Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The English Patient

The English PatientThe English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finally got around to reading this book. I, of course, first heard about it because of the movie (which I haven’t seen.) I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, and finally picked up a used copy at a second hand store this summer. And it finally made it to the top of my “to-read” list, so here we are.

First of all, I can see why so many people loved the book - it’s atmospheric and moody, and there are several love stories unfolding. But for me, it didn’t really hit home. Maybe my heartstrings are broken, but the love stories weren’t all that compelling. The only one that seemed real was the one between Kip and Hana - I was definitely rooting for their relationship to survive. The romance between the English patient and Katherine never came across as truly romantic. It could be partially because of the way it was related (through flashbacks) and maybe because the relationship itself just didn’t seem healthy. But either way, I was not engaged with that particular love story.

I did really enjoy how the book unfolds - slowly spiraling in on the events of the past that will reveal the identity of the English patient, all the while the four main characters do a similar dance around their various relationships. The style of the writing makes the book seem to be almost dream-like in quality. The mystery of the English patient’s identity was handled well - though I did figure it out before the big reveal.

The four main characters were each quite interesting in their own right. In fact, I was most drawn to the character of Kip, the Sikh who is a sapper (bomb defuser/engineer) in the British Army. Each of the other characters is physically or emotionally damaged: Hana is shell-shocked, Caravaggio has lost both thumbs, and the English patient is horribly burned and disfigured. Yet Kip seems to be quite whole in all regards. He is also the only non-white (though, curiously - and probably significantly - the English patient’s skin is nearly black due to the burn treatments he got in the desert.) As the book progresses, we learn more and more of each character’s back-story, and see how each one came to be at this particular place and time. All of the stories are interesting, and draw the reader along.

One of the biggest flaws, however, was the way the book ended. Kip’s reaction to the US dropping nuclear bombs on Japan seemed to be way out of character and a huge overreaction. Don’t get me wrong, I could see how someone like him could be that outraged, but we never saw any hint of such feelings in him at all. His reaction seemed to come out of the blue. Clearly, the author needed a reason to end Kip’s relationship with Hana, and to end the book as a whole, but this just didn’t ring true to me.

Overall, the book was pretty good. The characters and their stories were interesting, the slow unfolding of the past worked well, and the mesmerizing prose set the appropriate moody, dreamy ambience. It just didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me, personally, though I could see where others might be swept away by the romance. I’m glad I read it, if for no other reason than to know what people are talking about when it’s mentioned.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Black Dream

The Black Dream (Heart of the World #3)The Black Dream by Col Buchanan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Farlander/Heart of the World series. (The previous two are Farlander and Stands a Shadow.) This is not the end of the series, FYI; I'm guessing there will be at least one more, but the author's website has no information on what's next.

The series is set in a different world than ours, but one that has many similarities, both social and geographical. The main character is Ash, a member of the Roshun (ninja-like assassins), who is dying. In the first book he takes on an apprentice, Nico, who dies at the end. Ash avenges his death, which has major political repercussions. The fallout from the vendetta makes up book two. In this third book, Ash is trying to make it to the hidden "Islands in the Sky" where it is rumored they have the ability to bring the dead back to life. He is bringing Nico's ashes in hopes of doing this.

The backdrop to the series is the "heart of the world" - a very Mediterranean-like area, dominated by the Empire of Mann (that is much like the Roman Empire at its worst.) The Empire has managed to conquer most of the countries around the sea, with only the peninsula of Khos managing to remain free - though they have been under siege for years. We follow many characters throughout the books, from all areas - the Empire, Khos, the Free Ports, etc. The author manages to keep the narrative flowing, despite the many viewpoints. It's actually quite interesting to be in the minds of so many disparate characters, and not just be following Ash all the time.

Technologically, it's a little bit steampunk, with airships and the like, but no computers. There is a kind of magic that is introduced in this book, whereby "Dreamers" can manipulate things in the real world, such as creating storms or throwing large stones. This magic is based on manipulating the "bindee" which is described as the binary code(!!) underlying everything. Some people, called rooks, can manipulate the area of the bindee that is used for long-distance communication (think hackers with the internet), which makes sense to me. But having binary code underlying objects in the real world makes me think of The Matrix movies, and hints that this world is an artificial construct inside a computer, which I don't think is the author's intent. This discrepancy is one of the books few weaknesses.

The other weakness for me is lack of a character with whom I can really identify. The other main character in this book, Shard, is a young female Dreamer/rook, who seems tailor-made for me to identify with, but even here I just don't quite connect. Ash, as the main character, is sympathetic and someone the reader can admire and root for, but I don't really connect with him, either. There are many other lesser characters, as well, who are all well fleshed-out, but there is no one to personally connect with.

However, the strength of this book (and the series) is the world-building. The author makes this world feel 100% believable. The best comparison I can make is with the Game of Thrones series, where the socio-political constructs immerse the reader in a world that seems fully real. Buchannon also does a great job with action/battle scenes. I raced through the last half of this book, pulled along by the action.

Overall, this may be the strongest book in the series, and it introduces some major new plot twists, while moving the main story toward what looks to be the inevitable showdown between the Empire and the nation of Khos.

One other caveat - this series is not for the faint of heart. It is dark, grim, and gritty. There isn't much levity at all, except maybe a little gallows humor in some characters. There are many evil, sadistic characters, and with the overall backdrop being a war of conquest, there really isn't any let up in the bad things that happen. If you're looking for a light, escapist fantasy, this ain't it! But if you enjoy complex world-building, with lots of political intrigue and action, this is your series.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

White Crosses

White CrossesWhite Crosses by Larry Watson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

As a native Montanan, I know all about the white crosses that are placed by the side of the road to mark traffic fatalities. So I was intrigued by a book that uses these crosses and the fatalities thereof as the main plot device. I wish I could say that the book was as good as the premise, but it was not. The ending was horrible, and did not fit with the rest of the book. It ruined the entire book for me.

