01 October 2014

Last Month in Review: September 2014

Hi, y'all.  So, September was not a stellar reading month for me, or at least not in terms of the number of books I completed.  Part of this is due to my having simultaneously started reading LOTS of books in the second half of the month, all of which I'm still working on.  But part of it because I watched a lot of excellent television.  God bless Netflix, where I've been introduced to the various joys of Call the Midwife, True Detective, Lark Rise to Candleford, and Lena Dunham's Girls. All wildly different, but all well done. Also,

In chronological order, here's what I read:

1. Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  This is the only book that I read and reviewed in September and I wasn't crazy about it.  Though I'm glad I was able to get another book in translation under my belt for the year.

2. Descent by Tim Johnston.  Debut novel, literary thriller.  Girl gets abducted one morning when out for a run in the woods.  The book then gives us the perspectives of her family, her abductor, and even the girl herself in alternating chapters.  Really well done and I hope to get around to reviewing it.  Soon.  Ish.

3. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton.  This one's getting LOTS of pre-pub buzz among booksellers, but the more I think about it, the more "meh" I feel about it.  Not sure if I'll review this one or not.

4. The First Bad Man by Miranda July.  I have no idea what to make of this book.  It's funny and weird and disturbing in pretty equal measure.  I reckon I ought to review it, with a tagline like that.

5. Yes Please by Amy Poehler.  The long-awaited memoir/humor book from a favorite comedian. I liked it, but it really should have had a stronger editorial hand behind it. I won't review this one, as there will be plenty of others out there singing its praises.

6. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris.  Oh, wow, I really thought this book was terrific, though my opinion did vacillate a bit over the duration. This was probably my biggest surprise of the month, as I'd spoken to a couple of other readers who really panned it. Because of that, I never would have picked it up to read, but then it made the short list for the Booker prize this year, and then I needed to acquire a new audio book for a road trip, and, well, it just happened. I hope to review it soon.

So, not entirely shabby but not impressive either.  I'm having a great time with all 5 of my current reads right now, so I hope October will be good.

What about y'all? What books surprised or delighted or disappointed you in September?

27 September 2014

Bookish Things: Authors (David Mitchell) and Monsters (Minotaur) and Food (smoked chocolate cake), OH MY

Hannah is ready to host the MONSTER party!   
So it's been another busy week at the bookstore.  My coworker, Hannah, hosted some pretty kick-ass YA events, we had a Monster Party complete with a blood fountain, AND I got to spend some quality time with author David Mitchell.  NBD.  All in a day's work!
The blood fountain
My coworker, Chrysler (about whom, more anon when she does a guest blog post later this week), and I drove from western Massachusetts to Cambridge to meet David Mitchell and get some books signed.  And by "some," I mean more than thirty cartons of books, of which each carton weighed more than 25 pounds.  You see, his new novel, The Bone Clocks, is the September selection of our store's signed First Editions Club. Usually we prefer for the author to come to the store to sign books  (for obvious reasons), but if the mountain won't go to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain, and so we made the trek across the state to spend an hour or two in David Mitchell's company.*
David Mitchell, doing his hand thing in my book
with RH rep, Ron Koltnow, standing up in back
I'm delighted to report that David Mitchell is perfectly lovely and soft spoken and gracious and intelligent and I could probably go on, but I won't.  It's always gratifying when an author in whom we've invested so much time and energy turns out not to be asshole.  The only way the day could have been better is if the B&B where we were getting the books signed had a little modern convenience I like to a handicapped ramp.  Because you know what?  There were stairs up (and later, down) which we had to schlep the 800+ pounds of books.  Extra rounds of thanks go to Ron, who did nearly all of the schlepping back down at the end.

L-R: Chrysler, woman from the B&B, David Mitchell, me
 After all of that schlepping, and in order to avoid getting stuck in the worst of rush hour, Chrysler and I grabbed a cocktail and a little food at a place called Alden and Harlow.  I love tapas bars, and we shared four small plates, plus dessert, between us.  The food was more or less good, but there was one standout dish: pistachio crusted halloumi, with roasted cherry tomatoes and warm bread.

