Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Living Dead in Dallas

Living Dead in Dallas
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2002
291 pages

It's official. This paranormal action series is highly addictive. It might as well be crack, or in my case Mountain Dew. This second book in the Southern Vampire series (see here for my review of Book #1, Dead Until Dark) starts out with a murder of . . . oh, no!!! . . . one of the characters I really thought we'd be seeing more of in future books. Suspicion falls on one of Bon Temps' finest - Andy Bellefleur. Andy's sister Portia asks Sookie to use her "gift" to find the real murderer. But just as the case starts to take off, Sookie has an unexpected run-in with a maenad in the woods . . .  and an unwanted summons from Vampire Leadership to help locate a missing vampire in Dallas.

Sookie and her vamp boyfriend Bill head to the Big D, where Sookie uses her telepathic abilities to make some sense of the disappearance. Turns out there's this anti-vampire group called the Fellowship of the Sun who wants nothing more than a return to the old days when vampires were hidden in the closet. Under the guise of religion, they use fear to incite acts of hatred and violence against the Undead. The more Sookie learns about this group, the scarier things get. (They even have dungeons under their "church" -- and of course, Sookie will spend some time there.)

Likeable Sookie is becoming more confident with each strange creature she meets, whether said creature is human (as in the case of the slimy lawyer and the even slimier husband/wife leaders of the Fellowship of the Sun) or supernatural (Godfrey, the Roman-era vampire; Luna, the shapeshifter; vampire leaders who at least in my mind look a lot like Viggo Mortensen and Bill Gates). Sometimes it seems like there are too many characters in the Southern Vampire series, but I haven't had any trouble keeping up yet.

The pace is non-stop, even after things get sorted out in Dallas. Actually, Sookie returns home single after a spat with Bill, who did something unforgivable. Meanwhile, back in Bon Temps, there's still that murder to solve, and here comes Sookie to the rescue. As she uses her gifts to right wrongs, she peels back another layer of Bon Temps and sees that once again, things (and people) are not always as they seem. In fact, Bon Temps has a swingers' club! Who would've thunk it?

But will she make up with Bill before the last page? That's the real question.

Crack, I tell you.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jar City

Jar City
Author: Arnuldur Indriđason (Translated by: Bernard Scudder)
Picador, 2000
275 pages

Having enjoyed reading thrillers by Swedish authors Stieg Larsson and Håkan Nesser over the past year, I decided to expand my horizons to other Nordic countries. One author who caught my eye during a recent Internet search of this unique literary voice is Arnuldur Indriđason, from Iceland. Jar City is the first of the Reykjavík Thrillers translated into English; so far, Arnuldur has written ten books in all featuring Detective Erlendur, a late-fortyish/early-fiftyish divorced father.

Erlendur in many ways is the stereotypical fictional detective: divorced, cynical, and slightly crotchety. There's something sad about him, and I can't help but wonder just where things went wrong or what it was that made him this way. He's lonely, he eats too many "ready" meals, and his personal relationships may be classified as slightly dysfunctional. Despite this, you can't help but like him.

The book starts with the murder of a seventy year-old man and the discovery of a most unusual clue. As the police search for the murderer, we're introduced to several characters who will undoubtedly play a role in future books: Sigurdur Óli, Erlendur's yuppie police partner; Elínborg, the female cop with feminine sensibilities; the mysterious Marion Briem, whose name is not Icelandic and whose gender is never revealed; and Erlendur's wayward daughter, Eva Lind. A secondary case crops up when a bride disappears from her wedding just after the ceremony. Where did the young woman go? Are the two cases related? These are just a few of the questions to be answered.

Along the way, we learn the meaning of the title . . . what Jar City is and its significance to the story. (I'd tell you more, but it would probably reveal too much.) We get to know a little about Icelandic culture, and the unique genetic homogeneity of the approximately 300,000 people of Iceland is a major theme. But I'd really like to learn more about this island country, our nearest European neighbor that's about the size of the US state of Ohio; land of geysers, geothermal heat, cod fish, and moonscape-like scenery.

For this reason -- and because I tore through Jar City like a bag of good potato chips -- I've put the next book in the series, Silence of the Grave, on my wish list.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Two For The Dough

Two For The Dough
Author: Janet Evanovich
Pocket Books, 1996
312 pages

Back in the early 1990s, I was into reading paperback mystery/adventure novels featuring female sleuths. A colleague in the office where I was working in Louisville, Kentucky got me hooked on Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels, which led me to Sue Grafton's Alphabet series. Unfortunately, by the time Janet Evanovich's series featuring New Jersey bounty hunter Stephanie Plum took off, I was growing weary of the genre. I read One For The Money when it was newly in paperback, but never read any of the others. Until recently.

