Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Reviews: '11/22/63' Kindles New Interest; a mixed bag from page-turning faves Child, Grisham and Barclay

by Stephen King

Quite substantial in its own right, this book had personal significance on a number of levels, and I'm not even referencing its content. Although the man had written 48 previous novels, virtually all best sellers, published over the past 38 years, 11/22/63 is the first book by Stephen King I've ever read. At 849 pages, it may well be the longest book I've ever read, at least recently or that I can readily recall. And it is the first book I've ever read, in full or anywhere near it, in electronic form. I got through it on a Kindle--and occasionally on my iPhone Kindle app--in a little over 2 weeks.

Though King's work in itself is wonderful, I do believe there is much correlation among the points above. While I was intrigued from the moment I saw the recent release in hardcover, the girth of it was not only a bit intimidating, but meant I couldn't readily take it on a plane, train or elsewhere I might have a realistic chance of delving into it. Thus the Kindle, and the app, proved ideal. I doubt I would have read 11/22/63 yet, or perhaps ever, in analog form (even if such is still my preference). And I enjoyed it tremendously.

Ostensibly, the story is about a modern day high school teacher who is shown a way to travel back in time--but only to a specific date in 1958--and does so to position himself to stop the JFK assassination. This was enough of a thumbnail description to make me want to read the book, but 11/22/63 actually succeeds due to its breadth and intelligence far beyond Kennedy, Oswald, Dallas and conspiracy theories. I don't want to divulge very much about the storyline, for that discovery is much of the fun, but what keeps the protagonist occupied between 1958 and titular date is just as compelling as King's twist on the events of that fateful day. And along the way, King provides plenty of shrewd insight about modern times versus what things were like in the relatively recent past.

Any great book winds up being about so much more than its in-a-nutshell synopsis, and that is certainly the case here. In other words, never judge a book by the cover. Even if you read it on a Kindle.

The Affair
by Lee Child

All of Lee Child's 16 novels revolve around a nomadic and imposing ex-military cop named Jack Reacher, who utilizes both brains and brawn to get himself and others out of difficult situations and/or to right wrongs. While these books clearly fall into the thriller/page-turner category, and I've enjoyed them all on that level, Child does a good job of imbuing them, through Reacher's deductive processes, with keen insight regarding a variety of situations, large and small.

Now out in hardcover, The Affair is Child's latest book, but its story goes back to 1997 to chronicle an episode that would lead to Reacher becoming ex-military. So as an avid Reacherian, I enjoyed it as a bit of flash-backstory. But as usual with works from this series, it reads like a rollercoaster, so there's nothing to stop anyone from starting here. In fact, it might well make sense as the first Reacher novel for the uninitiated to explore.

Though I have a hard time recalling which Reacher novel is which at this point, I don't think The Affair stands among the very best of them. But it's a fun and exciting read, especially if you know Reacher, yet even if you don't. The story involves Reacher arriving in a small town with a military base to explore how a local woman wound up dead, and I have to admit that per a good thriller, the twists and turns kept me guessing. (You can read the first three chapters of The Affair for free on Child's website)

The Litigators
by John Grisham

With seemingly all of his books going instantly to the top of the New York Times best seller list, John Grisham stands clearly as one of the world's most successful authors. Though even early on, with huge hits like The Firm, A Time To Kill (which he actually wrote first) and The Pelican Brief, he seemed to take knocks from some corners for not being a great literary writer, just a popular one. But I was an unabashed fan and had no problem citing him as one of my favorites.

At his best, his legal thrillers were not only great page-turners, but served to offer a good deal of societal observation and commentary. I recall The Runaway Jury informing me about class-action lawsuits and corporate malfeasance (in that case, regarding big tobacco) well before movies such as The Insider and Erin Brockovich traipsed similar ground.

Though I think I've read at least 15 of his novels, plus a non-fiction work called The Innocent Man, at some point I became less passionate about Grisham's books. Perhaps it was just me--though apparently not--but his thrillers somehow seemed less thrilling. So when his latest, The Litigators, seemed to be heralded as a return to form, I grabbed it eagerly when I saw it available on the Skokie Public Library's Bookmobile.

Unfortunately, I was tremendously disappointed. Grisham's tale of two ambulance-chasing Chicago lawyers who, in conjunction with a young refugee from a large firm, undertake a class-action lawsuit of dubious merit, is a rather tepid affair. I got through it in just a few days, but more because I wanted to be done with it than due to caring about the outcome. None of Grisham's characters were particularly likable, adding to the tedium, though perhaps this was his intent. I have no innate affinity for the legal profession, but the author's condescension towards its practitioners--of many stripes--came across as rather ugly. At some points, he seemed to take an almost absurdly farcical tone--a la Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey--but while failing to make its case on many levels, The Litigators also wasn't a winning work of humor.

To be fair, toward the end the book got a bit better and I almost cared about the conclusion. But not enough to make having gotten there worthwhile.

The Accident
by Linwood Barclay

A few years ago, my friend Dave turned me onto the works of Linwood Barclay due to my enjoyment of a similar author, Harlan Coben. Though Coben also has a series of mysteries with the same central characters, his "stand-alone" books (Tell No One, Gone For Good, etc.) and Barclay's thrillers typically take place in New Jersey, New York or nearby--in this case Connecticut--and involve a protagonist searching for a missing or dead family member or significant other (or trying to solve a related mystery).

I tend to prefer Coben due to his ability to bring more extemporaneous humor and insight to his thrillers, but Barclay does good work in a similar vein. The Accident, which involves a woman dying in a car accident under mysterious circumstances, a string of subsequent deaths among her acquaintances and her husband's attempts to unravel what happened, is no exception.

It's a quality page-turner and I was rather surprised by the ending, even if the thrill-ride acceleration throughout didn't quite equal Barclay's Never Look Away, Fear the Worst, No Time for Goodbye or Too Close to Home. This one came out in hardcover in August, so should be available at your local library a bit sooner than the titles above, and is certainly worth "checking out."

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