In “Pennance,” a Star Is Born

23 03 2012

One of the best (and somewhat rare) feelings I get when I read a book by a first-time published author combines my author/editor/reader personas. It’s this feeling: “Wow. This person will be a star someday.”

How can I tell? Voice. Turn of phrase.  Writing style. Differentiation. It’s simple to explain yet complex, too. Pretty much any book has flaws, and it’s very telling (to me, anyway) when the above four characteristics rise to the top despite the flaws.

I had this “oh yeah!” feeling the other day when I started “Pennance” by Clare Ashton. I must admit to having a small bias here, though. The book is set in England, and I love British stories, British mysteries, British character-driven tales. Think Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell, for example. Plus, it just seems to me that many British stories do a great job of making the setting a true character in the story. This is definitely the case with “Pennance,” which is set in a town of the same name.

Here’s the blurb of the book from Amazon: Lucy is haunted by the death of her partner, Jake, and lives in paranoid fear and reclusion. She lives in a small, introverted village in Cornwall called Pennance, and is surrounded by Jake’s family and memories of him. She feels intensely guilty about his death and thinks someone is out to get her in retribution. Relief appears to come when a new neighbour, Karen, enters her life, but is that when the real threat begins?

Pennance is a creepy, odd character, and when the story opens, it has shaped Lucy into what basically amounts to a shell of a person. The story takes its time unfolding, which mirrors life in Pennance. By the 1/4 point, the central conflict has yet to appear, which may turn off some readers. It’s a tradeoff that seems to have paid off for Ashton, though. We see Lucy make her once-weekly trip to the store, we see her avoid her dead  boyfriend’s mother, we see her shrink in fear at visitors, we see her interact with the ghost/presence of her dead boyfriend. That’s Lucy’s life, and while she isn’t happy, she deals with it and has made her lot with it. The appearance of Karen, a new neighbor (and who is also a new love interest) and her children changes everything.

There is no doubt Ashton can write, and she’s bursting with potential. I fully expect some issues with first-person POV to be resolved for her future books. One example: “Pennance” has an overuse of “I felt,” “I wondered,” “I imagined,” etc. This plays with the flow of the story and makes the journey to the real conflict feel slower than it should. Lucy, especially at the beginning, is a character who very much lives in her head and who doesn’t interact much. “I felt sick” is also overused, and I was not clear on HOW Lucy was sick. Saying “The walls squeezed in” or “Nausea stung my throat” instead of “I felt sick” would have been more demonstrative plus would’ve made for less “I” subjects. This is a pretty easy thing to correct for future works.

Despite the bumps in “Pennance,” Ashton’s talent is evident. I will most definitely be checking out her future books. She’s a star in the making.

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