Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review - The Spellman Files

I am starting to get a little behind on my reviews. I have 3 that I need to get done, but I have been spending most of my free time searching for a job, playing Words With Friends with my husband (I usually win!), and reading. Last night I finally finished reading The Curse of the Spellmans. I started it back in January, but when we moved I had to return it to the library before I could finish it. Luckily, the library here had it also so I checked it out and finished. But before I post my review of it, I wanted to post my review of The Spellman Files, which is the first book in Lisa Lutz's Spellman series. Part of this review was originally posted on Goodreads back in December, but I tweaked it and added a few additional thoughts.

The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz
Format: print
4 star

This was a great book - a fast, fun read with a loveably imperfect anti-heroine. I read it during the holidays when both my time and attention were constantly being interrupted, and had no trouble following the action. And while I do like to read books that make me think, there is also something to be said for books like this one that you read for sheer pleasure.

Izzy Spellman is a 28-year-old private detective who works for, and still lives with, her parents. Over the years, she has developed a very suspicious nature. So suspicious, in fact, that the slightest discrepancies in a person's behavior compel her to investigate that person, and it doesn't matter if it is strangers, friends, or even family members. She always asks potential ex-boyfriends a million extremely personal questions just prior to running a background check on them - a habit that has aided in more than one of her break-ups. She is also a life-long troublemaker who at times seems to have the rationale and decision making skills of teenager. But even so, she is still quick-witted and street smart.

Some people compare Izzy to Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum. I guess if I stretch your imagination a little then I can see it. Both get caught up in trying to solve mysteries that should probably be left to the police. Both are "creative" with their investigative techniques, and do eventually solve the mysteries. Both are smart and funny, have trouble with men and their crazy families, and both manage to get into plenty of trouble. But that is about as far as it goes. Izzy is rather obsessive and short-sighted, while Stephanie has the ability to see the bigger picture. Stephanie also seems to have a maturity and innate luckiness that Izzy lacks. That doesn't mean that the Spellman series is not as good as the Plum series, it just means that they are unique enough to set them apart and keep them interesting.

One of the other things that sets this book apart is Lisa Lutz's writing style. She has a way of bouncing around between plot lines that could almost be confusing, but ends up holding your interest. The focus of the novel doesn't center on Izzy's attempt to solve her primary investigation, but is actually more concerned with her personal relationships. Lutz also employs several uncommon techniques to add interest to the novel including lists and footnotes (I found the footnotes a little off-putting and distracting, but lots of readers like them.) I give this book a 4 because while it was better than average, it wasn't so good that I had trouble putting it down.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Reviews - Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas

The second week of 13 weeks of Sookie is over, and while I am on schedule with my reading, I still haven't posted a review of the first book, Dead Until Dark. Shame on me. Although, in my defense, I don't have a whole lot to add since this first book so completely embodies everything I said about the series in general in my previous post. But I will give a few thoughts and also go ahead and review book 2, Living Dead in Dallas.

Dead Until Dark
Format: epub ebook
5 stars
In Dead Until Dark, we are introduced to crazy Sookie Stackhouse, a barmaid in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, who has what she considers to be an unusual disability. She also longs to meet a vampire, a real possibility since they "came out of the coffin" after the invention of synthetic blood. So she is surprised and pleased when one shows up sitting in her section of Merlotte's, the local Bon Temps bar where she works. Shortly thereafter she saves him, then he saves her, and the love affair begins. Throw in the mysterious murders that Sookie's brother Jason is accused of committing and Sookie's use of her "disability" to discover the truth and what ensues is pure, hair-raising reading fun. And fun it definitely is - at times a little scary (but not gory or scary enough to qualify as horror), at times sensuous, and at times just plain laugh-out-loud funny.

I love Sookie as a heroine. She is the perfect balance of pretty and smart, but at the same time is rather sheltered and naive. And she is not unrealistically beautiful and rich. In fact, as a barmaid, she is actually on the lower end of the income scale and is living with her grandmother in their old family home. Her grandmother is a true Southern woman, and does her best to bring Sookie up to be one as well. To people living in other parts of the country, the book may seem a little exaggerated, but trust me, this is how small town life in the South really is. Even the Descendants of the Glorious Dead club that Adele is a member of reminds me of The Daughters of the Confederacy which my own mother and grandmother were members of. That's another thing I like about this book - Harris has a way of being true to the South while at the same time presenting it in a humorous way. And I think I mentioned before that I also enjoy Harris's treatment of vampires. She keeps some of the traditional ideas about vampirism and mixes them with some new ideas, one of my favorite being that the vampires are trying to "mainstream."

