The Girl on the Train

March 18th, 2015

51PRs83MdNL._SL75_By Paula Hawkins

The Short Take:

This mystery thriller builds slowly but is worth sticking with.  Told from the viewpoint of three different women, you need to pay attention to who is talking and the timeline. But, again, it’s worth it.

Why?

I’ll admit the characters in this book are not highly likable. The main protagonist is an alcoholic still fixated on the husband who left her two years earlier. The secondary protagonist is… well, we won’t go into that now.

In fact, all three of these women made me a little squirmy. But life is messy and so are people. Especially those with secrets, problems, and feelings of worthlessness.  Hawkins has taken that messiness and created a taut, tense mystery that will keep you turning pages. And, isn’t that what you want?

A Little Plot:

Rachel’s train commute to work has a stop near her old home, where her ex now lives with his new wife and child. Just a few doors down are a couple she calls “Jess” and “Jason.” Watching their interactions in their back yard, she sees everything she lacks — love, commitment, a life.

She is shocked one day to see “Jess” kiss someone else. The next day, “Jess” is reported missing. Rachel tells her story to the police, but because she is an alcoholic, she is the epitome of an unreliable witness.

However, Rachel simply can not leave this case alone.

For more about Paula Hawkins and this book, click here.

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Moby Dick: Caught at Last.

February 27th, 2015

51XqmA5DY5L._SL75_Ruminations on the Novel by Herman Melville

I approached Moby Dick with great trepidation. After repeatedly hearing how dense it was, how filled with boring whaling information, how plain hard it was to read, I did not know if I was up to the challenge I was setting for myself.

Surprise, surprise! I actually liked it! Yes, it’s dense with archaic language and a lot of information on whaling and whales, but it’s so much more, too. That’s what surprised — and delighted — me.

To begin, I certainly did not expect a profound sense of humor. Who knew I would be laughing out loud at some of Ishmael’s observations? The next surprise was the countless reference to people, places, and things not related to whaling, citing source like ancient history, Shakespeare, the Bible, you name it. Many of these I knew. Many more I wondered about. In a perfect world, I would have been constantly on my iPad researching each one. However, since I did want to finish the book in this decade, I resisted.

The insightful musings of Ishmael on subjects ranging from religion to what we eat were really interesting as well — and often just as applicable to modern times as they were 150 years ago.

Melville does go into great detail about whaling practices, but they usually directly relate to what is taking place in the plot. They enhance the story as well as increase your understanding of the dangers and tasks whalers faced in the 19th century.

That said, it’s not the fastest moving book in the world. My copy has slightly over 500 pages. Moby Dick isn’t even mentioned until page 158. They harpoon their first whale on page 256. The centerpiece white whale chase doesn’t take place until very the last pages. However, when there is action, Melville paints a scene with words like no other.

I’m really glad I read this American classic. There was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Except, now I’ll worry a bit about grumpy sperm whales if I should ever sail the Pacific Ocean.

Now onto the second book of my reading self-challenge, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Gulp.

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The Book of Strange New Things

February 13th, 2015

41QBMlpffKL._SL75_By Michel Faber

The Short Take:

I guess you must call a book science fiction if it takes place almost entirely on another planet populated by strange, sentient beings. Unfortunately, that will alienate (tee hee) a lot of people. Too bad. This is a highly thoughtful and worthwhile novel.

Why?

A dedicated missionary travels to a distant planet, where everything is run by a colossal company, to tend to the spiritual needs of the planet’s indigenous population. If you think you know where this is headed from that statement, you’re probably wrong. In fact, you will most likely find yourself surprised again and again.

However, it’s not because Faber is leading you down false paths. He lets readers do that for themselves. His focus is on the inadequacies of communication: A marriage stressed by unfathomable distances with only typed messages to convey the unbelievable. A mysterious alien species that gladly embraces the teachings of the Gospels even though they barely understand English. An isolated work force where relationships oddly remain strictly professional.

It’s a rich, rewarding novel — highly spiritual without being cloying religious; frightening without overt terror. It will haunt you no matter what you believe. It will make you think. And, it will do all this while keeping you well entertained. A rare book, indeed.

A Little Plot:

Peter is bound for a far planet as a missionary to its indigenous people. His wife — the well-spring of his faith — must remain behind but supports his journey.

Once he arrives, he is surprised by both his fellow employees (everyone works for USIC, though no one knows quite what USIC is) and the aliens. The workers tend to keep their own counsel, preferring to talk about their work. Many of the aliens are already “Jesus lovers,” and had actually demanded a preacher from USIC.

While Peter works to better understand his flock and increase their understanding of The Book of Strange New Things, life on earth is changing in frightening ways that impact his wife. Nothing is as Peter — or his wife — expected.

I did not find a website for the author, but there’s plenty of information about him out there.

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Another Year, Another Reading Goal.

January 10th, 2015

For 2014, I set a goal of reading 52 books — an average of one a week. I hit 64, but eight were by Roald Dahl, which some people might not consider worthy of an adults list (they would be mistaken). Even subtracting those, I beat my goal by four books.

