Fates and Furies

October 24th, 2015

61X4KnqQS4L._SL75_By Lauren Goff

The Short Take:

This intense novel explores a marriage from the differing perspectives of the husband and his wife. It is powerful, surprising, and beautifully structured. The first half is a mite slow, but the second half more than makes up for it.


Love is often built on perceptions and expectations. This beautifully written and carefully crafted story illustrates how love can prevail and stay true even when those perceptions and expectations are largely false.

The title — with the Fates for him and Furies for her — is just part of the nod to Greek mythology and plays. But don’t feel you have to be well versed in those subjects to fully enjoy this book.

The first half, written from husband Lotto’s perspective, moves at a slow, more deliberate pace while it creates a portrait of this perfect marriage, despite various challenges. The second half both strengthens that portrait and tears it to shreds as you learn what truly is in the mind of Mathilde, the wife.

I found myself going “Wow!” more than once in the second half, as thoughts and actions were revealed that totally changed your perspective. However, this is no “Gone Girl” type story. It’s much richer, more nuanced, and more human. These are two characters you can respect and relate to, in both their goodness and their foibles.

A Little Plot:

It’s love at first sight and a union of totally honesty for Lotto and Mathilde. He sees her as beauty personified and is terrified she will leave him at some time. She seems to glide through life unperturbed.

Or so it seems.

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City of God

October 7th, 2015

51kPMILGhiL._SL75_By E. L. Doctorow

The Short Take:

This book was engrossing, thoughtful, challenging, brilliant!  It really made you think about religion, faith, science, film, philosophy, music, and more. It’s some 15 years old — written as a millennium opus — but is just as relevant today.


The above should be enough. Plus, it’s all wrapped around the story of an Episcopal priest who is trying to shore up his wavering faith, a pair of Jewish rabbis endeavoring to determine what is essential in their own religion, and a bronze cross mysteriously stolen from the former only to wind up with the latter.

Then there’s the interspersed story of a child growing up during the Holocaust (father of one of the rabbis). Not to mention sections supposedly narrated by Albert Einstein and others. Even the title is intriguing — the same as St. Augustine’s religious/philosophical classic.

It’s a feast for the mind. So glad I finally read it.

A Little Plot:

See above. That about covers it.

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The Marriage Game

September 26th, 2015

51zm5lXV7fL._SL75_By Alison Weir

The Short Take:

This novel about the loves of Queen Elizabeth I, written by a respected historian, didn’t fit my image of that formidable leader. Weir certainly knows her subject, but I preferred this woman as described in Weir’s biography, The Life of Elizabeth I.


Well, as the name implies, this is sort of a romance. That’s not a genre I particularly care for, so maybe that’s my problem. I’ve read a couple of Weir’s other novels — one about the young Elizabeth (The Lady Elizabeth) and another about Lady Jane Grey (Innocent Traitor) — and enjoyed them very much, especially the latter.

Focusing on Elizabeth’s long romance with Lord Robert Dudley, alongside marriage negotiations with various European princes, was just too narrow a picture to suit me. Her rule was complicated, successful, and long. It probably wouldn’t have been any of those if she had married.

I read this book concurrent with Weir’s Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and was gobsmacked by the unique difficulties these female rulers faced. Everyone wanted them to get married (to produce heirs and because “a mere woman needed the advice of a man”). However, any choice would lead to disaster. Whether Catholic or Protestant, foreign or home-grown, as soon as a likely mate was identified the opposing factions went into overtime trying to stop the proposed marriage.

Elizabeth I used this situation to her advantage, stringing along multiple royal suitors in order to keep her country safe and prosperous. Mary Queen of Scotts didn’t fare so well.

Weir’s novel certainly showcases Elizabeth’s fears regarding any marital alliance, but I missed not having the rest of her story.

A Little Plot:

Elizabeth I and Lord Robert Dudley knew each other since their youth. Their mutual passion is strong, but marriage to Dudley could be a disaster for her for a number of reasons, starting with the number of traitors found in his family tree.

For more about Alison Weir, her novels, and her non-fiction writing, cluck here.

