Monthly Archives: March 2014

One Year Anniversary – WOW, Has It Really Been That Long?

As of tomorrow (March 27, 2014), it will be exactly one year since I started writing this blog. Weird to contemplate, actually, because it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. Then again, it also doesn’t feel like I’ve been working here at the Booksmith for more than eighteen months, so, there you go. Time flies.

In the past 364 days, I’ve discussed 34 books with everyone out there (plus the two additional titles reviewed by Hunter and Mike – thanks, guys!). Some of those were brand-new, hot off the presses; others were a little older, whether by weeks or months or even years, in some cases. On a rare few occasions, I took a sneak peek at titles that hadn’t yet come out – the miracle of the ARC, which always gives me an illicit thrill, getting to read something before everyone else. All of them – old, new and in between – absolutely spectacular. But then again, anytime someone actually pays me to read great books and then blather on about how amazing they are (with free license to geek out and squee as needed) is a good day’s work.

Not that it isn’t nerve-wracking, trying to distill a sometimes lengthy and usually complex book down to its essence … particularly when the author is stopping by for a signing. The worst (or best, depending on your point of view) example of that particular hurdle was during our event with James McBride last August for The Good Lord Bird: Jake actually had me print out a copy of that week’s review for him. Luckily, he was unbelievably nice, and oh-so-politely ignored my bout of hyperventilation. Once I got past that, we had a fantastic chat about my take on the novel: he found it interesting that I zeroed in on the edge of discomfort hidden in all the funny bits, but I guess that’s just my weird sense of humor, and also explains why I cringe every time Arrested Development comes on. So. Much. AWKWARD.

Potentially having to face the author afterwards isn’t even the toughest part of writing a review, or of streamlining my thoughts and responses to a book into something both coherent and concise. Even getting started can be a challenge, especially when you’re trying to pass judgment on something you could never hope to equal. To me, the most intimidating thing in the world is a blank Word document: all that clean, white emptiness on the screen, berating me for not being clever enough to fill it up with effortless, fluid brilliance. Such a formal space, and for whatever reason, I feel as though everything I type up has to be perfect from the very beginning: complete sentences, organized thoughts, with a proper beginning, middle, and end. Much easier to just dash ideas out by hand first, and then rewrite and revise from there, once I have somewhere to start. So, instead, I read with a pen and legal pad at my elbow, jotting done anything that pops into my head as I go – which means that I read a lot more deeply and thoroughly than I otherwise would. Without something to slow me down, I speed-read, just blasting through the text, and often miss crucial stuff in my eagerness to find out what happens next. It’s almost … meditative, working through a book while taking notes and documenting my reactions, and it certainly helps me pick out the important bits from everything else swimming around in my brain.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that my reading taste was varied and eclectic, but I prefer to think of that as an asset rather than a liability, giving everyone a representative sample of all of the amazing stuff on our shelves. Of course, we’re such a weird little joint anyway, since every book in the store is signed, and as a result, we have an unusually mixed selection. Of the thirty-four books I reviewed for you in the past year, nine have been non-fiction, and many of the others have been historical fiction, often heavily rooted in and inspired by fact. The novels have featured an astonishingly wide variety of character, setting and plot, all magnificent, with plenty of genre-defying mish-mash that doesn’t fit neatly into any one particular category. There’s been both art and science, tragedy and joy, humor and grief. There have been books that challenged me, confused me, or enraged me – sometimes all at once. Others have left me in tears, or fits of the giggles, or both, and still more titles completely overwhelmed me with warm fuzzy feelings.

Writing these reviews requires me to walk a tantalizingly fine line, somehow trying to balance “Oooh, this tidbit is fantastic, I have to share it with everyone” against “Oh, wait, darn it, mustn’t ruin the book!” I do my best to avoid spoilers, but it’s unbelievably tough on occasion to restrain myself, and keep from blurting out all of the good stuff. This is especially true when the parts that make a book so amazing are also what makes it unique, and therefore must be left for the reader to discover on their own. Boo. Hiss. Still, there are worse problems to have than the need for that particular type of self-censoring: too often a really outstanding book leaves me at a loss for words, and it’s a struggle to find a way to adequately describe it. I’ll take word vomit of awesome any day.

Okay, enough crazy rambling. It’s been an eventful year, from hosting Khaled Hosseini in June, to being snowed in at the store overnight in January and almost having to cancel our event with James Scott as a result, with tons of amazing authors, and an overabundance of fantastic reads. So, here’s to another one, hopefully just as full of great books as the last!



