The good: The Shadow of the Wind is a book I've been juicily anticipating for, oh, about six months while I waited for it to come out in paperback, and it was every bit as good as I imagined. An unapologetically melodramatic literary thriller set in post-WWII Barcelona, the story felt like a cross between Victor Hugo and Borges in all the best ways - big characters making big gestures, mixed with the plausible-but-surreal. Any book that opens with a visit to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a library dedicated to preserving works of literature forgotten by the world, is the book for me. Highly recommended!
The bad: I've always been interested in studies of consumer culture from both sides of the aisle. I've got a little Paco Underhill and a little Kalle Lassn in me, if you know what I mean. So I thought Alissa Quart's Branded might be an interesting look at teen consumerism - but I was dead wrong. Her analysis had all the depth of OMG!!1! BUYING STUFF IS TEH SUCK!!11!! and about the same amount of literary merit. While I understand that there's a certain amount of knee-jerk anti-consumerism going around, I would have appreciated at least an attempt at reasoned argument or careful thought. Instead I got an insiders-eye view of the evils of the mall. Sigh.
The disappointment: Good old David Eddings. I was having a really bad day and I was pretty sure I could count on him for some no-thought-required pick-me-up fantasy - you know, exactly what he delivered with the Belgariad. And the Malloreon. And the Eleni - oh, nevermind. Anyhow. I picked up The Redemption of Althalus only to discover that evidently the esteemed Mr. Eddings and his wife have taken to writing fan-fic. Bad fan-fic. The book features a talking cat (who is really a goddess) as the main character's love interest. After the fourth or fifth mention of the cat's "sparkling emerald eyes" I was about ready to leave good ol' Dave to whatever bestiality fantasies he and his wife harbor. On the other hand, as long as you overlook the Mary Sue, um, I mean, cat, it's not a terrible book. If you're willing to overlook the more glaring plot holes (a guy moves forward 2,500 years in time . . . and has no problems with the language) it's an entertaining little fantasy. I still want to strangle that cat, though.
The other disappointment: I think this disappointment is my own fault, because after reading Practical Magic I decided that Alice Hoffman had some pretty interesting ideas about a specifically American tradition of magical realism. In The Probable Future she still does a nice job of incorporating magical elements into a relatively mainstream novel without tipping over into urban fantasy. Unfortunately, she pulls the trick off by doing exactly the same thing she did in her previous book. The character archetypes, the romantic plotlines, and even the climactic scene had infuriating similarities. I'm not sure whether or not I'll read any more of her books; this one left me feeling as though you really just need to read one.
The surprise: Out is the best new book you've never heard of (or maybe you have heard of if you're an obsessive reader of new-book releases like I am, but hey, who's counting?). The premise - three young Japanese women collaborate to cover up the murder of a fourth's husband - serves as the springboard for everything from cutting character studies, to a look inside aspects of modern Japan you've probably never considered, to traditional thriller moments that don't end up being traditional at all. I can't recommend this book highly enough. The ugly inevitability of the characters' flaws always catch up to them, though, so if you aren't in the mood for a dark read I wouldn't try this just yet.
My new favorite short story: If you like short stories, pick up The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005. But even if you don't, pick it up in the bookstore and read through the second story, Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead." I don't want to give anything away, but it's poignant, beautiful and had me in tears by the end - and it's a fabulously interesting vision of the afterlife, to boot.
My least favorite book ever (at least this month): Zeros and Ones is one of those books about technology from a literary perspective - you know, where they talk a lot about Jacquard looms and think they're very avant-garde because they throw around the term virtual reality a lot? Let me just say that I abominate that entire genre, and this is one of the worst offenders I've seen. Yes, thank you, you've made it clear that you have a literary agenda (one which, I might add, makes you sound like a pretentious navel-gazer), but can you please try not to sound entirely ignorant about technology when you do?
Hey, folks - if I did an end-of-the-month reading roundup every month, kind of like this, would you actually care? Me likey the writing for the peoples who cares.