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I confess: my first reaction on reading the back cover summary for The Book of Air and Shadows" was "oh no! Not another globetrotting thriller surrounding the hunt for a mysterious historical object. Within about 50 pages my attitude had changed to "Wow! Another great book about a hunt for a mysterious historical object" and I was completely hooked.
Yes, on one level, The Book of Air and Shadows offers little that hasn't already been seen. Surrounding the search for a possible previously unknown, handwritten Shakespeare play, it contains all the hallmarks of the genre: a bunch of good guys hunting down an artefact; a bunch of bad guys chasing them and trying to steal it and a range of international locations, particularly within England and the USA. So far, so Dan Brown.
In fact, The Book of Air and Shadows is a lot more intelligent than its plot premise initially suggests. It brings in influences from the world of film and TV, literature and the real world and melds them into a highly satisfying adventure.
For the most part, the book is perfectly paced. It rattles along at a cracking old pace, with lots of new developments that keep interest levels high so that the reader is rarely, if ever, bored. At the same time this fast paced plotting is not achieved at the expense of other important aspects, such as character development. The book manages to be both fast-paced and entertaining, without ever being superficial.
All of the major characters in the Book of Air and Shadows feel like real people. For the most part, they act in ways you would expect them to and none suddenly turn into Indiana Jones. Of course, there are certain archetypes that are needed to make sure the plot can proceed (the decent, downtrodden hero; the rich benefactor, the mysterious female character and the deadly pursuers who will stop at nothing to get the artefact. Yet, although these characters are essentially genre standards, author Michael Gruber brings them to life and ensures they are fully-fledged 3D characters in a way that lesser authors in this market too often fail to do.
Gruber, remarkably, also succeeds in bringing historical characters to life. This is achieved through an interesting and novel medium. Rather than telling the historical part of the tale through flashbacks, he does it by means of a series of ciphered letters, interspersed throughout the main narrative. These slowly reveal the historical element of the plot to the reader, often allowing them to keep one step ahead of the characters in the book.
These interludes are written in olde English, complete with Jacobean spelling and grammatical phrases. This makes them sound incredibly authentic and adds to the sense of history which is so critical to the novel's overall success. True, some of the spellings and phraseology sound very clumsy and odd to our 21st century ear and some people may find it a little difficult to read, but once you adapt to the style, this authentic historical language adds to the sense of realism.
These letters also create a very real sense of the people and time that they are talking about. The main "historical" character, Richard Bracegirdle is actually fictional, but he feels very real. More importantly, the character of William Shakespeare is very convincing. The only more realistic portrayal I have come across in a work of fiction is the excellent Will by Christopher Rush. Although only a relatively minor character, this portrayal of Shakespeare is an excellent one, both feasible and consistent with what (little) is known about the real person.
It's true that the plot doesn't contain much new. Regular readers of this type of book will spot most of the so-called "plot twists" a mile off and, in fact, the book makes a virtue of this. The account is written from the perspective of one of the chief protagonists shortly after the events portrayed, and the narrator frequently admits that, with hindsight, everything seems obvious which helps mitigate any suggestions that the plot is predictable. As we all know, hindsight is a wonderful thing!
It's also fair to say that the book loses its way a little in the middle. For the most part, the story is (successfully) told from the perspective of two different narrators. This is well handled, with the story flitting between the two. Each distinct section has a sufficiently different voice to make you believe that the various sections were really written by two different people. Towards the middle, however, the paths of the narrators cross. It's here the book goes downhill, as there are passages where the same events are reported from the perspective of each of the narrators, often with little discernible difference. This seriously slows everything down and it feels like you are being forced to read the same chapter twice.
Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by The Book of Air and Shadows. Expecting a derivative, unimaginative adventure, the book surpassed expectations and managed to add something a little different to an over-crowded genre. Slightly more intelligent than your average Da Vinci Code rip off, The Book of Air and Shadows is a great read and well worth picking up.
The Book of Air and Shadows
(C) Copyright SWSt 2012
The Book of Air and shadows by Michael Gruber is a book about the discovery of a previously unknown Shakespearean play. The book is largely set in America, New York in particular but darts around England and Switzerland at various moments in the book.
