I bring you a book highly recommended for those who want a fix of action and something that will get their minds off current events. The complete opposite of a relaxing read.
A Caller’s Game by J.D. Barker
DIE HARD meets TALK RADIO in this heart-pounding, relentlessly fast-paced thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Fourth Monkey—master of suspense, J.D. Barker.
“I’m going to offer you a choice.”
Controversial satellite radio talk show host, Jordan Briggs, has clawed her way to the top of the broadcast world. She doesn’t hold back, doesn’t spare feelings, and has no trouble sharing what’s on her mind. Her rigorous pursuit of success has come at a price, though. Her marriage is in ruins, she hasn’t spoken to her mother in years, and she’s distanced herself from all those close to her. If not for her young daughter, Charlotte, her personal life would be in complete shambles.
When a subdued man calls into the show and asks to play a game, she sees it as nothing more than a way to kick-start the morning, breathe life into the beginnings of drive-time for her listeners. Against her producer’s advice, she agrees, and unwittingly opens a door to the past.
Live on the air with an audience of millions, what starts out as a game quickly turns deadly—events long thought buried resurface and Jordan Briggs is forced to reconcile with one simple fact—All decisions have consequences.
About the author:
J.D. Barker is the New York Times and international best-selling author of numerous novels, including DRACUL and THE FOURTH MONKEY. His latest, A CALLER’S GAME, released February 22. He is currently collaborating with James Patterson. His books have been translated into two dozen languages, sold in more than 150 countries, and optioned for both film and television. Barker resides in coastal New Hampshire with his wife, Dayna, and their daughter, Ember.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Hampton Creek Press for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I read and enjoyed J.D. Barker’s The Fourth Monkey a few years back (you can check my review here), and I was aware he had published quite a few books since but hadn’t managed to catch up and read any others. When I saw he had a new novel out, and especially when I read that one of the protagonists was a radio talk show host (satellite radio, but radio nonetheless), I had to get it. You see, I love radio, and I have been a collaborator of a couple of local radio stations for the last few years, so I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.
Die Hard meets Talk Radio pretty much captures the mood of this novel, with the beginning being more akin to Talk Radio, and the ending diving head-first into Die Hard mood, particularly when it comes to action and thrills. While I was reading it, though, I couldn’t help but think of Phone Booth, a 2003 Joel Schumacher thriller that I remember going to watch and leaving the cinema shaking my head. Great sense of tension and rhythm but… Much ado about nothing. I felt the premise behind the whole thing was over the top and rather ludicrous, although, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as a social commentary or a moral treatise, and as entertainment, especially if you didn’t stop to think too hard, it worked. In this novel, the reason behind the macabre game being played (I won’t go into details, evidently, but let me say it’s pretty extreme at all levels) is not as minor, superficial, and random as it was in that movie, but it felt like a revenge fantasy taken to the extreme. Although, as the author says in his (rather) masterful note at the end:
I’ve been told I write literary popcorn, and I’m fine with that. I always have been. When you read one of my books, you’re never going to find some deep-seated social message or moral code…. I literally get paid to make shit up. Do you really want to take advice from me?
Threats, non-stop action, characters being forced to make impossible decisions, chickens coming home to roost, people of doubtful morality and others as heroic as Captain America (minus shield and costume, because Cole, the police detective, isn’t even wearing a uniform for most of the novel), right-wing militias, extreme political views, the power of media, grief and loss, corruption and professionalism, crime and punishment, the justice system, sense of guilt and responsibility, family ties… All of these feature, in one way or another, in this story; and I suspect most readers will wonder what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation to that of Jordan, the radio host, unlikely as that might be. I suspect none of us know for certain what we would do and how far we’d get, but that is what makes it a compelling read.
A number of reviews complain that the main characters are not very likeable. Well, Cole, the detective, is, although we know very little about him, other than he’s been demoted to traffic (but not for doing something bad. And no, I’m not telling either). But Jordan is fast-talking, witty, sharp-tongued, at times quite bitchy, self-obsessed, and other than her daughter Charlotte, her ex-husband, Nick, and some of her radio collaborators (especially Billy), her circle of close people seems to be pretty small, and she hasn’t seen her mother in years. I quite like these kinds of characters, at least in books, and I thought I would probably listen to her radio programme but wouldn’t want her as a friend. Too many hard-edges, although fun to listen to. We get to know her a bit over the period of hours the story lasts (there is a clock counting down from the very first page, and you’d be right if you assume things get more frantic as we come close to zero), but this is not a story that dwells inside of characters’ minds, and if I had commented in my review of his first novel that I missed a deeper psychological insight, there isn’t much of that here either, although that is not the point. Some of the readers found Charlotte, the 11 y. o. girl, annoying, as she is very much a mini-me version of her mother, but I found her amusing, and she was one of my favourite characters. We don’t know much about the rest of the characters, although some keep secrets and surprises well-hidden, and Bernie, the baddie… looms big behind everything but he remains rather unknowable. Personally, I think that is as it should be, and we can all make our own minds up about him.
The story is told in the third-person, alternating chapters from Jordan’s point of view with those from Cole’s viewpoint. This helps keep the momentum and the tension up, and also allows us to see both sides of the situation: one, that of an interested party who is deep in the thick of it and for whom the whole matter is deeply personal; the other, an observer who gets involved out of professionalism and a sense of duty. The language flows well, the dialogue and Jordan’s repartee on the radio (especially at the beginning) sizzle and spark, and the prose increases its tempo as the action comes to a head. It’s not a story for those who like a leisurely and contemplative reading experience but it will suit people looking for excitement and a gripping read.
What about the ending? Well, I’m still thinking about it. It is satisfying on many levels (not a happy ending per se, but with happy elements): some characters grow up, come to realise that actions have consequences and that they need to rethink their priorities; others get their own version of a happy ending; and there are also new beginnings and hope for other characters. Holding onto the suspension of disbelief becomes more difficult as the novel progresses and as things get harder and harder for all the characters, good and bad (however we define that). Like in those horror movies where the monster/serial-killer refuses to die, there’s always one more twist awaiting us. I’m sure if I stop to think about it for too long it won’t make a lot of sense, but it more than fulfils its role as literary popcorn, and it does it pretty well.
I recommend it to people who love action movies, action novels, and a thrills-filled read, and who are not after a deeply intellectual exercise or a book full of hard-hitting psychological truths. I particularly enjoyed the setting at a radio station and the real-time feel of it. If you’re looking for something to take your mind off current news, which will keep you turning the pages, and enjoy non-stop action, I definitely recommend it. And don’t forget to read the author’s note.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and the author for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to stay safe, and to keep reading, writing, sharing, commenting, and especially, to keep smiling.