Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

What makes this the "go to" book of the summer? Why is this book the hyped product it is? A more perceptive question might be "why is this even a book?" I ask, because it reads like a recap of a television mini-series. That is not a compliment.

This monster book clocks in at over 800 pages on my nook, and at that is only the first of a projected trilogy. The book skips around to many stories. Ideally, this gives us multiple perspectives on the action; in reality, it just forces us to meet and attempt to care about a bunch of two-dimensional characters with all but predictable back stories who get killed.

Of course they get killed--it's a vampire book.

At least, it's a book which contains vampire-type former-humans. Sometime in the near future, a professor's wife died. So instead of trying to cure or prevent the disease that killed her, he chooses (as so many people do) to travel to South America and find a virus or immortality. Because that does--what does that do for him? I mean think about this for a couple of seconds. Professor Lear lost his wife, and he doesn't want that to happen again? Well, she's already dead and this doesn't bring her back. If Lear becomes immortal, then he would get to watch everybody he knows die--again, not really the outcome one would be looking for, given his back story. So, what if he finds the key to immortality, and makes humanity immune to death and disease--Paging Dr. Malthus. Dr. Malthus, please answer your page!

I mean sure, Harvard-trained medical personnel can be arrogant and oblivious, but surely this guy thought about this for a couple of seconds. I mean, he had to have filled out some paperwork to get a grant, right? Surely there was some time he had to fill out a form that asked him the purpose of his research, and simply saying "immortality" is not going to be enough.

But Cronin doesn't go beyond the glib armchair psychologist explanation to create anybody who might be a nuanced and recognizably human character. No, Lear has a dead wife in order to conduct the mad experiment so the book will have vampires. And in approved movie cliche fashion, the military gets involved. And all does not go well.

This fall into cliche is so disappointing, because Cronin started off with such delicacy and nuance. Two of the stories in the beginning of the book are heartbreaking and exquisitely crafted stories of desperate humanity that totally absorbed me.

In the first section, Cronin gives us a moving series of vignettes about a slipping down life--a young woman named Jeannette who had a brief affair with a traveling salesman and wound up a single mom. Without a high school education, Jeanette ended up working poorly paid jobs, forced to leave her daughter at home alone since she couldn't afford child care. Barely making it by working two jobs, she loses one when her co-workers find out she leaves her very very young child unattended. After losing that job, she can't keep up her rent payments, and ends up living in a crummy hotel and turning to prostitution to keep herself and her daughter fed and housed. A snotty frat boy picks her up, clearly intends to have her service the entire fraternity, won't take no for an answer, so she makes a (another) bad decision and pulls a gun to get away. Of course, she kills him, and that's all she wrote. Even Jeanette can see the writing on the wall.

So she goes back to the hotel, takes her little girl (named Amy) to a convent, and pretends that she's coming back in a couple of hours. Even at age 6-ish, Amy knows she's not coming back.

That was excellent writing--sensitive to the harsh realities of a life out of control, articulate about Jeanette's deep love for her daughter, and the cruel way life can turn out. So I had some real investment in this book, because Cronin had shown me what he could do--he quickly and deftly sketched the arc of a desperate life, capping it with the heart-breaking scene of a young girl who knew she had been abandoned.

But suddenly, we are reading a cryptic series of emails from Lear who is somewhere in South America on an expedition searching for something that isn't really explained. The military gets involved, and is doing some security for the academics, as well as having some hidden agenda that Lear isn't smart enough to pick up on. And here I was a little sceptical, but not yet jaded--because I knew this was a vampire book, but it was light-years from sparkly emo kids moping around the Forks High School. This was cynical--the military wasn't involved out of the goodness of their hearts after all. Vampires as super-soldiers! If you could get a rapid-healing immortal soldier, you wouldn't have to keep recruiting and training new soldiers! It would make warfare more cost efficient! As a reader, I was enjoying thinking about all the ways this could go bad--because really, there was no way that a clueless academic trekking through rain forests with military escort wasn't going to go wrong.

Then we get the story of Carter, a man on death row. Another desperate, slipping-down life with a hint of hope that is dashed. The scene where Carter meets the woman he is accused of killing is wry and smart about the toxic mix of race, sex and class. Carter is begging at a busy intersection in Houston (I think?), holding a sign that says something like "Anything will help, and God will bless you." A white woman in a shiny SUV pulls up and opens the window. Cronin deftly contrasts the blinding heat where Carter is standing with the cool interior of a leather covered SUV. But the woman can't find any cash in her purse, and is clearly at the end of her own emotional tether. She NEEDS to give this man some money because she NEEDS God's blessing.

As she continues to fumble, the traffic light changes, and the drivers behind her get impatient. Carter can see the disaster brewing: a poor black man talking to a rich white woman is not going to get the benefit of any doubt. And indeed, as soon as the first white male driver gets out of the car to investigate the delay, the cry goes up "That man is trying to carjack that woman! Get him!"

So much about the worst of our own instincts is in play in that scene, and yet everybody is not only recognizably human, but arguably trying to do the right thing. And yet it all goes so horribly wrong--the disaster is inevitable. It is Cronin's skill with these scenes that made me so excited about this book, and the fact that he abandons this excellent writing and substitutes "competent TV quality thriller writing" that so disappointed me about this book.

As the story develops, we learn that some Agency guys are recruiting death row inmates for the secret vampire/immortality experiment, and Carter is one of them. One of the Agency guys is losing his taste for this work, and completely loses it when he's sent to pick up a little girl--Amy. (Of course, he has to have a back story about losing his only child to a terrible disease, because without some sort of traumatic history like that he wouldn't be bothered by turning an orphaned six-year old over for military medical experimentation, right?) But Amy isn't just any little girl. Apparently she has some unexplained ability to talk to animals or something, and her first trip to the zoo results in animals escaping their cages trying to get close to her. And despite the fact that this is the first time she's ever been near animals, she knows what happened, and it has to do with "what I am." And this is BEFORE she gets injected with vampirism.

There are some nicely done touches about the progression of the American Security State, and some nice atmospherics in the Sooper Sekkritt military station in Telluride, but really the point is to get the vampires created and then loosed on the population. And poor, sad, little Amy with her Peter Rabbit stuffed animal for poignancy. How many Secret Military Vampires are there? There seem to be twelve (or "Twelve" for maximum Biblical resonance), although there is a subject "Zero" who might have been one of the scientists who originally went to Bolivia, and Amy as well, so fourteen?

The expected disaster happens, the nasty vampires get loose and turn every tenth victim into a minion vampire, exponentially decimating the population and increasing the number of vampires. Nuclear weapons are deployed. Amy and the Agency guy with a conscience ride out the first year of vampire mayhem in an abandoned camp in the Cascade Mountains. This allows Cronin to show us only glimpses of the massive upheaval caused by the vampire virus. The plot then skips ahead some 93 years into post-vampire apocalyptic society.

This is potentially a major problem, because once again, we are forced into learning about a whole bunch of new characters who are all likely to get killed off. Again. If not by the vampires this time, then by the fact that the technology that keeps their little enclave safe is starting to wear out. That and the nasty way small towns have of forcing people into too much intimacy. So in this section we get a narrative of WWII-style evacuation of the children, followed by post-apocalyptic social structure and survivalism, lightly seasoned with Sinclair Lewis social analysis. This is where I'm thinking Cronin must have watched Lost.

Events transpire, and it doesn't much matter what they are, but they result in a Small But Hardy Band of young people set out on a Quest, along with Amy. That Amy. Yup. Same one. Because remember when I said we were forced to learn about a whole bunch of new characters? We are, but we are also constantly meeting the old characters from the first third of the book. In fact, time after time, people disappear or die, only to pop up again later. Amy is the first one, but not the last.

[This gets so bad, that at one point Our Small Band of Heroes recognizes somebody, and I can't even remember who he is or why I should care about him. He was just one of the many many people who had disappeared earlier in the book, and I decided not to bother going back, since this time he died for real anyway.]

Do we care about the members of the Band of Heroes? There is the boring guy with mother issues who is the leader (one reviewer called him "as exciting as a Sears shirt model"--nice!); a weapons expert who happens to be female; a pregnant woman looking for her lost baby-daddy; a younger kid in silly sneakers (comic relief, I think, although he's not actually funny); a mechanical whiz who can fix anything; a nurse who's pining for the shirt model; some dude with a beard; and Amy, (who now looks to be about 15), the psychic vampire whisperer. And none of them really rise about their cliches. And once they are on The Road (with apologies owed to Cormac McCarthy), we get all the brilliance of cliffhanger TV writing.

Using old maps from pre-Vampire days, Our Heroes head out to Las Vegas. The experience is a West Coast sort of Planet of the Apes, where Cronin can show us the ruined remains of the landmarks we know, only less movingly, since who's going to get verklempt over a 1/2 scale Eiffel Tower with views of the airport?

Once in Los Vegas, they end up trying to find safety from the vampires who infest the city. So of course they don't go find a defensible industrial kitchen in the basement of a mega-casino hotel--you know, some place with limited entrances as well as bright lights that will keep the vampires away. No, instead they go up several floors to a large suite with floor to ceiling windows, because there's no way a vampire won't break in dramatically through the glass and snatch one of their number away.

Oh wait. That's exactly what happens.

Not only does it happen, but it happens as the climax to some emotional drama between members of the Band. Accusations, emotional conflict, resignation, resolution of the confl--oh no! Vampires! Our Heroes are lost, alone in the dark, almost certainly going to be attacked by swarms of vampires when--hello! What's this? A para-military vehicle with bright lights appears out of nowhere in the nick of time and scoops up Our Heroes, saving them from an almost certain death! I can see the way it would look on screen, because we've all seen it so many times: ominous situation, bright light appears out of the gloom, hazy figures moving behind the bright light. Are they friend or foe? Tune in tomorrow!

