Booth

September 10th, 2022

By Karen Joy Fowler

The Short Take:

This novel was fantastic. It focuses on the Booth family, which included several well-regarded actors in addition to the assassin John Wilkes Booth. It makes for compelling reading, revealing fascinating family dynamics, loves, jealousies, hopes, successes, scandals, and great losses.

A Little Plot:

Fowler did her research for this historical novel but admits that sometimes the stories that grew up around these family members were hard to separate from the facts. And, of course, she had to fill in the gaps, especially with the family’s oldest daughter, Rosalie, about whom little is known.

The same can’t be said about patriarch Junius Booth, considered by many to be the greatest actor of his time. His eccentricities were legendary, his capriciousness a continuing burden to his wife and their many children. Their lives were complicated but their love for each other was strong.

Beyond that, you can draw direct comparisons to the intense hatred and cultural divisions leading into the Civil War with our current, divided situation. When it comes to political actions and rhetoric Fowler uses only solid facts and actual words. It can be disturbing.

It’s no wonder this book was long-listed for the Booker Award (as of this date). It’s a giant step forward from The Jane Austin Book Club, which felt like formulaic book club material. This one is steeped in passion as it carries the story forward through the eyes of one Booth sibling after another, giving you different perspectives on each family member and their respective roles.

It is a powerhouse.

A Little Plot:

Though Junius Booth makes his living on stages in important American cities, his family lives in a rural setting, where a series of births and deaths reshape relationships within the family and with their farming neighbors. It’s a strange paradox.

For more about Fowler and her books click here.

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Memphis

August 27th, 2022

By Tara M. Stringfellow

The Short Take:

As a person with life-long ties to Memphis I was excited about this book: an epic tale exploring three generations of Memphis Black women, with all their fears, tragedies, and triumphs. I wanted to celebrate this Memphis author and her work, which had already received a lot of acclaim. I was sadly disappointed.

Why?

To start with, Stringfellow didn’t do her homework. She wrote about throngs of Black people on Beale Street in 1978. I love Beale Street but in the late 70s it was a ghost town. That was about the lowest point in its long history.

Then she described scaling a catfish and the scales catching the lights and colors of the room. Which sounded pretty except for the fact that catfish do not have scales. And the characters keep referring to their poverty yet two of them went to Rhodes College for a nursing degree. Rhodes college is a pricy (and well respected) liberal arts college which should have been their last choice. Memphis is and was a major medical center with numerous more affordable programs. Things like this kept taking me out of the story. Maybe I would have liked it more if I were from Denver.

Beyond that, the constant jumps between major characters and timelines made it hard to relate to any of them. Their stories were highly fractured. In fact the pacing of this novel felt more like a thriller, leaving one character at a cliff-hanger moment to veer off to another time and person then do the same there.

My favorite parts were the descriptions of the home that all three generations of women and their families lived in at various times. Both the exterior and interior descriptions were vivid and lyrical, putting Stringfellow’s poetic side on fine display.

A Little Plot:

The book starts in 1995 with a woman and her two daughters returning to the Memphis home in which she was raised. However, the story will stretch back to the 1920s and on to contemporary times.

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The Greeks: A Global History

August 13th, 2022

By Roderick Beaton

The Short Take:

This extensive history focused not on ancient or modern day Greece but on the lands where Greek language dominated over four millennia. It was fascinating and highly enlightening. However, be prepared for a lot of geography.

Why?

I must give Beaton credit for scattering a number of very helpful maps throughout the text to help you visualize the changing world of Greek language. I still had a bit of trouble, but then geography is not my strongest suit.

I very much appreciated his beginning with the Minoans and the Mycenaeans and his concise explanation of systems collapse theory. The back story to what we think of when we think of Classical Greek culture was especially worth the read for its thoughtful revelations.

In fact the book was chockfull of solid information, providing a clear picture of the complex, and ever-changing world that shaped Greek language, culture, and influenced the migration movement of Greek-speaking communities.

I also learned that more than one thing I had been taught in school was incorrect. Do I trust this author’s scholarship? Absolutely. This is his 12th book focused on some aspect of Greek culture and he has devoted his life to the subject.

I particularly liked little nuggets like the Greek-speaking people of Byzantium thinking of themselves as Roman; they considered themselves the the successors of the Roman Empire, as opposed to any part of Italy or other western areas. I was also glad to learn more about Greece’s modern history, of which I knew only a smattering and much of that incorrect.

It’s a lot of information to download but well worth the time and effort.

A Little Plot:

If you want to trace Greek language and culture you need to start about 1500 BCE. That’s exactly where Beaton begins.

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Hamnet

July 26th, 2022

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

By Maggie O’Farrell

The Short Take:

This book is widely acclaimed and the recipient of several awards. And while the writing is lush, with lavish descriptions I kept wanting the author to get on with it. Her fictionalization of the death of Shakespeare’s young son is long on atmosphere but somewhat short of plot.

Why?

