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[793] A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

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“But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved one might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories—all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth.” (Ch.7, 248)

The book revolves around a Baltimore family and their house over four generations. Tyler has woven defining moments of each generation with flashbacks, giving us a story of a family that could be any of ours. The novel opens in the present, with Abbey and Red Whitshank. It’s Abby, a retired social worker; Red, who inherited his father’s construction and their grown-up children reader gets to know best as the family slowly disintegrates. Abby by far captures one’s attention and she is the glue of the family. She is this self-denigrating, self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother one hopes will never show up at the school function. She breathes down on her children’s necks.

The book begins and ends with the miscreant, Denny, the prodigal son, who calls home to inform his parents he’s gay. (He’s not.) He’s a college dropout, irregularly employed, and single parent. No one in the family can cope with his existence. His sister, Amanda, nails it, in a moment of exasperation, that she shall not be forgiven for “consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.” Denny complains his parents never paid him any attention, but Abby has always cared for him the most. Even Tyler has a soft spot for him, and she renders him more lovable than he is forgivable.

When Red has a heart attack and Abbey becomes dithery, the family converges to take over, but that ironically reveals fractures within the family and reignites old jealousies. The dutiful son Stem, who is not even a Whitshank by birth, moves in to care for the aging parents with his judicious wife Nora and children in tow. Denny’s sudden arrival arouses new tension and leads to brew of guilt and resentment. Abby and Red’s family is the bread and butter of the novel as this drama plays out, but Tyler digs deeper in the history.

The origin of the Whitshank house is how Tyler plays against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood and its heart. The house was initially commissioned by a rich businessman, but Junior, Red’s father, who is hired to build it, set his heart on the place the minute he sees the blueprints, crafts it to his own preference and eventually acquires it by some mild chicanery. He was also entrapped by a teenage girl who bides her time and eventually becomes his wife. Junior’s daughter Merrick rises above her station and breaks into the high society—and a loveless, worn-out marriage. It was Abby, in her unflinching way, even at a young age, who confronts Junior that he resents his snooty neighbors but apes their ways.

This is the kind of novel that chronicles minor calamities and daily happenings that shape a family, any family. It deals with what makes a family at root: parental love and a sense of belonging. The parts on Abby and Red’s family are more tightly written and capturing than the others. But overall it is an absorbing read.

465 pp. Vintage UK. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s new book, at 720 pages, is intimidating. I know it’s one of the biggest novels to be published this year, but sheer size and metaphorical weight of several prestigious award nominations actually make me keep the distance. A Little Life has received positive reviews in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal, which all reflect on the largeness of the novel’s numerous themes.

The real reason for my reluctance to read is the reminder of The Secret History and The Goldfinch, for high I had high hope but were no more than some conspiracy implemented by a close group of people. The characters in A Little Life belong to a group of talented and artistic friends whom Yanagihara traces from college days to their early middle age in and around New York City. The themes it professes are the ones I find overkilled in literature: sex and food, sleep and friends, money and fame. I also don’t like a narrative style that observes the drip of daily lives. So tedious and unnecessary. The Secret History begins with a modest chronicle of the way that life happens to a small group of people with a bit of history in common, but only avail to some eerie ritual murder. It’s just too contrived. Yanagihara’s book remains on my radar because it was a Booker finalist, and it bears a vague resemblance to some kind of woman novel. So will see.

[742] Remember Me Like This – Bret Anthony Johnston

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” It was what happened when you spend time near someone who’d suffered the way Laura had: You felt the stranger. You saw the void surrounding her, stranding and diminishing her, and you saw her seeing it, too. Undoubtedly, what everyone experienced around Laura was what she experienced around her poor, ruined son. You only saw the wounds. ” (Ch.21, p.246)

Remember Me Like This delves into the tension and complex dynamics of the Campbell family, which reunites with their son who has disappeared for four years. Despite Justin’s miraculous return, the family struggles to reacquaint itself with normalcy, tiptoeing around their son’s unexplained torments.