We go to a compound of several hundred people living in an old prison. They are all nice, and smile all the time, and all the women are pregnant. Our Heroes are convinced there is something off about this situation. Of course there is! There are old men, young girls and pregnant women--it's a polygamist outpost of LDS!

Well, maybe it is that too, but it turns out that it's also a sort of human farm for one of the original Twelve. Once a month, Babcock requires the people of The Haven to give him four cattle and two humans, and Babcock protects them from all the rest of the virals. It's a Faustian bargain, perhaps, but it's kept this group of humans alive for a hundred years.

Our Heroes have nothing but contempt for this system, of course. These people aren't human, they're collaborators! But wait a second--what gives them the right to any sort of moral high ground? Because within a few pages, they find the two humans being offered to Babcock are friends! One is the missing Baby-Daddy who is also the brother of Sears Shirt Guy! The other is somebody who I can't even remember who he was before he showed up here! So they move in with weapons and kill several of the Haven residents in order to save their own friends.

Let's do the math. Haven residents offer 2 humans (and 4 cows--does no one care about the cows????) in order to save the lives of the remaining hundreds=BAD. Heroes kill 2 humans in order to save their 2 friends=GOOD? I mean, one could have a principled belief that if Haven didn't have this arrangement, they would all have died a hundred years ago, and hundreds of people would never have been born. If the calculus is 2 lives versus 300 lives, clearly the Haven solution is not completely unconscionable. But instead of exploring the moral quagmire living in such a system entails, Cronin goes for the Captain Kirk/Star Trek level of moral examination and declares this is BAD and so anybody who gets killed in Our Heroes' escape deserved it anyway.

And just to heighten the melodrama, the 4 cows and 2 humans don't just get thrown outside the walls, or tied out by people who skulk away and refuse to examine their actions--which would force the reader into an examination of how far a human being will go to survive. No, that wouldn't be sufficiently cinematic. So Cronin writes up a sort of Thunder Dome, where all the hundreds of people of Haven stand around a rigged up Coliseum, chanting in unison and calling for blood. You're getting tired of me saying this, but we've seen this before!

But have we seen anything like when Our Heroes come down from the ceiling vents and throw a grenade, only to be tossed back by the explosion? Why yes, yes we have. It's like outrunning a fireball--good guys don't explode, no matter how close they are to the epicenter. It's all about the visual. Or how about the part where somebody tries to stop A Hero from disrupting the event, and so shoots--only to hit her in the leg, which doesn't slow her down at all? Bad guys = bad aim, check. Bad guy + bad aim + bad decision of not taking a second shot? Check, check and check. So Our Hero, only minimally slowed down by a bullet to the thigh, manages to rescue her Hero Boyfriend, maneuver through a stampeding crowd, climb onto a train that doesn't stop, and only later gets even a compress to stop the bleeding.

Oh yeah, notify the Nobel committee--because this is literature.

We've seen it--sure, it's competently written, and it's somewhat engaging, but it's kind of like Lost with blood-suckers instead of smoke monsters. Episode after episode of people trying to survive, facing various threats to their existence, salvaging what they can and trying to survive in the wild, with some added mumbo-jumbo to make the story seem larger.

I have a few questions about this sequence that are not answered.
  • Babcock and the dreams--Apparently, Babcock projects dreams about the woman he killed that got him onto death row back in the olden days. Somebody spends days and weeks trying to get Baby-Daddy replicate the murder in his own dreams: to pick up the knife and kill the fat woman the way Babcock had. He refuses to do so--and we're lead to believe that B-D was unique in his refusal to do dream-murder. Is this why he becomes one of the sacrifices? But the other sacrifice is also originally from the Colony--so why did the dream matter, since outsider status is apparently enough to make him the victim?
  • Why does the rebel leader trying to escape from Haven give a powder to Fix-It Guy when she takes him out to repair the escape vehicle? There is some discussion about how it will eliminate the fat lady dreams, but it's not like he was going to be sleeping anytime soon--he's supposed to be going to fix a train.
  • Sex with willing young women makes you immune to being a sacrifice? How do they find anybody who qualifies then? What are the selection criteria anyway?
Okay, now seriously? Seriously? Justin Cronin is going to have Our Heroes drive a car alongside a speeding train so they can jump into the engine? How many westerns have this scene, where somebody is trying to match the train speed by riding a horse? Same thing, only with a Hummer. I think I even remember something like this in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Then there is a Damsel in Distress who is too afraid to make the jump and gets dragged off by the virals? The technique is supposed to heighten the suspense--will Our Heroes suffer the same fate? The problem is that the damsel was actually a Star Trek red shirt. There was never any question that the Heroes were all going to jump successfully. I won't even mention the uncoupling of all the train cars, so that only the people in the engine survive, but I do have to mention the fact that hundreds of people just died BEFORE YOUR EYES and all Cronin does is give us a Bad Ass Action Figure Quip: "They were already dead, long ago."

Then, after all Our Heroes make the jump, the train manages to travel unimpeded for 400 kilometers on century old train tracks. Frankly, I find that unbelievable--nobody has been maintaining the rails for a century, and you get 400 kilometers without a popped spike, a silted over or decayed track that would cause a derailment? Oh, no, Cronin can't afford to have that kind of obstacle, because he's got to get his Heroes to Telluride before winter, and he needs them to cover that distance. But just in case that seemed too easy, he has one of the characters suddenly notice a hatch.

The dialog goes something like this:

Comic Relief Guy in Silly Shoes: Wow! We just escaped from a literal cloud of vampire virals with no losses of Main Characters and now we are ostensibly safe! Now we are going to abandon this train and head off on foot to the mountains. So of course, since it doesn't matter, I'm going to do something that I have no reason to do, and I'm going to notice that there is a hatch here on the underside of the train engine. Since I'm not the Fix-It Guy, I have never taken the least notice of anything remotely mechanical, and there is no reason I should notice this particular hatch. So I'm going to. What's that hatch?

Fix-It Guy: (shrugs) Don't know, don't care, doesn't matter because we are abandoning this train and going on foot to the mountains. But I happen to have a wrench if you are curious, although there is no reason you should be curious, especially after just narrowly surviving a cloud of vampires and sending hundreds of people to their gruesome deaths so we could escape.

Bad Guy (with gun pops out of the hatch): BOO!

This is literature? This is what an English professor with an MFA from Iowa actually put into his novel? A Bad Guy who jumps out of a hidden spot and kills one of them? I swear to god this is an exercise in how many TV Tropes Cronin could fit into one book. When will we get the "Cool Guys Don't Look At Explosions" scene?

Then we are back to the "Wagon Train West" storyline--eight people (about--it's hard to keep track of how many paper thin characters are on this journey) are headed on foot to Colorado. Cronin does some desperate vamping to account for the number of days this takes, until they inexplicably find a nearly intact farmhouse, where the Pregnant Lady and her Baby Daddy decide to go no further. I think there was a scene like this in Lonesome Dove, where two people separate, uncertain that they will ever see each other again in this life. You can imagine the mixed emotions on both sides--the people who are staying not certain if they will survive the coming Colorado winter, the ones traveling on not certain if they will come back this way again.

Cronin give us: Peter has a hissy fit that his brother didn't stand on the porch and watch them all the way out of sight.
A small thing, but it had seemed important to Peter that Theo remain where he was, standing on the porch, until the six of them were out of sight. But when Peter looked again, his brother was gone; only Mausami was there.

When the sun was high they stopped to rest.
That's it. That's the epic emotional scope. I guess Peter was wearing his whiny underpants that morning. Geez, the McKenzie brothers showed more genuine distress over separating in Strange Brew. Too bad I can't find a clip of that.

The book goes on. There is a Lost Garrison that feels like something lifted from Dances with Wolves and F Troop. Female Weapons Expert becomes a member of the military, hunting out nests of vampires, Fix-It Guy joins the motor pool, Nurse gives up pining for Sears Shirt Model and falls in love with Bearded Guy. Lots of meals eaten in the mess tent as winter approaches. Eventually, Sears Shirt Guy and Amy go alone to the mountain where the original experiments took place, and they find. . .Ancient Magic Black Woman who just happened to be the nun who took Amy in over a century ago. She can explain all the missing plot elements, plus she has both a vampire antidote AND a small nuclear bomb!

Our Heroes use both, and it turns out when you kill one of the original Twelve, all the vampires they created die as well! So now humanity can be saved if they only find the original Twelve (or Thirteen? How many were there--do we count Zero?).

But it might be less than Twelve. See, it's starting to occur to people that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to give vampire super-powers to homicidal maniacs. But Zero was a scientists, so maybe he's different? And Carter wasn't actually a murderer (it turns out), but a victim of "Texas justice." Plus, Female Weapons Expert got bit, got the antidote, and she's mostly still human but super strong, so maybe there's a cure? Except that Amy destroyed the other vials of antidote, so what was that all about?

And then Our Heroes all re-unite and head to Roswell, where the Lost Garrison winters. Even New Mom (formerly Pregnant Lady) and Baby Daddy leave their idyllic Little House on the Prairie existence and join them. And the book ends with the information that Nurse's journal was found at the site of the Roswell Massacre. Because there's got to be a cliff-hanger.

There are about four cliff-hangers, actually, none of which I find myself caring about.

