Movie Review: Child 44 (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

child 44

I remember first seeing Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 in a bookstore, reading the back cover, and thinking to myself that the story will likely make a great movie. Stalinist Russia, a child killer on the loose — what’s there not to like?

Hollywood execs clearly agreed with me, and that’s why we now have the film adaptation of Child 44 by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), starring the always-brilliant Tom Hardy as an MGB officer at the center of the story. Playing his wife is the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, whom Hardy previously worked with on The Drop. Rounding out the superb cast are Robocop Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and the ubiquitous Aussie Jason Clarke.

All the ingredients for a brilliant political mystery thriller are there, but for whatever reason, Child 44 turned out to be a mild disappointment. It’s one of those films where you keep watching intently, expecting it to get better and blow you away at any second, but all you end up doing is wait and wait and wait, until suddenly you realise it’s all over and none of your expectations were met. And that’s not a good feeling after you just sat through 137 minutes.

I sense that some of the blame must go to the story itself. It’s actually very misleading to market this film as being about the hunt for a child serial killer. In reality, Child 44 is a political thriller with a tangential child serial killer subplot. The “mystery” is something that’s always lingering in the background, something the film comes back to repeatedly, but is never the focal point. Instead, the vast majority of the film is about depicting the terror of Stalinist Russia — how you always need to keep an eye over your shoulder, how people and the state can turn on you at any second; never knowing who to trust; the constant fear and paranoia.

As for the killer? There’s never really a proper investigation. There’s no real mystery, no shocking revelations. It’s just some guy who suddenly shows up halfway through and is revealed to audiences as the killer. I also had some trouble understanding the motivations behind Hardy’s and Rapace’s characters wanting so badly to find the killer. They don’t even have children and they have enough life-and-death problems of their own to deal with. As a result it’s almost like the whole child killer thing is just a hook to suck people in. It’s a red herring.

That said, I shouldn’t be penalising Child 44 for not being the type of film I anticipated. On the plus side, it is quite effective in its depiction of that period of history, and Tom Hardy delivers a superb performance as the complex protagonist. I also wasn’t as distracted as some people have been by the Russian-accented English — or at least the varied attempts at it — as I accepted early on that it’s just something viewers have to live.

What fails the movie, however, is a lack of genuine intrigue and sustained tension. There are perhaps too many subplots, none of which manage to gather any momentum. It’s just not that interesting, a shocker considering that the book is considered to be a riveting page-turner. And that’s a shame, because I’m sure there’s a compelling story buried in there somewhere.

On the whole, Child 44 isn’t terrible. It’s a solid production with strong performances, but it’s also quite a dull adaptation that is unable to bring out the most of the fascinating premise and whatever it is that made the book such a supposedly compulsive bestseller.

2.5 stars out of 5

‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part IX — The End, The Verdict

June 2, 2015 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

last of us poster

Note: This is the ninth part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here, Part 7 here and Part 8 here.

Day 15 (May 19, 2o15)

Here we go. The home stretch.

Joel and Ellie’s journey take them to Salt Lake City, the final stop of their epic adventure. As with previous locations, the city is in ruins, but you get the feeling that the purpose of all the walking around in this last chapter is to provide that final burst of character and relationship development before the inevitable climax.

Salt Lake

And so the first part of Salt Lake is mostly wandering around and watching conversations unfold. Joel has clearly opened up and is finally comfortable with that Ellie means to him, while Ellie is starting to fear what may happen once they finally meet up with the Fireflies.

The highlight of this “slower” portion of the game is an encounter with a pack of giraffes spoiled by most trailers and promotional photos. Still, it’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring moment, not just because of the impressive visuals, but because it reminds you that despite everything, Ellie is still a child who grew up in this broken world and has never seen things we take for granted.

