by Alison Kent, contemporary (2005)
Brava, $14.00, ISBN 0-7582-1112-0
Alison Kent's Larger Than Life confuses me in so many ways. It's not that this book is filled with continuity errors or anything similar, it's just that I never understand what this story is trying to tell me. There are a number of subplots running all over the place but build-up and momentum are noticeably missing. I never get this impression that this book is supposed to tell me a story, Instead, it's like I'm getting disjointed scenes after scenes.
At the start of the story, I get a scene of two teenagers trying to escape the clutches of a community practising what seems like a perverted form of polygamy, where grubby old men marry as many underaged girls as possible in order to get the best seats in heaven. On the bright side, there is not a single cup of Kool-Aid to be seen, so there's that. The boy disappears after being separated from the girl and the girl, scared, decides to seek out Nevada Chase, who is said to run a covert rescue mission and sanctuary devoted to help girls from Earnestine Township escape these arranged marriages.
Then I get Mike Savin, our SG-5 secret agent hero, getting beaten up badly after he is spotted by the Spectra bad guys when he tries to sneak into their area for some covert spying. Don't ask me why the bad guys don't just shoot him dead. Maybe they have a heart too? He has a dog along with him, FM (short for Fucking Mutt, because secret agent heroes are all so hard-up and macho like that, and I wonder what he calls his mother, hmm), and our heroine Nevada "Neva" Chase is alerted to his presence thanks to FM's barks. Yes, I know, Mike Savin and Neva Chase, how precious. Where's Happy Gilmore when we need him?
And then the story goes back to Neva and her attempts to keep this teenaged girl, Liberty, safe. This causes Neva to clash with the Earnestine Township lawyer, Holden Wagner. Next thing I know, Holden has a personal vandetta against Liberty's parents that sees him wanting to marry Liberty himself. Interspersed between these subplots are Candy, a refugee turned PA for Neva, and her romance with the son of the local sheriff. There is a problem there in that she's African-American and the boy's father thinks that Candy will only hold her son back from grand dreams and what-not.
The problem here is that Ms Kent weave many subplots into the story and while her attempts are admirably coherent, there is no build-up to each subplot. The story is pretty much jumps from scene involving this subplot to that involving another subplot, with the pace of each subplot as fast as a snail's pace. After a while I've completely forgotten what Mike is supposed to be doing for SG-5 out there because Mike, if he isn't actually vanishing into the background, is there solely to rescue Neva or to offer her some sexual TLC. Their romance never develop fully beyond instantaneous lust and their declaration of love at the end is not convincing because she doesn't fully know him yet by the last page. While much is said about the people of Earnestine Township being a cult of sorts, I never fully know what they do that are so bad other than their practice of polygamy to warrant Ms Kent comparing them to David Koresh and friends. As a result, the big bad guys of Earnestine Township remain a vague and amorphous entity lost in the background of this story. The subplot between Neva and her friend, who also happens to be the mother of the boy that is sleeping with Candy, is never developed beyond starting point.
I don't really get a clear picture of what Neva does or how she gets involved in rescuing the girls from Earnestine Township. Who are her contacts? How does she get in touch with them? Since people know or suspect her place as the HQ of her covert operations, how come she doesn't seem to have any safety measures to protect herself? And really, just what on earth is Holden Wagner's deal? I don't understand a single thing about his concept of guilt and what-not, and that's saying something considering the large number of characters in this book that are dysfunctional. Needless to say, the subplot involving him, Liberty, and blackmail come out of the blue to smack me in the face and it is not resolved to my satisfaction at the end because Ms Kent takes the easy way out to resolve that subplot. And throughout it all, I wonder: what is Mike doing out there again? Shouldn't he be chasing after Spectra goons instead of babysitting these ensemble cast of fugitives that have escaped from some nutcase house?
Because the author seems to focus more on introducing subplots instead of taking them somewhere, the subplots feel like they're just there with no build-up towards any exciting denouement. When a denouement actually happens, it isn't a denouement as much as it is a scene that introduces more questions rather than answers. Ms Kent doesn't provide any clues that the villain is who this person is, so this denouement is, in a way, unexpected because it happens abruptly and out of the blue without warning - one of the many curveballs the author throws at me in the story.
At the end of the day, there seems to be too many subplots fighting for space and attention in Larger Than Life to the extent that all of them suffer from lack of development beyond the superficial, with some at the end wrapped up conveniently while others are left dangling. This book could have used either a trimming down on the number of subplots or an additional few hundred pages for room to develop these subplots. As it is, reading this book to the end is like following a very slow and badly paced soap opera that ends up getting cancelled mid-season. I feel like I should want to know more, or rather, I should wish that the story will make more sense to me, but because the characters and their plots are so poorly developed, I find it hard to care so much in the first place. This book is there, I've read it, and all I have to say at the end of the day is, "Huh?"
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