Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Return of Sookie: Dead in the Family

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris (F HAR Main; CD F HAR Main)
Reviewed by Doris

Many of the books I read are parts of series. I take a lot of satisfaction in the familiar characters and their nuances. Over time they become like dear friends—I know all the crazy stuff about them, but I like them anyway. Some authors add layer upon layer to their lead character with each new book. Some authors never change their character, which means I get bored with them at a certain point. That’s never a problem with Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books. From Sookie’s first book Dead until Dark to this newest one, Dead in the Family, she has been undergoing changes almost faster than I can keep up. How can you get bored when dealing with lusty and gorgeous vampires, deadly fairies in a civil war, weres who have any number of issues dealing with the public, and a USA government not sure what to do with all these “others”? And, you thought our illegal immigration questions were hard to answer!

Sookie has been dealing with the “others” and their outrageous, dangerous situations in which she constantly finds herself for years. Of course Sookie is a telepath and has been dealing with the complications that causes since early childhood. Then, there’s her lover Eric, a centuries old vampire caught up in a power struggle with another vampire.Sookie who was horribly tortured and injured in Dead and Gone during the Fae War which caused her fairy great-grandfather to lock the portal between the fairy world and our world, has not healed physically or emotionally. Her favorite fairy cousin Claudine was pregnant and killed saving Sookie which tears at Sookie’s heart. Claude, Claudine’s twin, moves into Sookie’s house ostensibly because he is grief-stricken and cannot live by himself. There is great tension building in the supernatural communities as Congress puts forth a plan to require all “others” to be registered and tracked. Finally, just to top things off, someone is trying to implicate Sookie in a murder, and she is not sure who is friend or foe. Changes come fast and furiously almost to the point Sookie is overwhelmed. Most noticeable is the hardening Sookie feels in her soul when she decides the vampire challenging Eric needs to die. Static character, Sookie is not. Harris’ story-telling is always dynamic with her characters all bringing something tangible to the story. For that reason alone, I never miss a new Sookie Stackhouse book.

I don’t read other vampire books.The whole Twilight thingy just annoys me.I did not read Ann Rice’s vampire books. I really don’t like vampires much (except for Frank Langella’s "Dracula" and George Hamilton’s Dracula in “Love at First Bite” which tells you how old I am!). In fact I am not into the whole paranormal scene much at all except for Sookie Stackhouse.Even though lots of people have told me I have to watch True Blood which is based on the books, I don’t. Even though I am sure the series is very well done, I prefer the weight of the book in my hands and my own imagination to the glare of the television screen. Dead in the Family continues Harris’ fine story-telling and highly enjoyable cast of characters. “How long until the next one?” she asks in a whiny voice.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Mutts" Has Pure Bred Charm

Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell by Patrick McDonnell (741.5 MCD Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

As a person who is very fond of both comic strips and animals, it’s a no-brainer that I love Patrick McDonnell’s “Mutts.” I first became aware of the strip thanks to a friend in Maryland who clipped some from her paper and sent them to me. (Thanks, Teresa!) I was quickly bemused by earnest dog Earl and his cat friend, Mooch. (I tried to think of a word to describe Mooch. There isn’t one. Mooch is Mooch, the one and only.) Not only are the strips funny, but there is a gentleness that comes through as well. I soon learned of other characters and found more favorites: Shtinky Puddin’, the little cat who dreams of saving the tigers and other endangered species; Guard Dog, chained in the back yard, who faithfully watches for his family; Ozzie, Earl’s beloved human; and Millie and Frank, Mooch’s sometimes contentious older couple.

Since our paper doesn’t carry “Mutts,” I started buying the strip collections to feed my growing habit. Having so many strips at once to read and enjoy gave me a great appreciation not only for the strip but for the artist who creates such an entertaining world. Patrick McDonnell is a passionate advocate for animals, both wild and domestic, for the environment, and for the arts. Every year he runs a series of strips about animals in a shelter waiting to be adopted, and he bases the cartoons on real shelter animals. One I recall in particular had a dog explaining that his family said they left him there because he got too big. The dog thinks it’s because their hearts got too small.

Can McDonnell pack a punch or what?

