The Broker by John Grisham (audio)

It’s been a few years since I read any Grisham. (As a kid I remember repeatedly rereading The Client and loving it.) He may not be a genius of proper “high” literature but he can be relied upon for a solid legal thriller every once in a while. In fact this one was rather short on the legal part, more of a proper thriller with elements of international intrigue. It made for a great road trip “read” for Husband and I.

Joel Backman was known as “The Broker” in his former life as high-powered Washington, D.C. attorney, lobbyist and power broker. He had connections, he had the big firm, he had the BIG money, and he was known to be rather unscrupulous in the pursuit of the mighty dollar and his clients’ victory. But when the story opens, he’s six years into a prison sentence, serving in isolation. The outgoing president is convinced by the CIA in the final moments of his presidency to pardon Backman – but not for his own good. The CIA is still trying to answer all the questions relating to the Backman case, and they hope that upon his release, they’ll get to sit back and watch who assassinates him, thus resolving a question of national security.

I’ll leave the international espionage parts vague for now – I could spend all day trying to detail this fairly complicated case. If you go check out this book yourself it will all be explained. For now you should know this: Backman is shipped overseas by the CIA and set up with a new identity as Marco Lazare, an Italian raised in Canada and thus just now furiously studying the Italian language. He eventually ends up going on the run, escaping his CIA handlers, dodging possible assassins of a variety of nationalities, and fleeing back to the US to blow the cover off the security concern involving spy satellites and jamming software.

The techies among us will, I daresay, be dissatisfied with the tech details of the case; I think it’s fairly simplistic and a little dated by now. But if you can put this aside (it’s not sci fi, after all), it’s a fun story of intrigue. We have to wonder along with Backman/Marco where the threat is coming from, who he can trust, and what he should do with the information he carries. What he once hoped to make a fortune off of now endangers his life, and The Broker for the first time is concerned with Doing The Right Thing rather than Making The Buck. The greatest sort of plot development is in Backman/Marco’s growth from The Broker into a decent human being.

Husband was disappointed that there wasn’t more blow-em-up gore and bad-ass action (in other words, Backman is no Jack Reacher). But this is just a slightly different kind of book, that’s all. I found it engrossing and entertaining; it did its job. It’s light reading but as such, I thought it was successful.

The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly (audio)

Finally got around to Michael Connelly’s latest via audiobook. This was a good way to fit it into my somewhat busy print-reading schedule (I’m working on two clunksters, Newspaper Titan and Don Quixote), but there was a drawback: I had a real problem with this narrator, and I fear that it effected my reception of the whole book, sadly. Peter Giles’ narration was so heavy and serious it weighed down the story and its potential humor.

Quick synopsis: Attorney Mickey Haller has picked up home foreclosure cases (civil) to fill out his business. But he returns to his roots as a criminal defense attorney when one of his home foreclosure clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of the murder of a big-time banker involved in foreclosing on her home. There may even be mob involvement: is Lisa being set up?

I’m afraid my disappointment extended to Connelly as well as narrator Giles. I didn’t like how this one felt very didactic. Early on I was offended by lots of Mickey explaining things to his 14-year-old daughter, where the very awkward dialog was obviously just a mechanism to explain things to me, the reader (listener). And that daughter, by the way, seemed awfully juvenile for 14. Almost shades of Sophie’s World, shudder, which I despised. There was a didactic feel to most of the novel, in fact; Haller went out of his way in dialog to explain courtroom procedures, to his client, yes, but also to his staff, who should well know this stuff by now. His client, Lisa, is an unsympathetic character. She was meant to be unlikeable, so I guess I should give Connelly credit for the fact that she drove me nuts. But I’m not sure it was necessary that she be quite so bleating. It’s one thing to successfully pull off an unlikeable character, and another to make me cringe every time she appears.

I did like the little joke whereby Mickey is asked if perhaps Matt McConaughey wouldn’t do well playing him in a movie; but that brings me to another beef with this narrator. McConaughey’s smooth, suave, slightly fast-talking portrayal in The Lincoln Lawyer was very true to Mickey Haller’s persona on the page; whereas this audio narrator has him EM. PHA. SIZING. EVERY. WORD. in an aggressive and abrasive way that I find offputting and inaccurate. Isn’t Mickey Haller’s charm, and effectiveness as a lawyer, wrapped up in his ability to be, well, charming? Likeable? This grunting character in the audiobook doesn’t sound like the Mickey I know from his last three book appearances. It makes me wonder how much control Connelly has over these creative productions of his work – ideally, lots, and maybe that’s why Giles is the third narrator I’ve encountered in, count ’em, three Connelly audiobooks. Mr. Connelly, if you’re reading this (ha), I vote against Giles. It was all I could do to finish this book on audio. I wanted to switch over to print but oh, woe, little reading time and prior commitments.

