Once Upon a River

January 13th, 2019

By Diane Setterfield

The Short Take:

This absolutely charming book reads like a fairy tale, contains more than one mystery, and is populated by an entertaining cast of unique characters, not least of which is the Thames River. As in Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, what seems magical might not be. That uncertainty is a big part of the attraction. The richly lush prose is another. Read it and enjoy.

Why?

Setterfield’s newest novel flows like the grand river that inspires it: it starts as a trickle of storytelling, creating the atmosphere of a fairy tale. It then floods you with incredible events that impact the lives and emotions of many characters in different and permanent ways. And Setterfield’s powerful writing keeps the story from tumbling into pure fantasy, bringing in the scientific mind of Rita, the local nurse, and the objective eye of the photographer Henry Daunt to counter the wild speculations, blind acceptances, and mercenary schemes of others.

It’s a delicate balance, but Setterfield has proven herself in this arena before and she treads this path with masterful assurance. While you would not necessarily call this a mystery, puzzling situations, people and actions are found at every turn. Along with every reveal comes another uncertainty. The result is a novel that pulls you through with all the irresistibility of a strong river current.

A Little Plot:

At the Swan Inn, where storytelling is a frequent diversion, a dreadfully injured man carrying an apparently dead child bursts in. The child seems to come back to life and three families claim she is someone different: Amelia, Ann, and Alice. Cutting through illusions to get to answers is not easy. And, the more you learn, the more complicated it becomes.

For more about the wonderful book and Dianne Setterfield, click here.

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Fire and Blood

December 26th, 2018

By George R. R. Martin

The Short Take:

If you’re a big fan of either the Game of Thrones televisionseries or the  A Song of Ice and Fire books, you’ll want to read this one. It’s a prequel, written like a history drawn from several sources, one of which is the writings of a bawdy Fool who adds levity and lewdness to the stories of more learned men.

Why?

If you are unfamiliar or not interested in the programs/books mentioned above, stop reading now. You will have absolutely no interest in this volume or the one that is supposed to follow it (more about that later). However, if you can’t enough of the imaginary world of Westeros, this one is for you.

Starting some 300 years before the opening of Game of Thrones, this volume focuses on the first 135 or so years of Targaryen rule of Westeros, including its conquest. There are dragons aplenty, great love, exceptional evil, plots, betrayals, and battles. It all moves along at a nice clip, though occasionally the list of lords involved in some activity–be it attending a coronation or dying in battle–gets a mite tedious.

The biggest treat is that you gain insights to certain things in the books Martin has already written. For example, ever wonder where Daenerys’ dragon eggs  came from? Especially since she’s around more than 100 years after the last dragon lived? Read this and you’ll have a good idea.

When I purchased this book I did feel like I was rewarding Martin for bad behavior. His fans have waited over seven years for the next book in his Westeros series and we are waiting still. Now that the HBO series has passed his written plot point, it looks like Martin has lost interest in completing his series. To that I say, “Boo!” However, I’ll take what I can get, which means I devoured this book like a dragon consuming a freshly charred bull. But he hd better not keep me waiting seven years for the second half of this history.

A Little Plot:

Aegon and his two wives decide to take over Westeros, using both their extensive armies and three fearsome dragons. The dragons do most of the work, burning whole cities that don’t surrender. After that, keeping the lords of Westeros in line is a handful for several succeeding kings in the Targaryen line. But that’s not nearly as much trouble as Targaryen family members fighting each other–with dragons–for the crown.

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Lake Success

November 26th, 2018

By Gary Shteyngart

The Short Take:

Barry, a ridiculously rich hedge fund manager, loses it and strikes out on a cross-country bus trip. However this is no journey of self discovery due to other people and experiences. It’s all about Barry all the time. There’s a lot to be interested in within this satiric novel but it’s not a comfortable read.

Why?

When you measure your actual value by your financial net worth you’re deluding yourself, and Barry is one of the most self-deluded characters to ever inhabit a novel. He lives in a fantasy world only partly made possible by unimaginable wealth. Both his daydreams and interactions with other people are also completely narcissistic and off-kilter. The man doesn’t have a clue but imagines he knows the solution, only to decide that solution is something else entirely when he hits the next bus stop.

Barry’s wife, Seema, has a modicum of self-awareness with a degree of loathing for her husband’s business and how hedge funds have ruined the lives of many Americans. Her focus centers on their young son, recently diagnosed with severe autism, but she also struggles with her own identity.

The 2016 election frames both Barry’s bus trip and Seema’s life in Manhattan. Candidate Trump’s crudities and narcism are paralleled by the novel’s two main characters but also reflected in encounters across the country.

Ultimately this is a book about white male privilege and its inherent advantages, right through to the unsatisfying ending reflects. There are a few pages at the very end that brighten the outlook (for Barry at least), but the rest of the book reflects today’s America too much for comfort. It’s a satire that stings.

While The Great Gatsby is referenced often, Bonfire of the Vanities is the more appropriate comparison. And Tom Wolfe did a better job.

