Pachinko

October 5th, 2017

UnknownBy Min Jin Lee

The Short Take:

This multi-generational epic traces the trials and loyalties of a Korean family in Japan between the early 1900s and 1989. Lee undertook significant research to write this novel and it certainly opened my eyes to a lot of things. More importantly, her characters are both inspired and inspiring.

Why?

Lee draws her title from the Japanese pachinko gambling game, where you manipulate a ball through a series of pins hoping for a lucky outcome. However, as with their slot machine cousins, luck is usually not on your side.

It’s the same for the generations of a Korean family living in Japan, where they are consistently discriminated against and marginalized. All they can do is work diligently and cling to each other while striving to improve opportunities for the next generation.

Lee’s writing style compliments the language barriers between her characters, where illiteracy and three different languages create divides. However, the respect and love within the family — along with an unbreakable hope for the future — bind them together despite the numerous catastrophes that befall, from an unwanted pregnancy to World War II. It’s a rich reading experience, with passages of great emotional power along with moments of the quietest tenderness.

What surprised me is that Koreans born in Japan, even after four or more generations, are still considered foreigners, required to register for permissionto stay at age 14, must re-register every four years, and can be deported at any time. They can not hold Japanese passports, meaning travel is impossible unless they manage to get a North or South Korea passport. It’s a tragic situation, especially considering they are were brought there to do the work the Japanese didn’t want to do.

A Little Plot:

When Korea is under Japanese rule, a very young Sunja meets an elegant older man who takes advantage of her innocence. An idealistic missionary offers to marry her give her unborn child his name, and takes her to Japan. Once there the order of the day is work and poverty, with danger lurking in many forms.

For more about Min Jin Lee and her work, click here.

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What We Lose

September 29th, 2017

Unknown-2By Zinzi Clemmons

The Short Take:

Some events in this thoughtful, pain-driven novel are drawn from the author’s own experiences. She is also a light-skinned black woman largely living in a white world, who lost her mother while in college. Clemmons addresses the problems of loss and identity with exceptional honesty, however it is hard to relate to many of the central character’s actions.

Why?

This novel is written in vignettes, as if the central character, Thandie, was keeping a journal where she recorded whatever touched her heart that day. This makes the book a little disjointed plot-wise, but it also adds a stronger emotional appeal.

Thandie’s (and supposedly Clemmons’) expressions of grief are often poetic and consistently insightful. She explores how her skin makes her feel like an outsider, not only in her home community of Philadelphia, but also with her mother’s family in Johannesburg, South Africa. She makes acute observations about the divide between rich and poor in the latter location and the escalating crime problem. The novel also includes some historical facts with related photographs, such as the criminal behavior of Winnie Mandela (which was frankly a puzzling addition).

However, for all the looking inward and emotional outpourings, Thandie keeps her distance from the reader. You want her to tell you more and provide context for her actions. Instead you encounter some rather inexplicable behavior and more surface than depth.

Clemmons’ writing style is lyrical, but I’m not sure what else the reader gains from this experience.

A Little Plot:

Thandie’s mother dies and this affects her deeply. She and her father withdraw from each other emotionally. Thandie engages with different people and occupations, but nothing seems to fill the void.

For more about Zinzi Clemmons and her writing click here.

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

September 17th, 2017

Unknown-1By Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Short Take:

This slim volume contains a wealth of easily understood information about a very complex and abstract subject — our universe. It’s perfect for someone like me, who knew next to nothing about astrophysics. I learned a lot and, Tyson’s summation was genuinely uplifting.

Why?

Words like quantum mechanics, dark matter, and pulsars always sounded intriguing but I had little or no understanding of what they meant. Tyson brought these outer space terms solidly down to earth and made it fun to learn about them.

The sizes and times related to various entities is this book are mind blowing — for the unfathomably small to the unimaginably large. Reading this book is inspiring, humbling, and actually great fun. Plus, there are all kinds of simple factoids you can casually drop into conversations, if only you are lucky enough to be around people who talk about life, the universe, and everything.

A Little Plot:

Plot doesn’t really relate here. You will gain a very basic understanding of the theories, discoveries, and science that shape today’s understanding of the universe. And it’s all delivered in way that makes you hungry for more.