The dessert was more interesting than delicious, at least for me: smoked chocolate bread pudding with salted vanilla ice cream.  I think somebody was a tad heavy-handed with the liquid smoke.  A little less of it, and it would have improved it tremendously.  Chrysler said it reminded her a little bit of eating a burnt S'more.

On the way home, we had a fun discussion about human impulses and the exploration of our Slytherin sides.  And books.  Always the books.

Here then, in parting, I share a photo of my David Mitchell books.  It's not at all excessive to have an advance reading copy of the US edition, paperback and hardcover copies of the UK edition, and regular AND slipcased copy of the US edition.  Anybody who says otherwise simply must be jealous.

This is the "hand thing" I was referring to
in that other photo, above
Not pictured: my regular and slipcased copies
 of the US edition. Still, not at all excessive.

My blog will be a bit quieter than usual in the upcoming weeks, as I have trips to make to Providence, RI, for a New England Independent Booksellers Association, and to Memphis, TN, for some important  trip planning, and I have author introductions to perform (Lauren Oliver tonight and Katy Simpson Smith in two nights' time), and ghost photo booths to plan, and book reviews to write, and, generally, miles to go before I sleep.  But my friend and coworker, Chrysler, will be stepping in to write a guest blog post soon and I will be back when I can.

Hope y'all are having a good weekend.  Let me know what bookish things you've been up to!

*This is not, I hasten to add, because Mr Mitchell thought that coming to South Hadley was beneath him. But with his busy international tour, his publisher couldn't work out a way to get him to us, and we decided that we couldn't do without his book.

19 September 2014


I usually spend my Fridays and Saturdays reading and writing book reviews, and occasionally working from home on my days "off." I'm pretty tired from a nifty encounter with David Mitchell yesterday (about which, more anon) and I've had to work from home today because I missed work yesterday in order to meet said Mr Mitchell.  Thus, because I like doing book surveys and because I don't have time to write a book review, y'all are getting my answers to the latest bookish survey making the rounds.  I've eliminated some questions that they are stupid. Or redundant. Or stupid.

1. What is your favorite fictional food or drink? 

Aww, all the good answers are taken. I've read folks who've talked about Butterbeer, pumpkin juice, Turkish delight, and all of the nifty things from Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

2. How long did it take you to finish your last book?

*Wanders over to Goodreads to find out*  Looks like I read the advance reading copy of The First Bad Man by Miranda July over the course of three days.

3How many Goodreads friends and books do you have?

Quite a few, it turns out. I have 181 friends; 1,238 books reviewed; and 101 in my TBR list there. Incidentally, I have the lowest average rating of all of my friends, I think, with 3.21.  I have to think a book is pretty damned special to give it 4*, much less 5*.  I have quite a few Goodreads friends whom I don't know from anywhere else in life, and I will only friend somebody if (1) I know them IRL or (2) They can correctly answer my test question AND if their books cross multiple genres AND if their books aren't all 5* ratings.

5. Do you ever quote books in public?

Yes. I quote more often from tv and films than I do from books, but I quote or invoke on probably a daily basis.  Most often from Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and J K Rowling.

6. Do you ever reread books?

Hell, yeah.  I re-read quite a lot, but they tend to be the same books, year in and year out. It's rare that I add a new book to my re-reading roster.

7. Do you judge a book by its cover?

Without a doubt.  Anybody who denies it is a liar.  I'm not saying it's the only thing I judge a book by, or the most important thing, but it's a factor with every single book I pick up.  Lack of good book design and typography is actually the single most important reason I don't read self-published books. Ever.

8. Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr?

None.  I have none of those accounts, but I suppose I'd be most drawn to Instagram for active participation since I take a LOT of photographs. (Obviously I'm passively drawn to Tumblr when I'm in the mood to see cute baby animals or am in need of a gif for the blog.)

