The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A really unique book, The Shadow of the Wind is a wonderfully complex novel that is simultaneously mysterious, funny, romantic, thrilling, political and suspenseful.  Set in Barcelona in 1945, the main story is about Daniel, a young man whose book-dealer father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he finds a mysterious book entitled “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julian Carax.  Daniel soon finds himself immersed in the book and the author’s own story, especially when he discovers that a strange figure has been systematically tracking down and destroying copies of all works by Carax.  Daniel is determined to protect his own copy and discover who the strange figure is and why the books are being destroyed.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s own life is becoming a drama of its own.  Multiple characters enter the story, some in relation to Carax, others not, but each has his or her own history to be told as Daniel encounters them, resulting in a novel that is deliciously super-saturated with plot (including surprises and shocking revelations) and a fantastic collection of characters (evil villains, REALLY evil villains, tragic heroes, comic heroes, scapegoats and madmen).

The most omnipresent character in the novel was the city of Barcelona itself.  The author specifically described areas of the city where the action took place and in the back of the trade paperback version there is a walking tour of the city, pinpointing locations of places mentioned in the story.  So close to the end of the Spanish Civil War, the city had a very distinct personality.  The mood was unsure and pessimistic, and the setting very gothic, ensorcelled in Spanish mysticism.

The writing in this novel is some of the most enjoyably lyrical I have read.  The author shows a real passion and enjoyment of language that he shares with the reader.  The book is a translation from the original Spanish novel and I think the translation must be excellent, since the writing shines, and the book is rich with both wit and humor.

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Published in: on August 22, 2010 at 6:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

I finished this book about three weeks ago, and it’s taken me nearly that long to figure out what I thought about it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I did, in fact, like it, but not for the reasons I anticipated when I started the book.  Actually, immediately after finishing the book I decided that I didn’t like it much and that it was sort of a flop.  I think the reason for that initial reaction is that I had misled myself regarding the author’s intention and tone before starting it.  And because of that, I want to give anyone else who may pick up this book a heads up so that they can either relax and enjoy it for what it is or decide not to read it at all.

So here’s the heads up:  Despite the fact that in the first chapter of this book a 14-year old girl is brutally raped and murdered and the murderer gets off scott-free, this is not a thrilling crime drama.  The book is written from the point of view of the victim, Susie Salmon, as she watches things unfold from heaven.  She watches her murderer, Mr. Harvey, dispose of her body.  She watches the events in her neighborhood as her family discovers her missing and follows the investigation that goes nowhere.  But most of the book is Susie watching her family and friends recover from her death and move on with their own lives in the months and years to follow. 

Susie describes heaven as a pleasant place where anything she wants appears almost before she can think of it.  But what Susie wants most of all is what she can’t have, and that is to be back among the living and those she loves.  And that’s where the book really shows its mettle:  Amidst Susie’s incredible longing she takes notice of the beautiful details of the living.  She remembers moments of her life that she took for granted, and she sees the people in her life more clearly than before.  Her observations are even-toned and rarely judgmental, even when watching her mother break down and leave her family.  Eventually, Susie seems to find peace within herself and her message to the reader is to enjoy life, notice its details, both beautiful and unpleasant and to be grateful for the experience.

The book has been made into a movie, which I have not seen yet, but plan to.  From the previews it appears that it may take on a slightly more supernatural spin, maybe more of a thriller.  Come to think of it, that may be why I thought the book would be different than it was.

“The Lonely Bones” is a few years old now, and since it came out in 2002, Sebold has written a second novel, “The Almost Moon” which has had mixed reviews.

Published in: on June 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first novel in the Millenium Trilogy written by Stieg Larsson, published after his death in 2004.  Larsson was a Swedish journalist, photographer and political activist.  His fiction writing was mostly a hobby done after he got home from work in the evenings.  It appears that originally Larsson intended for the series to contain ten books and along with the three completed manuscripts found, there was also an unfinished fourth manuscript as well as synopses for the fifth and sixth books.  The books were immediate successes in Sweden and after the first was translated, he was posthumously named International Author of the Year in 2008.

