The Splendid and the Vile

June 24th, 2020

By Erik Larson

The Short Take:

Larson penned a fascinating portrait of the first year Winston Churchill served as Prime Minister. It focused on him, his family, the people he worked with, and the true grit Great Britain showed when they stood alone against Germany.


I do not care for military histories but greatly admire the accessible non-fiction works of Larson, which focus on people instead of battles. At first I thought it was strange to include only a single year, but the events that both opened and closed the period from May 10, 1040 to May 10, 1941, made that choice a wise one.

I learned so much I knew nothing about, such as Mass Observation, a project where regular people recorded their emotional reactions to breaking events along with how others felt. I had never heard of Hess’s strange flight, or Churchill’s odd sartorial choices like silk robes or a light blue onesie.

Of course, Churchill was known for his oratory, but it was thrilling to read his words in context; to understand how he had the ability to present people with terrible news yet still leave them hopeful and even encouraged. He was a champion who could not envision defeat (and also could not accept that the USA wouldn’t help).

I also greatly enjoyed the inclusion of entries from the diaries of Goring and Goebbels. Their flat out disbelief that Winston’s government would not cave to them like every other country they had invaded was almost amusing now that we are so many decades removed.

Most important, Larson’s writing was so approachable it almost read like a novel. This might be why he stated upfront that every word in quotes was actually said or written. This is a history. And it is fierce, frustrating, and alive.

A Little Plot:

On the day Germany overthrows the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, British PM Neville Chamberlain recommends to the king that Churchill be named his replacement. King George had his doubts but did as asked. That was the beginning of Great Britain’s darkest year, when over 45,000 died at home. Churchill was the man who kept hope alive.

For more about Larson and his work click here.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

June 16th, 2020

By Patricia Highsmith

The Short Take:

Over half a century old, this psychological thriller is unlike any other. Set largely in sun-drenched, languid Italy the frantic workings of Tom Ripley’s mind bring strife and death where least expected.


The plot of this book is very noir, however its setting, humor, and characters are anything but. Tom Ripley comes to Italy on a mission but soon his motivations change. A true sociopath, he carefully watches others, looking for any sign they might turn against him so he can act first.

He’s a young man in the company of two other young people: Marge, an aspiring poet, and the would-be artist Dickie, the object of Tom’s mission. Their days are awash in sun, martinis, boating trips, and pleasure. But Tom wants more — more of Dickie’s attention, more of Dickie’s lifestyle. So he begins to reinvent himself.

Highsmith keeps you on Tom’s side even as your horror at his actions grow. He’s a new kind of American dreamer–amoral, smart, ruthless. I could not imagine how this book would end. And the ending really surprised me. I’ll be reading more Highsmith in the future.

A Little Plot:

Tom is contacted by Dickie’s father, who is will to pay for Tom to go to Italy to convince his son to return to America. Tom readily agrees, but when he find his mission will not succeed, his plans change.

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The Mirror and the Light

May 21st, 2020

By Hilary Mantel

The Short Take: I loved Mantel’s first two historical fiction books about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) but had a much harder time enjoying this one.


As usual, Mantel’s prose impressed, her portrayal of Tudor England made it come alive (I particularly liked the meal descriptions), and Thomas Cromwell continued to be a complex, fascinating character. However, I knew what lay in store for Henry VIII’s most valued councilor and that knowledge had me pushing this book aside.

The lowly born Cromwell was hated by the English nobility. His king, who he served loyally, was capricious and often in pain due to a wounded let that wouldn’t heal. Surrounded by enemies, both domestic and abroad, he worked tirelessly for his country yet was often suspected of collusion with other realms. To counter this he maintained a wide network of spies and was careful with every word and move.

Mantel’s Cromwell seemed to anticipate his end, even as he rose in power and position. He often reflected on his youth and wondered what kind of man he was–like his father or more just.

He cared deeply about the religious reformations that then swept through Europe. Often accused of being a Lutheran, he indeed had secret sympathies in the direction. That commitment to his faith lay behind much of his activities.

There’s a lot to this man, but this volume felt overly long. The “action” seemed in the background while Cromwell’s reflections took center stage. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed the book (except the inevitable end), but it could have been a tighter read.

A Little Plot:

With Anne Boleyn newly executed, Thomas Cromwell feared Henry VIII would do the same to his daughter, Mary, who might be involved in plots against him. Cromwell’s protection of the girl alarmed some, irritated others, and put him in danger. But he persisted.

