Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

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

Sycamore_Row_-_cover_art_of_hardcover_book_by_John_Grisham

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.

4/5

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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.

Book Review: ‘Heaven is For Real’ by Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo

March 27, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

heaven

After having read Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander last year, my spiritual journey continues with Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This bestseller, which has a film adaptation coming to our screens soon, is written by conservative American writer Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, the little boy who supposedly went to heaven when he was 4 years old and came back to tell everyone about it.

It’s an easy book to read, and with just 163 pages, the type you could breeze through in a sitting or two (it took me three, which is pretty impressive by my standards). The writing is solid and builds suspense in a natural and unforced manner — largely through Colton’s medical ordeal which led to the alleged out-of-body experience, then through the bits and pieces of “heaven” he reveals to his family following his return. The story is told from the point of view of Todd, who shares his astonishment as his young son begins telling him things the 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have known (or so he says), including a miscarriage that had been hidden from him and the youthful appearance of a great grandfather he had never met.

The story is sold as nothing but a miracle of Biblical proportions, and the details of it as told by the Burpo family are certainly incredible. A lot of the stuff little Colton says are goosebump-inducing stuff (we’re talking Jesus and angels and Satan and the whole shebang), but the whole thing comes across as a little too neat and a little too packaged, which is no wonder why the book has polarized readers.

You see, the one crucial  thing I’ve withheld about the book is that Todd Burpo is a pastor who decided he was going to devote his life to God from the age of 13, and his whole family seems just as passionate about the Bible as him. Accordingly, unlike Proof of Heaven, which purposely avoided references to religion and heaven in a Biblical sense, Heaven is for Real is ALL ABOUT the Bible, and how Colton’s experience “proves” that the stories and descriptions of things in the Good Book are literally real. For example, when the Bible says Jesus sits on a throne in heaven, that’s exactly what it means, according to Colton, because that’s what he saw when he was there. When the Bible says Jesus sits “on the right hand of God,” it means he literally sits on God’s right hand side in heaven (like all the time?). And of course, Colton also saw Mary there with them because the Bible says that too. These are just a few of the plethora of such examples in the book.

Christians, especially those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, will love this book (and they do). It’s got a great story and an inspiring message at heart. Todd Burpo had been questioning his faith after a string of personal woes, from financial difficulties to broken bones and a cancer scare, and his mental and emotional state were in the dumps when his beloved little boy was hospitalised with a life-threatening condition. He got angry at God, but he also prayed and asked for a miracle, and God delivered, saving his little boy and restoring his faith forever. And with the way the book has been selling, it looks like the financial troubles have been obliterated too.

But for people who have a healthy scepticism of these types of claims, there are also plenty of ways to dismiss Heaven is for Real, with the most obvious being that the kid has clearly been indoctrinated from birth. His entire life up to that point revolved around his religion — his parents read him Bible stories every night, he goes to church all the time, he attends Sunday school every week. Even the movies they watch have Christian themes (eg, the Narnia series). Todd Burpo says his son talked about things in the Bible he couldn’t possibly have known, but that could be just parents underestimating their kids. I know I’m often amazed at some of the things my 2-year-old knows and says every day, wondering how the heck and where the heck he picked them up. Throw in a “leading questions”-type approach from the parents, a bit of wishful thinking and a touch of literary embellishment, and it’s not hard to conclude that little Colton was likely suffering from a wild imagination and a desire to please his parents, who had probably subconsciously encouraged him with their excited body language and readiness to believe whatever he said.

The kicker, which I forgot to mention, is that there was never any medical proof, or even suggestion, that Colton was medically “dead” during his surgery. How can someone have a near-death experience when they’re not actually close to death?

That said, I think being completely dismissive of the book is being unfair to the Burpos, who seem like wonderful people and devout Christians who genuinely believe what happened to them was a miracle. This is where being a pastor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could say it supports the view that he would not lie and that it makes perfect sense why God would want to reward a family like theirs for their faith, but on the other you could just write it off as a biased preacher hearing what he wanted to hear and skewing everything in the direction that matches his beliefs.

My view is somewhat mixed. Some of the things Colton says defy explanation, and even if you don’t believe he went to heaven you have to admit they are eerily compelling. However, out-of-body experiences, not just NDEs, are not uncommon phenomena (there’s a never-ending amount of literature out there for open-minded people who want to read it), and while most of them have both common and unique elements (such as Eben Alexander’s experience in Proof of Heaven), few come close to meetings with Jesus or corroborating the literal truth of the Bible.

