Gray Mountain

End Date:  January 31

Author:  John Grisham

Published:  2014

Genre:  Suspense / Thriller

Pages:  368 (hardcover)

Selected By:  The Divine Ms. Em

Average Score:  Scoring Liked Book

“The year is 2008 and Samantha Kofer’s career at a huge Wall Street law firm is on the fast track – until the recession hits and she gets downsized, furloughed, and escorted out of the building.  Samantha, though, is one of the ‘lucky’ associates: she’s offered an opportunity to work at a legal aid clinic for one year without pay, after which there would be a slim chance that she’d get her old job back.

“In a matter of days, Samantha moves from Manhattan to Brady, Virginia, population 2,200, in the heart of Appalachia, a part of the world she has only read about.  Mattie Wyatt, lifelong Brady resident and head of the town’s legal aid clinic, is there to teach her how to ‘help real people with real problems.’  For the first time in her career, Samantha prepares a lawsuit, sees the inside of an actual courtroom, gets scolded by a judge, and receives threats from locals who aren’t so thrilled to have a big-city lawyer in town.  And she learns that Brady, like most small towns, harbors some big secrets.

“Her new job takes Samantha into the murky and dangerous world of coal mining, where laws are often broken, rules are ignored, regulations are flouted, communities are divided, and the land itself is under attack from Big Coal.  Violence is always just around the corner, and within weeks Samantha finds herself engulfed in litigation that turns deadly.” – from the Goodreads summary.

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Gigglemug Reviews

The Divine Ms. Em:  Scoring Liked Book

I think this is another novel by John Grisham that contains enough reality to really get you invested in the real-life cause(s) that influenced it.  The injustice and unfairness of the story’s situations are highlighted by the twists and turns of the legal system that are supposed to prevent, protect, and defend against just the sort of horrors outlined in the novel.

Samantha, the main character, is a New York junior attorney in a huge law firm that gets hit by the recession and consequently has to fire dozens – if not hundreds – of its young attorneys and furlough some of its best and brightest.  She is lucky enough to be offered the furlough instead of a pink slip, but there is one huge caveat: she has to work as an unpaid intern for a non-profit, during which time she will retain her benefits and possibly have the hope of being hired back when the economy improves.  She contacts several non-profits, but competition for the jobs is stiff, and she ends up being interviewed by a legal-aid office in Brady, Virginia.

Brady itself is presented as an interesting town with some really quirky townsfolk – Romey stands out for me as a great example of the sort of citizens our city-girl finds herself dealing with.  Romey likes to play policeman and arrest people, going so far as to even haul them to jail for alleged minor infractions, but it is quickly made clear to our heroine that he is not a policeman at all, but he is well-connected and is, therefore, permitted to get away with this sort of behavior, as he “really means well.”  This sort of small-town mentality was a real opportunity for Grisham to point out just how foreign the landscape has become for urban Samantha, but, unfortunately, Grisham merely scratched the surface of this part of the story, and Romey and many other interesting characters were relegated to the sidelines.  This was a huge letdown for me, as it left me feeling as if the sense of town, its citizens, and its culture were never fully developed.

Gray Mountain‘s focus was mainly pointed directly at the attorneys who work in Brady’s legal-aid office: Mattie, Annette, and Donovan Gray – Mattie’s nephew who also stages his one-man crusade against Big Coal from his private firm in Brady.  Donovan is fleshed out a bit more than other secondary characters, as we soon learn that strip-mining left the mountain on which he had grown up as little more than a polluted ruin of its former self (hence the title of the novel itself).

Big Coal is, of course, the villain of this tale.  Our story focuses mainly on Appalachian coal country, and the coal companies of Gray Mountain are shown to not only be despotic, vengeful, and neglectful when it comes to their current and former employees, but also solely responsible for the stripping and raping of the beautiful Appalachian mountains; wildlife is wiped out, towns are destroyed, streams and ground water are polluted, and the human inhabitants surrounding the areas where this vile mining tactic is practiced are left to deal with the fatal health ramifications left in the wake of the toxins produced by this industry.  As fantastical as it seems when one reads about the lobbyists, bribes, politics, bullying, threats, and fatalities that occur within this novel, I was surprised – and appalled – to learn of the real-life situations that inspired Grisham to write this novel: tales of slurry ponds and pollution, of broken dams that resulted in destroyed homes and towns – even entire ecosystems.  I could go on and on about the horrific actions of Appalachian strip-mining, but I think Grisham points it out quite clearly in a way that can interest even a casual reader.

