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The 2008 Bestseller Feature

By (September 1, 2008) No Comment

John Cotter

by Nora Roberts
Putnam 2008

I expected Tribute to be a hot romance. Nora Roberts expected it to be a mystery novel. Neither of us got lucky this time around, but it looks as though I’ll have the chance to roll again and spend another $26.95 for one of the three new hardcovers she’s publishing this year, and with whatever’s left in my pockets I’ll spring for her 2008 paperback originals (a series of seven, the “Sign of Seven” septology). And there’s always the hundred-strong backlist to graze upon.

If not Mystery or Romance, what is Tribute? Romance Fiction (and its big-city daughter, Chick Lit) have been exploring the semi-genre of “House Porn” lately, in which an old house, preferably one full of memories and secrets, is renovated or revivified by a tough, beautiful woman who loosens up and, ideally, renews her spirit along the way (see Danielle Steel’s 2007 The House, or Jane Green’s 2008 The Beach House). Cilla McGowan, who “sparkles like sunlight” after a trip to Home Depot, is made-to-order for the genre. And Nora Roberts has installed her in a broken house, the aggressively lush grounds of which feature:

Weeds, literal blankets of vines, overgrown shrubs with branches poking through the blankets like brown bones, marred what had once been simply stupendous. Another metaphor, she supposed, for the bright and beautiful choked off and buried in the grasping.

Early in Tribute, Cilla, a young, beautiful ex-movie star, ex-recording star, granddaughter of the Marilyn Monroe-like Janet Hardy, moves into her grandmother’s rundown Shenandoah mansion to gut, grout, coat and haute the place. In her effort to convert the dilapidation into a “classy oasis, and yes, maybe a personal salute to old Hollywood,” she stumbles into a stack of letters bound in red ribbon and concealed in a hollowed-out book.They’re love letters to her grandmother, beginning fifty years ago and cutting off shortly before the pill-addled starlet committed suicide … or was it suicide after all? (NB: The book in which Cilla finds the letters is The Great Gatsby. Were they postcards?)

So that’s the mystery. It’s only glancingly addressed over the course of the book and hastily tied up in the last few pages. Obviously, it’s only there to provide cover copy for the real story–one of steamy romance, or so I was naive enough to expect. The rhythm of Tribute lies elsewhere, and can be glimpsed as Cilla gazes into the garden of her new abode:

Roses and lilies stunned the air with perfume that had the bees buzzing drunkenly and a hummingbird, bold as an emerald, darting for nectar. The sun poured strong and bright out of cloudless skies to wash everything in the golden light of fairy tales.

And then … then he arrives:

He stood in the open doorway, with sunlight haloing his silvered blond hair. His smile deepened the creases in his face, still so handsome, and warmed those quiet hazel eyes.

Her heart took a bound from surprise to pleasure, and another into embarrassment.


Well, she likes her dad, but this kind of description is characteristic of the enterprise. Everything, everything is sensualized. The characters and landscape are evoked with neither the precision of realism or the subjective haze of impressionism. Rather, they are over-described, as in a time-lapse hallucination. Not only do they sacrifice both clarity and sympathy and strain credulity, they defeat their own aim. How can a rose be a rose when it “riots” and “stuns”? One character might kiss another “hard enough to vibrate his teeth,” for example. The daffodils by the door don’t grow, exactly, but have abruptly “shoved up through the thorny armor of climbing roses.” Strange to me that the characters evince no fear of this terrifyingly resistant foliage; confronted by rioting roses, they don’t so much as flinch.

Far from trusting her readers, Roberts actively condescends. Every twenty or so pages, she finds it necessary to re-describe the same characters we see on every page in just as much comprehensive detail as she did originally. In one passage, Ford Sawyer, Cilla’s love interest, is introduced:

faded, frayed-at-the-hem jeans and baggy gray sweatshirt covered what she judged to be about six feet, four inches of lanky, long-legged male. He wore wire-framed sunglasses, and the jeans had a horizontal tear in one knee. A day or two’s worth of stubble prickled over his cheeks and jaw in a look she’d always found too studied to be hip.

A handful of chapters later, we’re once again reminded he’s hunky with “a touch of nerd,” and later still–because we may have forgotten–“long and lean … with just that hint of gawky. Messy brown hair with sun-kissed tips.” Then again, and again, he’s “long, lean, edging-toward-gawky” with “that sun-streaked brown hair rumpled and messy.”

And in case we haven’t made the connection quite yet: “He’s Dad. He’s Dad with a layer of nerd.”

For the first two-hundred-odd pages, there is nary even a sex scene to sharpen the mood. Every couple has their kink, and for Cilla and Ford it’s abstinence. They practically fetishize the stuff. If they were particularly religious or STD-cautious, it would make sense, but these aren’t real people anyway (or interesting linguistic constructs, or symbols of anything) so Nora Roberts feels no need to provide them with something as fruitless as motive. They’re attracted to one other and they steal the odd kiss, and they talk about having sex all the time, but …

She had the house to rehab, her contractor’s license to study for, a business to establish. And a family mystery to unravel. Scheduling in sex with her hot neighbor wouldn’t be the smartest move.

Days later, Cilla sort of kind of wants to cap a frustrating day with some sex. This time, though, it’s Ford who turns her down. “I want you to talk me into bed now,” she begs. But he’d prefer to go for ice cream, so they do that instead. Maybe a week later (he’s sleeping on the floor by now) she confesses that she really wants to sleep with him, but hesitates for superstitious reasons (something about a friend in the hospital not getting well). “He kept his gaze on hers, and smiled. Slowly. ‘I’ve got time. For later.’”

More days later and they still haven’t done it yet. Her mind is too stuck on the sick friend to really let herself go. She suggests they eat pizza and not have sex. “Almost my favorite thing to do with a beautiful woman,” he answers, happy as a clam.

Deep into Chapter 15, nearly halfway into the book, Cilla gazes at Ford and thinks, “if I wasn’t so tired, I’d walk right over there and jump your bones.” But, alas, she’s had a long day. Ford turns his back as she changes for bed and he too is “too damn tired to start up anything.” And so to bed.

Somehow, sex does end up happening. Cilla “gripped the tangled sheets” as Ford “found warmth and silk and secrets while her heart beat strong against his lips.” Thud. Smack. Did anyone doubt it would be “the best sex of her life”? Does anyone doubt she’ll be turning it down again within a chapter and a half? Even with hallucinogenic kisses like:

The punch of this one … It was raw, and it was randy, and it plowed straight through her to leave her muscles quivering and nether ends quaking. She wanted, for one mad moment, to be gulped down in one greedy swallow, wanted him to throw her over his shoulder and drag her off to some dark cave.

When he jerked her away again, her head actually spun.

“Fastidious, my ass.” [Tip, girls: you’ll always want to have a zinger ready. And try not to sleep with your caveman for another 200 pages at least … you wouldn’t want your readers to start thinking you were immoral or something.]

The sensuality in this prose is too lush to bother with sex. The dialogue and dream sequences are there strictly to establish plot points. And the plot, the plot is there to … to what? To remind readers of their desire for fame and beauty (and a rehabbed house), comfort them about their sexual anxiety (best to skip it, eh?), their sense that our own real non-hallucinogenically intense world is too complex to be interesting. Cilla longs only for the normalcy her readers already possess (a wealthy and well-appointed version, of course, because who wants to read about poor people?). And her readers, presumably, long only for the next Nora Roberts novel.

No one gets lucky. Especially not me!

