Book Review: Saving Phoebe Murrow by Herta Freely

Saving Phoebe Murrow by Herta Freely

Upper Hand Press LLC, September 2016

spm-high-res-coverA book can be read many ways. Some people want only entertainment while others enjoy exploring a social issue or delving into a particular message while reading. Nearly everyone is looking for some level of quality in the writing, at a minimum prose that keeps their attention either by moving briskly or by building the details of a fictional world that consumes readers with a unique time and place.

When reading a book for a review (and as a reader), I look at two distinct areas. First comes the storytelling skills: character development, scenic development, and pacing. Second is the context: the takeaway, whether it’s a message or simply an emotion, that readers hold after they finish the last page.

Because these two elements can end up on opposite sides of the ranking scale, occasionally the reviews I write are mixed. That is clearly the case with Saving Phoebe Murrow. 

Since storytelling is so important to most readers, I’ll address these elements first. And be warned that it’s going to sound harsh.

The first few chapters are promising and lead readers directly into the lives of the major players: the career-minded mother, and the gentle and intelligent daughter who is already dealing with psychological issues.

Eventually readers recognize the flaws of the other players, mainly a husband who has already strayed from his vows and the mother of Phoebe’s friend who is clearly not emotionally balanced. And even in the way this review talks about the characters presents one of the primary issues, the flat, two-dimensional antagonist.

The antagonist is the friend’s mother. She is preoccupied by sex primarily because she uses sex to manipulate others. Quite frankly, that’s about all you need to know about this character, and in too true a way, that’s all readers are shown about her. She is never developed beyond that.

Readers learn quite a number of backstory elements about her but they all funnel into why she is the way she is. But without any depth to the backstory, the information doesn’t give her character any broadness of emotions. Readers feel no empathy for her. And there’s really nothing worse than a villain who is only a villain and not a human being with different aspects.

Providing a two-dimensional antagonist means that the primary characters don’t have anything real to work against. And that means that their own development remains thin. Although mother and daughter interact in many scenes, their relationship doesn’t really have the emotional charge that it should. The moment when the mother confirms her fears that Phoebe has begun cutting herself again should be a tragic moment but doesn’t move readers much.

The problem isn’t that readers never see the characters in action but that the writing itself is more functional than prosaic. No novel “needs” to be written with flowery literary skill but it should be more than a map from point A to point Z. The narrative and the dialog both are middling, but since the emotions are anything but average, the style doesn’t meet the needs of the story or the context.

This explains the number of other reviews that talk about the sagging middle where attention wandered away from the story. None of the characters are developed to the point where they really grab readers, and that’s a real shame. The book’s context, the backdrop of our real world where cyberbullies torment their victims, needs to be addressed.

And that’s where Saving Phoebe Murrow turns the corner. The message embedded in this work is so important, and there are so few works out there that take a realistic approach in a fictional context, that this story is really very valuable.

Fortunately, that value is actually enhanced by the prose style. This work isn’t categorized as YA, yet it would be very appropriate for young adult readers. Parents can therefore be secure in offering this work to their teens and, after reading it themselves, parents can then engage in a thoughtful and important conversation about cyberbullying.

So, to the ranking. Storytelling elements fall at 2. The context and the way it’s handled comes in at 3.5 with an additional point due to the importance of the message for our modern world, so the final score is 4.5. Averaging those two yields an overall rank of 3.25.

Readers interested in applying parenting skills or learning coping skills for life’s most common issues that are based on traditional tribal wisdom should check out Seven Sisters: Spiritual Messages from Aboriginal Australia.

Check back here tomorrow for an excerpt from the book. On Friday, this blog will feature a guest post from the author, and on Saturday a copy of the book will be given away.

I received a copy of the book in order to write this review.

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