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The Insect Farm

August 23rd, 2015

51VJ-j56PDL._SL75_By Stuart Prebble

The Short Take:

Ultimately, this psychological drama disappointed. It started strong but caring about either of the main characters was difficult, and became even harder as the plot progressed.


This wasn’t a bad book. In fact, I believe it would make an excellent movie. It just didn’t live up to the expectations it created in the early chapters.

The narrator and his mentally challenged brother are both obsessives: the former laser-focused on the woman he loves, the latter devoted to his managerie of insects. These characters are decidedly creepy, however I’m not sure Prebble intends for you to feel that way about them — at least not from the very beginning.

The novel’s prologue is actually an epilogue of sufficient freakiness to get you immediately involved. The writing is appropriately atmospheric. The plot twists and turns, and certainly keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next; or rather, what exactly was going on in that so-called prologue. You wanted to learn all the answers. That’s what drives you to the last page. Then you go, “Hmm…”

A Little Plot:

(Skipping the prologue completely.) Jonathan is devoted to his older brother, Roger, who has mental issues. Roger, in turn is fiercely protective of Jonathan.

Jonathan falls madly in love with Harriet, who reciprocates his affections. However, Jonathan’s jealousy is boundless despite her reassurances. When the two of them head off to college together, Roger finds his own obsession — a growing collection of insect colonies.

Then tragedy strikes.

For more about Stuart Prebble, and an entirely different take on this novel, click here.

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

August 7th, 2015

51nmSDX+fBL._SL75_By Anna North

The Short Take:

A mesmerizing portrait of a troubled young filmmaker, as seen by people who loved her. This novel captures the pain a creative genius can experience trying to achieve her vision as well as the pain she inflicts on those who surround her.


It’s been a long time since I found a book this compelling. Part of the attraction was because I always felt right on the edge of understanding the title character, but continually fell short. North has created a demanding, confusing, driven, conflicted, talented heroine that never gets a chance to speak for herself. Instead her story is told by her devoted brother, her girlfriend, and several others who found their lives changed by spending time with her.

There is no real difference in their views — Sophie Stark is consistently frustrating and largely unknowable even to those who love her. However, the glimpses you do get of the heart and soul of this challenging artist make you want to protect her from the inevitable.

There was a time-jump in the first half of the book — a tiresome practice that seems to be everywhere these days. It allowed the author to start off with a riveting and shocking story. Maybe that’s what is needed to get the reader involved these days. However, I found Sophie Stark’s enigmatic character and mysterious behavior to be engrossing, even from her childhood days.

A Little Plot:

Sophie Stark hears a woman tell  a “scary camping story” as part of a bar series. She wants to make a movie based on the story. This leads to a meteoric rise and damaged relationships.

The author doesn’t seem to have a public website, but for more about this book, click here.

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Has “Ulysses” Ruined Me?

July 23rd, 2015

I have had a terrible time relating to any book since plowing through James Joyce’s masterpiece. Whether fiction, non-fiction, or the in-between historical fiction, I’ve had a hard time caring about — much less enjoying — anything I’ve selected.

Is this the result of stimulating my intellect by reading truly challenging literature? Or complete burn out from reading truly challenging literature? I have no idea, but I’m looking for something wonderful to shake me out of these doldrums.

Any suggestions?

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The Buried Giant

June 30th, 2015

51tXDWW3TAL._SL75_By Kazuo Ishiguro

The Short Take:

This intriguing, challenging, unexpected novel from the rightly-renowned Ishiguro contains knights, ogres, and a dragon. However don’t let those fantasy elements mislead you. This book is all about ourselves, our history, and our memories.


Ishiguro writes in a straight-forward manner, in this case using the rather formal dialogue you might anticipate in Medieval England, that his underlying message hits you all the harder.

Under the guise of describing the journey of an elderly couple to join the son they barely remember, this novel confronts both individual and society’s willingness to forget the past in order to face the future. It ponders how war begets war as people fight to avenge earlier violent deaths. Powerful stuff.

Yet, because the story wraps around this couple and their deep devotion to each other, these messages are swathed in a gentleness — not unlike the mysterious mist that is clouding everyone’s memory in this mythical England.

The Hidden Giant is not the buried monster our couple are careful not to trod on, it is the past.

