A Journey to the Commonwealth of Letters

Aside from my cousin Dianne, another person who got me hooked on books is my friend Tintin. Back in college, way before my book-hoarding days, I was entranced by the rows and rows of books on her shelf in her room, and she always let me borrow great books (of course, even then, I returned them already covered in protective plastic).

with Tin at the Half Blood Prince launch in ’05

Last year, while I was trying in vain to recruit her to BookMooch, she told me she was dying to find a copy of this book called Silverlock by John Myers Myers. I was curious, and ended up adding it to my wishlist because it sounded so intriguing. I totally forgot about it until Triccie put up a copy in her inventory during a special promo for local moochers last February.

Tin wanted to borrow it the last time I saw her, so I decided to bump it up on my TBR so I could lend it to her.

I started the book around Black Saturday; I read about a third then I wasn’t able to read all last week because I was working on a book project. Then I read another third during Dianne’s graduation, and read the remaining hundred-plus pages for the 24-hour read-a-thon.

Silverlock (book #59 for 2009) , written in 1949, is an epic fantasy about A. Clarence Shandon, an American who goes off for a vacation but ends up getting shipwrecked, and finds himself in the Commonwealth of Letters, a land that challenges everything he has ever known, populated by literary characters.

Shandon is dubbed as Silverlock by his guide to the Commonwealth, Golias (who embodies Orpheus, and perhaps some other storytelling characters) due to a streak of white in his black hair.

Shandon (occasionally with Golias, but more because of his own pigheadedness) gets into a lot of adventures and misadventures in his journey throughout the Commonwealth: he is turned into a pig by Circe, gets chased down by a pack of cannibals, gets involved in a love triangle because of Puck’s tomfoolery, joins Robin Hood and his merry men, celebrates with Beowulf over his triumph with Grendel, has tea with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare; and steals Huck Finn’s raft; and runs into Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Hester from The Scarlet Letter, and Rosalind and Orlando from As You Like It.

It’s hard to explain the plot exactly, because that would take the fun out of it. Just think of it as a richer, expanded version of Shrek with more obscure characters or a more outlandish Jasper Fforde novel — more fantasy than mystery. And with a lot of songs in between.

For the most part, it was a good read, but I ranked it my least favorite in the read-a-thon, because I was pressured to finish the book. I’m not a hardcore fantasy fan, and the story was a bit more fantastic for my taste, so it was more difficult for me to get through it. Unless books with made-up maps and strange names are normal fare for you, the book is best read at leisure, because you’ll need your concentration to keep track of the characters while attempting to identify them, or you’ll get as lost as Shandon is in this strange world.

I like the message the book leaves with the reader, about the transforming power of books and reading. Shandon Silverlock certainly doesn’t start out as hero material — cowardly, rude, chauvinistic, lecherous, and even downright annoying. But as he goes through his journey in the Commonwealth, he picks up values from the literary ideals that he meets, and in the end, he becomes a hero that deserves the title role in the story.

This is the sort of book, I think, that gets better with every reading, especially after you’ve read more literature that will allow you to identify other characters and references you weren’t able to identify before. I don’t think I even recognized a fourth of the characters discussed in the book, making succeeding readings a definite possibility. I think I’ll read this again in five years or so, to see where it takes me.

Meanwhile, I’m loaning it to Tintin later :)

My copy: 2005 Ace trade paperback, mooched from Triccie. I want the hardcover edition with the built-in companion.

My rating: 4/5 stars

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later – no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn to forget – we will return.”

This is one of my favorite lines from the book The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which has definitely found its way into my heart — from cover to cover!

Set in the heart of post-war Barcelona, The Shadow of the Wind is an exquisite blend of elements I love in books: literary mystery, horror, romance, and even some swashbuckling action!

In The Shadow of the Wind, 10-year old Daniel Sempere‘s life is changed forever when his father, a bookseller, brings him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (“Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…”).

In the tradition of this labyrinthine repository of obscure tomes, a first-time visitor must choose a book and take care of it forever, making sure it stays alive and never disappears. Daniel is immediately drawn to a handsome volume entitled “Shadow of the Wind,” by a little-known Spanish writer Julian Carax. The mysterious book sets off Daniel’s curiosity about Carax and he embarks on a quest to find out more about the author, whose life gets more and more entwined with Daniel’s as the story progresses.

The beautiful language is lush and wordy, rich with descriptions that just bloom with life — exactly the way I like it. And I like the fact that very few people (well outside of the FFP circle) have heard about it, and that it’s not that easy to find at the book store — it has this word of mouth success that doesn’t need the hype to make it a bestseller.

And the characters — they seemed to jump off the page. Fermin was my favorite — he had the best lines! I loved it when he said:

“Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually around the corner. Like a thief, like a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”

I also felt really sad for the gay watchmaker Federico Flavia, who was persecuted for his flamboyant lifestyle. I like Daniel too, as a protagonist. He is young and impetuous, but is charming and believable, and I think I fell in love with him too.

I’d have loved to write a longer review, but it’s been around nine months since I read the book, and it’s due for a reread this year. But I would have to say that it’s one of the best novels I have ever read, and I loved every bit of it; reading it was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a book — I laughed and cried and seethed and shivered and gushed throughout it all, and I couldn’t put it down. Sigh.

I can’t wait for the prequel, Angel’s Game, due in September 2009.

My copy: Phoenix trade paperback, mooched from Triccie. I want a hardcover. And an illustrated edition.

My rating: 5/5 stars!

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Another historical thriller (am such a sucker for these!)

The Dante Club is about a series of grisly murders committed at the same time Dante Alighieri’s Inferno was being translated into English by a group of prominent New England literary figures, namely Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Washington Greene, and JT Fields (the group is known as The Dante Club, hence the title).

The murders are patterned after the different circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, and the Dante Club must figure out who is behind the dastardly deeds or else lose the chance to introduce the writings of Dante Alighieri to America before they complete their translation.

I discovered this book a few years ago, when I interviewed Ces Drilon and she recommended it to me. The writing is old-fashioned and dragging at times, or maybe it’s because male authors focus on different (er, boring) things.

I also wish I’d waited for my schedule to free up before actually plunging into the novel because it’s the type that’s best for uninterrupted reading. Except I also had to stop reading it at night because given that the “Lucifer” (aka, serial killer) was patterning his murders after the circles of hell, it got pretty scary.

Canticle Three (it’s divided into Canticles), is particularly exciting, but I’ll have to stop now before I say anything more. Bottomline, it’s a good blend of fact and fiction, one that will keep you on your toes.

I still have to read The Poe Shadow, I have the hardback on my to-be-read shelf…

My copy: mass market paperback bought at Powerbooks, upgraded into a trade paperback mooched from the US (or was it Canada? I forget…)

My rating: 3/5 stars