The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz – Book Review

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
Published by Simon & Schuster

Perhaps you remember, but I recently adored Head You Lose, Lisa Lutz’s new book, with cowriter David Hayward. Based on my love for Heads You Lose and the recommendations of many readers I trust, I decided that the next new series I start would have to be Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files. I took the first book out from the library and it sat around my house for a few days. Then last week, when I felt myself on the verge of a reading slump, I had a feeling that The Spellman Files might just be the cure for what ailed me.

It is quite difficult to describe the plot of The Spellman Files without making it sound convoluted and ridiculous, which it really isn’t. Anyway, there’s Izzy Spellman, second of three children in the Spellman clan, although she’s more or less an adult now. Izzy’s parents are private investigators, and she’s been involved since she was old enough to trail a perp – although she was very distracted by pot and petty vandalism as a teenager. Now she lives with her parents, 12 year old sister Rae, and their Uncle Ray who has turned to a life of alcohol and debauchery, after clean living gave him cancer. Rae and Ray are at war, and Izzy is trying to hide from her parents her relationship Exboyfriend #8, the dentist who thinks she is a teacher. There are footnotes scattered liberally throughout the book as asides from Izzy, and some of the subplots have their own set of chapter numbers, so you can read two chapter 2s in a row. It is also clear that most of what is being told is leading up to a time when Rae is missing, and Izzy is trying to tell her story to a detective in the present to give him background on Rae. Luckily these scenes with the detective are in a different font from the rest of the book, so they are easily distinguishable.

See? I didn’t do a very good job convincing you that this book isn’t overly complicated. The thing is, though, Lisa Lutz makes it work. I never had to stop and think about which story thread I was following, even when I did read two chapter 2s in a row. Everything is weaved together so effortlessly, that I just relaxed and went along for the ride. Anyway, I totally loved The Spellman Files, Lutz has a real talent for very funny mysteries. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series, I will definitely be keeping them on hand for when I need a change of pace.

Highly recommended.

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Source: library.
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Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward – Book Review

Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward
Published by G.P. Putnam & Sons, an imprint of Penguin

Lisa Lutz, author of the Spellman comedic crime novels, wants to write her next book with a collaborator. You know, each of them writing alternate chapters so that they figure out ‘who done it’ right along with the the reader. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Except she asks her ex, David Hayward, who is a poet without any experience writing novels – crime or otherwise. He agrees, but things quickly get snarky, to say the least. Still, in the midst of footnotes and terse notes back and forth between chapters, Lisa and David do get their story going. Paul and Lacey are orphaned siblings living in Northern California when a dead, headless body ends up on their property. Except they can’t exactly call the cops, since Paul makes their money by growing marijuana. They try dumping the body, but when it ends up back on their property, Lacey realizes she has to get to the bottom of this, especially when she realizes who the body belonged to.

Heads You Lose is made of pure hilarity and win. Seriously. As far as the actual story goes, Heads You Lose is very compelling. The mystery is set up surprisingly well, given that the authors are supposedly alternating chapters without an outline, with no more guidance than what has already been written. Likewise, the characters are interesting and relatable, even as some of them get caught in the crossfire of warring authors and experience more personality changes or resurrections than one might otherwise think likely. If this story had been the entire story, I would likely have still read and enjoyed Heads You Lose.

Except that wasn’t the entire story. The interplay between Lutz and Hayward is what took Heads You Lose from enjoyable to fantastic. I lived for the footnotes, which served as asides from the author who was reading the chapter for the first time. and the notes back and forth between the two authors at the end of each chapter. Occasionally they worked well together, but at other times things became bitter and snarky and oh so much fun. After being criticized by Lutz for being overly erudite for a mystery novel, one of Hayward’s chapters is written in large, double spaced text with a very Dick and Jane style. Obviously this didn’t particularly advance the mystery, but it was a fantastic chapter to build the tension between the co-authors, which is as much the story as the mystery is. Also from Hayward, is this snarky little message to Lutz, in reference to her assertion in one of the notes that there were plenty of other writers she could have asked to collaborate:

P.S. About your stable of would-be collaborators, I don’t doubt that all of those authors are adept at building and resolving intricate mysteries. But I’d argue that bringing a psycho to justice on the page and cowriting a book with one require different skill sets.

I heard a little rumor that this might be the start of a new series for Lutz and Hayward, and I sincerely hope that this is true, but whether it is or not, Heads You Lose stands very well on its own, no annoying loose threads that are not tied up. In the meantime, while I’m waiting to hear the announcement of another book, I’m just going to go and read all of Lutz’s Spellman books in hopes of reclaiming the awesome.

Highly recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Blood Work by Holly Tucker – Book Review

Blood Work by Holly Tucker
Published by W. W.  Norton & Co

If you need a blood transfusion, you just head to the hospital, get your blood typed, and lay back and have a nice sterilized needle send some nice, compatible blood into your veins, right? Certainly this is the case now, but it wasn’t always so. In the 17th century, you might have been infused the blood of a cow, dog, or sheep through a long tube. And, too, you might not get the transfusion because you lost blood in an accident or something similar, you might receive one in order to treat your mental instability.

