The Third Hotel

September 9th, 2018

By Laura van den Berg

The Short Take:

I didn’t love this book, which says more about me than its worthy qualities. It’s a disorienting, nightmare take on grief and insularity. It also includes myriad descriptive jewels — mainly about Havana and other places in Cuba. These alone are worth making the 209-page journey. But expect to feel off kilter while reading this story. As promised, it takes away your “inner compass.”

Why?

The author makes it clear this is a ghost story, but I kept resisting her hints and pushing for a spy thriller. Ultimately I acquiesced and that was when I began to more fully appreciate the plot as well as the fantastic writing. And the writing is fantastic. The continual detailed observations of other people, buildings old and new, even the colors of the ocean give this novel a solid sense of time and place even though the protagonist’s perceptions of the big picture are anything but solid. If this sounds weird, it’s still accurate. The author’s whole point is to explore how the ultimate isolation of the individual and the pain of great loss create a whole new way of looking at things, both internally and externally.

I was impressed with the huge list of resource material the author consulted dealing with horror films, particularly Cuban horror films. However, don’t expect bloody messes. Laura van den Berg’s writing is closer to the non-violent horror of Hitchcock’s films, only her dizzying Dutch angles and other camera tricks are performed with words.

In fact, as I write this piece, I realize I actually liked this book quite a bit. It just took me finishing it to realize that. Heh heh.

A Little Plot:

Clare goes to a Havana horror film festival her recently deceased husband intended for them both to attend. She spots a person that looks just like him and begins a pursuit.

For more about Laura van den Berg and her books, click here.

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American Gods

August 28th, 2018

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

Almost 20 years ago Gaiman wrote this fascinating novel that is part American travelogue, part mythology mash up, part a commentary on modern life. It’s every bit as relevant today and every bit as fun to read.

Why?

To call Gaiman’s books fantasies is to sell them short. To say they are dark ignores the sly humor. To say they are exceptional reads is accurate to a fault — exceptional in every sense of the word.

The American gods of the title encompass both the old ones, brought to this country by various immigrant groups, from First Peoples onward, to the new gods: technology, media, cars, etc. (humanized, of course). There’s animosity between the two sides and caught in the middle is the ex-convict, Shadow. Shadow himself seems almost godlike. He fancies coin tricks and continually stumbles onto the right action to take or thing to say. However, why he’s involved is a mystery to himself and the reader.

It’s a suspenseful read, alternately thoughtful, humorous, and horrifying. What I particularly enjoyed was trying to guess who the various gods were as they appeared throughout the book. Many were totally unknown to me, which sent me to Google quite a bit. If you want a short-cut to that information, simply consult Wikipedia.

A Little Plot:

Shadow is abruptly released from prison when his wife dies. Headed home, he can’t shake a Mr. Wednesday who insists on employing him. It takes him awhile but Shadow realizes this man is a reduced version of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. He accepts employment only to be warned rough times are coming. And they do.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his books, click here.

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Circe

August 7th, 2018

By Madeline Miller

The Short Take:

Unloved by her family and unaware of her latent powers, the nymph Circe stubbornly perseveres in her quest for personal meaning. While her journey in this novel is drawn from mythology, modern women can easily relate to her challenges and victories.

Why?

Miller’s novel about the Greek nymph Circe includes elements from Greek, Roman, and Medieval literature as well as a generous helping of her own imagination. She turns a minor goddess, largely associated with seduction and witchcraft, into a fully-formed woman who rebels against the restrictions placed on her and plots her own life course.

In the course of her story you encounter the Minotaur, Medea, Daedalus and Icarus, the monster Scylla, and various gods. But it is her growth as both a witch and a woman that keeps you engrossed and ready to read more. She commits some horrible acts and is riddled with self loathing, but always strives to improve herself and protect those she loves.

It’s a great read for anyone. If you have any interest in Greek mythology, it’s a must read.

A Little Plot:

Circe is the daughter of a powerful Titan but is mistreated by her family and ignored by the rest of the immortals. She meets a human she grows to love and her desire to be with him leads her to discover her witchcraft abilities.

For more about the author and her other works, click here.

 

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There There

July 24th, 2018

By Tommy Orange

The Short Take:

This is possibly the most powerful debut novel I’ve ever read. It explores the interrelated lives of a dozen Urban Native Americans living in Oakland, California, the community where Orange himself grew up.

Why?

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland after she revisited her childhood home, “There is no there there.” This was not dismissive but a reference to the fact that everything had changed, becoming unrecognizable. Native Americans living in big cities often struggle to recognize themselves. Their traditions can seem anachronistic. Their lives are often filled with obstacles. Their history is written in blood.

