(2017) James Patterson, Century, £16.99, hrdbk, 259pp, ISBN 978-1-780-89533-8
Although it says James Patterson on the spine, both the title page and the front of the dust jacket also credit Richard DiLallo. The author blurb at the end of the book extols that James Patterson ‘is one of the best-known and biggest-selling writers of all time’ and the dust jacket adds that he has been the most borrowed author in UK libraries for the last ten years (a fact confirmed by the Public Lending Rights (PLR) folks). On the other hand, all that is said of Richard DiLallo is that he is a former advertising executive who lives in Manhattan with his wife.
This is competently written, and if you think that is damming with faint praise then you are right. I have not read anything by James Patterson before but, if this is typical of his work, I fail to understand how he could be so successful. For such a writer I would expect to be impressed with the narrative style and gripped by the story he had to tell - but neither was the case; it was bland and pedestrian.
The idea behind the story is that a huge online shop is becoming dominant in almost every way. The Store (.com) had started out selling books but now sold absolutely everything you had ever heard of or could possibly want and, of course, cheaper than anyone else; it already knows what you want and delivers it before you have even ordered it. Sound familiar? Hint of Amazon, anyone? And, like Amazon, it might not be the most uplifting of places to work for the average worker. However, this is not about Amazon and the story simply takes the inspiration and looks to see where things could go if any organisation became all-dominant, could monitor everything everyone did and said, and had total control over everyone’s lives.
Jacob and Megan Brandeis live in New York. They are writers, mostly investigative, but their future looks bleak as they just cannot get anything new published. Then Jacob has an idea: investigate and write about the inner workings of The Store. They apply to The Store for employment, are accepted, and move to New Burg, Nebraska, a town which seems to exist purely to service the distribution centre there; everyone works for The Store, either directly or indirectly. At first glance everything looks wonderful and they are welcomed by their neighbours even as they arrive at the front door of their new house, although it soon feels oppressive as the neighbours insist on helping them unpack and it quickly becomes obvious that privacy is a rarity. Furthermore, everyone knows what everyone else is doing because The Store constantly publishes such information to everyone’s devices (there is no such thing as a quiet night in, the neighbours will know you have no other plans so they will invite you over or themselves around).
Even on their first night, they discover the house is festooned with tiny, hidden cameras and their every move and every word is monitored. They destroy all the cameras they find but when they get home the next day they have all been replaced, and few more installed. As Jacob and Megan start work, fetching stuff off the shelves to fulfil orders, they find themselves under more control and, to make matters a little scary, their children come home from their first day school apparently already slightly brainwashed. Up in the attic, Jacob and Megan start to collect data and write their book. As the story continues, things just get worse and worse - where will it end? Will The Store realise what they are doing and stop them or will they get away with it?
Actually, we know it more-or-less ends with Jacob delivering his manuscript to their publisher back in New York as that is covered in the Prologue, followed by ‘Eight months earlier’ as the story unfolds. What we do not know is how they will get on in New Burg, whether they will be able to publish their exposé as they originally intended, or whether The Store will somehow win out.
The cover blurb says ‘The Store doesn’t want just your money - it wants your soul’ and it would be a much better book if there was some evidence of that. As it is, The Store is certainly creepy in so much as they monitor everything and appear to control everyone on the lines of always-do-as-you-are-told-and-you-will-have-a-great-life-but-if-you-do-not-you-will-loose-everything and, as the story unfolds, there is more and more evidence of this. However, there is no tension, the story never grabbed me, it just slowly unfolded in a fairly predictable way. The premise was promising and there is so much more that could have been done to make this a gripping story with deep insights and a complex, far-reaching plot. Was The Store up to something special? Using them in some devious way? And so on - but no, there was nothing very inventive. As for the ending, that too was more or less predictable, not that I quite understood it.
In summarising the story on the back cover in such a way that some of it proves to be false – to be ‘cover’ within the story for the characters to do what they need to do for plot fulfilment – the problem becomes that at the end of the narrative you have to clear up what was true and what was not if the reader is to follow exactly what did happen. This was not done well. Personally, I am still wondering about what was really what; there were too many unexplained hints and unanswered questions (questions which often the story itself had not thought to ask).
As I said earlier, I would have expected so much more from such an eminent author. I am left wondering if, in fact, the main author was the (presumably) inexperienced Richard DiLallo and James Patterson did little more than cast an eye over it, maybe a little bit of editing, and lent his prestigious name to the book, in big letters, to appear as the author and thus guarantee sales. I know nothing of either of them so, of course, I could be wrong, but I still do not understand how an author could become so successful if this is typical of his work. As he has for a decade been the most borrowed author in UK libraries I have to ask if the reading public really cannot find anything more fulfilling to read?
In conclusion: there are many really good reads out there but this is not one of them.
Incidentally, at the end of the book are the first twenty four pages of Haunted, another novel by James Patterson, this time co-authored with James O. Born. It is even less impressive than The Store - I shall not be reading it!
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