Fast forward to present day. I'm living in another city, working at another company. I'm into mysteries again, and learn that my co-worker friend Lisa is also into mysteries. She's a huge fan of the Jersey Girl. In an effort to bring me up to speed, she gives me Books 2-6 and challenges me to read them. So once again, I'm influenced by a work colleague to read something.

OK, since I read One For The Money so long ago (circa 1995?), I was hazy on the supporting characters, but it didn't matter. Unlike a lot of the series books, you probably don't need to read Book 1 before reading Book 2. Evanovich sets things up quickly, and re-introduces Stephanie and her world, including Ranger (Stephanie's bounty hunter "partner"); Joe Morelli (her friend the cop, and let's just say they have a history); feisty, uninhibited Grandma Mazur; the greater Trenton metropolitan area; and Chambersburg, a/k/a the 'burg.

In Two For The Dough, Stephanie is out to apprehend Kenny Mancuso of the infamous Mancuso family (and one of Joe Morelli's many cousins). An ex-soldier, Kenny's got a reputation for being both cruel and nutty. As a child, he chopped off the end of his own little finger, just because he wanted to know what it felt like. Now he's chopping off miscellaneous body parts from cadavers at his friend Spiro's funeral home. He shot another friend in the knee, and now that friend is dead. Morelli thinks he might be caught up in a gun-running operation. Whatever the case, Kenny's on the run, and Stephanie is determined to bring him in. The result? Several nail-biting moments (and a few gross ones).

Evanovich has a way of making even the most ordinary things seem interesting, and she finds humor in unexpected places. Anyone in my generation could probably relate to Stephanie's relationship with her parents. Her father is aloof but endearing, and you really have to smile when reading about her mother's good cooking, which is "peppered" with unsolicited advice on men and careers. But Grandma Mazur is by far my favorite character; she reminds me a lot of Sophia on the TV show The Golden Girls.

I still have four more books left to read in Lisa's collection, and I'm sure she's going to want them back soon. Guess I'd better get reading so I can review Three To Get Deadly. (I don't think there's a Go, Cat, Go. Dang.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Black Like Me

Black Like Me
Author: John Howard Griffin
New American Library, 2003 (originally published 1960)
200 pages

For about a month in 1959, a white man from Texas named John Howard Griffin conducted a sort of experiment. He took drugs to darken his skin, and then he traveled from New Orleans through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia while pretending to be African-American. Black Like Me is the story of that journey, not only of the perspective he gained from the experience, but what he learned about himself.

I "had to" read Black Like Me many years ago when I was in high school, but like most required reading, it helps when the reader has some context, especially the type that can only provided by a little more life experience.I got more out of it at age 45 than I did at 15. I'm glad times have changed, but it's hard to wrap my head around people ever treating each other badly. 

Some of the people Griffin encountered behaved atrociously: the woman working at the bus station who hate-stared holes into him; the bus driver who only let white folks get off at one of the stops to use the facilities; the people who could have given him a drink of water or let him use the bathroom but instead made him walk sometimes miles out of the way to the "Negro" or "Colored" (these words are used extensively in the book) parts of town. Worst of all - IMHO - was the middle-aged man who picked Griffin up hitchhiking and boasted of his (forced, no doubt) exploits with African-American women who worked for him. And Griffin writes candidly of one encounter with a Northern academic that is just plain beyond belief.

But there were plenty examples of good behavior in the book, also. Often these examples were from the people who had the least to give or the most to lose by helping Griffin. Particularly touching to me were the times when total strangers invited Griffin into their homes when he needed a place to sleep. One description of an impoverished bayou family nearly brought me to tears.

I look back on this period in history, and I wonder why some people behaved so badly. Especially people who claimed to be religious and considered themselves to be patriotic. Clearly this thing called peer pressure is  powerful - and not just with children. Many times, Griffin wrote that he saw something like sympathy in a person's eyes just before they denied him some basic human right or decency, like a drink of water or food or a place to go to the bathroom. But they didn't have the guts to stand up to the peer pressure. Or whatever you want to call it.

We've come a long way since 1959, but we have a long ways to go yet in how we treat each other - whether it's race or something else that differentiates us. I guess that's the bottom line, and what makes Black Like Me relevant, even fifty years later.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dead Until Dark

Dead Until Dark
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2001
292 pages

This book was recommended by my friends Karen, Jill, and Elyse, who are all huge fans of paranormal fiction. It's the first book in the Southern Vampire series, the books behind the hugely popular HBO (TV) show True Blood, which I tried watching once or twice but couldn't get into. However, after reading Dead Until Dark, I'm willing to give it another try.

Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in a small-town bar in northern Louisiana, and - well, Sookie's a little different. She has this ability to "hear" what people are thinking, and all those unwanted voices have taken their toll on her. People think she's a little bit loony. She can't get too close to guys because she can hear what they're thinking and usually it has to do with how she looks or . . . well, you can imagine.

