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Friday, December 31, 2010

A Global Resolution: The International Book Challenge

As we move into a new year, many book clubs and individuals are taking various reading challenges that will run to the end of 2011 (I wrote about one of these in my last post). Since I am often a bandwagon-jumper, I decided to come up with a challenge of my own. It wasn't all that difficult, given that I have a fondness for books in translation, revere foreign authors, and hope to someday live in Barcelona.

Thus, my reading challenge for 2011 is The International Book Challenge. It's fairly self-explanatory, but here are a few guidelines ("rules" sounds too strict; reading should be fun):

  • The goal is to read books by as many "foreign" authors as possible. For the purposes of this challenge, foreign means not born in your country.
  • Reading the work in translation is perfectly acceptable; some of you are able to read multiple languages, but most of us are not.
  • Try to step out of your comfort zone. If you've never read a Korean or Somali novelist, ask your local bookseller to suggest a good one; you might be pleasantly surprised.

Here are the achievement levels, based on number of countries "visited" in 2011:

  • Homebody: 0-2 countries visited
  • Budget Traveller: 3-6 countries visited
  • Frequent Flier: 7-9 countries visited
  • Marco Polo: 10 or more countries visited

If you don't think 10 is an achievable number, consider the following partial list of novelists and their country of birth that are "foreign" to me:

  1. Roberto Bolano - Chile
  2. Umberto Ecco - Italy
  3. Carlos Fuentes - Mexico
  4. Amos Oz - Israel
  5. Geraldine Brooks - Australia
  6. Antonio Munoz Molina - Spain
  7. Mikkel Birkegaard - Denmark
  8. Paulo Coelho - Brazil
  9. Henning Mankell - Sweden
  10. Mario Vargas Llosa - Peru

Keep in mind that the list above doesn't mention even one of the "classics:" Alexandre Dumas (France), Anton Chekhov (Russia), Jane Austen (England), or James Joyce (Ireland), to name just a few. So the problem won't be finding enough authors, but rather paring the list down to a manageable number.

While there are no prizes for successfully completing this challenge, I can assure you that as a reader you will gain great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. I may even post a list of the Marco Polo-level folks in a 2011 year end blog, if you send me your names.

Happy New Year, and happy reading.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Big Resolution: The 2011 Chunkster Challenge

The start of each new year always brings new resolutions, challenges, and goals; the most common resolutions involve dieting, exercising, or some other painful pursuit. This year, why not set an enjoyable goal in addition to those unpleasant ones? And what's more enjoyable than reading a really big book?

Registration is now open for the 2011 Chunkster Challenge (click the link for the sign-up page). This challenge is, simply put, all about reading fat books (or thick, chunky, stout...whatever word you prefer). The Challenge runs from February 1, 2011 through January 31, 2012. These are the guidelines:

What is a Chunkster:

  • A Chunkster is 450 pages or more of ADULT fiction or nonfiction ... A Chunkster should be a challenge.

A Few Rules: 
  • No Audio books allowed
  • No e-Books allowed
  • No Short Stories and Essay collections
  • No need to list your books ahead of time

Levels of Participation:
  1. The Chubby Chunkster - this option is for the reader who wants to dabble in large tomes, but really doesn't want to commit to much more than that. four Chunksters is all you need to finish this challenge.
  2. The Plump Primer - this option is for the slightly heavier reader who wants to commit to six Chunksters over the next twelve months.
  3. Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big? - this option is for the reader who can't resist bigger and bigger books and wants to commit to six Chunksters from the following categories: 2 books which are between 450 - 550 pages in length; 2 books which are 551 - 750 pages in length; 2 books which are GREATER than 750 pages in length.
  4. Mor-book-ly Obese - This is for the truly out of control chunkster. For this level of challenge you must commit to eight or more Chunksters, of which three must be 750 pages or more. You know you want to.....go on and give in to your cravings.
For a list of some of the books that fit this challenge, see the book suggestions page.

I know the rules say there is no need to list your books ahead of time, but if I don't there will be no accountability, so here are the ones I plan to finish during the challenge:

1. Ulysses (maybe doing it as part of a challenge will help me actually finish the thing)
2. Drood
3. Wolf Hall
4. The Secret History
5. Queen Margot
6. A Conspiracy of Paper
7. Gone With the Wind
8. Middlemarch
9. The Library of Shadows

Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas

A Christmas video...great song, great band.


Hope everyone has a great holiday. Back to the book reviews after Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Great Christmas Movie: The Godfather


In an earlier post on books adapted to film, I wrote that The Godfather may be the only example where the film is clearly as good or better than what was also an outstanding novel. With Christmas a week away, it is worth noting that The Godfather is also a fine Christmas book/movie. Everyone includes Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life (along with a few newer additions like Scrooged and Elf) on their best holiday films list. But the one that no one seems to include is not only a fine holiday film, but one of the best ever made in any genre.

At first glance, The Godfather may not seem like a typical Christmas classic, what with the Mafia and murders and such, but a closer look reveals that it touches on most of the things that we supposedly care about during this festive time of year, and what we want in our holiday films and books:

1. A Christmas setting. At least part of the film, and in fact one of the most pivotal parts, occurs during the Christmas holidays: the scene early in the film where Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) is shot by rival gangsters. At roughly the same time, consigliere Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall) is kidnapped by men from the same crime family that shot the Don, and what is he doing? He's Christmas shopping. Before being released he is taken to a diner near a lot selling Christmas trees. It couldn't be more holiday-friendly if the Grinch walked into the scene with Tiny Tim on his back.

2. Christmas is one of the only times of the year that many people go to church. One of the final scenes in the film show the baptism of the nephew of Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino). The scene shows an entire Catholic baptism ritual, in both Latin and English. It doesn't get much more church-like than that, even with the assassination of the heads of the five New York crime Families intercut throughout the baptism.

3. The holidays are about family. We constantly hear about how the holidays are a time for family, and our Christmas films must mirror that. Well, there has never been a film more centered on family than The Godfather. Everything these characters do is done in the name of family, usually to the exclusion of any outsiders. At one point, Michael Corleone warns his brother Fredo (played by John Cazale): "Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever takes sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever." That ranks right up there with "God bless us, everyone" in the Pantheon of holiday sentiments.

So when you sit down this Christmas season to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, don't forget The Godfather. It's a holiday offer you can't refuse.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Captain Alatriste: A Review

Acclaimed Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte is probably most well known for his bestselling novel The Club Dumas (and the ill-advised film version starring Johnny Depp). However, he is also the author of a wonderful series set in 17th century Spain, the first installment of which is titled Captain Alatriste. If you thought the swashbuckling novel died with Alexandre Dumas, think again.

In many ways, Captain Alatriste is almost a Spanish version of The Three Musketeers, combining real history with fictional adventure in a way that both entertains and informs. As with the Dumas classic (and all good historical fiction), true events are often bent to fit the flow of the story, but who really cares? You're not studying for an exam on the Golden Age of Spain; you're escaping the modern world to roam the streets of 1620s Madrid, sword in hand.

Perez-Reverte is a very skilled writer, and his words bring Madrid of 400 years ago to life on every page. In 300 pages he gives us ominous masked figures, Italian assassins, rogue priests, the Inquisition, a war in Flanders, painters, poets, and royalty, and the coolest swordsman this side of Aramis (or was it Porthos?).

The plot conforms to the traditional swashbuckling adventure tale: the famous but down on his luck soldier Captain Diego Alatriste is hired by three mysterious (yet obviously important) men to murder two Englishmen who have traveled to Madrid. When Alatriste and his fellow brigand (the aforementioned Italian assassin) encounter the pair, Alatriste is so impressed by the fact that his opponent asks that his friend be spared (while asking no quarter for himself), he stops the Italian from killing the other Englishman and then leads the pair to safety. This good deed earns Alatriste both gratitude and enmity from some surprising people, and how he navigates his way through the maze of alliances keeps the pages turning.

The pace of the story is handled expertly; there are breaks in the action at just the right points, and the action returns before the narrative has a chance to become tedious. Alatriste is a flawed hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, a man who holds to his standards of loyalty and honor in a time when allegiances shifted with the wind. And the fight scenes are so realistic you can almost hear the clash of steel on steel.

Captain Alatriste sold more than one million copies in Spain alone, and it has become an international bestseller as well; the five installments that follow it have also been hugely successful worldwide. So if you enjoy adventure tales along the lines of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, you will certainly not be disappointed by Captain Alatriste.