9. Which genres take you the longest to read?

Hmmm...probably any nonfiction that isn't narrative driven.

10. Who are your favorite BookTubers (or Book Bloggers)?

BookTube? Are you kidding me?  This is a thing?

Okay, I have tons of blogs in my Google feed, but I really only closely follow my favorites.  If I've left more than one comment on your blog, and especially if I've had a conversation with you, and especially-espcially if I've participated in a readalong with you, then you are my favorite.

11. How often do you pre-order books?

This question probably doesn't apply to me, as I'm also a bookseller and most of my books are free AND read in advance of the publication date.

Question #12 eliminated for its stupidity and vagueness.

13. How many times have you reread your favorite book?

Really, these questions should be more precise.  Luckily we're not all Aspbergian and are willing to answer the un-asked portions of these questions without further prompting.  I actually don't know how many times I've read The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, Lewis Carroll's Alice books, or Pride & Prejudice. (Cf: #5 and #6)

14. Do you own a lot of books?

I almost eliminated this one for stupidity's sake, but then realized I was being classist because not everybody buys the books they read, they borrow. I do.  I own a lot of books.  I'm sitting in our library right now and will include two panos of this room because this is an adequate representation of every room in our house. That is, books piled everywhere. Double stacked and on every horizontal surface.  This just happens to be the only room in the house that was designed to be that way.

15. Do you take pictures of your books before you read them?

What, this is a thing?  This is stupid.

16. Do you read every day?

To quote another bookseller I know, reading is breathing.  Might as well ask if I breathe every day.

17. How do you choose a new book?

Sometimes with great deliberation, other times with utter abandon.  Most books I read are a combination of reading for work and for pleasure.  Sometimes I reluctantly nudge myself towards nonfiction if I've had a long streak of novels or short stories. The only times I'm reading 100% for my own pleasure are on when I'm on vacation or when I'm in the mood for some fan fiction.

18. Do you always have a book with you?

Yes. I have both ebooks and e-audio-books downloaded onto my phone and I keep physical books in the car so I really do always have one with me, in some form.

19. What are your biggest distractions from reading?

You mean other than work?  Family and Netflix. I don't watch a lot of television but I watch quite a few tv shows on my computer.

20. What is your favorite place to buy books?

Well, an independent bookstore, obviously.  If not my own, then wherever I find myself.  Though if it's an out of print book, I will search online, too.  Basically, any place but Amazon. I hate Amazon and think it represents a LOT of what's wrong with the world today. I loathe them, really.  Let me put it this way: I don't just want to say "Fuck 'em." I want to say, "Poke out their eyes, and then skull fuck 'em." I'd include a gif for that here, but I'm a little afraid what my show up on my screen if I typed skull fuck into my search engine.

So, that's it for today, y'all.  Those of you who've already done this questionnaire, what was your favorite or most surprising question?  Those of you who haven't, what are you waiting for?  Obviously all the cool kids are doing it.

17 September 2014

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Full disclosure: this is the first Sarah Waters book I've ever read. I also did not like it much. I therefore cannot compare how good (or bad) it is in relation to her previous books.  All I know is that the entire time I was reading this book, I kept waiting for it to get good.  It DID get good on a few occasions, but not enough to sustain my interest for 564 pages.

I put this book on the top of my TBR pile back in May at BEA (BookExpo America) when my friend and former coworker, ERM, kept raving about it.  She told me that if I couldn't score an ARC at BEA, that I should write to my rep right away to request one.  I dutifully did what she suggested and sometime in June received it in the mail.  (My sales rep is great!)  It was too big to lug on my summer vacation to Anguilla with me, and who are we kidding?  I had my entire two weeks' worth of reading planned out ages ago and thus wouldn't get to it until my return.

So I picked it up with a certain eagerness and that surety that I was about to embark on the discovery of a new favorite author.  Literary fiction?  Check.  British setting?  Check. "Dickensian" used as a frequent adjective to describe her work?  Check.  Lady lovin'? Check, check and CHECK.

