Books Are Pretty

Friday, January 30, 2009

Confessions of a Contractor.

The first thing a woman needs to know about renovating a house or apartment is simple: do not, under any circumstance, sleep with your contractor, no matter what your husband or boyfriend is doing to you or not doing to you.

So begins Richard Murphy's first novel Confessions of a Contractor. Naturally, this advice is promptly ignored, but it seems like it's not the women who need the warning, it's the contractor, or rather, one contractor in particular, Henry Sullivan.

Henry has spent quite awhile in Los Angeles, building up a business renovating houses with his team, Hector and Miguel. Over the years, he has developed a personal set of ethics to keep his business successful and his nose clean. He ends up breaking these rules one fateful summer, when he begins renovating houses for two wealthy women, the gorgeous and single Sally Stein, and the unhappily married Rebecca Paulson.

He begins an affair with Sally, and wants to move the relationship closer, but as he is drawn to sad Rebecca, he begins to realize he has feelings for her, too. Henry does a little investigating to see where the source of her marital troubles are, and they begin and end with her husband Derrick, a gigantic tool who speaks to people by asking questions then answering them.

Have you exceeded my expectations? You better believe it. Would I recommend you to other people? In a heartbeat.

About ten years ago producer Robert Evans wrote his memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture, and he recorded the audio book himself. This is exactly, exactly what he sounds like. It is beyond hilarious, and for awhile everybody in L.A. was going around imitating him. If you haven't heard it yet, I highly recommend it. Anyway, it's impossible by this point to have a character speak like this in a book and not relate it immediately to Bob Evans.

So Henry is trying to figure out why Rebecca won't leave Bob Evans, and also trying to figure out the source of discord between Sally and Rebecca, who used to be friends but aren't anymore, and in between all this he's dropping tidbits of information about the contracting industry and what you should know about home repair, sort of like a blue-collar Devil Wears Prada, and wow, this is a chick-litty book. Murphy is lucky he didn't get the legs-and-feet treatment. Maybe the cover could have been a pair of work boots perched perkily on the Hollywood sign.

I can't believe what a girly book this is, seriously. The lead character falls in love with a 41-year-old woman but may prefer another woman who is not as pretty, he sides with the women over their husbands in matters of design, he's not homophobic, he's way too interested in their friendships and fights, he likes kids, hell, he likes cats for god's sake. Although he claims to have a problem with relationships, he mostly just wants to love.

He's pushing the boundaries of the suspension of disbelief, but I'm letting him get away with it because on the subject of men who write material that caters to What Women Want, my low bar is set at Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Kimberly Elise is cruelly dumped by her cold-hearted husband and finds love with Shemar Moore, the most perfect man who ever lived.

He's intelligent, gorgeous, respectful, has the same religious values the main character has, and very much wants a permanent commitment to Elise, whose twenty year marriage has crumbled around her. In short, he is specifically written to be every woman's ultimate fantasy, and he would have been, had Perry not overplayed his hand by having Moore whisper to Elise at the end of their first date, "I just want to hold you."

I don't know about you, but give me Shemar Moore as my perfect fantasy man, and he's going to be working a little harder than that.

Mercifully, Murphy doesn't go for that "I just want to hold you" crap and has Sally Stein give him a handjob underneath the table at a dinner party. Whew!

There's really not that much more to say about Confessions of a Contractor that hasn't been covered in other chick lit books, and anyway I have the flu so I'm not totally on top of my game here, but suffice to say it follows the formula with enough insider information to spice things up. The end.

Confessions of a Contractor
by Richard Murphy
August 2008 by Putnam
Paperback, 288 pp
ISBN: 0399155074

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Thursday, January 22, 2009


Yo ho ho!

Is there anything Americans love more than pirates? Zombies, maybe? Why isn't there a movie about zombie pirates? It would make a killing. Oh, look!

Now, I know piracy is having a resurgence and is becoming a bit of a problem to freight ships, especially off the coast of Somalia, but these pirates are difficult to acknowledge, and frankly, I don't care for them.




Everyone knows we want our pirates ever thus:


Even better.


God, yes.

If you are the kind of salty dog who likes her pirates running away from an alligator with a clock in its belly, have I got a book for you!

It is Edward Chupack's first novel Silver: My Own Tale as Written by Me with a Goodly Amount of Murder.


For the past two Saturday nights at work, when it's just three of us on the closing shift and no supervisor, I have been entertaining my coworkers by reading them excerpts of this book in full Piratese.

I'm telling you, it's impossible not to enjoy this book, largely due to the fact that it's written in pirate dialect. I don't have to reach for the accent. I'm just picking up what Chupack's putting down. Awesome.

