'Sandrine' by Thomas H Cook is an unusual novel, and might annoy some readers because it falls between two stools genre-wise. On the face of it, it's a legal thriller; much of the action centres around the trial of Samuel Madison for the murder of his wife Sandrine. Here's the Amazon description:
How did Sandrine die? There was no forced entry. She had been gradually stockpiling prescription drugs. A lethal quantity of Demerol was found in her blood. But did the beautiful, luminous Sandrine Madison really take her own life? The District Attorney doesn't think so. Neither does the local newspaper. And so Sandrine's husband must now face a town convinced of his guilt and a daughter whose faith in her father has been shaken to its core. But, as he stands in the dock, Samuel Madison must confront yet more searing questions: Who was Sandrine? Why did she die? And why – how? – is she making him fall in love with her all over again?
The last line gives the clue as to the book's other focus. 'Sandrine' is one of the most moving love stories I've ever read. Not that I read much in the romance genre, as I find a lot of what's on offer is clichéd, full of lantern-jawed heroes and catwalk-beautiful heroines. If all love stories were as good as 'Sandrine', however, I'd read more widely in the genre. No cardboard stereotypes are found among the book's cast of characters. Instead, Samuel Madison is flawed and very believable; he's failed to achieve his ambitions and is disappointed by his marriage. Once madly in love with his wife, over time he becomes indifferent towards her, as well as apathetic about his own life. Sandrine's death forces him to acknowledge, through a tortured examination of his behaviour, how people often don't realise they possess a treasure until they lose it. The book charts Sam's gradual realisation of his faults and asks whether love can be reawakened, even after death. And poses the question: did he murder Sandrine?
This isn’t an 'edge of the seat' type of legal thriller; the pace is slower than anything John Grisham might write. The novel has its issues; some readers report being turned off by its frequent literary references, which are frequent and colourful. Given both Sandrine and Sam work at a liberal arts college, and Sam's ambition is to be a writer, it seems reasonable they'd make such references, so they didn't bother me. The main weakness, for me, was that some aspects of the story stretch belief, but I can't elaborate without giving major plot spoilers! Overall, though, this novel was a joy to read, and the ending moved me to tears. I highly recommend it.
Have you read 'Sandrine' and, if so, what did you think? Leave a comment and let me know!
This week's blog post is a book review of 'The Widow', Fiona Barton's first novel. The book was published in 2016 and has achieved both Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller status. It's billed as 'the ultimate psychological thriller... a terrifically chilling exploration of the darkness at the heart of a seemingly ordinary marriage.'
Wow! When I read that, I decided this novel was right up my street, both as the kind of book I like to read and also to write.. Here's the description from Amazon:
'We've all seen him: the man - the monster - staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him? Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.'
Sounds gripping, doesn't it?
'The Widow' doesn't disappoint. I read it in one sitting, forcing my eyes to stay open one night as I devoured the contents into the small hours. I loved Fiona's depiction of the two main characters, Glen and Jeanie Taylor.
Glen is a petty, self-absorbed tyrant. His persona is wonderfully drawn, shown through the myriad ways he controls Jeanie and his failure to accept responsibility for his actions. Everything is someone else's fault, never his. (Don't we all know people like that?!) He attributes his dismissal from his bank job to his boss's jealousy rather than his unsatisfactory performance. When he's put on trial, he bills himself as a victim of police harassment. According to him, his obsession with child pornography is a medical condition for which he needs help. Not, of course, a sign of his warped nature, one that he keeps well-hidden. Here is a man who is outwardly unremarkable, yet, as the book asks, is he also a paedophile and a murderer? And is Jeanie complicit in his misdeeds?
The domineering Glen is mostly seen through the recollections of his down-trodden wife, who is a masterpiece of characterisation, expertly portrayed though subtle nuances. Jeanie adores her husband at first but her love fades as she realises the kind of man she has married. It's not long, though, before the reader starts to feel she may be hiding her own dark side. In addition, she might know more about Bella Elliott's disappearance than she's revealing.
The only flaw, for me, was that she comes across as older than her age, which jars at times. This may be deliberate, to emphasise Jean's unworldliness, but if so, I think it's overdone. It's not just that her name would be more appropriate for an older woman. At times Jean behaves like a stereotypical pensioner, so much so that when the narrative refers to her as being thirty-seven, it comes as a shock. Well, to me, anyway.
An impressive debut novel
As a foil to Glen and Jeanie, the other central characters of journalist Kate Waters and DI Bob Sparkes are more crudely drawn. Sparkes is almost like a caricature of a detective inspector, and his scenes didn't come alive for me. Kate is a more convincing character, although hard to like. Ruthless in pursuit of a scoop for her newspaper, she's hard as nails despite the caring persona she projects. The descriptions of unsavoury press behaviour are hard to stomach, as they frequently descend into harassment and trial by media. Fiona Barton used to be a journalist, so the antics she depicts are presumably realistic, yet in my view they're abhorrent.
