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18th November
2011
written by Steph

So, if I had my act together, this is the book I would have lined up to write about for Halloween. It doesn’t really matter that The Radleys isn’t actually all that spooky, because if there is one mathematical equation that always stands true it is this: Vampires = Halloween. It’s just one of those unassailable laws. But, as you all know, life has been chaotic so I instead posted about the Amazon (one day late), which turned out to be a pretty good choice as well. I was actually offered a copy of The Radleys a few months ago, when Giselle from Simon & Schuster contacted me about being on a tour for the book when the paperback was released on September 20. Because being disorganized is my m.o. at the moment, I missed out on the blog tour, but Giselle was still kind enough to send me a copy of the book to read and review here at my leisure. This is a book that I had been curious about, because while I haven’t been part of the latest vampire craze, I was intrigued by the book’s lighter, more humorous tone… I feel like if anyone needs to lighten up, it’s vampires, and this is coming from someone who loved Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Sure brooding is super hot when David Boreanaz is doing it, but the line between Angel and say, Edward Cullen, is a fine one indeed, and if there is another mathematical principle that has yet to be disproven it is that Edward Cullen = Angsty = Annoying. (There is also the Edward Cullen = Stalker = Creepy equation, but that one is less relevant right now.) Also, apart from the fact that Haig was apparently tackling the whole vampire issue with some much needed levity, I appreciated that The Radleys was purportedly a story that involved vampires without really being a story about vampires. In fact, when the book opens, only half of the Radley family in question is actually aware they are something rather otherworldly. So if, like me, you wish vampires would just die already but you feel like taking one turn around the ballroom with the undead, I am prepared to say that you probably won’t hate The Radleys! Well, not because it involves vampires, at least… For those of you who haven’t heard of this book, the Radleys are a nuclear family living in a small village in England, and while they’re a bit eccentric, they by and large appear to be a normal family. Helen is a stay-at-home mom, who does wonderful watercolors and takes part in the local bookgroup. Peter supports the family working as the local physician. And Rowan and Clara? Well they’re both teenagers, dealing with the social pressures and estrangement that period of life brings to anyone. In particular, Rowan is a poet at heart who has a crush on his sister Clara’s best friend, while Clara is an animal activist who has recently decided to go vegan. At first glance, this all seems exceedingly normal, but Peter & Helen have a secret they’ve been keeping from their children: they’re vampires. But unlike your traditional bloodsuckers, Peter & Helen live an “abstainers” lifestyle, in which they curb their instincts and try to integrate into human society as much as possible, which means no blood. Ever. Because should one drop of blood pass their lips, their tenuous self-control might snap, and the normal life they’ve worked so hard to achieve would vanish in an instant. Unfortunately for Peter & Helen, by keeping their children in their dark, rather than protecting them, they’ve actually made them more vulnerable than the could have ever imagined. So, I realize that the whole “vegetarian” vampires/vampires who refuse to drink human blood is not really a new trope at this point, but I still thought that The Radleys started off as a quick, fun read. It didn’t really matter that Haig wasn’t exactly treading new ground because he was at least re-envisioning the landscape in a clever fashion and he wasn’t taking himself too seriously, which I definitely appreciated. Unfortunately, I have to say that this is a book where the more I read it, the less I liked it, which is probably not what most authors hope to achieve. Around the time that Peter’s ne’er-do-well brother, Will, was introduced, I felt like rather than Haig giving the tired vampire genre something of a facelift, he was instead veering in very predictable directions where the story became rather uninspired and the so-called twists would only be surprising to you if this was the first book you had ever read. What’s odd is that The Radleys felt like a rather long book in which tons of things happen and yet at the same time it felt like nothing was happening that was really of any interest. For me, I felt like the core story that Haig wanted to tell (at least initially) is that the Radleys can very much be viewed as regular people, despite their supernatural circumstances: their marriage is in a rut, we all feel freakish and awkward as teens (even if we’re extraordinary), and we all want our family’s to be picture-perfect normal, even if there really is no such thing. When the book was focusing on the Radleys’ relatively pedestrian struggles, this is actually when I think the book was strongest because the metaphor and satire were so strong. But then, ironically, as the book became more and more fantastic in its scope, it actually became less interesting. Everything suddenly felt rushed and I became frustrated with the writing, because itlike Haig was somehow choosing words that would manage to convey the minimal amount of information and ambience as possible. It was akin to reading a bulleted list of events rather than an actual fleshed out story: stuff was happening, and yet I just felt like there was no depth to any of it. To me, this novel felt unpolished and not like the final draft of a novel. There were authorial decisions I questioned such as Haig’s desire to have the entire events of this novel take place over the course of a single week. I suppose in some sense we could take this as an example of how the things we spend a lifetime building can sometimes fall apart in record speed, but I don’t necessarily think that was the intent. Moreover, the problem I have with books that span such a short period is that they don’t really allow for much (or very credible) character growth, because largely people are set in our ways and generally we don’t change in the blink of an eye, because real transformations take time and work. To me, the Radleys and their backstory never felt fully developed; again there was a lot of information there, but the characters felt more like caricatures, and the back story felt like information that an author might draft PRIOR to writing a novel, but it didn’t feel like it had really been crafted or honed above and beyond a sketch. I also didn’t like that the chapters themselves were so short and choppy, because I felt like this gave the book a very schizophrenic vibe and again, prevented any kind of sustained storytelling or development. Everything just jumped around such that I never felt like any person or plot point got the attention they deserved. AND the writing often switched tenses within paragraphs and even sometimes during sentences, and this really drove me batty (pun intended?) and only emphasized the sense that I was reading the first draft of something that could be great, but just needed more time and care. In the end, I feel like this is a book that was good, but it could have been so much better. The bones were there, and when Haig was using the Radleys as a mirror for regular Joes and Janes, I liked it a lot.  And I am really glad that it didn’t take itself too seriously, and I did like this notion of taking the supernatural and making it suffer the suburban blues and battle with the mundane. That’s the kind of juxtaposition that I can get behind and which did feel fresh. I think you can either take vampires and just do a full-blown Fantasy novel that is meant to be read for fun and chills, or you can use vampires as social commentary where your creepy crawlies can be looked at literally as well as figuratively. It seems to me that Haig tried to do a bit of both here, and I wish he would have just stuck to the dual-text bit, because to me that was the most satisfying. Still, while I did wind up feeling a bit underwhelmed by the book in the end, it was a quick read and it was a book that I managed to finish even though I was in the grips of a terrible reading slump when I first started it. It didn’t make me work too hard and it was entertaining. Three things to say in closing: 1)   I think that in some countries The Radleys is being marketed as a YA or a YA/Adult crossover novel. I think that personally this book works better if one reads it in the context of it being largely targeted at a teen audience. In that respect, the clumsiness of it all feels less offensive, and if it isn’t as deep as I would like and perhaps overly simplistic, I get that younger readers would still find lots to be enthralled by here… 2)   WHAT IS WITH THAT TERRIBLE COVER? This makes me think that it must be the U.S. market where the book is being marketed to Teens, because otherwise I do not get the cover at all. I don’t get what the jumping(?) girl in the pink dress has to do with any of it, and the whole thing looks scattershot and stupid. I wouldn’t blame you if you had seen this book and walked right past it based on the cover, because dude, I am right there with you. 3)   If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our blogiversary post where you have the chance to WIN A FREE BOOK OF YOUR CHOOSING! Contest closes on Sunday night, so there’s still time to potentially extend your TBR pile (which looks more and more like a Jenga game by the day, I’m sure!). Rating: 3.5 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 11/18/2011