Steve Donoghue

Fearless Fourteen
By Janet Evanovich
St. Martin’s Press, 2008

In any bestselling series of books, especially one whose titles have climbed all the way into the teens, legions of faithful readers will be expecting one thing: the expected. For the uninitiated, the experience is akin to taking in a long-running Catskills nightclub comedian – insider riffing and loaded winks galore, but not much in the way of effort for the newbies.Fearless Fourteen is the latest installment in Janet Evanovich’s series featuring spunky, down-to-earth Trenton, New Jersey bondswoman Stephanie Plum, who narrates her own story and opens with a five-paragraph declaration to the effect that she is, as stated, spunky and down-to-earth:

My name is Stephanie Plum, and in my defense I’d like to say that I have bread and milk on my shopping list, and I don’t have any communicable diseases. I’m five feet seven inches. My hair is brown and shoulder length and naturally curly. My eyes are blue. My teeth are mostly straight. My manicure was pretty good three days ago, and my shape is okay.

This time around, the plot involves a long-missing lump of stolen cash, an addictive video-game, a main character’s prospective wedding, and a security assignment that has our heroes (Plum and her fellow bail bondspeople) “baby-sitting” a brittle, over-the-hill one-name superstar called Brenda, who informs us that she is, as stated, brittle and over the hill:

“My facelift is eight years old. I’ve got two years, tops, and then the warranty runs out. The implants are shifting in my breasts, and these young guys I’m fucking are killing me. I’m going to need a vagina transplant.”

And through all of this there’s the expected romantic subplot between Plum and her hunky cop man’s-man boyfriend Morelli, who spends most of his (presumably) off-duty time naked and who, Plum assures us, could “give a dead woman an orgasm” (dead men, it seems, must fend for themselves – luckily, they’ll always have Carol Channing). Two of the plot’s wrinkles (a possible love-child and the possible location of all that stolen loot) involve Morelli, so he gets quite a bit of what can’t help but be thought of as screen-time (Evanovich’s mental casting of her characters is practically done in semaphore), complete with loving descriptions:

Morelli was dressing in his usual uniform of jeans and T-shirt while he was talking. If the occasion dictated, Morelli sometimes wore slacks and a dress shirt, but Morelli avoided suits. He looked like an Atlantic City pit boss in a suit. And no one could keep a straight face at Morelli in khakis. Morelli was as far from preppy as a guy could get.

(I forget: who was it we were talking about, again?)

If you noticed the fact that in a five-sentence paragraph entirely about one character that character’s name is mentioned five times, you’ve noticed the secret to Evanovich’s success, which is of course repetition. In the Stephanie Plum novels, the prose prevents the reader from doing anything even resembling work – instead, those readers are gently taken by the arm and carefully steered past even the smallest kinks in the carpet. Even while our characters are spouting movie-style clever dialogue in tense moments (nothing jagged or complicated – this is a Jersey that’s never heard of The Sopranos and read a word of Richard Price), readers are swathed in the same patterns, the same rhythms, hell even the same verbs. Here are our lovebirds after an aborted burglary:

“Wait,” I said, “maybe we should call the police.”
“Cupcake, I am the police.” [He-manly grunted Morelli, naturally]
“Yes, but you’re my police, and I don’t want you to get shot.”
“I’m not going to get shot. Stay here in the kitchen.”
No problem with that. I had no desire to follow Morelli into his spooky basement.
Morelli flipped the light switch and padded barefoot down the stairs. He stood for a moment, looking around, and returned to the kitchen.

And here are our lovebirds upon waking to the sound of somebody digging around out in the yard:

“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to shoot the digger.”
“That’s not a good idea. Not to mention, you’re naked.”
“The digger won’t care. He’ll be concentrating on his bullet hole.”
“You needed a new lawn anyway,” I said to him. “Think of this as soil preparation.”
He found a pair of boxers and pulled them on. “How’s this? Does this meet your dress code for shooting trespassers?”
We padded downstairs and tiptoed through the dark house.

(A reviewer must stoically resist the temptation to point out that the book’s 250 pages are full of padding.)

These and other shenanigans escalate to Fearless Fourteen’s, how to put it, multiple climaxes, and readers who’ve followed the series will hardly be surprised at who-all ends up on Plum’s couch at the novel’s end, munching popcorn and laughing together as the music swells and the credits roll: yep, you guessed it – everybody. Nobody ever dies in a Stephanie Plum novel. Nobody moves away, nobody screws up so bad they can’t be forgiven. Wacky adventures happen to this ever-expanding group of characters – but no tragedies, no disappointments, and especially no real surprises.

All of which must prompt purists to protest that this can’t, then, be any kind of writing at all. And it isn’t. Stephanie Plum novels require no effort to read, and presumably they require no effort to write. And at number 14 these novels certainly aren’t trying to teach or enlighten. Perhaps in more adventurous eras than the present, readers required those things of their bestsellers, but not in war-torn 2008. Nowadays they want a laugh or two, a pleasant ending, and most of all the latest on people they know in common, like Evanovich’s characters. The purists are right: this isn’t writing – it’s gossip. Outsiders can listen patiently if they like, but the steady ‘and then he …’ ‘and then she …’ is really meant for locals. And it’s the locals who’ll gather at the back fence for Stephanie Plum #15.

Greg Waldmann

The Last Patriot
By Brad Thor
Atria Books, 2008

Let me tell you why you shouldn’t read this book. For starters, The Last Patriot is on the bestseller list, which ought to raise a red flag, and its author Brad Thor has a goofy porn star name. Maybe you’re not yet dissuaded, so let’s say you examine the dust jacket: “In a pulse-pounding, adrenaline-charged tour de force [sic], Navy SEAL turned covert Homeland Security operative Scot Harvath must race to locate an ancient secret that has the power to stop militant Islam dead in its tracks.” Of course it sounds like the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard, but what you should actually be doing (aside from putting the book down) is toasting the publisher’s marketing division for their prudence in telling you so little. The actual plot is impossibly sillier.

God help you if you’ve actually gone past this stage and plunked down real money for this monopoly book (It’s my job, what’s your excuse?). The Last Patriot is outing number seven in the adventures of Scot Harvath, Olympic skier turned Secret Service agent turned covert one-man anti-terrorist force. This time around he becomes embroiled in a fight which pits the forces of American righteousness against a covert network of Islamic fundamentalists in a bid to acquire the final revelation of Muhammad, hidden away from the world after he was murdered. This revelation enjoins Muslims everywhere to beat their swords into ploughshares and live in peace with the rest of the world, so it’s pretty important that the good guys get their hands on it first. To find this dazzling piece of authorial imagination, Harvath and Co must find Thomas Jefferson’s first edition copy of Don Quixote. You see, when Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates he got word of Muhammad’s revelation through the prison grapevine, and subsequently encoded and hid its whereabouts somewhere within his masterpiece, but only in the rare first edition. Thomas Jefferson, having gone to war with Barbary pirates centuries later, adumbrated George W. Bush in believing radical Islam would be the gravest threat America would ever face and devoted himself to learning everything he could about it. But he didn’t just anticipate George Bush; Thomas Jefferson also read books. He decoded Cervantes’ secret, but was too busy with politics and architecture to find Muhammad’s magical elixir revelation. So he hid the knowledge in a secret diary. I’ll bet you didn’t know this, but every President keeps a secret diary, and they’re preserved through the ages for successors so they can be consulted in times of need or wars on terror. Harvath, going through a horde of Islamic goons and one ex-CIA assassin turned Muslim convert, must find Don Quixote.

Radical Islam also has an ally: multicultural, politically-correct liberals. This group of traitors – their existence a sure sign of American decline – gives aid, comfort, and legal representation to a subterranean rat’s nest of Muslim charities and Islamic studies programs that have allowed jihadists to chip away at the Constitution in order to install Sharia law (the evidence of this is “chilling” instead of hilarious for our protagonists). One of the terrorists – a mouthpiece for Thor, as all the characters are at one point or another – helpfully explains this to another:

The American people will never allow a Muslim witch hunt. Islamophobia, remember? …You overestimate the people of this nation. They are soft and stupid. The reason political correctness and multiculturalism exists is because they are too lazy to hold others to what it once meant to be an American.