Those wanting thrills a minute and a high body count may be disappointed by this book. The story focuses more on Jeanie's character development rather than delivering a plot rollercoaster. There are no twists as such - the ending is fairly obvious from early on - and few startling revelations. That's not the strength of this novel. The interest lies more in the reader exploring every nook and cranny of Jeanie's mind, in understanding why she gradually turns against her husband during the course of her marriage. As a first novel, it's impressive, and I look forward to reading more from this author.
Fiona Barton is a former journalist who has worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. In the latter role she won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards. She gave up her job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and has worked with exiled journalists all over the globe. The idea for 'The Widow' came from time spent during her journalistic career covering famous trials. Fiona began to wonder what the wives of the accused knew or allowed themselves to know about the crimes in question. Fiona lives with her husband in rural France and has written several other novels. You can find out more at her website: http://fionabartonauthor.com/
As many of you know, I love Stephen King's novels. I think he's a master of the writing craft, and I'm awed by his prolific output. I'm working my way through his books, a task that will keep me occupied for quite a while! On a recent trip to a charity shop, I bagged myself seven titles I'd not yet read. All were ones that aren't so well known, such as 'Desperation' and 'Just After Sunset'. I was curious about my purchases, wondering why they hadn't achieved the success of books such as 'Carrie' or 'The Shining'. The last one I finished was 'From a Buick 8', a novel about a supernatural car. The book gets very varied reviews on Amazon, and I can see why. For me, reading it proved a mixed experience.
First, let's deal with the good stuff. The prose is every bit as enthralling as King's other novels. I love the way he makes magic with words, and 'From a Buick 8' didn't disappoint in that respect. I read the book pretty much in one sitting, and was never bored. After all, diehard fans like me will enjoy whatever the man writes, even if it's his laundry list! So what was the issue? How come I could understand the scathing Amazon reviews, ones such as, 'It should have been titled "nothing happened"'? Or what about: 'A car that isn't really a car pitches up in a Pennsylvania backwater... and that's it. What we don't get is a story.'
Less leaves, more action, please
Whilst the words are wonderful, 'From a Buick 8' lacks a coherent plot or much tension. It's a shame because the potential's there, but King fails to develop it. One problem is that the story is largely revealed in hindsight, with the police officers of Troop D telling the story of the mysterious car they guard to a rookie recruit. Such a plot device lacks the immediacy present-day action offers, at least the way King does it. As those disgruntled reviewers pointed out, the plot is thin. The Buick could have been so much more menacing than it actually is. More victims should have succumbed to its power, thus upping the ante. Instead, Kind spends a lot of the book telling us how the car's trunk spawns all manner of weird things, most of which can't survive in our world. Instead of leaves that disintegrate minutes after they arrive on planet Earth, or dead flowers, how about giving the readers something truly scary? The one thing that does live is more ridiculous than frightening, and is soon killed anyway.
It would have been good to have a chapter or two in which the state troopers attempt to destroy the car, resulting in casualties as it fights back, but it didn't happen. Instead we're given a flimsy reason as to why they're content to leave it be. Even the Troop D members admit long stretches of time pass during which nothing happens with the Buick. Neither are we given any notion as to why the car ended up in this world, abandoned by its mysterious driver. Again, I feel the author missed a trick here. This is not the stuff great supernatural fiction is made of, in my opinion. King does provide a welcome boost to the tension towards the end, but then the plot goes flat again.
So there you have it. I'm still an avid fan of Stephen King's work, given his talent with words, but 'From a Buick 8' will most likely only appeal to readers who, like me, are already hooked.
Let's hear from you!
Have you read 'From a Buick 8'? What's your opinion of the book? Leave a comment and let me know!
As readers of my blog will have gathered, I'm an avid Stephen King fan; I'm working my way through all his supernatural thrillers. Apart from 'Nightmares and Dreamscapes' and the rather flat 'From a Buick 8', I've not yet read anything from King I haven't liked. So when I spotted the hardcover copy of 'End of Watch' in the supermarket, I bought it straight away. The novel is the final book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, the other two being 'Mr Mercedes' and 'Finders Keepers'. Here's my review of 'Mr Mercedes'; I didn't post a review for 'Finders Keepers', but I loved that one as well.
'End of Watch', eh? An intriguing title
The title, one that fits the story perfectly, comes from an American expression for police officers at the end of their working life. Those who retire permanently, or die. Which one will Bill Hodges do? He's certainly an engaging sleuth, although a somewhat stereotypical one: retired police officer, divorced, battling health problems and with a past drinking problem. He's teamed with Holly Gibney, a woman with multiple issues of her own, along with Jerome Robinson, a student and former lawn boy for Bill. Books one and three of the trilogy concentrate heavily on the evil Brady Hartsfield, a mass murderer who's also obsessed with suicide. The middle novel, 'Finders Keepers', diverts to explore one of King's favourite topics, the writing life, although it involves the Brady Hartsfield character as well. Here's the sales blurb for 'End of Watch':
'Retired Detective Bill Hodges now runs a two-person firm called Finders Keepers with his partner Holly Gibney. They met in the wake of the 'Mercedes Massacre' when a queue of people was run down by the diabolical killer Brady Hartsfield. Brady is now confined to Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, in an unresponsive state. But all is not what it seems: the evidence suggests that Brady is somehow awake, and in possession of deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room. When Bill and Holly are called to a suicide scene with ties to the Mercedes Massacre, they find themselves pulled into their most dangerous case yet, one that will put their lives at risk, as well as those of Bill's heroic young friend Jerome Robinson and his teenage sister, Barbara. Brady Hartsfield is back, and planning revenge not just on Hodges and his friends, but on an entire city. The clock is ticking in unexpected ways... Both a stand-alone novel of heart-pounding suspense and a sublimely terrifying final episode in the Hodges trilogy, 'End of Watch' takes the series into a powerful new dimension.'
