Friendswood

October 22nd, 2014

By Rene´ Steinke

The Short Take:

Steinke weaves together the stories of four families in a small Texas town, where too many people ignore uncomfortable truths in their search for success and “belonging.”  There’s a lot of hypocrisy and pain but ultimately this is a story of redemption — sometimes where it is least looked for.

Why?

Friendswood revolves around hidden pollution. Not just from the Super Fund site on one side of town, but other secrets that various townsfolk know but refuse to publicly acknowledge. Religion plays a prominent role in the town, but the primary church portrayed places a toxic focus on sinfulness and belief in Jesus as a source of riches.

Steinke’s novel was inspired in part by The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing, which interprets that Bible book as being about redemption instead of the end of days. You can feel that inspiration as the story unfolds and various characters come to realize what really matters and what they can’t control.

While this is no thriller, there is a palatable tension throughout as the various characters face their inner pain while pushing against each other to achieve their goals. Steinke’s characters are fully realized — you know who they are and understand their actions, even if you do not approve of them.

It’s a strong novel, but not always an easy one.

A Little Plot:

Lee has become an environmental activist after her daughter dies of cancer from the pollution in their neighborhood, which became a Super Fund site. She believes there are more contaminants lurking nearby to poison others. Real estate agent Hal wants a contract to sell the homes being built on that possibly toxic land and is sure if he prays enough it will happen.

Hal’s son, Cully, is the high school football hero, and participates in a terrible action that continues to eat at him. Dex is the football team’s manager, always on the fringes. Quiet student Willa’s blind admiration of Cully leads to tragedy. And, the whole town is reeling from a string of disasters: pollution, hurricanes, and the economy.

You can learn more about Steinke and her work on Wikipedia.

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The Miniaturist

October 6th, 2014

By Jessie Burton

The Short Take:

This book about a young bride entering the secretive household of a wealthy trader in 17th century Amsterdam just never gelled for me. Very Gothic in atmosphere with lots of mysterious attitudes and activities; it wasn’t bad but it didn’t really work either.

Why?

At first I thought I was reading a reworking of Rebecca, the heroine seemed so cowed by her situation. Not so, thankfully, but the mass of secrets in this novel never really wove together in a cohesive story. Perhaps the most frustrating element was the titular character — she seems to be all-knowing but there’s never any explanation why — not even a magical one.

Burton’s inspiration was the real Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (cabinet house), which is on display in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum — that’s where the miniaturist comes in, sending unasked-for-items to put in the house. It’s an interesting plot device, however it doesn’t forward the story or shed light. It’s really a distraction from more important plot points.

All the right mystery elements and atmosphere are here, however it just doesn’t hang together as a romance, a mystery, or magical realism.

A Little Plot:

Eighteen-year-old Nella has been married off to a wealthy Amsterdam trader she barely knows. His household includes an austere sister, an African manservant, and an impertinent maid; all of whom have secrets. Nella has no real place in it as her husband shows no interest in her and the sister runs everything.

The cabinet house is a gift meant to keep Nella occupied, but once the miniaturist sends over the first bits of furnishings, the mysteries of the household and its occupants become even more complex.

Learn more at the author’s website by clicking here.

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

September 18th, 2014

By Haruki Murakami

The Short Take:

I am ashamed to admit this is the first book I’ve read by this world-renowned author. It was wonderful: Highly literary yet also completely approachable. Moving imagery and layers of meaning bubbled under the surface of a touching story about losing those you love and never understanding why.

Why?

The language is beguilingly simple yet studded with moments of poetic brilliance. The story is fairly straightforward yet full of subtle meaning. You can read at whatever depth you want and still fully enjoy the experience. While it’s certainly no thriller — closer to a character study — I found myself just as involved and unable to put it down as if were.

Murakami presents a wonderful story of loss and yearning, of the past shaping the future, of self doubt and self awareness. Simply a wonderful reading experience all around.

I have to say something about the delightful cover design and different size of this hardback book. It beautifully reflected the story and, I have to admit, something about holding it and simply turning the pages was pleasurable. Of course it was designed by Chip Kidd. No wonder it was the best design I’d seen since he designed the cover of his own novel!

A Little Plot:

Tsukuru Tazaki has an extremely close relationship with four other friends in high school. It is an exceptionally tight circle. Then they abruptly and completely turn their backs on him with no explanation. Is it because he is colorless and empty? Is it because he alone left their city for a university in Tokyo? Is he destined to always lose those he cares about because he is flawed in some way?

Read the book.

I didn’t immediately find a website for Haruki Murakami, but a quick Internet search will reveal much about this highly-respected author.

