September 26th, 2016

Unknown-1By Annie Proulx

The Short Take:

This epic novel, built around the logging industry in North America, traces how these vast, virgin forests shaped the lives of the descendants of two French immigrants and a Mi’kmaw family. It’s informative, heart wrenching, and a cautionary tale for today. Best of all, it’s crafted by one superbly gifted writer.


I admit a fondness for books that trace generations of families. This one has a much stronger and more important message than most of them. It illustrates how the greed and wastefulness of the very few can cause suffering — sometimes quite intense — for all.

Our flawed relationship with nature is a recurring theme for Proulx. She showcased that perfectly in this novel by following the descendants of two French immigrants, both of whom are amazed by the endless forests on this continent. However, that awe leads them down two completely different paths.

The endless destruction of forests, rivers, and the way of life (not to mention their actual lives) of North America’s First Nations beats a steady drum throughout the book. It can wear you down, but maybe we need to have our eyes opened to what once was and how little of that we have left.

However, my only real complaint was about the last 100 or so pages. Up to that point Proulx gave her characters time to breathe and her readers time to engage in the story. For some reason in those last pages she elected to speed through generations at a breakneck pace. It’s hard to care much about a character who is barely mentioned before the plot moves on.

In other words, I wanted a much longer book.

A Little Plot:

Rene Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in what is now Canada. They are both barkskins — tree cutters — and must labor for another for three years in exchange for their own land. Duquet runs away and embarks on a life of greed and double-dealing, eventually clear-cutting whole forests. Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman. He continues to cut trees, but only to sustain his own family.

Their descendants follow in the paths set by these men — one side logging; the other side trying to balance Mi’kmaw ways while cutting trees for the white property owners.

Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, among other honors. You can find out a lot about her online, but not at a dedicated website.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

September 1st, 2016

UnknownBy J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.

The Short Take:

This play isn’t up to Rowling’s Potter novels by any means, but still holds some interest. It’s a bit disturbing to find familiar characters behaving in ways that seem wrong. Ultimately, the whole thing just didn’t jell. Still, sub par Harry is better than none.


Of course, this is the script for a play, so you’re missing out on the descriptions of places, emotions, and other important aspects except for the broadest strokes.  On stage, you would gain so much more from the performances, sets, and effects. Still, it had an outrageous number of scenes, most of which were exceptionally short, so the whole thing felt a bit choppy.

There were some interesting nuggets of information about the wizarding world of Harry Potter — new facts that fit into the original seven book saga. If you love Harry, it’s worth the short time investment to read this play. But, who else would be interested anyway, right? However, you might be better served by waiting till you can see the play, which could be quite awhile.

A Little Plot:

Harry and his teen son, Albus, aren’t getting along so well. Albus, who is in Slytherin (?), is best friends with Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco. Neither of them fit in, especially Albus who can not bear the burden of his father’s fame.

The whole thing is about problems between fathers and sons, including two other parent-child relationships I’m not going to get into.


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August 8th, 2016

UnknownBy Yaa Gyasi

The Short Take:

Gyasi gives us an excellent novel in the Roots tradition, but much more compelling as it follows two branches of the same family: one side participating in the slave trade in Africa, the other side its victims. Elegantly written, insightful — this book will change you.


This is Gyasi’s first novel and it’s a stellar debut. By following the descendants of two half sisters — one whose fate and family is tied to the slave traders, and one who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, Gyasi shows the dire consequences this horrendous practice had on all its participants.

She uses more than words to tell her story. Gyasi incorporates mystical elements, particularly dreams that come true or offer windows to the past. There are traditional songs that come to America with the slaves, but old meanings become lost, replaced, or reinterpreted  as generations pass. While parents try to teach children about their homeland and culture, those teachings, too, become warped and misunderstood. Most of all, Gyazi’s distinctive writing style graces every page. All her elements — beyond the compelling narrative — unite for an exceptional novel.

I harbor a special admiration for books that teach me new things and send me to the Internet to learn more. This book led to long list of things to research, from the Golden Stool of the Asante (Ashanti) to the hiring of convicts to work in the coal mines of Alabama.

Read Homegoing. It will enrich you in every way.

A Little Plot:

In the 18th century, two half-sisters (who are unaware of each other) have wildly different fates: one is married to an English slave trader and remains in her native land; the other is kidnapped, enslaved, and sold across the Atlantic. This novel follows their lives and those of their descendants.

While I could not quickly find a website for Gyasi, she does have a Facebook page and there is much about her online if you care to know more.

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Beyond the Ice Limit

July 30th, 2016

1447_m1t1w280q75v8897_BeyondTheIceLimit_-_FINAL_COVER1 By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

This is the sequel to a thriller the pair wrote in 2001. However you don’t need to read the original to either enjoy or fully understand this outing. Turns out what was once thought to be merely a massive and mysterious meteorite is much more dangerous — and alive. It’s two miles beneath the ocean’s surface in the treacherous south Atlantic, and it’s growing.


