Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Review of a book I want to read!

I wish I had written this review, which is witty and wonderful.
From The Washington Post's Book World/
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Contrary to what you may have heard, the life of a book reviewer is not unending adventure. It's lots of speed-reading and sitting around in your bathrobe, trying to finish the next review while scouring the cupboard for more chocolate chips and wondering if that mole on your shoulder is looking weirder. Oh sure, "There is no frigate like a book/ To take us lands away," but give me a frigate break; sometimes you wouldn't mind a few thrills.Which may be why I'm such a sucker for this relatively new genre of books that are literally literary thrillers -- stories in which some pudgy book guy is propelled into a vortex of romance, crime and intrigue. If you love books -- their physical presence, the craft of making them, the art of collecting them -- then you already may well have enjoyed Ross King's Ex Libris, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind and a dozen others. Now make room on the shelf for a new guilty pleasure from Michael Gruber called The Book of Air and Shadows. It's smart enough to let you think you're still superior to that cousin who raves about The Da Vinci Code, but it's packed with enough excitement to keep your inner bibliophile as happy as a folio in vellum.Gruber's story revolves around the search for the most sought-after document in the world: a new play by William Shakespeare. In his own handwriting. To get an idea of how precious such a treasure would be, consider that for 400 years the entire Shakespeare industry has managed to find only six tiny samples of the playwright's handwriting: signatures (all misspelled) on a few legal documents. What would a Shakespeare scholar do to find an entire play in the Bard's hand? Whom would a criminal mastermind kill to steal it?
Enter The Book of Air and Shadows, stage right. The story begins with a fire at a rare bookshop on Madison Avenue. The next day, while trying to salvage some of the merchandise, Carolyn Rolly (gorgeous, mysterious) and Albert Crosetti (lives with mom) discover some pages hidden in the binding of an old book. After struggling for hours with the difficult handwriting and archaic spelling, Crosetti determines that he's reading a letter written by a 17th-century soldier on his deathbed.Excerpts of this letter appear throughout the novel in alternating chapters, and it's not easy going: "Now my father seeyng this taxed us sayyng what shal you not only be idle thyselfe but also tayke my clerke into idlenesse with thee?" You'll be tempted to skip these rough patches, but don't. First of all, they get easier as you get used to them, and second, they're a chance to experience the mingled tedium and thrill of discovery. The letter describes a spectacularly exciting life, which culminated in an assignment to spy on a popular playwright and suspected Roman Catholic, Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, another thread of the novel takes up the story of Jake Mishkin, an intellectual-property lawyer who's holed up in a cabin in the Adirondacks. While waiting for some Russian gangsters who will surely kill him, he's typing out the story of how he got in this mess. "Although there is a kind of lawyer who can reasonably expect a certain level of physical danger as part of the employment picture," he writes in his witty, rambling narrative, "I am not that kind of lawyer." Once an Olympic weightlifter, he's long since settled down to shuffling paper, cheating on his wife and leading a generally dull and morally vacuous life. But several months earlier, a frightened English professor came to his office. He wanted advice about how to secure the rights to a 17th-century letter that may point to the location of an unknown manuscript by Shakespeare. Jake promised to advise him and took possession of the letter, but soon after that meeting, the professor was found tortured to death, and Jake found his exquisitely ordered and pampered existence thrown into deadly disarray.What follows is a wild story of double-crossings, forgeries, kidnappings and murders that's engrossing even when it's ridiculous. (At one point, the code secret is tattooed on a beautiful woman's thigh -- so handy.) We've got Russian mobsters, Jewish gangsters, Nazi thieves, international models and currency traders, oh my. And all of this madcap adventure in the present is mirrored in a story we gradually decipher from that 17th-century letter, describing a nefarious plot by radical Puritans to entrap "the secret papist Shaxpure." While twisting the plot into great knots of complexity, Gruber mixes in fascinating details about rare manuscripts, intellectual property, and ancient and modern cryptography.Sadly, the women in this novel don't come off much better than they do in the average James Bond movie, but Jake is a truly engaging narrator, who's forced by this crisis to face up to a lifetime of moral weakness. And young Crosetti, who works in the rare bookstore only to put himself through film school, constantly reminds us -- even in the most dire circumstances -- that movies determine "our sense of how to behave. . . . Movies shape everyone's reality." That's a pop echo of Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), which argued that the Bard's plays literally created modern consciousness, assembling a vast index of human personalities and experiences in which we continue to find ourselves. Gruber never reaches for Bloom's gravitas (thank God), but, as Bottom would say, it's "a very good piece of work, I assure you."