In their path stands Harvath and “his handsome, rugged face, sandy brown hair, bright blue eyes, and muscular five-foot-ten frame.” Thor describes his characters with the subtlety of a hospital chart: for everyone we have the height, weight, hair and eye color. All of the women are tall and “attractive” (or “very attractive”); all the good guys love dogs. Each person has one defining characteristic and acts accordingly, except for Scot Harvath, whose emotions range from anger to patriotism. And love for his dear Tracy, a bomb expert who lost an eye and some of her face in a earlier adventure. Here she’s been improbably repaired to near-catwalk beauty, no doubt by a fiercely patriotic plastic surgeon.

As the novel opens, Harvath – disgruntled from a previous episode – has hung up his gyroscope-stabilized machine guns and gone to Paris to live with Tracy. A chance encounter with a café bombing pulls him into the mystery, and he’s miffed. Just when he thought he was out, the radical Muslim fundamentalists pull him back in. But America comes first, and love of country leads Harvath back into the struggle for freedom. There follows the aforementioned plotline. But fear not its inanity and the specter of confusion! Fear not liberal propaganda! Thor wouldn’t steer you wrong.

There are 336 pages and 91 chapters, less than four pages each. Huge blank swathes of dead tree separate them, so we’re really talking about less than 250 pages of actual words, with short three-line paragraphs and plenty of rest stops in between. When the action gets too pulse-pounding or when the bad guys look like they might win, you can pause and say the pledge of allegiance.As for historical background, Thor’s done his homework, seamlessly weaving the necessary details into his adrenalin-charged tapestry, like Betsy Ross stitching stars into the first American flag. Pausing between a shootout in a hotel and a shootout with the ex-CIA Muslim convert assassin, a hapless professor (he’s a Democrat with a Clinton/Gore t-shirt) gives a history lesson, and Thor doesn’t want you to wonder why: “Most Americans were unaware of the fact that over two hundred years ago, the United States had declared war on Islam, and Thomas Jefferson had led the charge. For that reason, Professor Nichols felt it important to set the backdrop for what he was working on.” Five pages of exposition follow.

Ah, “war on Islam.” Here’s something that recurs throughout the book. The author gives us asides about the peace-loving majority of Muslims and gives us Muslim good guys – and obvious and ironic capitulation to political correctness – but he keeps confusing his terms, or more likely his thoughts. “Islam” and “Muslims” and “Islamists” and “Islamic fundamentalists” are all used interchangeably. Thor probably didn’t mean for this to come out so blatantly, but it’s to be expected when you have incompetent editors and an empty toolbox inside your cranium. One imagines this is the sort of tripe forgotten British genre-hacks were writing before the sun set on their Empire. Edward Said’s corpse is stirring.

Thor sees no need to put you to work deciphering the trenchant social commentary buried in the text. Here he his lecturing the reader on why Muslim goons can roam our campuses stalking fine Americans like Scot Harvath:

It was a beneficial side effect of the 9/11 attacks that while Americans might be more suspicious of people who appeared to be Muslim, they had tied themselves in such politically correct knots that even campus police, fearing professional and personal discrimination lawsuits, would think four times before questioning someone who looked like Rafiq or Hamza. As a result, the two Saudi hit men had been able to roam the UVA campus with impunity.

Here’s Thor explaining why it’s okay for the CIA to carry out domestic operations (which it’s legally forbidden from doing): “It didn’t matter that what they did, they did for the greater good. The press and a majority of the morons in Congress were constantly busy tearing them new assholes and painting them as monsters.” More diamond chippings from the master’s workshop are littered throughout.

Now, if all this isn’t reason enough to run away from this book, if you still crave cliché, grade-school characterization, clumsily-hidden racism, and sweaty descriptions of military hardware – well then I’ve got my trump card: Harvath’s nemesis (the Muslim convert assassin) kills his bosses in a pique of moral indignation, kills his boss’ shadowy boss and self at the same time, Harvath is reunited with his girlfriend (who spent the book in the hospital with a migraine), and the good guys receive Muhammad’s peace-advocating last testament in the mail from the dead Muslim convert assassin, after having believed it destroyed. The End.

Sam Sacks

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
By David Wroblewski
Ecco, 2008

It’s always the season for sequels on the bestseller list (or tetradecaquels in the case of Janet Evanovich) and on this fact readers and publishers seem to have arrived at a happy accord. New books aren’t cheap, and no amount of offshore drilling will ever make them so. If people are going to hand over a couple hours’ wages to get them, they want to know exactly what they’re paying for. They want a new episode, not a new series—a spinoff might be acceptable. Trying books you don’t know everything about in advance is a luxury given to the top ten percent. The rest of the country buys their investments low-risk, eats their steaks medium-well, and votes for the incumbent. They feel they’ve been priced out of improvisation.

That’s the best I can do to explain the barnacle presence of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle on the bestseller list. It’s a longwinded, laboriously workshopped piece of neo-folk art, an orphaned Oprah pick that’s been lovingly clutched to the bosoms of thousands of book clubs. It’s a debut and the only novel in the top ten list that will be filed as “literary fiction,” but what it shares with the others is the solemn pledge of predictability: the plot is a rehash of Hamlet.

Wroblewski has made some important modifications, of course, which everyone will be pleased with. The problem with Hamlet has always been the hero: he’s not lovable enough. He’s moody and sarcastic and depressingly morbid; he talks a good game but doesn’t come through in the clutch; plus, he’s getting fat. Wroblewski fixes all that and delivers a story of unmitigated victimhood. Edgar Sawtelle is fourteen years old and mute. He never thrusts a sword through anyone (he shuts a door on a man who proceeds to tumble down a stairwell) and he never drives an innocent girl to madness (he’s briefly unkind to his dog).

Edgar is raised in a genuinely charming idyll, located fuzzily (as all idylls must be) in Wisconsin in the 1950s. His parents are dog breeders. He’s accompanied at all times by his dog Almondine (who gets a few very moving first-person chapters). The unique sign language he invents to communicate with his parents and the dogs he trains sweetens the sense of contented isolation and self-sufficiency. A life occupied by a litter of puppies is as rich as any imaginable:

Doctor Papineau, when he visited, could never keep [the puppies] straight, but to Edgar they were so different it was hard to believe they came from the same litter. He could tell them apart by their movements alone, the sound of their footfalls. Essay always pushed to see what she could get away with, waiting until he looked away to bolt. Tinder, the most rambunctious, would break a stay just because one of his littermates looked at him with a glint in his eye. Baboo was the opposite: once in a stay, he would sit forever. He made up for his delay coming off the long line with his love of retrieves. He trotted back to Edgar again and again with the target in his mouth, an aw-shucks swagger rocking his hindquarters.

They were, each of them, brilliant, frustrating, stubborn, petulant. And Edgar could watch them move—just move—all day.

This is wonderful stuff, and the reader may well feel that the lovely story of the joys and trials of a family of dog breeders would be sufficient, too, but Wroblewski has bigger plots to purloin. Edgar’s father Gar dies suddenly, reportedly from an aneurysm but actually at the hands of his brother—Claude!—and when Edgar and his mother find themselves overwhelmed by the rigors of keeping the business afloat, Claude maneuvers his way into the household. It’s not really ever clear why Claude murders his brother, except that if The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is going to reenact Hamlet, he pretty much has to. Edgar’s mother Trudy explains early on that “This thing between your father and Claude. It’s old, from since they were children,” and all Edgar’s father’s ghost can say, from the insightful (and italicized) position of the afterlife, is “Whatever he’s wanted, he’s taken, ever since he was a child.” You can understand someone committing a fratricide for a kingdom, but a kennel?

