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The 2009 Bestseller Feature

By (October 1, 2009) No Comment


Sam Sacks

South of Broad
By Pat Conroy
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009

Like our pantries, the bestseller list has something to tell us about our addictions. And if Pat Conroy is at the forefront of the diagnosis – as he should be, since his new novel South of Broad is his sixth consecutive book to make the list – that only reinforces the conclusion that we’re hooked on talk.


Freud’s doing, I guess. It’s a striking thing about psychotherapy that so many of its treatments, from cocaine to Xanax, have evolved into full-fledged addictions in their own right. So it is with the talking cure: the 1980s witnessed the exfoliation of day-time television shows that offered the chance to see people burst into tears (or, in time, violent rampages) at carefully cued intervals after sharing the wretched details of a failed relationship or childhood trauma. But, almost psychically anticipating and then overlapping the rise of Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael, there was Pat Conroy, putting out book after book of thinly-veiled accounts of his abusive father (The Great Santini), his abusive university (The Lords of Discipline), his abusive father (The Prince of Tides), and his abusive father (the memoir My Losing Season), each publication itself the occasion of a mini Montel-worthy melodrama of family feuding and eventual public reconciliation.

South of Broad naturally picks up where the previous books left off. It follows the destiny of a star-crossed rag-tag gang of outcasts who meet in a Charleston high school in 1969 and remain devoted friends for the next twenty years, despite the rococo trials and tribulations Conroy has them undergo. These “treacheries of fate,” as the lovably woebegone narrator Leo King calls them, include adultery, AIDS, the (perplexingly sporadic) wrath of a serial killer, and, not to be outdone by current events, a devastating hurricane and a church sex abuse scandal.

But mostly South of Broad is devoted to the sublimely indulgent act of yakking. You can’t ask a character to pass the salt in this book without someone leaping up to tell you that he had no salt in the orphanage where he grew up, or that his father used to beat him with a belt and then pour salt in the cuts. Indeed, Conroy has never met a conversation that couldn’t be spruced up with a few revelations of child abuse. The blurted intimacies and anguished condemnations of the following excerpt more or less run on tape-loop across the 500 pages of the book – here, Charleston blueblood Fraser is simultaneously accusing her sister Molly of having an affair with Leo and lamenting the threats of a killer, the father of their friends Sheba and Trevor, who’s stalking the gang:

“You’d have to be blind not to see what [Molly] and Leo are up to. And I didn’t come out here to make orphans out of my kids.”

“What do you have against orphans?” Niles asks his wife. Now the room seems to be spinning out of control, a molecular planet freed from its own minimalist laws of gravity.

“Nothing at all, darling.” Fraser is gaining a measure of control over herself. “It’s just not the fate I choose for our children, no matter how character-building it might seem to you.”

“I’ve never thought of it like that,” Niles says. ‘It was the most terrifying thing in the world. I woke up scared every day. I went to school scared, and so did my sister. It ruined her whole life. Your loving me saved my life, Fraser. My sister got hurt so bad that even Leo’s love couldn’t come close to touching her heart. So Leo ruined his life by loving someone who couldn’t be fixed. But as scared as I was, and as scared as Starla [his sister] was, I don’t think that either of us were scared like Sheba and Trevor were. I didn’t have much of a daddy, and that was a bad thing. But they had one who wanted to terrify them and hunt them down through the years. I don’t know the whole story Sheba, not by a long shot. But I know it’s a bad story, real bad.”

It is to be sure a singularly bad story, and eventually, after a half-dozen more interruptions from members of the gang who wish to remind one another how lousy it was growing up poor, orphaned, black, or ugly, Sheba tells it in a performance savored by all. Only Fraser seems unwilling to get into the swing of things, and protests, “Sheba, there’s no use in dragging us through every sordid detail of your dad’s abuse of you and Trevor. We get it already.” But, as though to remind her just what novel she’s in, her husband Niles chimes in again:

“In an orphanage, anything can happen to a kid, Fraser. I was butt-fucked by two men before I was ten and survived it.”

Yet there’s a sort of gruesome sincerity behind all this insane coffee talk that confounds cynicism. I often had the sense that Conroy was choking back tears as he uncorked each heart-wrenching revelation. He deploys a kind of campy ingenuousness (he uses the word “scrumptious” so many times it started to make me blush) that gives readers the heady, whooshing sensation which follows a deeply personal confession.

Those impassioned and compulsive confessions are what grease the skids as you navigate the clumsy prose and rickety plotline. Conroy thanks his editor Nan A. Talese in his acknowledgments, but South of Broad merely adds urgency to the question of what it is this woman does, exactly, apart from pick up the tab. In one cute oversight, a chapter ends with the sentence “But all of us came roaring back to one another in the middle of our lives, by something as simple as a knock on the door”; the next chapter is titled “Knock on the Door”; and the first sentence of that chapter is, “There is a…” – well, I won’t give it away. But the loopiest aspect of the novel is the way that the serial killer – an “evil genius,” in Sheba’s words – disappears so thoroughly from the minds of everyone in the chapters in which he doesn’t physically show up wielding a knife; it’s the most absent-minded thriller I’ve ever read. And was there no one available to stop Conroy from naming his married couple Fraser and Niles?

Irrelevant, obviously. A man who can sound a genuine sobbing note while writing the line “Humanity is best described as inhumanity” is going to command an audience. That perceived sincerity was certainly the key to the success of Geraldo Rivera (who regularly invited white supremacists into his studio and appeared outraged and hurt when they said racist things) to that of Oprah Winfrey, the mighty Shiva of the audience-embracing talk-show pantheon. Even Jerry Springer delivered an earnest homily on civics and toleration after goading his guests into throwing chairs at each for an hour.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s not something a little bit outré about South of Broad. Whither Ricki Lake, after all? Recently, Phil Donahue’s comeback show was crushed in the ratings by Bill O’Reilly. Pat Conroy’s reputation is such that he could have written The Unabridged History of Pocket Lint and it would have summited the bestseller list – the real test will be in this book’s staying power. If South of Broad quickly fades from memory, it may be a sign that the public no longer gets its fix of tearstained testimonials from child abuse victims – and instead, as the nonfiction bestseller list seems to suggest, looks to Glenn Beck for that sort of thing.


Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen

The White Queen
By Philippa Gregory
Touchstone Books, 2009

My lot in the 2009 Bestseller Issue is The White Queen, the latest historical novel from bestselling author Philippa Gregory. The book is a tightly-organized and well-researched dramatization of the tempestuous life of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV, the mother of King Edward V (for a little while, anyway, until he became one of the Princes in the Tower), and the sister-in-law of King Richard III. Her first husband was on the losing side in the York/Lancaster warfare that we know as the Wars of the Roses, and Gregory handles it all with spirit and intelligence. The White Queen has no ripped-from-the-headlines plots, no beach blankets or super-spies, and no serial killers (unless you count Richard). Judging from the grumblings I’ve been hearing around Open Letters, I might just be a very lucky young lady.


Elizabeth Woodville was lucky too – at least at first. When the forces of handsome young Edward routed their opponents at the second battle of St. Albans, Elizabeth’s husband, Thomas Gray, was killed and she was left the widowed mother of two young boys – dispossessed, out of favor, and on the wrong side. As such, she could ordinarily have expected either a long and hard life of systematized humiliation as the ‘guest’ of one trusted royal household after another, or a short life ending in strangulation – probably after watching both her boys get beheaded. Instead, she caught the eye of the victorious king and became his queen – which was, we get the impression, the least she thought she deserved. Even allowing for naturally partisan sentiments, the histories of the period tend to paint an uncharitable picture of Elizabeth, and a century later, even Shakespeare can’t quite make her likable, although you can see him trying.

Gregory is our time’s most successful and practiced hand at the same kind of trying. Her 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl became a surprise runaway hit, selling millions of copies and spawning not one but two movie adaptations (thus Gregory joins Elmore Leonard in the very select group of living authors who’ve seen the same work in two different movie versions), and its sequels have all exercised droit de seigneur over the bestseller lists. The White Queen represents a calculated risk on her part: will all those fans of Tudor fiction travel back with her to an earlier and inevitably less familiar era of English history?

Obviously, the answer is yes – this book is a bestseller like all the Tudor books were, and for the same reasons: Gregory manages to thoroughly sympathize with her characters, even while she’s presenting them warts and all. Take the scene where the dying Edward tries to wrest promises of cooperation out of both Elizabeth and Sir William Hastings, the celebrated “Kingmaker.” Edward wants them to put aside their eternal bickering and work together to safeguard his son until the boy is old enough to rule England, and he makes them swear that’s what they’ll do. I’ve read two other novels about Elizabeth Woodville (there are probably a hundred), but only Gregory would take us right into Elizabeth’s jarringly human thoughts at that moment:

“No,” I whisper. If I could only get the king alone, I could tell him that, with Anthony [her brother] as protector, we Riverses could hold the country safe. I don’t want my power threatened by Richard. I want my son surrounded by my family. I don’t want any one of the York affinity in the new government that I will make around my son. I want this to be a Rivers boy on England’s throne.

All of Gregory’s characters live as individuals on the page, which was tricky enough for her to manage when she was writing Tudor novels. There, she merely had five thousand earlier novelists to contend with, and she quickly made the subject her own. When she moves two generations earlier and sets her story in Elizabeth Woodville’s era, she has far fewer competitors, mainly two – but what a two! The first is Shakespeare, who gave to all eternity a Richard III who’s a scheming, crook-backed monster, and the second is Josephine Tey, whose The Daughter of Time effects a boisterous counter-blast in favor or Richard’s innocence in the death of the Princes in the Tower. Any Elizabeth Woodville novel must also be a Richard III novel, and no Richard III novel can avoid taking sides. Gregory lays her own stance out plain. Elizabeth says “I don’t believe you. I don’t trust you,” and asks him what he’ll do in the wake of the princes’ death. Richard responds:

“I’ll do nothing, and say nothing,” he decides, his voice is bleak and weary. “No one will dare to ask me directly, though they will all suspect me. I shall say nothing and let people think what they will. I don’t know what has happened to your boys, but nobody will ever believe that. If I had them alive, I would produce them and prove my innocence. If I found their bodies, I would show them and blame it on Buckingham. But I don’t have them, alive or dead, and so I cannot defend myself. Everyone will think that I have killed two boys in my care, in cold blood, for no good reason. They will call me a monster.” He pauses. “Whatever else I do in my life, this will cast a crooked shadow. All that everyone will ever remember of me is this crime.” He shakes his head. “And I didn’t do it, and I don’t know who did it, and I don’t even know if it was done.”

Anti-Ricardians won’t be satisfied, but at least that’s plain enough. It’s like the rest of this highly professional, highly enjoyable novel: stylistically plain, rhetorically straightforward, infinitely more interested in drawing readers into the life and immediacy of history than in pedantically mimicking period idioms. For a decade, Gregory proved that such a formula could bring the Tudor era alive for a modern audience. In The White Queen she proves that the formula is portable. Who knows where she’ll go next? I’ll be waiting eagerly.


Andrew Martin

By Karen Marie Moning
Delacorte, 2009

Dreamfever is a fantasy romance novel that has baffled me for the entire month I’ve spent with it. It is the story of a young woman named MacKayla Lane who must battle a powerful supernatural figure who forces her to have constant sexual cravings for two other men in an alternate universe Dublin. So, Twilight plus Ulysses, right? Well, sort of. It is almost incomprehensibly dense, and I think there are vampires, or something like vampires. It smashes together writing of wildly different registers, hitting the low notes of gothic doom and the trills of high-end clothing envy, often on the same page—just like Molly Bloom. The author of Dreamfever, Karen Marie Moning, has a killer website, with a soundtrack, games, illustrations, and deleted scenes, just like James Joyce would have had if they’d had the Internet back in his day. All kidding aside, Joyce actually would have agreed with her advice to young writers: “Write like there are no critics.”  

Well, as Jesus once said, the critics will always be with us. And, frankly, Moning seems to have taken her own advice a step too far and decided to write like there are no readers. But she has a lot of them anyway, and they seem to be very involved in the world Moning has created over the course of four Fever novels and seven Highlander novels. For proof one need only look to the extremely busy message boards on her site, which are filled with emoticons and inside baseball comments like “I think Barrons is the UK and Mac is his mortal lover reborn.” Obviously, something is happening in these books, but I’m pretty unsure what it is.

I do know that Dreamfever starts on a surprisingly dark note. The opening words of the prologue are from the perspective of our heroine Mac, and they are uncompromising and clearly inspired by Beckett: “Death. Famine. Pestilence.” Heavy. Then: “They surround me, my lovers, the terrifying Unseelie princes.” Already I am in over my head, but this is probably the moment when I felt the most in command of the basic action of the book. Mac is a captive of the Lord Master, and in danger of turning into a “pri-ya, a Fae sex addict.” Thus she’s a bit of a downer.

