Between the “greats”

I follow a lot of authors and anticipate their books and then, paradoxically, when they come out I take my time about getting around to reading them. I think it is a defense mechanism—equal parts fear that they won’t be as good as I have anticipated, or that they will be as good but that they will take me a lot of time and energy to get through and then think about and analyze. Sometimes, after all, you want a reading experience that is not intense, that is not taxing, that takes you somewhere familiar and allows you to follow along somewhat passively instead of being an active reader.

I have been in that exact place, during the past two weeks. I had a choice between reading Return of the Thief, “the thrilling, 20-years-in-the-making conclusion to the New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner,” which is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time; Troubled Blood, the next in the exciting and engaging Cormoran Strike private detective series by alias J. K. Rowling; or V. E. Schwab’s brand-new book The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which is already making waves on all the best-of book lists out there. Thief and Addie are close to 500 pages apiece, while Rowling has done her usual of increasing the page-count of the book with each addition to the series, this one coming in at a whopping 944! So taking on any one of them won’t be a short-term experience, and deciding which to prefer above the others is also all locked up with my feelings towards each. Do I really want my favorite series to end?
Will these books live up to the others? Is the hype bigger than the book?

My response, this past week, was to turn aside from all three of them and pick up an early entry in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, The Enemy. After I got about a third of the way into it, some vaguely familiar scenes made me go check Goodreads, whence I discovered that I had actually read this book before; but it was more than five years ago, I have read at least 400 books (maybe more) in the intervening years and, despite certain scenes jiving with my memory, I didn’t remember anything about how it resolved.

As some readers of my blog will remember, I swore off of more Reacher books after reading the latest one, which was dark and ugly and didn’t feature the Reacher we had all come to know and respect for so many years and volumes. But this one is not only early in the series (#8), it’s also a flashback to when Reacher was still in the military working as an active police major (M.P.), solving crimes from within the confines of rules and protocol.

It begins on New Year’s Eve 1989, when Reacher is still in the army and has inexplicably been transferred from Panama to Fort Bird, North Carolina. Everyone else is out celebrating the turn of the decade, but Reacher is on duty when a two-star general is found dead in a sleazy motel 30 miles from the base, and it looks like he wasn’t alone. It’s the classic case of heart attack in the midst of sex but, by the time Reacher arrives, the hooker is no longer on the scene, nor is the general’s briefcase. Reacher’s new boss at Bird tells him to “contain the situation” so that the army won’t be embarrassed, but when Reacher goes to deliver the news of the general’s death to his widow in Virginia, the widow turns up dead too, and speculation about the contents of the briefcase suddenly turns the affair into something more complicated. Reacher recruits a (female) M.P. named Summer to help him run down all the details, and the two of them go ever deeper into danger as they defy the military to dig into this broadening potential scandal.

The book is a convoluted, intriguing puzzle from start to the very last page. There is a quote on the cover of my paperback from the Chicago Sun-Times that calls it “a thriller that gallops at a breakneck pace.” This proves that no one at that newspaper actually read the book; while it is, indeed, thrilling at certain points, and Reacher and Summer travel extensively across the States and into Europe during a 10-day period, spending as little as eight hours at some destinations, the pacing of this book is deliberate and every detail is noted, from what the protagonists are wearing down to how many cups of coffee they consume during breakfast at the Officers’ Club. In order to appreciate Reacher, you have to dwell in the details, because you never know when one will become significant.

This was a good one, and bravo to Lee Child for writing this background story so successfully.

As for making a decision between the three alternatives I mentioned at the top of this blog post, I think the safest is probably the stand-alone book in which I don’t have quite as much invested, so Addie LaRue will be my next read. Unless I put them all off to do some theme reading for the holidays, such as Jenny Colgan’s Christmas at the Cupcake Café? It’s entirely possible…

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