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Inti brings her extremely close yet highly withdrawn twin with her when she comes to Scotland to direct the reintroduction of wolves to a land where they once roamed.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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Our Country Friends

November 30th, 2021

By Gary Shteyngart

The Short Take:

This novel is set during the first few months of the covid pandemic and brings back how scary and uncertain those times were. However, the core focus is on long-time friends–all immigrants or the children of immigrants. Their relationship has survived mixed levels of success, betrayals, and the test of time. But will it survive living together in a secluded compound to avoid the ravages of the virus?

Why?

Shteyngart is a terrific writer and I know I missed a lot of the literary references, since I’ve read only a handful of Russian novels. However, I did love how Boccaccio’s short stories about friends who shelter in the country during a 14th century plague outbreak turned up in a character’s name: Dee Cameron/Decameron.

There is no single point of view in this book. The narrative swings from one person’s internal musings to another’s, and occasionally an omnipotent narrator offers aides or warns of what’s to come. The group dines together each evening on a large covered porch. In their conversations they reflect on the otherness of being an immigrant as well as their privilege in being able to escape the ravages taking place in the New York City–the clashes and concords these two conditions bring to their lives.

Irony has long been one of Shteyngart’s favorite literary techniques and it’s on full display here, though maybe it’s too soon for some of us to find humor in this still vexing situation. Still the various sexual yearning/actions, the precocious observations of the only child in the group, and the occasional connections to the outside world leaven the more serious issues explored.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book but if you are triggered by covid loss, you might want to let this one age a bit. But Shteyngart is at the top of his game.

A Little Plot

Russian immigrant and once-successful writer, Sasha, invites three old friends, a student who has just achieved her first literary success, and The Actor (named only once close to the book’s end) to join his wife and daughter as they shelter from covid at his dacha-like compound on the Hudson River Valley.

Betrayals are revealed, relationships form and reform, and all learn more about themselves and each other.

I did not spot a website for the author but if you google him, there’s plenty of info out there.

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Harlem Shuffle

November 11th, 2021

By Colson Whitehead

The Short Take:

Whitehead is a brilliant writer and his exploration of the various paths a man can choose in 1960s Harlem is no exception: struggling entrepreneur, small-time crook, or an uneasy alliance between the two. Regardless, it all comes with a price.

Why?

Carney, the protagonist of this fascinating novel, wanders the streets at night imagining moving his family into the nicer apartments he sees. During the day he works hard to pay the rent at the furniture store he owns, enhancing his income by accepting and selling items “that fall of the truck” from hustlers he knows. It’s all a part of Harlem Shuffle, where everything and everyone works to move money around, be they crooks, businessmen, policemen, or politicians.

The dichotomy of Carney’s life–half way between upstanding citizen and player–forms the background of this character study. He performs a dangerous tightrope act as he tries to keep his family and business safe while fulfilling the conflicting demands of small time hoods and out-and-out gangsters.

Whitehead paints a vibrant picture of Harlem in the 1960s, from the street excitement surrounding performers at the famed Apollo Theater, to the intricate interlocking motivations and concerns of different movers, shakers, and fakers. And Carney displays drive, smarts, and nimbleness as he charts his way through the various unsavory tangles he is unwillingly sucked into. Because this novel is filled with crime-driven suspense as well as vibrant atmosphere.

One thing I love is the careful attention Whitehead pays to the furniture lines and designs of the day. Carney draws comfort from the quality of the products he sells and is eager to represent even more prestigious lines even though blocks away Harlem burns as citizens protest another police killing. Another positive attraction is his portrayal of secondary characters. Without giving you a litany of details he quickly shows you who people are and what they want. The grit, the contradictions, the striving of are all on display.

All in all a fantastic read.

A Little Plot:

Carney is exceptionally close to his cousin, Freddie. Unfortunately, Freddie is also close to one of the criminal elements of Harlem and involves Carney on the peripheries of a planned heist without his consent. This not only exposes Carney to possible arrest but also upsets other gangs, who come looking for answers as well.