    I’m sorry it didn’t turn out to be as good as it started. I’ve read books like that, where the writing just falls apart so badly that it ruins what could have been very good. :/

  2. 11/18/2011

    I have been excited about this one–I think it has been very big in the UK. However, your review makes me think maybe it won’t be quite as good as I had hoped. And I agree that the US cover sucks!

  3. 11/18/2011

    thank God you said something about the cover because it is really hideous. I’d pass on it for that alone…

    …but your review (have I said yet how much I love your reviews? Well, I do; you crack me up!) has me super curious — although prepared to be slightly disappointed. I still want to read this but will be sure to remember it’s not quite there yet. Is this a first novel? Perhaps future works will be a little more developed.

  4. 11/18/2011

    Interesting. I started this but didn’t proceed after around 5 pages. …which is funny because it was the beginning that you liked the most! :–) I would say I’d give it another try but it sounds like if I didn’t like even the part you liked, the chances for my liking it overall are greatly diminished!

  5. 11/18/2011

    I’m with ya on the cover. Before I even started reading your review I was thinking what the HELL is she reading?? And I know you have stellar taste in books, so for me to think that says a lot (or would that be a little?) about the cover.

  6. 11/18/2011

    I thought this book was plenty entertaining, but IIRC, I did like the set-up more than I did the ending–and I liked the set-up quite a lot. I don’t remember being particularly impressed by the writing itself, but I don’t remember that it bothered me either. I think I read it in a day or two and got a kick out of it.

    And you’re spot on about that cover. The UK paperback cover is also pretty bad, but in a different way. (A pastel cover of a pretty little house.) The U.S. hardcover was just right. All black with a white picket fence and a little splash of blood.

  7. 11/19/2011

    I was also approached to review this book, but missed the tour date. I am still going to be reading it at some point, but your comments and analysis are very interesting and make me think that I might also have some slight issues with it. I think that it’s really hard to do something new with vampires, being that they are all over the literary world right now, and I can imagine that though Haig really does try to do something new, it seems that it ended up being a little muddled. I am interested in reading it and seeing what I think. I will have to let you know. Brilliant review, by the way! One of the things I love most about your reviewing style is your ability to be perfectly and unshakably honest in your opinions.