The majority of the strips are gently amusing and full of the joy of living. Even Sourpuss isn’t a curmudgeon: he just hates Mondays. Crabby the Crab is, well, crabby. He’s only outdone by Mrs. Crabby. Mostly, the humor is optimistic and a bit understated. McDonnell was a huge fan of Charles Schultz (he wrote the “Peanuts” creator a fan letter as a child) as well as Krazy Kat, so there’s a touch of slapstick as well. One of my favorite cartoons has Frank and Mooch marching back and forth in front of a window inside the house. A visitor inquires as to the reason and Millie says, “Oh, that’s their ‘Cats are better than dogs’ rain dance.” The next panel shows a soggy Earl and Ozzie outside in a pouring rain, wistfully watching the warm and dry Frank and Mooch.

There’s more to this strip than just the humor. I became fascinated by the Sunday “splash panels,” the large opening picture with the comic’s name: instead of a standard panel, McDonnell drew a new one each week. These weren’t just any panels, either: each one was in a different art style or else an homage to a particular painting, photograph or pop culture item. One, for example, was a recreation of the poster for the classic version of “Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff with Mooch as the Monster; another was the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” cover; still another was based on Dali’s famous “Persistence of Memory” painting, with watches melting on Guard Dog. One favorite is based on Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want.” The neat thing is that you can enjoy the panel without knowing that it’s based on something else, but if you are familiar with the original you have extra dollop of pleasure, a shared joke between friends.

In my quest to find out more about the man behind this intriguing strip I found the book Mutts: The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell in the library collection. What a treasure trove! Interspersed with many, many wonderful strips are brief comments by Mr. McDonnell about his influences: Charles Schultz, Popeye, Krazy Kat and many others. He also describes how his art has evolved and the origin of his characters. Finally, there is an excellent essay about Patrick and his work by comics historian John Carlin.

If you’ve never read “Mutts,” you’re in for a fabulous treat. If you’re already a fan, you’re sure to be delighted with this book. I know I was—so much so that I bought my own copy.

Main has copies of two collections of “Mutts” strips:
Sunday Afternoons (741.5 MCD)

What Now (YA 741.5 MCD)

I also recommend Mr. McDonnell’s children’s books, especially South, the story of a little bird left behind when his flock flies south for the winter. It’s wordless, but the simple pictures speak volumes. Look for it in the Children’s Library at Main (J E MCD).

P.S. If you don’t like comics but do like animals, give “Mutts” a try. You might be surprised at how much can be packed into four panels.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt Saves Summer Reading!

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman (SSB HOF Main)
Reviewed by Doris

The last couple of books I read have depressed or disappointed me. I read to relax and enjoy. I don’t want to close a book and feel like there is no hope for the world and there is nothing about which to smile. Call me shallow but there is enough dismal and painful real news all around us so I want my books to be fun, engaging, and worth the effort to make time to read. Yes, I do read the tomes, but I prefer the heart-stopping thriller, the easy cozy, or the sizzling romantic mystery. So, with trepidation I picked up Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and settled in to see if this new book would be worth my time. Well, folks, this is a keeper. Beth Hoffman’s first novel is tender, sweet, funny, outrageous, and best of all, a good story.

Cecelia Rose Honeycutt is twelve years old. She lives in a small town in Ohio with her Southern beauty queen mother and boorish, disconnected father who is gone for weeks at a time. CeeCee’s mother has been sliding into psychosis since CeeCee was a tiny child, forcing CeeCee to be much more the parent than child. As her mother’s bizarre behaviors increase, the kids and people in town shun CeeCee. Her only friend is Mrs. O’Dell, an eighty-year-old neighbor who tries to make sure CeeCee is fed and loved as best she can. Life for CeeCee is bitter, painful, and confusing. Then, in one tragic moment her mother dies. Her mother’s Aunt Tootie is summoned from Savannah by CeeCee’s father, and CeeCee is told she will be living with Tootie far from everything and everyone she has known. Heartbroken at leaving Mrs. O’Dell and hating her father with everything in her, CeeCee enters to a new life where money is no longer a problem, and home will take on a whole new definition for the lonely child.

In Savannah CeeCee finds a plethora of memorable characters that I enjoyed immensely. There is Tootie’s housekeeper Oletta who is the best cook in Savannah and who keeps everyone in line. There are the ladies with whom Aunt Tootie saves the old homes of Savannah, and there are her neighbors. And, most importantly, there is Auntie Tootie who lives for every moment and is the epitome of the Steel Magnolia. If you have lived in the South you know these women. You will laugh out loud and your heart will be touched by CeeCee’s grief and fears. Some critics have said Hoffman only hints at issues that should have been addressed such as the racism in 1960’s Savannah or CeeCee’s terrible fears that she will inherit her mother’s madness.

