December 2021: Yuletide reads

Following my last list, I begin with Grisham’s latest. The sequel to The Whistler (2016), The Judge’s List puts a new spin on the serial killer. The book once again debuted as a number one bestseller, which has been the norm for Grisham releases. Stephen King’s Billy Summers is another popular pick. A for-hire sniper out on his last job scrambles to contain the fallout from his hit. The master storyteller allows us an ear into small-town America while foregrounding one of his most memorable duos. Finally, Indra Nooyi’s memoir is the third leg of the tripod. This offering from PepsiCo’s former CEO is a highly rated bestseller that would cater to the business-minded. With New Year being two weekends away, this is probably the year’s last catalogue. 

1. The Judge’s List (Grisham). Lacy Stoltz, the heroine of Whistler, returns as a bureaucrat in this one. Like her colleagues, she sees her role as a dead-end job and wishes to work somewhere more exciting. The Florida Board of Judicial Conduct (BJC) employs Stoltz, who is also at a crossroads in her personal life. The book opens with a rendezvouz between Lacy and Jeri. The latter opens up about her father’s murder. She believes that a sitting US judge slayed her dad. He uses the same method with every kill. Jeri believes that he keeps a list of people who have wronged him and waits patiently before committing the perfect crime. However, while she could provide motive and method, she admits to lacking the cold-hard evidence that could tie Judge Bannick to the killings. Being well-versed in forensics and the law, Bannick has stayed one step ahead of the authorities.

Jeri wishes not to go to law enforcement, instead trusting Lacy and the BJC with her information. She must be very careful as this knowledge could well jeopardise her life. Through her resourcefulness, she has carried this burden alone for twenty years. The novel is a cat and mouse game where each party tries to outwit and out the other. Judge Bannick is a techie and soon learns of the BJC investigation. To make matters worse, he receives knowing poems anonymously. While the BJC looks into the matter, the slayings continue. At last count, Jeri believes there has been at least ten dead bodies across six states. She hopes that she wouldn’t be next on the naughty list. 

The book reminded me a bit of Dexter Morgan. Both the latter and Judge Bannick worked in law enforcement. While Morgan was a blood spatter analyst, Bannick also lived a double life. Both sadists have Florida connections: Morgan with Miami Police District; Bannick as a Pensacola judge. Both of them lived for the kill; Dexter had a so-called ‘dark passenger.’ The main difference is that the latter is a vigilante who ‘takes out the trash.’ At least in the onset, he is guided by a code. Meanwhile, Bannick kill-bills those who oppressed him. In general, the writing was typical Grisham: light, endearing, and fast-paced. The short chapters will keep you reading with rapt attention. However, the ending was a little weak and disappointing, maybe even a letdown. It reminded me of his 2008 work, The Associate. Moreover, just like his recent releases, he ran out of gas near the end and was in a hurry to conclude.   

Rating: 4.65/5

2. Billy Summers (King). I haven’t powered through a lot of King’s work, certainly not like Grisham’s. Though his work is breezy, it’s still not as cruisy as Grisham’s, and is almost always longer. When I did find the time to peruse King, I admired his witty turns of phrases. ‘The land of the living’; ‘milk moustache’; ‘binocs’ are just a few of these idiosyncrasies. We shouldn’t be surprised as he’s been telling tales since the seventies. The protagonist, Billy, has provided his services to silence bad men. His last outing involves a novelist cover, and he works on the fifth floor of an office building. He is provided with a MacBook Pro and told to bide his time. I wish I had that corner office. Regardless, he doesn’t trust his handlers and dumbs down his writing on the Mac.  

From the start, he senses that something is wrong. Bringing down the baddies is his motivation but likewise are the shekels. Two million dollars does not grow on trees. For six months, he presents as David Lockridge, the goody two shoes next door neighbour. He plays Monopoly with the kids and hangs out with the adults. He even puts his sniping skills to good use and wins Shanice a flamingo. The kid then draws him a flamingo picture, which he keeps as his lucky charm. He even crafts a third persona: Dalton Smith. The latter is an overweight techie who spends long days away from his abode. As he passes time writing in the building, he grows to love the craft. 

The day of the job comes and everything turns ugly. He barely manages to slip out amid the commotion. The media does not take long to realise that he was the gunman. He lays low in Dalton’s apartment, writing when he can, until he rescues a damsel in distress. For the next two hundred pages, they become like Bonnie and Clyde. They terrorise the abusers and shack in no-name motels. They want to get to the bottom of this and encounter thugs, a pedophile, and a mother out for blood. They find safe haven in the Rockies with Bucky, Billy’s long-time friend. Here, he churns out pages in a hut with an unnerving picture. King even has time to mobilise a wrestling angle that proves crucial to the conclusion. 

Since Billy is an Iraq War vet, the novel incorporates flashbacks to this time. Personally, I did not enjoy the war bits but Billy’s book-writing makes up for it. We are treated to a book within a book. As the plot thickens, Billy’s writing improves. It’s also ironic that he is basically writing for himself but millions of King enthusiasts will read his handiwork. Sometimes, you can encapsulate a novel in one line. For Billy Summers: ‘You forgot the flamingo, you f…king fuck.’ Similar to Blood Work (Connelly): ‘Don’t forget the cannoli.’ Yet it’s all-around better.   

Rating: 4.4/5

3. My Life in Full (Indra Nooyi). I found out about this one a few months ago. I looked forward to reading the piece, but found it overrated. I believe I was not the target audience. Full is divided into four parts. The first salvo is the most accessible as the author recounts her years growing up in a middle-class household in Madras, India. The city is now known as Chennai. She lived in a three-generation home and her elders valued education. She left the house after college when she pursued an MBA in Mumbai. She then accepted an offer to study for another MBA in Yale (Connecticut). She didn’t have a lot when she crossed over and the American’s freewheeling culture shocked her. 

She needed a wardrobe makeover. When she attended an interview, she picked a blazer two sizes too large and trousers that didn’t fit. Despite her look, she did not feel inferior to the crowd and powered on. She met her husband in the US; it wasn’t an arranged marriage. She has two siblings: an older sister and a younger brother. Both have been living in the US. Through most of the book’s latter half, she chronicles the struggles of being a working mom. She often had to make sacrifices for the greater good. She was fortunate to have the support of family members, who would care for her two daughters. 

Don’t be mistaken: this is more a business book than memoir. Having been in the corporate world for so long, she foregrounds terms like research and development, marketability, branding, design, and revenue. Another thing I disliked was the constant use of lists. There seemed to be at least three of them in every page. Most seemed about five thoughts deep. In addition, she goes overboard with motherhood, empowerment, and childcare. Lastly, she unloads an extended rant at book’s end. This makes the memoir easily the most challenging finish this year. Hence, my contention of being the wrong reader. 

However, I enjoyed bits of ‘The PepsiCo years.’ Nooyi was CEO and Chairman from 2006 to 2019. She provides insight on how she transformed the company into being more conscientious, sustainable, and healthier. She was likewise at the forefront as the conglomerate bought more brands: from gatorade to Tropicana, Sabra to Quaker Oats. Her pet phrase as CEO was ‘Performance with purpose (PwP).’ She asserts that her being CEO was only possible in America. This is not a light read, but you’ll learn a thing or two.

Rating: 3.9/5

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