Friday, September 28, 2012

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
(The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series #1)

Daniel Sempere is the son of an antiquarian bookstore owner in Barcelona, Spain. In the summer of 1945 Daniel's father takes him for the first time to an inconspicuous, but remarkable place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It's to this sanctuary of the written word that books are brought in order to ensure they don't go from obscurity to oblivion. In the labyrinths of books being overseen there, Daniel chooses a book that he will protect himself: The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. As Daniel reads Carax's book, he quickly falls in love with it and learns that it's quite valuable.

For years, copies of it, and every other book written by Carax have been disappearing under unusual circumstances. One night Daniel is approached by a mysterious man who is horribly disfigured and who introduces himself as Laín Coubert; the same name the devil goes by in The Shadow of the Wind. Coubert offers to buy the book from Daniel and seems willing to pay any price for it, but Daniel refuses.

That encounter marks the beginning of a life-long fascination with the tragic life of Julian Carax. As he tries to uncover the events that led up to Carax's murder, layer upon layer of mysterious circumstances are revealed and Daniel finds himself the center of much unwanted attention.

The book is wonderful. Zafón mixes in elements from numerous genres: mystery, fantasy, romance, and horror, and he does so flawlessly. The writing itself is fantastic (the last paragraph below is a great example of what I mean) and the plot is complex and intelligent. It is the first of three books written so far involving Daniel and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and I'm looking forward to reading those as well. The Shadow of the Wind is an international best seller and has been translated into over 40 different languages, fortunately one of them is English.

Our sales lessen year by year. I'm an optimist, and I tell myself that what goes up comes down and what comes down must, one day, go up again. Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day. Every month we receive offers to turn our bookshop into a store selling televisions, girdles, or rope-soled shoes. They won't get us out of here unless it's feetfirst.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Legion

by Brandon Sanderson
(Legion series #1)

Stephen Leeds is a very sought after man. Many seek him out because they want to study him, others seek him out because they need him to provide the type of help no one else can provide.

Stephen's brain plays constant host to an ever-increasing number of hallucinations. To him, these hallucinations are quite real, and he knows that no else can see or hear them. They are a collection of hundreds of separate and distinct characters, each one being an expert in a particular field or on a specific topic. Anytime Stephen needs to "consult" with an expert, his brain manifests a new hallucination who is immediately able to provide him with everything he needs to know on the subject.

The idea behind the story Sanderson tells is brilliant and the story itself is great. My only complaint is that it's far too short. It's a novella and only takes an hour or so to read, so I don't feel the need to summarize the plot. I know I've mentioned before how much I enjoy Sanderson's books and I understand that most of them require a time committment to read. This one does not. Pay a couple of dollars to download it and get a sample of Sanderson's creativity and the broad depth of the worlds he creates. I'm confident you'll enjoy it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

12•21

12·21 by Dustin Thomason

Back in 2004 Dustin Thomason co-wrote a book with Ian Caldwell called The Rule of Four. It was very popular and stayed at the top of the NYT Bestseller list for months. I read it, but wasn't that impressed. It was a decent book, but it wasn't the second coming of The Da Vinci Code some seemed to think it was. Now, nearly nine years later, Thomason has written his second book, this one by himself.

If you're one of those people who doesn't have anything on their calendar scheduled after December 21, 2012 or who is maxing out their credit cards because they don't believe they're ultimately going to have to pay it back thanks to the Mayans, than this book is right up your alley. Most people know by now that they Mayan calendar ends on 12/21/12. Something will cause the polarity of the earth two reverse and life as we know it will end. 

When 12·21 begins, two weeks prior to that date, two things enter the United States undetected: the first is an ancient Mayan codex that had been looted from a previously undiscovered Mayan temple in Guatemala and was smuggled into the States in order to be sold. The second is a disease--brought in unknowingly by the same Guatemalan man looking to strike it rich with the codex, who was infected by the disease while at the ancient temple site.

The disease is similar to mad cow disease in that it affects the neurological system and has no known cure, but instead of being spread through the consumption of tainted meat, this disease spreads like a common cold. The disease takes only days to incapacitate its host and is almost always fatal.

Dr. Gabe Stanton is a specialist with the CDC whose career has been spent trying to find a cure for mad cow and other diseases known as "prion diseases." When this knew variant of the disease starts to spread Gabe finds himself at the forefront of the efforts to track down where it originated from and hopefully be able to discover its cure.

I'm pretty lukewarm about 12·21. It was interesting and fun to read, but I was unsatisfied with the ending. My recommendation would be to wait till after the real 12·21 to read it. If our days are numbered, don't waste your time with it, but if they're not, and we're all still here the morning of the 22nd, then give it a try.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
First of all, there are two versions of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables: the complete version and an abridged one. I read the complete version. I don't think reading an abridged version really counts for anything. For me, reading an abridged version of a book is kind of like getting a GED--sure, you can tell people you did it, but how many people do you really think are impressed?

Several years ago I took an Amtrak train about 500 miles to Denver to meet up with my family at my in-law's. Several people tried to convince me beforehand that I'd really enjoy it. They were full of crap. The train departed at about 5:00 AM and didn't pull into Denver until after 10:00 PM. I normally drive that trip in about 7½ hours, so this was tortuous. Periodically throughout the trip, the train would just stop, not at a station, or at a point where passengers were getting on or off, just on the tracks. Sometimes the stop would last for a few minutes, other times the stop would last for over an hour. No explanation was ever given, so each time it'd stop, I would go crazy not knowing how long the stop would take, and knowing that I wasn't making any progress towards my destination. I was reminded of this train trip numerous times while reading Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. But while I hated the train ride with a passion, my feelings about Hugo's book are quite the opposite.

The reason the book reminded me of that train ride was because Victor Hugo repeatedly stopped his story of Valjean, Javert, Cosette, and Marius to give a history lesson, or background on an influential person of the book's time period, and these stops were rarely brief. At one point he used 50 pages to describe the battle of Waterloo before telling you that Thénardier was there after the battle ransacking valuables from the corpses of soldiers and while doing so, had an interaction with Marius's father. That chapter could have been 49½ pages shorter and would have been just fine.
Having said all that about what I could have done without in the book, I'll shift gears now and say how glad I am that I finally got around to reading it. It's truly a fantastic story and ultimately a great book. I think it's a waste of time to summarize the plot, as I believe most people know it, or at least part of it from the musical production. But as good as that is, it pales in comparison to the book. Hugo acts as narrator throughout the story and as someone who lived in Paris at the time, who saw firsthand the struggles of its citizens, and the building of the barricades during the rebellion that took place, he's able to provide incredible depth to the story he tells.

Ironically, I think that Hugo was a master at using the written word. As I said earlier, sometimes it was to excess--and I'm going to attribute that to my hunch that publishing houses in the 1860's didn't employ editors. But there were numerous times that Hugo would write a sentence or two, either as narration or as dialogue spoken by a character, that I thought were brilliant. In those parts of the book, Hugo was able to express an idea that perfectly described a characteristic of mankind, or a universal truth that few would be capable of articulating that well.

This winter a new movie adaptation starring Hugh Jackman will be released. My suggestion is instead of going to the theater and paying $9 and spending probably three hours watching an interpretation of the book, rather go to a bookstore and pay $9 and get to spend a month reading the original. But if you end up reading the abridged version, don't bother telling me about it. I won't be impressed.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★