I don’t read a lot of murder mysteries but this one was recommended to me and I really enjoyed it.  It took a day or two to get into it, but after the first couple chapters I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.  The whodunnit is essentially a “closed room” murder mystery, meaning that all the people who may have participated in the crime were contained within an area resulting in a definite list of suspects.  In the book the murder took place on an island while the only bridge to and from the island was closed off because of a traffic accident.  The aging patriarch of the wealthy Vanger family that inhabits the island becomes obsessed with the disappearance of his teenage cousin.  He is convinced she was murdered by someone on the island, possibly a family member, on that day in 1966 and that the murderer has been tormenting him for the past 35 years by sending him a pressed, framed flower every year on his birthday.  Vanger hires a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to help him try to put the pieces together.  But Blomkvist has his own problems.  He has recently been convicted of libel and is facing public humiliation and a jail sentence.  Lisbeth Salander, a reclusive punk computer hacker prodigy with a personal vendetta also finds her way onto the case and together they uncover secrets and corruption decades old.

The novel is exceptionally good because the clues and details are meticulously arranged so that the reader can theorize along with the investigators.  The suspects are all complex characters who have been intricately developed and woven into the story.  The solution to the puzzle is neither glaringly obvious nor too far-fetched.  It was extremely well-written and I’m looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.  The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire is currently available and the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest has been translated into English and is due to be released in the U.S. in May.  Kudos to the translator, Reg Keeland, too.  Other than the tongue-twister names of Swedish towns and streets the translation was really smooth.

Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I would give an A+, but I enthusiastically and without any reservation can give Olive Kitteridge that grade.  It is an exceptional, award-winning book that I would recommend for even the most critical reader.

The book is a collection of short stories about the members of a small town in Maine.  Olive Kitteridge is a retired math teacher and a long-time resident of the town.  Often stubborn, abrasive and contrary, Olive is a complicated, interesting character.  She resists changes in her familiar town and finds people around her to be irritating and perplexing.  A few of the stories focus on her, but the majority are about other personalities in the town, including people close to her, like her husband, Henry, and alienated son, Chris.  Others are about people completely unrelated, like Angela O’Meara, the aging piano player in the local cocktail lounge and Julie Harwood, a broken-hearted, jilted bride.  But each story connects to Olive in some way, effectively fastening the life of every member of Crosby, Maine to each other, however tenuously, with Olive serving as the narrative fulcrum.  The stories span a period of many years and as the town and people change, Olive recognizes changes within herself and even learns to be (a little) more understanding and compassionate.

I think the writing in this book is some of the very best I’ve read.  Elizabeth Strout has an absolutely amazing talent for writing descriptive, intuitive prose without it being at all cumbersome.  She is able to capture familiar, human moments within her characters so that the reader is able to recognize them as thoughts or experiences they’ve had themselves.  The result is that each character and experience, though completely new to the reader, are immediately familiar and identifiable.  She puts into words with enviable effortlessness those thoughts and feelings that make us all human.  The Random House Reader’s Circle trade paperback version of the book includes a really charming interview with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge that simultaneously demonstrates Strout’s gentle modesty for her work as well as her ability to write a character as irascible as Olive Kitteridge.

I honestly cannot think of a single negative thing to say about this book.  It was an absolute pleasure to read and I am definitely looking forward to reading Strout’s previous bestselling novels Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me.

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is a collection of short stories set in Pakistan during the 1970s through the present.  The stories are tangentially related; the main character of one story may be mentioned in passing in the next story.  The result is that each story can stand on its own, but gradually a larger picture is formed.