Now into the fray...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Book Collector

As everyone knows, books make a great Christmas gift: they're portable, don't require 12 AAA batteries, and you don't have to stay up all night putting them together. There is no limit to the choices you have, either. From coffee table books to a favorite athlete's biography to the history of the Boer War, there's something for every taste and interest.

For the serious book collector on your list the choice of gifts is equally wide open, but you'll need to work a little harder. While your 17-year-old nephew may be satisfied with the new autobiography from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, your bibliophile aunt probably won't, even if she did rock out to "Sympathy for the Devil" at Altamont back in '69.

What follows are a few ideas sure to warm the heart of the book collector on your list. Some are truly collectibles, while some are simply books any bibliophile would likely enjoy.One thing worth noting is that for books to be collectible you should always get first printings of first editions, and if they are signed by the author the value only goes up; for these copies check AbeBooks, Biblio, or Alibris.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 by Mark Twain. This is the first in a planned three-volume set that, following Twain's wishes, was not to be released until 100 years after his death. Unlike a typical biography, this one meanders and rabbit-trails back and forth through the periods of Twain's life, with both humorous and insightful results. A must for any Twain fan.

Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books (3rd Edition) by Ian C. Ellis. This is the one time a later edition is better than an early one. Book Finds is a crash-course on book collecting that is valuable to novices and seasoned collectors alike. It covers everything from how to identify a first edition to grading the condition of a book. It also gives sound advice on both buying and selling and includes a list of what the author believes are the 1000 most collectible books as of the time of the 3rd Edition's release in 2006. The best thing about Book Finds is that it is written in a very readable style, in spite of the technical aspect of some of the information.

Subterranean Press Limited Editions. For the collector who loves the horror or fantasy genres, the specialty publishing house Subterranean Press has high quality signed limited editions of popular titles by well-known authors (from Jim Butcher to Ray Bradbury) at an affordable price. These are not to be confused with true first editions of these titles, but they are highly sought after by collectors nonetheless.

Heart-Shaped Box (signed) by Joe Hill. Unless you've been hibernating for the past couple of years, you know that Joe Hill's real name is Joe Hill King, son of Stephen King, and if his first few releases are any indication, he should have a run of success that will eventually rival his dad's. Signed first editions of Heart-Shaped Box are already selling for $70 at the low end, and when you consider that the average price of Stephen King's first novel Carrie in a signed first edition is $3000 and up, $70 will look like a great investment a few years from now. And just for the record, Heart-Shaped Box is a great read.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee. The San Francisco author who started as a clerk at a San Jose bookstore during his freshman year of college and continued in either book selling or as a publisher's sales rep for the next thirty years gives us a glimpse into the world of the bookseller that few knew existed. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the first papyrus scrolls and the great Library of Alexandria through the e-book and mega-chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Mixed throughout this 3000-year odyssey are Buzbee's own journey, his love of books, and some laugh-out-loud moments. By the time you finish the book, you will definitely want to sneak a peek into the back room of your local bookstore, hoping to see some of the things he has seen.

Booked to Die by John Dunning. All of the books in the mystery series featuring Denver cop-turned- rare book dealer Cliff Janeway are wonderful, but the first is still the best. It is a rare combination of murder-mystery and real-world information on books and book collecting. This is one you can give in paperback as a stocking-stuffer if your book-crazy loved one has never read it. But if you want to go the extra mile for a signed first edition, be prepared to pay. The first print run was only 6,500 copies (compared, for example, to the 12 million first run of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), so the book was scarce right out of the gate in 1992. A signed copy will cost anywhere from $700 up to $2500 depending on condition. Feel free to buy two and have Santa bring me one of them.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I will recommend this book until the day I die, and then I'll be buried with a copy. It touches on such diverse topics as forbidden love, the Spanish Civil War, and the innate need we have for books. It layers all of these things on the mystery of why a disfigured man is burning all of the copies of books by Julian Carax, an obscure author whose novel, The Shadow of the Wind, was discovered by main character Daniel Sempere when he was 10 years old. But be sure you have a lot of free time when you start this one; I stayed up all night reading the last 250 pages. Signed first editions can be found for around $200, but this is one book that every collector needs to have, signed or not.

If none of these choices sound quite right for your collector's Christmas stocking, you can always pick up a nice first printing of The Sun Also Rises for around $20,000 or a signed The Great Gatsby for $17,000. It's easily worth the price to (carefully) hold a piece of literary history in your hands. Just don't be upset when you only get socks or mittens in return; Christmas is about giving, after all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Oprah Scares the Dickens Out of Her Book Club

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...and for the millions of readers who religiously follow Oprah Winfrey's book club recommendations, it is now the scariest of times. Her latest selection is not something expected like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; this time she's gone double retro, picking Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities AND Great Expectations. All across America, readers are breaking out in cold sweats, flashing back to their 10th grade English class.

Sure, everyone says they've read Dickens. In reality, most people only know him through the various film versions of A Christmas Carol and the Cliff Notes of Oliver Twist that helped them squeak by with a C in English Lit 101. My advice to those who are hesitant to take this challenge: stop worrying and just do it. Rather than having a feeling of dread, we should all applaud this choice of two of Dickens' finest novels.

Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and although some of the language and customs in his books can be hard to follow at times, his humor, social commentary, and amazing characters are all timeless. Dickens was also the first true entertainment superstar; his novels were serialized in newspapers and magazines, causing circulation to skyrocket by their presence alone, and then still sold in huge quantities when later bound in book form. People lined up outside his publisher's office waiting for the latest installment of his most current novel, and thousands on both sides of the Atlantic attended the readings he gave from his books. That's right...people paid to listen to him read.

So while I often don't agree with Oprah's picks (the Eckhart Tolle period was particularly tragic), this time I believe she hit a home run. And if, as has been the case with her other picks, millions of people end up reading Charles Dickens because of her recommendation, lovers of great literature everywhere owe the lady a debt of gratitude.

Dickens for the holidays...truly the best of times.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Historian: A Review

W. Somerset Maugham opened his classic novel The Razor's Edge with the line "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving," and that sentiment certainly applied to me as I began reading Elizabeth's Kostova's novel The Historian. Having now finished her mammoth debut novel, the feeling really hasn't gone away.

The premise of the novel had grabbed me from the first time I read the publisher's blurb: a search across Europe, spanning three generations, in an effort to discover if Vlad Dracula, the historical 15th century impaler, might somehow still be alive. The market has been flooded with vampire books over the past several years (particularly in the Young Adult market), but a really good Dracula novel is always entertaining, and that was my hope for The Historian. Well, it was good...and it also wasn't.

As noted above, Kostova started with a really good premise. Stories with exotic locales, danger, and tried-and-true villains are typically a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. She also has a particular talent for historical detail; I came away from this book feeling like I was ready for a final exam on 15th century Eastern European history. And the clues that the main characters find along the way do a commendable job of moving the plot forward.

However, it is very difficult to care about these characters, given their two-dimensional limitations. Where Kostova excels as a historian (which is where her background apparently lies) she fails at creating characters we can relate to and empathize with. In addition, the dialog fails except when relating historical events, and to make matters worse, the book is nearly 650 pages long; it would have been better at half that length.

The biggest problem with this particular "Dracula" novel, however, is a complete lack of both Dracula and any type of suspense. At no point in the book was I even mildly alarmed, let alone actually scared, and a Dracula that's not scary is like chicken-fried steak without gravy: it may look like the real thing, but it's not.

I normally write reviews of books I think readers will enjoy. In this case I felt compelled to warn readers not to spend 650 pages worth of their valuable time on a book that is simply not worth it. If you want Dracula (or vampires in general), you're better off sticking with Bram Stoker's Dracula. Sometimes the original is still the best.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Best Villain Poll and the Hawk vs Ranger Result


About 10 days ago I wrote a post about the debate I've encountered as to which literary sidekick is cooler/tougher/sexier: Hawk from Robert Parker's Spenser series or Ranger from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books (I also threw in Sherlock Holmes' partner just for fun). The results are in:

Hawk: 47%
Ranger: 38%
Dr. Watson: 16%

I think the best thing to come out of this experiment has to be the number of readers who had never heard of Hawk or Spenser or read any of Robert Parker's novel's, but are now interested in doing so. I also got a few complaints because I did not include Robert Crais' character Joe Pike.