The first proper chapter livens things up exponentially. “Hey, it’s me—Dani. I’m gonna be taking over for a while. Fecking good thing too, ‘cause Mac’s in serious trouble.” She’s a teenager, which would make her difficult enough to understand without her talking about the Orb and Shades and a Sword of Light. She and her crew are sidhe-seers, who fight Faes. Their numbers are dwindling, like Jedi. Dani says things like, “Duh, I’m superfast.”

I suppose it was foolish of me to enter the Fever universe on Book 4 and expect to understand what was going on (her other books include Darkfever, Bloodfever, and the hopefully forthcoming Swinefever). Moning has no interest in writing for casual readers who wander into bookstores hoping to buy whatever is number 3 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Her project is not a mainstream, Twilight-craze hopping one. It is for a hardcore audience that knows what it is getting into, like anime
obsessives or Robert Pollard fans. The writing is boldly atrocious and seemingly unedited. This is the way it should be—an editor might have felt the need to mess with lines like “The raw sex they’re throwing off blasts me, but it’s not like V’lane, who I’m gonna give my virginity to one day.”

I had trouble staying focused on the plot of Dreamfever so I’m certainly not a reliable guide to the contours of its map or the intricacies of its mythology. At some point the Lord Master goes to Georgia and captures Mac’s parents while she is stuck in the Hall of All Time. There is a scary encounter with a monster who urinates a circle around Mac to keep away the other monsters in the forest. It’s difficult to keep track of the monsters that exist in Moning’s universe. The glossary just complicated things for me, but it was a blast in its own right. For example, the definition of “See You in Faery!” is “Catch phrase for sycophantic human sex kittens who will trade anything and everything for the high of eating Unseelie flesh.” The glossary is followed by recipes for Irish Soda Bread and Shepherd’s Pie, among other dishes. Why not?

I come here not to bury Dreamfever but to wonder at it. Who exactly is reading it and its earlier iterations? My mother, who consumes trashy hardcover bestsellers on a daily basis, declared it too junky “even for her.” It seems too weird and complicated to appeal to love-starved teenagers, but too cheesy and self-consciously “erotic” to appeal to the super-geeky ones. The recipes force me to assume the target audience is very strange housewives. Apparently it’s been optioned by 20th Century Fox—Moning mentions this a lot on the website—so maybe its fans will emerge into the light if a film adaptation comes around. Presumably the studio will start with the first book, and maybe the director of the film will be slightly clearer about what exactly is happening in Dublin.


Rita Consalvos

The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Amy Binhorn Books (Putnam), 2009

When Open Letters asked me to read a book from the New York Times Bestseller List, they were admirably forthright about what I could expect. Managing Editor Steve Donoghue’s exact words were, “I wouldn’t get my hopes up, if I were you.” And I already knew what he meant; after all, we tend to associate the Bestseller List with the least common denominator of book-reading – this is the stuff everybody reads, and the more exposure you have to just what everybody is like (in airports, at ballparks, in waiting rooms), the lower your hopes sink for the List, no matter how influential an industry standard it is.


But I wasn’t ten pages into Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel The Help before I’d forgotten all of that and was completely caught up in the marvelous narrative she lays out. The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 – Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement are on the news every night, but in the deep South Tupperware suburbs of Stockett’s scene, genuine racial equality is as far out of reach as the moon. One of her main characters, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, is Harper Lee’s Scout grown up – she’s gawky, intelligent, considerate, and increasingly seething with outrage at the racist hypocrisy of her social set in Jackson: nervous, oblivious homeowners who have nothing but disdain and condescension for the black women (the eponymous “help”) who clean their houses and raise their children. Skeeter decides to write a book about this deplorable situation, and she uses a couple of those maids, wise Aibileen and temperamental Minny, as her Deep Throats.

Readers are no doubt supposed to identify closely with Skeeter’s apparently doomed fight against the complacency of racial injustice (a struggle given extra irony by Barack Obama’s election as President), but The Help belongs first, last, and completely to Aibileen.

When the story opens, she’s working for the Leefolts – the imperious, distant father, the shrill, taut mother, and Mae Mobley, the Leefolts’ little three-year-old girl, Aibileen’s “Baby Girl,” the seventeenth little one Aibileen has raised from baby to grown child. Aibileen’s own child, Treelore, a promising intellectual trying to work his way to a better life, had died in an accident shortly before she took employment with the Leefolts, and from them she puts up with all the abuse the time and place can dish out, for the sake of Mae Mobley.

These two are the heart of The Help, and there are times when their conversations turn saccharine enough to strip the enamel off your teeth:

“One day a wise Martian come down to Earth to teach us people a thing or two,” I say.

“Martian? How big?”

“Oh, he about six-two.”

“What’s his name?”

“Martian Luther King.”

She take a deep breath and lean her head down on my shoulder. I feel her three-year-old heart racing against mine, flapping like butterflies on my white uniform.

“He was a real nice Martian, Mister King. Looked just like us, nose, mouth, hair up on his head, but sometime people looked at him funny and sometime, well, I guess sometime people was just downright mean.”

I could get in a lot of trouble telling her these little stories, especially with Mister Leefolt. But Mae Mobley know these are “secret stories.”

“Why Aibee? Why was they so mean to him?” she ask.

“Cause he was green.”

But Stockett’s shining belief in her own story carries even such scenes easily, and the few weaknesses she displays as an author (this would have been a much more provocative novel if Mrs. Leefolt weren’t such a predictable pastiche of a brittle, overwhelmed housewife – Aibileen is far too strong a character to require such a weak foil) are more than countered by the deft control she exercises over how she progresses through her story. One particular trick she’s thoroughly mastered is the shifting of mood – she can have you smiling over one of Aibileen’s anecdotes only second before she has you grimacing over the same memory:

Now I had babies be confuse before. John Green Dudley, first word out a that boy’s mouth was Mama and he was looking straight at me. But then pretty soon he was calling everybody including hisself Mama, and calling his daddy Mama too. Did that for a long time. Nobody worry about it. Course when he start playing dress-up in his sister’s Jewel Taylor twirl skirts and wearing Chanel Number 5, we all get a little concern.

I looked after the Dudley family for too long, over six years. His daddy would take him to the garage and whip him with a rubber hose-pipe trying to beat the girl out of that boy until I couldn’t stand it no more.

The trick filters even into her evocations of setting. Aibileen’s thoughts always bring things to ground:

Even though it’s the third week of October, the summer beats on with the rhythm of a clothes dryer. The grass in Miss Celia’s yard is still a full-blown green. The orange dahlias are still smiling drunk up at the sun. And every night, the damn mosquitoes come out for their damn blood hunt, my sweat pads went up three cents a box, and my electric fan is broke dead on my kitchen floor.

