Why I Read It: I’ve had my eye on this one ever since it was released, and I heard good reviews. The trouble is this was just one of those books constantly pushed to the back-burner because of other new books I was receiving and my TBR pile. However, I kept hearing such praises, especially from Charles Coleman Finlay, that I decided to put this on my “better read before I nominate for the Hugos” list. So let’s see what this Stoker nominee for best debut novel had to offer, shall we?
The premise: ganked from BN.com: When Sergeant Hallie Michaels comes back to South Dakota from Afghanistan on ten days’ compassionate leave, her sister Dell’s ghost is waiting at the airport to greet her.
The sheriff says that Dell’s death was suicide, but Hallie doesn’t believe it. Something happened or Dell’s ghost wouldn’t still be hanging around. Friends and family, mourning Dell’s loss, think Hallie’s letting her grief interfere with her judgment. The one person who seems willing to listen is the deputy sheriff, Boyd Davies, who shows up everywhere and helps when he doesn’t have to.
As Hallie asks more questions, she attracts new ghosts, women who disappeared without a trace. Soon, someone’s trying to beat her up, burn down her father’s ranch, and stop her investigation. Hallie’s going to need Boyd, her friends, and all the ghosts she can find to defeat an enemy who has an unimaginable ancient power at his command.
Wide Open is a “refreshingly original dark fantasy debut” (Publishers Weekly) by author Deborah Coates.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. However, if you’re in a hurry, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: So there’s a trope that I don’t have very good luck with. Let’s call it, for lack of a better term, “Prodigal Returns Home to Small Town and Discovers Freaky Shit” or any variant thereof. I’m reminded of Richard Dansky’s Firefly Rain (review on LJ || WP), which was a DNF. Of Melissa Marr’s Graveminder (review on LJ || WP), which would’ve been a DNF had it not been a book club pick. Then there was Alex Bledsoe’s The Hum & The Shiver (review on LJ || WP), which I wanted to like more than I did because the setting is my backyard, but while giving it a 6/10, I had my issues with it.
Is it me? Is it the particular books I’m trying to read? The thing is, I live in the South, where these types of stories tend to be told. I also currently live in a super-small town, so my tolerance for small town settings in fiction is quite low. There’s also the fact that such stories tend to stereotype badly, and I don’t have a lot of patience for it.
So when I realized Wide Open was going to be one of THOSE stories, I was worried. But after finishing, I found this book had less in common with the Dansky and the Marr and far more in common with the Bledsoe, but it was better. Not eons better, mind you, but better. Interestingly better. It takes this trope, ties it to urban/dark fantasy, and creates a compelling and believable tale. Part of it’s the setting. I believe in it. I can see it. It has its own character. It plays an important role in the story itself, creates conflict all on its own, and that’s a very good thing. By making the setting its own character in the story, it’s immediately elevated from the flaws other stories using this trope fall into: the stereotypical setting. Most of these tales feel like I could place them in any Smalltown, USA, but not Wide Open.
What also sets it apart is the characters. While they’re familiar in that small-town, dark humored Southern way, they also feel uniquely part of their world (this is what reinforces the setting). I can’t put my finger on exactly how all of this works, other than to say Coates doesn’t resort to stereotype, not even with the minor characters, not even with the villains of the piece. I can understand where everyone is coming from, even if I don’t like the characters (not saying I disliked the characters, because obviously I enjoyed some, and some characters I’m not going to like on principle). Hallie, for example, is pretty much angry all the time, but she’s back from Afganistan where one of her closest buddies was killed, she’s being followed by his ghost, and the only reason she’s home is because her SISTER’S been killed, and now she’s followed by HER ghost, and she just wants to understand what the hell is going on. Hallie’s temper rubbed me the wrong way at times, but I never got so frustrated that I thought she was being irrational. I knew where she was coming from, so I was curious how long the anger would last and whether or not it would burn out.
The writing is good. Really good. But in places, it was awkward. I wondered a few times if perhaps an earlier draft of this had been written in first person POV before being converted to third person POV, and if perhaps some of those awkward moments came from a closer, first-person narrative voice. Because stuff like this works really well in first person (page 146):
Lorie began to talk, to tell Hallie about working at some new company in West Prairie City with Dell, about how that was the reason Dell had come back, about how Hallie should have seen her because she had been . . . well, she’d been … well … yeah.
In this case, I think it’s more of a matter of the dialogue being summed up and uncomfortably dropped off because the speaker doesn’t want into specifics, but there were other cases in the prose where the fourth wall was broken by referring to “you,” which I find to be acceptable in first-person, but utterly jarring and out of character for third person.