Now for the next poll (posted to right side of the page). Having considered cool/tough/sexy good guys, perhaps it's time now to consider villains, but not simply bad guys (there are lots of those), but genius bad guys. I have selected the first three that came to mind: Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis), Diogenes Pendergast (from the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novels), and Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter.

Much like the way I chose Hawk over Ranger, I asked myself a simple question: if I could choose only one criminal mastermind to help me corner the market on all things evil, who would I want? Oddly enough, it's the character about whom the least is written: Moriarty. After all, Sherlock Holmes did call him the Napoleon of Crime.

And as with Hawk and the Spenser books, if you've never read any of the Preston/Child novels, you're definitely missing out.

May the best...I mean worst...man win.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hawk or Ranger: Who is Cooler/Tougher/Sexier?

There's a debate that has come up occasionally among my mystery-loving friends (typically the females) as to which sidekick is cooler/tougher/sexier: Hawk from Robert Parker's Spenser series or Ranger from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. Now I actually have a way of determining an answer, albeit a totally non-scientific one.

I have posted a poll on the right side of this page that allows you to vote on your favorite: Hawk, the mysterious, wise-cracking, semi-criminal, always dangerous heartbreaker who has saved Spenser on more than one occasion; or Ranger, the mysterious, serious, ex-military, always dangerous heartbreaker who saves Stephanie Plum in almost every book.

I understand that the results could be skewed by the fact that many younger readers may not be familiar with Hawk. If that's the case, go right now and buy some of Parker's books. You won't be sorry.

As for my own vote, I made the decision this way: if I was trapped in an alley in Hell's Kitchen with only 4 bullets left and the Westies bearing down on me, who would I want by my side (at this point who's sexier really doesn't seem all that important)? Hawk, 100 times out of 100.

And just so the readers who like their sidekick a little more Victorian don't feel left out, I added a third choice to the poll: Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame.

May the best man win.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day

Here's an idea (and a link) that I think is worth sharing. Saturday December 4th is the first annual "Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day."

Organizer Jenny Milchman explained the goal of the event in an interview with Shelf Awareness: "We all know how much children love books. We've all heard them beg for a story, and seen their faces light up as they listen to one. But we think less about how a child would love the place so many books come from.

"A bookstore can lead a child to a book, with guidance and interest from booksellers, in a way that no website or digital device can. It's a place to read, dream, and play. A world of stimulation, and a refuge in a stimulating world.

"In order for bookstores to thrive and flourish in the future, children have to experience the unique pleasures they offer today."

She's summed it up much better than I could, and it's hard to believe no one thought of doing this before. Let all of your friends (and your local booksellers) know about this event.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Remembering Robert Parker

It's been almost a year since Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective series novels, died at the age of 77. Since 1973 Robert Parker has published 38 Spenser novels (and there are additional completed ones awaiting release), and particularly through the early books single-handedly saved the hardboiled detective legacy of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald.
It is not going too far to say that nearly every author writing detective fiction today owes a debt of gratitude to Robert Parker. Writers from Dennis Lehane to Robert Crais have acknowledged this fact in interviews, and for you Janet Evanovich fans, just understand that Spenser's Hawk paved the way for Stephanie Plum's Ranger.
It is no secret that Robert Parker idolized Raymond Chandler, and in what had to be one of the greatest experiences of his life was asked to finish the manuscript for "Poodle Springs," a novel begun by Raymond Chandler before his death in 1959. He later wrote "Perchance to Dream," the sequel to Chandler's classic "The Big Sleep." His work on both of these novels is only fitting, as Parker long ago joined the ranks of the Big Three of Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald.
I first started reading the Spenser novels over 25 years ago, and since that time the trio of Spenser, Hawk, and Susan Silverman have been my companions through long winter nights and lazy summer days. Through them I discovered the city of Boston, not necessarily as it is but as Spenser (and Parker) saw it, which is likely better by far. And I identified with Spenser's unique combination of romantic cynicism.
Various critics have said that some of the books, particularly in the mid-1980s, were not up to the standard set by the earlier novels, but that misses the point entirely. While some of the plots were better than others, what readers cared about was the characters; over the course of the series we got to really know and care about them, and each new book was like a reunion with an old friend. The fact that there will be no new reunions after the final books he wrote are released is still hard to fathom.
I never met Mr. Parker, but I feel I got to know him somewhat in the only way one can ever really know an author: through his characters, particularly the inimitable Spenser. He said in an interview once that there were a number of similarities he shared with his famous character: they were both Korean War veterans, and both loved baseball, jazz, and fine food.
"He does a great many things I don't believe," Parker once said in an Associated Press interview. "I don't know if he's more violent than I am. But he's more willing to enact it than I am. Let's just say we're not dissimilar."
So to Robert Parker I say thank you, for everything. While he may be gone, readers and fans can be comforted by the fact that Spenser lives on, just like Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And through him a part of Robert Parker will live on, both for those of us who grew up reading his words and for generations not yet born. I can't think of a much better legacy than that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Film Version of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" Will Boost Reading

Two weeks from now Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the seventh in the phenomenally successful Harry Potter film series, will be released to eager fans who have waited 16 months since the last film. Television, radio, and the Internet are awash with clips from the film and interviews with the stars, particularly "The Trio": Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson.

Make no mistake, the Harry Potter franchise is big business in a way never seen before. The books have sold over 400 million copies, and once the film series is completed in 2011, the films are expected to have grossed roughly 7 billion dollars. That's not a typo: $7 billion. While the Star Wars films posted huge numbers at the box office, the books that were written afterward dramatizing the films only appealed to a small audience. And while The DaVinci Code (inexplicably) sold a mountain of books, the film was less than spectacular. The Potter franchise is a double hit, made more impressive because this is a series of books and films that has continued to captivate audiences for more than a decade.

What may have been overlooked in the frenzy leading up to the film's release is the effect it is likely having on reading this fall. The Harry Potter book series may have wrapped up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows three years ago, but millions of kids, teens, and adults are re-reading the book prior to the November 18th opening of the movie, and many others are reading it for the first time. Given the fact that Deathly Hallows is a 780-plus page book, this is no small feat.

Furthermore, the book/film relationship has sparked an ongoing debate among readers over what has been left out of the film adaptations, what has been changed, and whether or not it's a good thing. Hopefully, such a debate will move readers beyond the fairly simple fan loyalty stage to a point of realization that many films started out as even better novels. The film versions of The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather, and The Lord of the Rings were indeed classics; the books were no less so.

As good as the Potter films are, the books remain king in this relationship. For more than a dozen years, J.K. Rowling and her boy wizard have done something many thought impossible: they made reading cool again, for adults as well as children. Prior to 1997, who would have imagined that millions of children would attempt to read an 800-page book in one sitting, or that their parents would be anxiously waiting for them to finish reading so they could start?

Each year a new wave of these children discover the books, sometimes before seeing any of the films, sometimes after, and often just before the release of a new Potter film. With the Harry Potter books, Rowling opened up a world of imagination to a generation of kids who thought for anything to be entertaining it had to have a plug, a screen, or an Internet connection. And these kids (and hopefully their parents as well) will keep reading, if only in the hope of finding another book or series that grabs them the way Harry Potter did.

Even if Rowling never writes another word, people everywhere who love books owe her a debt of gratitude for making reading a novel something we, and more importantly our children, look forward to. The newest Potter film may or may not be the best in the series so far, but it certainly has brought attention back to the books once more. That's a win-win situation for everyone.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Review

There has never been a more unlikely title for bestselling novel than The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. However, the runaway hit by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows has captivated readers around the globe in spite of the tongue-twister title; the book spent more than 30 weeks on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestsellers' List.
 
The narrative takes place immediately following World War II in both London and the English Channel island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 through the end of the war. The story centers around Juliet Ashton, an author and columnist in her early thirties, and her correspondence with her publisher, friends and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a group of islanders who used a love of books as way to survive the hardships of the German occupation.
 
By itself, the story would have appealed to many readers. What helps turn this book into a publishing mega-hit is that Shaffer and Barrows use a device seldom seen in fiction but used to great effect in books like Helene Hanff's 84, Caring Cross Road and C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters: the entire book consists of letters the characters wrote back and forth to each other.
 