In the end, this is a book I felt betrayed by, because of the bait-and-switch. If it had all been Lost, with Bloodsuckers I would have been less irritated, because I would have gotten a perfectly serviceable summer thriller. I tend not to read many of those, but there is definitely a place for well-executed adventure novels. But when it started out as so much more, I was fooled into expecting that I was getting something really wonderful--like maybe a Michael Chabon-level genre-bender: the Kavalier and Clay of vampire novels. As it is, I got something that will doubtless be incredibly successful, but ultimately fails to live up to the promise I had been lead to believe would be there.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Is there a particularly rich seam of YA fiction available just now? Because on the heels of 13 Reasons Why and When I Reach You I met this book, which also struck me powerfully.

Snarkily billed as Groundhog's Day meets Mean Girls, this is the story of Sam Kingston, one of the "it" girls of her high school. She has three Very Best Friends, is dating the "it" boy, and has decided to sleep with him the evening of "Cupid Day"--a version of Valentine's Day. It is not a spoiler to say that she dies, however--the prologue explains it. The first chapter chronicles the last day of her life, before she knew it was going to be the last day.

As one of the popular girls she describes herself and her friends as (paraphrasing here) "we laugh too loud, we play too hard" but she feels that she's living life to the fullest. She goes through the day collecting Cupid Day roses, and goes to the Big Party that night. Her boyfriend drinks too much, which turns her off and she goes home with her friends. On the way home, they are in a car accident, but she wakes up the next morning in her own room. Sam is surprised, since she doesn't remember anything after the accident--and then she finds out its Friday. Again.

Oliver does a nice job of taking us through each of the next seven reiterations of "Cupid Day" without repeating--she gives us several events that serve as signposts so we know where in the day things happen. Yet Sam doesn't just repeat the day--for several days she tries to avoid the accident, including by not even going to the party at all. However, while she is safe, she finds that another girl in her class has committed suicide that night--and she still wakes up on Friday morning.

The lessons Sam has to learn are not anything new--appreciate your family, your actions affect other people, sometimes the right boy is NOT the boy you think it is. Oliver delivers these lessons in a way that makes them feel like Sam is really learning them for the first time, and the repeated day allow us to see all the ways Sam might have become a different girl based on her choices on that single day.

I really enjoyed this book, as it is clever, well written, and offers an unsentimental look at a believable teenager and her life. At the same time, Oliver deftly sketches out the better human being Sam could have become, and actually does become, if only for a few hours on the last day of her life. Thought provoking and worth a look.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Steig Larsson

And so we come to the end of this "Millenium Trilogy," the oddest international publishing sensation of the last few years. It started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I hated, continued with The Girl Who Played With Fire, which I hated fractionally less, and finally resolves with this most recent entry. Yes, I read it. Yes, I felt like I was buying the literary equivalent of Twinkies when I picked it up. I read it for the sake of completeness, because if I'm going to hate on it, I should at least get the full story.

Did I hate it? No, actually, I didn't. But I still don't get why this is so damn popular.

Word on the Internet has it that Larsson considered this a single novel, and it was his publishers who broke it into three separate books. Larsson's name for it was "Men Who Hate Women," which has the advantage of being accurate at least. Viewed as a single work, it is clear that the story is really about Lisabeth Salander and how an unconventional woman systematically runs afoul of a conformist society. Part of the "problem" is that she is a woman, and in Larsson's world, there is an awful lot of violent misogyny. However, it isn't clear that Salander's story would be any different if she were a man: after all, there is a lot of violence generally throughout these books, and while I felt there was a special nastiness in the treatment of women, pretty much everybody gets beat up one way or another.

In Dragon Tattoo, Salander is a secondary--and probably more like a tertiary--character. She assists Mikael Blomkvist solve a mystery using her mysteriously excellent computer skills. Oh, she's a hacker? And that's how she gets personal information on suspects? Quelle suprise. Except not.

In Played with Fire, we learn that Salander is the off-spring of a violent criminal who is protected by the Swedish government because he defected from the USSR, and was considered to be a valuable source of counter-espionage. So whenever his violent and criminal dealings became public, someone from a super-secret branch of government would come and cover it all up. One of the things he did with horrible frequency was to show up and beat Salander's mother--the final time so badly as to cause permanent brain damage. Salander couldn't get anyone to help them, so she tried to kill her father with a home-made Molotov cocktail. She was about 12 at the time.

Via the hush-hush machinations of the super-secret spy department, Salander was declared mentally ill and locked up in an asylum where she may have been sexually abused. She was eventually released, but placed under guardianship in order to keep her from revealing anything about the super secret spy club. Even after the fall of the USSR, the spies couldn't allow her to say anything that might jeopardize their organization, so when her (nice) guardian had to retire for medical reasons, she was placed under the care of a Spy Doctor, who did sexually abuse her.

Hornet's Nest
picks up where Played with Fire ends, after Salander has attempted to kill her father before he kills her. Both of them end up surprisingly not dead, and placed in hospital rooms very close to each other. Salander remains the primary suspect in multiple murders and is kept from her computers, but oddly isn't actually guarded in any way for quite some time. This raises the odd plot device where her father tries to finish her off while the night shift nurses aren't watching. As an American, I can only marvel at the trusting nature of Swedish law enforcement depicted here. They don't even seem to be afraid that she might escape.

Once she is safely locked into her hospital room, Larssen mostly just leaves her there while the book follows an ungodly number of different groups of people investigating the mayhem that trailed in Salander's wake. At least two different groups of police officers, the super secret spies, the prosecuting attorney's office, Blomkvist and I don't even know who all else are all running around trying to eavesdrop on each others' conversations to find out who knows what about what really happened. I actually found this the most enjoyable part of the books--people began to act the way normal people act, with a whole lot less of the gratuitous hyper-violence of the first two books.

Not that the violence has completely disappeared. No, there is the sickening story of illegal Russian immigrant women who are simply locked in a room and left to starve to death, and there is the continuing saga of the thugs of the motorcycle club who do a lot of dirty work for whoever will pay them. But there is so much less of it, and hardly any of the extended sequences that should have left everybody dead! It's almost refreshing.

I'm pretty sure no one will be surprised to find that Salander is vindicated by the end. There is some slimy trial work in which the head of the asylum where Salander was imprisoned tries to get her re-committed: he's also in the pay of the Super Secret Spies. He attempts to smear her with her claim that she was abused by her guardian--since that obviously couldn't have happened. So Salander's attorney gets to show the video Salander made of the last attack--one that was so violent, and lasted so long, that Salander passed out during it. Thank god the judge is sickened by it--given the kind of men who live in Larssen's Sweden, he might have thought that was perfectly normal behavior.

There is an entire subplot about Erika Berger that seemed unnecessary to me. The editor of Millenium, and Blomkvist's life-long "friend with benefits," Berger is offered the position of editor at a large and prestigious newspaper. She takes the job, and of course experiences push back from the Old Boys (there are no girls at all?)--not because she's new of course, but because she's a woman. While she's getting accustomed to her new job, over at Millenium somebody's doing an investigative piece on why toilets cost so much in Stockholm. Turns out that Erika's new boss is grossly overpricing his imported toilets, so that's why real estate is so expensive.

Yeah, I didn't follow it entirely either.

Anyway, Erika's friends at Millenium show her the piece so she's not blind-sided. She steals the piece to publish in her newspaper, confronts her boss who won't roll over for her high-minded ideals, so she quits and goes back to Millenium. And everybody lives happily ever after. Blomkvist gets a new girlfriend--a weight-lifting Amazon who just can't get enough of him. Salander goes back to her old girlfriend; Erika is still married to her husband and still sleeps with Blomkvist when he doesn't have a girlfriend. The super secret spy network is dragged into the light, and Millenium finds something to fill the space other than expensive toilets. And the people of Stockholm are once again safe.

So, now I've read the whole thing, and I have to say I don't know why this has been such a break-out hit. I mean, of all the books published in the last three years, why is this the series that everybody is reading? You see these books plastered all over airports and book stores and even grocery check-out lines, and I just don't understand the global passion for these books.

So, I don't recommend these at all, and if you know anybody who wants to know if they are worth reading, send them over here and I'll tell them how they end. After all, life is too short to read worthless books.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

This is a Very Popular Book with a Big Message. Gladwell purports to study outrageously successful individuals--those who are "outliers" from the main sequence of humanity--to try to discover what makes them successful. Surprise! It's not just talent!

As you might expect, I am underwhelmed.

When you get right down to it, Gladwell comes to the astonishing conclusion that success requires talent, plus hard work, plus opportunity and luck. Sometimes it requires picking the right ethnic/cultural background. Sometimes it requires being born at the right time. Sometimes it's being good at something that turns into a growth industry after you are already good at it.

Basically--it's out of any one person's control.

But Gladwell isn't interested in drawing that message. Instead, he tries to draw lessons from the stories he tells in order to create a moving call to social change. Many people who are successful are the lucky recipient of opportunities. So let's make sure everybody gets opportunities! Or, as Gladwell puts it:

We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.
Really? Does anybody really think that Bill Gates might still be The Richest Man In The World if he had been born into an illiterate nomadic tribe of Mongolian sheep herders? Does anybody think that the incredible run of Victorian era robber barons might have had something to do with being in the right place at the right time to exploit vast natural resources in a period before environmental and business regulation? That your brilliant kid will still win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry if he goes to the local vo/tech community college instead of Harvard?

I didn't think so.

Gladwell misses the real point. It's not that we don't believe that the rules don't matter, so much as we can't predict which rules will generate which successes. Sometimes rules have to be arbitrary, because we need some rules. And if those rules happen to advantage Kid A over Kid B, well, that's maybe unfortunate for Kid B, unless Kid B turns out to be perfectly placed as a result of that rule to take some advantage Kid A can't take--maybe even decades later.

