Time Song: Journeys in Search of a Submerged Land.

October 14th, 2019

By Julia Blackburn

The Short Take:

I expected something far different from this lyrical exploration of the lost land that once connected England with the rest of Europe. Blackburn chose to reveal her findings as a personal journey, connected to her recent bereavement.

Why?

I anticipated a factual (and conjectural) non-fiction work about Doggerland and the people who lived there. Beneath the North Sea for the last 8000 or so years, this former land bridge once was home to a variety of animals, plants, and a thriving population of early man.

Blackburn’s book covers that material but in a more abstract and personal way. This included scratchy art by a friend of hers and narrative poems she called Time Songs. Strangely, the poems provided more concrete facts than the prose.

In disappointment, I put this book aside. But after a week or so I went back with a mindset open to her journey and her musings about time. Then I enjoyed it much more.

Blackburn ventures out with various experts who explain different aspects of the Doggerville inhabitants. She also joins others to explore the coast lines of eastern England and western Netherlands and Denmark. This series of nature hikes made me want to visit this area (I would love to go fossil hunting) but it was a piecemeal way to present the material. Still, it had a certain charm, especially when tied in with her thoughts on the vastness of time and the shortness of life.

Both the title and book cover for the USA are different those in her native England. I think both suffered with the change, especially since she mentions the English cover in the text (the title was originally Time Song: Searching for Doggerland). Oh, well.

A Little Plot:

There really isn’t one. Blackburn walks with knowledgeable individuals, sometimes picking up fossils, sometimes talking about what used to be.

For more about Julia Blackburn (and to see the proper cover) click here.

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Old Bones

September 28th, 2019

By Preston Douglas and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Preston/Child are my favorite thriller writers. This novel begins a spin off series to feature archeologist Nora Kelly (though I thought it was launching a spin-off for FBI Special Agent Corrie Swanson while reading). The search for a lost camp of the ill-fated Donner Party drives the action.

Why?

This is no Agent Pendergast thriller–Douglas and Child’s highly successful (and highly readable) series but a new beginning featuring a familiar, recurring character. Preston Douglas is very into archeology and has written nonfiction in that area. I can’t blame him for putting that expertise to use in a new series but Nora Kelly is too– well–normal. She does things by the book and, as any archeologist will tell you, archeology field work is a slow, tedious process. Even several murders didn’t perk the action up enough.

Agent Corrie Swanson, another character from the Pendergast series who also appeared here, is a different matter entirely. She’s young, pugnacious, driven, intuitive, and a bit reckless. In other words, she’s interesting. Her first appearance in the original series was in the pages of Still Life with Crows, the book that initially got me hooked and is still one of my favorites.

The information on the actual Donner Party is interesting, though also horrific. The authors only made a few tweaks to that reality to make the typical thriller trope work (two parties want the same thing, one is ruthless and evil, the other is the protagonist).

It’s decent escapism fare, but I sure wish this duo would go for the dynamic Swanson over the staid Kelly.

A Little Plot:

Clive Benton tells archeologist Nora Kelly he knows where a lost camp of the Donner Party is and wants her to supervise the dig. Oh, and there might be a chest of gold.

Meanwhile, Agent Corrie Swanson is investigating murders where the upper part of the body is missing. And she thinks Kelly’s dig might be connected.

For more about these prolific authors click here.

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The Satanic Verses

September 13th, 2019

By Salman Rushdie

The Short Take:

WOW! What an epic journey this is. Rushdie’s most controversial novel is a masterpiece of wit wrapped around observations on the contradictions in life, alongside scrutiny of modern culture, colonialism, racism, Islam, and the nature (maybe) of good and evil.

Why?

This book is so rich and nuanced it defies easy description. Plus, I suspect some things whooshed by my limited comprehension. The action begins with a bang thousands of feet in the air, moves between India and England, and journeys through time into the world of faith. It is remarkable.