The maids know that they’re jeopardizing their jobs – and maybe even their lives – by helping “Skeeter” with her book (their names are changed, of course, but Jackson is still a small enough town); they’re told it in no uncertain terms by those few white employers who get wind of what’s going on. But these maids – especially Aibileen – are old enough to remember having nothing during the Depression, and they’ve read about Rosa Parks, and they’ve heard Dr. King’s speeches on the television sets of the families they tend, and it’s affected them. One of the best, most memorable parts of The Help is the way Stockett captures the sheer tension of changing times. When Mrs. Leefolt instructs Aibileen that from now on she can’t use the house’s guest-bathroom, for instance, the unspokens vibrate in the air:

I put the iron down real slow, feel that bitter seed grow in my chest, the one planted after Treelore died. My face goes hot, my tongue twitchy. I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain’t saying it. And I know she ain’t saying what she want to say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.

I finished The Help in one sitting and enjoyed it very, very much. It’s wise, literate, and ultimately deeply moving, a careful, heartbreaking novel of race and family that digs a lot deeper than most novels on such subjects do. I won’t say it’s changed my mind about what The New York Times Bestseller List represents, but knowing this book made that list does, in fact, get my hopes up.


Jennifer Olsen

That Old Cape Magic
Richard Russo
Knopf, 2009

When I first read Richard Russo’s 1997 novel, Straight Man—a hilarious look at a professor’s life in a small college town–I had that great and all too infrequent experience of discovering a new favorite writer. I can’t remember the last time I read a well-written novel with such comedic timing. I’ve since read other Russo novels, Nobody’s Fool, Mowhawk, Risk Pool, and the Pulitzer prize-winning Empire Falls (and his excellent short story collection, Whore’s Child) and, while perhaps not as wowed as I was by that first discovery, I was not disappointed. Russo writes solid, well-developed main characters who generally fit a specific mold: middle-aged white guys enduring mid-life crises in small towns. They’re regulars at the local bar and they’re quick wits: the quintessential Russo character uses humor to charm his way out of awkward or untenable situations, deflect intimacy, sabotage his professional and personal relationships, deal with family strife, and even entertain himself at the expense of others.

The one fault I find with Russo’s novels is that the characters who share these traits tend to blur together throughout his work. But this doesn’t keep Russo from what has become a regular spot on the bestseller list—his books are satisfyingly well plotted and the humor his characters use to disarm family and friends has a similar effect on the reader, easing us into Russo’s engaging, credible worlds.

In his latest book, That Old Cape Magic (so named in honor of this particular main character’s annual summer family trips to Cape Cod), we meet in Jack Griffin, the classic Russo protagonist. Griffin is a middle-aged screenwriting professor in the grip of intense self-reflection brought on by his father’s death. He’s dissatisfied with his cushy professorship at a small liberal arts college, has a large family comprised of a cast of entertaining characters, and feels distant from his wife and grown daughter but loves them dearly, if ineptly. But what’s different about That Old Cape Magic is that this Russo character is not a funny guy. Nope, Griffin is sad. And with good reason: raised by emotionally unavailable parents—also disgruntled academics—whose only joy in life comes from their family summers on Cape Cod, Griffin is saddled with a dead father whose ashes he’s carrying around in the trunk of his car a year after his demise, plus a wife of thirty years who has been increasingly distant of late, plus insufferable boobs for in-laws. And now he’s en route, alone, to the Cape Cod of his childhood for the wedding of his daughter’s best friend.

Played out over the course of a year and book-ended by two weddings (the second is that of Griffin’s own daughter), That Old Cape Magic is, deep down, an adeptly written examination of a thirty-year marriage and all the painful realities such relationships face. It’s a serious book. And Russo pulls it off—Griffin’s physical and emotional landscape ring true, from his introspective scenic drives around the Cape, to his childhood in the “mid-fucking-west” (as his parents deem it), to his conflicted work as a screenwriter in LA. The same narrative adroitness that in other books give Russo’s interior monologues such humor does similar work here by drawing the reader into Griffin’s wounded psyche. But coming from a famously funny writer, you feel that Russo is holding himself back, humor-wise, and that makes the story feel a little off, like there’s something we’re missing about Griffin. Clearly Russo is intentionally not writing a funny book here. In fact, Griffin is so down that his wife calls him a “congenitally unhappy man.” Griffin, without doubt, comes across as melancholy, but a statement like that implies full on depression, which is never quite realized in the character. In fact, the climactic minor tragedy at the end of the novel is almost slapstick. After said accident, on the night of his daughter’s rehearsal dinner, Griffin has this conversation with his daughter, who has been in an altercation with a bush:

“I must be allergic to yew,” Laura said, scratching at her forearms.

“To me?”

She stopped scratching and looked at him.

“Oh. Yew. Gotcha.” Now that he looked at them, her arms were grotesquely swollen.

There are other lines that smack of Russo’s trademark humor. For example:

His father, after writing his second wife’s doctoral thesis for her, thinks that “she’d be so grateful her frozen pussy would thaw.”


One Thanksgiving at Harve and Jill’s, not long after they were married, having exhausted all the board games, they’d played Twenty Questions, and Joy’s sister Jane had stumped everyone at the table for the better part of an hour, Harve stubbornly refusing to give up. Finally, though, everyone else pleaded with her to surrender her fictional identity, which turned out to be Princess Grace of “Morocco.”

But these feel thrown in, almost like Russo couldn’t help himself—he seems compelled to lessen the tension of the really sad moments in That Old Cape Magic with smaller blips of humor, even if he stops himself from letting Jack Griffin have that particular defense mechanism. While, excepting these few funny instances, I missed Russo’s trademark literary humor, all in all, That Old Cape Magic is an engaging, at times poignant read—and provides another great Russo protagonist. Even if this one really is a straight man.


John Cotter

The Girl Who Played With Fire
Stieg Larsson
Translated by Reg Keeland
Knopf, 2009

When we compiled this feature last year, I was clubbed and dragged raw by a romance novel, Nora Roberts’ Tribute. I never wanted to open a bestseller again, much less read one with a pencil.

But as it turns out not all bestsellers are the same. I started reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire on my sofa last Saturday and finished it somewhere between Sunday night and Monday dawn. It was, in brief, a blast. As with nearly all page-turners, I felt hollow later on, but while it was happening it was fun.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second volume in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (named for the Stockholm monthly where sleuth Mikael Blomkvist writes), and has been flying off airport shelves all over the world. Irma Heldman, our resident mystery expert, reviewed the book very well here, and so there’s no need for me to sum up the plot. I’ll confine myself to a few observations.