The rest of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a dutiful procession through the main events of the play. The Mousetrap scene, in which Edgar trains his dogs to act out his father’s murder in front of Claude, is marvelous—Wroblewski loves writing about dogs and he’s great at it—but the other pages are still covered by translucent drafter’s blueprints. Here’s Polonius, the meddler, here’s Laertes, the avenging son, and so on. (The Laertes figure isn’t introduced until page 489 and he’s as puzzled as the rest of us about why he’s supposed to kill a fourteen-year-old boy.) Wroblewski is only at pains to apply himself when there’s a chance his characters might become complicated and unsympathetic. Trudy, for instance, has let a snake like Claude into her bed because “Claude’s memories of Gar released her from the haunting she felt”:

How could she explain any of that to Edgar? How could she say that she needed Claude because Claude knew Gar and wasn’t destroyed by his death? How could she say that when she missed Gar most she talked to Claude and he told her stories and for a moment, she remembered, really remembered, that Gar had existed. How could she explain that she could get out of bed in the morning if there was a chance she might touch Gar again?

It’s a close call, but fortunately there’s nothing here so discreditably human as pragmatism or credulity or lust; Trudy’s tragic flaw is excessive love of her first husband. Similarly, Shakespeare’s irritating preoccupation with unanswerable questions about death and immortality has been smoothed over by a generous caulking of occult (but always karmically benevolent) mysticism. “Someone hands across corn flakes, soup—nothing,” explains a grocery store sibyl named Ida before she reads Edgar’s fortune. “Then they’ll hand over some little thing and I’ll get a jolt off it, it’s so loaded up. It’s not a message. People will tell you it’s a message, but they’re wrong. What it is, you pay attention to it long enough, you can start to read it. Read the juice.” But there’s never a doubt that there’s a fundamental justice governing the cosmic beverage, and readers will feel confident that all the dogs go to heaven as well.

Wroblewski is not yet a practitioner of the art of omission. There are numerous beautiful details flecked throughout this long novel (“By then the yard was in full morning light, the lawn a beaded pelt of water”), but there’s also a truly scarifying amount of filler. A lot of people have bought The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I strongly doubt many have read it all the way through. I was gamely plowing along until about page 350, when Edgar runs away from home and spends a hundred pages living with a kindly fellow named Henry (Horatio, sort of). Granted, Act IV of Hamlet is a little slow, too, but this is the way that Edgar and Henry bond their friendship:

“Darn it,” [Henry] said. “I need a twelve-letter word meaning ‘butterfly-like.’ Starts with L.”

Edgar looked at Henry. He picked up a pencil and wrote, Lepidopteral, and pushed the paper across the table.

Henry turned back to the crossword. “Nice,” he said. “What can you get for a…let’s see…six-letter word for ‘echo.’ Ends with R-B.”

Edgar thought for a moment and, beneath his previous entry, wrote reverb.

“Yep. Yep. That works again,” Henry said. “Aha—lentil!” he cried, and filled in another row.

I happened to read this on the subway sitting next to a person doing the daily crossword, and at that moment the boredom of my real life fused with the boredom of the book to create a kind of Philip Glass-ian two-note fugue that pinged away at the back of my head. I skimmed to the end after that.

While reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle it’s easy to imagine the transcription of a book club gathering devoted to discussing it. “Did you notice that Almondine is portrayed as the Ophelia character, and the first thing Edgar discovers when he returns home is her grave?”—things like that. The connections between the novel and the play are so gratifyingly linear that the book itself becomes a puzzle—a cryptogram solvable even for readers who haven’t read Hamlet since high school, or only seen the movie. This is a novel you figure out, and that’s almost guaranteed to make for a fun evening with the other ladies (and token guys) in the group. You pay your hour’s wage, you get a pleasant evening with friends in the bargain. Think publishers don’t have your number?

Adam Golaski

Swan Peak
James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, 2008

In spite of what James Lee Burke may have intended, Montana is not a character in this book but a soap-box:

Montana is still Montana, a culture where vegetarianism, gun control, and gay marriage would never flush. Nor would the belief ever die that a fight between two men was just that, a fight between two men.

That’s the voice of Detective Dave Robicheaux. Our hero, who has absolutely no personality, is just a cowboy bobble-head. He’s meant to be complex, a tortured individual who’s wise and wise enough not to think so, a religious man, a Vietnam vet, a sober alcoholic, and a talented police officer. The reader is told all this, repeatedly, but when we see Robicheaux in action, which is not often, he is slow-witted and prone to declarations of intended violence (rarely acted upon), he stumbles into situations that should be fatal, and dully preaches his grotesque oversimplifications. Here’s his take on California: “If you ask me, California is a big commode overflowing on the rest of the country.” So things don’t “flush” in California, either.

Dave Robicheaux’s partner, Cletus “Clete” Purcel, is an alcoholic who hasn’t stopped drinking, is also a vet, is fat, drives a Cadillac, has the ability to turn lesbians straight, and is always, always an asshole. Robicheaux waxes poetic:

For Clete, life was a carnival, a theme park full of harlequins and unicorns, a reverse detox unit for people who took themselves too seriously or thought too much about death. …he had lived the ethos of the libertine and the happy hedonist, pumping iron to control his weight, eating amounts of cholesterol-loaded food that would clog a sewer main, convincing himself vodka Collins had little more influence on his hypertension that lemonade.

During this all, he had never showed pain and had never complained…. How could one refuse life inside a Petrarchan sonnet, particularly when it was offered to you without reservation or conditions by a divine hand?

Living inside a Petrarchan sonnet? What does this mean? Elsewhere in Swan Peak Burke tells us that another character is living in a sonnet, though in this second instance, he doesn’t specify what kind of sonnet. I guess it plumb don’t matter.

And by the way, Clete does complain, he complains all the time.

Then there’s Albert Hollister. He’s a writer. No, a real writer. We actually get to see him write a short story, we get to go inside his head while he’s imagining stuff. But don’t worry: as with all the heroes in Swan Peak, Albert is a real man, not a wussy-pants academic. He “stacked time,” i.e. was in prison (for a crime that wasn’t really a crime, like, say, throwing a bad teamster off a balcony into a dry swimming pool), he tends to his horses and his land, and if you cross him, ho boy, look out. Now, Robicheaux admires Albert, though one would never guess it from the way he and Albert never spend any time together at all. We know Robicheaux admires Albert because he says, “But I tried not to let my admiration for him involve me in his quixotic battles with windmills.”Albert’s “rusted armor lay always at the ready, even though his broken lances littered the landscape.”

Among the book’s other heroes is Robicheaux’s wife, who was a nun working in the Third World, but in Swan Peak is merely a rubber wall for Robicheaux to talk at—very occasionally—and a shimmering freckled object for him to get horny about. Then there’s Jimmy Dale Greenwood, yet another victim of a broken system who unjustly stacked time, in his case for knifing a pimp. There are other, more negligible heroes, like Special Agent Alicia Rosecrans, one of the lesbians Clete magically transforms into a straight woman, and, while he’s at it, inspires her to quit her job at the FBI so she can fulfill her role as Clete’s “Asian mermaid swimming though a rainbow that arched across the entirety of the landscape.”

Every single time Alicia turns up, we’re reminded that she’s Asian—specifically, Amerasian, which means her father was a white American and her mother was—in this case most likely Vietnamese. Why her being half-Vietnamese is important remains unclear. Perhaps—and I’m doing work here that Burke should have done—it’s because Clete and Robicheaux both served in Vietnam, and make frequent and tedious reference to their experiences. To describe a character as Amerasian is not usually problematic in and of itself, but it is here: I suspect Burke feared readers wouldn’t remember who she was if he only used her name, and she is unmemorable; the only other Asians in the book are the “Imperialist Japanese,” who bombed Pearl Harbor, and the Communist North Vietnamese. To offer another, less obvious example, Alicia reminds Clete of “a lab technician taking apart an insect with tweezers.” A scientist, you say? Burke was unable to steer away from cliché, and Amerasian Alicia is suspect until she is finally redeemed by quitting her job and riding off into the sunset with Clete. And lastly, there’s this passage, in which Burke explains to us what prison inmates are like:“Like Orientals, each inmate creates his own space, avoids eye contact, and stacks his own time.” Yup. I’m gonna cry racism.

