Posted by Paul Samael on Saturday, October 10, 2015 Under: Book reviews
UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this novel is no longer available via Smashwords or anywhere else, so far as I can tell. After my review below, the book got at least one more 5 star review, which may have enough for the author to get an agent or publisher interested in his work - or he may just have decided that he wanted to revise it. Who knows. Anyway, let's hope it re-emerges in some form in the future.
For me, this somewhat quirky novel by Robert P Kaye falls into the category of what Graham Greene used to call “an entertainment” – it doesn’t take itself too seriously, although it does touch on some satisfyingly serious issues along the way. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here’s what it’s about:
Chris Bly is returning to the family home in the Washington Cascades with his tail between his legs, having tried but failed to make it big in the unforgiving world of West Coast tech start-ups. He’s burned out from having worked too many 16 hour days, his girlfriend has left him and his business has gone bust, leaving him desperately short of cash (hence the return home).
But this is no ordinary family home. Cannon Bly, Chris’s father, is an inventor who likes to do things differently. Not for him the wooden frame house that features in the background of the painting “American Gothic.” No, he has built himself an abode consisting of Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic domes – although like Cannon himself, they are showing signs of age and now resemble a kind of down-at-heel, decaying version of Cornwall’s Eden Project.
And the Bly clan is no ordinary family. Cannon, who is divorced from Chris’s real mother, is now married to a rather forceful Earth-mother type who prefers to go by the name of Wilde Swann. Meanwhile, Chris’s brother Trent lives nearby with his family in a tree house, an existence which suits his profession as a movie stunt coordinator.
The main plot revolves around the appearance of fresh Bigfoot tracks in the area and Chris’s initially awkward relationship with Willa (his first girlfriend), daughter of the Bly’s neighbour Harmon (who runs the local Bigfoot museum and hates the Blys). There is also an entertaining sub-plot where Trent uses his stunt coordination skills to mount a jewel heist, but ends up getting more than he bargained for (and putting everyone’s lives in danger).
Now I realise that this summary may be at risk of making it sound as if the author is laying on the quirkiness a little too thickly here – so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that he manages to pull it off. This is partly because the story is told largely from Chris’s perspective and his sympathetic personality and relative “normality” act as a useful foil for some of other, slightly larger-than-life characters. It’s also to do with effective pacing and withholding of information.
And as noted above, there’s a lot more to this novel than just surface quirkiness. As the author puts it in one of his blurbs, it’s about our “addictions to prosperity, technology and coffee and the need to occasionally reboot one's life.” For example, after the implosion of his tech start-up, Chris wonders what to do himself and how to cope with his sense of having failed - particularly when he compares himself with his now ailing father (although Cannon himself is far from perfect and his technological successes have come at a cost). We also discover why Chris’s software venture didn’t work out – which allows the book to explore some of the issues around the uses (and abuses) of personal information and technology. These issues have been dealt with more recently in Dave Eggers’ novel, “The Circle” – although by the end of Eggers’ novel, I felt as if I were being slowly bludgeoned to death by the heavy-handedness of the satire. “Taking Candy from the Devil”, by contrast, wears its more serious themes rather more lightly – and to my mind is all the more effective for it.
So all in all, a very engaging and entertaining novel, with plenty of food for thought along the way. I won’t say any more about the plot, so as not to spoil it - except to observe that the end provides a pleasing “shape” to the narrative, as Chris finds himself confronted with a “start-up” of an altogether different kind from the one he had failed to pull off at the start.
Finally, there is a lesson here for budding authors. Robert P Kaye has said in a interview that he felt the novel was a “a big fat failure” because no agents picked it up and (until now) only one person had reviewed it (although like me, she gave it 5 stars and said it was “hard to put down” – which I would agree with).
But I would say the jury is still very much out on whether it’s a “big fat failure”. I suppose it depends what your criteria for success are. Publishers/agents are so picky and risk averse in terms of what they choose to publish that rejection is hardly a reliable indicator of a lack of quality.
So maybe, like the author, you decide to go down the self-publishing route instead. I don’t think that in itself is a sign of failure or lack of quality either - if that were the case, I would not have been able to find anything in the way of quality fiction to review on this site. But what counts as success? Well, positive reviews (from people you don’t know) are the most obvious criterion – but this can sometimes be a long game. In the case of “Taking Candy for the Devil”, 2-3 years for the first and 5 for the second is certainly a frustratingly long time to wait – but on sites like Smashwords, reviews are fairly few and far between (and on some other platforms, like Feedbooks, they’re even rarer), which means you may have to be quite patient.
It’s also easy (on Smashwords especially) for your book to get buried under a ton of smut, which can make it difficult for it to get the attention it deserves. And maybe in some respects this book was just ahead of its time when it came out (see my Dave Eggers comparison above) - which might explain why it may have been something of a slow burner. It certainly isn’t the only self-published book I’ve come across which has taken a while to get enough readers for its quality to be recognised in the shape of reviews - see this post. Anyway, if the verdict were purely up to me, I would say that this novel is miles away from being “a big fat failure” – and certainly deserves to get more readers.
You can find more pieces by the same author on his website. At the time of writing, "Taking Candy from the Devil" was available free of charge on Smashwords.
In : Book reviews
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