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Serena - General discussion (starts 1 August 2009)

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I may be early, but I'm going to post anyway...

 

This book is called Serena. The cover has a picture of a woman with long fair hair, she looks a bit like Kristin Scott Thomas, I'm assuming that this is meant to be our heroine. On page 3 of the book Serena is described as having a cropped blonde bob. This annoys me every time I pick the book up!

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Adrian, that cover is much better than our edition. Much better. The one we have is very much a 'romance' cover. Actually, the cover and the title of the book leads the reader to very much believe that Serena is going to be some sort of admirable, romantic heroine. Right now, I can't stand her or her husband. Things may change.

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I actually struggled to find the other cover and did so only at MATG, whereas I found a picture of my own rash quite easily. Yes, if it's first impressions that are today's discussion, what kind of nom de plume is Rash?

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what kind of nom de plume is Rash?
:D Ron Rash is a terrible name for an author, I think it may be his real name though as I flipped to the back of the book and he thanks another Rash person, presumably a family member. He sounds like a 60s cartoon character. But let's not judge a book by it's cover eh? ;)

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I've finished this book now and I'm not really sure what I made of it. I can't say that I enjoyed it tremendously much, but I'm not sure why. I think perhaps it was a bit formulaic and predictable. As Hazel has already said, there isn't much to like about either of the two main characters but it's hard to have sympathy for anyone else either. It all felt a bit two dimensional.

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Pemberton owns a huge logging company and gets one of his young workers pregnant. He returns to the logging, bringing with him a new wife - the mysterious Serena who seemingly has no past. Serena is ambitious, determined, and knowledgeable. She is almost male in her ruthless determination to become the most successful logging business. She brings with her a mysterious trunk, which contains her research, maps, and business model for a revolutionary logging project that will take Pemberton Logging into Brazil, exploiting the local, raping the land of expensive mahogany and establishing her as a force to be reckoned with. This seems to have been her plan for a very long time, long before actually meeting Pemberton.

 

With her position in Pemberton Logging secured, Serena then sets her sights on providing Pemberton with an heir. Things do not go to plan and Serena then turns her attention to the young girl that her husband impregnated before their own union. Rachel, the young girl, had a boy, Jacob, who everyone says is the spit of Serena's husband.

 

As much as Serena walks around with an air of mystery, the logging community has its own mysteries. Galloway and his fortune-telling mother provide the loggers with fortunes of death and prosperity. After one of his mother's predictions comes true, Galloway finds himself shackled to Serena (pretty much the way Pemberton is inexplicable shackled to her) and carries out her ruthless bidding. Serena will not let anyone stand in her way of her ambitions.

 

What is most puzzling for the reader is Serena. Not the mystery she carries, the complete lack of back story, but why the novel is named after her, why she is the focus. The title, Serena, and certainly the cover give the impression that this is going to be some rousing tale of an admirable, feministic heroine making her way (long hair on the cover, pages 3 and 134 talk about her cropped hair - annoying, yes) and making ground-breaking steps in a hard, testing, male-orientated business. It's not that at all. Serena herself is, from the very outset, an entirely unlikeable, unsympathetic, one-dimensional character. Rash does absolutely nothing with her back-story. He doesn't even attempt to flesh her out, make her complicated or complex. We know she aimed to snare Pemberton, that she had dreams of logging Brazil for a very long time, and that she burns anything to do with a 'past' - photos mainly. That's it. Whenever she appears in the book, she is all action and no thought. We are not let into her thinking at all - and so, we don't care a jot about her. There are secondary and tiertary characters more fleshed out than her. It's infuriating.

 

Pemberton is himself a means to an end, as dislikeable as Serena at the beginning, then gradually becomes more insignificant as the book progresses. The onyl interesting thing about him is when his curiosity and concern for his bastard child grows, but this isn't really taken anywhere by Rash, other than to provide Serena with more 'action'. Serena's concern for the child is spoken of once by Rachel, that she gave Pemberton what Serena couldn't - but it is so much more than that, and could have been explored had Rash decided firmly that the point of the tale was Serena ruthless ambition to secure herself as a logging queen.

 

Galloway is one of a handful of characters that are interesting. Initially he seems the crux of the business, the man Pemberton should have been. The man that Serena should have coupled herself to. But, by way of an accident and a fortune-telling, she and Galloway do unite, Galloway becomes a mere cipher for Serena's plans. Is it possible to 'unflesh' a character?