The villains are as uninteresting as the heroes, and all Burke’s villains are alike. They are all physically damaged in some way—ranging from balding, to walking with crutches, to being severely burned. These men (all the villains are men) tend to be sexually deviant, as well. They like underage girls, they sexually abuse their wives, they can’t get it up, or they’re homosexuals who hate themselves, who satisfy their “inclination” with “rental videos or on the Internet or across the border in Mexico.” Or by raping prisoners.

Troyce Nix is introduced as a villain, and he’s an alarming villain, because he’s representitive of Burke’s attitudes in this book. He’s a gunbull—a prison guard who oversees a work crew—and part owner over a contact prison. He was an MP at Abu Ghraib and “at this other place… outside Bagdad.” We learn later that he feels a little guilty for waterboarding a man to death. I say “a little,” because what could have been a truly dark and powerful revelation about Troyce is merely brushed off by his girlfriend, who says, “That’s behind you now, honey… you’re sorry for what you did. That’s all a person can do sometimes, just say he’s sorry.”

Early in the novel, Troyce stops at a steak house, where he picks up a male prostitute. “He wasn’t quite Troyce’s type, but it had been a long time between drinks.”

This “fellow traveler,” turns out to be the only gay man in Swan Peak. Troyce isn’t really gay, and once we learn this, we learn that Troyce really isn’t a villain, either. The morning after his night with the “fellow traveler,” Troyce meets “a honky-tonk in-your-face piece of work by the name of Candace Sweeney.”

Candace, the girlfriend who later tells Troyce that sometimes all a person can do is say he’s sorry, is a buxom and patient girl who sees Troyce as a good man who just needs the love of a good woman. She may not be a prostitute, but she’s the whore with a heart of gold, and all she wants is to open a diner with Troyce and live happily ever after.

Of course, they don’t leap into bed, which Candace sees as Troyce being a gentleman, but we all know it’s because she certainly isn’t “quite Troyce’s type.” At least, that’s what we think we know…. Troyce moves from being just a monster to a sympathetic monster, a kind of Beast to Candace’s Beauty, who gradually loses interest in revenge, lavishes gifts on her, takes her dancing, confesses his sins to her, and lets her guide him into bed where, “She held his head between her breasts, then picked up his phallus and placed it inside her.” Not only is his penis apparently detachable, but he is cured of both homosexuality and villainy. Candace says of Troyce, “You have a cinder block for a head, but you’re a good man.”

A good man. At this point, the book believes that Troyce is a good man.

This book also believes that torture is justifiable (Robicheaux tortures a corrupt minister and then proceeds to seek absolution from a priest, which is instantly granted), that evil is earmarked by physical deformity, that homosexuality is a curable deviance, that wealthy people are invariable corrupt, that the U.S. justice system is in error when it punishes vigilantes, that the FBI is contemptible and should leave real police work to cops and private investigators, and that everyone’s a drunk. Yet, this book also thinks that maybe George W. Bush was a mistake, that Vietnam might have been a mistake, that big oil is probably bad, and that New Orleans got screwed by the government. Swan Peak is a deeply confused book, and so must its author be, realizing–even as he writes on autopilot–that his mouthpiece Robicheaux, occasionally even speaking in first person, is a violent sociopath, immune to human emotion, and totally detached from reality.

Amanda Bragg

By James Patterson and Howard Roughan
Little, Brown, 2008

James Patterson has written thirty-one novels in his career, and virtually every one of them has lodged for at least a few weeks on every bestseller list in the world. He’s co-written eighteen novels, including this latest one Sail, which he wrote with Howard Roughan. On the cover of the books he co-writes, his collaborators’ names appear in font-size very nearly as big as that of his own. On the title page of those books, the names are identically printed. In interviews, Patterson has freely admitted that sometimes his collaborators do, shall we say, more than exactly half the work of producing the book. I’d say that goes a long way toward making him not only the most honest man on the bestseller list but the most honest person who’s ever been on such a list.

He stops just short of admitting that he’s turning out bars of soap, and why shouldn’t he admit it (and, prince that he evidently is, share the bounty)? After all, there’s no danger of his being exposed – his readers can see those collaborators’ names as easily as glancing at the dust jackets; and even if they couldn’t, it wouldn’t matter: they buy the novels like they were soap, sight unseen, by the pallet.

In that sense it’s pointless even to talk about plots or the like – except that these are technically books, and what their millions of consumers are technically doing with them every year is technically reading.

And it’s not like it takes long! The Dunne family – Manhattan heart surgeon Katherine (whose husband Stuart died in a mysterious diving accident in the presence of his mistress), her 18-year-old troubled, bulimic daughter Carrie, her 16-year-old ne’er-do-well stoner son Mark, her spunky, punchline-spouting 10-year-old son Ernie, and strapping Jake, Katherine’s former brother-in-law – go on a sailing trip in a last-ditch effort to knit their relationships back together. And it’s hardly an exaggeration to say you can guess the rest. 388 pages, 123 chapters, but that’s no lie: you can guess pretty much every single thing that happens for the rest of the book.

All that remains is marching through the writing. Whether Patterson’s working alone or in company, the prose is as murderous as any a teenage girl could scribble in her diary:

The last time Jake had the ear-numbing pleasure of their [the Dunne children’s] company was when Katherine remarried, eleven months ago on Cape Cod, at the ritzy Chatham Bars Inn. At least she had looked happy with Peter Carlyle – radiant, actually – but for that entire weekend it seemed as if the only thing Carrie, Mark, and Ernie Dunne could do was argue with each other.

Wait, correction.

It didn’t seem that way. It was that way.

Patterson didn’t get where he is today by trusting his readers, and either he’s taught that lesson to his collaborators or else he picks them because they don’t trust readers either. In any case, they use their words like bludgeons, always to comical effect, as when studly Jake rescues winsome Carrie after she throws herself from the ship in a fit of pique:

“Carrie, I’ve got you. Just relax,” urged Jake, trying to sound calm against her panic.

That’s what this is, isn’t it? he thought. Carrie was still panicked from almost drowning. She was scared to death – literally.

That’s the way we do things in a Patterson production: in order to make sure we know that a character has nearly died, we’re just up and told the character did die (the alternative of course being that neither Patterson nor Roughan grasps what ‘literally’ means – not a categorical impossibility in this day and age, but both of them?). Likewise if a character gets roughed up, it’s best to have them go into all the details themselves, even if they’re a little preoccupied at the time, like poor Katherine here doing primary diagnostics while being blown overboard:

The first thing I’m aware of is the intense heat, red-hot. It scalds my hair and skin as I tumble through the air. Everything about this is unreal. I’m on fire!

And it only gets worse when I hit the water.

Because I don’t hit the water.

Instead I come crashing down on a jagged piece of hull that, like everything else, has been sent hurtling from the boat, or what used to be known as the boat.

Snap! goes my right shinbone. I know exactly what’s happened. I can literally feel it burst through my skin.

As I roll off the piece of the hull and into the water, my body immediately goes into shock.

Still, as long as Patterson knows how to string together breathless schlock, as long as he knows how to spot or teach that talent, and as long as all the authors involved can find their CAPS LOCK key, these book-like things will keep rolling off their assembly-line and into millions of homes, to have their words looked at by millions of people who’ll find themselves caught up in frenzied endings as exciting and mathematical and mindless as one of those softball-pitching machines at the batting cages:

Ellen jabbed her Glock straight at his chest. “LAST WARNING!” she yelled. “TAKE ONE MORE STEP AND YOU’RE DEAD!”

It wasn’t just one step that Devoux took. Behind a deathwish laugh, he suddenly lunged for Ellen, his arms extended for her gun.


Ellen pumped a shot into his chest. The crowd of onlookers screamed with fear. Several of them began to run away.

