Audiobook Review: The Racketeer by John Grisham

15 11 2012

The Racketeer by John Grisham

Read by J. D. Jackson

Random House Audio

Length: 12 Hrs 45 Min

Genre: Legal Thriller/Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: The Racketeer is a highly complicated tale which is less of a legal thriller and more of a mix of confidence game and revenge thriller which pushes right up to the line of implausibility. I loved every minute of it.

Grade: A-

I have always had a bit of a strange relationship with John Grisham books. I remember oh so many years ago, when a friend of mine who never read gave me a copy of The Firm and told me I just had to read it. I did read it, and liked it. Then the movie came out, and the whole world loved it, but I kind of found the whole thing sort of a let down. It wasn’t until a few years later, after college, when one of my housemates had a copy of A Time to Kill that I gave Grisham another go. I loved A Time to Kill, and eventually began working my way through his books. For a while, it was great, and then I lost interest. There is a weird sort of experience with an author who has had so many of his books turned into movies. Outside of A Time to Kill, I don’t think I ever liked both the book and movie version of any of Grisham’s novels. I either loved the book, but hated the movie, like in The Runaway Jury, or found the book kind of "meh," like The Rainmaker, but then fell in love with the movie. Now, every year a Grisham novel comes out, and every year I find myself not caring. Yet, someone will say something, or I will read a review or article, or see John on an interview, and end up reading or listening to the novel. I was totally on the fence about Grisham’s latest, The Racketeer. I’ll be honest, the cover sort of made it look like an old time gangstery noir novel, which isn’t really Grisham’s bread and butter. What actually turned me around and decided to give this one a go was discovering it was narrated by a favorite narrator of mine. Sometime that’s all it takes.

Malcolm Bannister was a small town lawyer until he took on the wrong client. Now doing a 10 year stint in prison, swept into a RICO case he knew nothing about, Malcolm has lost everything. When a Federal Judge is murdered, Malcolm sees his chance for freedom. Armed with information that the FBI wants, Malcolm strikes a deal with the feds for his release and witness protection. Yet this is just the first step in a complex plan that Malcolm has set in motion. The Racketeer is a highly complicated tale which is less of a legal thriller and more of a mix of confidence game and revenge thriller which pushes right up to the line of implausibility. I loved every minute of it. Grisham has created a wonderful character in Malcolm Bannister. A simple small time lawyer whose experience being railroaded by Federal Government embitters him, while unleashing his inner criminal genius. Malcolm’s genius is a slowly burning, deliberately plodding type of genius that takes a long time to unfold. There are moments of The Racketeer that seems simply ludicrous. Series of events that have to happen just the right way for the story to work, but let’s face it, if it all crumbled apart it wouldn’t make much of a story. In the past, Grisham will often use a novel to highlight a social ill, yet, in The Racketeer, Grisham gives us mini-glimpses of a plethora of Government incompetence, from bloated and wasteful prison budgets, to the drug culture that is feeding the beast, with stops for Public corruption and single minded law enforcement along the way. Yet, most importantly, it’s simply a lot of fun. I think that there will be a huge split among Grisham fans, many will love it, but plenty will loathe Grisham’s complicated and often harebrained plot. I totally came down on the loving it side. While I won’t try to paint this as one of Grisham’s greatest novels, it’s the most fun I have had reading Grisham in many, many years.

JD Jackson reads The Racketeers with a slow, deliberate pace that perfectly matches the meticulously deliberate character of Malcolm Bannister. Jackson definitely gave a lot of thought to the approach he would take with this novel, and I feel his choice here was just right. Jackson always seems to find the music of the novel, whether it be a bit of funk, or some jazz, and he often serves as conductor of the rhythms of the novel as much as he does it’s voice. Here Jackson reads The Racketeers as a slowly developing piece of classical music, allowing the plot to build slowly through its characters until a wonderful dénouement. Along the way his tones a rich and pure, bringing flavor to the many characters you meet along the way. JD Jackson was the perfect choice for this novel and gives another performance to remember.

Audiobook Review: What It Was by George Pelecanos

26 01 2012

What It Was by George Pelecanos

Read by J.D. Jackson

Hachette Audio

Length: 6 Hrs 45 Min

Genre: Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Pelecanos fans will rejoice in a new Derek Strange tale and he certainly does his fans justice. What is Was is the hip thrilling story that his fans have come to expect, full of authentic, almost poetic dialogue, and human characters which will leave the listener wanting more.