A Little Plot:

Britons Axl and Beatrice believe they may have a son who lives in a nearby village and resolve to go see him. Their memories are uncertain however, the same as everyone else in their village — and their country.

Along the way they encounter a mighty Saxon warrior who claims a peaceful mission, a boy bitten by a beast, and Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s now-gone court. Each has a mission, but what they may be continues to evolve.

I didn’t immediately find a website for Ishiguro, but there’s plenty out the about him and this book.

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The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

May 25th, 2015

51EvfaFpHOL._SL75_By Gabrielle Zevin

The Short Take:

A perfectly charming little story about a lonely book store owner and how a bundle left in his store changes his life.


This is an ideal for book clubs: moderate length, engaging plot, quirky characters, light, yet with a message. It’s not grand literature but it certainly is a joy to read.

In turn humorous, touching, and even mysterious, this rich reading experience builds around a romance yet never goes all gooey and sentimental. Plus, the front-of-chapter comments by the main character on a number of short stories are a hoot.

A Little Plot:

A grieving widower, Fikry owns a struggling bookshop on a New England resort island. On top of that, he’s a complete curmudgeon — a terror to book sales reps — which adds to his loneliness.

Then two extraordinary things happen. First, a rare and highly valuable Edgar Allen Poe book is stolen from his apartment. Second, a precocious toddler is abandoned in his shop.

Allbeit reluctantly, his life is changed in ways he never expected.

For more about Zevin, this book, and her other novels for adults as well as young adults, click here.

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May 16th, 2015

51yXIymgmwL._SL75_By James Joyce

The Short Take:

This was the second book of my 2015 self-challenge. I was feeling fairly smug after my Moby Dick experience. Well, James Joyce knocked me down several pegs. I was thrilled to actually follow what was going on — which wasn’t all the time. The only reason I finished was shear bull-headedness.


Everyone said Moby Dick was so hard. Well, I not only got through it, I liked it. So I approached this one with my confidence high. Ha ha ha!

There were many times when I thought the language was beautiful — if only I had some idea what Joyce was expressing. The stream-of-consciouness bits were the easiest to follow. It was the conversations that threw me for a loop: snippets of talk and action from more than one location were sometimes intermixed with no way to tell who was where and saying what. And, the long hallucinatory sequence in the brothel? Imagine reading a hundred pages written like The Beatles “I Am the Walrus,” only there’s no music. Just words. Ugh.

To see if I was “getting it” at all, I read notes on the various sections after completing them. I was often on the right track, but there were  occasions when my reaction was, “Really?! How did someone figure that out?”

I had read that Joyce claimed this book would have literary types guessing for years, and I can see where you could seriously study this book. Not me, however, I’m just glad its over.

A Little Plot:

It’s a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, which supposedly reflects the story of the hero Ulysses, who goes about doing and thinking one thing and another in Dublin.

PS. The final book in my challenge is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. However, Russian writers just don’t feel like summer fare, so I’m waiting till September to tackle that one. Until then, it’s back to usual.

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Orhan’s Inheritance

May 3rd, 2015

51sbpUlVszL._SL75_By Aline Ohanesian

The Short Take:

This truly exceptional first novel explores the Armenian genocide during World War I, as experienced by a fifteen-year-old girl and her family. Horrendous cruelty, family secrets, ancient prejudices, and a budding romance weave together in her well-crafted story. It’s most excellent.


I remember my mother using the phrase “starving Armenians,” but had no understanding of the source. The ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during WWI was well before both our times. Ohanesian focuses on one family to convey the tragedies that destroyed well over a million lives.

Moving between the era of these relocations and massacres and 1990, the veils of secrecy and illusion are gradually parted to reveal a stunning story — as engaging as any thriller yet founded in genuine human pain and endurance.

Ohanesian leavens the pain with philosophical observations and old sayings invoked by various characters; just like the rationales and justifications we all use to get through dark times. And, she does a masterful job of it.

A Little Plot:

A successful rug merchant dies, leaving a will that bequeaths the family home to a woman no one knows. His grandson, Orhan, seeks the woman out.

Reluctantly, she tells him of her family’s ordeal during the Armenian genocide. What he learns changes his perspective of everything.

For more about Ohanesian and her novel, click here.



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