We can't really predict a priori what the "right rules" are, after all. Sure, in retrospect, a Gladwell can pick out a year--say 1955--when it might be advantageous to be born, if one wants to be a computer billionaire like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But what about all the millions of babies who were born in 1955 who didn't turn out to be either Gates or Jobs? And can society really write rules that will guarantee another Bill Gates? After all, it's not like we can require that all babies in the country be born in 1955.

Which is the essential problem with Gladwell's "method"; there isn't one. He has a rough sort of thesis, and then he cherry picks his way through pop sociology and history to locate anecdotes that support it. There is no critical examination of whether his ideas are actually true; rather, because they are good stories and generally well told, they feel like they must be meaningful. In the end, however, this book hardly creates a blueprint for a better society.

Start at the beginning: the first chapter describes a small town in the mining hills of Pennsylvania--Roseto. The town is insular and almost entirely populated by emigrants from a single village in Italy. Despite adopting American diets and work habits, there is almost no heart disease in this town. Nearby towns have disease rates equal to or exceeding American averages, but sure enough, in this town of Italian emigrants, there is zero incidence of heart attacks below the age of 65. A pair of medical researchers studied this town, and ran through myriad theories as to why this might be, but by the end of the chapter, the conclusion is that the only factor must be that the nature of this particular community is the protection against heart disease.

To which one can only mutter a skeptical "really?" Do we really think that there is absolutely no other possible explanation for this anomaly? That it's a "magical Italian" way of life that involves strolling around in the evenings talking to your neighbors that is the silver bullet? How can we know that every single other explanation has been tested--do we really think that medical science is so complete that we understand what every last cause of heart disease might be, and that each one was tested? Personally, I am more likely to consider that there is some factor we don't understand and so can't control for than I am to believe that this small town is just magically immune from heart disease.

Plus--even if this is true--how is it even reproducible?

We then move to Canadian hockey players. Gladwell sets up a straw man assumption: that no matter where you are born in Canada, if you are a great hockey player, the system will find you. Does anyone really, actually believe that? I have some great ocean-front property in Haiti to sell you if you do.

Anyway, lo and behold, Gladwell discovers that Canada's youth hockey leagues have a January 1 age cut-off, and that kids born in January are generally bigger by that date than kids born in December. So the bigger, more mature kids get funneled into more elite teams, where they get better coaching and more ice time. The end result is that a staggering 40% of kids on national championship teams are born between January and March, while less than 10% of kids are born in the last three months of the year.

Gladwell asserts that if Canada had two leagues, with the second cut-off date being June 1, they would have twice as many hockey stars to chose from! But wait--that assumes that Canada could simply and easily double the resources it has to support elite teams: rinks, coaches, audiences, ice time, etc. Nor does Gladwell consider the social costs--whether having twice as many hockey players chasing the same limited number of professional spots (because the NHL is also not likely to be economically feasible at twice the size) isn't rather a waste of lives that could be better spent pursuing some other goal.

It's not that an arbitrary cut-off date has no effect, it's that there has to be some limit of some sort, and January 1 is no more or less arbitrary than any other date. Why have one cut-off date rather than two? That's an idea, but why stop at two? Why not twelve different leagues, so kids never compete against anyone more than a month older than they are? I can think of at least two reasons: 1) there's just not enough resources to support that fine a distinction (as I suggested above), and 2) there are some benefits to kids testing themselves against others who are bigger, stronger, etc.

Or, maybe Gladwell's "insight" has already been adopted, just at a different level. After all, the fact that Canada has leagues for each year means that Canada has three times as many elite hockey players than there would be if leagues grouped by age, such as "under 5," "6-8," "9-12," etc. Why does it need to double that number again?

The point is, in order to run a viable hockey league, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Gladwell doesn't really quibble with the fact of a cut-off date, merely about where that cut-off is made. Even if there was suddenly a second league, with a cut-off date of June 1, what could we expect would happen? The next "Malcolm Gladwell" could come along and note that the new system now discriminates against kids born in May and December, so there should be additional leagues with cut-off dates of April 1 and September 1.

There is also the risk that the quality of "elite" coaching might drop, if there is suddenly twice as much demand for it. Rather than adding opportunities for more kids, we are taking those opportunities away from the ones who currently have it. Do we have a better, more vibrant league if more kids are mediocre and fewer are exceptional? How many hockey geniuses are there, really? Maybe the December born kids are the real phenoms, while the kids who are born January-March are just winnowed out later? Who are the actual losers in a system where kids play hockey--or don't play hockey anyway. Gladwell doesn't ask any of these questions; he's moved on.

Gladwell uses Canadian hockey to segue into another theme--the 10,000 hour expert. It is the contention of at least one scientist that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything: music, hockey, computer programming. For example, the Beatles were invited to Hamburg when they were young, where they played seven days a week, 8-10 hours a night. Gladwell contends that this is what made them into The Beatles as a phenomenon, and it wouldn't have happened without all those hours of playing.

Okay, but what about all those other bands who played in Hamburg who didn't become The Beatles? Or what about the Rolling Stones, or the Beach Boys, or Led Zeppelin, who didn't play Hamburg? Or what about the fact that The Beatles actually didn't become The Beatles until after they brought on Ringo Starr, who hadn't been in Hamburg? Gladwell doesn't gloss over those criticisms so much as he just doesn't even acknowledge that there is any such criticism possible. The Beatles were famous. The Beatles played in Hamburg. Therefore, the Beatles became famous because they played in Hamburg. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. And, I guess it means that all rock bands should go to Hamburg in order to get famous.

It ain't necessarily so.

Gladwell's thesis starts getting even squishier after this point, as he considers the genesis of Bill Gates. Prior to 1968, computer programming was an arduous and boring process of creating punch cards that had to be turned into a mainframe administrator and run in a batch. If there were any errors in the punch cards, the entire batch would be rejected, and the programmer would have to go through the entire batch to find the error, correct it, and resubmit the cards. Even without errors, a single batch could take hours to run, and there were always errors. (For no good reason, my college roommate, who was majoring in accounting, was still running these damn punch cards at the University of Minnesota in 1984!!)

However, around 1968, a couple of American universities discovered a way to bypass the damn punch cards, and developed a method of using terminals to program. Bill Gates happened to live near one of these universities, and also happened to go to a school with a well connected parents' organization that got one of these terminals for the school's computer club. Gates was immediately obsessed, and through a couple of other lucky breaks, he managed to spend thousands of hours in middle and high school with this new technology, programming computers.

Gladwell seems to think that he is breaking new intellectual ground: Bill Gates wasn't just a gifted computer programmer--he also had unusual opportunities to program, he had his 10,000 hours young, and he got them at the dawn of the personal computing era. More obviously, he was lucky to be at the right place at the right time, with both interest and talent for computers. How innovative is this? All the rest of kids in that computer club aren't the Richest Man in the World after all--there was something unique about that kid in that place with those opportunities. Giving every kid in America unlimited access to computer programming in 1968 wouldn't mean every kid in America would become the Richest Man in the World.

What Gladwell doesn't acknowledge is that there really aren't universally applicable lessons to be gleaned from his anecdotes. Every kid simply cannot have every opportunity, nor does every kid who has any particular opportunity become an Outlier. Would Bill Gates have founded Microsoft if he'd been forced to play hockey in Canada? Would the Beatles have become famous rock stars if they'd been keying in computer code all through eighth grade?

In fact, we can't predict which opportunities will be seized by which kids, nor can we predict which things are actually opportunities. Gladwell takes us to the mean streets of early 20th century New York, where recent Jewish immigrants developed their own garment shops. The grandchildren of these garment workers often grew up to be doctors and lawyers. The anecdote for this section is the story of Joseph Flom, the first associate hired by the firm that became Skadden Arps. As a fat Jewish boy, Flom was not going to be hired by the white shoe law firms of 1950s New York. So he worked for the start-up firm of Skadden Arps, doing whatever work came in the door. Some of that work was hostile corporate take-overs, which the white shoe firms refused to touch. So he spent years perfecting this recondite area of law, which suddenly became very lucrative in the 1980s. By the time the white shoe firms decided they could touch this area of law, they simply couldn't catch up.

Gladwell goes on to point to a number of factors that positioned Flom to become the mergers and acquisitions shark he became: factors that were outside anybody's control. He was born in the 1930s, when birth rates had dropped due to the Depression. As a result, the schools he attended were not overcrowded, and were comparatively new. The quality of teaching was especially good, as there were highly educated teachers who simply couldn't get college jobs and so taught high school. He was able to get into law school and support himself because there were more jobs than workers. The white shoe firms didn't realize how lucrative M&A could be. M&A got lucrative before everybody else caught on. None of these factors is reproducible generally, and not every fat Jewish kid born in 1930 became Joseph Flom.

But look how much depended on luck. M&A became the money bubble of the 1980s, and Flom happened to do that. But he could just as easily been practicing divorce law, which white shoe firms also didn't touch, or DUI, or criminal defense, or any of a number of other things that wouldn't have become a license to print money. Joseph Flom didn't start doing M&A law because he saw there was a lucrative future market in it--he just happened to be the guy who was in the right place at the right time, with the right experience. He could just as easily not been--the 1980s could have been about derivatives rather than hostile take overs. In which case, Skadden Arps would not be the firm it is today, and we wouldn't be reading about Flom at all.

Gladwell has an appealing writing style, and he teases out interesting stories. He also seems to only ever see the rosy side of whatever story he is writing, and so one gets the sense that he honestly believes his insights into Canadian hockey will easily double the number of Wayne Gretzkys produced every year. Yet his steadfast refusal to examine his "findings" with any sort of critical eye means that they remain so many rainbows and unicorns--lovely to imagine, but without any role in the real world.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

Is there any point in trying to summarize this book? Or even review it? As the seventh doorstop sized novel in this series, there is so much incident, so many characters, that either you know the series and love it enough to make it this far, or you don't. In the latter case, this review will probably not be helpful.

