Fruit of the Drunken Tree

August 10th, 2019

By Ingrid Rojas Contreras

The Short Take:

Danger lurked everywhere in Columbia during the Escobar era. Contreras draws from her own childhood experiences to weave a powerful tale of two girls: the pampered Chula and the family’s maid, Petrona, who comes from a guerrilla occupied slum. It’s an incredible, eye-opening debut novel that gives insights into today’s immigrants, too.

Why?

Merely looking in the wrong direction could lead to kidnapping or death in Columbia when narco-king Pablo Escobar ruled. The wealthy hide in walled communities. The poor scratch out a miserable existence in crowded slums, where various guerilla groups recruit and kill at will.

Seven-year-old Chula and her sister live in comfort, though any venture beyond their walls is fraught with danger. Even from their window they can see smoke from bombings. Their 13-year-old maid, who must work to feed her family, fears for their own future in the slums.

These two stories intertwine in a masterpiece that brings all the contradictions, terror, and violence of the Escobar years to stunning life. Gut-wrenching events, frightening news reports, and impossible choices impact both girls. While there are light-hearted moments as well, the second half of the book is a rollercoaster of drama. You wish it were all made up. Unfortunately, for thousands that is not the case. Escobar is dead, but new narco-kings exist.

A Little Plot:

Chula is fascinated by their new young maid, who seldom speaks and moves so carefully. Petrona has learned that to survive she must be as invisible as possible Yet even that is not enough to protect her. Nor do the walls surrounding Chula’s family protect them.

For more about Ingrid Rojas Contreras click here.

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The Darwin Affair

July 29th, 2019

By Tim Mason

The Short Take:

This audacious historical fiction thriller (set in 1860) doesn’t limit itself to “cameos” by real, famous people, they are also among the lead characters–both good and bad. Rather cheeky, but I loved it.

Why?

As someone who has read many non-fiction books about evolution and natural history, the title alone sold me. However, it proved to be a rollercoaster of a thriller–enjoyable in every aspect.

But Darwin is just the beginning of historical figures in this thriller, which includes the prime investigator. After several characters refer to Inspector Charles Fields, the main protagonist, as “Mr. Bucket” I had to investigate. A quick google and I learned Charles Fields was very real, and Dickens wrote about him! He was also the inspiration for Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

As the story progressed, other prominent people of Victorian times show up: Sir Richard Owen (bad guy), Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (not a good guy), and Prince Albert (good guy) are three historical figures with major roles. Of course, where there’s Albert, you must find Queen Victoria. Thomas Huxley, Charles Dickens, and Karl Marx also appeared.

While you often encounter historical fiction where dialogue and minor actions are attributed to known people, it’s unusual to read a book where famous figures are central to a murder conspiracy that is complete fiction. It’s a bold decision and a tasty one.

Of course, there are fictional characters as well, including the horrific bad guy Decimus Cobb (sporting a name Dickens would approve of) who is as ghastly as he is tenacious and skillful.

It all amounts to a fantastic read, with a plot that revolves around Prince Albert, Darwin, and the newly published Origin of the Species. Candy for me. How about you?

A Little Plot:

Charles Fields is helping to guard the carriage carrying the queen and her consort when a known ruffian raises his hand. Is it a gun? Fields reacts immediately, collaring the man but realizes it was a ruse and dashes off to protect Victoria and Albert. When the real would-be-assassin is apprehended he returns to the decoy only to discover the man’s throat has been slit and one ear surgically removed.

A few questions to bystanders and Fields believes he has stumbled upon a conspiracy that might reach into Buckingham Palace itself, but the rich and mighty are determined to stop his inquiries.

This is Mason’s first adult novel but he has written many plays. For more information about him and his works, click here.

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Heroes

July 13th, 2019

By Stephen Fry

The Short Take:

Fry gives the adventures of legendary Greek heroes like Theseus and Heracles a fresh retelling, losing none of the information but adding in delightful asides and cultural references. Their quests and feats leave modern superheroes behind. After all, they had to deal with vengeful gods as well as monsters and impossible demands.