The beauty of the letters-as-novel device is evident for several reasons. It gives the story a flow that lends to reading large chunks at a time (because there are no chapter breaks). It appeals to the voyeur in all of us; who doesn't love reading someone else's mail? And it makes it easy for the reader to forget that while the characters may have been based in part on real people and events, they aren't real people. As soon as we start believing that the characters really existed, the authors have won us over.
 
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is captivating because of its story of perseverance in wartime and the discovery of love in unexpected places; the hardships the islanders endure actually help keep the story from being mere lighthearted fluff. But at its heart, this is a book about books and the role they play in our lives. It shows that you are never too old to fall in love with the written word, and that you can be dramatically impacted by authors bold old and new. Shaffer and Barrows have certainly accomplished this with their own novel, and in doing so opened up a new world to countless readers.

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Top Five Vampires

In keeping with the Halloween spirit (no pun intended), I set out to compile a list of my favorite literary vampires. Along the way, I found that vampires tend to make more of an impression on the screen than on the page. Thus, only one of my Top 5 never escaped the pages of his novels, and two are solely film creations.

In any case, we have an ongoing fascination with these kings and queens of the undead, and some portrayals have been quite remarkable. Over the years writers and filmmakers have expanded, altered, and sometimes completely butchered (yes, I mean you, Stephenie Meyer) the vampire legend, but the following stand out for me.

1. Dracula. There's no way to do a list like this without the granddaddy of all vampires at the top. Bram Stoker's novel still stands as both a literary masterpiece and the finest depiction of the cursed Count. Many have tried to capture the essence of this character on-screen, from Gary Oldman's fine performance in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) to George Hamilton in the dreadful Love at First Bite (1979). In the end however, the original is still the best.

2. Selene (Underworld and Underworld:Evolution). Kate Beckinsale's portrayal of a werewolf-hunting death dealer made a whole generation of men rethink the notion that vampires aren't sexy. With a black Lycra bodysuit, blazing pistols, and just enough fangs to be menacing, Selene holds her own with any male vampire around. Her battle with both werewolves and rogue vampires adds an interesting twist to the typical vampire tale.

3. Lestat (Interview with the Vampire). One of the few Tom Cruise roles I actually liked; his film portrayal of Anne Rice's anti-hero was impressive, even to Rice, who initially did not agree with the casting choice. In the novel, Lestat is scary and sad at the same time, not easy for someone with Cruise's limited range. He also gives us the first real portrayal of a homosexual vampire; if you didn't see the attraction between Lestat and Louis (Brad Pitt), you weren't paying much attention.

4. Felix Gomez. Mario Acevedo's vampire-turned-private investigator may not be widely known, but with several novels out in the series, that will change. The titles alone are worth the price of the books: The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, X-Rated Blood Suckers, Jailbait Zombies, etc. Felix is an Iraq war vet (as is Acevedo) who was turned into the undead by an Iraqi vampire. Now he uses his supernatural powers to solve crimes, all the while agonizing over his reluctance to feed on humans. He's a hard case with a heart; think Spenser with fangs.

5. Santanico Pandemonium (From Dusk Till Dawn). Only Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino could create a smokin' hot lead singer of a Tejano rock band of vampires and then talk Salma Hayek into taking the role. And Santanico's last name is well deserved: all hell breaks loose at the end of her song, with the band fanging the customers while Pandemonium sets her sights on making Seth (George Clooney) her undead slave. Forget Ali-Frazier; Selene and Santanico in a bare-knuckle fight would break all pay-per-view records.

And yes, I purposely left off anything remotely related to the Twilight series. As Bram Stoker would tell you, vampires don’t sparkle in the sunlight; they burst into flames and burn to a crisp.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Coffeehouse Mystery Series: A Review

If there are two things Americans can't live without, it's coffee and murder. This combination is one of several things that make the Coffeehouse Mystery series by Cleo Coyle so enjoyable. While Cleo Coyle also writes the Haunted Bookshop series under the pen name Alice Kimberly, in reality, both Coyle and Kimberly are the husband and wife team of Alice Alfonsi and Marc Cerasini.

The first book in the Coffeehouse Mystery series, On What Grounds, introduces us to Claire Cosi, the manager of the historic Village Blend coffee house in Greenwich Village and her ex-husband Matteo (Matt) Allegro, an international coffee trader and the Village Blend's coffee buyer. They are an interesting pair, more like Maddie and David from Moonlighting than Nick and Nora Charles.

The Village Blend turns out to be more than a great coffeehouse; it's also a magnet for murder, but at least you can get a good Tall Vanilla Latte before you get put in a body bag. Claire and Matt solve the crime while still slinging double espressos and debating the state of their relationship, all with the help of their slightly eccentric staff and New York homicide detective Mike Quinn.

The plotlines in the Coffeehouse Mystery series tend to follow the standard cozy mystery format, complete with the classic locked-room murder (in the first book) and limited, understated violence. But like most successful series' (Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books come immediately to mind), the Coffeehouse Mystery novels are mainly character-driven. We care about the characters, and are as interested in their interaction while solving the crime as in the solution itself.

There are currently nine titles in the series: On What Grounds, Through the Grinder, Latte Trouble, Murder Most Frothy, Decaffeinated Corpse, French Pressed, Espresso Shot, Holiday Grind, and Roast Mortem. By this point many of these types of mysteries become predictable and repetitive; fortunately this one has not.

The novels are quick reads, and you also get a fun, yet informative, education on all things coffee. The back of the books even contain recipes of some of the deserts and coffee drinks made during the course of the story. By the end of the first book you'll know far more than your local Starbucks barista, and will have a greater appreciation of the greatest drink the world has ever produced.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

Every November tens of thousands of would-be novelists take up the challenge of National Novel Writing Month in the attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, enters its 12th year, let's take a look at this literary phenomenon. And before someone says this is a blog about books, not writing...try having books without authors.

It has been said that virtually everyone dreams of writing a novel at some point in their life. Whether it's the first time they read a Hardy Boy's mystery or Tom Sawyer or Paradise Lost (well, maybe not Paradise Lost), everyone comes to a point while reading that they say to themselves, "I could have written that." For me, the dream started at about eight years old, the first time I read Alfred Hitchcock's The Three Investigator's series. Most people eventually abandon this dream, along with the dream of being President or an astronaut.

But as evidenced by the steady growth of participants over the years, NaNoWriMo proves that not everyone gives up the dream. It may lay dormant for long periods, but the pull is always there, like a siren calling them toward some distant literary rocks. For me, a harmless web search for writing sites in 2005 brought 30 years of dreaming, wishing, and procrastinating crashing into the scary reality of possibility when I discovered http://www.nanowrimo.org/.

When I first found out about National Novel Writing Month during that web search in October of 2005, I though it was the craziest idea I had ever heard. I had been dreaming of writing a novel since I was a kid, and had been working on one novel off and on for more than 10 years, and these lunatics were suggesting that you could write one in 30 days? I checked out the website, more to prove to myself that it was a ridiculous notion than with the idea of participating. I was completely wrong.

Chris Baty started NaNoWriMo in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. He claims it was partly to have something to do and partly as a way to get dates. In 2009 over 119,000 people participated, with over 21,000 completing 50,000 words in 30 days.

The basics of the "contest" are simple. During the month of November, you write a 50,000-word novel, which comes out to roughly 175 pages. On a daily basis, this is 1667 words per day, which sounds a lot less frightening than 50,000. You must start from scratch (no trying to complete something you've already started), and you cannot, or at least should not, edit any of what you write before you finish; Baty says if you do not silence your inner editor, a legion of guilt monkeys will descend upon you. The goal is to push through to the end, regardless of how bad much of the book will be. When you have conquered actually finishing this rough draft, you can then go back and edit. The way you "win" is to reach 50,000 words by November 30th.

NaNoWriMo 2005 was the breakthrough for me. Just knowing that there were thousands of people around the world hammering away at their keyboards at the same time I was made me feel less alone in the process, and having a set deadline helped me stick to the daily word requirement. After 10 years slogging away, starting and stopping, and never getting anywhere on my own, it pushed me over the top. On November 30, 2005 the first draft of my novel God, Guns, and the Perfect Chicken-Fried Steak was complete, with just over 51,000 words. In November 2006 I finished my second novel, The Candy Man, while continuing the editing of the first. Will either ever make the best-seller's list? Probably not, but that's not the point. (And I have to admit I was a total failure from 2007-2009, not finishing in any of those years...2010 will be different).

