My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"Falling snow toned a shout down to a murmur and then absorbed the murmur, imposing its own sweet, silent hush on a noisy world."
Dana Stabenow's A Fine and Bitter Snow, my first book by the author, almost gets thumbs-up from me. It is the twelfth installment in the 20-novel series that features Kate Shugak, an Aleut who lives in the "Park", a generic National Park in Alaska, and often happens to get involved with investigations of crimes. Ms. Stabenow, an Alaskan native, has a keen eye for the local geography, sociology, and culture. I have never been to Alaska, but thanks to this novel I feel I have gained at least some basic knowledge about this state.
The portrayal of life in Alaska is the main value of the novel as I don't find the criminal plot interesting. The first one-third of the book serves as an introduction to the main characters and the plot is set up already on the first few pages. Dan O'Brian, the Chief Park Ranger seems to have lost support of the higher-ups in the administration of national parks and is pushed to early retirement. Ms. Shugak, who believes Mr. O'Brian is doing a great job in the Park, begins a campaign to drum up support for the Chief Ranger. But a brutal murder interferes with everybody's plans: Mr. O'Brian might be involved and Jim Chopin, an Alaska state trooper, handles the investigation having recruited Ms. Shugak to help.
The political bent of the novel is quite interesting and particularly relevant right now, just after the U.S. election. The plot takes place soon after the 2000 presidential vote. The new administration, not friendly to environmental issues, finds Mr. O'Brian "too green" for their liking. They plan to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic: while many residents of the area vehemently oppose the plans some others support them expecting the growth in local jobs. The 2016 election promises similar conflicts. Anyway, I quite like Ms. Stabenow's portrayal of making politics: the conversation between Ms. Shugak and a state senator illustrates the dirty ways it is done.
So what do I find wrong with the novel? First and foremost its criminal plot is totally formulaic: all the right buttons are pushed at all the right moments and the action culminates in a cliché dramatic scene that serves as the denouement. Funny, but the author herself puts her finger on the reason of my reservations:
"She was rereading My Family and Other Animals for what was probably the twenty-seventh time [...] and for the present her preference was for books she had already read and enjoyed, ones with no surprises in them."I am allergic to books that offer no surprises, books that give me what I expect to get - I could as well watch TV for that.
The whole "romantic" thread that deals with Ms. Shugak's affairs of the heart lacks originality. But then I am probably not the right reader of the "will she or won't she" threads, and it is likely that younger readers may find this aspect of the novel worthwhile.
Two and a half stars.
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