Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dinner Party From Hell

Okay, so I'm being melodramatic when I say it was the dinner party from hell, because it wasn't really hell. The people were nice. It was a beautiful day. We were able to enjoy an incredible view of Puget Sound outside on a deck.

The hell part was the dinner. But I'm jumping ahead...

Several weeks ago I received a dinner invitation from a long-time acquaintance. Because my husband and I like this person, we said we'd love to attend. In these parts, whenever someone invites you to their home for dinner, you will inevitably inquire, "what can we bring?" Nine times out of ten, the answer will be, "No need to bring anything, but if you'd like, bring a bottle of wine."

This time it went differently, though. A few days before the dinner, I received a phone call asking me to bring an "entree salad." As I was unfamiliar with the term, I asked for more clarification. Did it mean a salad that has meat in it? Or a chunky salad? Or something hefty? I was told any of those things would be fine, and to come at 5 PM, so I was left to my own devices to think of what to make.

Though my husband and I are on the dark side of 50, neither one of us are at the point where we want to be anywhere near dinner at 5 o'clock. Coincidentally, we had another stop to make in that part of Seattle that would delay our arrival until 5:30 or 6:00, which is still early but definitely more in the realm of normal for us.

We weren't told how many people would be there, so I planned to double whatever recipe I was going to make. A double volume of salad should be plenty to qualify it as an "entree," or so I thought.

My husband suggested I make a Chinese chicken salad recipe given to me by a former boyfriend's mother, an exceptionally talented cook of Japanese and Asian food. The recipe is labor intense, so usually the only time I make it is for Japanese New Year. It requires the individual preparation of many components, including deep-fried maifun noodles. When made correctly, the maifun blooms into an airy cloud once it hits the hot oil, yielding a light, crispy texture. The deep-fried maifun noodles really make the salad.

The day arrived and I began work. It was unseasonably hot, so my exasperation threshold was three notches lower than usual. The prep work is killer and takes hours. Trying to cut corners, I'd decided to use an electric fry pan instead of deep frying on the gas stove because it's less of a mess to clean up. Bad idea.

The electric fry pan didn't get hot enough. When I dropped in the maifun noodles, they looked right, but weren't light or crispy. In fact, they were mostly rock hard. If you can imagine chewing on threadlike bunches of greasy plastic, that would come close to the texture. My husband, who always finds the positive in every situation, acknowledged they were inedible. Without the maifun it would be an ordinary salad. I was beyond frustrated, so called our friend explaining I was having a meltdown. I was told not to worry if the salad didn't work out - that there would be plenty of food.

Having a safety net thrown, I started what I should have done in the first place - deep frying on the gas stove. When everything was finally complete, I packed it all up and we were ready to go.

We departed, making our other stop along the way, and arrived to find 10 people at the dinner party. We set down the chilled bottle of Prosecco and the salad ingredients we brought, and mingled for 10 minutes before asking for a beverage. Apparently because we didn't get there at 5, the hors d'oeuvres were not to be found. My husband was able to scrape some molecules of salmon off a remaining piece of skin, but that was it.

We chatted for another 15 minutes, then I was tapped on the shoulder and told it was time to serve my salad. So I went into the kitchen and asked if I should plate the salad or leave it in the bowl for people to serve themselves? I was told it would be fine to leave it in the bowl, so I proceeded to assemble all of the ingredients, toss it and set it on the sideboard. Meanwhile, another guest was slicing bread and setting it out. All the while I was wondering why someone wasn't firing up the barbecue? Certainly we were going to have some nice grilled salmon?

It was announced dinner was served. That's when I realised my salad was the dinner and THERE WOULD BE NO SALMON.

The salad was well received, but the other guests were equally puzzled. Should they leave room on their plates for more courses? My husband and I quickly discerned this would not be the case.

Ten minutes later when everyone was finished, the plates were cleared away. Meanwhile, another guest went to prepare their part of the meal, which turned out to be dessert. That was dinner: My salad, bread and dessert. I puzzled over being told there would be "plenty of food," and thought, "yeah, in a third-world country!"

At that point I excused myself and stealthily called our son, asking him to call me back in 15 minutes. When my phone rang, I answered and announced we needed to leave. My husband and I got into the car and asked each other what in the heck was that!? When we got home, we rummaged around for something to eat. We were hungry.

The next day I called a friend who was also a guest and asked what she thought. Yes, it was weird. After all accounting, we deduced everything served at the dinner was provided by a guest and that the hosts did nothing except provide a venue, glasses, dishes and utensils. One of the hosts was Jewish. I asked my friend (also Jewish) if it was a Jewish thing? Her response was, "NO, Terri! Jews feed people!"

So the next time we're presented with an invitation from this person, we're going to suggest dining out.

Separate checks.