Firstly: it’s interesting to me that the characters in the book bare very little resemblance to anyone you or I might meet or ever could meet. They are less human than they are mythic: trolls, elves, and wights. I think this is true of a lot of bestseller fiction but it’s especially true in Larsson’s Stockholm. Here we meet few round characters; people are very good or they are very, very bad. They are also impossibly talented, impossibly resourceful, impossibly strong.

This isn’t stated outright, of course. Larsson’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, was born of mortals, keeps an apartment, drinks coffee, and heats up Billy’s Pan Pizza from the 7/11. But, in fact, she as little resembles a citizen of earth as Superman resembles Clark Kent. Because the book also doubles as an exploration of real-life problems (the sex trade in Sweden, sexism in specific) and because it is so earnest about injustice, it is able to play both sides of the fence: The Girl Who Played with Fire is a social critique, but it’s also an impossible fantasy.

Take our heroine. “Rich as a troll,” Salander has 3 billion Kronor in the bank (about four hundred million dollars) which she has embezzled, electronically and untraceably. She is a master hacker who can get into any computer or network, security experts revere her; she solves the world’s most difficult mathematics for fun, denying herself knowledge of the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, she works-through her own proof. Punked-out with piercings (tongue, labia, ears, eyebrows, navel, nipples), she wears a dragon tattooed on her back. Originally flat-chested, she now sports implants that look and feel, we’re reassured, just like the real thing. She’s otherwise petite and she’s just about old enough to drink.

Is she tough? Is she tough! Says an old friend, “if she’s provoked or threatened, she can strike back with appalling violence.” It is very little exaggeration to say this creature (a kind of hard-ass elf, and sexy) at one point sustains trauma equivalent to being killed, buried, and her grave pissed on, before rising from the dead to bring vengeance. This is in the book’s blood-soaked finale, of course, about when I began to wonder what I would make of the time I’d spent reading it. It’s one of the usual everything-falls-apart thriller endings where bad guys fall dead with one shovel-blow while the good guys get swiss-cheesed yet still find the heart to keep coming.

Her opponent – the bad guy – is monumentally tall, blond, strong, and literally incapable of feeling pain (he has congenital analgesia, useful in a hired goon). Few more ghastly ogres have been conceived.

What’s surprising to me is that I’ve never really been one for fairy stories or for cosmic struggle. And I’m not into punk girls (or tech geeks, or ogres). All I can guess is that Larsson has stumbled onto a magic formula, one that enables his readers to get off on the mythical, while feeling that they’re in the right spot politically. Men Who Hate Women was the original title of the first Millennium novel and The Girl Who Played with Fire is charged with a healthy current of anti-misogyny. The evil-doers are pimps, men who abuse women, and plain-old sexists. They are dealt their comeuppance and doubters see the light. The fairy girl beats the ogre. Or am I giving too much away?

When a novel moves or affects me deeply, I think about it when I’m walking around. I don’t find myself thinking about The Girl Who Played With Fire, but while I was reading it, I was useless until I got to the end. In retrospect, my experience of the book, like it’s characters, seems unreal. As, of course, it was.


Greg Waldmann

Star Wars Fate of the Jedi: Abyss
By Troy Denning
Ballantine Books, 2009

Star Wars movies were murdered by their creator. George Lucas molested his first trilogy with CGI “enhancements” as a prequel to his prequel trilogy, which came out of production bursting with too much of one thing in particular: George Lucas. And too much of him meant too much of everything else: special effects, melodramatic dialogue, terrible characters a foolish adult thinks a child would like. The second series had its moments, and it got better as it went along (as it became darker, a lesson Lucas should have learned the first time around), but the adventurous feeling of the originals was lost in elaboration.


It’s the same in print. By 1990, Star Wars fans had to make do with a few primitive video games, board games, action figures and a smattering of novels. The franchise seemed moribund. But in May of 1991 Bantam published Heir to the Empire, the first of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which picked up after Return of the Jedi. They remain immensely popular: 15 million have been sold so far. From there the Star Wars Expanded Universe, as it’s known to fandom, exploded. There are now hundreds of Star Wars books in print and more in the works. There are also role-playing games, action figures, encyclopedias, comic books, technical manuals, videogames, videogame manuals and who knows what else.

Star Wars addicts are among the most rabid in the world, and LucasArts regulates the product. Everything that’s happened in a movie or a book is canonical, so anything new must take account of everything old. Zahn had less of this to deal with in 1991. But his Thrawn trilogy sold so well that it begat the Jedi Academy Trilogy, which begat the Callista trilogy, which begat the Black Fleet Crisis trilogy, which begat the Corellian trilogy, and so on. The creative powers that be (some people in a room somewhere, presumably) felt things might be getting a bit stale. Their solution was the mammoth 19-book New Jedi Order series. You know, to clear the air. Then another trilogy, then a nine-book story-arc, and now another. Troy Denning’s Star Wars [franchise] Fate of the Jedi [series] Abyss [book] is the third of nine.

What you get here is what you get with any Star Wars novel: a disturbance in the Force, good guys fighting bad guys, and a hideously convoluted back-story. Don’t be foolish enough to think that you can pick up this book and actually read it. You have two options. The first is to read the previous fifty books that have a direct bearing on the storyline – that means skipping the life story of mute robotic bounty hunter who appeared for two seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. Option two is research.

Go to Wookieepedia, the frighteningly comprehensive Star Wars adjunct to Wikipedia. Star Wars has accumulated trillions of recurring characters since the second Death Star exploded, and a billion more who’ve died; familiarize yourself with all of them. You’ll need to know who Admiral Daala is; who Jagged Fel, Vestara Khai and Olaris Rhea are; who Han and Leia and Luke’s children are (not that they mixed and matched), and which ones died; who all the new Jedi are, including Kenth Hamner (who I kept reading as the pornstar-esque “Kent Hammer”). Political history and interstellar relations are mandatory, as are all the obscure new Force powers everyone seems to be using. Here’s the Wookieepedia entry for something called “flow-walking,” which bears heavily on the book in question (don’t ask me how):

Flow-walking was a rare Force power used by the Aing-Tii monks. It was taught to Jacen Solo by the Aing-Tii, it allowed him to view the past and the future. When one flow-walks, they can only change a person’s perception of the past, but not the past itself.

The Aing Tii used flow-walking as a method of touching the Force by flowing along its currents and reading its intentions. When using this method, it was important to remain attached and anchored in the real world, or else risk loosing oneself to the flow. Users often left a blur when traveling through time.

