Book Review(s): A Wanted Man, Phantom, Joyland & The Ascendant

[A quick review roundup of the books that I've been catching upon.]

A Wanted Man & Deep Down  - Lee Child
When Jack Reacher hitches a ride with three strangers - two men and a woman - in the dead of the night, he senses something is amiss. Within minutes it becomes clear to him that they all are lying and Reacher, the ever ready man to dispense justice, figures out there's something bigger at stake. The Jack Reacher series, while no ground-breaking literary masterpieces, has been quite consistently fun to read and adequately thrilling. But, like they say, there is a first time for everything.

As a character, I love the minimalist drifter hero Jack Reacher to death, but A Wanted Man, although very readable, is in every sense a deja vu. There isn't a coherent plot to speak of, and nothing much happens in the first 150 odd pages of the book, the occasional moments of frisson notwithstanding. And when the actual story kicks in, it's all been there, done that. Reacher's observations about life are coated with the usual dry humour, and he's definitely not the man you want to mess around with. Yet in the end, the whole story feels robotic, as if Lee Child made sure all the relevant ingredients for a Reacher novel were thrown in together and didn't bother any further to perfect it. And to top it all, the bad guys weren't simply bad enough. Insipid at best!

Chronologically 16.5 in the Jack Reacher series (the 17th being A Wanted Man), Deep Down is so bad you should be thanking your stars it's just a novella. Set in 1986, Jack Reacher, then still in the Army, is posted undercover on a job to seek out a double agent who is leaking military secrets to the Russians. And that's pretty much it. The characters are bland (including Reacher) - one is described as a woman with fanny pack, and another as the man in car - and the writing is painfully awful. Lee Child toys with a needless multi-person point-of-view narrative, deliberately introduced to create suspense, but the short story peters out with absolutely no tension to speak of.

Phantom - Jo Nesbo
Post the traumatic events that transpired in The Leopard, detective Harry Hole returns to his self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, but comes back to Norway when he learns that Oleg, the son of Rakel with whom he shares an on-off relationship, is arrested for the murder of his flatmate Gusto. Determined to know the truth, Hole's solo investigations lead him deep into a world of corruption, murder and drugs, little realizing that his every move is being watched over and is at risk of endangering his own life.

Phantom, as with Nesbo's previous novels, has a complicated plot and is a solid thriller. Unfortunately it's also a disappointment. The characters are flat, and the story, while well-written and translated perfectly by Don Bartlett, never feels engaging and more or less comes across as a breathless chase across Oslo, with Hole trying to piece the puzzle a la Robert Langdon in Dan Brown novels. I wish the book was a little tightly edited, but by leaving the superlative last chapter in a cliffhanger, coupled with a few well-timed reveals, Jo Nesbo redeems himself with a work, that while no Snowman or Leopard, is sufficient escapist entertainment.

Dead Like You - Peter James
It's Near Year time and detective superintendent Roy Grace has a job to do. He is after a serial rapist whose modus operandi is vastly similar to a series of rapes that happened in 1997. All the victims share a taste for expensive designer shoes that are used during the course of the rape and then subsequently taken away from them. Could it be the same perpetrator? Or is it a copycat on the prowl? The story about stranger rape starts off well, but is on the whole very formulaic and there's nothing that lifts Dead Like You out of the ordinary. The sequences built around Grace's first wife don't enhance the narrative in any way either, except just to prolong it further. At least the fact that the suspense is well-maintained all throughout despite the perp being a dead giveaway right from the start is some consolation!

Joyland - Stephen King
A terrific novel from Stephen King that's coming of age, whodunit and paranormal thriller all packed into 300-something pages of absolute delight. King's thought-provoking philosophical musings garnished in this successfully brought to life era of the early 70's through the eyes of an immensely likeable protagonist, who narrates his extraordinary and life-changing (supernatural) experiences at an amusement park (titled Joyland) where he worked as a summer employee, makes for a riveting read from start to finish. Every aspect of the story - characters, setting, dialogue - is beautiful, crisp and perfect, and its equally emotional core will find resonance with his previous works such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. With Joyland, Stephen King has indeed proved himself a king of storytelling, a master raconteur!

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty
There are some books you pick out of curiosity, just to see what the fuss was all about. Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret is one such. Call it a domestic thriller if you like, but there's hardly any tension or suspense in the novel all throughout. The story is about Cecilia, a happily married woman of three kids, who accidentally stumbles upon a letter addressed to her from her husband written years ago, only to be opened in the event of his death. She is intrigued and when she does open the letter after way too much deliberation, the contents let loose a Pandora's box, upending her life forever. Connecting three families and their stories of love and heartbreak, The Husband's Secret is witty for sure, but goes on a predictable patch of sins, betrayal and paybacks. The characters and their plights don't evoke any sort of emotional connect either. The book, however, gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'light read'!

The Ascendant - Drew Chapman
The Ascendant sounds like a title for a John Grisham novel, but Drew Chapman's techno-financial-political thriller is a very fine debut with an interesting premise about US-China cold war. The only difference is that the war is played out not in a military sense with soldiers, tanks and bombs, but rather through calculated acts of industrial sabotage and cyber-warfare aimed at crippling the nation's economy by attacking its power grid and the stock market. The story is smart, entertaining and moves at a nippy pace, despite a few problems I have with it. The romantic subplot for one is plain boring (we get that the protagonist has a weakness for girls, still) and the characters, including the (unlikeable) hero, are very dull for some reason.