Southern Ghostbusters, Izzy Brannick-Style: A Review of Rachel Hawkins' School Spirits

Monday, March 25, 2013

This past Friday I received the best birthday gift from NetGalley possible: a copy of Rachel Hawkins' SCHOOL SPIRITS, a book I pre-ordered on Amazon months ago. Usually the books available from NetGalley are from debut authors or writers who aren't well-known yet, so I was surprised (and delighted) to find a highly anticipated book from a NYT-bestselling author like Hawkins there.  

SCHOOL SPIRITS is a fast, fun spin-off for any fans of the HEX HALL series or Rachel Hawkins herself. The story follows Izzy Brannick, the younger cousin of Sophie Mercer, the protagonist of Hawkins' HEX HALL series. Sophie doesn't make an appearance, but Izzy and the other new characters we meet are compelling enough that I wasn't longing to be back at Hex Hall with Sophie, Archer, and Jenna. 

Without giving too much away, the basic plot of the novel is that Izzy is forced to attend a regular high school in Mississippi after a ghost attacks one of the teachers. Izzy is one of the last of the Brannicks, a family of female warriors who hunt Prodigium (supernatural creatures), and she is charged with going undercover at the school, playing the role of a regular high school sophomore, in order to find the ghost and eliminate it. Izzy has never spent much time around regular human teenagers, so of course her interactions with them as she learns how to navigate the delicate social sphere of an American high school are entertaining and often hilarious. Mary Evans High is not a school out of MEAN GIRLS, CLUELESS, or GLEE, though. The characters are more than just cliquish stereotypes pulled from Hollywood's idea of high school. MEHS seemed much more authentic (at least to the American South), and even though I've been out of high school for...a few years now, as a former high school teacher and Southern student, I could identify with the small town world Hawkins builds and her characterization of high school life. At the same time, people from OUTSIDE the South shouldn't read that description and think this is a book full of y'alls, cowboy boots, shotguns, pick-up trucks, and other Southern stereotypes. The South has those things, obviously, but most books and movies set in the South show a version of it I don't even recognize. Hawkins' South is much closer to the real thing, I think.

The best part of the book is Izzy herself, though. Her voice is witty and endearing. She's immensely likable and very funny, like Sophie, but has a personality and voice all her own. Although I loved the characters Dex and Romy, too, my favorite secondary character was probably Torin, who really comes alive here. In SPELL BOUND, Torin had a minor role but seemed more of a decorative piece, whereas here his personality is really well-developed and Hawkins uses him well to propel the story forward.

My only real issue with the novel is that it appears to be a stand-alone, yet some of the problems are unresolved or open-ended in a way that left it open to sequels. I'd love to read more of Izzy's story, so I hope Hawkins considers writing at least one sequel, if not giving Izzy a trilogy of her own.


The Commitmentphobe Buys a House

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

At first, T.J. didn't appreciate it too much when I told him buying a house was the biggest commitment I'd ever made. Sure, marriage is a big commitment, but a marriage doesn't necessarily tie you physically and financially to one spot on the planet. Some marriages might, if you marry someone averse to travel or being away from his family or who is tied to a career in a specific location, but thankfully my husband isn't like that. (And, honestly, I wouldn't have married anyone who was.)

It isn't that I never thought we'd buy a house. Owning a home is part of the American dream. But when our realtor Lisa called to say our offer on our near-dream home was accepted, I suddenly realized what a BFD home-buying is, and I turned a little green. 

After T.J. moved from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, his house sat on the market for nearly three years before finally selling at a loss. That's 36 months of mortgage payments, utility bills, hired lawn care, all gone. So what that experience taught me, perhaps erroneously, is that buying a house means you are stuck in a place or, if you try to leave when the market is unfavorable, you're going to be financially drained by it. My wanderlust kicked into overdrive at the very thought of homeownership. 

Still, the rental market in the Huntsville area was pathetic, so we didn't have many options. We'd outgrown apartment living and could find no reasonably priced houses or duplexes for rent in decent condition. Buying looked like the only good option. 

On our very first full day back in Alabama (February 1), we spent the day with realtor Lisa, a friend of T.J.'s family, touring 10+ houses in southeast Huntsville. I'd combed Trulia, Zillow, and, looked through hundreds of listings and countless pictures, to narrow our list down to houses of a certain size, in a certain area, in a certain price range. We saw some contenders, but nothing we were in love with, nothing that said this is our home. I grew up in the country and didn't realize how much that had affected me until I started looking at houses with tiny backyards, or with five sets of neighbors staring into the backyard. We quickly learned how much superficial things like chain-link fences and above-ground utilities bothered us. And although we wanted a house in a more established neighborhood (with trees!), we wanted one that didn't require a ton of updating and remodeling. But the only two houses with private backyards (backing a green belt) needed at least $50,000-$100,000 worth of work just to be livable. We toured only one house we could honestly see ourselves in (and even it had a tiny backyard surrounded by neighbors), and when we decided to drive by it the very next day, found a "SOLD ANOTHER ONE" sign in the front yard! We couldn't believe our (rotten) luck. Just the previous weekend, we'd found a house that we thought was the one (with a lovely backyard of willow trees, a stone's throw from T.J.'s parents), and it sold before we could tour it--after sitting on the market for 6+ months.

