A book review.
Way back when, I subscribed to Bookmarks magazine. It’s a magazine of book reviews for readers of fiction and non-fiction. The subscription was expensive and the content was primarily a regurgitation of reviews in other magazines and newspapers with a summary rating system. There would also be articles about specific reader groups and a featured author or genre or both. Based on what I read in the magazine, I’d choose books I wanted to read. But more often than not, a glowing book review would point me to a hard-to-find book or a book that simply wasn’t up to par.
Revenge by Stephen Fry is both of these things. What attracted me to the book was the claim that it was a “modern-day Count of Monte Cristo.” The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic story of revenge, written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844. Dumas, the French author of The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and Man in the Iron Mask, weaves incredible, well written and thought out tales of intrigue, adventure, and even love. The movie and television adaptations of his work offer shallow hints of his complex story lines. The recent Man in the Iron Mask movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio is an example that made me cringe, from the moment Leo uttered the word “Huh?” in his role as King Louis XIV to the revealing of the king’s true father at the end. (Readers of The Man in the Iron Mask know that the story has quite a different ending and is, in fact, the final book of the musketeers trilogy.)
In any case, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my very favorite books. I’ve read it two or three times, which is no small chore, considering its length and the writing style. So when a modern day version of the same tale appeared in Bookmarks with good reviews, I immediately put it on my reading list.
It took about two years to track down a copy of Revenge. (Remember, there’s no real book store here in Wickenburg and the local library doesn’t read Bookmarks. It wasn’t very high on my Amazon.com wish list, either.) I finished it on Saturday.
To understand how I rate books, you need to understand my “can’t put it down” test. These days, I read before bedtime. In most cases, I’m horizontal, propped up with a pillow with reading glasses perched on my nose. One light is on. I’m tired; it’s the end of a long day and I’ve been up since 5 or 6 AM. Most books I read these days can engage me for a dozen or so pages before I’m ready to pass out. But a good book can actually keep me awake and reading long after Mike has shut off the television, come to bed, and begun to snore. (For the record, he doesn’t snore all the time or any more than I do.)
Revenge started out a bit worse than usual. It was one of the books that I start and then put aside while I work on another one. It was well-written, but not very entertaining. The “setup” — which is where the author introduces a protagonist that you can feel real sympathy for as well as antagonists you really want to hate — was too long and drawn out. I put it down for about two weeks.
I finally got back to it when I took it to Howard Mesa. The wind was howling up there all weekend, making it very unpleasant to be outside. There’s no television there and Mike had a lot of work to do that I couldn’t help him with. So I picked up Revenge and finished it up.
I found Fry’s writing style perfectly fine. In my mind, when you can read a book without frowning at the way sentences are written or dialog is composed, the writer has pulled you in. In those books, the author has stepped back, out of the picture, and you’re just reading an account of what happened to his characters. Stephen Fry did a great job of stepping back, letting the reader get the story without interference from awkward constructions, idiotic dialog, etc. (One of my main complaints about The DaVinci Code was Dan Brown’s awful writing skills.)
That’s not to say that the story didn’t have its faults. My main problem with the book was the way it finished up — far too quickly. In The Count of Monte Cristo, main character Edmond orchestrates a complex revenge scheme that gives his betrayers what they deserve. It almost goes exactly according to plan — in other words, there was still some suspense near the end of the book. In Revenge, main character Ned begins to plot his revenge 2/3 of the way through the book, leaving only 1/3 of the book’s pages to complete it. There’s no complex scheming; he’s simply put himself into a position to extract revenge at his leisure. While I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who may want to read the book, I will say that it’s too quick and easy. While Ned doesn’t get everything he wanted, he also loses the sympathy of the reader by the cruelness of his revenge on some characters. In contrast, at no point in The Count of Monte Cristo do I feel that Edmond has stepped over the line. And while I don’t have the book in front of me now to consult, I’m pretty sure that at least half the book’s pages are devoted to his plotting and the manipulation of his characters before the final “gotchas.”
Revenge, of course, is one several age-old plot basics that can be found in books, movies, and television dramas. Dumas did it best. Fry tried and, in doing so, may have exposed a few people to Dumas’s work. But if you have to choose between the two to take along on a journey or relaxing weekend, leave Fry behind and take the classic. It’s a far better work.
As for Bookmarks — I let my subscription slide. Frankly, its self-promotional content urging readers to buy subscriptions for their local libraries was annoying me. I had also begun to suspect that many of the lesser-known titles the magazine highly recommended were planted there by the books’ publishers. (If I wanted to read advertisements for books, I’d browse the New York Times Book Review.) Coupled with the high subscription price, I decided it just wasn’t worth it.
Besides, I already have a pile of books to get through. I don’t need anymore recommendations!