Absorbing characters, pink fish and a fast pace
Sounds great, doesn't it? And 'End of Watch' delivers the goods. Brady Hartsfield is a wonderfully warped villain, aided by his sidekicks Felix Babineau and Library Al, both of whom end up zombie-fied after Brady invades their minds. Intent on revenge on Bill Hodges, Brady will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, as well as drive thousands of young people to kill themselves.
Although his brain was seriously damaged by Holly Gibney, Brady avails himself of new powers, possibly resulting from Felix Babineau using him in unauthorised drug trials. King also hints that the savage head blow dealt by Holly may also have contributed, allowing Brady to access the 90% of his brain that lies dormant in all of us. As his extraordinary powers grow, the deaths begin…
Stephen King is a master at creating memorable characters (think Jack Torrance, Annie Wilkes, Jake Epping). 'End of Watch' also has an interesting cast list, one that develops both Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney, more so the latter. Whilst it's not specifically mentioned, Holly is either autistic or has Asperger's syndrome, and the book shows her shedding her coping mechanisms as the story progresses. It's Brady Hartsfield, though, who receives the full Stephen King treatment, morphing from a catatonic invalid to a mind in motion, capable of transferring into other bodies at will. His evil mission poses a huge problem for Bill and Holly in their race to stop him. They can hardly tell the police what they suspect Brady is up to, after all!
I found some aspects of the plot a little far-fetched - the use of obsolete games consoles to facilitate mind control, for example, and the numerical pink fish. Perhaps that's a little unfair, as Brady's opportunities for evil are limited initially, and the use of technology, albeit outdated, fits what we already know of him as a computer expert. Besides, this is Stephen King, creator of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, supernatural cars and telekinetic teenagers. Beside them, digital pink fish seem small fry!
King can be verbose at times, but his mastery of words transcends what might grate if coming from a lesser writer. 'End of Watch' rollicks along at a fast pace towards the satisfying, if sad, conclusion. It can be read either as the third book in the 'Mr Mercedes' trilogy, or would work equally well as a standalone novel. If you're a fan of his novels, I suspect you'll love this book.
What about you?
Have you read 'End of Watch', or any of the other books in the trilogy? What did you think? Leave a comment and let me know!
A novel told backwards!
A while back, I wrote a post about novels with unusual structures (you can read it here), examining books such as B S Johnson's 'The Unfortunates', which consists of twenty-seven chapters that can be read in any order. As a novelist, I'm fascinated by examples of authors stretching the boundaries of what's possible with fiction. Last week, I picked up from the library another novel with an intriguing premise: Jeffery Deaver's 'The October List'.
What's unusual about it? Well, the story is told in reverse - sounds weird, I know! The index begins with chapter thirty-six, the story working back through time over the last two days to the first chapter. In his foreword, Deaver explains that he became captivated with the idea of reverse chronology after listening to a radio discussion about Stephen Sondheim's musical 'Merrily We Roll Along', which uses the same idea. Deaver says: 'I began to wonder if it was possible for a thriller writer to pull off a backward-told story that was filled with the cliff-hangers, surprises and twists and turns that are, to me, the epitome of good crime fiction. The task of course, is to present the twist before giving the facts that lead up to it and still make the surprise thrilling. It's like telling a joke's punch line first, yet still making the audience laugh as hard as if they'd heard the gag in its proper order.'
Part brilliance, part ho-hum
So does Deaver succeed? Yes and no, and that reflects the range of reviews I've read about the book on Amazon. For the majority of the novel I wasn't that impressed. The characters lacked depth, Deaver giving only the barest details about them, and the writing failed to grab me. Along the way, there are surprises, but no major thrills or twists. In addition, the ending of the opening chapter (number thirty-six, which appears first in the book as this is a story told in reverse) would have been weak had the plot been conventionally ordered, not delivering the final punch thriller readers expect. Whoever reviewed the book for The Sunday Times appears to have the same reaction, saying: 'Even halfway through, it seems possible that Deaver has been defeated by the mind-boggling technical challenge of delivering surprises in back-to-front time.'