Eventually, action arrives in the form of a watery underpass section filled with runners, clickers and bloaters. While you can stealthily sneak by the majority of them, you might also want to let it rip because it’s the last time in the game you’ll see a zombie. That said, there are a lot of them, so just going in guns blazing could lead to you getting surrounded. Strategy is needed since there are no second chances when it comes to bloaters.

Once you get past that, it’s more wandering until an accident automatically leads into an unavoidable meeting with the Fireflies and a reunion with Marlene.

Marlene's back!

Marlene’s back!

I’ve been reminded that you can spoil a game that’s been out for two years, but just in case, I’ll warn those who want to experience the game for themselves that major spoilers are coming.

So, as it turns out, the only way to even attempt to use Ellie’s immunity to develop a vaccine is to do what Anthony Hopkins did to Ray Liotta — except for the feeding part — by slicing open her head and messing with the brain. Joel ain’t taking any of that shit, thereby setting up a final rampage through the hospital to rescue Ellie.



I admit to being a wee little disappointed with the relative sameness of what is supposed to be the climax of the action. It’s by no means a cakewalk, though if you’ve been saving up your ammunition and items it won’t be very hard to smash anyone who dares to get in your way. There’s really not that many of them either, maybe about a dozen to 20 tops.

At the same time, I can understand why the game makers decided to do it this way. While the survival horror action is fun and all, The Last of Us, since the very beginning, has always been about the characters and their relationships. It’s clear from the way they’ve handled the final chapter that they wanted to go back to the essence of the game and not overwhelm the narrative with all-out, over-the-top carnage. Perhaps they considered the battle with David in the previous chapter as the “final boss”, though I would have personally preferred a more challenging conclusion.

I like the idea of an old-fashioned hospital shootout, but I think it would have been even better with some added spice, like an enemy or enemies with full body armour, making them extra difficult to kill, or some kind of enemy with martial arts skills you need to take down without guns. Alternatively, it would have been even more awesome had zombies somehow managed to get into the hospital — perhaps intentionally let in by Joel to help him out with all the Firefly soldiers — to create a chaotic battle where you have to take on both types of enemies and use your wits to pit them against each other. Throw in a newly mutated boss if necessary. The makers of the film adaptation should totally be reading this!

Feel the wrath of my assault rifle, mother...

Feel the wrath of my assault rifle, mother…

Alas, the real climax was more subdued and more subtle. Enemies had assault rifles (which you can start using if you kill one of them), but apart from that it was largely more of the same. Instead, there was a surprising level of storytelling, as Joel would constantly stumble across notes and voice recorders that would reveal more backstory and explanations.

All of this culminates in a surprisingly anti-climatic showdown against three helpless surgeons in the operating theatre. You can kill them if you want, as I did, with an assortment of weapons, but the game effectively ends when you pick an unconscious Ellie up off the operating table and carry her to a hospital elevator. (This actually led me to think — what if I just waited outside for hours? Would they never start the operation? I wasn’t bored enough to try it out)

This ain't no episode of Grey's Anatomy

This ain’t no episode of Grey’s Anatomy

The game’s big storyline “twist”, if you can call it that, takes place entirely in cut scenes. Just as Joel prepares to leave, he runs into Marlene (of course he does), who begs for him to do the right thing for humanity and allow them to pop open Ellie’s head. I guess he could have mentioned at this point that he had killed all the doctors anyway!

Joel appears to hesitate before the screen fades to black, and the next thing we see is Joel driving. This is a brilliant storytelling device from Naughty Dog because it leaves you hanging, wondering what decision Joel makes in the end. Save humanity by sacrificing the one person he has left in this world, or selfishly do what’s best for himself and Ellie?



What do you think happens and what do you think should have happened?

I never expected Joel to betray Ellie by leaving her behind, and I was proven to be right, as we soon hear Ellie stirring in the back seat as she awakens from anaesthesia. What happens next, however, is a betrayal of a different kind, because Joel goes on to lie to Ellie about why they left the Fireflies, saying that there were dozens of other people like Ellie and that they had given up on finding a cure. His explanation is interspersed with flashbacks of what happened in the parking lot with Marlene, whom Joel shoots with a gun and begs for her life before he caps another one in her skull, saying that she’d just keep coming after Ellie.