  8. 11/22/2011

    @ Amanda: Yes, I’ve come to recognize that sometimes very good books will be let down by their endings, but it’s another scenario entirely when the book just progressively worsens as it progresses, such that it’s actually a relief to close the book at the end! It’s such a shame when good books go bad!
     
    @ Stephanie: I actually haven’t heard much about this from many bloggers, UK or US, but I wish I had because I think knowing from the get-go that it was a YA novel would have helped me recalibrate my expectations going in. I hope that if you do try i that you enjoy it!
     
    @ Audra: Alas, this is not Haig’s first novel, though perhaps it’s his first foray into the YA genre. He’s also written THE LAST FAMILY IN ENGLAND, which I actually own (picked it up at random), as well as THE DEAD FATHER’S CLUB, which is a modern-day retelling of Hamlet. So I’m certainly not done with Haig yet!
     
    @ Jill: I don’t know whether you would like the rest of the novel more than I did – I suppose it depends on why you didn’t like the beginning of the book! If you felt it was too slow, then perhaps you would like the rest of the novel as the action does pick up.
     
    @ softdrink: Seriously! This was a book I wouldn’t comfortably read outside my apartment because the cover is just so terrible. It doesn’t even make sense, which only adds insult to injury!
     
    @ Teresa: I remember you enjoying this book, which is part of what encouraged me to go ahead and read it (though I had always intended to do so prior to your review, it’s just that your enjoyment actually prompted to read it now rather than in five years!). I think my review may have focused more on the things that I didn’t think worked, and again, I think if I had known it was a YA/Adult crossover book, I would have had different expectations going in, but that’s not to say that nothing about this book was good. Like you, the set-up was very strong, I just wish the rest of the book had lived up to it!
    Also: I remember seeing the hardcover art and thought it was delightful and appropriate; just a little bit spooky but also with a hint of whimsy.
     
    @ zibilee: I can only imagine how difficult it must be to take vampires and put a fresh spin on them, which is why I was so excited by this book at first. I think that placing the Radleys in this horribly mundane little village and viewing their struggles through that lens was so great, that it was really a let-down to me when things got fantastical, as it stopped being satire and just became a supernatural action novel. Then again, maybe other readers would feel the whole suburbia storyline is a bore and would prefer more adrenaline thrills!

  9. 11/19/2011

    Oh dear. I have this one on my shelf to review at my leisure too, and your review does not make me more eager to do so. I’m glad to go in with lower expectations, but it sounds like it’s just not for me. Sigh.

  10. Kathleen
    11/19/2011

    That cover definitely would put me off reading the book. Knowing that this is meant to be more of a YA read would give me more realistic expectations if I chose to read it.

  11. I’m impressed by your dissection of this book! I thought it was an entertaining read, but I went into it thinking it was a YA book, so gave it a lot more leaway than you. I wasn’t expecting anything more than a few hours amusement and was actually impressed by the moral messages it contained. I loved the whole abstaining thing and the way it could represent many different vices.

    I hadn’t thought about it taking place over a couple of days, but I guess I don’t expect much character development from that type of book.

    And no. I have no idea where the girl in the pink dress comes from! The UK cover is much better 🙂

  12. despite my recent trip to the theater to watch a certain sparkly vampire wed a certain lip-biting human, i’m actually off the whole vampire/faerie/paranormal thing right now. i love your reviews–you capture the essence of the novel and clearly opine what worked and didn’t. i’m not so certain about the radleys–and the cover doesn’t really bring to mind anything you discussed in your review. as always, you leave me longing to write better reviews…

  13. 11/22/2011

    @ nomadreader: You never know, and since you already own the book, I think it’s worth you giving it a shot! Despite its issues, this was the one book that was able to hold my attention when I was suffering from a terrible reading slump, so that surely must count for something!
     
    @ Kathleen: Yes and yes. I wonder if the cover is meant to make it more appealing to a younger audience? I still find it nonsensical, however, and it’s not really representative of the novel.
     
    @ Jackie: I don’t remember reading your review of this one, so I’ll have to go through your archives and read your original review. It just goes to show, though, that our expectations can play a huge roll in our overall enjoyment of a book. I normally like to go into a book knowing as little about it as possible, but in this case, a little bit more backstory on the target audience would have been invaluable!
     
    @ natalie: I think vampires can be fun, and I certainly don’t judge you for going to see the latest movie in a certain successful franchise. I just personally find those movies so painfully bad, I can’t have anything to do with them! I’ve heard the most recent one is a real doozy…
     
    @ Alex: I have heard of Being Human and actually have the UK series on my Netflix queue! We have approximately 4 gazillion shows that we need to eventually watch, so I’m not sure we’ll get to it soon, but once we catch up with Fringe (our most recent sci-fi/fantasy show), who knows!

  14. I admire you for sticking to vampires – Respect! Have you heard of a TV series called Being Human? It’s about a vampire and werewolf who are best friends and move into a house haunted by a girl-ghost. It’s a great take on the whole “let’s abstain and integrate into human society” vampire story-line. But look into the British version, not the American.

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