Towards the end, however, everything changes, and I found myself gripped by the twists that Deaver throws into the mix. So does our friend from The Sunday Times: 'After the reverse journey reaches the couple's first meeting, his (Deaver's) gamble is thoroughly vindicated by a series of twists in which he resembles a conjuror who each time seems to have performed his final trick, but then tops it.'
My reaction as well! The final two chapters are particularly gripping, delivering surprises that perhaps I should have seen coming but didn't. By the end, the last part of the book left me thinking, 'Wow!', as well as unsure how to sum it up as a whole. 'The October List' is, by its very nature, plot-driven yet that's no excuse for poorly drawn characters or pedestrian writing. Yet I'm filled with admiration for any novelist who attempts such an ambitious task. Could you conceive of writing a novel backwards?! Deaver says in his foreword that 'The October List' was more challenging than anything he'd previously written - hardly surprising!
Have you read 'The October List'?
I'd be interested to hear what other people think. What's your opinion of 'The October List'? Do you, like one five-star Amazon reviewer, consider it 'brilliantly executed' with 'more surprises than you can shake a stick at'? Or do you side with the one-star reviewer who says, cuttingly, 'An intriguing idea wasted'? Leave a comment and let me know!
This time around my weekly post will be another book review - 'The Silent Twin', Caroline Mitchell's third release in the Jennifer Knight series. Caroline blends crime fiction with a dash of the supernatural, as the protagonist Jennifer Knight has a dual role in the police force. Besides her more orthodox work, part of her job is to investigate crimes with, as Mitchell puts it, 'an unearthly edge'. Sounds intriguing, and not a plot premise I've encountered before! Here's the description from the back cover:
Nine-year-old twins Abigail and Olivia vow never to be parted. But when Abigail goes missing from Blackwater Farm, DC Jennifer Knight must find her before it’s too late. Twin sister Olivia has been mute since Abigail’s disappearance. But when she whispers in Jennifer’s ear, Jennifer realises it is Abigail’s voice pleading to be found. A damp and decaying house set in acres of desolate scrubland, the farm is a place of secrets, old and new – and Jennifer must unravel them all in order to find the lost girl. But could Olivia’s bond with her twin hold the key to finding Abigail? And can Jennifer break through her silence in time to save her sister’s life?
A detective thriller with a spooky twist
I wasn't sure how well blending a supernatural angle with a detective thriller would work. Also, as 'The Silent Twin' is the third in its series, whether it would also read well as a standalone. (I won my copy in a competition, which is why I've not yet read the first two Jennifer Knight books). My fears were unfounded. The supernatural element adds interest to the plot without becoming obtrusive or forcing the book to sit between two genres. If I'm reading crime fiction, I don't expect overtones of a Stephen King horror story, for example, but that doesn't happen in 'The Silent Twin'. First and foremost, it's a detective thriller, with the supernatural element acting to complement, not hinder, that. The reader is never allowed to forget that a child is missing, with all the horror that entails for her family.
Also, I was relieved to find 'The Silent Twin' works well on its own merits and prior knowledge of the first two books in the series wasn't necessary. Caroline Mitchell does a fantastic job of setting the scene when it comes to creepiness The parents of the missing child live at Blackwater Farm, a dilapidated dwelling set in a remote area and complete with a strong negative energy within its walls. As the wind howls outside, Jennifer Knight hears Abigail whispering in her ear, begging to be found. What exactly is she hearing, though? Is the child still alive and her pleas the product of Jennifer's imagination, or is there a more sinister explanation? Could Abigail be dead and is it her spirit that is desperate for resolution?
Her twin, Olivia, is every bit as enigmatic, refusing to speak immediately after her sister's disappearance but when she does begin to talk again, she drops hints that she knows a lot more than she's willing to tell. For example, what is the awful thing she saw, but promises her father, Nick, not to reveal? What demons is Nick wrestling with? The other characters are equally engrossing. What past traumas have scarred Joanna, the twins' mother? Why has her marriage to Nick turned sour? What part does the mysterious Radcliffe play? And who is the writer of the mysterious diary? As the action progresses, the spotlight turns on each one, revealing dark secrets, past abuses and terrible tragedy.
I read 'The Silent Twin' in one sitting, delighted to have discovered a new author whose books I can enjoy. If the idea of a detective thriller with a spooky twist appeals to you, I heartily recommend this novel.
Want to find out more about Caroline and her books?
You can discover more, including details of Don't Turn Around (Book 1) and Time to Die (Book 2) via Caroline's author page on Amazon: Caroline Mitchell.
An engrossing 'straight-up' crime thriller from a master wordsmith
It's been a while since I wrote a book review, and 'Mr Mercedes' by Stephen King is a worthy way to resume! The novel is King's venture into straight crime thrillers, the first of a trilogy. Fans of his horror and supernatural titles won't find their familiar fare here. No clowns, no haunted hotels, no Boo'ya Moon. Instead 'Mr Mercedes' recounts the good versus evil battle of Bill Hodges, a retired police officer, and Brady Hartsfield, a computer genius with a bad Oedipal complex and an even worse loathing of humanity. The book begins with a bang, recounting the senseless slaying of eight people by Brady Hartsfield, committed by ploughing a stolen Mercedes into a crowd. Years later, retired detective Bill Hodges's failure to capture the Mercedes Killer haunts him as he drifts through his days on a diet of junk food and daytime television. Then he receives a taunting letter from Mr Mercedes, an attempt to goad him into suicide. Instead, it induces the opposite effect, Hodges is spurred into action, committed to capturing the killer before he strikes again. Let the battle commence....
