The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

July 27th, 2014

By Jonas Jonasson

The Short Take:

A charming, eccentric, and thoroughly implausible tale of an illiterate latrine cleaner in 1960s Soweto whose innate brilliance leads her on an incredible journey. It’s simply loaded with highly enjoyable silliness. You can’t quit turning the pages to see what outrageous turn of events Jonasson will spring on you next.

Why?

What kind of mind builds a book around a poverty stricken child of Soweto, the making of South Africa’s atomic bombs, and a lifelong desire to overthrow the Swedish monarchy? Jonasson. He won me over with The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and is a master of making the utterly outrageous positively delightful. He points out the ridiculousness of serious topics like racism by making you laugh out loud at its absurdities.

That said, if you read his previous novel, you’ll find this one similar in many ways: creating atom bombs, weaving in genuine historical events and people, and introducing an impossible mix of quirky characters. Depending on your point of view, that’s either the good news or the opposite.

Jonasson is the perfect counterweight to the popular dark novels coming out of Scandinavia. As long as he keeps writing like this, I’ll keep right on reading.

 A Little Plot:

Nombeko might be illiterate and orphaned, but she is exceptionally smart and driven. She manages to become a latrine manager at 14. However, being run over on a sidewalk by a drunk driver is all her fault and makes her an indentured servant to an atomic engineer.

Of course, much happens after that. She’ll befriend three Chinese sisters with a talent for making Han forgeries, a pair of Swedish identical twins with the same name but completely different dreams, and the future president of China, among others.

Just relax and read it. It’s good to be happy.

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The Headmaster’s Wife

July 2nd, 2014

By Thomas Christopher Greene

The Short Take:

This well-written book leads you down misleading paths yet ultimately delivers a very well structured and satisfying read.

Why?

This story of love and family is told from different perspectives — thankfully, not mixed together like so many books these days. It’s hard to say much about this novel without ruining the reading experience, so my comments will be exceptionally short.

The story line might upset you at some point. Just trust the author. It’s a beautifully crafted book, inspired by the author’s loss of his own infant daughter, though no infants die in this story. It tells of two lives, how they intertwine and how they unravel.

A Little Plot:

Very, very little in this case: the headmaster of a prestigious prep school becomes obsessed with a student. That’s all you’re getting from me. The author’s website is more forthcoming. Click here to visit. Or just read the book. It’s short. It’s excellent.

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The Son

June 23rd, 2014

By Jo Nesbø

The Short Take:

This terrific mystery/thriller departs from Nesbø’s Harry Hole detective series and is — hard to believe — even better. Taut, suspenseful, but without the repetitive gunfights and car chase scenes so many thrillers rely on. Rewarding to the very last line.

Why?

I have nothing against gun fights or car chases in mystery/thrillers, but they are rather predictable, and certainly relied on heavily. This book is true to the genre but also refreshingly different.

The title character is a young man who has lived in jail for 12 of his 30 years — a strung out junkie with a mystical quality that leads others to tell him secrets and ask forgiveness. When he embarks on a mission of revenge, you don’t know quite what to expect from him. And, he keeps you off balance all the way through.

Nesbø has already made quite a name for himself with his Harry Hole series (despite the unfortunate name). I find these dark police thrillers set in Nesbø’s Norway to be far superior to Stieg Larsson’s “Girl With…” books, though with a similar DNA.

So far I’ve read three Harry Hole novels and enjoyed them all very much. This one was even better. It’s not just about the crimes, it’s about love, forgiveness, and facing dead ends.

A Little Plot:

When Sonny Lofthus’ policeman father committed suicide over his corruption, it sent The Son into a tailspin of self-destruction and incarceration. He’s living only for his next fix when a fellow inmate tells him it wasn’t suicide but murder that took his father away. His father wasn’t corrupt but killed for fighting corruption.

That sets Sonny on a path of revenge; not just for his father but to right other wrongs he has taken the rap for as well.  Chief Inspector Simon Kefas is on his trail. A woman is about to fall in love. Nesbø keeps you guessing right to the very end. Excellent.

For more about Nesbø and his books, click here.

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P.D. James: Mistress of Mystery

June 12th, 2014

Of course she has been inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame! Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James has 20 books to her credit (including one science fiction outing and an autobiography). Beyond that, she writes some of the most intelligent mysteries around.

The poet-policemen, Adam Dalgliesh, who solves most of her mysteries, is unlike any other fictional crime hero. Instead of quirky behavior he brings intense focus to the crimes he solves, acting with British reserve. In addition, her books are beautifully researched — often drawing on her first-hand knowledge of  the police and criminal law from years of working in the British Home Office.