The premise is promising enough. Frances Wray and her mother live together in their family home after World War I.  Frances's brother died in the war and her father died after mishandling their finances, so while they're not exactly destitute, it's clear that life cannot go on as it did before the war. In order to remain in the family home (estate is perhaps too grand a word, but it's not that far off, either), Frances and her mother must take in lodgers to make ends meet. Their social standing prevents them from talking about rent, so they refer to these lodgers as their "paying guests." Obviously.  Thus the reader gets the first of many glimpses into these fallen upper-class characters whose happiness and sense of being cannot be separated from their need to keep up appearances.

Lillian and Leonard Barber have definitely moved up in the world when they take rooms with the Wrays. But something isn't quite right...Frances and Mrs Wray speculate about they perceive as the Barbers' unconventionality. While Frances finds Leonard "a menace," Mrs Wray casts aspersions on Lillian when Frances mentions how much she likes Lillian.  Mrs Wray is suspicious of Frances's fondness for Lillian, and rightly so, for the reader soon learns that before the war, Frances was involved in a love affair that dare not speak its name.

Obviously Lillian and Frances are going to get together with this kind of set up, but they take their own sweet time about it.  It's well past the 100-page mark, and perhaps closer to 150 by the time they acknowledge the electricity between them and act on it. In between the time the Barbers move in and Lillian and Frances get it on, it's boring.  The writing is good, but it's not enough to really redeem the utter lack of plot. And frankly, from what I'd heard about Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, I thought there would be a lot more of the Lady Lovin'. Color me disappointed on that count.

Round about the 300-page mark, Something Big Happens: a man dies.  But is it an accident or is it murder? It's gonna take another 200 pages for the lawmakers to find out, and the entire book during that 200 pages is boring. BOR-ING. A regular snooze fest.  Lillian and Frances are so utterly insipid and uninteresting, and their actions are so incredibly stupid, that I could barely skim fast enough to get to the end.  It was only because Many People I Trust were raving about this book that I stayed with it.

Suffice it to say that there's a moral dilemma of quite some size, that class issues and gender roles come in to play, and that the writing remains of high quality throughout.  That being said, I still found it intolerable. The only characters I thought were interesting at all were Frances' ex-girlfriend and her new lover. Mrs Wray was a prejudiced old cow too concerned about what other people thought of her, and yes, she's a product of her time, but I couldn't find a single, redeemable characteristic.  Unlike, say, the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, who is equally prickly and prejudiced, but at least has a tremendous strength of character and sense of family.

I suppose there were a few redeeming moments in the book, but to paraphrase Mr Darcy, those moments aren't redemptive enough to tempt me.

But just in case you'd like a different opinion of this book, I direct you to Alice at Reading Rambo, who swooned and got all nervous and agitated through much of it.

14 September 2014

My Week In Books (and Bookish Things!)

This past week has been a pretty good one on many levels.  Good for the store in terms of publicity, good for me in terms of acquisitions of books and bookish swag, a fun author dinner, and one very amusing customer encounter.

Because I am a bookseller, and because I am very, very lucky, I will receive anywhere from 5-20 books in any given week.  Sometimes these are finished books (i.e. new books) that are new in hardcover or paperback.  Most of the time these are ARCs (advance reading copies) or bound manuscripts. Even given the fact that most of these books I have no interest in reading, that's a pretty good gig, and it generally guarantees that I will always have more books in my possession than I will ever have hope of reading.  (In case you were laboring under the misinformation that booksellers can read at work, let me disabuse you of that right now. I work on average 45 hours per week and the only times I'm free to read are my lunch breaks.)

