Tag Archives: John Grisham

Something’s Gotta Give

Simple (nook book)

Simple: A Mystery by Kathleen George (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 322 pages)

Simple is not only a really well-crafted police procedural mystery; it is also the story of a mother’s love and her son’s gentle nature. Cal, who has been a victim all his life, is accused of the brutal murder of Cassie, a newly-minted attorney who has bought a house in a less-than-desirable part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cal seems to be more than a bit simple; however, considering the battering he endured over the years by bullies, he is remarkably able to quietly work as a handyman on neighborhood homes including Cassie’s.

There are times when she studies the shoes and hair and clothing of the people who come to the Connolly house and tries to figure out what about these things costs so much money. The black dresses she will see tonight, the sundresses, the sandals with decorative knots or jewels, cost a month’s salary. But she’s not always sure these things are pretty, that’s what bothers her.

Elinor, a woman with mixed racial blood, works for a wealthy man with high political ambitions. She diligently runs the Connolly household year in and year out, first for the senior Mr. Connolly and then for his son. Her son Cal, who has passed for white all his life, is the center of her world. She has unwavering love for him even when he is considered the prime suspect in Cassie’s murder.

Cal’s being a victim may seem like a sure segue to anger and violence. Main police characters, Detective Colleen Greer and Commander Richard Christie are willing to look past the obvious and consider alternative scenarios. The racial issues that are a considerable factor in this tale are particularly relevant with 2012 having been an election year. The aspects in this tale are about mixed race folks (like President Obama) rather than black vs. white tension. There are strong contrasts presented in Simple and relationships aren’t what they appear to be on first glimpse.

Author Kathleen George peels back the twisted layers of her story to reveal an undercurrent that is full of evil. Her book is sort of like a John Grisham work, but not really. It has more of an old-fashioned Dragnet approach, not so dramatic, rather, simple.

How shallow life is, that because nature handed her physical beauty, she should have such power.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “If anyone’s writing better police thrillers than George, (we) don’t know who it is.” Entertainment Weekly

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Everyday I Write the Book

“Things in life are both big and small in equal proportion.”   The New York Chronicle

“Suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that is often used by book reviewers, and when it is, it’s usually not good news.   When someone states that they could not suspend their disbelief, it means that the story they were reading (or the film they were watching) never felt real.   I don’t know about others, but when I begin to read a fictional work that does not feel real, I get a mental picture of the writer in question at a computer struggling to figure out the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter…  The choppy feeling of a not-quite-true creation overwhelms the potentially positive experience of encountering a new world.

I suspect that it’s hardest for someone to suspend their disbelief when they’re reading a novel about the very world that they inhabit.   Let’s say, for example, that I was to write a novel about a major, fictional rock star.   I think that actual rock musicians would be the toughest critics as they likely would find the story to be too “over-the-top” (not every rock band tears up hotel rooms), or find that it failed to reflect the tedium of life on the road.   Most likely, a musician would want to find a story that he or she could relate to – one that would equally balance the drama and boring aspects of the professional music maker’s life.   And, he or she would want to read a story in which – as in life – what comes next is never predictable.

My experience of having worked in many aspects of the criminal justice system may explain why it is usually the hardest for me to locate the supposed realism in courtroom dramas and crime novels.   I usually find fault from two different perspectives.   Firstly, these novels often start off with plot lines that are far too tricky; too many authors seem to have been influenced by the shenanigans of John Grisham, who seems to need overly complicated and unrealistic stories to grab the reader’s interest.   The same is true for the too-clever endings inspired by another successful writer, Scott Turow.

The plot for these books often centers around something that’s not going to happen – like the killing of a major U.S. senator’s wife (at a time when the senator just happens to be having an affair).   But most of what goes on in the criminal justice system is not so dramatic.   If I were to attempt to write a book about the average case, it might involve a young man who has experienced numerous small scrapes with the law before some friends encourage him to ride along with them on a lark.   It’s during this ride that someone gets killed and our young man – being the only one with a criminal history – takes the fall.   Yes, I know, many publishers would think this is relatively dull stuff, but as John Lennon used to say, “…that’s reality.”

The second issue I have with these novels is that despite the dramatic plots, the characters often seem to be cut from cardboard.   They’re pretty lifeless compared to the often big personalities that inhabit the criminal justice system.   There are public prosecutors who wear $1,000 suits and drive cars meant for millionaires.   There are prosecutors and public defenders who don’t necessarily love their co-workers, and some prosecutors and public defenders have been known to have a drink together.   Some deputy district attorneys don’t always get along with law enforcement officers.   In other words, life in the halls of justice and the courtrooms is a bit messier than it’s portrayed in the latest crime novel.   It’s also certainly not as “clean” as a typical episode of Law and Order.

