book review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

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SNAP by Belinda Bauer
★★☆☆☆
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018

 

I was ready and willing to be wowed by Snap, the crime novel supposedly innovative and subversive enough to make it onto this year’s Man Booker longlist. I’ve talked before about the near-impossibility of divorcing your experience with a book from the context in which you read it; who knows how I would have reacted to this if I’d approached it as a guilty-pleasure thriller and not as a Man Booker nominee, but I did read it as a Man Booker nominee, and I’m at a loss as to how this run-of-the-mill, anticlimactic, bland thriller was able to hoodwink five judges into thinking it’s anything more than a supremely underwhelming contribution to the genre (Val McDermid’s influence aside).

But I’ll start with the positives, because Snap did scrape by with two whole stars from me. It’s undoubtedly pacey and gripping, with a fantastic concept: a woman leaves her children in her broken-down car to go get help, and she’s found murdered a week later. It kept me reading and kept me wanting to know what was going to happen. I know that seems like it should be a given for a thriller, but having read many which fall flat on their faces in this regard, it is nice to read a proper page-turner. I liked the setting as well; for some reason crime novels set in small town England have a vibe that really works for me and this was no exception.

Now everything else.

Screw utmost serenity! She had to tell Adam! She had to tell the police!

The writing in this book was so dreadfully awful. I can only implore you not to participate in a drinking game where you take a sip every time you see an exclamation point, because you would be unconscious by page 20. For some reason, Bauer doesn’t believe that emphasis or gravitas can be achieved without embellishing her sentences with excessive punctuation, italics, or some combination of the two. It only serves to undermine the book’s darker themes as it’s written with the dramatic flair of a novelized soap opera.

At a glance the plot itself seems intricate as there are so many different characters who play some kind of key role, but when you start to examine it more closely you begin to realize how unconvincing it all is. There are just so many plot holes (a very unique and distinctive knife is used to commit a murder and the police never think to look into the sale of that knife?!) and coincidences (a boy just happens to burgle a random house and look in a man’s hiking boot to uncover the missing key to his dead mother’s murder investigation?!). Interestingly Bauer attempts to write herself a get out of jail free card on this account, as a character remarks:

He’d never worked a case where coincidence hadn’t played a part, either in the commission of the crime or the solving of it.

… which is undoubtedly true to life in a certain way, but it’s also a bit insulting to your reader, to pile coincidence on top of coincidence and try to pass that off as a well-crafted mystery. Some of these coincidences ended up being utterly inconsequential, too, like the fact that one of the investigating officers lives right next door to the family at the heart of the crime without even realizing it. It just didn’t add anything to the story except for a VERY flimsy moment toward the end where we’re informed by a ham-fisted plot point that their proximity actually did matter! (It didn’t.)

But the most insufferable thing about this book – aside from the exclamation points – was the fact that Bauer just shows her hand too early. The only subversive thing about this novel ends up being the fact that there really is no twist, no shocking reveal, just a resolution that plateaus far too early to make the payoff feel remotely rewarding. Watching police try to prove what the reader already knows is just as thrilling as it sounds.

And I can’t end this review without commenting again on this book’s inclusion on the Man Booker longlist, which in itself caused quite a stir, raising the age-old question of whether genre fiction belongs in a literary prize. When the list was first announced, I was excited by the fact that there was some variety, that we weren’t seeing the same names that are nominated year after year. And I’m still an advocate of genre fiction having a place in the Man Booker and other literary awards… provided that it’s really exemplary genre fiction. I see no reason why a superb crime novel shouldn’t be longlisted. The problem is, this wasn’t a superb crime novel. Not even close. And I’m frustrated that the Booker wasted an opportunity to expand literary readers’ horizons on this rather pointless and ill-constructed novel.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room

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49 thoughts on “book review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

    • Why thank you Amalia! I’m just so annoyed that the ‘oh no the Booker is dying a commercial death’ purists are going to look to this book as a reason not to let genre fiction onto the longlist. Genre fiction can be really extraordinary, but this one just wasn’t. Ugh.

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      • I agree with you. I am intrigued by Drnaso’s ”Sabrina” and I cannot wait for your thoughts on ”Milkman”. I’ve never had much luck with thrillers but if the writer is skilled and the premise is satisfying, then everything’s possible.

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      • I REALLY hope Sabrina isn’t another Snap situation where it’s just a mediocre graphic novel put on the list for the sake of diversity. But I’ve heard it’s quite good so I’m cautiously optimistic. I really do enjoy thrillers in a guilty pleasure kind of way, but I can’t read too many of them in a row as I get sick of them quite easily.

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      • I admit I used to be a bit dismissive of graphic novels as literary material but I’ve drastically changed my mind since I read ”Anya’s Ghost”. Booker-wise, the one that gives me trouble is ”The Mars Room”. I didn’t intend to read it but since you and Hannah enjoyed it, I think I need to read it soon.