The book uses the fact that though considered the greatest writer in the English language, William Shakespeare left virtually nothing in his own hand, a few signatures and a sentence in a law case. Imagine the importance of a previously unknown Shakespeare play, priceless yes, but in his own hand, probably the most precious object held in any library anywhere in the world.
So the book starts with a simple bookshop in New York, in it we are introduced to an assistant called Al Cosetti, Al is in his twenties, not great looking but with hopes of being a screenwriter. He works with a woman called Caroline who he burns a candle for but nothing is reciprocated.
There is a fire and rescuing a book, the pair find a 17th century letter from a Englishman called BraceGirdle, in it he describes meeting Shakespeare and gives elusive clues to an unknown Shakespearean manuscript. The pair realise the worth but the letter is also encrypted and the location deeply embedded in an indcipherable code.
We then meet the other main character in a weightlifting lawyer called Jake Mishkin. Jake is a sex obsessed weightifter, seperated from his wife due to his habit of chasing any pretty girl who he comes across. Jake has a meeting with a British professor called Bulstrode who gives the lawyer a document before being brutally murdered that night. The story is set as alternate chapters between the two characters, indeed its slightly confusing at first as its apparent the chapters involving Cosetti are set slightly in the past compared to Mishkins.
However, the two story start to interwine and the two men do meet, Cosetti has his night of passion with Caroline but she does a runner after they sell the letter to Bulstrode. Caroline then disappears from the story for about 300 pages, Cosetti comes across as the nicer of the two and starts an investigation into the cryptic code found in the letter. Mishkin on the other hand starts to get involved with Russian gangland thugs who believe they own the document.
Finally the two meet and rather than become allies are more loose collaborators as neither really likes the other, the book accelerates towards a finish. Cosetti is the more believable character, he desires Caroline and wants the book more for the fact in finding it he will find Caroline, Mishkin wants the book because the gangsters are threatening his family.
The book as I mentioned is split between chapters about Cosetti and then Mishkin, however, in between the two are excerts from the BraceGirdle letter. The letter was for me totally unnecessary as it added little to the story but was difficult to read as it was written in 17th century style.
This is a book which has been labelled as being similar to Dan Brown but in truth this is writing of a far higher standard than the rubbish Brown and his ilk churns out, Gruber recreates the furore a hunt for a shakespearean manuscript would create, he also writes the fight scenes rather well and creates two very different characters in Cosetti and Mishkin.
This is decent stuff, very readable but everything is well explained when necessary and fast paced when needed. Gruber has written a very enjoyable adventure/mystery novel and I would recommend it to anyone.
William Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers the world has ever produced, a household name whose turns of phrase are so well known that many have slipped into everyday usage with us hardly even noticing. Yet for someone who produced such a magnificent body of work, had such a huge impact on the English language and whose image is recognised the world over, there is remarkably little evidence that he ever existed at all. A gravestone, a few references in legal documents and six signatures are the only remaining tangible evidence of his life - such small traces that there have even been questions asked about whether he wrote the plays and poems that bear his name at all. Scholars the world over dissect, interpret, reinterpret and debate Shakespeare's life and work, and there are huge numbers of books, journal articles, museums, conferences and websites devoted to the Bard. His work is still widely performed centuries after it was written, and the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London has been a huge success. In short, the Shakespeare industry seems bigger now than it ever was.
What, then, do you think a find of a previously unknown and unperformed Shakespeare manuscript would be worth?
Michael Gruber's novel "The Book of Air and Shadows" estimate's the value of such an object at $150 million, which would make it the most valuable portable object on Earth. The idea of such a thing being in existence also provides the perfect "what if" element for this novel. It gives us the highly valuable object that every self-respecting thriller needs, and with the inclusion of some tension, treasure-hunting, puzzles to solve, codes to crack, more tension, bad guys to escape from, much needed comic relief and intercontinental chases, you'll be starting to think that this book is somewhere between "The Da Vinci Code" and "National Treasure". In a way you would be right, but this story is easily superior to either of these forerunners, offering plenty of interesting characters and enough erudition and wit to keep most readers happily entertained until the end (no mean feat given this book is a hefty 576 pages long).