This is an entry in Preston and Child’s Gideon Crew Series, of which I am not a fan (though I greatly enjoy their Agent Pendergast books). However, this outing was an improvement, largely because the main female character was, thankfully, more than window dressing.

Preston and Child are thriller masters, but this book was solidly in the science fiction realm — weird alien life form, world-domination, that sort of thing. It was a fun read, but nothing awe-inspiring; a perfect choice for the beach, with plenty of thrills to keep you entertained.

The pair admits their fans continually pushed them to write this sequel. Making it a Gideon Crew novel probably killed two birds with one stone for them. However, the mash up doesn’t quite jell like one would like.

A Little Plot:

A handful of survivors from the catastrophe in the original thriller are intent on destroying the life form they once thought was a meteorite. To do that they need Gideon Crew’s nuclear weapons expertise. And, they have to do it fast before it dooms the whole planet.

For more about Preston and Child and their novels click here.

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

July 9th, 2016

UnknownBy Dominic Smith

The Short Take:

This engrossing book about the work of a Dutch female artist in 17th century Netherlands and a struggling art student more than 300 years later falls solidly in the “book club” category, but achieves far more than expected from that type of book. The writing is fluid, the descriptions vivid, and the modern day characters well drawn.


This is another of those split-time novels. In this case a three-way split: the artist de Vos’s life centuries ago; art student, Ellie, in the late 1950s; and, Ellie as a respected art teacher/curator in 2000. While those time jumps can often be annoying, Smith pulls the transitions off relatively seamlessly — you want to know more about a different time exactly as the next page takes you there.

Ellie Shipley and Marty de Groot (the latter owns the de Vos painting this book centers on) are interesting characters, likable despite their rather deep flaws and deceptions. What might seem like diversions from the story line actually reveal their isolation and dissatisfaction with their lives.

However, the sections dealing with de Vos were harder to swallow. She is a composite character of several real artists, but both her tribulations and joys seems a bit too pat.

There is quite a bit about the process of restoring old paintings and the process of forgery, as well as insights to the art dealer world. However, these were interesting and didn’t unnecessarily slow the story.

A Little Plot:

Bogged down on her dissertation on 17th century Dutch female artists, Ellie has been refining her restoration abilities through commissions from an art dealer. Then he brings her a photograph of a Sara de Vos painting and asks her to copy it. She loves the work, but knows what she is doing is wrong. Complications ensue, and follow her decades later.

Back in time, Sara de Vos’ life is in turmoil due to death and financial problems.

You can read more about Smith and his work by clicking here. By the way, if you just google his name, add “author” of you’ll get the baseball player by the same name.

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The Fireman

June 30th, 2016

51LX3IXopDL._AC_US320_QL65_By Joe Hill

The Short Take:

Hill’s horror stories continue to impress. This one is built around a spore which tends to make infected people burst into flame. Needless to say, infected people are not valued by the healthy. Of course, it all sounds far fetched, but Hill does a nice job of putting enough science in his plot to make it scarily plausible.


Horror needs likable heroes, out-of-control situations, a truly bad guy, and lots of surprises. Hill satisfied all these requirements. He also has a nice sense of pacing: It’s not a non-stop rollercoaster ride, you have opportunities to catch your breath before the next terrorizing sequence hits.

Of course, Hill grew up in a house with the master of horror — his father, Stephen King. It’s interesting to note though that his agent didn’t know about Hill’s family ties until years into their relationship. Joe Hill sold on his own merits, as proven by each of his novels.

There are some big action sequences you can easily imagine translating to the silver screen. However, it’s Hill’s endearingly upbeat heroine and his enigmatic hero who make the plot catch fire.

A Little Plot:

People contracting Dragonscale often combust, sometimes taking down whole buildings in the process. Nurse Harper Grayson helps the infected at a New England hospital until she contracts the disease. Husband Jakob wants a suicide pact, but she wants to protect her unborn child. The mysterious Fireman take her to what might be a safe haven from her husband and others who hunt down people with Dragonscale. But her new home is beset by dangers both from the outside and within.

Want to know more about Joe Hill and his horror novels? Click here.

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War and Peace

June 27th, 2016

Unknown-1By Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Alissa Volokhonsky)

The Short Take:

Don’t be afraid of this classic read — it’s easy to follow and exceptionally interesting. While Tolstoy does spend a lot of time philosophizing, his musings are still relevant more than 150 years later. The biggest problem with this novel: its massive weight. This is one time an e-reader could really save your wrists.