Overall, I think Grisham developed a few of his main characters fairly enough, but none were given enough opportunity to really make me feel invested in any of their plights.  I do believe he was on a righteous and just crusade against a dangerous and deep-pocketed (and thus all-powerful) industry, and his cause is a good one and one that should be brought to light by mainstream media… but the story itself was sacrificed in the process.  There is no resolution in the end, and several smaller issues are simply left open.

I have given it three cups of yummy tea, but it is definitely one of my least favorite Grisham novels.

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Annette.

Ms. Em read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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Lady Esbe: Scoring Liked Book

I haven’t read John Grisham in years.  I started off a fan of his earlier works but became quickly bored with his later novels seeming to sound alike.  I can say in the years away from his writing, I’ve not missed anything.  To put it bluntly, this story, if there is one, moved nowhere fast.  The female protagonist was more than annoying with the male protagonists being only slightly less so.

Not knowing what to expect this go around, but familiar with his conspiracy theories, I came into this reading being open-minded and willing to absorb.  However, what struck me for two-thirds of the book is the education or diatribe (dependent on your view point) of strip mining.  Well, I knew it was horrible but I got a poignant look at just how horrible it was (Zero Day barely glanced over the subject) and the ecological dangers.  So much of the book is taken up with nuances of people’s illnesses, the culpability of the mining companies and the unethical behavior of said companies, and other random Jerry Springer-like realities that occur in Appalachia, that I found that it went no where other than to say, “hey did you know this was going on not too far from where you live?”.   I was looking for a culmination for the story to progress by at least the fifty percent mark.  I was sorely disappointed, but again, more with getting the female protagonist up to speed on her newfound domain.

Samantha Kofer is a big city corporate lawyer who comes from fine to questionable pedigree of attorneys (her mother working for the Department of Justice and her father being an unethical disbarred attorney) who finds herself a victim of the Stock Market down turn a few years ago.  In an effort to have it’s cake and eat it too, the firm she worked for in New York offers her a furlough situation that required her to perform pro bono work for a year.  No doubt an effort to be able to say “hey, we loaned out all these junior attorney’s for a year’s worth of charity work to spin in their favor; all the while it’s a thinly veiled attempt to keep them on the string and not pay them with no real promises after the year was complete.  So this big city chick sets out on her Green Acres adventure into the hills of Virginia with less than an enthusiastic mindset and stubborn disposition, which does little service to her other than to make her arbitrarily contrary (ok, ok…she just got laid off, she has a reason to be pissed, but come on, buck up already; I don’t need for her to whine for the majority of the book about her dislike of litigation and ineptitude at it).  She fights the inevitable, becoming personally involved in her client’s lives, becoming attached to the Gray brothers and their shenanigans and ultimately her aptitude in research to actually benefit the little guy versus the corporate machine.  While her situation is impossible and tenuous, her constant denials and clear black and white attitude does not serve her well in a legal environment (I went to law school, folks, and nothing is black and white, ever).  I found her to be so one dimensional and flat that I couldn’t believe she was a real person.  Her New York state of mind of mind-one’s-business-and-don’t-get-involved does not serve her well, especially working for Mattie in the Legal Aid Office.

Mattie, God bless her, is a saint among the ne’er do wells that flounder in and around Brady, Virginia.  Her heart is in the right place and she does her best playing attorney and social worker to many of her impoverished clients.  Her heart of gold of putting up clients in hotels when needed, speaking to judges when it was clearly not her responsibility, etc. is heartwarming.  However, I only see annoyance and heartache for the attorney.  The fact that she saw something in the seemingly useless Samantha  (sidebar:  it really bothered me that while they were all so gushy and friendly with Samantha, NO ONE IN THE BOOK CALLED HER SAM!  How are we like family but have no nicknames or abbreviated names?  Very Odd, especially for that type of small-town southern community) to take her on as a burden in the office is yet another charitable case on her hands.  Sam does show some aptitude with Mattie’s grooming.  I rather had more interaction with Mattie but, alas, Mr. Grisham focuses on the most annoying of his cadre of characters.

