Page turners with a brain

Dump "The Da Vinci Code" and break the "Rule of Four" -- our reading list for a hot season ventures from 1945 Barcelona to an English ghost story to a haunted Texas bureaucracy, all without insulting your intelligence.

By Salon's critics

Published May 29, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Readers of America, you have a choice. Although you wouldn't know it to look at many of the titles jostling for slots on the bestseller lists, there's no law dictating that if you want a book with an irresistible, crackerjack plot you also have to put up with crappy writing and tissue-paper-thin characters. Sure, millions of people proved themselves willing to choke down Dan Brown's clunky prose in order to crack "The Da Vinci Code" (proof positive that everyone loves a good conspiracy theory), but why suffer if you don't have to?

Page turners can be smart, as in really smart, and not just the pseudo-intelligence of the reviewers' current darling, "The Rule of Four," by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. With that novel, we were promised Donna Tartt meets Umberto Eco, and instead we got way too much turgid maundering on undergraduate life at Princeton and way too little of the fascinating real-life Renaissance book supposedly at the story's center. Nowhere is it written that smart books must also be overwritten and difficult to follow, either. The hardest thing, after all, is to make it go down easy.

Determined to find unputdownable novels that didn't make us wince or groan on every page, we plowed through publishers' recent and forthcoming offerings for books guaranteed to shorten a long flight and make a sunbathing session even more pleasant. Some of these titles you may have already read about, others will be hitting the stores in a month or so. (They can also be ordered or pre-ordered from All of them belong on the shopping list of readers who aren't turning off their brains just because it's June, but who don't see a beach blanket as quite the right place to tackle a history of the Soviet gulags. We hope at least one of them makes your summer a little sunnier.

"The Narrows"
By Michael Connelly
405 pages
Little, Brown
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All the flaws of Michael Connelly's writing are on display in "The Narrows": the humorlessness, the sentimentality disguised as masculine stoicism, the moralistic attitude toward any vaguely disreputable pleasure. In other words, "The Narrows" is, for good and bad, representative of the current state of mainstream hard-boiled fiction in America.

But also on display are Connelly's considerable talents as a plotter. Even that attribute is not without flaws. He has a tendency to go for one twist too many, pushing his stories over the line from ingenious to "Oh, come on." Nowhere was that more evident than in "The Poet," a genuinely creepy serial-killer thriller (as opposed to the showy Grand Guignol of the Thomas Harris school) and a brilliant piece of plotting -- until Connelly went for that final twist that nearly made the entire book fall apart.

Still, "The Poet" was crafty enough for Connelly to guarantee a built-in audience for the sequel, which is what "The Narrows" is. It's also the latest novel featuring Connelly's now retired LAPD detective hero, Harry Bosch. And it's the book that marks the end of Connelly's tales of Terry McCaleb (who first appeared in "Blood Work"), the detective whose retirement was forced by his heart transplant. In other words, "The Narrows" is Connelly's lollapalooza, a greatest-hits collection that is also a deck clearing, preparing the stage for the next portion of the Harry Bosch saga.

The parallel plots, which should be described as generally as possible, have to do with the return of the Poet and the female FBI agent who has been obsessed with catching him since he eluded her several years before, and with Harry's investigation into the death of McCaleb, which appears to be from something other than McCaleb's transplanted heart finally giving out. Connelly keeps a firm grip on the narrative even before the two stories converge, and through the book's changing voice. Shifting from third-person to two first-person narrators (Harry and the Poet), Connelly doesn't dilute his narrative drive or his ability to leave you hanging at the end of a chapter.

What is distracting and inescapable here are the patches of bad writing: "You can become unhinged and cut loose from the world. You can believe you are a permanent outsider. But the innocence of a child will bring you back and give you the shield of joy with which to protect yourself." Ewwww. As Bosch readers know, Harry found he had a 4-year-old daughter at the end of his last case, "Lost Light." But that's no excuse. (Ross Macdonald often talked about innocence corrupted without falling into that sort of squishiness.) If you're a Bosch fan, that passage -- and worse -- aren't going to matter. If you haven't tried Connelly, all I can say is that as a storyteller, he's good enough so that even crap like that isn't enough to keep you from turning the pages.