Vampires now live openly in society, in part thanks to a blood-like product they can drink instead of human blood. Sookie hasn't met a vampire yet - at least until the opening scenes of Dead Until Dark. Then, one walks into the bar. She notices him immediately, not only because of his looks but because she can't hear his thoughts. After saving him from a couple of evil-doers, Sookie befriends Bill the vampire and soon gets caught up in the vampire world.

In the meantime, a couple of women in the area are murdered. Both of them were known for having relationships with vampires and, well, let's just say they're not the most ladylike of Southern belles. Turns out that Sookie's brother Jason has a "history" with both of them - and unfortunately for Jason, there are videotapes to prove these, um, relationships. Jason's a very attractive road construction worker who never lacks for female companionship. This also makes him a prime suspect, of course.

You can predict a few things. One, Jason isn't the murderer. Two, Sookie and Bill the vampire fall in love. Three, there are lots of people who don't like that Sookie and Bill the vampire have fallen in love.  The characters are interesting and culturally diverse. One particularly interesting character is Sam, the owner of the bar where Sookie works. He obviously has a thing for Sookie . . . and strangely enough, she's never read his thoughts, but that was her choice. Another character who can't be ignored is Eric, a sort of leader of the vampires. I've also got my eyes on Lafayette, the cook. It will be interesting to see how these characters and relationships develop in future books. Although Bill the vampire is likeable enough, there's a certain aloofness about him, and a certain tension between Sookie and the other two.

I was pleasantly surprised with Dead Until Dark. It hooked me from the first few pages. Charlaine Harris must really be a Southerner, because she totally grasps the essence of place she's writing about. I know about these things, since I'm a Southerner - and I look forward to reading more.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Prep

Prep
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 2005
448 pages

I remember reading reviews about this book in some "upscale" magazines and seeing it displayed in prominent areas of my favorite bookstores just after its release. I bought it a couple of years ago when it was on the 2 for 3 rack at Borders. Fast forward to last week. J.D. Salinger, author of the classic book on teenage angst - Catcher in the Rye - passed away. When I was looking for something to read, I saw Prep sitting on my shelf, and recalled a reading a review that described it as a more modern version of Catcher in the Rye with a female protagonist. Prep's time finally came.

Prep is NOT Catcher in the Rye and the protagonist has little resemblance to Holden Caulfield -- IMHO. Lee Fiora is the self-professed "nobody from Indiana" at Ault, a Massachusetts boarding school. This daughter of a mattress salesman is the first person in her family to go to boarding school. Her parents are still quite perplexed as to why she wanted to do this, but that's explained in the book (and also explains quite a bit about her personality.) Lee's description of life at Ault is fairly interesting for the first 200 pages or so. But eventually, it gets old. I started skimming after about page 240.

I didn't like Lee at all. In fact, she's one of my least favorite literary characters ever. She's insecure, snobby, and often irrational in her behavior. I expected some growth over her four years at Ault, but was disappointed. There was just nothing redeeming about her. Holden Caulfield would have called her phony. I just stopped caring.

But I did skim on through to the end. I can't say that I'm glad. For me, Prep was a colossal waste of time that would have been better spent reading just about anything else. This is really sad to me, because the writing was good, and the story had so much potential. In the end, I was hugely disappointed.

I need a good book, but I'm not in the mood for another mystery just yet. Hmm. What will be next?

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Chocolate Bear Burglary

The Chocolate Bear Burglary
Author: JoAnna Carl
Signet, 2002
225 pages

It's winter in Warner Point, Michigan, and the little tourist town on the lake is working hard to prepare for its annual event, Bear Week. The whole town is decorated with bear motifs. Main character Lee and her Aunt Nettie are decorating the walls of their chocolate shop with chocolate molds shaped like bears. One of the molds looks dirty, but when Lee offers to clean it, Aunt Nettie explains that chocolate molds should never be washed. This is the first of several teachable moments in this second-in-a-series Chocolate Shop Mystery, but it's also a foreshadowing of things to come.

Lee's ex-stepson Jeff unexpectedly comes to town from Texas, acting surly and distant, yet needy. He's 18 now, but this is the same kid who could lie without blinking, who at an early age was a master at pitting his parents against each other to get whatever he wanted. Lee isn't sure why he's come to her in his time of need. Nor is she sure why he sneaks out of the house at night.

There's a nighttime burglary at the chocolate shop, and just days later, the antiques dealer who lent them the chocolate molds is found dead on the street. Jeff just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for both incidents, and suspicion looks his way. Of course, any number of people could be involved, really . . .

I read the book in about two hours, and figured out early on who the "bad guy" was. It was a nice read for a cold winter's night. Lee seems to be getting used to life in Michigan. I'm looking forward to seeing how her character progresses in the next installment.