Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book 27 – Curse of the Spellmans

By Lisa Lutz

Yay, my final book for 2008! I seem to be closing the year with some worthwhile chick lit. This was actually consumed in between Books 1 and 2 of the Twilight saga, but in the interest of keeping the series together and saving the best for last, I hereby present Lisa Lutz's delightful sequel to The Spellman Files.

The past year I had the good fortune of experiencing many great books, but the Spellman books were undoubtedly my faves, only because they were simply the most fun to read. Olman can attest as he heard me chuckle out loud many times while we were reading in bed, which I don’t often do even when I’m reading something that’s supposed to be humorous!

In The Spellman Files, Isabel had to reassess how her lifestyle as a twenty-something was affecting her very impressionable adolescent sister Rae. Now at 31 years old, Isabel tries to impart some wisdom to now fifteen year old Rae as they walk to the corner store to get more snacks for their Dr Who marathon:

“The whole grown up thing is a myth. Whatever is wrong with you now will probably be wrong with you in twenty years.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me now,” Rae said.

“If people really grew up, there would be no crime, no divorce, no Civil War reenactors. Think about it. Was Uncle Ray a grown-up? Does Dad always behave like a grown-up? It’s all bullshit. I can’t tell you what Mom’s been doing lately, but I will say,
not grown-up.”

For me it’s hard not to like a caper comedy featuring a street-smart screwball but still lovable heroine, and Lutz balances the hard-boiled and the farcical with finesse. The repeated arrests do get a little over-the-top, as Isabel can’t stop her obsessive-compulsive need to uncover the truth once she’s on the case. But there are little moments of vulnerability with Isabel and her relationship to her family that imbues the novel with some emotion and depth.

And her sparkling conversations with her octogenarian lawyer, Mort Schilling, and possible love interest and almost unflappable police detective, Henry Stone, are an absolute delight.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book 26 – Eclipse

By Stephanie Meyer

IMHO, Eclipse is the most exciting installment of the Twilight Saga. You’ve got the primal hostilities between vampires and werewolves, the still human and danger-prone Bella caught in between, the Volturi making an unexpected appearance and a vengeful vamp raising an army of newborn bloodsuckers and terrorizing the citizens of Seattle.

There's also more development and backstory from the minor characters. Jasper, with his origins as a Civil War veteran and subsequent initiation into the Monterrey vampire coven to train newborns, gets the best account of all. While Rosalie’s story, although a bit weak, explains why she's the only Cullen member opposed to Bella’s ardent desire to become a vampire. The Quileute wolf pack also grows with younger members as the increase in vampire activity in the La Push/Forks area seems to trigger the protective instinct among the Black/Uley/Clearwater bloodlines.

Of course, there’s the continuing love triangle between Edward, Bella and Jacob. Like fire and ice, Jake n' Eddie cannot be any more diametrical, and neither can their respective clans, despite the fragile truce between the Cullens and Quileutes. Like the metaphor of bringing together two opposing magnets, Bella acts as the human bridge between the age-old antipathies between vampire and werewolf. Eventually, the coming of the newborn vampire army from Seattle forces an alliance between the Cullens and Quileutes.

In Eclipse, Meyer’s Mormon beliefs become more apparent, and mostly embodied by Edward, who with his old-fashioned chasteness, has –ahem- retained much of his Edwardian values, much to Bella’s hormonally-charged chagrin. By the same token, the erotic tension of abstinence always make for more exciting romance, especially if you want to maintain audience interest. Look at Mulder and Scully in the X-Files, or David Addison & Maddie Hayes in Moonlighting (yep I’m that old). As soon as the guy and gal do it… that’s it, the thrill is gone!

Based on the various online forums that he often peruses, Olman mentioned that geeks (mostly male) generally diss the Twilight series on the basis that they’re teen romances disguised as thin-skinned fantasy. Not sure if these fellas had bothered even reading any of the books in the first place, but this is a rather snobby attitude to have. Meyer’s work isn’t exactly in the same league as His Dark Materials trilogy (Philip Pullman) in darkness and complexity, but the Twilight books ain’t bad either in terms of entertainment.

I'd probably compare Meyer more with Charles De Lint, as she juggles the worlds of mythic fantasy with the banalities of reality quite competently, and often with much humour. The vampire world of the Volturi is complex enough to illicit the creep factor and the fabricated Quileute legends about how the spirit warriors became the wolfen protectors are quite well thought out and told. Despite the obsessive attention of detail over Edward and Bella’s relationship, the supporting characters are well-developed and charismatic in their own right. Most importantly, Meyer’s books are inspiring hordes of teenage girls who wouldn’t normally touch the fantasy genre with a 10-foot jousting lance to read an adventure-romance about vampires and werewolves!