The novel has more twists and turns than a maze, never failing to thrill. Twice in the book (I'll not say more as I don't want to give plot spoilers) the events had me yelling, 'Oh my God!' at the pages. The way King enables Hartsfield to stalk Hodges without the latter realising is creepy beyond belief. Novelists are often advised to torture their characters to excite readers. In 'Mr Mercedes', Stephen King doesn't hesitate to dispatch the modern day equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition to persecute his players. Speaking of whom, 'Mr Mercedes' introduces a trio of characters that continue through the trilogy. First Bill Hodges, the man who rediscovers his zest for life through hunting Brady Hartsfield. Jerome Robinson, the computer-savvy student, a foil for Hodges's technical ineptitude. Finally, there's Holly Gibney, a seemingly minor character whose demons seem destined to hinder Hodges, not help him. The lesser characters are equally compelling. Deborah Hartsfield, Brady's alcoholic mother, inspires empathy as we learn the reason for her drinking. At the same time, her unorthodox relationship with her disturbed son won't win her a 'Mother of the Year' award. Aunt Charlotte is a master study of a self-absorbed whiner engorged with entitlement issues. The only character I disliked (although she's one of the 'good guys') is Janelle Patterson. Her condescending attitude towards Hodges warrants a kick up the backside. She dispenses sexual favours his way as though rewarding a well-trained dog with a ham bone. Yuk.
A dash of humour, and less is not always more...
Unlike many straight-up crime thrillers, the novel is laced with humour. Take our introduction to Bill Hodges. He's at a point in his life when blowing his brains out holds increasing appeal. We witness his ennui via the daytime television shows with which he self-medicates. King's descriptions of a trashy reality TV programme are hilarious, yet provide a not-so-subtle commentary on modern life. His books have often been criticised for being long-winded. By comparison to some of his work ('Under the Dome', 'The Stand', etc.), 'Mr Mercedes', at 405 pages, is a short read. Yet it still contains much that critics might say could be axed without interfering with the plot. Take the description of the reality TV show. The fighting between Knockout Bods One and Two and their shared lover doesn't add to the action, reveals nothing about the book's characters. Yet somehow it works. Those passages inject humour, a counterpoint to the awfulness of Hodges's life post-retirement.
Yes, King is prone to lengthy prose, some of which doesn't add to his books. With a master wordsmith like him, though, it doesn't detract either. The man is probably capable of rewriting the phone book and making it thrilling. His wizardry with words ensures that, no matter what tangent he zooms off on, it'll be entertaining.
'Mr Mercedes' is the first in a trilogy, and the second and third books, 'Finders Keepers' and 'End of Watch', have already been published. Our heroic trio of Hodges, Robinson and Gibney continue their crime-fighting spree, this time tackling an obsessive fan whose preoccupation with a famous writer goes too far. Wait - haven't we been there before? Annie Wilkes in 'Misery'? King seems to enjoy examining the trials and tribulations of a novelist ('Misery', 'Lisey's Story', 'Bag of Bones', etc.). 'Finders Keepers', however, in King's capable hands, spins an original twist on a familiar theme. And 'End of Watch' delves into what appears to be a murder-suicide. Except that matters aren't, of course, what they seem...
Back to 'Mr Mercedes'. I devoured this book, loving the ride on which King takes the reader. The only part that didn't gel for me was the final scene, which I thought stretched credibility too far. On the other hand, in its own way it's oddly humorous. Given how I loved the rest of the book, it's a minor issue. And now, thanks to Messrs King and Mercedes, I know what a crush freak is. Believe me, if I could erase that particular piece of knowledge from my brain, I would!
Have you read 'Mr Mercedes'?
I hope you enjoyed this book review! Have you read 'Mr Mercedes'? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Thoughts, opinions? Leave a comment and let me know!
The Jack Reacher series - classy, page-turning thrillers
I've been a fan of Lee Child's Jack Reacher titles from the first one I read. Hats off to Mr Child (real name Jim Grant), who has mastered writing bestselling American thrillers, despite being British. He pens classy novels with a twist and a turn in every chapter, books that make me eager to turn to the next page. This week I'll be reviewing his novel 'Personal', published in 2014.
First, however, a little about the Reacher series in general. Jack Reacher is an iconic character; tall, tough, an expert fighter, he wanders his home country of America with only a toothbrush and wallet in his pocket. He even spurns carrying a change of clothes, preferring to buy fresh attire as and when he needs it. He has no home, no car, no friends, no significant other, just a desire to live life off the grid and on his own terms. Reacher explores his homeland without so much as a holdall, claiming that if he were to allow possessions into his life, it would open the door to more... and more... and more. Which might lead to acquiring a house for all those possessions, and being settled is exactly what Reacher seeks to avoid.
