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New Jersey Authors: Harlan Coben

Did you have a favorite plush toy or blanket that you’d drag along with you everywhere as a child? Familiarity provides comfort and reduces the anxiety we are bound to develop during our hectic, ever-changing lives. Why not extend the idea of reading New Jersey authors for summer fun to the entire year? Rutgers University Libraries, including our recreational reading collection, offer plenty of choices.

One of our guest authors at Summer Tales was acclaimed author and professor Joyce Carol Oates, who lives in Princeton. We also dedicated a post to Judy Blume. The featured author in our guide to this collection is the ultimate New Jersey author. Harlan Coben was born in Newark and raised in Livingston, and still lives in New Jersey with his wife and four children.

My first encounter with Harlan Coben’s books created unfounded expectations for me. It happened more than fifteen years ago that my husband picked up the latest novel written by his favorite New Jersey author from a Barnes & Noble shelf, right next to the latest issue of the periodical Weird N. J. If you have ever seen a copy of this magazine, you’ll know what I mean. With a goal of recording odd stuff people think and remember happening in their town, stories about UFOs and Bigfoot sightings alternate with locations such as underground tunnels, sewer drains, haunted old houses, and graveyards.

Obviously, I expected monsters, mystery, dark humor, and other tools of the trade of the fantasy genre from a title on the same shelf and was hesitant to start reading. However, the book was nowhere near weird. Instead, it brought me some kind of comfort resulting from the neighborly locations featured in the book from our state, New Jersey. I immediately loved how the author turned up familiarity to 11.

cover artIt might have been one of his earlier books, featuring the character of Myron Bolitar, a former basketball player and sports agent, who brings his wisdom to his new profession as a sleuth, but the actual title is completely beside the point. More important is the fact that I was hooked, I got caught up in the story, and found a new way to escape. Side note: Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III, his sidekick, has just returned as protagonist in a recent Coben-book, Win.

I wonder if it’s the familiarity with the setting and locations, speech patterns and objects, roads and diners, is what makes us like reading local authors, whether they are good or not so good. Of course, the dilemma has nothing to do with Harlan Coben, whose incredibly well-written books appeal to all kinds of audiences inside and outside New Jersey. One can pick up any of his books, without any specific order, and is doomed to binge on Coben’s New Jersey-set mysteries.

Fast forward to the first of what seems to be a new series, The Boy from the Woods. What unfolds is a heartbreaking story of a little boy who grew up alone, away from his family, away from people, literally in the woods in the Ramapo Mountains. When the boy, whom they now call Wilde, appeared one day out of nowhere, he had no memory of how he got there, how old he might be, or what happened to his mother and father if he ever had them. He supported himself by breaking into houses and foraging for food wherever it was available, as we find out thirty years later in the story, when he still doesn’t know where he comes from.

It’s the familiarity with his surroundings that can comfort him. Bright and creative, Wilde prefers loneliness in his super cool, remote, but technology-enhanced “hut,” more like an aerospace capsule in the woods. When famous TV lawyer Hester Crimstein asks him to help find a missing local girl, Wilde mobilizes his unique skills. Whether they will be enough to prevail against professional villains and their acts, contemporary politics, and whatever else Wilde discovers during the process, these skills captivate the reader. Similar to a previous post about placing a story in the wild, although the woods of New Jersey serve as merely the backdrop, they are integral to the story, mimicking feelings and perspectives, for an exciting, suspenseful read.

In the sequel, entitled The Match, Wilde returns as a non-conforming adult, still in search of his true roots. When an unexpected DNA match in an online database seems to brings him closer to his past, he tracks down his father only to get disappointed and overwhelmed with more questions. As he is getting more and more involved in a present-day case, a disappearance and presumed suicide, he is the first to discover the links between present and past, resulting in an attention-grabbing murder mystery. The relationship among DNA-relatives leaves a lot to speculate, especially for the less science-minded, but the story is captivating enough to get over it, unlike inaccurate or inconsistent locale details in a story – which doesn’t seem to occur in Coben’s novels.

A character I absolutely loved in the two books is Hester Crimstein, who shows up in a more central role than in Coben’s previous novels. A criminal defense lawyer, she serves as the mother figure to Wilde. Her son, David, died in a car accident that has something to do with Wilde, as we find out later, and her daughter is secretly involved with Wilde. She is fond of her grandson, but she is not your average grandma …

If there’s such a word as “unputdownable,” which seems to be the case according to the wisdom of the internet and reputable dictionaries alike, Coben’s books all belong under that label, or even #unputdownable. I can’t wait to find out if these last two novels signal a new series.