I found this twist to be kinda poetic and true to who the characters have been from the very beginning. Joel has always been a survivor; he’s not a saviour and he’s not a hero. Call him the villain of this game, if you will, but his actions actually make a lot of sense if you’ve been paying attention to the kind of person he is. I found it interesting that some people didn’t get it and weren’t sure whether Joel was actually telling the truth.

I thought the game was over, but there’s actually a tiny epilogue after this segment. It’s another one of those creative choices made by Naughty Dog that surprises. You play as Ellie and there’s no fighting involved, just strolling through the woods as they make their way back to Tommy’s. You can tell from their conversation that Joel is fine with his decision, but Ellie remains torn by survivor guilt. The game’s final scene is a mini-masterpiece in which Ellie demands that Joel swear that what he said about the Fireflies is all true. Joel swears, and the final shot lingers on Ellie’s face as she says, “OK”, before the game fades to black.

Ellie Final

Ellie’s haunting final expression

Everyone’s going to have their own interpretation of what the ending means. Did Ellie believe Joel or did she know she was lying? And if she thought he was lying, what does that mean for the future of their relationship? The brilliant thing about it is that Ellie’s facial expression could be taken in several ways. It could be fear, it could be horror, it could be sadness, or it could be relief. Or perhaps it was a mix of all those things. Whatever it is, it’s powerful stuff.

My personal take is that Ellie knows Joel is lying and has known all along, but wants him to say it again to her face one more time. But confirming her suspicions doesn’t mean she no longer trusts him or would make her want to get away from him. To the contrary, I think knows she’s stuck with him, for better or for worse, and she’s conflicted about how that makes her feel. On the one hand she knows he will keep her safe no matter what, but on the other she’ll always feel guilty about living at the potential expense of finding a cure. She’ll survive, but she’ll feel horrible about it. It’s a morally complicated question with no right answer.

Kudos to Naughty Dog for doing something so unconventional and daring. There’s no cure. There’s no happy ending. It’s just ambiguity and a lot of mixed emotions. It’s a revolutionary ending for a revolutionary game, and I like that the game doesn’t offer alternative endings because it would cheapen the impact of the one they went with.

The Verdict

If you haven’t figured it out by now, even after I’ve written a nine-part series about my experience playing it, I’ll spell it out for you: The Last of Us is the best video game I’ve ever played. There are games that may have been more addictive, games that might have been more fun from a pure action perspective, games that have had better graphics or sound or whatever. But nothing beats The Last of Us when it comes to the overall gaming experience.

It’s simply unparalleled when it comes to storytelling, characters and immersiveness.  To be able to achieve this kind of emotional resonance in a video game is something I’ve never seen before. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where I haven’t been able to get it out of my head even days after I’ve finished it. It’s the only game I’ve played worthy of in-depth analysis like a book or a movie. I’ve looked up videos about the game and watched the documentaries about it YouTube. I’m obsessed.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Between the time I finished the game on May 19 and the writing of this post, I’ve played the DLC add-on Left Behind — which I will discuss in my next post — AND played the entire main game all over again in the “plus” version that allows you to keep the upgrades you made to your weapons and skills the first time around. It actually makes the game easier, but the reason I played it again, apart from experiencing its awesomeness one more time, is so I can savour the dramatic moments more. I was far too nervous the first time I played it, so in the second playthrough I made sure I focused on nuances and all the little things that make the game so great. I also killed everything in sight instead of using stealth. That’s probably about 35-40 hours of total playing time (the first playthrough was a little over 17 hours and the DLC was under 3 hours), and I still can’t get enough! Now I understand why some people also get the remastered version to play on PS4 (and if I had a PS4 I would too, dammit!)