We are introduced initially to Donovan Gray, nephew to Mattie and hot shot legal eagle for the backwoods and is reckless and clearly has a death wish.   Considering his opponent, it is understandable that he must also use underhanded tactics and loud boisterous actions to draw attention to his client’s plights and so forth.  However, his actions are so reckless, so outside of the box, in reality, he surely would have been disbarred or dead in light of how he chose to run his investigations and court actions.  I suppose he would have to have a big and bold personality to deal with what he was dealing with.  However, it was just too much.  His brother, Jeff wasn’t very far behind as the investigator.  I understand the loss the two brothers suffered at the hands of an unscrupulous father and greedy coal company and their need to exact revenge even as acting as nuisances to the said companies, but again, even these characters felt like too much.  Like Grisham was trying very hard to make all parties different, when on some level they were all the same, but coming at the same problem from different perspectives.

When we get to the antagonists of this tale, the corporate machine, whether the financial industries, attorneys or coal companies along with the little wayward nuisance antagonists , I found myself saying “that’s just too much.”  There is no doubting the harm that the finance industry and subsequently the attorneys who dealt directly in those businesses  did.  It’s apparent any many American’s lives in how much they lost financially from savings to homes.  However, the coal companies are to be a bigger bad guy in this novel.  Per Grisham, they have their hands so far up the government’s butt that they can even cause the manipulation of the FBI to do their bidding.  I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it’s just rather ehem,  multiple shooters on the grassy knoll type of stuff.  No doubt , the government has a hand in the travesty that is strip mining by not effectively regulating the industry to protect our environment, to protect the workers and the community that is surrounded by the area.  Unlike Mr. Grisham, I will not belabor the point because he beat it to death.  We also have the coal companies’ attorneys who are like any other cutthroat attorney: ruthless.  No big news there.  However, when we get down to the average person in Appalachia, we get so much of the poverty issues (homelessness, hunger, drug addiction, drug trafficking, etc) that it was one hit after another.  I understand that we needed these things to happen to have the unsure and reluctant Samantha come around to her new clientele’s needs.

All in all, it was a quick read.  However, I found myself always asking, “Sooooo, where are we going with this?”  There was the thrown in jealousy: not needed with all the other issues going on, but okay, when it rains, it pours.  There was also bullying from the corporate types to the clientele begging (and also bullying in some respects) for help.  The book highlights so many problems for the area and my heart goes out to them because there isn’t a lot they can do to improve their situation.  However, when I read a novel I don’t mind being educated, but I do mind feeling like I’m being beaten about the head with the horror of a situation.  I get it.  If ever I’m in a financial position to contribute to causes that help the suffers of black lung disease significantly, I’ll be happy to.  However, in reading a novel, I want to feel like there is going to be a real resolution at some point versus just a single epiphany by a substandard character.

I can honestly say that I didn’t think it was the best book, but I can’t say that I so disliked it that I could give it a lower marking.

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Mattie.

Lady Esbe read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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Elle Tea:  Scoring Liked Book

I was only minutely familiar with Grisham prior to this novel, having previously read three of his novels over a decade ago (The Pelican Brief, The Firm, and A Time to Kill) and swiftly learning a fun thing about myself: legal thrillers are not my cup o’ tea.

Gray Mountain turned out not to be much a of a legal thriller at all, which worked out swell for me.  The writing was quite good – which would be expected from someone who’s made writing thrillers his career for the past 25+ years.  Grisham is obviously an intelligent man who makes it a point to thoroughly research his subject matter, traits which would also be expected at this point, given that he was both an attorney (defense and trial, I do believe) and a member of the House of Representatives.  He also does a masterful job of making his material accessible to the masses, bringing all of the complexities of U.S. trial law down to an understandable level for laymen such as myself who couldn’t tell you the difference between defalcation and defeasance without an online tool or their very own copy of Black’s.

My favorite thing about this selection is actually the very same thing that irritated Esbe and BillMo: the information about the Appalachian coal industry.  Grisham obviously did his homework about mountaintop removal mining, and he had his hands full with the long list of atrocities committed by Big Coal in the name of the almighty dollar.  I found the background of strip mining and its long-term effects on ecosystems, the environment as a whole, and health to be informative – and absolutely infuriating.  I was appalled to find out that, while I can still not wipe my mind clean of the horrific images I saw as a Wee Tea of the birds and sea-life covered in oil thanks to the Exxon Valdez, I had no idea that more damaging work was being done – with government approval and subsidies, no less – right in D.C.’s back yard.  And I found it vile (though, sadly, not shocking in the least) to learn just how closely tied Big Coal (and Big Coal’s infernally deep, deep pockets) is to local governments and political offices, national politics, international businesses, and lobbyists.  Despite the interest it peaked in me, I can completely understand Esbe’s particular dismay: Gray Mountain is supposed to be a novel, a legal thriller about a big-city attorney who happens to end up in involved in a small town’s fight against a series of corporate tyrants; instead, it is more like an Aesop fable – a sermon masquerading as fiction.

