A Year of Good Reads Long Before Goodreads

Agatha Christie

Many a specific year featured a variety of interesting fiction, but 1937 was an especially eclectic 12 months for literature.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Of Mice and Men, The Hobbit, the first Dr. Seuss book, and more.

That “more” includes Death on the Nile, which I finished last week. I’ve only read a handful of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, but this was a good one — considered among her best. An ingenious plot, many suspects with lots of personality, the ever-observant detective Hercule Poirot seeing what no one else sees. A novel with some flaws — the depiction of people of color (when they’re depicted at all) is cringe-worthy, though I suppose the book being “of its time” is a partial excuse. Also, the book’s leftist character is laughably caricatured. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, Christie does much better in vividly portraying a number of memorable women in Death on the Nile.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is the 20th-century classic about the experiences of African-American woman Janie Crawford. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the compelling novella featuring two migrant workers in Depression-era California. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which of course would become the prequel to the 1950s-published trilogy The Lord of the Rings, is a delightful fantasy adventure story for “children of all ages.” And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street started Dr. Seuss on a kid-book career that would make him perhaps the genre’s most famous author.

The year 1937 also saw the publication of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which I “Have Not” read (yet). In the memoir realm, there was Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, which I have read — and enjoyed.

I’ll end by noting that some famous writers unfortunately died in 1937 — most notably Edith Wharton, H.P Lovecraft, and Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie.

Any thoughts on 1937 fiction I mentioned and didn’t mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — with a Pink Floyd-meets-local-news theme — is here.

Authors, Like Gymnasts, Don’t Always ‘Stick the Landing’

Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images

Many excellent novels have excellent endings — conclusions that might be upbeat or downbeat but are done well, feel satisfying, and make sense in the context of the books as a whole. Among the many famous novels with fine finishes are The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, The Brothers Karamazov, and Silas Marner.

Then there are excellent novels that don’t quite “stick the landing.” Their endings are either too positive or too negative for the story lines, or too rushed, or too drawn out, or have other flaws. I will discuss some disappointing finales, while not revealing too much in the way of specific spoilers.

Why are some conclusions less than top-notch? No author is perfect, of course; sometimes, it’s just hard to end a novel well. Or perhaps the author has a deadline, or is tired of the book, or wants to get on to her/his next book, or…

This topic occurred to me last week while reading John Grisham’s Sooley — a very good novel about an admirable African teen named Samuel Sooleymon who comes to the U.S. to play college basketball. The book had compelling feel-good elements and wrenching tragic elements, but the ending just felt wrong and out-of-character for the protagonist. A problematic conclusion can obviously affect one’s feelings about an entire book; in the case of Sooley, that single jarring late scene in a 368-page novel bumped it from an A- to a B- for me.

A similar thing happened a few years ago when I was reading My Sister’s Keeper. I found that Jodi Picoult novel to be absorbing and heartbreaking as we saw a child conceived specifically to be a medical donor to her ill sister — and watched that younger sibling grow to understandably resent her “purpose.” Then, as in Sooley, a late plot development came out of left field and had me going “Whaaat?” The result was another B-, this time dropping from a full A.

Not that the unexpected is always bad. For instance, the twist in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother — to name another sibling-themed novel — was ingenious and more realistic than where I thought the story was going. And of course mystery fiction can often have great concluding twists, aided by red herrings along the way.

Do thwarted couples in various novels get together at the end, or not? Either finish can make sense, depending on the book, but I thought Edith Wharton made the wrong choice in her otherwise terrific The Age of Innocence.

When Margaret Atwood decided to write a sequel more than 30 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, I wondered how close it would be in quality to the initial novel. As it turned out, pretty close — The Testaments was really good. But the concluding pages seemed rushed after the previous parts of the novel unfolded just right.

There was an opposite issue with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. After the breathtaking drama in most of the trilogy, the last few dozen pages felt like an extended epilogue. Poignant, with some insight into what we would today call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but things seemed too drawn out.

The Harry Potter series? I had no problem with the exciting and cathartic ending of the seventh book, even as some earlier parts of that final book in J.K. Rowling’s series dragged at times. But then the author tacked on an epilogue showing the teen characters as adults a number of years later. Interesting to see, but it felt kind of clunky and “summarized.”

