Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

It feels like everyone I know has been watching and commenting on HBOs Tru Blood. I am curious but rather than jump into the show I decided to go straight to the source and read the first Sookie Stackhouse novel by Charlaine Harris that created the show. The book had a huge waiting list at the library and I finally picked it up this week after three months waiting for it.

And can I just say:

How can anyone who has read Twilight honestly think that that book is remotely novel, unique, or otherwise inspired?

Okay so vampires are done, overdone, and redone lately. But the story in Dead Until Dark has so many similarities to Twilight that it is unbelievable!

A couple of examples:
  • Vampires "glow" but more so to the main character
  • Vampires can do "glamors" to calm people down and make them less tense
  • Vampires overall are scary and kinda evil, except our vampire. He's strong and sexy, and REMARKABLY protective
  • One of the main characters can read minds - of everyone except the other main character
  • The main character has a friend who shockingly is a shapeshifter and must turn into a dog during the full moon

Does no one else see this? Stephanie Meyer started Twilight in 2003. Dead Until Dark first appeared in 2001.

I will say, I think Charlaine Harris' book is a MUCH better story than Twilight. For one, Harris is a much better writer. Second, it is funny and off-color and doesn't take itself very seriously. Third, it sets up a world that is apparently just made for television. There is also some interesting vampire sex - somewhere between Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer.

If you are standing at the bookstore staring at the overwhelming number of vampire books on the shelves today, pick one of the better books. Pick up Charlaine Harris. Put down Twilight and back away. I imagine I will read more of this series. It's light and fluffy, really quick to read, but amusing. One of these days I may even watch Tru Blood

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mitla Pass by Leon Uris

I read Exodus about 18 months ago (check that, exactly two years ago, oddly enough) and found it fascinating. It was my first Leon Uris book; I looked forward to reading more. So, when I found Mitla Pass at the library book sale I picked it up. After reading some light fluffy novels I was ready for something a bit heavier and picked up Uris.

Like Exodus, Mitla Pass tells the story of Israel: the 1956 Sinai War with Egypt. But, in true Uris fashion, the character involved in the War is merely a backdrop to tell the story of Jews emigrating and trying to find complete lives in the first half of the twentieth century. All of the characters whose stories are told are the ancestors of Gideon Zadok, a Jewish novelist who has published an incredible bestseller and attempts to write a second.

The Zadok plot has the feel of an autobiography. Reading about the depths of involvement in writing and the emotions surrounding publication and searching for the next great novel intrigued me. If not autobiographical in the strictest sense, I could still see Uris using his own experiences strongly to make this character deep and believable. As an endeavoring author, I found Zadok's trials... inspiring sounds cheesy and over-stated. But honest, maybe. Writing is not a breezy past time, it is remarkably hard work. Uris demonstrates that extremely well.

The majority of the story centers on a variety of characters who are searching for a better life. They start in the Pale of Settlement and immigrate to Israel and the United States. Few of the characters ever find happiness. Few escape the trials of past Jewishness. Certain characters are catty and malicious. Others are deeply unhappy and bitter. It was hard to love Uris' characters in Mitla Pass. Does Uris do a good job showing the horrific plight for many of the worlds' Jewish population between the 1870s and the 1950s?
That is what makes Uris great. But I had trouble engaging with and keeping focused on the plight of surly, miserable individuals who seemed to revel in their unhappiness.

I am glad that I read Mitla Pass. I feel better educated about Uris' world and the lived experiences of the Israelis. I would not necessarily recommend this book to others though. It is not one of his best. It drags and the characters are hard to relate to.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Scone Cold Dead by Kaitlyn Dunnett

A fellow bibliophile gave me the most amazing birthday gift: a book-of-the-month from her local mystery book store. She told the store owner what type of books I enjoy and every month the owner picks out a book that she thinks will fit my interest. Is that the coolest gift ever, or what? A book chosen just for l'il ole me from an indie bookstore. But I digress...

The first book I received was Scone Cold Dead by Kaitlyn Dunnett - a new author to me. My only minor complaint is that it is the second book in a series. My mom has trained me to start books from the first in the series and there is a bit of back story I would have enjoyed reading. But that's a very minor sticky-wicket.

In Scone Cold Dead, Liss, the main character is a retired Scottish dancer. When her troupe comes to town trouble arises due to the death of the troupe's manager - inhalation of mushrooms. Wanting to keep her friends free of suspicion, Liss begins to investigate the death and solve the murder. The location of the book in Moosetookalook, Maine is a fun setting. The plot revolving around a traveling dance troupe is also different enough to feel novel. I liked hearing about a world that is unfamiliar to me. The actual plot was not particular difficult to unravel. The murderer gives him/herself away pretty early in the story. It is not something I probably would have thought to buy for myself. But, I enjoyed it and was glad to be introduced to a new author.

However, I have a beef - and this probably comes out of my own desire to write and maybe eventually get published. The old adage is "write what you know," but we can't all know everything. Does a woman really know what it feels like to be a man? No. But that doesn't mean she doesn't include male characters. So where is the fine line between writing what we haven't personally experienced and just writing inconsistent characters?

I would bet a small sum of money that Kaitlyn Dunnett does not have children and is (by default) not a mother. Why? The one child in her book is poorly fleshed out. The age really did not ring true based on her actions. At times she acts much older than her age but then there are moments than she acts much younger - in unrealistic ways. And no mother would ever (I would hope) act like the mother in the novel. I cannot imagine a single mother willingly running out the door at the drop of a hat repeatedly to help her friend and leave her toddler son behind. I can appreciate the concept of suspension of disbelief in novels. After all, no one chases down murderers and solves crime willy-nilly in the middle of their day job. But I do want my characters to be believable in their interpersonal interactions. And, although they were side characters, these two figures leapt out at me for their inconsistency and unrealistic actions.

The character flaws are not a sufficient reason to avoid this book. They are more the other side of my brain reading the novel like a critic rather than an avid book-lover.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Life of Her Own The Transformation of a Countrywoman in 20th-Century France by Emilie Carles

Although I am an academic by training, I don't often pick up a non-fiction book just for fun. I prefer to keep my reading light and unencumbered. When I do read non-fiction I find myself straying and often skimming. Not so with Carles' book. I really enjoyed reading it and found myself reading much more carefully than I sometimes do.

Carles lived through all of the most important historical events in the twentieth century. As a rural Frenchwoman she had a unique perspective that sheds light on how people viewed significant moments in history. What impacted her was not the big moments it was the small day-to-day goings on. The World Wars were important insofar as her family had to fight and live with soldiers occupying their small village. But the large political debates affected her not at all.

As I read I found myself wanting to copy passages for every modern history student I have taught. The personal trials that Carles underwent towards modernization defy imagination. In the early part of the century her pregnant sister refused to allow a doctor to examine her out of puritan prudishness. She died. Carles describes inexplicably astounding stories about the people that live in her valley - drunkenness and abuse and lack of care and love. That is not to suggest that the people were horrid. Instead Carles attempts to show how small and insular her world was and how removed from modern life. Much of her book revolved around her attempts to educate not just her school children but her society.

Whether you agree with Carles' socialist-leaning political ideology or not, her passion for her world make for a fascinating read. Near the end of the book, Carles does begin to preach to the reader about the problems that she sees with the France of her era. While it is interesting to see her perspective, it does not add to the strength of the story.

Chronicling the life of a rural French mountain peasant from pre-World War I until the late-1970s, this book encompasses so much. I will definitely keep A Life of Her Own on my shelf and can imagine using anecdotes if not excerpts in my classes in the future.