The main focus of this book is not the famous playwright (whose name is never mentioned) but his wife, Agnes–as she was named in her father’s will. Independent and willful from birth, her nonconforming behavior distances her from others, except her future husband.

The book follows several story lines, jumping back in forth in time. While I am truly tired of this device it seemed especially bothersome here when one easily knows where the story is headed and what is going to happen.

However who am I to whine where others have praised? and the emotional strengths of this book are remarkable.

A Little Plot:

Agnes is attracted to a man who is attracted to her and anxious to leave the household where she is barely tolerated. However, heartbreak is in her future.

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Sea of Tranquility

July 5th, 2022

By Emily St. John Mandel

The Short Take:

Beautifully written book with time travel, mysterious visions, and interesting characters–one of whom seems to be a veiled portrait of the author. It transports you from early 1900s British Columbia, to lunar colonies, to a distant future. And every page is a delight.

Why?

Like Station 11, pandemics figure into this book: the author of a novel focused on a pandemic is on a book tour promoting her book and a new pandemic seems to be threatening Earth. But that is where the similarity ends. Different people through time experience the same “hallucination” of eerie violin music playing in some massive structure. In addition, a stranger shows up in connection with each incident, asking questions.

The experiences of Mandel’s four main characters bring questions about what constitutes reality and how memoire can shape–or mis-shape–the present.

It’s hard to say much about this book without damaging the experience for the reader. The stories in it are so strongly interwoven that to pluck one strand out can unravel the whole.

Just know it is a glorious read.

A Little Plot:

A young English aristocrat who embarrassed his family is banished to Canada in 1912, aimless and without ambition, he crosses the continent to British Columbia where a disturbing experience changes his life. The book then moves forward to present 2020 and a theatrical presentation.

For more about this author and her excellent books, click here.

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Once There Were Wolves

June 7th, 2022

By Charlotte McConaghy

The Short Take:

After falling in love with McConaghy’s Migrations I was excited about this new one. Again the writing is lyrical and she delivers another rollercoaster flood of emotions. There is more plot to this outing, which incorporates a murder mystery alongside the protagonist’s efforts to reintroduce wolves where they aren’t wanted.

Why?

I admit there’s a lot of darkness in this book: abuse, mental illness, self-doubt, and that murder. However these elements are balanced by the amazing natural beauty McConaghy describes. The wilds of Scotland are portrayed in loving detail, as are the 14 wolves that the protagonist’s team are reintroducing to the wild.

The people involved are not so lovingly described. But then at a town hall meeting when people protest letting monstrous apex predators loose near their sheep farms she makes it clear she thinks the monsters are in the room, not in the wild.

Her anger, its source, and her journey to reclaim the woman she once was are intertwined with the journey of her wolves, as they begin to form family packs. Or don’t.

It’s interesting that while McConaghy lives in Australia this book takes place mostly in Scotland, which also played a large role in her last book.

A Little Plot:

Inti brings her extremely close yet highly withdrawn twin with her when she comes to Scotland to direct the reintroduction of wolves to a land where they once roamed. She knows the community is against her and fiercely defends what she is doing. She just as fiercely protects her damaged sister. She trusts no one, but it drawn to the local sheriff. And that might be a mistake.

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The Kraken Wakes

May 15th, 2022

By John Wyndham

The Short Take:

This 1953 sci-fi is terrific and I’m glad Penguin Random House has re-issued it. Earth’s invaders aim for the ocean instead of the land–which makes sense since most of Earth is water. The plot covers about 10 years and incorporates financial, international trade, and political angles. What makes this particularly interesting is that climate change plays a central role in the fate of humanity.

Why?

Wyndham is considered to be one of Great Britain’s best sci-fi writers ( best known for Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos). This is the first one I’ve read but it won’t be the last. He is known for incorporating social commentary in his works, and what applied 70 years ago still applies now.

Published at the height of the Cold War, the reactions of the Soviets at every earthly change sound like a spoof and are highly amusing. Another interesting aspect is how public reaction to possible dangers ebbs and flows. People adjust and move on. One scientist who early on predicts what is happening is widely disparaged–unwisely as it turns out. And everyone has faith in the ultimate success of scientists and engineers, even after multiple failures on their part; that is a refreshing change from modern times.

A Little Plot:

Newlyweds Mike and Phyllis are honeymooning on a cruiser when they see five fuzzy red objects sink beneath the ocean surface. When they return to land–and their jobs as radio reporters–they discover others have seen similar phenomenon, with the red objects always sinking into oceans at their deepest parts. It’s a short term wonder and reason for fear, then people forget about it. Bad idea.

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The Last King of America

March 21st, 2022

By Andrew Roberts

The Short Take:

This detailed biography of King George III is an intense read but largely fascinating, especially reading about America’s War of Independence from the British perspective.

Why?