This book is not about those things.

It is about CeeCee’s journey to a home and a safe place where she feels loved. Though it is predictable in some ways and perhaps too simple, I enjoyed the journey with this remarkable young character whose courage and seeking heart are worthy of someone many times her age. The ending is perfect—perhaps too perfect for some readers—but I closed the book smiling, and that is why I read.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Carolina Cases: Cathy Pickens's Avery Andrews Mysteries

Reviewed by Jeanne

Avery Andrews was a corporate lawyer with a respect for the truth. That’s the reason she brow-beat her own witness when she knew he was committing perjury. It was a moral victory but at a personal price: Avery, once a fast track attorney with a bright future in Charleston, is fired and sent packing. With few other options, she heads back to Dacus, her small home town in the Appalachian foothills. She’ll have a quiet place to stay while she regains her equilibrium and decides what to do next.

When a rusty car is dredged up from a lake with a body inside, Avery finds herself trying to unravel a murder from years before.

Such is the premise for Southern Fried (F PIC Main), the first book in Cathy Pickens’ fine Avery Andrews series. Pickens, herself a lawyer, likes to call her books “puzzle mysteries” rather than cozies so that readers don’t feel misled. I would label it a “humorous regional mystery” because the sense of place is so important. Pickens writes her books with love and respect for the area and its people as does Margaret Maron. (Maron fans should give Pickens a try; I find their styles very compatible.) There IS humor, but we laugh with the characters and not at them. Even those we think might be stereotypes end up being real people. In the case of the first two books, don’t judge a book by its food-ladened cover or by the jacket copy: these books aren’t peopled by unbelievably zany Southerners nor are there recipes.

As for the writing, Pickens seems to get better with every book. Her sympathetic portrayal of small town Southern life rings true: the characters, the bullies, the steel magnolias, the sense of family, are all well done. Avery herself is a work in progress. She comes home feeling chastised, wanting only to recover and head back out to the faster paced life in the city, but gradually reconnects. More than that, she changes her opinions of people. There’s an especially fine scene in Can’t Never Tell when Avery considers the situation of someone she’s viewed as an adversary and makes a good-will gesture. It’s a small thing but telling.

Also obvious is that Pickens knows about what she writes: she grew up in Walhalla, South Carolina on the Georgia/North Carolina border. She’s been a lawyer, business professor, university provost, clog dance instructor and choir director, which gives her a great deal of practical experience from which to draw.

Done Gone Wrong: Lured back to Charleston to consult on a case, Avery's research into drug trials may lead her to a murder. (PBK black Main)

Hog Wild: Maggy Avinger is upset by her late husband's will: not only does he want his tombstone to accuse her of his murder, but he wants a huge tacky angel to mark his grave. (For me, this is the book in which Pickens really hit her stride. The writing is relaxed and sure, the characters very well done and the plot is intriguing. If you don't mind reading out of order, start with this one. Personally, I am one of the "must read in order" sorts.) (F PIC Main & Avoca)

Hush My Mouth: Avery's new client is concerned about her friend Neanna, who had come to Dacus and then disappeared. Even more sinister: Neanna's mother was murdered in Dacus twenty years earlier, and the crime was never solved. (F PIC and SSB F  PIC Main)

Can’t Never Tell: A carnival’s Fright House becomes really frightening when Avery discovers a mannequin is really a corpse. Then she’s goes on a picnic and a woman is killed in a fall, leaving Avery with two deaths but is either a really a murder?  (F PIC Main & Avoca)

Alas, Ms. Pickens declined to accept a contract for more Avery Andrews books. She said it was a difficult decision but she wanted to write on her time, not to deadline. According to her blog, she misses Avery but she now she has the freedom to remember why she wanted to be a writer in the first place. If she hadn’t made the decision before she wrote Can’t Never Tell, I think she was at least in the process. There’s no feeling of finality—the series could continue, and still may at some point—but I also felt there were some signs of parting. I hope it will be a temporary condition as this was a very fine book indeed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Here Come the Brides: Bed Of Roses

Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts (F ROB Main & Avoca)
Reviewed by Doris

Four little girls who are inseparable and whose favorite game is “Wedding,” grow up to form Vows, the premiere wedding planning company in Greenwich, Connecticut. Each girl has unique talents to bring to Vows. Parker is the detail person who manages everything and everyone. Emmaline is the floral genius whose bouquets and arrangements are the heart of the events. Lauren’s cakes and pastries are masterpieces that defy description, and MacKensie’s photographs bring together all the elements into the “perfect day.” All four women are smart, beautiful, funny, and successful—the perfect Nora Roberts heroines. Each will be the central character in one book of the Bridal Quartet series.

