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A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

You probably know that when you start a review of a book by quoting someone else that you are not really going to have anything original to say about it. Sometimes that's because it's already been lauded to the skies and you agree with every published word.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A New York public defender gets involved in the perfect heist as his hitherto perfect career starts a nose-dive. It's a sprawl of a book that has some great moments, far outweighed by superfluous digressions. This winner of the PEN Debut fiction prize left me glad to leave it behind.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 864 Date: August 2013
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857052803

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Sometimes it isn't.

Casi's voice is astonishing is one of the blurb quotes. I agree. It's just that you can still get tired of hearing it.

And I did.

Casi is a 24-year-old New York public defender, who has never yet lost a case. Author Sergio De La Pava also works as a public defender in New York City, so that tone of authenticity in the voice is probably hard won. I'm guessing that some of what is in these tortuous 864 pages is pretty much the way it is.

Those bits are the best bits.

When he's talking about meeting clients and trying to explain how the system works and why, no, probably, it's unlikely he's going to get them off, not them nor the other dozens of cases he'll be dealing with that week. When he's in the depths of the legal system trying to help a mentally challenged inmate on death-row whose original Defence lawyer apparently hadn't bothered looking the word up before starting.

Those are the bits of the book that makes it feel like there is a really good insider view, legal process, story buried that could be illuminatingly and intelligently and entertainingly told. Even in Casi's voice, it would be fun. In fact, if restricted to that, especially in Casi's voice it would be fun. It would have a touch of the Marlowes about it, updated for the modern age.

There are other good bits. At least plot-wise, the notion of a couple of lawyers properly planning the perfect heist and getting away with it – or not – has legs, as they say. The whole debate around perfection and what it means and whether it exists, might be allowable in such a book.

In here, it is just one of the very many things that get in the way.

Another one of them is the late 20th century history of boxing as seen from the standpoint of the career of one Wilfred Benitez (presumably all true – I figure – having now googled the name). There's a decent biography right there. I'm sorry but I hate the very notion of people watching men fight for a living, and I was almost willing the guy to die by the end, just so I could stop reading about the blows he was taking and inflicting: all the worse for being probably real, totally legal and (to my way of thinking) more than a bit sick.

But that's just me and my take on boxing. As a purely journalistic endeavour, it's actually very good.

What it's doing shoe-horned into this book leaves me blank.

Until, eventually, with about another two hundred pages to go, I finally come to the conclusion that this isn't a book. It's a self-published pitch to people who might want to take the enthusiasm in hand and make a craftsman out of a wordsmith.

I subsequently discovered that the work was originally self-published before being taken up and given the professional treatment – with the exception, it would seem, of a decent editor.

Pages of random philosophy are at times mildly stimulating – none of them creating the kind of light-bulb moments that you immediately need to share. Elsewhere they are just more boulders in the way of a plot that seems to become increasingly irrelevant as the book lumbers on.

I genuinely can't say that this is a poor book, but I have to be honest and admit that if I wasn't reviewing it, I wouldn't have finished it. Long before the end, I'd lost interest in any of the characters, I'd started skimming the boxing highlights, and really only read on to find out what would happen to death-row Jalen and how the heist would play out.

The whole thing was slightly useful in explaining how parts of the U.S. courts system works, which as an avid fan of Law and Order had so far eluded me.

It occasionally sparkled. De La Pava has a lawyer's spin on wordsmanship and an ear for conversation that can play out dialogue for pages without it seeming stilted or overdone. He has the mastery of detail that his profession demands.

And he is clearly intelligent. But as a writer outside of the legal system, if that is where his ambitions lie, he needs to consider what exactly he wants to write about and in what genre.

Yes, I know it's a dirty word, but from a reader's point of view it matters. I ended up not knowing exactly what the book was supposed to be. There were moments when I thought I'd been missing the point, and that it was supposed to be funny. It didn't make me laugh once. There's political comment – valid – but deeply buried. The makings of a great 'caper' or deep 'thriller' were scattered liberally almost as an afterthought among the history of a boxing hero.

Given that it has just won De La Pava the PEN debut prize we can assume this book is to be the beginnings of a career. On that basis can somebody please find the man an agent who knows how to hold onto that sharp, scintillating voice, and train it how to plot and crucially how to cut. I'll want something shorter, and sharper if I'm to come back.

For more controlled legal fiction try The Racketteer - or indeed anything else - by John Grisham.

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