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“Ripper” by Isabel Allende

“The problem was not finding answers; it was knowing which questions to ask.”


– Ripper, Isabel Allende

It’s very hard, if not close to impossible, to summarize Ripper by Isabel Allende, and to put my finger on the heart of the novel: mostly because there is simply so much going on within its pages.  I love crime novels (in case this wasn’t already apparent), and Ripper certainly falls into that category, but at the same time, it’s … denser.  To leave it at that description is akin to comparing glazed doughnuts with cake ones: similar in shape, both delicious, addictive and satisfying, but the latter has so much more substance to it.

There are crimes, of course: brutal murders, a cunning killer and a terrifying abduction.  But they are woven into a much larger tapestry, one that comprises the world and relationships of two extraordinary women:  Indiana Jackson, a free-spirited holistic healer, and her disconcertingly precocious daughter, Amanda.  Both gradually find themselves drawn into the web of said cunning killer, along with almost everyone they care about, but that web in turn is part of something much greater.

At first, the murders are only personal to Amanda insofar as her father, Deputy Chief Bob Martín, is in charge of investigating them, and she can milk him and his colleagues for information, with the help of her grandfather.  Her more direct involvement stemmed from her participation in the online role-playing mystery game Ripper, when as game-master, she convinced her fellow players to shift from trying to solve fictional murders in 19th century murders London to investigating real ones in the present.  It’s an intellectual puzzle for them, a challenge and a distraction from real life, at least until the game becomes all too real.  The police even listen to the conclusions the players draw and give their suggestions fair consideration as a series of increasingly bizarre and seemingly unrelated crimes gradually grow into the work of a truly nasty serial killer – and then it’s all hands on deck when Indiana is abducted by the same.

The tension builds up steadily throughout, but with excruciating slowness, Allende tightening the screws one agonizing twist at a time.  The novel is spell-binding and hypnotic, and yet you have no idea where the plot is taking you almost until the very end.  And yet the tension isn’t just about the murders, or the race to solve them, but it operates on a far more personal level as well.  At sixteen years old, Amanda is dealing with a set of fairly extensive growing pains, trying to sort out her place in the world: very mature in some aspects of her life, but still a child in others.  She’s spoiled, reckless, and sees herself as superior to everyone around her.  This attitude is partially justified by her ferocious intellect, but subsequently countered by her lack of real-world experience.  Indiana lives very much in the now, with a passion to help everyone she encounters and an almost painfully naive belief in the innate goodness of humanity – something her ex-husband finds utterly maddening.  At present, she finds herself caught between two very different men: her long-standing relationship with wealthy socialite Alan is contrasted with her more recent and deep but platonic friendship with scarred former Navy SEAL Ryan, a man with powerful demons of his own.

All of this makes for a dense tangle of plot, setting and character (of which the city of San Francisco is one in its own right), and yet Allende guides the reader through with a deft and sure hand.  The novel is packed full of really rich descriptions of people and places, bursting with sight and sound and smell.  There is a huge cast, each painted in loving yet concise detail, even for the most minor of chatacters, and yet you never feel lost or overwhelmed by the flood of descriptions.  At the same time, however, Allende still hides as much as she reveals, giving up information only when she’s ready, and not before.  The events of the novel are laid out day-by-day, marching along in a deceptive progression that is anything but orderly.  It’s a compressed timeline, as the crimes occur over a six month span, but with roots deep into the past.   Allende takes us on a purposeful meandering through the lives of the characters, where even the most mundane details will later acquire great significance – but since you don’t know what will matter later, you find yourself squirreling away every delicious tidbit for further consideration.

At one point in the novel, Amanda discusses the formula for a successful crime novel with her grandfather, an aspiring author, explicitly comparing them to auto sacramentales: morality plays in medieval Spain, allegories of the struggle between Good and Evil.  In the plays, Good always triumphed over Evil, but Evil had the most interesting role, and Amanda believes that crime thrillers operate on the same principle.  This is not how Ripper plays out: it focuses primarily on the lives of ordinary people, mostly good, some otherwise, but always flawed, some very much so.  Good doesn’t triumph absolutely, and Evil isn’t the primary focus – just the impact its actions have on everyone involved.  At its heart, Ripper deals with life, where nothing and no one is as they first appear, with Allende slowly peeling away the layers to reveal what’s hidden underneath, and keeping you guessing until the very last moment.


