The Children Act

December 19th, 2014

By Ian McEwan

The Short Take:

McEwan is such a gifted writer you know you are in for a spellbinding tale any time you pick up one of his novels. This one is no exception. A respected judge of England’s family court realizes her passion for her job has repercussions she didn’t anticipate.

Why?

McEwan’s Fiona Maye is a middle-age woman, highly respected by her peers in the judicial system and satisfied with her life until her husband makes a shocking request. At the same time, a life-or-death court case affecting a near-adult draws her personal involvement. These two events lead her to question a lifetime of choices about family and career.

With delicacy and insight, McEwan traces Fiona’s emotional journey through uncharted territory. He also explores the ethical and legal quandaries that arise when religious beliefs run counter to life-saving medical intervention. The arguments for both sides of the issue were beautifully addressed in the discussions between Fiona and the ill 17-year-old whose faith was so strong.

It’s a fabulous read.

A Little Plot:

Fiona’s husband asks for permission to have an affair — to enjoy one last blast of passion before they slip into old age together. Fiona is floored. And furious. And unsure.

At the same time she must rule whether the courts can force an almost-adult to undergo a life saving blood transfusion despite his and his parent’s beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona feels confident in her decision, but is decidedly put off balance by what happens next.

For more about Ian McEwan and his writing, click here.

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Nora Webster

December 14th, 2014

By Colm Tóibín

The Short Take:

This novel moves along quietly yet really packs a wallop. It revolves around Nora, a new widow mired in grief, who struggles to reconnect to her life and her family. It’s a wonderful character study, perfectly couched in time and place.

Why?

I was reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet while the pain, journey, and quality writing were similar, that’s where the comparison ends. Didion’s memoir examines the sorrow of a woman of means and with many connections in the modern day. Fictional Nora is trapped in a painfully small Irish town in 1960/70s Ireland, struggling to make ends meet for her family.

These differences make it much easier to relate to Nora’s uncertainty, missteps, and concerns — she’s closer to most of us.

There’s no big crisis, no shocking reveal; just a series of small steps forward and back as Nora tries to establish a new balance for herself and her children. Sometimes you’ll find yourself impatient with her lack of perception, other times you’ll applaud her bold moves. She’s human. She’s real. She’s worthy of your attention.

The Short Take:

Nora has lost her beloved husband, who gave her a life a freedom as well as being her soul mate. Now, with two daughters leaving the nest and two sons still at home, she must find a way to pay the bills and rebuild her life.

At first resenting the kindness of relatives and friends wishing to help, she begins to find her footing in work and — especially — music. One tentative step at a time.

Colm Tóibín is a highly acclaimed writer. You can learn more about him and his books by clicking here.

 

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The Paying Guests

December 2nd, 2014

By Sarah Waters

The Short Take:

This is possibly the slowest moving book I have ever read. Granted, it builds up a good head of steam for a climactic act of violence, but the payoff isn’t worth the slog to me.

Why?

Maybe this book is just too much of a good thing. The writing is solid, the sense of time and place are impeccable (post WWI London). However, all this attention to detail makes things really drag. In addition, the central character spends countless pages agonizing over one thing or the other.

I suspect I would have loved this book if it were half as long. As it is, I spent far too much time speed reading along. To me, reading like that is a not pleasure but a duty.

A Little Plot:

Once fairly well off, a widow and her almost-a-spinster daughter, Frances, have to take in lodgers to make ends meet. A young couple from the rising middle class, Len and Lil, move into several rooms upstairs. At first Frances and her mother are unsure how to act around these paying guests. Then Frances finds herself attracted to Lil and seeking her company.

Complications ensue.

Sarah Waters has written a number of well-received books. You can visit her website by clicking here.

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Station Eleven

November 12th, 2014

By Emily St. John Mandel

The Short Take:

At first I thought this would be a rushed-through book capitaliziing on the media frenzy surrounding ebola. However, this highly thoughtful and carefully constructed novel is a genuine winner. After a virus destroys about 99 percent of the world’s population, this novel isn’t focusing on marauding hordes but examining nostalgia for a lost civilization while survivors hopefully build a new one.

Why?

I’ve read a number of post-apocalyptic novels, from King’s The Stand to Howey’s Wool (both well worth the read, by the way). However, Mandel brings something new to this well-explored theme.

Her main characters all have some degree of connection, Kevin Bacon style. They are of different ages and so have widely varying points of view about the past, present, and future. This creates a more nuanced story, in which humanity’s interactions — and their vast reduction after the disaster — are key.

The novel jumps around in time and from character to character, which I have increasingly come to find annoying. However, Mandel ‘s jumps help the story unfold almost like a mystery. The changes in time, place, and character make storytelling sense. They add to the book’s success.

Ultimately, the more I read, the more enchanted I became. There are just so many thoughtful moments. For example, an older man contemplates a souvenir snow globe, thinking of all the people, factories, transportation, etc. involved in its making and reaching the airport he now lives in. Writing like that makes you think, too.

Our civilized connections are myriad and fragile. That is what this book recognizes, mourns, and celebrates.

A Little Plot:

On the day a devestatingly deadly virus arrives in Toronto by plane, a famous actor dies of a heart attack while playing King Lear. Twenty years later, a child in that play (it was an unusual production) is part of a traveling troupe of musicians and actors, performing Shakespeare plays and classical symphonies for small communities in the Great Lakes region.

It’s risky to travel, though violence has gotten rarer (ammunition is scarce after 20 years). But they continue because “Survival is Insufficient,” as their lead, horse-drawn vehicle proclaims — a line borrowed from Star Trek. It’s a fitting line for a novel that makes you cherish what you have and could lose at any time.

To visit Mande;’s website, click here.

 

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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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