The Midnight Library

October 18th, 2020

By Matt Haig

The Short Take:

Nora already felt like her life was a mess then it got worse. So she decides to end it all but instead of becoming dead she winds up in a library with countless books describing other lives she could have had–and that she can now try out.

Why?

This starts out as a very depressing read but quickly perks up. The protagonist has burdened herself with numerous regrets over the course of her 35 years. Now she is given a chance to try out those could-of-been lives and see if one of them suits her better than the disappointing one she attempted to leave.

In a way this is a self-help book in the form of a novel. As Nora learns about herself readers can apply those lessons to their own lives. It’s a clever way to reach people who might never visit the self-help section of a store and it nicely follows Haig’s memoir Reasons to Stay Alive.

This insightfulness does not get in the way of the novel’s charm. The writing is lively and bright. The various lives present highly diverse experiences, ranging from rock star to glaciologist; occupations which hold a lot more interest than most people’s lives offer.

I’m sure this is going to be a huge book club book, and deservedly so.

A Little Plot:

Nora’s life is a ball of regrets. Then she gets fired and her cat dies. She decides to commit suicide but the process delivers her to a strange library with a librarian like Miss Elm from her high school days. And Miss Elm offers her the chance to find her best life.

For more about Matt Haig and his books click here.

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Troubled Blood

October 12th, 2020

By Robert Galbraith

The Short Take:

Another engaging Comoran Strike mystery but at over 900 pages, it was far too long. This complex mystery features a lot of characters. And the plethora of horoscope/astrological references could get old. But if you’re a Strike fan, the developing relationship between he and Robin made it worthwhile.

Why?

Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed the book, though I did find myself skimming the astrological stuff. Investigating a disappearance that took place 40 years earlier required some heavy lifting from our fictional detectives (as well as the author). Many associated with the original disappearance had died or disappeared. Except for the daughter of the missing woman, other family members wanted to let the past be past. It posed a major challenge for Comoran and Robin,

As a side note, there were several other cases the detective agency also had to resolve. These largely involved the stake outs typical of most investigative work. I have always appreciated that this series puts the monotony and deep research private investigators engage in on full display. These are not glamorous jobs–except when that exceptional case comes along.

Determining if this disappeared woman was another victim of a serial murder or had met some other fate was one of those exceptional cases.

A Little Plot:

Margot Bamborough disappeared in 1976. The police assumed she was the victim of a serial murderer but the case was never solved, her body never found. Her daughter has a chance encounter with Comoran Strike which leads her to hire him to investigate. Even though he knows the chances of learning anything are slim, he is intrigued enough to take the case. He and Robin Ellacott have a year to figure things out.

For more about Galbraith (an alias for J. K. Rowling) and this series of books click here.

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Squeeze Me

October 5th, 2020

By Carl Hiaasen

The Short Take:

Hiaasen’s Florida-focused mysteries are always a wild romp. This one is no exception, featuring gigantic snakes, the Florida presidential compound, and the rich and powerful snobs of Palm Beach.

Why?

Be ready for one crazy read as Hiaasen takes you from a drunken charity ball to the Winter White House to the Everglade swamps and back again. It’s outrageous, irreverent, and pure fun; a perfect respite from the real world.

Of course, if you are like the members of the (fictional) Potussies, who worship everything about the president the Secret Serve refers to as Mastodon, you might take umbrage. But in that case, Hiaasen’s probably not for you anyway.

A Little Plot:

At an exclusive charity ball, ultra-rich dowager Kiki Pew disappears. The next day Angie Armstrong gets a call from the manager of the ball’s venue to collect and remove a huge python. Angie puts two-and-two together. But when the president gets wind of Pew’s disappearance/death he decides a group of violent immigrants have targeted his supporters and makes it a major part of every speech. Mayhem ensues. As does the appearance of more pythons.

For more about Carl Hiaasen and his many books, click here.