For more about Colson Whitehead click here.

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Project Hail Mary

October 10th, 2021

By Andy Weir

The Short Take:

If you liked Weir’s The Martian you’ll probably enjoy this one, too. Once again a person is in space, alone, and fighting for survival. Only this time the fate of the human race depends on his success. There’s lots of science-based solutions, a smart-aleck attitude, and a big surprise.

Why?

Even if you’re not a big science nerd (and physical science is not my jam) Weir’s novel is highly readable. His light, humorous touch and straight-forward writing style combine with genuine science to create an absorbing read. This is his third novel and I’ve enjoyed all three of them.

I acknowledge he uses some tried and tested sci-fi tropes: Protagonist Ryland Grace wakes up not knowing who, where, or why he is. But his journey of self-discovery is fun to witness. Once a memory is triggered there is a chapter on that memory. These reveal the who, where, how, and–eventually–the why of his present circumstances

He thinks logically but occasional makes mistakes with unwelcome consequences. Then something totally unexpected happens. That’s when the fun really starts.

A Little Plot:

Ryland Grace wakes up alone with two dead bodies. In space. He has no idea where or why but quickly learns life on earth depends on him. To visit Weir’s website click here, but know that it very out of date.

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The Paper Palace

August 28th, 2021

By Miranda Cowley Heller

The Short Take:

This debut novel reads well and unfolds nicely. There was too much child molestation for me (I have a low threshold), but the insights into the feelings of one victim were worth the read. Sections alternate between a couple of days in “current” time at a rustic family retreat in Cape Cod–not the posh part– and the life story of our narrator and her antecedents. It’s a wild trip.

Why?

Despite the previously mentioned bits that bothered me, I really enjoyed this book. The writing sang, with gorgeous descriptions. The pacing pulled you through, making it hard to put the book down. Her characters were complex yet she didn’t lay it all on the line. The narrator’s mother is an excellent example; she seems fully revealed yet parts remain hidden, just like a real person. Of course, the author doesn’t veer too far from her own reality: her husband is English and her family spent summers in Cape Cod. This adds to the immersive realism of the plot.

At first it’s hard to understand the narrator’s behavior, which could destroy her marriage and family. But the story of her life makes everything clear and you understand the powerful opposing emotions she faces.

It’s a strong book.

A Little Plot:

Elle sneaks out of a family dinner to have sex with Jonas, her childhood soulmate. The subsequent guilt she feels for betraying her husband and family fights with her burning desire for this life not lived. The novel explains why.

Surprisingly for someone who worked at HBO for some time, the author has no readily available website. However there are many interviews on line that reveal more about her.

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Gold Diggers

July 19th, 2021

By Sanjena Sathian

The Short Take:

A unique twist on the coming-of age story, with young people ingesting the powers of gold to further their own ambitions–but to the detriment of their associates. Highly enjoyable as well as being surprisingly informative.

Why?

The children of moderately successful Indian immigrants in this book are under immense pressure to succeed as Americans but also to embrace the Indian culture of their parents. To achieve this dichotomy they go to special programs, participate in many extra curricular activities, and more. Some even consume gold–stolen gold that is specially prepared and dissolved.

This practice impacts both those who take the gold and those who’s golden trinkets are stolen. Are these effects real? The book treats them seriously, or at least seems to. Several cover blurbs referred to this novel as funny which I didn’t get at all so maybe the joke’s on me. Regardless, it is a fascinating read that not only delves into the semi-contemporary lives of second generation American-Indians (it begins in the Bush era) but also explores the possible existence of an actual Indian gold digger in the ’49 California gold rush.

I doubt there’s another book with anything close to this unusual take on ambition, family, relationships, and loyalty.

A Little Plot:

While smart enough, Neil doesn’t have the drive or ambition of his ethnic Indian contemporaries. This disappoints his parents as well as himself. When his closest friend, neighbor Anita, becomes secretive and starts achieving new successes he wonders about the change and begins to investigate. Then he helps himself to the same solution.

For more about Sanjena Sathian click here.

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