Orange’s book gives a brief recounting of that tragic history, delivered in a wry voice yet devastating to read. The stories of his 12 protagonists are also devastating: alcoholism, violence, defeat. But there is also hope, love, and passion. You care about them all, want a better life for them, and pray they survive the upcoming powwow. Yeah, you know early on that something will happen there and it won’t be good.

It’s an incredible, exceptional, challenging book. Everyone should read it.

A Little Plot:

There are many plots and subplots in this dense novel. However, all paths seem to lead to the Big Oakland Powwow taking place at the coliseum.

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The Killer Inside Me

July 15th, 2018

By Jim Thompson

The Short Take:

This classic noir is brutal, complex, and eminently readable. Written in the 1950s, its psychopathic main character is just as chilling — and tragic — today.

Why?

Author Jim Thompson is  more acclaimed now than in his lifetime. His numerous paperback crime paperbacks were largely ignored — but not this one. And for good reason. The writing is taut and smart. It’s so smart you need to read between the lines to determine exactly what happened in the past that continues to fracture the life of the main character, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford.

On the surface Ford is the nicest guy in his small, 1952 town, though not the brightest. But he knows better, and you’ll know better from the very first pages. Written in first person (a noir trope), the revealed insights you gain are chilling. He is a true psychopath — a self-aware, highly intelligent psychopath with a terrible past and haunting secrets.

That all makes for a rather gruesome present, but his actions are presented in a style that is neither lurid nor nauseating — simply straightforward. So don’t be put off — this is too good to pass up. It’s a fascinating picture of the trap of living in a small town, with small people, and everyone it everyone else’s business. There’s a lot going on here.

A Little Plot:

Ford is deputy sheriff of the small town where he was born. He lives in the house he inherited from his doctor father. His brother, who went to prison for a crime he did not commit, died in an “accident” after he was released. Ford would like to see that death avenged.

But first there’s a prostitute that needs to be encouraged to move on. However, that’s not what Ford has in mind.

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Memphis Rent Party

July 6th, 2018

By Robert Gordon

The Short Take:

Gordon draws from published and unpublished interviews and personal experience to create this multi-faceted look at the Memphis music scene in all its diversity and decades of creativity. If you care about American music, this is a must read.

Why?

Few people go beyond Elvis Presley and Beale Street when they think of music from Memphis. However, the vein of Memphis music is much deeper and richer, encompassing soul, blues, punk, rockabilly, and more. Gordon gives you a quick tour of some of the legends (and some on the lesser knowns) in that music tradition from Jerry Lee Lewis to Alex Chilton.

Each chapter portrays a different musical giant, often using interviews published in long-gone music magazines with additional, contemporary insights. Even if you are a music aficionado, names like James Carr and Tav Falco might not be familiar to you. However their stories and voices deserve to be recognized.

Some of the other artists feature include Sam Phillips, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Jeff Buckley, and Cat Powers — about 20 unique musical talents in all.

The writing is breezy and accessible throughout. However, for a life-long Memphis like me, Gordon’s last page was pure magic.

A Little Plot:

Plot doesn’t apply here. Gordon puts his interviews in an order where they tell a story, peeling back the many layers of Memphis music influences. But each chapter also stands on its own.

For more about Robert Gordon and his books, click here.

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The Word Is Murder

June 24th, 2018

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz’s meta-mystery is a delight! He obviously gets great pleasure out of turning the murder mystery genre upside down, as proven by his last book, Magpie Murders. This one is totally different and even more of a joy to read.

Why?

Horowitz knows murder. In addition to writing for various TV murder series, including Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, he has a string of killer books.

This one is different from any of them, with Horowitz himself as the narrator. It’s a novel, alright, but the various Horowitz factoids sprinkled throughout are true. For example, he did write a screen play for a Tintin sequel for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. It’s a refreshing and amusing approach.

He’s not the detective. That would be the opaque and occasionally infuriating Daniel Hawthorne, a consultant to the police. Horowitz fills the Dr. Watson role, only he’s exceedingly ambivalent about his part and doesn’t really care much for Hawthorne.

The mystery is complex enough to satisfy the most discerning fan but it’s the wit in the writing that makes this book so very special. The word is that Horowitz plans to make the pairing of his quasi-fictional self and Hawthorne an odd couple crime series. I certainly hope so.