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Pretty Things

September 30th, 2020

By Janelle Brown

The Short Take:

What’s better than one unreliable narrator? Two! Well maybe not better, but certainly more entertaining. One narrator in this novel is a some-what reluctant con artist. The other is a rich heiress. It’s inevitable their paths should cross with a resounding clash.

Why?

This tale of revenge, betrayal, and a thirst for money is not the most elegant or witty book around but it is great fun. The story unfolds–and overlaps–through two first-person narratives. One is delivered by Nina, a young woman brought up in poverty who now steals “just some and from those who deserve it” with a male partner. The other narrator, Vanessa, is an heiress who is also a globe-trotting Instagram influencer.

Their family’s paths crossed when the girls were in their teens. That interaction sent both families in a tailspin. Now Nina desperately needs money and Vanessa is one person she does not mind taking for all she is worth.

What makes this book interesting is that it records many of the same scenes from both points of view. Words vary. Emphasis varies. Reactions vary. Noting what is presented differently take you inside these two damaged women, who both present themselves to the world as other than their realities. However, this novel could have been vastly improved if written with a black comedy slant. As the situation develops, the plot becomes more and more ludicrous and really needs that leavening, but you still can’t look away.

A Little Plot:

Nina’s mother needs a fortune to pay for an experimental cancer treatment. Nina, who has long nursed a grudge against the filthy rich Liebling family, thinks their daughter is the ideal mark to obtain that money. She enlists her con artist partner, Lachlan, in her scheme and they head to Lake Tahoe where Vanessa has holed up after experiencing some let downs of her own.

For more about Janelle Brown and her books, click here.

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Migrations

September 20th, 2020

By Charlotte McConaghy

The Short Take:

I seldom come across a book that moves me so much. This beautifully written novel about a damaged woman and her passion for the animal victims of our abused planet breaks your heart but also mends it.

Why?

In a not-so-distant future most wild animals are extinct, from the great cats to common crows. Franny Stone–who has a passion for water, birds, and personal flight–is determined to trace what is probably the very last Arctic to Antarctic migration of the last arctic terns.

She has no resources to call on but is determined to get from Greenland to Antarctica, even if means never coming back. Her determination is matched only by her low self esteem. Her pain is deep but its many sources are revealed bit by bit over the course of this heart-wrenching story.

However, I don’t want to give anyone the idea this is depressing. You’ll also find great beauty, moments of kindness, and sparks of joy that brighten the read. This is McConaghy’s first book for adults. I hope she stays with us.

A Little Plot:

Franny Stone has been searching for a boat to take her Antarctica–for free. She finally succeeds with the captain of the fishing boat Saghani, convincing him that her tagged arctic terns will also reveal where the last few schools of fish swim. It’s a dangerous journey, and Franny’s past is nothing like she presents it to him.

For more about charlotte McConaghy click here.

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Black Bottom Saints

September 15th, 2020

By Alice Randall

The Short Take:

This is one of the best books I have read in years. Fact and fiction combine to tell the stories of 52 “saints” associated with Detroit’s famed Black Bottom neighborhood, a wellspring for talent and creativity from the 1920s through the 1940s. The writing is brilliant and I learned so much–not just about these 52 individuals–but about being Black in America

Why?

The book is patterned after Catholic books of the saints, with the story of a different saint presented for 52 weeks. The narrator is Ziggy Johnson, who is writing the book from his deathbed. Ziggy Johnson is a genuine historic person who founded a school of theater and dance that not only nurtured talent but taught young Black girls to go out in the world and achieve. Other saints include such famous people as Joe Louis and Dinah Washington but you’ll also find a raft of people you’ve never heard of or barely recall. I finally quit looking up his saints right away and made a list–all that googling took me out of the reading moment.

I learned about Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old cowering under her table during the Detroit riots who was fatally shot by a National Guardsman. I learned about the drag balls of Alfred Finnie, the sculptures of Artis Lane, and the achievements of Bayard Rustin who played key roles in the Civil Rights movement but was sidelined because he was gay.