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      • Looking up Anya’s Ghost now! I think the only graphic novel I’ve ever read is Fun Home which I adored, but I was already familiar with the musical and invested in Allison Bechdel… I’m just not crazy about the form. I was never into comic books when I was a kid so I never quite got the hang of how to read them. But yes, I’d highly recommend The Mars Room! It really exceeded my expectations. The two I’m dreading the most are Washington Black and The Overstory… I keep hearing fantastic things but they just don’t seem like my kind of books. But we shall see!

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      • I am almost through with ”Everything Under” and I can safely say it was one of the most unique books I’ve ever read. I have The Overstory (one more I need to start soon) , ”From a Low and Quit Sea” and ”Warlight” but ”Washington Black”, ”The Long Take” and ”In Our Mad and Furious City” don’t seem to attract my interest enough. And, naturally, it goes without saying that ”Normal People” gets a big NO from me…

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      • I’m SO excited for Everything Under! That will hopefully be my next one after Milkman if it arrives soon enough. I LOVED From a Low and Quiet Sea, of the four I’ve read that’s my favorite so far. I hope you enjoy it! The others I’m absolutely going to read are In Our Mad and Furious City, Warlight, Normal People (never read Rooney’s debut but contemporary Irish lit is kind of my thing)… so I guess the ‘wait and see how it goes’ ones are The Overstory, Washington Black, The Long Take, and Sabrina (not necessarily in that order). But yeah for the most part I’m really enjoying this list! Snap was the biggest disappointment so far.

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      • The whole ‘turmoil in working class London’ premise admittedly REALLY appeals to me, it just seems like my kind of book. But books written in slang can be really hit or miss for me. Just curious, as someone whose second language is English, do you struggle with those books at all? Your English is perfect but I’m just curious because I was talking to another ESL reader whose English is flawless, but she said books written in dialect are difficult for her to read.

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      • Oh, definitely, Rachel! I cannot understand 90% of English slang and I always have problems with accents. When I visited Liverpool, I was so desperate, I couldn’t understand a thing, I thought I was useless. Oddly enough, I don’t have much difficulty with the various Scottish and Irish dialects but English slang is an absolute mystery to me. I’ve tried my luck with books written in slang once or twice and I gave up.

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      • Totally understandable! Some Italian dialects are impossible for me, but then I’d say I’m more ‘proficient’ than ‘fluent’ so I was just curious if it was challenging for you even as a fluent English speaker. That’s so interesting though that Scottish and Irish accents don’t pose a problem though! My (100% English speaking American) mother can’t even understand some English accents. When you learn English in school do you typically study American or British English? I guess if you’re hearing British accents from a young age it wouldn’t be quite as tricky…

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      • I suppose that studying Scottish, Irish and Welsh in university helped a lot, otherwise it would be impossible to understand them. There are dialects and accents in Greece that are completely incomprehensible. I cannot understand a single word, nothing. When I was a child, we used to study British English almost exclusively. Now, we focus on British English but once the children reach the upper-intermediate level we introduce them to American and Australian English. They find it a lot easier and more accessible.

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      • Oh, interesting! I’m so fascinated by language learning and I envy children their language acquisition abilities. I’d never have thought that some Greek dialects are that different, it seems like such a small country geographically! I mean, I guess with all the islands that makes sense… Still very interesting! I think they teach British English in Italy as well, but whenever I asked Italians about this they said they found the American accent much easier to understand.

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      • Exactly. Each archipelago has its own accent, some islands have an entirely different dialect than their neighbours. Things become mighty difficult in the mountain regions, especially Macedonia and Thessaly. Their accent is extremely thick and there are villages in Macedonia whose dialects are very similar to the languages of the Balkan countries. I have a lot of Serbian friends who either live in Thessaloniki or visit Greece often, and they can understand these particular dialects with little effort whereas I just sit and listen, understanding nothing…

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      • Regarding Ancient Greek, there are over 50 regional dialects. I mean, we are a mess, aren’t we? We can understand fragments from the Athenian dialect mostly but there is a special faculty in our universities where we study Ancient Greek, translation and interpretation. Otherwise, for us laymen it is like another foreign language.

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    • I know, I was aiming for more diplomatic than petty, but this didn’t turn out half as bitchy as I had initially intended. Alas. Gotta step up my griping game. It DID have the readability factor going for it though so I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t a slog, just a plot-hole ridden mess.

      The infuriating thing about the ending was that the whodunnit was given away about 40% into the book (I mean, there’s some question about it, but it literally IS the most obvious answer possible), so I technically guessed the ending but was also trying to invent elaborate theories that would make it a bit more interesting?! I needn’t have bothered.

      Ugh, Ruth Ware. I’ve only read The Woman in Cabin 10 which I found disastrously awful.