I’ll conclude by discussing a couple of 19th-century novels.

The House of the Seven Gables ending came off as too positive for the earlier parts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mostly melancholy book. Very glad I read the novel, though.

And Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was going along amazingly — with the pitch-perfect depictions of Huck and Jim, their relationship, and the memorable supporting characters they met while traveling on the Mississippi — until Tom Sawyer entered the picture in the latter section of the novel. He was annoying, things got too “slapsticky,” and the book went from an A++ to an A. It almost made one wish that Tom didn’t escape the cave in the earlier novel in which he starred. 🙂

Any examples you’d like to mention of great novels that could have ended in a more satisfying way? 

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about some weirdly fantastical fake upgrades to my town’s school buildings — is here.

When Claustrophobia Isn’t Fear of Santa

Claustrophobic fiction! Books of that sort are usually quite intense as we sympathize with physically or mentally “confined” characters, wonder if things will improve for them, and think of what we might do if we found ourselves in a similar situation.

I just read Belgian author Georges Simenon’s Across the Street, and it sure was claustrophobic. The poignant novel features a lonely, depressed woman named Dominique who — because of low self-esteem, a problematic upbringing, a years-ago romance that ended tragically, and current economic difficulty — withdraws into an existence where she mostly stays in her Paris apartment and eavesdrops not only on the couple who rent a room from her but on a dysfunctional family living across the street.

Another recently read book — No Plan B, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee and Andrew Child — is partly set in a jail. Prisons and prison cells are of course claustrophobic places, as we also see in such novels as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Colleen McCullough’s Morgan’s Run, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Henri Charriere’s Papillon. It’s certainly cathartic when, in some cases, protagonists escape or reach the end of their prison terms.

Obviously, ships can be claustrophobic, too. A half-dozen Herman Melville novels come to mind, including lesser-known ones such as Redburn and White-Jacket. Plus Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, among many others. Most horribly claustrophobic is the hold of a slave ship, as in the early section of Alex Haley’s Roots.

There are also novels in which small casts of characters are isolated near bodies of water. Some of them include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Getting back to Jack Reacher novels, one of the most claustrophobic scenes in the 27-book series is when the huge Reacher (6’5″/250 pounds) has little room to maneuver while battling a bad guy in a cramped South Dakota underground bunker. That climactic moment is in 61 Hours.

Speaking of limited hours, a novel can feel claustrophobic when it covers a small amount of time — as with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway focusing on a single day.

And if a disability or catastrophic injury limit how much a person can move, things get pretty claustrophobic for that person. Think of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

In the short story realm, it doesn’t get much more “enclosed” than the settings of such Edgar Allan Poe tales as “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Fiction you’ve read that fits this theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s leaders not always practicing what they preach — is here.

When I View Reviews

Inside my local library in Montclair, New Jersey. (Photo by me.)

Book reviews! Whether capsule or full-length, I rarely read them before I read the book. Used to, but I’ve mostly stopped.

Why? I don’t want to know very much about the plot until it slowly (or not so slowly) unfolds in a novel’s pages.

I don’t want to see “spoilers,” which can sometimes slip into reviews.

I don’t want to be influenced by what reviewers think. (But if you enthusiastically recommend a novel in my blog’s comments section, there’s a very good chance it will go on my to-read list. 🙂 )

Some reviewers may of course not be fans of a book, so, if I take those sentiments to heart, I might avoid a book I would end up liking.

For instance, I didn’t look at reviews of J.K. Rowling’s sixth novel starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott before enjoying the book this month. After finishing The Ink Black Heart (written under Rowling’s “Robert Galbraith” alias), I as usual THEN read various reviews. Turns out many people felt the 1,024-page novel was way too long for its premise and genre, but in my opinion Rowling is such an engaging writer she pulled it off. Glad I didn’t peruse the reviews beforehand and risk not reading The Ink Black Heart

I should say that, out of curiosity, I sometimes look at the aggregate average of “stars” a novel gets from reviewers before I read it.

