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The good and the bad: two book reviews

The good and the bad: two book reviews

À chacun son gout, as the French say: “To each his own,” or if you prefer, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Best to keep that thought in mind in this review.

Regarding fiction, my taste runs to well-developed characters, a plot line that keeps me flipping the pages, some overarching point to the story, a verbal stew with at least a dash of humor, and writing that demonstrates vigor and skill. 

In “The Book Haters’ Book Club” (Park Row, 2022, 352 pages), Gretchen Anthony gives us all these elements, and more. Her story of Irma Bedford, co-owner of the Over the Rain Bookshop in Minneapolis, her grown daughters Laney and Bree, her beloved and deceased best friend Elliot, and others offers an abundance of intrigue, humor, lots of chatter about books, and insights into the human personality. 

For some reason unknown even to her daughters, Irma is selling the shop at a rock-bottom price to a shady firm that intends to tear down the building and replace it with condominiums. Laney, who left Minneapolis years ago becoming the lover of a stock-car driver whom she later married — they now own a tire store together in California — has little interest at first in what happens to the shop, but Bree, who has worked since she was a girl, is devastated.

And so is the grieving Thom Winslow, life partner of Elliot, the man who had invested his time and treasure in the store along with Irma until his unexpected death. While Elliot still lived, Thom was deeply jealous of that relationship and of the time Elliot spent at the shop. As “The Book Haters’ Book Club” progresses, Thom, Bree and Laney join forces to save Over the Rainbow and unravel the mysteries Elliot left behind, secrets hidden away by Irma. Meanwhile, all of them, plus Irma, learn more about themselves as well, about the choices they’ve made in life, the mistakes they’ve made, and the value of family, true friendship and love. 

Every few chapters, Elliot breaks up the narrative of this story, speaking from a place beyond the grave where he seems to spend a good deal of time drinking cocktails and conversing with another love of his life, Judy Garland. Elliot comments on the rest of the characters, offers information about his own life — “I was born to a mother so cold she wore a cashmere coat in Miami Beach” — and several times blows the rest of us kisses: “Mwah! Mwah! Mwah!”

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For me, the part of “The Book Haters’ Book Club” that sparkled brightest was the repartee between sisters Laney and Bree, and their humor. Here, for example, is Laney’s description of another long day of dealing with the trials delivered by the bookshop. “The past few hours had left her drained, as if Pandora hadn’t just opened her box, but jumped out naked and high, hallucinating and screaming ‘RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!’”

If you want a good story, and if you’re a sucker for books about books as I am, then Gretchen Anthony’s “The Book Haters’ Book Club” is made for you.

•••

That same week that I read Anthony’s novel I also plowed through “No Plan B” (Delacorte Press, 2022, 368 pages), the latest in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child and his brother, Andrew Child. 

Inspired by a friend several years ago to give the Reacher series a try, I’ve read a good number of these novels. They’re what I think of as popcorn books, a tasty treat to munch on but not particularly memorable. 

And memorable the Reacher books are not. They are formulaic, their plots as predictable as the sunrise. Ex-military policeman Reacher roams the United States, hitching rides or taking the bus, carrying only a toothbrush and cash, replacing his clothing with garb purchased from second-hand stores, and living by his wits. Like an old-time knight errant, he defends the weak and the helpless he meets on his travels against bad guys. He’s 6’5” tall and weighs 250 pounds, so pummeling many of his opponents rarely causes him to break a sweat.

 In “Plan B,” Reacher punched out so many thugs and crooks that I gave up keeping count, though I did wonder what his knuckles must look like after so many collisions with the skulls and jaws of his enemies. After a while, I also lost track of his reasons for tearing apart this spider web of criminals in “No Plan B.” Some of these villains operate a corrupt private prison system, while another man, a pyromaniac tracking down those he blames for his son’s death, enjoys killing his victims by spreading a napalm-like substance over their naked bodies and then lighting them up. 

I finished “Plan B,” but before I was even halfway through, the popcorn had grown stale. The characters, the plot, were all cardboard and no corn. 

My Reacher-enthusiast friend once owned a T-shirt inscribed “What would Reacher do?” At this point, I admit I don’t really care. I imagine the Child brothers will keep pumping out books about Reacher’s exploits — they do make money — but I won’t be there to read them. As Jack Reacher says in the final line of “Plan B,” when he’s once again hitting the road, “It’s time for somewhere new.”

Agreed. 

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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