This method may not be right for everyone, but if you need a push, this is the way to go. There are forums and encouraging e-mails from Chris Baty, and all over the country local groups meet once a week during November to write together. In some ways, it's like a big party that ends not with a hangover, but with a finished novel. Each year also features guest authors giving words of encouragement throughout the month.

One word of caution, though. As with any writing class (and the contest is essentially a hands-on class on speed novel writing), there are benefits and drawbacks to NaNoWriMo. Writing a novel is a monumental task, especially if you have never gotten beyond page five in spite of years of trying. The daily word-count goal breaks the process down to a more manageable size. Refusing to edit as you write the first draft allows creativity to run amok, whereas re-working the same sentence on page one 50 times will kill creativity in a heartbeat.

It is also a great encouragement to know that thousands of other people around the world are writing at the same time you are. For some, simply writing 50,000 words is enough, no matter how bad the plot, dialogue, and overall quality may be. There are people who have taken part in nearly every National Novel Writing Month contest since 1999. For many, it is a month-long excuse to meet friends at Starbucks while pretending to hammer out a few hundred words. For some it's exactly what Chris Baty originally envisioned: a way to meet girls.

The danger is that for those who do take it seriously, the adrenaline of the speed-writing format can be so addictive, and the camaraderie so strong, that they cannot write any time except November. It's a great way to get past your first novel-length piece of fiction or as a jump-start if you're blocked, but writing is something that's meant to be done every day. It's a way of life, not something done on a seasonal schedule like duck hunting.

If only as a writing exercise, NaNoWriMo is something every writer should do at least once. It is only a starting point in the journey, not the destination itself, but if you're trying to finish a novel for the first time and need a push, there's no better route to go.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Prince of Mist: A Review

Almost a decade before he burst on the international scene with the mega-bestseller The Shadow of the Wind, author Carlos Ruiz Zafon released his first book, a Young Adult novel titled The Prince of Mist. It was the first of four YA novels that until this year were only available in Spanish. Thankfully for Zafon's legions of English-speaking fans, these will be translated and released over the next four years, one each year. The Prince of Mist is the first of the newly translated books.
 
Most readers in the U.S. and U.K. know Zafon primarily through The Shadow of the Wind, which was both a critical and commercial smash, selling more than 15 million copies worldwide. And most of those readers likely thought it was also his first novel. But in 1992 Zafon published The Price of Mist, a book that in reality goes well beyond the Young Adult tag his Spanish publishers saddled it with. Zafon himself has said he did not write it for teen readers, but rather for everyone who loves to read.
 
The book is set in an unnamed country in 1943, in keeping with Zafon's habit of placing his books in the early to mid part of the 20th century. To distance his family from the encroaching menace of World War II, watchmaker Maximilian Carver moves them from the city to a small coastal town. Right after this move his 13-year-old son Max and 15-year-old daughter Alicia begin to experience strange and troubling occurrences. Along with their new friend Roland, the nearby lighthouse keeper's grandson, they begin searching for answers to the mystery of the Carver's new house, a sunken ship that lies just off their coast, and a mythic and possibly demonic figure known as the Prince of Mist.
 
This book is considerably shorter at 214 pages than the 400+ pages of The Shadow of the Wind and the book that followed it, The Angel's Game. This is not surprising, as the plot of The Prince of Mist is not nearly as intricate as Zafon's two most recent novels. Nor does it have the same level of suspense that is generated in those two "adult market" efforts. But the novel is very, very good, and in it we get a glimpse of what Zafon will give us in those later books, particularly in his ability to use beautiful language to give the reader a real sense of mood and place.
 
In both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game one of the characters says the following:
"Every book has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."
 
This was certainly true of those books, and it is equally true of The Prince of Mist. This is a book that not only gives us amazing writing but also gives a glimpse into the early development of one of the greatest writers of the past 100 years. Buy this book, give it to your friends, and read it with your children. It may be the best 200 pages you read this year.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

People of the Book: A Review

Geraldine Brooks is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, but her follow-up effort, The People of the Book, may be even better. The novel is, interestingly enough, the fictional story of a real-life book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the first Jewish religious books to contain images, written and illuminated at a time when only Christian texts were illuminated because both Jews and Muslims considered it idolatrous.
 
The main human character is rare book expert Hanna Heath, and the book's journey from Spain in 1492 to 1996 Sarajevo is unveiled through some very small items she finds while restoring the book: an insect wing, missing silver clasps, some salt crystals, a wine stain, and a single white hair. As Hanna pursues her scientific investigation of the book, a series of vignettes explain how these sparse items trace the history of the Haggadah over the past 500 years: from Spain at the time of the Inquisition to Renaissance Venice to Sarajevo in both World War II and the ethnic wars of the 1990s.
 
Taken by itself, the part of the narrative featuring Hanna and her efforts regarding the preservation of the book is much like any number of other bibliomysteries, from The Name of the Rose to The Codex to The Dante Club. There is the requisite love story featuring Hanna and the Bosnian Muslim curator of the Museum, a man who saved the book from the destruction of the National Library during the civil war. The numerous sections dealing with Hanna's strained relationship with her surgeon mother sometimes slow the pace down unnecessarily. And there is, of course, a plot twist at the end that is indeed quite surprising.
 
What sets this book apart, however are the vignettes about the book's history and journey. Each is like a short story within the novel and stands alone as outstanding story-telling in their own right, with fully formed plots and three-dimensional characters you really want to know much more about. And these otherwise disparate tales are woven into a timeline that dovetails seamlessly with the present-day part of the story, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.
 
Geraldine Brooks does an amazing job of pulling this ambitious literary endeavor together and guiding it to a very satisfactory conclusion. She once again exhibits the talent that was obvious both in March and her debut novel, and we can only hope that she will continue delivering novels this good well into the future.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Help: A Review

The Help was certainly the surprise bestseller of 2009; more than a year later Kathryn Stockett's debut novel is so popular that the hardback version remains on the New York Times Bestseller List. On the surface it would seem to be an unlikely hit; even the plot description on the inside flap of the dust jacket sounds suspiciously like a "chick book." However, The Help is so much more than that.
 
The novel is the story of a small group of young white women and the African-American maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. It would have been easy for Stockett to choose an extreme and write a romanticized antebellum-type novel like Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind or a hard-line civil rights story along the lines of Mississippi Burning. Fortunately, she does both, and neither.
 
The first thing that sets this book apart is that the characters, both black and white, are drawn as creatures of their time, with as little of our 21st century hindsight layered on as possible. They wrestle with (and against) the ideas of civil rights, but not in a vacuum; it happens in the midst of their everyday lives while they raise children, go to church, hold down jobs, deal with husbands (both good and bad), and endure gossiping cliques. Men play a very secondary role in this story, but that is hardly even noticeable once the book has hooked you.
 
The three main characters are Skeeter, a white girl in her early twenties who wants to write a book from the perspective of the black maids, a project that meets with much more resistance from the maids themselves than Skeeter imagined; Aibileen, the maid who most supports Skeeter and recruits others to the project but whose main concern is the white children she cares for; and Minny, a maid who, while the most vocal and rebellious is also the most reluctant to tell her story to Skeeter.
 
Stockett uses a style in The Help that can easily lose a reader if not done well: she tells the story from the viewpoint of the three main characters, usually in alternating chapters. Fortunately she does a fine job with this device, and is able to move the narrative along at a fast pace while still showing multiple points of view. She also writes in a Mississippi vernacular when the maids are speaking, which takes a little getting used to, but in the end helps us easily identify the speaker simply by their unique voice.
 
For all its civil rights aspects, however, The Help is more of a story about women than race. It is the story of the many layers and levels of the relationships between these women, with each other, their children, their husbands, their community, and their times. It is rarely preachy and is always compelling. Best of all, it is a story you think about and talk about long after the book is finished, which is a feat all good novels aspire to but few achieve.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo: A Review

Author Steven Galloway's novel The Cellist of Sarajevo packs a lot of emotion into its slim 256 pages as we follow the sometimes-intertwined stories of four characters trapped during the devastating Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s. Much has been written and reported about the large-scale atrocities committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia; this novel brings the vast human tragedy down to a much more accessible scale.
 
