Sycamore Row by John Grisham – Thoughts

For almost a quarter of a century, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has captivated readers with its raw exploration of race, retribution, and justice. Now, its hero, Jake Brigance, returns to the courtroom in a dramatic showdown as Ford County again confronts its tortured history. Filled with the intrigue, suspense and plot twists that are the hallmarks of the world’s favourite storyteller, SYCAMORE ROW is the thrilling story of the elusive search for justice in a small American town.

Reading the first fifty pages of Sycamore Row I experienced two very different emotions. Firstly, and I can’t remember this happening before, I couldn’t help but grin as I lost myself in every page, in fact I wasn’t aware I was grinning until I heard my mobile ringing and looked away from the book – smiling! The second emotion was anger. Not of Grisham’s writing, his narrative or style, but Seth’s distant family. Racist, obnoxious, opinionated and just plain vile – you can’t help but feel for Lettie the black housekeeper, a housekeeper tasked with looking after the house and an ailing Seth Hubbard for the last three years. Upon his death and his family’s arrival Lettie is cast aside like a mess on a shoe, left to fend for her family and unemployed.

Now that I’ve finished Sycamore Row I can categorically say that those emotions never went away. They would bubble and fester, they weren’t always present but it was as if they were stuck in limbo, waiting to emerge just like a pocket of air escaping water throughout the entire story. You never quite knew where the bubble would burst but you knew it would at some point.

This is without doubt the best legal thriller I’ve read this year, hands down the best. Set at a terrific pace this multi layered story evolves and evolves and just when you think it can’t go anywhere, that the end is in nigh, the book suddenly branches off in a fresh direction, a new perspective, and Grisham introduces a new witness or a different focus to the investigation. This really is clever and sharp witted stuff!

Characterisation is key to any book and it was so satisfying for me to find out what happens to Jake Brigance and his family following the trial of Carl Lee Hailey. Three years down the line he’s still dining out on the plaudits and fame from the case – even if the money and rewards aren’t as forthcoming – and finds himself stuck in a rut doing the same old cases day in day out. Our protagonist had hoped to have moved on to bigger and better things but alas his loss is our literary gain.

John Grisham has brought together an eclectic mix of old and new characters. They all play their part in a legal thriller that is both entertaining and evocative. Even the nasty characters are enjoyable; they all help to add depth and colour to the book but Jake, Ozzie and Lucien carry the book as far as I’m concerned.

I enjoyed where the book takes the reader and where it ends and hopefully in a few years’ time we’ll be allowed to revisit Ford County and experience life in Reuben Atlee’s courtroom once again through the eyes of Jake Brigance. With sharp dialogue, atmospheric narrative and a sagacious storyline, Sycamore Row is one not to be missed. Highly recommended.

So Cold The River by Michael Koryta – Thoughts

So Cold The River by Michael Koryta

A man in a bowler hat, a haunting violin and a bottle of curious sulphuric tasting water. Did I mention water? Whatever you do, don’t drink the water. I repeat; don’t drink the water!

I’ve just re-read this classic book and can’t believe it has been seven years since I first read the book – my introduction to Michael Koryta – and it still ranks as one of my best ever reads.

So Cold The River by Michael Koryta is a hypnotic and hauntingly chilly tale following one man’s attempt to chronicle a family’s childhood history in West Baden, Indiana. It’s very hard to categorize into one genre as so many themes are utilized in this 528 huge page turner. Horror, thriller, Crime and supernatural forces are all present in a stunning story of murder, greed and deceit.

Eric Shaw, a has-been cinematographer formerly of Los Angeles and now Chicago, has resorted to making small videos for funerals at the bequest of grieving families. Shaw is approached by Alyssa Bradford at the end of her sister’s funeral and offers him a job to investigate/document her father in law’s (Campbell Bradford) family, long since forgotten.

The video is to be a celebration of his life, one she wants completed before he dies so that the family as a whole can enjoy with him. Shaw accepts not only the $20,000 offer but an ancient blue bottle of Pluto mineral water.

The bottle had never been opened and belongs to Campbell Bradford, the 95 year old multi-millionaire who lies dying in a lonely hospital room. Although hidden away, and until this point had never left Bradford’s side, Alyssa Bradford sensed its importance. The blue bottle sparks a chain of events that would lead to a destructive and devastating conclusion.

Shaw, estranged from his wife Claire, makes his way to the adjoined Midwest towns of West Baden and French Lick armed with a camera and the curious, foul tasting bottle of Pluto Water. Shortly before he embarked on the drive to Indiana Eric gave in to the temptation and opened the bottle and took a sip of the mysterious water. He became violently ill and the die had been cast.

Despite being a monster of a book, the pace is rather interesting. It isn’t a quick read for obvious reasons but I found that as the story developed so did the pace, hand in hand with the water’s stranglehold and intensity. I’m not sure if Koryta meant this to happen but this is how I saw the book evolving. Very clever and the flow is just right, I finished the book in three reasonable sessions.

We meet a number of colourful characters along the way and Josiah Bradford, the only living descendant of the millionaire in Indiana is one of them. An evil brute of a man, he appears to have a chip on his shoulder, a chip that grows rapidly after coming into physical contact with Eric. Koryta tells his story well and whenever Josiah is centre stage it’s as if the book takes on a whole new dark persona.

A story of Yin and Yang, light and shade, good and evil – the book is an engaging, icy page turner in every sense. This is Koryta’s first book to be published in the UK and certainly won’t be his last, not on this form I suspect.

Don’t drink the water! You have been warned!