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“The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” – Kristopher Jansma

“Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?’ I don’t think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn’t done it once—do you? But they will never do it again, Best Beloved. They are quite contented as they are.”

Rudyard Kipling, “How the Leopard Got His Spots”


If you believe you are the author of this book,
please contact Haslett & Grouse Publishers
(New York, New York) at your first convenience.

I can’t help but admire the narrator of Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, for sheer audacity, chutzpah and inventiveness, at least in a Catch Me If You Can, Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen sort of way – the ease with which he creates, steals and discards identities and realities is truly remarkable. We never learn his real name, only who he pretends to be – which is constantly changing.   At the same time, however, I was left feeling kinda dirty and sketchy as a result of that approval, because he’s so fundamentally self-centered, utterly ruthless, endlessly manipulative and completely dishonest.  He’s clever, sympathetic and relatable, but in no way likeable, and he does some pretty despicable things during the course of the novel.  In addition, my admiration is more than a little tinged with pity: because of his facility for invention and deception, nothing and no one is ever quite real to him (not even himself) except for what he’s made up.

The only time the narrator ever comes close to telling the truth is in his fiction, no matter how hard he tries to disguise it or dress it up.  He bases all of his work on real people and places and events, mining everything in his life for inspiration, and then twisting it, ever so slightly.  He gives his characters new names and mannerisms, places them in new settings, but the truth still shines through.  On the advice of one of his college professors, he adopts as his writing mantra “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).  He embellishes, elevates, distorts and transposes, but he never makes anything up in his writing – only in his life.

The novel follows the narrator’s development as a writer, beginning in childhood and continuing from there, but it’s also a meditation on the nature of fiction, storytelling and reality, revolving around the his relationship with the truth – or lack thereof.  It’s a fascinating journey, as we follow him around the world, from his childhood home, a college in New England and New York City, to Dubai, Sri Lanka, Africa, Iceland, Luxembourg and circling back to where everything began.  And yet all of these exotic settings are just backdrop to the real story of him.

It’s also the story of the two most important individuals in the narrator’s life, with whom he forms a “vicious little circle”, a curious and bizarre relationship of obsession and envy, of attraction and repulsion, of manipulation and need.  The first is Julian McGann, whom the narrator meets in college – a fellow writer and endless rival, a wild and moody eccentric who lives on the extremes of everything and ignores the mainstream.  Julian is the more talented, or at least the more successful, of the two (which only feeds the narrator’s already powerful feelings of inadequacy), and are in constant competition despite their close friendship.  The other is Evelyn, Julian’s friend from Choate and an aspiring actress, for whom the narrator nurtures an intense and burning passion that is almost entirely one-sided.  There are explosions and separations among the three – how could there not be, with such volatile personalities?  And yet they draw apart and come together again, always repeating the same pattern, until the narrator is finally brought up against the reality that is (rather than the one he has created) and there is the potential for change.

What makes the narrator so compelling and yet so discomfiting is the inescapable conclusion  that he is us, only without any kind of braking system, lacking all sense of restraint.  Everyone does many of the things he does, we all lie and deceive … just not to the same extent.  Many of his impulses and desires are achingly familiar, as are his responses, only taken to the furthest possible extreme.  Like most of us, he reinvents himself in college, crafting an entirely new persona as he revels in this new setting, where no one knows anything about him – but it’s rare that anyone wipes the slate so completely as he does, or does so with such frequency thereafter.  On occasion, everyone tweaks the truth a little bit, just to make a better story, but he rewrites it from whole cloth, or invents it entirely.  I know all too well the inadequacy that comes from comparing your own work to another, where you always, always believe that someone else’s writing is better.  We all meet people we envy, and wish we could become, even if most of us never take the steps necessary to do so.

The novel ends the only way it possibly could: back where it began, with a revelation on the part of the narrator and a resolution for his future, both cut short.  In a confrontation with his past, he realizes that he can no longer keep up his ever-changing series of charades, and resolves to do better, be better – to change his spots, so to speak.  And yet, right before the tale breaks off, he seems to be continuing his old pattern of cutting and running whenever cold, hard facts collide with the fiction he creates and subsequently blow up in his face.  We simply don’t know, like the wobbling top at the end of Inception, and frankly, I think everything would be ruined if it ended any other way.  It’s perfect, exactly as it is, even with all the frustration and uncertainty, O Best Beloved.


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