Devoux staggered backwards, his legs buckling. But they didn’t quite fold.

He should have been flat on his back, dead as disco. Instead the son of a bitch was still standing! Worse, he was coming for her again! He had a switchblade knife from somewhere.


Deb Irish

The Host
By Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2008

After reading the best-selling novel The Host, I can clearly envision a teenage Stephenie Meyer sitting at a table in her high school cafeteria, sharing the pages of her latest story with her 17 Best Friends Forever. The pages are passed impatiently from hand to waiting hand, the breathless silence broken only by sighs of delight and gasps of surprise. Nothing has changed since those days for Ms. Meyer except that her table now includes over a million best friends.The author is best known for her vampire tetralogy (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and the recently released Breaking Dawn), which you can find in the teen section of any respectable bookstore. The Host has been touted as her first book for an adult audience, although I can see no evidence that it deserves to be classified as such. It reads like the most mediocre of teen novels: the action is simple, linear and easy to follow, characters are one dimensional and moral issues are unclouded by the conflicts humans face daily.

The worst, and paradoxically the best, that can be said about The Host is that there is nothing really terrible about it. It did not cause me to twitch and groan at twisted metaphors or bad imagery (someday we will sit down and discuss the delights of Jackie Collins, shall we?). At no point did I scream “Get an editor, you moron!” as I’ve been known to do while reading… well, let’s call them Stephen K. and Anne R. Lack of internal logic did not cause me to hurl the book against the wall in frustration and disappointment. But, adequately written as it was, I can’t see myself recommending it to any of my BFFs, at least not to those who’ve done me any favors.

Okay, I’ll come clean. What bugs me the most about this book is readers’ reactions to it. If the fact that it is a bestseller doesn’t cause me enough pain, I have the customer feedback from a major bookseller’s web site to add the salt. Every third or fourth review praises Ms. Meyer for her imagination or wonders where she comes up with such inventive ideas. As if it weren’t clear to every 14-year-old boy where these ideas originate. As if it weren’t clear to me… I’ve seen the same scenes played out again and again in books and movies – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Trill race of Deep Space 9, the Animorphs series, All of Me with Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin, for heaven’s sake.

But I get ahead of myself. Let us take a quick spin through the plot of The Host. It is set in modern times. There has been an almost entirely successful attempt to colonize Earth by an alien race called the souls. They are described as small, feathery creatures of incredible beauty, which are inserted surgically into a human body. Each little feathery tendril entwines itself with a portion of the human nervous system and the human that was is no more. The first wave of the invasion is subtle, calm, and faces no resistance. But as the balance tips and the majority of human bodies are become controlled by souls, humans catch on and colonization takes a violent turn. Those human beings remaining become fugitives and are hunted down by special soul forces.

Melanie, one of the novel’s heroines, begins the story as a fugitive. After her capture, her body is implanted with the alien Wanderer, who becomes the novel’s other heroine. But Melanie’s consciousness refuses to disappear; she struggles against the invader controlling her body, eventually convincing Wanderer to leave the community of souls and search out Melanie’s family and loved ones. Most of the novel tells of Wanderer’s quest to prove herself something other than “alien” in their eyes and gain their trust and respect. What we learn from her quest is that aliens are just like us, only kind of feathery. Isn’t that reassuring? For example, Wanderer cares about her adopted family, Uncle Jeb and brother Jamie. Heck, she even does chores:

I answered questions every night after dinner. I found that as long as I was willing to do this, Ian and Doc and Jeb would leave me alone during the day so that I could concentrate on my chores. We always convened in the kitchen; I liked to help with the baking while I spoke. It gave me an excuse to pause before answering a difficult question, and somewhere to look when I didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes. In my head, it seemed fitting; my words were sometimes upsetting, but my actions were always for their good.

I didn’t want to admit that Jamie was right. Obviously, people didn’t like me. They couldn’t; I wasn’t one of them. Jamie liked me, but that was just some strange chemical reaction that was far from rational. Jeb liked me, but Jeb was crazy. The rest of them didn’t have either excuse.

No, they didn’t like me. But things changed when I started talking.

And, as if that weren’t banal enough, our little soul falls in love. But, as all teens know, true love never runs smoothly. In typical fashion, she becomes enmeshed in a love triangle, or maybe I should say a love quadrangle. Melanie still loves her ex-boyfriend Jared but Jared recoils from her alien half. Wanderer, now called Wanda, falls for fellow refugee Ian but can’t pursue it because of a screeching Melanie in her brain. (I think one of the girls in my imaginary cafeteria just fainted from the drama.) Wanda offers up her thoughts:

What was it that made this human love so much more desirable to me than the love of my own kind? Was it because it was exclusive and capricious? The souls offered love and acceptance to all. Did I crave a greater challenge? This love was tricky; it had no hard-and-fast rules–it might be given for free, as with Jamie, or earned through time and hard work, as with Ian, or completely and heartbreakingly unattainable, as with Jared.

Or was it simply better somehow? because these humans could hate with so much fury, was the other end of the spectrum that they could love with more heart and zeal and fire?

I didn’t know why I had yearned after it so desperately. All I knew was that, now that I had it, it was worth every ounce of risk and agony it had cost. It was better than I’d imagined.

It was everything.

If you’re interested in what Meyer has to say to all her teenage fans, I can’t really stop you from reading this book, although I would try. But if you are looking for a good book about aliens, love or what it means to be human, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Try asking that tall, skinny pale kid who works in your local bookstore or library. The gems are out there and he or she knows where to find them.


Sharon Fulton

By Catherine Coulter
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008

The first sentences of Catherine Coulter’s new book, TailSpin, made me despair—“She thought she swallowed because her throat burned hot, as if splashed with sharp acid, but she wasn’t sure because she couldn’t think clearly. Her mind felt dark, as heavy and thick as chains, and she knew to her soul that there was violence just beyond it.” It wasn’t the thought of the heroine’s distress that depressed me, but the awkward use of the word “she” four times in one sentence….and the acid cliché. Her mind feels like chains? What was kind of dreck was I about to spend my afternoon wading through?

This shaky beginning does prepare the reader for the clumsy writing that plagues the story, but, happily, Coulter’s talents for plotting, pacing, and action sequences make this light mystery a perfectly suitable beach read. Imagine watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order, and you’ll have captured the experience of reading this novel. Two separate plots keep Coulter’s three FBI agents, Agent Jackson Crowne, Agent Savich, and Agent Sherlock, adequately busy. In one plot, a young woman, Rachael Janes Abbott (she of the chain-link mind), finds out that she is the illegitimate daughter of a senior Senator six weeks before he dies in a suspicious car accident—as she grieves the father she might have known, Rachael suddenly becomes a target for unknown reasons. She survives several murder attempts as she and Jack Crowne seek out her would-be killers. The other plot focuses on Dr. Timothy MacLean, a psychiatrist to the Washington elite, who comes down with frontal lobe dementia and begins spilling his powerful patients’ secrets. Once he starts blabbing, he begins to suffer from with multiple assassination attempts as well.

The titular tail spin is the event that brings these two plotlines and three federal officers into close conjunction. Since Rachael Abbott (fleeing from her attackers) happens to witness Jack Crowne’s and Dr. MacLean’s plane crashing onto a small land strip in the mountains near Parlow, Kentucky, she stops to pull them from the wreckage. This coincidence also activates the little romance subplot between Jack and Rachael: “To her surprise, he actually smiled. ‘Am I dead? Are you an angel? No, you’re not an angel, your hair’s too pretty and that braid—angels don’t wear braids like that. And you’ve got dirt on your nose.” If that last quote didn’t make you gag, you might really enjoy the rest of Coulter’s dialogue.