We start by meeting intellectual property lawyer Jake Mishkin, who is hiding out in an Adirondack lake cabin and narrating his back story as he anxiously waits for the arrival of the Russian gangsters who he believes are on their way to kill him. The lake house in question belongs to his long-time friend Mickey Haas, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University who drew him into the story when he referred fellow literature professor Andrew Bulstrode to Jake to consult with him about a 17th century document he had recently bought. The document, while moderately valuable in scholarly terms in itself, also seems to suggest the existence of something altogether more exciting, the anxious professor explains. After depositing the document with Jake for safe keeping, Professor Bulstrode later disappeared and was subsequently found in a New York hotel after being tortured to death. It is understandable, then, that Jake feels a bit jittery about having the thing in his possession. The discovery of said document is revealed to us through the second strand of the book, told from the perspective of Al Crosetti. Crosetti is a twenty-something employee at an antiquarian book store who is trying to save up to study film-making at college; tasked with the job of helping resident bookbinder Carolyn Rolly break a set of valuable books that have been fire damaged, he discovers some old papers that were used to pad out the covers of the works. After carefully rescuing the papers, they realise what they have found is an English Civil War era letter written by one Richard Bracegirdle to his wife from his death bed, and a series of ciphered texts. Unable to make sense of the ciphers, Crosetti instead attempts to read the letter - not an easy thing to do, but he thinks he spots a reference to a playwright named "Shakspure" buried away on one of the later pages. Carolyn is doubtful given the difficulty of reading Jacobean secretary hand, but suggests taking the papers to an expert she knows - a Professor Bulstrode at Columbia University. The third strand of the plot is the story from Bracegirdle's point of view, as gradually told from his untangled papers.
I am aware that this may sound overly complicated and hard to follow, but Gruber has deftly interwoven the three strands of plot to produce a novel that holds together remarkably well for all the changes in perspective and time it has. Even when you get the traditional thriller-style crosses, double-crosses and surprise revelations, the fast-paced plot remains clear and concisely written so you don't lose track of who is doing what and why (which I often get in Hollywood thrillers, but I suspect that is more because I start to lose interest in many of them part-way through than anything else). It is a book that crams a lot in and manages to keep your attention and interest sustained throughout, and the narrative structure quickly becomes compelling: after the first chapter I found I didn't want to put the book down.
The characters in "The Book of Air and Shadows" are all complex, dimensional and felt realistic, and were brought to life by real-life deficiencies and interesting asides that make it hard not to feel something for each and every one of them. My favourite had to be Crosetti, who recognises early on that they seem to all be characters in a movie and uses his film-geek credentials to offer a witty and almost omniscient commentary on what is happening - and often succeeds in making progress through the plot simply because he does what would be done to solve the same problem in a movie. At one point, predicting what will happen with the expected arrival of the bad guys using the theory that life imitates art, he explains to Jake: "when the gangsters get here, they'll act like gangsters in the movies, or, and here's a subtlety that's not often used, they'll act the opposite of movie gangsters. That's the great thing about The Sopranos--movie gangsters pretending to be real gangsters watching movie gangsters and changing their style to be more like the fake ones, but the fact is, it really happens. The one thing you can be sure of is they're not going to be authentic. There's no authentic left." What is interesting about the characters, though, is that the book is not populated by Shakespeare fanatics as you perhaps might expect given the central premise of the story. Sure, there are two experts on the writer, but one dies early on and the other is little more than a background character. This leaves the characters in the same position that any one of us would be in if we found such a document, and that perhaps helps to make it ring more true.
The writing in the book was excellent and the amount of research done on Shakespeare and his time was impressive. Gruber even goes so far as to keep the original spellings of the words he uses in Bracegirdle's letter, which makes it look and feel authentic, but slows the reader down as they struggle to follow period writing, something not easy to pick up even when you are dealing with typeface rather than handwriting. To give you an idea, here is an excerpt from the Bracegirdle letter: "Well Nan I am killed as you fortolde & I bid you have a care with youre foretellinges lest they take you up for a witch, for I am shot threw the tripes with a balle it is lodged in my spine or so saith the chiurgeon here...". See what I mean? It undoubtedly adds colour to the book, but trying to get through 3 or 4 pages of that stuff as you are asked to do at some points in the book, and you start to feel a little frustrated. Granted, it makes you empathise more with Crosetti, but I soon found myself sighing every time I turned the page and found more of Bracegirdle's writing to plough through.