Where to start? "Outlander" was the first book in this series, and Gabaldon's debut. It tells the deeply Scottish story of Claire Beauchamp (pronounced "Beecham") Randall, an English woman in Scotland of 1946. Reunited with her historian husband Frank after they both served in WWII, they are enjoying a second honeymoon when Claire finds herself amid a circle of standing stones on Midsummer's day. Turns out that the stones are a time portal, and Claire is thrown back some 200 years to a very different Scotland, one on the verge of rising against England in hopes of returning the Stuart kings to the throne.

This summary does absolutely no justice to the craft of the book, however. These things happen, but they happen slowly, after Gabaldon has meticulously accumulated so much detail that as a reader you find you don't even have to suspend your disbelief. Gabaldon manages to make this science fiction premise seem plausible, and even rational. Claire is an ex-Army nurse, hard-headed and practical, and not the kind of character who would easily accept this weird happening. As such, she is a wonderful guide to the 18th century--tart tongued, skeptical, well-educated enough to know her history and to experience the way history leaves out all the details that MATTER when one is trying to stay alive.

It is here in the 18th century that she meets Jamie Fraser, the man who turns out to be her soul mate. There are some romance novel machinations in which Claire finds herself forced to marry this younger man--but again, the novel uses the plot as a frame on which to hang something far more engaging than a mere romance. The bulk and appeal of the book lies in the relationship of the characters and in the way a 20th century woman comes to experience the past as its own country and culture, and things that seem incomprehensible to a modern sensibility come to make sense in the context of the past.

Much happens plot-wise in the six books before An Echo in the Bone, which themselves cover some 35 years of history and range from Scotland to France to America. (Not to mention the Lord John Grey novellas that augment the Fraser story.) Claire and Jamie age as well, and at the start of this book are living mostly obscurely (if not exactly quietly) on their homestead at Fraser's Ridge, North Carolina. But the American Revolution has started in Boston, and the ripples are disrupting lives even so far away. Jamie determines that his best option is fetch his printing press from Scotland and publish pro-Revolution documents. It will come as no surprise to fans of the series that while Jamie does manage to make it to Scotland and back to America, the trip is neither straightforward nor easy, and by the end of the hundreds of pages of this book, he still is not printing anything.

So much gets in the way, and the sheer number of characters is almost impossible to believe, much less keep track of. Jamie and Claire have a daughter, Brianna, who was concieved in the 18th century, born and raised in the 20th, then came back to the 18th century to meet her father. At the end of the previous book in the series (A Breath of Snow and Ashes), Brianna, her husband Roger MacKenzie and their two children return to the 20th century and buy Jamie's ancestral home Lallybroch. Their lives are not uneventful either, and by the end of the book, it appears that Roger may have gone again to the 18th century. This is not clear, however, and remains one of many cliffhangers that makes fans of the series rabid for the next book.

Many other characters are also given significant narratives. It is my recollection that the earlier books were primarily first person narration by Claire. While Claire continues to serve as our primary guide, her sections are nearly equalled by the third person sections that follow her nephew Ian Murray, Jamie's illegitimate son William Ransome (Lord Ellsmere), and William's stepfather and Jamie's ontime jailer-now-friend Lord John Grey. As so we see the Battle of Fort Ticondaroga both from the view of the Frasers inside the fort, and of William Ransome as a British soldier. It provides a fascinating view of the American Revolution to see it from the perspective of both the enemy and the accidental participants.

There are a few weaknesses, of course, but those are far outweighed by the many many delights. I could have done without having Lord John meet Benjamin Franklin in France, and would have happily not had Claire run into Benedict Arnold while he was still an American general and patriot. There are a few too many events and coincidences--both Ian Murray and William Ransome meet and fall in love with the same Quaker woman, while never meeting each other, for example. And the farce of piracy and counter-piracy that constitutes the Fraser's trip from North Carolina to New York takes far too long to tell, and made it hard for me to believe that they could ever make a longer journey over to Scotland.

But then balanced against those quibbles are the deep delight with which Gabaldon writes of things like Claire getting spectacles, because both she and Jamie are aging. Or the complicated character of 20th century Rob Cameron, a hydro-electric employee who works under Brianna in modern Inverness--he plays a nasty hazing trick on Brianna, but seems genuinely pleased when she foils it. He is both a damaged man who triggers sympathy, and a dangerous man who kidnaps young Jemmy after reading the McKenzie's papers about hidden gold.

The gold--dates back several books to the chests that King Louis sent to aid Charles Stewart in his attempt to reclaim his throne. It came to Scotland far too late, and a significant portion ended up in the illegal possession of Jamie's aunt, Julia Cameron. It was stolen from where she had hidden it on her own plantation by Arch Bugg, one of the homesteaders on Fraser's Ridge. He apparently hid it under the foundation of Jamie and Claire's house, where it was guarded by a white sow so bad tempered it was commonly held to be possessed by demons. When the house burned down--a burglary attempt by another time traveler seeking gems to protect him in his trip back to his own time ended up with spilled ether and Ian unknowingly lighting a match--Arch and his wife attempted to retrieve the gold. Mrs. Bugg threw a hatchet at Jamie to prevent him from stopping her, and Ian shot her with an arrow that killed her. Arch, already a fanatical Jacobite who seemed to want to take the gold back to Scotland to renew the rebellion, went entirely mad and swore to stalk Ian until he took a wife, and then Arch would kill her.

So, while a crazed and murderous stalker would seem to be unnecessary to create dramatic tension in a book that puts its characters into the middle of Revolutionary battles, one has to give Gabaldon some credit for the intricacy of her work. Arch Bugg (and his wife) first appeared two books ago, in The Fiery Cross as a factor for Jamie's farm, and they served as solid tertiary characters for comic relief and plot advancement for years before they turned into villians in this book. That's why it's hard to even review this book as a book, rather than as part of the larger saga to which it belongs.

So, in brief--yes, this book is as good as its predecessors, and worth the time. The entire series is more than a guilty pleasure, and deserves the devotion it has from its fans. The audio book is delightfully read by Davina Porter, and the time spent listening feels like time spent with a good old friend.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tithe, by Holly Black

This is one selected by one of the members of the Mother-Daughter book club, and by the time we read it and met, not even she thought it was a good book. It is the debut novel by the writer who went on to write the much more popular Spiderwick Chronicles, and is targeted to an older, YA audience. It is a mash-up of Irish folklore in a grimy New Jersey setting, with cardboard characterizations and an unrelievedly bleak outlook.

Sixteen year old Kaye lives with her mother Ellen, who is getting too old to keep chasing her rock and roll dreams. Kaye is the parent in the relationship, and has dropped out of school to deliver Chinese food full time for the income. She also loads band equipment, drops cigarette butts into her mother's beer bottles, and holds her mother's hair as she vomits into the toilet. Her life is like a bad Kesha video, actually. They are in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the book, when Ellen's boyfriend tries to stab her with a knife. Ellen makes the only good decision in the entire book and decides to move out, taking Kaye back to her own mother's house in New Jersey.

Back in New Jersey, Kaye reconnects with an old friend named Janet, who mentions that Kaye used to have some imaginary friends that she used to talk about all the time. It turns out that these were fairies, and Kaye herself turns out to be a changeling--a fairy child substituted for a human baby. Kaye starts to discover all the magic that underlies her existence, and ends up inside the sithen in the Unseelie Court in America. There is a wounded Seelie knight she saves the life of and falls "in love" with, and a complicated intrigue involving a "tithe." Every x number of years (I forget exactly--seven makes sense, but it might have been more) the Courts of Faerie require a human sacrifice which binds all the solitary fay to the court's rule. Kaye's childhood fairy friends want her to be the sacrifice, because she isn't actually a human and thus will negate the sacrifice. The fay will then not be bound to the courts, and free to live independently. They convince Kaye to join this plan.

But things are not so easy--because there is a power struggle between the Seelie and Unseelie courts (which concepts are not explained--you have to already know a fair amount about Irish folklore to get the full impact of these alliances and conspiracies) and some of the fay know Kaye isn't human, and some of them are lying about aborting the sacrifice, and some of them are maneuvering for their own power. In the end--after a lot of plot machinations that don't make a whole lot of sense, Kaye's wounded faerie knight is on the throne of the Unseelie Court, and she is positioned to be his consort. But she also has to go home to her mother and grandmother, so I'm not certain what Black was trying to do here.

There are some real weaknesses in this book, not the first of which is the grotty life Kaye lives as a human girl. When her actual life is that unpleasant, it's hard for Black to paint an Unseelie Court that is more repulsive than what her life is like living in New Jersey. A nasty "party" with some high school kids in an abandoned warehouse is every bit as off-putting as the underground sithen of the fay. Kaye's "friend" gets drunk, tries to make her boyfriend jealous by hitting on another boy--who turns out to be a kelpie who drowns her. So she's dead, but no one seems to be bothered much by her death. Her life was pretty grim anyway, living in a trailer home with her older brother who worked the night shift at a gas station. . .all so dreary and dirty and unhappy that there was really no sense that any of the characters stood to lose anything either by chosing to remain in Faerie or in leaving it.

So, in short--don't bother.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

I picked this up while at the book store, in part because of the Newberry Award sticker on the cover. It was also cleverly promoted on a table of other YA fiction, under a sign reading "Recommended books with positively NO vampires, zombies or monsters!" Which tells you all you need to know about all the other books being promoted right now.