Ashley Johnson in The Avengers. She had a bigger role but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Full marks to the amazing work of creative director Neil Druckmann, who absolutely should be a consultant on the film adaptation, and the acting of the cast, led by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker. Johnson, whom some of you might know from her cameo as a waitress in The Avengers, actually won the BAFTA Games Awards for Best Performer (male and female compete in the same category) for her role as Ellie in back-to-back years, first in The Last of Us and then in Left Behind.

Here’s her acceptance speech in 2014.

And again in 2015.

Of course, The Last of Us also took home Best Game, Best Action and Adventure, Best Audio, and Best Story. In a year that also gave us GTA V, that says a lot. There’s another 2oo+ awards the game has won, but I’m not about to list them all here. Suffice it to say that they are all well deserved.

I have a feeling I’ve already said too much, but the fact is that I can’t say enough good things about it. Granted, it’s not perfect — no game is — but The Last Us is about as close as it gets.


‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part III — Casting the Movie

May 12, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews


Note: This is the third part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 can be found here.

Day 4 (May 8, 2015)

I’m really starting to get immersed in the game now and can’t wait to play it every night.

After meeting the wounded leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, we are introduced to the female lead of the game, Ellie, a young girl who is seemingly very important for some strange reason. As it turns out, Marlene wants Joel and Tess to help the Fireflies smuggle Ellie out, and if they do so, they’ll get their guns back “and then some.”

Introducing Ellie

You get a good sense of Ellie’s spunk and feistiness from the first time she appears on screen

It’s pretty obvious that Ellie is supposed to be some kind of substitute for Joel’s dead daughter, and their relationship will form the crux of the game’s emotional core. It’s a good dynamic. Joel’s disillusioned, hardened and wary from years of doing nasty things to survive, and the last thing he wants to be reminded of is the one thing (or person, rather) that will remind him of his former humanity. Ellie, on the other hand, is also hardened by the environment she has had to grow up in but seems to be looking for a parent figure, making the two of them a perfect match.

The first time I saw Ellie’s face — I think it was in a poster or trailer — I immediately thought of Ellen Page. It’s an uncanny similarity many gamers have noticed.

Ellie vs Ellen

Ellen Page vs Ellie

This caused a bit of a furore when the game came out, because Page did not lend her likeness to the game or perform any motion capture. What caused more confusion was the fact that Page was actually starring in another video game, Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s follow-up to Heavy Rain. Here’s what Page looked like in that game.

beyond two souls

Ellen Page’s likeness in Beyond: Two Souls

Page was apparently not happy about it, and Naughty Dog actually did some editing before the game was released to make Ellie look more like the actress who did the voice and motion capture, Ashley Johnson.


Ashley Johnson

It’s not a big deal that she looks very little like Ellie, since the actor who played Joel, Troy Baker, looks nothing like his character either.


Troy Baker doing motion capture for The Last of Us


What I find interesting though is that a lot of people are calling for Ellen Page to play Ellie in the movie version of The Last of Us. While Page does look young for her age (28), getting her to play a 14-year-old is a bit of a stretch. The actress who has been tentatively attached to the movie project is actually Maisie Williams, whom most of you will know as Arya Stark from Game of Thrones.


Maisie Williams as Ellie?

I like this idea a lot. Williams is 18 but seems much younger on Thrones, and she’s only 155cm tall, which would allow her to easily pass as a 14 year old when paired with a taller actor. Besides, I think it’s stupid to cast actors for a movie adaptation of a video game based on their physical resemblance to the characters.

Other names fans have brought up include Dakota Fanning (too old, unless they up Ellie’s age in the movie), Elle Fanning (she’s 17 but too tall at 5’8″, plus her acting in Maleficent was…), Ariel Winter from Modern Family (she’s 17 but probably could do it), and Chloe Grace Moretz (she’s 18 but can look young, so maybe). I don’t think any of them are as suitable as Williams at this stage.