I think what’s forgotten is that these are real human beings, with great strengths and corresponding flaws; and they live and work in an imperfect world, a somewhat less than perfect criminal justice system.

What’s the moral of this article?   Simply that I’d love to see criminal justice system-based fiction that tones down the overly dramatic plots while raising the volume on the unique individuals who make their living within the law.   Is there a writer who gets the characters right?   Yes, I’m glad you asked…  Interestingly, former prosecutor Marcia Clark (Guilt By Degrees, Guilt By Association) seems to portray some very realistic figures in her novels, although she cloaks them in the guise of sarcasm and humor.   Still, it’s a start and want-to-be crime novelists would do well to read her work, and/or spend some actual time with the prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, and policemen and policewomen who work very tough jobs that are so very rarely accurately portrayed.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Guilt By Degrees: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books).   One courtroom drama that was highly recommended by this site is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton (Minotaur Books, $19.99, 368 pages); also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

This article is one in a periodic series called Turn The Page.

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Bang Bang

Gun Games: A Decker/Lazarus Novel by Faye Kellerman (William Morrow, $25.99, 375 pages)

“She kissed his shoulder.   He was a ball of coiled muscle.   ‘I’m sorry.’   She kissed his shoulder and he felt a tear drop onto his skin.”

Enter a new generation of characters for the charming and endearing series about Rina Lazarus and Pete Decker written by Faye Kellerman.   Now that the older children have been launched into the adult world, Uber-parents Rina and Pete are devoting time and energy to Gabriel Whitman, the son of acquaintances with Las Vegas mob connections.   Gabe is a 15-year-old piano prodigy who studies with a professor at the University of Southern California – Fight On!!!

Gabe has been invited to live with the Deckers until he is ready to head off to college.   This is a desirable placement for all concerned, what with his dad being a gangster and his  mom having run off to faraway lands to have someone else’s baby.   Some of his time is spent at the private school where Rina’s two sons by her first husband were students.   The school provides a suicide victim, Gregory Hesse, a student whose mother refuses to believe he took his own life.   The investigation centers on the weapon used in the suicide or murder.   It seems that there are students at the school who are fixated on guns.

The twist to this plot is Ms. Kellerman’s use of a passionate love/youthful romance between Gabe and a 14-year-old girl, Yasmine, the daughter of devout, observant Jews.   This sets up a bit of a culture clash that is the reason for a whole lot of sneaking around and trysting at the local coffee shop.   The detailed scenes of their passion border on kiddie porn and this reviewer often felt like it was a bit too much.

The story moves slowly for the first two-thirds of the book and the tale is spread among many characters; Pete, his co-workers, the kid’s parents and a few guest appearances by Rina.   The gears of the story finally engage and the last third reads more like a John Grisham novel of years ago.

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Gun Games is also available as an Audible Audio Edition, and as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.

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Prince of the City

The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, $26.95, 352 pages)

“I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone…”   Bruce Springsteen

Cristina Alger’s debut novel is to Wall Street and corrupt investments what Robert Daley’s Prince of the City was to corruption inside New York City’s criminal justice system; and it makes just about as powerful a statement about contemporary life in this country.   This is a story about New York’s monetary elite (the One Percent) and about Greed with a capital g.    It’s a frightening tale about a place in which people equate money with love – in which money is, quite simply, the most important thing in the world.

As the novel opens, financier Morty Reis has killed himself.   Reis, a figure apparently based on Bernie Madoff, is an outside manager for Delphic, the investment company hedge fund run by the powerful billionaire Carter Darling.   (“The Frederick Fund, Delphic’s only single-strategy fund, had 98 percent of its assets invested with Reis Capital Management…  Morty was a brilliant investor.”)   The problem, as Darling’s son-in-law Paul Ross soon finds out, is that Reis Capital Management was a Ponzi scheme and Delphic’s clients stand to lose billions of dollars.   Ross, in need of a job after being pushed out of the Manhattan law firm he worked for, learns this sad truth soon after becoming the head of Delphic’s legal team.   He’s barely had a cup of coffee before learning that the SEC is on the phone.

It’s a Grisham-like  opening but Alger, who has worked as both a financial analyst (Goldman, Sachs, & Co.) and white glove firm attorney, quickly steers the action to the fiscal side.   And she exposes the reader to the rough underbelly of life in the top stratum of New York high society – a class in which a small Manhattan apartment goes for $1 million with grossly high monthly maintenance fees, tuition for one child at a private school runs $34,000 per year, a summer rental in the Hamptons goes for $100,000, and SAT tutors ask for $1,000 an hour.   “Who had the stomach to run these kinds of numbers?   For even the very rich, this sort of daily calculus required a steely nerve…  a ruthless will to succeed.   (Carter’s daughter) Merrill would see schoolchildren on Park Avenue, golden-haired cherubim in pinafores and Peter Pan collars, and she would think: Those are the offspring of killers.”