While Lisa worked with some visiting out-of-town clients that weekend, we drove neighborhoods looking for "for sale" signs. We drove all over the northeast side of town, over the mountain in Hampton Cove, in Owens Cross Roads. We looked at older, established areas on the south side of town and brand-new developments of cookie-cutter houses, like something out of the Truman Show (so said T.J.). We were feeling more and more down about the loss of the other two houses that had sold just after we discovered them. We drove past the rest of the houses on the list we'd given to Lisa and ruled them out because of the neighborhoods, the neighbors, the steepness of the driveways, the school districts. After three days of full-time house searching, we were tired and dejected. We decided to take the night off to go to a movie, but we ended up house searching on our computers anyway.

Finally, we decided to look at houses in Madison, the neighboring city to Huntsville. T.J.'s commute would be about the same either way and some of the school districts were just as good as those in SE Huntsville, so we decided to give it a shot. We narrowed our list down to five or six houses and went out around dusk just to drive by them. One in particular we loved practically on first sight. We loved the neighborhood. We loved the curb appeal. We loved that the house had a huge backyard and backed up to a relatively quiet road, so the yard felt private. 

We sent our list of Madison contenders to Lisa, and the next day we drove out to see them. We ruled out several almost immediately. And then we toured the house we'd loved on sight. And we loved the inside even more. It just felt like home. So sunny, warm, with a good flow and lots of functional space. It had almost everything on our wishlist: four bedrooms, a study for me, a playroom for future kids, 2.5 baths, plenty of garage/storage space. We took T.J.'s parents and sister back the next day to see it, and that night we wrote up our offer. Less than 24 hours later, the homeowners had countered and we had accepted. We were going to be homeowners.

We are going to be homeowners. At 4:00 today, we will sign the papers that will officially make this house ours:

I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm more than a little overwhelmed and intimidated. But I'm so ready to call this house our home. 


Moving to Madison

Monday, March 4, 2013

By now this post is less an announcement than an acknowledgement that T.J. and I have moved back to Alabama. If you'd told me six months ago (or even two months ago) we'd be back here, I wouldn't have believed you. But fate has a funny way of backing you into the least expected (yet somehow inevitable) corners.

You might have noticed that the blog went silent during the last third of 2012, in part because right after I said on Aug. 27 that we were hoping to make a permanent move soon, we decided to throw caution to the wind and he turned in his sixty-day notice to the university. In some fields, sixty days is probably plenty of time to find a new job and relocate, but the world of higher education moves much more slowly, so although he spent the next two months applying to more than forty jobs all around the country, we heard very little during that time. Even though we knew we couldn't move until after the semester ended and I was finished teaching, it started looking less and less like he would have a new position by the start of the spring semester. Then, right before Thanksgiving, he started getting daily calls for phone interviews. In a two-week span, he did around 15+ phone interviews with schools from around the country, from private colleges in Boston to prestigious public universities in California. Then, right before Christmas break, the calls for on-campus interviews started coming in. I have no idea why hiring committees wait until the end of the semester--by all accounts one of the most stress times of the academic year--to start moving on these searches and interviewing and bringing candidates on campus, but we were just thankful that there was finally some movement, some hope, that he would have a job soon.

He did three on-campus interviews in the two weeks immediately before Christmas, and he received his first offer when we were in New York for our anniversary. It was a tempting offer in a fantastic metropolitan area, a place where the cost of living wasn't outrageous and we'd have access to museums, live music, parks and festivals, organic grocery stores, international cuisine. But the job wasn't a good fit for him and we worried that taking it would mean another move in a couple of years. We'd agreed that this next move should be good for both of us, should be an opportunity to settle down for at least five years or so while we started our family and he got his doctorate. It was a tough decision, but he turned the job down, trusting that something else would come through.

In January, we returned to Pennsylvania after a couple of weeks in Alabama visiting friends and family, and the position we were in suddenly got very scary. We had to be out of our house by the end of January, and we still had no idea where we were moving. We knew he had two more on-campus interviews in the coming weeks but had no idea if he would receive an offer from either place.

Thankfully, both interviews went extremely well, and when he was at the second interview he actually got an offer from the first place. Because of the nature of these searches, the second place still had another week of interviews before they would be able to make a decision, so even though he was told he was in the top two candidates for that position, he had to accept the first position before hearing the results of the second. Which is how we came to be back in Alabama.

If we'd had another week to give an answer, who knows, we might be living in Washington State right now.

When we started the job search, he applied to jobs around the country, but we specifically targeted the West Coast and Boston area. In the South, we targeted Florida. I believe he applied to around seven schools in Florida. None even called for a phone interview. He applied to two in Alabama and got on-campus interviews at both. How bizarre is that?

So that's how after a nationwide search we came to find ourselves back in our home state, and not even just our home state, but T.J.'s hometown. A part of me will always wonder, what if? What if we'd moved to the West Coast, to Washington, to that beautiful little city on the Puget Sound, just minutes from the Canadian border? It's about as far from Alabama (physically and philosophically) as you can get and still be in the continental U.S. And I know I would have been happy there, would have felt like I belonged in a way that I've never felt in Alabama.

But another part of me is just happy to be back in civilization, minutes from shopping, dining, stadium-seating movie theaters (surprisingly difficult to find in central PA). And the OCD over-planner in me is just happy that at least some uncertainties are coming to an end. After all these months, it feels good that T.J. is now back at work, that I'm working on my dissertation again, that some normalcy is returning to our lives.

No kidding, we got this fortune two days after moving back to Alabama! 


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