If your New Year’s resolution is to read more books, reporter John Loftus sought some recommendations.
If one of the New Year’s resolutions you’re considering is to get more reading done, here are some recommendations from a way-less-than-scientifically-conducted poll in which each respondent was asked to name a book that’s just fun to read.
You might find a few of these books on current best-seller lists, but some are far from new releases.
Philadelphia Daily News entertainment reporter Chuck Darrow likes You Only Rock Once by Jerry Blavat, which hit book sellers in July.
“As a longtime acquaintance of ‘The Geator with The Heator,’ I have often wondered when he was going to publish his autobiography,” Darrow said. “As a result, this is one of the most anticipated books I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best biographies — and I’m not just saying that because I’m a big Blavat fan.
“His Geatorness has led an incredible life filled with some of the biggest show-business names of the past half-century, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Don Rickles. Non-performing legends like Mafia don Angelo Bruno and Frank Rizzo also played roles. And while he may not be known west of Downingtown or south of Kennett Square, his impact on American pop culture of the past five decades has been inestimable. For instance, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons may never have made it out of Newark bowling alleys had it not been for Blavat’s early patronage.”
Cheryl Arpa, social-work service coordinator for the Stearne Elementary School in Frankford, likes mystery novels and one particular author.
“I am a complete diehard fan of Mary Higgins Clark mystery novels. One of my first was While My Pretty One Sleeps (1989), and from there, I was hooked.”
She’s not alone. All of Clark’s 42 books have been best sellers.
“I read all of her books some years ago until there were no more written, and most recently over the summer, I picked up one of her newer novels and began to delve deep into the world of mystery and suspense,” Arpa said. “I enjoy her books thoroughly because she always portrays a strong, independent female character in each of her books and the plots of most of her books (are set) in New Jersey, Connecticut or New York, so I can relate to the areas. I was living in Manhattan at the time I had read all of her novels, and as a single, independent female, I appreciated her portrayal of strength and self-assurance that Mary Higgins demonstrated for each female character in her novel.”
Clark’s latest, I’ll Walk Alone, was published this year.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is recommended by City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez (D-7th dist.)
“It is written by young Dominican writer Junot Diaz. It covers the life of an immigrant teen and his adjustments,” the councilwoman said.
Oscar has a lot of adjusting to do, too. He’s an overweight New Jersey kid waiting for his first kiss, and if that isn’t enough to gloom up his life, he has a family curse to contend with, too.
“My favorite funny book is The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary,” said attorney Marci Hamilton.
The 1944 novel “is written from the perspective of an elderly sculptor (Gulley Jimson) … . It gets you into the mind of an artist with a fresh perspective, and reminds us how much of everyday life we miss just running through it.”
For pure entertainment, Hamilton enjoys Janet Evanovich’s novels about the antics of Stephanie Plum, the Trenton, N.J., bond agent who can’t shoot straight.
“Every book has sections that are laugh-out-loud funny, especially if you have ever been to ‘the Burg’ in Trenton!”
For the uninitiated, the ‘Burg is a residential neighborhood that might remind you of Brooklyn or South Philly, and it really is somewhere in between.
Evanovich numbers almost all of the Plum books. The latest, Explosive Eighteen, was published in November.
How about something local to the Northeast?
Shannon McDonald, editor and owner of online newspaper NEast Philly, has a favorite in Green Grass Grace (2003) by Shawn McBride, which is set on a summer weekend in Holmesburg in 1984 and relates the exploits and plotting of 13-year-old Hank Toohey.
“It’s not new or popular, but is very entertaining. I own three copies (one signed), all dog-eared and highlighted with my favorite parts. Even at its heavier parts, the book is light-hearted and reminds me of the things I did as a kid in the summer (minus all the cursing and smoking). And I never tire of trying to figure out what fictional name the author has given to a local park/street/business.”
Bustleton resident Lydia Pullman enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.
“I love historical fiction, and this book really delivers,” said Pullman.
“The story is about Mary and Anne Boleyn, sisters, and their respective relationship with (England’s King) Henry VIII. Most people know about Anne Boleyn and her tragic end, but not about her sister Mary, who also had a relationship with the king and a son by him.
“The author has a gift for transporting the reader into the Tudor monarchy and shows the reader how difficult it was to live as a woman in early 1500s England. One actually learns about history while reading this book. You can see how much research the author did when describing day-to-day life.