Merrill is soon to find that her father is the most ruthless of the outlaws on The Street – a man who hides behind opulence – and his actions may have doomed not only his own livelihood and reputation, but also those of Paul and Merrill.   “Carter Darling was hard to miss for anyone who read the financial news.”   The strong-chinned, patrician Darling is presented as a man who possesses some of the personality traits of both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.   He’s proud of his success (Merrill refuses to give up her maiden name when she marries Ross) but God only knows what he’d be without his hundreds of millions of dollars…  His wife knows that he sees her as little more than a cash drain, “an extra person on the payroll.”

To her credit, Alger permits us to examine a legal system in which cheap, easy quick wins are valued more than prosecutions that can achieve social and economic justice.   For today we live in a world in which billionaires can outspend local, state and federal agencies in the courtroom.   When justice has been turned upside down – and the accused control the process – it’s all about the plea agreement, the deal.   (Financial wheelers and dealers are extremely proficient at fashioning the deals that benefit themselves the most.)

The reader knows that Paul Ross, aided by his legally-trained wife Merrill, and an investigative reporter looking into Delphic are going to have to make some hard moral choices before the story comes to an end.   The same is true for the near-omnipotent (if flawed) Carter Darling.   Alger cleverly ties together two plot lines at the conclusion of this stunning debut novel in a way that’s not foreseen before the final chapters.  

Who wins in the end – the white hats or the black hats?   You will need to read The Darlings to find out.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Darlings will be released on Monday, February 20, 2012.

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Nowhere to Run

The Insider by Reece Hirsch (Berkley Books; $7.99; 330 pages)

Reece Hirsch employs a confident narrator’s voice to draw in the reader in this, his debut mystery novel.   What seems to be a nice change of pace with opening scenes devoid of terror, soon shifts as a startling event culminates in a gruesome death.

The main character is Will Connelly, an aspiring fourth-year associate with a prestigious San Francisco law firm.   Will’s gullibility may be alarming to the reader.   He has a very promising future with the firm; however, for a fellow being considered for an equity partnership, Will’s short on street smarts.   Perhaps that failing can be attributed to four 2,400 plus billable hour years?   His dedication to work has left him without a steady girlfriend.   Will’s decision to go out and, on a whim, fall into a barroom pickup may just be a way to let off steam.   Questionable actions like this create not-so-subtle plot turns and complications.

The shifting story tempo continues as two Russian gangster-wannabes and the negotiations for a super-big Silicone Valley acquisition vie for the reader’s attention.   The notions of lurking threats, pain and criminal charges keep Will off-balance for the duration of the story.

Hirsch makes the city of San Francisco serve as the backdrop for the book’s action.   A trip to Silicone Valley and an outing on the bay round out the list of locations visited.   There is rarely a moment of downtime as the plot ensnares more characters.   Ironically, the Russian gangsters and the attorneys are portrayed as complex folks who want to climb the ladder of success and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

“With his immaculate gray suit and perfectly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, he looked as if he had been genetically engineered to make board presentations.”

The Insider joins a group of this reviewer’s favorite novels that make San Francisco their home.   The other two books are Death in North Beach by Ronald Tierney and Jessica Z by Shawn Klomparens.

This book is highly recommended as an entertaining Grisham-like look at the pressures of corporate law practice.   Let’s hope most mergers and acquisitions are not as painful!

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the author.

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Win Blind Man’s Alley

Thanks to Judy at Doubleday, we have a copy to give away of Blind Man’s Alley: A Novel by Justin Peacock, the author of A Cure for Night.   This book has a retail value of $26.95 and this is a first-run hardbound copy.   The novel is said to be “an ambitious and compulsively readable novel set in the cutthroat world of New York real estate.”   Here is the official synopsis:

A concrete floor three hundred feet up in the Aurora Tower condo development in SoHo has collapsed, hurling three workers to their deaths.   The developer, Roth Properties (owned by the famously abrasive Simon Roth), faces a vast tangle of legal problems, including accusations of mob connections.   Roth’s longtime lawyers, the elite midtown law firm of Blake and Wolcott, is assigned the task of cleaning up the mess.   Much of the work lands on the plate of smart, cynical, and seasoned associate Duncan Riley; as a result, he falls into the powerful orbit of Leah Roth, the beautiful daughter of Simon Roth and the designated inheritor of his real estate empire.

Meanwhile, Riley pursues a seemingly small pro bono case in which he attempts to forestall the eviction of Rafael Nazario and his grandmother from public housing in the wake of a pot bust.   One night Rafael is picked up and charged with the murder of the private security cop who caught him, a murder that took place in another controversial “mixed income” housing development being built by…  Roth Properties.   Duncan Riley is now walking the knife-edge of legal ethics and personal morality.