But the most important thing I learned was how Black entertainers, athletes, and others turned “trauma into transcendence,” overcoming the pain of slavery and Jim Crow to bring their beauty and magic to the world.

Alongside the stories of Ziggy’s saints is the story of Colored Girl, who is clearly a stand-in for author Alice Randall with only some details changed. Her complicated relationship with her mother, who stole her away from an adored father and Ziggy’s godfathering, is her trauma to transcend.

Through her creation of this book she brings the power and perseverance of Black lives to the forefront. Some told her others would steal what she possessed. She replied, “Black girl magic can’t stolen but can be given.”

Alice Randall has gifted the world with a sublime volume of exceptional inspiration and understanding. It is as close as you can get to divine.

A Little Plot:

There really isn’t a plot, though CG’s story is fairly linear and the stories of the saints have their connections, as you would expect in a tight neighborhood like Black Bottom. Each saint’s story also comes with a cocktail recipe that evokes that individuals unique spirit. And, no, I did not try them all.

For more about Alice Randall and her books click here. BTW her website is more interesting than those of most writers.

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Make Russia Great Again

September 1st, 2020

By Christopher Buckley

The Short Take:

When it comes to political satire, Buckley is one of the best. However, it’s hard to laugh at a book that is so close to our messed up reality. It’s almost depressing.

Why:

This is from the author’s notes: Any person finding any resemblance between themselves and person depicted herein should probably be ashamed. True enough. Buckley’s fictional Trump is so well portrayed you hear the real man’s voice while reading. He has also captured his imaginary administration’s revolving door as well as the sycophant senators and other “courtiers.”

But is it funny? The writing is as witty and caustic as ever (I’ve read many of his books) however the subject matter hits too close to what we’re living through. Actually, it’s a lot saner since it only focuses on Trump and Putin’s relationship and the reasons behind it and ignores the many sideshows and even main events (that virus is mentioned in passing once early on and feels like a last minute addition).

An autonomous computer that rigs elections, a Russian oligarch willing to blackmail to get his frozen assets back, sleazy events at a Miss Universe pageant, and other inventions all work hard to prop up the humor. But ultimately it is the fictional Trump that stops everything in its tracks. There’s simply no humor to be found there.

And the ending is almost believable, which is exceptionally depressing.

A Little Plot:

Long time Trump employee Herbert Nutterman is asked by his former boss to come to the White House as his Chief of Staff, even though the man has no government or political experience. But Nutterman is loyal, and that’s what matters. So loyal we learn on page one he is in jail and the book he’s writing describes how he wound up there.

For more about Buckley and his books click here. By the way, my personal favorites are Little Green Men and Thank You for Smoking.

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The Guest List

August 16th, 2020

By Lucy Foley

The Short Take:

Foley took a clever approach to an Agatha Christie type murder, told from five points of view. The identify of both the victim and the murderer remained uncertain until close to the end. That was different.

Why?

I get cranky about books that jump around in time and Foley did exactly that. But it worked for her narrative. Her book started with what might be a murder at a wedding and then jumped back to early the day before. It kept up that back-and-forth, ever so slowly progressing to the discovery of a corpse while also advancing through the previous 30 or so hours.

Foley did this to keep the identity of the victim secret for as long as possible, while offering readers possible motivations from her five narrators: the bride, the plus one, the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the best man. This added a certain element of fun, as well as tension, to her story.

It’s not the best mystery ever but it was a nice diversion. However you had to overlooks some flaws. I was totally distracted by torches that turned into flashlights and then became torches again (not confusing word choices as the torches flickered/blew out, but not the flashlights). Also the island setting featured sudden cliffs, a rip tide, and quicksand-like bogs. Yet the wedding planner–repeatedly described as professional–had done nothing to keep drunk wedding guests from wandering into these death traps.

The characters weren’t very likable, but since one of them would be murdered and another one would do the killing, that makes sense. It was a fun read that kept me turning pages but not something I would return to.

