Thursday, February 24, 2011

Review: A Dirty Job

Christopher Moore is one big surprise.  How would a reader expect him to deal with death and souls?  With humor, compassion and wit?  In A Dirty Job, Moore addresses this subject with a Beta male, hellhounds, secondhand-store owners and a well-dressed lesbian.

Charlie doesn't expect to win the heart of Rachel, the woman of his dreams, but sometimes life gives.  Then it takes away: at the birth of their first child, a tall man in a mint-green outfit picks up her favorite CD and leaves as she breathes her las — only Charlie wasn't supposed to be able to see him.

Faced with raising his daughter Sophie alone, he returns to his secondhand merchandise store in San Francisco to figure out the rest of his life — and doesn't get a mail delivery that would change his life.

Again Christopher Moore creates absurd situations and quirky, lovable characters who spout some of the funniest dialogue and share amazing, snort-worthy observations.  Sophie can't say "kitty."  Death merchants can't meet for coffee.  The Emperor of San Francisco and his trusted companions see and hear a lot more than more "respectable" (but less respected) people.  Charlie has to find the red, glowing belongings or the world will go dark.  And without the hellhounds, the shadows that slide across the otherwise bright pavement might actually cover more than the dark side of the street.

And no one else can appreciate the heat of Arizona like the residents of San Francisco.

Please read this book, and follow up with every other book this wonderful author has written.  I'm doing this myself, and I can't wait for the next one!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How Do You "Shop" for Books?

This morning, as I perused the book section of the local newspaper, I wondered how other people find books to read.

Me, I troll constantly for books. I feel a little like a shark. Seeking books to read is as natural to me as breathing. It's not that I don't have enough to read, for heaven's sake. Even after my moratorium, my nightstand creaks under the weight of the pending book pile. We won't even mention the "vertical" stacks in my den (one of which nearly beaned a cat last weekend).

I just love books. I love the news stories about them, the adventure of seeking them, the thrill of encountering a new gem. I love the feel of books, turning them over in my hand as I ponder them, reading the dust jacket blurbs, wondering just how accurate the reviews are. (I mean, one doesn't expect to read "Ick!" on a dust jacket, does one?)

The thrill is as much in the hunt as in the actual discovery. I check out book reviews, book news, book and literature blogs, author interviews. I check out list of award-winning books. I look at paragraph-long reviews in The New Yorker. Sometimes book discoveries aren't anywhere near the arts and literature section. When that new television show is based on a book (only the show's writers disavow hearing about that suspiciously familiar storyline), the story can be in the Regional or Metro section of the paper.

Nearly every day I find a new gem: a new book, an interesting new author, a tidbit about a dead author.

I also keep a list of books in my organizer. More often than not, I'll recognize a title buried in the sports section of the thrift store book section and hold in my hands that bio on cousins (tsars, emperors and kings) that started World War I. My list is ever-growing and, frankly, it's terribly long. I started to have to annotate it with when I read it and, if I didn't finish it, why. However, I will continue to add to the list (and update Terry Pratchett's book list, which ends with books set to be published in 2006, shame on me).

Most importantly, I listen to people whose opinion on books I respect. Carole is my go-to person on books; if she likes a book, I am more likely to give it a chance ( which I did with Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Olive Kitteridge, to name a couple). I trust Kathy's opinions on books, especially since she recommended No AngelLittle Bee and One Day. I also trust Lois, whose recommendation of The Red Tent compelled me to give it the college try it deserved and whose comments on Heart-Shaped Box prompted me to keep my Reading Buddy close.

How do you determine what books to read? Where do you look? Whose opinions do you trust?  Tell me: comment below or drop me a line!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Dracula

Bram Stoker rocks. He created the grandfather of all vampire books, Dracula, with little more than legend and ghost story. He assembled this information into a compelling story that, even more than a century  later, remains riveting.

By cracking a spine of this novel, readers re-introduce themselves to the ideas that were shocking, horrifying even, in 1897 when the Irishman released the book.  There was a time when we couldn't imagine a person without a reflection, or what could cause two small holes in a person's neck.

Stoker embraces modernity and tradition in the same tale.  Garlic and psychology, typewriters and voice recorders, blood-suckers and blood transfusions proceed lockstep through this ancient, modern tale.  Nowhere better is this dichotomy represented than in the character of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutch scholar who uses both modern weapons and ancient talismans to fight the unspeakable horror four men and two women must face before the tale is through. 