For more about Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Hayden Planetarium under his direction click here.

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Beren and Lúthien

September 3rd, 2017

41FwLxwd-pL._AC_UL160_J. R. R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

The Short Take:

Unless you are an exceptionally serious Tolkien fan or scholar, you will probably want to pass this one up. It was too much for me, and I’ve read The Lord of the Rings 11 times!

Why?

Basically, Christopher Tolkien has taken every version his father wrote of this adventure/love story and put it one volume, with plenty of information about the background, the whys, and wherefores. You really have to care an awful lot to want to wade through it all.

If you do care, you’ll enjoy the effort put into this book in order to demonstrate how the story, the characters, and even the names evolved over time. It really is quite thorough and scholarly, but it’s not for everyone.

A Little Plot:

Beren falls in love with Lúthien and goes through great peril to win her. She refuses to let him do it all alone. These two heroes go through multiple revisions.

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Kinglet

August 22nd, 2017

51BI6K3Dn-LBy Donna Migliaccio

The Short Take:

This fresh and fast-moving epic fantasy was a delight to read — a brave yet conflicted hero, not too many fighting sequences, a dollop of romance, a different take on magic, and a wealth of engaging characters. It’s all good.

Why?

I admit epic fantasy is one of my preferred genres, though I can count on one hand the number of multiple book series I have read. I want to be sure the characters and story are worth the time invested.

This one grabbed me with its first line: “The soldiers were shimmering again.” That would be due to one of the two types of magic in this book — something you don’t often come by in fantasy. In fact, there were a number of fresh takes on the genre in this volume; like a tough woman who’s not afraid to mix things up, and that power-mad magician. It’s a fun read.

By the way, I’ve been burned by book series where the wait between volumes is ridiculous (looking at you, Martin and Rothfuss). So I contacted this author to be sure there were other books coming down the pipeline — she’s already finished book four. Good.

A Little Plot:

Kristan is son and heir to The Gemeta, king of Fandrall. But a powerful and vengeful magician overthrows his father and takes his kingdom. Escaping to the wilderness of the Exilwald, Kristan finds unlikely allies who help him hide, but he cannot stay hidden forever. Two many forces are aligned against him.

For more about Migliaccio (who is also an actress, it appears), click here.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

August 21st, 2017

UnknownBy Matthew Sullivan

The Short Take:

This was a quick read, but also a bit of a head scratcher. It’s supposed to be a murder mystery yet the plot is almost completely driven by a suicide. Huh?

Why?

There’s a lot of misdirection in this mystery. The plot ambles along at a gentle pace, making you think something is going to happen over and over. But it doesn’t. It’s many pages before the actual murder is even mentioned, and then it turns out it’s 20 years in the past.

Relations past and present seem to be abandoned or begun for no real reason, there are some far-fetched coincidences, and it’s actually pretty easy to guess whodunit once the murder is actually presented.

I wasn’t unhappy while reading this book, but when I finished it  my reaction was, “What?” That’s not so great.

A Little Plot:

Lydia’s favorite customer commits suicide in the bookstore. She inherits his meager belongings and searches for clues to his action. She’s also avoiding her father and everyone else from her past, all due to a traumatic childhood incident and it’s aftermath.

For more about Matthew Sullivan click here.

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The House of the Spirits

August 9th, 2017

Unknown-1By Isabel Allende

The Short Take:

Magical realism meets with political oppression in this over 30-year-old novel — Allende’s first. I’ve long been a fan of hers, and this epic story following three generations of exceptional women — and one very powerful man — did not disappoint.

Why?

I did not know Allende was the niece of the Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende and that the political side of this novel was solidly founded on historical fact. Blame my scant knowledge of South American events for that, which researching for this review helped to remedy in some small fashion.

These political underpinnings start well in the novel’s background but eventually move to center stage as the book progresses. Above and beyond that, one amazing woman after another shapes and reshapes the lives of those around them, through powers both domestic and supernatural. It’s their stories that keep you engaged and keep you reading.

While most of the book is written in third person, the violent man who impacts all their lives, Esteban Trueba, speaks to you directly, though his actions sometimes give the lie to his words.