So I had a few moments of just NOT getting into the prose. Sometimes it was the way the author would draw out a moment, making the reader as impatient as Hallie, which is a neat trick, but still irked me. But maybe that’s the key to why this works as a whole: you really GET why the characters feel the way they do. We’re in Hallie’s head the whole time, but Coates knows how to utilize gestures and action to really draw out the moment and reveal a character’s inner turmoil or conflict.
This particular doesn’t take place in the South, mind you, but it sure felt like it, in a good way, in a sense that certain small town values don’t change no matter where those towns are in the US. This exchange on page 27 between Boyd and Hallie cracked me up:
[Hallie] walked to the sheriff’s car, where she had to wait for Deputy Davies to join her because he had, inexplicably, locked his car.
“Seriously?” she said when he unlocked the passenger door. “You could see your car from where you were standing.”
He took her duffel and slid it into the backseat. “I have guns,” he said.
“You and everybody else.”
This works on so many levels it’s awesome. It tells you a lot about where Boyd comes from that he feels he has to lock it. It tells you a lot about where Hallie comes from (and where they are now) that she thinks he’s stupid for locking it, all of which tells you more about our setting.
There’s also humor that reveals character. Take this interaction between Hallie and her father on page 45:
“Was that the Boy Deputy brought you home?” he asked.
It surprised a quick laugh out of Hallie. “Is that what you call him, the Boy Deputy?”
“Hell, what is he, about two?” her father said. Then he added, “Though you’d be here before now.” Which was his way of asking, Why did a sheriff’s deputy bring you home?
“Brett got a flat tire,” Hallie said.
Her father snorted — all this, better than talking about Dell. “She needs a decent pickup truck,” he said. “That ratty little car she’s got isn’t worth a damn.”
“Shit, Dad, I’ll tell her,” Hallie said. “Bet she runs right out and buys an F-150 just to make you happy.” It felt good and painful both at once to talk like this, like nothing had changed.
I find this hysterical because I know people who would say just what Hallie did about her friend buying a truck to make someone else happy. Hell, my husband would make a wisecrack like this. It’s a Southern/small-town thing.
And then there’s this gem of a description for Hallie (page 68):
If she were the sort of person who cried, she’d be crying. Instead, she was the sort of person who got crazy-pissed, and crazy-pissed got her to her feet even though all the blood in her veins felt as if it had been replaced with water cold as ice.
I also liked how the magic/paranormal worked. It’s nothing too big or elaborate, but each instance seems to fit the character its attached to. How it all comes together is still a mystery, because it DOES come together and it DOES work, but I’m still mulling it over, trying to figure out how these seemingly disparate elements work. But they DO work, and that’s the wonder of it.
I know I mentioned the writing tripped me up a bit, but here’s a moment that really gels together (page 38):
The clouds broke apart just then, the sun streaking through like the victor of some ancient battle.
Or here on page 84:
There were halfway across the cemetery when she stopped cold. Ghosts rose from their graves — dozens of them. They rose straight through the ground fog, so that at first she’d thought the fog was thickening. Then she could see them, the curve of a skull, the suggestion of an arm, a body — far, far less substantial than Dell or Eddie.
Honestly, I could quote this book until my fingers fell off. I love the dark bits of humor that both define character and culture. I love the descriptions of the setting and the magic. I love the interactions between all the characters. I could ramble endlessly, really, but I suppose I’ll try to wrap up and say this is the kind of book I like the more and more I think about it. I’ll leave you with this quote from page 255:
The skin around her eyes was tight as a drum. Her words were tight, too, as spare and mean as an old dog left to die on a battlefield.
My Rating: 7 – Good Read
If I did halves, this would be 7.5, as it’s leaning towards excellent. There’s a lot I love about this book, namely the writing and how it’s infused with character and setting and atmosphere. Everything feel so well developed, which helps the plot, which isn’t quite as developed, but rather hums along with the pages, waiting for the characters to figure things out and get into enough trouble so that the story comes to a climax. I can’t say I was ever bored, and there were moments in the prose that jarred me in ways I wish were polished a wee bit more, but this dark fantasy should be very pleasing to those fans of Cherie Priest’s Eden Moore trilogy (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, etc), as well as to those readers who love reading about small towns and the crazy-ass magic and paranormal activity that can foster there. Of those types of books I’ve read in the past, this much better, and it’s very, very likely I’ll be picking up the sequel, Deep Down, when it comes out later this year. I also think McGuire fans will enjoy this, if they like the darkness in her October Daye series. It’s a book that deserves a wider audience, and while I don’t know yet if I’ll nominate this for a Hugo, it’s certainly on my consideration list.
Cover Commentary: I simply adore the coloring here. If I saw this on the shelf, it would most definitely grab my eye. There’s something wonderfully creepy about it, and that’s surprising, since the colors themselves are so pretty.