 

So what did I like? Well, despite what I have said above, there was some good in the book. Rash lives in the Appalachian mountains and clearly knows the terrain well. He clearly has researched the logging business well, especially of the period, and he brings the business and the harsh environment to life. I found these parts very interesting indeed. The men that work so tirelessly, risking life and limb for the Pemberton's for a pittance brought much colour and amusement to the book. The way they all sat on the outskirts commenting on the events at the top of the hierarchy was engaging and not without literary precedent. How easily their lives could be brought to and end and in such a variety of gruesome ways was quite engaging too.

 

Not a bad read at all, but I wish someone had re-thought the title and the cover before pressing on. Serena is no romantic heroine, merely a flat, cartoon villain in a landscape that will always be infinitely more interesting.

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It was almost as if Rash decided that he wanted to write a book set in the logging industry of the Appalachians so that he could share his knowledge and love of the area and then needed a story to make it work. I read The Clearing by Tim Gatreaux a while back, also set in the logging industry after WW1 and while my recollections are hazy, the hard living, hard drinking culture and the atmosphere of the camp was much better explored by Gatreaux.

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It was almost as if Rash decided that he wanted to write a book set in the logging industry of the Appalachians so that he could share his knowledge and love of the area and then needed a story to make it work.
I would agree with that Jen, it just seems as if he didn't quite know the point of his story or what kind of story he was trying to tell. And unfortunately he hung most of his book on the weakest aspect which the publisher then promoted wrongly.

 

I read The Clearing by Tim Gatreaux a while back, also set in the logging industry after WW1 and while my recollections are hazy, the hard living, hard drinking culture and the atmosphere of the camp was much better explored by Gatreaux.
That may be the book for me then because I enjoyed what Rash included of that aspect.

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On finishing this, my first thought was that I never got the feeling of menace from the main pair, especially from Pemberton.

 

Secondly, I thought it was overly researched, as if he had the throw in every (now) archaic word he came across. It was trying too hard to be authentic.

 

The best thing was the 'Greek chorus' of the sawing gang with the preacher, the newspaper reader and the smoker.

 

Far from the best book I'll read this year, but not too bad.

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On finishing this, my first thought was that I never got the feeling of menace from the main pair, especially from Pemberton.
No, the only sense of menace I got was from Galloway - the unthinking assassin.

 

Secondly, I thought it was overly researched, as if he had the throw in every (now) archaic word he came across. It was trying too hard to be authentic.

That's funny, because one of my thoughts was that Rash didn't do enough with his use of language to recreate the period. How bizarre that we should think the opposite.

 

The best thing was the 'Greek chorus' of the sawing gang with the preacher, the newspaper reader and the smoker.

I agree - I very much liked the chorus of workers. I liked that they commented on all the action at the top of the food chain and how they missed little - making Serena not half as mysterious or clever as she thought she was (or Rash thought for that matter).

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That's funny, because one of my thoughts was that Rash didn't do enough with his use of language to recreate the period. How bizarre that we should think the opposite.

It wasn't his recreation of the period (which was more than OK) just that too many times he threw in a word that jarred. I'm sure it was perfectly authentic, but it didn't seem right within the sentence.

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I'm obviously reading a different imprint to the Canongate version. This is the cover of the book I read. Better?

 

n271904.jpg

 

I might need to see a certain Austrian nerve doctor, but to me that denuded peak at the top of the picture looks like a certain part of the female anatomy:

 

serena2u.jpg

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Have now finished this book, however, before I write any feedback can somebody please enlighten me as to who Jacob Ballard was, and more importantly what was his connection to Pemberton? :confused:

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He was the barefoot log roller who spent his money on gewgaws for a girl instead of boots. Drowned because of it.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Serena-Novel-Ron-Rash/dp/0061470856/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248514348&sr=1-1#reader

 

Not sure of any connection to Pemberton, except Pemberton did consider himself one of the workers and yearned to go back to working among them. Maybe he saw a younger version of himself in Jacob Ballard.

 

ETA: So 'search inside' won't let me link to a particular page. Thanks, Amazon. Use the above page and search for Jacob Ballard to remind yourself.