This past week, however, the best book that I received came not from the publisher, but from my coworker, Julie.  She had somehow managed to score the one bound manuscript of Amy Poehler's new memoir, Yes Please, that our sales rep had in her possession, and I wasted no time in begging her to be next in line to read it.  So tonight I will be taking to bed with me the bound manuscript of Ms Poehler's new book and God bless my husband for donning a sleep mask so that I can read into the wee hours next to him, without disturbing him.
You betcha, Amy!
This week was also, as I mentioned, a banner week for Odyssey staff profiles.  My coworker, Hannah Moushabeck, the indefatigable and wondrous woman who runs our children's department, was profiled in Publishers Weekly.  NBD.  Hannah is amazing, y'all.  I've never, and I mean NEVER, met a bookseller who could match her in energy, and the way she interacts with the bubbliest of babies to the surliest of teens is a sight to behold.  Also, she has "glitter consultant" on her resumé, for which I shall evermore be envious. Check out what PW has to say about her here.

In the meantime, Jen Campbell from the blog This Is Not the Six Word Novel interviewed me about Odyssey Bookshop as part of the lead-up to the publication of her new book on bookshops. Some of her questions were fun, but some of them were challenging to answer.  How do you sum up your bookstore in only three words? How can someone even as verbose as I am try to tell you what books and bookstores mean to me?  You can read all about my bookstore (and me, kinda) here.

This week I also had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with Jodi Picoult, along with about six other booksellers, plus another half dozen librarians from New England, plus a goodly number of people from the New York offices of Random House.  The downside is that I had to drive a total of five hours to participate in the 3-hour dinner at Paci in Southport, CT, but in the end, it was totally worth it.  I got to meet some nifty folks and eat some really excellent food (OMG, the insalata di anguria), but I also got to tell the author of a book I loved how much it meant to me.  I've read a good number of Picoult's books before, and I've liked a fair number of them, but none of those could have possibly prepared me for the depth of emotional connection I felt to this book.  I will post a review of the book later, but it's my hope that Leaving Time will do for elephants what the documentary Blackfish has done for captive cetaceans. 

Last but certainly not least, I got a bit of bookish swag in the mail this week.  Remember when I hosted that readalong for Caitlin Moran's new novel, How to Build a Girl? You don't? Really?  Well, you should really get out more. Anyway, as a thank you for generating lots of good pre-publicity buzz for the book, HarperCollins sent me this groovy t-shirt and mug.  (The photo shows two mugs because that's how you can see the whole design, but I only have one.)  I kinda love that my husband wants to keep the mug for himself to use at work -- he teaches at a women's college. 
Seriously, how great is this t-shirt?

Yup, it was a pretty good week.  Thank you, Julie and Hannah, for being awesome!  Thank you, Random House, for inviting me to all the cool clambakes!  Thank you, HarperCollins, for the absolutely nifty book swag.  *Mwah* to all of you!

12 September 2014

Saba-Anguilla-Kitty Wrap Up; or Au Revoir, Mes Points-Coeur

From one extreme...
...to the other

My DH and I have started returning again and again to Anguilla because each time we visit, we think it cannot get any better, and then inevitably the island surprises us by surpassing our expectations.  This year the only difference is that we added on two nights at the beginning to explore Saba, an island that is the perfect complement to Anguilla.  It's difficult to imagine two other islands, so close to each other, that could be more polar opposites.
Just a random shot from the road. You really can't escape the views.
Saba was gorgeous, and though we saw it almost exclusively under heavy cloud cover and rain, we really liked what we experienced.  This tiny Dutch island is very friendly, very progressive in its attitude toward the environment and animal welfare, and full of stunning vistas practically every time you turn around. We'd love to go back and spend a bit more time there, including replicating our stay Queen's Garden Resort, complete with our private hot tub with a view.
Such a shabby thing...
As much as we enjoyed Saba, however, there is no denying that Anguilla was the main attraction for our trip, so it was with great excitement that we turned northward for a little island hopping, via St. Maarten.  It was the first time we'd arrived in Anguilla without a very full day of travel behind us, and we loved that.  We provisioned at Best Buy and settled in to Caribella like it was our second home, with energy to spare.
Sunset seen from our balcony at Caribella
For the next two weeks, we spent most of our time revisiting old favorites and discovering new ones.  We pretty much became fixtures at Geraud's for breakfast and The Place for lunch & all-day lounging-- I think our count was ten visits and six visits, respectively.
Geraud's pastries: lemon and pear & almond

The Place's stunning beach
We hit all of our favorite spots for lunch or dinner -- Mango's, Veya, Straw Hat, Picante, Jacala and Dolce Vita -- and many of them we did twice. We tried a few new places for lunch and dinner with varying degrees of success, and happily re-discovered that DaVida was worth the third chance that we gave it.