“I gave it to my daughter to read and her comment was something like ‘I learned more about the history of that era by reading this book than any textbook on the same subject.’ She loved it also.”
If you like historical fiction and mysteries, too, yours truly recommends any of Ellis Peters’ novels about Brother Cadfael, a 12th-century Welsh Benedictine monk. Peters, the nom de plume of prolific author Edith Pargeter, produced 20 Cadfael books, and some of the stories might be familiar to viewers of the PBS Mystery! series in which Derek Jacobi portrayed the canny monastic detective.
The books are set against a civil war between heirs of William the Conquerer that raged in the mid-12th century, so there are plenty of bodies already piling up in the border town of Shrewsbury and its surrounding countryside anyway. Not all the corpses are war dead, though, and Cadfael’s own long pre-clerical experiences as a crusader and adventurer are drawn upon to sort things out. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is that the monk has to work with very primitive “forensics,” and he often has to defeat superstition, religious zeal and misinformation to solve the mysteries that keep turning up.
Each Peters’ fan probably has his or her favorites. Mine are Monk’s Hood and The Virgin in the Ice. The last Cadfael novel Peters produced just before she died was Brother Cadfael’s Penance. The book was published in 1994; it’s set in 1145.
Sherlock Holmes aficionados who can’t get enough of the pipe-smoking Baker Street genius will enjoy the latest entry in a long list of Holmes stories not written by the consulting detective’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Best-selling author and scenarist Anthony Horowitz climbs the 17 steps from the street to 221B and offers up The House of Silk.
Anyone who has read Doyle’s scores of Holmes mysteries will recognize the narrative voice of Dr. John Watson faithfully recreated in Horowitz’s story about an art dealer who consults the detective about an American criminal he fears is out to do him in.
Of course, The House of Silk, which is a phrase the detective hears repeated as he investigates, is much more than a 19th-century stalking case. There’s more than one plot line, and it is up to Holmes — and his readers — to figure out how they intertwine.
Horowitz had the blessing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate to write The House of Silk, which has been in stores for about a month. Readers might recognize where in time in the Holmes canon the new story belongs. The hints are in the very beginning when Watson notes that Holmes was recovering after he had starved himself in order to convince a particularly dangerous criminal that he was dying.
And, finally, staying in England, here’s a magical suggestion from Michelle Feldman, corridor manager for the Frankford Community Development Corp.
“I am currently re-reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke’s ‘history of English magic.’ It’s a long book but a fast read. Both the writing and storyline, about two magicians in the 1800s who restore English magic, are really well done and suck you in. I can’t put it down, and I’ve read it already!” ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or email@example.com
Time for books …
A lot of us live crowded lives. Scraping together the odd hour or two just to sit down with a book isn’t always easy. Here’s how some of the people who recommended books find the time to read.
“I read at night before going to bed, even if it’s just twenty minutes; not only do I enjoy the reading, but it also acts like a sleeping pill. Also, any free time I have on the weekend, even if it’s fifteen or twenty minutes at a time between chores and errands, I make it a point to pick up my book. I really make time to read, but it’s easy for me because I love to read.” — Lydia Pullman
“I just read whenever I have the chance, even if it’s just a page or two at a time.” — Chuck Darrow
“I managed to read over the summer when the schedule became more flexible and I wasn’t as exhausted as I am during the winter months when my children are in school and there is little downtime. When the time is available, delving into a good Mary Higgins Clark novel is just the medicine I need.” — Cheryl Arpa
“I read in bursts. There are weeks that a book is always in front of me, and there are weeks I barely even look at a newspaper. My wife and I enjoy collections of short mysteries and humor, and actually read aloud to each other. On long car trips, we “read” in a sense while on the road by listening to books on CD.” — John Loftus
“I try to set aside one or two weeknights a week to read before I go to sleep, instead of watching TV or doing work. I wish I could read on the El. If not for motion sickness, I’d get through books much faster.” — Shannon McDonald
“I almost feel like I cannot afford not to make the time.” — City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez
“It is really difficult to find time to read for pleasure, so I make sure to read before I go to sleep as many nights as I can. Usually I only get fifteen or twenty minutes of reading in before I fall asleep, so I rarely finish books quickly, but I think it’s very important to take that time. It’s good for your brain and your soul.” — Michelle Feldman