Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Vampires and Zombies and Wereswolves...Oh my!

Have you noticed that the whole vampire/zombie/werewolf genre is really hot right now? OK, it has been hot for a while, but I'm slow to get on board with new fads. Actually, I figured most of them were probably complete drivel so I've been avoiding them. I loved Dracula, and I felt like vampires are serious business and should not be treated as fodder for silly fiction. But, since we are being inundated with these books, I figured I better get with it.

A while back I read Stoker's great-grand-something's sequel, Dracula: The Un-Dead. I really enjoyed it. Mostly. And while I couldn't get beyond the first few pages of Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs by Molly Harper, I did find Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford fairly entertaining. A little silly, but I wanted to keep reading it, so I think that says something. Even more surprising to me was how much I actually liked Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (he of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I am still resisting on principle). I thought this would be silly, but it was actually a pretty good story. I liked the historical aspect, Abe's battles and partnerships with vampires, and how the history of slavery is tied in with vampirism. Clever and entertaining.

As for the werewolves, I tried Soulless by Gail Carriger, but again could not get past the first few pages. It was pointed out to me that this is a romance (which I don't really like), with werewolves added in. Just because it's historical and has werewolves does not change the fact that it's a romance. So maybe it wasn't the best choice for me. I'd like more highbrow werewolf literature. Any suggestions?

I really wanted to avoid the zombies. After all, aren't they just walking dead bodies looking for flesh to feast on? They aren't intelligent and cunning like vampires. How interesting could they be? But Max Brooks's World War Z was an incredibly good read. The novel tells the stories of the survivors of the Zombie War. Really smart and engrossing. And the audiobook is narrated by a very talented cast. I highly recommend this one.

And although magicians don't fall into the category of the undead, they still kind of fit into this "paranormal" genre, I think. I was so looking forward to Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Young kid gets accepted into a school for magicians. Like Harry Potter, right? Well, no, not really. He does go to a school for magicians, but that's about all they have in common. The book starts off pretty good. But he lost me about halfway through. Just...weird. As disappointing as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Listen up book reviewers: when you review a book about magicians and you liken it to Harry Potter in any way, you are treading on very thin ice. I recall reading the words "Harry Potter" in reviews for both of these books, and I can tell you neither of them reminded me of Harry Potter in any way, other than the fact that the main characters were magicians. This does not automatically make them good for Harry Potter fans. When you use that phrase, you set a very high expectation, which can lead to big disappointments. With that being said, I will tell you about a book about magicians I recently read and enjoyed. Although magicians are the main characters in this story, Heart's Blood by Gail Dayton is nothing like that book about you know who. It is, however, a pretty good historical/paranormal/romance. I liked the historical setting and details, the strong female characters, the wizardry, and the spicy romance.

So there you have it. I've found some disappointments, but I'm happy to say that I've found some pretty good reads. And I know a lot more about vampires. While I'm not going to be reading Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, I am looking forward to finding more good reads in this genre.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Diet for a Hot Planet

A cool thing happened to me last week. I got an advanced copy of Anna Lappé's book Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It from LibrayThing. Anna is the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, who wrote the revolutionary Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. I heard that both Anna and Frances were going to be speaking at a local community college, so I thought I'd go check them out. It turns out that mine was the first copy she signed, so we had to have a picture!

I've started reading Diet for a Hot Planet, which is all about how our industrialized food system plays a huge role in climate change. It's very compelling and the data she presents is astounding. I thought I would have finished by now, but there is a lot of information to take in, so it's taking me longer to digest it.* Check back for my review. Meanwhile, take a look at Anna's site.

*Lame pun not intended.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Spellmans Will Strike Again

There have been rumors flying around that Lisa Lutz's The Spellmans Strike Again is the last novel of her Spellman series. In their reviews Booklist, Library Journal, and Publisher's Weekly all referred to this as the final installment in the series. Some of us were trying to figure out why this relatively new author would stop writing such a successful (and fabulous) series so soon. I mean, I'm not saying she should write 37 books and get to the point where we all roll our eyes every three months when a new one is released, but after only four books, I still want more. What could the reason be? Is she sick? Maybe she's taking a hiatus from writing to pursue some other career. Does she have a fabulous new character that's even better than Izzy and her crazy family? Taking a lesson from Izzy, I decided that I would use my fabulous reference/detective skills to get to the bottom of this. Surely there must be some information posted on the internets.

I am pleased to say that I have verification from 2 credible sources, (well, actually the same source but in 2 different places) that this is not the end of the Spellmans. In her winter newsletter Lutz says: "Word has also been spreading that The Spellmans Strike Again is the final installment of the Spellman series. Come on, no one likes a tetralogy. America's favorite dysfunctional P.I. family will likely be back after a brief rest." And her Facebook page also refutes this rumor: "Word on the street is that the fourth Spellman book (out in March) will be the last. That's news to me. While it is true that I have been working on other projects, I have no official plans to end the series just yet. Although I won't be spelling the alphabet in Spellman books." Apparently she is working on some new things, but we can all breathe easy. The Spellmans will be back.

