Saturday, February 07, 2009

"Fool Me Once," by Fern Michaels

Alternate Title: The Book That Will Make You a Cat Lover

The Chick: Olivia Lowell. A single, dog-loving photographer, her father always told her that her mother died in childbirth - so when a lawyer shows up to announce her mother only recently passed away, and has left her a considerable fortune, Olivia's a tad surprised, to say the least.
The Rub: Mommy not only didn't die in childbirth, but Mommy robbed a bank, and her dying wish is for Olivia to track down her accomplices and get them to come clean.
Dream Casting: Ellen Pompeo.

The Dude: Jeff Bannerman. The executor of a different dead old lady's will that left her considerable fortune to her dog, Cecil, he left the dog in Olivia's care while the other lawyers fought over the estate. Now he finds himself roped into Olivia's mother's scheme.
The Rub: Um, Olivia doesn't trust him because he went to Lying Liar school to becoming a Scummy Lying Liar - er, I mean a lawyer. A lying lawyer. Because lawyers always lie.
Dream Casting: Ben Affleck.

The Plot:

Olivia: Waaaah! My mommy didn't love me! Even though she left me millions of dollars!

Jeff: Can I help you fix your problem?

Oliva: Wow! You're just like my Daddy! Hawt!

Jeff: Wow! You're just like my Mommy! Sexy!

Various Dogs: *woof woof woof woof* (translation: "This plot is creepy and makes no sense!")

Other Dogs: *bark bark bark bark* (translation: "Shut up, or you won't get fed!")

Olivia and Jeff: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Very Bad Parent (deceased)

1 Gold-Digging Stepmum

2 Hidden Accomplices

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

2 Evil Lawyers

1 Secret Prostitution Ring

1 Ocean of Tears

1, 000, 000 Dogs

The Word: I picked this book up at random at a remainders bookstore for $5, because the name sounded familiar. She's published a lot of books, I figured. A lot. So it's natural to assume she knows how to write. I may not like this book out of taste, but given her publishing history it's a given that she'll at least understand the basics of readable dialogue and adult characters and how things like big corporations and the legal system work. Yeah, not so much. I figure out exactly what letter grade I was going to give this book by the time I read the first two chapters. A hint - it's the first letter of the author's first name.

By the second chapter, I already realized that this book was awful. Astoundingly, head-poundingly bad. The kind of bad that made my head hurt. The kind of bad that made me hate the first couple of pages of the next book I started reading after Fool Me Once, because after 309 pages of pure verbal fecal matter, just seeing words, any words printed on a page made me associate it with teeth-grinding frustration. Reading this book gave me mental hives. It made me hate dogs. If I even see a Yorkshire terrier within the next 48 hours I'll be hard-pressed not to kick it in the face.

I realized this after two chapters, and I faced a dilemma. Should I consider this my first DNF (Did Not Finish) review for this site? Or should I continue reading this literary equivalent of a sack of burning cat hair so that I will have the material for the fully-fledged smackdown of a review that outlines all of its horribleness in detail to prevent future generations from picking this up by accident?

Readers, I READ THE WHOLE THING. Consider it literary Fear Factor - like eating a whole crate of hissing cockroaches and then bobbing for sheep testicles in an open sewer, only I didn't get the money afterwards.

Welcome to Fernland - land of illogical enchantment.

Olivia Lowell is a dog photographer, and, thanks to the magic of Fernland, makes a decent living at it. Her latest client is a dog who inherited a huge fortune from a crazy old lady, and she's worried about his welfare. His handler (one of the estate's lawyers) would much rather leave the dog in her care than tend the dog himself until the estate is settled, and Olivia worries that the poor Yorkshire terrier won't receive the love and care it needs in its million-dollar mansion surrounded by servants.

Anyhoo, she finds out she has worse things to worry about: a lawyer pops up out of the blue to inform her that the mother she thought died in childbirth is, well, still dead - only she kicked the bucket two weeks ago instead of thirty-four years ago and left her a load of cash. Olivia is devastated (we know this because she spends an entire chapter wailing, crawling around on all fours, eating cheerios, and sobbing herself to sleep surrounded by her dogs).