The book is very dense; but its beauty is in its complexity, in its characters’ endless search for truth behind Justin’s disappearance. The narrative, which begins with the reunification of the victim and his family, proceeds with multiple perspectives. While the Campbells are dazed with happiness upon his return, as time goes by, they realize no easy endings are coming. The return has become Laura and Eric’s worst nightmare because, of course, while their son was held in the abductor’s apartment, he has been, one can only assume, the victim of unspeakable violence. They are ravaged by the desire to know the truth and the fear of knowing. Justin is glad to be home, but he carries with him four years of damage: anger, abandonment and isolation. The Campbells abide the therapist’s order to avoid broaching about Justin’s captivity for fear of further traumatizing him. But the awkwardness and strained silence suggest that they are incapable of giving voice to their most lurid fears. They tread lightly, tiptoe gingerly, until their reticence erodes what joy they have managed to revive.

Johnston strives to hold back all the juicy details of Justin’s life with his captor that would place this book among the huge canon of thrillers. The closest to fulfilling one’s voyeuristic pleasure is when Justin confides in his brother at the spot where he was abducted. To his brother’s question that alludes to his “away-life” Justin says, “Is that a clever way of asking if he raped me?” In a way, Johnston, using his authorial silence, keeps his characters and reader at a narrative distance in order to keep Justin safe from all interior access. This induces a very powerful moral standard that rebuffs voyeuristic curiosity. Instead of inventing gruesome facts or conjuring a courtroom scene, he redirects the attention into a more private sphere, safe from public prying—the house and hearts of the victim’s family.

There’s Laura, whose fear and guilt have shut down her life. She and her husband have drifted apart. She desires to erase her identity as a mother by signing up to volunteer with her maiden name. Eric has an affair with his friend’s wife Tracy. Cecil the grandfather conceives his own plan to bring the abductor to justice. Griff, wallowed in guilt, believes his argument with his brother is the cause of Justin’s leaving. As their perspectives intertwine, Johnston’s characters are fully realized. All their mistakes, blind spots, and secrets become undone and raw.

Remember Me This Way is far from a mystery or thriller despite the buildup of tension. It is an uplifting portrait of a family in crisis, and how they struggle to overcome it by love and acceptance.

373 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[735] Preparation for the Next Life – Atticus Lish

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” Only her predicament existed to her. She went around the elements of her life again: Skinner, papers, cops, marriage, lawyer, money, job, housing, Skinner, his illness, money. Every planet in the orbit was another unknown. ” (Ch.47, p.345)

Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese woman smuggled into the country in a truck from Mexico, is determined to survive whatever America throws at her. After three months in detention, she is released without explanation and finds her way to Queens, New York, where she ekes out a living in Chinatown in Flushing and gets lost in a sea of anonymous illegal immigrants. She works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurants where the other Chinese workers don’t understand her language. She finds a filthy mattress in an overcrowded crash-pad house. To make extra cash, she rides the subway selling bootleg DVDs. She seems like the loneliest person alive, alienated by language barriers and government obstacles.

Former infantryman Skinner seems similarly driven by a nomadic spirit. Discharged after serving three tours in Iraq, he hitchhikes to New York and, by a fluke, while looking for a massage parlor, meets Zou Lei and they become unlikely lovers, bonded over a shared obsession with fitness. Ensued is a relationship that is bound for a tragedy. Skinner suffers from PTSD and is haunted by atrocities he witnessed and committed. Still healing from his mortar wound, his mind addled by alcohols and a cocktail of prescription drugs, he makes no attempt to find work or to make sense of Zou Lei’s predicament. He passes his day drinking and lifting weights while she takes up a series of dead-end jobs that fails to give her financial stability. Above all, she is ever the subject to laws that place limits on her movement and restrict her opportunities. But she survives, through menial and often illegal work, vulnerable to the cruelties of a system reliant on cheap labor.

