30 October 2012

Mad River (John Sandford)

This novel, the latest John Sandford, is very Bonnie ‘n Clyde, except that the loved-up couple also has a moronic sidekick. 

All three of the dead-end teens are absolutely crackers and they’re killing people all over rural Minnesota, just for the hell of it.

But BCA agent Virgil Flowers, one of my top 5 literary heroes (largely because he’s also a nut job; imagine a poetry-writing Matt McConaughey in a rock ‘n roll T-shirt, without a gun) is on the job. And trying to out-run a host of moronic cops.

Here’s a quick taste:

Jimmy said, "Shit," looked down at Ag, who'd gotten to her knees. He could have changed his mind, then, and everything that came after would have been different. He hesitated, then pointed the gun at Ag's head and pulled the trigger.
The Smith flashed in the dark, Ag went down, and Jimmy ran after the others.
Tom and Becky had already gone through the front door, which stood open to the streetlight, and as Jimmy crossed the front porch he heard the other sister scream, "Mama, mama. He killed Ag, he killed Ag."

If you’re a Sandfordian, read Mad River. If you’re not, you will be. So start today.

Keep in mind, while doing so, that the killing-spree-by-mad-teens theme has been done before, but this author is so very, very good that it’ll feel like a fresh, new topic.

What’s more, this isn’t a whodunnit. It’s an intelligently written police procedural with a host of eccentric characters. As one reviewer puts it, Sandford’s novels aren’t “mysteries in the sense that there is anything for us to figure out… Crimes are solved through interviews, and require legwork and street smarts rather than science and tech. The appeal [is in] watching the protagonist close in on the criminals.”

Especially when he brings in a prison full of convicts as ‘consultants’. Genius.

The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling)

It’s JK Rowling, one of the finest young adult authors in the world, writing for adults. What can possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it turns out. The New York Times sums it up: "This novel for adults is filled with a variety of people like Harry [Potter]’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us."

Set in the fictional village of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy refers to a spot on the parish council, made vacant by the death of council member Barry Fairbrother. It chronicles (in detail) the political squabbles exacerbated by Fairbrother’s death and class tensions in Pagford – but it does so with such darkness that there’s no way it can be considered comedic. It’s not Jilly Cooper. Not even Christos Tsiolkas.

To illustrate, there’s suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and racism; there is a sex scene in a cemetery; and there are alarming scenes of domestic abuse. Rich fight with poor, teenagers fight with their parents, wives fight with their husbands, and teachers fight with their pupils...

Granted, the writing is intelligent and the characters finely wrought, but there’s no-one to like. And the plot is, in a word, odd. I didn’t love it. In fact, I was relieved when it was over – not because JK Rowling doesn’t write well, but because this novel depressed the hell out of me.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Philippa Gregory)

In my eyes, Philippa Gregory can do no wrong. She introduced me to historical fiction as a genre (before which I assumed it was all Georgette Hayer) and aroused my fascination with the British royal family. She broadened my literary horizons.

In The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Gregory takes the final step in her Cousins’ War quartet (the others are The Red Queen,The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers) and introduces the daughters of Richard Neville, formidable Earl of Warwick.

The Earl is ‘the kingmaker’ because he orchestrates events so that only his favourites take the throne. It is little surprise, then, that he pulls the political strings for Anne and Isabel too – not of love for them, but of a thirst for power and control.

England being what it is in the fifteenth century, it’s not long before the Earl makes war on his former friends. And Anne, married off at age fourteen, must face early widowhood, a second marriage, intrigues and conspiracies, and the loss of her mother and sister (one to house arrest and the other to the enemy camp).

The New York Post has described this series as a tale of “royal witches, philanderers and kingslayers” and this novel as “the story of King Richard III's wife, Anne Neville, who went from the marital bed of one royal prince to that of another king-to-be during this long family feud.” I can’t improve much on that summary. This is another goodie.