A Little Plot:

Rich and beautiful Jules is set to marry a handsome TV star on a remote Irish island. All guests will be brought over by boat, with the wedding party coming a day early and staying overnight in a beautifully restored Folly that resembles a small castle. Storms aplenty brew–both between the the guests and in the weather.

Lucy Foley doesn’t appear to have a website but she does have a Facebook page if you care to check it out.

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Crooked Hallelujah

August 6th, 2020

By Kelli Jo Ford

The Short Take:

Ford’s highly readable book explores the relationships of four generations of Cherokee and mixed race women. Their lives are not shaped by their heritage but by struggles with poverty, unfortunate choices in men, and the demands of a suppressive “Holy Roller” religion.

Why?

The complex relationships between mothers and daughter provide ample fodder for novels. What sets this book apart is the fierce love that exists, though that love is not always expressed in loving ways.

The book feels more like a series of short stories, with its multiple points of view and occasional overlapping narratives. However, it presents a cohesive story of women who can’t afford to make bad choices yet do so anyway. The main two characters are in constant motion between Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation and northern Texas yet they can’t seem to break out of the exhausting cycle of their lives. Or fully abandon that conservative faith.

By and large the men are missing, useless, or domineering. The dominance emanates from the pastor of a highly conservative church that sees everything except prayer as a doorway to sin and hell. The community of that church stands united against everyday matters such as revealing legs to play basketball or wanting to visit Six Flags.

The main characters each have the strength to resist what others want of them but that strength repeatedly pulls them apart then slams them together.

It’s written simply yet with rich details, and without judgement on the part of the author. You find your own way into the heart and soul of these women, particularly Justine and her daughter Reney. Ford gives you a lot to think about but never preaches or pushes you in any direction. That’s something to appreciate.

For more about the author click here.

A Little Plot:

Teenage Justine is frustrated with the many restrictions placed on her by the faith of her mother and grandmother. She has small rebellions, like hiding a Rolling Stone magazine under her mattress. Then she sneaks out one night to see a boy.

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The City We Became

July 25th, 2020

By N. K. Jemisin

The Short Take:

After reading Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” science fiction trilogy (all Hugo Award winners) I could not resist starting her new one. This time the action takes place in New York City and the heroes are people of color (mainly women) who rise up to protect the city–and their respective boroughs– from destruction by another universe.

Why?

First of all–no worries–the story in this volume has a satisfactory conclusion followed by a simple set up for the premise of the second book. You don’t have to commit to all three books to enjoy this one fully. And it is enjoyable.

You can read the whole book as a metaphor for our times, or at least a wishful metaphor. People who don’t have natural trust in each other come together to fight a greater evil–a power that is trying to destroy their city. There’s a human avatar each for money-conscious, savvy Manhattan, gentrified Brooklyn, working-to-succeed Queens, and hard-nosed Bronx. There’s also a frightened avatar for Staten Island–a borough overlooked with unfortunate consequences.

The respective boroughs each provide strength and power to their chosen avatars, though the avatars have to figure this out for themselves. There is also an avatar for all of New York City but no one knows who or where. The enemy is just as anxious to find and kill this one as the others are to save and support.

Jemisin celebrates New York in all its diversity, creativity, and history. Her characters treasure that which provides character and color to their communities. It’s no accident that Starbucks “belongs” to the soulless enemy. Authenticity is key to a city’s soul, and chain operations offer none of that.

It’s a rich and rewarding book. One of my short reviews here doesn’t do it justice.

A Little Plot:

A attractive man of ambiguous ethnicity gets off the train in New York City to start a new life. However, he has visions of another city layered upon the one he is walking through. Then he realizes he has forgotten his name, his family. He is becoming something new, but does not know what, why, or how.

Soon he’ll meet another who can offer him some guidance, but not before he faces the enemy alone.

For more about Jemisin and her work, click here.

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