First of all, be sure you select this particular translation to read. It was highly praised when it came out in 2007, as being the first to capture the richness of Tolstoy’s prose. Side-by-side excerpt samples proved what the critics said — don’t settle for less.

Second, don’t be put off by Tolstoy’s tendency to set the action aside for many pages to ruminate on such topics as war, history, the nature of power, and other subjects. They are both fascinating and insightful.

Finally, even though there is a large cast of characters, they are so clearly delineated it is no problem to keep everyone straight in your head. I read this book over seven months, reading 26 other books in that time, and had no problem remembering either the plot lines or the characters. Not only that, I know this is one book that will stay with me. That’s powerful writing. That’s Tolstoy.

A Little Plot:

The Russians join the Austrians to fight Napoleon until a peace treaty is concluded. Later Napoleon invades Russia anyway. Meanwhile, a bastard son becomes a rich Count, hearts are won and broken, people die —  it has all the drama of an exceptionally rich epic historical fiction. But, in Tolstoy’s hands it is so much more.

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The 14th Colony

June 21st, 2016

614rhVoWwXL._SL75_By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

This action-packed spy thriller was not what I expected from this writer. He usually takes a mystery from the distant past and wraps a modern context around it. This drew from the 1980s Cold War with the USSR.


I felt like a victim of “bait and switch,” since the title and cover art both led me to believe the plot would center around something related to the American Revolution. There was a connection but one only marginally connected to the main plot.

It was certainly action packed but bits of exposition were often tediously repeated. And, going 80s style spy vs. spy was a big disappointment.

Berry has long been my favorite thriller writer due to the way he took old mysteries/conspiracy theories/etc. and gave them a contemporary importance — like Dan Brown, only better. Maybe if I had never read anything else he wrote I would feel differently. However, I’ve bought and read all his books. Not so sure about the next one, though.

A Little Plot:

An old KGB agent is determined to get back at America for the collapse of the Soviet Union by using a suitcase nuclear bomb. One-time Magellan Billet agent Cotton Malone is on the case, and starts by getting shot down over Siberia.

An important note: Absolutely do not read the front dust cover flap if you are interested in this book. It reveals almost the entire plot.

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All Things Cease to Exist

June 14th, 2016

41wPcEUJjGL._SL75_By Elizabeth Brundage

The Short Take:

This masterful novel is part mystery, part ghost story, part character study, and completely excellent. With stunningly beautiful prose and a page-turning plot, it’s a win for readers of all stripes.


One of the best books I have read in a long time, this satisfying novel is also unsettling and laced with pain. Suicide and murder, orphans and lost souls, faith and faithlessness, failing farms and wealthy newcomers give rise to a melange of yearning, disappointment, and hope.

Even secondary characters are well-drawn and believable. The primary ones are truly exceptional– including one of the coldest players to ever crawl out of a writer’s imagination. The art inspired by the Hudson River Valley setting and the influential spiritual beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg add depth to the narrative, reinforcing the pressures and power of the plot.

It’s a fantastic book.

A Little Plot:

Art history teacher George Clare comes home to find his wife murdered and young daughter alone in a house that has already seen great tragedy. From this point the story moves back to explore the Hale family, who lived there before George and Catherine, and the year preceding Catherine’s murder.

For more about Elizabeth Brundage and her work, click here.

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The Relic Master

May 23rd, 2016

51A-ZSirdZL._SL75_By Christopher Buckley

The Short Take:

This departure from Buckley’s usual fare was delightful fun, with a dash of history thrown in. It’s a madcap robbery plot set in the Holy Roman Empire, circa 1517, with action, romance, plot twists, and a lot of Buckley’s trademark satire.


This telling bit is from Buckley’s bio in this book: “Christopher Buckley is the author of 16 previous books, many of them satires on contemporary politics. During the 1916 election cycle, he concluded that American politics were sufficiently self-satirizing and decided to venture backward in time to a more innocent, less cynical era and place, like, say, the sixteenth century Holy Roman Empire…”

That should give you a good idea of the tone of this book. While Marin Luther never appears, his Ninety-Five Theses form the backdrop of the story, which centers on purchases of saintly relics and sales of indulgences to shorten time in Purgatory — both thriving businesses at the time.

As usual, Buckley finds absurdity on every side. In fact, it feels like he had more fun than usual with this unsacred quest. In his novels with contemporary settings there is always a disturbing undercurrent. Going back 500 years freed him of that.

The Plot:

Mistral is the official relic purchaser for two powerful men who are vying with each other for the biggest collection. In a crooked business, he’s always tried to be honest and is now planning to retire. However, a drastic change in his finances leads him to consider creating a forged relic — the burial shroud of Christ. Outrageous mayhem ensues.

For more about Christopher Buckley, click here.

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