Thursday, May 27, 2010

You Can't Judge A Book By Its Lover

Book Reviews

The Man From Beijing
by Henning Mankell

Although Henning Mankell has been writing best-selling crime novels for nearly 15 years, I hadn't heard of him until this past February, when Entertainment Weekly gave his new book--The Man From Beijing--a short but glowing review, in which the reviewer states, "This is hands down the best thriller I've read in five years."

So I put it on reserve with the Skokie Public Library, and when my turn came, I was very excited to read it.

But as it turns out, it wasn't even the best thriller I've read this month.

Despite the title, the book mostly takes place in Mankell's native Sweden, where a brutal massacre has wiped out a small village.

Over the past year, I've read and enjoyed all three books in the Millennium series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), by the late Stieg Larsson, another Swedish crime fiction writer whose works weave throughout his homeland. This was another reason I was optimistic about the new book by Mankell, who in the past has centered his novel around an inspector named Kurt Wallander, but wrote The Man From Beijing as a stand-alone novel.

But whereas Larsson's books constantly made me want to read the next page, discover the conclusion and tackle another of his thrillers, 50 pages into The Man From Beijing, I realized I was reading only to reach the end, not because I was anxious to learn what would happen next. The small-village massacre becomes linked to happenings in the American West from over 130 years prior, leads to dozens of non-thrilling pages about modern China and is ultimately relegated to the background of a story that meanders a whole lot.

And while it seems that Mankell was aiming for a book with considerably more consequence than your average page-turner, it didn't ever approach great literature or enlighten like a non-fiction take on some of the same matters might have. So basically I was left with a thriller that didn't thrill.

Though Mankell appears to be a well-regarded author, the Amazon reader reviews more closely approximate my take on The Man From Beijing than Entertainment Weekly's. Almost a third of the Amazon reviews give it 1 or 2 stars out of 5, so perhaps my @@1/2 is a bit generous if anything.

I'm sorry I wasted a full two weeks getting through it, especially because a few days in, the Skokie Public Library let me know that another thriller I had on reserve was ready for me. Fortunately, after finishing The Man From Beijing, I was able to read the book below in just 4 days, and liked it much better.


by Harlan Coben

I have now read all 17 of Coben's books currently in print (his first two novels no longer are) and each has taken me about a week or less to finish.

While his books--split between his Myron Bolitar mysteries and stand-alone thrillers--are not works of high art, they are stay-up-all-night page turners, filled with more than a bit of humor and shrewd societal insight.

His latest hardcover, Caught, is no exception. While probably not his best book, not quite meriting the 5 stars that 96 of 151 reviewers on Amazon have bestowed and without nearly the complexity of The Man From Beijing, it is a whiz-bang thriller that is extremely enjoyable to read.

Far more so than the Mankell book.

Although I had pegged some of the surprises in Caught before I got to them, I won't reveal much here. But it starts with a man getting caught, as part of a TV show sting, in the home of a teenage girl he had contacted over the internet. Not all is as it seems and the newswoman from the show becomes the central character in a proverbial roller coaster ride across all 388 fast-moving pages.

Although Caught is a stand-alone novel, not a caper involving the Myron Bolitar character, Coben does utilize characters from past books, which adds to the fun for those of us who know his North Jersey oeuvre.

But even as your first foray into Coben, you should find Caught quite satisfying, although you also wouldn't go wrong starting with his earlier stand-alones like Tell No One and Gone For Good.

Along with Lee Child, whose works all revolve around a character named Jack Reacher, Coben is my favorite thriller writer, and I've yet to be disappointed.

If you likewise love a good page-turner, perhaps it's about time you 'Caught' on.

1 comment:

Skokie Public Library said...

Hi Seth -

I'm from the Skokie Public Library, and I'm glad to see you've been enjoying books from our collection. Would you be interested in sharing some of your reviews on our reading blog, The Bookshelf?

If you're interested, drop me a line at tgreenwalt at skokielibrary dot info.

Toby Greenwalt
Virtual Services Coordinator
Skokie Public Library