Friday, January 19, 2024

Karen S Wiesner: The Conundrum of Spoilers or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling

The Conundrum of Spoilers

or {Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling

by Karen S. Wiesner

Several criteria guide book-buying strategies, which is something I've spoken of at length in articles as well as in my book Writing Blurbs That Sizzle--And Sell! (Fiction Fundamentals, Book 7). Personalizing those standards, here's what guides my decisions on whether or not to commit to purchasing a book to read:

First and foremost, for me, is the author. If it's one I've loved his or her past offerings, that may be all that's necessary for me to sweep up every new release and get to the checkout ASAP. If it's an author who I inconsistently enjoy their work or a brand-new writer for me, I may waffle about buying. The format, price, genre, and subject matter would all have to come into play for me to cross the threshold of firm decision in whether to buy something from them.

Second, whether the book is available as a paperback almost always plays a significant role in my choice. There are almost no authors I would automatically buy a hardcover book for. In my opinion, hardcovers are too expensive, unless you can get them on sale. I only buy ebooks if there are no other formats available--because I spend far too many hours every single day looking at screens, it's hard for me to choose electronic reading material for pleasure, given the strain on my eyes and brain. Inevitably, I wait until the paperback edition is available before buying, period, even for my most favorite authors. However, I do occasionally make exceptions.

The third factor for me is the genre. If I'm sold on the previous two criteria and it's a horror story, it's a done deal--as in, I can't get to the cash register fast enough. My second favorite genre is (sigh!) all other genres. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, Regency romance, thriller…you name it. I wish I could choose between them, but they're all in constant competition with each other and my interest at a particular moment.

Back cover blurbs tend to be the tie-breaker for all the previous directives, and it's the make-it-or-break-it point of whatever came before. If the back cover blurb doesn't sell me, that's it. It's either hello, or sorry thanks for coming goodbye. Most importantly, a blurb can't be too short. I need to know who the characters are, what they're facing, and what the stakes are. I want details up until the point of spoilers but never beyond. If I don't get the information I need in a blurb, little can convince me to move forward since the risk of buying something that doesn't have enough persuasive evidence to warrant spending money and time on is too great for me. Though back cover blurbs are the fourth and last factor in whether or not I may a book purchase, it's the one that plays the most significant role in my decision.

Note: Cover art and reviews--bad or good--aren't considerations in my book-buying choices even one iota. I would buy a book with a cover that doesn't appeal to me if it meets my four crucial requirements. As for reviews, I don't read them at all until the book has been purchased and I'm just about to start reading it. I absolutely hate it when a back cover blurb is little more than a publisher thrusting a fistful of reviews or accolades at me in place of the blurb, like most book distributors (Amazon!!!) do these days, as if any of that matters to me in the least.

Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling has had many genres attached to it. I think psychological horror sums it up best. Some reviews mentioned science fiction as a potential genre, but I don't really see how that fits after having read it. (Too much of a stretch in my mind to classify this title that way.) Techno-thriller could also fit because there is a lot of technical information given about physics, technology, computers, engineering, etc. In any case, the horror aspects were what appealed most to me for this story.

I was eagerly awaiting Starling's next release, given how much I enjoyed two of her previous books. See my reviews for them here:

The Luminous Dead:


The Death of Jane Lawrence:

The basic idea of this story is that a brilliant scientist with almost no moral boundaries embarks on ground-breaking research that leads to the city she's living in sinking. She's funded by an equally immoral corporation--though it's respectable on the surface--that retains a "bully" who makes sure none of the prone-to-lunacy scientists goes too far off the edge of the world. The scientist's own private research is actually the cause of what's happening to the city and that makes the consequences not only diabolically personal but universally dangerous.

The hardcover and ebook editions came out October 10, 2023. I held out until November 11, 2023, hoping to see the paperback release become imminent in that time. For reasons involving reaching a low point in my TBR pile and the additional motivation of Christmas only a month away, but mainly because I was very eager to read this author's next book (the genre and blurb utterly sold me), I decided to splurge and get the hardcover.

