Friday, September 30, 2011

More of the Southern vampire saga

32. Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

The About:
In the fourth installment of the Sookie Stackhouse "Southern Vampire" novels, Bon Temps has unwittingly welcomed a couple of witches slightly more powerful than the local waitresses who dabble with Wicca practices during their free time and dye their hair black. When Eric the Vampire, sheriff of the area, appears in the middle of the night to Sookie not knowing who or what he exactly is, everyone is creeped out: necromancers are in town, and could with their powers kill all vampires by just sending them walking into the sunlight.

I have enjoyed reading these books while watching the series, because the series creator Alan Ball takes a lot of liberties with the TV show and thus, the storylines are not exactly the same. Although this book deals with the current 4th season of the TV show, it is also very different. Which actually is a shame: I feel like the show jumped the shark this season with having so many characters and story lines that my head is spinning: there's Sam the Shifter and his brother, the Weres and the Vampires, and another story for Tara, leaving Sookie--the main character!--just to prance around, smiling cutely and having sex with vamps. Oh, and then there is the story line of the witches, and another story line with Lafayette and his boyfriend who both can become possessed by demons. And I forgot: we also have to stop by occasionally to see how Andy Bellefleur is doing with his V addiction. Can't forget Sookie's brother, Jason, either and how he was mangled by the were-panthers. That's quite a lot to follow in one series, and hardly any of that is in the book!

The fourth book simply focuses on the witch story line and Sookie trying to figure herself out while trying to solve yet another mystery with the help of both living and the undead of all shapes. There is no Sam's asshole brother who has absolutely no redeeming qualities (why did they make him up for the TV show as such a big deal?), no V addiction issues, no being possessed by demons. And that's perhaps why the story in the book is so much smoother and easier to follow than the TV series at this point.

What's more, the books consistently have the same sense of humor and style, which have so far made the stories gel together really well. Unlike the books, the more the TV show creates its own characters and story lines, the more it makes Sookie a vapid, blonde side character. I really liked her in the first season, where she and the story were closest to the books: she was the sassy, stereotype-breaking Southern waitress who was quite quick on her feet. A lot of laughs. Now she's just... bleh. During first season, I also liked the differences: I liked that the show kept Lafayette around, and I thought the civil rights point of view brought to the vampire story was a smart move. But the further the seasons go, the more spread out the stories get with a dozen of story lines to follow and gratuitous nakedness thrown into the mix to distract the viewers from there not being anything else exciting going on.

So I'm happy to be reading the books, because although they do spoil the main events in the TV series for me, at least I get to have a glimpse of what the "real" Sookie would be doing in the TV series if the creators gave her the chance.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

30. The Glamour of Grammar. A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark

The About:
Clark's guide is aimed at anyone looking to improve their written language skills in English. It's divided into four parts: Words for tips on how to build vocabulary, including inventing words and reading dictionaries for fun; Points for how to deal with punctuation; Standards for reminders on good writing standards, such as how to avoid sexism in writing easily and how to steer clear from "hypergrammar" (I personally would have called this "how to avoid using Strunk and White as your Bible..."); and finally, Meaning that focuses on meanings behind grammatical structures and what they convey to the reader.

Although it's all about grammar, this book is a quick read. Clark really is at home with words, and most of his phrases and headings are a delight to read. Yet, his style never resorts to the jokey and snarky style of many modern grammar books. I have enjoyed them as well, but Clark's book follows his own rules of writing in a manner that is based on good grammar effortlessly with a very friendly tone.

31. Isänpäivä by Pirjo Hassinen ("Father's Day")

The About:
Olli Penger is a successful detective novel writer who loves to dwell on the gory details of his victims' murders but who is unable to write a believable kissing scene. To him, all of the victims in his novels still bear the face of his ex-wife Marja and instead of reacting in real life to their separation, he kills her again and again in his novels. But when a family member commits a horrifying crime, Penger decides to take responsibility by killing the detective genre and his detective character--whom Penger has always tried to become in his personal life.

This novel that seems on the surface extremely simple due to its easy readability and subject matter (gory crime!) is actually quite complex, so please keep on reading after the very first pages that are nothing but a brutal rape and murder scene (a few pages out of Penger's novel).

Because Penger has created the detective character Tähtö partly in his own image, partly as a man Penger desires to be, the journey into completely revamping the detective is unseltting because of Penger's pain and urgency to deal with the actual gory details in his personal life. It is heartbreaking to watch this character work on dealing with his pain in the only way he can--by resurrecting his dead characters and in effect apologizing to them instead of dealing with what is going on around him in living rooms and on the streets.

