I've been a big fan of Greg Iles since his first book, Spandau Phoenix, which was published almost 20 years ago. When I learned several months ago that Iles was going to publish his first book in five years (after a long recovery from a horrible auto accident), I have been anxiously awaiting its publication. So, when an advance copy of Natchez Burning was offered via the Amazon Vine program, I quickly snapped it up and began reading it.
Having now finished Natchez Burning, the first installment of a trilogy, I have to say that, while not being a perfect read (but, then again, what book is?), I found it to be a mostly captivating, richly entertaining, highly memorable book. Natchez Burning is, in my opinion, Iles's most ambitious novel to-date, and one that not only delivers the suspense, action and twists and turns fans have come to expect from his books, but one that serves as a historical document centering on the racial politics of the last fifty years.
Without getting too deeply into its plot, Natchez Burning is a massive-sized book (788 pages in the ARC I read) that delivers a compelling narrative and emotional conflicts that goes well beyond what Iles has delivered in his past books. In brief, Natchez Burning has Penn Cage, the former prosecutor and now mayor of Natchez, attempting to save his father -- the beloved doctor, Tom Penn -- who is accused of murdering a former African-American nurse he worked with in the early 1960's. In doing so, Penn uncovers historical secrets that could reveal racial crimes that were thought to be long buried. In reading this tale, I became very engrossed in Penn's precarious situation and in his attempt to accomplish his goal without sacrificing those he loves most.
Be aware that Natchez Burning is not the type of book that you are going to be able to fly through. It is a book that is more literary than Iles's previous books and more of a slow read. It is a book that you'll have to take your time with to fully appreciate. If you are not willing to do this at this time, I don't think Natchez Burning is a book in which you should invest your time and money.
Overall, I enjoyed Natchez Burning very much and I am looking forward to reading the next two installments in this trilogy, as I guess you'd expect from my 5-star rating. I must say, however, that I probably would have liked this book even more if it was 100 pages or so shorter. Having said that, I hope it in no way dissuades you from reading Natchez Burning, which will likely stay with you long after finishing it.
I'm a huge Greg Iles fan, was devastated when he was almost killed in the car accident and for a while, looked like he might never write again. I followed his progress on his website and knew that this book, though long delayed, was actually going to happen. Then I was fortunate enough to get a review copy. I did not know it was a book of both epic proportions (800+ pages) as well as an epic story.
This is not what most Greg Iles fans know him for; it is not light fiction peppered with some southern history, rather it is a journey that the reader needs to be prepared to take. At times it is unpleasant because of its factual background and at times, rather depressing because we're reminded of a time in our history that many would rather deny or forget. However, Iles grabs the reader by the nape of the neck and forces us to confront the past as it really existed and not as some would like us to believe.
About one third of the way into the book I was reminded of the writing style of James A. Michener which can be a good or a bad thing depending upon your point of view. To me it meant this wasn't going to be a short and fun ride and then move onto the next bestseller. No, to the extent a story can, this was going to require a commitment to follow not only this book, but the intended complete trilogy, to the final conclusion.
The book isn't perfect. It is at times wordy, overly descriptive, slow to engage and frustrating. However, these minor imperfections are offset by a griping story, prose that is above and beyond anything Iles has ever done and the ability to draw the reader into a separate universe where only the hours spent reading this book are counted. I suspect that some fans of the author are going to be disappointed, wanting the formula they are so familiar with and not this adventure into the land of real literature. For a while, I thought I might be one of those fans thinking that this book could have lost one-third of its content and still told the same story. At the finish, I realized that while it could have used a little trimming here and there, it pretty much required all 800+ pages to tell the story the "right" way.
My recommendation - buy it the day it comes out, buy it on your Kindle and if you don't own a Kindle, order one now. It's a lot of book to haul around but it's more than that. I found myself reading the book in small increments and then digesting those segments. Much easier to pull out your Kindle at the doctors office than it is to transport a hardback of this size (unfortunately, review copies aren't available in e-format).
Don't expect to sit down and read this book cover to cover in a few days as you will surely miss much of the story if you try. It is not an easy book to read - great literature often requires hard work to digest (Michener is that way for me so thus the correlation). I actually think if you try to get it all down in a few days you'll not like the book very much as it is a story to be savored and contemplated.
Is it great literature? Who knows, that is such an individual decision. But it is certainly more than just a book and perhaps when all the installments are done, it will have put Iles into that rarefied group of writers that goes above and beyond simply novelist. To Greg - welcome back and thanks for the beginning of a great saga.
I've read all of Greg Iles' novels, and have been waiting for some years now for this latest effort. Iles survived a horrific car wreck, so he's had the novels on the back-burner, but with Natchez Burning, he demonstrates the fact that he is a master of the thriller at the height of his abilities. This latest Penn Cage novel feels as personal as his other works, but with more depth and history.