As for Joel, there are currently no actors attached to the project, but that has not stopped fans from speculating who should get the job. Top names being thrown around at the moment include Hugh Jackman, Josh Brolin, Dylan McDermott, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Gerard Butler, Russel Crowe, Bradley Cooper, and Viggo Mortensen.  I’d actually prefer someone less famous, but out of that bunch, my money’s on Hugh Jackman. He has the stature and built, the physicality to take on zombies bare-fisted and the vulnerability — as demonstrated by his performance in Prisoners — to make a convincing Joel. Josh Brolin would be my second choice and McDermott by third, but none of the others feel like good fits.

Jack Human

Jack Human as Joel?

As for Tess? Lena Heady from Thrones would be excellent because we know she’s got the balls to pull it off. Of course, the actress who did the voice and motion capture, Annie Wersching, would be a good choice too.

Cersei Lannister as Tess?

Cersei Lannister as Tess?

Anyway, back to the game itself. As expected, it does not take long for Ellie to reveal her secret. I had suspected that she’s important because of some link to a cure for the virus, and as it turned out, I was right. Joel, Tess and Ellie are accosted by a bunch of soldiers, who use this special gadget to test whether they are infected or not.

Ellie Infected

I knew it!

After taking down the soldiers, they discover that the machine returned a positive reading for Ellie. She was bitten a few weeks back and hasn’t turned, an anomaly considering everyone is supposed to turn within two days of infection. So that’s why they need to get Ellie to some scientists so they can figure out why, and perhaps develop some kind of cure or vaccine for the masses.

From here, Joel and Tess will have to babysit Ellie until they meet up with the Fireflies, but I’m certain something else will happen so that the plot will require Joel to travel with Ellie all the way across the country. That’s just the way these stories work, but rather than complain about its predictability I’m going to praise The Last of Us for the way it has handled the drama thus far. In any case, the game looks like it’s going to be a lot more action packed from this point forward.

Stay tuned for more!

Book Review: ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card

October 23, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews


After being thoroughly dissatisfied with last year’s Ender’s Game (review here), the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 military sci-fi novel, I was advised to give the source material a try, with assurances that it will be “much much better.”

Well, I finally had a chance to get around to it. The book is indeed better than the novel — I don’t think anyone disputes that — though I must admit that I don’t quite get why so many people love the book to death. In a fascinating introduction to the book written in 1991, Card acknowledges that Ender’s Game divided readers, but many of those who loved it thought it was a life-changing book that got them through some tough times.

For me, Ender’s Game was an interesting read but not a particularly impressive one. Perhaps I needed to have read it when I was a child, or at least much closer to Ender’s age than I am today, or maybe I’m just not quite on the same wavelength as Card (I suspect it is a bit of both). Either way, while I was engaged by the book I don’t think the story ultimately resonated with me the way it has with countless others.

Like the movie adaptation I watched last year, Ender’s Game is set in a future where humanity is engaged in a protracted war with insect-like aliens known as “buggers”. The buggers attacked Earth, causing catastrophic damage, but mankind was saved when a brilliant pilot by the name of Mazer Rackham found a way to destroy the enemy fleet, earning humans a short term victory. Now, the International Fleet is recruiting gifted children in the hopes of training them up to become future saviours, and Ender Wiggin is selected to enter Battle School for training, where he quickly excels to become humanity’s best and last hope.

Reading the book, I understood why the film adaptation took so long to be realized. Apart from the special effects that were needed, the adaptation was made difficult because Ender is so young at the beginning of the book (7 years old) and is just 11 by the time the book ends.

To make the adaptation work, The filmmakers made Ender much older (Asa Butterfield was already about 15 when they shot the film) and dramatically condensed Ender’s Time at Battle School. Key characters such as Ender’s sister Valentine and his brother Peter were basically written out of the film completely. Unfortunately, these changes gutted the film, and other aspects could not do enough to compensate.