The plane crash is just the beginning of the action, and that sentence only represents one of the many references to Rachael’s braid. Never in my life have I read so many descriptions of one braid—it is the one feature that every character consistently notices about Rachael. I suppose this tonsorial fillip is meant to designate Rachael as a sexy heroine, but the description recurs so often that I debated whether or not if the all-important braid was a running joke. Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Not all of Coulter’s characters are quite as two-dimensional as Rachael, and I suspect that Jack, Savich, and Sherlock have somewhat more defined personalities because this is the twelfth book in Coulter’s FBI series. As in Law and Order (I cannot emphasize how appropriate this analogy is), the main characters develop quirks and backgrounds from episode to episode, and the guest stars typically remain cookie-cutter portraits of victims, villains, informants, and bystanders. Still, Coulter’s main characters aren’t particularly interesting either.

I cannot judge how charming the married FBI agents Savich and Sherlock are in the other books in Coulter’s series, but I had trouble believing that the FBI would ever allow a married couple to work as partners. I know that suspending disbelief is a requirement of reading pulp fiction, but when the icy villain insults the agents by commenting, “Married? I’ve never heard of FBI agents begin married to each other before, but I suppose our government allows just about anything,” I was glad that someone questioned the ridiculous premise. To be fair, most of the partners in cop shows behave somewhat like married couples anyway—with only the partner understanding the other’s true nature—and so Coulter just makes this subtext explicit. Nevertheless, her attempts to normalize this Savich/Sherlock coupling by inserting repetitive (and boring) scenes detailing their blissful Cheerio-strewn, child-rearing homelife are more than a little embarrassing. Heaven forbid that married feds (aka good guys) have any major complications at home due to their bizarre career choice.

Beating up a novel like this one because of the weakness of its writing, dialogue, and overly familiar characters, however, seems like a waste of time considering that it delivers relentless, driving action. I can’t help but believe that’s why most of Coulter’s devotees keep picking up these books, and Coulter does have a talent for writing fast-paced, exciting, bloody scuffles. At any moment, the reader knows that an assassin is going to run through the door or a bomb will detonate—the melodrama and dull dialogue don’t really have a chance to slow down the plot.

Although there are several good skirmishes scattered throughout the novel, my favorite comes when the Savich and Sherlock corner a hit woman, Perky, who has been terrorizing Rachael. Coulter sets the initial confrontation in a goth-lingerie boutique, which is only one of the clever locations that the author integrates into the plot. (My second favorite locale has got to be Parlow, Kentucky, a town that names all of its streets after various species of ducks.) Coulter shows a nice eye for the detail when she describes the store:

Once through the black front door at K-Martique, Sherlock, all smiles, nodded to the few customers as she wove her way through racks of gauzy black skirts, black dresses, black tops, some really interesting red plastic spikes, black boots, and lacy black underwear hot enough to sizzle a guy’s eyes, to the counter in the far corner. It was stationed in front of a full-length mirror, doubtless to allow the sales clerk visual cover of the store.

By mentioning the store’s safety mirror, Coulter approximates the overview a FBI agent might take when entering a dangerous location—plus, these little touches make the subsequent chase scene easier to follow because the reader already has a firm understanding of the setting. Savich and Sherlock follow an Elvira-like clerk to the apartment upstairs, and she unexpectedly turns on them:

They were all the way in the small, shadowy space when the door slammed shut behind them and they heard the key turn in the lock, the wild, fast flap of boots back down the stairs. Savich kicked the door open and bending low, eased out into the small hallway. If he hadn’t been nearly bent double, he would have been shot in the chest. The bullet whizzed over his head, barely missing him. He fell flat on the hallway floor and fired. Two more bullets slammed into the wall above his head, and then he heard the sound of running. Sherlock came down beside him, “You’re okay, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, just humiliated.”

‘Well,” she said, “I think we just met Perky.”

They run downstairs, through the boutique, but Perky decides to rush into a Barnes & Noble full of hostages, which leads to the most suspenseful moment of the book:

Savich saw her shoot…from behind the travel aisle, then leap onto the down escalator from the second level and begin to run up, flat out, her black skirt flying, her boots thudding loudly on the treads, a gun in her right hand. He knew to his gut she was heading to the third floor, the children’s section, to find herself the perfect hostage. Of course she could grab anyone. He called, “Sherlock, get everyone over here. Steve, buzz up to the children’s area. Get the kids on the elevator, fast, or in the restrooms, just out of sight. Everyone, stay down!

Coulter transforms a comfortable neighborhood bookstore into a site for a potential massacre, and she never loses the reader while describing the complicated moves of the players. The agents dodge bullets by ducking behind bookcases, and the escalator causes the killer’s (literal) downfall. Throughout the novel, showers of bullets often erupt in unlikely places and in the middle of peaceful interludes, and this havoc propels the melodramatic plot(s) forward. Sadly, the twin mysteries culminate rather obviously—it’s as if Coulter doesn’t quite believe in red herrings or misleading the reader—but the fun shoot ‘em ups almost make up for the unsurprising ending.


Elisa Gabbert

The Beach House
By Jane Green
Viking, 2008

According to USA Today, a book by Jane Green is “a total bon-bon.” If The Beach House is a bon-bon, it’s made with cloying drug-store-quality chocolate, but sure—it’s sweet and easy to swallow. But “smart and complex,” as another blurb on the back cover would have us believe? “Deliciously witty”? No. Make no mistake, The Beach House is horribly written. If what you want is inconsequential fluff to while away an afternoon at the beach, then Jane Green may be your bag. But don’t kid yourself that it’s deftly crafted.

The action centers around Nan, an eccentric older woman who has lived well for many years on Nantucket but finds herself suddenly strapped financially. She decides to rent out rooms for the tourist season. Green then sets about introducing us to the other major players—people whose circumstances will bring them unexpectedly to Nantucket for a very special summer—all of whom have recently gone through a romantic crisis. There are two recent divorcees, one the cuckolded mother of a teenage daughter, the other a man who ends his marriage when he is the last to realize he’s gay. Nan’s son Michael has also returned to the island after a disastrous affair with his married boss of twenty years. All these folks had believed they were happy before their relationships fell apart; now they’re taking a break from their busy lives to find themselves.

I’ll take a cue from Green and state the obvious: Everything in this book is a cliché, and she tends to pick a cliché and stick with it, recycling and rehashing it with little variation over the course of the novel. All the women are the same: beautiful, but not getting any younger; strong-willed and accustomed to getting their way; known by quirky, old-fashioned nicknames (Nan, Bee, Daff). The main character has been going by Nan so long she has, improbably, “mostly forgotten her given name.” The men are all handsome, fit, loving and kind, the kind of men who grin a lot (I hate when people “grin” in novels). If they betray any flaw it’s having made some poor choices in the past, but they’re determined to change for the better.

Green’s writing is excruciatingly lazy and sloppy, as though she couldn’t be bothered to read back over what she had written. She is constantly giving us the same information twice. On the second page, Nan trespasses onto a neighbor’s property for a quick dip in their pool, as she is wont to do: “the water was so blue, so inviting, it was practically begging her to strip off and jump in, which of course she did, her body still slim and strong, her legs tan and muscled.” Drying off “naturally” (are towels unnatural?) she wanders naked around the garden, and we are told again that at 65 she is “skinny and strong.”

When she’s not repeating herself, Green is directly contradicting herself. Still on page 2, Green writes that “Nan’s is a beauty that is rarely seen these days, a natural elegance and style that prevailed throughout the fifties, but has mostly disappeared today.” In the next paragraph, we are told that Nan “covers as many of [her] imperfections as she can with makeup, still feels that she cannot leave her house without full makeup, her trademark scarlet lipstick the first thing she puts on every morning, before her underwear even, before her bath.” Green’s definition of “natural” is inscrutable.