Rushdie earned a fatwa (rescinded in 1998) as well as literary accolades when this book came out. I wondered where the offense lay (or if I would even recognize it), but it’s right there in the title. Historically there is strong evidence Mohammed did make a pronouncement (satanic verses) allowing three female sub-gods, which he quickly retracted–saying it came from Satan instead of his usual spiritual contact, the archangel Gabriel. That first, mistaken pronouncement is now thoroughly denied.

Rushdie weaves that contradiction throughout this work, especially with his two main characters: Gabriel Farishta, a famous Indian actor who plays many characters drawn from the Hindu religion, becomes the personification of good. And, Saladin Chamcha, a thoroughly Anglicized voice-over actor who can’t get on-screen roles due his ethnic looks, turns into both a literal and figurative devil.

But that’s just part of the story. Gabreel’s dreams wind around the formation of a religion roughly like Islam as well as an ill-fated pilgrimage to Mecca led by a butterfly-clad woman. He also pursues with passion the icy Allelulia Crone. Saladin is arrested as an illegal immigrant, horribly abused, and finds his wife is heavily involved with another man before he turns into a giant, horned devil.

Sub plots and a host of intriguing characters enrich this novel even further. This is not one to rush through. It should be savored. Probably repeatedly.

A Little Plot:

Gabriel and Saladin are the only survivors of an airplane bomb, gripping each other as they fall thousands of feet into the English Channel–and live. Their subsequent lives take very different paths but their destinies remains intertwined.

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House of Salt and Sorrows

September 4th, 2019

By Erin A. Craig

The Short Take:

Inspired by the Grimm fairytale about 12 dancing princesses, this novel starts like a Disney movie but evolves into a Stephen King horror story.

Why?

Since this book begins with the burial service for the fourth of 12 sisters to unexpectedly die, you have a pretty good idea bad things are in store. However the descriptions of the locations, clothing, and various incidentals dazzle in their sumptuous, other-worldly beauty and beguile you into dreamland. Then that same level of graphic detail begins to describe the horrific dreams and hallucinations haunting the protagonist, now-second-oldest daughter Annaleigh.

In fact, the descriptive quality of this debut novel (aimed primarily at young adults) is its strongest point. Other factors seem underdeveloped: Important characters change their attitudes for no discernible reason. The plot, while appropriately full of surprises, seems muddled and hole-ridden.

Of course, when you’re writing about magical happenings you can get away with a lot. But I did find myself going “Really?” more than once.

A Little Plot:

Eight surviving sisters, along with their father and stepmother, have stayed in mourning far too long. The discovery of a secret door allows the girls to exchange their somber clothes for party wear as every night they escape to a different celebration.

For more about Craig click here.

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Early Work

August 26th, 2019

By Andrew Martin

The Short Take:

This slim novel focused on millennial would-be-writers doesn’t paint a flattering picture. Between the drugs, drinking, and cheating not a lot of writing happens. However, Martin’s succinct prose and clear-eyed portrayal of his characters, their inner confusion, self-absorption, and various foibles carries you through.

Why?

It’s a feisty little book populated by people who haven’t fully gotten on with their lives. They’re still in grad school, or medical studies, or struggling with that first book. They live in a bubble of white privilege that ignores the outside world but rejoices in inside jokes and great literature: the names of literary stars pepper everything.

The primary story builds around Peter, a would-be writer who lives with a driven and gifted medical resident, Julia. Her stability would seem the perfect anchor to compensate for his lack of direction and industry. However he becomes attracted to the wild Leslie, also a writer, whose behavior edges into the self-destructive zone.

Most of the book represents Peter’s point-of-view. He has a lot of opinions but no serious commitment to any of them. He feels he deserves complete fulfillment but doesn’t really know what that means.

I realize I’m making this book sound awful. It’s not. The characters are frustrating, but they’re “that age,” with the (often family supplied) financial security to explore options and take risks beyond most people’s dreams.

This book isn’t for everyone, but it’s good.

A Little Plot:

Peter is perfectly content in his five-year live-in relationship with Julia but when he meets the visiting Leslie he feels a sexual connection that intrigues him. Since all he does is teach a composition class at a woman’s college and walk his dog, he has plenty of time to see where this goes. And, he does.