"The Book of Air and Shadows" is incredibly smart and is in no way a standard "cut and paste" thriller or mystery story. So many thrillers I have come across read like an outline for a good novel with all the meaty bits left out, but not so here; all the best bits are left in for you to get your teeth into, and Gruber isn't afraid to cast a thoroughly unlikeable man as one of lead characters in Mishkin. It is a cracking mystery that works on several levels, and I even managed to learn a thing or two about Shakespeare in the process of reading it. It is a remarkably literary book for its genre and anyone who thinks that post Da Vinci Code thrillers are brainless should certainly be pointed in this book's direction. However, for all its research and knowledge, this is a book that doesn't take itself too seriously and it all too happy to poke fun at the genre it successfully inhabits. Gruber has delivered a novel that manages to hide universal truths amongst the treasure hunt, and I for one will be keeping an eye open for other works by him. And old books with suspiciously well-padded covers.
"The Book of Air and Shadows" by Michael Gruber
Published by Harper (2007)
RRP £7.99, Amazon.co.uk £5.99
Book of Air & Shadows
Michael Gruber has put together this fantastic fictional thriller. Along the same vein as 'The Da Vinci Code' this book deals with a lost Shakespeare play.
In 'real life' there is only 1 piece of physical evidence that Shakespeare actually existed, which is his signature on a will. Some think the 'Shakespeare' works are from a collection of authors, some believe he was the writer. I think because all his works were published after his death that there is suspicion.
This book uses this urban legend to form a story that letters have been found which indicate there is a Shakespearean play hidden and the lengths to find it. Basically on the lines that should there be such a find, it would be priceless. . This is a tale of cat and mouse, gangsters, kidnapping, double crossing and twists and turns throughout.
Jake Mishkin is an Intellectual property lawyer based in New York and this story is written as he writes at his computer. Firstly we are introduced to Albert Crosetti who works as the computer bod at a fine bookshop. There is a fire and some books are wrecked, Albert and a colleague Carolyn go about try to 'break' the book so pieces of it can be sold as the whole book is ruined. In doing this a secret letter is discovered in the binding of the book (as sometimes book covers were padded out with old paper). This letter mentions Shakespeare, Crosetti, not knowing much about books, but enough to know this is a real find convinces Carolyn to try and find someone that will help. Bulstrode - a professor who has, in the past, made a fool of himself saying that a manuscript was real when it was a forgery, is very excited on this find and offers Crosetti money. The letters then are given to Jake - the lawyer for safe keeping at the firm.
The rest of the story tells you about Jake's family, his relationships with them, women and his ex wife. You get to know a lot about Crosetti and Mishkin and their families and it is a big part of this book.
We travel with the team of 'trackers' From new York, to England then to Switzerland and back to the US on a fact finding treasure hunting mission. Each character goes through some turmoil or loss and we are given, in detail, the why's and wherefore's of the characters, which is brilliant as you get to know them really well and are shocked when they are shocked.
We go back and forth between 'now' and 17th century England, care of Bracegirdle, who has written these letters, mostly to his wife to tell her what is happening. The letters are at 5 or 6 intervals in the book and are in old English. It will take you back to studying Shakespeare at school. But these letters tell us the reasons this play may have been hidden and what was happening at the time.
We go back and forth between several gangsters who are eager to get their hands on the prize. Is it another fake, is it real, we go back and forth until a couple of pages from the end, we find the truth - or is it?
I had read this book in a week it was so good, and was something I really enjoyed as I like a historical element to it. I also learned about the possible legend of Shakespeare through this. This was a great tale, however sometimes the old English intervals, which do run up to 6 or more pages, can be a little annoying as you are getting into it, and then you have to read old world English and try to understand some of it! All in all a good read and scanning over the old English, doesn't make too much difference as key points are explored in the dialogue in the book in case you missed anything.