For more about Hilary Mantel and her books, click here.

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Real Life

April 7th, 2020

By Brandon Taylor

The Short Take:

This book was an emotionally tough read. A young, gay Black man from the South studies biochem at a Midwest college. He maintains an emotional distance, even from his friends, whose casual racism occasionally jolts him. It’s a significant book but not for everyone.


This book is gut wrenching. You feel the universe of angst and wariness protagonist Wallace always carries, exposed through the events of a single weekend. Introspective by nature, and remote due to his unhappy childhood, he typically doesn’t spend much time with his lab mate friends. But this weekend he does and it creates a whole new level of self awareness.

He wonders aloud if seeking this masters degree is just a way of avoiding “real life.” That one out loud observation sets off a chain of interactions that raises more questions.

Taylor (who is also gay, Black and Southern) offers exquisite prose and detailed observations of the reactions humans display through minuscule expression changes. If you’re looking for plot, step away. If you want a deep, fascinating, character-driven book that leaves you aching–read on.

A Little Plot:

Wallace observes his friends gathered by the lake and decides not to join them when one sees and beckons him. He doesn’t tell them that weeks of work in the lab has been destroyed (sabotage?) but that event is reflected in all his actions over the weekend.

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March 24th, 2020

By Eoin Colfer

The Short Take:

Outlandish and funny, this adventure featuring a resourceful teen boy, a 100% evil Constable, and a millennia-old dragon is one wild ride. But be warned, it is loaded with profanity.


Colfer is known for his Artemis Fowl series aimed at younger readers. These books put magical beings in the real world. This adult outing does the same, with the main difference in the swearing and immoral behavior (though I don’t recall Artemis Fowl being very well-behaved). It’s raucous, outrageous, and a lively read.

Highfire is plenty of fun but absolutely nothing more. However, in these times, a bit of fun is very welcome.

A Little Plot:

Vern, a lonely dragon, hides from humans in a Louisiana swamp. When he is spotted by a Squib (the teen protagonist) he intends to kill the kid. A corrupt cop is also out to get Squib, for nefarious reasons. But Squib is a survivor.

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Saint X

March 9th, 2020

By Alexis Schaitkin

The Short Take:

A beautiful college co-ed disappears on the luxurious island of Saint X (fictional). Sound familiar? That’s where the similarity ends. This is a deep dive into the psyche of her then seven-year-old sister as well as an exploration of the reasons behind that fateful night.


This is no mere murder mystery. It highlights the deep divide between classes, something obvious on most (all?) Caribbean islands. The well-to-do come to relax and indulge while full-time residents serve drinks and smiles for tips. It contrasts privilege and promise with poverty and resignation by telling the stories of two people.

Little sister Claire, who worshipped the much older Alison, is obsessed with her death, compulsively searching the internet for information about the people involved and on-line speculation. When she has a chance encounter with one of the accused she becomes his stalker. Her mental state and actions made this reader uncomfortable but, like a car wreck, it was hard to look away.

Clive, one of the two men last seen with Alison, finds his world in shambles after he is released as innocent. His voice, his story provides the counterpoint to Claire’s.

Tourists strive to gain some authenticity by seeking a local experience. Locals see opportunity in fulfilling those requests. Schaitkin’s compelling book shows how this interaction can lead to a single decision that destroys many lives.

The Short Take:

Golden girl Alison and little sister Claire are enjoying winter break at a lux resort. Alison attracts the attention of every man but she is more interested in a young men who serves drinks–and the frisson of possible danger she experiences.

For more about this book and it’s author, click here.

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The House of Brides

February 29th, 2020

By Jane Cockram

The Short Take:

A disappointing take on a gothic thriller. It had all the elements–from the remote manor house on the coast to the handsome but perplexing man. But the plot and writing were a mess.


This book was clearly influenced by Rebecca but Cockram is no Daphne Du Maurier. In fact the most entertaining thing about this debut novel was spotting the Rebecca references, like the name of the main male character (Max Summer), an affair that takes place in a boat house, even towering rhododendrons– that last a stretch since the setting is Christmas time in England.

The main character, Miranda, is supposed to be in her late 20s but exhibits all the maturity of a tween. People’s actions and interactions are so illogical as to be incomprehensible. And the big reveals have you saying, “Seriously?”

That’s too bad because a nice updating of one of the best classic gothic thrillers would have been a great read. Which made me wonder why the classic movie Rebecca hadn’t been remade. A quick google and I discover Netflix is doing just that. Now that’s something to look forward to.