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree

August 10th, 2019

By Ingrid Rojas Contreras

The Short Take:

Danger lurked everywhere in Columbia during the Escobar era. Contreras draws from her own childhood experiences to weave a powerful tale of two girls: the pampered Chula and the family’s maid, Petrona, who comes from a guerrilla occupied slum. It’s an incredible, eye-opening debut novel that gives insights into today’s immigrants, too.

Why?

Merely looking in the wrong direction could lead to kidnapping or death in Columbia when narco-king Pablo Escobar ruled. The wealthy hide in walled communities. The poor scratch out a miserable existence in crowded slums, where various guerilla groups recruit and kill at will.

Seven-year-old Chula and her sister live in comfort, though any venture beyond their walls is fraught with danger. Even from their window they can see smoke from bombings. Their 13-year-old maid, who must work to feed her family, fears for their own future in the slums.

These two stories intertwine in a masterpiece that brings all the contradictions, terror, and violence of the Escobar years to stunning life. Gut-wrenching events, frightening news reports, and impossible choices impact both girls. While there are light-hearted moments as well, the second half of the book is a rollercoaster of drama. You wish it were all made up. Unfortunately, for thousands that is not the case. Escobar is dead, but new narco-kings exist.

A Little Plot:

Chula is fascinated by their new young maid, who seldom speaks and moves so carefully. Petrona has learned that to survive she must be as invisible as possible Yet even that is not enough to protect her. Nor do the walls surrounding Chula’s family protect them.

For more about Ingrid Rojas Contreras click here.

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The Darwin Affair

July 29th, 2019

By Tim Mason

The Short Take:

This audacious historical fiction thriller (set in 1860) doesn’t limit itself to “cameos” by real, famous people, they are also among the lead characters–both good and bad. Rather cheeky, but I loved it.

Why?

As someone who has read many non-fiction books about evolution and natural history, the title alone sold me. However, it proved to be a rollercoaster of a thriller–enjoyable in every aspect.

But Darwin is just the beginning of historical figures in this thriller, which includes the prime investigator. After several characters refer to Inspector Charles Fields, the main protagonist, as “Mr. Bucket” I had to investigate. A quick google and I learned Charles Fields was very real, and Dickens wrote about him! He was also the inspiration for Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

As the story progressed, other prominent people of Victorian times show up: Sir Richard Owen (bad guy), Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (not a good guy), and Prince Albert (good guy) are three historical figures with major roles. Of course, where there’s Albert, you must find Queen Victoria. Thomas Huxley, Charles Dickens, and Karl Marx also appeared.

While you often encounter historical fiction where dialogue and minor actions are attributed to known people, it’s unusual to read a book where famous figures are central to a murder conspiracy that is complete fiction. It’s a bold decision and a tasty one.

Of course, there are fictional characters as well, including the horrific bad guy Decimus Cobb (sporting a name Dickens would approve of) who is as ghastly as he is tenacious and skillful.

It all amounts to a fantastic read, with a plot that revolves around Prince Albert, Darwin, and the newly published Origin of the Species. Candy for me. How about you?

A Little Plot:

Charles Fields is helping to guard the carriage carrying the queen and her consort when a known ruffian raises his hand. Is it a gun? Fields reacts immediately, collaring the man but realizes it was a ruse and dashes off to protect Victoria and Albert. When the real would-be-assassin is apprehended he returns to the decoy only to discover the man’s throat has been slit and one ear surgically removed.

A few questions to bystanders and Fields believes he has stumbled upon a conspiracy that might reach into Buckingham Palace itself, but the rich and mighty are determined to stop his inquiries.

This is Mason’s first adult novel but he has written many plays. For more information about him and his works, click here.

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Heroes

July 13th, 2019

By Stephen Fry

The Short Take:

Fry gives the adventures of legendary Greek heroes like Theseus and Heracles a fresh retelling, losing none of the information but adding in delightful asides and cultural references. Their quests and feats leave modern superheroes behind. After all, they had to deal with vengeful gods as well as monsters and impossible demands.

Why?

