Each year I will write a column on the books that had a long waiting list at our Denton Public Libraries. That means they are popular in our city and environs, and if you haven’t read them yet, now is the time!
How do you write a 517-page book about a character everyone knows is a villain and get folks to read it? That is the quandary facing Suzanne Collins in her prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, 2020, 517 pages, $27.99) manages this by making Coriolanus Snow an oleaginous manipulator, who always says and does the “right thing,” but lets us know the reasons behind his actions. It is fascinating, in a horrible way, to watch him work.
He is 18, about to go to college, and is selected as a mentor for the girl from District 12 for the 10th Hunger Games. His family is notable, but lost everything in the war, and he is trying to gain enough attention to work his way up to being president! He will do anything to have her win the game.
There are three relationships that are crucial to the story, and each shows how ruthless Snow is. Lucy Gray is the contestant from District 12, and he falls in love with her for a brief time. Sejanus is his “friend” who is appalled by the games and does not want to be a mentor. Tigris is his cousin, who literally saved Snow and his mother from starving in the aftermath of the war. Tigris is my favorite character, and you might remember her in a bit part in Catching Fire, when she hides Katniss and her friends as they are running from Snow’s troops in the Capitol.
For those of you who tell yourself, “I’ll just read one more chapter,” be aware that many chapters end with a cliff-hanger. Collins has written all of her books in three sections, like the acts of a play. Settle in for a full act.
You can always count on David Baldacci for a gripping story that keeps you reading late into the night. He has returned to his character, Amos Decker, the Memory Man, for this latest outing. Walk the Wire (David Baldacci, Grand Central Publishing, 2020, 418 pages, $29) begins with a single murder in London, North Dakota, a fracking boom town. No one, including Amos and his partner, Alex, can figure out why the FBI has been called in. But for Amos, all murders must be solved and the victim given justice, so he methodically sets about interviewing everyone who could possibly be involved.
As the story unfolds, three puzzles arise from the death of the young woman, and all three involve dangerous actions. Amos must solve all three puzzles and discover whether they are related. Danger comes from many sources, and there is murder and mayhem all around. I must say, I reached the end of the book without having been able to figure out the answers before they were revealed. And, as many of these books as I read, that is unusual. Baldacci is a terrific storyteller, and time seems to dissolve as you read his books.
Ana, a 14 year-old young Jewish woman living in the first century, longs to have a voice. She is thwarted by family, religion and culture. The Book of Longings (Sue Monk Kidd, Viking, 2020, 418 pages, $28) recounts her struggle over her lifetime to rise above circumstance and to write what is in her heart. Ana’s father was head scribe and counselor to Herod and her brother was Judas. It is easy to imagine the complications that ensue. Ana avoids a betrothal to a vile widower her father arranges and ends up married to the carpenter Jesus. The 10 years of their marriage — from the time he is 18 until he is baptized by John — portrays Jesus as a normal Jewish family man. When he feels the call of his destiny, Ana wishes to travel the country with him, but she is being hunted by Herod. Her escape to Alexandria opens a new world to her.
Though Jesus is a character in the book, the story is Ana’s. Complex, and rooted in research, one sees the life of Jesus in a new light, but also appreciates the striving of a woman determined to fulfill her own destiny.
Lucas Davenport has become a hunter. Over the 30 Prey books, he has had several careers in law enforcement, but he has gotten bored with the mundane aspects of the job. His interest is in doling out the ultimate “justice,” death for those who kill others. In Masked Prey (John Sandford, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2020, 406 pages, $29) Lucas has been called to Washington D.C. by the two senators from his state. A mysterious website called 1919 has appeared that seems to target the children of senators. Even though Lucas is a U.S. marshal, he tends to operate outside the system, and the senators want him to stop the threat before it becomes public. The unwinding of the tale involves a deep dive into the alt-right organizations that seem to be rife in the area and is certainly eye-opening.
Daniel Silva’s books always appear on the top-10 bestseller lists when they appear each summer. I have read every one of the books and enjoyed them. The Order (Daniel Silva, Harper, 2020, 444 pages, $28.99) finds Gabriel Allon in Venice on a family vacation. While there, Allon learns the pope is dead, and his friend, the pope’s private secretary, believes it is murder. Gabriel is called in to find the murderer and to save the ensuing conclave to choose the next pope from being hijacked by members of The Order.
The usual twists and turns, and the intricate planning, are all here. I must say, though, that I found this book to be didactic. I read Silva to be entertained. I believe he is pounding his message at me rather than entertaining me. Many will not find that to be so, but I have to give you my honest feelings about each book I review.
Occasionally I read a novel that unnerves me because of the implications for real life. Fair Warning (Michael Connelly, Little, Brown and Co., 2020, 395 pages, $29) is such a book. Jack McEvoy works for FairWarning, an Internet news site that provides watchdog journalism for the consumer. His real interest lies in the murder beat, however.
When he becomes a suspect in a recent murder, he plunges into the realm of DNA testing. He discovers that there is no oversight of the DNA testing labs and the research being conducted. Unscrupulous researchers have figured out a way to sell their data without being traced. That has led to predators, like the Shrike, obtaining information that allows him to choose his victims for murder. The unraveling of the whole sordid mess is as much a part of this story as the murder mystery. It is told with such veracity that I found myself anxious at times — a true test of the power of a mystery novel.
Ken Follett, known for his massive book The Pillars of the Earth, has given us a prequel The Evening and the Morning (Ken Follett, Viking, 2020, 913 pages, $36). Set at the end of the Dark Ages, the book revolves around 10 years in the interaction of the lives of three main characters. Edgar begins as a young boat-builder whose home and the woman he loves are destroyed by Vikings. Ragna, a Norman French daughter of a count, falls in love with an Englishman and agrees to a marriage with him, following him to his home in England. Aldred is a monk who dreams of creating a center for education and literacy. How these three disparate characters come together in another massive tome gives the reader many pleasurable days of reading.
You will see these books and more in the Denton Public Libraries. Our local Barnes & Noble will also have a display of these books. Stop by and peruse and possibly purchase.