a big positive. This author definitely knows how to create an atmosphere, and it really lent itself to the description of events.
However the first problem was that at times this meant the writing led to the problem of ‘style over substance.’ The author obviously knows how to combine words in which to create a setting and a feeling, however throughout I thought ‘what really is the story here?’ I was having difficulty keeping reading, because I had no-idea where the story was going. Style can sustain a reader for so long but at some point they need something more to get their teeth into. This was most obviously seen in the lack of character profiles; although above I have outlined the main story-lines, that is really all I can tell you about the characters. I can elaborate them if needed, but it would be completely from my own personal imagination. I assume that the girls are very honest and fragile with very little experience of the world, and I believe Samuel to be seemingly strong and heroic from the outside but with a delicate centre, and Caleb, well, I honestly have no idea. The point I’m making is that when these distressing and traumatic events are occurring, I cannot empathise with the characters because I do not know them. They haven’t been built up or explored strongly enough in which to make me feel part of it. Additionally the story skips from person to person, giving us seemingly unstructured information; I was at times scrabbling for names, with no real understanding of who was who. I was really tempted to give in, but I surged through. The problem is the author gives nothing for the reader to grab hold of to read on. It’s horrible to say but I found myself thinking, if I take out my want to read due to the style, what am I really reading for. However, saying all of this, this has so much potential! If the author can read it from the reader’s point of view, and think, what do I want them to feel, where do I want to take them, how can I do this and focused more on giving the reader a story rather than throwing incredibly sophisticated language on the page we definitely could have a story worth reading! It’s a real shame because I felt myself wanting to shake the author and say c’mon, what do you want me to feel! For the style it’s a 10, for the content it is unfortunately a lot less.
You can read the chapters here: http://danielswearingen.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/bellephonte-book-one-chap-1-5-the-valley-springs-trilogy/