One-Minute Book Reviews

July 27, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Janet Evanovich’s ‘Finger Lickin Fifteen’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
By Janet Evanovich
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A celebrity chef is beheaded with a meat cleaver in the opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich’s 15th crime novel about the Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.  After a co-worker witnesses the murder, Plum becomes drawn into the search for his killer, and her ex-boyfriend, the plainclothes policeman Joe Morelli, goes to work on the case. She also agrees to help her sometime romantic interest, Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, find out who has been breaking into properties protected by his security company. As novel builds toward the barbecue cook-off, the questions raised by the plot include: Can Morelli succeed in his dual quest to capture the chef’s killers and to recapture Plum’s heart?

Discussion questions:

1 Many novels fall clearly into a category such as mystery, romance, comedy, or adventure. Evanovich tries to combine all of those genres in one book. How well does she succeed?

2 Does Evanovich handle one genre better than others? If so, which genre seems to suit her skills best?

3 Some series give you a strong sense of place, a you-are-there feeling about the city or town where the action takes place, such as those about Robert Parker’s Spenser (Boston) and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski (Chicago). How well did Evanovich evoke Trenton, NJ, in Finger Lickin Good? Did she give you the sense that you knew the city? How much does this matter?

4 Finger Lickin’ Fifteen has two parallel plots – one involving the murder of the Stanley Chipotle and another about the break-ins at the properties protected by Rangeman security. It has a third if you count Plum’s efforts to bring in the “skips” or FTAs (Failure to Appears) who haven’t shown up for court dates. Which  plot did you find most interesting or effective? Which was the least interesting or effective?

5 Often in a book with multiple storylines, the plots turn out to be related. You might expect, for example, that Stanley Chipotle’s murder would be linked to the break-ins at Rangeman properties. How, if at all, are the plots in Finger Lickin’ Five related?

6 This novel begins with a decapitation, a risky move given that it might remind people of the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and other terrorist acts. Where you able to step back mentally from any news stories you’ve read and view Finger Lickin’ Five as entertainment? Or was your reading affected by the headlines?

7 Some authors of long-running series allow their characters to age – not just by getting older but by making major changes in their lives. Evanovich hasn’t done this with Plum, who was 30 in One for the Money and seems to have changed little. The critic Marilyn Stasio wrote in a review of Eleven on Top, “Evanovich has kept Stephanie in a perpetual state of sexual arousal, poised between the attentions of Joe Morelli, the hot and hunky cop who has been pursuing her since high school, and Ranger, a coolly lethal mercenary.” What are the pros and cons this approach? Would the series be more satisfying or less so if Plum had changed more?

8 More than most mystery series, the Plum novels have predictable elements. In each book, for example, Plum’s Hungarian grandmother visits Stiva’s Funeral Home. Is the predictability an asset or liability? Has your view of this changed over the years?

9 Respected crime-novel critics, such as Sarah Weinman, have said that the quality of this series has been going down for years. A few reader-reviewers on Amazon.com (such as Jessica Connelly and A. Grund) argue that this has lost so much of its earlier appeal that it Evanovich should kill it. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

10 If you think Evanovich should continue the series, how could she strengthen it? Would you want to read a half dozen more books in which Plum is still torn between Morelli and Ranger?

Vital Statistics
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95. Published June 2009.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic and who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 26, 2007

Agatha Christie’s Iraq Novel, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’

“The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself is just awful – and no proper shops at all.”
— From a letter by the nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. Black Dog & Leventhal, 284 pp., $12.

By Janice Harayda

Agatha Christie once cleaned ancient relics with cold cream while accompanying her second husband, an archaeologist, on a dig at Nineveh. The technique, she said, was excellent for “coaxing dirt out of crevices” without harming the artifacts.

Christie made that comment in her autobiography. But she also drew on her travels in Iraq for Murder in Mesopotamia, which involves the death of the wife of an archaeologist who is leading a dig at a site a day and a half’s journey from Baghdad. No one has any idea who might have killed the lovely Louise Leidner until the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – who happens to be in the region — turns up at the house where the crew is staying and begins asking questions.

You could argue that the story that follows has all the faults for which critics have derided Christie – shallow characterizations, a surfeit of clues and so many plot twists that the ending seems to come out of the blue because the evidence points to everybody and nobody. But Christie’s defects were the flip side of her virtues. You tear through her novels because she has removed everything that would slow the pace or tempt you to linger, including psychological depth and ravishing descriptive passages. Amy Leatheran, the nurse who narrates Murder in Mesopotamia, warns:

“I think I’d better make it clear up front that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story. I don’t know anything about archaeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.”

That’s more of a boast than a fact, but Christie does give you a kind of Cliffs Notes to her physical and psychological landscape. Leatheran expected something grand from an Assyrian palace: “But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high – and that’s all there was to it.” Christie’s characterizations of people are just as skimpy and, at times, stereotypical. They spring from a view of “human nature” – a recurring phrase — that is more cynical than is fashionable in our age of “positive psychology.” A character in Murder in Mesopotamia says: “They seemed like a happy family – which is really surprising when one considers what human nature is!” That spirit is no less apparent in books that about Christie’s other detective, Miss Jane Marple.

But Christie’s observations about character can be surprisingly modern and astute. Poirot grounds his search for Louise Leidner’s killer in his belief that “the state of mind of a community is always directly due to the influence of the man at the top.” If this is an oversimplification, it is one that has become a pillar of 21st-century corporate management. And it helps to explain why Christie’s novels still appeal more than two decades after her death in 1976.

The plots may be far-fetched. But Christie’s novels reflect in simplified a form a sharp understanding of, if not human nature, human beings. Like Murder in Mesopotamia, they often have settings that provide a glamour or drama lacking in everyday life. No one who has read them can doubt the sincerity of a comment Christie makes in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography: “I always thought life exciting and I still do.”

Best line: A character says it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife. He adds: “Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug-taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine without batting an eyelash and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least! Women are wonderful realists.”

Worst line: A doctor says that Amy Leatheran is “a woman of 35 of erect, confident bearing.” Leatheran describes herself as 32. It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is a mistake or meant to suggest that one character was unreliable witness.

Published: 1936 (first edition) www.agathachristie.com

Furthermore: The Black Dog & Leventhal imprint of Workman www.workman.com publishes attractive hardcover editions of Christie’s mysteries in an easy-on-the-eyes font at the unusually reasonable price of $12 per book. The titles in its series include Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, The ABC Murders, A Murder Is Announced and A Caribbean Mystery.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2007

Defending Agatha Christie — Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Critics have scorned Agatha Christie for more than a half century — no one more famously than Edmund Wilson, who alluded to the title of one of her best-known mysteries in his 1945 essay in The New Yorker, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will have a modest defense of Agatha Christie www.agathachristie.com and a reconsideration of her Murder in Mesopotamia, about an archaeological dig near Baghdad that captures the interest of the detective Hercule Poirot.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 6, 2007

Does Agatha Christie Deserve the Scorn She Gets From Critics? Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Agatha Christie www.agathachristie.com once vied with mystery novelist Georges Simenon for the title of the world’s best-selling author. But since her death 1976, she has declined in popularity. Her books are often derided by critics and harder to find than those of contemporary novelists such as Mary Higgins Clark. Do they deserve this fate? Do they have any interest today except as period pieces or the inspiration for such movies as Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express?

A reconsideration of Christie’s work will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this post. Until then please feel free to leave your comments on Christie’s work.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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