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Book Report: Finally, my chance to critique a bestseller

After a quarter century of book reviewing, I guess it's time for me to admit that until recently, I never read a novel by bestselling author John Grisham.

That's partly because most of the reviewers who worked for me put dibs on his novels before they came out and so what was I to do?

I no longer have that excuse, so I recently dove into Grisham's latest, "The Racketeer" (Doubleday, $28.95) which at this writing sits atop the New York Times Bestseller list.

It didn't take long to figure out Grisham's popularity with the public.

He's a fast-paced storyteller, he seems to always be on the right side of justice and -- forgive me for this -- he gets a huge charge out of making fun of authority, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In his new book, the narrator, Malcolm Bannister, finds himself in federal prison on a charge trumped up by the country's criminal justice system (including the FBI).

His life has been ruined, his wife has left him and he'll probably never practice law again if he ever gets out of the slammer.

But he has an ace up his sleeve.

A fellow inmate has revealed the murderer of a prominent judge, who had his hands in the till of a drug dealer at the time of his murder. The authorities want to clean up this case immediately because of the bad publicity if it continues to drag out.

So Bannister cuts a deal with the suits at the FBI to reveal the identity of the murderer in return for a pardon, $150,000 and membership in the witness protection program.

At first the authorities are suspicious of this black man who was only a small-town lawyer in Winchester, Va.

But he finesses them and they agree to make the deal.

There follows a period when our hero gets a facelift and manufactures a new life for himself on the outside. But he also must convince the judicial system of the guilt of the murderer.

How Bannister manages this makes for a fascinating story about the wicked ways in which justice sometimes gets served in what's essentially a very complicated system.

A bonus, of course, is that Grisham is a lawyer himself and is able to share with readers the ins and outs of penal servitude, what the law can and can't do.

Will it be made into a movie like most of Grisham's more popular novels?

I hope so because they're several colorful characters and, of course, the black-suited feds, who stumble over each other.

But there's a directorial problem -- that troublesome facelift.

Let's see: Maybe he could begin the novel played by Denzel Washington and conclude it with Will Smith taking over the role.

Like author Grisham, stars make news and the more of them the better.

"Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers," by Sarah Warren (Marshall Cavendish publishers, $17.95 cloth) is a beautifully conceived book for children written by a Minneapolis Head Start teacher and award winner for her activism. It's illustrated by Robert Casilla in watercolor pastels in an eerily haunting realistic style.

It tells the story of a labor leader who wouldn't take no for an answer.

Born in 1930, Dolores migrates to California with her mother, attends school and college, gets married and divorced.

More than 50 years ago she met fellow migrant Cesar Chavez and together they work on behalf of the underpaid, underfed, underclothed and underrepresented Hispanic migrant workers.

They ask for improvements.

The farmer-owners refused.

Finally, it's time to strike and Dolores heads for New York to organize the buyers' boycott, which succeeds.

Huerta is lauded, named Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine and President Clinton bestows on her the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.

It's tempting to call this oversize book a coffee table tome.

But that would be a disservice to the author, illustrator, and subject.

It's more than that, given the bibliography, the time line and the angry (but effective) polemics it contains.