The army had given him anti-anxiety medication, antipsychotic medication, and something to help him sleep. Whatever else these chemicals did to him, they did not stop him from having nightmares. (Ch.25, p.208)

The book is realistic, scathing, and mournful. Zou is unflinching as Skinner is out-of-control. He is a decent man, but he treats her so badly that one sees how little control he has over his behavior and his life. He rents out the basement from a woman whose ex-con son has proven to be another threat. Through this unlikely couple Lish evokes the reality of the underclass and life at the margins. The America to the immigrant and veteran pair is tawdry, grim, and relentless. Their love story is one with much ache to it; and the element of romance doesn’t eradicate the squalor of their lives.

Lish’s vivid description landscape lends a sense of pre-apocalypse. He nurtures and encourages the smallest details until they fan out into unexpected panoramas. In juxtaposing their experiences of Zou and Skinner, Lish delineates New York’s immigrant neighborhoods and the realities of exploitation and precariousness in the lives of America’s underclass. The prose is robust, tough, and lyrical. Much of the book’s beauty is its insights into the ordinary dramas of life, which serve as narrative purpose. But it has that journalistic determination to document the experience. Preparation for the Next Life is charged with a breathless momentum as it propels towards a destiny as devastating as it is hopeful. It’s one of those rare gem of a book that is edgy and at the same time very real.

417 pp. Tyrant Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[732] Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay

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” Sarah. She never left me. She had changed me, forever. Her story, her suffering, I carried them within me. I felt as if I knew her. I knew her as a child. As a young girl . . .” (278)

Sarah’s Key is a novel pit against the backdrop of a momentous event in France—a shameful, dark bit of history the French rather not talk about. Known as the Vélodrome d’hiver in 1942, it was indeed the darkest hour in France’s involvement in the Second World war, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested by the French police and later sent to interim camps in Parisian suburbs, before their final destination, Auschwitz. More horrifying is there was no selection process for the children after they were separated from their families; they were sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival of Auschwitz.

But de Rosnay spares much of the atrocities. Set in 2002, an American journalist living in Paris, Julia Jarmond, is writing a piece for the 60th commemoration of the Vélodrome d’hiver. Her research stumbles onto secrets that her husband’s family had tried to conceal for sixty years. Running parallel to Julia’s modern day story is that of 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski, whose family in 1942 was taken by the French police to the detention center at Vélodrome d’hiver. Her parents had never told Sarah the nature of the anti-Semitic threat but acting on instinct, Sarah hides her 4-year-old brother in the cupboard (their hiding place) and promises she will be back for him. And needless to say, she never comes back. And Julia Jarmond’s husband’s grandparents happened to move into the apartment vacated by the Starzynskis. This tragedy links the two families—and the two stories collide in modern-day Paris.

The book doubtless raises many themes and moral questions revolving this overlooked historical event. The most contesting theme is raise awareness vs. leave the past alone. The need to reconcile with the past is in constant battle against the call for healing. It touches on the meaning of loyalty. mercy and betrayal. Can a choice made out of love ever be wrong? That all said, the book is underwhelming in terms of the scarce characterization of Sarah and her family. The novel begins with the roundup so Sarah is a void. The short chapters are also jarring. They read like as if de Rosnay doesn’t want to delve too deep. The overall writing is pedestrian at best, especially in Julia’s story, which hobbles to its end in chapters full of awkward and run-on sentences. I suppose poor writing is often overlooked (or even tolerated) when it comes to a book that delves into a sensitive subject matter.

293 pp. St. Martin Griffin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[730] Still Alice – Lisa Genova

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” Is the part of my brain that’s responsible for my unique ‘me-ness’ vulnerable to this disease? Or is my identity something that transcends neurons, proteins, and defective molecules of DNA? Is my soul and spirit immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s? I believe it is. “

Alice Howland, at 50, has it all. She’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a word-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she begins to have memory lapses—a loose sense of what she wants to say in lecture, disorientation during a jog in Harvard Square—the tragic diagnosis of an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease changes her life. Alice’s smarts and self-reliance are a point of pride. They are how she coped after her alcoholic father killed her mother and sister in a car accident.

