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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.