I know people who read far more than that, but it was a respectable number for me. I didn’t push it, and there are several quite long books among my reads. Strangely, the book that took me the longest to get through was Roald Dahl’s BFG. I just had a hard time getting into it. heh heh.

This year, I’m setting a much more daunting goal — at least for me. I’m committing to reading three particular books that seem to constantly elicit groans of dismay even from avid readers:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Portrait of the Artist a a Young Man by James Joyce.

I’ll start with Moby Dick as soon as I finish trudging through The Winter of the World by Ken Follett. this Follett is really dragging for me. Ken Follett is funny that way. Some of his books just suck me in completely. Some simply bore me. However, there is always something to be learned from historical fiction, so I will soldier on.

I don’t know how many new books these three masterpieces will displace, so this blog may be quieter on that front. I do intend to report on my progress and impressions as I work towards my goal. So many people have said these books are impossible to digest. However after decades of hearing how tough Faulkner was, I found Absalom! Absalom!, which is considered one of his bestnot difficult at all

Who knows what pain or pleasure awaits? At the least — assuming I don’t give up — I’ll have read three books I should have read but have feared to try. There’s something to be said for that.

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The Children Act

December 19th, 2014

By Ian McEwan

The Short Take:

McEwan is such a gifted writer you know you are in for a spellbinding tale any time you pick up one of his novels. This one is no exception. A respected judge of England’s family court realizes her passion for her job has repercussions she didn’t anticipate.

Why?

McEwan’s Fiona Maye is a middle-age woman, highly respected by her peers in the judicial system and satisfied with her life until her husband makes a shocking request. At the same time, a life-or-death court case affecting a near-adult draws her personal involvement. These two events lead her to question a lifetime of choices about family and career.

With delicacy and insight, McEwan traces Fiona’s emotional journey through uncharted territory. He also explores the ethical and legal quandaries that arise when religious beliefs run counter to life-saving medical intervention. The arguments for both sides of the issue were beautifully addressed in the discussions between Fiona and the ill 17-year-old whose faith was so strong.

It’s a fabulous read.

A Little Plot:

Fiona’s husband asks for permission to have an affair — to enjoy one last blast of passion before they slip into old age together. Fiona is floored. And furious. And unsure.

At the same time she must rule whether the courts can force an almost-adult to undergo a life saving blood transfusion despite his and his parent’s beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona feels confident in her decision, but is decidedly put off balance by what happens next.

For more about Ian McEwan and his writing, click here.

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Nora Webster

December 14th, 2014

By Colm Tóibín

The Short Take:

This novel moves along quietly yet really packs a wallop. It revolves around Nora, a new widow mired in grief, who struggles to reconnect to her life and her family. It’s a wonderful character study, perfectly couched in time and place.

Why?

I was reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet while the pain, journey, and quality writing were similar, that’s where the comparison ends. Didion’s memoir examines the sorrow of a woman of means and with many connections in the modern day. Fictional Nora is trapped in a painfully small Irish town in 1960/70s Ireland, struggling to make ends meet for her family.

These differences make it much easier to relate to Nora’s uncertainty, missteps, and concerns — she’s closer to most of us.

There’s no big crisis, no shocking reveal; just a series of small steps forward and back as Nora tries to establish a new balance for herself and her children. Sometimes you’ll find yourself impatient with her lack of perception, other times you’ll applaud her bold moves. She’s human. She’s real. She’s worthy of your attention.

The Short Take:

Nora has lost her beloved husband, who gave her a life a freedom as well as being her soul mate. Now, with two daughters leaving the nest and two sons still at home, she must find a way to pay the bills and rebuild her life.

At first resenting the kindness of relatives and friends wishing to help, she begins to find her footing in work and — especially — music. One tentative step at a time.

Colm Tóibín is a highly acclaimed writer. You can learn more about him and his books by clicking here.

 

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The Paying Guests

December 2nd, 2014

By Sarah Waters

The Short Take:

This is possibly the slowest moving book I have ever read. Granted, it builds up a good head of steam for a climactic act of violence, but the payoff isn’t worth the slog to me.

Why?

Maybe this book is just too much of a good thing. The writing is solid, the sense of time and place are impeccable (post WWI London). However, all this attention to detail makes things really drag. In addition, the central character spends countless pages agonizing over one thing or the other.

I suspect I would have loved this book if it were half as long. As it is, I spent far too much time speed reading along. To me, reading like that is a not pleasure but a duty.

A Little Plot:

Once fairly well off, a widow and her almost-a-spinster daughter, Frances, have to take in lodgers to make ends meet. A young couple from the rising middle class, Len and Lil, move into several rooms upstairs. At first Frances and her mother are unsure how to act around these paying guests. Then Frances finds herself attracted to Lil and seeking her company.

Complications ensue.

Sarah Waters has written a number of well-received books. You can visit her website by clicking here.

