Monday, November 21, 2011

The Winner-A contemplation on bold titles

Well, I've said it before, I'm a sucker for mysteries/crime/thrillers.  I always have been.  While other people were soaking up Judy Blume, I firmly ignored the conversations between God and Margaret and stayed up all night reading The Pelican Brief and The Client.  Now, there are two questions that pop up given that information: the first being the question of how was I allowed to stay up all night at 13 (or so) the second is what was I really doing reading those books?  To the first question I'll say that, in defense of my parents, I usually (and probably very poorly) tried to cover up the fact that I had snuck back downstairs (better lighting) by turning off the light as soon as I heard any motion from upstairs as long as dawn was seeping through the window.  If it was that early (or late, depending on how you look at it) that sound probably wasn't just the house settling.  If my life were an actual detective novel and my parents actual detectives, had they placed their hands over the lamp's bulb, heat would have still been emanating and my cover blown.  Who am I kidding, I'm sure my tiptoes up the stairs weren't nearly as quiet as I thought and they've known all along.  They were probably just happy I wasn't at a sleepover where a liquor cabinet was present.  Grisham they could handle, Beam would have been a completely different offense.  However addressing the second issue, gets to the heart of this review, so I'll ruminate on that presently.
There is something about the mystery genre that allows for the forgiveness of god-awful, terrible writing.  Provided that the plot is there, a simple whodunit could, ostensibly, be written by a person with no more than a fifth-grade vocabulary and still be engaging.  At least, that's my opinion.  And that's why Grisham had to share nightstand space with my eighth grade graduation invitations.  It's also why I'm conflicted on how to review David Baldacci's The Winner.
Set in modern day, which according to the copyright on the book is 1997, The Winner tells the story of LuAnn Tyler, a hick from Hicksville (here called Rikersville, GA) who just wants a better life for her daughter.  After being approached by a man capable of fixing the lottery, she must determine just how much she wants her life to change.  I'll let a very minor spoiler slip in here, so be warned, she decides to take the lotto guarantee.  The book then skips ahead ten years to pick up on the ramifications of LuAnn's decision.  I'm going to do my best to make the rest of this as spoiler free as I can, but the fact remains that it's been 14 years since the publication of this book, so I'm not promising anything.
The upside for me is that, despite several moments of having to put the book down in order to roll my eyes at the cornball nature of a sentence, I did continue to pick it back up.  That could be because I was just thrilled to be reading something that wasn't mentally taxing or it could be because I was legitimately caught up in the suspense.  I would like to give the benefit of the doubt and say that it was the latter.  There is something there that kept the pages turning and there were some legitimate surprises that made me sit back and say "huh...nicely played Mr. Baldacci, nicely played".  The idea itself is intriguing as well, I mean, who hasn't dreamt of their post-lottery-winning life, especially in the current economic situation?  It's incredibly easy to relate to the decision to say yes to someone who offers you a completely new, debt-free life.
Here's the downside: If I'm being completely honest, and remember this is coming from someone who has never been published, so certainly take it with even less than a grain of salt, there are moments when the writing is terrible.  Usually, as I read, the scenario starts to play itself out in my mind and a cinematic quality begins to take shape as the faces and reactions of characters form.  It all becomes a mental motion picture.  I mean that's why we all read, correct?  And also why so many people are loathe to accept adaptations?  Well here, the only thing that formed was a Youtube playback of an over-acted high school play.  That's the best analogy I can make.  Despite the fact that his main character is indeed a heroine, Mr. Baldacci seems to have no idea how women actually think.  By this, I mean to say that women do not speak, or think, like sentences from a romance novel, and we certainly don't assume that men think in those terms either.  Here's a passage to illustrate the point...and remember this is NOT a Danielle Steel novel:
                 "Her gaze seemed to be pasted onto his face, all the sunlight streaming through the window
                   seemed to be blocked out as though an eclipse were occurring" (p.248)
Amazing, right?  His heroine also just happens to be that perfect mixture of independent kick-ass and damsel in distress often described using the help of feline adjectives and placing her body as the main focus of every sentence about her.  It's clear that he's trying so hard not to objectify women that the end result seems to be the exact opposite.  Lu-Ann Tyler comes off as a combination of Lara Croft and Maryann from Gilligan's Island.  I'll try not to even mention the fact that the phrase "making love" is used in seriousness.  Throw in the fact that he has to clarify that the cell phone is "portable" as well as that modems and fax machines are high-tech, and it all just felt slightly dated for me, in 2011.  Also, there's a whole lot of explanation instead of action that goes on, continually pulling you out of the book and back in to your own mind where you say to yourself "yeah, yeah, I get it, now move on".
With it's short chapters and lengthy page count, it's not surprising that this isn't a great book.  It probably wasn't meant to be.  It was meant to keep people engaged at the beach, or in a cabin, and I can see, and attest to the fact, that it does just that, but re-reads will be unnecessary, and possibly painful unless you really love similes (especially involving trains) or think Matthew Riggs is totally dreamy.
I thank the book for allowing me to check off another book read in my yearly tally, but wish that it would have kept up the Grisham vibe of the first part of the book before veering down the path filled with exclamations, stereotypes and worst of all, the use of the phrase "worldwide crime syndicate".

Overall: 2 out of 5

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