LENGTH: 80-100 k
EDITOR: Renni Browne, The Editorial Department
COVER DESIGNER: N S Brown
In the opening scene of Birthdays of a Princess, a girl named Tiara viciously attacks and maims a woman in a Vancouver Starbucks and cannot recall why. Tiara is placed into custody, refusing to see her mother, and an aging detective sets out to identify the victim and understand what motivated the attack. The story of Tiara’s upbringing in Texas participating in child beauty pageants and what Tiara and her mother thought was modeling work is parsed out in bits through Tiara’s returning memory, the investigative breakthroughs of the detective, and the partial recollections of Tiara’s mother, who ceded much of Tiara’s upbringing and career management to her sister-in-law, Gracie.
Because it is a psychological thriller, it is structured as many thrillers are, with the slow reveal of information intended to leave the reader wondering to the very end who was involved in what and what the final twist will be. This withholding of information always presents a challenge for writers with regard to what to tell when, and can lead to characters thinking of, or alluding to “things” while the reader is kept in the dark. Zeiner adds in Tiara’s temporary memory loss to allow for the slow sharing of information through Tiara’s journal entries regarding each of her birthdays. There were times when this set up felt a bit forced, and the characters at the beginning lacked the clarity required for the reader to understand or empathize with them. However, once the actual dispersing of information started a third of the way through the book, Tiara and the detective started to become more relatable and the book became an absolute page-turner.
By the end of the book, the reader was rooting for Tiara and the detective, and the bad characters managed, not surprisingly given the subject matter, to be quite despicable. Nevertheless, there remained moments when the motivations of the characters seemed a bit unbelievable. At times, Tiara came off as too well adjusted, the mother too stupid and checked out, and the psychiatrist helping Tiara almost incompetent. The twist at the end was also perhaps not big enough to fulfill its promise, but it was not really necessary – the story alone was compelling enough to carry the reader along.
Despite some minor flaws, Birthdays of a Princess was firmly riveting. It was at its strongest when delving into Tiara’s memories of Texas, the fascinating details of the child beauty pageants and the detective’s efforts to understand Tiara’s motivations. A sense of place, both in Vancouver, and Texas, was also well established.
This book is highly recommended. While the writing is occasionally clunky, there is some real brilliance here with Tiara’s quirky charm, the detective’s gruff compassion and the world of child beauty pageants and Tiara’s other experiences told through the eyes of a child. The characters and locations in this book will stick with you for a long time. Because of the difficult subject-matter, Birthdays of a Princess is not for everyone. It is not extremely graphic, but there are uncomfortable sections.
Four and a half stars. This was a very strong novel and well worth reading.
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Visit the author’s official website: helgazeiner.com
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jennifer Ellis is the author of A Pair of Docks, a fantasy adventure for kids and adults that explores the meaning of time and the boundary between science and witchcraft. She lives in a ski town and works as an environmental researcher when not writing. Find her at www.jenniferellis.ca.