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.

May 6, 2009

How Tori Murden McClure Became the First Woman to Row Alone Across the Atlantic in Her New Memoir, ‘A Pearl in the Storm’ – Coming Soon

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:24 pm
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Remember when your eighth-grade English teacher told you that the three great themes in literature were “man against man, man against nature, and man against himself”? My favorite man-against-nature books include Adrift (Mariner, 256 pp., $14.95, paperback), Steven Callahan’s bestselling memoir of spending 76 days lost at sea on an inflatable raft after his sailboat sank during a race from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. The woman-against-nature category has produced other gems, such as Atlantic Circle (Norton, 1985), Kathryn Lasky Knight’s true story of sailing across the Atlantic with her husband. Can Tori Murden McClure hold her own in her new memoir of rowing solo across the Atlantic, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (HarperCollins, 304 pp., $24.95)? A review will appear soon.

December 12, 2007

Pitcairn Island After Travel Writer Dea Birkett’s Harrowing Memoir, ‘Serpent in Paradise’

No more bounty on a mutineers’ island ripped apart by the discovery that rape and child molestation were a way of life for generations

By Janice Harayda

How has Pitcairn Island changed since Dea Birkett wrote about her spooky visit to the refuge of the Bounty mutineers in her memoir, Serpent in Paradise?

Vanity Fair gives a chilling update in its January 2008 issue. In “Trouble in Paradise” William Prochnau and Laura Parker investigate the long-buried shame of Pitcairn: generations of rape and child molestation that led to a series of shocking trials that sent eight of its men to prison. Their report is far more shocking than anything in The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold’s grim novel about a woman who murders her mother and stuffs her in a freezer.

Book clubs may want to read the Vanity Fair article along with Serpent in Paradise (Anchor, $12.95), reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 7, 2007, with a reading group guide posted separately the same day Birkett took photographs of the island that would make excellent visuals for a meeting. One is shown here, and others appear on the page for her book on the Anchor Books site

Photo of the Pitcairn landing: (c) 1997 Dea Birkett

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 27, 2007

Military Obituaries Worthy of a Memorial Day Salute

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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A collection celebrates men and women who wore their uniforms with courage and eccentricity

By Janice Harayda

Digby Tatham-Warter led a bayonet charge during the Battle of Arnhem sporting a bowler hat and an umbrella. Nell Allgrove and other captured Australian nurses survived on two ounces of rice a day in Japanese camps in Sumatra. Charles Fraser-Smith sent golf balls with compasses inside and other gadgets to British prisoners in Germany, an effort so successful that he became the model for “Q” in the James Bond books.

The stories of these and other extraordinary men and women appear in The Daily Telegraph Second Book of Obituaries: Heroes and Adventures (Macmillan, 1993), edited by Hugh Massingberd, the second volume in a series from the British newspaper. Most of the subjects of this book were British or Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, aviators, spies, or nurses, though some never wore a uniform. And their stories show why military-obituary writers at the Telegraph are seen as five-star generals of a vanishing art. Written with verve and candor, the pieces in this book reflect a deep sympathy for both the courage and the eccentricities of their subjects. Few American newspapers would have the wit to begin an obituary like this: “Major General Micky Whistler, who has died aged 83, had a career of remarkable variety in which his cheerful disrespect for pompous and hidebound senior officers brought numerous reprimands, but did much to improve the efficiency and morale of his men.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2007

Dea Birkett’s ‘Serpent in Paradise,’ a Harrowing Memoir of Pitcairn Island, the Refuge of Bounty Mutineers

An English writer hoped for paradise and found purgatory while living 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket and phone booth

Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Dea Birkett became enraptured with the idea of going to Pitcairn Island when, as a young writer living in London, she saw Mel Gibson in The Bounty. She knew it was nearly impossible to get permission to visit the remote settlement, a British overseas territory that had neither hotels nor an airstrip.

But Birkett persuaded the Royal Mail to sponsor her trip, booked passage on a chemical tanker and arranged to stay with a family. And in 1991 she lived for four months among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, the place where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers from the Bounty settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift in 1789.

Birkett imagined that she might find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag in the South Pacific. Pitcairn lay 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth, and kept in touch with the world by mail and ham radio. It had no cars or currency. The residents, mostly descendants of mutineers, shot breadfruit from trees with guns and carved replicas of the Bounty to trade for cooking oil or other necessities on ships that occasionally passed by on their way to New Zealand.

But life on Pitcairn was so harrowing that within days of her arrival, Birkett had skirted death at least twice. The island seethed with omens – a black albatross, a dead shark, an infestation of rats and the sound of gunfire thudding through the breadfruit-rich valleys. Its residents had suffered from centuries of isolation and physical and emotional inbreeding. Birkett’s host family was by turns warm and so frighteningly aloof that she wondered if they would save her if she had an accident.

Birkett gives such a chilling account of all this in Serpent in Paradise that a descendant of Fletcher Christian said, “I’d like to see her hanged.” Next to her adventures, the experiences of people like Frances Mayes and Elizabeth Gilbert look like visits to a Six Flags theme park. And yet, as fascinating this book is, it leaves the impression that its author knew more than she was telling.

Less than a decade after Serpent in Paradise appeared, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included the son of Birkett’s host couple, who was living at home during her visit. Given that just over three dozen people inhabited Pitcairn, it’s hard to believe Birkett didn’t sense what was going on and that this doesn’t explain some fears that she ascribes to other causes. If she didn’t suspect all the rape and abuse, she was less astute than she seems. If she did know about it, she chose or was required to pull punches. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Birkett reveals far more about Pitcairn Island than any Hollywood screenplay. And Serpent in Paradise is the rare book that captures that a place at a pivotal moment in its history, a paradise on the eve of self-destruction.

Best line: Birkett writes of a note she received by mail from an islander: “I was the first recipient of a local letter on Pitcairn since the post office had been founded fifty years earlier.”

Worst line: Birkett’s account of her relationship with the island policeman raises more questions than it answers. It leaves the impression they had consensual one-night stand. In an article on her Web site (“My Hell in Paradise”), Birkett calls the relationship as “an affair” with a man who saw her as “easy prey.” She also includes many lines of conversation in Pitkern, a half-Polynesian, half-English language. Most are easy to understand in context, but a glossary would have helped with some.

Caveat lector: Everyone on Pitcairn called the dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, a racial slur, and Birkett reflects this in the book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Serpent in Paradise appears in the March 7, 2007, post directly below this one.

Published: August 1998 (Anchor paperback), September 1997 (Anchor hardcover).

Furthermore: Birkett also wrote the award-winning Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool: A Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (Gollancz, 1994), a memoir of her experiences as the only female crew member of a working cargo ship.

Links: You can find an account of the sexual-assault trial of the men in this book by going to and searching the site for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” The convicted received sentences ranging from community service to more than six years in prison, and they have exhausted their appeals. Birkett has several articles about the scandal on her site, including a New York Times op-ed piece “Island of the Lost Girls” that summarizes the case.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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