Living Dead in Dallas
Format: epub ebook
5 stars
Living Dead in Dallas is the second book in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series. In this book, we still have Sookie as the main character and narrator, but we begin to learn more about some of the other characters as well, especially Sookie's vampire boyfriend, Bill. We also get to see more of Eric Northman, who is one of my favorite characters in the series, and we see some of the other "supes" in Sookie's expanding world. Like the first book, there is a mysterious murder that Sookie tries to solve by using her disability (but that Bill says is a gift). She also travels to the big city to help the Dallas vampires find a missing nest-mate. While there, she encounters religious fanatics of the worst kind. In the books, these people will stop at nothing to rid the world of vampires, but like a lot of other things in Harris's books they have parallels in the real world. I am sure that there really are people in our society who are willing to go to such extreme lengths for their beliefs. Throughout the series, Harris requires us to contemplate who the real monsters are - supes or humans - and these fanatics seem to be just as bad as the vampires they despise.

Sookie's character continues to evolve in this novel. In the beginning, she is only slightly less naive than she was in the first book. But as this story progresses, she is forced to accept increasingly harder truths about the world and the beings inhabiting it, especially the vampires. She realizes more and more that her relationship with Bill may not be as wonderful as it once seemed, and that life among vampires is a precarious one that should not be taken for granted. She deals with all the challenges as they come, not always with style, but certainly with a sense of humor and love of life. And she is always sure to save plenty of these lessons (and the questions that they bred) to mull over on less eventful days.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Capturing the South, Why some books stay with us, and 13 Weeks of Sookie

May 7 of this year marks an exciting, but bittersweet day on my calendar. It is the day that Charlaine Harris's 13th and final Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Series book will be released. The title of the book is Dead Ever After, a title that leads to much speculation regarding how Sookie's fate will play out. The beautiful cover, once again done by artist Lisa Desimini, also leads to much speculation, and I can't wait to read the book and find out what happens. Let me just point out here that when I finally have the space and the cash to actually purchase copies of all the books, I plan to get copies with the original cover art, not the editions with the tacky True Blood tie-in covers. Let me also point out that while I enjoyed the first two or three seasons of True Blood, the series has now drifted so far away from the book series that it has become unrecognizable. And not for the better. The last season in particular was extremely disappointing, and I may not even bother watching when the new season starts. But enough on that - this blog is about my love of the books.

I can't say what it is that I love so much about these books. For one thing, they are set in the Deep South and Harris's Mississippi upbringing allows her to remain true to this area of the country - both the good elements and the bad. Having lived in this part of the country all my life myself (even spending a few years in Louisiana), I can appreciate the unique blend of old and new, backwardness and progressiveness that Harris manages to capture in these novels. Because the South is, among many other things, a section of the country that is on a precipice - many of us are clinging tightly to our old ways of life and thinking while at the same time trying to catch up to the rest country in terms of modern thinking and living. I think Sookie captures this juxtaposition perfectly. Her struggles, of course, are of a supernatural variety that those of us in the "real world" will never face, but they still reveal a lot about how the Southern mind works. I find myself nodding my head and laughing out loud at some of the phrases and actions that Harris includes because they are so perfectly Southern, if slightly exaggerated at times.

I also love that these books are populated with unique, interesting characters. You may ask how I can call them unique when there is such a plethora of the  supernatural writing that has become wildly popular in recent years, but it seems to me that most of that started when Twilight came out in 2005 and started a huge trend primarily in young adult fiction. A lot of these books, and the characters in them, seem so similar to one another that it is almost like they are written from a pre-designed formula. Just change some names and a few minor details and voila! a new book is ready to be published. Sookie appeared in 2001, and these books have a more mature feel than a lot of the more recent series. She is technically still a young adult, but she didn't come from a life of privilege and has to work hard for a living. And she works as a waitress in a small town, redneck bar rather than having a glamorous job in the big city. I also like that Harris keeps some of the more traditional beliefs about vampires (they can't be out in the day and can't tolerate silver) while also introducing new ideas (the invention of synthetic blood that allows them to go mainstream). And even though the first book focuses mostly on vampires, later Sookie books include a variety of other supernatural characters as well.

