Sleep No More

January 16th, 2018

9780525520733By P. D. James

The Short Take:

Wish I’d read/reviewed this book a month earlier — it’s the perfect Christmas gift for mystery lovers. Several of the six stories in this short story collection by the incomparable P. D. James have holiday themes. All reflect her brilliant, literary style.

Why?

I usually pass on short story collections, but when it’s P. D. James an exception is in order. These stories, the oldest of which dates back to 1973, did not disappoint. They just made me miss this legendary writer more. They aren’t all straight-forward whodunits. Sometimes you know the who but not the how or why. Sometimes the bad guy gets away with it. You can always count on James to bring you fresh takes on one of the most popular genres in fiction.

A Little Plot:

Doesn’t really count here, but you can count on people dying from unnatural causes.

If you are unfamiliar with P. D. James (no one should be), learn more about her by clicking here. Sorry it’s Wikipedia. Don’t know why her estate hasn’t dedicated a website to this formidable woman and writer.

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Lilli de Jong

January 10th, 2018

31752152By Janet Benton

The Short Take:

Benton’s saga about the perils and prejudices besetting an unwed mother in 1880s Pennsylvania leaves a lot to be desired. There are far too many McGuffins driving the plot, a cast of potentially interesting yet underwritten supporting characters, and more about lactating than I ever expected to find in a novel.

Why?

I get it: life was hard to impossible for unwed  mothers over a century ago. Still is in some parts of the world. Yet when the back-of-book notes Benton includes expounding on those problems are more interesting than the story itself, something is askew.

The plot is revealed through journal entries by the title character and includes a lot of philosophizing, which is actually more interesting than the unrelieved dreariness of the plot. It’s one bad thing after another; and actions and motivations don’t always make sense, not only for Lilli but for most of the people impacting her life.

Benton notes that she wrote this book while nursing her own child, and lactation is a major plot device for the novel. However, breast developments consistently outweigh character development. It just gets tedious.

All that said, you could not make a stronger case for chastity until marriage than Lilli de Jong. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale. Unfortunately it was written in the wrong century.

A Little Plot:

Lilli’s fiancé has decided to leave their rural village to seek employment in the steel mills. He will send for her when he is settled. Unfortunately, he leaves her a parting gift that makes Lilli a pariah to pretty much everyone.

For more about Benton and this novel, click here.

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Hiddensee

January 2nd, 2018

185216By Gregory Maguire

The Short Take:

In typical Maguire fashion, this enchanting novel creates an imaginative backstory for the toymaker in E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker. However, it is so much more than that. The main character’s journey from fairy tale (or hallucination) to reality makes him an outlier with a unique way of seeing others but a limited ability or desire to “see” himself.

Why?

The child Dirk dies but comes back to life — a life that is vaguely haunted by two characters: one representing German romanticism, the other Hellenic mysticism. Dirk has little to no interest in them and rejects the few wisps of memories that waft through his life. However, those he encounters care very much, particularly Doctor Franz Mesmer (the real originator of the idea of hypnotism or mesmerization).

Dirk is not presented as a person of action, passion, or past. He is not necessarily a likable character yet you keep hoping for that moment when what is hidden becomes seen — not so much by others but by Dirk himself.

The prose is even more rich and lyrical than usual for Maguire, and the frequent music references offer more than just a nod to Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. It’s a lovely, romantic read — achingly sad yet ever hopeful.

A little Plot:

Dirk lives in isolation and poverty with a man and woman deep in the woods. One day he is taken into the woods by the man, who intends to kill him. However, while Dirk is chopping a tree it falls on him, killing him. Only he isn’t dead. But something might have happened.

(Warning: the hard-cover’s front flap write-up gives away the whole story. Boo on that.)

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The Good Samaritan

December 21st, 2017

51+2Ms+Sr6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By John Mars

The Short Take:

This book is disturbing on many levels. It offers a voyeuristic view into the mind of a psychopath alongside a morality play about the repercussions of unbridled revenge. It’s not for everyone, maybe not for anyone.

Why?

This was a freebie through Amazon Prime. While I download these regularly, this one is the first I’ve read. I wouldn’t have finished it but I was on an extended trip in German-speaking countries, with no time to search out alternatives.

It actually has a strong concept and two very well drawn characters. However, neither of these characters have much in the way of redeeming features. The first portion of the book focuses on a woman who works in a suicide crisis center. She’s a terrible person, no doubt about it, and suicide prevention is not her goal.

Her nemesis is little better. His obsession with revenge spirals out of control, ensnaring others in harmful ways.

There’s no upside to this tale, but it has the strong “can’t look away” quality of a deadly car crash.

A Little Plot:

Laura volunteers at a suicide crisis center that respects callers’ decisions, whether choosing life or death. That suits her just fine.

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The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

November 26th, 2017

9780691160597By Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated and edited by Jack Zipes

The Short Take:

Don’t read these to your kids! This is the real deal, no Disneyesque re-imagining. Some stories might feel familiar, but the plots will twist in ways you never read before, unless you devoured the old Andrew Lang compilations like I did. Despite that there were still many delightful, humorous, shocking surprises.

Why?

This book, which came out three years ago, is the very first English translation of the complete Grimms’ original edition. Since the two volumes of stories in this single book came out in 1812 and 1815, I don’t understand the delay, but it was worth the wait.

You say you’ve already read the original Brothers Grimm? Well, they did publish six other editions, editing and softening the stories with each subsequent outing. This is the original material and its first time in English. Don’t skip the introduction either. The story of the brothers, their quest for these stories, and how their work evolved is a fascinating read.

There are 156 different tales in this book. Some are variations on a single theme, others barely longer than a paragraph; many sound vaguely familiar, many more are unheard of. However, don’t go looking for any fairies — there are none in this collection.