On top of the fortune she's inherited, however, her mother reveals a startling secret: she and two friends robbed a bank when they were college buddies, and that's what helped her start up her multi-million dollar business. In a letter, Mommy Dearest reveals that her final wish is for Olivia to pay her share of the stolen cash back from Mommy's estate, and find her accomplices and get them to pony up, as well.

Yeah, first off folks, Mommy didn't rob a bank. Mommy and her friends stole from a bank. As explained in the prologue, it was a small-town private bank whose careless manager left packages of bearer bonds just lying on his desk and the three girls decided, one day, to snatch one. The definition of robbery (as opposed to theft) is taking someone else's property without their consent with intimidation or violence. If you shoplift a candy bar, for example, that's theft. If you beat up a kid (or threaten to) for his candy bar, that's robbery. But throughout the book, Fern Michaels refers to this as a bank robbery, possibly because that sounds more exciting and dangerous. Hey, it's not like it's a writer's job to know what words mean and to use them properly, right?

Anyway, even as Olivia sobs and condemns her mother for being an evil, evil thief, she's simultaneously planning to dognap Cecil (the rich dog) from his terribly abusive multi-million dollar estate, by buying an identical dog and giving him to the careless handler instead, apparently mistaking dogs for goldfish. Hey, stealing money is wrong, but stealing dogs isn't a morally grey issue! It's totally not wrong to steal a dog from an estate we find abusive, especially if we send another innocent dog into that supposedly abusive situation in its place! Nope, nothing wrong there!

Things go awry when she buys similar-looking dogs and then forgets which dog is which. Ruh-roh! Things go even awry-er when, at eleven o'clock at night, she decides to phone Jeff (the Lying Liar Lawyer who's Cecil's handler) and demand he drive fifty miles through the snow to her house, all so that she can scream at him about what an awful lawyer he is, how lawyers are all the scum of the earth because they are lawyers (and because her wonderful, perfect Daddy hates them), and how she's sure he'll lose his lawyer license ("or whatever it is lawyers have" she says) because he's so horrible to dogs. The shit hits the fan when she equates his abandonment of Cecil to Mommy's abandonment of her, dissolves into tears, throws a crystal candy dish at his head, and leaves the room.

Inexplicably, Jeff finds this behaviour both an aphrodisiac and a soporific, and instead of leaving, falls asleep on her couch. Yeah, I'm totally safe in the house of a woman I barely know who just threatened me with violence, and whose dogs tried to bite me to shreds! Furthermore, the next morning, Jeff lets Olivia regurgitate all of her problems in front of him and offers to help find the two accomplices to her mother's crime.

This - this book was just terrible. I've written, deleted, and re-written this review so many times because I honestly don't know where to start with this book. First of all, I'll go with the characters - because the characters are usually what I notice most about a book (particularly with romances).

Olivia acts like a child. With a characterization that is eerily consistent throughout the novel for all of its inherent wrongness, Olivia thinks, reacts, analyses, and acts like a twelve-year-old girl. She throws tremendous crying temper tantrums throughout the book with little to no provocation, and needs only a mild prodding to drop everything she's doing and curl up in a tearful, sobbing ball of misery. She's not alone - everyone in this book cries buckets at the drop of a hat. Because they're happy, because they're sad, because they're surprised, because their convenience store doesn't carry Visene... She also has a disturbingly childlike view of the world, in simplistic blacks and whites, when it comes to life, morality, and relationships. She's selfish, irrational, spoiled, cutesy, hypocritical in the extreme, and melodramatic. Take this passage from page 140-1:

"[once she] Buckled up, she closed her eyes again, and this time she thought about Jeff Bannerman and all her new feelings. She could hardly wait to get back to Winchester. She wondered how he was making out with the dogs and all the snow. Her lips still felt hot and bruised from the lip lock he'd planted on her before she left the house. She smiled to herself. Her destiny. She hoped Jeff felt the same way." Does this really sound the way a thirty-four-year-old woman thinks and feels? Am I the only one who reads that and thinks teenager?