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I found with the series so far, is how indifferent Bella is to the Cullens regular hunting of wild grizzly bear and mountain lion. If Meyer really wanted them to be good vegetarian vampires (hence ethical consumers), she should’ve made a plug about the Cullens being rather generous supporters of conversation societies, like the WWF. But alas, Meyer is a Mormon, not an environmentalist!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book 25 – New Moon

By Stephanie Meyer

The sequel to Twilight begins happily enough with Edward inviting the reluctant yet still very human Bella to celebrate her 18th birthday with the Cullen clan at their swanky yet isolated lair. Birthday girl is disgruntled she’s now older than her boyfriend, who’s been frozen at 17 for almost a century, but that’s the least of her worries. The party comes to a crashing end when Edward realizes what a dangerous predicament he’s put his human girlfriend in by having her associate with his family of vampires, some still prone to weakness at the sight of human blood.

Edward decides that the best thing to do is to leave Bella – for good. A few months after his abandonment, we spend a good chunk of the first third of New Moon dealing with our heroine putting up a brave face despite her catatonic depression. In her struggle with vampire withdrawal, Bella renews her friendship with Jacob, the teenage son of Billy Black.

There were hints dropped in the previous installment about Jacob’s possible supernatural Quileute heritage, but before you can say “love triangle”, Jacob discovers he’s turned into a teenage werewolf! Sounds ridiculous, but Meyer somehow manages to spin out a rather captivating yarn behind Jacob’s transformation. He’s one of the direct descendents of shape-shifting ancestors who protect the tribe against the evil Cold Ones, since bloodsuckers are part of the Quileute legends too.

Things get rolling when one of the bad vamps from the previous book is back looking for vengeance. Learning that her mate James was eliminated by the Cullens, Victoria seeks to destroy Bella, who was James' original prize. Since Edward’s stepsister has the gift of seeing into the future, Alice returns to Forks thinking that Bella is dead. Due to some catastrophic misunderstanding, Alice and Bella then race to Italy to rescue Edward from the ancient and formidable vampire coven, the Volturi.

The Volturi keep all the vampires of the world in check and their guards have deadly vampire abilities of their own. Aro, the Volturi leader, covets the gifts of the Cullen coven, and discovers that Bella is impervious to their psychic attacks. He decides to release Edward out of respect to Carlisle and with the promise that Bella will one day be turned into a vampire. Bella is thus reunited with her beloved Edward, and she learns that he truly loves her after all. Bella, Edward and his family return to Forks to resume their lives, but now there is the complication with Jacob and the Quileute werewolves!

Like the past book, Meyer does a great job describing the gloomy beauty of the rainy Pacific Northwest and the geography of the Olympic Peninsula. It seems to be a pattern now where Meyer starts off the first chunk of the story with a near-banal lull with Bella entrenched in her all-too-real and all-too-ordinary small town existence. Then she suddenly turns on the action switch, ramps up the conflict and delivers on the fun and fantastic. There’s a reason why the saga has become such a popular phenomenon.

Of course, there’s the romance between Bella and Edward that sends young hearts racing, although their love for each other is so totally unreal. These two spend almost every waking and sleeping moment together! The hyper-romantic codependent relationship between human and supernatural being does not exactly make a healthy influence on teenage girls! The copious cliches of two souls intertwined and words describing the pain of heart-wrenching separation were enough to make me gag. The positive part is that Bella and Edward are still compelling protagonists, if you can get past their self-deprecating declarations of love.

Plus, the interesting backstories on the other vampires, such as Carlisle and Alice, and the Quileute characters who are tied to Jacob, like Sam Uley and Leah Clearwater, also enrich the narrative. There is definitely enough there to move on to the next installment!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Book 24 – Twilight

By Stephanie Meyer

Thanks to a coworker who generously lent me the entire Twilight saga, December became the month for gratuitous self-indulgence!

If I was a teenager today I don't think I'd be able to resist the whole Twilight phenomenon (having read a fair number of Sweet Dreams books and young adult fantasy at that tender age). Now as an adult in pre-holiday mode, I can allow myself to be swept up again in pure flights of fancy... albeit with a slightly more, ahem, mature perspective.

The rather unremarkable heroine, Bella Swan, is the perfect cipher for the young adult reader of the female persuasion. Plagued by the usual teen foibles -- shyness, extreme awkwardness and low self-esteem -- she's ordinary enough to make her identifiable, but pretty enough to make her appealing to the boys in her new high school. Bella is mature beyond her years for a 17-year-old, which sets her apart as a kind of loner, but she’s compassionate and loves those who are close to her, so she remains connected to humanity. When Bella moves from sunny Arizona to rainy small-town Forks to live with her Dad, she becomes the new girl in town, the one who’d rather be a wallflower than the centre of attention.