Green contradicts herself again when she explains the disappearance of Nan’s husband years earlier, when their son was six. At first she thinks nothing of his being gone when she wakes: “She had woken up one morning and the bed had been empty, which was not particularly unusual—he would often wake up and go for an early morning swim—but it wasn’t until he failed to return that her heart quickened with a trace of anxiety.” But in the next sentence, we are told the opposite: “She went down to the beach, and still she remembers that she knew, knew from the moment she turned over and saw his side of the bed empty, that there was something not quite right.”

In perhaps the most implausible moment of the book, Nan finds her husband’s T-shirt and watch on the beach, and concludes that he has committed suicide:

No note. Nothing. […] Nan had stood and looked out over the waves, listening to the ocean crash around her as a tear rolled down her cheek. She wasn’t looking for him, she knew he had gone.
She just didn’t know why.

What the hell? If she knew of no reason why her husband would kill himself, and he often swam in the ocean, why on earth would she jump so quickly to the conclusion that he’d thrown himself into his own watery grave? Nonsense. Any sane person would think that he’d drowned accidentally and initiate a search, holding out hope that he’d only drifted out to another beach. But Nan is gifted with supernatural instincts. She just knows that he’s “gone” and begins making her lifelong peace with that loss.

Her hunches throughout the novel are infallible, making The Beach House an astoundingly boring and predictable read. She makes her matchmaking intentions very clear from the moment her tenants arrive. Daff, the newly single mother, will be a perfect match for her son Michael—though he’s been a George Clooney-esque serial dater until this fateful summer. And she sets the just-outed Daniel up with her landscaper. Both couples, despite full awareness of Nan’s machinations, hit it off swimmingly and only the most minor and contrived obstacles stand in their way before they’re united in perfect love, the kind of love they’d heard about but never actually experienced.

The most annoying thing about this book for me, as a writer, is Green’s ignorance, or rejection, of the most basic tenets of good writing. I kept thinking of the old workshop saw, “Show, don’t tell.” Green never lets her characters’ words and actions speak for themselves, she just spells out their emotions and beliefs in the most prosaic way—much easier for both her and the reader I suppose. For example: “Jessica blames her mother for the marriage breaking up.” This would be amply evident if she didn’t state it; Jessica tells her mother she hates her and has ruined her life, then runs away from home to live with her father instead. But Green won’t take any chances that someone might miss the implications of those events.

Making things worse, the dialogue throughout is false and wooden, full of stock lines like, “I miss us.” In one early scene, Nan takes a phone call from her son, and Green commits a preposterous blunder (the book is narrated, pointlessly and awkwardly, in the present tense):

Nan turns off the tap and reaches for a cigarette.
“Oh Mom. You’re not still smoking.”

Can Michael hear her reach for a cigarette? Or has Green forgotten that her characters can’t watch themselves, like actors viewing dailies?

I would like to say that Green is badly in need of an editor, but it would seem that she is not—people are buying this shit in droves as is. Fans might argue that books like this are “just for fun,” but I’d counter that trashy beach reads needn’t be logically inconsistent and devoid of surprises. This type of fiction must have a Lifetime Network/Desperate Housewives kind of so-bad-it’s-good appeal for her many readers, but for someone unaccustomed to “chick lit” dreck, it’s so bad it’s just bad.

Julie McGinley

Love the One You’re With
by Emily Giffin
Viking, 2008

Ask any woman unlikely to have read many books, and chances are she’s read one by Emily Giffin. I’ll be completely honest and admit that this is the third book I’ve read of hers: I read both Something Borrowed and Something Blue on airplanes. For me, Giffin’s books are usually the perfect travel companions; the straightforward prose and somewhat predictable sequence of events means distractions are not a hindrance, and the chick-flick storylines help pass the time.

So I knew what I was getting into when I picked up Love the One You’re With. As in previous Giffin works, the reader relates to the main character, Ellen, because of her seemingly average qualities and her “strong desire to belong” in a world where she is surrounded by people who happen to be perfect, like her old college roommate, best friend, and sister-in-law, Margot.

Margot was a cheerleader and former debutante, brimming with the brand of confidence that belongs to wealthy, well-traveled WASPs. I was reserved, slightly neurotic, and despite my strong desire to belong, far more comfortable on the sidelines of things.

Besides coming from a middle class family, being slightly shy, and feeling like something of an outsider, the main character has other sympathetic qualities. First, her mother died of cancer when Ellen was a teenager, a fact that the reader is reminded of approximately every two pages. Next, she loves her husband and wants to be a good wife. Her love is put to the test when her most significant ex-boyfriend enters the picture.Giffin strings the story along, making the reader hold on just a few more pages for the scandal to finally unfold. Unfortunately, she never really delivers. The drama in the story doesn’t come from anything actually happening. It really only comes from the main character blowing events out of proportion. As in an episode of Full House, nothing bad ever would have happened if Ellen had been honest from the beginning. For example, the first scene finds Ellen collecting herself after running into her ex-boyfriend after eight years. They mutter an awkward hello and go their separate ways. She understandably feels flustered and excited, as anyone would after seeing an ex-love after so much time. Ellen’s reaction, however, is to completely blow the situation out of proportion.

…I slid into a red vinyl both in the back corner of the restaurant and vowed never to speak of it. To share my feelings with a friend would constitute an act of disloyalty to my husband…To write of it in my journal would elevate its importance, something I was determined not to do. And to tell [my husband] would be some combination of stupid, self-destructive, and hurtful. I was bothered by the lie of omission, a black mark on our fledgling marriage, but decided it was for the best.

This sets the scene for the rest of the book. Ellen spends the next few chapters flipping through memories of meeting and dating Andy, her perfect, rich husband, and Leo, her bad-boy ex-boyfriend. In the end, of course, she must choose between the two.

One of the reasons that Giffin’s books are so popular might be because many women find them relatable. Ellen’s relationship with Leo is the type most women have had in their lives. As she reminisces about their relationship, Ellen muses:

After work, I’d head straight for Leo’s new place, back in Queens, ever available to him, only returning to my own apartment when he had other plans or when I needed a fresh supply of clothes. On the rare nights we were apart, I sometimes went out with Margot and our group of friends, but I preferred staying in, where I would day-dream about Leo or plan our next adventure together or compile cassette mixes of songs that seemed cool enough, smart enough, soulful enough for my cool, smart, soulful boyfriend.

This scene sufficiently illustrates the one-sidedness and borderline obsessive relationship Ellen had with Leo, which causes her to ignore her career completely. After he breaks up with her, however, she rediscovers her passion for photography and her career skyrockets. In the written equivalent of a movie montage scene. Ellen buys herself a camera and enrolls herself in classes to become, in one short page, a successful, independent photographer.

With her life completely in order, she is ready for a steady relationship. She dates and marries her best friend’s brother. A less passionate relationship, perhaps, but a steady and happy one nonetheless.

As her ex-boyfriend uses her eight-year-old but unchanged cell phone number to weasel his way back in to her life, Ellen must decide which type of love is better: intense and all-consuming or unwavering but unglamorous. Ellen lives every woman’s dream of having an ex crawl back to her, finding her in a happy relationship and a successful career.

Because Ellen really does love her husband and her family, it would seem as though there’s no decision to be made. Fortunately for the storyline, Ellen’s husband changes into a selfish, materialistic golf-player right when it becomes most convenient for her to run back into Leo’s arms.

At the beginning of the book, Andy was painted as laid back about everything, including money:

I imagine a day far into the future when Andy and I return to this spot with our yet-to-be-born children. Give them a grand tour of where ‘Mommy and Daddy first lived.’ Tell them, ‘Yes, with Daddy’s family money we could have afforded a plush Upper East Side doorman building, but he picked this one, in this quiet neighborhood, because it had more character…Just as he chose me over all those blue-eyed Southern belles.

But after the couple relocates to Atlanta and buys a giant house near Andy’s family, Andy can’t stop himself from golfing compulsively and ignoring his wife. This makes Ellen feel isolated and drives her back to an eagerly waiting Leo. She flies to New York to see Leo and must decide, once and for all who she will choose.