Why?

As a child I loved Greek mythology but the kid-friendly versions I read were not nearly as Game-of-Thrones-ish (and more) as Fry’s retelling. His faithful (in content) retellings include the flaws and sometimes shocking details. What’s more, you realize just how rip-roaring these ancient tales are.

Fry’s modern language style gives you all the details but in a much more engaging fashion. His copious footnotes bring extra texture to these grand stories, stitching the legends of old to current events and locations.

In addition to the heroes mentioned above you’ll find Jason, Orpheus, Atlanta, Perseus, and more. Plus all the sidekicks, interfering gods, myriad monsters, and minor players (who often have major impact). It’s a terrific read that now has a permanent place on my bookcase.

A Little Plot:

Regardless of the hero you can bet someone sets him (usually a male) an impossible task in hopes he dies first. Don’t expect that to happen. But there’s usually tragedy at some point.

For more about Stephen Fry and his work (which includes much that is quite funny) click here.

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The Sentence is Death

June 29th, 2019

By Anthony Horowitz

The Short Take:

Horowitz follows up his first meta murder mystery with a worthy sequel. Once again he (Horowitz) is the narrator, filling the role of a willing-scribe Watson to the Sherlock of ill-mannered PI Daniel Hawthorne. This time it’s the murder of a divorce lawyer they’re investigating, with a generous cast of suspects.

Why?

If you’re familiar with the BBC series Foyle’s War, Injustice, or Midsomer Murders (early episodes on the last one) you know this man writes a good mystery (and they’re merely the tip of his prodigious output). In this delightful followup to his last mystery, Horowitz again inserts himself as himself (at the time he was writing for Foyle’s War) alongside a completely fabricated murder tale.

As before, Horowitz is expected to follow a murder case (to be) solved by Hawthorne and turn it into a novel. Once again, Hawthorne keeps his distance emotionally and refuses to share anything about his past. So you get the mystery of Hawthorne alongside the murdered lawyer.

Horowitz offers breezy prose with a generous helping of wit and humor. Plus, the mystery is challenging enough that you’re unlikely to guess the murderer, even though Horowitz plays fair and does not hide any of the clues. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these first two books. In The Sentence is Death, Horowitz states his deal with Hawthorne is a three book contract. Here’s hoping that is true in real life, too.

A Little Plot:

Divorce Lawyer Richard Pryce is found dead, killed with a bottle of highly expensive wine (and not solely by a bonk on the head). The chief suspect is a literary, snobby writer recently humiliated in a nasty divorce case ( her victorious husband was Pryce’s client).

There are a lot of other secrets woven through the plot besides whodunit, by the way.

For more about Horowitz and his many works, click here.

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Washington Black

June 17th, 2019

By Esi Edugyan

The Short Take:

Excellent story about a child field slave who is chosen as the manservant of an eccentric naturalist and inventor, and the adventures that ensue. At times disturbingly brutal, it’s also filled with great wonder.

Why?

Life that begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados is bound to be laden with pain, humiliation, and fear. Eleven-year-old George Washington Black, called Wash, knows this well. His only refugee is Big Kit, a large, fierce woman whose protection comes with its own set of risks.

Wash is a brilliantly drawn character and his evolution over the course of Edugyan’s novel is full of thoughtful evaluations of his surroundings, exceptional understanding of others, and growing self-awareness. His transformative journey begins when he becomes the manservant of the plantation owner’s brother, Christopher Wilde. Wilde treats him more as an assistant and servant than as a slave; and their relationship continues to evolve.

When a tragedy strikes that could end Wash’s life, Wilde initiates an escape that sends them on a remarkable journey which includes stark arctic wilderness and Moroccan deserts. However, don’t be misled by the cover art. This no Around the World in 80 Days.

Despite all the unexpected opportunities that come Wash’s way, fear of recapture is never far away. Even as he strives for true freedom, he recognizes that as a black man his world will always be limited, his talents largely unrecognized. All Edugyan’s prose sings, but in Wash she has created a soul that sings as well.

