Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Abide with Me, by Sabin Willett

Here’s an ambitious undertaking:  a modern retelling of ‘Wuthering Heights’, Emily Bronte’s classic Gothic novel.  Those tragic lovers Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw are transformed into small town Vermont inhabitants Roy Murphy, ‘trailer-trash’, and Emma Herrick, beautiful daughter of the town’s first family.
In their teen years they spend an idyllic summer together before Emma departs for Yale and all the privileges her background affords.  Roy has no such glittering prospects on the horizon:  he has already been in juvenile detention, and is almost illiterate thanks to long absences from school.  His appearance leaves a lot to be desired, too – menacing and/or intimidating, take your pick – in fact any reader could be forgiven for wondering why the patrician Emma would waste even a glance in his direction, but there you go;  it’s that old animal magnetism, that ‘opposites attract’ theory proven true yet again that has Emma ensnared – but only for the summer, she thinks.  Yale will be her release from this obsession that enslaves them both, and Roy has joined the Army, so the affair will die a natural death.
But it doesn’t.  Roy endures a baptism of fire in Afghanistan;  always so solitary in the past, he learns to depend on and enjoy the fellowship of his colleagues, and for the first time relies on them to have his back, as he has theirs.  He suffers pain, terror and unimaginable loss during his time at Firebase Montana, but throughout he is sustained by his memories of his beautiful summer with Emma, the best summer of his young life:  he has to survive so that he can return to his great love, for those were his last words to her:  ‘I will come back’ -   spoken to someone who was enormously relieved that he was leaving so that she could end family horror at her uncharacteristic behaviour, and pursue her own ambitions for a life that did not include Roy.
Mr Willett paces his story well.  He has an excellent ear for dialogue and idiom and has created some great minor characters among the town’s inhabitants,  enlisting them as a kind of a Greek Chorus to relate and comment upon the unfolding tragedy of Roy’s eventual homecoming.
For return he does, to find that Emma has found another and all he has left are his memories.  This time they provide no solace and single minded determination turns to vengeful obsession, wreaking predictable and terrible results.
It is no easy task (and some would consider it an affront) to transform a singular and much-loved classic into a modern story that relies heavily on 21st century events, but Mr Willett succeeds, capturing the essence of Heathcliff and Cathy and effortlessly clothing them in their new contemporary lives to thrill the reader once more.  What a fine writer he is.  Miss Bronte would be pleased.  Highly recommended.

The Heist, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

I have been a devoted fan of Ms Evanovich and her bungling bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (not to mention Stephanie’s sidekick ,former ‘Ho Lula, now an inept filing clerk but magnificently unaware of her shortcomings:  what a neat character!) since ‘One for the Money’.  Ms Evanovich has now reached # 20 in the series, the latest being ‘Takedown Twenty’, a treat I have yet to enjoy.  In between times, she tries her hand with other characters and now she has teamed up with Lee Goldberg (so sorry, Mr Goldberg – despite the stellar qualifications you enjoy in the book jacket notes you are a man of mystery to me) to produce a new set of ongoing characters in ‘The Heist’, the story of goodies and baddies collaborating in an uneasy partnership to catch the ultimate Ponzi schemer, an investment banker who has skipped the U.S.A. with $500 million.  His whereabouts are now unknown.
All very well and good:  the bones of the plot are sound.  the FBI figure that it takes a conman to know one and help them apprehend Mr Banker, so make a deal with Nick Fox, a crook they have just jailed, thanks to the determined -  not to say obsessive - efforts of their agent Kate O’Hare to Bring Him to Justice:  a phony escape is arranged and Mr Fox makes his getaway as part of the deal.  The only fly in the ointment is that no-one kept Agent O’Hare in the loop:  she is dancing with rage – puce with it, and decides that that S.O.B. is not going to get away from her.  He is not going to outsmart her.  Even if she has to kill him she will bring him back alive!
Fair enough.  The only problem is the writing.  The first chapters are just about the klunkiest things in print:  Agent Kate is slim, trim,  an ex-Navy seal, trained to a standstill in myriad different ways to kill.  Naturally, she is blonde and possesses sparkling blue eyes.  As an added bonus her Dad is also an ex intel operative, with favours owed to him all over the globe from his many secret missions on behalf of the U.S.  He rescues her a lot, which is good because it keeps his clandestine skills honed and besides, it gets him out of the house.
Nick Fox is charming, irrepressible and a lover of the high life.  Naturally, he has windswept brown hair, dark brown eyes and a lazy smile.  And formidable, crooked skills that enable him to pull off breathtaking crimes of absurdity.  Just like real life!
The only requirement to make all this silliness work is that the writing must be credible – and seamless, and that doesn’t happen until at least chapter six, before which it is almost possible to tell when either or is saying, ‘well, you can have a turn now’.  Because I am so familiar with Ms Evanovich’s style it was pretty easy to work out when she was at the helm, and as always, the minor characters are great fun, and fans of hers take heart:  there are twenty seven more chapters to go and it does get better.  Despite the wild plotting (including lightning fast trips to Greece, Berlin, Bali and other more remote Indonesian islands, where Agent Kate’s Dad gets to quote geographical info about each destination with Wikipedia-like ease – oh, the joys of cutting and pasting!) Nick and Kate Get Their Man, no-one gets rubbed out except the bad guys, and Kate’s dad has so much time away from home that he’s looking forward to his former life as an Old Fart.
It’s a sure thing that a sequel will be planned; I just hope that by the time it appears, all the rough edges of this new partnership will have disappeared and what was a fun concept becomes a great series.     

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