After I held the hardback with the wraparound paper cover art in my hands, I studied the cover for a long time. It was an interesting design, showing eight women who all looked identical. One of the women, the one in the spotlight, sat at the bottom of a staircase and was the central focus of the design. The others were obviously listening to her and giving her their attention. The fact that they so closely resembled each other intrigued me. Having read the back cover blurb earlier, before my purchase of the book, I started to form clear ideas about what the book's central themes were.

Next, I re-read the back cover blurb that was printed on the inner leaf of the slipcover. From there, I had a very strong concept of the plot. This was followed by reading the back cover of the book, which had no fewer than nine reviews put forth from other authors of the genre, I assume (I'd never heard of any of them, though some accolades were included for most of them). The reviews stunned me a little bit because they gave away what felt like crucial elements of the story conflict that I wasn't sure should have been leaked prematurely.

Let me inject here that I've never understood what people consider spoilers. An article on Wikipedia states that, "A spoiler is an element of a disseminated summary or description of a media narrative that reveals significant plot elements, with the implication that the experience of discovering the plot naturally, as the creator intended it, has been robbed of its full effect." On the sitcom Big Bang Theory, Sheldon calls a spoiler anything revealed that "pre-blows" the mind; as in, the only place the mind can and should be blown is where the writer intended shock and awe to dazzle like fireworks within the viewer's individual brain.

The only part I've ever been sure of when it comes to spoilers is that I'm apparently guilty of giving crucial information away too often. I've lost count of how many people have screamed out in the middle of an active discussion "Spoiler!", as if I committed a murder or worse. I know people who won't read a synopsis of a book, movie, or videogame in advance because those handful of words might wreck something for them. How do they know if it's something they'll like without reading even that much? I don't get it. Even after being called on it, I can't fathom why the perfectly innocuous thing I'd said is being viewed as an illegal revelation of vital plot elements that would have otherwise been an awestruck surprise to the one who hadn't yet read the story, seen the film, or played the videogame.

To so many people, spoilers are a serious miscarriage of justice. In the past, for me, I've actually enjoyed spoilers. I'm the type of person who reads as much as possible about a story (whether it's a book, a movie, or a videogame) in advance of submerging in it. For videogames in particular, I prefer not to have big surprises hit me while I'm immersed. I always read in-depth walkthroughs in their entirety before undertaking any game I'm interested in. I don't want to miss anything vital to gaining the best possible ending just because I didn't realize I had to say something specific that isn't obvious to anyone but the game developers. It's possible to miss or lose so much in videogames if you're not aware in advance of the event that causes potentially disastrous consequences. I once played a game that took about 25 minutes from start to finish. I solved all the extremely challenging puzzles, made the correct choices, and did literally everything right. I had a single misstep. I said something I didn't realize was even a bad thing to say; at the time, it seemed like the best choice of the few options I was given. The ramifications of that decision led to an ending that didn't seem fair. Though it was a short game, it was an exhausting one that I didn't want to ever repeat. I rue now that I didn't read a walkthrough first so I could avoid the seemingly fatal mistake of not reading the developer's minds. I haven't made that mistake since.

In any case, for books and movies, I need to read the back cover blurbs, any reviews I come across, and if I happen to hear too much detail in advance on social media or elsewhere, I don't mind. For mysteries or psychological thrillers, I generally guess the finer details almost immediately after starting the story. As a writer, I love the reverse engineer process of that. It doesn't ruin anything for me. If anything, it makes it more exciting for me as a writer. Yes, a twist is always welcome in any type of story, but, up until Last to Leave the Room, I'd have to say I've never minded spoilers at all, no matter how explicit and thorough. Ultimately, I'd say I've had a major blind spot where spoilers are concerned.

With Last to Leave the Room, something happened to me that I'm not sure has ever occurred before except in the case of most of M. Night Shyamalan's films, where the big reveal will forever change the story for me as I initially knew it. While most of Shyamalan's movies are still really good once I know the core element, that big twist in the story is the point of it for me. I don't want that ruined in advance. His promoters are good at telling the fringe edges of the story in the blurb and previews so nothing crucial is ever given away thereby wrecking the shocking twist to come.