I think, however, that what has really made this series stick with me is the time period in which I began reading them. Like certain songs that stand out in your memory because of what was happening when you heard them, these books have stayed with me because they saw me through a very difficult time in my life. I didn't start reading them until 2008, so I had plenty to catch up on and keep my mind occupied. I had just come home from the hospital after having surgery to correct a problem that had caused me to have a miscarriage earlier in the year. A very brilliant friend of mine, who just so happens to be one of the most interesting people on earth (just check out her blog, The Cattywampus Chronicle and I think you will agree), came by to see me and brought a bag of books for me to read since I wouldn't be able to go to the bookstore or library for a few weeks. Included in this bag were the first 3 or 4 books in the series ( I can't remember exactly how many). At first, I was a little hesitant to read them. I was afraid that they would be too silly. But eventually my curiosity won out and I began reading Dead Until Dark. That was all it took - I was addicted, and every time I started to feel bored or sad, I immersed myself in Sookie's world and always felt better when I came out. Of course, I also had a hard time getting back to reality and suffered withdrawals when I wasn't able to read them that surely would have rivaled any drug addict's. And ever since then, I have done my best to keep up with the series and read the new books as soon after publication as possible. A couple of times, I have reread the series from the beginning to prepare for the new book's release, and that is where this year's 13 weeks of Sookie comes in. I don't usually do reading challenges, because I never know what I will be in the mood to read, or have time to read from day to day, but in honor of the last book I am challenging myself to read one a week until I have finished the last one. Once again, I find myself at a difficult time in my life, and it is fitting that my old friend Sookie is here to pick me up and help me through it. As crazy as it sounds, I think I may even cry when I finish the last book. I could almost cry now just thinking about it.

Is it time for Charlaine Harris to end the series? As much as I hate to admit it, yes, I think it is. The past few books have felt a little rushed, and not as well developed. Maybe Harris was being pushed by her publishers to get them out before they were completely ready. Maybe she is getting a little burned and out and is ready to focus on some other projects (I also enjoy her Harper Connolly series.) Maybe she is so disgusted by the direction the TV series has taken that she can't bear to write any more books for them to completely ignore. I don't know why she has chosen to end the series now, but I am glad that she is ending it before it becomes ridiculous and cliched. I only ask that the final book remain true to the 12 books that came before it, that it tie up all the loose ends so the series has truly ended, and that it give Sookie the happy ending that she deserves.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review - The Art Forger

The Art Forger, by Barbara Shapiro
Format: epub e-book
3 Stars

From Goodreads:
On March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art today worth over $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It remains the largest unsolved art heist in history, and Claire Roth, a struggling young artist, is about to discover that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.

Making a living reproducing famous artworks for a popular online retailer and desperate to improve her situation, Claire is lured into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge a painting—a Degas masterpiece stolen from the Gardner Museum—in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But when that very same long-missing Degas painting is delivered to Claire’s studio, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery.

Her desperate search for the truth leads Claire into a labyrinth of deceit where secrets hidden since the late nineteenth century may be the only evidence that can now save her life.

I was very excited when I was finally able to check this book out through my local library's e-book service. It had been sitting on my to-be-read list for a while because I didn't want to buy it and the library didn't have a print version. So when I got a tablet for Christmas and discovered that e-books were not as awful as I imagined them to be, I got on the waiting list for The Art Forger (yes, even e-books have waiting lists and a 2 week check-out time limit). Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, the book did not live up to my expectations. It was good enough for me to finish it, but not good enough for me to rush through it. And it has taken me a week to get around to writing out my thoughts.

The premise was interesting enough, but the story just kind of drug along. I never got really excited about the plot or the characters. The life of a starving artist just isn't that engaging, and I found the characters annoying and underdeveloped. But the book did have a few redeeming qualities. The secondary characters added a little bit of depth and interest that Claire and Aiden were lacking, and I loved the historical letters written by Isabella Gardner to her niece. The other thing I liked about the book was that it got me more interested in art in general, and Degas in particular. But in contrast to Isabella Gardner, I prefer his later, more Impressionistic work.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review - The Summer We Read Gatsby

The Summer We Read Gatsby, by Danielle Ganek and read by Justine Eyre
Format: audiobook
Rating: 3.5 stars
The Summer We Read Gatsby is a delightful novel about two half-sisters who have inherited an aging house in the Hamptons. Cassie, also known as Stella, and her sister Peck decide to spend one last summer in the house before selling it. Over the course of the summer, which reminds them of the summer 7 years before when they really did read The Great Gatsby, they search for love, a missing painting, a ghost, a way to afford to keep the house, and the "thing of utmost value" that their aunt mentioned in her will.

