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Ask a Book Buyer: The Divine Comedy, Crime Fiction, All That Jazz, and More

The Powell's PlaylistAt Powell's, our book buyers select all the new books in our vast inventory. If we need a book recommendation, we turn to our team of resident experts. Need a gift idea for a fan of vampire novels? Looking for a guide that will best demonstrate how to knit argyle socks? Need a book for a vegetarian who loves Radiohead and Flight of the Conchords? Email your question to We'll be posting personalized recommendations regularly.

Q: The last two books I read were The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie... loved them both. What should I read next? – Annie

A: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud or Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. – Shawn

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Q: I'm wondering what my best choice is for Dante. I'm willing to purchase more than one book if necessary. What I'm looking for: 1) "best translation" (whatever that means) of The Divine Comedy, 2) illustrations by Gustave Doré, 3) if possible, decent footnotes, 4) pocket size (kidding!). – Jason

A: A new translation of The Divine Comedy by Clive James was released in April of this year. Many reviewers have called it the best English translation because of its sublime poetry and sheer readability. – Shawn

A very good recent translation is the one by Robert and Jean Hollander. It reads well, seems to be accurate, has the original Italian on the facing page, and has excellent notes. The edition that Charles Singleton did for Princeton is more scholarly, with much more extensive notes and commentaries. The Doré illustrations are another matter. They seem to be published with older translations of the poem, and I'm not sure about the quality of those translations. Dover publishes them as a volume on their own, without the text. – Gary

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Q: I'm always looking for the next thing to read. I really loved Garth Nix's Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen books, and I was wondering if someone could make some recommendations based off of those? – Allyson

A: Anything by Kristin Cashore. Start with either Graceling or Fire. Also, check out Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns. – MaryJo

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Q: Best crime fiction authors outside the bestseller list? – Matt

A: Try Ghostman by Roger Hobbs or Richard Lange's Dead Boys and Angel Baby. Also, if you want to be in on the ground floor of something new, keep your eyes peeled for Alex by Pierre Lemaitre. It will be published in the U.S. this September. – Gerry

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda. It was just released and looks really good. On the lighter side, there's the Chet and Bernie series by Spencer Quinn about a detective and his dog, written from the dog's point of view without being overly cutesy. Start with Dog on It. I'm also a big fan of Tim Dorsey. He writes Florida mysteries in a similar vein to Carl Hiaasen, but WAY crazier. Florida Roadkill is the first of those. Gerry's recommendation of Alex is spot on. It's VERY creepy in spots, but you've never read anything like it before. – Tom

Stuart MacBride is a bestseller in the U.K., but Harper just started to publish his crime thrillers here a few years ago. They are hard-boiled and set in Scotland — and a very dark Scotland it is. Try starting with Shatter the Bones. I agree with Tom on Visitation Street. It's the first pick by Dennis Lehane for his new imprint and it's very "Lehane-ish" gritty and yet beautifully written. – Kathi

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Q: I'd like a book about jazz — one that covers the theory behind jazz, history, major players, and all that jazz (pun intended), not just a record review. – Joanne

A: Try The Jazz Loft Project. Great photographic history of the jazz scene in New York in the '60s. – Tom

The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia or Why Jazz? by Kevin Whitehead. – Jen

Nat Hentoff: Jazz Is or Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It. – Jeremy

Anything by Gary Giddins, especially Jazz. – Bob

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Q: I recently read (and immensely enjoyed) Richard Paul Russo's Ship of Fools and would very much like to hear your recommendations for other titles in the "First Contact" science fiction subgenre. – Jim

A: For an unflinching look at humanity, try Rebecca Ore's Becoming Alien series. – Tracey

Some suggestions: Blindsight by Peter Watts, City of Pearl by Karen Traviss, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, or Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. – MaryJo

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Q: I'm leaving in a few weeks for Italy and Spain, and I'd be remiss if I didn't have something to read on my downtime over there. Suggestions? – Chelsea

A: For Spain, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. – Gerry

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It is partially set on the Italian Coast in 1962 during the filming of Cleopatra. It's a wonderful story and a great vacation book. – Jen

Andrea Camilleri has a great Italian mystery series set in Sicily. The first book in that series is The Shape of Water. And, of course, there's Donna Leon's fantastic Venice-set series, starting with Death at La Fenice. – Tom

It's older but The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte is very atmospheric and set in both Spain and Italy. Just out is Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant. It's good historical fiction about the Borgias. Even though they were Spanish, the family is synonymous with the dark side of the Italian Renaissance. The Vatican doesn't like to show the Borgia apartments for a good reason. – Kathi

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Q: I like big, sweeping family sagas. Currently I'm reading And the Mountains Echoed. (Love it!) Suggestions? – Janet

A: The novels of Tam Twan Eng (The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists). – Gerry

Kate Morton (The House at Riverton, The Forgotten Garden, The Distant Hours) for a family saga with a Downton Abbey flair. – Tracey

Life among Giants by Bill Roorbach was one of my favorites last year. It's very Gatsby-esque but there's murder, mystery, and a strong family portrait. Also, the work of Isabel Allende is a wonderful multi-generational saga. Start with The House of the Spirits. Daughter of Fortune follows the same family into the California Gold Rush. – Kathi


Books mentioned in this post

3 Responses to "Ask a Book Buyer: The Divine Comedy, Crime Fiction, All That Jazz, and More"

    DANNY EARL August 21st, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    i am trying to remember the name of an author from the 70s or 80s he was a mestry writer somewhat like HAROLD ROBBINS could you give me a list of authors from that era so i can find some books by him THANK YOU

    Mark O’Connell October 8th, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I am drawn to nonfiction books that incorporate 1) a sense of place (geography), 2) a sense of time (history), and 3) a sense of synthesis (journalism). Though my list is likely too long to publish, I include so that you can see it isn't just one place, time, author, or topic that intrigues me. It is the intersection or synthesis where history, geography, sociology, journals, science, oral history, archeology, and travelogue all come together. I am interested in many things, maybe too many things, and I enjoy and would appreciate your recommendations for additional reading along these lines. Books in which I have found this: Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli; A Great Aridness by William DeBuys; The Most Southern Place on Earth by James Cobb; A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson; The Whale by Philip Hoare; Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz; Great Plains by Ian Frazier; The Good Rain, Lasso the Wind (or just about anything) by Timothy Egan; House of Rain by Craig Childs; On the Rez by Ian Frazier; Fire Season by Philip Connors; The Lobster Coast by Colin Woodward; Four Corners by Kenneth Brown; The Backbone of the World by Frank Clifford. Thanks, and can't wait to read your response!

    Carlammm October 19th, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Mark, you may want to try, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt.

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