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Book review: The Appeal

theappealcover1A few posts ago I mentioned one of my many vices, my tendency to read too many books simultaneously and thus not finish any of them.  Well, somehow between all the March Madness games I cruised through the last 250 pages of John Grisham’s The Appeal in the past two days, finishing yesterday.  That’s not a testament to the lack of excitement of the games: it shows just how many commercials are shown during the Madness and just how compelling Grisham’s writing is.

Though 579 Amazon readers give The Appeal an average of 3/5 stars, I give the novel 4/5 stars.  I think John Grisham has similar issues to that of great bands like U2 and Radiohead: an average novel (or album) is usually outstanding compared to what all other novelists (artists) are releasing.  But unless it’s one of his (their) best efforts, critics tend to give it lower ratings.  These works seem to have tougher criteria than most work at large.

That being said, I feel that The Appeal is a middle-of-the-road Grisham work.  It certainly wasn’t better than A Time to Kill or The Pelican Brief, my two Grisham favorites, but I think it was significantly better than The Rainmaker and The King of Torts.  I’d say it’s among the top one-third of his novels to date.

I’m happy to see Grisham return to his bread-and-butter, the legal thriller.  He is the master of suspense, a talented storyteller and an excellent researcher.  While Grisham got backlash from some of his fans for A Painted House, Skipping Christmas and Playing for Pizza, I think he’s demonstrated his range (as he also did by writing An Innocent Man, a non-fiction legal work I’ve yet to read) and can succeed in writing myriad types of stories.

The Appeal is a story about how a Wall Street stockowner uses the power of purse in an attempt to manipulate a judicial election.  After the largest stock in his portfolio, Krane Chemical, lost a massive verdict in a toxic tort case, the stockowner decided not only to fight back on appeal, but tried to purchase a seat on the state’s supreme court to assure Krane Chemical wouldn’t lose again.

Though published in 2008, The Appeal delves into all sorts of timely issues including epidural hematoma (Natasha Richardson’s cause of death in the ski injury case last week) and of course, the ethics of campaign finance.  (Spoiler alert:  if you plan on reading the book, skip to next bolded item.)

In the book’s afterword, Grisham wrote:

Now that I have impugned my own work, I must say that there is a lot of truth in this story.  As long as private money is allowed in judicial elections we will see competing interest fight for seats on the bench.  The issues are fairly common.  Most of the warring factions are adequately described.  The tactics are all too familiar.  The results are not far off the mark.

The Appeal is a cautionary tale of what can happen if commercial interests continue to be allowed to funnel millions into political campaigns without a better system of checks.  Elections can, and often are, battles of funding and sound bites, and money talks. If nothing else, I learned a lot more about these issues, and am now freaked more than ever about the current state of our justice and political systems.

(End spoilers.)

Bravo to John Grisham for once again providing a surprise ending that kept me guessing.  If you’d like to learn more about the book before the 484-page plunge, Grisham has a nice Q&A about the book for his Amazon readers here (scroll down about 1/5 of the way down the page).

I can’t wait to tackle The Innocent Man and his newest, The Associate, the only two of 21 Grisham books I haven’t read yet.  Let’s hope this “finishing books that I start” mantra continues.


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