It's not just her, though - all the characters are about as subtle as a brick to the face. We have hot-shot lawyer Jeff, who (fortunately, I guess) is also a mental teenager. We know that he's perfect for her because she's an infantalized Daddy's girl and he's an infantalized Mama's boy. For example, she neglects to respond to his e-mails for one day and he speed-dials his Mommy to ask for advice. The book also proceeds to show how nicely they match by indicating how each reminds the other of their parent. Olivia notices Jeff shakes hands like her Daddy. Jeff notices Olivia has the same favourite colour as his Mommy. I know that in some ways this can be true (girls marrying their fathers, etc.) but the novel is so blatant about this that it got decidedly icky (especially during a skin-crawlingly awkward moment during Olivia and Jeff's wedding where Daddy Dearest insists he's not giving Olivia away - he and Jeff will just "share" her - cue dry heaves!).

And as for the plotting ... Actually, I found it about the same as the characterization. It all seemed strangely immature, as if a child had written it. If anyone here's a writer, find a sample of something you wrote in elementary or junior high school and you'll see what I mean. Even though your stories may be about "adult" worlds with spacemen and presidents and police officers, all the main characters tend to act either a) just like 12-year-old you, or b) like your parents.

Also, your good guys tend to have the upper hand in every conflict and argument and always win without having to compromise or give up anything really important, because everything in the world moves to please and comfort them - why? Because it's the world you created to house the characters you like and you're too busy at age twelve to do research on how a last will and testament works, how businesses hire new CEOs, and how people rob banks. It's fun to write, but as I was painfully reminded with Fool Me Once, it's not that fun to read, and it's certainly not supposed to be published.

All the major problems that Olivia encounters are usually conveniently solved within pages, leaving the rest of the book to be padded with events that have no bearing on the story. It read like a teenager's journal - the exciting stuff is breezed over in no time and the rest is stream-of-consciousness drivel. It went a little something like this: "Olivia got up at five. She decided to take a shower. She noticed her soap was running low. She went downstairs and fed her dogs. Then she made herself a sandwich. Then she read a page of her mother's diary and spent the rest of the day sobbing in a fetal position on the kitchen floor. Then she felt hungry, and made herself another sandwich."

So instead of actually developing a complex plot, we get a linear daisy-chain of events swiftly dealt with, in between mind-numbingly tedious slogs of everyday minutae. Over and over. The dialogue is equally unreal - I don't think I can think of a single conversation in the entire book that didn't sound stilted in some way. Again, another flaw of Fern Michael's writing style is that all the characters speak the same way - in many short sentences that bounce around a myriad of topics like a rubber ball with ADD. "My mom came over last week. I hadn't seen her in a while. Looked like she was sick. I made a cake today. Chocolate's my favourite. I love dogs. Guess my mom died. Oh well. Who wants cake?"

This whole rattling mess of a book is fueled by stereotypes, cliches, and artificial cutesiness. Did I mention the number of dogs in this book? And how wise and all-knowing and mischievous and adowable they are? These dogs are everywhere, on every page. Olivia accumulates dogs like dust bunnies and they follow her from scene to scene. Olivia is perpetually one step away from becoming the Crazy Dog Lady whose month-old, half-devoured corpse the cops discover when neighbours finally complain about the stench and the barking. I'm not even sure Jennifer Crusie would deal with that many dogs.

And so many of the novel's problems, prejudices, and obstacles are based on cliches that are so commonly-used they're transparent. Like how about Olivia's hatred of lawyers? She makes ridiculous assumptions about at least two people (who both turn out to be rather decent fellows) just because they went to law school. Of course, Michaels never gives us an explanation of why Olivia hates lawyers (other than that her dad hates them, too) - almost as if it's a given for people to hate lawyers. Oooooh, I get it! She hates lawyers because they're greedy and unscrupulous! Men love football and hate housework! Women nag and ask if their dresses make them look fat!