Friday, August 28, 2009


A true-blue swashbuckler takes place in the good old days when gentlemen proved their honor at the tips of their swords. All you needed was a steady blade, a fine set of mustachios, and a devastating effect on the ladies to be a genuine swashbuckler. Bravery, romance, justice and revenge were the order of the day. Soldiers, swordsmen, and spies vied for riches, glory, and fame. These are the original adventure stories, action-packed all the way. There’s often a sense of humor to a swashbuckler, a tongue-in-cheek tone combined with a narrative tendency to cheerfully fling heroes into all sorts of messes and scrapes and expect them to emerge ready for more. No one actually swashes a buckle in a these books (the definition of a swashbuckler is “a swaggering or daring soldier or adventurer”), but still, we’re talking about champions rescuing damsels in distress with astonishing acts of derring-do—in other words, real high adventure stuff. Whether the tone is as light the feather in a soldier’s hat or as dark as a sweeping black cape in the night, when it comes to reading about these dashing young men and their thrilling adventures, we just can’t get enough.

The Three Musketeers by
Alexandre Dumas, 2006, Penguin Classics, originally published 1844 (Fiction Classics/ Adventure)

If you think
The Three Musketeers is a stodgy old classic, think again. It is the original swashbuckler and an adventure story that has stood the test of time through hundreds of editions and translations, spin-offs, and
movies. Hell, it’s even got a candy bar named after it. The Musketeers are the private bodyguards of King Louis XIII of France in 1624, and the three of the title are long-standing members of this guard: Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. But the real hero of the story is reckless young d’Artagnan, a wannabe Musketeer who must prove his mettle and his devotion to the cause as the trio fight to defend king, queen, and honor against a devious Cardinal and mysterious spy known only as “Milady.” The Three (or four) Musketeers set the mold (and maybe broke it too) for the dashing, daring, laughing-in-the-face-of-danger gentleman type that we associate with the swashbuckler. There are hundreds of editions of this classic, but the 2007 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition is a real treat to read, complete as it is with a very readable and rousing new translation and a gleefully comic illustrated cover.

Zorro by
Isabel Allende, 2005, HarperCollins (Historical Fiction/ Adventure)

This crafty eighteenth-century revolutionary is more than a swashbuckler; Zorro is also an early type of the superhero with a secret identity (
Zorro, in fact, was first created as a new caped crusader for a 1919 pulp magazine). In Isabel Allende's novel, we get the origin story of colonial California’s very own Robin Hood. Diego de la Vega is the son of a wealthy Spanish officer and a beautiful Native American woman. Always conscious of his mixed heritage, young Diego witnesses first-hand the shameful inequalities native Californians (including his good friend Bernardo) suffer at the hands of the ruling Europeans. Diego is sent to Spain to complete his education and is recruited to La Justica, a secret society dedicated to fighting the powers of oppression and injustice. When Diego returns to California to fight for the rights of the land and the people he loves, the legend of the masked avenger is born. Allende believes that the glory of this swashbuckler lies in the history behind the hero, everything from childhood dreams to duels with his fencing master to a desperate love affair. There are modern touches as well to endear us modern readers to the old-fashioned tale—social reform, class differences, and a richly detailed historical context that make us love this rapier-wielding, Z-slashing mystery man even more. Allende is a highly accomplished, award-winning, critically-acclaimed novelist, and with Zorro she’s all that and a rousing adventure story.

The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, 2002, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1904 (Fiction Classics/ Adventure)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is, like the Three Musketeers and Zorro, a defender of truth and justice during a time of oppression—he’s just not quite as well known. But his story was a best-seller in its day and still makes for a swashbuckling good read. It is 1792, the beginning of the French Revolution and the reign of the bloody Guillotine. A secret society of Englishmen has formed to save their French counterparts from the blade; their leader is a dashing masquerader known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel from the small red flower he leaves as his calling-card. But danger for the Pimpernel lurks in two forms--a beautiful woman, the wife of an foppish Englishman named Percy Blakeney; and a dastardly villian called Citizen Chauvelin. Readers of this stirring tale will not be surprised to learn that the Scarlet Pimpernel, with his secret identity and daring deeds, was the blueprint for every masked avenger who came racing to the rescue later.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The “Good Parts” Version by
William Goldman, 2003, Harcourt Books, originally published 1973 (Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure/ Humor/ Romance)

Most of us know
The Princess Bride best as the charming
1987 movie, but it was a book first, and an equally delightful one at that (due in part, no doubt, to author of book and screenplay being one and the same in William Goldman). The Princess Bride takes all the glory, revenge, and romance from classic swashbuckling adventure stories and turns the whole mess on its ear. There’s still adventure galore, but Goldman frames his book as an old classic that needs all the boring historical parts edited out in order to get readers to the good action bits. It’s a hilarious premise, since Goldman’s descriptions of what’s been cut (and why he’s decided to make those cuts) are as clever as the rest of the adventure, which pits the beautiful Princess Buttercup and her true love Westley against an evil genius, a six-fingered man, and a power-hungry future king (not to mention a giant, a pirate, and a down-on-his luck swordsman). Filled with comic duels of the mind and the heart, The Princess Bride is a charming story that both critiques and celebrates the classic swashbuckler.