The primary focus of the complete story is the disparity within the Pakistani feudal system and how it has both changed in recent times, but doggedly retained its grip on the country’s society despite a slow modernist transition.  Also addressed is the simultaneous power and impotence of the Pakistani female.  Because the book is broken into separate tales, the author is able to offer points of view from various members of society, from powerful landlords to poor serving girls and even introduces an American character later on in the book which offers a remarkable contrast and familiarity for western readers.

The book is beautifully written.  It is poetic and lyrical without being cumbersome.  There is a simple truthfulness in the style that made me immediately feel as if I were reading a fable; something old and filled with truthful wisdom.  His descriptions are elegant, but restrained, and portray a country and its people with quiet, beautiful realism.  Although the majority of these stories do not have typical happy endings, they are still a pleasure to read.  The author has a real knack for creating immediately sympathetic and believable characters.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders won the 2009 National Book Award.  This is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s first book, though his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope and The Best American Short Stories 2008.

Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

Chick book!

The blurb on the front of the trade paperback edition declares this novel is “Like Steel Magnolias set in Manhattan.”  As one might expect from a book earning such a description, there is a plethora of interesting, complex female characters leading complicated lives:  Georgia is a single mother, raising a pre-teen daughter and running a small knitting shop.  Anita is a matronly aging widow who is reluctantly falling in love again after 20 years.  Lucie is a struggling filmmaker who decides to become pregnant on her own despite financial insecurity.  KC is Georgia’s boisterous ex-boss who decides on a risky career change while in her 40s.  Darwin is a socially awkward graduate student who really just wants a friend, and Cat is Georgia’s traitorous ex-best friend from high school who makes a surprise re-entrance into Georgia’s life at an inopportune time.  Throw in a few peripheral male love interests and a heart-wrenching climax and the chick book recipe is complete!  This book is just begging to be made into a movie and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that negotiations are already underway.

The plot and characters in this book are adequate — mildly entertaining — interesting enough to keep reading but nothing extraordinary.  The thing that makes this book stand out is the knitting theme which serves as a frame for the plot.  The women in the novel are brought together by their interest in knitting and decide to meet every Friday night at Georgia’s shop for knitting help, homemade food and companionship.  The book itself is also brought together in segments prefaced by descriptions of knitting techniques and each process is analyzed in a way as to make it relevant to everyday life.  The most significant thing I took away from this book is a strong desire to learn how to knit!

The book is very reflective in nature, sometimes in the thoughts of one of the characters, at other times sentimental musings and observations of the narrator that occasionally felt like fluff.  There was one such passage though that really surprised me in its insightfulness regarding the friendship between a mother and her grown daughter.  I suspect that other readers may be inspired by some of the other reflections, depending on what is relevant in their own lives.

This is Kate Jacob’s first novel.  The Friday Night Knitting Club is available at noteBooks in trade paperback for $14.00.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

the art of racing in the rain

Enzo, the narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain insists that man’s closest relative is not the chimpanzee, but is, in fact, the dog.  Witness his logic:

“Case-in-Point #1:  The Dew Claw

It is my opinion that the so-called dew claw, which is often snipped off a dog’s foreleg at an early age, is actually evidence of a preemergent thumb.  Further, I believe that men have systematically bred the thumb out of certain lines of dog through an elaborate process called ‘selective breeding,’ simply in order to prevent dogs from evolving into dexterous, and therefore ‘dangerous’ mammals.

I also believe that man’s continued domestication (if you care to use that silly euphemism) of dogs is motivated by fear:  fear that dogs, left to evolve on their own, would, in fact, develop thumbs and smaller tongues, and therefore would be superior to men, who are slow and cumbersome, standing erect as they do.  This is why dogs must live under the constant supervision of people, and are immediately put to death when found living on their own.

Case-in-Point #2:  The Werewolf

The full moon rises.  The fog clings to the lowest branches of the spruce trees.  The man steps out of the darkest corner of the forest and finds himself transformed into…A monkey?  I think not.”

Enzo’s compelling logic is made all the more convincing by the fact that he is, himself, a dog.