When it came to the novelization itself, the characters all fell a little flat to me.  I really wanted to feel for those stricken with cancer, for those trapped in jobs that were – literally – killing them slowly, but they never came off the pages enough to become anything other than words on a piece of paper.  They were written very coolly, with a detached sort of air, making each one of them more like a case file – the facts of a person’s life or situation rather than real people with real problems.  The most moving part of the novel as it pertains to the people of Brady was the realization (made over halfway through) that the locals who spend their lives making others richer than most can even begin to imagine will more than likely end up dead long before their time, with their last five-to-ten years spent in sickness and slowly deteriorating health – all because their deaths are deemed the most inexpensive solution for the companies themselves; in essence, it’s cheaper to pay for a funeral than chemotherapy and radiation.

The most glaring failing for me was Samantha’s relation to the townsfolk – and their reactions to her.  Having moved to the South a few years ago myself, I think a huge opportunity was missed to build on the true desperation of our protagonist’s situation, and this, I believe, makes her harder to relate to – instead of sympathy for what is essentially a foreign culture, she is left so flat that she comes across as nothing but a spoiled, over-privileged snob.  But there is, indeed, a huge culture-shock that slaps you right in the face once you cross the Mason-Dixon, and so much that you never even though to question proves to be unlike anything you could have ever expected: the way people speak, how they act (and react), what they value, how they view the world outside of their town / region / time zone, how the politics and government institutions are run – I have experienced, and still do experience, these very difficulties in the urban South – I cannot imagine how much more deeply those things would stand out (and how much more I would stand out) if heading into the hills of Appalachia.

All in all, I think people who are looking for a legal thriller or suspense novel will probably want to pass on this one.  It’s a great way to get a fire lit under your arse for a good cause, but if that’s what you’re wanting, skip the fiction and check out the facts for yourself.

(Incidentally, if anyone else is interested in learning more about the factual occurrences that I think probably inspired some of the fictional situations in this novel, check out: the Big Sandy River Disaster (2000), the death of Jeremy Davidson (2004), and the Fields Creek Disaster (2014).  Strip-mining is a very serious issue and one that does extreme damage to the environment, ecosystems, wildlife, and humans; if you’re interested in reading more about it, there is quite a bit of information provided by both Mountaintop Removal Coal-Mining and Appalachian Voices, including links to studies showing long-term effects of strip-mining and slurry.  If you know all you need to and want to find out how you can add your voice to those who want to stop mountaintop removal, there are plenty of brave and hard-working men and women fighting the good fight; a few easy-to-access ones are: The Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and Mountain Justice.)

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Jeff Gray.  It was a hard call, really, since they were all pretty hollow, but I could empathize with his anger at the injustices heaped upon his family and town, as well as his need to do something, whether it be personally seek revenge or simply hunt down the best way to really shake the system’s core.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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BillMo:  Scoring Liked Book

Caveat: BillMo did not finish this selection.

I’m giving this selection three teacups, but my rating reflects more my feelings about the message of the story than the story itself.  I would never have known strip-mining caused so many problems – not only for the environment but the communities that are so close to the places that strip-mining takes place.  With this being said, the story itself was lacking in almost everything.  I feel I would have liked it better had Grisham focused on one story, rather than taking on so many trials and side-stories at once.

I wasn’t able to finish this book, but I couldn’t get into even the part I did read.  I did not like Samantha – the main character – and I felt no connection with anyone else in the novel.  I stopped at about 60%, and, even at that point, it wasn’t clear where the story was supposed to be going or where our attention was supposed to be focused.  There is a big event involving the loss of a character that I felt should have occurred earlier on; after that, the rest of the book should have been focused on that loss and the events that caused and surrounded it.  If Grisham had made his story about that, then I think I might have gotten into it.

I appreciate the book for what it was, but I just couldn’t like the story itself.

With Which Character Did You Most Identify:  Blythe… but really no one.  If I had to pick someone, though, it would be her; she was only mentioned a couple of times and had a very minor role as Samantha’s NYC roommate, but I could understand her stress of worrying about her job and trying to do everything possible to show she was worth something and “Please, God, don’t let them fire me.”

BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

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