A Little Plot:

Miranda’s career as an influencer has crashed spectacularly. A letter arrives addressed to her deceased mother which asks for help at Barnsley House. Her mother wrote a tell-all history about the women of this grand estate and Miranda has always wanted to know more. Her father tells her to stay away. She doesn’t.

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February 18th, 2020

By Megan Angelo

The Short Take:

What at first appears to be a fluff of a novel about social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram is actually provocative, thoughtful, somewhat frightening, and highly readable.


Angelo’s debut novel follows two storylines that eventually merge. One, set in 2016-17, centers on a woman who makes her friend a celebrity through social media strategies and posts. The other, set in 2051, focuses on a whole community where the lives of all residents are not only streamed but curated (think The Truman Show on steroids).

The juxtaposition of these two plot lines explores the evolution of interactive technology and how it ties into the devolution of genuine human interaction. However, this is no dystopian 1984. It addresses big issues with a light touch. It’s amusing as well as alarming, with characters that you find yourself liking even though they clearly believe the ends justify the means, no matter how unethical. They have story arcs that result in an emotional, and satisfying, ending.

Both the past and the future scenarios pose the question: Is one’s existence valid if it isn’t seen? It’s something the main characters struggle with.

The final third of the book brought a major plot twist that I found delightful but will not delve into here. Let’s just say it involved a “beautiful wall” but not where you’d think.

A Little Plot:

Instead of writing her novel, Orla posts silly click bait articles about celebrities for her social network employer. Then her roommate, Flo, enlists her aid to become famous for being famous.

With her every move (and those of everyone she knows) streamed live, Marlow moves through her life passively, thanks to the drug Hysteryl provided by her media sponsor. Then she learns a secret about her family and everything changes.

For more about Megan Angelo and her book click here.

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Such a Fun Age

February 3rd, 2020

By Kiley Reid

The Short Take:

This debut novel is fantastic. While it reads bright and breezy it also addresses the issue of subtle racial biases we might not acknowledge. It raises your consciousness but also does a masterful job of entertaining.


Every page of this book is a delight. The plot has the perfect level of intricacy and twists. The characters live vibrantly on the page with all their flaws and strengths. The dialogue sparkles. And what it has “to say” is done with eye-opening flair.

The book is largely written from the perspectives of the two main characters: Emira, a young black woman striving to transition into full adulthood after college and Alix, a some-what older white mother who’s created a career in confidence building.

Emira becomes a part-time babysitter for Alix’s three-year-old daughter (the wild observations that come out of this child’s mouth are reason enough to read this book). It’s this relationship that drives the main story, shaped not only by current needs and expectations but also a painful incident in Alix’s past.

Putting the inner thoughts and outward behaviors of these two back-to-back highlights how attitudes and expectations differ depending on status and experiences. That they each have a circle of supportive friends provides even more context to the story.

It’s simply a great read.

A Little Plot:

Emira reluctantly leaves a party to provide late-night babysitting when Alix has a family emergency. Alix requests she take her little girl to a fancy local grocery store for awhile (the kid digs grocery stores). However, store security challenges the validity of a black woman with a white child. This event leads to major changes in the relationship between the two.

For more about Kiley Reid and this book click here.

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Stolen Things

January 26th, 2020

By R. H. Herron

This book surprised me in a positive way. Though promoted as a thriller it read more like a police-driven murder mystery. I thought I had it all figured out half way through. So wrong. Which is good.


Like many mystery readers I’m accustomed to people outside the police department solving crimes: private investigators, nosy old ladies, and the like. In this case a police dispatcher and her police chief husband were at the heart of the plot. The author drew from her own experiences as a 911 dispatcher to add authenticity (I suppose) to her story.

While completely justified at some points, the continued histrionics of the characters got to me at times. Should a teen’s irritation with her mother draw a reaction equal to when she learns she’s been raped?

However, the plot moved so nimbly with the finger of guilt pointing to first one person then another, it was easy to over look this fault. Herron did a good job of revealing facts over time and leading you to suspect different individuals.

This one was a genuine page turner.

A Little Plot:

Laurie is at her job as a 911 police dispatcher when her next call turns out to be her daughter, Jojo, who has awakened in an unknown place. When the police find her (quickly done) they also find a sleeping pro football star, a dead body, and it’s clear Jojo has been drugged and assaulted.

For more about R. H. Herron and her books click here.

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