-- Charles Taylor

"The Ghost Writer"
By John Harwood
384 pages
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You could label some elements of John Harwood's ghost story hokey: It's got veiled specters, accursed paintings, a big old deserted house with a sinister basement. But like one of those gifted cooks who can somehow turn a can of tuna and a handful of rice into a savory dish, Harwood knows how to spin shivers and nerves out of unpromisingly familiar material. "The Ghost Writer" is the first-person account of Gerard Freeman, who spends his 1960s boyhood in a remote Australian town plagued by millipedes and red dust, his father distant and his mother scared of her own shadow. The only time her apprehension lifts is when she's telling Gerard tales about Staplefield, the stately English country house where she grew up with her beloved grandmother Viola, an exotic realm of chaffinches and hawthorn hedgerows. But even her stories dry up when she catches her son snooping in a secret drawer, where he discovers an old literary journal containing a ghost story written by someone called V.H. and a photograph of a beautiful, unnamed woman.

All this nostalgia and mystery pretty much guarantees that Gerard will get the yen to visit England, and when he becomes pen pals with Alice -- an elusive English orphan whom he imagines to be a pre-Raphaelite-style beauty -- the die is cast. After his mother's death, when Gerard has become a quiet, recessive young man feeding off his own longings for faraway things, he heads back to the old country, searching for Staplefield and Alice. A series of short stories, written by Viola and published in various obscure reviews decades earlier, becomes part of the trail. At least one-half of "The Ghost Writer" is made up of Viola's rich, supremely spooky yarns, all of which seem to involve young men who are martyrs to love and victims of supernatural forces. The stories are obscurely entwined with the fate of Gerard's mother, whom he suspects of having been involved in a terrible crime. On her deathbed, when Gerard asks her about Viola's stories, his mother will only tell him, "One came true."

"The Ghost Writer" has a patchwork quality reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's "Possession"; each of the several voices (Gerard, Viola, Alice) is entirely distinct, as if the novel were assembled from documentary evidence. Byatt is only the most subterranean of allusions, however, for Harwood weaves many overt literary references -- most notably to Henry James' "Turn of the Screw" -- into his book. This isn't just postmodern cleverness; in fact, it isn't postmodern at all. Instead, the technique shows Harwood's keen understanding of how alternating the prosaic with the unreal can create a pervasive creepiness. It's as if by reading about James' haunted (or mad) governess, Gerard invites a similar fate. The heady, story-drugged atmosphere of Viola's tales melts into Gerard's fairly rational account of his quest, and where the two blur together is exactly the sort of place ghosts come from, the borderline between dream and waking.

Gerard's investigation of his mother's past takes him deep into a thicket of fact, fiction and lies that might be someone's attempt to hide her guilt, but might also be a trap. Harwood's plot is intricate -- it may leave you puzzling out the finer points of the various twists on your own after you follow it breathlessly to its conclusion -- but what lingers are Viola's tales. Some are more inventive than others, particularly a story set in the Reading Room at the British Museum that gives a whole new meaning to the expression "a foggy day in London town." But all of them have a hypnotic quality that oozes out beyond the solid structure of Harwood's plot and in the end envelopes it. By the last page, all the loose ends have been tied up, but that aura of the uncanny still clings to everything. As with all the best ghost stories, you're left feeling that the truth about what happened can never finally be pinned down.

-- Laura Miller

"The Shadow of the Wind"
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translated by Lucia Graves
Penguin Press
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The cover of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's "Shadow of the Wind" sports an atmospheric photograph of a foggy European street at night, and the spine is made to suggest a leather-bound, gold-stamped volume from some venerable library. So you might reasonably guess that this novel is either 1) an evocation of "Casablanca"-style intrigue à la Alan Furst or 2) a bookish thriller in the mode of Arturo Pérez-Reverte. (Ruiz Zafón is Spanish, like Pérez-Reverte, and "The Shadow of the Wind" was a bestseller in his homeland.) It's neither; Ruiz Zafón has revived the kind of full-blooded story of romance and mystery perfected by Victor Hugo.

"The Shadow of the Wind" has an innocence that doesn't prevent it from being thoroughly enthralling; at heart, the novel is a story of star-crossed lovers, bold young heroes, their lovably eccentric sidekicks and a cruel, dastardly villain. There are no fiendishly clever twists or secret codes, but Ruiz Zafón doesn't need them. He sweeps you along with the sheer riverine force of his sincerity and passion.

