Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book 10 – The Spellman Files

By Lisa Lutz

With movies, I every so often delve into a classic, but the bulk of what I consume is recent. Same with books. Though not exactly a ‘new release’ kinda girl when it comes to contemporary reading (publish date being 10+ years ago) since I mostly get my fix free via public library and never buy new. The past year or so, I’ve been making a habit of perusing used bookstores whenever I visit "English-speaking" areas, and thus to my delight have discovered more recent works. Take The Spellman Files, for instance, which came out just -gasp- last year!

Isabel’s parents, Albert and Olivia Spellman, run a private detective agency called Spellman Investigations from their multi-storied Victorian house in San Francisco. They employ Isabel and Al's brother, Uncle Ray, both licensed PIs, and would sometimes give the odd tailing job to their 14-year-old daughter, Rae. This itself isn't so unusual since 28-year-old Isabel first started helping out on cases when she was only 12. David, the eldest son and a high-powered lawyer, never having been interested in the family business, is possibly the only sensible member of the family to have moved out of the Spellman nest.

“Most people don’t spy on each other. Most people don’t run background checks on their friends. Most people aren’t suspicious of everyone they meet. Most people aren’t like us.”

This is the reality check that Isabel tries to impart upon adolescent Rae after a particularly trying week. It turns out that their parents have sent Rae to spy on Isabel and Daniel, who soon becomes ex-boyfriend #9. He just couldn’t handle her and her oddball family! When the Spellmans aren’t working on cases, or spying on each other, they’re busy tracking down wayward Uncle Ray on his drunken, poker binges in Las Vegas.

There are family melodramas for sure. Or more like outright declarations of war (the battle between Rae and Uncle Ray is pretty good stuff). But there are also interesting insights into detective work: the exciting, the not-so-exciting, and the overbearingly irksom, especially when both the personal and professional gets all messily entangled within the "family business".

Which brings us to Isabel’s love life, or lack of one thereof. When Isabel realizes she’ll never find a lasting relationship if her family keeps bugging her room and running credit checks on potential suitors, she finally threatens to quit and move out of the Spellman house. But her savvier parents strike a deal: if she can crack a 10-year-old unsolved case about a missing person named Andrew Snow, she’s free to go. This is where Isabel jumps into the case with such obstinacy no living PI has ever seen before!

“An addictively entertaining read…”
“Fast-paced, irreverent and very funny debut…”
“She’s part Bridget Jones, part Colombo…”

These blurbs are blessed by the likes of USA Today, People and Glamour. Yup, TSF was a bit of a mainstream hit and a NYT bestseller which became promptly optioned for movie rights. Not surprising, since TSF was so much fun to read. Though it does get a little too cutesy at times, รก la The Royal Tanenbaums meet Dashiel Hammett, this is still a wickedly funny, and at over 350 pages, a substantially enjoyable read.

So help me out folks: keep your eyes peeled for the sequel, The Curse of the Spellmans!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Book 9 – Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Alison Bechdel

This critically acclaimed graphic novel was highly recommended by Olman’s sister. Olman then picked up a copy in TO, read it and lent it to his aunt, who then passed it back onto me when we were staying at her lovely cottage by Georgian Bay, Ontario.

I very much agree with the first half of Olman’s review, but understand the other half is based on his own taste and perspective.

The premise may not sound terribly inviting to some: an autobiographical graphic novel about a queer girl growing up in a tragically dysfunctional family. But Bechdel’s story is, nevertheless, wonderfully and exceptionally told. Just flipping through the pages, the casual peruser may feel that there is nothing particularly remarkable about the eloquent illustrations. And even though the narrative structure is fairly nonlinear throughout, at heart Bechdel uses the framing device of “author looking back at her past” in order to posthumously reconcile with her father, who never came out of the closet.

Once you start reading, however, you soon realize that Fun Home is a rare combination, where both mediums, image and text, are executed with harmonious insight and beauty by the same author/artist. Bechdel's various accounts: of her growing up in a Victorian-style funeral home (hence the title), her awkward relationship with her father, her obsessive-compulsive diary entries that become more and more indecipherable as she's gripped by adolescent uncertainties, flashbacks of family trips to New York City, her coming-out in college and yes, even all those literary references... they all made for a fascinating, engrossing, heartfelt, moving and very personal story.

Douglas Wolk writes an in-depth review that really does this work justice, if you’re considering checking this one out. I myself would certainly recommend it!