Of course, there's more to it than just the hilarious pirate accent. If that weren't the case, you could enjoy any book ever written just by throwing in some sea shanties and a parrot.

In Silver, Chupack expands on the life of the iconic Long John Silver, bad boy of the classic adventure story Treasure Island.

The plot and characters of Treasure Island, Bones, Pew, Jim Hawkins, the search for the treasure, etc., are touched on briefly, because they kind of have to be to stay true to the character as originally developed by Robert Louis Stevenson, but Chupack draws the reader in to the making of Long John Silver, from a literally nameless orphan boy to the murderous swashbuckler he grew up to be.

Chupack puts young Silver in Bristol, England, working as a dogsbody for a pub owner. The pub owner sells him to the pirate Black John to work as his cabin boy. Black John gives him his name - John, after himself, Silver, after the boy's keen interest in riches, and threw in the Long part due to his being tall for a boy his age, and teaches him the ways of piracy.

Silver obviously takes to life on the high seas, and becomes skilled at the arts of sailing, thievery, and murder. Chupack is careful not to make Silver a hero. Emotionally stunted and mistrustful of everyone due to his loveless upbringing, Silver cannot fathom of a relationship without betrayal, and as a result cannot fully develop into a real human being. Living on the seas is ideal for him, where he can always view humanity from a distance, never getting close enough to understand the misery he inflicts on others.

The novel begins at Silver's end. Gripped by fever and captured in his own ship's quarters to be taken back to Londontown for his execution, Silver pens his last testament and gives it in excerpts to Mullet, the cabin boy charged with bringing him the meals he refuses to eat, assuming they are poisoned. Mullet, a growing boy whose stomach is never full, sits outside the locked cabin, eating Silver's lunch and avidly listening to his tales of derring-do, and his lifelong quest to solve the ciphers found in a black Bible that promise, if solved, to lead him to a conquest of riches beyond measure.

Silver mulls over the clues with Mullet, drawing them out for the boy over and again, and slowly feeding him tidbits toward the riddle's solution. His speech is simultaneously flowery and coarse, and peppered with humor and wit, but for all his self-satisfied braggadocio, underneath it all is a lifetime of loneliness and no idea of what to do with the things he loves.

He falls in love with Mary, a highwayman's widow who lives with her sister Evangeline in South Carolina's low country, but treats her the exact same way he does his treasure: after gathering her, he abandons her and sails away, never to return, and merely guards her in his heart always as his.

Silver is not a prequel to Treasure Island, nor does it really attempt to elaborate on or explain anything additional. The two stories intersect at one small part, then sail away from each other, alone on the high seas again.


by Edward Chupack
February 2008 by St Martin's Press
Hardcover, 288pp
ISBN: 0-312037365-1

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Moscow Rules.

Have you ever been reading along in a book, minding your own business, when all of a sudden you come across something that snaps you out of it and you think, "So that's the way it's going to be, is it?"

For me, that happened at the end of Chapter 26 in Daniel Silva's Moscow Rules, when two international spies, an American and an Israeli are talking about their latest assignment. The American says:

We went to war in Iraq, in part, because we feared that Saddam might be willing to supply the terrorists with sophisticated weaponry or even weapons of mass destruction.

Ah, so this book is aimed at people who get shivers every time they think of someone shouting "Wolverines!!!!!!!!!!"

Or who think torturing political prisoners is justified because Jack Bauer does it.

But just as it wouldn't be fair to say 24 isn't entertaining, it wouldn't be fair to say that Moscow Rules isn't entertaining despite its obvious right-wing, 2003-era politics. Just turn the part of your brain off that winces when you read the following interrogation between a Russian police officer and an undercover Israeli spy, and you'll get through it all right:

I take it you've killed before, Mr. Golani?

Like all Israeli men, I had to serve in the IDF. I fought in Sinai in 'severnty-three and in Lebanon in 'eighty-two.

So you've killed many innocent Arabs?

Yes, many.

You are a Zionist oppressor of innocent Palestinians?

An unrepentant one.

Yikes. Bad timing to have read this right now.*

Anyway, evidently this is the eighth installment of the Gabriel Allon, Israeli James Bond series. Allon is pulled away from his secret honeymoon in an Italian Villa to meet with a Russian journalist who has a big scoop of global importance. After a long series of everybody getting killed off before the information can be revealed, we finally find out that there's this Russian arms dealer, Ivan Kharkov, who has just put through a large sale of something to some super-evil somebody, which obviously will not do, so it is up to Allon to infiltrate Kharkov's lair, bring him down, find out what is being delivered to who, and stop it before it can bring down the entire Western world.