Don't get me started on What Hath Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Wrought.

When You Reach Me is a clever and generally angst-free story about a sixth grader named Miranda, who lives in 1979 New York with her single mother. Her best and only friend, Sal, lives in the apartment underneath with his single mother as well. Miranda's mother has been selected to compete on the $20,000 Pyramid, and she, her boyfriend Richard, and Miranda practice after work. When she forgets her apartment key, Miranda goes to the nearby market and tells the owner the story of A Wrinkle in Time.

There is something odd about this story, however. Miranda has found a cryptic note which says "I am here to save your friend's life and my own" and asks her to write a letter about what is going to happen and everything leading up to it. Miranda doesn't know whose life is in danger, and soon after finding the note discovers that the spare key is missing, and a pair of Richard's shoes are missing.

Other things happen as well: Sal gets punched by a boy they don't know and stops speaking to Miranda. Miranda makes friends with Annamarie, who is being "punished" by her usual best friend Julia. There is a homeless man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox at the corner by Miranda's apartment. Miranda, Annamarie, and a boy named Colin spend their lunch hours together doing prep work at a sandwich shop, and Miranda finds herself feeling jealous of his attraction to Annamarie. Periodically, kids are prevented from going outside the school building due to reports of a naked man running down the nearby streets.

As the school year progresses, Miranda finds a few more notes from this mysterious person who seems to be able to predict things that haven't happened. Meanwhile, she begins to grow up. In a deft and slightly surprising scene, Miranda steps out of her own self-centeredness, and reaches out to "the only girl in the sixth grade who has to keep extra clothes at school. " Alice Evans is too shy to ask to be excused to go to the bathroom, and one day Miranda simply pretends she needs to go as well, and offers to take Alice along as a "bathroom buddy." She also recognizes that she is standing in between Annamarie and Julia's friendship, and manages to step aside to be friends with both of them.

She also recognizes that Sal's rejection of her was unrelated to the punch he received--he'd been sending hints and signals that he wanted to have more than just Miranda as a friend, and she'd not seen them. That relationship gets rebalanced as well.

Then there is Marcus, the boy who punched Sal, apparently for no reason. It turns out that he is essentially a absent-minded genius who is usually thinking about physics, but was trying to be a more "normal" boy and expected Sal to hit him back. Marcus and Julia and Miranda have a conversation about time travel and A Wrinkle in Time, which turns out to be both Miranda's and Julia's favorite book. Julia understands, while Miranda can't wrap her brain around the idea. Marcus and Miranda have a growing acquaintanceship, which is totally missed by Sal, who continues to avoid his first friend.

On afternoon in spring, due to some misunderstandings, Marcus sees Sal running down the block, and tries to keep him from running into the street. However, Sal only fears Marcus means to punch him again, and runs faster. As Sal steps into the street in front of a large truck, the homeless man manages to kick him out of the way but gets killed by the truck instead. It's a horrible scene to watch, and Sal lives, although he has several broken bones.

All of this seems incomprehensible to Miranda, until she is sitting in the audience watching her mother compete on the $20,000 Pyramid. Nervous for her friend, Sal's mother keeps repeating "Dick Clark just never ages," and something clicks for Miranda.

Yup. Big spoilers ahoy.

The homeless man was Marcus. A much older Marcus, who grew up and invented time travel, and came back to save Sal's life. Much of what she thought was evidence of mental illness was Older Marcus trying to remember what he needed to do, after getting his brains pretty well scrambled by time travel. And his last cryptic comment to her makes sense as well: "She is gone, and I am an old man, so don't worry." His wife--Julia--died, and he's comfortable with his own death.

So it's a mystery, science fiction, and a gentle coming of age story which might also encourage readers to pick up A Wrinkle in Time. There is really no reason that this book couldn't be set in modern day Manhattan, except for the Dick Clark reference--which is clever, but probably going to go over the head of the intended audience for this book. After all, while he didn't seem to age for years and years, he's a very old and impaired man now. But maybe YA aged readers will just assume that both Dick Clark and the $20,000 Pyramid are also fictional.

It's a fast read--it took me about an hour and a half--and diverting. Grade: A

I had to come back and add this: the chapters are all titled. Many of them are direct references to how the game of $20,000 Pyramid is played--in the Winner's Round, one contestant is given a category and has to list items to get the other player to guess the category. So the chapter where the spare key is lost is titled "Things That Go Missing." Another layer of cleverness that I missed and had to be pointed to by other reviewers!

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Wow. Just. . .wow.

Sure there are some weaknesses. Sure there are things I could poke at. But really? They don't matter. Because this is a powerful book and absolutely worth reading. Worth buying and reading and keeping and passing on and recommending and then reading again.

I don't often say that. Anybody who reads this blog knows that I'm actually pretty hard to please. (But fair! I try really hard to be fair!) And I want to be pleased, I really do. It's just that there are so few there that blow my socks off.

This one did.

Good guy (and first person narrator) Clay Jensen comes home from school to find a package with no return address. Inside are seven audio tapes. Audio tapes? Who uses them any more? Why would anybody be sending a package of audio tapes?

The slightly antique nature of the medium is intentional. Hannah Baker, enigmatic classmate, has committed suicide, and these are her stories of the thirteen reasons why she took her life. Each one is a story about a specific person who hurt her, and the ongoing and cumulative affect of each hurtful thing. No one thing was enough, but each one lead to another one, and by the end, she was tired of fighting. So she made these tapes, and sent them out.

Jay Asher got the idea for the format of this book from working in a museum, where patrons could get audio tours. Hang the player around the neck, push the "play" button and hear a story while looking at the work, move on to the next one. It translates incredibly well to this story--Hannah Baker's thirteen stories are each tied to a location, and as Clay listens to the tapes, he moves around their town.

I literally just put this book down, and I'm not able to completely articulate what makes this book so powerful and effective. But somehow, Jay Asher nails high school--smothering and judgmental, the way teens are painfully self-obsessed, and yet struggling to be better people. The mix of weakness and strength, the bullies who take what they want and the people who are afraid to stop them. The strange sense that one has power to do ill, but is powerless to stop it. The way teens are both too constrained and too free.

I am going to have to come back to fully review this book, but don't wait.

Go read it yourself.

We can talk about it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

This should work: we have a central mystery to drive the plot--why did the genius painter take a knife to a famous painting in the National Gallery? We have a noble psychiatrist who seeks to help the artist, the painter's wife, his mistress, and his obsession with a mysterious woman who might--or might not--also be his mistress. We have several relationships that echo each other across time and space. We have mysterious letters, written in French, from a century ago. We have meditations on art vs. domesticity, age vs. youth, love vs. obsession. This should work.

And yet it doesn't.

Kostova burst onto the scene some years ago with her debut novel The Historian, in which an ordinary history graduate student ends up on the trail of the real Dracula. It was all the rage when it came out, and Kostova was under some pressure to replicate the success of that book. Except not from me. I was, apparently, one of the few people not giddy about The Historian. A fine book, decent for a best seller, but not terribly satisfying. I can say the same about this one.

Kostova starts with a fascinating premise that sets its hook into the reader--why did Robert Oliver attack the painting of Leda and the Swan? Oliver isn't talking, and it's up to his psychiatrist, Andrew Marlowe, to piece together the clues in an attempt to restore the man's mind. The biggest clue is the face Oliver paints over and over again--a woman's face, rendered with such sensitivity, the face of such a fascinating woman that everyone falls in love with her, at least a little.

Oliver is more than a little in love with this mysterious woman, and when he's not painting or drawing her, he is reading over a set of antique letters. He lets Marlow take copies, but since Marlowe can't read French, the letters have to be translated and are mailed to him as the translations are completed. Thus Kostova has set up the bottleneck through which information can only seep through. This becomes the motif and a great weakness-this book is just so. damn. long.

If Oliver would speak, we'd understand why he did what he did, end of story. If Marlowe could read the damn letters, we'd figure out who the mysterious woman was. So Kostova makes the information elusive, and sets us up for over 500 pages of . . .is tedium the word I want? Not quite--it's not quite that bad. But it is long, and honestly without much of a payoff.

Just for an example--once Oliver is committed to his care at a psychiatric hospital, Marlowe goes to see the Leda that was attacked. This takes over a hundred pages to happen. While at the museum, Marlowe sees an arresting young woman--and it takes another hundred pages to find out she is Oliver's ex-mistress. It's almost like a Woody Allen joke about being in therapy for years, because everything moves so slowly.

Since Oliver isn't speaking, Marlowe resolves to go down to North Carolina to speak to the ex-Mrs. Oliver, to learn what he can about the patient. Allegedly reluctant to talk about her ex-husband, Kate Oliver narrates a great number of chapters, in which we learn far too much about her and very little insightful about Robert. I mean, off the top of my head, we learn about:

  • Kate's mother,
  • Kate's feelings about parenthood,
  • pretentious conversations between art students in bars,
  • her first dates with Robert and what she did to try to fascinate him,
  • frankly inappropriate rhapsodizing about Robert's body.
None of this is necessarily out of place for a novel, but it's ridiculous that anybody would talk to a psychiatrist like this, and equally ridiculous that he'd just listen like this, rather than--oh, just a suggestion--ASK SOME DIAGNOSTIC TYPE QUESTIONS? Maybe, and I mean only just maybe, he'd just sit back and listen if Kate was his patient, and they were doing some Freudian therapy. But as treatment for a potentially violent patient who has been committed to a mental hospital? How about some facts about "first noticed symptoms" or "changes in mood or behavior" or even "what medications was he taking?"

