Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Laugh a Minute

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz begins with a car chase. The narrator evades the car and comes screeching to a halt, approaches her pursuers and says, "Mom. Dad. This has to stop." This is a clue that we're about to see new levels of family dysfunction. The Spellman clan are in the private investigator business, and our narrator is Isabel, the middle "child," now 28. Her older brother has escaped the family business and is a successful lawyer. Her sister is only 14, but already engrossed in recreational surveillance. The first part of the book is Isabel's explanation of her family and how she's changed, told through a series of lists, sections of dialogue, and scenes from childhood through today. Lutz's writing is smart and funny, and I laughed out loud in many parts. The mystery, when we finally get to it, is utterly absorbing. If this were just a book about how crazy the Spellman clan is, I'd give it five stars. If I were only grading on sheer entertainment value, I'd give it five stars. But I'm grading it as a novel, so it's three and a half, despite my utter enjoyment of Isabel and her crazy family, not to mention Lutz's fast and furious writing. As a novel, it's a total disaster. It reads like a screenplay (light dawned when I finally read Lutz's bio on the flyleaf...she wrote the screenplay for Plan B, a mob comedy that I'll have to check out), not a novel. The framing device she uses, after the introductory car chase, makes no sense. In a different font, so we know it's a different part of the book (can I just say that I HATE "clever" font changes?), we have a scene in which Isabel is interviewed by a cop. We learn that her sister (Rae) is missing. The sort of lame device for launching into Isabel's life story (and even before, with how her parents met) is the cop asking her to "Start at the beginning." After about 200 pages (okay, maybe only 180), we finally get to the "one last job" Isabel agrees to do in order to leave the family business. After page 300, Rae finally goes missing (the book is only 350 pages long). So framing the entire novel through the event of Rae's disappearance is a bizarre choice, and I found myself wondering (in the midst of enjoying learning the Spellman family history) when the heck we were going to get to the kidnapping, or running away, or whatever. It was distracting and pulled me out of the story. If she had scrapped that device, I would have been free to just laugh out loud at Izzy and her family's escapades. That said, I definitely recommend this book. I had read that it was similar to the Stephanie Plum books, and I'd say that's warranted to an extent. Of course, any book with mystery, romance, and humor with a female protagonist is compared to Stephanie Plum. Izzy is a little edgier, and her family more disturbing, but there are similarities. If you like Stephanie, I would give this a try.

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich: Speaking of the devil! I've been reading Stephanie Plum for a long time. My mom was reading Hot Six when I was home from college, and she kept laughing hysterically and I thought, "I've got to read that." I did, and we picked up the first five books as well. There's a formula here that works. It's a long series and has its ups and downs, but there are usually good laughs, and I like Stephanie, her family, and the other secondary characters. I found this one to be funny, though light on the skip tracing. The focus is on protecting Joe's house from treasure hunters more than Stephanie doing her actual job. I was also not very happy with the treatment of Lula. The subplot involving Lula this time made her look desperate and a little pathetic, and I didn't think it was in keeping at all with the character, who has been through a lot. Even if she doesn't bother much with filing, she's always strong and larger than life, and this was bizarre. That subplot wasn't wrapped up yet, so I'll withhold judgment until I see where it goes in 15 (which I believe I read will be the last one?). There's definitely a sense of winding things down, but there were still some laugh-out-loud moments in Fourteen, and I enjoyed it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is the second review of yours that i have read and agreed with...the first being the master bedroom, the second being the spellman files! thanks for sharing your insights.