The Reavers by
George MacDonald Fraser, 2008, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Fiction/ Adventure/ Humor)

…And then the swashbuckler descended into chaos. This is a rousing, rambling, rowdy tale of spies, highwaymen, and luscious ladies. On the border of Scotland and England, a plot led by the mysterious mastermind La Infamosa is underway to kidnap King James and replace him with a Scottish imposter. But there are some forces of, um, good who stand in the way--Archie Noble, whose rugged good looks make him the perfect Elizabethan-era James Bond; Lady Godiva Dacre, who is nothing short of a knockout; her dimwitted maid-in-waiting Kylie; and Gilderoy, the sex appeal-oozing thief/secret agent. There’s the fast-paced swordplay of a classic swashbuckler; there’s also good the old-fashioned fistfights of a bar brawl. We’ve got witty puns told in Scottish accents and villains twirling their mustachios at veiled ladies. For cloak-and-dagger intrigue and whole lot of inspired silliness, look no further than
The Reavers. George MacDonald Fraser is best known for his series about
Harry Flashman, a Victorian-era cad who goes out of his way to avoid ever swashing any buckle of any kind. Fraser passed away early in 2008, so fans are certain to get a kick out of this delightfully nonsensical swan song.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by
Gideon Defoe, 2009, Pantheon Books (Fiction/ Adventure/ Humor)

This is the fourth in the madcap
Pirates! series by Gideon Defoe, whose swashbuckling pirates have previously run amok with Charles Darwin, Captain Ahab, and communists. This time around, the dashing Pirate Captain is nursing a wounded ego (he’s lost the Pirate of the Year Awards) on the tropical island of St. Helena. Unfortunately, there’s already another big ego with a sword on the island—the freshly exiled
Napoleon Bonaparte. Rivalry ensues. Defoe delights in anachronisms and making fun of adventure stereotypes. Unabashedly juvenile, farcical, nonsensical, even ridiculous, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon wants nothing more than to make you throw aside your sword with hysterical laughter—but watch out for where it lands since, as the Pirate Captain would be sure to say, the sharp end of a sword can be rather pointy.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by
Lauren Willig, 2005, Dutton Books (Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Chick Lit/ Romance)

This is an updated swashbuckler, a story that combines the modern with history—and throws in a bit of chick lit romance for good measure. Harvard graduate Eloise Kelly is completing her dissertation about English spies when she comes across a trunk of letters and documents about a previously unknown historical spy. Soon Eloise and the reader are plunged into a novel-within-the-novel, the story of Amy Balcourt in the year 1803. Amy and her brother Edouard set off to Paris to join the league of another dashing spy, the Purple Gentian. But Eloise in the twenty-first century and Amy in the nineteenth are both obsessed with the elusive Pink Carnation, even as romance appears in both the present and the past in the form of dashing gentlemen with secrets of their own. Part detective story, part historical thriller, part romance,
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation updates the classic swashbuckler while remaining true to its spirit. For more of the Pink Carnation’s history, read the rest of the books in Willig’s Pink Carnation series: The Masque of the Black Tulip, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and Betrayal of the Night Lily.

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, 2007, Del Ray Books (Historical Fiction/ Adventure)

Zelikman is a scarecrow thin, rapier-wielding doctor from the Frankish countries. Amram is a giant African ex-soldier with a very large battle ax. Together they are gentlemen of the road—swords-for-hire making their way through the Caucasus Mountains in the year 950 A.D. Their code of honor, such as it is, extends only to each other and their loyal steeds. But when they end up burdened with Prince Filaq of the
Khazar Empire, they also find themselves unaccountably moved to help the young royal avenge himself upon his usurping uncle and reclaim his rightful throne. It won’t be an easy journey—Zelikman is moody, Amram is sarcastic, and privileged Filaq is just plain snobby—but it will be a swashbuckling adventure filled with sword fights, surprising secrets, and even herds of exotic elephants. Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) who has delved into every genre from mystery to fantasy. When he tries his hand at high adventure here with Gentlemen of the Road, he is certain to be a rousing success. The action, which takes place over one thousand years ago, is deftly and richly described. The characters are real and funny, and the simple joy of storytelling (heightened by illustrations from Gary Gianni) always rings true.

