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Book Review: ‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham July 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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I’ve always been interested in the massive global phenomenon that is Mr John Grisham, and despite my disappointment with The Associate and relative disappointment with The Firm, I decided to check out Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.

Grisham names the novel as one of his favourites, and most people have told me it’s one of his best.  And I think it has one heck of a premise — a young black girl is brutally raped by two racist rednecks, the girl’s father seeks retribution, and a predominantly white Mississippi community deals with its aftermath.  Caught in the middle is a young, brash criminal defense lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance (a character Grisham admits was modelled on himself).

Lots of stuff happens in this book, which is ultimately a courtroom drama/thriller centred around this very provocative premise.  Would you do the same thing if it happened to your child?  Would the jury convict?  Would you vote to convict if you were on the jury?  Those are the types of questions Grisham keeps asking throughout the story.

Grisham paints the fictional town of Clanton (also used in a later book, The Last Juror) extremely well.  There is a whole cast of characters, with almost a couple being introduced every chapter, and many of them are memorable and well-developed, especially the town sheriff Ozzie, the trial judge Noose, the obnoxious DA Buckley and Jake’s mentor Lucien.  A number of minor characters also have their moments.

A Time to Kill is a very good read, but not a great one.  The opening chapters sucked me into the world of the story but every now and then throughout the 500+ pages there were times when I lost interest in the narrative.  The strengths are the characters (good to see Jake Brigance has his own agenda and isn’t acting out of the kindness of his heart) and the moments of tension — either from the trial itself or the occasional threat of physical danger.  However, as Grisham admitted himself in the book’s introduction, he does waffle on far too much about things that didn’t need to be.

Like many first novels, A Time to Kill could have been pared back a lot more to speed up the pace, especially considering that the actual trial itself does not commence until almost four-fifths of the way through the book.  I felt some parts could have been condensed (the pointless, sometimes repetitive chatter) while others (such as the trial testimonies and jury deliberations) could have been drawn out more.  It’s a shame because with better plotting and pacing it could have been unputdownable.

As for the moral debate in the book — I had to keep reminding myself that it was originally published in 1989 and that a small, predominantly white town in Mississippi where the KKK still roamed is a completely different world to the one I know.  With that in mind I think Grisham handled it rather well.

Ultimately, A Time to Kill is the best Grisham fiction novel I’ve read thus far, but it still fell short of the lofty expectations I had for it, given its reputation and the premise.  Now, which Grisham book should I tackle next?

3.75 out of 5!

PS: I first had a look at A Time to Kill when I was in a Border’s book store (back when they still existed in Australia) and read the author’s introduction, where Grisham discusses his fondness of his debut novel.  It took him three years to complete it while still working as a lawyer (an amazing feat in itself), but didn’t gain success until The Firm became a bestseller.  It’s an inspirational story I continue to use to push myself down the writer’s path.

PPS: I can’t believe I still haven’t seen the 1996 movie based on the book.  Might be my Matthew McConaughey aversion.  I’ll have to check it out.

Book Review: John Grisham’s “The Associate” February 21, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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John Grisham's new "legal thriller"

John Grisham's new "legal thriller"

John Grisham’s latest legal thriller “The Associate” tells the story of young hotshot law student, Kyle McAvoy, who is blackmailed by a clandestine organisation to infiltrate the biggest law firm in the world, Scully & Pershing, to steal some highly confidential information involved in a multi-billion dollar law suit. 

Sounds like a ripper, right?  That’s what I thought when I rushed out to buy the book.  However, I was left disappointed.  Deeply disappointed.  Allow me to explain.

How I found out about the book

“The Associate” was first brought to my attention via an article emailed to me by my best mate, a fellow lawyer who’s slaving away in Biglaw (the colloquial term for big, multinational, nasty law firms) in New York.  In the article, Grisham plugs his new novel, which he claims is very critical of life in Biglaw.  Grisham has no sympathy for young people who sign their lives away to such firms, working around the clock under immense pressure, often leaving their partners, families and morals at the door.  These people know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, Grisham says.  There are plenty of websites and blogs out there that detail the plethora of horror stories at Biglaw.  He’s proud of his currently unemployed son who turned down lucrative Biglaw offers to find work that will help real people.  Grisham even hired a research assistant to spend a year in Biglaw to find out what life is really like under the promise of anonymity – which led to interesting results.