She’d always been addressed with great respect. If her mental prowess became increasingly replaced with mental illness, what would replace the great respect? Pity? Condescension? Embarrassment? (96)

So when her hyperlucidity goes, when the distance begins to lengthen between she she thinks and the words that express it, the question hangs: Will Alice, at the end of this degeneration, still exist? Still Alice is neither melodramatic nor emotionally manipulative, but is a deeply moving psychological portrait of a woman’s deteriorating mind and how this gradually affects her relationships with the people around her. It’s an honest account of an intelligent woman suddenly finding that she can no longer rely on her mind, and she tries everyday to hold onto her memories, her sense of understanding. It’s a terrifying journey into what it must be like to know one is slowly losing pieces of himself day by day.

My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. (293)

Her husband John, a cancer research scientist, is loving and supportive at first, but becomes more concerned with his career as his wife’s symptoms worsen. He’s rather a dull man who doesn’t know how to cope. Alice, over time, does come to understand and reconcile with her youngest daughter Lydia, who breaks from family tradition by skipping college to become an actress. She is thinking like an actress, as well as a daughter, when she presses her mother for a view of Alzheimer’s from the inside.

The book conveys a sense of hopelessness, since all one can do is sit around and wait for the mind to deteriorate. I’m not aware that Genova holds a Harvard PhD in neuroscience until I finish the book, but there is a surety and confidence in her scientific explanations of the disease. The book can be frightening on a biological and psychological level. Alzheimer’s doesn’t make one forget memories, it goes in and completely destroys memories, as if they were never there. The book is sad but it does leave reader with a glimpse of light in the darkness too. When memories of one’s life go, one relies on love. Love provides that lost context.

336 pp. Simon & Schuster. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[723] The Accident – Chris Pavone

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” Who was the villain in this story? ” (Ch.54, p.486)

The Accident is a thriller about publishing. It concerns a manuscript by an anonymous writer that is so earth-shattering that people in the publishing world would kill to get their hands on it. The manuscript is sent to Isabel Reed, a New York literary agent renowned for her discretion. She knows how delicately the book needs to be handled. So while she pitches the manuscript to the best editor she knows, Jeffrey Fielder, the proof, also titled “The Accident,” has already gone into covert circulation. Her assistant read it secretly and blabbed drunkenly to her friends and posted about it on Facebook. It has even been photocopied by a subsidiary-right person hoping to see it in Hollywood. This means great danger to anyone who has come in contact with the manuscript, let alone Isabel herself.

There were the densely woven secrets he and Charlie Wolfe had been sharing for two decades, and the portion that he’d been keeping to himself There was also the new possibility that Charlie actually wanted him dead. (Ch.17, p.147)

Everyone sees the bombshell of the manuscript is the opportunity for a break. The publisher sees it as the life-saver to a company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. All of which brings reader to Charlie Wolfe, a man who is the subject of the manuscript. His own media empire sustains on “de-newsing” the news, with a content bias toward gossip, innuendo, voyeurism and scandal. It pinches CIA’s nerves that exposure of Wolfe’s malpractice, which helps further the cause of the USA more or less, would compromise national security.

So the book proceeds with twist and turn galore. The unfortunate thing is that it’s easier for Pavone to conjure up shocking dramatic turns, abrupt killings, and unexpected connections than it is for him to come up with anything truly damning about Wolfe. The so-called secret is nothing but hyped. That said, The Accident is filled with keen, bittersweet observations about the publishing world. It pays tribute to the permanence of written word and the printed matter—that there is a validation, a legitimacy conferred by having a story out there in a physical form.