The story begins with the unnamed cellist of the title determining to play for 22 days in the exact spot where a Bosnian Serb mortar killed 22 civilians as they waited in line to buy bread. In using this episode, Galloway begins his narrative with a basis in fact: in 1992, cellist Vedran Smajlović did this very thing for 22 days. But this is not a story about Smajlović; the cellist plays a relatively small role given his prominent place as the title character.
 
This novel is rather the story of the other three main characters. In alternating chapters we follow the harrowing daily struggles of Arrow, a young female sniper serving with city's defenders; Kenan, a man who must make regular (and dangerous) hours-long treks across the ravaged city to get water for his family and a cranky elderly neighbor; and Dragan, a 64-year-old baker who, after sending his wife and son to safety before the siege began now uses his access to bread to convince his sister to allow him to continue living in her house.
 
As they navigate through this perilous existence, each copes in very different ways. The young woman has taken "Arrow" as her new name and identity in the hopes that when the war is over she may be able to return to the person she was before it started. Kenan, fantasizes about the Sarajevo of his youth throughout his journey across the city, while wondering if it ever existed the way he remembers it. And Dragan has simply isolated himself from everyone and everything he knew, ignoring even friends as much as possible. Ultimately, however, each has a change of perspective and attitude, each one impacted by the man playing his cello every day at 4:00 p.m.
 
The Cellist of Sarajevo is a beautifully written novel that can at times become so filled with tension you have to stop reading for a moment. For many people it will be their first in-depth exposure to a vicious war of ethnic hatred on the European continent that raged for 4 years while the rest of the world looked away. It is also a story of survival and even redemption in a place where neither seems possible. It is a book you will continue to think about long after the final page.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane: A Review

Katherine Howe's debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was one of the surprise best-sellers of the past few years, made all the more so because of the strange title. In fact, the first time I saw the cover I thought it was about physics (fortunately I took the time to actually read the publisher's synopsis on the inside cover). Yet even clearing up the premise did not prepare me for how good, and original, this novel would be.

The story actually has dual protagonists: Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student in 1991, and Deliverance Dane, a woman in late 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. And while Connie's storyline takes up the majority of the novel, the sections featuring Deliverance Dane (and later her daughter and granddaughter) are by far the most compelling. It is in these vignettes that the reader learns a great deal about life in Salem at the time of the Witch Trials, and the lives of women in that society.

The plot starts out in a very straightforward manner: during summer break from grad school, Connie moves to her late grandmother's house in Marblehead (near Salem) to prepare the long-abandoned property to be sold. While there, she comes across an old key in a family Bible; inside the key is an ancient scrap of paper with two words on it: Deliverance Dane. This begins a search to discover who this woman was, which leads to a search for her "physick book," which is in reality a spell book. Connie sees this original source material as perfect for her doctoral dissertation, if only she can find it and at the same time avoid the malevolent presence that seems to lurk on the edges of her perception.

In spite of the fact that Katherine Howe is herself a doctoral candidate in New England Studies, the vast amount of historical detail she provides fits seamlessly into the story. The obligatory love-story subplot is actually both interesting and vital to the resolution of the tale, and Howe's cliffhanger chapter endings kept me turning the pages long into the night.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane will definitely cause you to rethink the long-held, nearly mythic stereotypes we have about both the Salem Witch Trials and "witchcraft" itself. Yet it happens so gradually as the story unfolds that by the end you may find yourself believing in magic just a little more than you did at the start of the book. Regardless, it is a wonderful first novel by an author that we can only hope will have a long publishing career.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Joe Hill's "Horns": A Review

Long before anyone knew he was the son of horror legend Stephen King, author Joe Hill's outstanding debut novel Heart Shaped Box made it clear that a major new voice had arrived on the literary scene. His second novel, Horns, shows that he was no one-hit wonder, and may ultimately have a career as successful and prolific as his famous father. And as he did with his first novel, Hill opens Horns with a hook that grabs readers right from the start.

Ignatius "Ig" Perrish wakes after a night of drunken chaos to find that two horns have sprouted from his head, and not just any horns: devil horns. But these horns are not mere ornaments; they've got powers as well, which is both a blessing and a curse for Ig. As he struggles with his new condition, he comes to understand that these powers can be used to find (and punish) the person who murdered his longtime girlfriend a year earlier, a crime for which no one was charged but for which Ig remains the prime suspect.

Like his father, Joe Hill is firmly planted in the horror genre. But Hill diverges from most horror writers in that he creates truly literary novels at the same time. His plotting is tight, and his characters, both hero and villain, are fully formed. In fact, what makes them so real is that none are completely hero or completely villain, just like in life. You find yourself caring about the characters because they are not cardboard cutouts of people, they're us (even with horns growing out of their heads).

In Horns Hill also delves into how we view religion, God, and most importantly Satan. He doesn't preach or cajole the reader toward a certain viewpoint, but by the end of the book even a Pentecostal preacher would find it hard not to have, as the Stones put it, some sympathy for the Devil. This may sound blasphemous now, but maybe not as much after reading the book.

If there is one "flaw" in Horns, it is the fact that some of the flashback sequences seem to slow the breakneck pace of the story. But perhaps this isn't a flaw at all, because it is the only time the reader has a chance to catch their breath. All told, Horns is an excellent second novel from a writer of great ability and limitless potential.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Books for Your Fall Reading List

It's time for my First Annual Fall Reading List, one that anyone can stick to. I have included fourteen books, one for each week between now and the week of Christmas. Some are new, most are older, and a few are ones you should have read in college but didn't. You will also find that some can easily be read in one day, leaving extra time for a longer one.

With a few exceptions the list leaves off current best sellers for the simple reason that these are not yet out in paperback. This is important because while most, if not all, are available at your local library, many cities are drastically cutting library staff and hours, making obtaining these books more difficult.

1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If I continue this list for the next 50 years, this book will still be first out of the gate. It has moved into a tie with The Razor's Edge as my all time favorite. It touches on such diverse topics as forbidden love, the Spanish Civil War, and the innate need we have for books. It layers all of these things on the mystery of why a disfigured man is burning all of the copies of books by Julian Carax, an obscure author whose novel, The Shadow of the Wind, was discovered by main character Daniel Sempere when he was 10. But be sure you have a lot of free time when you start this one; I stayed up all night reading the last 250 pages.

2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A runaway bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, the story takes place immediately following World War II in both London and the English Channel island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 through the end of the war. It centers around Juliet Ashton, an author and columnist in her early thirties, and her correspondence with her publisher, friends and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a group of islanders who used a love of books as way to survive the hardships of the German occupation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is captivating because of its story of perseverance in wartime and the discovery of love in unexpected places; the hardships the islanders endure actually help keep the story from being mere lighthearted fluff. But at its heart, this is a book about books and the role they play in our lives.

3. Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill. Unless you've been living in a cave for the past few years or so, you already know that Joe Hill's real name is Joe Hill King, son of Stephen King, and if his first novel is any indication, he should have a run of success that will eventually rival his dad's. Heart Shaped Box is a great read, and much more than your typical horror novel. The characters are well written and three-dimensional, the pace picks up with each page, and in the correct places it is really, really scary. Hill's seconds novel, Horns, is an exceptional book as well, but not yet out in paperback.

4. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. This novel packs a lot of emotion into its slim 256 pages as we follow the sometimes-intertwined stories of four characters trapped during the devastating Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s. Much has been written and reported about the large-scale atrocities committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia; this novel brings the vast human tragedy down to a much more accessible scale.

5. The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion by Alice Kimberly. This is the fifth book in the Haunted Bookshop series, one that has both an interesting premise and a different twist on the mystery genre. Penelope Thornton-McClure owns a mystery bookshop in Rhode Island; she's the "cozy" side of the story. The shop is also inhabited by the ghost of Jack Shepard, a private investigator murdered in the store 50 years earlier; he's the "hard-boiled" side of the story. I've never seen the two mixed before, and never to such satisfying effect. And the four earlier titles in the series are easily as entertaining (reading them out of order is no problem).

6. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, but her follow-up effort, The People of the Book, may be even better. The novel is, interestingly enough, the fictional story of a real-life book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the first Jewish religious books to contain images, written and illuminated at a time when only Christian texts were illuminated because both Jews and Muslims considered it idolatrous. The book's journey from Spain in 1492 to 1996 Sarajevo is unveiled through a series of vignettes explaining its history over the past 500 years: from Spain at the time of the Inquisition to Renaissance Venice to Sarajevo in both World War II and the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

7. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Stylistically similar to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this short yet amazing book consists of the real-life (and often hilarious) correspondence that took place over a 20 year period between New Yorker Helene Hanff and London bookseller Frank Doel. And for readers who came of age during the reign of Amazon.com, there was indeed a time when you had to write letters to booksellers to find used and out of print copies of books.

8. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham's finest novel, one of the best ever written, and one I'll soon be re-reading for the 26th time. It's become an annual ritual for me, and each time I get something new out of it. Larry Darrell's search for meaning after WWI is just as timely and relevant to our world today as it was when Maugham wrote it over 60 years ago.

9. Cadillac Jack by James McMurtry. Not your typical McMurtry novel, Cadillac Jack follows the exploits of Cadillac Jack, an antiques "scout" always on the lookout for the next big score. We get an amusing look at Washington, DC in the early 1980's as well as a bygone era before Antiques Roadshow, when you could still hope to find a Ming vase for $2 at a flea market in Tulsa.

10. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It was required reading in college, but most of us ignored that and simply carried it around to impress girls. Here's your chance to finally get to know Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, two icons of American literature. On the Road is one heck of a trip. This is also one of the few times I would suggest listening to the book on disc rather than actually reading it. Matt Dillon reads the audio version, and does a magnificent job.

11. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. This was one of the surprise best-sellers of the past few years, made all the more so because of the strange title. The story actually has dual protagonists: Connie Goodwin, a Harvard graduate student in 1991, and Deliverance Dane, a woman in late 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. And while Connie's storyline takes up the majority of the novel, the sections featuring Deliverance Dane (and later her daughter and granddaughter) are by far the most compelling. It is in these vignettes that the reader learns a great deal about life in Salem at the time of the Witch Trials, and the lives of women in that society.

12. Flabbergasted by Ray Blackston. The first installment of a comic trilogy set in South Carolina, this may be the perfect beach novel. The characters are vividly drawn, and definitely grow on you as narrator Jay Jarvis and his friends navigate the Southern singles scene by, of all things, visiting various church singles classes. Not a bad idea for those tired of the online dating sites.

13. Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There really aren't any sub-par Lincoln/Child books, especially ones that feature FBI Special Agent Pendergast. This is not the first Pendergast novel, but is the first of what the authors call the "Diogenes Trilogy," three novels that can stand alone but should really be read consecutively. The other two are Dance of Death and Book of the Dead. Let's call it a thinking-person's thriller.

14. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Zafon's semi-prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.The Angel's Game is the story of David Martín, a young Barcelona author with a troubled past who writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As he struggles with his love for a woman he cannot have, he also realizes that his talent has been sold to the highest (in fact only) bidder, and despair overtakes him. Then he receives a surprising and lucrative offer from a mysterious French publisher to write a book that will change people's lives forever. He accepts the offer, only to learn that his new situation is far more deadly than the first. This novel is the perfect way to end an autumn of great reading.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Banned Books Week 2010


The 29th Annual Banned Books Week will be held September 25th through October 2nd, and will involve special events and displays at libraries and bookstores across the nation. Banned Books Week began in 1982 as a collective effort between the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores to raise awareness of censorship problems in the United States and abroad. Surprisingly, after 28 years, it remains the only national celebration of the freedom to read.

Although it receives little press coverage, book censorship of all kinds (including book burning), continues today. Challenges to the content of books come from parents, teachers, clergy members, elected officials, and organized groups, typically because of objections to language, violence, sexual or racial themes, or religious viewpoint. In 2009, the American Library Association counted 460 challenges, mostly in schools. The majority of cases, however, go unreported.

The American Library Association reports that 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been banned or challenged at some point, including nine of the top ten. These include The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, and To Kill a Mockingbird (which ranked 4th on the Top 10 most-challenged list in 2009). Since the first Harry Potter book was released in 1997, fundamentalist Christian groups have attempted to ban the series because of the use of witchcraft as a central theme. The most ironic banning attempt targeted Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which is itself about censorship and the destruction of books.

Independent bookstores have typically been in the lead in supporting freedom of expression, from City Lights Books' Lawrence Ferlinghetti publishing Alan Ginsberg's Howl to Shakespeare and Company's Sylvia Beach publishing James Joyce's Ulysses. Both books were banned, yet the bookstore owners pressed on, and in Ferlinghetti's case the result was a Supreme Court ruling that established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance.

Examples of censorship such as those listed above are the reason that Banned Books Week is important, and why it is more than simply another marketing gimmick used by bookstores to generate sales. In a time when freedom of expression has been weakened in the name of both Homeland Security and political correctness, we must remind ourselves and our children that censorship still exists in America and that we must speak out against it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Angel's Game: A Review

The success of a book can be a very strange thing. Some books are huge bestsellers but are written quite poorly, while others are critically acclaimed yet sell very few copies. And there are some that achieve a cult following, sometimes years after the author's death.

It is extremely rare, however, for a novel to be critically acclaimed, an international bestseller and a cult classic. Carlos Ruiz Zafon accomplished this literary hat trick with his novel The Shadow of the Wind. Released in Spanish in 2001, and translated into English in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been universally praised by critics around the globe and has sold 12 million copies worldwide. As for the cult following, it is one of those books you'll buy several times a year because you keep giving your copy away to friends.

Success, however, can be a writer's worst enemy, and huge global success even more so. For years now, the question has been when the second book would arrive and whether there was any way it could live up to the bar set by The Shadow of the Wind. We now have the answer to both.

First released in Spanish in 2008 as El juego del angel, the new novel is universally acclaimed by critics across Europe. It has already sold 1.6 million copies in Spain and has been a #1 bestseller in Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Norway, and several Latin American countries. The English translation of The Angel's Game was be released in the US in June 2009, and the trade paperback version came out earlier this year. Without a doubt, The Angel's Game was worth the five-year wait.

The Angel's Game is the story of David Martin, a young Barcelona author with a troubled past who writes crime novels under a pseudonym. As he struggles with his love for a woman he cannot have, he also realizes that his talent has been sold to the highest (in fact only) bidder, and despair overtakes him. As he nears the edge of the abyss, he receives a surprising and lucrative offer from a mysterious French publisher to write a book that will change people's lives forever. He accepts the offer, only to learn that his new situation is far more deadly than the first.

Although Zafon has said that the book is not a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind (even though it is set in Barcelona only two decades earlier and brings back a few of the same characters), his website describes it in this way:

"Set in the turbulent 1920s, The Angel's Game takes us back to the Gothic universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere & Son bookshop, and the winding streets of Barcelona's old quarter, in a masterful tale about the magic of books and the darkest corners of the human soul."

This may be the best description, because at their heart, The Angel's Game and Shadow of the Wind share far more than locale, a few characters, and the amazing Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Both are, as one reviewer said about the earlier novel, "love letters to books." Both examine the power of books to change our lives in ways we often don't even realize. One quote that appears in both novels sums this up:

"Every book has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

This is not something we often consider in our digital, Internet-driven world, yet every so often a book comes along that stays with you long after you've finished reading it. You almost come to think of the characters as real people, and miss them when they are gone. These books challenge us to examine our inner selves and the world around us, and they can change us, hopefully for the better, while at the same time being a contract of sorts between writer and reader. The Shadow of the Wind was such a book, and The Angel's Game is as well. When I finished reading the advance copy of The Angel's Game, I found myself wishing it had gone on for 500 more pages, and hoping that the next novel doesn't take Zafon five years to write.

This is a novel with a very strong soul, and books like this don't come around nearly often enough. You should relish it, and then share it with everyone you know.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Bookman's Booktown

Small-town West Texas is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about books, and even less so when thinking about a Mecca of books. But thanks to native son Larry McMurtry (author of such books as The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove), that is exactly what Archer City, Texas has become.

By his own account, it always bothered McMurtry that his hometown had no bookstores (and no library until he helped build one after his writing career flourished). Given that the town has only 2,000 residents, his frustration may have been unrealistic, but men with big dreams are seldom deterred by reality. Thus, when rent at his Booked Up bookstore in Washington, D.C., became too high he moved the store back home to Archer City after more than three decades in the nation's capital. What he created is nothing short of amazing.

Booked Up is not a "store" in the normal sense of the word. It comprises four buildings that take up the better part of downtown Archer City. Spread throughout these four buildings are roughly 400,000 books arranged, according to the comical description on their website:

"Erratically/Impressionistically/Whimsically/Open to Interpretation."