I should also say that some reviews obviously approach the perfection of whetting one’s appetite for a book while giving virtually nothing away — and thus can be safe to read beforehand. 🙂

All that said, AFTER I finish a book I do read reviews — at least 10 or 20 of them — to see what others thought.

So how DO I decide which books to read? As mentioned, I often rely on recommendations from commenters here — as well as suggestions from family and friends. Also, if I like a novel by an author, I’ll quickly or eventually read other titles by that author. (My previous sentence referred to standalone works; if I enjoy the first book in a series, I’ll of course continue with that series for anywhere from a few installments to indefinitely.) There’s also the occasional serendipity of looking for specific books in my local library and another novel not on my to-read list catches my eye. Perhaps I had heard something about that book or author and my memory got nudged.

Oh, another thing I usually avoid before starting a novel is reading any foreword or introduction written by someone other than the author. Too much risk there’ll be plot “giveaways.” (I double back to the foreword or intro after finishing the book.) I also sometimes hesitate to look at book jacket copy for the same reason, though I might give that copy a quick glance when deciding on which novels to grab in the library.

Anything you’d like to say relating to this week’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — containing “cameos” from Bruce Springsteen and The Eagles — is here.

An Overview of Oval Office Occupants in Fiction

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Barack Obama

With the Presidents’ Day holiday in the United States coming up tomorrow, February 20, I thought I’d focus on mentions of and appearances by real-life presidents in novels I’ve read. Some of those commanders-in-chief were good leaders, others were bad leaders; some of their fiction cameos show them when they’re president, others show them before entering the White House. I’ll go chronologically backward in time.

Barack Obama is referenced in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah — specifically, the reaction to his 2008 presidential campaign and election from protagonist Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrated to the U.S.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom name-checks President George W. Bush when it focuses on character Joey Berglund’s response to the not-warranted U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent disastrous war.

Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone includes a cameo from 1976 presidential candidate (and of course eventual winner) Jimmy Carter.

Herman Wouk hits the White House trifecta in War and Remembrance — which includes multiple scenes with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a brief cameo near book’s end by FDR successor Harry Truman, and an appearance by future president Dwight Eisenhower in his WWII commander days. FDR also gets quite a few pages in Wouk’s War and Remembrance prequel The Winds of War when fictional character Victor “Pug” Henry becomes a confidant to the Oval Office occupant.

A pre-presidential Theodore Roosevelt, when New York City’s police commissioner, is a major supporting character in Caleb Carr’s crime novel The Alienist.

President Ulysses Grant appears briefly in Darryl Brock’s time-travel novel If I Never Get Back when players on baseball’s 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings squad (including teammate-from-the-future Sam Fowler) meet the former Civil War general at the White House.

Abraham Lincoln has been a character in many novels; unfortunately, none I’ve read. But I’ve been moved by two Walt Whitman poems focusing on the 16th president: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

George Washington appears in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series during his time as Revolutionary War general — several years prior to being elected America’s first president. 

Any novels fitting this theme you’d like to mention? I realize I’ve just skimmed the surface; I can think of several novels featuring U.S. presidents I didn’t include in my post because I haven’t read those books (yet). I have a feeling you’ll name some of them, and others. 🙂

If you want, you could also mention novels with fictional American presidents/presidential candidates. Among the books that come to mind that I’ve read are It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, The President’s Plane Is Missing by Robert Serling (brother of Twilight Zone creator Rod), and Stephen King’s aforementioned The Dead Zone

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — featuring a weird football/anti-football theme — is here.

For Some Authors, a Change Is Gonna Come

Many writers switch things up to a degree during their careers, but some do pretty radical makeovers. 

One is J.K. Rowling, who became internationally famous with her fabulous seven-book Harry Potter series. But rather than remain completely Potter-focused, the English author pivoted to penning the non-magical novel The Casual Vacancy before moving to crime fiction starting in 2013 under the pen name Robert Galbraith. I’m currently reading 2022’s sixth book in that series starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, and The Ink Black Heart (with its online harassment theme and other major digital elements) is so far as good as its five predecessors. Which I’m grateful for, because the novel is more than 1,000 pages. 😵

(I also mentioned Rowling’s avoidance of being pigeon-holed in a 2021 post that has some similarities to this piece but contains mostly different content.)