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Dream Thief by Shana Abe & Burning Bright

Shana Abe scores again with this sequel to last years "The Smoke Thief" which was an elegant tale of Dragon-human hybrids living in Victorian England.
This book continues the tale of the Drakon, but from the POV of the street-wise cutpurse and thief Zane, who was saved from death by the current ingenue's mother in the first novel. Amalia Langford is the fourth child of the clan, and hasn't shown any of the Gifts of her siblings, with the exception of her mothers talent for willful flouting of the Drakon rules. She hears the "singing" of jewels, in particular, the Dramur, a blue diamond that has the power to rule the Drakon, turning them into mindless slaves. There's a grim legend with the stone, of course, and poor "Lia" as Amalia is called, dreams every night of a future in which Zane marries her, finds the stone and kills her entire family.
After taking this dream to Zane as a teenager, he reacts like a jerk and doesn't believe her, but after she reaches adulthood, Lia comes to him with an offer to accompany her on the quest for Dramur and he accepts.
What follows is a typical quest myth, fraught with trouble and deepening sexual tension between Lia and Zane.
Abe is a master of evocative, sensual prose that begs to be read aloud, so as to hear it glide across the tongue. Her first three paragraphs are weepingly beautiful, and she never lets the plot and the pace lag during the entire novel. My only qualm is that there aren't more love scenes between Lia and Zane. Abe is one of the rare authors who can write a sex scene without florid, embarrasing euphemisms, such as heaving bosoms and throbbling manliness. She lets the reader feel the sensual passion of one kiss, a lingering touch, or a taste of silken skin. Her love scenes are hypnotic and hot, yet they fit in with the action of the novel so well, one doesn't feel they're at all gratuitous.
If you find dragons fascinating and enjoy adventure and a tightly-paced love story, you'll enjoy this book.
I wasn't as enamored of Tracy Chevalier's latest work, "Burning Bright" which was supposedly about artist and poet William Blake. I've read all of Chevalier's works, and as in her other novels, we see the action of the era through the eyes of the common people, instead of the famed artist. In this case, the common people are a chair-maker and his family, and a street-wise urchin and her grifter parents and cruel brother. The Chair maker and his kin move to London in hopes of setting up a new life after the death of the eldest son, and though their hamlet is not that far from London, it's apparently a completely different world, because they fall prey to the many horrid goings-on in the nastier parts of London during the reign of King George (the 18th century). Maisie and Jem, her brother, get involved with the street urchin, Maggie, and spy on their neighbor, the stern and terrifying Wm Blake. They all become involved with a circus man and his horrible wastrel son, who manages to get several women pregnant by the end of the book. There was a great deal of description of the filth and grime of 18th century London, of the ignorance and pestilence, and the terrible way children were treated at the time. While I understand all that, I was hoping for a bit more insight into the brilliance of Blakes poetry and illustrations. We get very little of that in this novel, which dwells on the evils of society in relation to women more than the artistry of Blake. There was little relief from the horrific descriptions of London and its denizens, and I was rather disappointed in that. I found the idea of being next door to Blake intriguing, but Chevalier never comes through for her readers and satisfies their curiosity as to what the mans mindset was like, or why he wrote the passionate poetry that he created and printed. Unless you find the gritty side of 18th century London fascinating, I'd give this book a pass.

The death of reviews, part 2,

I found another article on the death of book reviews, and wanted to post part of it here:
May 2, 2007Are Book Reviewers Out of Print?