A Little Plot:

After a disastrous dinner party Barry tries to force his silent, autistic son to speak. When his wife and nanny intervene he grabs some of his favorite watches (there’s a lot about watches in this book) and heads for the Greyhound station intending to find his college sweetheart. To evade his efficient chief-of-staff he dumps his created cards and cell phone. And, off he goes.

For more about the author and this book click here.

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She Would Be King

November 13th, 2018

By Wayetu Moore

The Short Take:

This exceptional debut novel crafts a creation mythology for the country of Liberia that puts Rome’s Romulus and Remus in the shade. Some might call it magical realism, but it’s far more than that.

Why?

This intense book follows four characters who suffer great loss and pain — either as slaves or as a victim of harsh superstition in a West African village. Yet these four all also each have a supernatural power — a power that relates directly to their suffering.

The focus is Liberia, once called Monrovia, a settlement on Africa’s west coast founded by abolitionists and others for slaves and free blacks. Moore’s reimagined origin story for this country not only reveals the flaws in the original settler’s idealism, it also showcases the exceptional strengths needed for an independent African nation to survive in the late 19th century: hidden power, continual rebirth, extreme resilience.

Moore’s tale portrays the coming together of resettled African Americans and the area’s indigenous tribes in a way that was sadly lacking in actual history. If only her version were true. It’s certainly an exceptional read.

A Little Plot:

Gbessa, born on a cursed day, is spurned by her tribe and marked for death. June Dey, born of a spirit, is a slave of suspicious origin. Jamaican Maroon Norman, born of a white researcher and black slave, finds himself the subject of prejudiced research. All need each other, as well as their spirit mother, to bring Liberia into it’s ideal existence.

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

October 30th, 2018

By Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Short Take:

While mermaids loom large in this historical fiction, it’s Gowar’s portrayal of the inequalities and restraints in 18th center London that forms the backbone of this fascinating novel. Her female characters use every means at their disposal to survive in a society which gives them few options.

Why?

Even though I heard this debut novel had a satisfying ending, I didn’t believe it until it happened. I truly worried about the main characters, despite the fact they only exist between the book’s covers. That’s a tribute to Gowan’s ability to make individuals totally outside your ken so keenly alive.

Her writing style delights, too. Conversations become games of conquest with multiple layers of meaning and partially hidden put downs, reminiscent of the verbal sparring in Austen’s books. The author also incorporates common terms for the era, which added to the realism: a madam became a bawd, a courtesan’s vagina became her commodity.

The book highlights the plight of urban women. If you can’t marry, there’s not much else open to you. Again and again the reader encounters women on the street, competing for men’s attention and a few pennies. While the prostitutes in the finer brothels are well mannered and elegant, they’re still whores with few prospects.

The central character, Angelica Neal, left one of those brothels to become a kept mistress. Unfortunately her protector died, which leaves her scrambling for financial security. Though a well-known beauty, her past narrows her future opportunities. However, as a friend observes, marriage for money still make you a whore.

That is the challenge Gowar’s women face.

Meanwhile, her main male character, Mr. Hancock, leads a life of boring respectability and soul-crushing blandness. He has financial well being but intense loneliness and a feeling that barely out of reach is the life he should be leading, where the son who died at childbirth still thrives.

These two should never meet, but a mermaid brings them together. Another starts to tear them apart.

A Little Plot:

Through no desire of his own, widower merchant Mr. Hancock comes into possession of a dead mermaid that appears to be genuine. He displays it with rewarding financial returns, which also attracts the attention of a notorious madam who wishes to rent it for a lavish spectacle. It’s here he becomes enamored with the beautiful, self-centered Angelica Neal.

For more about the author and her novel, click here.

 

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Things Fall Apart

October 9th, 2018

By Chinua Achebe

The Short Take:

Now 60 years old, this book has lost none of its exceptional power. It’s the first in Achebe’s African Trilogy, and I will be reading the other two. The two interrelated stories of this novel center on Okonkwo, an Ibo leader who values strength above all else. No wonder this book is often a required read for school kids. However, I wonder if they have the life experience to fully understand what they are reading.

Why?

At barely 200 pages (in trade paper), this novel is a quick read but it is stuffed with important world themes: the relationship (or lack there of) between fathers and sons, the role of women in society, the rise and fall of power, the community versus the individual.

Of course the biggest theme of all is the impact of European colonialism on countries like Nigeria and how that destroyed native cultures. While most missionaries were well intentioned, the chaos they created has repercussions that are still felt more than a century later.

However, it’s the story, the characters, and the cultural details in Things Fall Apart that keep you turning the pages in eager anticipation (or dread). My bookclub doesn’t know it yet, but I’m picking this one when it’s my turn again.

A Little Plot:

Ibo is determined not to be like his lazy, ineffective father. He achieves the success he craves, but at a cost.

The second half of the book deals with the impact Christian missionaries have on Ibo, his family, and his community.

The late Chinua Achebe has no website but there is plenty of information about him and his work online.

 

 

 

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Ohio

October 4th, 2018

By  Stephen Markley

The Short Take:

This bleak book about a group of broken people in a dying Midwestern town fell too close to reality for me. The writing and story telling were both exceptional. That’s probably why it left me feeling so hopeless.