Not surprisingly, Edward Cullen is a preternaturally gorgeous youth with perfectly tousled bronze hair, brooding intelligence and the kind of mysterious qualities that make him wholly unattainable for the average teenage girl. It's obvious from the get-go that what really sets Edward and his siblings apart from the regular crowd is their secret vampire identities. And the reason why they even attend high school and coexist with human society in the first place is because they are civilized and humane bloodsuckers: they don’t believe in killing people for food (instead preferring to hunt large, and let's hope, non-endangered animals in the wild expanse of the Pacific Northwest), thus distinguishing the Cullen family as kind of, well, unconventional vampires.

Edward’s immortal zen gets totally thrown when he gets a whiff of the enticing blood coursing through Bella’s veins and is sent into a state of barely controlled frenzy. When he gets over his baser instincts of objectifying Bella as tasty game (he is a deep and conscientious vamp, after all), he sees past her ordinariness and recognizes a potential soul mate, aka The One he’s been searching for, like, the past 90 years of his brief immortal existence.

Though the first meeting is a twist on the “attraction” at first sight, the first half of Twilight is disappointingly on the banal side. Edward’s rescue of Bella from a car accident and then assault from Port Angeles rednecks felt rather contrived and Bella’s discovery of Edward’s true identity is rather ho-hum. And the courtship between the young lovers develops quite normally: they converse over dinner at a restaurant, e.g. what’s it like to be Bella, the vulnerable self-effacing human? What’s it like to be Edward, the sulky hunky teenage vampire with a heart of gold? They talk and talk some more while driving in the car, over lunch at the school cafeteria, and walking to class together, etc etc. Bella learns that Edward can read minds, but the only mind he can’t read is Bella’s. Big Whoop. Things get hot n’ heavy when Edward shows Bella his special place in the woods. But oh, they can’t go all the way because Edward is afraid he might lose all self-control and kill his one true love by drinking all her blood!

I was getting highly skeptical that this was going to be anything more than a hyped-up teen romance disguised as a vapid vampire story. Where was the friggin’ action? And I don’t mean action in the sense of the heavy petting variety, but action in the form of adventure, physical violence and carnage! Finally about halfway through, the plot gets more interesting when Bella meets Edward’s “family”, which is actually more like a coven of vampires comprised of 3 couples: Carlisle and Esme, Rosalie and Emmett, and Alice and Jasper. Since Edward is the odd one out, his family members are mostly accepting of Edward’s rather unorthodox choice for a mate.

Carlisle and Esme appear the oldest, so their ‘official’ story is of a couple who have adopted the others into a kind of extended family. In vampire terms, Carlisle is the leader who established his ‘humane’ coven out of years of loneliness as an eccentric vampire who wishes not to murder. The Cullens only drink human blood when ‘rescuing’ those who are going to die anyway, and transform them into immortal companions. Interestingly enough, Edward has no wish to turn Bella into a vampire for reasons of his own, despite Bella’s desire to love him forever and forever.

Then real conflict arises during a fateful Cullen family baseball game in the form of three visiting vampires. Laurent, James and Victoria are vampires of the typical variety who feed on humans: they tend to be nomadic, avoid human society as much as possible and travel in small groups out of practicality. Although Laurent expresses interest in the Cullen’s unconventional lifestyle, James and Victoria are ‘trackers’, amoral hunters who are obsessed with the challenge of a chase, be it human or otherwise. And the challenge of a strong vampire clan protecting their only vulnerability, a frail human, proves too much to resist. Things then actually get quite exciting and suspenseful when the Cullen Clan strategize like pieces on a chess board to protect their human queen while, at the same time, try to eliminate their threat.

It’s just too bad all this action and excitement is rushed through the last third of the novel. Twilight is primarily a romance, after all, about an ordinary heroine thrown into a set up extraordinary circumstances. So when Meyer decides to turn on the action switch, the story falls into fantastic mode seamlessly and compellingly. There is definitely enough interest sustained in the story development and characters for me to read the next installment. My only complaint is how much is made of Edward’s youthful beauty, his dazzling this and his perfect that. I know vampires are supposed to be seductively pulchritudinous but does almost every member of the Cullen family has to be described looking either like supermodels or movie stars? The constant worship of mainstream beauty gets a little tiresome (alas this isn't about being clever) but I guess this stokes the bland imaginations of the Seventeen or Teen Vogue set just fine!

I’m also a little suspicious about Bella’s association with Billy Black, one of the elders of the Quileute Indian reservation outside the town of Forks, who's close friends with her father, Charlie. Billy still believes in the ‘old legends’ and seems to be the only person who knows of the Cullens’ true nature. Through his son Jacob, Billy makes a few attempts to warn Bella of the dangers of associating with such creatures. Although the Quileutes is a real tribe based in the coastal region of Washington state, I’m highly suspicious of the creative license Meyer will make riffing on First Nations culture, which may likely happen the next book, so let’s just see what happens next…