Bed of Roses, the second book in the series, showcases Emma and her quest for the man who will set her spark-o-meter ablaze. What she doesn’t realize is that he is right there under her nose and has been for years.

Emma is the sweetheart every man wants. She is exotic, gorgeous, loving, giving, smart, and she loves Vows. Though the hours are long and sometimes the brides are crazy, Emma loves working with her flowers and her designs set the tone for each event. But something is missing from her life. In her heart-of-hearts she wants a man to adore and children to love as her parents have always loved her. When MacKensie becomes engaged, the hole in Emma’s heart feels just a bit bigger. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be anyone with who she feels that major “spark” she needs. At least that’s what Emma keeps telling herself as her thoughts keep coming back to Jack Cooke. A friend for ten years, Jack is a player where women are concerned. In all the time Emma has known him, Jack has shown no interest in a relationship that lasts longer than a couple of months. Besides, he is a friend of all the Vows women, best friend to Parker’s brother, and treats all the girls like his sisters. One just does not get involved with a friend. Then again, Jack is handsome, sexy as all get out, a successful architect, and the one guy who has always lurked just off the edge of Emma’s radar. When she gives in to the urge to kiss him one night, the ole spark-o-meter hits the stratosphere and Emma faces a lot of complicated choices.

Jack is caught off guard as much as Emma by the amazing chemistry between them. With major commitment issues due to his parents’ brutal divorce when he was young, Jack also knows if he hurts Emma he might as well leave town because all the Vows women and Del will be coming after him. He tries to keep things light but soon finds that Emma has stolen her way into his heart, his apartment, and his life. Then things come apart with a vengeance, and all the bad things Jack knew would happen if he hurt Emma explode around them. Will their friends choose sides? What happens if Emma leaves Vows when she receives a great job offer? Can Emma and Jack find the path they need to a future together? Come on, people, it is a Nora Roberts book, and she does not write unhappy endings. Just sit back and enjoy the journey!

"Brides Quartet":
Book One: Vision in White (F ROB Main & Avoca; SSB F ROB Main)
Book Two: Bed of roses (F ROB Main & Avoca)
Book Three: Savor the Moment (F ROB Main & Avoca; SSB F ROB Main)
Book Four: Happy Ever After (not yet published, due out in November 2010)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Unthinkable: Ultimate Survivors

The Unthinkable:  Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley (155.935 RIP Main)

How likely are you to perish in a disaster? What are the odds you will be involved in a disaster? The answers to these questions and many more can be found in The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, by Amanda Ripley.

In her book Ripley, a senior writer for Time magazine, takes us through the various stages of disaster and cataclysm, examining how individuals react to catastrophic situations. Especially interesting is the fact that some people who should survive don't, while others survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.

I believe that having read this book could save your life if you are ever involved in a real disaster. Why? The first emotional reaction in a disaster is the one that might get you killed before you extricate yourself from a situation. That response is DENIAL. Oh, yeah, that's a big one. Apparently disaster is difficult for some people to accept when it falls into their laps, so instead of believing that the building is on fire and getting the heck out of it, they might dither around straightening the paper clips on their desk or looking at a phone list, increasing their chances of perishing. Yes, people really do this.

In 2005 the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted a study based on interviews with World Trade Center survivors.  They discovered that survivors, on average, waited six minutes before exiting the building. The average dithering wait was six minutes, but some waited as long as forty-five minutes before deciding to exit the building.

During her research, Ms. Ripley interviewed Jack Rowley, an instructor at the National Fire Academy in Maryland. In thirty-five years as a firefighter, before becoming an instructor at the Fire Academy, he often witnessed this sort of lethargic response to fire.

Rowley told Ripley that one particular type of fire had come to seem like a Saturday night ritual. Firefighters would be dispatched to a bar where they would find customers sitting and nursing beers in a room that contained smoke.

It's pretty obvious in this situation that there is a fire somewhere near, but when firefighters would suggest to customers that they evacuate the response they got was often one like, "No, we'll be just fine."

Through her interviews with survivors, Ripley takes us on a voyage through a burning skyscraper, a sinking ship, and a crashed airplane.  In each case, most if not all of the survivors are those who were able to assess the situation and take some action instead of passively waiting for rescue.  You would think this would be an obvious move but there’s that denial thing again, plus in some cases an authority figure would tell the people to wait.  Often this was someone who wasn’t in the situation but was making a call from another location, yet people would ignore what was happening in front of them to take the advice of someone who was far away and safe.

