Featured Author — David Baldacci

David Baldacci is a lifelong Virginia resident who received his BA from VCU and his law degree from UVA.  He practiced law for nine years in the northern Virginia area before writing his first novel, Absolute Power, in 1996.  Since then, Baldacci has become one of the nation’s most prolific and successful novelists, having published 17 bestselling novels.

Baldacci is best known as a writer of political intrigue, but the first of his books that I read, Wish You Well, was an exception.  It is the story of a brother and sister, who, after experiencing a terrible tragedy with their family in New York in the 1940s, are sent to live with their grandmother on her farm in the mountains of southwest Virginia.  The story is poignant, humorous and charming and follows the young characters as they experience a coming of age in completely unfamiliar rural Virginia.  Their strength of character is revealed when faced with issues of drought, poverty, racism and environmental exploitation.  Baldacci’s mother and maternal grandmother were raised in the area, and it was the oral storytelling about their lives that provided him with the material for the novel.  Though the people and places are fictional, there are many specific references regarding day-to-day life in the region.  Those who have lived in the mountains will appreciate the familiarity.  This remains my favorite Baldacci book so far.

I then decided I should try some of his political suspense so I read Simple Genius, not realizing it is actually the third in a series.  I didn’t care for it, though perhaps if I’d read the previous books in the series I’d have been more familiar with the characters and they wouldn’t have seemed quite as flat.  But I also found the plot to be static and rushed.  The s0-called twists and surprises were unimaginative and lacked pizazz.  I don’t even feel like there was enough meat in the book to write a quick synopsis and since I dislike writing synopses anyway, I’ll skip it.

Luckily I didn’t let Simple Genius deter me.  I read The Camel Club, which is the first book in a separate series and really enjoyed it.  The difference between the two books is like night and day, almost as if they’d been written by two different people.  The Camel Club is the story of a group of eccentrics in Washington DC who gather regularly to discuss possible conspiracy theories and political corruption.  During one of their secret meetings they witness a murder at the hands of government officials and decide to take it upon themselves to uncover the details.  We’re also introduced to an aging secret service agent who is assigned to the case and members of a terrorist organization who are planning to attack the president and whose connection to the murderers is unclear.  The characters are so much fleshier and the plot significantly more intelligent and complex than in Simple Genius.  This is not usually a genre that I prefer, but I’ll probaby at least read the next book in this series.

In an effort to round out my Baldacci reading, I wanted to read his first novel, Absolute Power, since many say it is his best, and it was made into a movie starring Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood (haven’t seen it yet…Baldacci himself says it’s VERY different from the book).  But I wasn’t able to get a copy of Absolute Power so I checked out The Christmas Train instead, since it appeared to deviate from the politial intrigue norm.  I enjoyed the book, but felt that it was more of a character study than a plot-propelling page turner.  The book is about a reporter heading to Los Angeles from Washington DC by train during the holiday season.  He hopes to write a book about the journey and meets all kinds of characters with stories to tell, including a retired priest, a fortune teller, a young eloping couple, a movie director and most surprising…his long, lost love.  The book was quaint… it was sweet…I don’t feel the urgent need to recommend it, but I’m glad I read it.

My husband and I had the chance to go see David Baldacci earlier this month.  He spoke at a local church and talked about what it was like to write his first novel, how he deals with being a celebrity, his typical writing methods and research processes and told a number of humorous anecdotes.  He’s an excellent speaker, very funny and answered questions from the audience.  He also spoke about the Wish You Well Foundation, an organization founded by Baldacci and his wife in an effort to increase family literacy.  There was a book signing afterwards but the line was very long and we were asked to please refrain from engaging him in coversation at all so that the signing could go as quickly as possible.  It was a reasonable request considering the size of the crowd, but if I wasn’t going to get to talk to the guy it wasn’t worth the wait, so we left.

Baldacci’s latest novel, First Family was released on April 21, 2009.

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