Set a few years ago, in post-Katrina Mississippi and Louisiana, the central focus of Natchez Burning is on Dr. Tom Cage, father of our protagonist Penn Cage. Dr. Tom is revered as a saint in Natchez, but when he is accused of murder, Penn must dig into the history of the town and the man he always considered without sin. And Tom won't help, claiming doctor-patient confidentiality and refusing to aid in his own defense. What Penn uncovers is a corrupt organization with crimes dating to the beginning of the civil rights movement.... one which is just as dangerous today.
This novel is fantastic, and presents a rich, fully detailed history of what I hope is a fictional series of events and people. The author makes it all certainly seem real, or at least realistic. The reader will be carried along and waiting for various thrills to resolve. Although this is apparently the first of a trilogy, you will not feel like you've gotten only a part of a story. At 788 pages, Iles presents a thoroughly satisfying experience.
I don't want to discuss the details, because this book is a joy for the reader to uncover. If you like thrillers, this is an exceptional story.
So Dr. Tom Cage tells his son, Penn, the mayor of Natchez, and intrepid lawyer and novelist with a history of exposing injustice. But in this novel he confronts his toughest case yet: trying to defend his father from accusations that he murdered his former nurse, even as Tom Cage remains stubbornly silent about just what happened and why.
The result is one of the toughest novels by Greg Iles for his fans to read. Clearly, Iles is a big believer in the mission behind this book: shedding light on the injustice of justice denied to the victims of 50-year-old civil rights murders, which is one of the chief plot elements in the 800-page tome, the first of a promised trilogy. But it's not the only one, and therein lies part of the problem. Because the lunatic wing of the white supremacists of the 1950s and 1960s may be aging, but their sons and heirs are a new generation of corrupt cops and businessman in Natchez and across the border in Louisiana, meaning that the Cage family and their allies -- Penn's fiancee, newspaper publisher Caitlin Masters and crusading weekly newspaper editor Henry Sexton -- are up against enemies everywhere they turn. It almost felt like reading an action movie -- especially the over-the-top bloodbath that ends the book.
I'm calling this 3.5 stars, since I did manage to get into the narrative about halfway through, and was interested enough to keep reading fairly consistently until I turned the final pages. But it wasn't always satisfying.
It's not just about the length. I've read 800 page novels that felt much shorter, because they were so well structured and carefully paced, and that still left me hungering for more. Even some of Iles's earlier books, I was surprised to discover, have been nearly as long and felt much less like a forced route march at times. I think the problem here is that there are simply so many plot lines at work -- Tom Cage is doing his thing, Henry Sexton is investigating on his end, we get insights into the almost cartoonishly evil world of the evildoers (one of whom felt like a James Bond archvillain). At one point, I counted seven separate and apparently equally significant narrative threads here, each richly detailed.
Perhaps Iles shares the view of his fictional newspaper characters that today's readers don't care enough about the victims of old civil rights murders unless they are made relevant by adding into the mix a lot of contemporary crimes and misdemeanors as well? But by the end of the book, I felt a look like Caitlin Masters, looking at the vast array of information available, trying to figure out how to process it all.
One problem may have been the absence of an editor able to get Iles to consider "murdering his darlings". How many of these plot threads were vital to the main story? How many times, in how many different ways, did Tom Cage have to insist he wasn't going to tell his son what happened to the late Viola Turner (especially since I never spotted a compelling reason for him not to provide that insight?) And while the novel drowns in detail, it's lacking in character development or insight. Readers who have followed Penn, Caitlin and Tom Page through previous novels get no fresh insights, just a rehash of earlier conflicts and observations. What was once fresh has become stale, leaving us with good guys who -- in spite of Penn's observations about what he's learning about his father -- are still whiter than white (accidental pun) and bad guys who are downright demonic. Yes, this is genre fiction, but that doesn't mean it has to end up as better-written James Patterson prose.
It's fair to say that I found this novel a big disappointment. That's not to detract from Iles's laudable message to his readers, or the issues to which he is drawing attention. As a novel -- a reading experience -- it's entertaining, but tremendously messy and often frustrating. 3.5 stars, rounded down.
Penn Cage's beloved father, Tom - Atticus Finch with a medical license - stands accused of murdering his old nurse, Viola Turner, an African American woman who has just returned to Natchez after fleeing from the murdering Double Eagles (a terrorist group who didn't think the KKK was extreme enough) during the 1960s. Did Tom kill Viola? If so, was it a mercy killing (she was dying of cancer), or something else? What was Tom's relationship with Viola back in the 60s? Did he father her son, Lincoln? And how does all of this connect to a series of murders, beginning in the 1960s and stretching to the present day? What is the truth - and how much is Penn willing to sacrifice to find it?