As she entered her 90s, James retired her Dalgliesh series, stating it would be unfair to leave an incomplete manuscript. Instead, she ventured where most would fear to tread: bringing murder and mayhem into the world created by Jane Austen. Death Comes to Pemberly is  joy for both Austen lovers and mystery fans, set six years after the marriage of Mr  Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

I’ve only read a dozen of James’ books so far but will absolutely read the rest. Will Pemberly be her last? I hate to think so, though her website has no hints about future books. James has always been about quality of writing over quantity of output. Her last book shows that when it comes to quality, she still stands head and shoulders above most others. Is she does publish again, I expect nothing but the best. Because that’s what a Hall of Famer delivers.

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The Sea House

June 4th, 2014

By Elisabeth Gifford

The Short Take:

I was hesitant to pick up this book. The title and cover art just looked a bit icky-romance for me. However this book is a perfect representation of that old adage about covers and judgement. With two interwoven story lines — more than a century apart — revolving around the legend of the Selkies, this is a much more interesting novel, and not a romance at all.

Why?

Gifford’s first novel is set in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, both in the recent past and more than 100 years earlier. She does an excellent job of conveying the dramatic atmosphere of this cold, desolate, yet also dramatically beautiful environment.

She does an equally fine job of  portraying her three main characters: Ruth, the emotionally damaged wife trying to build a life and  a B&B in 1992; Alexander Ferguson, the young reverend from the 1860s who has a passion for mermaids and selkies; and Moira, his maid, who is equally passionate about destroying the man who brought misery and death to her family.

History, legends, and natural history are seamlessly woven into their stories, further enriching this multi-faceted reading experience. However, it is the empathy you will feel for these characters that ultimately wins you over.

A Little Plot:

Ruth and her husband are renovating an old parsonage into a bed and breakfast when the body of an infant is found beneath the floorboards, its lower legs fused together like a mermaid or seal. Ruth is determined to solve the mystery of this small baby as well as learn the hidden truth about her own connections to this isolated community. Finding the writings of the Reverend Alexander Ferguson is just a start.

For more about Gifford and her novel, click here. You’ll notice this book also comes with a slightly different title and cover. Not sure it’s right either — looks like a horror story.

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The Lost Sisterhood

May 12th, 2014

By Anne Fortier

The Short Take:

Once again, an ancient legend shapes a modern day thriller. However, this time out the legend is about Amazons and the protagonist is a woman! That really excited me, but not until the last page, unfortunately.

Why?

This novel started off pretty strong and moved along at a pretty quick pace. However…

Understand, I have no problem with fantastic situations in thrillers — it goes with the territory — but I do have problems when the characters act in ways that just don’t make sense.  Ultimately, this book presented too many situations where the characters actions/reactions were hard to fathom, much less accept.

That’s too bad, because we need more female-centric thrillers. It was a disappointment.

A Little Plot:

Oxford philologist, Diana Morgan, is approached by a mysterious stranger who asks her help in translating a new archaeologic find. She is intrigued but resistance until she realizes that the writing presented in a photo of the find resembles writing her supposedly unbalanced granny left behind.

So she lets herself be whisked off to an undisclosed location, with strange men who react strangely to her and her theories about that writing.

And, it all has to do with the Amazons (Diana’s obsession): Were they real? Were they as described in ancient Greek writings? Could they still be around today?

For more about this book and Anne Fortier’s other works, click here.

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The Enchanted

April 29th, 2014

By Rene Denfeld

The Short Take:

My description of this book will not do it justice. It’s really hard to communicate the impact of a tale about brutal murderers on death row that somehow manages to be wonderfully lyrical and truly uplifting. Denfeld did it. The horror of the characters was balanced by one prisoner’s magical appreciation for books, life, everything.

Why?

Rene Denfeld is primarily a journalist. This is her first novel and it is about as far from dry-eyed journalism as you can get. She actually serves as a death penalty investigator: a person who researches the background of prisoners and their crimes to see if mitigating circumstances could justify commuting their sentences from death to life imprisonment. A woman, identified only as “the Lady,” fills that same role in this novel.

The setting for this novel could not be more brutal — a crumbling prison with corrupt guards, extreme conditions, and pervasive hopelessness. However, Denfeld’s  narrator finds it to be an enchanted place. By looking through his eyes we discover that even for the most depraved, in the worst conditions, the human spirit can take flight in surprising ways.

I loved this book.

A Little Plot:

In this decrepit prison, inmates on death row never leave their cells until that final walk, except for the rare occasions when “the lady” elects to look into their case. A serial killer named York is one of these, however, he doesn’t want her help. He wants to die.

She is watched by another death row inmate, unnamed for most of the book and the story’s narrator. Highly reclusive, he observes and he listens. He does not speak. It is through his “eyes” that we learn about the prison in reality and in his imagination.