In 35 ABY, Solo was able to see with his flow-walking what happened when the ship Tachyon Flier crashed, witnessing Raynar Thul as he dragged Lomi Plo and Welk out of the fire. Upon returning to the present and knowing that his mother Leia Organa Solo would later appear at the crash site, Jacen used the flow-walk technique again to leave an imprint of himself for the future, thus connecting Leia to that place and time through the Force.

In 40 ABY, Solo flow-walked back to the Raid on the Jedi Temple to find out what persuaded his grandfather to embrace the ways of the Sith. He also flow-walked into the middle of two of the Jedi High Council‘s meetings.

Jacen Solo, the future Darth Caedus, also flow-walked with Tahiri Veila multiple times….

You get the idea. Or maybe you don’t.

Troy Denning, our tour guide in Fate of the Jedi: Abyss, does his best to help. Here’s an in-text footnote describing why Jagged Fel, leader of the Imperial Remnant (check Wookieepedia for basic hermeneutics), doesn’t trust his fiancé Jaina Solo, Jedi daughter of Han and Leia Solo:

Jaina winced. It was a low blow, but maybe one she deserved. During the Killik crisis, she had made a promise to Jag that she had later broken. Ultimately, her failure to honor her word had resulted in Jag’s exile from the Chiss Ascendancy.

Of course you don’t know anything about the Killik crisis or the Chiss Ascendancy, so back to the internet you go.

Old favorites are here too, at least ostensibly. Denning strains to make everything feel comfortable and familiar, and the result is painfully colloquial. Something makes Leia “as angry as a wampa in a sauna.” Han demonstrates resolution by saying “I don’t need anybody else’s family getting caught in the kind of plasma blast we did” (he’s referring to their deceased son Jacen’s dementia, his turn to the Dark Side, the attendant slaughter of a zillion people and the murder of Luke’s wife). The humor is worse. Han thinks a lecture from everyone’s favorite protocol droid “might just be enough to make him yank out C-3PO’s inner machinery.” Well, golly! And you can’t have foul language in a book kids might read. Sith try to cut your head off? “Kriff!” Best friend gets Force dementia? “Kriff!” Your kid’s frozen in carbonite? “What the kriff?”

Like I said, the plot is paint-by-number. There’s a disturbance in the Force, and Luke thinks it’s connected to Jacen’s plasma blast (see note above). So he takes his son Ben to a sunny place called The Maw to hang out with a bunch of kooks who’ve left their bodies to commune with the Force at the behest of an evil-looking alien with sunken black eyes and tentacles for arms. You’d think after a hundred books, Jedi Grand Master Luke Skywalker would be a little less credulous. The kooks explain: “Only the Force is real…and it’s beautiful….so, so beautiful.”

It’s textbook “I’ve kriffing lost it” stuff, but Luke is goaded into leaving his body behind, turning into a Force presence, and following them wherever they go. They float and talk: “What, exactly, is real?” Luke asked. “My spirit?” “Your Force presence. It’s your true self, a swirl in the living Force that animates your physical body… [pointing to Luke’s body]…It gives form to that.” (Plato wants his royalties.) Luke ends up joining the kooks in a weird Force-purgatory, takes a gander at the “Throne of Balance” (Aristotle wants his royalties), and almost succumbs to the bewitching tentacle alien (Hentai porn makers want their royalties).

Anything to keep the franchise going, I guess. But why’s a Jedi ambivalent about an evil-looking Force demon? Time was, in the Star Wars of yore, having a bad feeling about something meant that something bad was going to happen. True, there’s an exciting light saber battle at the end; lots of people get their limbs hacked off and Denning does a good job with that. Other stuff happens too. There are Sith out there, trying to kill the Jedi, who are also being persecuted by the government; the good guys don’t know what’s going on and they have to find out before it’s too late. This has happened a billion times before. And that’s a kriffing fact.

About ten years ago, in my salad days, I thought it’d be a swell idea to read all the Star Wars novels, since I liked the movies and I wanted to know what happened afterwards. I got maybe twenty books in before I gave up, because except for Zahn’s trilogy (and Brain Daley’s Han Solo Adventures from 30 years ago), every book is exactly the same, save the details. Fans want new books, but because of LucasArts’ iron fist, nothing can be thrown away. Everything that’s old is canonical and everything new, even though it isn’t really new, piles on top and becomes canon, and the cycle repeats itself.

Han Solo is seventy years old, and he’s still scuffling with Mandalorian bounty hunters.

Maybe…read something else?


Laura Kolbe

Smash Cut
By Sandra Brown
Simon & Schuster, 2009

When the reign of the Antichrist (or Kindle?) begins, books will adjust their text to the intelligence of the individual reader. Pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice at your local Babylon & Noble and you’ll find that when placed in front of your ten-year-old it begins, “The single women in this book would like to marry someone rich. Still with me?” For the slightly more advanced reader: “People in early-1800s England assume that rich single men should get married.” If the book thinks you’re up for it: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Placed in front of your dog, the book reveals a hologram of Keira Knightley that tells him what a good puppy he is.


Mayan prophecies assure us that the Antichrist isn’t scheduled to appear until 2012, but until then we have Sandra Brown. Her latest bestseller, Smash Cut, has a peculiar ability to tailor its difficulty to the reader at hand. The more I thought about its two good guys, Derek and Julie, the more convinced I became that at least one must be secretly villainous. Julie knows midway through the novel exactly what the killer’s thoughts and future misdeeds will be. Fishy, right? Derek’s wildly inconsistent internal monologues about whether he can trust Julie (either she’s the perfect woman or she’s an evil slut) seem not unlike the psychoses of a sociopath. Yet it turns out that both are every bit as innocent as Brown leads us to believe, and that the true villain is exactly the one announced on the book jacket. See, for the overly analytical, Smash Cut turns into a mystery as well as a thriller! Think a little less hard, and it smoothes out into an easy pattern of alternating sex and crime scenes.

As everything about the dust jacket suggests (the book’s dictionary-of-cinematography title, the insistence on calling the characters “principals” and the plot a “storyboard), Smash Cut aspires to witty meta-commentary on the many, and muddled, kinds of fiction that populate the age of multimedia. We have a fictional killer struggling to acquire ontological clarity by introducing into the plot imitations of other art forms, which is to say elements two levels further from reality than he, since these instances of artifice make him feel “real” by comparison… Wait, this is the way the apocalyptic edition of Smash Cut will conform for me.

