Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

Title: The Burn Palace
Author: Stephen Dobyns

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / Rhode Island / Small Town / Mystery / Wiccans / Occult / Native Americans / Kids / Police Procedural)
Publisher/Publication Date: Blue Rider Press (2/7/2013)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Okay to liked.
Did I finish?: I did, in about two days.
One-sentence summary: One kidnapped baby, one pack of super aggressive coyotes, one lovelorn cop, one chipper and slick token black cop, one small town in Rhode Island, one complicated mystery.
Reading Challenges: What's in a Name?

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it fits into the opening scene,

I'm reminded of...: Stephen King, Grace Metalious

First line: Nurse Spandex was late, and as she broke into a run her rubber-soled clogs went squeak-squeak on the floor of the hallway leading to labor and delivery.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if small town creepiness, pseudo-occult possibilities, coyotes, and small town cops finding love.

Why did I get this book?: I intrigued by the jacket blurb and Stephen King's very very positive rave review.

Review: I finished this book in two days, literally staying up until ungodly hours of the night to do so. Upon finishing, I can say it was a messy, creepy, action-filled suspense-y thriller set in a small New England town. However, while reading this book, I couldn't stop grousing!

The novel opens dramatically: 'Nurse Spandex', a thirty-something nurse known for modifying her scrubs to make them more flattering, has just left after a fling with a doctor while on duty. Returning to the nursery, she's horrified to find a newborn baby missing, replaced with a massive corn snake. That frightening crime sets off a series of increasingly creepy and violent events in small town Brewster, a summer vacation town in Rhode Island, that culminates in a shocking and violent Halloween.

The cast is enormous. We've got an Iraq War vet-turned-cop with broken heart and a bad attitude, a flaky and inexperienced but deeply moral small town journalist slash single mother, a series of quirky and inventive ten year olds, a gaggle of local and state police with various tics and quirks to make them memorable (cop who hums opera, cop who can't stop eating, townie cop who is racist, etc.), spunky old ladies and degenerate young men.

Dobyns' writing style reminded me of Stephen King mixed with Michael Chabon, with a myopic focus on place and a strange almost meta-narrative style, excessively quirky characters propped up almost smugly, relentless action that was almost too much.

As a result -- and my biggest complaint while reading -- is that despite the page length (my copy clocked in at 420 pages), everyone actually felt really thin. We were given shorthand for the character, some trite, some original, and you could see a mile away the character interactions. Women, I think, suffered the most. All young women were sluts -- multiple people told us this -- and even those who weren't actively slutty were still irresponsible (our single mother refuses child support because she got herself pregnant, not her and the guy, but whatever.) The romantic building up is straight out of rom-com -- two angry confrontations lead our intrepid journalist to dream about the cop being stepfather to her song -- while the sex is straight out of a Clive Cussler.

I know, I sound super negative but, but, I couldn't put this book down. I really couldn't. I stayed up waaaaay later than I should to finish this, and it was worth it -- the mystery was satisfying, I guessed a few twists and not some others, and even the flimsy characters hooked themselves in me and didn't let go.

Bloggers who do the RIP reading challenge in October will absolutely want to add this to their TBRs; anyone who likes Stephen King will want to pick this up. (King writes a gushy, literally gushy, review for this book. It's adorable.)

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Burn Palace to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 2/15.


  1. Wow, Michael Chabon plus Stephen King - that sounds like a crazy combination! I think the obnoxious characterization of women would drive me crazy, though.

    1. It was crazy, and kind of fun -- definitely fun once I finished -- the 'taste in my mouth' kind of thing is creepy enjoyment -- and others might not mind/notice as much the way women were handled. I'm sensitive to that but other readers might not care as much.

  2. I am not sure! Normally, I would say no, but I really need books that hook me in and keep me glued to the page right now. So I think I will add this one to my list and give it a shot. It sounds perfectly delicious, but also kind of wild and messy. I will give it a shot anyway!

    1. Heather -- this is a great summer read or creepy fall read -- and I think if you 'click' with the writing, you can't help but race through it. Some of the twists I guessed, the others surprised me, and like I said, despite any irritations, there was no way I could DNF this one!

  3. Definitely intrigued with the comparison to Chabon AND King, and if King is writing a gushing review, then you can't help but think it is a good one. I've read those books before where when you break down the book, you can't find anything good to say but the book as a whole is excellent. It makes for a difficult review to write, but I think you did a great job. And I think you convinced me to read it!

    1. Michelle -- King's review is actually adorable -- straight up book geek, and it makes me once again like him as a person -- and I think King fans will really dig this. I find myself raving about it to friends, so I think despite my in-read concerns, the overall package worked!

  4. Interesting that you couldn't put it down but it had those problems. I guess stereotypes are at least easy to get on with because you know what you're dealing with. The single mother's idea sounds almost old-fashioned, though I suppose it fits the context.

    1. It's always frustrating to feel such conflict toward a book!

  5. I haven't read a book like this in a very long time. There was a time when I read too many and got utterly sick of them. I'm intrigued by the writing style you describe and because you found the mystery so satisfying. I admit, though that Nurse Spandex made me cringe. This sounds like a good book to turn to when I need something to distract me from life for a while.
    Thank you for a very interesting review.

  6. You know it's funny but there are those books that seem like you should really hate them but you just can't and keep reading. This sounds like one of those. I'll have to check it out. It intrigues me. Lol.

    1. And it *was* so fun, in the end -- it is so confusing!

  7. I popped over from the What's In a Name Challenge. I've had that experience -- I could give you all kinds of reasons not to like a book, but I read it compulsively, so I have to call it good!

    Joy's Book Blog