Captain Alatriste by
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, 2005, G.P. Putnam & Sons (Historical Fiction/ Adventure/ Mystery)

Captain Alatriste is a soldier for a country that’s down on its luck. Spain’s unbeatable
Armada has been beaten, and the Spanish Inquisition is under way. So he makes his living hiring out his hand and his sword. One such employment—coming just when it’s needed most, as he's just gotten out of debtor’s prison—has Alatriste and a fellow assassin quietly snuffing out the lives of two English travelers late one night. But something about the Englishmen, something noble and worthy, stays Alatriste's hand. His sense of honor now re-awoken, Alatriste finds himself smack in the middle of a political intrigue involving the most powerful political forces in seventeenth century Spain and England. Narrated with acute observation by Alatriste’s young squire Iñigo and chock-full of rich historical detail, Captain Alatriste is an ideal swashbuckler. This is cloak-and-dagger action that highlights a thoughtful, elegant plot with a dashing hero who is worth following. There is a series about this heroic swordsman; every title has been a bestseller in author Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Spanish homeland. Elegant new translations (finally! Captain Alatriste has been around in Spain since 1996) assure that this adventurer will win hearts on this side of the ocean just as easily. The sequels, in order, are Purity of Blood, The Sun Over Breda, The King’s Gold and The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet. Pérez-Reverte is a master of these literary historical thrillers; for even more of his swashbuckling style, try The Fencing Master as well.

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by
Kate DiCamillo , 2006, Candlewick Press (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

The Tale of Desperaux is an adventure story for children, a mini-swashbuckler if you will. In fact, the moral of the story is that you can accomplish anything, even if you are very small. In a fairy-tale kingdom far away, a mouse named Despereaux Tilling is born. Despereaux is not like the other mice—he is very tiny, and very brave, and very much in love with the human Princess Pea. Despereuax knows that a true knight must go on a quest to win the love of a fair lady. Armed with a needle for a sword and his own romantic yearnings, Despereaux sets out on an adventure that will come to include the stories of lonely Princess Pea and her family; a dimwitted but wishful girl named Miggery Sow; and Chiaroscuro, a rat who loves the light. Author Kate DiCamillo is a skilled and subtle writer, seamlessly weaving compelling storylines with important messages for her readers, regardless of their age. The
illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering are elegant and atmospheric. Even though it is a children’s book, this is not a kind, gentle adventure story. There is real danger and tragedy in The Tale of Despereaux. It may be a swashbuckler of junior status, but it still has enough action, romance, and heart to satisfy any hero with a sword and a sense of honor.

Back in a Jiffy

Lots happening, folks. School starting, projects finishing, real estate transactions. I'll be back soon with updates and announcements...

Image: West County Sketch, July 9, 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


-a novel presented in letters

Sorcery and Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, 2003, Harcourt Press, (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

It is England, 1817. Cecilia is off to the big city for her first London season while cousin Kate stays at home in the countryside. The girls write to each other, and the book could be a comedy of manners based on the likes of Jane Austen--except that this is an England where Magic is real. Sorcery and Cecilia is also a collaborative novel. Wrede wrote as Cecilia and Stevermer wrote as Kate, and the story grew out of the chapters they sent back and forth to each other. The result is a charming and witty tale of wizards, chocolate pots, and Proper Etiquette in Polite Society. The (mis)adventures continue in The Grand Tour, or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia (2004).

Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn, 2001, MacAdam/Cage (Fiction/ Fantasy)

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The island nation of Nollop is founded in honor of Nevin Nollop, the man who created this popular pangram (a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet). The residents live in peace—until letters start falling from the inscription on Nollop’s memorial statue. The Council rules that these letters can no longer be spoken or written and as they disappear from the statue, they also disappear from the novel. This clever, entertaining story is a race against time before all the letters fall and language is lost forever. Soon only teenage Ella Minnow Pea--and the reader--are left to decipher sentences without vowels, invent pangrams of their own, and fight for the rights of ABC, XYZ, and everything in between.

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock, 1991, Chronicle Books (Fiction/ Illustrated Novels/ Graphic Novels)

Griffin and Sabine may look deceptively slim and pretty, but the cover houses a romantic and fantastic tale of two young lovers separated by time and space. Lonely London artist Griffin Moss receives a postcard from a strange woman named Sabine who can see what he is painting,—even though she lives thousands of miles away. As they correspond, the story literally unfolds. The reader opens their letters, reads their writing, and examines their artwork for clues to this strange and increasingly intimate connection. The mysterious exchange of letters--always beautifully illustrated and interactive--continues in Sabine’s Notebook (1992), The Golden Mean (1993), The Gryphon (2001), Alexandria (2002), and The Morning Star (2003).

Last Days of Summer by Steve Kluger, 1998, Avon Books (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

This is the story of a smart-aleck boy who brags that a baseball player is his best friend, the letters he writes and the tall tales he tells to get the baseball player to be his best friend, the smart-aleck baseball player who writes back and gives as good as he gets, and the relationship they develop despite their tough-guy exteriors. Set in Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, the story is told in letters, notes, telegrams, newspaper clippings, interviews, and report cards. Last Days of Summer is a humorous, timeless tale of friendship, war, growing up, and the grand game of baseball.

Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty, 2000, St. Martin’s Griffin Press, (Teen Fiction)

Dear Miss Clarry,

It has come to our attention that you are incredibly bad at being a teenager.