As someone who struggled through 3 years at a big law firm himself (and may return to it), you can understand how I would have been intrigued by “The Associate”.  After all, everything the book seemed to be about connected with me.  I had seen plenty of movies adapted from Grisham’s novels, but I had only read his non-fiction work “The Innocent Man”, which I felt was pretty good.  I’m working on my first novel myself and Grisham’s sold over 250 million books worldwide, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity for me to learn from the master.

How was it?

And so I went and bought the book and jumped right in.  I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot (any more than the first sentence of this post), but what I will say is that the novel was surprisingly flat.  You find out right at the start about the blackmail and what it was about.  You spend the rest of the book following the young protagonist as he deals with the demands of work, his blackmailers, his father and friends.  You keep expecting something exciting to happen.  Things will pick up any second now and it’ll turn into a real page-turner, you tell yourself.  Brace yourself for unexpected plot twists.  Expectations, expectations, expectations.  But before I knew it, the book was finished.  None of the expectations were fulfilled.

Huh?  That was it?

I flipped the pages again just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had finished reading the novel…and nothing happened.  The entire book was a build up towards nothing.  There wasn’t really a climax.  A few things happened here and there, but there was no big climatic finish, no dramatic twist – just a stern message to stay away from Biglaw.  And that was it.

As I said, I had never read Grisham’s fiction novels before, so there is nothing I can compare it to.  The guy is a good story-teller rather than a good writer.  He tells you what happens more often than he shows you.  He shoots the narrative at you.  It’s almost like reading a report at times.  A good report, but a report nonetheless.  Leaving aside how ridiculous and improbable the plot is (which I don’t generally have a problem with), I can only assume that “The Associate” was an anomaly.  Surely he could not have sold 250 million copies with this type of novel. 

Maybe I should read more of Grisham’s earlier works.  Any suggestions?

Depiction of Biglaw culture

As expected, “The Associate” was extremely critical of life in Biglaw.  I just didn’t expect the novel to be more of a critique of Biglaw life than a legal thriller.  Grisham squeezed in all the “unbelievable but true” stories, painting the most negative picture possible of Biglaw life, including (off the top of my head):

  • working ridiculous hours on end (eg 100 hour weeks), no sleep for days, sleeping under the desk, ridiculous stress, collapsing from exhaustion
  • partners from hell that demand the associate’s every waking hour, torture associates by making them to stay up all night doing pointless work, make up their time sheets and sleep with their secretaries and subordinates
  • inter-office sex and drug scandals
  • the absurdity of billing at 6 minute intervals
  • overbilling clients with outrageous charge-out rates, charging hundreds/thousands of dollars for mundane work like photocopying, charging clients for expensive lunches/dinners unrelated to work
  • having to defend immoral clients that make the world a worse place
  • how the big law firms suck in promising talent with shining promises then turn them into slaves
  • how most new associates leave or burn out within the first few years

The list goes on and on, but you get the point.

As a former (and possibly returning) lawyer in a big law firm, I had heard of all the horror stories, and even experienced quite a few myself.  Working until at least 3am for four consecutive Friday nights was one.  Developing a stress-induced skin condition was another.  A classic was a partner who billed over 430 hours in a single month – while pregnant (that’s over 14 hours a day even if you work every single day of a 30-day month).

However, as told through “The Associate”, I didn’t find it effective or compelling.  Perhaps it was Grisham’s overly preachy tone.  He rams it down your throat without subtlety.  Biglaw is big, bad and evil, and that was that.  Everything was black and white.  Good lawyers help needy people; greedy lawyers and stupid lawyers go to Biglaw.  Or maybe it was the way in which he wrote it, report-like and lacking in true, heart-felt emotion.  Yeah, we know Kyle hated his job, but the lack of underlying emotion and detail made it difficult to put yourself in his shoes.  We know he was feeling dreadful but we don’t feel his dread.

