Did you know that this James is a brother of Jesus? James was also the bishop of Jerusalem. Initially James had rejected his brother Jesus as the Messiah. But following his resurrection, Jesus appeared to James and they had a little chat. Life was never the same for James after that.
What is unique about James' letter is its strong Jewish feel to it. The letter is addressed to the twelve tribes of Israel - this is in contrast to Paul's letters, which are addressed to mostly Gentiles. Reading James' letter is a different experience then reading Paul's, and interesting enough, it seems that James' letter tends to be more popular and more often a favorite then any of Paul's letters.
James is writing about a very Jewish Christianity. His background is thoroughly Hebrew, and his conversion to Jesus did not change his background. Paul was a Hebrew as well as James, but Paul seemed to be influenced by much more Greek philosophy and Roman law then James. James hits on key themes with direct force: don't play favorites between rich and poor; ask for wisdom without doubting, suffering leads to righteousness, etc. These are themes taken right out of the Old Testament.
The major theme of James is not about faith and works. The major theme of James is about true religion: taking care of the widows and orphans. The suffering referred to at the beginning of the chapter is a reference to the hard times that the poor endure at the hands of the greedy and wealthy. Faith and works is stressed as a motivation for Christians to take care of the poor. As you read James 1, think hard about what he has to say about favoritism, true religion and holiness. How true is your religion. Be slow to speak/answer....