Enzo is different from most other dogs.  A philosopher and psychologist, he possesses a nearly-human soul.  Enzo has learned a lot about being human from his owner, Denny, and from the hours spent watching television while home alone.  Denny has taught him the thrill and challenges of pursuing a career as a professional racecar driver and the parallels of driving to navigating through life.  From television, Enzo has learned that his favorite actor is Steve McQueen and that Mongolians believe that when dogs die they return as men…but not all dogs, only those that are ready.  Enzo knows that he is ready.  On the eve of his death Enzo reflects upon his life with Denny and the rest of his human family; the unexpected loss of Denny’s wife, Eve, and the lengthy custody battle for his daughter, Zoe, waged between Denny and Zoe’s maternal grandparents.

Unable to speak in human words, Enzo has become an exceptional listener and in this way is able to learn more about people during his short lifetime than most humans ever do.  It’s easy to forget that the narrator is a dog until something unmistakebly canine comes through in his thoughts or behavior.  When that happens it’s almost always humorous and charming, a result of Enzo’s animal innocence.  After reading this book it may be difficult not to look at your own canine pal and think “I wonder….”

This is one of the few books that I would universally recommend.  It’s at times heart-wrenching, but very funny and ultimately uplifting.  As it turns out, you can learn a lot about being human from a dog.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a New York Times Bestseller and is Garth Stein’s third novel.

Published in: on November 8, 2009 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

white-tiger

While reading The White Tiger I found myself conflicted.  I was immensely entertained and hooked by the story and as a result was reading very quickly, but I suspected early on that I was supposed to be taking something else from this book.  Generally, an increased appreciation and understanding of Indian culture; its caste system, its recent business and entrepreneurial changes and the way in which the morality of its people differs from that of the West.  Indian culture is very different from our own, and because of the changes India is undergoing it can be easy (and wrong) to place Western expectations on its people.

The main character of the story, Balram Halwai, aka The White Tiger is a self-professed murderer.  And yet, it’s not difficult at all for a reader to find themselves rooting for him.  Born in poverty and with little means to change his lot, Balram nevertheless finds a way to be successful.  The book is Balram’s story, in his own words, of how he left The Darkness…the Rooster Coop (caste categorizations)…from which few men escape, and became a wealthy entrepreneur.

I enjoyed reading the author’s interview in the back of the book in which Adiga claimed that his only intention in writing the novel was to entertain, and his vehicle just happened to be the India that he knew, which was not such an alternative view, but really rather mainstream.  But I think that many will find the setting and characters unfamiliar and it will be difficult for some to read this book and then walk away from India after such a compelling presentation of it.  For someone with little exposure to the culture, it opens a door and creates more questions than it answers, especially since the novel is written with a certain amount of sarcasm and humor making it even more difficult to get a clear picture.  In fact, this is a very funny book…at least I think it is…it’s sort of painfully funny and I wasn’t always sure if something was being exaggerated for the sake of humor or just being depicted realistically, in which case I guess it wasn’t funny at all but really rather strange and frightening.

I’m not saying that I think it’ll be necessary after reading this novel for someone to run out and read a complete history on the Indian subcontinent, but a few suggestions were mentioned in the Reading Group Guide in the back of the book which may offer a broader perspective as well as a chance to compare and contrast the ways in which India is presented.  These include popular novels related to India such as The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai and Brick Lane by Monica Ali as well as the nonfiction accounts In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce, Planet India by Mira Kamdar and The Elephant and the Dragon by Robyn Meredith.

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 8:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Women by T.C. Boyle

the women

I enjoyed Nancy Horan’s historical fiction, Loving Frank, so much that when I saw the latest book by acclaimed author T.C. Boyle, which is also a Frank Lloyd Wright-centric work of historical fiction, I hungrily grabbed it up.  But whereas Loving Frank is the story of only one of the women in Wright’s life, The Women encompasses a much larger period of time and tells not only the story of the architect’s mistress but also of each of his three wives.

