Day 1138: The Vengeance of Mothers

Cover for The Vengeance of MothersThe Vengeance of Mothers is Jim Fergus’s sequel to One Thousand White Women, and telling about it faces me with a problem. If you are at all interested in reading either of these books, this is your warning that it’s impossible to tell anything about this one without mentioning the events at the end of the other.

One Thousand White Women was presented as the journals of Mary Dodd, who participated in a (fictional) U.S. government exchange of white women as wives for the Cheyenne for horses. In the 1990’s, the son of the journal’s publisher receives a visitor in his office, Molly Standing Bear, who gives him another set of journals, the basis for The Vengeance of Mothers.

These journals are those of three women—Meggie and Susie Kelly, the wild Irish twins who appeared in the previous novel, and Molly McGill, a young woman participating in the second program of brides for horses. Meggie and Susie are determined to wreak vengeance for the events at the closing of the last novel, which resulted in the deaths of their children. Molly’s group is captured by the Lakota when their train is massacred, but the Lakota give the survivors to the Cheyenne.

link to NetgalleyThe women’s adventures include the return of the dastardly Jules Seminole, who led the army to attack the Cheyenne instead of the group of Native Americans they were supposed to attack; the reappearance of a few of the women from the first book; and a romance between Molly and Hawk, a young warrior.

I found the same things interesting in this novel that I liked in the other, particularly the details of life among the Cheyenne, but Fergus doesn’t give us much of anything new here, except a strange turn to the spiritual. In particular, I found the ending unsatisfying. Still, I enjoyed most of the journey to a limited extent.

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Day 1136: The Wonder

Cover for The WonderLib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, journeys to a small village in Ireland to take on a two-week case. Her assumption that she is being hired by a wealthy family that can afford to bring a nurse out from England turns out to be false. She has been hired by a committee to observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who has reportedly not eaten for months. Her job is to make sure whether the girl is actually eating or not.

At first, Lib suspects that Anna is perpetrating a hoax, but slowly she realizes that the deeply religious girl believes she is living on manna from heaven. Still, she finds the people of the village steeped in ignorance and superstition, the local doctor incompetent, and her employers with a vested interest in a miracle. Her only confidante becomes someone she shouldn’t even be talking to—William Byrne, a journalist.

link to NetgalleyAs Anna shows unmistakable signs of starvation and imminent death, Lib eventually finds out what is going on, but no one believes her. Suspense builds as you wonder whether and how Lib will be able to save Anna.

For me, this was a surprisingly good book. I didn’t think I would enjoy it based on the subject matter, and later, I could not imagine how it would end. It has a great deal of psychological depth and often feels like a mystery.

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Day 1132: The Quality of Mercy

Cover for The Quality of MercyThe Quality of Mercy was another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. It concerns issues of slavery that were coming to the fore in 18th century England.

I did not become that involved with this novel, but that was not necessarily because of the novel itself. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that this novel was a sequel to Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, which I had not read. After reading four C. J. Sansom mysteries just so that I could read Heartstone in context, I decided not to go back and read Sacred Hunger first, reasoning that a book should be able to stand on its own. It was fairly easy to figure out what had happened in that novel, but perhaps I missed some background for the characters that would have added to the enjoyment of this one.

Much of The Quality of Mercy has to do with action that took place in Sacred Hunger, and to write this review, I am forced into spoilers for the previous novel. A ship filled with slaves was on its way to the Caribbean when the captain decided to throw some sick slaves overboard. A lawsuit in the current novel contends that the aim was to be able to claim insurance on the slaves that would not apply if they died onboard. The reason given for “jettisoning the cargo” was that the ship was running out of water, but the insurance company’s lawyers have witnesses who say that wasn’t true. In any case, the slaves rose up, assisted by some of the sailors, and took over the ship. The slaves and sailors landed in Florida, where they lived together for 12 years.

But Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, made a vow to find these men after his father committed suicide because the incident ruined him. In Sacred Hunger he was successful in finding the men, and now the sailors involved are on trial for mutiny.

Frederick Ashton is a dedicated abolitionist who is attempting to defend the sailors in order to further the abolitionist cause. Both he and Kemp are zealots in their own ways. Ashton believes that nothing is more important that his cause and makes a request of his sister, Jane, that she considers unworthy of him when he realizes Kemp is attracted to her. Kemp is the type of person who always believes that what he wants is right. He was unstoppable in hunting down the sailors, who included his own cousin.

In the meantime, Sullivan, one of the sailors and an Irish fiddler, was able to walk out of jail when he substituted for a hired fiddler at a party in the jail. Trusting and feckless, he has vowed to go to Durham to see the family of one of his shipmates, who died in Florida. He does not know that Kemp is also on his way to Durham to examine the mine where his shipmate’s family is employed.

Although the novel is certainly well written and interesting, something held me back from being totally involved in the story. Maybe I would have been more interested if I had read the first book, but I’m not sure. I did not like either Kemp or Ashton, although Kemp undergoes some softening during this novel.

