Thursday, May 26, 2016
White 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 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.
The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a wonderful addition to the series! It was a real page-turner, keeping me engaged from the suspenseful opening scene through to the denouement and ending. It is something of a departure from the rest of the series, however, as only the very beginning and ending are told from Mary’s viewpoint. Most of the rest of the book is a look at the early life of Mrs. Hudson, the Holmes’ inestimable housekeeper, which may not be to everyone’s liking. As I enjoy historical fiction, this was no hindrance to my enjoyment of the book.
The book opens with a rather horrific encounter between Mary and a stranger who appears unannounced at her door, while she is home alone. All we know is that afterward, Mary is gone and there is blood all over the floor. The link between the intruder and Mrs. Hudson sets us off on a journey through Mrs. Hudson’s childhood in Australia, and early adulthood in England. We find out that the meek and mild Mrs. Hudson has a rather sordid past, though this is presented without condemnation. I found this part of the book to be fascinating, and I was drawn fully into the story. It’s almost a novel in and of itself. The events of her life lead us to see how she became Sherlock’s housekeeper, but along the way we are treated to a wild ride in the seamy underground of grifters and conmen.
The mystery surrounding Mary Russell’s disappearance is wrapped up quickly at the end, thanks to Sherlock’s brilliance, of course. I have a few quibbles with the story (see the spoiler section, below) but overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
I loved how Mrs. Hudson and Sherlock Holmes meet for the first time. It was a treat to see the young Sherlock, before he became a legend, at the beginning of his career and at the early development of his talents.
I didn’t love the conditions Sherlock placed on Mrs. Hudson for her return to England. I thought that forcing her to leave her child was cruel, and their agreement seemed to put Mrs. Hudson in thrall to Sherlock. It’s as if Sherlock is her parole officer. I don’t like this change in their relationship. While I have no problem with her shady past (it’s kind of thrilling to know she led such a double life) I really don’t care for how I see her now, in relation to Sherlock. I used to think of her as something of a mother hen to Sherlock - that he was dependent upon her. But this new view of their relationship definitely puts him in control over her. It is a somewhat benevolent control, to be sure, but it is control, nevertheless, and it’s not to my liking at all.
I also HATED the fact that Mrs. Hudson leaves the Holmes’ employ at the end!! You can’t have Sherlock without Mrs. Hudson!! I hope that in subsequent books she will be able to come back home where she belongs.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am a huge fan of China Mieville’s work. I got hooked with Perido Street Station, and I think I’ve read everything that he’s written since. His books are always chock full of weirdly imaginative stuff, and they often veer off into unexpected places. This book is quite a bit simpler than most of his other books, and on the surface it’s not that weird. But just under the surface is a simmering stew of darkness and strangeness. I found it disturbing to read, and put it down several times, because it was just…uncomfortable for me to read it. Let me see if I can explain.
The book is set in a town in an unnamed country and unspecified time. They seem to have some modern conveniences such as electricity, but in other regards the place seems Medieval. The book is narrated by a man who is recalling events from his childhood, beginning with him seeing his father kill his mother. But the narrative does not flow linearly, nor is the narration always first person. Sometimes it switches to second person and then into third person - often doing so on the same page. As a reader, this is quite unsettling (which, I’m sure, is Mieville’s goal.) Another unsettling thing is the town and society. It seems normal, most of the time, but their are oddities that skew it just a bit off center, again making the reader uncomfortable. The final bit of off-putting storytelling is the plot point of the murder. It’s given to us up-front, but then we go back in time before the murder and see the boy’s life leading up to it. The murder hangs over the narrative like a dark shadow, and the father’s behavior is just creepy enough to see how the murder could happen. But we also get hints that maybe the boy is making things up, maybe it was his mother who killed his father, maybe the boy is crazy. So the reader is carried along a dark and twisting path, never quite feeling secure.
All of this adds up to a strange story, but one that is masterfully told. Mieville’s experimentation with varying points of view fits this tale perfectly. Fans of Mieville will not be disappointed, though newcomers to his work might just be confused and wonder what all the fuss is about. Personally, this is not my favorite of his, but I can appreciate his skill to create such a story.