The girls, the gadgets, the witty one-liners....
In terms of plot, the Reacher books are virtually identical. The novels are, as Child has remarked, essentially revenge stories – somebody does something bad, and Reacher exacts retribution. The plotline and location varies from title to title, but certain elements stay the same. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I suspect Child employs this strategy for commercial reasons. Why? Because such tactics work. Take the James Bond movies. No matter who the latest Bond actor is, cinema goers know exactly what they'll get for their money. The girls, the gadgets, the witty one-liners... the basic plotline may vary, but the action and adventure remain constant. Guaranteed entertainment. It's no different with Lee Child's novels.
In many ways, I see similarities between James Bond and Jack Reacher. Reacher's as tough as Bond, if not more so. A towering six feet five inches of fighting prowess, he tends to tackle the bad guys in multiples, often taking on five or six men at once and leaving them dead or hospital cases. All the while offloading witty wisecracks - our man's verbally every bit as cool as James Bond. We all love Bond's laconic one-liners, but Reacher can come out with some gems of his own as he bats his ripostes across the conversational table. Take this example of his dry humour:
'I have no desire to go to Buckingham Palace anyway.'
'Wouldn't you like to meet the Queen?'
'Not really. She's just a person. We're all equal. Has she expressed any interest in meeting me?'
Entertainment, pure and simple
In addition, similar to Bond, Reacher always hooks up with a beautiful, beguiling female; Child's subplots are often concerned with the sexual tension that develops between the two. The epitome of machismo, Reacher is nevertheless portrayed as respectful towards women, despite his 'love 'em and leave 'em' attitude. Not that the latter matters. His cohorts aren't, on the whole, looking for a white picket fence; they're equally happy to enjoy some uncomplicated pleasure. Entertainment, pure and simple, for Jack, his women, and the reader.
Let's turn now to gadgets. Our hero has an encyclopaedic knowledge of weaponry, although he's a dinosaur when it comes to technology. Despite lacking Bond's fancy gizmos, Reacher employs any guns he comes across to great effect. He knows all about ballistics and firing strategies, facts ground hard into him during his years as a military policeman, and he uses his knowledge well, explaining it to the reader in a way that's never dull. And he's also a mean opponent with his fists and feet. You wouldn't want to piss off this guy, believe me.
What about his morality? Like Bond, Jack has no compunction about killing another human should the circumstances warrant it. I've read criticism of Lee Child for this, along the lines of how a cold-blooded murderer can't be a hero. I believe that's over-thinking the issue. Child's books are written to entertain, and I doubt anyone would level the same comment at James Bond, simply because he holds a licence to kill and Reacher doesn't. We're not meant to go all moralistic about Child's protagonist. Besides, Reacher has no trouble justifying his actions, either to himself or to others. Take this excerpt from 'Personal', in which he explains his attitude to killing one of the guys sent to apprehend him: 'He had a choice... he could have spent his days helping old ladies across the street. He could have volunteered in the library. I expect they have a library here. He could have raised funds for Africa, or wherever they need funds these days. He could have done a whole lot of good things. But he didn't. He chose not to. He chose to spend his days extorting money and hurting people. Then finally he opened the wrong door, and what came out at him was his problem, not mine. Plus he was useless. A waste of good food. Too stupid to live.'
'The stakes have never been higher...because this time, it's personal.'
On to the book review itself. Here's what Amazon says: 'Jack Reacher walks alone. Once a go-to hard man in the US military police, now he’s a drifter of no fixed abode. But the army tracks him down. Because someone has taken a long-range shot at the French president. Only one man could have done it. And Reacher is the one man who can find him. This new heart stopping, nail biting book in Lee Child’s number-one bestselling series takes Reacher across the Atlantic to Paris – and then to London. The stakes have never been higher - because this time, it’s personal.'
Number 19 in the series is one of the most entertaining Reacher novels that I've read. Whether that's because I'm British and the book is largely set in the UK, I'm not sure. It's certainly interesting to experience Lee Child, a fellow Brit, exploring our way of life through the eyes of an American, and not always reverently, which adds to the fun. Reacher doesn't hesitate to crack amusing references to the Queen, the London transport system and our police force, amongst other things, and it's hard not to smile at some of the absurdities he reveals. The novel moves along at a frantic speed, with hooks at the end of each chapter that drag the reader, metaphorically breathless, towards the next. Lines like: 'I headed towards the sound of her voice, and stepped into a room, and came face to face with myself.' Or: 'He had a gun in his hand, yet another Browning High Power, and he was pointing it straight at my head.' Who could resist turning the page after such a cliff-hanger?
