The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

July 9th, 2016

UnknownBy Dominic Smith

The Short Take:

This engrossing book about the work of a Dutch female artist in 17th century Netherlands and a struggling art student more than 300 years later falls solidly in the “book club” category, but achieves far more than expected from that type of book. The writing is fluid, the descriptions vivid, and the modern day characters well drawn.

Why?

This is another of those split-time novels. In this case a three-way split: the artist de Vos’s life centuries ago; art student, Ellie, in the late 1950s; and, Ellie as a respected art teacher/curator in 2000. While those time jumps can often be annoying, Smith pulls the transitions off relatively seamlessly — you want to know more about a different time exactly as the next page takes you there.

Ellie Shipley and Marty de Groot (the latter owns the de Vos painting this book centers on) are interesting characters, likable despite their rather deep flaws and deceptions. What might seem like diversions from the story line actually reveal their isolation and dissatisfaction with their lives.

However, the sections dealing with de Vos were harder to swallow. She is a composite character of several real artists, but both her tribulations and joys seems a bit too pat.

There is quite a bit about the process of restoring old paintings and the process of forgery, as well as insights to the art dealer world. However, these were interesting and didn’t unnecessarily slow the story.

A Little Plot:

Bogged down on her dissertation on 17th century Dutch female artists, Ellie has been refining her restoration abilities through commissions from an art dealer. Then he brings her a photograph of a Sara de Vos painting and asks her to copy it. She loves the work, but knows what she is doing is wrong. Complications ensue, and follow her decades later.

Back in time, Sara de Vos’ life is in turmoil due to death and financial problems.

You can read more about Smith and his work by clicking here. By the way, if you just google his name, add “author” of you’ll get the baseball player by the same name.

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The Fireman

June 30th, 2016

51LX3IXopDL._AC_US320_QL65_By Joe Hill

The Short Take:

Hill’s horror stories continue to impress. This one is built around a spore which tends to make infected people burst into flame. Needless to say, infected people are not valued by the healthy. Of course, it all sounds far fetched, but Hill does a nice job of putting enough science in his plot to make it scarily plausible.

Why?

Horror needs likable heroes, out-of-control situations, a truly bad guy, and lots of surprises. Hill satisfied all these requirements. He also has a nice sense of pacing: It’s not a non-stop rollercoaster ride, you have opportunities to catch your breath before the next terrorizing sequence hits.

Of course, Hill grew up in a house with the master of horror — his father, Stephen King. It’s interesting to note though that his agent didn’t know about Hill’s family ties until years into their relationship. Joe Hill sold on his own merits, as proven by each of his novels.

There are some big action sequences you can easily imagine translating to the silver screen. However, it’s Hill’s endearingly upbeat heroine and his enigmatic hero who make the plot catch fire.

A Little Plot:

People contracting Dragonscale often combust, sometimes taking down whole buildings in the process. Nurse Harper Grayson helps the infected at a New England hospital until she contracts the disease. Husband Jakob wants a suicide pact, but she wants to protect her unborn child. The mysterious Fireman take her to what might be a safe haven from her husband and others who hunt down people with Dragonscale. But her new home is beset by dangers both from the outside and within.

Want to know more about Joe Hill and his horror novels? Click here.

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War and Peace

June 27th, 2016

Unknown-1By Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Alissa Volokhonsky)

The Short Take:

Don’t be afraid of this classic read — it’s easy to follow and exceptionally interesting. While Tolstoy does spend a lot of time philosophizing, his musings are still relevant more than 150 years later. The biggest problem with this novel: its massive weight. This is one time an e-reader could really save your wrists.

Why?

First of all, be sure you select this particular translation to read. It was highly praised when it came out in 2007, as being the first to capture the richness of Tolstoy’s prose. Side-by-side excerpt samples proved what the critics said — don’t settle for less.

Second, don’t be put off by Tolstoy’s tendency to set the action aside for many pages to ruminate on such topics as war, history, the nature of power, and other subjects. They are both fascinating and insightful.

Finally, even though there is a large cast of characters, they are so clearly delineated it is no problem to keep everyone straight in your head. I read this book over seven months, reading 26 other books in that time, and had no problem remembering either the plot lines or the characters. Not only that, I know this is one book that will stay with me. That’s powerful writing. That’s Tolstoy.

A Little Plot:

The Russians join the Austrians to fight Napoleon until a peace treaty is concluded. Later Napoleon invades Russia anyway. Meanwhile, a bastard son becomes a rich Count, hearts are won and broken, people die —  it has all the drama of an exceptionally rich epic historical fiction. But, in Tolstoy’s hands it is so much more.