Sometimes, a radical makeover involves a writing-format switch. For instance, Scotland’s Sir Walter Scott was a renowned poet during the first part of his career before becoming a prolific novelist (Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, etc.). Roughly 150 years later, Canada’s Margaret Atwood made her own highly successful transition from poetry to novels (The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, etc.).

Flipping that script was Thomas Hardy, a renowned novelist during the first half of his career (Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, etc.) before concentrating on poetry. Heck, the English author lived and wrote for 33 years after the 1895 publication of his final novel: Jude the Obscure.

Nathaniel Hawthorne came out with an amateurish first novel — Fanshawe (1828) — when he was not yet 25, but then focused on short stories over the next two decades. Some of the tales were gems, and Hawthorne enjoyed a modicum of success, but it was the American author’s return to novel-writing with 1850’s The Scarlet Letter that earned him wide fame during his lifetime and beyond.

India’s Arundhati Roy made a stunning novelistic debut in 1997 with The God of Small Things, only to turn to political nonfiction and activism for two decades before finally producing a second novel.

Any writers you’d like to mention who did the major makeover thing?

Speaking of changes, here’s Phil Ochs singing…”Changes”:

And speaking of major makeovers, I was a football fan when I was much younger, but now hate the sport for its health-shattering violence, greedy right-wing billionaire owners, racism, sexism, homophobia, and pseudo-patriotic trappings. So, I’m not watching today’s Stupor…um…Super Bowl. 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my local council FINALLY voting to initiate the firing of the municipality’s women-harassing township manager — is here.

Nicknames Can Be More Consequential Than Nicknacks

There are various ways we learn about a fictional character, and one shorthand route is when she or he has a memorable nickname.

Such is the case with the co-star of Kristin Hannah’s riveting, heartbreaking 2015 novel The Nightingale, which I finished yesterday. Isabelle is a young French woman who, during World War II, is nicknamed “The Nightingale” when she bravely risks her life time and time again sneaking downed British and American pilots out of Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle’s nickname evokes the night (the best traveling time to avoid detection during her fraught trips) as well as the melodious nightingale bird and the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. The prickly, rebellious Isabelle — just 18 when she joins the French Resistance — is a helper. 

Obviously, a nickname can have negative connotations, too. In another WWII novel, Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller The Huntress, the title is the sobriquet of a woman who was a murderous Nazi before changing her identity and marrying an American. The man has no idea of his new wife’s awful history, but his daughter suspects there’s something fishy about her stepmother. The daughter and others try to out “The Huntress.”

Diana Gabaldon’s engrossing Outlander — the title of her first novel and the overall name of the series even as the other eight books have their own titles — is the nickname of 20th-century-born Englishwoman Claire, who meets 18th-century-born Jamie of Scotland when she time travels. Claire is an “Outlander”: someone from another time and place.

Then there is Isabel Allende’s Zorro (the Spanish word for fox), whose title character’s real name is Diego de la Vega. Allende’s 2005 novel is an origin story of the masked, sword-wielding justice seeker created by Johnston McCulley in 1919.

Also, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian gets its title from the nickname of botanist-astronaut Mark Watney when he gets stranded alone on Mars.

Some nicknames can be partly ironic, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has laboriously tried to build an aura of greatness around himself, but he’s actually rather pathetic.

I blogged about nicknames in fiction once before in a 2016 post that contained mentions of such novels as Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), and James Fenimore Cooper’s 19th-century “Leatherstocking” series of five interrelated books.

“The Butterflies” is the nickname of the Mirabal sisters who, in Alvarez’s historical-fiction novel, courageously oppose vicious Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.

“The Natural” is the nickname of Roy Hobbs, a baseball phenom whose given name is an amalgam of real-life Major League legends Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. But life is far from easy for Hobbs, even as the 1984 movie version starring Robert Redford gave some of Malamud’s novel a more uplifting spin not true to the book.

Natty Bumppo of the “Leatherstocking” series gets several nicknames. The sharp-shooting, wilderness-savvy character is “The Pathfinder” in one book, “The Deerslayer” in another book, “Hawkeye” in The Last of the Mohicans, etc. All monikers with more gravitas than “Bumppo,” that’s for sure. 🙂

My 2016 post also mentioned — among other characters — “The Artful Dodger” (pickpocket Jack Dawkins) of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and “He Who Must Not Be Named” (villainous Lord Voldemort) of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. 