His act is a counter-reaction to a culture that wants to read about disgusting murders as long as we the readers know more about the people solving the crimes than the victims. And through this, author Hassinen jabs at novelists who are caught in the trap of mass-producing the ever-popular Scandinavian crime novel: they use violence as a backdrop for their often silent and stoic main characters that we look up to, but actually we would never read about those characters if they were not dealing with violence

The final question posed to Penger by media is, How much he and his novels are responsible for violence in his family, or in society in general. And there is nothing Penger can say in reply. Another question underlying in the final pages is what are we justified to sell in the name of entertainment, because people will devour violent stories whether they were published as fictional detective stories or as unconfirmed rumors on tabloid pages. Can we draw a line somewhere? Is there even a line to be drawn?

The book gave me a lot to think about, but at the same time there was so much subtle criticism crammed into the book that it was difficult to sometimes focus on each issue to recognize its real-life partner. I'll happily read this book again to be able to pay better attention to the subtleties.

Unfinished book of the month: 
Conundrum. An Extraordinary Personal Narrative of Transsexualism by Jan Morris

This was one of the two books recommended by Nancy Pearl that discuss the experience of going through a sex change from a personal point of view. Jan Morris wrote this book in 1974, making her one of the first ones to give a loud, resounding voice to transsexualism. So it was not the topic that made my interest go away: it was just the way the book was written. The time when Jan was still James is all about stories of upper middle class British school and choir experiences, and... you know me. You know my reaction to any British school house stuff, and I'm sorry to say that Ms. Morris became a victim of my violent dislike to reading about rich kids at a boarding school (and then the army!). So, when the notification from the library came to return the book, I did not renew it.

I'll be getting the other recommended book soon, though!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Of grownups and children

29. Karkkipäivä by Markus Nummi ("Candy Day")

(Candy day is a very Finnish concept: kids have one day in the week when they can eat candy, and thus candy is only a special treat--not an everyday indulgence. Attitudes toward this practice vary from support in teaching children that they should not have access to unhealthy food constantly, whereas the opposing view is that candy day practice makes candy a prohibited item, and might create later adults who console themselves with candy--or any prohibited items from their youth.)

The About:
Tomi is a small child with vivid imagination. His alter ego, a superhero-like character, wants to save the princess in the window across from his home. Sometimes the princess appears, sometimes the room remains dark. All Tomi knows is that princess Mirabella is bound by an evil witch and only he can save her now that he is all alone.

Paula is a store layout planner, which is a perfect job for her as her entire life is completely controlled and planned: she needs everything to be filmed for evidence, so she keeps a personal video blog while her daughter is grounded for shoplifting. Or maybe it was Paula who shoplifted? Small details! 

Author and screenwriter Ari lives in the same block. He tries to pull a story together for TV executives but his characters remain flat. While his wife and children are on holiday, Ari is followed home by a small, dirty boy. Ari has reasons to suspect that this boy is a victim of abuse, but when he calls the social workers he manages to make himself sound like the prime suspect with his story about a boy with a superhero name and a captive princess. 

Social worker Katri is working on her presentation on the past and future of social services for children, even when she is not at the computer. Ari's phone call makes her go back in time to a case that was especially painful for her. Should her presentation include notes on personal regrets and recurring nightmares? 

In the first chapter, Ari asks his wife to read his new book, which is about the events of that fateful day when Tomi followed him home. Leena agrees that the story is great, and so we begin to read the novel. It's meta-fiction time!

It is obvious that Nummi has, as he points out in the notes, researched child welfare services for his novel--some cases mentioned in the novel have even been borrowed from actual reports. Still, the story's criticism is not, as one would expect, aimed at child social services and its inadequate handling of cases, but more to the responsibility of individuals in a given community. Some are too eager to report anything they consider even slightly suspicious, thus diverting social worker energies from genuine cases, whereas others shut their eyes and ears from even the most horrifying events. How to find the perfect balance between these two extremes in order to help children on time?

In the novel, wheels begin to roll because of one child, who himself has been abused. Adults around seem clueless but well-intentioned, yet they are not doing much until warning signs are flashing bright red. 

And then there is the princess. As the story progressed and I begun to understand the depth of horror behind her fairy tale it was impossible to stop reading. I needed to find out how the only character who makes no appearance except when others mention her will turn out. 

This story seems to have a happy ending, but just as I let out a sigh of relief I remembered the first chapter where Ari and his wife talk about his novel. I had to leaf back to confirm my suspicions and thus, the book become even more horrifying than it seemed at first glance. A wonderfully crafted story that does not let the reader go, even after the book covers have been closed shut.