P.S. Lisa's latest novel will not disappoint fans of this series. Izzy is as tenacious as ever and Rae is, well, Rae. If you haven't read this series, see my previous reviews here and here and then get reading. You won't regret it.

P.P.S. Booklist, LJ and PW? Really disappointed in you guys. Who started this vicious rumor?

Friday, March 26, 2010

In the Shadow of Gotham

I came across a new mystery recently that was so satisfying, I had to share. Stefanie Pintoff's debut novel In the Shadow of Gotham won the 2008 Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel Award, and is well deserving of the award. The story is set in New York in 1905. Detective Simon Ziele has left the NYPD for a small town just north of NYC, where he hopes his work will be quieter. But when a young girl from a wealthy family is murdered, his quiet life is disrupted. He pairs up with criminologist Alastair Sinclair, who has a patient he believes may be responsible for the murder. His investigation takes him back into the seemy underworld of New York City: brothels, gambling rooms, bars, and opium dens.

This has a similar feel to Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist, which is one of my all-time favorites. Fans of Carr should enjoy the historical details of New York City, the early forensic methods, the partnership between detective and scientist, the young female character in a male-dominated profession, and of course, the edge-of-your-seat chase to catch the killer.

I am happy to report that Pintoff is planning a series around Ziele and Sinclair, and the second novel, A Curtain Falls, will be out in May. This author is one to watch.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shadow Tag

When I first heard the premise of Louise Erdrich's new novel Shadow Tag, I thought, oooh, that sounds good. Wife keeps diary. Wife finds out that husband is secretly reading her diary. Wife begins to plant lies in diary to mess with the husband. That could make for good drama, right? Well, it does, but not in the juicy, soap opera-like way I thought it might. Although I've never read Erdrich before, I guess I should have known that her writing would never be soap opera-like in any way. Take two alcoholics with an already shaky and dysfunctional marriage and add this element of suspicion to a possessive, needy, abusive husband and you have a recipe for disaster. What follows is like a horrible train wreck that you just can't look away from. Although I found it to be very dark, disturbing, shocking, and sad, I also found it an engrossing and oddly satisfying read.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

No More Writers, Please!

Perhaps they’re just trying to write what they know. I can’t think of any other reason why so many of the novels I’ve read lately feature writers as characters. And it’s led me to the conclusion that we need to pass a law requiring all aspiring novelists to get as many odd and interesting jobs as possible before they settle in to write the great American novel.

Writing about a writer creates two problems. First, if the narrator is a writer, it can lead to some tiresome meta-fictional book-within-a-book stuff. Usually this is a lot more fun for the author than the reader. Take Travel Writing by Peter Ferry. The novel features a writer and writing teacher who witnesses a car accident and becomes obsessed with a dead girl. In some ways, the novel is clever and entertaining, but Ferry spends too much time asking the reader to guess whether the central events in the novel actually happened or were invented by the narrator. The narrator’s writing career also provides an excuse for inserting sections on various trips that are never carefully linked back to the main narrative.

Kevin Casey’s newest novel, A State of Mind, features another author/narrator who keeps a journal recording the events that form the novel. This device seems unnecessary and at times confusing. It would have been far better to launch into the plot without this gimmick.

The other problem with books about writers is that writers live boring lives. Most of them spend the bulk of their time at their desks, writing or doing research. The plot of A State of Mind eventually takes off, but only when the writers in the book (there are three) leave their desks and find some trouble. The same is true for Ninni Holmqvist’s novel The Unit, in which a middle aged writer finds herself consigned to a futuristic medical unit where “dispensable” unmarried, childless middle-aged people are forced to undergo experiments and organ donations for the benefit of the more necessary members of society. Holmqvist’s protagonist lives a life so well ordered that it’s at times dull to read about. A dramatic plot twist midway saves the plot and keeps the reader turning pages, but the development has nothing to do with the narrator’s writing career.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is the exception that proves the rule. Stockett creates a rich novel that just happens to feature an unusual writing project that puts the participants’ lives at risk. Watching as those writers set up clandestine meetings and race against a tight deadline to record the story of their lives is a delight. So, perhaps it is possible to write about a writer, but it’s the rare author who pulls it off.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night...

If you’re thinking of April 15th as your tax deadline, it’s time to get your priorities in order. Turns out there’s a much more crucial item on that day’s to-do list: your official entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest sponsored by the English department at San Jose State University. The challenge? Pen the opening sentence to the worst novel imaginable in under 50-60 words and submit (or “inflict” as the contest sponsors say) your entry by the deadline, which was selected because Americans associate mid-April with painful submissions and bad fiction.