A Little Plot:

Ex-cop Daniel Hawthorne was a consultant for Horowitz during his writing of the television series, Injustice. Now Hawthorne wants Horowitz to write a book about him solving a murder case. He already has one to work on: an older woman made her funeral plans and was murdered only six hours later.

That’s hard for Horowitz to resist.

To learn more about this prolific writer, click here.

 

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The Maw

June 13th, 2018

By Taylor Zajonc

The Short Take:

I cut thrillers a lot of slack: the characters and formula are largely predictable and I accept that. However, this book was a huge disappointment. Its concept ticked the right boxes — a group of people searching for a prior lost expedition in a dangerous and mysterious cave. The writing did not.

Why?

I read about this book in the Wall Street Journal and thought it sounded like a worthy read. Boy, was I mislead! The writing was poor and the plot had its share of holes. Worse yet, the pacing was such that even when one disaster after another beset this group of cavers you didn’t get that “can’t put it down” feeling. It was more like “who cares?”

Do yourself a favor and read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth instead. It’s quoted several times in this book and those were the best parts.

A Little Plot:

Milo, a Georgetown history professor,  becomes part of a team exploring a massive cave in Tanzania. The supposed goal is to find clues regarding the fate of an explorer from a century earlier. What they actually find is much more.

For more about the author, his books, and whatever click here.

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Warlight

June 3rd, 2018

By Michael Ondaatje

The Short Take:

Ondaatje had me at his first line: “”In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” What followed did not disappoint. This story of two abandoned teens, their caretakers, what came later, and what happened before alternately beguiles and shocks.

Why?

Ondaatje is a poet as well a a novelist, so outstanding prose and thoughtful writing are expected. What’s more interesting is the layers he adds and then peels away to reveal (or not reveal) facets of his characters and their actions.

The title refers to the minimal lighting used during WWII in London; only enough to guide vehicles that must travel at night on the roads and Thames as well as mislead Nazi planes looking for bomb sites. That same dim lighting barely illuminates the shadowy activities and motivations of the vanished mother when her son begins to investigate.

Nathaniel, also known as Stitch, provides the first person narration. When his parents leave for Singapore, he and his sister, Rachel, are surrounded by people they’ve barely known or never met. They engage in activities inappropriate for teens — or most people. They are unsure of everything, not unlike all of London, where rubble and bombed buildings are everywhere.

The author lulls you with delightful prose about activities like fly fishing or greyhound racing, then drops a story-telling bomb. The exploration of these activities provides character insights in clever, unobvious ways. Then those shocks make you realize nothing is quite what you thought.

However, this is not a traditional mystery or spy story. This book is not about the destination or a neat solution, it is about the journey. And, the journey is very rich indeed.

A Little Plot:

Nathaniel and Rachel are left in the care of a strange man they call The Moth. Their parents went to Singapore for a year, but the teens soon discover this isn’t true. The what and where of their parents is a mystery — almost as mysterious as The Moth’s friends, who now surround them.

As an adult, Nathaniel strives to solve those mysteries. And, understand why his mother did what she did.

I did not quickly find a website for the author, but for additional information on him and his works, click here.

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Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind

May 24th, 2018

By Michael Massing

The Short Take:

This exceptionally lengthy book is well worth the time. It focuses on the Dutch humanist Erasmus and Martin Luther, who was first inspired and later repelled by Erasmus’ writings. It also delves into 1500 years of Christian theology and philosophy, providing readers with exceptional context.

Why?

Massing brings a journalist’s in-depth reporting skill and approachable language to what could be an overwhelming subject. That’s especially true for someone like me who had no idea who Erasmus was (though the name sounded familiar) and knew not much more about Martin Luther (beyond the 95 theses nailed to a church door).

Not only did I learn about these two prolific and original writers/thinkers, I was exposed to the people and works that inspired them, the forces arrayed against them, and the other religious reformers they influenced. Massing also writes about the deadly repercussions that arose as a result of their writings, from the individual deaths of heretics to the 100,000-plus peasants who died fighting for a freedom inspired by Luther’s writings.

Massing displays the warts as well as the wisdom of both men. Luther consistently showed the courage of his convictions, but was vile in his written attacks on those who disagreed with him. Erasmus would too often equivocate out of fear for his life. Both had personal habits and complaints that were not admirable. But what great minds!

And, in Massing’s skillful hands, what a great history of Christianity’s first 1500 years as well as the fatal discord between these two titans!

A Little Plot:

That doesn’t really apply here. The book largely alternates its chapters between Erasmus and Luther, taking events in largely chronological order. It also briefly covers how their influences impacted religious belief (and more) up to the present.

 

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