Book Review: “Base Notes” by Lara Elena Donnelly

I got this book as part of Amazon Firsts, where you get a free book a month or so before the main release. From the blurb that accompanied the text, it sounded very good and reminded me of another Amazon Firsts book, “These Toxic Things” by Rachel Howzell, that I had recently read. With my research on memorialisation, these sorts of books will always pique my interest. “These Toxic Things” disappointed me a bit, and to some degree “Base Notes” did too, but it has many strengths.

The book is written from the view point of the protagonist and on the whole is very engaging. There were a few things that took me a while to click with though.

First, the chapters tend to start with a description of a perfume – not knowing anything about perfumes and how they are created and what the various terms mean, this lost me initially. Given that the protagonist makes perfumes, there would have been scope to explain more about what they mean and the role. Perhaps this did come (later on), but it could have been helpful to have it near the start. But, in the end, my lack of understanding didn’t matter as I enjoyed the familiarity it brought and how it got my mind thinking about what would be happening in that chapter.

Second, I was glad that I was reading the Kindle version as there seemed to be a word on almost every page – at least in the first half of the book – where I needed to check what it meant. I’m not sure why this was. Perhaps it was the nature of some of the subject matter. Perhaps it’s a difference between British and American English. Perhaps it’s another case (I blame “Silence of the Lambs” for this trend) where certain types of criminals have to be portrayed, in some way, as being above ordinary intelligence. Whatever the reason, it was a distraction – but only a minor one thanks to the in-built dictionary.

Although many of the chapters are very long, I found the style engaging. There are some breaks in chapters – though it’s not always clear why the break was needed.

But, as engaging as the book was and how I felt I was getting through the story, I was surprised how long it took to finish it in the end. The reason, in my view, is that the book was longer than it needed to be. The last quarter or so, just seemed to go too far. It could have stopped sooner. I would even have been happier with a sequel than the last part of the book. I have written elsewhere about the importance of having “Pillars of Truth” in books/films and how these help in making the unbelievable believable – or at least getting you to a point where you don’t care about the unbelievable elements. This book does have “pillars of truth”, but by the last quarter, the pillars had collapsed for me. Some reviewers have said the last part felt rushed. I see that. But I think it’s more that the book just tried to do too much. Less would have been more.

A couple of lines really hit home in relation to my work on symbolism and also my own novel writing, and, indeed, my research writing, particularly as I do more autoethnographic work,

First,

But, as with all other arts, we are hindered—or developed, elevated, evolved—by the interpretation of our audience. We can provide the content, the experience, the thing. What it means to others, how it lands? All we can do is hope.

Also

isn’t all art created for its artist first?

Both of these bits of text really made me stop and think. This is one of the purposes of literature – to help us think about what we see, feel, and experience in the “real world”.

Personally, I would have had a different ending to “Base Notes” – but I don’t want to say more as it will spoil your reading if you do read it. Which you probably should as it is – on the most part – a very good book.

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