The story takes place in a fictional eastern Montana town, and is set in 1957. Sheriff Jack Nevelsen receives a call about a fatal wreck just outside of town. When he discovers that those who died were the high school principal and a girl, June, who just graduated, he decides that he has to cover up the true story of them running off together. He convinces the principal’s son to say that it was he and June who were eloping, and his dad was merely driving her out of town to a rendezvous point. Jack also spreads the story himself, by telling it to some of the local gossips. His motivation for doing so is to preserve the morality of the town - to protect its citizens from the uncertainty and fear that would arise if they felt that high school girls were not safe from older predators. He is trying to keep his town “safe” in its innocence. The rest of the book is the playing out of this rumor, and how Jack fears its unraveling.

Most of the book is spent inside of Jack’s head, as he ponders what he’s done - which is against his usual truthful nature. We learn of his past, growing up in town, and we see his insecurities and how they influence his actions. We also see his growing attraction for the principal’s widow, despite his own marriage. We also get a good feel for the town and its residents. And while I got a little tired of Jack’s endless worrying and indecision, the author does a very good job of describing life in small-town Montana. The characters are diverse and interesting, and fit the locale well, and the descriptions of the weather and scenery capture eastern Montana well.

The big crisis of the book appears near the end, when Jack must decide if he will act on his attraction to the widow. And this is where the book falls apart, big time. For the entirety of the book, we see Jack’s thoughts and his divided loyalties. He is at heart a moral man, but he has to lie to keep the true story of the crash from the town, and this seems to open him to the temptation of the widow. The logical ending of the book would be for him to make one of two choices: to uphold his morality and not commit adultery, or to continue his slide into untruthfulness and to go to bed with the widow. As a reader, I could see this decision looming, and I would have been fine with either choice - Jack could go either way. The problem is that Jack gets shot and killed before he can finally decide. And then the book ends! It was a pointless murder, to boot (the killer thought he was shooting someone else.) This ending was a total cop-out!! The entire book is about morality and life’s choices, and the end is simply nothing. No final choice, no completion of Jack’s initial lie, in either direction. Does he turn around and act morally? Or does he continue his downward fall into immorality? We never know. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, but I felt betrayed by the cheap melodramatic ending, one that didn’t complete the main arc of the entire novel. It was a pointless ending to an otherwise good book. And I consider it a fatal flaw (pardon the pun) to the book, overall. The author sets up the whole book to lead us to this final choice, and then he cops out and doesn’t give us that choice. If we had seen Jack take that final step, I would have given the book 3.5 stars. As it is, I have to give it a single star. Maybe 1.5, since the first part of the book was well done. But I cannot recommend this book to anyone. There are better books about life in Montana - ones that are capable of bringing the reader to an ending that fits the rest of the book. (Ivan Doig and Wallace Stegner are two authors that spring immediately to mind.) Don’t waste your time on this book, unless you like getting cheated out of a proper ending.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The White Company

The White CompanyThe White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle

Most people are familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, yet, according to the afterward of this edition, this book was his personal favorite. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of his. While I enjoyed the tale, overall, it was just a bit too old-fashioned and stereotypically swashbuckling for my taste.

The book is a coming of age story of Alleyne Edricson, a young man who was raised in a monastery, and who leaves at age 20 to “see the world” before he makes a decision to commit to a religious life or not. He meets a bowman, fresh from the wars in France, who befriends him. After Alleyne is rejected by his brother, he decides to follow the bowman back to France in service to Sir Nigel Loring, a brave and chivalrous knight. Many thrilling adventures ensue, and the book ends on a predictably happy ending.

The setting of the book is the year 1366, during The Hundred Years War, in France and Spain. Medieval life is presented rather benignly, without much mention of the hardships of life for the peasants. Only in France do we see the privation endured by those not of noble birth. England is depicted as a bastion of freedom and justice. The battles are portrayed without much gory detail, and are always shown to be opportunities for the ideals of chivalry and bravery, instead of the butchery that they were.

Doyle is clearly enamored by the ‘nobility’ of chivalrous life. Over and over we are treated to Sir Nigel pontificating on opportunities to defend the honor of his wife against a noble opponent. In fact, I found Sir Nigel to be not a little unlike Don Quixote in his outlook. The only difference here is that Sir Nigel faces real opponents, not windmills.

The dialog is stilted, and quite flowery. I kept having flashbacks to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood movie! The story here is just as unrealistic. Not only is Alleyne handsome, he is said to be extremely talented in art, writing, and music. He never flinches from his duty, and basically has no flaws. Sir Nigel is also perfect, and the brave English soldiers are unwavering in their devotion to Sir Nigel and England.

The other thing that bothered me was Doyle’s continual denigration of monks and religion: real men go out and fight noble battles - they don’t stay home behind walls praying and leeching off of society, as monks do. While I am no fan of the church of that era, this simplistic view of what men should aspire to be is more than a little over the top.

I must call out the illustrations of this particular edition, done by the famous N. C. Wyeth. They are rich and beautiful, and are a wonderful addition to the narrative. Simply gorgeous!

Overall, this book is a typical swashbuckler, a la The Three Musketeers or Ivanhoe. Not very realistic, but especially for younger readers it’s probably quite the thrilling tale.