May 8, 2015

One week, three novels and all three excellent reads

WATKINS GLEN, New York - In quick succession this past week I read Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates, World Gone By by Dennis Lehane and The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle.

For me, that's something of a reading record.

It's not that unusual for me to read three books in a single week. But normally it's one novel and two quick-read non-fiction books.

Novels have to be really good to grab my attention. Most of the time I come home with an armload of books, taking most of them back within a day.

And so it is that I am still stunned that all three of these books, grabbed quickly off the shelves of the Watkins Glen Public Library, were all amazingly good reads. I burned through them. And they will be back in the library this afternoon.


Jack of Spades takes the reader on a wild ride through the eyes of a best-selling author. Right there you know what hooked me at the outset. (Oh! To hit the best-seller list!) But you don't have to dip very far into this psychological thriller before you realize what you see on the surface isn't what's really going on.

It's a little like looking at a quiet mill pond where the surface of the water seems ever-so-peaceful. But down below there is a boiling turmoil of the aquatic animal kingdom competing, fighting - and perhaps even munching on each other.

Joyce Carol Oates does an amazing job of pulling the reader deeper and deeper beneath the surface of the author's life pond until you are almost gasping for air in the final pages. Like other work by Oates, the characters aren't what they seem to be at first. And who they turn out to be is as unpredictable at weather in suburban New Jersey where the book takes place.

Highly recommended reading. But read with extreme caution if you are a writer going through some kind of psychological doldrums or distress.  (And what writer isn't most of the time?)

World Gone By in its opening lines seems like it will be a simple, almost pedestrian crime novel, further stereotyped by its setting in World War II Tampa, Florida. Then four paragraphs into it, without warning, the characters emerge so strongly they jump off the page before you even get through the prologue.

Books filled with psychotic gangsters can be fascinating - or a complete turnoff. In World Gone By Lehane humanizes some, dehumanizes others but always, always make them so interesting you can't look away even when guns blaze or knives flash. Kind of like trying to avert your eyes from a slow-motion, car-wreck video.

What becomes abundantly clear is that every character in the book is complicated. Very complicated. And those complications, set against the backdrop of criminal activity (and sometimes violence) make for very readable book.

There is even a bow to race relations - a la 1940s - using the rough underworld of that era in Florida.

Lehane is a veteran novelist with many best sellers to his credit including the highly acclaimed Mystic River. I'm not sure World Gone By will get that same traction. But it should.

Recommended reading, especially if fast-paced novels are what you like.


The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle is as quirky as much of the rest of Boyle's work. And equally captivating.

It leads with a 70-year-old, retired high school principal going through an identity crisis of sorts as he faces a life of, well, boredom. Boyle sucks the reader in with early pages making the book sound like a Paul Theroux travelogue as the principal and his wife bounce along on a pothole-strewn Costa Rica road uncomfortable on a smelly, third-world bus, part of cruise ship tour.

Then the principal violently thwarts a robbery attempt.

Paul Theroux disappears and T.C. Boyle emerges.

Like most of Boyle's work, his characters are incredibly complicated. And The Harder They Come take the reader on a nearly 400-page wild ride through the marijuana patches of Northern California's coast, the twisted anti-government minds of a middle-aged woman and eventually to the principal's son. Law enforcement gets hit a few whacks in the book, too.

It's painful to read in spots, but never dull. And just when you think you can predict what the characters will do next, you get surprised.

Especially by the principal's adult son - every parent's nightmare.

The Harder They Come is an artful book that is well worth taking a day or two to be immersed in.

I couldn't put it down.

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