We Begin at the End

April 29th, 2021

By Chris Whitaker

The Short Take:

A nimble plot and incredible characters make this novel shine. It’s surprisingly noir for a book set in a California coastal resort town and sunny Montana, it combines elements of thrillers, westerns, and Dicken’s style tragedy. I could not put it down.

Why?

The two central characters couldn’t be more different–or more intriguing. Walk, the sheriff, has never left his small town and exudes loneliness. Thirteen-your-old Duchess is a self-described outlaw; a tough as nails spitfire who fiercely protects her five-year-old brother. The siblings need protection: Oliver Twist didn’t experience the constant danger these two endure and adults continually fail them.

Whitaker has a different way of describing his settings, more reflective of the emotions of the observers than a physical description. It can take a bit to sink into it but then you appreciate the texture it adds to the characters and plot.

And it is some plot. Even though you get a solid feeling “something isn’t right,” the author still manages to delivers surprise after surprise as the mystery begins to untangle.

A Little Plot:

A long ago death and a fresh murder seem to be linked to the same man, a newly released convict who was Walk’s best friend. The convict was also the boyfriend of Duchess’ mother, now an unstable substance abuser with abundant beauty and equally abundant bad life choices.

There’s also a dark and dangerous real estate developer bent on revenge. Whitaker gives you a lot to work with.

For a bit more about the author and this book, click here.

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Klara and the Sun

April 19th, 2021

By Kazuo Ishiguro

The Short Take:

Kindness, the sun, and love power AF (artificial friend) Klara; a narrator so compassionate and complex she out-humans the humans around her. Set in the near-future, this novel has sci-fi elements but it is solidly focused on faith, hope, and charity.

Why?

Ishiguro explores how our increasing reliance on algorithms, data, and computer intelligence might affect our humanity. Yet, he presents this through the eyes of a completely loving and caring AF. It’s hard to say who shows more soul–the AF Klara or her human owner, Josie.

The major points that shape the narrative are slowly revealed, almost like a series of mysteries. However Klara, with her impressive intuition, realizes what is happening and what needs to be done about it before we do.

It’s a familiar yet different world and Ishiguro introduces it to you gradually. Eventually you learn what “lifting” is, why AFs matter, the cause of Josie’s mysterious illness, and much more. All the pieces fall seemlessly into place and the final picture is one of the brilliant light of genuine love.

It’s a beautiful book and perfect for these times and the questions we face.

A Little Plot:

Klara hopes to be purchased (young teens seem to be the only owners of AFs), and carefully observes and thoughtfully interprets the actions of all the humans around her to better prepare herself for her future role. When Josie selects her she is delighted even thoughJosie warns her that she is sometimes sick. Klara remains undaunted and devotes herself to Josie’s well-being, in every sense.

You can learn more about Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro by clicking here.

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Solutions and Other Problems

April 7th, 2021

By Allie Brosh

The Short Take:

Brosh’s unique yet insightful views on family, pets, depression, and a host of human foibles will keep you laughing and make you think. What could be better?

Why?

Quirky drawings, surprising observations, and amazing creative thinking; these are Brosh hallmarks. And they’re on grand display in her newest book. Take the title, for example. It makes you smile, then you stop to think: Many solutions do result in other problems. That’s solid Allie Brosh.

I’ve always been a fan and was saddened when depression took her away from regular postings on her blog. However, she’s found her way into work again, and this is her second book.

Her strange drawings are oddly expressive. But it’s the subjects she explores, like dealing with questions and reactions when a dog starts retaining water in enormous quantities. These will have you giggling like a maniac as you nod your head in understanding. You might not have been there exactly but you get it completely.

A Little Plot:

Her stories range from childhood experiences to the here and now. There’s no order to their presentation, though a couple build on each other.

Brosh’s publisher agreed to let her put one chapter of her book on her old blog. Such a treat! And you can explore her other fantastic creations in the blog archive, or simply click on her favorites. But do click here to visit.

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The Four Winds

March 26th, 2021

By Kristin Hannah

The Short Take:

While the depiction of Dust Bowl/Great Depression poverty was interesting, the unrelenting suffering of the primary character wears you out.

Why?

Having read two other books by Hannah I should have been prepared for misery piled upon misery. I wasn’t. From a hateful family to a distant husband to the horrors of the Great Depression–it was one thing after another, all faced by a woman who felt she got only what she deserved.

