Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Winter Reading List

Most of the United States continues to be rocked by harsh winter weather, which makes it the perfect time to stay inside with a good book. Here are a few suggestions to carry you through the spring thaw, and up to the annual Summer Reading List post. I have left off current best-sellers for the simple reason that those are not yet out in paperback (for those of us on limited budgets who are still resisting the e-book revolution). In addition, most are more suited to cold winter nights than sunny days at the beach.
1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If I continue these lists 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 Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This is one of those novels that literally has everything you could want jammed into its 416 pages, and yet it all works. There is mystery and history and ghosts and danger and romance and books and feral twins and even two heroines, and all of it weaves together perfectly. Maybe best of all, you won't guess the ending midway through (I thought I had...wrong). And yes, in that list of things a few sentences ago I included "feral twins." This is the kind of book that deserves to be read in front of a crackling fireplace in a comfy chair over a long weekend; but make sure there are no pressing items on your calendar, because you won't get to them once you start this book. It is a literary escape of the very best kind.

3. Booked to Die by John Dunning. The first novel in Dunning's "Bookman" series is a minor classic, especially if you're a fan of the biblio-mystery genre or a book collector. It's the story of a Denver cop-turned-rare book dealer Cliff Janeway, and it will teach you a lot about the book trade while taking you on a mystery thrill-ride at the same time. Best of all, it has one of the best surprise endings of any mystery I've ever read.
4. The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. The story of young Baltimore attorney who makes it his personal cause to defend the recently-deceased Poe's reputation from the rumors that he drank himself to death. Pearl weaves a gripping fictional story around historical fact, much of it newly discovered as he was researching this book. Anything to do with Poe is perfect for a stormy winter night.
5. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Forget all of the movies you've seen; if this is your first time reading the novel, you are in for a treat. The mix of fiction with French history takes you back to another place and time, and D'Artagnan, Porthos, Athos, and Aramis provide more rollicking adventure than Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy combined.
6. The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There really aren't any sub-par Lincoln/Child books, especially ones that feature FBI Special Agent Pendergast, but for whatever reason I liked this one the best. This is a great novel on its own, and a crucial introduction before starting the Brimstone trilogy.
7. Ex-Libris by Ross King. In seventeenth-century London an antiquarian bookseller named Isaac Inchbold is called upon to restore a private library destroyed during the English Civil War. This seemingly simple task pulls Inchbold into a deadly search for a lost manuscript amid the political and religious upheaval of 1600s Europe. 
8. 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 a winter of great reading.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Winter Ghosts: A Review

Author Kate Mosse is well-known for her best-selling novels Labyrinth and Sepulchre. Next week marks the release of her latest novel, The Winter Ghosts, but it is unlikely to add to the acclaim she has received for her previous works.

The Winter Ghosts is a perplexing book. The language is often beautifully lyrical and Mosse is excellent at both describing locations and capturing the atmosphere of a locale. I have not read her previous books, but it is likely that her skill with words is part of the reason for their success.

The Winter Ghosts even has a captivating plot idea (note the word idea). The jacket blurb summarizes the novel this way:

In the winter of 1928, still seeking some kind of resolution to the horrors of World War I, Freddie is traveling through the beautiful but forbidding French Pyrenees. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. Dazed, he stumbles through the woods, emerging in a tiny village, where he finds an inn to wait out the blizzard. There he meets Fabrissa, a lovely young woman also mourning a lost generation.

Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories. By the time dawn breaks, Freddie will have unearthed a tragic, centuries-old mystery, and discovered his own role in the life of this remote town.

So far it seems like this should be a really good novel; unfortunately, it is not. Mosse may have a great story idea, and may have a way with words, but both the ultimate plot and the characters that move through it are as wooden and predictable as a daytime soap opera. The narrative plods along for at least the first 100 pages, then accelerates to a conclusion that any reader saw coming from at least the midpoint of the book.

Perhaps the worst thing about the predictability of the second half of the story and its ultimate resolution is that the one person who seems to never figures out the clues is the protagonist, Freddy. There have been many novels where the reader had information the characters did not, but never has there been a main character so obtuse as to not recognize the answers to questions when they are right in front of his face. In fact, Freddy may be the single dumbest fictional character I have read in decades.

If you’re are a die hard Kate Mosse fan, you will either blindly love this book or be tremendously disappointed. If you are not a die hard fan, simply don’t spend your money on The Winter Ghosts. There are too many good books that deserve your attention for you to waste time with this one.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hemingway, Faulkner….Snooki?

In one of the more disturbing literary developments in recent memory, today marks the release date for A Shore Thing, the debut novel by "Jersey Shore" star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. It is fortunate that I am typing this post, because every time I try to say the previous sentence out loud, all that comes out is a stream of obscenities.

I realize that nothing should shock or surprise me anymore, even in the book world. But this…this is an abomination not seen since Leonard Nimoy was recording albums that featured him playing a Pan Flute. And while celebrities often get books deals, they are usually confined to autobiographical fluff or diet/workout books. This is a NOVEL.

Courtesy of the intrepid journalists at The New York Post, here are a few snippets from Snooki’s magnum opus:

  • "Yum. Johnny Hulk tasted like fresh gorilla."
  • "Gia danced around a little, shaking her peaches for show. She shook it hard. Too hard. In the middle of a shimmy, her stomach cramped. A fart slipped out. A loud one. And stinky."
  • "He had an okay body. Not fat at all. And naturally toned abs. She could pour a shot of tequila down his belly and slurp it out of his navel without getting splashed in the face."

Wow. Those literary gems rank right up there with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Move over Charles Dickens.

I realize I should just ignore this atrocity and hope it goes away, and probably should not add to the attention it’s already getting. But right now I’m too angry for rational thought. As Peter Finch screamed in the film Network: "I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!"

Ms. Polizzi (who has apparently admitted in past interviews that the only two books she has ever read are Twilight and Dear John) has received a publishing deal while the manuscripts of unknown but talented writers lie buried in the slush pile of some literary agent’s office. They could be the next Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling, but their books will never see the light of day because both agents and publishers are too busy churning out crappy vampire books and touting the merits of the latest reality show moron.

Novels often say more about a culture, generation, or point in time than all of the histories and biographies combined. The mid-1800s had Dickens and Dumas, the 1920s and 1930s had Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and we have Stephenie Meyer and Snooki. It would almost be funny, if it wasn’t so damn sad.