Any nicknames in fiction that come to mind for you?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about dueling petitions and more — is here.

Young Characters in Literature

Credit: Amor Towles/Penguin Random House

There are many memorable kids and teens in literature, and I’m going to discuss a few of them in a blog post so young it was born on January 29, 2023. 🙂

A terrific non-adult character I most recently encountered is 8-year-old Billy Watson in Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, which I read and very much enjoyed last week. The precocious Billy is smart, bookish, lovable, and adventurous while navigating a life that sees his 18-year-old brother spend time in prison, his mother abandon the family, his father die, and more. He often acts like a mini-adult yet is still charmingly boyish in certain ways.

Towles is obviously masterful at creating and depicting young people as supporting characters, because he also featured the unforgettable girls Nina and Sofia in his wonderful novel A Gentleman in Moscow that I read last year. They are mother and daughter, but both appear as children in different parts of a book that spans decades.

Then there’s the charming Giuseppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History (he’s the son of a beleaguered single mother in Italy during World War II); the feisty Maggie Tulliver as a girl in the first part of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; the brainy, studious, ambitious Francie Nolan of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the conflicted teen John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; the brave teen Starr Carter, whose male friend is murdered by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give; the wise-beyond-his-years Ponyboy Curtis of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders; and only child Jody Baxter, who co-stars with a fawn in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 19th-century-set The Yearling.

Taking place WAY before that, in prehistoric times, is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and its amazing young protagonist Ayla. 

Some fictional young people are so iconic that one doesn’t need to say much about them. They include Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane as a girl in the first part of Jane Eyre, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, Harper Lee’s Scout Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ Pip (Great Expectations) and Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland-visiting Alice, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, and Louisa May Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy of Little Women.

Obviously, readers of the novels I mentioned and the many kid-or-teen-starring novels I didn’t mention see plenty of great and sometimes fraught interactions between young siblings, between young friends, and between young people and adults. Readers also might remember their own childhoods, or, if they’re still young themselves, currently relate to the characters — providing that the adult authors make those characters believable and interesting enough!

Also, we’re of course interested in what young people in fiction will be like when they grow up. In those novels that span enough years, we find out. 🙂

Your favorite kids and teens in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes the latest about a proposed redevelopment, an expansion of bus service, and more — is here.

The Unexpected in Fiction

I’ve blogged about surprises in literature before, but I’m going to take a somewhat different angle this time.

It’s a good thing when authors — whether their usual writing approach is formulaic or not — offer the unexpected. That helps keep things fresh for the authors…and the readers.

I thought about this last week while enjoying the latest Jack Reacher thriller — No Plan B by Lee Child and Andrew Child. In many ways the 2022 novel is like the previous 26 Reacher books: justice-minded drifter/ex-military cop Jack doesn’t hesitate to get involved in dangerous situations and wreak havoc on the bad guys (while frequenting unpretentious eateries between the action moments 🙂 ). But among the differences in No Plan B is that there’s no significant romantic interlude for Reacher, who’s had many such interludes over the years. When Jack joins forces with Hannah Hampton (who knew two of the book’s murder victims) to travel from Colorado to a very suspicious Mississippi prison, no sleeping together ensues. It’s friendly, but all business.

Just before No Plan B, I read John Grisham’s 2017 novel The Rooster Bar. It contains many Grisham touches: a legal theme, characters in big trouble, lots of suspense, a strong social conscience, etc. Humor is rarely a big part of the Grisham mix, but in this case there were more funny moments than usual — with things getting close to slapstick at times. Even the title is a pun of sorts.

Of course, authors can also surprise readers by writing in an entirely different genre, as when Grisham came out with the 2012 baseball novel Calico Joe after more than two decades of mostly legal thrillers.

