Monday, January 15, 2007

December Reviews

'The Boleyn Inheritance' by Philippa Gregory (Harper Collins)

I adore Philippa Gregory. Her research is always as flawless as her characters are flawed; her dialogue as crisp as her plots are tangled; and her setting as rich as court morality is poor. In The Boleyn Inheritance, we hear the different voices of three women: Jane Boleyn, middle-aged, the only survivor of the ambitious, ill-fated Boleyns; Anne of Cleves, a decent Dutch sort, imported as Queen but dethroned due to the King’s vanity; and Katherine Howard, the sweetly frivolous teen who ensnares him. This is truly “a novel drawn as tight as a lute string about a court ruled by the gallows”.

'Mercy' by Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton)

A popular Irish author (who will remain nameless) once wrote a heart-breaking novel about alcoholism – and a reviewer (whose name I don’t know, but if I did I would certainly mention it) didn’t read it and reviewed it as ‘forgettable froth’. I always think of this story when I read Jodi Picoult. Why? Well, she writes novels about men and women and children and relationships and love and pain, but she roots them in controversies and contentions so searingly topical that there’s nothing forgettable about them. Mercy is one such novel. If you like Picoult, it’s a must.

'Triptych' by Karin Slaughter (Century)

I hate to say it, but I’m going to. There’s no other way. This book is weird. Positioned as “a complex, multilayered story…[p]acked with body-bending switchbacks, searing psychological suspense and human emotions”, Triptych is certainly filled with tension – but it’s also filled with unpleasant surprises. For a start, I couldn’t keep track of the good guys and bad guys, I wasn’t crazy about either of the two obvious heroes and I found the fusion of personal drama with brutal homicide rather bizarre. Slaughter usually gets it right, but my advice to her on this opus is: please, pick a genre.

'White Guys' by Anthony Giardina (Random House)

This novel is rare, in that it features characters and settings so real and so colourful and so present as to make the reader believe that he or she is watching a film. Gritty, raw and honest, White Guys combines the desperately banished memories of Mystic River with the painful friendship of Sleepers. It tells the story of four friends from Winship, a shabby coastal town. Three marry and build respectable middle-class lives, while the fourth, Billy, is tough and violent and doomed. Tragedy follows and then, as Giardina planned when he wrote it, White Guys takes us “someplace unrecognizable”.

'The Innocent Man' by John Grisham (Century)

I was prepared to be disappointed by The Innocent Man, Grisham’s first work of non-fiction, because I expected something pallid – along the lines of the awful Bleachers. After all, Grisham has a superb fictional formula. Any deviations are disastrous. But this story surprised me. It was sufficiently interesting to masquerade as fiction, sufficiently bizarre to be unputdownable, sufficiently well-written to be typical Grisham, and superbly researched. My only regret is that The Innocent Man falls victim to the same malady as so many other works of true crime: too many characters. In fiction, you have the license to keep it simpler.

'Pocket Superdate' by Tracey Cox (Dorling Kindersley)

I understand that Tracey Cox is an international expert on all things sexy – from flirting to quickies; body language to dating. I understand that she’s a psychologist and best-selling author, so she’s no shrinking violet. And I acknowledge that, since she’s rather pretty, her techniques have probably worked for her in the past. But her book annoyed me. While it’s great as a guide to reading people in any context, I object in principle to a chapter on how to best position your feet so as to indicate, or pick up on, romantic interest. Serving suggestion: fun reading for teenage girls.

'Cold Moon' (Jeffery Deaver)

Deaver’s great. His novels are always a little heavy, and his forensic and geographical descriptions tend to be long and self-indulgent, but the sheer quality of his writing and his sink-your-teeth-in storylines typically transform those quirks into positives. He’s also the king of the New York City setting.

For me, Deaver’s greatest talent is creating strong, memorable characters. The cynical and brilliant paraplegic, Lincoln Rhyme. Amelia Sachs, the speed freak, who is constantly chewing her nails and pulling out strands of her hair. The splendidly dressed decoy cop, Fred Dellray. And those are just the good guys.

In The Cold Moon, Deaver writes it a little more complicated than usual, and gives us a lot more insight into the personalities at work. There are twists and turns, surprises and suspense, homicide and human drama – and all the while, the Watchmaker, a sadistic serial killer obsessed with time, is leading Rhyme’s team into a merry maze of murder.

'The Husband' (Dean Koontz)

I have a confession to make: I despised Dean Koontz. In fact, his Strange Highways a few years ago was so awful as to warrant banishment from my shelf. And then I picked up a book called Life Expectancy, without looking at the cover, and I adored it. Guess what? Dean Koontz.

So I’ve been a secret Koontz fan in the recent past. Forever Odd. Velocity. The Face. All great, gripping novels. All pleasant surprises. I grabbed The Husband, Koontz’s ‘relentless new thriller’, and I expected much of the same.

It was not to be. Too complex, too complicated and too full of cheap coincidence, The Husband simply doesn’t live up to the promise on its cover: “So, we have your wife. You get her back for 2 million cash.” “Man, you aren’t listening. I’m a gardener.” In fact, I couldn’t even follow the storyline. And that’s a minimum requirement.

So here’s my advice: if you really, really, really like Koontz, read his latest offering. If you don’t, this novel will not mark your conversion. Read Deaver instead.

'Green-Eyed Thieves' (Imraan Coovadia)

The jacket of Imraan Coovadia’s Green-Eyed Thieves promises that it ‘offers a pleasure that may well be greater than the illicit joys of the brothers’ lives – the bliss of language’. I couldn’t agree more.

Firoze and Ashraf Peer, the novel’s twin protagonists, have the potential to become literary heroes – characters created so compellingly that their lives and evils and triumphs reach well beyond the vehicles that house them.

You know the kind I mean: Hannibal Lecter. Dr Evil. Captain Jack Sparrow. The Yebo Gogo guys and Mo the Meerkat, from Vodacom. Bigger than their books, better than their movies and often brighter than their brands.

The crooked Peer brothers who wreak havoc from Sun City to the USA have the potential to wield that type of power. Indeed, their story is so fascinating, exquisitely penned, intelligent and rich in surprise as to warrant becoming a classic.

Green-Eyed Thieves speaks of inspired crime and brotherly betrayal; philosophy and family business – even introducing cameos for worthies like Mohammed Atta (of 9/11 fame) and President George Bush. It’s a wild romp. Read it.

‘Wicked’ (Jilly Cooper)

Novels about schools are huge at the moment, with van de Ruit’s Spud a best-bestseller and Harris’s Gentlemen & Players an unexpectedly non-culinary delight.

Jilly Cooper’s Wicked, positioned as ‘A Tale of Two Schools’, is a heavily Anglicised version of the two. It brings together masters and mistresses, vested interests and vendettas, pupils and passions, and introduces a large cast of Cooper-characters who are, put simply, raving mad.

Some we’ve met before: Rupert Campbell-Black, ‘as bloody-minded as he is beautiful’; Hermione Harefield, a ‘seriously tiresome’ classical diva; and Cosmo Rannaldini, ‘warlord’ and teenage psychopath. Others are entirely new, and wonderful.

They come together on opposite sides of the quest to close troublesome Larkminster Comprehensive, and all sorts of delicious chaos, sticky controversy and dangerous love ensues.

Cooper’s getting better with age – and in her contemporary books, there are fewer horses than people, which is always nice. I’d even go so far as to suggest that Wicked, packed with eccentric personalities, bizarre events and crazy couplings, is her best novel yet.