The writing is fine and the pacing is good. Maybe in happier times this book about the struggles of people who have been reduced to a footnote in history might have resonated. Now it only reminds one of how far we haven’t come.

A Little Plot:

Elsa’s prosperous and very proper family clearly look down on her, constantly telling her she is unattractive and incapable. No wonder she sees her own future as an empty wasteland. In a single act of rebellion, she goes out one night in a flapper-stye dress and meets a man. The outcome is not good.

For more about Krisstin Hannah and her books, click here.

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A Thousand Ships

March 15th, 2021

By Natalie Haynes

The Short Take:

This novel tells the story of the Trojan War from the view points of its women. Plus it lays the blame for this 10-year long bloodbath squarely at the feet of it’s instigator–and it isn’t Helen.

Why?

Haynes’ unique perspective gives voice to the women and goddesses who play supporting roles in Homer’s epics. Why? Because even though these women did not go to battle (except for the Amazons), their stories are also heroic.

Written from many different perspectives, these women’s stories are not only drawn from portrayals in the Iliad and Odyssey but other classical writings that expanded their stories, such as the plays of Euripides. And Haynes provides character as well as plot: Penelope’s letters to her husband, Odysseus, develop a caustic tone as his journey home from a long war threatens to take even longer. Cassandra, who knows the future but is never believed, continually bears intense anguish due to her deadly knowledge.

Highly accessible and exceptionally informative this novel delivers a solid retelling of the war and its aftermath. It’s no feminist screed but does put a spotlight on the bravery, pain, vengefulness, pride, and patience of these women who are also heavily impacted by the death and destruction of this war.

A Little Plot:

It’s the Iliad and the Odyssey with some extra. You probably know the highlights of the plot.

For more about Natalie Haynes and her books click here.

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Nights at the Circus

February 26th, 2021

By Angela Carter

The Short Take:

This 1984 classic is incredible: a feminist fantasy, magical realism writ large, whip smart, deliciously naughty. It’s a full plate and night not be to your taste but I gobbled it up.

Why?

I’m so glad I stumbled across a reference to this complex and highly entertaining novel. Set right before the 1900s become the 20th century, it follows a winged (maybe) aerialist and her pursuing journalist from London to St. Petersburg to Siberia.

It’s filled with entertaining absurdities like waltzing tigers as well as acute observations on women’s rights–many of which are still applicable. It’s literally stuffed with points of interest, quotable lines, religious allusions, and truly fascinating characters. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction when it came out and 28 years later was voted the best book to ever win that award. that’s saying something since books have been winning that award since 1919.

It’s a rich, lively, thought provoking read. Try it.

A Little Plot:

Journalist Jack Falser suspects the supposedly winged trapeze artist Fevvers is a fraud, despite her being the toast of Europe. Now she is joining a circus bound for St. Petersburg and then Siberia and he decides he must follow her, not just for the story but for love.

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The Kingdom

February 9th, 2021

By Jo Nesbö

The Short Take:

Nesbö writes great mysteries featuring his Harry Hole character. This is a stand-alone that is as noir as they come, unpredictable, and mesmerizing. Be aware that it is very dark, but then that’s what we expect from Norwegian mystery writers.

Why?

While The Kingdom isn’t quite as violent as the typical Hole mystery its pervasive aura of alienation adds darkness to every plot device. The normally positive themes of family love and loyalty become perverted and deadly, creating bonds built on guilt and lies.

The action takes place in a small and isolated community, where everyone thinks they know everything about each other but are often wrong. The town’s atmosphere of hopelessness has a valid basis–a planned new highway will pass it by, removing the meager income provided by summer tourists.

But the return of a long-absent resident brings hope. Carl, brother to the book’s narrator, Roy, has big plans and wants the whole community to be part of them. But there are dark undercurrents of feelings and even darker secrets that could derail everything.

Nesbö’s writing is a delight, revealing one surprise after another–but seldom what you expect to happen. Older brother Roy is a taciturn loner with his astute insights that too often lead to violence. Carl charms with ease but has no problem with deception.

It’s a rich brew of conflicts old and new, with explosive revelations and that’s what keeps this reader happy.

A Little Plot:

After a 15 year absence, Carl comes home with a new wife and plans to build a luxury hotel to make them rich and save the town. His brother has misgivings but stands by his brother. In fact, protecting his brother has shaped his entire life.

