Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Review: The Memory of Trees by F.G. Cottam

     When Tom Curtis gets a call from Saul Abercrombie, an eccentric ex-hippie billionaire, he is intrigued. He is even more intrigued, and slightly alarmed, when he discovers why Saul has called him. The man wants to re-plant an ancient Welsh forest on his estate, and wants Tom to oversee the operations.

     It’s a good opportunity for Tom. After an indiscretion his ex won’t let him see his daughter, and he can make the money needed for a court case suing for joint custody. But when he arrives at Saul Abercrombie’s estate, he senses there is far more going on than a benevolent environmental project, and as the supernatural incidents grow, it becomes clear that more than just a forest has woken on the desolate Welsh land.

     This book…was a disappointment. There’s no other word for it. It promised a creepy, atmospheric horror story involving ancient evil, and instead gave a confused mish-mash of vague legends and clichés.

     The atmosphere itself was not bad. Cottam describes the creepy, foggy, fast-growing forest well, and the animate thorn bush was both frightening and had an interesting twist to its presence. However, all this was lost in the story itself.

     Let’s start with the characters. Most of them are only two dimensional. I can tell you a few things about Tom Curtis-he loves his daughter, still has feelings for his ex, and likes his job. That’s it. He is so relentlessly bland that I’m on the verge of calling him a male Bella. This is a shame, especially since he is the descendant of a great hero. Even in his last “heroic” moment, he just seems vaguely bored. And therein lies part of the problem. Cottam sets up a good, creepy atmosphere, and spoils it with the character reactions to things. It begins well enough, with Tom getting weirded out by the animate bush and being frightened by one of the monsters. After that, he just seems to become inured to strange things, and by the time he confronts the ancient “evil”, he seems more bemused by her than anything else.

     Cottam seems to have a problem with telling. We are told a lot of things about the characters, but never see these things. One particularly egregious example is with Dora. In her first appearance, she has been biking along a trail. Everything seems fine. Then, almost at the end of the book, she gets a call telling her she has lung cancer. She then thinks back to that biking trip, and thinks about how she had trouble breathing. This wasn’t mentioned at all at the exact moment she said she sensed something was wrong.

     Pete’s demise was similarly done with seemingly no intention in mind but whacking another side character. He genuinely believes that Dora would order one of her students to live in a dank cave by the ocean, and thinks the girl must have enough stuff to fill the cave and warrant some time to re-pack. This was done only to get him in contact with the monsters. There's little logic to this at all.

     Last, I’m going to touch on a subject I rarely mention. I don’t review books based on any "agenda" If it’s a good story and well-written, I will like it (even if it contains problematic elements). But there is something wrong here with the way women are portrayed.

     Every single woman in this book seems to revolve around Tom Curtis. I'm not just saying in a "well, he's the protagonist, he's plot important" way. I mean, they have little characterization beyond their connection to Tom Curtis.

     First, let’s talk about his ex, Sarah. She is supposedly an extremely successful, intelligent woman. But what do we do with such a character? Make her a stereotypical bitter ex and have her there only so we can see her daughter’s creepy drawings (which, by the way, didn’t really seem that scary) and to be a sounding board for the old professor (who worships the old gods, but this never really comes up at all when you would think it would be needed). Every scene she’s in involves her thinking about Tom and how she’s mad at him for cheating.

     Let’s talk about the girl he cheated with. Her motives centered around manipulating him for the villainess. We don't know how or why she got involved; she too was so super smart and intelligent and independent, but her only actions in the book that don't mention Tom Curtis are her just standing around being a ghost. Doing nothing.

     Let’s talk about Dora. She agrees to work with him so she can get in his pants. Not because it’s a good opportunity, but to get in his pants.

     Let’s talk about Francesca. She stays on the creepy estate to be with her father. Not that bad; she's clearly a daddy's girl. She spends time painting, but it’s to escape the guy whose attentions she doesn’t want. Then everything else she does is to help Tom. The only time we see the slightest bit of character development is when she talks to her mother’s ghost, which takes up all of half a page. (Oh yeah, there are ghosts. They…don’t really do anything. Like at all. They’re just there.)

     Finally, let’s talk about our villainess. A force of nature, an eldritch horror? It doesn’t matter, because the only real characterization we get from her is that she is an evil seductress, and yes, her motivations center around Tom Curtis, and his ancestor was the only person able to seduce her. I am not kidding. The villainess is stated to be “evil”. We never see what she did that was so terrible that Tom’s ancestor had to go defeat her. Her forest is kind of creepy, and there are mushrooms, and her pet monsters eat people, but they would eat people regardless of whether or not they were her pet monsters. In fact, every time she has done something evil on screen, it’s been in retaliation of something someone else did. Cottam, you are not doing a good job setting her up as a threat. Also, she somehow managed to magically force Tom Curtis into cheating, because that would bring him back to the forest, so she could get “revenge” by proxy. That is her entire motivation. Revenge on Tom because of his sexy, sexy ancestor.

     You want to know the full proof that Tom Curtis is a male Bella? The muscle-bound security guy is jealous of him, because Saul likes him and Francesca has a crush on him. I did not sign up for a bad YA novel.

     The book is mildly entertaining. If you’re bored, it could give you something to do. But other than that, don’t look for consistent characterization (there is a lot of arbitrary skepticism) or even interesting characters (beyond Saul Abercrombie himself).

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