A riveting read and a quality thriller
Unusually for a Reacher novel, the relationship between our protagonist and his female sidekick has a different flavour to the other Lee Child titles I've read. Reacher is more interested in helping rookie CIA agent Casey Nice with her personal issues than rolling her into bed, perhaps because there's a large age gap between them. It's plain he's attracted to her, though. Take this excerpt: 'She knocked on my door, and I opened up and found her in a ponytail and a version of her Arkansas outfit. The same brown leather jacket, over a white T-shirt, with different jeans. Same colour, but lower cut. And all scraped and sanded and beat up. Distressed, I believed they called it, which to me meant upset, which just didn't compute. Was there a finer place to be, than where those jeans were?'
'Personal' is a riveting read in my opinion, a great example of the Jack Reacher series. My view isn't shared by many on Amazon, however; the book has attracted a fair number of one-star reviews, many complaining that the plot is tedious and dumbed-down, and that Lee Child has run out of juice with the Reacher character. I disagree, and as long as Reacher's capable of kicking the butts of multiple antagonists in a fight, I'll keep reading his adventures.
Enough from me - over to you!
What do you think? Have you read 'Personal'? Do you enjoy Lee Child's Reacher novels? Or do you think the character has grown stale with repetition? Do you consider that Tom Cruise, at 5' 7", was miscast as 6' 5" Reacher in the movie? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment and let me know!
Three stories woven into one
Nobody tells a story quite like Stephen King, who has rated 'Lisey's Story' (2006) his favourite novel that he's written. Before I discovered it on the library shelves, however, I'd not heard of it. No-one has yet made it into a film, and it doesn't seem as well known as other King novels such as 'Carrie', 'The Shining', etc. The novel delivers a powerful and engaging read, however, and is a typical Stephen King page-turner (all 664 of them - it's a long novel!) The plot involves three stories. One is that of Lisey herself, told in the present, interwoven with a second one, revealing her dead husband's life, as recalled by her. The third story is the one from the title, written by Scott for his wife. More about that later. Here's a brief plot summary.
Lisey Landon has been widowed for two years, following the sudden death of her husband, hugely successful Maine novelist Scott Landon. Although a devoted husband, Scott was a troubled man during his life, emotionally wrecked by his childhood and prone to drinking bouts. Despite the passing of time, Lisey is still unable to deal with his loss, as evidenced by her inability to clear out his study. Then an insane fan of Scott's begins to stalk her, demanding she hand over her dead husband's papers; in order to survive, Lisey has to follow the trail of clues left by her husband, who assists her in spirit form. Through Scott and Lisey we explore the fantastical world known as Boo'ya Moon, where Scott retreats during times of mental crisis. Boo'ya Moon is a magical realm of warmth, filled with hazy red light, birdsong and the scent of tropical flowers. Dangers lurk amongst the lush vegetation and bright colours, however. Monsters such as Scott's nemesis, the terrible piebald creature he dubs his 'long boy'. This 'long boy' appears to represent total insanity, something desperately feared by Scott, given his family history of mental illness. Despite its perils, however, it is Boo'ya Moon that eventually provides solutions to Lisey, in respect of her insane stalker and her grief over her husband's death.
A novel of contrasts and dualities
For me, the novel is one laden with dualities. The plot portrays many contrasts; good and evil, dark and light, night and day, safe and dangerous, madness and sanity. As for night and day, the difference between them plays an important role in Scott and Lisey's visits to Boo'ya Moon, a place that's safe during daylight hours, but in which unspeakable terrors lurk in the Fairy Forest at night. King stresses that Boo'ya Moon is not a place in which to linger too long; its beauty can be seductive and once enticed into its magic, its guests may lose all desire to leave, despite its perils. Another duality illustrated here; that of danger and safety.
Good and evil are demonstrated in Sparky Landon, Scott's father, a man tormented by what Scott terms 'bad-gunky', yet who, in his lucid moments, loves his two sons and endeavours to protect them during their childhood from the rampant family insanity. He doesn't entirely succeed; nobody could endure what Scott did and emerge mentally unscathed. Scott Landon comes from a family blighted by mental illness, which manifests itself as either the 'bad-gunky' of homicidal mania (Scott's brother and father) or as catatonia (Scott himself). Although a loving husband, the man is a dark, haunted individual in comparison with Lisey, who exudes strength and stability. Normally loquacious, Scott suffers bouts of catatonia, as does Lisey's sister, Amanda. The theme of family presents another duality, with Lisey's chaotic yet loving childhood, mostly female, a contrast to Scott's male-dominated and terror-filled one.
What does it mean to be a novelist? 'Lisey's Story' as metafiction
Let's turn now to another theme that's prevalent in the novel. 'Lisey's Story' is partly an examination of the craft of writing and what it means to be a author. King achieves some of this on a very practical level. Through Lisey and the descriptions of Scott's life, we get to see how a successful novelist works his craft, from the way his study is set up to the descriptions of his public speaking events. On a different level, King also offers one possible answer to the question all novelists get asked - 'where do you get your ideas from?' Scott Landon compares the mythical pool in Boo'ya Moon to a 'word pool' and credits it as the source of his creativity. Interesting, as the pool also has magical healing qualities. Does King mean that writing can be cathartic, a balm to minds in crisis? Possibly.
