Nothing to See Here

January 17th, 2020

By Kevin Wilson

The Short Take:

Don’t expect to read a book like this ever again. Wilson has produced a genuine original featuring children that catch on fire (rest assured: they don’t burn up). The growing attachment between these twins and their ambivalent caretaker will warm your heart (pun intended).

Why?

Take a protagonist with a dead end job, living with an uncaring mother (at age 28), and no prospects. Add 10-year-old twins who have an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames when emotions run high. This might not sound like the recipe for a charming, wonderful book but it was thoroughly delicious.

Lillian, the loser heroine, is disconnected yet quirky, with hysterical insights about everything from extreme wealth to parenting to the use of pitchers. The kids justifiably distrust everyone. They realize folks don’t want to be around people who can torch your home and you and act accordingly.

Somehow these three build a relationship based on honesty between caregiver and child, direct conversation, junk food, and basketball. And they are all deeply and permanently changed by their short summer together.

A Little Plot:

Lillian is contacted about a job by Madison, a rich, beautiful girl she briefly went to high school with. Madison is wife to a U.S. Senator aspiring to higher office, and now has his two fiery kids from a former marriage coming to live with them since the death of their mother. They need to be kept cool (literally) and out of sight and. Lillian has no qualifications but she takes the job. Hot times ensue.

For more about Kevin Wilson and his books, click here.

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The Starless Sea

December 15th, 2019

By Erin Morgenstern

The Short Take:

This mesmerizing tale skillfully weaves various plot lines in a fairy tale of a novel rich in evocative imagery. Morgenstern proved her mastery of imaginative description in The Night Circus. In this outing the complexity of the plot also shines.

Why?

Fair warning: I’m a sucker for books with secret/magical libraries and this one offered up a lulu. It also had a more consistently cohesive plot than her first novel, which went a bit wonky in the final third.

Part mystery story, part love story, part hero’s quest–there’s a lot going on in this book. And its many threads tangle in surprising ways.

Morgenstern also includes interesting musings on the nature of story telling, video games, books, and how they could be enhanced (the protagonist is an avid reader getting his masters in gaming). I found these discussions and insights exciting in their possibilities.

But ultimately, it is the visions Morgenstern crafts, both enchanting and frightening, that give this book its incredible appeal. And the magical library, of course.

A Little Plot:

As a child Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across an intriguing door that wasn’t there the day before but he does not enter. When he finds a book that exactly describes this experience he begins searching for clues. This mysterious book also includes other tales which–like his experience–need to continue. Adventures ensue that encompass everything.

For more about Erin Morgenstern and her work click here. I was particularly interested in her list of favorite books. We hold a lot in common.

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Ninth House

November 28th, 2019

By Leigh Bardugo

The Short Take:

To say this book centers on magic undersells it. It’s smart, brutal, surprising; part murder mystery, part fish-out-of-water, part hero’s journey. The heroine is perfect: strong in some ways, highly vulnerable in others. I couldn’t put it down.

Why?

Ninth House is no Harry Potter. The magic acts encountered in its pages are raw, bloody, erratic, and used to keep the rich and powerful rich and powerful.

Set in present day Yale University (which Bardugo attended), the famed secret societies (Skull & Bones, Manuscript, Scroll & Key, etc.) all have secret magical practices–a different one for each of the eight ancient houses. One can create unbreakable contracts, another reads the future of the stock market through a living human’s entrails, yet another can create portals to distant places.

A completely unprepared Alex Stern drops into this world, charged with keeping the houses’ rituals and errors secret, and cleaning up their messes. A high-school drop-out and small-time drug dealer/user, she receives the offer of a free Yale education after surviving a horrendous multiple homicide. Though she is unaware of why this fresh start is hers, it’s because she can see ghosts. Ghosts are a problem for Yale and its societies.

She receives some help but the problems grow, become intertwined, and create a knot of tremendous suspicion and fear that she must overcome or die trying.

A Little Plot:

Alex comes to Yale with little more than the clothes on her back and an incomplete, substandard education. She hopes to gain an education that will open doors while handling the tasks of protecting the secret societies.

It’s not an easy combination. And then it really gets tough.

For more about Bardugo and her work, click here.

PS. Though this is supposedly a stand-alone book (and the main story does resolve), Bardugo leaves the doormen for a sequel.

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The Secret Commonwealth

November 10th, 2019

By Philip Pullman

The Short Take:

This second book in Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy is packed full of unhappy people, schemers, and lots of uncertainty. It ends with a cliffhanger that has you begging for the final volume.

Why?

In his first book of this new series Pullman went back in time, presenting Lyra (the heroic protagonist of the earlier His Dark Materials trilogy) as an infant. This book jumps ahead nearly 20 years. But, unlike with the last book, you really should read the first trilogy Pullman wrote in order to fully understand this book.

Only then will you realize the scope of the tragedy that has befallen Lyra and her daemon, Pan: they can’t stand each other. Pullman’s universe has some similarities to our, for example, Oxford, England is still a center of learning. However, in his created world every human is linked to an external animal that is a physical manifestation of their inner self. Imagine how terrible it might be to be at war with yourself. That’s where Lyra and Pan find themselves.

At the same time, the same oppressive forces Lyra faced at age 12 have returned and are seeking her with bad intentions. The book also includes parallels to current events, with thousands of refuges traveling to Europe and hints of totalitarianism.

The book has heft at 600+ pages, but it moves at a lightening pace which makes it hard to set aside. You’ll finish fast and then bemoan the fact that book three is not already in print.

A Little Plot:

Attending college in Oxford, Lyra constantly fights with her daemon, Pan. The fighting doesn’t abate even when she discovers she is penniless and forces are aligned against her. It only gets worse, to the point that Pan leaves her completely. Now she must find him plus learn why people are after her.

For more about Philip Pullman and his books, click here.

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The Family Medici

October 22nd, 2019

By Mary Hollingsworth

The Short Take:

Hollingsworth’s history of the notorious Medici family is comprehensive but surprisingly boring. Covering several centuries, it presents a lot of information. I wanted more focus on the dirt.

Why?

In my mind–and I suspect many others–the Medici name equates with scandal, corruption, and vice. There’s plenty of that but it’s far outweighed by accounts of the numerous petty wars, financial dealings, and political matters involving the family.

There’s a lot of be learned from reading this book, especially about the uniqueness of Florence as a fiercely proud Republic. However, if you want to focus on the excesses and sins of the Medici’s, a historical novel might be a better choice.

Or maybe I had mistaken ideas of the Medici’s? Hollingsworth’s stated aim is to discredit the idea that they were enlightened rulers of the Renaissance. She shows how their family history was revised and sometimes re-invented to disguise the ugly truth. One small example: Lorenzo the Magnificent wasn’t. That was a title with little meaning or stature in his time.

Read this book, and you’ll get the whole truth about the Medici’s; the good, the bad, the ugly, and the boring.

A Little Plot:

The poor Medici’s come to Florence, build a massive banking network, have ups and downs, create scandals and popes. For more about Mary Hollingsworth and her other scholarly books about the Renaissance, click here.

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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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