On the other hand, I was surprised that the book failed to address some of my biggest issues with the movie. I thought the film did a horrendous job in conveying what the kids were doing in the Battle Rooms, which frustrated me because I had no idea what they were doing or trying to accomplish. But now, I realise it’s because the book isn’t exactly clear either. You get bits and pieces, like how to win a game and how to disarm opponents, etc, but there are still so many missing slabs that you never feel like you know enough to be truly immersed in their world.

The other major problem is that the entire premise of using child geniuses to fight a war is a shaky one. I bought into it after having Card repeatedly beat into my head that Ender and his cohort are the best the entire world has to offer, as well as numerous reminders from the characters that these are not “normal” children. But I can certainly understand why some readers just couldn’t swallow the story.

My issue was less with the premise and more with the actions of the children, in particular the Wiggins trio of Ender, Valentine and Peter. Even when I accept that they are extraordinary children I still have difficulty believing many of the things they are capable of. I guess that is why I believe I would have received the book very differently had I read it as a child.

That is not to say that the book is without merit. For starters, the central idea itself is quite brilliant, and Card does not waste the golden opportunity to make some astute observations about human nature and the way we perceive children.

Secondly, Card’s writing is strong and confident, such that you tend to not question (at least not immediately) the plausibility of his narrative. There is an enviable clarity and simplicity to his voice and style; even though the sci-fi terms can sometimes get a little technical, Card appears to have the uncanny ability to always explain things in the most straightforward manner.

Thirdly, Card does an excellent job of developing Ender’s character, which is not easy considering that he is not a normal child nor your typical protagonist. Yet, Card makes us care about Ender and empathize with his plight. The book is at its most engaging — by far — when Ender is put through one grueling challenge after another and is pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally, while trying to cope with the stresses of training as well as the jealousy and prejudice of his fellow cadets. Notwithstanding how unlikely the situations are, there is an air of genuineness about the interactions between the characters.

Overall, I can’t say I was fully satisfied with Ender’s Game, even though there were sections I either really enjoyed or thought were executed with impressive skill and creativity. I think the book ends on an apt note, so I have no interest in checking out any of its sequels.


Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

May 1, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews


Alright, alright, alright.

So I picked Sycamore Row almost at random for one of my reads this year, knowing it’s yet another John Grisham bestseller but with no idea that it’s his long-awaited direct sequel to his debut novel, A Time to Kill. I’m not as high on Grisham’s first book as most of his other fans, but I thought it was a provocative and fascinating look into law and race in the United States, particularly in the notoriously racist state of Mississippi. In that book (review here), young hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance was tasked with defending African-American Carl Lee Hailey for murdering two white men who raped, tortured and nearly killing his daughter. It was a bit of a grind, a typical first novel that’s a overlong and filled with a lot of (occasionally misguided) passion, but I also can’t deny that there’s a certain charm and resonance to it.

The 1996 film adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey as Brigance, Samuel L Jackson and Hailey, and had a supporting cast with big names such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt. As I said in my review, the film is “a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama.”

And now the sequel, Sycamore Row, brings back Brigance as the central character in a whole new trial, one that is completely different to its predecessor but also tackles race issues in America’s deep south. The story is set in 1989, several years after Brigance got Hailey off murder (oops, is that a spoiler?) but remains affected by its outcome. He got the notoriety he sought but not the financial or career advancements he had hoped, and he and his wife Carly remain locked in a battle with the insurers over their burnt-down house. Out of nowhere, Brigance receives a letter containing the will of a wealthy white man who leaves the vast majority of his sizable estate to his black maid at the expense of his children, and thus begins a mammoth civil suit for the loot.