Then there's Boo'ya Moon itself. I interpret this magical realm as representing Scott's mental illness, or to be specific, the state of catatonia. Scott and Amanda are both catatonics who flee to Boo'ya Moon during mental breakdowns; both find peace and healing in this magical world. Is King saying that the source of creativity lies in madness? Or in a retreat from the realities of everyday life? Perhaps. Writing can spring from madness, but it can also present a catharsis for insanity. Another interesting duality!
Is the title of 'Lisey's Story' a misnomer?
A minor quibble now. For me, the title of the novel is something of a misnomer. The novel is far more concerned about Scott Landon's life rather than Lisey's; she plays a supporting role in her own story. Although we are given details of Lisey's life, throughout the book we discover much more about her husband's. Even when we finally read the story that Scott wrote for Lisey and hid for her in Boo'ya Moon, the 'Lisey's Story' of the title, we learn far more about him than we do his wife, as the missing pieces of his life slot into place. That aside, 'Lisey's Story' is a terrific fairground ride of a novel, told as only Stephen King can. Like many King offerings, it's densely plotted and, although long, it's never dull. From the stunning descriptions of Boo'ya Moon to those of Scott and Lisey's marriage, through the sub-plots of Amanda's mental illness and Lisey's stalking by the insane Jim Dooley, King sweeps us along in a epic story that enchants and intrigues. I heartily recommend this book.
Have you read 'Lisey's story'?
Did you love it or loathe it? What elements did you enjoy and why? Leave me a comment and let me know.
A collection of King's short stories and poetry
Over the years, I've come to admire Stephen King more and more, both for his prolific output and the amazing quality of his work. I've especially enjoyed his longer novels, such as '11.22.63', marvelling at how he maintains tension and interest for 700+ pages. I wasn't sure, therefore, what I'd think of King's short stories, although I suspect I could read his grocery list and find it enthralling!
I needn't have worried - I loved 'Full Dark, No Stars', a great collection and one that inspired me to try 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams', published in November 2015. It's a collection of eighteen short stories and two poems. (Poetry isn't my thing - I started both poems and gave up, so perhaps I overstated my case when it comes to King's grocery list!) It's worth noting that not all the stories are new; some, such as 'Blockade Billy', have been published before, which may disappoint diehard fans expecting a completely fresh experience. They were all new to me, however, so no complaints here!
I love how King prefaces each story with an introduction, often revealing where he got his inspiration. As an author myself, it's fascinating to explore another wordsmith's process for transferring an idea from brain to page. 'Mile 81', for example, is a reworking of a story King wrote nearly forty years ago, resulting from his dislike of a particularly lonely stretch of road in Maine, familiar from his university days. For 'Batman and Robin Have an Altercation', he drew on a memory of a near-miss accident at a Sarasota intersection. The best introduction, however, is the one to the book itself. Here's a snippet from what King has to say: 'Here, sit down beside me. And do come a little closer, I don't bite. Except.... we've known each other for a very long time, and I suspect you know that's not entirely true.'
An impressive collection of wonderful quality
So what can the reader expect from 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams'? Some of the stories, like 'Mile 81' and 'Bad Little Kid', are quintessentially Stephen King - a demonic flesh-eating car reminiscent of his novel 'Christine' in the first, an evil child in the second. Others, like 'The Little Green God of Agony', are more personal; in King's own words, a search for closure. The story resulted from the horrific traffic accident he suffered in 1999 that resulted in years of physiotherapy and learning to walk again.
In keeping with the personal theme, his preface to 'Afterlife', an examination of what might come after death, King admits to an increasing interest in the subject as he grows older. The story reflects his preoccupation but delivered with a humorous touch. What awaits Bill Andrews after his demise is not a date with St Peter but with a man in high-waisted trousers, who's none too pleased to see him...
My favourite is, I think, 'Ur', although it's a tough choice! 'Ur' deals with, of all things, a supernatural Kindle, which proves that a good author can weave a tale out of just about anything. Talking of which, the preface to 'Mr Yummy' intrigued me. I can't imagine telling Stephen King he wouldn't have anything new to say about AIDS! A friend of his did just that, with King, of course, proving him wrong with his wonderful story of a elderly gay man approaching his death in a care home.
What else gets the King touch? Marriage, in 'Premium Harmony', 'Under the Weather' and 'Morality'; human stupidity in 'Drunken Fireworks'; and a post-apocalyptic world in 'Summer Thunder', a moving tale of a man and his dog that incorporates King's love of motorcycles. 'Blockade Billy' is centred around baseball, but with a dark twist. I loved 'The Dune', a tale of supernatural writing and a study of a deeply unpleasant man. Stephen says the story has one of his favourite endings and I agree; it's a cracker!
An amazing talent, honed to a razor's edge
In short, there's something here for every King fan, whether old or new. This is an impressive collection of wonderful quality from a writer whose talent, after over forty years, has been honed to a razor's edge.
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