Grade: A

One of the things I really struggle with, as a reader, is authenticity versus how I wish things would be. I always love authors who can create really authentic characters. Yet, one of the things about authentic characters is that they do, say and think authentic things, and many of these things annoy the batshit out of me. One of the things that has come up in a few of George Pelecanos’ novels that drives me crazy is his characters penchants for rationalization of their infidelity. There is this concept among many man that, yes, cheating is wrong, but heck, men are men and it’s what they do, and for some reason, this justifies the action. Men, who believe they are the masters of all, find comfort in the fact that they are willing slaves to their base needs. I think a combination of growing up religious, and having been around a lot of self proclaimed strong Christian men who will rant about how homosexuality is an abomination but revel in their infidelity makes me especially sensitive to this issue. So, yeah, when Derek Strange spends time not just attempting to rationalize his infidelity, but his fathers during What it Was, I was momentarily annoyed. Yet, annoyance with the character should not instantly translate to annoyance with the author. In fact, after my initial reaction has time to fade, it reminds me why I love Pelecanos. Because, this rationalization fits Derek Strange. Whether right or not, Pelecanos captures how this character would feel. It’s this authenticity of thought that goes hand in hand with Pelecanos’ skill at creating dead on dialogue that makes him one of my favorite writers.

What It Was takes place a few years after the events of Hard Revolution. Derek Strange has left the police force after the 1968 DC riots, and has opened his own one-man Private Investigation firm, Strange Investigations. A woman comes to his office asking Strange to attempt to recover a ring she lost. It seems the ring was the possession of a young man who was brutally murdered, a murder being investigated by his former partner Frank Vaughn. Strange and Vaughn’s investigations lead them to a suspect, street named Red Fury, who is on such a violent crime spree that it will become one of the District of Colombia’s darkest criminal legends.  What is Was is a novel that is full of dark beauty, and brutal realism. Pelecanos creates a brilliant visual of both DC, and the uneasiness of the early 70’s with his portraits of the changing neighborhoods of the city, all brought to life with his descriptive use of the pop culture of the time. Pelecanos has this amazing talent for putting you right in the moments of his stories. You can hear the base coming out of the 8 track player playing James Brown’s latest, taste the greasy fish sandwiches that Strange shares with his mother, and feel the unease as you travel through neighborhoods you don’t belong in. I also love that Pelecanos criminals, even the smart ones, tend to make stupid mistakes, and his heroes are far from infallible. This is not a story about super cops capturing a master criminal, but a real cop, and a real PI, trying to limit the damage one determined criminal can do. If you have yet to take on a Pelecanos novel, this is a wonderful place to start. Despite it being the 5th novel involving Derek Strange, it works well as a standalone with only minor spoilers for Hard Revolution, the previous Strange novel and it contains all of the themes and feel of a Pelecanos novel. Pelecanos fans will rejoice in a new Derek Strange tale and he certainly does his fans justice. What is Was is the hip thrilling story that his fans have come to expect, full of authentic, almost poetic dialogue, and human characters which will leave the listener wanting more.

Some of my favorite narrators have voiced Pelecanos’ work, like Richard Allen and Dion Graham, as well as some of Graham’s former The Wire Co-Stars, like Lance Reddick and Chad Coleman. I always believed the Pelecanos’ work, with a narrator that can make his words sing just right, is even better in audio form. JD Jackson proves me right with his excellent performance of What it Was. Jackson perfectly captures the musical rhythms of Pelecanos’ prose, as wells as the cadence and swerve of the dialogue from characters ranging from low level street thugs and Jersey button men, to Greek diner owners and DC working girls.  Jackson’s performance seems almost inspired by the pre-disco funk of the early 70’s, creating the feel of the streets of DC with his voice as Pelecanos’ creates it with his words. Hachette Audio’s production was excellent overall, I even kinda dug the opening and closing music, which had an appropriate 70’s area funk feel to it.


Check out my interview with narrator JD Jackson.