A hound as big as a horse, levitation, fantastical creche figures, fortune telling, and other peculiarities stride alongside growing political turmoil as the downtrodden begin to insist on their rights. Somehow Allende makes that combination seem realistic — it’s all fantastic.

A Little Plot:

Esteban labors at his a gold mine, desperate to earn the money to marry his adored Rosa. Her accidental death drives him to bury his sorrows with work on the decayed family farm. It also drives Rosa’s younger sister, Clara, to refuse to speak for nine years. Yet the future of these two will entwine.

For more about Allende, click here.

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The Changeling

August 4th, 2017

UnknownBy Victor Lavalle

The Short Take:

This disturbing tale brings together the worst nightmares of a modern, over-protective father and monstrous horrors from the Brothers Grimm. While that sounds hard to swallow, Lavelle makes it go down rather smoothly.

Why?

Lavalle’s hero, Apollo, and his wife, Emma, are very real New Yorker African-Americans. It’s important to remember this, because after their baby arrives, their lives go completely bonkers.

There is probably no other book remotely like this one. It’s rich, surprising, complex, shocking, and very well written. It is not particularly easy to like but it’s also almost impossible to put down. The story sucks you in, delivers the ride of a lifetime, then makes you question the whole experience.

While the importance — and limitation — of fatherhood is the primary focus, the way racism shapes and restricts the characters’ actions also snaps you to attention. There’s a lot going on here — from legal issues and media exploitation to the loyalty of friends and folk tales come to life.

Lavelle went bold with this one. Very, very bold.

A Little Plot:

Apollo dreams of his absent father and vows that when his own child is born he will protect his son at all costs. However, the anxieties and exhaustion of parenthood are taking their toll, driving the two apart. Problems — and secrets — increase the stress even more. Then, something unbelievably horrific happens.

For more about Victor Lavalle and his work, click here.

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Magpie Murders

July 23rd, 2017

225x225bbBy Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz, who has written many a Masterpiece Mystery screenplay, both salutes the classic whodunit formula and turns it on its head. And, he does both masterfully.

Why?

Why is it the British seem to be particularly good at murder mysteries? Horowitz is no exception. His screen credits include Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and much more. He’s written Sherlock Holmes stories and a young adult crime series, among other things, Then there’s this book.

Magpie Murders is basically two mysteries in one. There’s the new whodunit manuscript by the deceased writer of a popular series, and an even bigger mystery that surrounds the writer’s death. One woman is immersed in both and finds numerous curious, and highly disturbing, connections between the two.

Or is it all in her imagination? Read it and find out.

A Little Plot:

Susan Ryeland is the editor for Alan Conroy’s popular Atticus Pünd detective series. She settles down to read the first draft of his latest effort, but something is wrong.

I’m not telling you what exactly is wrong, because that would ruin all the fun. For more on Anthony Horowitz, click here.

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Theft by Finding

June 30th, 2017

UnknownBy David Sedaris

The Short Take:

As a Sedaris fan, I was initially disappointed with this collection of his diary entries but ultimately became delighted. His open eyes and listening ears find something interesting everywhere.

Why?

The early diary entries are rather short and depressing. I almost considered setting the book aside unfinished. However, the further into the timeline you read, the longer and more engaging the selected diary entries become.

This is no exercise in naval gazing. Sedaris doesn’t focus on his feelings but on everything around him. Oh, he may have a reaction to record (and share), but it’s the outside world that engages him.

You learn more about his family dynamics, including the tragic problems of one sister and his father’s gruffness. You also realize how much physical labor was a part of his life. But ultimate, it’s Seradis’ wide-eyed observance of the people and things around him that keep you turning the pages.

I was especially delighted that he included more about the spiders he named, fed, and watched over in his rural French home. Those notes alone give you an idea of the eccentric fun to be found in this volume.

A Little Plot:

The years in these diaries, 1977-2002, start with the years of struggle as a young man tries to find his way. The end with his exceptional success. However, not even the hard years are painful to read about because Sedaris continually records the confounding and bizarre people and events he encounters.

You can find a lot more about this David Sedaris book by clicking on the NPR interview here.

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