As a child I loved Greek mythology but the kid-friendly versions I read were not nearly as Game-of-Thrones-ish (and more) as Fry’s retelling. His faithful (in content) retellings include the flaws and sometimes shocking details. What’s more, you realize just how rip-roaring these ancient tales are.

Fry’s modern language style gives you all the details but in a much more engaging fashion. His copious footnotes bring extra texture to these grand stories, stitching the legends of old to current events and locations.

In addition to the heroes mentioned above you’ll find Jason, Orpheus, Atlanta, Perseus, and more. Plus all the sidekicks, interfering gods, myriad monsters, and minor players (who often have major impact). It’s a terrific read that now has a permanent place on my bookcase.

A Little Plot:

Regardless of the hero you can bet someone sets him (usually a male) an impossible task in hopes he dies first. Don’t expect that to happen. But there’s usually tragedy at some point.

For more about Stephen Fry and his work (which includes much that is quite funny) click here.

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The Sentence is Death

June 29th, 2019

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz follows up his first meta murder mystery with a worthy sequel. Once again he (Horowitz) is the narrator, filling the role of a willing-scribe Watson to the Sherlock of ill-mannered PI Daniel Hawthorne. This time it’s the murder of a divorce lawyer they’re investigating, with a generous cast of suspects.

Why?

If you’re familiar with the BBC series Foyle’s War, Injustice, or Midsomer Murders (early episodes on the last one) you know this man writes a good mystery (and they’re merely the tip of his prodigious output). In this delightful followup to his last mystery, Horowitz again inserts himself as himself (at the time he was writing for Foyle’s War) alongside a completely fabricated murder tale.

As before, Horowitz is expected to follow a murder case (to be) solved by Hawthorne and turn it into a novel. Once again, Hawthorne keeps his distance emotionally and refuses to share anything about his past. So you get the mystery of Hawthorne alongside the murdered lawyer.

Horowitz offers breezy prose with a generous helping of wit and humor. Plus, the mystery is challenging enough that you’re unlikely to guess the murderer, even though Horowitz plays fair and does not hide any of the clues. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these first two books. In The Sentence is Death, Horowitz states his deal with Hawthorne is a three book contract. Here’s hoping that is true in real life, too.

A Little Plot:

Divorce Lawyer Richard Pryce is found dead, killed with a bottle of highly expensive wine (and not solely by a bonk on the head). The chief suspect is a literary, snobby writer recently humiliated in a nasty divorce case ( her victorious husband was Pryce’s client).

There are a lot of other secrets woven through the plot besides whodunit, by the way.

For more about Horowitz and his many works, click here.

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Washington Black

June 17th, 2019

By Esi Edugyan

The Short Take:

Excellent story about a child field slave who is chosen as the manservant of an eccentric naturalist and inventor, and the adventures that ensue. At times disturbingly brutal, it’s also filled with great wonder.

Why?

Life that begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados is bound to be laden with pain, humiliation, and fear. Eleven-year-old George Washington Black, called Wash, knows this well. His only refugee is Big Kit, a large, fierce woman whose protection comes with its own set of risks.

Wash is a brilliantly drawn character and his evolution over the course of Edugyan’s novel is full of thoughtful evaluations of his surroundings, exceptional understanding of others, and growing self-awareness. His transformative journey begins when he becomes the manservant of the plantation owner’s brother, Christopher Wilde. Wilde treats him more as an assistant and servant than as a slave; and their relationship continues to evolve.

When a tragedy strikes that could end Wash’s life, Wilde initiates an escape that sends them on a remarkable journey which includes stark arctic wilderness and Moroccan deserts. However, don’t be misled by the cover art. This no Around the World in 80 Days.

Despite all the unexpected opportunities that come Wash’s way, fear of recapture is never far away. Even as he strives for true freedom, he recognizes that as a black man his world will always be limited, his talents largely unrecognized. All Edugyan’s prose sings, but in Wash she has created a soul that sings as well.

A Little Plot:

Young Wash Black is made the manservant of Christopher Wilde. When Wilde discovers Wash’s artistic talent, he becomes much more and his universe begins to change and expand, not unlike a hot air balloon.

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