Sunday, July 31, 2011

CR Review #23: Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich

Janet Evanovich is a writing machine. Between the incredibly successful Stephanie Plum books (this is book #17, not including the teeny little "interlude" novellas that she publishes about Stephanie) and her NASCAR mysteries and her romance novels, she must never stop writing. I've only read the Stephanie Plum books, and can't speak for her other series, but I find them to be something similar to comfort food -- they aren't fancy, they aren't particularly good for you, but they are easy going down and make you feel a little bit better.

If you've never read a Stephanie Plum book, the plots are usually something similar to this: Stephanie works as a bond enforcement agent (aka, a bounty hunter) for her scuzzy cousin Vincent in Trenton, NJ. She isn't a very good bounty hunter, but gets "help" from her friend/coworker Lula (usually in crazy spandex outfits and heels). She has two boyfriends: The handsome cop Joe Morelli and the dangerous security expert Ranger, and she can't decide between the two. Her Grandma Mazur is crazy, carries an enormous gun for protection, and goes to every wake and funeral in town for fun. She lives alone with her hamster. She eats an ungodly amount of fast food. She gets involved with bad guys unknowingly and they always try to kill her, but she always ends up alive and safe in the end. And her car blows up at least once per book.

The new book is nothing different. Stephanie is still trying to decide between Joe and Ranger, and has a new guy, Dave thrown into the mix by her mother. While Stephanie is juggling her three men, she is also trying to track down a geriatric vampire and a huge robber who got his toe shot off by Lula (seems to me that Lula shoots a lot of people in these books and nobody ever seems to care). Meanwhile, an angry woman that Stephanie captured earlier is trying to run her down with a Lexus, and the recently out-of-prison NIck Alpha (brother of the bad guy from the first book) has vowed his revenge on Stephanie. Joe's crazy grandmother keeps putting curses on Stephanie so Joe will dump her (she'll get boils, she'll turn into a slut, etc.). Oh, and a serial killer is ditching bodies in the charred ruins of the bail bonds office (it burned down in book #16 -- they are holding their office in Mooner's RV these days). And Stephanie eats and eats and eats and eats, but is still adorable and desirable.

Just another few days in the life of Stephanie Plum.

Is this good literature? Of course not. But I always reserve the new book at the library and enjoy spending a quick afternoon in the ridiculous world of Stephanie and her friends. The next book comes out in November (seriously, how does Janet Evanovich do it? This one just came out!?!?), and once again, I'll be there to read it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CR Review #22: The Fudge Books by Judy Blume

My soon-to-be second grader is on a reading tear these days. We've been trying to think of good books for her to read, as she is becoming awfully bored with Junie B Jones…and while we were on our vacation recently, my husband ran into the local book store and picked up Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing, remembering how much he had liked it when he read it. She devoured it and we soon ordered the complete set of books about Fudge: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, SuperFudge, Fudge-A-Mania, and Double Fudge. I decided to read them at the same time (and since I got through each one in about 90 minutes, I'll count the whole set as one book), just in case there was anything in them that might not be age-appropriate for a 7-year-old.

In case you don't remember, the plot of these books is as follows:

Peter Hatcher (the Fourth Grade Nothing in the first book), lives in New York City with his parents and his little brother Farley Drexel (aka Fudge), and later his baby sister Tootsie. Their neighbor is Sheila Tubman (whose family stars in the second book of the series). Fudge is a bit of a terror. Over the course of the books he finds new and ridiculous ways to get in trouble and embarrass his brother and family: he knocks out his front teeth pretending to be a bird, he throws tantrums in stores when he doesn't get what he wants, he is asked to leave restaurants because of the mess he makes, he swallows a turtle (yes, really), he runs away, and just finds new and interesting ways to be a complete and total pain for Peter.

I had fond memories of these books (I used to think Fudge was hilarious and Peter was the pain) and I was glad to read these alongside my daughter, as she did have a few questions while she made her way through them. In Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, a bunch of girls have a sleepover and make "slam books" -- a term I haven't heard used in ages. I had to explain why sometimes girls try to hurt each others feelings…an introduction to the mean girls syndrome. One of the books flat-out announces the truth about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, which my daughter wasn't really ready to read about, but she took the news like a champ (I took her out to our favorite local coffee shop for breakfast to talk about it, which made things easier for her, I hope!). I was kind of surprised to read about Santa in the book, but then I remembered that my daughter is a bit younger than the target age group for these books.

There are funny little updates in the books that have been added since I read them the first time: cd players instead of hi-fi's, kids who watch Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, etc. But for the most part, they are the way I remembered them. And this time, as the parent of a five-year-old boy, I was grateful to have kids who were nothing like Fudge, and much more like Peter.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

CR Review #21: Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

I used to love when Stephen King would crank out his annual list of the best books he had read every year for Entertainment Weekly magazine. I would make notes of the ones that sounded interesting and read as many as I could get my hands on. He's had some great suggestions (Battle Royale!), so when he enthusiastically recommended Swamplandia! -- the story of a family of alligator wrestlers in the Florida swamps -- I couldn't wait to read it.

Quirky characters with strange occupations? Yes, please. A fun title? All right, bring it on.

Sadly, this is the first time that Stephen has let me down. I cannot begin to describe the distaste that Swamplandia! has left in my mouth.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, and the small alligator wrestling show that they put on deep in the swamps of Florida. Dad (the Chief) is the businessman, Mom (Hilola) is the beautiful daredevil that attracts crowds from miles away, Kiwi is the brainy (or so he likes to think) brother who dreams of a regular life on the mainland, Osceola is the pretty older sister, and young Ava (the heroine of the story) wants nothing more than to be just like her mother.

But this is not a happy story, nor a fun story. Hilola dies of cancer almost immediately (not a spoiler) and the majority of the book is about the family's inability to continue functioning without her. Nobody does laundry or bathes. Nobody eats anything resembling a meal. The alligator park starts losing tourists and money. Osceola becomes obsessed with the afterlife -- she makes a Ouija board and holds seances to communicate with the dead. Kiwi runs away to the mainland to work at a competitor's amusement park (the World of Darkness). And The Chief leaves the two girls home alone on the island while he goes off for weeks to try and get more money to save the park.

Without any parents or an older brother to keep an eye on them, Osceola and Ava have the run of the island. Osceola spends all of her time with her new boyfriend -- a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving, who died in the swamps during the depression -- and one day, she runs away to "elope" with Louis, leaving young Ava all alone. Ava, brave and strong, but still only 11 or 12, finds help to go after her sister and embarks on a dangerous journey to bring her home.

And this is where the story takes a turn for the worse for me. If you've read it, you know what I'm thinking about. The last third of this book is pretty depressing, and now I'm going to need some fluffy chick lit to get the upsetting parts out of my brain.

Karen Russell is a talented writer. Her ability to bring these characters to life is unquestionable. However, I wish she hadn't tried so hard to be "QUIRKY" all the time. It got old after a while. I did find the history of the Florida swampland interesting, and wish there had been more of the book devoted to that aspect of the story.

I'm sure I"ll be a sucker for more Stephen King recommendations in the future, but I'll be sure to read some Amazon reviews beforehand next time.