I am a hard core Greg Iles fan, and I have been waiting for this book since the minute I finished Devil's Punchbowl in 2009. That book ended on a cliffhanger, as Tom suffered a sudden heart attack and begged Penn to come to his side immediately, so Tom could reveal a long held secret. Greg promised the follow up novel would follow within the year. Flash forward five years - and a behind the scenes saga that itself could have been a novel itself, including his father's death, a near-fatal automobile crash for the author, a change in publishers - and finally, here it is. Natchez Burning is quite a high wire act: it's both picking up a story that the author has been writing since Quiet Game, and starting a new trilogy that is supposed to take him to the next level, after a long absence. Possibly NO book could have lived up to the expectations placed on this one, by me, or by the new publishers, or the author himself. And the weight of the expectations shows, as I will discuss.
But first: there is a phenomenal story in here - and a fantastic writer is telling it. SO much of this book lived up to my expectations. It truly is epic in scope and ambition, and the stories that Greg Iles is telling are exciting, interesting, with great characters, terrific villains, lots of mystery, moral questions...all the good stuff. When I finished the book, I handed it over to my husband and definitely encouraged him to read it, and I encourage others to read it as well. It is just the kind of novel that I wish was being published all the time.
But - it drags. There's no other way to say it. This book could have been at least 200 pages shorter and not lost a thing. Other reviewers have noted it's a slow read, and it kind of is. There are two very specific problems - one is minor, one is more frustrating. The minor problem is repetition. I noted that Tom Cage is "Atticus Finch with a medical license" - that's a great character summary. It's probably in the book six times. Tom describes himself that way; his son thinks of him that way on several occasions; other characters think of him that way. This happens throughout the book - the core character issues are repeated over and over. Penn's fiancee Caitlin is struggling with her own ambition versus her moral code. She thinks about this struggle and reminds us of this struggle over and over and over and over. Yes, we get it!! You are struggling!! I am not exaggerating when I say that there is probably a good 50 pages worth of content that is repeating the same character dilemmas over and over, as if we might not "get it" without the repetition.
The second problem, and the more frustrating one to my mind, is that of ambition. Greg Iles (and his publishers) want us to know this is an epic American novel. (I think it may well be.) So, literally, in the course of the novel, the characters repeatedly TELL US that this is an epic American story. One scene after another of characters saying to each other, "Do you have any idea how big this is? Do you have any idea how deep this goes? Do you have any idea how powerful (this villain) is?" The novel tries to cover American history from the 1960s to the present day, trying to link MLK and RFK and JFK and Katrina and slavery and J Edgar Hoover and American corporate and political corruption and investigative journalism and the history of the FBI - which is hard enough - but Iles is constantly interrupting his own story to make the point that this is a BIG STORY. At one point, about 70% of the way through the novel, just as the momentum is really getting underway, there is a three page chapter where nothing happens except one of the main characters takes a moment to ruminate on HOW IMPORTANT this whole story is. I'm not kidding when I say that there is probably another 50 pages of text that is devoted just to different characters talking about the epicness of the story that we are reading. I found myself getting really frustrated with that and it ultimately affected my enjoyment of the book, hence four stars instead of five.
My honest hope is that, now that the five-year-monkey is off his back, and the first novel of the trilogy is out, Greg Iles will be able to relax into just telling this story, and trusting the story. It's a great one. I really do think it has the potential to be an American epic, and I look forward to the next one. Hope it's not five years away!
(One other note - I was nervous about another cliffhanger ending, so for those who might share that concern - it wasn't too bad. Yes, there was a cliffhanger, and it was bizarrely similar to the Devil's Punchbowl cliffhanger. But enough was resolved that it felt fair, and I am not too traumatized waiting for the second book. :)
on June 22, 2014
I'm a huge fan of Greg Iles's Natchez novels. Because I rate them right up there as among the best of any contemporary writer, I eagerly jumped on the first new book in years.
A mistake. This book is long, ponderous, repetitious, constantly interrupts any flow it has gathered. It may have been a good book at 40% of its size and a whole lot of editing, I don't know. But at 800 pages, and with the word that this is only the FIRST of a trilogy, I don't believe I can go through this again.
Few characters were likeable, or for that matter displayed any depth. They came and went. Shad, the prosecutor who was the chief direct opponent of Penn's for the first 200 pages, simply disappeared for the rest of the book. Tom Cage, too was prominent, only to take a back seat role later during an inexplicable journey with his buddy. Good thing said buddy was a superman, and also that Penn had a buddy that was a superman, since buddy supermen are a mandatory cliche in innocent guy thrillers these days.