For more about Jo Nesbö click here.

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Moonflower Murders

February 2nd, 2021

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

This is Horowitz’s second “book within a book” mystery and it’s as much fun as the first. Susan Ryeland is back, once again trying to fix a mess that involves the late writer, Alan Conway.

Why?

You don’t need to have read Horowitz’s Magpie Murders to fully appreciate this book, but why miss out on that fun? The author knows how to craft a mystery and in these books he doesn’t stop at one. In the middle of his modern mystery is another one, written in the classic style of the Agatha Christie era, with a main character who is practically a clone of Hercule Poirot.

I particularly like how Horowitz’s “own” writing purposefully out sparkles that of the “book” written by the fictional Alan Conway. It’s yet another clever touch in a well-crafted yet complicated plot. After all, how many mysteries serve up an eight years old murder, a current disappearance, and a fictional murder and then blend them together seamlessly.

The characters–or suspects–are intriguing and not exactly forthcoming when Conway’s former editor, Susan Ryeland, talks to them. She then delves into Conway’s book to discover what the missing Cecily saw that identified the guilty party of that long-ago murder.

Through this reading we learn a lot about the dead Conway and his strained relationship with Susan. And why the plot and writing of his book isn’t top-notch (guess what–it’s not her fault).

Did I mention the characters in Conway’s book are all based on the “real” people who figure into thee old murder and the current disappearance. It doesn’t get much more entertaining than that.

A Little Plot:

Susan is struggling with her small hotel in Greece when a couple approach her and offer a large sum if she’ll come to England to investigate their daughter Cecily’s disappearance. Why? Cecily told them that reading a mystery book by Alan Conway revealed who had killed a hotel guest eight years ago and then promptly disappeared. Since Susan edited Conway they figure she would be able to figure out what happened.

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

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Spellbreaker

January 11th, 2021

By Charlie N. Holmberg

The Short Take:

I did not appreciate finding out at the end that it would take a second book to finish this story. And, frankly, this one didn’t impress me enough to want to read another. But you might feel different.

Why?

To be fair, the Amazon listing did include a line of type reading “Book 1 of 2.” A line of type I failed to note. But there was nothing in my ebook. Not even at the end to push you towards the next volume.

Holmberg’s gaslight fantasy/romance is set in a world where magic is real and those born with magical ability must register with the authorities and go through proper training.

About two-thirds of the book is repetitive, with Elsie breaking spells when others demand and trying not to get caught. Over and over. Then the plot twists and turns like an agitated rattlesnake. Good guys become bad guys become good guys. Phew! Maybe if the author had taken less time setting things up the reader could have gotten a whole story with an ending in one volume.

A Little Plot:

Young orphan Elsie only realizes she has spell breaking power when she accidentally causes her orphanage to burn to the ground. Afraid of being punished, she keeps her power secret. However the Cowls know her secret and draw her into a world of intrigue. Elsie struggles to balance her two lives. Then things get really complicated.

For more about Charlie N. Holmberg and her work, click here.

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The Invisible Life of Adie LaRue

December 22nd, 2020

By V. E. Schwab

The Short Take:

Make a deal with a devil and you’re sure to be sorry. Ask for more time and freedom to live as you wish, and you might live forever but no one will remember you. That’s Addie’s predicament and it makes for a fascinating read.

Why?

On the surface not being remembered doesn’t sound so bad. But think again. Imagine a kindly woman invites you into her house for a cup of tea. She turns away to pour a cup and when she turns back screams to see a complete stranger in her house. Or you spend the night with a man and when he awakens he is either shocked out of his mind or tries to act like he remembers you. Not being remembered can be a big problem. And so Addie discovers as the years grow into decades and then centuries.

It’s an interesting spin on the challenges of a lifetime that stretches on forever and the author does a good job of painting a daunting picture of the problem inherent in every-day survival. But her heroine is resilient and exceedingly stubborn.

Of course things don’t go on this way forever. One day someone does remember her. That’s when things get really interesting.

A Little Plot:

Addie wants to escape her little village and the marriage that’s being forced on her. In desperation, she prays to the old gods and one of them answers, offering her time and freedom in exchange for her soul. She jumps at the offer, not thinking about what interpretation her “liberator” may make of her request.

For more about Schwab and her books (her others are aimed at young adult and middle age audiences, this one is absolutely not) click here.

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