The storyline remains compelling: Jonathan Harker, a lawyer from England, is hired by Count Dracula to come to his ancient, crumbling castle in Romania to assist the nobleman with his move to England.  Harker doesn't understand the customs of the land and finds the natives superstitious and backward, with their elaborate crucifixes and dark tales — but he politely accepts the former from a sympathetic (and surprisingly terrified) fellow traveler before meeting his client.  After days of traveling, Harker arrives late one night — and easily slips into the count's habit of working at night.  Dracula's only restriction: Harker cannot enter any of the castle's locked rooms.  Bizarre, true, but not as bizarre as what unfolds as he teaches Dracula about his soon-to-be adopted country.  Soon, all is lost, and Harker realizes his client is not what he appears to be.

In England, Harker's fiancée, Wilhemina, awaits his arrival with a growing unease.  Her companion, Lucy, begins suffering from debilitating anemia and dramatic sleepwalking after a ship arrives in the harbor, empty but for the ship's captain lashed to the wheel, dead, and a large dog that leaps ashore and vanishes into the woods.  Jonathan is found, barly alive and mad from brain fever, and Mina races to his side, marrying him bedside at the suggestion of the nuns tending to him.  Renfield, meanwhile, charts the count's growing strength as his "master" travels nearer. 

Lucy's condition grows worse, and only the great Professor Van Helsing, called in by Lucy's fiancé (and former student) recognizes their enemy: nosferatu.  Lucy finally succumbs to her anemia, and Van Helsing must show her fiancé and friends what the night has wrought.  They must team up to end it, and quickly, with the help of all those who loved Lucy.

Victorian England, being what it was, offers an unexpected turn of events that will leave most modern readers baffled: the change in attitude toward one of the most trusted team members.  This storyline will appear confusing and antiquated to readers, but in context, it actually makes sense.  Still, readers will be tempted to yell at the characters in the book, warning them of the folly of their ways.  In the end, it is their weakness that is both their strength and their downfall, and as the story reaches its crescendo, even the most "sophisticated" reader will be frightened, breathless and in awe of a story told long ago but relevant and shocking even today.

Read it if you dare.

This is a book on my Fill in the Gaps list.  Click here to find out more about the Fill in the Gaps program.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Farewell, Brian Jacques, Master Storyteller

I was introduced to Redwall by a fellow reader who became one of my best friends.  She and I shared a love of many things, including books — and especially Brian Jacques, whose death on February 5 has lost this world a fabulous storyteller.

I remember traveling to the Bailey's Crossroad, Va., Borders to listen to him read.  Carole and her husband Steve came with their two children.  The children were young, in elementary school, and the place was packed.  The kids sat as close as they could and the adults peered from the edges, mesmerized as he recited the description of Cluny the Scourge in Redwall.

When I say "recited," what I mean is "performed."  I never heard such a sonorous voice, rich and interesting.  He whispered, he shouted, he drew us in close to share asides, he used his entire body to tell the tale.  I don't think I took a single breath for fear of missing a syllable.  I went to my reading eye and watched Cluny appear before me, just as Jacques described.  It was incredible, and I silently thanked the blind children who inspired him to write such rich, detailed stories.

i also wasn't surprised to learn that his descriptions of food were influenced by his experiences living through food rationing during and following World War II.  Only one who knew want could create feasts so abundant and varied.

Afterward, he signed his books.  Now, he was recuperating from carpal tunnel syndrome from signing so many books, and the event organizers asked that each person bring only three books to the table.  He apologized, and we know he would have signed every book we carried had he been able.

When my young friends met him, they were wearing the masks and waving the scabbards they had made in the workshop the bookstore had provided.  Jacques was delighted, and he gladly posed for a few photos with the children after he finished autographing their books. 

He listened to the questions and comments by the children and their parents, really listened, and thought carefully before he answered.  Some authors have canned answers, or questions they won't consider — but not Jacques.  I could see the wheels turning as he thought, and responded.

He promised to keep writing books for as long as we kept reading them.  We did, no matter how we grew (up or out).  My young friends went on to college, and yet they would read those books with their parents, with Carole twisting her tongue around Basil's Scottish brogues and Foremole's near-mumbling.  I watched in fascination, wondering how Jacques heard them in his head, knowing he would be thrilled with Carole's performance.

I am going to miss this wonderful author and the excitement of finding another of his books on the shelf.  I will miss the dormice, the hares, hedgehogs and badgers — even the stoats and weasels, without whom there could be no story.  Jacques' writing made the world a better, and more colorful, place, and his talent will be truly missed.