A larger-than-life character, Frank Lloyd Wright struggled against social, moral and aesthetic conventions for nearly his entire life.  Plagued by scandal and financial troubles, he refused to deny himself any desire, whether material or feminine in nature.  Ironically, the women in his life brought him both comfort and happiness but were also often at the root of his woes.

An eccentric himself, Wright found himself drawn to other colorful characters.  The Women tells the story of his first wife, Catherine “Kitty” Tobin, with whom he had six children and whom adamantly refused to give him a divorce despite his blatant unfaithfulness; his mistress Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney a spirited feminist who was tragically murdered at his Wisconsin estate, Taliesin; his second wife, Maude Miriam Noel, a melodramatic southern belle, a morphine addict (and at least as portrayed by Boyle, someone who, in my opinion, should have been certified insane and institutionalized); and his third wife Olgivanna Milanoff, “the Dragon Lady” who was a student of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff and who gave Wright another child later in his life.

A remarkable characteristic of the novel is that each of the four women is presented as both a heroine and a villainess, depending on whose portion of the story is being told.  The book is divided into three parts (poor Kitty’s story is rather brief and mingled with Mamah’s and as a result she appears to be Frank’s most pitiable victim).  As each woman’s story is told, she is presented as the sympathetic character and all others are antagonists.  This gives the narrative a complete and somewhat unbiased personality.   

Boyle is a fantastic writer.  The novel is witty, funny, poignant and imaginative.  He uses another character to help tie the narrative together:  Tadashi Sato is a fictional apprentice of Wright who lived and worked at Taliesan from 1932 until the start of World War II.  His introductions and footnotes pepper the novel with additional insights into the genius of America’s most famed architect as well as giving firm dates for certain events and supplying additional historical facts that are interesting, but not necessarily vital to the story.

T.C. Boyle has written eleven novels including The Road to Wellville and The Inner Circle.  He has also published eight collections of short stories.

The Women is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.95.

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

artemis fowl

Eoin Colfer’s young adult series starring Irish boy-genius Artemis Fowl is a fantastic summer read.  Actually, the series would make a great read any time of the year, but if you’ve got bored teens or pre-teens at home this summer, these books are sure to keep them entertained, and they’re appealing to both boys and girls.  They’ve been so popular in the store as a matter of fact, that I just had to dig in and see what the buzz was all about.

The first book in the series, titled simply Artemis Fowl introduces young Artemis, who is only twelve, but who is hatching a nefarious plan to extort a large amount of money to fund a search effort for his father.  Artemis senior disappeared in the Arctic during one of his own planned exploits and it is up to Artemis junior to find him and to restore the family’s reputation and fortune.  Artemis’ plan involves stealing an ancient book, which holds the coded secrets to the fairy world and to ransom a fairy for gold.  Denizens of the fairy world live underground, are highly technologically advanced and have managed to keep themselves a secret from humans… at least until Artemis finds out about them. 

Throughout the series Artemis slowly finds himself befriending some of the fairies including Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit, Foaly, a centaur whose technological genius rivals Artemis’ own and Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf with some rather interesting (and disgusting) talents.  Each book presents a new threat against which the heroes must fight in order to save the unsuspecting human world.

The books have a great balance between the high-techno-Mission Impossible-type of spy fun and ancient fairy magic and mythology.  They are immensely humorous and sarcastic but also have a great deal of heart.  The storytelling is fantastic with surprises and twists and each book ties into the previous one seamlessly.  As added fun the author has included secret codes on the covers and along the bottom of the pages of text for readers to crack.

There are currently six books in the series uncluding Artemis Fowl, The Arctic Incident, The Eternity Code, The Opal Deception, The Lost Colony and the newest one which will be available in paperback on August 11, 2009, The Time Paradox.  And even though these books were written for young adults, I really enjoyed them.  They’re quick, funny entertaining reads and I’m keeping my eye out for the rumored feature film that is supposed to be in the works.