In spite of a few negative reviews, I liked this book. It wasn't a book that brought on any great emotions, but it was a pleasant read filled with humor and a sense of wistfulness. One or two of the reviews that I read mentioned that it would be a good beach read (especially since it was set in the summer), but I ended up listening to it in the winter which was nice as it brought with it the feeling of warm, lazy summer vacations and eased some of the dreariness of January. It also put me in the mood to reread Gatsby myself, which I have not done since high school. Novels that make you want to reread classics or learn more about a particular topic or historical period always get extra points in my book. The characters were intelligent and interesting. They were also pretty, and moderately succesful, which is another plus in my mind - it irks me when characters are too perfect.

This book lent itself well to the audiobook format. It was straightforward and easy to follow which is important if you are like me and listen in short bursts rather than long sittings. And I cannot say enough good things about Justine Eyre. I first discovered her when I listened to Margaret George's novel Helen of Troy. Ms. Eyre's voice was wonderfully suited for that book, and I liked her treatment of this book almost as well. Some reviewers found her accents off-putting, but I thought they were very well-done, especially her interpretation of Cassie, who grew up in Europe rather than America.

Moving day, books as a refuge, and libraries that hold a grudge

This post should have been posted over a week ago, but I just discovered it in my drafts. Just more proof that technology does not like me.

I can't believe I have not blogged in almost two weeks. I can't believe I haven't finished a book this week. The truth is, I've barely even had time to read or write. Which is strange - normally, books are my refuge, so I make time to read. No, I don't think that my problems will go away while I have my head stuck in a book. But taking time out to read does help me to relax and clear my head. Problems don't seem so overwhelming when you allow yourself to step back from them for a bit.
Last week was one of the most difficult weeks that I have experienced in many years. We had just moved back to the Mobile area 6 months ago, and we loved it. I loved our house, our son loved his school, and things finally seemed to be looking up for us. I had not been able to find a job, so it was still hard, but we were doing fairly well anyway. But last week my husband lost his job. With very little savings and few options, we are at a loss s to what we should do. We both began making calls and exploring our options, and I took time out to lose myself in my reading. I finished Two for the Dough and The Dressmaker, and started The Summer We Read Gatsby audio and The Curse of the Spellmans print book. Then my mother-in-law called and said we should put our things in storage and move in with her until we could get back on our feet. After much thought, we decided to go ahead and do it. So we rented the truck, packed the boxes (including enough book boxes to make me wish I liked ebooks more than I actually do), and drove the 200 miles to Dothan. There have been many times in the past few years when we said that we would like to move back "home," but it just never seemed like a feasible option. At any rate, the decision, hard work, and more crowded atmosphere haven't been very conducive to reading. I have been feeling a wide range of emotions - happiness, sadness, anxiety... But I have been feeling increasingly down so it is time to get back to reading. I had to return The Curse of the Spellmans to the library without finishing it. Most of my books are in storage. But I did keep out The Sepulchre by Kate Moss. I received it as a Secret Santa gift this past Christmas and decided it would be the perfect time to read it. And I'm glad I did since the library here does no,t seem to have purchased any new books in the 10 years that we have been gone. Which brings me to my next topic -
Libraries hold grudges. It does not matter if you moved away 1 year, 3 years, or 10 years ago, they will still make you pay any late fees that you might have had and a $5 replacement fee for your library card. And it is not just this library. It seems to be an unspoken library rule. I should know - I have had the experience with more than one library. In think the lesson has finally sunk in - I'm much better now about either renewing my books or returning them on time, and I have vowed to never throw away another library card just in case I one day move back to that town and need it again. And while it may seem old-fashioned, I love libraries. I never feel like I am truly a citizen of a particular place until I have gotten my library card. It is even more important than updating my driver's license. There is just something about wandering aimlessly up and down the rows of shelves that is oddly relaxing and exciting at the same time. Breathing in the lovely, comforting smells of old and new books, running my fingers along the spines feeling the different textures. Foraging for that unexpected treasure.