509 pp. Faber & Faber UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[722] The Day After Tomorrow – Allan Folsom

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” That the creature was innately evil, had caused the deaths of two people and horribly and inexorably gnarled Paul Osburn’s own life from childhood on, seemed, at this point, to have little meaning. It was enough to have gotten the beast this far. ” (Ch.35, p.161)

The Day After Tomorrow is a thrill ride right from the beginning. Set in 1996, but hinged on a murder thirty years ago, the thriller weaves together three stories of global intrigue that bear no connection at a glance. A doctor has to confront his father’s killer; a detective investigates a series of horrible murders in which victims were all decapitated; an international organization devises a master plan of apocalyptic dimensions.

Something told him they weren’t, that somehow, in some way, the two wholly disparate situations were intertwined. And the coupling, though he had absolutely no evidence to back it up—had to be Osburn. (Ch.59,p.285)

Paul Osburn is an American surgeon who has never been able to close the emotional door on his father’s gruesome killing—right in front of his eyes. When he recognizes the man in a Parisian café, he attacks him with a blind, burst of uncontrollable rage, and thus plunging himself into a conspiracy, a neo-Nazi cabal to resurrect the Third Reich. Osburn soon tracks down and identifies his father’s killer as Albert Merriman, a career criminal supposedly dead since 1967. Osburn plans to eliminate Merriman after forcing out the truth of the murder, but a violent twist leaves him with no answer but another name, Erwin Scholl, who hired Merriman to kill four other men, all involved in the design and development of equipment for ultra-low temperature surgery. It seems like everyone who has a sixth degree of separation with this hired assassin is brutally eliminated, and Merriman himself is shot by an assailant Osburn believes to be in the hire of Scholl.

Perhaps what he had learned was already too much. He though of Karolin Henniger and her son, running from him in the alley. How many more had died because of his own personal quest? Most had been totally innocent. (Ch.127, p.615)

Osburn’s search for answer and attempt at closure have opened a Pandora box so dangerous that, in order to preserve its secret, the Organization would kill at all expenses. LAPD McVeg is recruited to investigate the series of murders of seven victims who show evidence of being kept in a cryogenic freezer. As the three plot fronts slowly converge, a series of violent sabotages aimed at McVeg and Osburn thwarts them from getting to the bottom of the matter which is shocking, believable and ludicrous at the same time.

The book just flies through a relentlessly breakneck speed, which aptly balances the heavy politics. The implications of what unfolds at the end could be disturbing—how a so-called elitist group determined to create a supremacy race at the expense of innocent lives. Those who helped contribute to the ambitious plan were put to death for the purpose of discretion. There’s something very spine-chilling about the spiritual and scientific affirmation of the whole master plan.

725 pp. Hachette Books. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[714] Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett

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” Fear was never far from the surface of his emotions; perhaps that was why he had survived so long. He was chronically incapable of feeling safe. He understood, in that vague way in which one sometimes understands the most fundamental things about oneself, that his very insecurity was the reason he chose the profession of spy; it was the only way of life which could permit him instantly to kill anyone who posed him the slightest threat. ” (Ch.21, p.203)

Set during the World War Two, Eye of the Needle is a spy story about a German agent, Henry Faber, who learns about Operation Fortitude, a real life counter-espionage operation undertaken by the Allies on the eve of D-Day. The Allies mount this deception to convince the Germans that what would be the D-Day invasion in France would occur at Calais, when in reality the Allies plan on landing in Normandy. Ken Follett speculates in this novel what might happen if a German spy discovers this deception and attempts to warn the Germans ahead of time. It seems odd though that the fate of the entire nation at war hinges on one agent.

We knew Canaris; we knew we had him fooled; we felt we could have gone on fooling him. A new broom may mistrust his predecessor’s agents. There’s more—we’ve had some defections from the other side, people who would have betrayed the Abwehr’s people over here if they hadn’t been betrayed already. (Ch.8, p.73)

A little misstep on Faber’s behalf complicates his scheme. A seductive landlady who might have stumbled upon his radio transmission quarter is killed, leaving behind a trail traceable by the MI5. With dogged MI5 agents on his trail, Fabel attempts t escape England and deliver the news to Hitler. Meanwhile, there is a parallel story involving David and Lucy Rose, a young RAF pfficer and his newly-wed wife. A car wreck permanently confine him to a wheelchair. Later, they love to a secluded island off the coast of Scottland, where the couple takes up sheep-farming. His ego badly hurt, David has become alienated from his wife.