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The 14th Colony

June 21st, 2016

614rhVoWwXL._SL75_By Steve Berry

The Short Take:

This action-packed spy thriller was not what I expected from this writer. He usually takes a mystery from the distant past and wraps a modern context around it. This drew from the 1980s Cold War with the USSR.

Why?

I felt like a victim of “bait and switch,” since the title and cover art both led me to believe the plot would center around something related to the American Revolution. There was a connection but one only marginally connected to the main plot.

It was certainly action packed but bits of exposition were often tediously repeated. And, going 80s style spy vs. spy was a big disappointment.

Berry has long been my favorite thriller writer due to the way he took old mysteries/conspiracy theories/etc. and gave them a contemporary importance — like Dan Brown, only better. Maybe if I had never read anything else he wrote I would feel differently. However, I’ve bought and read all his books. Not so sure about the next one, though.

A Little Plot:

An old KGB agent is determined to get back at America for the collapse of the Soviet Union by using a suitcase nuclear bomb. One-time Magellan Billet agent Cotton Malone is on the case, and starts by getting shot down over Siberia.

An important note: Absolutely do not read the front dust cover flap if you are interested in this book. It reveals almost the entire plot.

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All Things Cease to Exist

June 14th, 2016

41wPcEUJjGL._SL75_By Elizabeth Brundage

The Short Take:

This masterful novel is part mystery, part ghost story, part character study, and completely excellent. With stunningly beautiful prose and a page-turning plot, it’s a win for readers of all stripes.

Why?

One of the best books I have read in a long time, this satisfying novel is also unsettling and laced with pain. Suicide and murder, orphans and lost souls, faith and faithlessness, failing farms and wealthy newcomers give rise to a melange of yearning, disappointment, and hope.

Even secondary characters are well-drawn and believable. The primary ones are truly exceptional– including one of the coldest players to ever crawl out of a writer’s imagination. The art inspired by the Hudson River Valley setting and the influential spiritual beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg add depth to the narrative, reinforcing the pressures and power of the plot.

It’s a fantastic book.

A Little Plot:

Art history teacher George Clare comes home to find his wife murdered and young daughter alone in a house that has already seen great tragedy. From this point the story moves back to explore the Hale family, who lived there before George and Catherine, and the year preceding Catherine’s murder.

For more about Elizabeth Brundage and her work, click here.

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The Relic Master

May 23rd, 2016

51A-ZSirdZL._SL75_By Christopher Buckley

The Short Take:

This departure from Buckley’s usual fare was delightful fun, with a dash of history thrown in. It’s a madcap robbery plot set in the Holy Roman Empire, circa 1517, with action, romance, plot twists, and a lot of Buckley’s trademark satire.

Why?

This telling bit is from Buckley’s bio in this book: “Christopher Buckley is the author of 16 previous books, many of them satires on contemporary politics. During the 1916 election cycle, he concluded that American politics were sufficiently self-satirizing and decided to venture backward in time to a more innocent, less cynical era and place, like, say, the sixteenth century Holy Roman Empire…”

That should give you a good idea of the tone of this book. While Marin Luther never appears, his Ninety-Five Theses form the backdrop of the story, which centers on purchases of saintly relics and sales of indulgences to shorten time in Purgatory — both thriving businesses at the time.

As usual, Buckley finds absurdity on every side. In fact, it feels like he had more fun than usual with this unsacred quest. In his novels with contemporary settings there is always a disturbing undercurrent. Going back 500 years freed him of that.

The Plot:

Mistral is the official relic purchaser for two powerful men who are vying with each other for the biggest collection. In a crooked business, he’s always tried to be honest and is now planning to retire. However, a drastic change in his finances leads him to consider creating a forged relic — the burial shroud of Christ. Outrageous mayhem ensues.

For more about Christopher Buckley, click here.

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Boys in the Trees

May 16th, 2016

51q7zXHMDGL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_By Carly Simon

The Short Take:

Simon is brutally honest in this memoir: her insecurities, her self-fulfilling anxieties, her exceptional number of sexual partners are all on display. It was not a happy read for this fan girl, but many people might find inspiration in her persistence as well as her abiding belief that “there’s more room in a broken heart.”

Why?

You probably couldn’t ask for a more revealing book about a rock star. Carly’s emotions and concerns are on full display, along with a litany of fleeting trysts with musicians, writers, movie stars, etc.

Personally, I would have preferred more about her professional life. Hit songs and albums are mentioned largely in passing except for Anticipation (written while waiting for Cat Stevens to show up). The focus is on her relationships and her insecurities.