Yours sincerely,
The Association of Teenagers

This is just one of the letters Australian teenager Elizabeth Clarry writes and receives as she begins her first year of high school. Her best friend Celia has run away, her normally absent father is back in town, her communication with her mother consists of wacky notes left on the refrigerator, and an English assignment requires her to write to a Complete and Utter Stranger. A funny and touching coming-of-age story, Feeling Sorry for Celia is a best-seller in Australia and was a nominee for Best Book of the Year by the American Library Association.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008, Dial Press, (Historical Fiction) 

It is January, 1946. Juliet is enjoying both her newfound success as a writer and the return of England's freedoms now that World War II is over. Then Juliet gets a letter from a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Intrigued by this strange-sounding book club (who wouldn't be?) Juliet begins corresponding with its members, who founded their society during the German occupation of Guernsey Island. Guernsey's residents share their tragic and comic stories with Juliet through letters, and a delightfully quirky cast of characters quickly takes over the story. The book is based on years of research into the occupation by author Mary Ann Shaffer; her devotion to this cause and her admiration for what Guernsey suffered is vividly apparent. Despite touching on many of the horrors of war, the story is ultimately light, charming, and sugary sweet. It is an uplifting and heartwarming read that shows how the simple acts of reading and writing can bring people together. 

Lady Susan by Jane Austen, 2006, Hesperus Classics, originally published 1871, (Fiction Classics/ Romance)

The epistolary form goes back a long way, and few have used it to greater advantage than Jane Austen. In this novella, written when Austen was little more than a teenager, widowed Lady Susan is intelligent, beautiful, sophisticated--and rather wicked. She needs her daughter to marry well and herself to marry even better. She charms, she flirts, and she manipulates as she schemes away in letters to gullible (and not-so-gullible) family and friends. This is both a clever tale of one woman’s charm and desperation and a social satire of aristocratic life in 18th century England. Lady Susan is one of Austen’s earliest complete works and the story shows the same wit and insight of Austen’s greater works.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Haunted Booklist

It was a dark and stormy night. This is a near-perfect phrase in book lore, and avid readers curl up with delight when they read it, even as chills run up and down their spines. Readers know they’re in for a real page-turner, a can’t-put-it-down, up-all-night-with-the-lights-on kind of book. For bookworms, this kind of ghost story is only made better when a book itself is part of the plot twist. On one of those dark and stormy nights, our book hero discovers a mysterious, ancient, forbidden tome and stumbles upon a spooky mystery that changes the character, the story, and our own reading experience. These literary thrillers will take you to the edge of your seat, conjure ghosts and monsters, and make you more than a little afraid of the very book—that seemingly innocent package of bound pages and spine—that you hold clutched in your trembling hands…

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield , 2006, Atria Books (Fiction/ Mystery)

A writer is famous and beloved, as much for her published works as for the outlandish lies she’s told about her personal history. Her best-known collection of stories lacks one thing—its promised thirteenth tale. Now, on her deathbed, the writer Vida Winter wants to tell that final tale. She wants to tell the true story of her life—a story of an old-fashioned family of identical daughters, a beautiful mother, a ghost, and a governess—and she chooses another writer to hear her tale. Margaret Lea is skeptical and wary of the famed writer’s charm, but she is irresistibly drawn deeper and deeper into Vida’s life and stories. And so too is the reader. Besides ghosts and mysteries and Gothic gloom galore, The Thirteenth Tale is full of everything that bibliophiles love and adore—stories within stories, histories within histories, and characters who are authors, writers, readers, and real devourers of books.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 2004, Penguin Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

At the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a young boy finds a new book that will obsess him for years to come. Daniel is the son of a bookseller and each generation of his bookselling family guards a lost book, a classic work of literature that time has forgotten. Daniel’s choice is The Shadow of the Wind, an obscure book by an equally obscure writer named Julian Carax. Daniel searches for other Carax novels, only to discover that he is not the only reader to do so—in fact, copies of Carax’s books are being destroyed one by one, and Daniel may have the last copy of The Shadow of the Wind in existence. As young Daniel grows up in post-World War II Spain, he meets a wide array of mysterious characters—beautiful women and charming young men—who help and hinder him on his quest. Zafón’s book spent two years on the bestseller lists in its native Spain; it topped bestseller lists here as well, and with good reason. Atmospheric, epic, absorbing, almost obsessive—you’ll not only be unable to put this book down, you’ll be entirely and completely immersed in its story and mystery.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 2009, Doubleday Books (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