A Little Plot:

Young Wash Black is made the manservant of Christopher Wilde. When Wilde discovers Wash’s artistic talent, he becomes much more and his universe begins to change and expand, not unlike a hot air balloon.

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Furious Hours

June 1st, 2019

By Casey Cep

The Short Take:

This absorbing non-fiction book debuts an author who knows how to keep you turning those pages. It includes a string of maybe-murders, the audacious trial of the man who killed the maybe-murderer, and Harper Lee’s efforts to write a true crime book worthy of the name. And it satisfies on every level

Why?

Cep has taken a sprawling fraud and murder case and made it thrilling and completely fascinating. What’s particularily interesting about this is that Harper Lee set out to do the same thing but struggled with the details for ages and ultimately quit. Lee’s research and ensuing doomed efforts play a big role in this book but it is Cep’s masterful storytelling that keeps you engaged.

The book is divided into three parts, with overlapping elements the advance the story. The first concerns Reverend Willie Maxwell. Several of his family members met with suspicious deaths and every single one of them was heavily insured — by the Reverend. The second section revolves around Tom Radney, the lawyer who helped the Reverend collect his death benefits but also defended the man who shot him.

The last section is devoted to Harper Lee, but is not limited to her interest in this trial. Cep covers her whole like, including the writing of her one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. In particular, her contributions to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood are covered in length, and they are eye-opening.

Another thing that makes this book particularly rich and interesting is Cep’s inclusion of important background information, like predatory insurance sales practices and the voodoo religion. She gives you the whole story, and what a great story it is.

A Little Plot:

The dashing Reverend Willie Watson takes out a lot of life insurance policies on family members. A number of them die mysteriously. Even though he’s a black man in 1970s Alabama, he stays free. Is it voodoo?

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The Left Hand of Darkness

May 15th, 2019

By Ursula K. Le Guin

The Short Take:

I’ve been slowly working through Le Guin’s Hainish novels. I’ve enjoyed them all but this one wowed me. It won the Hugo and Nebulla awards (the former selected by fans, the latter by fellow sci fi writers) when it came out in 1969 but seems very relevant today.

Why?

With so much discussion (and some confusion) about gender identity today this book could open eyes and minds, even though it is not about the LGBTQ community. Le Guin has been quoted as saying she deliberately eliminated gender in this novel to see what was left.

The inhabitants of the planet Gethan are androgynous except for a short monthly period they refer to as kemmer. At that point they take on either male or female characteristics (which can change each time) to allow mating. The rest of the time they care nothing about sex.

An earthling Envoy, sent to invite Gethen into the 83 planet Ekumen coalition, has never encountered anything similar anywhere. On the other hand, the Gethans think someone in kemmer all the time is a pervert. Children are raised by whoever births them (which can change, too) so career and life opportunities are truly equal for all.

It takes a close friendship between on Gethan and the Envoy to frankly address their differences. Their discussions and growing understanding of each other are reason enough to read this book. The Envoy, in particular, realizes how having males and females has shaped many of his perceptions — perceptions he now rethinks.

There’s also vast richness in the book’s portrayal of vastly different communications styles, and the presentation of some thought-provoking religious ideas,

In addition it’s a great story, with political intrigues (and very different governments) in two countries, great danger for several characters, and a desperate and terrifying plan for escape.

A Little Plot:

Envoy Genly Ai is on Gethan alone, to invite its people to join an interplanetary organization His biggest champion is Estraven. Ai is anticipating a positive audience with the ruler of the country of Karhide when Estraven is denounced as a traitor and threatened with death. This could mean death for Ai as well.

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A Clockwork Orange

May 8th, 2019

By Anthony Burgess

The Short Take:

I initially chose to read this to see how it differed from the Stanley Kubrick movie, anticipating making only a short entry under What Else I’m Reading. As I got into it, I realized how powerful this book was and wanted to share more.

Why?