Why?

Markley’s novel follows a handful of “friends,” jumping between past and present (2013, to be exact) to reveal the actions and interactions that warped them as teens and damaged their futures. It’s powerful from start to finish, artfully connecting the dots between random events until you reach the devastating conclusion.

The Great Recession, America’s military responses to 9/11 (two main characters go to battle), the growth of meth and opioid addition, political gridlock, and social malaise: this is the world these characters grew up in, along with the sometimes stifling influences of living in a small town. Whether these characters pursued goals one considers liberal or conservative, disillusionment was the result.

However, there’s also a mystery here. And, Markey does a darn good job of keeping you in the dark until the shocking revelation.

It’s an excellent book, but not for everyone.

A Little Plot:

The small Ohio town of New Canaan holds a parade for a former star athlete who died in Iraq. Their is no body in the coffin and the high school friends in attendance have few lasting bonds to the dead boy or each other, despite their shared history.

For more about Stephen Markey and his book, click here.

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The Third Hotel

September 9th, 2018

By Laura van den Berg

The Short Take:

I didn’t love this book, which says more about me than its worthy qualities. It’s a disorienting, nightmare take on grief and insularity. It also includes myriad descriptive jewels — mainly about Havana and other places in Cuba. These alone are worth making the 209-page journey. But expect to feel off kilter while reading this story. As promised, it takes away your “inner compass.”

Why?

The author makes it clear this is a ghost story, but I kept resisting her hints and pushing for a spy thriller. Ultimately I acquiesced and that was when I began to more fully appreciate the plot as well as the fantastic writing. And the writing is fantastic. The continual detailed observations of other people, buildings old and new, even the colors of the ocean give this novel a solid sense of time and place even though the protagonist’s perceptions of the big picture are anything but solid. If this sounds weird, it’s still accurate. The author’s whole point is to explore how the ultimate isolation of the individual and the pain of great loss create a whole new way of looking at things, both internally and externally.

I was impressed with the huge list of resource material the author consulted dealing with horror films, particularly Cuban horror films. However, don’t expect bloody messes. Laura van den Berg’s writing is closer to the non-violent horror of Hitchcock’s films, only her dizzying Dutch angles and other camera tricks are performed with words.

In fact, as I write this piece, I realize I actually liked this book quite a bit. It just took me finishing it to realize that. Heh heh.

A Little Plot:

Clare goes to a Havana horror film festival her recently deceased husband intended for them both to attend. She spots a person that looks just like him and begins a pursuit.

For more about Laura van den Berg and her books, click here.

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American Gods

August 28th, 2018

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

Almost 20 years ago Gaiman wrote this fascinating novel that is part American travelogue, part mythology mash up, part a commentary on modern life. It’s every bit as relevant today and every bit as fun to read.

Why?

To call Gaiman’s books fantasies is to sell them short. To say they are dark ignores the sly humor. To say they are exceptional reads is accurate to a fault — exceptional in every sense of the word.

The American gods of the title encompass both the old ones, brought to this country by various immigrant groups, from First Peoples onward, to the new gods: technology, media, cars, etc. (humanized, of course). There’s animosity between the two sides and caught in the middle is the ex-convict, Shadow. Shadow himself seems almost godlike. He fancies coin tricks and continually stumbles onto the right action to take or thing to say. However, why he’s involved is a mystery to himself and the reader.

It’s a suspenseful read, alternately thoughtful, humorous, and horrifying. What I particularly enjoyed was trying to guess who the various gods were as they appeared throughout the book. Many were totally unknown to me, which sent me to Google quite a bit. If you want a short-cut to that information, simply consult Wikipedia.

A Little Plot:

Shadow is abruptly released from prison when his wife dies. Headed home, he can’t shake a Mr. Wednesday who insists on employing him. It takes him awhile but Shadow realizes this man is a reduced version of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. He accepts employment only to be warned rough times are coming. And they do.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his books, click here.

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Circe

August 7th, 2018

By Madeline Miller

The Short Take:

Unloved by her family and unaware of her latent powers, the nymph Circe stubbornly perseveres in her quest for personal meaning. While her journey in this novel is drawn from mythology, modern women can easily relate to her challenges and victories.

Why?

Miller’s novel about the Greek nymph Circe includes elements from Greek, Roman, and Medieval literature as well as a generous helping of her own imagination. She turns a minor goddess, largely associated with seduction and witchcraft, into a fully-formed woman who rebels against the restrictions placed on her and plots her own life course.

In the course of her story you encounter the Minotaur, Medea, Daedalus and Icarus, the monster Scylla, and various gods. But it is her growth as both a witch and a woman that keeps you engrossed and ready to read more. She commits some horrible acts and is riddled with self loathing, but always strives to improve herself and protect those she loves.

It’s a great read for anyone. If you have any interest in Greek mythology, it’s a must read.

A Little Plot:

Circe is the daughter of a powerful Titan but is mistreated by her family and ignored by the rest of the immortals. She meets a human she grows to love and her desire to be with him leads her to discover her witchcraft abilities.

For more about the author and her other works, click here.

 

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