What the literature suggests is that the afterlife, supposing there is one, is a subjective, almost tailor-made experience. People tend to see things and meet people that comfort them, even family members they haven’t met before or don’t remember meeting. Now, I can’t possibly know if little Colton had an out-of-body experience or just an awesome dream, but if we assume he did, could it be that what he saw, given his uber religious upbringing, are just the things that comfort him the most? The things that he would want to, or even expect to, see when he dies? I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it’s food for thought.

Anyway, Heaven is for Real was a fun read that has the potential to be a good or extremely awful movie. I actually enjoyed the first half, about the Burpo family’s struggles and Colton’s frightening health scare, than the second, when the Christian imagery started raining down on the pages and tedious chunks of Biblical verses began getting rolled out to match everything Colton was saying. Christians will say it proves the truth of heaven and the Bible, while non-believers will say it only proves the depths of human stupidity and naivete. Overall, it’s still a book I would recommend to people I think will appreciate it for what it is — a story that will make us think about the nature of life and asks us what we ultimately want to believe when we die.

3/5

PS: Here’s the trailer for the film, starring Greg Kinnear, scheduled for an April 16 release.

Book Review: ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

November 13, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I had been wanting to read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower since watching his film adaptation — starring Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), Hermoine (Emma Watson) and Kevin (Ezra Miller) – earlier this year, a film (review here) that will most probably land in my top 10 for 2012 when I finally get around to doing that list (and I will, I swear!).

Some might have said I was setting myself up for disappointment by reading the source material after watching the movie version, but I ended up loving the book as well. Despite the fact that my own experiences in no way mirror that of the book’s protagonist, Charlie, the wonderful storytelling by Chbosky — through a series of letters to the reader, no less — conjured up all sorts of nostalgia, warmth and heartbreak. This is a great book for teenagers and young adults, not just because of the themes it tackles or the easy readability, but simply because it is a fantastic read.

Set in the early 1990s, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is all about Charlie, an introverted high school freshman coming off a the suicide of his best friend who remains haunted by the death of his aunt. He is shy, reserved and emotional, and it’s clear from the beginning that there is something about him that’s not quite right. There is an adorable naivete  about him; he’s intelligent but socially awkward, withdrawn but kind. He lives with his parents and a pretty older sister, and his older brother, a football star, has just gone off to college. You can’t help but like him, even though he is a 15/16-year-old who cries a lot and appears to have a more than a few screws loose.

Charlie tells his story to you through a series of letters to an unnamed older “friend”, but the book reads more like diary entries. It’s a clever device because it offers a portal into Charlie’s unusually mature and yet immature mind through his wide-eyed perspective of the world and makes you care about him despite being wary — because you know in the back of your mind that he is damaged, and you can’t quite put young finger on what could have caused it.

His life changes when he meets Patrick and Sam, a pair of step-siblings and seniors who take him under their wing. And so becomes a sweet and melancholic coming-of-age story about friendship, love, teenage angst and mix tapes (yeah!). It sounds corny and in some ways the book can come off that way, but Chbosky skilfully tackles difficult themes such as bullying, high school politics, alienation, drugs, suicide, depression, domestic violence and homosexuality in a way that feels natural and not at all exploitative or manipulative — and with a nostalgic handful of pop culture references (music, film and TV) from the time. Again, I think it goes back to the soft voice of Charlie, who is described by his friends as a “wallflower” (hence the title), someone who fades into the background and observes rather than participates.

Another aspect of the book I really liked was Charlie’s relationship with his English teacher Bill (played by Paul Rudd in the film version), who sees something in his quiet intelligence and love for reading. There are many references to classic books — such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Great Gatsby and Hamlet – which I think will be great for young readers.

Strangely, I think my love for the film has only enhanced my affection for the book and its characters. The book and the film are actually very different as far as adaptations go, and it’s a testament to Chbosky’s control over the material to be able to deliver the same tone and feel across two very different formats with distinct differences in storytelling and execution.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book I would recommend to anyone who likes to read. It’s a short book (not much over 200 pages) and it’s a brisk and easy read packed with a lot of heart , pearls of wisdom and thought-provoking issues, but unlike a lot of other teenage lit it isn’t contrived and doesn’t shove life lessons in your face. I can definitely understand if people don’t like this book (for whatever reason, not just because of its themes), but for me it’s easy to see why it spent more than a year on the NY Times bestseller list and is published in more than 30 languages.

