Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Under the Moonlight, the Serious Moonlight

Genevieve Valentine “The Girls at the Kingfisher Club” (Atria Books, 2014)

I have to confess that I was unfamiliar with the source material for this novel.  It’s based on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.  (Of course my wife told me it was one of her favorites, so maybe I’m just out of the loop.)

As the Brothers Grimm tell the tale, it focuses on the King, who is concerned because his daughters keep wearing out their shoes.  While clearly it would cost a small fortune to keep 12 princesses shod, I doubt that the cost justifies hiring a man to follow and investigate his own daughters.  Yet that is just what the King does.  And when the man is successful with his intelligence gathering, the King rewards him by marrying him to one of the daughters. So to modern eyes it is kind of creepy and treats the princesses like someone’s property.
Valentine changes the setting to America during Prohibition, and she tells the story from the perspective of the daughters.  The princesses are the daughters of an American would-be robber baron, a man who wants to be with the Roosevelts, Carnegies, etc, and puts a certain amount of blame for his failure on his lack of a suitable son.   His daughters are confined upstairs with only the servants and each other for company.  Eventually they start slipping out at night to dance in the speakeasies around New York.  Their struggle for freedom versus their father’s struggle for control is the central conflict of the novel.  

Valentine does such a great job with this novel.  Despite the large cast of characters, she manages to deftly juggle all the sisters to the extent that I felt I had an idea of the similarities and differences between them, as well as their relationships.   The world building is limited, but that is fitting given the story.  The sisters’ world is largely limited to their rooms at home and the clubs where they dance.  And so is the world of the book.

There’s a point at which it feels like nothing is really going to happen.  The sisters will go dancing and avoiding their father.  Then suddenly their father decides to make changes which inevitably change the status quo.  From this point on, the novel is tight and tense, as I was deeply invested in the sisters and their struggle to be happy.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

There's a few hours that I'll never get back

Andrew Vachss “Aftershock” (Pantheon, 2013)

It’s probably been 20 years since I last read one of Vachss’ novels.  I remember being enamored of the total stylization, even as it sometimes bordered on self-parody.  But how will it all hold up?  There’s a good chance that the suck fairy will visit this guy.

Aftershock is the first in a new series.  Dell’s history (that we know) includes stints in the French Foreign Legion and as a mercenary.  He met his wife Dolly while she was nursing with Doctors without Borders.  Now they’re retired & living in a small Oregon town.  When the local softball star shoots up the high school, they get involved in order to clean up the town.
Dell is Burke without the cool scams.  The novel opens with him killing some hunters, because people shouldn’t be hunting near their house.  Vachss wants us to think it’s OK to kill these guys because THEY’RE HUNTING! So right off the bat I’ve got some problems.  Vachss is putting hunters into the narrative space that his earlier books used for child molesters.  One of these things is not like the other.

So anyway, Dell becomes obsessed with clearing Mary Lou even though yes, she did in fact kill this kid.  And no, Dell has never actually met Mary Lou, so basically he’s just interested in this because it’s necessary for there to be a story.  Ultimately he finds out that there is an organized ring of rapists who have been abusing local girls for years.  The system is failing these kids because the DA will not prosecute.  We don’t ever actually find out why they won’t go after the rapists.  We’re meant to think that it’s because the DA just won’t prosecute in cases that aren’t clear.  Why these rape cases don’t fit into that category?  I have no idea.  There’s physical evidence plus victim testimony.  Everyone in town seems to know what’s going on.

I feel like my IQ dropped multiple points just reading this book.

For a book at is about rape and rape victims, it strangely does not have any well-developed female characters.  They are cardboard cutouts who are waiting for our man (Dell) to come and save them.
Years ago I remember find the Burke books fun.  They were hard boiled and full of scams attacking molesters.  Now Dell is a murderous psychopath with PTSD who kills hunters and high school kids.  I know that some of the change is on my side of the book, but it’s not all me.  At least this was a quick read.