Very gripping stuff.

Moscow Rules trots all over the globe, Europe mostly, following Kharkov and trying to uncover what is going on before Kharkov and the Russian government, who isn't the KGB anymore but under Putin now acts just like them, can kill everyone who gets close to uncovering the truth. And as we all know, the Russians are very good at information-gathering and intrigue, and they always seem to be two steps ahead of everybody else in this international chess game.

Moscow Rules is written in the potato-chip style that is common to modern adventure/thriller-type best sellers. The chapters are short - there are seventy-two of them, in fact, and many end in a cliff-hanger that makes you keep turning the pages until you reach the end. You can't read just one chapter, you've got to read great big handfulls until the entire bag is empty. Also like potato chips, the nutritional content isn't very high and after you've eaten the bag you feel kind of greasy and sleepy and hungry an hour later, and now I think I've officially worn out that metaphor and need to stop.

All these kinds of books seem to have the same style these days, which is why I suppose Tana French is currently stomping the competition in the thriller/crime/mystery department.

The difference in style is virtually identical to Eddie Izzard's comparison of British and American movies.

Moscow Rules is a perfect book to check out of the library. You get to read it for free, and it zips by so fast you can return it long before it's due.

*This post sums up pretty concisely what I'm thinking about the current Israel/Palestine situation.


Moscow Rules
by Daniel Silva
July, 2008 by Putnam
Hardcover, 433 pages
ISBN: 0399155015

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Likeness.

Is it too early to say that Tana French is becoming to modern mysteries what Kate DiCamillo is to children's literature?

I was blown away by how good DiCamillo's Despereaux was, and I thought it was reasonable to assume that most good writers have one book in them where they surpass themselves and really shine, and Despereaux was hers. Then I read Edward Tulane and had to revise my theory.

French's debut novel, In the Woods was eerily impressive for a first novel. It was polished and smooth as a skipping stone at the bottom of a clear lake. French seemed to be more interested in character development than cliff-hanging suspense. She she cocooned Detectives Rob Ryan, Cassie Maddox, and Sam O'Neill around the reader, immersing the pages in the details of their lives, personalities and moods, until all of a sudden all that silky character development has become a iron trap, and the reader is locked inside their psyches as they confront the terrifying climax.


But there's no way she could do it again so soon, right? Her second novel is surely going to fall victim to the sophomore slump. Wrong! The Likeness is awesome, too!

Just for fun, read Janet Maslin's review of The Likeness and come back here.

Hee! Maslin clearly didn't read French's first book, and assumed that when Cassie mentions a previous case where she went undercover as college student Lexie Madison, and ended up on the wrong end of a knife, she must have been referring back to In the Woods, and in most serial detective novels that would have been a safe bet, because they almost always do that. But French is not so cheap. The Lexie Madison persona is only mentioned in passing at the beginning of the book, to explain how she got transferred to the Murder squad in Dublin. Cassie Maddox wasn't working undercover at all.

It's not until The Likeness that her life as an undercover officer returns.

After the events of In the Woods, Maddox is no longer working in Murder, but has transferred to Domestic Violence, which is stable but holds little excitement for her, detective-wise. She plods along in her business suit, taking statements and filing reports, until she gets a phone call from Sam O'Neill, who is freaked out six ways to Sunday, and begs her to drive immediately to the little village of Glenskehy. She does, and to her surprise finds her former boss in undercover, Frank Mackey, is also there, in an abandoned house with Sam, standing over the body of a woman.

The dead woman could be Cassie's identical twin, and even creepier, when they remove her ID from her pocket, the name on her ID card is Lexie Madison.

Frank is turning cartwheels of joy over the whole thing, because he has the idea to pretend like the woman didn't die, and Cassie can pretend to be the dead woman to find out who killed her.

Cassie and Sam think this is a terrible idea, and so do I, because let's face it: this could never happen, and even if it could, you can't fake being someone else for very long without getting busted under close scrutiny. I don't care how good you are.

But let's suspend disbelief, because if you don't, you'll miss all the fun. Of course, Cassie agrees to do it, and moves in to a gorgeous old home with the dead girls' housemates, all Ph.D. candidates - Daniel, the paternal leader of the group whose wealthy noble uncle willed him the house; Abby, the smart and warm best friend; Rafe, the moody English hottie, and Justin, the sweet, more naive member of the group.

At first Cassie tries to get her bearings in the house, trying to seem like she's always been there while quietly gathering information. But soon the dynamics of the house begin to suck her in for real, and Cassie, an orphan and a loner, realizes this group is a family, and fills a need in her she never knew was so strong.