We went on a magical mystery tour, seeing new-to-us places all over the island, collecting sand samples along with memories. The textures and the colors were all so new and fascinating.

We also discovered a few new places to help support the local economy with our souvenir money.
Caribbean Silk Screen is a great source for t-shirts
Limin' Boutique offers something in every price range
Savannah Gallery offers an incredibly varied selection of artists
We're always heavy hearted when we pack up to go home, but for the second trip in a row, we were distracted from our sorrows by the antics of a young kitten.  We like to support AARF, the Anguilla Animal Rescue Foundation, and one of the ways we do that is to transport a young animal from Anguilla back to the US, where foster families and forever homes await them. AARF takes care of the payment and provides the carrier, the proper health certificates, and a small tote filled with treats and piddle pad. They even meet the volunteers at the airport or ferry dock to make things as easy as possible. If you're even the least bit tempted by this idea and would be willing to transport a kitten or puppy, please do it!  It's simple and stress free and a great way to help save a life.
Awaiting departure in Anguilla
This little one was a real trouper because the noon flight from Anguilla to St Maarten was booked, so we had to take the 10:00 am flight to SXM.  This meant that little Kaila was without food or elimination facilities for about 15 hours until we landed in Hartford that night.
We held Kaila when sitting in the airport and she'd just purr and purr.

We really had a fabulous trip.  In terms of giving you the good, the bad, and the ugly: it was almost all good, very little bad (terrible mosquitos this time around), and nothing ugly. Can't wait for our next visit, in which we will be taking a very short trip in November with one of our granddaughters.  

10 September 2014

Get Your Okra On, Y'all!

This isn't going to be a cookbook review, so much as it will be a review of the author and the fun event I attended not long ago at Odyssey Bookshop. It's no secret that I'm Southern, and it's also no secret that until recently, okra was a vegetable that was rather hard to come by up here in the Kingdom of the Yankee. Thankfully that is about to change, and I think we can all be grateful to Virginia Willis, author of the new cookbook and cultural/culinary history, Okra. Her new book is getting all kinds of accolades, she is also a displaced Southerner living in my own town, and Virginia has precisely the right kind of persuasive and upbeat disposition to talk our local farm stand into growing more okra.
All the fixin's for an okra martini, including
locally made vodka and pickled okra garnish
My husband and I were already planning on attending the Okra event, but once we heard that Virginia would be pouring okra martinis and serving up some food for us, we were able to enlist some friends to attend, too.  She also demonstrated how to make pickled okra and the little fried okra cornmeal cakes that were delicious.  Better than hushpuppies or cornbread by far, and nothing's better than food served hot off the skillet!
Virginia is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who loves to incorporate French techniques into traditional Southern cuisine, but for this book, she did research on the cultural history of okra around the world and modified recipes from West Africa, India, the Caribbean, as well as the American south to include in the book.
Seriously, I cannot tell you how good these were.
I've been eating okra for most of my life now, but it wasn't until Virginia's event that I ever sampled it raw, and I just might be a convert.  I like the crunch of raw vegetables, but I've never cared much for their flavor, but okra is pretty mild, and it has a crispness factor similar to sugar snap peas or sweet bell pepper. If it weren't so expensive to buy up here, I might snack on it regularly during the summer months.

