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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.

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