It's 1945 in Barcelona, and the brutality of Spain's recent civil war dominates everyone's mood. (It's fascinating to read a European novel in which World War II is a relatively distant conflagration.) The city hasn't lost its beauty and charm -- at least a dozen scenes take place in its famous cafes -- but everyone is a little wobbly on their feet. "Wars have no memory and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what happened," as one character puts it. A young boy, Daniel Sempere, is taken by his widower father, a book dealer, to a secret library called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and allowed to select one title to adopt and preserve. Daniel picks "The Shadow of the Wind," by Julian Carax, and falls in love with the novel. He decides to find out more about its obscure author, and thereby hangs the tale.

Despite this bibliographic premise, "The Shadow of the Wind" isn't really about books. Yes, Daniel does fend off a sinister disfigured man who covets his copy of the Carax novel, and later learns that someone using the name of a character in the book -- an alias, in fact, of the devil -- has been systematically burning Carax's books. But we learn next to nothing about novel's plot or about any of Carax's other works. The secrets that Daniel seeks as he grows to adolescence all concern Carax himself, a dashing, handsome and intelligent young man whose history includes murky parentage, a generous patron, a doomed love affair, a flight to Paris, an artist's garret and an ignominious death in a Barcelona alleyway. A sociopathic police inspector hovers over the proceedings, threatening the usual dire consequences for lads who stick their noses where they don't belong.

The past tugs obscurely at the fabric of Daniel's life; the further he immerses himself in Carax's story, the more his own experiences seem to follow a similar pattern. Ruiz Zafón's novel is elegantly constructed, but not self-consciously so, and there isn't a speck of real cynicism in it, a refreshing change from the average thriller's knee-jerk attempts at worldliness. "The Shadow of the Wind" believes in the power of youth to rebuild hope on the bitter, ash-strewn ground of history, and so powerful is the sway of this author's storytelling, that, for 550 pages at least, he makes you believe it, too.

-- Laura Miller

"Emma Brown: A Novel From the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë
By Clare Boylan
437 pages
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There is a strain of literature, both high and low, which can be summed up by the remark Thelma Ritter makes in "All About Eve": "Everything but the hound dog yappin' at her rear end." Multiply the hound dog into a pack and reduce the rear end to a small one and you have an idea of the relentless misfortune at work in "Emma Brown."

Clare Boylan's novel is described as based on an "unfinished manuscript" by Charlotte Brontë. This is generous. What Brontë left behind amounts to 19 pages, the book's first two chapters. Though Boylan has clearly attempted a work in the Brontëan spirit, incorporating lines from the writer's letters, it's Boylan who deserves credit for the heavy lifting here. She's fashioned a gothic orphan saga from what amounts to a suggestion, one that gives no hint of the complications she has envisioned from it.

The orphan whose posterior proves so tempting to the literal and figurative hounds is Matilda. Left at a boarding school run by two respectably poverty-stricken sisters, the withdrawn child is favored and pampered in expectation of her tenure providing a steady income. When the sisters find out that the man who left her is not her father, and their dreams of financial security evaporate, Matilda, like Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Princess, is cast into the attic. She's rescued temporarily by a local widow, Isabel Chalfont (who narrates part of the tale) and Isabel's friend Mr. Ellin, a local gentleman who proves to be almost as mysterious as Matilda herself. The rescue is temporary, however, and Matilda is soon cast upon the cruelties of 19th century London.

At times Boylan writes as a retrospective muckraker, outraged at the treatment of women and the poor in this time, and at times she overdoes it, as when the doll that a street urchin plays with turns out to be an infant's discarded corpse. That detail also suggests the perversity that is one of the strongest parts of "Emma Brown."

Like many 19th century tales of the downtrodden, "Emma Brown" is a masochistic wallow. Only the masochism is so aggressive that the book feels like anything but a chronicle of passivity. Boylan's tone combines the hot spiel of the pamphleteer with the slight distance of the social historian, all in the guise of crack storyteller. The result has a slightly guilt-inducing fascination (should we be hungry for stories that deal in misery the way this one does?). In "Emma Brown" Boylan speaks simultaneously from the soapbox and the easy chair in front of the fire.

-- Charles Taylor

"Kings of Infinite Space"
By James Hynes
362 pages
St. Martin's Press
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A cubicled office in a mid-level civil service agency in a featureless central Texas town may sound like an odd place to set a supernatural thriller, but it's part of the genius of James Hynes' "Kings of Infinite Space" that he makes you see that it is, in fact, the perfect setting for such a story. Very few novels can manage to be both hilarious and creepy, but this one does. Fewer still can show off their smarts without slowing down the plot, but this one does that, too. Hynes manages to combine an overblown comic-book conspiracy plot with the excruciating social satire of the BBC sitcom "The Office," and if you think that hybrid sounds unliterary, well, guess again.