It seems that author Carlos Ruiz Zafón can't get enough of ghost stories about books. His newest novel has the same Gothic touches of myth and mystery that his first bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, made so intriguing and irresistible. The Angel's Game is about a desperate young writer named David Martín. David writes a series of trashy thrillers that please the public but not his own artistic soul. He has a very few friends—a fatherly bookseller who offers encouragement and support, a wealthy writer whose pity is preferable to his charity—but David's most constant companion is his typewriter. Now, having survived a tragic childhood and spent most of his young adulthood lovesick for a beautiful woman, David finds himself caught in a strange bargain to write a book for an even stranger publisher. The Angel’s Game seems designed to immerse us in the both the character’s and the author’s twisted methods of storytelling; savvy readers will spot characters and places that flow from The Shadow of the Wind into this book, though it is not a sequel or a prequel. The Angel's Game will keep you locked in its spooky clutches until the very last page.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, 2005, Back Bay Books (Fiction/ Mystery/ Horror)

In Amsterdam in 1972, a motherless girl finds a bundle of secret letters and a medieval book in her father’s library. The book is blank, save for a disturbing illustration of a dragon and a single word: Drakulya. The letters, dated Oxford, 1930, are addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” Our heroine, nameless and bookish though she is, more than proves herself as she embarks on a quest to find out what this book and its letters means and why they have a nasty habit of changing the lives of its readers (who include her father and her father’s mentor) forever. Just don’t confuse The Historian with any old spooky horror story--Kostova’s book is as thoughtful and contemplative as it is chilling and thrilling. The characters have unique voices, the locations are exotically detailed, and Count Dracula--or Vlad Dracul, the Impaler, as we should call him--is transformed from a tired and worn old fairytale into a very real and threatening menace. For readers who thought vampires were just for the teeny-bopper crowd, this detailed, layered, literary novel proved them wrong years before Twilight made bloodsuckers a trendy fad.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly , 2006, Atria Books (Fiction/ Mystery/ Fantasy)

David’s books are talking to him. Whispering really, alone in his attic bedroom as David mourns the death of his mother and keeps out of the way of his new stepmother. Soon David’s books become more real than the world around him, and he finds himself traveling through a fantasy land that is home to all manner of men and beasts. Hunted by a creepy Crooked Man, David searches for the secret that will send him home again. If The Book of Lost Things sounds like just another updated fairy tale, think again. The land David roams is far too twisted to belong to anything other than adult literature. But these surprising twists, along with the gloomy World War II setting, the fractured fairy tale beasts and monsters, and the time-honored coming-of-age story combine to make The Book of Lost Things a spooky, entertaining novel about the loss of innocence and the enduring power of a good story.

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, 2004, Harcourt Press (Fiction/ Mystery)

Another young, lost boy (the half-orphaned child with only books for company is a real staple of the haunted books-about-books genre) stumbles across a bunch of stories that he was never meant to read. This time it’s Gerald, a fatherless boy in Australia whose mother is supremely secretive about her past life. All Gerald can rely on are his British pen pal Alice and the ghost stories that his Victorian grandmother wrote—stories that seem to have a tendency to come true and invade Gerald’s real life and history. As Gerald searches for the story of his mother’s life and the truth about mysterious Alice, the line between fantasy and fiction becomes distressingly and disturbingly blurred. A true blue old-fashioned ghost story that spans continents and centuries, The Ghost Writer is guaranteed to keep you up at night, in the best and most addictive way possible. 

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, 1998, HarperCollins (Nonfiction/ English History/ 19th Century)

This is the true story of the ultimate book—the Oxford English Dictionary. Begun in 1857, the compilation of the OED was one of the most ambitious undertakings of the time. The project was led by Professor James Murray. As definitions were collected and reviewed, Murray realized that one man, a Dr. W.C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand entries. Imagine Murray’s shock when, seeking only to honor this valuable contributor, he discovered that Minor was in fact a murderer and an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. Masterfully written and researched by best-selling historical writer Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman proves that there’s often more to books than the story within—sometimes the book’s own history is where the drama, intrigue, and mystery truly lie.

The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, 1951, J.B. Lippincott Company, originally published 1919 (Fiction)

The Haunted Bookshop is a sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, in which discontented farm spinster Helen runs off with charming travelling bookseller Roger Mifflin. Now happily married, the Mifflins run a secondhand bookstore in Brooklyn that is haunted by quirky characters of both the dead and undead variety. Helen bakes chocolate, Roger waxes poetic, and romance and comedy abound. Morley’s two novels about the Mifflins are charming, delightful little books that are really about the importance of reading and the sheer love that everyday people have for books, whether they’re romances, mysteries, or ghost stories. If the other books on this haunted booklist have set your hair on end, this older, lighter, comical ghost story might be just what you need to fall asleep again.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Young Adult Books Too Good To Miss

For most adult readers, a “young adult” or “teen” book is a no-go. To be seen reading a teen novel would be embarrassing, like getting caught reading one of those old romance novels with the peek-a-boo Fabio covers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But the young adult label can be very misleading, and adult readers are missing out on some great literature. The following list of books proves that the stigma of the “teen” label is finally blurring and maybe even fading away all together. After all, a good story doesn’t care how old its reader is. 