Two warnings: 1) Expect lots of graphic violence and sex. 2) Expect a lot of invented slang, much with Russian influence. However, due to #2, the impact of #1 is diminished somewhat. For the first 20 or so pages I often referred to the handy glossary of nadsat (teenage) language for interpretation but after a bit I could read normally as it’s mainly the same words.

This is fundamentally a story about good and evil and the importance of choice. It’s also about political manipulation, urban decay, and an accepted culture of violence. Set in a near-future (for 1963), dystopian England, the world of our youthful narrator, Alex, and his droogs (friends) is dreary at every level. Regular people stay behind locked doors at night, while teen gangs prowl and prey on anyone who catches their fancy.

Alex describes a couple of their days of ultra-violence and other activities before the plot really kicks in and the tables are turned. Then turned again. It’s strong stuff, but Alex’s musings on good and bad are provocative.

A Little Plot:

Alex happily considers himself the leader of his little band of violent thugs but when he oversteps, his droogs turn on him. Prison looks to be his future, but there is an alternative.

Anthony Burgess has long since left us but his story is interesting. If you want to know more click here.

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Supermarket

April 30th, 2019

By Bobby Hall

The Short Take:

Hall is imaginative and the story line of this novel about a would-be-writer working in a grocery story is fresh, but the writing of this psychological thriller felt like a first draft.

Why?

I was attracted to this book by its cover, which reminded me of my old paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye, with its yellow type of a plain red background. Plus it was a debut novel and I liked the premise. I can’t say I hated this novel because I did enjoy the story arc and the ideas behind it. However, the writing lacked any kind of polish.

Before reading, I did not know Bobby Hall is also a rapper who goes by the name Logic. I listened to some of his numbers online and he certainly can write tighter, better prose. I have to wonder why his editor and publisher didn’t work to refine this work. Perhaps they figured purchases by his music fans alone would take care of their bottom line? If so, they did him a great disservice in the name of financial gain.

In his acknowledgements he admits to having a short spurt of binge reading and then deciding to write a novel. He was gently advised he couldn’t do it. I can’t agree with that assessment but a little more work and care would have elevated this novel substantially.

A Little Plot:

Slacker writer Flynn is deeply depressed after a big breakup and is living at home. Miraculously he gets a huge publishing offer for a novel that takes place in a supermarket, so he gets a job in a supermarket for material.

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The Clockmaker’s Daughter

April 5th, 2019

By Kate Morton

The Short Take:

This mystery wrapped in a ghost story has all the right elements: overcoming adversity, false love, true love, tragedy, lost treasure. While there are quite a number of important characters and the story hops through times from 1862 to the present, Morton pulls it all together.

Why?

Morton’s charming language and fresh choices in verbs and adjectives make her novels a delight to read. However, the many characters and time settings of this particular novel almost had me pulling out the red yarn and pinning connections. I rather wished she’d eased up on the complexity of her story; with fewer characters I could get to know the remaining ones much better, and I did want to know them. They deserved the attention.

The point in common for every one and every time within this novel is a charming house on the upper Thames River called Birchwood Manor. An artists retreat, a school for young girls, refuge for a young family during World War II, inspiration for a haunted man, and site of a continuing mystery–it plays many roles but feels like “home” to all it serves.

The chance discovery of an artist’s satchel is the impetus driving all that follows, with many flashbacks to events that took place far in the past as well as things still happening at Birchwood Manor. The items in that satchel, as well as the bag itself, connect to different stories in Birchwood Manor’s history.

Morton is a skillful storyteller. In lessor hands this could be a real mess. However, I think it would have been much better if she’d narrowed her focus.

A Little Plot:

Professional archivist Elodie is handed a satchel that has been lost for more than 150 years. One of its contents is an artist’s sketchbook with a drawing of a house that looks exactly like the one her mother described in her fairy tales. The coincidence, and Elodie’s strong sense of familiarity with the place, sends her on a search. As we go with her, Morton reveals the house’s past through its inhabitants, including its ghost.

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