It took me so long to finish this book because I savored one story at a time. They deserved it.

A Little Plot:

I cannot resist a brief retelling of one tale that cracked me up:

There were two brothers, one wealthy and one poor. The poor brother was a farmer and one of his turnips got to be truly enormous. He didn’t want to eat it, since little turnips would taste the same, nor did he want to sell it, since it wouldn’t earn much. He decided to give it to the king. It filled his cart and took two oxen to move. The king was delighted and gave the poor brother so much gold and property he became richer than his wealthy brother.

The jealous wealthy brother decided to bring the king a better gift — horses and gold — expecting something ever greater in return. The king was delighted with the gift, saying the only thing he possessed that was finer and rarer was his giant turnip, which he gave the wealthy brother.

The story continues, by the way, but this is all I’m sharing.

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Guest BLOG By Author Donna Migliaccio

November 16th, 2017

We’re excited to present this guest blog by the author of Fiskur (review below).

 

WHERE I WRITE IS HOW I WRITE IS WHAT I WRITE

By Donna Migliaccio

 

Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head, feed your head

“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick

 

I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.

That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.

I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.

Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?

No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)

I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.

Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck, I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.

My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.

But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in“White Rabbit.”

“Thanks, Donna, for sharing these insights with my readers — and hopefully, yours, too.

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Fiskur

November 12th, 2017

51dSX5pYKkL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Donna Migliaccio

The Short Take:

This second book in The Gemeta Stone fantasy/action series does not disappoint. The hero continues to evolve into an increasingly complex character. Even better, the woman that started out as mainly a love interest has become a powerful, fascinating character as well. Not to mention, the action continues — and continues to surprise.

Why?

Too often the second book in a fantasy series doesn’t hold up to the initial outing. Not in this case. The author has given her characters new depths yet kept the brisk pace of action you want in a fantasy where swords are as important as magic.

Predictability is not her the menu, either. Like George R R. Martin, Migliaccio is not afraid to kill off a major character when needed. That ruthlessness keeps you guessing and keeps you turning pages.

However, the main draws are the two leading characters and their diverse group of close friends and supporters. You can’t help but root for them, empathize with them, and feel their growing frustrations.

And, there are plenty of frustrations. Nothing comes without a price for The Gemeta Stone hero. He might pay, but we get to enjoy.

A Little Plot:

Our hero, Kristan, is now in possession of his family’s protective talisman and has vowed to destroy the evil Wichelord, Daazna, who destroyed his family and taken over his country. His friends, particularly the daring Heather, stand solidly by his side as he plans his attack, but is that enough?

For more about Fiskur and its author, click here.

Also, check back next week for a special blog post by the author.

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The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors

November 9th, 2017

9780525428305By Dan Jones

The Short Take:

When I started this 360-page nonfiction book (not counting many pages of footnotes), I wondered if I really wanted to know that much about the Knights Templar. Turns out I did. Jones knows how to make history come alive, with a relaxed writing style and interesting stories within the big story.

Why?

I’ve read a significant number of thrillers where the Templars show up, or at least referred to. Of course, that’s all pretty much hokum. The only true fact I knew was they’re the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

They were actually a very brave, committed, highly religious group that played a major role not only in the crusades but in handling financial affairs and moving money for the rich and royal. They were trusted, respected, and daring. Of course, there were a few Templar leaders who weren’t exactly the cream of the crop, plus political considerations sometimes led to poor decisions.

Jones’ book covers everything from their origin in Jerusalem, after the first crusade, to their dramatic demise. There’s plenty of royalty making appearances, too, including the pious Louis IX, Richard the Lionhearted, and the four-times-excommunicated Emperor Fredrick II. It’s quite a gallery of rogues and heroes.

Jones drew from sources both Islamic and Christian to corroborate, question, and enhance his statements. Interestingly, both sides have a few positive things to say about their opposing “infidels.”

It’s all a fascinating read and I’ll be looking for more Jones’ histories to enjoy.

A Little Plot:

A group of fiercely religious warriors realized pilgrims to the Holy Land would need protection. They decided they would answer that call, also staying celibate and poor in the bargain. The commitment of these Knights of the Temple won the admiration of almost everyone of importance, who all wanted to donate to their cause to protect pilgrims and fight the “infidels.”

Battles ensued.

Dan Jones does not appear to have a website, but you can learn more from the Wikipedia entry by clicking here.

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Origin

October 30th, 2017

32283133By Dan Brown

The Short Take:

Where did we come from? Where are we going? These  two questions dominate Brown’s new not-so-thrilling thriller. This opus, which brings back the brilliant Robert Langdon, contains far more talk about ideas than thrilling action.  The talk is certainly intriguing, however, dwelling on topics as diverse as Gaudí’s architecture, Winston Churchill, and artificial intelligence. Of course, the central issue is science versus religion — past, present, and future.

Why?

Usually thrillers put their main characters into precarious situations chapter after chapter. While there are some close calls in Origin, this book mainly explores ideas. That means a lot of talking, thinking, and general exposition.

Not that it isn’t interesting. Of course, Brown explores some of my favorite topics, from the history of religion to evolution to the natural fluidity of Antoni Gaudí’s buildings. Plus there’s quite a bit about science, the advances in computing power, and the meanings behind modern art installations that might puzzle most of us. It’s all interesting stuff, but more than once I found myself thinking, “Get on with it, Dan.”

A Little Plot:

Famous billionaire/atheist/futurist/inventor Edmund Kirsch is ready to make an announcement he claims will provide the answer to life’s ultimate questions: where we came from and where we are going. Ultimately, Langdon and a beautiful museum director have to help get the word out.

For more about Dan Brown and his work, click here.

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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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