I’ve read enough USA history to know that our revolution wasn’t about taxation without representation and that it wasn’t even supported by the majority of colonials, but this book was still an eye-opener. With about 80 pages of notes it is also very well researched. Part of the bounty Andrews drew from was the more than 200,000 pages of Hanoverian papers, only 15% of which had been published before. Excerpts from letters to and from the king are liberally used to explain his thoughts on everything from the contentious Stamp Act to opposing better conditions for Catholics in Great Britain.

The portrait that emerges of George III is diametrically opposed to what most Americans–and a lot of Brits–believe. He considered himself a patriot king and respected the British Constitution and Parliament above all else. He was intellectually curious, devoted to his family (though the same could not be said for his heir), and a supporter of the arts and sciences. That’s not to say he was a paragon, but he is a far cry from how Thomas Jefferson painted him in the Declaration of Independence. He fared no better among his various aristocratic Whig biographers, who considered him an impediment to their control on power.

However, it was easy for this American to get bogged down by all the names of George’s supporters and detractors, their various titles, and positions. They were legion. While a few stood out (the two Pitts, Fox, Lord Nelson) many of them are completely unfamiliar unless you are deeply into British politics of that era.

Still, I’m glad I made the effort and read all 679 pages of text. But, whew!

A Little Plot:

George III was a young teen when his beloved father passed away, making him next in line for the English crown, after his grandfather, George II. However, it was the lessons hie father taught him that guided him throughout his life, except when madness descended.

For more about Andrew Roberts, this book, and his other biographies click here.

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Cloud Cuckoo Land

February 4th, 2022

By Anthony Doerr

The Short Take:

This beautifully written book is a must. Especially if you love books or rejoice in the recovery of lost things. It’s also a story of survival–both of people and a (fictional) story by the ancient Greek, Antonius Diogenes. Enjoy!

Why?

This novel, from the author of the fantastic All the Light We Cannot See, tracks remnants of an ancient Greek story from the 15th century to the future. While it couldn’t be more different in content the writing is just as superb as his other work, It carries you from a spaceship to Constantinople to Idaho to Korea. All while surrounding a fractured, ancient story with tales about those who love it even as it slowly disappears.

It’s a hard book to describe, with different compelling characters on different continents at different times. But Doerr knows how to turn a patchwork into a beautiful quilt that warms your heart and excites your imagination.

An important thread in this narrative is how many writings have been lost over time. For example, of the assumed 40 plays (could have been more) written by Aristophanes only 11 remain intact. Most of them are lost forever, unless rediscovered in some musty attic or abandoned ruin. While the text credits the very real Diogenes with writing Cloud Cuckoo Land, the story is Doerr’s invented fantasy about a foolish shepherd who goes on a wild adventure, turning into a donkey, a fish, and a crow. Various phases of this story’s existence are wound around two young people on opposite sides of the sack of Constantinople, a friendship formed during the Korean War, a disturbed young man who finds a friend in an owl and then loses him, and a young girl on a spaceship destined for a planet she’ll never see.

In lesser hands this might not work but Doerr makes a splendid puzzle out of it, bringing the pieces together at just the right time. It’s brilliant.

A Little Plot:

A girl in a futuristic vault writes lines from a story on scraps of paper. In contemporary Idaho, five children rehearse the play Cloud Cuckoo Land under the direction of the 86-year-old man who translated it; outside sits a young man with a bomb and a gun. A poor girl steals manuscripts from an abandoned an abbey in Constantinople in order to raise money to save her sister. All of them are involved in the survival of a single story.

For more about Anthony Doerr and his work, click here.

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A Line to Kill

December 31st, 2021

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

This is the third Horowitz mystery where he–as himself–is the narrator. Again, he follows the detective work of Andrew Hawthorne. While the mystery itself is perfectly fine, with odd characters and surprising insights by the ever-vigilant Hawthorne, the meta angle is weaker which is a disappointment.

Why?

In the last two books Horowitz’s real life played more of a role, such his work on the television series Foyle’s War. However, as the bulk of this book takes place at a literary festival on a small Channel island, that element is largely missing. Yet it maintains the sense of humor that sparks the other entries.

Horowitz knows his way around a murder mystery, claiming to have probably committed more fictional murders than any other living author. And this one hits all the right notes. Everyone looks both guilty and innocent, with the truth being that most characters are guilty of something if not the actual murder. And Hawthorne uncovers those guilty secrets, too.

The odd couple paring of Horowitz and Hawthorne take a turn in this book, with the usually reticent Hawthorne readily opening up in the literary setting while the famous Horowitz is often ignored. Both these changes annoy the narrator to no end but his complaints have no impact on Hawthorne. He does as he wishes. And gets what he wants: a solution.

A Little Plot:

Horowitz’s first book featuring the crime-solving capabilities of private detective Andrew Hawthorne is about to come out. The pair are invited to a small literary festival to promote it and Hawthorne reacts with enthusiasm–which surprises Horowitz and makes him suspicious. Sure enough, a felon from Hawthorne’s past lives on the island, but it’s the murder of a prominent man that drives this tale.

For more about Anthony Horowitz and his many books, click here.

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