Friday, February 20, 2015


by Tim Johnston

(Edited) Blurb:
The Rocky Mountains have cast their spell over the Courtlands, a young family from the plains taking a last summer vacation before their daughter begins college. For eighteen-year-old Caitlin, the mountains loom as the ultimate test of her runner’s heart, while her parents hope that so much beauty, so much grandeur, will somehow repair a damaged marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother, Sean, go out for an early morning run and only Sean returns, the mountains become as terrifying as they are majestic, as suddenly this family find themselves living the kind of nightmare they’ve only read about in headlines or seen on TV.
Written with a precision that captures every emotion, every moment of fear, as each member of the family searches for answers, Descent is a perfectly crafted thriller that races like an avalanche toward its heart-pounding conclusion, and heralds the arrival of a master storyteller.

My Reaction:
(I took away a paragraph of the blurb because I felt it went too far into the story and gave away too much.)

While parts of the book were edge-of-your-seat reading, I found them few and far between.  To call this "a perfectly crafted thriller that races like an avalanche toward its heart-pounding conclusion" would be going too far.  It was alright.  Parts of it were interesting, but for every powerful paragraph, you have to wade through pages of sluggishly paced dreariness.  Also, I'm hard-pressed to come up with anything about this book that sets it that far apart from hundreds (thousands?) of others on the same topic.  Maybe it's more skillfully written than many of the genre (though there is plenty of room for improvement).  However, it took an effort to pick up the book and read (except for the rare sections where things were actually happening).  I didn't feel as moved as I think I was supposed to... It missed the mark, somehow.

More Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- Caitlin wasn't very likeable at the beginning of the book.  The way she talks to her brother...For that matter, I didn't really like many of the characters, though by the end I had at least sympathy for all but one (the Monkey)... I guess I'm supposed to be impressed by their realistic, human flaws.  ...Meh, whatever. 

--  "They'd come to the Rockies thinking it was a place like any other they might have chosen: chronicled, mapped, finite.  A fully known American somewhere.  Now Grant understood that, like the desert, like the ocean, the mountains were a vast and pitiless nowhere.  Who would bring his family-- his children-- to such a place?"

--  When Caitlin first meets the Monkey and learns that he's unwilling to go for help for her brother, she has some mental dialogue in which she calls him a "white piece of shit".  That struck me as odd.  Why specify "white"?  Would the author have done that if the Monkey had been any other race?  It's even stranger when you consider that Caitlin herself is white.

--  Anytime Angela was in the book was pretty much the worst part of the novel for me.  I get that she's suffering from depression.  I just didn't feel like we needed to read quite so much about it.  Slog slog slog...

--  When Angela lies in her daughter's bed, mourning her, contemplating suicide (if I recall correctly), we are told that she puts "her hands over her stomach, over her womb", which struck me as something that was supposed to feel poignant, but instead just felt like Trying Too Hard.  Caitlin was legally an adult when she was abducted.  Eighteen.  Does a child ever truly completely grow up, in a mother's eyes?  I don't know; maybe not.  Maybe a mother can always go back to what it was like to carry her child, even after the child becomes an adult-- even after the adult child dies.  Maybe the "womb-holding" scene is true to life.  For me, it seemed a little strange.  :o/

--  This author has a real "thing" for the sense of smell.  The smells of bodies in particular are frequently referenced. 

--  Ugh, the smoking!  So much smoking!  Obviously there are still people who do smoke, but it feels odd, these days, to have so many smokers in one book.  Feels a little lazy, in fact.  And I got very tired of reading about people asking if it's ok to smoke, lighting cigarettes, knocking the ash here, there, and everywhere.  The author must be a smoker (or former smoker).

--  The RUN. ON. SENTENCES.  Oh my gosh.  Someone, somewhere, sometime, must've told the author that run-on sentences are a hallmark of Literature.  That they lend credence.  That they make you literary.  I'm not impressed by run-on sentences, sadly.  They are irritating, almost always needless, and (in cases such as this) pretentious. 

--  "...sometimes he brings a bright new shirt from the boys' department because he won't shop in ladies', nor buy tampons or liners, such things were already here, stacked and stacked on a shelf above the toilet.  The sight of them telling her everything that first day, everything."