I was impressed by Grisham’s decision to switch the arena from criminal to civil this time. Most legal dramas are about murder, violence and sinister plots — after all, these sound the most enticing — but here Grisham does an excellent job of turning a will contest into an engrossing case. There are many characters and subplots weaving in and out of the narrative — there’s Brigance, bound to his duty to act for the estate but salivating at the financial windfall from a long trial, and at the same time worried that his drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, is planning a return to legal practice; there’s Lettie Lang, the black maid and sudden but only potential millionaire, who has to deal with all the allegations against manipulation and misconduct of a frail old man while putting up with her deadbeat husband and family members leaching off her; there’s all the family members of the deceased, who hated him but would love some of his money to change their lives, AND all their lawyers, each angling for a slice of the lucrative pie; and of course, there’s the big mystery itself — why would the old man do what he did, if he did in fact know what he was doing?

Many of the old characters from A Time to Kill make a return, including Ozzie the town sheriff, former district attorney Rufus Buckley (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie), as well as hated divorce lawyer and Brigance ally Harry Rex (Oliver Platt in the film). It’s a testimony to the lasting power of A Time to Kill that I didn’t need much of a reminder to recall these characters I read about nearly three years ago. All of them, even the minor characters, are memorable and well-developed. I particularly liked the experienced lawyer Brigance found himself up against in the trial, Wade Lanier, who is a completely different breed to the despicable Buckley. Rather than creating yet another villain, Lanier is simply a formidable and respectable foe, someone who doesn’t mind resorting to dirty tricks but is never malicious or takes things personal.

Race is again the central theme of the book, as are the concepts of family and redemption, though this time Grisham takes a different angle. A Time to Kill was very black and white — those monsters deserved to die — but in Sycamore Row there are more shades of grey (there was even a section where Grisham questions the readers whether it was right for Hailey to have gotten off in A Time to Kill, irrespective of the injustice that was done to him). In the case of a will contest, Grisham asks why children should be obliged to look after a father who neglected them. But at the same time, why should a father leave his hard-earned money to children who wanted nothing to do with him? What is fair and what is just?

Those who have a keen interest in how the legal system works will also enjoy the painstaking nature in which Grisham goes through all the procedures leading up to the trial — even the tedious nitty gritty of it, from preliminary investigations to discovery, from pre-trial conferences to jury selection. It shows that Grisham is still passionate about the law, but on the downside more than two-thirds of the book elapses before the juicy stuff, the real trial, even begins.

It’s a long book at 464 pages for the hardcover edition, which probably means 700 pages or more for a regular paperback or large print edition. The strange thing for me when reading this book is that, despite all that happens throughout, it feels frustratingly flat, even at the supposed climax. It was as though Grisham was intentionally trying to avoid sensationalizing the story with a “slow-burn” narrative, one that plays on your emotions without being obvious about it. Part of the frustration probably comes from the feeling that you have a fairly good idea of how it is going to end, and roughly why it will end that way due to the obvious hints implanted in the story early on and along the way. Much like it was in A Time to Kill, you just know that the going will get tough and everything will appear lost before a rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I must also say that I didn’t really buy the ending, though I can’t explain why without divulging spoilers. Having said that, the final chapter steers the plot back towards more of a realistic and common sense conclusion, which at least mitigates some of the problems I had with it.

The result is a page-turner that falls short of being a compulsive page-turner. The novel keeps your interest because of the storyline and characters, but there’s also plenty of unnecessary padding. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t. There were a couple of times when I thought Grisham was trying to set something up for later, but the strand would never be resolved, leaving me wondering why he bothered sowing the seeds in the first place. I get the feeling that he or his editors could have easily pared back more pages to make it a smoother read.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Sycamore Row, I think it’s a superior novel to A Time to Kill. It’s not as compulsive, explosive or fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but I was still hooked into the story from the very first page and enjoyed reading it through to the end. It’s what Grisham fans have been hoping for ever since he penned A Time to Kill back in 1989 — a solid, emotionally satisfying sequel.



Matthew McConaughey as Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)

PS: I read in an interview somewhere that there are talks for a film adaptation of Sycamore Row and Grisham is keen to have McConaughey and his smug face back as Brigance, notwithstanding the fact that the Oscar-winner is now 44 and nearly a decade older than the character.