After viewing the cover for this particular Starling tale, followed by reading the blurb and reviews slipcover, I felt like I went into starting the story with far too much information--revealed with too on-point cover art and reviews that sabotaged the jolt I'd been looking forward to getting while reading the story. I guess without really realizing it, I'd allowed this author to be the one I wanted to give me a horrifying shock or several in the course of reading her books, the same way I feel about Shyamalan movies. For the first time, I really understood why people got mad at me for, in essence, telling the punch line of a joke before giving the lead-up.

For those who don't mind spoilers, I'll include details below in very small writing about what it was that was "spoiled" or given away before I started reading Last to Leave the Room. If you don't want spoilers, don't read it and don't look at the book cover or reviews too closely.

The cover of the book shows nine identical women, eight of whom are circled around the central figure in the light, who's obviously the leader, almost looking like she's teaching them. Given that the back cover blurb speaks of the main character Tamsin finding a door in her basement that wasn't there before the distorting dimensions leading to accelerated subsidence affecting the entire city of San Siroco, and that an exact physical copy of Tamsin emerges from that door, it was easy to deduce that whatever this phenomenon destroying the city is, it creates doppelgängers--possibly many of them. In fact, Tamsin's cat also gains its own doppelgänger early in the story, after Tamsin's copy emerges. So I went into the story aware this would be the focus of the story. Reviews on the back cover talk about other focuses and conflicts, like gender, identity, and memory being central in the story premise. All of the things in this paragraph led to further deductions on my part, which were borne out almost exactly how I imagined they would be in reading the actual story.

I read through the first part of the book (titled "The City", comprising the first 28 pages), the second "The Door" (40 pages), and the third "The Double" (136 pages) with almost no surprises revealed that I hadn't already figured out before I ever started reading the book. I'll also add that on page 96, I felt compelled to re-read the back cover blurb and realized that the blurb contained information that was either highly inaccurate or wildly misleading. Again, so I can't be criticized for spoilers, here's what that is below, in tiny print that you'll really have to strain to read if you want to know:

The back cover blurb states emphatically that, at the bottom of the stairs, Tamsin "finds a door that didn't exist before--and one night, it opens to reveal an exact physical copy of her." Point of fact, the door never actually opened in the story at the point before the doppelgänger appeared. If it did, it happened off-screen. Which is to say, it didn't happen at all, or the author was trying to trick the reader--blatant cheating when it comes to giving readers foundational facts. The opening of that door is a pivotal conflict in the story! In fact, the opening of the door is almost shown to be impossible throughout the story until the end. So telling the reader in so blasé a fashion in the blurb that the door opened (when it won't and can't and seems unlikely to within the story) and Tamsin's copy came out of it when the reader would find out soon enough that that event happened off-screen was beyond toleration for me. As a reader, I was denied seeing that take place within the story. I see this as a gross error on the part of the author or the publisher, or blatant cheating. Either that part of the blurb was accidentally or deliberately wrong, or it's wildly misleading, and, as such, in my opinion, is completely unfair.

Readers have to be given certain, foundational facts in the setup of a story. On the face of it, those foundations have to be valid from start to finish, or there have to be at least two very different perspectives that are equally true in order to justify the setup. Any alteration has to feel natural and be properly built-in from the beginning. In this case, I don't believe it was. I feel this inaccuracy unfairly altered and colored my perceptions pre-read. At the very least, I believe the word "presumably" should have been added to the blurb (in the area I spoke of in my last spoiler paragraph) in order to allow it to stand where it does as a foundational fact. Providing that one little word would have allowed me to feel satisfied on this point. I would have accepted everything as is with its inclusion. Without it, I couldn't help feeling that I'd been unreasonably deceived from the off by the author. This eroded some of my trust in the author-reader contract. I believe I will be wary about the next book she offers and worried she won't play fair again.

By way of review, Last to Leave the Room is certainly one of the slowest moving stories I've ever read. That's not a criticism per se because I genuinely enjoyed the story, but, given that I basically knew everything foundational about the story before I started reading it, 205 pages of developing the characters, themes, and conflicts did seem a little excessive in the process of reading them--despite how well-written and compelling those pages were.