Strangely, despite agreeing with all the negative things about Biglaw, I found myself wanting to defend it while reading “The Associate”.  I wanted to tell Grisham that it’s not ALL bad.  You get to work with insanely clever people, good people with a wealth of knowledge and experience, people who’ve made a positive difference to the world in varying ways; make great friends who stick with you through tough times; and occasionally, you might even do some work you find interesting and rewarding. 

Just because Grisham’s heard and read about all the bad things in Biglaw (and I’ve experienced much of it) doesn’t mean it’s an unworthy or stupid career path.  While I don’t think I’m personally cut out for it, it doesn’t mean that other people aren’t.  I’ve met lawyers who are genuinely in love with their jobs, don’t mind working the hours, get pumped at the challenge of complex transactions and difficult clients, have a true passion for the law.  These people are made for Biglaw.  I’m not one of them, but they exist.  I dislike Biglaw, but other’s don’t have to.  I just think it’s a disservice to the profession and an unfair portrayal of Biglaw and its lawyers.

I would be interested to hear how people who aren’t in law perceived the story, whether they found it fascinating or if they had a similar view.

Alcoholism

“The Associate” also contained a story arc dealing with alcoholism.  I don’t want to go into this too much, but it was a little strange.  It fits into the overall story but I couldn’t figure out why it was there or whether it made the story any better.  It was pretty stock-standard stuff, and like Grisham’s depiction of Biglaw, it was also too preachy for my liking.

[Update: this arc may have been based on a true story about a college student who got drunk and did some bad things (similar to the novel); he then went into AA and one of his steps was to apologise to people he had wronged, which he did, but it led to him being arrested and charged.  I won’t say what it was for because that would reveal too much plot.]

The movie adaptation

Shia Lebouf will be Kyle McAvoy

Shia Lebouf will be Kyle McAvoy

Apparently, Shia Lebouf (of Transformers, Disturbia and Indiana Jones 4 fame) has already been signed to play Kyle McAvoy in the movie adaptation of “The Associate.”  I must say, I can see him in that role.  He doesn’t strike me as a particularly clever guy, but I can definitely see him playing a young lawyer with street smarts.  Much of the dialogue almost seemed like it was written with him in mind – dry, scarcastic and sharp.  I think he’ll do a credible job.

However, a movie version of “The Associate” needs a lot of work.  I can already see them changing a lot of the plot in order to make things more intruiging and exciting.  If the story simply runs like the novel, it will be an incredibly boring movie to watch.

The verdict

My first Grisham fiction novel was ultimately a big disappointment.  The story had potential, as did the characters, but for some strange reason, the book never took off like I expected it too.  It started well but rolled on lethargically until a lazy finish.  Fans of Grisham will no doubt lap this up, but unless they see something I don’t, they are likely to be disappointed.  “The Associate” plays out more like a fable preaching against Biglaw than the “vintage Grisham” legal thriller it claims to be.  2 out of 5 stars.

NB: Yay!  My blog’s first book review!

An Update: On Writing and Other Things in Life February 19, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Basketball, Book Reviews, Entertainment, Movie Reviews, Novel, On Writing, Uncategorized.
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It’s scary how time flies.  My posts have been somewhat sporadic as of late, and are mostly concerned with basketball and movies – but there are good reasons for this.  I’ve still been writing, but I feel like I’m not writing the way I know I can and at the pace I should – is this what writer’s block feels like?

Anyway, here’s a quick update of sorts on what has been happening.

Study

I got a bit of a shock the other day when someone reminded me that I was already halfway through my 9-month masters course, which means the exams are practically just around the corner.  I’ve been studying hard, but the astronomical amount of work means I’m perpetually behind.  Keeping up has been near impossible, let alone catching up.  But I’m confident things will work themselves out.  We have another long break coming up in less than a month and most of the final term is for revision.  So fingers crossed.