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Station Eleven

November 12th, 2014

By Emily St. John Mandel

The Short Take:

At first I thought this would be a rushed-through book capitaliziing on the media frenzy surrounding ebola. However, this highly thoughtful and carefully constructed novel is a genuine winner. After a virus destroys about 99 percent of the world’s population, this novel isn’t focusing on marauding hordes but examining nostalgia for a lost civilization while survivors hopefully build a new one.

Why?

I’ve read a number of post-apocalyptic novels, from King’s The Stand to Howey’s Wool (both well worth the read, by the way). However, Mandel brings something new to this well-explored theme.

Her main characters all have some degree of connection, Kevin Bacon style. They are of different ages and so have widely varying points of view about the past, present, and future. This creates a more nuanced story, in which humanity’s interactions — and their vast reduction after the disaster — are key.

The novel jumps around in time and from character to character, which I have increasingly come to find annoying. However, Mandel ‘s jumps help the story unfold almost like a mystery. The changes in time, place, and character make storytelling sense. They add to the book’s success.

Ultimately, the more I read, the more enchanted I became. There are just so many thoughtful moments. For example, an older man contemplates a souvenir snow globe, thinking of all the people, factories, transportation, etc. involved in its making and reaching the airport he now lives in. Writing like that makes you think, too.

Our civilized connections are myriad and fragile. That is what this book recognizes, mourns, and celebrates.

A Little Plot:

On the day a devestatingly deadly virus arrives in Toronto by plane, a famous actor dies of a heart attack while playing King Lear. Twenty years later, a child in that play (it was an unusual production) is part of a traveling troupe of musicians and actors, performing Shakespeare plays and classical symphonies for small communities in the Great Lakes region.

It’s risky to travel, though violence has gotten rarer (ammunition is scarce after 20 years). But they continue because “Survival is Insufficient,” as their lead, horse-drawn vehicle proclaims — a line borrowed from Star Trek. It’s a fitting line for a novel that makes you cherish what you have and could lose at any time.

To visit Mande;’s website, click here.

 

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Friendswood

October 22nd, 2014

By Rene´ Steinke

The Short Take:

Steinke weaves together the stories of four families in a small Texas town, where too many people ignore uncomfortable truths in their search for success and “belonging.”  There’s a lot of hypocrisy and pain but ultimately this is a story of redemption — sometimes where it is least looked for.

Why?

Friendswood revolves around hidden pollution. Not just from the Super Fund site on one side of town, but other secrets that various townsfolk know but refuse to publicly acknowledge. Religion plays a prominent role in the town, but the primary church portrayed places a toxic focus on sinfulness and belief in Jesus as a source of riches.

Steinke’s novel was inspired in part by The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing, which interprets that Bible book as being about redemption instead of the end of days. You can feel that inspiration as the story unfolds and various characters come to realize what really matters and what they can’t control.

While this is no thriller, there is a palatable tension throughout as the various characters face their inner pain while pushing against each other to achieve their goals. Steinke’s characters are fully realized — you know who they are and understand their actions, even if you do not approve of them.

It’s a strong novel, but not always an easy one.

A Little Plot:

Lee has become an environmental activist after her daughter dies of cancer from the pollution in their neighborhood, which became a Super Fund site. She believes there are more contaminants lurking nearby to poison others. Real estate agent Hal wants a contract to sell the homes being built on that possibly toxic land and is sure if he prays enough it will happen.

Hal’s son, Cully, is the high school football hero, and participates in a terrible action that continues to eat at him. Dex is the football team’s manager, always on the fringes. Quiet student Willa’s blind admiration of Cully leads to tragedy. And, the whole town is reeling from a string of disasters: pollution, hurricanes, and the economy.

You can learn more about Steinke and her work on Wikipedia.

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The Miniaturist

October 6th, 2014

By Jessie Burton

The Short Take:

This book about a young bride entering the secretive household of a wealthy trader in 17th century Amsterdam just never gelled for me. Very Gothic in atmosphere with lots of mysterious attitudes and activities; it wasn’t bad but it didn’t really work either.

Why?

At first I thought I was reading a reworking of Rebecca, the heroine seemed so cowed by her situation. Not so, thankfully, but the mass of secrets in this novel never really wove together in a cohesive story. Perhaps the most frustrating element was the titular character — she seems to be all-knowing but there’s never any explanation why — not even a magical one.

Burton’s inspiration was the real Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (cabinet house), which is on display in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum — that’s where the miniaturist comes in, sending unasked-for-items to put in the house. It’s an interesting plot device, however it doesn’t forward the story or shed light. It’s really a distraction from more important plot points.

All the right mystery elements and atmosphere are here, however it just doesn’t hang together as a romance, a mystery, or magical realism.

A Little Plot:

Eighteen-year-old Nella has been married off to a wealthy Amsterdam trader she barely knows. His household includes an austere sister, an African manservant, and an impertinent maid; all of whom have secrets. Nella has no real place in it as her husband shows no interest in her and the sister runs everything.

The cabinet house is a gift meant to keep Nella occupied, but once the miniaturist sends over the first bits of furnishings, the mysteries of the household and its occupants become even more complex.

Learn more at the author’s website by clicking here.

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