The Left Hand of Darkness

May 15th, 2019

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Short Take:

I’ve been slowly working through Le Guin’s Hainish novels. I’ve enjoyed them all but this one wowed me. It won the Hugo and Nebulla awards (the former selected by fans, the latter by fellow sci fi writers) when it came out in 1969 but seems very relevant today.

Why?

With so much discussion (and some confusion) about gender identity today this book could open eyes and minds, even though it is not about the LGBTQ community. Le Guin has been quoted as saying she deliberately eliminated gender in this novel to see what was left.

The inhabitants of the planet Gethan are androgynous except for a short monthly period they refer to as kemmer. At that point they take on either male or female characteristics (which can change each time) to allow mating. The rest of the time they care nothing about sex.

An earthling Envoy, sent to invite Gethen into the 83 planet Ekumen coalition, has never encountered anything similar anywhere. On the other hand, the Gethans think someone in kemmer all the time is a pervert. Children are raised by whoever births them (which can change, too) so career and life opportunities are truly equal for all.

It takes a close friendship between on Gethan and the Envoy to frankly address their differences. Their discussions and growing understanding of each other are reason enough to read this book. The Envoy, in particular, realizes how having males and females has shaped many of his perceptions — perceptions he now rethinks.

There’s also vast richness in the book’s portrayal of vastly different communications styles, and the presentation of some thought-provoking religious ideas,

In addition it’s a great story, with political intrigues (and very different governments) in two countries, great danger for several characters, and a desperate and terrifying plan for escape.

A Little Plot:

Envoy Genly Ai is on Gethan alone, to invite its people to join an interplanetary organization His biggest champion is Estraven. Ai is anticipating a positive audience with the ruler of the country of Karhide when Estraven is denounced as a traitor and threatened with death. This could mean death for Ai as well.

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A Clockwork Orange

May 8th, 2019

By Anthony Burgess

The Short Take:

I initially chose to read this to see how it differed from the Stanley Kubrick movie, anticipating making only a short entry under What Else I’m Reading. As I got into it, I realized how powerful this book was and wanted to share more.

Why?

Two warnings: 1) Expect lots of graphic violence and sex. 2) Expect a lot of invented slang, much with Russian influence. However, due to #2, the impact of #1 is diminished somewhat. For the first 20 or so pages I often referred to the handy glossary of nadsat (teenage) language for interpretation but after a bit I could read normally as it’s mainly the same words.

This is fundamentally a story about good and evil and the importance of choice. It’s also about political manipulation, urban decay, and an accepted culture of violence. Set in a near-future (for 1963), dystopian England, the world of our youthful narrator, Alex, and his droogs (friends) is dreary at every level. Regular people stay behind locked doors at night, while teen gangs prowl and prey on anyone who catches their fancy.

Alex describes a couple of their days of ultra-violence and other activities before the plot really kicks in and the tables are turned. Then turned again. It’s strong stuff, but Alex’s musings on good and bad are provocative.

A Little Plot:

Alex happily considers himself the leader of his little band of violent thugs but when he oversteps, his droogs turn on him. Prison looks to be his future, but there is an alternative.

Anthony Burgess has long since left us but his story is interesting. If you want to know more click here.

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Supermarket

April 30th, 2019

By Bobby Hall

The Short Take:

Hall is imaginative and the story line of this novel about a would-be-writer working in a grocery story is fresh, but the writing of this psychological thriller felt like a first draft.

Why?

I was attracted to this book by its cover, which reminded me of my old paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye, with its yellow type of a plain red background. Plus it was a debut novel and I liked the premise. I can’t say I hated this novel because I did enjoy the story arc and the ideas behind it. However, the writing lacked any kind of polish.

Before reading, I did not know Bobby Hall is also a rapper who goes by the name Logic. I listened to some of his numbers online and he certainly can write tighter, better prose. I have to wonder why his editor and publisher didn’t work to refine this work. Perhaps they figured purchases by his music fans alone would take care of their bottom line? If so, they did him a great disservice in the name of financial gain.

In his acknowledgements he admits to having a short spurt of binge reading and then deciding to write a novel. He was gently advised he couldn’t do it. I can’t agree with that assessment but a little more work and care would have elevated this novel substantially.

A Little Plot:

Slacker writer Flynn is deeply depressed after a big breakup and is living at home. Miraculously he gets a huge publishing offer for a novel that takes place in a supermarket, so he gets a job in a supermarket for material.

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The Clockmaker’s Daughter

April 5th, 2019

By Kate Morton

The Short Take:

This mystery wrapped in a ghost story has all the right elements: overcoming adversity, false love, true love, tragedy, lost treasure. While there are quite a number of important characters and the story hops through times from 1862 to the present, Morton pulls it all together.

Why?

Morton’s charming language and fresh choices in verbs and adjectives make her novels a delight to read. However, the many characters and time settings of this particular novel almost had me pulling out the red yarn and pinning connections. I rather wished she’d eased up on the complexity of her story; with fewer characters I could get to know the remaining ones much better, and I did want to know them. They deserved the attention.