Note: A special thanks to the good people at Hachette Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

Narrative Overtones: My Interview with J.D. Jackson

26 01 2012

When I discovered that not only was George Pelecanos coming out with a new novel, only a short time after his release of The Cut, but that it would be a Derek Strange novel, I let out a girlish squeal. Derek Strange has been a favorite character of mine for a while, and it had been about 7 years since Hard Revolution, the last novel featuring Strange. Pelecanos has had some excellent narrators take on his work, including the amazing Dion Graham, narrating veteran Richard Allen, as well as quite a few The Wire Alumn. When I heard the J.D. Jackson would be narrating What It Was, I instantly realized that he was a great choice. I had only listened to one previous audiobook that Jackson had narrated, but it is one of my favorites, Stephen Boyett’s Elegy Beach. J.D. was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer some of my questions.


Bob: First off, we’ll start simple. How did you get involved in the audiobook narration business?

JD: I got involved through a Commercial Talent Agency in NYC (ATLAS TALENT).  They sent me to an audition at Recorded Books, Inc.  where I met the amazing Claudia Howard.  She liked me, and welcomed me into the fold of narrators, where I’ve done tons of books to this day.   Through Recorded Books, I was connected to Deyan Audio, who’ve also been very supportive of my career, and provided me with countless opportunities as well. 

Bob: When prepping for an audiobook what is your normal process? Do you prefer having interaction with the book’s author, if available, or do would you rather take on projects without a lot of outside influence?

JD: I normally read the book, get a feel for the rhythm and pace of the writing.  I also list every character,  visualize a person(actor, friend, family member, cartoon character) that reminds me of that character and write down the names side by side.  Sometimes I play a piece of music to give me the proper feel of the book.

Bob: In What it Was, you are taking on the character of Derek Strange, who has been recorded before by Richard Allen and Lance Reddick (of The Wire, and Fringe fame). Did you take any different steps in preparing your narration for this novel with a character that has been giving a voice by other narrators?

JD: I was completely unaware that Strange had been recorded by those fine actors.  Makes me feel even more privileged to tackle the book.  But glad that I didn’t hear their previous work, so that I wouldn’t be influenced by it.

Bob: What I have always loved about George Pelecanos’ work is that with the rhythms of his prose, and his authentic dialogue, there is an almost workmanlike poetry in his novels. You have definitely captured that well in your reading. How hard is it for you to find the right cadence and tone when you are reading a novel like What it Was?

JD: Actually it’s pretty easy with a writer like Pelecanos.  His style is the right mix of grit, poetry, and smarts.  Those are the types of scripts, films, books, characters that I enjoy the most.  So when I get a chance to do work like this, I almost fall into it with ease, because I consider my own style/mannerisms to be in step with that.

Bob: One thing you probably don’t know about me is that I am a huge Post Apocalyptic Fiction fan. My first experience with you as a narrator was your amazing reading of Stephen Boyett’s Elegy Beach. Beyond being an author, Boyett is a popular disc jockey and I feel that he brings that sort of hip rhythmic style to his writing which you captured perfectly. I would love to hear about your experience narrating that novel.

JD: First of all, thanks so much for the compliment.  I was honored to do a book like this.  Normally I’m relegated to doing urban works, which I love.  But I also consider myself to be eclectic, and love experimenting with different genres.  This was one of those opportunities, where my friends at Deyan Audio suggested me for this project,  I was able to meet Stephen, get some insight, direction, and immediate feedback.  It was one of my better experiences.  He is truly a brilliant mind.

Bob: What are some of your personal favorite moments as an audiobook narrator? Are there any books that haven’t been produced as an audiobook that you would love to get a shot at? Are there any genres of books that you would like to get more opportunities to read?

JD: The aforementioned Elegy  Beach was definitely one of those favorite moments.  Also being selected as one of Audiofile magazine’s "Best Voices of 2011" was another.  Books that I’ve enjoyed the most were Nichelle Tramble’s "The Dying Ground," and "The Last King." as well as "America" by ER Frank.

I would love to do a Walter Mosley series (Leonid Mcgill, Fearless Jones).  And as far as genres go, I’m open to just about anything, as long as the writing is smart, fun, and thought provoking.

Bob: If, someday in the future, there was a book written about the life and times of JD Jackson, who would you like to write the biography, and who would you want to narrate it?

JD: I think I would love to have Paulo Coehlo  write my biography, and Don Cheadle to narrate.

Bob: And finally, are there any upcoming projects, whether audiobooks or otherwise, that you would like to share?

JD: No upcoming projects to announce at this time, just educating young thespians and raising my boys.

I would again like to thank JD for answering my questions. You can find a list of audiobooks narrated by JD Jackson at, Recorded Books and Audiofile.