But no. So, while Kate comes off as an interesting person, Robert remains a big blank and Marlowe comes across as self-indulgent and a fairly incompetent doctor. So then, he goes and does the same thing with Oliver's mistress, only worse. Because she shows up at his apartment, but refuses to talk to him, preferring instead to write out her memories of Robert. Which are ultimately even more self-indulgent and less helpful, since she had so much less history than Kate did. And again, because she controls her narrative, Marlowe doesn't ask any actual questions or seem to have any treatment motivations. He comes off as just a gossip junkie, worming his way into the lives of the women around this famous painter.

So basically, we have an interesting premise that is more or less abandoned for literally hundreds of pages in favor of extended monologues. Not that these monologues are themselves terrible, but they fail to advance the plot of the novel, and they fail to create distinct voices. Marlowe's generic narration of the novel sounds exactly like Kate's talking about her husband, which sounds exactly like Mary's written narrative, which sounds exactly like the third person sequences set in the 19th century. Which is to say, that they all sound exactly like Elizabeth Kostova.

This could have been easily fixed, of course, by writing the entire book in the third person. Then all the drippy prose about how to paint, or how the light slanted its fingers through the trees, etc etc etc would all have been easy to just accept. Kostova chose not to do this, and the book suffers for it.

Frankly, the book suffers from Kostova's inability to actually create interesting and three-dimensional characters. Everybody sounds the same when they talk/write/muse, and very few of them are very interesting either. Of course, we are told they are interesting, even charismatic and powerful and eye-catching, but almost nothing these characters ever do is very interesting.

Which brings me to the letters. Remember those? The antique French letters Robert Oliver kept reading? Well, as you might have guessed, just as Kostova has demonstrated her inability to create convincing modern characters, she is equally bad at creating believable Victorians. The first few letters are about as banal and pointless as one can imagine, and they fail to get better. They are stilted, formal, perfunctory to start with, and as they progress they become opaque and circumspect--at best. To give them that much character is to assume that the letters themselves are covering up something that is going on between the lines. In fact, the letters become so hopeless as a device for carrying the plot that Kostova abandons them in favor of actual third person narration.

So here we come to the spoilers, if one can spoil something that a reader is bound to guess several hundred pages before the characters do. Robert Oliver has become obsessed with Beatrice de Clerval Vignot, a minor Impressionist painter who stopped painting entirely after the birth of her only child. She is the person he has painted obsessively--although he has only ever seen one painting of her face. They are her letters.

We soon figure out--again, well before the characters--that she has an affair with her husband's uncle, who is also a painter and who encouraged her to submit paintings to the Salon. They sleep together just the one time, and of course she gets pregnant, although she also slept with her husband within the next 24 hours, so there is technically no reason for scandal. Uncle then moved to Algeria and they never saw each other again. But neither one of them seems to be too broken up about it.

To which I say--what? WHAT? Why is Robert Oliver obsessed with this woman? We don't really know--he saw a single portrait of her (painted by the Uncle/lover) in a museum and then he lost his mind or something. Everybody keeps asking how he paints these pictures, all of them with different expressions, different costumes, different poses. Everybody assumes he must do them from a model--but apparently he doesn't. So, how does he do it?

Frankly, it would have been a more interesting book if she was haunting him. A little ghost story to add to the tortured artist meme would have been a juicy plot. But no. Apparently he's just some sort of insane--a version that is never actually diagnosed. He took out a pen knife, attacked a painting, then refused to talk. Why is this guy not just sent to jail, anyway? It's not like he gets much medical treatment in any of the 564 pages of the book. Nothing else he does seems to be particularly mentally unbalanced, really, and his refusal to speak is less a symptom than a plot device.

With the whiz bang opening, I had some hopes that this would be like A.S. Byatt's Possession for the painting set. What was he doing in the museum? Who is the mysterious woman? I fully expected it to turn out that Beatrice de Clerval was Robert Oliver's grandmother or something. But no. Again.

Maybe this could have been a well-written Da Vinci Code, with hints about Robert Oliver's condition discovered in his paintings. There is a weird moment when Marlowe finds the words "Etretat 1879" written in an obscure spot in Robert's home office--but it's not like that leads anywhere particularly. Why did Robert write that? Why write it there? Why write it at all? No reason.

At the end of the book we finally meet a couple of semi-interesting characters--two fossilized art dealers who knew Beatrice's daughter. One lives in Acapulco and owns three de Clerval canvases, the other lives in Paris and owns the last canvas de Clerval painted. They were once lovers, but broke up when the one went to live in France with de Clerval's daughter. These aged, exquisite gentlemen are the best thing that happens in the book. We also find the answer to the "final mystery." Why did Beatrice de Clerval stop painting?

Well, we kind of know why, because Kate Oliver stopped painting once she had kids--it's hard to live such a selfish life when others depend on you. Kate eloquently described how being a mother moved her from the world of seeing to the world of touch--the way small children demand your attention and make such physical demands that you can no longer devote time to merely looking.

But that's not where Kostova wants to go. No, what happens is that after she sleeps with her Uncle-in-law, he writes her a letter and leaves it on a table in the hallway of the hotel they are in. So of course, the unscrupulous art dealer picks it up and apparently (we never actually read the letter) it contains some completely uncharacteristic description of their relationship, so the Unscrupulous Art Dealer uses it to blackmail her. He forces her to turn over everything she paints so he can claim it as his work. This is the Leda that Robert attacked. She turned it over, and then painted one last picture, the eponymous Swan Thieves, showing UAD and his brother as obnoxious hunters grabbing a swan.

But again--not much tragic about this. Beatrice never seemed to regret not painting. She is depicted as perfectly happy with her husband and daughter, not even missing Uncle very much. Unscrupulous Art Dealer doesn't get found out, but dies bankrupt because he was a poor businessman. Robert spontaneously recovers--not sure how--and is able to sign himself out of the mental hospital and he moves away and no one sees him again but he becomes even more famous. Marlowe marries Oliver's old mistress because he gets her pregnant. And the final question is--was this really worth 564 pages?

Well, it didn't suck. It didn't live up to its own premise, it failed to create engaging characters, the plot fizzled out on most levels. There are potentially interesting ideas about young women falling in love with old men, the difficulty of living an artists life in a domestic setting, the imperatives of genius. But again, they are kind of raised and then allowed to float away into thoroughly bourgeois happy-enough endings.

Meh. C+

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolnick

This book is everywhere. Literally everywhere. It's marketed as a cross between Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. If you loved those books, you'll hate this one.

Wealthy Wisconsin tycoon Ralph Truitt has lived alone after the loss of his first family some twenty years before. For some reason, the loneliness has finally gotten to him and so he has placed an advertisement for "a reliable wife." The book opens as he stands in the cold, waiting for the train to bring the woman who has answered his ad. We quickly learn, however, that the woman traveling to meet him has her own agenda and is not going to be what she appears to be. I guess this is supposed to be the Rebecca part of the book.

In the second chapter, we are privy to Catherine Land's thoughts, and she is not going to be "a reliable wife." There is a scam being perpetrated, and even if we aren't immediately aware of the details, it's pretty clear that she isn't planning on revealing her past as a prostitute and drug addict. So why in the name of advance planning did she get onto the train wearing her elaborate dress and all her jewels?

And it's not just that she got on a train--she was traveling in Truitt's private railroad car. A car that was staffed, presumably by Truitt's employees. Her destination is a tiny town practically in Canada. So, no chance that she'd be noticed or anything--do you think? Goolnick has her wearing her full Chicago-courtesan get-up until the conductor alerts her that they are about half an hour away from her stop. Only then does she change out of her obvious red velvet clothes and put on her simple gray dress. She also waits until then to take off her jewelry and sew it into the hem of the simple gray dress. Then she wads up the velvet and throws it out the window. Because she wants to appear to be a simple, plain woman. The better to fool Truitt into trusting her.

So why didn't she set up her disguise before she got on his train? I don't know. Goolrick doesn't know. Probably because it's much more cinematic to have her tossing expensive clothing out of the window as she approaches than it would have been for her to act sensibly. I'm not seeing this plot working out--I don't think anybody has thought this through very well.

Meanwhile, Truitt is all but sex-crazed. All he thinks about is sex, it seems: even all these people who are miserable and killing their families get to go to bed at night and have sex with each other. At least that's what Truitt thinks. And he spends a lot of pages thinking about it. Oh, and death too. Sex and death. This isn't a theme, this isn't a leitmotif--it's a summary of the whole damn .

The plot becomes increasingly obvious and unbelievable. On first meeting, Truitt immediatly notices that this woman is not the one in the photograph she sent him. (Who knew that was such an old trick?) But he's so lonely, and he can't let anybody see him as anything less than the master of every situation, so he takes her back to his house. On the way, Truitt is injured and Catherine ends up nursing him back to health--because he can't die until AFTER they are married, see, because she plans to kill him for his money and then go live happily ever after with her drug addicted lover.

How many romance novels have this happen? All of them, maybe? She nurses him through a near fatal fever, and the experience leads her to start seeing him as a human being and not just the means to an end. He recovers, and then he sits down and tells her his entire back story. In one sitting.

Rich and withholding father, religious fanatic mother. Dissolute youth spent among the prostitutes of Europe. Love at first sight in Italy, where beautiful daughters are sold into marriage for sizable dowries. Italian wife doesn't like living in frozen Wisconsin--Truitt is surprised! But blinded by love! So he builds her an expensive mansion and imports Italian builders and sculpters and music teachers and OMG she has an affair! With the Italian! And since this is what Italians do, she doesn't understand why he's so surprised and angry! So he banishes her, tells their son she died, and fails to love his son! Who ran away! But now that Truitt is going to be married, he wants his son back and he plans to send Catherine to find him!