The story relates the lady’s investigation, the stories of several inmate, the warden, and the disgraced priest. It is haunted, haunting, and very special.

For more about Rene Denfeld and her work, click here.

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What Nora Knew

April 14th, 2014

By Linda Yellin

The Short Take:

This delightful romantic romp is like tasty glass of lemonade — sweet, tart, and totally refreshing. If you liked Nora Ephron’s movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” you’ll love this book for sure.

Why?

I admit to low expectations because I am not a big romcom fan, but this book is so witty and entertaining that — as the author herself points out — the journey is every bit as enjoyable as the destination.

Of course you pretty much know where the plot is going (just like Ephron’s famed movies). The fun is figuring out just how the heroine, Molly, is going to fumble her way there.

Multiple references to romantic movies (including my personal favorite: “The Thin Man”) and lots of sparkling dialogue make this a truly fun read. It is a book for the ages? Well, did people think Jane Austen’s books were going to be prized some 200 years? Who am I to say? But if you want a fun, diverting read set in modern times this book fills the bill. Even better, it should go down well whether you’re in a happy relationship or are still looking for “the one.”

A Little Plot:

On-line writer Molly is in a comfortable relationship with chiropractor Russell. However, when her boss asks Molly to write an article about romance, a la Nora Ephron, she realizes that this quality seems to be missing from her relationship, and maybe from her emotional make-up.

Then she encounters the wildly popular writer, Cameron Duncan. She considers him egotistical, a shameless ladies man, and totally insincere. So why is she thinking about him at all?

For more about Linda Yellin and her work, visit her (also) entertaining website here.

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The Book of Jonah: A Novel

April 1st, 2014

By Joshua Max Feldman

The Short Take:

This modern parable inspired by the Biblical Book of Jonah (sort of) was interesting but, ultimately, the two main characters were too hard to like for full enjoyment. It was hard to muster up the appropriate engagement.

Why?

Our two flawed protagonists are Jonah, an overly ambitious lawyer, and Judith,an intensly-driven student. Both live tightly circumscribed lives that separate them emotionally from others. Their perspectives on their existence are drastically changed by certain events — not necessarily changed for the better.

I had only a vague recollection of Jonah and the whale so I picked up the Bible and read the original Book of Jonah  – which is quite short. There’s a common theme of not being able to escape your fate (or what God wants) and some reflective symbolism. Other than that… I obviously was not enough of a Biblical scholar to grasp.

I did want to know what would happen as the story progressed but I never could work up much enthusiasm for either Jonah or Judith. They were both so self-centered that whether they were on top of the world or feeling its weight on their shoulders, it didn’t seem to make much difference. It was always all about themselves.

A Little Plot:

Jonah got handed a legal client that indicates he’ll be made a partner at his firm when a chance encounter with a Hasid turns his world upside-down. He starts having visions of Biblical proportions and his life fractures.

Judith is a gifted student and driven to always be the best at everything she does. She’s in college when tragedy strikes her parents. She decides that everything life seemed to promise her was a lie and begins to simply drift along.

It’s inevitable these two will meet. But, will it make a difference?

 

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Empty Mansions

March 5th, 2014

By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

The Short Take:

A mesmerizing look at the making — and spending — of an American fortune. The Clarks were as rich as the Vanderbilt’s and Rockerfeller’s, but left virtually no lasting legacy. This is the story of the heiress Huguette Clark, who owned huge homes but elected to live in a plain hospital room even though healthy. Fascinating… and a bit weird.

Why?

Truth is so often stranger than fiction. That’s certainly the case with the life of Huguette Clark. The daughter of W. H. Clark, who became unbelievably wealthy through hard work, mining, and smart business decisions, she ultimately chose a life of exceptional seclusion. It all makes for a very interesting read, with no pat answers as to the “why” she was the way she was.

Newell is a cousin with an interest in his family history  who actually participated in telephone conversations with Huguette in her later years. Dedman is the man who ultimately violated her privacy by investigating the sale of her Connecticut mansion, which she bought but never moved into, though she owned it some 60 years.

It’s an incredible story of unbelievable wealth, eccentric behavior, and great personal generosity. It’s all simply amazing, yet ultimately — thankfully — Huguette retains a lot of her mystery.

A Little Plot:

The book traces the life of W. H. Clark, his climb to tremendous wealth, his brief and controversial political career, and his relationships in two families (Huguette was a daughter from his second marriage). It also encompasses the 105-years of Huguette’s secretive, artistic, and generous life. And, the battle for her millions after hear death.

Art, music, dolls and doll houses, support for artists and those who cared for her — it’s all here and all worth reading. Hers was a genuinely unique American life.

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