Color Me Impressed


The most recent dire pronouncements of the Death of the Reader have no doubt sent literate survivors scurrying to their book groups, readers’ guides, and Oprah’s Choices, there to pounce upon the same tattered titles as everyone else in their diminishing cohort. So what’s left for readers who want to let their freak bookmarks fly? Here’s a brief roundup of some noteworthy titles, by both new and established writers, that may have slipped past you in 2007.

For younger (or older) readers still seeking closure from Harry Potter, Ysabeau S. Wilce’s debut novel,
Flora Segunda, is the first volume in a trilogy evocative of fantasy classics such as T.H. White’s
Mistress Masham’s Repose and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast sequence. Flora, Wilce’s endearingly off-kilter heroine, deals with family dysfunction in Crackpot Hall, a vast ruin with “only one potty.” The subtitle sets the scene with no spoilers: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House With Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. The White Tyger by Paul Park is book three in a series that began with A Princess of Roumania and The Tourmaline. Gorgeously written, the books combine alternative history and dark fantasy reminiscent of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with an antagonist—the unforgettable Baroness Ceausescu—who could easily stand her own against Pullman’s maleficent Marisa Coulter.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s bleak, spare The Children of Húrin—part of The Silmarillion, now published for the first time as a stand-alone volume—harks back to the Norse Eddas and Icelandic sagas that helped shape The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s 1936 essay “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” put that epic’s monsters front and center, thus setting the stage for Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother. Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery by Dick Ringler, a renowned scholar of English and Icelandic studies, gives the ur-superhero his due in a brisk retelling that doesn’t stint on the grue.

Yet could there be enough fell doings in a year that saw only one book from Stephen King, the Richard Bachman trunk novel Blaze? King’s son Joe Hill took up some of the slack with his bestselling horror novel Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts, a lovely, earnest collection of short fiction. One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak’s lyrical first novel, gave a melancholy edge to a ghost story about a teenage boy haunted by his murdered classmate. Arthur Phillips’s Angelica at first seems to be a fairly conventional, if elegantly written, gaslight tale of supernatural obsession and possession. But as its multiple storylines unfold, a more disturbing truth emerges, drawn from the real-life horrors faced by women in Victorian England.

Anyone still yearning for a fix of something cold and dark should turn to Irish novelist John Connolly’s taut, disturbing The Unquiet, the latest in his series about Maine P.I. Charlie Parker. Parker’s beat is Portland and its suburbs, though he ventures farther north to the site of an unsettling former religious community in his quest to track down someone who is systematically killing child abusers. Like Angelica, The Unquiet deals with supernatural tropes in a realistic milieu, though Connolly sides with the dark angels when it comes to this exceptional novel’s denouement. Last Rituals, the first English translation of a mystery by bestselling Icelandic novelist Yrsa Sigurdardottir, is being positioned to appeal to fans of Nordic noir—like Arnaldur Indridason’s dour Reykjavík mysteries (Silence of the Grave, Jar City), Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, or Kerstin Ekman’s superbly creepy Blackwater. Sigurdardottir hits some hot buttons—ancient Icelandic sorcery, medieval texts, eyeless corpses—but Thora, her cardboard heroine, doesn’t hold a candle to Indridason’s tormented Inspector Erlendur, and the clunky writing evokes as much atmosphere as a set of Cliffs Notes. Still, the author gets points for dialogue like “This is the same T-shirt I saw in the photographs of the tongue operation,” and there’s always hope that next year’s sophomore effort,My Soul to Take, will be better.

Those who prefer their troubled characters firmly rooted in more familiar ground can turn to memoirs, a genre that got a much-deserved sendup in Brock Clarke’s satire An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Darcey Steinke’s Easter Everywhere was a moving account of Steinke’s lifelong search for spiritual meaning, from a childhood shadowed by her Lutheran father’s peripatetic ministry, to adult epiphanies in the desanctified church that housed the NYC club Limelight, to Steinke’s encounter with a no-nonsense nun named Sister Leslie. An endless string of seedy clubs provides the backdrop for Laurie Lindeen’s brash and hilarious Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story, a terrific memoir that encompasses rock ‘n’ roll, a Midwestern childhood, the author’s multiple sclerosis, true love, and killer hangovers. Lindeen studied writing with veteran memoirist Patricia Hampl (whose masterful The Florist’s Daughter has just been published), and while Petal Pusher‘s central narrative focuses on Zuzu’s Petals, the punky all-girl band Lindeen helped form in the late 1980s, it’s a tale that’s more Wonder Years than Wonderful Tonight. Lindeen is smart, prickly, self-laceratingly honest, and laugh-out-loud funny. “Get me Ron Wood,” she demands of the doorman when she learns that the Rolling Stones are having a private party and she hasn’t been invited. She doesn’t get in, but hell, she gave it a try. Her gritty insider account is one of the best music-related books ever. And who needs Ron Wood when you end up marrying Paul Westerberg?

They were the best of bands, they were the worst of bands—Westerberg and his mates finally get the Please Kill Me treatment in Jim Walsh’s The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting: An Oral History. Walsh, a Minneapolis-based musician and journalist who paid his dues in the Twin Cities’ legendary 1980s music scene, gathers eyewitness accounts to the Mats’ glory from fans, hangers-on, scenesters, fellow musicians, and writers. The cumulative effect is rather like hearing endless riffs on that great party you missed. (Though you might feel better knowing others missed it, too—there’s ample commentary along the lines of “I am still so bummed I didn’t get to go to that dance. I was grounded from getting caught shoplifting at Target.”) Much of the book is culled from previously published articles and interviews; Westerberg (a longtime friend of Walsh) and Tommy Stinson declined to be interviewed, and Chris Mars only checked in by e-mail. But Peter Jesperson, Peter Buck, and Alex Chilton contributed to the mix, as did Slim Dunlap, who comes across as one of the most generous, decent guys in rock ‘n’ roll. The book’s latter pages, dealing with guitarist Bob Stinson’s drug-and-alcohol-fueled decline and 1995 death, are heartbreaking, as is the eulogy that Walsh delivered at Stinson’s funeral, reprinted in its entirety. Like its subject, All Over But the Shouting has its excesses, but this is a lovable and absorbing work, a swan song for an irrepressible, irreplaceable era in American popular music.