Additionally, I was put off by the present tense perspective the story was told in. On her website, the author said the reason she wrote the book this way was "in an attempt to capture that transitory feeling, of existing only in that moment in the narrative with no promise of a future, and an at times fast-receding glimpse of the past." Regardless, I lost track of how many times I had to read and re-read sentences because the present tense didn't sound quite right and I had to figure out where I was getting confused before continuing. In all cases, the present tense was the reason for why I became tripped up.

My final bit of criticism before I get into the good stuff is that Starling almost seems incapable of writing a protagonist that I as a reader can feel the slightest bit of sympathy for. She sets up a thoroughly unlikeable cast that, instead of growing, and maturing, and learning from mistakes, disintegrates page by page and frequently becomes an outright villain by the end. [It's this very reason I didn't enjoy Starling's novella "Yellow Jessamine". Absolutely nothing was redeemable by the end of that twisted little tale.] These are the kinds of characters you come to hate and secretly wish for the worst to happen to them instead of the best. As a writer myself, I don't understand that mentality in developing characters. I want readers to come to love, empathize with, and root for my characters. Could authors who create utterly despicable main characters actually want readers to root for their character's demise, pumping their fists in victory when the consequences of bad behavior inevitably come a-knockin'? I can't begin to fathom this. Regardless, I still find this author's stories utterly compelling, if for no other reason than that you simply can't walk away from these train wrecks without seeing how they resolve, satisfactorily if not happily.

On the plus side, the fourth and last section of the book gave me everything I was looking for in a Caitlin Starling novel. There was shock, disgust, horror, awe, unexpected developments, validation of several theories I'd been playing with throughout, and the answer that was pretty close to what I'd predicted before actually starting the book felt justified and captivating. I especially loved the explanation of the title. In fact, it may be what I loved most about the book. I apologize to those of you who don't care about spoilers having to read the next tiny paragraph, but in an effort not to be shouted at for revealing a spoiler, though I can't see how, here's how the title fits in with the story (and matches the cover art):

Tamsin reads endless theories, arguments, psychoanalytic reviews, and stories about doubles. In most of them, the doppelgänger causes destruction. The original usually tries to kill the double and is harmed in the process. Sometimes it disappears, other times it's the last one standing. Ultimately, the original always loses. In one particular yarn, the devil teaches black magic to seven students. The last one to leave each night forfeits his or her soul. In the case of a doppelgänger, that "shadow" is always the last to leave the room, so that's what the devil takes as payment.

While it took me two weeks to read Parts 1-3 of Last to Leave the Room, I read Part 4 in about two days, actually getting up at one a.m. one night to read more as the noose tightened. Ultimately, I found this story worth the price I paid for the hardcover. Starling never fails to deliver an impactful story with an explosive ending.

That said, I'm left with conundrums I've rarely had before about whether front-loading a story with what could easily be considered spoilers (even with my previous, blasé tolerance of them) can or will adversely influence the reading experience. About the closest I can come to an accurate response is that any spoilers, some spoilers, a lot of spoilers--it's all subjective. In the case of this novel, I was put off by what I felt was too much pivotal information being given in advance of reading a single word of it--almost to the point of fury. To add to my confusion, after finishing the book and just before writing this review, I went to the author's website. I found two essay/articles there concerning this particular story, and both gave away so much information about the plot that I was certain had I read either of them in advance, I wouldn't have enjoyed the book at all. They left little or nothing for me to discover on my own in the process of reading.

This experience leaves me with uncertainty about something that, in the past, before reading this particular title, I would have responded to very differently: At what point is a surfeit of information given in advance about the plot of a story overkill or buzz-kill, so that there's almost no point to reading the book since you can already guess the core elements? I simply don't know. Anyone else want to give it a try?

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful discussion! I don't mind spoilers unless it's something extreme such as knowing the killer before reading a mystery for the first time. I tend to agree with a writer (don't remember who) who said a story that can be "spoiled" by knowing elements in advance isn't worth spoiling. Our youngest "child" (age 41) is just the opposite. She won't even read a cover blurb if avoidable. As for reviews, I depend on them heavily in trying to decide whether I want to get a book by an author new to me. They provide much more information than a blurb does. And at this stage in my life, yes, I DO automatically buy hardcover new releases by my favorite authors rather than wait. Although I still wince if the Amazon price isn't discounted to the extent I expect.