The point in common for every one and every time within this novel is a charming house on the upper Thames River called Birchwood Manor. An artists retreat, a school for young girls, refuge for a young family during World War II, inspiration for a haunted man, and site of a continuing mystery–it plays many roles but feels like “home” to all it serves.

The chance discovery of an artist’s satchel is the impetus driving all that follows, with many flashbacks to events that took place far in the past as well as things still happening at Birchwood Manor. The items in that satchel, as well as the bag itself, connect to different stories in Birchwood Manor’s history.

Morton is a skillful storyteller. In lessor hands this could be a real mess. However, I think it would have been much better if she’d narrowed her focus.

A Little Plot:

Professional archivist Elodie is handed a satchel that has been lost for more than 150 years. One of its contents is an artist’s sketchbook with a drawing of a house that looks exactly like the one her mother described in her fairy tales. The coincidence, and Elodie’s strong sense of familiarity with the place, sends her on a search. As we go with her, Morton reveals the house’s past through its inhabitants, including its ghost.

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Ten Caesars

March 26th, 2019

By Barry Strauss

The Short Take:

Strauss provides a concise look at the rise, rule, and fall of ten of Rome’s most important emperors. Since he devotes roughly 30 pages to each, it’s little more than a thumbnail sketch which might be perfect, or not.

Why?

I did learn a fair amount from this book, and also learned some of what I thought I knew was incorrect (I’m talking about you, Robert Graves’ of I, Claudius.). But ultimately I was disappointed by the shortness of the entries. I wanted more.

Strauss certainly makes his subjects approachable. His language is casual and contemporary, not at all what I’m used to in a history. It’s not often you find a pop cultural reference in serious books, but there was Game of Thrones cited to describe a battle between several would-be-Caesars.

The emperors covered include Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan. Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine. Some were little more than names to me before reading this–especially Trajan and Hadrian, whose names are attached to ruins/structures I’ve seen. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, I was ashamed that I had never even heard of his Meditations, which (Strauss claims) is the second most read book in the world after the New Testament. Of course, it’s now on my ever-growing “must read” list.

I did appreciate that he made a strong effort to include the women who propelled, advised, and influenced his emperors. Reading about the mothers, wives and other women around these powerful men helped to shape your understanding of them.

However, the greatest enlightenment for me came from how he portrayed the Roman people. I understand their philosophies, values, and other attributes far better than before. That was the best thing of all.

A Little Plot:

It starts with Augustus and ends with Constantine. However, Strauss also provides some connecting information to help with the gaps that occur between certain Caesars. That helps one’s understanding of how and why different ones came to power.

For more about Barry Strauss and his books, click here.

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The Malta Exchange

March 19th, 2019

By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

I enjoy thrillers and Steve Berry has been a long time favorite, but not this time. The “twist” was obvious from early on in this story of intrigue involving the Knights of Malta and the election of a new pope.

Why?

Berry started his series featuring former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone with a terrific thriller built around the Knights Templar. For his 14th book in the series he returned to one of those religious/martial groups: The Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta (depending on the century). I had high hopes due to the subject matter, but this series has gone stale.

This seems to be a recurring problem for thriller writers. It’s not that Berry isn’t finding new historical “secrets” or theories to exploit in his books, but the increasing weight of the main characters relationships and backstories simply drags things down. I had high hopes Berry was going to start a new series with The Columbus Affair, which starred an interesting investigative journalist, but that turned out to be a single outing.

Sadly, this book was so disappointing it will probably be the last one of his I read.

A Little Plot:

A cardinal with popish ambitions is given information that could make his dreams come true. However, American and British operatives are paying close attention and are suspicious of his actions.

For more about Steve Berry and his books, click here.

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This Good Earth

March 7th, 2019

By Pearl S. Buck

The Short Take:

A cherished classic since its publication, Buck’s portrayal of rural life in early 19th century China is still highly readable and inspiring. Though the cycle of success and catastrophe occasionally feels predictable, isn’t that what life is? A series of ups and downs often driven by unfortunate behavior?

Why?

Buck’s book is credited with demythologizing Chinese culture, making it easier for Americas to accept them as allies during WWII. It certainly appeals to our domestic sensibilities: hard work pays off and hubris leads to disappointment. Beyond that, the characters are engaging, particularly Wang Lung, the poverty-stricken farmer who cares deeply for the land he tends.

The novel follows his life is followed from his wedding day to the day of his death, with incredible setbacks along the way. Yet Wang’s spirit and his love of his good earth never falter.  On the other hand, with our modern attitudes, his relationship with his wife, a former slave, takes some getting used to. He doesn’t really see her as a human being and is truly surprised when she occasionally behaves like one instead of a downtrodden servant.

A devious uncle, an opportunistic madam named Cuckoo, and other characters add lively notes to this novel, taking it well beyond a book about the weather-related trials of farming. It’s an easy and interesting read, opening a window on an earlier time as seen through the eyes of Buck, an American who lived and loved that land–just like Wang.

