Tag Archives: Scott Turow

Book Review: “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay

William Landay’s bestselling novel, “Defending Jacob,” is both a legal thriller and a searing portrayal of a family’s anguish as it endures a crisis alone, abandoned by friends and neighbors.

The main character, Andy Barber, is the first assistant district attorney in a tony Boston suburb. He adores his wife, Laurie, and their son, Jacob. He is at the top of his game professionally. As the senior staff attorney reporting to the elected District Attorney, Barber gets his pick of the high-profile cases to prosecute.

When a student is found dead in a leafy park near the high school, Barber takes the case. But this is no ordinary murder. Andy Barber’s comfortable world is turned upside down when Jacob is arrested for the murder of classmate Ben Rifkin.

Landay explores these central questions: do parents really know their children, how far will they go to protect their children, and what happens to the fragile family dynamic when their beliefs about the basic goodness of their children are challenged? He also explores the variables that shape our children, from nurture versus nature to genetic behavioral predispositions.

The 14-year-old Jacob is in many ways a typical teen-ager. He is a puzzle to his parents, an unpopular student in school, and an active user of social media. He has few friends and some classmates view him as weird. He is guarded in his communications with his parents, revealing little about his life.

Andy Barber has a secret of his own. His father and grandfather were murderers. After Jacob’s arrest, he finally reveals his secret to Laurie, fearing the prosecution will use it to demonstrate the existence of a “murder gene” in his son’s DNA.

When the evidence begins to point toward Jacob, the District Attorney takes Andy Barber off the case and he is suspended with pay. Classmates tell police Jacob had a knife and a possible motive, since Ben Rifkin bullied him. And then Jacob’s fingerprint is found on the dead boy’s jacket.

The scenes where the Barbers meet with their attorney and a psychologist hired by the defense are among the most interesting in the book. During these meetings the Barbers learn some harsh, uncomfortable truths about their son. Landay, a former prosecutor, gives the reader an insider’s glimpse of the strategies and tactics of both the prosecution and defense and adds deft insights into the courts and the legal system.

As the trial progresses to its conclusion, a surprising plot twists jar the reader, but it’s the brilliant and shocking ending to this story that leaves the reader both satisfied and unsettled.

Readers who like Scott Turow will enjoy this story, though I found Landay’s characters not as complex as the characters that grace Turow’s novels. Still, this is a suspenseful story and a worthwhile read.

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:


The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach


Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?


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Setting: An Overlooked Element of Fiction

Why do fiction writers choose a particular setting for their work? Ask a fiction writer and you will likely get one of these reasons:

  • I visited there on vacation and it was a magical place.
  • The setting enhances the story.
  • I love nature and the plot lends itself to an outdoorsy setting.
  • It’s one of the biggest cities in the country and people will identify with it.
  • I really didn’t give it a lot of thought.

It’s the last answer that should trouble any writer. Setting is one of the overlooked elements of fiction writing. Writers should consider carefully the setting or multiple settings for their story. Setting is where a story takes place, but it’s more than that. The setting grounds the story in time and place. It provides an orientation point for the story. Most importantly, when described well, the setting can function like a major character, giving more depth and meaning to the story.

There are two types of settings in fiction writing:

  • Real (examples include cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles)
  • Imagined (Hogwarts and Scott Turow’s Kindle County come to mind)

Here are some tips regarding setting:

  • Establish the setting early; it will give the reader a visual to orient her about the story.
  • Use all of the senses. You want the reader to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it and even taste it.
  • Don’t go overboard on details, especially when describing settings that are actual places. Everybody knows what Times Square looks like. Select details that help enhance the mood and the tone you are seeking to create.
  • Describe your settings in stages. Avoid the early information dump when describing your setting. Nineteenth Century writers could get away with that because there were no movies then, but it is just not done in contemporary fiction.
  • Make sure the setting aligns with the genre and the theme. In Gone with the Wind, Tara is not only the plantation owned by the O’Hara family. It represents the values of the Old South.
  • Use richly textured, specific descriptions.

When using an actual place, make sure to get the details right. It’s a good practice to visit the settings of your novels, although writers have penned credible novels on the basis of careful research.

Historical novels present special challenges when it comes to the setting. Writers not only have to describe a particular place, but the details must be accurate and reflect the housing, transportation and technology that was available at the time. A novel that takes place in the 18th Century cannot feature a character turning on a lightbulb.


Author Elizabeth George, in her book, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, placed a great emphasis on setting. In her book, she discussed setting before plot because “setting explored to its fullest is not only part of character, it can also be the key to plot.” George identified several functions of setting. It creates atmosphere. “Setting not only promotes the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel he’s reading, it also establishes a feeling that the reader takes into the experience. Setting triggers mood as well.”

Another function of setting, George wrote, is to reveal character. “Through a character’s environment, you show who he is. Everything else is interpreted by the reader,” she wrote.

Setting can also serve as a contrast to an event. She gave the example of P.D. James’ novel, A Taste for Death, wherein a gruesome double murder took place in the hushed vestry of a church.

George also rejected the notion that you should write what you know when choosing a setting. Her novels are set in England and George lives in southern California. “What I believe,” George wrote, “is that your setting should be a place that you want to know about, a place you are interested in exploring, a place you want to describe, a place that resonates with you or a place that evokes a personal and intensely visceral response in you.”

She strongly recommends visiting the setting you have chosen and describes at length the details she records when she visits the setting she has chosen.

When used correctly setting should orient the reader to the story, support the themes and enhance the narrative, without getting in the way.

How do you go about selecting a setting for your story?


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