Asymmetry

February 22nd, 2018

By Lisa Halliday

The Short Take:

This novel is amazing! It consists of two very different sections that seem to have nothing in common until a third section brings them together in all their asymmetry. It’s an outstanding first novel. Heck, it would make an outstanding 10th novel.

Why?

From the very first paragraphs you know you’ve found something special. The main character, Alice, is sitting outside, avoiding reading her book with “long paragraphs and no quotation marks.” While not the same words they form a fun-house mirror image of Lewis Carroll’s opening for his Alice. This 20-something Alice indeed goes down the rabbit hole, starting an affair with a 70-something famous and acclaimed writer — a mirror image of Philip Roth.

Part romance, part training for the budding young writer, this section, Folly, glitters with humor, engaging dialogue, and observations on love, life, and the arts. It practically dances forward, brightly skimming the surface of emotions and relationships.

The second section, Madness, couldn’t be more different. It centers on a thoughtful, mild-mannered Iraqi-American, Amar. While detained at Heathrow Airport he reviews his life and his inner self. Here the dialogue is serious, situations are dangerous, but hope endures. Reflections on religion, his family’s history, and news reporting are all a part of his emotional inner journey while he goes nowhere at the airport.

The two sections seem to have nothing but the faintest of connections — until you arrive at the final part of the book. Then you want to immediately go back and start reading all over again, because your second reading will be even richer and more rewarding than the first.

A Little Plot:

This has been largely covered above: A May-December affair between Alice, a young would-be writer, and a very successful and famous one. This is followed by the travails and deep thoughts of Amar, an Iraqi-American with passports for both countries who has come up against endless bureaucracy at Heathrow Airport and uses that time to review his life through his memories.

It’s all about asymmetry — in ages, in circumstances, in everything.

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City of Endless Night

February 14th, 2018

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Halleluia! This Agent Pendergast mystery/thriller gets back to basics: bizarre murders, misleading theories, and Special Agent Pendergast using his formidable mind and unbreakable cool to save the day.

Why?

I’ve read all the Preston/Child Pendergast novels but was ready to throw in the towel if there was another bogus melodramatic volume. In fact, I was dreadfully anticipating the return of Pendergast’s already-twice-dead evil brother.

Whew! This is a legitimate crime spree story. In fact, there are only minimal references to the ongoing Pendergast saga. The only complaint I have is that Pendergast is a minor character for most of the book, ducking in and out of the action until the rousing final chapters.

Recurring characters Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and reporter Bryce Harriman carry most of the plot. Not to worry, though — again there is no need to have read any previous books. The actual murders are spectacular mysteries. They would seem impossible to carry off, except they happen. It’s all pretty cool.

A Little Plot:

The headless corpse of a young woman is found in an abandoned warehouse. Turns out she’s the playgirl daughter of a tech billionaire. That’s just the beginning of the headless bodies. It’s up to D’Agosta and Pendergast to determine not just who the murderers are, but how many of them there might be, and what possible connection their could be.

For more about Preston & Child and their many books, click here.

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

February 2nd, 2018

By Philip Pullman

The Short Take:

This prequel to Pullman’s highly acclaimed (and controversial) His Dark Materials trilogy does not disappoint. He sets the background for his dust story — a strange material that may prove consciousness is matter — causing stress for the church, which now dominates the state. However, it is the rousing adventure of a young boy determined to rescue an infant girl that forms the heart and soul of the narrative.

Why?

Be aware, this is the first book in a new trilogy. However, Pullman isn’t going to pull a George Martin or Patrick Rothfuss — making us wait five or more years for the next installment. The second book is already written. In addition he claims that, while the first book is prequel, some of this trilogy’s content will be sequel. If you haven’t read his earlier trilogy, reward yourself by doing so while you await publication.

The heroine of his previous trilogy, Lyra, is a mere baby in this volume who only does the usual baby things. Twelve-year-old Malcolm Polstead is the story’s tentpole — an extraordinarily strong, courageous, and resourceful character you immediately fall in love with.

While some characters from His Dark Materials return, many others are new. Also returning are the cruel tactics of the controlling Magisterium, the earthly knowledge of the Gyptians, and the relationship between individuals and their daemons (animals that reflect a person’s spirit in some way). It was particularly fun and revealing to read how the infant Lyra and her daemon interacted.