Everyone in this edition of Smash Cut announces to everyone else, ad nauseam, that the creepy Creighton Wheeler is a film “scholar,” absolutely “obsessed” with movies. In one of the rare moments when the world of Smash Cut actually resembles the planet I inhabit, he flies into a rage when his mom scratches one of his DVDs. Then it’s back to Planet Brown, where cinephile murderers prove their chops by quoting from Forrest Gump, Love Actually, and Casablanca, to say nothing of the multitude of thrillers that have provided Brown with such a serviceable storyboard:

Anyone who’d ever seen a scary movie knew that the slut always died. The body count of bad girls considerably outweighed that of their virtuous counterparts. Jamie Lee Curtis’s promiscuous friend in Halloween. Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The list was endless.

Julie knows that Creighton likes Hitchcock and that he was playing tennis the afternoon that his uncle Paul was killed by a hit man named Billy Duke. From this she deduces (absolutely correctly) that he’s arranged a murder swap with Duke, à la Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. In Strangers on a Train, a tennis player has his wife killed and is then expected to bump off the murderer’s father. The brilliant Julie spots a parallel that still escapes me and proceeds to screen Strangers on a Train for Derek and the rest of the good guys, insisting that the movie indicates that Creighton will kill Duke’s ex-girlfriend, since the rich psycho in Strangers on a Train kills the other man’s…father. If I were Derek, I wouldn’t buy Julie’s hypothesis about Strangers in a Train, and if I did, then I’d race to check on Duke’s father, not his ex. If I were Derek, though, that girl would be dead.

On Sandra Brown’s website, you can find answers to all the questions you must be frequently asking yourself by now, like “Why do you only write one book a year?” and “Why haven’t more of your books been made into movies?” To the former, Brown responds that each book requires extensive character development and research. To the latter, she responds that while many have been optioned for feature films or television, these things take time. But we all know she’s being modest: the real hurdle is that Brown is in love with free indirect style, and uses it to such, er, singular effect as to make her style virtually untranslatable into any medium other than a Sandra Brown novel. She loves the thoughts of the working man (the sympathetic assassin Duke), with his dreams of “a coupla thou” and things that are “swank.” Yet she seems unsure of how the Sandra Brown-reading Everyman actually makes decisions or performs sequential actions, so she abandons his head whenever he’s actually doing anything. She also loves switching from one head to another during the sex scenes, though Julie and Derek have surprisingly similar penchants for words like “amorous” and “sexual congress” (maybe this is what makes their romance so passionate – what are the chances that someone who likes the term “sexual congress” has ever met a like-minded individual?)

How all this mind-hopping congress would work on the big screen is beyond my sub-Julie powers of divination, but then it’s hard to imagine Smash Cut and Brown achieving the enormous popularity they have. She has a charmingly self-deprecating greeting on her website that seems at odds with the studio-option ambitions she has for this book: it begins, “Whether you are a devoted Sandra Brown reader – and I hope you are! – or you’ve stumbled across this page accidentally while searching for another Sandra Brown…,” implying that a significant fraction of her success is due to fortuitous mistake. What with fifty million books sold, and the Fates and the search engines solidly in her corner, I don’t feel terrible advising against reading this book. There’ll be plenty of time in the End Times for books just like it.


Brad Jones

The Eleventh Victim
By Nancy Grace
Hyperion Press, 2009

To save the curious from needless searching, The Eleventh Victim, the debut mystery/crime novel by controversial CNN reporter Nancy Grace, is not part of a numbered series (The First Witness, The Second Juror, The Third Handcuff, etc.). Her earlier book, listed on Hyperion’s ‘Also by the Author’ page with the punchy title Objection! turns out to be: Objection! How High-Priced Defense Attorneys, Celebrity Defendants and a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System. From this not-quite-as-punchy title, the book is obviously a delicate, unbiased look at the way justice is pursued in this country. Apparently it’s non-fiction, though the subsequent charges that Grace “borrowed” rather substantially from another writer’s work might call its actual category into question.


Can we presume Nancy Grace’s celebrity factor gains her an instant, devoted audience? This audience, fans of her lengthy time on CNN (and previously, Court-TV) would expect a book drawn extensively from Grace’s nearly ten years as a Special Prosecutor in Atlanta, Georgia. They would expect a strong female lead character, sensitive to all forms of victim’s rights. A great number of her fans would expect any book by Nancy Grace to be bathed in the culture of the southern United States. Above all, they would want her aggressive, corrosive, sixth-cup-of coffee energy to make that business flight or bus trip go by quickly.

With that in mind, I consumed a good deal of Grace’s book on public transportation (with a significant number of those pages flipping by while waiting for the MBTA’s notorious #1 bus, a prime cause, one suspects, of excessive best-seller reading). This seemed to be the best way to experience the book, and in that environment I can honestly say The Eleventh Victim shows that Nancy Grace knows her fans pretty well.

I could feel the pleasure Grace got in projecting herself into her main characters. Of course the prime Author Surrogate is Hailey Dean, the blonde Georgia prosecutor, who becomes so distraught during the trial of the serial killer who produced “the eleventh victim” that she leaves the legal profession, moves to New York City, and with little apparent trouble, becomes a therapist. What surprised me was the amount of time Grace spends in the head of Clarence Carter, the Georgia judge who overturns the serial killer’s conviction. Old C.C. must be based on someone very special in our author’s life. She pounces on this dim-minded alcoholic womanizing governor-wannabe with all the vitriol she can muster. Once the judge reverses the conviction, his function in the plot is over – but Nancy returns to him a few more times just so we can savor his career and life in complete shambles. I didn’t mind – old C.C. is old N.G.’s most memorable creation. Also invested with a fair amount of energy is Virginia Gunn, a fervent conservationist trying to protect an island off the Georgia coast from the ravages of commercialism. Grace alternately ridicules and admires this woman, who pulls her wool cap over her ears to protect her brain from cell phone waves and who manages to keep eight little dogs (though only the heroic Sidney gets a name or personality), and who recruits volunteers for her many causes by hanging out in the parking lot at the Kroger’s supermarket. Just how does Ms. Grace feel about this character? Try this passage:

Virginia took a close look at the two women in their mid-to –late thirties, both with identically cropped early-Chris Evert hairstyles, both with gold wire rimmed glasses and both with baggy hiking shorts. From where Virginia sat, the only physical difference between the two was that one wore Birkenstocks over white socks and the other topped her white socks with hemp-woven clogs. Pay dirt.

That passage illustrates another Gracian swerve: to describe characters by their wardrobe labels – a distressing shorthand for creating real people. Another annoying tendency in the prose here is to not quite think through some thought progressions. Such as when Virginia makes the following observation of an island Commissioner:

She couldn’t believe she was noticing only then for the first time, after knowing the man for twelve years, that he was the only person she had ever come across who had both a toupee and dandruff. Her powers of perception were diminishing.