This is a very educational read, but more than that, I would have to say that it's a readable read. It made me think about how I behave during a crisis and to rearrange some of my thinking. During the process of writing this review I found myself wanting to read the whole book again. One thing is for sure: whether I read this book again or not, you should be sure you read it for the first time.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Moon Struck: The Girl Who Chased the Moon

Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen (F ALL Avoca)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the Southern Grotesque. I know, writers have won prizes and honors writing about damaged people and places and yes, I know there are people like that. It’s just that I never saw them as oddities, but simply a part of life; and I never liked books that held them up for examination and dissection, like some sort of exotic insect. I’m also not attracted to the “quaint Southern fiction” which features na├»ve people agape at them there big city ways which prove to be inferior to good ol’ homespun life or the reverse, where the small town folk are small-minded as well. I’ve usually found the truth to be in between.

That’s why I’m somewhat wary of books tagged “Southern fiction.” I tend to regard such with more than a pinch of suspicion.

However, I kept reading the most intriguing reviews about The Girl Who Chased the Moon. Magical, they said. Enchanted and enchanting, bewitching and beguiling, they said. Lyrical, they said. Lesa's was the tipping point, when I put the book on reserve for myself, just to see for myself if this was as good as advertised. (Lesa's Book Critiques is must reading for me, and anyone who likes thoughtful, well-written book reviews. See for yourself: http://lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com/)

Know what? The reviews were right. This is a book I was loathe to put down but I dreaded seeing end. Allen has a town spun of cotton candy but without the nasty sticky sweetness of that particular confection, a place both modern and timeless; a place of stardust and moonlight but with bit of straw tucked between its teeth, a plate of North Carolina barbecue balanced on its lap and a big piece of Milky Way cake on the side. (Yes, food abounds; from pizza to pastry, barbecue to stack cake. Cake is a welcome, a character says, except for coconut. Coconut cake and fried chicken are for funerals.)

The story opens as Emily Benedict arrives in Mullaby, North Carolina with all her worldly possessions packed into two duffle bags. Her mother, Dulcie, had never told Emily anything about her past, nothing about the town where she had grown up, and nothing about the giant of man who is Emily’s grandfather, who seems almost as bewildered as Emily by this turn of events. It doesn’t take long before Emily finds out that no one else seems to share her view of her mother. The Dulcie Emily knew was the eternal crusader for good, out to save the planet and help others, a woman who founded a school to promote justice and caring. Who is this other Dulcie, the spoiled only child who did something so terrible that an entire town isn’t about to forgive her—or her daughter?

I fell in love with every character; well, maybe not Julia’s stepmother, a gold-digging self centered piece of work. However, Mullaby—and yep, I’m sure the resemblance to “Lullaby” is intentional— is the kind of place where you know in your bones there is some justice in the world. There’s Julia, the former wild child who was a cutter and bears the scars to prove it, who came back to bake cakes in her late father’s restaurant until she earns enough to pay off the debts. Then she’ll be off to pursue her own dreams of a pastry shop in New York. There’s Sawyer Anderson, the only man Julia ever loved, who seems to show up everywhere and who can feel cake in the air. There’s Win Coffey, a handsome young man who seems drawn to Emily, yet whose family has suffered the most from whatever Dulcie had done. There’s Vance, Emily’s gigantic grandfather, who inspired awe and fear but who is as gentle as a fawn and almost as timid.

And there are the Mullaby lights, these strange lights that appear in the town after dark and who seem especially to appear around Emily. Are they ghosts? Swamp gas? Swarms of fireflies? Or --something else?

The writing is fine, and I mean that in the drawn out pronunciation, as in fine wines. Allen has a way of explaining things that is at once poetic and practical. For example, Julia’s description of Southern men: “They remind you of something good—picnics or carrying sparklers around at night. Southern men will hold doors open for you, they’ll hold you after you yell at them, and they’ll hold onto their pride no matter of what. Be careful what they tell you, though. They have a way of making you believe anything, because they say it THAT WAY.”

I might say the same thing about Sarah Addison Allen.

I also wonder if she will share that stack cake recipe.

(Update: She does! Along with Red Velvet, Lane Cake and Southern Peach Pound Cake! Check out her website:
for recipes, an interactive map of Mullaby and more.)