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The Silkworm

September 11th, 2014

By Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)

The Short Take:

A completely worthy follow-up to the debut of what promises to be a truly superior detective series. No matter what name she uses, Rowling delivers highly readable novels. Her private investigator, Cormoran Strike, is unique — damaged in heart and body yet determined to move forward. His assistant, Robin Ellacott, is bright and determined to prove herself. It’s a great pairing, and then there’s the excellent mystery.

Why?

The key element of detective series is, of course, the detective. They must be different from the rest of us in some interesting way. What sets Cormoran Strike apart is not just his partial leg prothesis and the limitations and pain it brings, it is the depth that the author has given to his life. He is more knowable, with an extensive and intensive back story. Robin Ellacott, while entirely different on the surface, is just as completely realized.

However, this is a mystery novel, and it is exceptionally successful as such. There are just the right amount of obstacles to overcome and just the right number of colorful suspects, along with a resolution that is completely satisfying and highly unexpected.

I’m sure I’m not alone in looking forward to more Cormoran Strike mysteries in the years ahead. By the way, you don’t need to read The Cuckoo’s Calling first to enjoy this book, but you will enjoy Strike and Robin all the more if you do.

A Little Plot:

Strike agrees to look for Owen Quine, a novelist who has gone missing and not for the first time. However, this time he has just finished a manuscript filled with unpleasant representations of everyone he knows in the publishing world.

There are plenty of people who would like to see him dead. But, who has a mind to murder?

To learn more about Galbraith and Strike, click here.

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Lucky Us

September 2nd, 2014

By Amy Bloom

The Short Take:

This thoroughly enjoyable book centers on family connections built between the most unlikely people. It grabbed me completely on the first page and had me in tears on the last. In between, this story of two half sisters, loosely set around the WWII years, never failed to engage and surprise.

Why?

The question to me is: Why haven’t I read Bloom before? Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always interesting, this novel couldn’t have a more clear-eyed and pragmatic protagonist than Eva, one of the sisters. However, it manages to pull at your heart despite a welcome lack of maudlin sentiment.

Bloom manages to incorporate three first-person accounts without giving her readers a moment of confusion. Eva is the primary voice. Her half sister, Iris, and the German-American, Gus, also have their voices heard through their letters. The result is a richer understanding of the various flaws, hopes, and foibles that make up Bloom’s complex characters.

All in all, a wonderful book.

The Short Take:

Eva’s mom proclaims they are going to visit her father and his other family and promptly leaves the child on that father’s porch. What results is a strange alliance between two half-sisters — Iris always the star, Eva always her supporting cast.

Their eventual  journey together crisscrosses the continent and leads them to new friends and lovers — sometimes of the most unexpected type. Then they are forced apart.

That’s all you’re getting from me. Just read the book. Enjoy. To learn more bout Amy Bloom and her books, click here.

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The Serpent of Venice

August 17th, 2014

By Christopher Moore

The Short Take:

Bawdy and outrageous, this wild romp mashes up The Merchant of Venice and Othello, with a dash of A Cask of Amontillado. Moore is a very naughty boy. But also very funny.

Why?

Who but Moore would dare such shenanigans? Who but Moore would dream of combining two of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays into one highly cheeky and readable satire? Nominally a sequel to Moore’s Fool, where King Lear was the victimized classic, you needn’t have read that book to enjoy this one.

This volume continues the exploits of that eponymous Fool, only now he’s an ambassador to Venice.  You also don’t need more than a vague knowledge of the two Shakespeare plays Moore twisted into the one plot to enjoy this outing. In fact, too much familiarity might confuse you.

There’s plenty of ribald language and sexual innuendo, so don’t go here if you’re easily offended by either foul language or Shakespeare gone wild. However if you’re looking for a good time and a lighter read, this one could be for you.

Like any good satire, there’s also parallels to the present day and the power of the “military-industrial complex,” as Eisenhower warned.

Of course, if you want Moore at his very best, you still can’t beat Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  One of my all-time favorites.

A Little Plot:

Fool is supposed to be the victim of a murder plot — walled up alive (Sound familiar? It should.). Of course, that would make for a very slim book, so he escapes and devotes all his energies to seeking revenge. Along the way, he joins forces (somewhat) with Shylock, who also seeks revenge.

There’s plot twist after plot twist, with plenty of references to codpieces, plus a mysterious sea creature. And, don’t expect Moore to blindly follow Shakespeare. When you combine two plays, things are naturally — deliciously — different.

If you want to know more about Moore, click here.

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The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

July 27th, 2014

By Jonas Jonasson

The Short Take:

A charming, eccentric, and thoroughly implausible tale of an illiterate latrine cleaner in 1960s Soweto whose innate brilliance leads her on an incredible journey. It’s simply loaded with highly enjoyable silliness. You can’t quit turning the pages to see what outrageous turn of events Jonasson will spring on you next.

Why?

