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Book review: The Brethren, a novel by John Grisham.

Funny how when you talk about something you like, in my case books, words just seem to flow. It’s official. I seem to unable to write a book review that would be shorter than a thousand words, even when it comes to books I’m not that excited about. Now, this novel is definitely a book I wasn’t very excited to read.  John Grisham is one of those authors I like, but will probably never be crazy about. What I expect was a solid novel that would keep me entertained and that’s what I got.  My uncle gave me this book saying that it’s nothing special, but still an interesting read. I would tend to agree with him. In fact, that’s exactly how I would describe this book. But let’s get a more detailed than that, shall we?

The Brethren is, like most of Grisham's books, a legal thriller. The central characters are multiple, and so are the plot lines but the narrative is easy to follow and understand. The book is quite readable. It might be called a page turner, as the narrative is pretty eventful, thought one could always say that the 'page turning quality' is ultimately dependent on personal taste. The Brethren contains a fair amount of social satire, and perhaps we could say that is what sets it aside from other similar books. Apart from that, I would say that The Brethren is pretty much everything a good legal thriller is ought to be, interesting and well paced. 

One thing worth noting is that this book doesn't focus on murder as much as on a 'cat and mouse' play. 

Basically, the plot and introduction to the story could be described as following: Three former judges ( calling themselves the Brethren) are located in minimal security prison. There these judges are allowed to put together a sort of 'quasi-parody trials' and solve cases of prisoners with their consent. Their 'trials' are highly entertaining because everyone is expected to lie, being that everyone there is a criminal and all that. So, the 'judges' resort to common sense, presumably with some success. If you enjoy criticism of the legal system, reading these passages will be an absolutely delightful experience. I'm digressing a bit here, since these 'trials' don't really have anything to do with the plot, but I think they are worth pointing out as they were extremely well written.

Anyhow, these former judges also do some legal services for other prisoners, which they obviously (and illegally) charge but since that work doesn't prove to be very profitable, they also plan a con job: placing a lone heart advert in a gay newspaper and extracting money from rich lonesome (preferably married) gay man by means of blackmail. These three judges have all the time in the world, and have learned to be very patient. They also have a horrible lawyer on their side, so it seems their victims really don't stand a chance. I have to say these judges were very convincing characters, as much as I hated what they were doing, I was also fascinated by their fate. What do you think would happen with a 'former' middle aged judge that has fallen from grace? It's an interesting question. 

Besides the 'judges' plot, there is also a parallel plot featuring mister Lake, a rare specimen of what seems to be an honest politician. Lake is a widowed man, a congressmen who never broke the law and seems to be actually doing his job, i.e. serving the people. In other words, Lake is just what the CIA's director wants. What the CIA's director wants is a sure win presidential candidate they can control. What could Lake possibly have in common with the judges? How will they paths cross? Is CIA money all it takes to win an USA election? Well, you'll have to read this book to see but not everything is what it seems. 

I read this novel a couple of days ago (while I was recovering from an incredibly painful operation which was also a horrible failure so imagine my mood & sentiments). The book was exactly what I expected it to be, and it that sense I can honestly say that I'm not disappointed. I quite liked the implied irony and sarcasm of this novel. If you want to read someone who is able subtly make fun of election system, politicians, secret services, legal system and prisons, The Brethren is a novel for you. Here you basically have a story without a moral character. Everyone is corrupted, one way or another. You can't love these characters, but it's hard to hate them either. They're so human you're compelled to ,if not sympathize with them, then to understand them. 

“And they drank heavily, partied with great enthusiasm, and relished the drug culture; they moved in and out and slept around, and this was okay because they defined their own morality. They were fighting for the Mexicans and the redwoods, dammit! They had to be good people!” ― John GrishamThe Brethren

What are the faults of this novel? Well. for one it doesn't sound very plausible. There were too many coincidences and many things didn't seem to likely. Apart from that, I wouldn't say there are any explicit faults, it's more a case of it not being a very ambitious book. In addition, the book was a bit too long for my taste, I would have preferred it to be shorter. Maybe it was just little old me, but I felt some things were needlessly repeated and dragged on. The ending didn't feel realistic, but it kind of made sense in the context of the novel so I won't complain too much. There was a point when I expected it to develop into something more sinister (and interesting) but the narrative remained pretty standard. Once the parallel plots got interwoven, there weren't many surprises. Towards the end, I could definitely see things coming, but somehow the book kept my interest. So I'd say that despite having some minor faults, The Brethren is definitely a compelling read.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this novel, but I can't say that I learned anything from it. I was entertained and that was about it. I've read Grisham's works before, I'm familiar with his style and honestly in many ways this book didn't feel like anything new. I did think that the idea of imprisoned judges plotting away was quite fresh, so that was kind of cool. I don't remember seeing this idea/concept anywhere else, so bonus points for originality. What else to say? Grisham's legal thrillers are what he is known for and they are usually pretty good. I can certainly appreciate his simple and descriptive style of writing. I might read more of him. I would recommend this book to lovers of social satire and legal thrillers.


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