So who was Bulwer-Lytton? A late-nineteenth-century English politician and novelist famous for the opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Except the line didn’t end there. The reason his prose now seems so dated and mock-able is that the full line was:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Fair warning: scanning the contest archives for ideas for your own entry may lead to a full lost hour in cyberspace as well as inappropriately loud bursts of laughter. If you find you need most of the next month to wrangle receipts for that other deadline, you can always try the Lyttle Lytton contest; same concept, twenty-five word limit. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cooking Dirty

When I read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, I was shocked by his descriptions of his rockstar-like lifestyle, the breakneck pace of working in a professional kitchen, and what really happens with the food that ends up on your plate. It was certainly entertaining, but surely, I thought, not typical.

But Jason Sheehan's memoir Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen, has a lot in common with Bourdain's tale. Since he was a teenager, Sheehan has worked in numerous kitchens around the country. From pizza joints to all-night diners to classier restaurants, Sheehan has seen it all. Like Bourdain, his lifestyle consists of up-all-night, sleep-all-day, 100-hour work weeks. He numbs the pain from his burns and wounds with alcohol and fuels his body with nicotine and drugs. From the moment his shift starts until the moment it ends, the pace is unrelenting and the heat (literally and figuratively) is on. Cooks don't get a 30 minute meal break, and if they injure themselves, they wrap it up with a towel and keep going. This is an eye-opening, entertaining, fast-paced look at the life of a professional cook (note: not Chef). Although it is quite similar in content, style and tone to Bourdain, it is nonetheless, a good read. It really makes me appreciate my calm, quiet, clean job, where I can sit in a chair and am in no danger of severe burns or knife wounds.*

*This makes me wonder: it seems like this field is dominated by men. I know there are plenty of women with shows on the Food Network, but when you look at actual Chefs running their own restaurants, it seems like it's mostly men. I would love to read a book like Sheehan's or Bourdain's that is written by a woman. What's it like to be a woman in this job? Anyone have any suggestions? I'm sure there has to be a book or two out there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Let the Tournament Begin!

The Morning News just began its Tournament of Books. The first pairing in the opening round was Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun. McCann's novel was the winner. Judge Rosecrans Baldwin said "McCann’s written a monster: It wants to consume the Earth whole while naming every molecule on the way down. It’s a blast." This novel has gotten great reviews and won the National Book Award, but while I thought it was good, it just didn't do anything for me. Maybe I missed something.

Next up: John Wray's Lowboy versus Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

Monday, March 8, 2010

This Is Where I Leave You

Some books seem so ripe for film adaptation that you have wonder if the author didn’t write them with a movie contract in mind. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is a case in point. Judd Foxman, recently separated from his wife and newly unemployed (his wife had an affair with his boss), returns home to mourn his father. The dramedy begins as Judd and his siblings wisecrack their way through a week of condolence calls while negotiating their own troubled relationships, revisiting lost loves, and trying to control their over-the-top psychologist mother. The dialogue is witty, the plot is brisk, and the characters are likeable. Perhaps what’s most surprising is that in between the fistfights and inappropriate sexual trysts, Tropper manages to convey something deeper about the nature of love and family.

Although the open-ended close of the novel may bother some readers, most will find it an extremely engaging read. And (you guessed it) it’s coming soon to a theater near you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Muriel Barbery

If you have not read either of Muriel Barbery's novels, Gourmet Rhapsody or The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you are truly missing out on some wonderful writing. Barbery is a French novelist and philosophy professor. Gourmet Rhapsody was her first novel, followed by Hedgehog, which was a bestseller in France for many weeks before it was translated to English.

Although they are both short novels, they are not quick or easy reads. Plot-wise, there is not much going on, but the compelling characters, philosophy, and the exceptional writing and use of language will make you slow down and savor each word. I would recommend starting with Hedgehog, which is set in a bourgeois apartment building in Paris. The concierge, Renee, is a very intelligent and cultured woman, but maintains an image of ignorance to the wealthy residents of the building. Paloma, a very bright 12-year old girl who lives in the building, develops an unlikely friendship with Renee. Gourmet Rhapsody is the story of another resident of the same apartment building, Pierre Arthens. Arthens is a well-respected food critic, who is on his death bed. He is tormented by a taste he cannot remember. As he searches his memories, we experience some of his most memorable encounters with food. Arthens is not a likable character, which is usually a huge turnoff for me. But for some reason, and maybe it was just because the writing was so good, it didn't bother me. And it is definitely a rhapsody on food, so be prepared to start drooling.

Barbery currently lives in Japan with her husband, Stephane, who is apparently a photographer. You can see some of his beautiful photographs on her blog. A very talented couple.