What kind of mind builds a book around a poverty stricken child of Soweto, the making of South Africa’s atomic bombs, and a lifelong desire to overthrow the Swedish monarchy? Jonasson. He won me over with The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and is a master of making the utterly outrageous positively delightful. He points out the ridiculousness of serious topics like racism by making you laugh out loud at its absurdities.

That said, if you read his previous novel, you’ll find this one similar in many ways: creating atom bombs, weaving in genuine historical events and people, and introducing an impossible mix of quirky characters. Depending on your point of view, that’s either the good news or the opposite.

Jonasson is the perfect counterweight to the popular dark novels coming out of Scandinavia. As long as he keeps writing like this, I’ll keep right on reading.

 A Little Plot:

Nombeko might be illiterate and orphaned, but she is exceptionally smart and driven. She manages to become a latrine manager at 14. However, being run over on a sidewalk by a drunk driver is all her fault and makes her an indentured servant to an atomic engineer.

Of course, much happens after that. She’ll befriend three Chinese sisters with a talent for making Han forgeries, a pair of Swedish identical twins with the same name but completely different dreams, and the future president of China, among others.

Just relax and read it. It’s good to be happy.

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The Headmaster’s Wife

July 2nd, 2014

By Thomas Christopher Greene

The Short Take:

This well-written book leads you down misleading paths yet ultimately delivers a very well structured and satisfying read.

Why?

This story of love and family is told from different perspectives — thankfully, not mixed together like so many books these days. It’s hard to say much about this novel without ruining the reading experience, so my comments will be exceptionally short.

The story line might upset you at some point. Just trust the author. It’s a beautifully crafted book, inspired by the author’s loss of his own infant daughter, though no infants die in this story. It tells of two lives, how they intertwine and how they unravel.

A Little Plot:

Very, very little in this case: the headmaster of a prestigious prep school becomes obsessed with a student. That’s all you’re getting from me. The author’s website is more forthcoming. Click here to visit. Or just read the book. It’s short. It’s excellent.

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The Son

June 23rd, 2014

By Jo Nesbø

The Short Take:

This terrific mystery/thriller departs from Nesbø’s Harry Hole detective series and is — hard to believe — even better. Taut, suspenseful, but without the repetitive gunfights and car chase scenes so many thrillers rely on. Rewarding to the very last line.

Why?

I have nothing against gun fights or car chases in mystery/thrillers, but they are rather predictable, and certainly relied on heavily. This book is true to the genre but also refreshingly different.

The title character is a young man who has lived in jail for 12 of his 30 years — a strung out junkie with a mystical quality that leads others to tell him secrets and ask forgiveness. When he embarks on a mission of revenge, you don’t know quite what to expect from him. And, he keeps you off balance all the way through.

Nesbø has already made quite a name for himself with his Harry Hole series (despite the unfortunate name). I find these dark police thrillers set in Nesbø’s Norway to be far superior to Stieg Larsson’s “Girl With…” books, though with a similar DNA.

So far I’ve read three Harry Hole novels and enjoyed them all very much. This one was even better. It’s not just about the crimes, it’s about love, forgiveness, and facing dead ends.

A Little Plot:

When Sonny Lofthus’ policeman father committed suicide over his corruption, it sent The Son into a tailspin of self-destruction and incarceration. He’s living only for his next fix when a fellow inmate tells him it wasn’t suicide but murder that took his father away. His father wasn’t corrupt but killed for fighting corruption.

That sets Sonny on a path of revenge; not just for his father but to right other wrongs he has taken the rap for as well.  Chief Inspector Simon Kefas is on his trail. A woman is about to fall in love. Nesbø keeps you guessing right to the very end. Excellent.

For more about Nesbø and his books, click here.

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P.D. James: Mistress of Mystery

June 12th, 2014

Of course she has been inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame! Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James has 20 books to her credit (including one science fiction outing and an autobiography). Beyond that, she writes some of the most intelligent mysteries around.

The poet-policemen, Adam Dalgliesh, who solves most of her mysteries, is unlike any other fictional crime hero. Instead of quirky behavior he brings intense focus to the crimes he solves, acting with British reserve. In addition, her books are beautifully researched — often drawing on her first-hand knowledge of  the police and criminal law from years of working in the British Home Office.

As she entered her 90s, James retired her Dalgliesh series, stating it would be unfair to leave an incomplete manuscript. Instead, she ventured where most would fear to tread: bringing murder and mayhem into the world created by Jane Austen. Death Comes to Pemberly is  joy for both Austen lovers and mystery fans, set six years after the marriage of Mr  Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

I’ve only read a dozen of James’ books so far but will absolutely read the rest. Will Pemberly be her last? I hate to think so, though her website has no hints about future books. James has always been about quality of writing over quantity of output. Her last book shows that when it comes to quality, she still stands head and shoulders above most others. Is she does publish again, I expect nothing but the best. Because that’s what a Hall of Famer delivers.

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