And don't ask them if they have a particular title in stock; they don't know, and wouldn't want to deprive you of the joy of browsing if they did. They're not being rude; the staff is actually very friendly. It's just a quirk you have to deal with when one of the biggest independent used bookstores in the United States has only two employees.

Those employees can almost always be found in Building 1, which houses the rare and signed books as well as the cash register. If you're looking for books on military history, you have to walk to Building 2 and then bring the book back to Building 1 to pay. It's a throwback to a time when merchants actually trusted their customers, as well as an assumption that someone willing to drive that far to shop for books loves books too much to steal them.

And drive you will; the nearest large city is Fort Worth, 110 miles to the east. The bulk of your drive will be on TX-199, the old Jacksboro Highway, which is not the most scenic route in America. But it's easily worth the two-hour trip, or even a three-hour flight from the East Coast followed by a two-hour drive, for both a look at the books and what you might find inside.

During my last trip to Booked Up, I discovered that McMurtry was right when he said they rarely get around to re-pricing their books after they've been shelved (it would be a Herculean task, to be sure). In Building 3, in the Foreign Books and Translations section, I discovered a signed first edition of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind on the bottom shelf in the back of the building. The price for a signed copy has risen in recent years to roughly $200.00, and I got it at Booked Up for $40.00, an obvious beneficiary of their inability to continually re-price all that stock.

McMurtry says he likes it that way, because the lure of finding a hidden gem keeps people coming to his store, keeps them buying books, and most importantly keeps them reading. Given that this Pulitzer and Oscar winning writer still considers bookselling his true occupation, I'm certainly not going to argue.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Books Still Matter

My last post dealt with the question I’m often asked of why we still need independent bookstores. Another question that often comes up when discussing my goal of opening a bookstore is equally alarming: “Do we really still need books?” In this instance, however, the question is deceiving, because invariably what the person means is do we still need printed books. Following the “success” of Amazon’s Kindle and copycat readers from the other members of the Axis of Evil (Borders and Barnes and Noble), barely a day has gone by without some media genius proclaiming the end of books on paper within the next 10 years.

But does this increase in the sales of e-readers and e-books really mean the demise of the printed book? In a word: no. One thing must always be remembered about the Kindle (and any other e-book reader): it is first and foremost an electronic gadget. Tech-craving consumers will buy anything new that will connect to the Internet. However, the fact that these same consumers will discard a perfectly good cell phone simply because a new version appears six months later should put the recent appeal of the Kindle in its proper perspective.

Both the manufacturers of e-readers (and the legion of people who bought them as gifts last Christmas, which was when the first sales spike occurred) assume that if books are offered in the same format as every other form of media, then people will automatically prefer that method. However, this is simply not the case. Games, social networking sites, and even to a degree newspapers are a good fit for computers, cell phones, and other hand-held devices; books are not, for several reasons:

1. Printed books provide a tactile experience. Music is heard, and films are both seen and heard, but books are experienced both visually and by touch. There is an aspect to the feel of books (the smooth glossy cover, the roughness and even smell of the paper) that provides a physical sensation that is both separate from and intimately linked to the story you are reading. We bond not only with the author (novels being the only art form that requires many hours of commitment on the part of the audience) but with the book itself.

2. Great novels, from War and Peace to The Shadow of the Wind were not meant to be read on a digital screen, no matter how much “like paper” they try to make that screen. Most of us spend our entire workday staring at a computer screen, plus additional hours in front of a computer or television after we get home. The last thing most readers want to do is spend even more time staring at a screen.

3. Books can be written in, dog-eared, loaned to friends, stuffed in your back pocket, browsed for on rainy afternoons, and then sold to a used bookshop for cash to buy yet more books. Try that with a Kindle.

4. Most readers (and we have always been remarkably few as percentage of the total population) like having a personal library. It may or may not contain highly collectible items like a signed Hemingway or first-edition Faulkner, but a bookcase loaded with books can be much more than a simple collection. It can serve as a timeline of our lives: the copy of Homer you read in the same college class as your future wife, that Robert Parker Spenser novel you read in the hospital waiting for your son to be born, that copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you read to your daughters over a snowy weekend, and that biography of Maugham you discovered in a cool little shop in London. These are books you pass down through generations, even though they may have value only within the context of your own family. Once again, you can’t do that with an e-reader. The books in a Kindle don’t even exist except as bits of binary code.

Finally, we need only look to our own history to see that printed books will always find a way to survive. Books have weathered far greater threats than the Kindle for over 100 years. The book's demise was first predicted with the advent of radio, then with the arrival of motion pictures, television, video games, and finally the Internet and the iPad age. It was even thought that the launch of Penguin Publishing's paperback book line in 1935 would quickly spell the end of hardcover books; 75 years later hardcovers are still around. And given our attention span with gadgets in general, I think that printed books are quite safe.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why Independent Bookstores Matter

In my first post I mentioned that I am often asked if we really need independent bookstores in an electronic age. After my frustration at the question subsides, I explain why the answer is a very definite yes. There are many reasons why we still (and always will) need independent bookstores, but it really boils down to two basic reasons: economic and social.

As corporate giants like Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon continue to dominate an increasingly competitive booksellers market, independent bookstores find it harder than ever just to survive. Yet these locally owned businesses contribute far more to the local economy than retail chains, according to several studies by the American Bookseller Association.

Major retailers present some obvious advantages to consumers. Barnes and Noble, for example, offers everything from books to music to movies, and sell coffee as well. Their children's section is larger than many independents' entire store. And they offer deep discounts that smaller business often cannot match. Both Barnes and Noble and rival Borders offer a comfortable environment, with large overstuffed chairs where customers can browse through books before making a purchase.

But there are costs to such convenience that are not so obvious. National chains take far more out of a community economically than they ever put back in. According to a study conducted by the firm Civic Economics in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, trading independent retailers for big-box chains weakens the local economy. This occurs because while local stores recycle a much larger share of their sales revenue back into the local economy, chains siphon most of the dollars spent at their stores out of the community, sending them back to corporate headquarters or to distant suppliers.

The study applies to all local businesses, not only bookstores, but bookstores are a part of the local economy, and therefore the findings are worth considering. The study found that spending $100 at one of the neighborhood's independent businesses created $68 in additional local economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produced only $43 worth of local impact. The difference was due to four factors:

Local Payroll: The locally owned businesses spent a larger share of their revenue on local labor (29% vs. 23%), because they carried out all management functions on-site, rather than at a corporate headquarters.

Procurement: The local retailers spent more than twice as much buying goods and services from other local businesses. They banked locally; hired local accountants, attorneys, designers, and other professionals; advertised in local media; and where possible ordered inventory from local firms.

Profits: Because their owners live in the area, a larger portion of the local retailers' profits stayed within the local economy.

Charitable giving: The local retailers donated more on average to local charities and community organizations than the chains did.

Also, with regard to local sales tax revenues, Amazon.com sales effectively skirt sales tax collection entirely. None of us like paying taxes, but sales tax pays for the little things like our police officers, firefighters and teachers. Buying at a local independent bookstore keeps that revenue in your town where it belongs, serving the needs of your community.

Beyond the economic impact, the Andersonville study found that over 70% of the people surveyed actually prefer to patronize local businesses. Surveys have also shown that people prefer a more unique store and more personal interaction to the cookie-cutter, impersonal feel present in many large retailers. Sadly, many areas (including those as large as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex), have no independent bookstore to patronize.

The personal interaction mentioned above is the other reason we need independent bookstores. It may be hard to believe in the age of Facebook and Twitter, but there was a time when our social activity wasn’t done from a distance in front of computers. Bookstores were among the places where people gathered to exchange and debate ideas on everything from literature to politics.

As important to readers as a lively discussion is helpful book recommendations from knowledgeable booksellers. Few of us can afford every book that catches our eye, so being able to avoid the bad ones is crucial. It is also a pleasant feeling in this increasingly disconnected society to see a familiar person who remembers that you like both the hard-boiled novels of Mickey Spillane and the occasional Agatha Christie. For me at least, ordering a book online can never replace ducking into a local bookstore on a rainy day, browsing down countless shelves of titles, usually ending up with a novel I’d never even heard of before that day, often based solely on the recommendation of the bookseller. It just doesn’t get much better than that.