Also in 2012, J.K. Rowling radically switched gears from the magic-filled, fantastical, periodically humorous Harry Potter series she had completed in 2007 to write The Casual Vacancy — a bleak, serious, real-world look at a small town and its politics. Turned out to be pretty compelling. Then Rowling pivoted yet again to create (under the Robert Galbraith alias) the wonderful series of crime novels starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Six of those books so far.

John Steinbeck also kept readers on their toes with a canon that mixed partly comedic efforts (such as Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and CR sequel Sweet Thursday) with earnest classic works (such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent). Steinbeck could be VERY funny when he wanted to be.

Margaret Atwood also changed things up. Mostly known for speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.) and contemporary fiction (Cat’s Eye, etc.), she turned to the past for one book with the historical-fiction novel Alias Grace. Atwood excelled at all three approaches.

Or how about Mark Twain actually focusing on a female character — in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc — after years of fiction concentrating on Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and various other males? Plus he broke his mold by using virtually no humor in the Joan of Arc historical novel.

Getting back to surprises within specific novels, there’s the hilarious devil scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mostly weighty masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

Then there’s the way some titles of novels throw readers for a bit of a loop when they read the books. For instance, I’m currently midway through the superb The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (who previously wrote 2016’s also-superb A Gentleman in Moscow) and I thought from the title it might be largely a car trip “road novel.” But while there’s some cross-country driving in The Lincoln Highway, a train trip, a stay in New York City, and other elements are also quite important to the plot. More on the 1954-set, 2021-published book in next week’s post.

Examples of the unexpected you’ve experienced in literature?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about local celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and more — is here.

Great Novels Revered Not Sooner But Later

Some notable novels don’t catch on at first — taking years, even MANY years, before getting the respect they deserve. Initial sales and critical reaction can range from poor to so-so, with the reverence not coming until later.

Why? The books might have been “before their time,” controversial, out of “the mainstream,” too challenging, or not marketed well. Or maybe there was no discernible reason for the lack of early thriving — just one of those fluky things. Sometimes, “failed” books get noticed more when the authors write later classics, causing readers to look back at their earlier work. Other times, screen adaptations might bring delayed attention to the novels.

The first title that came to mind for this post — the theme of which was suggested by blogger Endless Weekend in a comment under one of my previous posts — is Moby-Dick. As I’ve discussed before, Herman Melville’s classic bombed with readers and critics when first published in 1851. Too deep? Too metaphysical? Too diverse a crew? Too much minutiae about whales? Other reasons? Anyway, Moby-Dick wasn’t “rediscovered” until nearly 30 years Melville after died, when the 1919 centennial of his birth spurred scholarly interest in the author.

Soon after, in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby was published to generally favorable reviews — but sales were kind of modest. Hard to know why given how good the novel is, and it’s a fairly short work that has the additional selling point of being a pretty quick read. One way strong interest in the novel finally kicked in was when the Council on Books in Wartime gave free copies of Gatsby to American soldiers during World War II — not long after Fitzgerald died in 1940. The novel’s popularity continued to surge from there, and three more Gatsby movies were released in 1949, 1974, and 2013.

Then there was Jane Austen. Sales of her novels — including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma — were okay during her lifetime and soon after her death in 1817 (when Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously). But Austen’s work didn’t explode in popularity until decades later. One thing that helped was 1869’s A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. In our present time, her novels obviously remain widely read, and the subject of various screen adaptations. Why weren’t Austen’s novels not as favored as they should have been two centuries ago? Perhaps one reason is that they were wrongly seen as somewhat “inconsequential” works written by a woman during a very patriarchal era. Hardly inconsequential, of course.

A later-in-the-19th-century author, Alexandre Dumas, saw his compelling Georges novel published in 1843. It wasn’t remotely as popular as his soon-to-come The Count of Monte Cristo (which contains some elements similar to Georges) and The Three Musketeers. One obvious reason is that Georges was the only novel by Dumas that focused on race and racism — with a positive, non-stereotypical protagonist who’s partly Black (as was the author). A revelation during that time. But the long-out-of-print Georges became greatly appreciated in the 21st century — even being reissued by Modern Library in a 2007 edition.

Well, those are just a few examples. Any others you’d like to mention? Any thoughts on the ones I discussed?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a petition against a local over-development and two more harassment accusations against a suspended township manager — is here.