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"Not sure of any connection to Pemberton, except Pemberton did consider himself one of the workers and yearned to go back to working among them. Maybe he saw a younger version of himself in Jacob Ballard"

 

Thanks Adrian, I hadn't thought it like that - just that Pemberton picked up on the name Jacob Ballard in the previous chapter (chapter 22) when doing the payroll :

 

"Pemberton's eyes drifted to the bottom of the page, unable to shake the sensation of seeing the child's first name in print".

 

I thought he was perhaps reflecting/comparing the name to that of his own son with the Harmon girl, which then would perhaps explain why he then reacted so strongly when witnessing the boy's tragic death.

 

Just wanted to gauge other readers views on this as it was bothering me because I couldn't (at the time) explain it in my own mind . . . :)

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I thought he was perhaps reflecting/comparing the name to that of his own son with the Harmon girl, which then would perhaps explain why he then reacted so strongly when witnessing the boy's tragic death.

 

Just wanted to gauge other readers views on this as it was bothering me because I couldn't (at the time) explain it in my own mind . . . :)

Yes, the same first name must have resonated in Pemberton's mind. Maybe Pemberton was envisioning his own son and how he (his son) might end up later. Or maybe Jacob Ballard was another Pemberton bastard. Born to Galloway's mother, maybe.

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It was almost as if Rash decided that he wanted to write a book set in the logging industry of the Appalachians so that he could share his knowledge and love of the area and then needed a story to make it work. I read The Clearing by Tim Gatreaux a while back, also set in the logging industry after WW1 and while my recollections are hazy, the hard living, hard drinking culture and the atmosphere of the camp was much better explored by Gatreaux.
Jen before I read your comment I was going to agree with Hazel that the setting of the story - which features the hard life of the loggers, the high death toll in a non-unionised industry, the landscape, the struggle of the good guys to create a national park - was the best thing about it; but it seems even that has been done better elsewhere. I think you are dead right, Rash thought of the subject matter and was determined to hammer out a story at all costs.

 

Hazel has described perfectly how Rash creates flat, cardboard cut-out characters in Serena and her husband. Very little needs to be written about a protagonist to make them live on the page, but Rash simply does not have this gift. His attempt to make Serena mysterious and illustrate her psychopathic nature by making her blank simply makes her non-credible. Shakespeare gives Lady Macbeth very few lines to speak before we know her - and Serena is plainly Lady Macbeth transported to the Appalachians - but Rash could have written tomes about Serena and he would have got no nearer to creating her.

 

The structure of the novel does not do it any favours either. People get dropped into the story at awkward moments so that you are forced to go back to see where they could have made an entrance without you noticing. In the hands of a competent writer this can be compelling but here it is verging on the incompetent. Treve, it wasn't your fault you wondered who Jacob Ballard was and how he fitted into the story, it was just one of those jarring incidents Rash was trying and failing to weave into his narrative. Any flashback, and there are quite few needed to make things clear, appear dropped into the story like a brick.

 

Now, the few sentences where Ballard lost his life, that was a good piece of writing. The joshing between the men feels lively and credible and the hills are well described. It's a good job some lines are worth reading, because I think most of the book is very badly written indeed. Adrian, when you described certain words spoken by people as jarring, I think you were picking up on a feature of the book as a whole, not just the dialogue. What about:

 

"Dunbar, the youngest member of the crew at nineteen, turned towards the porch incomprehensively" ? or

 

"Pemberton met her eyes, and saw within Serena's gaze a stark unflinching uncertainty, as though to think otherwise was not just erroneous but unimaginable" or

 

"He allowed his gaze to follow the curved flex of Serena's back as she twisted to look out the windowpane, then down the tapering waist and on to the hips and the muscled calves and the ankles and finally the feet themselves, heels uplifted as Serena's weight balanced on the balls of her feet".

 

The sex scenes are inert.

 

Gosh, I feel I have been in prison and now I'm free to read whatever I like!

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One part that I did like was when Rachel was dodging Galloway at the train station. I thought this was the start of the "thrilling" last 100 pages as promised by a comment on the back. They weren't.

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I know we've already mentioned the fact that the woman on the front is completely different from the description given in the book of Serena - however I can't help but think of Kelly Brook when I look at the cover....which, luckily, isn't spoiling the book for me.

 

Not getting through it as fast as I'd like but that's nothing to do with the book which I am enjoying, more to do with lack of reading opportunity at the moment.

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