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  1. This was so satisfying to read, so I can only imagine how good it felt to write! – I threw in that exclamation point just to make sure I’m on brand. Thinking about it, the overuse of them is kind of ironically emblematic of the whole book; obvious, melodramatic, and in your face. No nuance whatsoever, and as we’ve discussed, a sadly wasted opportunity 🙁

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    • This is why I finish terrible books, for the satisfaction of sitting down and writing a rant that comes about 500x more easily than a 5-star review. Why would I want to deprive myself of this?! I admittedly considered ending every sentence of my review in an exclamation point before deciding it would be too obnoxious, but I’m not sure I managed to get the point across about JUST HOW MANY there were… I really wish I could search the book for ‘!’ but when I type that in I get ‘no results found’ because my Kindle is a LIAR. But yes, SUCH a wasted opportunity for the Booker to spotlight some fantastic genre fiction. I’m so annoyed.

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  2. This is a stellar review. I just finished reading and reviewing Snap as well, and waited to read your thoughts. I agree with basically everything you’ve mentioned- especially what a shame it is that Snap was the choice for a crime novel on a literary list. I doubt it will generate much positive opinion, which is so sad because it is nice to see some variety on the list.

    A small difference for me was that I didn’t notice the exclamation points as much as the Italics- somehow my brain can skip over extreme punctuation but never the annoying overly-emphatic tone that I associate with Italics. I truly believe that any reasonable reader can find the emphasis in a well-worded sentence without having it pointed out; Italics and exclamation points are little more than shortcuts. Also considering the coincidences in the plot, it seems like Bauer took a lot of shortcuts that muddied what could have been a great story.

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    • Why thank you! I’ll go check out your review in a minute. I completely agree, I find it so frustrating that people are going to hold up this book as a reason why genre fiction shouldn’t be eligible for the Booker, especially when really excellent genre fiction has been nominated and has won in the past. This was tragically a wasted opportunity, because even if they just put a crime novel on the list as a publicity stunt, they could have picked a better one. (Though I’ve heard that Bauer and McDermid have the same agent, so that would explain quite a lot if true… though it still doesn’t explain how 4 other judges just went along with this.)

      That’s so funny, I was the exact opposite! I only started noticing the Italics about halfway through, and in general I find that they don’t bother me quite as much as an excessive use of exclamation points. But I totally agree that both are just lazy ways to achieve emphasis in a way that a better-worded sentence could have easily done. And I like your parallel between the plot device shortcuts and the writing shortcuts. There was so much wasted potential with this book.

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      • The judges should definitely have put more effort into finding a GOOD crime novel if their intent with Snap was simply to include one. A shared agent could explain it, though it’s absolutely a tragedy that connections like that can matter more than quality in a list like this. It’s a lose-lose, for both thriller and prize list readers to encounter Snap as a Booker nominee- that connection doesn’t seem like much of a compliment either to the longlist or to Snap, which will probably face harsher reviews because readers are expecting more from list nominees than the average thriller.

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      • Yes, for sure! I’ve been watching its Goodreads rating drop steadily ever since the announcement, and I can’t help but to feel a bit sorry for it as it’s now being judged by so many people up against what are just objectively better books.

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      • Ooh, that would be interesting to see. I don’t remember it’s rating from when the longlist was announced, but I can’t say I’m surprised. That really is too bad for Snap, even if it is getting more attention for being listed.

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  3. I was considering trying this anyway, but so much of this sounds like dealbreaker stuff to me and I just cannot waste my time on endless exclamation points right now. Even though I love to use them online!

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  4. […] 13. Snap by Belinda Bauer Quick summary: Jack’s mother disappears and a week later is found dead, and years later Jack is looking after his younger siblings while attempting to get to the bottom of her murder. Quick review: Val McDermid, we’re not mad because a thriller was on the longlist; we’re mad because it was a shit thriller. Full review HERE ★★☆☆☆ […]

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  5. […] 9. Snap by Belinda Bauer.  If you haven’t read Snap, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the sheer amount of vitriol for this novel and its Man Booker nomination may stem from snobbery and a bias against genre fiction.  If you have read Snap, you will know that that is not at all the case.  This novel is filled with plot holes wider than the Grand Canyon.  I don’t even know what the worst part was: the running commentary on how pregnant women are essentially moronic (apparently ‘baby brain’ doesn’t mean ‘where did I leave my car keys,’ it means ‘my house was broken into and the burglar left a death threat on my pillow, but I won’t tell my husband, I don’t want to worry him!’), the fact that the police literally used a teenage child to help them with an investigation by having him break into someone’s house, or the fact that the killer’s motive was so contrived and contradictory that the entire premise of the novel falls apart once the whodunnit is confirmed.  (*Spoiler: the murderer killed Jack’s mom because they ‘snapped’ in a moment of madness, but the murder itself involved kidnapping this woman and driving her to another location, bringing her out into a field, and stabbing her, all of which took some sort of premeditation and lasted something like half an hour…?  Can a ‘moment of madness’ last half an hour?!)  Full review here. […]

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