Though positioned as a young adult novel, Pullman’s writing is richly satisfying for all ages. And, his imaginative alternative universe is second to none.

A Little Plot:

Malcolm Polstead is immediately enchanted by the baby Lyra, mysteriously placed in the protective care of a nearby priory of nuns. He feels driven to protect her, which makes him an alert observer/spy. The dangers besetting the infant aren’t only human, floods are sweeping the lands.

For more about Philip Pullman and his works click here.

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God: A Human History

January 23rd, 2018

9780553394726By Reza Aslan

The Short Take:

Aslan’s highly-readable book is not a mere history of religion but a thoughtful look at how we, throughout history and prehistory, have consistently humanized our gods/God while reaching for the divine. Drawing from psychological, philosophical, theological, historical and other sources he explains why this happens, from earliest religious beliefs to the present. It’s fascinating.

Why?

Aslan is a religious scholar as well as a believer whose personal spiritual search has led him from Muslim to Evangelical Christian to Sufism. His scholarship is on full display in this volume, which has almost as many pages of bibliography and notes as it does regular text. In fact, I highly recommend reading the extensive notes. I set two bookmarks so I could read the related notes right after finishing a chapter. That added significantly to my appreciation.

Note that this is not a book for those looking for confirmation of their personal religious beliefs. Also note that if you go looking for corresponding language to passages he cites in your King James Bible you won’t necessarily find them. His sources are much older. However, if you are interested in the evolution of religious beliefs and haven’t already read extensively on the subject this is an excellent place to start.

A Little Plot:

The humanized god has been a part of religions from their earliest times. Aslan starts with the earliest evidence — cave paintings — and moves forward through history.

For more about Reza Aslan and his books click here.

 

 

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Sleep No More

January 16th, 2018

9780525520733By P. D. James

The Short Take:

Wish I’d read/reviewed this book a month earlier — it’s the perfect Christmas gift for mystery lovers. Several of the six stories in this short story collection by the incomparable P. D. James have holiday themes. All reflect her brilliant, literary style.

Why?

I usually pass on short story collections, but when it’s P. D. James an exception is in order. These stories, the oldest of which dates back to 1973, did not disappoint. They just made me miss this legendary writer more. They aren’t all straight-forward whodunits. Sometimes you know the who but not the how or why. Sometimes the bad guy gets away with it. You can always count on James to bring you fresh takes on one of the most popular genres in fiction.

A Little Plot:

Doesn’t really count here, but you can count on people dying from unnatural causes.

If you are unfamiliar with P. D. James (no one should be), learn more about her by clicking here. Sorry it’s Wikipedia. Don’t know why her estate hasn’t dedicated a website to this formidable woman and writer.

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Lilli de Jong

January 10th, 2018

31752152By Janet Benton

The Short Take:

Benton’s saga about the perils and prejudices besetting an unwed mother in 1880s Pennsylvania leaves a lot to be desired. There are far too many McGuffins driving the plot, a cast of potentially interesting yet underwritten supporting characters, and more about lactating than I ever expected to find in a novel.

Why?

I get it: life was hard to impossible for unwed  mothers over a century ago. Still is in some parts of the world. Yet when the back-of-book notes Benton includes expounding on those problems are more interesting than the story itself, something is askew.

The plot is revealed through journal entries by the title character and includes a lot of philosophizing, which is actually more interesting than the unrelieved dreariness of the plot. It’s one bad thing after another; and actions and motivations don’t always make sense, not only for Lilli but for most of the people impacting her life.

Benton notes that she wrote this book while nursing her own child, and lactation is a major plot device for the novel. However, breast developments consistently outweigh character development. It just gets tedious.

All that said, you could not make a stronger case for chastity until marriage than Lilli de Jong. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale. Unfortunately it was written in the wrong century.

A Little Plot:

Lilli’s fiancé has decided to leave their rural village to seek employment in the steel mills. He will send for her when he is settled. Unfortunately, he leaves her a parting gift that makes Lilli a pariah to pretty much everyone.

For more about Benton and this novel, click here.

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Hiddensee

January 2nd, 2018

185216By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

In typical Maguire fashion, this enchanting novel creates an imaginative backstory for the toymaker in E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker. However, it is so much more than that. The main character’s journey from fairy tale (or hallucination) to reality makes him an outlier with a unique way of seeing others but a limited ability or desire to “see” himself.

Why?