Blind Man’s Alley is a suspenseful and kaleidoscopic journey through a world where the only rule is self-preservation.   The New York Times Book Review said of A Cure for Night that “(Peacock) heads toward Scott Turow country…  he’s got a good chance to make partner.”

In order to enter this book giveaway contest just post a comment here, with your name and e-mail address, or send that information via e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will be considered to be your first entry.   For a second entry, tell us who your favorite crime or courtroom drama author is – Scott Turow, John Grisham, Steve Martini, Julie Compton, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Rotenberg of Canada (City Hall), John Verdon (Think of a Number), David Baldacci or someone else?

You have until midnight PST on Sunday, October 10, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   The winner will be drawn by Munchy the cat and will be contacted via e-mail.   In order to enter this contest you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P.O. box or a business-related address.

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!    

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Freedom Rules

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham (Kaplan)

“Mario’s case was my personal salvation…”

This is a nonfiction story of a person finding freedom.   Initially, it appears to be the story of one Mario Rocha, convicted of a murder in the Los Angeles area and sentenced to life in prison.   But it is actually the story of Ian Graham, a lawyer who worked for five years in the white shoe law firm of Latham Watkins.   Graham was one of a class of 47 first-year associates hired by the L.A. firm.   Only three of them remained working there after five years.

Graham’s telling of the overwrought work environment at Latham Watkins brings John Grisham’s The Associate to real life.   Experienced and new attorneys find themselves pulling all-nighters, sometimes wearing the same clothes for three days.   Much of the work involves looking through truckloads of documents, and responding to interrogatories in major corporate litigation cases.   Graham comes to see that he is “simply unsuited” to working in this environment, where one’s professional life is dedicated to “resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.”

To Graham’s good fortune, Latham is committed to pro bono work.   “Pro bono public – for the public good – is a tradition of the legal profession focused on the idea that every lawyer should devote at least a portion of his or her time to representing indigent clients or worthy causes for free.”   The young attorney Graham volunteers to work with two senior, experienced attorneys on the case of The People vs. Mario Rocha.

At 16, Rocha attended a night-time party that was crashed by at least two gang members.   A young man who was celebrating his college admission was killed that night.   This happened at a time when there was pressure from all levels (federal, state and local) for the City of L.A. to do something about its gang problems.   The two shooters are identified pretty quickly, but Rocha is also arrested after being identified in a photo lineup by attendees of the party.

There are multiple issues with the evidence against Rocha, but he is nevertheless arrested and charged with homicide.   He is tried with the two known gang members, the presumption being (although Graham argues that it was never proven at the trial) that he was also a gang member.   Rocha’s family members are confident that he’ll be acquitted, but they hire an attorney with minimal experience who devotes just eight hours of preparation to Mario’s defense.   As a result, Rocha is convicted by a jury and sentenced to life behind bars.

This is the background to the events covered in Unbillable Hours.   Graham finds himself driving to Calipatria State Prison to meet with Rocha and, surprisingly, discovers that he’s developed a “goddamned conscience.”   In other words, he’s found a cause that offers rewards greater than the mega bucks he’s getting at Latham (where the garage houses so many new Mercedes and BMW automobiles that it is said to look like a German automobile dealership).   But overturning a criminal conviction in California is virtually impossible, so Graham’s going to have to move Heaven and Earth to do so.   They also may need a miracle, which comes in the form of a Catholic nun’s efforts.

It’s no surprise that Mario Rocha is eventually freed, and this telling of how that is accomplished is fascinating.   Yet, again, Unbillable Hours is more about Graham than it is about Rocha.   When Graham initially visits Rocha at Calipatria he begins to ponder what a “loss of freedom” means.   He also comes to see that Rocha is a very intelligent young man who was not privileged to get the same breaks in life as Graham, the son of a lawyer.

This reviewer had just two concerns with this nonfiction account.   Although most of the story is told in layman’s terms, there are times when the language will be difficult for a typical reader to follow:  “It is clear no witness exists who could have proven Petitioner’s innocence as he claimed.   The testimony failed to raise credible evidence of Petitioner’s innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.”   Yes, this is language from a court document, an order, but it would have been well to translate it into simpler terms.

Graham also fails to ascribe the best of motives to the actions of prosecutors and others in this account.   Prosecutors must act on the information gathered and provided to them by law enforcement and/or their own investigators.   In general, they are very talented and skilled individuals who do not work to get rich.   (Graham, by his own admission, did not know how to draft motions when he became involved in the Rocha case.)   It may have been beneficial to have included an addendum giving the assigned prosecutors a chance to express their views and perspectives on this case.

Mario Rocha today is an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.   Ian Graham is experiencing a different kind of freedom, speaking at law schools and to public defenders.   He no longer makes a six-figure salary, but he is unshackled enough to “see a world and a life beyond the confines” of a large corporate law firm.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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