And how about Olivia's mother Allison? Throughout the book, everything is set up to make Allison look like a greedy, cold, calculating sociopath who never cared for anyone but herself. Olivia even finds a diary in which the woman describes all the ways she tried (and failed) to abort Olivia and how angry she was that she had to give birth to "it," and how disappointed and embarassed she was to find out how boring Olivia turned out as an adult.

Oh, but then Olivia meets a cantankerous old caretaker who reveals that Allison secretly watched over Olivia, was proud of her work, watched Olivia's graduations in secret (just ignore the fact that this directly contradicts the events written in Allison's personal diary). He also explains that Allison had (gasp!) a sad past that totally explains all of her eeevil behaviour. So what, are we humanizing Allison, here?

Nope. Several chapters later we learn that Allison is an even more evil life-ruiner than before, the cantankerous caretaker and his earth-shattering revelations are never mentioned again, and Allison is back to being the Big Bad everyone hates. So, was the caretaker's conversation just page-padding?

Honestly, how can someone write 309 pages without an ounce of original thought in them? Need another example? The private detective agency Olivia goes to to find the accomplices - it's called The Private Detective Agency. Michaels couldn't even give it a proper name - how lazy is that? This novel is a farce of a legitimate publication, with a plot that doesn't make sense past twenty pages, characters are are all just facets of the same personality, and unrealistic dialogue, that is forced to milk dusty, decades-old cliches to get any sort of drama at all. Avoid this novel if you value higher brain function. Really. I read this whole thing for you. Don't let my wretched sacrifice be in vain! F.


  1. Anonymous5:05 AM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Anonymous5:06 AM

    Your sacrifice was certainly not in vain. I have a Fern Michaels book at home as well, which I was thinking of reading (I think it is called "Charming Lilly" or something like that). Now that I've read your review, I'll be better off reading something else. Though I might try and read it to warn others about the author.

    Great review and I throughly sympathize with your struggle. I doubt I would have had your patience.

  3. Anonymous5:28 PM

    Entertaining review!

  4. Anonymous1:25 AM


    Now I am feeling REALLY guilty for asking you to carry on reading LOL. Oh boy.

  5. Antonia --> Hurray! Yeah, I could have just stopped reading it, but there was a masochistic part of my brain that wanted to see just HOW bad it could get. It also taught me a lot about how NOT to write a novel (rule #1: RESEARCH!)

    Laura --> Thank you!

    Ana --> What do you mean?

  6. Anonymous10:00 AM

    I was just kidding. LOL....In my email I said you should carry on reading because I loved snarky reviews but had I known the torture that you would suffer....I owuld have kept my mouth shut *wink*

  7. Sorry you had to take one for the team - but does it help that I laughed all the way through your review? I've never read Fern Michaels and now - thanks to your sacrifice I know she shall remain that way. This book sounds just atrocious! And yet - at the same time it's very sad that there are some wonderful authors out there who can't get a contract yet there are authors like Michaels who ARE published - and trees that are destroyed because of it.

  8. Ana --> Don't worry about it. I very, very rarely DNF books anyway, and I kept thinking how much more fun writing this review would be if I read the whole thing?

    Thing is, it was actually HARD to write this review because I had a dozen different ideas of how to completely convey just how terrible this book is - I was afraid of leaving anything out. But it's just too terrible a book.

    Kristie J --> that's what I love about book reviews. Even when I have to read a terrible book, it means I have something funny to write about alter. ^_^

    We need to get Captain Planet on this Michaels woman, though. She's destroying the environment, *lol*

  9. Anonymous9:03 AM

    I saw some Fern Michaels books for sale at the library. (at the shop where they sell discarded books) I thought of you and your review when I saw them, and thought, "I'll pass on these!"

  10. I laughed so hard reading this review! I just finished reading a novel if hers and while the premise of the story was good it was just so unrealistic in so many ways. Really cringy and cheesy dialogue! You explained her style perfectly!

  11. Thank you for this review! A friend loaned me this book, and by the second chapter I was wondering if this book was worth finishing. Your review saved me some time!