• Jack Wells

Book Review - Pretty Marys All In A Row by Gwendolyn Kiste

Updated: Jul 26, 2018

A decidedly un-scary tale of five "scary" Marys that had huge potential...and just BARELY missed the mark.

One of the shortest and most frustrating reads of 2018 for me, Pretty Marys all in a Row really had the potential to be something truly amazing. But though the initial concept is quite unique (and just damn cool as well), author Gwendolyn Kiste just couldn’t quite stick the landing. And that was where the frustration came from; I really really REALLY wanted this book to deliver on the awesome premise. And damn, just look at that cover!

The highway, my forever companion, is a trimming of black satin before me, and I stand perfectly still at the center of it, the soles of my heels resting on the solid yellow lines.

The odd thing with PMAIAR is that it starts out quite good, but loses focus as it goes. This is one of the only books I recall reading that doesn’t get better as you progress through it. Most of the time, a book takes a minute to really get going, as the author has to find the right balance of plot and character building. Then, a few chapters in, everything coalesces and the book takes off. Sadly, the opposite is true here. Gwendolyn Kiste starts everything off perfectly, with some beautifully composed sentences and a tight and intriguing narrative, but then she either tried to rush to the ending or simply didn’t have much of a plan for where to go after her characters were introduced. Whatever the case may be, the ending just feels incomplete and too simply resolved.

As with all of my reviews, if at all possible, I will keep spoilers to a minimum. If it’s not mentioned in the official book synopsis, I will do my level best to avoid mentioning it here.

But regardless of my personal nitpicks, make no mistake, this is absolutely my kind of book. Dead & tragic girls haunting the living and literally feeding off their fear? Check. A little bit of supernatural mystery? Check. Bizarre rules for the afterlife (even without a Handbook for the Recently Deceased)? Check! I thoroughly loved what was established here, and I wanted much more of it. But though we are given a great setting and characters with some solid built-in backstory potential, none of it is explored in a satisfying way.

Though Bloody Mary features in the book, she is not the main character. That honor is reserved for Resurrection Mary, who haunts a lonely stretch of mountain highway, terrifying those foolish enough to offer her a ride. She is our only POV character, so the rest of the undead Marys are seen and explained through her viewpoint. Each Mary has a neat defining trait, but sadly aren’t developed much past that. Resurrection Mary is a decent enough protagonist; she cares for her ghostly sisters, she has a yearning and tragic love for a mortal man, and she has a love/hate relationship with scaring the living. I liked that she refused to just accept her ghostly status, and kept trying to push the boundaries and rules, even though she rarely knows what they are. Sadly, because this book is so short, we really don’t get to know much more about her.

He wanted a make-out session, but I guess I’ve never kissed quite the way the boys like.

That goes for her “sisters” as well. Other scary Marys from history (real or otherwise) are present, but they are barely fleshed out (so to speak). Bloody Mary gets the most page time (though she is trapped behind a mirror and can’t actually physically interact with anyone) as she and Resurrection Mary are friends. But we also have Mary Mack (perpetually working on a coffin), Mistress Mary (always working in her garden, and with the visage of a plant), and Mari Lwyd (carrying a horse skull and far too petulant for her own good). And aside David (Resurrection Mary’s mortal love interest) and his daughter, these are the only characters we really get. Sure, there are few of the folks that the various Marys haunt, but they are only present for a few pages.

We still breathe, though our lungs take in no air. Our bodies are skilled at make-believe, carrying out the sacraments of lives we lost long ago. It aches inside me how close we are to existing yet how agonizingly far away.

The story’s antagonist is also a missed opportunity, which is a shame, as he had potential. His whole reason for keeping the Marys tethered to the one house was something that should have been expanded on, as it could have provided more depth and danger than it actually did. Much like the various Marys, because this book was so short, we barely have time to feel the threat from the villain before the big confrontation. I say big, but it actually really wasn’t. He goes down rather easily, which is especially strange given how strong he is supposed to be. It’s really a case of evil for the sake of evil, and that never bodes well for a villain.

For a story about ghostly spirits that haunt the living for their sustenance, there really isn’t much actual scaring going on. These are pre-teen level scares at best. Again, so much potential, but not enough pages actually dedicated to said potential. Unfortunately, that seems to be just how the book is. So many cool things that are not explored, or introduced but never built upon. We never know why anything is, it just is because it is.

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary. How does your garden grow? Not with silver bells and cockle shells, that’s for sure. More like barbs and venom and insults.

What gets the most page time by far is the doomed love between Resurrection Mary and David. Though I rarely like how love stories are handled in books, I actually really enjoyed this tragic little love dynamic, even though David is married and has a child, not to mention that he’s alive and Mary isn’t. I liked that he and Mary had a history, and that neither of them was unable to let go, even though they knew nothing could come from their attraction. It came across as innocent and heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time, which is how love really feels. I also like that it doesn’t quite play out like you think it will. So kudos to Gwendolyn Kiste for NOT taking the easy road with that part of the story.

The shadows reveal the deep grooves around his eyes and the sunspots speckling his cheeks. Peaks and valleys, the topography of a life. He ages, but I do not, and we both envy the other for it.

Ultimately, I feel that this is one of those books that would be perfect for a re-write and expansion. It’s one hell of a cool world that has been established, and everything could be fleshed out and expanded upon to give much greater impact. Gwendolyn Kiste obviously has the chops; she just needs to let her story breathe and grow.

3 out of 5 "missed it by THAT much" stars!

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