The men had agreed that the cooling effects of blood transfusion could be very promising treatment for “extravagant” minds. At the time, humoral imbalances were still understood to lie at the root of madness. -p. 159

Blood transfusion was not fully accepted during the 17th century, however. In fact, the conservative physicians of France were wholly against the entire proposition. For one thing, it ran counter to centuries of medical based on the works of Galen. For another thing, it offended the strict Catholic beliefs of most of the country.

To imagine transfusion meant to dismiss biblical dictates such as in Deuteronomy 12:23, “Eat not the blood, for the blood is the life.” p. -209

Not all French physicians felt the same, however. Jean-Baptiste Denis was captivated by stories of transfusion reaching France from across the English Chanel, and decided that he too wanted to attempt transfusions. To this end, he tracked down Antoine Mauroy, the most notorious madman in Paris, and attempted to transfuse him. The first transfusion went well and even seemed to cure his insanity temporarily. A later transfusion, however, went very strangely and ended very badly, leading to Denis being accused of murder. It seemed clear that he was framed, but by whom?

Blood Work is not only the story of this medical mystery, the death of Antoine Mauroy and the framing of Jean-Baptiste Denis. Tucker also provides a background to the history of early transfusion. In doing so, she sheds a great deal of light on the culture and beliefs of 17th century France and England, as well as explaining the previously omnipresent custom of bloodletting.

Holly Tucker has written absolutely fascinating book. It is an extremely compelling read. Even with a stack of books in my bag and an even bigger pile on my Nook,, when I picked up Blood Work on the airplane I did not put it back down until I had turned the last page. Part of this is simply Tucker’s writing style. She has clear, concise prose that makes even convoluted 17th century medical beliefs easy to follow. In addition, she clearly has a great command of her subject matter. When the author understands her material so well, she can explain even the most complex subjects with ease.

Blood Work is a fascinating medical and social history written with a clarity that brings the reader greater understanding. I highly recommend it. And now, let me just leave you with the questions Tucker poses at the end of her introduction:

For now I simply ask readers to keep two questions in mind as they enter the teeming streets and cluttered laboratories of seventeenth-century Paris and London: Should a society set limits on its science? If so, how and at what price? -p. xxix

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Source: Publisher for a blog tour.
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Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear – Book Review

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Penguin
Book 2 in the Maisie Dobbs series

My review of the first book in the series: Maisie Dobbs

At the opening of Birds of a Feather, Maisie is becoming pretty well established in her business. She has even been contacted by Joseph Waite, one of the richest men in England and a one-time client of her mentor, Maurice. Waite’s daughter has gone missing – again – and as Maisie begins to investigate, she discovers that there may be a connection to a series of dead women.

Birds of a Feather is precisely the book I was hoping for after Maisie Dobbs. In this second book in the series, Maisie truly comes into her own, and the reader is finally able to address her on her own terms, instead of dwelling extensively on her past through the copious backstory that comprised Maisie Dobbs. Here the reader gets to follow Maisie through a full and well-developed case. She has a great process and watching her work a case is fascinating.

I also appreciated that Maisie continued to develop as a character in Birds of a Feather. Since the action rested primarily in the present, Maisie was able to indulge in some introspection without losing the reader.

Based on my experience with the first two books, I think I would classify the Maisie Dobbs series as smart cozies. Not that other cozies aren’t smart, but there is an extra intelligence and class to Maisie Dobbs that makes the series particularly enjoyable. The great development of story and character, along with the somewhat more genteel inter-war time period make this a series that is suitable for and could appeal to a wide range of readers.

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Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: Library.
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Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton – Book Review

Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton
Published by Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of Harper Collins

When Martin’s brother Leon disappears without a trace, Martin is forced to leave his, admittedly not very happy or successful, life in New York to return to his family’s home in North Carolina. Having the family – obviously excepting Leon – back together again forces the Owenby family members to confront both their past and present secrets.

It is difficult to do justice to “Under the Mercy Trees” in a synopsis, as it is very much a discovery of who the characters are in the present, and what past events have shaped them. Newton draws her characters in a way that makes them immediately compelling. Martin, who is sure that he cannot live as a gay man in a mountain town of North Carolina, Ivy, who sees the ghosts that surround any family and any place, the rest of their friends and family, all of them are fascinating, even when they are being petty or unlikable.

Although I wouldn’t classify this as a mystery, precisely, I was engrossed the entire time reading this by the question of what happened to Leon, as well as the lesser mysteries of what exactly happened in the lives of the families all those years ago.

A fabulous read and a haunting debut, I think that “Under the Mercy Trees” has a fairly wide appeal, and it is a book I definitely recommend.

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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

Source: publisher.
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