Paul Trilby is a former literature postdoc ("almost a Fulbright," he keeps telling himself) turned temp typist in the General Services Division of the Texas Department of General Services, or GSD of TxDoGs, for short. The services provided by this department are, er, general. That is, they are vaguely delineated but have something to do with trucks. Paul lives in a residential motel and drives a decrepit Dodge Colt with no air conditioning, a purgatorial experience in a town where it hits 85 degrees by 8 a.m. He lives in dread of coming under the authority of Olivia, the ex-cheerleader occupying the cubicle across the aisle; as a vivid warning of what Olivia and TxDoGs can do to man, there's the pitiful wretch one cube down, whom Paul thinks of only as "the dying tech writer."

Paul's fall from grace can be attributed to a single fact: He is a louse. He blew his academic career when he got caught cheating on his rising-star professor wife. Then the grad student he two-timed with left him for a TV weatherman, and two other women he was juggling found out about each other. Then he lost his job at a textbook publisher when he was discovered dropping racy literary allusions like "Vita showed Virginia a thing or two" into grammar exercises to mock his ill-read supervisor. He has hit bottom. And to top it off, he's being haunted by his ex-wife's dead cat, a phantom that bites his toes in the middle of the night, restricts his TV reception to cat-related programming, and stinks up his apartment with spectral piss.

Hynes' previous novels have been academic satires, and at a time when postdocs and adjuncts are forced to flee the shriveled university job market, "Kings of Infinite Space" almost belongs in that category, too. Paul all too believably clings to his education as the last, flimsy shred of superiority he can claim over his co-workers, even the pretty mailroom staffer he discovers poring over the "Norton Anthology of English Literature" in the cafeteria. But the final challenge to Paul's battered ego and chronic selfishness comes from a strange, pasty, Dilbert-like homeless guy who keeps popping up in unlikely places asking, "Are we not men?" and from a bunch of good ol' boys from the office who manage to get a lot done without actually working. There are strange noises coming from behind the ceiling panels, Post-it notes that appear out of nowhere, and an aluminum-can recycling bin that periodically becomes bottomless. Something weird is going on at TxDoGs.

It gets a lot weirder, too, with secret societies and subterranean grottos, but bizarre as the main plot gets, Hynes keeps one foot on the ground. There's a delicate romance kindled between Paul and Callie the mail girl, and some wicked philosophizing occasioned by a visit to a Hooters-style restaurant by the guys at the office. The big mystery, really, is whether Paul will ever grasp what a jerk he's been and take a few halting steps in the general direction of decency. Years spent reading the cream of English literature couldn't achieve such an enlightenment, but if a cannibal cult and some major turnover at the Texas Department of General Services can pull it off, that's all in a day's work.

-- Laura Miller

"The Jane Austen Book Club"
By Karen Joy Fowler
304 pages
G.P. Putnam's Sons
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Any novel titled "The Jane Austen Book Club" has enough intimations of tweeness without some reviewer making matters worse by calling it civilized. But there's no escaping the adjective in describing Karen Joy Fowler's novel. It's not the thought of Jane Austen that might make some of us flee from what sounds like an unbearably homey premise -- a group of women and one man in Central California meeting to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. It's what some people have done with Austen, ignoring her sharpness and turning her into the literary equivalent of warm milk. Fowler, to her credit, has instead made a perfect glass of lemonade; every time you fear the concoction is turning too sweet, there's a trace of tartness to keep things in balance.

You can read "The Jane Austen Book Club" for that balanced and sustained tone, or you can admire the book as a piece of comic structure so firm yet so submerged that it isn't fully apparent until the end. Each chapter, in which the members of the club meet at someone's house to discuss one of Austen's novels, is Fowler's jumping-off point for the backstory of that meeting's host. These funny, shrewdly observed and sometimes surprisingly wounding segments might form a first-rate short-story collection (that is, if Fowler often didn't leave you wanting more). But like her beloved Austen, Fowler uses the seemingly self-contained stories to lay the groundwork for the characters to form new alliances. When those alliances become clear, the effect is akin to seeing someone choreograph a comic ballet merely by twirling her fingers.