Tom Cage, Sleepy, and the Crusading Reporter undergo miraculous personality changes in the final pages, each 180 degrees from what they had previously done for decades. This is a little untenable.
The ending left too many dangling threads. I get that this is just set up for book two, but there are just too many loose ends to dump on the reader after they have endured 800 pages.
I hate to be negative, but this book was just a miss, and since it's book one in a trilogy, I know I'll take a pass on the next two.
I know I disagree with others, but I have to give this book the lowest rating. Not that it's necessarily the worst book ever, but that I know Iles is capable of much much better.
on July 11, 2014
I really was looking forward to this book, my husband and I have enjoyed all of Greg Iles work and the Penn Cage series in particular. What a disappointment. I can't even begin to say what was the biggest disappointment 1) that the entire book was full of heinously violent scenes 2) that these scenes were repeated over and over 3) I love word pictures, but several descriptions were overly done to the point of being tedious 4) that the major sub-plot was so far fetched that it was ludicrous... one group wants to take credit for the murders of JJFK, RKF and MLK Jr.? come -on!!or 5) that the book was set recent post-Katrina to give Mr. Iles a platform for his political pontifications OR finally that the major plot nor any of the sub-plots were resolved after 800+ pages. I know this is a trilogy, but it seems like he simply quit writing ... or maybe he exceeded the word limit for the Kindle :).
This is with out a doubt one of the worst books I've ever read. I wish there was a "zero star" category! Why, you may ask, if it was that terrible did I continue reading. The answer is simply that I was waiting for it to get better and I was so wrong, don't waste your time!
on October 11, 2015
An exploration into the fragile, unbreakable relationship of father and son as well as our perception vs the actuality of how well we know our parents when harbored secrets and history threaten to reveal more than we ever imagined.
I enjoyed Penn, he's attempting to figure out who his father is with great trepidation. Hesitantly Penn plunges in and starts and stalls as startling information about his father comes to light, mustering strength Penn digs deeper and deeper. You can understand Penn's concern, his surprise, simultaneously struggling with disappointment and hope as he is seeing his father differently than his original perception lead him to believe.
Although I am a Penn fan there are so many others equally as captivating. Henry Sexton, Albert Norris and Caitlin Masters. Royal, Knox, Thornton evil doers you can't wait to see pay for their heinous misdeeds.
As much as I found myself absorbed in the story, I had to pause on several occasions. The brutality was disturbing, a sad stain in history for our country, you find yourself reflecting on the past and present questioning how much has changed and how far we still have to go. The violence inflicted was downright depressing forcing me to close the book until my emotions were in check before I could continue. Iles is one masterful storyteller, obvious from the affect he produced upon me. Powerful scenes, disgusting people, innocents suffered.
Iles creates an amazing mystery with loads of historical references, the setting pulls you into the south and its environs and culture. You will not be bored, rather you will find yourself enthralled with the characters and all that's unearthed. The ending is perfect, you'll want to continue with the trilogy to see where Iles takes us as well as his memorable characters in the incredible journey. I rarely read series, this is clearly an exception as I anxiously await the next installment.
on August 29, 2014
This book was bad. Tedious. Every black person was noble and good. Every white person was a redneck racist, except for Penn. Black women were lusty and much better than any white woman could hope to ever be. White men lusted for them night and day. I just got so sick of it, but continued to the very end, even though I had to put it down for a month. Someone has a Mandingo fetish, in my opinion. Or is on drugs? I wasn't expecting true literature, but it would have been nice to have a real ending. Who killed Viola? Did Dr. Cage and his friend make it home alive? Who fathered Viola's son? Who likes this crap? If you want to read a good book, buy John Sandford or Sue Grafton. Just my opinion. I read a lot of books.
on May 30, 2014
This would have been so much richer if it had held true to the story as it most closely touched Penn's family/.But instead the author - and I am usually a big fan- went round and round and round, bringing in side stories, introducing new story lines that add little, repeating the reasons for outrage and heartbreak and while mucking about in the grim civil rights history of the south. some of it is just too far fetched -- local fellas claiming to have shot JFK and MLK. Some of it might work, especially story line involving the work of the courageous local reporter, but it's all compromised by the need to bring in the journalistic competition, which just happens to be Penn's fiance. And no one ever gets anything into print. They were all too busy jawboning and debating who should do what. the book's too long, not often a complaint of mine. There are
great gallumping sections involving long speeches (those info dumps) where one poor soul's role was only to say, "Did he, eh? And then what?" and ours was only to slog along hoping to get through it. Layer on some pretty horrific violence, past and present, and it's a trial. this book. There's no upside to the story, even to reward you for your long, difficult journey. This is a trilogy I think I'll be forced to skip. I wish I thought the next two books will be stronger, but I just don't.