Book Review: Casebook


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Title & Author: Casebook by Mona Simpson
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Crime
Synopsis (from Goodreads):

From the acclaimed and award-winning author: a beguiling new novel about an eavesdropping boy working to discover the obscure mysteries of his unraveling family. He uncovers instead what he least wants to know: the workings of his parents’ private lives. And even then he can’t stop snooping.

Miles Adler-Hart, helped by his friend Hector, spies and listens in on his separating parents. Both boys are in thrall to Miles’s unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is “pretty for a mathematician.” They rifle through her dresser drawers and strip-mine her computer diary, finding that all leads pull them straight into her bedroom, and into questions about a stranger from Washington, D.C., who weaves in and out of their lives. Their amateur detective work starts innocently but soon takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family’s well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Once burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil, and proceed to concoct hilarious modes of revenge on their villains and eventually, haltingly, learn to offer animal comfort to those harmed and to create an imaginative path to their own salvation.

I’m not sure how I stumbled onto Casebook. Looking back, I didn’t see it on any of the “best books of 2014” lists – not that I only pull from those lists by any means – so maybe it was a recommendation because I liked something else? I’d never heard of the book or the author before. The plot sounded interesting – I’m a sucker for mysteries.

There’s a quote I’ve read many times and I feel it applies to this book in spades.

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” ~ Stephen King

I know little [nothing] about the inner workings of the publishing industry but I’m pretty sure that multiple people are supposed to go through books and edit them prior to release. The author, the editor, a team of people who are in tune with the whims of the reading community – right? I’m bringing this up because Casebook dragged on…and on…and on. After the fast pace of Wolf in White Van, which was an enjoyable and well-written story though it was sad, Casebook made me think that time had somehow paused during my reading. “I’m still only at 27%?!” I would marvel. This is something that one doesn’t think about if the book is engaging, similar to the way you can sit in a theater in those uncomfortable chairs for a good length of time if the movie draws you in.

What were my main issues with Casebook? For one thing I had no interest in the main character and narrator, Miles. The entire book is from his point of view. He was in his early teens when the book started and I found him annoying and spoiled. I probably would have come across as annoying and spoiled as a teenage book character too, and that’s why nobody has written about teenage Cassie yet. Miles spends his time snooping on his parents, before they divorce, and then his mom. He complains about his sisters and wishes they hadn’t been born. [I’m an only child and an adult so I can’t relate to this at all but it just sounds like a terrible thing to think. I’m sure lot of kids wish it, though.] Miles feels more like a picture of a teenage boy than a real person to me; the outline is there but nothing is really filled in that makes you want to keep looking.

Miles’ father is the handsome, cool guy that all the ladies fall for. Most guys like that seem schmucky to me in real life. Miles’ mom falls for Eli, a guy from Washington, D.C. who visits the family sporadically. For good or bad, I tend to be skeptical of people and this guy seemed like bad news from the beginning. Also Miles’ mom is named Irene Adler…which is the name of “The Woman” from Sherlock Holmes. Intentional or coincidence I couldn’t say, but that’s all I could think about when the word “Irene” showed up on the page.

I constantly got confused about who was who while reading this book and I can generally follow along with crazy 900-page works with tons of characters. First, Miles – the main character – isn’t actually named until chapter 3! He’s detailing things that happen in his life and you have no idea what his name is. And then when he is named you don’t know that it’s the narrator because he’s being talked about, not to. The same goes for his parents – his mom, in particular, has four names in the book: mom, Mims [which is never explained], Reen and Irene. I was wondering who the heck Mims was for a chapter until I figured it out by context. Miles also refers to “the Audreys” – the last name of his school friend Hector’s family – but I initially thought the Audreys were two women named Audrey who hung out. I often confused Marge, one of Irene’s friends and coworkers, with Maude, a girl in Miles’ grade who liked Miles because: a) their names are similar, b) they weren’t hugely important to the story, or discussed much, so I could forget them easily, and c) how many high school girls are named Maude?

As you can see, all the naming issues really bothered me, but mainly I thought the story could have been told in half the pages (or KB, since I read this on my Kindle). The choppy writing and fact that the “mystery” was resolved well before the end of the book didn’t improve matters. I know that real life keeps going but the book certainly could have stopped, or maybe I should have.

Verdict: I was not a fan – this book felt unedited in some respects to me. Casebook had promise near the beginning but went downhill quickly – it needed another round or three of revisions from my vantage point.

Recommended for: I personally can’t recommend this book to anybody, though I’m sure others could enjoy it. I guess if you’re a fan of Mona Simpson’s works or enjoy books with a child-narrator then it might be a good fit? [I’ve never read her other works so I can’t say for sure.]

Price: $11.84 – $18.63 on Amazon or find it on IndieBound

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