(four of five stars)
Sometimes I find myself thinking about writing review while wearing two hats. The hat that sat through oh so many creative writing workshop courses in college and the hat (I imagine a sort of court jester’s cap here) that just wants to be entertained. This book was wildly entertaining. I am a sucker for a good literary mystery, bonus points if it also deals with literary people (as it does here), and this was one hell of a good literary mystery.
Nestled in the trees of Oregon is an institute founded by Vincent Buchanan, one of the nation’s famous sons. An author so brilliant that his novel, The Western Defense, propelled the nation into victory over Japan at the end of the second World War. Etta Lawrence arrives at the academy seventy years after the publication of that famous book. Searching to redefine herself at the prestigious school Etta plans on writing a story so good it will win her the Buchanan prize, and another year (sans fee) before returning to the real world where she will undoubtedly have to build a whole new life for herself. But Etta soon realizes that winning the prize is the least of her problems. When her roommate starts displaying some erratic behavior and then disappears completely, Etta starts searching for some truths. But when reputations are at stake truths are not always forthcoming. Soon Etta is embroiled in a conspiracy that has been buried for almost a century and the question becomes not if she can find the truth but rather if she can survive it.
I will be honest. This book was not on my radar until the author found me on Goodreads because of my love of several like stories. I was happy to write a review, of course, because I’m both vain enough to imagine someone would want my opinion and desperate enough for those old college days when it was part of a grade. However, I was a little nervous. I mean, what if I didn’t like the book? And here the author was nice enough to look at my blog and find a reference to mention that would actually prove she read the blog. I knew I would be honest. If the book stunk up the place I was going to say so, in an honest review, but I knew that I would feel pretty bad about it. Luckily, that didn’t happen and I am pleased to report that The Garden of Dead Dreams was a fantastic read (despite a title that’s a tad over dramatic for my liking).
There were a few things, of course, that detracted from my love. Etta, for example, is harboring a secret that is referred to repeatedly throughout the first part of the book and then when the reveal comes it’s…. just not that big of a deal. Also, towards the end a stand off takes place but then the action moves elsewhere and I was left wondering how exactly that got resolved for the rest of the cast once the lead had exited stage right. And I felt like plot lines regarding some of the characters were left dangling. Though, of course, there were a lot of characters. There’s also the problem that happens when a novel is written about others writing novels. Or poetry, play, et cetera, where the author then has to create the work of several different people of varying talents. It rang true about eighty percent of the time here, but the other twenty pulled me out of the story a little. Especially with the poetry, which I do not like and can never figure out what is good or not. Though I am almost certain Robert North was intended to be pedantic and completely up himself with his verse.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. The setting was very fun, the scenery rich, and the characters great. I especially loved Reed. Poppy was pretty good too. Artists are a strange group of people, especially en mass. And I think writers may be the strangest of all. Get a bunch of them in the same room and you never know what might happen. If Quillen has anything to say about it, they may just solve a mystery or two.