I must confess that part of the pleasure I took in "The Jane Austen Book Club" is because I've almost entirely given up on contemporary literary comedy. There are plenty of novelists who can make me laugh -- but usually not the ones who are called comic novelists. Their comedy seems to require a fondness for coyness, or magic realism rendered as deadpan absurdist farce, or just pomo wiseass showing off. Just reading the flap copy exhausts me.

Fowler may succeed not only because she's squarely in the mode of comic social novelist, but also because "The Jane Austen Book Club" is the work of someone who understands the mixture of surprise and recognition that novel readers crave. We want stories to surprise us and to confirm our experience, or nudge us to confirm what we may never have experienced but which is true. That's what her Austen acolytes are looking for, and for all the fun she has with them, Fowler understands it's not a sign of shallowness or of being literary lowbrows. She's taken exactly the kind of characters it would have been easy to condescend to (or to flatter) and made what they want from novels -- a simultaneous sense of comfort and adventure -- seem something like a code all fiction readers share. How many novels have used the old phrase "gentle reader" to satirical effect? Reading "The Jane Austen Book Club," you feel as if Fowler could use it and mean every syllable.

-- Charles Taylor

"The Queen of the South"
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translated by Andrew Hurley
438 pages
G.P. Putnam's Sons
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Arturo Pérez-Reverte's new novel is a literary narcocorrido, the name given to popular Mexican songs celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers. What lends his subject to a 400-page book rather than a broadsheet ballad set to a polka beat is his protagonist, Teresa Mendoza, who at the peak of her power controls 70 percent of the drug-transport business in the southern Mediterranean. Teresa is no simple macho outlaw, braced to go out in a blaze of glory with an AK-47 in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other -- although she knows her way around both. Her story is necessarily a more complicated and contradictory one than can be squeezed into a song.

Pérez-Reverte, a journalist turned bestselling writer, takes leave of his usual fictional forte here. Instead of a Byzantine plot built around some evocative bit of historical arcana -- rare books, nautical charts, fencing -- "The Queen of the South" is a straightforward contemporary crime thriller with a reflective, moody soul. It begins with a ringing cellphone, the sound that marks the dividing line in Teresa's life, between the relatively simple (though never innocent) girl she once was -- a former money-changer from the Mexican state of Sinaloa who catches the eye and heart of Güero Dávila, a brash, handsome pilot running shipments for the local drug lords -- and the woman she becomes -- tough, smart and perpetually on the run. Güero has told her that if that phone ever rings, she should understand that he's been killed, and that she is next.

Teresa flees to Spain, where she finds a different man who pursues a similar line of work around Gibraltar, where North Africa and Europe almost meet, separated by a narrow strip of water on which a guy with a very fast boat can make a very nice chunk of change. Teresa will learn the hard way, through a process that includes a stint in a Spanish prison, that she's better off not depending on such men. She's clever, with a good head for numbers, a knack for mechanics, and a hollow place deep inside her where most other people keep whatever it is they have to lose. These are the makings of a kingpin -- make that a queenpin. Eventually she becomes fabulously wealthy and elegant, and is named one of the best-dressed women in Spain.

"The Queen of the South" proceeds according to an unusual rhythm; passages of gasping suspense alternate with brooding psychological rumination and meticulously detailed descriptions of how Teresa's empire is built and run. Pérez-Reverte returns to his reportorial roots on the last count; he knows so much about drug running it's gotta be illegal. (Several of the characters Pérez-Reverte portrays are real people, including the Mexican drug lord César "Batman" Güemes.) Then there's a framing device that probably works better in the original version, in which a journalist putting together a book on Teresa's life describes his interviews with her past associates. The contrast between his Castilian account and Teresa's own story -- written in a slangy Mexican idiom -- has to be more evocative in Spanish.

If "The Queen of the South" were about a man, perhaps it would seem less distinctive; Teresa has many of the dissociative, isolated qualities of the stereotypical noir hero. But because she's a woman, Pérez-Reverte can use her yearning for wholeness to scrutinize everything that's stunted about this particular macho ideal. Yes, "The Queen of the South" is a kind of narcocorrido, but it's also an anti-narcocorrido, an outsider's inside account of a world in which people are all too willing to sacrifice their humanity for the kind of immortality embodied in a four-minute song.

-- Laura Miller

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