The Short Take:

Wang is exuberant about gaining a wife, a slave from the great house of a wealthy family. However, claiming her is a humiliating experience. Nevertheless, he is content because now he has someone to take care of all the household chores so he can focus on farming, and hopefully earn enough silver to buy more land to farm.

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Lethal White

February 20th, 2019

By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Yet another enjoyable entry in the Comoran Strike detective series, with so many worthy suspects you’ll keep changing your mind about whodunit. Overlapping plots and schemes add a welcome complexity to the traditional detective genre. The continuing saga of the relationship (or lack thereof) between Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott is a nice touch as well.

Why?

J. K. Rowling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, continues this highly readable detective series with style and panache. She portrays Cormoran Strike as a burly, scowling, aloof man in near constant pain due to the pressures of his prosthetic leg. Yet his underlying humanity comes through loud and clear, endearing him to readers as well as various ladies in the series. Robin Ellacott is an equally interesting character, with natural detecting instincts but a lack of experience that sometimes gets her into trouble.

By setting this mystery in the middle of London’s hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics, Rowling/Galbraith also gets to involve radical left and anarchist characters as a contrast to the government ministers planning the big event while also scheming against each other. It’s a big cast and you can almost imagine the multiple lengths of red yarn connecting them all on a complicated investigation board. There’s a lot to keep straight but this mystery is worth the effort.

A Little Plot:

Billy, an obviously mentally disturbed young man, bursts into Strike’s office insisting that as a child he saw a murder. Almost immediately Strike is asked to stop both a blackmailer and a rival politician from attacking Jasper Chiswell, the Minister of Culture and a Member of Parliament. In a coincidence worthy of Dickens, these two cases have a connection.

For more about Robert Galbraith and her/his books, click here.

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Verses for the Dead

January 31st, 2019

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Preston and Child are back on track, returning to bizarre murder cases that require the unique mind and methods of FBI Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast. It’s their best book in quite a while, as strange and twisty as you could want.

Why?

For some time now Preston and Child’s excellent Pendergast character has been mired in affairs related to his convoluted–and often dangerous–family relationships. This time there was only the barest allusion to a difference in his relationship with his ward in the first chapter then it’s off to Miami and a grisly murder.

The authors have also given a partner to the perpetual loner, with directions from on high that they must work together, not separately. The Pendergast mysteries always benefit from the addition of an outside point of view. Native American Coldmoon, as the junior partner on this case, does an excellent job providing this. I’m hoping that this partnership will extend beyond one book. At least that door was left open.

The mystery itself is appropriately gory and bizarre, exactly what you expect in a Pendergast case. And, as usual, the agents are working against the clock, trying to limit the number of bodies a serial murderer leaves in his wake.

It’s back to classic Pendergast. And that’s exactly what I’ve been missing.

A Little Plot:

Pendergast’s boss is tired of the way this agent breaks the rules, even if he does always solve the crime. So he saddles Pendergast with a partner before sending him off to Miami. There a woman was brutally murdered, her heart removed and then placed with a note on the grave of a woman who committed suicide years ago. Then it happens again.

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

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Killing Commendatore

January 23rd, 2019

By Haruki Murakami

The Short Take:

The meandering plot of this novel included many intriguing threads. Unfortunately they never really wove together. That’s not to say the journey wasn’t interesting, but ultimately it did disappoint this reader.

Why?

It’s quite possible I’m simply not intellectual enough to appreciate this work by the highly respected Murakami.  I’ve enjoyed other books by him but this one not so much. It had plenty of elements to engage you, from the finding a hidden artistic masterpiece to a bell that rings in the night… from underground. Mystical elements, characters with hidden motives, creative gridlock and renewal–these are but a few of the components Murakami includes. However, he also spends a great deal of time describing people’s clothes, the menus for solitary meals, and other mundane details. Of course, this heightens the contrast to surreal occurrences in the novel but it also bogs down the storytelling.

But I was still enjoying the read. Until the end.

There was so much rich material, including the physical manifestation of “Idea,” a portrait that reveals a person’s inner self, the disappearance and reappearance of items, and a journey reminiscent of the hero’s quest, as well as previously mentioned points. However, when I reached the end (which I won’t divulge) I was deeply disappointed. Where I was anticipating something that brought together the mysteries and other-worldly parts of the plot it never happened. In fact the resolution to the major crisis of the book was so ordinary it had me saying, “Really?”

Murakami set me up, but then he let me down.

By the way, this novel is supposedly an “epic homage to The Great Gatsby.” While that book was referenced I did not see much relationship. Again, that’s probably my lack.

A Little Plot:

The wife of an unnamed first-person narrator tells him she is seeing another and wants a divorce. After a wandering and lengthy road trip, he is given the opportunity to live in the former home of a famed Japanese artist. Here he hopes to reinvent his own artistic style. But many things intervene.

For more about Haruki Murakami click here.

 

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