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Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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Day 1126: The Unquiet Grave

Cover for The Unquiet GraveI have long admired several of Sharyn McCrumb’s “ballad series” mysteries, novels based upon old Appalachian ballads, some of which have a chilling supernatural element. I thought that The Unquiet Grave might be one of these, but instead it is more closely related to her The Ballad of Tom Dooley, which I thought had severe flaws.

The Unquiet Grave, like The Ballad of Tom Dooley, is about a true crime, in which Edward Shue was accused of murdering his wife, Zona, in 1897. The story of this incident, narrated by Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, alternates with the narrative by attorney James P. D. Gardner, the resident in 1930 of a mental asylum. How these stories are connected isn’t explained until about halfway through the novel.

It is when Gardner starts telling his doctor about the case that the story began to lose me. For almost immediately, he maunders off into long stories about his boss at the time of the trial, Shue’s defending attorney, Dr. Rucker. I am sure that McCrumb’s intention, both in this novel and in Tom Dooley, is to tell colorful stories about the region, but the fault in both of these novels is that she gets readers interested in one story only to invoke the wandering memories of some old man, going off in twenty different directions.

link to NetgalleyI did not have the patience for this, so I gave Gardner’s section about 20 pages of time to get back on the subject. When he didn’t, having read more than half the book, I quit reading. I sympathize with what McCrumb is trying to do, trying to invoke the story-telling of an old man who knows a lot of local history, but she lost me twice using this same technique. I think she needs to find a better angle into these true stories of West Virginia.

This is the second book I read for the R.I.P. challenge.

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Day 1125: A Gentleman in Moscow

Cover for A Gentleman in MoscowFor some time after I began reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was bothered by the idea that I was reading Aftermath of the Russian Revolution Lite. Still, I enjoyed the novel and finally decided that the historical background was not really the point.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is living in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922 when he is summoned to a tribunal. Although he has committed no crime except perhaps one of attitude, the people have no use for aristocrats anymore. He might have been imprisoned or executed except that he is considered one of the heroes of the revolution because of a poem he wrote. So, the Count is sentenced to live in the Metropol. He is not allowed to leave, or he will be shot. Further, when he returns to his luxurious rooms, he finds he is to be relegated to a small room in the belfry.

The Count makes himself as comfortable as he can and continues to live a more restricted version of the life he led before, socializing in the lobby, reading, and meeting with friends. But he begins to be bored. We follow the Count as he slowly changes the purpose of his life, beginning with his friendship with a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova.

This tale of more than 30 years of life in the Metropol, I finally decided, is not meant to be realistic but is a gentle story about the effects of the Count’s gentility on other people and of the Count’s own personal development. There is a villain in the form of a character the Count calls the Bishop, a bad waiter who uses his contacts to become manager of the hotel. Life in the hotel is thus not always roses, but its employees and residents are subject more to inconvenience than to misfortune.

This is not to say that nothing bad happens. Friends are exiled to Siberia or disappear, and a famous poet commits suicide. Still, we are detached by the novel’s playful writing style from anything happening outside the Metropol and even from most of the things happening inside the hotel.

Overall, I was captured by the charm of the novel, but I don’t think it consitutes a very accurate reflection of its time and place. Horrible things were happening in Russia through these years, but to this novel, events are just footnotes and parentheses. And, by the way, the Russians executed lots of heroes of the revolution.

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Day 1121: Salt to the Sea

Cover for Salt to the SeaAt the end of World War II, three teenagers are among the refugees fleeing through East Prussia from the Russians. Joanna is a Lithuanian nurse who was patriated into Germany. Emilia is a young Polish girl with no papers. Florian is a Prussian on a mission.

Salt to the Sea follows these three on their flight, as well as Alfred, a Nazi sailor helping ready the Wilhelm Gustloff for its load of refugees. The novel switches among the points of view of these narrators in brief chapters.

And this is one of its fundamental problems. The novel jumps back and forth between narrators, allowing us to really know no one. To add further to that distancing, most other characters are referred to only by their professions or other attributes, even fairly important ones such as the old shoemaker travelling with the group. The result is that we don’t really care about any of the characters.

Further, this novel shares an attribute with much other young adult fiction that I dislike. It is told in first person—in this case four first persons—which is not necessarily a problem. But except for Alfred’s, the narratives are indistinguishable in style and written in short, choppy sentences with simple structure, as if the assumption is made that young adults have no complex thoughts. To make things worse, some of the metaphorical language is excruciating. Witness the following:

And for some reason those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.

Of course, this sentence is from the abhorrent Alfred, but similar excrescences come from the other narratives.

Finally, the chopped up narrative style so slows down the action at the end of the book that, combined with the distance we feel from the characters, it makes the climax of the novel actually boring. And really (spoiler), when a torpedo hits the ship, the only description Sepetys can think of is “Bang!” repeated four times?

The evacuation of the refugees and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff make an important story, but sadly Sepetys is not the writer to tell it.

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