Follett deftly steers the novel clear from falling into clichés. He proceeds with a very British tone of controlled, leisure tension. He lures reader over to the Needle’s point of view, forcing one to admire his ingenuity and physical strength. He kills anyone in his way with his deadly stiletto, even his own confederate. But what keeps lurks in reader’s mind is that Faber will eventually cross paths with the Roses on the island. Follett transform a generic, not-so-original spy plot into a spy gavotte that holds one’s breath as the dancers slowly come together. It’s with satisfaction to see this choreography, if not the most pleasant one, between the ingenious spy and the lovestavred wife, despite his occasional heavy-handed romance.

Eye of the Needle is a satisfying man-on-the-run thriller, but ironically, the ruthless spy who kills anyone seeing his face cannot bring himself to resolve his ultimate problem by killing. It’s a book full of twists.

336 pp. Signet. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[707] The Firm – John Grisham

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” Tired? I’m dead. In the past three weeks I’ve been a janitor, a secretary, a lawyer, a banker, a whore, a courier and a private investigator. I’ve flown to Grand Cayman nine times, bought nine sets of new luggage and hauled back a ton of stolen documents. I’ve driven to Nashville four times and flown ten. I’ve read so many bank records and legal crap I’m half blind. And when it’s bedtime, I put on my little Dustbusters shirt and play maid for six hours. I’ve got so many names, I’ve written them on my hand so I won’t get confused. ” (Ch.33, p.427)

The Firm is not a courtroom thriller like A Time to Kill, but more a tale of conspiracy full of paranoia-driven events. Mitchell McDeere graduates from Harvard Law and is about to begin his career as a lawyer. Lured by money and associated perks, he finds himself as a tax lawyer in the Memphis law firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke, one that has carefully vetted him and made an offer too good to refuse.

At first it’s all legitimate work. But quickly the firm controls Mitch’s life and encroaches on every aspect. Mitch manages to work 16 hours a day, and as soon as he starts he is up to his ears in deadlines. The firm is demanding and exclusive. Social life revolves around lawyers and partners in the firm—almost like a cult. Before the McDeeres even suspect any sinister undertakings under the cover of a legitimate law firm business, a senior partner invites them out to dinner while his crew wire the house and tap the phone. This slow build of the story really builds the suspense and creepiness.

They lure you with the money. They smother you with work that looks legitimate. Then, after a few years, you’ve unwittingly become a part of the conspiracy. You’re nailed, and there’s no getting out. (Ch.2, p.321)

When approached by the FBI, Mitch realizes he is edged between a rock and a hard place. The FBI is determined to infiltrate the firm, owned and run by some crime powerhouse, with Mitch’s help, in hopes of collecting information on certain shady clients. Mitch himself become suspicious of the morbidly high mortality rate of the firm. Three lawyers died in dubious circumstances, and two just perished in a diving accident in the Grand Cayman. Together with the secretary of a private investigator, who also died at the hand of the mafia that run the firm, Mitch is on a roll to secure incriminating evidence of the firm, constantly dodging, outsmarting, and getting ahead of his enemy.

This place is eerie. I can’t put my finger on it, but those people make my skin crawl. (Ch.15, p.192)

The Firm is a page-turner, with all the decoys and talking in codes, dodging, and espionage. But the story-line doesn’t launch itself into the epic thriller that the plot threatens to become. It starts very promising, with the sleep-building suspense and claustrophobic atmosphere of the firm, but crumples into a muted, ambivalent ending that doesn’t do justice to all the clandestine meetings, prowlings, and dangerous pursuit. There’s a lack of detail regarding the crucial money laundering activities, almost non-existent legal talk and proceedings. Good read, and not as good as A Time to Kill.

527 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]