27 February 2013

The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns

Prior to my blogging sabbatical, I eagerly accepted a book from Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), simply because Uncle Stevie (Stephen King) blurbed it and pronounced it with "I've written some "secrets of a small New England town" books, and in The Burn Palace, it's as if Stephen Dobyns is saying--very gently--'Hey Steve…this is how you really do it.'"

Well, how could I turn that down?

Brewster, Rhode Island is a town where not much happens, until a newborn baby is kidnapped from the maternity ward of the hospital and replaced with a snake. The events unleashed are a whirlwind of confusion, murders (with a scalping!), allusions to something not quite right lending itself to rumors of Satanism, and the like, and Woody the cop with his partner, Bobby, are just two of the many characters that move through the chaos to find the answers of the kidnapping, subsequent murders, and rumors of shape-shifting wolves.

Make no mistake, there's a lot going on in this story. There are so many characters (a la The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling) that it takes a little while to recall exactly who everyone is, but once you do, they are all easily recognizable. Each character serves a purpose to the story, and it moves quickly with each scene and shocking moment. Stephen Dobyns is not nothing if not an expert on creating an unsettling atmosphere and depicting slowly-building tiny-town hysteria.

I've not read anything like this in a while. The description of the town is delivered as though you are reading a short intro to the stage play version of the story, and it then moves to perspectives of each character, whether primary or background players to the story. There is a casualness to the writing style that, while might not necessarily be my favorite way to deliver a tale, made for a quick read that certainly kept me interested in the end result.

Quick sample:
Now, like an airborne camera, we move back from the hospital, which is called Morgan Memorial here in the town of Brewster, Rhode Island. The sky is mostly clear, and the three-quarter moon lets us see the town under a milky light. A stiff wind out of the northwest energizes the few clouds, tugs the fall leaves and sends them swirling. Windows rattle, and bits of paper and dead leaves swirl down the streets. Already the temperature has dropped to freezing, and those folks who haven't covered their tomatoes are going to lose them. But isn't that often a relief? With the garden gone, except for the Swiss chard and winter squash, it's just one less thing to take care of. (p.4)
I do, however, humbly disagree with Uncle Stevie's blurb that "this is how you really do it," but I do maintain it was an interesting story that grabbed my interest. I may quibble with how two main characters fell in love, since it was a little bit stereotypical of a romance novel in that sense, but the author delivers with creativity and uniqueness and it's obvious this author has a strong fan base for a  very good reason.

Looking for some light, mystery-thriller reading at the beach this spring? This might be right up your alley.

Others said:
S. Krishna's Books

Publisher: Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin House USA
Release Date: 2/7/13
Pages: 464

FTC Disclosure: I received a finished copy from the publisher for an honest review.

About the Author
Stephen Dobyns is an American poet and novelist with over twenty fiction novels published. He currently resides in Westerly, Rhode Island.