Friday, July 11, 2008

Blog Stop Book Review: The Bunko Babes

Blog Stop Book Tours helps authors promote their books by giving bloggers books to review. (If you have a blog and you like free books, you might want to check this out.)

I have the privilege of reviewing The Bunko Babes, by Leah Starr Baker. (See an interview with the author at BlogStop’s main site.)

The Bunko Babes is a departure from my usual reading diet of suspense and humor (but it has a bit of both). It reads like a journal, written entirely in present tense (which would have been annoying if the author hadn’t been completely consistent). The main character, Becca Thornton, is an upbeat (if somewhat shallow and sheltered) woman with twin children, a rock-steady husband, and a fun group of girlfriends – the Bunko Babes - who gather weekly to play Bunko in each other’s homes. Several of the friendships go back years - the characters’ problems and proclivities are paraded out at that night’s Bunko game.

During the game, Becca gets a call from her widowed mother who tells her she is getting remarried. Becca’s reaction to the news sets up one of the major conflicts that both reveal her character and give her plenty of room for growth.

Later in the story, Becca discovers an even more serious crisis she must endure. After months of odd aches and pains and a general fatigue, she's diagnosed with systemic lupus. In some passages, Becca’s symptoms were shown so vividly I felt uncomfortable reading them. Which is great. What wasn’t so great is that when Becca talks to friends and family about the disease, her dialogue reads like a brochure.

I had other problems with the book that sometimes kept me from engaging fully. For one, it wasn’t clear to me whether the author intentionally gave Becca the unlikeable characteristics of an unthankful, judgmental and self-centered child. And my two favorite characters – the mother’s new fiancĂ© and Becca’s friend Mercedes – weren’t given nearly enough attention in my opinion. Alternatively, there was a park ranger and his wife who were described in detail but never seemed to play any real part in the novel.

Despite these things, I found myself wondering what would happen next. In a way, it was like reading letters from an acquaintance. Many of the situations seemed to be drawn from the author’s own life and her personal struggle with lupus.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Bunko Babes, and after reading it, I’m still not sure what I got. It was refreshing to read a book with Christian characters triumphing in very realistic circumstances. And throughout the novel, Becca has moments when she not only realizes that she was wrong, but understands how to begin to make the changes in her thinking. The Bunko Babes shows her subtle but relentless growth as a person and as a Christian, moving from being self-centered to truly interested in the happiness and well-being of others. Her friends and her family gather around her for support throughout the book, but only towards the end of the story does she seem to really realize what they bring to her life – despite her repeated assurances to the contrary. It isn’t until the end of the book that she really cares about their happiness and well-being.

The Bunko Babes was an interesting look into the growth of a woman’s character from leading a sheltered existence to being a woman with the strength to stand up under hardship and get outside of herself to care about others. It didn’t grip me from the first few pages, but it grew on me.


Dawn said...

Glad to hear the book grew on you. I started it last night, I'm about 50 pages in (?) (chapter 15) and Becca is really grating on me. I want to yell at her to grow up -- her mother is a grown woman with a right to re-marry and it's not an affront to her or her father's memory. Then again, having lost both my parents and a sister, I think I have a unique perspective on that.

"Leaving her plenty of room to grow," is a great, diplomatic way to describe the character. :) I think if the author created her that way purposely, and we're not necessarily *supposed* to like her, I can look at the book with a kinder eye.

I don't know if I should be commenting *before* my own Blog Stop post, but I couldn't resist. :)

Carolyn Erickson said...

That's how I felt about the character, Dawn, and I wondered whether the author intended for us to sympathize with the character (didn't happen!) or was using that situation to reveal her flaws.

The only way I could keep reading was to imagine her as a real person and not as a fictional character.

In real life, yes, we would be understanding and sympathetic towards a friend, even if she was being emotionally selfish.

But if you're going to have an unsympathetic main character in your novel, at least one of the other characters needs to provide a voice for the reader. I think if at least one of her friends - or her husband - had a talk with Becca and *told* her she was being stupid, we as readers would have felt "heard," even if Becca didn't change immediately.

I was surprised to find myself wondering during the day what would be up with Becca and her friends when I picked up the novel again, so there must be something there that the author did right. I'm just not expert enough to pinpoint it yet.

And yeah, I was being diplomatic. I know how hard it is to write a novel. :)

Leah Starr said...

It is hard to hear that some readers really don't like Becca. But you ladies are right, I wanted Becca and intended Becca to be flawed. More than anything else, it was important to me that the characters and the situations that they are in be genuine and real. No cookie cutter characters for this writer. Also, in a people based book, I've been taught that it is imperative to have some way for the characters to grow otherwise the story is one dimensional and dull.

During the long process of creating "The Bunko Babes", I struggled to bring these ladies to life and to make their responses as close to reality as possible. I even interviewed counselors in regards to how they find that most women are likely respond to the death of a parent and the remarriage of the other parent, especially within a year. They were all in agreement that these situations produce incredibly selfish responses that often surprise even the person going through the struggle.

I'm happy to hear that even after putting down the book, Carolyn, you are drawn back to it and find yourself wondering what is going on in the Babes' life. That means I've done my job right.

Sorry if I sound in any way offended because I am not. It is important to me to let all of you know how much I appreciate you taking the time to invest in reading my novel. It was definitely a birthing process with incredible growing pains as I fleshed out the book and knowing that people are out their reading it is the most amazing feeling.

Many Bunko Blessings,

Leah Starr Baker
author of "The Bunko Babes"

Carolyn Erickson said...

Leah, thanks for reading and commenting.

Becca did seem to grow, and I think one of the things that kept drawing me back to the book was that she was repeatedly willing to examine and adjust her attitudes as the story went on. Her character and Mercedes and the pastor seemed very real.

I think I would like to know someone like the pastor. ;) He was a great guy. If you based the character on someone real in your life, give him a great big hug. The friends who love us and give us the Word when we need it are a priceless treasure.

And Mercedes. I loved the part about the ring, and yes - those kinds of things DO still happen in real life! I've experienced them myself, so many times.

Thank you for writing The Bunko Babes and introducing us to these characters. They do seem very much like real people to me even now, long after I've finished the book. I think that is a strengths of the novel.

Dawn said...

It is so kind of you to comment. I reached the scene last night [teaser alert]:

...where Jessica and Becca had their fight... It really struck a chord with me because their relationship is quite similar to 2 relationships I have.

I hate to say, my pregnancy is definitely affecting my tolerance for pettiness and spoiled brattedness. Right now, in this time in my life, if one of my closer friends or even my sister were acting like Becca, No, I would NOT stand by them. I'd be the one to tell her to grow up, already. :D

It's partially hormonal, partially getting older, but I have little tolerance for such "poor me-ism," even in the event of debilitating illness. I choose to surround myself with upbeat people. Maybe *that's* not very Christian, either. :)

Once I got past some of my pet peeves in the writing style and realized I can hate Becca while enjoying the book, I started to enjoy it and, well, here I am talking about it, so that says something. ;)

I'd better save some insights for my review. ;) Coming up in a week or two. LOL