Did I mention that she's adorable?
Lots of people don't like okra because of the slimy (or mucilaginous, if you prefer) output that results when it's cut open, but there are ways to avoid it if you wish.  Like deep frying it, which is obviously the best way to eat okra.  OBVIOUSLY. Some dishes, like a traditional gumbo, depend on that same mucilaginous texture to thicken the stew.  I also learned from Virginia that for every culture around the world that grows okra, there's a recipe that pairs tomato with the okra, for the acidity in the tomato cuts down on the slime output. Food science.  It's nifty.
Well, that went down with tolerable ease
I'm not much of a cook myself, but I will do what I can to coax my DH to prepare some of the recipes in this book.  Especially since Virginia gave us the tip to shop at the Asian market in Hadley to find fresh okra year-round!  So basically I'm saying, eat okra, y'all.  It's yummy, it has a venerable tradition, and if you start now, you'll be ahead of the curve.  Okra is gonna be the new arugula and/or the new squash blossoms of 2016.  I can just feel it.

NB: This book was published as part of the Savor the South series from the University of North Carolina Press and DH and I each purchased our own copy to support the author and the event. 

07 September 2014

Book Review: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Based on other readers' feelings about Carlos Ruiz Zafón's other book, The Shadow of the Wind, I was prepared to love this audio book.  Shadowy underworld of Barcelona?  Promises of the gothic and the macabre?  Yes, please!

Oscar, a boy at boarding school, meets Marina under curious circumstances. Marina and her father Hermann take Oscar under their wing, sharing their stories and offering him the first friendship he's ever known.  When Marina takes Oscar to a cemetery on the last Sunday of the month to observe The Lady In Black leave a rose on an unmarked grave, it is the beginning of an adventure. Little do they know that their adventure will lead them through the darkest quarters of Barcelona and will end with their lives in great peril from a sinister creature that does not, cannot, face the light of day. Along the way we meet artists, musicians, physicians, inspectors, and Fascist barkeeps who long for the time of Franco's reign in Spain, not to mention the shadowy tunnels and caverns hidden under the city of Barcelona.

Promising enough, right?  There were, I admit, a couple of scenes that I found both thrilling and disturbing -- self-animated marionettes with empty eye sockets, silver fangs for teeth, and scissors for fingers, anybody? -- but they were the standouts in an otherwise not very satisfying story.

 I think my main gripe with this book was the 1980s setting. Trying to pour traditional gothic themes into a contemporary setting created a mix that simply beggared belief.  I could have forgiven a lot more if it had been set one century earlier, but it's hard to get worked up about mysterious, horse-driven carriages that emerge out of the black night, or Dr Frankenstein-like creations that combine re-animated human bodies with mechanical parts at a time when jelly shoes were being worn with abandon in the western world.  Evil creatures that can't be killed by a revolver might have been scary once upon a time, but in the Reagan era, we had a lot more weapons at our disposal in the arsenal.

Beyond that, Ruiz Zafón seems to play fast & loose with his timelines (reminded me of J K Rowling that way), and I was constantly distracted trying to calculate the ages of his characters based on the few dates and world events mentioned in the narrative.  One of them might have had a grandfather who was 108 years old.  Not impossible, to be sure, but also not likely. One girl seemed to be 19 in the 1940s and still a woman of childbearing age in the 1970s.  Again, not impossible, but not likely. Also, the translator always used the word "nauseous" when the word should have been "nauseated," and it took me out of the story every time.

Still, the reader, Daniel Weyman, was quite good, with a nicely resonant voice, and I'm happy I had a new audio book to listen to in my car.  Anybody who lurvs gothic tales and isn't particular about small(ish) details like grammar and timelines might very well enjoy this more than I did.  Apparently it's all the rage in Spain.

Oddly, this book was marketed as a YA book in the US, which is think is a mistake.  The two main characters, while 15, are rather prim despite their adventures and sleuthing, and not belonging to their own era at all.  While adults might go for this sort of thing, American teens certainly won't put up with that. Not when there are sparkly vampires and snarky teens dying of cancer and prickly heroines caught up in love triangles to be read about instead.

NB: I found a copy of this audio at my local record shop.