Last year Dan Wickett, a former quality-control manager for a car-parts maker, wrote 95 book reviews on his blog, Emerging Writers Network (, singlehandedly compiling almost half as many reviews as appeared in all of the book pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.Mr. Wickett has now quit the automotive industry and started a nonprofit organization that supports literary journals and writers-in-residence programs, giving him more time to devote to his literary blog. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, meanwhile, has recently eliminated the job of its book editor, leading many fans to worry that book coverage will soon be provided mostly by wire services and reprints from national papers.The decision in Atlanta — in which book reviews will now be overseen by one editor responsible for virtually all arts coverage — comes after a string of changes at book reviews across the country. The Los Angeles Times recently merged its once stand-alone book review into a new section combining the review with the paper’s Sunday opinion pages, effectively cutting the number of pages devoted to books to 10 from 12. Last year The San Francisco Chronicle’s book review went from six pages to four. All across the country, newspapers are cutting book sections or running more reprints of reviews from wire services or larger papers.To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books. In recent years, dozens of sites, including, The Elegant Variation (, maudnewton .com, and the Syntax of Things (, have been offering a mix of book news, debates, interviews and reviews, often on subjects not generally covered by newspaper book sections.For those who are used to the old way, it’s a tough evolution. “Like anything new, it’s difficult for authors and agents to understand when we say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not going to be in The New York Times or The Chicago Tribune, but you are going to be at,’ ” said Trish Todd, publisher of Touchstone Fireside, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. “But we think that’s the wave of the future.”Obviously, the changes at newspaper book reviews reflect the broader challenges faced by newspapers in general, as advertisement revenues decline, and readers decamp to the Internet. But some writers (and readers) question whether economics should be the only driving factor. Newspapers like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could run book reviews “as a public service, and the fact of the matter is that they are unwilling to,” said Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.“I think the reviewing function as it is thoroughly taken up by newspapers is vital,” he continued, “in the same way that literature itself is vital.”Mr. Ford is one of more than 120 writers who have signed a petition to save the job of Teresa Weaver, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s book editor. The petition, sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle, comes as part of the organization’s effort to save imperiled book coverage generally. “We will continue to use freelancers, established news services and our staff to provide stories about books of interest to our readers and the local literary community,” said Mary Dugenske, a spokeswoman for the newspaper, in an e-mail message.Coming as it does at a time when newspaper book reviews are endangered, many writers, publishers and critics worry that the spread of literary blogs will be seen as compensation for more traditional coverage. “We have a lot of opinions in our world,” said John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle. “What we need is more mediation and reflection, which is why newspapers and literary journals are so important.”Edward Champion, who writes about books on his blog, Return of the Reluctant (, said that literary blogs responded to the “often stodgy and pretentious tone” of traditional reviews.
But while online buzz can help some books, newspapers can pique the interest of a general reader, said Oscar Villalon, books editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. Blogs, he said, are “not mass media.” The Chronicle, for example, he said, has a circulation of nearly 500,000, a number not many blogs can achieve.On the other hand, committed readers who take the time to find a literary blog may be more likely than a casual reader of the Sunday newspaper to buy a book. “I know that everyone who comes to my site is interested in books,” said Mark Sarvas, editor of The Elegant Variation, a literary blog that publishes lengthy reviews.And newspaper book reviews, which are often accused of hewing too closely to “safe choices,” could learn something from the more freewheeling approach of some of the book blogs, said David L. Ulin, who edits the book review at The Los Angeles Times.“One of the troubles with mainstream print criticism is that people can be too polite,” Mr. Ulin said. “I feel like an aspect of the gloves-off nature of blogs is something that we could all learn from, not in an irresponsible way, but in a wear-your-likes-and-dislikes-on-your-sleeves kind of way.”Maud Newton, who has been writing a literary blog since 2002, said she has the freedom to follow obsessions like, say, Mark Twain in a way that a newspaper book review could not, unless there was a current book on the subject. But she would never consider what she does a replacement for more traditional book reviews.“I find it kind of naïve and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger,” Ms. Newton said. “But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things.”One thing that regional newspapers in particular can do is highlight local authors. “While I’m all for the literary bloggers, and I think the more people that write about books the better, they’re not necessarily as regionally focused as knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors in the South or Midwest or anywhere where the most important writers come from,” said Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review.Many local authors view the decision at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a betrayal of important local coverage.“With the removal of its cultural critics, Atlanta is surrendering again,” wrote Melissa Fay Greene, author of “Praying for Sheetrock” in an e-mail message. “We all lose, you know, not just Atlantans, with the disappearance from the scene of a literate intelligence.”Of course literary bloggers argue that they do provide a multiplicity of voices. But some authors distrust those voices. Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”