Nothing to write home about

Highly-touted authors resort to clever titles, gruesome stories to hook readers

by terry mathews - news-telegram arts editor

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England

Brock Clarke

Algonquin Press - Ficton
Sept. 2, 2008 -$13.95. 317 pp.

Oct. 9, 2008 - Just because an author can come up with a quirky, interesting title doesn't mean he can write a quirky, interesting book.

Case in point: "An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England," Brock Clarke's new story about Sam Pulsifer, a man who spends 10 years of his early life in prison for setting fire to the family home of Emily Dickinson, killing two people in the process.

Early press for the book said it was akin to John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces." Baloney. This story can't even stand in the shadow of that modern American classics. The book's main character is self-absorbed, dull and doesn't have a clue. He's not someone I'd want to know. Ever. The story doesn't have any punch, much less enough dark humor to move the plot along.

The author dispatches Sam's past life pretty quickly. He serves his sentence, goes to college, marries a gorgeous girl who doesn't seem to mind that he's as bland as white flour, has two children, gets a divorce and moves home with his folks in a hurry. His folks have some seriously heavy issues of their own, but I frankly didn't care what happened to them or Sam. Nothing funny or quirky here - just words filling page after endless page.

Tomato Girl

Jane Pupek

Algonquin Press -Fiction
August 26, 2008 -$23.99. 298 pp.

I'm not sure what first-time novelist Jane Pupek was shooting for in "Tomato Girl," her coming-of-age-in-a-very-strange-house story of Ellie Sanders, 11, who is reeling from the aftermath of her mother's mental illness and her daddy's libido-gone-wild.

Maybe Pupek thought if the details were bizarre enough, her readers would become transfixed. Maybe she thought odd and unbecoming could be dressed up and transformed into evocative and acceptable.

It's the whole "lipstick on a pig" thing, without the recent political overtones, and that does not include the truly twisted contents of Ellie's mother's pantry. It's not fit for mixed company.

The only redeeming grace for Pupke's readers is knowing that, had the story been set in today's world instead of sometime before integration, someone would have called Child Protective Services to take Ellie away from the whole sordid mess.

It's been a long time since I failed to finish a 298-page book, but I put this one down at about page 175.

Book of Lies

Brad Meltzer

Grand Central Publishing - Fiction
Sept. 2, 2008 - $25.99. 640 pp.

The premise of best-selling author Brad Meltzer's latest release, "Book of Lies" sounds promising. Readers are supposed to find out how the story of Cain and Able and a 1932 murder of someone close to Superman are interwoven.

Calvin Harper, former customs agent-turned homeless shelter volunteer, still suffers from the trauma of seeing his father kill his mother when he was only a child. His father was sent to prison, disappearing from his son's life forever, or until he's needed to flesh out a plotline.

On one of his midnight rounds through the mean streets of Fort Lauderdale, Harper saves the life of a shooting victim, who, as it turns out, is his long-lost dad.

The improbable coincidences mount, utlimately revealing the involvement of a secret sect, some high-powered officals and the weapon used when Cain murdered his brother in history's first crime. I was forced to turn to the back of the bok to find out how it ended because I grew weary of trying to weave a whole cloth out of such slender threads. I think the author tried to cash in on the success of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." I was a "first reader" for Dan Brown's debut "Digital Fortress." Brad Meltzer is no Dan Brown.

The Monster of Florence

Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

Grand Central Publishing - Non-fiction
June 10, 2008 - $25.99. 336 pp.

From 1968 until 1985, seven pairs of lovers were brutally slain during trysts in the hills surrounding Florence, Italy. The city was gripped with fear as law enforcement officials tried unsuccessfully to pin the horrific murders on several key suspects, failing each time to make the charges stick. The case has never been solved.

Best-selling author Douglas Preston was so intrigued by the crimes that he moved his family to Italy to do research for his book, "The Monster of Florence." Preston teamed up with Mario Spezi, a seasoned journalist who was always one step ahead of officials when it came to the killings and who, in an ironic twist of fate, became a suspect.

The case was the subject of a NBC special documentary with host Stone Phillips.

Maybe an investigation this long and complicated should have been spread across several volumes, because the inclusion of so many red herrings and copious details bring the action to a tortuous, painful, grinding halt. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't keep the good guys straight, nor could I keep count on the bad guys, and ultimately, I just gave up and quit.

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