5/5

Book Review: ‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn

September 26, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Sharp-Objects

I have finally finished burning through all three Gillian Flynn novels to date, with the last one being her debut novel, Sharp Objects. And now, sadly, I have no choice but to wait patiently until she produces more brilliant psychological thrillers.

Sharp Objects is told through the eyes of Camille Preaker, a Chicago reporter from a struggling newspaper who has been assigned to cover the murders of two young girls in her Missouri hometown, the place she once ruled as the most popular girl in town. But Camille is a deeply damaged person (both mentally and physically) and her homecoming is anything but smooth as she must deal with her wealthy but distant mother and stepfather, as well as her precocious 13-year-old stepsister Amma, who has taken over Camille’s former role as the queen bee.

Unlike Flynn’s breakthrough smash Gone Girl (review here), which is a rollicking delicious ride delivered at break-neck pace, or her second novel Dark Places (review here), which relies on the intrigue of a satanic worship murder mystery in a small town, Sharp Objects is more of a slow burn, reflective and contemplative — but it’s also her most personal and emotionally draining work. The tone is melancholic and downright depressing at times, but the narrative flow is dreamy — almost hypnotic — and has a way of slowly pulling you into Camille’s hazy and deranged world.

It is definitely the darkest, creepiest and most unsettling of Flynn’s three books (which is saying a lot if you have read the other two), tackling confronting themes such as serial murder, self-mutilation, depression, alcoholism, serious mental health issues (which shall remain unnamed) and the combustible mix of wealth and boredom and small-town life. And the ending of the novel — one that sent deep chills down my back — is arguably the best of all her books as well.

As with her other novels, Sharp Objects is also very much about sexual politics. For me, the most engrossing parts of the book are about Camille’s stepsister Amma, a walking contradiction who is sexual and childish, cruel and kind, domineering and needy, but at the same time she is just a sad little girl whose personality feels eerily genuine. On the other hand, I felt some of the male characters, such as the hotshot out-of-town detective Richard and the attractive prime suspect John Keene, the brother of one of the victims, were not as strong as their female counterparts.

Flynn’s is a sharp and stylishly evocative writer, though in Sharp Objects her writing is more raw and less polished (it is her first book, after all). But despite the occasional misstep, the story and characters do grow on you. It might not be her best book, but Sharp Objects could very well be the one that stays in your mind the longest after turning the last page.

4/5

PS: And yes, a movie version is coming too, but as of now there are no details on the cast or crew.

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by EL James

July 22, 2012 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

Just to be clear, I have pedestrian — if not lowbrow — tastes when it comes to reading. I enjoy Dan Brown, I’ve read Stephenie Meyer, and heck, even Matthew Reilly. So I just want you to know that I approached EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey not with the intent of trashing it but with immense interest in discovering what the fuss is all about.

The erotic-fiction book, the first in the Fifty Shades trilogy, is arguably the hottest literary phenomenon in the world right now. A recent report I read said James was making something like US$1.3 million a week, and no shortage of actors and actresses are already lining up for the inevitable film version. Brett Easton Ellis has apparently put his hand up to write the screenplay. Not bad for a story that began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction.

What you’re about to read is a brutally honest opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey. While I can see why some people might be obsessed with this “mummy porn” (as it has been distastefully called), like Twilight, I genuinely cannot understand why it has become so obscenely successful. Notwithstanding the shortcomings in James’s prose, the first 150 pages or so of this 500-page book (paperback version), I admit, were fresh, exciting and compulsive — but once the novelty wore off and the narrative stagnated, the remaining 350 pages became utterly brutal.

Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of an innocent young woman living in Seattle, Anastasia Steele, who meets and begins a relationship with the enigmatic, incredibly wealthy and “impossibly beautiful” (direct quote) Christian Grey, who may or may not be into some wild, kinky stuff in the bedroom. What a dilemma.

Anastasia was originally Bella Swan, and Christian was originally Edward Cullen, and the idea sprung from the fantasy that the Twilight kids were not as chaste as they appeared to be.

So you can see the attraction there. I’m sure millions of Twilight fans had probably been imagining the same thing, and James, who is actually a Brit, merely put her fantasy into words. The book intended to be a drug for ordinary girls dreaming of sexual heaven with a rich, handsome and perfect dude who, despite being capable of getting any girl in the universe, chooses them for some reason.

Accordingly, I didn’t have a huge problem with the unbelievable premise or the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey, because after all, it is an erotic fantasy. And besides, how is it any worse than Twilight?