The child Dirk dies but comes back to life — a life that is vaguely haunted by two characters: one representing German romanticism, the other Hellenic mysticism. Dirk has little to no interest in them and rejects the few wisps of memories that waft through his life. However, those he encounters care very much, particularly Doctor Franz Mesmer (the real originator of the idea of hypnotism or mesmerization).

Dirk is not presented as a person of action, passion, or past. He is not necessarily a likable character yet you keep hoping for that moment when what is hidden becomes seen — not so much by others but by Dirk himself.

The prose is even more rich and lyrical than usual for Maguire, and the frequent music references offer more than just a nod to Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. It’s a lovely, romantic read — achingly sad yet ever hopeful.

A little Plot:

Dirk lives in isolation and poverty with a man and woman deep in the woods. One day he is taken into the woods by the man, who intends to kill him. However, while Dirk is chopping a tree it falls on him, killing him. Only he isn’t dead. But something might have happened.

(Warning: the hard-cover’s front flap write-up gives away the whole story. Boo on that.)

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The Good Samaritan

December 21st, 2017

51+2Ms+Sr6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By John Mars

The Short Take:

This book is disturbing on many levels. It offers a voyeuristic view into the mind of a psychopath alongside a morality play about the repercussions of unbridled revenge. It’s not for everyone, maybe not for anyone.

Why?

This was a freebie through Amazon Prime. While I download these regularly, this one is the first I’ve read. I wouldn’t have finished it but I was on an extended trip in German-speaking countries, with no time to search out alternatives.

It actually has a strong concept and two very well drawn characters. However, neither of these characters have much in the way of redeeming features. The first portion of the book focuses on a woman who works in a suicide crisis center. She’s a terrible person, no doubt about it, and suicide prevention is not her goal.

Her nemesis is little better. His obsession with revenge spirals out of control, ensnaring others in harmful ways.

There’s no upside to this tale, but it has the strong “can’t look away” quality of a deadly car crash.

A Little Plot:

Laura volunteers at a suicide crisis center that respects callers’ decisions, whether choosing life or death. That suits her just fine.

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The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

November 26th, 2017

9780691160597By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes

The Short Take:

Don’t read these to your kids! This is the real deal, no Disneyesque re-imagining. Some stories might feel familiar, but the plots will twist in ways you never read before, unless you devoured the old Andrew Lang compilations like I did. Despite that there were still many delightful, humorous, shocking surprises.

Why?

This book, which came out three years ago, is the very first English translation of the complete Grimms’ original edition. Since the two volumes of stories in this single book came out in 1812 and 1815, I don’t understand the delay, but it was worth the wait.

You say you’ve already read the original Brothers Grimm? Well, they did publish six other editions, editing and softening the stories with each subsequent outing. This is the original material and its first time in English. Don’t skip the introduction either. The story of the brothers, their quest for these stories, and how their work evolved is a fascinating read.

There are 156 different tales in this book. Some are variations on a single theme, others barely longer than a paragraph; many sound vaguely familiar, many more are unheard of. However, don’t go looking for any fairies — there are none in this collection.

It took me so long to finish this book because I savored one story at a time. They deserved it.

A Little Plot:

I cannot resist a brief retelling of one tale that cracked me up:

There were two brothers, one wealthy and one poor. The poor brother was a farmer and one of his turnips got to be truly enormous. He didn’t want to eat it, since little turnips would taste the same, nor did he want to sell it, since it wouldn’t earn much. He decided to give it to the king. It filled his cart and took two oxen to move. The king was delighted and gave the poor brother so much gold and property he became richer than his wealthy brother.

The jealous wealthy brother decided to bring the king a better gift — horses and gold — expecting something ever greater in return. The king was delighted with the gift, saying the only thing he possessed that was finer and rarer was his giant turnip, which he gave the wealthy brother.

The story continues, by the way, but this is all I’m sharing.

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Guest BLOG By Author Donna Migliaccio

November 16th, 2017

We’re excited to present this guest blog by the author of Fiskur (review below).

 

WHERE I WRITE IS HOW I WRITE IS WHAT I WRITE

By Donna Migliaccio

 

Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head, feed your head

“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick

 

I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.

That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.

I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.

Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?

No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)

I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.

Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck, I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.

My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.

But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in“White Rabbit.”

“Thanks, Donna, for sharing these insights with my readers — and hopefully, yours, too.

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