Hmmm. If Virginia just noticed something, wouldn’t that mean that her powers of perception were increasing? On a bus or train, these passages sometimes slip by. Even when reading from a stationary position, these hiccups don’t derail the last third of The Eleventh Victim, which builds up a decent head of steam as the released serial killer follows Hailey Dean to the designated urban northern hell of New York City. Hailey’s therapy patients start turning up dead. She becomes the prime suspect and does more crawling and climbing with cracked ribs than any Navy SEAL, and with far less discomfort. Grace manages to hop from serial killer Cruise (?!) to Virginia Gunn’s condo-commandoes, to Hailey Dean’s foiling of police interrogation procedures without breaking the flow. This is difficult for any new writer of fiction, so hopefully Ms. Grace’s future efforts will bear the polish gained by this experience. And maybe books will fall off a courtroom table and hit the floor instead of the ground.

Maybe there’s an audience out there that would like to read about the murder of a guest on a TV crime reporting show. Maybe the blonde, Georgian, female host of that show investigates the murder. The suspects could be any number of former guests/celebrities/media types. Imagine Nancy Grace probing behind the scenes of a TV news empire. We know about how Melinda Duckett committed suicide, allegedly because of the emotional trauma sustained during a Nancy Grace interview in 2006. With Grace’s skill in utilizing her past, it would be fascinating to read those elements stirred into a tasty crime-fiction crust. I can see her climbing into the mind of a network executive. Or maybe that world is just too close for her to jeopardize with the same laser vision she applies to Georgia politics.

Someday, she’ll tackle that monster. I can’t wait to get on the Alewife train with my new copy of The Fifteenth Caller.


Steve Donoghue

The Law of Nines
By Terry Goodkind
Putnam, 2009

Prolific bestselling novelist Terry Goodkind’s new book, The Law of Nines, takes several half-hearted swipes at moving his franchise from the sub-genre of bland, derivative fantasy to the far more lucrative sub-genre of bland, derivative contemporary thrillers, and the results will of course please his long-time fans (who come, one suspects, pre-pleased) – and irritate and bore the spit out of everybody else.

The problems – both for Goodkind’s 27-year-old everyman protagonist Alex Rahl and for those Goodkind readers who aren’t already applauding – begin on the first page of The Law of Nines, when Alex, standing on the curb in a small Nebraska town, sees a “great white truck” with a pirate flag painted on it take the intersection too fast and barrel toward the sidewalk. Alex also notices the woman standing right next to him in the truck’s path and yanks her out of the way just in time. But the danger’s not over, either for Alex or those of us reading along:


When he [Alex] looked up to see what kind of maniac was driving he instead met the direct, dark glare of a burly passenger. The man’s curly beard and thick mat of dark hair made him look like he really could have been a pirate. His eyes, peering out of narrow slits above plump, pockmarked cheeks, were filled with a kind of vulgar rage.

The big man appeared infuriated that Alex and the woman would dare to be in the way of their off-road excursion. As the door popped open there was no doubt as to his combative intent.

He looked like a man stepping out of a nightmare.

Alex felt a cold wave of adrenaline flood through him as he mentally choreographed his moves. The passenger, who looked to be ready to leap out of the still-moving truck, would reach him before the driver could join in, making it one against one – at least for a brief time. Alex couldn’t believe that it was happening, but it was and he knew that he was going to have to deal with it.

Calm fury filled him as he prepared himself for the unavoidable.

There’s bad writing that puts its friendly arm around you and makes you complicit in its wayward deeds (take a bow, Dumas pere et fils!), and then there’s bad writing that constantly whacks you in the face with a mallet. As that passage glaringly shows, Goodkind’s bad prose is not the good kind – it’s the face-malleting kind. “A kind of vulgar rage”? Which kind, I wonder? American Idol vulgar rage, or Nascar Nannies vulgar rage? “There was no doubt as to his combative intent”? Are you certain, Mr. Spock? Absolutely certain? “Calm fury”? Is that like “incredibly boring” or “outstandingly insipid”? And can anybody even hazard a guess at what that melodramatic “He looked like a man stepping out of a nightmare” might mean?

Goodkind has built a career on selling exactly this kind of adolescent hyperventilation to the cap-tossing groundlings of the sci-fi/fantasy trade. In 1994 Wizard’s First Rule became the hugely successful first installment in The Sword of Truth series, one of those open-ended monstrous fantasy caravans pioneered by the late Robert Jordan – series that have many twists and turns but no actual end, and hence no possibility of meaningful plot. Like Jordan’s equally-bland Wheel of Time series, The Sword of Truth will stretch on until the money dries up – and with roughly 25 million volumes sold, that probably won’t be happening any time soon.

So I suppose it’s possible to give him a little credit for trying something different, for setting this new novel in the recognizable world of small towns, intersections, and great white trucks. Except that’s not what he’s doing, as quickly becomes obvious when Jax, the exotic woman Alex saved, informs him that she comes from another world, a world where magic works, a world endangered and in need of a savior long-prophesied by a mystic book (the keepers of the book, who show up in the third act to unload several solid pages of exposition, tell Alex about the book, but they don’t show it to him – it’s too fragile. They keep it in a safe-deposit vault in Boston; I do the exact same thing with all my ancient mystical texts – the service fees are a pain, but the climate control is top-notch). In a gimmick lifted wholesale from fellow fantasy writer Stephen R. Donaldson, Goodkind puts plain old mirrors at the heart of the actual magic in his book, and of course there’s a bad guy, Radell Cain (you were expecting somebody not named Cain? You silly goose!).

In other words, The Law of Nines looks like it’s stepping out of the nightmare that is The Sword of Truth. When Alex bridles at all this being explained to him, Jax irritatedly tells him, “Look, Alex, this isn’t going to be easy to explain. It’s complex and I don’t have enough time right now to make it all clear for you. You need to trust me.”

And he does trust her – she’s very good-looking, after all. But as Cain and his cronies chase them all over the book, Alex is still unclear on some things:

Alex raked his fingers back through his hair. “I don’t get it, though. I don’t get the reason for the murders all over the world. He’s been trying to get his hands on us from the beginning. He left that note for me, so he obviously knew where we were. He could have stormed the place and had us last night while we were asleep. Why do this instead?”

Jax patiently explains – something about psychology, or perhaps it was reverse psychology. She does a very earnest job, but she could have saved herself some trouble and simply said, “Because he’s the villain, dummy, and you’re in a Terry Goodkind novel!”

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