As with In the Woods, French spends a lot of time developing the characters, as well as peppering the novel with lots of suspects, lots of motive, and lots of frustrating dead leads, because the more she learns about this Lexie Madison, the more reasons Cassie finds for her murder. What is missing this time is the aloof tone of Rob Ryan, replaced with the zippier voice of Cassie. Where Rob made me have to put the novel down and take breaks before coming back to it, I essentially ate The Likeness, finishing it in less than two days.

I'm wondering what French has up her sleeve for her third book. Surely it can't be as good as the first two, right?


The Likeness
by Tana French
July, 2008 by Viking
Hardcover, 480pp
ISBN: 0670018864

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Amnesiac.

First: that cover.

The cover art for Sam Taylor's The Amnesiac was illustrated by Julie Morstad, a Vancouver artist who had to have cut her teeth on a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Its tone is perfectly suited for the novel, ethereal yet drawn with plain black ink, creepy but hard to put a finger on exactly why.

Protagonist James Purdew breaks his ankle running up the stairs to his Amsterdam apartment to catch the telephone. Later, leg in a cast and his sweet girlfriend Ingrid nursing him back to health, James has plenty of time to remember his past, and it comes as a shock to him to realize he doesn't really remember very much at all. Specifically, three years of university in the town of H have totally vanished, leaving nothing behind but a locked box underneath his bed that contain his diaries of that period. Having lost the key and with no ability to break the box open, James becomes both listless and restless in turns, and when Ingrid tells him she has been offered a wonderful job in her hometown that will enable them to buy a home and have children and live happily ever after, James takes the opportunity to split with her and travel back to H to uncover his past.

Once in H, James accepts a job repairing an old Victorian house for a mysterious employer. He is drawn to the house in dreams, and parts of the house keep dropping hints to his past, the first chapter of a story entitled "Confessions of a Killer" covered up in the wallpaper, letters that arrive via post containing nothing but a few individual letters of the alphabet, and a ringing phone he is forbidden to answer. Names keep turning up, too, Anna, Malcolm Trewvey, Tomas Ryan, and while he uses search engines to research these people, one wonders why he didn't use The Google to do some research on himself.

Part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and part gothic mystery, The Amnesiac's disconnected sensibility is partly due to James' self-imposed isolation and partly due to the style of the novel, where stories weave inside stories and reality fades seamlessly into dreams and back again, and neither the reader nor James knows what's real and what isn't. As he draws nearer to uncovering the truth of his missing years, instead of the walls crumbling, they instead begin to close in on him, and James begins to lose faith in his own mental stability.

The Amnesiac keeps the reader at arm's length, its detached personality never really allowing the reader to get fully attached to James and what becomes of him. Nevertheless, it is gripping enough to keep you turning pages until the last secret is unlocked.


The Amnesiac
by Sam Taylor
June, 2008 by Penguin
Paperback, 381pp
ISBN: 978-0-14-311340-9

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Every Secret Crime.

Do not be intimidated by the 429 pages of Doug M. Cummings' latest detective novel, Every Secret Crime. Unlike Nixonland, whose 800-plus pages took me six weeks to slog through, I read Every Secret Crime in two days. It was like swallowing a glass of milk after eating a peanut butter sandwich. The chapters are short, mostly ending in cliff hangers, it doesn't bother too much with character development or internal angst, it's just action action action the end.

The beginning of Every Secret Crime, the second installment in the Reno McCarthy novels, opens with the murder of a wealthy seventeen-year-old high school student in his home. His best friend Lucas is arrested for the crime, mostly on suspicion of being a dumbass. Enter Reno McCarthy, the world's toughest television talking head. He and his TV crew, Jody, the producer, and Al, the cameraman, along with his pal Sunny DeAngelis (Yes. Sunny D.) the bail bondsman, do some investigative reporting and begin unraveling this remarkably complex crime involving a .38 used in an extremely cold murder case, the Chicago mob, a wealthy CEO of a technology corporation, the corrupt Wihego County police department and governing board, and this incredibly weird, mentally challenged sexual assailant named Duane.

The book avoids the inevitably boring denouement that comes after the murderer is revealed and brought to justice by a series of A-ha! moments where the characters run around tying up loose ends and getting shot at, and that pretty much continues to the last page.

I cannot even begin to start describing how all these characters relate to one another and tie into the original crime, and even if I did, that would take all the fun out of the book. Every Secret Crime isn't Great Literature and doesn't try to be, but it's fun, and that's a perfectly fine thing for a book to be.


Every Secret Crime
by Doug M. Cummings
June 2008 by Five Star Publishing
Hardcover, 429pp
ISBN: 1594146659

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