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, 2004, Little, Brown, and Co. (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Romance)

Ah, Twilight, the teen-angst-filled saga about one teenage girl’s crush on the dreamiest vampire-hunk this side of Brad Pitt. Or should we say Robert Patterson? Twilight has made fictional character Edward Cullen synonymous with those screen idols, and that’s a rare feat for any book (even a book that’s also been made into a hit movie with a cast of young heart-throbs). Twilight is the first book in a quartet that chronicles the challenges high school loner Bella Swan faces when she falls fangs-over-heels for Edward, a mysterious classmate/ brooding vampire. The series was written with a teen audience in mind, but millions of its readers have turned out to be actual grown-ups. There’s even a fan website for “Twilight moms.” It’s true that author Stephenie Meyer takes some controversial liberties with classic vampire mythology. And yes, Bella and Edward’s relationship has some sticking points that won’t resonate with every reader. But the appeal of Twilight is Classic Romance—two young lovers, torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, must fight against all odds to stay together. Whether you love it or hate it (and there’s really no in-between), even adults will find themselves passionately devoted to debating their own point of view. And any book that gets us talking—or crushing on its characters—if worth looking into, regardless of how old we are.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008, Scholastic Press (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy/ Adventure)

In the not-so-distant future, the nation of Panem has risen from the ruins of North America. To keep its citizens in line, the Capital forces one boy and one girl from each of its twelve distracts to act as “tributes” in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death televised live to the people at home. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen, a poor but resourceful girl who also happens to be this year’s choice for the Hunger Games. Decidedly lacking in resources that tributes from wealthier districts take advantage of, Katniss is not the favored contender. She may be able to rely on Peta, the baker’s son from her neighborhood who was also chosen for the Games—but with only one winner allowed, making friends is a huge risk that can only end in betrayal and death. Katniss is not a quitter, but her determination to win is complicated by shifting loyalties, the pressure to perform for those in control, and a desire to rebel. The adventure is more than a survival story; it’s a commentary on government power and the entertainment value of reality TV. It’s also a dystopian moral tale in the grand tradition of The Giver, Brave New World, and 1984. More to the point, The Hunger Games is an absorbing and thrilling page-turner with sophisticated themes to boot, and that makes it required reading for any age group. The eagerly anticipated sequel, Catching Fire, is due in fall of 2009; a final book to complete the trilogy is in the works.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 2005, Alfred A. Knopf Books (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The Book Thief is only a young adult book here in the States; in its home country of Australia, it was published as a general fiction title for adult readers. Lucky for us, it is readers who make a book great and not its place on the bookshelves. In The Book Thief, Death narrates the story of grubby little Liesel, a mere child struggling to understand life in Nazi Germany. Despite being illiterate, Liesel copes by becoming a full-fledged book thief, stealing her first book from her brother’s graveside and moving on to raid Nazi book-burnings and rob the mayor’s library. Liesel’s accordion-playing foster father teaches her to read and Liesel is enchanted with the world of words, but life is dangerous, and more so when the family hides a Jew in the basement. World War II is always a complicated subject; when you make Death one of your main characters and let him tell your story, things get really interesting. But that complexity makes it ideal for every age, especially when combined with Zusak’s intelligence, intensity, and humor (yes, humor, a very dark humor, much of which comes from Death's periodic bold-font bulletins). Whether you’re a teen in Australia or an adult in America, bibliophiles everywhere will beg, borrow, or steal to read The Book Thief

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, 1999, Pocket Books (Teen Fiction)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is another young adult title that was nearly placed in the adult fiction section. The book is a coming-of-age story about an awkward high school boy, but then again, we’ve all been awkward high school boys (or girls) in our day. Charlie is sensitive, smart, and endearingly bewildered about life in general. Poised on the fine line between childhood and the rest of his life, Charlie has some things to figure out. For one thing, he has an impossible crush on an unattainable girl even though he’s the shoulder to lean on when others confess their romantic secrets. And he may finally feel accepted when he befriends an older group of students who appreciate and understand his oddities, but he’s is in danger of being left behind with his own troubled past while they move on to bigger and better things. Charlie pours his heart out in letters to an unidentified recipient, and as readers we are privy to all his charms, foibles, and secrets. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye or Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlie is a kid telling an adult story, and his unique point of view will be universally appealing no matter how long ago or how gracefully we got through our own high school years. 

