One-Minute Book Reviews

July 27, 2009

‘Nobody Calls Me Pecker Head and Lives’ — A New Jersey Critic Looks at ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen,’ Janet Evanovich’s Latest Novel About a Trenton-Based Bounty Hunter

Killers behead high-profile chef with a meat cleaver, and, yes, it’s supposed to be funny

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Janet Evanovich is one of the writers whose books I most want to like. She and I went to rival New Jersey high schools at different times – you haven’t lived if you were born too late for a South River–New Brunswick Thanksgiving Day game at the old Rutgers Stadium! – and I share a few traits with her Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, including blue eyes, a Hungarian grandmother, and bad car karma. My first novel came from her publisher, a firm that in a perilous market has kept its integrity to a degree widely admired in the industry. And I love comic novels and look for opportunities to praise them on this site.

But Evanovich seems to have lost her focus since the publication of One for the Money, her first novel about Plum, in 1994. From the start, she has combined genres — romance, mystery, adventure, and comedy — in the series. In Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, the comedy devolves into farce, a form that relies on over-the-top elements such as improbable plotting and slapstick. Her humor is so broad, it undermines her attempt to tell a plausible story. And it clashes with the realism of other aspects the novel, such as Plum’s flirtations with the plainclothes cop Joe Morelli and with Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, who heads the Rangeman security firm for which she moonlights. At times the comedy is so silly or tasteless, Evanovich seems to be parodying herself.

The opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen describe how a pair of killers used a meat cleaver to behead a high-profile chef absurdly named Stanley Chipotle on a Trenton street: “There was a big gusher of blog when they whacked the head off,” a witness says. “It was like Old Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head rolled down the sidewalk … ”

Am I the only person who read this and thought of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 after his kidnappers released a terrifying video of his captivity? And the only reader who isn’t ready to laugh — as this novel asks us to do — at the story of an effort to find the people who chopped off a man’s head with a cleaver?

A second plot – it gets so much space, you can’t call it a “subplot” — involves a series of break-ins at properties protected by the Rangeman security staff, and you keep expecting it to relate in the end to the murder of Stanley Chipotle. It doesn’t. The two plots seem to exist mainly to give Plum a chance to flirt throughout the story with Morelli and Ranger, and both storylines have unsatisfying resolutions. The prime mover of one plot escapes justice completely, and only his underlings are apprehended. The people behind the other aren’t mentioned by name for the first 300 pages, so if you read mysteries partly for the pleasure of sorting through clues and trying to guess the identity of the perpetrator, you’re out of luck.

Some people say that you don’t read Evanovich for her plots but for her humor, and that’s fair enough. But as her comedy has become more farcical, her humor has become cruder and more sophomoric. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen abounds with jokes about farts and other body functions or parts, including those described on its pages as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger,” or “winkie.” “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,” says a character unwisely named Peter Pecker. Is Evanovich courting 10-year-olds moving up from Harry Potter books?

Perhaps oddest of all given that Evanovich grew up in New Jersey, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen gives you no sense of what makes Trenton unique or a worthy setting for a mystery. The action might as well take place in Cleveland. As I write this review, the United States Attorney for New Jersey has just announced the arrest of dozens of people, including rabbis, mayors and and current or former state legislators. One defendant is said to have passed cash illegally in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000. Nobody is asking Evanovich to return to New Jersey from her current homes Florida and New Hampshire. But she has clearly lost touch with some of the wellsprings of material. Who needs to send a severed head rolling down a Trenton street when you can find so much drama in a box of Apple Jacks?

