Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Mischief of the Mistletoe

By Lauren Willig

You’ll have noticed the “secret” clause up there in the blog tagline, no doubt. Maybe you’ll even have wondered about it. (Have you?) Well, agonize over the secret no longer, readers. The clause refers to the periodic appearance of tomes so ambitious in scope, so universal in theme, so majestic of prose that they are seldom discussed save in select company, sotto voce. Yet I, your devoted and audacious reviewer, have made a commitment to go where few literarians* own up to going, and bring these most furtive of volumes out into the light.

I’m talking, of course, about chick lit.

Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why such secrecy?” I do I have an image to uphold, after all. I’m an English major. I read books like Anna Karenina for fun (fact). My tastes are far too sophisticated to be satisfied by fluffy chick lit disguised as historical fiction and mystery. Right? Right. Ish. The fact is, it’s the holiday season. Fluffy novels are as standard of fare as warm cookies, hot cocoa, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Holidays are a package deal, my friend. A package deal! Anyway, I just finished my first round of college semester exams; I deserve a little fluff reading, if you ask me.** (And no, Aristophanes does not count, funny or not.) Which brings us to The Mischief of the Mistletoe.

The gist: Against her dear friend Jane Austen’s advice, Miss Arabella Dempsey takes on what she anticipates to be a tame, respectable position – schoolteacher at Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Never would she have expected to be proven so wrong. One day on the job finds Arabella embroiled in an decidedly unconventional investigation spanning castle ruins, drawing rooms, Yuletide balls, and grand estates with the help of a dashing, if somewhat bumbling, young gentleman. But nothing surprises this former wallflower more than the possibility that in the process of nabbing the elusive culprit, she may just nab herself a romance, too. (What did I tell you about holidays and package deals?)

Okay, so… what exactly does The Mischief of the Mistletoe have to offer, you ask? What doesn’t it have to offer would be a better question. Covert messages transmitted via Christmas pudding (inscriptions penned on the inside wrapping – ingenious, no?), schoolmarms held at fake-sword point by rogue Christmas pageant wise men, a lavish twelve-day Christmas celebration riddled with overwrought waistcoats and intrigue, a thorough versing in authentic British slang (‘bloody’ is just the beginning; read this and you’ll soon be spouting off such genuine Briticisms as ‘bally,’ ‘jolly good,’ and ‘deuced’ with ease), a music master with an Italian accent as dubious as the mustachios adorning his lips, an elaborate and dangerous plot spun by an infatuated schoolgirl in pursuit of an ill-gotten pseudo-dowry to compensate for her impending disownment on the grounds of scandal and elopement (try saying that in one breath, I dare you), extensive vegetable-related humor at the expense of the male lead, Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh, and said male lead scaling the trellis of a girl’s school at midnight with his reliable groom Gerkin standing watch.

Phew. That was exhausting. Did I miss anything? Oh, but of course – how I could I forget the deft, effortless linguistic stylings of Lauren Willig? The Mischief of the Mistletoe will wow you with such innovative wordplay as “deep, shallow breaths” and “in accord as an accordion.” Before you ask: No, your eyes aren’t fooling you; those exemplary feats of figurative language really are preserved in print. The noble endeavor of better exhibiting the elegance of the English language is one no author can resist.

That being said, I can’t rag on Lauren too much. I’ve been enjoying her Pink Carnation series since it debuted so many years ago*** with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, despite the fact that they’ve gone steadily downhill since. After all, what’s not to like? Intrigue, feisty heroines, floral spies, romance, Britain… they’ve got it all. I relish a new Carnation installment the way one relishes sleeping in, a Starbucks pick-me-up, or re-watching a favorite movie: it’s comfy, familiar, and a little indulgent. Whatever else one could say about it (the words ‘silly,’ ‘farcical,’ and ‘over-the-top’ come to mind), reading The Mischief of the Mistletoe was a fun, frivolous, and festive way to unwind after finals.

*Literarian, n. One who engages in literary pursuits.
**The blogger doth protest too much, ye thinks? Okay, okay, I confess: I like my occasional chick lit. There, I said it. Now can we get back to the review?
***You know, back when I was a wee little pre-teen and we read books on paper, not screens. (I'm looking at you, Kindle. You too, Nook.) And walked to school uphill both ways through several feet of snow, of course. Oh wait, I do that now. *I love Minnesota. I love Minnestota.*

Happy reading and happy Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind is easily not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read period. I won’t go as far as to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read – largely because I’m not terribly prone to superlatives – but suffice to say, it’s the kind of book we invented the written word to preserve, giving the author ample time to mull over plot intricacies and characters and turns of phrase, to write them and rewrite them until they hoist the narrative up into vivacious three-dimensional movement like a puppet from its strings.

On the morning Daniel wakes to find he can no longer remember his deceased mother’s face, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, Daniel encounters a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by the unknown author Julian Carax. Unbeknownst to ten-year-old Daniel as he closes the covers on the story after that first voracious reading, Julian Carax’s final novel becomes the catalyst that sets the rest of his life in motion.

This is a story about ghosts – Julian Carax and the people, alive and dead, who bear his secrets. It’s a story about coincidences, or fate, and the blurry line between them only clear in retrospection. It’s a story about the uncanny intricacies of human connection, how the past is intrinsically interwoven with the present so that forgotten friends can become new enemies. First and foremost, it’s a story about love. Love for a novel that, upon discovering that someone has been seeking out and destroying every copy of Carax’s works since his inexplicable death, sends Daniel on a relentless, lifelong quest to unmask the mysterious author. Love in every conceivable form – true love, false love masquerading as true, tragic love, familial love, and love that drives a person to extremities, filling them up until it’s all they have left and condemning them when it eventually runs out. It’s a story about the disillusionment of realizing that, powerful as it is, love is an inept defense against many of life’s darkest shadows, and that there is too often as much bad in good things as there is good. And yet it is not a bleak or hopeless tale, illustrating as it does the redemptive power of love to hold us together afterward.

The Shadow of the Wind is a perfect example of a whole becoming more than the some of its (impressive) parts. It’s part mystery, part historical fiction, part portrait of a city (Barcelona emerging from the wreckage of the World Wars hot on the heels of the Spanish Civil War), and part love story. Zafón’s writing is poetic without being longwinded, powerful without being overbearing. His characterization leaves little room for categorization – in the course of the novel, you find yourself pitying and empathizing with villains, questioning and reproaching protagonists. He imparts wisdom – disguised as fathers, sons, and old friends, the institutionalized and the demoralized – without being heavy-handed, and executes breathtaking (literally - I gasped audibly several times while reading) action scenes and plot twists without a shred of melodrama. Daniel’s investigation intertwines the lives and fates of himself and Carax to the point where it becomes hard to discern deft parallelism from outright confluence of identity. Dissected, The Shadow of the Wind is all these things. Savored and digested, it is more.

The Shadow of the Wind is a novel so multi-faceted that in the course of reading it I experienced three sentiments somewhat rare to me: Before I had even finished it the first time through, I wanted to start rereading it so as to fully absorb and appreciate its every nuance; somewhere around the halfway point it had already made in onto my shortlist of awe-inducing books; and, like Daniel for Julian Carax, I was bent on tracking down more of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s work. All three were dangerous conclusions to make before the denouement – which so often disappoints, even in the best of books – but I needn’t have wasted a moment’s worry. Closing The Shadow of the Wind and setting it down in my lap, I actually had to inhale deeply to catch my breath.