Things did pick up considerably when we finally got into the courtroom. Haller, and Connelly, both shine in this setting, and my enjoyment of the story and the drama and the action and the dialog all increased when the trial began. I felt that the pace really ramped up; instead of feeling exasperated, I really looked forward to the next installment. But even here, Connelly’s not up to his own standards. Some of the dialog was still contrived, and there were at least two instances were Haller expressed (in his first-person narration to me, the reader) that he didn’t know how to handle a new and surprising incident. These struck me as relatively commonplace courtroom events, though, and his confusion didn’t ring true for me. I mean, I almost knew how to handle things (at least in fiction-land) from my reading in this genre. Haller’s sudden ineptitude – when his character is supposedly so slick and expert – didn’t work for me. These were minor moments, but they drew my attention because they didn’t fit.

I’m mulling over this reading (listening) experience now, wondering how things took such a poor turn for me. I have always been really excited about Connelly’s Bosch novels, and not much less so, all the rest of his work: the standalone The Scarecrow, the first Haller book The Lincoln Lawyer, etc. From his first novel on (and I have now read them ALL), I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read. How sad and concerning, then, that this latest, The Fifth Witness, is my least favorite so far!

The courtroom drama did work. Some new characters were introduced who might hold some promise, namely Haller’s new assistant counsel, Jennifer “Bullocks” Aronson. And the big revelation at the end? Well, the jury is out (ha) on this so far. I like the future and the new directions it opens up for Haller, and for Maggie McFierce. I think I’m on board with the overarching change of heart it indicates. I am relatively sure I’m on board with the idea that this is a natural progression for Haller. But I’m not completely sold on any of these arguments; and I think the reason I’m not completely sold is that Connelly didn’t sell it. This was not his strongest work.

I hope very much for more to come, soon, and better, and maybe with Bosch, rather than or in addition to Haller? Bosch is my favorite. I realize Haller’s the new star, what with The Lincoln Lawyer movie making such a big splash. It was a good movie – entertaining and well-done and perhaps most important to me, fairly faithful to the book. But I hope Connelly isn’t letting this success dictate his work.

I’m sorry to have to write anything less than glowing about my guy Connelly, but I call ’em like I see ’em. I give The Fifth Witness a “meh” and hope for more, better, soon.

Jersey Law by Ron Leibman

A hard-boiled legal thriller with lots of laughs and an accent that’s all Jersey, but with a sensitive side as well.

Accomplished D.C. lawyer Ron Liebman evokes a sharply realistic and very funny New Jersey underworld in his second novel, Jersey Law (following Death to Rodrigo). Fans of Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer will enjoy the well-meaning but mildly rule-bending team of Mickie and Junne, criminal defense attorneys for inner-city Camden’s drug dealers and lowlifes. They defend drug kingpin Slippery Williams; they spar with the DA; and they carefully balance the letter of the law with watching their backs. Junne (short for Junior), our narrator, places us firmly in the Camden streets with his conversational style, what he would call “street jive.” Don’t mind the sentence fragments; they make the book breathe in Junne’s terse Jersey voice.

Mickie and Junne have been friends since middle school, and have their practice down to a fine art. When one of their clients decides to testify against another, however, their loyalties are tested. If they warn the client, who is an old friend, men will certainly die, and they will have broken client confidentiality; if they don’t, it may mean their own demise. And then there’s their new secretary to worry about: Tamara is working hard to keep her nephew off the streets and out of the gang life. Tamara is an excellent example of one of Liebman’s strengths as a novelist: he creates funny, sympathetic characters we care about in spite of their flaws.

Junne’s large Italian family, Mickie’s womanizing and their shady lawyer-landlord fit perfectly in with the scenery. By turns poignant and suspenseful, Jersey Law is consistently funny, ending on just the right note for a sequel.

This review originally ran in the June 28, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

book beginnings on Friday: Jersey Law by Ron Liebman

Thanks to Katy at A Few More Pages for hosting this meme. To participate: Share the first line (or two) of the book you are currently reading on your blog or in the comments. Include the title and the author so we know what you’re reading. Then, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line, and let us know if you liked or did not like the sentence.

Jersey Law looks to be a funny legal thriller with a heavy New Jersey accent.

Reginald Shawn Dupree, inmate number 65392, Camden County Jail, is definitely not liking the situation he has found himself in.

He shrugs as best he can, given that Slippery Williams’s two beefy fellow inmates have effectively strapped him in place, each man firmly grasping Reginald’s muscled arms, just about lifting his feet off the ground.

I like my genre fiction hard-boiled, so we’re off to a fine start!

Note: I’m reading an advanced proof for review, so this book beginning is subject to change.

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