Best line: “… gravy so thick you could walk across a vat of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.” No. 2: “ ‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger.'” No. 3: “It was a record-breaking fart. On my best day, I couldn’t come near to farting like that.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Finger Lickin’ Fifteen appears in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: June 2009

Listen to the beginning of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

Janice Harayda is a former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and wrote the comic novel The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 15, 2008

The Battle of Towton Field, Fought on Palm Sunday in 1461, Takes the Stage in Anne Easter Smith’s Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

Filed under: Historical Novels,Romance Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:20 pm
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Yorkists and Lancastrians drowned in their chain mail at England’s Antietam

The bloodiest battle fought on English soil took place on the snowy Palm Sunday of 1461 and claimed more than 30,000 lives. Anne Easter Smith recalls Battle of Towton Field and other War of the Roses events in her Daughter of York (Touchstone, $19.95, paperback), a historical romance about the marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to Charles the Bold of Burgundy. In the novel a messenger tells Margaret and her mother of the Palm Sunday rout of the Lancastrians, who fled in the pink snow, by the Yorkists: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.” Click on this link to read a review of the novel

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 19, 2007

Hell’s Bells! It’s Anne Easter Smith’s War of the Roses-Era Historical Romance, ‘Daughter of York’

A tale of the dynastic marriage of Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV and Richard III, to a ruthless Duke of Burgundy

Daughter of York. By Anne Easter Smith. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 592 pp., $19.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Here is a fact that may cheer you up if you’ve been plowing stony ground on an Internet dating site: At least your brother the king can’t marry you off to a thuggish Duke of Burgundy as part of a package deal that includes the lifting of a ban on Burgundian imports in England. This is more or less what happened to Margaret of York, a sister of Edward IV, who sent her off in 1468 to wed the expansionist Charles the Bold.

It was clearly the kind of marriage that a modern therapist would call “challenging,” at least on the evidence of the second historical romance from Anne Easter Smith. Margaret soon learns that her husband’s favorite activities include annexing large parts of the Habsburg Empire and hanging people from walnut trees. She is distressed to hear that after one conquest, he drowned all the people he hadn’t strung up: “What little respect she had for Charles was being eroded day by day.”

Amid all of this, Margaret is sustained – in a departure from history — by her love for a married courtier, Anthony Woodville. Anthony plays Lancelot to her Elaine, consoling her with, “I have wrestled with Satan over my desire for you, Marguerite. That day in your chamber, he almost won.” Even by the flexible standards of historical romances, this attraction isn’t fully plausible, given that Margaret was devout enough to have tried to reform permissive religious orders. Nor are anachronisms such as a reference to “adolescent insecurities” and a midwife who tells a woman in childbirth, “Now, one, two, three, push.”

But Daughter of York has more integrity and appeal than many books in its category, partly because Smith sticks closer to history without larding her story with undigestible chucks of research. The novel moves swiftly through signal events of the War of the Roses, has a dramatis personae that separates the real and invented Yorkists and Lancastrians, and generally shows how far such books have come from the days when people dismissed them all as “bodice-rippers.” There’s a bit of rough sex in this one, but just about the nastiest thing you’ll hear anyone say is, “Hell’s bells! or “You, you – bat-fowling, lily-livered skainsmate!”

Best line: A messenger’s report to Margaret’s mother on the Battle of Towton Field, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, where the Yorkists defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrians on a snowy Palm Sunday. The courier says that Henry’s routed soldiers left pink snow in their wake: “The pity of it was, the only place to run was down the steep sides of the hill to the Cock Beck stream, full to bursting on its banks. Many drowned in their heavy mail, and I saw others using the dead bodies to form a bridge over which they attempted to flee.”

Worst line: Let’s just say that simultaneous orgasm seems to have been easier to achieve in the 1400s than in later centuries.

Recommendation? Genre fiction with meat on its bones. This could be a good choice for book groups that want to read a historical romance that isn’t cheesy.

Reading group guide: The back matter includes a reading group guide, an interview with the author and a four-page glossary of historical terms.

Published: To be published in February 2008

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ (and that reference to “the Marriage at Canaan” may have been corrected).

Furthermore: A native of England, Anne Easter Smith wrote A Rose for the Crown. She lives in Massachusetts. You can find information on Margaret of York at Besides Edward, Margaret’s brothers included the future Richard III, who has a supporting role in this novel.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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