Her time with James Taylor, both the good and the bad, gets major play. However, it is the story of her formative years that sets the stage for what is to come.

A Little Plot:

This memoir focuses on her childhood and her marriage and divorce from James Taylor.

For more about Carly Simon, her book and music, click here.

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Avenue of Mysteries

May 5th, 2016

51HcfwyQRuL._SL75_By John Irving

The Short Take:

Irving’s newest is interesting but ultimately disappointing. His story of Juan Diego, a Mexican-American writer who dreams of his childhood in Mexico while traveling in the Philippines, somehow doesn’t work; though it’s hard to put your finger on why. I would only recommend it if you truly love John Irving. I do.

Why?

John Irving is one of my all-time favorite authors and this novel is very much in his over-the-top style, with many of his typical references: writers, missing parents, deadly accidents, prostitutes, circuses, abortion, transexuals, along with a plethora of italics and exclamation points.

All this  — and a lot more — is window dressing for a string of events that puts the main character’s past memories and present activities on a collision course. But there are so many minor themes and distractions that any major point gets lost in the mishmash.

You have dogs, multiple virgin Marys, a pair of women who manipulate Juan Diago but don’t appear in mirrors or photos, his juggled medical prescriptions, geckos, garbage dumps, miracles, cremation and ashes, draft dodgers, AIDS. Whew!

It’s diverting, but also off-putting. Plus, it’s hard to accept the posited idea that memories of the past matter more when you get older. Especially when Juan Diego is experiencing a present much livelier than his previous adult life.

If you want to love John Irving, read A Prayer for Owen Meany or The World According to Garp. Leave this one for last.

A Little Plot:

At 64, the writer Juan Diego takes a trip to the Philippines to fulfill a childhood promise. But he spends much of his trip in a dream-like state reliving his childhood. And, that’s just the beginning.

That childhood forms a parallel narrative. At 14, he was a dump kid and self-taught reader with a sister who could read thoughts but spoke a language only he understood. An unfortunate accident left him with a limp which sent them both to a Jesuit orphanage. And, that’s just the beginning.

For more about Irving, this book and his other works, click here.

 

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The Past

April 26th, 2016

51n7rWGvpYL._SL75_By Tessa Hadley 

The Short Take:

The lush writing of Hadley’s newest novel is beyond reproach. The story — siblings and their families gathering on holiday in their grandparent’s old home — is sometimes disturbing, sometimes surprising, but sometimes expected.

Why?

There’s much to admire in this novel. The multiple plot lines keep the pace brisk. The prose enhances each paragraph, deepening the often intense atmosphere. The unsettling story line revolving around the young children of one sibling is worthy of Shirley Jackson. Other subplots showcase the complicated relationships within a family, unexpected passions, generational differences, and dawning self-awareness.

Beneath it all lies the concept that even though the past completely shapes the present, it belongs in the past. This is illustrated both through a center section of the book, set at a point when the siblings were small and visited this house with their mother, and through the discovery and reading of decades of old letters.

A Little Plot:

Three sisters (one with two young children, another bringing the college-age son of a former boyfriend) and their brother (accompanied by a very new wife and a teen daughter from a previous marriage) gather at the decaying home of their grandparents for a final holiday.

The children make a gruesome discovery. The sisters are put off by the new wife. The two young adults are attracted to each other. For everyone there is a sense of things ending and beginning, whether good or bad.

A quick search did not reveal a website for the author, but there’s plenty of links to learn more about her.

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The Vegetarian

April 15th, 2016

25489025By Han Kang

The Short Take:

A slim volume packed with unsettling power, Kang’s story of a woman who becomes a vegetarian to end her horrifying dreams is shocking, erotic, and dazzling.

Why?

Control and self-actualization are the dueling powers of this rather terrifying novel. It is not a horror story, but horrifying nonetheless. Yeong-hye’s decision to eat no meat (veganism is very rare in Korea) has profound effects on her entire family. The book is divided into three parts told from the points of view, respectively, of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister.

The husband’s story is one of bafflement, shame and anger. The brother-in-law finds inspiration for his art and intense sexual desire. The sister’s tale focuses on decisions and regrets. The whole is a trifecta of storytelling, a la Kafka.

A Little Plot:

Yeong-Hye’s bloody nightmares convince her not to eat meat, or much of anything else. Her husband if shocked by this rebellion by his usually docile wife. Her brother-in-law sees something new in her. Her sister is torn by feelings of responsibility and envy.

Han Kang is well known in South Korea but this is the first of her novels to come to America. Wikipedia has a pretty full biography you can check out by clicking here.

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