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson, 2006, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction) 

M.T. Anderson’s other books (Thirsty, Burger Wuss, Feed) have all been for young adults; it makes sense that his most recent title would be a teen book too. But that Octavian Nothing is different is apparent at first glance. Octavian is a young boy living in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Raised in near-isolation by a strange group of philosophers and scientists, Octavian doesn’t understand his place or purpose in the world—until one day when he does, and he is horrified. He rebels, only to find that his unusual upbringing has left him woefully unprepared to meet the prejudices of the real world. Octavian finds himself in the unique position of being forced to face a frightening future even while grappling with the terrors of his past—and with no time to linger in the present. M.T. Anderson presents a way of life and a set of characters that don’t know the outcome of the Colonies’ war with England, and that have some very difficult choices to make. Anderson tells Octavian’s history in a forthright, intimate voice with no frills attached, and it is a story that the reader will feel utterly compelled to explore. The sequel, Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves, presents Octavian and his compatriots with more paths to choose and asks them (and us) to live with the consequences. The tale of Octavian Nothing asks a new set of questions about the history we thought we knew, questions that are worth asking whether we took American History last year or last decade.

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, 2008, Henry Holt and Co. Books (Children’s Fiction/ Teen Fiction/ Poetry/ Historical Fiction)

You don’t have to be a poetry reader to appreciate this remarkably unique story. Told in free verse (a poetry style that doesn’t rhyme and concentrates instead on a realistic rhythm), The Surrender Tree is a work of historical fiction that tells a version of Cuban history we don’t read about much in history texts. In 1868, a few Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence from Spain’s rule. For the next three decades, the tropical isle was wracked by nearly constant warfare. Amidst the turmoil and bloodshed emerges Rosa, a slave-turned-healer who spends the tumultuous years of the war hiding in the jungle and healing anyone and everyone she comes across—runway slaves, Cuban rebels, Spanish soldiers (many who change sides after Rosa helps them) and even the legendary Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter who becomes a cruel soldier and Rosa’s most feared foe. Rosa and her husband José spend years camped out in make-shift hospitals in huts and caves, constantly on the move but always connected to the land by the plants, flowers, and herbs that Rosa uses as medicine. Rosa, José, Lieutenant Death, and others like Spain’s General Weyler, who in 1896 called for all Cuban peasants to be herded into “reconcentration camps,” and Silvia, a young girl who escapes from one of Weyler’s death camps, take turns telling the story of Cuba’s fight for freedom from their own point of view. The story becomes an interwoven, haunting story full of brutal tragedy, quiet triumph, and, above all, the beauty and history of the nation of Cuba. Author Margarita Engle writes about real historical figures, though she takes a few liberties with the facts of their lives to weave a more completely unified story. In the end, she tells a powerful story in an elegant style to create a work that won her a Newbery Honor (the first Latino author to do so), a Pura Belpré Award, and a Jane Addams Award. The Surrender Tree may be a book for young readers, but is truly a book that should be ignored by no audience. 

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass/ The Subtle Knife/ The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, 1995/ 1997/ 2000, A.A. Knopf Books, (Teen Fiction/ Fantasy)

This trilogy is recommended in its entirety as a series to truly grow with. The journey begins with an unruly girl named Lyra who lives in a world that is just a bit different from our own. People are born with a daemon, an animal companion whose life and spirit are intertwined with their own. There’s also Dust, a mystical, invisible substance that falls from the skies and seems to have a power that transcends worlds. The institutionalized Church of Lyra’s world fears Dust; her powerful uncle Lord Asriel covets it. Lyra and her daemon tackle witches, armored bears, and a captivating woman named Mrs. Coulter in The Golden Compass, and the overall tone is that of an extraordinary adventure story with serious consequences lurking just below the surface. The Subtle Knife introduces Will Parry, a stoic young refugee from the all-too-familiar problems of our own world. Will flees into a strange parallel world and finds Lyra hiding there as well. The children discover that their destinies lie together, and that they have crucial roles to play in the magical happenings between worlds. In The Amber Spyglass Lyra and Will find that the fates of all these connected worlds rest on their shoulders. Author Philip Pullman creates an extraordinary fantasy world with rich, complex characters and meanings that reveal themselves over the course of the three novels. This modern fantasy trilogy is sure to be as influential as any of the classic children’s fantasies we’ve come to know and love. With far-reaching themes of love, death, and the end of childhood, and ideas that hit closer to home like the role of religion and the state of the human soul, Pullman’s trilogy can be read and re-read and loved throughout a lifetime.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, 2008, HarperCollins (Children’s Fiction/ Fantasy)

The Graveyard Book is actually not a teen book—it’s a kid’s book, the 2008 winner of the esteemed Newberry Prize for children’s literature. But its storyline begs to differ—adults too will be drawn into the story of a little boy who lives with the dead. The book begins with a serial killer picking off members of a family in the dark of night. The lone survivor is a baby. With no family and no home, the lonely tot wanders up to the town graveyard, is adopted by the ghosts who haunt the hill, and bestowed with the appellation of Nobody “Bod” Owens. The boy faces dangers within the graveyard and without, but the tale is ultimately charming and sophisticated—just what we expect from author Neil Gaiman, who is equally at ease writing his unique brand of fantasy for adults, young adults, and children. The Graveyard Book, much like that other fantasy about an orphaned boy (Harry Potter, anyone?), is an ideal crossover title for ages eight to thirty-eight to eighty-eight.