This is where I gave up. I knew where this was going, and looking at the last two chapters I found out I was right.


Catherine finds the unloved son, and surprise surprise, he's her drug addict lover! It was all a plot they cooked up between them to get revenge on Truitt and live off his money. So the three of them live together in Wisconsin, Canada, and apparently there is a lot of sex. Badly written sex, judging from the rest of the book. There is divided loyalty and jealousy and then Catherine chooses Truitt. Which upsets Antonio (or whatever his name is) so he rapes her. Which upsets Truitt, who chases him down and beats him up. But then is sorry for it, but it's too late! Because they are standing on a frozen lake and the ice breaks and Antonio falls in and drowns! So then, Catherine and Truitt hare left to make what sense they can out of their lives and there's a hallucinatory scene where Catherine sees the ruined garden restored to glory, which I think is supposed to mean that she's pregnant and the future will be better. Or something.

What are the problems with this book? Well, I've already outlined the obvious and melodramatic plot. I've sketched the irrational behavior of the characters. So let's talk about the bad writing, which is repetitive, overblown, and boring.

Goolrick says he was inspired to write this book after reading Wisconsin Death Trip, which reported on the high death toll among 19th century Wisconsin settlers. Sure, life was hard and winters were long, but simply listing the kinds of things that happened does not make those things emotionally affecting. The first chapter is made up of multiple paragraphs like this: "Children died, babies died, women died, in childbirth, of influenza, diptheria, scarlet fever, exposure, starvation. People killed themselves, killed their children, killed their wives, killed their parents." (I'm not quoting, just mimicking the gist.) The result isn't a mounting of horror, it's numbing. You start to think the people who stayed weren't heroic--they were masochistic.

Goolnick's writing style is such a mind-numbing repetition of the same half-formed ideas and obsessions that I started to root for disaster, just to break up the monotony. I'm guessing that's how the rest of the people who lived in Wisconsin may have felt as well. Sure, tragedy is horrific, but at least it breaks up the boredom of another long winter!

In summary--I give this book a D grade, and most definitely do NOT recommend it to anybody.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Body Movers, by Stephanie Bond

You know, sometimes you get a recommendation about a book and you take it and are delighted to find a book you love.

This is not one of those times.

I picked this one up on a recommendation from, it was the sixth book in the series that was recommended, but the advice was to start from the first one, because the cast kept growing and it was better to get in at the beginning. I will not be picking up the rest of the series.

See, here's the problem. In a world where crime solving has become highly technical, it is increasingly difficult for anyone to write a novel about an amateur detective. There is really not much a non-professional can bring to crime solving. Add to that a writer who comes out of Harlequin romance writing, and you get a weird mix of CSI and moralism.

The main character of this series, Carlotta Wren, is 27 and single, working at Neiman Marcus in Atlanta and living in a townhouse with her 19 year old brother, Wesley. Ten years ago, their father was indicted for fraud, and their parents abandoned Atlanta and their two children. Except for the occasional cryptic post card, there has been no contact since. Carlotta was left to raise her brother, and her then-fiance Peter(who was apparently a sixth year student at Vanderbilt) ended their engagement. Carlotta has not moved on.

The Wren siblings are living in dire financial straits, made worse by Wesley's addiction to Texas Hold 'Em poker and his poor choice of lending sources--two separate loan sharks send various thugs to the townhouse to scare up money the Wrens don't have. Peter's wife enjoys shopping at Neiman Marcus while drunk, the better to flaunt her life to the pitiable, dumped and poor Carlotta. Then Angela turns up dead in her own pool, and Carlotta feels the need to see that justice is done.

So where to begin the catalog of eye-rolling moments? How about this one: Carlotta (despite having been raised to wealth and privilege until her parents bolted) has developed a tacky hobby of crashing "society" parties in order to collect celebrity autographs. Because, yeah, that's just what a 27-year old who was Raised Better Than That would be doing with her free time. And it just so happens that this particular party is where she runs into her ex-fiance after TEN YEARS. And despite having been dumped--over the phone--a decade ago, she's still in luuuuuve with him. And he's still in luuuuuuve with her. So he walks her to her car--humiliating! Because she couldn't afford valet parking!--they kiss. The next night, his wife is dead.

So even if you give a pass to the whole "twue wuv," which I don't because girlfriend should have SOME pride--that kiss is just. . .well, that kiss is blown up into The Motive for Murder. Because no hot-shot society broker types ever get drunk at swanky parties and drunkenly kiss people who are not their wives. Actually, it has been scientifically proven that every time a man kisses a woman, he IMMEDIATELY goes home and kills his wife. I mean, have we learned nothing from Tiger Woods and Jesse James? You can verify that on Snopes.

So Bond drags her heroine (and also the reader) through page after page of endless blathering about the Moral Implications and Legal Ramifications of that kiss! Oh my god, you'd think we were talking about selling state secrets to the Soviets! I shouldn't have kissed him. It was wrong to have kissed him. I wish I hadn't kissed him. What if somebody saw me kiss him? What if the police find out that I kissed him?

Because Atlanta is well-known for their crack team of investigative kissing police.

Barbara Cartland herself couldn't load more significance! to a single kiss than Bond manages to heap on this tired plot device. HESTER PRYNNE couldn't have felt more guilty about a kiss than this character does. Which is the point, here--this Puritan-approved moral code lies uneasily in a book whose plot includes upper income partner swapping parties, sleazy hookers in five-inch stilettos, a gym bag full of unspecified drugs, and a Bored Housewife Prostitution Ring. Former professional football players slipping off their wedding rings while drinking martinis in the middle of the day at a cigar bar, the inept slinging around of designer labels and couture shopping, infidelity and gun fire--all depend on us believing that That Kiss has made Carlotta and Peter the Prime Suspect and Motive for the murder, and thus forcing Carlotta into her amateur sleuthing.

So, there was that. Then, there is the Troubled Teen Brother, Wesley, who dares to lecture his sister on why she shouldn't be in love with Peter. He wants to protect his big sister, you see, so she should stay away from this bad man who dragged her into a murder investigation. As opposed to himself, who is so far in debt to criminal loan sharks that they send thugs to the house weekly to collect on the debts. Who lost all the cash he had to pay those loan sharks by losing in a high stakes game of poker, leading to his sister nearly being raped by one of these thugs. Who is on parole for hacking into courthouse records, drives his motorcycle on a suspended license while on parole, tries to buy an illegal handgun while on parole, actually obtains a handgun and brings it home while on parole, goes to make a drug delivery while on parole--and actually gets caught by his parole officer. . .oh yeah. This is the guy you want to take lifestyle advice from.

Oh, the reason Carlotta is still in love with the rich bum who dumped her ass a decade ago? Because he was the one who took her virginity. Bond literally, actually, has the chutzpah to say "a woman has a special relationship with the man who takes her virginity." Maybe in the Harlequin universe, but oh honey, please! Especially NOT when that man is such a putz that he dumps you. Over. The. Phone.

ANYWAY--did you notice the tiny writing at the bottom of the book cover? "A Sexy Mystery" it says. Well, about as sexy as you can get where any woman who actually has sex ends up dead, the lead character all but wears a chastity belt, and gallons of ink are spilled in the handwringing over That Kiss. There's a detective on the police force who wears bad ties, has big hands, and maybe has a potential thing for Carlotta--if you squint. Wesley gets an off-the-books job as an eponymous body mover, and the Chief Body Mover might also have a thing for Carlotta, except she is so thoroughly squicked out by his career that she can't stand it--yeah, that's pretty sexy right there.

Oh, and that Bored Housewife Prostitution Ring? (That's a spoiler, by the way)--one of the murder victims was a rich, young widow, killed in her own home in the middle of the day, while wearing expensive lingerie--was pregnant! How could that be? She wasn't married!!! Nobody even asks what she was doing in the middle of the day lying around the house in her underwear--for some reason that's not an odd thing for a former debutante to do. But thank god she got killed before she had to be an Unwed Mother!

So, in order to pad the book out to the minimum length, Peter goes and confesses to killing his wife. But one of Wesley's No-Goodnik friends identified her as a hooker he paid $500 to have sex with in her pool house. So Peter's noble sacrifice to protect his hooker wife's reputation after death is all for naught. Everybody already knows that she had sex for money! The shame! Better to confess to murder and be executed than to let people at the country club know your dead wife wasn't happy in her marriage.

Except you totally know that everybody already knew that--for god's sake, they Bored Housewives were recruiting each other and buying each other expensive lingerie to wear for their johns. Strange men were coming into the neighborhood during the day and visiting their houses. This was not a secret, except possibly in Stephanie Bond's strange conception of a sexy Puritan Atlanta.

Oh, wait! I didn't solve the mystery for you yet! Okay, here it is and now you can use those six hours of your life to do something more rewarding: it was one of the johns. Who Peter's bored wife thought she was in love with, so she bought him an expensive suit jacket from Carlotta, and then got mad at him and returned it. Then he killed the other woman too and blah blah blah last minute expositioncakes he was somebody who appeared for about three pages as a tertiary character and then decided to take hostages at gunpoint in Neiman Marcus because that's not obvious. . . .

I've spared you a lot, you know. You might think that this was as lame as it got, but I spared you plenty. Carlotta digging used chewing gum out of a wastebasket in order to send it for DNA testing. The "comic" scene where the six foot python gets out of its cage and slithers up Carlotta's leg in bed, and how she has to be rescued by the Body Mover while standing on her dresser in tiny see-through lingerie. The Judith Lieber breastplate necklace that deflected the bullet. The caterer who is going to start moving dead bodies in her catering van--because nothing says "festive canape" like mortuary services.

Do not pick up this book. Just don't. You're welcome.