It’s just that I have to devote even more time to study, which obviously means the closer it gets to exam time, the less time for other things, such as writing and posting!

Movies/Oscars

Some may recall one of the goals I set ages ago was to watch all the big nominated films for the Golden Globes (back when they were on) and the Oscars (before they happen on the 22nd) and post short reviews for all of them.  Well, I’m pretty close to accomplishing that goal.  Part III of my film reviews should be out in the next few days, as soon as I finish watching Rachel Getting Married.

I also made some Oscar predictions a while back, but given the passage of time and the fact that I’ve seen a lot of the nominated now, I also want to do another post on who should win and who will.  That’ll have to be done before Oscar night.

Reading

After an influx of emails attaching articles about it from a friend, I decided to buy John Grisham’s new novel “The Associate”.  It’s about a young associate in a big law firm and all the perks and horrors that come with it – something I can relate to.  I can’t believe I haven’t done any book reviews yet since I started this blog, but it’s probably because I haven’t finished any books!  Well, I’m more than halfway through this book and I will be posting a review of it as soon as I finish.

Posts

As I said, my posts have been a bit all over the place, and the frequency has dropped from my early fanatical pace.  Part of it is because I’m getting more steady traffic and I don’t feel as though I need to pad up the content anymore.  But the main reason is because of all the other things I’ve mentioned in this post!

Just looking at my past posts, most of them have been about basketball!  Well, you can hardly blame me, considering it was All-Star Weekend.  Now that’s over, I’m going to shift the focus back onto my writings and the upcoming Oscars and readings.  Okay, maybe except any big news regarding the Pacers (especially with the trade deadline being today).

Indiana Pacers

Well, I’m sure All-Star Weekend was a blast for first timer Danny Granger.  But it’s back to business now for the Pacers.  There was all this talk and hype again about them finally making a run for the playoffs, winning six or even games straight (when they haven’t been able to win more than 2 in a row all season).  Well, they just lost to the Charlotte Bobcats after beating the Philadelphia 76ers, so the same old story continues.  Except that apart from Mike Dunleavy Jr’s continued absence, Danny Granger sprained his foot last game – which means even that tiny glimmer of playoff hope could be gone too (have to wait for the MRI).

The main concern is still getting rid of Jamaal Tinsley.  I believe today is the trade deadline.  No one seems to be knocking on the Pacers’ door asking about him.  Again, no one to blame but themselves.  At this rate, actually playing him might be a better idea – but after banning him all season, it’s too late to do that now.

Writing

Last, but not least, the writing.  It’s been a tough week for my fantasy novel.  I’m still writing (almost) everyday, but because of the aforementioned things, I feel as though I’m not getting anywhere.  I’m getting about 400-1,500 words a day these days, but I plan on pushing that up if possible.  Bear in mind this has been busy week – Valentines Day on Saturday, and we went down to London on Sunday (going again tomorrow) – it’s hard to get anything done on these types of days.  Plus it also means I need to spend the remaining free time focusing on studies, leading to even less time for writing.  The constant reading and note-taking are bogging my mind down so much that when I finally sit down to write, I feel nothing good comes out.

Not doing an updated wordcount yet until I feel better about how I’m progressing….grrrr…..

In any case, I’m really starting to develop a deep respect for writers, especially those who manage to pump out novels even when working in full-time jobs.  It involves so much dedication and commitment that it blows my mind just thinking about it.  Here I am, merely studying, and I’m struggling to get the first draft done.  There are so many temptations, so many other activities calling out to you – the excuses to tear yourself away writing are endless.  I can’t imagine doing anything apart from rest when I get home from work after a long day.  And yet, these incredible writers persevere in pursuit of their dreams.  I need to be more like them.  Even those writers that are huge successes continue to dedicate themselves to their craft and write more amazing novels, despite not having to worry financially anymore.

Okay.  Stop being so pessimistic.  Get back to work.

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