That said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle to accept that Anastasia Steele is a 22-year-old American college student who:

  1. is completely oblivious to the fact that she is incredibly beautiful despite having a multitude of hot guys chasing after her all the time (and having eyes);
  2. has a killer body despite a horrible diet and almost never exercising;
  3. is not only a virgin but has never ever dated anyone in her entire life; and
  4. has never in 22 years loved or even “liked” a boy or man in that way – before Christian Grey.

But I digress. Fantasies are supposed to be crazy.

As mentioned above, I had fun with Fifty Shades of Grey’s first 10 chapters or so. Part of the reason is the ridiculous premise, and part of it is because of the building sexual tension between Ana and Christian. You know they’re eventually going to get it on at some point, and it’s the thrill of the chase and the anticipation that makes the book such an explosive page turner in its early stages.

I cannot profess to be experienced in erotic fiction so I don’t know if the first couple of sex scenes were any good, but I assume, from the public reaction, that they were more than adequate. I at least thought it was a decent payoff after all that anticipation. So far so good for Fifty Shades of Grey.

The bulk of the problem comes after that. I don’t want to spoil too much, but about a third of the way in, after finally losing her virginity, Ana is presented with an unusual offer from Christian. From here, the book becomes a lengthy and infuriating procrastination and negotiation process that does not get anywhere. Ana thinks about it, exchanges a dozen emails with Christian, thinks about it some more, sends more pointless emails, and thinks about it some more. There must seriously be a hundred emails set out in full in this book, and 90% of them are probably asinine. From memory they also go through the terms of a contract, line by agonizing line, on more than one occasion.

Don’t worry, there’s still some hanky panky in between (though even that becomes stale after a while), but all it does is prove that erotic fiction is best served as short stories and novellas, not 500-page monsters.

Much has been said about James’s literary prowess, or lack thereof. I don’t think she is as fundamentally awful as people say she is, and even if she is, I think they’re just jealous they’re not raking in the money like her. I actually think she’s not too far off Stephenie Meyer — it’s just easier to trash James because of the genre she is writing in.

James’s biggest problem was not getting an editor (or if she did get one, an editor unafraid to do something about the book’s nagging issues). For starters, James has the tendency to use a lot of repetitive words and phrases, often within a very short space. She’s absolutely in love with littering her prose with irritating words/phrases such as shit, crap, fuck, oh crap, holy shit, holy crap, holy fuck and holy cow (and almost always in italics too). She also goes through phases where she becomes addicted to whoa, wow, oh no and so forth. You cannot possibly read more than three of pages anywhere in the book without seeing these words at least a couple of times. It makes Anastasia Steele feel like a nagging middle-aged housewife as opposed to a young, red-blooded hottie.

The repetition is also rife in descriptions and body language. Every single time Christian Grey appears in the book we are reminded how handsome, good-looking, hot, gorgeous and impossibly beautiful he is. And he appears a lot. We are also told frequently that he likes to “cock his head to one side”, and that it might be the sexiest thing any man has ever done.

Ana, on the other hand, loves to bite her lip and must “flush” or “blush” at least once on just about every page. She also likes to remind people of the obvious, like “that was the first time I had sex in my house” (or something like that), when we know she just lost her virginity away from her house the day before. Or “as far as sex goes, that was pretty good” (or something like that), when we know she had only had sex a couple of times with the same guy!

Remember, this is a 500-page book.

The one phrase that practically killed me was the repeated mention of Ana’s “inner goddess”, who we are informed, is capable of doing all sorts of acrobatic movements. I still have no idea what an “inner goddess” is or is supposed to be, but I do know it annoys the hell out of me every time I see it.

I bitch, I know, but the truth is, Fifty Shades of Grey could have been so much better if the editor simply paid attention to fixing all its very fixable issues. Summarize the key points of the contract negotiations. Reduce the emails by about 70%-80%. Eliminate all the repetitious stuff I mentioned and pare it back into a 300-page book, tops. Then you might have something approaching special.

Instead, what we ended up with was an erotic fantasy born out of an intriguing idea, races off to a quick start and has some very good moments, but ultimately splutters and fails to maintain interest because it is too long, repetitive and uneventful.

But that’s just my unimportant opinion. Don’t let that stop you from discovering Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels on your own. For all its flaws, at least it is getting people to read and, from what I hear, spicing up people’s (sex) lives.

2 out of 5

PS: In case you were wondering, yes, I have started reading the second book in the series, Fifty Shades Darker. Whether I can finish it is another question.

 
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