--  I found it odd that in Grant's new "hometown", where he has only lived for a couple of years or so, he speaks of and to people as though he's known them since he was a kid-- with the same casual familiarity that usually takes decades to cultivate.  It felt like a heavy-handed attempt to show us how great Grant is-- how well he blends in, here.  Oh, he cares about people.  He's such a great guy.  He's put behind him the years of drunkenness and adultery.  Now he's a gen-u-ine stand-up guy-- but he's so tormented by his daughter's disappearance that he can't let himself settle down and start a new family with his Italian lady-friend.  Boo hoo.  (Sorry, I'm feeling bitter today, for some reason.)

--  Example of the above:  The retired veterinarian for some reason starts telling Grant about how his wife (a retired teacher) could never have children.  Good ol' Grant pipes up, "Seems to me she's had plenty of kids, Dale.  Hundreds of them."  (And Dale actually knows the exact number-- 1,312.)  I'm not sure I can articulate why, but this IRKS me.  For one thing-- If the vet has been retired for a while, how does Grant even know about him?  Another-- How does Grant know him well enough to come and wake him up in the middle of the night to ask for a favor?  Finally-- DUH, thanks for saying what everyone already knows.  That's the crux of if.  "I'll make everything all right by voicing something that I'm sure these two have already known/realized for years.  Because I'm such a Great Guy.  I (somehow, inexplicably) know them well enough to feel comfortable making comments on their private lives.  Also, being a teacher is pretty much the exact same thing as having kids of your own.  Gee, I'm great!"  (Yeah, Grant annoys me.  Why do you ask?)

--  Why did Caitlin get in the car with the Monkey???  The best I can come up with is that she's afraid that if she refuses and runs away, he'll kill her brother.  But even so, how is getting in his car a much better solution? (Because if something happens to her, the brother may not be found/get help, anyway.)  It's just so dumb-- and she's not a little girl.  An eighteen-year-old should've known better.

--  The hiker who tries to help Caitlin is also a bit too naive for belief.  "Oh hi, stranger out in the middle of nowhere, mysteriously popping up right next to the shed where a girl is being held prisoner!  Me, a ranger?  No, I'm just a simple-minded hiker.  In case you're wondering, I'm also an orphan and didn't tell anyone where I was going today, and if I were to go missing, not a soul in the world would know where to begin looking for me.  La de da de-dah!"

--  One of the better parts of the books was Billy's Redemption.  Starting with his meeting the Monkey at the bar, all the way until his death.  The Monkey's description of the pit was shudder-worthy:  "...and I think you're gonna like it down there, Billy.  You'll have some company with you.  Another hero down there you can swap hero stories with.  A couple of young ladies.  And you can have this one too, soon enough."  (Ok, it was a bit too convenient, maybe, him revealing his hiding place and the fact that there have been two other girls before Caitlin-- and that Caitlin herself is in immediate danger-- but still one of the better parts of the book.)

-- I didn't realize what Caitlin was planning/had done until she was running/hobbling down the mountain, holding the boot up by some sort of strap.  Noooooo.  Help was so close!  I guess that even though she knew help was on the way, she had no way of knowing that Mr. Monkey-Man was already dead and couldn't come and kill her before the Sheriff arrived.  Frustrating, though.

--  I guess the author wanted to end the novel on a positive, peaceful note, but I can't believe this family can return to perfect happiness, now-- because they never had perfect happiness to begin with!  Grant and Angela's marriage... Will they try to mend it, now?  What about Maria and Angela's... whatever he was / neighbor?  If Grant couldn't remain faithful to Angela before, I doubt he'll be any better now.  What about Sean and Carmen?  Sean was the most uniformly decent character in the whole book.  Aside from his stupidity/poor choices during the "hitchhiker incident" (and all that followed), he was a good guy from start to finish.  It would be nice to see him happy.  And then of course there's Caitlin.  I guess she'll go to college, whether or not she can still be a track champion... And... I don't know.  I don't really care what happens to these characters, anymore.  I'm glad to leave them behind and move on to greener pastures!